Monday, August 29, 2011

Kettle bells & beans

16 KG Kettle Bell

Should someone ask what I use to stay healthy, that would be my answer - kettle bells & beans.

I've been doing the "slow carb" thing for over 6 months now, and it's going really well. Cut processed carbohydrates, sugars, and oils out of my diet, and I'm feeling great. I don't do a full-on "cheat day" as such, but rather I just relax my standards a bit on weekends. For example, I might eat "regular" meals on Saturday, and indulge in some cake, ice-cream, chocolate, or whatever else takes my fancy, but won't go out of my way to seek it out. I'll gain 1-1.5Kg in the process, mostly water retention. Then on Sunday I try to keep to slow carbs, but yesterday for example I had a couple of cupcakes, a little bit of chocolate, and 5 beers... this morning I'd lost 0.5Kg. So I'm not entirely convinced of the whole "don't drink carbs" thing, as personally I don't notice any observable weight gain from beer alone, but will see significant spikes from carbs & sugars.

Anyway, I've also been working on my kettle bell swings. I started out with a 20Kg unit, 75 reps broken up into multiple sets. At first the max. reps I'd do in a set was 20, giving a total of 4 sets: 20 + 20 + 20 + 15. I'd increase the number of reps in each set by 1 each time I did it, so the second day I'd do 21 + 21 + 21 + 12, the 3rd I'd do 22 + 22 + 22 + 9, etc until I finally made it all the way to 75 repetitions in a single set.

Here's a graph of my progress over 6 months or so:

In the beginning I was crazy keen, and would do my swings 3 times a week, sometimes twice a day, but now I just try to make sure I do it at least once a week, aiming to do it twice a week as often as possible. For some time now I've also been doing a range of different exercises using a 12Kg unit, including single snatches. I'm also doing myotatic crunches over a gym ball using the 12Kg unit (for the first few, the remainder without weights), and "cat vomit" breathing exercises after each workout.

I do my kettle bell swings on Mondays and Fridays, with a total exercise time around 30-45 minutes a time, once or twice a week, coming to 2-6 hours a month, probably averaging around 4 hours a month. I also do karate training on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Tuesday & Sunday is for 1.5 hours, Thursday's session usually goes for 2-3 hours. So that's another 5-6 hours of training a week, or 20-24 hours a month.

Other than that, I spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer doing things like writing software, and blogging about kettle bells & beans :)

Thursday, June 02, 2011

How I use Trunk Notes

Keeping my digital life organized with a wiki works so much better for me than hierarchical storage systems, rigid todo lists, or flat plain-text buckets. My search for the ultimate digital lifestyle tool has taken me through so many different apps and systems, but with Trunk Notes I finally feel like I’ve almost achieved digital nirvana.

A long journey

I guess it all started when I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) 5 or 6 years ago, and I’ve tried so many different todo apps, note taking apps, organizers, etc since it’s just not funny. The apps I use fall into two main categories: task management, and information management. Tools to help me get stuff done, and tools to help me store and retrieve notes, data, etc.

Todo, or not todo

The first serious app with checkboxes that I recall using was OmniOutliner, which I tried to bend to a kind of GTD system until I bought the desktop version of OmniFocus when it first came out. It’s strict adherence to the GTD doctrine was too too much for me. Then I found Things by Cultured Code to be a simpler approach, but I would ultimately become frustrated by it’s lack of cloud sync and the developer’s complete disinterest in engaging with their customers, despite being very successful. From there, my todo pilgrimage took to me Wunderlist, a nice, simple, cloud-synced todo app. It was close, but I found that lists were becoming too cold and clinical for me, I needed something more organic, and found myself using Backpack by 37 Signals.

What I liked about Backpack was it’s concept of pages that can contain anything, notes, images, todo lists, whatever. It didn’t impose any form or function onto you, you can can do whatever you like with it. What I didn’t like about it was the $24/month required to access some of it’s features…

I also had my eye on TaskPaper, which takes a simpler text-based approach to managing todo lists, but it still uses a proprietary cloud sync service which customers have reported as being unreliable, and while the developer is planning to add DropBox sync at some point, his other apps are getting first priority.

Fortunately, in the meantime I discovered Trunk Notes!

There’s a hole in my bucket

For information management, I use and love Yojimbo by Bare Bones. It’s essentially a bucket to hold links, notes, pictures, PDF docs, passwords, serial numbers, etc. Again, my only gripe with it is a lack of cloud sync. There’s an iPad app, but it’s read-only, and requires wifi sync to get data into it.

So for plain notes, I ended up using SimpleNote because of it’s excellent could sync, and ubiquitous presence as desktop and mobile apps. It’s basically an omnipresent text bucket.

Unfortunately I’d often find myself having to search in multiple places to find something because I couldn’t remember where I’d put it. This arrangement left me wanting for a single system with cloud sync, to store notes in plain text and rich-text with images, passwords, and also manage todos. With Trunk Notes I’ve finally found it!

An organic system that grows with you

It’s so cool being able to take an idea, create a page, add some notes with links, insert a picture, jot down some todo items, and then have it grow organically out into other pages covering sub-topics, or breaking large projects down into sub projects, and having it all interlinked, tagged, and searchable. The wiki features of Trunk Notes alone are a revelation, not because wikis are new or I’ve never used one before, but I’ve never had one I can carry around with me in my pocket on my iPhone, and also access from my Mac and IPad. The coolest thing though, is Trunk Notes custom functions, which can turn it into a very capable, and powerful todo system.

Ubiquitous capture, automatic processing and retrieval

Here’s how I use Trunk Notes' powerful functions as my todo system. You can begin any line on a page with an “action” using a @, and then add dynamic functions to a page which collect every item from your wiki beginning with that action. I use them as tags, but you can only assign one to each item, so they’re more like contexts. As I work at home in front of a computer all day, contexts don’t fit my workflow, so I use the following actions to automatically filter and retrieve tasks:

  • @next – regular todo items

  • @due – Trunk Notes can process date stamps following the actions, allowing them to be scheduled and automatically float up to my dashboard

  • @today – a quick way to flag tasks for today

  • @done – changing an item’s action to done followed by a date stamp removes it from the other filters

  • @someday – don’t really use it much though. Someday/maybe should really be called probably/never…

My home page has a dashboard showing a summary of tasks due today, and a 7 day summary of upcoming tasks, as well as quick links to my todo section:

  • I’ve created pages with name prefixes

    • Todo

      • A dashboard using Trunk Notes' functions to show me all of my today, upcoming, and next actions on a nice dashboard

    • Todo:Today

      • Filters all tasks @due today, and tagged with @today

    • Todo:Next

      • Filters all @next actions

    • Todo:Scheduled

      • Filters all @scheduled tasks

    • Todo:Someday

      • @someday tasks which I’ll probably never do

    • Todo:Home

      • This is where I drop home tasks. When Trunk Notes filters tasks into lists, it links back to the page they’re from, which behaves in effect as contexts or areas of responsibility.

    • Todo:Home:Someday

      • I try not to put anything in here…

    • Todo:Home:Archive

      • Move stuff out of the home list when it’s done to clean it up

    • Todo:Work

      • A dashboard of work tasks. I can freeform here with links to project pages, notes, todo lists, etc

    • Todo:Work:Someday

      • Really try to keep this one empty

    • Todo:Work:Archive

      • an increasingly massive list of completed tasks, kept for reference. When I complete a task I tag it with @done and a date stamp, so can go back through the archive to check when certain things were completed.

I also keep an INBOX page, and have a link to the inbox and the main todo dashboard in Trunk Notes' special customizable footer, so I can quickly capture ideas. On my Mac, I’ve assigned a hot key using Alfred to open the inbox page in TextMate to quickly capture ideas. It works quite well, and TextMate can render the Markdown as HTML.


For notes, passwords, links, etc I just create a new page and tag it accordingly. If it’s related to another page/project I’ll link them together. For tasks, if it’s a single actionable item I’ll add it to my top-level home/work/school page. For larger projects I’ll create a new page for them and link back to it from an item on the corresponding top-level page. Within the project page I just throw notes and todo items together without actions so they don’t clutter up the dashboard pages.

At the start of each day, I’ll check my home page for today & upcoming tasks, process anything sitting in the inbox, and then drill down into the home/work/school pages reviewing next actions & upcoming tasks and deciding what to work on today.

At the end of each day I’ll go through completed tasks tagging them with @done and archive them, I’ll process the inbox, review my next actions, and generally faff around on my pet project pages gathering research, jotting down ideas, inserting pics etc.

I’m looking into using the DropBox files with Automator/AppleScript to automate some of that, but that’s for another time.

A full bag of tricks

Some other cool things Trunk Notes offers:

  • text snippets – can quickly insert regularly used text

    • can dynamically evaluate functions, for example to insert the current date/time

    • I use snippets to insert checkboxes with an action, and a notes field (using custom CSS…)

  • custom CSS

    • I use a span for my todo notes, and use the custom CSS to style them

  • include portions of other pages into the current page

    • it can even grab a random line, which I use to add a quote of the day to my dynamic footer

  • dynamic header & footer

    • the header & footer are special pages which you can edit and fully customize. I have links to my inbox & todo list, and a random quote from my quotes page.

  • encrypted pages

    • you can encrypt a page, and use it for storing passwords! A sprinkling of custom CSS makes it a very viable solution.

  • images!

    • you can insert images into the page, which are stored on DropBox

  • wifi server

    • it even comes with it’s own built in server for interacting with your wiki from a desktop device

Really, the possibilities are endless. Because it uses Markdown, I even use it to type up drafts of documentation and then use other tools like TextMate to finish it into the final product. It’s also handy for typing up blog posts like this one :)

Well, this got a bit long and ramble-y, maybe I’ll jot down a next action to refine it into a cheat sheet.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Slow carb diet - 100 days - before & after

Today marks the 100th day since I abandoned processed carbohydrates & sugars and replaced them with whole foods like beans, legumes, meat, and vegetables. I lost 5Kg, gained a significant amount of muscle, and have never felt better.

These may not be the most pleasant pictures to look at, but I'm posting them here more for my benefit really, just for posterity:

First, the before photos:

This is a floppy tummy, accumulated during a month overseas overindulging in food & drink:

Side profile, slightly distended, droopy manboobs:

Upper arms - some preexisting muscle development from martial arts, but no visible lats, pectorals, etc:

Now for the after pics, 100 days after starting a slow-carb diet, and supplementing my existing martial arts training (3 times/week) with kettlebell swings. No protein or body building supplements at all, just whole foods and exercise.

Front, waist line significantly reduced, had to tighten belt several notches, and can wear pants I hadn't fit into since my twenties! visible lats. More developed pectorals and shoulder muscles, or at least better defined from a reduction in body fat. (I'm not flexing here, just raising my arms)

Most noticeable I think, and the extension of the lats.

And here's a side profile:

And some combined before & after shots:



So, here are my before & after shots from 100 days on a slow carb diet with kettlebell swings. I do a bunch of different swings with a 12Kg kettlebell, and have worked up to 75 reps with a 20Kg kettlebell, but still broken up into multiple sets. Started out with sets of 20 reps, so 20 + 20 + 20 + 15, and have worked up to two sets now of 50 + 25. I change the reps by 1 each time, and only do it twice a week now, so by the next time I report back after the next 100 days I should be up to a single set of 75 reps! Looking forward to that. Not the pics, being able to do that many swings...

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Shark Tank - observations for start-ups

Can I have a bite?

Recently, I read an interview between Tim Ferriss and Daymond John about how he built up his multi-million dollar business, and from there I found myself watching and keenly studying the TV series Shark Tank. In Shark Tank, successful business people, including Daymond John, form a panel of investors. People come on the show to pitch to the sharks in the hope that they'll invest in their company.

There's a recurring theme I've observed amongst the entrepreneurs (can never spell that word...) pitching their ideas to the Sharks:

  • They rarely have significant sales.

  • They almost always over value their companies by offering too little equity in return for too much money without sales to support them.

  • They are very often torn between wanting to cash-in on the company and get rich, or to keep working in the business and follow their passion.

  • They rarely agree to surrender a controlling stake in their companies (51% or more). Offers from the sharks have been turned down because the owner has an emotional connection to their business and doesn't want to turn it over to someone else, yet without an injection of capital it will most likely fail.

  • They very often over value "potential" growth
    • $10,000 sales last year and growing somehow makes the business worth $500,000 to a million dollars, more often because they've already invested their life savings into the company and mortgaged their family home. The sharks might invest $20,000 or more in a company like that, but only in exchange for 100% equity, which the owners usually refuse.

  • They're often unclear on what exactly they need the money for - is it for R&D, inventory, marketing, salaries? Quite often what they have has the potential to be a tidy small business, but doesn't have the kind of explosive growth potential that the sharks are looking for, and as such they would be unlikely to see a significant return on their investment.

The sharks respond very consistently - they are first and foremost investors looking to increase their wealth:

  • They always ask for sales numbers - gross revenue, and net profits for the last year

  • They want to know how many existing customers they have, or at least what contracts they've already secured

  • They immediately value the company by multiplying the net sales by the proportion of equity being offered.

    • People usually ask for around $25,000-150,000 in exchange for 10-25% of their company

    • This would value their company at $250,000 to a million dollars or more

    • They are often found to only have $50,000-$100,000 in sales, from which the sharks would value their company at about double - $100,000-$200,000

    • When asked why they think their business is worth so much more than the numbers suggest, invariably they'll talk about passion, or how much of their own time/effort/money they've put into the business

    • The sharks invariably give them a harsh lesson in reality...

  • Even really great ideas with no sales are usually rejected straight away

  • When a company has significant sales, but is still in the early stages of development, the sharks will usually ask for a controlling interest in the company (51% or more, often 100%) in order to protect their investment

  • Even with significant sales, the sharks will often look for a contract with a major brand or reseller for mass-market products rather than attempting to muscle into an established market

  • Licensing deals are more attractive to sharks than selling widgets - they'd be more interested in owning a license they can sell to a major manufacturer than trying to bring a stand-alone product to market

  • They will often offer to buy 100% of a company and pay the owner an ongoing royalty, which they usually refuse, despite the sharks offering to use their own capital and expertise to build up the company

  • They always ask what their investment will be used for.

    • Quite often the person has unrealistic expectations of what it will actually cost to develop their business.

    • Sometimes they think the sharks will give them capital to buy patents, or produce inventory, or spend on marketing - they never do; they simply want to buy a share in what they perceive to be a profitable company with potential for great growth.

    • The sharks won't invest if the money will simply be used to sustain the business, or keep if from collapse

  • Patents are attractive, and will often make or break a deal

  • They never invest in ideas with no substance to help turn it into a product

  • They never invest in individuals/brands without a viable product/business to help them develop one

Studying the show has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of building a business for profitability, for two reasons: a business must have value to be profitable; I want to add value to the world, and a business must be profitable for it to be attractive to investors; I don't want to stare at a computer screen forever...

This may be less true on massive scales, for example a social network like Facebook/Twitter with literally millions of active users will be able to generate revenue by the sheer brute force of their volume, but before they had those numbers they had to prove themselves by building a popular product. When they were starting out, no one would go near them, but they scratched an itch, and it proved to be hugely popular. Had they taken their idea to investors and pitched them saying that although they have zero revenue, and only a few thousand users, they just need some capital to invest in infrastructure and they'll be able to get millions of users and generate tons of cash...

  1. Have an idea

  2. ???

  3. Profit!!!

I don't think so. It's probably more like:

  1. Identify a real human need

  2. Build something to satisfy that need

  3. Work your arse off for years developing and marketing your product to be revenue positive

Monday, April 11, 2011

Success with the 4HB slow carb diet

Last xmas we spent a month overseas mostly holidaying and over indulging in delicious food and copious amounts of alcohol. When we returned in January, I had put on 5Kg, and so decided to get a copy Tim Ferris' latest book, The 4-Hour Body and give it a try.

Before doing anything else, watch the brilliant video trailer!

My goal was to replace the 5Kg of excess flab with muscle, a body "recomposition" goal. I lost the 5Kg within a couple of months very easily, while eating more than I ever have in my life! I'm feeling fitter, and stronger than ever before, and I owe it to two simple changes to my diet and exercise habits.

The basics
The basic premise is pretty simple, and is comprised of a special diet combined with specific exercises. I was already fairy physically active, with martial arts training 3 times a week, but the recommended exercises have definitely seen a rapid increase in strength, and the change in diet has been spectacular to say the least.

Dietary changes:

  • replace all forms of high-GI carbohydrates with low-GI, high-protein beans & legumes

  • Cut out all sugars, fructose, and dairy products such as cheese, milk, yogurt

  • Consume large quantities of fresh, low-GI vegetables

  • Consume large quantities of lean meat, such as fish, beef, pork, and chicken

  • Once a week, enjoy a "cheat day" - eat all the bread, pasta, fruit, cheese, chocolate, etc that you want!

I've been on the slow carb diet for several months now, which means I haven't been eating any wheat or dairy products, or any fruit at all during the week, but instead I've been eating lots of meat, veg, beans, and eggs. The book suggests using magnesium and calcium supplements, but rather than just buying some pills from a supermarket blindly, I decided to go to the doctor and get a blood test. Today we went over the results, and I couldn't be happier!

Empirical results
I was worried about my cholesterol levels, with all of the meat & eggs I've been eating, and also wanted to check magnesium & calcium to see if I should be using supplements, and also vitamin D seeing as I work indoors. The results were better than I was expecting!

My biochemistry results were all excellent across the board, so no need for any additional supplements! I'm taking once capsule of 1000IU of vitamin D3 a day, and the doctor suggested perhaps I could cut that back to every other day. The surprise for me though was the results for the lipids and HDL. My HDL cholesterol (the good kind) were high, and my LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) were low. At first I was a little concerned about a "cholesterol" level being high, but my doctor looked at me and said "can it be bad to have a high level of good cholesterol?". Point taken. The book talks about good cholesterol having benefits, such as helping with insomnia, which historically is something I've always had trouble with, and I can now say finally that I now longer have any trouble getting off to sleep. This is another one of those things that I wish I'd discovered sooner!

The theory is that high-GI foods can cause an excessive spike in blood glucose which tends to be stored around the body as fat. Low-Gi foods on the other are converted to blood glucose more slowly throughout the day, and are more satiating. I've found that I now eat about twice the volume of food as I used to, but don't suffer the inevitable sugar crash that typically accompanies a large carbohydrate-rich meal. No more dozing off in the afternoon, I have consistently high energy levels throughout the day!

Another pleasant side-effect of the slow carb diet is that you no longer feel hungry between meals. I have my breakfast around 8am, and lunch four hours later at 12pm, and don't feel hungry at all in between. I have a light snack in the afternoon usually comprised of celery sticks & peanut butter, and that keeps me going until dinner at around 6:30. Again, I don't feel hungry in the evenings, despite rarely going to bed before midnight. I'm trying the book's suggestion of taking a spoonful of almond butter before bed which is intended to keep blood glucose levels from dipping too low in the morning, but I've never been an early riser so it's hard to say if it's helping directly but generally I've been sleeping much better and feeling more energised.

As for the "cheat day", mine tends to start on Friday even with beers, and extend right through the weekend... It's so awesome being able to pig out on whatever I want once a week knowing that I'm not gaining weight or affecting my health adversely!

Exercise changes
This wasn't a change so much as a supplement. I do martial arts training every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, so I started out by adding a special exercise routing every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In recent weeks I had found myself feeling a bit exhausted by the end of the week though, especially considering how many repetitions I've worked up to now, so I've cut out Wednesdays. Only made that change recently, so too early to draw any conclusions from it yet.

So what's the big secret? Russian kettlebells. I started out with a 20Kg kettlebell, just going 75 repetitions of the two-hand swing, but a month or two ago I added a smaller 12Kg kettlebell for a wider range of movements, like the one-hand snatch. Kettlebells are an excellent supplement for marial arts training, because they exercise a wider range of muscles together at the same time in movements that are more similar to natural activities that free weights or gym machines, and they increase explosive strength rather than sheer bulk and lifting power.

They do increase core strength, but I've also recently added a gym ball for focusing on more on that. Still working towards visible abs, but probably have to get my body fat % down a but lower first.

Conclusion - it works!
What put a huge smile on my face was to hear the doctor say "whatever it is you're doing, keep doing it!". That in combination with the excellent blood test results validate that the perceived increase in overall health & wellbeing I've experienced are supported by empirical evidence. I intend to keep working towards my goal getting a reaction from someone along the lines of "what the fuck have you been doing?!"

I'll laugh and say "beans and cannon balls"...

Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscilloscopes & software development

One of my first jobs was as an electronics technician where I would build, and test, professional audio visual equipment. My work bench was covered with an impressive array of tools and gadgetry, one of the most impressive being the trusty oscilloscope. To the uninitiated, it appears to be a complicated display with a vast array of control dials and buttons, and it's certainly one of the more difficult test instruments to master.

A typical application of an oscilloscope, or CRO for short (from the now dated acronym Cathode Ray-tube Oscilloscpoe) it to display the waveform of an electrical signal on the screen. The classic noob mistake when first learning to use them is to change too many settings at the same time, resulting in a wild, unintelligible display on the screen.

My boss would often chastise me and remind me of two important principals which would serve me well later on in software development:
* always start from a known baseline
* never change more than one thing at a time

With a CRO, there's a sensible default setting that should always be used to start with because it usually will display something, and from there only requires minor adjustments to achieve the desired result. I'd equate that in software development terms to setting up test fixtures with sensible data and making sure you've isolated the code to be tested.

With so many dials and buttons it's easy to make the mistake of tweaking and fiddling in a panic and ending up with a garbled display. The more experienced operator will only make one adjustment at a time, and if it doesn't have the desired effect return it to it's sensible default position before trying a different adjustment. Similarly, when developing software it's tempting to hack and slash instead of methodically working towards the goal, but it often leads to breakages and a mess of spagetti code which no clear way of knowing exactly what caused the error. Try something, if it doesn't work roll it back and try something different.

I was reminded of the CRO analogy recently when I had a bunch of tests failing while trying to modify some functionality. After trying in vein to work out why my modifications were causing the breakage, I rolled them back and tested again, only to reveal than a recent update had introduced the breakage, not my modifications. So I fixed the failing tests, merged my update back in again, and re-tested. That way I know that I've started from a known baseline, and only changed one thing at a time, so if anything breaks it's my change that broke it, and from there I can work towards fixing it.

Fault-finding and testing faulty electronic equipment gave me a good mindset for software development that I'll always appreciate. Just as we'd always be sure to comprehensively test all our equipment before shipping it to customers to keep the number of returned products to a minimum, following test driven development before deploying any code to production keeps the number of bugs and rollbacks to a minimum.