Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me!

Although I have kept personal journals at various times in the past, I don't think of this blog as that sort of thing. It's more of a place to "think out loud" about about stuff I find interesting, and to share those loud thoughts with anyone who cares to visit, and on rare occasion, to add their own thoughts. Music, space, books, etc. Usually not "personal stuff." But for the last 6 months or so, one of my interests has been losing weight. I've just had a minor setback in that department which has taught me a lesson I hope not to forget. So I decided to share it here, for myself and others.

After watching my weight creep up over many years, I hit 223 pounds in January. The fact that this number is just over 100 kg (101.2 kg!) struck my semi-metric brain as some sort of a last straw. Triple digits in pounds can't be helped at my height (about 72 inches or 183 cm), but triple digits in kilograms? No way! So I signed up for Weight Watchers (WW) online program, drawn especially by their iPhone app, which makes it fairly quick and easy to keep track of what I eat throughout the day. I rationalized that the $19 per month for the WW program would be healthier than spending a similar amount each month in afternoon snacks from the vending machine at work (which I was doing).

This tracking process seemed to be the key to it for me. WW has a proprietary "point system" that is roughly equivalent to counting calories, but with smaller numbers and some helpful simplifying assumptions, such as "fruit has zero points" (even though fruits actually do have some calories). There seems to be some clever motivational psychology in their system. You have a budget of daily points, weekly "overdraft" points, and activity points that you can gain by walking and other exercise activities. These extra points kick in when you run out of weekly points, and I gained around 3 activity points a day by taking a 30 minute walk every morning (usually with the dog). The theory is that if your weekly food points total less than your combined daily, weekly, and activity points, you will lose weight.

The good news is that it worked for me. From January 12 to about a month ago, I lost over 30 pounds (~14 kg). With a few minor exceptions, my Saturday weighings showed that I lost weight every week. Then over the last 4 weeks, I seemed to be stuck around 191, gaining or losing a little each week, though never falling below 190 (my final goal is 183 lbs.). But this week I weighed 193, and it was clear to me that the trend line is now heading up.

What happened? Around 4 weeks ago, I stopped tracking food points and started cheating more (I have kept up the daily walks, which the dog won't allow me to forget). It seems I decided that my habits had changed, so I didn't need to track my food points, just my weekly weight. Of course I had "cheated" at other times in the last 6 months, though technically WW lets you eat whatever you want, as long as you stay within your weekly points budget, so it isn't "cheating" per se. As long as I was tracking any treats or extra stuff I ate, I would tend to stay in line the next few days so I wouldn't blow my whole weekly points budget. But once I stopped tracking my food points, it was only my own memory and "will power" that would keep me from cheating several days in a row. Pretty soon I was gaining weight. Not too mysterious.

So what's the lesson? The lesson is that I need to keep tracking my food intake and activities every day to keep myself honest. You don't have to "cheat big" if you are cheating small and often enough. I've already noticed myself making better choices again, helped by keeping a large supply of "point free" fruits and vegetables in the house. Carrot sticks, blueberries, cherries, and even bananas are all "free" and this really helps me to stay on track.

I had been thinking I might cancel the WW subscription and just track my weight on my own. I realize there are other ways (some free) to track my food intake, so I will look at alternatives, especially those that have iPhone apps. But I will keep the WW subscription a few more months until I know I am back on track.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

GREAT Website -

I recently discovered a fantastic website called Allow me to quote from the About page:
Brain Pickings is the brain child of Maria Popova, an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK and The Atlantic, among others, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.
As a fellow curious mind at large (without portfolio), I salute and highly recommend Brain Pickings. Although it covers a lot of books, it goes beyond simple book reviews - the book articles are more like heavily illustrated and quoted exploration guides. It also covers other things - pretty much whatever Maria finds interesting, I guess. Happily this includes a lot of science in addition to literature, people, creativity, and much more.

Our Robotic Future, Creeping Up

The other night I decided to watch the 2004 movie I, Robot. I had only seen it once before, in the theater 9 years ago. It popped up as I was browsing films in iTunes. While it's not the greatest SF or Will Smith movie I have ever seen, I enjoyed it, though I was skeptical of the level of AI and mechanical performance of the fictional year 2035 robots. Even before the latest super-smart NS-5 model that drives the movie's plot, the human-size, bipedal robots in wide use seemed to have good speech understanding and athletic ability, and even more impressively, they could interact seamlessly with humans in social situations ranging from home kitchens to bars to crowded streets. Could robot technology really reach that level 31 years from the film's release, just 22 years from now?

A few years ago, I might have said no, but now I'm not so sure. One data point: the recently announced Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics, which I read about today in this NY Times article. This 150 kg robot is hydraulically operated and is designed to work in human environments. It is an R&D model that will be programmed by several teams next year in a DARPA competition to demonstrate capabilities needed for human assistance missions. It's no cakewalk. From the Times article: "The contest involves programming the robot so that it is able to climb into a vehicle, drive to a destination, get out of the vehicle, cross a rubble field, open a door, use a power tool and turn a valve." Wow. You can watch the big lug in action in this DARPA video. It's clear this will NEVER be used for direct military purposes, despite the little hand exercise that looks like a wild west gunslinger spinning his 45's around. They probably only do that in movies anyway.

I'm not sure what to make of all this. I do believe that technology is developing at an exponential rate, and with sufficient computing power, strong but lightweight materials, and advanced batteries, I can imagine "Atlas" evolving into "Sonny" in 20 years. Sure. I've read a lot of other articles about how the use of robots is expanding into activities that require close interaction with humans, and how recent models can even be programmed by simply moving their arms to teach them the needed motions. Smarter, cheaper, easier to use robots are certainly not going to help our unemployment problems. Even if it never gets to the point of a robot bartender, a lot of jobs that could not easily be automated in the past will be up for grabs. Maybe even bartender.

Two things are clear. Boston Dynamics was thinking ahead when they loaded Atlas's chest with blue LED's. This is the same as the NS-5 in I, Robot, so when someone overrides their programming and makes them turn bad, it will be a simple matter to replace the blue lights with red bad-robot LED's (white hats and black hats are so twentieth century). The second thing is that when Skynet sends a Terminator from the future back to our time to locate some key technology, they should send it to Boston, and not Los Angeles.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Europa Report - Good Movie

I just bought Apple TV and connected it to our HDTV. Coolest thing ever. With my heavy stake in Apple i-devices, iTunes music, and even a few movies and TV series bought over the years, it's the perfect thing. I can stream music from iCloud through my living room stereo, share content from the iPad or iPhone on the big screen, view rented movies at full (1080p) HD, and much more. Great little $99 device with no additional subscription required. Much nicer web interface than the Panasonic BluRay player we have used up to now (and still may use for Amazon movies since Apple TV doesn't support those).

But I digress. The very first movie I rented through Apple TV was Europa Report, and I really liked it. It's an unusual situation that this first-run film is available on iTunes ahead of its theatrical release on August 2, but that works for me, especially with Apple TV.

Europa Report is mostly "hard SF," my preferred SF genre. The science and the technical treatment of human space flight on a long interplanetary mission are mostly realistic and quite well done, on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a planned 3-year mission to explore the surface and sub-surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa. The space-station like spacecraft is fairly large and has a rotating component to provide artificial G in the crew quarters. The six person crew (4 men, 2 women) works well together, though they experience tension, boredom, isolation, and other mundane effects of a long mission in a cramped environment (the movie is only 90 minutes, but the production manages to convey the length of the mission pretty well). They also experience a number of crises, which also mostly seem realistic, triggered by events such as a solar storm, equipment failures, and accidents.

I won't give away any key plot details, but as the picture above suggests, they do reach Europa, their crewed lander reaches the surface, and they are able to drill through some 2.7 km of ice with a probe that sends back video and data from a sub-ice ocean. I will let you see the movie to find out what they learn and what happens. It's pretty dramatic and exciting.

I do have a few minor complaints. Why does a lander intended only for non-atmospheric use have deployable landing gear? Why would they not follow better safety and backup procedures on EVA's? I won't say more lest I reveal plot details, but some of the dramatic events seemed preventable to me if certain common sense procedures had been followed. Of course it's a movie, so dramatic events are needed. And these are minor complaints - on the whole, this movie required much less suspension of disbelief than 90% of the space movies I have seen. There is serious consideration given to zero-G, radiation, crew psychology, communication delays, spacecraft operations, and much more, all in the context of a good story with real-seeming characters. Multi-year spaceflight seems much more of a tough job than an adventure in this movie, though the adventure part is definitely there (sort of like the old saying about war - long periods of sheer boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror).

I would give the movie 4.5 out of 5 stars if I were one to give stars to movies (and BTW, there are no "stars" in this movie - the actors are all unknowns to me, but they do a fine job).