In the extensive coverage surrounding the 40th running of the New York City marathon this past weekend, more than one piece questioned whether marathon races had lost their elite edge. An op-ed piece in the New York Times on Saturday bemoaned the change in coverage from the pure, rarefied competition between the elite runners to human-interest stories about less professional athletes who competed. Cameron Stracher, who wrote the piece, argued that the long lag in U.S. marathon champions was due, at least in significant part, to this shift in coverage and "narrative," which lessened the public's excitement and inspiration to reach for the top levels in the sport.
"As the running boom matured," Stracher wrote, "the story line shifted from the race itself to the race as 'event.' ... The marathon may be an event, but at its heart it is a race--a competition among highly trained athletes."
A similar theme ran through an article that ran a few days earlier, under the title "Plodders Have a Place, But Is It in a Marathon?" A number of elite runners are apparently irritated at the slow runners and runner/walkers who, they believe, have watered down the significance of running, or finishing, a marathon. "It used to be that running a marathon was worth something," the cross-country coach at the college of New Rochelle was quoted as saying. "There used to be a pride in saying you ran a marathon, but not anymore."
On the other hand, marathon organizers argue that the increasing participation levels and appeal of marathons, driven by those amateur runners, is what's kept the sport healthy and alive.
Ah, the dilemma of exclusiveness.
If I'm vaguely amused by the complaints, it's because they mirror so closely a debate that's raged for decades--sometimes unwittingly--in the pilot community. In the very early days, flying an airplane really did take an excessive level of both risk-taking and talent. So to be a pilot was to be part of a very exclusive club. You suffered greatly to get there, but then you got to wear your wings with immense pride.
It's still a hefty effort to get a pilot's license, but the difficulty has decreased significantly over time. First came electrical systems and more reliable engines. Then came the advent of the tricycle gear airplane design, which made takeoffs and landings far easier and safer than they were with the old, skittish tail wheel designs. But the advent of the nose wheel airplane also prompted grumbling among the "old" set about how now anybody could be a pilot.
The club was becoming less exclusive. On the other hand, it was also becoming a booming industry. The explosion of general aviation in the 1950s and 1960s was due in no small part to the fact that so many more people felt capable of becoming part of it. Industry advocates have long dreamed of creating airplanes and systems safe and easy enough that every person in America could become a pilot and have access to a small airplane, because it would transform both the size of the industry, and the size of the support it receives. One would think that pilots, who depend on that support, would echo this sentiment. But even today, there's resistance among a lot of pilots at the thought of flying becoming, well ... pedestrian. After all, if everyone can do something, it's not such a point of pride that I can.
But I would caution marathon elitists to be careful what they wish for. Familiarity is critical to engagement, engagement is critical to audience, and audience is critical to sponsorship and publicity. Stracher argues that stories of great Yankee baseball rivalries, focused only on the playing field, is what inspires people to want to play ball. I disagree. I think the fact that people do play ball, in sandlots and schoolyards and on the streets of New York, is why there is such an audience for watching the best of the best battle it out.
For years, the sponsors of air racing--the fastest sport on earth, where pilots fly almost 500 miles an hour only 40 feet off the ground, in 90-degree bank angles--have struggled to figure out why they can't get more than a tiny audience to watch. Why is it that NASCAR races, which have many of the same elements, but less speed and risk, are so much more popular? Answer: because almost everybody owns a car. Hardly anyone (less than 0.1% of the population) owns an airplane. Millions of people can imagine themselves zooming around a NASCAR track. Very few can identify with a race pilot's world.
By the same token--as more and more people have taken up running and long-distance running, more people can imagine themselves sprinting across that finish line and can identify with the pains, injuries, and disappointments of a marathon champion. That there are now many more wannabes is actually a good thing, in terms of the long-term survival and health of the running and marathon industry.
But there's also something else at play, which Stracher alludes to when he notes how "the running boom matured." Everything is new only once. Back in the days of the barnstormers, when aviation itself was new and few people had been exposed to it, flying had a romantic appeal to the public that it will never have again. Pilots today are not held up as high as the heroes of old, when few people had even experienced flight.
Familiarity may bring engagement, but it also famously breeds contempt. Or at least a tempering of the initial romantic ideas and breathless excitement it once generated. Just like any human romance, if our interaction with something continues on long enough, it matures from a passionate love affair into something more like a marriage. Not that we can't still get weak in the knees from time to time, but movements, like relationships, change and mature. And that's okay, because maturation brings other benefits.
Back in the 1970s, running as a popular sport was a brand-new and exciting wave. Running shoes themselves were a a radical new concept. And those leading the charge inspired an entire nation to get off its duff and hit the streets. That's impressive. So now it's a mature sport, with many more participants. That's known as success. So, OK. Maybe that also means it's not quite as exclusive or exciting as it once was to run a marathon at all.
But running it in 2:09 is still an Olympic feat. Nothing takes away from that. And with six American men finishing in the top ten in Sunday's race, it's hard to argue that the changes in the sport and how we write about it have killed our competitiveness. Whatever the reason for the dearth of U.S. male champions between 1982 and Sunday's victory by American Meb Keflezighi, it's obviously more complex than that.
As for the complaints about the slower participants ... there's clearly some line that has to be drawn at the end, so the timers and volunteers who operate a marathon can go home. But I'd hesitate to make broad statements about what's going on at the back of the pack. The saying about being kind to strangers you meet, because you know not what burdens they carry, comes to mind.
I sat next to a man named Donald Arthur at a Bronx Rotary Club dinner last spring who had completed more than 30 marathons, en route to his goal of completing a marathon in every state. He'd only started participating in marathons recently, after a heart transplant gave him life and the ability to exercise again. He wasn't young, and even with his new heart, he couldn't run the 26 miles. Given his age and health, it was amazing he could finish a 26-mile course at all. But his zeal for the races was electric, even if he experienced them differently than the top competitors. For Donald, a marathon is a competition not against other humans, but against fate, death, and limits; a chance to prove and celebrate, over and over, that he is fully alive again.
I asked him what his favorite marathon was, and his eyes lit up like Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. "Oh, New York!" he exclaimed. "I mean, the one outside of Denver was so beautiful, to be in the midst of those hills and nature all around you like that. But New York has all those people, cheering you on! I wave at them, and they wave back, and it's like nothing else." Donald has time to wave, of course, because he's not trying to break a six-minute mile. Does Donald Arthur's participation diminish the New York Marathon? I don't think so. He's just experiencing and running a different race, against a different opponent, back there at the back of the pack.
A marathon is a race, to be sure. But is it an elite event only for "highly trained athletes?" I don't think that's written in the definition or rules anywhere. The original marathoner, after all, was a Greek soldier simply trying to deliver a message. And I'm not sure there's anything wrong with a marathon meaning different things to different people. It's almost inevitable, with 40,000 participants.
Perhaps the best way to view today's city marathons is as a more efficient version of the multiple levels in other sports: Little League, sandlot and stickball games, NCAA leagues, pick-up Saturday games, semi-pro leagues, farm teams and the Major Leagues all wrapped up into one. No wonder they're such a party. And for those who still yearn for something more rarefied; the excitement of watching only the best of the best compete without anyone else in the backfield, running still offers its own equivalent of the World Series. It's a small, highly exclusive club known as the Olympics.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
Tracking the controversies, allegations, and investigations into the president and his administration
Donald Trump entered the White House as one of the most scandal-tarred presidents in American history—what his imbroglios may have lacked in depth, they made up in variety, encompassing legal, ethical, and sexual controversies. (In a twist, one of Trump’s few competitors for the crown was his rival, Hillary Clinton.) They ranged from race discrimination to mafia connections, from petty hypocrisies to multimillion-dollar alleged frauds.
Now that Trump is president, some of those controversies have continued to shadow him. But the presidency has also occasioned a whole new set of disputes. Looming largest is the question of whether his campaign colluded with Russian agents to interfere in the election, a question being investigated by the FBI as well as panels in both houses of Congress. They also include ethical and legal questions surrounding members of his cabinet, his allegation that Barack Obama spied on him before the election, and various conflicts of interest.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
After a quiet start, the demonstrators grew louder as they drew closer to Capitol Hill—mirroring the long arc of the protest itself.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chants that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.
Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Heterosexual women today, in certain milieus, find themselves placed into one of two categories: too young to settle down, and too old to find a man. There is a window of opportunity to get married, but it is ephemeral almost to the point of non-existence. It falls at a different age according to region, or the idiosyncratic biases of one's circle, but hovers around 27. "Too young" refers not to teen marriage, but to any commitment entered into by a grown woman deemed still a child by those around her.
Here's how it works: A young woman hears from friends and family that she needs to focus on her career or education, not some guy. She is warned of certain dangers: unsolicited male attention; unintended pregnancy, as if intended pregnancy were also a thing; and the desire hardwired into all straight men to turn their girlfriends into 1950s housewives. To entertain the possibility of it being difficult to find a husband, to even utter the expression "find a husband," is to regress to another era. And this advice is incredibly appealing, a rejection of the quaint notion that female heterosexuality is the desire not for men, but for a white picket fence.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.