March 29, 2012

Weight loss takes time

Recently a friend said, "Have you lost weight? I came up from behind you, and you don't look the same."

Well, I'm glad my behind looks different these days. I told her, "Yes, I've lost 35 pounds since May."

She asked how I did it.

"Ruthless calorie counting. I have an app for that."

Tap & Track HD may not be the best calorie-counting app, but it's working for me. I chose this app from among the many calorie-counting apps available because it doesn't require an Internet connection to access its calorie database, as others do. All the data is stored in the app.

When I say losing weight takes time, I don't only mean it requires months to lose in a healthful way. I mean several minutes at each meal need to be invested in calculating and recording one's intake. Weighing or measuring each portion takes time.

Tap & Track helps cut down on this time with its list of common foods and an extensive list of restaurants. I looks like pretty much every restaurant chain that publishes its nutritional information on the web is included. So, for example, I now know that my Chipotle chicken bowl contains 540 calories. That's almost 40 percent of my calorie allotment for a day, so I'm trying to discipline myself to eat only half the bowl. In fact, I've learned that at just about every restaurant, it's a good idea to take whatever meat and carbs they bring you and cut the portions in half.

The app is a little rough around the edges:
  • It has a favorites list for things you eat often, but it doesn't handle nonpackaged foods like fruit and vegetables well. When you pick an item from the food list, you can measure in grams or cups, or in the case of fruit, "one medium," etc. But add it to the favorites list, and you're limited to fractions of a serving, which requires knowing what the original serving size was. It turns out to be more precise to just pick it from the master list every time and enter the portion size in grams, since I prefer to weigh. The favorites list does work well for packaged goods like cereal bars and bread, where the serving size is uniform.
  • The recipes feature is useful, but would be better if it were possible to edit the quantities. For example, l started with a salad recipe that was half romaine and half spinach, but decided to use more romaine and less spinach. I couldn't just change the quantities. I had to delete and re-add the ingredients.
  • l love that the help file is built-in instead of being online, but its grammar needs some help.
  • There are some typos in the food list, e.g. diary instead of dairy, drak instead of dark. OK, that's a really picky nit. Sorry.
Enough complaining. Here's what I like:
  • There's a list of previous items which keeps track of several days' worth of items, which is useful for creatures of habit like me who tend to eat the same things repeatedly. Things I eat every day, like apples and tangerines, I can just pick from the previous list instead of looking them up in the master list every time. Unlike the favorites list, the previous list remembers the unit of measurement I used last time, so if I had a 52-gram tangerine yesterday and today one that's 56 grams, I just have to change the number.
  • The overview screen shows a breakdown by nutrient type, so l can see when I'm overdoing the carbs. Which is often.
  • The history page lets me see how good -- or bad -- I've been during the week.
  • The profile automatically calculates my daily calorie count based on my current size and sedentary job.
  • The exercise list shows that I could burn more calories at yoga than t'ai chi, and informs me that 20 minutes of housecleaning burns 87 calories.
This may not be the best calorie tracker (My rating: 4 of 5 stars), but it's the best $5 I ever spent.

March 21, 2012

Behold the power of the outline

At a chamber fellowship meeting, I was asked to share my top editing tip. Didn't have to think long about it: outline.

I resisted outlining for many years, because it reeked of term papers and therefore seemed uncreative. Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Pro software convinced me otherwise.

Once I realized the power of outlining to organize my novels, it became obvious that the same power could be harnessed for any writing task. And should be. I have seen repeatedly in journalism, in fiction, and in non-fiction that omitting an outline results in disorganized work.

Even if your outline is just five items on a Post-It note, or two items in your head, have one. The longer and more complex your work (hello, novelists), the more you need an outline.

Many fiction writers resist outlining. Ingermanson discussed with Larry Brooks how even writers who prefer to work by the seat of their pants can be helped by judicious use of structure.

An outline is not a constraint. It is a guideline and a set of goals. As for creativity? Goal-setting practically requires it.

March 15, 2012

Windrider II makes for a grand quest

The Windrider II: A Greater Strength by Rebecca P. Minor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This volume continues the quest begun in book one. Here, the Windrider Squadron gains some new members, but Vinyanel and Majestrin are still, as far as I'm concerned, the stars of the show. Vinyanel's mentor/teammate Veranna has a key role to play, but some of the best bits are from Majestrin's point of view, showing that the dragon is a true partner with the elves.

For an experienced warrior, Vinyanel still has a lot to learn, and he grows a lot in the course of this story. We're often told every hero must have a flaw, but often our heroes are sort of blissfully unaware of their flaws until the bitter end. Not Vinyanel. His flaws were sharply revealed in book one, and in book two he learns to deal with them. We also see a heretofore unmentioned weakness for a woman. A whole new facet of his personality.

The woman, I think I can say without spoiling too much, is not Veranna. That the hero and heroine of this story are not also one another's romantic interests is one of the things I love about it. Veranna is enamored of another Windrider, and Vinyanel professes to be interested only in his weapons.

Other things I love about this story: the elves are like real flesh-and-blood beings with flaws and feelings, not just aloof, serene caricatures; there are words in it I have to look up; faith lessons are woven into the story without being plunked in awkwardly; and -- of course -- dragons.

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