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NOTE TO TOOL OWNERS: In this blog I will occasionally make statements about products that you will take exception to. My intent is to always be factual and accurate. If I have made a statement that you consider to be incorrect or innaccurate, please bring it to my attention and, once I have verified my error, I will post the appropriate correction.

And before you get too exercised, please read the post, date 9 Feb 2006, titled "All Tools Suck".

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Physical Improvement for Geeks: The Four Hour Body

I've just read through all of Tim Ferriss' The Four Hour Body ( (4HB). Short version of review: found it really interesting and helpful and generally to be full of sound advice and guidance provided with a dose of humor. I am starting on the book's Slow Carb Diet (SCD) in an attempt to lose 20lbs of mostly visceral fat (read "lose my beer gut" and try to live to see my daughter graduate from college).

The book is written from a geek's perspective for geeks. It essentially takes an engineering approach to body tuning based on self experimentation, measurement, and application of sound scientific principles. In a post on the 4HB blog Tim captures the basic approach and purpose of the book:

"To reiterate: The entire goal of 4HB is to make you a self-sufficient self-experimenter within safe boundaries. Track yourself, follow the rules, and track the changes if you break or bend the rules. Simple as that. That’s what I did to arrive at my conclusions, and that’s what you will do — with a huge head start with the 4HB — to arrive at yours."

I've done Atkins in the past with some success so I know that for me a general low-carb approach will work. The Slow Carb Diet essentially takes Atkins and reduces it to the essential aspects that create change. The biggest difference between Atkins and the SCD is the SCD eliminates all dairy because of its contribution to insulin spiking despite a low glycemic index. So no cheese or sugar-free ice cream (which we got really good at making back in our Atkins days). The SCD also includes a weekly "cheat day" where you eat whatever crap you want, as much as you can choke down. After 6 days I've lost 3.5 lbs, which is about what I would expect at the start of a strict low-carb diet. I haven't had the same degree of mind alteration that I got from the Atkins induction process, which is nice, because that was always a pretty rough week for everybody.

What I found interesting about the 4HB was that Tim is simply presenting his findings and saying "this worked, this didn't, here's why we think this did or didn't work." He's not selling a system or pushing supplements or trying to sell videos. His constant point is "don't take my word for it, test it yourself. I might be spouting bullsh*t so test, test, test."

As an engineer that definitely resonated with me. He also spends a lot of time explaining why professional research is often useless, flawed, biased, or otherwise simply not helpful, if not downright counterproductive. As somebody who's always testing assumptions and asking for proof I liked that too.

He even has an appendix where he presents some data gathered from people who used the SCD, which, as presented suggested some interesting findings and made the diet look remarkably effective. He then goes through the numbers and shows why the numbers are deceptive and can't be trusted in a number of ways. If his intent was to sell the diet he would have just presented the numbers. Nice.

His focus is as much on the mental process as on the physical process: measure, evaluate, question, in short, think about what you're doing and why. Control variables as much as possible in your experiments.

I highly recommend the book for anyone who's thinking about trying to lose weight or improve their physical performance in whatever way they need to--Ferriss pretty much covers all bases, from simple weight and fat loss to gaining muscle, improving strength, etc.

He has two chapters focused on sexual improvements, one on female orgasm and one on raising testosterone levels, sperm count, and general libido in males. These could have come off as pretty salacious and "look what at what a sex machine I've become" but I didn't read them that way. Rather his point was that improving the sexual aspects of ones life is important to becoming a more complete person--it's an important part of being human so why not enjoy it to its fullest? I personally went through a male fertility issue when my wife and I tried to start a family and if I'd had the chapter on improving male fertility at that time (and if my fertility had actually been relevant) it would have been a godsend. One easy takeaway from that chapter: if you want kids don't carry an active cell phone in your pocket.

An interesting chapter on sleep: how to get better sleep, how to need less sleep, etc. Some interesting and intriguing stuff there as well. Some simple actions that might make significant positive changes in sleep patterns, as well as a technique for getting by on very little sleep if you can maintain a freaky-hard nap schedule.

Overall I found the book thoughtful, clearly written, engaging and entertaining and generally helpful. I found very few things that made me go "yeah right" or "oh please" or any of the reactions I often have to self help books. He stresses being careful and responsible and having a clear undestanding of what your goal is. In short, sound engineering practice applied to your physical self.

Dr. Macro says check it out.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chevy Volt Adventure: Feb Diagnostic Report

Just got the February vehicle diagnostic report email from the Volt. I'm not sure why I find it so cool that my car can send me email, but I do.

The salient numbers are:

35 kW-hr/100 miles

1 Gallon of gasoline used. [This is actually an overstatement as we have only used 0.2 gallons since returning from our Houston trip at the end of December.]

Our electricty usage for January (the latest numbers I have) was (numbers in parens are for Jan 2010):

Total kW-hr: 954 (749)
Grid kW-hr: 723 (455)
Solar kW-hr: 231 (294)
Dollars billed: $58.37 ($35.12)

$/kWh used: $0.06 ($59.00/954)

kWh/mile: 0.35 (35kWh/100miles)

$/mile: $0.02

Our bill for Dec was $32.00, so we spent an extra $26.00 on electricity in January, some of which can be attributed to the unusually cold winter we've been having. We also produced about 60kWh less this January than last.

But if we assume that most of the difference was the Volt, that means it cost us about $20.00 to drive the vehicle for the month. We used essentially no gasoline so the electricity cost was our total operating cost.

Looking at the numbers it also means that the draw from the car is less than or roughly equal to the solar we produced over the same period. Not that much of that solar went to actually charging the Volt since we tend to charge later in the day or over night after having done stuff during the day, but if Austin Energy actually gave us market rates for our produced electricity rather than the steep discount they do give us, we could truthfully say we have a solar powered car, even in January. For contrast, our maximum solar production last year was 481 kWh in August, with numbers around 400 kWh most months.

Compare this cost with a gasoline vehicle getting 30 mpg around town at $3.00/gallon (current price here in Austin):

30 miles/gallon = 0.03 gallons/mile * $3.00/gallon =

$/mile: 0.09

However, our other car, a 2005 Toyota Solar only gets about 22 mpg around town, which comes out to

$/mile: 0.15

Of course these numbers only reflect direct operating cost, not the cost of our PV system or the extra cost of the Volt itself relative to a comparable gas-powered vehicle, but that's not the point is it? Because it's not just lowered operating cost but being a zero-emissions vehicle most days and using (or potentially using) more sustainable sources of energy.

But another interesting implication here is what would happen (or will happen) when the majority of vehicles are electric? If our use is typical, it means about a 25% increase in electricity consumption just for transportation. What does that mean for the electricity infrastructure? Would we be able in the U.S. to add 25% more capacity in say 10 years without resorting to coal? How much of that increase can be met through conservation? It seems like it could be a serious challenge for the already-straining grid infrastructure, something we know we need to address simply to make wind practical (because of the current nature of the U.S. grid).

If Chevy and the other EV manufacturers can bring the cost down, which they inevitably will, people are going to flock to these cars because they're fun to drive, cheaper to operate, and better for the air. Given the expected rate of advance in battery technology and the normal economies of scale, it seems reasonable to expect the cost of electric vehicles to be comparable to gasoline vehicles in about 5 years. If gas prices rise even $1.00/gallon in that time, which seems like a pretty safe bet (but then I would have expect gas to be at $5.00/gallon by now after it's spike back in 2008), then the attractiveness of electric vehicles will be even greater.

Which is all to say that I fully expect EVs like the Volt to catch on in a big way in about 5 years, which I think could spell, if not disaster, then at least serious strain in the U.S. electricity infrastructure. I know the City of Austin is thinking about it because that's their motivation for paying for our charging station: monitor the draw from the car so they can plan appropriately. But are we doing that a national level? I have no idea, but history does not instill confidence, let us say.