The Sports Gene

Are elite athletes born that way or made that way through training? Or does that question present a false dichotomy? In The Sports Gene, David Epstein attempts to answer these questions in a very entertaining and readable way.

I thought one of the most interesting facts presented in this book is that there hasn’t been a white cornerback in the NFL (the position that demands the crème de la crème of speedy athletes) in over a decade. This is not to say that a white person cannot be speedy enough to be a corner in the NFL, because they certainly can. However, when it comes to natural sprinting prowess, the distribution of athletes with European heritage looks different than the distribution of athletes with West African heritage for reasons that can be attributed to genetics and evolution.

Epstein never explicitly puts it this way, but I hypothesize that the right tail of the distribution for those with West African heritage is fatter than the right tail for those with European heritage. For some reason, though, it has become controversial to even scientifically hypothesize about genetic differences in different ethnic groups because most people immediately assume (incorrectly I might add) that natural athletic prowess must come at the expense of natural intellectual abilities.

Another interesting fact I gleaned from this book is the following: “the CDC’s data suggest that of American men ages twenty to forty who stand seven feet tall, a startling 17 percent of them are in the NBA right now. Find six honest seven-footers, and one will be in the NBA.”  However, it turns out that height alone isn’t necessarily the best predictor of success in basketball, although not being at least well over 6 ft. is a severe disadvantage that can only be overcome with something like a superhuman ability to jump (think Muggsy Bogues). The wingspan ratio to height is actually very important in basketball and certain Moneyball-esque managers/coaches are already on to this idea.

Another interesting idea from this book — one that most athletes already understand anecdotally — is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” training plan for athletes. We all respond to different training stressors in different ways based on genetic factors.

No matter what your initial answers to those two questions I initially posed are, this book is an excellent read if you’re at all interested in athletics or genetics. There will surely be something in this book that will both surprise and delight you. Read it and then get busy training!


Are Kids Cheaper Than We Think?

As the author of this blog, my personal life will inevitably affect my writing.  With that said, it’s probably a good time to announce that I’ll be the father to a daughter any day now!

I must admit that the whole idea of having a child, let alone raising one, is daunting.  If most fathers are anything like me — which I suspect they are — they have that “oh shit” moment just seconds after they hear that their wife/significant other is pregnant.  It’s during this time that most of us men realize that we don’t have the faintest clue about how to raise a child, let alone change a diaper.  Then, the unnerving thought about how expensive fatherhood is sets in, both monetarily and in terms of having a “life” — I mean “time”.

Are kids really as expensive as we may make them out to be though?  Well, that obviously depends, but in his book Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids, Bryan Caplan’s central argument is that kids cost the average person less than they think.  In other words, thanks to the flawed advice of the Tiger Mothers out there, the perceived economic price of having great kids is higher than the actual economic price.  Finally, a bit of good news to help assuage the financial anxiety I’ve been feeling!

Better yet, we also grossly underestimate the benefits that kids will bring to our lives.  The idea that we are terrible at predicting what impact future events will have on our lives is not only currently fashionable in psychology, but it’s also true.  This idea is especially relevant when we think of the impact that kids and grand-kids will have on our well-being and happiness.  Kids may sound like a drag now (especially if, like me, you like to travel), but the joy most of them will bring to your life in later years is not only difficult to measure, but immeasurably valuable.  I must concede, however, that at least a few parents out there may be overestimating the benefits of their kids (hopefully I’m not one of them), but I digress.

I decided to do some empirical investigation into this claim to see if Caplan was onto something.  I asked several adults with grown children if they regretted not having more kids and the answer was unanimously “yes” (warning: I had a sample size of four and two of these individuals were my parents, who were obviously biased by the joy they experienced in raising a wonderful kid like yours truly).

Due to the idea that we are prone to overestimate the costs (and underestimate the benefits) Caplan goes on to suggest that the average person ought to have more kids than they are currently planning on.  Please note: this isn’t to say that everyone ought to have more kids (or even any kids at all), but rather that the average person ought to have more kids.  If you can avoid looking into the rose-colored mirror, you’ll probably realize that you’re more average than you think; therefore, you probably ought to have more kids.

The reason kids cost less than we think is because we place too much value on nurture, and not enough on nature.  In other words, most of what will determine how your kids turn out will be determined by you, and who you choose to mate with. Caplan cites plenty of scientific evidence to support the claim that genetics matter more than nurture, so I won’t get into that here.  Again, I think it’s important to reiterate that this is not to say that nurture doesn’t matter all, it does; however, it matters less than the average parent thinks.  According to Caplan, nurture works more in the short-run, but nature has its way in the long-run. For example, disciplining a child at a young age may make a certain behavior go away temporarily, but the child’s genes will eventually trump his parent’s attempts to impart discipline into him.

Many parents (and soon to be parents ) find Caplan’s argument disturbing because it means that parent’s monumental efforts to improve their kids lives through a chaotic schedule are mostly for naught when it comes to how the child will turn out as an adult. I, however, think this is great news. It means that once you’ve married the right person, as I most certainly have, then having kids will be less work then you think.  The fact that screwing up your kids is hard is a liberating thought indeed!

Caplan also points out that many of the structured activities parents try to force their kids to do are for naught. In other words, if a kid doesn’t have an iota of natural athletic ability, there is no amount of practice (or expensive lessons) that will make them an elite athlete, or even a decent one.  The same goes for things like musical ability.  So if a kid doesn’t show the faintest interest in something then you and your kid will be better off by simply dropping that activity.

Although Caplan never mentions Nassim Taleb’s work on antifragility, I think the idea of antifragility blends in nicely to this kind of parenting style.  Once you realize that your kids have antifragile properties (like all humans), then the dangers in over-parenting become more apparent.  You want to let your kids make a bunch of small inconsequential mistakes instead of one big mistake that is of great consequence.  Over-parenting removes some volatility from the child’s life, which magnifies the harm when it does occur.

In the end, I think Caplan makes a compelling case that children don’t really cost as much as most of us think. Considering that my first child is now on the way, I sure hope he’s right.  Before I read Caplan’s book, I was certain that being a father was going to be at least two things: 1) an amazing experience and 2) really hard.  It turns out it may be less expensive than I think too.  Then again, perhaps I’m being naive.


Meat Eater

 

The deepest relationships you can have in life are with people (particularly the people that brought you into existence) and the things that sustain you, like food. Modernity has fundamentally altered our relationships with both people and food, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  One thing that has changed in regard to our relationship with food is that we have become incredibly disconnected from the process that brings the food to our plate.  This phenomenon seems to be creating a growing malaise among many of today’s young people, including the difficult to define hipster. [1]  In other words, we have largely forgotten that we are, at our core, hunters (not desk jockeys).

Anyway, I recently finished reading Meat Eater and it’s a personal reflection on hunting chock-full of personal anecdotes detailing Steven Rinella’s hunting and fishing adventures. It’s also somewhat of a philosophical inquiry and spiritual memoir. Or as Rinella himself puts it, “this book uses the ancient art of the hunting story to answer the questions of why I hunt, who I am as a hunter, and what hunting means to me.” It turns out that Rinella believes that spiritually connecting with the food that sustains us is part of what makes us human, and with this, I wholly agree.

According to the British primatologist Richard Wrangham, cooking is what made us human (a review of his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is forthcoming). I agree with Wrangham, but after reading Steven Rinella’s Meat Eater, I’d also argue that hunting is what allowed us to cook.

Some may say we were “born to run” (which may have some truth depending on how we define “run”), but I think it’s more accurate to say that we were born to hunt. [1]  In light of evolutionary past, it only makes sense then that the desire to grow your own food and hunt/fish your own eat meat is as visceral a desire as there can be.

I have a confession to make though: the economist in me loathes the locavore movement and the idea of hunting/gathering all of your own food.  However, the philosopher in me understands that there are quality differences, and ethical and aesthetic preferences, that aren’t always captured in naive economic and financial analysis. [2] In other words, not everything economists call a commodity is a actually a commodity. The meat from a grain-fed industrially raised cow, for example, may be financially cheaper than wild elk meat (especially if you hunt it yourself), but that the quality of the nourishment provided by the wild elk meat, even if it’s just spiritually, is different. This is something that naive rationalists cannot seem to understand.

Anyway, each chapter of the book depicts a different time in Rinella’s life. In the first chapter, he describes his introduction to hunting at the age of ten for the opening day of Michigan’s squirrel hunting season. The remainder of the chapters cover everything from fishing in the Yucatan to hunting in Alaska. While there are some practical tips included at the end of each chapter, this book is certainly not to be confused for a “how-to” guide.

I’ve had the itch to get into hunting/fishing my own meat for quite some time now. As I pursue that endeavor, it was nice to read Rinella’s account of why he hunts. Before you decide to take on any new hobbies, you probably ought to figure out why you want to do it.  I’ve figured out why I want to hunt and fish, and I hope others do too.

Notes:

[1] See this Slate article called “Hipsters Who Hunt”.

[2] See my post “The Case Against the Marathon”

[3] See my post “Protect the Environment: Eat Global!”


The Allure of the Aphorism

There is something magical about the laconic phrases called aphorisms. As an aphorist myself, I’ve tried to capture the allure of the aphorism with a few aphorisms of my own. Here’s one attempt: “Aphorisms are merely philosophical sound bites.” Here’s another: “Aphorisms are merely conclusions without premises.” Or how about this one? “Aphorisms are philosophy with brevity.” It’s easy to see the appeal, right?

In my opinion, a well-written aphorism captures a fundamental essence of the human experience; sometimes these experiences are blatantly obvious, but are expressed in refreshing language and other times they are dripping with subtlety. On occasion, I stumble across an aphorism that is so powerful that I use it as a personal compass to guide my confused soul. I have a deep-held suspicion that I’m not the only aphorism enthusiast that does this.

Given my love of the aphorism, it should come as no surprise that I found James Geary’s book, Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, a delightful treat. Mr. Geary, an aphorist and an avid collector of aphorisms, has chronicled the biographical information of the worlds great aphorists, as well as some of their aphorisms, in this wonderful book. Mr. Geary has done a spectacular job categorizing the various types of aphorists out there. There are many unique types of aphorists, from “Comics, Critics, and Satirists” to “Strange Beasts”, and Mr. Geary covers the whole gamut of aphorists in this book. Some of the aphorists included in this book are well-known names and others are incredibly obscure. I’m willing to bet that no one who reads this book will have heard of every name.

How about a small sampling of a few my personal favorites?

  1. “There is no story stupid enough that someone somewhere won’t believe it.” -Aleksander Fredro
  2. “Remember: One lie does not cost you one truth but the truth.” -Christian Friedrich Hebbel
  3. “Philosophy is the medicine of the soul.” -Pythagoras
  4. “The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live–moreover, the only one.” -E.M. Cioran
  5. “The supreme triumph of reason is to cast doubt upon its own validity.” -Miguel De Unamuno
  6. “The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we do not define us to ourselves.” -Yahia Lababidi
  7. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
  8. “Everything that cannot be understood does nevertheless not cease to exist.” Blaise Pascal
  9. “Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings” -Diogenes
  10. “It is only when the rich are sick that they fully feel the impotence of wealth.” -Charles Caleb Colton

I’ve read thousands upon thousands of aphorisms and I’ve composed several hundred of my own. My thirst for aphorisms hasn’t diminished in the slightest and I will be referring to Mr. Geary’s book anytime I need an aphoristic cocktail. After reading Mr. Geary’s compendium of aphorisms, I was reminded of one of the first aphorisms I ever penned. “Citing aphorisms rarely signifies intelligence, then again, neither does creating them.”


Please Add Me To Your Do Not Call List

Technologies are neither categorically good or bad. As such, I musk ask: what, then, is the purpose of modern communication technologies? I would argue that the purpose is to add value to our lives and to improve our ability to communicate in some way. Certainly some modern communication technologies add value to our lives, say, email and some don’t, e.g., cell phones. In fact, I think cell phones not only fail to add value to my life, but they have, on the whole, made me socially, spiritually, and mentally poorer. And I don’t say that lightly, consider this essay to be my polemic against the cell phone. Email, on the other hand, has greatly increased my ability to communicate both efficiently and effectively. I adore email for these reasons. I realize I’m probably in the minority with this opinion (hopefully not) so please allow me to elaborate.

First, let me be clear. I understand, at least in theory, how someone could argue that cell phones make their life better. In emergency situations I also see how having a cell phone could be incredibly valuable. That’s a valid point and I think it’s largely the reason I justify owning a cell phone myself, otherwise it’d be gone. I would, however, like to remind readers that emergencies still happened in the pre-cell phone era. People not only survived emergencies back then, but they also managed to meet people in person (usually on time) without having to reschedule using cell phones as well. With that being said, there are three reasons in particular as to why I despise cell phones.

I enjoy face-to-face conversations immensely. It is, after-all, probably the most effective and nuanced way to communicate with someone. My first problem with cell phones is that they destroy, rather than foster, face-to-face communication. I often see people abruptly end a face-to-face conversation to take a call or respond to a text, both in personal and business situations. I find this unfathomable, especially in the personal situations. People who do this to others are essentially communicating to the person they are conversing with that whoever is calling or texting is more important or interesting than the very human-being in their physical presence. While that may indeed be true, having some social grace and tact is important if we are to have any semblance of civilized culture. The sheer rudeness cell phones create is utterly disturbing on many levels.

There is also something incredibly irritating about always being perceived as available. On occasion, my phone will ring, buzz, and beep on the hour — all day long. Aside from demonstrating how popular I am, I think this anecdote illustrates another problem I have with cell phones, i.e., I simply don’t want to be answering calls and responding to text messages all day long because it breaks my concentration and I can’t get anything done (such as writing essays like this one).

Finally, cell phones have this strange ability to create emergencies out of situations that wouldn’t have been emergencies in the past. In my last job, I often reminded myself that there is no such thing as a marketing emergency. This belief of mine, however, didn’t preclude colleagues of mine from believing in the existence of marketing emergencies and I speculate that cell phones were somehow responsible for instilling this belief. The fact that one owns a cell phone doesn’t mean that they should be available at all times. Past colleagues and bosses of mine didn’t seem to understand this point and would frequently harass me with calls until I picked up and provided an answer to their work related inquiry. Occasionally, this actually happened to me while I was on vacation, which elegiacally reminded me that I didn’t really get to take real vacations.

The rebuttal here is, of course, to suggest to just turn the thing off. That is indeed a temporary solution, but the process of having to listen to and delete the plethora of voicemails that accrue while your phone is off is often equally obnoxious. I’m not interested in “Band-aid” type solutions when it comes to a matter so serious as cell phones.

In general, thinking before you speak is a good idea. When I overhear certain phone calls or am unfortunate enough to be the victim of a painful call myself, I quickly realize that not everyone believes in this seemingly simple concept. The beauty of email, I find, is that it lets you think before you write. As such, I don’t feel rushed to provide a hasty response to a question that may easily get misconstrued over the cell phone. Also, email is patient, it’s not buzzing in your pocket (unless you have email on your phone, which I refuse to get). You can answer it when you want and when you’re ready.

I’m around computers with enough frequency that this is a very realistic alternative to having a cell phone for me. Furthermore, I’m very diligent (and much better) at responding to people via email (and in systematically choosing who not to respond to), which thus enhances my productivity and effectiveness. Rather than effectively improving our lives, I think cell phones are often instead cancerous to our well-being, usually with the added insults of detracting from our effectiveness as communicators and by destroying our ability to be present with others.


The European Dream

People the world over are likely to recognize the phrase “The American Dream”. There are many connotations that come with the phrase, but for many, America embodies the land of hope. According to social thinker and author of The European Dream, Jeremy Rifkin, the American Dream is close to becoming eclipsed by another dream, that of the European mentality. Is this, however, a purely positive change?

It’s frequently said that Americans live to work. According to Rifkin, “The American Dream is largely caught up in the death instinct. We seek autonomy at all costs. We over-consume, indulge our every appetite, and waste the Earth’s largesse. We put a premium on unrestrained economic growth, reward the powerful and marginalize the vulnerable… We consider ourselves a chosen people and, therefore, entitled to more than our fair share of the Earth’s bounty. Sadly, our self-interest is metamorphosing into pure selfishness. We have become a death culture.”

On the contrary, it’s often said that Europeans work to live, rather than live to work.  Rifkin defines the European Dream as follows: “The European Dream is a beacon of light in a troubled world. It beckons us to a new age of inclusivity, diversity, quality of life, deep play, sustainability, universal human rights, the rights of nature, and peace on earth.”

At its core, The European Dream is a fairly sound social critique of American culture. It’s incredibly dense and full of empirical evidence, some of which is shaky. The last chapter of the book, “Universalizing the European Dream,” is by far the most compelling in the book and summarizes many of the important ideas proposed throughout the book.

Rifkin alludes to the idea that Asians are more likely to embrace the European Dream than Americans. Richard E. Nisbett has pointed out that the Western mind sees the world as objects in isolation, while the Eastern (Asian) mind views the world more as relationships that exist within an overall context. The Western mind puts a premium on the individual, the Eastern mind on the group.  Rifkin writes: “Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism all concentrate on the whole rather than the parts–what we in the West call a systems approach.”

In other words, Asians are more likely to emphasize the harmony of humans and their natural world. Mr. Rifkin, however, warns that if the American mindset is too individualistic and Darwinian, the Asian mindset might be equally criticized for being too oriented toward “group think.” In my opinion, Americans can and should find a better balance.

Perhaps one of the most interesting points in the book is the suggestion by Rifkin that universal human rights will succeed only if personal morality and ethics are universalized as well. He further suggests that the problem with the morality in Western culture is that it is too linear and localized. Western morality is focused on an idea Rifkin calls “hot evil,” in other words, acts that are relatively easy to attach direct responsibility to, i.e., robbery.

If one views the world from the Eastern or European perspective of an interconnectedness, one is much more likely to incorporate “cold evil” into their moral schema.  Rifkin defines “cold evil” as follows: “Cold evil is actions whose effects are so far removed from the behavior that caused them that no causal relationship is suspected, no sense of guilt or wrong doing is felt, and no collective responsibility is exercised to punish the errant behavior.”

Here are a few examples:

1) If an American SUV owner saw a television news story attributing a deadly coastal flooding to global warming it’s unlikely that the individual would feel any sense of moral guilt for the destruction caused even though their decision to drive an SUV contributed to the problem. This is an example of cold evil since most Americans are able to rationally justify their behavior in an individualistic mindset. As Mr. Rifkin says, “It’s one thing to talk abstractly about the global-warming crisis. It’s quite another to suggest that millions of owners of SUVs might be morally culpable.”

2) Many Americans and Europeans buy Nike products. By voting with their dollars, their consumption decisions are indirectly supporting the exploitation of children in Vietnamese sweatshops with draconian working conditions. I suspect that few Americans (even the most ardent supporters of the American Dream) would tolerate such conditions for the neighboring children where they live. I further speculate that any company on American soil promoting those practices would be boycotted. This type of consumption habit is the perfect example of cold evil.

3) Food consumption choices affect not only humans, but also animals. Many humans and animals suffer indirectly because of Americans desire for cheap food (see the movie Food, Inc.). Tragically, 80 percent of the worlds hungry children live in countries with an actual food surplus. If we heard that our next door neighbors children were starving when food was in abundance we would be morally outraged. Again, this demonstrates the distinction between hot and cold evil.

According to Owen Barfield, a British philosopher, we are approaching the third stage of human consciousness. This stage where we make the self-aware choice to re-participate with the body of nature. How does Rifkin elaborate on this point? “To re-participate with nature willingly, by exercising free will, is what separates the third stage of human consciousness from everything that has gone before. By freely choosing to be part of nature, one retains one’s unique identity, while embedding oneself in the oceanic oneness of the biosphere.”

I found it particularly interesting that Americans are known for their unexamined optimism and Europeans are a bit more pessimistic.  Rifkin ultimately claims that there is some middle ground. Europeans must, however, overcome their cynicism and Americans must overcome their naive optimism. Ultimately, I agree with Rifkin despite disagreeing with some of his contentions. A new found consciousness is our only hope for a better world.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]


Good Calories, Bad Calories

What makes people fat?  Is red meat unhealthy?  Will a diet low in saturated fat reduce your risk for heart diseases?  It’s fair to say that most of us have grown accustomed to the conventional wisdom that is often used to answer these questions, i.e., being lazy makes people fat, red meat is unhealthy, and, of course, a diet low in saturated fat is better for you than one high in saturated fat.  Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, asks us to consider one more question though: have any of these claims been verified through rigorous science or are they merely the pet views of certain individuals?

When it comes to health and diet, everything you think you know may in fact be wrong.  In the book, Taubes rigorously analyzes the mounds of scientific literature on the subject and he claims the following: “I had no idea that I would find the quality of research on nutrition, obesity, and chronic disease to be so inadequate; that so much conventional wisdom would be founded on so little substantial evidence; and that, once it was, the researchers and the public-health authorities who funded the research would no longer see any reason to challenge this conventional wisdom and so test its validity.”

After reading this book, there is no doubt in my mind that the dietary advice we’ve been given for the last three decades by the federal government has been based on shaky science and that is has been harmful to our collective health.  I think it would be fair to say that those who demonized saturated fat owe us an apology.  Taubes convincingly shows that much of what is believed about nutrition and health is based on political agendas coupled with only the flimsiest of “science”.

Taubes reminds readers that the human body is complex and it’s very tempting to oversimplify it, especially in field of science.  When studying complex systems, it’s also very easy to confuse cause and effect.  Taubes demonstrates this point by asking the following question: do we overeat because we are fat or are we fat because we overeat?  It’s important to note that the answer to this question is not trivial; the causality is quite different in each case.  In case you’re wondering, he believes that former answer is correct.

So what, then, constitutes a healthy diet?  Like Taubes, I trust Mother Nature much more than I do the federal government or nutritionists.  Most humans have been eating saturated fat and meat for a long time.  I am, however, weary of any dietary zealots who claim to know with certainty that their way of eating is superior.  In my opinion, people have evolved different levels of tolerance for different things.  Processed foods, however, are very new in the evolutionary picture, so I think you can’t go wrong with the advice to focus on eating real food, even if it’s mostly meat.