Poetry, Programming and People Management

The human brain does ambiguity well. Most of us are strangely drawn to multiple meanings, surrealities and pattern recognition. We thrive on metaphors and similes, rejoice in symbols, dance to nonsense syllables and ad hoc syncopations. And paradoxes? We both hate and love them — paradoxically, of course.

This may be one of the reasons so many people become frustrated and even fearful when confronted by math and logic. Those disciplines feel so cold and hard-edged with their unitary meanings and wearisome concatenations of implacable reasoning.

It’s the same with computer coding. If you take an Introduction to Computer Science course, the professors often go out of their way to compare natural languages (a phrase which itself is an oxymoron) with computer languages.

Yao graph with number of ray k=8; from Wikimedia, by Rocchini

The gist is that while while both types of language share common and, indeed, essential properties such as syntax and semantics, they differ widely in that natural language can often be understood even when the speaker or writer fails to follow basic spelling or grammatical rules. In contrast, a computer program (much like a mathematical equation) will typically fail to work if even a single character is left out or misplaced. An absent bracket can be a fatal bug, a backwards greater-than symbol can cause an infinite loop, a poorly assigned variable can inadvertently turn  100 dollars into a dime.

A computer has no use for the artful ambiguities and multiple meanings of poetry. If you give the machine a couple of lines of verse such asanyone lived in a pretty how town (with up so floating many bells down)”,  it will — unless you carefully guide the words into the code as a string —  give you an error message.  (I know a lot of people who might respond the same way, of course.)  Yet, without the precisely imprecise wordplay of e e cummings, those lines of poetry would not be poetry at all.

So, what does any of this have to do with people management?

Just this: people management is sometimes poetry, sometimes programming, and it helps to know which is which. Before the rise of civilizations and cities, when virtually all people were hunting and gathering in smallish bands and clans, people management (in the forms it would have existed then) was all poetry.

Walden Pond; from Wikimedia, by QuarterCircleS

Sure, there were unwritten rules, harsh taboos, constant rumors and deadly serious superstitions. And a leader, to the degree there were leaders as we understand them today, could leverage those cultural components to influence his or her clansmen. But this was mostly a matter of nuance, persuasion, the formation of alliances, the wielding of knowledge and lore (when, that is, it wasn’t a matter of force and coercion). In the largest sense, it was art and song.

Today, good managers must still be attuned to the poetry of human attitudes and actions, able to sort through the ambiguities of rumor mills and hurt feelings and arrogant posturings. But now managers must also cope with or even rely on laws, regulations and rules.

Is there a “zero tolerance” clause in the company policy somewhere? Then even a terrific employee who gets caught using illegal drugs may need to go.  Are there complex legal regulations barring a worker from having financial holdings in a certain client company? Well, then, the employee must divest or hit the door. There are countless other examples of rules that are as hard-and-fast as rule-of-law societies can make them. Although these human rules will never be quite as rigorous as the requirements of programming languages, they are a kind of human programming; there are true and false statements,  barriers that can’t be broken, classifications that should never be breached.

This is why we have legal departments. It is also why uncertain managers call in the hired gun of the HR professional to take care of dismissals and drug tests and background checks.

We simultaneously hate  this programming of human behavior and depend on it. We can, for example, rely on the kind of code that states:

while worker performance >= level 3: { {

provide paycheck and health insurance }

else if: {

performance <= level 2:

leverage performance review proceedings

 }}

Okay, the coding in companies is much more complex than that. Still, the point is that we rely on it because it’s clean, logical and, best of all, spares us from having to make hard and potentially dangerous decisions on our own. In such settings, we are no longer “poets of people management,” the kind of managers who might have led a clan though a vast and dangerous prehistoric wilderness in millennia gone by.

This dependence on programming is a shame in many ways, one that harried managers should ponder from time to time.  I know we can’t utterly avoid modern programming — at least, not unless we retreat into the wildness, as metaphorically  isolated as Thoreau in his cabin by Walden Pond. Nor should we. The rule of law is essential to our modern societies, and formal policies are often forged to protect employees from arbitrary or biased decisions. Still, we might strive to be better poets, respecting employees as the people they are rather than viewing them as components of a well-programmed machine.

Featured image: The Parnassus (1511) by Raphael: famous poets recite alongside the nine Muses atop Mount Parnassus.

You’re More Than Just a Number: Now, You’re a Vector

Unless you’ve been hiding in a bunker for the last few years (and who’s to blame you if you were?), you know that data science, big data, and machine learning are all the rage.  And you know that the NSA has gotten scary good at surveilling the world via its data-parsing mojo.

These trends have overturned — or at least added a whole new wrinkle to — the concern so prevalent when I was a kid: that individuals in modern societies were becoming faceless numbers in an uncaring machine. Faceless number? These days,  a lot of people aspire to that. They leverage the likes of the search engine DuckDuckGo in the hope of reverting back to being just a blip of anonymous bits lost amid mighty currents of data.

Image from Wikipedia

Well, unless you’re willing to live off the grid — or get almost obsessively serious about using encryption tools such as PGP  — you’ll just have to dream your grand dreams of obscurity. Even if we somehow rein in the U.S. government, businesses will be doing their own “surveilling” for the foreseeable future.

But look on the bright side. From one perspective, there’s been progress. You’re not just a number these days, you’re a whole vector, or maybe even a matrix — with possible aspirations of becoming a data frame.

No, this isn’t an allusion to the disease vectors that have become such a hot topic during the pandemic. The statheads among you may recognize those classifications as belonging to the statistical programming language R, which vies with Python for the best data science language.

In R’s parlance, a vector is “a single entity consisting of a collection of things.” I love the sheer all-encompassing vagueness of that definition. After all, it could apply to me or you, our dogs or cats, or even our smartphones.

But, in R, a vector tends to be a grouping of numbers or other characters that can, if needed, be acted on en masse by the program. It’s a mighty handy tool. With just a couple of keystrokes, you can take one enormous string of numbers and work on them all simultaneously (for example, by multiplying them all by another string of numbers,  plugging them all into the same formula or turning them into a table). It’s just easier to breath life into the data this way. It’s what Mickey Mouse would have brandished if he were a statistician’s rather than a sorcerers’s apprentice in Fantasia.

Now imagine yourself as a vector or, at least, as being represented by a vector. Your age, height, weight, cholesterol numbers and recent blood work all become a vector, one your doctor can peruse and analyze with interest. Meanwhile, your purchasing habits, credit rating, income estimates, level of education and other factors are another vector that retail and financial organizations want to tap into. To those vectors could be added many more until they become one super-sized vector with your name on it.

Now, glom your vectors together with millions of other peoples’ vectors, and you’ve got one  huge, honking, semi-cohesive collection of potentially valuable information. With it, you and others can, like Pinky and the Brain, take over the world! Or at least sell a lot more toothpaste and trucks.

The bottom line is that we have three basic choices in this emerging Age of Vectors:

Ignore It: Most folks will opt for this one, being too busy or bored for the whole “big data” hoopla. Yes, they know folk are collecting tons of data about them, but who cares? As long as it doesn’t mess up their lives in some way (as in identity theft), then this is just a trend they can dismiss, worrying about it on a case-by-case basis when it directly affects their lives.

Fight the Power: If you don’t want to be vectorized —  or if you at least want to limit the degree to which you are — you can try every trick in the book to keep yourself off the radar of the many would-be private and public data-hunters who want to dig through your data-spoor in their quest to track your habits (either as an individual or as part of a larger herd).

Use the Vector, Luke: Some will gladly try to harness the power of the vector, both professionally and personally.  They’ll try to squeeze every ounce of utility out of recommendation engines, work assiduously to enhance their social media rankings,  try to leverage every data collection/presentation service out there to boost their credit ratings, get offered better jobs, or win hearts (or other stuff) on dating sites. They will certainly wield vectors at work for the purpose of prediction analytics. They may even turn the vector scalpel inward with the goal of “hacking themselves” into better people, like the Quantified Selfers who want to gain “self knowledge through numbers.”

That’s not to say that we can’t pick and choose some aspects of each of these three basic strategies. For instance, I’m just not cut out for the quantified-self game, being just too data-apathetic (let’s s a 7 on a scale of 10) to quantify my life. But, when it comes to analyzing other stuff, from labor data to survey findings to insects in my backyard, I’m all in, willing and ready to use the Force of the Vector. Now, I just have to figure out where I misplaced my statistical light saber…

Featured image from IkamusumeFan - Plot SVG using text editor.

The Extended Human

A nest or hive can best be considered a body built rather than grown. A shelter is animal technology, the animal extended. The extended human is the technium.

Kevin Kelly

I like the phrase “extended human” because these days so much of our lives is spent doing just that: extending. We extend toward one another via our increasingly pervasive networking technologies, of course, but also via our words, our art, our organizations and our sometimes frighteningly fervent tribes of like-minded people.

Without these extensions, there can be no reticula – or, at least, none that includes humanity. It’s as if we are all connected neurons, the tentacled creatures of our own dreams and nightmares.

Kevin Kelly, the author of What Technology Wants, uses the phrase extended human to mean the same thing as the technium, which he defines as the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” But I see the extended human as beginning not with our technologies but with the reticula within: our woven, language-loving, community-seeking minds. A human who is armed only with ideas and imagination still has an amazing ability to extend herself into the universe.

Connection Matrix of the Human Brain

Technological Kudzu

Still, it’s true that the technium vastly enhances our natural tendency toward extension. In fact, as Kelly points out (and all anthropologists know), our inclination toward tool usage predates our emergence as a species. Our evolutionary predecessors such as Homo erectus were tool users, suggesting this propensity is somehow encoded or, at least made more likely, by our DNA.

These days, our extensions are growing like so much technological kudzu. Think about the growth of Zoom and other video conferencing applications. These technologies have become among of the latest technological imperatives, along with basics such as electricity, plumbing and phones/cell phones.

But there’s something missing in all this. Extensions are powerful alright, but what, exactly, are we extending? That is, what is at the core of the extended human? It isn’t a technological issue but, rather, a philosophical, psychological, existential or even spiritual one.

How Far Is Too Far?

This is where things not only get tricky but downright divisive.  The Buddhist may argue that “nothing” is at the core, that most of what we want to extend is sheer ego and delusion. The Christian may argue that immortal souls are at the human core, souls which have the propensity for good or evil in the eyes of God. The Transhumanist may argue that the human body and brain are the core, both of which can be enhanced and extended in potentially unlimited ways.

Few would argue against the idea that humans should be an extended species. Even the lowest-tech Luddites rely on tools and technologies. What we will spend the next several decades arguing about are two related issues:

1) What is at the core of humanity? What should we value and preserve? What can we afford to leave behind in the name of progress and freedom?

2) How far should we extend ourselves? Should we set collective limits for fear that we’ll lose our essential humanity or cause our own extinction? If so, how can we reasonably set limits without magnifying the risks of tyranny or stagnation?

All sorts of other subjects will be incorporated into these two basic issues. For example, collective limits on technological advances become more likely if associated dangers – higher rates of unemployment, increased risks of terrorism, environmental crises, etc. –  loom larger over time. Although we will frame these issues in various ways, they will increasingly be at the center of our collective anxiety for years to come. It’s the price of being the most extended species in the reticulum.

Featured image by Sheila1988; Agricultural tools at show

Do You Treat Employees Like Fixed-Program Computers?

Computers didn’t always work they do today. The first ones were what we now called “fixed-program computers,” which means that, without some serious  and complex adjustments, they could do only one type of computation.

Sometimes that type of computer was superbly useful, such as when breaking Nazi codes during World War II (see the bombe below). Still, they weren’t much more programmable than a calculator, which is a kind of modern-day fixed program computer.

The brilliant mathematician John von Neumann and colleagues had a different vision of what a computer should be. To be specific, they had Alan Turing’s vision of a “universal computing machine,” a theoretical machine that the genius Turing dreamt up in 1936. Without going into specifics, let’s just say that the von Neumann model used an architecture has been very influential up the present day.

One of the biggest advantages associated with Turing/von Neumann computers is that multiple programs can be stored in them, allowing them to do many different things depending on which  programs are running.

Von Neumann architecture: Wikimedia

Today’s employers clearly see the advantage of stored-program computers. Yet I’d argue that many treat their employees and applicants more like the fixed-program computers of yesteryear.  That is, firms make a lot of hiring decisions based more on what people know when they walk in the door than based on their ability to acquire new learning.  These days, experts are well paid largely because of the “fixed” knowledge and capabilities they have. Most bright people just out of college, however, don’t have the same fixed knowledge and so are viewed as less valuable assets.

Employers aren’t entirely in the wrong here. It’s a lot easier to load a new software package into a modern computer than it is to train an employee who lacks proper skill sets.  It takes money and time for workers to develop expertise, resources that employers don’t want to “waste” in training.

But there’s also an irony here: human beings are the fastest learning animals (or machines, for that matter) in the history of, well, the universe, as far as we know. People are born to learn (we aren’t designated as sapiens sapiens for nothing), and we tend to pick things up quickly.

What’s more, there’s a half-life to existing knowledge and techniques in most professions. An experienced doctor may misdiagnose a patient simply because his or her knowledge about certain symptoms or treatments are out-of date. The same concept applies to all kinds of employees but especially to professionals such as engineers, scientists, lawyers, and doctors. In other words, it applies to a lot of the people who earn the largest salaries in the corporate world.

Samuel Arbesman, author of The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, stated in a TEDx video, “Overall, we know how knowledge grows, and just as we know how knowledge grows, so too do we know how knowledge becomes overturned. ” Yet, in our recruitment and training policies, firms often act as if we don’t know this.

The only antidote to the shortening half-life of skills is more learning, whether it’s formal, informal or (preferably) both. And the only antidote to a lack of experience is giving people experience, or at least a good facsimile of experience, as in simulation-based learning.

The problem of treating people like fixed-program computers is part of a larger skills-shortage mythology. In his book  Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs , Prof. Peter Cappelli pointed to three driving factors behind the skills myth. A Washington Post article sums up:

Cappelli points to many’s unwillingness to pay market wages, their dependence on tightly calibrated software programs that screen out qualified candidates, and their ignorance about the lost opportunities when jobs remain unfilled…”Organizations typically have very good data on the costs of their operations—they can tell you to the penny how much each employee costs them,” Cappelli writes, “but most have little if any idea of the [economic or financial] value each employee contributes to the organization.” If more employers could see the opportunity cost of not having, say, a qualified engineer in place on an oil rig, or a mobile-device programmer ready to implement a new business idea, they’d be more likely to fill that open job with a less-than-perfect candidate and offer them on-the-job training.

The fixed-program mentality should increasingly become a relic of the past. Today, we know more than ever about how to provide good training to people, and we have a growing range of new technologies and paradigms, such as game-based learning, extended enterprise elearning systems, mobile learning and “massively open online courses” (aka, MOOCs).

A squad of soldiers learn communication and decision-making skills during virtual missions: Wikimedia

With such technologies, it’s become possible for employers to train future applicants even before they apply for a position. For example, a company that needs more employees trained in a specific set of programming languages could work with a provider to build online courses that teach those languages. Or they could potentially provide such training themselves via extended enterprise learning management systems.

The point is that there are more learning options today ever before. We live in a new age during which smart corporations will able to adopt a learning paradigm that is closer to that of stored-program computers, one that they’ve trusted their technologies to for over half a century.

Featured image: A rebuild of a British Bombe located at Bletchley Park museum. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Maksim. Wikimedia Commons.

Sitting on Your Set Point

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

This will be my last post on obesity and weight loss for a while. I have plenty more entries in my food journal to draw from, but I feel the need to move onto other less self-focused topics.

I’m writing this last post of the series in case anyone is struggling with weight loss but suffering from disappointments. I know that feeling so well.

Dealing with Disappointment

 Let’s say you’re doing everything right in your eyes. Yesterday, you went to the gym, where you lifted some weights and did half an hour of aerobic activity. 

Then you came home and went to work. You ate a sensible breakfast (oatmeal), lunch (Minestrone soup) and dinner (chicken and salad), and avoided eating after dinner after an apple for dessert.

In other words, you did everything right.

You’re kind of eager to weigh yourself, wanting to find out how much you’ve lost. After all, if it’s as much as a pound, you can redo the calculations in your head to assure yourself you’ll be svelte by Christmas or whenever.

But how does the universe respond to your good deeds?

Well, it turns out you’ve actually gained a couple of pounds since yesterday!

“I don’t deserve this,” you think to yourself. This reminds you of the movie Unforgiven, the scene in which Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman) tells William Munny (Clint Eastwood), “I don’t deserve to die like this.” Munny, who is about to blow his head off with a shotgun, says, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” 

Okay, comparing your slight weight gain to getting executed on a barroom floor is a tad dramatic, but you get the idea.

Then you talk yourself down with a hundred truths, tropes and tiny deceptions. 

It’s just a bathroom scale and isn’t all that accurate. Besides, you’re going to naturally swing a bit day to day. Besides, your body strives to maintain equilibrium. Besides that, muscle weighs more than fat. You just have to have patience. No one said it was going to be easy. You’ll get there. You just need to double down on your efforts. You can do it!

A lot of that’s true. Still, there’s that inner child within saying “It’s not fair!” The child that wants to take his ball and go home. The child that thinks they might as well have some ice cream because it just doesn’t matter one way or the other. 

The child isn’t the Dogman, but the child may aid and abet the Dogman. Maybe not intentionally. “Don’t you let that dog out the door?” you yell, a parent from a bedroom, your voice already scolding but muffled. But, the Dogman, sensing an opportunity, muscles its way past the kid when the door is open just a crack, and out he suddenly flies, free to chase squirrels, crap in the neighbor’s yard, bark at strangers, or even knock over a trashcan and scour it for anything resembling food.  

Does the kid care? Maybe a part of them does, but the other part says, “Life’s not fair. Let the dog go have some fun. Somebody ought to, and it’s definitely not me these days.”

Patience on the Set Point

One of the reasons it’s so easy to suffer a series of what can feel like “crushing defeats” is because your body seems to have what’s sometimes called a “set point.” This is the weight around which your body wants to hover. It’s not so hard to lose weight if you’re five pounds above that set point, but trying to lose it once you’ve hit the set point can be brutal if you come at it with the wrong attitude

My set point as I’m writing this is in the range of 224 to 229, by the bathroom scale (higher if you use the mechanical column scales found in doctor offices and gyms). If I’m at 233 or higher, it’s not so hard getting back to that set point. But getting below it can be pretty rough.

This proclivity of your body to “want” to maintain a set point makes a lot of sense for two-legged nomadic hunters and gatherers who went through periods of feast and famine. After all, you might get pretty hungry while you’re waiting for the fruit on certain trees to ripen or while tracking down that wily wooly mammoth you’ve been pursuing.

As you’re waiting, your body tries to conserve energy and fat as best it can. It’s a survival mechanism. Without it, we probably wouldn’t be here to begin with.

But in an age when there’s plenty of food around, that set point mechanism can be a bummer.

My advice is to be patient. Keep your meal servings sane. Keep getting the right amount of exercise. Remember that eating in a healthy way is its own reward. Weight loss is often just a bonus.

On the Margins and in Good Time

In my experience, weight loss happens around the margins. You won’t gain weight if you have one sausage for dinner, for example, but having two of them? You won’t gain weight if have a handful of nuts, but having two or three handfuls? 

This is the hardest thing for me. I mean, I’m not “pigging out.” I just want two burgers rather than one. How much worse can that be? “It’s just protein,” I tell myself. “After all, a lot of diet books out there are recommending staying away from carbs and eating meat.”

But it doesn’t work that way. Not in my experience, anyway. Having that extra burger or sausage repeated over days and weeks messes me up.

For lots of people, avoiding that extra burger doesn’t sound hard. But for me it’s been brutal in the past, especially if my other primary meals are a bowl of oatmeal with fruit and a nutritious salad for lunch. Don’t I deserve a couple of helping of real meat?

No, not necessarily. It depends on a lot of other factors. You need to be listening to your own body. “Deserves’s got nothing to do with it,” my inner Clint tells me.

So, I need to be better around the margins. Maybe just one helping, not two. Not three. How about a chicken strip? Okay, two helpings, but not three. Or four. The gains or, I should say, the losses are made around the margins and they take a long time to happen.

Again, be patient. Learn as you go. Eat and live well. Eventually you’ll probably get by your current set point. (Though keep in mind there may well be other set points in your future.) Don’t get distressed by not being able to hit some ideal goal. Don’t let some socially constructed ideal of a “right weight” define you or make you unhappy.

So what if you’re a work in progress?

I’ve got news. We all are.

Featured image by Diane Krauss (DianeAnna); Diane Krauss put it under GFDL and CC-BY-SA-2.5. The German tennis player Tommy Haas at the public training for the World Team Cup in Düsseldorf, Germany, 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

Weighting for Godot

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

Wait a little longer, you’ll never regret it.

–Samuel Beckett

The good thing about eating healthier is that there’s no end to it. It’s not like a diet that you do for six weeks or whatever. It’s not a matter of waiting to hit some goal; it’s a lifestyle choice.

These days, I weigh around 226, which means I’ve gained some weight back since I was at 217 or so. I’m still technically overweight according to the BMI scale. But that’s okay. This is a process. As long as I’m not binge eating, I’m pretty happy with the ways things are going. I continue to maintain the habits I outlined before.

Do I need to tweak some things? For sure. In fact, I’m trying some different lunch and snack alternatives these days. But I feel no need to go on a diet or starve myself in order to hit some numerical objective.

My main goal these days to get in better aerobic shape. I ran a 5K recently and am trying to balance running against keeping the Achilles tendonitis in my right heel tamped down.

I still plan to get to 195 lbs or so but, even if I achieve it, there will be no moment of triumph when I can suddenly go back to eating  Barbecue Lays Potato chips on the sofa while watching a string of Sunday football games or a long chain of Marvel movies. I’m hoping those days are permanently behind me. I certainly don’t miss them.

But I know that nothing is certain in this game and that maintaining a healthy approach to food requires constant upkeep and vigilance. My ultimate goal is to continue eat in a healthy and happy way until the day I die, or at least until Godot finally makes that long-awaited appearance.

Featured image from Waiting_for_Godot_in_Doon_School, by Merlaysamuel

Walking Through the Pandemic

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#WEIGHT 217 lbs on November 16, 2020

After changing my eating life in September 2019, I’d lost around 30 pounds by November of the following year. There were ups and downs during that time, and there continue to be today, but I was feeling better about my eating habits.

By November of 2020, of course, we were well into the Covid-19 pandemic and I couldn’t go the gym any longer. So, I took up walking in a major way. Here’s what I wrote in my journal at the time:

A few weeks ago I downloaded a few of the many pedometer apps off Google Play. They all seem to do about the same thing: track how far you walk or run in a given length of time, but I did find out the hard way that some are more accurate than others.

Anyway, my process is to download a number of my favorite podcasts onto my phone, turn on the pedometer app, and walk around the neighborhood for a few miles. It’s usually not less than two and often more like three or four.

I live in Florida, so I’m definitely not getting much (or, by the standards of most hikers, any) altitude on my walks. But there are a lot of lakes (some more like retention ponds) in my neighborhood, so I’ve developed a series of walks that take me past several different bodies of water on any given day or night.

One of the virtues of an app is that it tracks my progress for me, digitally celebrating as I rack up the miles and even allows me to share my progress with friends if I want (which I don’t). In short, there is a minor positive feedback loop via the app and a more significant positive loop via the well-being of body and mind. For example, I tend to sleep much better when I go on leisurely, long walks in the evening (though, oddly, the opposite tends to be true if I go jogging or power walking, the stuff that really amps the body up).

It’s not that I was in terrible shape before, but getting exercise, especially of the aerobic type, was not something I especially looked forward to. I’ve found the walks, however, tend to be fun in a low-key way.

As I’ve taken up walking, I’ve been listening to podcasts about the 2020 election and the subsequent political and cultural fallout. The walking, I found, seems to balance out all the disturbing news, allowing me to take that news in without freaking out as much as I otherwise would. 

When the political podcasts shake my once-deep faith in U.S. democracy and the wisdom of our US population, I listen to something else. Sometimes it’s silly stuff such as Fake Doctors, Real Friends, a rewatch show for the old television series Scrubs. Sometimes it’s more highbrow entertainment, such as The New Yorker Fiction podcast. Other times I’m looking for middle-brow stories, for which I turn to science-fiction story podcasts (e.g., Lightspeed and Clarkeworld) or one called Myths and Legends, which includes humorous retellings stories from folklore and mythology.

Sometimes I don’t listen to anything, just take in the world or try to solve some writing or work-related problem. Sometimes I walk to prepare for some speaker event (I do a lot of webcasts these days). 

The trick, if it’s a trick at at all, is to just enjoy myself. It’s much easier to exercise if I derive some actual enjoyment out of it, just like it’s a lot easier to stick to a food plan that includes foods I love, as opposed to foods that trigger me to want to eat more. 

So much of trying to get lose weight comes down to enjoying the process, even if I’m not able to eat a pint (or a quart) of ice cream in a single sitting. 

They say “virtue is its own reward.” Well, it can be, as long as you enjoy those virtues at some level. Taking a self-punishing approach doesn’t work, at least not for me. The point is to train myself, and the Dogman lurking within, with positive reinforcement.

Featured image: Walking man in Munich-Schwabing, by Jonathan Borofsky. Photo by  Berreu 

In the Habit of Eating

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

In my last post, I discussed my change in food habits, especially my new abstentions. Here I just want to elaborate a bit.

Warning: I’m not saying any of this will help others facing similar challenges. Everybody’s different. But I’ve gained knowledge and inspiration from the stories of others, and so I’m sharing my own here.

Breaking the Chains of Habit

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

Samuel Johnson
  1. Let’s start with my abstention from processed sugar. This keeps me away from a lot of the things that trigger bad eating behaviors, especially foods that combine sugars and fats, including ice cream, baked desserts, milkshakes, etc.
  2. I now eat more salad and vegetables in general. By eating more salads (with lots of good stuff on them in terms of avocados, olives, regular dressing, etc.), I get better nutrition in addition to more fiber and roughage, which reduces feelings of hunger. 
  3. I don’t eat anything after 8 pm. This used to be hard for me. Now I’ve internalized that I won’t starve between 8 at night and the morning. (Sometime I vocalize this to myself, saying something, “You are not gonna starve between now and breakfast, so just chill out and work your plan.” When I first started down this road, I allowed myself a piece of raw fruit after 8 if I was truly hungry. The idea was that if I’m not hungry enough to eat a piece of fruit, then I know it’s my compulsion talking; that is, I’m not actually hungry, only craving food to fill some psychological need. Nowadays, I simply don’t eat after 8.
  4. I strive to eat three square meals a day with only a piece of fruit between meals and after dinner. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule yet. Sometimes I’ve been known to eat other things between meals, such as seeds or even cold cuts. But experience has shown me that if I can follow this simple plan, I’m more likely to lose weight or maintain my current weight.
  5. In the morning, I’ve tended to consume rice-based carbs (usually Rice Chex) and fruit. For some reason, rice carbs don’t make me crave other foods as much as other carbs do. There’s some science to this but I pretty much go with what works. In recent months, however, I’ve been able to eat shredded wheat without developing any other cravings.
  6. No eating in front the TV or other media playing device. This is a major one for me. I can’t break the chains of overeating without breaking the bonds between eating and television.

For a while, I kept a spreadsheet with checkboxes that I used to track my meals, daily exercise, abstinence from TV, etc.. It was kind of satisfying to check the boxes after I’d done something (or not done something). That helped me get through the first couple of months of more sensible eating but I stopped using it after that as the habits became more engrained.

Some Resources That Helped

Nearly every moment of every day, we have the opportunity to give something to someone else – our time, our love, our resources.

S. Truett Cathy

One thing that helped a lot when I first starting go down this road was listening to Overeaters Anonymous (OA) speakers because they share a lot of stories in which they tell of their own challenges and lessons learned. One app I found especially helpful was OA Speakers Free, which I downloaded from Google Play Store. I listened to these speakers quite often for a period of several months. There are a lot of interesting speakers (at least for me), many who have some version of the same problems I’ve suffered.

I also listened to the audio version of Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book”, which is like the Bible for AA members. No, I’m not an alcoholic, but part of the thinking behind OA is that some of the same principles that apply to alcoholics can apply to people who are overeaters. This book was written in another era from ours, but it’s a seminal work and I’m glad I listened to it.

So far, I’ve never been a physical OA meeting, partly because the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020. But I know how to locate local meetings and other resources, and I joined the Overeaters Support group on Facebook. That said, I’m not a traditional 12-stepper (so far), though I see no problem with that approach if it work for folks.

The Whole “Higher Power” Thing

There are some things you have to give up to the higher power.

Jimmy Smits

One of the tenets of OA is that you turn to a “higher power” to help support you in sticking to your abstinences and better eating habits. This originally stems from the religious component of AA. The idea is to pray to God (or some other “higher power” for the more secular-minded) to help alcoholics refrain from drinking. One of the tenets here is that a person’s unaided willpower is not enough to keep them abstinent.

So, how does an agnostic or atheist deal with this part of the tradition? There are various alternatives. One is to just ignore it, though this means not truly following one of the mainstays of the philosophy. Another is to visualize something aside from the traditional idea of God or gods as your higher power (that is, a power “greater than ourselves”). This could be nearly anything. The universe, the Earth, the network of humanity, love, etc.

Personally, I’ve found the higher power tenet to be useful. There’s something about taking the emphasis off ego-driven willpower that makes the transition to healthier eating more achievable. Is this just a bit of psychological judo? I’m not qualified to say. I only know that it’s helped me.

Food Journal

Statistics show that of those who contract the habit of eating, very few survive.

George Bernard Shaw

Part of my approach is to write a food journal, though I don’t typically track food in it. Rather, I use it to write about my personal “food journey,” which is a fancy way of saying I write about how I approach food today and in the past. To put this journey into a larger context, I also research and write about obesity-related topics.

The journal helps me understand my own relationship to food and how my issues and habits reflect those of the larger culture. It turns out to be a surprisingly deep topic that goes well beyond the topics covered in a conventional diet book. I don’t really believe diets work. I believe healthy eating does.

In the end, no one gets out of life alive, no matter how healthy their diet. So, healthy eating is, above all, enjoying the life you have while you have it. If better eating happens to extend that life a little, that’s just a bonus.

Featured image by Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party; Français : Le déjeuner des canotiers

No More Sugar for You!

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight 246 lbs or so September 2019

Bad Name, and That’s the Point

Overeaters Anonymous (OA) had been on my radar for a few years. I can’t remember exactly how it got there, though I think it just occurred to me one day that, since I had a kind of addiction to food, maybe someone had started applying the lessons of Alcoholics Anonymous to foodaholics. 

I do remember thinking, when I first uncovered the name and existence of OA, “Really? That’s the name? Whomever came up with that awful name was definitely no marketing genius.” Organizations such as Weight Watchers and, more recently, Noom, definitely have less insulting brands. In fact, I used to be a Weight Watchers member some years ago.

“I’m not an ‘overeater,'” I thought, “just someone who has a bit of a problem stopping eating sometimes.” So, what’s the difference? Well, really, in my case, there is none. I was, in fact, a person who ate too much, who binged at times, who, once I got on a real roll (i.e., a binge) had a hard time stopping. 

But as I learned more about OA, I realized that the terrible name is, in ways, part of the point. If you can get past the name, then maybe you’re actually ready to get serious about your condition. You eat compulsively, and therefore you overeat.
Now, there are other types of related eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, and OA helps with those conditions as well. But, in my own case, I exactly fit the bill of the organization: a guy who at times just plain ate too much.

Tell like it is.

The Virtual Member

I’ve never officially joined OA and, as of this writing, haven’t attended an actual OA meeting, either real or virtual. Yet, if not for the resources created by OA, I doubt I would have lost any real weight. 

Okay, so what were my steps as a kind of stealth OA member? Well, I started by going to the OA website, figuring out when and where the local meeting would take place, and put some of those meeting on my calendar. Did I go? No. I had every intention of going…someday. But I was always too busy, or too tired, too reticent, etc.

Things went on this way for a quite a while. I added the “Find a Meeting” page on the OA website (oa.org) to the home screen on my smartphone. Even then, though, I didn’t go.

What I did do, eventually, however, was look for OA-related phone apps. The first one I found was “OA Speaker Tapes & Workshops.” It’s one of those freemium apps that have some free stuff and then, if you want to get the premium stuff, you buy a subscription.

This was the app that taught me the basics of the OA philosophy and methodology. How? Mostly via the recordings of multiple OA speakers, all suffering from the same kind of “insanity” (their word) as I have had during periods in my life. Their stories are often darker and more dramatic than my own story, but I recognized them as fundamentally the same.

And it gave me my first experience with the common threads and concepts that run through OA talks: 

  • the idea that we collectively suffer from a kind of compulsion that makes us do things (such as binge eat) that are consciously and explicitly bad for us
  • the controversial (to me) notion that there is a “higher power” that can help us accomplish things that we couldn’t accomplish on our own, a concept inherited from Alcoholic Anonymous
  • the (to me) fantastically useful idea that there are certain foods from which we must entirely abstain because, otherwise, they send us into spates of binge eating in the same way a first drink can cause a true alcoholic to lose control of their sobriety.

Eventually I found another app called “OA Speakers Free” which contains scores of speakers telling the stories of how they began eating compulsively, how they eventually sought help at OA, and their ongoing journeys toward recovery. Like the members of AA, the members of OA seldom claim to be “cured” of their disease/compulsion/anxiety or whatever you want to call it. They know they’re only one good binge from going back to compulsive eating.

Don’t Pull that Trigger

For me, I think the single most useful insight I gleaned from listening to all these speakers is the concept of abstinence from “trigger foods.” What’s difficult to understand, at first, is that everyone has their own trigger foods that, once you consume, lead you down the road of eating ugly quantities of other foods. For me, ice cream is definitely a trigger food in that, once I start, I have a hard time stopping.

It isn’t just that I have a hard time stopping from eating ice cream itself. It’s that consuming ice cream makes me hungry for everything else in the fridge and cupboards.

Why ice cream? I think it’s the combination of fat and sugar. Either very fatty food or very sugary foods are profoundly tempting to me. Put them together in the form of ice cream, cake, pie or lots of other baked goods, and I’m lost. So, I decided to abstain completely from those kinds of foods.

I eventually went further, abstaining from processed sugar generally. That includes, of course, any type of candy. I also try to avoid foods with high fat content. For example, I don’t eat buttered popcorn because I know that’ll set me off (and I don’t eat unbuttered popcorn because, well, what’s the point without the butter?) Same goes for junk foods of all kinds. That combination of salt, fat and carbs (perfected in the form of a potato chip) is my road to ruin.

And Lose the Boob Tube

My other trigger is not a food at all. It’s the activity that, from a young age, I’ve associated with food: television. TV is, as I’ve already made clear elsewhere, a psychological trigger for me. Abstaining helps me read more and do other stuff worth doing. When I do watch TV, I won’t allow myself to eat in front of it. Not ever. I know where that road leads.

My one exception is when my wife wants to eat dinner in front of the TV, which seldom occurs. This is dangerous for me and there may come a time when I find I can’t even do this, but so far I’ve walked that fine line.

That’s Madness!

Now, you may be thinking, “Why that’s madness! Gain some self-control, man!” But that’s exactly my point. My self control is in NOT eating things that make me lose control. For other people, if they have a eating disorder at all, it may have nothing to do with TV or ice cream or sugars. Instead, they may have other triggers such as bread or rice or butter or potatoes. But I think every compulsive eater has a trigger.

I’ve had people make fun of these abstentions, which have been my rule for the last two and a half years. I just smile and roll with the ribbing. Heck, it sounds a little silly to me sometimes. I think about Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi and think about myself as the Sugar Nazi: “No more sugar for you!”

Still, I know I just need to live a different way from most other people. The good part is that it has made my “food life” so much better that it can be hard to describe. In essence, I’ve largely been set free from the Dogman, and I’m willing to give up any dessert on the planet for that freedom.

Of course, it’s not really that simple. I developed more of a plan than that, which I’ll get into in the next post.

Featured image: V.O. Hammond Pub. Co., Chicago - Postcard scan. Children in Chicago surround an ice cream vendor in 1909.

Do I Look Fat?

In August of 2019, I had some work-related headshots taken by a professional photographer friend of mine. The photos were fine but it was clear, just from the headshot, I was fat. Fat in the face. Not abysmally fat, mind you. But when just a headshot indicates reveals you’re overweight, then there’s no denying it.

The Unlikely Virtue of Ego

Ego. I’m not usually a fan. Ego has caused me to make all kinds of mistakes in life. Anger, depression, anxiety, social blindness: they’re all tied to ego. There’s a reason that Buddhism teaches one to abandon one’s ego. It comes with way too much baggage.

But this time, for one brief shining moment, my ego served me well.

Mind you, I’d been writing in a food journal for well over half a year but had made precious little headway in the weight loss department. I guess maybe I’d lost 5 to 7 pounds from the time I started.

On the other hand, I’d been giving a lot of thought to my family history, personal attitudes and behaviors related to food, and the modern epidemic of obesity in the US and elsewhere. I guess you could say I’d be doing the groundwork for a while.

But there was something in those damned photos that make me think, “That’s it, dude, time to get serious.”

Not Stupid Serious, Mind You

I’ve attempted weight loss enough times to know I wanted to get serious but not what I call “stupid serious.” When it comes to weight loss, stupid serious comes in many forms. Fasting is one I’ve used before. Any fool can fast for a few days and lose weight. But that weight will come back with a vengeance once the fool starts eating normally again.

Blame it on the wisdom of the body, which automatically tries to conserve your fat reserves when it believes you’re going through a starvation period. Your mind says, “Get off me, fat!” but the body says, “Dude, my job is to keep you alive in the lean times. I need to slow down your metabolism so you don’t burn through your fat reserves too quickly. I’m trying to keep your dumb ass alive!”

So, fasting doesn’t work in the long run. Not for me, anyways. Maybe not for anyone.

The Dangers of Eating Disorders

In fact, if taken too far, fasting can lead to anorexia nervosa, the condition in which people avoid food, severely restrict it, or eat tiny small quantities of only certain foods. Sometimes people suffering from this condition binge and purge, which means consuming a lot of food quickly and then purging it through vomiting or laxatives.

Anorexia nervosa can be deadly serious. People can develop  medical complications associated with starvation, and this too often kills people. Moreover, the NIH reports that “suicide is the second leading cause of death for people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.”

There are other deadly eating disorders as well, including:

  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge-eating disorder
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder

I’m no doctor and won’t pretend any expertise in these areas, but I do have enough experience to know I want no part of them. The goal–or at least my goal–is to get healthier, not wind up in the hospital.

Move Past the Ego and Study Up

For me, getting serious meant studying the attitudes and practices of people who have had success in losing weight over the long term while staying mentally and physically healthy. I wanted to be shed not only of the extra pounds but the cravings and self-loathing of the Dogman.

I knew that this jolt to the ego wouldn’t be sufficient. Not by a long shot. In fact, it could lead all kinds of bad eating decisions. My ego may have been tweaked, but I knew by then that the only way to really make progress was to deal with my big, fat-loving brain. I needed a better plan, and I thought I knew where to look. That’ll be the story of my next post.

Featured image by Orazio Gentileschi, Two Women with a Mirror (1620)