Friday, October 16, 2015

The Biggest Loser

On June 8th of this year I started on a journey inspired by a Biggest Loser Contest sponsored by my Engine Yard, and supported by a relatively large group of brave coworkers on the same path. At the beginning of this journey at 5'10" I weighed in at 226 pounds, and running a quarter mile would have left me severely winded. Fast forward 4 months and -48 pounds, and tomorrow will mark my first non-stop running of a 5K (3.1 miles) in support of the Niagara Falls Firefighter Toy Drive.

In retrospect I didn't appear to be particularly unhealthy by North American standards, but the reality is that by medical standards I was obese and it was getting worse. High cholesterol runs in my family, and my numbers were already poor 5 years ago, despite being 16 pounds lighter and in better physical condition. I regularly worried about whether I'd have an opportunity to know my grandchildren or if I'd even get to see my kids graduate from college. It was time for a change!

Bad Habits

I had a couple bad habits that were significant contributors to my poor condition, the biggest contributor was my level of inactivity. I work from home in a suburban area, so there is less walking involved in my typical day than for most. Sure, I'd get out and do chores in the yard, play with the kids, or work around the house, but that activity probably averaged 3-4 hours per week and often wouldn't be enough to elevate my heart rate.

The second bad habit, which was really more of an addiction, was to sugary treats. Most days I'd drink at least one can of soda, and if we went out to dinner I'd probably have a second; oh, and don't forget about those free refills. Then there is dessert, which I'd manage to find on probably 5 of 7 nights per week; and no, I definitely wasn't following the serving size suggestion with ice cream (who does?). Breakfast, sometimes I did it right, sitting down with something like oatmeal or whole grain bread, but if the kids got Captain Crunch: Yum!

Breaking the Cycle

I had to start somewhere so my first step was to decommission our basement "coat rack" and turn it back into the elliptical it was always meant to be. I then created a 6-day workout spreadsheet centered around the elliptical. I started at 20 minutes per day and increased the length of the workout by 5 minutes each week. At this point Netflix from the iPad became my friend since it's remarkably easy to keep working out when your mind is distracted.

I started making smarter choices about what and how much I was eating. I'd make sure that at least half my plate was vegetables and avoid foods based around processed sugars. If I was eating something particularly high in fat (mmmm ribeye), I'd take a smaller portion, and save the rest for the next day’s lunch.

I started with some great success losing 9 pounds in the first week alone. It was a challenge to shift my diet, and I found that I often felt hungry or had cravings. The real success came when I started to actually pay attention to the calorie numbers and nutritional intake. I was able to add some healthy fats to my diet to help me feel full, and snack on things like roasted almonds to ward off cravings. I also noticed that there wasn't a lot of nutritional value in the carbohydrates I was eating, so I shifted to a low-carb diet for the last 5 weeks.

Expanding the Workout

Around the end of June I discovered the Pacer App which has this cool concept of trying to hit a minimum goal of 10,000 steps every day. This drove me to add extra walking to my lunch hour or to close out the evening. While I was at it I added some upper body and core conditioning in the form of push-ups and crunches starting with three sets of five repetitions and expanding from there.

Towards the end of July, I was out for an evening walk, listening to Pandora when "Running on Empty" started playing:

What can I say besides "I just felt like running." I started jogging and didn't stop for about 10 minutes; at that moment a runner was born. The following day I downloaded Zen Labs C25K (Couch to 5k) app and changed up my workouts, alternating days between outdoor running and the elliptical.

Tools that Helped

I've already listed apps like Netflix, Pandora, Pacer, and C25K that helped with my journey. Other favorites include:

  • MyFitnessPal - A social app that lets you connect with and encourage friends, track your calorie intake and burn, and monitor your weight loss over time.
  • RunKeeper - Once I completed the C25K program I needed an app to help me track and manage my intervals for longer and more complex runs. RunKeeper has allowed me to configure custom prompts for my endurance and my tempo runs.

The other big help was the dedicated communication channel Engine Yard set up to connect all the participants in the biggest loser competition. This gave us a location for support and discussion about fitness and nutrition, and a place to get the necessary encouragement to keep going. The veterans who participated in the first round were especially helpful to rookies like me.

Gear I Use

  • Sketchers GoRun 4
  • Horizon RE7.6 Elliptical
  • Moisture wicking shirts/shorts
  • TKO Performance Socks
  • Assorted headbands - these are a necessity, sweat stings
  • iPhone - Pedometer, Interval Timer, Tunes

Gear I'm Thinking About


For breakfast I'm typically pretty consistent with 2 scrambled eggs, a piece of fruit, and a couple slices of peameal bacon (I've started making my own.) I sometimes skip the bacon or substitute another meat depending on the day. Occasionally, I have plain oatmeal instead with either cinnamon and raisins, or cinnamon with apples; for both, I sweeten with applesauce instead of sugar.

Lunch and dinner is often a mix of the same things, lunch often being whatever is left over from the previous night. Some of my newly discovered favorites include:

  • Bone-in Pork Loin Chop - grilled and seasoned with salt, pepper, chipotle seasoning and cinnamon.
  • Romaine Lettuce Hearts - Seriously, I go through a pack (3 heads) of this stuff a week all by myself.
  • Fresh Sauteed Broccoli with Garlic and Mushrooms - This is an easy one to throw in a pan on the grill's side burner.
  • Fresh Steamed Broccoli or Green Beans - Quick and easy with a steamer, throw it on and forget about it for 10 minutes.

After a particularly intense workout I typically look for some protein in either a Kashi bar or Muscle Milk. I've also found that ¼ of a Hershey bar is just enough to help with the recovery without creating a craving or negatively impacting the diet for the entire day.

For the most part my diet is now all about moderation. The only thing I specifically avoid are things like breads and rolls (hamburger/hotdog). When you are counting calories and consider that a hamburger roll can be anywhere from 150-300 calories it has got to be a mighty special roll (*cough* Costanzos) before its worth eating.

On the rare occasions that we dine out I've found I can still maintain my diet (mostly.)

  • Red Robin will do all of their burgers as a lettuce wrap, and they do a real nice job with it too. For the truly dedicated you can substitute steamed broccoli for the bottemless fries.
  • Wendy's, and Five Guys do a decent bunless burger served almost like a salad.
  • Jim's SteakOut has an amazing selection of fresh salads.
  • The Melting Pot is a solid option at the high end, just be sure to plan some calorie splurge for dessert.

Where I am Today

I FEEL BETTER. I was unhealthy and tired, now I'm energetic and awake. I’m thinking more clearly than I can ever remember, and I have more stamina than I've ever had before. I took a resting pulse the other day and it was 47, with a blood pressure of 107/66.  I checked it twice just to be sure.

The work competition ended on July 31st, and I managed to beat my weight loss goal by getting down to 193 pounds. I also managed to win the competition with the greatest percentage of weight lost over eight weeks. I've now reached 178 pounds and wouldn't object to losing just a bit more, but I'm not losing sleep over it.

At this point my goal has changed and it's no longer about losing weight, it's about fitness and good health, and the ability to maintain that long term. My current goal is to be able to run a 7:30 5K, and a 8:30 10K, and to continue to improve my health through the long cold Buffalo winter and across the years to come.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Elusive Modern Manual Transmission Part 3

This is the third installment of my search for a modern manual transmission; for the full journey be sure to start with the first installment.

I'd love to hear your comments, but to avoid spam I do have comment moderation enabled. I promise to review and publish your feedback quickly.

2013 & 2014 Small and Mid-Size Cars With A Manual Transmission

(under $25k)

By all accounts the first stop in my search was a bit of a flop. In part, this was my fault for not doing a bit of research in advance. Still, half the fun of shopping for a new car is physically seeing and driving what is out there whether or not its actually a match for your needs.

Going into this search the Honda Accord holds the top spot. My brother had a 2003 Manual EX-L and it was a truly fantastic car. I think the Accord will be easy to love so I plan to leave this test drive until I've had a chance to examine my other options; lest I make a hasty decision. Now that Nissan has eliminated itself in classic fashion rounding out the top five will be the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, and Mazda 3.

To organize my search I made a list of the current model years of small and midsize cars offering a Manual transmission. With this list organized I was quickly able to start eliminating options and narrow down my search. I also decided to limit the MSRP to no more than $25,000 to keep my expenses in check.

Drive Make/Model MSRP Notes
Chevy Aveo $12,835 Prize from a box of Cracker Jacks
Chevy Camaro $23,530 2-door, 4-passenger
Chevy Cruze $16,995
Dodge Dart $16,490 Darting through traffic in this sounds dodgy
Ford Fiesta $13,995 Prize from Kinder Surprise Eggs
Ford Focus $16,995
Ford Fusion $20,420
Ford Mustang $22,995 2-door, 4-passenger
Honda Accord $21,930
Honda Civic $16,355
Hyundai Accent $10,705 Could come in a cereal box
Hyundai Elantra $15,625
Mazda 3 $16,595
Mazda 6 $20,785
Mitsubishi Lancer $17,195
Nissan Versa Note $13,990 Hatchback
Nissan Versa Sdn $11,990
Nissan Sentra S $15,990
Scion FR-S $25,255 2-door
Scion tC $19,965 2-door
Scion xB $17,725 Not a sedan
Scion xD $16,500 Not a sedan
Suburu Impreza $18,220 Don't like the styling except for the WRX
Toyota Yaris L $15,240 2-door hatchback
VW Jetta $16,765
VW Passat S $20,845

My next entry will cover my test drive and impressions of the Chevy Cruze; stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Elusive Modern Manual Transmission Part 2 - Nissan

This is the second installment of my search for a modern manual transmission; for the full journey be sure to start with the first installment.

I'd love to hear your comments, but to avoid spam I do have comment moderation enabled. I promise to review and publish your feedback quickly.


On that first fateful day after the discovery of rust on the A-pillar of the Saturn we decided to drop by a nearby Nissan dealer to see what options were a fit for me. At this point I hadn't really done any research but I did have a general sense of what I was looking for. The experience with this particular Nissan dealer wasn't great so I won't be mentioning names or locations.

We arrived at the dealer at about 6PM on a weeknight in July. The dealership didn't seem very busy but it still took almost 20 minutes for them to identify a salesman who was available to work with me; while I remember his name I'll call him John (Doe) from here on (his name was not John, and I'm sure John is a great salesperson, if he exists). I explained what had happened to my car and what I was looking for to John:
  • four door small to mid-size sedan
  • manual transmission
  • power windows and locks
John and I discussed how timing wasn't a big concern since I worked from home and drive my own car less than 5,000 miles annually (its my wife's car that gets the mileage). We also discussed that I was early in my search and that since I hadn't shopped for a sedan in -- well, pretty much ever -- I did want to make some time to look at other brands as well.

John expressed that my options would be very limited but didn't seem to be completely sure which vehicles offered manual transmissions. He did some digging and found that both the Sentra and the Versa might be options; the 370Z also offers a manual but doesn't fit my requirements.

After a bit of research John identified a used Nissan Versa on their lot for the "sale" price of $9,999. The car was a 09 with about 47,000 miles on it.
Initially I didn't think much of the older Versa and that really didn't resolve itself on closer inspection. The 2009 was really a pretty ugly car that this image doesn't even do justice for. The trunk on these looks like its about two feet taller than it reasonably should be. The front isn't so bad but the car does have a very "economy" look. At this point my thought was "here's a cost effective option on a recent car, this could work". On sitting in the car though their were several issues I couldn't get past:
  • it was really hard to see out the back window and backing up would be difficult
  • the shifter was coated in some mildly sticky substance
  • the plastic coating on the steering wheel was starting to chip off
  • the paint on the stereo surface was chipping off
  • there were several faint but visible stains of unknown origin on the seat surfaces
  • this car had already been detailed by the dealership

At this point this was a 4 year old car with about half of its lifetime mileage on it that wasn't "previously owned", or even "used", this one was "previously neglected". Brand new this car had an MSRP of between 9 and 13k and on light examination was already resembling a blobfish (maybe that's mean to the blobfish). After a few minutes of contemplation I decided I wasn't even interested in driving it. I exited the car, put some hand sanitizer on, and contemplated burning my clothes when we got home.

John identified that there was a new Versa on the lot with a manual transmission with an MSRP around 13k. The 2013 Versa is a much nicer looking car though it does still carry some of that "economy" look of the previous generation. I expressed that I was definitely interested in taking a closer look. John seemed conflicted about searching for the car and started to say we could make an appointment to come back but then decided to walk the lot with us in search of it. We spent about 5 minutes looking before he gave up and decided it must have been sold already. It seems like the new Versa should be an excellent value, offering a lot of car for a low price but I really can't say that here since I didn't actually get a chance to get in-depth on this car.

We went inside the dealership and discussed my search a bit more. We exchanged contact information and John promised to follow up if he found the car or something else meeting my requirements came in. All told we were with John for less than an hour.

Several points of this experience could have been better:
  • After reaching out for a salesperson the receptionist could have directed me to the information wall, a waiting area, or even suggested I look around. The walk-in experience just wasn't as welcoming as it could have been. After a few minutes, I decided to walk the lot a bit and familiarize myself with some of the available vehicles.
  • The used Versa, while it could have been a good option, the price was not even close to fair for the condition of the vehicle.
  • It was never suggested that I could order the specific vehicle I was looking for or that they could search for it for me at other dealers.
  • The inability to locate a vehicle in the inventory in a reliable and timely fashion seemed kind of odd, this was compounded by the fact that the lot was not very big.
  • After it became an issue of searching for the vehicle I was looking for, John seemed less enthusiastic about helping.
  • There was no follow-up call offering additional information or asking if I had any questions.


I think Nissan builds some great cars. The Versa, and Sentra might have been real contenders if I could have actually seen or driven them. The Altima and Maxima were where my initial interest was, but ultimately neither offers a manual option anymore. The experience with one dealer hasn't soured me on the brand but I have since seen some cars I'm more excited about which knocked the Versa and Sentra out of the running.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Elusive Modern Manual Transmission Part I - Introduction

Over the next few weeks I'm going to publish a series on my search for a new (or newer) car with a manual transmission. While my quest has now all but come to its conclusion I want to share the experience from my search with others. At the end of this series I will share my final selection along with some personal images I'll be taking at delivery. This is mainly aimed at those folks who still appreciate the feeling of rowing the gears, understand the bond between human and machine that only a manual can offer, and recognize that the journey is often more important than the destination.

Saying Goodbye to a Different Kind Of Car

At 34 years old, I still drive the second car I've ever had, and the first car I've ever actually owned; a 99 Saturn SL. We've had the car for 14 years, just 4 days longer than my wife and I have been married. While it was our car originally, it became my car by default when we added a second vehicle to our household. Of the 149,000 miles on it now I probably drove somewhere around 148,900 of them. This car carried us on our honeymoon, through the entirety of my College/University Education, the birth of my children, 5 jobs and 3 career positions; from living in my in-laws basement through an apartment and two homes. I've had this car longer than I've known most of my closest friends. Needless to say, saying goodbye is going to be like saying goodbye to an old friend.


As cars go, our Saturn was pretty basic, and by comparison to the options available today it was positively archaic. Ours was the base model with Air Conditioning and NY emissions so it included the following features:

  • AM/FM radio with 2 speakers
  • manual windows and locks
  • manual transmission
  • and even... manual steering :-o
  • The ability to carry a 10ft board with a child in the back seat and the windows/trunk closed
For me, the only point of real weakness here was the lack of power windows and locks; unless its a classic car I will never, ever, ever tolerate that on a car I own again.

The stereo situation was easily remedied with a couple of $30 speakers from Walmart and 30 minutes of installation effort (the wires were already there). For christmas my brother and sister bought us a trunk-mount cd changer which made our automotive sound system ready for the 21st century. After the CD changer wore out, I replaced the unit with an in-dash JVC system that allows for both aux and USB inputs. The new system even has a remote control just in case you are sitting in the trunk and can't quite reach the controls.

The manual steering always took a bit of effort in parking lots at low speed, but its one of those things you get used to. At anything above 5 miles/hour it feels sporty and greatly enhances the feel of the road and the connection with the car.

Manual Transmission

Probably one of my favorite features of the car, and one of the contributing factors to the longevity of my ownership, would be the manual transmission. When I first got the car I didn't actually know how to drive a manual transmission and this was the car that I learned on. The clutch has always been forgiving, and while I stalled it a lot those first couple weeks, I never found myself frustrated or wishing for the automatic version.

While I've driven more refined transmissions (BMW, Mazda) the shift is sporty with a solid feel. Combined with the relative low weight the car can leap off the line. The manual transmission also returned a class leading 30/40 fuel economy something that is just recently being eclipsed by more modern alternatives. My average fuel economy used to hover around 38MPG in combined driving with a peak of 44MPG on a trip to Cleveland. In the past few years that has dropped closer to 32MPG mainly due to the introduction and expansion of ethanol fuel additives.


Saturn's had a real inconsistent reputation throughout their history; in fact, my wife had an L200 that we were relieved when the lease was over and we were able to turn it in. That said, the SL series' built from 97 to 03 had an excellent reputation. A lot of them are still on the road today and that can't said for the Ford Escorts, Dodge Neons, and Chevy Cavaliers of the same era. I've had to do so little maintenance that I can actually provide the full list right here:
  • 3 sets of tires (almost on the fourth)
  • 2 sets of front rotors and 3 sets of front brake pads
  • 2 batteries (my fault for letting the charge run down)
  • 3 light bulbs (two of them weren't actually needed)
  • 1 pair of front wheel bearings
  • 1 pair of front tie rods
  • 1 wiper motor
  • typical plugs, oil, oil filters, and air filters
  • 1 welded exhaust linkage
  • 2 muffler strap replacements
  • 2 AC system charges
  • 1 headliner
The great majority of this work I was able to do by myself and I'm entirely convinced that this would be the car that MacGyver would own.

Why The Change

In June I needed to have the windshield replaced due to a crack running from the drivers side. When the old windshield was removed they found that the prior installation (2004) had been done poorly and the frame on the A-pillar had some rust infiltration. Initially it appeared that the work necessary to correct this would probably easily exceed the value of the car. The glass company was able to identify a body shop where the necessary work could be done and they handled the repair under their warranty program for the original installation.

At this point we discussed the situation as a family. While the timing wasn't ideal we came to the conclusion that it was probably time to work on replacing my car. We realized that the car while still running well was probably going to need some money spent on it over the course of the next year including tires and rear brake drums. We also realized that this was just the stuff we knew about and that it was very likely that there would be more that was necessary. We didn't want to get into the slippery slope where the more you spend the longer you try to keep the car to get the value from your repairs.

What I'm Looking For

The features I'm looking for in order of importance are:
  • Manual Transmission (this is an absolute requirement)
  • Four doors (hatchbacks and coupes need not apply)
  • 60/40 rear folding seats
  • Rear passthrough/trunk wide and deep enough to carry a bicycle
  • Same size or larger than the Saturn
  • Power windows and locks
Other items will strongly weight my final decision
  • Safety Features
  • Technology Group
  • Sporty Feel
  • Fuel Economy
  • Versitility
  • Reliability/Manufacturer Reputation
The Saturn has always been a blast to drive, easy to maintain/repair, and cost effective to operate. Its one of my mother-in-law's favorite all time drives, and if she could get away with owning a smaller car, with all the grandkid toting she does, its a safe bet she'd be at the front of the line to take ownership of this next. Needless to say, the new car has some mighty big shoes to fill.

Having driven my car as long as I have its become a familiar and comfortable place for me. In fact, after the windshield repair I took my car out for a long drive as sort of a way to contemplate my decision and begin to say goodbye. I've decided that in consideration of all factors time is on my side for this search; since I plan to drive the new car for several years I'd better take the time to get it right.

As part of my journey I spent long hours online researching what my options were and was shocked by just how limited they are. Once I'd identified the options that fit my needs I took most of them for a drive and I captured my thoughts about each vehicle to share. I look forward to sharing my journey with you.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Real Men of Genius


Today we salute you Mr. Beer In A Giant Slingshot Man.
(Mr. Beer In A Giant Slingshot Man)
Some men use giant slingshots to send soft capsules of water to their far away friends, you send beer in solid containers.
(hey, send me some ice)
That's right, nothing says "Thanks for being my wingman" like a silver bullet concussion.
(feel like I was hit by a train)
Your combination of bravery and stupidity in being willing to stand behind that giant slingshot even though that beer can might come right back at you is truly to be praised.
(oooooooof, I think I cracked my sternum)
So load up another Old Milwaukee, and crack open an ice cold Bud Light, O'Master of Disaster. You might as make use of those Kidneys while you still have them.
(Mr. Beer In A Giant Slingshot Man)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter

I've never been a huge fan of Yams or Sweet Potatoes; my palate seems to taste them as a cross between a Potato (something I do like), and a squash (something I can force myself to eat because its "good" for me). Still, every now and then this root finds its way into a dish on a table where I dine (usually at the holidays) and I occasionally give it a chance. This Easter it was a Yam Casserole that I had to give a chance to for its somewhat unique and festive preparation.

Being short of marshmallows to top the Yams, one of the creative chefs in my house dug into the undistributed marshmallow peeps and threw a few in on top of the brown sugar. I suspect they didn't cover the entire dish just in case this turned into a culinary disaster.

The sugar coating on the peeps added an interesting texture to the dish which I wasn't really expecting. The marshmallow center of the peep remained almost fluid (more so than a marshmallow would have) and was another welcome surprise. Aside from that the recipe was pretty much what you would expect from Yams.

I found that I did enjoy this twist on the recipe more than the standard approach but its not to the point where this is a dish I would personally request. The reviews around our dinner table were also mixed with my daughter Brittany giving the big 'NO' vote on the peeps. If you are going to give this a try you might want to prepare a half/half dish just to see how well it is received.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

MySQL Delete Duplicate Records with Alter Table

So your application has been humming along live for a couple of months and suddenly you find that one of your database tables contains duplicate records. You review the table structure and find that it does not have a unique constraint defined on a field (or group of fields) that should be unique. So how can these duplicates be eliminated?

I've encountered many solutions for joining a table to itself to identify and delete groups of duplicates, but on large (1GB+) tables this will cause a full table scan (unless you run it in batches) and could be very difficult on a production server. Another option is process the deletions through a temporary table and then rename the tables. So after you've eliminated the duplicates you still need to add the unique constraint to the table; wouldn't it be better if you could handle everything in one shot?

MySQL includes an option for that in the ALTER TABLE syntax; ALTER IGNORE TABLE. The IGNORE option works a bit like 'INSERT IGNORE INTO table1 SELECT * FROM table2...' in that the first record remains in the table but subsequent records are silently dropped.

Here's a "fun" example of how this all works:
mysql> create table tp_test(
a int(11) auto_increment primary key,
b varchar(25) not null);
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.05 sec)

mysql> show create table tp_test;
| tp_test | CREATE TABLE `tp_test` (
`a` int(11) NOT NULL auto_increment,
`b` varchar(25) NOT NULL,
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> insert into tp_test (b)
Query OK, 4 rows affected (0.00 sec)

mysql> select * from tp_test;
| a | b |
| 1 | Chickens |
| 2 | eat |
| 3 | corn |
| 5 | corn |
| 6 | and |
| 7 | other |
| 8 | grains |
| 9 | grains |
8 rows in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> ALTER IGNORE TABLE tp_test
ADD UNIQUE INDEX `test1` (`b`);
Query OK, 8 rows affected (0.00 sec)
Records: 8 Duplicates: 2 Warnings: 0

mysql> select * from tp_test;
| a | b |
| 1 | Chickens |
| 2 | eat |
| 3 | corn |
| 6 | and |
| 7 | other |
| 8 | grains |
6 rows in set (0.00 sec)