Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Just finished reading Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. I originally heard about this book via NPR and was curious enough to add it to my Amazon wish list. I’ve blogged on traffic/driving before. See autodogmatic:

Two of the above blog posts referred to studies that are mentioned in Traffic. “Anarchy” is frequently alluded to by Vanderbilt, as well, even as it is disclaimed — likely because Vanderbilt is using “anarchy” to mean chaotic rather than anarchy-as-spontaneous-order. The latter understanding (that anarchy-as-spontaneous-order reigns on the roads) is hard to ignore.

Rather than rewrite my own review, I’ll echo one of the top-reviews on amazon:

While the topic of the book is nominally “traffic”, the real topic is about human psychology and how it deals with the situations involving traffic. The material is chock full of “things that make you go, ‘hmm.'”

In spite of being intriguing, the information the author conveys is rarely useful information. The reader will likely be left unmoved by the author’s reasoned advocacy of late merging, for instance. Similarly, the style of writing feels like that of a news or talk show, where the announcer/host will “tease” an interesting bit of info, run a commercial, discuss things about which you don’t care, run another commercial, and then, in the last 2 minutes of air time, give you the anticlimactic answer to the story headline you found interesting enough to make you sit and watch.

Unfortunately, most of the book is like this, and the cool things that the author has to say are just that. Cool, but not quite meriting a book. Of the book’s 400 pages, nearly 100 are end notes. I am happy that the author’s work is well-sourced (books of this genre often lack sources, preferring to rely on anecdotes), but it conveys how the author had to work fairly hard to turn a very large set of disjointed facts into any sort of readable narrative.

The book wasn’t as gripping or insightful as I was hoping it would be. It wasn’t bad — just not a fun read. I think it could have been condensed to only 200 pages max (it was 286 readable — probably another 100 of biblio). One tidbit I learned that I’ll share is that people have historically gravitated to an average commute time of about 30 minutes. This time has made for different city sizes from days when people walked everywhere and cities typically had no larger than a five mile diameter to modern days when people drive many miles into and out of a city on their daily commute via fast-paced highways.

Interesting trivia, for sure — good reading? Ehhhh …

Understanding Bodyweight and Glycogen Depletion

Quick take — If you diet or are planning to start a diet, understanding the relationship between bodyweight and glycogen (Glycogen is carbohydrates as stored by your body) depletion is paramount.

Your body stores energy as fat and glycogen. Whereas fat stores can vary dramatically from person to person, your body can only store so much energy as glycogen.

Glycogen requires water to be stored. In the initial stages of diet/caloric restriction and exercise, your body depletes these glycogen stores, reducing your bodyweight from the elimination of both the weight of the stored glycogen and the weight of the water. Note that nowhere in this process is the much-desired loss of fat!

Thus, even as it will feel good to shed 5 – 10 lbs. simply from a few days of exercise mixed with a caloric-restricted diet, the weight loss will be primarily from a reduction in glycogen stores and water. In other words, what you’ll have lost in the beginning is really little more than water weight.

Take heart in understanding the relationship between glycogen stores and bodyweight as an improved understanding will help you set realistic expectations on whatever diet or exercise regiment you are undertaking in 2009.

A deeper dive:

I first learned about the relationship between stored carbohydrates and water retention from Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. The gist is that for every gram of stored carbohydrate (Stored as glycogen) in your body, there is a set amount of additional water storage that is required.

Taubes had pinned the carb/water storage ratio at two grams of water per one gram of carbohydrate. A random Googled source (Vitanet) pins it at 2.7 gram water per gram of glycogen. I found a research paper titled, Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition, which offers the following data on the ratio:

Glycogen is stored in the liver, muscles, and fat cells in hydrated form (three to four parts water) associated with potassium (0.45 mmol K/g glycogen). . . .

Glycogen losses or gains are reported to be associated with an additional three to four parts water, so that as much as 5 kg weight change might not be associated with any fat loss.

Lyle McDonald of Body Recomposition has also weighed in on this subject:

Carbohydrate (stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen) is accompanied by a good bit of water. For every gram of glycogen stored, you store anywhere from 3-4 grams of water with it.

How does this relationship affect bodyweight? In short, diet and exercise will deplete glycogen stores. If your diet is working, the depletion will occur early and have a significant impact on your bodyweight without impacting a permanent change in your body composition.

Let’s take me as an example. I estimate that I have around 155 – 160 pounds of lean tissue. Tack on another 12 – 17 pounds of fat. After a week or two of being on a low-carbohydrate diet that involves intermittent fasting and plenty of exercise (see here), my liver and muscle glycogen stores will be completely depleted. I’ll weigh about 172.

If I go on to eat a bunch of carbohydrates — cookies, pretzels, breads, fruits and other starchy foods (by eating a bunch, I mean consuming something on the order of 1000 grams of carbohydrates over the course of 24 hours, which is about 4000 calories), I will fully replenish my glycogen stores. In the process of replenishment, the 1000 grams of carbohydrates will require anywhere from 3000 to 4000 grams of water for storage! Converting from grams to pounds, the impact on my bodyweight should be an increase of 9 to 11 pounds, taking my weight up to 183*! Of course, the same change would happen in reverse: re-depleting glycogen stores would drop my weigh back to the low 170s.

Mike over at the IF life alluded to this fact in three bullets back on his Trainer Tells All post:

Muscle size is mostly glycogen and water . . . I can go up and down 10lbs in a week easily depending on glycogen and water balance . . . The first big amount of lbs you lose in the first week dieting is mostly water

Mike’s anecdotal experience is explained by the storage ratio between glycogen and water. What it means is that in the early stages of a diet, the magical drop in bodyweight will be mostly water weight.

Another implication of the water/glycogen relationship on bodyweight is that whereas the first 4000 calorie deficit you create will reduce your weight some ten pounds, the next 4000 calorie deficit is likely only going to reduce your bodyweight a paltry two pounds! This is because a pound of fat stores 3500 calories and requires about a pound of water for storage. Thus, the initial weight-loss will seem easy compared to the drudging continued weight-loss when you’re actually burning stored fat.

Failing to understand what is going on with glycogen stores and water retention will set yourself up for a shock when you inevitably “fall off the wagon” — even if the “fall” is only for a day or two of heavy-carb or more “normal” eating.

Understanding the impact of glycogen depletion/repletion on bodyweight is just one more reason why merely weighing yourself on a scale provides a poor indication of your body composition. You’re better served by taking some physical measurements (waist size, for example). Or even better, take some periodic camera phone self-portraits — over time, you should be able to compare them and get a great feel for your progress (or lack thereof).

* I’ve witnessed this fluctuation on numerous occasions over the past year, but I didn’t quite fully understand it until today. You see, I was fully glycogen depleted going into New Year’s Eve. I proceeded to go on a pre-planned “refeed” (that just happpened to coincide with NYE, of course!). The refeed involved eating plenty of pretzels, chips, breads, fruits, cookies, cereal, donuts, etc. Some incredibly unhealthy, albeit tasty, foods. I also drank a good bit of Pinot Noir NYE, which is the opposite of what you should do if you are re-feeding in that your body will be needing water and alcohol will dehydrate you past certain levels of intake. Anyway, after a 24 hour refeed, my bodyweight went from 172 to 184. Hard to believe unless you understand what is going on. And this kind of fluctuation would be entirely disheartening to the ignorant dieter who might feel they just blew their diet in one day! As it is, I expect I’ll be back in the low 170s within five days after I do a fast and get two or three workouts in.

Further reading:

Demian by Herman Hesse

Demian by Herman Hesse

Just read Demian by Herman Hesse (buy at amazon). The book is a fictional first-person account of a German youth named Sinclair who is going through a period of awakening/enlightenment, working through issues of good and evil, at the hands of certain mentors (Max Demian throughout, Demian’s mom ultimately).

The book is about 170 pages. It has a mysterious quality to it, and I imagine there are some underlying ideas that I completely missed. The big takeaway to me was that there are those people who examine their lives, live with a self-driven purpose and exist apart from the “herd” and then there’s everyone else. Demian, Sinclair, et. al. seek their own purpose, which is a higher road than the herd. As for tangible philosophical ideas, the book came up short for me. Wasn’t an unpleasant read even still, but then again, if you’re a pretty individualistic person, you’ll find you agree with the general premise of this book — so what’s not to like?

Probably a good read for a 16 year old struggling with the idiocy of high school popularity contests.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Started this book on my flight back from India to the States. It’s not a long read, but it took me awhile to plow through it. I think it’d be a fun book to read for a young kid, but as an adult, it just seemed dated and a bit too “aw shucks” to me (There are a lot of old fifties-ish expressions in the book).

One aspect of this book I enjoyed was that it did paint a nice picture of a time (October/fall/Halloween) and a place (small town).

Definitely no Fahrenheit 451. Get it for your kids (if you have any looking for a fun Halloween-ish book to read).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Finally finished Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy:



Foundation and Empire

Second Foundation

Overall, a pretty disappointing trilogy given all the hype about it. I just don’t get into the whole “psycho-historian” thing — predicting the future is all but impossible when the future is tomorrow — much less when the future is hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Contrarian advice on passion

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs on passion:

The answer (aside from the fact that they’re still employed) is because they are blissfully sheltered from the worst advice in the world. I refer, of course, to those preposterous platitudes lining the hallways of corporate America, extolling virtues like “Teamwork,” “Determination” and “Efficiency.” You’ve seen them–saccharine-sweet pieces of schmaltzy sentiment, oozing down from snow capped mountains, crashing waterfalls and impossible rainbows. In particular, I’m thinking of a specific piece of nonsense that implores in earnest italics, to always, always … Follow Your Passion!

In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s clich?, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.

Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.

Rowe is certainly on to something here. This passage is evocative of a meme that has been expressed by Richard on passion vs. excellence, Art on modern life, Twight on uncertainty and Art/me on the stochasticity of life.

What I take from Rowe, Richard, Art and Twight (and Nassim Taleb) is that life is random and complex. This stochastic complexity is difficult to predict and nearly impossible to control. The notion that there is some string of events that must occur in a perfect, precise order to have a fulfilling life is nonsense. There is no perfect job, friend, spouse or life, so stop the futile search — it is vanity. Rather spend your energy enjoying the job, friends, spouse and life that you have.

What is your passion? Why waste time asking an answer-less question?

Get on with enjoying life.

Free the Animal banner

I just finished up a project for Richard Nikoley, friend and founder of Free the Animal. Richard had commissioned me to create a banner for his site, and after hashing out the concepts, I worked on putting together a design.

Here’s the final product:

Some of the ideas the banner is intended to convey are:

  • Man as a self-reliant, rugged individual — a hunter — evolutionarily designed over the eons.
  • That a man’s health is dependent upon his understanding the nature of his genes and putting that knowledge to practical work in a modern age, an age that is drastically different from the gross majority of man’s biological existence on this planet.
  • Human beings are a dominant, independent species, one meant to be free.

Many of these ideas weren’t spoken when Richard asked me to do this design — that is because many of them were already understood. One thing Richard talks little about these days on FtA is his philosophical stance, which centers heavily around an understanding of human beings.

Human beings are intelligent animals. Our intelligence sets us above all other species, but it also enables us to reflect introspectively about our place with regard to the planet and to each other. Such reflection inescapably leads to an understanding that man should be free, both unbound by other men and unwilling to forcibly control his fellow man*. Moral implications aside, it’s this introspection on our nature that leads us to understand how we should approach our health.

Modern man (post-agriculture) has existed for only a handful of millenia, whereas we were evolutionarily designed over some two million years (To say nothing of the millions of years of evolution that occurred prior to homo sapiens). Evolution gave us genes that function best under certain conditions. It’s reasonable to assert that those prehistoric conditions involved a certain amount of activity (i.e. hunting, gathering, play), some amount of scarcity (inability to find food leading to periodic bouts of famine) and substantially limited agricultural technology. How these inputs and constraints molded our genes is a fundamental question worth asking. Free the Animal tackles this question for the purpose of living optimally, as modern men with ancient genes.

“Free the Animal” is a motto. And Richard is expanding on what it means to free the animal his site. Be sure to check it out!

* Except in cases where force is required to defend himself or his property.

Strange dream coincidence (Huge moon)

I’m not very good at remembering my dreams. And even when I do remember my dreams, I usually don’t tell them to others or write about them. This isn’t because I think dreams are meant to be private, rather I just doubt anyone would find the random musings of my subconscious mind interesting.

So bear with me.

You may have noticed recently two bright spots in the sky — they are Venus and Jupiter. I’ve enjoyed seeing them floating out there, reminding me how vast our own solar system is.

For some reason, last night I dreamed that Venus was looming huge in the night sky — visible like the moon, but even bigger, maybe even 5 – 10x the size of the moon. It was a bit frightening (seemed awfully apocalyptic to see a planet so close to the earth) even as I justified its nearness in my dream by thinking, “It’s just in a closer orbit — totally normal.”

The punchline is that tonight the moon will be just about as close to the Earth as it ever gets in its orbit. Here’s an article on the event:

On 12 December, the Moon will enter its full phase, when its disc appears completely illuminated by the Sun, just four hours after reaching its closest point to Earth. This will make it 14% bigger and 30% brighter than other full Moons in 2008, though the difference will be hard to distinguish by eye (see the difference in the full Moon’s size in 2004).

It will be eight years before the Moon appears so big again. “This evening’s Moon is not only the largest for 2008 but also during the period 1993-2016,” says Anthony Ayiomamitis, who lives in Greece.

Just a coincidence, it still struck me as odd.

Our minds are funny.

Sugar on the brain

Is sugar another addictive white powder?

A recent study suggests sugar may be addictive. Below are parts of the U.S. News article summarizing the experiment and interpretation of the findings. I suggest reading them all:

“Our evidence from an animal model suggests that bingeing on sugar can act in the brain in ways very similar to drugs of abuse,” [said] lead researcher Bart Hoebel . . .

“Drinking large amounts of sugar water when hungry can cause behavioral changes and even neurochemical changes in the brain which resemble changes that are produced when animals or people take substances of abuse. These animals show signs of withdrawal and even long-lasting effects that might resemble craving,” . . .

A “sugar addiction” may even act as a “gateway” to later abuse of drugs such as alcohol . . .

For the new research, rats were denied food for 12 hours a day, then were given access to food and sugar (25 percent glucose and 10 percent sucrose, similar to a soft drink) for 12 hours a day, for three to four weeks.

The bingeing released a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine each time in the part of the brain involved in reward, the nucleus accumbens. “It’s been known that drugs of abuse release or increase the levels of dopamine in that part of the brain,” Hoebel said.

But it wasn’t only the sugar that caused this effect, Hoebel explained — it was the sugar combined with the alternating schedule of deprivation and largesse. . . .

But longer periods of abstinence didn’t “cure” the rats. Instead, there were long-lasting effects with the animals: They ingested more sugar than before, as if they were craving the substance and, without sugar, they drank more alcohol.

My anecdotal experience confirms the above findings. For one, the more I have abstained from sugar and refined carbohydrates (the latter of which are one tiny step away from being sugar), the easier it has become to strictly avoid sugar/carbohydrate-dense foods. This suggests to me that the addiction can be controlled by almost completely abstaining from the “drug,” sugar in this case.

Of note, however, is that in those instances when I have fallen off the wagon* and started eating sugar/refined carbs, I tend to overeat/binge. Is this the behavior of an addict? Or is it the psychological response to the forbidden fruit? Or is it a predictable response of treating a diet like a binary system? I.e. going from strict adherence to the diet to “Well I already ate that candy, might as well have some ice cream, too!” Any of these are plausible explanations for my behavior.

The alcohol angle is fascinating: I’ve experienced a clear connection between alcohol and carbohydrate-binge-eating. As before, I am unclear how the alcohol is catalyzing my reaction — is it that alcohol impairs my judgment, handicapping my will power? Or could it be more fundamentally metabolic — the alcohol spurs a chemical reaction resulting in craving sugar/refined carbohydrates? Why do I go from having little-to-no craving for French fries and tator tots to no-holds-barred “pass the ketchup now!” after downing three or four beers.

I have previously blogged on how hard liquor has zero carbohydrates. I’ve since learned that hard liquor (i.e. whiskey) will cause an insulin response even though there are no carbohydrates in the alcohol. Could insulin have something to do with this#?

This study, rather than confirming something I’ve suspected about the addictive nature of sugar, leaves me with more questions than answers. Is modern man doomed to be addicted to sugar? Is sugar addiction similar to alcoholism in that the only successful means to control the addiction is to avoid entirely the addictive substance? Can abstaining from sugar/refined carbohydrates make the addiction worse? Is sugar a poison that should be taken in small doses to control its ill-affects (A particularly strange notion)?

It seems there are more questions than answers. However, I maintain that sugar in any close-to-raw form is unnatural, which means that our evolutionarily designed bodies are inept at handling it. And it seems reasonable to conclude that, even if I tend to overeat refined carbohydrates when I do consume them, over the long-term, I’m still drastically reducing my intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates by maintaining a lifestyle focused on a low-carbohydrate, natural diet mixed with intermittent fasting.

* How often have you heard the phrase “fallen off the wagon” to describe failure at dieting? I hear it all the time (and use it). Probably just a coincidence, this phrase originates in alcoholism. Here we have a study that paints sugar as being similar to alcohol in its addictive characteristics.

# I can’t help but wonder if insulin is the culprit behind addiction to both alcohol and sugar. Has anyone looked into this?

Google Friend Connect

Just installed Google Friend Connect, which is a social networking application from Google (Hat tip to Feed Growth). I wasn’t entirely sure what I could use it for, but it allows you to become a member of my site.

And why would you want to do that? For one, a member can comment on my little sidebar wall, which I encourage any of you to do. Any feedback on the site is appreciated or you can just say “hi!” Also, there’s no real “sign up” to become a member — particularly for all you gmail users, but also for some others too (I.e. open id).

Blogging to a silent audience is oh so lonely! Join up and show your support!

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