Friday, April 4, 2008

Spray oil: truth and slick marketing

I'll admit that I was once a fan of using spray oil. They are pretty convenient for evenly covering a surface with a very thin layer of oil. However, that opinion has changed in recent years. Since I've learned that there's nothing special about spray oils, my BS filters activate anytime I hear claims about the awesomeness of spray oil.

Let's start with the the claim that spray oil is a fat free way to cook. This is really a technicality based on legal definitions. Legally, something can be called fat free if it has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. So, you could technically make anything "fat free" by making the serving size really small. Sneaky, huh? So, one serving of spray oil (approximated by a 0.25 second spray) is "fat free" in the legal sense. However, oil is a fat and can never be fat free outside of the strange realities of the food retail market and US legal system. Not only that, but who actually only uses a 0.25s spray? I usually spray those bad boys for at least 2s, which automatically puts me up closer to 8 servings or more.

Next up is the issue of using spray oils with nonstick cookware. I know, I know, you're probably thinking why anyone would use oil on a "nonstick" pan. Well, truthfully, nonstick doesn't mean nothing sticks to it. It just means food is a lot less likely to stick than regular non-coated cookware. Anyhow, if you try using spray oil on your nice nonstick cookware, your nonstick cookware will start sucking really fast. Why is that? Most spray oils contain ingredients that bond to the nonstick surface when exposed to high heat and effectively make the surface no longer nonstick. Don't believe me? Here's the word from Calphalon:

I like to use spray oils for lowfat cooking. Can I use them in my Calphalon cookware?

For cooking, the answer is NO, we advise against using spray oils in our cookware for several reasons. For baking with our Professional Nonstick Bakeware, the answer is YES, you can use spray oils with no trouble.

Cooking: Spray oil instructions usually direct you to apply the spray to a cold pan, then add your food. This is because spray oils contain a lot of water. If you spray it into a hot pan, the water boils away immediately and leaves you with a gummy residue. (Calphalon cookware calls for preheating the pan before adding any oils to make sure you get the cooking performance you want.)
In case your Google-fu is weak, I'll leave you with a few more links discussing the nonstick cookware ruination caused by spray oil.

Finally, let's cover the purely frugal rationale against spray oil. Let's face it, the stuff is just expensive. At my Trader Joe's, a 5 oz can costs $3. Some basic math tells me that comes out to $9.60 when scaled up to 16oz. $4 gets me an economical but still decent 16oz bottle of olive oil. Paying nearly $10 should get me a really nice olive oil. I think I rather prefer spending the extra money on a nice olive oil rather than a pressurized can of cheap olive oil.

If you really must have a spray oil, just forego the expensive aerosol cans in the grocery store. You can go the DIY route with a plastic spray bottle or a Misto (pictured to the right). They're refillable, don't require chemical propellants, and you can pick whatever oil you want. Now go forth and use your newfound knowledge for the powers of good [cooking].

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Complete Idiot's Guide

While I'm on the topic of guide type books, I came across another book which I couldn't resist buying. If ever I had aspirations to being a complete idiot, this would definitely be the book to buy. The explanations of principles and real life examples are stunningly illustrative. The scope of content coverage is also quite voluminous, even though the case studies only spanned an 8 year period from 2000-2008.

This highly informative and educational read was unfortunately a limited edition print only available at select Boundaries and Farnes and Grobles stores.

Idiot's Guides For Dummies

I admit that I never really buy those "Complete Idiot's Guides" or the "Dummies" books. Whenever I'm delving into esoterica or complex subject, I usually just try to find a book well regarded by people in the field. The simplified subject matter presentation in these newbie guides is often thin on real information, offers incomplete information, and is quite frankly insulting to my intelligence.

However, the "Idiot's Guides for Dummies" breaks this archetypical mold of the Dummies books. Since it's not really trying to cover a complex subject, the simplistic writing approach is surprisingly effective in explaining "Complete Idiot's Guides." The svelte 10 pages (half of which are a handy table of contents, prologue, and index) pack a ton of information on Idiot's Guides. The table of contents explains it all:

Table of Contents:
  1. How to use this book, dummy.
  2. What are Idiot's Guides?
  3. Why Idiot's Guides: Are you an idiot?.
  4. How to use Idiot's Guides: Give us your money and read.
Unfortunately, the book is pretty hard to come by. You may have to search around to find a copy, and perhaps even scour ebay for a used copy. I am pretty attached to this book, but I'll grudgingly sell it for $25 for someone having a hard time tracking down their own copy.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Saving the planet one asana at a time: Gaiam printed yoga mat


Stop the presses! Yoga mats don't have to all be a flat purple color anymore. A variety of colors can now be had to distinguish your mat from the sea of purple (and occasional blue) in your yoga class. You can even go wild and get a mat with a printed pattern to really get the oohs and ahhs from your yoga peers and attract the attention of that hottie across the room. Ok, so maybe money can't really buy you the acceptance from your peers or attention from the opposite sex, but it can buy you a nice yoga mat.

The Gaiam printed yoga mats are sized 68"x24" (172.7cm x 61cm) and 1/8" (3.175mm) thick. The nature themed prints are attractive and pleasantly fitting for a yoga mat. The marketing descriptions claim that the mats are made from a natural environmentally friendly and latex-free rubber. I'm not quite sure what that means since rubber is usually derived from latex. It could be that they have removed all the latex allergens (only specific proteins in latex cause an allergic response), or maybe they are using hypoallergenic rubber derived from guayule. At any rate, the mat isn't made from PVC like most yoga mats, and that's a good thing for the environment and potentially your health. The lifecycle of PVC (manufacture, use, disposal) results in significant amounts harmful chemicals (including mercury, phthalates, and dioxins) being leeched into the environment and into people's bodies.

The mat works just like a regular yoga mat, except it's perhaps not as tacky (in terms of stickiness, not fashion sense). The mat is supposed to be "light-tack" and "non-slip" according to Gaiam. In my experience so far, those assessments are fair. I actually rather liked that fact that the mat wasn't as tacky as a regular PVC mat. Because it doesn't contain plasticizers like a PVC mat, it's just a tad less flexible than a normal yoga mat. It's nothing major and shouldn't affect it's every day use. The rubber mat will just not roll up quite as tightly as a plasticized PVC mat. The Gaiam mat is also a little firmer than the PVC mats I've used in the past. The mat is still pretty well cushioned though, at least as cushiony as an 1/8" mat is going to be anyhow. I actually think the firmer pad is a plus, since I'm not a huge fan of the spongy feel of some yoga mats.

When I bought my mat, it came with a mini-dvd. I don't really think this is a big selling point. It's almost entirely filled with snippets of their dvd product line. Now, I do like some the Gaiam yoga videos. But some of those video previews almost made me spray milk out of my nose. It could be that I'm a martial arts snob, but I found the Budokon video preview to be pretty amusing. Anyhow, the word on the mini-dvd: slim on content, hefty on the marketing and advertising.

All in all, I really dig Gaiam's printed yoga mat. Sure, you could get a cheaper yoga mat, but it would probably be made from environmentally and health unfriendly PVC. It's better to just suck up the extra few bucks of cost and get a yoga mat made from a less toxic material. As an added bonus, the Gaiam mat comes with a nice print. Quite possibly the only thing that could make their printed mats better is if Gaiam would bring back their Scooby Doo yoga mat collection (I kid you not!). Scooby Doo, where are you???

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Smartwool roundup

This winter, I finally took the plunge and tried out some wool winter gear. Ok, I didn't really try it out myself. I actually bought stuff for Gen to use her as the guineau pig before getting something myself. After reading about the benefits of wool (environmentally sustainable material, moisture wicking, warmth even when wet, temperature regulation, natural odor control, etc.) and hearing good things about Smartwool, I finally gave into my consumer curiosity and bought something. Smartwool claims to use the finest and softest New Zealand merino wool for maximal comfort. They are also committed to sourcing their wool from growers who do not mulesing their sheep; since I'm an advocate of being compassionate towards other living beings, that gives Smartwool some bonus points in my book.

But sustainability and moral issues notwithstanding, how well do their products actually perform? Well, let's take a look. First up, the socks:



1. 3/4 Crew Light Hikers (Women's)



2. Crew Medium Hikers (Women's)



3. Women's Light Ski Socks (Women's), left stock photo, right my photo



4. Annabelle Pointelle (Women's, light cushion), left stock photo, right my photo

Since reviewing each individual pair of socks would be pretty repetitive, I'll make some general comments. First off, the socks feel quite soft and well-made. That's about as much as I can say from first-hand experience, since I did buy them for Gen. Plus, I'm not sure Gen would be all that happy with me stretching out her socks with my big manly feet. Any comments about the socks from this point on are based purely on her reaction to the socks.

Since our socks are largely generic cotton socks, the Smartwool socks are a huge step in terms of quality and warmth. After the first day of use, Gen was in love with the socks. Her feet were now comfortably cozy, which is fortunate for me; I'm not particularly fond of feeling the shock of ice cold toes when she's trying to warm up her feet on me. I did intentionally choose women's socks for the slimmer profile, which was a good choice in my opinion. The socks look like they are a snugger and more comfortable fit. The generic cotton socks look like they're a little baggy in places and not as well fit.

I tried to pick socks with extra toe and heel cushioning and with extra arch support. I got no opinion one way or another whether those features added any comfort. This is where the engineer and non-engineer perspectives diverged in the sock evaluation. Here I am worried about the specifications of the socks (percent wool, nylon, elastic, etc) and whether addition of structural cushioning elements would affect sock performance. All I get for my questioning is "I love them, they're really comfortable." All that research into the extra frills for a sweeping generalization of comfort. Sigh.

The claims about wool's moisture wicking and odor control seem to have some element of truth. The wool socks wick moisture away from the feet and help retain warmth in the presence of moisture. I'm sure there's practical limits to the warmth performance under really wet conditions, but I can't convince Gen to try dousing her feet with cold water and assessing the warmth retention of her feet. In the event of foot overheating and sweating, Gen found the Smartwool socks would still keep her feet relatively dry and not smell as much as regular cotton socks would. Nifty. [note: I've been asked to note that Gen's feet usually do not have any odor]

That covers the general impression of the socks. There were a couple of specific notes. First off, the medium cushioned hiker socks were actually a little too warm for indoor use. Granted, we have free heat, so this may not be a concern for people without the luxury of a comfortably temperature regulated apartment. Gen wasn't immediately in love with the ski socks since the elastic was initially a little tight. After a day break-in, the comfort was no longer an issue. Now, she won't leave the house on a cold day without them since they keep her entire lower leg warm.

Overall, the Smartwool socks get two big thumbs up. Gen thinks they're fabulously comfortable and warm, and I'm happy that her feet are comfortable and toasty. The only possible downsides to the socks are that they are on the pricey side, and the designs and colors might not be to everyone's tastes. The higher prices are worth it though, especially if you can find some Smartwool on sale.

Next up is the gift I finally bought for myself:


5. Active Training Cap (unisex)

Since my winter hats kept being "borrowed," I finally decided to buy myself a Smartwool cap. The cap is pretty comfortable. It's certainly more comfortable than the acrylic fiber caps I had before that were constantly disappearing on me. The cap is actually meant for exercising, so it's not quite as warm as other winter caps and is supposed to allow the wicking and evaporation of sweat. Personally, I find that the cap is just the right warmth most of the time. My head would often overheat and start sweating under my Thinsulate cap. I rarely have that happen with the Smartwool training cap.

I had initially thought that the "cap" would only cover the very top of my head. The size of the cap isn't that clearly depicted in the stock photo. Assuming you don't have a ton of hair, the cap should pull down over your ears. My ears and head stay cozy (but not too warm) under the cap. Considering that the cap is also light weight and easy to stow in my coat pocket, it's not surprising that I opt to use this cap in lieu of my other winter caps the vast majority of the time. I fiercely guard this cap from being borrowed so that it doesn't magically attach itself to another household member's head. The only downside I could find to the cap is that it has an extraneous tassel. I could see how that would annoy people, but it doesn't bother me. I just use it as a convenient handle for pulling off my cap.

This Smartwool cap gets my stamp of approval. I don't think Smartwool actually makes this particular style of cap anymore, but if this cap is any indication, I imagine that the other caps in their line must be equally comfortable and warm.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Buddy Lee will make you jump, jump: Aero Speed Jump Rope

Ok nix the old school Kris Kross music. While Buddy Lee may be the mac daddy of jump rope, his Aero Speed jump rope is a far cry from old school. It's nothing like the plastic beaded ropes or plastic cord speed ropes you remember from back in the day. If jump ropes were like cars, the plastic beaded rope would be the old family station wagon (i.e. slow, cheap, reliable and indestructible). In comparison, the Buddy Lee Aero Speed would be a high-end Porsche with its fast performance, sleek looks, and smooth handling. Assuming you get good enough to use it to full effect, you might also start turning heads with it, too.

What sets the Aero Speed apart from a regular rope is its swivel bearings. While not an invention likely to win a Nobel Peace prize, the swivel bearings do make a significant difference in how smoothly and fast the rope can turn. As far as I can tell, the Aero Speed, Rope Master, and Junior Speed ropes all use this same swivel bearing. Supposedly, the Aero Speed is optimized for maximum speed and power jumping, whereas the other ropes have longer handles which give them an advantage for freestyling and doing certain crossing tricks. I will note that buying a fancy rope with bearings is not necessary to jump rope effectively. I have no issues with using a cheap $3 speed rope. You will still get an excellent workout and be able to do impressive things with an ultra basic, cheapie rope. If you don't believe me, just check out these videos from Ross Enamit: rope training part I and part II.

So, why get a nearly $40 rope if you can get an effective workout from a cheap speed rope? If you get as addicted to jumping rope as I have, want high quality gear, and/or want to maximize your athletic performance, you'll opt to pay the extra cash for the Aero Speed. Alternatively, you might just like bling, in which case the shiny chromed finish of the Aero Speed will be right up your alley. You can also keep rope performance optimal by replacing the bearings and cord should you ever manage to wear them out. Those swivel bearings make the rope turn smoothly and fast. With a cheap speed rope, there's some frictional drag on the rope at the handle junction which slowly chews through the rope and puts a slight lag between where your hands are moving and where the rope is turning. With my ultra basic $3 speed rope, I have to put some effort into getting the rope speed up (not necessarily a bad thing if I want to work my arms harder). With the Aero Speed, I occasionally have to intentionally slow down the rope since it's so easy to get it turning fast. The Buddy Lee marketing marketing machine claims it can reach speeds of over 300 RPM. Buddy Lee might be able to get the rope turning that fast, but I sure as hell can't.

Out of the box, the rope was way too long for me, and the rope cord was pretty kinked. The rope cord straightens itself with use and after some time just hanging with the cord straightened out. I read an account of someone soaking the cord in warm water for a few minutes to facilitate cord straightening. Rumor also has it that dunking one handle in hot water and one handle in cold water results in a seriously pissed off rope owner, so don't attempt that. Adjusting the rope is quite easy. One end of the swivel bearing assembly screws into the handle, and the other end has a pointed and threaded tip which screws into the hole in the center of the plastic cord (see picture to the right). Just snip off the appropriate amount of excess cord and reattach the cord to the swivel bearing. This is unfortunately a permanent modification; it pays to be conservative when shortening the cord. You can always cut a little more off if you need to, but adding length back is pretty much impossible without buying a new cord.

The build quality of the Aero Speed is pretty good. Though the bearings and cord are replaceable, I think most people will probably lose the rope before needing to replace either. The included wrench makes replacing the swivel bearings easy, and I'm pretty sure I'll lose the wrench long before I ever get around to replacing the bearings. It should be noted that the cord is only meant to be used on smooth surfaces, so if you have aspirations of jumping outside on concrete or asphault (neither of which are good for your long-term joint health), you'll be disappointed at how quickly the cord wears out.

The handles are made from aircraft grade aluminum, which makes them really light yet resilient and impact resistant. I've dropped my handles several times with no ill effects (other than cosmetic). The USA Olympic logo and Buddy Lee's autograph are printed on the handles. Those prints are starting to fade and scratch off from my handle, as you can see from the picture to the left (graphics on the right handle are starting to fade). It's not a big deal since it is after all a piece of exercise equipment meant to accumulate some wear and tear. If you care that much about aesthetics, don't just toss the handles carelessly into your gym bag like I do. But then again, if you care that much, you're probably too fearful of damage to actually use your nice shiny new jump rope anyhow.

Supposedly, purchasing the rope helps support the U.S. Olympic team. Considering that the rope is manufactured in China, I find it sort of funny that it's financially benefitting an American interest (support America, buy Chinese!). I guess it's to be expected since almost nothing we buy nowadays is truly made in the U.S.A. anymore. Despite the made in China status, the Aero Speed is still a top-notch rope and gets two thumbs up from me.


The Word: Awesome jump rope.

Pros:
  • smooth, fast turning action
  • high quality and durable
  • supports the U.S. Olympic team
  • you can get fit enough to flaunt
  • replaceable bearings and cord
Cons:
  • pricey (~$40 shipped)
  • pretty much restricted to use on smooth indoor surfaces
  • plastic cord kinks easily if you store it carelessly
  • a fast spinning rope really stings if it hits you

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Fat cracks (at my expense): Fit N Fresh Body Fat Analyzer

One of my 2008 New Year's resolutions was to lose 1% body fat. To make sure I actually meet that goal, I need to have some way of tracking my body fat percentage. That's where this Fit N Fresh body fat analyzer comes in. I bought this for roughly $5 at Vitacost.com. Except there, it was listed as MEDport Fit & Healthy. I think in my search for reviews of this unit, I found other very similar body fat analyzers with slightly different names and packaging. It's probably made by some OEM and rebranded.

The device has a clock and alarm feature. It's not the primary purpose for which I bought it, but I find the extra features moderately handy. That may be just because I never wear a watch, so I'm dependent on my computer or other devices around me to keep track of time. It uses an included CR2025 lithium button cell battery, which I imagine should last a decently long time. In usage, you switch from the clock mode to the measurement mode, hit start, and press your thumbs to the two shiny disc electrodes. In 8 seconds or less, you should have a reading. You do need to specify your weight, height, age, and sex for the measurement. Fortunately, those values are saved, and there are 8 memory slots. The whole family can join in the fun and see just how chunky they are.

This meter works by using bioimpedance, which is the most popular modality used by consumer body fat analyzers. Basically, an imperceptible low current is passed through your body from one electrode to another. Muscle and fat have different impedances, or resistance to the flow of the electric current. The measured impedance depends on your ratio of muscle to fat (as well as other tissues), and your body fat percentage can be inferred from the measured impedance value. Theoretically bioimpedance can measure your body fat percentage pretty accurately. However, the accuracy of conversion from measured impedance to fat percentage is highly dependent on the mathematical model used, body type, age, hydration level, what you've eaten recently, and maybe even the phase of the moon. Ok, scratch the phase of the moon cause, but you get the idea.

You might guess that something this cheap probably isn't that accurate. And you'd be right. This body fat analyzer suffers from all the downsides of consumer bioimpedance measurements. My body fat was measured at 11.5% just one month ago. I registered at 26.2% on this bad boy. Either I've become nearly obese over the holidays, or this piece of sh... errr, I mean device... will never measure my absolute body fat percentage accurately. My better half also tried it, and I can't mention the ridiculous value it registered without fearing for my well-being.

Most consumer grade bioimpedance based fat analyzers are going to be wildly inaccurate for significant subgroups of people, particularly for the highly athletic and really overweight folks. Really muscular and lean people will likely register way too high, and the really overweight will likely register far lower than reality. Is this body fat analyzer junk? Well, if you're looking for absolute accuracy, most certainly yes. I bought it for relative accuracy (i.e. precision for you science terminology sticklers). I think it might suffice for that purpose. I just need to know the change in my body fat percentage over time, not my absolute amount of body fat. In my brief tests so far, the readings have been consistent in their inaccuracy (varying by 0.1-0.2%). At least I know that it won't waffle in its brutal claims about my beer gut.