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28Jan/10Off

Weight Loss Week 4: 19 Pounds to Go

January 28 weight: 181

Last 5 days average weight: 180.9

January 21 weight: 178

Workouts in last 7 days: 2

Oof, bad week. I've gained 3 pounds in the last 7 days. Part of this was because a severe gout flare up (yes, gout) kept me away from the gym all but two days. So I exercised nearly not at all. But I also have to own up to eating pretty poorly this week. I ate cake at Sam's birthday party, too much pizza at her diner, and I generally snacked too much on cookies and these little chocolate covered pomegranate seeds that Geralyn bought a big bag of.

Here's my chart of shame:

Weight loss graph week 4

And here is my none-the-slimmer self:

While I think the lack of workouts and the poor eating are due to different causes, they are definitely related. I've noticed that when I work out, I'm less likely to snack and even less likely to make bad choices if I do snack. I may look at an oatmeal cookie and think, "Just an hour ago I burned about 400 calories at the gym and it took 40 minutes. I could eat this cookie in 4 seconds and undo half of that work." Framing it as a loss helps me restrain myself because people are loss averse. So working out is doubly important -- it not only burns calories but helps me not eat as much afterwords.

I'm feeling better now, though, and am determined to get back on track. I'm pledging to do what it takes to lose at least 2 pounds in the next 7 days.

Filed under: General 4 Comments
27Jan/10Off

Week 313: Birthday and Cat Claws

Of course, the big news is that Sam turned 6 recently. Six! Geralyn was in charge of the birthday party, and she opted for a more girl-friendly activity like crafts. The party was on a Sunday, though, so I somehow found myself standing at a table full of five and six year old girls trying to coach them on how to properly string little plastic beads on lengths of fishing wire. "Just do it right!" is, apparently, not helpful advice.

There were also gifts, and the big winner was actually a remote controlled car from Ger's godmother. Mandy even proved deft at piloting the little gray blur across the carpet, though judging by the number of wrecks the thing has and how they wanted to take it into the bathtub, the driver is apparently a tiny Ted Kennedy. ...What? Too soon?

The other day we switched cable providers to someone who gave us a DVR bundled with the service. This meant that we said goodbye to TiVo after more than eight years. It also meant a transition period where there was not a bank of kids' shows to be dialed up. The result was that Sam and Mandy watched live TV for a few days, which while being downright barbaric, did teach Sam some things. Namely:

  1. Cats can trim their own nails with the new Emery Cat Board
  2. You must be over 18 to order
  3. Call now and you'll get a bonus, second board for free

Seriously, it's like all she talked about at dinner one night.

Filed under: Parenting 6 Comments
26Jan/10Off

Book Review: The Strain

One of the things wrong with the world today (and yes, I'm shaking my tiny fist as I write this, which is one reason I'm typing so slowly) is that you can't use the phrase "it's a vampire book" without some qualifying information. So, I must point out that The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is less the "sparkly teen romance" kind of vampire book and more the "Aaah! Monsters are going to drink our blood!" kind. There's blood, monsters, murder, horror, mutilation, and all that stuff. A lot of it, actually.

That being said, The Strain has some modern twists to the old vampire genre. It examines the vampire outbreak in New York City as a highly communicable disease that starts at one eerily darkened airliner on the JFK International Airport and spreads out to the population from there. The authors even go so far as to make one of the book's two main heroes an epidemiologist from the Center for Disease Control, who strives to understand the plague in scientific and medical terms. The authors indulge this angle, considering the biological basis for the vampire condition and elaborating on how that kind of plague would spread.

There are also some references to the 9/11 attacks and how it changed the way in which New Yorkers respond to such large-scale catastrophies. I also enjoyed the creepy way in which the authors describe the very first onset of the plague, where people are dropping out of sight and everyone left knows that something is wrong, but isn't quite sure how to react yet. It's a great sense of impending doom.

Which is not to say, I assure you, that the book is without the typical horror schlock. We get lots of scenes of secondary and tertiary characters meeting their grisly ends, and there's plenty of old school vampire lore at play as well --the second hero of the tale is a Jewish Holocaust survivor bent on revenge against the chief vampire and appropriately steeped in the benefits of silver, sunlight, and mirrors when dealing with the undead.

If anything, the repetitive scenes of horror and subjugation to the vampire disease became tedious, and I enjoyed the more CSI inspired bits of the book a lot more. So much so that my appraisal of the book dropped quite a bit when things devolved into a Hollywood-esque showdown (and yes, one of the authors is that Guillermo del Toro) with the big bad boss vampire instead of pursuing the medical crime drama vibe that had been built up earlier. I'm not sure I'll be on board with the other two planned sequels or not; there's just not that much that's seems interesting to explore now.

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21Jan/10Off

Weight Loss Week 3: 16 Pounds to Go

January 21 weight: 178
Last 5 days average weight: 181.2
January 14 weight: 181.5
Workouts in last 7 days: 4

I've lost 3.5 pounds in the last 7 days. I'm more than happy with that rate, and a little surprised given that I not only had a bad weekend, but a bad three day weekend where I ate the better part of a pile of oatmeal cookies.
In fact, if you look at the graph below you can see where my weight rose back up ABOVE where it was in last week's post:

Weight loss graph week 3

This really stressed me out, as I kept thinking about having to post here, today, that I had failed. How embarrassing! So, I clamped down on the diet in the last 2 days and thankfully the influence of those few bad days wasn't long lasting. I think this is a perfect example of why public goals work so well: you may be able to make excuses for yourself, but if you know other people aren't going to buy them, you may just decide not to fail in the first place.
Of course, I'm totally setting myself up here for gaining weight next week, aren't I? Well, here's a poor quality picture:

The hack I thought I'd mention this week is another food one: smoothies. A few weeks ago Alton Brown did an episode of Good Eats devoted to how he dropped a ton of weight. That's where I got last week's almonds recipe, and Alton had exactly one other idea that I thought was practical: a fruit smoothie for breakfast every day. Well, almost every day. Most nights what I do is place 3/4 cup of each of the following in the blender's pitcher: strawberries, blueberries, banana, and skim milk. I then just put the pitcher in the fridge and when I get up the next morning it takes me about 10 seconds to make a pretty good breakfast that's just under 300 calories.

Filed under: General 4 Comments
19Jan/10Off

Week 312: Poms, George, and Tooth

Had a bit more going on this week. Sam finished up her pom pom class with a flourish, amid a gymnasium full of parents looking at each other and saying things like "Yay! She's shaking a colorful thing! And shouting stuff! Yay!" Sam had a blast, though, and received a medal and more pom poms. She's still deliberating whether to return for the next semester of classes.

Sam also had a big milestone this week: just shy of her 6th birthday, she finally lost her first baby tooth! She was totally on board for this and almost overenthusiastic about the event. The tooth fairy rewarded her with a dollar coin in the middle of the night, which is sure a heck of a lot more than I ever got.

Monday was a holiday, so we all went over to the local children's museum/science center to gawk at the traveling Curious George exhibit. A very world weary (not to mention 6-foot tall) George padded out to wave at the children, then periodically disappeared behind a door labeled "Staff Only." Still, the girls loved it.

A couple of days before that, I guess I should note, we had a "daddy daughter day" when Geralyn took a day off to attend an all day scrapbooking marathon. Because we had coupons, I took them bowling. The alley at least put little bumpers up to block the gutters, but as it was I had to help Mandy squat down in the lane and give the bright green kiddie bowling ball a good shove. Later, she dominated the Dance Dance Revolution game in the arcade, proving that at age 3 she's the most coordinated one in the family.

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15Jan/10Off

Book Review: The Undercover Economist

Following my recent interest in books on the psychology of decision-making and behavioral economics, I thought it might be interesting to read up on some actual economics. I had gotten some of this out of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner, but Tim Harford's Undercover Economist is a little less afraid to throw in actual economic theory and terms. So you get explanations of "perfect" markets, inefficiencies, externalities, and other economic jargon.

Which isn't to say that the book isn't interesting. In fact, Harford has a great style, and like those other books he couches his discussion of economics in everyday things that we're all familiar with: buying a cup of coffee, health insurance, traffic, and orange juice. My favorite parts of the book were where he would look at very practical problems from a consumer's point of view, such as why you have to pay so much more for coffee in certain locations and why "fancy" gourmet grocery stores will stock some of the same products as their bargain bin competitors, but use it to influence different purchasing patterns.

But there's also larger scale discussions about China's economic recovery (which I found really fascinating), the influence of corruption on small countries, and globalization. It's interesting to see how an economist approaches these issues with an ultra rational approach to decision-making, and it's pretty shocking to see the extremes to which that kind of thinking can you lead you --some of Harford's propositions would nip problems like cross-town traffic or public health in the bud, but they may offend our sense of justice in the process. And Harford is grounded enough in reality to cop to that kind of thing, up to the point where you get just a little feeling of world weariness and cynicism. But not too much.

Filed under: Books 1 Comment
14Jan/10Off

Weight Loss Week 2: 19.5 Pounds to Go

January 14 weight: 181.5

Last 5 days average weight: 182.6

January 7 weight: 187

Workouts in last 7 days: 5

I lost 5.5 pounds over the last 7 days. That's a lot for one week, but not completely unexpected. I've noticed that the weight tends to come off fast right when I tighten up my diet, possibly because I'm cutting out a lot of salt (which makes you retain water) and eating more fiber (which makes you ...you know...). I expect things to slow way down going forward.

Look, I made a graph!

Weight loss graph week 2

Notice the two lines. Notice them! The green one is my daily weight. The orange one is my running, 5-day average weight. Since weight naturally fluctuates on a daily basis, it's the "smoothed out" orange line that I pay most attention to. Because it lets random error variance in weight gain/loss cancel itself out over the course of 5 days I think it's a better measure of actual progress. You know this makes sense because I used a fancy phrase like "random error variance" to explain it.

Now, here's this week's awkward self-portrait taken while I was still groggy this morning:

One little diet hack that I thought I'd mention this week because it seemed to work: almonds. I got a one pound bag of raw almonds and toasted them with some salt, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and a dash of chill powder. Geralyn then put them into little zip-top bags in one ounce servings. I put all those bags in a bigger bag and put it in the trunk of my car. Now when I leave work every day I grab one of the baggies and eat it in the car on the way to the gym. At 170 calories for 1 ounce (about 22 almonds) they're calorie dense, but I've noticed that it gives me energy for the workout and keeps me from snacking before dinner. Plus they're awesome.

Filed under: General 5 Comments
12Jan/10Off

Week 311

Snow! I mean, more snow!

I've noticed that Sam is being a lot more empathetic lately. I think all kids learn to read emotions, like they know when you're pissed or when you're happy and they react accordingly, even if it's usually in a self-interested way. But Sam seems to be cluing in lately on how others feel and letting it affect her own mood. The other morning I was getting ready for work and couldn't find my iPod Touch. For me, this is like not being able to find my kidney or something, and I was flustered because I thought I might have left it at the gym. Sam, who had wandered down to say goodby to me as she does most weekday mornings, picked up on my agitation and started looking everywhere with me. Later that night when I came home Geralyn said that Sam had been preoccupied by my missing device and had been looking for it all day because she said it made me unhappy that it was lost. When I eventually found it (on top of the entertainment cabinet in the basement, duh) Sam was giddy with joy. Good girl.

Filed under: Parenting No Comments
7Jan/10Off

Weight Loss Week 1: 25 to go

And now for something that most of you completely don't care about, but which I do.

In 2009 I lost about 25 pounds by eating less and exercising more. Hardly a Biggest Loser rate of loss, but respectable and most of it actually came in the first 6 months, after which I slacked off and maintained.

In the last few weeks, though, I've started trending upwards again so I'd like to drop another 25 from where I am now, which would place me at 162 pounds for a 5'6" guy. I didn't want to blog about weight loss last year because I didn't want it to come across as the same lame new year's resolution that everyone makes and honestly I wasn't sure if I would do it. But given how I can't seem to stay back on the wagon, I thought some kind of public declaration and tracking of my goals and habits would help me. And besides, this isn't really a new year's resolution, it's just the continuation of the one I made last year.

So once a week I'm going to check in here and post my weight and a quick rundown of what I ate each day that week. FASCINATING, I know. But again, making goals public makes you more likely to achieve them, and I'm partially inspired by the guy over on 344pounds.com who started doing this kind of thing at 344 pounds and had wild success --he's currently at 216 pounds and still dropping.

As far as how I'm going to proceed, I'm going to do what helped me drop the first 25: eating less and exercising more. Taking in less than I put out. To help do that, I'm going to again track the calories of everything I eat and I'm going to aim for working out for at least 30 minutes 5 times a week. I'm using Myfitnesspal.com and the associated iPhone ap for the tracking at the moment.

So, here's the check-in for Week 1:

January 7 weight: 187 lbs.

Calorie reporting will start next week.

Week 1

So, wish me luck. Or, alternatively, say "Put down the fork, fatty!" Either works for me.

Filed under: General 7 Comments
6Jan/10Off

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

Clockwork Orange

Note: This is #52 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009. Ding!

A Clockwork Orange features Alex DeLarge (Malcom McDowell), a young thug in a near-future Britain overrun by moral decay and gangs of hyperviolent youths. Alex isn't exactly a hero (he's a vicious rapist and a murderer) and he's not an anti-hero since he's neither a stand-in for the common man nor possessed of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Instead, he's the central figure in a rather stylishly presented thought experiment dealing with free will and the nature of goodness.

When Alex's misdeeds finally catch up with him thanks to treachery within his own gang, he's arrested and put in prison. Eventually he volunteers to participate in a radical new program that pairs drug-induced nausea with scenes of horror and violence to condition him against his base nature. By the end of his treatment, Alex can't even think about violent or sexual acts without being crippled by waves of sickness and pain. Now rendered harmless, he's dumped back into the world. But unfortunately for Alex, the world is still cruel without him and he is completely defenseless when he comes back into contact with those whom he has wronged in his salad days. And so we're supposed to ask ourselves: was it wrong for the state to do to Alex what it did? And should they undo it?

I've got the same problem with this film that I had with the book by Anthony Burgess upon which it was based (see my review of the book here). That is, the central moral question that it invites us to wrestle with is so trivially easy to resolve in my mind that it makes the entire escapade seem vulgar with little payoff. Of COURSE the state was right to do to Alex what it did --or at least no more wrong than it would have been to lock him up for life. We're invited to think about whether robbing him of choice makes this one-time villain "good," but to me that's an irrelevant question. He's not hurting people any more (remember, we're talking pre-meditated rape and murder here). Sure he can't choose to be good or bad after the psychological conditioning, but neither can any of the people who were locked up or executed. Yes, there's the question of the slippery slope down from terrible crimes to any sort of irreverent or antisocial behavior, but the movie explores that even less than the book did. Alex's situation simply isn't the dilemma to me that director Stanley Kuberick think it to be.

That said, the film was interesting to watch, even if it was a bit slow and talky in a lot of places. Kuberick's definitely got his own sense of style, with lots of extreme close-ups (often involving eyes), stark scenes, and weird camera angles. Visually, the only thing that I think fell really flat was his 1972 vision of what the future was going to look like. It didn't age well, and screams of wonky design that's so far of from what we now expect the near future to look like that it's visually jarring.

Filed under: Movies No Comments
5Jan/10Off

Week 310

We had a pretty slow week this time around, so not much to report.

One thing I have noticed it that since Mandy has grown up enough for Sam to play with, they really do play a lot together. In fact, they will often now elect to omit me and Geralyn from their playtime entirely, which at first was kind of cool (relief! dishes! e-mail!) but at the same time I can't help feeling that this is kind of sad. I've had to actually go to the trouble of inserting myself into their play, and to be honest a lot of times I get distracted. Is this that "growing up" thing that everyone kept telling me would happen? Are they going to move out of the house soon?

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
2Jan/10Off

Books I read in 2009

Per my annual tradition (c.f., 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005) it's time to look back on all the books I read this year and pick out my favorite and and least favorite.

The Stats

My total reading volume took a big dip this year, as I'm at 46 books --way down from the 65 I read in 2008. The main reasons for this are a) I wasn't specifically doing a "52 books in 52 weeks challenge" as I was in 08, and b) I listened to a lot of podcasts this year, which crowded out some audiobooks.

  • Total books: 46
  • Total pages: 14,906*
  • Average book length: 331 pages**
  • Paper books: 19
  • Audio books: 27
  • Fiction books: 24
    • Fantasy: 11 (mostly Terry Prattchett)
    • Science fiction: 7
    • Other Fiction: 5
    • Horror: 1
  • Nonfiction books: 22
    • Other nonfiction: 7
    • Science: 6
    • Business: 6
    • Biography: 3

*If you convert the length of the audiobooks to page counts by looking at their paper counterparts

**Same story

That seems like a pretty balanced spread to me. As usual, individual reviews can be found here.

Best Book I Read in 20009

Some good books this year. I enjoyed Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide because it was another solid popular science book around the science of human decision making, but it felt a little close to my favorite pick from 2008, Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational. I also found myself really enjoying Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which took Kipling's The Jungle Book as a starting point and told you a story about a little orphan boy lovingly raised by the supernatural inhabitants of a rural graveyard.

Dune

In the end, though, I decided you can't go wrong with a classic, and chose Frank Herbert's Dune as my favorite book from 2009. It's got a lot of the tropes from fantasy AND science fiction, but it presents them in such a way that it's fresh and interesting, not to mention an epic storyline full of battles and giant worms. Thoroughly entertaining stuff, and I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why I haven't gone on to read more of the Dune books. I shall resolve to do so in 2010.

Worst Book I read in 2009

Why is it that I always have stronger contenders for this than the best books? I could barely get through Jack Kerouac's On the Road despite its stature as a classic. Garth Nix's Sabriel about a young necromancer trying to save her father squandered an interesting premise on poor writing and bland characters, but I have to cut it some slack for being a young adult book. And David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle tries to retell Shakesphere's Hamlet with a young boy and a dog breeding business in Wisconsin, and while it's really terrible in so many ways it just barely gets eeked out by another entry.

Buyology

Martin Lindstrom's Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and the New Science of Desire takes that honor. Lindstrom is an advertising mogul of some kind, and he's so breathlessly eager to tell you about this SUPER new science that HE has created that will explain why we buy. The problem is that the author only knows how to write like an advertising man, not a scientist or even a competent distiller of other scientific research. He slings nonsensical terms around like advertising jingles and generally adopts a pompous, hyperbolic tone that's not far off from what you'd expect in a late night informercial for a stain removal spray.

So, what about you all? What's your best and worst of 2009?

Filed under: Books 3 Comments