Essays on Technology and Culture

Healthy Living isn’t One Size Fits All

I’m fat. Not so fat that I would need two seats on an airplane, unless we’re talking RyanAir, but I weigh about 200 pounds and I’m 5’8″. In other words, I’m built like a hobbit. My BMI has hovered around 30 to 31, so I’m borderline obese by that criteria. Could be worse—just a few years ago I was over 230, and would get winded bending over to tie my shoes. I dropped the pounds by calorie counting for the most part, but I’ve been stuck at 200 for a while. I’ve also been heavy all my life, in a family whose body types range from heavy to very heavy. My mother even underwent gastric bypass surgery several years ago to deal with her weight. (It’s helped a lot.)

As someone who’s been trying, though maybe not as hard as he could be, to shed pounds, I see a lot about food and diet flying around these Internets. I see even more of it at my day job in medical journalism, with diet articles running through my inbox several times a week. Thankfully, the kind of diet articles I work with are ones that approach it from a scientific and medical standpoint, so it’s not as annoying. Still, the volume of talk about food, and what one should eat, and shouldn’t eat, almost has me annoyed enough to just drink three glasses of Soylent a day so I don’t have to think about it—if a supply of Soylent wasn’t back-ordered for the next decade.

Part of the problem is that I like food too much. That’s not why I’m overweight—well not the only reason why I’m overweight. It’s also why I’m unwilling to commit to any sort of elimination diet (e.g. Paleo/Keto/Vegetarian/etc.) unless a physician orders me to as a matter of life or death. I grew up not on Saturday Morning Cartoons, but Saturday Morning PBS Cooking shows. The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook hold dear places in my youthful memories, as does cooking out of a children’s cookbook with my Mom. Even now, I actively enjoy cooking, whether something as simple as a weeknight thrown-together stir-fry, or a Sunday roast chicken. (And I make a mean roast chicken.) I don’t want to give up what I enjoy, if I don’t have to.

I don’t want to say that if you find eating by a certain elimination diet works for you to not do it. That way lies madness. And certainly if your doctor tells you to cut something out, I won’t tell you they’re wrong. That way lies madness, too. It just frustrates me when I see so many people suggesting so many different diets that I immediately check out. I have the same problem when trying to settle on an exercise plan. (I still don’t have one besides “walk a lot.”) I have a copy of Staring Strength, considered to be the book for people who want to begin weight training, and I begin to smell toast partway through the first chapter. Best I’ve managed is Couch-to–5K, or the bodyweight exercise routines in FitStar, because they explain what to do in small words and pretty pictures in the case of FitStar.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the nutrition and diet talk that flies through my daily life, it’s that we don’t really know anything about what makes for a proper diet. We’re slowly figuring it out, but we still don’t know. The sheer diversity of human beings on this planet, the biomes they live in, the food supplies available to them, and the adaptability of the human digestive system means that a diet that works great for someone could put someone else in the hospital. From my own experience, I’ve tried doing the Paleo thing, and I spent those three days constantly hungry until I gave up and shoved some bread down my gaping maw.

We have all this technology to track what we do—I’ve walked nearly 16,000 steps today, as of time of writing—but very little to give us guidance on what we need to do to reach our health and fitness goals. Then again, we barely have a scientific understanding of fitness and nutrition, so it’s a leap to think the computers in our pockets and on our wrists will have that understanding too. It’s also easy for someone who claims to have it figured out approaches the topic with a holier-than-thou attitude that “counting calories will help you lose weight, but it won’t make you healthy” or some other platitude that misses the point of what we’re trying to do. At least we’re thinking about it.

Ultimately, the foods we choose to eat, and the number on the scale in the morning doesn’t make one more, or less moral. Much like the nerd entitlement attitude around fancy gizmos and gadgets, the attitude around health and fitness, from the people who found a system that works is often the opposite of constructive. There’s a key difference in that there’s aspects of health and fitness that are achievable for everyone, even those who can’t afford a personal trainer, gym membership, or organically grown kale—or have time to fit in a full fitness regimen around working full-time and taking care of their family.

Dropping the attitude is the first step to making that happen. Second is calming down, and coming to terms with the fact that while we have some of the facts, we don’t know enough to be prescribing a single diet and exercise plan for everyone. Finally, it’s accepting that not everyone has the desire to be at peak physical fitness. Support and understanding are more useful than body shaming and lifestyle prescriptivism. I don’t desire to be Adonis, I just want to drop my spare tire and, hopefully, live a little longer. That’s not a bad goal to have.

Why I Put My Smartwatch In a Drawer

Last night, I put my Pebble in a drawer for good, or at least until the 3.0 firmware comes out. Yes, I said that I’d stopped using my Pebble back in March, but I came back to use the Pebble as a fitness tracker along with its smartwatch functionality. With the Jawbone UP watch face and Morpheuz for sleep tracking, I replicated the functionality of my clip-on fitness tracker, and had one less thing to worry about losing. While it wasn’t perfect, it was functional enough, and I got all the benefits of notification triage on my wrist to boot.

Then it stopped working. The Jawbone UP Pebble app isn’t known for being the most reliable piece of software, but having a day where it erronously reported 12,000 steps from a little after midnight when I was sound asleep was a bad sign. Another day, I forgot to reactivate the Pebble’s tracker after waking up and quitting Morpheus, losing step counts. As the numbers on my wrist became increasingly divergent from to the numbers in the App, I decided to go back to the clip-on tracker. This was the first nail in the Pebble’s coffin.

I kept using Morpheuz to track sleep, especially since I like having the Pebble vibrate to wake me. Then, the iOS 8.3 update broke the already fairly janky method by which Morpheuz syncs sleep data with HealthKit, by way of the Smartwatch Pro iOS app. Since my Jawbone UP Move tracks sleep too, I went back to using it for that too. I could have clipped it on to my Pebble’s watch band—I had before—but I hated the whole idea of clipping a fitness tracker to a fitness tracker to make up for the other’s software failings. The Pebble had to go.

Before I made the final decision, I spent some time trying to find a new role for my Pebble beyond just notifications. I tore through the Pebble App store and searched for guides to the best Pebble apps for iOS… only to give up, rip the device from my wrist, run a factory reset, shut it off, and shove it into a drawer. I might pull it back out once the new Timeline interface is available, but it would be more for curiosity’s sake than any interest in using the Pebble full-time again.

Back in March, I finished up my original Pebble experiment with the following conclusion:

The goal of my experiment was to see if my skepticism on smartwatches was justified. That such a limited device was enough to prove me wrong is success enough. Itís a shame the Pebble doesnít succeed for me as an iOS user, but thatís the risk I took.

I’m still glad that I tried the Pebble. There’s a ton of potential in the smartwatch form factor that I didn’t even think about before trying one. That alone was worth $99, plus a couple bucks for a replacement strap. When I can afford an Apple Watch, I’ll pick one up with no hesitation, and I’m eyeing the possibility of Android Wear coming to iOS, I might try a LG G Watch for a while in a similar experiment. So much of the doubt about smartwatches from otherwise really smart people comes from the difficulty of understanding it without using it first. If you’re not dead set on being a skeptic, the orignal Pebble is a good way to find out if you’re right.

I Sing the Music Electric

There’s a joke I see bandied about online that amounts to: “How do you perform live electronic music? You push ‘play.’”

Having friends who make and perform various forms of electronic music for a living, this joke always rubs me the wrong way. Sure, you have people who whose live set is based around taking a laptop on stage, pressing play, and then either dancing around, singing karaoke, or both. I think these acts are both the exception, and utterly boring. I’ve seen live electronic music shows that are some of the most compelling, exciting, and visual shows of my life. [1]

The joke also plays up a dismissive attitude towards electronic music that has plagued it since its rise in the 1970s as not being “real” music, and—simultaneously—putting “real musicians” out of work. The act of creating electronic music is as much composition as playing: the artist must create the sounds, arrange them, or at least establish the parameters for the machines to generate them. Even 100% generative electronic music has a human element, in that someone must create the algorhithms that generate the music.

For me, it’s the sounds that make all the difference. I’ve been fascinated by electronic sound, probably from the first time I heard “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer on classic rock radio, and it’s epic Moog solo. Sure, you can use a synth to recreate the sound of real instruments, but I feel like that’s a waste. It’s the strange, alien sounds of synthsizers that attrack me more than their ability to recreate something else. With a single instrument, you can create stunning beauty or harsh noise in a single note—or both at the same time.

The best electronic music to my ear is the the sort that straddles the human/mechanical divide, with rich melodies and voices contrasted against rigid, mechanical rhythms. Something about the juxtaposition speaks to me. It’s a metaphor, in a way, for the symbiotic human relationship to technology. The music is stronger with both human and technological aspects, much as so many of our other creative endeavors are.

And, of course, a lot of it you can shake your butt to. That’s never a bad thing.

  1. The nature of Kraftwerk shows is such that I can forgive their video tech for checking email while performing, though.  ↩

Why We Live In New York City

We live in New York City because it’s New York City, and there isn’t anywhere else that has what we have here. We are an A-list city, the best city in the world, and that is why the rent is too damn high.

6 Essential Reasons Why We Pay To Live In NYC

Not all of these are exclusive to my adoptive home town, but I still wouldn’t give this town up for anything. You can have your quiet, your nature, your 2 hour commutes by car. I’ll enjoy my 24/7 bodegas and subways, culture, history, and food from pretty much everywhere.

Best, Brightest — and Saddest?

Here is what Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, recently wrote: “As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges I’ve resolved to try to get into, trying to determine my odds of getting into each, I can’t help but feel desolate.”

She confessed to panic attacks in class, to menstrual periods missed as a result of exhaustion. “We are not teenagers,” she added. “We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning.”

Best, Brightest — and Saddest? –

While I’m long past this stage in my life, I can sympathize with the feeling. The pressure wasn’t nearly as heavy on me as a teenager, and yet I still feel like I’m not living up to expectations as a thirty-one year old adult. That kids in the Valley and elsewhere are jumping in front of trains should be a wake up call about the pressures of modern American life.