Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Exercise Equivalent of a Cheeseburger?

"Sure, you're happy now, but soon you'll be dead!"
On Friday, a rather interesting article appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Here is the key bit:
Over the last few months, during the endurance-athletics off-season, something extraordinary happened: The line began to blur between the health effects of running marathons and eating cheeseburgers.

"I'm not worried," says veteran running coach Mark Sullivan, who has run more than 150 marathons, joking that "there are guys who live to be 100 smoking cigarettes and eating cheeseburgers."

Endurance athletes have long enjoyed a made-of-iron image. But amid mounting evidence that extraordinary doses of exercise may diminish the benefits of modest amounts, that image is being smudged. That extra six years of longevity running has been shown to confer? That benefit may disappear beyond 30 miles of running a week, suggest recent research.

The improved blood pressure, cholesterol levels and robust cardiac health that exercise has been proven to bestow? Among extreme exercisers, those blessings may be offset partially by an increased vulnerability to atrial fibrillation and coronary-artery plaque, suggest other recent studies.
Now, we here at Sons of Cincinnatus don't just do politics. In fact, both of us have an avid interest in running. Unfortunately, the Elder Son's knees ceased to tolerate their tortures a few years ago, but the younger son (that is, me) continues to run (see picture above). Furthermore, at least 120 of my friends on Facebook list "running" as an activity they like, and dozens of my friends, on and off Facebook, run regularly, both as amateurs and as collegiate athletes. Thus, we found this study to be rather disconcerting, for many reasons. But the equivalence made between the health effects of running and consuming one of modern gastronomy's unhealthiest conveniences affronted most of all. So we decided to take a closer look at the article.

The Elder Son in his running prime, breaking a race ribbon.
First, some preliminary remarks about the author's lead. Let us note that no such thing as an "endurance-athletics off-season" actually exists. We take time off, to be sure, and rest our bodies with easier workouts, but one of the whole points of endurance athletics is to train year-round for, you know, endurance. Furthermore, observe how the author begins with a specialist who accepts his premise rather than rejecting it. Finally, although the "30 miles of running a week" figure may mean little to non-distance runners, it does not really indicate the mileage of more skilled distance runners, such as collegiate athletes and marathoners, who run 2-3 times that amount (or more) regularly.

So far, so bad. But let's look at the construction of the article. As a good journalist, the author (who actually wrote a similar piece a few months back), starts with the salient fact ("RUNNING IS BAD FOR YOU!") and then gets to the less important stuff later. Or does he? For only quotes from certain physicians

The lesson I've learned from 40 years of cardiology is that when there's this much smoke, there's often some fire," said Paul Thompson, a sports-medicine specialist and veteran marathoner who is chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. 
Heart disease comes from inflammation and if you're constantly, chronically inflaming yourself, never letting your body heal, why wouldn't there be a relationship between over exercise and heart disease? [Jack: isn't that you're supposed to tell us?]" said John Mandrola, a cardiac electrophysiologist and columnist for   
and select anecdotes
In 2011, Ironman winner Normann Stadler underwent emergency surgery to repair an enormous aortic aneurysm, a condition not caused but very possibly aggravated by endurance athletics. Research shows [Jack: what research?] an association between endurance athletics and enlarged aortic roots.

Sports medicine has a history of ignoring warning signs. Long after evidence emerged that over-hydrating could prove fatal to marathoners, experts continued encouraging runners to drink as much as possible—leading to utterly preventable tragedies such as the death of a 43-year-old mother of three in the 1998 Chicago Marathon. "Why did it take 20 years before the original evidence was accepted?" asked a 2006 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. [Jack: It's a tragedy, but how exactly is it related?]
before actually getting to the real meat. Here, I presume, is the study on which the article's author really based his attention-grabbing headline:
As director of a decadeslong project called the National Runners' Health Study, Paul Williams has published dozens of scientific articles showing that running—the more the better—confers a variety of robust health benefits. But along with Hartford's Thompson, Williams just completed a study of 2,377 runners and walkers who had survived heart attacks. Over 10.4 years, 526 of them died, 71.5% of them from cardiovascular disease. What Williams found is that the more they ran or walked after a heart attack, the less likely they were to die of heart disease—until they exceeded 7.1 kilometers of running or 10.7 kilometers of walking daily.
Now, I have taken one statistics class in my life, and I did a pretty terrible job in it, but even someone as mathematically illiterate as I am can point out the basic flaw in that study: it relies on quite the selection bias. In trying to determine whether running has negative health effects, it...studies people who have already felt them. It assumes causation, in other words, in its attempt to discern causation. And what is the "research" the author keeps citing?

So this article has problems, to be sure. But one cannot merely dispel its thesis by attacking its flaws--i.e., shooting the messenger. And I think I lack the expertise (or the time) to dissect the findings of these authors fully. In fact, the only claim to any sort of "expertise" I have is that I run as a college athlete. Yet I think that qualifies me enough to make a sort of general statement about studies like this.

One of the more depressing thing about these studies is that they provide an incentive to lazy people. For all the runners, like me, whom this study enraged, a handful of joggers probably decided to cut down on their training a bit, or perhaps give it up completely--a tragedy, as obesity continues to climb.

Aside from that, however, this article actually cuts to one of the greatest dilemmas all athletes face: the cost of success in their younger years. In a way, its a version of Achilles' agony in the Iliad:

For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, buy my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
All athletes, especially runners, know that their bodies will not hold up as they did in their youth forever. But a glory exists in running beyond mere achievement, beyond mere "health." It is a truly a lifestyle. Runners of any talent level must dedicate themselves to all sorts of pain and suffering in the short-term, hoping for results in the long-term--an amazing example of delayed gratification when so many have resorted to its instant cousin.

So if long-distance running will bring an early death, a la Achilles, or produce worse health down the road, then I say: bring it on. Certain runners quote Steve Prefontaine rather incessantly, but one his more famous quotes applies quite well:

"The best pace is a suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die."
Talent in running is a gift, and I intend to use it as far as I can take it--and then a little bit further. For that's what running is all about: taking yourself to your limits, finding out what your limits are...and then breaking them. Repeat ad infinitum. Someday, I may be ready to accept a life without running. But right now, I can't imagine it.

So I won't.

I'll just keep running.

Walking is too boring anyway.

What to tell graduates

Probably not that.
On Sunday, May 5, President Obama joined the squadron of elites that descends upon institutions of higher education each year to inspire our graduates in commencement speeches—many of them more from their mere presence and status than what they actually say. 

Speaking at the Ohio State University, the president extolled the virtues of “citizenship…the idea at the heart of our founding – that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities – to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.”

So far, so good. But not far beneath Obama’s shallow pieties about the virtues of citizenship and democracy lies a vision that sees little to life outside of politics or government. Warning against “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner,” he stressed that we must work together to accomplish great things—going to the Moon, building railroads, etc—“because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.”

What President Obama asked of his audience, in short, is the fullest possible dedication to ‘progress’ using politics and government as a means. To some extent, this sentiment holds true; our republic requires both responsible voters and representative to fulfill its guiding aims. But despite the efforts of the Obama Administration, most of the meaningful aspects of life still lie beyond the reach of politics. Most graduates of OSU will—hopefully—locate their futures in mostly apolitical spheres. As the Cato Institute’s Roger Pilon replied to Obama in the Wall Street Journal:
"From George Washington to Calvin Coolidge, presidents sought mostly to administer the laws that enabled citizens to live their own lives, ambitiously or not. It would have been thought impertinent for a president to tell a graduating class that what the country needs is the political will ‘to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens . . . to repair the middle class; to give more families a fair shake; to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper.'"
Oh, and what about the future of the graduates themselves? Aside from vague appeals to political progress and a brief reminder that graduates will fail (in their efforts to facilitate progress, of course), President Obama’s speech said little about the bleak prospects of the modern college graduate: i.e., lots of debt, high unemployment. Perhaps he did not wish to intrude on the special occasion, even though he blatantly used the speech to advance his governing vision (but never mind). For blunt advice like that, try Kirk McDonald:
Dear college graduates:
The next month is going to be thrilling as you cross this major milestone in your education. Enjoy the pomp and circumstance, the congratulations, and the parties. But when it's all over and you're ready to go out into the world, you'd probably like to meet me, or others like me—I'm your next potential dream boss. I run a cool, rapidly growing company in the digital field, where the work is interesting and rewarding. But I've got to be honest about some unfortunate news: I'm probably not going to hire you.
This isn't because I don't have positions that need filling. On the contrary, I'm constantly searching for talented new employees, and if someone with the right skills walked into my office, he or she would likely leave it with a very compelling offer. The problem is that the right skills are very hard to find. And I'm sorry to say it, dear graduates, but you probably don't have them…”
Mr. McDonald took the bold step of acknowledging reality, urging graduates to become mildly adept at computer programming—an actual, marketable skill that removes one from the airy idealistic world of progress and change and forces dedication, persistence, and a new way of thinking. He had the courage to tell today’s college graduates that their education has failed them, and that they are not special. Both stand as useful reminders as the madness fostered by excessive self-esteem and the college-for-all crusade collides with reality. 

Interestingly enough, First Lady Michelle Obama provided better advice than her husband in this regard. Speaking at Eastern Kentucky University’s commencement, she asked her audience “How are you going to respond when you don’t get that job you had your heart set on?”

Still, the best message to graduates—and the one least likely to penetrate the gaudy atmosphere of today’s college graduations—came from Wellesly High School English teacher David McCullogh, Jr. last June. Citing statistics concerning the vast numbers of valedictorians and class presidents, McCullogh asserted to his audience that “[e]ven if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”

It’s certainly a countercultural message. But we’d definitely be better off hearing it more often.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Everybody's Fault But Mine

Recently, in the wake of various scandals, President Obama has denied culpability. With the help of White House Dossier's Keith Koffler, here is a brief history lesson:

Oil Prices
“The key thing that is driving higher gas prices is actually the world’s oil markets and uncertainty about what’s going on in Iran and the Middle East, and that’s adding a $20 or $30 premium to oil prices.”
- March 23, 2012
“Obviously, we wish Solyndra hadn’t gone bankrupt. Part of the reason they did was because the Chinese were subsidizing their solar industry and flooding the market in ways that Solyndra couldn’t compete. But understand, this was not our program per se. Congress–Democrats and Republicans–put together a loan guarantee program.”
- March 22, 2012
“When I came into office there has been drift in the Afghanistan strategy, in part because we had spent a lot of time focusing on Iraq instead.  Over the last three years we have refocused attention on getting Afghanistan right.  Would my preference had been that we started some of that earlier?  Absolutely.  But that’s not the cards that were dealt.  We’re now in a position where, given our starting point, we’re making progress.”
- March 14, 2012
“When I took office, the efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters.  Iran had gone from zero centrifuges spinning to thousands, without facing broad pushback from the world.  In the region, Iran was ascendant.”
- March 4, 2012
The Economy
“We’ve made sure to do everything we can to dig ourselves out of this incredible hole that I inherited.”
- February 23, 2012
The Deficit: 
“We thought that it was entirely appropriate for our governments and our agencies to try to root out waste, large and small, in a systematic way. Obviously, this is even more important given the deficits that we’ve inherited and that have grown as a consequence of this recession.”
- November 9, 2011
“When I first walked through the door, the deficit stood at $1.3 trillion, with projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. If we had taken office during ordinary times, we would have started bringing down these deficits immediately.”
- February 1, 2010
The Debt:
“Look, we do have a serious problem in terms of debt and deficit, and much of it I inherited when I showed up.”
- August 8, 2011
“I inherited a big debt.”
- March 29, 2011
“We inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, a banking system on the verge of meltdown.  We had lost 4 million jobs by the time I was sworn in and would then lose another 4 million in the few months right after I was sworn in before our economic policies had a chance to take root.”
- May 10, 2011
The BP Gulf Oil Spill 
“In this instance, the oil industry’s cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators meant little or no regulation at all. When Secretary Salazar took office, he found a Minerals and Management Service that had been plagued by corruption for years –- this was the agency charged with not only providing permits, but also enforcing laws governing oil drilling.”
- May 27, 2010
Decline of the nuclear stockpile
“Among the many challenges our administration inherited was the slow but steady decline in support for our nuclear stockpile and infrastructure, and for our highly trained nuclear work force.” (This one was offered up on Obama’s behalf by Vice President Biden).
- January 29, 2010
The Election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.)
“The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry, and they’re frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.”
- January 20, 2010
“I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust.  Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country.  Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others.  And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction.”
- September 23, 2009
The Financial Crisis
“We inherited a financial crisis unlike any that we’ve seen in our time.  This crisis crippled private capital markets and forced us to take steps in our financial system — and with our auto companies — that we would not have otherwise even considered.”
- June 1, 2009

To that history list, let's add his remarks on Fast and Furious:

“I think it’s important for us to understand that the Fast and Furious program was a field-initiated program begun under the previous administration. When Eric Holder found out about it, he discontinued it. We assigned a inspector general to do a thorough report that was just issued, confirming that in fact Eric Holder did not know about this, that he took prompt action and the people who did initiate this were held accountable.”

and on the S&P's decision to downgrade America's debt:

Good afternoon, everybody.  On Friday, we learned that the United States received a downgrade by one of the credit rating agencies — not so much because they doubt our ability to pay our debt if we make good decisions, but because after witnessing a month of wrangling over raising the debt ceiling, they doubted our political system’s ability to act.  The markets, on the other hand, continue to believe our credit status is AAA.  In fact, Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about good investments, said, “If there were a quadruple-A rating, I’d give the United States that.”  I, and most of the world’s investors, agree. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem.  The fact is, we didn’t need a rating agency to tell us that we need a balanced, long-term approach to deficit reduction.  That was true last week.  That was true last year.  That was true the day I took office.  And we didn’t need a rating agency to tell us that the gridlock in Washington over the last several months has not been constructive, to say the least.  We knew from the outset that a prolonged debate over the debt ceiling — a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip — could do enormous damage to our economy and the world’s.  That threat, coming after a string of economic disruptions in Europe, Japan and the Middle East, has now roiled the markets and dampened consumer confidence and slowed the pace of recovery.

In recent times, we'll see, President Obama has spoken similarly:

On the IRS:

"Well, with respect to the IRS, I spoke to this yesterday.  My main concern is fixing a problem, and we began that process yesterday by asking and accepting the resignation of the Acting Director there.  We will be putting in new leadership that will be able to make sure that -- following up on the IG audit -- that we gather up all the facts, that we hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions.  As I said last night, it is just simply unacceptable for there to even be a hint of partisanship or ideology when it comes to the application of our tax laws. But let me make sure that I answer your specific question.  I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked through the press. Typically, the IG reports are not supposed to be widely distributed or shared.  They tend to be a process that everybody is trying to protect the integrity of.  But what I'm absolutely certain of is that the actions that were described in that IG report are unacceptable."

Jay Carney, asked if the White House had any knowledge of the Justice Department's seizure of AP phone records:

"Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP.”

Got that? Based on President Obama's tenure, he knows nothing, is responsible for nothing, and, apparently, does nothing. That means he's either: a) the most incompetent chief executive to inhabit the office since Warren G. Harding; b) presiding over a government bureaucracy that has gone completely rogue; c) he actually had a hand in some of what's happened during his presidency, even the last week; or d) Some combination of the above.

So, which is it?

Update: via Powerline, here's a New Yorker fictional version of President Obama's weekly address:

President Obama used his weekly radio address on Saturday to reassure the American people that he has “played no role whatsoever” in the U.S. government over the past four years. 
“Right now, many of you are angry at the government, and no one is angrier than I am,” he said. “Quite frankly, I am glad that I have had no involvement in such an organization.”
The President’s outrage only increased, he said, when he “recently became aware of a part of that government called the Department of Justice.”
“The more I learn about the activities of these individuals, the more certain I am that I would not want to be associated with them,” he said. “They sound like bad news.”
Mr. Obama closed his address by indicating that beginning next week he would enforce what he called a “zero tolerance policy on governing.”
“If I find that any members of my Administration have had any intimate knowledge of, or involvement in, the workings of the United States government, they will be dealt with accordingly,” he said.

The Blog Rises

"Your breath smells."

Allow us to begin with an apology. Though we founded this blog during the 2012 election season, and updated it regularly throughout, maintaining it beyond that time was always our intent. But after an election, politics often becomes (blessedly) both more boring and less urgent. Thus, with each of us busy, our commitment to this blog faded away.

Still, it never disappeared. Though posting frequently during the year proved too much, returning for the summer became our goal. Thus, readers can expect a steady stream of posts through the rest of the summer, with a frequency still dictated, of course, by the necessity of other tasks.

But do not let our uneven commitment to this blog mislead you into thinking that we have “given up” on returning the United States to a path more in line with our country’s (and our blog’s) founding principles. Indeed, despite the misfortune of the 2012 election, our resolve remains strong.

Unfortunately, some conservatives have given up. Sure, they continue to fight the day’s political battles and to advance their ideology and message, but a fatalistic anticipation of imminent collapse underlies their politicking. They have lost faith in the political and social institutions that underpin the Republic, and only see salvation for them and the country after immense turmoil.

At Sons of Cincinnatus, we reject this quasi-revolutionary logic. We prefer that societies avoid the sort of social turmoil beyond which uncertainty lies. We think that America, despite its current flaws, continues both to be worth saving and savable. And we intend to do whatever we can to demonstrate our commitment to this salvaging.

In this respect, our philosophy aligns with that of Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, as depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Batman’s guiding aim was both to preserve Gotham, though a decadent place, both from those who sought its dissolution in favor of anarchy (the Joker) and those who drew from its corrupt state that only destruction could ameliorate (Ra's al Ghul, Bane, the League of Shadows). Against both of these extremes, Batman believed that, despite Gotham’s (and mankind’s) fallen state, it was a place worthy of his efforts on its behalf.

Now, comparing a single blog to such efforts certainly exaggerates: we not possess billions of dollars, high-tech equipment, or years of martial arts training, among other things. And neither do our opponents possess utter tactical mastery, a coterie of highly-trained revolutionaries, or the end or means of total destruction. They work with subtler means and towards different ends, whose damage may ultimately equal the more powerful and more destructive, but whose advance one can combat more easily. 

Thus, we will continue to advocate for our vision, as we consider America both in dire need of them, and still in a condition to accept them. We may fight for a lost cause, but, if so, we do not intend to admit it until well after we have done everything in our power to make it a found one. We invite our readers, then, to continue reading as we continue our efforts. Though only the future will reveal whether we fought in vain, the surest path to a bleak future is to give up in the present.