A Swift Kick in the Joulies

Edit: As noted in the comments, I’m testing these under a situation which is not the recommended method from the Joulies company. I am, however, testing them in the real-world situation in which I would most likely use the Joulies. I wanted to add this disclaimer to be fair to the guys struggling to turn this into a company. I stand by my results, but leave you to make the decision about how well the Joulies would meet your needs for the product.

Abstract: I recently received my set of Coffee Joulies (http://www.joulies.com/) after putting some money into their Kickstarter project. Excited to review and test them out, I came up with a simple experiment. I tested the Joulies vs. an empty control mug with just hot water vs. a mug with rocks of roughly equivalent size to the Joulies. Both the Joulies and the rocks dropped roughly 30 degrees in temperature immediately and then lost steadily at the same rate. The cup with just water didn’t see the immediate drop, but lost temperature steadily. I saw no significant or noticeable difference between the rocks and the Joulies. Given that the Joulies cost $50 and the rocks cost me walking out into the front yard, I’m skeptical about the value of the Joulies.

Method:

After finding  3 mugs of identical size and shape, I went out in the yard to find a handful of rocks which closely matched the volume of the Joulies. Following this, I set all 3 mugs up on the same wooden coffee table surface. I left the mugs, rocks, and Joulies overnight to allow them to equalize to room temperature.

The following day I boiled enough water to fill all three mugs in an electric tea pot. Once finished, I began the testing. Filling the first of the three mugs (the empty one). I started my stopwatch. I measured the temperature immediately using a digital meat thermometer. My method for obtaining temperatures was thus: place the thermometer in the water in the corner opposite the handle (all mugs were oriented the same way), then watch the temperature until it flattened out and began dropping. I measured the temperature as the maximum before the drop. Typically it only wavered by a degree or so.

Thirty seconds later I poured the next mug (with the rocks) and repeated the measurement for it, I then did the same with the 3rd mug (with the Joulies). By doing it thus, I was able to measure all of the mugs at the same elapsed times. I then continued this process at intervals until reaching 1 hour.

Results:

As usual, a graph is worth a thousand words. I’ve broken them up into two different graphs to prevent distortion from having changed from measurements every 2 minutes to every 4 minutes at the 20 minutes mark.

Minutes 0-20
Results from Minutes 0-20

Minutes 20-60

No that we can see the behavior of the 3 mugs and their contents, let’s examine some claims from the Joulie website.
1) “Their polished stainless steel shells are full of a very special phase change material (an ingredient in food) that melts at 140°F. When you put them in your coffee this PCM begins melting, absorbing a LOT of heat in the process and cooling your coffee down much faster than normal.”
I can’t argue with this, they did indeed rapidly cool the hot water down. However, the rocks and the Joulies had roughly the same effect in this regard.
2) “When your coffee reaches 140°F (the perfect drinking temperature) the molten PCM [Phase Change Material] begins solidifying again, releasing all that energy back into your coffee to keep it at a comfortable and delicious drinking temperature. The more heat you feed your Joulies, the longer they’ll keep your coffee warm.”
The Joulies behaved almost identically to the rocks and as such do not seem to have had any sort of magical technology. In fact, after the initial drop, the rocks maintained a higher temperature for a longer period of time. Also worth noting, the slope of the rocks and Joulie lines were very similar, showing a large initial drop and then a steady decline.

Obviously, this is a fairly limited experiment and it would be helpful to perform with various other size containers and materials. However, I do think that it is enough to show that the Joulies are not some sort of magical material. While there may indeed be some sort of special materials inside, the effects they had were not enough to be noticeable in a real life situation, and therefore do not justify the cost of the Joulies over simply buying a more massive mug.

Edit: A friend just sent me this similar post on testing and reviewing of Joulies by Marco Arment

Edit 1/15/12: Here’s another interesting article on the subject.

Vocal Attractiveness and Sexual Dimorphism: Why Singers are Sexy

Picture this scene: you sit in a dark bar, feet cold from the snow outside, warmed by slow sipping gin and tonic, listening forlornly to a group of women sing dusky arias. Suddenly a blonde woman of moderate physical looks comes to the stage and starts to sing. Her voice intoxicates you and for those few minutes, you fall madly in love. Something about her voice has captivated you. Seems reasonable enough right? I’ve spent a pretty good amount of time watching and listening to a number of singers performing in various groups: a capella, opera, choral, and others. I suspect anyone with similar experiences can also recall a time where they’ve fallen in love listening to someone sing. Voices can be powerfully alluring, and I’d never really stopped to question it or ask why until I recently stumbled across an study with some interesting insight into the matter. The study is enthrallingly titled: Ratings of voice attractiveness predict sexual behavior and body configuration (click title for full text). Before we get too far into it though, let’s do a brief overview of a concept you’ll need:

WHR and SHR: Waist-to-hip ratio and shoulder-to-hip ratio are cross-cultural indicators of sexual attractiveness in humans; with smaller WHR in women being more attractive, and larger SHR in men being the same.

The Study

The study mentioned above is quite simple in practice. Researchers recorded the voices of 76 females and 70 males (excluding ones who may have damaged their voices from external events such as smoking and clear outliers such as people with accents). The participants were recorded counting from 1 to 10. Participants were then asked to listen to recordings from others and rank them from 1 to 5 (1=very unattractive and 5=very attractive). Each voice was rated 12+-2 times and had approximately the same number of male and female reviewers. People tended to rate voices as similar.

The second part of the experiment was gathering additional data from participants. Each was measured at the shoulders, waist, and hips and their BMI* as well as height and weight were recorded. Roughly half the participants also completed an anonymous questionnaire about their sexual history, including such things as number of sexual partners, number of extra-pair copulation partners (sleeping with someone who’s not your partner), and age of first sexual intercourse, among others.

* As a side note, BMI sucks as a measurement. Healthy, well muscled individuals will often show up as overweight or obese, whereas a someone who is skinny fat could likely be marked as normal, despite being quite unhealthy. For example, at 5’11” and 175lbs, I’m borderline overweight, despite having around 10% body fat and the ability to deadlift 2x my bodyweight. Oh, hey look, a quick google search turned up an article from NPR entitled “Top 10 Reasons Why The BMI Is Bogus” which explains this.

Results and Conclusions:

This study produced a number of interesting results:

Voice and physical characteristics:

  • Men with larger shoulders and smaller waists (higher SHR) were more likely have voices rated as attractive by women and men to a lesser degree.
  • Women with smaller waists and larger hips (lower WHR) were more likely to have voices rated attractive by men.
  • BMI seemed to have no relationship between vocal attractiveness.

Physical characteristics and sexual behaviors:

  • Higher SHR is men were correlated with having sex at younger ages, as well as having had more sexual partners, more EPC and more sexual partners who were in other relationships.
  • Lower WHR in women was correlated with younger age of first sexual intercourse as well as a higher number of sexual partners, EPC partners and partners in other relationships.

Voice and sexual behaviors:

  • Men and women with more attractive voices had sex at younger ages, more sexual partners, EPC and sex with people in other relationships.

The data establishes correlations between physical attractiveness, vocal attractiveness, and sexual behaviors, noting that both physical and vocal attractiveness seems to lead to increased sexual activity. Researchers also offer a potential explanation for the link between physical and vocal characteristics in the form of hormones; noting that sex hormones influence both the emergence of physical sex differences as well as vocal structure during adolescence.

Regardless of the device by which this occurs, we can extrapolate some interesting conclusions about vocal attraction and the link between physical and vocal attraction. Other studies have show that physical attractiveness (as measured by SHR and WHR) are good indicators of health and reproductive status. We can therefore assume that there is likely a correlation between these factors and vocal attraction as well. Authors of this study suggest that because of the high degree of accuracy in predicting health from vocal attractiveness, it may well have been an important part of mate selection throughout our evolution.

What about singers?

Then what about my claim that singing can get you laid? Well, singers which people find more vocally attractive are going to be most likely also more physically attractive, and regardless, vocal attraction also predicts increased sexual activity. As this study indicates, those with more attractive voices tended to have more sexual partners. The act of singing in performance also affords singers a unique opportunity to display the attractiveness of their voices, much as a sport competition allows athletes to exhibit beneficial physical traits.

Learning how to sing is a process of training the voice to sound more attractive. While there are certainly examples of bad singers who have been successful (like Bob Dylan or the guy from Audioslave), most singers strive for success (at least in part) by sounding attractive to listeners. (I should note here that I am blending the concepts of vocal attraction with vocal pleasantness, but I feel that the two are very similar if not the same.)

In a sense, training the voice to be more pleasant (attractive) is a bit like training the body to be more physically attractive. Sexual indicators such as SHR and WHR can be affected by diet and exercise to some degree, and there’s no reason why vocal attraction cannot be trained as well. Certainly not everyone would be able to move from a 1 to a 5 on the scale, but 1 to 3 or 4 to 5 is certainly not out of the question. Imagine a soft-spoken man being coached by a friend to speak more loudly in a bar. This will increase the attractiveness of his voice by making it sound fuller and more confident (words we would use to describe an attractive voice). He has not changed his fundamental vocal devices, but has improved his use of them.

Through both technical and physical training and performance opportunities singers are inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) going to make themselves more attractive to members of the opposite sex. This will in turn likely improve their chances for sexual encounters.

Improving Memorization Technique for Opera

Memorization of music has always been something that I’ve struggled with. I think in part I’m not as good at it as many of my musical peers, and I also have study methods don’t lend themselves to memorizing. I don’t like tedious work where it’s difficult to see progression. Memorizing can be very intangible, where you’ve memorized something one day, only to have it disappear the next. While discussing singing with a friend recently, I noticed that she seemed to have a much better idea of the structure of her pieces that I do. This kicked off some inquiry and thought on my part. Perhaps I’m just memorizing wrong. I’ve always used a brute force method as opposed to working within a framework intended to aid memorization.

The next day I started researching memory. Wikipedia has a good page on it if you’re interested. I also interviewed a number of singers and did other reading online and have come up with what I currently believe to be possible techniques to improve the speed and accuracy with which I memorize. Here you go:

Preprocessing (before beginning the actual memorization work)

1)  In questioning different singers, a frequent pattern emerged in how they claimed to most efficiently begin to memorize. Here it is:

  1. Translate the music
  2. Learn how to speak the words properly
  3. Learn the rhythms absent the words
  4. Learn the words in rhythm
  5. Learn the notes absent the words
  6. Add the words to the notes and rhythms

This seemed like a simple way to learn music, not memorize it though. Yet when I asked, this was the response for the best way to memorize. I suspect the reason this slow and methodical approach works is because it allows you to get it right the first time. Relearning incorrect notes can be extremely time consuming and difficult. This method also allows for methodic repetition of the words, rhythms, and notes which create a good baseline for memorization. In addition, you have to know how to sing something correctly before beginning to memorize it. This process may actually be enough for some musicians to memorize a piece, but for myself, I need a bit more work.

2) Identify Patterns, Chunk, and Categorize

Research on memory shows that humans do much better in memorizing lists or random items when they are able to provide some structure to the data they’re attempting to recall. By chunking (or dividing into pieces) we can often memorize much more information at a time. One good example is that of a phone number. Take this fake number for example: 4065551242. Trying to memorize that all as a string of 10 digits is hard. Yet dividing it up, like this: (406) 555-1242, and memorizing the 3 pieces as separate pieces makes it easier. For a piece of music, breaking it into sections or even further into phrases should aid the memorization process.

Extending on this technique, creating distinction or categorizing the chunks will allow you to more easily remember the chunks. For example, if you remember that there is a fast section, then a slower one, then a repeat of the first fast section with a modification in dynamics, those three things create a basic structure on which you can fill in pieces more easily. Look for chord patterns, texture changes, tempo changes, dynamic changes, repeated sections, modal differences, etc. to categorize phrases or larger sections of music.

A final skeleton-building technique is to memorize the meaning and emotion behind the song. If you can learn the broad feelings, or better yet, the actual line-by-line translation of the piece, it will provide a great framework to begin memorization.

Execution (the hard work of memorization)

1) Brute force

Probably the most common method of memorization is simply rote learning, or learning by repeating. Often singers will listen to a piece over and over or sing through a piece, or parts of a piece, numerous times to engrain it into their mind. I’m fairly certain that every singer uses this technique to one degree or another.

Tip: I find it best to learn a piece this way by starting with the final phrase and working my way back through the song, stringing it together as I go. For example: memorize the final phrase, then memorize the second to last, then memorize those both together, and move backwards using this technique. This works well because it forces repetitions and it’s comforting to know that if you can get started in a performance, you’ll improve as you sing through your piece.

It took me a while to find a music player that would allow me to easily loop A->B, but if you need one, I recommend VLC. To view the A->B tool, click the “View” menu and select “Advanced Controls”

2) Reinforce

We all have sticking spots in every song that we’re learning. They might be difficult sections, or they could just be seemingly random sections that we get caught up on. For myself (and I suspect others) there is a definite tendency to want to just run through these parts and ignore the fact that I’m struggling. It’s a lot more fun to just sing the parts I know well. This is a bad plan though. You should work these parts until they become the best part of the piece for you, otherwise you’ll either learn a mistake or this problem will crop up again during a performance. Trust me, I’ve had that happen more times than I’d like.

3) Take breaks

Research has show that taking naps or sleeping between study or memorization sessions improves memory retention. Also, more shorter sessions are typically more valuable than one long session.

4) Practice recall

Don’t simply repeat your music, try to recall it. This could be something as simple as reading a line and then looking away and attempting to recall. It’s been shown that your brain behaves differently while recalling vs. simply reading.

Experimentation (my crazy plan):

Being an engineer makes me try to find overly complicate solutions to things sometimes. Knowing that I learn well with things like flashcards, where I have visual cues to go off of and can easily repeat the information quickly and challenge my recall repeatedly, here’s my experimental aid for this problem:

Example piece done in this formatI bought a moleskine notebook with music ruling on one side, and I’m going to use it to break down pieces into cues. The sheet will have the first few notes of each phrase on one side with the accompanying words. Once I have a general understanding of a piece, I’ll then use that structure to cue me as I try to recall the piece. Once I’ve memorized the piece with only those notes, all I have to do is memorize those phrase beginnings. I’ve essentially chunked the piece into parts to make them more consumable. I also plan on writing in a translation and the lyrics on the page across from the phrase beginnings and will be including any structural notes I have (as mentioned above from analyzing the piece).

I’m fully willing to admit that this isn’t going to make memorizing easy or trivial, but hopefully it will be a good starting point to improve the amount of time it takes for me to memorize a piece. A wise voice teacher once told me when asked how long it takes him to memorize a piece: “As long as it takes.” Let’s just hope that it won’t take as long.

Fencing Tournament Physical and Nutritional Preparation


I signed up last week to compete in a fencing tournament on May 1st. Since then I’ve been contemplating how to approach the tournament. I haven’t done any fencing competitions for 2+ years. I’ve gained a lot of sophistication and knowledge in regards to physical training and nutrition in those last 2 years, so I figured I would try to use that knowledge to help improve my game at the tournament. I’m going to need all the help I can get.

Physical Training:

A week isn’t really enough time to have much of an effect on my physical conditioning. It is, however, a great amount of time to heal up. I’ve been going pretty hard the last few weeks and have some sore spots: my wrist hurts, my right index finger hurts, my foot has some hot-spots on it, my ankle is sore, and my back is sore. Nothing too extreme, but all things which could affect my ability to perform at the tournament. I fenced for a few hours today, but that was probably the last real strenuous activity I’ll do before the tournament.

I plan on doing some mobilization and stretching Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week in replacement of my usual lifting schedule and going to fencing class on Thursday to run some drills and fence a few bouts, but not to fatigue myself too heavily. I’ll also be keeping up with my usual frequent icing of my back throughout the week. The day before the tournament I’ll probably run some blade-work drills at home and just get in the mood for fencing.

Hopefully if I can lock all that down, I’ll be in pretty top shape physically for the tournament on Sunday.

Nutrition

The nutrition side of this is a bit more of an experiment for me. Last time I fenced a tournament, I had a completely different dietary approach (high-carb, low-fat then vs. paleo now). Thinking about the demands of fencing, I think I have a pretty good idea of what I need to eat. Either way, I’m going to try it and modify next time as needed.

A fencing tournament consists of a round-robin style pool (usually 6-8 fencers depending on the number of fencers present). I will get to fence each of these competitors to 5 points or time runs out after 3 minutes. Between each bout I’ll have a few minutes to recover. After this, the fencers are ranked and placed into a direct elimination ladder. These matches are to 15 points and have longer time limits, with a break in the middle (I can’t remember the exact times for this are, somewhere in the 3-5 minute range followed by a 1 minute break, followed by another period of fencing). These periods of fencing require elevated aerobic activity over the entire period of the bout, which short bursts of high intensity, phosphagen and glycolytic pathway work.

Because I typically eat a fairly low-carb, high-fat diet, I’m confident that I can sustain the aerobic portion of my fencing bouts and energy levels throughout the day by converting dietary and body fat into energy. I’ve been playing around the last few weeks with eating more carbs to see what happens, but in order to be certain that I can utilize fat sources effectively on Sunday, I’m going to go back to low-carb eating for the remainder of my time before the tournament. I’ll still be eating some carbs, just not pushing them like I had been the past few weeks. Breakfast on tournament day will be bacon and eggs (like usual), and I’ll bring some pemmican if I need some additional fat during the day (pemmican, in case you don’t know is basically beef-fat and jerky melded together).

The wild card then is the need for bursts of power. I’m going to need glucose to fuel those actions. I should have a reasonable amount of muscular and liver glycogen stores built up via the carbs I’ve eaten plus gluconeogenesis, but they’ll get depleted as things progress. Consuming glucose seems to be the way to go (as opposed to fructose — sucrose appears to be about the same as glucose) to restore muscular glycogen stores (see this study). Glucose also replenishes glycogen much quicker in the first hour following exercise which means I will be consuming it throughout the day between bouts, probably a banana and some berries as they have decent glucose to fructose ratios. I’ll have to go easy on the banana though so I don’t spike my blood-sugar. I’m pretty sugar sensitive since I don’t eat much normally.

Water will also be incredibly important. Wearing 3 layers of clothing and a mask tends to make one sweat a lot. To counteract the fluid and mineral loss, I’ll be prepping this week by taking a calcium/magnesium supplement and putting extra salt on my food. I’ll also probably bring along some coconut water to get some electrolytes as the day goes on. Electrolytes are critical to keep muscles and nerves functioning properly, so the last thing I need is to become deficient and lose precision or accuracy.

This is certainly all just guesses, but it should give me a good baseline to start off of and improve as I attend more tournaments.

Update and review: 100 Pushups Program

I posted a while ago (in February I think) about starting the 100 pushups program to try to get to 100 pushups in a row. I was a bit skeptical at the time of the 100 pushups program but figured it was as good a place as any to start. I quickly became impossible though. I tend to find that this is the case with most programs that claim to be able to do X number of something in X weeks. I’m pretty sure they just do the math to see how many you’d have to increase per week if you want to get your goal by week X. Anyways, I found the the number required in a given workout soon outstripped my ability. I simply cut the workouts down to what I could reasonably do. This usually meant 3-4 sets out of the prescribed 6 or so. I kept on that for a while, improving in 2 weeks from 42 max to 48 max pushups. I was pretty happy with that. Slow and steady. Unfortunately, I injured my wrist shortly thereafter (possibly related). I tweaked it trying out a Jiu Jitsu class, but given the way it’s been behaving since then, I suspect it was borderline before the Jiu Jitsu. After hurting it, it was painful trying to support weight in a pushup positions so I took a few weeks off.

Since then, my wrist hasn’t really improved, but I figured out that I can do pushups pain-free if I do them while gripping dumbbells or on my knuckles. So after  a few weeks off I got back to doing the pushups. My latest plan has been to try to do 30-35 pushups 3-4 times during the day and every few days to max out (or near-max). Doing so I’ve managed to get my max up to 53 as of today. I think if I rest a bit I could probably add a few to that number, but I’m going to keep pushing before I rest.

So some results here:

Max pushups:

2/12/11: 42

3/1/11: 48

4/20/11: 53