Quotidien

This Thursday and Friday, Jews around the world gathered to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  And though there are a slew of customs and commandments associated with the holiday, there’s one that stands above all the rest: the commandment to hear the blowing of the shofar, the simple bugle made from a hollowed-out ram’s horn.  The shofar’s blast is a bracing sound, a sort of primal cry, and it’s meant to ‘wake up’ the soul, in preparation for Yom Kippur, the day of judgment, ten days later.

If you can play the trumpet, you can play the shofar.  So, as in a handful of prior years past, I was asked to be the Bal Tekiah, the shofar blower, at this year’s Rosh Hashanah services.

But I was also asked to come in every morning for the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew month of Elul, to play the shofar then, too.  While hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah itself is a commandment, doing so for the month leading up is simply a custom – albeit one that’s stood for thousands of years.  Essentially, it’s meant to be a sort of warm-up lap for the main new year’s day event, a way to pre-awaken the soul.

I agreed to help out.  So, for the past month, early every morning, I found myself standing in the synagogue sanctuary, shofar in hand.  It was, without a doubt, the longest stretch of morning prayer attendance I had ever clocked (or considered) in my life.

By the end of the month, I thought I’d be happy to drop that responsibility from my already full morning routine.  But I found myself yesterday evening, as I played the final shofar blasts that brought the Rosh Hashanah service to a close, thinking it now seemed slightly strange that I didn’t need to attend this coming week.

After the service, helping to clean up, I ended up thumbing through a book of Jewish writings, and came across a story I knew well about Rabbi Akiva:

Despite eventually becoming one of the super-stars of the Talmud, by age 40, Akiva was still illiterate.  Then, one day, as he stood near the mouth of a well, he noticed a hollowed out stone that was used to hold drawn water.  How had it been hollowed out, he wondered aloud.  From water falling on the stone, day after day, he was told.  Which led Akiva to famously reason, “if water can wear away a hard stone, then surely the words of the Torah can carve a way into my heart.”  That set him on his late-life learning path, on the way to eventual greatness.

But what I hadn’t seen before was a response to that story, from Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 18th century: “The waters carved the stone only because it fell drop after drop, year after year, without pause. Had the accumulated water all poured down at once in a powerful stream, it would have slipped off the rock without leaving a trace.”

As I’ve written about before, I’m increasingly convinced that anything worth doing is worth doing every day.  So, with my shofar experience fresh in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I might intregrate some kind of daily Jewish practice into my morning routine (even if it’s one that doesn’t involve schlepping to the synagogue every day).

More broadly, between now and Yom Kippur, I’ve resolved to think about my daily practices and habits in general.  About the kind of person I want to be, about what I want to have accomplished, by next Rosh Hashanah.  And, working backwards from those questions, about the small things I need to do, every single day throughout the whole year, to make it happen.

So: shana tova u’metukah – a good and sweet year to you all.  May you grow through it, day by day.

Process, Results

A few days ago, I ran into a friend at the gym. He’s an executive in his mid-50’s, a guy in good shape who takes fitness seriously. When I saw him, he had 315 pounds racked for a back squat. But, he told me, his knees had recently been acting up on heavy squat days. Could I watch the next set, he asked.
I did. And sure enough, my friend’s form was atrocious. Valgus knees and ankles, forward weight shift over his toes, depth about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way to parallel.
“That was a disaster,” I told him.
“Oh, I know,” he replied. “But if I squat with good form, I can’t lift nearly as much weight.”
He was willing to humor me for the sake of his knees, however, so we went back to the basics. Beginning with a 45 pound dumbbell goblet squat, drilling until it looked perfect. Then we went back to an empty barbell, until that looked perfect, too. And then we added weight, ten pounds at a time.
At 135 pounds, his squat looked great.
At 145, it was back to disaster.
“If you want to fix your knee issue,” I told him, “then squat with 135 pounds next time, and only add weight in subsequent sessions, no more than ten pounds from one session to the next, if your squat form still looks this pretty.”
At which point he balked.
“I can’t do that!” he exclaimed. “The guys here will think I can only squat 135 pounds.”
“And they’d be correct,” I told him. “That’s how much you can squat right.”
Still, I understood my friend’s concern. Six months ago, I tweaked my shoulder while bench pressing. For two weeks after, it hurt every time I lifted my arm above my head. And just when I thought it was getting better, concluded I could just power through, I benched again and tweaked it a second time.
So, taking my own medicine, I went back to ground zero. I worked face-pulls, bottom-up kettlebell presses, scapular drills, perfect bench press reps with just the empty bar. And then I slowly built back up, in ten-pound jumps, one workout to the next.
At the end of those six months, I’m now back to using more weight than I was before, and my shoulder feels great. But for the first few months, I dreaded seeing anyone I knew at the gym when I was building back up. Members and trainers I was friendly with would walk past, and I had a nearly irrepressible urge to explain, disclaim.
“Rehab,” I would tell them, gesturing sheepishly at my nearly empty bar.
It’s a hard impulse to fight, and one I see people struggle with all the time. Most people training in any gym are, first and foremost, trying to look cool while they’re training. But there’s a difference between developing a skill, and demonstrating it. Almost by definition, when you’re learning something new, or building strength or endurance, you make progress only you’re right at your limit, out of your depth, looking terrible and incompetent but challenging yourself enough to grow.
Which leads to a fundamental choice: you can either impress your buddies in< the gym with your performance, or you can impress the rest of the world later with your results. Put differently, you can look good while you’re working out, or you can look good from your working out.
So choose. Because, in my experience, you can’t really have both.

Epicure

Though I read Aristotle, Plato, and Seneca – in school and after – I’d previously never made it to Epicurus, a philosopher I therefore knew only through the eponym ‘epicurean’: from the OED, “devoted to the pursuit of pleasure; hence, luxurious, sensual, gluttonous.”
This past week, however, I actually dove into Epicurus’ direct teachings. And, on at least one level, his legacy in our vernacular is well-deserved. Consider:
“I don’t know how I shall conceive of the good, if I take away the pleasures of taste, if I take away sexual pleasure, if I take away the pleasure of hearing, and if I take away the sweet emotions that are caused by the sight of beautiful forms.”
Or:
“The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach. Even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.”
But on further reading, it becomes clear that our current usage of ‘epicurean’ miss Epicurus’ intended mark, at least in some rather important respects.
While Epicurus extolled pleasures, he was first and foremost interested in simple ones. “Send me a pot of cheese,” he once wrote to a friend, “so that I might spread it on bread, and have a feast any time.” Indeed, most of what Epicurus ate were vegetables grown in his backyard garden. Sure, he was happy to eat richer meals, too. But he doubted whether those foods – or the finer thing more broadly – actually made for a better life. As he explained, “one must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is already overflowing.”
Epicurus didn’t believe that having more was bad, but rather that it wasn’t sufficient or necessary for happiness. As he succinctly put it, “nothing satisfies the man who is not satisfied by little.”
So what did Epicurus think was necessary for happiness? His list is rather short:
1. Basic shelter, clothing, and food.
2. Good friends with whom to enjoy it.
3. The freedom and flexibility to spend our days as we choose.
4. And some time each day reflecting and self-analyzing.
Less flashy, perhaps, than the eponym he’s come to define. But, so far as I can tell, not at all a bad recipe for a good life.

Type 1

Over the last decade, there's been a bunch of new research around the idea that type 1 diabetes might actually be caused by allergic reaction to food. In short, in certain genetically susceptible individuals, specific foods might be the trigger that kicks off the autoimmune attack on islet cells in the pancreas, the core of the disease.

While that's interesting for discovering ways to prevent new cases of type 1 diabetes in the future, given the very slow regeneration of pancreatic beta cells, researchers long assumed that it didn't really apply to people who are already diabetic. Once those cells were gone, they appeared to be gone for good.

However, a recent set of mouse studies, and a follow-up set of studies with human pancreas biopsies, has shown that intermittent use of the Fast Mimicking Diet led to substantial regeneration of beta cells, even in current type 1 diabetics.

It’s all still preliminary stuff, but it’s certainly suggestive of a route to a cure for current type 1 diabetics, and, even better, a safe and non-invasive one. If you or someone you know has type 1 diabetes, keep an eye on this research going forward.

[And, while we’re on the subject, if you or someone you know has type 2 (‘adult onset’) diabetes, the news is even better: we already know it can be reversed by lifestyle change.]

Unexpected

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel

Crashing

A couple of years ago, to test out some software I was helping develop, I installed the MacOS and iOS developer betas on my iPhone and trusty MacBook. And, in short, it was an unmitigated disaster. Features suddenly disappeared (apparently still in development), both devices unexpectedly rebooted repeatedly, and my productivity ground to a near halt. Eventually, I ended up rolling back both to stable, released software, and all was well, save the week or two of lost time.

In the time since, I completely forgot about that episode. Until this past weekend, when I once again, with software to test-drive, installed the developer betas of iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra. And, once again, both of my daily-use devices are a total mess.

Given their fairly late-beta stage, this time I may just try to limp along through subsequent releases. But, if nothing else, it’s a good reminder: apparently, I just never learn.

It’s the Shit

I get asked a lot of questions about gut bacteria these days, and for good reason; over the last decade, research on the importance of the intestinal microbiome for fitness and overall health has exploded.

Take, for example, one particularly persuasive study, which took fecal bacteria samples from pairs of identical twins in which one twin was lean and one was obese, and transplanted the samples into the intestines of germ-free mice. Lo and behold, the mice with transplanted microbiota from the lean twins stayed lean themselves, while the mice with obese twin microbiota quickly piled on weight.

Similar microbiota transplants between humans are already being used very successfully to fight deadly infections like C. difficile colitis, and are being researched for conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to Parkinson’s disease.

Which leads to the obvious question: will poop transplants for weight loss be the next big fitness craze?

In short, I hope not. While I strongly suspect that managing our microbiome will be an important part of health in the decades to come, at the moment, we just don’t really know what we’re talking about. Clinical data is still scarce, and possible complications are immense. Even if getting microbiota from your skinniest friend did turn out to be a great diet plan, we still have no idea about all of the other effects of that same bacteria down the line.

And, based on historical record, there’s good reason to be concerned. In the 1950’s, for example, doctors began prescribing transplanted Human Growth Hormone to smaller children deficient in HGH. While the treatment proved effective for spurring growth, it wasn’t until decades later that hundreds of cases of the rare and fatal neurodegenerative Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (colloquially “mad cow disease”) began to crop up in those HGH recipients. Scientists quickly discovered that prions (the cause of CJD) had inadvertently come along for the ride with the transplanted hormone.

So, in short, the microbiome is something we should be keeping an eye on.

And it probably would be wise to start doing the common-sense things that research has begun to show as likely to help your microbiome: eat a whole food diet, and include some pre-biotic (raw garlic, onions, etc.) and pro-biotic (pickled stuff, yogurt, etc.) foods; avoid unnecessary antibiotics; get a dog (seriously!); exercise; manage your stress.

But when it comes to more invasive ideas – whether fecal transplant or even just probiotic supplements (which are currently a bit of a wild west), I’d hold off for now. Whatever the short-term upsides, from my perspective, at least, the long-term unknown risks are just too great.

Less Messy

Real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.

– Maciej Cegłowski, Notes from an Emergency

Weighty

My parents are in their late 60s, but they remain in very good shape. They’re avid travelers, which regularly requires them to walk 10-15 miles in a day, with stairs and hills climbed, bags toted, etc.

Primarily, they’ve kept fit with ‘cardio’ workouts in their living room, using Leslie Sansone’s solid and much-loved Walk at Home DVDs (or, as my brother calls it, ‘frumping to the oldies.’)

However, recent research has made clear that also focusing on strength training is particularly important as we age. As one recent review paper put it:

Strength-training exercises have the ability to combat weakness and frailty and their debilitating consequences. Done regularly [it] builds muscle strength and muscle mass, and preserves bone density, independence, and vitality with age. In addition, strength training also has the ability to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and the signs and symptoms of numerous chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes, while also improving sleep and reducing depression.

In short, strength training is powerful stuff. And as further research has shown, those benefits are specific to lifting weights; it’s not sufficient to simply maintain a high level of physical activity in general.

So I suggested that my parents also consider hitting the gym once or twice a week. To which my mother replied that they do currently use dumbbells in those Sansone workouts. While that’s great, I clarified that she needed to go to the gym to focus on progressive overload. The health improvements of strength training come from consistently increasing the weight used over time; thus, if you’re using the same ten-pound dumbbells month after month, you’re no longer reaping the same benefits.

To illustrate, here’s an amazing pair of before and after MRI scans showing the increase in leg muscle mass after just twelve weeks of weight training, in a 92-year-old subject. (!!!)

If you want to live longer, healthier, then staying active (in a general, ‘use it or lose it’ sort of way) is hugely important. But adding in weight training, too, is an extremely powerful tool. And, as the scans show, it’s never too late to start.

Hotel Delmano

While I was still an undergrad at Yale, coming down regularly to NYC for my startup, I was thrilled to discover the then newly-opened Campbell Apartment. When the current Grand Central Station was built in 1913, John Campbell, who chaired the board of the New York Central Railroad, had the space built in as a private office. After his death a few decades later, the apartment was abandoned, eventually repurposed into a little-used storage closet. Then, in 1999, the architects upgrading Grand Central rediscovered the space, with its 1910’s decor, stained glass windows, etc., still intact. With a few million dollars in renovations to return it to its previous opulence, The Campbell Apartment opened as a semi-secret speakeasy. It was, in a word, perfect.

This past year, that version of the bar closed, soon to reopen as a cheesy, DJ-centric nightclub. But a slew of great, semi-secret speakeasies remain – places like Bathtub Gin, Raine’s Law Room, Angel’s Share, Employees Only, and Please Don’t Tell.

But I’m always thrilled to discover another addition to that list. So, this weekend, while out in Williamsburg, I was particularly happy to stumble across Hotel Delmano.

As my go-to restaurant review site The Infatuation put it, “Hotel Delmano is probably the best date spot in Williamsburg. It's dark, cozy, and feels like an ocean liner that sank a long time ago.” Which is precisely right:

It seems like a place where Hemingway would have been thrilled to enjoy five or six daiquiris. Though, in the picture above, we’re instead testing out the Junebug (dill-infused gin, lemon, sugar snap peas, fino sherry, suze) and the San Francisco Handshake (thyme-infused gin, st germain, lemon, fernet branca).

If you’re in Williamsburg, or even if you’re not, consider heading their way to enjoy it yourself.