Using https

Now that Let’s Encrypt is up and running, and now that Dreamhost has integrated it into their tool set, I have finally gotten security turned on for my website.

Just visit philipbrewer.net using https instead of http and you can browse the site secure in the knowledge that the pages will be encrypted in transit. As if that mattered for a public website. But still—might be useful, and costs nothing except a whole bunch of cycles on your computer and my hosting service’s computers.

I had actually turned on encryption some time ago for the admin pages, so that I could securely administer the site even when my access to the internet wasn’t secure (over public WiFi, for example). But I hadn’t pulled the trigger to route general traffic over https because the certificate I used was self-signed, which meant that I could trust it, because I knew which certificate I’d installed, but the general public couldn’t tell the difference between my site and a fake site set up by a some perfidious fraudster. The new Let’s Encrypt certificate is signed by a well-known issuer, so any modern browser will show the handsome green padlock.

clipUpdate your bookmarks appropriately!

Winter parkour prep—a look back

A few months ago, I wrote about my plan to do some strength training to prepare myself for parkour training this summer. As I’m now working on my plan for the summer, I thought I ought to evaluate how my winter’s training had gone.

There were four specific areas I wanted to work on:

  • Hanging
  • Wall support/wall dip
  • Squatting
  • Toe flexibility

Although my progress was mixed, I’m reasonably happy with how things have gone.

I’m most pleased with the hanging. I don’t remember for sure how far I had gotten last summer—I think I remember hanging for forty seconds—but I’m sure I beat it this year. (Recent best: one minute fifteen seconds.) In addition, I started adding negative pull-ups to my workout, and can now do four of them. (And do them with pretty good control.) I may be within striking distance of my first pull-up!

I’ve been quite lazy about the wall support and wall dip exercises. In my brain the reason for this is that I don’t have a good wall to practice on, which is crazy, because the window seat is right here about two feet from where I’m sitting, and it’s a perfectly good place to do the exercise. It’s not perfect, though: It’s too low, so I have to bend my knees to get my feet off the ground, and that means that I can’t do the most parkour-like version of the exercise in which my feet can contribute to the effort. Which is no excuse for not doing the upper-body part of the exercise, but that’s brains for you.

I’m not sure I made much headway with the squatting, although I figured out that ankle flexibility is my main limitation. If I prop my heels up a couple of inches, I can squat down, linger there for a while, and stand back up again. Without the heel support, I need some other aid—something to hang onto to keep myself from topping over backward. I’ve been doing a lot of stretching for calf (and hamstring) tightness, and also just spending some time in a squat (with heel support). I’ve also done some bodyweight squats, going as low as I can, and some goblet squats (where the weight allows me to get all the way down without toppling over, and provides some resistance).

I think I did gain some toe flexibility, or perhaps just a better understanding of my limitations. I’m hoping that I improved enough that I’ll be able to do things like quadrupedal motion barefoot without hurting my toes. In any case, I’m pretty sure that even my most minimal shoes will provide adequate protection that I can train while I continue to work on it.

Besides just progress, I thought I’d mention one further insight: For a while in the autumn I’d been just a little restless during the night—I’d wake up and toss and turn, and often end up getting up for a bit before I was able to get back to sleep. I was very surprised to discover that this immediately got better. My theory is that it was due to the stretching I’ve been doing to improve my squatting: My lack of flexibility meant that I’d start getting achy and uncomfortable after a few hours of lying still, and the stretching improved that almost immediately.

As I said up at the top, I’m working on my plan for the summer. I’ll be sharing those thoughts shortly.

Deliberately hilly walk

I think Champaign-Urbana is great. The university gives it cultural and scientific amenities far beyond its size. It’s a cheap place to live, which not only enables my lifestyle, it enables the lifestyle of any number of clever creative people who choose to live where they can make enough from their art to support themselves.

Just about the only thing that CU really lacks is relief—that is, a variation in height from one place to another.

What I mean to say is: it’s really, really flat. Take for example, this image:

Looking toward Yankee Ridge

That’s the hilly direction. I’m looking toward Yankee Ridge, which is about three miles away from where I’m standing. It may not look like much, but that hill in the distance is a big deal when you’re on a bicycle. At least, it is if you’re used to riding in Central Illinois.

Given the terrain, we don’t get enough hiking on hills, unless we make an effort to go to the hills. So, that’s what we did yesterday. We drove to Fox Ridge, a nearby state park which has some hills.

I remember hiking in Fox Ridge last summer, shortly before our big Kal-Haven trail hike, and finding that we were in pretty good shape for dealing with the hills, despite our very limited practice. That was less true this spring. I was a bit tired from my unexpectedly fast run the previous day, and we were both a bit out of shape from a lack of hills over the winter.

Still, we did okay. We saw some spring wildflowers, like these dutchman’s breeches:

img_20160416_101623469_26401844861_oAnd this buttercup:

img_20160416_101630244_26468029235_o

And this solomon’s seal:

img_20160416_110056171_26401892471_oTotal hiking was probably only a little over 3 miles, but the hills made it a very different sort of hike than our much longer hikes closer to home. Plus, we got to spend time in the woods.

So, that’s another bonus of Champaign-Urbana: We’ve got Fox Ridge State Park just 50 miles away.

Accidentally fast run

The weather finally became what I want from weather: gloriously warm and sunny. Friday I celebrated by going for a run.

Conventional wisdom for a while now has been that faster foot-turnover—at a rate of 180 steps per minute—is better. Supposedly it maximizes the amount of energy stored in the elastic properties of your feet and ankles which can then be returned as free energy in the next stride. Slower foot-turnover means you have to work harder twice—first, using muscle strength to absorb the energy of the foot-strike, and then using fresh muscle power to generate the next stride.

To work on that, I’d downloaded a metronome app to my phone, and set it to tick at 180 bpm. I started that up, and started running in sync with the ticking.

I’m sure it’s possible to run at a slow pace with fast foot-turnover, but doing so did not come naturally to me. I sprinted off down the road at quite a bit faster than my usual running pace.

Perhaps, if I’d focused on running slowly at 180-foot-strikes per minute I’d have been okay, but the other thing I was focusing on was making my foot-strikes as gentle as possible. (There’s recent research supporting the obvious: minimizing impact loading of each step reduces running injuries.)

With my attention focused on faster, lighter foot-strikes, I managed to get myself pretty out of breath in just a mile or so. At around 2 miles, I passed a playground that I like to pause at—I practice my balancing by running around the perimeter formed by (I think) 1×6 boards, and then do some inverted rows using a piece of playground equipment. That gave me a chance to catch my breath a little, and I walked for a minute or so after I finished there.

Once I started up running again, I ran a bit more slowly. I’d turned off the metronome, although I was trying to keep the 180 bpm pace in my head. I was doing a bit better at keeping a lower pace, until I came into sight of the traffic light to cross Route 45, and saw that Jackie was also approaching the intersection, about a block ahead of me.

I responded to that by picking up the pace (again), and managed to cross on the same walk signal. Then I quit running, and walked the rest of the way home with her. The run came in a 3.2 miles, at an average pace that is nothing to write home about, except that it includes the time playing on the playground equipment.

Next step: Figure out how to run slowly with fast foot-turnover.

By the way, this is still true:

The image at the top is the view out the study window, where you can see that our neighbor’s flowering tree is in full bloom. Ours is perhaps a day or two behind.

Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)

On finishing the two-week test, and gently adding carbs back in

The two-week test of eating very low carb went pretty well. Except for a day and a half at the beginning, I felt fine right on through, and I did a pretty good job of actually following the diet. I also saw pretty good improvement in the things I’d hoped a low-carb diet might improve.

So now (starting yesterday), I’m trying to add carbs back in—slowly, just one thing at a time, with an eye toward learning how much and which kinds of carbs I can eat without finding myself right back where I was.

I do know a couple of things already. The biggest is that I’m pretty much over sugar.

I always ate huge amounts of sugar as a child, and continued to consume sugar in vast quantities as an adult. It was only in 2003 when I finally cut most soda pop out of my diet, and I still got plenty of sugar—children’s breakfast cereals, sweet pastries and deserts, sugar in my coffee, high fructose corn syrup in my tomato soup, and even small quantities of soda pop as a mixer for my cocktails.

That’s done. I feel a lot better with almost no sugar in things, and things with sugar in them taste too sweet now. I don’t want to give up chocolate, but the chocolates I’ve been eating have only 7 g of sugar per square, and there are darker chocolates with even less that I’ll probably want to switch to. (And I have no problem making one square a serving.)

We’re making plans to donate the remaining unopened packages of children’s breakfast cereals, peanut butter with sugar in it, and so on to the food bank. (I feel a little bad about giving food I consider unhealthy to poor people. On the other hand, I think poor people should be able to eat what they want, rather than what affluent people think would be better for them. In the end, I come down on the side of figuring it’s better to donate this stuff than to trash it.)

Other carbs are more complex. (Genuinely no pun intended.) I really miss breakfast cereal in the morning, and there are plenty that are low in sugar. I miss toast. I miss sandwiches. I miss rice, and chapatis, and potatoes with my meat dishes.

Jackie and I bake our own sourdough bread, and can make it full of whole grains with no added sugar. That’ll be the last thing I delete from my diet, if it turns out I can’t handle even a little milled grain in my diet.

Oh, and I miss beer. But I miss good beer, and have little interest in “low-carb” beer.

In fact, I have little interest in “low-carb” anything. I’ve become a whole-foods kinda guy these past 10 years. I quit eating anything with artificial sweeteners a long time ago, and don’t expect to eat any going forward. So-called “natural” sweeteners are either just another way to eat sugar (various syrups or fruit juices) or else they’re unnatural as far as I’m concerned, even if extracted from a natural source.

The only exceptions I expect to make are for special cases: non-food items like toothpaste, cough drops, etc.

I’ve been very pleased with my success in giving up my cocktails with sugary mixers—I’ve switched to drinking my whiskey neat or on the rocks. That’s had the side effect of tempting me to the more expensive whiskeys in our liquor cabinet, but that’s not been a problem so far. In fact, just the small amounts of soda pop I drank as mixers probably added a few dollars a month to our grocery bill. Saving that money will not completely offset the cost the more expensive whiskeys, but will subsidize it some.

To touch on the things I was specifically hoping a low-carb diet would help:

  • Allergy symptoms: Seemed to help a lot, but hard to be sure because the allergen load is so variable and idiosyncratic. Adding carbs back in seemed like it might be bringing my congestion right back, but hard to be sure for the same reasons. I’ll continue to monitor, but I’m prepared to go back to very low carb, if that’s what it takes to stay off the allergy meds.
  • Blood pressure: It was not immediate, but around the middle of the second week my blood pressure had gotten a good bit lower. I have cut my lisinopril dose in half (informally, by cutting the tablets in half), and will continue monitoring to see if it stays down while I’m adjusting my carbs. If it settles in this range, I’ll talk to my doctor about changing my prescription.
  • Blood sugar: The Savoy Rec Center, where I teach tai chi, has a free health screening once a month where they’ll check your blood pressure, but also your blood sugar! It’s not a fasting number, so not really comparable with the number from my physical, but it came up 111 which I gather is perfectly fine for someone who has eaten and is not yet just about to eat again.
  • Weight: Over the two weeks, I lost 6.8 pounds, taking my weight from 160.2 to 153.4. I’m assuming that about 5 of those pounds were glycogen and associated water, and will not be surprised to see a large fraction of them come back on as I allow myself to consume more carbs. Still, taking those numbers at face value, I’ve reduced my BMI from 24.7 (near the top of the healthy range) down to 23.7 (much closer to the midpoint of the healthy range). Purely for aesthetic reasons I would be pleased to have less of a spare tire, but frankly I’m looking pretty good already.

I have to call this a tentative success. If I can add in just those few carbs I mentioned—occasional instances of cereal and bread at breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a starch course with dinner, a piece of dark chocolate now and then—I’ll upgrade it to an unqualified success.

Oh, and beer. For complete success, I’ll have to be able to drink a beer now and then.

Report on exogenous cannabinoid use in exercise

Having written about endocannabinoids as the likely source of runners high, I wanted to draw people’s attention to this report, which talks (in the middle third) about the use of exogenous cannabinoids by athletes.

If runner’s high is not enough, why do people exercise on THC, the active ingredient in cannabis? It is not unusual for athletes, like other social groups that follow common routines, to combine popular lifestyle activities like alcohol (beer after racing) and food consumption (pre-race pasta parties), with others in the clan. The same appears true of cannabis use, enhancing leisure and social activities such as getting together for a run or race.

Source: REPORT: Smoking and Exercise – Dr. Phil Maffetone

Even the first bit (on nicotine as a possible performance-enhancing drug) is interesting, with an appropriate emphasis on tobacco’s dangers. The bit on marijuana, viewed largely through the lens of its possible beneficial effects both during and after exercise, made for a nice contrast.

Tomato soup has high fructose corn syrup?

I was eating my lunchtime salad, and on a whim (because it was a chill, blustery day) decided that I’d really like some soup. So I grabbed a can from the cupboard and heated up some Campbell’s tomato soup. I didn’t check the label, because, you know, tomato soup. What would be in it? Tomatoes, broth, maybe some onion, and salt, right?

One sip, and I was shocked to find it tasted sweet.

My first thought was that eating low carb had sensitized me to the taste of sweet, and I guess it has (I’d always perceived Campbell’s tomato soup as salty in the past) but it’s not just that.

After that one spoonful, I looked at the label. A 1/2 cup serving of soup has an astonishing 20 g of carbs, 12 of them from sugar. The number two ingredient is high fructose corn syrup!

I know I shouldn’t find this as surprising as I did. If it’s processed food, of course it’s going to have high fructose corn syrup. I just hadn’t thought of it, because even a week and a half into eating low-carb, I hadn’t needed to get into the habit of checking labels.

Jackie cooks almost all our meals (although I’m cooking a good share of mine, while I’m doing the low-carb thing). We rarely eat processed food, but we keep some on hand so we can satisfy just this sort of sudden urge.

The upshot is that I haven’t had to get in the habit of checking the nutrition labels, because most of what we eat scarcely has labels—because we eat food, not industrially manufactured food-like substances.

I ended up eating about three tablespoons of the soup, and then putting it in the fridge. Maybe we can make some use of it, putting the odd spoonful here and there into some dish that needs a little tomato and little salt—and a little sugar.

Low-carb, one week on

I’m halfway through my two-week test, and thought I’d provide a quick progress report.

It has been both easy and hard to eat this way. Easy, in that I’ve certainly never been hungry. Hard, in that I’ve already gotten very bored with the things I can eat. (This is only because I’m a picky eater; there’s not much that I like. Especially, there are very few vegetables that I like. Eating a lot of eggs and meat, together with a lot of the exact same vegetables every day, has gotten quite tedious.)

I felt subpar on day two and the first half of day three: logy and tired. Several people suggested that the problem was probably not eating enough calories, so I tried boosting the size of my meals. Whether it was that, or just making it through the transition, I got over it easily enough.

I’ve done pretty well at sticking to the diet, with one exception: Easter brunch. I did fine for the salad course and the main course, but when they brought carrot cake for dessert, I was unable to resist. (Surely the carrots counteract the sugar, right?)

It tasted good, but very quickly I felt terrible. As I described in email to a friend, I assume what happened is this:

The sugar hit my blood stream, and all my carb-depleted muscle and liver cells said, “Oooh! Sugar! We gots to get ourselves some of this!”

But at the same time, my pancreas said, “Hmm. There’s sugar in the blood. I’ll release some insulin.”

But, because there was only one small serving of cake’s worth of sugar, in no time it was all gone. But the insulin was still there.

So my blood sugar plummeted.

And then my liver said, “But, but, I just got this teeny little bit of glucose! I haven’t even turned it into glycogen yet!” and then said, “Oh, all right. Here’s enough sugar to get your blood levels back to normal.”

I probably exacerbated the whole thing by going for a run—I thought of it as penance for failing in my commitment to be low-carb for two weeks. The run no doubt put additional pressure on my blood sugar levels.

Anyway, for a couple of hours there after lunch, I felt sick to my stomach, shaky, jittery, and had an inappropriately high heart rate. Some of that might have been psychosomatic, but it was all very unpleasant.

After my run I had a V8 juice, which may have helped. A tiny bit of sugar.

Except for that piece of carrot cake, my only deviations have been:

  • Occasional small servings of cured meat (bacon, ham, sausage), which are generally low carb, but which are off the list for the two-week test because so many are cured with sugar or otherwise include carbs. I’m trying to pick ones that don’t have sugar, but am generally trusting that my servings are small enough that it doesn’t matter much.
  • Some small servings of peanut butter, which is also off the list for reasons I don’t understand. It’s natural peanut butter with no added sugar, but of course peanuts do have some amount of carbs. Again, I’m keeping my servings small.

In my post saying I was trying the low-carb thing I had a list of specific issues I was hoping low-carb eating might improve: allergy symptoms, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and weight. Taking those in reverse order . . . .

Weight

I can certainly see why low-carb diets are popular for weight loss: I lost several pounds almost immediately.

From what I’ve read, I gather this is largely water weight. Supposedly there are several grams of water bound up in the storage of each gram of glycogen. As the glycogen goes, the water is freed up, producing near-instant weight loss.

That all happened in the first two days. In the next five my weight has continued to trend down, but only very slightly. I assume this is mostly fat. If the second week is like the first, I’ll probably have lost about two-thirds of a pound of fat during the course of the test.

The dramatic weight loss is kind of interesting. Because I was already near my lowest adult weight, this big drop punched me down to a series of new all-time lows. I don’t have good data, but as best I can recall I am now at my lowest weight since I was a freshman in college and lost a bunch of weight when I had mononucleosis.

I assume those water pounds will pop right back on the instant I eat enough carbs to replenish my glycogen stores. That’ll be okay.

Blood sugar

I don’t have (and am not inclined to buy) equipment to check my blood sugar, so I don’t know if my fasting glucose levels are down or not. Empirically, I can report that my energy levels are now very stable, which suggests to me that my glucose levels (whatever they are) are pretty flat.

I do see the appeal to this. It’s convenient to never feel like I have to eat right now. It’s convenient to not feel tired and sleepy after every large meal.

The originator of the two-week test that I’m following, Phil Maffatone, is all about burning fat to power endurance exercise—ultra-marathons and the like.

A body well-adapted to using glycogen for endurance exercise can store maybe 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles and liver combined, providing around 2000 calories. By itself, that’s not even enough to run a marathon, let alone a longer endurance event.

Even a very lean person, on the other hand, probably has at least 10% body fat. That would imply that a 70 kilogram athlete would have around 7 kilos of fat, providing a staggering 63,000 calories. Even allowing for the significant fraction of irreducible fat (cushioning for your eyeballs, etc.) that’s still enough to power literally hundreds of miles of walking or running.

The idea that I’ll be able to do my long runs and very long walks without needing to make special provisions for food is especially appealing.

My glucose levels during the test are in any case only of academic interest. After the test I’ll reintroduce carbs and see how much and what kinds I can eat while preserving the stable energy levels. What I care about is what my glucose levels will be then.

Blood pressure

My blood pressure hasn’t shown much of a trend. So far it’s a little erratic, but has not been down enough to suggest that a different dose of lisinopril is in order. I’ll continue to monitor it.

Allergy symptoms

My allergy symptoms are the thing I’m most interested in improving, and here the results have been at least mildly interesting. I quit taking the Claritin just two days into the test, and then quit taking the Nasacort two days after that. I’m a little sniffly, but I’m not sneezing much, nor am I suffering from the nasal congestion that I needed to take the Nasacort for.

Of course this is not necessarily due to the diet. My allergy symptoms have always been seasonal (even as the “seasons” have grown to cover most of the year); maybe this is just one of the seasons when I’d have been okay anyway. Still, I’d be surprised if that were true. Tree-pollen season has always been a problem for me, and looking out my window, I can see several different kinds of trees with the discreet flowers characteristic of wind-pollination.

Only time will tell, but I’m glad to have at least a few days off the drugs in any case.

I’ll post another update in a week or two, unless the results seem boring.