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Project AminOwings: We’re expecting a girl!


Here Project AminOwings is demonstrating impressive fetal balance — managing an intra-uterine headstand!

Sonal and I found out this morning that Project AminOwings will be a girl. She’s due August 7, 2009. Needless to say, we are excited (and nervous). To date, we’ve thought of no names. Any suggestions may be considered. We don’t plan on deciding for sure until she is born. This is to ensure that the name fits the face — what’s a Beatrice look like, anyway?

And names that start with “B” are highly unlikely to be chosen as there is no reason to put a kid through having initials “B.O.” Though had it been a boy, Albert Owings would have been a serious contender.

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Building and Defusing a Pork Bomb

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The “Bacon Explosion” is likely one of the most cooked (and craved) recipes to hit the Internet in recent months. Having created and eaten a variant of the “Pork Bomb” with my brothers a couple weeks back, I can attest to its tastiness.

The concept between the ‘splosion is simple: you’re taking a couple pounds of ground meat (pork, beef, or a mix) and slow-cooking it on a grill or smoker. Since plopping that much ground meat alone onto a bald grill would be prone to fall apart, you wrap the entire “loaf” with weaved bacon.

Of course, as good as ground meat wrapped in delicious bacon may be, why stop there? To make this “pork-wrapped torpedo” even more delectable, you mix into the meat additional ingredients. This can mean more crispy bacon bits, onions, bell peppers, cheese, seasonings, olives, whatever! BBQ rubs liberally applied to the outside and inside of the bomb are also key.

Our own take involved a 50/50 mix of ground beef and pork. Dry rub and bbq sauce was applied to the interior and exterior of the bomb. “Mix-ins” included green and red peppers, onions, and sharp cheddar cheese. Food and grill preparation took between thirty minutes and an hour. The cooking took around two hours (Rule of thumb is an hour per pound). Have plenty of beer handy for the duration. We served the dish sliced with romaine lettuce and sliced tomatoes. ProNovice-tip: We had to use a few toothpicks to hold our bacon wrap together as our bomb was so big, we needed extra bacon “stitches” to bridge a gap in our weave. Yes, our bomb was high-tech.

The result is a slice-able, bacon-infused, barbecue-seasoned mouth-pleasing monstrosity that you owe it to your taste buds to try.

Rather than add to the volumes of data out there on the nitty gritty details of making your own pork bomb / bacon explosion, I’m just going to provide the relevant links to get you started as well as a few pictures from our BBQ.

Thanks to my brother Nathan (BBQ Zombie) and brother-in-law Michael for their assistance in making the bacon explosion possible. We’ll be taking another crack at cooking one or two of these up this weekend in honor of both these guys turning 30!

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Thanks Nathan!

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Grind Skills: Mastering the Mundane of Everyday Life

The Grind — How much time do we spend on the routine grinds of everyday life? From “Nine to Five” we’re engrossed in tasks such as navigating software, Internet research or managing email. From work, we commute home to find household chores like cooking, cleaning or laundry (or kids!). Even leisure activities like catching up on favorite websites, finding a TV show to watch or finding a book to read can have unseen, tangential time-costs. Every day we spend an immense amount of time doing mundane things that, while necessary, are not necessarily enjoyable. They all amount to our grind.

We resign to performing these little duties because they must be done. Unfortunately, the day-in and day-out repetition of our grind habitualizes our inefficiency, thereby blinding us to the way we do things. Our daily grinds waste our time and we don’t even realize it.

Learning Grind Skills — Given the above obstacles, how do we go about mastering the mundane?

One way to hack our grind is by inquiring about how others do things. Of course, this approach is problematic for the same reason we fail to see our own inefficiencies — unless they have actively worked to improve their grind, our efficient friends and coworkers usually don’t realize their own efficiencies. Everyone assumes the way they do it is the way everyone else does it even as this is often not the case.

Okay, so what can you do?

Be more aware — Simply suspecting there might be a better way to do things, you’re more likely to catch an offhand comment or pick up on someone else’s behavior. From there, you can inquire further as to what they mean and/or what they are doing.

By way of example, fresh out of school, I worked in public accounting, which required hours of work navigating spreadsheets via Microsoft Excel. I knew a few of the most common “hot keys” like those for copying/pasting, saving, printing, etc. It was only when I overheard one colleague asking another how to do a particular spreadsheet task via a keyboard progression instead of using the mouse that I realized my understanding of Excel was rudimentary. Just this incremental understanding amounted to an Excel epiphany. I soon was adding more mouse-less spreadsheet mastery to my repertoire. Within a month I was amazing co-workers, people who considered themselves Excel gurus, at how quickly I could navigate and create a spreadsheet. My improvement was akin to typing 100 words per minute instead of the age-old “hunt and peck.”

Improved awareness heightens observation, thereby increasing the likelihood of accidental learning. The trick is in being aware of how you do things currently while acknowledging their might be better ways. From there, look for clues that others are accomplishing the same thing in a different manner. Be comfortable enough to inquire further, understand their methods and experiment with them on your own.

Amplify awareness through exposure — Surround yourself with competent individuals and observe how they do things. Expose yourself to people who think and act differently than you. This process can be uncomfortable if it breaks you away from your cocooned “routine.” Rather than be uncertain or fearful, look forward to the challenge of confronting the status quo. Exposure in conjunction with awareness can dramatically increase your chance of accidentally learning a revolutionary grind skill.

Practice — Mundane mastery can result from an excessive amount of experience. There’s only so much practice I plan to have folding laundry though, so this method of learning can have limited returns. However, for the tasks that you spend an enormous amount of time on, taking the time to investigate better ways to manage that grind should be a given. Learning these tried and true skills of mastery should then become your goal.

About laziness — Sometimes we know outright (or suspect) that there are better ways to do things but are too lazy to acquire these skills. I consider myself a lazy person, but even so, I have realized that the effort I put into learning a grind skill is a front-loaded cost that has monstrous long-term benefits. Just look at typing or even more basic — reading.

So what are some grind skills, anyway? — Stay tuned as I blog about the grind skills I’ve acquired such as staying on top of the blogosphere, email management and the aforementioned mastery of keyboard shortcuts (over reliance on a mouse) as applied to general software. If you can think of any grind skills you’d like to share, please comment or contact me.

There are more efficient ways to manage routine tasks, and if we can learn these “grind skills,” we can master the mundane and and find time where none before could be found.

Grind Skills Reading

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Snack Attack? Try Avocado and Sunflower Seeds.

avocado + sunflower seeds is so tasty!The picture to the right practically speaks for itself — a healthy, mouth-watering snack that is so delicious you could eat it for dessert: simply half an avocado filled with shelled sunflower seeds.

Preparation takes about 90 seconds. Take an avocado and slice it in half. Twist to separate the halves. Extract the pit (Carefully inject the knife tip into the pit and just twist). Take one half in hand and slice a grid into it. Finally, take shelled sunflower seeds (preferably salted) and pour them into the open “hole” left by the pit. Grab a spoon and enjoy!

The only variation to this snack I’ve seen (or tried) is to add a bit of hot sauce on top. I prefer it plain. It is hard to beat avocado and sunflower seeds — a tasty treat for its salty, crunchy, and creamy texture, satisfying to the last spoonful.

Below is listed some macro-nutritional information for the combo. I had to calculate this by cobbling together data from nutritiondata.com and calorieking.com (Assumes half an avocado and a tablespoon of sunflower seeds). As calculated, the macro-nutrient profile for this snack is:

  • 160 calories
  • 14.5 grams of fat
  • 8 grams of carbohydrates
  • 5.5 grams of dietary fiber
  • 3 grams of protein

The combination is fat-laden and low in carbohydrates if not a bit light on protein. The profile makes it a solid snack for insulin control. One note: most of the fat is of the polyunsaturated, omega-6 variety; however, if you’re eating a healthy diet*, there is little be concerned about in eating what essentially no more than a fruit and some seeds.

Avocado half with shelled sunflower seedsAdditionally, the avocado/sunflower seed combo is vitamin and mineral dense, packing a load of vitamins E, C, K, B6, as well as healthy doses of potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, selenium, and manganese (among other nutrients). How can you go wrong?

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Extra credit goes to the first person to try this with crispy bacon crumbles instead of shelled sunflower seeds. I take no blame if bacon mixes poorly with avocado as I have yet to try this variant out, but if it works, I’ll take all the glory. My gut tells me it would be awesome, but bacon and I go way back to my toddler years. So the story goes, I first encountered a cast iron skillet sans parental supervision, replete with cooled bacon grease when I was around three years old. I promptly slathered the grease all over my face, forever burning (figuratively) the bacon-y goodness into my brain.

The rest is history. I love bacon.

*My definition of a healthy diet is staying away from frankenfoods, sugary junk, vegetable oils and breads. To balance out our modern omega-6 heavy foods, I supplement with a bit of omega-3 rich fish oil. More on that subject here.

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But look at the view! John Hancock Tower Facing Foreclosure

One of Boston’s landmark buildings, the John Hancock Tower, is facing foreclosure. The current owner bought the tallest building in Boston (and all of New England) back in 2006, near the peak of the housing/commercial real estate dual bubbles, for $1.3 billion; however, current estimates put the I. M. Pei building’s value between $700 and $900 million. That’s nearly a 50% haircut on the low-end. Ouch!

I lived in Boston back from 2003 to 2004 while working in audit (AABS) for Ernst & Young. E&Y’s offices were then located in the Hancock (not sure if they are still there) at around the 40th floor. One Saturday while having to stop by the office to drop off some files, I brought along my Canon digital camera and took photos to construct a panorama. As you can see below, you get quite a view of downtown Boston forty stories up!

From Hancock Tower — Maximize your window to get the full view!

The Tower’s profile is a long and slender parallelogram. Combined with the reflective glass exterior, this made the building an enormous mirror. The 60-story Hancock Tower was the third John Hancock building, being built immediately across the street from the first two Hancock buildings. Thus, from a certain vantage point, the third building reflected the first two. You can see the top of the second Hancock building at the bottom right of the panorama above or in the picture to the left below.

Additionally, the building-as-mirror was meant to make it blend in with the sky. You get a slight feel for this in the shot to the right below.

No doubt I. M. Pei et. al were high-fiving on their sky-high mirror, which did make for a nice addition to the Boston skyline. This was even as some of the mirror-finished windows were occasionally falling out. During the brief time I had the (dis)pleasure of working in the Boston E&Y offices, I grew to dislike the functionality of this skinny building. The skinny layout looked pretty on the outside, but with conference rooms at either end of the parallelogram, one wrong turn out the elevator banks and you found yourself a long walk away from where you intended to go. The Hancock Tower is a great example of choosing form over function.

Finally, as it heads into auction on March 31, the Tower is just one more victim of the real estate bubble and crash — but look at that view!

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Confirmation Bias and the Internet

The internet is vast playground where every opinion is aired, fiction can masquerade as fact, and the answers to your most bizarre questions can be just a google search away. This abundance of cheap information and ideas is overwhelmingly positive even as there are latent problems.

One problem is that the internet can encourage and reinforce bias — like confirmation bias. According to wikipedia, confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.”

Thanks to Google, we can instantly seek out support for the most bizarre idea imaginable. If our initial search fails to turn up the results we want, we don’t give it a second thought, rather we just try out a different query and search again.

Armed with this power to search, it usually doesn’t take long to find someone or something that confirms our bias. If you happen to be a blogger or have a website, you can then reinforce your own bias by by writing on the subject and linking to the support you found!

To wit, one of the first things I did in writing this article was search for “confirmation bias” internet, which led me to a cached page and then a quote from a WaPo article titled The Year of Living Gloomily. The quote snappily nails my overarching point:

I’m sure some of these stories are true, or true enough to satisfy an editor somewhere, but there’s something else going on here: It’s what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” That’s the human tendency to seek out only facts that fit what we already know to be true while downplaying or ignoring contradictory evidence. As Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

People have always been prone to confirmation bias, but the Internet amplifies the phenomenon since we need not look far to confirm our particular bias. It’s always a click away.

By making the search for confirmation so easy — a mere “click away” — the internet rapidly exacerbates bias.

It happens just like that.

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(Expecting a) Happy Birthday to Me

Today is my 28th birthday — here are a few birthday reflections:

  • Changing when and what I eat over the past year (more on this topic here) while engaging in regular, intense exercise has changed my body composition. I actually weigh approximately the same as a year ago, but am carrying around considerably less fat and a lot more lean tissue.
  • As a result of improved eating habits and nutrition, I’ve gotten much better at cooking, particularly on my trusty cast iron skillet. Last night I made carnitas for the first time (Tweeted with pics 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9).
  • Thanks to Facebook, twitter, Linkedin, Mobog and my own site I’m (theoretically) better connected to my friends, family and network than I was a year ago. My Facebook “Wall” today has been absolutely bombarded with birthday wishes (Considerably moreso than a year ago — perhaps this chart hints at an explanation). Thank you all, even if you only knew it was my birthday because Facebook told you so!
  • My business continues onward despite an increasingly turbulent economy and frivolous litigation (Related).
  • Tragically, cancer took someone dear to my wife and me this past year.
  • I now have a nephew via my older brother.
  • And my wife and I are expecting our first kid to arrive in August 2009. I’m going to be a dad.
  • Do I feel any older? Not really. What I do feel is an increased tolerance for uncertainty. This peace despite life’s unpredictability is welcome (On stochasticity).
  • No matter what may come, I am optimistic about this next year of life.

Happy Birthday to me! Thanks for all your well wishes!

Update 5:35, Feb. 4: I had no idea that today was also Facebook’s Fifth “Birthday” (as much as a website can have a date of birth, anyway), and also something called Basecamp’s birthday, too. Maybe that is why Facebook greeted me with this odd message (odd coming from a computer/website):

Happy Birthday, Justin!

From all of us on The Facebook Team, have a great day!

Er . . . thanks Facebook!

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Follow me on Twitter

I have caved in to micro-blogging. I’m on Twitter, which I keep mis-typing as Twister (Brain fail). You can follow me at http://twitter.com/justinno.

I remember when I was first told about twitter a couple years ago by @MatthewKrivanek. At the time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would be willing to blog about the mini-events of their day-to-day lives. It seemed a bit vain. The name “twitter” put me off, too — after all, “twit” doesn’t have the greatest of connotations.

A long while later I stumbled upon Mobog, which is a photosharing site that users can link up to their cell phones either via MMS or email (I use the latter as I have a Blackberry Curve and unlimited data). Mobog made sense to me almost immediately as it took a tool most people have, cameraphones, and enables individuals to take snapshots of their lives. I used mobog a great deal when I was traveling in India. My family thought it was great because they could follow along with me on my travels as they were happening. That may not seem like a big deal, but traveling is an inherently spontaneous adventure, by live-blogging it with pictures, family/friends can vicariously travel with you. You can even ask them from around the world if they would like some item at a store you’re at (I.e. bangles in Baroda).

In short, live-blogging via photos has been a lot of fun. Twitter is simply live-blogging with words or photos (via twitpic.com).

You’re still not convinced? Why the fuss? And isn’t this vain?

The fuss is simple. Full-on blogging serves a purpose, but takes a more concerted effort of time and energy. The cost of traditional blogging is not insignificant. The cost of micro-blogging via services like mobog or twitter, on the other hand, is next-to-nothing. I can quickly fire off a photo with a 100 character blurb on a dish I just made. I can micro-blog a sentence on a movie I just watched. It’s simple to fire off an email (or SMS). Since the expectation (nay limitation) on twitter is 140 characters, you can blog life that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Really, much of life is the stuff of tweets, where you go, what you see, what you eat or do — the stuff that stretches between the big events and big ideas you can blog 500+ words on.

Micro-blogging fills in the space between, thereby capturing much of the stuff of life.

Is it vain? Maybe but it is useful vanity. It keeps you plugged into your friends. In a way, it encourages you to be more active and do more interesting things. After all, if you’re only tweeting “just watched tv” for the umpteenth time, it won’t be long before you realize that a) no one cares and b) your life is kinda boring (not that I don’t watch tv).

Of course, getting your friends and family plugged in and using a service like twitter isn’t easy. But twitter is free and simple to set up. So give it a try and see if you aren’t surprised to find yourself a little addicted to micro-blogging.

You can follow my latest tweets either on twitter.com or at this site’s home page.

Admin Note: Now that I have twitter set up, I might discontinue mobog as it seems a bit redundant. Just FYI if you see my mobog disappear.

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Revamped Home Page

Just an administrative note, I have re-vamped the home page of this site:

https://justinowings.com

In the process, I have killed my “Furl” page and eliminated the “Out & About” page, as the latter is sort of what I was going for on the index page, anyway. Now, my main index has considerably more purpose as it is serving as a map to the content on this site, as well as off-site content that you might (or might not!) enjoy. It contains a lot of what you’ll find in the sidebar to your right, but perhaps in a more user-friendly, grid format. Feedback is welcome!

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HFCS and Mercury, Food Processing Mysteries and Not Worrying About It

Just read an article discussing a recent study that found an association between mercury and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS, which is chemically just a smidge different than your run-of-the-mill table sugar, has been much-maligned in recent days being characterized as the reason Americans have such poor health. To combat this image, the corn industry has been raining down propaganda in the form of asinine commercials that browbeat apparently clueless HFCS-naysaying nincompoops by reinforcing that HFCS, like regular sugar, is natural (it’s made from corn!) and “fine in moderation” (Examples here and here). This HFCS propaganda has humorously spawned a number of youtube spoofs (See here, here and here). God bless the internet.

I won’t delve into this debate other than to say that sugar, HFCS, pure glucose, pure fructose or just sucrose, all have similar, blood-sugar and insulin-spiking effects, which may have drug-like consequences for the human body, and only offer raw energy (But no other nutrients). And one more thought: the appeal that “everything is okay in moderation” is little more than a meaningless justification for behavior, which due to its vague effectiveness at silencing criticism, actually leaves an otherwise meaningful debate worse off than before the “appeal to moderation” is made.

Back to the article. Here’s the gist of the study:

In the first study, researchers found detectable levels of mercury in nine of 20 samples of commercial HFCS. The study was published in current issue of Environmental Health.

In the second study, the agriculture group found that nearly one in three of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury. The chemical was most common in HFCS-containing dairy products, dressings and condiments.

The use of mercury-contaminated caustic soda in the production of HFCS is common. The contamination occurs when mercury cells are used to produce caustic soda.

The last two sentences are worth reading twice.

Caustic soda (Sodium hydroxide) is a chemical base (OH) used to effect various chemical reactions (often used in paper/textile industries). I don’t know the exact use of caustic to create HFCS from corn, but suffice to say that whatever magic is used requires a chemical base as an intermediate. Caustic soda is most commonly formed as a by-product of chlorine extraction from brine (salt water). There are various ways to separate the Chlorine (Cl) from brine, which leaves behind the NaOH, but one process of chlorine/caustic production involves using mercury cells (Notably, the word on the street is that mercury cell chlorine/caustic production technology is slowly being phased out). Apparently, some of this mercury is leaking into the HFCS, and thereby leaking into any foods that contain HFCS. Yikes.

However, all of the above is more than you need to know because the big takeaway is fairly elementary: HFCS is produced by man. It aint natural (appeal to nature)! HFCS has to be created via any number of chemical processes, one of which requires caustic soda, a chemical that may be contaminated with mercury, which may pass on to the HFCS. It’s complicated.

Cane and beet sugar require processing, too, though the processing seems less complicated and doesn’t require caustic soda (Though it does require chemical enzymes!).

So what does this mean and what should we do about it? Is HFCS the evil sweetener health-advocates love to hate? It certainly gets an extra strike against it for the mercury. Is cane/beet sugar better? Probably. Really, these questions are detractors from the bigger reality, which is twofold. The first is obvious: sugar is unhealthy (no matter the specific form). The second is that the production methods used to create processed foods can introduce harmful mystery ingredients. In short, processed foods are not natural.

Yes, the “natural” criticism is a tautology and a non sequitur. Processed foods aren’t inherently unhealthy and can often times be quite good for you (Coconut oil, red wine, extra virgin olive oil, vitamins). It would be silly to construct a diet that insists on totally abstaining from processed foods. When you get right down to it, even raw honey is processed by bees. Nutrition is much too complex for bright-line rules.

But that doesn’t stop us from creating them. As a rule-of-thumb, the farther a food gets from a virgin state, the more exposure it has to being modified in ways we don’t understand and can’t expect to know. Rather than spend countless hours getting comfortable with each and every processed food item and ingredient (And the processing these ingredients underwent ad infinitum), I can simply follow food preferences that minimize my exposure to the unknown.

In theory, by deferring to “natural” foods over produced foods, I should get so many nutrients and health-benefits from consuming nutrient-dense meats, fruits and vegetables that my body will be keyed to overcome whatever other junk manages to sneak into my diet (Chocolate, coffee, ice cream — little vices).

In practice, to the extent that it’s reasonable to do so, I already avoid HFCS and sugar. I do this by enjoying more natural, tasty and self-prepared meals over processed alternatives. Should I worry about the mercury that sneaks into the store-bought ice cream via the ubiquitous additive, high fructose corn syrup? Naah. If you maximize your health in simple ways, you get the by-product of minimizing the impact of the unknown — all without worrying about the nitty gritty details! So the big takeaway of this study? Stop worrying about HFCS and start preferring better, less processed foods! The rest will take care of itself.

Update 2:24 PM 1/28/09: Not surprisingly, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has released a statement to refute the above-cited study on mercury in HFCS. Here’s their side and a snippet:

?This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years. These mercury-free re-agents perform important functions, including adjusting pH balances,? stated Audrae Erickson, President, Corn Refiners Association. ?For more than 150 years, corn wet millers have been perfecting the process of refining corn to make safe ingredients for the American food supply.?

The CRA is their own worst enemy here. First off, “outdated information of dubious significance” is a pretty strong statement that is no way backed up by the rest of their press release. The study cited above used samples from 2005, which is recent enough for me to consider relevant.

I also found it odd to read how the CRA speaks for all corn refiners in saying “[o]ur industry has used mercury-free versions.” How do they know that? Do they strictly enforce that all corn refiners only buy caustic soda, a globally-produced commodity chemical, from non-mercury-cell producers? We aren’t told. What we are told is that the FDA has approved HFCS and that it uses re-agents for refining and refining has been going on for 150 years. Breath a sigh of relief!

I updated this post to include the CRA response to point out that there are powers that are out actively talking their books — that includes both the HFCS-cheerleaders and the anti-HFCS activists. Thankfully, us enlightened folk can rise above their lunacy.