Archive for July, 2013

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the books I’ve read recently is The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker. In it, he goes after the myth of how everything in human behavior is learned.

When I was in university, I took a sociology class and this is basically what they taught – that all behavior is culturally determined. Gender roles are assigned by society. The reason that men are physically larger than women is because men are encouraged to be more aggressive and therefore spend more time exercising muscles that contribute to bulk. But if women were encouraged the same way, they could be as large as men.

It’s all culturally determined and reinforced by society’s rules.

This is the doctrine of the Blank Slate – the idea that the human mind is basically empty and we can program anything we want on it.

Nonsense, claims Pinker. Probably 70% of our behavior is genetically determined. The reason that men are physically larger than women is due to our genetic makeup, not because society wants it that way. Men like math and science because it was useful (in a manner of sorts) for millions of years, whereas women like social sciences because it was useful to them for millions of years. These traits were naturally selected, and you and I inherited them.

Indeed, the human mind comes pre-loaded with software. We still have to learn it, but there things we don’t have to learn what to do.

For example, you don’t have to teach kids how to learn a language. They just naturally pick it up. They still have to learn it, but you don’t sit down and explain how language is used to communicate. The reason kids naturally learn it is because there is a genetic basis for humans to learn, acquire and use language.

The mind is not a blank slate – there are certain things we just do and it is a product of human evolution.


The second doctrine that Pinker addresses is the Noble Savage. This is the idea that humans, in their natural state, are peaceful and live in harmony with the world. It is only the corrupting influence of civilization that turns them into barbarians.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Study after study after study refutes this idea; indigenous peoples are as violent as the rest of us. Indeed, it’s only through the civilizing process that any of us threw off violence and instead figured out how to live together.

The third doctrine that Pinker talks about is the Ghost in the Machine. This belief says that there is a part of humanity that lives outside of the brain. Our bodies may die but there is a part of us that survives and can survive indefinitely outside of the body.

The contrast to this is that our personalities are shaped by our brains which are unbelievably complex organs. Our entire being, instead, is shaped by the ways our brains process information. Without a functioning brain, our “self” ceases to exist. Obviously, this has important ramifications for some religions which assert that we have fully-aware souls that can exist outside of our bodies. The “self” we think exists is simply our brain’s way of processing information and it works hard to maintain this illusion.

Interesting stuff and I learned a lot that I never knew. It made me think “Man, I wish I knew this stuff back in 1999 when I took that course.” Of course, by disagreeing with the professor so much, I probably wouldn’t have gotten an A.

Back then, I would have cared.

Today, I probably wouldn’t.

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One thing my cat has figured out is the approximate hour when I arrive home. If she’s off on the time, she definitely knows the sound of the car.

Every day when I get home, I pull up to the condo unit and park my car. Five seconds later, the cat is sitting in the window sill waiting for me to come into the house, meowing.

As I walk into the house, she quickly runs away from the window sill to the opposite side of the condo such that when I open the door, it looks like she lazily saunters from the back of it as if to say “Oh, there you are. I wasn’t anticipating your arrival at all.”

But of course she was. I can see her waiting for me.


Another thing the cat does is listen to footsteps. Occasionally when I am home, when she hears somebody walking up to the unit (not the wife, someone else) she charges to the front door or to the same window sill to await the arrival of another one of her owners. I have seen her do this multiple times.

Sometimes that cat is like a dog.

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Ever since I started tracking my weight, and especially since I got my FitBit, I’ve been thinking: What are my fitness goals?

Well, this is what I am currently targeting:

  1. Stay loose in my joints

    My hips are in tough shape. They hurt. And I think a lot of it has to do with not moving around for many years due to (a) having a computer desk job, and (b) laziness.

    Because of (b) I am mostly to blame, although my physiology means that I have a genetic predisposition to it.

    Getting out and walking may not reverse the damage in my hips, but hopefully it can slow it down or prevent it from getting worse. The looser you are and the more you move, the better your body feels.

    Exercise is good for you.

  2. Get 10,000 steps per day

    FitBit records your daily steps and a typical goal is 10,000 steps per day. I’m currently at 17 days in a row of reaching that.

    It’s work to get it every day. For the past couple of weeks I have been going for a walk around my building during my lunch hour at work. It gets me 1200 steps, so I got twice around for ~2400 steps. That’s about a mile. I can’t believe it’s that much but I’ve checked it multiple times.

    When I come home, if I don’t have enough (and I never do), I walk to the grocery store (either Trader Joe’s or Fred Meyer or both) and pick some stuff up. Sometimes I don’t feel like going out so I just walk back and forth in my condo watching Netflix on my iPad. That passes the time, too.

    I’m not sure what I am going to do in winter when it’s cold and I don’t want to go out. I may just go to the gym and walk for an hour on the treadmill.


  3. Look better

    Everyone who says “I don’t exercise to look better, I only do it for the health benefits” is lying. The health benefits are good, but looking better is a great side benefit.

    Exercise is not a great way to lose weight. In the five months since I’ve been doing targeted exercise I attribute exactly 0 lbs weight loss to it.

    Not. A. Single. Pound.

    I’m not sure I look better (d’oh!). I’m not even sure I feel better (double d’oh)! But, I can definitely hike a lot longer and a lot further. I guess that counts for something.

  4. Get down to 12% body fat for one week

    I recently got a FitBit Aria scale which records your weight and your % body fat. It does this by sending an electrical signal through your feet and then doing some fancy math based upon your weight.

    In 2010, I took a test at work and I was 22% body fat. In 2011 and 2012 I was 18% body fat, although instead of a signal through my feet, I held a scanner in my hands.

    It’s not enough to hit 12% one morning; I have to do it every day for a week for it to mean anything because those scales are sensitive to what you ate, how dehydrated you are, and so forth.

So those are my fitness goals.

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In March of this year, I made a vow – I would go to the gym, or go hiking, or a combination thereof, 8 times per month or I would give my evil friend $250. $250 is not so much that I would weasel out of it, but more than I ever want to pay him.

Kris Mydske

Since I started this in March, I successfully went to the gym or went hiking 8 times in March, April and May. In June, I was gone for half the month and went hiking three times. But, I went walking around Europe and got 25,000 steps (or equivalent since one day I biked 20 miles) for 8 days. So I figured that counted.

And this month, July, so far I have hiked six times and gone to the gym once for a total of 7 trips with four days remaining in the month. I think I will end up going on July 31 to round out the month.

Since I started doing this, I have come up with some rules:

  1. I have to go hiking or to the gym 8 times per month.

  2. If I do more than 8 per month, I can carry one over if I go 10 times per month. If I only go 9 times, then I cannot carry it over to the next month.

  3. It only counts to carry it over if it occurs in the last two days of the month. So, if I go 10 times in the first 15 days, then I cannot carry any credits over. But if I go 10 times, and one is on the last day, I can carry it to the next month and only have to go 7 times.

  4. I initially started playing with counting some hikes as two gym sessions. If a hike is especially difficult, then I can say it counts as two.

    But I never actually have used this. I may count it as one and a half one day if I have to in order to avoid paying my friend.

    The thing is that my hikes are very difficult (for me) and can last from anywhere between 3 – 6 hours. But a gym session only lasts 45 minutes to an hour, so it’s actually easier. But at the gym, I target my upper body and stomach whereas on a hike it’s mostly my legs (although I’m carrying a backpack which somehow gets heavier every single mile I carry it even though it’s getting lighter because I am drinking water).

    The net result is that the muscles are equally fatigued. The next day, I usually feel worse after the gym than I do after a hike.

You can see I have a few rules but I have to account for all the possibilities. No doubt that over time I will add a few more.

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Last weekend, the wife and I went on a hike to the north cascades, which is about a 2 to 2.5 hour drive. The hike was 12 miles round trip and 4000 feet elevation gain, so including travel time and hiking time, this was an all-day affair. We had to leave fairly early (before 8:30 am) in order to get there in good time.

Name: Sahalee Arm
Distance: 12.1 miles
Starting elevation: 3516 feet
High point: 7617 feet
Elevation gain: 4101 feet

This hike is deceptive, and a little annoying, because it starts off easy and gets more difficult as you get closer to the end. I don’t mean difficult because you get tired as time passes, but instead more difficult because it gets steeper the further you go.



You can see from the graph above that last little bit is much steeper than the beginning part. It’s also on loose rock, known as scree, which is slippery and hard to climb.

I ended up taking over 35,000 steps that day, most of them on the hike, as per FitBit:


Below are some pictures from the hike. Below is a shot of the wife trudging her way up the mountain. We hadn’t even reached the difficult part yet:


From the 4.5 mile mark, you can see how far we went:


We didn’t go to the top because it’s still covered in snow and the trail only officially goes to as far as we went. Besides, we had just come 6 miles and 4100 feet. But if we wanted to continue, it was another 1000 feet up and 1/2 mile to go.

No, thanks. I was done. Below is a shot of the very top:


Looking out to the top isn’t that interesting. Instead, if you go back at the Google Earth image, you can see a lake. Here’s a view looking out from the top of the mountain:


I’m not the only one who loafs around when I get to the top:




And that’s what we did this past weekend.

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As of two months ago, I started drinking beer occasionally. I try to limit myself to one per week although this past week I have not met that goal. Part of the problem of abstaining from beer my entire life is that now that I’ve found a couple that I like, I want to try more.

I’ve discovered that the reason I didn’t like beer previously is because I found it too bitter, and what makes it bitter are hops. Thus, I try to find beer that is not too hoppy, just like what I drank in the Czech Republic.

And I have found some. Sort of.

I was in Trader Joe’s and I found a Plznr. A pilsner is a type of beer that isn’t too hoppy, and I like Trader Joe’s stuff. It also said it was Czech-style beer.

So, I bought it.


You can see it’s from the Joseph Brau brewing company, which is Trader Joe’s brewing company based out of San Jose, CA. Anyhow, I bought this one and I liked it. It’s not as good as the Pilsner Urquell I had in the Czech Republic, but still not too bad.

I have subsequently tried two more different beers from the Joseph Brau type. One was Moravian and the other was Bohemian, both regions of the Czech Republic. I liked both drinks and I want to try the rest in order to decide which ones I like the best.

The problem with drinking beer is that I do not want to get a beer belly. That’s why I have to restrict my beer consumption to once per week (other than this week which has been an utter #fail).

So, if you have recommendations for me, let me know. Just be aware that it’ll take me a while to get to them since I try to budget myself to one per week.

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A couple of weeks ago I was going through the grocery store when I picked up a pack of batteries for my GPS which I take to go hiking. In general, two AA batteries last a bit more than two hikes. They say that the battery lifetime of the GPS is supposed to be 16 hours. Well, it’s not but it’s not that far off.

I was in the store and I figured I’d pick them up. They were a bit more expensive but I thought I’d give them a shot. They were these new Energizer Advanced Lithium batteries.

I thought that this was just a marketing gimmick. To me, all batteries are the same. But perhaps these would be better.

It turns out these are better.

I did my first hike with these new batteries on July 13. It was an 8-mile roundtrip hike. I did my second hike with them on July 20, a 12-mile roundtrip  hike.

The GPS is still showing full battery.

I couldn’t believe it. Usually I can squeeze 2.5 trips out of a pair of batteries but these ones are still showing full after two hikes, the second of which as a 7.5 hour excursion.

Maybe this is not just a marketing gimmick after all.

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About 7 or 8 years ago I stopped drinking so much Coke and Pepsi. I used to drink it all the time but one day I decided that I was drinking too much of it. So, I stopped.

Cold turkey.

I still had it once in a while (it’s not on the banned food list), but I don’t really have any cravings for it.

Over time, I have eliminated or reduced a few more things from my diet:

  • Fruit juice (pretty much the same thing as Coke and Pepsi from a sugar perspective)
  • Potatoes (very starchy… including french fries)
  • Pasta (wasn’t intentional, it just turned out that way)

Yet another big change occurred a couple of weeks ago when the wife and I added something new to our diets – fruits and vegetable smoothies.

You read that right.

We saw this Netflix video where a guy went on all-smoothie diet and lost tons of weight and his health issues cleared up. We decided to give it a try. Instead of going all-smoothie, we now frequently replace one meal (breakfast or dinner) with a vegetable + fruit smoothie instead.

When we first tried it out, they weren’t very good. You can’t go too heavy on the vegetables because it’s too hard to drink; you need to add fruit to give it some sweetness. Then you toss it in the blender, add a bit of water, grind it up and then drink it. It’s not liquid, it’s got some consistency to it.

And it tastes not bad.

Because it’s in near-liquid format the nutrients in the vegetables get into your bloodstream faster. Also, by consuming these smoothies, it leaves you more full and there’s no room for other things that may be bad for you. I don’t find that it leaves me full for as long, but it does leave me full such that other things don’t make it into my diet as much (cheese, bread, rice, chocolate, etc).

We haven’t been doing this long and we don’t do it every single day but I’ve discovered that we go through fruits and vegetables much faster in the fridge and have to stock up often.

We shall see how it affects my health.

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For many years I resisted reading books electronically. I preferred them in my hands right in front of me.

But lately I’ve been reading a lot of books on my Kindle apps – on my phone, iPad and Windows 8 machine. What I like about the Kindle is that I can read it on any of a number of devices and it syncs my latest page read, and that I can purchase and download and start reading a book within 60 seconds.

60 seconds!

How am I supposed to resist that temptation? Alas, books are, and always have been, my weakness.

Anyhow, I’ve read a few good ones lately. Here they are in reverse chronological order since my last post:

  1. Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Raza Aslan

    I heard about this book on the way to work, listening to NPR radio. I thought it sounded interesting so I decided to buy it. I enjoy reading about biblical archaeology as well as textual criticism, and this was right up my alley.

    In the book, Aslan looks at the central message of Jesus from the Bible interpreted within the time where and when he lived – first century Palestine which was occupied by Rome. Furthermore, Aslan examines the relationships between the (corrupt) Temple priests with Rome and why Jesus preached against it, and that was his central message (the kingdom of God would soon reverse it).

    I enjoyed the book and learned a lot of new things.

  2. The Folly of Fools, by Robert Trivers

    Out of all the books on this list, this one was my least favorite. It’s about the logic of self-deception in everyday life – how we as humans deceive ourselves.

    It has plenty of examples of how we deceive ourselves and what the results are but it didn’t go into any of the neuroscience behind it and how it may be reinforced through sociological or evolutionary functions. It was a little disappointing.

    Other Amazon reviews only gave it 3-stars, and I agree with that assessment.

  3. The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker

    Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is the most important book I have ever read about human development. I think that this one is #2.

    When I went to university in the late 1990’s I took a sociology course. In it, the basic premise is that society is the way it is because we learn everything. Gender roles are assigned arbitrarily, crime is a learned response, and so forth.

    This book says: Nonsense!

    Humans are not a blank slate upon which you can write anything. Instead, we are like computers with pre-installed software (our brains) that are predisposed to learning certain things. The reason why there are more men in mathematics and more women in social professions is not because society picked-and-chose it and reinforces it, but because that’s what men and women naturally prefer. It was reinforced to us through evolution.

    That is not to say that everything that is natural is good; far from it (the number one mistake people make when they hear this). But we are not blank slates that can be molded any which way.

  4. Evolution for Everyone, by David Sloan Wilson

    Out of all the science books on this list, this one is my favorite. The book is not about the study of evolution the way you might learn about it in school. Instead, it’s about how to apply it in every day life.

    The book is very relevant. Even people who don’t believe in it can learn a thing or two from the book.

  5. Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, by Robert Kurzban

    I wrote a little bit about this in my blog post about how the brain works. It changed my thinking about how our brains operate and that it is a series of modules (at least, according to the latest research).

    In the final chapter, Kurzban finally explains why everyone else is a hypocrite, that is, why we see hypocritical behavior in others but not ourselves (i.e., the self-serving bias). It’s because it is an evolutionary adaptation. We do not want others to get too far ahead of us because it reduces our own survival fitness (we don’t want to be left behind). However, if we are hypocritical, it can enhance our survival fitness and therefore our brains do a lot of work to minimize the contradictions in what we say is fair for others vs. what we ourselves do.

    Our brains are designed to survive and reproduce (whatever works gets reinforced), not act fair and rationally at all times.

So those are the books I’ve been reading lately. I give them all five stars except for #2 which I give three stars.

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One kind of strange habit that our cat has is that she likes to hang out in the bathroom whenever we’re in it, too.

When I take a shower and I leave the door open, she frequently lays on the mat just outside the shower. Sometimes, she jumps on the bathtub ledge and wanders in between the shower curtain and shower liner. Other times, she sits on the ledge by the sink when I shave.

Lately, she’s started lying down by the sink when I brush my teeth.


Sometimes she’ll even stick her head halfway over the sink while I am brushing and then I have to move my head to the other half so that if any toothpaste falls out of my mouth, it doesn’t land on her head.

You might say “Who cares? Just let it!”

Well, I care. I will have to clean it up after and it would be too messy compared to having to simply move my head.

The cat also sometimes puts her paws in the sink. Sometimes I turn the water taps on but she doesn’t really mind. She just lets her paws get a little wet and then sits back down.

What a strange cat.

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