Slacker Banana

one ripe banana
I’m not going to point fingers, but someone in this bunch isn’t giving 100%.

Accuracy and Precision

I climbed on our new bathroom scale for the first time last night. 188.8 lbs, it reported. I stepped off, waited for it to reset, and stepped on again. 188.8 pounds. That made me very happy. What are the chances I actually weighed 188.8 pounds? Pretty remote, I suspect. But I don’t need the scale to be accurate, I need it to be precise.

Rewind to the old bathroom scale. When I resolved to monitor my weight with actual numbers (which can be a trap), the light of my life obliged by bringing an old-school spring-driven scale into the bathroom. Cost: eight bucks. The thing was, shifting my weight or moving a foot would change the readout. If you weren’t concerned about exact numbers, the scale was plenty adequate for measuring a trend.

Once I set goals with exact weights involved, however, the cheapo scale became a source of frustration. Leaning forward to read the dial better changed the reading. Am I allowed to drink beer today or not? Answer unclear, ask again later.

My sweetie set out once again to find a scale that could answer that question. At CVS she found a thirty-dollar scale programmed to give you terribly ill-informed body-mass advice, a twenty-dollar one that… I don’t remember what its deal was, and a simple, ten-buck CVS-branded scale that rests in our bathroom now, easy-to-read and frightfully consistent. And precise. This morning the scale told me with giant LCDs that I weighed 188.4 pounds. I stepped off, waited, then stepped on again. 188.4. I smiled. That’s 1.6 pounds below the beer threshold for this month, and roughly ten pounds lighter than I was three weeks ago. Or five pounds. Or fifteen. Hard to say.

But next month, even if I remain skeptical of the number on the scale, I will be confident of the difference. And the difference is what this whole project is about.

Gonna Miss That Guy

I’m watching Douglas Murray’s first game in a Penguin sweater tonight, and the Pittsburgh announcers are gushing. “Not many guys in the league like him anymore. He hits someone and they just look like a rag doll sometimes.”

He’s still wears his number 3, over there with the Pens, and has already reminded the east-coast fans of the Great Wall of Murray (my sweetie’s phrase). He’s a big hitter, but not a thug. His hits are clean and even the guy who just discovered himself abruptly on the ice rarely has a problem with it. For all the hard hits, there are no cheap shots; he just knocks his opponent down. Both skate away to collide another day. Murray doesn’t get into fights very often.

The Pittsburgh announcers are right, there aren’t many guys like him in hockey anymore. He’s not a great skater, but he gets to where he needs to be (well… usually). A lot of slapshots have bounced off his body over the years, but knowing it’s going to hurt hasn’t stopped him from throwing himself in front of the next hurtling puck.

For Murray, I don’t think hockey is a job. I think he fully appreciates that he’s playing a game he loves for some pretty sweet money. And the ladies love him.

The Sharks produced a video honoring the man they had just traded; fans came up with better ones. The Sharks traded Murray to Pittsburgh for some draft picks, a forward-looking move. Then Pittsburgh picked up a couple more of the best players in the league. No doubt about it, Pittsburgh is making a run for the cup this year.

Next year, the Penguins won’t be able to pay all these guys. Murray will be an unrestricted free agent. He could sign with… the Sharks. That sentimental no-hard-feelings video? Step one in getting Murray back and cackling over the almost-free draft picks.

Whether or not that comes to pass, I wish Douglas Murray well. He is proof that hockey can be tough without being dirty, that you can be a hitter without being a thug. He is what’s right about hockey, and I will be his fan no matter what sweater he’s wearing.


Fight Fiercely, Harvard

Were they playing any team other than New Mexico, I’d be happy for them now.

The Electric Lie

Ride with me on this one; I’m kind of all over the place.

I read an article today that was the rebuttal to another article and both managed to miss the point entirely. I will summarize here, to save you the trouble of wading through tiresome posturing.

The seminal article was all about how the ‘drudges’ at the oil companies are the ones ensuring America’s energy future, while media darlings like Shai Agassi get magazine covers but don’t actually change anything. Mr. Agassi wrote the rebuttal, saying that his efforts to make electric cars practical were gaining traction, and were entirely relevant.

The only problem is, the two sides in this ‘debate’ have pretty much nothing to do with each other. Making all our cars electric will not solve our energy issues. The electricity has to come from somewhere.

I’ll give you that a massive power plant will produce more kWh per ton of carbon than an automobile engine. If that were the only part of the equation then we’d all be driving electric already. It would be the cheapest way to get around. Even today if everyone had to pay to mitigate the carbon put into the atmosphere for their activities electric might be ubiquitous, but I’m not so sure. There are other inefficiencies we have to take into account.

For instance: transmission costs. Even if the power plant is more efficient than a car engine, every mile of power line the electricity traverses represents loss. I once read (so it may or may not be true) that only 13% of the power generated at the Hoover Dam that sets out for Los Angeles actually gets there. The rest is broadcast into space. (It is actually warmer near the power lines. That is energy lost.) So, first step toward an energy-wise world is to generate locally. Solar panels may not be as efficient but if you put them right on the spot you can minimize transmission loss.

The thing is, energy pricing in this country is a joke. The US government puts crap-tons of your money behind fossil fuels, both directly and indirectly (rhymes with Iraq). We’ve all got together and put a couple trillion dollars into the pot to keep gas cheaper at the pump. Electricity prices are similarly skewed toward big producers. If the government were to get out of the energy price-fixing business, a few things would happen: 1) energy costs would skyrocket; 2) Efficiency would leap and waste would plummet – wind and solar would compete favorably; 3) The economy would crash, dragged down by industries that had come to rely on the taxpayer energy-subsidy crutch; 4) We would have to decide as a society how we’re going to deal with 86-year-old Pittsburgh resident Gladys Pulchowski, who can’t afford her heating bill this winter.

In my happy economic neverland, everyone would bitch about higher prices, but they’d buy more efficient products. They’d put extra insulation in their homes and drive something smaller than a Cadillac Escalade to work. Excess packaging would directly drive up the cost of a product. Folks would not bitch about the reduced federal deficit, but it would be there. People would pay for what they used, without the government artificially spreading the cost around (mostly to our kids).

The price of Perrier would include the energy cost of dragging a dang glass bottle of water over the ocean. Seriously. How does the current situation make sense?

Back on topic: Listening to the electric car guys, you’d think that generating electricity produced no emissions at all. In fact, around here there is a government stamp for ‘zero emissions vehicles’. That, my friends, is a lie. They are Somewhere-Else Emission Vehicles.

Then there’s the batteries. Depending on the car, there’s all sorts of toxic stuff in there. Lead is a favorite, but there are others. And the things are heavy. Most of the energy spent by a car is to move the car. Driver and passengers hardly figure in. Massive batteries just make things worse.

I’m going to toss that out again, so you can ponder and appreciate it. Almost all of the energy spent by a car is to move the car, not the contents. That’s not terribly efficient. Currently the auto makers of the world are managing to improve their engines enough to avoid the inevitable truth: sooner or later we aren’t going to be willing (or able) to pay to move a big pile of metal and plastic around with us wherever we want to go. (Defying that math are the scooters of today getting less than two hundred miles per gallon – less than one-tenth the mass, but only getting three times better mileage. Clearly I’m oversimplifying, but by that much?)

I think someday we’ll all be driving electric. If energy were priced rationally, we already would be, charging our batteries from local sources.


Tweaking the Health Regimen

The light of my life and I bought a fancy elliptical trainer a couple of years ago. She has been very consistent with it, while I’ve been, well, streaky. There are times I come home from work and I’m just too wiped out to contemplate getting on the thing. (On days I do manage to get up on it, I’m glad I did, but that lesson is soon forgotten.) I’m definitely healthier, but I’m no skinnier. In fact, I’m bigger than ever.

The obvious answer, of course, is to climb up on that bad boy first thing in the morning, before I’ve had time to start making excuses. Alarm goes off (dreadfully early), I drag my sorry ass out of bed and grind out my time. So far, I’ve been very consistent with this approach, and I think I arrive at work more alert and cheerful. And hungry. Gotta love the oatmeal bar at the little coffee place in the building. More on the hunger shortly.

One thing I have observed about working out first thing in the morning: It’s much harder to meet my goals. I’m going into max energy burn after fasting for a few hours, and I hit the proverbial bottom of the tank way sooner that I do when I work out in the evening. I’ve had to adjust my expectations accordingly.

I did some research to see if there was some food I could eat only moments before exercising that could help me power through. Turns out, not so much. But I did learn another interesting thing: What I eat right after I exercise can make a big difference next time. There is a window after exercise in which the body grabs all the energy it can out of the blood stream to convert to store in muscles as glycogen. Get the carbs (and some protein) rolling during that window and things will be better the next day. Pretty sweet!

I started comparing different foods for the right carb-protein balance (nonfat chocolate milk apparently is about perfect and has nutrients the commercial sports recovery drinks lack). I was about three days into this process when I started to wonder:

Isn’t it good when I run out of gas while working out? Isn’t that kind of the goal of all this?

All the advice I’d read, you see, was targeted at athletes. For them, high output while exercising is the goal. Not so much for me. I want to create conditions where my body (reluctantly) chooses to break down some of that stored energy in my fat cells and use that to restore the glycogen in my muscles. This process is far less efficient, and the human body really is loath to give up its precious fat, but during that same window where the body will suck every carb out of the bloodstream, if there aren’t enough carbs, it will convert just enough fat to keep things running.

My muscles aren’t replenished as much, and the next morning’s workout will be tougher. But ideally the energy is coming from the right place.

By the time I get to work, that window has closed, and my insides have returned to business as usual. And I’m about ready to eat an entire pizza. Hooray for oatmeal! It’s carb-heavy, but low-fat and sticks to the ribs and by lunchtime I’m able to make more sensible choices as well.

So, with such a sensible system, the pounds must be flying off, right?

Well, not so much. Not yet, anyway. I’m absolutely certain that I’m on the right track, and like any long-term project, it’s best to keep expectations of instant and dramatic success tempered. But I have recently made one more change, a dramatic, desperate gesture of good health beyond all reason.

I have a target weight this month. Next month, the target weight goes down. Each morning as I prepare to exercise, I step on the scales. If I’m above the target, no alcohol that day. No beer after work, no wine with dinner. I like beer and wine. While cutting alcohol will definitely reduce my caloric intake, there is a second, even more powerful, indirect effect. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning and I just want to stay in bed, I remind myself that shirking on my exercise will only delay my next sip of sweet beer. On days I don’t bring lunch from home I think about the consequences of eating the wrong thing: Another meal with my sweetie, with no wine for me.

A coworker laughed when I told him this story, imagining me on a treadmill running full-speed for a beer hanging just out of reach. That’s not far from the truth. But if it works, that’s all right with me.


A Couple of Nature Shots

It is spring here in my little slice of heaven, and recently I’ve pointed my camera at flowers and stuff. Here is a shot or three of the results. There are things I’d like to change in each, but it’s a lazy Saturday and putting up pictures on a blog is easier than many of the other things I’m supposed to be getting done. For whatever reason, these look a lot better when you click on them to biggerize.

I forget what this flower is called, but it's nice.

I forget what this flower is called, but it’s nice.

I’m tempted to monkey with this photo more to make the flower pop better, but that’s really not how this plant rolls. It’s not a popper. I wish I’d stopped down a bit more to get the fungus on the log a little more in focus.

Apparently these are very bad to eat.

Apparently these are very bad to eat.

I really like this one, except for one frustration: the one point in the entire picture that the eye is first drawn, the little bit of grot on the mushroom cap, is just the tiniest bit out of focus (105mm lens very close to the mushroom means very shallow depth of field even at f/4). It’s hard to get the focus just right when you’re holding the camera at arm’s length. The focus is close enough that my eyes try to adjust, which of course doesn’t work and merely annoys them. Still and all, I’m pretty happy with it.

Not sure the tree, either.

Not sure the tree, either.

This is a cropped section of a set of pics I took this afternoon to feed a larger episode about photo composition, depth of focus, and bokeh (and when bokeh isn’t all it’s cracked up to be). That’s the episode I should be working on right now. There are a couple of nice bright-pink-on-deep-blue-sky shots in the batch I look forward to sharing.

Christian Mingle, Random Numbers, and Prayer

I typed the above title into my bloggotool a few days ago, thinking I’d get back to it when I had time. I vaguely remember the point I was going to make. Let’s see how this goes.

Christian Mingle is an online matchmaking service for Christian folks. It makes sense; there are a lot of people for whom a partner must be of the same religion, and it wouldn’t surprise me if same-faith relationships tend to last longer (though there is likely precious little in the way of unbiased data on the subject — it’s one of those simple-sounding propositions that turns out to be a bitch to measure. But I digress…).

Anyway, my memory of the site’s tagline is fuzzy, but it’s something like, “find God’s match for you.” So you see, they are presenting themselves as an agent of God, a conduit that allows the Big Guy to work his subtle magic. I’ve heard crazier things. But then I thought some more (perhaps too much), and I realized that most likely they apply mathematical comparison algorithms to find the best matches, as do the rest of the matchmaking sites. In fact, they are probably a branded front end on one of the other major services. It’s all math, and it’s deterministic. The same data in will produce the same result. If God wants Sally to be with Jorge, but the numbers say she should be with Marcel, what’s He gonna do?

Although random numbers in computers aren’t truly random, they’re unpredictable enough that a deity could jigger them now and then and no one would be the wiser. If Christian Mingle threw a lot of entropy at the problem, they could create the wiggle room God needs to work His will. Clients would fill out a detailed questionnaire, send it in, and Christian Mingle could match them up randomly and bickety-bam, God’s will is done. Sally’s with Jorge.

(Note that God’s will does not necessarily translate to what’s best for the individuals involved.)

Generating the random number is much like prayer, except that now we have a machine to perform that tedious task for us. We are appealing to a higher power for guidance, trusting ourselves to His plan. For marketing, I would suggest to Christian Mingle that they substitute the phrase “Divine Guidance” for “Random Number” in their brochures.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go home and whip up a quick “pray for my soul” script. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.