Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lose Weight Now... Ask Me How

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or health care professional. Before beginning any diet or exercise program, please check with your doctor or other health care provider as they can advise you much better than some random blogger.

With the new year having come and gone, I'm sure there are a lot of people who made and are working on keeping the resolution to lose weight, get fit, or stay in shape. This can be a hard one to keep (I've had a few experiences with this one...) but, with the help of technology, maybe not as hard as it used to be.

Ask any doctor for the best way to lose weight and keep it off, and they will say "eat less and exercise." It really can be that simple - if you burn more calories than you need to sustain your weight, you will get lighter (though I do realize that there are several other factors that can have an effect on weight loss for many people, such as genetic predispositions, thyroid issues, etc. Again, it I best to consult with your health care professional before beginning any weight loss program). The problem is making sure that you actually burn more than you take in. When I have tried to lose weight in by eating less in the past, I sometimes wouldn't see a change - mainly because while I thought I was eating less (and/or exercising the surplus away), but I actually wasn't.

Since this is something that I am interested, I'm starting a new category, fitness, where I will write write posts about ways technology can help you start, track, and maintain a healthier lifestyle. Today I'll cover online food diaries, a great way to monitor calorie intake for a weight loss program.

Online food diaries

One way to ensure that you lose weight is to keep a food diary. In the past few years, several free online resources have cropped up that help you do just that. These sites all work in a similar fashion. Users create an account and provide some basic information (current weight, target weight, how many pounds they want to lose each week) and the site sets goals (calories per day, exercise calories, etc.) based on this information. They provide the users with diaries to track daily food intake and exercise, and many also offer discussion forums and other social media functions like the ability to friend people and comment on achievements.

All the sites I have seen have pretty extensive databases of foods (both a "standard" database and user-submitted entries) and they allow you to add items that don't exist or are not correct. They also allow you to create custom recipes, so you'll finally know exactly how many calories your homemade Lasagna has.  Many of the sites also track other items such as fat, sodium, vitamins, iron, etc. - all based on the standard USDA Nutritional Information requirements. This can be handy if, in addition to losing weight, your doctor advises watching intakes of things like fat, sodium, or cholesterol. Several of the Web sites have iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows 8 apps to allow tracking no matter where you are, and also allow the scanning of UPC labels to quickly enter packaged foods.

But do they really work? The short answer is "yes." The longer answer is "Yes, but you need to be motivated and use the available resources." I have actually lost 38 pounds since September using one such site - and exercising about 4 times a week. Others have had good luck as well. The hardest part for me starting out was remembering to log my food and exercise. Other people I know who use MyFitnessPal say they feel that it gives them too few calories per day. While that can be tweaked by changing weekly weight loss goals, I can see how it can be annoying.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Building a Box - The Build

Meet my new PC
Well, this is progressing much faster than I thought. I am actually typing this on the box that the series is about. The combination of Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales, and Christmas presents made it possible to get most of the parts, and a great sale on the processor at Microcenter (more than $100 off list, and at least $60 less than the best sale I found online) sealed the deal.

Final specs

As my uncle pointed out in the comments of the last post, I didn't really talk about the Power Supply or the case. In order to support future expansions, I decided to go with a 600 watt power supply. As I add graphics cards and other components, this will ensure that I have ample power available. I also selected a mid-tower case. This has plenty of space for HDDs, SSDs, optical drives, and, most importantly, cooling fans. 

Parts List

If you read my last installment, you're aware of the general specs of the machine. Here is the list of specific parts I used in the system:
I am currently using the i7's Intel 4000 graphics and the P8Z77's integrated Realtek sound processor. I plan on upgrading the graphics to a discrete video card in the near future. I am also thinking about getting a Blu-ray burner so I can burn my vacation videos in full HD.

The Build

The actual build was a relatively painless process - I went from a pile of parts and a couple of DVD's to a working Windows system in about an hour and a half. While I haven't actually built a whole PC at once before, throughout my career I have replaced each and every standard computer component except for a Power Supply. This prior experience certainly helped make the build go smoother, especially when it came to figuring out what plugs in where on the motherboard. The biggest problem I had was that I left one of the motherboard power connections unplugged so the system didn't boot with the first press of the power switch. A few minutes of poking around fixed that. The most surprising part of the build was how quickly Windows 8 Pro installed - it only took about 15 or 20 minutes to have it up and running.

Here are some pictures from the build:
Case with PSU
Motherboard Installed, awaiting processor.
All components plugged in and ready to go!
Waiting to start!

Initial Performance Notes

The computer is pretty fast. A cold boot (from completely off to working in an Office app) takes about 25 seconds - a time similar to my Sony Vaio Ultrabook. The only set of benchmarks I have run is the Windows Experience Index.

Windows Basic System Information 
 The overall rating of 5.9 doesn't really tell the story, as it is based on the lowest score - desktop graphics, which is due to the fact that I am currently using the on-chip graphics. When you look at the breakdown below, you see that the processor, memory, and primary hard disk performance are 8.0 or better. Actually the desktop graphics score is surprisingly good for on-chip graphics considering that the moderately-priced nVidia discrete card in my other desktop only scores 6.5 for desktop (and ties the Intel 4000 for gaming/3D performance) .

More details from Windows
I plan on running some more comprehensive benchmarks, and will cover that process in a separate post.


Other than the missed power plug, I didn't have any problems with the build itself. Once the system was up and running, however, I did run into an issue. The system had an "unexpected error" of the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) variety. Windows said it may be a hardware problem, but wasn't specific. What concerned me about the error is that it happened at 3:00 AM on Jan 2, when the system really wasn't doing anything. After doing some troubleshooting, I figured out and solved the underlying problem - processor heat and inadvertent overclocking. It's an interesting story that I will cover in another post, but the basic story is that I accidentally clicked a button in the ASUS AI software that overclocked my processor to 4.2 Ghz, and the stock heat sink couldn't keep up under heavy load.

Getting it Ready

After figuring out the BSOD issue, I spent the last few days getting all my "standard" software installed and my files moved from the old machine. Since my old system is no slouch, I am cleaning it out and giving it to my wife, who needs a desktop she can use for development. I also opened the case a few times to tweak the setup - mainly re-arranging the components and using the cable management to hide the wires as much as possible.

What's Next

The next steps are going to be researching a decent cooling system - it still gets a little hot for my liking under load even if it doesn't crash, and finding a good graphics card. If you have any ideas for either of those, or just general thoughts on the build, feel free to leave me a comment.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013