Categories
COVID-19

Follow up – Minneapolis issues guidelines for retailers

Late yesterday Minneapolis issued guidelines for retailers still open at this time like grocery stores. See here: Retailer Guidelines

It is gratifying to know that at least the City of Minneapolis is taking this seriously, but then again I see that Hennipen County leads all of MN in COVID-19 cases. I am saddened to say that neither the City of St. Paul nor the Governor have issued similar mandates, nor have I had any response from Representative Christensen, Senator Housley, or Governor Walz to my pleas for similar guidelines.

I did get template responses from Safeway and Costco assuring me that my message had been received, but no substantive replies.

And while I’m still irked over the half-assed response by business owners that haven’t been mandated to shut down, I have to ask a couple of more questions. I got a message from Inver Grove Honda telling me their showroom hours were being shortened. Really? Is this car buying season? And how about houses? Is this really the right time to have people wandering around strangers houses thinking of buying? What are you going to do if you actually buy one? Are virtual closures a thing?

Again, as we ponder getting the restaurant re-opened for take out, we’re pondering ways to do a complete no-touch pick up, which seems like the right thing to do. But until EVERYONE is thinking the same way we’re not going to flatten the curve of this pandemic.

Last but not least, I have to loop back to my favorite annoyance. Hey merchant processors, how about a break on your usury while we work our way through this crisis. No need for you to make your usual ridiculous profits while the rest of us suffer. How about a Federally mandate to stimulate on-line and touch free purchasing? Just saying.

Categories
COVID-19

COVID-19 in Washington County – Does anyone care?

Sorry if this is similar to yesterday, but SSDD as they say (Same Sh$#, Different Day). Today’s episode of “Let’s Spread Coronavirus” was at Cub Foods in Stillwater. A visit on a Friday at 1:00 pm found the parking lot full and the store full of people. No effort to limit entry, no effort at social distancing, they did have a spray bottle of (presumably) sanitizer by the entry, but poorly labeled. Again, like at Costco – Maplewood yesterday, it’s just hard to believe. Unlike at Costco, though, I did today what I should have done yesterday; I turned around and left.

What I’m really having trouble understanding is the complete lack of effort by the businesses. I get it that people are goofy and do what they do, but as a responsible business owner who is lucky enough to be able to be open in this time, you owe it to your community to do the right thing. You need to put someone out in front of the store and limit the number of people who can enter at once. Obviously this is going to be different for each business, but it’s a mandatory first step. For a place like Costco or Cub, it’s an excellent opportunity to check in with each customer, make sure they sanitize the frequently touched surfaces, understand the importance of social distancing and perhaps make sure that anyone with a cough is wearing a mask. Then maybe have a couple of people patrolling the store to make sure that people continue to distance. And someone managing the checkout lanes to keep people spread out. As a business owner, I understand that this is going to incur labor costs without adding revenue. In fact, revenue is going to suffer because you won’t be able to sell as much. And my response to that is, so what? Again, you’re fortunate to be open and be able to serve your community. Do it responsibly.

As with yesterday, I don’t want to pick on Cub exclusively. On our way home we cruised by the Kowalski’s in Stillwater and found the very same situation: packed parking lot and no one seemingly giving a damn about Coronavirus. For completeness sake, we also cruised Aldi in Stillwater and the very same again. It’s mind boggling and hard to understand. I guess it is up to all of us to start demanding better.

UPDATE: My irritation got the better of me. I emailed Safeway (parent company of Cub Foods) with my observations and perhaps a little opinion about unsafe and irresponsible business practices. Inspired, I went on to send a note to Ms. Shelly Christensen, my state representative and Ms. Karin Housley, my state senator as well as Governor Walz to express my concerns. Then Chloé and I walked down to the co-op to get some onions (as a home cook, what recipe doesn’t start with onions?). It was a more favorable experience, but not because the co-op was doing anything special, it’s just naturally much less crowded. On my way out the door I caught the Pioneer Press headline: 89 Cases and Counting the headline screams. Duh.

Categories
COVID-19

A COVID-19 Question – WTF?

As I assume most of you know, I own a restaurant in St. Paul, MN. We closed our doors on Tuesday, March 17 in response to the order by Minnesota Governor Walz to do so. The order was made to help control the spread of the COVID-19 corona virus in an effort to “flatten the curve”. If you’re not up on the terminology (though that seems unlikely) the idea is to extend the spread out over time so that the health care system is not overwhelmed with all of the cases in a short period of time. It does not (probably) change the number of cases (i.e. the area under the curve), but it may make it so that sick people can get the care they need.

In the process, I, like all other restaurants, bars, etc. in the state furloughed my employees. Fortunately, the shutdown mandate also came with an eliminated wait time for unemployment benefits, so hopefully everyone isn’t left high and dry. As the principal of a C corporation, I am not eligible for unemployment, but that’s a story for another day.

So, I had to go in to the restaurant today to give the delivery driver of our linen service access to the property to pick up the soiled linen and drop of fresh in anticipation of our eventual re-opening. On the way home, I stopped by Costco in Maplewood, MN to pick up a few things. Normally, I’d keep this kind of vague, but the particulars matter. The Costco experience was surreal and frightening. Costco – Maplewood parking lot was full. There was absolutely no attempt to limit the number of people in the store at once. Both customers and employees in the store behaved as though it was a normal day. No sanitizing of carts, no effort at social distancing, no covered coughs or sneezes, nothing. Zero effort. Crowded aisles, very full checkout, people cheek to jowl in checkout line; forget the 6 foot distancing, if you could find 2 feet you were lucky. If there were less than 500 people in the store, I’d be amazed. I’m guessing it was closer to 750 to 1000. And most disturbing, no one seemed to notice that this is a problem.

As I drove home I noted how heavy the traffic was for a Thursday late morning. Almost like a normal day. Which leads me to wonder, what’s this all for? Why are we all suffering privation and hardship in the service sector and education only to have the whole thing undone by retail? And, if the governments, both Federal and State, believe this quarantine is useful enough to mandate widespread closure, shouldn’t they be doing something to enforce large scale, unmonitored, gatherings like this? And Costco, I’m sorry to pick on you because I really like you as a company (yes, I’m even a stockholder (for full disclosure)), but you sent me a note the other day telling me you’d be a responsible partner in all of this. Where was the responsibility here? Is Maplewood, MN an outlier? It’s hard to believe that it’s anything but the tip of the iceberg and that something big, heavy, and dangerous lurks beneath. In the interest of fairness, my journey home took me past Sam’s Club and their parking lot was full too. So, apologize for the title, but WTF? Are we just stupid or arrogant? Either is unattractive, but combined may be deadly.

Categories
Nutrition

Pondering words

I offer you two words, slaughter and butcher. Two words where virtually every meaning is bad, except (presumably) the killing of animals for food. And in response to that, I offer you Melanie Joy. If you haven’t seen her TED talk, enjoy.

slaugh·ter | ˈslôdər |

verb [with object]

  • kill (animals) for food.
  • kill (people or animals) in a cruel or violent way, typically in large numbers: innocent civilians are being slaughtered.
  • informal defeat (an opponent) thoroughly: our team was slaughtered in the finals.

noun

  • the killing of animals for food: thousands of calves were exported to the continent for slaughter.
  • the killing of a large number of people or animals in a cruel or violent way; massacre: the slaughter of 20 peaceful demonstrators.
  • informal a thorough defeat: an absolute slaughter by the Red Sox.

 

butch·er | ˈbo͝oCHər |

noun 

  • a person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.
  • a person who slaughters and cuts up animals for food: a porkbutcher.
  • a person who kills or has people killed indiscriminately or brutally: acallous butcher of men.
  • North American informal a person selling refreshments, newspapers, and other items on a train or in a stadium or theater.

verb [with object

  • slaughter or cut up (an animal) for food: the meat will be butchered for the local market.
  • kill (someone) brutally: they butchered 250 people.
  • ruin (something) deliberately or through incompetence: the film was butchered by the studio that released it.
Categories
A Piece of My Mind

Merchant Processing – A Piece of My Mind

I’m going to imagine that most of you are not intimately familiar with merchant processing and that’s OK. I wasn’t either before I owned a business and after two years of doing business I finally rolled up my sleeves and dug into this. It’s an eye opening topic.

You go out to eat. You most likely don’t pay with cash because 90% of all restaurant transactions are cashless. You use your card (swipe, dip, or tap) or your phone, watch, or other device to pay. You probably added a tip to the transaction and then you were done. A month or so later you get the bill and pay some or all of it. It’s the way things work.

From the restaurant perspective, things are a bit different. If someone pays cash, we are very happy. For that $50 tab we get to keep all $50. But, as noted, 90% of the transactions are not cash. If someone uses their card (shorthand for all of the ways people pay without cash) I, the restaurant owner, have to pay for letting people have the convenience of not carrying cash. When all is said and done, I have to pay about 3% of the bill. So for that $50 tab you rang up, I actually get $48.50. This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first glance, but we’re talking about restaurants here. A really well run restaurant has a 5% profit margin and we figure that on cash sales. So, if your math is a little rusty, 5% of $50 is $2.50 and the company (merchant processor) that processes the credit card transactions just took $1.50 of my $2.50 profit! Is it any wonder that restaurants go out of business?

So, what’s a business owner to do? There are options, of course.

  1. I can just take cash. Certainly attractive, but not feasible
  2. I can try to negotiate a better merchant processor rate (more on this later), but the bottom line is there isn’t much room for improvement
  3. I can pass the cost on to the customer by adding a surcharge for every transaction

So, why is this such a difficult problem? Isn’t the whole world going the way of China, with digital wallets and no cards at all? The Motley Fool (www.fool.com) certainly seems to think so. They have a whole report called “Leave Your Wallet At Home – 4 Stocks for the Digital Payment Revolution”. Copyright prevents me from sharing this article with you (or the stock recommendations they make), but the Motley Fool analysts seem to have missed a couple of critical details about China’s digital wallet system. First, it’s free for the merchants. Yes, in China, if a merchant accepts payment from your digital wallet, there is no fee associated with that transaction; it’s just like cash. Second, it’s a “digital wallet”, not a credit card. There is no credit in the system. If you don’t have enough money in your wallet, you can’t buy whatever it is you’re wanting. They’re really the digital equivalent of a debit card.

Back to the U.S. market. Taking a page from the tax code or health care billing playbook, if you want to make something as opaque as possible the first step is make it needlessly complicated. Let me introduce you to The Interchange Rate. Visa, for example, publishes a 22 page document that lists their current Interchange Rates. But merchants don’t deal with Visa directly, they have to go through intermediaries. As always, the middle man wants his cut. So merchant processors (the middle men) have two general ways to get that cut. The most common is “Interchange Plus” processing. So they figure out what the interchange rate is for a particular card and charge that fee, plus an additional percentage of the total plus an additional “swipe” fee (i.e. the cost to use the card for one transaction). Because this system is so complicated, trying to read a statement is on a par with trying to complete your taxes by yourself or trying to interpret a health care bill; basically if you don’t work in the system, you’re not going to figure it out. So another option that some companies use is “flat rate” or “flat rate +”. They figure out a rate that more or less encompasses all of the interchange fees and adds a bit of profit and present you with this rate. The most well known version of this is Square, which couples the flat rate with free software to make accepting cards easy, if you’re willing to give up 2.8% of each sale.

Like so many things we seem to love here in the United States, credit cards have all kinds of hidden costs. The Brookings Institute, perhaps the most influential “think tank” in the US has a nice December, 2019 report on How Credit Card Companies Reward the Rich and Punish the Rest of Us. The report notes

the Supreme Court upheld the card companies’ right to prohibit merchants from passing along the costs of high-reward cards to customers who chose to use them.

So if a wealthy patron comes to my place and charges a $100 meal for the family with their cash back/high miles credit card, the issuer (Visa or MasterCard) may charge me up to 5% to take that card, which completely nullifies any profit I may have made from that transaction. And I, as the merchant, cannot do anything about it. Even if I recognized that as an expensive card, I cannot adjust my fees to compensate for the extra it costs me to accept it. Thanks Supreme Court; good to know you’re on the side of the oligarchs.

The report also notes that merchants, those accepting cards for payment, bear the burden of the costs of the system.

The economics of modern credit cards are often misunderstood. The bulk of card-issuers’ profit, particularly from the luxury high-end cards, comes not from interest paid by those who carry a balance on their cards, but rather from the so-called swipe fees paid by merchants, which can range from 3% to 5% of everything you buy. American Express, for example, booked in excess of $24 billion in swipe fees in 2018, more than three times as much as their net interest income.

But surely, then, as the foundation of the vast economic engine that is credit, merchants must have some protection, right? Wrong. If you think that, you don’t know about chargebacks. Chargebacks were created as a consumer protection mechanism where a customer, if they received faulty goods, could ask the bank to reverse the charges. More recently, however, they have been the primary mechanism for merchant processors to recoup funds after identity theft. Finally there is the “friendly fraud” where a customer reverses the charges for no good reason other than they don’t want to pay for something they received.

According to consumer claims at the time of filing, nearly half of all chargebacks are supposedly in response to unauthorized transactions. A recent survey, however, found that over 80% of cardholders filed a chargeback simply because they didn’t have time to request a refund from the merchant.

Moreover, although most merchants fight chargebacks, very few win. The estimation is somewhere around 80% loss rate for chargebacks. As if that wasn’t painful enough, there is usually a fee associated with a chargeback.

A recent example: a customer placed an online order from our website for $20 worth of food. The credit card number was typed in by the customer, meaning I paid well over 3% in fees for that transaction. A month later, I got a notification that the customer had chargedback the transaction, meaning the processor took $20 from my account to cover the transaction (note I didn’t get the 3% back) AND a $15 fee for the chargeback. So, I sold $20 worth of food, then gave the $20 back to the customer plus $15 to the merchant processor (fee) and $0.60 for the original processing fee. And I have no real recourse. Why did the customer chargeback? Didn’t like the food, someone stole their card (and ordered one meal???), who knows?


About 8 months ago I realized that the fees I pay for credit card processing for 2019 are going to be about the same as the profit I make at my restaurant. So, in essence, I’ve given up 50% of my profit to give my customers the convenience of not using cash. I embarked on a journey to find better rates. I talked to everyone. Square, other flat rate processors, some flat rate + processors (lower flat rate + a monthly “subscription fee”), and a number of interchange plus processors. I had my favorites, to be sure, and a bit of a bidding war ensued. The bottom line; I saved about 0.2% on my merchant processing. That translates to about a $4,320 savings on my projected restaurant sales of $2,400,000. Good to save every penny, to be sure, but not worth 8 months of work.

I was given the option, by Elavon, one of the top ten merchant processors in the US, to add a 3.5% surcharge to each bill and keep the billed amount. This is what the State of Minnesota does when I went to get my new driver’s license. There’s a sign by the register that says you can pay by card, but they’ll add 3% to your bill. While I like the idea as it adds transparency to the process, it’s pretty clear that people don’t want to know that the system costs to use, they just want to use it. I, like most merchants, fear backlash from my customers.

Clearly the only way to win here is to just accept cash. If I was smart I’d add an ATM right next to the register and charge 3% for withdrawing funds and peck away at my customers the same way that merchant processors are getting me!

 

 

Categories
Restaurant News

Plant-based diners rejoice!

Plant-based and vegan diners should be happy to know that their options for dining out continue to expand. Since we opened J. Selby’s in 2017 a number of other options have become available in the Twin Cities: Fig & Farro, Trio, and Seed Cafe, all in the Uptown area of Minneapolis and the very soon be reopened Reverie Cafe in south Minneapolis are obvious choices. But a number of local restaurants have implemented significant plant-based options, such as Pizza Luce (several locations) and The Tilted Tiki in Stillwater. I know there are more out there (and hopefully people will add to the list in comments). Now, add Masu Sushi and Robata to the list! While Masu has, for quite some time, dished up some magnificent vegan suitable sushi rolls, last night they upped their game to new heights with a 5 course vegan tasting menu at their NE Minneapolis’ Nomu Room. Chef Abbott Gould and GM Greg Mueller along with Sous Chef’s Sara Gobely (previously the kitchen manager at J. Selby’s!), Moriah Tran and corporate chef Jason Jacobson served up 5 amazing course of Japanese inspired vegan friendly dishes that should make all of happy to be around in this time of dramatic change.

The first course was Four Amuse Bites. From the bottom, a seared rice ball with seaweed filling, a wonton featuring cranberries and orange curry sauce, baked squash with coconut foam and a beet & rice ball with pureed root vegetables. The dallops of fresh wasabi root on the side was the prefect enhancement.

Second course was an amazing mushroom consomme featuring black trumpet mushrooms, enoki mushroom, leeks, tatso and udon noodles. Kind of like a ramen, but with soft, thick udon noodles and truly luscious consomme and (for this plant-based eater who is a little ambivalent about mushrooms) surprisingly delicious mushrooms & leeks. I would order this pretty much any day of the week and certainly would be a “go to” for comfort food.
Third course was Hijki salad with sea beans, mizuna, watermelon radish, kaki, yuzu and persimmons with a deliciously tart vinaigrette. I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan of sea food (in my pre-plant-based days) and the oceanic flavors here are not part of my favored palate, the vinaigrette and persimmons were a beautiful accompaniment and offset the other flavors wonderfully.Fourth course was tofu 3 ways. From left to right there is tempura soft tofu with lemongrass shoyu, shiso, miso and avocado, based tofu with escarole, togarashi, and plum sauce,and koyadofu (freeze dried tofu) with ginger dashi, snow peas, beets and carrots.

After a palate cleansing shot of cucumber, mint, orange and pineapple, the final course was a matcha panna cotta with stawberries and dark chocolate shavings.

In all, the dinner was a triumph! I had the opportunity to talk with Chef Gould after the dinner and, based on the success of their first venture, he’s planning to try to repeat the experience 3-4 times in 2020, which gives us all reason to rejoice. Now if we can just get more restaurants and their chefs to join in the fun we’ll really have something going in the Twin Cities to write about.

Categories
Uncategorized

Calling out Grandma & Grandpa

First, let’s just get it out of the way. My bad for not writing more. I knew it had been a while, but when I logged in and saw October 27 was my last post I admit I’m a bit embarrassed. So, mea culpa with no decent excuses.

As many know, I’m huge fan of Seth Godin. Two of his recent posts, “But that’s not what I meant” and “What posterity has done for us” remind me, however, that there is still a need for writing and speaking out. And so, I’m back and pointing my finger at you, grandparents.

Back when I had a mother in law, one of her favorite phrases was to shake her head in semi-mock disbelief at whatever was going on and say “It’s not a world that I ever made”. At the time I thought it a comic phrase, but now I recognize as something different. It’s a way to shrug off responsibility, because, in truth, it IS a world that you all made. And now I see most of you trying to pass the buck. But I’m calling you out. Time to own up, take some responsibility and start fixing things.

Back in the day, there was smoking and it was a thing. Everyone did it, all the time. Even doctors said it was OK, for a while. And then, slowly, so very slowly, things began to change. In the early 1950s reports started to emerge that smoking was linked to lung cancer. But it wasn’t until 1964 that The Surgeon General issued the first governmental warning about smoking and lung cancer. And thus began decades of “debate” over the merits of smoking. But you’re all old enough to remember that, when the truth finally came out, there really wasn’t much of a debate. It was a bunch of entrenched, old money tobacco companies and executives trying to preserve their income. And they did it not by giving you facts, but by trying to introduce doubt about the facts that existed. “Doubt is our product” as the infamous memo said. And, for quite a while, it worked. It took 24 years to get cigarettes banned on airplanes and 34 years before the huge tobacco settlement that we all remember. While smoking is still a thing, it’s now a small thing and because we all recognize that it’s incredibly bad for you, we tax the hell out of it to offset the costs to the rest of us.

So what’s that got to do with anything? It should be obvious, but obviously it’s not. There are 3 developing crises that are all linked together; the rise of chronic diseases (like diabetes), obesity, and global climate change. And, like the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, the evidence is out there and mounting that these are real, are costly, are devastating, and threaten not just our health and well being, but our very planet. And just like in the 50’s and 60’s, the lobbyists for big agriculture, big food, and oil are engaged in a giant game of obfuscation and denial. And you, senior citizens, have done nothing. You are supposed to be our cultural memory. You are supposed to be our old and wise companions that help steer us away from mistakes we’ve made in the past. And you’re supposed to be cantankerous enough to tell it like it is.

As Seth Godin said:

I’ve never met anyone who honestly felt that they would have been better off living at the beginning of any century other than this one.

And our job is to build the foundations necessary for our great grandchildren to feel the same way about the world they’re born in.

It’s only fair, isn’t it?

And yet, your silence is deafening and damning. For all of the news that your generation watches and all of the newspapers that you read, are you really not learning anything? Let me review just a couple of facts. These are not opinions (aka the “alternative facts” our President favors), but peer-reviewed, data driven facts. (By the way, for you less internet savvy readers, anything blue and underlined can be “clicked” on to go to the source).

So, to my senior citizen readers, remember when McDonald’s was first a big thing? What did you eat there? A hamburger and fries with a drink was a meal. Now it’s called a Happy Meal and it’s for children and they get a plastic toy with it. You’ve undoubtedly bought one for someone. Under your watch and with your participation, the consumption of meat, including poultry and seafood, has risen dramatically over the last 60 years. Not surprisingly, given what we know now, so has the obesity rate, the diabetes rate, the cancer rate, the inflammatory disease rate, and all of the chronic diseases we know so well. And, in large part due to the ever increasing needs to supply (at great profit) all of that meat, dairy and eggs to you, we’re raising the temperature of our planet. The polar ice caps are melting. The giant glaciers on Greenland are melting. Glacier National Park has almost no glaciers. The (at the time) mythical “Northwest Passage” that Henry Hudson so diligently sought, but could never find (i.e. the waterway over Canada to link the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans) is now a reality, at least in the summer months.

Yes, there are “doubts” about all of these things. But if you spend just a few moments digging, you’ll find that available data doesn’t create any doubt, it’s just people creating doubt. Because doubt is their product. And it sells. And it makes such an awful lot of money.

I can already hear my father moaning that The Wall Street Journal says that Climate Change is just a computer model and you can make computer models tell you whatever you want. <insert eye roll here>. That is the classic argument of the doubt creators. Here’s a lovely short YouTube video of the guy who makes “the satellite temperature” data sets. You know, the data that people like Ted Cruz love to say are “the best data we’ve got” and “they don’t show warming”. And in the video, the man who makes the graphs that Mr. Cruz uses, will tell you that: 1) the data is created by using a model (apparently if the model tells you what you want to hear it’s OK, but if it tells you what you don’t want to hear it’s not OK), 2) the data is incorrectly used and 3) the data is just one bit of information in an ocean of information that all point to the same thing.

So, grandparents, what do I want you to do? Quit passing the buck. Be open to learning something new (and perhaps complicated) because you have the time to do so. And then teach your children, your grandchildren, and your great grandchildren how to avoid the mistakes made in the past. How to recognize the charlatans and merchants of doubt for what they are. Just get involved and do your part. I believe you have much to teach and much to give.

Categories
Uncategorized

Microbes

Let’s Talk About Microbes

I know that a lot of you have expressed interest in the upcoming flu shot discussion, but I feel the need to do a little background work before launching into that particular discussion. As many of you know, I don’t generally decide that something so pervasive as flu shots is goofy without giving it some real thought first. And it’s hard to put down in a paragraph or two all of the thinking I’ve done about flu shots. Besides, microbes have become really interesting. So, a little background first.

I mentioned Ed Yong’s book “I Contain Multitudes” just a little bit ago. I can’t overemphasize how important and fascinating this book is to me. Here’s why: it isn’t often that a book makes you reconsider your fundamental understanding of how the world works. Honestly, it usually seems to happen with really good science fiction. I’m thinking in particular of “Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan, but I think a couple of the Neal Stephenson books work that way too (“Snow Crash”, “Diamond Age”, “Seven Eves”). So to find that truly paradigm shifting experience in a book of non-fiction is extraordinary made even more so because it’s true.

Let me paraphrase a bit from the beginning of Ed Yong’s book. The concept of the entire history of planet earth expressed as a 12 month time line. It’s a way to illustrate the enormity of geologic time as opposed to our puny concept of time, where time spent on hold with Comcast can seem like an epoch. A couple of highlights from the year:

  • January 1 @ midnight: the earth coalesces from matter in space
  • March 4: the oldest rocks we know of form
  • March 20: algae arrive on the scene
  • July 17: the first cells with nuclei arrive (this would be microbes)
  • November 18: the first basic organisms start to form, including plants
  • December 1: the first insects
  • December 2: the first amphibians
  • December 5: the first reptiles
  • December 13: the first dinosaurs
  • December 14: the first mammals
  • December 22: the first flowering plants
  • December 31 @11:02 pm, just 58 minutes to midnight and the first direct human ancestor makes an appearance.
  • December 31 @11:59 pm: the Revolutionary War

As you can see from this simple illustration, not much seems to have happened in the first 11 months. But, don’t miss that July 17 entry of the first microbes. In this way of looking at the evolution of all animal life on earth, we came on the scene almost 6 months after the microbes. Or, to put it differently, we evolved in an environment that had been completely occupied by microbes for a very, very long time. As mammals, we are Johnny come latelys. As hominids, we are the late coming party crashers, arriving, literally, in the last hour. More to the point, we evolved in the world of microbes.

When I did my medical training (medical school in the late 1980s, surgery training 89–97) I was inducted into the entrenched belief system that the only good “bug” is a dead “bug”. Microbes cause pestilence and disease and are to be eradicated. Almost all of the significant medical advances had involved conquering diseases caused by microbes and this was all the proof anyone needed to know that microbes were nothing but trouble. We didn’t even call them microbes, we called them “germs” in a classic example of demonization. Our medical distrust of microbes spread to the general public and germophobia ran rampant as hand sanitizers and antimicrobial soaps popped up like unwanted mushrooms in a damp field. This may have reached it pinnacle when I saw a dispenser for antimicrobial wipes at a gas pump. I’m not sure I can imagine a much more inhospitable environment for microbes than a gasoline pump handle, but there they were. (As a complete aside, it has always bothered me that we talked about “normal flora” when we talked about microbes that lived in & on our bodies, but we microbes that are pathogens are generically called “germs” and most doctors call them bugs. I should have know this internal inconsistency hid a lot of misinformation!)

Fortunately, not everyone was buying the hype. There were intrepid researchers out there who took a more broad look at microbes and have slowly begun to put together a much more nuanced picture of how we interact with them and the important roles microbes play in everything from planetary health to our day to day health. Not just in disease states, but the ways we co-exist with these partners that have been present long long before multicellular organisms ever existed on planet Earth.

As some of you know, I’ve prattled on a bit about the “gut micro biome” in several posts. Worry not, I will be writing about this for years to come as new and fascinating things come to light. But for those who are wondering if there’s really any practical use to all of this ridiculous micro biome thing, let me close with a little talk about Clostridium difficile colitis. Known as C. diff. colitis in the medical world, this is a disease that is a significant problem that is occasionally fatal and costs us untold millions of dollars to diagnose and poorly treat. And it’s a micro biome problem through and through.

Most people who get C. diff. colitis get it after exposure to antibiotics. That is, they are given antibiotics to treat some problem (whether the antibiotics were a good idea or not in the first place is not the point of this particular discussion, but, as you’ll see, it’s an increasingly germane discussion) and, as a result of the antibiotics, they develop abdominal pain, cramping and diarrhea. Particular to C. diff colitis is a smell, which is hard to forget once you’ve experienced it and is virtually diagnostic. Severe cases can develop breakdown of the lining of the colon (large intestine) which allows bacteria access to the blood stream and can be fatal. Suffice to say, it’s not a problem to be taken lightly. So what happens? How does a dose or two of antibiotic cause such havoc? The answer is that we have trillions of bacteria living in our intestines. All mammals do. These bacteria live in a fairly balanced relationship with our body and immune system and play some pretty important roles. One of the many species residing there is C. diff. But C. diff is resistant to most of the antibiotics you might receive. So as you take antibiotic tablets for that sinus infection, upper respiratory infection, urinary tract infection, etc. the antibiotic can also kill off a large number of the bacteria in your large intestine. As the other bacteria disappear, C. diff has an opportunity to reproduce and take over a bigger role in the gut and, if conditions are right, it will do so. Doctors call this an “opportunistic infection”.

So what’s the treatment for C. diff colitis, a disease caused by the use of antibiotics? Why, more antibiotics, of course! This time specific (and expensive) antibiotics that are generally active in killing off the C. diff as well as the rest of your gut bacteria with the hope that, if you clear everything out, what grows back *should* be more or less normal. It’s like treating your house fire with a couple of cans of gasoline. No wonder some physicians describe this sort of therapy as “flaming the landscape”. In retrospect, probably the most remarkable thing of all is that it has worked more often than not. But it doesn’t always work and some very unfortunate people are left with a chronic C. diff infection that is very hard to shake.

Enter new thinking and a miracle cure. If you take a big step back from the germs as enemies way of thinking and instead think about the colon as an ecology, interesting things start to happen. In the setting of C. diff, the fundamental problem is not that C. diff is there, it has always  been there. The problem is that the other bacteria, that usually keep C. diff in check, are gone. So, can anyone think of a way you might replace the other bacteria that people with C. diff colitis are missing? Or, to reframe the problem in a different language, how could you restore the normal micro biome of the gut? The pretty cheap answer to this conundrum is to transplant a normal micro biome back into the disease colon. Where could you find normal micro biome to transplant? Sorry to say, if you hadn’t already seen this coming, but that’s pretty much what the feces from a healthy person is. So the answer, it turns out, is fecal transplantation. It works, it’s cheap, and it treats the problem in a way that those mired in old “germs are our enemy” thinking have a hard time accepting. Imagine the thought of transplanting trillions of active microbes into a diseased colon and hoping it will cure the problem.

It turns out that it works so well that there is now a preparation for instilling into the colon of people with C. diff colitis. It is a mixture of the bacteria found in a normal, healthy colon grown in the lab and capsulized for easy delivery. The best part? It’s called RePOOPulate. I shit you not. Read about it here.

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Zone 2 Training – part 2

In the last post, I talked about what the various heart rate zones are, how they are most simply calculated, and then talked about why it is important. I want to recap the last point because it is so critical. When endurance athletes talk about Zone 3 and Zone 4, they often refer to them as the grey zones. This is not to say that there isn’t a time or place for work in Zone 3 or Zone 4, but if you’re going to venture there you should have a really good reason for doing so, otherwise the time you are spending exercising will burn calories, but will not do a lot for improving your fitness or, in technical terms, your aerobic threshold. I know this seems ridiculous, but if you’re a runner, ask yourself, when was the last time you made a significant gain in your running times? If the answer is “a long time” or “I don’t remember” I’m sorry to tell you that all those hours and miles you’ve put in haven’t been as beneficial as they might have been. On the other hand, they were not for naught and they have taught you excellent habits of discipline. Now let’s make them really pay off.

Step One: find your zone

I showed you the super simplistic calculation for HR Zones in the last post. If you don’t want to delve further, use that calculation. There are several other ways to calculate your Zone 2, including the Karvonen Formula, the Maffetone formula and the Friel formula. If you’re interested, drop me a note and I’ll gladly explain further. Or, if you’re so inclined, I put together an Excel spreadsheet that calculates them for you. This is a link to the spreadsheet. Personally, I like the Karvonen Formula, which uses your age to calculate your maximum heart rate, as before, but then also takes into account your resting heart rate. I like it because it seems to be a way of taking your existing fitness into account (assuming your existing fitness is loosely marked by your resting heart rate, but I’m OK with making that assumption). The Friel formula is probably the most precise as it is a percentage of your actually Lactate Threshold (the point where you go from exercising aerobically to anaerobically) but unless you have access to a physiology lab you’re going to have to guess your Lactate Threshold. Using the various methods, the upper limit of my Zone 2 is somewhere between 126 and 144 beats per minute. For simplicity sake, I’ve chosen 135 as my number. Could I do better? Maybe, but it is’t the lowest or the highest and it seems to correlate pretty closely to my rating of perceived effort (RPE). For those on a beta blocker medication, which keeps the heat rate artificially slowed, all of the Zone 2 calculations in the world won’t really work. In that case, learn the RPE scale and use it!

Step Two: get a heart rate monitor

None of this really works without a heart rate monitor of some sort, unless you’re just going to go with the RPE scale. If you’re a data nerd like me, you’ll need a heart rate monitor. Most of new Garmins, including the smaller ones, have heart rate monitors built in. The newer Fitbits have HRM (heart rate monitors), the Apple Watch has HRM, and you can even go “old school” and get a chest HRM. If you’re going that route, look at Tickr! a newer chest strap HRM that links by both ANT+ and Bluetooth technology, so it links to most anything (including most newer treadmills) and, oddly, is on sale at Amazon today.

Step Three: slow down!

Go ahead, go do a work out. Go for a run. But as soon as you reach your Zone 2 maximum heart rate, you have to slow down. In fact, you’ll probably have to slow down to a walk until your heart rate comes down. Eventually, you’ll find a pace you can keep for a while, but your heart rate is going to go up again, virtually guaranteed and you’ll have to slow down and walk.

Personal Experience: I was just starting up running after a lengthy time off (infectious mononucleosis) so I know that my aerobic conditioning was off. But, when I started Zone 2 I was back running 4 miles or so at a 9:30–10:00 minute/mile pace and feeling pretty good about it. My first run with Zone 2 I knew would be slow, so I slowed the treadmill down to 5.5 (about 11 minutes/mile). I made it about 10 minutes before I hit my Zone 2 threshold and had to slow down and walk. I spent an hour on the treadmill and managed to just get over 4 miles in, so I averaged about 4.0 for the hour, which is a brisk walking pace. But I’ve varied my workout between running, rowing, stationary cycling and elliptical, all keeping at Zone 2 threshold and within 3 weeks I’m covering 5 miles in the hour. More importantly, I’m running for an hour and feeling really good after. No terrible muscle aches, no cramps and no feelings like I’m physically spent. I anticipate being able to run for the entire 60 minutes soon and then starting the get the pace back up to at least 10 minutes a mile if not better.

OK, you are probably thinking, what a slug. But consider this in a different light. If you could run a 10 minute mile pace in Zone 2 and do a marathon, you’d run the entire race in about 4 and half hours and walk away ready to run the next day. I don’t know many runners who can do that.  Imagine, then, what might happen if you did this Zone 2 training not for a couple of months, but a year. Imagine getting to the point that your current “race pace” could be done in Zone 2, so that come race day you could run the first half in Zone 2 and then push yourself a little for the second half. You might walk away with a significant improvement in both your time and your ability to run the next day!

Give up your preconceived notions!

I’ll admit that committing to Zone 2 training is a bit of a leap of faith. But after reading Rich Roll’s account, doing a good bit of research on it and now trying it in my own training, I’m a full fledged convert. So if you think it might be interesting, but know in your heart that you have to run to exhaustion to improve your running capacity, I will ask you to reconsider sometime next year. Because I’m a complete Zone 2 convert and I’m going to run a half-marathon next spring and my firm belief is that: 1) I’ll break my previous PR by at least 5 minutes while 2) feeling better during and after the race than I’ve felt for any previous race. And if I’m right and I’m making serious improvements in my running at age 54 and at least 5 years since I made any other gains, I defy you to come up with a better explanation that just better training through science and understanding.

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Zone 2 Training – Part 1

heart-rate-zonesI picked up this concept in Rich Roll’s book “Finding Ultra”. The concept was not completely new to me, but Rich Roll had a way of describing it that made it seem new, which is kind of magical. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, I’ll spend a little time going through the background and basics, then explain why you should care. Finally, a little practical advice that I’ve come up with while trying to use Zone 2 training.

What are Zones?

Zones are heart rate zones. This is a range of heart rates that are a rough indicator of how strenuous the physical activity you are doing is at any given time. Most people talk about 5 heart rate zones:

Zone 1: Very Light, at the end of a work out you feel guilty that you haven’t worked hard enough – walking on a treadmill at a speed that seems easy.

Zone 2: Light, you should be able to converse with someone while working out. Converse, as in speak in sentences, not one or two word grunts – walking or running at a speed that seems easy at first, but over time requires more effort.

Zone 3: Moderate, your heart rate is getting a bit higher, your breath a little faster, you can talk a little, but definitely not hold a conversation – probably where you now spend a lot of time in your work out life

Zone 4: Hard, heart rate higher, breathing faster, this is a sustainable pace, but just. You’re pushing yourself now

Zone 5: Maximm, you’ve pushed your pace to it’s limit and can’t sustain this for very long at all.  For me, I have always thought of this as the place where I “lose my breathing” and have to walk for a moment to get things back on track. A big hill at the end of a workout where you’ve already pushed yourself a bit.

Each of these zones has a heart rate range associated with it and these ranges change with both your age and physical fitness. The most simplistic calculations go something like this: 220 – your age = your maximum heart rate (MHR). Zone 1 is 50–60% of MHR, Zone 2 60–70%, Zone 3 70–80%, Zone 4 80–90% and Zone 5 90–100%. This is pretty much what a LifeFitness machine at a gym will do if you tell it you want to do a “fat burning” workout (Zone 2) or an “aerobic” workout (Zone 3). For me, at age 54, my MHR is 220-54 or 166. Zone 1 is then up to 100, Zone 2 is up to 116, Zone 3 up to 133, etc.

Why do Zones matter?

Unfortunately, most of us grew up with the ridiculous “no pain, no gain” mantra of working out and we just can’t shake it. When it comes to cardiovascular fitness, however, nothing could be further from the truth. I get it that most of us are not looking to do marathons, ironman triathlons, ultra marathons, or more. But it seems like we are looking to “get fit”. So take a moment and ask yourself (because I’m guessing you have never really done it before) what does that mean to you? Is getting fit having bigger muscles, less weight, just feeling better in your skin, or actually increasing your capacity for exercise? Obviously, if you’re into weight lifting, it’s bigger muscles, but I would argue that for everyone else the answer should be increasing your capacity for exercise. This is what would let you exercise more efficiently, for your body to improve it’s ability to use energy to do physical work and would, as a consequence, likely result in some body reshaping and weight loss as well as improving your times. So, for almost everyone who is interested in fitness, I think you should seriously consider thinking about how you go about increasing your capacity for exercise or, in more technical terms, increasing your aerobic capacity.

Chances are that you, like me, have been doing it wrong.

This was my revelation from Rich Roll. I, like almost everyone, have been doing it completely wrong. I’ve been running seriously for 8 or 9 years. I’ve run 9 half-marathons (13.1 miles), so I’m not completely new to the running scene. I have an MD degree and am interested in exercise and physiology (how the body works) and I thought I had a good handle on what I was doing. And yet, despite my efforts over the last years, I had a miserable year in 2016 with running and haven’t really made any significant improvements in my times over the last several years. Why? Because I was doing it all wrong.

When you are exercising and you let your heart rate wander up into Zone 3 and Zone 4, you lose the benefit of actually improving your aerobic capacity. Yes, you work your body harder, but you don’t actually make your body more fit. The only way to do that is to exercise in Zone 2. Exercising at this reduced effort forces your body to adapt to the stress the exercise puts on your body. The adaptation is the thing you’re doing all that work for in the first place. It makes your body add blood vessels to deliver more oxygen and fuel to muscle cells and the muscle cells add a lot of mitochondria, the little power plants that convert oxygen and fuel into work. By adding mitochondria to the cells and growing a richer network of blood vessels to support the muscles, you get more work out of the same effort. It turns out that elite athletes, like Rich Roll, spend 80–90% of their exercise time working out in Zone 2. So why aren’t you?

I’m guessing that you, like me, haven’t been doing it because 1) you had no idea (this is relatively newish exercise physiology stuff), 2) you don’t know how to make it work and 3) you still kind of believe that your exercise has to be really hard to make any serious pay off. But, now you know and I’m going to tell you how to make it work and I’ll try and talk you down off the ledge for number 3, all in the next post….  🙂