Tuesday, December 30, 2008

FTD = royal scam?

So, I blew some of my e-rewards dollars on an FTD gift certificate since there's almost nothing worth my spending my e-rewards on. I thought I'd be able to just buy a cheap gift basket or flowers for the holidays, but I soon discovered that wasn't the case. As any frugal shopper would do, I clicked through fatwallet to get cashback at FTD. Something didn't look quite right when I did that though. Comparing prices using two different browsers (one clicked through fatwallet and one visiting the site directly), you could clearly see that the prices were vastly different. Not just a little different. We're talking a lot bigger than 20% and closer to 75-100% more.

Ok, so that's a little scammy, but I figured I'd just go directly to the site and use up my gift card that way. I scan for the on sale items and find something somewhat reasonably priced with reasonable shipping costs. When I go to place my order, I find something quite shocking. The calculated shipping price on the product information page is quite different from the shipping price on the checkout page. In fact, it's 30% higher. I repeated the process several times to make sure there wasn't a mistake, and found the exact same bait and switch every time.

Turns out (after a little Google research) that FTD has a terrible customer service track record and numerous complaints about dead flowers, questionable product substitutions, and general screwing over of the consumer. Oh well, looks like I'll have to give away the gift certificate to someone else willing to risk FTD. Next time I'll do a little more research. Live and learn.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'Twas the night before Xmas...

and all through the house,
everything a-stirring,
including a mouse.

Ok, maybe it's not quite the hustling and bustling household, but it's not a silent night either.  We managed to go out to do some grocery shopping today and hit up REI before my member dividend expires.  Traffic today was wretched.  Apparently people are still shopping.  Dear Lord people, you should have your shopping done by now.  What sort of thoughtful gift can you possibly get at the last minute?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ack! The Holidaze are upon us!

Where did my time go? It seemed like just yesterday that I was posting about Thanksgiving. Now, Christmahanukwanzikah is right around the corner. I had more grand plans for my holidays (particularly in the shopping department), but time flew right by (i.e. I had to work so many hours that I didn't have time to do a lot of my holiday shopping, and also my boss seems to think that being "too busy" to write a paycheck is an acceptable excuse for not paying me on time). I'm not one to give into to rampant consumerism, but there are a few things that I did want to pick up. I'm pretty set on the idea of building myself a hackintosh, so I've been trying to gradually pick up parts on sale. Unfortunately, that plan doesn't always pan out since I'm usually working/exercising/eating during the hours that the good stuff is (a) on sale and (b) not sold out. Oh well, here's to hoping that good deals will abound in January.

My martial arts training has taken a big plunge lately. The job killed off any ideas I had of regular training, but the holiday season basically completely nuked my training schedule. I'm hoping to get back into it soon, maybe even during my break. Of course, I'll probably have a really long to-do list over my break which may eat into my limited training time and also my "recover my sanity" time. I'm sorely tempted at this point to make a to-do list that literally says "nothing" on it. Vegetating for a few days sounds really good to me now.

The holidays also seems to bring with it a fresh beginning with the New Year. I'm hoping my New Year brings me more free time and more quality time with my wife, family, and friends. In case you don't already know, I resigned from my current job. The number of hours required made it impossible for me to do the things important to me: interact with my loved ones and friends, continue my I-Liq Chuan practice, and maintain my physical and mental health. I finally decided that the job was taking all the joy out of my life and just wasn't worth it. So, I'm especially looking forward to a fresh beginning in January when I'm free from the bonds of a life-depriving job.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksgiving musings: SPAM,Tofurducken, and melamines

I haven't touched my Zenfulness blog in ages, but boy am I ever suffering from a deluge of comment spam. I'm sure I don't get nearly as much as some more popular blogs, yet the 20 spam comments I get a day do feel like quite a bit. If I could get my hands on the punks who keep spamming my blog... well, I probably wouldn't do anything since I'm not really the violent sort. It's nice to picture a nice punch to the gut or a knuckle strike to the temple though. At the very least, I'd really enjoy giving them an atomic wedgie in public.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, my thoughts return to reveries of the mythical tofurducken. I don't really know if it exists or if it is merely a fantastic creation of my crazed mind. In case you're wondering what the heck a tofurducken is, just look up turducken. The turducken is a foul fowl Frankenstein creation. I imagine the vegetarian equivalent of it around this time of year. The closest thing I could find on the internet was some person's reference to a "tofucken" which my juvenille sense of humor found funny. I did come up with my own recipe involving wheat gluten, mushroms, tofu skins, and pressed/frozen tofu. I never tried out my recipe though, and given my huge amount of free time, I probably won't be doing so in the near future.

And while I'm on the subject of foul foods, I read a disturbing article on Treehugger today. We hear the scary stories about melamine in Chinese food products, but apparently, melamine is pretty common in U.S. food products, too. And even being a vegetarian doesn't spare me the exposure since it can be used as a crop fertilizer which not only gets into the food supply, but also taints the soil and environment. I already think that the U.S. as a country eats crap for food, but this only re-inforces that perception. Industrial agriculture and food production is more concerned with making money than providing real food. And the fact that the food production is so far separated from the everyday consumer means that most people have no idea how potentially bad their food is.

So, to sign off on a more positive note, appreciate the good food you eat this Thanksgiving. Hopefully, the meal will be blessed with lots of whole, nutritious foods.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Have I become a fitness snob?

I think I have. I actually analyze people's workouts when I go to the gym and give a thumbs up and thumbs down approval rating. Mostly, it's a thumbs down rating since what I see people doing doesn't (in my opinion) do much for their fitness. People spend way too much time on cardio machines doing long, even paced workouts. I don't know about you, but that would bore me senseless. I need to vary my pace and rhythm and get done quickly. I don't have an hour free to burn on an elliptical machine, or God forbid, a treadmill. I'd rather do rope or run sprints for 15 minutes and be done. Fifteen minutes of high intensity interval training (HIIT) will beat an hour of slow, even-paced cardio every time.

Today, I just came across an ad for the "Ab Rocket Abdominal Trainer." Devices like these don't rank high on my list of worthwhile purchases. It's a marketing gimmick, and I think it's more than likely total crap. I guess I can see how it'll give some people an ab workout, but if you honestly expect to get strong abs from this thing, you're delusional. People put far too much effort into training their rectus abdominus (the muscles that you see in six-pack abs). Ironically, those muscles aren't really the most important ab muscles for core strength. The obliques (internal, external, and transverse) are probably more important for core stability and strength. Overemphasizing the rectus abdominus serves no purpose other than causing "poochy belly" because the other abs aren't proportionally strong enough to hold the over-developed rectus abdominus flat. To add insult to injury, working the rectus abdominus more with tons of crunches won't actually give you a six pack unless you drop your body fat with smart exercising and a healthy diet.

Anyhow, I digress. If you really want to develop strong abs, do exercises that challenge your entire core. Stabilizing yourself on the rings, throwing and catching a medicine ball, yoga, pilates, etc. all develop your core. Heck, you can drop the ab exercises all together and just do proper full range of motion squats. You'll develop strong abs with weighted squats a lot faster that you will with overpriced, gimmicky devices that you see on infomercials. And you'll get toned legs at the same time. The more I think about it, the more squats sound like a cheaper and more efficient exercise than ab-rocketing the money from my wallet to the black hole of questionable exercise gadgets.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Weekend cook-a-thon

I actually had some time to cook this past weekend, which is a rare thing. Of course, I also got some new kitchen toys which provided me extra motivation to do some cooking. I just got a pressure cooker and a new stir fry pan, both of which I'm really digging. I managed to make red bean soup in 20 minutes (usually takes me 8 hours or more in the slow cooker). Then, I blasted some dried chickpeas in about 20 minutes, and then made a yummy chickpea/lentil curry in about 30 minutes. I've discovered though that the advertised cook times on the pressure cooker are a little deceiving; they don't include the time it takes to bring the water up to a boil and pressurize the pot. That time is not insignificant when you've got a 8 quart pot. Nevertheless, the pressure cooker was still a heck of a lot faster than cooking in a normal pot.

I also managed to bake some acorn squash and roast the seeds. The seeds do take a while since you have to separate them out from the pulpy mass in the middle of the squash. Yet, there's something deeply satisfying about working with your hands, even if you're running your fingers through squishy, slimy pulp. Despite the time drain of roasting the seeds, I still enjoyed the process as it was a time I could just reflect in peace. And we get a small container of yummy roasted seeds, which is always a plus.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New old tech

In my last blog post, I mentioned how my computers are getting a little long in the tooth. I'm still perfectly happy with them, though I will admit to having weak moments of tech-lust during those rare instances when I feel my computer is really dragging. It's also appalling that I'm actually wanting to get a Mac when I've been a PC guy all my life. I nearly broke down and bought a Macbook, but discipline (a.k.a. my cheapskate instincts) prevailed.

I did break down and upgrade my desktop though. I'm now up to a whopping 2 gigs of ram, and I'm now sporting a 22" lcd monitor. I spent an embarassing amount of time researching lcd monitors; I now know what the performance difference is between different types of LCD panels, backlight technology, and more than I ever cared to know about color fidelity. And I still ended up just purchasing a cheap TN panel (which to be fair did get good reviews). I just couldn't bring myself to fork out a few hundred (possibly thousand) dollars more for the uber high color fidelity and massive view angle of an S-IPS panel. I just don't do serious enough artistic work on my monitor to need it, though I will admit, a high end S-IPS lcd monitor still is on my tech-lust wish list.

So, I haven't done much with my computer, but the new monitor and upgraded ram makes my computer feel newer. My computer is still technologically ancient, but it's been given a second wind. We'll see how long I can hold out before I join the dark side (a.k.a. the Mac world).

Friday, October 17, 2008

The latest and greatest

I've actually got two computers on which I regularly work. One is a big Compaq laptop running an Athlon XP-M at a whopping 1.6 GHz, and the other is a desktop running an Athlon XP at 1.8 GHz. Both computers at this point are probably over 5 years old. For someone who spends so much time working on computers, you'd think that I'd get some new systems. But the funny thing is that both computers suit my needs just fine... ok, at least when I'm not doing serious programming work. Overall though, my computing needs are fairly modest.

Several years ago, I'd be itching to upgrade my systems. Nowadays, I do a little research to price out a new system only to decide a day later that it's not worth the money to upgrade when my computers suit my needs just fine. The only new thing that I want is a new, bigger lcd monitor. Other than that, there's not much else I actually need. I find the same goes for all the gadgets I see on the market. I don't want a fancy-schmancy smart phone. That would mean an expensive phone plan, expensive phone, and being tethered to work more. That seems like a horrible idea to me. My mp3 player needs are also modest. I only really listen to my workout mix at the gym or Mandarin lesson podcasts. The only feature I really need there is a user friendly navigation menu to get to the mp3 I want to play.

I think once I hit my 30s, had to move several times, and got more into mindfulness training, the message of uncluttering has taken a bigger role in my life. I really don't want more stuff in my life unless it serves a well-defined purpose and doesn't just waste time and space. I find I have more peace of mind having fewer material possessions and not wanting stuff. What I want in life isn't more possessions; I rather prefer having more time. Material possessions are a poor substitute for time spent with Gen, with family and friends, and for myself.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Truth in advertising


One thing that annoys me is advertising that is technically correct, but in a stupid sort of way. I guess the marketing must work. It sure feels like the people being targeted are real morons though, which is why I must find the advertising so aggravating. Even though I rag on the general public not being that bright, I do like to think people have some shred of intelligence. Call me an optimist.

So, what type of marketing am I thinking about? Well, I'll start with some food examples. We recently bought a jar of honey. The label on the front says it's fat free. Once when I was grocery shopping, I saw a sign in front of a display of grapes with the message: "Did you know that grapes are a naturally fat and cholesterol free?" You don't say? And don't get me started on "light" ice cream. The only reason it's light is because it's whipped up with air. You get less ice cream per serving because the servings are defined by volume (which is now half air instead of ice cream). As a non-food example, I was once shopping with my former housemates when we came across the household cleaners section. One of the cleaners was advertising its improved vinegar containing formula and boosted sanitation power. Good grief! Vinegar has been used as an economical cleaning solution for decades, and it's dirt cheap. I couldn't believe this cleaner was more expensive because they added some measly vinegar.

Marketing isn't inherently evil (ok, maybe that point is a little debatable), but does it really have to assume we're stupid?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wealth perspective

While reading MillionaireMommyNextDoor, I came across a quote that I really liked:

"...if you and your family are going to be truly happy in having lived a rich and rewarding life, it is essential that they and you develop friendships and relationships outside the home. If home ownership has become too all-consuming for you, then maybe it is time you really consider downsizing your home investment. Our lives have meaning only in so much as we interact productively, emotionally, and spiritually with our community. Let us hope that, regardless of what happens to home prices in the future, we never lose sight of this important truth." - John Talbot, The Coming Crash in the Housing Market
While the topic of the book isn't particularly pleasant (unless you're into schadenfreude), the quoted passage resonates with my own values. I enjoy financial well-being as much as anyone, but I enjoy that financial well-being a whole lot less if I have to make a lot of sacrifices in my relationships to my wife, family, friends, etc. Like most good Asian boys, I was conditioned pretty early to want to earn a lot of money. Fortunately, lessons of coveting material wealth didn't sink in too deeply.

Ironically, the older I get, the more I worry about money, but the less I value it. I'm getting old enough now to care more about how I'm going to fund my children's college tuition, build up my retirement account, and deal with the inevitable bumps in life. At the same time, just earning money doesn't bring me any fulfillment in life and thus has limited personal value. Like everything else, it's a balancing act. Material wealth allows me to live my life, but attaining material wealth tends to hinder the act of living. The true key is realizing that wealth is the means to an end. What seems (to me) to have brought our current economic meltdown is that wealth itself became the destination instead of the vehicle. Greed--which I define here as the desire for more wealth for the sake of wealth--brought about the financially stupid decisions which lead our economy to the crapper.

But troubled times are also good times for reflection. Losing money, while never pleasant, is not the end of the world. Keeping the important things in life in perspective is more valuable than any of our worldly possessions.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Secrets (aka how my Sifu hides his secret techniques)

My Sifu has said a funny statement to us several times, and I thought I should share it. The saying goes something like: "I don't need to keep secrets from you. The secrets protect themselves." Of course, I didn't have a recorder handy, so I have to recreate the quote from memory. Anyhow, it's a pretty fitting [and funny] quote. It is true that my Sifu has never kept any martial arts secrets from us. And even if he did, we wouldn't have a deep enough understanding to realize it (ironic, isn't it?).

Most people training martial arts nowadays train it as a fun pasttime or form of exercise rather than as a serious pursuit. There's nothing wrong with that. People should do what makes them happy. But the lack of serious pursuit does have the consequence of producing few people with deep understanding or real proficiency. That leaves a lot of martial artists out there with limited understanding of their arts and less than real-life effectiveness. It's the limitations in understanding that keep the secrets safe. Not like the secrets are all that complicated; in fact, all of them that I've learned so far fall under the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. My Sifu has told me the same things time and again, with only more refinements as my understanding improves.

Everything has been out in the open from the beginning. It's just up to me to train and reflect enough to grasp the lessons so that I can physically manifest the theoretical concepts. Of course, during the process of training and learning, I feel like I've missed an obvious point every time. I slowly realize that what I've just learned has been presented to me several times before. So, I plod along with my training gradually realizing that the "secrets" are pretty simple. Considering the skill differential between me and my teacher, I can safely say that some secrets will remain safely in the open for the forseeable future.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Great minds think alike?

Do you ever ponder something completely meaningless but yet still infinitely fascinating? Last night, the phrase "great minds think alike" popped into my head, and I got to thinking: why in the world do we use that phrase? Great minds often think differently than everyone else. The collective mind of the masses willingly bends to pop culture, religious idols, and political ranters. Homogenous thinking is a trait of those who don't wish to spend the mental energy for critical thinking. The phrase is nonsensical.

So, where does the phrase actually come from? Well, as best as Google can tell me:

GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE -- "Often quoted in jest today, this saying originated in the seventeenth century as the comic-sounding 'Great wits jump.' Daubridgecourt Belchier first recorded the saying in 'Hans Beer-Pot' (1618) as 'Good wits doe iumpe (agree).'...The expression 'Great minds jump' appeared in the late 1800s..." From "Wise Words and Wives' Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New" by Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner (Avon Books, New York, 1993).
and also:

Used ironically. Both verb and noun have changed in the course of this proverb's history, the earliest instance of the present form thus far discovered being quot. 1898. Jump used absolutely in the sense of ‘agree completely’ or ‘coincide’ is now archaic.

Though he made that verse, Those words were made before. ‥Good wits doe iumpe.
[1618 D. Belchier Hans Beer-Pot D1]
Great wits jump: for the moment Dr. Slop cast his eyes upon his bag‥the very same thought occurred.
[1761 Sterne Tristram Shandy III. ix.]
As great minds jump this proves‥that my Mind is Great!
[1889 A. James Journal 1 Dec. (1964) 61]
Curious how great minds think alike. My pupil wrote me the same explanation about his non-appearance. ‥
[1898 C. G. Robertson Voces Academicae 24]
‘Great minds think alike—that's why we're never in agreement.’
[2002 Washington Times 28 May C9 (Bottomliners cartoon)]
I probably wasted too much time thinking about the phrase and looking up its origins. But then again, I rarely have the time to just pursue such idles. I'm still glad I wasted some time satisfying an academic curiosity.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Ultrasonic Buzz

I'm a bit of an ultrasound imaging geek considering that I spent many years of my life doing ultrasound research. Ultrasound stories in the news invariably pique my interest. I was pleasantly surprised to see this bit of news in the headlines this morning. Apparently, you can create a pretty good facsimile of a fine aged wine using ultrasound. How cool is that? Of course, it doesn't do me an iota of good since I don't actually drink any alcohol.

In a way, this is sort of related to my previous research life. I used to work on improving cardiovascular medicine by applying 3D ultrasound to heart imaging. You could say that making better wines with ultrasound are sort of cardiovascular related, given the studies showing that red wine has some heart protective qualities. Ok, it is a bit of a stretch. Still, I at least found the idea of using ultrasound to age wine to be pretty nifty. It's definitely a bit of technology more likely to quickly make it to the marketplace than my graduate research.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The side job

It's a little over a month into the new job, and boy am I tired. I'm not so sure I like this working 10-11 hour days. With Gen also having to work long hours now that school has started again, it's a little rough keeping the household in order. It's particularly rough on the food side of things. If neither of us has much time to shop and cook, we often run into "what the hell are we gonna eat?" moments by midweek.

Despite the long hours, I have actually managed to do a freelance job. My creative juices don't flow as freely when my brain is tired, but I'm still happy with my latest mini-project: TheInternalArts.com. My freelance work seems to be very martial arts biased. Why "TheInternalArts" and not just "InternalArts"? Well, can you believe that a PC repair company took the other domain? Really, the nerve. Don't they know that "internal arts" refers to esoteric martial arts and not computer repair?! ;-b

One of these days I'll get back around to working on my own website.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Nearly unpacked, and other small miracles

It's a minor miracle. We almost have our apartment unpacked. The living room only has 3 boxes left, and two of those are earmarked for storing things we want to either give away or sell. My office looks spiffy, especially now that I have enough space to set up my parallelettes. If I can get myself away from the computer long enough during the day, I should be able to practice my tucked planches during my stretching breaks. Now all I have to do is unpack the rest of my clothes and figure out where to put my guitars.

Another small feat was our cooking this week. I was out of town last weekend, Gen was sick, and our jobs don't seem to give us enough time to make it to the market during the week. That means we hadn't been grocery shopping for over a week and a half by the time I got back into town. We quite nearly ran out of food and had to get a little creative with our cooking. You really learn to appreciate fresh food when you're forced to eat dried and frozen foods for an extended period of time.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Love and Marriage

I've been married for a little over two weeks now, and I have to say I've been enjoying married life even more than I initially thought I would. It's weird. Even though Genevieve and I have been together for quite a while, being married still brings an elation I didn't quite expect. Everyone tells us we look so happy together. I never really thought of it before, but after pondering it, I realized that we are pretty blessed. We actually are really happy together.

There are still some things I'm still adjusting to though. The first is this wearing a ring thing. It's a weird feeling to be wearing a piece of jewelry now, especially considering that I never usually wore any adornments in the past. Heck, I dislike even wearing a watch. Assuming I remember to wear my ring, getting it on and off is also sometimes a challenge. My finger diameter seems to change with the weather, time of day, and how recently I've done any exercise. Sometimes it's a real bear to get off, and other times it slides right off. The other weird thing is that sometimes when I'm not wearing it, it feels like I'm wearing a phantom ring or that something is missing from my finger. I guess I'm now in a strange transitional period where it feels awkward both when I'm wearing and not wearing my ring.

A new experience that I am enjoying is referring to each other as husband and wife. Before, it was just "fiance/fiancee" or "girlfriend/boyfriend." Now, it brings a smile to my face to check the "married" box on questionnaires and introduce ourselves as a married couple. When I wrap up work for the day, I enjoy thinking that my wife is waiting for me to go to the gym and have dinner. It's a little surprising to me that I feel this way. I guess I've been a closet romantic all this time. The stereotype is for the romance to fade as a couple grows older, which I guess is natural as passions mellow out and become more even keeled over time. But I like to view our elopement as a harbinger. If we're already this happy about being married after 7 years together, we'll still be happy together many years down the road.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Insanity

Well, it appears my blogging has taken a major plunge over the past month. There has actually been good reason for my extended absence. I've been crazy busy with the convergence of several events, creating a perfect time suck storm. But fear not, it takes more than a mere lack of free time to totally stop me from making my miniscule presence felt in the blogosphere.

So, what has been keeping me busy? Well, first I switched jobs. For a good month, I was wrapping up at my old job while simultaneously putting in hours for my new job. That in itself was really racking up the hours of preoccupation. If you count the fact that I was still teaching my class at the YMCA, I technically had three jobs at the time.

To make life even more interesting, Gen and I were also preparing to move during my job transition period. Packing up and moving when you're working long hours is not a fun task. We decided that we've had enough of moving ourselves around, so we did smartly hire movers this time around. Still, we had to get everything packed for them, deal with apartment hunting, and worry about unpacking at the new apartment, and clean up the old place. Minus the apartment hunting and booking the movers, which took place a few weeks earlier, the whole move process
took place over something like 5 days. There were long hours of packing, unpacking, cleaning, and driving back and forth. All the while my new boss seemed to think that I should be working 12 hour days.

The last contributing factor to my recent lack of time insanity was getting married. Genevieve and I decided to elope. As sad as it is to think that we were never able to find enough time to plan a regular wedding, we were almost too preoccupied to even throw together an elopement. I know there's something very wrong (but also amusing) with that picture. At any rate, we are now happily married and trying to enjoy as much time together before our schedules get busier with work (Gen starts teaching, and I don't imagine my job at the startup getting shorter hours).

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hell must be freezing over

There are lots of celebrities infamous for (to put it nicely) having a high monetary wealth to intelligence ratio. What little celebrity news I tolerate listening to usually doesn't do much to improve my opinion of the lifestyles of the rich and [unfortunately] famous. Imagine my surprise when I saw Paris Hilton in a funny and--dare I say it?--even somewhat clever video while I was surfing Treehugger.



Hell must be getting a cold spell if Paris Hilton has managed to publicly do something that doesn't further lower my opinion of her. What next? I'm going to be totally flabbergasted if I read in the news that Brittany Spears starts making herself respectable or Miss Teen South Carolina suddenly starts synchronizing her gray matter with her mouth.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Tales of a gym rat, part 2

This post is a continuation of another blog post, which you can read here.

My exposure to the martial arts started when I was a wee little middle schooler punching and kicking my way through karate class. My sensei, I can proudly say, was actually someone not to be trifled with. He may have been a very nice man teaching a bunch of sub-optimally conditioned recreational martial artists, but I do remember him just looking tough. How do I know? Well, I'm judging based on how fit I remember him being. It was an old school sort of fitness. Nothing like the McDojo level of fitness you often see nowadays. The man had bowling pin forearms, which in my mind is a good sign that he took his training seriously. I distinctly remember him inflicting random ab torture days on us where we did ab work until we had trouble holding ourselves upright (and then doing some more). I had the misfortune of one of those ab torture days coming the day before my presidential fitness test in PE. I was really sore the day of the test. Boy, did I ever flunk the situp portion of that test.

I never did become good at Karate, but that's because like most people, I just didn't put in the effort to truly excel. Kids in particular tend to have short attention spans, and I was no exception. I did like it, but I soon moved on to other things. It wouldn't be until graduate school that I would take up another martial art. I got hooked on the idea of tai chi after watching a martial arts documentary. Luckily for me, a few weeks later, a tai chi club formed at Duke. I managed to train Chen style tai chi for something like 6 years and loved every minute of it. I'm not entirely sure why I was drawn to tai chi, but I was definitely hooked on training internal martial arts after a few months.

Since there was a lot of emphasis on correct body mechanics and the internal training, my approach to other physical activities began to change. Slowly, I began making little connections between tai chi training principles and sports. When I got in the weight room, I tried to pay the same sort of attention to body mechanics while lifting weights as I would when training form. It made lifting much more of a meditative activity.

Training an internal martial art, I've often heard that it's not a good idea to do weight lifting. Through my own research and experience, I've come to mostly agree with that sentiment. I don't totally agree though. Weight lifting done incorrectly will certainly tighten you up and promote bad motion patterns. However, like any other activity, if done correctly, it's just another tool for improving your strength conditioning. Unfortunately, way too many people weight train incorrectly. Anyhow, from training martial arts and spending too much time reading about training, I eventually came across the idea of bodyweight strength training. I hadn't given much thought before to bodyweight training since I had a common misconception that lifting weights was the only way to get strong. It had never dawned on me that leverage combined with one's own bodyweight could make bodyweight strength conditioning just as challenging as (and sometimes even harder than) regular weight lifting. Also, most of the wild and crazy bodyweight exercises I saw people doing involved a lot more functional strength than the typical jaunt through the weight room. My weight training routine had gotten a little stale at that point anyhow, so I switched to an all bodyweight regimen as an experiment.

That switch to bodyweight exercises was originally intended to be a 3 month experiment. I think it's been well over a year now, and it doesn't look like weight lifting will be anything more than a training supplement for me for the foreseeable future. A lot of those bodyweight exercises (the rings in particular) are a helluva lot harder than the exercises I had been doing before. They require a good deal of body awareness, total body control, and core strength to execute correctly, and they seem to more readily tie in with my martial arts training. Most importantly, they're just a lot more fun for me; it's like mind candy for me to explore how I can use my body to improve my functional strength. Another added bonus is that the exercises usually look really cool. I know it's pure vanity on my part, but I do enjoy flaunting a little when I'm jumping rope, doing the rings, or trying to hold a dragon flag.

Even the most ardent fan of lifting big iron would be hard pressed to say these two bodyweight exercises are for pansies.

It's been a meandering road recounting how I wound up becoming a gym rat. I think my parents (especially my dad) are sometime baffled at why I'm so into martial arts and physical fitness. Though I've retold what I think is the path that brought me to this point, it may just be that it was predestined. According to the Chinese zodiac, I'm a snake, and if you believe those cheesy placemat descriptions, I'm "vain and intense." Oddly enough, that's a pretty fair description of me. I'm both vain and intense about my training and other aspects of my life. Then there's the fact that my parents named me Qiang (強), which translates to "strong and forceful." If you ask me, blame for this aspect of my life falls squarely on my parents for their predictive naming. It's just a good thing that they didn't choose to name me something like "smelly tofu."

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tales of a gym rat, part 1

I got to thinking today that I spend an inordinate amount of time working out in the gym or training martial arts. I suppose these are probably healthy passions to have. Time that a lot of people would spend going out to bars drinking, watching TV, or whatnot, I spend training physical conditioning, coordination skills, and martial arts. Overall, I believe this has saved me quite a bit of money and generally kept me out of trouble. One downside to this lifestyle that I end up having to eat a lot to fuel my physical endeavors, which is a small price to pay I think. Another consequence is that my circle of friends becomes highly biased towards people I either train with or see in my training environment. Again, this isn't really all that terrible since I end up around people with similar interests to me and training an internal martial arts usually means that I meet a wide spectrum of people anyhow.

Still, it is sort of funny how I ended up being so interested in physically demanding pastimes. I think part of it simply stems from the fact that I was actually discouraged from physical activities as a child so I could study more. That was an unfortunate, misguided action from my father, and it certainly backfired on him in the long run. The most surefire way to make a rebellious kid do something is to try restricting him from doing it. Combining that with the fact that I lived in the middle of a sleepy retired neighborhood in Florida with no car meant that I had a lot of pent up energy and nothing to do with it except play lots and lots of basketball at the playground. When I finally started going to the gym (via parent chauffeur), I burned off that energy playing more ball and lifting weights.

Then there's the fact that I wasn't exactly the model of fitness for most of my childhood. Embarassingly, I was once 183 lbs, and that wasn't all muscle. Halfway through college, I went vegetarian, started eating 5 meals a day, and exercised like a madman. I was in the gym like 3 hours a day in the gym (over the summer anyhow, I don't think I could swing that gym schedule during the regular academic year). Needless to say, I dropped a lot of weight fast. Basically, I dropped about 50 lbs in a year. I was probably a little too thin at 132 lbs, but I was in really good shape and feeling pretty good.

Throughout college and graduate school, I forged a lot of my friendships in the gym. There's nothing quite like shooting the breeze while grunting under a heavy bar. Even better is the trash talk and attempts to make your workout buddies lose their concentration with off color remarks about other gym goers. I still have fond memories of spotters forgetting to spot me because they were checking out a blondie on the other side of the gym and the subsequent grief they got for the lapse in attention. The pain of sore muscles from a hard workout was a commonality amongst us all. We comforted each other with comments like "you pansy, you only did 3 sets with 45lb plates!" and "alright buttercup, you gonna lift like a man today?" The gym scene was definitely a little strange, but beneath the macho facade, there was genuine camaraderie. It may have been built by bonding over a painful activity, but it was friendship nonetheless.

Read part 2 of this blog post here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Stirring up the diet wars


Tom Palazzolo, Vegetarian and Carnivore Couple
I came across this post on TreeHugger about vegetarians living longer than the general [carnivorous] population. Of course, this isn't particularly shocking news in my opinion. Vegetarian diets just tend to be healthier (not quite as calorific, richer in fresh foods packed with nutrients and antioxidants, and not nearly as much saturated fat). Of course, this doesn't mean that meat eaters can't also have just as healthy diets. In my opinion though, most of the hardcore carnivores I run into need to have meat all the time and usually buy large quantities of industrially farmed (and consequently subpar) meat.

It's funny that there are two extremes across the diet divide: the adamant veg heads (which I will admit, I'm more likely to associate myself with) and the religious carnivores. Just read through the comments on the TreeHugger blog post. There are some strong opinions on both sides of the issue. While I won't say that no one should eat meat, I do still firmly believe that eating more on the vegetarian end of the diet spectrum is good for the body and soul.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Blog pimping and [the lack of] creativity

I came across a fabulous post on Big Contrarian (via 43Folders) recently. Basically, it's an essay ripping into the state of "pro blogging." This is the quote that spoke to me:
Write top ten lists and whore yourself on many other sites as you possibly can. Don’t be thoughtful, long-winded or interesting. Don’t write about you love, unless what you love is popular on Digg. And for god’s sake don’t even think about writing about more than one topic.Whether their strategies work or not is slightly beside the point. It’s cheap. It’s marketing driven, instead of content driven.
Sadly, that expresses my opinion about a lot of popular culture in general even though the original post is about blogging in particular. There's just not a whole lot of original, creative content out there. So many things are just market driven, and large segments of the market for some strange reason likes craptastic drivel.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with making money, I do think that money as the primary driving factor often kills originality and promotes homogenization. Know how there's a ton of stuff on t.v. but almost nothing to watch? Well, that's a good example of profit drive killing originality. Few networks are going to risk airing a new groundbreaking (and potentially money-losing) show when the formulaic banal shows will likely earn more money. In people's personal lives, few people will take a chance on pursuing a dream because of the risk of failure--particularly of the risk of monetary failure.

So, is mediocrity for the sake of money wrong? No, not necessarily. But maybe our priorities aren't quite in the right place if we allow profit drive to become the sole reason for pursuing something.

Mad busy

Wow, I have been slacking on my blog lately. I have to chalk it up to extreme busy-ness. I've taken a new job with a start up company and am already doing some part time work for the new company. At the same time, I'm wrapping up loose ends at my old job. Effectively, I'm working two jobs now, which doesn't leave me with a lot of free time. To top it off, we're also moving soon. That means apartment searching, packing, finding movers, setting up in a new place, etc. It's both a little exciting and totally energy sapping at the same time. I'm quite frankly exhausted a lot of days.

While I'm looking forward to the excitement and novelty of moving, I'm also pretty bummed about moving. You know how they say you need to live somewhere for at least a year to build a circle of friends and and find your community. Well, it's totally true. Just when I feel like I'm getting to know people around Philly and establish friendships, I'm moving away. I've already done this moving thing 2 times in the past 2 years. Quite frankly, it's starting to get a little old.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Randomness

I came across this gem on Treehugger, and I thought it was awesome in that silly and utterly ridiculous sort of way. Someone even dubbed it "Vicious Cycle," which I think is a rather apt name. Oddly enough, this bicycle reminds me of how I feel about running on a track. No matter how fast you go, you're still going nowhere.

In other off the wall news, I came across news blurb about chess boxing. What could be a better combination? It involves brawn and brains. They're two interesting competitions that become so much more when they're combined together. So, it's not exactly my cup of tea, but I thought the idea was fascinating. It's an idea born from a comic strip and brought to life by crazy people who thought it would be fun. I'd probably never do it since I'm (a) pretty mediocre at chess and (b) borderline mediocre at boxing. But maybe that's the right combo. The typical chess genius is probably too wimpy and gets knocked out in the boxing rounds, whereas the great boxer might not have the brilliant strategic mind to survive the chess game. I say this is almost as brilliant as the Krispy Kreme challenge I recently learned about. Run a long distance, eat a dozen donuts, and then run back. Combine your athletic prowess with flaunt your gastrointestinal fortitude at the same time (or in many cases, show your lack of an iron stomach on the return run). But as entertaining as these past times sound to me, I'm perhaps just too square to do them. I like to partake of my activities one at a time.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

back in blogging action... sort of

It's been a while since I've blogged, mostly because I've been super busy and traveling. I went to Florida three weeks ago and was in NC last week. I need a vacation at home just to recover from the traveling. Since I'm currently swamped in work (both new and backlogged), I'll have to keep this post and posts in the near future somewhat on the shorter and less thought out side. So, on to the update in Johnny-land.

First off, the somewhat big news (nope, not getting married yet, though that would be big news that all my friends and family keep pestering me about). I started eating eggs again. I finally decided that it's just far too inconvenient not to eat eggs. The Buddhist in me still feels that it's not compassionate to eat meat, so I still won't partake in meat eating. Eggs fall into a gray area. Eggs themselves aren't necessarily cruel foods, but factory farmed eggs is vicious, cruel practice (in my opinion). I still have strong objections to factory farmed eggs, so I'll do my best to buy organic, free range eggs. I know true free range eggs are really difficult to find, but I'll try my best to support local and ethical egg farmers. I still haven't fully gotten used to the taste of eating eggs again, but at least my return to eating eggs hasn't completely grossed me out. I guess it's better this way since I usually cook the eggs for Gen, but haven't been able to taste them until recently. Now I can tweak my cooking methods and recipes for better flavor instead of relying on past experience and guesswork.

My experiment with minimal shoes has been a success so far. For the past 3ish weeks, I've substituted my Speedo water shoes over my sneakers for everyday wear. My feet and ankles feel stronger, and I'm definitely more aware of my steps now since the thin sole gives me a lot of feedback from the ground. At first, it was a little tough; my Achilles tendon felt a little tight from the extra use , and my feet were a little more tired in general. I still switch back to my sneakers from time to time, especially if I'm jumping rope. A somewhat unexpected consequence of switching to the minimal water shoes is that my martial arts practice has improved. All of a sudden, it's much easier for me to sink my weight into my hips, open my back, and wrap my toes into the ground. I feel more rooted without feeling immobile. Another weird effect, which I might be imagining, is that my feet look like they have more of an arch. I was born with flat feet, and for a long time I could actually tell how flat a surface was by just stepping on it (no joke!). In fact, I can still create minor suction on certain surfaces with my feet. I know, it's very weird, and I can't always reproduce it. Anyhow, in recent years, my feet developed a noticeable, if very slight, arch. I think my strengthened feet have made the arch go from like 1 degree curve to a 2 degree curve. I'll never have a regular arch, but my experiences with the minimal shoes to date further convinces me that modern shoes are over-supportive and weakening people's feet.

That's it for now. I'll try to get back to more regular posting when I'm not so swamped with work and not so tired from working so much.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Shocking News: One Size Fits All Doesn't Work

This week's news brings up a study which has results that fall squarely in the "no duh!" territory: a study from the Thomas Fordham Institute shows that concentrating efforts on bringing the lowest achieving students up to par drags down the highest achievers. Not terribly surprising. Public education has never been about fostering excellence. It's always been about getting people to a minimum standard with no incentive to push beyond that.

Because there's not much incentive for going beyond what's required, public education largely becomes a system forcing homogeneity and universal mediocrity onto students who are naturally stratified in their talents. With the obsession with tracking everything with standardized tests and the arguably senseless "No Child Left Behind" measures implemented under G-Dub, public education has become a wasteland for student development. Not to say there aren't good schools, teachers, and students out there. Educational excellence still exists in the morass of the public school system, but I fear that it only exists as mini ecosystems where learning thrives. The ocean of mediocrity (and the ever increasing cesspools of incompetence) loom large and threaten to make all our students equally subpar.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The end is near

Ok, maybe not that end about which we hear various cults prophesizing. This is a case of an end which I'd welcome seeing. What I'm talking about is mostly about an end to the ridiculously inefficient suburban model that has been so prevalent in the U.S. post-WWII. Unless you've been living under a rock (not that there's anything inherently wrong with living under a rock if cheap rent is your thing), you're sure to have noticed that gas prices have made quite a jump gas price over the past few years. For the most part, suburbs are designed as sprawling, serpentine expanses of houses and roads which are meant to be navigated via car (and often large, status symbol SUVs at that). This model of having one's own [distant, faraway] castle was only viable so long as fuel was cheap.

The decision to become a nation dependent on cars to get everywhere and having homes distant from places of work was a short sighted decision in many ways. While we probably won't be switching to widespread New Urban development that quickly, I think we are seeing the initial winds of change. Long commutes are one thing, but also paying mega moolah for the privilege of that long commute from BFE is getting unbearable for more and more people. People are actually moving back to the cities in something of a suburban exodus. Moreover, the combination subprime fallout and changing attitudes about mixed use urban living are adding to the suburban decline.

While I'm glad to see that trends are probably shifting towards more smarter development and less suburban crapmansion development, things will change slowly. I just hope demand doesn't send housing prices for mixed use areas sky high so that I'll be forced to live in the suburbs.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Notes on Traveling

So, I'm back in Philly after a 5 day sojourn to the land of sun, palm trees, beaches, and old people dressed in tacky outfits (i.e. Florida). It was a pretty uneventful trip, but that suits me just fine. I like not having stuff to do constantly. I did still do stuff in FL because I can't completely vegetate, but I was working on a much more open ended time table.

I did notice two mildly funny things during my travels. First, it always seems to be that the people least able to lift big heavy luggage are the most likely to have it. It could be that they're not any more common than the people capable of actually lifting and moving their heavy luggage. Certainly, they're the most visible though since they slow everyone else down while they're struggling with their luggage.

The other thing I noted was about my flight. My flight actually arrived in Philly roughly 20 minutes early, but we had to circle the airport for 20 or so minutes until we could land. The airlines seriously pad their schedules to allow for weather and other random delays. Why the heck is one of the delays just for landing the airplane? I understand how it could happen, but there's not reason a plane should be circling for 20 minutes before landing. It's a fault of the outdated air traffic control systems that we had to circle for so long.

Anyhow, now that I'm back in town, I need another 5 days to get myself back into a regular daily schedule. Just in time for me to leave for another trip.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chillin' in FL, and thoughts on sun worshipping

Well, I'm back in Florida for a few days visiting my parents. I do have to say that I've forgotten how hot and humid it is here. It wasn't so bad acclimating this time since we had that heat wave in Philly right before I left. Still, even with my powers of temperature resistance, I still feel somewhat uncomfortable when it's [slightly over] 80 degrees inside the house. If I didn't have a fan blowing on me, I'd probably be too lethargic to do anything.

It's been nice going to Spruce Creek park every morning. I can see why my parents go so often. It is a pleasantly peaceful view on the water for some morning stretching, qigong, and light exercise. If there is a breeze, it's even pleasant. Of course, there wasn't much breeze the first two days, so I had to re-adapt to the feeling of constantly sweating in the sticky warm Florida air.

On another note, I recently read an article about a dermatologist who didn't believe tanning and sun exposure were linked to melanoma. Of course, this is interesting news for someone from a land of tanned people. It's an opinion that's definitely not in line with the mainstream thinking. Just do a Google search for sun exposure and melanoma, and you'll get a ton of hits to sites saying that excessive sun exposure leads to melanoma. Unfortunately, I can't find the original article, but I'll summarize the arguments I've heard so far in my brief research:

Mainstream Thinking: Sun is Bad
  • High incidence of sunburn, particularly during adolescent years and for fair skinned folk, is linked to higher incidence of melanoma
  • UV rays cause skin aging and DNA damage
  • Use of tanning booths is also linked to melanoma
The Contrarian View: Sun Avoiders are Loonies
  • UV is necessary for vitamin D production
  • Some studies show that people from sunnier climes actually have lower incidence of melanoma
  • Melanoma more likely develops on the parts of the body that don't receive as much sun exposure (palms, soles of feet, and other parts where the sun don't shine)
  • The parts of the body with a lot of sun exposure typically develop benign basal and squamous cell skin cancers.
This is certainly not a complete or thoroughly researched comparison, but it's good enough this blog post's purposes.

So, what's the word on sunning and skin cancer? My guess is that the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. There are interested parties on both sides (cosmetic industry sellers of sunscreen vs. tanning salon operators for instance) skewing evidence and making one-sided arguments. Moderate sun exposure probably isn't as bad as the mainstream thinking goes. The UV from sun exposure does help you produce vitamin D, and there is some evidence that tanning helps prevent melanoma. On the other hand, fair skinned people (notably blondes and red heads) might need to worry more about getting less sun exposure than people that tan easily or have darker skin pigmentation. In addition, just because getting some sun is probably good for you, going overboard has the big disadvantage of aging your skin and running the risk of getting really uncomfortable sunburn.

I'm sure I get plenty of sun exposure just walking around outside during my everyday life. I think I'll just enjoy the shade as much as possible to stay cool and comfortable in the hot summer months.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tonight's Title Bout: Environment vs Jesus

I consider myself a rather eco-conscious person and moderately spiritual. I won't make any claims to being a great religious scholar (and not particularly Christian), but one thing that persistently baffles me is how a good number of Christian folk use their faith as their basis for not caring about (or worse, willfully despoiling) the environment. I don't mean to Christian bash since I do know many kind hearted, good Christians. But I unfortunately seem to have run into a few that apparently haven't truly examined the teachings of their faith.

I'll use a recent No Impact Man blog post as my launching point for discussion. The argument made by the religious Christian doubter of global climate change was:

"He [meaning God] promised never to send another flood--that polar ice will never melt and flood us again. His sovereignty will prevail--whether people believe in Him or not."
Ok, fair enough. If you believe that a divine flood will not be inflicted again, that's fine. But the Bible also states that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians VI). Maybe God won't be flooding us anytime soon, but that sure as heck isn't going to stop us from inflicting environmental catastrophe on ourselves. If we decide to pollute the Earth, we have to accept any potential consequences of our actions.

One thing that bothered me for a long time was that there was so much news about Christian doubters of global warming, and even a lot of fundamentalists outright denying any validity to the science. There are two issues going on here. One of them, the disconnect and lack of communication between science and religion, is a topic for another day. The other is what I think is a misguided skewing of Christian teaching to defend an unsustainable lifestyle. I've heard arguments using the Bible to defend driving SUVs and pillaging the Earth. I'm not entirely sure how Christian ideas got twisted into a defense of ecologically and socially unconscionable actions. I think the argument for SUVs was something along the lines of it being a Christian duty to protect one's family. All I have to say to that is "what would Jesus drive"? I'm sure He wouldn't be driving around gas guzzling, environment polluting, overly large status symbol vehicles that endanger other drivers.

The most egregious thing I ever heard was the use of the passage from Genesis about the Lord giving man dominion over the plants and animals of the world as a justification for being able to despoil the environment at will. That seems terribly un-Christian to me since my [admittedly limited] understanding was that passage was meant to be more of a statement of being stewards of Earth rather than pillagers. It baffled me for the longest time how there could be devout Christians who were so incredibly anti-environment. Fortunately, there seems to be some pushback to sanity since environmental Christian groups have been arising.

As a final note, I'll bring up the Christian ideal of loving one's neighbor. Protecting the environment is just another way of loving one's neighbor. Polluting the environment has multitudes of interconnected and downstream effects which affect people. Air pollution results in acid rain (often distant from the site of pollution) and respiratory problems. Dumping waste into the waterways just isn't a good idea as it makes an essential resource less usable for large numbers of people. The sheer amount of electronic junk we carelessly dispose of often contains toxic substances which either leach into the environment or get shipped overseas where they poison people scavenging the waste. The list of environmental and social ills is pretty long. Being good stewards of the land comes with the added benefit of caring for your fellow men (and women). If you ask me, Jesus would have embraced the environmental cause with open arms.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Recovery Myth(busting)?

So, I read this article in the NY Times about the myth of consuming recovery nutrition products post-workout to speed up muscle recovery and boost physical performance. Could it be that I've been downing calories immediately post-workout for no good reason? Well, I guess yes and no.

The primary tidbits of new information that I got out of the article was that there's no magical 4:1 carb to protein ratio for post-workout calories and there's no magical time window to get those carbs ingested for maximal effect. Honestly, I never even knew that "magical" ratio existed. I just know that I'm friggin' famished after a hard workout. I just want to get down any calories after an intense exercise session. If I wait too long to eat, I get grumpy, tired, and often get a mild headache. Maybe getting those post-workout carbs don't improve my glycogen replenishment, but they sure as heck affect how I feel. Being low blood sugar for too long post-workout tends to really suck for me.

The article does make some statements about protein intake, which more or less fall in line with what I've read elsewhere. But the tone of article makes it seem like getting amino acids into the bloodstream soon after a workout doesn't have much effect:
"Although studies by Dr. Jeukendrup and several others have shown that consuming protein after exercise speeds up muscle protein synthesis, no one has shown that that translates into improved performance. The reason, Dr. Jeukendrup said, is that effects on performance, if they occur, won’t happen immediately. They can take 6 to 10 weeks of training. That makes it very hard to design and carry out studies to see if athletes really do improve if they consume protein after they exercise."
Well, all I have to say is: no duh! Most people aren't going to see noticeable improvements in the short term. It'll take several weeks (even months) for anyone to improve performance, unless they're a complete beginner having never done any exercise whatsoever before.

Then there's also the fact that the article seemed to very skewed towards running, which I guess is fair since it was discussing recovery nutrition in terms of athletic performance. Most athletes are after all required to run fast. I think I'll be sticking to the strength and body building nuggets of wisdom from T-Nation though. I'm more concerned with my total body strength than my running speed. I figure guys obsessed with physique and strength know a thing or two about protein consumption and building muscle. So, unless I read a more convincing article saying otherwise, I'm going to assume that getting my post-workout protein shake is still helping me more efficiently pack some more muscle on to my (admittedly lean) frame.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Speedos

I know what you're thinking. I'm not talking about those speedos! I'm talking about the water shoes. I went shopping today and managed to pick myself up a pair of Speedo Surfwalker water shoes. My latest project is to clad my feet with more minimal shoes to strengthen my feet and improve my awareness of the ground. Why bother? Well, I've fully detailed that in my latest Zenfulness blog post. Basically, recent news combined with my own personal experience has convinced me that constant wearing of supportive and protective athletic shoes leads to foot and ankle weakening. I'm trying to transition closer to doing things barefoot to strengthen my feet and ankles. Don't worry though. I'm not planning on completely giving up shoes (or even my current tennis shoes).

I'm not completely willing to be one of those alternative folks who walks barefoot everywhere, so I'm taking an intermediate step by getting some thinner soled, more minimalistic shoes to emulate the barefoot experience. The first trial run (or actually walk) was fun. I could definitely feel the ground better, and I did feel my feet and lower legs working harder during my stroll. I also got the impression that the thinner sole allowed my toes to be more interactive with the ground. I may start switching solely (pun intended) to minimal shoes for my martial arts training. I feel that they'll give me extra sensitivity to the ground and allow me to stabilize my structure better.

My tennis shoes I'll be keeping around for rope jumping and any other activity where I feel I need the extra cushioning (like when I need to do a lot of walking on pavement). I still think regular athletic shoes have a place on my foot. But minimal shoes will most likely get more foot time in my shoe rotation.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Simplicity

One of my goals this year is to simplify my life. I've managed to get a lot of clutter out of my life simply because I live in a small apartment and I constantly have this thought of having to move again (and not wanting to pack a bunch of extra stuff). But in other ways I haven't managed to simplify my life. I live closer to work this year, yet I've ended up being busier than I was when I lived further away. I managed to fill my time. Just like a gas expands to fill a vacuum, my activities expand to fill my free time.

Since I've moved closer to Philly, I've managed to ramp up my martial arts training and teaching, intensify my physical conditioning training, start blogging, build websites, make my Chinese learning more consistent, participate in surveys for fun and profit, become more vigilant about trying to be more environmentally conscious, etc. All of those things take time. A Bruce Lee quote would be fitting for how I feel now: "It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential."

Exactly what I'm going to hack away still baffles me though. I'll probably cut back on the survey thing. They don't actually earn me much cash anyhow, and some of them are an utter waste of time. At some point, I'm going to stop tracking so many things on my training logs. I think I can safely say I've transformed my eating habits already, so I can probably safely stop tracking my food intake. I'll still need to track my strength and martial arts training to keep myself on track though. I'm torn about cutting back my teaching though. Though it really eats into my free time, I really enjoy seeing students make progress and it's good training for me to teach.

What to else to hack away? If I were insane, I'd say sleep and my refusal to drink caffeine. But I'm [arguably] not insane. Too bad there's no pithy quote about what the unessential is.

Friday, May 16, 2008

New websites now live

Ok, it's official. My websites are now online and actually have something on them. Granted, there's not a lot on the sites now, but I'm working on it.

JohnnyKuo.net

Zenfulness.com

I plan on keeping this blog running, but I think I want to migrate my official online identity to something associated with my name. Zenfulness is my next blogging experiment. It'll be fun to see how it turns out.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Flying punch of power and puny bells

So, our YMCA has got some new toys. For some reason, they got some kettlebells and a punching bag. Of course, this being the Y, they made some poor choices. First, the punching bag is free standing and they keep forgetting to fill the base of it with sand or water. I hit the thing expecting something pretty solid. I nearly sent the stupid thing flying. Good thing I didn't kick it. And then there's the fact that they decided to put the bag right next to a huge pane of glass. Now, they've made the wonderful decision of putting a rowing machine like 2 feet away from the bag. There are also two punch mitts and a set of gloves next to the punching bag. I think a whopping 3 people in the gym actually know how to use the mitts. The gloves and mitts are in the weight room next to a rowing machine and punching bag. There's like 4 square feet of working space unless you take the gloves and mitts somewhere else. The pure lack of planning astounds me.

Oh, and the kettlebells are amusing. I will first say that my Sifu doesn't speak highly of kettlebell training, so I'll probably just play around with them and not spend too much time incorporating them into my workout. It's probably better that I not have my teacher annoyed that I'm training kettlebells. Not that I could incorporate them much into my workout anyhow. They only went up to 25lb kettlebells. Could they go any lighter? I never do the bells, and already the weight is too light for me. I guess they're aiming them at the middle aged moms who come into the gym, because the bells are brightly colored.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Festival of blurbs: Cinco de Mayo post

Let me start off by saying ¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo! I don't really celebrate the Cinco de Mayo, but there should always be some good excuse to celebrate something. Today is as good a day as any to have a fiesta. I'm still stuck at work, but when I get home, watch out. I'm going to be a loco hombre. Ok, so I probably won't do my wild man routine today, but it's a fun thought. I think the biggest celebration we'll be having is enjoying a hearty dinner of quesadillas with salsa and guacamole.

We do have a small cause to celebrate. This past weekend was the Ardmore Blossoms. It was basically a small community event with some live music, some vendor and charity group stands, and some freebie stuff. I actually had two soft pretzels (which is a huge increase in my usual refined flour consumption). I just couldn't help myself when presented with a free salty, doughy product with mustard. Anyhow, the most important part of the event (to me) was the electronics recycling drop off. Finally, I rid myself of some extra electronics crap that probably would have been hard to unload otherwise. That combined with our recent donation to the Sisters of the Holy Rosary thrift store means that we have a lot less stuff cluttering up our precious floor space. I estimate that we freed up between 5-10 square feet of floor space when we unloaded our donate and recycle boxes. That's a pretty significant increase in useable floor space when you live in a tiny space like we do.

Another cause for celebration is the return of our hot water. We had to resort to taking one shower at the YMCA (which was actually no where near as bad as we had originally pictured). Boy, do I ever appreciate the convenience of having hot water at home, especially now that I've been deprived of it 4 times in the past few months.

I've recently signed up and been approved for a membership with PhillyCarShare. I sold my car not too long ago. Not owning a car is reason enough for me to be happy. I'm much happier not having to maintain a car, a fact which I'm sure baffles my dad. I suppose I'm just not the typical car-loving American. I think of a vehicle as a means to get me from point A to point B, preferably with an acceptable level of comfort and safety. That being said, I am looking forward to driving a Prius and Mini Cooper for a future driving errand.

I guess the final reason for celebration would be friends and family. I've managed to keep up my enjoyable habit of calling my mom nearly everyday and slowly increase my Chinese vocabulary through daily conversation. And I think I've finally gotten to a point in my life where I actually know enough people that it's difficult keeping up with everyone. It can take a lot of effort to keep in touch with all the friends you've encountered in life. But, all things considered, that's not such a terrible chore.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mysterious dissapearing creature comforts and slowing posts

Well, it's happened yet again. We have no hot water. This is like the 4th time it's happened to us. Nothing sucks quite like waking up in the morning trying to start your day with a nice hot cold shower. Then it comes back for a little while, so we go to the gym, only to come back to another hot water outage. I'm sure I don't smell too pleasant now since I definitely poured sweat from my jump rope session at the. But I've been loathe to take a cold shower. I can't bring myself to shiver under the cold water quite yet.

Also, my blog posts have been slowing down lately. That's probably a relief for the whopping 3 readers of my blog since I can type up a storm when I get on a roll. Anyhow, life has been catching up to me. Trying to keep my martial arts and conditioning training up while preparing food for my 5ish daily meals, trying to be environmentally conscious in an environment more conducive to just tossing everything into the trash, and trying to shorten my to do list is really time consuming. Then I had to decide to try to build my web presence. So, building my mini web empire has been sucking my time, both in learning the software tools and working on implementing them. Anyhow, I've added sidebar links to my work-in-progress web sites. Feel free to visit them and offer any suggestions.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Rolling in dough

Today, I decided to bake some more of the crusty, no knead bread again. It was a big hit last time. At Gen's request I made a sweet batch and a savory batch. Rather than do the rational thing and split the original recipe into two halves, I decided to make two whole batches. One batch was herb bread, and the other batch was honey wheat raisin bread. The original recipe makes approximately 4 medium sized loaves.

You might guess that I made 8 loaves, but that guess would actually be wrong. This time around, I made the mistake of not reading the recipe closely enough. Just because the ingredient list says 4 cups of water doesn't mean I should immediately add 4 cups of water to the dough. One of those cups is actually for generating steam in the oven. Oops. Needless to say, I had a very wet and loose dough.

Again, I defied rationality and succumbed to my laziness. I could have just added more flour after realizing my mistake (2 hours later after my dough had poofed really big). I instead decided to throw the wet dough in the oven as is and see what happened. Lo and behold, I did actually get really nice bread. Only this time, the crust wasn't quite as nicely formed on half the loaves, and the bread itself was a lot moister and lighter. Also, since the dough was a lot looser, I had a heck of a time dividing the dough into quarters. So, instead of having 8 loaves, I ended up with 11 loaves.

Near disaster was averted by smart thinking on my part. Ok, so there wasn't a whole lot of thought involved. Kitchen disaster was actually fortuitously avoided by a lazy decision on my part. But I'm apparently not the only cook redeemed by careless accidents. Brownies are commonly thought to have been discovered by a cook who accidentally left out the baking powder from a chocolate cake batter. Necessity may be the mother of all inventions, but I say laziness ranks up there for sowing the oats of accidental discoveries.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New toy

Ok, it's not a very exciting toy. There are no blinking lights or music playing abilities. It's just a simple 18'' long, 6'' wide cylinder of foam. Hey, what can I say? I'm easily amused.

What does it do? Well, for those of you who haven't experienced the wonders of self myofascial release (SMR) therapy, foam rollers are basically wonderful tools for giving yourself a massage. It won't ever be as good as having a live person massaging you, but it's a heck of a lot cheaper. I usually use tennis balls for my SMR treatment, but the foam roller actually hits my muscles in a slightly different way. The roller also more easily works things like my hamstrings, which always seem to be a challenge with tennis balls.

I know it may not sound like it does much, but rolling on the roller and/or tennis ball makes my muscles feel a lot looser and relaxed. If I start getting tight from a few days of hard workouts, a little rolling SMR treatment always loosens me up. I may not have been feeling bad before, but I'm always pleasantly surprised by how much better I feel after rolling. It's funny how you can sometimes forget what relaxed and loose is supposed to feel like. Good thing I've got tools around to keep reminding myself.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Soy, it's what's for dinner

Ok, that statement probably isn't true for the vast majority of people. Being vegetarians, it's often true for Gen and me. Of course, contrary to popular belief, vegetarians do actually get protein from other sources other than soy: quinoa, nuts, whole grains, hemp, beans, corn, and many other foods do contain protein. Anyhow, let's get to the primary topic of today's random musing: soy, the simultaneous wonder food and nutritional pariah.

Soy is a surprisingly controversial food. Some people tout its incredible culinary versatility, health benefits, and environmental friendliness vs animal proteins. On the other hand, other people bash it for containing phytoestrogens and being an inferior protein source to meat. Of course, I really like soy, and I'm surprised that I get some grief for deriving a lot of my protein intake from soy. I've been told by several people (including my own father who is amazingly uninformed about nutrition for a biochemistry Ph.D.) that I'm going to grow breasts, become sickly, and waste away because I eat soy.

For the moment, we'll ignore the fact that I eat a fairly varied diet with other plant derived protein sources. Asian cultures have eaten soy for centuries with no noticeable ill effects. I've been vegetarian for well over 10 years now, and I'll have to say that I've actually become stronger and healthier. So, I think that the theory of soy being bad for me is total bunk. Now, what about the phytoestrogens in soy feminizing me? Well, if that's true, maybe it's not so bad being a new age, sensitive guy. But then again, I don't think that statement holds any water either.



Not a result of soy.
I'm an avid reader of Testosterone Nation, and I often have to read many comments poking fun at puny soy-consuming girly men. Ok, I admit, those comments are often pretty funny in the context of the articles, but they only thinly mask the contemptuous scorn that some carnivorous types have for soy. But wouldn't you know it, this article appeared on T-Nation recently. Finally! T-Nation itself posted an article defending soy! I'll let you read the article for yourself if you care to read it, but the overall message is that soy is just another source of protein that can be readily incorporated into a healthy, varied diet. You'd have to eat a hell of a lot of soy (almost more than is physically possible) to be feminized by the phytoestrogens.

The article did reinforce the thinking that processed soy is probably not terribly great for you. Gen's been slowly convincing me to get more protein from alternative sources, and we've been cutting back on the highly processed soy products (i.e. minimizing eating soy protein powder). I can live with that. I've been trying to cut out highly processed foods from my diet anyhow. But at the end of the day, I'm still one of the soy boys, even if I'm not quite a metrosexual girly man.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Juicing up... your brain?

According to a recent study, nearly 20% of polled Nature readers (who are by and large scientists) use brain-boosting drugs like Ritalin, Provigil, and Inderal. It's already bad enough that we have to suffer with steroid enhanced athletes. Could it possibly be so bad that scientists are doping up to gain that mental performance edge? I know competition for grant money is fierce, but some things (like one's health) aren't worth the cost of success.

Personally, I have a hard enough time with just caffeine, which is an almost universal drug of choice among all the researchers I know. I avoid caffeine since I know it makes me jittery and gives me noticeable tachycardia. The unpleasant side effects of some of the other drugs don't sound worth it to me. I once had a friend in college who used some sort of herb product so he could sleep less and work longer. The big downside to that was dizziness, mild hallucinations, and the host of problems that occur with sleep deprivation. Then of course, we all have some knowledge about the experimentation with mind expanding and mind altering drugs that happened in the '60s and '70s. While most folks from that era turned out normal, there are plenty of high profile examples of people who either had close calls or just didn't survive long enough to become aging hippies.

You'd think that scientists would be smart enough to just look at what happens to athletes who tried tweaking with their bodies to gain an edge. Messing too much with the body comes with serious risks. There's no reason to believe that doing the same thing with the mind doesn't also have significant physical and mental consequences. Hopefully, this won't become a more common trend.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Awesome no knead bread

Well, I didn't take a picture of it this time, but you'll have to take my word for it. I made a simple crusty bread based on a recipe I saw in the Week (reprinted from the NY Times?). No kneading necessary. The dough was a little wetter than I'm used to with a traditional bread which requires kneading. The tradeoff is that you have to let the dough rest a lot longer, but I'll take that passive waiting tradeoff over 20 minutes of active kneading. More water in the dough apparently allows the gluten formation to happen without the need to knead.

So, how did it turn out? One word: awesome. Most home ovens don't have a steam injection feature like the pro bakery ovens. The wetter dough and the pan of hot water placed in the oven simulates a similar effect to the steam injection. I've never gotten such a nice crust on my bread before. I'm definitely going to have to add this gem to my regular baking repertoire.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It's not small, it's cozy

We've now officially lived in our small apartment for about 8 months. Initially, 550 square feet sounded like it would be rough, but it hasn't been all that bad. Granted, I do miss some things like having two bathrooms and a dishwasher. Having a bigger kitchen would be nice considering how much cooking we do, but our current small kitchen is workable. Also, there's not a whole lot of private, quiet space in the apartment. Talking on the phone on one side of the apartment is clearly audible on the other side of the apartment.

So, if there are those downsides about the apartment, what are the upsides? Well, location for starters. We can walk basically everywhere we need to go. Trader Joe's: 10 minute walk, even while laden with groceries. Train station: less than 10 minutes, 6 minutes at a brisk pace. Gym: roughly 10 minutes. Hardware store: 4 minutes. Barber shop: 4 minutes. Several parks: less than 10 minutes away. A bevy of restaurants are all minutes away by foot, even though we actually almost never eat out. Whole Foods is also technically a walkable distance, but it's just far enough that driving a car there makes sense.

Cheaper rent and utilities is also a big plus. Rent is about 30% cheaper than the larger apartment alternative we were considering, and we also get free heat and water. We have had to be creative with organizing stuff, but the flip side to that is that I've been forced to get rid of stuff. When you don't have space to store crap, you start focusing on the stuff that you actually need or has real importance. Oh, and cleanup (when we manage to get around to doing it) doesn't take nearly as long as it would with a bigger space. It takes longer to setup the vacuum cleaner than it does to actually vacuum the floor (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's not far from the truth).

I know a lot of people (many of my friends included) think we're a bit nuts for intentionally choosing to live in such a small apartment. I don't think it's so bad. People do actually live in even smaller spaces than we do. Personally, I hope things start trending towards smaller houses, better built houses, and smarter community layouts. I think it would go a long way to helping people prioritize the important things in life rather than the focusing on the material side of things and keeping up with the Joneses.