Thursday, November 17, 2011

Technological Devices and Focal Practices

LLD is happy to present a guest post from friend Zach VanderVeen, author of The Garden of Forking Paths blog on database design and philosophy. Zach has written a couple of posts before. Hope you enjoy!

The unity of achievement and enjoyment, of competence and consummation, is just one aspect of a central wholeness to which running restores us. Good running engages mind and body. Here the mind is more than an intelligence that happens to be housed in a body. Rather the mind is the sensitivity and the endurance of the body.
--Albert Borgmann
I recently wrote a post, in which I suggested that the problem with technology is that it can drown out important kinds of reflection. We often focus on how to get things done faster and more efficiently, not why we should do so. We separate the journey from the destination, or the means from the ends. But it's easy to complain about technology without showing how we can free ourselves from the tyranny of efficiency. Even if we were all able to retire to mountain cabins and live off the sweat of our own brow, it's probably not desirable for the majority of us. So how can we develop the right kind of relationship with technology? Borgmann suggests that running can show us the way.

Borgmann's main idea is captured by the distinction he makes between technological devices and what he calls 'focal practices.' Think about the difference between a cast iron stove in 1850's Montana and your modern ceramic induction range. The stove of yore touched upon almost every aspect of life and formed the focal point of a house. It had to be stoked early in the morning and gathered people together as its warmth slowly radiated throughout the house. It required splitting logs and maintaining tinder, and it made the smells of wood and food suffuse the air. It divided work amongst men, women, and children and oriented their daily activities from dawn to dusk.



Compare this with the stove of today, which, if used at all, hardly orients much of our daily lives--at least not for more than an hour or so. It turns on and off with the flick of a switch and is fed by gas or electricity piped in from who knows where. Its temperature is consistent, and any excess heat is whisked away by fans. It bakes cookies that burst from a tube and quickly boils water to reconstitute dehydrated meals.

These two stoves show that there are things that imbue our lives with meaning, because they provide focal points that direct what we do and how we do it. The cast iron stove structures both time and space. Technological devices like the induction range, on the other hand, have the tendency to remove these focal points and, consequently, the meaning that accompanies them. The mark of a good device, like the car or the telephone, is that you can forget about it to worry about more important matters. This isn't always a bad thing, as newer technologies freed people--especially women--from the drudgery of repetitive and time-consuming tasks. But now we have freed up so much time that we have trouble filling it in a meaningful way.

I think this is the reason a lot of people turn to running. Running is a focal practice. It unites sun and rain, spring and fall, the trail and the pavement, health and excess, pleasure and pain, competition and leisure, gadgets and nature, teamwork and isolation, mind and body, reflection and zen-like thoughtlessness. Borgmann says, "Running is simply to move through time and space, step-by-step. But there is splendor in that simplicity." Experiencing your neighborhood at 6 miles an hour is completely different from driving through it at 35. And running doesn't just structure time and space while you're running. Running orients my days and nights, my weeks and weekends, my diet, and my understanding of how places are connected.





Furthermore, focal practices like running help us figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. They provide a baseline by which we can judge what we really need and what we don't, and they show us how to use devices in the right way. iPods in themselves provide our lives with little meaning. It's the runs, the meals, the parties, the drives, and the work that provide an orientation for their use. You need a good place to run, friends to eat with, events to celebrate, destinations to drive to, and meaningful work in order for the iPod to do its work. Don't let the iPod replace those reasons to run.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Runner's Take on Occupy Wall Street

"Let us then place belief midway between certitude and nihilism. Let us see it characterized by trust, by affection, by a sense of novelty and by hope. Those traditions, especially religious, which have told us through the centuries that we know, for sure, the objects of our belief, have violated not only the character of genuine belief but also the mysterious openness of genuine religious experience. It is a deep tragedy that so much of our energy is expended in explicating and defending caricatures of our once viable traditions. ... [S]elf righteous interpretations of what is fundamentally inexplicable have divided us one from the other and cut us off from the human quest. In sociological terms, belief must cease its relationship to finality; it must turn to the future instead of the past." --John McDermott, The Community of Experience
John McDermott

I do not often write directly about politics on this blog, primarily because philosophy and running are escapes for me from an overwrought and underthought political scene. The connections between these three things--running, politics, and philosophy--are not obvious. They must be actively made, as the subtitle of the blog indicates. Something that is made can be unmade, and can be made poorly or well. Then, even if it is made well, it might be useful for some purposes and not others. At any rate, before beginning a political post, I just thought a sort of disclaimer might be in order--neither running nor philosophy necessarily lead in any logical way to certain political positions. The logical connections are always held and made through our thoughts, actions, temperaments, circumstances, efforts, and reflection. This is the "logic" of politics--the logic of ordinary life.

The above quote by John McDermott holds that belief is a midway sort of state. Running provides excellent examples of this. When we step to the starting line of a race, we have to believe in ourselves, believe that we are capable of running a certain time. This belief is something like a frame of mind that takes effort to hold and construct, and it guides our actions, gives us comfort, provides us hope, and--sometimes--allows us to achieve our goals. McDermott reminds us in this passage that we know beliefs by their function in experience. Their meaning and truth is found in how we hold them, and what they do for us. When we believe that we can run a certain time, we do not know it with certainty. Instead, we hold it with an attitude of trust and faith in our abilities to achieve. The race experience reminds us that the crucial quality of belief is not its having been determined to be true in the past, but the determination it gives us to fight for a possible future.

The beliefs that we hold at the starting lines of races are forged out of experience and effort. They are not arbitrary, and they are more likely to be realistic and serve their purpose of calling forth new capacities if they have been carefully and attentively made. The undertrained marathoner holds his belief in his ability to run a certain time in a very different way than the marathoner who has been through the trials of miles, and rightfully so. While the undertrained marathoner may be more certain of his ability to achieve his goal (depending on his ambitions), the well-trained runner has more faith in his belief--it means more to him; he holds his belief with affection and may call on this affect in times of distress.

As citizens of a democracy, we are asked to carry with us certain beliefs as well. These beliefs are well-known to all of us. We believe in equality, justice, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. We are asked to hold these political beliefs together as a community, with affection. None of these ideals are certain; when we believe in these things, we are asked to do so in order that we bring them into being and hold them in place with our effort.

It is cheesy to suggest it, but the ideals of democracy are similar in form to race goals. They are not certainties that we accept because they have already been achieved. They are, instead, dreams that we will have to work towards with much effort.The important point, here, is that beliefs are not possessed; they possess us and move us. The marathoner proves his belief in his goal by being affected by it in the last miles of the race, by drawing on it to give him strength to continue to fight. So, too, do we prove our belief in democracy.

This is where McDermott's take on religion is helpful as well. We can practice politics as "explicating and defending caricatures of our once viable traditions," and we can give "self-righteous interpretations" of the meaning of democracy, intended to divide us. Or, we can abandon our relationship with finality in politics and offer ourselves up to democratic experience, which like religious experience is vague, indeterminate, and fundamentally open. McDermott's point is that we live into and with our beliefs; they are not made through argument. We can talk politics all we like, but in the end we have to run the race; we have to live together.

The analogy to running is limited, however, because a race is an individual endeavor in an artificial context while democracy is a community endeavor in a real and messy world. One of these things is much harder than the other. When we believe in democracy, we have to form common beliefs. We have to share experience. To create a deeply rooted faith in democratic life, we have to pass through experiences together, and we cannot control these experiences with a watch or break them into intervals. Often times these experiences break us down instead of making us stronger.

However, we can practice democracy. I believe this is the challenge that the Occupy Wall Street protests puts to us. It asks us how well we have been occupying our democratic ideals. As Matt Taibbi puts it in his excellent Rolling Stone article:

That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don't know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.

There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.
The idea of occupying our democracy resonates with old American ideas. It reminds us that our beliefs are not precious gems to be fondled and protected or weapons with which we destroy our ideological opponents. Our beliefs are our deliberate ways of living; they are ways of occupying the world. When Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods to live deliberately, he was, in a sense, trying to occupy his life. This is what it means to be a free individual, to occupy your life, to occupy a place, to occupy a community, and to occupy your beliefs. The Wall Street protesters have chosen a different sort of wilderness to test their capacity for deliberation. They are not looking to take control of a single life, but simply asking whether it is possible to live together without fear in very heart of the democratic experiment.


Running provides me a space apart from the chatter and difficulty of contemporary life. It helps me carve out time away from screens and chairs, walls and air-conditioned spaces. It reminds me of my capacity for pleasure and pain. For these reasons, I choose to believe that it is a practice of hope and self-development. But it can be equally argued that running is also a naive escape, a waste of energy, an self-satisfied act of leisure. I could see it this way, and if I did for long, I would stop believing in its transformative potential.

Like running and everything else in life, Occupy Wall Street is not perfect. It is both a challenge to genuine politics and an escape from it. Like running, it can be construed positively or negatively, and that choice will have consequences for its continuation. I make the choice deliberately to believe in it, to advocate and articulate its metaphors and vision, and to see it as a challenge to my own practice of democracy and the choices I make in living it out.

The challenge that Occupy Wall Street poses to us is both simple and extraordinarily difficult. It asks us this question: Can we form a society in which we are able to live together in a dignified, joyful, and deliberate manner?

I don't know the answer to these question with any degree of certainty, but as a runner and a human being I am well practiced in the living form of belief that works outside of the range of the certain.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Richland Creek Loop

Bridge across Richland Creek
I run the same five miles pretty much every morning.

The beginning of the loop takes me through my neighborhood in West Nashville. Our part of town is half-industrial, half residential. Colonial-style houses from the 1920s mix with warehouses and rebuilt ranches from the late 70s. I start south on the road just west of the busiest street, 52nd Ave. It is straight, and though there are a few stop signs the traffic is light enough for me to keep my rhythm through the intersections.

A half mile ahead, 52nd Ave is cross cut somewhat violently by the mad and throbbing whirl of concrete overpasses that is I-40. I duck left one block, then head under a pigeon shit encrusted overpass. Usually I can cross the next couple of streets without breaking stride, and a quarter mile later I am at the intersection with Charlotte Ave. Here, I stop and wait for the cross lights. By this point the creakiness of early morning has worn off, and I've adjusted to the early morning chill.

When the light changes, I dart across the road, past the Catholic Church on the right, down a slight incline and up a short steep hill. Another 3 or 4 minutes down the road, just past the mile mark, I make a quick right turn onto the bike path that winds around the edge of the public golf course. The first part of this path dives down steeply into a pocket of night air that settles coldly in the small valley carved out by Richland Creek.

It's somewhere in here, maybe 10 minutes into the run, when all of the movements settle into their rhythms and consciousness changes. Running thoughts are somewhat like dreams. They drift in and out of the mind without leaving a deep trace, perhaps something like the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. They are not the sorts of thoughts we argue about on the internet or in the classroom. They don't compose a narrative or story or argument. They certainly do not aspire to the category of truth. Rather, they are on the order of appearance. One feels the mind without using it, like a Gary Snider poem or one of those rambling Dylan songs. Appearance, but not mere appearance.

I cross the creek over a bridge and take care to look at its levels. Lately we haven't had much rain, so the creek is calm, more interested in reflecting fall leaves than moving water. There is a hill after the creek which wakes me back up to the effort of my legs, reminds me to control the pace. Once crested, we wind back down through the woods to cross the creek again on a wooden bridge, my legs, the path, and I.

The second half of the loop takes me up a grade along the train tracks, then up again, and around the front side of the golf course. I nod to the early morning golfers and consider their arcing swings. There are maple trees scattered through the small parking lot, and on fall mornings like this one their leaves burn red and orange. Once past them, I am suddenly into the last two miles of the run. There is a long and gentle section of path that weaves downwards. If I am feeling good, I often remember past races or imagine future ones, and the pace approaches six minutes a mile. Like a horse, I smell the barn.

At four miles, I complete the lollipop section of the loop and cross a section of grass back onto the road. From here, it is a straight shot back to the house, with Charlotte Ave marking a sort of halfway point. It is a net downhill, and on crisp mornings I hope to hit a green light so that I can keep the rhythm going. Usually it doesn't work out, and so I stand at the corner, watching the morning commuters in their steel and plastic, shaking out the electricity in my legs until whatever mechanical timer runs its course and releases me across the street. I dart back under the hum of I-40, make a quick left, and a quick right back onto 52nd Ave.

The last section is literally a home stretch. Home is half a mile straight ahead. The street rolls ever so gently. I play with effort on the uphills and relaxation on the downhills, enjoying these last few moments. When I reach the corner across from my house, I stop. In a few seconds, my breath falls away and my heart returns to its quiet and quotidian rhythm.

This is how my days begin. The same run, every morning.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Art, Intelligence, and Training

John Dewey, American philosopher
"In art as experience, actuality and possibility or ideality, the new and the old, objective material and personal response, the individual and the universal, surface and depth, sense and meaning, are integrated in an experience in which they are all transfigured from the significance that belongs to them when isolated in reflection. 'Nature,' said Goethe, 'has neither kernel nor shell.' Only in esthetic experience is it also true that nature has neither subjective nor objective being; is neither individual nor universal, sensuous nor rational. The significance of art as experience is, therefore, incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought."
 --John Dewey, Art as Experience


For Dewey and the pragmatists, analytic reflection, however necessary, is insufficient for intelligence because analytic reflection is always dissociative. Analysis always selects from experience, cutting it open by attending to this and not that. It makes progress by fixing certain variables with the attention and ignoring others. This way of slicing the universe up is absolutely essential to growth and progress, but if we confuse the distinctions that analysis makes for the nature of reality itself, then analytic reflection can stifle philosophical thought--the intelligent pursuit of wisdom.

Perhaps this is less of a problem for non-philosophers than it is for philosophers, who because of their commitment to the value of intelligence are uniquely prone to intellectual fallacies. The classic problems in philosophy, Dewey thought, committed a similar intellectual fallacy in the attempt to reduce all of experience to one analytic concept. So, for example, "objectivists" believe that the real world exists completely independent of any mind that would attempt to know it, while "subjectivists" argue that each of us can make our own reality simply by thinking it. The truth, as common sense tells us, is that neither position adequately grasps the relationship between reality and the mind. The history of philosophy has been a long wrangle between varieties of these sorts of reductive claims, neither side ever winning because both of them were essentially committing the same intellectualist error. They attempted to reduce all of experience to a single and one-sided idea that is perfectly useful for analysis, but wrongheaded when it comes to metaphysical speculation.

This is why Dewey wrote that "the significance of art as experience was incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought." While analysis breaks the world apart, the experience of art is integrative. Art, both as product and as process of production, brings a divided world together. It is the sort of doing and experiencing that attempts to bring us into a more intimate and full relationship with reality. It takes a world that has been parceled out by our reflective capacities into various entities -- corporations, classes, races, nationalities, religions, political persuasions, friends, families, and enemies -- and attempts to bring these things into relation with each other. Art as an experience reminds us that the most essential task in living is not to divide our lives into parts through the understanding, but to learn how to balance in action its separate tasks in harmonious relation.

Here, as always, training provides a useful example. In order to be intelligent in training, we have to learn how to divide it up into its components. General concepts like variety, consistency, volume, periodization, recovery, frequency help us focus on various aspects of the training process. Physiological concepts like aerobic, anaerobic, lactic threshold, heart rate, perceived effort, cadence, etc. also allow us to break the effects of training on the body apart and look at its development from various angles. All of these concepts can help us to understand training.

However, understanding how training works from a variety of angles is very different from having a training philosophy. Producing a philosophy requires not only analytic intelligence, but also creative and synthetic intelligence. After the act of running has been broken apart into its various components, the runner must put the pieces back together in a particular way and create something like a philosophy--or at the very minimum, a plan.

I prefer the term "philosophy" to plan because as every runner knows plans have to be modified according to circumstances. Much more essential to proper training is having a way of approaching your running life that is balanced, flexible, and responsive--in short, living. This is the only form in which intelligence comes, as the only meaning of intelligence is nothing more or less than a way of living life that is in balance and growing and adapting to its environment.

Constructing such a philosophy is not something that happens overnight, but I suppose what Dewey would tell us is that when we are considering how to train well, we ought to extend our research beyond training manuals and old training logs. We also ought to also read novels, listen to music, and watch artists of other endeavors for signs of how to construct our own vision.


There is one trait that all of my best coaches had in common. They were all characters. They were quirky, bright, and different from the rest of the people that I met, each in their own way. I think this is because they realized that the secret to showing people the path to success was much less about understanding and more about deliberate and conscious attention to the unities that experience offers. They practiced coaching as an art.

Perhaps if you pay close attention to experience, you are bound turn out a little strange. That strangeness is a reflection of a simple fact: that one has learned how to extract from the world a secret or two that no one else has learned to see. These coaches were characters because there was something in them that tended to unity. You saw that they had fashioned for themselves a whole person, and even though that wholeness was quirky and couldn't really be understood, it was there, constructed out of a lifetime of attention and art.

This quirky integrity made you do a simple thing: pay attention. Which turned out to be the difference.

Bonus clip, from the Flying Monkey Marathon:


'Think Monkey' from Funky Umbrella on Vimeo.
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