A Lesson in Contrast

On my ride to work today I passed several school zones. Near one school a mother and son, helmeted, were stopped at the side of the path, straddling their bikes, looking at their phones.

“What does that mean?” Mom asked as I rode past.

“You got rid of it,” the kid answered. He was teaching his mom to play Pokémon Go.

There are so many things I like about that little vignette. Parent and child, doing a healthy, safe, and fun activity, and even letting the kid be the teacher.

A few miles farther along I was passing near the entrance to another school. A woman in a Ford hybrid with a kid in the back ran a stop sign turning left, and almost get T-boned by another mom in a big-ass SUV in a frothing hurry to reach the school entrance.

We should all take a breath and be more like the first mom.

Requiem for my Crappy Little Office Chair

At work, I have a fancy chair, adjustable forty-seven different ways, and after a week of increasing back pain a trained professional was dispatched to get things just right for me. (The back pain was more about keyboard height than it was about the chair, but still…)

It’s a mighty comfy chair.

IMG_0395At home, I have a little piece of crap chair that apparently came from Big Lots and cost $16. It has no arms, the back rest is fixed and there’s no padding to speak of. Yet, I can sit in that chair indefinitely. I have fallen asleep in the spartan little-more-than-a-bench-with-wheels many times, whether watching bittersweet Japanese cartoons deep into the night or playing some stupid computer game.

For you, perhaps for everyone else on the planet Earth, this chair might be torture. But for me, it just fits. Also, when sharing a small office, a chair that doesn’t take up a lot of space is beneficial.

That chair and I have been friends for many years now. It’s the place I sit when it hurts to sit anywhere else. Only now, it’s breaking. The center post has pushed down through the ring that attaches it to the wheels, so that it sits up on the post instead of resting on the wheels. Today I tried, with steadily increasing force, to reverse the slippage. No success, but a wheel flew off in the process, even though that leg was not involved in my percussive maintenance. Like I said, increasing force.

Even if I force the stem back, the connection relies on friction, and once things start moving, that’s the end of the story. New slippage is pretty much guaranteed in the near future. And as you can see in the picture, the fabric won’t be holding on much longer, either. Pretty soon I’ll be getting a new chair. Big Lots apparently doesn’t carry this chair anymore; my new chair is likely to be fancier, but will it be better? Unlikely. And there’s no way to know in the store; it won’t be until my next research project based on Revolutionary Girl Utena that I discover whether the new chair is friend or foe.

So let’s raise a toast to all the simple things in life that just work, beyond all reasonable expectation. Not the fancy, glitzy things, but the spartan chairs that fit right and the stapler that never gives up and the bargain-store shoes you wear until they completely fall apart. Those things go beyond value, to become part of you.

2

The One Thing that will Make You Healthy

There’s a guy out there right now flogging a diet book, who, along with a few poignant anecdotes, points to scientific studies which show that foods that cause your blood sugar to spike lead to more organ fat. The one and only thing you need to do to be healthy is eat more veggies and nuts, and avoid sugar and white flour.

Another diet says (pretty much) if you eat a lot of fat, your body will learn to burn fat.

There are plenty of other diets that show that fewer carbs, or less fat, or whatever, will lead you to the better life you’ve been craving. Each of those diets will claim to be based on science, and delve into insulin, glucose, neurotransmitters, and so on.

Each diet says there’s ONE THING you have to do to be healthy. Well, mainly one thing, but it doesn’t hurt to adopt other healthy habits as well.

Some of the diets are downright contradictory, but they all claim to have science on their side. How can this be?

There’s something remarkably cool going on, right now: In the last fifteen years we’ve learned a lot of really interesting stuff about how the body responds to the food we eat and even the mechanisms that make us feel hungry in the first place. If nutrition and health is a puzzle, we are finally getting to understand what shape the pieces are. It is conceivable that in a couple more decades we’ll have a pretty good look at what the puzzle actually looks like.

In the meantime, folks with medical degrees are choosing individual pieces of that puzzle and they are selling them as a complete answer. They’re not wrong, really, but they are absolutely overselling the facts. Activity X leads to hormone Y and therefore you get fat.

A scientific survey of the experiments testing the diets, which, alas, I can no longer find the link to, discovered an interesting thread: All the diets, when carefully followed, were beneficial, and none of the diets was clearly better than any of the others.

In the end, it came down to the same thing your mother told you when you were a kid: eat more veggies, and get more exercise. You just didn’t know at the time that you mother was that far ahead of science.

The one thing you can do to be healthier? Listen to your mother.

1

Depression is Organic

Let’s pretend for a moment that the brain is an organ. Of course that’s a silly proposition, the brain is simply who we are. But indulge me for a moment and pretend.

If the brain were an organ, jesus what a complex mofo it would have to be to house our identities.

Now, if you follow me so far with this silly conceit, you have to accept that, just like any other organ, in some people the brain may not function in an ideal fashion. But for something as complex as an organ that defines out identities, “improper function” is hard to pin down. We accept a wide range of functionality and celebrate individuality. I know some messed-up, awesome people.

If we accept the idea that the brain is an organ, we are forced to accept that the brain might have well-documented weaknesses. After all, all the other organs in our bodies fail in well-documented ways. The most complex and mysterious organ in our bodies will naturally be the root of the most complex and mysterious troubles. We need to stop saying “mental illness” and start saying “brain malfunction”.

Hoo – even using the word malfunction rubs against the grain, even though it describes the situation exactly. I invite all out there to come up with a gentler phrase.

I get depressed now and then. I get the feeling that there’s no point in pushing forward. Shit don’t matter anyway. What I feel is a low. We all have lows. Since we all feel some version of the emotion, it is easier to diminish people who have lows lower than any low you will ever know. “I’ve been there,” you think. “I understand.” And implicitly because you survived your low, anyone else should survive theirs. But you don’t know low. Honestly, I don’t know low either. Not that low. For me, a trip into true organic sadness is something to savor, to milk for the characters it informs in my writing. It is not a song of self-destruction coming from somewhere behind my left ear.

There seems to be a chunk of folks (and insurance companies) that would like to pretend that brain malfunction is some invented discomfort designed to bilk you and me out of our hard-earned money. Insurance companies cover every organ except the most important of all. That, my friends, is bullshit.

Really

Good health habits will resume any day now.

Any day now.

1

Calculating Calories is Hard!

I’ve been using both MapMyRide and Strava to track my bicycle rides recently. In addition, I’ve been using the activity app on my slick new Apple Watch. Each estimates how many calories I burned on my ride, but the numbers are very different. For example, on my ride to work yesterday morning:

MapMyRide: 814 Calories
Strava: 643 Calories
Watch: 757 Calories

Dang – those are quite different numbers, especially when you consider that MapMyRide and Strava are using pretty much the same data and coming to very different conclusions. What gives? CAN I EAT THAT DONUT OR NOT?

Strava and MapMyRide use speed and (maybe) elevation change in a formula with the rider’s weight to come out with an estimate of how many calories the rider burned. Strava lets me set the weight of my bike; I don’t know what MapMyRide assumes. I’m pretty confident that neither really uses elevation changes well. And headwinds? Forget it.

Both services can come up with a better wild-ass guess if you use a special crank or pedals that directly measure how hard you are working. They directly measure the output of your muscles, so the only remaining guesswork is how many calories you burned to do that work (some people are more efficient than others). There’s a Garmin setup that will tell you if one leg is doing more work than the other. I have no such device.

The most accurate way available to measure calories burned is to measure how much carbon dioxide one exhales. Rather than measure the work you did, you’re measuring how much exhaust you produced. This is impractical on a bike ride, however.

Which brings me to the gizmo strapped to my wrist. It estimates calories based on my heart rate. I have no idea what formula it uses, but hopefully it incorporates my resting heart rate (which it measures throughout the day) and my weight (which I have to remember to tell it), and maybe even my age. The cool thing is that heart rate is directly related to carbon dioxide production. When I’m riding fifteen mph with a tail wind, I’m barely working at all. When I’m pushing against gale-force breezes at the same speed, I’m huffing and my heart is thumping. To Strava and MapMyRide, the rides look the same. The watch knows the truth.

When WatchOS 2 comes out (the “features we couldn’t get perfect in time for WatchOS 1” release), Strava will be able to access my heart data. I’m interested to see what that does to the numbers.

In the meantime, I’m listening to my watch.

Junk Science is Everywhere

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine

You would really expect better from Prevention Magazine (image lifted from the linked article on io9)

Perhaps you remember the headlines a while back: “Eat Chocolate to Lose Weight!” Every week we learn about a new study that shows that X helps you lose weight. And right there is the first problem:

A study.

Singular. Let’s get something straight right now: A single study has never proven anything, ever. This is a fundamental part of science. When someone makes a discovery, it’s exciting. When enough other people confirm that discovery, it’s knowledge. “A study” is useful to guide future research and to provide fun anecdotes on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. But that’s all.

Back to the chocolate. The finding that chocolate helped weight loss was discovered in a laboratory study with the proper protocols, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. So, that’s real science, right? Even if it hasn’t been independently reproduced, isn’t it still important health news? You can’t blame the health press for jumping on something as sexy as “chocolate makes you thin”.

But then the people who did the study came forward and told the world that it was all bullshit. They’d done it to prove how easy it is to get junk science into the mainstream. Even they had not imagined how easy it would be.

Let’s start with the scientific study itself. It’s generally considered scientifically significant if the result of the test is less than 5% likely to be the result of random chance. Yep, it’s considered acceptable that one in twenty scientific experiments is incorrect just based on random chance. Madness? Not really, when you consider that all the studies in a field eventually have to work into an interlocking puzzle that forms a bigger picture. The studies that were incorrect either by blind bad luck or poor procedures get weeded out when others cannot reproduce the results.

But what if you test twenty things at the same time? Statistically now you’re very likely to hit a false positive. To quote the article:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result.

In the jargon of the junk-science industry, this is called “p-stacking”. An incredible number of the health claims you read are likely the result of this film-flam.

“But,” you might ask, “aren’t there systems to filter this shit out before it goes mainstream?”

Well… yes, but those systems are pretty much broken. First off, science is a discourse, and all new ideas have to run a gauntlet of “peer review”. Ideally, the peers may not agree with the conclusions, but you damn well better dot your i’s and cross your t’s. If you take shortcuts in your process, your peers will keep you out of the journals. In the major journals, the reviewers take their work really seriously.

But now there are journals that, for a price will publish whatever twaddle you wish to sell. While they claim to be peer-reviewed, the peers seem only to be reviewing whether your check clears, and have little interest in the scientific validity of your study.

Academia may not be fooled, but the fifth estate certainly is. Journalists who are trusted to sort through the garbage and bring important health information to their readers instead just blare the sexiest headlines. In some cases, the online comments by the readers of those articles ask the questions the so-called journalist should have asked before even running the story.

In the chocolate scam, they recognized another important fact: if the press release is actually written as an article fit for a magazine, even fewer questions are asked. It’s jut cut, paste, and print.

The press is making hay selling junk science to you and me. We trust them to vet the information they bring us, and they are doing a terrible job. It’s not just health science, but that’s where most of the crap seems to be flying these days.

So if what passes for journalism these days won’t ask the hard questions, we have to. Don’t change your diet because of “a study”. Even honest studies are found to be false later on, and damn few of the health articles we read are based on honest studies. (That “damn few” assertion is totally baseless. I have no statistics to back it up. But you were right there with me, weren’t you?)

For your homework assignment, I’d like you to Stop And Think when you see something on Facebook, especially in the health industry. Maybe do five minutes of research on the people making the claim. Then CALL THEM ON IT. Say, “Hey! I call Junk Science on you!”

Get double-serious when you read the shit in magazines. Let’s publicly shame the so-called journalists who dump this stuff out without asking the hard questions first. Demand footnotes. Check sources. Someone has to teach those bozos their jobs.

2

Big Wednesday

I got on the scale yesterday morning, and all I could say was, “ugh.” Feasting on Chinese food the night before had its consequences. “What is it about Wednesdays?” I asked myself. It seemed like I’d seen a few Wednesdays like this.

But had I? This is how urban legends are born. You start to get a feeling that something is true: “I tend to gain weight on Wednesdays” or “More babies are born when the moon is full.” Then every time you see something that corroborates the impression, the more sure you get. Meanwhile, you don’t notice the unremarkable Wednesdays when weight follows its usual pattern.

However, having measured and recorded my weight consistently since last June (well, mostly consistently – more on that in a bit), I had the data to actually measure whether Wednesdays were Big Wednesdays or not. It took a little fiddling (I am not the spreadsheet-jockey that many of my coworkers are, and Apple’s spreadsheet, Numbers, lacks an obvious function that would have made this much easier), but I ended up with this graph:

Weight by Day

My weight change by day of week. (For me, negative is good.) The horizontal blue line is the average for all days.

It turns out Wednesdays are net-gain days, but not as bad as Mondays or Tuesdays. It’s odd that despite my having lost 13 pounds over that time, the first half of the work week still shows a net increase in plumpness. Notice also the shorter error bars Wednesday and Thursday; for whatever reason (or for no reason at all) the numbers are in a closer range on those days.

As you look at the graph, keep in mind that I weigh myself first thing in the morning, so the weight change is a reflection of the choices I made the day before. So while I show the most weight gain on Mondays, it’s actually what I do on Sunday that leads to it.

There’s also a subtle measurement bias that makes the weekend look better at the expense of Monday. I sleep in on the weekends, so my body processes a measurable amount of extra water before I climb on the scale. So, Saturdays may not be as good as they seem in this graph, and Mondays may not be as bad. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the trend that shows up here, and it makes me wonder a couple of things.

First, I’m not aware of anything I do substantially differently on Thursday than I do on Monday, yet the outcome seems quite different. This suggests to me that the lag time between decision and consequence is often more than twenty-four hours. That bulge early in the week may be the previous weekend catching up to me. Or it may not; there’s no way to tell from this data. I may try to research this further out there on the Internet.

Second, is this information actionable? Can I look at this little graph and make better life choices on Mondays? Probably I can, but honestly, I probably won’t. This graph will likely remain for me a mildly-interesting little factoid, and as long as my week-on-week numbers stay in the green, I’ll not worry so much.

A Clockwork Octogenarian

I’ve been riding to work long enough now that I recognize a few of the faces I meet. One of those I see almost every day is an elderly woman. She seems healthy, if a little thinner than her doctor would no doubt prefer, but time takes its toll on even the best of us, and I would be quite surprised if she were less than eighty years old.

Each day I pass her going the other direction. Depending on how late I’m running, this takes place over a roughly five-mile stretch of my commute (she is much more punctual than I am). So it’s safe to conclude she rides east at least five miles every weekday. I think it’s safe to assume she also rides a similar distance the other way. That’s a nice, steady 50 miles or more each week.

While I have no knowledge of the reasons she bikes (for all I know she’s not allowed to drive anymore), it makes me happy to see her out there. I hope I’ll still be in the saddle thirty years hence.

1

Friday Pondering

Extended exercise when your muscles are quite fatigued from the four previous days of extended exercise is…

  1. the shortest route to improved endurance.
  2. a great way to force your body to burn fat.
  3. stupid.
  4. all of the above.
  5. something else.

Thoughts?

Revenge of the Hoobajoob

This is likely to be a short episode, for a couple of reasons: one, my memory of the procedure gets fuzzier as the amount of sedatives in my bloodstream was steadily increased, and two, because there are some details that I simply will not share.

About a month ago I went in for a happy-50th-birthday colonoscopy. It was mildly unpleasant, but not terrible. During this probing the doctor found two polyps. Polyps are growths that, if allowed to run amok, can turn in to cancer. Best just to get those bad boys out of there. In the words of the NIH:

Colon polyps can be raised or flat. Raised colon polyps are growths shaped like mushrooms. They look as though they are on a stem or stalk. Flat colon polyps look like a bed of moss.

I had one of the flat sorts, way up at the very end (or beginning) of my large intestine. My doctor didn’t have the proper tools on hand to deal with it, so we set up another appointment at an actual hospital to take care of it. Yesterday was that day.

It turns out, they barely had the proper tools at the hospital. When the alternative is surgery, however, you do everything you possibly can to get the job done using the colonoscopes. Picture three grim-faced auto mechanics trying to get a wrench into a tight spot in a car to free up a seized bolt. If they can’t get it free, they’re going to have to pull the engine to get at the failing part. An expensive and invasive procedure. The mechanics will do whatever it takes to avoid pulling the engine. Now replace the car in that image with me.

“Whatever it takes” in this case includes contorting the patient and mashing down on his gut to push the intestine closer to the business end of the scope. After the third time being rearranged on the table for another go at the just-out-of-reach polyp, all thought of dignity was lost in a haze of discomfort and a feeling of terrible bloatedness as the air displaced by all the equipment up there looked for a place to go. Things got messy.

In the end, they got the damn thing. Probably. I’ll be going back for a followup in a few months. Hopefully there will be nothing to write home about.

I am BOMB

Yesterday as I was riding to work I was making pretty decent time when I heard “on your left”, which is what courteous bicyclists say when they are passing you. I get passed pretty often.

“Good morning,” the guy said as he breezed on past. “Mornin’!” I wheezed back to the receding member of the Spandex Crowd. Just ahead was another cyclist, one I was actually overtaking, and the man who had just passed me did not wish that dude a good morning. Another data point in my current study of human nature.

You see, when I ride for an hour in the morning and again in the evening, it gives me plenty of time to ponder the loosely-knit fellowship called ‘cyclists’. Under that umbrella there are several varieties of cyclist, including but by no means limited to Asian grandfathers riding purple little girls’ bicycles complete with white wicker baskets (that is a very small group), heavily-laden commuters (I’m in that group), hispanic men on fat-tired cruisers, and at the top of the heap, there is the Spandex Crowd.

Soon after I started my bike commuting regimen, the local Bike to Work Day went off, and I saw cyclists of every description. I watched cyclists interact with each other (myself included – I am inscrutable even to myself), and I observed a few patterns.

For instance, there’s The Nod. It’s a little upward head movement passed between cyclists who make eye contact. I didn’t get nods from the Spandex Crowd. Not because they’re snobs, not at all, but because they’re riding. Their heads are down and they’re locked to their pedals and they’re not at some high-school mixer where you say hi to every stranger who comes close. Heck, the design of the bicycles they ride makes socializing more awkward.

There was one group, however, a subclass of commuter, with whom I exchanged many nods. I have dubbed them Bearded Overweight Men on Bikes, or BOMB. In the days following Bike to Work Day, the BOMB population slowly dwindled, until I rarely see another BOMB anymore. For a while I was a BOMB, now I might be the BOMB.

So how did it come to pass that a member of the Spandex Crowd wished me a good morning? I think it’s because he honestly wanted me to have a good morning. I think he also remembered passing me a few days before, and a few days before that. I think he said ‘good morning’ but also said, ‘Welcome to the brotherhood, Bearded Overweight Man on a Bike. I hope to pass you many more times in the future.”

I’m looking forward to it as well.

1

New Diet Plan

Got to work yesterday and I was starving. So by lunchtime I had eaten all the food I’d brought for the day. Still hungry. So, I went out with friends and ate a second lunch.

Weighed myself this morning and I’d lost half a pound. The conclusion is pretty obvious: If two lunches can take that much off my waistline, imagine what three can do!

3

So, the Bike

I’m a hippie at heart, and not ashamed to be one. I’m also a cheap bastard. People seem surprised sometimes that a fiscal conservative can be a social liberal, but to me that spells ‘rational’.

I formulated a simple plan: get a decent-but-not-too-expensive bike, emphasizing durability over performance. After all, a heavier bike means more calories burned. Ride that bike to the train station each day, where a company-sponsored shuttle will scoop me up and take me through the worst of the traffic. A few calories burned, about 10kg of greenhouse gas avoided (minus the 100+g I emit while pedaling), and lower blood pressure when I sit down at my desk. Before long the bike pays for itself.

Well, unless you get big eyes at the awesome family-owned bike store and spend far more than you planned. I bought a really nice bicycle that cost more than I have spent on all other bicycles over my entire life. But dang, it’s a treat to ride.

For the curious, I got a Giant Escape 0, and paid thirty of the smartest dollars of my life for a cushier seat. After all the accessories (on-bike pump, home pump with gauge, helmet, water bottle cage, water bottle, big-ass lock with extra cable, rack, bags that attach to the rack, and I’m sure there was more) I was looking at more than $1300. It’s going to take a while to pay that off in savings.

In my defense, I could have spent a lot more. My “really nice” is another person’s eye-roller. No suspension? No disk brakes? Pf.

Greatest fear: plunking down all that lovely lucre and having my knee veto the whole plan.

I bought the thing on a Saturday, and rode it home from the store. I took a test trip Sunday to the CalTrain station and back, to get an idea how much time I should budget in the morning to get where I need to go. Monday and Tuesday I was a bicycle commuter, logging a sweet 13 miles each day.

My legs were pretty tired after four straight days in the saddle, and when I got up the next morning I recognized that I could ride, but that I probably shouldn’t. I gave myself a rest day. This is an offshoot of the “don’t be stupid” part of the plan.

On that topic, that day while driving to work I saw a kid on a bike do something stupid and get bumped by a car. He wasn’t hurt, but his front wheel didn’t work anymore.

Repeating the note to self: don’t be stupid. Left turns at large intersections are the most important times to heed that mantra.

I’ll leave my discussion of fitness apps for another day. There are a lot of apps. But if you’re into the whole social media thing, we can hook up at MapMyRide.com.

My knee has been quiet, but I try to remember to ice after each ride. I have an ice pack at work and more at home. I think the fact I forgot to ask for toe clips is actually good for my knee; the part that gets sore feels like it would be unhappy when I pulled up on the pedals. Unscientific, but if my knee is happy, I’m not changing a thing.

So now I’m three weeks in, almost 200 miles logged, butt and knee not complaining. I’ve driven to work four times, and ridden all the others. Ten more miles will go on the bike today, as I ride it over to Ye Olde Bike Shoppe for a free tune-up (and to buy some more accessories).

So far, so good.

1

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.