Age of Affluence, Part I

As bad as things are—and that’s pretty bad, for sure—we still live an amazing age of affluence.

I mention this, specifically, in the context of diet and exercise. In 2010, when I was working away from home, I put on some weight. A lot of weight. Thirty or forty pounds. I have a reasonably large frame so I can put on some weight without it being too noticeable, but not that much. I was also far away from my treadmill desk.

My dad was deteriorating severely over this year, ultimately leading to a severe drop in my BTA (bullshit tolerance ability) and a permanent departure from this remote work location, but his impending demise dramatically underscored the options available to me: continue to take a lackadaisical (or no) approach to my physical fitness and be victim to an irreversible deterioration exacerbated by advancing age—or don’t. That is, do. Something. About it.

Not to say my dad was ever fat. He got a little paunch from time-to-time, but in his last ten years he grew increasingly skinny. He was stubbornly sedentary, a fact that distressed my mom no end while they were together. He would walk, that was about it. And unfortunately, his physical state would’ve required considerable effort to sustain, and (even knowing that) he chose to do nothing.

So, there’s a stark choice for you.

I decided to exploit my absence by bringing all my own food and counting calories. This was pretty easy with Trader Joe’s prepared salads and snacks. Without putting any kind of hard limit, I ate about 1,200-1,400 calories a day, Monday through Thursday. I brought the Wii and did a little bit of exercise with that every day.

By the time I left 4-5 months later, I had lost about 25 pounds. The bulk of what I’d put on.

‘course, I also no longer had the same kind of strict calorie control, and back at the old job, I ended up putting them right back on the first three months I was back. I stumbled across a recommendation for a book by Rob Faigin called Natural Hormonal Enhancement in some dark corner of the Internet and decided it sounded interesting.

NHE is a very wonky book. It’s barely padded at all with the sort of philosophical advice that dominates most diet books. Basically, it’s a series of recommendations, succinctly stated, and footnoted out the wazoo with the studies that are being used to come to those recommendations. (I think the book has a serious cult following, since it’s out of print and costs at least $40-$50 on Amazon.com. You can get it for $30 from the author’s website, extique.com.)

Anyway, I knew my friend, Darcy was distressed that she had put on a few pounds when she was suffering back problems, so I talked over Faigin’s recommendations with her. Nothing tests your understanding of a subject like trying to explain it to someone else, and Darcy had a lot of good questions. (Not that I could find always find the answers, but the book does a very good job of prioritizing what you need to do.)

We both lost quite a bit of weight quickly, too, which was cool. I got down below my pre-2010 weight. Ultimately we modified our diets to fit our lifestyles, and Darcy has done amazingly well in losing the weight. (I plateaued in terms of numbers on the scale, but my body fat has gone down, meaning the extra weight is muscle. But more on that in Part II.)

But I can’t help but marvel at the situation: One of the biggest (heh) problems we have in the developed world today is too much food. Now, it’s true that it’s really the kind of food we have been told we should eat that causes the problem, but it’s still an astounding luxury.

We can pick over our food in ways that would make kings of yore blush with its profligacy. Low carb? No problem. Low fat? No problem. Lacto-ovo vegetarian? OK. Vegan? Fine. Gluten-free? Can do! Allergic to shellfish? Peanuts? Soy? It’s there on the label! Lactose intolerant? Anti-dairy? Done and done!

Of course, a segment of society hates on the fast food industry, but I note that when low-fat was big, they offered low-fat food. When they were accused of not offering healthy alternatives, they put salads, baked potatoes, fruit on the menu. These days you can get low-carb and gluten-free stuff from Wendy’s for cryin’ out loud.

All they wanna do is sell us a dazzling variety of foods we like and get it into our faces in less time than it takes for our credit cards to process, while being in constant price wars with each other.

That’s pretty amazing, I’d say.

Nobody’s Innocent

Have you ever heard that phrase, like from a super-villain in a movie, “Nobody’s innocent”? It’s usually the sort of thing that the villain says right before doing something really horrible to a lot of people, and the distressed protagonist points out that he’ll be harming a lot of people who have never done anything to him.

“Nobody’s innocent.”

As a digression, it’s interesting to note that Christians believe, on a theological level, anyway, that that statement is true: Nobody is innocent. Man is born in sin. This is widely not seen as an excuse to treat people badly, of course.

There’s another phrase, however, that’s actually worse, and I’ve heard it expressed, not in so many words but veiled in angry tirades and teary pseudo-confessions and even coldly logical-sounding (but always wildly illogical) lectures:

“Nobody’s innocent except me.”

This is an inversion of, I think, an ordinary person. Most people are very harsh on themselves. They wouldn’t stand for people talking about their friends the way they think about themselves. Sure, they sin, and in sinning, look for ways to justify it, but that itself only feeds into their own debased notions of themselves.

But the person who walks around thinking “Nobody’s innocent except me” is a horror to be around. Literally without compunction, the only restraint on their actions are physical limitations, law enforcement and fear.

My sister is like this. I actually have a six-page (both sides) closely handwritten letter from her that contains the phrase, “I don’t blame you for being born but…”. It then goes on to detail how I am responsible for all the terrible things in her life.

My mother and father are also both 100% responsible for all the terrible things in her life, too. That’s 300% responsibility altogether, that I know of, and none of it belonging to her.

Fortunately for me, she’s very bad at this; It’s so over-the-top, it’s absurd. Generally, people who operate on this principle are much subtler. Confusion, provocation, repeated until someone strikes back usually mildly, and then it’s “How could you!” My sister’s version of this was—I’m not making this up—to provoke people into physically hitting her.

It’s a weird dynamic.

You can spot it by the person who (almost happily) recounts all the sins committed against him while having a complete ignorance of having done any wrong doing. And much like our “virtual traitors” the dead giveaway is a complete inability to receive communication.

I’ve caught my sister in numerous fabrications, where I can demonstrate factually that what she says could not possibly be true. She “concedes” (because she’s not quite insane) but it never sticks or deters her from fabricating future truths.

I’ve been able to find other people out the same way. It’s not that they disagree. It’s not that they’re not listening, it’s that they can’t.

Virtual Treason

Almost every online community I’ve ever been a part of, or even examined in retrospect for historical purposes, has ultimately dissolved. Of those that are still around, most are spiraling the drain. As someone who’s been online now for over 20 years(!), it’s kind of interesting to me to examine why, and also why there are a few that persist.

The simplest answer to why could probably be reduced to: It’s just too big a pain in the ass to maintain. There’s not a lot of money in it most of the time. Most of the time, there’s no money at all. But I’ve seen this happen on CompuServe in the pre-web days, too, where genuine income streams were given up rather than put up with the hassle.

But hassles—serious ones, anyway—don’t just arise. They’re created.

And it always unfolds the same way. There is always (at least) one person who is at cross-purposes with the community. You could call them “trolls” but that’s not really comprehensive enough a word. “Traitor” would be a good word, even though they often wouldn’t see themselves that way, like Benedict Arnold, or someone who’s trying to save the community from itself.

I was in one community where a person like that came in with about five others and systematically and cruelly mocked the regulars. The owner decided “free speech” and those people managed to drive off almost everyone who had made that place their home for years. Most of the locusts, as I envisioned them, left pretty soon after that, including the main troll who managed to offend the owner. trounce the rules, etc., enough to be ejected.

That was a particularly dramatic example. Usually, the treasonous ones are subtler, because in most cases the person who owns the community will defend overt attacks, and people will naturally bind together and fight off interlopers. So, they’re covert.

The most insidious ones can foment trouble without ever being fingered. Or even better, for a community’s destruction, they can become a bone of contention around which people side. Best of all is if they can fracture a community along principled lines. “Free speech” is a popular one. “I don’t want to hang out in a place where we aren’t free to post pictures of dismembered babies!”

The people who are like this can be hard to spot, especially if you’re guileless. They present a picture of trammeled innocence. They were just minding their own business when baseless attacks were suddenly leveled.

It’s never a regular dispute, where people blow up, and then they either get over it (or they leave): A slight is never forgotten, and is always repaid, and repaid, and repaid. Slowly but surely the troll drains the fun out of the community while increasing the burden on the community owner. It’s not a wonder that online communities eventually dissolve, but they stay together for any length of time.

Probably the key characteristic of community traitor is a complete inability to communicate. Nothing ever, ever gets in. And they’re good at faking it—pretending to respond, like a super-advanced Eliza program—but there’s never any real indication that anything ever permeates to their being. (The essence of receiving communication is to be changed by it, after all.)

This isn’t true just for online communities of course.

Which brings me to the ones that I’ve seen thrive: They’re all united around a real world purpose. Technical matters, religion, a genuine craft, something that both requires an effort to be a part of and has a put-up-or-shut-up aspect.

In the purely virtual, we hang to imagined threads. No exactly imagined, but really co-created. The community exists because we say it does. We have shared values in some fashion. But our understanding of those values is imperfect, and all it takes to shred a virtual community is someone to come in and push the boundaries of that understanding, to point out the weaknesses, and to drive people to those corners.

It’s a shame but I’ve seen it happen so many times over the years I’m practically inured to it. I think if I were going to start an online community now, I’d do it around an activity. Like, I don’t know, bowling.