Michael Palin, formerly one of the Monty Python crew and now a well-known world traveller and documentarian. He was in Hong Kong to promote his friends new opening at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and also to do a book signing.
I managed to grab a few books, both Around the World in 80 Days and his recent book Brazil which I sent away as gifts. I also grabbed the Monty Python autobiography, which I had him sign to “The Dead Parrot”. He added “just resting” at the end. I then asked if he had seen the famous Nigerian Internet Scammer version of the Parrot Shop but he said he hadn’t. I told him to look it up on Youtube so maybe he’ll get around to it.
Pretty nice evening. Sometimes we do get some celebrities over here in this land of finance and shipping containers.
[caption id="attachment_4581" align="alignright" width="550"] Go away kid you bother me.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_4579" align="alignright" width="550"] To the Dead Parrot, just resting.[/caption]]]>
Not Hong Kong.[/caption]
You’re driving in a city with roads laid down by the British (i.e. redefining stupidity in urban planning) with fellow drivers who, to put it lightly, haven’t been driving all that long, and then having to rent a car from an ‘American’ company run by a bunch of Germans.
First things first: what’s in your passport, and what is in your wallet? If you are a visitor to Hong Kong, you can rent a car on your US drivers license relatively easily. However, if you are a resident, in possession of a Hong Kong ID card, you’re going to need a Hong Kong drivers license.
Renting a car has two familiar options, Hertz and Avis. But while the name and logo looks familiar, under the surface things are quite a bit different from renting in the USA. The forms are different, the concept of “collision damage waiver” non-existant, and the process far more complicated than the rather seamless operation you’ll encounter at even the smallest airport in the USA.
You’ll be asked for a very large deposit, something like $15,000-$60,000HKD ($2,000-$8,000 USD), that will be placed on your credit card at the time of rental. Be sure to tell your credit card company there might be a “hold” like this placed or you won’t even get out the door. There also isn’t really the concept of a “Collision Damage Waiver”–paying a little extra each day to cover the potential for scratches, nicks, and bumps. Instead they have a deductible of about $2,000USD that you are on the hook for right off the bat.
This means when you get your car, and when you return it, give it a thorough review. Looks for scratches, door dings, and other imperfections from the previous renter. Also check the rims as they often get scratched up by folks who are still learning how to park. Unfortunately, given the size of the average parking space in Hong Kong, the chances of you getting a scratch or door ding is actually pretty high.
That’s an interesting point–there aren’t that many places to park on the island. Street parking is comical–essentially non-existant in many of the areas you want to visit, and parking garages, while they do exist, can be expensive and a bit of a maze. If I had to guesstimate, I’d say the average parking space gives you about 6-10 inches on either side of your car to fit in. That means no wildly throwing open the door when you arrive (something you might need to tell the kids about) as chances are you’ll be parking next to some wildly overpriced imported car.
It also means you have to figure out what to do with the car overnight. You can park it in your building, if you have a space, but most of the street parking doesn’t allow overnight parking, or if it does, requires you to be up and moved by 7:00am. Before we found a spot in my building, our rental cars would go back down to Central and stay the night in the IFC building or near the United Centre, where we found overnight spots for a flat “night” rate of about $70HKD. Most places take Octopus (and only Octopus) for parking so before you do a weekend rental you might want to top up your card with a few hundred dollars. You should also put a hundred or so in coins in your car for tolls, especially if you’ll be using the tunnels.
[caption id="attachment_4544" align="alignright" width="400"] You won’t find something this nice from Hong Kong rental companies.[/caption]
The choice of cars is generally pretty good, with a number of recent model Japanese imports such as Toyota and Honda. There are minivans available that fit upto 7, but if you are thinking of renting one and moving a couch or a bed you’d probably be better off renting a cargo van (the Hiace). If you really are out to impress someone, you can rent some higher end Mercedes and BMWs and the like, but for the price it’s probably easier to just hire a limo / car service for your business meeting / hot date.
Roads in Hong Kong were initially laid down by the British, which means, in short, it’s pretty stupid. They are narrow, poorly marked, and likely to change to one way or two way at the drop of a hat. They also drive on the wrong side, which really isn’t as much of a problem once you get used to it, but you might find yourself thinking a bit backwards when it comes to “going around the block” (a maneuver that is necessitated by dropping off people and picking them up). In the US you have this mental idea of ‘right-right-right’ and I’m back here again. But with the drivers on the wrong side it’s a left-left-left. Often times you can mis-plan things while heading down the road only to get to the end and find there is no way to cross over given the lines.
On the island, there are several routes in which you can get trapped–you’ll have to drive an additional 10-20 blocks just to turn around given the lack of turn lanes and one way streets. While trying to goto Sheung Wan one day I finally found a place to turn around in Kennedy Town. Yea, it can be like that.
One other point, lines. Lane discipline is strictly enforced, not just by the police but by the “rules of the road”. You’ll often see cars stopped on a road waiting to change lanes, despite open roads ahead, because at the point they are stopping it is the ‘last chance’ to change lanes without violating a solid line. While lane discipline and lines exist in the US and most people follow the rules, in big cities it’s a bit more lax than it is here.
Once you do get off the island, it’s probably a good idea to have some idea of where you are going. If you want to head up to Sai Kung for example, take a look at the map and the Google street view of some of the major turns you’ll encounter. Often times the roundabouts and other exits are not marked as well as you might hope, and you’ll be coming on these at a good clip and need to decide “yes/no” in a hurry.
If you do manage to get off the island, don’t forget that many places are a bit restricted for cars. Lantau is basically a no go, and some of the country parks will close off roads on the weekends for hikers. For example Monkey hill in Kowloon is a great day drive during the week, but during the weekend it gets nuts with the tourists illegally feeding the wild monkeys and them jumping all over the road. Probably better just to stay in the parking lot inside than attempt a drive down that path.
Eventually you’ll return the car and go through a bit of an inspection. If they see something they’ll flag it at the return and then call you in a day or so with an (overpriced) estimate for the repair. You’ll then hail a cab that smells like whatever the driver ate for lunch and head back home, remembering you once had a car in this city but are now back in taxi/bus/MTR hell.
Six months ago and a few days more or less, I decided to go cold turkey on Diet Coke. I was easily 3-4 cans a day, and when you factor in a drink or two or three at a restaurant or pub, I was probably consuming 60-80 ozs (1175ml-2365ml) a day.
There are plenty of horror stories about diet drinks, but since most of them come from hyperbole-spewing hippies I generally ignore them. I’ve always preferred the science-based medicine approach to many things about health, and reading about “the corporate conspiracy” to put evil “high fructose corn syrup” in my drink just turns me off. Skeptics have attacked some of the studies here and here if you want more on the HFCS myths.
However, for me dumping diet soda was more of a behavioral thing than health. About 15 years ago, I decided as a New Years Resolution that I would give up french fries for one year. I did it (I’m very stubborn) despite eating fries quite a bit the year before and the year after. What I noticed wasn’t so much that I lost weight, but that not eating french fries was changing my overall diet choices. If I couldn’t have “fries with that”, I wasn’t ordering “that”–my trips to McDonalds decreased simply because I wasn’t having one of the three main items in burger-fries-Coke.
I wondered if giving up Diet Coke would have a similar effect. What was the immediate impact of going cold turkey on Diet Coke?
I gained about 10 pounds.
Switching from Diet Coke to things like fresh-squeezed lemonade or orange juice increased the number of calories I was consuming quite a bit. I like my drinks to have a bit of a ‘kick’ to them and switching from Diet Coke to water instantly just wasn’t cutting it. I wanted some sort of taste as I ate some food.
When I stepped on the scale and it reached 208 lbs. Given my height, that worked out to a Body Mass Index of about 29.9 (with 30 being the official definition of ‘obese’). I decided it was time for a bigger change.
First up was a new scale. My old scale varied wildly and I was relying on my memory of “I think I weighed that last week”. No, this is the Internet age. I needed an Internet scale, so I bought the Withings WS-50 Smart Body Analyzer. It’s pretty awesome. It records my weight to my iPhone and to a website everytime I step on the scale. It also does an estimate of the percentage of body fat, heartbeat and even the ambient CO2 quality in the room (to help improve sleeping).
What it did for me was start to identify “trends” rather than just “weights”. As I’ve learned, your body weight changes a few pounds even in the matter of a single day. For me I was always one weight at bedtime and then about 1-2 lbs less when I woke in the morning. Seeing this as a trend over many days became far easier for me to understand.
In fact, having these data points and record were really essential to this whole effort. Knowing what I weighed and the effect of splurging or going on vacation to the USA (and eating crap for a few weeks) was something that I could visually see every single day and week as it was spelled out in a nice graph and tabular data. It almost became a bit of a game seeing how much I weighed and how much I had lost.
The second portion of my change came with my diet, and this was a big effort indeed.
I’ve used the calorie counting app LoseIt when it first came out to the iPhone. I was pretty good at calorie counting for a few months, but then came a new iPhone upgrade and I lost all my old data, thus deciding ‘screw this–back to McDonalds’. I decided to give LoseIt another chance and it has certainly grown with many new features and capabilities. I was also able to connect my Withings scale to Loseit’s reporting system, which made tracking even easier.
At first my diet was basically about getting under the recommended calories. Originally I just would eat less, even skipping a meal, but most diet advice advises against anything too dramatic. Slowly I came around to greater portion control and some dietary changes.
Helping me in this quest were some laboratory beakers now serving double-duty as glasses in my kitchen. I bought some 400ml and 250ml beakers from a laboratory supply company and now use those as glasses, able to accurately pour out an exact measurement of a drink everytime. Since most of the nutrition information in Hong Kong for liquids is based around 100ml (3.3 fl oz) that sort of became a unit in my mind of what I could and could not drink. Prior to the diet, I was drinking 300ml (9-10fl oz) of Orange Juice every morning. But this soon became half that size and I realized “I really don’t need that much to drink”.
I also made the switch to water. I hate drinking water. I mean, it’s just plain boring. Added to this was the cultural preference here for ‘room temperature’ water or even hot water, both of which I find basically disgusting. With our tiny fridge in our standard Hong Kong apartment, finding room for a few bottles of water turned into a bit of a battle, but eventually I was able to reclaim some space in there and now keep four or five bottles cold and ready throughout the day (I’ve had two already this morning).
I also began to “visualize” portions much easier. I set a mark in my bowl for what was 1 cup of Cheerios for example. I used this great visual food guide to start to understand “how much” food I was actually eating when I sat down. When you can “see” the portion size it makes dieting far easier than trying to measure out everything each time.
With this came some other changes. I started to realize that some items were more calories (quite a bit more) than others. For example, a tin of pineapples was a simply and quick snack, but if I got them “in syrup” I’d be consuming quite a few more calories than if I bought them “in juice”. Salad dressing was another killer. The regular stuff was five or six times the calories as a “fat free” variety, which, despite the horrific taste, became my new regular option. I also started experimenting with a few things that I’ve been told are good (i.e. fish) but which were always way down on my shopping list behind things I liked quite a bit better.
I didn’t necessarily change what I was eating. I still have an occasional treat of some chips or pretzels in the evening, and I even have a Cadbury bar in the kitchen. But whereas before I would eat an entire 250 calorie Cadbury Milk Chocolate in one go, now I might eat 1/8th of that as a square, once every couple of a days just as a treat (38 calories or so).
I also rediscovered foods from my youth, namely apples, oranges and grapes. Of course I’ve been eating them for years, but now that I have more a diet focus they have become regular items, even daily items. Again, there was a cultural shift required in my house. I grew up with fruits being stored in the fridge which made them both cold and extended their freshness, but the norm here is to keep them on the counter, room temperature, which doesn’t quite have the same ‘zing’ to it when you take a bite. After clearing some space in the fridge I now have a collection of fruits for snacks.
The third big change has been a recent development, but one that was necessary. We have a fully-kitted out work room in the building with treadmills, weight machines, stair climbers and an exercise bike. I’ve generally avoided it as much as possible, but now I make it a point to do an hour on the exercise bike every day. At first it was a painfully dreary experience, basically like watching a clock move as I saw the minutes countdown and the calories burned calculator move up, but that all I changed when I brought down my iPhone and iPad to keep me company. Now I had plenty of movies and TV shows to catch up on while exercising, and the time spent downstairs has flown by. I’ve watched all the episodes of Broadchurch, Quatermass, a couple seasons of Top Gear and even a few movies I’ve been remiss in seeing such as the Indian blockbuster “Three Idiots”. The latter was particularly good as when you are focusing on subtitles you don’t pay as much attention to the clock.
I also have started to take a look at my general lifestyle. Am I getting out enough, walking and doing stairs rather than sitting and riding the elevators. I’m now tagged with a Fitbit One Wireless Activity Tracker on my belt at all times which is designed to remind me I need to take more steps everyday and also to tell me when I’ve taken so many that my daily ‘burn’ rate might be improved. Again, the integration of devices like this with systems like Loseit have been quite valuable, allowing me to track those extra steps and exercises that before were just lost in the wind.
The final big change has come with nutrition.
At first it was easiest to just count calories. I didn’t care how much sodium or protein I was eating, just let me get to that main goal. But as my diet became more regular and healthy, I took a look at improving the content of what I ate, not just the quantity.
Yes, I’ve heard of the “no carb” diets and whatnot, and at first blush it looked quite interesting, but falling back on my science-based medicine guidelines I discover that quite a bit of that is just a bunch of fluff. Low carb diets don’t pass muster when examined more closely, as you’ll see here and here, and while I tried it for a few days I eventually decided it just wasn’t worth it.
I am trying to reduce my sodium intake, as the levels I’m consuming are quite above the recommendations though still below the averages for US consumers. I’m also looking harder at the amount of fat I take in each day, trying to drop that down and improve the amount of protein consumed. It’s an ongoing battle.
So here is the big takeaway from my weight loss program: it takes time, discipline and effort.
The three things most dieters don’t have. But seriously, you have to work on it, daily, and consciously. Fad diets of “instant loss” while you sleep or eat just red meat for three months aren’t going to make the necessary changes you need. It’s just not that simple.
I know people want the easy way out, but you should think about those who have been told to diet for medical reasons. There is no easy solution. They have to do it “the hard way” because that is the way that is going to work and keep them alive. They aren’t going to cut corners when fighting some disease, so why should you think you can cut corners when just trying to lose weight?
So what do the results look like?
I started earlier this year at 208 lbs. Today I was hit 179.7 lbs (81.5kg). This is the first time I’ve been 180 since I can remember. When I started law school in 1995, I stepped on the scale and was shocked to discover I weight about 175lbs (I always though I was quite a bit less). When I left law school three years later I’m certain I was quite a bit more, well at least I looked quite a bit bigger.
My short-term goal is to get to 175.4 which is not only the weight I weighed in 1994, but also the borderline BMI between “normal” and “overweight”. If I could get under the “overweight” BMI guidelines, I think I’d consider that a great short-term success. I set the goal for Christmas, but think I will be hitting sometime in the next month or so.
Longer term, I don’t have a goal just yet. I think it will be more in the 160-165 range, but I’m also hoping to start reducing some clothing sizes a bit too. I have quite a few nice Brooks Brother suits I wore while working in Washington and since those basically never go out of style, getting back down to a size where I can wear them again would be an accomplishment.
After I hit 175 I’m going to have a burger and fries to celebrate. Then we’ll start the downhill trek again and see how long it takes to get to my ideal weight and clothing size. Maybe it’s time for a standing desk?
UPDATE: Nov 1, 2013
Well this last four weeks have been pretty hard-core on the weight loss, in fact, probably too much. Part of the reason is likely the Fitbit. I understand it much better now and am using it frequently. The other is because I can finally count properly.
The Fitbit is a pedometer which is pretty simple and has been around for quite some time. But where it starts to shine, and make a difference, is the fact it links together with the other programs I’m using, namely LoseIt, to provide me with a calorie “bonus” on days I’m particularly active.
Basically Loseit and Fitbit assume your body burns XX calories per hour, just to stay alive. When you walk a great deal with the Fitbit, over say 10,000 steps a day, then you start to burn more calories than your “normal” state that fills their assumption. As you walk more and more, you get a ‘Fitbit Adjustment’ in LoseIt which gives you extra calories to consume, should you so desire.
I’m now well below my calorie maximums everyday, such that a late night pizza slice or McDonald’s run wouldn’t drastically affect my overall trends. I haven’t been “eating back” the calories that I’m gaining, which is probably why I had a bit of a spike downward this month, but I have had the option which has made me feel a bit better in eating more regularly.
The other big shock this month is that I shrunk a bit. I’ve always put 5 foot 10 inches on my measurements, such as a drivers license, etc., but stepping onto scale with a measuring attachment the other day I discovered I’m really a solid 5’9″. That meant I had to reassess my BMI calculations, and my target goal dropped from 175.4 to 169.9. Grr! More work!
I’m down to 170.8 this morning, which is about 2 pounds lost per week this last month (which is too much, to be honest). I’m nearing my new BMI goal of 169.9 and I think my final weight range is going to be 160-165 or so. I want to keep it in the “normal” range for my weight so I can go up and down a bit as needed. Officially the normal range is 125-169 which puts the midpoint around 150-155, but I think that would just be too much for my frame.
The last ten pounds have had an significant visual effect. Many people have come up and stopped me and said “are you losing weight”. It’s quite noticeable now whereas the first 20 or so weren’t even noticed by the people in my house. It’s also starting to be noticeable with my clothes, which are about a size too big now. I’ve had to go into the closet and find the “old” stuff that might fit a bit better.
So a little musical number that really goes well with the title of this post.
“I Just Spent Six Months Without Diet Coke.”