William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, December 30, 2011

How to Make a REAL New Year's Resolution

“Resolution. A course of action determined or decided on.” —The American Heritage Dictionary

I used to make New Year’s resolutions, but none of them ever came to fruition. In the same vein, I’ve spent a lifetime making wishes when blowing out birthday candles. I don’t recall any of those wishes ever materializing. Why?

I suspect the key lies in one word of the above dictionary definition: determined. But there’s a twist. Yes, a course of action must be decided, but the far greater element is whether you, the resolution maker, have determination. Why do you want this thing? Is it an idle fancy or does it spring from a need so deep that not achieving it would constitute an unbearable failure?

“Wish. An expression of a desire, longing.” —The American Heritage Dictionary

My best friend and I started writing novels when we were 19. Started is the key word. I don’t think any of our projects ever made it past the 10,000-word mark. Some of our ideas were damned good, and I still think they have the potential for great success. As a writing team, we work very well together. We’ve shared in a lot of fun and built many happy memories over the years. But there’s obviously a missing component somewhere. We were wishing to be authors. We were not resolved. There was never a sense of fighting against unbearable failure, nothing compelling that said “this must be done,” and without that our pursuits went where nearly all such birthday and New Year’s wishes go: nowhere.

I have another friend with whom I’ve spent two years (so far) writing a book on personal finance called Where Does It All Go? He’s been a successful accountant and CFO, and he’s one of the most amazing, inspiring people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. Now entering its third draft, this book encapsulates and expands on a lecture seminar that he ran for many years and that has helped thousands of people. Working on this book changed me. Most of the initial writing was done in 2008 and 2009, when the recession was at its most bitter and all of my financial hubris and ignorance was coming back not just to bite me in the ass but to carve it up with a fork and kitchen knife. A large section of the book deals with establishing one’s values and goals. This is a prerequisite to personal progress. If you don’t know why you want something, you have no foundation from which to build.

Consider weight loss, a topic near and dear to me during 2011. Why do so many of us try and fail to lose weight? First off, the principles and methodologies recommended by most “experts” are inherently flawed. More important, though, is the matter of resolve. Losing weight—making any life-changing behavioral modification, in fact—requires a foundation of deep-seated resolve. A desire to “look better” is superficial. Even wishing to “feel better” is too nebulous. As I detailed in my earlier blog post, my own resolve springs from too many years of painful memories spent watching loved family members erode and become crippled by diseases that could have been prevented.

In my 40th year, officially entrenched in “middle age,” I resolved not to force such memories on my own children. The thought of doing so filled me with despair. It would mark an unbearable failure, and this became the foundation from which I was able to achieve my goal.

In Where Does It All Go?, we detail how to construct such a foundation through the identification of one’s values and goals. In a nutshell, values are the core principles we hold that define who we are by shaping our thinking and actions. Goals are the things we plan to achieve. (My use of the word “plan” rather than “wish” is not accidental.)

Now, here’s the key idea: it is almost impossible to achieve your goals when they are not in harmony with your values. This is part of why dieters stay fat when they lack values that will inspire a healthy lifestyle. This is why people who wish to be rich rarely become so, because they lack the values that align with deep success and the accumulation of wealth.

In working on the chapters that dealt with this material, I quickly realized that I had no idea what my values and goals were. No wonder I was 38 years old, in a financial tail-spin, depressed, aimless, and without a single book to my name despite having proclaimed my ambitions of authorship ever since grade school. I’d spent 30 years wishing to be an author and had no clue why I wanted to be one or why being one would matter.

The months I spent writing and rewriting these chapters reflected my own soul searching. Who was I? What did I really want? What difference would it make? Where was my foundation?

Slowly, I found answers. Motivational author Tony Robbins often says that to get good answers we must start by asking better questions. I finally started asking them and forced myself not to shy away until I had answers that could withstand constant scrutiny and cross-examination. With my life’s gas tank at the statistical half-full/empty mark, I was increasingly aware of the need to find the right answers before even more years slipped away.

What was the result? At the end of my 39th year, I self-published my first book. Sure, it was a book of poetry, and I don’t aspire to be a poet in the professional sense, but it was a start. In my 40th year, I self-published three non-fiction books. Proud as I am of these, I still view them as a warm-up, a learning experience. I’m stocking my writing shop with the tools necessary to build bigger and better works to come. This type of one-step-at-a-time thinking was totally alien to me in my youth, and I believe it’s a vital component in successful goal achievement.

Naturally, everyone has different values and goals. Here at the dawn of a new year, I wanted to take this opportunity to share mine with you in the hope that they might inspire you to find your own answers. Don’t let your New Year’s resolutions be another idle toast at midnight, another wish that vanishes into the air like smoke from a blown out candle. We are not here to dissolve into particulate nothingness. We are here to build, achieve, and realize our individual potential.

My Values and Goals

My collaborator recommends keeping your values and goals lists down to five items or less. I’ve found that a longer list of values can usually be consolidated. The simpler and more foundational the concept, the more it encompasses. In my list, I strove for a mix of near- and intermediate-term items. Usually, goals with a longer time horizon will necessitate the establishment of shorter-term mileposts. This is why I used the word “plan” earlier. Without a plan, nothing ever gets accomplished, which is why so many wishes fail. Not only do they lack a value foundation, they also lack a defined strategy of steps that leads to achievement.

I maintain a Google Doc that serves primarily as my daily to-do list, but it begins with the following values and goals lists so that I can see and review them several times each day. Many people believe that such reinforcement has significant psychological benefits.

Value #1: Following my bliss.

As a big fan of Joseph Campbell, this key bit of advice from the master of comparative mythology and religion resonates deeply with me. Today, I can point to virtually every major failure or mistake in my life and see how it stemmed from not following my bliss. I failed to pursue that which brings me true and meaningful happiness and elicits harmony in my life.

As an example, not too long ago, I spent two years studying how to day trade financial options. I thought I had the brains and will to be successful at it and thus find a shortcut to the riches I desired. This goal did not align with my values. Deep down, I know I’m not a financial whiz. The pursuit cost me many thousands of dollars, and in the time I spent trying to master day trading I could have written a novel...perhaps two.

Value #2: Nurturing and elevating those around me.

As an only child, I grew up with a sense of selfish entitlement. It took a long time, parenthood, and the influence of my sublime wife to shift my world view. Now it’s clear to me that lasting happiness derives from helping and sharing with others, not from things one consumes or hordes. Sometimes, old habits die hard, but I combat them as best I can and believe that building up others is the surest way to improve oneself.

Value #3: Educating and entertaining the world through writing.

Why do I love to write? If I’m honest, there’s probably an element of narcissism to it, but the years have shown me that I derive little satisfaction from writing that does not somehow positively impact the reader. I’ve been paid thousands of dollars for writing projects that I found boring and meaningless, and invariably I finish such projects feeling empty and unsatisfied. It’s not about the money, which I both need and appreciate. It's something else. For me, writing is one of the few tools I have for realizing value #2. I discovered when involved with theater in high school that I derive immense satisfaction from entertaining people, but I’m a better writer than an actor (I hope). And to my mind, educating people is one of the best ways possible to nurture and elevate them.

By now, you should see that these three values are complementary and interlocking—a sure sign that they are harmonious facets of a single entity.

Value #4: Relentless pursuit of increasing effectiveness.

Of these four values, this is my greatest weakness. I’ve historically been a poor scheduler, and I’m prone to diversion. In recognizing this, though, I understand what I can and should improve.

More broadly, how can one become more effective in the achievement of goals? Whether the answer is time management, knowledge accumulation, practicing skills, or any number of similar things, I believe it’s fundamentally important to strive constantly for better tools and practices with which to attain our objectives. Again, this value is complementary with the preceding three.

Over time, I’ve experimented with having other values on this list, but they inevitably strike me as being personally irrelevant or just more complex iterations of these four ideas. So for now, the list stands at four items.

Goal #1: I will be a full-time book author by my 50th birthday.

And to think, once upon a time, I wished to have my first best-selling novel on store shelves by the age of 25. The irony is that in my early 20s, I had far more time and far fewer responsibilities than I do now, and it would have been much easier to write that novel. But because I didn’t recognize (or hadn’t yet cultivated) the four values described above, I was invariably distracted by pursuits that were not in harmony with my own best interests.

Today, I understand that the term “best-seller” is loaded with factors and connotations that no longer interest me. Seeing my name on a list in The New York Times won’t fulfill any of my goals, nor is it relevant to my values. It would be some sort of ego-based affirmation from an external authority rather than a validation of internal achievement.

Much as I find some aspects of my career in journalism and freelance writing rewarding, it’s virtually impossible to retire in my line of work. There is no residual income stream. Every new dollar must be generated with work that starts from scratch, and I haven’t seen a per-word rate raise in over a decade. Needless to say, this doesn't make things any easier as I get older. Thus it’s imperative to begin cultivating passive income streams with works that will continue to offer value to readers and generate income over the long-term. With a little luck and a mountain of hard work, my plan is to have these passive income streams at least covering my basic living expenses by 2020. This is a finite, measurable objective.

Goal #2: I will have amassed a $100,000 cash cushion by my 45th birthday.

Why not? I’m nowhere close to this amount today (although I could have achieved it already if not for the value-less blunders made in my 30s). But I believe that if I live each day in accordance with my values and direct my efforts accordingly, this is feasible. Again, this goal is a finite, measureable objective that lends itself well to periodic mileposts.

Goal #3: I will send my children to Oregon Episcopal School.

Of my five goals, this one is the least specific and the one that gives me the most concern. I went to OES for my four years of high school, and it was arguably the most influential, positive, and transformative stage of my life. I have always wanted the same opportunity for my two boys. Ideally, I wanted them to begin in middle school (grades six through eight). However, annual tuition at OES middle school is now $23,540. The upper school (grades nine through 12) is $24,230. This year, my boys are in first and fourth grades. The clock is ticking, and I’m no closer to making this goal a reality today than I was five years ago.

Like many self-employed people, on paper, I make too much money to qualify for financial aid (which was how my dad was able to send me). If I ignore amassing a cash cushion, this goal becomes more feasible, but I can’t sacrifice immediate financial security, especially in the current economic climate, for the more questionable necessity of a superior education. You don’t build a gazebo when your home’s roof is leaking.

So for this goal, I don’t have mileposts or definite dates, which makes it uncomfortably close to being a wish. The difference is that this goal is founded on my values—specifically #2 and to a lesser degree numbers 1 and 4. Also, in my mind, not sending my kids to OES or an equivalent school (of which there’s really only one in our area) would constitute a profound failure on my part.

Goal #4: I will be able to do 10 consecutive pull-ups by my 42nd birthday.

Now we come to the short-term items. Last year, my goal was to lose 40 pounds by my 41st birthday, and I made it. The fact that I achieved this pales beside the fact that I was able, largely through my writing, to educate others about my methods and inspire them to pursue similar life changes. Clearly, this aligns well with my values.

This year, I’m ready to progress beyond weight loss and into general fitness. Obviously, there are many ways to measure fitness, but in the interest of keeping things simple, I’ve selected a simple goal: 10 pull-ups. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I haven’t been able to do a complete pull-up since junior high. As a child, fitness was never a priority in my family, and it shows.

On the surface, pull-ups doesn’t seem to mesh with my values, but I know that to be able to achieve this goal, I will have to cultivate a bed of learning and discipline, some of which I will hopefully be able to pass on to those around me.

Goal #5: I will publish my first novel by my 42nd birthday.

Here it is, set in stone. There is no more time for dilly-dallying. I have a good idea already under development that I think is both entertaining and, to a lesser degree, educating. More importantly, in the hour each morning during which I work on this book, I can sense how right it feels to be working on it. In that one hour, I am pursuing my bliss.

The book may bomb. It could end up sucking. It is, after all, my first novel that will be completed, and I have no illusions about the odds of hitting a home run my first time at bat. But to achieve goal #1, goal #5 must happen, and it should assist in the pursuit of goals #2 and #3. Again, cooperation between goals is important.

Your Turn

That’s it. The perhaps scary and long-winded peek inside my head is over, and you now understand the process I went through in creating feasible goals rather than idle New Year’s resolutions. I hope you can do something similar.

Many people are afraid to make real goals because we fear failure. I sure did...and still do. But that’s OK. What if I’d only lost 30 pounds this year instead of 40? What if I only save up $50,000 for a cash cushion rather than $100,000? Will this constitute failure? Of course not! I’d still be down 30 pounds! Having $50,000 in the bank in a lot better than lying awake in bed knowing that you have zero financial breathing room. When goals are in alignment with your values, any progress is good and worthwhile. Letting fear take hold and doing nothing is the only real failure.

Don’t just blow an idle wish into the breeze when that big ball drops. Make a plan...and make it happen.

Monday, December 26, 2011

What to Eat? My "Nine Necessaries" List

After the terrific interest in my recent post about my low-carb lifestyle success, the top question people keep asking me is, "What should I eat? I have no idea what to do!"

I faced the same problem. Before I made this change, my idea of cooking in the morning was making a quad raspberry mocha. The night before I started low-carb, I went to bed thinking, "I have no clue what I'm going to eat for breakfast!" Bagel? Out. Cereal? Out. A freaking banana and some raisins? Out. (Remember that most fruits, especially bananas, have a high glycemic load and are thus heavy on carbs.) I had to do something I'd never done for a weekday breakfast: cook. I beat three eggs, salt, and pepper, then scrambled them with chopped up baby spinach, tomatoes, ham, and some salsa. This might have been the first time I'd ever voluntarily eaten vegetables for breakfast in my life. And it was good! As it turns out, I lost four pounds that day.

Of course, all that extra food preparation takes time. We're not big cooking types in my house. Any meal that takes longer to prepare and clean than it does to eat strikes me as a very skewed value proposition, and I know many of you share this feeling. You're busy. You've got better things to do than chop and rinse and fold and whatever else those kitcheny types seem to relish so much. My philosophy on cooking: get in, get out, lose weight -- period.

With that in mind, I'd like to recommend our nine favorite low-carb menu items. If you have no idea where to start, try these.

1. Breakfast: Mini Frittatas

This is my favorite low-carb breakfast recipe, lifted from the Food Network HERE. Essentially, you make up a big batch of scrambled eggs, only you're going to cook the eggs in a muffin pan rather than a skillet. I use a 12-muffin pan, and with nine eggs rather than the recipe's eight, it works out exactly right.

Note that I use spinach, tomato, and a few dashes of Tobasco sauce rather than the recipe's recommended parsley. If I'm having trouble getting past a weight plateau, I'll also drop the recommended milk out of the mix.

I'll make the pan up on Sunday night and put them all in the fridge. Eating three per breakfast, that's four breakfasts made in 30 minutes with only one load of dishes to clean. Now, that's what I'm talkin' about.

2. Breakfast/Snack: Primal Blueprint Nutty Blueberry Protein Balls

I mentioned in my prior post about what huge fans we are of Mark Sisson and his books. Here's proof. This recipe comes from his Primal Blueprint Quick & Easy Meals cookbook, which, in our opinion, is even better than his The Primal Blueprint Cookbook. If you only invest in one cookbook, make it the Quick & Easy title.

You'll find the nutty balls recipe -- always good for a few guilty snickers during casual conversation -- scattered in various incarnations around the Web. Here are two good examples from PALEO MADELINE and NOM NOM PALEO. Obviously, you can change the type of nuts and fruits to suit your taste. Keep in mind that the blueberries are for flavor, but most of the sweetness is coming from the dates, which are much higher in glycemic load, so don't go overboard with them. No matter which specific ingredients you pick, though, two or three of these balls will keep you running. They pack well if you're on the road. Better yet, they're pretty dry and thus great at making you thirsty. If you're like me and procrastinate drinking your water, two of these nutty balls will have you chugging down an eight-ounce glass in no time at all.

3. Lunch: Salad With Low-Carb Dressing

Not much to report here. Pretty much every non-cheat day meal around here is a salad. We use baby spinach in place of lettuce almost without exception, but that's a change we made years ago for better health and nutrition. Naturally, you can put whatever you want on a salad. Hard boiled eggs and any kind of meat, especially leftovers, are fair game. For some crunch, I use a sprinkle of sunflower seeds. Again, go really easy on the shredded cheese, and remember that Parmesan is preferable to any of the softer cheeses. If you do pick up the Primal Blueprint Quick & Easy Meals Book, my wife is particularly fond of the Greek Salad recipe.

Historically, I've always preferred my salads without dressing, but there's nothing like a few dozen salads in a  row to inspire a need for diversity. We've grown fond of a few low-carb honey mustard and vinaigrette dressings from the store. Start reading the labels and find one or two that will work for you. It's not hard to find yummy dressings that don't rely on carbs for adding flavor.

4. Snack: Nuts and Beef Jerky

Snacking is essential on a low-carb diet. The object of the game is to keep your insulin and blood sugars at steady, moderated levels throughout the day and get off the pattern of massive dips and spikes that are so typical of high-carb/low-fat diets. Nuts are great for this. Two or three times a day, I'll take a drag off of my jar of unsalted, bulk food peanuts and go about my way. (Beware of the salted varieties. Read the label and you'll likely find that the substances used to make the salt stick to the nuts contain carbs.) My wife, Knico, prefers pistachios, but she can destroy a bag of those things like nobody's business. We've found that more than about a half-cup of shelled nuts per day will sabotage weight loss, so read the labels and gauge accordingly. If necessary, use snack-sized Ziploc bags and create pre-sized rations for use throughout the day. When the bags are empty, you're done for the day.

Nearer and dearer to my heart is the beef jerky recipe found in the manual for Smokehouse's Little Chief smoker (manufactured here in Oregon). You'll go broke trying to fund a jerky habit from the store. (And store jerky is stupid high in carbs!) It simply must be homemade, and homemade tastes so much better! We got our smoker from Amazon for about $100, but you'll find them available elsewhere. I buy five pounds of sirloin per batch and find that if you only use about half of the recommended salt, the recipe is about perfect.

Interestingly, the wood you use is very important. The hickory chips that come included with the Little Chief are OK but not great. Alder does nothing for me. Hickory is so-so, but mesquite is outstanding. My granddad used to swear by apple wood chips, and I find that a blend of mesquite and apple yields results that are to die for. (You can buy wood chips at places such as Lowe's or Home Depot as well as online.) Slicing the meat about 1/4-inch thick, I'll smoke a batch for three hours, reverse the trays in the smoker, add another load of chips, then smoke for two more hours. It's better to undercook than overcook. The manual also has a great recipe for smoked salmon and many other variations.

I literally don't know how I would get through a week without this jerky. It fulfills my carnivorous cravings and keeps me sane when carbs start to sound like a really yummy idea. One batch lasts me about two weeks, and it's money very well spent.

Ah, one other bit of wisdom from my granddad: You can buy insulating covers for these smoker, which will help assist in the smoking process by retaining the heat. This will cut down on the total smoking time. However, rather than spend the $25 or $30 on the factory's recommended cover, simply take a knife to your smoker's retail box so it looks something like mine. I recall that Granddad's smoker's cover was blanketed in duct tape, and, after 10 or 12 uses, I can see that mine is heading for the same modification. With duct tape, the cover should last for years provided you keep it dry.

5. Lunch/Dinner: Bunless Burger or Club Sandwich

Whether you love or hate the company's TV ads, you gotta give credit to Carl's Jr. for being the only fast food chain (I've found so far) that will wrap your sandwich order in generous amounts of leaf lettuce rather than serve your bunless entre to you in a humiliating plastic bowl. Some days when we want a treat, Knico and I will hit the Carl's drive-thru and get a couple of sandwiches along with an unsweetened iced tea and a packet of Splenda. Having the ability to order your favorite fast food sans bun is one of the great pleasures of the low-carb approach. Meats, a slice of cheese, mayo, tomato, lettuce...it's all good.

For the record, McDonald's is among the worst of the fast food chains in this regard. There's nothing like seeing the chain's small, pathetic patties in a bowl to make you appreciate just how much such restaurants rely on buns in order to sell the product.

6. Lunch/Dinner: Chicken Chorizo Patty Melt

Some close friends who've joined us on the low-carb plan swear by this Food Network recipe. To make it low-carb, of course, simply get rid of the bun and either substitute with leaf lettuce or eat with a fork and knife on a plate. Depending on where you're at with your goals, you may also want to back off on some of the cheese.

7. Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner: Paleo Pizza

Knico is also a big fan of Sarah Fragoso's Everyday Paleo cookbook. One of the recipes in there is for "paleo pizza." I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but it makes sense once you examine the ingredients and assess them in the context of what paleolithic-era humans would have been eating. Fragaso has a breakfast pizza recipe in her book in which the "crust" is mostly eggs, and it's an interesting alternative to the usual scramble, but she also has a more conventional pizza HERE.

Of course, being a pizza, you're free to mix and match whatever topping ingredients you please. We've found that our kids are more tolerant of "weird" vegetables when presented in a pizza format, so this is a double-win recipe.

I will warn you that the almond meal crust will most likely be drier than what you're expecting. Again, I'm fine with this since it inspires more water consumption. It is more crumbly, though, and you may need to eat with a fork and knife rather than being able to lift up a whole piece and wave it around, as with conventional pizza.

8. Snack: Low-Carb Chocolate

At least once per month, the impulse to consume chocolate in my home becomes a medical necessity. If you're like us, you've found most sugar-free chocolate over the years to taste like something between tree bark and pigeon poop. My mother-in-law had us try this bar from Simply Lite, and we were floored by how good it tastes. Seriously, it tastes like chocolate. We now pick them up at Trader Joe's, although you can find them online.

Simply Lite uses sugar alcohols rather than straight up sugar. The net effective carb amount per serving is like 1 g. It's nothing. That said, be aware that many low-carb pros caution against such candies because they're so easy to abuse. As with Splenda and other artificial sweeteners, your body is still going to perceive that something sweet has hit your system, even if, chemically, the carbs aren't there. This perception of sweetness will trigger an insulin response. Now, I'm guessing that the insulin response isn't as pronounced as from real sugar, but it must be significant, otherwise we wouldn't see so many fat long-term diet soda drinkers. If we only eat a couple of squares from the Simply Lite bar -- just enough to let it melt in the mouth and kill the chocolate craving -- we can have one bar last a whole week...sometimes less, depending on the, um, lunar phase.

9. Dessert: Skillet Brownies

You gotta have a few good, low-carb dessert recipes on hand to help you through life, and THIS ONE is our favorite so far. We ignore the flourishing touches with salt, Zinfandel, and cranberries, both of which would only add carbs and perhaps detract from the primary objective of having a chocolate dessert, but feel free to experiment.

These brownies are moist, easy, and, as the author points out, cheaper than most low-carb alternatives. Divided into 16 servings, each piece works out to just under 10 g of carbs, and that's with sweetening it up with a 1/2 cup of coconut nectar in place of the honey. With no cheats on your day, you should have no problem handling the relatively few carbs in this, especially if you want to bust out a couple minutes of air squats before partaking.

Warning: If you try these brownies before weaning away from sugar, they may not taste sweet enough to you. Those of us who've grown accustomed to a low-sugar diet find these brownies plenty sweet. In fact, they're even more enjoyable because your senses are relishing the true taste of the chocolate and aren't just craving that big sugar rush. If you still find that you need a bit more sweetness, consider adding just a few carbs more by drizzling on a low-carb ganache such as THIS.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

New "Architects of Tomorrow" Ebook is Available!

The average American reads at 300 words per minute. My newly released book of interviews with a dozen fascinating high-tech luminaries, “Architects of Tomorrow, Volume 2,” is roughly 55,000 words. That’s over three hours of awesome brain food for only $1.99. The average U.S. movie ticket price is now about $8. So seeing, say, Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 would only “entertain” you for half the time, cost four times as much, and might even leave you feeling temporarily lobotomized. In contrast, AoT Vol. 2 is an awesome value for anyone even mildly interested in the history of technology, the online sites and devices that now fill our world, or our technological future. Whether as a treat for yourself or a gift for someone(s) you know, please consider my ridiculously low-priced yet undeniably thought-provoking Kindle ebook. Any social media recommendations and/or reviews on the book’s Amazon page would be like a special holiday present and fill my heart with yuletide joy -- thank you!

The interviewees in Volume 2 are:

Nolan Bushnell, Founder Of Atari
David “Dadi” Perlmutter, Godfather Of The Modern Processor
Shari Steele, Executive Director & President Of The EFF
Jon S. von Tetzchner, Co-Founder & CEO Of Opera Software
Gordon Bell: Inventor, Minicomputer Designer & Microsoft Researcher
Peter Rojas, Co-Founder Of Gizmodo & Engadget
Mark Re, Seagate’s Senior Vice President of Research
Tim Westergren, Founder Of Pandora
Jaron Lanier, Virtual Reality Pioneer
Noel Lee, Founder Of Monster Cable
Ken Huang, Father Of The Small Form Factor PC
Professor Kevin Warwick, The World’s First Cyborg

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Best Present...of Your Life

The Good News

Today is my 41st birthday. Ever since reading The Lord of the Rings, I’ve been fond of the idea of giving away presents for one’s birthday. This year, I’d like to give you an experience I’ve had for the past six months. I believe it's saved my life. Perhaps it might do the same for you.

On June 20, 2011, I weighed 234 pounds. Today, as of this morning, I weigh 193.5, for a net loss of 40.5 pounds. In the interests of honesty and scientific accuracy, I'll confess that I normally weigh in at night, and 193.5 was this morning's weight. But my goal was to lose 40 pounds in under six months—specifically by my birthday—so if you'll cut me a few hours of slack on the measurement methodology, I'll feel no qualms in declaring victory.

My wife, Knico, is down 43 pounds in the same period. When we hug now, we can feel our ribs pressing together. We can’t remember the last time that happened. It’s funny and invigorating when little things like that strike you. This is about the shape we were in when we got married, before two kids and 15 years of stress and bad habits.

Odds are nearly seven in ten that you’re in the same boat I was in. Sixty-eight percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and the numbers keep getting worse. At the same time, 90% of us believe that we eat healthy diets. Are people deluding themselves about what “overweight” is? You bet. Are people in denial about their true eating habits? Probably.

But there’s another possibility that is rarely explored: What if most of the information we’ve been fed about “healthy” eating for the last 40 years is wrong?

Think about it. From early grade school on, we’re taught the merits of the USDA’s food pyramid. Look at the pyramid’s base, the level we’re supposed to eat six to eleven helpings of per day: bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. This is the foundation and most prevalent component of the American diet (not to mention the Midwest farming economy). Right above this, at two to four servings per day, is fruit. Meanwhile, above this at only two to three daily servings are meats, eggs, and nuts, those “bad” foods that are so rich in obesity-causing fats and artery-clogging cholesterol.

Now, I’ve always been a contrarian sort of guy, and by last June I obviously had a growing weight problem. So one day when I stumbled across two separate sources that said this pyramid was dead wrong, that it practically needed to be turned upside-down, I paid close attention. Why?

Ah, that takes us to...

The Backstory

Few images stick in one’s childhood memory quite like seeing your mom wheeled past you, her skin yellowed from iodine and her body bloated after having been cracked open down the middle and pried apart during bypass surgery like a holiday turkey. Ultimately, it wasn’t the coronary condition that took her down. Nor was it the diabetes or the hypertension. Mom died from cancer. Her final 20 years were a fascinating study for anyone wanting to learn just how many ailments one body can sustain.

My grandfather also had a heart attack in his 50s, followed by a mammary artery bypass. The veins in his legs were shot, and he was never able to walk without pain again. My father is still alive. After two heart attacks, he now has seven stents near his heart forcing open bloodways that had become almost entirely choked by countless thousands of small, unfortunate life choices. He also has Type 2 diabetes and can barely feel his toes. His two brothers and sister now have diabetes, as well.

The trend for me is not encouraging.

In looking back, much of my life has been punctuated by watching the people who raised me die one hospital visit at a time. Now that I'm 41 and my two boys are at the age I was when all of these memories of illness began, I have decided that this is one legacy I do not want them to share. I do not want to be the pot-bellied dad who ends up seeing his grandchildren mostly at his hospital bedside.

It’s easy for anyone to say, "Well, I’m not going to be like that. I'm going to be different." I've sure said it enough times. But my expanding waist and vanishing chin said more than any plumped up promises to the contrary.

Let’s Talk Numbers

At 6' 0", the charts say I should weigh about 175. Personally, I think I would look emaciated at 175. Over a decade ago, I felt pretty good about myself in the 190 to 195 range. Recently, at age 40, I topped out at 234, and the scale readout kept creeping upward. My triglycerides, cholesterol, and blood pressure were above normal even in my mid-30s. The writing was on the wall. I was headed for the same fate as the rest of my family.

Something had to be done...but what?

You know the answer, of course. It’s what we’re all taught: exercise more, eat fewer calories, increase your grains, and load up on fruits and vegetables. Dietary fat is the enemy.

We all know this. It’s what we’ve heard all our lives. There’s only one problem.

Like the food pyramid, it’s wrong. And I have 40 missing pounds to prove it. Not only that, I have several friends who have adopted all or parts of my new dietary regimen in the same time I have. All of them have lost at least 20 pounds. One friend from high school has lost 47. My cousin lost 49 pounds in 17 weeks. None of us went to a meeting or bought any special foods or products. There were no injections. Everything I needed to know I got for free from the library.

Unfortunately, I didn’t exercise much during these six months. In fact, for nearly four weeks, I was laid out in bed with vertigo. But I didn’t need to exercise in order to lose weight. I still ate a fair amount of pizza, burgers, and desserts. Compared to the rigorous starvation of calorie restriction, my diet was a cake walk. I should point out that I use the word “diet” here to mean simply the food I eat on a daily basis, not some temporary plan to hit a goal and then be abandoned. The diet changes I’ve made are meant to be sustainable for the rest of my life.

Three weeks into this process, I had a blood draw and a lipid panel worked up. Prior to starting this new lifestyle, I had the following lipid levels:

Glucose: 93
Cholesterol: 192
Triglycerides: 228

Only three weeks into this diet, with no other changes in my activities, my blood results showed the following:

Glucose: 87
Cholesterol: 153
Triglycerides: 106

No, that’s not a typo—228 to 106 in three weeks, and that’s with feeding my face full of eggs and fatty meat (and piles of vegetables). As a point of comparison, statins such as Lipitor will only reduce triglycerides by about 20% over 18 months, and they come with a host of dangerous side effects. My biggest issues now are increasing my HDL levels with more exercise and improving my daily water intake.

The Breakthrough

There are many ways to diet. Virtually none of them work in the long run. According to the National Association of Physical Activity and Health, “231 million people in the European Union attempted a diet in 2002, but less than four million will succeed in keeping their new, trimmer figures for more than a year.” That's a 98% failure rate.

Most diets encourage you to take in fewer calories through food and burn more calories through exercise. This message is so ingrained that we never question its validity. But fill in the blank: “Wow, I just jogged five miles and really worked up an __________.” Does this seem counterproductive? I’m running to burn calories, but for hours my body is screaming at me to compensate and consume more calories. So perhaps a glass of apple juice (roughly 200 calories) and a whole wheat bagel (300 calories) with a smidge of lowfat cream cheese (50 calories) is all I need to feel better. Exactly how far do I have to run to burn off those 550 extra calories?

If I don’t eat them, I will starve—literally. My body will start consuming both fat and muscle to compensate for the caloric deficit, and I will be hungry...constantly. This is why calorie-based diets almost always fail over the long-term. Yes, you will lose weight for a few weeks, maybe even a few months if you’re really determined. But eventually, the odds overwhelmingly show that you will fail. You can’t fight how your body is built to operate and expect to win.

I found this out the hard way. In 2010, at an all-time high weight of 236, I promised myself that I would drop 20 pounds before my 40th birthday. I dieted for six months, using a phone app to count calories. At the very end, I piled on a last burst of extreme self-denial—and I made it!

After three months, I’d gained 18 pounds back, just as I’d done with every other diet in my life. All of that trouble and suffering for nothing. I felt like a dope. My wife had stopped describing me as thin. I was ashamed to take my shirt off around my children, and I shunned having my picture taken.

Then two little miracles happened courtesy of the Washington County Library.

The first was The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, a book I’d reserved because I’d enjoyed his  “The 4-Hour Workweek” several months before. Ferriss spends a few chapters discussing what he calls the Slow-Carb diet. The science and research he cites are fascinating, but essentially his plan boils down to five points (borrowed from here):

Rule #1: Avoid “white” carbohydrates. Don’t eat bread, pasta, rice (brown or white), grains, potatoes, breaded fried food, or dairy on your slow-carb days.

Rule #2: Eat the same few meals over and over again. Meals should include protein, legumes, and non-starchy vegetables. Eat as much as you like three to four times per day.

Rule #3: Don’t drink calories. Avoid milk (including soy), sweetened soda (no more than 16oz of diet), and fruit juice. One or two glasses of red wine are permitted.

Rule #4: Don’t eat fruit. Tomatoes and avocados are okay (the latter in moderation).

Rule #5: Take one day off per week. Go nuts and eat lots of calories to keep your metabolic rate (thyroid function, conversion of T4 to T3, leptin) up. Do at least five days of rules 1-4 before following rule 5.

Ferriss is a self-styled rule bender who has no qualms about blowing his own horn and abusing himself to make a point. His tone can seem a bit extreme.

At this time, I was also writing an article about library lending of ebooks. I was testing out the Barnes & Noble NOOK Color, and while I’d been on the Washington County Library2Go site (the library's vehicle for digital content lending), a book called The 6-Week Cure to the Middle-Aged Middle had caught my eye. I’d never read a health book in my life, but hey. I was 40. I clearly had a middle-aged middle. So I stuck it on the NOOK and promptly forgot about it. Then I read Ferriss’s book, remembered this Dr. Eades title, started reading it, and realized that these two guys, coming from radically different approaches and backgrounds, were saying essentially the same thing.

The message was loud and clear: carbs will slowly kill you, and the worst offender of all is sugar. The evidence detailed by these authors paints an increasingly damning picture of carbs, not fat, being a primary culprit in our society’s worst ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer—all of the main killers in my family.

From these two books, I started reading several more of Eades’s books, including his groundbreaking title, Protein Power. I also highly recommend his blog. It didn’t take me long to find Gary Taubes’s article on sugar in The New York Times or Taubes’s own book, Why We Get Fat. Knico found Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple, and his Primal Blueprint series. Once you dig into the low-carb subject and its various offshoots, such as the paleo diet, you discover that there is a huge amount of good information available and a quickly growing body of scientific study showing that most of the conventional “wisdom” we grew up with is little more than a fallacious fabrication that began around 1970. We have been living a lie, and now it’s killing us by the millions.

I won’t drag this out with a long discussion of these resources. Over a few weeks, I modified Ferriss’s rules with some advice from Eades and others, and it’s a mix that works for my wife and me. For example, we’ll eat a handful of berries every other day or so in a protein smoothie. (Berries have a lower sugar load than most other fruits.) We don't eat the same foods every day. Actually, Knico has bought several low-carb cookbooks, and the food, including the desserts, is downright tasty once you stop expecting a mouthful of sugar. Occasionally, we’ll indulge in a little espresso with cream (not milk, since it elicits a higher insulin response). As Ferriss advises, we do air squats around bad “cheat” meals. If you’re interested, you now have the links, or you can email me. But rather than bog us down with more theory, I’m going to show you my own daily log.

My nearly six months of measurements are HERE.

I’m pretty bad with spreadsheets, and I don’t know how to properly format Google’s system in particular, but the data is all there. Red denotes “cheat” days, as per Ferriss’ plan, and I’ve tried to make notes about the cheat foods and other miscellaneous items along the way. If you just want the key points, here they are:

1) Weight loss starts fast and then tapers off as you get closer to your “ideal” weight.
2) Air squats and wall pushes around cheats will cut your upward weight bounces significantly.
3) There will be plateau periods and times when your weight ratchets up for no apparent reason.

Don’t pay too much attention to individual days; focus more on week-to-week measurements. If you’re stuck in a rut, look for trouble spots. My snag tends to be dairy. Ferriss cautions against it for a good reason.

Here’s how this data looks in chart form:

Of course, pounds only tell part of the story. Nobody can see how much you weigh. They can see your measurements, though. Here’s what happened to mine: (Note that variances in tape measurement position will often account for minor fluctuations.)


You Can Dooo Eeeet!

I can’t count how many times I’ve told people about my dietary change and heard in reply, “Well, I can’t do that.” Really? Could you do bypass surgery instead? I hear they’re fun, especially for your kids.

You can do that. I’m doing it, and I plan on doing it forever. There is no “suffering” or deprivation. If I’m desperate for pizza or a luscious chocolate dessert, I have it—once a week. While I desperately need to start exercising and increase my fitness level, this is not necessary for losing fat. Exercise will help you be healthy; it will not make you thin. Read Eades and Taubes for the many well-researched reasons why.

Let me reiterate how comparatively easy this system is. I lose weight consistently while eating whenever I’m hungry. I eat big meals loaded with delicious food. I can eat a breakfast of ham, three eggs, beans, spinach, tomatoes, and salsa, be hungry two hours later, snack, have a big lunch, chow down another mid-afternoon snack (often peanuts, homemade jerky, or a berry fruit smoothie), and pile on a big dinner, sometimes even followed by another sweet, low-carb snack before bed. And I lose weight. Honestly, the only difficult part of this process was the first three days or so, when I experienced the lightheadedness, hot flashes, and weakness symptoms common with carbohydrate withdrawal. By the end of the first month, most of the sugar and bread cravings had gone away.

All of this works because I watch the carb counts. By and large, I’m eating the food that the human body evolved to consume over two million years of evolution, not the synthetic crapfest we’ve devised over the last few hundred years. I keep within a range of about 80 to 100 grams of carbohydrates each day. (Once I'm satisfied with my weight, I'll simply step up to 100 to 120 grams of carbs per day for maintenance.) I’m not interested in that 20 grams or less Atkins crash course “induction” business. Who needs that kind of punishment? I have a balanced diet that’s low in carbs and relatively high in fat. Does that mean my blood serum cholesterol and triglycerides are shooting to the moon? Obviously not. The lipid panels don’t lie.

Moreover, aside from weight loss and improved blood serum levels, there are plenty of other benefits to a low-carb/low-sugar lifestyle. There is slowly mounting evidence that the principles of this diet will combat and prevent cancer. Low-carb can similarly thwart diabetes. Unlike a low-fat diet, it will reduce the amount of inflammation in your body, which is increasingly thought to be at the heart, if you will, of coronary disease. The huge energy swings that used to plague my afternoons have vanished. Apart from the fact that it takes longer to cook a meal than pull it out of a box, there isn't a single downside to this system.

Mark Sisson (Primal Blueprint) at age 56.
I know: shut up, right?
So...do you need to get healthier? Are you interested yet? I promised myself that I would make this information public when I hit my goal of losing 40 pounds before my 41st birthday. I barely made it, and others doing this along with me have easily surpassed my mark. Forty pounds is nearly twice the weight loss I saw in 2010, achieved in less time and with far less trauma. This is literally the only sustainable, sensible diet system I've ever seen in my life, and the only thing you need to buy is regular groceries.

It works. Consider following my suggested reading links or feel free to send me questions. What you find out just might save your life.