Best of 2016

As is the tradition of many technologists, I am writing about some of the best things that I discovered or did in 2016. This post is a little bit late, but I discovered a lot of great things in 2016 that I believe deserve to be shared.

Total books read: 50

Best non-technical books read
Michio Kaku – The Future of the Mind: It’s nice to know what science could bring to our lives. Dr Kaku is a visionary and while I find many of his predictions very ‘out there’, he is very comprehensive in his style and claims, which makes his books a delight to consume

Best technical books read
Kenneth Reitz & Tanya Schlusser – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Python: Best Practices for Development. While not for the beginner, if you use any modicum of Python at your day job and have been churning out code in Python for a while, I highly recommend grabbing a copy. It walks you through some of the best practices as well as the best known and highly used libraries out there, which is a must have in your toolbox

Best technical videos consumed
Kent Beck’s ‘livestorm’ about convex and concave software projects

Best new technologies discovered and used
Docker: containerization is very hot right now
WebSocket: A technology for maintaining full duplex communication between peers
Nginx: A powerful and scalable Web server

Best new languages discovered and used
Lua: A lightweight but very powerful ‘glue’ language

Best new hardware acquired and used
Pok3r keyboard (it has clear keys; and I am not sure whether I like it better than my DAS keyboard with blue keys, but it’s still pretty nice), Steelcase Gesture (finally got onto the bandwagon of expensive ergonomic ‘programmer’ chairs), Amazon Echo

Best new apps discovered and used
Productive (iOS) – a nice way to build habits – you can select one of the built-in habits or add your own, and you can select icons, frequencies, etc. It’s also nice to be able to view stats on the individual habits to see how well you’ve been doing
CleanMyMac (macOS) – does a good job of cleaning up extraneous files left over by installers and the system itself

Best new fitness videos consumed
Fittest on Earth (Netflix) – an incredible, candid look at the Crossfit lifestyle

Best new workout technique discovered and used
Zottman curls – a comprehensive arms exercise that targets both the biceps and triceps

Best new nutritional supplements discovered and used
Creatine and magnesium. I can’t believe I’ve lived this long without these. Definitely game changers

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Wake Up Early and Accomplish Something

On one of my recent flights via Chicago, I ended up buying Laura van der Kam‘s (Or Vanderkam, whichever way she prefers it spelled) recent three-in-one paperback titled What the Most Successful People do Before Breakfast. I haven’t read anything on the topic of business, ever, and I thought it would be a good change. Turns out this little book that I found in the business section isn’t quite about business but about lifestyle – thus, not exactly what I was looking for, and yet a few pages in, I felt that I had struck gold. Reading a physical printed book in the sunlight was reminiscent of the time when I was a child growing up in a computer-less era in India. I liked the book and its message, and also the emphatic and lucid style in which it was written. I followed Laura on Twitter and came across some more articles from her, one of them being on writing and how to move beyond deadlines and to get more, quality stuff written. That was when it hit me, I’ve actually always wanted to write, although lately my public writing has mostly been limited to technology, and tiny informational posts at that. So here goes something that would try to deduce a single message out of two slightly different yet related ideas.

Steven Covey, in his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about the four quadrants of activity that most of our daily work can be classified into. Quadrant 1 is pressing matters, crises, things at work that have to be done here and now. Quadrant 2 is about things that do not have to urgently get done, and yet are very important over the long term – namely relationship building, planning, prevention, learning, developing, making strategies. Quadrant 3 is for tasks that we think are important but are actually really not – interruptions, some emails, some calls, busy work etc. Finally, Quadrant 4 refers to tasks that are trivial and a pure waste of time. Essentially, you could look at these quadrants as being tuples of the form (urgency, importance) – and the basic idea Covey is trying to convey is to spend most of our time and energy in the Quadrant 2, i.e. the quadrant representing tasks that are not urgent, but important.

Coming back to the book I picked up at the airport, what do the most successful people do early morning, before breakfast? The book claims, through anecdotal evidence and scientific argument, that they do what they consider important. It could be daily physical exercise, prayer, meditation, learning, breakfast, dates with loved ones and family, reading, some exercise in creativity (a la Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way), or taking care of a side business. The author claims (and I concede) that there is always a reason to skip a 4pm workout, but there’s mostly none to skip a 5am workout unless you are being plain lazy. Our willpower is stronger in the mornings, we are fresh, relaxed and refreshed, and before the day has had the opportunity to get to us and bog us down with a multitude of worries and tasks, mornings are the ideal time to get the important stuff done and out of the way. Besides, what’s better than knowing that it’s 10am and you are essentially done with all important things, and have nothing else to do for the rest of the day but just go to work, come home, and relax in the evening? I personally find that I am able to ‘stay calm and be productive’ late into the evening if I follow this practice, because I know I am done for the day and have nothing else on my mind.

After work, we are all tired and have a lack of energy and enthusiasm. Your mileage may vary, but it works for me to get stuff done early morning. I am new to this practice, having been a night owl most of my life, but I guess life changes as you grow older and a lot of things that made sense before don’t any more. The elderly people used to say ‘get up early to study’ or something like that, but then the student life somehow turned that lifestyle around on its head. Getting up early and going to bed early is not a revolutionary new concept. Ben Franklin did it and talked about it. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his autobiography Total Recall, talks about how Reg Park taught him to do it, to get done with the workout for the day before the day had even started. Several other productive people I personally know claim the same thing. This approach also makes sense when you have a family. Besides, going to bed early is also good for your hormone balance and overall health. Recent fitness professionals know that staying up late hinders the production of the human growth hormone, and promotes excessive production of the hormone cortisol, and this combination can actually contribute to obesity. Besides, working out early morning also precludes having to shower twice in the day. An all-around simple, elegant, and efficient approach to handling our busy days – wake up early, and get those Quadrant 2 activities done and over with first thing in the morning! As Laura would say, if it doesn’t get done first thing in the morning, it is not going to get done. So if it’s important to you, prioritize it, not just in your mind, but also in your day.

Using technology and measurement for a better [and easier] life

Growing up in another country, I did not even dream of how technology and measurement can actually make our lives better, healthier, and yet easier to manage in a way that I am about to talk about. Extensive and intermittent reading on the Web, and living in this country and having easy and inexpensive access to the technology and resources, and the course of time – all these things together have collectively changed a lot in my everyday lifestyle, and I must say that the change has been for the better.

Consider for example nutrition. We know how our bodies need a specific amount of energy every day. If we work out or play any sports, the amount of energy required for these activities is added. If you want to be healthy, you must avoid certain foods, eat more of other foods, and exercise. The basic equation for maintaining weight plays with the balance between how much the body is burning and how much we are eating. We all know that. Yet wouldn’t it be better if we could break this down to a quantitative level of detail, so we would know exactly ‘how much’? If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing it well. Why do half things? Why do things based on intuition? We can do better than that. And it’s easy. How?

Buy a measuring cup. You know that 1 cup of brown rice gives you (give or take) 250 calories. So use 1 cup. Don’t use a handful. Don’t do it ‘by feeling’. Do it accurately. Do it right. The same goes for measuring spoons and weight scales. These things are inexpensive on Amazon. 6 oz of white meat is what your portion should be. And it’s easy to measure. Buy a George Foreman grill – so you can grill your chicken breasts and don’t have to use a knife/ pan/ baking pans etc etc. Get an electric rice cooker. Make life easy for yourself – we’re talking about appliances that cost less than $15 each!

But it doesn’t end there. Use LoseIt – something I came across when I read Scott Hanselman‘s blog entry here. It’s an incredibly easy and useful application and it’s free. Tell it what your target weight is, and what your current weight is, and it will tell you how many calories you need to consume every day to reach that goal. Add every day everything you eat, and it will collectively count the calories for you. If you eat something that doesn’t exist in LoseIt’s database, you can ADD it – get the nutrient information from the Web and just create a new food item, and it’s there for you to use later! Graph your weight progress, and your eating habits. The calories you spend working out are subtracted from the overall calories for the day. Find on the Web how many calories you spend doing a sport if you don’t already see it in LoseIt’s database. See weekly reports. Measure it accurately. Don’t get me wrong – you don’t have to go to the extreme – no matter what you do it will still be slightly inaccurate – what with that odd extra tablespoon of oyster sauce you put in your chicken – but it’s still way better than not doing it at all.

I only wish I could have this app on my desktop. Maybe there are alternatives out there. But I like it so far, despite the fact that it’s on the Web.

Okay, now let’s talk about work, professional stuff, and productivity. Do you know how much of your time every day is wasted in email, surfing the Web, and contemplating stuff? Do you want to nail down the exact amount of time you are spending on a project, and see nice graphical reports? Use Toggl – which I came across thanks to Vanessa Hurst‘s blog entry here. The basic app is free, despite being on the Web (again, maybe there are desktop alternatives – and I would like to have something like that locally installed). But the interface is great and very useful. Create several projects. Start tracking time when you’re actually working on your project, and then stop tracking when you get to your email or some random activity. Start tracking again (maybe another project this time) when you get to it. See how many hours you REALLY work in a week, and not just sit in front of your computer. Eye-opening, isn’t it?

Technology today, is awesome. And it can make our lives better, healthier, more efficient, and easier to manage. We just need to figure out the right tools for the job, and then use them smartly.

Measure it – because if you don’t measure it, you know nothing about it. Leave alone being able to manage it.

 

First article in German

For the longest time now I’ve been thinking about starting to write articles in German… I don’t know what the future holds, and for now I don’t have time to look into how to get something published, but I wrote something the other day anyway and for now I’m starting out with making it public on WordPress. So here you go. A heads up: it has to do with health and nutrition.

Fit zu sein ist heutzutage zunehmend eher eine Sache der Mode, und auch des Wirtschaftslebens. Überall begegnet man Werbungen wie man innerhalb 20 Tage eine schlankere Taille bekommen kann beziehungsweise Muskeln aufbauen kann. Auf der einen Seite wird man paranoid, und auf der anderen Seite funktioniert das Ganze wieder nicht und die steigende Anzahl der Übergewichtigen in der heutigen Gesellschaft wird besorgniserregend. Doch wie kann man gegen Fett und die entsprechenden Krankheiten kämpfen, wenn man stundenlang vor dem Computer sitzt, sich wenig bewegt, manchmal kaum Zeit hat selbst zu kochen und muss deswegen stets fertige Produkte konsumieren? Wenn das Leben doch nur leichter wäre! Aber so muss es nicht sein. Sich ein bisschen über die dahintersteckende Wissenschaft zu informieren ist wichtig, wenn man trotz dieser unvorteilhaften Faktoren fit, schlank und sexy bleiben will.

Heutzutage ist es sehr einfach, sehr einladend sogar, essmäßig zu schummeln. Bislang wird gedacht, dass wenn man sportlich trainiert, ist es nicht gerade klug auf seine Ernährung nicht zu achten, weil 75% der Ergebnisse die man sieht, ist von Ernährung abhängig. Isst man richtig, bleibt man schlank, und fühlt sich fit und gesund. Sonst vergeudet man Zeit beim Training und bringt trotzdem keine auffälligen Resultate auf Vordermann. Das Training selbst ist eine sehr tolle Sache, um nach einem harten Arbeitstag den Kopf frei zu bekommen. Aber wenn man zusätzlich auch vernünftig isst und sich richtig ernährt, wehrt man dann dadurch sowohl Fett als auch Krankheiten ab. Obwohl es natürlich sehr verführerisch sein kann, mal ein Wirtshaus zu besuchen und sich welche Schmankerln zu gönnen, aber es sollte einem auch klar sein, dass wir dadurch unsere Bäuche unnötig mit Speck überlagern. Darüber vorweg Bescheid zu wissen ist besser als nachher stundenlang im Studio laufen zu müssen.

Aber ist das genug? Ist richtiges Essen alles? Oder ist das Leben noch ein wenig komplizierter? Doch überall sieht man Leute, die essen was sie wollen und nehmen trotzdem nicht zu. Es gibt auch Menschen die ein fettes Äußere haben, sind aber eigentlich sehr gesund und besitzen überhaupt keine gesundheitlchen Probleme. Im Gegenteil gibt es auch Arme die sogar beim Zusehen dick werden. Zusätlich gibt es dann wieder Magersüchtige – das andere Extrem von Ungesundheit. Ohne Verpflegung kann man natürlich nicht leben – man braucht ja Kraft und Energie! Was sollte also die Lösung sein? Der Stoffwechsel spielt hier eine maßgebende Rolle, und es zunächst zu wissen, zu welchem Bodytyp einer gehört, ist der erste Schritt den man nehmen sollte. Diese Erkenntnis hilft dann, seine Trainingprogramm und Ernährung klüger und wirkungsvoller zu planen. Sich hin und wieder welche Leckerbissen zu gönnen ist auch für den Kopf und den Geist unverzichtbar. Kompromisse zu schließen und der innere Schweinehund zu bewältigen ist generell gesagt für ein ausgeglichenes Leben erforderlich, aber wenn man klug ist, darf man sicherlich nebenbei das Leben auch genießen.

Natural fat-burners

So, while reading an article here, I came across a recent study that talks about natural fat-burners. In general I’ve always been convinced that certain people who seem to be lean no matter what they do, in general also have certain “habits” that they tend to follow unconsciously, and this article proves it. The study states that the following, if included in our everyday routines, will help us burn fat all the time without our even thinking about it:
[1] Caffeine – coffee with cinnamon, in particular, before training
[2] Vitamin C – eat a lemon before going to bed. Vitamin C generates a hormone that burns fat
[3] Grapefruit, papaya, apples, artichokes – any fruit or vegetable with calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium
[4] Spices
[5] Green tea
These foodstuffs therefore have substances that increase our metabolism which helps in burning fat!

The absolute mantra to fitness and nutrition

This is not something that people don’t already know… but since after several years of trial and error, reading and discussing, I finally figured out the perfect plan (for myself, of course), I thought I’d post it up here for people to see and judge. The thing that makes physical fitness even more complicated than several other things is that nothing works for everybody – you really have to test it out for yourself, if it suits your particular body type (what type are you – mesomorphic, endomorphic and ectomorphic?), time, daily routine and disposition. But my hope is that this little article still serves as a general guideline, which might be easily tailored to everybody’s needs…

First, workouts – work out 4 to 5 times a day. Try to use such a split system that every body part gets trained. Learn about different muscle groups and subgroups, and which exercises work which of these muscle groups. Try a balanced approach such that no part is left out. While working out, the basic idea is to use as much weight that gives your muscles enough exercise – so you can do 10-12 reps with some difficulty. If it gets too easy, move on to heavier weight. If you cannot do 10-12 “clean” reps with correct form, go a little lighter. Use full range of motion and controlled movements, and feel the muscle working out. Make sure that, as much as possible, your bones, joints and other muscle groups only act as links to the actual body part you are training. Quality over quantity, always. Try to get a pump in the muscles by the time you’re done.

Next, the more important part: nutrition. Eat 5-6 times a day – 2-3 good meals and the rest snacks; all meals should be separated by 2-3 hours. This makes sure that your metabolism always keeps going and you keep burning fat. In every meal, try to incorporate good quality carbs (whole wheat breads, brown rice), lots of green and leafy vegetables, fruit, sufficient lean protein from lean meat and lean dairy products, vitamins and minerals. Whey protein supplements are excellent. Make sure that you don’t eat any carbs after 7 o’clock or so.

Finally, get enough rest. I cannot overemphasize this point. Lack of sleep is extremely detrimental to your overall health and even mental functions.

Now for the interesting part. As a college student, you are bound to be invited to parties, and of course you want to go. But indulging yourself in moderation is a good idea in itself from several points of view. As a student (well – this is true for everybody), you often have a lot of workload and your brain needs to be high on sugar for it to work! But instead of allowing yourself empty calories coming from refined carbs, use fruit. Fructose breaks down slowly and gives you evergy over prolonged periods of time. Also, often you don’t have enough time to prepare your balanced diet – we all need comfort foods. But even in this scenario, you can always go for leaner and cheaper alternatives…

Tilapia

Tilapia is a wonder food! 112g (4 ounces) of it contain 21g protein, 1g fat (most of which is polyunsaturated), selenium, magnesium, vitamin D, taurine, omega-3 acids, and it has benefits ranging from being good for the heart, the brains, the joints, and of course – muscles!! Additionally, it has low mercury, and it is inexpensive – I paid around $2.50 for 4 ounces 🙂 And ok, I’m not done yet – to top it all off – it is also delicious, even when cooked with the teensiest bit of olive oil, salt and pepper!

Tilapia