"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

90000 Miles and 1 Mile

Though I'm not running much, I should hit the 90,000 mile lifetime mark this summer. If you want to join me for that (literal) milestone, let me know. Should be about June 20.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My favorite film discoveries of 2014

ICYMI [Yes, I've stooped to that]:


Among the 500 or so films I saw last year, I picked 10 that I thought were a lot of fun to watch. I doubt you've heard of any of them. Check it out.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Steve"s Evil Kitchen: Attack of the Turkish Songe

I have struggled with making Turkish Delight. So many others have as well that most published recipes include gelatin, which is kind of cheating. The correct texture requires a carbohydrate gel. After having the weeping mess most people get, I also scorched a batch before getting it right.

Step one: fondant

Add 4 cups sugar, 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar and 1 1/2 cups water. Cook to soft ball stage (240F), cool to 46C (I switched thermometers), then stir until it briefly becomes rock hard. If possible, store overnight before next step.

Step two: starch base

Combine 1 cup cornstarch, 2 3/4 cup water and 1 tsp. cream of tartar. Heat medium high, stirring continuously, until thickened.

Step three: combine the two mixtures and heat, medium, until the mixture becomes translucent and the edges of the bubbles popping at the surface retain shape above the rest of the mixture. Not cooking long enough leads to weeping; cooking too long leads to scorching [Plan to ruin two batches before you get it right]. Add flavorings, colors and inclusions at this time. Pour into a greased pan, covered with oiled paper, overnight at room temperature.
I ripped off sections at this point to see if it was holing - it was.

Step four: cut with an oiled knife, coat and bury pieces (about 1/2" x 1 inch x whatever depth) in 1/4 c. cornstarch and 1 c. confectioner's (powdered) sugar for up to 1-2 days.

Where I went all weird

I decided I wanted to make an aerated delight, using the method of sponge candy, where baking soda is added to aerate hard candy. That technique depends upon using a matrix as solid as sugar cooked to hard-crack and a temperature where baking soda decomposes. The alkalinity causes the gelatin protein to brown (Maillard reaction), giving a caramel color and flavor.

Turkish Delight is not made at a high enough temperature for this to work and I didn't want browning. I decided to use baker's ammonia, an old-fashioned leavener available in specialty shops, which decomposes at a much lower temperature, releasing the stench of ammonia (which is why it's used so little now). I wasn't sure this would be enough to work and I was worried about the flavor with all the base added, so I also added tartaric acid in equal amount. Tartaric acid - available in brewshops - is related to cream of tartar and lends a mild artificial grape flavor... it's the flavor of grape sodas, for example. That led me to add raisins as an inclusion as well, to increase the grapiness.

There's a reason I'm not showing a picture of the result. The sponge fought back.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Minnesota's Next Budget Crisis

During the administration of Arne Carlson, Minnesota had a then-record deficit that was growing at an alarming pace. After making a number of changes to policy, there followed a record surplus during the Ventura years. After that, there was a new record deficit, a new record surplus, a new record deficit and now a surplus. This explosive dynamic instability is a serious problem and not being addressed, so I thought I'd look into it.

The hog-maize cycle

When economists talk about instability, they start with the hog-maize cycle, first described in 1925. What one expects is that, when hog prices are high, people eat less of them and more maize, so the price of maize should go up and the price of hogs go down; people then would switch back to eating more hogs.

The system can become unstable, though, if hogs are fed on maize. Then, an increase in the price of maize causes hog-breeders to cut costs by raising fewer hogs. This decrease in hogs increases their price. The increase in the price of hogs causes people to eat more maize, which in turn increases the price of maize again. This leads to ever-increasing prices.

Oh no! Math! (and ecology and particle physics)

This phenomenon has been described mathematically using cobweb theory, which relies upon equations first described by the ecologists Lotka and Volterra independently in 1924 and 1925, one studying competition for limited resources and the other predation.

The Lotka-Volterra equations are one specific result of a general mathematical model called the Kolmogorov Forward Equation, described in 1931. It happens to be identical to the Fokker-Planck equation, who described the movement of populations of particles without the mathematical rigor of Kolmogorov. I may be the only person who's studied all of these fields.

What the math means for budgets

All the math shows is that, if you have set a budget to balance to zero, over time the amount of surplus or deficit is dependent only upon the volatility of the elements (I'm going to use the words "volatility" "variance" and "variability" in ways that statisticians will abhor, as they each have specific meanings that I will ignore). Obviously, those things that do not change will not change the budget's balance; the more variable something's value is, the further it can move the sum of values.

Sources of variability

The Minnesota Management and Budget department (MMB) provides reports on what the values of assets and liabilities were in the state's general fund and how far they differ from what was predicted. The spreadsheet from November of last year is here.

According to the statistical models above, it is the squares of the individual deviations that are important and one can rank elements by the squares of the variances divided by the actual values. In this way, one finds that sales and excise taxes are remarkably stable; in fact, the values do not change greatly regardless of other economic factors. Property taxes as a whole also do not vary greatly, but income taxes are less predictable (in a committee meeting, one state economist, Matt Schoeppner, gave his opinion that what variability existed in income taxes were due to bonuses and stock options among the wealthiest citizens) and corporate taxes are nearly impossible to predict accurately. There are also a few small elements that vary greatly, but average out to be unimportant over time, creating "noise" in the budget system; in last February's report from the MMB, departmental earnings were an example of this. Expenses do not contribute to the variability to any appreciable extent, which leads to an interesting observation:

The Leaky Bucket

Think of the state's general fund as a water bucket with a hole in the bottom. If you do not control the flow of water into the bucket, it eventually either runs dry or overflows, which is the instability of the system. Changing the size of the hole changes how fast the system goes unstable, but does not change the fact that it will still go unstable. You cannot solve the problem only by controlling the outflow. What this means in terms of budget is:

You cannot solve the state's budget problem with spending cuts! 

The next time there's a budget deficit, anyone who says "We have to cut expenses, tighten our belts and live within our means" is being dangerously naive. The situation is not like balancing a checkbook.

 Budget as a process control problem

The ever-expanding fluctuations in the budget are seen commonly in process control problems.

From an old textbook of mine.

This is what's called an "unstable underdamped second-order" system. The Kolmogorov equation is itself a second-order differential equation:

If the situation were simply "money in, money out," it would be a first-order equation. The reason for the complication is that there is "integral feedback control," which in terms of budgeting simply means that one tries regularly to balance the budget; once a deficit or surplus is detected, measures are taken to bring the balance back to zero.

The second-order nature of the system comes from the least stable elements, namely corporate taxes and income taxes of the very wealthy.  When the budget strays far from  a zero sum, changes to the tax code are made and accountants then find ways to exploit the changes for the advantage of their employers, which soon leads to new changes in the tax code, repeating the cycle.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to tame these unruly systems, even though we don't have enough information to model them accurately.

Ways out of the quagmire

Decrease response stringency

One way to decrease both the size and frequency of budget oscillations is to balance the budget less frequently, say every 10 years; this would require legislation (and probably a constitutional amendment) and would be unlikely to pass.

A second way is to remove the demand for a completely balanced budget. The simplest way to do this is to create a reserve, the amount of which should be quite large compared to what has been tried in the past. During the Ventura administration, the budget surplus was returned to taxpayers, but holding that amount in reserve might, at that time, kept the following deficit from occurring. Another way of doing this are "accounting shifts," moving items from one budget cycle to another; this, however, tends to exacerbate the problem in the long term.

Shift burden from unstable to stable elements

This is the "conservative" approach. The most unstable elements are corporate taxes and income taxes of the very wealthy; if the tax rates on these are lowered with a concomitant increase in property and sales/excise taxes, the stability of the system improves. The problem with this approach is that it rewards those who are exploiting the system and regressively increases the burden upon those least able to afford it.

"Tune" tax rates

It is possible with most systems to stabilize control by adjusting rates and measurements: if you are getting too little or too much from one source, you adjust the rate from which you take from that source to compensate. Unfortunately, this only works if the system itself is not changing. With the state budget being balanced every two years with new taxes, new ways of measuring taxation and elaborate accounting changes, there is no way to reign in the chaos by simple rate changes.

If a moratorium on these changes in the methods of taxation could be enforced and enough time could elapse to study the system made constant, these rates could be adjusted by empirical methods that have been known for 50 years. Because the budget must be balanced every two years, this is unlikely to ever happen.

Have everyone play by the same simple rules

This is the "libertarian" approach. It is not the corner dry cleaner that's causing instability in corporate taxes. Even restaurants, which are renowned for their failure rates, are not a problem, because they exist in such numbers that their overall contribution to the tax base remains relatively constant. It is the largest businesses, which have their own lobbyists to push for changes that will help them at the capitol that cause instability. [The example of Medtronic buying a foreign company for billions and changing their incorporation is a current example.]

Everyone, conservatives and liberals alike, agree that the tax code should be simplified. Every change that has ever been made has been to lessen someone's taxes. Because those with the most to gain have influenced the most, we currently live in a corporate plutocracy. Making changes to simplify the tax code, however, runs counter to the moratorium mentioned two paragraphs earlier.

Alter the method of control

As the integral feedback control of balancing the budget is necessary for instability, lessening it and switching to a different kind of control will stabilize.

1) Proportional control. If a budget reserve is created, it can be maintained within a certain range by simply adjusting tax rates in proportion to the change in the reserve between budget cycles. This is a simple elegant solution, but requires that no other changes be made.

2) Derivative control. Rather than trying to completely control the total perturbation to the ystem over time (integral control), one can add a control based upon the rate of change of the perturbation. This is anticipatory and decreases the time it takes to bring the system to a steady state. [If you actually read the Wikipedia link on the hog cycle, you'll find that some say anticipation is the problem, that over-reacting to expected future changes leads to instability. In closed loop systems with integral control, adding derivative control has been shown to be stabilizing.] This method is difficult to employ in complex budgets and works best with frequent adjustments, the opposite of the "reduced stringency" approach outlined earlier.

3) Feedforward control. Another necessity of instability is feedback control, i.e. responding to a change in the system after it has been quantified. Controlling perturbations before they enter the system, called feedforward control, does not lead to instability and adding it should increase stability in a system with feedback control. In the case of the state budget, I would suggest an alternative minimum tax for corporations that are large ("large" being defined by state economists), with the incentive of returning a portion of this collection to those businesses whose taxable income is closest to predictions. This would encourage businesses to stop trying to "game" the system. Support for this would be garnered by promising lower overall corporate tax rates.

Breaking the system's back

This is the "conspiracy theorist" approach. The instability of integral feedback control can be halted if the system itself can be changed so that it reacts differently to control. If, as I believe, corporations are exploiting the legislative system for their own gain, it becomes necessary to identify the manipulation and make it public. It appears that a record number of bills will be introduced this session and among these are ones designed to help large businesses at the expense of the state, it people and small businesses. These need to be stopped politically and could very slowly bring the budget fluctuations under control. We probably don't have enough time for this to work.

Friday, January 23, 2015

100 Mile: Standard Model - The Long Run

It seems that everyone is looking for the least possible amount of work they have to do to finish a race, so there's an unending supply of training schedules out there that cut out various things. The book "Run Less, Run Faster" sold really well to people who thought the title meant "How to run faster by running less" rather than "Train less, but train much harder." I thought it was time to explain the Standard Model for training to run 100 miles in detail, as it's not easy to find anywhere.

The Long Run: Rule number 1

 "Once per week, most weeks, run 24-30 miles in 4-6 hours on a course as difficult as you can manage."

The first thing that I wondered about training for a hundo was probably the same as everyone else: "How do you train for what will happen after 15 hours, if you never run that long?" If 30 miles is good, wouldn't 50 be better? As it happens, the longer you run, the greater the stress and the longer it takes to recover. So, if you run too long in your long runs, you can't run them often enough. You also shouldn't try to do one every single week, but rather 2 out of 3 weeks, or 3 out of 4. Giving yourself the option of skipping one occasionally keeps it from becoming drudgery (and decreases long-term fatigue). If you have a favorite course that's 50 km. or 32 miles, you shouldn't think that 30 miles as a limit is set in stone; 35 won't help and 40 will hurt.

The time frame of 4-6 hours is important. 24 miles in 6 hours is 15 minutes per mile. If you can't do that on flat ground, chances are that you're going to not make some time cut-offs in your race, so you won't finish. If you can run 30 miles in 4 hours, first you're undoubtedly a sub-3 marathoner, second you should be running on a more difficult course. Adding hills will slow you down and will get you into that 4-6 hour time frame. If you look at the Superior (Sawtooth) 100 Mile, everyone who finishes runs the first 20-30 miles in 4-6 hours. This long run should feel like the start of a 100 mile race.

This run should be done as you would do a race. You should carry whatever you need, eat regularly (200-300 calories per hour, about 1200 total) and dress as you would for the race. Walk when you need to and rest when you have to, but keep the watch running.

It's common to feel a "collapse point," which marathoners call "hitting the wall;" this happens when your muscles run out of glycogen. When it happens, you suddenly feel very fatigued and want to quit. It's important to keep going past this feeling - it actually gets better! Note when it happens and you can measure progress by how much later it occurs when you get in better shape; it also becomes less sharp of a transition and may eventually go away altogether. Many ultrarunners never experience this sensation (they're the lucky "naturals" of the sport), but it's good to know about it before you start, rather than getting surprised by it.

How you make an adjustment for getting used to running for longer than 6 hours is the back-to-back run, the next installment in this series.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Have you tried the standard model?

When writing about any subject long enough, you start writing about weird stuff just to have something new to say. This is post #1157 about running here, and I haven't resorted to reviewing shoes or showing pictures of vacations [cough cough, like every other blog], but I have veered off course a bit.

There's a weird fascination with food among runners and the latest craze is eating low-carb (defined as anything less than what one ate last week). The way these things work is that a successful runner gets interviewed and there's nothing new for them to say [I trained really hard and was a little lucky], but they mention something about their diet and voila! there's something to write about. Then another says the same thing and it's a trend.

Runner A runs 140 miles per week and eats a low carb diet. Runner B runs 130 miles per week and eats a low carb diet. Average Runner hears about this and says, "Well, I can't run that much, but I can change what I eat. That's the way to be a better runner!"

The breakdown

If you run 10 miles fourteen times per week, your muscles are always being depleted of glycogen and you burn a greater per centage of fat to sugar because of it. If you're doing that and eating a high carb diet, your body also becomes better at storing sugar at the same time. If you're eating a low carb diet, your body doesn't have any sugar to store, so you burn a slightly greater amount of fat than you do on a high carb diet - the difference is generally small.

Now, if you're only running 10 miles three times per week and you switch from eating 60% carbs to 40% carbs, it does absolutely nothing physiologically. If you dropped to eating 5-10% carbs, your body will indeed burn a slightly higher ratio of fat to sugar than it did before, but it will mean absolutely nothing to your racing ability.

Run more.

What you eat might account for the last 5% of improvement and what shoes you wear might be the last 0.5%, but training accounts for the rest of it.

Go out and f#$%& run!

I'm really talented at squeezing out the last couple per centage points out of runners, getting someone whose run a half dozen marathons in 3:05-3:10 to finally break the 3:00 barrier, but that's really just the frosting on the cake. You have to do all the work necessary to get to 3:10 to begin with. What you eat won't get you from 4:00 to 3:10.

Stop reading this and do your workouts!!!!

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Dreaded Yearly Fashion Post 2015

I've always loved that at the Golden Globes, teenage TV starlets play dress up and pretend to be movie stars, creating some interesting, fresh ideas. The year that "Glee" first aired was a field day for me. Unfortunately, this year in television consisted mostly of "women of a certain age" that complain that they can't get roles. They also seemed to have heeded my advice from previous years that you can't wear something off the runway unless you're built like a model; most dresses this year were made for the person and occasion, giving me less to say.

Of course, you might still catch Christoph Waltz eating a Fatburger, if you're lucky.

Most people's best-dressed awards went to Allison Williams (who could walk a runway, if need be). The dress was heavily laden - reportedly 40 pounds - with crystals, which are a way to get the effect of metallics, a huge trend for several years, without looking like lamé. The heavy eye make-up is a shame, however.

Most talked about was Amal Clooney, who obviously thought very hard about what to wear. Knowing that people wanted to see her, but that it was her husband's night (after all, George was getting a life-time achievement award and you only get a few of those - unless you're a country music star. Garth Brooks has 112). She wore a simple black dress with a long train and simple hair and understated make-up and jewelry. That, however, was insufficient for the occasion, so she added white leather opera length gloves (making me think of the movie "Frozen"), with a white clutch. On the clutch was a Je Suis Charlie Hebdo button, proclaiming, in essence "If you MUST make it about what I'm wearing, it's STILL not about me." Brilliant, really. If the gloves had been a different fabric, it would've worked better and she had the problem of not being able to touch anything; no handshakes, no drinking.

My vote for best dressed goes to Greer Grammer, even though it looks like a prom dress. But I remember that I also liked Rumer Willis when she was the Golden Globe girl and she's looked horrid ever since.

Compare Anna Kendrick to Greer and you'll see how good Greer's dress was.
There weren't many architectural dresses, which is a shame, and the best of them was on model Chrissy Teigen,  about whom I have never had anything nice to say before today.
Among other models, Heidi Klum looked much better than usual. It's like these women were taking notes from what I've said in the past! The asymmetric wrap with the near-Veronica Lake hair, go together perfectly. She's one of the few that could hear that the Pantone color of the year is marsala (or as I call it, bloodied brick) and get someone to make her a dress in the closest shade to that that suits her - marsala is a very tricky shade.
Claire Danes was dressed for time-warping from the 1970's in a granny dress.
Diane Kruger's form-fitting silver suited her, but looked stiff. She time-traveled the other direction.
I love Ellie Kemper, but this dress is wrong in many ways. For one thing, it draws attention to that one spot about 5 inches below her waist.
Emma Stone's pants just weren't enough for the occasion. Lorde was a little better, others a little worse. There's not much one can say about pants.
This color on Katie Holmes is wonderful, but maybe not on her. And the cut is wrong. And her make-up is wrong. And her hair is wrong. Still, it's a nice change from all the reds and whites. Someone else should try something like this for the Oscars.
If you had Kate Hudson's body, you'd be tempted to wear this too. Side panels OR cleavage, not both, please.
Julianne Moore's dress gets everything wrong and still looks good on her! She often makes my worst list, but this - inexplicably - is a very flattering dress. She should stick with this look until we tire of it.
Jessica Chastain's draped metallic dress was on point, but I think it isn't the right color for her. I've gone over this before; for her, color is everything. Her hair and make-up (wish I had a decent close-up) were excellent.
Many are praising Jennifer Lopez's dress. I cannot express enough how much I hate it. It's a Klingon warrior's bathrobe. You don't wear low-cut cleavage and thigh-high skirt slit without screaming how desperate you are. Every time out, you can see something wrong with her dress by looking at her left breast (it's okay; she obviously wants you to look); once it was a nipple guard showing, once tape, once spirit gum residue; this time you can see the indentation of an underwire. She has very nice skin, but we don't need to see all of it all the time.

I even like watching Gwyneth Paltrow walk away! What is happening to me?! I've become everything I hate.

Felicity Jones (who?) wore a nicely structured dress with the new high collar fashion trend and in a color that stood out.
Keira Knightley... went insane. I'm sure someone's following her with a net, though.
Kerry Washington gets points for doing something new in metallic and in trying color blocking, but this looks like someone drew a pattern for a dress on another dress... and she wore both.
Sadly, Lupita Nyong'o, who could do no wrong after last year's red caped dress, has made progressively worse choices and has now hit bottom. Theo Huxtable's prom date has arrived.
Naomi Watts was one of many in a lemony yellow and wore it best with this very simple dress. It's the jewelry I want to point out: that's making a statement and a half.
Prince showed up, dressed like Prince, as only Prince can. He did Prince stuff.
Rosamund Pike did the white cut-out dress that was everywhere, but it's functional! She's nursing. Really - that's the body of a woman with a 3 week-old baby, who was nursing during the show and after party!
Salma Hayek looked elegant, as usual. The cheap-looking metal belt makes the dress. It takes a great eye to make that call.
Sienna Miller looked better than this photo suggests in what may be the last waterfall hemline we'll see. She looks like she could be going to a wedding on the beach, yet it didn't look out of place.
Emily Blunt, in an over-praised dress. Blah.
And now for something completely different. Conchita Wurst in what looks like green velvet ("Gone With the Wind" inspired?) that needed a different undergarment, but otherwise was a very interesting choice.
I... I've done worse.
Lana Del Ray in yet another metallic draped dress, plus the worst hair of the night.
Matt Bomer was one of many who wore blue suits (not purple, as it appears in this photo) and he looked terrific in it. Among the men, Jared Leto looked good, as usual, and Alan Cumming needs to learn that matchy-matchy looks good on no one.

And all that's left to cover is the after-party wear. But this is the end.
Alessandra Ambrosio's end.