Very occasional thoughts concentrating on the useful.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Currency exchange

Well, I need to move some money from Canada to the USA, and I got fed up with my bank charging fees and presumably hiding more expenses in their exchange rate. (They refuse to specify their exchange rate ahead of time, and they also refuse to give any information on how it is determined.)

So I have just uploaded $5000 onto a account. In theory it is supposed to be the ebay of currency exchange, charging a minimal fee to link up buyers and sellers. But they're just ramping up service and building a customer base, so it's likely that they'll be on the other end of the transaction.

I'll update the post when I see how it goes. I was a bit nervous about uploading money to an Irish dotcom company that has Canadian bank accounts (and accounts everywhere else), but I hope that international wire-transfer ripoffs will soon be a thing of the past.

It is somewhat reassuring that there are no adverse comments about them online. (I heard about them on the Motley Fool radio program a few months ago.)

UPDATE: After posting an offer at the the interbank rate of $1.1026 USD/CAD and waiting a day, half of my order was bought. (It must have been a regular Joe on the other end, since currency traders probably don't deal in half of $5K orders very often.)

Currencyfare didn't charge anything, but they'll charge $6 when I wire money out to my US bank account.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Putting Nixon and Clinton to shame

I've heard Nixon's resignation speech, and Clinton's angry denial of relations with "that woman". Both were pretty lame.

If you really want hair-razing brazen lies from politicians, watch Ted Kennedy's explanation of the Chappequiddick incident. A full transcript is available here.

The detailed denial was worse than not saying anything.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Life on the wrong end of a toilet seat

A few months ago I had a pretty disturbing experience at TAGS hardware in Cambridge.

I was in the plumbing aisle and there was a 8' x 7' huge display case of toilet seats. As you can see from the picture below, toilet seats were attached to the front of the case. If a seat fits your fancy then you just open up the seat to get one for-purchase seat behind it.

Well toilet seats don't usually bother me.

But a mother with a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old came walking through and in to the next aisle. The 7-year-old said "Mom, here are the toilet seats!" and started trying to pull down one of the display models hanging on the front of the case.

The mother was already in the next aisle and said "We don't need one, come here."

Well, the 7-year old left to go join his mother, leaving the 5-year-old behind. Well, he had seen his brother try to pull down a display model, and he wondered why it didn't come off. So the 5-year-old grabs one of the display-only seats and starts yanking to the point of pulling himself up. The mother wasn't around to see this.

That's when it became obvious that the whole god-damn display was unstable. It was starting to fall over and the kid was about to become a pancake.

I was about 5 feet away and it wasn't clear at all how heavy the thing was. Furthermore, I didn't know if anything heavy from the next ailse was leaning up against it and making it unstable. So I had about 0.2 seconds to decide whether to watch the kid get squashed or to run to jump in front of this unknown mass.

Well, I jumped under it. It was really heavy, but I managed to stop it with just some scrapes. Some of the seats fell out all over the floor and a box full of something came falling off of the top. It was too heavy for me to put back into place.

The hardware store employees came and two of them managed to put it back up. They replaced some of the seats and put the box back on top, and blocked the ailse.

The stupid display case was sitting on a shelf which was too small.

I was pretty POed, so I mailed cellphone-pictures to the owners of TAGS, to their parent company (ACE hardware), and to the manufacturer of "Color Direct Toilet Seats".

I was pretty shaken for about a day. I could just see the obituary: "Died on the wrong end of a toilet seat."

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sydney Coleman

In Nov 2007, the Harvard physics department received the sad news that prof. Sydney Coleman had passed away.

Sydney was one of the most entertaining lecturers ever, and an extremely colorful character. The physics department had an impromptu memorial service the next day, when his lecture "Quantum Mechanics in your Face" was played on video on the widescreen of the Jefferson 256 lecture hall.

I highly recommend the video linked above even for people who did not have the pleasure of knowing Sydney.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Blackberries and unobtrusive Facebook status updates

One nice feature of my Blackberry Pearl is that it has downloadable applications.
Of course, one of them is the Facebook app. It's nice, because you don't have to go onto a website to use facebook. For example, with three key presses I get a list of all my friends' Facebook status updates.
Because of the convenience, the concept Facebook status updates takes on a new meaning.
The problem with current facebook "status updates" is that every time you update your status it broadcasts a message to all your friends' newsfeeds. So I'm not likely to blackberry-update my status every time I head to my office, the library, MIT, the swimming pool, poker games, ect.
I'd prefer it if there was a way for me to update my status passively. Then, for example, my friends could unobtrusively check who's going to lunch soon, who's off at a talk at MIT, or who's asleep, ect. It would be more convenient than, for example, taking a peak in someone's office to see if they're around or interrupting everyone to see if they're hungry for lunch. (The privacy issues are taken care of by my facebook privacy settings, and hopefully it will become more customizable so that some friends can see some kinds of status updates.)
I also wouldn't mind if my family and some of my friends could see a GPS map of where my cellphone was. (This would be very useful, actually. I might even be able to hunt down an unwitting Blackberry thief that way.)
Hopefully, this sort of use of multiple daily small status updates will be common when everyone carries around some sort of portable computer that looks like a cellphone. Maybe somebody should write a new facebook app for unobtrusive status updates.
BTW, I got my Blackberry for free with my two-year T-mobile contract, but I had to do some searching to find the offer. (T-mobile wanted me to pay a few hundred dollars for the phone, but I checked all the third-party offers in the GOOGLE sponsored adds until I found the free phone, a rebate, and exactly the same monthly charges.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Watch out for that cookie!

I've been nailing some bad-boy products on lately. Here is my review of pecan sandies.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Notes on Bhatia's matrix analysis

I've been giving lots of talks in the MIT quantum reading group lately, we're going through Bhatia's "Matrix Analysis" book.

Anyway, you may find my notes here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 review of Bhatia's matrix analysis book

I've been giving some talks on Bhatia's matrix analysis book lately. Here is my review.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Podcasts (Updated Dec 3, 2007 and continuously after that.)

I've had my blackberry for a few months now, and it's great. One effect of having it is that I don't even bother to turn on the car radio anymore. I listen to podcasts instead!

Here are some of the better ones. This links probably won't come up unless you have iTunes installed on your computer. (The podcasts are free using iTunes, which you can download for free here.) If the link doesn't work then you can just search for the podcast from within iTunes.

The Commonwealth Club radio program.

Listen to the Lancet. (Yes, it's a medical journal. But often it's interesting stuff.)

Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes.

Science Magazine Podcast.

The Berkeley Groks Science Show. (Goofy hosts, but interesting guests.)

This American Life from NPR.

The international spy museum podcast.

The counter-intelligence center podcast.

WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show.

Stanford on iTunes.

MIT on iTunes, especially The MIT Introduction to Biology course, Fall 2004, with Eric Lander and Robert Weinberg.

I've been keeping a folder on my harddrive of the most interesting episodes of the podcasts I've listened to. Send me an email if you'd like me to burn you a CD of them. (If you leave a comment I likely won't notice for a good while.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

HOSTS file

I found a nice little hack on the web for blocking websites.

All operating systems have a file named "hosts". Before you computer looks up the IP address for a webpage it checks your hosts file for prespecified IP addresses. By editing this file you can:

1. block sites
2. give nicknames to useful sites (such as "g" for Google).

There are downloadable host files on the web to block large lists of adds, spyware, and trojans. Block if you need to get some work done.

Google does it again: 1-800-GOOG-411

Tired of paying $1 to dial 411 on your cellphone?
If you need a business number then just dial 800-GOOG-411. It's free, and Google will connect you and/or SMS the number to your cell. (Yes, you access this by phone, NO COMPUTER REQUIRED.)

Friday, July 13, 2007

New technology addiction

I've gotten pretty addicted to my wireless bluetooth on-the-ear headset for my phone. It's hard to imagine that I'd ever want to regularly give up the use of a hand to talk on the phone again. (It's rechargible, BTW.)
I wouldn't get the same headset model if I had it to do over again, though. (I have the Motorola H500.) The audio input and output is great for home use, but the thing is a bit too flimsy to carry around all day. (It would be nice if it had a small secure case that fit on my belt.) I tried putting it in my computer case, but everytime I walked around the button would get pressed and it made my phone redial!
It also feels a little floppy and loose on my ear, so I don't like wearing it when I'm not making a call.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The best optical illusion I've seen

Following a link from Keith Conrad's page:

The figure IS NOT moving!

Monday, May 21, 2007

LED dome lights for your car

I just installed some interior LED lights for my car. (The old interior lights used 20 watts and could do in my battery when I left them on all night.) The LED lights are brighter and use only 1/22 of the power of the old ones. No more dead batteries!

It was not difficult, since they make LED replacements for bulbs that fit right into the old sockets. I got them from this eBay store. To find out what type of bulb you need, go here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Taxation perversion

Well, it's tax season and I blew some potentially productive hours filling out stupid forms.

I noticed a few non-obvious perversions in the tax codes:

1. It is not always true that you should take the standard deduction on your US return when it is more than your itemized deductions. (Corollary: in some cases someone could profitably cheat on his taxes by making up bogus itemized deductions even if all itemized deductions totalled less than the standard deduction. I wonder if the IRS would be smart enough to catch on to that!)

2. Massachusetts gives some tax advantages to gambling winnings that aren't afforded to capital gains. (Yes, I must report my poker winnings this year.)

3. The IRS provides a federal tax incentive to pay your estimated state taxes late in some cases.

In order to relieve some of the tedium of filing taxes, I'll temporarily leave it as a brain-teaser to readers of this blog to figure out why the above statements are true. (Hint: the example I have of #1 being true applies only to Massachusetts residents, although I suspect it may be true elsewhere as well.)

The answers will be revealed after April 15. Any readers getting correct answers to all three questions will receive a "gift" icon on


1. Medical costs are deductible in Massachusetts only if they are deducted as itemized deductions on Schedule A of the US tax return. In some situations you may benefit enough on state taxes that you should take the hit with Uncle Sam. (I'm irritated that Massachusetts interferes with federal taxes.)
2. Apartment rent is deductible against gambling winnings but not against capital gains.
3. State tax payments are federally deductible based on the calendar year in which you actually pay. In particular, there could be a big tax difference between paying estimated taxes on Dec 31 or on Jan 1, for example if you're taking the standard US deduction in one year but not in the next (or if you're changing tax brackets).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Electronic deposit flim-flam-scams

My bank now allows me to electronically deposit 3rd-party checks. I just endorse the check as usual, but I scan it and transmit it electronically to my account. Then I'm supposed to destroy the check, never sending it to the bank.
It seems to me that frausters could easily take advantage of people who'd never heard of this. For example, someone could "return" the destroyed paper check after depositing it electronically, and ask for cash payment "instead". If the naive victim throws away the voided copy then it's pretty hard to prove anything.
Of course, this is mild compared to the problems I'm inviting by paying online with credit cards.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Time to buy presents again

It's Thanksgiving already, so I'm doing some online Holiday shopping. My favorite standby is Their Royal Riviera Pears are AMAZING.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Angry Kid

These angry kid videos cracked me up

Don't worry, they're clean ones.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Time for Herd Immunity

Below is map of the influenza map from the CDC for the week ending Nov 11, 2006. The current map is here. According to their statistics, each year between 5% and 20% of the population gets the flu, and 36,000 Americans die of it. Note that the elderly people at risk of dying from the flu are less likely to catch it if the rest of us get vaccinated. If you're too needle-shy to do something about this public-health menace, then check out the FluMist nose-spray vaccine.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Street cleaning reminder emails

Sick of getting towed for street cleaning in greater boston? Set up automatic email reminders here. UPDATE: THIS SITE HAS BUGS AND WARNED ME ONE DAY TOO LATE!

UPDATE: The city of cambridge will now send out street cleaning reminder messages, and notices about snow emergencies. Go here to register.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

White and nerdy

Check out Wierd Al's White and Nerdy video.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Time to clean my aerator

It just watched an interesting video lecture (real player 56K, real player 350K, Windows media 56K, Windows media 350K) from Princeton's online lecture series about government incompetence in making sure your drinking water isn't contaminated by lead.

The talk is by Marc Edwards, of Virginia Tech.

There were a few non-obvious points:

0. It's a good idea to have your water tested yourself, not to count on the government or water company to do it for you. Make sure the testing agency acidifies the water to a pH of <1.8 to dissolve any particulate lead in the water. Note that your stomache acid will do this.

1. Flakes of lead solder often get stuck in your faucet's aerator, the little screen that screws onto the nozzle. When you turn on your water fast you can often get little particles of lead in your water. Hence if you test your water for lead then you should turn on the nozzle fast. If you drink from the faucet then you should turn it on slowly.

2. Lead solder is the most common source of lead in water, even more so than lead pipes. When lead solder is applied to copper or brass you often get a galvanic electrochemical reaction that causes the lead to enter the water.

3. It's a good idea to unscrew your aerator and see if there's metal there, and clean it out.

4. You may also want to flush the pipes if the water has been standing in them for a long time.

5. Lead in water does NOT come from the water main. It comes from the pipes that bring water from the main.

Anyway, it was a good lecture and I'd recommend checking it out.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Something Yummy

I just tried Kashi granola bars. They're great! I'm never buying Nature Valley granola bars again, even the hard ones are too syrupy.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Willett's new book

Walter Willett, of Harvard's nutrition and epidemiology departments, author of over 900 publications including a textbook on nutritional epidemiology, has co-authored a new popular book

Eat, Drink, & Weight Less, by Katzen & Willett.

This looks more concise and weight-focused then his previous (but recently updated) best-seller "Eat, Drink, and be Healthy".

Here's his new weight-loss pyramid.

The addition of chocolate as an optional food looks yummy. It is included because (p. 40)

Dark Chocolate, unlike white chocolate, contains compounds called flavonoids that may have beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. To test this directly in humans, a group of Italian researchers fed fifteen volunteers either dark chocolate or white chocolate, about 4 ounces ber day, for 15 days. Then they reversed the type of chocolate that was fed to participants. While on dark chocolate, participants' blood pressure was significantly reduced as compaired to the period when they were eating white chocolate. Also, insulin resistance, an indicator of risk for diabetes, was reduced while consuming dark chocolate but not white chocolate. Bear in mind, though that four ounces of chocolate would provide more than 500 calories, so the amount we suggest on a weight control plan would have only modest benefit. Still, knowing that a bit of fine chocolate is nudging you toward better health, rather than in the opposite direction, should be sweet news indeed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Underwater Hockey

I've been playing underwater hockey lately. The puck goes along the bottom of the pool, the sticks are about 8 inches long, and you wear a mask and fins. The picture is of my teamate Stuart. (Unfortunately, I was floating on the surface at the time.)

Unlike other sports, the goal is NOT to get the puck to the star player so that he can score. You will drown if you insist on monopolizing the puck, so everyone gets to play. (Maybe readers can suggest NBA players who should be required to come out with us.)

It's a pretty good sport, although water polo is much more fun. For some reason little kids know that when you jump in a pool you're supposed to splash around, wrestle, throw balls around, and have fun. I've never understood why grown-ups forget this and submit the the monotony of swimming laps over and over again in a laned-out pool.

The latest bad news about trans-fat

There's more bad news about trans-fat in the New England Journal of Medicine. Check out

"What we risk for taste" by John Fauber, Milwaukee Journal Sentenel, May 14 2006 .

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My strawberries never mold

They actually don't! I got a foodsaver vacuum canister to store my strawberries in, and the vacuum suffocates the mold.

I tested the vacuum, and found that inside the canister the pressure is 1/5 of an atmosphere. I wouldn't want a perfect vacuum, because deadly botulism bacteria grows only in the absence of oxygen.

I've never bothered to get any of the vacuum sealing bags. I also got the attachment for vacuum packing in mason jars. Unlike the canisters, the mason jars can be frozen (even with liquids if you get the freezer-safe jars). Unfortunately, the quality of the vacuum inside a mason jar is variable.

You can see how good the seal is by placing bubblewrap inside before sucking out the air.

I've also had good luck vacuum-packing
  • ripe avocados: the inside never goes from green to brown. They keep for about three times as long, but they'll eventually go mushy.
  • guacamole: it never turns brown.
  • frozen vegetable soup
  • frozen vacuum-packed omelets. They come out still smelling good.
  • cabbage

I haven't tried blueberries yet.

Update 5-16-2006: My tomato juice keeps much better when vacuum-packed.

Update 8-1-2006: Romaine lettuce is still crisp and tastes fresh after a week. (Of course, our tongues evolved without vacuums around, so perhaps it degrades in ways you can't taste.)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The "Zero Trans-Fat" scam: Will someone please teach the FDA to use fractions?

My housemate's "Olivo Spread", which claims to be a healthy butter substitute, claims to have "zero trans fat". But the labeling lists trans-fat (more properly known as "hydrogenated" or "partially-hydrogenated oils") in the ingredients! The same goes for Ritz crackers.

What gives?

I found the answer in the article:

"Waging war on `metabolic poison',"
by Lisa Ryckman, "The Journal Gazette", April 9 2006.

The key points are:
  1. Prof. Walter-Willett and his colleagues from the Harvard nutrition department estimate that
    trans-fat is killing 100,000 Americans per year! Obviously, it should be completely eliminated from our diets.

  2. Fortunately, new FDA regulations require food labels to list trans-fat content, but unfortunately

  3. The trans-fat content is rounded to the nearest gram, no matter how small the serving size is! Hence for items with very small serving sizes (such as butter substitutes or crackers) the "zero trans fat" may actually be a significant proportion of the product!

  4. A product contains no trans fat only if the list of ingredients does not contain "hydrogenated oils" or "partially-hydrogenated" oils.
In the case of Olivo or Ritz crackers (serving sizes 14 and 15 grams, respectively), it would be consistent with the labeling to have a trans-fat content of about 1/30 by mass.

For more information, see Willett's book or

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Metric Smetric

Friends visiting Boston from outside the US often have trouble with the Fahrenheit temperature scale. So I ask them

On a scale of 1 to 100, how hot is it outside?

Now you know the temperature, in degrees F. Works in Boston, anyway.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Cable "Broadband" scam

A few months ago we switched from Comcast cable internet to Verizon DSL.

Surprisingly, Verizon's service over the puny DSL regular-phone line was faster, cheaper, and much more reliable than Comcast's service over cable. Furthermore, Comcast's customer service had considered it "normal" that the cable modem they supplied had to be unplugged and plugged back in a few times a day to keep it working. (Comcast calls this annoying procedure "power cycling".) Note that unplugging a cable modem is annoying and difficult if you want to share Wi-Fi with a neighbor, or if the cable modem is in a housemate's bedroom.

I did a little research on the web, and it appears that although cable modems certainly can (and should) surpass DSL in speed. However, Cable providers can never-the-less cheat customers with crappy, slow, and expensive service inferior to DSL.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Eating cold-blooded creatures

Fish are famously cold-blooded creatures. This has a few consequences for carnivoures like me.

The bad news, fish goes bad in the refrigerator faster. According to physicist Peter Barham's The Science of Cooking, p. 92:

Many fish lie in cold seas, so that the enzmes they use to metabolise food need to be active at low temperatures (sometimes as low as 4C). The Enzymes in meat, by contrast, work at body temperature (usually 36 to 38C) and are only very slightly reactive at low temperatures. The end products of some enzymatic reactions will start to accumlate once the fish is dead and its circulatory system is no longer functioning. It is the waste products that give fish its characteristic smell....Remember that the enzymatic reations that can themselves consume the flesh cannot be delayed by refrigeration as they can for meats, so you need to eat the fish before its own enzymes eat it.

The good news: Fish-fat tends not to have less artery-clogging saturated fat, as found in beef. In particular, from page 12:

In fish and plants where the temperature can be much lower [than in mammals], saturated fats would tend to solidify and be difficult to use [by the fish or plant], and may even form constrictions in the circulatory systems leading to disease, ect. So they tend to use the...unsaturated fats for energy storage.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Convert your sack of coins to certificates, for FREE.

Got a sack of pennies? According to this CNN-Money Magazine article, the Coinstar machines in local supermarkets will now convert your coins to gift certificates. Furthermore, they'll waive the 9% commission they charge to give you paper money.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

You too can be a guinea pig!

Here's a link for anyone who wants to get involved in the medical studies around the boston area:

Monday, July 04, 2005

Well said

Having a smoking section in a restaurant is like having a peeing section in a pool.
-George Carlin

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Tired of credit card offers?

According to the June 2005 issue of Money Magazine ("The key to Fighting ID Theft: Think Low-Tech", pp. 48A-48B), you can get off the mailing lists for credit card offers by calling 888-5-OPTOUT. (Of course, if you're one of those people who still doesn't have a no-fee, cash-rebate credit card then this might be a bad idea.)

I would include a link, but Money isn't online. Furthermore, in the process of Googling another article I have managed to get an unwanted JAVA program running on my computer. I don't know much about JAVA or spyware, but I hope the mystery program isn't waiting for me to access the Optout webpage!

Incidentally, I'm getting 1% cash-back with no fee and no hassles. I'd be interested to know if anyone has a better card.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The chairman of Harvard's nutrition department on the USDA's new food pyramid

In a previous post, I included some damming excerpts from Walter Willett's book concerning the old USDA food pyramid. I'm still waiting to see what his new July 2005 edition has to say, but the article

"Government Unveils New Food Pyramid: Critics Say Nutrition Tool Is Flawed" Journal of the American Medical Association 293: 2581-2582 (June 1, 2005).

contains the following:

This is a huge lost opportunity to convey information about healthy food choices that could benefit Americans enormously, complained Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, who said he was pretty disappointed by the USDA's 2.4-million effort. The pyramid tells nothing of healthy food choices.

Willett specifically criticized the pyramid's overemphasis of dairy product consumption (3 cups daily, regardless of sex, age, or physical activity). He also cited the pyramid's lack of detail about the risks and benefits of consuming various types of fat. It's a very important issue because replacing transfats and saturated fats (with unsaturated fats) is one of the most important things people can do to reduce heart disease, said Willett. Information on salt and alcohol intake is also lacking, he noted.

It's about time that the US Department of Agriculture finally restricts its advise to farming!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Summer Travel

I just noticed that you can have Orbitz email you if the price for a desired flight drops below a specified amount. I put Orbitz alerts on some summer conferences, although I haven't decided which to go to yet.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

How to fight back against the cell company.

I was recently amused to see how great my cellphone company's customer service became after I filled an online FCC complaint.

It turned my bill into their problem, and they clearly wanted to resolve it.

How to keep airline miles from expiring for about $3

Want to keep your airline miles from expiring?

United (and several other airlines) allow you to add miles to your account by making small web purchases through online vendors connected to their website.

I used this last month pick up about 2 miles on United, thus saving about 12000 miles from expiring because of their 36-month account inactivity deadline. (It cost me about $3, for bargan-bin purchase on

The catch is that you have to add miles a few months before the deadline, since it takes them a while to post.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Where my belly went.

Lots of people have noticed that I've lost 35 pounds (of my previous 200) since August 1, and now random people who I don't know very well have been coming up and asking how I did it. So, now that I've finished selling off my old jeans on ebay (they are now 5 inches too big in the waist!), I'll write up a little blog about it.

The reason I used to weigh 200 pounds was NOT because I was gorging myself. It WASN'T because I didn't exercise enough. It WASN'T because I wasn't making an effort to eat right.
It was because I was eating the kind of foods (unnecessarily-gylcemic foods) that were stimulating my appetite two or three hours later, in part because I had absorbed a lot of bad misinformation from the US Department of Agriculture.

Here are some quotations of Walter Willett, Chairman of Harvard's nutrition department about the USDA's 1992 food pyramid. (All are excerpted from the 2002 edition of [1]. The June 2005 edition will discuss the new USDA pyramid):

Some recommendations on diet and nutrition are misguided because they are based on inadequate or incomplete information. Not the USDA [1992] Pyramid. It is wrong because it ignores the evidence that has been carefully assembled over the past forty years. (p. 18)

At best, the USDA Pyramid offers wishy-washy, scientifically unfounded advice on an absolutely vital topic--what to eat. At worst, the misinformation contributes to overweight, poor health, and unnecessary early deaths. (p. 16)

The thing to keep in mind about the USDA pyramid is that it comes from the Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for promoting American agriculture, not from agencies established to monitor and protect our health, like the Department of Health and Human Services, or the National Institutes of Health, or the Institute of Medicine. And there's the root of the problem--what's good for some agricultural interests isn't necessarily good for the people who eat their products. (p. 21)

Furthermore, Willett has a damming direct empirical attack on the USDA's advise:

My colleagues and I used the governments Healthy Eating Index to test whether people who follow the recommendations laid out in the USDA Pyramid are healthier than those who don't follow these guidelines. They aren't. Among the 121,000 female nurses who are participating in a long-term study of diet you'll be hearing about in later chapters, those with the highest scores on the Healthy Eating Index were no less likely to develop a major illness or die than those with the lowest scores over a twelve-year period....The pattern was similar for more than 50,000 male health professionals participating in a separate long-term study. (p. 25)

SOME of the principles I'm following are listed below. (I believe there is ample scientific evidence for the advisability these principles, see my sources at the end of this blog):

  1. Eat when I'm hungry, and eat until I'm full.
  2. Snack preemptively to avoid a hunger-attack later.
  3. Avoid added sugar because it will cause you to be hungry two or three hours later, because of some peculiarities of human metabolism. Also avoid certain foods naturally high in sugar.
  4. Avoid the particular carbohydrates which are naturally or artificially low in fiber, making them rapidly-digestible, but DON'T AVOID the slowly digested carbohydrates. (That is avoid glycemic carbohydrates like white potatoes, white pasta, or white rice, but not less-gylcemic ones like low-salt triskets or whole-grains with lots of fiber.)
  5. Avoid saturated fat (like milk and beef fat) and seek out unsaturated fat (like olive oil, nuts, and avocado).
  6. Get sufficient omega-3 fat from fish or GROUND flaxseed.
  7. Eat lots of unsaturated fat. Fat does not make you fat, and unsaturated fat is healthy.
  8. Completely omit trans-fat (hydroginated or partially-hydroginated oils).
  9. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit and beans. It is easy to make tasty vegetables if you cook with good olive oil.
  10. Get plenty of fiber, since it slows digestion and prevents hunger.
  11. Avoid getting too much salt (more than 2.5 grams/day).

Anyway, I highly recommend the following sources. All that was required to loose the belly was some reading and cooking, eating until I was full, without any calorie-counting or deprivation:

1. Eat, Drink, and be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating.
by Walter Willett, co-developed with the Harvard school of Public Health. Be sure to get the June 2005 edition, which will remark on the new USDA pyramid, although there's no link yet.

2. The South beach diet
by Arthur Agatston. I read this book first, and lost most of the weight before finding [1]. Not as authoritatively healthy as [1], but there is considerable overlap between them. This also shows how pre-emptive snacking can prevent a binge later. (I love his explanation that yes, your mother was correct that that snack will ruin your dinner, so you SHOULD have that snack!) I learned about the gylcemic index from here.

3. Some excellent talks on nutrition at the Harvard school of public health.

The speakers are renowned researchers, and the intended audience is composed of policy-makers and restaurant-owners. Accessible but in the scientific style, complete with references and data. A must-see. These lectures finally convinced me that unsaturated fat was healthy, and that vegetables taste great cooked with some olive-oil. There are more health-related Harvard talks here and some written nutrition-information here.

4. A Frontline interview of Walter Willett on PBS.

If you don't have time to get [1] yet.

5. Eat, Drink, & Weight Less, by Katzen & Willett.

(Included retro-actively.) See my blog of May 29, 2006.