Tagged: WNYC

Barbara Ehrenreich on Our Obsession with Aging

Earlier this week on WNYC’s newish program, Midday on WNYC, Barbara Ehrenreich spoke with guest host Kai Wright about her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. (Buy through this link and I’ll get a commission, or get it from her website.)

There were a lot of great insights into this interview, especially her critiques of medical testing, wellness, fitness, and mindfulness that mirrored a lot of Michel Foucault’s work, particularly that which deals with surveillance, discipline and what he calls “discourse,” knowledge that is produced by a power structure. Here are a few takeaways from the interview:

  • Ehrenreich characterizes the escalation of medical testing to surveillance over the body, bringing to mind Foucault’s critical history of the panopticon as a technology of surveillance.
  • Ehrenreich describes the dedication to fitness as a kind of control one exercises (ha!) over the body. In an age when people feel powerless over various social and economic conditions, exercise acts as a mechanism to maintain a sense of power.
  • Ehrenreich argues that the contemporary obsession with wellness can function in two ways, largely dependent on economic class.
    1. For the working class, it acts as a form of Taylorist surveillance for the employer to manage the employee’s health. This is done in the name of reducing health insurance payouts but in effect trains the employee to shape his or her behavior.
    2. For the upper class, wellness is a form of conspicuous consumption, where rich people can show off their commitment to fitness through expensive workout regiments and pricey foods and nutritional practices. While Ehrenreich illustrates this trend with a wellness coach who advocates eating pearls to combat aging. I immediately thought of the boutique gyms that pepper affluent cities and communities that were the subject of a recent Washington Post article. The article describes a diversity problem—a disproportionate number of young, rich, and white people in an otherwise demographically diverse cities—at expensive, boutique gyms. However, I think that the diversity problem is largely due to the uneven distribution of wealth, especially among younger people who have ascended economically since the Great Recession of the last decade. Hence, these gyms function as a token of affluence and commitment to health.
  • Ehrenreich also critiques the recent surge of mindfulness as Silicon Valley’s solution to the problem they created with digital devices and their distracting platforms. What began as a spiritual ritual practiced by Buddhists has been emptied of any religious properties and reduced to an app on a smartphone or Apple Watch.

I do quibble with one of her suggestions: to Google your health questions and add a few keywords such as “controversy” or “evidence based.” I think one of the reasons that so many people have become followers and practitioners of junk science is because of this very practice. On the Internet, good information and quack-pot theories are almost indistinguishable, especially to many who lack the training or experience in doing research.

Overall, however, I do appreciate her larger message that I would paraphrase as this: life is too short to worry about death.

I Quant Do This Anymore

WNYC’s Note to Self recently asked its listeners to share stories about using mobile apps and fitness trackers to quantify their daily progress—with dieting, sleeping, fitness—for the episode, Your Quantified Body, Your Quantified Self.

I’ve maintained a pretty ambivalent attitude towards the new wave of trackers that have emerged over the last decade with the advent of the smartphone and the proliferation of wearables. In the mid-2000s, I used to employ a heart rate monitor to do interval training for bicycle rides. I have since soured on the practice. After sinking hundred of dollars on a couple of Polar devices, I learned that the best way to train is to simply put in the miles and find a few hills along the way. Of course, others swear by it so your “mileage” may vary.

However, I have unwittingly resumed tracking my activity after getting an Apple Watch. The stock Activity app not only counts my steps, but it awards me circles for meeting daily goals. If I keep active for thirty minutes throughout the day, I get a green circle. If I avert sitting for a full hour, twelve hours throughout the day, I get a blue circle. And if I burn 870 calories, I get a red circle. I regularly meet these goals, but unless I bike more than fifteen miles or take a very long walk, it’s easy to miss meeting the calorie-burned goal. Thus, no red circle for me.

In the episode, we hear about people becoming anxious in meeting their goals, including walking laps around their kitchen before bedtime in order to walk the requisite number of steps. This resonated with me because, once, I was twenty calories short of my daily goal. My solution? I walked to the corner pizza shop to burn those twenty-plus calories and to get that elusive red circle. But I also bought 300-calorie slice of pepperoni.

Obviously, it would have been better not meeting my calorie-burned goal. The Apple Watch and its activity tracking couldn’t save me from my own poor eating choices, and because it does not record my eating, it was none the wiser.

We also hear that for many who obsessively tracked their fitness, dieting, or sleep, they almost invariably were overcome with anxiety, fearing they would not meet their goals. Ultimately, this anxiety leads to their abandoning the trackers. One participant noted that instead of using the notifications to make exercising a regular habit, she noted that dismissing and ignoring the reminders became the habit. Overall, the participants all soured on the experience, much like I did with heart-rate monitoring a decade ago and with journaling and habit-tracking in recent years.

I should note that I have found this podcast series and New Tech City—its predecessor as a segment on WNYC radio—to be bothersome. The host is too technoutopian for my taste and seems very cozy with the technocratic entrepreneurs that she profiles. In this episode, instead of conceding that trackers offer only temporary benefits for most, she imagined possibilities for “what will they think of next?”

You might take a personality test before you choose a tracker, one that understands that you are a social butterfly, and you need social support. You need that competitive edge with your friends… Or you would respond better to a fitness tracker that lights up in soothing colors, indicating it’s lovely outside, the sun is about to set, and right now would be the perfect time to take a twenty-minute walk.

Did you get that? It’s not that constantly tracking our eating, sleeping, and exercise are unnatural processes that as humans we will invariably abandon. It’s that the tracking devices and apps simply don’t have enough data. Yet.

And Now I Feel Old

All this month, Soundcheck, the daily music show on our local NPR cash-cow WNYC, is airing a series on the music of the summer of 1994 because that was twenty years ago and, looking back, that was a pretty nifty year for music. That was also the summer after I graduated high school and eagerly anticipated my move to college.

Man, that was a long time ago.

To give you an idea of how long ago that was, most of my music listening happened in my car1, and my way of listening in a car seems downright antiquated. The centerpiece of my in-car music system was a $300 Sony Discman CD player that came with a three-second memory buffer. That memory prevented the CD from skipping anytime I hit a pothole.

The Sony CD Walkman (Discman) D-235 from the 1990s

I could power this device with batteries, but it would barely last an hour, especially if the buffer was being used, not nearly enough for a drive from my parent’s home in the Antelope Valley to my school in Santa Barbara. To keep the tunes going, I used a DC adapter. I know many people still use these to charge a phone or, if you’re a cab driver, a standalone GPS unit. The charging port in cars from those days was designed as a cigarette lighter because in those days, there were more people who smoked than people who used a handheld computer. Getting that outlet to power an electronic device was, I think, one of the most clever hacks ever devised.

Listening to the CD player through the car’s audio system required another hack using a car audio cassette adapter that connected to the line-out jack from my Discman. I would insert the other end, shaped like a cassette tape, into the tape deck. Also, with that adapter I was guaranteed backward compatibility: I could listen to cassettes and CDs, and I wasn’t forced to upgrade until I was tired of exhausting my tape deck’s cutting-edge features, such as auto-reverse and song seek.

With all this great hardware, of course, I had great software. In 1994, and years before the iPod, carrying my entire music library was virtually impossible. I needed to bring a small batch of CDs with me. In 1994, I probably owned about 200 CD but didn’t travel with more than twelve discs at a time.2 Every car trip required careful curation and anticipation about what my friends and I might want to hear many hours in the future. This might seem inconvenient today, but I really got to know my music back then, especially how good a particular band was beyond their hits.

After college, I found myself listening to music in my car less frequently. Santa Barbara and UCSB were particularly friendly to walking and cycling, and long drives with my friends became a rare thing. That combined with a move to New York City made riding in a car a less common occurrence for me that riding in an airplane. Whenever I get into a car today, I just turn the radio to the local NPR station.

As much as Soundcheck’s bidecennial retrospective on 1994 makes me feel like an old man, it at least confirms that my music is objectively better than anything these kids listen to these days.

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  1. Yes, this is the same guy who drives about 200 miles per year but pedals about 20x that. 
  2. I never got the 100-disc binders that held a chunk of every single CD I ever owned. That was a good thing, in retrospect, because at least two of my friends had their big binders stolen from their cars. Those were, without exaggeration, devastating losses. 

The World’s Most-Used Musical Sequence

The long-running radio program, Spinning on Air, did a show on the world’s most-used musical sequence: the Andalusian Cadence.

Also known as the Diatonic Phrygian Tetrachord—sometimes written as i-bVII-bVI-V (or, in the key of A, the descending sequence A, G, F, E)—this sequence of four notes, this musical pattern, chord progression, or bass line shows up throughout the ages in all styles and genres, underlying music that ranges from sad to joyful, delicate to badass.

The sequence is usually “hidden” in the accompaniment of the song, underlying the melody. As I listened to the program last night, I got my iPad and tried to recreate the notes with the keyboard in GarageBand. Listen to the result.

You can hear it in songs that date from 500 years ago and some very familiar pop hits. The program’s host, David Garland, compiled about fifty examples, and the commenters added a bunch more to the list.

Listen to the whole program and enjoy uncovering the most-used sequence of musical notes.

At Last… It’s Coffee Season


Each Friday, local NPR powerhouse WNYC runs a segment about seasonal food, cleverly titled “Last Chance Foods.” Today, they covered coffee, its preparation, its storage, and its seasonality.

They covered many of the basics that I have for many years observed in my daily quest for a great cup.

  1. the specific brewing method matters very little other than yielding one’s personal preference
  2. storing coffee in the refrigerator or freezer is not a good idea
  3. you can only achieve properly ground coffee using a burr grinder
  4. your water must be at the right temperature, around 195-205°

However the new tidbit for me was that coffee has seasons, albeit very long ones. That makes a lot of sense since a coffee bean is like a cherry, which we all know have very distinct growing season.

I hope that seasonality will be something that consumers will consider when drinking their next cup. I think it’ll be a boon for smaller coffee shops around here since we’ve seen that Big Food retailers struggle with seasonality and this marks a good opportunity for the more artisanal coffee purveyors in this city.

And if you’re wondering if your coffee is in season, rest assured “there will never be a month when in-season coffee is not available though.”