General Archive

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How I Lost 40 lbs in 6 Months

Vibrating Belt MachineLike I mentioned in a recent entry, for the past several months, I've been trying to lose some weight and get in better shape through a combination of diet and exercise. And I think I've been doing a pretty good job. So far, I've lost right around 40 lbs, and gotten several compliments from friends about the difference they've noticed. And quite a few people have asked me how I managed to do it. So, I figured I'd share the answer here on my blog. It's a combination of what worked for me, plus links to some of the better information I've found sorting through the multitude of weight-loss information out there. Maybe this will help out someone else trying to lose weight.

Continue reading "How I Lost 40 lbs in 6 Months" »

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Nutrition Supplement Crankery

Protein SupplementsToday's entry isn't particularly constructive, but it's a short rant I want to get off my chest.

For the past several months, I've been trying to lose some weight and get in better shape through a combination of diet and exercise (and I've actually been doing pretty good so far - the real test is going to be if I can maintain my reduced weight & active lifestyle once the weight loss portion is over). But part of this has involved delving into the fitness subculture, especially the nutrition side of it, as I'm trying to be sure I get all the nutrients I need with the limited calories I'm consuming, and being able to find solutions that fit into my overall lifestyle and schedule (i.e. quick and easy).

So, even though I don't consider myself any type of body builder or fitness freak, I've begun eating protein bars and drinking protein shakes to help supplement a few key nutrients* (mainly protein, obviously, but also fiber and even carbs). I don't eat protein bars for every meal throughout the day, but they make for great snacks to give me those nutrients I'm looking for in a concentrated package without a lot of excess calories, especially right before and right after the gym.

But this is where a lot of the frustration comes in - there seems to be a huge overlap between the market for fitness nutrition supplements and the Whole Foods anti-science crowd. You know who I mean - the folks who don't understand chemistry and think that an ingredient with a long chemical name is automatically unhealthy**, and who are opposed to genetically modified crops simply due to fear mongering despite GMOs having so much potential to improve nutrition and reduce environment impacts (more info - Why I Oppose Organic Food and Answering Quora on the Safety of Organic Foods and Microwaves). I mean, just do a search on Amazon for protein bars, and note how many of the products are gluten free***, non-gmo, organic, or some combination.

To be sure, not everyone in the fitness subculture is also part of the Whole Foods anti-science crowd, but enough are that many products cater to them. It also becomes annoying when trying to research products. As an example, take a look at this article, Are Quest Bars Really as Nutritious as Claimed? Their image at the top of the article claims that "It's hard to call this bar real food", and then has a bulleted list explaining why: "*Processed sources of protein / *Fake fiber / *Artificial sweeteners". Oh the horror, processed food. And their claim of 'fake' fiber isn't really well founded. But as Luddite as the article was, one of the comments really made me laugh, but is indicative of the mindset of this sub-subculture, "Microwaving these is just taking out all of the nutrients inside+ adding radiation to your foods - same with anything else. Microwave = bad!!!"

To be fair, almost all of the other comments to that article were in support of Quest Bars, showing that quite a few people in the fitness subculture aren't part of the Whole Foods subculture. But good luck finding a protein bar that uses the most advantageous GMO crops or the most productive farming methods to help reduce habitat loss.

Image Source: Erica D. House Motivation + Inspiration


*Actually trying to figure out just how much of each major nutrient you need is a whole 'nother can of worms. I may go into this in the future, but for now, since protein seems to be one of the big debates, here's the best article I've come across on that, The Myth of 1 g/lb: Optimal Protein Intake for Bodybuilders.


**Okay, I was originally just going to link to this in parentheses, but I can't resist quoting it, so now it gets to be a footnote. Go read the article, Everything is Made of Chemicals. They quoted an example from an informational brochure put out by SenseAboutScience.org:

"If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it. Tea is a complex mixture containing the above chemicals in concentrations that vary depending on where it is grown." - Derek Lohmann, research chemist

Everything we eat is made up of chemicals, most with long, scary sounding names if you're not familiar with them. But whether or not you can pronounce the name of a chemical has nothing to do with how safe or healthy it is.


***There's nothing particularly wrong with gluten free. I remember when I was going through some issues a few years ago, and my doctor had me go gluten free for a couple months to see if that was the cause. It wasn't, but those months let me see how hard it is for the people who have to give up gluten permanently. It's tough. Gluten shows up in so many places you wouldn't even expect. So, providing gluten free options certainly helps those people out. The problem I have is the mindset for why these companies are making gluten-free products, simply as part of a fad diet that's demonized gluten for the general population.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Answering Quora - Which one is harder, engineering or medical?

I recently came across the Quora question, Which one is harder, engineering or medical?. I figured that being an engineer myself and knowing quite a few people in the medical field, I was in a pretty good position to answer. So, I relatively quickly hammered out a short answer, which has since turned out to be by far my most viewed Quora answer. It's a little surprising considering how little work this answer was compared to other things I've written for Quora, but I guess that's the way it goes. Anyway, below is a copy of what I wrote.

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I'm an engineer. My wife is an RN, and through her, we have several friends who are MDs. I've even gone along on a few medical missions and witnessed surgeries first hand. And I would say that you can't make a blanket statement that one is harder than the other. They're both diverse fields, with more and less challenging paths in each.

For example, as an engineer, you could earn your bachelors degree, then go off to a manufacturing company in a well established industry, and do nothing but look up values in tables and plug in numbers in already developed formulas. That's not very challenging at all. Or, you could earn a PhD, go off to a research institution, and try to solve new and fundamental problems in your field (e.g. Advanced Rotorcraft Technology - Research). Medicine ranges from family practice to epidemiology to pathology to surgery to countless other fields.

I do think it's more stressful / difficult to actually become a medical doctor than an engineer. MDs have to go to graduate school, pass their licensing test, and complete their residency (almost like an apprenticeship). Engineers simply need a bachelor's degree. Granted, engineers can earn PhDs, and can do a lot of on the job training and continuing education throughout their careers, and can do the EIT to PE path (our own version of an apprenticeship, which is more important in some fields than others), but all that's not required to simply become an engineer.

So, it depends an awful lot on the specific field of engineering and medicine. There's probably a higher minimum level of competency among MDs than engineers because of the more difficult path to become an MD, but at the more challenging levels, I think they're comparable. After all, the two go-to phrases to emphasize intelligence are 'rocket science' and 'brain surgery'.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Answering Quora - What are the plot devices you would like to see less of?

Film ReelI answered a Quora question a few weeks ago on What are the plot devices you would like to see less of?. Although the questioner originally asked for only three plot devices per answer, I couldn't help myself and added two more. This has actually become one of my most viewed answers on Quora. Anyway, below are the plot devices that drive me up the wall (slightly edited from my Quora answer). Note that nearly all the links take you to the appropriate entry on TVTropes.org


Out-of-Context Eavesdropping, Not What It Looks Like and other related tropes.

Someone overhears only a small part of a conversation, pieces together what they think the conversation is about, and come to a conclusion wildly different from what was actually being said (I'm going to kill him tomorrow ... at basketball). Similar examples are seeing the characters do something that looked suspicious when viewed from only one particular angle or at just the right moment. These are so unlikely to occur at all in real life (most people would simply assume they overheard something out of context), and the problem could usually be resolved with a simple question that never gets asked.


Idiot Ball

This is when characters seemingly go out of their way to act stupid. The worst example of this I can think of is Dracula. *Spoiler Alert*. Even though one character had already succumbed to Dracula, and all the lead characters knew this and believed in vampires, when another character began displaying the same symptoms, it never dawned on them that maybe Dracula was working on her, too. (In fact, Dracula has so many bad horrible plot devices I could on at length on how much I disliked that book, and have - Book Review - Dracula.)


Arbitrary Skepticism, Flat Earth Atheist, Stupid Scientist, Agent Scully, etc.

This is the tendency of so many writers to treat skeptics and scientists simply as cynics or denialists. It's especially bad in stories where in that fictional universe, evidence for the supernatural/monster/alien is all over the place, but the skeptics still refuse to believe. Perhaps the worst example of this in a story I've read is in the Left Behind series (I only got a couple books into it). After all these events that just scream Rapture and that the fundamentalists were right all along (billions of people disappearing in an instant, Israel being miraculously saved from an invasion, fire breathing prophets), all the religious skeptics go on continuing to dismiss religion out of hand for some reason (more info - Some Early Thoughts on Left Behind, More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book, and Book Review - Tribulation Force).


Alien Invasions (Planet Looters, Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion)

Alien Invasion movies are almost universally awful if you apply any type of rational thinking to them. First, the motivation is almost always ludicrous. This is a civilization with the technology and resources for interstellar space travel. What could they possible need from Earth that wasn't more easily attained elsewhere? Even if for some reason they wanted to come to our solar system, there are all the objects in the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt that would provide huge amounts of water, metals, or minerals, without the cost of removing them from Earth's gravity well. And when they do actually attack, in so many action movies, it's like the aliens have no concept of strategy or tactics. They send in a bunch of small fighters or foot soldiers to shoot up civilians (e.g. The Avengers or Cowboys vs. Aliens), when they could just drop bombs from orbit without ever exposing themselves to our military. Or, considering their level of technology, they'd probably have weapons even more effective than plain old bombs that they could utilize. It's just ludicrous to imagine that their invasion strategy would be to send a bunch of their alien soldiers into Manhattan.


Santa Claus Movies Where Kids Should 'Just Believe'

These movies irritate me to no end. In fact, I've written about it this blog before in the entry, Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars. Why do so many movies make it a virtue to accept something on blind faith without evidence, when we should be teaching our children critical thinking skills. Skepticism is what keeps people from buying timeshares, giving their credit card numbers to Nigerian princesses, or believing they've won the Internet lottery. It's a skill that should be fostered, not made to seem like a character flaw. And the Santa Claus movies are especially irritating because every sane adult knows the truth about Santa. We're not just telling kids to have faith, we're telling them to have faith in a known lie.


Image Source: Wikimedia

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Science and Engineering Indicators 2016

NSB LogoThe NSF has released their Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2016. It's a great report put out every two years documenting many aspects of Americans' relationship to science and engineering. For the past several reports (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, & 2014), I've made it a habit to examine one specific aspect - public understanding of science. In particular, I've examined the data on how many questions people can correctly answer on a short quiz of basic scientific questions, how that has changed over the years, and how the U.S. fares against other countries on those (mostly the) same questions.

For all of the tables I'm about to publish, note that I copied the data and notes from the NSF report, but I've formatted the tables to fit onto this blog. I made the graphs myself to help visualize the data, as these particular graphs weren't in the report.

First, here's the table showing how Americans fared on a question by question basis on some basic scientific facts. The table includes data from 1988 on up to the most recent poll in 2014.

sei_2016_trend.png

Those results aren't particularly encouraging. I point this out nearly every time I cover this report, but around 1 in 4 Americans don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and around half of Americans don't know that electrons are smaller than atoms! Those are simple, basic, scientific facts.

To help visualize that data, especially the trends on how it changes over time, here it is plotted on a graph by year.

sei_2016_trend-graph.png

Americans' knowledge has remained largely steady over the past decade and a half, though there were a few changes. Americans' knowledge on antibiotics improved the most, but has kind of plateaued since around 2006. There does appear to be a recent trend of improvement on the questions concerning the Big Bang and human evolution. Hopefully that trend is real and continues on into the future.

Next, here's the table showing how the U.S. compared to other countries.

sei_2016_comparison.png

I played around with different ways of plotting that data, but there's just so much that it's too confusing to put it all on one graph. If you're interested in seeing a graph for each individual question, you can click on the thumbnail below to embiggen* the graphs.

sei_2016_comparison-graph.png
Click to embiggen

However, I did come up with a way to do a comparison of sorts - I took an average of the percentage of people that correctly answered questions. As an example, if it was only two questions, and 100% of people answered the first question correctly, while only 50% answered the second question correctly, the average would by 75%. I did this average three ways - overall, the physical science questions, and the biological science questions. If a country didn't pose a certain question, it wasn't included in that country's average. I admit that this is a very rough way to do a comparison, but here's how each country fared.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg.png

The U.S. actually does rather well in this comparison. It's not number 1, but it's not too far off.

I also suspected that America's over-religiosity might be affecting those questions that contradict a literal young earth creationism interpretation of the Bible, so I redid all those averages exluding the Big Bang and evolution questions.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg_no_yec.png

As suspected, this did improve America's performance. This is heartening, that creationism hasn't caused huge damage to Americans' scientific understanding overall.

One lesson from this that I've pointed out before, is to keep these results in mind every time you see a poll showing people's attitudes towards anything scientific. For example, every time you see a poll showing that the majority or plurality favor teaching creationism in public schools, or a poll showing high levels of skepticism towards global warming, remember that this is the same public where a quarter of all people think the Sun orbits the Earth, and where half of all people don't realize electrons are subatomic particles. How informed can they be on scientific issues when they don't even know such simple facts?

The other major lesson is that we need to do a lot better job of teaching science. When you live in a democracy and everyone has a say in the government (at least by way of voting for representatives), you really need a well educated populace for it to work effectively. This is especially true of science in the modern age, when so many pressing issues require accurate understanding of science.

I suppose that on the plus side, as much as alarmists decry the falling quality of American education, at least in this one area, the data shows that Americans' knowledge has stayed largely the same. There's definitely room for improvement, but at least we haven't gone backwards.


*'Embiggen' is a perfectly cromulent word.

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