CrossFit Games Prep Minus 29 Days

Five and a half years ago on August 25th, 2008, I started on this crazy CrossFit journey with a workout called Murph. I started CrossFit in the same way I start lots of things in my life. I heard about it on a website, spent about 5 days researching it and then said, what the hell. Of course, I had no clue what I was doing. Murph is what’s called a Hero WOD in the CrossFit terminology. What that means is that occasionally CrossFit chooses to honor a fallen soldier, police officer or fire fighter with a workout named after them. Murph was Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, N.Y., who was killed in Afghanistan June 28th, 2005. The Hero WODs are always a step (or two or three) above the normal workout. Murph is a WOD consisting of run 1 mile then do 100 pullups, 200 pushups and 300 squats partitioned anyway you like (meaning you don’t have to do all the pullups before moving on) and then run another mile. If you have a 20lb vest or body armor, wear it.

As a CrossFit newbie, I looked at that workout and seriously didn’t understand it. Not the meaning of it, the effort required, nothing. At the time, my workout regimen was go to the gym, run a little, lift some weights, play some softball or soccer occasionally and I thought I was in good shape. I couldn’t imagine doing bodyweight squats so I decided to at least do it with a bar to make it hard. Ha! Experienced CrossFit people are shaking their heads in sympathy I hope. Anyway, I ran that first mile at 24 Hour Fitness on the treadmill and then moved over to the squat/pullup rack. I did 6 sets of 3 pullups, 10 pushups and 15 squats. Then I went and ran another mile.

People doing the main site WODs typically log their workouts in the comments so that the following time, they can know what they did for comparisons. Here’s what I said: “First time crossfit exercise. Both miles, 6 sets of 3 pullups, 10 pushups, 15 squats. 35 minutesish. Looking forward to the next Murph to see the changes.” Ha again! I took a workout that required 100 pullups and did 18 of them. Changes indeed. It’s weird how you remember certain things in your life. I distinctly remember that day at lunch at 24 Hour Fitness, feeling distinctly out of place as other people did their arm raises and leg curls while I stared at the bar on the squat rack wondering what in the hell I was thinking when I decided to add weight to this workout.

I didn’t know anything about scaling at the time but somehow, I essentially did the Buttercup scaling from CrossFit BrandX. This is one of the beauties of CrossFit, that each workout can be scaled appropriately. Good coaching and good scaling make all the difference in CrossFit. It took me about 8 months to be able to complete Murph and when I did, it took 60 minutes and change. I’ve done it in full sans vest probably 4 times since then. Today was one of them which is why all of this is relevant. My PR (personal record) before today was 49:51. Today, five and a half years after starting CrossFit, at the age of 41, I did it in 41:26. I doubt we’d ever do Murph in the Games but it sure would be OK with me.

Today, in the Wylie News, there was an article highlighting several “new” fitness programs. They included Pound (apparently a way to channel your inner rock star to improve muscular skeletal conditioning), Bar Method (a class that uses a bar from ballet in a variety of ways, hot with the ladies, not so much with the guys, did I ever mention the time I was in beginning ballet but I was 14, the only guy and all the other students were 7 year old girls? I didn’t tell you for a reason), Flywheel (a spin class on drugs, those drugs being a cross between black tar heroin and meth from the sounds of things because it’s $40 a class and you have to wear earplugs because they turn up the music so loud), Fusion (a method nebulous in description but apparently it is a fusion of whatever people want it to be, most people probably choose pizza eating and napping) and CrossFit. These methods were reviewed by two fitness experts from California, Meg Jordan who is editor-in-chief of American Fitness Magazine and Kathy Stevens, educational director at The Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

Not surprisingly I suppose, they loved The Bar Method and thought CrossFit was horrifyingly dangerous. Of The Bar Method, Jordan said:

“I think it’s a great thing. It was founded here in San Francisco. It’s so huge in San Francisco. It’s the high-end in terms of calorie-burning moves. It’s well known as being a fat buster…You talk to someone who has done a bar method and their butt is so sore…”

Sigh. Of CrossFit, they had the following to say:

Stevens:…CrossFit is definitely reigniting the idea of group exercise with the younger generation in a more jockish, less aerobic-y way with a regimen that offers a changing mix of weight lifting, aerobic exercise and body weight exercises. But these workouts are based on highly athletic and competitive exercise routines and not for the faint of heart or joint compromised. It’s great for the already fit who want to be the fittest they can be. Jordan: Chriropractors say they have more patients now with CrossFit injuries. The workout is notorious for people doing too much too soon. Low back and disk injuries. The overhead presses and deadlifts are too competitive.

Double sigh. How can something be less aerobic-y but still have aerobic exercise? Not for the joint compromised? What does that even mean? And how many people who are joint compromised got joint compromised because they didn’t do any multi joint, functional exercise for 20 years or so? If CrossFit is only great for those who are already fit, how did Caitlyn from CrossFit Incendia do so well? What about Sue who couldn’t walk up 13 stairs without being out of breath? These people weren’t extremely fit athletes. They were people who were tired of being weak. They were tired of the dieting yo-yo. They didn’t care about being the fittest they could be, they wanted help and through CrossFit found a purpose.

The quote from Jordan is just vitriolic and misguided. This is our friend who loved that The Bar Method made people’s butt sore. Deadlifts are too competitive? That doesn’t even make sense. Her offhand remarks about low back and disk injuries show no understanding of basic coaching and scaling not to mention deadlifts are the very type of exercise that prevent those injuries. How many people have hurt their back because of deadlifts versus picking up their kid the wrong way?

The exercises in CrossFit transfer directly to life. Increase your ability to squat and you’re more likely to be able to bend down and pick something up without throwing out your back. Pick up heavy weights off the ground and you won’t get a disk injury getting the Christmas decorations out of the attic.

I’m not out to bash other exercise programs and most people in CrossFit aren’t either. Greg Glassman famously says that any exercise is better than no exercise. It’s amazing how many other fitness programs and so called fitness experts bash CrossFit though when it’s not too much to assume that any proficient CrossFitter is going to be healthier and more fit than a similar participant in most other exercise programs. I could walk into a Bar Method class tomorrow and hold my own. Would I get a good workout? Sure. Would I be sore? Maybe. But I could hold my own. My guess is that 90% of people from that program or any other couldn’t do the same in CrossFit. CrossFit prepares you for the unknown and the unknowable through constantly varied functional movements at high intensity. Nothing else does so in as an efficient manner.

And I guess that’s my rant for the week. Games prep continues apace. Diet has been pretty good though gluten free tortilla chips are currently a problem. Good salsa makes them a bigger problem. Tomorrow will probably be a lifting day since I skipped yesterday. Haven’t even done snatches recently and given their prominence in the Games the last few years, I probably need to start focusing on them.

CrossFit Games Prep Minus 30 Days

I privately thought it might be a little ambitious to both workout and write something about said workout for each day up until the Games start. I took a few days off at the end of last week for a variety of reasons, some of them good, some of them silly, none of them worth mentioning. At last glance, I was fighting off the Blerch and apparently he was heavier and stronger than I thought. Still need to get that T-shirt.

I picked backup on Sunday morning with a ton of back squats followed by 150 double unders for time. I desperately hope that there are no workouts in the 5 weeks that include double unders. At one point, I thought I was capable at the movement but that apparently was either self delusion or a stronger time in my history. I’m having trouble stringing 5-10 of them together which is pretty poor. I’ve been working on them a lot and they are getting better. I’m sure this means every workout will have them.

Yesterday, I did the main page workout which was actually fun but painful, a common occurrence in CrossFit. It was 15 minutes starting with 1 minute of squats, 2 minutes of double unders (AGAIN!), 3 minutes of pushups, 4 minutes of back extensions and 5 minutes of pullups. I thought double unders were hard until I did them after a solid minute of squats. I haven’t done back extensions in probably a year which means I’ll be laying in the middle of the floor a lot today. My reps for the exercises were 52,74,64,74,65 for a grand total in 15 minutes of 329.

For the CrossFit uninitiated, I’m above average in strength and fitness when compared to the general population. Lots of people think I’m in great shape (I tend to disagree since I do CrossFit which constantly exposes how terrible my fitness really is by regularly giving me things like double unders to do). Actually, I was pretty proud of my 329. I went to log it on the site and four comments right above mine is one Jason Khalipa. Google him and that will save me the trouble but the short version is he actually competes in the Games every year. Not the Open like I’m doing, he qualifies for the Games. He’s one of the Elite they talk about. He’s a big dude, can snatch like 250 pounds or something ridiculous so you’d think I’d have an advantage on a body weight WOD like this one. He reps were 50, 152, 75, 107, 100 for a total of 484.

I actually did more squats than him (probably my first mistake since then I could barely get off the ground for the double unders) and then he just blew me away in every thing else with maybe the exception of the pushups. He’s truly Elite. But one of the beauties of this program is that anyone can do it. We just did the same workout, this Elite athlete and I, and we both were challenged to our max by it. The egalitarianism is one of the best qualities of CrossFit. On top of that, right there in the same comments on the same web page is an entry by one of the elites of the sport. It’s a community, one that trains together in many aspects and grows together as well. If I ran into Jason on the street and mentioned that he and I did the workout at about the same time, he’d probably laugh and discuss how hard it was. Imagine that happening in any other sport.

On the social front, we went to the symphony on Friday night and it was fantastic. They opened with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten and it was truly mesmerizing. The second piece took some getting used to as it was 32 minutes of German folk songs by Mahler. I don’t have the experience to say that German is a pretty language but I’m pretty sure it isn’t. The soloist, Matthias Goerne, was incredibly emotive and it was fun to listen to the songs. After intermission was the Brahms Fourth symphony and it was spell binding. The DSO is really doing some great work under van Zweden.

Sunday I built a standing desk out of Rubbermaid closet shelving and an oak dowel from Home Depot. Pretty happy with the results.

CrossFit Game Prep Day Minus 37

Today wasn’t intended to be a strength day but at 5:15 when the alarm went off, The Blerch won out and I worked on trying to figure out why my photoblog is suddenly broken in the warmth of the kitchen instead of doing situps and back extensions and thrusters and clean & jerks in the cold garage. So I lifted heavy tonight when I got home. 3×5 185 lb squats, 1×5 245 lb deadlift worked up from 185 and 3×5 105 lb presses. I was wondering tonight when exactly I started the strength program and thanks to dedicated tracking on WODStack, I found out that it’s only been 2 weeks. Exactly two weeks ago, I did 3×5 at 135 lbs for back squats and today, 14 days later, I’m doing 185. That’s some pretty remarkable gains. It’s amazing what lifting heavy weights will do.

I tweaked something in my lower left kidney area tonight or did something to make a previous injury flare up. I don’t think it’s anything to be too concerned about, doesn’t feel like an injury, just a “hey dummy, don’t go letting your ego write checks you can’t cash.” I’ll probably ice it a little before bed and see where we stand in the morning.

The latest 10 day cycle on the CrossFit mainsite had a CrossFit total which got me thinking about where I’m at currently from a strength perspective and where I have been in the past. I had to go back a long ways, almost 2 years, to find the last time I did a CrossFit total. In February of 2012 (search for brett_from_wylie if you care), I deadlifted 305, back squatted 245 and pressed 135 for a total of 685. That’s probably 20 pounds lower than my all time best but gives me something to shoot for over the next 5 weeks. If I could get back to that, I’d feel pretty good. I haven’t maxed anything lately but my best guess estimate is probably a 285 DL, 225 BS and 125 press for a total of 635.

It’s funny how easily we can convince ourselves of something. I never realize how little I’ve been working out until I start seeing past measurements. Up until recently, I thought I was in decent shape but if I’m honest, I know that’s not true. Working out 5 times a month doesn’t get you in decent shape and avoiding heavy weights in general is a guaranteed way to be weak. In just 2 weeks, it’s amazing how different my mindset, posture and strength is. Lifting heavy is important. Weight lifting has consistently been shown to increase bone density and reduce osteoporosis. Yet it’s easy to forget the benefits and fall into a routine of ignoring the weights. But the body thrives when it is occasionally put under moderate to high stress and we ignore that at our own peril.

Tomorrow morning I resolve not to give into the Blerch and actually get some met con training in. The row yesterday was good but it’s time for some high intensity work.

On the midterm goals front, I held a freestanding handstand for 10 seconds last night (16 total) and I did 10 strict straight leg toes to bar tonight, both of which are checkboxes on the CrossFit Rockwall level 3 test. I’m pretty happy with both of those but they are just the easy ones. There are others like a bodyweight snatch and a 7 minute 2000 meter row that make me nervous.

CrossFit Open Prep Day Minus 38

It’s funny how fast days seem to go when you’re counting them down towards something. Already four days into this journey and feels like it’s only a month away. Today, the plan was to go to the gym at lunch to lift and then do boot camp after work. But then the WOD on the main site was row 5k so I decided to do that instead. Ran to warmup and then did 5K in 22:03. This was the first time I’ve done a row of this length and I prefer it to running. It’s hard but there are so many variables to play with on the monitor on a Concept 2 that I can keep entertained, even on a day like this when I forgot my phone holder and had no external amusements. Stretched for cool down and then ran the boot camp after work without participating in it which was another first. I didn’t think an additional workout of intensity would be beneficial, especially when I plan to yesterday’s brutal main site WOD tomorrow.

When did we start naming our winter storms? I understand hurricanes to some degree, there is a precedent there but isn’t this just sensationalism? The Weather Channel has become the CNN of meteorology and I know I can always find a video there of a black widow spider found in a bag of beans or a python eating an alligator which must affect the weather in Japan like a butterfly flapping its wings. Still, this ever increasing need to grab attention seems to be a slippery slope for which we have no good way of stopping the slide. Naming winter storms and shoving that in a headline is just link bait, a way to get more eyeballs on another page which ironically (possibly the Alanis Morrissette kind) I just supported by linking. It’s enough to keep me from going to the Weather Channel website. I remember the days when you could watch the Weather Channel on TV and actually see local weather. Now Weather on the Eights has probably become Weather on the Eight O’clocks and sensational weather related terror all other times. And ESPN used to show sports and MTV showed music videos. Hey you kids! Get off my damn lawn!

Tonight, I made Stuffed Peppers from a recipe out of Paleo Comfort Foods which is a fantastic cookbook if you’re looking for low carb, paleo friendly recipes. One word to the wise, if you’re really going to be committed to paleo, there are some things you have to give up and I’ve decided fried foods are on the list. They have pictures in this cookbook of fantastic looking fried chicken and okra made with coconut and almond flour. I’ve tried both and frankly, what you get is coconut flavored goo encased chicken and okra.

Other than that, the recipes have been outstanding including some to die for like the beef short ribs and the gumbo. Oddly, coconut flour and almond flour do not materially alter the roux for Cajun food. Highly recommended if you’re looking for variety in your Paleo cooking. Also Nom Nom Paleo’s latest cookbook Food for Humans comes highly recommended though I haven’t gotten it yet.

In other news, Mara is starting a 40 day challenge thing-a-ma-bob with Yogasport and included in that is “drinking in moderation” which for us probably means “drinking on her birthday and Super Bowl but no other times”. And overall, that’s probably a good thing in the general scheme of things. I planted tomato and pepper seeds for transplants on Saturday, hope springing eternal especially after last spring’s 2 tomato harvest. 270 plants total though we’ll have to wait and see how many actually come up. I’ve got room to plant about 20 so the hope would be to sell the others for a buck or two each and recoop costs. It’s good to have a plan.

CrossFit Open Prep Day Minus 39

Today is shaping up to be a rest day other than a dog walk and that’s probably a good thing. I may do some stretching and skill work later this evening but there are plans to smoke ribs so I may also sit in the lawn chair with a glass of bourbon and contemplate life while the smoke does its magic. These will be the first two racks of ribs from the hog I got back in October and I’m interested to see how they turn out. I’m only doing a dry rub, no marinade or mustard so it will be slightly different from most ribs I’ve done in the past.

On the diet note (because one of my fabulous readers asked), here’s a link to Bulletproof Coffee from the source. I’ve made some modifications mostly just for ease of use. For one, I have only so much room in my life to worry about things diet related and moldy coffee isn’t on that list. So I use plain old Folger’s Dark Roast because good coffee is another thing I don’t worry too much about. We’re currently using Kerrygold salted butter because that’s what comes in the big tubs from Sam’s. It’s not nearly as evil as it’s made out to be. I may switch to unsalted Horizon Farms or something in the future just to see if it’s any different tasting. I use plain old coconut oil from Sam’s or Sprouts as well. The original calls for MCT oil but again, my inner caveman takes over and I just use what I can get relatively easily.

My process is to put 1-2 tablespoons of butter and 1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a big coffee mug and make coffee using the large Keurig setting. I put a scoop of Sprouts Whey Protein powder in a Magic Bullet container, dump the coffee, butter and oil into it and mix it in the Magic Bullet for about 10 seconds or so. Without a Magic Bullet, I’d use a blender because I don’t think a shaker ball will get you the same consistency. I typically transfer the entire thing to a big plastic cup with some added milk for the morning commute. I usually take a piece of fruit and have it for a snack around 11 but for the most part, I don’t get hungry until lunch with this as breakfast. Depending on the amounts you use, this is typically around 400 calories but it’s almost entirely good healthy fats.

CrossFit Open Prep Day Minus 40

I did not get the fastest start in the world this morning but I suppose that’s what weekends are for a little bit. In the garage at 7:45 planning to do some strength work and then a metcon. However, ended up going with slightly more strength work plus some skills work at the end. I also outlined a Goat List of several things that need ongoing work.

I’m using Starting Strength as a basis to build up towards the levels I need in the main lifts. I moved up to 175 back squat today, the most I’ve done in probably a couple of years. I’d plateaued briefly on 165 but now think that was a result of just several hard days of workouts more than an actual plateau. 175 was reasonably easy this morning. Remaining strength work was cleans, something I’ve been neglecting in a big way. I like the move as well as the snatch but just haven’t worked them in much lately. I did a cycle I picked up from CrossFit Rockwall, 5 sets of 8,6,5,3 and 5 reps increasing in weight up through the 3 rep set and then dropping back. I started at 95 and had more trouble with 8 of those than I did with 3 of 125. My metabolic conditioning is probably holding me back some if that’s the case.

In thinking through goals other than strength, the level tests from CrossFit Rockwall came to mind and they seem like a good reference for measuring fitness and preparation. In the past, I’ve done almost all of the Level 2 so I’m shooting for as many of the Level 3 skills completed before February 27th. In looking through them in the cold garage this morning, only the 10 second freestanding handstand looked doable so I worked on handstands for 5 minutes. Didn’t actually get to 10 seconds but got close several times. I think that’s doable with just a days work. Lots of the other ones are going to take some dedication.

My diet has been pretty good up until yesterday which involved way too much Crispin cider at lunch and pizza for dinner with some bourbon as a nightcap. I woke up this morning allergies aflame and I’m pretty sure it had to do as much with diet as anything since I wasn’t suffering badly in the days preceding. My breakfast lately has been a modified Bulletproof Coffee with butter, coconut oil, protein powder and milk. I seem to stay focused and attentive longer with this breakfast.

Tomorrow is technically a rest day but given no metcon today, I may do something short with more skill work.

CrossFit Open Prep Day Minus 41

So I’ve signed up for the 2014 CrossFit Open. Two years ago, I did a couple of the workouts but apparently not enough to show up in the results. Last year, after 13.1 which involved a snatch ladder with 135 lbs as the second rung, I knew I was in over my head. Of course, I’m not doing it to compete in the Games. The chances of me competing in the Games are effectively zero, even though I have no reached the ripe old age of 41 and thus qualify for the entry level Masters division. CrossFit has become a true sport with TV and sponsors and all the associated pros and cons that go along with it. The elite athletes at all levels of the sport are so much farther removed from the average athlete that it’s like comparing Tiger Woods with the local club champion.

Still, there is something satisfying about having a goal to train towards in hopes of at least not running up against a workout that you have to sit and stare at the bar like I did last year on the 135lb snatch. As an aside, there’s been a snatch ladder each of the last two years. I’m guessing that probably won’t happen again but I’ll probably be trying to manage a 135lb snatch before February 27th anyway. I’m going to try and journal the process towards the Open that I’m taking. I haven’t worked out any particular workout plan other than to greatly increase my strength between then and now. My current maxes are woefully short of the necessary requirements just to do some of the metcons. I’ve been steadily increasing my squats, presses and deadlifts over the past 2-3 weeks. Some realistic goals might be a 225-250 lb squat, a 350 lb deadlift, a 185 lb clean and a 135 lb snatch. Those numbers alone would put me at the strongest I’ve ever been.

Today, I chose a workout from CrossFit Rockwall’s blog, 100 double unders followed by 3 rounds of 15 burpees and 15 toes to bar. My double unders are really weak right now and I’m not sure why. I’m afraid I cut the speed rope too short. The most I can string together is about 15 early on and then it’s lots of 5s and 6s. Total workout time was 12:07. I warmed up with 3 x Max chest to bar pullups with totals being 8 in each round. Pretty sure 45 toes to bar are going to come back to haunt me tomorrow. Ever try to poop when your stomach is sore? Yeah me neither, total hypothetical.

At lunch, we were eating on the Katy Trail and a good friend of mine wanted to run a mile to keep his Run Streak Challenge going so after a bunless Terlingua burger, fries and 2 schooners of Crispin, off we went. Put in a 7:43 mile after all that so I guess metabolically, I’m not doing too badly.

So far this year, I’ve put in 12 workouts in 17 days. I figure I’m going to need to keep that pace for the next 40 to insure enough capacity to complete most of the workouts. This week, I think I’ll work though some of the 2013 workouts just as a place to gauge progress. Unfortunately, that stupid snatch ladder will still be waiting.

On Antifragility

Une maison est une machine-à-habiter. A house is a machine for living in.” Le Corbusier in Vers une architecture (1923)

Le Corbusier was a French architect, urbanist and writer influential in the early 20th century on urban planning. He was an idealist who saw the slums of Paris and dreamed of imposing order on them. He saw the slums as crowded, dirty and lacking morality. Le Corbusier envisioned a Contemporary City with 60 story cruciform skyscrapers enshrouded in glass to house the homes and offices of the wealthy. These huge buildings were placed in large, rectangular green space areas. In his utopian city, as you moved farther from the city center of the skyscrapers, zigzag multistory buildings would house the less wealthy. Early on, Le Corbusier recognized the impact the automobile was going to have and his ideas influenced the modern urban planning zeitgeist of urban centers redeveloped to be high density areas connected to outlying suburban and rural lower income housing by freeways.

Le Corbusier looked at the randomness and disorderliness of the slums and longed to impose order and homogeneity on them. He saw inefficiencies in the organization of humanity and created a landscape that was efficient if nothing else. His greatest desire was to make things a machine as evidenced by the opening quote. Things should fit in a box in the most efficient manner possible. Of course, the problem is, in nature and in humanity, the efficient and the homogenous are delicately fragile. Something that is highly efficient has little redundancy built in and fails at the first wrench thrown into the works. Homogenizing the living arrangements of the poor results in even greater disparity in class structure, in modern times leaving a vacuum often filled with gangs, drugs and violence (see the Cabrini-Green Housing Project). We know now (though we have yet to internalize it at any real societal level) that separating the classes by gates, walls and miles of freeways leads to inhospitable cities lacking in vibrancy. It may be efficient to put all the offices downtown and have all the proletariats drive in from the suburbs but it leaves the city desolate and the people unhappy.

Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder is Nassim Taleb’s latest book dealing with concepts he has spent the last several years exploring. It defines a new term, antifragile, as the exact opposite of fragile, more than robust or resilient but actually a system, body or item that improves under stress. This new term is required in many ways as our language lacks the precise description of the concept. Robust is the closest we can achieve but this is lacking in that something robust deals with stress well, is neither harmed nor improved but doesn’t actually grow stronger under stressors.

The concept is fascinating and applies to many aspects of modern life, typically in the negative. For the past half decade or more, we have been marching away from the antifragile in politics, economics, medicine, personal health, personal and national financial responsibility and philosophy. Our systems are more and more planned and efficient, hallmarks of the fragile. We struggle mightily to remove the variability in the system whether that’s our economic system or our daily health. We bail out TBTF banks to prevent them from failing and causing a ripple effect on the world economic scene and we sit on the couch taking ADD medicine and Prozac to avoid the highs and lows of emotional daily life. We pore over daily status updates and Twitter feeds and empty news stories constantly increasing the noise and pointless information while decreasing the signal and meaningfulness in our lives. Every day, our society becomes more fragile and largely, so do we as individuals. If there is one thing nature hates, it’s a planned, efficient fragile system yet that’s what we are constantly striving to create. Avoiding the risks and bumps of a system by kicking the can down the road necessarily fails poorly.

The urban planning of Le Corbusier with its hope for utopia and imposed order on a functionally messy and disorderly system was doomed to be fragile. In a complex system, top down planning cannot hope to capture all the possible ramifications of decisions and outside effects. These decisions eventually will manifest themselves in novel and disturbing ways. Our economic system, protected by the elites of government from the variability necessary to make it stronger, failed magnificently in 2008 and nothing has changed. The interconnectedness and complexity of the economic system dictates that future variability and shock will cause unforeseen and disturbing effects.

I’m hoping to write several posts on the topics and ideas of this book examining the concepts of fragility and antifragility and how they relate to so many aspects of our current cultural, personal and socio-economic lives. To be fragile is to largely be miserable and while it is difficult, it is not impossible to move farther on the continuum away from fragility and towards a more robust and possibly antifragile life and culture.

On The Caloric Content of a Snickers

We recently returned from four days in Savannah, GA, a trip largely defined by extended stops at places of refreshment and gastronomy lightly interspersed with medium length strolls through the city. It wasn’t intentionally a gastronomical vacation but the food choices in the the town were certainly one of the highlights. This morning was the first time I was actually hungry in probably five days and I had to skip dinner last night to even make that possible. We ate shrimp and grits, pizza, kabobs, quiches, steaks, lobster stuffed raviolis, scallop fettuccines, fried chicken, barbecued pork, macaroni and cheese, mashed-fried and scalloped potatoes, famous ice cream, fried peach bread pudding, crawfish beignets with Tabasco syrup, shrimp po’boys and who knows what else that can’t be remembered right now. I drank my weight in Sweetwater 420 and assorted other large, hoppy beers. The total caloric value of the trip would feed a small developing nation for a week.

The good news is we didn’t eat out of a vending machine once which is fortunate since apparently the fact that vending machines don’t inform the consumer of the caloric content of a Hershey’s bar is a critical factor in the rising obesity epidemic as far as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) authors are concerned. You see, a little known tidbit in the ACA is a new rule that mandates all vending machine companies that operate more than 20 machines display the calorie information of the snacks being dispensed the idea being that if we could only get obese people to reduce their weekly caloric intake by 100 calories, the initial cost of $24 million to said companies would be netted out by $26 million in health care savings.

Essentially what the Obama administration has decided is that since we can’t seem to get people to make reasonable decisions about how many calories they take in on their own, we will need to find ways to consciously or subconsciously affect their choices at the expense of a niche market of very small business owners who can’t possibly be politically powerful. Seventy five percent of these companies have three or fewer employees. I don’t know what the profit margin is on Snickers bars from a vending machine but intuitively I doubt anyone is getting rich on their 20 vending machines. To arbitrarily single out a niche market like this is one of the worst things a government can do (and the easiest given the guaranteed political powerlessness that small companies have).

Let’s do a little math based on the known figures surrounding this new rule. The government estimates that if .02 percent of the obese adults in the country consumed 100 calories fewer each week, the reduced strain on the health care system would be monetarily greater than $24 million (the estimated costs of the changes dictated by the new vending machine law). There are 316 million citizens in the US of which approximately 237 million are adults. The obesity rate in the U.S. is 35.7% so there are 84 million obese adults in the U.S. The law is then hoping that 16,800 of them will walk up to a vending machine once a week, see that a PayDay has 135 calories in it and either buy something else with 35 calories in it (which based on my experience with vending machine contents would have to be a roll of LifeSavers) or skip the candy bar entirely. Who thinks this is a good idea? Who sits around in a committee meeting and says “let’s put the caloric intake of each item in a vending machine on the machine somehow which will certainly cause people to not eat out of a vending machine”?

This is the problem with all governments eventually. The current one is just a step farther down the road of paternalistic nanny state than the last one and the last one before that. Little decisions are made by career politicians who forget that every single regulation and law they put on the books actually has effects, both the ones they intend (though really, in this case, I have a hard time believing this regulation is going to result in $26 million in health care savings) and the ones they never seem to even consider in their insular little idealistic bubble. We need more people who are willing to run vending machine businesses despite long odds and fewer people who think vending machines are the cause of any particular health problem. Sadly the former will soon be legislated and sin taxed out of business and we’ll all still be fat, unhappy and without Twinkies.