Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Paleo Blog

I've decided to start a new blog where I can talk just about nutrition and the paleo diet. If you are interested, go here:

I will keep this blog for all other random topics.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

On Scientific Knowledge, Weight Loss, and Being Very Wrong

I have been wrong, very wrong, about diet and nutrition for my whole life. I hate being wrong.

As a critical thinker and trained research scientist with a Ph.D. in biology I feel that I should have done better. My only defense is that when one is an expert in a field, one tends to trust the opinions of experts in other fields.

I know I have the tools and ability to become an expert at many things, but it takes some serious motivation. If I was diagnosed with cancer, I would devour the literature and trust no one until I mastered it. But for everyday matters like nutrition I have always just done what I was told.

I have been blogging on and off about my weight loss efforts (roller coaster) since 2007 (read the whole mess in reverse chronological order here if you want), but the roller coaster actually started much earlier. The short version goes like this: 300-220, 270-213, 280-220, 285-225, 270-219 (current). As you can see I am really very good at losing weight, but pathetic at keeping it off.

So what is different about this time? Why do I finally think I have found the answer? Easy: I am not on a diet this time. Oh, it started out as a diet (Slow Carb from The Four Hour Body), but it has morphed into a simple and hopefully permanent lifestyle change.

The change is this: no grains and no sugar and no starchy vegetables. Or more prosaically no bird food or hippopotamus food (hippopotami eat sugar cane).

OK, that's a little over-simplified, but the whole thing really is just to minimize insulin production - eat few enough carbs (especially fructose! - no fructose that doesn't come from whole fruit!) so that you are losing or not gaining weight and stop worrying about fat intake, especially saturated fat. Other than that, eat anything in any quantity, especially meat and vegetables. But beware things that can cause insulin spikes even if they are non-caloric like artificial sweeteners.

I weigh less than I have in ages. I have more energy than I have had in ages. My teeth feel cleaner. I am less irritable and more positive. I am never hungry. I don't have to measure or record what I eat. I get to eat lots of things I love (bacon, eggs, cheese, steak, broccoli, kale, collard greens). I do miss a few things (bread, beer, sweets), but there is no formula for weight loss that doesn't require some changes/sacrifice - I should know, I've done enough of them.

So do I have my own brilliance to thank for this? Alas, no. I must give full credit to Gary Taubes who devoured the literature for me and laid out the arguments in a clear logical fashion. I can't overstate this - my entire view of nutrition, science, and even human history has been altered in the last few months as I digested these ideas and then proved them out on my own body.

A huge fraction of the conventional nutritional wisdom is wrong. Demonstrably wrong. Scientifically wrong. Gary certainly isn't the first person to espouse reducing carbs (neither was Atkins), but he lays out the history and arguments extremely well. From a scientific perspective we don't even really know that carbs are the problem (the telling experiments have not been done), but I now believe that the carbohydrate hypothesis is highly compelling and most likely true (with a fructose hypothesis as a close second - but that's another post).

Gary Taubes is a an excellent science writer who frequently writes for Science magazine, often on the topic of bad science. He has written two books and some articles on the carbohydrate hypothesis. You can see him speak here. if you are going to read just one book, it should be Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It. His other book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, is excellent, but be warned that it is dense with literature references and the like - it is very complete - doctors and scientists will likely want to read this one.

These books and the seminar are all top notch stuff. Two thumbs up. Go watch. Go read. Why We Get Fat is also available on, so you can listen too.

These are not diet books, so don't expect that. You'll have to go elsewhere for low carb diet advice (or make up your own as I did - the principles are easy).

I do not believe that a thinking person can read Why We Get Fat without changing their diet, so be warned about that as well. If you'd rather live with your head buried in the sand, stay far away.

The really scary thing is that if the carbohydrate hypothesis is correct, we are royally screwed. Only a tiny fraction of the planet can afford to eat properly and our entire global food production system is set up almost exactly wrong to address it. But that too will have to be another post.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Tall Man On a Bike

This post is about tall men on bicycles, not about tall bikes. Possibly tall women and anyone on the fringes of normalcy of size and body proportion will find something useful here too, or at least someone to commiserate with.

Let me start off by admitting up front that I am no bike expert. Everything I have learned about bicycles comes from a few months of focussed obsession. If you think I have something wrong, feel free to point it out in the comments.

I'm 6'7" tall. Readers of my blog already know this, but I expect that this post will get a lot of visits from search engines. My own experience tells me that it is almost impossible to find advice on bikes for the tall using google, so I am intentionally including some text to make this more findable. This advice is tailored for those, say, 6'5" and up. If you are 6'2" (and male) normal bike buying mostly applies unless you are oddly proportioned - go to your local bike shop (LBS) and they will take care of you (or go to a couple and pick the one that seems most competent to go back to). In between 6'2" and 6'5" it kind of depends on your proportions.

I haven't had a bike since I was a kid. One day a few months ago I decided that I wanted a bike, so I did what anyone would do. I went to my most bike knowledgeable friends and sought their advice. They almost unanimously told me to go to my LBS. So I did. A couple. A few. A bunch. And I went to REI. And it wasn't all that helpful.

Here is some math for you that illustrates the problem. About one person in ten thousand is my height or taller. Let's imagine an extremely experienced bike shop owner who has sold five thousand bikes. What are the odds that he has sold bikes to enough really tall people to be considered knowledgeable about the problem (say 3 tall people)? I won't bother you with the actual number because it is vanishingly close to zero. There is in fact a 99.5% chance that he has never sold a bike to even one person my height or taller.

Here is what will happen. You'll walk in and say, "I'm 6'7", what kind of bike should I get?" They will ask you some questions about what kind of riding you want to do and perhaps take some measurements. If they are honest they will at some point tell you that there isn't really anything and you should go custom. But eventually all of them, even the honest ones, will try to sell you a mass produced bike.

They'll find the biggest bike they have or can get and talk to you about adjusting it to fit you. They'll talk to you about sliding the saddle back and getting a longer seat post and adjusting the bar and stem and so on. If you go this route you will spend a thousand dollars on a bike that doesn't really fit. It might work OK. It might cause you back aches. It might handle super funky. It might rattle your teeth. It might fall to bits in a few years, crushed under your weight and mangled by the stresses you put on it.

Here's the thing: there is no mass produced bike that will fit you. Let me say that again. There is no mass produced bike that will fit you. If anyone reading this knows of one, please do us all a favor and post a comment. But there isn't one. Really.

When I finally came to this conclusion I was very annoyed, even angry. But I have mellowed a bit. I don't go into a mall expecting to be able to buy clothing, so why should I go into a bike shop expecting to be able to buy a bike? As with many things you are going to have to pay more than most people. I call this the "tall tax" when I am in a good mood and "bullshit" when I am in a bad mood.

OK, so what are the options?
  • Get the new mass produced bike anyway. Look for a strong frame and fork - I advise steel. Larger frames that use the same strength tubing are intrinsically weaker and tall people are intrinsically heavier. Get strong wheels too. Skip the suspension or get a super strong one that you can lock out. Get something as adjustable as possible - threadless headsets are your mortal enemy.
  • Find the biggest used frame you can and fix it up yourself with adjustable parts (long seat post, long quill stem). This still won't fit, but it will cost a lot less. Look for strong. Look for adjustable. It will be hard to find a good large frame, so expect the search to take some time. Craigslist is your friend. You should consider being your own bike mechanic.
  • Find a stock frame from a smaller company that fits. There aren't a ton of these, but Rivendell Bicycle Works has two frames that fit me - a 71cm A. Homer Hilsen and a 68cm Bombadil. This is the way I went and I'll let you know how it turns out in future posts (I ordered an A. Homer Hilsen - they had three of these in stock, bless their tall-friendly souls).
  • Go custom. There is a lot of good news here. A custom frame designer is much more likely to know how to help you. You can build what makes sense for you.
How much are the last two going to cost? A lot. It is going to be at least $1,000 for a frame and fork and probably a good deal closer to $2,000 (and up). And then you have to turn that into a bike. You can buy cheap parts, but I at least couldn't bring myself to do that after buying a high end frame. If you don't put it together yourself there will be a fee associated with that. If you do put it together yourself you will have shipping fees from all of the places you source the parts from and you'll need a bunch of tools. You might be able to put together a bike for $1,800, but it would be quite challenging and I'm not sure what you would end up with, so probably a bit more than that at a minimum. You can put together a very nice bike for twice that.

But wait, you say what you really want is a folding bike? An electric bike? Some form of technical mountain bike that I've never heard of? My advice: want something else - you'll be happier.

If you get a custom frame you can have it made with couplers that will make it foldable, but it will be "fold it for air travel" foldable, not "commute to the office, collapse the bike, and carry it to your office" foldable.

There are kits for converting bikes to electric. The geek in me kind of wants to try this on some old used frame, but they aren't cheap and I certainly don't need anything like this. But maybe you do.

Here is some stuff you might find useful:
  • Rivendell on picking a frame size.
  • Zinn on crank length. I myself didn't take this advice, largely because of cost. I will have a 180mm crank, but the article says I should have a 216mm crank.
  • Sheldon Brown on bike sizing. This has links to even more resources. Sheldon's site is a wealth of information.
  • Zinn Cycles actually specializes in bikes for the big and tall. I went with a Rivendell because I want an all-purpose bike, but if your tastes run to something more modern and fit for purpose this looks good to me.
Good luck in your bike hunt!


Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Review: The Tall Book

There are three things that absolutely define me. Three things that anyone who meets me knows within seconds. Three things that I could not hide from the world if I wanted to. 1) I am very tall (6' 7"), 2) I am a redhead, 3) I am a nerd.

Of these three things, the one that has defined my life as most different from the norm (whatever that is) is being tall.

There are many benefits to being tall, to be sure. I am never ignored at a counter while waiting for service. People remember me. It is comparatively easy for me to project a powerful confident presence. I am very rarely threatened or lashed out at.

And there are many disadvantages to being tall. Some would be obvious even to the non-tall (difficulty buying clothing, hitting my head on doorways, getting jammed into airline seats while some 5' 2" business woman stretches out in the exit row). And some probably have to be lived to be appreciated (ultra low toilets and urinals (actually almost everything about bathrooms), low ceilings, low kitchen counters, cars designed for the comfort of someone a foot shorter than me, foot boards on beds, the non-stop, "Do you play basketball?" Or alas the increasingly frequent, "Did you play basketball?").

When I saw The Tall Book by Ari Cohen I immediately bought a copy (for the Kindle iPad app, of course - see (3) above). But I must confess that I bought it more as a show of tall moral support than because I thought I would get anything out of it. I mean, I was six feet tall on my twelfth birthday. That's 33 years of being indisputably tall. What could a book possibly teach me about it?

I was wrong, of course. I learned a bunch of interesting tidbits. I certainly learned more about tall female psychology than I had ever managed to uncover on my own. Tall people and the curious will enjoy this book. Tall teens will find a bunch of useful advice for dealing with life. And if you know a tall teen girl, stop reading right now and go order her this book. Ditto if you know a tall teen boy who wants to date tall teen girls.

My favorite thing about the book, though, isn't the book at all. It is the fact that Ari has devoted some space to tall activism on the tall book website. That joins colleenification and the Tall Clothing Mall blog as one of my favorite tall resources. There just aren't enough tall resources out there. I would love for there to be a place where I could go to find cars I might fit in before I go shopping for them or find out whether that expensive home gym will be usable before I spend thousands of dollars.

Anyway, I'm rambling. It's a good book. It's on sale on amazon ($7.60 for the hardcover as I write this). Go buy it.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Do Not Call Lists Need Serious Improvement

I am so angry right now that I can barely see straight. My answering machine has just filled to capacity for the third time in the last several days. Before this, I wasn't even really aware that my answering machine had a capacity. The MA senate race is out of control on the phone calls.

So hear this Martha Coakley and Scott Brown - the only way I would visit the polls today is if I could find a way to vote against both of you so that we could run the election over with people who are not intrinsically evil. I'm seriously going to see if I can start a movement to get a reset button included in all elections, "Push this button if you think all of these people suck and we should try again."

I hope that both of you and all of the people who worked on and helped plan your campaigns rot in hell for all eternity.

And the evil politician who carved out an exemption for political calls for the Do Not Call registry? He or she can bloody well join you.

I suppose that there is nothing I can do about the fact that one of you is going to be elected today. So, if the winner should happen to read this, know that you can redeem yourself by making the Do Not Call registry just what it claims to be.

Do that and you'll even get my vote next time.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

My New Toy

I got a new toy the other day.

It took a fair bit of effort to get it working. It is electrical and it works outdoors, so I had to crawl around under the house playing electrician and install a GFI outdoor covered outlet.

Then I got the thing unpacked, washed the components, plugged it in, turned it on, and wouldn't you know it? The thing started billowing smoke.

Fortunately, that is what was supposed to happen, because the new toy is an original Bradley Smoker.

This is a seriously ingenious device and a major upgrade from my little water smoker. The main things that frustrated me about the water smoker were that it was super hard to maintain a consistent temperature and it is impossible to cold smoke. And of course capacity - you can't put very much on the single rack of a water smoker.

The Bradley Smoker uses compressed hardwood piece pellets that it feeds continuously onto a burner, generating smoke. Another electric element controls the temperature of the chamber and it can be turned completely off for cold smoking. So you just set the temperature with a little slider, load up the feeder with pellets, put your food on the four racks, and go away until it is cooked. The cost of the pellets runs about a dollar an hour, which is a lot more expensive than cutting mesquite in your back yard, but not much more than buying hardwood pieces for smoking at Lowe's. And I don't have a lot of mesquite in my back yard.

The Bradley appealed to me because it places maximum emphasis on control, especially temperature control. There are even digital versions, but my research seemed to indicate that this was not really worth it and if I want to get really anal about it later I can always add an external digital controller.

The cold smoking ability was also key for me. What is the point in being able to smoke if you can't make perfect bacon or smoke your lox? And I don't even really need to bring up jerky, do I? Of course not.

The Bradley works spectacularly well. I made some smoked chicken thighs that I pulled and served with a vinegar sauce, some turkey legs, and some heads of garlic. It was really easy to use even though it rained the entire time (I covered the chute to keep the pellets from getting wet, but otherwise didn't worry about the rain). And the food came out quite nice. Quite nice indeed.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Smashingly Good Burgers

Anyone who knows me or reads my blog already knows that my favorite kind of burger is a big thick lean rare burger made from freshly ground beef.

The problem with that burger, though, is that it takes a lot of effort to prepare. Mostly because you have to grind the meat. I simply don't trust store-ground meat cooked rare, so what to do when you want a burger faster?

Well, there are fundamentally two kinds of burgers in the world (with lots of variation of course): thick and thin. Or in the words of A Hamburger Today, East Coast and West Coast. I like some thin burgers. I like Kidd Valley in Seattle. I like UBurger in Boston. I like 5 Guys. I long to try In-N-Out.

So, while fresh ground beef would obviously be better, I decided to experiment with the store bought stuff and the smash method to see how good a burger I could make.

How good a burger did I make? Frickin' awesome, that's how good. And it is FAST. Blazing fast.

I think the home cook actually has some advantages in making really good burgers this way, the biggest of which is cast iron. For browning meat cast iron kicks the butt of all of the big commercial griddles out there - no one makes them out of cast iron any more. Plus I've watched the 5 Guys cooks smashing burgers - they leave an awful lot of the crust (i.e. flavor) on the grill the way they transfer the meat around. All of the flavor on mine stays with the burger.

What do you need? A cast iron pan or griddle (not grill), a cast iron press, a really good/sturdy spatula, and some parchment paper. The parchment paper keeps the meat from sticking to the press and pulling back up off the griddle, so you get superior browning every time and as a bonus you don't need to keep washing the press.

The procedure:
  • Preheat your cast iron. You want it HOT.
  • Oil it if you need to (if it is really well seasoned, you don't need to)
  • Plop a ball of meat on it. Yes, I mean a sphere. 85% lean, please. You need the fat to make this good.
  • Wait a minute, put the parchment paper over the meat and smash it flat with the press. (and remove the parchment paper)
  • Season liberally with salt and pepper.
  • Wait until you see signs of the cooking coming through the cracks in the patty and there is a really good crust on side A and flip, keeping as much of the crust on the meat (as opposed to the pan) as possible (this is why you need a sturdy spatula). You get bonus points for flipping it to a fresh hot spot on the griddle.
  • Season again and put cheese on if you want it. When cooked through and cheese has started to melt, transfer to a bun.
The irony is that grilling season just started and I no longer have any desire to grill my burgers. Doh!