Book review time.

Opinions, opinions.  You have been warned:

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami:  This is my first Murakami novel and I enjoyed it immensely. Fun, self-indulgent (think Irving) with tips of the hat to noir and dystopic SF. An immersion in beautiful writing and lovely ideas.

Convict Conditioning:   How to Bust Free of All Weakness — Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength by Paul Wade:

This may be the book with the longest and silliest subtitle.

Premise: Strength through progressive calisthenics using body weight as told by a former prison inmate.

Actuality: A body-weight approach to fitness. Very sound tips on injury, great explanation of forms (starting with very beginner (e.g. wall push-ups) to cross-fit games exercises (e.g. hand-stand push-ups.) The prison story? Likely fake given the following disclaimer “names, histories and circumstances have been changed partially or completely.”

Quick read, sound advice, and realistic work out schedules (emphasis on going slowly as joints, tendons, and ligaments do not strengthen as quickly as muscles.) For some reason the paper book is outrageously expensive on Amazon but the Kindle price was significantly less. Recommended to me by a Fitocracy pal in the UK. I love it.

(Note, I am 43, female, and a recovering couch potato.)

Unique featureDiscussion and photos of early 20th century strongmen. 6 pack abs before the invention of the “crunch”!

This is likely going to join the pantheon of fitness books that focus on body-weight exercises and/or non-gym training.

Ghost:  Confessions of a Counter-Terrorism Agent by Fred Burton:

Where to begin with this book?

Fascinating content, candid description of how a the US counter-terrorism portion of the diplomatic service originally had 3 overworked agent, 2 of them fresh out of training. Interesting anecdotes about the writer’s career.

However, two huge flaws:
(1) Cluttered writing
The author repeats himself ad nauseum – the type of warm jacket he wears, the car he drives, the fact that he sees the world as black and white and the nature of his work is shades of gray.

(2) No narrative
Counter-terrorism grows across agencies, his own organization blossoms, technology changes – but these are mere punctuation and not part of the story. Ugh.

What was truly interesting came in quick glimpses of a mere second or two –
How does one reconcile letting a killer go free (and be on the payroll) for information which may save lives in the future.  How does one balance family with vocation?


Chat log, Tuesday.


Coworker, me

[discussion about someone dinging my car in the corporate parking lot]

CW: do you try to get it fixed up or just go with battle scars?

Me: Once it hits a critical density, I’ll see what it cost to fix it up or ask my Dad how you do it for free! My Dad has a skill where he can (and likely has) fixed anything. He worked in a garage at age 11. Which would be 1939.

Me: Sadly I have the recessive version of this gene. I can break anything.

Currently reading

Links go to GoodReads

Working my way through 3 books right now (note, links are to the Goodreads page.)

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Ghost: Confessions of a Counter-Terrorism Agent by Fred Burton.

Civilization: The West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson.

Also reading some science texts for the classes I’m teaching and currently reading Leo Strauss for the class I will be taking Monday.

Parallel Processing

An image of the Cray 2 supercomputer
Cray 2

My brain is working its way through my to do list in my sleep. This week I’ve been ruminating on the first lecture for my upcoming thin film deposition class (I write the first lecture last and frequently it’s just off the cuff.)

Last night I not only created the outline and content in my dream, I also selected the white board markers I would be taking to the first class. Note to my brain: student hate the orange marker. They can’t see it well from the back of the room.

What I’ve been mulling; almost all technological advances of the mid twentieth century through today are due to the ability to deposit thin (micron and nanometer) films (with the IC being the lynchpin.) The only thing that stands out as a glaring exception is pharma – more about combinatorial chemistry but the analytical and spectroscopic tools would likely require thin film chips and detectors.

Your thoughts?

Decisions, decisions, LOGIC FAIL

My new car

In early May I bought a new car (pictured.)  It is a 2011 Jetta SportsWagen TDI Diesel.  The seats are “leatherette” (read: vinyl, not a song by Grace Jones) in a neutral beige.  The color is apparently the choice of manufacturers this season – a rich blue.  The mileage is comparable to my previous car, a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid, for highway.  Significantly less for city and mixed driving.  It has air conditioning, heated seats, integrated navigation, blue-tooth capability, and satellite radio.

The amount of consternation this decision caused was likely a significant annoyance to my gf, my friends, and the auto broker for most of April.  My opinion flipped and flopped faster than an old money Republican politician at a Tea Party convention.  This is not how I usually make decisions – in the past, I would simply review the data and decide.  For particularly troublesome decisions I would create a table with weighting criteria and sum my way to the solution.  Whatever corresponded to the cell that satisfied (max Ai:An) was the decision and I would not consider it again.  No tossing, no turning.  Textbook Myers-Briggs ENTJ “more comfortable after making a decision.”

When friends asked me about my new found ambivalence I claimed no knowledge of its origin.  Today I took a short stroll after work and realized that’s simply not true.  I know.  Of course I know.

In 2009, my world turned upside down.  I’ll spare you the details but my place in the world changed.  Or, I should say, I could no longer believe the narrative my mind created about the world and my place in that narrative.  My perception changed.

Having grown up in a Christian tradition and well versed in the New Testament, these words came to me when I reflected on this change:  “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (That’s 1 Corinthians 13:12 for those keeping score at home.)

My life is now informed by my Buddhist practice.  What comes to minds are Ajahn Chah’s three simple words: annica, dukkha, anatta (impermanence, suffering, no self.)

What does either have to do with making decisions – or how are they related to Great Life Changing Event (GLCE) of 2009?  Reality.   Seeing reality.  The fact that a GLCE took place in 2009 meant I was not present to what was happening in life.  There was no switch which was flipped, no lightning bolt from the sky.  No drunk driver crashing into the old Honda head on, no cancer diagnosis after a routine physical.  Had I been paying attention, I would have seen conditions changing, deteriorating.  I actively ignored the details and did not acknowledge the times the hair stood up on the back of my neck, the moments when a sense of “this is not right” overwhelmed me.

As I walked among the plants turning to seed in the August heat I realized my ambivalence in decision making was borne out of no longer trusting my judgment.  If I didn’t see that the bright light at the end of the tunnel was in fact the proverbial train coming my way, how could I trust myself with a five figure purchase?

LOGIC FAIL.  This is a fallacy; there was no issue with my judgment.  The issue was noticing.  Looking at things plainly, not through a glass darkly.  Being open to the nature of reality – it’s impermanence, its suffering, and the fact that there is no immutable unchanging Thing (or Self.)

Perhaps the following assumption is premature but I’m sure life will offer an opportunity to test it soon:  I suspect I may return to my prior decision making style.   Even if I don’t, at least I’ll be aware I haven’t.

Better Living Through Chemistry

CD art for Fat Boy Slim
Better Living Through Chemistry

Better Living Through Chemistry

Good album with an even better title.   If you aren’t familiar with Fat Boy Slim (aka Norman Cook) I highly recommend 1998s “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.”

Returning to this decade, today’s better living through chemistry is about Vitamin D and Omega 3.  Apparently my brain has none for the black dog has descended upon my psyche already once this week (terrifying given it’s Tuesday.)   Hence I will use my scientific super powers for self-interest.  It’s time for a full frontal chemical assualt.

Brain Recipe 1.0

  • 2000 IU D3
  • 1000 IU D2
  • 1200mg Ca and Mg each
  • 120mg algae-based DHA

I don’t do fish oil due to allergies, though I would likely not do it due to environment/ethics, and heavy metals.

Ruminating on the best way to visually represent this and other health projects.

Chubby Ninja says: don’t tell anyone you’re on a diet

Chubby Ninja!!

If you’ve ever wanted to see an immediate display of Shadenfreude, tell your friends you are on a diet.  The last time I did, the following happened:

  • Some friends inquired into the details and then proceeded to tell me exactly how unhealthful my diet plan was.
  • Some friends asked what foods were excluded from the diet – and offered them to me whenever I was in their presence.
  • My closest friends said, “How can I help?”

Needless to say, I’m appreciative of the last response and a bit confused by the first two.  I understand that the word “diet” comes with varied connotation and can create ire and anxiety.  In my case the meaning is strictly:  the things I choose to eat (that is, not a calorie metric)

I subscribe to the Michael Pollan approach:  “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  Note that I subscribe, I don’t always practice.

Let’s examine my take on each of the above 3 rules.

Rule 1, Eat food:  In general, I do eat food.  Things that come without ingredient lists or highly simplified ones that do not need  knowledge of organic chemistry nomenclature.  Deviations from plan are well-known to my friends:  doublestuf Oreo cookies, barbecue potato chips, and Dreyer’s all fruit lime popsicles.  My family has a voracious sweet tooth; no breakfast ends without desert.  Dinner can be preempted by pie.

Pollan’s first prescription is an outstanding path to health.  With no ingredient list you’re left with: fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, meat.  It’s likely been the most important health change in my adult life.  It is in sharp contrast to the diet I had as a child – almost exclusively McDonald’s, DunkinDonuts, and Little Debbies.  My parents equated processed food and high fructose corn syrup with love.  They meant well; my father grew up during the Depression and my mother grew up in World War 2 Germany; food was cherished gift and they loved me extravagantly.

I digress.  Bottom line – since I started eating food and stopped eating chemicals I lost weight – roughly 50lbs.  Over the past 7 years I’ve maintained that weight plus/minus ten pounds.  For those keeping score at home, I went from 185lbs to 135lbs in 2005.  My weight went up to roughly 145 two years later; it varied and hit a low of 125 in December of 2009 (age 41.)  In general I’m a few pounds on either side of 140.  My adult low weight is 112; I was 23 years old, vegan, and a bit stressed out by graduate school.

Rule 2, Eat less:  This is a challenge.  I am 5’2″ but I can outeat grown men more than a foot taller.  Hell, I can out eat teenaged boys who have spent an afternoon playing tackle football followed by an evening smoking pot.  This is where rules 1 and 3 are very helpful – if you eat food, and it is mostly plants, it is extremely difficult to eat yourself into obesity.  I dare you.  Eating only dark greens, stalks, and a few blossoms try to pack on some weight.  It won’t work.  You’ll have to resort to the heavy sugars – fruit and potatoes – and the body’s insulin response.  (For more information about the role of sugars and weight, do research on insulin resistance; it’s too complex to discuss in this post properly)

Let’s take a look at rule 3 – Eat mostly plants.  Plants have the highest nutritional score per calorie – Whole Foods and Eat Right America have promoted this information via ANDI – Aggregate Nutrition Density Index.  Kale has a score of 1000.  Tofu has a score of 37.  Before you gloat, the highest scoring red meat is sirloin Bison at 39.  Tuna has a score of 47 but there is that pesky mercury issue as well as decimation of the world’s tuna schools.  (Full disclosure:  I am allergic to all seafood and shellfish.  My body is so repulsed that the smell makes me ill.  However, I have never met a cheeseburger I didn’t like.)

You notice, I didn’t say much about exercise.  Exercise, central to health, is about keeping your body working – cardiovascular, lymphatic, digestion, enzymatic.  With the exception of unusual endurance events, you can’t exercise enough to compensate for a poor diet.  Also, I wouldn’t recommend a poor diet and an endurance event.  The meaning of the word “Bonk” will become apparent in short order.  Exercise is a topic for another post but it is so very important to long-term health.  You don’t have to be an athlete but we evolved in an environment of motion and change, not Herman Miller Aeron chairs.  Honor that history.

Regardless of your size or shape, love your body.  Feed it real food as it is a complex chemical cell and needs the best reactants to optimize its product.  Feed it regularly so it doesn’t think it’s starving and will hoard every last molecule.  Enjoy the amazing abundance that we have in the developed world and perhaps consider a small gift to support programs for those who don’t.