Monday, December 05, 2016

First Impressions: Garmin Vivoactive HR

My brother bought me a Garmin Vivoactive HR as a late birthday present. Continuous use of my Vivoactive has reduced its battery life significantly, so it was a timely gift. Over the past year, Garmin has been the only smart watch maker that has been gaining market share. Since you've probably not ever seen a Garmin ad (I certainly haven't), this market share gain has been entirely via word of mouth and product excellence, which is unusual in this day and age where marketing trumps all.

When putting the watch on the wrist, I was immediately impressed by how it's completely changed the UI from the predecessor. The two buttons no longer do what I thought they did, but in exchange the device is more customizable. I can now remove the Golf app, which I'll never use. The touch screen swipes also no longer do what they used to do. I also bought the Garmin Tempe sensor, and that pairs reliably with the Vivoactive HR, as well as providing temperature information for my rides to the device, which faithfully logs it.

The HR functionality is the major feature upgrade. I didn't realize how constricting my HRM band was until I started riding without it. It felt liberating. In exchange, the data probably isn't anywhere as accurate. My hardest efforts barely registered 160bpm, while with the strap I could regularly exceed that on the reading. One nice note about the HR functionality --- if you have both a Garmin watch and an Edge, you can broadcast the HR from the watch to the Edge by turning on the broadcast feature. While the device warns that this will reduce battery life, in practice, the battery life of the device is so great that I haven't really noticed it.

The other improvement is the battery life. There's two ways to view this. One is that passive battery life has been reduced, because the always-on HRM reduces the previous life from about 14 days to about 5 days if you leave it on. The other way is that active GPS-on battery life has been increased from 10 hours to 13 hours. In practice, 3 hours of riding (with HR broadcast on) reduces the battery life by about 20%, which extrapolates to about 15 hours of riding. That's excellent, and gives me confidence that after a year or so of use, the battery will still be good for about 10 hours of riding, which would enable me not to have to charge it in the middle of a ride. Not only does the increased battery life mean that battery wear will no longer make the device useless, the increased battery life also means that the number of cycles the device endures is reduced, which in turns also reduces battery wear if you're fond of long workouts.

The third feature is the barometer, which is huge for cyclists and hikers, but also opens up ski mode. Reports are that ski mode works really well, detecting when you get on ski lifts, etc., and recording the number of runs, but I'm not an enthusiastic skier, so don't expect to use this mode at all.

The con is that as before, Garmin has locked out open water swimming (there's no reason the device couldn't do it, just that Garmin wants you to upgrade to the $600/$450 during holiday sale Fenix 3 HR). There are also no structured workout or power meter support. But if you need either of those, you're way more serious about training than the average athlete, and can probably justify a dedicated device or the Fenix 3 HR.

The long and short of it is that Garmin has hit the ball out of the park with the Vivoactive HR. If the competition was just Google, Garmin could rest easy, since Google ADD probably means that it will give up on Android wear soon. Unfortunately for Garmin (and fortunately for us consumers), Apple and Fitbit still provide viable competition in this space, and neither of those suffer from ADD and will stick around for the foreseeable future.

The difference between the Garmin device and the Apple watch is the battery life: if your ride/run ever exceeds 4 hours or so, the Garmin device will be your choice. The difference between a Fitbit and a Garmin is the software/data ecosystem. If your primary social network for fitness activities is Strava (as it is with most cyclists), then go with the Garmin. If you're mostly a "step-counter" person whose social network is filled with Fitbit users, then Garmin wouldn't work for you at all. As a self-driven person who's workout patterns aren't driven by social networks, the Garmin device has much better reliability and integrates with the cycling ecosystem better.

Obviously, a long term review is a necessity, but my first impressions of the Vivoactive HR is nothing short of stellar. With the holiday pricing of $199 and potentially coupons at Best Buy, REI, and other vendors, this is a great time to get one.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Review: Harmony Hub & Echo Dot

I started writing this review of an Echo Dot, but realized that I couldn't really review it without the true reason for its presence in the home, which is the Logitech Harmony Smart Control.

A year ago, I bought the Amazon Echo and returned it. It was a great device, but didn't really justify its place in the living room. It was too big, and it didn't do very much, and it did a terrible job of voice recognition for my wife and Bowen. (The non-English speakers in the household obviously couldn't use it at all!) A year later, the Echo Dot is $50 ($40 during the holiday season), and it's basically the Echo stripped of the speakers, requiring you to plug it into the entertainment center's speaker system. That's perfect, since you likely have much better speakers in the entertainment center than any puny portable speaker will do. Much has been made about how the Google Home device is cheaper than the Echo, but the reality is that most people should really buy the Dot instead.

Out of the box, the device could control my Sensi thermostat. Realistically speaking, however, you're not going to adjust your home temperature that way. If your programming is up to par at all, you're going to tweak the thermostat at most once a month, and remember the voice command to do that is more onerous than pulling out the smartphone and running the app.

But once I got the Logitech Harmony Smart Control Hub ($70 right now on Amazon, which is a great holiday season deal), the Dot proved to be extremely useful. I'll summarize what the Harmony Hub does. It plugs into the wall, and you can program it with your computer or smart phone app to act as a universal report. What's great about it is that it accepts commands from your smart phone, a "simple remote", or another universal report via RF. That means it can sit inside a cabinet and still receive signals. It incorporates an IR blaster, which can then activate all the other devices in the same cabinet. For devices that are outside the cabinet (e.g., the TV), the device comes with an auxiliary IR blaster that can be plugged in and then run outside the cabinet.

Put it together with the Amazon Echo, and wow! With the old universal remote, it could power on the IR-driven devices, but couldn't turn on the PS3. Now, I'd walk into the living room and say, "Alexa, turn on Playstation." It would then immediately power up the PS3, TV, and Speakers, switching the speakers over to the PS3's output. "Alexa, turn off AV" would turn everything off. No more hunting for the remote, no pulling out the phone to switch to the app. As someone who's never cared about home automation (seriously, do you need voice control to turn on the lights?), this is truly a "Star Trek" living in the future experience. And no, Google Home can't do it because it doesn't support "external skills" yet.

The penalties: I still can't access my Google Music library, and I'd have to pay $24/year to upload all my music to Amazon's music library. That sucks. I'm sure at some point I'll break down and pay if music becomes important enough.

In any case, I highly recommend this combination. Given the sales during the holiday season, it's well worth the time to set it up.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Review: Snap Circuits Arcade

I grew up with legos here and there, but never got obsessed with them the way some people did. The dedicated kits that are now popular also fail to ignite my interest, and the times someone gives Bowen one of those kits it invariably results in me assembling it for him.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays there was a sale on the Snap Circuits Arcade Electronics Kit for a reasonably good price. The cover says it's for kids 8 and up, but various reviews said that a 5 year old would still get good value out of it if an adult helped, so I jumped on it, despite not having ever played with electronics as a kid.

The box is huge, but most of it is air. There's a bread board, and 35 discrete pieces: a battery holder, a fan (with LED persistence of vision output!), a microcontroller (already preprogrammed and not programmable!), a speaker and alarm unit, various resistors, switches, and wires of different lenghts as well as a bunch of jumper cables. Most of the units are quite well built and capable of withstanding a 5-year-old's abuse. The disco lights, however, is a flimsy 2 piece dome and stick set that's very prone to getting lost, unfortunately!

I got out the set and looked at the instructions and resigned myself to having to assemble the circuits for Bowen as he picked projects in the book. To my surprise, that turned out not to be true! He was the one who figured out that I had laid out the bread board upside down (i.e., it's an inside out breadboard, with pegs instead of holes), and then with only a little bit of help, he could assemble the simple circuits and place the jumper cables correctly in the right places!

What's great about the kit is that some of the more complex circuits force you to learn how to debug. If the speaker doesn't work, you know to trace the speaker area to see which part of the circuit hadn't been assembled directly. After watching me do that a few times, Bowen learned to do it himself!

The projects are relatively simple: a dice simulator, a black jack game, a trip-wire alarm, a moisture detector, and some projects that just make noise and light up. Many of the projects are just the same circuit with different programs to run on the micro-controller, so of the 200 projects listed, there are really only about 30-40 circuits that you have to build.

What's not so great:

  • The project manual is strictly that, a project manual. It lists projects, circuit boards, and instructions. While there are rudimentary descriptions of the various pieces, there's no guide as to how the inputs are supposed to work. For instance, there's no comprehensive listing of every program available in the microcontroller, nor are the specifications for how the controller sends signals to the speakers for them to play music.
  • As mentioned above, some small pieces are easy to lose and a bear to keep track of. Fortunately, there's a web-site that let's you order missing parts.
  • The micro-controller should be more programmable than it is. Why isn't there an EPROM in there where I can plug in a micro USB cable and reprogram it?!!
Nevertheless, for the price, it's reasonably fun and teaches the kind of debugging skills that's useful in real life. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: Internet and Fax 56K USB Modem (Sewell)

I know: you're thinking that Piaw has finally taken this "retro-grouch" thing too far. Sure, my phone's from 2015, and my computers from 2009, and many parts on my bicycle are even older than that, but a modem? In this day and age?

So what happened is that in dealing with my parent's long term care insurance, I frequently have to fax documents to them. You can use FaxZero, which is free for faxes under 3 pages (with a maximum of 5 free faxes a day), but more than that and you're paying $2 per fax (which is insane). Other online fax services start from $17/month and go up from there, with $10 setup fees and what not. I bet they're really hard to cancel too! Then I remembered that I actually had a landline that came as part of my internet plan. I actually try to get rid of it every so often, but it apparently qualifies as some sort of "double play" promotion which means that my internet price would be higher without it!

I tried buying a dumb old fax machine, but they start at $40. That in itself is not a problem but they're huge! So I went with a USB Fax Modem. I went for the cheapest $14 modem, which is still cheaper than even a month of fax service. Windows 10 came with a Fax and Scan software (though in practice I use Acrobat 9 to scan and then convert the PDF to TIFF). It's clunky and not the best UI but I don't have to install anything, and it works.

I don't use it often (maybe once a week or so), but if you need to fax something and have a computer with a scanner, this is way to go. It's tiny, doesn't chew power or require an extra power socket, and you can just plug it into a computer with a USB-A port. If that means I'm stuck buying PCs instead of Chromebooks, so be it. Tag me with a retro-grouch label. See if I care!


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: Medical School for Everyone: Emergency Medicine

I picked up Medical School for Everyone: Emergency Medicine thinking that it'll be a boring litany of cases of what you need to go to the emergency room is for. I was wrong. This course (I'm tempted to say "show") is an exciting, fun, and informative series of case studies that are fast paced, interesting, and way more fun than real medical school would be, since you wouldn't have to suffer sleep deprivation to go through it.

The first couple of episodes cover some basic things: triage (or why you have to wait so darn long to be seen when you visit the ER --- and why you do not want to be the person who skips over everyone else to be seen first!), how emergency responders work. Then the course goes into how to do diagnosis, from the initial ABCs (Airway, Breathing, and Circulation, then Disability and Exposure) and the OLD CARTS rule (Onset, Location, Duration, Character, Aggrevating factors, Relieving factors, Timing and Severity).

Every episode contains a bunch of case studies, each of which is a patient, some of which are modeled on famous outbreaks. You're then challenged to provide a diagnosis (and yes, all the clues are fair, so when you do get one there's a very strong sense of satisfaction!) and then the lecturer provides the outcome. It's all told in second person, choose-your-own-adventure style and I guarantee it provides intellectual challenge and interest. In some cases, he even interrupts your thinking with another patient that's come in and triaged ahead of the current case, which is very realistic, and then you'll have to return to the previous patient later, providing added mental challenge.

Not all of the problems are completely medical in nature. In a number of cases, sociological factors come into play. This truly is a comprehensive array of interesting cases. If I'd audited this series when growing up I might have decided that being an ER doctor would be a lot of fun (or maybe not, Dr. Benaroch doesn't shy away from the massive amount of blood and trauma he has had to deal with, and the occasional patient who doesn't survive the ER visit, despite doing everything right). In any case, I think it presents a fair, undramatic portrayal of how an ER doctor's day goes --- many of the diagnosis are only arrived upon after calm thinking, listening and reflection, and the tests are only there to confirm the diagnosis.

The series closes with an exploration of some practical issues: what cases are worth going to the ER for, and what cases aren't. When should you treat a fever, and when is a fever actually helpful? What should you do before traveling to a foreign country? This advise is good and also illustrated by case studies that amplify the point.

Needless to say, this audio book comes highly recommended, and is well worth your time. Highly recommended, especially if you have accident prone kids who have to visit the ER often.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein is Joshua Foer's memoir of his experience going from a journalist covering the world memory championships to becoming a competitor himself and winning the U.S. memory championships.

Along the way, Foer covers deliberate practice, and even provides a few tips on how to overcome plateaus. At one point, his speed in memorizing numbers stopped improving, and upon asking for help from an expert, was told to approach it differently (instead of directly trying to improve his time, tried to memorize more numbers in the same amount of time, which would inevitably lead to failure, which actually created more learning), which overcame his barrier. This is good stuff, and well worth reading.

He also describes Daniel Tammet (who wrote Born on a Blue Day). He presents compelling evidence that Tammet wasn't an Autistic Savant as he claims in that book, but rather, a normal person who secretly practiced memory techniques in order to pull off the stunts and claims that he was in fact, an Autistic Savant. This is huge as well.

There's the usual coverage of well-known memory techniques, like memory palaces, and the social scene revolving around the posturing and out-psyching of each other that you would expect to find at top level competitions. Even then, the behind the scenes look at the memory championships makes you realize something --- even these experts have to triage on what to remember. In one of the events, Foer basically gives up on memorizing phone numbers and won simply by becoming lucky enough to never be called on to remember them!

In the end, however, Foer realizes (and even says it outright) that while becoming the U.S. memory champion was a great experience in and of itself (it's pretty impressive to be tops at anything in the US), the memory techniques he learned didn't really help out in day-to-day life: he still forgot where he placed his car keys and other random mundane things, which was one of the primary drivers for him to try to improve his memory in the first place!

Finally, he explains why most people find that "time passes faster as you get older":
“In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn-out,” he wrote. “But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.” Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older (Kindle Loc 1157)
 In other words, if you want a subjectively longer life, have more fresh experiences rather than allow your life to become routine. I've often had this experience during a tour: 2 days ago feels like ages ago, and a week ago might as well have been a lifetime, yet every memory is fresh when I go back to write it up. Life lived intensely is memorable and easy to recall, while the routine gets compressed and lost in time.

I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Recommended!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: Nutrition Made Clear

You probably already know everything that's in the course, Nutrition Made Clear. For instance, In Defense of Food, summarized everything in one sentence: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. But those books tend to be written for English majors: there's a huge amount of text devoted to the author's personal foibles, etc., while being tremendously short on facts or how you should approach the entire process.

Nutrition Made Clear is a good antidote for the typical nutrition book. It's very focused, and while it does make use of anecdotes (in the form of case studies of patients she's seen, or members of the Rice football team), goes mainly for the facts and what we know (and don't know) about nutrition.

She's brutally honest about her profession, noting that over the years, nutritionists have shifted from the vitamins and minerals approach to whole foods approach, mostly because the many ingredients found in fresh fruits and vegetables (phytochemicals) have many beneficial properties that have yet to be extracted, understood, or properly studied, hence the advise to "eat all colors of the rainbow." She also notes that coffee and tea also have similar properties, which are also not well understood --- though in the case of coffee and tea, the tannins also have some adverse interactions with certain minerals (in particular, coffee and tea reduces iron absorption --- don't drink coffee while eating your oysters, for instance!).

Sprinkled throughout the lecture series are several tips:

  • Nutritionists used to think that you have to eat complementary vegetable proteins to make a whole protein in the same meal (e.g., rice and beans). Now they think it only has to make it through your stomach on the same day to make the whole protein.
  • Use cast iron frying pans to increase iron absorption in during normal cooking. The contamination properties of cast iron frying pans can really make a difference in adding iron to your body!
  • Omega-3's beneficial properties for people at risk of heart attacks also thins the blood. So don't assume that a little is good means more is better. Too much Omega-3 could thin your blood so much that you could have trouble clotting! In particular, don't combine with blood thinners.
  • Most people who successfully lose weight and keep it off eat breakfast every day! Don't skip this meal if you want to lose weight!
  • Moderation is key. Too much of anything could cause problems. But in general, your plate should be 50% vegetables, 25% meat, and 25% whole grains. She provides detail and color as to why eliminating carbs entirely might not work out.
  • Calories in vs calories out is not obsolete!
  • People think that exercise doesn't work when it comes to losing weight. This is wrong. It mostly doesn't work because people out-eat their exercise. A 1 mile walk (2000 steps) is 100 calories burned. It's very easy to go for a 1 mile walk, and then come back and eat  a bar of chocolate (280 calories), and then you've out-eaten your exercise and then some! If you actually want to control your weight, you need to exercise half an hour a day, every day! If you want to lose weight, you need to bump it up to at least an hour a day, every day! (By the way, this explains why step counters actually hurt some people when it comes to weight loss -- that 10,000 steps is only 500 calories, which is trivially easy to out eat) Conversely, this explains why I practically have to force-feed my companions chocolate and ice cream during the Tour of the Alps. It's substantially much harder to try to eat 3X your normal calorie intake.
  • Other benefits of exercise (such as reducing risks of heart attacks and diabetes) only work for 24 hours after the exercise. So treat exercise like a pill you take every day.
So, in general, you know all this. But it's very nice to have someone spell it out for you (such as eating an extra slice of bread a day - 50 calories more) adds up to about 10 pounds of weight gain a year. The lecture series lays it out in stark terms.

Anyway, I enjoyed the series and would recommend it to anyone, even if they think they already know everything there is to know about nutrition.