Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir's Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

In Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explore the implications of scarcity, a condition that occurs when you have less than you feel you need. Scarcity comes in all shapes and sizes—we see it in money, sleep, work, packing, time with our kids, addictions to email and social media—no matter what the item, people are constantly battling between conditions of abundance and scarcity. Doctors overbook operating rooms and are forced to postpone surgeries, work into the night, and increase cost. College students are assigned a term paper a month before it is due, but few rush out and get to work, thus at the last minute they become frantic and paper obsessed. Gone forever are the wasted moments brought on by procrastination, in is the condition of tunneling where every second counts, where the worker suddenly appears dissatisfied, where there cognitive ability (bandwidth) is taxed either for the benefit of the paper and the detriment of all else or perhaps for collective detriment in general.

While the text has a slightly academic tilt at first, as it progresses Mullainathan and Shafir take a Freakoncomics twist and creatively explore the world of scarcity. Whether it is the effects of being paid once a year has on sugar cane farmers or the consequences of checking your email prior to starting on an unrelated project, the authors explore the unexpected consequences of scarcity. In terms of the former, an annual payment requires the farmer to budget an entire year from harvest point on, something that becomes increasingly taxing as their funds become scarce, suddenly they cannot buy fertilizer or weed their crops, tradeoffs that reduce yield and tax future finances. And what is the harm of checking that email before your child’s bath or personal writing time? Such actions prevent one from tunneling in and focusing in on the task at hand, thus it deteriorates said quality time for even if you don’t respond, your mind becomes taxed by the bandwidth required to ignore the email.

In each instance, Mullainathan and Shafir explore situations in a way that moves beyond common sense and in an effort to find novel solutions to eliminate scarcity traps in favor of creating a productive, driven situation. The explore the rise and fall of cognitive ability, executive management skills, and even happiness all in relation to scarcity. Further, they dive into why, when given the opportunity to create a buffer from said scarcity, people often find themselves in the very same traps as before. If you enjoy studies in human behavior from an economic standpoint, read this text. If you simply want to understand why you act the way you do when sleep is lost or money is tight, then Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much is for you.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: Chuck Palahniuk’s Beautiful You

Chuck Palahniuk’s Beautiful You follows the life of Penny Harrigan from her humble beginnings in Omaha, Nebraska into a worldwide tabloid sensation as she dates the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Maxwell who stands as a model of perfection, scoops Penny up from her failing, unsubstantial life of multiple failed bar exams and dates her for exactly 136 days.  This affair, for it is really more of a constant tryst in a Paris hotel room, results in an exploration of sensual pleasure at the hands of Maxwell. Maxwell has created a line of toys for women, toys that turn society on end and render women nearly comatose as they devote themselves to self-satisfaction. Imagine a society without women and full of angry, lonely men. Palahniuk does just a thing. When she is set free from her quasi-lover, Penny is left with a $50 million dollar trust fund and a vow of secrecy.

While a few other complexities enter the fray, on the whole, Palahniuk offers relatively few twists and turns this time around, especially for the avid reader. The plot unfolds with relative predictability, something it pains me to say at times. Maxwell’s past lovers are connected, his creations hold a secret, and a grand quest at world domination is exposed. These items are interesting but lack the flavor of some of his other creations.

This is not say that the read was not pleasurable, but that the read was not monumental. Basically, Palahniuk attempts to write another in his series of novels that pushes the limits of society by pointing out the flaws of western culture. While I have been a fan of his writing in the past, having read Rant and Fight Club multiple times, typically he writes in a punchy style, one that pokes fun at the nooks and crannies of life and our existence on a whole. While Beautiful You has an analysis of sex and females in general, it lacks the lines and gusto that have made Palahniuk successful in the past, the lines I have marked and pulled. In fact, the book is clean, devoid of annotation and line marking.

For a fan of the author, give the text a shot, but if  you are new to his work, consider some of his more acclaimed titles, the ones that made way for a work that came in more average than anything else.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why You Complete Recovery Runs

As a coach of runners both young and old, online and in person, one of the biggest challenges I tend to encounter are the varying points of view regarding recovery runs. First off a recovery run (which I define as either an easy pace run where you run comfortably but with your foot on still on the gas pedal a bit or regen runs, runs which are purposefully slowed down by 30-60 seconds from a runners normal easy pace to respond to expected subjective feedback on exhaustion), is performed within twenty-four hours of a major effort. If you run a race, you run a recovery run the next day (and a cool down post-race); if you run mile repeats, you do the same thing.

The thing is, a lot of runners hate them—they would rather cross train, begging to get into the pool or on the bike or just take a day off. Some chalk them up as unnecessary volume, and just want to take a day off. They say their legs are tired and rightly so, 12x400 meters will sap the legs a bit. This exhaustion often leads to a decline in motivation, and thus complaints set in. There are coaches out there who focus purely on a long run, a decent paced volume day, and two hard efforts (key workouts) per week, skipping recovery in favor of rest. While that approach might be perfect for an injury prone runner, most research and coaching mantra points to the fact that increased volume leads to increased fitness which subsequently leads to increased results. The proper mix of speed and volume results in the best results, thus one needs to focus on how to get there.

That said, a recovery run is placed on the off days of the four efforts mentioned above. The day after mile repeats or a four mile threshold run, your legs should be fatigued (note I did not say sore). The runs come in a state of fatigue, you are not fresh, your legs are heavy as they have not had enough time to repair the damage caused by a key workout. Further, depending on your recovery routines, there is a good chance that your body might be glycogen depleted and that some byproducts of cellular respiration still linger in your muscles. Your system is not perfectly balanced and you would not want to race in such a state. But you need to teach your body to persevere. Running when conditions are not physiological optimal will help come race day or when it is pouring outside, snowing, or ungodly hot.

Physiologically speaking you will train your body to deal with pain. You will recruit extra muscle fibers, fibers that seek to compensate for the battered and sore portions from your previous day’s efforts. Down the road, these fibers come in handy, for anyone who has ever run a marathon can tell you, late in the race it becomes difficult to hold your stride. Such alterations are based on the fact the primary muscles involved in the stride are taxed and the brain is searching for solutions to maintain some semblance of balance. Enter these recovery fibers, the muscles you have built slogging through 6 slow miles the day after running ten hard with a tempo mixed in. These fibers might be the key to your goal as your body searches for ways to maintain homeostasis. Finally, the runs get the rust out. They shake things up, clearing up any lingering toxicity in your muscles, and thus the bridge into the next key workout, the day that genuinely matters.

How do you make the most of these days?

  • Pay attention to your body and work into the runs. You might start at 9:00 pace, but as you loosen up and get moving, you might close at 7:30 pace. If your body is still asking you to hold off, maybe you run steady 9:00's. The point is, pay attention and work to understand the signals and how your body tells you and how it guides you.
  • Use grass or trails (click here for more on varied training surfaces). They already work on proprioception, thus the recruitment of muscle fibers is being enhanced as your body copes with altered footing and trail debris. Yet the legs get a day off from the impact of the road or track.