Sunday, November 16, 2014

Galileo: Still right

Sometimes science is at its best when it displays its elegant simplicity. For example, consider this entry from Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy" blog:
If you ask someone what would fall faster, a bowling ball or a marble, I bet a lot of folks would say the heavier bowling ball falls faster. But in fact, if dropped from a meter or so off the ground, they’d fall at the same rate. Gravity accelerates them at the same rate, so they fall at the same rate.
Part of the reason our intuition is off here is due to air. As objects fall, the air pushes back on them. This depends pretty strongly on their surface area, how big they are, so a lightweight large object will in fact fall more slowly than a heavier, smaller one.
Dropping a bowling ball and a feather will yield results that will satisfy our intuition. But what if you removed all the air from the room and dropped them? What happens then?
This is what happens.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kicking my own ass

As regular readers of this blog know, I've been posting whiteboard updates in an attempt to keep myself motivated and accountable for the tasks I want to get done each week. The evidence will show my batting average there is fairly mediocre, but one area where I can claim some success is the top row -- exercise.

At one point in the not-too-distant past, I ballooned up to 280 pounds (127 kilograms, 20 stone) amid stress, inactivity, etc. Ever since I got settled in Abu Dhabi, though, I set myself a target of at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least four times a week, and I've managed largely to stick to that. The fitness center in my apartment block is modest but has all the basics -- an elliptical machine, two treadmills (one of which even works), a rowing machine, stationary bike, free weights and one more complicated weight machine. In the interest of simplicity, I stick to the elliptical and treadmill.

Now, a little more than 13 months into my stay here, I'm down to between 235 and 240 pounds (107-109kg, 16-17 stone), depending on the day. This is down to a few different factors: 1) eating less; 2), eating healthier (cooking for myself is a big help here); 3) nagging myself into getting up earlier so I have time to work out; and 4) working in a couple sessions of interval training each week, getting a maximum amount of exercise in 30 minutes of actual workout. The idea is to alternate between periods at a 5 on the Perceived Exertion Index -- 0 being sitting down to blog, 10 being fleeing from rabid zombie tigers -- and periods at a 9.
So, how do intervals actually help? Hard-working muscles produce lactic acid. If you're running at a comfortable pace, your body has plenty of time to flush it away. But as you start to work harder and harder, there comes a point when your body can't do that quickly enough. The lactic acid starts to build up, leaving you with burning muscles and a desire to stop.
This point is called your lactate threshold, and interval training is all about encouraging your body to do all it can to offset this point, and to cope mentally when it does come – so you can run faster for longer. Your body responds to interval training by growing extra capillaries to transport more oxygen to your muscles, strengthening your heart to pump it round, and developing the capability to buffer more lactic acid.
Between the intervals, sessions on the elliptical and the occasional 5k on the treadmill, the work is showing dividends. It wasn't that long ago I was happy just to complete a 5k at all, then get it done in less than 45 minutes, all the while gasping for breath at workout's end. Now, I've whittled my 5k personal best down to 31:41, or about 10:15 per mile. I haven't run a sub-10:00 mile since high school, so this is kind of exciting. The next immediate goal is to finish a 5k in 30:00 or less. Even though the weight loss isn't as dramatic as before, I can still see benefits to the exercise -- more energy, better mood, certain articles of clothing are baggier than before, etc.

The point of this entry isn't to pat myself on the back, though. Rather, I want to talk about something that has become clear to me in the process of pushing the limits of my fitness.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Um, yikes?

Halloween may have come and gone, but that doesn't mean the scares have to stop. Consider this uplifting news out of Brazil.
South America’s biggest and wealthiest city may run out of water by mid-November if it doesn’t rain soon.
São Paulo, a Brazilian megacity of 20 million people, is suffering its worst drought in at least 80 years, with key reservoirs that supply the city dried up after an unusually dry year.
One of the causes of the crisis may be more than 2,000 kilometers away, in the growing deforested areas in the Amazon region.
“Humidity that comes from the Amazon in the form of vapor clouds - what we call ‘flying rivers’ - has dropped dramatically, contributing to this devastating situation we are living today,” said Antonio Nobre, a leading climate scientist at INPE, Brazil’s National Space Research Institute.
The changes, he said, are “all because of deforestation”.
How bad is it? Real bad.
The severity of the situation in recent weeks has led government leaders to finally admit Brazil’s financial powerhouse is on the brink of a catastrophe.
São Paulo residents should brace for a “collapse like we’ve never seen before” if the drought continues, warned Vicente Andreu, president of Brazil’s Water Regulatory Agency.
Dilma Pena, chief executive officer of Sabesp, the state-owned water utility that serves the city, warned last week that São Paulo only has about two weeks of drinking water supplies left.
More frightful -- though perhaps less life-threatening -- news below the fold.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Off the wagon -- for SCIENCE!

Up until tonight, I had been soda- and caffeine-free for more than three weeks. This return to the wagon, like the others, is equal parts cost-cutting and health kick. Long-time readers of this blog have heard this before, of course, but this time it's part of an attempt to bring a bit more consistency and efficacy to my efforts (see: Board of Accountability posts).

Still, I couldn't help but be curious when I saw this green-colored Coke can at the Lulu Express across the street. It was the latest variety, called Coca-Cola Life, available here in the UAE as an import after being released in the UK in August. While I wasn't in the market for a new soft drink or interested in breaking my new streak, I was inspired to spend 3.95 dirhams (about $1.10) and give it a try after hearing the good folks at Skeptics With a K mention it on a recent episode. (Discussion starts at the 5:00 mark.)

How does it measure up? Head below the fold to find out.