Author Archives: Don Engel

Thanks, Dad!

Mini-Golf with Grandpa

Kindergarten ended on Thursday and camp hasn’t started yet, so I had planned on taking yesterday (Friday) off from work to watch the kids. Some meetings got scheduled at work that I didn’t want to miss and there was an 8pm deadline to submit a paper to a conference that I am very excited about. My father kindly agreed to take a day of vacation instead of me, which allowed me to get everything done (and more) and gave the kids a fantastic day with their grandfather. They played their first-ever game of mini-golf, went to lunch at Noodles and Company in the mall, and behaved wonderfully all day. I’m always grateful for having such a supportive family; this just seems as good a time as any to share my gratitude.

On a related note, we’re all looking forward to cheering my father on in a 5K tomorrow morning (Father’s Day morning).

Protein, Hydration, and my Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian Diet

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 27 years. For most of that time, I never focused much on my diet and I remained fairly healthy. Over the last decade or two, my weight slowly crept higher – not to the point of obesity, just to the point where I wanted to do something about it – and I occasionally would fit regular exercise into my schedule until something happened to disrupt that routine, like a new schedule constraint or a short-term minor injury.

Over the last six months, I’ve discovered that I have a much easier time achieving and sustaining a healthy weight by focusing more on what I consume. In particular, I’ve found that by consuming more protein and more water, my appetite is greatly reduced. This isn’t surprising; thirst is easily confused with hunger, and protein is widely understood to be satiating, and also something that carnivores naturally get in higher numbers through casual, unplanned eating. I’ve found a few vegetarian protein powders that work well for me. My current favorite is Platinum Hydro Whey. I found it’s also important to have a water bottle which I really like and which has measurement markers on it. I use a 32oz Classic Blender Bottle, which I fill to 24oz and drink halfway before mixing in one serving (41oz) of the powder. I had a colleague or two who had the same bottle and wanted to easily tell mine apart, so I ordered a few “replacement lids” in UMBC black and gold (technically, it’s Blender Bottle’s “Batman Black” color). After a few months of using a kitchen scale at both home and the office to weigh the powder each time to get the right amount, I’ve switched to a simpler approach of batching the action of weighing the powder; I now fill several 100cc BlenderBottle GoStak containers with 41g protein powder each (which just about fills the containers). This also makes it simpler to mix the powder into the water on the go.

I’ve found this to be an easily maintained and fairly pleasant approach to satiation, and I feel healthier – probably because of the water.

I’m currently experimenting with setting a repeating three hour timer through the day to make sure I’ve had enough protein and water, to curb any buildup of hunger to which I would respond less responsibly.

Special Shirts and a Snake

Our twins had their last full day of kindergarten yesterday. Normally, the school has a polos-only dress code. Yesterday was a “dress down” day, when they could wear whatever they liked. We told them this and they took us more literally than we intended, describing the shirts they wanted to wear: yellow lightning on a blue shirt and fire on a yellow shirt. We made a project out of it and had some fun with them using felt and hot glue.

After school, we were playing outside and Isaac noticed a black rat snake on the sidewalk:

Today is kindergarten graduation and, soon, summer camp!

Today is our Eighth Anniversary

Under the chuppah with our ketubah

Our religious wedding was eight years ago, on June 12, 2011. Over this past weekend, I was talking with my uncle Pete, who is researching biographies of various ancestors. Uncle Pete said that it’s possible to find some of their experiences, but hard to know what they were thinking during those experiences; that people rarely write down their thoughts. This helped validate my recent decision to start this blog, and I have some catching up to do. An anniversary seems a good time to write down some of the details of our wedding.

Marianne and I first met on May 29, 2009, at a social for postdoctoral fellows working at the Johns Hopkins University hospital campus. It was sponsored by the postdoctoral association and I had heard about it without seeing the flyer, so I presumed there was no cost to attend and showed up without cash. Marianne, a then-stranger who was on the postdoctoral association leadership, covered my cost of entry. Marianne was wearing a Hebrew necklace (מזל – Mazel, Marianne’s hebrew name) and had a non-Israeli accent, which got us talking for most of the evening. Marianne invited me to see the movie “Up” in the theater with friends the next day and we discovered we had a friend in common when Jacob arrived. We had our first date a few days later on June 3, 2009. We had our civil wedding in the Towson courthouse on July 2, 2010. The courthouse only allows a few people to attend (my guests were close relatives) and we had our religious wedding ceremony about a year later, which was eight years ago today.

We designed the ketubah ourselves – it’s an infinity symbol (which is also engraved in our wedding rings) with the Orion nebula in the background and the Orion constellation in the infinity itself. My ring was originally the wedding ring of my paternal grandfather’s parents and their initials and marriage year are engraved as well, from when they were married.

We were married by Rabbi Steve Schwartz of Baltimore’s Beth El Synagogue, which has been my family’s synagogue since my great-grandparents (my mother’s father’s parents) were founding members. My brothers served as best men and the maids of honor were Marianne’s friends Andrea and Laurence. The chuppah holders were my cousin Jonathan, my cousin David, Marianne’s uncle Richard, and our friend Rob. During the wedding, my grandfather (Lou Engel, then 94 years old) sang the Motzi (blessing over the challah bread) and we all sang happy (5th) birthday for my cousin’s daughter Katelyn.

The wedding and reception were held in the Engineers Club in downtown Baltimore, a short walk from where we lived at the time. We loved the venue for its beauty, for the location, for its engineering identity, and for its history. One week later, our friends Ian and Ladzer were married in the same venue. Otherwise, we would have played bigger roles in each others’ weddings. (Ian and I did sign each other’s ketubahs). I’m so excited that Ian and Ladzer are moving back the area soon. They arrive this weekend (Father’s Day weekend) to start looking for a place!

Pocket Preservation: Keyless Entry and a Silicone Sheath

I wear nice pants (often suit pants) to work, and had more than one suit have the pockets reach the end of their useful lives long before the suit was otherwise showing signs of wear. The culprit was my keys and keyring, which would also scratch other items in my pockets. I eliminated most keys by shifting to keyless entry where possible, using number pad locks on doors at home and using the keyless entry fob for my Prius. The one key I couldn’t easily eliminate was my office key.

A few winter breaks ago, I took on a project to address this. I decided to turn my office door handle into a capacitive touch sensor. I programmed an Arduino to sense the secret sequence of taps on the outer door handle. In response, a motor pulled down the inner door handle and thus unlocked the door. It worked perfectly, until I tried it with the door closed. I turns out my office’s metal door frame grounded the handle, so the capacitive touch “interface” of the door handle only worked when the door was open. While there were some fun possibilities to address this while still using the Arduino/motor approach, that winter break came to an end before I had time to try them.

In the interim, I found a solution which has been appealing enough that I’ve prioritized other projects over returning to the Arduino door handle. The interim solution was to buy a silicon cover for my one remaining key, preventing it from sawing into my pants or other pocket items.

I’d like to get away from carrying things altogether, so I may eventually invest in an after-market keyless entry number pad for my car and may return to the Arduino door handle project eventually.

Turkeys in the Poconos

Along with my parents, our family visited my aunt and uncle in the Poconos over the weekend. We had a fantastic trip in spite of some car trouble along the way. The twins woke up early on Sunday and were excited to get going. While everyone was still sleeping, we noticed some turkeys in front of the house. These were the first wild turkeys the kids had seen. We followed the turkeys outside and went for a nice walk, where we also saw deer, saw some fish in the nearby lake, and watched a caterpillar cross the road.

Warning Lights on my 2008 Prius

We had a great trip visiting my aunt and uncle in the Poconos this weekend. On the way there, we had a bit of a misadventure because some warning lights on my car (2008 Prius) came on:

At the start of the trip, everything was fine. The car had recently received a new suspension and some other repairs. Twice since then, before this trip, the triangle light (above) turned on during hard breaking. This had been accompanied by the word “PROBLEM” on the car’s monitor, but both had only lasted as long as the breaks were being applied. This trip, things got more interesting. After about 70 miles, the triangle and the check engine lights came on. Those were later joined by the exclamation-point-in-parentheses and VSC lights. On the monitor, there was a persistent picture of a car with an exclamation point. Leaving the car off for a while and turning it back on, only the triangle and engine lights were on, but the other two came back after more driving.

We decided to stop at an Enterprise and rent a car to drive the remaining 170 miles. We did a one-way rental so that the rental could follow the Prius on the way back home the next day (Sunday). The Prius had similar issues on the return trip – it started with the two lights and it become four after a while. After about 50 miles, the car couldn’t maintain speed and started slowing down on the highway. I pulled over and turned off the car for a few minutes, after which it was able to drive again. We made it to the local Toyota service center near our home, so we will see what they say…

Review of our Life Fitness Platinum Club Series bike with Discover SE3 HD Console

We recently purchased our first home exercise bike. While I’m glad we have a bike now, I regret buying this bike in particular. I expect I’d be getting comparable (daily) use from a bike that costs one tenth the price. I would feel very differently if the bike had been designed as I had anticipated based on wonderful experiences using the prior version (SE console) at our community gym. Our new bike (esp. the console) was designed without the home user in mind and is missing the features from the prior version (SE console) which I had most enjoyed. It also has an unmutable beep which defeats our purpose in choosing an exercise bike as equipment that can be used quietly while family members are sleeping.

The major selling point of this bike is the console, and the most advertised feature (e.g. on the LifeFitness website) is Apple Watch compatibility. This works well for logging purposes, but they’ve somehow made the design decision that using the Apple Watch automatically means you can’t get calories to display on the screen while watching a video fullscreen. Other metrics show up, but total calories burned (which is a major goal I like to track throughout a workout) can only be viewed by looking at the watch on your wrist. That is, unless you don’t use the Apple Watch, in which case calories show up on the screen just fine.

Another expectation one would have for a bike which is advertised for its big screen is the ability to easily watch videos. One needs to log in (e.g. to Netflix) each time one starts a workout. You have to keep cycling to avoid the workout ending prematurely and, while cycling, have to enter your username and password on the touchscreen each time. This is an entirely avoidable and quite annoying barrier to starting a workout with the entertainment they advertise. This might make sense in a shared gym environment, but this bike model is only for home users. They are using the same console for this and other (shared gym) bike models, but this could easily have been addressed as an option in the bike’s settings.

As distant second choice, I would have expected to be to have put my own video content on the screen either using the built-in USB port on the front of the bike or an HDMI input port. While the USB port on the original SE console allowed one to bring one’s own media and play it during a workout (a feature I used often, in combination with the excellent content from Virtual Active), the new SE3 HD console’s USB port is only for charging and can’t be used for media playback. Worse still, the USB port doesn’t have enough juice to power a tablet, so you can’t just charge a tablet while putting it in front of the display (although at that point, why buy this particular bike?). The old console had an external HDMI port. It turns out this one has an HDMI port which is accessible by taking the console apart with a screwdriver to access an HDMI port buried on an internal circuit board. One then needs to leave the console open with circuits exposed in order to run an HDMI cable out of the back.

Another major issue – the simplest, but the most critical, as it prevents the bike’s use – is that bike beeps loudly through a speaker when changing intensity, starting a cool down, etc. Thus, I can’t use the bike at odd hours without waking up my family, but odd hours are a main use case for a family with kids.

So, in summary, don’t buy this bike. I look forward to more cardio equipment coming out which support direct communication with the Apple Watch and other wearable fitness trackers. Meanwhile, I’ve found that the watch does a pretty good job of tracking caloric expenditure without connecting to fitness equipment; it just doesn’t log other attributes like mileage.

Tracking Net Calories with LoseIt and Apple Watch

I use an Apple Watch to track my total calories burned and use LoseIt to track my total calories consumed. LoseIt can show you net calories – calories consumed minus calories burned – with a big caveat that took me a while to figure out:

A LoseIt Break-Even “Bonus” of Zero

LoseIt gives a “Calorie Bonus” (that is, actually subtracts calories burned) only if you exceed the number of calories they expect you to burn in a day. If you burn less than that many calories, there is no “Calorie Penalty” and you don’t have a reliable way to directly see your net caloric balance for the day.

I’ve determined that a “zero calorie” exercise balance (the maximum level burn that still gives a “bonus” of exactly zero) on LoseIt has nothing to do with your LoseIt weight loss goals, manual adjustments to your LoseIt caloric intake goals, or any goal settings on the Apple Watch. The “zero calorie” exercise balance is the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation for BMR times a seemingly arbitrary activity factor (overall multiplicative factor) of 1.4518. LoseIt’s FAQ says they account for “dressing, showering, housework…” (without mentioning the equation or 1.4518 multiplier) but this multiplier is clearly the number to which they feel the activities they list corresponds. This is the same as what LoseIt uses as the baseline for your caloric intact, before subtracting weight loss goals (e.g. 2lbs/week = 1,000 calories/day) and before subtracting any additional manual adjustments.

That is, the exercise bonus on LoseIt is entirely determined by your weight, height, age, and gender, and it is the same equation for the number of calories LoseIt suggests for maintaining current weight. This equation gets me exactly the LoseIt “zero-calorie bonus” (the break-even point) every day for the last 25 days (as far back as I bothered to check) except for two days when it’s one calorie off and another day where it’s two calories off (i.e., this is correct to within rounding error):

Lose-It Break-Even = 1.4518 * 10*pounds*0.45359237 + 6.25*inches*2.54 - 5*age + gender

gender in the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation is +5 for men and -161 for women.
0.45359237 is the conversion factor for pounds to kilograms
2.54 is the conversion factor for inches to centimeters

While LoseIt imports the Apple Watch data, LoseIt doesn’t care about what you’ve set as your Apple activity goal. LoseIt’s definition of a “normal” amount of activity (multiplication of BMR by 1.4518) is already baked into their formula. LoseIt just compares your total calorie burn to the formula above. I compared my Apple Activities App “Total Calories” daily history to LoseIt’s record of total calories burned and found a match within one calorie for all 25 days studied. I vaguely recall that on either LoseIt or MyFitnessPal, my profile included my to provide (via a drop-down) an estimate of my activity level. If that was LoseIt, then the words I chose (“minimal active” or something like that) might be where the 1.4518 came from. Or maybe the same activity factor is universally applied to all users.

Anyway, plotting my weight (over the last 25 days) against what LoseIt would have considered a break-even “bonus” of zero calories (that is, after a day ends, you can see by how much you came up short or how much extra you burned) gives a very nice line:

LoseIt Break-Even Calories as a function of Don’s Weight

Apple’s Non-Move Calories

While LoseIt treats non-active calories as a function of weight, age, gender, and height, it seems that the Apple Watch approach also includes sensor-based measurements when determining non-Move calories. You can even see the variation in non-Move (“Resting Energy”) calories in Apple’s iOS “Health” app:

iPhone screenshot of Apple Watch data

Indeed, there is no obvious correlation between daily Apple Resting Energy calories and weight, and there is at most a weak correlation between daily Apple Resting Energy calories and daily Move calories:


Because LoseIt is using a RMR formula that is a function only of the day’s weight (presuming height, age, and gender are fixed) and because Apple Watch is using biological measurements for both Move calories and for Resting Energy calories, there is no way to know the exact number of Move calories one will need in order to achieve a calorie bonus from LoseIt. Thus, there is no way to know the exact number of calories one needs to burn in order for LoseIt to be a reliable provider of net calories relative to one’s goal…. Except to make sure that one burns a margin-of-error more than what one will guess to be the break-even point. For me, I need roughly 500 active calories on top of the seemingly random “Resting Energy” I get each day to reach the LoseIt break even point. As a result of this analysis, which I initially performed in February 2019, I set the Move goal for my Apple Watch to be 550 calories per day (500 plus a 10% margin of error) and so far, every day that i’ve hit this Move goal, I’ve received at least a few Bonus Calories from LoseIt, and thereby have an accurate net caloric balance from LoseIt’s visualization.

Removing Stamp Ink from a Wall

Our address stamp

We had a six children (including ours) in our house over the weekend and one of them found our return address mailing stamp (we use this one, which has served us well for several years so far). The kid did what kids do, our wall got redecorated, and I got the opportunity to do an experiment.

I found a wide range of advice online and decided to go with the recommendation here to (1) apply white toothpaste, (2) let it sit for 10 minutes, and (3) wipe it away with a wet white washcloth, repeating if necessary.

I was quite surprised to see how well this worked. I did not need to repeat the process; the ink was completely removed after just the first round of steps.

The toothpaste fully absorbed the ink, so wiping the toothpaste took the ink with it. As far as I could tell, the toothpaste wasn’t serving as an abrasive (which is how dry toothpaste is sometimes used in car scratch repair).

The toothpaste I used was Colgate Total Advanced Whitening, which was just what we happened to have around.