Friday, January 30, 2015

2 Years of Brain Training with Lumosity - And Why I'm Not Continuing

Image taken from Lumosity's Twitter Page

Two years.  Yup, that's right: for two years now I have been using the online brain training website Lumosity as part of my daily mental exercise regimen.  

"Mental exercise regimen, you say?  What is this hubbub?"  

"Surely you've seen the articles that show that 'brain training' is a bunch of bullshit?!"

Well inquisitive friend voice that I just created for the purpose of turning your (or, uh, my) words against you, a mental exercise regimen is what you do in your life to keep your mind functioning at its best (just as physical exercise is to keep your body functioning at its best).  And I most definitely have seen some of the various articles and blogs out there that are opposed to Lumosity, though I've actually seen far more of the usual interwebs outrage porn from people on social media who like to bash Lumosity without having tried it or even having read about the potential pros, cons, and unknowns with brain training.

This post is going to give a brief summary of brain training and why I do it.  Also, I'd like to share my experience with Lumosity, and then explain why, after 2 years of using Lumosity, I am going to let me subscription come to an end.  

Image from Legendary Collegian

My Brain Will Outsmart Your Brain!

Well, maybe not.  That's not why I have a mental exercise regimen, so hopefully you're not one of those people who likes to imply that all of us who use brain training software like that of Lumosity are somehow under the assumption that we are capable of turning ourselves into hyperaware super geniuses like Bradley Cooper's character in the 2011 film Limitless (based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn).  For me, mental exercise is just about keeping my mind functional as I age.  There's been a lot of history and research to support mental exercise, but there's also a lot of uncertainty as to how effective it is as well.

In this Lumosity blog post, Pam Zhang recounts a little bit of the history of brain training.  For instance, she mentions the story of Simonides and his discovery of The Method of Loci.  Simonides, so the story goes, had been at a banquet and, when he had momentarily stepped outside, the building collapsed, killing everyone inside.  Families and friends came to uncover the bodies of the fallen, but they had no idea where their beloved had died and could then be found under the rubble.  Simonides, with a quick moment of thought, realized that he could recount where each and every person had been located before the collapse.  By taking his mind on a "walk" through the building before the collapse, he could place each of the other attendees in their spot.  This method of memory recall became one of the primary memory techniques for all of the time following Simonides.  In the Rhetorica Ad Herennium, a Roman author (who was believed to have been Cicero, but now that claim has been called into question) detailed The Method of Loci and how that method could be used to build a Memory Palace, a place within your mind where you create a mental image of the thing to be remembered and you give it a location (or locus) relative to a house, palace, town, or world that you've built within your mind.  As Zhang points out, the switch from oration to long form writing as the primary means of education, record keeping, and storytelling (thanks to the printing press) caused a huge decline in the use of the old memory techniques like The Method of Loci.  There were groups here and there who continued some of the memory training traditions, including great speakers and writers.

As Pam Zhang explains in her article, the Pelman Institute, which was created by William Joseph Ennever in 1890s, saw a resurgence of brain training amongst the public.  Merging some of the old memory techniques with other mental exercises (especially that of trying to build your original awareness - your ability to be aware of yourself and your surroundings.  Might sound simple and straightforward, but if you've seen someone walking down the street who is lost in their smart phone and can't walk a straight line then you have seen a complete lack of original awareness), Ennever developed his Pelman approach to sell mental training for a fee.  By the time the system took off in the 1930s, people could pay a small fee (just under 7 British pounds, at the time) and they would be enrolled in a course where they would receive twelve mini-booklets containing exercises.  There were other booklets and tidbits released over time, but the original twelve were the basis of Ennever's system (you can now download the entire Pelman course in PDF format thanks to Sector 51).  Pelmanism was pretty much for the people of the early 1900s what sites like Lumosity are today.

Zhang's article also mentions the work of Eleanor Maguire, the Irish neuroscientist who showed that London cab drivers have a measurable redistribution of grey matter in their hippocampi that relates to their use of navigational cognition (see also this article if you're super interested).  Maguire also studied the brains and brain area activation of competitors in the World Memory Championships, and found that these competitors, when tasked with memorizing something, had an increased utilization in areas of the brain that correspond to spatial memory than did people who didn't use memorization techniques (remember the story of Simonides?).  In the 2003 article in Nature where they reports this research, Maguire and colleagues wrote:

"...We found that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences.  Rather, we found that superior memorizers used a spatial learning strategy, engaging brain regions such as the hippocampus that are critical for memory and for spatial memory in particular.  ...[research in this area] could broaden the scope for memory improvement in the general population and the memory-impaired."

Training your mind using memory techniques and brain training of various types is not necessarily about improving your intelligence (even though there are some people who think that it might be possible), but rather about improving the flexibility of your mind to best use the intelligence you already have.  By reading often and reading different kinds of material, challenging your mind with math puzzles and riddles, trying out new avenues of creativity like art and music, and partaking in a regimen of mental exercise, you can keep your mind flexible and ready to utilize all the intelligence you have.  On top of all of that, mental exercise is fun.  Playing video games or board games, attempting to build a card castle, or solving geometry puzzles can be a ridiculously awesome amount of fun.  Although I love drinking a good beer and laughing with friends (and find that to also be healthy and beneficial), I still find it beneficial to take a small amount of time out of each day to focus solely on mental exercise (and I usually do it right before I do my physical exercise).

Beautiful artwork by Allegator at Deviant Art which depicts Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes from the BBC series Sherlock.  In the series, as well as the films and the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock is a master of using the memory systems.

Ways to Exercise Your Brain

Mental training isn't just about playing games, but rather about giving yourself new challenges and constantly pushing your mind to work a little bit harder than normal.  Video games, brain training software, playing games with friends, learning and playing musical instruments, drawing and painting, doing math problems and puzzles, and various forms of meditation all count as mental exercise (when done properly and not overdone).  Also, learning about and using the various memory techniques is helpful for all areas of mental exercise.  I'm by no means the expert on this topic, but I have tried a lot of programs and such over the years so I have a good idea of what works for me.  Outside of Lumosity, here are some of my suggestions for brain training websites (most of which are free!) for anyone who wants to find things to add to their own mental exercise regimen:


My current favorite for mental exercise is the website Cerego.  The program is based on adaptive learning to help a user improve their memorization of material that's available on the site.  Much like working with flash cards, the user can pick a set of information that will offer associations of text, images, or audio and then test their knowledge of those associations.  What's great about the site is that the learning process knows what you do well and what you need to work on and schedules your next test of the material based on what needs the most work.  There are sets including everything from famous works of art, classic books, general physics, symbols of the chemical elements, and more.  A user can create their own sets for their private use (for instance, I have one set that I use to memorize the names and faces of people across campus) and a user can also create content for public use (I now have two sets that I've made public, one for Introductory Geology and one for Geobiology).

Khan Academy

Khan Academy is awesome!  The website has all kinds of stuff you can learn, from general science to computer programming.  The part of the website I use everyday and enjoy the most is the World of Math.  Each day I can work through anything from a couple up to thirty or so math problems that range from elementary school math up to calculus and differential equations.  The content is fantastic!

Word Dynamo

This is a program that lets you challenge your vocabulary through multiple choice questions, crosswords, and more.  Word Dynamo is a great way to build your vocabulary, which can make you a better speaker and writer.


Co-developed by Ed Cooke, a world champion of memory, Memrise is much like Cerego, where you can work through sets of associations for information and the site is built to help you work on the information that you have the hardest time with

There's more...

A few others include Code Academy, Coursera, Duolingo, Fit Brains (this one isn't free and there's not much you can do for free before they want money), and Brilliant (which I just discovered and which has a lot of great math work for those who love math).

So go out there and work on your brain, but definitely let me tell you why I think Lumosity was awesome and why I won't be using it anymore.

Image can be found here

Is Lumosity Really Worth $120 Per Year?

Short answer

If you have the money and you will definitely use the site at least several times each week, then 'yes'.  If you would likely spend $120 in the year on more video games or puzzle books and such, then it's definitely worth it to give Lumosity a try and skip the other stuff for a year.  But, in my opinion, Lumosity is really only good for one year.  After that, it loses its worth (and that worth is definitely already subjective; see below).  And, if you don't really have the money, then don't do it.  There are a lot of other things that you could spend $120 on.

Long Answer

Okay, so here's my take on Lumosity: there is definitely research out there to support brain training, but not so much as to make a strong claim that everyone will benefit from using Lumosity or that you will definitely improve your mental flexibility by using Lumosity.  Furthermore, with all of the cost-free or minimal-cost stuff that you can do to train your brain, it makes it hard to justify spending money on Lumosity.

Also, there are definitely people out there with very strong messages against using Lumosity. For instance, in this Gizmodo article titled "Lumosity's Brain Games are Bullshit", the author definitely makes her bold claim against Lumosity, but she also has some very valid points.  There is no consensus amongst scientists and researchers who study neuroscience that claims that brain training sites like Lumosity work as well as their developers like to claim (here are articles from the Guardian and from AAAS which detail some of the arguments), and there are definitely huge ranges of support or opposition from the general public (here's the Quora page for Lumosity).  

Lumosity and other brain training sites definitely sell their programs as being beneficial, for instance here's the controversial article from Lumos Labs titled "The Science Behind Lumosity" that details their proposed supportive research.  They can point to various pieces of research that appear to show the benefit of brain training, and, now that these sites have been operating for quite some time, they can point to research that shows potential benefits of using their software.  For instance, this article in Clinical Breast Cancer shows that using a computer-based mental training regimen with a program like Lumosity's may improve the quality of life of breast cancer survivors who were treated with chemotherapy by aiding in maintenance of executive functions (like working memory and attention).  When it comes down to it, there's some research out there to support the use of brain training sites like Lumosity, but not really so much that it justifies spending $120 each year on the site.  Especially since there are so many free things you can do to exercise your brain.  

I definitely won't try to sell you on using Lumosity.  I've used the site now for 2 full years and have had a great time playing the games, but I know that Lumosity is no longer worth the money for me.

Lumosity's Games

As I mentioned above, I've had a lot of fun using Lumosity.  There are a lot of awesome games that are aimed at testing your mental flexibility in different ways.  Here are some of my favorite games on Lumosity (for a full list of their games look here):

Speed Match Overdrive

This is a game where you are presented with a card that has a certain shape and color.  Once you start, that first card will be flipped and a new card will be presented.  It's up to you to decide if the new card has the same shape and color on it, if only the shape or the color are the same, or if neither are the same.  Sounds pretty simply, but to do it quickly really makes your mind work.  This game is awesome!  However, Lumosity doesn't like to include it in their normal training settings (you have to change to student or advanced settings or you have to select the game yourself).

Memory Matrix

Memory games are some of my favorite.  Memory Matrix is a game where you are presented with a grid of squares (the size of the grid depends on how well you do in the game).  At the beginning of each turn, some number of the squares (or tiles) will be highlighted momentarily and then disappear.  You job is to then remember which tiles were highlighted and click them.  This is a classic way of testing your working memory.  There are various ideas about how our memory works, but one of the most accepted is that you have an immediate memory from your senses, you then have a working memory (basically what your mind has just processed and can actively recall immediately), and then there's your long term memory.  Since around the time of the work of George Miller and onward, it's been known that on average we can only store a small number of distinct items in our working memory at any given time.  Improving your working memory is about finding ways of chunking certain bits of information together so that they make one discrete item and are thus easier to remember.  Memory Matrix is all about chunking.  You eventually get used to certain arrangements of multiple tiles that can easily be remembered together and then you get better.  At this point, I see various shapes as unique and I also let my mind make imaginary figures out certain arrangements of tiles.

Familiar Faces

This is one of my favorite games, but it's also one that Lumosity really needs to improve.  We should all know that restaurant servers get a good deal of mental training on the job by testing their short term memories (the best servers don't need to write anything down, right?!).  This game makes you the server in various restaurant settings, with a bit of bustling noise in the background, and then presents you with customers.  Your job is to remember who they (pairing names and faces) and to remember what they order before it comes out (by pairing the right meals with the right people).  The game is a lot of fun for training your working memory and your facial recognition, but it doesn't take very long to get to the highest possible scores and the game never really becomes challenging enough to make it really worthwhile. 

Lost in Migration

This is a fun one.  You're presented with a flock of birds which will be facing in a certain direction.  Your job is to quickly identify whether the center bird is facing the same direction as the flock or in a different direction.  The game becomes more challenging the faster you push yourself to answer.  It's based on the "flanker" task developed by Charles Eriksen in 1974. 

Word Bubbles and Word Bubbles Rising

I love challenging my use of language and vocabulary.  These two games are the only games on Lumosity that offer such challenges.  To do well at these games, you have to be able to develop words given only a small string of letters that start the words.  It's a lot of fun (and will make you better at games like Scrabble).  During the last two years, I contacted Lumosity twice to ask for more games that worked with vocabulary or language.  These two are still the only ones they offer.  

Chalkboard Challenge

Here's one that's a lot of fun for the math problem fans out there.  You're presented with two cards, each of which has a small expression written on it.  Your job is to decide which card's expression has the higher value, by quickly running through the arithmetic in the expression to find it's overall value.  The faster you can be at computing the numbers or, even better, at determining which will be higher without fully solving the expression, the harder it gets and the higher your score.  Since I love math problems, this is one of my favorite games on Lumosity.

My Training Record on Lumosity

Since I'm just about done with their site, I decided to take some screen shots so I can always remember how I did with their program.  Here's the overall breakdown of how I did in my training over the last two years:

As you can see, I spent a lot of time playing Lumosity's games.  I tried my best to play the five games they suggest as part of the training each morning.  I stacked up pretty well for my age group (compared to other users of the site):

And, interestingly, of all the people who listed their career types on Lumosity, my best training games were most similar to those of Mathematicians.  Other similar people also worked in Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Finance, and Scientific Research.  (BTW, I had listed my professional occupation as Education).  The most dissimilar from me were Military and Culinary Arts.

It's nice to look back over my training record with the site.  It'll be an interesting change to my daily schedule to take Lumosity out of my mental exercise regimen.

Why I'm No Longer Going to Use Lumosity

It's been a fun two years, but once my subscription comes to an end in the next couple of weeks, I'm not going to continue using Lumosity.  The time has most definitely come, and here's why:

As I mentioned above, I think it justifiable to pay the $120 for a year of Lumosity (as long as you actually use it).  It's a lot of money to pay in one shot, but if you buy two new video games in a year it'll cost about the same.  I love video games, but I like to make my brain work in lots of various ways so it's nice to cut back on video games and add in other things to keep my mind active.  Even though I find that $120 a good deal, I really think it was only good for the first year.  I've still been using Lumosity almost every day, but they are very slow at adding new content and so the site can become a bit boring pretty quickly.  The only way to keep the site challenging was to alter the training settings every week or so, that way I'd get some different games once in a while.  Even though Lumosity likes to talk about how they have over 40 games to play, they really only offer a small subset of those games for each training setting (you can still access all of the games, but it would be nice to have them all come up every now and then in the daily training).  Since there's not enough change in the site, I don't think it's worth the money anymore.  I'll spend that $120 somewhere else this year.

Finally, my suggestion for Lumosity or other sites like it (like Elevate or Fit Brains) is to change up their games far more often.  Lumosity could be a lot more fun and a lot more challenging (and far more worth the cost) if they had a better rate of product development.  Lumosity was a great idea and has made a good deal of money offering a great service, but the daily users who pay top dollar for the site deserve the product they paid for.  In the case of Lumosity, the users are paying for a brain training program that offers continual challenge and, sadly, Lumosity doesn't offer a continual challenge after the first year.  

As I bring this long post to a close, I have to say that I really enjoyed Lumosity and I hope they do well in the future.  Maybe in a few years I'll check back and see what they've got going on, but my mental exercise regimen needs variation in order to keep my mind flexible.  

So long Lumosity, and thanks for all the fish.

RĂªverie by SM Craig

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Writing Every Day - Jeff Goins' 500 Words Challenge

I've been writing for a long time in my life, but I've honestly suffered from trying to find the time and effort to write the way I want.  I think that stems from a major flaw in the approach I've had to writing - I would usually only write if I had a couple of hours or more to sit and get into it.  In the end, that approach seems to be the same as sitting at the starting line of a race and waiting until the right race is about to start (so, not very productive).

I've been reading a lot more lately about how other writers approach their craft.  Major authors will write lots every day, but what about the rest of us?  What about those of us who want to write for fun but also have other pursuits and careers that take up a good deal of our time?  One of the best pieces of advice that just about everyone who writes successfully (whether or not they are publishing or have a large audience) is to write a small bit every day through setting little writing goals.  Sounds pretty straightforward, though there are various approaches.  Some people think that setting little word limit goals is too stressful (what if I can't get past the first sentence?).  Some people suggest only using small time limits (I'm going to write hardcore for 15 minutes and then be done!).  Some people suggest taking various kinds of cues (like a random image search each day and then write about the day's image).  Whatever the ways are that people are setting their goals, it sounds like there are a lot of folks who are getting it done.

Last night, just before slipping down to bed for my nightly reading, I came upon the website of a man named Jeff Goins.  The first thing I thought when reading through the info on Goins' site about being a writer was, "Wow, this guy is super excited about getting other people to write!".  Here's a great interview article from CopyBlogger with Jeff Goins talking about how he writes:

Goins had a little writing challenge offered on his website, so I decided to give it a try.  Just as I've been working my way through a 30-day plank challenge to strengthen my transverse abdominus, I like the idea of trying out month-long writing challenges.  Goins' month-long writing challenge is simple: write at least 500 words every day for 31 straight days.  In my recent attempts to write every day, I've been usually landing somewhere between 200 and 1000 words, so I think 500 words a day is doable.  Also, it sounds like fun.  In the coming month, I'll likely post some of the things that I'll be working on as I write every day.  If I do, I'll put "My 500 Words" in the post title.  I don't think 31 days of writing a little bit each day will be enough to make me a great writer, but I do think it will help me to have some fun while finally getting some of my writing ideas actually written (and, just like kicking the digital snot out of a great video game or completing a fitness challenge, having a goal and tracking your progress has been consistently shown to help build confidence and to strengthen your resolve).

Here's to writing!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

APOD - Launch to Lovejoy

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) is a beautiful exposure taken by Lynn Hilborn that shows a rocket launch (for a military satellite) along with Comet Lovejoy and some of my favorite constellations, including Orion and Taurus.  Definitely worth sharing:

Here's the blurb that came with the image from APOD:

"Blasting skyward an Atlas V rocket carrying a U.S. Navy satellite pierces a cloud bank in this starry night scene captured on January 20. On its way to orbit from Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, planet Earth, the rocket streaks past brightest star Sirius, as seen from a dark beach at Canaveral National Seashore. Above the alpha star of Canis Major, Orion the Hunter strikes a pose familiar to northern winter skygazers. Above Orion is the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, head of Taurus the Bull, and farther still above Taurus it's easy to spot the compact Pleiades star cluster. Of course near the top of the frame you'll find the greenish coma and long tail of Comet Lovejoy, astronomical darling of these January nights."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Puzzle - Wrap a Rope Around the Earth

Image from:

This is a simple puzzle that forces us to think about proportion.  There are lots of versions of it out there, but the first appearance was as early as 1702 in Williams Whiston's "The Elements of Euclid" (here's a link to the 1714 edition).  

-Imagine a ball that you can hold in your hands.  Let's say for this puzzle that it is a globe of the world.  You have a length of rope that fits around the globe, completing the full length of the circumference.  Now let's say that you want another piece of rope to wrap around the globe, but at all times that piece of rope lies 1 meter away from the surface of the globe (so it wraps around the globe, but there is 1 meter of space in between the rope and the globe at all points).  How much longer will this rope need to be than the first one?

-Got that?  Well now, let's take the puzzle a little further:

-Imagine a piece of rope that wraps around the entire Earth at the equator.  At about 40,075 km that's a pretty long piece of rope, but it's not big enough!  Now let's say that you want to cut another piece of rope so that, just like in the first part of the puzzle, this new piece of rope wraps around the Earth at the equator but with 1 meter of space between the rope and the Earth's surface.  How much longer must this new rope be when compared to the rope that was wrapped around the globe with 1 meter of space from the first part of this puzzle?

You may need to refresh your circle geometry to find the answer.  Also, this picture and the link in the caption might help if you're stuck:

An answer to a similar phrasing of the puzzle (as well as this image) can be found at 
(If the link above didn't help, here's another that will show you how to find the answer)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hunting for Food - My Entry Into the World of Hunting

Image from:

I love eating meat.  I always have.  I enjoy the taste of a juicy steak and the salivation-driving smells and flavors of beef brisket and pulled pork covered in BBQ sauce. I've enjoyed the American food staples of burgers and hotdogs when grilling with friends, and I've sought out uncommon meats like ground ostrich and kangaroo, meal worms and fried grasshoppers, and even horse stroganoff (which I had in the small town of Villigen in Switzerland). The few times in my life that I've had meat from animals that were taken from the wild by hunters, I've loved the taste and the aroma from that meat. Also, somewhere deep inside, it felt good to know I was eating meat that was taken from the wilderness.

We are an omnivorous species and that omnivory is part of what allowed us to develop civilization as we know it and to conquer the globe. However, our omnivore lifestyles (especially amongst Americans) have also become something of a danger to our civilization and to our planet. Over the past couple of years I've been leaning more and more toward getting into hunting for the meat that I eat. Hunting runs rich in my family's history and, although I have never hunted before, I feel a certain call from the wilderness - a beckoning to get out into the wild and hunt for my food from a wild source.  My girlfriend and I are planning on moving toward as much of a locavore lifestyle as possible; we want to grow our own vegetables, hunt our own meat, and buy locally as much as possible (of course, there are some things that we just can't get from close to home - like coffee). Can we change our diets to become more sustainable and healthier through growing our own vegetables and hunting our own meat? I truly hope so.

There are a lot of people in my country who subsist on diets of meat with sprinklings of other bits like cheeses and breads with maybe a stray slice of tomato or onion every now and then (don't forget to wash it down with a load of sugar and artificial colorings and flavorings in some water).  Such diets might not be so bad (still not great, but not so bad) if the foods came from sources where the producers had an investment in human health and global sustainability as opposed to maximizing profit, but that's just not the case.  I don't want to sound like some ranting lunatic ("them there big bad corporations") so here's a little history of food followed by my beginner's take on hunting and what I intend to gain for myself, my community, and our world by hunting.

The Beauties and Terrors
of Food Preparation

The Last Supper by Leonardo DiVinci
Image from:

Just as with any other large heterotrophic organisms on our planet, our biology requires taking in organic compounds, vitamins, and other nutrients by ingesting other organisms, live or dead.  We've come to the point now where we add in lots of synthetic organic compounds that we create in labs, but most of what we eat requires that other organisms have done the hard work of taking inorganic and organic molecules from the environment and have then produced within themselves the nutrients that we we take once we ingest those organisms or parts of them (don't lie to yourselves, vegetarians, you also have to kill organisms to eat, but your killing is only slightly more removed from our genetic lineage; see below for more on vegetarianism).  As many of us were taught in school, amongst animal forms of eating there are carnivores (which eat other animals), herbivores (which eat plants), and omnivores (which can eat animals and plants).  However, there are more forms of eating in the animal world than that, including detritivores (which eat decomposing material from plants and animals), scavengers (which must search to find recently dead bodies of plants and animals to eat), and fungivores (organisms which eat only fungi).  Our species are omnivores (and we have been for a very long time), which means that we can eat meat and vegetables and fungi and even microbes (with the help of other microbes, of course!).

No one knows for sure when we started preparing our meals to improve the flavor and presentation of our food, but the act of spending time to prepare a meal (as opposed to just eating raw whatever bits we had at hand) is probably just about as old as hunting itself.  For hundreds of thousands to over a million years, we and our ancestors have taken extra time to ensure that our food was nourishing as well as tasty.  There are even some people out there who argue that preparing our meals, especially through the use of fire, might have given early humans a benefit over other primates.  Cooking gave us a great way to mix together our various food sources to ensure that we were getting all of the nutrients we needed, but also ensured that we spent more time working together (improving our socialization and probably helping to ensure the development of civilization).  One of the most enjoyable ways to socialize with other people is over a well-prepared meal.

A long history of cooking and food preparation led to the development of various ethnic cuisines and special types of meal preparation for various events of celebration in our lives.  Many religions have developed special meals for celebration over time, and various people across the planet have sorted out their favorite types of food and food preparation to form the national cuisines that many of us know of now.  Many of us love trying ethnic meals.  French, Italian, Indian, Mongolian, Latin American, Ethiopian, German, American, Japanese...  all of these words in the context of food signify a certain range of meals that I love to eat, and each of those types of food preparation have unique ingredients, cooking methods, and presentation styles that make each of them special in their own right.  Interestingly, the preparation of animal meat is included in nearly all of those forms of cuisine.

There are lots of reasons for eating meat.  Meat tastes great, it contains lots of the protein and nutrients that we need to survive, and the various studies that lots of vegetarians like to point to suggesting that eating meat is unhealthy are usually, when read closer, only concluding that eating too much meat or meat prepared in the wrong way is unhealthy.  That's where we get to the crux of the problem for meat eaters.  Meat tastes great and feels rewarding to eat, but there are way too many of us who cook their meat to well-done (which usually implies an increase in the number of carcinogens in the meat) and who eat meat for every meal, sometimes only meat for a meal.  As omnivores we owe it to ourselves to balance our diets, but many of us, especially in America, have a hard time with that notion.  

The over-consumption of meat in America has led to a scary reality: our demand for meat paired with corporate demands for profit have led to factory farming methods where the animals are treated inhumanely and the food itself has become jeopardized because of it.  I won't go on about the dangers of factory farming (though here is an article from the ASPCA on the issue and here is one from Sustainable Table), but I think any of us who've ever driven past a factory farm or have seen how these animals are treated have to feel, at least a little bit, like something is very wrong in how we are treating those animals.  There's a pretty large industrial cattle lot in northeastern Colorado, on the way up to Nebraska, that makes me cringe whenever I see it.  The cows, thousands of them, are stuck standing shoulder-to-shoulder in mud mixed with their own excrement, while they wait for the slaughterhouse.  The condition is the same in many industrial farm settings for chickens and pigs as well.  If you find the nature of factory farms as unsettling as I do, here is a website that offers a Factory Farm Map to show you how many there are and how well-distributed they are across the United States (the site is produced by Food and Water Watch).

Confinement of Pigs

I don't mean to blast livestock farming. I'm sure there are lots of farmers out there who are doing their best to ensure that their animals are treated well as they make their journey from birth to death; the locavore movement and conscious consumers are driving the demand for more meats produced in more ethical manners. Even though I personally want to be as sustainable as possible, I'll still have a cheeseburger every once in a long while from a fast food joint, enjoy the meat extravaganza at a Brazilian steakhouse, or put down a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon. I don't see the need to fully separate myself from what I've enjoyed for much of my life, but I do know I can find more enjoyment by ensuring that my food mostly comes from sustainable sources and that I am doing my best to eat a balanced and healthy diet. It's hard sometimes to think about the American obesity epidemic when I live in a town like Boulder, Colorado (one of the healthiest and fittest towns in the nation), but it doesn't seem unfair to associate a large part of that problem with the over-consumption of meat as well as the abundance of highly-processed foods in the American diet (I haven't really talked about that side of the problem, but I think we all know by now that the ridiculous amount of sugars and synthetic substances in our food can't be good for us, even if they make us feel good for a moment in time).

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"Why not just go vegetarian?"

I suppose a lot of my friends and family who are vegetarian or vegan would wonder why I don't just go fully vegetarian if I'm so worried about eating sustainably. There are definitely great arguments to be made for eating meatless diets. For instance, the three micro-populations on the planet that have the greatest number of centenarians (people who live to be over 100) all eat diets that are either vegetarian or that contain very little meat (here's another article that mentions the top 5 places with the longest living people).  Eating vegetarian diets has been shown in a plethora of studies to appear very healthy, but (as Authority Nutrition mentioned in a post I linked above) very few studies have actually considered that most vegetarians are already health-conscious people and are likely doing other things to keep themselves healthy as well. I would throw down real money on a bet that vegetarians who eat boatloads of candy and highly-processed breads, drink soda, and live mostly sedentary lifestyles would start skewing such studies to show that although vegetarian diets can be good, they are by no means the sole solution.  Where vegetarian and vegan diets really kick-ass compared to mostly meat-based diets is in the realm of sustainability.  As this article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows, the common meat-based diets (I would argue they are "meat-overconsumption diets") require far greater land, water, and energy resources than do typical plant-based diets of the same calorie-load.  Without a doubt, eating a plant-based diet is far more sustainable than the typical meat-overconsumption diet.  But that doesn't mean that we can't make conscious and sustainable decisions while choosing to eat meat.  I think that being smart about choosing how much meat and which meats to eat is one huge step we can all take toward making better sustainable and health-conscious decisions with our meat eating.  This post is really just the "tip of the iceberg" for me on this issue, but when it comes down to it, I think the decision to hunt for the meat I will eat will make me far more conscious of where my food comes from, it will ensure that I eat locally-produced meat from healthy sources, and it will let me experience the entire process of preparing the meat for consumption.  That final bit is something that bothers me greatly: too many Americans who eat meat think of their meat as something prepared for them or something that comes wrapped in plastic at the grocery store and seem to have forgotten that an animal has to be killed and then butchered before that meat can be so nicely wrapped and prepared.  I know that I'll get more out of hunting than just knowing my food is sustainable, but that's definitely one huge reason for giving it a go.

"Hunting for food is, ethically speaking, the next best thing to being a vegetarian" 
Jackson Landers, from "The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food"

History of Hunting and What It's
Taking Me to Get Started

Ancient cave paintings of the hands of humans and images of animals.
Were these the artistic expressions of ancient hunters?
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In the summer of 2012, I went on a trip to Spain to attend the International Summer School in Astrobiology in the coastal city of Santander.  When the school was finished, my girlfriend flew out to meet me, and she and I then went on a weeklong trek around Spain's northeastern region.  Besides eating paella in Barcelona and checking out Pamplona and cruising around the little towns to the southwest of the Pyrenees, we decided to check out the cave exhibits at Altamira and El Castillo.  Altamira has the most extensive paleolithic cave paintings of any cave on the planet (though you can't see the real paintings anymore since the cave was closed to the public to preserve the artwork), but we were really interested in seeing El Castillo.  It was only a week before our arrival that a team of archaeologists published an article in the journal Science where they dated some of the paintings within El Castillo and found some dates as old as 40,800 years ago!  This makes some of the paintings in El Castillo the oldest known cave paintings on the planet!  We had to go see these paintings, and they were absolutely stunning.  Working with charcoal from burned organic material and ochre pigments from minerals in the nearby soil, the paleolithic artists who lived in these caves painted circles, outlines of human hands (by blowing the pigment around their hand on the wall), and they painted many of the large game animals from the region, including deer, ibex, bison, and some form of now-extinct cow.  We don't know exactly why these ancient people painted the animals they hunted.  Surely the meat from these animals sustained the people who lived in the cave, but there are some who ascribe a mysticism to the paintings, suggesting that they were made as a form of magic that summons the animals for hunting.  Whatever the inspiration was for the drawings, it's a certainty that humans were hunting by tens of thousands of years ago and probably even long before that.  Evidence was recently presented that suggests that our ancestor hominids may have been hunting as far back as 2 million years agoand, indeed, many of us can imagine the importance of hunting amongst the beings that led to humanity; the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind:

By the time our earliest civilizations were developing, hunting had already become a mainstay for our diets and lifestyles.  Quite obviously, the development of animal husbandry and raising livestock overtook hunting for food sources for many dense populations, but hunting has remained a pastime and source of food for humans for millennia.  It's not too hard to see why so many ancient peoples created gods of hunting and included great hunters in their mythology (the Greek god Artemis and the great hunter Nimrod, great-grandson of Noah in the Bible, come to mind).  The development of weaponry for war through human history has also led to the development of more efficient tools for hunting, specifically in the case of the modern firearm.  Guns led to easier and cleaner kills but also led to overhunting and trophy hunting.  In the 1800's overhunting and trophy hunting ran rampant and there were few controls in place to conserve and preserve the wildlife that was being hunted.  Even in our modern time, now that we have laws that force hunters to work with their local wildlife and natural resources agencies to determine when, how, and what to hunt, there are still problems across the planet with poaching.  Poachers, those who break the laws as well as the ethical standards of hunting, make hunters look bad.  Indeed, hunters who follow the laws but fail to maintain a respectable ethical standard with regard to hunting make hunters look bad as well (I saw a post on an online forum the other day from some asshole who kills coyotes and leaves their dead bodies but cuts off their tails to "slam them" into his truck tailgate so that they flap in the wind - that guy is not only an asshole, but also makes hunters look bad).  Fortunately, there are hunters out there (a good many of them, I'm finding) who also know that poaching and unethical behavior are bad for hunting, bad for the wildlife they enjoy, and bad for our planet.

Since I've made the decision to get started hunting, it's been a fun learning adventure.  I've been on a non-stop crash course in the practices and regulations for hunting, I've had to learn about hunting seasons and animal life cycles, and I've purchased a hunting rifle and have begun to train with it.  The rifle I picked up is a Ruger American .30-06 (the ".30" implies that the caliber of the bullet that will be fired by the gun is 300/1000th of an inch in diameter, while the "-06" comes from the fact that the specific type of cartridge intended for this barrel was first developed in 1906).  From all of the reading that I've done regarding hunting, this appears to be a pretty standard beginner's hunting rifle.  I'm now taking to practicing once every week or two by working on my target practice and shooting positions.  I hope to get good enough that I feel comfortable at placing my shots within 200 yards, though I'm starting off much closer.

I've also recently completed a hunter's safety course.  The course included two in-class sessions (including a live-fire session to show we can safely operate a rifle) as well as a well-produced online course.  The online course I completed was from Hunter-Ed.  I was super impressed by the online material: there was material in text, images, videos, and quizzes.  The course covered topics like the anatomy of firearm ammunition and different types of rifles, shotguns, and handguns; bow hunting; hunting history and hunting regulations; animal identification; hunting gear; and a good deal of material on ethical hunting practices as well as conservation and preservation of habitat and wildlife.  The in-class sessions were helpful, since it gave me a chance to meet some other people who are interested in hunting (even though only about half of us were over the age of 12 in the class).  The live-fire session was pretty simple and probably more intended for the younger students of the class (the firearms were little bolt-action .22 rifles and we were only shooting at targets within 10 yards; it was still fun, though).  I was pretty happy to get my hunter's safety card after the course was over.  With that card and my driver's license, I can now apply for a hunting license to legally (and ethically, of course) hunt here in Colorado!

Along with taking the necessary hunter's safety course and beginning to get the gear I need to hunt, I've been reading online materials and books to help me learn along the way.  One of the best books for beginning hunters that I've read so far is "The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food" by Jackson Landers.  Although the book is directed primarily at hunting Whitetail Deer (I'll be hunting Mule Deer and Elk primarily), there's a lot of good information to be found within.  Landers appears to have been in something of the same boat as me, having not gotten into hunting until later in his adult life.  He presents hunting for food from the perspective of someone who wants to get away from eating factory farmed meat as well as someone who wants to provide for their family.  He presents the following three great reasons for hunting: "eating locally", "eating well", and "utilizing natural resources to save money" (I definitely think getting out into the wilderness and having a greater connection with our food are important reasons as well).  Landers' book covers a little of the basics about everything, from learning the biology of deer to the process of field dressing and butchering the animal after you have killed them.  I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to get into hunting deer for food.

I'm not sure where this hunting adventure will take me.  My girlfriend and I have already started eating more vegetarian meals and trying to subsist with less meat in our diets.  I hope to be able to hunt just enough to feed us and our dogs, though if I do hunt more I can share with friends or donate (the various state departments of wildlife have great programs in place for donating meat).  I haven't crunched the numbers to determine the savings to carbon emissions and fossil fuels usage from eating more locally, though the numbers I've seen from others appear promising.  I do know that I will feel better knowing that I am doing what I can to live more sustainably.  Growing and hunting for much of our own food will take a burden off of the food industry and may just keep a little extra money in our pockets.  Also, I think we'll feel more at one with our world when we need to work the Earth and trek through the wilderness to achieve our meals.  Preparing for hunting in and of itself will require a lot of time spent hiking in the outdoors, and that will be a fun activity for both of us.  In the end, I'm taking to hunting because I think it will make me feel better, it will help reduce the resources that are used to get my food to my plate, and I think if each of us did just a little bit in the way of reducing our impact to natural resources while ensuring the conservation of the wilderness, we'd all benefit together.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

MDRS Crew 65 Firefly Opener

In 2008, I served as a crew member on Crew 65 at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah. The MDRS is operated by the Mars Society and serves as an analogue research station where people work on 2-week crew rotations while simulating, as much as possible, crewed missions to Mars. I had a wonderful time with my crew. 

While we were there, we watched Joss Whedon's television masterpiece Firefly. That's when I fell in love with the show. In tribute of our crew's time together and our fascination with Firefly, one of our crew members (Morgan Schwartz) created a video of all of us that mimics the opening of Firefly.  Check out the video below:

Friday, January 9, 2015

Facebook Math Challenge from The Math Mom

I just came upon an interesting math puzzle from a blog post by The Math Mom.  She said that the following math problem came from one posted on Facebook:


Can you figure out the answer?

Using the same rule, what about these:

11286900 = ?
32001170 = ? 
11111111 = ?
20208809 = ?
17017017 = ?

It's Snowing Again

We've had a good bit of snow here in Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A. over the last few weeks.  I love the snow.  I love the way it looks and lays, I love the snow flakes and the ways in which they seem to creep and float down through the sky, and I love the way that the snow forces many people to realize that they are still living with nature, even in the city.  In honor of the snow, here's a beautiful poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled "The Snow-Storm":

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, 
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields, 
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air 
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven, 
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end. 
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet 
Delated, all friends shut out, the housemates sit 
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed 
In a tumultuous privacy of storm. 
Come see the north wind's masonry. 
Out of an unseen quarry evermore 
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer 
Curves his white bastions with projected roof 
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door. 
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work 
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he 
For number or proportion. Mockingly, 
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths; 
A swan-like form invests the hiddden thorn; 
Fills up the famer's lane from wall to wall, 
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate 
A tapering turret overtops the work. 
And when his hours are numbered, and the world 
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not, 
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art 
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone, 
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work, 
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Darwin Patterson, our beloved husky pup, enjoying a hike with us in the snow on 1 January 2015.  He gets to carry some of his own gear with his little red pack!