Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

What I learned from my HyperCard middle school digital portfolio

November 15th, 2012

In middle school we were all required to build a “digital portfolio” of our work. They taught us HyperCard so we could link each essay we wrote and our photos into a personal HyperCard stack. It was a portfolio that “we’d add to until we graduated” because computers were the future, or whatever.

But what really happened is that HyperCard was discontinued and most of our essays and photos were saved in unreadable formats. Even the floppies themselves that we’d saved our data to were obsolete. After a couple of years the project was scrapped and never spoken of again.

What did this all teach me? Here’s what I got out of it:

  1. If you’re going to work with technology, you have to keep your skills sharp. Today’s computer skills are tomorrow’s distant memory. It might sound cliche but it’s true.
  2. Care about your digital data? Then keep an eye on it. Make backups. Don’t keep it one place. Data can become unreadable for many reasons.
  3. Not all change is for the better. HyperCard was an app that made it easy to create your own software. (Remember Myst? Built in HyperCard.) There’s nothing like HyperCard these days that novice geeks can pick up and play with. Good ideas can be forgotten.
  4. Paper is still hard to beat for longevity. But then again, do you care about the reports you wrote in your seventh grade social studies class? Not sure I give a shit.

There you go. Sometimes the lessons we learn aren’t the intended lessons; but they’re still valuable nonetheless.

30 days without wheat: the end, and looking back

December 7th, 2011

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my wheat-free diet, I thought I’d post the results.

But first, let’s recall the ground rules:

  • No wheat. This means no wheat-based breads, tortillas, beer, etc. The food selection process would be based on a combination of common sense and reading labels.
  • Try to maintain my caloric intake. I didn’t want to skew the results by intentionally “dieting” here. I decided to throw away flour tortillas and buy corn tortillas, get sugary (but fresh and in season) fruit for snacks, drink wine instead of hefeweizen, etc.
  • Continue existing exercise routine. of light-moderate cardio for 30-45 min/day.
  • Allow myself a one meal exception for the entire 30 days (a pizza event I already had planned.)

Based on those rules, I had a few potential results in mind to look out for:

There were two main factors I was looking for in this experiment: weight and the more difficult to quantify general “feeling.” Theoretically lowering your blood sugar should cause both weight loss and lethargy. Giving up something as addictive as morphine shouldn’t be pleasant either. But there was also the possibility that I’d “feel” healthier if wheat is linked to inflammation and joint pain.

Simple enough, right? Almost! One thing I neglected to account for was that I might eat wheat by accident. On two occasions I took a single bite of a desert before realizing it had wheat in it. I only mention this because sometimes these diets can be trickier than expected.

I also did a terrible job weighing myself for the first 10 days, something that I don’t think skewed the results much (as you’ll see shortly) but I could have done a better job and keeping track in the beginning.

So, how did I do with sticking to the rules? To put it simply: not bad.

Avoiding wheat was never all that difficult. I take serious issue with the idea that wheat is “addictive” because I simply didn’t find this to be the case at all.

Now on to the results.

As for weight? Zero difference. I made up for the carbs in other ways, and I still weigh what I weighed a year ago.

That said it does seem like wheat is “empty calories.” It’s easy to eat a bunch of bread, pizza, etc. compared to say a bunch of cheese or vegetables. You can keep eating bread without feeling full and that’s not a good thing. Thing is, you can do the same with chips and fries. Carbs are easy to snack on because they don’t make your stomach feel full, so eliminating wheat might be enough for some people to lose weight.

At the 10 day mark I did feel “really lethargic,” which I thought might be a result of the promised lowered blood sugar. But that feeling quickly went away. Compared to my attempts at low carb diets in the past, I now suspect it was unrelated to diet.

I can’t say the diet really made me feel any better or any worse. It was so easy to stick to that I considered going a few more days for the hell of it, but ultimately decided to return to wheat so I could sum up my experiment.

But the diet was not a total loss! There was one positive result that I did not expect. As I wrote at the 20 day mark:

There is one positive change that I didn’t anticipate. My skin has never looked better. I’m starting to think I might have been wrong about my acne. Could it be a simple wheat allergy? Or is there another variable at play here?

Guess what? Now that I’m back to wheat the acne came back and my skin took on a reddish tint. Now again, this couldn’t have been due to a lack of carbs because I ate foods with corn and potatoes in them. So what caused this? Does my skin have a wheat gluten allergy?

A few minutes of Googling suggests this is within the realm of possibility. Could our fetish for bread is the reason us European-blooded folks have such terrible skin?

Soon I’ll embark on another “30 day” journey. Not sure what the theme will be yet: check back and find out soon.

Do you get canker sores? Read this.

November 27th, 2011

Time for another gross health-related post!

It used to be I’d get canker sores once a month, often more. They come with a subtle pain that never quite goes away in your mouth. Nobody should have to endure this, and if you get canker sores I might have the solution for you.

The problem started when I was a teenager and all the conventional “cures” didn’t help much. Topical ointments taste bad and can’t reach the back of your throat. Peroxide mouthwash stings like crazy and takes a few days of use to work.

When I was in college I got frustrated and started searching for a better solution. Turns out, there was a ridiculously simple answer: switch toothpaste.

The theory is this: most toothpaste contains sodium-sulfate based cleansers, also known as “SLS.” These naturally derived cleansers are really powerful — so powerful they may irritate your mouth.

Fortunately there’s a few toothpastes out there containing other formulas. The cheapest and easiest to find is the Biotene toothpaste, which you can buy at Safeway and Target. My favorite is Squiggle, which you can find at Rainbow and other health food stores. To me, Squiggle has a better taste and texture, but they both work equally well. Both Biotene and Squiggle contain fluoride and a second natural cavity fighter, xylitol.

So if you get canker sores, find a toothpaste without SLS and try it for a while. (If you use mouthwash, make sure you get one that doesn’t contain SLS either.) It doesn’t cost much to try this for a while and see if it works for you.

30 days without wheat: the first 20 days

November 19th, 2011

What a difference ten days makes.

Ten days ago (more or less) I told you about my 30 days without wheat diet self-experiment. I decided to try going for a month without eating any wheat at all. No breads, crackers, pizza, wheat beers, etc. for a full 30 days.

It’s now been 20 days since I started the diet, and 10 days since the previous post.

The diet so far hasn’t been terribly difficult to stick with. As much as I love getting sandwiches at local favorites The Sandwich Place and/or Clare’s Deli, I stopped thinking about these dining options entirely. Substituting corn tacos for wheat burritos was a refreshing change, and you can’t go wrong with corn arepas (they’re delicious.) Plenty of Asian and Indian food is wheat-free. Honestly I wouldn’t have a problem eating nothing but sushi for the rest of my life.

It also seems I’ve inexplicably begun eating smaller meals. Somehow fruit and cheese started becoming my default breakfast recently. For reasons I can’t explain, everything else seemed disgusting all of a sudden. I started craving more rice and potatoes at lunch and dinner.

The scales, however, don’t show a lot of meaningful change. I’m starting to think carbohydrates are more addictive than wheat, since if I remove one with my diet I just add more of another.

There is one positive change that I didn’t anticipate. My skin has never looked better. I’m starting to think I might have been wrong about my acne. Could it be a simple wheat allergy? Or is there another variable at play here?

My “cheat meal” is coming up, and I feel somewhat bad about doing it. I want to push myself further and see what happens after a completely uninterrupted 30 days. On the other hand, it might answer whether there’s a link between acne and wheat, at least for me. Also, I never say no to a pizza making party. NEVER.

30 days without wheat

November 6th, 2011

Could wheat really be bad for you?

While reading BoingBoing the other day, I happened across a post claiming wheat is addictive, responsible for many health problems, makes you fat, caused the Holocaust, etc.

Some of the claims are really out there. But let’s assume for a moment that there might be a grain of truth to his assertion that wheat is bad for us. Certainly at my last job I gained weight when I switched from yogurt for breakfast to the free bagels they were always giving us.

That’s where I start thinking he’s on to something — those bagels never once made me feel full. But the yogurt? Always. The bagels contained more calories than the yogurt and less nutrition. So why did I keep eating them? I’m not really sure. I tried switching to healthier breakfasts, but the temptation of bagels was difficult to resist.

The Experiment
I decided to make a pact with myself: avoid wheat for 30 days and document the results.

Why 30 days? A short TED talk by Matt Cutts explores this simple concept: try something new for 30 days. It can be anything, from training for an athletic event to writing a novel. It can also involve removing something from your life — like wheat.

Additionally, the BoingBoing post specifically mentions that four weeks without wheat should be enough to convince yourself that wheat isn’t wonderful.

There were two main factors I was looking for in this experiment: weight and the more difficult to quantify general “feeling.” Theoretically lowering your blood sugar should cause both weight loss and lethargy. Giving up something as addictive as morphine shouldn’t be pleasant either. But there was also the possibility that I’d “feel” healthier if wheat is linked to inflammation and joint pain.

Here’s the ground I set for myself rules:

  • No wheat. This means no wheat-based breads, tortillas, beer, etc. The food selection process would be based on a combination of common sense and reading labels.
  • Try to maintain my caloric intake. I didn’t want to skew the results by intentionally “dieting” here. I decided to throw away flour tortillas and buy corn tortillas, get sugary (but fresh and in season) fruit for snacks, drink wine instead of hefeweizen, etc.
  • Continue existing exercise routine. of light-moderate cardio for 30-45 min/day.
  • Allow myself a one meal exception for the entire 30 days (a pizza event I already had planned.)

Results: First 10 Days
Yesterday marks 10 days since I started the wheat-free experiment. I didn’t eat any wheat during this time; I also ate a lot more corn-based products than usual.

Here’s the results.

Weight: a bit tricky to judge. Even though my scale has wifi (what a strange world we live in!) I haven’t been as rigorous as I should have been at weighing myself at the same time every day. Still, I think there’s enough data to say with certainty that I haven’t gained any weight.

Feelings: just as predicted, I’ve been feeling really lethargic as one often would on a low-carb diet. Although unpleasant, it also gives me hope. After all, I’ve been going out of my way to NOT cut carbs; if my blood sugar is causing this reaction there must be another reason for it.

Addictiveness: every now and then I find myself craving a pizza or a sandwich, but once I remind myself that I can’t have it the feeling moves on to another food. So I’m having a little trouble buying into the idea that wheat is as addictive as morphine when I’m able to avoid it so easily.

So far, these results are marginally promising, but not very conclusive. I’m going to monitor my weight more thoroughly for the next 10 days and see if there’s any meaningful results.

An American tourist’s reaction to visiting Mexico City, Toluca, and Metepec

March 31st, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 2 and part 3.

There’s cultural differences between Mexico and the United States that surprised me during my recent visit. There were pleasant surprises, and not-so pleasant surprises. Let’s explore them all.

Latino Americana tower from the Palacio de Bellas Artes

The good stuff
Mexico City is in many ways a world-class major city. Good restaurants, hotels, street food, and the entire place is huge and packed with people and businesses. They have easily the best public transit I’ve ever seen, with a Metro where trains are spaced less than two minutes apart, bus rapid transit, electric trolleys, as well as traditional buses. (Traditional buses in Mexico are independently operated, sort of like shared taxis with pre-planned routes.) I never got to try the bicycle sharing program, but it looked like something to try.

It’s also a beautiful city with art everywhere. They’re big on statues. Certain parts of the city are very walkable, with pedestrian streets.

I’m told safety is an issue, but I never really saw any crime; of course, I was traveling with Mexicans who knew the country much better than I did and were aware of which areas to steer clear from. The police in Mexico City often have automatic weapons. They seem to mainly patrol tourist areas, which is nice if you’re a tourist but I’m sure is infuriating if you’re a local.

Some of the things surprised me not so much as an American, but as a San Franciscan. Sidewalk vendors seem to have free reign in terms of the space they take up and what they do. Street food was everywhere and often delicious. I can safely say I had better Mexican food in a Toluca parking lot than anywhere else, ever. One guy was selling homemade sorbet right outside of an elementary school, a concept that would make American parents’ jaws drop.

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Now all this said, there’s a few big issues that Mexico needs to address, the sooner the better.

Lack of trust
We take it for granted in the US that we can walk into almost any store without surrendering our bags to the front desk. In Mexico, this is unheard of. In most stores, everything is either sold from behind the counter, or you have to check your bags before they let you go in. (Why I’m supposed to trust someone who makes $3 a day with a $500 camera was never explained to me.) There were exceptions to this, but they were mostly convenience stores or stores swarming with security guards. One store even had security guards standing on stools to watch over everyone. Another store insisted on putting cable ties on the zippers on my backpack so it couldn’t be opened.

But the lack of trust extends much further than shopping. Most homes in and around Mexico City are small buildings made from cinder blocks. They line the edges of the roofs and balconies with broken glass, sort of a cheap alternative to barbed wire. The outside of these homes is almost never painted, because to paint your home would suggest that you have money, which would be like putting up a “Please rob my house” sign.

It’s hard to imagine why everyone is treated like a criminal. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it (i.e. lots of crime) but unless you’re used to this sort of treatment, it’s damn insulting.

Poor sewers
It’s funny, but I thought the worst plumbing I’d ever have to deal with was in my trip to Greece. There, toilets simply couldn’t handle toilet paper. I was told many toilets in Mexico had the same problem. But in my entire visit to Mexico, I never had a problem with flushing TP.

But there was a different problem — stinky sewers. I don’t know know a lot about plumbing, but whatever they’ve done in Mexico can’t be right. All three hotels we visited had major odor problems in the bathrooms, especially at night. Street sewers often smelled terrible, even worse than our stinky street sewers in San Francisco (exception: foul street sewers on 19th Ave outside of SFSU which could probably kill a person.)

Someone from the Mexican tourism bureau needs to get a team of plumbers together and go around fixing this ASAP.

Another issue which may or may not be related is the foul-smelling rivers! This was especially noticeable in Toluca, where a river a couple blocks away from our hotel smelled so bad that I was able to smell it inside hotel, even in spite of having a stuffy nose due to my cold.

Lack of customer service
I think part of this is related to the lack of trust (described above) but there’s also an issue of just not caring or trying very hard. It’s not like Greece, where everybody moved too slow. This was something much worse about Mexican customer service that was hard to pin down.

Some examples:

  • On many occasions, when asking for help finding something at a store, they were simply unwilling to help. I found this not only to be bad service, but also generally rude.
  • The aforementioned bag-check at many stores as not only an insult, it was a hassle as well.
  • Larger stores tended to have long, slow moving lines. There wasn’t any rush to get people through the checkout.
  • We went to extend our stay at the first hotel we were at, but they insisted we had to pay 700 pesos ($70 USD) per night instead of the 350 pesos ($35 USD) we had bought the original two nights for via Kayak.com. They said it was fine though if we wanted to order online to get the discount. So we did that, and then they told us we’d need to print out the e-mail confirmation, and “no you can’t use our printer.” Would it have been that hard for them to explain that we would need to print the e-mail BEFORE we placed the order? It would have saved about 20 minutes, and wouldn’t have been hard to explain in the first place.
  • One more example: a cashier at a drink stand refused my 100 peso ($10 USD) note for a bottle of water that cost 10 pesos ($1 USD). She claimed she didn’t have change. I didn’t buy anything there, including the cashier’s lame excuse for laziness.

Granted, this wasn’t true everywhere. But for the most part, I really got the impression that everyone who worked for someone else was doing the bare minimum necessary to keep their jobs. Were it not for the fact that I was visiting my girlfriend’s family — who were all very nice to me — I would have been under the impression that most Mexicans were lazy, self-centered assholes.

Cerveza

Conclusion
Overall, I’m a little torn on whether I’d go back to Mexico or not. On the one hand there’s still a lot more to see and do. I need to finish climbing the pyramids! But on the other hand, between the problematic customer service, the stench, and the way everyone is treated like a criminal, it’s a bit hard to justify returning.

I hate to say this, but perhaps the deciding factor is the price; Mexico is a cheap place to go, and it’s close enough to the United States that traveling there is inexpensive as well. Round trip airfare was less than $200 (USD) per person even after taxes and fees, rides on the Mexico City Metro were 3 pesos ($0.30 USD!!), and there’s excellent food for mere dollars.

So yeah, I’ll be back in Mexico someday. But it’s not at the top of my list.

Trip to Mexico: part 3 (Toluca)

March 12th, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 2, and part 4.

We spent four days in Toluca, and unfortunately I was ill the entire time. Since it was kind of a blur for me I’m cramming the entire four days into a single entry.

Toluca is largely an industrial town, with production outposts for Nestle, Coca-Cola, Chrysler, and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (the brewery that makes Tecate, Sol, Indio, and Dos Equis.) Due to the manufacturing, there’s also a lot of hotels, restaurants, strip clubs, etc.

Day 1

We hitched a ride on a taxi, then took a bus, where we met up with Alexia’s cousin in Toluca. We spent the evening checking out Metepec, an old town nearby which houses several old churches and a district of local artists.

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Later in the night we joined up with the rest of the crew and went to the KISS Lounge. It’s a basement bar that doubles as a shrine to the band KISS. The decorations are all merchandise and albums from the band. Most of the bar’s walls were stuffed with KISS memorabilia behind glass; perhaps most shockingly, their collection included two separate matryoshka sets painted to look like members of KISS. As if one set was not more than enough?

Late into the night, a live band showed up to play various hard rock covers. By “late” I mean really late; the bar closes at 5am.

KISS Lounge KISS matroshka dolls The crew KISS 8-track KISS memorabilia KISS makeup set

Day 2

The second day was pretty mellow, we hit up a “VIP” movie theater to see Black Swan. If you weren’t aware, a VIP movie theater has reclining Lazy-Boy style seats, tables, and waiters who will bring alcoholic drinks to your seat. This begs the question: why don’t we have this in San Francisco? I’d be there every week.

Anyway, the mall with the VIP theater had some unusual stores; a Hewlett Packard store, an “iShop” Apple Store knockoff, and they had an Imaginarium! This was the toy store I grew up with, and just like I remember, they had regular doorway next to a child-sized doorway. Granted, it wasn’t nearly as large or fancy as the one we used to have at the Stanford Shopping Center, but it was still a shock to me personally. I had no idea Imaginarium still existed.

HP Experience store iShop Imaginarium

Later that night we had one of Pizza Hut’s bizarre pizzas delivered to the hotel, and watched some Mexican TV. You know you’re watching Mexican TV when a guy in a clown suit is being interviewed by a woman sitting on a banana-shaped sofa which is in front of a wall that has bananas hanging from it.

Some kind of pizza from Pizza Hut delivered to our hotel Mexican television

Day 3
We headed back to Metepec to check out the local shops, then hitched a bus back to downtown Toluca. On the way, a band jumped on the bus to play some heavily-accented Doors covers.

Back in Toluca, we went to the MUMCI, a museum dedicated to beer brewing sponsored by Modelo. For homebrewers it’s quite interesting, and fortunately it’s in both English and Spanish. They cover everything from growing crops to brewing to bottling and packaging. They even have information on building your own industrial-grade brewery, which seems a bit odd as they’re explaining how you can compete with them. It even includes a Star Tours-esque ride about the bottling process.

Barley Falling mist Fermentation Pasteurization Bottling machine Old Corona bottles

Day 4

In downtown Toluca, I found that this vacation had something in common with my trip to Greece: the Acropolis. But unlike the Greek version, Toluca’s doesn’t cost 12 Euros, and it’s a mall.

We headed to the Cosmovitral, a plant conservatory in a green house that’s covered in an absurd amount of stained glass. In fact, it was worth the entry fee alone just to look at the stained glass, let alone the plants.

At the end of the day we retired to our hotel room with a box of mixed Modelo cervezas and a Skyy Blue cocktail (made with real Skyy vodka, unlike its American counterpart) from the local convenience store.

"Plaza Acropolis" sign IMG_4484 IMG_4512 IMG_4531 IMG_4514 IMG_4515 IMG_4538 Cerveza

Day 5

The final day before my departure, we met Alexia’s family’s sheep. Their job is to mow the grass at the family’s parking lot.

Sheep! Eric and the sheep

We drove around to see some of Toluca’s factories, then to the official Cervefrio (or “beer store”) of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma where I bought a official Sol beer mug.

Nestle plant in Toluca Graffiti Indio Beer at Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma company store Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma company store

Just before my flight, I got a horrible stomach ache because of my cold. Alexia’s aunt gave me a glass of some kind of incredibly foul tasting home remedy which worked surprisingly well. Whatever it was, it made me well enough to get on the airplane. Well, almost… as it turns out when your sinuses are completely clogged you should not under any circumstance get on a airplane. That’s something I learned the hard way.

Trip to Mexico: part 2 (Mexico City)

March 10th, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 3, and part 4.

Day 3

We met up with more of Alexia’s family and we headed down to a massive bus terminal to for a ride to the pyramids of Teotihuacan! On the way I was introduced to the concept of legal graffiti. Bands often pay to have legal graffiti billboards of sorts painted on public walls to advertise their shows.

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The Teotihuacan pyramids were overrun by “gypsy” style merchants of sorts selling whistles, hats, jewelry, etc. We headed down to the first and smallest pyramid, then quickly realized we needed a guide. We found a guy who spoke a bit of English (this was for my benefit only.) Before showing us the pyramids, he pointed out a group of four traditional Voladores de Papantla, or acrobats who were swinging in a circle off ropes on a 16 meter tall poll on ropes tied to their ankles. He claimed that traditionally, the poles were 40 meters high. Not for those of us with a fear of heights.

The tour guide (guy in the black baseball cap in the photo) showed us some traditional dyes made from insect eggs, paper, thread and needles made from cactus, and most surprisingly, the way the old city of Teotihuacan had been built.

According to our guide, every 52 years the citizens created a new city on top of the old city. So far archaeologists have only dared to go one level deep, where they found an earlier foundation for the buildings in exactly the same place, but with different decorations. There’s only one visible spot where it’s been dug up, and it’s pretty incredible. So far nobody knows if there’s another level deeper. Mysterious!

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After an hour or so, our tour guide left and wished us well, and we decided to go up the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the largest pyramid at the site. Here, I have to admit that I didn’t make it even halfway up, perhaps because of the already high elevation, or perhaps because I was coming down with a really bad cold that would haunt the rest of the trip. I hate to admit that I was defeated by this pyramid — especially because it was one of the main reasons I came to Mexico in the first place. The one saving grace was that the view from partway up was incredible. You could see the entire ruins of Teotihuacan from there.

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While everyone else finished scaling the pyramid, Alexia and I headed across the way to a small strip with some restaurants. Upon entering the street, we were assaulted by six young men carrying menus, each insisting we eat at the restaurant they represented. All of the restaurants essentially had the tourist-esque “please everyone” massive menus, so we decided on the restaurant we’d been recommended earlier. Eventually we were joined by our companions.

We ordered micheladas. If you’re not familiar with a michelada, it’s a Mexican beer (in this case, Indio) mixed with lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Clamato in a glass lined with salt and chile pequin. It’s one of my favorite cocktails, basically a Mexican version of a bloody mary. If you haven’t tried it you’re missing out.

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Day 4

On the fourth day we took the Metro to Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the world’s most visited Catholic shrine. It’s a lot like Disneyland except there’s no rides and you have to pay to use the bathroom.

The main cathedral on the site was built in the mid 1970′s. It contains an incredibly large church, a place to put flowers, a series of conveyor belts you can stand on while looking at a painting of the Virgin Mary, and (of course) a gift shop. From the outside, the building looks suspiciously like Space Mountain, but the closest thing to a roller coaster is the Virgin Mary’s conveyor belt.

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The grounds of the basilica contain several smaller chapels, Pope John Paul’s Popemobile(TM) and the old basilica, which is now fenced off due to problems with its structural integrity. The gardens have a bit of a mini-golf vibe, with a number of uncharacteristically painted statues here and there, and a few fountains. In the back there’s a cafeteria area with tortas, soda, etc. And (of course) more gift shops.

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The area around the church seemed a bit sketchy… definitely not the kind of place you’d want to be at night. And perhaps even dangerous during the day, as Alexia almost stepped on a snake.

Trip to Mexico: part 1 (Mexico City)

March 8th, 2011

Hey everyone, gather ’round the living room and take a nap while I subject you to my vacation slides from February 2011, when Alexia Anthem and I went to visit Mexico.

The trip to Mexico series will be divided into four parts on my blog:

  1. Mexico City part 1 (this post)
  2. Mexico City part 2
  3. Toluca
  4. Rants about Mexico

This is part 1.

Day One
In spite of taking a redeye flight and essentially not sleeping at all, Alexia and I somehow found the energy to not flop down on the comfortable hotel bed and sleep.

Instead, we walked from our hotel to the park and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Unfortunately the Bellas Artes was closed, so we headed to the nearby LatinoAmericana tower to check out the view and generally be good tourists.

After coming down from the tower, we headed down the street to the Zócalo, a plaza with a bunch of government buildings, a cathedral, and a surprisingly large flag.

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Somehow we stumbled our way to a Metro stop. The Mexico City Metro is a rubber-tire train system that’s dirt cheap (tickets are 30 cents USD) and trains come every two minutes. It’s very impressive compared to what we have in San Francisco. Plus they have food stands in the stations, including Domino’s. How cool is that?

A few hundred staircases later we ended up walking down an alley filled with little shops and restaurants and on the way to Paseo de la Reforma, the main drag in Mexico City. Along La Reforma, there’s dozens of bike racks used as part of a bike-sharing program.

Soon we found our way to El Ángel, the iconic golden angel statue seen on Mexico City memorabilia everywhere. The statue is in the middle of a traffic circle. If you weren’t aware of this, jaywalking is somewhat of a national pastime in Mexico. So they didn’t bother with crosswalks to get to the angel, despite it being a national monument. You pretty much have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and run through traffic to get to it. There’s a bunch of statues at the base of the angel, and a little door with some tombs inside. Protip: if you plan your vacation better than we did, there are days than you can go up inside pillar that holds the angel to an observation deck above.

IMG_1813 IMG_3864 Angel At the angel

Day Two
We were joined by Alexia Anthem’s cousin, and finally got to go inside Bellas Artes. The place is free, unless you have a camera, in which case they charge a camera fee. Yeah, I know. Lame. Anyway the place is filled with fantastic murals, including some of Diego Rivera’s best. A strange thing about Bellas Artes is that the outside has a typical Roman look, but the inside is art deco. The contrast between old and new is sort of like a grandfather who snowboards and plays video games.

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We took a walk down to the tequila museum, which unfortunately wasn’t open! I suspect it was because they had an infestation of mariachi on the patio outside and were waiting for an exterminator. On the way there, I spotted a fake cable car, which begs the question: is there a way to take it all the way from Mexico City to Fisherman’s Wharf?

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Acne: dealing with nasty pimples

January 13th, 2011

I’m taking a break from my usual blog entries to discuss a personal health issue, which is honestly a bit gross.

WARNING: Don’t read this while you’re eating, or maybe don’t read it at all. And DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.

Now that we have that out of the way… acne!
Most of us, especially men, get acne in their teenage years. Maybe a few zits here and there, maybe a whole face of pimples.

And for most folks that’s it; it’s gone by the time you’re in your early twenties.

But some of us aren’t so lucky.

Background

I easily had the worst acne in my high school class. I had a pimple here or there at first, but then it slowly conquered my entire face.

My doctor prescribed some topical creams including bezoyl peroxide and Retin-A. She also gave me a large dose of antibiotics. According to modern medical theories, acne is caused by clogged pores, clogged with bacterial infections of the skin. The creams and antibiotics should take care of this.

These treatments didn’t work, my acne was getting worse. So she sent me to a dermatologist.

EXTRA WARNING: HERE IS WHERE THINGS GET VERY GROSS!

At this point (I was about 17) the acne had started forming what the dermatologist referred to as “cysts.” These were like monster pimples that would bleed and leak puss. She put me on a regime of an oral medication called Accutane and injected the cysts with cortisone.

Now this sort of worked, but the effect was temporary. The Accutane helped for a few months, but it’s not very good for your liver so there’s a limit as to how much you’re supposed to take. At the end of the Accutane cycle I was no better than before, except now my skin was incredibly dry.


EXTRA EXTRA WARNING: NOW IT GETS ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTING!!!

At this point the cysts were at their worst; they would leak small amounts of puss, then skin would grow back over the puss. The nose pads on my glasses would be encased in skin and puss by the middle of he day, so that when I took my glasses off the cysts on my nose would start bleeding and leaking puss.

I tried all kinds of things; topical vinegar (it stings like crazy) egg white (is that even safe?) not to mention countless over the counter creams.

But the only thing that seemed to help were the cortisone injections, and the effect of those was short lived. I’d get an injection one week and a couple weeks later, the cyst was back.

Solution part 1: Topical ointment

Around the time I left for college, I discovered a website run by a guy in San Francisco called Acne.org. This site is run by a self-experimenter who found that washing his face carefully and using a 2% solution of benzoyl peroxide was effective in clearing his face. The novelty here was the 2% solution; normally benzoyl peroxide only comes in a “maximum strength” 10% solution. The advantage of this was that the 2% was less drying than the 10%, and it was significantly more effective.

Neutrogena was the only major brand selling a 2% solution at the time, and it was quite expensive at about $15 an ounce. But it did seem to be effective!

Eventually, Acne.org created their own custom 2% benzoyl peroxide solution and sold it at a fraction of the cost of Neutrogena.

This worked for me far better than anything my doctors had ever prescribed. It was also cheaper, and there were no oral medications (taking antibiotics all the time makes your stomach hurt 24/7.) Acne.org’s “regimen” improved my skin, not to mention my quality of life. If you haven’t experienced severe acne personally, I should tell you that having acne all over makes it painful to smile or talk.

Solution part 2: diet

Over the past 7 years I’ve experimented with diet for a number of reasons. I tend to be of the mindset that our species evolved to eat certain foods, but the foods that are common now are not what we evolved to eat. The obvious example is hydrogenated oil, aka “trans fat” which was developed in a lab a century ago. Our bodies responded to this new type of fat in an unpredictable way because we had not evolved to consume it.

So when I was given a book called The Acne Prescription: The Perricone Program for Clear and Healthy Skin at Every Age by Dr. Perricone, I was skeptical but not surprised by the finding that diet played a role in acne.

The book essentially advocates a very low-carb diet, completely free of refined sugars. No table sugar, white flour, etc. This means you’re not allowed to eat pasta, rice, corn, potatoes, bread, or anything made from dough.

It sounds rough, but keep in mind that the quantity of sugars we’re eating today are not what our ancestors ate. Most vegetables and all meats and fish have very few carbohydrates.

The other interesting thing about this book is that Dr. Perricone refutes the notion that acne is caused by bacteria. His hypothesis is that acne an inflammatory response caused by an immune system gone haywire from too much glucose in the blood. Hence the low-carb diet.

I’d also like to point out that I drank an absurd amount of soda all throughout high school, which if the blood glucose theory is correct, would explain why my acne got better; it wasn’t due to growing older so much as switching from soda to coffee.

Results

For me, both the Acne.org topical solution and the Perricone low-carb diet have worked… to an extent.

The Acne.org topical regimen works wonders, but its effect is merely skin deep. Sure, the acne appears to be gone… but for me, it’s not. Instead of a couple zits on my face I get cysts that are under my skin. I can feel them; in fact it’s nearly impossible not to because large subdermal cysts are damn painful. And sometimes pimples show up inside my ear canals. It’s not easy to apply topical ointment in there. It’s also kind of strange to tell someone that it’s no big deal that I’m bleeding from my ear. It makes me feel like the James Bond villain in Casino Royale who bleeds from his eye.

So while the Acne.org solution does work, for me it relocates the problem rather than solving it.

Dr. Perricone seems like he’s on to something. Right now I’m on a low-carb diet for the second time in my life, and my acne has been drastically reduced. But since I’m a pizza addict, I’m unable to do any low-carb diet without a weekly “cheat day.” For this reason, the Acne.org topical solution is an invaluable accomplice to the diet.

In combination, the Perricone diet along with the 2% benzoyl peroxide regimen dials down the acne to a very manageable level.

Conclusion

Acne sucks. If not for aesthetic reasons then because it makes it physical hurt to smile, frown, or move your facial muscles at all.

Thanks to the internet and a love of self-experimentation I was able to get my acne down to a very mild level.

Look, acne isn’t going to kill you. If you have acne (and if you don’t why are you reading this repulsive entry?) then it’s worth taking a few months to do some self-experimentation. You don’t need to go to a doctor to treat your acne, and if you do there’s no guarantee that the side effects of your doctor’s prescription won’t be worse than an effective over-the-counter ointment. Maybe it’s time to try the Acne.org topical regimen. Or why not consider a low-carb diet? Or both?