Thursday, January 28, 2010

How I Became a Barefoot Runner

Barefoot running has been in the news a lot lately, and since I'm a barefoot runner, I field a lot of questions about it. Today there was a discussion on my favorite social news site, and I chimed in with a comment about Vibram shoes. One person wanted more details, so I wrote a big long post about it. As I wrote my characteristically verbose reply, I thought it would be a great blog entry. So here it is! (And here's the original context if you're curious.)

"I have seen this claim repeated ad-nauseum. Do you have any proof that Vibram's actually are just as healthy as barefoot running? Their website says it over and over but without any proof; they don't even have a video of someone running on a treadmill with them? If they make all these claims that vibrams are equivalent to barefoot running, why have they not proven it? It seems like a huge bait and switch - running barefoot or wearing minimal thinner-sole traditional running shoes have advantages, but no where have I seen concrete evidence that vibrams work as well as either. I have never heard of any runner using these long-term, or putting any sort of significant mileage on them. So I ask you, how often do you run in a given week? What sort of mileage have you put on your vibrams? How long have you been consistently running on them? How quickly do the soles break down? What injuries did you have before? What injuries have you had since? Why are vibrams any more effective than thin soled running shoes you have tried? Don't talk to me about "how you feel so much more connected" or whatever, I'm talking about tangible evidence. A thin-soled cheap running shoe, which has been shown to be beneficial through studies are usually a lot cheaper than than the $75 to $100 Vibram wants me to spend on their currently untested shoe. Furthermore, how fit were you before you started the vibram running regimen... Vibram's website says it's not problem that your feet hurt at first, no doubt because people do not immediately change their running style... Vibram's website doesn't give tips for fixing the stride, or how long you need to adjust before running, or how to avoid injury. From your experience can you please give some anecdotes?"

Wow. No pressure, eh? First off, I'm not much of a runner. I do it very casually, just a few times a month. For that reason, I probably won't be able to provide you with the empirical evidence you want. That being said, I do have some experience with leg injuries and how barefoot running (and running with Vibrams) affects those.


Here's my story... when I was 12, I was involved in a car incident where the tibia in my right ankle was ground off on the pavement. I spent the next few years in and out of surgery with various splints and braces on my leg to prevent my ankle from popping out of socket.

A couple years later I was into hiking and camping, and was helping out on a biology study in the wilderness. There's no sensation of hot or cold in my ankle anymore, so I didn't notice that I'd spent the entire day with my ankle pressed up against the engine block. Oops! 3rd degree burn, more surgery.

A couple years after that, I tried running for the first time. I didn't really like it, but I was trying out for the Rugby team at my high school. Didn't make it-- couldn't handle all the running!

I made the mistake of trying out for the cheerleading squad. Yes, there were male cheerleaders at my school. No, I didn't make the squad. I went down into the splits without warming up and shredded my right hamstring in front of the whole school during an assembly. My calf muscle was black and blue for weeks from the blood that seeped down from the injury. More physical therapy.

I spent two years after high school doing religious service, and during that time I put a lot of miles on my shoes. Toward the end, I developed severe pain in my right foot; it felt like a weird "clicking" in my 3rd and 4th toes on every step. The podiatrist made an insert. It did pretty much nothing.

Fast-forward about 5 years. I'd been fairly sedentary, so there were no new injuries and no aggravation of old ones. I felt a strong urge to start running, so I slogged out a mile or two 3x per week. Within short order, the heel of my right foot had started hurting. Stabbing pain in every step that made it difficult to walk, let alone run!


I went to a sports medicine doctor to see what I could do about the pain. He looked at my massively scarred ankle, took some x-rays, and said there was basically nothing he could do about it. Without an important part of my tibia and missing one of my tendons, it was a miracle I was standing on two feet, let alone walking. He wasn't about to dive into any treatment program with all that was wrong already.

I was on my own.

Changing my walk

Through one source or another I came across an article on fox walking that piqued my curiosity. Basically it's the toe-heel motion that's been in the news lately. It brought out my life-hacker tendencies, so I decided to try it out.

Learning to fox-walk is hard. I switched from QWERTY to Dvorak in less time than it took me to convert to fox-walking. Every step was a conscious effort. Each day was a new round of trying to not look like a complete idiot while putting one foot in front of the other. It sucked, but my heel pain had gone away almost completely after just the first few days.

Maybe my heel pain was gone now? I'd try "cow-walking" (what fox-walkers call the "normal" gait of everyone else) every now and then to see what happened. Heel pain returned within a few steps. Back to fox walking, and the pain was gone! Okay, so it wasn't that the problem had just gone away. My biomechanical change had actually fixed something!

During this transition period I pretty much stopped running. My calf muscles were screaming from just walking, so I didn't want to jinx things and overdo it. There were no additions to my fitness routine to compensate for this. I went to the office, coded in a beanbag for 8 hours, went home. Maybe a walk around the neighborhood, but nothing that anyone would consider a workout.

After a few months of this I started running again. Where before I was struggling to pound out 2 miles, now I could run 3-4 without much trouble. Within a couple of weeks I was running as far as I felt (maybe up to 5 miles?) before boredom set in and I'd go home.

Going barefoot

Our yard is fairly small, so a gas lawnmower was a ridiculous idea. Instead, we opted for a hand-pushed reel mower that does the job just fine. I like the feel of grass on my feet, and since the reel mower wasn't about to chop my toes off I was free to mow the lawn barefoot for the first time in my life. There were a couple of single mothers in the neighborhood that needed their lawns mown too, so I started doing theirs as part of my exercise.

Even going on soft lawns in my bare feet, there were sticks and weeds that were prickly and uncomfortable. But as time went on, my feet toughened up and I didn't mind it so much. I would even purposely walk on bark mulch to see if I could adapt to rougher terrain. That summer I transitioned into going barefoot whenever I could.

I'd actually gone barefoot one summer many years back when I hung out with a girl who was here studying from Zimbabwe. It was great fun, except for the time when I got kicked out IHOP. Social conventions got the best of me and I'd gone back to shoes. Now, I was rediscovering it all again with the added perspective of what it's like to fox-walk in shoes v. bare feet.

In bare feet, your body naturally transitions to fox-walking. I won't go into the details, since there have been plenty of studies in the news lately. What I discovered this time around is that, while you can produce the same movements in shoes, it's infinitely easier without them.

The tactile feedback from your toes lets you know when your foot hits the ground. With shoes on, everything is "muffled". It's hard to describe, but that's the best word I can think of. In shoes your foot is almost always in contact with a flat surface, and the only thing you can feel for is the pressure difference when your shoe contacts the ground. Without shoes, it comes naturally. It just does.


For the past couple of years I've gone barefoot whenever possible during the summer months. I don't run regularly, but when I do go out I go as far as I like and then come home. No shin splints. No heel pain. The limiting factor is pretty much how developed my calluses have come along that season. I enjoy running now, even if I don't get out and do it more than a few times a month. It's a pleasure every time I go out, and I always wonder why I don't do it more. Maybe this year I will.

My wife is a saint. She puts up with me and my eccentricities with nothing but love and patience. But last summer I went into the office one day during a break (I teach computer science) without shoes, and she was mortified. She made me promise to never do it again! About this time I read Born to Run (the book that's been responsible for all the hype), and had really enjoyed Barefoot Ted's appearance in the book. I really wanted to get a pair of DIY huaraches, but she didn't like the idea of me running around trying to look like a Roman. That, and I really couldn't wear those into work either.

Ted is, as far as I know, the first athlete to be sponsored by Vibram. He runs ultramarathons in Vibram Fivefingers. They look a little funky, but the KSO model has a mesh over the top that makes it look like they're a legitimate piece of footwear. We decided that these were the shoes for me.

We went to a running store to find the right pair, and I've loved them from the moment I put them on.

It's not exactly the same as barefoot, but it's a lot closer than any pair of ratty old tennis shoes or even sandals that I've worn before. The individual toe articulation makes a huge difference in being able to sense the terrain you're on. The soles are protective, but I can feel every piece of gravel under foot. Instead of "muffled", I'd say it's "softened".

The big thing for me is that I can wear them into work. My colleagues have been bemused. The students I teach are a bit bewildered at the nut-job teaching C#. Overall, the reaction has been positive with a large dose of "Whaaaaat?"

There is a down side to them. They smell. No, they stink. The stench from wearing those things will knock out a water buffalo at fifty paces. You can put them through with the rest of the laundry, but the next day they'll be back. It comes from not being able to wear regular socks and having your toes marinating in their own individually-wrapped bacterial incubators.

Just yesterday I ordered 7 pair of toe socks to cut down the smell. I can't describe how excited I am for them to arrive! I've been wearing regular shoes for the past week and it truly has been an I'm-not-kidding-this-is-tramuatizing experience! I miss my shoes!! I go barefoot at home and wear my Vibrams to the gym (where they require closed-toed shoes). Then every morning when I have to go to my closet and encase my feet in size-14 coffins it makes me sad and I die a little inside.


I don't have enough empirical evidence for your questions about Vibrams. I love going barefoot, but it's simply not possible in our society and my climate. I've never tried the Nike Free shoes, or any other kind of minimalist footwear. I have had cheap shoes that were thin-soled by virtue of owning them for 10 years. Running in those is preferable by far to the expensive running shoes I bought after I started fox-walking. My Vibrams? Hands-down, my favorite footwear of all time.

In shoes I still fox-run with the same toe-heel motion as when I go barefoot, but it feels like I'm slogging through molasses. The form never feels quite right. I do it anyways because it prevents my heel pain. It still comes up when I cow-walk, in case you're wondering... tested it out recently. Contrast that with the Vibrams, where I feel light. It feels barefoot. I feel like I want to run more and jump over things. It embarrasses people when I do jump over random things like chairs in the hallway. These things make me happy. :-)

Hope my perspective helps.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Great Music: Regina Spektor

Yeah. I'm a day late again. I have to do a post tonight and another one tomorrow, so you can guess which one is getting the short end of the proverbial stick.

My wife and I are wide awake at 12:30, and came across a new YouTube music discovery system like Pandora except with videos. One of our all-time favorite artists is Regina Spektor, so we tried looking her up. I haven't seen at least half of the videos there!

For the unindoctrinated, she's a Russian-born New Yorker that's been described as a jazzy "anti-folk" singer and pianist. Her melodies and lyrics are a uniquely eclectic mix of whimsy, quirk, macabre, and elegance. I have no idea how she pulls off those incredibly expressive vocals.

For the curious among the audience (shout-out to my brother and his family, my very first subscribers!), here are some of my picks from her collection.

There are lots more, but it's probably bed time. Another post (hopefully) tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Soap Business - Running the Numbers

So this is the post that I really wanted to do for last Saturday, but I hope you enjoyed the back story.

A Great Opportunity

While we were preparing to make lots of soap, we went by Scentsations, a local store that has tons of things that smell good. As we were smelling all the fragrance blends they had on hand, the owners heard we were making our own soap and wanted to know more about it. Turns out, their soaps are very expensive French bars that are a real pain to import. Over the course of discussion they said it would be great to have a local company supplying them since their clientèle are the type to go gaga over locally made artisan souvenirs.

That got our entrepreneurial minds rolling! Surely there's enough profit margin to make a fabulous living off of mixing hazardous chemicals in your own kitchen.

Preliminary Research

Our first stop was an Etsy search for handmade soaps. This told us that a bar of soap is, on average:

  • $5.50 on the retail market
  • 150 grams

From searching various soap making hobby sites, a very popular recipe is composed of:

  • 40% olive oil
  • 40% coconut oil
  • 20% palm oil

We used mostly lard in our recipe, but the artisan soaps tend to shy away from animal fats because labeling their product as "vegan" is a nice buzz-word that helps establish why you're paying an extra quarter for your morning shower.

Run the Numbers

Once we had a bar size and a recipe we could reverse-engineer how much of each kind of oil is used in a bar, and therefore the cost of raw materials. After shopping around industrial suppliers online, we found that we could average $0.74 per bar. Selling them wholesale to Scentsations or another retailer, the bar would go for $2.63.

$2.63 (wholesale) - $0.74 (materials) = $1.88 per bar

We set an income goal of $1,000 per month, which is a nice cushion in the budget if it's coming from a hobby business. In order to reach that goal, it would take 531 bars of soap every month. Each batch we made would yield 30 bars,so even pumping out a batch of soap every other day, we'd still be making less than our goal!

But you forgot...

Remember that this is still looking at just the cost of materials. To do a real analysis you would also include:

  • labor
  • warehousing space
  • equipment
  • energy costs
  • labor
  • packaging
  • office overhead (phone, envelopes, computer time)
  • shrinkage (bad batch of soap, loss, theft by your own bathrooms)
  • advertising
  • labor
  • etc.

Now do you see why hand-crafted soap is most often sold at farmers markets? The profit per bar jumps up to $4.51 and the bars sold per month drops to 222.

It's still an unholy amount of soap for one person to sell in a month.


These numbers are very much the "arm-chair quarterback" estimates coming from wild guesses. I'd love to hear from somebody who's actually in the soap making business to confirm or deny.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Soap Business - Story

How it came about

For this past Christmas, we wanted to do a home-made gift that was small, not too expensive, and had a nice personal touch. It was decided that it was time to break out the old soap-making supplies and make a whole bunch of soap!

A bit of background... my parents have a friend who makes soap, and she taught my dad a few tricks back in 1999 or so. The first time my dad and I made soap together was on a construction trip in a motel room. Between the jars of crystal lye, the giant pots and beakers and such, the gallons of oil, and the horrific smells coming out of the room I have to look back in shock that we didn't get kicked out for making a meth lab!

We made a half dozen batches or so, but never really got our technique perfected. There were lots of books, but everything we read was geared toward the super high-end artisan soaps with oils, butters, botanicals, and everything to make your skin feel like it's being prepped to be deep-fried for a side dish in a six-course meal. Our simplified recipes worked just fine, thank you very much! The final recipe settled somewhere around 50% olive oil, 30% coconut oil, and 20% palm oil.

New age, new tools!

Fast-forward a decade, and the amount of information available to the experimental soap maker is nearly overwhelming! Where before we had to debate when we were at trace, now you just go to YouTube and watch endless examples. How awesome is that?! We fired up the equipment and tried the old recipe and... it was soap! But it didn't have the right texture. The lather was alright, but not really comparable to a commercial bar. It was soft, too, feeling mushy in the hand.

So, it was time to find a new recipe.... We found a lye calculator that had a lot of great tips on what qualities the various oils impart to the finished product. After playing with the numbers for a few hours, I came up with what I thought was a good balance. Firing up the equipment again, the water in the recipe was replaced with goat milk to give it a nice (and inexpensive) scent. The benefit of hot-process soap making is that you can cut and use the bars within a day, so we were able to test it out almost immediately. The end result was a nice bar with a smooth and bubbly lather. Success!

Getting it out the door

In the end we made up four kinds of soap: goat milk, fig leaf and Italian bergamot, lemon verbena and acai berry, and "invigorating mint blend". We used cardboard boxes and tubes lined with freezer paper as molds, and I built a jig to help us cut the bars evenly.

My wife made bath salts, and her sister made salve and lip balm. Together they cut out and decorated name tags for all the items. There was a big night of putting together the packages with my wife and her mother, and then we split up the prizes between all the sisters who contributed to the project. Christmas presents were ready just in time!


On a personal note... I do realize the delicious irony of having this blog post be two days late; right after I posted about my commitment to following a routine for my posts! Drat, I broke the chain! Part of the trouble was collating information about model-driven development for some upcoming posts. This post was a backup plan, but it grew into (hopefully only) two. I'll finish the story tomorrow with the business numbers that I'd originally planned for this one.

Apologies for the purely factual, very dry tone of the post. I'm not very good at weaving a story, and that's part of what this blogging exercise is all about!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don't break the chain!

As I was preparing to commit myself to regular blogging, I looked for different ways to help me stay on target so that I wouldn't run out of steam once things got hard. The best thing so far has been to make a recurring task in Outlook, since my personal organization goal is to use the task list regularly.

There are lots of goals that people have that have to be done every day. Personal development goals like prayer or meditation, diets, quitting smoking.... They each have to be done every day. In my reading I discovered Jerry Seinfeld's productivity system!

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don't feel like it.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here's how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

So there you go! Don't break the chain.

Don't break the chain.

But what happens if your goal isn't a daily activity? My goal for blogging is Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You'll end up with a series of lines on your calendar, and I've been a bit annoyed at how that would look.

Until I found this!

At first I just thought it was a cool calendar, but then I realized I could use this as my "Jerry Seinfeld Wall Calendar" to keep track of when I've done my tasks. Instead of boring old stripes running down a page, picture filling in a series of concentric circles! If you miss a day, it'll show up as a hole in one of the rings and you'll be extra motivated to make sure you get the next target dates so that you can keep those rings perfect.

It would be cool to have multi-colored markings for different tasks, but that would probably get unwieldy to update. Nope, just do a separate one of these for each non-daily task you're keeping track of.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Greeting Cards and Business Models

My wife and her mother run a greeting card company called Any Horrible Occasion. It's a great line that has divorce cards, cancer cards, lawsuit cards, and cards for any occasion. Check them out sometime, they're hilariously funny!
It all started when they were running a company for LDS-themed greeting cards, that then got buried under when a large corporate entity took over the market with some pretty shady business practices. Yeah... no bitterness here! Since my mother-in-law is a twice-divorced single mother of 6, she's had some ideas over the years for real-life cards that make people laugh at the situation. She'd talked with various artists to brainstorm it, looked at all kinds of photography, and somehow settled in on the idea of fine art gone bad.
My mother-in-law has found a great niche. There are lots of cards that look at situations in life in a mean-spirited tone, or that resort to easy punchlines that are crass or rude. Any Horrible Occasion cards talk honestly about the difficult situations in life while retaining the receiver's dignity.
It's been a great little line of cards! Everybody that sees them has an emotional reaction-- either they love them, or they hate them. Apparently that kind of reaction is a very good thing! It's okay to offend some people because you need to break out of the Zone of Mediocrity that comes from trying to please everyone.
That brings me back to market niches. In the religious market especially, you're never going to please everyone. While you may be wildly popular among your target denomination, everyone else is going to call blasphemy on you. Run the numbers for a minute. In the US, the LDS faith takes about 1.9% of the population. That means you're almost completely guaranteed to never sell to 98.1% of the market!! Who in their right mind would try to sell a product that 98% of the population would never buy?!
Any Horrible Occasion targets a broader niche. I can't really back that up, actually, since its sales numbers have never been what Twin Peaks was, but we think the target audience is broader. At the National Stationery Show in New York, Any Horrible Occasion has won 2 LOUIE awards in two years. Since the award is based on sendability, quality, price, etc., I have to assume that there's some segment in the broader world that appreciates AHO's unique brand of humor.
Whatever the niche is, it's the reaction that people have that's been most important. We've been called everything from genius to prostitution of fine art, but it's incredibly rare to find someone who just says, "Meh." It's this visceral reaction to the product that's going to drive sales. People who love it are passionately showing (and sending) cards to their friends.
People who hate it are also passionately showing cards around. Ever notice how when you're at a restaurant and somebody gets bad food, the first thing they do is say, "Oh my gosh, this is SO NASTY!! Here... try it!" That's the kicker. Even if they hate the product, they're advertising it for free!
Turning that passion into sales is easy enough once people see the cards. For the moment we need to work on getting them out to be seen.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


When I was doing my undergrad in computer science, I spent a lot of time with Terry Halpin doing Object Role Modeling. We refer to it as ORM (think the "ohmmm" mantra, with an "r" thrown in!), though in industry the acronym usually refers to Object Relational Mapping. Whenever I think of Object Relational Mapping, or O/RM, in my head it's "The Dark ORM", just like The Dark Side of The Force.

In true ORM, you're taking a conceptual model of your business, or "domain", and using that model to help drive development. It's a very top-down approach to software development. This is great for when you're talking with business owners, trying to figure out how to build a system to support their needs.

In The Dark ORM (O/RM), whichever relational mapping system you choose (and there are many for general use, Java, or .NET) will look at the existing database and try to generate objects from the tables and fields. There are some very legitimate criticisms of O/RM out there, some even calling it the Vietnam of Computer Science (summarized here). This bottom-up approach is very popular among programmers because it lets them start building the system immediately. Once they have the data structure in place, they're able to generate large amounts of code; and, let's face it, that gives people very warm fuzzy feelings!

One of my side projects has been a local modeling agency, and currently I'm migrating some VERY ancient code that I wrote to a new system. In the next few posts I'll detail some of the procedures I've used to create the new site using both ORM and O/RM together as part of a model-driven development methodology.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What do I think?

Among all the social news sites that I read, I found this gem of a post. To sum it up, he says that the reason people aren't great at writing is because they're not great at thinking. It's tough to come up with an original bit of prose when one's not had an original thought.


But oh, so true.... I've noticed in my day-to-day that while I'm impressively well-read on a variety of topics, I don't have much to contribute to the discussion other than regurgitating anecdotal stories and apocryphal factoids to which I've long-since lost the reference.

One of my goals for the new year is to get myself a bit more organized, and as part of that I've started using the task list in Outlook. For a guy who used to work at Franklin Covey, this is sinking pretty low!

So I just set a recurring task for myself. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I'm going to post something to this blog. Something that I've found interesting and can expound on, or maybe something I've done. Maybe something I have a question about. In fact, it may be a good chance to string my thoughts together on a few different things.

The tough part of everything is, of course, doing it. So I'm using my task list this year. I'm writing in the blog. Yep. Just doing it.