The Evolutionary Paradox of Exercise

Slate has an interview with evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, who explains the paradox between exercise being good for us and it feeling like a chore.

Q: What are the consequences of the modern sedentary lifestyle?
DL: It’s hard to think of one disease that is not affected by physical activity. Take the two major killers: heart disease and cancer. The heart requires exercise to grow properly. Exercise increases the peripheral arteries and decreases your cholesterol levels; it decreases your risk of heart disease by at least half.

Breast cancers and many other reproductive tissue cancers also respond strongly to exercise. Other factors being constant, women who have engaged in regular vigorous exercise have significantly lower cancer rates than women who have not. Colon cancer has been shown to be reduced by up to 30 percent by exercise. There are also benefits for mental health—depression, anxiety, the list is incredibly long.

Q: What can we do about our maladaptive traits?
DL: If we want to practice preventive medicine, that means we have to eat foods that we might not prefer, and exercise when we don’t want to. The only way to do that is through some form of socially acceptable coercion. There is a reason why we require good food and exercise in school—otherwise the kids won’t get enough of it. Right now we are dropping those requirements around the world.

Q: Being able to run is one thing—how did we then go on to become endurance athletes?
DL: We evolved from very non-active creatures. A typical chimp will walk 2 to 3 kilometers a day, run about 100 meters and climb a tree or two. Your average hunter-gatherer walks or runs 9 to 15 kilometers per day, and we have all these features in our bodies, literally from our heads down to our toes, that make us really good at long-distance walking and running.

I and my colleagues at the University of Utah, Dennis Bramble and David Carrier, think the key advantage for humans was persistence hunting, whereby you run very long distances to chase animals in the heat and run them into heat stroke. We can run for very long distances, marathons in fact, at speeds at which other animals have to gallop. That’s not an endurance gait for quadrupeds, because they cool by panting—short shallow breaths. You can’t pant and gallop at the same time. If you make an animal gallop in the heat for 15 minutes or so, on a hot day, you’ll kill it.

Q: But we have adaptations for this kind of endurance running?
DL: Yes. Our bodies are loaded with all kinds of features: short toes that require less energy to stabilize and generate less shock when running; the Achilles tendon that stores and releases energy appropriately as we run; the large gluteus maximus muscles that steady the trunk; and stabilization of the head. I’m a middle-aged professor, I’m not a great specimen of an athlete, but I can easily run a marathon at a speed that would cause a dog my size to gallop.

The World’s Last Telegram Message

More than 160 years after its invention, the world’s last telegram message will be sent somewhere in India on July 14, 2013. That’s according to this story in CS Monitor, which provides some fascinating details:

An important tool of British colonial administration and control in India, the telegram is connected with some key moments in Indian history, such as helping the British put down a popular revolt in 1857 and being the mode of communication with which Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru informed London of Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir.

Colloquially known as “taar” or wire in India, the telegram has been a part of Indian life, a metaphor for an urgent message, bypassing the delays of the postal system. Responsible for a twist in the plot of many a Bollywood film, telegrams were often the harbinger of the news of the death of a family member. Today, death telegrams, still priced at a fifth of the regular fee, account for less than 1 percent of telegram traffic.

Some statistics on the decline of the telegram use in India:

At their peak in 1985, 60 million telegrams were being sent and received a year in India from 45,000 offices. Today, only 75 offices exist, though they are located in each of India’s 671 districts through franchises. And an industry that once employed 12,500 people, today has only 998 workers.


A number of telegrams are from runaway couples who marry secretly because their parents wouldn’t let them marry in the wrong caste, class, or religion.  “They inform their parents that they are married, and fearing violence from the family, inform the police and the National Human Rights Commission,” he said.  

So what will they resort to now? Facebook? Twitter? Something else?

Death of Yuri Gagarin Demystified 40 Years Later

For over 20 years Aleksey Leonov, the first man to conduct a spacewalk in 1965, has been struggling to gain permission to disclose details of what happened to the legendary Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in March 1968. He’s finally had a chance to reveal the details, and he shared his testimony with Russian newspaper RT:

According to a declassified report, there is a human factor behind the tragic incident – an unauthorized SU-15 fighter jet was flying dangerously close to Gagarin’s aircraft. 

Leonov had been in charge of parachute jump training on that day. The weather was extremely bad, with rain, wind and snow making it impossible to carry out exercises. He waited for an official confirmation that the exercises would be cancelled, but then heard a super-sonic noise followed by an explosion only a second apart from each other. That is when he knew something was up. 

“We knew that a Su-15 was scheduled to be tested that day, but it was supposed to be flying at the altitude of 10,000 meters or higher, not 450-500 meters. It was a violation of the flight procedure.”

Leonov that day talked to witnesses that pointed at the model of a Su-15 saying that it appeared out of the clouds with its tail smoking and burning.

“While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin – a deep spiral, to be precise – at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour,” Leonov tells. 

According to the report that Seryogin wrote in his own hand, no aerobatic maneuvers or spins were to be performed by the crew of the MiG-15 with RD-45 engine and external fuel tanks, 260 liters each.  Simple turns, pitching and nosedives were conducted after which Yuri reported: “Codename 645, task completed, descending” Leonov explains.

The name of the man responsible for Gagarin’s death is not being disclosed. Keeping him anonymous was a condition under which Leonov was allowed to speak.

Fascinating reveal.

One of the best books I’ve read on this topic is Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. Currently available on Amazon for less than $7 — a steal. I would surmise the authors of the text will incorporate Leonov’s testimony as an addendum to the book.

Drew Magary on Being a Terrible, Loving Father

Ahead of Father’s Day, I enjoyed this story by Drew Magary on his thoughts of being a father. In the story, his daughter has a fit, and he responds trying to punish her. It doesn’t go well.

Then my daughter somehow managed to scream even louder, as if summoning a bullhorn from down inside her esophagus. I raced up the stairs two at a time and threw open the door. I’m not sure I cared if the swinging door would hit her or not. She slipped by me and ran down the stairs. When she saw the boy, she reared back and smacked his chest with her open hand. And the look he gave her after she did it made me want to cry forever. He looked so deeply hurt. A pure hurt, as if his whole world had been shattered. He couldn’t fathom why anyone would ever want to hurt him like that, let alone his own sister, whom he adored. I could see the sense of betrayal in his eyes, and there arose in me a kind of anger that everyone possesses but that no one should ever unleash. I grabbed my daughter again as my son opened wide and howled in pain.


“I hate him!” she said. “He’s the worst brother in the whole world and I’m going to cut his head open!”

“You apologize to him right now.”

She walked up and wrapped her arms tightly around him. For half a second, it was a loving gesture. Then she laughed maniacally. When my daughter was born, I got a nice card from my uncle saying that my child’s laughter would be the sweetest sound I would ever hear. But that’s a lie. Children have two kinds of laughter. The first is the genuine kind, the kind my uncle was talking about. The other is the I’M-ABOUT-TO-DO-EVIL-SHIT laugh. The criminal mastermind laugh. Mwahahahahaha. I dread that laugh because it means someone is about to cry or something is about to fucking break. By the time a child is 4 or 5, this is pretty much the only kind of laugh you hear out of them. The girl began squeezing her brother tighter and tighter. My son was now even more upset than when she first hit him.

“Will you let him go?” I demanded.

But she didn’t. She picked him up off the floor, like a pro wrestler about to execute a belly-to-back suplex. I pried her little fingers apart and wrested her away from him, pushing her into the stairs. At this point, the boy was a sobbing mess.

I screamed at her, “What is wrong with you? Leave him alone, god dammit!”

She smiled and hugged me and said, “I love you.” She didn’t mean ANY of it, which only angered me further.

“Get off of me,” I told her. “You’re being insincere and I can’t stand it.”

But she wouldn’t stop hugging me. She grabbed on tight and let her entire body sag, nearly snapping my spine. Children do this all the time. They just HANG on you, like you’re a monkey bar. I shook her off and she began hitting me in the stomach. She was 5, so these were solid blows. She let out another horrible scream and filled the house with a thick, seemingly impenetrable kind of misery. I grabbed her and dragged her back up to her room and pinned her down on the carpet. She was laughing now. The angrier I got, the harder she laughed. I had to use every last ounce of willpower to restrain myself from kicking her ass because I very much wanted to. Inside me, there arose a voice—a voice so alien from my own that it seemed to belong to some other race of being. A terrifying, horrible voice. If my wife had heard that voice early in our relationship, she never would have married me. I grabbed the girl by the chin and blasted her with The Voice.

Some existential thoughts here:

The fact that I had resorted to grabbing and spanking and willfully inflicting harm on my own child made me feel like a criminal. I felt like, if someone had videotaped the whole episode, I would have been thrown in jail forever. Maybe I deserved to be there. Maybe everyone else was good at keeping their shit together and I wasn’t. I alone was the Worst Dad on Earth—the kind of dad that gets entire memoirs written about him by his kids, about living with him and his horrible demons. Maybe I was an abuser. Even telling you this story now, I feel like I’m edging off the details because I’m terrified of admitting how hard I grabbed my daughter’s arm. As a matter of fact, I smacked her once. I can’t tell you where or why because it makes me feel ugly and I don’t want you reading it and demanding that my kids be taken from me. I don’t remember my dad ever smacking me. He may have yelled a few times, but nothing that dramatic. Why was I so much worse of a parent? Why didn’t my kid respect and fear me the way I respected and feared my old man? Why did my children always require one more minute of patience than I had? And why was I losing my shit at a 5-year-old for acting like a 5-year-old?

So what does Drew decide to do next? Give his daughter a cold shower. Read on to see how it turned out.

Lastly, this analogy is apt:

When I was in middle school, they brought in a lady who had traveled to the South Pole to speak to us. She told us that, at one point during the trip, she became so cold and so desperate for food that she ate an entire stick of butter. We all were disgusted. But she was like, “Yeah, well, if you had been at the South Pole, you would have had butter for dinner too.” Parenting is similar in that you end up acting in ways that your younger self would have found repellent because the circumstances overwhelm you. What I’m basically saying is that having kids is like being stuck in Antarctica.What I’m basically saying is that having kids is like being stuck in Antarctica.

Except the example is mild compared to what I was expecting.

Should The Birthday Song Be in the Public Domain?

This is a bizarre story. According to The New York Times, the song “Happy Birthday to You” is not in the public domain:

The dispute stems from a lawsuit filed on Thursday by a filmmaker in New York who is seeking to have the court declare the popular ditty to be in the public domain, and to block a music company from claiming it owns the copyright to the song and charging licensing fees for its use.

The filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, was producing a documentary movie, tentatively titled “Happy Birthday,” about the song, the lawsuit said. In one proposed scene, the song was to be performed.

But to use it in the film, she was told she would have to pay $1,500 and enter into a licensing agreement with Warner/Chappell, the publishing arm of the Warner Music Group. Ms. Nelson’s company, Good Morning to You Productions, paid the fee and entered into the agreement, the suit says.

This is an interesting piece of trivia:

The lawsuit notes that in the late 1800s, two sisters, Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill, wrote a song with the same melody called “Good Morning to All.” The suit tracks that song’s evolution into the familiar birthday song, and its ownership over more than a century.

Personally, I sure hope Jennifer Nelson wins this case.

Focus@Will: Music to Help You Concentrate

I’m testing out a music service called Focus@Will. It’s designed to stream music that gets you to concentrate (up to 100 minutes) without your mind wandering, thinking about music.  The founders of the start-up behind the service call it a “DJ in the sky” that always plays great productivity music to support whatever you are focusing on.

From their FAQs, here is how the music is designed to help you focus:

  • The focus@will music stream engages your non-focal (background) attention, but not so much that it interferes with your conscious focal attention on the task at hand. This is music you hear but should not be actively listening to.
  • If a track is too bland, your subconscious will start ignoring it, and if too interesting, novel, dynamic or exciting, you will start consciously noticing it, which will distract you. Every track in our exclusive library has been remixed/re-edited and remastered to deliver the precise set of required attributes to keep you in the focus zone.
  • The patented secret sauce is how the system subtly phase sequences the stream to trick your limbic system (the fight or flight survival mechanism in the brain) into not habituating (tuning out) this focusing/anti distracting effect over time.

Worth reading is their science primer that further explains the motivation and research behind the start-up. I’ll follow up, either as an update to this post or in a separate entry on whether I’ve noticed an increase in my productivity using Focus@Will.


Summer Break: A Reality TV Show without the Television

Reality TV has jumped the shark. The Wall Street Journal reports on a new reality TV show titled Summer Break that follows nine Los Angeles area teenagers in the final days before they head to college. But unlike traditional reality shows that complete shooting and are then edited into drama-fraught narratives, Summer Break will offer tweets, pictures, and videos within minutes after cast members create them:

The monitoring goes on 20 hours a day, courtesy of a 45-person production and social-media crew who work out of a small office in Culver City, Calif. The only time someone isn’t digitally chaperoning the teenage charges is between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m.