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Befores and Afters

September 27th, 2016

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 6. Befores and Afters

I promised a blog entry on the whole “Endomorph/Ectomorph” thing and it’s coming, but the research is taking me to some interesting places, and it’s gonna take a while to complete, plus I’m super busy playing Pokémon Go. If you want a sneak peak, read the Wikipedia article on Somatotype_and_constitutional_psychology. I’ve ordered some of Dr. Sheldon’s books, and they’re pretty wack-a-doodle. So that’s coming.

In the meantime, I thought I’d give you an update, and also fill a gap I made in my very first post.

The update: I’m now down to 183 lbs, and intend to lose a couple more, than hopefully build up a few pounds of muscle, maybe getting back to 185. That’s the plan anyway.

So, in my first post on this topic of fitness and health, I recited a litany of problems I had before I started this journey. To recap: I felt shitty, I felt invisible, I had man boobs and a nasty chronic cough, I had foot pain which caused a limp.

511765799_43828913da_oI really didn’t like my double-chin (don’t know if I remembered to mention that one), but I’ve had a double-chin pretty much most of my adult life, and I didn’t care for it much. I had crazy food cravings too.

Now what I didn’t tell you, but perhaps you inferred, is that all of these issues have gone away now that I’ve lost 60 pounds.

Nope. Not all of it.

So I thought I’d talk about the stuff that’s changed, and the stuff that hasn’t.

The feeling shitty part has changed, for sure. No doubt I will continue to have bad days, but in general, my overall mood and outlook are significantly better. I credit the exercise, mostly, with providing a huge boost in my energy levels. But I am also genuinely proud of what I’ve accomplished.

Did you ever stand in the supermarket check-out line, silently judging yourself (or others) as you compared the food you bought with the food of the people ahead and behind you? I stopped at the market tonight to get some dinner things and a few oddments, and the contents were just a little different from what they would have been a year ago. Then: Cereal, milk, bananas, Ben & Jerry’s, an onion and some tomato products. Now: An onion, some tomato products, 2 chicken breasts, a bag of farro, kale, eggplant, zuchini, poblano, an assortment of green olives. By the way, tonight I made a chicken/farro/veggie/olive/eggplant/bone-broth soup that briefly made me reconsider my life-long atheism.

The feeling invisible thing is mostly a manifestation of age, but your sense of your attractiveness-level certainly plays into it. That self-regard is now elevated, but by no means constant. There are mornings where I feel like a superman, and others where I only see the flaws. The difference is, I am no longer avoiding the mirror. I’m interested in what I will encounter there.

I still see man-boobs, but I’m pretty sure every man has them. What are you gonna do? Nipple removal? I am inching closer to removing my shirt in public. Maybe next year.

Health-wise, the chronic cough, which I had for over 10 years, and which had prevented me from teaching classes on a regular basis, as well as singing, started going away after I lost about 20-30 pounds. By the time I lost 40 pounds the cough was completely gone and has not yet returned. I fear that it may return, and I will continue to fear so until a full year has gone by, because the cough used to be seasonal. But an encouraging sign is that I no longer need to take constant doses of Omeprazole, a stomach acid reducer (acid reflux was a likely contributor to my cough). I am singing stronger than I have in years. And if I could play the violin, I would be playing it too.

The foot-pain went away too. At first. It really seemed like I was heading towards an impossible ideal of good health. And since exercise was making me feel good, I kept piling more of it on. But as I gradually increased my exercise to 5 workouts a week, a couple of evening night-hikes at Griffith Park, and dog-hikes every morning, averaging 17K+ steps a day, the foot pain returned, with a vengeance. And with it came some new pains. Knee pain from all those squats, steps, and lunges. I discovered I had a torn meniscus in one of my knees (possibly both), and I found that constant walking and running aggravated the foot pain. I had to take it easy for a while. Now I have slowed my workouts to 3 or 4 a week, and I’ve had to stop the night hikes. The foot pain is still there, but it’s very gradually getting better.

I’ve put my lower back out twice, at the gym, but interestingly, it is not nearly as bad as when I would put it out and I weighed 60 extra pounds. I’m not a complete wreck when it goes out, but I still need to be careful.

I can see a convave curve under my chin, where I didn’t have one before. But I still have a bit of a double-chin below that: I can see it if I do that two-mirror profile trick. Probably genetic. I’m not fond of it, but I don’t look like Alfred Hitchcock anymore. I’m too vain to get my little double chin fixed with plastic surgery.

And of course, I still have food cravings. The other night, in the supermarket, I was compelled, for some reason, to walk down the cookie & cracker aisle. It was an aisle full of stuff I no longer want to eat, and it was all calling to me. “Hello Jim!” said the Oreos. “Eat me!” said the Mallomars. “Come back to Pepperidge Farm!” said the Sausalitos. “We miss you!” said the garlic bagel chips. I really need to avoid that aisle.

And I still clean my plate, a life-long habit perhaps instilled by a misguided sense of thrift. I pretty much have to plan my meals around the certitude that my plate will be cleaned. There is no “I’ll eat half, and take the rest home”, something my wife does almost as a matter of routine.

If you ask about my new-found sense of self-control, I can only tell you I don’t have one. I’ve just found some new foods I like, and have gotten a little better at planning.

There are mornings where I still feel fat. I look in the mirror, and all I see is my fat tummy. There used to be this awful “Special K” commercial in the 80s which asked Can you pinch more than an inch? and it still taunts me. Fuck Special K. I can pinch way more than an inch. I imagine they were trying to make the entire television viewing public feel inadequate.

So I’m still fat. I’ve dropped nearly 8 inches in the waist, and I still feel fat. I’ll probably always feel fat. Just not as fat. And some days, I don’t feel that fat at all. It’s really kind of variable, like the clouds in the sky. It would be nice if there were meteorologists who could tell you how fat you would feel on Wednesday.

I worry that maybe I’m working on an eating disorder. Because I love the losing weight part. I want to just keep going, because it makes me feel good. Eventually I have to stop. Right now, I think I’m eating pretty well, and I feel pretty good, but I’m curious how I will feel in a year.

To be continued…

And now my soup recipe:

Chicken Farro "Mediturreen"

Prepare these chopped veggies & seasoning in bowl:
   One Zuchinni, diced
   One Japanese Eggplant, diced
   One Poblano, chopped
   Few leaves Kale, chopped
   Two stalks celery, chopped
   10-15 good olives, seeds removed (brown or green)
   1/8 tsp Cayenne
   1 tbsp Oregano
   Black Pepper

Brown one whole red onion, chopped and a few cloves sliced garlic in olive oil.  
Add 2 cups Farro (barley would also work) and brown it for a minute too.
Add 5 cups bone-broth or stock  
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes, 
the veggies, 
and two (raw) skinless chicken breasts.

Pressure cook 5-6 minutes and then let it sit 15 minutes before releasing the steam
OR bring to boil then simmer a couple hours.
Shred the chicken and add back to pot.
Add chopped Cilantro and juice of one lime before serving.

UPDATE: I’ve done probably a hundred variations of this soup since acquiring an Instant Pot. We typically have it once a week and eat the leftovers for a couple days. There’s a lot of room for variation.
We like Farro the best, but you can also try other grains or noodles. Often I add mushrooms and green onion tops. There is wide variance in the veggies – I like to have a green leafy one like chard or kale at the end,
and in general its best with a a ton of veggies. If you don’t have bone-broth, a box of chicken stock works great.

Diet Nonsense

September 11th, 2016

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 5. Diet Nonsense

Green Superfood!

Of all the aspects of health and fitness, I believe the most controversial is what we put in our mouths. There is just a huge amount of contradictory beliefs out there about food, and opinions seem to fluctuate all the time. When I was on Weight Watchers, we were on the tail end of the “low fat” era – I think the now infamous “Snackwell” cookies were still on the shelves, and I bought a few boxes. A few years later we were in the midst of the “low carb” era, and I tried the South Beach diet for a while. I ate a lot of bacon, and made an ersatz mashed-potato like substance out of cauliflower. Now a lot of my friends avoid animal products or gluten. Others are doing Paleo, Keto, or all-animal diets. It is perhaps worth mentioning that I live in Los Angeles, which is quite possibly the epicenter of weird food fads.

It is really hard to know who or what to believe.

For a long time I have prided myself on being an objective, skeptical kind of person. I’m an atheist. I buy the Skeptical Inquirer and Scientific American. I like to think that I don’t dabble in wierd woo-woo beliefs (but I suspect we all do, and just don’t know it). I’m pretty sure there is no afterlife or ghosts. I subscribe to Occam’s Razor, all that stuff.

And when it comes to food, what can I say? I’ve got a few woo-woo beliefs. It’s kind of hard to avoid them.

At the moment, sugar is the accursed food demon of choice, and I’m inclined to go along with that irrational belief, even though I know, logically, that sugar is probably being excessively demonized. I’m not eating zero sugar — that is impossible and will kill you, but I’m trying to avoid added sugar. Most of my sugar comes from about a cup of fruit a day, as well as the sugar that naturally occurs in some of the foods I eat, like yogurt.

Another woo-woo thing: I use this green powder in my protein shakes. The label on the green powder is full of woo-woo language (“green superfood!” “antioxidant!” “alkalizing and energizing!”) that should be setting off alarm bells in my scientific head. It’s made of 80% chlorophyll from some unnamed source (a substance for which there is little scientific evidence of any benefit, whatsoever). It smells like a barn. It’s made of freshly mown grass, I think. Perhaps I eat it because it smells like a barn. Its my penance for not filling my milkshake with kale.

I think one of the difficulties in thinking about food is that we eat it for different reasons. We might modify our diet because of nutrition (more kale), or because we want to lose weight (cabbage soup!) or because it confers some psychological benefit (mac & cheese!). Usually some complicated combination of these reasons.

It seems clear that we have to strike a balance of all three of those areas: nutrition, calories, and mental health. I tell myself I’m using the green powder for nutritive reasons, but really, I’m probably doing it for psychological reasons. If it doesn’t hurt me, that’s probably okay. You know what they say about chicken soup for colds – “it couldn’t hurt”.

It also seems clear that food is an intensely personal thing, and what works for me is not necessarily what is going to work for you (particularly when it comes to mental health foods). Nonetheless, I’ll tell you what I did, and what I’m doing.

When I started my new regimen in March, I was principally motivated by weight loss, but I figured I may as well improve the nutritive value of the foods I eat at the same time. I knew (or thought I knew, or had read somewhere) that the most significant factor with weight loss is caloric deficit. Basically, using the model of a car, you want to burn more fuel than you are consuming. Not that cars gain weight, at least I’ve never seen a fat car that wasn’t naturally fat, or big boned, but something like that.

So I googled something like “caloric deficit to lose 1 pound”, and the first thing that came up was this quote:

Because 3,500 calories equals about 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of fat, you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose 1 pound.

The articles I found online often suggested shooting for a target of 1 pound a week. And I said “fuck that”, I’m going for 2 pounds a week. This was mainly because I had done it before, and I knew I was theoretically capable of it, and I worried I didn’t have the mental fortitude to sustain a 1 pound a week weight loss, even though it is probably much healthier and easier to maintain in the long run.

So this meant that to lose two pounds a week, I would need a caloric deficit of 7000 calories a week. This comes out to 1000 calories a day. A nice round number.

Then I had find out what my “resting” or neutral caloric burn rate is. This is not as easy as it sounds – you can’t just google it. I googled it anyway. “Determine your caloric intake” and got this:

Depending on the amount of physical exercise you do, you can multiply the basal metabolic rate by a specific number to determine calorie needs. For example, if you are not very active, your needed calorie intake is the basal metabolic rate times 1.2.

So now I had to figure out what my “basal metabolic rate is”. I used the calculator thing that Google sent me to, and entered in my age, gender, height and weight, activity level. It said I needed 2,355 to maintain my caloric level when sedentary and 3000 calories when moderately active. And this, my friends, turned out to be complete and utter bullshit.

So, here’s a hot tip: If you want to be super objective and sciency, do NOT rely on these simple online calculators. Instead rely on your own observation.

I ate what felt right to me, to where I wasn’t hungry, but also wasn’t excessively full. This turned out to be about 1800-1900 calories. I found, over time, that if I ate about 1800 calories, I would lose about 2 pounds a week, which means my “basal metablic rate” is actually closer to 1900-2100. When I eat 2300 calories, that’s a “cheat day” and I invariably gain weight.

Now if you can eat 3000 calories a day, and maintain net-zero weight loss/gain. Kudos to you — you are a very lucky person! Me, not so lucky.

The point is, my body isn’t your body, and these kind of tables simply do not take into account every single factor that contributes to metabolism. You need to observe, rather than follow.

So, for the past few months, I’ve targetted 1800 calories, and I’ve averaged two pounds a week weight loss. The highest weekly loss was 4.9 pounds, and the lowest was -0.8. Since I hit about 190, the rate of loss has decreased – I’ve fluctuated a lot more, and if I wanted to continue rapid weight loss, I would have to reduce the calories. I’m at a pretty good weight now though, I think, even though by some measurements, like the BMR system, I am still technically overweight.

I stopped eating a lot of things I ate before. I stopped eating breakfast cereal, except maybe once every 2 weeks. I did this because the amount of breakfast cereal I usually eat is about 6 times the serving size listed on the box, and packs a huge caloric wallop. I found that I could satisfy my breakfast cravings with a container of yogurt and a banana, and eventually, I started enjoying plain yogurt and a little pineapple.

I stopped going to McDonalds, In & Out, and ordering pizza. I stopped asking my wife to make lasagna. I significantly reduced sugar and carbs. I saw a nutrition counselor (Sarah Lynn Baird at FitFax) and she suggested I maintain a specific ratio of carbs/fat/protein (using myFitnessPal as a measuring tool) so I did that. It’s pretty much impossible to do, but it gave me a rough idea of proportions

In addition to a lot more yogurt, I started eating more fruit. Before I started, I hardly ever ate fruit, but I’ve grown to like it more. Reducing sugar has definitely affected my pallete – it makes me crave sugar less, and enjoy things like fruit and plain yogurt, that I didn’t enjoy so much before. I currently limit my sugar intake to 40 grams a day (according to myFitnessPal).

I made a lot of sandwiches on low cal bread (my favorite brand is “Alpine Valley” but any bread that is under 100 calories a slice works for me). I make big Dagwood style sandwiches where I pile on the veggies, but try to use sensible amounts of meats & cheese.

I make a lot of omelets. I can’t stand egg-white omelets, but I found I could use 3 egg-whites and 2 yolks, or maybe 3+1, and it’s still prety good.

Both the yogurt and omelets are attempts to increase my protein intake without too much effort. A lot of folks increase their protein intake by eating chicken, but I’m not a huge fan of chicken (especially tasteless white-meat chicken) so I tried to find other, quick & easy ways to get protein.

Because I’m working out a few days a week, and I like to get a small protein burst after workouts, I found a low-sugar protein bar I like, and started eating one of those after a workout. I also started making low-sugar protein shakes, which I have for a mid-day snack or breakfast substitute. My protein shake of choice is a chocolate flavored low-sugar whey protein powder, woo-woo green powder, psyllium fiber, plain yogurt, water & ice. Sometimes I add a little fruit, milk, cacao nibs or ground coffee. This shake is definitely a kind of wierd soylent green superfood, but I enjoy them and they satisfy my “milk shake” cravings.

Lately though, even chicken has been growing on me, especially since I started using an electric pressure cooker, which is an awesome addition to my kitchen. I use it to make chili, chicken soup, stock, and yogurt. It is very effective at concentrating and maintaining flavor, which is important when you’re eating less fat & salt.

A lot of folks are very anti-red-meat. I believe (and hope) this is partially a woo-woo thing, and I allow myself to get protein from red meat, since I like red meat. I still much prefer a steak taco to a chicken taco, and I don’t deny myself the steak, just because there is some minor benefit to the chicken — in this case, I think the psychological benefit outweights the health benefit.

Sara Lynn encouraged me early on to have regular “off plan meals” (aka “cheat meals”). This is huge, and I love the idea. It confers a huge psycological benefit. Think of it: twice a week I can eat whatever the fuck I want, guilt-free. Love this. I typically do a cheat meal for Saturday morning breakfast. This is because early Saturday morning is my weekly weigh in, where I measure my weight loss for the week. The cheat meal is a really a “celebration meal” which marks and honors the day. The first one I had chicken-fried steak & eggs with gravy and toast, hash-browns. This is something that ordinarily would have filled me with self-loathing and guilt, but I could have it guilt-free, and then I had a few free days to burn off the calories.

Because of the cheat meals, I tended to gain a bit of weight on weekends, and then do most of my weight loss during the work week. By having the cheat-meal in the days immediately following my weigh in, I had a long time to burn it off.

I have had 3 or 4 plateaus where I didn’t lose much weight (or had a gentle rise, like a roller coaster bump) for a two-week period. Psychological these are very hard, and you have to trust that the plateau will end. If you stay on the plan, they always will. Sometimes I tried to shake things up by varying my diet, but it’s really hard to tell, over the short term, whether those methods help. There are simply too many variable factors, I think, to do short term meaningful adjustments.

Speaking of woo-woo diets, I think the Body for Wife” blog is excellent, and I agree with most of the stuff James Fell has to say about fad diets, even what he has to say about sugar, even though my nutrition counselor says the exact opposite.

At some point, you also have to trust yourself.

Next: Where are the skinny endomorphs?

Nerdstrong, part 2

September 10th, 2016

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 4. Nerdstrong (part 2)

Space Invader Wall

The name itself pretty much sold me. These guys are very good at branding. I only had to read a few reviews to understand that I was the target audience.

Nerdstrong is a small gym in one of the unlovelier parts of North Hollywood (most of North Hollywood). It doesn’t have rows of gleaming bikes and treadmills. This was fine with me, since I was already doing a lot of walking and hiking. It was the stuff above the hips that needed the work. The gym has weights, a big complicated rack thing, these things called kettle-bells, maces, MACES!, and a bunch of other things which I later learned are typically used in CrossFit, whatever that is.

There are numerous accounts of how the gym started on the interwebs. Most of them frame the story as Andrew’s story, which makes sense, because Andrew Deutsch is the founder of the gym. But I like to think of it as David’s story, because I identify with his role better – so I’ll frame it that way. This version of the story is totally apocryphal, but here’s how I imagine it:

There was this guy named David Nett, who was a D&D nerd. He ran awesome dungeons and stuff. One of the people he regularly played with, Andrew, was into Crossfit and fitness, and Andrew tried to get David into fitness, just like David got Andrew into nerd things. David clearly needed Andrew’s help, but David was having none of it, because he was a nerd. Then Andrew had an idea, “what if I gamify this fitness thing to fool David into doing it?” So he incorporated elements of D&D into the fitness routines – so instead of just workouts, they became quests. This cheap gimmick was all David needed to reset his beaten-down nerd mindset, and he became a combination nerd/fitness nut, and started wearing a cape and weird leggings. Then he posed for the logo and Andrew drew it. Then other people started joining in, and soon Andrew’s garage became nerd/fitness hangout central. Eventually the two acquired a larger space and Nerdstrong was born.

Something like that.

Oh, it was originally called NRDFIT, but Crossfit and lawyers exist, and also, that’s a shitty name, so they changed it.

I joined Nerdstrong in early April, a month or two before the gym’s second anniversary. I had already dropped 20 pounds at this point and was ready to step up my game. When I first walked in the gym I marveled at all the details: The cool logo, the space invader wall, the wall with the hexagon thingies. The little shelf with the many-sided dice. The power-access panel with the One Ring inscription on it (that one spoke to me deeply). This was clearly a room that was made for me.

I did a 20 minute introductory workout with Christy Black, which seemed nigh impossible, but I survived it. I was crazy sore about 36 hours later, but I went back. I had to go back. I sampled a bunch of the different classes and eventually signed up for the regular membership thing.

Some Nerdstrong regularsI met the other gym members as I continued to take classes (it’s all classes, by the way). Many of the members form a tight knit cluster of friends who have been attending for a year or more, geeks to the core. They are a different kind of geek than me — Gen-X/Y/Z Comicon Pop Culture geeks, whereas I’m more of a late Boomer LOTR music/lit/math hacker-geek, but whatever, I may not be the same species, but definitely the same phylum (and there’s a handful of peers, age-wise and interest-wise as well). The gym members have been, to a one, kind, supportive, up-beat, wacky, endearing. They are my kind of people.

The workouts vary a lot. Sometimes they can be crazy hard, othertimes, just hard — a lot of it has to do with your mindset that day. I suck at them. I will always suck at them. Especially lunges. It doesn’t matter, I’m doing them.


Not every workout is “gamified” or pop-culture-themed. Some of them are – the weekend ones are. And sometimes, honestly, it’s just a gimmick, a title like “Logans Run” to slap on a set of reps. But I don’t care – it was enough of a gimmick to get me started, and that was really all I needed. Sometimes, the themification is really fun and entertaining, like the “Hamilton” workout, in which we dueled as Burr and Hamilton, while music from the soundtrack played, or the July 4 “Independence Day” workout in which Andrew, in mirrored aviators, did a stirring rendition of Bill Pullman’s speech before we tangled with the aliens. We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! That morning, the gym floor was partitioned into chalk outlined areas representing different scenes in the movie. We tangled with alien tentacles (battle ropes) and uploaded a virus to the mothership (this involved uploading an actual virus to the local DMV, I think maybe…).

Some of my favorite workouts involve using the many-sided dice for randomness, which almost always leads to bad things I don’t want, but entropy is fun, right? Right?

Certain exercises have really challenged me, and I have learned, painfully, that I have to be careful how hard I push myself. My body does not always want to cooperate. I pushed myself really hard for a couple months, and then found that I was having pretty bad issues with my knees and feet, and had to lay low for a few weeks. Then I got better and started to push again, then I put the back out at 6am one morning, doing dead lifts. The back got better amazingly fast, much quicker than it would have if I were still 245 lbs.

Lots of progress. When my wife joined, a few months later, she took the same 20 minute introductory workout as I did, and I took it along with her. It still wasn’t a walk in the park, but the amount of improvement was immense. When I started, I could do about 0.7 of a push-up. Now I can do ten times that amount. I can now do about 0.7 of a chin-up, which is about ten times where I started with those. Like everything else, I log my workouts, and I can see that for about the same amount of work, I am now burning fewer calories.

I also worry about Nerdstrong. I’m a careful person, and I’ve been part of these small, idealistic utopian communities before. They never last. They whither and die, or they grow, and the growth kills the essential character of the community. I can see the same faces at every work out, and not a whole lot of newbies. Is that bad? Or if there were suddenly a ton of newbies, that would be scary too. All the coaches have day jobs. How long can they sustain this? What happens post Nerdstrong? Do I need to make contingency plans? I watch the faces of the coaches very carefully. Are they all getting along? What if they break up, like The BeatlesOne Direction?

The other day, I looked at the other gyms on Yelp. They still don’t look that great, but I suppose I could manage, in a pinch. It would be lonelier, and there would be no monthly board-game night, but I could do it I guess. Moreover, I think the Nerdstrong community is strong enough that it would find a way to perpetuate itself, even if the physical gym were to go away for whatever reason. But I worry too much.

Right now, we have something that’s great, that’s working for us, and we should treasure it as best we can!

And treasure it I do, because I have finally, after a very long time, found a relationship with the word fitness that I can live with. This gym has helped me to rewire my brain and make numerous positive associations with fitness. When I walk into the Gym, I’m not revisiting my childhood, I’m inventing a new one.

Next: Diet nonsense

Nerdstrong, part 1

September 10th, 2016

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 4. Nerdstrong (part 1)

Nerdstrong Gym
Before this year, the thought of going to a gym was akin to the thought of singing “Oklahoma!” to the clerk at the local 7-Eleven. It wasn’t in the cards. So was the thought of taking my shirt off at the beach (or even going to the beach, really). My rare physical activity was restricted to walking and hiking — activities which had no negative emotional baggage for me. At different points in my adult life, my legs were in pretty good shape, but fitness stopped at the hips.

I really only had one thing to compare a gym to, having never been in one — P.E. class. Specifically, elementary school P.E. class where I was routinely bullied by more physically gifted but emotionally challenged peers, and occasionally by a barrel-chested, crew-cut, aviator-wearing gym teacher of another generation who implored us not to “run like girls.”

Mr. ManningMr. Manning, was probably not a bad guy. He was an adult male, single, who lived with his mom, in our small town of Ringoes, N.J., and liked to flirt with the elderly lunch ladies, who flirted right back. He coached a successful regional elementary school basketball team, and was beloved by many of the kids and families at the school. When he died a few years ago, I saw they wrote a nice obituary about him, from which I saved this picture. As a teenager, I remember going back, and having a friendly conversation or two with him. This was the beginning of a long and difficult process of making amends with my relationship with physical fitness and sports.

I suspect that a lot of the kids who struggled in P.E. class, like me, didn’t have strong fitness role models in their lives. In particular, my parents divorced when I was 4, after my dad had been attending night school, and my mom worked most of the time, so my only real exposure to sports and games was via the kids in the neighborhood and my older brother. Like a lot of kids of my generation, we ran wild, unsupervised, through the neighborhood, playing massive games of hide-and-go-seek and cops and robbers. When it got dark, we would go home, and watch black-and-white TVs.

When I was 7, My mom remarried a man who turned out to be authoritarian and abusive. We moved from West Orange to Ringoes, a small rural town, and I entered the 3rd grade. This was the age at which kids start playing more formalized sports, other than say “Duck Duck Goose”. I was surprised to find I was not particularly good at them. I remember a particular game of kick-ball, my first or second day in that new school, where I repeatedly failed to kick the ball a sufficient distance. “He’s not very good” I heard one of the other kids say. This was the day I became “the kid who’s not very good at sports”.

In older grades, as we were introduced to other games, like basketball and touch football, I found that most of the other boys already knew the rules, and the gym teacher assumed we knew the rules. I remember a game of basketball, in which one of my team-mates chided me as he ran past, “Get in your position!”. I had a position? This game has positions? It’s not just a bunch of people scrambling to get a ball and put it in a basket?

I learned to read before Kindergarten, and was devouring books as a child. My brother and I slept in bunk beds and the bottom book was my fortress of solitude. Every day after school I would climb into bed and read fiction. “A Wrinkle in Time”, “Stranger from the Depths”, “The Hobbit”. My favorite books were juvenile fantasies, in which a boy, his brother, and an annoying neighbor girl would stumble upon a hidden portal in the woods that transported them to a magical land. These kinds of stories came in many varieties, and there was always one or two in the monthly Schoolastic catalog. I loved escapist stories. My mother often complained that I spent too much time in the summer indoors reading, while my brother spent too much time outdoors playing, and that we should switch places once in a while.

My reading level was always high for my age, and in English and math class, I excelled. My hand was up first often enough that the teacher would sometimes say “Anyone? Anyone but Jim…”. The local farm boys who struggled in those classes, the ones who were called upon for an answer and failed to come up with it, especially the ones who were good at sports, became my tormentors in the locker room.

In eight grade I read “The Lord of the Rings” for the first time, and then reread it, and reread it. Nine times, I think. I was a huge Tolkien nerd in high school. I attended a very nice private Quaker school that didn’t have general P.E. classes. Things got a little better, although I was still required to enroll in a team sport each semester. The first one I tried was cross country. I was totally out of shape and unprepared for running such long distances, but I occasionally tried. The nice thing about cross country was that there were long moments of solitude, where we ran alone through the woods. Then I was free to stop running, and I would walk, and feel guilty. Occasionally I would lop off a section of the track, and feel guiltier, and I was never caught, or so I imagined. I hated competing, and felt a flush of shame whenever I was cheered from the sidelines. In subsequent years I tried my hand at swim team, gymnastics, track and field. I was jealous of the female students, who got to take “fun” sports like archery, field hockey and horse-back riding.

In high school, all the “elective” classes happened during the same period, and it was your choices which determined if you were going to be a manly man (wood shop, metal shop), or an artsy man (theater, choir, band). I was a musician, of course, and struggle with basic carpentry skills to this day. I associated sports with manliness, and I didn’t want to be manly. I didn’t want to watch westerns. I still don’t like video games that feature musclebound behemoths with flame throwers.

And then I was out of high school, and I went to CalArts to study music, a school which suffers from neither a fraternity nor a football team, and I was never again subjected to a P.E. requirement of any kind.

I had survived.

At this point, I pretty much detested anything that I associated with organized sports. Particular team sports with balls. I could tolerate running. I enjoyed hiking because nature and all that. I enjoyed the occasional game of frisbee because hippies played it. I played a softball game once, in my twenties, at a company picnic. Everybody sucked at it. I didn’t feel bad, but I still struggled and felt enormously self conscious.

As I aged, my relationship with sports mellowed. I attended a Lakers game and enjoyed it. I find things to enjoy about the Olympics and X-Games. The Paralympics this year are pretty amazing, and I’m DVRing the whole thing. But I’m probably never going to be a died-in-the-wool football fan or basketball fan.

So, after I started losing weight in March, I contemplated maybe going to a gym. I knew, logically, that it would be good for me. I knew, logically, that my self-consciousness was all in my head. That the gym was full of fat awkward people like me, and that I would be just as invisible at the gym as I would be at Starbucks.

But it still didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know the dress codes. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t want to encounter bullies (even imaginary ones).

Still I looked on Yelp one day at a few gyms within the local area. They were big box gyms full of exercise bikes and treadmills. A lot of people in the reviews talked about impersonal they were. I encountered a common attitude, that the gyms almost wanted you NOT to go. Their business model worked best when you bought a membership and didn’t attend. Huh.

Still, I might have gone to one. It might have been fine. But then I looked at Yelp again, and I noticed this other gym that I had somehow missed the first time.


Next: Nerdstrong, part 2

Old Age Superpowers

September 9th, 2016

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 3: Old Age Superpowers

jbum in a coffinAt fifty three, there’s a lot of things I can point to in myself that aren’t what they used to be. My reflexes are slower. My hearing is worse. My knees are fucked up — I was recently told I have a torn meniscus in one, and that was the good knee. I don’t like standing for long periods and can’t tolerate concerts that don’t have chairs. Since I hit my 40s, I’ve been periodically convinced that my mental acuity is declining, although I think this is probably mostly a delusion brought on by lack of self confidence. Still, I’m told there’s a reason most mathematicians do their best work in their 20s.

However, as I decline into my dotage, there’s a few superpowers I’ve developed. One of the more important ones, which has definitely played a role in improving my health, is the rather unsexy superpower of planning.

When I was in my 20s, I took great pride in my flexibility and ability to play it by ear. I found my parents’ apparent need for precision to be unnecessary and a little sad. I gritted my teeth during a car ride in which my parents seemed unduly concerned whether our dinner reservations were for 6:45 or 6:50, and how long it would take to get to the restaurant. Of course, that much vaunted flexibility and relaxed attitude of my youth was the flip-side of a lack of organizational skills, a greater sense of entitlement and not much accountability.

But now I’m the same age as my parents were then, and I take great pride in knowing exactly when I’ll arrive somewhere (thank you Google Maps). And I can use this superpower to improve my life in innumerable ways.

Take Evernote, my current journaling tool of choice. For almost every project and interest I have, I keep an Evernote page which contains a list of Todos, future plans, ideas and so on. I have a set of notes tagged health, in which I journal my progress from day to day. I’ve logged a lot of my exercise & workouts, so that over time, I’ve developed a better sense of how many calories I’m likely to burn doing a quick walk to Starbucks, vs a cardio-heavy workout.

In the first installment in this series, I mentioned my lack of impulse control when it came to food, and how difficult it was (and still is) for me to control my eating. Short-term planning is one of the tactics I use to combat this. Often at the start of the day, I will plan what I’m going to eat for lunch and dinner. The commissary at my work posts daily menus, so I can see what’s going to be available, and I have a few go-to options I can eat for dinner. I’m not necessarily going to follow this plan, but I have a structure to work-around, and I know roughly how many calories I’m going to consume. If I change plans, I can insure that I’m changing to something that isn’t going to considerably change things for the worse. Impulse control becomes more of a problem when things are out of my control, or when I don’t plan. If I don’t plan my dinner, and I let the time slip by, by eight-o-clock I become ravenous, and then it gets harder to keep a lid on things. A short-term plan is like a contract, and I find it easier to abide by a contract with myself, rather than to wing it every single day. If I’m going to a restaurant, and it’s in myFitnessPal or it’s a chain, I can usually find the nutritional info and plan what I’m going to eat before I arrive. Short-term planning really helps with impulse control.

I use long-term planning to provide periodic ego boosts. For example, once I had decided I was going to lose 2 pounds a week, I shot a few arrows into the future, and marked the days on my Google Calendar when I was going to hit certain interesting weights. When would I hit 208 pounds? June 6. Let’s note that. That’s the day that according to the awful BMI system, I would no longer be classified as “Obese”. When would I hit 199 lbs? That’s a cool number. July 3. When do I hit 185, my last minimum weight? August 31. That particular arrow was shot pretty far into the future, but I missed it by just a week.

At some point I figured out that I was losing an inch in my waist every 8 or 9 pounds, so then I was able to shoot some more arrows into the future, and work out the dates when I would have a 34 inch waist and a 32 inch waist. Every one of these arrows is a present to myself. I bought some new pants that I didn’t quite fit in yet, planning for the day when I would. I planned an annual physical with my doctor and scheduled it around the time I would hit 200 lbs. I planned for a future visit with my cardiologist, who was likely to reduce my blood pressure meds. All little arrows containing little presents to myself.

These presents were like handles on the rope I was climbing. If I made enough of them, I could see the next one, just ahead.

Speaking of planning, remember how I was using a spreadsheet to track my food, weight calories? Well that’s just one tab from a five-tab spreadsheet. The other tabs are “Blood Pressure”, “Exercise”, “Food Reference” and “Calculators”. “Blood Pressure” is a blood pressure log and graph. My blood pressure meds are now significantly reduced, but I’m still monitoring it closely. “Exercise” is a journal of my walks, hikes and workouts. My Fitbit can be used to log a lot of this stuff, but I find it useful for note keeping. “Foods Reference” is nutritional info for Foods and recipes I commonly eat (somewhat redundant now that I’m using myFitnessPal). “Calculators” has formulas for calorie burn, BMI and PBF, as well as a set of goals. When I first started on this journey, I was probably spending an hour a day fiddling with these spreadsheets, and more importantly, thinking about this stuff. It has become more routine now, but I remember what happens if I go on auto-pilot, so I’m trying to remain vigilant.

One thing is very different from my 1999 Weight Watchers regimen: my approach to exercise & fitness. More on that in the next installment.

Next: Nerdstrong

The Change

September 9th, 2016

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 2: The Change

When I was obsessed with Cryptography, I learned about this cool photo. It was on the desk of William F. Friedman who ran a government agency that we now call the N.S.A. In the photo, his World War I, cryptanalysis students were instructed to tilt their heads precisely to make a binary encoding of the message “Knowledge is Power”.

Knowledge is Power

Riverbank Graduating Class, c. 1918

Cryptography was an obsession. My adult life has been a series of intellectual obsessions. I’ve kept a journal over the years that logs these obsessions, going back to 1985. I now keep it in Evernote. Here’s an excerpt from the early 2000s.

08/05 PUZZLES Sudoku Generation
11/05 Printable Mazes
12/05 AUTOMATA Clocks, Automata
12/05 Kakuro Generation (& books)
12/05 Krypto Kakuros
01/06 Wooden Clock Build

My intellectual life is a cycle – when I’m at the peak of an obsession, I’m learning about something, I’m buying books about it, I’m building things. Then, over time, my interest wanes. I feel scattered. I am interested in a few things simultaneously. Then something new (or a revisit of something old) comes along, and then I am obsessed anew, and the wave crests again.

This very blog has been a document of some of these obsessions. Automata, mechanical music instruments, computer chess, mockingbird song analysis, electronic music, puzzle construction, and so on. The topics cover a fairly wide range, but there are a few common factors: 1) computers are usually involved. 2) math is usually involved. 3) They tend to be fairly abstract.

For most of my adult life, these obsessions were the tool that kept me away from the things I disliked. Thinking about my current living situation. My family. My body. My mortality.

So, because I had engineered such a perfect system for avoiding thinking about my health, and my impending demise, it has always been extremely unpleasant for me to contemplate improving my health, because it runs counter to my basic life coping strategy.

The last time I lost a significant amount of weight, when I was approaching my 40s, I joined Weight Watchers. This is what my obsession journal looks like from that period:

08/99-09/99 Computer Chess MuChess (reprise)
09/99 Depression
10/99 Losing Weight, Weight Watchers  (lost 50 lbs, down to about 185 lbs)
11/99 PDFLib
11/99 Lego Robots
12/99 Depressed
02/00 Constellations, Astronomy Trigger: Barnes and Noble – browsing science rack, “Stars” by H.A.Ray
03/00 Apache/Perl/Website (big website update)
03/00 Algorithmic Flash/Perl Generator

What I see is that for a period of time – basically starting in October 1999, I made losing weight one of my obsessions. This obsession lasted for a few months, and I managed to lose about 50 pounds, getting down to the same weight I am now, in the first few months of 2000.

In other words, during that period, I made weight loss my hobby. I devoted a lot of intellectual energy to it. I remember I had a PDA (Palm Pilot) during that period, and I used it to log stuff. I worked out the 1999 version of the Weight Watchers points formula, and wrote little pieces of software to do conversions. I did a lot of logging and journaling. I gained a lot of insight, much of which I later forgot, and some of which I relearned this year.

The log shows that my other hobbies didn’t go away. I kept them up. Over time, the Weight Watchers routine because easier, and I didn’t have to devote as much mental energy to it. My other hobbies increased, and at some point, the amount of mental energy I devoted to Weight Watchers dropped to zero. At some point, I don’t know when, I stopped weighing myself. I don’t know when because when it happened, I was already asleep at the wheel.

This year, in many respects, the change has been very similar. Around March 1st, I made health and fitness my primary hobby. I started logging stuff in a spreadsheet. Here’s the first few lines of that spreadsheet.

Fri, Mar 4, 2016    240.5   cereal+milk, 12 oz salad / minestrone soup, bbq chicken salad, tequila)
Sat, Mar 5, 2016    240     veg. omelet,fruit,corn tortillas,   3 tacos,  trail mix, popcorn)
Sun, Mar 6, 2016    239     egg muffin, large cafe au lait w non-fat, home-made sandwich on thin-sliced bread + veggies, chili with celery, fruit)

At this point, I was simply weighing myself every morning, and keeping track of what I ate. I wasn’t counting calories. From my previous experience, I knew roughly how I used to eat when I was on Weight Watchers, so I mimicked that. I remembered that it was better to have 3 moderate meals, rather than the 2 giant ones I was used to. So I made sure to have a little breakfast, and then I ate more sensible foods for lunch and dinner. I didn’t starve myself, but I definitely didn’t gorge, and I stayed away from between meal snacks.

Most importantly, I thought about what I was doing. I remember at this point, toying with the idea of going back to Weight Watchers, and I could have, it probably would have been fine. But I felt like I was smart enough to do the same basic activities on my own.

Weight Watchers has two basic components: 1) The System, and 2) The support (the meetings). When I was on Weight Watchers, I never got a huge boost from the support elements. The meetings didn’t always do it for me, and I felt like a bemused spectator much of the time. This might be a “guy” thing, akin to my desire not to ask for directions, or the location of items at the supermarket. I don’t know. But I found the system useful, because it worked for me. At the same time, I felt like the system was dumbed down a bit. It was designed to avoid calorie counting by replacing it with a simple “points” system.

I remember, at Weight Watchers, we were encouraged not to weigh ourselves every single day. Instead, we were advised to weigh ourselves just once a week, at the Weight Watchers center, so that day-to-day minor weight fluctuations wouldn’t get us down, and we’d just see the overall average. So in some respects, the system is a kind of filtering, or smoothing a trove of more complicated underlying data. I imagine this is appealing to the math-phobic.

But I’m a nerd. I’m not afraid of the details. So why not expose myself to the underlying data, rather than masking it behind a layer of abstraction? Why not weigh myself every single day? Why not weigh myself even more often? What happens if I weigh myself before and after I poop? How much does poop weigh? How much does pee weigh? Perhaps by exposing myself to these minor weight fluctuations, I could understand more deeply how my body works, and what affects weight gain and loss.

So, over the next few weeks, my logs grow more detailed. Perhaps more detailed than you care to read…

Date                Wt     Cals-In Cals-Out Deficit Food                                                                               notes
Wed, Mar 23, 2016   231.5  1,700   3,391   1,691   apple, pistachios, coffee, sm tan tan ramen w egg, orange, sandwich, fruit  none    first full day with fitbit, 234.5 in evening (no poops this day)
Thu, Mar 24, 2016   232.5  2,010   4,516   2,506   yogurt, 12 oz salad, 12 oz soup, 12 oz chili, apple, 12 oz chili, 2 oranges, nuts, pudding  none    griffith park hike made me hungry so i ate more when i got home, 234 on scale
Fri, Mar 25, 2016   231    2,050   4,149   2,099   yogurt, moussaka, cod, veggies, sm orange, garlic pork, handful pistachios  small #5    gonna try to reduce more carbs and increase protein 234.5 in evening

Now my obsession was coming into full bloom. I couldn’t get enough data. I was measuring my food more precisely. I was tracking caloric intake, by using Google to look up nutritional information for the foods I was eating, and I got a Fitbit (Charge HR), so I could track Calorie expenditure.

I was even keeping track of my poops, and how they affected my weight. I learned something I didn’t know before: my poops follow a cycle (just like my obsessions). I won’t poop for a day or two, and then I’ll have a series of them over a few days that ascend the Bristol Stool Scale, typically going from about a 2 to a 5 (sometimes up to a 7). Fascinating. Disgusting, but fascinating.

And the mantra I kept repeating to myself, at this point? Knowledge is Power. The same elaborate edifice I had constructed to avoid thinking about mortality was now a tool I could use to fight against it. I was shining a bright light where none had shown before.

Next: Old Age Superpowers

The New Me

September 9th, 2016

I’ve lost a lot of weight, rapidly, this year. On Tuesday, September 6, I weighed in at 185 pounds. On Saturday, March 5, I weighed 240 pounds. So a loss of 55 pounds in six months. My goal, which I set in March, was to lose 2 pounds a week for six months, and I’ve managed to do it, averaging 2.1 pounds or so over this period.

I’m aware that this is a rapid weight loss, and some of the articles I’ve been reading, such as this rather depressing one from the New York Times, says that rapid weight loss is often followed by rapid weight gain. So that’s a risk, I guess, but I wanted to lose it quickly, because it would have been psychologically much harder for me to remove it slowly.

I didn’t just lose weight, I addressed a whole slew of health issues, but the weight loss is the most obvious thing. I exercise frequently now, and in general spend a lot more time thinking about, and trying to understand how my body works. This may seem like a perfectly sensible thing to you, but it is an astoundingly new thing for me, having spent most of my life trying to pretend my body doesn’t exist. Here’s a picture from July of 2015, when I was attending a math conference, and here’s a picture from a month ago, when I was in Santa Barbara, approximately a year later. My waist size has shrunk by 8 inches since February, although I still wear the same awesome socks.

Before and After photos

Photos of me taken about a year apart – late July 2015 to early August 2016.

So you may be wondering how I managed to do it, and I’m going to tell you how, over the next few blog posts. I haven’t blogged in a while, so I thought this might be a good topic to chat about for a while. I don’t think I have anything startlingly new to contribute to the topic, but I gotta tell *somebody* :)

I can, and definitely will, tell you precisely what I did. What I can’t easily do is tell you why I did it. Why, after it seeming like an impossible, or at least massively unpleasant task, I suddenly undertook this course correction. I’m not sure. There was no specific trigger. I just suddenly had a strong desire to fix things, and I found that once I started, it wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it was going to be. I knew, logically, that I could make a lot of progress in six months, and suddenly, six months didn’t seem like a lot of time.

I can tell you how I felt before I started. So let’s start with that.

I felt old. I felt tired. I felt invisible. When I looked in the mirror, I felt fat (I still do sometimes, even though I’m not). At times, I felt like my life was nearly over, and that I was wasting space on this planet. I knew that my paternal grandfather died at 50, and I was 53, and I figured my time was just about up. I thought maybe I had another ten years in me, and then I would probably die of a heart attack.

I felt that when young people looked at me, they looked right through me — that I was invisible. I still sometimes feel that way — its an age thing, but I definitely feel more attractive. It’s certainly debatable whether I *am* more attractive, but my self confidence is definitely higher now.

I felt sick. I had a chronic cough that had started as a seasonal thing 2005, and which no amount of asthma meds, antacids or caffeine reductions could cure. I limped on my left foot. I had frequent back issues. I felt frequently dizzy when I stood up. I got leg and foot cramps a lot. I snored. I had heart palpitations and was taking medications for high blood pressure and acid reflux.

There were certain clothes I didn’t look good in, and didn’t wear. I wore a lot of aloha and cuban shirts, and a lot of relaxed fit pants.

I had essentially no control over my eating. When I was at parties with a buffet, it was a huge struggle not to constantly pick at it, even though I felt like I was making a public pig out of myself. I constantly ordered Big Macs from McDonalds, even though I knew they packed a huge caloric wallop. It was a struggle not to get chocolate shakes at In’n’Out. I could polish off a half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting. I would often skip breakfast, and then have fairly massive lunches and dinners. I often snacked well into the late evening hours.

And the thought of reducing my eating was torture. I remembered being on Weight Watchers when I was approaching my 40s, the last time I lost a significant amount of weight. I remembered eating a lot of carrots, celery and tasteless high-fiber bread. I remembered how boring the food was, and how, over time, I grew sick of it. So when I reached my target weight, and it was time to “maintain”, it was super-easy to start sneaking in a few better tasting higher calories items, which gradually became a torrent, and then a few years later, I was back to my original weight, if not higher.

Even harder than the thought of reducing my calories was the thought of significantly increasing my exercise. I had managed to spend my entire adult life without setting foot in a gym. I grew up as a nerd, hating sports and associated it with the bullies who had tormented me in elementary school. The only exercise I got were walks and hikes, but I didn’t do this too often.

Now, all this might make you think I was unhappy. But I wasn’t. Because I didn’t let myself think about it. I spent huge amounts of time sitting in front of a computer, barely conscious of my physical body. The few times each day I passed a mirror, I was depressed by what I saw for an instant, so I would push it out of my mind. My intellectual life was a reprieve from the physical world, which held little interest for me.

I spent hours immersed in logic puzzles, computer chess, computer music and other intellectual activities. I loved this time; it was precious to me; and I was afraid that if I started exercising a lot, I would lose this time, there wouldn’t be enough time to do this stuff, and I would lose an essential part of myself.

But early this year, something changed.

Next: The Change

Crossword plagiarism scandal

March 8th, 2016

A fascinating piece over at fivethirtyeight describes a recent discovery of plagiarism in the crossword construction world.

Emergent Orange and Playboy Centerfolds

March 2nd, 2016

(Spoiler alert, despite the title, this post contains no obviously nude images. Sorry!)

This week I revisted a mystery that has been bugging me for several years. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you are probably familiar with my study emergent orange, a color that is produced when you make amalgam images by averaging the pixels together and then normalizing them. For example, if I smush a number of female headshots together, I get this:


I’ve written about this effect numerous times over the past decade, most recently in a paper for the 2015 Bridges conference.

When I was first experimenting with this, using Flickr images back in 2005, someone noticed the similarity of my process to that of artist Jason Salavon, who produced a number of lovely impressionistic nudes in 2002 by combining large numbers of Playboy centerfolds, producing one amalgam image for each decade from the 1960s thru the 1990s. As Salavon says, “This tracks, en masse, the evolution of this form of portraiture.”


What struck me about Jason’s images was the relative lack of orange. Based on my own experience with making amalgams of uncorrelated photos, I would have expected them to more closely resemble my headshot picture, and the others I had produced, all of which exhibit a distinct orange cast. I attempted to contact Jason a couple times over the years to ask him about this, but I never got a response back.

So this week, I was reminded of this mystery when I saw a post on BoingBoing alerting the Internet to a complete collection of Playboy centerfold images (NSFW) over on Imgur. So I wrote a little script to pull all the images, and then attempted to reproduce Salavon’s results.

Using my normal amalgam algorithm, as expected, the images are far more orange than Salavon’s.


However, by playing with the histograms, first in Photoshop, and then in code, I stumbled upon a simple technique which produces images which resemble Salavon’s, and is closer (though not identical) to what he did.


So why so little orange? Let’s use the 1980s image as an example. Here are the histograms of each color channel of my amalgamated image, which are representative of the overall colors of the complete image set, if added together.


As you can see there is a lot more energy in the red channel, about half the energy in the green channel and even less in the blue channel. This is why the image has a red/orange cast. You can see why by looking at the original centerfold images which have a lot of earth tones, a lot of warm lighting, and not a lot of blues and greens (I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader).

I get an image much closer to Salavon’s if I individually stretch each red/green/blue channel to the limit on both ends, normalizing each channel individually; a process I’ll call “equalization” because it forces the contribution of each channel to be roughly equal. I believe this is what Salavon means by “normalization” in his own descriptions of his process.


You can see the histograms of Salavon’s actual 1980s image on the right. As you can see, he has indeed manipulated each color channel separately, doing something much closer to equalization than a true normalized image, although he’s reduced the blue levels a bit. Its certainly possible these levels were tweaked by hand in Photoshop.

You’ll also notice differences in the curve outlines (such as the prominent bump on the low end of his blues). I believe this is due to his use of a different set of scans, from equipment with different color response.

While Salavon’s channel tweaking produces a more artistically satisfying image, it does not accurately represent the colors, and particularly the hues of the component centerfold images. In particular, it greatly amplifies the contribution of blue and green, creating the impression that the backgrounds are mostly blue, or blue-green, which they simply aren’t.

Salavon’s earliest Playboy image, made in 1998 does indeed exhibit a more pronounced orange shift, and was likely not color-corrected in the way his 2002 work was. The Salavon original shown below, on the left, contains images from 1988 through 1997 (a 12 year spread) and is closer in hue to my own unequalized reconstruction, shown in the middle. If I equalize just the red channel, as shown on the right, the resulting image is somewhat closer to Salavon’s.


Using the 3-channel equalization technique, I was able to produce a full set of Salavon-style amalgam images, extending back to December 1953, when the magazine was first published, all the way up thru the month before this post, February 2016. The similarity between the 1990s and 2000s image are quite striking.


Many thanks to Jason Salavon and the Flickr Community! You’ll find sample code for making amalgam images in Python in my Github repo.

Cycloid Drawing Machine Simulation

July 12th, 2015

Last April, a friend who knows me too well told me about this new KickStarter for a Cycloid Drawing Machine. I looked at this intriguing adult spyrograph with great wonder, but then moved onto other things. But the machine continued to pique my interest, and every few days I would look at it again, trying to rationalize practical uses for it so I could justify buying one. Finally, in early May, I threw caution to the wind and ordered one.

Immediately, without having received the physical object, I grew concerned that I would run out of, or waste the paper that it uses. So I decided to create a “virtual” software version of the Cycloid Drawing Machine that I could use to experiment with, and figure out ideal settings for the machine.

I looked carefully at the photographs & videos of the existing device, and made a Processing sketch (a computer program in the Processing language) that simulated a particular drawing depicted on Joe’s Kickstarter page.

After a day or so, I was able to get my simulation within the ballpark, but I had a few issues.

Firstly, since I had eyeballed the measurements of the machine based on photographs and videos, I knew they weren’t quite close enough to the real thing — I wanted to get more accurate measurements. Secondly, I was worried that if I were to publish this code, as I do with many of my projects, I might be cannibalizing sales of the physical device.

Both problems could be addressed by contacting Joe Freedman, the inventor, so I sent him the above picture, told him about my project, and asked for his input, somewhat worried that he might have a very negative reaction to this development.

I was relieved that Joe was actually quite thrilled. “I’d love to have you do the interactive simulation,” Joe wrote. He not only sent me the vector illustrations of his parts that I asked for, but also an actual working Cycloid Drawing Machine, months ahead of his planned delivery date, not to mention a few other awesome toys that he makes in his workshop.

The plans and the machine itself were a revelation, and I was able to significantly improve my Cycloid Drawing Machine Simulator (CDMS), which you may now play with in your web browser. Here it is!

[ Warning: If you are reading this on a phone or tablet, I suggest you use a desktop computer for playing with the CDMS – it’s too big for phones, and many tablets are either too small, or too slow to handle it.

I should also warn you that its not hard to create configurations on the CDMS which are impractical on the real device. I’ve stumbled into designs that are difficult to crank because of inadequate torque, a non-issue on the CDMS. These issues are best discovered by using the real thing. ]

As Joe and I worked together over the following days, we were able to help each other immensely — Joe gave me lots of insider knowledge about how to use the machine effectively; and as an early beta-tester for Joe, I was able to provide some feedback about what new users of the machine would struggle with. Spurred on by the project, Joe made a series of helpful instructional videos, which he shared.

While Joe seemed delighted with the simulation, he did eventually show some worry about what effect it might have on his existing customers. “I’m uncertain about how people will respond to the appearance of a free digital version,” he wrote. “It is a different thing and a different experience but you’ve done such a brilliant job of recreating the analog that I worry. I still like to crank the gears but its been great to explore potential setups with the digital cdm.” This was a worry that I shared, initially. It would be a shame if my virtual machine were to deprive folks from experiencing the very valuable tactile experience of the real machine.

At the same time, I saw that my simulation was proving to be a valuable educational tool for both Joe and myself. We were able to quickly discover new drawings, and to intuit better the mathematical underpinnings of the machine. One particularly interesting question I managed to answer was “given a particular configuration of the machine, how many times do you need to crank it to finish a drawing?” and the related question “is it possible to create a drawing that never finishes?”. Having solved these to my own satisfaction, I will let you discover the answers in your own time.

In addition, Joe and I were able to create movies that showed the effect of the changing parameters (such as pen arm position) on the finished drawings. These proved to be hugely instructive.

[ By the way, the web version of the CDMS can’t make movies easily, but I have also published my code for the stand-alone Processing version, which can. ]

While I started out being worried that my virtual machine might hurt the sales of the real machine, those fears began to evaporate as Joe and I continued to work together.

I realized that the combination of the physical and the virtual machine creates a kind of virtuous feedback loop that improves both immensely. I believe that the virtual machine may certainly dissuade some folks from buying the real thing, but I believe it will also encourage other folks to buy, in equal or greater numbers (for the same reason that using a flight simulator doesn’t dissuade me from flying).

The virtual machine is cool and easier to use, but it lacks much of the charm of the physical device. Moreover, the output of the real CDM is inevitably different than the CDMS, not only because my measurements are still slightly off, but because its real. Different pens have different radii. Pens don’t output perfect strokes. Wooden gears don’t create perfect circles, and human hands don’t produce constant force. All of this combines to create output which is much less perfect, and much more human. The drawings I am choosing to frame are the ones that have these imperfections.

You’ll find my Cycloid Drawing Machine Simulation (CDMS) here.

Source code for the web version (Processing-JS) is here, and for the stand-alone version (Processing-Java) is here.

You can purchase the physical machine at Joe’s online shop.

Have fun with them both!