MoMA [Coursera] *Seeing Through Photographs*

I just finished another Coursera course that has significantly improved my life: Seeing Through Photographs, presented by Sarah Meister, photography curator at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, NY). I am energized and engaged in one of my favorite flow activities as never before.

It’s a sure sign of improvement when you severely downgrade your self-assessment. I think of old master jazz musicians who seem to have limitless vocabulary, and they talk about how the more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know. There is a common quote/cliche (don’t know the origin) about skipping stones at the shore of the ocean. Or maybe it’s more like climbing a mountain with an inaccessible peak – the further you drag yourself up from base proficiency, you are more acutely aware of your own smallness. ?

It turns out I didn’t have as good a grasp on the art of photography as I thought – and I didn’t think much of my command prior to taking this class. Previously, I knew the button-pushing and exposure and “composition” rules and all that wedding photographer type stuff. I grokked the visual side of what documentary photographers were doing – I got the vibe. I more or less grokked how to play the game on the viewer end of things, but I didn’t realize how deliberate and skill-based is the production of such images. I figured I just wasn’t as good as my heroes.

Seeing through Photographs provides all the required reading as excerpts. The bulk of the class uses texts and examples from before the Derrida wildfire completely and finally burned the humanities to stubble, so it’s mostly productive reading.

Here’s my submission for the short writing assignment for the final week. I think it makes a decent endorsement for the class. I would encourage anyone trying to have fun with photography to take this great, free class.

In 2008 I was on the road with a variety/dance band, touring the casino circuit in the United States. I was living for two weeks at a time in little just-off-the-interstate-type towns, going stir crazy in the hotel rooms that were not good enough for casinos to rent to paying guests, but *just* good enough that the city inspector wouldn’t condemn them. In my boredom I watched a BBC documentary series *The Genius of Photography*, which opened my eyes to a different way to experience the world. I binge-watched the whole series, walked out to the local camera store in Elko, NV, and bought a camera, all in the same day. I started walking around the little towns in which I was working, photographing physical manifestations of the invisible in these fascinating little foreign places. That experience raised a lot of questions for me that are finally getting aswered as a direct result of taking this course.
The books I found on Amazon answered every question about exposure, camera buttons, and “composition”, but most of my curiosites that sprung up watching the BBC series remained undernourished. I was home in Kansas City on a short break and thought to look at the photographs in the local museums for inspiration and instruction.
It was my incredible luck to find an exhibition featuring one of the *Genius of Photography* artists that most interested me. The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art here in Kansas City, Missouri was showing *Biographical Landscape: the Photography of Stephen Shore*. It included most of the photos from Shore’s book *Uncommon Places*. My favorite photo from that exhibit is the one I want to talk about in this assignment: *U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973*.

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IMHO, multiple modules of *Seeing through Photographs* are *required* to get a good, deep, satisfying draw from this picture. I figure the easiest way to complete the assignment is to simply go through the modules in order and reexamine the picture in light of the concerns of each module.

Module 1: Introduction to Seeing Through Photographs
The very first assigned reading in the course, *The Photographer’s Eye* by John Szarkowsky, turned out to be my favorite and most helpful text in the entire course. I bought the book – and related others – and practically destroyed it by marking up the margins.
The main point of the book – that photography was “born whole” – is demonstrated in Shore’s *U.S. 97*. Here is a picture of a glacial lake at the foot of a mountain, informed by the whole tradition of painting – all its techniques and conventions of representation. Then there is the photograph, effortlessly including the billboard, the painting depicted on it, and everything in the world that can be viewed beyond it – all obtained for the price of pointing the camera and pressing the shutter release.
The cumulative effort required to bring that painting to that billboard spans millenia and continents. Photography simply popped into being in the mid-19th century. Shore even used a 19th-century-styled wooden view cameara to make this picture.

The Thing Itself
The painting of the lake, trees, and mountain really is a picture *of* those things. Or put it this way – I have no knowledge or skill to extract more meaning than that from the image on the billboard. Maybe it’s about tranquility, an ad for cigarettes? IDK – and it kinda doesn’t matter; there is a billboard with a picture on it, of something and about something, and its artifice is playfully underscored by the photographer. Whether or not I can say, “the billboard *is* tranquility”, I can definitely say with confidence that the billboard *is not* a mountain, lake, and trees.
The photographer is really having fun with this attempted illusion in a photograph, which itself is both of and about something – also on a flat, printed medium. Stephen Shore wrote a book that is kind of a companion to *The Photographer’s Eye* – or maybe Volume II for students who want to *do* photography? In his complementary book, *The Nature of Photogtraphs*, Shore chose a similar picture for the cover, Kenneth Jophson’s *New York State, 1970*, in which a ship does not appear to sail on the ocean. It’s a similar image – a simpler, more deliberately executed one that is probably clearer for the purpose of teaching.

The Frame and Vantage Point
The relationship between billboard and the highway-adjacent landscape did not exist before Shore framed this picture. He saw the billboard through the windshield of his rented car, pulled over, set up his tripod on the shoulder, and aimed the camera. Other criteria came to bear on the relationships in the picture, e.g. film format. The invitation to compare the billboard mountain with the mountains in the background may not have been so clear with other framing and vantage point. The juxtaposition of not-mountain and mountain range happens because of POV and framing decisions.
The frame interacts with shapes in the image. The way the fence and telephone lines run out of the frame draws attention. The lines seem deliberately “solved” by the photographer such that they run out the corner of the billboard.
Module 2: One Subject, Many Perspectives
I don’t doubt that the mountains in the background of Shore’s picture have been photographed – probably as a backdrop for vacationers’ snapshots, maybe by landscape photographers. I don’t know what wedding photography was like in 1973; it’s easy to imagine people driving out to the edges of surrounding towns “to get the mountains in the background.” I still play music professionally, and though it has tapered off significiantly since my days of playing in original rock bands, I am still compelled to pose for “band pictures” in front of train tracks, brick and stone walls, graffiti, and urban ruins. I must be in hundreds of those pictures – all roughly the same idea, and still everyone is so excited about the enterprise haha!
Shore is not really taking a picture of the mountains, nor are they coincidentally in a picture he took of a billboard; the mountains are being used in this picture to make a picture about making pictures.
Module 3: Documentary Photography
If evidence is needed to prove that Stephen Shore works in the tradition of Atget > Evans > Frank, today anyone can type “Stephen Shore” into the YouTube search bar and hear him lecture hour after hour about photography in general and all the details of his own work. I just discovered this as a result of the curiosity this class stirs up!
IMHO the picture *Lust’s Drive In Theater* in *Uncommon Places* is a deliberate Walker Evans tribute. From what I’ve read during the course of this class, it seems Evans was practically a fetishist regarding phoney classical columns. I wonder whether Evens lived to see the SNL fake ad in which a lowbrow salesman asserts, “Ya gotta get yaself some *mabble columns*!”
There is no explicit social agenda apparent in this picture. Well… it’s not *intrinsic* to this picture the way it is in something like the following image, for which I can NOT FOR THE LIFE OF ME FIND A TITLE OR CREDIT! Seriously – I’ve seen this image a few times and tried to divine from the internet its author, but no luck. It is uncredited on every major news website I’ve seen. On NBC News it lists Steidl as the copyright holder, but I can’t find anything on their website, and lingering there seems dangerous to the wallet.

Let’s just call it *The Silent Majority Stands with Trump* by Starving Artist. In that picture there is a pun – an obvious political joke. It is a documentary photograph – reportage. In contrast, *U.S. 97* by Shore is clearly, consciously in documentary *style*. Like Walker Evans during the Depression, Shore is exquisitely aware of broad changes in the American landscape. In his YouTube video *Photography and the Limits of Representation*, Shore talks about how photographers communicate a sense of “currents” below the surface of things by finding instances where those currents are made visibly manifest. He says, “The apparent is the bridge to the real.”
Module 4: Pictures of People
There are photographs of people in Stephen Shore’s *Uncommon Places* – I want to say that the only one exhibited at the Kemper’s *Biographical Landscape* was the one of his wife in a swimming pool. IDK – it’s hard to remember. It’s like this class – my head is swimming from being immersed in so much new wonderfulness.
Anyway, from memory I would say that the pictures of people in *Uncommon Places* are mainly people as they relate to the landscape. E.g. the people in Cincinatti, OH going about their street life under the ominous sign “BARGAINS! SAVE 50%!” like a poster of Stalin – and there is a huge corporate headquarters filling the background sky…. okay but now I am actually looking through the book and there are these seeming one-off portraits, e.g. *Estelle Marsh, August 18, 1973*. That person definitely is shown in her environment – the shadows inside her house were brought up just enough to reveal an elaborate candleabera. IDK – as I look through the book there is a significant number of portraits and more pictures that include people and even just details of people – e.g. resting, dirty feet at a motel – but in my memory the portraits were not integral to the project. I will have to revisit this book and really think about it… There are no people in *U.S. 97*.
Module 5: Constructing Narratives & Challenging Histories
In the exceprt *Between the Snapshot and Staged Photography* in week 5, David Campany mentions that a single photo can be considered narrative if it suggests, “a situation or scene that extends beyond its spatial and temporal frame.”
In his exposition of the idea of *detail* in *The Photographer’s Eye* Szarkowski asserted that photography is unsuccessful at narrative. At the same time, *TPE* harmonizes well with the Campany excerpt in the *Time* section. Szarkowski says that photos can allude to the past “through its surviving relics.” Contradictory statements can be extracted from the two reading excerpts, and still it seems to me both authors are grappling with the very same dialectic.
In the Stephen Shore picture, someone has painted over something on the billboard. I like to imagine that it was a square logo at the bottom and some kind of slogan in text across the top. Maybe someone from the billboard/advertising company was dispatched to eradicate the entire sign, but the workman liked the picture too much, so he only redacted the logo/message of the client, whose rental of the billboard had expired? IDK – the purposefully obscured details – I assume text – is a fascinating detail. Even as this peculiarity simply evokes a kind of mundane narrative – someone climbing up on the billboard to wipe out part of it but not the whole thing – it’s at least a mild mystery.
If you rack all the way out to take in *Uncommon Places* as a whole, you can see it as part of a very big, long, slow narrative – I guess you would call it American life? The evolution of culture?
Additionally, the book/project/collection of pictures documents Shore’s traversing the continent in rental cars in the mid-1970’s. It’s part of his life story.
You get a deep sense of *on the road in America in the middle of the 20th Century*. If that’s not enough to make you recall cheap gas and dinosaur cars, both are explicitly depicted in the book. History is a kind of narrative.

Ocean of Images: Photography & Contemporary Culture
Shore did not so much take a picture of a billboard as he made a picture about the nature of static images. *U.S. 97* is a flat image about flat images.
There is a lot of image propagation happening in *U.S. 97*: images have been painted, photographed, transferred to billboard, painted over, photographed again in situ, and realized as a photographic print. The JPEG I uploaded for this assignment may very well be a scan from the book *Uncommon Places* – IDK – I found it on the internet through Google Image Search. It looks different between my desktop and laptop screens – shallower shadows and amped saturation – and both look different from the book. Looking at the book makes me question my memories of viewing the sumptuous prints at the Kemper Museum years ago.

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Something to Report

Since my last post I’ve been plugging away at my mission: using the analogy of endurance sports training to inform other endeavors. My primary interest is the development of cognitive skills – first for simple mood regulation and subsequently for gains in effectiveness and productivity. En route to quasi-enlightenment I am hoping that I can also improve in in music, photography, and writing – all while using the analogy of contemporary, high-tech endurance sports training.

Inevitably, I stumbled onto the Quantified Self movement (QS). From what I’ve seen online, it seems QS is a sort of Wild West of not-quite-scientific method applied to individual, mundane life. Sleep is a good example. Many people track sleep – generally using something with a brain and an accelerometer (e.g. a smart phone). Then the QS scientist-subject intuitively/haphazardly iterates through correlation, hypothesis, intervention, changing the parameters of the experiment… Like sports training, it is informed by – but not bound to the rigors of – science. Like sports training, QS is concerned more with results than explanation. Like the best contemporary sports training, QS seeks to collect data and then progressively extract information, understanding, insight, wisdom, and results. The end goal is improved performance.

If I had to boil down my current understanding of it into a tidy definition, it would be as follows. QS is the acquisition/construction of feedback systems and analytics, on a self-defined level of formality, in the interest of improving some self-defined performance metrics.

I’m sorry to learn that I didn’t think of much/anything new. If I’m just going by the self-flattering illusion of my own brilliance, it’s disappointing to discover that my central idea – using the analogy of data-informed sports training – is about as original as the ploy blaming someone else. OTOH, there could be no more encouraging, validating news than discovering I’m on track with lots of other smart, overfed, underworked people who spend too much time looking at computer screens.

Once I picked up the thread of QS and related search terms, I discovered that even devices I had imagined already exist as consumer gadgets – on Amazon, that’s how mainstream it is.

From the moment I seized on the “original” idea of training for other activities – including simple, elemental consciousness – using methods and tools analogous to those of cycling, I knew I would need something I was calling a Mood Garmin. I didn’t even know that it was possible in a laboratory, but it turns out that you can use immediate feedback from software using an EEG – for meditation or whatever. The larger category is called biofeedback and it’s already in effect as a consumer category. I.e. you can already buy something like my imagined Mood Garmin today. I think there is a good chance that I can do what i want with commercial products and little or no hacking:

I discovered QS when i got serious about recovery. At the recommendation of my primary doctor I had seen an endocrinologist for blood markers indicating hyperThyroid. When I say I saw an endocrinologist, it might be truer to my experience to say I saw many extravagant bills from an endocrinologist. Basically I saw him briefly twice and did the tests he ordered. He told me my problem was euthyroid sick syndrome. Literally was, because by the time the [heroically] slow pace moved me through tests and back to consultation, my latest blood test showed that it was already subsiding. so far in my life, that whole experience has been by far the most costly “Nevermind.”

I’m tempted to say it was a very low-yield investment of time and resources, but it did get me looking at endocrine responses to my bicycle training. My thyroid strangeness resulted from faux-starving – weight loss that was both in the interest of and caused by riding my bike.

In doctors’ offices nowadays you work up to seeing the actual doctor like working up to the level boss in a video game. In the lower levels of the endocrinologist’s game , I mentioned my dizzy spells to one of the half-dozen professionals interviewing me. She said it was just because of my abnormally low RHR – don’t worry about it… However, as I read on my own I found that this was a huge red flag for adrenal fatigue. And a high risk factor for adrenal fatigue was extreme endurance training (check), second only to chronic anxiety (BOLD CHECK, underline, circle, and stars in the margin).

That whole line of inquiry led to my foray into tracking my own recovery metrics. I constructed something monstrously complex, recording every bit of information that any book or scholarly/scientific article said might be correlative, and then I collected enough data to see what actually was correlative – at least under the crude lens that is my own command of math and science. Turns out there isn’t a lot of data that is really useful to me for making day-to-day decisions about training on a bicycle. The model i originally derided for its simplicity – RestWise – is the one I more or less knocked off using my own criteria. RestWise uses resting heart rate taken with a primitive pulse oximiter and I use HRV taken with an app and a chest strap. RestWise uses a qualitative survey for sleep quality and I use a slick summary of all-night EEG data, like a scaled down medical sleep study every night (the now-defunct Zeo). RestWise uses urine color and I use an actual water percentage from a Withings Body. Basically, I use hard, quantified data where I can, plus the smallest number of variables on a subjective questionnaire that produces reliably actionable data.

Here’s how it goes IRL. every morning I wake up, put my Zeo headband on its charger, and look at my ZQ number, which I simply remember with a mnemonic en route to my office, where I take off my Garmin watch, put on a chest strap, and boot my phone and computer. Then I pee, weigh, start coffee water, and do my daily regimen of tests, from HRV measurement to Psychomotor Vigilance Test, plus a lightning-quick questionnaire. By the time my water is boiling I’ve completed everything and dressed. Then I make coffee and breakfast, sit down at the computer, look at my recovery chart and think about my day – what’s on the agenda, do I need to change my plans, etc. It doesn’t take long. There is data recording round the clock that I don’t use day-to-day, but it’s there if I need it, e.g. HR, sleep EEG and accelerometer data, HRV embedded in the nw Garmin FIT 2.0 files…

Once per week I do a couple of extra tests and questionnaires, e.g. one that I pulled out of my own creativity to track my perception of novelty in my cycling training.I take an orthostatic blood pressure test and a subjective survey to evaluate symptoms of adrenal fatigue. With these last tests I have determined to my own, very-un-scientific satisfaction that I did suffer from adrenal fatigue but that I’m coming out of it at the end of 6 weeks of GREATLY reduced cycling training and purposefully reduced anxiety.

I realized at some point recently that my daily recovery metrics “app” I built in Google Docs really is the first sports-training-informed foray I’ve completed. While recovery is a  pillar of endurance sports training – stress, recovery, nutrition if you divide it that way – I did have to DIY and make my own program from scratch. I drew many analogies from cycling analytics – which only includes the performance/overload portion of training, no recovery or nutrition – and I came up with something that improves my overall life.

Where I think I differ from the QS vibe I experience in my only available exposure to it, the  internet.

  • I have concrete performance goals. I think of myself as training toward measurable, concrete milestones, after which i hope to wean off the technology/metrics and continue to simply live in my new state of heightened skill
  • I’m not interested in “superfoods”, biohacking, or Transcendent Man type enhanced performance. More than wanting to outperform standards, I am hoping to achieve what I naturally would have, given dramatically less adversity in my life. I’m attempting to restore natural function – to un-fuck myself. My primary goal is to become emotionally tranquil and normally functional. I.e. I want to cultivate a typical life worth living, not a glorious, superhuman life. My standards for performance in cycling are basically in line with what most people could achieve with the minimum amount of training that brings about continuous improvement. I’m not shooting for grand tour champion performance, or professional level performance or even Cat1. I basically want to knock the dust off my “engine” and build the best fitness that makes sense for my enjoyment of flying around the city. Similarly, I want to train to a level of emotional fitness that enables my enjoyment of life in general. While the bicycle is the prosthesis that allows an ape to fly close to the ground, language – the consideration of things apart from presence – is the prosthesis that allows the ape to experience the world more richly than the other animals can. I have a very good start on training to use the bicycle effectively. My goal with the endeavor I’m documenting with this blog is to use my mind with similar deftness, employing some similar gizmos and techniques building different kinds of fitness.
  • I think of my journey as regaining fitness and skills that have in other places and times been commonplace. E.g. if I had grown up in 4th-century BC Sparta, I might have maintained a high level of physical fitness. If I grew up in a place where the biggest, most inviting architectural feature of the village was a Buddhist monastery, I might have cultivated a high level of mental effectiveness from earliest childhood. If I had been born a 3rd generation church musician, I probably wouldn’t still be entertaining thoughts of deep shedding in my middle age.
  • The technology is not intrinsically interesting to me. I’m looking for the first thing that I can make work for me, not the absolute best tools available – and definitely not the best thing that might exist in the near future. e.g. I learned about the according-to-the-wider-world-obsolete Zeo and bought a store of them on eBay. That’s it, I’m done. I don’t have any search alerts set up to tell me when new products come on the market. I don’t subscribe to any discussion forums/boards that talk about sleep trackers. I found one that works well enough and I’m done forever. Amen.
  • I recognize the sports training analogy, I realize that it’s dorky and kind of pathetic, and I’m fine with that.

If the typical QS zealot is like a one-person NASA, inventing and  contracting one-off  technologies for one-off missions of importance not always clear to the wider world, maybe I am more like a very-non-elite athlete and an illiterate physio, rolled into one person. I am trying to do simple, obvious things with goals and deadlines.

Here’s how I’ve progressed in Cycling Fitness since my last post.

  • Diagnosed and overcame Adrenal Fatigue. In general I’m fresher all the time and performing better in every aspect of life. But especially on the bike.
  • Currently reworking my 2017 Annual Training Plan to take into account what I’ve learned about recovery.
  • Embraced the idea of getting fat and slow in the “off-season”. Though I still commute by bicycle and go on photography safaris and coffee/treats scavanging adventures about the city, I’m in week 6 (SIX!) of basically slacking on a bicycle – no structured training.
  • Bought a mountain bike for unstructured slacking
  • Bought a CX frame to build up a bike for extreme weather commuting. I’m basically transferring the parts from my “rain bike” to a frame that makes more sense IRL for my lifestyle in the here and now. Still keeping my road bike for the 99% of the time the roads are not slippery and frozen
  • Ironically, after the end of my 2016 training “season”, I smashed my record – THREE TIMES – for my main “race”, basically a segment-based 22km time trial. The first big gain was nearly 4 minutes, which doesn’t seem like it should even be possible for the same person to pick up in that short distance, but I guess I was really badly overtrained. Or maybe I was bad at pacing? Unlucky with traffic lights? After I cut 4 minutes into my old time I continued to get fresher and I think merely attempting the time trial once per week provided the right training stimulus for me to maintain enough fitness. Going easy for the other 6 days of the week “unearthed” the fitness I had built all year. After another week off the bike I broke the new record by another 50 seconds. Finally, the next week, digging very deep, pacing against my record on my Garmin, and fighting a substantial headwind I came up with my last new record of the year, by a mere 4 seconds. I’m satisfied that that’s what I was capable of in 2016. With the experience and wisdom I gained this year, I’ll be reaching for much higher fitness goals in 2017.

Progress Soup 2016.07.23

On July 4, I wrote about how I reached a longstanding goal of 200lbs (down from 315). At the time I didn’t realize it, but I had unwittingly reached another huge fitness milestone on the same day, the highest VO2Max category for my age group, according to the software I use to track such things.

VO2Max 1

On July 4 I hit 56ml/kg/min, which according the the following chart, is high for my age. VO2Max 2

The bad news is that since getting proficient and diligent with checking this metric regularly, I learned that I peaked at 62 in June. I also had my highest ever FTP in June, but I lost overall fitness from then to now.

Currently I’m reworking my whole training program. I weaning off guided programs like TrainerRoad – still the best thing for structured training short of a personal coach. I made another lap through Training and Racing with a Power Meter (Allen and Coggan) and Today I’m starting another lap of Cyclist’s Training Bible (Friel).

My biggest development on the training front is that I’m now coaching two people – my wife and a friend. Teaching seems to be one of the best ways to focus my own learning efforts.

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Where I Landed on Buddhist Bike Ownership

The friend I’m coaching said he did a lot of searching/reading on bike locking methods and he is convinced that my method is unique. I’m sure somebody somewhere has thought of this exact method, but just didn’t document it online. Here’s what I came up with.

First, here are the items I use:

Here’s what it looks like locked up at my favorite coffee bar in Raytown, MO.

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Here’s the procedure:

  • lean bike against immovable object
  • put left crank facing up, parallel to seat tube
  • use Bordo lock bike frame and front wheel to object, leave key in Bordo
  • unclip all the unclippable stuff (bottles, lights, pump, bag, etc), piling stuff into jersey pockets and helmet
  • stretch coiled cable to run through rear wheel, Garmin Vector pedal, and…
  • unlock Bordo momentarily to hook end loop around lock
  • relock Bordo, put key in pocket, leave bike on street, knowing I did every reasonable thing I could

Here’s what the coily cable looks like when it’s coiled on the bike.

Bike lock 1B

It just hangs there with no ties or anything required. The reason it lives on the saddle rail is so that the saddle is secured when I lock up the bike. Anything that anyone wants off my bike they can get easily enough, but they are going to have to use tools.

I graduated to this cheap, 8mm, off-brand cable from a stronger-seeming Kryptonite brand specifically because it coils like this. Also it is easier to fit through things because it is smaller diameter and more pliable. It just works all-around better, and I felt like securing the Kryptonite in place kinda put me over the edge of feeling like locking up was a process. Now locking up is fluid, fast, easy – I do it on autopilot.

Subsequently the Kryptonite cable got handed down to a vintage bike and I figured out a much better way to secure it than using the stock velcro strap.

Bike lock 2

It’s just a musician’s Velcro brand cable tie. That solution is acceptable for that bike, with its cheap, Chinese knockoff saddle, springy frame, and general vibey-ness.

The Method of My Locking Method

My friend told me that every online, instructive article on bike security just repeats the same methods over and over, and that made me kinda sad. I thought I would share how I came up with my method, because I feel like anyone could come up with a unique combination of locking devices and a personalized method that best suits any individual lifestyle.

  1. Research the main lock. My criteria were security, portability and adaptability to real-world objects outside clubs where I play music, plus a million other points of interest in Kansas City. For security I did some internet research and I was most influenced by this site, which gave me the idea to look for a Sold Secure Gold rating. For portability and adaptability, I ruled out u-locks off the bat and used that as a constraint.
  2. Decide which parts of the bike to lock and how to accomplish that with the fewest parts and fewest steps per iteration. For this I used a tailor’s tape measure – the kind you use to measure your waist – and a calipers. I decided I wanted to lock my saddle, both wheels, and power meter. From there I measured how much lock cable I would need if locked the bike through the frame and rear wheel, trying different things. Eventually I tried locking the frame and front wheel and I came up with more options for a usable double-loop cable. I landed on 8mm after measuring a Specialized Romin saddle (now on my wife’s section of our tandem), which couldn’t accommodate the thick Kryptonite cable.

That’s it. I feel like anyone thinking clearly about what they want to do regarding bike security would come up with an equally utile, easy, minimal system.

I’ve run myself out of time to write again. Here is some filler.

Current Photos

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Independence Day

I achieved my original fitness goal – weight loss to 200lbs (91kg) – on July 4, 2016 – Independence Day.

There were fireworks all day. After dark, combustible celebration lit the sky. It was the most raucous public carnival in recent memory. I let myself imagine that everyone in the city was happy for me.

I went to the 50% off holiday sale at one of my favorite thrift stores and bought most of what I needed to finish a minimal, modular, new wardrobe. I spent $28 on IDK how many pants, shirts, jackets, and shorts.

You would have to know me – which really is my fault, because if I were faithful with this blog and you read it, you would know me already – but over the last 17 years shopping is about the least likely activity you’d catch me in. Before this day I would buy 5-10 identical outfits – all black – and wear them every day, year round, until they wore out. The last set I bought in 2008, and I chose it specifically for durability. Also I’m famously cheap – I would buy a restocked, marked down toothbrush if such a thing were available.

The Fourth of July was a memorable milestone kind of day. It feels as if I threw a switch from anxious, depressed fatso to fit, smart-dressed, high-functioning person in a single moment. In reality it was just one of those times when I suddenly realized how far I’ve come in a little over a year.

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It was two days before that milestone that I heard the episode of the This American Life podcast titled (I think) Tell Me I’m Fat. It grabbed my attention in a way that this podcast almost never does – as often as not it’s pleasant background chatter or lazy entertainment for me and my wife. In this episode, though, I heard people who seemed to come from a starting point similar to my own – being immensely fat, upset about everything that attends obesity, and at a loss for what to do about it.

Following are some quotes that really grabbed me.

“The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state – you’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently for your whole life… I don’t know why I live in this imaginary future where I someday will be thin.”

“At some point I was just like, you know, it’s fairly likely that I’m going to be fat forever, so why am I putting off figuring out how to live with that? Rather than spending all my time counting almonds, why not try to figure out how to be happy now?”

“No further manpower needed on the shame front.”

[following a stat declaring a large percentage of USA is obese] “There must be some other way to think about this.”

“You know what’s shameful – a complete lack of empathy.”

“Why should I have to swallow that kind of treatment at my job?” (Fat shaming from boss)

“…come out as fat”

“When you come out as gay, most people accept it because they know you can’t do anything about that, that’s who you are are, you can’t change it… but coming out as fat, doctors and your family, and kinda the entire culture is organized to point out how wrong-headed you are. When you’re over a certain size, it’s been explained to me by a few people now, complete strangers walk up to you in the street and tell you to lose weight, they shoot you dirty looks when they see ice cream in your shopping cart. They talk down to you about nutrition and calories, as if pretty much every fat person has not been around the block 500 times on that one already. That’s why deciding to stay fat – and be okay with it – is at a peculiar frontier right now, where things are shifting and people do not agree about what’s acceptable to say and think.”

“The problem with ‘overweight’ is that it implies there is a correct weight for people.”

I Am Totally Onboard for this Coping Solution – At Least I Totally Validate the Impulse

Later, for the thorough/dour among us, I’ll list a few of my very many reservations regarding TAL in general and this episode in general. This American Life is the maximum depth into middle-class pop culture that my atmospheric diving suit can handle. For now I just want to say that I 100% identify with these people featured in this episode. The posture they propose constitutes a novel, clever solution to the same problem I had.

At present I’m not even considered overweight for a middle-aged American. My body fat percentage is somewhere south of 15% now – haven’t checked in a while. I started out at 315 pounds. Somewhere during that time I latched onto the following idea.

Fitness exists only relative to lifestyle, and correct nutrition is dictated by the immediate demands of that lifestyle.

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The Definition of Fitness

Dammit here’s another tangent already: when I say fitness my mind is leaning strongly toward all the stuff that makes a bicycle go fast: power, weight, speed, skill… That’s what’s most relevant to my lifestyle, because I ride a bicycle as my primary means of transportation and also just for fun. When people engage me on the subject of fitness they use words that seem to be barely-protruding icebergs of insanity, but I don’t have the acuity with pop culture to see down under the water. This includes the word fitness. I’m guessing the word fitness is so diluted/dissipated because of commerce. It’s that American habit of turning literally every last possible thing into a Wild-West, senseless, crass industry.

Lately I seem to have the exact same conversation with lots of people. I will run into someone I haven’t seen a year or so. I’m a musician so I think this is maybe more common for me than for people in other vocations. This person I haven’t seen in a while will be amazed at how different I look, and the question is almost always the same, verbatim: “How did you do it?” – and I think the unstated assumption is that I was sitting at home one day, eating potato chips, and then I suddenly decided to “get in shape.” The Rocky theme started playing, I threw down my chips and ran from my front door, past a shipyard where an old-timey sailing ship was docked, and up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art – i.e. I just pulled myself up by changing a few habits and digging deep into willpower. Lately in these conversations I’ve been trying to keep it to “I’ve been riding a bicycle everywhere I go,” but that doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone. I used to try to compress my whole story into a single paragraph but that was even more unsatisfactory for everyone. I’m starting to think that maybe people want to hear the brand name of a program that they can buy, add to their existing lifestyle, and GET RIPPED!!! DOCTORS HATE HIM!!! SECRET SUPERFOOD GIVES MEN 6-PACK ABS!!! The next thing that usually happens is that people want to tell me about all kinds of cockamamie, crackpot cleanses, “exercise” programs, and crash diets that they have tried – or, much much worse, because then you are duty-bound to be optimistic and encouraging: the diets they are currently on. I think what’s happening here is that I fail to follow the conventional success story, so the interviewer fills the void with all the trendy programs stored in recent memory. Anyway, there is a dazzlingly immense, insane, inexplicable (to someone withdrawn from pop culture), turbid conflation of notions around the idea of fitness.

I did a Google search to see what the internet says about fitness and I kinda recognize the craziness as a whole – machines and weights in gyms, expensive specialty clothes unwarranted for their intended activity, celebrity interviews, magazines, the idea of “exercise” which AFAIK is just make-work that elevates the heart-rate or creates resistance training for nothing in particular, trending foods – lots of emphasis on what absolutely everyone should be eating, irrespective of how they intend to use those nutrients?!?! The timbre of the din is familiar, but I’m not familiar with any one particular lunatic howl. I’ve never actually waded into the conceptual cesspool to examine the individual turds. What’s another metaphor… sometimes there’s sometimes a buggy, how many drivers…

Using the usual tools available to a 2016 American, it’s hard to find any sane information or instruction that might lead to a meaningful, positive, transformative change in lifestyle. If I go to WebMD, America’s trusted source of information on which mega-corporations want to advertise on WebMD, one of the top results of a search for fitness is a drug called Fitness Formula, which seems from the description to be a multivitamin – I’m guessing it’s many times overpriced compared with standards like Centrum.

What if I reach out to Google – you know, as a friend, just this one time. If I type I don’t want to be fat anymore,  here is the top hit, which seems not too informative, until you scroll through pages of horrible cash-grab gambits and and sea of forum conversations full of unrealistic-or-otherwise-bad advice and “sorry, it’s really hard.”

I need to be more direct with Google – tell Google what I want. How do I get fit? Top hit is not as bad as before – I can sense the openness of the hypothetical fitness-seeker in the first illustration. Yet this page is merely a page of generalities that would be true of any lifestyle attending better health – it gives no actual specific instructions regarding how to build any particular lifestyle. I.e. it will directly lead to exactly zero people worldwide getting fit.

Most of the hits for this search start with the unstated assumption that getting fit involves going to a gym and doing workouts – on top of the shitty lifestyle I already have. Just bolt this thing or that thing onto the way of living that is currently killing me, and I’m golden. I will say that there is a possible benefit for young men searching this way: they will have to break for 15 minutes of good cardio for every page in order to masturbate, because in these search results there is no escaping pervy pictures of hot, gorgeous, female models – hair and makeup done – in nudity-style “workout” clothes.

Here’s our friend WebMD again. Again, it’s the assumption that I’m bolting on a gym-type routine to my lethally unhealthy/dangerous lifestyle, only AT HOME WITHOUT A GYM! (Only it’s all the same kind of stuff you would do at the gym). This is the kind of out-of-the-box iconoclasm the big-money advertisers are lining up to endorse.

This isn’t working. Google, I’m going to lay all my cards on the table and just type I’m worried that my weight is a health risk and my doctor won’t help me. Did I ever mention that I desperately implored my doctor to tell me what was wrong with me when I felt like my heartbeat was strange and I thought I needed to get in shape? He sent me to a cardiologist and gave me a pamphlet (which I can’t find now – wish I could, I’m sure it’s rich with comedy). I do remember the stress test at the cardiologist’s – and I remember having to goad the cardiologist into telling me to lose weight – no ideas on how I might do that. Anyway, so now I’m asking you, Google, to help me.

Well, it doesn’t solve any of my problems, but I feel more American being told that I am a victim of patient profiling. As a middle-aged, white male it is sometimes hard to get in on the victim-identity game, so thanks for that. Next hit tells me the big secret: burn more calories than you take in. Oh shit – now I remember the cardiologist telling me this exact thing – that’s where I first heard the aphorism about losing 1 pound of fat by burning 3500 calories. Still, no ideas how to make that an integral part of my life.

Okay, everything I can find in mainstream media or from health care professionals is operating on the same, faulty, unstated assumption. All experts – and loud, visible sources – are basically asking people to keep living a shitty, unhealthy, dangerous lifestyle. In an average case it is 99% probable that the individual seeking help is already overworked compared to mid-20th-century standards. That person is instructed to bolt onto the existing, untenable lifestyle the following items.

  • • gym
    • ⁃ buy a gym membership
    • ⁃ drive to that gym 3-6x weekly
    • ⁃ spend 3-12 hours per week in that gym…
    • ⁃ …doing repetitive tasks that are almost perfectly meaningless and impossibly boring – that prepare the person for zero real-world activities – e.g. bench press prepares you only to do more reps of bench press next time you go to the gym
    • ⁃ …in an ugly, fluorescent-lit environment
    • ⁃ …against the increasing volume of the misgivings in the back of the head asserting that this doesn’t lead to anything, doesn’t constitute a legitimate way to live, etc
  • • food
    • ⁃ first, become a competent dietician yourself – the type who could be protecting us from harm in the first place
    • ⁃ become a competent chef
    • ⁃ search like Indiana Jones for safe, healthy ingredients appropriate to immediate needs
    • ⁃ spend lots of extra money on non-subsidized, non-harmful foods
    • ⁃ transport your own food everywhere you go, like astronauts on a mission to the International Space Station, because trying to find normal, human-suitable nutrition in suburban USA – A.K.A. the whole goddammned thing if you round off the the nearest % by area – is like trying to find good food in the vacuum of space
  • • recovery
    • ⁃ plenty of time to sleep – every night
    • ⁃ more on nights after you go hard
    • ⁃ leisure to sleep until you are recovered
    • ⁃ leisure in general – anxiety crashes every onboard system from the brain to the toenails
    • ⁃ mental tranquility to sleep undisturbed
    • ⁃ better have your food game on lock so your digestion doesn’t wake you up
    • ⁃ fuck it – this is impossible – i have to work two jobs to pay for medical bills, this is never going to happen, i welcome premature death. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

This is the point in this hero’s journey when I become privy to an ancient bit of information, which, if obtained, will aid successful navigation of my trials in the special world. I know that Google is going to tell me everything I want to know through the prism of contemporary, mainstream culture, but there is a secret way in which Google is connected to lost, mythical, long-ago world of Civilization Before It Lost Its Goddamned Mind. It makes this connection in the forbidden, shadowy realm of The Dictionary.

Okay this is more helpful. I typed into Google define fitness and it gave me “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular role or task.” Very simple – great!

For me, riding a bicycle is as central to my lifestyle as driving a car is for most others. It’s no exaggeration to say that for me, fitness is bicycle fitness: Joe Friel’s pyramid of force, speed skill, and endurance; or on a physiological level, greatly increased vascularity, very high heart stroke volume, lower blood pressure, increased muscle sensitivity to insulin, very low body fat percentage, high VO2Max, and a bunch of other things I don’t know about because I’m not a doctor… In short, fitness for me consists of things that make me move efficiently on my bicycle.

My moment-by-moment nutritional needs are dictated by my activities in the immediate future, as well as activities receding into the recent past. For example, on days in which I log a lot of road miles, I need thousands of calories more in nutrients, and a higher proportion of those will be carbs. I literally use a power meter to gauge how many calories I spend on my bicycle – in particular zones, which suggest different proportions of fat/glycogen fueling. I use MyFitnessPal to track nutrient balance and volume (calories). There are correct and incorrect choices. Some choices are healthy foods but are incorrect for my needs at the moment. E.g. everyone loves broccoli, but if I’m in a severe deficit of protein, broccoli is every bit as wrong as chocolate cheesecake in that moment. There are choices that make my macro-nutrient pie graph look balanced, but they are just shitty food – e.g. anything with refined sugar.

Fitness exists only relative to lifestyle, and nutrition is dictated by the immediate demands of that lifestyle. My lifestyle is centered on riding a bicycle the way most people’s lives are defined by cars. Correct nutrition for me is dictated by planning to ride somewhere in the near future, a deficit from a recent ride, bike trainer workouts that help me ride more efficiently, and recovery, which is the flip-side of workouts.

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The American Lifestyle

Axioms of fitness and nutrition hold true for any lifestyle and activity, including the contemporary automobile-based model. Being monstrously unhealthy actually does constitute fitness for the American lifestyle. It doesn’t take a lot of aerobic capacity or strength or dexterity or flexibility to walk to a car or obtain manufactured food at the grocery store or receive the sugar-fat-salt treats that excrete from drive-thru windows. Living and eating this way also has the distinct advantage of hastening you toward an early reprieve from the American lifestyle while still skirting the culpability of willful self-harm – you are simply doing what is expected within the American, car-based lifestyle.

Nobody is doing a single damned thing to protect us from harmful food and lifestyle. We are all swimming in a toxic pool of bad food, bad transportation, bad urban design, bad information, bad culture. Finding alternatives is difficult and lonely.

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This is where I converge with my fellow fatties that I just heard on This American Life. If you are obese because you drive a car everywhere and do no physical work and eat the abominable mainstream food available in USA, you are effectively not at fault – you are doing every last thing that is expected. More than that, it’s unreasonable to ask every individual to pull himself up above the surface and swim against the riptide – on his own, unprotected from maliciously harmful information, food, transportation choices, wealth distribution… Being obese-to-the-point-of-inviting-disease is picture-perfect fitness for the American lifestyle. It is right. Obesity fits Americans like a lycra skinsuit fits Fabian Cancellara. If I accept that it is possible for a normal, average person in the USA to build a fulfilling life from readily available components, I must accept that radical obesity is a legitimate state of fitness for that life.

When I first heard the Tell Me I’m Fat episode, I was really hung up on Ira Glass’ summary of the scenario: “…[complete strangers] talk down to you about nutrition and calories, as if pretty much every fat person has not been around the block 500 times on that one already.”

My knee-jerk reaction was, yeah, but obviously they didn’t master nutrition and calories. But what have I learned from searching for information? What did I learn from my own experience as a 315lbs hand-wringer, worrying that my life was slipping away? The problem isn’t mastery of a proven system, the problem is that the system doesn’t work. Bolting on extra shit to a toxic lifestyle still gives you a toxic lifestyle.

These women on This American Life had the lucidity – and nerve – to say no, goddammit, I’m the one who’s doing it right, I’m the one who’s doing the full lifestyle as prescribed! If there really is such a thing as discriminatory, ill-treatment of fat people, (I’m struggling to recall anything from decades at 315lbs, and I suspect people are feeling the pressure from insane pop culture, to which I am oblivious), then I applaud anyone who gives a big FUCK YOU to that oppressing majority. IMHO, these women correctly identified a huge, important error in the culture and are taking steps to correct it.

Obviously, I don’t like their solution as much as my own, but I have vastly more respect for the fat-identity thinkers than I do for people who go to the gym and buy fitness magazines and eat the latest trendy food and engage in all that insanity. At least the fat-identity people are observing well and thinking clearly.

I think the faulty, unstated assumption that leads the fat-identity people into error is the idea that the contemporary, mainstream culture in the USA in any way constitutes an organic reality. That’s a subject for another blog post.

JCPenny “Here I Am”

In the same day, I listened to the Tell Me I’m Fat episode of This American Life, had a text conversation about the episode that was solicited by a friend who also listens to the podcast – and then the next thing I saw on my phone screen was the following advertisement on YouTube. I guess this must be the tail end of the trend and I’m just now hearing about it – or do big corporations simply appropriate and monetize things faster nowadays?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJlvtCzJPaQ

This ad has got to be one of the best things we could put in a time capsule for future civilizations. Here are my favorite quotes.

“We’re countering a lifetime of learned hatred.”

“You can’t love your body for what you hope it turns into without actively loving it for what it is today.”

“The only person who should be defining me is me.”

“My size isn’t an indicator of my worth.”

Another Option

  • • get as far away from car-centric lifestyle as possible
    • use any kind of human-powered locomotion: walk, bike, row, whatever
  • • detox from mainstream culture
    • stop looking at video screens, including this blog
    • seriously – stop. i promise you won’t miss many substantial, edifying things
    • reject legitimacy of centrally manufactured culture – e.g. the entertainment industry, which includes news, has no right to set the public agenda of issues
    • drop out of anything that both relies on a video screen and includes in its name or description:
      • social
      • sharing
      • community
      • connect
  • • DIY urban design ad-hoc, piecemeal
    • bridge all necessary and favorite amenities by covering the distance between them under human power. i did this by increasing my bicycle fitness to the point at which i can easily cycle to anywhere in the metro, day after day.
  • • think less, do more
  • ⁃ eat what you’re hungry for
  • ⁃ as much as you’re hungry for (no more – this works out to the bicycle mantra of eat/drink little and often)

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People do all this stuff, en masse, in different parts of the world. Part of that stems from the fact that most cities elsewhere predate the automobile scourge, but it’s still possible to do it here. The week I spent in Portland, OR last year opened my eyes to this concept: effectively shrinking my local geography of my reality by increasing the range of my cycling. The first day I stayed close to the city center, where urban design was already corrected and scaled down for human use – and I still saw people using bikes to get around even easier. But as I ventured further out I gathered that a few people actually commuted on bicycles – like from the icky suburbs. It would be hard now to write a coherent, comprehensive account of everything that went on in my mind that one week in Portland – I definitely felt the switch definitively snap to ON and I turned resolutely away from my previous lifestyle that week.

Actually that sounds like a fun, worthwhile project – writing up that experience – basically how I became Aluminum Bird. Two things just came to mind that seem like big milestones of that hero’s journey. One, I was in Portland, coming back from the suburbs and a I felt like I was waaay out of orbit – out where there are golf courses and Wal-Marts. Dude on a groovy vintage road bike, wearing a skateboard helmet, pulled up by me at a light and I asked him the big, burning question on my mind (my phone’s GPS had chosen the week I needed it most to stop working): is this the road that ends up at the Hawthorne Bridge? He took the time to explain to me more than I really needed to know just to get back to the familiar stuff west of the river, and I sensed that he was in a hurry, on his way to something and helping me was holding him back – I think he was just going to hang with me and ride me right into downtown – he might have thought of what he was doing as a rescue mission. I told him thanks for the help, you don’t have to wait for me, I got it. He said cool, good luck, etc.. and took off like a rocket. I had already been riding for a few months, dropped lots of weight, thought I was doing pretty well, so to see someone commuting at what seemed to me like Grand Tour sprint speed was literally impressive. Later in the day I saw him at the food truck pod on SW10th but couldn’t get his attention. I wanted to pay for his lunch – a token of gratitude – but I was held up because my burrito was going to be ready any second.

Here’s the other story from that saga that just came to mind. I came home from Portland with no more elaborate cycling/lifestyle plan than to keep up the routine I had started in Portland, which was simply to ride to a new coffee bar first thing every morning. In my week staying in the Pearl district,  this amounted to coasting a distance of a half block up to half a mile and wallowing in world-class culinary wonder. I got up to 5 miles mid-week to really cover lots of coffee bars, 3 a day most of the week.

In Kansas City, it’s not so simple or rewarding. I was just a few days into my nascent lifestyle and feeling discouraged. I was with my wife at a place I was saving as a treat – a good prospect to be on the same level as Portland coffee bars. I was sitting there, looking around at their not-quite-beautiful everything – thinking about the pleasure you experience even in simple, provincial places that seems to result from intolerance of ugliness. I was beginning to feel like I was drowning in ugliness.

This place where I was sitting – drinking a mediocre, $5-plus-tip pourover – was bumming me out. Some doubts were starting to creep to the fore of my mind – enough to take shape and see their outlines in words. Maybe this coffee-rides thing isn’t such a hot idea. Maybe the distances here are too much and the rewards are too little… Just as this sour note started to ring and reverberate internally, the theme song from Portlandia – Feel It All Around, with vocals and all, came on the second-rate cafe’s sound system. Here are the lyrics, which until that momentI didn’t know went with the lovely music (I’d only heard the instrumental on the TV show).

You feel it all around yourself
You know it's yours and no one else
You feel the thought of learning again
It's all around
You're tired of all the things you did
You'll work it out

Holy shit.

Still gives me goosebumps thinking about it. Anyway, I snapped hard in that moment. I went ahead and built a whole new, radically different lifestyle and got fit and worked it out.

It was a few days later that I found Oddly Correct, which leaves absolutely nothing to be desired – compared with any coffee bar anywhere. (I never looked at their  website until just now to get the link – that’s the only promotional pic I’ve ever seen that actually looks like the actual coffee bar).

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The USPS carrier in my neighborhood has been probably the single most encouraging person in my journey toward bicycle fitness and general health. I had no inkling at the time, but I think he probably recognized even before I did what I was doing and what I was headed for. Early on he told me about vising some place he visited in England (London? can’t remember now) where people used bicycles for transportation – to a degree and prevalence that was shocking to him at the time. He told me that they use bicycles like cars, and the people all look so fit and healthy.

People make lifestyles that work. Sometimes all the pieces are right there, and sometimes the pieces are spread way the fuck out over an 8k-square-mile metropolis. I figured out how to do it with a bicycle – I’m sure there are other ways, too.

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Misc

See Ya Round

Talking to interesting fellow at coffee station ant QuickTrip (forgot to roast, their Guatemalan is actually potable)

he said goodbye, which struck me as queer, to which I replied, “Okay, see ya.” – which seemed even stranger still

actually, in any normal human settlement, I would see this guy – just around. what’s bizarre is living in a single village that literally covers 8,000 square miles

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The Corrections

i’ve come unstuck in time this morning, reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – the Midwestern family setting, all the unspeakable mood and atmosphere of my own horrific childhood, – but especially when i read in passing the phrase “Spider parts”, which i had previously, spontaneously, independently through of and cherished enough to include in a list i called Identifiers – a repository of unassigned titles that i found slick, funny, witter, or whatever – just generally worth sharing – and there in this most brilliant novel was this identical, improbable phrase

OMFG – within 90 minutes of finishing The Corrections my dad called me – possibly on mom’s behalf – to guilt me into visiting. said he’s send me a check for $2k because they sent my brother a similar amount for some bullshit. sounds fishy but i’m going to deposit the check, anyway. and go visit (sigh)…

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A Post with a Real Accomplishment

This post is meant to keep me in the habit of posting something every week. There – I can relax now with a sense of accomplishment.

Let’s see, what’s on my desk right now… Okay here’s a typical music production for me: I started with a little 8-bar loop in Logic for the purpose of reamping a signal that I could use to sculpt a synth patch. This is basically the guitar version of the feature on old keyboards where the synth would loop a short piece of music to let you demo or edit patches without needing a hand on the keyboard. It’s a mundane chore that’s harder to handle on a guitar because everyone plays and touches the guitar very differently, so you have to cobble your own system. Generally my little loops are unremarkable but sometimes if I’m in the zone – or just bored or resistant to the next thing I should be working on – I’ll just get interested in the loop and add a few embellishments to it. You only need 3 eight-bar loops to make a song, so you can crank out a nice, simple little tune in no time if you’re in the flow.

What else. I’m still trying to get my GTD productivity management system off the ground. I have made a symbolic start on my sort, but that’s about as far as I’ve come. So all my good notes from real-life anecdotes are at the bottom of a monstrous pile that may literally take weeks more to sort. Here’s the only one I have, on a page that’s too bare to rip it out of my 3×5 spiral bound notebook I carry in a Rite-in-the-Rain holder.

Monday night at a gig I witnessed a middle-aged Yoga master from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands inform a young man that not only should he have offered to light her cigarette, but this was a problem with the world in general – that young men everywhere should light cigarettes for women, unbidden.  What a strange confluence of anti-yoga penchant – AFAIK. You have the idea of an imaginary world that should be a certain way, the invalidation of a person actively engaged in helping, the expectation that strangers will jump to care for your needs without having to say what they are, the generally dour attitude – and that’s all before you get to smoking. And not even anything I’d consider worth smoking – just a gas station, name brand, foul-smelling cigarette.

I had two takeaways from this. One was that I guess, yes, yoga does really exist in some forms completely apart from any religious or even spiritual activity. I have been vaguely interested in yoga for years, but I was always a little spooked by knowing that it’s a very deep practice and that the flexibility stuff that interests me is only a small part of it. The other was a reinforcement of my crackpot, unfounded, armchair, cockamamie hypothesis that many people  become interested in therapeutic practices first to sooth their own suffering – that and as an easy job – the yoga master was there to aggressively promote her yoga business on the mic.

My cycling training is unambiguously back on track. I restarted my build phase and I can finally feel the workouts getting more manageable under my legs with my new, higher FTP. I think I may have under-assessed a little. After a bunch of updates from Garmin I lost proof that I had scored a 50 on the Edge’s built-in VO2Max estimator. I finally hit 50 again yesterday after a workout that was hard but not oh-my-god-make-it-stop hard.

I’m in the middle of converting both of my old, steel clunkers to brifters. One is pretty much done except for installing the cranks I bought for it. The other one has the same Micro-Shift 2×7 shifters (very nice BTW) coming from China, but it’s going to be a while. I keep thinking about trying a DIY version of Retroshift/Gevenalle style shifters – like I don’t have enough to do with all my spare time. I consider my 100x-too-deep involvement with music technology a cautionary example of purpose-derailment/mission drift, and hacking my own bicycle components seems like a clear example of heading down that dark path within my nascent cycling habit.

Okay speaking of gear and training, this might be interesting, at least to myself in the future if I ever reread these. I have fully let go of one of my clunkers, as described in a previous post. The other I think I would let go gracefully if forced, and I simply haven’t done the work to shake away my former attachment to ownership. My contemporary bike it trickier, which is ironic because  it’s the most easily fungible of any of them – I could have a pretty much identical one in an hour if I needed to. I finally decided that it would be hard to let go of this bike to theft or loss because of all the extra gear on it – the Garmin stuff. Right now I’m thinking that maybe if I had it to to over again, I’d do something different. Here’s what I came up with.

I think that for a cyclist who isn’t racing, a really good training setup can be very simple, inexpensive, and just as effective as the expensive stuff. Here’s what I would buy if I were starting today.

  • Kurt Kinetic Road Machine (everything cheaper is junk, but everything more expensive is superfluous – AFAIK it’s really the only worthwhile trainer. I think CycleOps makes a similar one, too – it has fluid in the name).
  • Digital Stuff
    • laptop/desktop computer
    • ant+ usb stick
    • sensors
      • speed
      • HRM
      • cadence
    • Training Software, either:
      • Trainer Road (subscription), or
      • Golden Cheetah Software (free and open source)
  • Books
  • Bike
    • one used contemporary bike on Craigslist under $1k
      • just whatever seems fun/nice
      • but not flashy enough to draw pro thieves
      • if it is flashy, deliberately fuck it up enough to deter theft – maybe just sand off the paint, since AFAIK carbon and aluminum don’t really need it, anyway?
    • pedals
    • saddle (ISM Adamo has overtaken SMP as my favorite – expensive but fungible)
  • Other
    • lights
    • helmet
    • clothes
    • road kit
    • accessories
      • water bottles

…etc you get the idea. My main point is that I really don’t need two clunkers, the Garmin gear, a power meter, etc. The main part of cycling for me is just a single bike I enjoy riding without attachment, plus minimal stuff to facilitate that. The main part of structured training is the indoor trainer with a power meter. However, a portable power meter isn’t needed, and nowadays a virtual power meter (speed sensor + software) is plenty good enough for training.

If I were starting today I’d start smaller and simpler. And I would do what I’m already doing, moving forward: as a condition/checklist before I buy anything, I really search my feelings about attachment to the prospective purchase. If I think I would be sore about losing it the day after I bought it, I don’t buy it.

I wish someone made a power meter that came off the bike as easily as the Garmin quarter-turn stuff. That way I could use a nice meter on a cheap bike and never worry about loss.

That’s about it for this week. I have some fun entries for Googly Ears but I’ve used up the time I had to write them up. Same thing with the next step for my whole skill-acquisition project, the whole reason for the blog…. Oh, well, at least I’m not attached to arbitrary deadlines. Here are some recent photos:

 

 

 

 

Googly Ears

Here are some unproductive questions.

  • • WTF is the deal with sports? I enjoyed playing sports when I was a kid, but I grew out of it. A televised sports event on its own terms is just about the dullest spectacle I can imagine, and I can not picture a literate, adult human paying money to file into a stadium to watch professional athletes play a game. I needn’t tax my creative powers, though, because I can see it happening – tens of thousands swarming into the complex off I70, all finding their way to assigned seats for which they paid money. What accounts for this – mental deficiency, bad DNA, or what?
  • • How is it that people are allowed to use cell phones in this museum?! Is nothing sanctified anymore?!
  • • Why are people still building sheetrock manors on cul-de-sacs and driving SUVs?! The Geography of Nowhere came out in the early 1990’s. Jimmy Carter told us decades earlier that car culture had no future. And I’d bet some smart people had prescient criticisms as soon as private motor vehicles and suburbs started to proliferate. Is the whole developed world the new Easter Island?!

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Here are some better questions.

  • • What are some good books that tell the story of how USA became a concrete desert/ Lawnmower gulag/Living ghost town/Malaise farm? Where is my copy of The Geography of Nowhere? Would I enjoy another lap through Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here, Myself? What are some other worthwhile reads in that vein? If I want to do something about the problems I see with urban design, what would be a realistic goal? What’s a plausible next step?
  • • How do other people now experience formerly special places? What places are now considered special? What displaced formality? What do I personally want to do about formality and sanctuary?
  • • What’s with all this interest in the parade celebrating the Royals’ World Series victory? A half-million people?! Have I ever even seen a picture of a half million people assembled – how many people are in those images of political rallies from the early twentieth century? What must that be like? What’s it all about? Where is my camera? Is my bicycle ready to ride?

The second set is even more fun to imagine considering. It’s more productive to think this way. It minimizes undue suffering. It’s better.

I have a lot more practice with the first set. And there is some fun to be had in incredulity, outrage – being a malcontent. I like to flatter myself that after a lifetime of institutions failing me – family, school, university, church, psychology – that I’ve developed a special acuity for lunacy in the world around me. But really I’m just wallowing in the bitter pleasure of complaining.

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I’m in the process of graduating to the better way of thinking – that’s an important part of my quest. So I want to carefully rationalize how I’m going to continue with the new hobby I’m about to introduce.

First of all, testing the veracity of an assertion is one way of trying to experience the world as it really is. Certainly that harmonizes with dharma, third wave psychology, and just generally being nice? Also it’s fun to poke a pop culture trend with a stick.

It’s good to have hobbies? Journalism?

Enough of the intro to the intro! Let’s impetuously stride right into the intro.

In the last five years has seen an acceleration in the movement to popularize the idea of superhuman artificial intelligence as a realistic future. I’m most familiar with this trend as observed in movies. Kubrick’s 2001 came out a little before I was born,  Star Wars a little after. The Terminator (1984) was the first time at the cineplex I remember seeing the proposition of a frightening singularity, but I don’t remember hearing that word until the current decade. Actually I remember War Games (1982) being scary, but that memory is too deep in childhood to recall with much clarity. Since then there have been plenty of movies positing a plausible near-future populated by digital quasi-people, but within the last decade, people started talking about this kind of sci-fi scenario as if it were an imminent reality. By people I mean normal, non-crazy, employed, bathed-and-clothed people you meet every day – people who subscribe to Netflix but not a newspaper or highbrow magazine. Somehow this idea moved beyond being a pet theory of kooks sheltered in dusty chambers of the academy, and now I hear about it everywhere.

My first whiff of such nonsense followed the release of the Kubrick [/Spielberg] movie A.I. Such impressive artistic achievements act with such force that I end up considering their ideas almost against my will, and the whole experience really carries me away. If someone told me as I exited the theater that superhuman robots like David were just over the horizon, it would have seemed at least fun to think about, if not important. However, by the time we got to Transcendence in 2014 things were getting pretty silly. Thirteen years had passed, and now it’s unclear to me whether people even still think of this stuff as science fiction.

To movies add the expanding-faster-than-the-universe body of PR media overselling the current capabilities of A.I., featuring dancing robots and memory-game-winning* software, so that by this time the average person is convinced that ape-like A.I. is on the horizon, or maybe that it already exists. In the insane world posited by pop culture, Deep Blue really did beat Kasparov, Watson demonstrated superior intellect by winning on Jeopardy, and Japanese robots are ready to autonomously move among us – albeit in that uncanny manner that a very drunk person trying to do a familiar-but-now-impossible task, e.g. walking, urinating, and more drinking.

Oh, yeah – there was a Will Smith, action hero version of I, Robot LMAO! I don’t remember a thing about the trailer and I never saw it, but I assume it’s a… it’s a… I assume it aimed for a broad appeal.

According to this article on a web site that says in its banner “PUBLISHED BY SINGULARITY UNIVERSITY” there were no less than four simultaneously produced documentaries that were released in 2009. I hadn’t heard of Transcendent Man. It looks like a fascinating subject, but lately it has become hard to get a read on whether a doc is competently made – never mind good.

Here’s a chronology of random pop culture stuff I remember regarding AI and Singularity. A couple things jump out at me looking at this. One, I had almost no contact with pop culture in the 1990’s. And two, none of these things strike me as a herald of any real-world AI that transcends the execution of simple instructions.

  • 2001 – 1968
  • Star Wars – 1977
  • Alien – 1979
  • Blade Runner – 1982
  • War Games – 1983
  • Terminator – 1984 (btw how did that robot acquire a crazy Bavarian accent?)
  • Idea attributed to John von Neumann (??? mid-20th century)
  • Robots “replace” many workers in manufacturing (throughout 1980’s)
  • Deep Blue (chess) – 1997
  • The Matrix – 1999
  • A.I. (Kubrick/Spielberg) – 2001
  • Roomba (vacuum cleaner) – 2002
  • Watson (Jeopardy) – 2011
  • Motion-capture virtual skeleton tracking – heard of it in the late 1990’s, started using it myself in 2015 for bike fit:
  • a million other tiny things that used to be  done by people with cruder instruments…
  • oh yeah I forgot – I built my own AI! It’s an Arduino-based guitar pickup winder – basically a DIY, home-use manufacturing robot. There’s an early prototype of it in this  vid:

The day I lost my grip on patient enjoyment of the world around me was when I bought a premium-priced ticket to a Thursday showing of… dammit I can’t even remember the name of it. It’s the Asimov-cribbed movie with the actor who played Llewyn Davis – he doesn’t even play the hero in this movie – and the movie is about a Turing Test. That movie made Fight Club look like A Clockwork Orange.

Let’s just say that I’m pathologically cheap and not probe too deep into why. I hunt for deals like a junkie looks for a fix. I pay cash for the cheapest used car that is a good prospect for longevity and efficiency. My current car has gashes and dents and rust spots – I bought it like that – and I spend what it takes to properly maintain it because it’s cheaper that way in the long run. I’ve spent hundreds of times more on old jazz records in thrift stores than I have on music downloads. To me thrift is a virtue like honesty or compassion. Most advanced-level cheapskates wear the same Seiko watch until they are buried in it. I have a Pulsar – Seiko’s budget brand – that I kept running for decades, having it repaired and serviced, replacing it only at the advent of really useful smart watches. I got my Garmin Forerunner for a little more than half the normal street price on the day it was released. I’m the kind of cheap for which the phrase was coined, “He’s so tight, when he smiles his asshole puckers.”

So for me to pay extra to see this movie… dammit I might as well look up the title… oh right Ex Machina haha! For me to pay extra to see this thing a day early my expectations were in the clouds. Can’t remember why – I think it was rated very high on Rotten Tomatoes (BTW there’s another thing in popular culture that has come loose from the foundation, the idea that criticism means complaining, without any special skills or credentials) – I definitely know that Inside Llewyn Davis was the first time I remember seeing that actor – Oscar Isaac – and I suppose my unreasoned, below-the-surface idea was that he would only be in such movies from now on: life-altering masterworks that opened my eyes to new worlds, set my mind on fire, and made me want to live better. I suppose I would have been disappointed with almost anything, but this movie was a bonafide turd. I suppose that’s the origin story for this fun-spoiling villain: I spent a few extra dollars to see an unusually overrated movie.

EDIT: okay watching the trailer now, I remember that people dropped the name Kubrick in describing Ex Machina. This is that thing I now recognize as The New Anti-Literacy, or maybe The Ascent of the Lexicon of Centrally Manufactured Images, or possibly Western Canon Potted Meat Substitute – it’s that thing where everyone from screenwriter to audience/critics is intimately familiar with the style and nominal subject of pop culture works, but nobody seems familiar with any of the subjects or sources the original authors/artists were dealing with. So e.g. 2001 is no longer a meditation on the macro journey of homo sapiens but a kitschy old horror flick about a murderous computer. In Present Shock Douglas Rushkoff describes a phenomenon he calls narrative collapse – a positive face on the loss of traditional story structure that he posits as simply a new way of understanding the world. Where I see this even more starkly than fictional movies and literature is in the genre of documentary film – the new generation of doc makers seems to have no idea at all how they might organize material – apart from chronological order of events – and almost every doc becomes its own making-of feature. It’s such a stunning thing to consider – it can’t be right – but it really seems that everything transmitted and stored from the time of Homer to the present was simply abandoned in a single generation.

After Ex Machina – or more to the point, after I lost a few dollars betting on a disappointing movie – I hardened my heart to the singularity craze. And of course when you decide that something is obnoxious that’s all you’re going to hear.

At some point I watched Her – again based on some critic-aggregator score – without even knowing the premise. That movie belongs in a different list from the others mentioned. IDK – it comes from a different place. I feel like this story could have been transcribed from a real, bittersweet love story and maybe the choice to make the romance character AI was a poetic flourish to make the viewer understand? Her really is a nice addition to the list, though, because it throws all the others into stark contrast by coming from a normal, human worldview.

Here’s what hung me up on all the singularity talk – I mean the talk about human-like AI as a viable prospect for the near future: it’s profoundly unrealistic. As much as the internet is a haven for wacky crackpot theories and private label religions, it doesn’t take much searching and reading to realize that there is no imminent development that will move this kind of AI anywhere close to reality.

Current AI is so obviously inept at the most basic learning, yet people seem absolutely, unquestioningly convinced by the sci-fi hokum pumped through the infotainment machine. People talk about the singularity in recent years the way people talked about imminent moon colonies in the 1970’s.

For a good year or so, I really got sick of hearing about AI, the singularity, or really anything new that computers might ever do other than novel, awful, money-making tasks. The friction caused by the cognitive dissonance was raising a blister on my brain: everyone says computers are on the verge of becoming intelligent, yet contemporary computers – and any computer that is very near to coming into being – can literally do nothing but boolean operations – yes or no, on or off, black or white, this or that. Judging from facial expressions I see at the Kansas City Zoo, you can teach ennui to a gorilla, but you can’t get even the expected results from simple operations on “smart” phones and cameras.

When futurist-big-idea figures such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil heralds the imminent singularity – the rapidly nearing horizon beyond which humans will be superseded by the technology they create – I felt the need to call to mind a reassuring example of the current reality of AI.

I think I really started to chafe from the cognitive friction when there was an unusually high density of movies dealing with AI and singularity and tangential subjects. I think that if this rash of movies broke out now, I’d recognize that, yeah, okay, this is kinda fun to think about as a sci-fi scenario, but at the time I was still thinking about error instead of dialectic. I was thinking who is right, not who is interesting.

The interesting reality is that people believe in The Singularity with religious fervor. That is real and it is happening now – no need to consider a near future.

Now I’ve come around to enjoying the science fiction of the Singularity. AFAIK it hasn’t yet turned into a literal religion and hurt a bunch of people. In the transition to enjoyment I rationalized a way to reduce the cognitive dissonance between the apparently widely-held belief that The Singularity is near and the fact that it isn’t.

When I used to to get perturbed over AI lunacy, I realized that there’s an easy question for the mind yearning for some empirical reality: how smart is the smart phone? Is there any endeavor for developing AI that has been given deeper pockets than the development of  new phone hardware and software? What is the combined gross annual income of Apple, Samsung, Google, Sony, Motorola, Nokia, HTC, Microsoft, LG, and Huawei? And as a litmus to determine where is AI at this actual moment in time, how effective has all this expenditure and effort been in producing human-like intelligence?

Google Voice Search combines Google’s search AI with speech recognition to provide an experience that should be as organic as poring over old Christmas photos with Grandma while enjoying homemade cookies and hot cocoa. Let’s use this blog post category – Googly Ears – of which this post is the first installment, to document conversations I have with this awe-inspiring, sentient superhuman.

I’ve seen lots of screen grabs of “funny” conversations with Siri, but I’ve always thought these were spoiled by Apple engineers/programmers being in on the joke. Siri is so steeped in the Family Guy sensibility… the conversations themselves are like pictures of funny things people wrote, as opposed to a funny picture. An actual funny picture is a cat captured at the exact moment he looks most like a world-worn sea captain, while a picture of something funny is merely a fast method of transcribing the joke.

As an end user, I can only guess at how Google Voice Search interprets what I’m saying. It doesn’t seem to glean any useful hints from experience, simple sentence structure, context, or obvious inferences that any juvenile from the Hominidae family could make from the voluminous personal data that Google has invasively harvested from my internet and phone activity.

I’ve been noticing the following phenomenon for years, but only recently did I start noting the examples. Google voice recognition is supposed to use the latest “deep learning” AI. So it’s bound to just get better and better over time.

It should tell you something that this masterpiece of intelligence can’t figure out from the context of the query being repeated that maybe it should try a different answer. Repeat it a third time and Google still doesn’t get the hint. Google AI remembers what kind of guitar strings I was really into six years ago – “WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO BUY MORE OF THEEEEESE?!?!?” But apparently it can’t figure out that I’m asking it the same thing over and over because the answer to which it clings is wrong. At some point I gave up repetition, finally learning that GVS can’t learn – and thereby demonstrating the superiority of us humans for the moment. Every little thing I can do to aver the imminent Singularity is a maginal victory.

wrench > ranch

I really love this one. Wrench > Ranch is the transposition that inspired me to start recording these instances. To me this one misinterpretation is plenty enough to justify the dour worldview I’m struggling to let go. I should probably abandon this project and think about other things.

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What does it mean that Google will not accept the possibility that I might say wrenchit MUST BE ‘RANCH’. It doesn’t matter the context – “I am getting to be a halfway decent bike Ranch” – or the pronunciation. It doesn’t matter how many times I correct GVS. I guess this superhuman intelligence suffers from severe autism, because it doesn’t pick up on the repetition of the same question five times in a row as a cue that maybe it should try a different answer.

Here’s what I imagine the transposition indicates. I don’t fix things; I buy things and then discard them. More plausible than the prospect of me talking about wrenches is the probability that I eat a lot of ranch dressing. Ranch dressing – it’s as fatty as French and Italian sauces, but without the pleasant taste or texture. It is wholly disgusting. I’m guessing it was invented by the same people who came up with Cheez Whiz, Steak-Ums, and such. Hot Pockets. Oreos. Peanut butter and jelly in a single jar. Microwave version of anything. Ranch is to sauces what hyper-over-produced pop is to music – calling it a synthetic substitute might be a little over-generous and misleading.

Having said that, here is my loving tribute to a hyper-over-produced pop song. I really do love this song – I have lots of fond memories playing this song in clubs. My arrangement uses all pretend-we’re-robots music tech: vocoder, talk box, synths, auto-tune.

Okay, I went ahead and Googled the history of Hidden Valley Ranch. Ranch dressing was brought to its current form by the Clorox corp. LMAO! – this is the company that enables people to fill their homes with toxic gasses by combining bleach with disregard for clear instructions – conspicuous, urgent warnings – printed right on the goddamn jug.

When I think of Ranch dressing, I remember lots of occasions on which I observed fat people talking about competitive sports and television, shuffling through a queue to self-serve food, placing dainty portions of carrots and broccoli next to great heaps of beef and pork and bland melted cheese, saying, “I SHOULD HAVE SOMETHING HEALTHY, TOO HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” – and then they would extinguish the vegetables’ flavor under a blanket of Ranch dressing.

I’ve lost 100 pounds riding a bicycle. I used to be hugely fat. When I was the fattest, most disgusting fatass imaginable I wouldn’t touch ranch dressing. I would eat an entire pizza myself, but I’d have gone hungry before I ate anything with ranch dressing on it. Ranch is a revolting horror – a culinary abomination. It’s the #1 salad dressing in the  United States.

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After the synthetic food-type product, the next possibility offered by GVS is a sitcom starring Ashton Kutcher. I guess it makes sense to go from simulacrum of food to simulacrum of a farm that produces food. IDK how far you have to dig to find a sane connection with the literal denotation of ranch. Which was not the word I intended.

Maybe I should trade all my beloved bicycle tools for more cross-compatible socket wrenches. Since [I think?] summer of 2014 Google seems to have no trouble recognizing the word ratchet.

I started paying attention to Google Voice Search as a salve for the cognitive dissonance that came from giving too much credence to a pop culture fad. Ironically, on top of psychological soothing and the entertainment that comes with watching a robot struggle, GVS has started giving me insights into the minds of its information-loaders – the real brains behind the operation. I suppose it could be that this mind is specific to the ickiest upper class of San Francisco, but I like to think it’s a reflection of wider pop culture. So the insanity I now enjoy observing might be organic after all.

Aluminum Bird Blog Retrospective: Four Posts In

It’s springtime in Kansas City. Thursday night I was out with friends and I realized that I didn’t have anything ready to publish on the blog. Thinking of a solution, I realized that I really haven’t shared much from actual day-to-day life, which AFAIK is the raison d’etre for blogging in 2016.

So, partly to conform to style but also just to fart out something to publish, here’s what’s going on in my life. I imagine this will be relevant to the theme of the blog – searching for a training program for consciousness skills – because that’s what I spend most of my time thinking about and doing.

Here is what spring looks like outside the window where I write. Yes, this is space filler. Actually, I handn’t thought about it, but since photography is a big part of my life – and it does intertwine with the subjects of mindfulness and skill acquisition and training – it might not be a bad idea to include current photographs here.

Aluminum Bird Blog Retrospective: Four Posts In

I found this outline in my folder Blog Posts and was surprised by how distant in the past it seemed. This was from the end of February, when the world was still cold and gray, and I hadn’t yet really developed much momentum with my current course of reading.

This post as I found it was in the form of outline/reminders. I fleshed it out with actual prose just now.

2016.02.28 The Cumulative Effect of a Severe Anxiety Relapse

After being on a pretty even keel for many months – several seasons – I recently slipped into the kind of vortex of suffering I used to experience before I had any training or reading in cognitive skills. I was surprised and disappointed to find myself caught in the riptide again after staying clear of this depth of trouble for so long.

Danny’s

I had a gig that would have been unpleasant under any circumstances, but I turned an unpleasant job into a supernova of self-punishment. In a nutshell:

  • For my taste horn players generally fill way too much space. I think this is because most people don’t really think like an arranger, listening to the overall ensemble and trying to reconcile the cohesive whole to the individual voice. With horn players, I think the problem might stem from the fact the other musicians fill much more space in a standard arrangement – even background singers have more up-time. The more the repertoire represents times newer than the early 1970’s, the less there is for a horn to do in a sensible, cover-band-type arrangement. So what ends up happening is horn players will just double the “cool” lines in every song, throwing the orchestration out of balance and ruining the color; they will jump on every backfill, every solo, every turn at instrumental melody – stepping on anyone else without listening; they jump into any break. When any horn player is on a gig other than jazz standards, generally you are going to hear way too much horn; and the further you get from the top of the heap, the worse it gets – which makes sense – better musicians have better sensibilities.
  • On this gig there were two horn players. One was a middle-aged tenor player I’d never played with or heard of, though he seemed to know a lot of standard repertoire, which suggests that he’s pretty far from the top. Taken in isolation his playing was competent enough, but he stepped on everyone on every song. From his general demeanor away from music and from his perfect obliviousness onstage, I gathered that he must have Asperger’s or something similar – he just does not register standard cues. I had seen and talked with him close to a dozen times between rehearsal and gigs, and he thought my name was Chris, so there’s something awry behind the eyes. The other horn player was a friend of the bandleader – the nicest guy in the world – but he literally can’t play changes.
  • At the first set break I walked across the street to the Blue Room, where I thought I’d have a beer, listen to Bobby Watson’s band, and empty my mind, after which I would decide whether to stay or simply pack up my things and go home without finishing the gig. I’m looking to gigs as pure therapy, so if it’s not working it makes perfect sense for me to simply leave, but AFAIK nobody I work with shares this hierarchy of priorities – and even if they did, my well being would be at odds with theirs. Taking care of myself at all costs doesn’t work so well for everyone involved. I’ve walked off gigs before but it’s always pretty awkward. This particular gig was with a singer who was trying to get back into performing after a long time away from professional music – and that continues to weigh heavily on me. I think about my own situation – trying to get back into life in general after decades away – and how I appreciate every little bit of help I get. Anyway, I stayed for the whole gig. I really just accepted my obligation more than I decided that staying was best for me.
  • I really just spiraled, worse and worse throughout the whole gig. Relying on gigs for therapy is so delicate and difficult. I can really only play with certain musicians – people like the character Michael from Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson – or it all falls apart. The bad experience – the gig I’m currently relating – is like a monestary in which monks are in hour 5 of deep meditation, and then into the room bursts a loud, dangerous lunatic with a big case of fireworks and knives, doing everything possible to draw attention and provoke reaction. Well, one thing is different from that metaphor – good monks can retain their focus in the face of intense, loud ugliness and still see the beauty. I’m not there yet. Strangely – I guess I would like to understand this and acquire the skill – some of the best, most “spiritual”… or maybe it’s better to say mystical? – some of the best musicians I know who are tuned into that special musician frequency – they seem to be able to ignore the part of an ensemble that detracts from the whole, where I only seem to be able to take in the whole with all its parts.
  • I finished the gig and quit the band the next week – weeks in advance of their next gig. I was still holding onto hope that I would so radically change my mindset that I might be fully repaired/restored/enlightened by the next gig, but I woke up from a tortured, unproductive sleep knowing that I had to get far, far away from that band. For the moment, anyway, I still need to withdraw and just take care of myself.
  • I continued to recursively increase my suffering with a number of feedback-loop thoughts, including the idea that I should by now have progressed beyond this low level of cognitive skill.

Rhubarb on 95th

That gig was on a Saturday. On Tuesday I set in motion a chain of events that very well could have led to a long prison sentence for manslaughter. Either that or getting gunned down in my lycra in the middle of the street.

A man bike-buzzed me in his car and I instantly went into mortal-combat mode. I caught him at the light and said, “You passed way too close to me.” Only I didn’t say it, I barked it. He said what you’d expect, among other things “Why don’t you get off the road!”

A lot of people don’t know that bicycles have the same use of roads as other vehicles and are actually forbidden from riding on sidewalks. I’ve had calmer talks with such people in the past and ascertained from direct interview that they – those I asked, anyway – act they way they do because they believe that they are entitled to the road and I am not.

Anyway, this piece-of-shit redneck and the holy, blameless I are yelling at each other like a couple of dumb apes and he decides enough is enough and he starts to get out of his car. He stood all the way up, at which point he was still a good half a foot shorter than I would have been without a bike helmet. He seemed to think better of it, said in a much softer tone, “Well…” and ducked right back into his car.

Dumb apes are actually peaceful most of the time. I don’t flatter them by comparing myself.

BTW I’m 6’4″ and kind of chunky, inelegant farmer stock type build. In my mind I am the least threatening person – I have no skill in fighting and carry no weapons – but I think simply being tall has probably saved me from trouble throughout my life. I’m convinced that’s what happened in this case.

In the mindset I had fallen into, if he had started swinging on me I very well could have killed him. Or he could have been standing up to shoot me. Or who knows – nothing good comes to mind as a plausible outcome. That’s the closest I’ve come to fisticuffs since middle school, which was so long ago that at the time it was called junior high. This is not how I want to live.

Ironically, I was on my way to see the latest Coen Brothers movie, Hail, Caesar! – a high-minded, sensitive, humanistic, religious, beautiful work of art. I went to this movie twice this week, partly because their movies are in the theater for such a short time – this one I didn’t really even satisfactorily decode before it ended – but probably mostly because I knew that in order to get myself centered in a better mindset I needed something external, weighty, other-worldly, substantial.

BTW I just this morning noticed an advertisement on Amazon.com for what seems to be all the Coen Brothers movies to date. I clicked on The Hudsucker Proxy and it is FREE on Amazon Prime. WOW – Fast and Furious movies have the built-in deterrent of costing money but the Coens’ works are free. There is some beautiful order to the universe – sometimes you do eat the bear!

Sick for the First Time Since I Started Cycling

As I continued my descent into the kind of extreme, chronic anxiety and depression I haven’t experienced in about a year, I got my first really severe cold/flu in about as much time. No big surprise there. Since I started raising my fitness through cycling training, I usually can’t rely on the typical symptoms to know that I have a virus – I simply feel a drain on cycling performance. A typical scenario would be: my wife has the bug that’s going around, so do half my friends and musicians I work with, and it turns out that I got the infection, too, but I don’t notice until I get on the bike and my power has dropped – I feel slow and there’s no snap in my legs. I don’t know but I assume this is standard for people raising their fitness to extremes with endurance activities like cycling.

This time I was floored for most of a week – literally in bed for a couple of days and then I started to very slowly creep back toward zero.

I do know that in all the cycling training books I’ve perused, from Eric Heiden to Joe Friel, the experts all list psychological stress as a severe fitness inhibitor. I know that after this whole week of snowballing suffering – all of which started in my own poorly trained head – I had a very hard time completing my TrainerRoad workouts for a very long time.

After All That I’m on a Very Slow Climb to Recovery

…to where I was in December. FUUUUCK!!!!

I’m 44 Years old, and this is where most of my life has gone. I have a few dim, hazy memories of happy times from when I was 3 years old, plus some good times since I started to come through the clouds in the past year, but all the rest of those long decades I spent most of my time and energy on anxiety and depression. In a very real sense my life’s work has been nothing more than meaningless, unproductive suffering.

Back to the Present: Milestones for April 2016

That’s enough flashback for this week – yikes! I’ve since made it back to my new baseline (DBT concept of default mode or equilibrium mood), which itself continues to rise. Lacking any known metric for baseline, all I can say is that it boosts my optimism greatly to just be reading a lot and trying, and optimism is a great short-term boost for getting big projects off the ground. Here are some hard metrics from the discipline I love, the methods and metrics of which I hope to transcribe to a better-codified mental skill set.

I’ve raised my VO2Max to 50. IDK where I started – I had already lost lots of weight and built a ton of aerobic fitness by the time I got a full complement of Garmin gear, at which point I was only up to 38 haha! So from the point at which I had already greatly raised my fitness, I’ve increased my VO2Max by about a third. Not bad, if I do say so myself.

I just did the TrainerRoad 8-minute FTP test and scored 360W. The good  news is  that this is my highest so far. The bad news is that this is only 2 watts higher than my test in December – I basically crashed my fitness hard in with that anxiety episode and took all this time to work back to where I was in December. My plan now is to restart the TrainerRoad General Build program.

Last week I hit 215lbs – down 100lbs from where I started. Nowadays weight loss has such a strange cloud of bad ideas around it I don’t know what people hear when I say I lost 100 pounds. I will try to convey what it means to me.

I’m remembering trying to climb hills when I first started cycling about a year ago. There’s a hill I call The Hill at Fish Corner – IDK what is the exact grade, but for reference, now I can easily climb it on my contemporary bike, without using my lowest gear, seated, without going anaerobic (under threshold in cycling terms).

I remember about this time last year – it was the first time I dared to cycle to actual destinations from home. Previously I would either just stay in the neighborhood or use a bike rack on my car. I was scared and physically inept to start commuting on a bicycle, but I had just started therapy at the Lilac Center on Quality Hill, and I was in a mindset to try anything and shoot for impossible-seeming goals.

At first I would ride my bike downtown and then take the bus home – no way was I going to make a big, bad, 15-mile trip TWICE in a day haha! Oh yeah and I would eat a giant, disgusting Subway sandwich at the bus stop on my way home – man, I’ve come a long way. I would love to see stats from those rides, but this was a few generations of equipment before I got all the Garmin stuff. I will say that these early rides were long enough and varied enough that I started to get some awareness of pedaling technique, pacing, and bike position – even on that old clunker.

The particular time I’m recalling I took the bus downtown, went to group, and rode home. I was doing great. So far. At this point I still had very high body weight and low power, plus very low aerobic capacity – I was just generally green as a rider. I was still months away from starting any kind of structured training. Plus that bike was a real trash heap with a low gear of probably something like 40-28 – it was a 1970’s “ten speed”.

I remember stopping at Fish Corner and pscyhing myself up for the climb. My intent was to simply will myself up the hill. I was so ignorant and optimistic at that point – strange to think this was just one year ago – I really believed that I could get up that hill simply with the force of something like Jedi Mind Powers haha!

I remember starting off too hard, realizing my mistake, and trying to pace myself. I don’t think I even started in the lowest gear. I remember fighting the burn, tasting ammonia, and still I kept going. I remember being afraid that if something obstructed my breathing for even a moment I might be in serious trouble. Finally I started to shut down involuntarily and I used my last bit of energy to dismount and stay upright, bracing myself on the bike. I could not have been more than 500 meters from the base of the hill!

Since then I almost always stop at Fish Corner and enjoy the tranquility of the place. Maybe I should try to put my finger on its special essence and write about it sometime – I just looked through my Flickr account and I couldn’t find a picture of the place?! For a while I didn’t remember how I got started with this tradition, but the first time I noticed that I made it up the hill without even breathing hard, I remembered the incident I just related, and I now figure that this place just puts me in the mood for focused mindfulness. The hill is still a special place for me, and for some reason – especially strange considering that I use this hill as a kind of metric of how far I’ve come – I never push myself up this hill, I always just go slow and easy. Maybe because at that point I’m close to home and I’m already looking forward to relaxing? Or maybe just because I can make it easy for myself, and that’s a pleasant accomplishment.

Anyway, when I think about what 100 pounds of weight loss means to me, I think of hill climbing in general, and especially climbing The Hill at Fish Corner. A year ago simply climbing it at any physical cost was literally impossible, and now I only notice the effort because of its historical significance. I’m still overweight, but now I can pace myself through any terrain at a respectable speed without wearing out.

My most significant recent milestone – the one I really want to talk about- is achieving mindfulness in a formerly difficult context. This is one of those events that’s very hard to relate, but it was so shockingly poignant and apt – it’s the kind of thing I’ve heard people recall as God talking directly to them through signs. This happened right after I took this picture.

Coming down College east of State Line, somebody bike-buzzed me – conspicuously, with two wide-open lanes of space they could have used – the message kind of bike-buzzing. If you recall from earlier in this blog post, I had a spot of trouble living with this circumstance not too long ago.

Since then I’ve done a lot of reading, thinking, and work toward building better cogntivie fitness – plus I’ve thought a lot about this specific type of incident, i.e. what do I want to think and feel when I get bike-buzzed (I’m talking about a barnstorming, hyper-aggressive driver, not putting whiskey in my water bottles). This time I was not merely prepared but ready.

I mindfully observed it happening, observed and labeled my flash of white-hot anger, and then calmly looked around to see what else was going on in my world. I literally turned my head left and right, and when I turned right I saw something like what this image represents.

 

There were two geese flying through a hail of the most delicate white dogwood blossoms. It really felt like a literal glimpse into the hidden world for which I’m groping to find the mouth of the entry path.

GTD

Here starts the list of status updates letting you, gentle reader, know what I’m up to regarding the whole Aluminum Bird project – i.e. why is there zero directly relevant content on this damned blog?!

I sank a lot of time this week into getting up and running (again – sigh)… with Getting Things Done, a kind of Zen-y project management approach. I think of it as mindfulness applied to productivity/time management.

I built an extension for my desk, went through the original David Allen book (again – sigh)… and did my collection. That’s as far as I’ve gotten.

The main reason I need this is not so much for pure productivity but for direction. When I’ve used GTD successfully in the past (and each time let it fall out of use – sigh)… it always becomes immediately clear when I’ve gotten off track – and it’s always easy to get  back on by looking at my projects list and next actions.

Lately I have the sense that I’m at least in danger of getting off track. I want to get the different levels of planning perspective that GTD facilitates, plus I want to better prioritize all the inquiries/tangents I’m pursuing.

Myth

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell all week, including Myths to Live By, which I don’t remember ever hearing about before. It’s a real treasure IMHO – makes me wish I could somehow travel through time to attend the lectures on which the book is based.

Presently I’m interested in a couple aspects of myth. One is the way that myth gives a kind of roadmap for a person to graduate into the fullness of humanity in the context of his social environment. That isn’t the worst mission statement for what I’m trying to do – PLUS if I had to sum up what went wrong in my life historically, I could say that I failed to live the myth of my culture. Mythology could be very practical for me.

Forgive me if I recap every single week what I’m trying to do with this blog – I’m still struggling to clarify it for myself.

I should mention that my goal for cognitive fitness is to not simply be well, as “mental health” professionals frame the pursuit. I may well pull north of that point on the chart very soon. I’m shooting for an analog of the fitness I’m achieving on my bicycle, thanks to an expertly structured, practically delivered training plan. With the bicycle, I started out a year ago quite possibly at death’s door – I had gone to a cardiologist for odd symptoms and was unable to complete the stress test they give to elderly people – and today, still very far from any of my goals, I might very well be the fittest person I know by some metric – I probably pump more blood in a single stroke than anybody I know – my resting heart rate right now is 47BPM.

That’s what I’m shooting for with cognitive skill – ever more gains that probably never stop coming if I’m doing it right – on the big plateau at the very top the gains probably just get smaller and harder-won, plus the context changes with age.

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In general, I want to acquire the full skill set available to a human for managing and directing the experience of being in this world, first to escape my own suffering, but also for whatever such skill has to offer. My plan to do this is to 1) discover the learning sequence for this set of skills, and 2) transcribe lessons learned from disciplines I’ve mastered plus things like training, practicing, and learning in general, tracking personal metrics, and that kind of fitness-nerd stuff.

Current among those pursuits is trying to make sense of my story of how I became a professional musician. I’m trying to fit my story into a tidy, hero’s journey type framework. I’m presently unskilled at any kind of storytelling and I don’t really know the ropes of mythology beyond what I remember from our unit on Greek mythology in 8th grade English, so I’m studying that.

 

Finished Buddhism and Modern Psychology

I finished my first little foray into Buddhism, not counting Alan Watts’ Still the Mind audiobook, which I use to fall asleep (I’m sure Watts’ voice is just the honest product of his environment, but he sure sounds a lot like he hangs out with Maude Lebowski). My recently-concluded foray was the lovely little Coursera MOOC called Buddhism and Modern Psychology, taught by Robert Wright. While this gave no direct skills or even much direction of where to look for further instruction, I just feel that this was the perfect introduction for me. It was a fun, fascinating course and I feel like I have a really good framework for understanding about Buddhism. I would recommend this course for absolutely anyone, even just for kicks/entertainment. In a nutshell, I’d say the gist of the course is as follows: Does naturalistic/therapeutic Buddhism jibe with what we know about the human mind from evolutionary psychology? I won’t spoil the ending – take the class! If you need further enticement here are some teasers:

  • funny dog videos
  • a cast of characters to rival the kookiest Coen Brothers movie – no shit!
  • a very level-headed survey of what Buddhism is and can do

Overall Status

Overall I’m trying to locate enough relevant resources and connect them in dialog. I have an amorphous idea that once I establish a switchboard for subjects and skills I will be able to build the training program that will be as straightforward and productive as what I do on my bicycle.