Forever Fat Loss, by Ari Whitten

Based on a recommendation from Cindy Rollins, I borrowed a Kindle copy of Ari Whitten’s Forever Fat Loss, using the Amazon Prime free trial that I’m offered every so often. The ebook is only \$3, and I might have paid it otherwise, but since it only took me an hour to skim through and I won’t ever read it again, I’m just as glad to have the money stay in my pocket.

Which isn’t to say it wasn’t worth the time, or even the \$3, since I learned a few helpful things—or, more accurately, I had a few thoughts of my own reinforced by the writer’s main points. Whitten’s overall claim is that people will maintain a healthy, stable weight as long as their eating is in proper balance, and that weight problems are caused by various imbalances in the modern diet. Of the food innovations he counts as culprits, three resonated with me.

High reward foods. We can spend a lot of time untangling the threads which have led to the attractive, addictive quality of modern processed food, but the result is that people are driven to eat too much of it. The alternative is to eat a pre-modern menu—and by pre-modern, I mean backing up only a hundred years or so, before foods were carefully crafted to maximally entice the eater.

Call it low reward food, or simple food, or whole food, or use Michael Pollan’s rule of no more than five ingredients, or adopt whatever guideline is most helpful in assisting you to fill your plate with food whose origins are still recognizable. The fact is that you will only eat as much of it as you need, because you have reduced or even eliminated its entertainment value.

By eliminating entertainment value, I don’t mean to suggest that the result must be dull or unenjoyable, just that craving needs to be put to death. I think it is possible to enjoy simple food for its goodness—the taste of a potato or tomato, the mouthfeel of olive oil or chicken fat, the chewiness or aroma of rice—in the same way one can enjoy the goodness of a long walk or a sunset. But I don’t think we crave those things, and when we do crave something it is a signal that something is out of balance.

High variety menus. Whitten nicely observes our addiction to variety in our eating is a source of trouble because it takes too many different foods to satisfy our resulting appetite. The appetizer appeals to a different part of us than the entree. Even though we’re stuffed from the main meal, there’s always room for dessert. Between-meal snacks fill different spots yet. And by the end of the day we’ve consumed far too much.

Contrast this with eating like a peasant, i.e. the way most people have eaten for most of history. The menu consists of a few staples, day in and day out, only occasionally punctuated with something festive. Whitten’s example comes from the sherpas he spent time with in Nepal, who ate rice and lentils at practically every meal, sometimes garnished with carrots and curry. Mine would be Mexican peasants, who subsist mainly on rice and pinto beans and corn tortillas … a meal I can enjoy just thinking about it! But also a meal which serves its purpose exactly, enjoyable in the eating but without the temptation to eat beyond my need for sustenance.

Both these points resonate with me because of the pattern I chose for this latest diet, mostly out of laziness and lack of imagination. I don’t eat breakfast, but will drink a couple of cups of coffee during the morning. At lunch I have a sizeable salad—lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers, with an oil and vinegar dressing. During the afternoon I will eat an apple and a banana. For supper the default is rice (white or brown, depending on what the rest of the family is eating or what’s in the refrigerator) with a chicken thigh (skin on), garnished with soy sauce and Louisiana hot sauce. If beans are on the table I might have some of those. Sometimes instead of the chicken thigh I will have three fried eggs, or sauteed greens and mushrooms.

I started skipping breakfast because I wanted to regularly experience a bit of hunger, if only to remind myself that it won’t kill me. During the rest of the day I find that I’m not hungry at all, and any temptation to eat is coming from somewhere else (usually boredom). And I also find myself appreciating qualities in my food that might otherwise be overwhelmed in a more complex menu dominated by high-reward items. For example, I never get tired of that initial jolt of olive oil or chicken fat—where others complain of a sweet tooth, I was seemingly blessed with a “fat tooth”.

(I should also mention that I am blessed with a high threshold for monotony, and my ability to enjoy an unvarying diet is not some sort of moral victory. If a lack of variety is a stumbling block for someone trying to bring their eating under control, I can sympathize but I can’t offer suggestions for how to overcome it—I can only note that it is a skill that help in a powerful way if one can somehow obtain it.)

The other idea I’ve found helpful is movement vs. exercise. I was on my way to discovering this through other reading, but Whitten sums it up nicely—the amount of energy you can burn through intense bouts of exercise pales in comparison to what you can burn by incorporating regular and steady movement into your life. Not that there’s anything wrong with exercise, but it does best when added to regular activity, not as a substitute for it.

I started walking not for weight loss reasons but for health reasons. I like it, but it also highlights for me how sedentary the rest of my day is. I am also limited in the time I can devote to it—and I don’t want to start “redeeming” that time by multitasking, since I enjoy the time away from work and think I need the regular break it gives me. So I’m ripe for Whitten’s suggestion, namely to use a standing desk. Whatever small increase standing gives me over sitting will be multiplied by the many hours I spend at my desk, so I think it’s worth a try. When I return in mid-May from my next trip to El Paso, I plan to make one of these as a relatively inexpensive way of running the experiment.

One seemingly strange thing about Whitten’s book is that it does not say much about how to go about losing weight. This may be for the best, since his greater point is that a focus on weight loss tends to distract from the much more important matter of maintaining a healthy weight through proper eating. Still, anyone who starts out above their healthy weight will need to first reach that weight, presumably by eating at least somewhat differently than they will once a healthy weight is achieved. The only reliable route I’ve discovered so far is the obvious one: calorie restriction.

When I started my diet seven months ago, I sketched out a menu that was roughly 1000 calories short of what I supposedly needed to maintain my weight. That should have resulted in a 2lb-per-week weight loss, and in the early days it did (even faster at the beginning, since I had suddenly put on pounds after staying fairly stable for years). But then the weight loss slowed, even became erratic according to the scale. But my menu is unchanged, my weight is going in the right direction, and I don’t think I’d be happy eating less, so I’m inclined to throw a bit more patience at the problem.

Right now I figure I will reach my original goal in late fall of this year, at which point I will reassess. And whenever I do find the weight I’m happy to maintain, I plan to stick with basically the same menu, except when possible eating reasonable portions of whatever the family is eating for supper. In other words, I plan to abide by my current diet from now on, adding only whatever extra food is needed to keep my weight up.

I know my previous diets failed because I looked at them as temporary mechanisms employed to get me to a particular place, at which time I could go do something different. I’m hoping that by making this current diet into a permanent mindset I can find a way of eating which feels natural to me while still keeping my weight stable. Check back with me in five years to see how it went!

Testing a new post editor

This is a test post, to see if the stackedit.io online editor would be a usable alternative for creating blog posts on my WordPress blog.

UPDATE: It seems to work. At some point soon I will write a post explaining what stackedit.io is and why I want to use it.

Naipaul’s seven rules for beginning writers

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, ranging from the practical to the mystical. I like to read it, but I don’t usually study it closely, trusting that if I encounter a truth about writing often enough, stated in different ways, I will absorb what I need.

Once V.S. Naipaul wrote down seven rules for beginning writers, at the request of the Indian news magazine Tehelka. Being a beginning writer myself (or at least one who is perpetually beginning again), I took a look. They’re pretty good, and I think I may do more than just ponder them.

Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.

Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university.

You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

The rules about short sentences and short words I violate habitually. I don’t know how often I use adjectives and adverbs. I have my own long-standing rule about always backing up a point with one or more concrete illustrations, but I’ve never sat down and scrutinized my writing for abstractness. I am actually a stickler for word meanings, and will often look up words that I am using to carry the weight, not just to double-check my understanding but to look for nuances.

What I particularly like about Naipaul’s rules is that they don’t constitute a law, but rather a discipline. He states clearly at the end that they are to be practiced for a time, as well as a purpose—to rid yourself of bad habits. And that, once mastered, you may go beyond them. But (I assume) they will still constitute a default, that going beyond them will be exceptional in some way, and by mastering the rules you will know when going beyond is needed, as opposed to merely possible.

A large part of why I often violate Naipaul’s rules is that when I write I am frequently exploring possibilities, ways of thinking, ways of getting thoughts down in writing, ways of evoking a response in a reader. I understand that big words and long, complex sentences can work against the goal of communicating—but I want to have written them so that I have a hands-on feel for doing things that way.

But as I enter the final stretch here, I need to lay off the experimentation and use what I’ve learned to get some things done. I’m in a similar position to Naipaul’s “beginning writers”, who surely had much knowledge of the building blocks of writing, words and grammar and such, but were now ready to learn how to deploy those elements effectively, to write in a way that conveys meaning efficiently and accurately and evocatively. So I will look for a way to adopt Naipaul’s discipline for a season.

Two by David Brooks

Sometimes I love what David Brooks has to say, and sometimes it leaves me cold. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t. This variability gives me confidence that he is not pandering to any particular audience but rather following his own muse.

I loved his concept of “bourgeouis bohemians” and the incisive observations he made about them—some of which cut close to the bone back then, just coming out of a high-salaried corporate environment. His dalliances with neuroscience weren’t to my taste, but I always appreciated (and admired) the fact that he was engaged in a long-term intellectual project, something that most folks in his business—punditry—tend to give up in the face of weekly opinionating.

His essay The Thought Leader is a classic example of his early style, even though it was only written a year or so ago. It is a very cutting look at the temptations of punditry and the kind of person a pundit can become.

Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.

Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority.

All that keeps this from being unbearably scathing is the knowledge that Brooks knows whereof he speaks, by dint of experience. The temptations and pitfalls are dangers he has faced personally, and I think he would agree that he hasn’t always triumphed over them.

In case that caveat isn’t enough for you to forgive Brooks for the piece, please balance it with today’s The Moral Bucket List. It is taken from his new book The Road to Character, which I will be reading when it is released Tuesday. These paragraphs should be enough to persuade you that Brooks is a thoughtful guy. [Emphasis added]

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.

Errol Morris

I’ve long admired Errol Morris as a documentary maker. Only in the past couple of years did I discover his writing—in part because he hasn’t been writing all that long, since 2007 or so.

Lately I’ve been on a bit of a Morris kick. I re-read his piece on anosognicia, which is how I discovered his writing. And then I read The Ashtray, where I discovered to my delight that as a graduate student Morris had studied the history of science (so had I, as an undergraduate, but only in a couple of courses for a philosophy minor). And I’ve just watched The Fog of War (free to watch on crackle), his interviews with Robert McNamara.

What I especially like about Morris is that he is entranced by the matter of truth, but in an agenda-free fashion. Sometimes this gets him in trouble with his fans, who tend to be agenda-driven. I liked this quote about his own interviewing style, from an interview about The Fog of War.

I sometimes describe my school of interviewing as the shut-up-and-listen school, which frustrates some viewers, perhaps because they’ve become accustomed to that adversarial style of questioning where the journalist tries to back his subject into a corner or force him into contradiction, or force him into obvious lies that can be exposed. I’ve always felt that there’s much more to be learned by allowing people to express themselves, to reveal themselves.

Part of my enterprise, of course, is to learn about people, to try to enter their mental landscape, to learn how they see the world, how they imagine themselves in the world, and, in the case of McNamara, how they imagine themselves in history.

I’m completely on Morris’s side here. In one’s ongoing effort to align oneself with the grain of the universe, not much is more valuable than a different perspective—after all, we spend a lot of time and effort shaping our own perspective, why not benefit from the work others have done, and bless them with the benefit of ours?

The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina

This is amazing, a clear and easily understood explanation of how a great writer accomplished his intentions. The writer is Tolstoy, the book is Anna Karenina, and the focus is Tolstoy’s understanding of the good life.

I knew this would be good at the very beginning, where the essayist looks at the very famous first sentence and tells us that it is generally misunderstood:

Often quoted but rarely understood, the first sentence of Anna Karenina—“All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—offers a paradoxical insight into what is truly important in human lives. What exactly does this sentence mean?

In War and Peace and in a variant of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy quotes a French proverb: “Happy people have no history.” Where there are dramatic events, where there is material for an interesting story, there is unhappiness. The old curse—“May you live in interesting times!”—suggests that the more narratable a life is, the worse it is.

With happy lives and happy families, there is no drama to relate. What are you going to say: They woke up, breakfasted, didn’t quarrel, went to work, dined pleasantly, and didn’t quarrel again?

Happy families resemble each other because there is no story to tell about them. But unhappy families all have stories, and each story is different.

Not only did I learn something new here about Anna Karenina, it dawned on me that Tolstoy had something to teach me about one of my own growing beliefs, namely that pursuit of the good life consists (or should consist) in large part of eliminating elements of drama from one’s life—despite what the folks championing significant, radical Christianity are telling us.

But how can this be true about one of the best novels ever written, which tells a very dramatic and unhappy story? The essayist continues:

We tend to think that true life is lived at times of high drama. When Anna Karenina reads a novel on the train, she wants to live the exciting incidents described. Both high literature and popular culture foster the delusion that ordinary, prosaic happiness represents something insufferably bourgeois, a suspension of real living. Forms as different as romantic drama, adventure stories, and tragedies suggest that life is truly lived only in moments of great intensity.

Tolstoy thought just the opposite. […]

That is the story Anna Karenina imagines she is living. As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.

Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit.

I’m running the risk of just reproducing the entire essay here, interjecting occasional approving noises. Please save me from this by reading it for yourself. Meanwhile, I need to somehow find time to go back and read Tolstoy’s book again!

Minimum viable product

The idea of minimum viable product is gaining currency, and I’m glad for that. It’s another way of saying Something Simple Right Now, or Learn to Fail Faster. It’s a method for distinguishing what will work from what we wish would work.

Please take a look at this excellent brief example from Steve Blank of how a bunch of entrepreneurs were about to go down a path that was far more expensive and wasteful than necessary—all the while thinking they were being cheap and efficient.

That meant that all the work about buying a drone, a camera, software and time integrating it all was wasted time and effort — now. They did not need to test any of that yet. (There’s plenty of existence proofs that low cost drones can be equipped to carry cameras.) They had defined the wrong MVP to test first. What they needed to spend their time is first testing is whether farmers cared about the data.

In other words, their plan was to build a demonstration version of their product as cheap and efficiently as possible. But they had set out to answer the wrong question. No one doubts that such a product could be built. The unanswered question was whether farmers were interested in paying for the service that the product would provide. And there was a far simpler, faster, and cheaper way to answer that question:

So I asked, “Would it be cheaper to rent a camera and plane or helicopter, and fly over the farmers field, hand process the data and see if that’s the information farmers would pay for? Couldn’t you do that in a day or two, for a tenth of the money you’re looking for?” Oh…

I like that Blank ends his tale with this honest response from the engineers.

They thought about it for a while and laughed and said, “We’re engineers and we wanted to test all the cool technology, but you want us to test whether we first have a product that customers care about and whether it’s a business. We can do that.”

I used to see this all the time when I worked for high-tech corporations. The solutions proposed by any given team—marketing, sales, research, development—had an uncanny propensity to be just the sort of thing those kinds of guys would find fun and interesting to execute. I’ve been that guy myself, leaning towards proposing that we use a particular programming language or software tool or piece of hardware because I wanted to play with it, not because the project required it.

I’ve learned to resist such urges, but not perfectly, so I’ve also learned to defuse the urge by indulging it in harmless ways while also reminding myself that it is an indulgence. Did I need my Nexus 7 tablet, or the top-of-the-line Kindle, or a portable Bluetooth keyboard? No, but they fit within my indulgence budget, and each brought with it some good—I love the keyboard, like the Kindle a lot, and use the tablet from time to time. Having made those purchases (relatively small ones, and over the space of a couple of years) helps take the edge off my lust for cutting-edge technology for its own sake, and keeps me practiced at actually evaluating a potential adoption, rather than just always saying yes or no.