Fitness Big Year: Hmmm . . .

What is fitness? Dictionary definitions don’t help at the individual level, nor does Google (you get millions of vague words by personal trainers pitching for clients). Specifically in my case, I called 2017 a Fitness Big Year simply because I was committing to a haphazard mix of cycling education (with a half decent distance goal), jogging (“keeping my hand in”) and gym (“it’s good for me, right?”). But is that all, am I just focusing on daily discipline? Or do I actually hope to “increase my fitness?” How will I know if my fitness does improve or worsen? If there is some form of goal beyond working my body daily, shouldn’t I be a bit more scientific about my approach? Shouldn’t I mix up some aspects, such as speed workouts and hills? My time is constrained, so I can’t join a club, or get a “fitness assessment,” or sign up for some kind of trainer, or do a course. Every time I run or cycle, these thoughts come back to me, but I’m confused, most confused.


2017 Writing Big Year: Research trip to UAE?

In 2006 I undertook a research trip to Finland. No power reactor had been contracted in the Western world for many years until a Finnish company ordered a brand spanking new French design. I had no cachet at all but the Finns welcomed me, gave me tours of the construction site and an operating reactor, and spoke freely. I interviewed those for and against the new reactor, I met politicians, businessmen, historians, antinuclear campaigners, and officials. Even beyond material for my book, the historical lessons imparted by that short visit still resound with me.

Cut forward a decade and there are three “hot spots” of power reactor development in the world. Over a dozen reactors are under construction in China but I decided a few years ago that getting into them would involve so much effort, so many repeat visits to establish relationships, that I wouldn’t even try. (Ditto for Russia: fascinating but impossible for me to gain access.)

In Georgia, down in the southeast of the United States, Vogtle 3 and 4 are the first American power reactors under construction over the last three decades. Clearly of immense historical significance, when building began in 2013, I considered trying to visit, but I felt I knew the U.S. market well and was not sure that the publicity-wary nuclear sector would grant me effective access.

More intriguing even than China and America is the tiny nation of United Arab Emirates. Nearly a decade ago, the oil-rich country tendered the construction of four large power reactors. Out of the 16 states in the Middle East, Israel has plenty of nuclear bombs and a small military reactor, and Iran has a power reactor, but otherwise there has been little momentum towards nuclear electricity. But the most stunning aspect of the UAE case is that South Korea won the reactor orders ahead of the giant Westinghouse and Areva companies. South Korea’s first export sale stunned the reactor world.

Last year I read a wonderful historical account of the development of South Korea’s power reactor sector and capability (“Nuclear Silk Road” by Byung-Koo Kim), and ever since then not a month has gone by without daydreaming a visit. Who knows if it would come off but I’m sure I could present good credentials, and my curiosity is genuine and forward-looking.

I close my eyes now and imagine writing emails, then flying to Abu Dhabi. I picture engrossing interviews. My head spins with the pleasure of trying to figure out the lessons of history, in this case very recent history, for the world’s energy future.

But no. Sidetracking to the latest mammoth construction site would turn this book – the Writing Big Year targets its completion – from the never-ending saga it has proven to be, into a never-to-be-ended quest.

Fitness Big Year: Will I end this year less fit?

It’s a fitness obsession but why? Last year’s stricture was to jog an hour four times a week and to attend gym three times a week, plus stretch daily. I called that a Jogging Big Year because I wished to instill a habit of strenuous runs. This year, needing to mainline on energetic writing, I’ve shied away from big-time physical goals. Instead I’m mixing up the exercising: three cycles a week, two jogs, two gym trips. What makes it a Big Year is insisting all of it is compulsory, from January 1 to December 31.

In essence, each week I substitute two bicycle trips, of two hours’ duration, for two of 2016’s one-hour jogs, and also switch one gym session to a one-hour cycle. A few people have told me that an hour pounding the streets on jogging shoes is “better for me” than twice as long on wheels. Perhaps that view makes sense? Will I “lose condition” in 2017? What is “fitness?” How does one judge if one is “fitter” or not? Should I be doing anything special to turn my dailies into a “fitness regime?”

Using so many quotation marks tells me I’m messing with rubbery concepts. How do I conceptualise “fitness” and make something “big” out of this Big Year? I’d better ask around . . .

Writing Big Year: Grrrrrizzle

Grrrrr . . . I’ve written before about how drafting a history exposes doubts about what actually happened. Sometime in 1949 or 1950, Russian scientists and engineers started to design a power reactor – a reactor exclusively built to generate electricity rather than to make plutonium for bombs. In 1954 they started up a tiny reactor that did just that, and the following year, at an amazing international conference, the Soviet Union could blare that it had just built the world’s first “peaceful” nuclear power plant.

I possess most of the available research material on this subject. (When I say “most,” I know there are some Russian-language odds and sods I don’t have, but I can’t believe anything new would come from these.) Previously I’ve been through my material in exhausting detail. I drafted the chapter. I plotted it afresh. Now I’m rewriting. And guess what?

Suddenly I’m unclear on exactly what happened as against the story of “Russia’s first peaceful nuclear power plant.” What is truth and what is a tale? Western writers have offered a few variants but who is right? When did the decision really take place and exactly why? It’s vital for me to get this right but all my earlier work is now under suspicion.

So forgive me if I grrrrrumble . . . this will take a day or two, and suddenly my timetable is smashed.

Three big years: Week 1

Most important: I wrote and worked well . . . not quite as well as I should have, but I rose early on six days (slept in once but made up for it) and hunkered down. I rode a bike three days, only 76 kms not 100 kms, but enjoyed every moment and consider my launch a fine one. Jogging was, for some reason, horribly tough, and I dropped short on Wednesday, but I forgive myself. I listened to music all 7 days – carving out the time was irksome but I’m already getting used to that – andsuddenly I’m humming stuff in my head! All up, an encouraging start and the tension I imposed upon myself will, I’m sure, ease over the next few weeks as I get used to a very different way of focusing time.

James Hansen in the Rolling Stone

In “Will We Miss Our Last Chance to Save the World from Climate Change,” a Jeff Goodell interview with James Hansen, one of my heroes captures two strands of my own thinking: (i) we can’t expect my generation to do anything much but our children should act now; and (ii) in the major country with two-party systems, the “conservatives” never do anything, yet the “liberals” talk the good talk but also can’t be bold enough.

Surging with Syd

In my mid twenties, a brilliant young actuary I worked with invited me to jog with him. Just after dawn, I ran round to his flat and we did a circuit together. I don’t recall much of that outing but it was immediately clear to both of us that he was fast and I was slow. We ran together two or three times, before I saved him embarrassment by saying I preferred solo jogs. He went on to run many marathons at quite a high level; I kept on plodding.

I did take something away from those jogs. “Going up a rise,” he counselled, “it’s best to surge, to push yourself. That way you build up strength for the flat stretches. Even if you’re tired at a crest, you’ll maintain pace downhill.” Well, Syd, your advice has stuck with me, and over my 2016 Jogging Big Year, I often tried to pump those weary legs up the hills, and I noticed that my best times came when I surged consistently. There were even some magical moments when, gasping at the top of a rise, my breathing came easier and I imagined myself an athlete.