Collected Blog Posts from 2012

Originally published throughout 2012.

Finite State Jiu-Jitsu

(Originally published January 20, 2012)

Today completes my first week of BJJ under Rodrigo Cabral. I admit that I have spent more time on YouTube BJJ than real life BJJ, but being the huge nerd that I am, I have already started to intellectualize what jiu-jitsu is.

Now, I want to make it clear that I am a total n00b, so I probably have no clue what I’m talking about. Take what I’m saying here and then armbar it to make it tap out. I want to record this thought so that I can check back in in the distant future to see if I got it right. This is a distant future in which I am the most lethal nerd. More on that in a later post.

So what is “Finite State Jiu-Jitsu”? It is inspired by my CS background. I understand the depth of one’s jiu-jitsu as a quantifiable property of a finite-state machine. The nodes are basically positions like guard, half-guard, mount, etc and the techniques are essentially transitions (think guard passes etc). A black-belt like my instructor probably has hundreds and hundreds of nodes and thousands of transitions melded into his central nervous system, just a few electric pulses away from deadly submission. He has nodes and transitions for things that I do not know exist.

A total n00b like me, on the other hand, has a very finite-state machine, consisting of a few guards, mount, combat position, and uh… yeah that might be it for now. I have literally one transition between all of those, except maybe from Mount -> Submission, between which I have two arrows: the kimura and the armbar.

In this model, I view each class as adding a node or a transition, growing my repertoire. I see drilling and practice as making the lookup for those nodes and transitions much faster. During my roll today, I literally felt some O(n) lookup time as I had to sit under the mount, idly trying to control my opponent’s arms, and conjure up the individual steps I needed to sweep. By the time I figured it out, she guillotined me. Nice.

First-Time Namaste

(Originally published January 24, 2012)

I want to continue sharing my enthusiasm for John’s Gym. The first week of BJJ has been eye-opening and mind-blowing, but also very humbling. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to start again as a child in something completely different from what I’m used to, yet still having with me the collective experience, wisdom, and discipline accumulated from my earlier life—not that I have very much of any of those, except maybe some discipline.

Depending on your personality, either starting or finishing will be the hardest part. For me, it’s definitely starting. Once I show up for the first time and decide in my head that I’m going to show up regularly in the future, it’s hard for me to break the chain, and I naturally see things through to the end. I’ve also noticed from recent experiences that once you get used to starting things, it’s not so bad anymore.

In keeping with that theme, I decided to give Power Yoga a shot last night, since it’s included in my membership. I expected it to be packed, which fueled my anxiety, but instead, it turned out to just be six of us: three guys and three girls. And I already knew one of the guys from BJJ! The instructor, Janee, was extremely friendly and welcoming, to the point that I started growing confident in my ability around 15 minutes into the hour-long session. About half way through, I mentally smacked myself in the head for having been so timid: I reminded myself that I am a 23-year-old guy who is reasonably fit and coordinated. I should be able to handle some yoga, even if it happened to be Power Yoga.

But no, ultimately, I did not make it through all the ab-destroying static poses (and probably sounded very inelegant in my heavy breathing and sometimes outright grunting), but yes, I really loved the experience, and was really glad that I decided to just show up for the first time. So I guess I’ll just keep showing up, then. Namaste!

The Wind Beckons

(Originally published January 26, 2012)

I had an awful realization today—what if I don’t want Lake Travis to rise, the sun to shine, and the January summer breeze to lift my soul over the hills and onto the water?

So far, I’ve been successful in resisting the urge to check the wind forecast; I know that once I start, there is no turning back. Yet it seems Austin has set the stage for me: the January sun has been keeping the air over 65 degrees on most days, and the wind is actively thwarting my detailing sessions by blowing away my microfiber cloths—as if to remind me who really decides what Mohan Zhang does on afternoons. I’m literally running out of excuses! No, wait, not literally.

Ok, so what gives? Why haven’t I loaded up the roof racks, strapped the board on top, shoved my gear down towards the center console, and stayed in 3rd gear (for those nice Comanche Trail curves) all the way to Bob Wentz Park? (Tip: don’t actually do this to your engine.)

Oh yeah, it’s because there is no Lake Travis left. Last time I went, it was for a run, because the outline of the new shoreline, meaning the part that emerged once the water pulled back past the boat ramps, is on the order of miles. The new peninsulas that are forming are also replete with dangerous cedar stumps and we all know that Emma is shy and only stays on the road.

But alright, suppose Lake Travis came back in April. What then? I realized that I’ve reclaimed so much time from not doting on the wind forecast or even thinking about windsurfing that I might actually be actively avoiding continuing my quest to land the vulcan. That’s like the worst of both worlds: I know that windsurfing will be so much fun that I will spend all my time doing it, but I’m afraid to spend all my time windsurfing, so I actively avoid recognizing the joy that it would bring me if I were to do so?? *strange sound effect that sounds like the linear interpolation (in frequencies, not time) of “mwaa,” “arghh,” “nyaa,” and “wrrrrm”*

Protect Ya Neck

(Originally published January 27, 2012)

Rodrigo Cabral’s jiu-jitsu is so deep that even his t-shirts impart deep nuggets of wisdom onto my defense-less tabula rasa. I remember the t-shirt he wore on my first class: it read “PROTECT YA NECK” in big yellow letters. “Ha, I get it!” I said to myself on that day, but I’m not sure I that really appreciated the mantra it was trying to inculcate me with.

I got a little bit closer to learning that lesson today, though, when I fell to not one but two Ezekiel chokes and a guillotine (yes, again, dammit) within the span of three minutes. Granted, after the first Ezekiel I tried to do some fancier stuff like De la Riva guards (read: outside of my league), but that doesn’t change the fact that I fell for the same move twice in a row. The sad part is that I didn’t even know what my opponent was doing, just that it really freakin’ hurt my neck. She showed me at the end though and even explained the counter, so that was nice.

But while I was locked deep inside that last guillotine, I had an epiphany: I’m not protecting my neck because I don’t know how to attack the neck! I keep going for armbars and kimuras (the former have been extremely effective), but perhaps the choke is where it’s at? Thus, I go forwards today with a new idea for next time: “to protect the neck, you must learn to attack the neck.” Those are the kinds of t-shirts that only I would wear.

What language do you dream in?

(Originally published January 30, 2012)

I’ve been experiencing a really weird phenomenon in my dreams lately. No, not inception—although JGL visits me quite often (only three people will actually get that joke; others should assume that I’m serious). But now that I mention it, perhaps it’s some form of extraction instead. Hmm…

As some of you may know, I used to be fluent in French—sorry, Québecois—because I lived in Montreal for three years and went to French school there. In fact, I rocked the French all the way through high school and most of college, impressing countless girls with my French mystique*. I threw away this life of glamour* when I decided to reconnect with my Swedish roots. As a child, I had been native in Swedish for about five years (again, because we lived there and I went to school like normal kid. I totally blended in*. And impressed countless girls with my Asian mystique*.)

* May not be a factual statement

But an interesting thing happened when I was trying to relearn Swedish in college, which was that I kept using French function words in my sentences. For the first few months, I would say things like “Jag var där avec min vän mais vi såg inte dig” or something like that if I wasn’t paying attention. A few months into my Swedish renaissance, however, my nordic roots seemed to take hold. Around that time is when I started having dreams in which I would hear others (often people from my childhood) speak to me in Swedish. I couldn’t understand them then because I didn’t know enough Swedish, but I would listen to them and the dream would move along as if I understood.

Over the next year, I focused really hard on learning Swedish, and completely neglected my French. Consequently, ever since that time, I haven’t tried to speak French. I noticed that whenever I tried, the opposite slip-up would happen, meaning I would stick Swedish function words in around French words with French grammar. I can still read and listen to French, though (although it takes a few moments to adjust).

Now, here’s the strange thing: over the past couple of years, I have more-than-occasionally dreamt in Swedish; in the past year, these dreams have been reasonably advanced linguistically. I hear myself saying things to others and then thinking to myself “fy fan vad jag är grym” (loose English translation: “damn, I’m baller”). But the past few times I’ve dreamt in Swedish, I’ve been stumbling again—because I’ve been getting confused trying to speak French in my dreams! And when I do, I feel the gears grinding, searching for words and trying to make good sentences—to the point where it’s actually stressful!

What could this mean? After I reacquired Swedish, I ruled out the possibility of maintaining four languages in my head at once, especially given that I think in English 95% of the time. The remaining 5% is currently split between Mandarin and Swedish, and I had always thought that French just didn’t fit anymore. It seemed especially true since I had lost Spanish as well when I learned Swedish, which I had studied to the AP level in high-school, becoming reasonably conversant in it. Oh, and let’s not forget Italian, which I also studied for a year in high-school*.

* That last part is not actually germane at all. I’m just trying to impress girls with my multilingual mystique.

Maybe it has to do with my incredible fear that I’d one day meet an enchanting French girl and then have to be like “JE PARLE FRANCAIS I SWEAR OMG BELIEVE ME I LOVE YOU WE JUST MET.” Or maybe not. In any case, I’ll float some more legitimate theories in future posts.

Mirror, mirror on the road

(Originally published January 30, 2012)

“Oh Mirror, Mirror on the road—who has the prettiest C30 that has been sold?”

During the summer it used to be me by virtue of being the only 2012 C30 that had been sold in Austin (at least according to Roger Beasley Volvo), but that changed today when I saw two 2012 C30s within a span of about five minutes, and it reminds me that my exclusive reign over 2012 C30s in Austin has come to a close. Everyone and their mom is now buying that car. Mostly their mom though because the car really seems to appeal to the female aesthetic. I haven’t yet figured out what that means for me.

~~~

You. You, oh most gracious of all carriages glitter strewn, stood at the intersection of 620 and Anderson Mill. You waited there in the left lane, poised yet beaming in your Passion Red, but alas! Too many lanes away from me were you, and so you shall remain a mystery to me. May our paths cross again one day, oh beautiful rose!

And you, you were at the intersection of 620 and Rock Harbour in your Electric Gray. I stopped momentarily by your window to try to say hello, but you were a middle-aged dude and that made me rev and dump my clutch pretty fast. Sorry bro. Nothing personal.

Paleo Disobedience

(Originally published February 2, 2012)

I wanted to highlight a few supposedly paleo things that I had to stop doing recently because they were visibly detrimental to my health. These include things that most paleos believe to be good; and also some things that over-enthusastic newbies will dogmatically push on others because one of the paleo apostles happened to have said it in their book or blog (don’t worry—we’ve all been there). But I hope that with nearly two years on the diet (with zero intentional cheats) I’ve earned the right to speak with at least a little authority on the topic.

My hope is that as you read through this list, it might help you get unstuck from any habits or rituals you may have been following because you never thought to question them. I’ve spent many months “overlooking” certain problematic aspects of my paleo diet because I didn’t want to give up on the fantasy that my body was forged in the paleolithic fires of Mount Doom, untarnished by my lowly, albeit true status as the descendant of a vastly successful agricultural civilization. If that sounds uncomfortably familiar to you, then read on, my friend, about the paleo disobedience I have engaged in:

1. No more eggs. I don’t care if they are not soy fed, free range, organic, whatever—I get a noticeable itch when I eat them, especially if they are undercooked. This source of inflammation became obvious after I had lowered my baseline inflammation to the point where I could really notice small changes to my skin. I see some people on PaleoHacks talk about how they eat a dozen eggs every couple of days, and just that thought is enough to make me itchy.

2. I almost never do low carb days anymore. Low carb makes it hard to stay asleep and forces me to eat a lot of meat to compensate. Ketosis is cool once in a long while to remind yourself that you can do it, but if you’re any kind of active (which you should be because lifestyle probably trumps diet in many cases) then being in ketosis for any extended period of time is unnecessarily stressful. Note that this does not necessarily apply if you are trying to lose weight—but keep in mind that just because it’s losing you weight does not mean that it’s healthy!

3. No more “pound-of-ground” a day. As I talk about in a previous post, I’ve really cut down on the meat and therefore protein intake. Eating a lot more greens has returned me to a normal sleep cycle (10 hours/night requirement when eating lots of meat vs 8 hours/night requirement when eating lots of greens). In fact, I had a lot of chicken liver the other day and felt lethargic a few hours later, all the way into the next day. One would have probably been plenty!

4. Not all meat is created equal. For me, grain-fed beef is very inflammatory; lamb is inflammatory; CAFO pork is inflammatory; grass-fed beef is slightly inflammatory; pastured pork is a tiny, tiny bit inflammatory. I suspect this has to do with protein compatibility: in the same way that plant proteins may be problematic for some, animal proteins may also be antagonistic. This was actually the hardest thing for me to admit: that meat is not always “safe.”

5. Not all roots and tubers are created equal. It appears that taro and cassava really bother me if I consume them in large amounts. Actually, cassava bothers me if I consume it in any amount (and no, it’s not because I cook it like a n00b). On the other hand, sweet potatoes are fine no matter how much I eat. Not sure about potatoes because I haven’t had to eat them in a while and I don’t seek them out intentionally.

6. Nuts really bother me. More than a handful within the course of a few days and the effects are noticeable on my skin (itchiness, inflammation etc.) As a result, I don’t eat nuts anymore.

7. I eat fruit liberally. There were a lot of fruit-haters in the paleosphere last year, but I think most have come around now to the idea that unless you have serious weight issues (in which case we’re talking about very different dietary requirements and goals), that fruits are generally safe. I say “generally” because I noticed that if I eat more than one banana at a time, then I start getting itchiness. Apples, pears, citrus, melons, berries, etc. all appear to be great, however.

So there’s nothing earth-shattering here, but sometimes when you’re already eating a whole foods diet that has sorted out most of the pressing issues, there remain some nagging problems that tend to become more noticeable. Yet I would argue that what paleo has over other diets may not be in the way of diet at all; in fact, as I mention above, it’s probably the lifestyle factors that have been the most beneficial overall. Getting enough sun, sleep, and play while reducing stress are just as important as eating a whole foods diet. In my next post, I’m going to talk about another motivation for eating an optimizing diet, and what “optimizing” should even mean in this context.

The Paleo Why-It

(Originally published February 3, 2012)

[Also, 2020 Mohan checking in here: It's crazy to me how confidently I used to write things. I mean, I know it was my blog so I could say whatever I wanted, but wow, I'm glad I backed off the altar.]

It’s no secret that the ancestral health community is full of punsters, but I think I just took the steak with that one. I’d say that I was on a roll except I don’t eat ’em. It’s not that I’m against baked goods or anything—I happen to love bake-un, as a matter of fat. Wait, what was the point of this post again?

Oh, right! I wanted to talk about the real reason why I’m working so hard to optimize my diet, and how those reasons have changed over the past year or so. As many of you know by now, I started looking for answers in April/May of 2010 because of my recurring skin issues. When I was in college, I wrote it off as stress-related, which it surely was in part, but was left quite befuddled in the first half of 2010 when my stress-free life as a well-paid software engineer didn’t actually fix the issue. In fact, things got worse in many respects. What happened?

After I settled down in Austin in mid-2009 and got used to providing my own food, I really felt empowered to make the right choices. At the time, it was obvious to me what the “right” choices were: I would just follow the expert-assembled food pyramid! I therefore proceeded to build my base around the two things that I now know to really bother me (in the autoimmune sense): wheat and dairy. In my implementation, I was eating—uncontrollably eating, that is—one combination that I thought was supposed to do me good: knäckebröd med smör och ost. Or in words you might actually recognize, Wasa crackers with butter and cheese. At first I believed myself to be in heaven (“healthy stuff is thisgood?”), but the persistent acne and skin inflammation didn’t seem right. Nor did the daily 2 pm coma.

But let’s fast-forward to the past few months, where I have found myself in the next state of diet enlightenment: revelry in an ability to thrive. Not cheating is pretty easy when you’re not at a disadvantage in any way. Besides having healed the most obvious physical blemishes, not having oily skin anymore is nice. Not getting sunburns is nice too. Not needing a princess hygiene kit is super sweet. Having a six pack that refuses to go away is quite ok once you get used to it. Being mentally alert the entire day is empowering. Being in a good mood all the time is infectious. Having health-conscious and active friends who think crossing rivers and climbing trees is a good way to spend the afternoon is exciting. And realizing that what I have (i.e. good health) is considered a luxury in today’s society is pretty ego-boosting.

Yet I feel myself coming off this high recently and settling behind a more nuanced motivation for my diet. What is there beyond feeling so enabled in life for the first time? I think there is a clear answer to that, but I hesitate because I fear that I may be speaking too naively on a subject I have no experience in. But let me chance this one thought: when us 20-somethings in the ancestral health community say that we are “optimizing” our diets, I think all of us mean that we intend to have beautiful babies. I suspect that this is the case because the “primitive” peoples that Weston Price visited all said basically the same thing when they were asked why they eat the way they do. And we’ve all read his book, right?

When you think about the fertility problems many in our generation are experiencing as well as the rise in disorders like autism and combine it with potential epigenetic effects, I don’t think we should take chances with our future children’s health. Therefore, it’s no surprise that so many paleos try really hard to improve not just their diets but also their lifestyles and environments. Humans have always been about adapting their environments to themselves, not the other way around. It strikes me as silly, then, that the vast majority of us are accepting the current environment as a given and simply hoping that the next generation will somehow adapt to it. I suppose it would be ideal if one could plop down a baby tomorrow that could be fueled by industrial food with no adverse effects, but we all know that it can’t happen in one or two generations, and not without some brutal natural selection. Indeed, because we can no longer plead ignorance about the effects of an industrialized food supply as the previous generation could, it kind of forces our hand. So if you’ve already read this far, you probably realize that you don’t really have a choice—what you have instead is a responsibility.

Omoplata from Closed Guard

(Originally published February 4, 2012)

I pulled two of these for the first time today during rolling, but felt like it was a smaller deal than it was made out to be. I’m coming up on 2.5 weeks of BJJ now from having absolutely zero experience in any kind of grappling, and am happy to say that rolling with other white belts feels much slower now. I think it’s a sign that my brain is getting more used to computing positions for eight limbs and two heads, in addition to the position of the cores from which they sprout.

I noticed that a lot of white belts in the class act like submission artists—and that I had the tendency too the first few times—but I think I’ve reached what is my first zen moment of what are probably thousands to come. I realized recently that I’d much rather be a submitted artist instead. For example, while many of the students try to escape near-locked-in armbars and chokes, I basically tap the moment I feel my opponent having gotten the position with a respectable amount of control. I don’t even bother with trying to get out because I feel that the better escape was to not get into that position in the first place. I am tapping not to the submission itself, but to the sequence of mistakes on my part that got me there.

I’ve also stopped going for submissions at random times. During my practice, I focus much more on getting and transitioning positions instead. With other white belts, I’ll even give up a good position just to see if I can get back to it. To my surprise, however, doing this has frequently exposed glaring mistakes on my opponent’s part. In those cases, the submission simply presents itself. Of course, half the time, I’m the one making the mistake and end up in tap city pretty fast. But the end-result is basically the same: about 50/50. Yet with my new strategy, I expend a lot less energy, so I must be on the right track.

Indeed, something Rodrigo Cabral said today really confirmed this intuition: “Don’t go for the submission unless you have the position and the control.” So really, the key for the fledgling white-belt does not lie in learning more techniques, but rather in becoming competent in the basic positions and the hundreds of ways to transition between them.

So while omoplata from closed guard is pretty cool, surreptitiously giving a 5’2″/100lb girl the mount and trying to escape afterwards is even cooler. Especially when she ends up tapping you with a sweet choke. [2020 Mohan checking in again: WTF was wrong with me? Writing about giving girls "the mount"? Jesus.]

Haskell, NJ or Haskell, TX?

(Originally published February 9, 2012)

Neither, Google! You know I am like teh 1337zors h4xx0rz so why do you keep auto-suggesting these towns to me when I start typing “haskell”? Yes, I am impressed by your location awareness, but also kind of creeped out. You basically know how often I go between NJ and TX and that’s not cool. But what you might also know about me is that recently, I’ve found a programming language I finally identify with.

Ever since I first started programming in QBasic as a kid and felt the productivity boost going to VB6.0 (and then the subsequent drop when switching to VBA *shudder*), I’ve been acutely aware of a concept that I only later learned was called “The Blub Paradox.” Accordingly, I realized a few years back that I’ve continually been on a search for the “ultimate” programming language to wield, and that’s probably why I’ve tested the waters with so many languages to this day. More interestingly, my language of choice at each point in life seems to have progressed with my general knowledge of CS and overall intelligence; or perhaps a better way to think about it is that each successively higher-level programming language has in turn expanded my mind with its worldview.

And as I’ve learned more about the world we live in, it seems to me that our human history has been especially defined by those who had the best tools at the right time. And so as Paul Graham argues, there’s much to be gained by choosing a better Blub. My Blub for the past few years has been Ruby, which I got to know pretty well by virtue of having grown up with Rails since it’s pre-1.0 days, but I’ve realized over time that I am perhaps not cut out for dynamic languages—the total freedom often comes back to bite me at unfortunate times and my mind craves guarantees.

But if “dynamic” is one side of the coin, then the other side is “strict”; and with strictness, one often thinks “functional.” I fell in love with functional programming languages when I took CS312 in the spring of 2007 (forever enshrined here), and then even more so when I took LING 4424 in OCaml with John Hale in Fall ’08. I went ever deeper into OCaml when I used it for my honors thesis, but the unrelenting strictness ultimately annoyed me—it felt like the language was protecting me a bit too much.

And then there was Haskell. I first heard of Haskell in the context of being “that language”; namely, “that notoriously difficult language used in that high-level CS class on programming language theory that you’ll probably get a C in.” That reputation was enough to defer my attention indefinitely, so it wasn’t until the OCaml/Ruby dichotomy grew unbearable to me last year that I started looking for answers again.

I gave Haskell a real chance in April of last year, but it wasn’t until recently that the core concepts really started sinking in and taking hold. Lazy execution took a while to get used to, and reasoning about it is still hard, but overall, I haven’t found much to complain about. I use it in my day-to-day work now and the amount of computation I’ve been able to orchestrate in short order has been mind-blowing, and it seems like the “next” language feature—having been there all along—only presents itself when I’m finally ready for it, allowing me to up the ante for the next round. It’s a language that you truly grow into over time; in fact, I hope I never reach its bottom (or should I say undefined?! Yeah, that joke was so high-level… like my programming language! ey-ohhhh… Yeah, never mind).

So while I can’t actually claim that Haskell is the “best” Blub out there, it has definitely changed the way I think about programming, computation, and abstraction in a radical way. It’s so significant that I would encourage you to learn it too, if it weren’t for the fact that I want to keep this secret all to myself! (Reverse psychology, or reverse reverse psychology??)

Austin is for Paleos

(Originally published February 12, 2012)

The speakers to have graced the Austin Primal Living Group with their presence and knowledge keep getting better and better! Indeed, I just got back from today’s meetup, which saw Dr. Amy Myers speak to us about the role of diet in autoimmune disease at our favorite venue, Efficient Exercise. We didn’t record the talk this time, but here’s the summary: it’s all inflammation.

What made the talk special wasn’t so much the concepts (preaching to the choir), but rather the real life examples she could pull out for just about every case. It makes you realize how effective a basic anti-inflammation diet can be, reversing disease left and right, even for people that conventional medicine gave up on.

I was also very impressed with the level of questions that the audience brought with them—almost every single question invited a very insightful response. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a satisfactory response to one of my own questions, which considered the possibility of false positives in elimination diets (inception courtesy of Will Hui). For example, I’ve eliminated a few foods that paleos hold sacred because I appeared to have a reaction upon re-introduction, yet I can’t be sure if it’s the act of elimination itself that subsequently made me intolerant, or whether I had been intolerant all along. At this rate, with the types of food getting eliminated, there’s not much left for me to eat if I want to stay inflammation-free, so something is fishy (literally?).

Putting aside my enthusiasm for today’s meetup for a moment, I want to reflect on how far the Austin Primal Living Group has come recently, especially in the light of all the PaleoFX buzz; in fact, we’re getting dozens of out-of-towners joining the group in preparation for PFX, reaching out to our community. I often think about what a crazy accident it was that I decided to search Meetup.com for “paleo” on June 24th, 2010, and that a then-stranger named Bryan had just created the group a single day earlier on June 23rd. I ended up being the third member ever, right behind him and his now-wife Tracy (who at the time only joined because she “had to” :)

Since I took over the group in July, it’s given me access to a much larger paleo audience than this blog will ever see, yet it was all one stroke of incredible coincidence that made it possible. What if I had searched just one day earlier and not found the group—how long would it have taken me to try the search again, thinking that paleo simply wasn’t happening in Austin?

But paleo is happening in Austin, man. And a lot of it at that. From APGL to PFX to paleo doctors like Dr. Myers and Dr. Sebring to being “the epicenter of physical culture” (a phrase often used by half-man-half all-beast Keith Norris), it’s all here surrounding a few-miles stretch of I-35.

With Valentines Day coming up, I’m reminded that I haven’t found love in Austin. But, man, I’ve sure found paleo.

Language from the outside in

(Originally published February 27, 2012)

I started writing a post about a language-filled weekend, and instead ended up taking a detour into some very theoretical thoughts. I ended up on that particular road because I wanted to establish a base for an otherwise unlikely claim, which was that BJJ has all the signs of being a real language. I decided to split that gigantic post in two and offer this braindump as a prelude instead. Below I’ll deal with the issue of defining language from the “outside in,” as well as offer some renewed thoughts on my good ‘ol honors thesis within this context. Oh, and a fair warning that this post is for nerds only. That’s right jockface! Get lost before we offer you our lunch money and then collect based on usurious interest rates years later because you still don’t know what e means! And then we’ll arbitrage credit card rewards while you’re stuck paying a 23.99% APR until your car gets repo’d! Haha, take that! Who’s not eating lunch now?! YEAH Y—er, sorry, got a little carried away there. Let’s begin.

So presumably everyone is familiar with language originating from the larynx—particularly English in this case—but maybe you’re lucky and are privy to some form of sign language as well; or if not, you can surely accept the premise that sign language is, you know, language. And that’s the bridge we’ll take to what I’m about to suggest, which is that BJJ is actually a language as far as I can tell. So how, exactly, do I tell? I basically check that it has a syntax, a semantics, a set of tractable production rules, and a living context (history/culture/semiotics etc.). Incidentally, these are exactly the topics I studied in my undergraduate linguistics program, only for spoken languages instead, so the hypothesis is certainly attractive. Linguistics often gets flack for being a pseudo-science—perhaps because of all the uncertainty, endless debate, and bad models floating around complicating things instead of elucidating them—but let’s not miss the forest for the trees: the breakdown of language into its various components (i.e. syntax, morphology, semantics, phonetics, phonology, prosody, topology, history) and the subsequent progress we’ve seen in each subfield is a definite testament to the possibility of a unifying theory of language. Well, maybe not phonology, ’cause we all know that’s fake (OH DANG! Phonology SLAM! INguistics joke! You’re on the outside!).

So let’s actually test this hypothesis, shall we? Although I’m not qualified to make zen statements about BJJ as a practitioner, I’m definitely cool with sitting pretty in the ivory tower tossing about linguistics jargon, so let’s begin the deconstruction.

To casual observers (and kick-boxers), BJJ totally looks like a questionable form of pent-up passive-aggressive man-on-man action, but wrestling is totally gayer, so like, whatever man. In reality, to the trained eye, both sports have very regular and deep structures, much like a collection of sentences might have. I’m grasping at a concept that I’m sure has a name, but I can’t quite come up with it right now. It’s the same word that someone might use to describe the structure of dance or music, for instance. It’s not quite the syntax that we know and love in our native languages, yet I think most would agree that music compositions and dance routines have some kind of structure worthy of being called “syntax” anyway. I think BJJ exhibits this quality as well.

Next, we check that there are tractable production rules, and this, I think, is the easiest part of the argument, since movements are governed by the body. You cannot do what your body does not let you do, just as you cannot do what the vocal complex (from larynx to lips and everything in between) does not let you do in the spoken word. There are even rules governing the composition of combinations, as phonology might predict (ok, phonology is real… for now); indeed, if you force the issue, the result will undoubtedly “sound bad,” either for being unrecognizable or somehow ungrammatical. Another testament to the existence of production rules are subconscious accents that fighters might take on: maybe your moves have Gracie or De La Riva details in their execution. You might not notice it, but to others, the divergence can sometimes be jarring and oftentimes identifying or characteristic.

The study of semantics deals with meaning, so we have to find the parallel for the exchange and modulation of “meaning.” The relationship is slightly nebulous to me, but I think it’s mostly because semantics is the underwhelming child of the linguistics disciplines (OH DANG! Semantics SLAM!). Yet we can check a few phenomena and see what we think: can tone of voice alter semantics? Surely it can, just as the tone of your body affects the output of your moves. How about the reliance on a shared context? That matters too. Deception is a big part of jiu-jitsu, and indeed deception has very interesting semantics in spoken languages as well. What about irony? I think that can be communicated by the body as well. So a few more tests like this seem to suggest that there are some pretty intricate semantics in BJJ, and that leads me to the main point of this post (I’ll take a gimme for the last point about a “living context,” since that should be fairly obvious).

What we just did with semantics was the opposite of formulating a model or going off of its formalizations to derive some result. Because we didn’t ask what the semantics of BJJ actually were, but rather whether it had any, we ran into an instance of a recurring theme in computation, which is that hard problems often have easily verifiable solutions. The analogy isn’t perfect, so to couch this imperfection a little bit, I will suggest that a more general way to think of this phenomenon is to ask whether testing a hypothetical model against a black-box or canonical model using disparate properties is a good way to verify the original hypothesis. I think so, and that’s actually the fundamental idea behind my linguistics honors thesis, which applies this concept to show that existing theories in the field of computational linguistics are really just simple permutations of a few basic properties, and that if we provide a good eigenbasis to visualize these theories, we not only classify them, but also get a bunch of other testable models for free. I realize that this probably makes no sense to you, but since the post getting quite long, I’ll have to save those thoughts for a later time. For that future post, only linguistics nerds will be allowed, and I’ll have to come up with some other diss to disqualify the general nerd population before I can write it.

But let’s get back on track and bring the main point home. I delved into the esoteric concepts in the last paragraph to set up the moneyshot, and here it is: suppose we took familiar approaches in NLP or computational linguistics that did a good job on spoken language and applied these to BJJ. Would correspondingly good results in the cross-application legitimize the original hypothesis even more? Consider some common techniques used in NLP, from very basic stuff like part of speech tagging and n-grams to more complex stuff like hidden markov models (HMMs). I think these tools can analyze the language of BJJ just as effectively (or ineffectively) as they can spoken language. N-grams are probably the most obvious candidate: collocation is an emergent property of spoken language because it’s a lower-dimensioned projection of a higher-dimensional structure. If we expect that BJJ has some deeper structure, then we should see reliable collocation data as well. I’m not sure if anyone has this kind of “corpus” for BJJ, but even as a total neophyte I’m starting to notice certain patterns constantly emerge in linear fashion (one move tends to follow another); the analogy even extends to idiosyncratic collocation distributions in the form of “signature sequences.” And if n-grams work in this way, then there’s no reason a frequentist approach like part-of-speech tagging couldn’t apply in similar fashion, as well as a more bayesian approach like HMMs.

In essence, the fact that we can apply all the same tools that have served us well in spoken language and subsequently see similar results when applied to other “language candidates” is a good sign that the two are somehow deeply related. It makes me wonder whether the totality of human expression isn’t actually just governed by some overarching set of principles, and that spoken language is really just a subset that we’ve refined to a great extent. Other art-forms like music, dance, or even grappling—although not quite as sharp as the blade of natural language—seem to be forged by the same laws. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were truly the case: it would support my belief that language is really just a synonym for human intelligence and that human intelligence is just an emergent property of strong pattern recognition in one particular strata on the computational power continuum.

That’s the gist, anyway.

A Weekend of Fluency and Incompetence

(Originally published February 27, 2012)

A few things this weekend reminded me of the beauty and wonder that is language. Not just language of the spoken word, but rather language in all its forms.

It starts on Saturday morning during the weekly BJJ Fundamentals class, which is designed to go over basic techniques in excruciating detail for total n00bs like myself. During the week when I roll with more advanced grapplers, I often feel as though I am a total mute trying to speak with a monolingual native. My language is broken and their language is unintelligibly fast. Imagine trying to win an argument (i.e. the bout) in that situation. I’m not sure you can since you don’t even know what fancy rhetoric your opponent might be using on you. But when I roll with other beginners, I often feel an increase in my level of fluency: it’s almost as if I can express myself better. I no longer feel the barrage of complex sentence structure and unfamiliar vocabulary; instead, I get to focus on fluency and trade “sentences” that are easy to understand. Those are debates and arguments I can actually win—on this particular Saturday, I read my beginner counterpart like an open book.

However, in the background of my relatively fluent pre-school BJJ on this Saturday, my mind works hard to understand my instructor’s Portuguese-infused English. Over the past month or so, I’ve noticed that when he searches for translations or stumbles on words, he turns to me out of all the other students for help or a guess at what he’s trying to say. Oftentimes I just ask him to say it in Portuguese, and I can usually understand, which I suppose is a predictable side effect of having studied all the other Romance languages.

Later on Saturday I attend the Nordic Film Fest. Despite only having room for about 40 people, it is apparently the largest such film fest “between Atlanta and LA.” Besides being a good time to really evaluate the optimism present in my life (this will make sense if you know what Scandinavian film tends to be like), it is also a good opportunity to kind of understand Danish, shrug at Icelandic, and go “WTF” at Finnish—but most importantly, it’s a chance to realize how reasonably fluent I’ve re-become in Swedish, and that’s truly a great feeling. Incidentally, a girl at the event mentions that she is studying French, and so I trade some thoughts in that language as well, albeit very stressfully (but don’t worry, no sparks).

The next morning I sit down to continue my routine GRE review. In this case, I’m back to a language that I consider myself to have some mastery over, yet the GRE practice problems serve as a reminder that not all is well. Pusillanimous, encomium, peccadillo, lachrymose, and carom? Really? And don’t get me started on Reading Comprehension, which for some questions should really be called Mind-Reading Comprehension since even the “best” answer can be pretty questionable—no, apocryphal.

So there you have it, a weekend filled with language of all sorts, and my own performance ranging from timorous to blithe, inane to perspicacious, desultory to—never mind, I’m gonna get back to writing about paleo.

My Beef with Beef

(Originally published March 4, 2012)

[2020 Mohan checking in again: it's crazy how close I get to the real answer (or at least what I think the real answer is as of 2020) in this post. I think the missing datapoint I have is how much of a daily dose of supplementation it takes to live up to the amount generated by the Texas sun in summer.]

(… and why Vitamin D might gainsay my fatuous about-face)

Despite all the improvement I’ve seen to my overall health since going paleo, I am frequently reminded by my skin that things could always be better. Sure I can finally say that acne and “combination skin” are things of the past, and that I’m enjoying what is by far the healthiest skin since my pre-puberty days, but some form of dermatitis (be it folliculitis, eczema, or something I do not know the name for) always seems to be lurking around the corner the moment I eat “the wrong thing.” On the one hand, this has motivated me to follow what is probably the strictest paleo diet in all of Austin (eat nothing that comes from a factory?), but on the other hand, I’m starting to wonder whether this extreme discipline has been a case of working harder, not smarter.

The [one] regular reader of this blog will know that I’ve been having some problems with elimination diets, simply because I am running out of foods to eliminate! It seems that almost everything has started to bother me, and while I could live without chocolate or macadamia nuts, I’m not sure I could easily accept having some sort of intolerance or allergy to beef and lamb. But all the evidence I’ve seen recently is pointing to this unfortunate truth, especially since I’ve really cut back on the meat and felt much better since. The itch and inflammation from beef and lamb is extremely noticeable now, and the less of these meats I eat, the better my skin feels.

Wait, I know why you’re about cut me off. You’re going to tell me about leaky gut, right? Ok, can you please tell me what then, exactly, is causing my supposedly leaky gut that apparently has not healed after two years of stricter-than-you paleo? The leaky gut that never betrays any sign of bad digestion anymore, yet somehow still ends up manifesting itself on my skin? Or the leaky gut that is producing the kind of beautiful stool worthy of an exhibit at the MOMA? Or the leaky gut caused by all those leafy greens, fruits, and sweet potatoes, right? Or was it the leaky gut caused by the beef itself—oh the horror!

Yeah, let’s put aside the catch-all prognosis of “leaky gut” for a moment, because it does not actually explain anything (since it explains “everything”). It’s kind of like “metabolic derangement”—the vague notion that something is wrong metabolically and therefore attributable to all sorts of disparate symptoms: sure it might be a real thing, but it’s not useful to someone suffering from a specific set of symptoms. With leaky gut, the proposed mechanism involves specific actors at the intestinal wall; perhaps with a deranged metabolism, we are interested in mitochondria. These are examples of the kind of mechanisms or pathways that I’m interested in learning about, beyond the vague buzzwords and diagnoses.

On the topic of symptoms, a few salient observations about the skin condition I have:

  • It appears to be diet related
  • It appears to have no correlation with how my digestive system or mood feels (e.g. I can feel great as usual but still have skin issues)
  • It has never manifested itself during summer
  • It leaves sores that are extremely hard to heal, except (anecdotally) by exposure to sun and sea water (e.g. sores developed in December appear to get worse over time until suddenly healing two weeks into a sunny April)

The latter observations make me think that the first observation might really just be a confounder. There’s no doubt that eating paleo has made the general condition of my skin much better, but relative to “summer skin” as it were, late fall through early spring tends to be the worst time for my largest organ. It would also explain why foods that were previously benign such as beef suddenly appeared to cause problems: it might be because elimination or troubleshooting seemed more necessary as the problems started surfacing come fall, and that whatever I was doing during the summer was fine by virtue of it having been the summer. Although I have no data to confirm this hunch, a seasonal bias for diet hacking does seem plausible, especially since I’ve only seen two winters and two summers on paleo.

Ok, so let’s build on this “summer skin” theory: what other observations about skin and seasons can we make? Here are a few that I could think of off the cuff:

  • From dermatology, eczemas are sometimes prescribed UV treatment when steroids fail (and all steroids eventually fail with epic collateral damage—don’t go down this route, trust me)
  • The aphorism “sunlight is the best disinfectant” most certainly applies to infected skin lesions
  • Eczemas are more common in winter months; sometimes this has been ascribed to skin moisture, but I wonder if that’s a confounding variable.

It should be pretty obvious now what I’m trying to set up, which is that the answer to this puzzle is actually Vitamin D. But perhaps it isn’t just Vitamin D (it’s almost never one single thing when it comes to nature); in fact, this uncertainty will be the topic of a subsequent post, where I will look for the specific pathway and/or mechanism that may legitimize this hunch.

So that’s it for this post: I wanted to posit that food intolerance—specifically protein intolerance—might be conditioned by sun exposure. I bring up Vitamin D because that’s the most obvious candidate for a mechanism by which this can happen (since it does so much in the body), but as the next post will show, there are many more possibilities.

NLP: Nutritional Language Processing

(Originally published March 4, 2012)

In the last post, I tried to hypothesize about the link between protein intolerance and sun-exposure, and in this post, I’ll dive into more detail on the hypothesis itself, as well as the way I’m going to go about testing it. This will probably be the start of a very long on-going series, so think of this not as me presenting to you some grand scheme to revolutionize nutrition research, but rather as you witnessing the evolution of my thinking on an unfamiliar topic (yup, zero biology in this college degree). However, if this experiment does actually succeed and yield a cogent argument, then I will have stumbled upon something very interesting indeed.

So let’s talk a bit more about the hypothesis. Essentially, I’m looking for a link between specific animal proteins (e.g. casein, beef, lamb, and eggs, but not pork and chicken), the degree to which they are cooked (i.e. undercooked/raw appears to be more problematic than well done or boiled), digestion, immune system, various skin conditions, and sunlight exposure.

Just to give you a sense of the possible permutations, here are some mechanisms that might play a role:

  • Animal proteins: shape, source, amino acids
  • Cooking: denaturing, separating, decomposing
  • Digestion: enzymes (proteases), digestive tract, gut-lining interactions
  • Immune system: Ig-whatevers, allergies, auto-immunity
  • Skin conditions: dermatitis, eczema, rashes, folliculitis
  • Sun exposure: Vitamin D, folic acid, cholesterol, hypothalamus

And those are just the ones I could think of on the fly. Surely there are many, many more, and each individual “area” of the body likely in turn exposes many more keywords to look into. And it’s exactly this daunting exponential burst of information which motivated the title of this post. You see, I am proposing a way to go about finding this link (or links) in a programmatic fashion. Ideally, I’d like to have just a couple of things to read in depth and focus on, but how do I narrow it down? Traditionally, the answer has been to start reading general reviews or start my search on Google or Wikipedia, and then dig deeper as the rabbit hole unfolds in front of my bloodshot eyes. But given my poor GRE prospects at the moment (UPDATE: Laid the smackdown on the GRE!), I may have to leave that style of research to actual grad students.

Most of you know that my academic orientation has been towards computational linguistics and just a little bit of NLP, so you might guess where this is going. What if I could have a computer program scour the internet and return to me just the few resources that are most likely to have anything to do with validating my hypothesis? This program would also provide a “paper-trail” to show me how it got there, so I can claim to have toiled assiduously and artlessly to arrive at my conclusion, in case anyone asks. Yes, I like the sound of that. Let’s formalize this a little, shall we?

Fairly uncontroversially, we know that the actors in the list above will play some kind of role with respect to each other; that is, for each actor, we’ll find another actor in the set that it interacts with. Since we’re specifically asking about the link between protein and sun, it may be that all other actors are all implicated sequentially, or that some might even be short-circuited or conditionally dependent on others—none of that is really important at the outset. All we know is that proteins, cooking, digestion, the immune system, skin, and sun might be related, and this is enough to go on.

Next, we know that there are many articles out there about each individual actor: a Wikipedia article on protein digestion mentions proteases, for example; and an introductory article on the immune system might talk about IgEs and IgGs. Each of these (protease, Ig-whatevers) will become its own node, and if an article mentions both in some relation, it will become the edge between those nodes. A fancy program might even classify these relationships so that we know whether the language indicates a causative, correlative, or some other relationship between the two.

Finally, once we have this graph, we can ask if there is a path from protein to sun, and voila, we get a reading list that ties it all together, including all the actors in between—perhaps involving new mechanisms we may not have known about at first. Further, because we have a formal graph representation, we can ask all sorts of fascinating questions on a purely formal basis. (Min-cut/max-flow, anyone? Cliques? Independent sets? Dominators? Oh my!)

That’s the idea in theory, anyway. In practice, there are a few obvious difficulties that prevent this from being a weekend hack-a-thon.

First, we are constrained by the quality and quantity of articles we start off with. If we input only Wikipedia articles, then our reading list output will also only have Wikipedia articles, so this doesn’t exactly solve the problem of research discovery. It will certainly suffice as a first-round attempt, but eventually, we have to think about how to discover articles to feed as input, or at least programmatically grow our set of articles beyond just the few obvious ones we “seed” with.

Next, there is the practical problem of identifying and reifying new nodes to represent actors. We can use certain heuristics like “must be a noun” or “has its own Wikipedia page” (strong indicator that it’s a standalone entity) but it’s not clear to me yet whether this will work as well as I want. The end result might be a mishmash of thousands of nodes that all ultimately end up pointing to Philosophy (mouse-over alt text), so there needs to be some kind of filter here to make sure that we’re still talking about stuff inside the body.

Alternatively, someone might already have a pretty good theory about this out there that I just haven’t discovered yet. So if you have or you’ve heard about something relating protein intolerance and sun exposure before, and you find no pleasure in the reality that you might be reading about NLP on this blog for the next however long, then you’ll probably want to disabuse me of my ignorance before I get started on this little side-project right after PFX. But until then, I’m going to try to get darker than my furniture in record time!

99 Skin Problems

(Originally published March 7, 2012)

[2020 Mohan checking in here: since this time, I've been keeping a rather large compendium of information associated with skin health that I one day hope to put together with a nice UX. Today is not that day, however.]

> If you got skin problems, I feel bad for you son. I’ve had 99 problems, but a stitch ain’t one. HIT ME!

(This is a post about skin problems related to inflammation and secondary infection, which are the only kinds of skin problems I can speak to, since I have so much personal experience with them. If you came here looking for advice on girl problems, I feel bad for you son, I’ve got 99er, no, actually, I don’t think I can help. Sorry.)

I decided to cook up this list as a compendium of paleo-inspired skin improvement hacks. I’ve come a long way in my skin health (which is why I went paleo originally), and I’ve overcome enough skin-welter to last me a lifetime, but it sure is a constant battle. Here is my accumulated troubleshooting guide, in the form of questions to direct your attention to possible causes, hacks, and ultimately solutions. I emphasize that it’s not meant to go into great detail, but rather just to give you strands of thought to start your own search with. Dermatologists get paid like $400,000 a year to not be able to figure out anything about skin, so I sure as hell can’t help you solve everything either. Skin is as individual as it gets, and you should do whatever it takes to feel comfortable in yours—and I know of no better way than embarking on a journey to discover your own solutions.

Oh, and by the way, I’m assuming that you have already done your best to adopt a whole foods diet, such as a paleo diet, for instance. Additionally, if you have a significant source of stress in your life, or some other lifestyle factor that you know cannot be good for your health, then keep in mind that you should straighten out that aspect of your life first. Diet can only be a multiplier of the baseline that is set by your lifestyle, not the other way around!

Acne (whiteheads, blackheads, cystic, face, back, etc)

(Technically a subset of inflammation below, but it’s a hot topic, so it gets its own section.)

  • Are you subconsciously influenced by quick-fix acne infomercials and using their supposed panaceas as an excuse to not improve your diet and lifestyle, which are the real cure for acne?
  • Do you know if your omega fatty acids are in balance?
  • Do you have some kind of protein intolerance? Like gluten, casein, beef protein, pork protein, etc.?
  • Is your gut healthy, and digestion clean? Meaning: is your stool worthy of an exhibit at the MOMA? How are your gut flora doing?
  • Some specific foods are really good at causing pimples despite not being obviously inflammatory; a personal example is avocado. Are there specific foods in your diet that you can eliminate and check?
  • Are you eating too much (as in > 1 pound a day) meat?
  • Do you wash your face with harsh chemicals? Have you tried just using water?
  • Are you picking at your skin out of habit?
  • If you burn easily in the sun, are you using comedogenic sunscreen? Have you considered using a zinc oxide-based sunscreen? The zinc-oxide based sunscreens don’t “melt” into your skin like the invisible kind does, but that’s kind of the point!
  • Are you getting enough sleep?
  • And when you are sleeping, is it on the same pillowcase or bed-sheet you had two weeks ago? Have you tried using a fresh t-shirt every night as a buffer for your skin?
  • Are you being too impatient? The worse your acne is, the longer it will take to go away forever. We’re talking eight months to a year here, or possibly more if the scars are very deep. But you should still see gradual improvement over this time period, so don’t just come back in a year and say it didn’t work because you kept doing the same (wrong) thing!

Inflammation (eczemas, rashes, bumps, hives, pustulent bumps, prurient bumps, etc)

(Every bullet in the acne section applies here too! Acne is just a particular form of inflamed skin that appears on the face and the back.)

  • If your natural skin color “wants” to be dark, have you gotten enough sun lately? In the summer, I take pride in being darker than my furniture. In the winter when I am as pale as a bleached piece of CAFO chicken meat, I start to see problems.
  • Related to the question above, how are your vitamin D levels? Have you considered supplementing?
  • Do you have a mineral deficiency? Like selenium? Iodine? Copper? Magnesium? Zinc? Plutonium? (Just kidding about plutonium!)
  • Have you tried going into the ocean or some other mineral-rich body of water for the therapeutic effects?
  • Are you drinking coffee or tea instead of water? There’s a link between caffeine and hydration, and therefore skin.
  • Are you eating lots of chocolate? Just an example of an inflammatory food for most people, but also one that people are in denial about because they’re addicted.
  • Do you have some kind of sensitivity to nightshades?
  • Do you have some kind of sensitivity to latex fruits?
  • Do you have some kind of sensitivity to dairy, even raw dairy?
  • Are you applying topical steroids in a non-emergency situation? I want to tell you to “STOP NOW,” but I am not your doctor. I can only urge you to read more about the side-effects of topical steroids and ask you to think twice about going down that path.
  • Do you have a source of undesirable chemicals in your environment? Such as
  • Do you swim regularly in a chlorinated pool?
  • Do you use cleaning agents, including dishwashing soap, without gloves?
  • Do you use automobile detailing products without adequate protection? (I basically approach these chemicals as if they were hazmats. Car looks goooood though!)
  • Is your laundry detergent (and fabric softener if you use one) totally scent-astic in a very unnatural way?
  • Are you subconsciously touching the inflamed skin and making it worse in the process? Are you doing this at night without realizing it?
  • Are you wearing a specific piece of clothing that is aggravating the skin, either due to the physical contact or something intrinsic to the material?
  • Have you tried a turmeric/curcumin supplement as a strong anti-inflammatory agent?
  • Have you tried traditional Chinese medicine formulas? They don’t work immediately, but rather over the span of a month or so. It has saved my life at times when steroids and antibiotics could no longer help.
  • Have you tried messing with your macronutrient ratios to figure out whether the inflammation is fungal or bacterial in nature?
  • Have you tried inducing autophagy through fasting to see if that improves the inflammation? If so, it could be a sign of excess protein in your diet.
  • Are you getting regular exercise?
  • Do you have a pet that might be the source of some kind of zoonotically induced inflammation?
  • Are you using a fluoridated chemical-soup toothpaste?
  • Are you using shampoos, conditioners, and deodorants with harsh chemicals in them? Have you tried no ‘poo no soap?
  • Are you taking hot showers all the time? Have you considered taking only cold showers for a few weeks?
  • Is your drinking water contaminated?
  • Are you using products laden with PCBs and BPA?
  • Is your eating schedule completely random? Have you considered not eating within five hours of bedtime (also related to inducing autophagy)?
  • Are you eating CAFO meat, high in omega-6s and God-knows-what-else? Aside: it’s also totally lame because of the unethical treatment of animals and workers alike. No one wins except the owning corporations.
  • Are you eating pesticide-laden vegetables? Have you considered going all organic just for a month to see if it helps? If it doesn’t and you can’t afford it, don’t sweat it.
  • Are you taking pharmaceuticals that (almost certainly) affect your liver and adrenals?

Infection (staph, MRSA, folliculitis, sores that won’t close, etc)

(Everything in the Inflammation section applies: try to lower your systemic inflammation so that your body can conquer infections naturally.)

  • Is the infected patch of skin getting lots of sunlight every day (> 1 hour)?
  • Have you tried exposing the infected patch to salty ocean water? In my experience, ocean water has closed up every wound I’ve had within a day or two. Combined with the heavy midday coastal sun, this one-two punch has not failed me yet. Too bad I live four hours away from the coast (… for now).
  • Have you tried dressing the wound with Manuka honey? In my experience, this doesn’t work for pustulent wounds that arose out of internal inflammation, but does work for “external” cuts or slashes that drew blood.
  • Have you tried Desitin or equivalent? It’s zinc-oxide for diaper rashes, but has the effect of drying out wet eczemas. Be sure to use fresh product. The name-brand has parabens but if you’re fighting off infections left and right, parabens are probably ok for the moment.
  • Have you tried colloidal silver spray? Colloidal silver is a very potent antibacterial that is not toxic to humans, but don’t eat it!
  • Have you checked your lymph nodes (just feeling for them with your fingers)? If they’re very swollen, you should seek medical attention right away: your body is being stressed by these infections a bit more than is safe.

Well, that’s a lot of questions to ask yourself, but they’re the ones I’ve had to ask myself over the years since this ordeal started post-puberty. Some questions have mattered; others have not—but the truth is that there’s no question too silly. You really do have to question every assumption: it’s simply responsible debugging.

Finally, one interesting observation is that my skin is best (by any standard) when I live “the island life,” meaning I am close to the ocean, getting lots of sun, living in nature, eating fresh food, having fun, and loving life. It doesn’t help much in pinpointing what, exactly, is helping the most, but it does prove to me that my skin is not broken by default (even despite a continuous onslaught of arthropod bites—perhaps the only downside of “the island life”).

Wow I Ate at a Restaurant

(Originally published March 20, 2012)

More than once have friends questioned that unreasonable goal: for one whole year, I would not eat at a restaurant. And wow, did I actually do it (and then some!) I challenged myself at the turn of 2011 to protest the industrial food complex, which in turn implicitly forced me to provide every meal for myself along with a hard requirement for ethically raised meats. Oftentimes, in order to meet that requirement I ended up fasting while others ate. But all of this came to a plangent end last Friday—ineluctably so, perhaps.

Truly, it was hard to say no to dinner with awesome paleo friends after the closing minutes of PaleoFX 12. The deed was done at the Iron Cactus on Stonelake Blvd. Pechuga de Pollo, the consummate dish: two CAFO chicken breasts grilled to dry imperfection, mashed potatoes with who-knows-what mixed in, and bitter, bitter broccoli.

And I felt fine the next day. Wind, water, and sun cure all, it seems.

But I want to dote on my PaleoFX 12 experience for a moment. Everyone is doing “highlight” or “top 10” posts, so I’ll instead just offer a few catholic observations (catholic in the general sense—GRE word; look it up, son). From hosting a paleo celebrity (the best kind of celebrity) to dealing with cold-lateral damage from the Kruse missile to meeting Erwan Le Corre of MovNat, the inaugural PaleoFX was truly the most interesting few days I’ve lived in a long while.

Through my eyes, and my obstreperously neurotic psyche:

  • Being social at conferences and striking up conversations with strangers can be a lot of work if you’re introverted, but it sure pays off. Besides, approaching a stranger is totally less painful than losing your elbow in an armbar (thanks for the perspective, BJJ!).
  • There should be a mandatory class on conferences that everyone has to take before attending, which includes rules like (but not limited to):
  1. If you came to the conference with someone else, do not stay glued to them so that you can actually meet others and vice versa;
  2. If you see someone standing by themselves, it is your duty to bring them into your conversation and introduce them to your friends right away, even if you don’t know them;
  3. If someone enters the conversation, you must immediately make sure that everyone knows each others’ names; besides, it also gives everyone an opportunity to catch names they missed before.
  4. You must try to meet 10 new people every day of the conference; bonus points if these people do not look like those you would meet in the course of your daily life.
  • Learning barefoot running technique from Steven Sashen is actually as awesome as his “Shit Barefoot Runners Say” video. The man is epic.
  • Nothing brings out the spirit of the tribe like teamwork in a high pressure situation.
  • People don’t generally look like their photos. That’s why all my photos online look really bad (see what I did there?)
  • It’s a strange feeling being in a room with 400 people and knowing nothing about any of them except that they are paleo or paleo-curious.
  • It’s an even stranger feeling to notice the next day that you do not care about most of them anyway.
  • It is really bad form to ask questions during Q&A that only apply to you. I do not care if your aunt has this super rare condition that apparently only Mark Sisson can give good advice on. Ask the man afterwards, or write him an email.
  • The probability of you recognizing someone who recognizes you in return is pretty high, even if you just met briefly, and so the probability of you recognizing someone who doesn’t recognize you back is pretty low. Therefore, don’t be awkward with people you recognize, even if they don’t have the same sense of probability that you do. At worst, they will be flattered that you remembered them.
  • Knowing the emcees who carry the microphones during Q&A is extremely helpful if you have a question. Home court advantage.
  • People hear and remember different things from the same talk: having friends to compare notes with is invaluable.
  • Sometimes, the less popular talk can be so much more valuable because of the opportunity to ask questions and engage the speaker afterwards.
  • It’s amazing what knowing the owner of a business will do for your desire to buy their product. Things that were previously lame become pretty damn interesting.
  • Conferences are a breeding ground for inside jokes (especially if you’ve been sitting in the cold for a few hours).

See you all at AHS, Wise Traditions, or PFX13!

Black Belt Paleo

(Originally published March 26, 2012)

The ideas behind this post first started brewing during my conversations with Angelo Coppola of Latest In Paleo before and during PaleoFX12; in fact, Angelo used this very metaphor in one of his responses during the Community Outreach panel. I hope to extend the idea a little bit and give my take on it, because I think it’s really important for both newcomers and experienced paleo-dieters alike to understand that “paleo” is actually a moving target. Intriguingly, like many skilled endeavors stratified by belt levels, you may find that the final destination is ultimately not far off from the starting point, yet it is the journey itself—often circuitous and recondite—which proves to be the essence. I think the community’s experience with food in the context of the paleo diet has been like this as well.

In what follows, I’m going to use BJJ belt colors since I am most familiar with those and what they represent (well, I’m really only familiar with the white belt in practice). I hope to convince you by the end that the idea of having a paleo belt-level isn’t nearly as crazy as your parents and friends think you’ve become since your pizza had meat crust and your pasta was actually a squash. Let’s begin.

White: This is the belt of diet books, recipes, and faileo. You will say things like “But is it paleo?” or “OMG I just ate a bucket of macadamia nuts—that’s totally paleo right?” This is also the belt where you either get into the paleo spirit whole hog (by eating a whole hog) or decide that this is all a cult and fad diet and go back to living your miserable neolithic life.

Blue: This is the belt of superficial mastery. You join a forum like PaleoHacks or start participating in the comments on popular blogs, possibly after having started your own. Your grasp of broscience is beyond reproach and you enjoy being an iconoclast at work and other social events. You routinely school white-belt faileos with your no shampoo paleohack armbar supreme. You defend vegetarian arguments like you defend pathetic single-cow-leg takedown attempts. You declare yourself the ultimate caveman or cavewoman, and develop a disdain for crossfit. “Man, those guys are WODs of stress. I’m gonna go IF instead.”

Purple: This is the belt of Paleo 2.0. You declare macronutrient ratios dead. Long live micronutrients! You fill out your mineral deficiencies with super specific supplements (probably from NOW Foods because, well, “why the hell would anyone put weird shit in their supplements?”) and you up the ante with some safe starches. Maybe you even eat rice again. Holy crap, that’s a grain, right? White belts look at you suspiciously and try to take down your arguments (which you totally let them do to you because you don’t like wasting energy on rookies anymore). Yet these n00bs still inevitably find themselves in your perfidious crucifix choke within moments, ready to tap—but not until you’ve heightened the effect by whispering gently into their ear some findings from your own pubmed research (or as Angelo would say, “your own confirmation bias”).

Brown: This is the belt of questioning fundamental assumptions. You watch vegan propaganda and see how they tear down paleologic (although you note that their attempts at selling their own diet and lifestyle are piss poor—“Man, what’s wrong with these people? Oh, right”). You wonder whether Don Matesz was on to something, but then you remind yourself that Melissa McEwen and Kurt Harris totally pooed on him, so whatever right? No wait! You’re a brown belt now so you can think for yourself. You start to wonder whether grains weren’t so bad nutritionally after all—you realize that they’re often not. You start to wonder whether eating all this meat is good—you realize that it probably isn’t. You start to wonder whether diet even matters compared to lifestyle—you decide that the latter probably matters a lot more. You’re about to give up on the journey to become a black belt because you’re so disillusioned, but you have a lot of friends in the community now, so you can’t just forsake the paleo banner like that. Ironically, upon this zen realization, you are finally ready to graduate to the final belt, the black belt.

Black: This is the belt of n=1 and ancestral wellness. You secretly renounce paleo (and probably join the Weston A Price Foundation) when you realize that you are the unimpressive descendant of a vastly successful agricultural civilization, and not the finest male or female specimen to have ever walked the Earth (“screw epigenetics!”). You read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and realize that Lierre Keith may have been just a little too militant in The Vegetarian Myth after all. At this point, you know so much about food science, food ethics, and food policy that you can even predict what any given blogger is going to write about (“Three-part series, Paul? Nice try”). You reminisce about the days when you would clamor for Kurt Harris posts; yet now you know that the man only comments to kill. You find that you like him better this way anyway. You are one with your body’s reaction to food and you know all your n=1 reactions to every SKU sold at Whole Foods, but you don’t even go anymore because the farmers’ market is way better. You might still eat a bucket of macadamia nuts for fun, but this time you say, “OMG I just ate a bucket of macadmia nuts—HORMESIS, motherfscker! Oh and monounsaturated fatty acids too.” It’s the total conquest: you’ve clubbed paleo on the head, and taken her back to the cave. And all your paleo jokes are now hipster-level ironic. And meta. Very meta.

With your new-found power, you troll lower-level belts for fun.

White belts will try to quote some first-edition Robb Wolf at you, but you divest them of their talking points when you can point out Robb’s typos and errata by heart (“Robb totally needs a better editor”). You even tell them that you’ve touched the man and that you’ve been on email threads with him. “Just relax ok? You probably have cortisol issues from your low-carbing. Get your thyroid checked too while you’re at it.” White belts fall like flies around you. No effort there.

Blue belts are high off their own domination of white belts, and charge into you with confidence. That is, until you launch into a trenchant harangue about paleo re-enactors. With just a hint of vituperative burnish, you finish them off by pointing out that their no shampoo armbar supreme paleohack (or whatever it was) is actually dependent on ACV, which is “not paleo.” Damn, re-enactors are the worst. Blue belts fall to your feet and worship your every step.

Purple belts are more dangerous, but because of their familiarity they also know that you are much, much more dangerous, and so they show deference and are diffident in discourse. They know that Paul Jaminet totally laid the smackdown on pork recently, yet they know even more certainly that you’ve already read Ned Kock’s rebuttal and are probably even aware of the WAPF’s teachings on traditional pork consumption. So they don’t bring it up at all. Purple belts know that your PJJ is deep, and they do not mess with you.

Brown belts present a real threat. Your only edge now is experience. Their levels of paleo-lassitude and jaded-ness approach your own, and they’ll casually shrug off any jejune submission attempt you throw at them. You must be precise, and you must be perfect. You need something incontrovertible. You need n=1 and World Peace. You argue at a level way higher than they have internalized. You use phrases like “post-paleo” and “ancestral wellness” and fake frustration at your inability to reconcile certain aspects of modern technology with those inescapable and fundamental traits of Homo sapiens. Maybe you even wonder out loud what’s wrong with the community, and write posts about paleo belt levels. You are so Metta right now that you’ll probably change the topic to Ron Artest. Damn. Brown belts know they are dealing with a master.

But now, what about other black belts? You’ll know one when you see one. You will look into each others’ eyes, gauging the mutual depth of skill before combat. Both of you know how important this is, because every battle is decided before it is fought. Sun Tzu said that, by the way. But you know your opponent already noted that in her mind too. Of course she would.

Moments of silence go by. Intense, unforgiving silence. In the surrounding crowd there is the sound of a gurgling stomach, yet no one dares to tell the sorry wretch to get his freakin’ ketosis in check. The situation is very, very precarious right now. Beads of sweat form on your brows.

And then—at the exact same moment that the stress goes from acute to chronic—you both crack the faintest of smiles. The throng of lower-belted onlookers is absolutely bewildered: they expected a vicious fight to the death (and those that missed the live stream would have probably ordered the DVD afterwards). Yet there was no such clash, no such bout, and no such battle. It was just two people who walked away from the crowd, side by side, leaving their baffled spectators behind.

And finally, when you were both out of earshot, you started talking about something… fantastic—something… something completely unrelated to diet. You know, just like normal people. Normal, healthy, happy people.

Penurious Paleo Principle #1: Calories and Cooking

(Originally published March 29, 2012)

(My posts have been getting really long recently, so I thought I’d tighten things up and give you just the inchoate pith this time—without relenting on the GRE vocab smackdown, of course. “These words will fulminate with effrontery, a polemical welter of truculence that will apprise you of your impending opprobrium.” Right on.)

So recently, I extemporaneously prepared sweet potatoes in a new way and it reminded me that, although obvious in retrospect, different methods of cooking result in different amounts of usable calories and nutrients. Luckily, in our times of abundance, it probably matters little whether you are particularly efficient with your food, but this principle is good to remember if you ever find yourself in a particularly impecunious situation—or if you eat so many sweet potatoes that a 20% efficiency gain might actually save you hundreds of dollars over time. Who, me?

Ever since I started eating sweet potatoes as a staple (just over a year now), I’ve become inured to a single cooking method: namely, throwing a dozen or so sweet potatoes into the oven at 375 degrees for about 1.5 hours. This was a welcome improvement to my initial attempts in early 2011, when I would use the microwave; indeed, microwaving turned out to be the worst possible method, so don’t do that if you can help it. I even remember making a comment to a friend around the time I stopped that particular practice (not too long after I started it, that is), noting that microwaved sweet potatoes seemed “off” and indigestible. Accordingly, I haven’t used a microwave at all in recent memory, which is probably a marker for good food habits.

So what’s this new way of cooking that appears to render sweet potatoes more calorically available? Pressure cooking! It’s both faster and more energy efficient than boiling or baking, and only requires a little more preparation than usual. What I do is wash the sweet potatoes carefully and cut them into one-inch thick discs with the peel on, and then throw them into the pressure cooker with a bit of water and let it rock for about 5 minutes; I then let it sit for about 2 or 3 minutes before I dump the pressure with cold tap water. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about right now, I would do some cursory research on pressure cookers and learn the techniques. Very worthy investment, in my opinion.)

The only downside I’m aware of is that pressure cooking will nuke most nutrients, so it probably shouldn’t be used exclusively for all your meals. In fact, I would see it more as a complementary cooking technique than anything else. So if you need some tubers quick just for the calories, but don’t have the time to wait for them to bake, pressure cooking is totally the way to go!

2012 Season Update #1

(Originally published April 19, 2012)

It’s been a month since I first kicked off my 2012 season, so I thought I’d write down a few things and let you know how I’m doing. This would be my third full season with my own gear (previous seasons were Summer-Fall ’09, Spring-Fall ’10, and Spring-Fall ’11) and I can finally say with confidence that I’m an intermediate-level windsurfer now. Besides looking very legitimate in the photo below, I think a few things justify this qualification:

You can't tell from the photo, but it's actually blowing around 30 and this North Sails Duke 4.7 is wayyy too big! (Photo by Frances Shelley)
  • Wind Awareness: I can read the wind very effortlessly now, out to a reasonable distance. Gusts and holes are pretty obvious as they develop, and I can usually translate the wind into a mph number with decent accuracy. What separates me from the advanced sailors is that they appear to be able to see the wind out to a very long distance, and can judge or predict wind-patterns based on interactions in the vertical dimension as well. Kiters are better at this for obvious reasons.
  • Upwind Sailing: Staying upwind feels like second nature, and I’ve gotten pretty good at “downforce” or “mast-base pressure” sailing because my board and fin are so small (100L/22cm); there really is no other way to get upwind on that kind of setup. Upwind sailing is definitely a prerequisite for all other windsurfing skills since it allows you attempt more moves without worrying about losing ground downwind on wipeouts or waterstarts.
  • Early Planing: It helps that I’m light, but when others are on 8.0’s, I’m on a 5.4, and I still tend to plane earlier than they do. The 100L Skate is designed to give me that advantage, but if I may, I think skill has something to do with it. Due to the wind patterns at Lake Travis, I’m usually pumping to get on the plane in very light winds, and that has definitely helped my early planing technique in general.
  • Footstraps: I hardly ever think about getting in the footstraps anymore because it just happens naturally. I have mine set very wide and very forwards for freestyle, so I tend to be in them even in light winds.
  • Rig Awareness: I very rarely get catapulted anymore because I tend to sail underpowered, but also because I’ve “become one” with my rig. My only sail is a Maui Sails Global 5.4 and it sees me from 5 mph to 25 mph, so I’ve gotten to know it pretty well in a wide range of conditions. Just this past weekend, I sailed some much smaller North Sails in crazy conditions (30 gusting up to 40), and found the trimming process to be quite painless: the ability to jump on an entirely new rig and adjust to it fairly quickly is a good sign.
  • Waterstarting: Because I’ve crashed so many Vulcan attempts (see below), my waterstart has also become second nature. During the peak of the summer last year, I also practiced ultra-light wind (5mph) deep-ish beachstarts and that definitely helped my technique. I can usually waterstart my 5.4 in non-planing conditions with just the tiniest of gusts to pull my weight forward; I can then kick with the off-leg hard enough (sometimes multiple times) to get me on top of the board.
  • Backwind Sailing: The foundation of all modern freestyle moves, backwind sailing is under-appreciated in the wind community here in Austin. I’ve gotten to the point where I can sail leeward on the starboard side indefinitely, but I’m still having some difficulties on the port side. I’m making that one of my high-priority goals this season. Due to improved backwind sailing, I’ve started to hit fast tacks with pretty good consistency.

Beyond building that foundation, an intermediate qualification should also be judged by the number of maneuvers in one’s repertoire. I’ve of course been chasing the Vulcan as of last summer when I first got my advanced kit (100L Skate + 5.4). It wasn’t until Friday, 4/13/12, however, that I made a quantum leap in my understanding of the move (take that, Friday the 13th!). It was the first time I got a sweet nose slide and fell off backwards with but a soft thud. I can only describe the feeling as “the best two seconds of my life,” but once I understood the feeling, I could do it pretty consistently. That aspect of windsurfing never ceases to amaze me—for half a year I chased the first step of the Vulcan with no progress and just like that I can now do it consistently. How strange.

When I finally land the move, I’ll be sure to write up my tips for landing it. I guess I think of the techniques a bit differently than others: when I asked Randy at Worldwinds whether my intuitions were right, he said that he’d “never thought of it that way before, but that makes a lot of sense.” It’s probably a nice way of saying “you’re over-thinking it,” but for the other over-thinkers out there, I may be of service. This particular piece of the puzzle clicked for me after watching local freestyle hero Brian Miller land the move in my face about 40 times. Maybe I can give it a new angle that helps someone else who’s desperately trying to complete this rite of passage.

As a final note, I want to add that I’m thinking about going back to dual harness lines. I’ve used 28″ fixed monolines for an entire season now, and have been pretty happy with them; in fact, they are probably a big reason why my rig awareness has gotten so good. However, I feel that they are just a tad too twitchy when I’m pumping to get on the plane. I think traditional 28″ fixed harness lines set at just an inch or so apart would be perfect. I’ll report back when I make the switch.

Invisible Shoe Review

(Originally published April 28, 2012)

Despite first hearing about them in 2010, I had written off Invisible Shoe huaraches until I met Steven Sashen at PaleoFX this year. As I alluded to in my post on PaleoFX, sometimes putting a friendly face to the brand can irrationally kindle your interest in the wares themselves. It goes something like this: maybe their marketing didn’t particularly resonate with you, or you just didn’t see a need for the product, yet after you make that personal connection, you suddenly want to show your support—so you talk yourself into seeing the positives and start your search for reasons to justify a purchase.

If they're so invisible, then why do they show up in this picture? (Photo by May Peria)

Regardless of the process that went on in my head, I’m ultimately glad that I gave the Invisible Shoe a chance; nearly a month later, I think I’ve settled into my default shoe for the summer—and in Texas, that’s significant because Summer goes from April to October. If you ignore whatever emotional reasoning which may have gone into this purchase for a moment, I can tell you that a few real factors did precipitate the search for “a better shoe,” so read on.

This winter, I shelled out some big bucks for a pair of Vivobarefoot Ras that I’ve been very happy with. I was originally not sure about the color (“Red Brown”—and before you jump on me, the way better “Dark Brown” color was not offered at the time), but I quickly got used to them anyway. They basically fill the formality gap somewhere between “unacceptable” (VFFs, huaraches) and too dressy (Russell Moccasin Co or The Primal Professional). Although I took out the insole (leaving just 4mm between me and the ground), I still wear these with socks, so I wouldn’t consider them as minimal as VFFs. I’ve read online that some people just wear them without socks, but given that it’s kind of hard to undo the, erm, potentially negative effects, I’m not willing to try. Besides, these shoes get the most use when it’s cold outside, and so wearing socks is kind of necessary anyway.

As the temperature has been rising this past month (high 80s is Sprummer in Texas), flip-flops have been making a comeback. But there are a couple of things I dislike about flip-flops: first, despite my best attempts to find a minimalist flip-flip, the best I could do was the Old Navy generics with a completely flat sole; still, we are talking a good centimeter or more of cushioning. After spending a month in IS huarches, I can tell you that those flip-flops feel like pillows in contrast. Second, on a related note, I’ve noticed that flip-flops change my gait pretty significantly. I don’t know if this is because of the super cushioning or because of the lack of a heel-strap, but I don’t like the end result either way; indeed, after a month on huaraches, I wonder how I ever thought it was a good idea to wear flip-flops!

So that leaves VFFs. In accordance with trendy hipster contrarianism, I decided that it was time to become “post-VFF,” just as it had been time to embrace “post-paleo.” VFFs have had a great run (pun kind of intended), and everyone and their grandma now has a pair, but I definitely think that long-term, their niche will be in movnat-type activities or adventure sports. In my opinion, VFFs actually fall into an “uncanny valley” of being barefoot: if you could tolerate being barefoot on a hike or during movnat-type activities, wouldn’t you just not wear VFFs at all and skip the charades? I don’t know if it’s just me, but I certainly prefer to be barefoot unless there is something obviously antagonistic about the surface. Accordingly, whenever the surface isn’t too punishing (and those surfaces number more and more every day as my feet adapt), I find myself chucking the VFFs (did you catch the shoe pun?) and just going barefoot anyway. Oh, and let’s not forget the elephant in the room: VFFs are also plagued by the infamous “Vibram Stench” and extended use will result in the “Vibram Tan.” I’ve found that I wear mine less and less overall, for all these reasons.

Enter the Invisible Shoe. There is now a new version out with pre-made soles—that’s the one that I bought. In the old version, you paid for the privilege of cutting out a couple of soles with scissors, punching some holes in those soles, and threading a nylon lace. In the new version, you pay a little more for the extended privilege to punch a single hole in a pre-cut sole and thread the same nylon lace. And if you are silly like me, you will actually order one size too large, try to trim the sole, and ruin everything. You will then have to start over from scratch after re-ordering based on the right size. Now, one piece of advice for sizing that wasn’t clear to me until I actually had the soles in my hands: If your foot is just slightly larger than the size indicated (say, by less than 1/8 inch), you should still go with the smaller size because the soles are cut larger than the measurement. Another word of advice: try to punch the toe hole as close to your foot as possible. This is because your foot will want to transfer forwards, and the lace will get softer over time. It will feel tight in the beginning, but after a couple of miles you will find that your heel lines up perfectly with the back edge of the sole with no discomfort. If you punch the toe hole too far forwards, you will feel like you’re dragging your heels or always “sliding into” the lace. I would prefer an aligned heel (with respect the edge of the sole) over aligned toes.

Although I haven’t tried to run long distances on hard terrain yet, I’m sure that the shoe can do that, given all the testimonials from barefoot runners. From my perspective, however, I’ve simply used huaraches as a flip-flop replacement, and they’ve been fantastic at that. It takes five extra seconds to take them on and off (assuming you tied it with the minimalist pattern), and doesn’t leave unsightly tan lines whilst fixing the gait issue. If you get the 4mm Connect like I did, you’ll feel a lot of the ground as well, so it lives up to its “barefoot” claims. Oh, and while you’ve probably never gotten compliments on your flip-flops, you will definitely get some in these. In fact, it made me realize something that kind of scares me: girls look at my shoes almost immediately when they meet me or see me. I guess it’s really true what they say about girls and a man’s shoes!

Finally, to qualify my five-star rating, I’ll point out that the Invisible Shoe is not good at any of the following (do not ask me how I found these out):

  • Being manure-proof. You will definitely “Feel the World(tm)” if you assume they are.
  • Spelunking/caving
  • Hiking up or down large inclines/declines
  • Jumping (the forward transfer on the landing really hurts)
  • Anything involving intense lateral motion

In these cases, VFFs do win out, so don’t throw ’em out just yet—unless they smelled so bad that you didn’t even notice that your cat died because you thought the stench was “supposed to be there.”

Project Minimus: Part 1

(Originally published May 11, 2012)

After three years in Austin, it’s time to move on. I’ll probably write a more thorough retrospective after I actually leave, but for now, you should know that I’m packing my bags and hitting the road at the turn of July. And when that day comes, the culmination of events leading up to it will have been the true test of my minimalist philosophy.

I hold in my hands $15 in cash—the measly sum of money that Half Price Books paid me for about 20 tomes, five of which I probably wanted to keep. The funny thing is, I included in that lot (they make offers by the lot) a book called Drawing Expressive Portraits by Paul Leveille that I originally bought from them over a year ago for $8. Given that I got about 75 cents in return, I would say that their business model is sound. Also included in the forsaken lot were some Tolkien favorites, economics pop-literature (a la Malcolm Gladwell et al), useless books about perfume, and a few summer reading books dating all the way back to high school. All told, I would say that $15 felt extremely fair: I was hoping for $20, but I hadn’t taken into account the fact that no one would want those useless books about perfume and fragrance, so in a way I did end up getting what I expected.

In recent years, I’ve become interested in the notion of “Digital Nomadism”; it’s this idea that our desire to hoard, collect, and cultivate can be corralled onto a magnetic disk of bits and bytes and manifested virtually instead of physically. Indeed, with some modicum of care, those bits and bytes will outlast any other medium available to the average person today anyway, so the prospect is tempting. With these faculties at hand, could one shed the desire—although not necessarily the need (more on this later)—for all things material? There’s no point in pontificating or theorizing when the real-world test can be readily had by anyone who wishes to try.

A few years ago, I started out with a very literal take on minimalism: I thought that in order to be minimalist, one had to forsake as many physical goods as possible. Today, I see that as asceticism, which is something quite different altogether. Instead, my current-day version of minimalism extends only to the desire or emotional attachment to physical goods, not the need for or possession thereof. It’s not about constantly handicapping yourself with a lack of tools; rather, it’s about not feeling any twinge of remorse or attachment when it comes time to disassociate from them. And that time will eventually come for everyone for everything, so why fight it?

Yet I know from experience that leaving anything behind is easier said than done. Due to life circumstances, I am unfortunately better than the average person at dissociating: how many friends have I had to leave behind from moving so much as a child? How many favorite toys would not fit into those two suitcases? How many addresses would I have to not call home? How many identities would I have to reinvent and re-establish? No one gets good at any of that.

But things are different now in a significant way. I’ve already mentioned how Digital Nomadism is imminently feasible and how it may satisfy the urge to collect and maintain, but I think the evolution of the idea goes deeper than that. In the divesting of a cherished possession, after the reawakened memories, the sober appraisal, and finally the detached departure, comes lightness. But in any other world that didn’t embrace this kind of freedom, “lightness” would have been “grief.” So it is a lightness that is only possible from a fundamentally changed worldview, and which bubbles up from the deepest recesses of the psyche—a whisper to yourself that you no longer own these things, but more profoundly, that these things no longer own you.

Over the next couple of months, I’ll be documenting more of my experiences in what I’ve dubbed “Project Minimus.” If you liked the theme of this blog post, you’ll probably enjoy future posts as well, since I have a lot more to get rid of than just some books. Yet in a way, some of those books carried much more emotional baggage than anything else I plan on selling, all while having the least objective monetary value, so the cost of detachment was perhaps especially high in my first foray. Maybe it does get easier—only time will tell.

Project Minimus: Part 2

(Originally published June 22, 2012)

The daunting task of having to empty out my apartment in two weeks hit me like a ton of bricks on Monday. Even though I had known that this day would be coming since I handed in my 60-days notice 50 days ago, I had also done a very good job of blocking out this eventuality from my thoughts for as long as possible. Specifically, I used focusing on the GRE as a crutch to not have to deal with the impending exodus that was awaiting my apartment.

Well, the GRE came and went in about four hours this past Saturday, and after wallowing in my Asian-fail all Sunday (although this wallowing was particularly pleasant as I got to cook and eat with the coolest people in Austin), I woke up Monday with “Project Minimus” emblazoned on my calendar. The time had come to ruthlessly purge my apartment of wood and metal.

But first, a flashback: A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take the plunge and sell something on eBay for the first time. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I did what I would always do in such a situation—my best. I crafted an exquisite piece of copy and took the best photo I could and ended up selling my old wetsuit for a decent percentage of its original cost. This victory actually inspired quite a bit of confidence in me because I was able to overcome the anti-salesman devil on my shoulder, who kept trying to demoralize me by pointing out that the wetsuit had no value to me personally whatsoever and that, therefore, no one would want it. I’m glad I proved him wrong.

Hot on the heels of this success, I kicked off Monday by researching a few craigslist postings related to the items I was trying to sell to get an idea of how the market was pricing certain things. The one thing about my stuff that I knew would give me an inherent advantage was that I’ve been super gentle with all my possessions by nature—a quality that I’ve had ever since I was a child. Unfortunately, this tendency doesn’t seem to extend to my physical self; sadly, I have probably done more damage to my body in terms of injuries in the past three years than I have nicked or dented my furniture.

In any case, my basic strategy developed into identifying an item of similar quality that was already posted, asking the same price, but writing better copy and taking better photos so that I would get the sale over the other listing. I thought I was in for a lot of work, but man, does the average craigslist posting suck. Is it really that hard to take a decent photo, provide some links to product details, and write 10 grammatically correct sentences? The answer appears to be “yes.”

As proud as I am of my sales copy, I can’t claim victory just yet on my craigslist performance until the proverbial fat lady sings (she clearly needs to change her diet) and I’m swimming in Jacksons, so look forward to the thrilling conclusion of Project Minimus in a couple of weeks!

Project Minimus: T-Shirt Interlude

(Originally published June 24, 2012)

In trying to sort my clothes into “keep,” “donate,” and “trash,” I was taken aback by the fact that all those free t-shirts I had accumulated over the years carried quite a bit of latent emotional baggage. The weird thing is that I haven’t worn any of them since at least a year ago, when I turned into J.Crew’s favorite customer (although in my defense, I haven’t bought anything in months).

But these stupid t-shirts that don’t even fit—that never actually fit—somehow became more than just cheap cotton and shoddy permanent-press. They represented identities, events, accomplishments: a high school varsity affiliation, the first fraternity letters, the first internship, the second internship, fundraisers, volunteer events—thread after thread after thread.

Yet writing out the last two paragraphs actually led me to an epiphany. You see, one thing that has changed for me over the past year or two in Austin is that I’ve become much more comfortable with my own identity. These t-shirts that I had just been mulling over—they brought me back to a time when I was less certain about who I thought I was, and who I wanted others to see me as. It occurred to me that all these logos and letters have merely served as a crutch for a boy who needed someone else to tell others who he was.

And once I realized this, the “donate” and “trash” piles grew ever larger.

New Website, New Perspectives

(Originally published October 3, 2012)

For regular visitors of www.mohanzhang.com (of which there now remain one or two due to my extended hiatus), the website redesign comes as old news. When I originally decided to leave Austin, I envisioned a life of adventure and excitement abroad; ironically, I never got very far because the adventure and excitement was to be found in Austin all along. It’s still there, it seems.

I’m now spending some time with my family in NJ in what I call “Interlude 2012.” It is a period of about 60 days that I hope will be hyper-productive and which will allow me to come to terms with what all my new experiences mean to me. Conversely, it will also prepare me for the journey I’ve been dreaming of for a while now. The details and affect of my impending travels have changed over the years (especially over the past few months), but I doubt that the spirit has.

Relatedly, I’ve gotten many requests over the past few months to be better at staying in touch, and this has led to a dilemma. As you can see with the new website, the pendulum of privacy has swung in the other direction, and I’m no longer interested in sharing my past work and the details of my life with the Internet. Still, a contingent of you out there seem to insist that you want to hear about me (which continually baffles me, but maybe less so these days as I learn more about true and wonderful friendship from y’all), so I’ve been contemplating disseminating more personal writings (e.g. entries from a travel journal) via a newsletter, while keeping the blog up for more abstract or general things that may be of public interest.

Having a “personal newsletter” strikes me as something incredibly egotistical, but I’m thinking about it more as a large “To” and “Cc” list of email addresses that I would piece together manually anyway should I have wanted to share something of interest, so maybe it’s not that bad. In any case, I’m still thinking about the best way to go about this, and it will probably continue to be a work in progress beyond even the first mailing. I like email as a format and all your email addresses are cherished treasures, so in the event that I do start a newsletter, you’ll hear about it here, over a personal email invitation, or maybe even via a phone call. I also promise to do the format of email justice and to keep the frequency fresh and fair.

Until then, I hope you take a look at the new website and reach out to me in case we have a heretofore undiscovered mutual interest that we can talk about, and that you’ll continue to follow the blog, which will feature more general treatments of life, philosophy, research arcs, and the occasional attempt at comedy.

The First Newsletter

(Originally published December 1, 2012)

Behold! The long-awaited(-by-two-people) newsletter is finally here. Indeed, I did end up going back and forth quite a bit on whether it was really necessary to adopt a—it gives me pause every time I need to say this phrase—“personal newsletter,” but there were several factors that made this proposition more acceptable to me. I hope these reasons will be acceptable to you as well!

First, I finally deactivated Facebook after a several-months-long trial period of checking good ‘ol fb once a week. In the past couple of months, this organically turned into checking just once a month; and with every passing interval, I felt more and more that the feed was being polluted by people who I doubt would subscribe to this kind of newsletter, so that kind of made the decision more obvious. I also suspect I might have been incepted into doing this, and if that’s the case, you know who you are. Oh, and thank you!

Next, I discovered quite serendipitously the very perfect TinyLetter.com. This was after I had fiddled with a free MailChimp account and decided that it was overkill for what I needed. All the talk of marketing and spam filters made me lose the kind of mood required to sit down and write something of a personal nature, and instead just made me want to sell you viagra. For 80% off, nonetheless. (Ironically, TinyLetter is owned by MailChimp.)

Finally, it occurred to me that my recent prolonged hermitic withdrawal has resulted in an inability to make coherent, engaging sentences in real-life conversations, so after a socially awkward Thanksgiving, I’ve racked my brain long and hard for something interesting to say so that I can be prepared for Christmas, and I think I actually found a few things! So in order to convince you that you might be interested in subscribing to this newsletter after all, I offer you a preview below of what the first newsletter will be about.

In the first exciting edition of The Lonely Tree by the Sea, I will argue that there is a “right way” to plug in your MacBook/Pro that might positively affect your health. I know not everyone uses this expensive fashion accessory for their everyday computing, but the concepts I go into might be applicable to other laptops as well—certainly if they’re of the unibody design, and possibly if they are more traditionally assembled (and I’ll certainly confirm this by the time I send out the newsletter). In order to arrive at this answer, I’ll let you in on some personal experiments in earthing/grounding I’ve been conducting (ha, get it?), as well as how I made a DIY grounding device for ~$10 that does the same thing as the kind that sells for $50 online.

Yup, so that’s what awaits you this month as an early holiday gift. In general, I’ve decided that the newsletter will contain stories that are personal in nature, or that have general appeal amongst my friends. This blog will remain for specific topics that only a few will care about, mostly involving programming, esoteric theory, domain-specific linguistics, etc. I promise you I wouldn’t put anything in your inbox that I didn’t think you’d find interesting.

Oh, the link: http://tinyletter.com/mohanzhang. Thanks for reading!

The View from 2020

(Sunday, May 3, 2020)

Hi, Mohan from 2020 here, ready to be done with the copy-paste endurance challenge that was the assembly of this page. Well, that was certainly a lot of text. In retrospect, I wrote so much that year, it's probably the year I really solidified my writing voice.

Although certain turns of phrase and the occasional (okay, frequent) bravado are rather eyebrow-raising, I do read myself and hear a familiar voice and can tell I was taking risks as a way of finding where I needed to go as a writer.

Beyond this, I have no intention to judge any of these blog posts, other than to say that I'm grateful for having recorded these thoughts. Almost all of the writing I do these days is business writing, and it occurs to me that maybe I should start recording some of that as well for when it's 2030, so yeah, I'll see you then!