Monthly Archives: February 2010

Cholesterol Update — increasing carbs and exercise

In late 2008 I started an experiment: I switched to a low carb diet to see what impact it would have on the level of HDL in my bloodstream. In that post and the followup I reported how reducing carbohydrates and exercising a bit dramatically improved my cholesterol.

Since then, I’ve moved to St. Louis. It’s been great, but I have definitely slacked off on the diet. There’s a Jimmy Johns two doors down from the office that makes a great italian sandwich, I’ve been eating english muffins for breakfast, and my office stocks chocolate covered raisins, which I’ve discovered I love. Balancing that out is the fact that I didn’t bring a car with me when I moved. I have a bicycle, and every day I bike 2.5 miles each way to work — yes, even the snow days. I noticed my weight went up to about 185, an increase of 15 pounds. Some of that was likely muscle from all the biking, but certainly not all. So the question is: does the exercise excuse the low-carb slacking? The short answer is: somewhat.

About five years ago my wife bought me a rowing machine, which I love. Eventually I had to scale back my use of it due to an unrelated back injury, but when I was really rowing, my cholesterol was at 190, with an HDL of 50. That’s pretty good, but not as good as it was last summer with the low-carb diet and far less exercise. In August my cholesterol was at 152, and my HDL was at 50. Now I’m exercising more than I was in August, but less than I was five years ago, and my diet is higher in carbohydrates than it was in August, but lower than it was five years ago. Today my cholesterol checked in at 184, with HDL of 49. Putting it in table format:

Time Diet Exercise HDL Total Ratio
Five years ago High Carb Significant 50 190 3.8
Aug 2009 Low Carb Significant on weekends 50 152 3.0
Feb 2010 Moderate Carb Moderate daily 49 184 3.8

So if significant exercise on weekends is equivalent to moderate exercise every day, the conclusion is fairly clear: all three plans achieved roughly the same HDL, but Low Carb with at least exercise on the weekend was able to raise HDL while lowering overall cholesterol. This is a significant improvement.

So I’m going to have to figure out how to get a low-carb diet here. Good-bye english muffins, you were good while you lasted.

As an aside:

  • Resting Pulse: 53
  • Blood Pressure: 96/74 today, 104/60 yesterday
  • Fasting glucose: 87
  • Triglycerides: 45 — this is an especially good number.
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Anything less than instant is unacceptable

Application responsiveness is like the weather

I used to live in Los Angeles, and I was always amazed at those “Best Places to Live” articles that failed to properly weight (in my opinion) the weather. Living in Southern California it’s easy to take for granted that the weather will be nice most of the time. If I even thought about the weather I’d simply look out the window and smile at yet another perfect day. Now I live in St. Louis, and I check the weather forecast online every day before I head out. Don’t get me wrong, I love St. Louis, but the fact that I could freeze to death if I dress wrong is a bit of a negative.

When it comes to usability, responsiveness is like the weather: everyone agrees that a slow user interface is a bad thing, but the moment some feature comes along that looks cute but runs a little bit like sap in winter we still have to deal with interfaces that suck because they’re slow. It’s important to remember that the CPUs in our computers today are roughly one hundred times as powerful as the CPUs of just fifteen years ago. Those CPUs managed a GUI that wasn’t that different than the computers of today.

So why are GUIs slow today?

Pervasive Multi-Tasking. Today’s computer is doing many more things than the computer of 1995. Open the Activity Monitor or the Task Manager and take a look. The Mac of 1995 also famously didn’t have pre-emptive multi-tasking. In a way that was a good thing: it meant that the program in front of you had the power to use as much of your 25MHz CPU as it needed to try to keep you happy.

Web Apps. They suck (with rare exceptions) because javascript is interpreted and it’s too easy to add features to web apps. At my last job I used the Zimbra email client. That thing ate my soul one second at a time. I found that I didn’t respond to email as well or as promptly because of the minor inconvenience of repeatedly waiting on Zimbra’s interface.

Eye Candy. It’s nice, and it can even be a usability boon, but the moment it slows you down it should go. It’s important here to distinguish between reality and appearance. Studies have shown that people are happy to wait longer for something that appears to be doing something than they are for something that gives no feedback. So if the eye candy is the zoom out-zoom in of switching applications on the iPhone, even if it makes the actual transition take a bit longer that’s a net win.

Innefficiency. I don’t know this for a fact, but it would seem there’s not enough eye candy in recent OSes to justify the hardware requirements they demand.

An example of instant done right

Back the 90s there was a company called Be that put out the Be Operating System. Initially it ran on custom hardware with two 66MHz CPUs in it (still ten to thirty times slower than what you likely use now). The Be reps did a demo where they would start a dozen or so applications and show that both CPUs were pegged at full utilization. Then they would grab a window and drag it around the display. Everything else slowed to a crawl, but that window would continue happily doing whatever it was doing, because the BeOS knew how to prioritize: it was an end user system, not a server, so whatever you focused on, that got the first shot at the CPUs. The reps would then repeat the demo, but with one of the CPUs disabled. Even with the same tasks that maxed out two CPUs, when they dragged a window around, while everything else nearly froze, that window was still immediately responsive.

That’s the way it was fifteen years ago, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be that way today. Everyone I’ve read who’s had their hands on the iPad says that it gives instant feedback in a way that other devices don’t. If it does, I’m looking forward to it.

Addendum: some things that should be instant but aren’t

  • In the Finder, right clicking a file and selecting Open With. The submenu should be pre-calculated based on file type. For the few hundred most common file types that would take what, a few kb?
  • Clicking Update in the WordPress editor for this post.

Cosmo used to mean something — other than sex

Wow. I only know Cosmopolitan magazine from the salacious covers and headlines. Currently on their home page:

  • Bedroom Blog’s Shocking Twist — K. discovers the startling truth about Zach…
  • 77 Sex Positions in 77 Days — One couple takes this crazy Cosmo Challenge…!
  • 4 Make or Break Dating Moments — Can your love survive these tests?
  • What Beauty Editors Know That You Don’t — Cosmo’s experts share the latest trends…and much more

Oh, and:

  • Workout Tips from Olympians — You’ll love this exclusive advice from elite athletes

In case you thought it was all about sex.

What I didn’t know was Cosmo’s intellectual history. Back in the day they published fiction by Sinclair Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, and H. G. Wells. In the 1940s it was known as The Four-Book Magazine, and it contained novels. I’m all for empowering women, and I understand that the era of fiction-based magazines is long past, but comparing Cosmo today to The Cosmopolitan of yesterday would be as if McDonald’s had started out as a four-star restaurant.

Saudi Arabia lets women into the courts — don’t feel too smug

Saudi Arabia is getting ready to allow women to argue in court. Before you start in on how backwards that makes them, consider that the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court, Belva Ann Lockwood, did so almost a hundred years after the founding of the United States. Given that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has only existed for 78 years, in one sense they’re ahead of us.

Redmond wants into the fight

In The iPad Revolution: It’s 1984 All Over Again I described how with the iPad Apple is attempting to redefine the human/computer interface, doing away with the mouse and windows and replacing it with the iPhone’s multi-touch display. Of course, if Apple is even partially successful you have to ask who will try to eat their lunch. I said Microsoft was unlikely to as , “[they have] shown no talent at producing a compelling portable touch interface.” Well, Redmond seems intent on proving me wrong. Endgadget has a hands-on demo of Windows Phone 7 Series, and they seem pretty impressed.

The demo is short and feature-light, but it definitely looks worlds better than Windows Mobile ever did. Microsoft is also taking a page from Apple’s one-size-fits-all attitude toward hardware: there will be strict specifications for what devices include, standardizing much of what was once a wild west of features. The demo looks more complex than the iPhone, but that’s to be expected; Windows devices have always opted for more options, more features, more…more.

But is it enough? At this point Microsoft is definitely the third player at the table after Apple and Google. That won’t necessarily slow them down; it didn’t in the videogame console business. Still, unlike videogames where the platform OS doesn’t matter much but the controllers are nearly identical (the Wii’s motion-sensing being the notable exception to the uniformity of push buttons and thumbpad/sticks) there is likely to be consolidation in the multi-touch device market. Just as someone who uses Windows these days can switch to a Mac and still understand how to delete a file, it will eventually be the case that someone who uses one multitouch device will have little trouble switching to another.

So who will be the template the others follow or die trying? Apple has the lead, especially now with the iPad. Google at least has several shipping phones, and several other devices either available now or soon. Microsoft has phones on the way, but apparently nothing tablet-sized. Apple once had the lead in GUI-based computers, but lost it. Whether they can hold onto it now depends on their ability to satisfy the broad market as well as keep software — serious software, not just games — flowing.

That’s not how evolution works

Update: the BBC reports that North American bird species are getting smaller, likely in response to increased temperatures.

In a Mother Jones article, Julia Whitty says, “Birds are rapidly evolving different shapes to cope with clear-cut forests.” Now, she may be accurately quoting the source paper by André Desrochers, and she’s certainly not the only one to describe evolution this way, but that doesn’t make it any less misleading and stupid.

How Evolution Works (with only a trace of self-importance)

It’s not that hard to get it right. Evolution is the “…change in the genetic material of a population of organisms through successive generations.” [wikipedia] This happens because of two opposing processes:

  • Over time, the genetic diversity of a population tends to grow. Taking humans as an example, we have tens of thousands of genes. Each individual is a random mix of the genes of her parents, and is potentially a unique/novel combination. Each individual may also have mutations, making their collection of genes not only not a perfect selection of genes from her parents, but again potentially unique/novel. Finally gene transfer can also increase genetic diversity, although I don’t know of any proven instance of this happening in humans.
  • Opposing the increase in genetic diversity is natural selection. If a particular combination of genes is unsuccessful — if the person with those genes has bad eyesight and can’t hunt, or has a bad complexion and can’t get a mate — then those genes don’t get passed on, and assuming some other genes do, the species has evolved. (if other genes don’t get passed on either, the species goes extinct)

You can think of evolution as something like a bush in a topiary garden: left to its own devices it will simply grow larger — that’s genetic diversity at work; but if the gardener (in the form of natural selection) comes along and trims here and there, you end up with an elephant.

This is where the stupid comes in

If you have a four-foot-high bush, no amount of trimming is going to turn it into a ten-foot-tall image of an elephant. The article in Mother Jones starts with “A new study shows how North American birds have changed the shape of their wings in the past century as the landscapes around them have been fragmented by clear-cutting.” Bzzt, wrong. It’s not like at the annual convention the bird-leader said, “Guys, the trees are getting farther apart. We have to fly so far, and it’s tiring! I say let’s switch to those new streamlined wings. All in favor?” Again, think of the bush. The change observed in the birds’ wings took place over the last century; it’s not the bush growing, it’s the gardener trimming.

As another example of this aspect of evolution, consider Thoroughbred racing. The Kentucky Derby has been run at one and a quarter miles for over a hundred years. There is tremendous prestige, not to mention money, involved in producing the fastest horses, and breeders have worked very hard over the last century to improve their mounts’ times. Yet the average time of the last ten winners of the Derby is less than a 6% improvement on the time of the first ten winners. Even that overstates the situation, since training methods and riding techniques have presumably improved significantly over that time span as well. The reason for this modest improvement is simple: you can’t trim the bush taller. If you could, horses would be running the Derby at sixty miles per hour by now.

So what’s almost certainly happening with the birds is that previously there was some amount of genetic diversity in the shape of the birds’ wings. This may or may not have manifested in actual variations in the birds’ wing shapes; it’s possible for significant genetic variation to hide. As a gross simplification, one bird might have gene variations A1, B1, and C1. A1 contributes to more pointed wings, but only when accompanied by B3 and C2. Another bird might have A2, B3, and C3. If the two birds mate, none of their offspring will have more pointed wings because they all have either C1 or C3. Even if one of their offspring has A1, B3, and C3, it might then go on to mate with another bird that has A2, B1, and C1, and produce offspring that have A1, B1, and C1, putting us back at the start.

But some subset of the birds have A1, B3, and C2, and thus have more pointed wings. It doesn’t matter much how many of them there are, or even if any of them exist in a particular generation of birds; we have a century to work with here, and about a hundred generations of birds. As long as somewhere along the way A1, B3, and C2 show up and prove beneficial, we’re set. As we trimmed the forests, the bird population declined, and those with A1, B3, and C2 didn’t decline as much. They were better suited to the new environment, where before they were just average among the population. As birds without A1, B3, and C2 failed to compete as well and died off, the percentage of birds with more pointed wings went up: evolution happened.

The more harsh the environment is to the bird status quo, the faster this die-off and re-jiggering of the genetic population happens. The birds are “rapidly evolving,” but only in the sense of the herd being rapidly thinned. As another example, consider if we lined up every human being on the planet and killed off all of them who couldn’t run a mile in six minutes. We’d be left with a much smaller, much fitter population. But if we killed off everyone who couldn’t run a mile in three minutes, we’d be extinct. Doing it in stages wouldn’t help much. If we started with six minutes, and every ten years lowered the limit by ten seconds, we might find in 150 years that there were a number of people who could run sub-3:30 miles, but the human race would be only a few years away from extinction as the required time continued to drop. Again, you can’t trim the bush taller.

“Evolving” is a transitive verb

While it’s not technically wrong to say the birds are rapidly evolving, it’s more accurate and less prone to misunderstanding to say that we are rapidly evolving the birds. We have a history of doing this, and not just recently: we evolved dogs from wolves, we evolved cattle from aurochs (which we then eradicated), and the list goes on and on.

So don’t say that the birds are rapidly evolving. They aren’t hurrying ahead of us, morphing their genes to stay viable as we remake their world. We are changing their environment, and those least suited to the new situation are dying off. To paraphrase Darwin, the fittest birds are surviving, and they are surviving us.


A note about the use of the term “gardener”

In most instances where it appears in this entry, the “gardener” is us — mankind. In those instances where it isn’t, it is a metaphor for natural selection. Do not make the mistake of thinking this article supports intelligent design, or that I am in any way swayed by the temper tantrums put forth as arguments by its supporters. If you misquote me to support your falsehoods I will hunt you down and lecture you mercilessly.

SpeakerText is awesome magic tech

Some tech is just crazy awesome. It solves a problem so well the problem vanishes, like magic. Balsamiq is an example. The iPhone is another. Hopefully the iPad will be too. I just ran into another called SpeakerText.

SpeakerText automatically transcribes YouTube videos and makes it trivial to work with them. That’s a poor description; there’s a better video of how it works on their web site. I used SpeakerText itself to generate this example link: Now, when you’ve actually published this, your readers will see it as a normal quote that is hyperlinked. When they click on it, it takes them to the exact spot in the video you want them to see, like this.

Another interesting aspect about SpeakerText is that it is, in the founder’s words, a “ghetto startup.” That’s a topic I’m very interested in.