Fixing the basics

For several years, I’ve had a wireless keyboard on my desktop computer, the machine I use to do my writing when I’m not travelling on business. While the wireless feature seemed like a good idea at the time, I rarely moved the keyboard from its position under my monitor, and the wireless feature never seemed to be 100% reliable. If you’re old enough to remember the days of television signals delivered over the air, and carefully adjusting the TV’s “rabbit ear” antennas to get a perfect signal, only to have someone move and static return, you might get an idea of how well this keyboard worked.

Some days it was fine, other days I’d spend half my time moving the keyboard an inch or two in either direction to restore its functionality, or furiously bang the backspace key when gibberish appeared due to an inferior signal. For someone who cranks out well over 1000 words every day, this was suboptimal at best.

I finally ordered a new keyboard. It’s the same ergonomic model in a non-wireless version, so there’s no learning curve on the keyboard layout, it has a wire to connect directly to the computer, and it appeared at my doorstep courtesy of for a mere forty bucks.

As these words appear flawlessly on the screen, no adjusting the keyboard or bodily gyrations to affect the signal required, I’m kicking myself for dealing with such inanities for such a long time. A New Year is a great time to evaluate life and work’s little inconveniences. Forty bucks just might make things much easier.

Movie Madness

I’m somewhat shocked that in 2012, there’s still not an easy way to buy or rent movies that can play on a multitude of common consumer electronics devices. The days of walking to a local retailer to purchase music on a disc seem long past, and something I’ll likely tell my son to quips like “Dad, you’re such a dinosaur”, yet Hollywood seems to cling to this model unquestioningly.

As a college student during the 1990’s when music piracy on the internet was new and my ideas about intellectual property were rather immature, digital downloads were all the rage. After unsuccessful efforts at everything from lawsuits to music playable on only some devices (one now-discontinued class of which was ironically branded “plays for sure”) universally-playable, non-protected music is available from Amazon and Apple for a buck. I’m glad to use a convenient online store, and instantly “scratch an itch” for a new song that I can play on my cheapo MP3 player I use for jogging, iPhone, and car. In essence, the paid product is easier to find, and of known quality versus the bootleg.

Hollywood seems to miss the message that consumers not only want instant gratification, but a product they know will work with minimal fuss on everything from their iPhone to their TV, or laptop at 30,000 feet while on a flight. Hollywood’s answer is increasingly complex copy protection, that necessitates particularly software and video hardware, and makes a consumer spend hours researching formats and protection schemes versus pirated video that will likely run on his or her device of choice.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I believe most consumers of pirated video would gladly pay for a high-quality product that was easy to find and easy to use. Browsing audio in iTunes and on Amazon is a joy, yet major studios complex licensing requirements and insistence on copy protection make the corresponding legitimate video product unwieldy. Want to watch a movie on a Friday night? Perhaps it was on Netflix on Monday, but pulled on Thursday due to a contract dispute. Interested in watching that movie you bought on iTunes? Too bad your Samsung TV won’t read the copy-protected format. Trying to use the new Hollywood “ultra violet” standard to watch a movie on your phone? Too bad there’s no supported player for your phone. It’s little wonder no one wants to buy a product with inferior features and a premium price.

While Hollywood certainly has reasons for attempting to cling to its old model, lambasting your consumers while simultaneously offering a grossly inferior product certainly looks like a tragic drama rather than a blockbuster of a strategy.

Technology-driven fitness and weight loss – Part 1

This is a bit of a deviation from my usual IT-related content, but as many in IT share a somewhat sedentary and travel-heavy lifestyle and we’re nearing the barrage of weight-loss related advertisements and resolutions that accompany the New Year, I thought I’d share how I shed 30 lbs. (around 14 kg) over the past year. Realize of course that what works for one person may fail miserably for another, so I’ll try to temper my enthusiasm for the tools I mention, but they did appeal to my technical nature and gadget-lust, and hopefully might be valuable for others. All the fitness and weight loss “programs” are free, and work just fine without the associated toys. However I find a gadget or two makes things a bit more enjoyable!

So without further ado, here we go. I’ve put fitness-related items first, and weight loss second since I find the two combine for significant improvements in health. Personally, I worked on the fitness part first, but you could certainly explore whichever appeals to you first.

Couch to 5K

For the vast majority of my life I loathed running. Every couple of years I’d make a halfhearted attempt to start running, and after a mile of near-death cardio torture and two days of soreness I’d promptly give up and consider those who ran borderline madmen addicted to flagellation. I couldn’t run a mile, let alone imagine running half-marathons. Despite this, I decided to give running one more chance, since it was the most “portable” exercise, requiring little more than shoes and shorts, a huge benefit as I was travelling all over the world with limited gym access in some places. Running also limits my excuses. There’s no whining about how far away the gym is, or worries about buying expensive or complex equipment, you just put on your shoes and go, rain or shine.

Couch to 5K (free) turned me into a runner, primarily by ignoring distances and focusing on time. It’s essentially a 9 week program that starts with running for a mere 60 seconds, followed by 90 seconds of walking for about 20 minutes total, and gradually increases the running time. The program encourages you to repeat sessions until you’re comfortable, and upon completion, equips you to run a 5K race (about 3.2 miles).

I started C25K in mid-2008, and have since done 6 half-marathons and just started triathlons this season. I say that not to brag, but to further the point that a card-carrying non-runner can make such a dramatic transition, in my case 15 years or so past their supposed athletic prime. About half-way through the program, I’d recommend registering for a local 5K race around the time you’ll finish. Even now I find nothing motivates my training like having a race on the calendar, and experiencing the rush of finishing my first 5K sealed the deal for me. I became a runner.

I’d also suggest doing your running outside when possible. I started on a treadmill, but I find running outside much more mentally stimulating, and a better workout since you’re attacking real hills rather than the simulation a treadmill offers.

In terms of running gadgets, if you’re going to embark on C25K, visit a decent local running store, and be prepared to spend $60-100 on a good pair of running shoes. Different people have different styles of running, and a good shoe will save you significant pain as you start. You’ll pay more for the same product than a big-box outlet, but the people staffing dedicated running stores will do a much better job identifying the best shoe for your gait.

Once you get going, there are all manner of “toys” to track and monitor your progress. I like the Garmin Forerunner GPS watches, and Nike+ also offers an interesting option that integrates with iPhones and iPods. There are a slew of smartphone apps that will track your distances and even interface with heart monitors, so if you’re a stats junkie, running will certainly scratch that itch. Many of the devices have a social component (especially Nike+) that will help maintain motivation by sharing results with friends, and providing gentle encouragement if that’s your thing.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about the weight-loss side of the equation. Until then, happy running!