Drought

Posted July 23rd, 2014 at 3:14pm by Stephen

I have lived in the Bay Area since 1979. I have never personally seen the Lexington Reservoir off Highway 17 near Los Gatos as low as it is currently, although historically it has been lower both due to construction and previous droughts.

The East side is currently at 18.1% of capacity.

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, East side, at low water levels, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack]

The West side is drained:

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, West side, at zero water level, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack

Someone has started an art project in the lake bed. Or finished one, I’m not sure which.

[photo of Lexington Reservoir, West side, with the words I MISS written in stones, taken Monday, July 21, 2014; photo by Stephen Mack

I’ve heard news reports that water boards across the state aren’t setting penalties for wasting water — because when water usage is reduced, they lose money.

So it’s up to us.

At my house, we’re flushing less, trying to reduce bath water use, and not watering the lawn at all. I wonder what more we can do.

PowerPoint: “I heard you liked hidden things, so I hid the hide menu afforandance”

Posted January 22nd, 2014 at 1:56pm by Stephen

I delivered a company-wide brown bag at work today. I was surprised during the presentation that a slide I’d included wasn’t displayed. I began to question myself. “Did I forget to copy and paste in this slide?” Afterwards, I found out that the slide was marked hidden. But it’s no surprise that I didn’t notice. Observe:

[Image of the right-click menu in PowerPoint, with a very subtle indicator that a slide is hidden

Bad PowerPoint, bad

I actually saw the gray coloring of the slide when I copy-and-pasted it into my presentation, and wondered if that meant it was hidden. I right-clicked on the slide, and expected it to say “Unhide Slide” if it was actually hidden. Since it said Hide Slide, and I didn’t want to hide the slide, I thought I was fine.

I now see that the subtle 1-pixel wide orange border around the icon next to the words “Hide Slide” means that it was hidden. And the slide was therefore skipped during the presentation.

So, there are two affordances used by PowerPoint to show the slide is hidden:
1. Gray text in the body of the slide in the main display area
2. A pale orange 1-pixel border around an icon that I never pay any attention

Trouble is, #1 I thought was because the slide’s text was SUPPOSED to be gray. And #2 was way way way way way way too subtle for me to notice.

PowerPoint, I give you an F. See me after class.

My wish for 2014

Posted January 1st, 2014 at 6:15pm by Stephen

As we throw away the calendar for 2013, a blank year stretches ahead. May those who are in pain find solace. May those who are consumed by grief find joy. May those who are paralyzed by regret find redemption. May peace, love, and friendship find us all.

I resolve to work harder to see every argument from the other person’s point of view.

I resolve to find the proper balance between work, family, friends, play, health, and obligations.

I resolve to adhere to the rule of three.

Happy new year!

Resolution update: June report card

Posted July 27th, 2013 at 11:43pm by Stephen

Halfway through the year already! Way past time for report card #6. I had a difficult time finishing this one for some reason.

In terms of exercise, May and June were together the two most active months of my life. Let’s see how I did on my goals.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    I worked hard at trying to improve my “presence” in June. It’s still hard for me to be objective about this, but I do think I made some progress, and in particular when I was with my kids tried to really be there for them 100% of the time I was with them. I’d love feedback from friends and family on how I’m doing.

    Status: Let’s say B for June.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    Over on FriendFeed, we started our Kindler’s List reading group, and our first book was Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I enjoyed it just fine, but it didn’t blow me away.

    In addition, I finished NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (which I had been reading on and off for quite a while). I was blown away and recommend it unconditionally to parents with children of any age. Fantastic book.

    1. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants: Three stars
    2. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children: Five stars

    Status: A- (since I’d read a lot of NurtureShock in previous months).

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    No update from last month; I still need to select a 10k to be run before September 30, and after that I have a 5k in November lined up with Amanda and Tamara.

    Status: Two down, two to go! Not yet complete, but on track.

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    For June, my goal was to run 50 miles. I managed to run 56.1 miles, per my RunKeeper profile. That’s a new record for me.

    [Stats from RunKeeper showing miles run for Stephen from January to June, 2013]

    So far in 2013 (through June 30), I’ve run a total of 243 miles. I am not sure if I can hit 500 miles total for 2013, but that seems like a great stretch goal to aim for.

    Status: A.

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of June steps]

    In June, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 453,366 steps (down a bit from 491,069 steps in May), with an average of 15,112 steps per day (down from 15,841), a most active day of 21,003 steps, and a least active day of 10,521 steps. I did not miss my 10k step goal at all in June. There were 3 days over 20k steps (down from 8 in May).

    Status: A.

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I had 15 runs, but just as in April, I only had 8 sessions of calisthenics and 8 sessions of weightlifting (although I did a better job of spacing them out throughout the month). Just as before, the extra runs offset the missed workouts, but I could have easily done it all.

    As I noted last month, I had originally set this goal to be 2 workouts per week of each type, and then switched to 9 a month, and I pointed out that that structure makes it too easy for me to slack off in the early part of the month. That’s been the case in June as well. I will need to do better at spacing out the workouts.

    Status: B-.

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. Then in April he told me it should be three times a day. So shall I do.

    Per Flossy, I flossed 3.0 times a day on average (between 2 and 4 times each day, with only two days where I didn’t meet my goal of three times a day). I did have a dental checkup in July, and I did well (my gums were in much better shape), so the flossing is having a positive effect. I recently finally got around to buying a waterpik.

    Status: A-.

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had three sugar drinks and one diet soda in June, about on par with May. I had one week with two forbidden drinks, so I did not keep to the allowable limits.

    Status: C-.

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    Still struggling with this one. I was not good at keeping to the mid-week (Tue-Thu) unsweetened coffee.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track, need to do better.

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Did a bit better in June on this.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    Two blog posts in June not about resolutions (both mainly images).

    Status: B-.

Star Wars versus Game of Thrones: Hosting

Posted July 26th, 2013 at 12:40pm by Stephen

[Two screen captures. One from Empire Strikes back showing Chewbacca, Leia, and Han being betrayed by Lando. Caption reads: 'My host betrayed me. You'd never believe it.' The other from season 3 of Game of Thrones shows Cat at the Red Wedding. Caption reads: 'I might.'

(See Mashable’s summary of the Star Wars versus Game of Thrones battle.)

Resolution update: May report card

Posted June 14th, 2013 at 2:33pm by Stephen

It’s mid-June, so it must be time to write my report card for May.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    In May I tried to leave my iPhone and laptop at my desk a bit more and work on being truly present, especially for my kids. I still need to improve, however. If you catch me not paying 100% attention to you when I’m around you, please let me know.

    Status: Let’s say B- for May.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    I didn’t finish a damn thing in May — just a few chapters here and there. However! I did something about it: Now there’s a FriendFeed reading group, where we select a free book from the Amazon Lending Library for Kindle. (We’re reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to start.) So while I failed in May, I should be back on track in June.

    Status: F.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I ran a race in May! It was the Chick Chaser 5k (suggested to me by Sparky), sponsored by the Silicon Valley Tri Club. This was held in the beautiful Los Gatos Creek park, with only 35 female and 42 male runners competing (big contrast to my last two 5ks, which included thousands of runners).

    I was happy with my place in the results — 23rd place among the men and 29th overall, with a 7:25 pace. I started out at a faster pace than usual for me — 6:35 for the first mile — but that was in a vain attempt to keep up with all the triathletes who were zooming past me. My activity record in RunKeeper shows that after the first mile, I slowed down to about a 7:45 pace.

    [Stephen crossing finish line of Chick Chaser 5k; Los Gatos, CA; May 10, 2013, photo by Rama, courtesy of SVTC]

    The winners ran at a pace well under six minutes, which is intimidating to me — and it wasn’t because they’re younger. The fastest male was 47. So I can take that as inspiration that I can run faster than I do today.

    I still need to select a 10k to be run before September 30, and then I have a 5k in November lined up.

    Status: Two down, two to go! Not yet complete, but on track.

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    Well, since I ran a race in May, I shouldn’t also have a separate RunKeeper goal for May, but I did set one for running 45 miles. I was proud of myself for my longest running distance in a month to date, 52.1 miles — beating the 50 mile mark for the first time.

    For June, I want to repeat that accomplishment. My RunKeeper profile shows I’m on track to run 50 miles in the month.

    [Stats from RunKeeper showing miles run for Stephen from July of 2012 through June 14, 2013]

    So far in 2013 (through today), I’ve run a total of 211.1 miles. I wonder if I could hit the 500 mile mark for 2013.

    Status: A.

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of May steps]

    In May, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 491,069 steps (up sharply from 407,972 steps in April), with an average of 15,841 steps per day (up from 13,599), a most active day of 24,112 steps, and a least active day of 10,004 steps. I did not miss my 10k step goal at all in May. I was proud to have 8 days over 20k steps (including a weekend with back-to-back 20k days), whereas in April I didn’t even have a single day above 20k steps.

    Status: A.

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I had 15 runs, but just as in April, I only had 8 sessions of calisthenics and 8 sessions of weightlifting (although I did a better job of spacing them out throughout the month). Just as before, the extra runs offset the missed workouts, but I could have easily done it all.

    As I noted last month, I had originally set this goal to be 2 workouts per week of each type, and then switched to 9 a month, and I pointed out that that structure makes it too easy for me to slack off in the early part of the month. That’s been the case in June as well. I will need to do better at spacing out the workouts.

    Status: B-.

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. Then in April he told me it should be three times a day. So shall I do.

    Per Flossy, I flossed 3.2 times a day on average (between 2 and 5 times each day, with six days where I didn’t meet my goal of three times a day). I am proud of getting so much closer to hitting the goal. But I still need to buy a waterpik.

    Status: B+.

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had two sugar drinks and two diet sodas in May, a bit worse than April. But it was still within the allowable limits.

    Status: A.

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    Not doing so well on this one — a lot of syrups and flavored lattes. To give myself something concrete to accomplish, starting in July (which is halfway through the year) I will allow myself sweeteners four days a week, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Mid-week coffee will be coffee and milk (and ice) only. I will phase that down to end the year with no sweeteners.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track but with a plan of attack.

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Still on track with this, but still need to spend more time classifying expenses and reining in spending.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    Zero blog posts in May not about resolutions. It should have been easy, but I didn’t do it.

    Status: F.

Congratulations, Sophie

Posted June 11th, 2013 at 10:06am by Stephen

Sophie's kindergarten diploma

Sophie graduated from Kindergarten today. She began the year able to read and write her name and maybe one or two other words. After a year of homework and effort, she’s now able to read at a first grade level, and she enjoys writing her own stories.

Well done, sweetie! We love you.

Sophie holding her diploma, Ellis School, Sunnyvale, CA, June 11, 2013

Sophie and her Kindergarten teacher

Fairy tale

Posted June 5th, 2013 at 4:30pm by Stephen

Father reading to children: ...and then, no one ever heard the words froyo or vuvuzela or jeggings ever again. And they all lived happily ever after

Resolution update: April report card

Posted May 21st, 2013 at 10:02pm by Stephen

Better late than never, here’s my report card for April.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    I think I backslid a bit in April. Let’s say C.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    Didn’t finish any real books. I need to rethink my priorities for reading and make sure I allocate enough time. I did make some progress on a couple of titles, and finished up The Human Division. But this was my worst month of the year so far. My Goodreads activity was minimal.

    I finished:

    1. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads: Five stars.
    2. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above: Three stars.

    I failed to select a new free book for April, since I didn’t finish the one from March.

    Altogether, I read less than half a regular book’s worth of pages in April, well below goal. Let’s say D-.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I ran a race in May (covered in next month’s update), and selected a race in November (thanks to Hookuh and Tam).

    I just need to select a 10k, preferably to be run in July, August, or September.

    Status: Still one down, three to go! Incomplete, but on track.

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    In April, having come off a sore ankle in March, I set a modest goal of only 30 miles. (I accidentally set it to be 25 miles in RunKeeper.) I was able to run 36 miles by the end of the month.

    For May, my RunKeeper goal is to run 45 miles, or an average of three miles every two days. I’m on track.

    So far in 2013 (through today), I’ve run a total of 157.1 miles, still on track for about 350 miles for the year.

    Status: A

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of April steps]

    In April, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 407,972 steps (up from 387,002 steps in March, which had 1 more days), with an average of 13,599 per day (up from 12,484), a most active day of 19,214, and a least active day of 10,109. I did not miss my 10k step goal at all in April.

    Status: A

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I had 13 runs, but only 8 sessions of calisthenics and 8 sessions of weightlifting — all of which were in the last half of the month. In some sense, my extra runs offset the missed workouts, but I could have made it if I were a bit more diligent early in April.

    I had originally set this goal to be 2 workouts per week of each type, and then switched to 9 a month, but I think that makes it too easy for me to slack off in the early part of the month. I’ll keep it as is, but I’ve tried to keep my workouts a bit more spread out in May compared to April.

    Status: B-

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. Then in April he told me it should be three times a day. So shall I do.

    Per Flossy, I flossed 2.5 times a day on average (between 0 and 4 times each day). I can do better. And I still need to buy a waterpik.

    Status: C

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had one sugar drink and one soda in April.

    Status: A

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    I backslid on this one. A lot of syrups.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track but improving

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Still on track with this, but need to spend more time classifying expenses.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    One blog post in April not about resolutions.

    Status: A-

God, atheism, and emotions

Posted April 26th, 2013 at 8:10pm by Stephen

Earlier today on FriendFeed, Dr. Ganata shared an article from Pacific Standard magazine: “Emotional Reactions of Atheists May Reveal Echoes of Belief”.

header of article

I found myself having my own emotional response to the article and the corresponding study, and I wanted to set down my thoughts.

First of all, there’s no widespread agreement on labels. To some, an atheist is anyone who does not believe faithfully in the existence of God. By that definition: People who are unsure or neutral or agnostic on whether or not God exists? All atheists. But to others, an atheist is someone who is convinced that God definitely does not exist — and may spend energy trying to convince the faithful that they are wrong. Even among the faithful, there is a spectrum of how strongly and completely one believes in God. So there is a wide range of possible beliefs among individuals.

The study organizers recruited from a skeptics organization, from a bible group, and from students. They don’t break down how many applicants they got from each source. They divided participants between “atheists” and “religious people” (those are their labels, not mine), based on their answers to a 19-question survey. While there was a sharp difference between the scores of the two groups, they don’t make a distinction between atheists who once were faithful, or if the atheists are “weak atheists” (those who simply are not sure in the certainty of the existence of God) versus “strong atheists” (those who are positively, 100% convinced that there is no God).

Second, the study design is garbage. The overall approach is measuring skin conductance (“SC”) while participants read statements and then say them aloud. There’s no data on what SC means, no proof of what it measures, no theory about what emotions it’s tied to, and the study doesn’t bother to provide the raw data to back up any statistical claims.

In study 1, the participants each were given three sets of statements:

  1. “God statements”: Statements where one dares God to do something awful, such as “I dare God to make me die of cancer” or “I dare God to make someone murder my parents.”
  2. “Offensive statements”: Random offensive things, such as “It’s okay to kill ugly children” or “It’s okay to kick a puppy in the face.”
  3. “Neutral statements”: Random inoffensive things, such as “I hope it’s not raining today” or “It’s okay to wear glasses.”

In study 2, they add a fourth category:

  1. “Wish statements”: Repeats of God statements but restated as a wish, such as “I wish that I would die of cancer” or “I wish someone would murder my parents.”

However, study 2 is very poorly thought out. The phrasing of the statements is not at all equivalent. Worse, they’re having the same person react to the same statement both from category 1 and category 4 — but the emotional response will be much greater the first time you read it than the second, whichever way it’s phrased. And most disastrously, study 2 is only of atheists, so for cateogry 4, you can’t compare the SC of atheists to the SC of religious people.

Third, the study lacks sufficiently documented controls. The two groups of study 1, atheists and religious people, were selected based on their responses to survey questions. How many people applied? How many were rejected? Why are there no participants with middling responses?

A much better study design would have three groups: Atheists, religious people, and a random group used as a control with unknown belief status. If the study’s central thesis is true (that both atheists and religious people will have a strong emotional reaction to category 1 statements), all three groups should have same result.

And I would design the questions with much more diversity of control statements. “I wish that I would die of cancer” is just outright much less controversial than saying “I dare God to make me die of cancer.” Add in “I dare Zeus to make me die of cancer” and “I dare my best friend to make me die of cancer.”

My final objection to the study is that the statistical results of study 2, with only atheists participating, shows a huge change in the responses to categories 1 through 3 when compared with the results of study 1. Their SC went down for categories 1 and 2, and up for category 3. That’s ridiculous! The study designers could not even reproduce their own results from study 1 with the exact same methodology. That shows their candidate screening or test administration or SC measurement is fatally flawed. How much variance would we see again if they conducted a study 3 or a study 4?

Set aside all that. Let’s say the test is valid and the results are genuine. What does it mean?

The article and study do take pains to point out several possible explanations for the result why both atheists and religious people have a similar emotional response to reading the God statements:

  1. “Atheists’ explicit beliefs may differ from the implicit reactions that exist outside of conscious awareness.”
  2. Atheists “may have found using the word God stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously.”
  3. Atheists “may have found the idea of God ‘absurd or aversive,’ leading to the heightened emotional response.”
  4. “Although atheists did not currently believe in God, they may have been influenced by their own previous beliefs.” (A reference is made to 2006 research that found three-quarters of American atheists were once believers.)

At heart, I had to think about why I had an emotional response to reading the article and the study. Because I self-identify as an atheist, the first conclusion was offensive to me: Hey, you, you atheist you, you’re deluding yourself — you may say you don’t believe in God, but your emotions betray you, ha ha. You really do believe in God. Sucker.

It was hard for me to be objective about that.

But why?

We all delude ourselves all the time. We’re full of self-delusions that affect us constantly, without us even being aware of it most of the time. I know this and accept it. So why would it upset me for me to feel that I might have an emotional belief in God?

I have to admit if I were to take the test, I’m sure I would have a hard time being unemotional in reading aloud a statement that said I dared God to kill my parents or give me cancer. Again: But why? Is it because I secretly do believe in God? I don’t think there’s a chance that that’s true. I think actions and expressed beliefs are actually more significant than emotional responses.

No matter what, the thought of having you or your parents die is going to provoke an emotional response, whether or not God is involved in that thought.

I don’t pray. I don’t ascribe supernatural explanations to events that take place. I don’t go to church. I wouldn’t turn to any holy book for answers. And while I respect my friends who do believe in God, I don’t feel that their religious beliefs give them any power or morality that I don’t also have.

Bottom line, I don’t think this study proves anything. The whole point of atheism is to separate one’s emotional beliefs and irrational human nature from our actions and logical thoughts.

I think most atheists would agree that they don’t KNOW that God doesn’t exist. The way I feel about it is this: I assume God doesn’t exist until the moment I see some evidence that God does exist.

I can’t prove God doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t even try. Similarly, I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. So, since I can’t prove the opposite, I’m happy to concede that God MIGHT exist. (So might the Loch Ness Monster.) I just don’t see any evidence for it, so I don’t personally think it’s at all likely.

Despite that, why would I take the risk in daring an all-powerful God who MIGHT exist to kill me or my parents? On a rational basis, there’s no point in tempting fate, even if the risk is minute. My emotional side knows that better than my rational side.

I’d like to see the study redesigned with a big twist: Per the study, there were some religious people who refused to say some of the God statements. But there were no atheists who refused to say any of them. But what if you paid people to say the statements? If you move the study from the emotional realm of skin response into the rational realm of getting paid, would you see the opposite result, where even religious people are willing to say the same statements as the atheists? Or is it offensive to even ask?

Maybe emotionally we’re all believers to some extent, but when money is on the line, some of those who identify themselves as religious people might be willing to act a little bit like an atheist.

This is too long already, but I want to conclude with an apology: If you were offended by any of what I wrote, I am sorry. I don’t mean to challenge anyone or offend anyone. Your beliefs are yours, and I don’t have any intention to try to change them. My whole intention is to explain myself, mostly so I can better understand myself.

Recently, Barry paid me a high compliment on FriendFeed: He called me a damn fine Christian. That makes me damn happy to hear. Because even though I’m a heathen, I strive to be a moral, helpful, useful, good person. In other words, a Christian. Or a Catholic. Or a Buddhist. Or a Muslim. Or an atheist. Theist or atheist, emotional or unemotional: We’re all here to try to make the world a better place. Right?

Resolution update: March report card

Posted April 6th, 2013 at 7:26pm by Stephen

And now my report card for March.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    You tell me — how am I doing? Let’s say B-.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    I didn’t do very well on reading last month; my Goodreads activity was very light.

    I finished:

    1. Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay (third book in The Hunger Games trilogy): Two stars.
    2. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #7: The Dog King: Five stars.
    3. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #8: The Sound of Rebellion: Four stars.
    4. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #9: The Observers: Four stars.
    5. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #10: This Must Be The Place: Two stars.
    6. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #11: A Problem of Proportion: Four stars.

    I hard a hard time selecting the free book for March (which I’ll talk about next month since I’ll finish it this month). I need to start a book club with other Kindle users, I think.

    Altogether, I read a bit more than a regular book’s worth of pages in March, well below goal. Let’s say D.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I need to select my second race, for April, May or June. I’m torn between the The Electric Run in April, or the very similar-seeming Neon Run in June, or a timed race that’s a bit more serious.

    Status: One down, three to go! Incomplete, but on track (assuming I sign up soon for a race for this quarter).

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.).

    Officially this is “N/A” for March since March was a 5k month, but I did set a goal of 35 miles, which I didn’t make due to my ankle starting to hurt in the last half of the month. My total distance in March was 29 miles ran, including the 5k. So, regarding the ankle: On Sunday March 10, I went for a 10 mile run. I didn’t actually intend to run that far — I just drove to Baylands Park and started running down the Stevens Creek trail, and became curious to see how far I could go. (I had been influenced by some of my friends training for marathons and half marathons.) I was sore by the end and running slowly but proud I could run 10 miles in under 90 minutes. I followed that up on Wednesday March 13 with my fastest run to date of my standard 2.2 mile run (first time completing it in under 16 minutes); my ankle felt a bit sore but wasn’t too painful. And then on Friday March 15, I went for a 5 mile run with my brother Rob. That one did me in — by the end, I couldn’t run on the ankle, and it was throbbing. (I found it didn’t hurt if I was doing toe strikes, but heel or mid strikes hurt.) I tried taking it easy for the next two weeks, stopping my runs. I tried again on Thursday March 28 for my normal 2.2 miles, and was elated to find the first mile was good, then crushed that the second mile brought back the ankle pain if there was any kind of heel or mid strike.

    I felt really defeated. I was extremely angry with myself for letting myself get carried away and get hurt. The thought of not being able to run again depressed me, and I was really missing the post-run endorphin rush. So on Monday this week I made an appointment to visit my doctor. I was able to see the medical assistant for my doctor’s team that same day. He examined the ankle and told me he didn’t think there was any fracture or sprain but theorized instead I had made my heel sore — and he asked me some pointed questions about the type of shoes I was using and how long I’d had them. My shoes were just cheap running shoes from Target. So his prescription was better shoes, with more padding. (He also advised I could go the other way, and try minimal shoes and then relearn to walk in them for two weeks, and then try running slowly, but I didn’t want to take that route. My cursory review of research shows that the minimalist shoe style may have its risks, although my friend Jascha disagrees. So, with new shoes purchased (including some gel inserts recommended by the clerk), I’ve gone on two short runs so far in April, and both have felt good. No pain! Resolution: Short runs only for a while.

    For April, my RunKeeper goal is to run 30 miles, easing back in. Two miles every other day is my plan.

    So far in 2013 I’ve run a total of 97.5 miles, which means I can hit 350 miles for the year if I keep it up. I’d be happy with accomplishing that.

    Status: N/A

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of March steps]

    In March, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 387,002 steps (down from 390,761 steps in February, which had 3 fewer days), with an average of 12,484 per day (down from 13,956), a most active day of 24,340, and a least active day of 6,626 (resting the ankle). I missed my 10k step goal twice in March.

    Status: A-

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I was one run short. However, I don’t want to beat myself up too much, since I would have run if not for the pain, and two of my runs were longer than normal. I did have the other 18 workouts. I will give myself full credit.

    Status: A-

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. So shall I do.

    Thanks to Flossy, I was able to track fairly accurately. I flossed from 1 to 4 times a day with an overall average of 2.3 times.

    I had a cleaning in April and my dentist was pleased, but told me he wanted me to floss and brush THREE TIMES a day (and get a water pic). So I have to step my game up.

    Status: A

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had no juice or sugar drinks in March, and one diet soda.

    Status: A

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    I’ll need to start tracking more closely, but I estimate about half of my coffee in March was sweetened with only milk.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track but improving

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Still on track with this, but need to spend more time classifying expenses.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    I did manage to write a single non-resolution post in March. March 31 counts!

    Status: B

Nice-ism

Posted March 31st, 2013 at 10:06pm by Stephen

(Trigger warning: Starts light, ends with discussion of rape.)

When I was a child growing up in England, my mother pointed out to me that the word “nice” is an insult there.

Consider:

“How was the party?”
“It was… nice.”

That means the party was a dull affair, completely devoid of anything memorable. While no one was poisoned or defenestrated, no one truly enjoyed themselves either.

The British character is to generally speak no ill of anything; see this Language Log entry for further examples, where it explicitly defines “quite good” as “a bit disappointing.”

Exhibit 2 is this food item:

a photograph of a 'Nice biscuit'

This is a Nice biscuit (which, since it’s named after the French city, should be pronounced as “niece,” but when I was a boy we always pronounced it to rhyme with “ice”). It’s not terrible, but, as Jasper Fforde wrote (on the page where I borrowed that picture from):

…the Nice biscuit is important as it’s the threshold biscuit. Everything above is edible and quite nice, and everything below it is animal feed. It’s the last biscuit that you’ll eat on a tray, and without that mean smattering of sugar, exotic stippled edge and ‘Nice’ logo, it actually would be animal feed.

Of all the biscuits (which is to say, cookies) available, and given a limited number of calories one can consume in a day, why would one eat a biscuit that was only a hairline above nasty, instead of something amazing like a lemon savannah, little schoolboy, or a Jaffa cake?

Thirdly, consider this horrific story from the Seattle Times of 50-year-old Mark W. Mullan, an apparent third-strike DUI offender, who drove his pickup into a crowd of pedestrians, killing two and injuring many. According to his sister-in-law in that story, Mullan is a kids’ baseball coach, and “a nice guy.”

That phrase jumped out at me in that story because lately I’ve been seeing quite a bit about not-so-nice-guys who act nice. There’s a long history of this kind of “But he’s a nice guy!” defense. We seem to expect that people who can perform genuinely cruel or evil acts should act rudely and selfishly. (It’s almost a cliché.)

And more recently, there are Nice Guys, the ones who don’t get dates and are constantly told that they’re good “friend” material, and who end up getting twisted up about it. Two well-articulated examples:

David Futrelle: “One reason so-called Nice Guys™ seem so creepy to so many people is that it’s easy to see the rage and the bitterness and the weird sort of self-hating entitlement that is so often lurking underneath – and sometimes not that far underneath – the ‘nice guy’ exterior.” (The “Nice Guy” Who Raped and Strangled a Young Irish Woman)

Chelsea Fagan: “But what makes these Nice Guys so quick to subvert that pain of unrequited love — whether from one individual or from a thousand societal directions — into a palpable hatred for women?” (The Difference Between A Nice Guy And A “Nice Guy”)

The recent Steubenville rape case (and the revolting media coverage that underplayed the suffering of the rape victim and overplayed the ruined lives of the perpetrators) was an inspiration for two remarkable essays by women I follow on FriendFeed. Both essays are important to read:

Jenica: “Young American women are taught to live in fear, to live in a state of heightened anxiety, because they are inherently victims. Because if it happens — if you’re sexually assaulted — you’ll be expected to explain all the ways that you did everything you could to prevent it, and if you didn’t do all of those things, well, then. You bear responsibility for what happened to you, even though you are not the one who made the choice to attack another human being. Even though you were the one who was attacked.” (How about we not put all the responsibility for rape on women?)

Monique Judge: “Women are made responsible for the actions of men who ‘just couldn’t control
themselves’ in the face of the temptress in front of them. We teach women things that they should do to prevent rape, but do we teach our men not to rape? (Rape Culture — see also the published column, “Woman fired for speaking up against sexism“)

I’m speaking now to fellow men: It’s time to put a stop to condoning sexism. It’s time to stop doing nothing. It’s time to educate our sons on proper values and ways of treating women, to make it impossible for them to be the kind of man who would assault or rape. It’s time to stop being nice.

“Nice” is far from good enough. Nice is what got us into turning the other way, not speaking up, when we saw behavior that was questionable. To avoid confrontation, we let other men be jackasses at technical conferences. We wrung our hands over perpetrators who deserve no mercy and no sorrow.

I have not ever aspired to be “a nice guy.” Instead, I work to be a good man.

And I want every man to do the same.

Resolution update: February report card

Posted March 10th, 2013 at 3:15pm by Stephen

Here’s my report card for February.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    This one is still hard to assess objectively. At work, I’ve started leaving my laptop and cell phone at my desk sometimes, to make sure I’m fully engaged in whatever meeting I’m attending. I welcome feedback from my friends and co-workers, but I think I’m still improving albeit with still a long way to go. Overall, let’s say C+.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime).

    My Goodreads activity was a bit light in February — I diverted some reading time into watching Netflix’s “House of Cards” and Julian Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey” instead.

    I finished:

    1. Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire (second book in The Hunger Games trilogy): Three stars.
    2. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #4: A Voice in the Wilderness: Four stars.
    3. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #5: Tales From the Clarke: Three stars.
    4. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #6: The Back Channel: Four stars.

    I made it two-thirds of the way through the last Hunger Games book, but didn’t finish in time for February. (I’m not sure how I should count books that I read part in one month and part in another. Maybe I should have set the goal as a page count instead.)

    Altogether, I read just about two books’ worth of pages in February, but a bit shy of goal. Let’s say C+.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I ran The Color Run in San Francisco (Candlestick Park) on Saturday, March 2, at 10 am. (I posted about it on FriendFeed.)

    I need to decide on my next race (ideally in April, May or June). I could do the Color Run again in May (in San Jose this time), or there’s The Electric Run in April, or the very similar-seeming Neon Run in June. Both of these are evening runs, and both are held at Candlestick Park, the same location as the SF Color Run. I wouldn’t mind actually racing inside the stadium, and when they demolish it next year, I’ll miss that place.

    Overall, while I enjoyed The Color Run, it’s a bit of a strange event, and it was very different from my first 5k, the Santa Run back in December. That race was timed, and seemed to be about racing. These other runs are more like raves or festivals (Burning Man lite) with running as a side note. And they’re not really charitable events. So I’m not quite sure about what precisely the point is — I don’t need motivation to go running, and these races don’t really tax my endurance or allow me to push my pace. (The Color Run was so crowded that running was more weaving than anything.) So maybe my next run should be a bit more “serious” (whatever that means)?

    Status: One down, three to go! Incomplete, but on track (assuming I sign up soon for a race for next quarter).

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in Runkeeper (total distance, speed, etc.). February goal: Run 30 miles.

    While this will be officially “N/A” for March since March is a 5k month, for February I set a goal of 30 miles in total, and I was happy with my 35 miles of Runkeeper activity for February.

    (For March, my unofficial Runkeeper goal is to run another 35 miles. I’m on track for running a total of 300 miles in 2013.)

    February also helped me get a bit closer to my stretch goal of running 3 miles in 21 minutes by the end of the year — I turned in a 2.2 mile run with an average 7:11 pace on Feb 22, my fastest pace to date.

    Status: A

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of February steps]

    In February, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 390,761 steps (down from 403,821 steps in January, but with 3 fewer days), with an average of 13,956 per day (up from 13,026), a most active day of 20,179, and a least active day of 922. I was sick that day — probably with the Norovirus that’s going around. While I only missed the 10k goal once in February, on that one day, I did not construct my goal properly: I gave myself some wiggle room for other months, but not February. So, FAIL.

    Status: F

  6. Each month, have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions.

    I almost left this too late, but thanks to some hustle at the end of the month, I (barely) made this goal — I actually had 13 runs in February, and 9 workouts each for the other two types (although some of those at the end were a bit shorter sessions than I would like).

    Status: A-

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. So shall I do.

    [Screenshot of Flossy iPhone applicationBecause in January I had to use an estimate, for February I started using a spreadsheet to track this — but it was still difficult to remember to track diligently. Not counting the day I was sick (when I didn’t floss at all because I didn’t eat at all), my spreadsheet shows that I did floss on average twice per day.

    For March, to remind me to floss and to track it more accurately, I actually acquired an iPhone app: It’s called Flossy, it costs 99 cents, it has a big button for you to hit when you floss, it shows you your flossing history by day, and can remind you once a day to floss. There really is an app for everything. (I’d like it if you could edit your history for previous days — nice to have if you forget to record flossing on one day — and if you could set more than one reminder a day. Sometimes you have to hit the button more than once for it to register. Despite those quibbles, it’s a fine app, and a no-brainer for 99 cents.)

    Status: A

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    I had three diet sodas in February (worse than January but still on goal), and not much of anything else other than water/coffee/tea (and some wine and sangria with Scott and MC when I was podcasting with them), so this is met.

    Status: A

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    Still working on this one, but I definitely had more unsweetened lattes. The danger is in drinking too many milk calories.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Still on track with this. Still scared at how much I spend.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    I won’t count these resolution posts, because they’re too dull. So February fails.

    Status: F

Last August I posted about my weight loss, and mentioned that I had a stretch goal of hitting 150 pounds by October. I didn’t make that — from October of last year through February of this year, I did come close a few times but my weight usually varied between slightly above 150 to a bit 155. Well, in February I fell below 150 after my stomach flu, and was quite active when I was on vacation in Tahoe with the kids the week after. I have managed to mostly stay below 150 since then. My size 32 pants are now a bit loose (even the “skinny” pair), and I bet I could fit into size 31. I wore size 30 as a high school freshman, but have been size 32 or bigger since college, so this is probably the thinnest I’ve been since 1982 or so. In total, I’ve lost 30 pounds in 20 months. My body fat percentage (although not measured that reliably since I don’t consider the Aria readings to be very accurate) has probably fallen from somewhere around 22% to somewhere around 18%. Since these resolutions are mostly about supporting and improving my physical health, it’s great to see some progress on these objective measurements.

[Weight chart]

Resolution update: January report card

Posted February 2nd, 2013 at 11:37am by Stephen

I’ve learned that when I’m facing a long project, it’s vital for me to break it down into smaller tasks and track progress on those. So, given a list of resolutions and 365 days in which to adhere to them, it makes sense to me to break it down into months and see how I’m doing.

  1. Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around.

    This one is hard to assess objectively. I think I’m doing a better job of this one, but I still have a lot of progress to make. Overall, I give myself a C.

  2. Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime), and sign up for Goodreads.

    I did sign up for GoodReadsfollow me!

    In January, I finished:

    1. John Scalzi’s The Last Colony (third book in the Old Man’s War series): Four stars.
    2. Neil Gaiman’s Odd and The Frost Giants: Two stars.
    3. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #1: The B-Team: Four stars.
    4. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #2: Walk the Plank: Two stars.
    5. John Scalzi’s The Human Division #3: We Only Need the Heads: Four stars.

    The first one is a genuine book, but the other four are short stories. (I was also finishing up Stephen King’s Under The Dome from December, which, to be fair, is awful long at 1,092 pages. Three stars.) So I didn’t quite manage to finish two full books, and therefore I have to mark myself down a bit. Let’s call it a B+.

  3. Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.

    I plan on doing a race each quarter. For Q1, I have signed up for The Color Run in San Francisco (Candlestick Park) on Saturday, March 2, at 10 am. Anyone want to join me for that 5k?

    Status: Incomplete, on track.

  4. For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in RunKeeper (total distance, speed, etc.). January goal: Run 20 miles.

    Nailed it! I finished 24 miles by January 26. I set a new goal at that time to run 30 miles by March 1, and I’m currently at 7 miles with runs on January 28, January 31, and February 1.

    I would like to run a total of 300 miles in 2013. That seems doable.

    This is probably out of reach but as a stretch goal, but I’d like to be running 3 miles in 21 minutes by the end of year.

    Status: A+

  5. Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.

    [Graph of January steps from Fitbit]

    In January, Fitbit shows that I walked a total of 403,821 steps, with an average of 13,026 per day, a most active day of 21,949, and a least active day of 9,677. I only missed the 10k goal once.

    I may not be top of my leaderboard (Louis, Kelly & Jeff, and Jenny have that honor), but I’m proud of myself for being active each day.

    Status: A

  6. Each week, have six workouts: two runs, and four short sessions of calisthenics/abs/weightlifting.

    I started out strong, with some kind of workout for all but one day from the 1st to the 24th, but then I missed a few days. Altogether, I had 12 runs in January, and 11 calisthenics/abs workouts, but I only lifted weights 5 times. The first two were on track or above goal, but I can do better.

    I’ve found it’s hard for me to think about this and track it by week. Instead, I’ll aim to have have at least 9 runs, 9 calisthenics/abs workouts, and 9 weightlifting sessions per month.

    Status: B-

  7. After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. So shall I do.

    I’m not diligently tracking this (there are some things Fitbit and Runkeeper cannot do, after all), but I am pretty sure I flossed at least once each day, and flossed twice about half the time (and flossed thrice some of the time). It’s not quite realistic to floss twice every day, but I should have thought about before setting a resolution.

    Status: C+

  8. Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)

    Not long ago I was drinking 2-3 diet sodas a day. I had exactly one soda in January (a diet Doctor Pepper). Excluding the occasional beer at poker and some wine on one night, I drank only water and coffee and that one soda.

    Status: A

  9. By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.

    This will be tough. I’m not getting much closer to enjoying black coffee yet. I can manage lattes, probably. I need to work more on this one.

    Status: Incomplete, not yet on track

  10. Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.

    Complete. And what I found was scary. Too much inessential spending. Done, but exposed a lot that I need to improve.

  11. Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

    Well, these resolution posts may not be the most fascinating, but at least I’m posting.

    I did complete a short story in January, but it doesn’t really count since I’m not willing to share it openly.

    Status: B

My niece, Amelia

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 3:10pm by Stephen

Born Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 1:51 am, at 8.1 pounds and 20 inches, I had the privilege of meeting her that evening. Congratulations, Rob and Kelly. Such a beautiful girl.

20130116-100552.jpg

20130117-151001.jpg

Resolutions are just words…

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 10:26am by Stephen

…until they turn into results.

[A photo from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, December 31, 2012, outer bay tank, with the profiles of different observers staring at fish]

Resolution: Eat and watch more fish.

There seems to be a justifiable backlash against making new year’s resolutions among my friends, but I’m old-fashioned. Despite being two weeks late in posting these (I had to try them out for a bit first!), here’s what I’m aspiring to improve this year in my personal life:

  • Strive to always pay full attention to those I’m around, as described in this article by Jeff Haden detailing the 10 habits of charismatic people.
  • Read two books a month (including the free book each month for having a Kindle and Amazon Prime), and sign up for Goodreads.
  • Run three 5k races and one 10k race, spaced throughout the year.
  • For the other 8 months, set and accomplish a goal each a month in Runkeeper (total distance, speed, etc.). (My January goal is to run 20 miles; I’m currently over 11 miles at the halfway point of the month, so I’m on track.)
  • Keep up with the Fitbit by walking at least 10k steps a day (about 5 miles) — accomplish this 28 days each month.
  • Each week, have six workouts: two runs, and four short sessions of calisthenics/abs/weightlifting.
  • After my dental surgery in December, the surgeon commanded me to floss twice daily. So shall I do.
  • Drink more water, coffee, and tea; continue with the elimination I started last year of soda/diet soda/juice. (One soda or juice drink a week is acceptable.)
  • By year’s end, eliminate non-dairy sweeteners (both sugar and artificial) from the coffee I drink.
  • Start tracking my spending more closely with Mint.
  • Start writing again: Write at least one short story this year, and post to this blog at least once a month.

FitBit, Aria, and me: A life update — weight loss goal achieved!

Posted August 24th, 2012 at 5:30pm by Stephen

A year ago, a bit before Kimi and I separated, my weight had gone up from 165 in 2009 to 179 by the summer of 2011. This was mostly due to bad eating habits and a distinct lack of exercise.

I’m 5’8″, and in order for my BMI to be “normal,” my weight should be under 164. So I knew I needed to lose 15 pounds.

(I should say explicitly right here: Everyone is different, and everyone has different goals. I don’t expect my goals to be applicable to others, or that things that work for me would work for anyone else.)

It was actually easy to begin losing weight, but the way I did it wasn’t healthy: The stress of the separation led me to lose my appetite, and I started skipping a lot of meals. Then I went to Burning Man last year to process the separation, and going there also helped me drop off some weight. (In the desert, you have even less appetite than normal, due to the heat. And even better, you’re walking, bike riding, and dancing, at all hours of day and night.)

When I came back from Burning Man, there were some other changes. At work, my team and cube location changed. While I missed working closely with the individuals on that larger team, there was one thing that had been quite unhealthy about where I was: Many team members were constantly bringing in dessert items and putting them on a snack table in the middle of our cube area. I should have been able to use more willpower to resist, but I really didn’t do a good job there. While many of the desserts were homemade, and all were delicious, there were many items that were store-bought or particularly unhealthy, like chocolate donuts, that I should have been able to refuse, but didn’t. Once I was out of that physical area and stopped eating so many snacks, my weight started dropping quickly.

In addition, on those days when I had custody of the kids, I started to cook a lot more for them and for me, mostly using fresh ingredients we would buy together from the Mountain View farmers’ market. I cut out 99% of the fast food that I had previously eaten. That produced excellent results. (We also try to eat fish once a week, to help out with the good cholesterol.)

Controversially, I think skipping breakfast was something that also worked for me. I stopped fighting against using caffeine, and I now have coffee with a lot of milk for breakfast, and some days I’ll have a few bites of cereal or some fruit — but other than that, I no longer eat a big breakfast. My portion sizes at other meals are smaller now, too. I don’t often snack between meals anymore.

Starting from May/June of 2011 (when I weighed between 176 and 179), I made my way down to 170 in October just with those changes. Starting in October, I began working out more as well, mostly walking. I began dating and feeling more confident in myself, and was down to 166 in November. I was comfortable at 165 — I’d been at that weight for most of my adult life. I stayed at that weight for the next few months, but the trouble was, I was still officially “overweight” per the BMI scale, and I wanted to be healthier. My body fat was somewhere around 25%. So, I started using LoseIt to track my food eaten and to set a new goal of hitting 160 pounds by June of 2012.

I was proud when I accomplished that. My body fat went down from 25% to 22%.

After hitting that goal, my new goal was to lose 5 more pounds and get to 155 pounds and 20% body fat by August 26, in time for Burning Man. The next five pounds seemed much more challenging. To accomplish it, I bought and started using a Fitbit, and later an Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale.

I’d seen some friends use a Fitbit previously, but my main inspiration was seeing my friend Louis Gray use his and extol its virtues.

Just in case you haven’t seen a Fitbit before: It’s basically a step counter. But it’s far more accurate at counting steps than any pedometer I’ve previously used. In addition, it counts how many flights of steps you make each day, tracks distance traveled, calculates calories burned, and it can analyze your sleep to show how long you sleep and how many times you’re awakened. It can also work as a stopwatch to record workouts, runs, and other activities. It automatically syncs its data to your computer and to the Fitbit website. It then introduces a social aspect: You’re rewarded badges for accomplishments (such as steps traveled and flights climbed in a day or over your lifetime), and you can compare your activity to that of your friends, to encourage each other to move more. (Friend me!)

It’s quite profound how much of an influence it’s had on me. I work hard to make sure I put in at least 10,000 steps (roughly 5 miles) a day. I run more. I climb more stairs. Now I find that when I go to the store or work, I don’t park close by — I usually park at the back to get in some extra steps. If it’s near the end of the day and I haven’t hit my goal, I put in an extra run or walk to make sure I do hit that goal. So far in August, I’ve exceeded 10,000 steps every single day.

The Fitbit isn’t perfect. While it’s amazing at how accurately it counts steps, it sometimes includes some bogus steps when I’m driving somewhere. When I run up stairs, it’s not great at counting the flights accurately (although when walking up stairs, the accuracy is very good). The calorie burn assumptions it makes seem dubious. The site has a food tracking function, but its UI for that is, frankly, terrible. (LoseIt’s system for tracking food eaten is much better, and fortunately you can sync between LoseIt and Fitbit.)

Much worse, however, is that Fitbit’s measurement of distance traveled is pathetic — it’s not a GPS at all, so it’s just multiplying your steps by your stride length to show distance traveled. For me, the default stride length for running was way off, and no matter how I adjust it, it still doesn’t accurately capture the length of my runs. I’m running a 2.2 mile circuit, and Fitbit records it as under a mile, no matter how I set it.

While Fitbit customer support gets rave reviews, I didn’t get a reply at all to a case I opened about this issue. (It turns out a good friend of mine has just started working as FitBit’s director of customer support, so I’ll bug Jay about that issue.)

So, I’ve given up on using Fitbit to measure distance. For my runs, I’ve now started using the RunKeeper app on my iPhone.

(I want to give credit to my friend Ken G. here: He introduced me to both LoseIt and RunKeeper, and he’s lost an inspiring amount of weight by using these apps and through hard work.)

RunKeeper is a free app that uses your smart phone’s GPS to accurately record distance and display your pace. It keeps track of my runs over time, and gives me a lot better insight into my pace, plus real-time feedback during the run. It also has a social function too, with your friends able to see your activity and provide inspiring comments, but I’m not as impressed by that part.

Yes, it’s a bit unusual and inconvenient to carry a phone with me strapped to my arm while running — but, in addition to allowing me to track details of my runs, it gives me some peace of mind that in case of an emergency I have a way to communicate. I bought a relatively cheap velcro strap from Target designed for holding an iPhone, and it works well.

So, the Fitbit tracker is great, and RunKeeper is great.

How about the Aria scale, is that great too? Unfortunately, not so much. My previous digital scale (an “Elite” by My Weigh) is very accurate. I’ve tested it by taking my weight several times over the course of a half hour, and it always returns consistent results. If I pick up an item with a known weight (like a one or ten pound barbell) and then weigh myself, it always shows the correct result of my previous weight plus the exact amount of the item I’m carrying.

In contrast, the Aria scale seems very arbitrary. First off, it inconsistently shows me as being between half a pound and one pound heavier than what I get from the Elite. Second, if I weigh myself five times over five minutes, I’ll get five different results, plus or minus anywhere up to half a pound. If I pick up a one pound book, the Elite shows me as exactly one pound heavier, just as I’d expect. But, depending on its mood, the Aria might show me as one pound heavier, two pounds heavier, half a pound heavier, half a pound lighter, or the exact same weight.

There were two reasons why I bought the Aria: First, to wirelessly and automatically sync my weight with fitbit.com. Second, to measure my body fat. For the first task, the Aria works. I never have to manually enter my weight. I get that 5 seconds back to live my life. I should therefore be able to pay off the investment in the Aria sometime in the next 43 years. Win!

For the second task of measuring body fat, I give the Aria a D-. Its results seem ridiculously unreliable. When I first got it, it told me my body fat was 15%. That climbed up to 20% over the course of the first 5 days I used it. (I didn’t actually gain five percent body fat in five days.) I can get anywhere between 17% and 22% at any given time. I can get a result that’s more than 3% different just a few seconds later. I judge that I’m probably at 20% overall since that’s the most frequent result, but I honestly have no idea if it’s accurate at all.

So, sadly, I don’t recommend the Aria.

While I have my quibbles about the Fitbit Ultra, that is something that I do highly recommend overall. And using it has paid off. This morning, two days before my deadline, I weighed in at 153.9, beating my weight goal of 155.

FitBit screenshot: Goal achieved!

Woohoo! 153.9!

RunKeeper goal achieved

Goal achieved!

Scale showing 153.9 pounds

I have seen some excellent improvement in my health over the last year:

  • I’m more than 25 pounds lighter, now weighing less than I’ve weighed in more than 10 years.
  • I’ve lost more than 5% of my body fat (probably!).
  • My bad cholesterol is much lower.
  • On my run last night, I broke the 7.5 minute mark for the first mile, and ran my 2.2 mile course in under 16:45.
  • I feel healthier and more confident.
  • I’ve lost at least two pants sizes (moving from a tight fit for a size 34 waist to fitting comfortably in a size 32).
  • I’ve moved in 4 belt notches and then started using a new belt.
  • I’m no longer self-conscious taking off my shirt to go swimming.
  • I can run 10 flights of steps without breaking a sweat.
  • I’m comfortably in the “normal” section of the BMI chart, and I feel that I can accurately portray myself as “fit” on a dating profile.
  • I’m proud of how my legs look now.
  • My guild’s raid beat Heroic Spine in Dragon Soul for the first time last night, and we’re now 12th-best on the server. (This may be unrelated.)
  • I plan on getting a new health assessment for my life insurance and hope to lower my rates.

FitBit: 25 pounds lost

I’ve started doing some weight and ab training as well, and plan to continue that.

My old belt, and my new belt

I’ve set a new weight goal of 150 by October, and a new body fat percent of 17. I’d like to break the 7 minute mile mark. (I could run a six minute mile in high school, maybe I could do that again at 45?) Those are, honestly, all stretch goals; I’d be very happy if I could maintain what I’ve accomplished.

I’d also like to run a 5k in the next month.

Made it this far? I’m now intentionally burying at the bottom of the post a bit about my marital status. Even though it’s now almost exactly a year since Kimi told me that she thought we should separate, I never managed to write about that here. (I posted about it briefly on FriendFeed instead.) I couldn’t really bring myself to blog about it; it was too painful. So I told my immediate family when it happened, and then told a couple of my co-workers and a few friends, and over time alluded to it here and there, and eventually updated my Facebook status to say “separated.” I failed to tell my cousins and aunts and uncles about it until a few months ago, and many of my friends and co-workers still don’t know.

It’s still painful. Kimi and I are on speaking terms, and trying to work it out, and at the moment that I write this, we’re actually sharing a house in Sunnyvale and trying to arrange mediation and the best approach for making our kids happy and safe.

We’re having some good talks, and I’m optimistic about the future. Not having to worry about my health — and the endorphins I get from a good run or walk — make it easier for me to work on what’s next for me, her, and the kids.

Album review: “Songs The Brothers Warner Taught Me” by Megan Lynch

Posted August 1st, 2012 at 9:26pm by Stephen

Songs The Brothers Warner Taught Me album coverI grew up on cartoons.

Nothing was better than getting up early on Saturday, pouring several huge bowls of overly-sugared cereals, and settling in to fight with my brother over the remote.

The use of classical music and opera in cartoons was my first real exposure to those genres. But it wasn’t all classical: The cartoons I grew up with (which were already decades old when I first saw them) also featured many jazz standards as well.

Megan Lynch’s 2009 album, “Songs The Brothers Warner Taught Me,” captures the spirit of those old Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies of yesteryear. This lively album includes classics that everyone knows, such as “Hooray for Hollywood,” “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” and “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” as well as other period tunes such as “Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat” (a popular song from 1941 by Leon René and Emerson Scott that has been memorably covered by Natalie Cole among others).

The highlight of the album for me is Lynch’s version of “I Love To Sing” (recently seen performed by Cartman on South Park). Lynch’s energy and pacing is perfect. I listen to this one frequently.

Lynch doesn’t try to imitate the cartoon characters (it’s not Michigan J. Frog’s version of “Hello Ma Baby” — it’s all Lynch), nor does she play any tricks. Backed by a studio of pros, she just lets her powerful voice carry the day. My kids have really enjoyed a lot of these as well.

Five of five stars, highly recommended. Purchase for $9.99 at CD Baby; if you purchase before August 3, 100% of the proceeds go to the artist.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Lynch a few questions about the process of creating the album.

Q. Where did you get the inspiration for the theme of the album?

A. When I could still play my own instruments, I performed solo with a repertoire that was a mix of my own compositions along with jazz standards, soundtrack tunes, Americana, etc. When I became disabled, my repertoire shifted heavily to jazz standards because the musicians I could hire to accompany me worked best with that repertoire. So the most recent thing the fans I had knew me for was that. As much as I wanted to do justice to my own compositions by recording them on something better than a janky 4-track, I figured I might have trouble connecting to my most recent audience with that.

I didn’t want to be “just another chick singer doing jazz standards” to people. I also wanted a strong theme to the album, some reason why these songs were being presented together. I’ve always had songs in my repertoire that are obscure or have a bit of humor or both. My first exposure to jazz standards was via Warner Brothers cartoons. It occurred to me that I could work with music that my accompanists would feel comfortable with yet satisfy my need to do something out of the ordinary and still have a strong theme. Most people are familiar with the tunes but don’t know the words because they’re not often sung in the cartoons. When they are, only a second or two is sung. As much as possible, I was going to perform the songs as they were originally written, including their introductory verses. This choice also allowed me to bounce around genre a bit.

Q. How long did it take to record and finish?

A. I wish I’d thought to keep a journal for the project. I could have learned a lot from those notes! I don’t remember precisely when I started and ended. I’m guessing I first started working with Tony Marcus on charts and music in Dec ’08. I owe an enormous debt of thanks to Mike DaSilva who recorded and mixed the album and to the musicians. All made it possible for me to make the album on the shoestring budget I had. But that also meant scheduling things in between better-paying projects. So the album took about 10 months to plan, record, mix and release.

Q. What was the experience like working with the different musicians?

A. This was only my second time recording with musicians in a studio. The first time years ago was reasonably easy because we had rehearsal time as an impromptu band and only five songs with relatively simple arrangements. This was more complicated because I was working with musicians who would never get the chance to rehearse all together. I just couldn’t afford to pay all the musicians for rehearsal time as well as studio time. However, I wanted to be able to work with Robert Armstrong and Tony Marcus, members of The Cheap Suit Serenaders (and other bands) who are not only very accomplished musicians but two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Robert lives about sixty miles from where the studio was so I wanted to do everything I could to keep him from having to trundle back and forth to Berkeley. Since Robert & Tony have played together a lot, it’s easy for them to settle into a groove. So the sessions where we had them together went pretty quickly and easily. For money reasons, I was initially planning on just working with the two of them, but as we mixed the album we realized we really needed a little more bass and treble in places. We called in Brandon Essex, a talented jazz upright bassist, who was enormously impressive in his ability to come in, learn the song nearly instantly, and lay down the recording. A real pro! On other tracks we called in Steven Strauss, who has worked with Hot Club of San Francisco and other bands and is a very versatile and talented upright bassist and ukulele player. Steven graciously came in on short notice to bring a couple songs more fully to life and really made them swing.

The hard thing for me in working with others on music is that I’m always afraid that if I insist on my vision for something, if I push hard for something, I’ll be seen as a bitch. So sometimes I actually soften up on stuff I want because I’m too worried about how I come off. That said, I try to observe how more experienced musicians work and communicate with each other. I try to learn the language. I performed by myself for so long that I’m a bit of a late bloomer on this stuff. You don’t need to work out arrangements or telegraph things when you’re accompanying yourself. You don’t even need to name it — you just do it. Working with others means coming up with a common language you can communicate in.

Q. If you had the experience to do over again, what would you do differently, such as changing which songs you included or changing any of the arrangements?

A. I would keep a journal not only to note the experiences of making the album and learn from them, but also to note the equipment the musicians used and what settings they were using. Occasionally you get tech questions from folks and you have no idea what you used. If you ever want to recreate a certain sound, it would be helpful to remember what mic you used, etc.

I would get a producer. Mike DaSilva was just invaluable every step of the way in this process. The album wouldn’t exist without him. He came up to me when he saw me perform and said if I was ever interested in making an album, he was looking to get into recording albums. It was another year or two before I decided I could scrape together the money to do that, but if he hadn’t offered I doubt it would have happened. Mike recorded all the sessions except for some of the basic rhythm guitar tracks which Tony recorded at his studio. He did all the engineering in his studio. Then he went through take after take with me, choosing the takes we thought were best. A producer could have freed me up to just do my best as a vocalist and interpreter, freed Mike up to do his best engineering, and neither of us would have to worry about as much of the direction and logistical stuff as we did.

In retrospect, I would have scraped up the money to record more songs. I didn’t realize how short they’d be so the album itself comes in shorter than I would have thought. There are many more WB songs I could have done. I think time was tight when we were recording the initial rhythm guitar parts, so 12 seemed like plenty at the time.

If I could have found a way to afford it, I would have loved to have gotten musicians together as a temporary band and gotten them recording together until things had gelled as a unit. While I’m proud of the album and think it turned out very very well, I think there’s a special energy people get from playing all together at the same time that it would have been interesting to hear.

30 years ago, the murder rate in the U.S. was twice what it is today — thoughts on the Aurora tragedy

Posted July 24th, 2012 at 1:06pm by Stephen

I was deeply disturbed by the recent theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and have closely followed the story.

As a parent, I’m most affected by the fact that a 4-month-old baby was injured and a 6-year-old girl was killed. I can only imagine the thoughts and emotions of their families.

But I’ve had many other reactions as well.

I am disturbed by those who suggest that the movie theater attendees were insufficiently armed and brave enough to prevent the tragedy. As Slate points out, the suspect was heavily armored. Given the speed of the attack, the fact he started with a gas canister, and that the theater was darkened and quickly became a chaotic scene, I feel certain that anyone who tried to shoot back would have been likely to injure or kill innocent bystanders.

Inevitably, we’re now on the topic of guns and gun control. While I personally do not wish to own a firearm, I have many friends who feel strongly on the matter, and over time I’ve become convinced that outright prohibition is no solution, and that any gun control measures should be minimal and extremely well-considered.

As a moderate on this issue, I despise the polarization of the debate. Most on the left seem to feel that the only acceptable solution is to completely ban all firearms. And on the right, the default seems to be the NRA’s apparent position of absolutely zero gun control legislation, no matter how reasonable or effective, under any circumstance.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution exists. Guns aren’t going away. Hunters will hunt, and those who are hobbyists or gun enthusiasts have the right to bear arms. While I feel the data on keeping a gun (or guns) in the home for self-defense has far greater risks than benefits, I don’t deny the right of a person to keep a gun for self-defense (and, in fact, one third of American households do have a gun in the home). So we clearly aren’t going to ban guns.

On the other extreme, despite the Second Amendment, there are going to be laws, and we need them. Every state in the U.S. has some form of limit on the purchase, possession and use of guns. So, just as we agree guns will exist, we also agree gun laws will exist: I don’t think anyone would argue that, say, a criminally-insane 13-year-old should be allowed to purchase a gun whenever desired without any restriction.

So, as with every issue, it’s about where we set the line. The Second Amendment isn’t commonly interpreted to mean that individuals should be allowed to own tanks, or nuclear weapons, or instruments of biological warfare. So clearly there are limits. I believe it’s reasonable to argue that certain types of guns, including the assault rifle with the 100-round magazine used by James Holmes in Aurora, should be prohibited for sale and possession. Perhaps waiting periods need to be beefed up as well. However, none of that seems like it would have prevented the tragedy here.

All of this is actually preamble to my main point: I think it’s rational for there to be a certain amount of fear after an event like this. But it’s also important to keep in mind that, statistically, we in the U.S. are all at less risk of being murdered today than at any point in the last 46 years.

The “intentional homicide rate” (basically, the murder rate) in the U.S. is 4.8 in 2010, per FBI data compiled and displayed at Wikipedia. That means that in 2010, per every 100,000 people living in the United States, 4.8 were murdered.

(Compare that 4.8 rate for the U.S. to the most dangerous country for murder in 2010, the Honduras at 87, or the least dangerous, Japan at 0.35. The worldwide rate is 6.9. The U.S. is about four times more murderous than the U.K. at 1.23, and about three times worse than Canada at 1.62.)

Despite 4.8 being a relatively high number compared to many other Democratic countries, the rate in the U.S. (and for most of the world) is much lower today than it was in the recent past. Looking at the data for the last 110 years, from 1900 to 2010, the 4.8 result for 2010 is lower than 88 of those 110 years. It’s twice as low today as where it stood around 30 years ago. It’s 49% lower than 20 years ago. It’s 13% lower than 10 years ago. Here I’ve charted that data:

[chart showing the U.S. Intentional Homicide Rate, 1900 to 2010. Data from FBI (via Wikipedia)

(click to enlarge)

(I do wonder why the rate was lower in the ’50s and early ’60s.)

It’s easy to let media reports influence our thinking and panic us. Fear-mongering is a big part of mainstream media activity today, and I feel it’s mostly done in order to garner eyeballs. But the fact is, the murder rate is headed down. Events like the one in Aurora are a tragic aberration.

Letters to inanimate objects

Posted July 8th, 2012 at 7:34pm by Stephen

[Image of a microwave saying "Enjoy"]Dear Microwave,

It’s quite pleasant that you display the message “Enjoy your meal” when your heating task is complete. However. Question. How do you know that I’m not heating up a heating pad or something? Do you expect me to EAT a heating pad? That’s a terrible idea.

Yours,
Stephen

* * *

Dear Laundry,

Stop staring at me.

Sincerely,
Stephen

* * *

Dear Auto Complete Function of My Browser,

Yes, you’re right, that IS exactly what I was going to type. I know it must be frustrating that I’m ignoring you. It’s like when someone is trying to do a puzzle, and they’re moving very slowly, and you want to help, but they want to keep doing it themselves, and you keep trying to reach out to help them and pulling your hands back, as they keep doing it themselves, piece by frustratingly-slow piece, and you end up sitting on your hands, and biting your lip until it bleeds.

It’s not that you’re wrong. It’s not that I don’t know how to use autocomplete. It’s just that my fingers need the exercise.

Best regards,
Stephen

* * *

Dear Mr. Toaster Oven,

It’s confusing to me that when I want to toast something, and I twist the toast knob to “Medium,” that the timer makes noise and clicks and even dings when finished — all while you’re not even plugged in, and not producing any heat at all.

Yours truly,
Mr. E. Stephen Mack

* * *

Dear Router,

We have an on-again-off-again relationship, that’s the only way that “you” and “me” will work.

With love (and hate),
Stephen

* * *

Dear DVD Player,

How long have you worked here, DVD Player? Please, have a seat. Do you like your job? That long? That much? Well, I’m glad to hear that, DVD Player, but that makes the next thing I have to say much harder. You see, DVD Player, I notice you haven’t actually played any DVDs in… well, at least a year. Possibly two. Yes, I know that’s hardly your fault, and that you’re standing by ready to help. And yes it’s true that we have a lot of DVDs here. Too many, in fact. Hah! We have a good laugh every now and then together, DVD Player. But the truth is, DVD Player, technology has marched on, and you’ve stayed still. We’ve all changed a lot. But not you. And really, those unskippable previews and FBI warnings? That’s not looking good for you right now, DVD Player. No, I take your point, but I’m afraid there’s no room here for you anymore, DVD Player. I’m very sorry.

Come on now. Don’t cry. It’s much harder if you cry.

Please, let’s make this easier on both of us. I’ve already packed you up. The Goodwill is down the street. Your old friend the VCR is already waiting for you there. I know you’re going to be much happier being used by some family that has a use for you.

Thank you for your years of service, DVD Player. I’ll miss you in the abstract. Go on now.

Most sincerely,
Stephen

P.S. Yes, I realize this is a somewhat unusual letter. But I wanted you to read this when I wasn’t there in person. Sorry. I expect you to be gone when I get back.