Game of Thrones: Predictions

There’s only one episode left in season 6, and it seems pretty clear from foreshadowing throughout the season that it will focus on Cersei’s trial, her inevitable decision to burn down King’s Landing with the wildfire that “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen buried below the city years before, and possibly on Jamie deciding to kill Cersei to save the city / their son. (Also, I’m virtually certain the episode will end with the White Walkers coming through the Wall.)

But more interesting to me is the three-way conflict slowly being set up for season 7: aside from Bran (on his solo mission north, and en route to aging into the old man in the tree who has come back in time to teach his younger self how to time-travel), nearly every other character in the show is gradually aligning under the influence of three strong female leads: Daenerys Targaryen (who now controls everything across the Narrow Sea, as well as, indirectly, the Iron Islands), Margaery Tyrell (who can drive the Sparrows, and, through King Tommen, the Lannisters and all of their allies in Westeros), and Sansa Stark (who has Jon Snow, will certainly have Arya back shortly, and who will own the North and all the Westerosian houses that Margie doesn’t).

So, kudos to the show-runners; it’s unique in film and television to highlight so many competent (albeit increasingly Machiavellian) female characters in leadership positions, and it will be great to watch them duke it out for control of the Seven Kingdoms, with each lady an entirely plausible, powerful queen.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared

Though I do my best to stay on top of media trends and internet memes, I often still miss something great. So I was unfamiliar with artists Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling’s short video series, “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared,” until just today.

While the first episode is now about five years old (playing at Sundance in 2011), their sixth (and final) installment dropped just yesterday.

The shorts are in the style of children’s television programs – with singing, talking puppets as main characters, and each episode built around a single theme like ‘creativity’ or ‘dreams.’ But, increasingly shortly within each successive episode, things diverge from their happy start to far darker territory.

All six are pretty much amazing, and there’s a subtle through-line building across the entire set. I’d highly recommend blowing your lunch break by watching them all:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Green is not a creative color, indeed.

Hot & Cold

About 40 years ago, Dr. Gabe Mirkin coined the acronym RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation – which has been the standard treatment protocol for most athletic injuries ever since.

Recently, however, a slew of studies have begun to show that icing actually delays healing. (For some good examples, see this one and this one.) The studies are persuasive; so much so that even Dr. Mirkin has changed his mind, updating RICE to the new (albeit much less pronounceable) MCE: Movement, Compression, Elevation.

In short, while inflammation was initially considered to be a source of damage (hence icing, which reduces that inflammation), scientists increasingly understand that inflammation is actually a key part of the healing process, with inflammatory cells called macrophages releasing hormones into the damaged tissue to help with repair. (Here’s a recent study on that process.)

Eagle-eyed readers will note that Mirkin isn’t just dropping icing, he’s also swapping rest for movement (or, more specifically, for “move safely when you can as much as you can”). Continuing to gently move an injured joint or muscle promotes the flow of fluid into and out of the area around the injury (which allows those macrophages to get in when they need to work, and to depart once they’re done), and prevents the injured tissues from wasting as they would with complete rest.

So throw out that stack of old ice packs in your freezer, and start thinking of creative ways to say “MCE” out loud.

Get Lost

“Lewis and Clark were lost most of the time. If your idea of exploration is to always know where you are and to be inside your zone of competence, you don’t do wild new shit. You have to be confused, upset, think you’re stupid. If you’re not willing to do that, you can’t go outside the box.”
– Nathan Myhrvold

Apnea

What I SAID

In exercise science, there’s a principle known as SAID, or ‘specific adaptation to imposed demands’: when your body is exposed to a stress, it responds by improving your biomechanical and neurological ability to handle that stress.

Start doing pull-ups regularly, and your body will get better at pull-ups, increasing the strength in your lats and biceps, and reinforcing the tendons in your shoulders and elbows.

But SAID also dictates that adaptation is specific. So while practicing pull-ups will make you better at pull-ups, it won’t necessarily improve your ability to pull yourself up a mountain face while rock-climbing.

For years, the gospel of SAID kept most athletes locked into the most literal version of their sport. If you wanted to train for a marathon, you’d simply go for increasingly long runs.

Let Me Be (Less) Specific

Over time, however, scientists began to discover that adaptation wasn’t quite as specific as initially believed. Because most sports depend on a constellation of intertwined skills and abilities, other types of training could often develop those constituent skills and abilities more effectively than simply (or solely) practicing the goal sport itself.

Rather than just going for long runs, for example, marathoners began to integrate interval and tempo work – practicing the skill of running faster for short distances, and then working on sustaining a higher pace for gradually greater distances. Though neither type of run was as ‘specific’ as a long-distance jog, they helped runners improve faster than long-distance jogging alone, and athletes began to set new records, year after year.

As athletes and coaches further experimented, they began to see that even more distantly-related variants of the initial task could be valuable. In the early days of the competitive marathon, for example, weight-training was considered anathema to running. By now, virtually all marathoners have extensive weight-lifting programs. And the details of those programs have evolved over time, too. While runners initially used light weights for a large number of reps (reasoning that it more closely mirrored the endurance-heavy nature of the goal task), now elite runners instead tend to focus on developing skills like power-endurance in the weight room. Though a heavy set of cleans is a far cry from a long-distance jog, it turns out to pay greater dividends on the road than time spent doing multiple sets of 20-rep leg extensions.

Far, Far Away

Today, some of high-level athletes’ training modalities seem ridiculously distant from the sort of specific training that once dominated the show. For example, hyperthermic conditioning – or, sitting in a sauna or steam room – has recently come into vogue. Scientists discovered that regular time in the sauna boosts plasma volume and blood flow to your heart and muscles, increasing endurance in even highly-trained athletes.

In other words, while adaptation may be specific, a modern and science-based understanding of training has a much broader definition of what, exactly, ‘specific’ might mean.

Most of us have limited time (and energy) to devote to fitness, so it makes sense for us to focus on the things that give the most bang for the training buck. And from that perspective, a few sessions a week of strength training and metabolic conditioning are all you need to get into great shape.

But because Composite works with pro, semi-pro, and serious amateur athletes, we’re also always on the lookout for things (like hyperthermic conditioning in the sauna) that can help juice out additional percentage points of performance gains.

That’s what led me to a series of recent experiments with apnea tables, an idea borrowed from the world of spearfishing and free-diving (a sport of diving to SCUBA depths while simply holding your breath).

Let’s Get Metabolic

To understand why apnea tables work, you first need to know a bit about energy metabolism. When we work out at high levels of intensity, our bodies route around our cells’ mitochondria (which generate energy in a more sustainable, but slower, way) to create energy directly, in the rest of the cell. That process, anaerobic metabolism, is much faster, though it creates an increasing build-up of lactic acid as a by-product, called metabolic acidosis. Eventually, as enough lactic acid builds up, we hit what’s called the lactate threshold: we ‘feel the burn,’ and need to slow down or stop.

But where that threshold is, exactly, varies from person to person. In short, the higher the threshold, the more metabolic acidosis you can tolerate, and the greater your exercise endurance.

As you exercise, your body also creates carbon dioxide, or CO2. And CO2 is a buffer against lactic acid. So the higher the level of CO2 in your blood, the more metabolic acidosis you can tolerate.

We’ve long known that’s one of the ways endurance training works: you increase your tolerance of CO2, which increases your tolerance for metabolic acidosis, which increases your performance and endurance.

Just (Don’t) Breathe

But while you can improve CO2 tolerance indirectly through exercise, it turns out you can also train it directly.

When you’re holding your breath, your body doesn’t actually monitor the amount of oxygen in your blood. Instead, it monitors the amount of CO2. As it climbs, you feel like you need to breathe. But that feeling has a lot of margin of error built in. Most people can only hold their breath for 30-45 seconds, due to CO2 tolerance, but it takes a full 180 seconds, or three minutes, before your oxygen levels really begin to drop.

So free-divers and spearfishers have developed ways to improve CO2 tolerance, in an attempt to hold their breath for longer and longer durations. (With practice, a decent free-diver can go 5-6 minutes on a single hold.)

Their main training tool is called an apnea table, which alternates static periods of breath-hold with decreasing periods of recovery breathing.

It looks like this:

Round 1 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:30

Round 2 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:15

Round 3 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 1:00

Round 4 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:45

Round 5 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:30

Round 6 – Hold 1:00 – Breathe 0:15

Here’s a good iPhone app that does a more tailored, dynamic, and easily counted version of the same thing. (It’s what I and my athletes have been using.)

With increasingly brief durations to catch your breath between holds, and less time to flush the carbon dioxide from your blood, your CO2 level will slowly climb over the course of the protocol. Which, in turn, builds your ability to tolerate the increased CO2. (Nota bene: if you’re doing it right, you should likely feel a little light-headed by the end. Sit or lie down while you’re practicing, so that you don’t injure yourself if you happen to pass out. And never, ever try this in water; drowning is tacky.)

From what I’ve seen, most free-divers recommend trying this just once a week, as well as a weekly workout on an oxygen table (where the breathing periods are constant, but the holds increase). While I suspect the latter would be beneficial to endurance, too, I’ve focused my experiment solely on the CO2 / apnea table, to better isolate its effects.

Great Success!

And, in short, the effects have been pretty impressive. My 500m row had held steady at 1:47 for the past few years. (I know, I know. At 5’6”, rowing isn’t exactly my sport.) After just six weeks of apnea table practice, however, I pulled a 1:42 – a whopping 5% improvement. And, at least as importantly, a slightly slower row (2:00/500m) now seems far, far easier in terms of perceived exertion, leaving me much less gassed when one shows up mid-workout.

I’ve seen similar improvements on my running and metabolic conditioning times, and the four athletes on whom I’ve been testing the apnea tables have also seen 3-8% performance bumps across the board.

At less than 15 minutes of weekly time commitment, it seems more than worth trying out. If you do, let me know how it goes; I’m definitely curious to test this further, and will report back with more data once I do.

Same Drugs

I’ve been a fan of Chance the Rapper since he released his first mixtape, 2012’s 10 Day, which he recorded during a ten-day high school suspension for smoking pot. I was even more impressed by his second album, Acid Rap, which layered together a larger array of samples, live instruments, and voices, creating a constantly-shifting texture under Chance’s thoughtfully penned lines.

Though Kanye and Jay-Z took Chance under their wing, and though he toured as opener for Childish Gambino, he never signed with a label, and has repeatedly committed to releasing his music for free online.  So while Chance’s first two mix tapes were heavily listened to online, they never qualified for Grammy consideration, as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences only recognizes music “commercially released in general distribution in the United States, i.e. sales by label to a branch or recognized independent distributor, via the Internet, or mail order/retail sales for a nationally marketed product.”

As a result, Chance’s free releases didn’t make the cut.  Which led to some serious grumbling in the music press; by broad consensus, Acid Rap was certainly good enough to warrant nomination.

Earlier this year, Chance released his third mixtape, Coloring Book. And this time, he put it up initially as an exclusive on Apple Music (though it’s now also online, per usual, for free).  This, too, probably falls short of the official Grammy requirements, though after a broadly-circulated online petition supporting streaming music’s inclusion hit 35,000 signatures, the NARAS is apparently reviewing an update to the language of the rules, which would push Chance (and a slew of other new, worthy contenders) into the mix.

Here’s a quick taste of Coloring Book, “Same Drugs”:

Chance sings on this one, rather than just rapping, with layers of gospel and electronica weaving their way through the background.  The song is about change over time, about how Chance has drifted away from ‘Wendy,’ who could be either (or both) his daughter’s mother or the city of Chicago (with Wendy a play on ‘windy’).

Throughout, Chance riffs off the Wendy name, weaving in elegiac references to Peter Pan:

When did you change?
Wendy, you’ve aged
I thought you’d never grow up
I thought you’d never…
Window closed, Wendy got old
I was too late, I was too late
A shadow of what I once was

or

Don’t forget the happy thoughts
All you need is happy thoughts
The past tense, past bed time
Way back then when everything we read was real
And everything we said rhymed
Wide eyed kids being kids
Why did you stop?
What did you do to your hair?
Where did you go to end up right back here?
When did you start to forget how to fly?

It’s a great song.  And the whole album is certainly worth the listen.  But, more broadly, let’s hope the Grammys catch up to 2016, and start allowing streaming music in for contention.  It would be wonderful to see the best up-and-coming artists (rather than just the same major label acts, year-in and year-out) get the recognition they deserve.

Still Fast

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m now testing out the Fast Mimicking Diet, an intermittent, very-low-calorie five-day semi-fast, which research is showing may have powerful effects on long-term health.

As compared to the roughly 3500-4000 calories I eat on most days, 725 calories seems very low calorie indeed.

My fast compatriot Jessie and I collectively decided that our best strategy would be to further subdivide things into a series of daily intermittent semi-fasts: eating 125 calories through the morning and afternoon, then enjoying a large 600-calorie dinner. Last night, for example, we had scallops in a lemon-butter sauce with mashed celery root and braised kale. Which was both delicious, and served in large enough portion that I almost couldn’t finish eating it.

Thus far, I’ve also stuck with my workouts as previously programmed. Yesterday, despite running on fumes, I managed to pull a 20-pound PR on the sumo deadlift. Though, following that, and feeling slightly lightheaded, I also didn’t quite stick the dismount stepping down from a weighted step-up, leading to a five-foot backwards sprawl that narrowly avoided landing under the 135-pound barbell.

Fortunately, I don’t have any more heavy lifting scheduled during the fast – just a more conditioning-focused workout today, and two weekend runs (one intervals, the other a longer tempo jog). I’m not sure how those will work out, though it’s probably better to fail by having to walk part of a sprint than by being crushed to death by dropped weights.

Pausing Gmail

Don’t check email in the morning. Only check email twice a day. Turn off all of email notifications.

That’s increasingly standard productivity advice these days, and for good reason. We’re at our most productive when we proactively choose the things on which to focus. But email is entirely reactive – it hands control of our to-do list to anyone who happens to send a request our way.

For a while, I tried to follow that advice, cutting back on my email checking frequency. But I quickly ran into a problem: many of my proactive tasks involve sending email. Or searching through my email history. And as soon as I opened a Gmail tab, I’d find myself inexorably drawn into processing and responding to the latest messages, even if that wasn’t what I had set out to do.

So, a month or two back, I hit upon a simple solution. I set up a folder called “Incoming”, and a filter to send all of my new mail to that folder. And then I hid the folder from the label sidebar, so I wouldn’t get distracted by the unread message count.

Voila. Problem solved. Now, I can load up Gmail, send or search as needed, and still only see new stuff coming in when that’s actually what I want to do.

For bonus points, I also set up a single “Robots” folder, to hold all incoming promotions, mailing list messages, social media updates, etc.

Now, a couple of times a day, I can process the “Incoming” folder to to respond to real, from-a-person emails. And, once each day, I empty out the “Robots” folder, to see if there’s any wheat in that sea of chaff.

It’s completely changed my experience of email, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s how to set the same thing up yourself:

First, copy this string into your Gmail search box:

category:(forums | updates | promotions | social)

Then click the downward arrow at the right side of the search field, and choose “Create filter with this search” on the bottom right of the pop-up. On the next screen, select both “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)” and “Apply the Label” for whatever folder you’d like to route incoming junk into.

Then do the same thing with this string:

!from:j@outcap.com !category:forums !category:social !category:updates !category:promotions

For this one, you’ll need to replace my email (j@outcap.com) with your own, and choose a label for incoming ‘real’ messages.

Finally, hover over the names of each of those two labels, click the downward arrow that appears, and select “In Label List: Hide”, so that you don’t have the sirens’ call of unread messages perpetually in your sidebar.

Try it yourself. Seriously, this one changed my life.

Think Fast

As I’ve previously written, I’ll try pretty much any research-backed fitness idea, as I find that playing human guinea pig gives me a real-world perspective on trends far better than simply observing from the sidelines.

Recently, the Fast-Mimicking Diet (or “FMD”) has been getting a bunch of press. Based on a set of studies out of USC’s Department of Biological Sciences, the FMD aims to provide the upside of a monthly five-day water-only fast, without the whole not eating food part.

That said, while the diet isn’t a true fast, it does involve draconian reductions of both protein and calories. There’s a slightly milder (1090 calories) day of induction, followed by four more days of very restricted (725 calories, 16g protein) eating.

In mice, the diet yielded muscle rejuvenation, increased bone density, fewer malignant lymphomas, a serious uptick of immune system function, and longer life expectancy. Follow-on studies of humans showed similar effects, with biomarkers like visceral fat, C-reactive protein, and immune function all improving markedly after a semi-fast.

So, starting tomorrow, I’m kicking off June by trying it out myself. And, frankly, I suspect it’s going to suck. As Jessie (my co-guinea pig on this) pointed out, I currently eat about 4000 calories daily (what? I have a fast metabolism), so this cutting back, percentage-wise, is going to be a more serious kick in the pants than it would be for most.

I’ll be blogging about my experience and the results, though advance apologies if the lack of brain glucose and general ‘hangriness’ drops the quality of posts below my (admittedly already pretty low) regular bar.

In the meantime, I’m off to eat until it hurts.

Support Our Troops

American journalist Sebastian Junger recently pointed out that soldiers, by their very nature, take on a remarkably selfless task:

For very little money, and often very little public recognition, they agree to go do whatever it is that our society decides is in our national interest.

Often, when we talk about the military, we talk at a very high level. We oppose the war in Afghanistan, or we support sending troops into Syria. But those aren’t just military decisions, they’re political ones. We elect officials – a president, members of congress – who make strategic choices on our behalf about what is valuable for our troops to do.

The people we elect could send soldiers to plant trees in Canada, or they could send them to invade Canada. Either way, it’s ultimately in our collective hands, the outcome of our national democratic process.

Many of us (myself included) have real concerns about that process, and about the wisdom of some of the strategic decisions that result. But that just makes the work of individual soldiers, and their decision to enlist, even more admirable.

A solider says, I don’t know what we will collectively decide our national priorities to be over the next four years, but I feel such a strong sense of duty to our country that I’ll agree to take those priorities on, whatever we choose.

So, on this day, it’s worth stopping to think about that commitment, to really give thanks to those who serve our country.

You may not agree with our military policy. But that’s exactly what it is: policy. And it’s a whole world removed from the choice and sacrifice made by our nearly 1.4 million Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guards and Marines.

Which is to say, I support our troops. I admire them immensely, regardless of my broader political opinions. And I think you should, too.