Monday, March 31, 2008
I am the archetypal civilized as opposed to tribal person. I am an aficionado of the highest achievements of human culture and civilization, from the great works of art to the accomplishments of music, architecture, drama and literature. While I am hardly the world's most cultured person (you may wish to visit the Juilliard School or the Banff School of Fine Arts to obtain a much greater dose of culture than I can personally convey to you), I am definitely at the civilized as opposed to the tribal end of the human cultural spectrum.
Be that as it may, I am going to spend the balance of this article advocating for a particular aspect of tribal human behaviour.
Because our survival - as individuals - depends upon mastering the principles of tribal fitness.
If we learn these principles, we stand to live well into the last decades of our lives (no matter how long or short the span that our own genetic program, habitual behaviours and environmental circumstances may actually allow us).
I have referred in an earlier entry to the groundbreaking text on fitness after 50, Younger Next Year. The phrase "rhythm of the hunt" came to me through an entry of Dr. Henry (Harry) Lodge on the Younger Next Year Website.
Dr. Lodge's entry is so well-written, I am tempted to quote it in full here, but that should not be necessary, as you can go directly to the source yourself.
What is Dr. Lodge suggesting?
In essence, humans have lived as tribal beings for over 99% of our two million years of evolution. This simple fact means that very little meaningful biological evolutionary development has occurred during our 7000 years at most of civilized life.
While culturally and psychologically, we may be very civilized beings, biologically, we are tribal beings, and that is simply a fact.
How then did we evolve - biologically - as tribal peoples?
In one term - as hunter-gatherers.
Again, no more than 1% of human evolution has been characterized by the three developmental stages subsequent to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (horticultural/pastoral; chiefdom; civil society).
How do hunter-gatherers live?
Again, the brief answer is "from the gifts of the land." From a civilized perspective, that may seem a difficult lifestyle, but it was obviously good enough to tide our ancestors through 2 million years of evolutionary history.
For hunter/gatherers, sometimes the land gave, and sometimes it did not.
Going beyond Dr. Lodge, I would speculatively characterize the tribal (hunter/gatherer) lifestyle as involving three phases - linked to three types of activity.
Phase I is gathering the fruits of the land. The activity associated with gathering was probably many hours of walking, bending, stooping, digging, collecting, and intermittently resting, per day. While gathering implies a vegetarian component to our diet, this was not strictly a vegetarian activity, as many animal sources of nutrition are also susceptible to gathering, including the collection of shellfish, the gathering of eggs, and probably catching fish in many cases as well.
Phase I is characterized by a gentle sustained pace of exercise mostly equivalent to walking or jogging as an exercise form.
Phase II is hunting, and to the best of our knowledge, based on the study of contemporary hunter/gatherer societies, this was characteristically a group activity, and was accompanied by a number of active rituals, as well as by hunting forays to bring home high protein/high fat game for the tribal group.
Hunting involves not only vigorous running and effortful use of weapons and carrying of the kill, but also many complex and integrated bodily movements, such as twisting, striking, lifting, cutting, turning, altering direction and pace, etc.
Phase III - not mentioned by Dr. Lodge, but also obviously relevant to the tribal lifestyle, is fasting. In pastoral societies, such as that of the traditional Hunza, fasting was an essential element of the annual calendar, extending up to 6 weeks in late winter and early spring.
Periods of fasting are a time for conservation of energy. Notably, the scarcity of food has defined much about human biological development. Consider, for example, that our bodies' insistence upon the storage of fat is clearly an adaptation to the recurring shortage of food during our human and pre-human developmental history. When we diet, our bodies move into food scarcity mode, and increase the rate at which they store fat, frustrating the intentions of many would-be dieters.
Consider also that depressed mood is a survival mechanism in times of scarcity, as depressed individuals conserved energy, while active individuals risked wasting what little energy might have been stored in fat, with the result that they might not survive until the next season of plenitude.
By way of contrast, and here I am returning to the main point of Dr. Lodge's article, hunting is an optimistic activity. The hunter, through the expenditure of great effort, increases his chances of bringing home many meals, and thereby enhancing his chances of survival, as well as the likelihood of survival of his tribal group.
That is, biologically, the rhythm of the hunt offers some survival advantages over the rhythm of foraging.
To begin with, the slow, steady pace of the walking gatherer is a biological strategy for burning fat, but not carbohydrates. I suspect, though I'm reading between the lines in the evidence, that psychological depression (for the reasons I offered earlier) is also linked to the foraging versus the hunting way of life.
By way of contrast, the vigorous pace of the hunter entails the burning of the combined fuels of fat and carbohydrate, as well as to much more active use of the body as a whole - and this also appears to be linked to counterbalancing psychological processes.
Dr. Lodge states:
"Exercising hard enough to push yourself to the next level calls for a new fuel. You need more power than you get from fat alone, so your muscles start to burn glucose. This shift into high gear changes your metabolism, because harder exercise is the automatic signal to your body that you've started to hunt. Picture an animal when prey is in sight. His adrenaline surges, he becomes engaged and alert, his step has more bounce, he processes visual information more quickly, his reflexes sharpen, his pupils dilate. This is what happens when you turn on a whole serious of complex control mechanisms by exercising harder. When you reach this level, starting to burn glucose, your arms swing freely, you breathe more deeply, and your legs start to really work. You keep burning that low level of fat in the background, but all the extra fuel from this point on up is glucose.
"Your heart rate is the only way to know for sure which metabolism is at work and which signals you're sending. Your heart delivers more and more blood to your muscles the faster it pumps, and your muscles can extract more and more fat from that blood until you reach about 65 percent of your peak heart rate. That's the limit of your first gear, and only a heart monitor can help you determine which number that is for you. As soon as you push your body a little harder, you start burning glucose in addition to fat, and you need more oxygen to do this. That means bringing more blood to the muscles so your heart rate goes up. Any heart rate above 65 percent means you're burning glucose and that you've moved into a different metabolism. You've shifted into second gear and your body starts drawing on the glucose stored in your muscles, feeding it into your mitochondria to produce extra energy.
"Hard aerobics, working up a good sweat, is our favourite exercise rhythm because hunting brings out our youngest and best biology: strong, fast, energetic and optimistic all day long. But light aerobics builds the foundation for health better than anything else. That's why you should do light aerobic exercise a couple of days a week to build your base, and then go out and play on the hard-aerobic fields the other days."
I have quoted Dr. Lodge at length here, because there is little that I wanted to omit, and little that could be paraphrased more concisely.
The rhythm of the hunt, due to the efficient mitochondrial (aerobic) burning of carbohydrate fuel, engages a series of rejuvenating biological mechanisms that are not triggered by more moderate exercise.
In my earlier essay on the ideas of Younger Next Year, I made reference to the impacts of the cytokines 6 and 10 on human health and fitness. New research since that time has revealed that both cytokine 6 (more commonly referred to as IL6) and cytokine 10 (IL10) are anti-inflammatory cell-surface signalling proteins, and that the culprit involved in the cellular breakdown associated with arthritis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is actually another very well-characterized cytokine known as TNF (I am simplifying perhaps too much in this section, for the sake of hoped-for clarity).
However, the fundamental idea of younger next year, and the first principle of tribal fitness, still stands.
When we do not exercise vigorously on at least an alternating daily basis, our bodies enter fasting mode.
Paradoxically, even when we are inactive, but flooding our bodies with calories, biologically, our bodies remain in fasting mode - because it is vigorous physical activity that signals our bodies that we are engaged in the gathering of food - not the inflow of calories!
The body of the well-fed inactive person believes it is starving. Not only does it begin to store fat at overtime rates, it also breaks down tissue to generate energy to burn - and this is the mechanism which triggers the onset of arthritis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as probably many other diseases, possibly including some types of cancer as well.
What about the biology of the gatherer?
It is much healthier than the biology of the inactive person, but still problematic, at least in our contemporary context, where our closest approximation to gathering is walking. That is, the original spectrum of "lifestyle" components of traditional gathering behaviour is typically eliminated in our contemporary forms of "moderate" exercise.
Quite simply, our bodies do not require the peak of fitness to walk about, staying active, but at no more than an easy to moderate pace. When we walk and take in calories, our bodies know that food is available - but easily so. Thus, muscle tissue gradually dies back, and the range of our bodies' capacity for exertion becomes restricted. This is not a serious problem for younger people, but potentially a very serious problem for persons over 50, who are already facing age-related declines in physical capacity.
That is, even regular but only mellow physical exercise permits us to come off our peak, and to function in a gradually narrower and narrower range.
Thus, of the three "phases" of tribal fitness, only one of the three enables us to live beyond age 50 with as full as possible a range of capacities - and that is phase II - the rhythm of the hunt.
As defined by Dr. Lodge, this means engaging our heart rate at 65% or more of maximum capacity, and engaging in strenuous (though not necessarily continuous) physical exertion (characterized in the text as "resistance training").
On the Younger Next Year website, Dr. Lodge and his partner Chris Crowley, are beginning to define more broadly what is really entailed by the rhythm of the hunt.
On the title page at this time is a reference to the new book, "Balance," by Scott McCredie. Mr. Crowley refers to Mr McCredie's conjecture that it may have been our human sense of balance - not our supposedly superior intelligence - that distinguished us from the Neanderthal.
Let me go beyond Crowley and Lodge here to add a few questions or conjectures of my own.
As I really understand the physical demands of the hunt in tribal societies (and let me hasten to add that I am a vegetarian, but my genetic code doesn't know it), there is much more demanded of our minds and bodies than our contemporary analogues of aerobic fitness, speedwork and weight training.
That is, our "linearly" structured contemporary exercise programs constitute no more than partial approximations of the actual rhythm of the hunt that we must replicate if we are interested in arresting the progress of the degenerative processes (and diseases) that are inherent to the aging process, as well as in maximizing our physical options through maintaining peak levels of endurance, strength, flexibility and agility.
I am beginning to think that combined aerobics and strength training, while beneficial - are simply not enough. I am not meaning to set an impossible challenge in terms of the time demands of fitness activities, but rather to be interested in thinking about how to combine activities that promote endurance, strength, balance, flexibility, agility and tolerance for variation in levels of effort.
That is - it is not "one or the other," but how to combine as many functions into a single activity as suits our personal interests, needs, constraints and lifestyle.
As a thought experiment, let me set out a few basic challenges, some of which I can presently pass, but some of which I cannot - and probably soon must be able to do!
Targeting particularly my readers over 50, can you.....
1. Complete a half marathon in any time at all?
2. Lift (pull up) your own body's weight on a horizontal bar?
3. Push up your own body's weight with your arms?
4. Easily exit a chair by exerting your abdominal muscles rather than by relying on the support and strength in your arms?
5. Comfortably assume and maintain a full squatting position (as one might witness in an Asian market)?
6. Both sit up and stand up from a lying-down (supine) position without using your arms to push or pull?
7. Maintain your balance while riding a bicycle or a horse over long distances?
8. Take off, put on, tie and untie your shoes from a standing position without support?
9. Run, turn and spin from position to position without losing your balance?
10. Engage in at least three demanding lifestyle fitness activities (for example, team sports, individual competitive sports, distance running, rock climbing, cycle touring, skiing, roller blading, distance swimming, active dancing, etc.)?
11. Run and keep your pace in deep snow or sand?
12. Balance on one leg (or better still - two arms)?
If you are 50, will you be able to do these activities when you are 70? Or if you are 60, to do them at 80, etc.?
What kind of fitness routine do you need to accomplish your own strategy for being "younger next year?"
There is much more I want to say, ask, and speculate about, but I will reserve these additional topics for a future article!
20 April 2008: It is important to clarify a point that is raised by my wife Susan in her recent blog entry, "Long Walks Are Good for Your Heart x2." She is exactly right that the transition from idleness to maximum exertion is a non-natural and high-risk behavioural pattern.
It would be more accurate to conclude not that the rhythm of the hunt is superior to the rhythm of foraging, but rather that it is a necessary and non-expendable complement to the pace of foraging. To rest and then to hunt, never engaging in foraging, seems an unlikely and unnatural life and exercise rhythm.
The rhythm of the hunt gains its validation against the backdrop of the rhythm of foraging. Both are necessary. Seeking to capture the pace of the hunter in our exercise program, without also mastering the pace of the gatherer, is almost certainly contraindicated by the innate biological program of our hunter-gatherer bodies!
Further, we would be wise to devote more time to mastering the rhythm of the gatherer prior to aspiring to the replication of the rhythm of the hunt. That is, let us first attain the rhythms of gathering and foraging before we seek to master the challenges of the far more demanding - and risky - rhythms of the hunt.
It is the gatherer who is ready to engage in the mysteries and rituals of the hunt, not the sedentary individual whose body is unaccustomed to regular and habitual movement and sustained aerobic exertion.
In the world of evolutionary (physical) fitness, we must certainly learn to walk before we can learn to run.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
One retirement project I have given much though to is offering guidance to young people about investing for their future.
What would I tell them?
Secular trends are the most important factor in all investing.
Everything else is secondary to this primary fact.
The broad markets are a good (or at least acceptable) place to invest for the longer term during two secular "seasons." Spring and autumn are rewarding seasons during which to invest for many years in general equities. But we must be cautious and selective during the recessionary summer season, and stay almost entirely out of the broad markets during their winter season. Few investment advisors warn their clients about these simple but vitally important secular trends.
I hope you have grasped that I am not talking about the earth's seasonal cycles as it revolves about the sun. Rather, I am referring to the fabled Kondratieff Cycle, named for the persecuted Russian economic theorist, Nikolai Kondratieff.
Economists debate the validity of Kondratieff's theoretical constructs and their application. Obviously the world has changed a great deal over the past century. What is difficult to dispute, however, is that broad multi-decade trends drive the markets, and the Kondratieff model, whether wholly right or wrong, certainly offers a perspective for thinking further about the types of factors that give rise to these patently observable secular (very long-term) trends.
From a psychological perspective, an obvious driver of cycles that may repeat over 50-70 year time frames is that no human can learn them by living through them in a lifetime (this observation is particularly applicable to the adult portions of our lives).
For most of us, our entire lifetime will represent more or less a single secular economic cycle. No matter how much we may learn through study or even through interviews with members of previous generations, we cannot know what it will feel like to live through each stage of the cycle until we pass through it - probably once only for each stage - in our own lifetime.
In my perhaps limited experience, I have found the best discussion of Kondratieff's ideas in Marc Faber's book, Tomorrow's Gold.
Another book to look at might be Ed Easterling's Unexpected Returns: Understanding Secular Stock Market Cycles. I have ordered but not yet read this book. It comes highly recommended by John Mauldin, an advisor whom I deeply respect. I'll read this one and let you know!
In brief, the markets tend to climb, or at least to maintain stability, during periods of genuine economic growth. However, economies are driven by human behaviour, and our species is prone to excesses in thinking and behaviour that result in accumulating unresolved economic imbalances on a cyclical basis.
Most often, these problems are attributable to irresponsible monetary policy, during which the money supply is allowed to increase out of all proportion to economic productivity. During such late episodes of excess in our multi-decade economic cycles, debt accumulates and capital is increasingly misallocated or "malinvested" in unproductive assets.
In our current situation, we now have, as evidence of our deeply imbalanced economic system, what Bill Fleckenstein has termed the "merger" of the US Federal Reserve Bank with the J.P. Morgan Chase and Bear Stearns investment banks. The Federal Reserve has literally agreed to take on and guarantee the lowest quality mortgage "unbacked" securities of Bear Stearns, accumulated during that bank's heyday of recklessness. While indebted nominal homeowners - too numerous to rescue - are left to suffer the natural consequences meted out by what little remains of the free market system, Wall Street investment banks are deemed "too big to fail," and so are rescued with uncounted billions in taxpayer dollars.
Permit me to state here and now that the "rescue" of Bear Stearns at this time offers the most certain evidence yet that we have reached a point of no return in our present economic cycle.
Such developments, against a backdrop of an accumulated $48 trillion of US public and private debt, are a certain warning that Kondratieff winter is on its way, if not already upon us.
This is the season during which investment in general equities is simply unwise, but so-called "counter-cyclical investments" may fare very well, the foremost among these being gold, the precious metals generally, and - during parts of the winter season - commodities.
What is happening here is not that commodities are increasing in value, but that money is reassuming its actual value against things that are real. That is, our national "reserve" banks can print money endlessly, and have in fact been doing so throughout the Kondratieff autumn season. But when winter comes, the excess money is assigned its true value against real goods.
The winter season is certainly dangerous and destructive. Globally, it is characterized by rapid redistributions of capital which fuel competition for scarce resources involving "new players," resulting in increased risks of destructive human behaviour of all kinds, including war. However, winter is also the season of "creative destruction" (a phrase coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter), when malinvested capital is abandoned, and wiser investment strategies ultimately win out... eventually leading us into a fresh and new spring season.
A commentator who understands broad cycles well is Jay Taylor. I would like to refer you here for Mr Taylor's recent review of where we stand within the context of broad economic cycles. (I have borrowed three charts from Mr. Taylor for my present blog entry, but recommend that you go directly to the source for a full exposition of their meaning.)
Kondratieff winter is here. Take caution, as it is only beginning, and spring is a decade or more away. It is certainly now a season of "global cooling" in the international equity markets.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Conerly makes clear that it is not Bear Stearns but its reckless counterparties who have been bailed out, and that Mr. Bernanke's fears of financial turmoil and his enabling responses will fuel further recklessness in the financial markets.
"Dr. Ben rode to the fire in a big red truck. But his truck was leaking gasoline all over town, setting up the street for another major conflagration that could be far worse than the Bear Stearns fire.
"Someone should have pulled Bernanke aside and told him to chill. The economy is pretty resilient. It can withstand a lot of turmoil. Instead, the chairman is too afraid of financial turmoil, and as a result, he's going to get more of it."
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Perhaps it goes without saying this time.
But I'll say it anyway. There is more evidence of pre-crash talk and behaviour on Wall Street and on Main Street this weekend - not to mention in international markets!
On January 18, 2007, Bear Stearns, the fifth largest investment bank on Wall Street, was worth $170.70 per share. As of today's date, Sunday, March 16, 2008, J.P. Morgan Chase has revalued the company at a stunning $2.00 per share. Rounded off, that is a 99% loss in market value for Bear Stearns over a mere 14-month time frame.
Why? I'm sure you can find ample explanation in the news stories. In short, Bear Stearns engaged in a greater degree of irresponsible risk-taking behaviour than did its other investment banking peers by throwing money at (and then selling to its customers) toxic subprime and other now essentially worthless mortgage-based debt obligations.
Or, so we think. Time will tell how irresponsible Bear's compatriots and competitors were.
Is Bear now actually worth $2.00 per share?
I'm not sure. Perhaps not. Its value could certainly be found to be negative when the smoke and dust settle and the mirrors clear.
Financial garbage in - financial garbage out.
I guess J.P. Morgan are buying a name (though now quite a tarnished name - so I'm not really sure what that is worth either).
What is this telling us about the markets as a whole?
I'm sure you can read that message in the behaviour of Asian markets trading Monday morning, while it is still Sunday evening here. The Asian markets are telling us that it's not over yet - the problem is not contained. Gold (up 3% on the news) is also telling us that it's not over.
And Mr. Bernanke has now used up almost half of all of his interest rate ammunition, cutting rates 2.25% form their former 5.25% levels 6 months ago. With 3% left to go, the Federal Reserve Board could expend up to one full additional percentage point of "ammunition" at their Tuesday, March 18, 2008 meeting. That could leave the Federal Funds Rate as low as 2% as of this coming week - or - greater than 60% of all ammunition expended. (Note that Mr. Bernanke has already modestly lowered the overnight rate 25 basis points, to 3.25%, today - Sunday, in a very unusual move!)
If by any chance this proves to be a lengthy recession, further rate cutting by the Fed will mean that there will be little more the Fed can do for as long as the recession lasts.
We know with certainty that the slashing of short-term rates will brutally punish savers and the prudent - but that has been going on for many years, beginning with the term of Allan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve.
Will the rate cuts and funds facilities (read "free" taxpayers' money) work to save the Wall Street system?
Well, Mr. Bernanke is an expert on depressions. He has two theories, which may perhaps eventually prove somewhat confusing to him, as well as to us.
Theory one is that the Fed can target inflation by raising rates when inflation goes up. However, that theory has been abandoned, as the Fed has redefined inflation instead, essentially removing everything that goes up in price from its measures - and ordinary people know that almost everything on which they spend money has been going dramatically up in price for some time now.
Mr. Bernanke's second theory is to keep the money flowing by printing lots more of it while disregarding the inflationary consequences - and that seems to be the course of action that the Fed has actually adopted. And, as any student of economics 101 can tell you, printing more money makes it worth less (and eventually literally worthless), based on the inexorable laws of supply and demand. With the amount of circulating (and concomitantly devaluing) US dollars up from about $4 trillion in the late-1990s to $14 trillion today, there is little reason for optimism for the US dollar - though we should expect the combined Fed and the Bush administration to pull out all the stops in throwing taxpayers' - and citizens' - money at the problem!
(By the way, expect most other international governments to follow suit, with their own brands of irresponsible monetary policy. This is in fact the US dollar's best hope for a bounce back up over the next few months. When every major power is competing to devalue its currency, this race to the bottom offers the strongest thread of hope to the battered - and misused - US dollar.)
Who will be rescued by more Fed rate cuts?
If it works, first of all, the folks on Wall Street who brought you these irresponsible financial practices in the first place.
Who will be punished?
Taxpayers. Savers. Persons on fixed incomes. Those hoping or planning to retire in the near or distant future.
It's going to be tough for US citizens attempting to behave financially responsibly when their own government refuses to do so.
As already discussed, the Fed has fought inflation by redefining it. Let's follow the Fed's lead, and just measure the cost of everything that does not change in price. However, I'm not sure what will be left to measure in the Fed's evolving cost of living index, as Chinese imports, the last bastion of the inflation deniers, are going up too, as the Renminbi gently floats up against the US dollar, and as the wages of Chinese workers gradually rise (the Chinese middle classes have so far quadrupled their incomes, according to Pamela and Mary Anne Aden).
And in any case, don't worry about the Dow crashing - it already has, in gold terms.
All that remains now is for the value of the Dow in US dollars to mirror its performance in gold terms - or, if you will, in terms of the Euro, the Swiss Franc, the Canadian dollar, or any of a multitude of alternative standards to the exploited and now failing US dollar.
The crash is not on its way. It is already here.
Bear in mind, the manipulators who brought you the reformed cost of living index and the notion that the Fed can rescue every irresponsible Wall Street player, will be doing their best to maintain the perceived strength of the investment markets, regardless of what else has to be sacrificed.
Time will tell how long this particular game lasts. Be cautioned, however. There may be a few more rounds left before the market manipulators have played the last of their cards - and the last of their chips.
Unfortunately, the real economic recovery can begin only be when the above-described games of chance and manipulation have come to an end. The financial manipulation that is keeping Bear Stearns alive today is merely serving to delay the inevitable, by bankrolling the irresponsible players to keep them in the game longer.