Tuesday, July 25, 2006



I attended an unusual conference this past Saturday. It was the Raleigh-Durham BarClamp. A BarClamp is a sort of an "un-conference" where, according to the BarCampRDU Web Page
...people interested in a wide range of technologies come together to teach and learn. Unfamiliar with the un-conference format? Here's the idea in a nutshell. Rather than having scheduled speakers, everyone pitches sessions the morning of the BarCamp. Those sessions are put on a schedule, and lots of little groups form for intense group learning. Everyone is expected to teach, to talk, to participate....
The lack of a formal structure to the content is quite liberating. Each session has the feel of a really good panel discussion where everybody in the room is on the panel -- or like an interesting talk where you skip the presentation and get straight to the question and answer session at the end, which is usually the best part.

It... Wait a minute... [Note to self: There is no L in BarCamp... No wonder that Yahoo Image Search couldn't find the logo. Hmmmm...] Where was I, Oh yes: BarCamp!


For those of you who are, as I am, both computer jockeys and semi-fannish SF fans a BarCamp combines the better features of a technical conference with those of a small regional con with no Klingons. It is a geek-fest par-excellence and, what is even more astounding, it was free. RedHat provided the space in their offices in the NCSU Centennial Campus and other worthy organization provided food, books, web hosting, coffee, t-shirts, etc.. (See the BarCampRDU site for a full list of who provided what.)

Someone has gone back into the BarCampRDU wiki ( barcamp.org/BarCampRDU ) and entered the session grid. If you are interested its about half-way down. The sessions I attended were 1C: Reputation Online, 2E: Sex and Death of Advertising, 3A: Social Networking, 4G: Future of Social Browsing, 5C: Ajaxifying Your WebApp with Dojo and 6E: Multi-User Blogging.

I am way, way too lazy to summarize the subjects discussed but I will mention a few ideas that struck me during the day.

Online Identity and Online Reputatuion were recurring themes, probably because they (especialy identity) represent unsovled (potentially unsolvable) problems. How exactly can one decide who one can trust online? Is the other person who he or she claims to be and can that person be trusted? In order to make any decision about the second part -- reputation, or whether a person can be trusted -- one must first be sure of the first -- identity, or who exactly are we trusting? There are a number of approaches to these problems and none of them quite work. The reassuring thing about rubbing elbows with PhDs and researchers in these areas is to find out that it's not just me -- nobody knows how to solve the problems completely.

Social Networking and Online Collaboration Systems were another frequent topic. It was nice to be able to discuss these without the odd paranoia that surrounds more mainstream discussions. The discussions helped me sort out my theory that people use social networking tools to meet different needs, depending on who they are, and that certain features of the different systems are targetted to meet those needs. College kids use Facebook and MySpace to meet people and each user's page is their own personal advertisement. They tinker with their pages -- trying to create the 'perfect' page to attract the kind of person they hope to add to their circles of friend -- but their pages change very little from day to day since today's vision of perfection tends to look pretty much like yesterday's.

Most of the participants at BarCamp are college age kids and so this was the general notion of what Online Social Networking is all about. Since my age is approximately twice the average age of the participants I was able to offer another set of needs that are met by another set of tools. People my age tend to already have friends and we use social networking tools to keep track of the friends we already have. Because of this, instead of tools that tell who we are we prefer tools that tell what we have been up to. We expect that most of the people who visit our pages will be our friends who already know what we are like. We tend to gravitate to tools such as LiveJournal that have more of a journaling nature.

Ajax is a client-side scripting system based on Javascript. It is all the rage these days among web developers looking to add some bells and whistles to their pages. It is slightly less horrible than other client-side web-browser-based scripting languages and I expect I will be learning more about it soon. Whoopee!

Noisy Bars are a problem I think about often. People will say they are going to a bar "to talk" but talking is almost impossible in most bars because the music is always ear-damagingly loud. The night-before party for BarCamp was held in Tylers in Durham -- a nice bar/tavern that would be nicer still if they turned the volume down to "merely painful." I mentioned the loud-bar-music thing to one of the BarCamp participants the next day and he suggested that bars do it because when people shout it sounds like they are having fun; but my theory is that the music in bars is kept loud so that men can interact with women without having to talk to them -- an ordeal which all men instinctively hate and fear.

So, in conclusion, BarCamp was fun. If they do another one I will notify my readers... just after I sign up myself -- attendance is limited and I almost missed out this time, being saved only by the waiting list.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Warther Museum and Knife Factory

This is part one of a three-part series on How to Stuff a Long Weekend which covers the events of the four-day weekend vacation Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, July 7-10 2006. [The other parts are here and here.]Friday was spent in the car, for the most part. My lovely wife and I picked up our daughter from her Chapel Hill apartment at 8 am and we drove straight through to Sugarcreek, Ohio. I managed to make the drive seem shorter by being confused about how long it was supposed to take. I had rememberd that MapQuest had told me it was an eleven-hour drive (the sum of the two legs of our return route) and so, when my error was pointed out the eight-hour driving time seemed easier somehow. We arrived at the Carlisle Inn in Sugarcreek, Ohio at just after 7 pm -- just in time for supper.

Having already bored you with our uneventful trip I will spare you the details of what we ate for supper except to note that the Carlisle is an Amish business and many of the people who work there are Amish. The Amish are a plain, sturdy, wholesome, rather-sweet people and they serve plain, sturdy, wholesome, rather-sweet food about which I will say nothing -- except that "Noodles on Mashed Potatoes" seems an odd main dish and that the next time I go there I must try it, if only to hear Dr. Atkins whirling in his grave.

In the morning, after a tasty, if oxymoronic, sturdy Amish contenential breakfast at the hotel, we were off to the Warther's Carving Museum and Knife Factory in nearby Dover. The Warther Museum is a wonderful place and well worth visiting if you are ever in Ohio (or in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, D.C., etc. etc. etc..) As a matter of fact, if you have never been there you should drop whatever you are doing, buy a ticket to Cleveland, rent a car and head for Dover right now. Be sure to bookmark this page so you can finish reading when you get back.

Ok, I'm kidding... mostly. But I do think that Warther's is pretty darn cool. Part of this may be because I remember it from when I was a kid. I remember meeting Mooney Warther, who did all the carvings in the museum. mooney1 (He looked a lot like this when I met him, not long before his death.) He would sit in a rocking chair in the lobby of the museum and carve a pair of working pliers out of a piece of soft wood with ten quick cuts. Even at his advanced age it took about fifteen seconds. Pretty cool when you are a kid. I also remember his carvings (which impress me more as a grown-up than they did then.) But, mostly, I remember the swing.


Mooney Warther had made the swing for his own children and grandchildren but he let tourist children use it, too. It hung from a high branch of a huge Elm tree, suspended by ninty feet of rope (or steel cables?) The arc of the swing followed the hillside up the hill so you could get in at the bottom of the arc and walk yourself up the hill. Then when you picked up your feet you would swing back down the way you came up and then out over the drop-off. I don't know how high you were at the far end of the arc. As a kid it seemed like you were half a mile off the ground but it was probably about 40 feet. It was like flying.

The tree died in the mid seventies from Dutch Elm Disease and the swing is long gone. Its like will not be seen again. It was a part of a different world -- a world where children were protected by the Grace of God, not by Loads of Lawyers. If the tree hadn't been taken out by Dutch Elm Disease, Mooney Warther's insurance company would have called in an air strike before someone fell off and sued them.

The grounds of the museum (the backyard of the old family house) are still pretty neat. They have the nicely restored Dover, Ohio depot and a railroad caboose at the bottom of the hill. The depot is more or less under the path of the old swing. To get a sense of the swing from this photo, imagine a kid's foot dangling into the frame at the upper left corner.


Freida1There is also a building dedicated to Freida Warther's button collection. (Freida was Mooney's wife.) Some of my relatives were friends of the Warthers and they were always on the lookout for interesting or unusual buttons for her collection. The button collection is pretty much as shown in this photo -- all four walls covered floor to panels with buttons sewn on and the ceiling is covered with buttons, too. The buttons on the floor are gone, though, as is Mrs. Warther who passed away several years ago after working with her buttons and her garden well into her ninties.

mooney2But back to the museum. Ernest "Mooney" Warther was an amazing man. His family business was (still is) making kitchen knives and his hobby was wood carving. Although he was not Amish himself he lived in Amish country in Ohio and he took a lot of pride in the fact that he did his carving using only hand tools. He had an uncanny knack for carving perfectly circular or cylindrical objects without using a lathe. He didn't need machines to do that sort of thing and he didn't use them.

Given his pride in hand work and simple tools it may seem a bit odd that he decided, early in life that his life's work would be to carve The History of the Steam Locomotive in wood. He loved machinery with a passion -- he just didn't hold with using it in his carving. Here are a few photos I took of the trains he carved.




Still pictures don't do the carvings justice since the carvings aren't still. They are working replicas -- the wheels turn, the pistons move in and out, the doors open and close -- and some of them have been running without repair for almost ninety years. The models are driven by electrical motors that he stole from his wife's sewing machine whenever he finished a new train.

mooney3When he started carving he used bone instead of ivory for the white pieces and the inlay lettering. He would fish the bones out of the soup pot and throw them on the roof for the sun to bleach. Later, when he was more affluent, he was able to replace the bone parts with ivory and to switch for his new carvings from native woods to exotics such as ebony.

By 1923 his carvings were so well known that the New York Central Railroad built a special car to exhibit them and took them on a tour and Mooney Warther with them. The carvings were then exhibited for two years in Grand Central Station in New York and Mooney and his family lived in the city while they were there. After two years he decided to move himself and his carvings back to Ohio. The railroad offered him a huge amount of money to stay in New York (over a million dollars in today's money) but Mooney told them that he and his wife had talked it over and that it was clear to them that God had not intended for anyone to stay in the city of New York for more than ten days at a time and he turned them down.

mooney_warthers_first_knife_shopThe Warther family has been making kitchen knives since 1902 when this photo was taken of their workshop. They still make knives today and it is still largely a family business in the third and fourth generation. Several Mooney's great-grandchilren work in the shop making knives and in the gift shop where visitors can buy them. A set of Warther's knives is an obligatory wedding gift in my family. I have used mine almost every day for almost thirty years.


The thing that makes the Warther museum so inspiring isn't that Mooney Warther had superhuman talent or that he was a genius. He was talented, that is clear, but his talents were entirely human in scale and his genius, if you want to call it that, was in deciding what things were going to be important to him in his life and setting about getting them done in an amazingly purposeful and efficient way.

Motts Reunions

Part two in the How to Stuff a Long Weekend series is the two Motts family reunions in Ohio. [The other parts are here and here.] My paternal grandmother was Mildred Motts before she married my grandfather, L A Haslup, and these are her relatives. Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the Fahl-Motts reunion first held in 1906. Sunday was a smaller, but still sizable, get together for descendents of my great-grandfather, Eli Motts.

The Fahl-Motts Reunion


The invitation shows my great-great-grandfather, Michael Motts, and his wife Mary (Fahl) Motts.

This was the main event of the trip -- the reason we drove all the way to Ohio. The various Mottses, Fahls and Motts-Fahl descendents in the area have been having a family reunion there longer than anyone present has been alive. This year was the hundredth anniversary and it was well attended. The organizers had to rent the adjacent room at the community center to fit all the attendees. In recent years the attendance has run at around forty; this year, because of the hundredth anniversity thing, they had three times that many.

You'd think that having so many relatives in one room would be daunting but it was actually less intimidating than a smaller gathering. When there are one hundred thirty-odd relatives no one expects you to know who they all are. It's sort of a "get out of jail free" card for the forgetful. And who are you? you ask. My sister? Yes, yes, of course I knew that. It't just that there are so many people here to sort out...

My brother was taking pictures at the Fahl-Motts dinner and I left my camera behind so any photos of the event in this blog will come later as an update if at all. There was also an attempt to take a group photo and I will add it in if I get a copy since it will make a nice contrast to the following photo of the reunion in 1909.


This is from a Xerox and the quality is poor. If I get a better copy I will replace it.

The photo came with a typed list of who's who in the photo by the numbers. About half of the people in the photo were unknown but here is my great-grandfather Eli Motts [5] and great-grandmother Annie (Houts) Motts [6].


My Grandmother Mildred Elizabeth Motts [19] was ten years old in the photo...


... and her sister Nadine Motts [11] was a bit older.


This was the first time I have been to a Fahl-Motts reunion but I did once get a copy of the reunion cookbook from a couple of years back. It was one of those spiral-bound things where everyone on the mailing list is asked to contribute a favorite recipe and half of them send in the same thing. That year the most popular recipe was "Cheesy Potato Bake" which was made with frozen hash-brown potatoes, sour cream and schredded cheddar cheese. The 2006 reunion was a covered-dish affair (we took some pies and other pastries from the Hotel restaurant) and I had several opportunities to sample official Fahl-Motts cheesy potato varieties and other sturdy, easily reheated fare. There was a lot of food there. Never has the spectre of starvation seemed farther away -- and the goals of my diet seemed more unattainable.

Apparently, it will also be the last time I attend a Fahl-Motts reunion. There was a brief business meeting after supper where everyone was thanked for coming, people who had worked hard to make the affair a success were recognized, and the decision was confirmed that one hundred years were enough and there were no plans for a next meeting.

There were a number of suggestions made for ways for the reunion to continue -- they mostly came from the Eli Motts descendents -- my group. But of course the encouragement would come from us. We are scattered all over the country, none of us are local to the Canton, Ohio area and there is no way that any of us could volunteer to take over the work -- no one expects us to do it because it can't happen. We'd like for the reunion to go on -- we still have people who'se last name is Motts in our group; but in some of the other families the last Motts ancestor died before the oldest living family member was born and they have other family reunions to plan.

One of the events surrounding this hundredth, and last, reunion of Michael Motts family is the publication of a book of geneaological information which one of my distant Motts cousins has put together for the occasion. I think I'll buy a copy.

The Eli Motts Reunion was a Sunday brunch held at the Atwood Lake Lodge southeast of Canton, Ohio. The event was to start promptly at 9:30 and, the Atwood Lake Lodge being a half-hour drive from the hotel, we had been told we needed to leave no later than 9:00 am to be on time. Since we were going to head on to Arlington from the Lodge we needed to pack bags and car and check out before we could leave. Adding to the sense of urgency was the fact that no-one in our group had any idea how to get to the Lodge so if we missed the 9 am caravan we would be up the creek.

After considerable rushing through our morning rituals, hurrying one another along, and a last-minute realization that we had forgotten to include dad in the rushing and hurrying (because he was staying in another room) we were finally ready to go -- and only ten minutes late. We threw the last few bags in the trusty Subaru and headed to the lobby to look for the other members of the caravan. We had a few nervous minutes when we discovered that there was no-one in the lobby and thought we might have been left behind but we quickly discovered that the reason there was nobody there is that nobody else was ready to go yet (except for Aunt Sue who had already left for the Lodge to reassure them that we were coming.)

This was one of those junctures where your humble proprietor and the Teleospouse take different points of view. Upon finding out that everyone else in the family is running even later than I am I tend to think aahhh, I am off the hook and relax. The wife, on the other hand, is driven half-mad by this sort of family farbling, and on this occasion I worried that she might need to be restrained and sedated for her own good and for the safety of others. But somehow we made it through that extra half-hour that was required for maps to be located and Xeroxed, and for various siblings to finish packing and certain nephews to get out of the shower, and we departed for the Lodge where we arrived without incident.

The Atwood Lake Resort and Conference Center is pleasant, if slightly tired looking place with a lovely view of the Ohio countryside and the lake. Brunch was a very servicable hotel-food buffet and we had a nice private room in which to eat and visit. When everyone was finished eating we headed out to the lawn for the obligatory group picture. I took a number of photos and have put some of them ( <= click to view) online for other family members who have asked for copies (and for you, gentle reader, if you like). Here is the group photo.

Click the photo for other sizes.

This photo is a composite that I have assembled from three different photos. I didn't have a tripod so I couldn't use the self-timer to get into the picture and one of the photos was taken by one of the other people in the picture. I spliced together the part that has him in it (near the left of the photo, squatting) with the part that has me (just right of center in the rear). While I was at it I spliced in a better copy of several figures at the right end and grabbed one head from an individual family group photo for a relative who is only visible as a tuft of hair in any of the overall group shots. The original shots from which I built the composite are all included in the photos in my Flickr.com account that can be accessed using the link above.

Science Club Reunion

I'm a bit vague about the dates here but the story goes that in 1944 my dad, his best friend George and a few other guys in the Woodrow Wilson High School science club fielded a slate of candidates that dominated the student government elections. They accomplished this by developing a strategy for managing the nominations. Whenever a very popular candidate was nominated someone from the science club would pop up and enthusiastically nominate the popular candidate's best friend -- to split the vote. The teacher who was monitoring the nominations caught on right away and was glaring at the science club members, more and more ominously as the nominations proceeded, but the other students never had a clue. By the time the nominations were over the fix was in -- and the science club candidates won almost every seat.

Part three in the "How to Stuff a Long Weekend" series features the events of Monday which was mostly spent in Arlington, Va and Washington DC. [The other parts are here and here.] It started with George and his wife coming over for breakfast with dad, the wife and daughter, and me at our motel restaurant. It was over breakfast that we heard of the electorial victory of the science club sixty-two years ago. They recalled their surprise several years later, after graduating and going their separate ways to find themselves together again in medical school at George Washington University in 1947.


The Science Club Reunion 2006. The original members, dad and George, are in the middle.

It was a wonderful conversation. Dad ang George have been friends forever and there was lots to catch up on -- whatever happened to so-and-so and who wound up marrying whom -- but they are busy guys -- doctors seldom stop working when they "retire" -- and there was lots of new material to talk about as well. Dad is just back from a trip to Haiti with a team of medical missionaries trying to improve the care at a Catholic clinic there and George is on the board of the American Council of Pediatrics which involves quite a bit of traveling. Much of the talk was medical (I will spare you the details of dad's finding the biggest prostate he ever felt in Haiti) but it was all interesting.

One medical bit that is worth mentioning, since it ties in with the occasional satisfactions of being an older doctor, is the problems the team in Haiti had in trying to find a way to treat diabetes. A young doctor said that she suspected that one of the patients she had seen was diabetic but that there was no way that the patient could be diagnosed, much less treated, in an environment with no electricity, no running water and no way to do a blood test for glucose. Dad suggested that when he was a young intern at GW they had successfully treated diabetes with urine samples and dip sticks. This idea was very exciting to the team. Monitoring blood sugar with a urine dip stick is old technology and is not much used any more but it is much better than nothing. They still make the testing dip sticks and it is clearly the right technology for use in rural Haiti. Sometimes you can teach a new doc old tricks.

We paid the bill and a tip and kept on talking until breakfast time was over and the restaurant was setting up for lunch and finally George had to leave for another meeting across town. The rest of us checked out of the motel, verified that it would be OK to leave our car there while we did a bit of sightseeing, and headed for nearby Metro station.

Our first stop was Arlington Cemetery where we visited the graves of my grandparents and of my mother who passed away a few years ago. Grandfather Haslup, who died when I was one year old, was a career Marine officer and had at one time briefly been the military governor of Haiti during the US occupation that started in 1915. Funny how things come back around.

Our family graves are just down the hill from the Tomb of the Unknowns so we hiked up to watch the changing of the guard and then headed back to the Metro station to catch a train downtown.


Since we had a six hour drive back to North Carolina before bed we didn't have a lot of time for sightseeing. We only had time to see part of one of the buildings of the Smithsonian. We thought about seeing one of the new parts -- possibly the American Indian Museum -- but in the end we decided to go to the Natural History building. It was my favorite when I was a kid -- with the dinoraur bones and the huge stuffed elephant in the central hall -- and it's still my favorite. They have a new exhibit for "mammals" to serve as a counterpoint to the dinosaurs and it is well worth seeing but my favorite part has always been the minerals. I love the big crystals and the nickel-iron meteorites. After seeing the mammals we decided that we just had time for the fossil exhibit but I snuck off to walk through the mineral exhibit, just quickly, and to touch the meteorites one more time. I managed to catch up with the family in the fossels after only a few million years and was barely missed.

Natural History Staircase

My lovely daughter on the stairs outside the Imax theater in the Smithsonian Natural History building.


We left Arlington a little before seven, after the heavy rush-hour traffic, and started looking for supper when we were well out of town. We weren't particularly hungry so we were rather picky at first. I was tormented by the vague memory of a rather nice place to eat that we had found on a previous trip when we found ourselves in the same situation. On that previous occasion we found a little restaurant in the downtown part of a historic town on a river. We ate in a very nice little restaurant in an older (possibly brick) building. I remember thinking that the place was a "find" and we would have to remember it for future trips. And, of course, I forgot where it was. I remembered that it was on the west side of I-95 shortly after we crossed a river. When we were 20 miles south of Richmond I decided that I had missed it and since it was getting late and we were hungry now we decided to become less picky. We wound up eating in run-down seafood restaurant where my daughter and I both ordered the "crab soup" that turned out to be Campbell's Chunky Cream of Mushroon soup with a few bits of crab (or at least crab shells) thrown in. I rather like mushroom soup so this was ok with me but the daughter wound up going next door to Wendy's for a salad.

A review of the map suggests Petersburg, VA as the most likely place for my lost restaurant. Petersburg is an older town on the Appomattox River and it is much more historic than it is given credit for being. The fall of Petersburg was the point where the south had unarguably lost the war and Southern historians tend to overlook it because the subject is too depressing. Petersburg is a bit further south than I was thinking -- I was looking for something nearer to Arlington -- but the notion of driving all the way through Richmond on the Interstate and still not finding supper seems familiar.

If the little town along the way on that previous trip was Petersburg then the place we ate was most likely on of these: http://www.craterroad.com/restaurants.html and probably this one: http://www.craterroad.com/alexanders.html . The name of the domain for those web pages -- Crater Road -- is a reference to one of the events of the Civil War when union troops tunneled under a southern fort and blew it up. Crater Road runs north and south about two blocks east of I-95.

Update: I found the little lost restaurant, or at least I know the town. The town is Occoquan, Va. (See That Cute Place to Eat I Can Never Find.)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Magic Feather Diet

Magic FeatherHello, My name is Lee and I am a fat person.

Actually, I'm not that fat right now but I have been for most of my life. Since statistics suggest that the cure rates for obesity are not as good as the cure rate for alcoholism (or for heroin addiction, for that matter) it is entirely appropriate to borrow that famous intro line from Alcoholics Anonymous. Once a fatty, always a fatty (at least potentially.) I may not be fat right now but I know that I am one twinkie away from being a blimp once again.

The good news is that I seems to have found a program of treatment which works to control the problem. It isn't especially unpleasant -- or crushingly expensive -- and it doesn't require me to do weird things with my brain. On my new "diet" I eat pretty much the same stuff as I ate before, when I was fat. I eat in ordinary restaurants and I don't order the flavorless "healthy" foods. I never leave the table hungry and, while I may get a bit peckish, now and then between meals, I am never grindingly hungry. I never obsess about food, counting the seconds -- each and every one -- until my next meal.

The Secret

I enjoy my food because I eat food that I enjoy. In the 22 weeks since I started I have lost 37 pounds at a fairly-constant rate of 1.6 pounds per week. [Update 12/05/2006: Make that 42 weeks and 72 lbs at 1.7 pounds a week.] And it's been fairly easy. What's the secret? Here it is: I don't eat very much any more. I order a small lunch and get a to-go box for half of it. At supper I tend to dine on the appetizer menu. That's where most of the tastiest food is but the portions are really small. For those of you whose eyes just glazed over -- the one's who think that you can no more eat like I eat than you can grow wings and fly -- remember: I am one of you -- a fat person. If I can do it, so can you.

Actually, there is a second half to the secret. I mentioned the first half -- that I no longer eat very much -- so you would know that my weight-loss comes from a non-controversial source: caloric reduction. I'll get to the second half of the secret in a minute but first I will explain the title of this posting: "The Magic Feather Diet." As many of you may have guessed it's a reference to the Walt Disney film Dumbo. In the film, Dumbo, a small elephant, learns to fly using his unnaturally large ears as wings. His friends know he can fly but Dumbo lacks confidence to try. They give him an ordinary feather to hold, telling him it is a magic feather, and with the feather clutched in his trunk he takes flight.dumbo This link to a Google image search should bring up images of Dumbo and most of the drawings of Dumbo flying will show the black "magic" feather clutched in his trunk. It will look something like this.

One last note before I get on with my piece. While you are reading please bear in mind that I am neither a doctor nor a researcher. I am a computer jockey by trade and anything that sounds like "science" in the following should be taken with a large grain of salt (this salt crystal the Smithsonian has on display in their mineral exhibit would do fine.)

The Magic Feather

pgxSo here is my magic feather. This stuff is a blend of three viscous dietary fibers mixed in just the right ratio to form the thickest possible glop when mixed with water at a pH similar to the environment in the stomach. You can read about it in this flyer [PDF] from one of the guys who invented it. I have tracked down the studies he references and they appear to be legit and I can personally testify to the stuff's helpfulness when one is trying to shed a few pounds.

[Yes, yes, I know. Diet pills are useless, almost by definition, and that's the ones that are not actually dangerous. Hang with me, I'll get back to the diet pills issue.]

A Little Background

Scientists who study obesity and its related health concerns, especially diabetes, have noticed a combination of factors which seem to go together to spell trouble with a capital "T". Well, not a "T" actually, its an "X" -- as in Metabolic Syndrome X. You can read a bit about Metabolic Syndrome X in this brief article from About.com in which the author, Dr. Richard N. Fogoros, M.D, says, in part --
...While there is no drug treatment that directly reverses the insulin resistance that causes syndrome X, there is, in fact, a way to reverse the insulin resistance - diet and exercise. Patients should make every attempt to reduce their body weight to within 20% of the "ideal" body weight calculated for age and height. (The ideal diet for this condition is a low calorie, low-cholesterol diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and fiber.) And patients should incorporate aerobic exercise (at least 20 minutes) into their daily lifestyle. If both of these can be accomplished, most of the metabolic abnormalities seen in syndrome X substantially improve.

However, human nature (and human metabolism) being what it is, the majority of patients with syndrome X cannot accomplish these goals. In these cases, each metabolic disorder associated with syndrome X needs to be treated individually, and aggressively. [The highlighting is mine.]
If you have never heard of Metabolic Syndrome X you should read the whole thing. It's quite short and provides a good introduction. I do disagree with him on one point, which I have highlighted. I think that by adhering to the Magic Feather Diet most people will find that it is possible to control their weight.

Healthy Caveman Syndrome

My take on Metabolic Syndrome X is that for most of our evolutionary history it was simply not a problem. In fact, in a society that subsists in large part on hunting, some of the aspects of the metabolic Syndrome can be an advantage. People with the syndrome react quickly to food. After they eat their blood sugar spikes immediately which triggers a similarly fast release of high levels of insulin. The high insulin level causes cells to store the blood sugar as fat and the blood sugar drops causing hunger to return. The stomach efficiently liquefies the food and dumps it into the small intestine. Once the stomach is empty it releases signaling compounds such as ghrellin to indicate that it is ready for more food. Eating sets off a cascade that makes the Metabolic Syndrome X caveman even hungrier and a bit grouchy. The other, non MSX cavemen are unlikely to come between Mr. Hungry and his lunch until he is stuffed for fear of getting hit over the head. This roller-coaster ride of blood sugar and insulin rise and fall is very unhealthy if it happens every day -- but if food is only available occasionally then the person who most efficiently eats when the food is available and stores as much fat as possible will have an advantage.

So, from an evolutionary point of view, there is nothing wrong with having a metabolism that very efficiently converts food into body fat. When your available food consists of about 200 calories a day of twigs, roots and small insects supplemented by an unrefrigerated elk carcas once a month then you better like to eat when there's food around. It is only in today's unnatural world -- a world where we all swim in a sea of food -- that it becomes a problem. Nature doesn't seem to have prepared many of us to survive in Pizza Hut.

The Blame Game

Which brings us to one of the less appealing aspects of the whole obesity thing: deciding who to blame for it. Is Pizza Hut evil? McDonalds? Ben and Jerry's? I don't think so. [Except maybe for that last one... a little bit evil, maybe -- especially since they have "retired" White Russian, my favorite flavor... Where was I? Oh yes...] Fast food places make their money by giving people what they want and people like big, fattening food. McDonald's is not our mom.

And speaking of dear old Mom, other people like to blame being fat on their moms. We were overfed when we were babies, they say, and now we have "fat cells." And if you have "fat cells" you are just screwed, dietetically speaking. When you try to starve your fat cells they release chemicals in your blood that make you hungry. It's not our fault. Our moms made us this way. Not that you have to be fat yourself to play this edition of the blame game; how many times have you seen a fat woman waddling down the street with her fat children waddling after her like baby ducks and thought: "I'll bet she is teaching them terrible eating habits?" You can blame other people's moms, too.

But another explanation for the fat mother with fat children phenomenon is to remember that Metabolic Syndrome X tends to run in families. Maybe it is God who makes us fat! Blame God! Or, if you prefer the scientific to the theological, maybe it is genetics and the reason we need fat jeans is because we have fat genes. Either way, it's not our fault!

Other people call that a cop-out. If fat people would just eat less, exercise more and select more sensible foods then they wouldn't be fat people any more. Studies have shown that people with a genetic tendency to overweight will gain slightly more weight than genetically thin people when eating the same diet -- but not very much more. 95% of the difference in weight is explainable by differences in the number of calories eaten. If overweight people had a bit more willpower they could eat less and be thin. Seen that way overweight is a personality disorder. It's our own fault that we are fat.

But, of course, none of the editions of The Blame Game are at all helpful. Overweight people routinely manage to find the willpower to do other things that require self-control and delayed gratification. They save money to buy houses, they earn advanced degrees, most have good work habits. They do a million things that are hard that some of their thin friends can't manage. It does them no good to beat themselves up about being fat. As for the other factors, the fact of the matter is that Pizza Hut is going to be there and we will just have to deal with it somehow. If our fat cells are keeping us fat it doesn't matter where they came from -- let's leave our moms out of this. What's more, the genes you've got are the genes you've got. Maybe someday genetic research will turn up something really useful -- a magic pill that makes us thin -- but that hasn't happened yet and I wouldn't hold your breath.

As it happens, "holding your breath" is my favorite analogy for a fat person trying to lose weight by willpower alone. Dieting is like holding your breath. Most obese people can do it for a while but it is unnatural and very uncomfortable and sooner or later you gotta come up for air, and the weight all comes back. The usual cliche states that "Diets don't work" which is quite true -- but the cliche continues "Permanent weight loss requires a lifestyle change" which I have never found helpful. It's like saying "Holding your breath doesn't work. To live underwater permanently requires you to become aquatic." When you ask how one goes about becoming aquatic the answer always sounds quite a lot like holding one's breath forever.

I'd love to be aquatic, but I'm not. I haven't grown gills or found a way to do without oxygen. But I do seem to have found a snorkle and I am confident I can stay underwater long enough to get the job done. Or, to unwind my metaphor, I still have the metabolism that gives me a marked tendency to be overweight but I have found a way to deal with it. I still need to consciously diet to lose weight but I have found a way to make dieting sufficiently painless that I can easily see myself doing it on a more-or-less permanent basis.

Diet Pills

I have found the PGx fiber blend quite helpful as I have been losing weight and apparently other people have too. So why isn't there more of a public buzz about it? The problem is that unscrupulous marketers have made the subject of "diet pills" so toxic -- the gap between typical product claims and performance is so huge -- that there is simply no way to get any traction through advertising. And even worse, some of the most egregiously over-hyped pills are closely related to PGx. Remember the magic "Carb Blocker" pills that would make you thin without dieting by blocking absorption of carbohydrates so you would lose weight, no matter what you ate? Remember those? They're still out there. And about half of them contain some glucomannan, the main ingredient in PGx.

sodaIn point of fact, studies have shown that glucomannan, when taken with water before meals, can reduce the uptake of carbohydrates. Depending on the dosage the studies have suggested that you can expect glucomannan to "block" between 30 and 130 calories of carbohydrates a day. To put this in perspective, you can accomplish much the same thing by putting an extra ice cube or two in each glass of Coke. In theory those few calories a day can add up to a couple of pounds of lost weight a year but it is scarcely the "magic" pill that people are looking for -- and that the advertisers claim to be selling.

The maddening thing about this is that by siezing on this minor effect of viscous dietary fiber as a weight-loss aid the ham-handed marketeers have muddied the water, totally obscuring a subtler, but more helpful and better documented effects. While the fiber supplements do not totally prevent the absorption of carbohydrates, they do slow it down dramatically. As food enters the stomach it mixes with the gooey, largely-indigestible fiber mix that is already there. Instead of producing an immediate spike in your blood sugar the carbohydrates in the food are absorbed more slowly as your gut sorts out the digestible carbohydrates from the molecularly similar long polysaccharide chains of the fiber. The slower rise in blood sugar produces a muted insulin response. The process of converting glucose to fat doesn't go into high gear and you are less likely to suffer from the "hungry an hour later" phenomenon that people associate with Chinese food (which generally contains such huge amounts of starch and sugar that even people without Metabolic Syndrome X experience a hypoglycemic crash after eating it).

As well as helping to regulate your blood sugar and insulin response the fiber supplements simply tend to fill up your stomach. This is especially true of PGx which is formulated to produce the maximum volume of goo with much smaller doses than with glucomannan alone. This means that when you start your meal your stomach is half full and tends to fill up quickly. This helps you eat less, especially if you eat slowly to give your blood sugar a chance to come up a bit. Your stomach likes to work on the food until it is nicely liquefied and with PGx that tends to take quite a while. The food stays in your stomach longer which delays the release of ghrellin, an appetite causing chemical that your stomach uses to indicate that it is ready for the next meal.

The exact formula for the PGx fiber mix is proprietary but the ingredients list consists of Konjac root extract, Sodium Alginate, Xanthan Gum and Mulberry leaf extract. Konjac flour is made from the root of the "Devil's Tongue" plant. Called Konnyaku in Japanese it has been used to make noodles for thousands of years. (Check out Iron Chef episode IC1A11 -- Konnyaku Battle -- for recipe ideas.) Glucomannan, the main constituent of Konjac root extract, has some very promising research for treatment of obesity as does Sodium Alginate. The Xanthan Gum, another dietary fiber used in salad dressings and petroleum production, is probably there because of this synergistic reaction that makes the Glucomannan even more viscous than it is already when you mix it with Xanthan Gum. And the Mulberry leaves? Well, you have to have something weird in pills like these and some research suggests that Mulberry leaves are helpful for controlling glucose levels.

All of the ingredients are approved food additives and the Konjac flour is not just as an additive but qualifies as a food as well. This suggests that PGx is probably pretty safe to use. There were some pre-packaged fruit jellies from the far east that were withdrawn from the market because the Konjac gel they used was too firm and constituted a choking hazard for small children and the elderly. The problem was confounded by the fact that Konjac/Xanthan gels do not melt at body temperatures like most other gels. (Those Konjac gels have been reformulated and have returned to the US market -- which is good because the Lichee flavor is a family favorite and we missed them.) For similar reasons, people who have difficulty swallowing or have intestinal obstructions should probably avoid PGx in capsule form and look for it in the (less satisfactory but probably still helpful) liquid formula.

So, the science behind PGx is decent, but none-the-less, my magic feather consists of "diet pills." That's just something I'll have to live with. But, unlike other diet pills that claim to be a diet in a bottle, my pills do not include the diet. You have to provide your own. I'll provide a few comments about mine but you can feel free to use the magic feather with Weight Watchers or Southbeach, or any other sensible diet you like (or, more accurately, the one you hate least.)

Advice from the Mouse in your Hat

Here I will offer some random vague advice for losing weight. First, grasp the Magic Feather by taking a few PGx capsules before each meal. I take two of them before breakfast and four before lunch and supper. I also take two capsules of Korean (Panax) Ginseng -- a bit more than a gram -- with my lunch and supper pills. I accompany the pills with at least 16 oz of water and usually more like a quart. Since the fiber mix turns water into stomach-filling goo I try to add plenty of water. During the meal I make it a point to continue to drink water with my food -- more or less normally -- as if I hadn't chugged a quart before the meal.

In a restaurant, ask the waiter to bring you a large glass of room-temerature water (tap water, no ice) and swill it down with the pills before you order. Don't worry about making a fuss about the ice -- it will make people think you are European. Its easier to take a fist-full of pills if the water isn't icy cold and it's easier to drink the whole glass of water. [In hispanic restaurants water without ice is "agua, sin hielo" -- AHwuh Seen eeAYlow -- and if you ask for it in awful Spanish the waiter will almost always remember.] After the first glass you can tell the waiter that ice is OK but 9 our of 10 times it won't work. Drinking warm water with your meal is the price you pay to be thin.

Learn to e-a-t s-l-o-w-l-y. Yes, I know that this is the same hateful advice you have been given all your life, advice which was absolutely no help at all, but give it one more try. Most of the dieting advice in this section is quite conventional; the only difference is that when you take the pills it seems to work, which it never did before. Eat things you like the taste of and enjoy it. But take small bites. Enjoy each one -- the flavor, the mouth-feel, the texture -- and between bites chat with your friends, think about your blog, or find something else to do that involves a bit of time, pleasantly spent. What we are doing here is spreading out the calories and letting your blood sugar come up gradually. You will find that with the fiber in your stomach (so it isn't so echoingly empty) the process will seem a lot like eating. Every now and then take another sip of your water to clear your palate between bites -- it makes your food taste better and continues to fill up your stomach.

Stop eating when you find you are no longer hungry. This one is really hard at first. Most obese people have learned from bitter experience that if they stop eating at the point where they are no longer particularly hungry then they will be hungry an hour later and they will be miserably hungry an hour after that. To avoid that running-out-of-gas between meal experience they continue eating, trying to get enough food in their stomach for there to be something left for them to use a few hours later -- after the initial blood sugar spike from the meal has been processed and stored as fat. This extra food adds to the dangerously high blood sugar spike but the symptoms of too much blood sugar are mostly long term and the symptoms of hypoglycemia are immediate and unpleasant. They have learned how much food they need to eat to feel ok until their next meal -- its too much for long-term health but it gets them through the day.

I promised that the Magic Feather Diet didn't involve doing anything weird with your brain. This business of learning to stop eating when you are not hungry represents my closest approach to breaking that promise. There are a few confidence building techniques that I used which I think will work for other people, but I can't be sure. Here they are:

* In restaurants, order your meal in segments. Pick something small on the menu that you are sure will fit in your diet. And pick out the other item you will order if, after eating the first item, you find that you are still hungry. Order the first item and tell the waiter to check back later. Take your pills with lots of water and when your food comes eat it slowly and enjoy it. Sit for a minute and then, if you are still hungry order the other item.

* To-go boxes are your friend. When you realize that you are no longer hungry stop eating immediately. In restaurants, get a to-go box for the rest of your meal. If you are eating at home go ahead and put that half a pork chop in a plastic container and put it in the fridge. If you have access to a refrigerator at work take the other half of your lunch back to work with you. If you get excessively hungry later go and eat some of it -- but do so a little bit at a time and stop when you are not hungry. Always drink at least 8 oz of water whenever you eat anything.

* Keep some not-particularly exciting food near you at all times but make it something that requires a small amount of preparation to eat. I rather like those 5 oz cans of vegetables -- canned peas are good -- or individual-serving-sized packets of instant cheese-flavored grits. If you get excessively hungry, take a break and eat a little something (I shoot for 100 calorie snacks) and, again, be sure to drink at least 8 oz of water.

* Learn that it's ok to be a little-bit hungry. Most overweight people have learned from experience that being a little bit hungry is a warning sign that they will be insanely hungry and will feel awful in half an hour. Their blood sugar swings between extremes and they have learned that a feeling of moderate hunger is usually a warning of an imminent hypoglycemic episode so they respond to even moderate hunger by eating large amounts of food to head off the problem. PGx really does smooth out the blood sugar peaks and valleys. Sometimes being a little bit hungry means that you are a little bit hungry and that in half an hour you will still be a little bit hungry -- or maybe you'll get over it.

One day, not long after I started using PGx I was getting a bit hungry in the afternoon at work. I promised myself I would hit the breakroom and zap a package of cheese grits just as soon as I reached a stopping point. When I finally found the problem with the program I was debugging, and had a spare minute, I realized that I wasn't hungry any more. I had gotten over it. It was uncanny. I had a cup of tea instead of my snack and, over the course of the next few weeks I experimented by ignoring slight cases of the hungrys and only snacking when I was definitely hungry. I found that one third of the time the hungrys would just go away, one third of the time I would simply continue to be moderately, but not unpleasantly, hungry, and the other third of the time I would get hungrier and go eat something.

The idea of all these confidence-building exercises is to always have enough food available to make it to the next meal even if the magic pills don't work. The difference is that instead of putting it all in your stomach you put some of it in the refrigerator and give yourself permission to eat it later if you get too hungry.

Join a Gym and Exercise You are not trying to "work off" calories. It takes an obscene amount of exercise to work off an extra pound. You are trying to add muscle. A pound of muscle requires more calories every day than a pound of fat. The more muscle mass you have the more you can eat without gaining weight. Aerobics are good, in moderation, but for weight loss you want to add as many pounds of muscle as possible. Tell your trainer that you want muscles like the Governor of California.

If eating alone, bring something to read. This helps you to eat slowly. Read a paragraph between bites. At the bottom of each page ask yourself if you are still hungry and consider that to-go box.

If not eating alone, split a meal with someone. There's a Mexican place my wife and I go for lunch that offers a big burrito as their daily special almost every day. I eat one third of it, my wife eats one quarter of it and five twelfths goes into a to-go box from which she gets two more lunches. [Sorry about all the fractions.] That's four meals for five bucks. The PGx pills aren't free but, when you figure in your savings on food they pretty much pay for themselves. [One note: You may be on a diet but your waiter isn't. What with all the water-no-ice, and the to-go boxes for a five dollar check, you will keep the waiter busy. Be sure to add a couple of extra bucks to your fifteen percent tip.]

Buy the pills online. The list price for a bottle of 180 capsules is over twenty-eight dollars. If you shop around you can find it online for about fifteen (as of the last time I placed an order.) The last few times I have ordered them I have used vitacost.com -- they have good service and seem to have the lowest prices for stuff like this.

Don't step on the scale too often. The amount of weight you lose during a day of sensible weight-loss is much less than the amount of weight you lose during the average pee. The amount you lose in a week may be less than the weight of last night's supper which is still in your gut. If you are female your monthly water-weight fluctuation can exceed the amount of weight you lose in a month. Stepping on the scale every morning is madness. I step on the scale on the first and the fifteenth of each month (which is approximately once every two weeks.)

Side Effects.

About a year ago I posted a humorous piece about dieting called The R Factor Diet. In it I hinted that the best foods to eat when you need to lose weight are the foods that make you flatulent. The "R-Factor" is the letter "R" that changes the word "F-A-T" into "F-A-R-T". To some extent the Magic Feather Diet represents a return the this theme.

The most commonly reported side effects seem to be gas and bloating. The organisms that live in your gut are a bit like the friends you had in college who would hang around the table while you ate, saying are you going to eat that? Just because you can't digest glucomannan doesn't mean that the organisms in your gut can't digest it -- or those 30 calories a day of carbs that the glucomannan "blocked". This results in a bit more methane in your gut than you are used to having. Add to this the extra bulk from the PGx binding water into a gel and you can get some discomfort at first. The discomfort generally goes away after a few days and any remaining changes are generally for the better. I had considered a different name instead of the "Magic Feather Diet" but the "Eat Like a Bird, Crap Like a Pony, Fart Like a Force of Nature - Diet" was rather too long and didn't seem as catchy or persuasive.

Placebo Effect?

But, you may ask, Dumbo didn't really need the magic feather, did he? What are the chances that most of the success I have had with PGx is due to the Placebo Effect? I can't really know. There seems to be quite a bit of encouraging research -- double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that found the fiber blend did better than Placebo, and that is encouraging. But, could my particular experience be all Placebo Effect? Sure, it's possible. I don't think it's likely -- but it's possible. I don't know and, to a certain extent, I don't care. I know I am as thin as I have ever been. I know I have, more or less effortlessly, blown by all the places where previous diets hit plateaus, or failed completely. I guess it could all be self-deception. But if it is, fine. And if you have some weight you need to shed, you might consider letting me delude you, too.

Update: 17 October 2006.

A couple more months have past since I first posted this and I have lost another thirty pounds. A few days ago I reached the goal I had somewhat arbitrarily set for myself when I started. Reviewing the situation, I have decided that I can go a bit farther. According to the Body Mass Index calculations I am still towards the high end of the overweight range. I started my diet at 304 lbs (BMI = 37) and am now at 240 (BMI = 29.2) which is near the high end of the "overweight" category ("obese" starts at a BMI of 30.) The BMI calculations and the ideal weight tables both suggest I lose at least another 30 lbs. I don't plan to lose that much (I think the tables are insane) but I mention it so my readers won't worry that I making myself too thin.

Extra Reading:

Life Extension Magazine: Novel Fiber Limits Sugar Absorption

Journal of the American College of Neutrition: Emerging Alternate Therapies for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus

Konnyaku.com: About Konnyaku (Konjac)