Archive for January, 2014

Well, it’s almost February … so how are you doing on those New Year’s resolutions?

In my first post of the year, I wrote that most weight-loss resolutions fail because we keep making plans that require a change in character, when the actual problem is rooted in chemistry.  I just need to have the discipline to stop eating even if I’m hungry, we tell ourselves.  I just to get off my butt and spend more time at the gym.

Just eat less and move more.  It must work, because that’s the advice doled out by nutritionists, doctors and personal trainers who’ve never been fat.

I can certainly understand why people who’ve never been fat or who lose body-fat easily like to believe getting lean is a matter of character.  After all, that belief is quite flattering to them.  It means their waistlines are a tribute to their superior discipline.

When I was in my 30s, I spent a lot of time hanging out with a buddy of mine – a naturally-lean jock type —  who was about my age and also single.  I remember mentioning to him (once … and only once) that I was frustrated with my efforts to lose weight.  He did his best to muster a sympathetic tone and replied, “Well, I guess at some point you’ll have to learn to push yourself away from the table a little sooner.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that during our many outings together, he matched me burrito for burrito and beer for beer.  I also knew for a fact that I hit the gym and worked out more often than he did.  He joined me for a workout once and later admitted he was surprised that I was quite a bit stronger than he was.  He had probably assumed my big belly and boy-boobs were proof I was lazy in the gym.

People like my naturally-lean friend (as well as millions of frustrated dieters) believe in simple calorie math:  your adipose tissue is a like a savings account for stored energy, so all you have to do to lose weight is make regular withdrawals.  By gosh, just cut 500 calories per day from your diet, and you’ll drain your fat cells of 500 calories in stored energy – one seventh of a pound of fat.  Keep it up for a week, and you’ll lose a pound.  Nothing to it.  You just need the discipline to cut those 500 calories per day.

And guess what?  For people like my naturally-lean friend, it kind of works that way.  In a recent post, I recounted a study in which researchers divided the subjects into three groups:  naturally lean, fat but with a demonstrated ability to lose weight by eating less, and the “resistant obese” who had failed to lose weight even while being monitored in a hospital.  All three groups underwent a 24-hour fast, and researchers measured the concentration of fatty acids in their bloodstreams at several intervals.

The “resistant obese” experienced almost no rise at all in their levels of serum fatty acids – in other words, their  bodies didn’t make up for the lack of food by significantly increasing the flow of fat from their fat cells.  The fat people who’d demonstrated that they could lose weight by dieting did experience a rise in serum fatty acids – not dramatic, but significant.  But the naturally lean subjects experienced a dramatic spike in serum fatty acids while fasting.  They were, like the savings-account model of obesity suggests, making automatic withdrawals from their adipose tissue to offset the lack of food.

My naturally-lean friend did, in fact, once drop 10 pounds rather quickly just by restricting his calories.  He wasn’t fat at all, mind you, but he’d started dating an athletic woman and wanted to get cut to look good for her.  So he ate less and – BINGO – he shed body-fat.  That ability to easily tap stored fatty acids for fuel was, of course, the reason he was naturally lean in the first place.  Unlike me at the time, he wasn’t hormonally geared to store fat and keep it stored.   His body was happy to tap the savings account.  But I’m sure to him, the quick weight loss was proof that eating less is all there is to it.  Nothing required but a little discipline.

To his credit, he didn’t hold himself up as a weight-loss expert or preach to me about eating less and exercising more.  (And if my description of him makes him sound like a shallow human being, trust me, he isn’t.)  But plenty of people like him do consider themselves experts – after all, they’re thin, so they must know what makes a person thin.  I refer to them as people who were born on the metabolic finish line and think they won a race.  Not only that, they consider themselves experts in how to train for and win the race.

These are the people who make idiotic arguments such as, “Of course it’s just a matter of eating less.  No fat people were freed from the Nazi concentrations camps!”  The slightly-less-idiotic version of that argument is to point out that if we lock people in metabolic wards and only let them eat 1,000 calories per day, they lose weight — so it’s clearly just a matter of cutting calories, ya see.

First off, as the researchers noted in that same study I reference above, some people do, in fact, stay fat on very few calories – so few calories that one researcher labeled them “thermodynamic paradoxes.”  Eating less isn’t really an option for them.

Secondly, what happens to people in concentration camps or metabolic wards isn’t relevant to frustrated dieters, because the frustrated dieters don’t live in locked-down environments where other people get to decide they can’t eat more even if they’re ravenously hungry.  Human beings aren’t supposed to endure hunger for weeks on end.  That’s why you have to lock them down to force them to live on starvation rations.  They might lose weight, but they’ll be miserable the whole time.   (Just ask Ancel Keys.  During his WWII-era starvation experiment, most of his subjects became depressed and a couple of them showed symptoms of psychosis.)

As an analogy, I could put a bunch of alcoholics in prison, limit them to two drinks per day, take blood samples to demonstrate that they were legally sober the whole time they were confined, and then declare that I’d proved the key to overcoming alcoholism is to JUST DRINK LESS.  Show some character.  Apply some self-discipline.  Have a couple of beers and then stop, already.  That’s all there is to it.

Almost nobody would expect that advice to work.  Most people grasp that when alcoholics get drunk even after promising themselves and anyone who will listen that they won’t, they’re giving in to powerful biochemical urges that normal drinkers don’t experience.  Most people grasp that the only way an alcoholic could become a normal drinker would be to somehow make those biochemical urges go away — not to overpower them with willpower and character.

But that’s what most conventional weight-loss advice is telling fat people to do – overpower a relentless biochemical drive with discipline and willpower.   That’s what we promise ourselves we’ll do when we make those New Year’s resolutions, and that’s why the resolutions fail.

Fixing our character doesn’t work, but fixing our chemistry can.  More on that later.



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Looks like another chicken killer has discovered our flock.

On Saturday, we took the girls to see the Ringling Brothers / Barnum & Bailey Circus in downtown Nashville, then went out for dinner.  Chareva and the girls went to bed around 9:00 PM, but I stayed up until 1:30 AM – my usual bedtime on weekends.  Just as I was getting undressed for bed, I heard the Rapper Rooster start screeching in the chicken yard.  I could tell he wasn’t in the barn because the sound wasn’t muffled at all.

What heck is he doing announcing himself outside the barn in the middle of the night? I thought.  It occurred to me that he might be screeching at a predator.  So I got dressed, grabbed a big flashlight and a .22, and went outside for a peek.  By the time I walked partway down the driveway and shined the flashlight on the chicken yard, all was quiet and the Rapper Rooster had returned to the barn.

Oh, well, maybe he’s just a weirdo who likes taking a middle-of-the-night stroll, I thought.  I recalled that I’d also heard him screech in the middle of the night earlier in the week, and we didn’t find any headless chickens the next day.

When I woke up on Sunday, I told Chareva about the ruckus and asked if she’d found any chicken parts in the yard when she fed the chickens that morning.  Nope, she hadn’t seen any evidence of an attack.

Not yet, anyway.  Later in the day, Alana noticed a pile of feathers outside the chicken-yard fence and pointed them out to Chareva.  So Chareva tried to take a head-count (not an easy task with a flock of moving chickens) and kept coming up with either 19 or 20.  We lost the runt rooster to a hawk and three other chickens to leg injuries, but we should’ve had 22 left.

Rats.  I guess both times the Rapper Rooster was raising hell in the middle of the night, he was responding to a predator.  We’ve lost at least two and perhaps three chickens.  (I tried to take a head-count today and, like Chareva, I kept coming up with 19 or 20.  Darned chickens won’t sit still.)   So we’ve got another chicken killer to deal with.  I’m just not sure what kind of critter it may be.

When Rocky Raccoon killed three chickens last spring, he left plenty of evidence.  He pretty much just bit off the heads, so Chareva was finding headless carcasses.  This time the chickens are nearly vanishing.  Alana found feathers on one side of the chicken-yard, and I found feathers on the opposite side when I went looking yesterday.  But that’s it … no body parts, no blood, no bones.

Rocky left the carcasses in the chicken-yard.  Based on where we’re finding the feathers, whatever is killing them now is capable of hauling them over the fence to finish them off.  We put that one big net over the yard a couple of weeks ago and draped it over the fence, but there were a few gaps, and the net wasn’t tight all the way around.  There were areas where a predator could climb the fence and easily slide under the net.

I took care of that yesterday and today.  It’s not the prettiest solution, but I weaved clothesline around the top of the fence and the bottom of the net to tighten it down and close the gaps.  I’ll go for something more aesthetically appealing when I’m not working in near-zero weather.

The biggest gap was between the net and the gate – and we can’t attach the net to the gate if we ever went to enter the chicken yard again – so Chareva and I strapped chicken wire across the posts on either side of the gate, attached the net to the middle of the chicken wire, then bent the top of the chicken wire over the gate.  I hope that does the trick.

Late yesterday afternoon, I set the same trap that nabbed Rocky Raccoon.  That’s a can of cat food serving as bait.  When I bought the trap, a guy at the Tractor Supply Store told me a raccoon will take the easy meal over having to go kill a chicken.  Yeah, but I doubt many raccoons are attracted to cat food that’s frozen solid — not when there are warm-bodied chickens nearby.

It was 50-plus degrees yesterday afternoon when I loaded the trap, but we got one of those arctic blasts overnight.  The high temperature was in the 20s today, heading down to 5 degrees tonight, and we won’t get above freezing until Thursday if the forecast is correct.  I’ll leave the trap near the coop, but I don’t expect it to snag any critters until the cat food thaws.

In the meantime, I hope the Rapper Rooster doesn’t have a reason to raise another middle-of-the-night ruckus.  I really, really don’t want to check on him in the dark when it’s 5 degrees outside.


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I haven’t given up blogging or anything like that.  First day at work this week (Tuesday, after the holiday), three of us were told that two of the BMI application servers are going away next week, so we were assigned to migrate a long list of in-house applications from those servers to new servers — ASAP.

If any of you work in IT, you have an idea of what this week was like:  a blur of dealing with migration scripts, configuration files, permission issues, broken references, error messages, emails, phone calls, side-by-side troubleshooting sessions, and plenty of four-letter words.  (One of my co-workers is from Brazil, so I may have unconsciously picked up some Portuguese swear words.)

If Chareva wants me to crack up once and for all so she can have me committed, she can just wait until I get home tonight and greet me at the door with “Is that the same DLL version as on the old server?  Because I’m thinking maybe we need to roll this application back to a previous build and then try making just the config changes again before migrating.”

Anyway, I’ve been getting home late, and with a fried brain.  I started a third post on character vs. chemistry but haven’t finished it.  I’ll get to it soon.

Meanwhile, we’re not stopping until everything is fixed.  That’s character, not chemistry.


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While I was at work last week, Chareva was busy expanding the orchard, digging and planting for hours.  They don’t look like much yet, but those four saplings in the picture below will someday be supplying us with fresh fruit.  The sapling closest to the front in the picture is (or will be) a Honeycrisp apple tree.  There’s also an Enterprise apple tree and two cherry trees in the picture.

She also dug holes in the front pasture (no easy task in the rocky soil of Tennessee) and planted eight blueberry bushes.  Again, they’re not much to look at yet, but here’s a picture of one anyway.

From what Chareva tells me, we shouldn’t expect to get decent apples, cherries or blueberries for a couple of years, so this is a long-term investment of her time and labor.

She bought six different varieties of blueberries, mostly because they ripen at different times of the year.  As we discovered with the pears, there’s no point in being overwhelmed with a ton of ripe fruit all in one week.  (The plan for next year is to convert the oversupply of pears into pear cider or wine.)

On the chicken front … well, we tried to save the rooster who got hung up in the net, but he clearly wasn’t getting any better.  So he became part of Friday night’s dinner.  We had a neighbor over for dinner, so Chareva also bought a chicken at the store.  We all did a taste test.  The unanimous decision:  the store-bought chicken was bigger, but our little rooster tasted a whole lot better.

Even with another rooster down, we still have 21 chickens in the chicken yard, and some of the new hens are already laying eggs.  Pretty soon, we should be able to skip the store-bought eggs entirely.

The big rooster is still a pain in the ass, and he may yet find himself drizzled in butter and baking in the oven.  In the shot below, you may notice he looks slightly airborne (he’s closest to the center.)  That’s because as I snapped the picture, he was just about to touch down after being airlifted by Chareva’s boot.

Trust me, rooster:  don’t let her nice demeanor fool you.  If you know what’s good for you, you won’t beat that lady’s legs with your wings again.


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In a post last week, I wrote about why I believe most New Year’s resolutions to lose weight fail:  those resolutions are based on the notion that shedding pounds is a matter of character … i.e., if you just have enough discipline to eat less and spend more time on the treadmill, you’ll lose weight.

As someone who tried simply eating less and spent many hours on a treadmill (I even bought one for my apartment) without getting leaner, I don’t believe losing weight is about character.  I believe it’s (mostly) about chemistry, which is why weight-loss plans that rely on changing a fat person’s character are bound to fail.

I’ll have more to say on that later.  For now, I just want to share some bits from an old study (1960) that I apparently downloaded some time ago and then forgot to read.

The handful of subjects in the study fell into three categories:  1) naturally thin people, 2) fat people who had previously demonstrated that they could lose weight by restricting calories, and 3) fat people whom the researchers labeled as the “resistant obese.”  They wrote this about the “resistant obese”:

All had very small appetites, and none of these subjects lost weight even during observation in the hospital for prolonged periods of time.

By contrast, one of the naturally lean subjects was described as:

… a twenty-five year-old woman who is healthy, but literally unable to gain weight despite an excellent appetite.

The question the researchers wanted to answer was whether fat people and thin people release and burn fatty acids at similar rates if they’re fasting.   So they had all the subjects fast from dinner until the next morning, then measured the concentration of free fatty acids in their blood.  Then they extended the fast for a full 24 hours and took the same measurement at various intervals.

Here’s what they found:  in the morning, the fat people generally had higher levels of fatty acids in their blood than the thin people did.  But over the course of fasting for 24 hours, the naturally thin people experienced a sharp rise in the level of fatty acids in their bloodstreams.  The fat people who’d previously demonstrated they could lose weight by restricting calories experienced a milder rise in the level of fatty acids in their bloodstreams.  The “resistant obese” people experienced almost no rise at all in the level of fatty acids in their bloodstreams.

The researchers noted that in an earlier study, naturally thin subjects who were restricted to a high-fat diet of 1,000 calories per day showed a sharp rise in blood ketones over the next week, while obese subjects on the same diet showed a much lower rise in ketones.  Ketones, as you know, are a by-product of burning fat for fuel.

So taken together, here’s what those two studies suggest (at least about the subjects who were studied):  when naturally-thin people eat very little or not at all, they release a lot more fatty acids from their fat cells, and they burn those fatty acids for fuel.  “Resistant obese” people, on the other hand, don’t release extra fatty acids when they eat less or not at all, and therefore don’t make up for the calorie deficit by tapping and burning their body fat — at least not to nearly the degree the thin people do.

Remember that in describing the “resistant obese” subjects, the researchers noted that they had small appetites and failed to lose weight even under observation in a hospital.  In a discussion among several researchers included at the end of the paper, the leader researcher makes this statement:

This phenomenon of people who do not lose weight is really the most tantalizing thing that confronts physicians.  There are these people who can live on 600 calories and not lose any weight. On what are they surviving?  If we measure their basal metabolism in terms of calories, we get figures in excess of 600 calories per twenty-four hours.  It would seem that on this diet they are in a caloric deficit all time, but still are not losing any weight.  I am still an admirer of the laws of thermodynamics, but these people seem to be thermodynamic paradoxes.

Small appetites.  Couldn’t lose weight even while under observation at a hospital.  Didn’t release or burn more fatty acids (not to any significant degree) even while fasting for 24 hours.  Able to live on 600 calories per day without losing weight, causing a researcher who worked with them to label them as “thermodynamic paradoxes.”

Meanwhile, the naturally-lean people released lots of fatty acids and burned them for fuel soon after they stopped eating – including that twenty-five year-old woman who couldn’t gain weight in spite of her “excellent” appetite.

Does anyone believe the fat people in this study just needed more discipline and character in order to become thin?  Or does this sound like a problem rooted in chemistry?


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When we moved our first flock of chickens from the basement to the chicken yard, I looked out my home-office window an hour or so later and saw six hawks circling above the barn.  That’s when we knew we needed nets over the chicken yard.

We were given a reminder of how important overhead protection is for chickens just before Christmas.  Our second flock of chicks included some roosters, and one of them turned out to be a runt.  As the other roosters grew bigger and the runt remained a runt, I saw an example why my pal Mike (who was raised on a farm) told me not to worry about getting emotionally attached to chickens:  they’re mean little dinosaurs.  Like schoolyard bullies who had identified a weak kid, the other roosters began attacking the runt mercilessly.  So we moved the runt to a 10 x 20 dog pen in the front yard, figuring the six-foot-tall fencing would keep him safe from coyotes.  There was a tarp covering one end of the pen, but the other end was open to the sky.

As we were packing the van to leave for our holiday trip to Illinois, I caught a glimpse in my peripheral vision of something swooping into the pen.  I turned and saw a hawk on top of the runt.  I ran down to the pen, yelling and waving my arms, and the hawk flew away.  Too late.  The runt was dead.  As I turned back to the house, I saw Alana standing in the driveway, staring towards the pen.  She’d seen the whole thing.

Uh-oh, I thought.  Here come the tears.

I guess farm kids lose their Bambi-and-Thumper sentimentality about animals at a young age.  As I approached Alana, she said, “That was cool!”


“Yeah, I’ve never seen a hawk kill anything before!”

This from the daughter with the gentler nature of the two. Whew. That meant we could leave for our Christmas trip without me having to give a comforting speech about the cycle of life.  Still not quite believing how well she was taking this, I said, “Well, I guess I should toss the dead rooster into the yard so the hawks or coyotes can eat him while we’re gone.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Anyway, that’s why we have nets covering the chicken yard.  The problem was that the nets annoyed the @#$% out of me.  Our chicken yard is about 44 x 46 feet.  We bought bird nets at the local farmers’ co-op, but it took four of them to cover the yard, and no matter how many times I tried to raise them by attaching them to the barn or to poles, they’d slip off or the wind would blow them off, and they’d hang low like this:

No big deal, you say?  Ha.  You try being nearly six feet tall and walking around under those nets.  I’d end up hunched over like an old man, and even then the nets would manage to snag and yank off of my hat and/or my glasses.  You don’t want things you wear on your head falling into a yard full of chicken poop.

Granted, Chareva and the girls are the primary caretakers for the chickens, but I ended up spending more time in that chicken yard than I’d planned thanks to bad shots during my rounds of disc golf.  My driver especially had a tendency to land in those nets, slide directly to one of the few narrow openings between the nets and the barn, and plop to the ground.  You don’t want things you hold in your hands falling into a yard full of chicken poop.

It occurred to me more than once that a single big net, with the barn serving as a tent-pole, would be much better.  An errant disc would hit that net and slide onto the ground outside the chicken yard.  No more walking like a hunchback under low-hanging nets.  No more having my hat and glasses yanked off into a yard full of chicken poop while I’m trying to retrieve a disc from a yard full of chicken poop.

I’ve intended for awhile to find that one big net.  Intended, yes, but between preparing and delivering a speech in early December and then preparing to leave for the holidays, I didn’t quite get around to it.

I finally got motivated when we were coming home from an errand last week and found one of our remaining roosters hanging in a net with his foot caught and his leg looking dislocated.  The other roosters, true to form, were helping out by pecking at him.  Apparently the rooster, not content to run around on the ground, had decided to leap up into the low-hanging net and got himself caught.

After we managed to cut the rooster free from the net, I did what comes naturally to me … I told Chareva the whole sorry incident was probably her fault gave her a new Mafia nickname:  Chareva “The Legbreaker” Naughton. (This replaces her previous Mafia nickname of Chareva “The Screwdriver” Naughton, which she earned while trying off a fish we caught, as I recounted in a long-ago post on my other blog.)  She did, after all, break some chicken legs back in December while trying to move the portable coop.  That’s how we ended up with our first farm-to-forks chicken dinner.  Give that woman some chickens to raise, then just wait for the bones to crack.

After assigning the new nickname, I did what comes less-naturally to me … I went shopping.  It took awhile, but I finally found a 50 x 50 net available online.

When we first pulled the new net out of the box, Chareva was convinced someone had sent us the wrong one.  She believed it was 50 feet long, but said it didn’t look like it could possibly be 50 feet wide.  You can see why she’d reach that conclusion:

I was convinced the net probably was 50 feet wide, mostly because I’d already torn down the other nets and therefore I really, really needed the new net to be 50 feet wide.  If it turned out to be, say, 15 feet wide, Chareva might punish me by making me move all the chickens to the basement and live with them until we got the yard covered again.

As we unraveled the net a bit to inspect it, I was even more convinced it was indeed 50 feet wide, just rolled up nice and tight.  Fortunately, I turned out to be right.

Since the barn would be serving as our tent-pole, Chareva pointed out that we’d have to drape the net over the barn roof and begin unraveling it from up there.  Being a chivalrous sort, I immediately offered to steady the ladder for her while she climbed up.

Unrolling a net and pulling the edges out to the fence sounded like an easy job.  And it probably would have been if the rivets and sharp edges on the roof of the barn hadn’t kept snagging the net, and if the t-posts in the chicken yard hadn’t kept snagging the net, and if the branches of the small tree by the barn hadn’t kept snagging the net.  We spent way more time trying to figure out where the @#$% the net was snagged than we did unraveling it and pulling it toward the fence line.  We kept having to get back up on the ladders to find and release the latest barn-roof snag.  A few times we could only reach the snagged part of the net with a pole.  I was worried for awhile that we wouldn’t finish before dark and I’d end up sleeping in the basement with the chickens after all.

When we were nearly finished, Chareva pointed out how much easier the job would have been if we’d covered the barn roof with a tarp first.  No rivets, no sharp edges.  I thanked her profusely for that insight.  At least that’s how I remember it.

Anyway, we did finish before dark.  That’s Chareva in the picture below, walking beneath a net that is now a bit higher than six feet off the ground.

Here are a couple of pictures taken in better light the next day.

As you can see, the portable coop is now parked up against the chicken yard.  We made that move before the holidays so our nearest neighbor, who feeds the chickens while we’re gone, wouldn’t have to move the coop around.  All the chickens now share the yard, which means the term “pecking order” is starting to apply.  Some birds are definitely more dominant than others.

Sara came running into my home office a couple of days ago, all wound up, and told me one of the roosters had beat her legs with his wings and then chased her around the chicken-yard.  When I asked her to identify the perpetrator, she described this one:

Yeah, I figured.  We have three remaining roosters, and he’s the biggest and meanest.  He also never shuts up.  He struts around the yard all day mouthing off, chasing hens, starting fights with other rooters, and otherwise behaving like a rap star.  I keep expecting to walk out there and see him wearing baggy pants halfway down his ass.

He attacked me once too.  I was looking up, trying to keep a net from snagging my hat, when the little rapper began squawking and beating at my shins with his wings.  I responded by doing my impression of a punter.  Nothing too hard, mind you … more like a punter trying to kick the ball short and avoid putting it in the hands of a speedster.  Then for good measure, I took off my hat and whacked the rapper across the face with it.  I’m hoping he’ll decide going after me isn’t a good idea.

After he attacked Sara, I figured she’d be lobbying for him to go into the stew pot soon.  Nope.  After describing the attack, she suggested that if she can only keep one rooster, it should be him.

“Why is that?”

“Well, he’s the strongest and the most aggressive.  So he’ll probably do the best job of protecting the flock and mating with the hens to make more chickens.”

Like I said, farm kids apparently lose their Bambi-and-Thumper sentimentality about animals at a young age.


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