Sore knees; decluttering my workspace

I hurt my knees and toes a few weeks ago, being too aggressive with a new natural-movement thing. Recovery from this sort of injury is best accomplished with a mixture of rest and gentle movement, and that’s what I’ve been doing. My toes got better pretty quickly, but my knees have continued to hurt.

Gentle movement in the form of walking did seem to help, but as the soreness persisted anyway, I started ramping up the amount of rest, figuring that was what was needed. My knees would get better and then get worse again. Extra rest didn’t seem to help. It was very frustrating.

Yesterday it occurred to me that the problem might be the way I was resting: I was spending extra time sitting at my computer.

In particular, I was spending a lot of time tucking my legs back under the chair, resting my feet on two of the chair’s wheels. When I wasn’t doing that, I’d stretch my legs out, but my left leg (the one with the persistently sorer knee) was constrained in how much it could stretch out, because I’d put the subwoofer for my computer speakers under the desk on the left.

So, this morning I made two changes. First, I moved the subwoofer out from under the desk, freeing up space to stretch out my left leg. Second, I lowered my chair, making it easier to put my feet flat on the floor, and less tempting to tuck my legs back under the chair.

I’d had the chair height set with the screen in mind, after some neck issues seven or eight years ago. Those had been resolved by getting computer glasses (I had been tipping my head back to read the screen through the progressive part of my glasses), so I feel free to rejigger the space to address other issues.

Not being an idiot, I’m also trying to spend less time at the computer today, and will go on doing so until my knee is all better.

On a related note: One of the things I’m less able to deal with during the dark days of winter is clutter. Unfortunately, I’m also less able to get my ordinary decluttering tasks done. In the past, this has led to a vicious cycle of clutter making me more depressed and depression making less able to tidy up my workspace. Doing my other workspace reconfiguring left me with a bit of momentum, so I carried on with some preemptive late-fall workspace tidying. Behold:

Workstation 2015That grey box at the far left is the subwoofer, no longer under the desk.

My screen desktop is a photo taken in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration, about five minutes walk from my house. Here it is on Flickr:

Snowy late-fall day at Lake Park Prarie

It’s a beautiful image and well worth clicking through to embiggen.

I share a lot more photos in my Flickr photostream than I end up using in blog posts. After you click through to admire that one, check out some of the others as well.

Unicorn poop

All the cool kids shared this video weeks ago. I’m late to the party, but I didn’t want to miss out completely.

I was busy, but now I have some time while I wait for the UPS guy to show up.

It’s interesting: I have no tags with which to tag this post. (Well, I do have the tag “fiber” but I use it to tag posts about textile fiber.) Rather than leave it untagged, I added the tag unicorn, even though it will just confuse things next time I wrote a post about unicorns.

The vitamin D window has closed

Me in the Snow
Me in the snow. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

Seven or eight years ago, I became aware of research that suggested that vitamin D deficiencies were a possible cause of seasonal depression. As I have long suffered (albeit mildly) from SAD, I figured it was worth trying a vitamin D supplement, and it did seem to help.

I worry just a bit about taking a supplement, because there are dangers with excessive doses of vitamin D. (A random site on the web suggests that doses over about 10,000 IU per day are dangerous, if continued for a period of months.)

So, I prefer to get my vitamin D via sunlight. A pale-skinned person like me can make upwards of 10,000 IU of vitamin D in just a few minutes of mid-day summer sun—but there’s no danger of getting an overdose: your skin keeps making it as long as you’re in the sun, but once saturated with an optimal amount, it starts un-making it as fast as it makes it.

But it’s the UVB light in the sun that makes the vitamin D, and at my latitude (I live at almost exactly 40° north), little or no UVB gets through the atmosphere during the winter. Specifically, the vitamin D window closed this year on November 20th. It’ll open again on January 20th—although of course it’ll be too cold to expose much skin to the sun for a month or two after that.

This past summer, I spent more time in the sun than in years past, and found that it made me feel especially good—like the opposite of seasonal depression. I imagine it’s the extra vitamin D, although I don’t see any way to tweeze evidence for that hypothesis out from the many other possible reasons. Perhaps it was just more bright light (as opposed to the UVB in particular)—surely the sun is the world’s best light box. Perhaps it was just being more active (I tend to get my sun walking or running, not sitting or lying in the sun). Perhaps it was the endocannabinoids produced during the longer runs in particular. Perhaps it was more time in nature (I spend a lot of my outdoor time walking or running in our local prairie and woods), which is known to be good for the mood. Perhaps it was the extra “together time” Jackie and I got on our very long walks. Perhaps it was the solitude of walks and runs by myself, providing space for meditation.

Whatever it was, I miss it in the winter, and I fixate on a vitamin D deficiency as a possible culprit. Maybe I’ll up my supplement dose. Of course, I won’t do just that. I’ll use my Happy Light™. I’ll go for long walks in the cold and snow. I’ll get out in the prairie and the woods. I’ll try to cover all the possibilities. But I’ll keep taking my vitamin D.

Fear itself

I’d seen it right along, and plenty of other people have commented on it before me, but I don’t think it really sunk in until just this past week, with all the hand-wringing over Syrian refugees:

Republicans are a bunch of cowards.

I’ve never seen so much fear as has been on display the past week from the Republicans (and, I must admit, way too many Democrats as well). And over what? A bunch of people—largely educated and middle class—who have been forced to flee their homes.

Seriously, the Republicans are straight up afraid of widows and orphans. What’s up with that?

I mean, I totally understand why the Syrians are afraid. They have soldiers and militias fighting house-to-house in their neighborhoods, blasting them with artillery, even using chemical weapons. Not to mention, they have U.S., French, and Russian air forces dropping bombs on those same militias, in the same neighborhoods.

But the Republicans? What are they afraid of? They’re afraid that some “terrorist” will “slip in” amongst the masses of refugees and commit “acts of terror” in the United States.

Well, these hypothetical refugee-terrorists (of which we’ve seen exactly zero so far) will have to get at the back of a pretty long line, behind the non-hypothetical white-supremacist, right-wing, and anti-government militias (not to mention depressed loner high-school boys) who have been committing mass murders in the U.S. in numbers well in excess of those committed by foreign terrorists.

Perhaps worst of all, most of the Republican rhetoric isn’t even aimed at affecting government policy; it’s aimed at preemptively setting up other people to take the blame. “We said you had to give ‘100% assurance’ that they wouldn’t be terrorists before you could let them in, so if even one of them commits a terrorist act it’s all on you!” (They know perfectly well that ‘100% assurance’ is impossible, which is why they demand it. It makes me want to point out that in the U.S. we convict people of capital crimes and execute them, and all we require is assurance “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I expect pointing that out makes me a rose-colored glasses wearing liberal who’s endangering our country.)

Fortunately, some people are man enough not to quake in their boots at the idea of some ordinary families fleeing terror and ending up here, and man enough not to be terrorized at the idea that they might have to take the blame if an evildoer does slip in. I’m thinking of President Obama here, rather too few Democrats in Congress, most of my liberal friends, and (oddly, because I don’t think of myself as especially brave) me.

Appalling letter from senator Mark Kirk

I got email today from one of my senators, with the text of a truly appalling letter to president Obama from the senator and eleven of his colleagues.

The letter (here’s his press release on it) calls on the president to ensure that “no refugee related to the Syrian crisis is admitted to the United States unless the U.S. government can guarantee, with 100 percent assurance, that they are not members, supporters, or sympathizers of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”

It’s obviously intended to be an unattainable threshold, but that’s really beside the point—the whole thing is completely wrong-headed.

I was moved to respond, and sent him this message via the contact form on his website:

I wanted to say that I was appalled by the letter to president Obama that you shared with me.

Since 9/11, the number of refugees who have committed terrorist attacks in the US is exactly zero—which suggests to me that keeping refugees out of the US is a complete waste of time and effort.

Targeting refugees—the most helpless and vulnerable among us—is not only pointless, it is also heartless and cruel. It is a failure to live up to our obligations under international law. It is also, in my opinion, terribly unamerican.

There are far better, far more effective ways to protect US citizens than by heaping yet more misery on those who have already faced the violent extremism of ISIS—those Syrians who have been forced by it to flee their own country.

I urge you to write to the president and let him know that you repudiate your entire letter, and to suggest that existing US policies on refugees, established in accordance with international law, should remain in place.

Another eleven senators signed the letter. If yours was one of them, you might want to contact your senator and say something. Feel free to borrow from my text, if it speaks to you.

Continuing our very long walks

Since our big Kal-Haven trail walk in June, we’ve continued to walk, but we haven’t gone on many long walks—and in particular, haven’t gone on any very long walks.

What’s the boundary between ordinary long walks and very long walks? I choose to set an arbitrary dividing line of 14 miles. This is because Jackie and I, by merest happenstance, turn out to each remember having walked 14 miles as our “longest hike ever” in the years before we’d met.

It was with all that in mind that I suggested a couple of days ago that we should go for a 15-mile walk today.

I had in mind more than just ticking off the “very long walk” box. With winter coming, I want to be sure I don’t start thinking that ordinary winter weather is a reason not to go for a long walk. It was chilly this weekend, so I thought a good opportunity to ease our way in to walking in the cold. There are also scheduling issues that’ll make it hard to get a very long walk in during the next week, so it seemed today was our big chance.

It was a wonderful day for a walk—beautiful, clear, sunny weather, crisp in the morning, but reaching 60 in afternoon. We walked up First street to the research park, then turned east and walked along the south end of the Arboretum and through Orchard Downs, before turning south again so we could take a turn through Meadowbrook Park. Then we headed back north along Vine as far as downtown Urbana, so we could have lunch at Crane Alley. (Good beer. I had a Deschutes cinder cone red on nitro. Jackie had an ESB, although I forget which one.) From there we headed west toward campus, headed back south to have coffee at Espresso Royale, then meandered through campus, crossed the railroad tracks and Route 45 to head south along the Boulware path, stopping at Schnucks to get some half&half and tomato paste.

The total distance came in at 14.62 miles, comfortably over the line into “very long walk” territory by my standards.

I didn’t take many pictures, but I did get this one of Jackie in front of the Alpha Sig frat house, Chuck McCaffrey’s old fraternity. This would have been along about mile 10 of our walk.

Jackie in front of the Alpha Sig frat house (Chuck's fraternity).
Jackie in front of the Alpha Sig frat house (Chuck’s fraternity).

Oh, and I wanted to mention that I wore my new boots! I bought a pair of Lems Boulder Boots, minimalist-style boots that I got with an eye to being my main winter boot this season. I got them five or six weeks ago, and have worn them as my everyday boot for most of that time, but this was their first try on a very long walk. Fortunately, they worked great.

Play versus practice for diverse natural movement

In looking for ways to fill my day with diverse natural movement, one tactic I keep seeing suggested is play. It’s a compelling idea. More play will likely boost both the diversity of movement (because play is like that) and the quantity of movement (because play is fun).

I’ve been hesitating, because I already struggle to balance my desire for diversity with the worry that maximizing diversity will make it hard to improve any of the many things I want to improve at. I worry that play will put a heavy thumb on that balance, toward diversity and away from focus.

It’s a big deal, because we know how to get good at something: deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson in a 1993 paper that I’ve talked about before. (For reference: Deliberate practice is a cycle of performing your skill, monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and then figuring out how to do it better.)

One of the points that Ericsson makes in that paper is that deliberate practice is very different from other activities like work and play:

Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

I will grant Ericsson his point in the case of work: If you’re getting paid, you’re probably not going to be creating opportunities to focus on the areas of your performance that are most in need of improvement; rather, you’ll try to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve mastered, so you can produce your best work as quickly as possible.

In the case of play, however, I beg to differ. Or rather, I observe that when Ericsson provides examples of “play” in the paper, he’s mostly talking about competitive and especially team-oriented play. Just like with work, the conditions—trying to win, trying not to let your team down—similarly incentivize arranging things to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve already mastered.

Serious competitive play is only one kind of play, though. There’s a lot of play that is only notionally competitive, as well as play that’s explicitly cooperative. These other sorts of play are at least as common as serious competitive play.

In my experience, these other sorts of play are full of deliberate practice.

I once saw a kid trying to jump a skateboard onto a low wall. In the time it took me to walk past (a minute or two), the kid repeatedly rolled his skateboard in a big loop tangent to the wall, attempted to make the jump, failed, and set up to try again. I don’t know how long he was going at it before I arrived or after I left, but I’ve rarely seen a more perfect example of deliberate practice: He was performing his skill, monitoring his performance, trying to figure out how to do it better, and then trying again.

In my experience, play involving a group people of various skills levels very often includes specific instruction and specific encouragement for the less-skilled players to learn and then practice a new skill. “You don’t know how to do a vault? Well, here’s one way. Try it a few times.”

So, I think I’m going to quit hesitating to emphasize “play” as a way to fit more, and more various, natural movement into my day. Like that kid on the skateboard, I’ll try to include some deliberate practice in my play. Of course, I still have my essential quandary: How do I thread the needle between focusing on one or a few things without losing the diversity? But that’s a problem for another day. My play can include as much focus as I choose to include.

More Flickring

I’ve been putting my photos on Flickr for years now—my first photos were uploaded in 2004. I didn’t upload all my photos, just the ones I particularly wanted to share. (In those days, you had to pay for a Pro account to share more than 200 photos. By uploading only occasionally, I stayed under that limit almost until it was lifted.)

More recently, I configured my phone to upload all the photos I take with it to Flickr, but to make uploads private until I go and publish them. I don’t do that for privacy or security. (I figure once a photo is uploaded, it’s effectively public anyway.) I do it this way so that my photostream is a list of photos that I’ve chosen to share, rather than just all my photos.

I think I once had a “Flickr badge” with some of my photos on the sidebar of my blog, but it seems to have gone away at some point. I forget whether there was some technical reason, or if it just got lost when I changed themes or something. In any case, I once again have a widget on the sidebar, showing my most recent shares to Flickr.

It’s pretty far down on the sidebar. In case it’s too far to scroll down, here my most recent Flickr photos, as of this morning:

Preying Mantis

Prairie path in fall

Wooly bear

Jackie weaving squares

Prairie sunset


New research on endocannabinoids as source of runner’s high

In line with what I’ve been saying for years now, today The Well has a report of new research supporting the hypothesis that endocannabinoids are much more likely to be the source of runner’s high than endorphins. (See my endocannabinoids tag for previous posts.)

The gist of the experiment was to give mice running wheels, and then measure both mood (anxiety levels, as shown by a willingness to linger in light areas, as opposed to staying in the dark) and blood levels of endocannabinoids and endorphins. Then they used drugs to selectively block receptors for cannabinoids. Doing so eliminated any observable anxiety-reduction effects from running. Blocking receptors for endorphins had no such effect.

The study itself: A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice.

In keeping with earlier research on this effect, the amount of running it takes to see a strong endocannabinoid effect was substantial—the mice were running more than 3 miles a day. I don’t know how far three mouse miles is in human miles. Earlier research suggested that 50 minutes of running was sufficient in humans.

So the subtle upshot of the new study may be that we should run. And if we don’t feel a high, perhaps try running more, until eventually a gentle euphoria may settle in and we can turn to our running companion and say, “Ah, my endocannabinoids are kicking in at last!”

I should probably find some running companions to share this with. I almost always run alone, and it seems like my endocannabinoids kick in just about exactly when I no longer feel any urge to wonder about whether they’re going to kick in or not.

Here’s one of the paths through the prairie where I run:

Prairie Path
Prairie Path

Gamifying exercise: motivating AND appalling

There’s a good Oliver Burkeman piece in the Guardian on gamification, or what Jane McGonigal calls living gamefully: using “the same psychological principles, featuring mini-challenges, systems for winning points, completing quests and moving upwards through levels,” to motivate people to do ordinary real-world stuff like exercise or go to work. Burkeman suggests that gamification “reliably divides people into those energized by it and those utterly appalled,” so I wanted to call myself out as an exception, because I’m both.

First of all, I’m totally in the target audience for this sort of thing. I remember seeing this comic in 2006, back when I was still working a regular job, and finding it spoke deeply to me.

xkcd comic Exercise by Randall Munroe

I bought both Zombies, Run! and Superhero Workout by Six to Start, two games that gamify exercise. I found myself strongly motivated to get out and run, even in winter cold, by the story in Zombies, Run!

More recently, I’ve observed myself strangely motivated by Google Fit. Even though my goal is self-set, and the reward for achieving it is merely a splash of orange lines and a “bling” sound, I have been known to nip out in the late evening to walk another six minutes just to get my walking time for the day up to my 90-minute goal.

I would pay serious money for a more clever version of Google Fit—one that could count not only time and distance walking, running, and bicycling, but also keep track of my crawling, hanging, climbing, jumping, balancing, throwing & catching, lifting & carrying, swimming & diving, and grappling & striking.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is fundamentally an error—the same error I talked about just a few days ago, when I explained that, although it’s in my nature to want to figure out what I need and make a plan to get it, I recognize that it’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because the “figuring it out” step is both impossible (intractably complex) and unnecessary (get ample natural movement and you’ll be fine).

And yet . . . . And yet, it is a fact that my life does not have enough natural movement in it. Given that I’m not going to become a hunter-gatherer (and would probably starve to death in a few months, if I didn’t die sooner from exposure or an accident), perhaps “living gamefully” is useful as a way to motivate myself and to keep track of the exercise I need to replace the movement I’m not getting.