Monday, October 19, 2015

Election Day

This weekend, we had an international podcast on East Meets West. Matt "Tom" Staroste joined us from Australia to discuss the election that's upon us today. And while you might not have time to listen to the whole 2 hour podcast today before polls close, I really encourage you to listen to Matt's and Nick's 3-4 minute endorsements of the NDP and Liberal parties at the very end of the episode. It's how I decided my vote, and it's really worth your ears.

This part of the conversation starts at 1:44:00 of the 10th episode, which you can jump to right here. The full episode can be found below as well.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Losing Weight Isn't Hard

Losing weight is easy, and let me tell you why (and how!).

I have something to tell you that could either be unbelievably hard to believe, or possibly instantly understood, depending on your own experiences. I've been talking a LOT about my weight and my health in the last 3 months or so, and I've started posting my weight on Twitter every day as a way to motivate myself to eat more responsibly.
This is how I feel now, stepping on the scale.
The thing that I've learned in losing almost 30 pounds in the last 7 months or so (and 25 lbs in the last 2 months) is that starting to eat isn't the problem. In losing this weight, I really haven't limited myself in the food that I have been eating. That's not to say I haven't changed my habits, but I still eat burgers, and pizza, and nachos, and all kinds of other delicious foods. I can probably even say I basically eat about as much of those things as I always have.

The MOST important thing I have learned when losing weight is this: stop eating. Don't let your hunger decide how much you should eat for the first little while. Restaurants are the worst for this. You have no control over the portion of food you get, and it can be difficult to control your intake this way, especially if you despise the inconvenience of doggy bags as much as I do. When I go to a restaurant now, I get the main dish I really want (be it a big, juicy burger, or a pizza, or whatever other thing I might want), and then get a side that has very little food in it. Fries are a terrible example of this, because there is a LOT of food in fries. I'm not trying to survive a year and a half on Mars, so I probably don't need to eat several hundred grams of potatoes along with my meal.

Once I accepted that I could eat less than I had been, I was fine missing "meals" and just eating a little bit when I felt like it. It is darn near impossible to gain weight while eating only fat and protein. Carbohydrates (sugars) are the real problem here. And in our modern grocery stores, everything is full of carbs. The simple reason for this is that carbs are incredibly cheap calories. Dipping those carbs in fat and covering them in salt is an easy and cheap way to make them DELICIOUS.

The other really important part of weight loss is your metabolism (to put it simply, that's the amount of food energy your body burns when it's just sitting there doing nothing else). I've been biking or walking 1-2 times per day since I really started focusing on my health. Because my bike ride is to work, that means I get 25-30 minutes of pretty intense exercise about 8 hours apart, splitting the day up nicely for my metabolism. It's a pretty common excuse that around 20-25 years old your metabolism drops off and you stop being able to eat whatever you want and maintain your health, but I really think the "change" isn't in your metabolism, but in the average adult's activity level.

With the activity that I've been trying to do every single day regardless of other circumstance, my good metabolism that I had written off as having "lost" in my late teens is back, and I can eat a good amount while still losing or at least maintaining my weight. For a little more background on this, Nick and I discuss active transportation and its impact on healthy weight in last week's episode of East Meets West (the discussion of health and such starts around 44:15, but I encourage you to listen to the whole thing).

Anyhow, to simplify things, or if you're looking for an easy set of guidelines that have been working for me so far, here are the easiest things I can recommend:
  • Have a food around that you can sustainably eat every day, and can prepare in a few minutes (no more, and no less; that is Soylent for me). Any more prep and you will do something easier. Any less prep and you will already be eating before you're hungry enough.
  • Exercise at least a half hour every day, twice throughout the day if you can, to keep your body burning energy.
  • Try not to order fries at a restaurant, unless that's all you're having (soup, salad, etc. is much easier to control the total amount you eat).
  • Stop thinking that fat will make you fat. Carbs will make you fat, but don't necessarily avoid them completely (you will need quick energy sometimes). Keep in mind that not all sugars are created equal, and simple sugars (like in candy) will spike your blood sugar and make you crash.
  • Stop using dinner plates (and stop eating "dinner" at all at home, if possible). The modern meal, and the size of dinner plates, means that on average we tend to eat way more than we need. Eat when you are hungry, and give it 15 minutes before deciding you need more.
  • Eat eggs. However you like them cooked, they are a great source of life stuff (vitamins, minerals, fats, protein, etc.). There's a reason you can grow a whole chick from an egg. It has everything you need for life. And stop thinking that eating cholesterol will make you have high cholesterol (it won't).
  • Last, I forgot one of the very important things, drink water! Not lots of water, but definitely some water. It keeps you from feeling hungry when you're not actually hungry.
It honestly wasn't that hard for me to lose a lot of weight just keeping these simple principles in mind, but if you have had trouble on "diets", I'd recommend keeping track of your weight every day. It will give you a good sense of how your habits are affecting your weight (and overall health, in general) and you will be able to stay ahead of bad habits (like eating too much on weekends). You can follow the steps here and download a useful spreadsheet to track your weight (ask me about it if you're interested in the modifications I've made to my version). And you can follow along with my weight loss journey here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I Still Hate Facebook

I have written a LOT ragging on the various things I hate about Facebook, and though some of my concerns have been addressed over the years, there is still a lot I just really don't like about the social network. Today, I'm going to detail what has always been one of my biggest nuisances with the website, and try to articulate exactly why it's so bad, and what they can do about it.

Part of me knows that the biggest "problem" with Facebook, the one I'm going to describe below, isn't actually a problem with Facebook. The problem lies with us, the idiotic users who are using it (or not using it) in ways its designers never expected. But as any good engineer knows, anticipating your users' needs and interactions is arguably even more important than creating an internally consistent and compelling product.
Pictured: Facebook Users
To put it simply, Facebook exists to make money for itself. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, it's a business after all, but in that pursuit the company ends up making decisions that are openly hostile to new and experienced users. I think this hurts the platform and actually ends up meaning that people will use Facebook less.

When you open Facebook, you're presented with a timeline called the News Feed, a stack of cards that can show status updates, photos, videos, links to websites, blog posts, events, pages, or crucially, advertisements. When the social network was just getting started, the thing that became the News Feed was essentially a linear timeline of the things people were saying to one another. You couldn't really "miss" an update because everything was in order and scrolling more, or clicking through to the next page, would simply show you the next item chronologically.

Today, that timeline has been completely distorted by Facebook trying to make money for itself. In case you haven't looked on the right side of the Facebook website lately, there are ads all over it. Facebook is fundamentally an advertising network now, because all semblance of time and chronology is lost when you are on the website today. Now, I'm not saying I mind ads on the side of my timeline, or even in between stories from my friends or sites I follow. I don't even mind Facebook highlighting stories it thinks I might want to see from friends its algorithm considers close to me.

The problem I have with how Facebook operates is that it plays fast and loose with the updates my friends, family and acquaintances actually want me to see. This is never more painfully obvious when I am talking to two people, and one of them tells the other about something they posted on Facebook. As is so often the case, I frequently haven't seen the story in question, even though historically I have enjoyed roughly 95% of the stories that those two friends have shared with one another.

This leads me to one of the problems with Facebook's treatment of relationships between humans. Even if you go through the effort to catalogue your friendships, and put your friends into groups, becomes obsolete shortly after you finish the initial grouping. Our relationships are in a constant state of flux, and our connections are constantly changing and increasing in number. No human alive with a job and a life could possibly keep up with fine adjustments of their friends list in order to actually monitor what they see first on Facebook, and since many people can end up posting several things to the network every day, there are just too many stories to realistically see all of them.

When you make a new friend and add them to Facebook, the site or app could easily prompt you to categorize them as a friend, acquaintance, co-worker, etc., and perhaps even ask you if you want to see all, most, or none of their updates. This would be a completely voluntary grouping procedure, but it would be really helpful to be able to keep your Facebook friends organized.

One of the results of the network as it is today is a phenomenon called a 'filter bubble'. This is when you spend so much time communicating with a subset of people that you tend to fall into a group where the views of the people in it all tend to be the same or very similar. As an example, if you're friends with a bunch of Conservatives on Facebook, over time you will see more and more conservative viewpoints and posts. Eventually, you can start to develop a bubble around you, and more liberal viewpoints will stop showing up in your feed, even though those viewpoints still exist around you.

Now, many people may actually WANT this, as most people don't want their viewpoints challenged, but when this happens totally invisibly to the user, it would be easy to start to think that maybe other viewpoints just don't exist, or are the extreme minority of the overall culture. Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems like Facebook's algorithms tend to favour this kind of extremist and filtering, and most people aren't aware this is happening.

Using a linear timeline (something that is not available on Facebook's main site by default) and exposing users to the built-in grouping tools would go a long way towards removing some of the friction people have when seeing ALL the things their Facebook friends post, as well as making it much more transparent to users that this kind of filtering and sorting of posts is happening. Facebook will continue to make money off its ads, and off Facebook Pages paying to show their posts in others' feeds, but I think all parties will benefit if everyone is aware of what's actually going on.