Archive for December, 2009

Khan Academy

I heard this interview on NPR today and spent the rest of the afternoon checking out the Khan Academy. A truly wonderful initiative.


December 29, 2009 at 9:21 am 1 comment

The runner’s manifesto: “Running is the universal alternative”

On the Minimalist Runner Google Group, Barefoot Ted shared a great excerpt about running from the Journal of Hygiene and Herald of Health — published in 1895!

The entire journal — which includes articles titled “Alcohol and Chastity,” “Consumption Transmitted by a Brass Horn,” “The Ethics of Vegetarianism,” and “Walt Whitman—Some of His Habits” — can be downloaded as a PDF via Google Books. (Note that at 352 pages, it is a large file.)

The motto of the journal, edited by M. L. Holbrook, M.D., is:

“A Higher Type of Manhood, Physical, Intellectual and Moral.”

Before the article index is the following quote, attributed to Grant Allen:

“Health culture is an aim for all; an aim which will make each stronger, and saner, and wiser, and healthier, and better. It will make each in the end more helpful to all. To be sound in wind and limb; to be healthy in body and mind; to be educated, to be emancipated, to be free, to be beautiful—these things are ends toward which we should all strive, and by attaining which all are happier in themselves, and more useful to others.”

Below is the entire article, “Running as an Exercise,” that Barefoot Ted referenced. I’ve highlighted some of my favorite passages.



By Dr. J. Wm. Lloyd

Published in 1895 in the Journal of Hygiene and Herald of Health, Volume 45

We have in running, as I shall proceed to show, one of the most perfect exercises which a man may take without apparatus or assistance from others.

The first great merit of running is that it applies exercise mainly to those parts and organs used least—toes, feet, legs, lunch and heart. It exercises least the arms and back most used in ordinary work. Therefore it serves the first great purpose of any remedy, it balances the circulation and equalizes the functional energy.

To keep the head cool and feet warm is the great desideratum because the head is so near to the heart, the large blood vessels reach it so directly, the tendency of our civilization is so to overwork the brain, that the least deficiency in the circulation of the extremities is sure to be avenged by a congested head, leading by repetition to headache and insomnia. Running secures a cool head and warm feet. Can you imagine a frequent runner troubled with insomnia?


Walking is dull work. There is scant pleasure in the exercise for its own sake. You must always be going somewhere, and if you cannot continually go to some new spot you are bored. The pleasantest walking is a quiet, contemplative stroll, but that is of little value for exercise, and rapid walking is almost always forced. But there is a spirit and verve about even the shortest little dog-trot which the most vigorous walking altogether lacks. Start running and the breath quickens, the pulse leaps, the brain brightens, as the freshly oxygenated, purified blood begins to bound through it, the eye sparkles and the charm of your boyhood has returned once more.

How much of the exhilaration of our childhood was owing to the fact that we then were ever running? And if adults ran more would they mourn so much for the lost illusions of early years?

The blows which the sole of the foot receives in running are of real value in improving the circulation in the feet. Those who have studied the merits of muscle beating do not need to be told this. These sharp vigorous strokes running up through the great sciatic nerve to the spinal cord and brain are stimulative and tonic in a high degree; and the quickening goes all through the body. Every nerve fibril feels it, the liver is shaken and jarred into action, the stomach grinds merrily away at its welcome grist, the bowels start their weird serpentine peristaltic action, the capillaries flush with blood, the pres open, and all is vigor and motion. Not a terminal fibre, not a corpuscle of blood but shares in the jubilee and revival. Running is “the universal alternative.”


“Do not run; it is too violent an exercise for your health!” How often is that advice given; wisely enough, perhaps, to those with organic heart disease, but foolishly enough to the majority who need precisely this exercise to strengthen their hearts against sloth and luxurious living. For the heart is muscle, and suitable exercise is the one thing which every muscle must have, or it atrophies.

Very rapid and vigorous walking is good for the heart, but it takes vastly more will power to walk hard than to run easily and the running will do the heart more good. Of course, men with weak and fatty hearts should take this exercise with caution; a few yards only should be the extend of the run at first, and when this grows easy and pleasant, a few more and so on; working very gradually until a quarter of a mile becomes a bagatelle.

When a quarter of a mile causes no distress that heart may cease to be solicitous about its safety. If adults ran as freely and frequently as children—I do not hesitate to say it—heart disease would be rare. But when I praise running for the heart, competitive racing is always excluded. That has ruined many a heart. Health and pleasure is the only prize for which to run.

I lately conversed with an athlete, an ex-champion in the Caledonian games, and he told me of the physical condition of some famous runners he had once examined. “The muscles on their abdomens were so hard that when I tapped them with my finger it was like tapping a board,” he said.

Observe the flabby sac which retains the bowels of the average sedentary man and think what this difference must mean in absence of abdominal obesity, constipation, prolapsed bowels, piles and hernia, to say nothing of a host of other pelvic weaknesses. Fine vigorous abdominal muscles mean healthy viscera and pelvic contents in a normal position. What would this be worth to our women? A woman who had avoided corsets and heavy skirts, and had taken a quarter of a mile vigorous run daily since childhood, would be wagered upon by an enlightened physician as perfectly free from “female weakness” or malpositions.


Consumption is a dread scourge. Over and over it has been shown that nothing is so healing to sick lungs as pure air taken freely; and in no other way can it be taken so freely, and so purely, as when running in the open air. As a breathing exercise alone running is priceless, as a preventive of consumption nothing can excel it, and he is a dull hygienist, indeed, who cannot see how very valuable an agent it might become wisely employed in checking lung disease. Were I to start a “consumption cure,” running would be my sheet anchor. Indeed, running would be my chief resource in treating those chronic diseases in which the patient has the use of the lower extremities.

We hear so much of the medical use of oxygen, nowadays, but there is no better oxygen than that which Mother Nature has provided in the open fields, and if we fill ourselves with this, feasting on it as we run, every drop of our blood will thank us for the treat. Running furnishes oxygen more rapidly an abundantly than any other spontaneous exercise.


When you run you perspire. Thousands upon thousands of little pores begin to drain off impurities, and thus relieve the other excretory organs of overwork. No Turkish bath can excel a run, no sudorific will produce a more thorough sweat. In the corporation of man running means clean streets, good drainage, perfect water-works, and public sanitation.

Running is pleasant and inspiring. It enlivens the mind and dispels melancholy. It exercises every muscle in the body, and chiefly those not commonly much used. It cools the head and draws blood to the lower extremities. It cures rheumatism, corns, cold feet, headaches, insomnia; prevents stiffness, varicose veins, apoplexy, consumption, hernia. It stimulates and tones up the nervous system. It shakes and arouses to action all torpid viscera. It insures appetite, digestion, assimilation, excretion. It will certainly cure obesity, for nobody ever yet saw a hard runner who was fat. It requires no apparatus. Taken all in all is the most perfect single exercise known for health, pleasure, and all-round development.


If you feel the need of running have the courage to do it, and you can soon persuade others to join you if you must have company. Children at least will be always glad to accompany you. The dress should be appropriate. The cap should be very light and close, so as not to blow off easily. Much of the time when you run fast you will carry it in your hand, anyway.

Let all the clothing be woolen, so that the perspiration quickly passes off, and chills are avoided. Have no flapping skirts, coat-tails, or other loose ends. Wear knee-breeches, woolen stockings, and low running-shoes, or, better still, wear no stocking and no shoes whenever the weather will permit.

There is wonderful comfort in a bare foot, as everyone knows. Contact with the earth is healthful. And in summer, after a rain, or in the dewy morning, how refreshing a running foot-bath through wet grass! Even in winter a short run, barefooted, through the loose snow may be made perfectly safe for those who have taken the right training, producing a warmth and glow in the feet which will last for hours.


Never race for prizes, or run against time, or compete for anything. Avoid over-strain. Don’t make work of your sport. Leap and bound down hill, and you will find it jar you much less than straight running.

Run up hill zigzag. Stop whenever you feel any discomfort, get your wind, and then run again.

By constant practice a man could run as long as he could walk. In some places in the Orient outrunners and footmen accompany carriages and keep up with the horses. In the bardic chronicles of Ireland we read of the horse-boys running all day by the side of the tourist, ready to be at the bridle whenever the master halted. And wonderful tales travelers tell us to-day of runners in Mexico, Japan, Africa.

But such running, if wonderful, is not perhaps desirable, and is hardly to be attained without too much expense to other faculties. The runs I recommend are through the dewy meadows of morning, over the hills of afternoon, or through the aisles of forest temples—runs with an easy breath, a light foot, and a gay heart.

You may not, like Selkirk, become able to run down wild goats, but you can at least run down your avoirdupois, run up your spirits, and run out, if not outrun, your doctor.

December 22, 2009 at 3:33 am 2 comments

A new approach to education

Conor Friedersdorf highlights a “must read piece about America’s future“:

In National Affairs, entrepreneur Jim Manzi presents a manifesto of sorts for bringing about the continued prosperity of the United States. Like Grand New Party, the thoughtful product of Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, Mr. Manzi’s piece suggests a framework for understanding the challenges that America faces — thank goodness another serious voice is getting us beyond bromides about liberty and tyranny — the trade-offs we must resolve in our public policy, and specific policy proposals for those persuaded by what precedes them. I hope it gets the attention it deserves, including thoughtful responses from across the political spectrum.

Manzi’s “Keeping America’s Edge” can be read here. An excerpt from the section that suggests “a new approach” to education:

We should seek to deregulate public schools. It would be foolish to imagine that we can simply educate everyone in America to be globally competitive. In a nation where about 40% of births occur outside of wedlock, many children will be left behind. Nonetheless, schools remain one of our primary policy instruments for enhancing both social mobility and our competitive position. They are essential to the task of balancing innovation and cohesion. To function effectively, though, America’s schools need to be improved ­dramatically. Our basic model of public schooling — ­accepting raw material in the form of five-year-olds, and then adding value through a series of processing steps to produce educated graduates 12 (or more) years later — reflects the vision of the old industrial economy. This worked well in an earlier era, but improvements that might have kept this model up to date have been stalled for decades. We now need a new vision for schools that looks a lot more like Silicon Valley than Detroit: ­decentralized, ­entrepreneurial, and flexible.

For a generation, many on the right have argued for school choice — especially through the use of vouchers — as the primary means of achieving this vision. Their approach, however, has been both too doctrinaire and too artificial. If school choice ever becomes more than ­tinker-toy demonstration projects, taxpayers will appropriately demand that a range of controls and requirements be imposed on the schools they are ultimately funding. At that point, what would be the difference between such “private” schools and “public” schools that were allowed greater ­flexibility in hiring, curriculum, and student acceptance, and had to compete for students in order to capture funding? Little beyond the label.

We should pursue the creation of a real marketplace among ever more deregulated publicly financed schools — a market in which funding follows students, and far broader discretion is permitted to those who actually teach and manage in our schools. There are real-world examples of such systems that work well today — both Sweden and the Netherlands, for instance, have implemented this kind of plan at the national level.

It’s a provocative article, one that I am still mulling over as I try to form a response and rebuttal, and definitely worth the read.

December 20, 2009 at 9:15 pm 3 comments

Sports notes

There are some incredibly interesting sports related articles worth reading and reflecting on…

  • has compiled all three parts (here, here, and here) of the fascinating exchange between sports broadcaster and writer Bill Simmons and pop social scientist Malcolm Gladwell (who considers Olympic swimmer Dara Torres “far and away the greatest athlete of our generation”). Their dialogue covered all things lowbrow and highbrow in modern sports, including athletes worthy of the title for Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsman of the Year, the power of journalists to change rules and regulations in the NFL, the inevitable growth of youth lacrosse, and conspiracy theories of how NBA commissioner David Stern sabotaged professional hockey. An excerpt:


How random are our reactions to celebrity misbehavior? You’d think there would be some general moral principle at work here, but there just isn’t. Barry Bonds and Shawne Merriman allegedly did exactly the same thing: took performance-enhancing drugs that gave them a decided advantage over their peers. Bonds became a pariah. Merriman went to the Pro Bowl. Leonard Little left a party, got into his car and hit and killed a young woman. He blew .19 on the Breathalyzer. What happened to him? He did 60 days. Six years later, he was arrested for drunk driving again. He still plays for the Rams.

Michael Vick did bad things to dogs and went to jail for two years and become the personification of evil. I mean, I love dogs and I was appalled by Vick’s behavior. But in what universe is it a bigger crime to fight pit bulls than it is to get wasted and kill an innocent person? (Let’s not even get into Plaxico Burress, whose case proves, I guess, how unexpectedly seriously New York state courts take the crime of stupidity).

And now we have Tiger Woods, who fooled around on his wife and hit a fire hydrant. And in the middle of this absurd circus, the reigning King of Kings of the NBA and role model to millions is a man who not that long ago was accused of rape and lucked out of a trial because, by all appearances, he was able to buy off his accuser in a civil settlement. Huh? Maybe with your book royalties, you can endow the Sports Guy Chair of Celebrity Philosophy at Holy Cross to try to work this out.


Uh-oh. You played the Kobe card. I’d cancel all future speeches in Southern California until 2029 to be safe.

I don’t think you need a philosophy class to figure this out. It’s all about our expectations for famous people. Football players are impossibly big and punish their bodies in an impossible way. All bets are off with them: HGH, steroids, painkillers, whatever. We’re ready for anything. For NBA players, we can’t imagine why any of them would use HGH — even though the drug makes a ton of sense because it would help any of them add muscle and recover more quickly from injuries — so when Rashard Lewis gets suspended for 10 games because of “elevated testosterone,” we shrug it off and assume there’s been some sort of mistake. (“Come on, the skinny guy who shoots 3s on the Magic? No way!”)

But in baseball — where the effects of PEDs can be so dramatic, where so many players have deceived us, where the physical changes are most visible, where PEDs can convert 15-homer guys into home run champs — we take it personally because statistics are so crucial for evaluating everything about baseball, and when you mess with that, essentially you’re ruining our ability to understand who matters and who doesn’t. This makes us angry. I know it makes me angry. I am drifting away from baseball — just a little — partly because I loved comparing players from different eras so much, and now I can’t. It sucks. I hate what happened. But that’s a whole other story.

What can’t be explained is why some athletes get more leeway than others for those indiscretions. I thought the reactions after the Rodriguez/Ramirez/Ortiz PED controversies this season were fascinating. Only A-Rod got raked over the coals. Only A-Rod was serenaded with steroid chants in every opposing stadium. Only A-Rod was ridiculed on radio shows and blogs with particular zeal. And really, it came down to the fact that America genuinely liked Big Papi and believed Manny was a lovable, harmless goofball. They didn’t have that same affection for A-Rod. It’s the same reason so many forgave Bill Clinton a long time ago, but Eliot Spitzer and Rod Blagojevich can never work again unless they’re co-directing a “Girls Gone Wild” video for Joe Francis.


Yes. If the press likes you, you can get away with anything (see Favre, Brett). But there’s something else here. In last week’s New Yorker, my colleague James Surowiecki made the argument that celebrities can get away with something so long as it confirms — rather than contradicts — our pre-existing impression of them. Charles Barkley can get a DWI and a few months later still be taken seriously when he talks about going into politics. No problem. We believe he’s a carouser. Clinton can recover from Monica Lewinsky because we knew, going in, that he had a wandering eye, and we’d already adjusted our perception of him accordingly. Kobe recovered from the rape charge because he’s never pretended to anything other than an arrogant narcissist. But Kobe could never get away with pulling a Rod Artest and having a drink at halftime. That violates our core sense of Kobe as the stone-cold competitor.

  • As Sports Illustrated reports, “Former NFL star Dave Pear has a message for you. Don’t let your kids play football. Ever.”
  • Gladwell’s New Yorker article on the cognitive decline of football players and the above referenced SI article turned my attention to “Blood Equity“, a compelling expose of the NFL’s post-professional mistreatment of their ex-players. The trailer is below:

December 20, 2009 at 10:43 am 2 comments

Big picture implications of neuroplasticity research

As part of the promotion for the SharpBrains virtual summit on technology and cognitive health and performance (which looks to be a fantastic event), Alvaro Fernandez interviewed  Dr. Michael Merzenich, a pioneer in brain plasticity research. The brief interview is focused on “the likely big-picture implications of neuroplasticity research” over the next five years, including tools for safer driving, maintaining cognitive vitality, and remote monitoring and interventions for mental health issues.

In addition to these areas of development, Dr. Merzenich adds:

I believe we’ll need to focus on public education, for people to understand the value of tools with limited “face value”. One important aspect of this is the need to find balance between what is “fun” and what has value as a cognitive enhancer – which requires the activities to be very targeted, repetitive and slowly progressive. Not always the most fun – people need to think “fitness” as much or more than “games.”

To learn more or register for the SharpBrains virtual summit, click here.

Note, the above image was found on Laurie Bartels’ wonderful Neurons Firing, “a blog to create for herself ‘the graduate course I’d love to take if it existed as a program.'”

Laurie wrote a great post on the SharpBrains blog that provides a basic introduction to neuroplasticity and a review of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.

December 20, 2009 at 9:09 am 3 comments

What do philosophers think, and what are they experts at?

Bryan Caplan highlights “the most fascinating opinion poll I’ve seen in years“—a survey of 1,803 faculty members in college and university philosophy departments, as well as 829 philosophy graduate students, about “classic and modern controversies,” such as their acceptance or rejection of a priori knowledge, free will, physicalism, and various approaches in normative ethics, including  deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics.

Two of the more interesting findings have to do with the political orientation of philosophers and their views on religion. The consensus on the second issue: God is dead. Rather, there is no God.

(Percentages are rounded to whole numbers and totals do not equal 100 because other options were omitted. For the entire list of results from the PhilPapers Survey, click here.)

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?

God: theism or atheism?

  • Accept atheism 58%
  • Lean toward atheism 12%
  • Accept theism 12%
  • Lean toward theism 5%
  • Agnostic/undecided 6%

In his post, Caplan also references a survey he undertook with professional philosophers: What are philosophers expert at?

One of the perks of attending the Social Philosophy and Policy conference was that I was able to ask philosophers the critical question: “You philosophers are definitely experts at something. But what is that something?”

Profs and grad students alike largely seemed to accept the following list of topics where members of their occupation actually have expertise:

  • Accurately describing the views of other philosophers, living and dead.
  • Checking arguments for logical validity/internal consistency.

No one claimed that the philosophy profession was good at figuring out true answers to philosophical questions. One even claimed the the primary product of philosophy is “broken arguments.”

Furthermore, no philosopher made an argument analogous to one economists often make: “Outsiders underestimate the degree of consensus because our debates focus on marginal controversies.” This would have been an awkward argument to make to my face, since the participants literally spanned the range from radical Kantianism (“Consequences are morally irrelevant”) to fanatical Singer-style utilitarianism (“There is no fundamental moral difference between killing and letting die”).

The upshot: Many philosophers believe that they personally have virtually all the answers. (Witnessing their disputes was an… experience). But few philosophers believe that their profession has more than a handful of answers.

PhilPapers also conducted a concurrent metasurvey of 438 faculty and professional philosophers and 210 philosophy graduate students who made predictions about the results on the survey. This answers the question of what philosophers think philosophers think about.

December 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm 1 comment

Fat minded?

David Rock asks, “Are our minds going the way of our waists?” In the article, Rock makes an interesting comparison between our habits of eating and consuming social media—specially about how the infrastructure of our food distribution system is similar to that of sites like Facebook: each were designed, claims Rock, to exploit our  “terribly weak circuitry for inhibiting impulses.” The opening two sentences  instantly hooked me:

“The average waistline of people in the developed world has increased 400% in 25 years, with three-quarters of adults now overweight or obese. For the first time in history, there are literally more people overweight than there are starving.”

Rock goes on to identify the “empty neural calories” of constant status updates,  discusses the tendencies and effects of aggressive social seeking, and shares research about the limitations of our brains’ self-regulation capabilities.

Definitely worth the read—and maybe even a status update.

December 14, 2009 at 8:46 am 6 comments

Older Posts

Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 88 other followers

Twitter Feed