Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bluetooth, headphones and getting the best portable sound possible

It seems like every two years or so I go through a search to find the best possible portable sound solution.  I keep expecting the technology to improve to the point where the perfect solution will finally exist.  I can report that it's getting better, but still far from perfect.

For the go-around this time I ordered seven different ear "devices" to test out.  There are four basic ear designs you can wear for personal listening.

1. Over The Ear headphones.  These fit completely over the ear, as described, and provide one of the best and easiest sonic isolation you can get.  They are by their very nature bulky and not nearly as portable as you would want, though, so for the purposes of my own explorations I did not try out any that fit this description.

2. On The Ear headphones.  These sit on the ear but do not completely surround it.  Because of this there is little, if any, noise isolation but the upside is they can be much smaller than the first type.  They can differ within the class by how they fit on the head -- some go over the head, some go behind the head (fitting around the ear like glasses).  The phones I tried in this category were the Sennheiser PX210, the NeoJdx Aktiv, and the Jabra Revo Wireless.

3. Earbuds.  These sit in the ear but do not seal it off.  The example most everyone is familiar with are the Apple supplied ones that come with their devices.  I tried the Bose Soundtrue and Bose SoundSport models (neither bluetooth although we'll get to that in a moment).

4. In The Ear earphones.  These are the most isolated and tightest fitting ones you can buy.  They fit in the ears like earplugs, and act in the same manner, shutting out all other sound.  I tried the Jaybird Bluebuds Xs and Sonix XFit.

There are three basic considerations for portable sound.  First, how comfortable is it to wear?  The best sounding phones in the world won't do you any good if you can't wear them, or wear them for long.  Second, the actual sound they produce.  Even something that's incredibly comfortable won't be worth using if it sounds like crap.  And the third is how easy it is to use and manage -- if it's difficult to use you won't, not matter how comfortable and good it sounds.

While everyone's mileage may vary, I found that In The Ear earphones were unacceptable to me in terms of comfort.  Getting a good seal requires a lot of things, including testing various ear pieces to find the right fit, but in my own experience even when I had the right size for my ears, and even when I was using what was rated the absolute best ear tip (you can buy different tips for your in the ear earphones) achieving a reliable seal was not easy, and never comfortable to me.

And using one of these types without a good seal degrades the sound considerably.  Even the top-rated Jaybirds sounded like crap without a good seal.  Which is too bad, because otherwise they were terrific, having great operating characteristics (the third criteria -- they had great battery life and the controls were easy to use) and fantastic sound when a good seal was made.  If you have the right type of ear, I could highly recommend them.

However -- you should be aware of this.  Even with a good seal I had issues with the Jaybirds because of cord noise.  You have to wear the cord either below the chin or behind the head, and in either position the cord moves when you move (naturally).  With headphones that don't isolate you as much this isn't an issue, because the noise they produce isn't at all off-putting.  But with a seal the noise is very loud and any movement of my head was pretty bad.  Even if I could have gotten a comfortable and easy to achieve seal I think this would have been a deal breaker.

The On the Ear headphones had different issues.  They were all comfortable, but each had a defect that kept it from being usable (at least to me).  The Sennheisers had terrible sound, even when used with an equalizer app (and more on this in a minute).  The Jabra had terrific sound, even without such an app (although it comes with one) but the operating characteristics were unacceptable (controls were difficult to manage and the weight and heft of the phones made them far less portable than they should have been).  The Aktiv with an app would have been good had it not been for the completely distracting blue flashing light on the ear piece (note that nearly all bluetooth devices have such a light which tells you when it's on and receiving data, but the better devices allow you to turn it off, or at least have it positioned so it isn't right in your face).

That left no bluetooth devices for me to use but on a whim I had also ordered the Bose Earbuds due to the comfort ratings that folks had posted on Amazon.  Bose has done an interesting thing with these -- they are sort of a cross between a regular earbud and the kind of in-ear earphone I can't wear.  But the result is truly amazing -- a comfortable in-ear device that doesn't block out all sound but will fit almost everyone and stays in place without effort.

The sound is also very, very good, and absolutely perfect when used with an equalizer app.  Which brings me to that aspect.  Other than the Jaybirds and Jabra, all of these phones have less than ideal sound.  But you can improve nearly any headphone with a decent equalizer app.  The iPhone has pretty crappy and limited EQ, but running an app that handles this makes all the difference in the world, and for iOS devices there is none better than Equalizer, which runs $3 and makes even cheap headphones sound like they cost hundreds (and expensive ones sound like they are worth millions).  I would highly recommend anyone looking for portable sound to consider this app, or something similar for Android.  It will change your view on what a headphone can do for you.

Of the two I liked the Bose SoundSport slightly better -- they are more expensive ($150 versus $130) but they are waterproof and fit my ear just a tiny bit easier (although they use the same earpiece each fits over the hardware just a bit differently).  The carrying case is also better -- it's round and easier to zip up than the rectangular one that comes with the SoundTrue.

But what about bluetooth?  Well, I could have just plugged the Bose into my phone but I did want bluetooth, so I bought the Abco Tech BlueTooth Receiver.  This is a tiny bluetooth receiver that allows you to turn any headphone with a 1/8" jack into a bluetooth one.  I simply wrap the excess cord up and clip it to my shirt and I'm good to go.

The controls are easy to use but the only drawback is battery life -- I rarely get more than two or three hours of use out of it.  However, it's so cheap I just bought two and have the ability to switch when one runs out.

Is it perfect?  No, the perfect solution, I think, would be the Bose with a built-in bluetooth receiver.  It would have to hang down below or behind the neck, though (I wouldn't want the BT receiver to be built-in to the buds, as it is with the Jaybirds, because that would weigh them down and ruin the perfect comfort they have).  This particular design isn't something anyone has, though, and so I doubt whether anyone will ever make it.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy the solution I have (and check again in two years to see if any advances have been made).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The State of Spark -- Beta be careful

Okay, so now I've been using Project Spark quite a few months since my last entry -- that entry (along with some participation on various social media places about Spark) gained me access to first, the alpha, and now the private beta (which is only "private" in that you actually have to ask for entry, which apparently is about the only criteria nowadays).

First some disclaimers -- I'm in love with it, although it's a love with wide open eyes in that I can still see her flaws and love her despite them.  I'm also fairly active in the amazing Spark community, which is at least a major reason that Spark is so wonderful.  That community, which is managed on the Microsoft end by Mike Lescault, not only gives you support and encouragement but provides a hotline into the further development of Spark.  Team Dakota (the actual Project Spark team within Microsoft) has shown they are more than willing to listen to their users -- they make user satisfaction a high priority.

Now that Spark is out in the wild, so to speak (although it's important to understand it STILL is in beta) folks are starting to react to it who are no longer under any NDA (no NDA in beta) and so we have things like this:

10 Things Microsoft Got Wrong

But the blogger himself got a lot of things wrong (and some right), so I prepared this response.  For those of you interested in Spark (and if you are reading this, you should be) here's what you should know (the bullet points are the above bloggers, and what follows are my take on them):

  1. Setup is difficult (requires Win 8.1)

Um, move to the 21st century? Complaining about needing the latest version of the world's most popular OS is like folks who played DOS games complaining about Windows when it came out. Yes, this is an MS product, it's going to run on the Xbox One (which uses Win 8) and it requires Win 8.1 (a free update to Win 8) to make it work. There will always be Luddites out there, and folks who are afraid of Windows 8 (almost always people who base their fear on reviews and have never actually tried it) probably aren't a good target audience for Spark anyway.

Windows 8 is the best Windows 7 there is. Get over it.

  1. Requires Windows 8.1

Hmmm – isn't this the same thing as the first one? Yep, it requires 8.1. Guess what – the Xbox One RUNS Windows 8. That's the OS it uses and it's not a function of Spark. Again, deal with it. If you don't like Windows 8, you won't like the Xbox and that has nothing to do with Spark. Either you are the sort of person who can handle new technology or you need to keep playing Pong. Swim or die.

  1. Bad UI

Yes, there are some definite issues here. It's also beta, and hopefully there will be some cleaning and pruning of unnecessary buttons and words. However, it IS right on to say the editing buttons and functionality are a mess. “Edit from Here” doesn't work – almost worthless (rather than actually editing the world as it is, it only edits from where a playable character is sitting – big deal). Loading your own level and only having the option to “Remix” it unless you first play it and THEN go to an edit mode is also clumsy and confusing (it also makes you a co-creator even if it's only you working on it). Hopefully this and other issues will get taken care of but they aren't show stoppers.

  1. Fonts bad

Um, not sure what the big deal is here, unless the reviewer's graphic card isn't up to snuff. Fonts are fine and not pixelated. Typography is a very personal thing, though – one man's ES is another's UglyQua. They are readable and they work. Do we need more fonts? Absolutely – and this is an area where I hope the devs are listening.

  1. Graphics

Unfortunately as it comes out of the box Spark doesn't have the best looking graphics in the world. They are not ugly, they aren't awful, but they aren't the best of what the game can do. The defaults, however, are just that.

Put some DOF and add in some beautiful FX and Spark can rival the best of any video game out there. I have to admit the first time I saw a game using some of these I sat up in my chair and went “Whoa!”. As folks get more and more comfortable with the game we will see better and better examples.

  1. Bad 3D Controls

Hard to get around this. Yep, they ARE bad, clumsy and difficult to use. A lot of times “Center on Player” just plain doesn't work but it's the tip of the iceberg. I'm not sure what the reason for the controls to be so awkward and unintuitive but they can use a lot of improvement. Again – this is beta and we would hope by the time of release they have fixed this.

  1. Not much free content

Yeah, another telling criticism. Indeed, if there is ONE major issue with Spark it's the lack of varying style and content. We have exactly one baddie – the goblin. We know there is one more coming but that's also about it. All the characters are basically clones of a young male. And while there are some content packs they are rather expensive considering what you get.

On the flipside you DO earn the ability to purchase all the content that is available, so unlike just about any other game out there you really don't have to spend a dime to play. If there is a lot more content available this could be an issue, of course, but it's still cheaper than most full-games out there. I don't think content in Spark is exactly expensive, just extremely limited.

This may be the issue that turns off more folks on Spark than anything. Nearly all the games, no matter how well designed (see below) are starting to look so familiar it is hard to imagine even 10x the content packs being released changing this. Will Spark ever be able to do a realistic game like Grand Theft Auto, or a Sci-fi game like Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic? Or even just anything that doesn't look like Fable?

We are told that no outside content creators will be allowed, and that it takes a LONG time to develop content for Spark. None of this bodes well for a diverse and rich universe of content to ever be available for it. Spark may end up being one of those niche products that folks will think fondly of when they think about game development just on this basis alone.

  1. Achievements are difficult

This has (mostly) been addressed with a new server side patch that added new, easier to attain, milestones. If an old man like me can reach the maximum level (50) in about a month of using the game, almost anyone else can. It isn't terribly difficult but it does require a commitment to using the game and that's really the whole point.

Folks who just want to dabble with Spark don't need to achieve any higher level, so this isn't really an issue.

  1. It isn't fun

This is a hard one to quantify. There are lots of fun games made by Spark, and there are lot of crappy ones. It's hard to uncover the really interesting ones due to all the crap, but this curation is being worked on by both Team Dakota as well as the Community and may eventually work itself out.

Also, truly longer form games will need some improvements that are planned. Level linking and multiplayer are in the works and if they haven't come out yet they are certainly high priority. They should make it possible to make games that are fun for nearly everyone.

There isn't, yet, a “killer game” or one that makes everyone sit up and say “this is something I really need.” That will come – it's still beta. Given the content issues (noted above) there is nothing other than level linking and multiplayer that holds Spark back from creating just about any game imaginable.
  1. Kode issues

Yep, another telling criticism. The implementation of Kode is fraught with issues and it's all the more troubling since this is the core of what makes games in Spark. So, yes, the fact that the tiles are so incredibly huge (so you can only see three or four lines at once on the screen) is pretty awful. So is the inability to print out your Kode (which would mitigate that issue), or import and export it (a very basic ability that should have been there from the get go). Unfortunately, Kode here betrays its' Kodu roots – except that Kodu was never designed to create games this complicated.

The idea that you can't see all the tiles (because they walk you through only ones that are available) is admirable but flawed, because a lot of times you can't even see HOW you can get to the tiles you need. Part of this can be fixed with examples (as it stands now about 80% is undocumented, which makes using it more of an arcane art that truly makes learning Spark a lot like playing a video game like World of Warcraft – as you watch the mage you will learn, young apprentice).

At the very least the resolution of Kodu has to be improved, NOW. We need to be able to see at least 10 or 12 lines at once on a screen (so the tiles should be halved, if not smaller). This would also help us get more than 8 or 9 tiles in the circle at once (again, an impediment to seeing what is available). But more than that, we HAVE to have external tools to manipulate it (and relying upon third party solutions like the terrible KodeShare is NOT an acceptable solution). There is really NO excuse for not being able to print it out, in English (not a screen shot) the Kode lines so we can read WHEN player DO move. And we need the ability to import such an English language construction as well. The development of Spark would be sped up, oh, maybe 10 or 12 fold if we had these sorts of things.

The Cure

Saying Unity is the cure to Spark is a bit like saying building a home with real bricks is a good alternative to using Legos. They are two completely different things which, while sharing a bit of similarity and common architecture, aren't even apples and oranges (but more like apples and paper clips). Unity is a professional software development engine that costs $$$ (the free version is VERY limiting and only really designed to whet your appetite) for developers who want to create games for sale. It takes months if not years to develop a game using Unity, and no one who isn't going to make a career (or at least a major commitment) is ever going to use it.

Spark, on the other hand, is for the aforementioned Legos type individual, who wants to have fun and dabble in game creation but doesn't plan on selling their games nor taking months to make them. It's the difference between someone making a YouTube video and someone having a film career. Spark could certainly be a springboard to someone who wants to get into game development, but Unity would never be something you could pick up for an hour or two over the weekend and creating something your family would enjoy checking out. There's no question Spark could be easier and better, but it's still a beta and as long as the developers have a plan in place for addressing the issues that currently face them it can have a long future as the most fun most people can have with a PC or their Xbox.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Future of Microsoft Gaming -- Project Spark, Valve and Disney Infinty

First of all, disclaimers in place: I hold absolutely zero "insider" information when it comes to any of the following predictions.  I'm completely retired from the industry, and while I am beta on a lot of hardware and software, none of it is in the gaming arena.

That said, it's clear to me what Microsoft's ultimate strategy is for cross-platform gaming -- the handwriting is on the wall and it doesn't take an ex-genius to figure it out.  I'm only dotting the i's and crossing the t's here for the benefit of those of you who don't have the same experience I do in putting the puzzle together.

All of this came about because one op-ed piece I read was curious about why Microsoft made no mention of gaming when it rolled out the Surface Pro 2 announcement.  They did (briefly) mention a game when talking about the new Surface RT, but for the particular piece of "tablet" hardware they have that can run PC games they remained completely silent.  He went on to speculate that this was due to not wanting to awaken the sleeping dragon that is Valve, but noted that MS has hired a Valve guy to work on Windows gaming and has the XBox One coming out that has a PC like architecture and then said " Microsoft could have its own plans for cross-platform gaming ('We Believe in Windows PC/Gaming and have long-term plans to grow our support', Microsoft told IGN last month)."

So that writer was close -- very close -- to putting it all together but missed the most important piece (IMHO) of all.  Project Spark, the ultimate "create your own game" project MS has devoted over two years and a not insubstantial amount of money towards developing.

Looking at PS I see not only the future of games but MS's involvement (and profit) in cross-platform gaming.  It's positioned to run on the PC/XBox One and XBox 360 -- all the platforms MS has a vested interest in.  On the PC side, it will ONLY run on Windows 8 -- again, the only OS MS wants anyone to be using.  And this spectacular gaming system, at least the beta, is totally free.

Ah, but there is no such thing as a free lunch, as Heinlein famously observed, and even if MS ends up charging a small fee for the software, or even a subscription fee to play (we are told you can play offline but there is no promise this will remain the case.  At the very least there will be in-game purchases available) clearly the idea is to get all or nearly all the gamers in the world to lust after this amazingly desirable piece of software that can take on the form of nearly any current game you can imagine (and a lot more even current game designers can't imagine).

This, then, is MS's endgame, if you'll forgive the slight pun.  By placing something so incredibly powerful it could rival any game ever made or that ever will be made onto the platforms that they control, they can cut off such rivals as Valve (not to mention Sony and Nintendo) at the knees.  Forget Halo -- this is like the most exclusive of exclusives, assuming you're sitting on the other side of the console (or even OS) fence.

In a way this is like what Disney did with it's gaming division.  Disney Interactive, while still producing some niche titles like Fantasia: Music Involved, essentially ceded all of its other games (titles tied to movies, such as "Toy Story" and those just involving Disney characters, like "Kingdom Hearts") not to mention the other Disney software properties (they closed down all their "Star Wars" games, for example) and decided to put all their eggs into one basket -- Disney Infinity.  DI itself is a game but also, more importantly, an somewhat open-ended system in which future games will fit.

Disney, which doesn't control any consoles or OS, didn't take the route MS is taking, and is trying to support nearly every thing there is out there (all consoles but even including iPads and PCs) but it's also got a "Toy Box" mode that is very similar (although EXTREMELY limited) to what the whole Project Spark project is about.  I don't think this is any coincidence.

I think the life cycle of video games as we know them is coming to an end.  Folks nowadays want more control over what they do with their spare time.  Just like three network television channels showing what THEY want to show (and controlling the entire viewing experience, including what time and days things are shown) would not be acceptable to anyone nowadays, so, too, is the idea that any one game would satisfy the majority of gamers out there.  Folks want to be able to tailor what they see, what they hear, and what they play, to a degree that even a decade ago would seem impossible.

Not everyone wants to program their own game, to be sure, but not everyone wants to write and produce their own TV show.  What they do want is to be able to easily and as cheaply as possible get exactly what they want out of that content consuming experience.  And there are millions of folks who DO want to produce their own videos (hence YouTube) and will also want to edit and create their own gaming environments to share with those who are tired with the limited choices of the past.  I think this confluence will change the face of computers and gaming for decades to come.

All this might be wishful thinking, to be sure.  I'm one of those who would love to tailor my own game, both for my own amusement as well as other folks out there who would improve and enhance it.  But I'm also aware that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and while Project Spark looks tremendous right now in all the demos, there are some real areas of concern for me they are not addressing, particularly in how they handle sound (so far none of the dozens of demos have shown even the slightest ability to program sound effects or music into the game, although this is a major part of any gaming experience.  You can add voices, but only through XBox One Kinect and even then it doesn't seem all that easy to put them anywhere you want except for characters -- how a narrator would work isn't immediately clear.  And all questions about sound are ignored).

I've already been burned by Disney -- Disney Infinity is anything but, and the Toy Box there is for 8 year olds (and to be fair, that's what Disney has always said was their target audience).  I really hope I'm not disappointed when Project Spark opens up their beta at the end of next month.  But only time will tell.

(For those of you who are interested, Project Spark is still open for signup --

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why I Call Myself "ex-genius"

I really thought I had explained this somewhere here, but apparently not, so I'll do it (again or not, as the case might be).

Here's the dealio: when I was younger (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth) I took the then standard IQ test (Stanford-Binet) and my results were 165.  Now, forgetting for a moment that IQ tests only measure what IQ tests measure, by the Terman scales (which are the ones usually used) anything over 145 is considered genius level.

Truth be told, I felt like a genius.  I always got all the answers right on tests from elementary school throughout my University days without even studying and *never* paying attention in class (which of course made me incredibly lazy and is the reason I don't get much done even to this day.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it no matter how much my wife argues).  I wrote a 200 page single spaced typed novel at the age of 11 that convinced my teachers I was going to be a famous author (the less said about that the better, though).  I got a home computer before folks even considered having home computers (I actually got the second one sold in my state) and mastered programming and was soon teaching it at the University despite the fact that I had no credentials at all in the subject (or even teaching, for that matter).  I wrote software that, for fifteen minutes at least, had me world famous and convinced I was going to be rich (but that's a whole other depressing story).

But let's stipulate for the present that nearly 4 decades ago I was at genius level.  We have all heard that we lose a number of brain cells (neurons) every day -- the number is estimated at anywhere from between 10 thousand and one hundred thousand.  It does help that we start off with about 100 billion of the things but, still, when you are losing something on the order of 30 million a year you can see that soon you'll be sitting around on the floor trying to see if you can call your cat by telepathy (note: you can't, no matter how long I've tried).

So for the longest time I've just assumed that sometime around my 50's I had lost enough of my neurons that I was no longer a genius, and started referring to myself that way.  I meant it quite seriously (well, as seriously as I mean anything) and although it was a little depressing at least it gave me an identity.

Now, for those of you older people (or even young, nervous types) I should mention that there has been a ton of research on the subject in the last decade or so, and most of the folks in the field of brain studies nowadays believe there is more optimism than first thought.  While they have always believed neurons couldn't regenerate, it has been found in monkeys at least that thousands of neurons are born in the cerebral cortex each day.  And a study at the close of the century found that a group of brain cancer patients had sprouted new brain cells in the hippocampus. So at least your monkey is going to be just fine as he gets older and, as for you, if you get brain cancer you may just be in luck (why neither of these things is cheering me up I just don't understand -- it must be that I am an ex-genius).  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Exercise Time

Okay, it's been long enough (did I really write the last post here about my diet 18 months ago?) and I should say at least a word or three about exercise.

I'm sure nearly anyone interested in losing weight has watched shows where the enormously obese are put through a regimen that would be daunting for a trained marine.  It burns up calories, which helps, but not as much as you think.  If you start doing the math you may end up depressed -- sawing logs by hand, a pretty tough thing to do, burns up 500 calories per hour (assuming you could even do that for an hour).  That's about the equivalent of one donut.  Or, to look at it another way, to lose a pound of weight you'd have to saw those logs for seven hours (at the end of which time you'd eat about 2,000 more calories than you normally would, making the whole point moot.  Or you'd drop dead).

What you really want to do when you exercise is not so much burn calories but build muscle.  That's the key to weight loss.  It's unfair, but fat begats fat, and lean muscle burns calories so much more efficiently it's not even close.  That's one big reason why your thin friend eats like a horse and never gains weight, while you look at a soda and the scale goes up a pound.

So we want to concentrate on strength training, and that means lifting weights, either those that are sitting on the floor first, or those that are attached to you (which means your body weight).  There's no getting around that minute for minute the absolute best thing you can do for shedding those pounds is to pump iron.

But don't despair -- you don't have to spend the time that Ahnold does (or even look like him) to get benefits.  Even a couple days a week, 15 minutes a day, will achieve remarkable results.  Ideally you'll do it three days a week (with a day off in between) and spend about 30 minutes each day, but at least do something.

You don't have to join a gym, or even buy a lot of equipment.  Body weight exercises are fine, and if you supplement them with a few free weights (free in that they are not attached to a machine, not that anyone is giving them to you for nothing :>) you're gold.  I may (or may not) go into details about this in another but for now that's all you need to know.

And what about all the aerobic stuff you see them do on those shows?  Is it just a waste of time?  Well, insofar as losing weight, the answer is mostly yes, but it's a very good idea health wise to get your aerobic conditioning up there.  Being healthy isn't all about being the ideal weight -- you can be thin and very unhealthy (and conversely, I've seen some guys on the tennis court that have the aerobic conditioning of a top level athlete, and have bellies bigger than mine ever was). So by all means get out and walk, run or dance to the music (experts say about 15 minutes of cardio five days a week is the minimum).  I play tennis, because all the other stuff bores the heck out of me, but do whatever you want to have fun as well as get your heart healthy.  Just don't expect to lose any weight doing it.

Oh, and just for a running commentary -- it's been over two years now and I'm still at (or below) my target weight.  I do fluctuate at times, particularly when I hurt my arm recently and had to stop lifting weights for six weeks (I gained three pounds but quickly lost it back when I started working out again). I know one thing -- I will NEVER be fat again.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lose the weight without the wait

Folks, I'm putting this here because I can't tell you how often I get asked my "secret" of how I look so completely different (And, yes, here are some "before" and "after" pictures so those of you who don't know me might stumble across this (as if that would happen) will understand what I'm talking about).

I lost 65 pounds in about nine months, but the important thing to take away from this is not the loss itself but rather the fact that anyone can do it. And, most importantly, that you can keep it off.

Invariably when asked how I did it people get disappointed -- that's because it's not a miracle diet, or some pill I discovered, but rather several steps that, while easy to follow, tend to need elaboration. So elaborate I'm going to, and hopefully you'll at least stick with me to the end. It won't cost you a thing so you have nothing to lose except all those excess pounds that are making you feel and look terrible.

I'm no doctor (although I have played one on TV) and the things I'm going to tell you about aren't any great secret. You can find them yourself on the web. About the only thing I can do for you is to distill the hundreds of hours of research I've done (along with the living proof) into three simple rules to follow, along with the details of why they work. But that will be enough for you to accomplish all you want -- on this you need to trust me (and if it doesn't work I'll refund double the amount you'll have to risk :>)

(This is me at my goal -- trust me, this is even more impressive than these two pictures can demonstrate, as the fat one doesn't show how really fat I was, and this one doesn't show how thin. But it was 65 pounds, and my waist went from 44 to 32).

Before we start, some simple thoughts:

If you really want to be healthy the rest of your life, forget dieting, at least how most people define diet (meaning a temporary change in your eating patterns). Diets just don't work -- 9 out of every 10 people who lose more than 20 pounds gain it all back within a year. Let me repeat those stats another way, less than 10% of folks who lose serious weight will gain it all back almost immediately.

Why is not hard to figure out. A diet, the way we think of it, is hard. People can stick with some things, no matter how hard, for a while, particularly if they see the finish line. But once they cross that finish line, all bets are off. Just look at Oprah if you have any doubts about this.

So how are you going to lose the weight and, more importantly, keep it off? Simple -- by changing the way you eat for the rest of your life. There's no other way to do it but rather than think of that as an insurmountable obstacle it should actually liberate you. You're going to end up with a plan that you will find easy to live with.

That's why fad diets, eating pineapples or nothing but yogurt, or crash courses which reduce your calories to nothing are not going to work. It's not even worth doing if you can't do it forever, and no one can do those things forever. But I promise you the things I tell you are not only something you can do for the rest of your life, they are things you are going to want to do. Trust me now and make sure you read all that I write here and it will happen. So let's get on with it.

Here are the three simple rules:

1. Cut out all refined sugar

We might as well start with the hardest thing first. First and foremost we need to cut out all refined sugar (or as nearly all as we can). This means absolutely NO non-diet soft drinks (no exceptions to this rule). You can have all the zero carb drinks you want, regardless of what sugar substitute is used (but it must be zero and not just "low" calorie). My favorite is Crystal Bay Cherry, sold here in Florida at Publix. It's the only one I've found flavored with Splenda, and it truly has no aftertaste. But if you have something else you like go for it. Cutting out non-diet soda alone will save most soda drinkers around 10-15 pounds a year.

And while we're at it, might as well bite the bullet for this as well -- no candy unless it's made for diabetics (and, again, contains zero sugar). Get used to it -- if you continue to eat refined sugar you'll end up as at least a stage 2 diabetic anyway (3 out of 4 overweight people have stage 2 diabetes and the fourth will get it before they die).

You can, however, have some dark chocolate in moderation (we'll talk about this in rule 2). The darker the better (I like Hershey's Dark Chocolate but try them all to see what you like. You may not appreciate the sweetness in Dark Chocolate until you've been off the sugar wagon for a while, though).

But we're not finished, we haven't even come to the toughest part. The really insidious form of sugar, HFC (High Fructose Corn syrup) is in almost every commercial product out there. That's because it's cheap, makes things taste good and preserves the shelf life of things that don't even need to taste sweet. Just pick up a package or can of something and the odds are good you'll see it listed. If it's listed in the first two or three ingredients run don't walk away from that product, no matter what it is.

For people with a sweet tooth this will be by far the hardest part of this process. But something amazing will happen, and while it may take as much as a month it will happen (because it does for anyone who follows this): soon your cravings for sugar will disappear.

It's actually pretty logical when you think about it. There was no refined sugar in most of civilization, and even when it was invented it remained the purview of the very rich. The average citizen's intake of sugar as recently as a few hundred years ago was about three teaspoons per year. Three per year. Or, in other words, about what you have now in a bite of a Snicker's bar. You will not miss it once your taste buds have become acclimated.

I hadn't had sugar for nearly 7 months when we had a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. I had one small sliver and while everyone else was saying how awful it tasted, so bland and weird, I was loving it. It was the best thing I had ever eaten in my life. There wasn't much sweetness in that pie, but what there was was almost overwhelming to me (and, no, a day later I had no more cravings for sugar. Once you get off the wagon you can safely sample a taste now and then without getting hooked. But be careful!).

I also find that the Crystal Bay I drink is so sweet (with Spenda) that it keeps any cravings from developing. So find yourself an artificial sweetener you like and you'll be fine.

2. Count Calories

And by count I mean really count. People tend to hate this, but it's necessary to do for at least the first few months. Let's face it, folks, the reason you're overweight is because you eat too much, and the simple math is that if you eat more calories than you burn you'll gain weight.

The more complicated truth is that, as humans, our mechanism for deciding how much to eat is screwed up. It was designed for a time when overeating was a Good Thing -- cavemen didn't know when their next meal would be, and it was far better to eat more than they needed then to not have enough when they did need it. So our tummies don't get full until about 30 minutes after the food hits the furnace -- which is far too late to back things up (let's not get the bulimics involved here, as they have far different problems).

A lot of diets take this handicap into account, having you drink water or eat non-fattening stuff (or taking fiber swelling pills) 30 minutes before you eat but in practice that's difficult (at least for me). If you can do it go right ahead (but avoid the pills -- no need to pay for this and you might get other things that are harmful to your system). Besides, it avoids the real issue which is learning how to control what you eat.

Ask yourself this question: do you eat so that when you are finished you feel too full? Or feel like you'd rather take a nap than engage in some activity? Because you should never feel that way. Feeling too full is a sign you over did it, that you didn't exercise sensible portion control. And the way to do that is to count calories.

Nowadays, with the information provided on all food products, and available on the web, and the great devices like cheap digital scales which can do most of the math for you, there's no excuse not to count calories. But do it right -- the first thing you need to determine is your Daily Calorie Requirement and you do this by first calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR); the number of calories you'd burn if you stayed in bed all day. Here's a link that I use:

BMR Calculator

After you have this you need to multiply it by your activity level. If you are moderately active, multiply it by 1.3 (if you are a couch potato, use 1.2). That will give you the total number of calories you need to eat each day.

Then you need to figure out how much to reduce this number so you lose weight. Typically you reduce it by 500 or so (so that you lose about a pound a week). No matter what your weight loss goal is, do not eat less than 1200 calories a day.

If you're a man, a simpler method is to just multiple your target weight by 100 -- if you want to weigh 160, then you eat 1600 calories per day. Sorry, women, but you are just more complicated (don't we men know it). For you I'd stick with the web site (but if you do want a simple equation, try your target weight times 80 and you'll get in the ballpark).

Note that if you start off very obese your calorie requirement is much higher -- it takes a lot of calories to maintain all that fat. So, conversely, you can cut fewer calories and still lose. This is why people tend to "plateau" -- they start with a certain number of calories and lose and then when their weight gets lower they don't readjust their calories and stop losing.

You have to accept this -- there is no such thing as a weight loss plateau. If you eat less calories than you burn, you'll lose weight. It's science, it's a fact, and the only reason people get stuck is they aren't adjusting for their new weight. So use the calculator above and keep adjusting and you'll keep losing. Or, if you use the "simple" formula understand that at first you'll lose more weight than you will at the end. If you go from two or three pounds per week to one pound per week don't panic! You'll get there eventually.

Once you get into the habit of counting calories, it really does become simple. After that, eat anything you want (as long as it fits the calorie totals). You'll soon discover you can eat just about as much vegetables and protein as you like, without even getting close to your totals, but that carbs quickly bring you to the brink. The old saw (which is mostly true) is that no one ever got fat eating vegetables (aside from potatoes). But man (and woman) does not live by veggies alone, and doing without things that make you happy is no way to live your life (and this will be your life from now on). So load up on the low calorie stuff and save the higher counts for things you can't live without. It's like budgeting your household.

And by all means drink! Drink tea, coffee, water, diet-drinks, but keep drinking. I drink several large (16 oz) glasses at each meal. You could, as I said, drink before hand, but I find it far easier to just drink while I eat. You absolutely will feel full, but not overfull.

3. Eat Frequently

Finally our last rule is the most fun. I'm giving you license to eat, as often as you want. You see, the body is an engine, and when it runs efficiently it burns fat. But if you let it stall, like any engine it takes a while to get going again. It's axiomatic, but you really do burn up calories processing food (so why can't you eat yourself thin? See rule 2).

To keep your engine running, you need to eat at least every three or four hours (except, obviously, when you are sleeping at night). For sure you don't want to skip breakfast, because its name is just what it sounds like -- it is the breaking of the fast your body has been on all night long. But don't stop there.

Eat something between breakfast and lunch. And between lunch and dinner. And, yes, even right before you go to bed. Don't believe all the horrors of "don't eat anything after 8pm". While it's true you don't want to eat a lot of carbs, that's kind of built-in to rule 2. In order to eat six meals a day you'll find you can't eat many carbs at all (or you'd be eating only a bite or two at every meal).

What you want to do is find a protein and/or fatty snack that works for you. Turkey or chicken is ideal -- but not fried or processed in any way (see step 1). I eat the deli meats Publix sells -- their Boar's Head chicken is to die for, and at only 80 calories per 2 ounces (which is a lot) you can stuff your face without going over the limit. Cheese will work, too, but it's calorie dense so you don't get much (with hard cheeses -- soft cheese have a lot more water). Eggs are absolutely great if you like them (I don't) but there are tons of other choices.

If you budget out 100-200 calories or so for your snacks and choose wisely you have the added benefit of never being hungry -- you can't, because you're only an hour or two away from any meal! It also means your main meals -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- can be smaller since you won't be starving when you sit down to eat.

The Finish Line

Never being hungry is really how you want to live your life. You don't want to be hungry at any point, do you? And there is no need to be. I lost 65 pounds (around 8 pounds a month) and never once did I feel empty or deprived. That's how I know I can do this the rest of my life.

Remember, when you lose all the weight you want you will still stick by these rules, but you will increase your calorie counts. I find it very difficult to eat enough now -- a good problem! Indeed, I'm going to lose a few more pounds (and get really ripped) just because it's so easy. But I promise you that no matter how much you want to lose as long as you follow these steps you will do it. So what are you waiting for?

Extra Credit

For those of you who are really obese (say 60 pounds or more -- note that this fit me as well) or hate the fact that their loss has slowed way down (as it will as you get closer to your goal) there's one more rule you can follow. It, however, is a harder rule to follow your entire life, although some can and do, and that's why I hesitate to mention it.

But it's something I used for the last five pounds and it's very effective, so I present it in the sake of completeness. Here it is:

4. Count Carbs

We touched upon this in Rule 2, because carbs are so high in calories, but many many diets are based on the total elimination (or at least drastic cut back) of carbs. The reason is that carbs, while a necessary nutrient, are something the body can make out of the fat it has stored. So when you cut back or eliminate carbs the body brings up those fat reserves and converts them -- thus getting you thinner in no time at all.

The downside is that carbs are what makes eating and life truly wonderful. Carbs are, simply, everything that isn't protein and fat. But mostly carbs are in breads and pastas, rice and potatoes, milk, and, of course, part and parcel of all things sweet.

If you want to try a low-carb diet by all means give it a shot. However, I would not go to no carbs (the classic start up Adkins diet). Aim for between 75 and 100 grams of carbs a day. Even this will be tough -- you will have to go to whole wheat (I use the Arnold's 100% whole wheat, which is actually extremely tasty and not at all like cardboard which every other whole wheat I ever ate tasted like) and be careful about how much milk you drink. And remember that 100% whole wheat (the good stuff) is a completely different animal from a product that just says "whole wheat" (that latter beast will have processed grains and not be nearly as healthy, nor as low in carbs).

A trick not many know -- you can subtract any fiber from the carbs, so if the whole wheat bread you are eating has, say 20 grams of carbs but 5 grams of fiber it's only 15 grams of carbs you need to count (the reason for this is that fiber, while essential to the digestive system, isn't processed at all by the body and just passes through and while it does so it takes some carbs along for the ride).

This is also the secret to those folks who eat plenty of fiber at every meal that contains carbs -- I eat at least two stalks of celery at every meal. It's an advanced trick you don't have to follow but very very useful. Benefiber is also good in this regard. I also make sure I eat fiber late at night in particular. If you can eat 5 grams of fiber at each of your six meals throughout the day the weight will melt off of you without trying.

After you've lost all the weight you want to you can try increasing your carbs, carefully (but always being aware of Rule 2). I find I can eat white bread just fine now, but I don't want it as much (because that Arnold 100% whole wheat really is tasty). Many folks on a low or no carb diet say they can't ever go back to eating them but I think that's just silly -- carbs aren't poison (although sugar comes close and should have a skull and crossbones on the box).

And now you know everything I know about weight loss. Well, almost everything... there is the little subject of exercise...

(to be continued...)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why in the world is Carman SanDiego Following Me?

So the other day I create a twitter account in order to score some free tickets for the new Star Trek movie. I wasn't successful, mostly because I understood the process so poorly my "tweet" didn't even get to the right person -- not exactly like sending an email (which is indeed the whole point).

And now I have three followers -- yep, three people who have subscribed to my twittering even though I have only tweeted once and swear as the electronic Gods are my witness not to do so again. Vast and sundry reasons for this, not the least of which is that even if Einstein or perhaps Robert Heinlein were alive today and tweeting it wouldn't be of any interest whatsoever: it's a rare writer indeed who can write something at the spur of the moment in 140 characters that's worth reading (Einstein's tweet -- "Still working on that space/time thing: man, it's harder than it looks!").

But totally aside from my disdain and lack of need for this bizarre form of communication, I am at a loss as to understand why anyone would want to sign up to follow me. It can't be because they know me, or know of me -- if they did they would most certainly take advantage of the forums I host, or the blogs I write to communicate and/or keep up to date on anything I might write that would be of interest.

No, it's most certainly some sort of random decision and I'd love to understand just what that thought process is. It's almost assuredly because of my "tweet" name (Kelleytoons -- everything else I tried was taken). Does that actually mean anything to anyone? Did they visit the Kelleytoons site to see what was going on? (No, because of what I wrote earlier).

So much of the universe is random, and human behavior certainly fits that model, but the temptation to contact some of these folks and find out the answer to this mystery is almost overwhelming. I say "almost" because it would involve, don't you know, the process I am loathe to participate in.

Besides... I'm don't know if I really want to know. When I was doing a lot of local television I used to get recognized all the time at the supermarket, or going out to eat, and while most of the time it was very nice and flattering there were some occasions that it was disturbing. Once a guy stopped me as I was coming out of a steakhouse to tell me he wanted to be my agent, that I was "ten times better than Leno!" and that we could get a big Hollywood deal. Right. Or the teenage girl who called up our talk show and wanted to date me. Yep, the Lolita thing is right up there at the top of my bucket list.

I'm not sure I like being stalked, but I'm pretty sure the more I know about it the less I'll like it. Ignorance is bliss.