Monthly Archives: March 2006


I had a discussion about nutrition with my brother yesterday. As often happens in a discussion about nutrition, he made reference to the scene in the Woody Allen movie Sleeper in which a character wakes up in the future and discovers that nutritionists think that steak and ice cream is good for you, while health food should be avoided.

I’ve never seen Sleeper but everyone who talks about nutrition seems to know about that scene. It’s usually brought up as an example of how today’s nutrition advice will probably be the opposite of tomorrow’s. I don’t buy it.

Consider the following nutrition advice that hasn’t changed for as long as nutrition has been studied scientifically:

  • Too much or too little of any nutrient is dangerous. Too few calories and you starve, too many and you become obese. The same is true for salt, carbs, vitamins, water, oxygen… you name it. But in most cases it’s safe to give advice in one direction (“drink lots of water”) because the opposite is hard to do.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Exactly what that means is up to debate, but if you eat the same foods every day, there’s a good chance that you’re missing some valuable nutrient.
  • Don’t consume more calories than you use.
  • Eat high-calorie foods in moderation. Which follows straight from the advice above, unless you happen to be trekking across Antarctica.
  • Eat more fruits and veggies. It’s theoretically possible to eat too much, but it’s hard to do.

30 years after Sleeper, red meat and ice cream (high-calorie foods) are still bad for you. Fruits and vegetables are still good for you. And only the proponents of fad diets have ever said otherwise. Not just that, but nearly everyone can acheive their nutritional goals just by watching calories and eating lots of veggies.

The reason this is a pet peeve of mine is that it is indicative of people’s perceptions of science. The science hasn’t changed much in 50 years. We now know more about why veggies are good and we’ve discovered that some fats are better for you than others. But people seem to think it reverses every year. Why is that? I have some ideas:

  • The media often can’t tell a wacky hypothesis from established science. I’ll probably get back to that in a later blog entry.
  • Balance is too complicated. People want to hear that a certain food is good or bad, not hear about how much is too much or too little.
  • Science is complicated. Is red wine good for you, or bad for you? Both: it’s been proven to do good things and bad things. And the right advice depends on how likely you are to suffer from anything from heart disease to alcoholism.
  • People don’t want to hear the truth. If you think ice cream might turn out to be good for you tomorrow, you can allow yourself to eat it today.
  • It’s a cat-and-mouse game between diets and food manufacturers. This is true for fad diets as well as real science. Low-fat diets worked because people switched from snacking on cookies and potato chips to carrots. The industry response? New Rolled Gold Pretzels are fat free! The low-carb fad started, and the food industry found ways to create technically low-carb snack foods. Both were secretly restricted-calorie diets, (even ice cream gets boring) until loopholes where discovered. The same thing is happening now with trans-fats: scientists knew that people were consuming too much saturated fat, so everyone switched from butter to margarine. Not that scientists knew that the trans-fats in margarine were any better…

There’s a reason why they call it the bleeding edge

At work, I’ve been using the same computer since I joined the company in January 2002. Being in full low-budget mode, they gave me the cheapest desktop money could buy. Usually a programmer’s desktop is slightly beefier than the target platform, so that it can comfortably pretend be the target computer while simultaneously running all the programming programs. Mine has aways been significantly slower.

So I’ve been petitioning for a new computer. One that can simultaneously run my increasingly taxing development software while pretending to be a network of servers. We agreed that once I’d finished a crucial project, I’d get a new machine. A really fancy machine.

I’ve owned mostly Macs and Amigas, and my experience with mainstream PCs has usually been negative. Once you get a PC that mostly works, it’s fine. Just don’t upgrade it or use a weird keyboard, operating system, or hard disk. Whereas Macs and other custom systems have one company in charge of everything, PCs consist of dozens of components slapped together with nobody in charge of overall quality. (Microsoft works around Intel, Intel tries to work around Microsoft, the memory manufacturers don’t talk to the disk manufacturers, etc.) In theory Dell, Gateway, and Lenovo should be in charge, since they sell you the machine, but they have the luxury of being able to blame Intel and Microsoft– or others– for a variety of woes. In contrast, if something goes wrong with a Mac, Apple gets the blame, period.
In January I got a build-to-order dual-core Athalon with the latest fast disk drives and four gigabytes of memory. It’s getting returned today because I haven’t gone more than a day without it crashing on me. Among the issues I’ve discovered:

  • The motherboard didn’t like the hard disks. It turns out that the manufacturer fixed this, and we installed a patch.
  • The AMD Athalon processors crash when they send too many zeroes all at once to the memory chips. Mind you, the whole point of the processor– and digital computers in general– is to send zeroes and ones here and there. You’d think this would be unacceptable. But it’s a known bug, and it’s been around for over a year. The only reason it’s not more of a problem is that most of the time the computer gets delayed or interrupted before it can transmit a trillion zeroes in a row. The more inefficient the rest of the computer, the more likely it is to get interrupted. But since I was running the latest versions of Linux (instead of Microsoft Windows) with vast amounts of memory (which is initially all zeroes) I hit this frequently.

Dan (the system administrator) installed the latest version of Ubuntu Linux, and ran it in 32-bit mode (instead of the bleeding-edge 64 bit mode.) This made it just inefficient enough that we’d be less likely to run into the Athalon bug.

After over a week of back-and-forth between Dan and the store that built the computer, I finally got it back. My first test was to install my home directory from the old machine (backed up to DVD) onto the new machine.

It crashed before it could finish copying my files. I don’t know why or how, but that’s one too many problems. It passes all the tests that General Nanosystems (the local company which built it) could throw at it. But they didn’t try writing all zeroes. Nor did they try sitting down and using it as a programmer’s desktop. And the latter is what I need it to be capable of handling.
So I’m back to my four-year-old $500 computer. When he gets the chance, Dan is going to very carefully spec out a new machine for me. There’s a good chance it will be a server in a desktop’s body, rather than a ultra-high-end gaming machine with mediocre graphics and sound. Which means that, on paper, it will be very similar, but with parts that cost twice as much to do the same thing. But those parts will be at the low end of what’s used in $1000-$10,000 machines, rather than the high end of what’s used in $500-$2000 machines that people don’t mind rebooting all the time.

Maple Syrup: back breaking work

My family has been making maple syrup since I was in grade school from the three maple trees in their suburban yard. Despite what people think, it’s easy to do, even in an urban environment, and any maple tree will do– including the giant silver maples which tower over many houses in Minneapolis.

I’ve never thought of making maple syrup as back breaking work until now. It’s mainly just boiling sap. My parents are out of town, and we’re house-sitting for them. We just started boiling today, and the sap has been collecting since Saturday. One of the trees has sap collecting into a big plastic tub. I’ve filled my (8-gallon?) bucket twice, and there’s at least another bucket’s worth still in there. Another tree had exactly one bucket’s worth, and the third tree had a full 10-gallon bucket under it, which I brought inside as is. The hardest part was lifting the tub to pour into the bucket.

Now I have to boil down the sap fast enough to keep ahead of the trees. We’ve been having perfect sap weather, and I’m guessing we are getting about ten gallons of sap per day. Since Jordan is pregnant (and has a bad back to begin with) I’ll be doing all the heavy lifting. But the payoff is sweet.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. But at this rate, that’s a lot of syrup.

First Post!

I’ve finally done it. I’ve started a blog. Why? Because my news page is now a two years out of date. I’d sort of moved news to my daughter’s photo page– at least photogenic news. (Most of which is: look how cute my baby is!)

The theory is that with a blog it will be easy enough to post that I can write quick things as they come to mind, which is better than writing nothing at all.