Sunday, July 27, 2008

Running the dog

In looking through old writing, I ran across this letter I wrote to the city after receiving the second in a series of tickets. The topic of the letter is of less than earth shaking importance, but there are serious issues on the function of government and freedom versus order.

After writing the letter I did some research. I discovered that the level of injury and death caused by dogs is almost exactly the same as that resulting from baseball, and the most common victim in both cases is children. It also turns out that dogs are most likely to cause trouble in or near their homes and least likely to cause trouble in public places. In addition to normal animal control my city (through its Natural Resources department) spends on the order of a quarter million dollars a year enforcing leash laws. The leash law applies to all animals including cats, but there is a specific exemption for birds under voice control.

In the end, the city had its way. The fines double on every ticket and I could no longer shoulder the burden. I made some attempts to change the law, but could find no leverage point. I no longer spend much time at the park. Other dog owners have also been driven away. When I do go by the park the dogs are gone, and so are many of the people. I was genuinely surprised at how important the simple pleasure of running the dog at "my" park was to me, and how betrayed I felt at having local government stop me. When my dog running disappeared, so did my pride and sense of responsibility toward the city.

The Letter

This note is about a bad law that has been badly applied. On September 29, 2004 I received a ticket for having my dog off leash in Spring Creek Park (animal at large). This is my second ticket. Each ticket was issued by park rangers I had never seen before and have not seen since. Each of them said they had no discretion in issuing the ticket. The second ticket was issued in what looked like a concerted effort by the city to crack down on unleashed dogs in the park. There were at least two rangers, one of them driving a pickup truck through the park to make sure lawbreakers did not escape.

Over the past nine and a half years I have come to Spring Creek Park at least twice a day virtually every day: rain, snow or shine. I spend between ten minutes and half an hour at each visit. That makes about 7000 visits to the park or about 1400 hours. I think it is accurate to say that over the past ten years I have spent more time in Spring Creek Park than anyone else. Until receiving this latest ticket, it was my intention to create and publish a photo essay book showing daily views of the park over an entire year.

The purpose of those 7000 visits to the park has been to run my dog. She is an impeccably trained border collie. If you have ever been around a border collie, you know that they are active dogs that need to run. I have trained Josie to run laps around the ball fields. She is getting old now and has slowed down. In her prime she would routinely run 20 or so laps around the ball-field as a warm up. After the laps she generally has the energy to do other training exercises. Her record is 50 laps, or about eight miles, at a full run. I have taken her to the dog parks, but there is nothing there that can provide the flat out running that she both enjoys and needs. She is completely disinterested in other dogs and humans.

I stopped bringing a leash to the park years ago. I can honestly say that, in all our visits, not once has my dog been a danger to any person in the park. By training and temperament, Josie rarely acknowledges that there are people in the park. As a border collie, she is all business and her business is running in the patterns that I tell her to.

Josie is a fixture at the park. She is known by the workers and the neighbors. She is admired for her ability and her training. I have received countless compliments on this dog. The number of complaints can be counted on the fingers of one hand. On the rare occasion someone looks nervous or says something, I take Josie out of the park. Periodically, either in Spring Creek Park or in other parks, an animal control person will stop by and tell me about the law. Without exception, those folks have complimented me on Josie's obedience and asked me to take her out of the park. To make life easier for all of us, on those occasions I leave the area. One animal control person said they were responding to complaints about dogs in that particular park. He suggested other places where he would not be patrolling that day.

The animal control workers and the visitors to the park have understood something the city ordinance and the park rangers do not. My dog running in the park is an innocuous and safe activity that improves my life, the dog's life, and is largely a joy to other park visitors.

While I am at the park, I pick up more dog waste than Josie leaves. I collect and throw litter away. Every couple of years I find a stray that has wandered away from home. I track down the owners and return the dog. One time I found and returned a wallet that had been stolen from a truck in the neighborhood. The owner didn’t even know it was missing. When teens rolled one of the trash barrels out onto the frozen lake, strewing garbage along the way, I recruited a couple of fire-fighters from the next door station. We retrieved the trash barrel and picked up the garbage.

Of course, the fact that my dog is well behaved does not make the law bad nor does it excuse me as a lawbreaker. What makes the law bad is that it worsens rather than betters the community. I have spent a lot of time researching human behavior, particularly in cities. We know a lot about what makes good, vibrant communities. One of the most important factors is that neighbors know each other, are aware of their surroundings, and take responsibility for the community. Parks can be marvelous places, but many towns have the problem that their parks are dangerous, particularly in off-hours. One of the major differences between a safe park and a dangerous one is community use. Crime and trouble avoid public view. When good people are near and watching, trouble moves away.

Over the years it has been interesting to see how people use the park. Almost no one simply walks through the park enjoying it. People come because they have a reason. They do what they planned to do, then they leave. Parents who bring their kids to the park stay very close to the playground. The more adventurous will walk over to the ball field to play for a couple of minutes. Ball players stay on or next to the playing field. Walkers and runners tend to either walk in a straight line through the park or they travel the perimeter. Sunbathers invariably pick a spot away from these main uses. Except for dog runners, most of the park is simply unused other than as an attractive backdrop to the other activities. People with dogs off lead almost always stay away from other park users and run their dogs in the open, unused spaces.

I seem to be pretty typical of the people who take their dogs to Spring Creek Park. These are neighborhood people who care about the neighborhood and take care of the park. I know this because I see them every day. I see them talk with each other and pick up after themselves and others. Some of the dogs are on leash, most of them are not. The difference seems to be in the temperament of the owner and the dog. If someone has a dog that will not obey or is flighty, they will only take the dog off lead once or twice. The adventure of screaming at your dog while chasing it through the public park or nearby neighborhood is a powerful deterrent to letting untrained animals off lead. People with leashed dogs behave more like walkers. They move through the park rather than spend time in it.

I am sure the Parks Department receives complaints about dogs running wild through the park. Many people feel threatened by dogs on the loose and many people simply do not like the idea that others violate the law. If the city banned blue flowers, I am sure it would receive many calls about the law violators with blue flowers in their yards.

In terms of actual danger or harm, I cannot speak with authority because I do not have the figures. I can speak from my experience and observations. Fossil Creek Park just opened. It is a beautiful park and heartening in terms of its design. For some time parks have been dumbed down to make sure that no visitor can be injured. Fossil Creek Park seems to have very thoughtfully constructed play areas, but ones where the users must take responsibility for their actions. The skate park at Fossil Creek is marvelous and seems to be heavily used. Even without seeing the figures, I can guarantee that there are more injuries in that skate park in a single week than dogs have caused in Spring Creek Park in the past ten years. Of course there is a difference between me falling off my own skateboard and being accosted by a strange dog. One I control, the other I do not. Whenever a skateboarder lets his board fly and it hits someone else or a dog owner has a dog that is out of control, they should be held accountable. But control is the problem, not the activity.

The Parks Department is in an awkward position. There is a law on the books. Until the law is changed, they must either ticket the offenders or turn a blind eye. I would prefer that the law is changed, but this is an area where emotion runs high. Not many politicians will stick a neck out for a fight that will gain them nothing but animosity, regardless of the facts. We, unfortunately, live in a time where many areas of civil behavior have been written into law. Most of them are well intended, but many of them are violated routinely. If a policeman decided to ticket every lawbreaker he saw, he could never get to a violent crime scene. He would spend all his time ticketing speeders, jaywalkers, and litterers along the way. When laws are numerous they are, and always will be, selectively enforced. I suggest that the Park Rangers would be better employed by spending more time getting to know the neighbors who do the real policing in the parks and less time driving them away by ticketing them for harmless activities.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bad Smells and Complexity

I work with software. A few years ago a couple of influential folks, Kent Beck and Martin Fowler, started using the term "bad smell" to describe a situation where something doesn't seem quite right. When you pour a glass of milk, you may catch an odor. Everything may be fine, but you probably don't want to gulp it down until you have investigated a little further. The notion of bad smells can be used in any complex human endeavor. Experienced people quickly recognize when something is off, even if they cannot express exactly what it is.

Sometimes it is hard to figure out whether something is just complex or if the investigators are simply lost. Migraine headaches are a good example. A few years ago I started getting occasional migraine auras though, thankfully, not the headaches. When I researched the topic I found that there were several proposed causes and any number of proposed treatments or ameliorations. Sufferers look for triggers of the headaches. Different people have proposed different triggers. Trigger lists include: changes in air pressure, bright light, smells, foods including meat, wine, chocolate, beans, cheese, pickled or marinated food, nuts, herring, figs, raisins, citrus, tea, coffee, chicken livers. Of course the old standby "stress" is included in the trigger list.

Lists like the migraine triggers are a bad smell. If you stop any person on the street, you will undoubtedly find they have been exposed to one or more of these triggers in the past 24 hours. It may be that triggers are quite individual and that different people have a small set of different triggers. I find it more likely that people in pain are grasping at straws to find something that might enable them to avoid the pain in the future.

Sometimes complexity is not a bad smell, but just complexity. For a long time I have been interested in questions that different people answer differently. I live in a place without a lot of crime. A number of years ago I asked folks whether they locked their doors when they were in their house. I thought the answer might give an indication of risk tolerance. Sure enough, some people answered always, some answered never. One person said he only locked the doors when he was home because he cared about his own safety, not that of his possessions. I don't know if this was a truthful answer, but it was an interesting point of view.

It is an open question whether we can use some relatively small set of traits to characterize our behavior. Even identifying traits that influence behavior is problematic.

For about a century western society has been very interested in measuring "intelligence" ( A Welsh friend of mine used to say that people in the United States have a peculiar fascination with reducing complex phenomena to a single number. Certainly intelligence testing fits this pattern. It is not clear what "intelligence" is and how many aspects of it there are (, but that doesn't stop us from measuring and assigning a single number.

There have also been attempts to measure both moral beliefs (Moral Judgment Test) and religiosity (The internal structure of the Post-Critical Belief scale). As it turns out, these may not be correlated (Religiosity, moral attitudes and moral competence).

Psychologists have tried a number of personality characterizations. There are classifications of pathologies and personality disorders ( Some of this is clearly cultural. For example, homosexuality was listed for a time as a personality disorder. There are tests, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory for example, to help diagnose these disorders.

There are also more general classifications. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator test is based on Jung's analysis of perception (sensation and intuition) and judgment (thinking and feeling). Based on this, four dichotomies were established: Extroversion/Introversion, Sensing/iNtuition, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving. I always joke that Myers Briggs test is much better than astrology because astrology has only 12 categories to explain us, but Myers Briggs has 16.

The "Big Five" model comes from linguistic analysis. The thought is that essentials of personality are expressed in language so an analysis of language can lead to a understanding of personality. The big five are: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

In looking at all of this I don't detect that much bad science or even many bad smells. I come to the conclusion that people are just complicated. The theories project this complexity onto a number of different spaces, but none of them fully encompass us. We are just too complicated for simple analysis.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Heart Rate Monitors and Training

This is something I wrote some time ago, originally to help my daughter who got a heart rate monitor. Periodically I change it slightly and send to someone. I post it here because it may be of more general interest.
How you train depends on what you want to accomplish. Genetically people tend toward a predominance of one or the other of two muscle fibers: Fast twitch or slow twitch muscles. The ratio of these is not fixed. Slow twitch fibers can be recruited to be fast twitch, but there is a genetic diffference that tends people toward one or the other. Those who have lots of fast twitch fibers tend to be sprinters. Those with lots of slow twitch tend to be better at endurance. Related to the sprinter/endurance dichotomy are several metabolic pathways for producing energy. There are aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic pathways. The anaerobic pathways tend to be good for very short duration activities, a few minutes or less. I have never been tested, but I am the anti-sprinter, so I suspect I tend toward the slow twitch. At any rate, my goals tend to be fitness, endurance and speed (strength) over periods of about an hour. I choose an hour because that tends to be the amount of time I can manage for exercise on any given day. This puts me in the aerobic, endurance camp. I have no idea how sprinters (or their cousins, weight lifters) train.
Several things limit athletic performance. One of them is oxygen. A second is Lactate buildup. Another is muscle strength. In a sense, muscle strength is the simplest to train for. Muscles get stronger as they adapt to stress. To make your muscles stronger you stress them to the point of minor damage, then allow them to recover. Both stress and recovery are important. No stress, no need for adaptation. No rest, no chance for the damage to be repaired and the muscles to get stronger. In addition to simple strength there is also technique. Every activity can be done more or less efficiently. The more efficient you are, the less energy is required for a given result. This is good.
The oxygen/lactate systems are more complicated because there is so much going on. Every person has a maximum rate at which oxygen can be absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream, pumped by the heart to the body and utilized by the muscles and other organs. This can be measured as your VO2 max. If you exceed your VO2 max value, by definition you can’t provide enough oxygen to support the work you are doing and something either has to stop or go anaerobic. The point at which you start going anaerobic is called your anaerobic threshold. The best thing you can do to improve your VO2 max is to choose your parents well. However, even the genetically ungifted can improve their VO2 max through training.
When you produce energy anaerobically, one of the by products is lactic acid. If the lactic acid accumulates in the muscle it changes the PH and the muscle loses the ability to contract. Of course none of this is black and white. Even when you are exercising mainly aerobically, some lactic acid is produced. You should be able to increase performance by improving your capacity to get oxygen to your muscles, improving your ability to remove lactic acid from your muscles when it occurs, and by making your muscles more tolerant of lactic acid when it is present. Lactic acid itself is burned oxidatively by mitochondria to produce energy. That is one of the ways that lactic acid is removed. See Since this post was originally written I have spoken to some exercise physiologists. What happens when lose our ability to continue at a given level of exertion is not clear. It is NOT a simple matter of lactic acid and no particular metabolite has been identified. There may even be a mental control designed to protect the organism.
Two other factors in oxygen transport are your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate. There is a speed past which your heart will not beat. The maximum differs from person to person and is also dependent on age. You lose roughly one beat per minute per year as you get older. Your resting heart rate serves as an indicator of heart efficiency. Take your resting heart rate while lying down, preferably in the morning before getting up or right before bed. At rest, your body still demands a certain amount of oxygen. The fewer heart beats needed to satisfy this requirement, the more efficient the heart is. As you get more fit, your heart simply delivers more blood per beat.
What does this have to do with training with a heart rate monitor? Your heart rate roughly corresponds with the amount of oxygen being demanded by your body. This, in turn correlates with the energy your body is putting out. The harder you work, the faster your heart beats. In an endurance sense your heart rate is limited on one end by your resting heart rate and on the other end by your anaerobic threshold. The range is expanded by making your heart pump more per beat (lowering the resting heart rate) and raising your anaerobic threshold (increasing oxygen delivery and lactate removal).
As long as you aren’t "overtraining", a heart rate monitor allows you to judge just how hard you are working. Surprisingly this can be more useful on easy days than on hard days. Using the monitor you can get a sense of your real anaerobic threshold (it hurts and you can’t sustain for long). You can gauge effort by finding how close you are to either your anaerobic threshold or to your maximum heart rate. This is usually expressed as a percentage (90% of maximum heart rate). Be aware that these measures are different because your anaerobic threshold is below your maximum heart rate. However, your anaerobic threshold is something you can figure out. Your maximum heart rate is difficult to determine. I knew my predicted one was wrong when I looked down at the monitor one day and saw a number above my "maximum".
Conventional wisdom is that training should be a mix of stress and recovery. Recovery does not mean inactivity. It means activity at a level below that which stresses you. Most of your time should be spent in recovery. Exercise at a recovery level can be performed for a longer duration than exercise at stress levels. This recovery not only allows you rebuild your stressed muscle, it increases endurance and gives you a chance to work on efficiency. Although technique is critically important, efficiency is not synonymous with technique. I believe some of it is a physiologic adaptation.
Stress levels for your heart lung system are right around the anaerobic threshold. To work on raising the anaerobic threshold, lactate recovery, and increasing VO2 max, intervals are the prescribed medicine. To stress the aerobic system rather than just using your sprint abilities, the intervals should be at least a couple of minutes long. These are very painful and it is recommended that you not do this more than about once a week.
A step below intervals is a hard workout. Ignoring my own advice about recovery, these are typically what I do on the bike. For a hard workout I basically work for an hour at just below my anaerobic threshold. For me on the bike this is around 90% of my predicted maximum heart rate. My excuse is that I am not an athlete and don’t have enough time to recover as an athlete would (easy days). I recover through inactivity. There are many days where I simply don’t get any exercise and it is uncommon for me to have the same exercise activity two days in a row.
For athletes and sensible people who actually schedule easy recovery workouts, the heart rate monitor is most useful. The trick is to set a level before you start. It is very easy to have a recovery workout turn into yet another hard workout. The heart rate monitor gives you a number. If that number goes too high, you ease off regardless of how you feel. I find this to be very difficult. Several sources give target recovery workout rates of about 70% of your max heart rate. I find it hard to give advice that I don’t follow, but conventional wisdom would probably have you do as many recovery workouts as you do hard workouts and intervals. Hard days should be followed by recovery days. I do not know much about recovery time. For example, I don’t know how long it takes muscles to heal from the micro-tears induced by a hard workout (but I think it is on the order of one to two days). This is probably what should govern your recovery schedule for any given muscle set.
My goal is general health and fitness, so I don’t tune my training toward any particular event or activity. I’m on maintenance and (I hope) gradual improvement regime. If you are tuning toward an event or season, there are longer cycles (weeks and months) of buildup and relaxation you should use. At that point you should find a coach.
All this assumes that your heart is a pretty good gauge of effort. For the most part it is. After using the heart rate monitor for some time on the bike and blades, I find that it correlates pretty well with perceived effort, that is, how hard it feels that I’m working. This isn’t always true though. It is not true when I’m boosting or dropping my heart rate. For example, increasing exertion to go from a heart rate of 150 to 155 can feel worse than a steady state of 165. Dropping from 170 to 165 can feel like heaven.
A second factor that can change heart rate is over-stressing. When I measure my resting heart rate after a hard workout day, it tends to be high. I think this is part of the normal recovery. If you over-stress for days or weeks, your resting heart rate will remain high and your total capacity to work will be reduced. Resting heart rate is both an indicator of general fitness (low is good) and of "overtraining" (goes up and stays up over a period of days). I think resting heart rate also goes up during illness.