The wrong class of euphoria-inducing chemicals

Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003
Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

I remember back in the late 1970s and early 1980s people were speculating that endorphins might be the source of runners high—and I remember how disappointed they were when experiments showed that exercise-induced levels of endorphins were much too low to produce the reported levels of euphoria.

They may simply have been looking for the wrong class of euphoria-inducing chemicals—it now looks like runners high may be produced not by endorphins but by endocannabinoids. Further, according to a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, there’s reason to believe that this euphoria is important enough in improving reproductive fitness that it is broadly selected for in cursorial mammals (that is, those with bodies suited for running). See Endocannabinoids motivated exercise evolution for an overview. (The paper itself is behind an annoying paywall for people without some sort of university affiliation.)

This could explain a lot of otherwise hard-to-explain behavior:

. . . a neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks, and why non-cursorial mammals avoid such locomotor behaviors.

Sadly, the evolved system does not show much promise for turning couch potatoes into endurance athletes:

. . . couch potatoes are not about to leap suddenly out of their comfy chairs and experience the pleasurable effects of exercise, because they probably cannot produce enough endocannabinoids. . . . Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to this sort of rewarding sensation.

This is why I’m so pleased at having come up with an exercise regimen that I can persist with over the winter—I enter spring already able to enjoy the euphoric joys of exercise without having to first get in shape.

What do taxing districts do?

The town of Savoy, just south of Champaign, makes a point of having lower taxes. They do so by not providing many of the amenities that Champaign and Urbana provide—no bus service, no public library, etc. Residents, since they can be free riders on Champaign and Urbana services, like the situation just fine.

A few years back, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District was looking to expand its service area into Savoy. Property owners in Savoy didn’t like that idea.

There are rules allowing taxing districts to annex adjacent areas and begin providing services—and assessing the tax. The rules make it pretty tough for an area to opt out; just about the only way is to already be in the taxing district of another service provider. With that in mind, Savoy created its own mass transit district a few years ago (the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District). The idea was that it wouldn’t provide any mass transit service and wouldn’t levy any tax.

All very sad, of course, for anyone like me who uses the bus service, along with anyone who thinks that public services are a good idea. Which meant there was a bit of schadenfreude when, as anyone with any sense had foreseen, Savoy’s transit district promptly levied a small tax (to pay the legal cost of fighting CUMTD’s attempt to annex areas within the district anyway). Taxing districts levy taxes. It’s what they do.

Now we’re getting a bit more schadenfreude: People within Savoy’s transit district (the new YMCA and an apartment complex) are asking the district to provide transit services.

It’s funny, but it’s also kind of sad. I mean, the people who built the apartment complex and the YMCA surely knew that they were building in a place where there was no transit service. I’m sure they picked those locations because the land was cheap. Didn’t they stop to think that the reason the land was cheap was because of the lack of services?

On the one hand, I’m glad to see the Savoy transit district getting pressured to provide transit services. Providing transit services are what transit districts are supposed to do. And I have no sympathy for the residents who created the district in the hopes of dodging a tax—only a moron creates a taxing district while expecting not to be taxed.

But I’m still kind of sad. If transit service to the YMCA is important (and the YMCA says the lack of it is their visitor’s number one complaint), wouldn’t it have made more sense to build the new YMCA within the CUMTD service area? Instead, they build where they know there’s no service, and then complain about it: More sprawl and more bickering.

Of course, those are just more reasons why the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District was a bad idea. I mean, really! Who’s so stupid as to create a taxing district hoping not to be taxed?

Contributor’s copy for “Watch Bees” in Russian!

In the post yesterday I found my contributors copy of the Russian magazine Esli (If) with the Russian translation of “Watch Bees”!

I’d been keeping an eye on their website, expecting that they’d update it with the new issue before I got my copy by international mail, but the paper copy arrived first.

Very interesting to see my name transliterated into Cyrillic characters.

I happened to know that the character that looks like P is pronounced as R, so I was tentatively able to spot “Brewer” in the table of contents by the placement of the Ps. I still wasn’t sure, of course, but my feeling was somewhat strengthened by the initial character of my first name looking like a Greek Phi.

The table of contents directed me to page 111, and flipping ahead to there I was able to confirm my story by the interior illustration:

What a great picture! It captures a key scene in the story while avoiding any spoilers.

I haven’t very often gotten an illustration for one of my stories, so I’m especially pleased.

I’ll try to figure out the artist’s name and see if he or she has a website I can link to. (The name is there on the picture, but in Cyrillic characters. And it’s a long name. I guess my next step is to spend half an hour hunting for each character on a Unicode character table.)

My mother-in-law, who speaks some Russian, has been asking after this issue. She’ll be very excited to learn that it has arrived.

Local taiji blog

The local taiji group that I practice with, Community Tai Chi, recently opened up its formerly closed (password protected) Community Tai Chi student blog.

If you’re local, and you’re interested in studying taiji, the site and the blog together give you a very good idea of what you’d be studying if you studied with us. At the top of the blog are a series of posts with links to videos of the various movements in the 8-movement form we teach beginners (reposted so that they appear in order). Further down is a long post with links to videos of the 24-movement form that the more advanced class is working on (the first 24 of the Chen-style 48 movement form). Further down yet are some older posts with links to taiji resources various other places (including a couple that link back here, to some of my taiji posts).

Another view on frugal living

One of my fellow Wise Bread writers, Nora Dunn, has been posting some of the financial details of her travel-heavy lifestyle, including this post on her 2011 Income. (It’s got a link to her earlier post on her 2011 spending, and promises a forthcoming post on why she chooses to earn this much money and not more.)

It’s pretty interesting for anyone who’s thinking about the sort of issues that I write about in my Wise Bread articles—how and why to spend less, and how and why to earn the money to support that frugal lifestyle (and not some other lifestyle).

Race and the fictional character

One of my Clarion classmates, Nnedi Okorafor, tweeted today wondering why sometimes authors won’t just say what race a character is. I doubt if she was thinking about me, but I’m one of those writers who is sometimes coy about a character’s race. My answer won’t fit in 140 characters, so I thought I’d write a post.

The most common instance when I do this (just provide physical descriptions, rather than stating a racial identity) is when the viewpoint character doesn’t know the answer.

This is pretty common in real life. There are plenty of people I know whose ethnic heritage is not at all obvious just from their appearance. You’d have to ask.  And these days, I hesitate to ask—some people take offense at the question, and others are simply tired of answering. So, just like in the real world, my characters often don’t know the ethnic heritage of other characters. Sometimes they’ll speculate. Other times they won’t.

The other common instance when I do this is when the whole cultural background thing is complex enough to be a distraction from the story. A character of South Asian heritage might be one whose ancestors had immigrated to Uganda but whose grandparents had been expelled and moved to England. But for story purposes I might decide that all I want to say is that she has straight, dark hair and speaks with an English accent.

Finally, what I’m working on right now is a far-future story where humans have spread to a hundred worlds. Even when they know where on Earth people had a particular skin color, they know no more about the paths their various ancestors took than I know about mine. (I can point to some English, Irish, and Dutch—but there’s reason to believe that one of my male ancestors came from somewhere around the Mediterranean, or maybe Sarmatia.)

I do have one unfinished story where I play around a bit with ethnicity, because the viewpoint character was raised to be interested in it. Due to his background, he’s much better at it than I am, able to look at people and perceive that this one is Celtic, that one Igbo, another Chettiar. It was fun to write those bits, but it got to be a bit much to be just a quirk of the character, without managing to rise to the level of being a powerful driver of the story.

Guest Post at Asta Lander’s Simply Living

I’ve got a guest post up at Asta Lander’s blog Simply Living, about the trade-offs that people make when they choose to work for wages or a salary, and how you can get most of the benefits while avoiding most of the downside.

It’s called Choosing Freedom.

There was a time when most people were self-sufficient. They acquired what they needed through some mix of hunting, gathering, fishing, farming, raising animals, and making things themselves. Not many people do that any more.

Running and me

I’m of two minds about running for exercise. Except when I’m running or wishing I was running; then I’m all for it.

I used to have a lot of reasons I ran for exercise, but they’ve been dropping away.

One reason that I run for exercise is that I want to be able to run. (Sometimes I want to get somewhere reasonably close in a hurry, and running is great for that.) I always figured that, if I wanted to be able to run, I needed to run for exercise—to build and maintain the capability.

Except, twice this month I had to run to catch the bus, and I did—even though I haven’t been running for exercise since last year. These impromptu bus-catching runs weren’t long runs, but I did them flat-out, without warmup or stretching, wearing whatever shoes I had on at the time—and both times were fine. I did them without undue effort and without getting hurt.

So, it seems that my regular fitness activities are enough to maintain at least a minimum capability for running.

Another reason I run for exercise is that it’s wonderfully efficient. All winter, the aerobic portion of my fitness regimen has been to walk for an hour on the four days a week that I’m not lifting and doing taiji. In an hour I walk a bit over 3 miles. If I cover the same distance running, I do it a good bit more quickly, meaning that I don’t have to spend as much of the day exercising.

Except that I’ve found myself fitting the hour of walking in very easily, without scheduling any exercise at all. There are several local errands (grocery store, bank, neighborhood restaurants) that are about a 10 minute walk each way. To run my slightly more distant errands, I take the bus. It’s a similar 10 minute walk to the bus stop, but that’s typically followed by 10 minutes of walking at the other end as well, for a total of 20 minutes walking each way.

So, if I go on one outing by bus plus one neighborhood errand, that’s my 60 minutes already. Running is efficient, but it’s not more efficient than that.

Less important than either of those, but still a reason I run, is that it gives me a sense of health and fitness. If I have an irrational sense that there’s something wrong with me, going for a run will usually take care of it. (Surely, I tell myself, if there were something really wrong with me, I wouldn’t be able to run like this.) I always knew that this was the sort of false comfort that’s only appropriate when I’m really quite sure that my sense of unwellness is, in fact, irrational. Going for a run is a fine way of dealing with, let’s say, a  panic attack. It’s a really dumb way to deal with a heart attack. (I don’t have panic attacks, but I am prone to worrying about my health unnecessarily. Those worries don’t prey on my mind as much when I’m running regularly.)

The problem with running is that I get hurt. Almost every runner I know gets hurt. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never had a walking injury more serious than a blister nor a bicycling injury more serious than a sore butt. But I’ve lost months of exercise time due to running injuries.

Still, despite the problems with running, and despite the loss of some of my rationalizations for running, I’ve started running again. But I’m doing it a little differently, now that I recognize that my reasons for running aren’t as strong as I’d thought they were.

Now I recognize that I run mainly for fun. I run because I really enjoy it. I enjoy the runs themselves. I enjoy the feeling of tiredness in my legs after a run. I enjoy knowing that I can run further and faster than I’m likely to need to.

If my enjoyment is the main reason I do it, that suggests that I should only do the fun part. So, I’ll abandon any effort to make a plan or set a schedule. I used to carefully structure my runs around an idea of stress followed by recovery. (I’ll still include both stress and recovery, but I’ll just decide each day which is appropriate, based on how I feel.) I used to aim to be able to run a particular distance on a particular date, so I could run in a race. I won’t do that any more. (Although I might run a race on a whim, if I feel like it.)

I went on my second run of the year today. It felt great. My first run, a couple of days ago—merely a good run—moved me to haiku. In the original Esperanto, it’s:

spiro laboras, genuoj doloretas… jara ekkuro.

Which in English might be rendered as:

Breathing hard,
Knees a little tender…
Year’s first run.

Boycotts and free speech

I’m something of an absolutist on free speech. Not a complete absolutist—I’m fine with rules against libel and slander, and I’m glad that there’s a copyright scheme (even if our current scheme has the copyright running for far too long). But that’s about it.

Still, I find myself disagreeing with Catherine Shaffer on using boycotts or similar sorts of pressure to influence the sponsors of speech I disagree with.

I guess my logic is this: I totally support the right of people to say things I disagree with; I just don’t feel like they have a right to make a good living saying it.

I’d oppose a boycott aimed at an ISP who hosts objectionable speech—that’s an effort to block the speech. I’d feel the same way about an effort aimed at convincing a venue not to allow a speaker to present his message.

But even a fairly successful effort to convince advertisers to pull funding from an objectionable speaker wouldn’t bring the speaker’s income to zero. There’ll always be some sponsors out there who’ll support even the most offensive speech, and if they want to pay enough to be associated with it to allow the speaker to pay his domain registration and hosting fees, I’m all for it. Heck, if they’ll pay enough to allow a radio personality enough to see the show broadcast on the airwaves, that’s okay too. But if pressure on the advertisers means that the speaker has to get a day job because his offensive speech no longer earns enough money to cover the rest of the bills, I think that’s probably a win.

(In practice, except for the most universally offensive speech, trying to organize a boycott is probably counterproductive, because people who agree with the speech will rally around.)

A modestly (or even highly) effective effort to reduce the income-earning power of offensive speech seems like a good thing. I don’t think it works against free speech.

Forest Glen: Today with extra wildlife

A perfect day for a hike, so we went to the Forest Glen Preserve, where we not only got our hike, we got it with extra wildlife.

We scoped out several trails, with an eye toward bring Jackie’s mom with us later in the spring. We thought the trail we hiked on last year, the Big Woods trail, would be too rugged, so we wanted to evaluate some of the other trails as possible alternatives.

The first trail we tried was the Beach Grove trail, which is short (about a third of a mile) and paved. It’s marked as being handicapped accessible, although seemed a bit rugged for someone in a wheelchair or scooter. It’s the trail where we saw these deer!

After that, we moved on to the Willow Creek trail. It’s probably closer to what we want for Barbara. It’s not paved, it’s longer (about a mile), and it’s got some change in elevation (without being as rugged as the Big Woods trail). It also had some wildlife! We saw a red-bellied woodpecker before we even got on the trail. Then, just past the trail head, I saw what I assumed would be a hawk—except once he landed right in front of us, I was able to see that it was a barred owl. He sat there for a while, turning his head to look at us, and then off to the side to give us a profile view, and flew off silently the way owls do. We also saw a whole big flock of wild turkeys. They were too coy for me to get a photo of, but near the trail head, we’d seen this guy in a big pen.

Back on one of the park roads, we saw a big male ring-necked pheasant.

The Big Woods trail leads to an observation tower that we hadn’t climbed on our previous hike, but there’s an easier way to get there, hiking up an “official vehicles only” access road. We hiked up there and climbed to the top of the observation tower, which gave us a great view of the surroundings, and also a particularly good view of the turkey vultures that were soaring all around at just about the same height as the observation platform, often coming close enough that we could see the red of their heads. (Despite the great view we had, I didn’t manage to get a worthwhile picture of the vultures.)

All in all, a great outing, and I think we have a plan for when we bring Barbara—the Willow Creek trail, followed by the Beach Grove trail if we’re all up for more hiking after.