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Takedown

RIP PhatBox

I am fortunate to have a 2002 BMW E46 M3 convertible. It’s a great car that I love to drive. Unfortunately, it has auto electronics circa 2001 (when I actually purchased the car). About a year into owning it, I decided that the trunk-mounted CD player just wasn’t going to cut it. I had a huge number of ripped CDs and even though downloadable MP3s weren’t quite readily available yet, I knew that they would be broadly available soon. In searching for a way to play MP3 files through the standard radio interface of the car, I found the Holy Grail. Well, it seemed that way at the time. A removable disk-based MP3 player that used the existing BMW wiring to connect to the standard head unit in the dash. All praise the PhatNoise PhatBox.
PhatBox
The idea was great, a device with a removable disk drive (20GB!) that used the same cabling as the target vehicle. In my case, a 3-Series BMW. The drive could be removed from its semi-permanent home in the trunk of my car, inserted into a docking port connected to my computer and synced with my MP3 database of tunes. What could possibly go wrong, right? A spinning disk in an enclosed space without any climate control and subject to the shaking, rattling and rolling of a tightly sprung sports sedan. Perfect conditions for a fast-spinning disk drive . . . Not.

Well, this device has been a rock-solid stud. Almost never a skip or a missed beat, even on washboard New England roads in 90 degree heat and equal humidity. The PhatBox never failed to play all my favorites. On call, all the time. Along the way, I lost the docking station and stopped updating the music on the PhatBox. No matter really, since I mostly listen to classic rock and there’s not a lot of that coming out these days by definition.

The PhatBox is a seriously great product. Not only did it put up with being in the trunk of a car for the last dozen years, for its day, it was an exhibitionist of great engineering. PhatNoise dealt with the limited interface on the BMW Nav/Infotainment unit by synthesizing voice directives so that they could use the limited number of buttons available to multiplex several functions. When a button is pressed once, the PhatBox announces, “the current playlist is XYZ.” When pressed again, the next playlist is announced. Easy smeazy. The synchronization app worked flawlessly – much better than Apple’s abomination, iTunes. No muss, no fuss and it didn’t even cost a lot. Yeah, sure, I had to fabricate a mounting bracket for it so that it fit where the old CD changer was mounted, but that was just a few hours of work. Unfortunately, it appears that PhatNoise couldn’t keep up. They appear to still be in business, but no longer sell the PhatBox. The solid state, iPod dominant ship came ashore and sailed and PhatNoise didn’t get on board.

PhatBoxSo, today, the PhatBox got lovingly removed from the M3 (these photos are of my PhatBox after removal from the car). It’s brought me loads of joy over the years, but my inability to update it – a man can’t live on classic rock alone, after all – has forced me to move on. I replaced it with an Audiovox Mediabridge that uses an external iPod or USB memory stick loaded with MP3s. It also has a Bluetooth connection and can wirelessly connect to my phone. It’s not like landing on Mars or anything, but it is an advance in technology.

PhatNoise created a terrific product that has brought me loads of enjoyment over many years. It’s too bad that they couldn’t make a go of it and bring all their great engineering prowess into the present. I have incredible respect for the people who built the product. It’s been a total blast to use for all these years.

Thanks, PhatNoise.

Activity/Fitness Monitor Showdown

OK, I admit it. I’m a data junkie. I just totally believe that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. So, I want to measure everything. Although, it’s even better when someone or something does the measuring for me. With this in mind, I recently decided to figure out what was the best way to measure my physical activity – movement, calories, weight lifted, stairs climbed, etc. Unfortunately, some of this data remains hard to come by. While machines in the gym – treadmill, elliptical, stationary cycle, etc. all generate some types of data. This data isn’t normalized across machines and, generally, cannot be exported for tracking.

The answer seemed to lie in the new crop of activity monitors available. The small devices worn on the wrist or kept in the pocket to track the steps one has taken, the calories burned, elevation climbed and so forth. Unfortunately, the current crop of activity monitors don’t really even try to cover some of the data I was looking for. Even worse, I had heard that many of the facets of activity they claim to cover are not all that accurate. Since my interest in gathering activity data was bordering on a need rather than desire, I had to find out what my options were. So I tried several trackers out.

My pseudo-scientific test included most of today’s popular devices plus one monitor that runs on my Android phone (there are other Android apps and, of course, iOS apps as well, especially for Apple phones with the M7 processor).

  • Withings Pulse
  • Fitbit Flex (thanks Brad Feld)
  • Garmin Vivofit
  • Jawbone UP (thanks Shawn Broderick)
  • Moves App

Activity Monitor Comparo

There are several more, of course, but my arms are short. I wore these devices daily for about a month. It was still cold outside so I could hide this embarrassing electronic armband with the sleeves of a shirt. There are lots of features of these devices that I don’t cover here. If you’re going to make a purchase, you should hit the companies’ web sites for complete information.

I need to note that I didn’t test all types of activities that these monitors track. Since these devices are for the arm or pocket, cycling isn’t accurately tracked (nor is it claimed to be) and I am not a runner, so I didn’t even test for running. I also didn’t test the sleep functions of any of the trackers. I move around a reasonable amount each day, I frequently spend time on an elliptical trainer and in the gym lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises. I am a reasonably fit and active person. The question is, would the data reflect this.

Let me get right to the bottom line: These devices measure some activities moderately well and others either poorly or not at all. They all greatly depend on a certain type of body movement that their accelerometers (motion detectors) can pick up. A person who has a hard-pounding walking style will register more activity than one who floats over pavement, for example. If your primary activities are non-aerobic (weight lifting), these devices are useless. And even if they are aerobic, but only involve smooth movements (e.g. cycling), very little data is acquired. They are, basically, walking and running monitors. Additionally, the data gathered is best used as a comparison of the user’s activity over time because the absolute accuracy of these devices is questionable.

Here are a couple of examples that bear this out . . .

The reports below are generated by each of the devices. The first three – by the Garmin, Withings (side-by-side) and Fitbit (below), respectively – are clips from their web pages. Unfortunately, the next two – from Moves and Jawbone – don’t provide a graphical web interface. The data is only available on a computer by downloading it into a spreadsheet via the web. All the devices have phone apps that display the data graphically. While it’s nice to be able to access the data on a phone, I much prefer being able to see and manipulate the data with a computer on the web. Personal preference.

Activity Montior - 5-10-2014

Moves - 5-10-2014

Jawbone - 5-10-2014

This is the data from May 10 – a randomly chosen day (I did the test on the elliptical 14 times during the month). All devices were worn throughout the day. You can see that the data on number of steps varies wildly.

Device

Steps

Garmin 4,218
Withings 9,715
Fitbit 4,548
Moves 8,786
Jawbone 7,059

All reported correctly that the primary movement started at about 7:30 pm and lasted for about an hour. During that time I was on an elliptical machine which can very accurately track the number of steps taken. The elliptical reported, roughly, 6,500 steps were taken, making the reported values of less than 5,000 for the whole day a bit suspect.

The distance covered also varies a lot between devices. It ranges from 2.09 mi (Fitbit) to 4.19 miles (Withings). Regardless of what distance I actually traveled during the day, the 2x difference in range makes me question all of the data. FWIW, the elliptical claims I ran/climbed more than 6 miles during that session.

On another day, I did a similar test on the elliptical with all devices in my pocket instead of on my wrist. The results were different – all values were higher, but the variance was just as high.

The data from April 21 is below in the same order as previously reported. Unfortunately, there is no Jawbone data for this day. This was a moderately active day with a concentrated weight lifting session from 2:30-3:30 pm. Note that none of the apps register much activity during this time. For most of the day, I was just moving around, doing whatever I needed and wanted to do without actually “exercising.” For this, most of the trackers were more aligned, however, there is still almost a 2x difference between the lowest (Moves) and highest (Garmin) in step count.

Clearly, the lack of activity reported during a very active weight lifting session shows that these trackers are not a reliable way of tracking this type of activity data.

Activity Montior - 4-21-2014

Moves - 4-21-2014

Some thoughts about each of the trackers . . .

Withings Pulse:

Pros –

  • Device fits in pocket nicely or on the wrist with a watch-like band
  • Great display of all data, scrollable to see results from other days
  • Touch sensitive screen for scrolling through data
  • Micro-USB port on device for charging (this is a pro because as an Android user, I always have a micro-USB charger with me)

Cons –

  • Hard to read display in sunlight
  • Not water resistant

Garmin Vivofit

Pros –

  • Replaceable battery lasts for a year (others need recharging after 10-14 days)
  • Bright display easily readable in sunlight
  • Red reminder indicator to get your ass off the couch
  • Water resistant
  • Data is combined with that from other Garmin devices to give a bigger activity picture

Cons –

  • Bluetooth syncing failed frequently
  • Web site is difficult to negotiate

Fitbit Flex

Pros –

  • Small, easily moves from wrist band to pocket
  • Water resistant

Cons –

  • No data display – just some LEDs showing progress towards the day’s goals
  • I found the wrist band hard to put on even after a couple of month’s usage
  • Requires USB dongle for recharging

Moves

Pros –

  • Runs on phone so has optional access to GPS data – knows how fast your moving and where you are
  • Runs on phone so it’s almost always with you

Cons –

  • Runs on phone so it consumes battery power
  • No graphical data available on the web

Jawbone UP

Pros –

  • Looks the most like jewelry
  • Water resistant

Cons –

  • No data display – just a colored light to tell you when you’ve achieved your goal
  • No graphical data on the web
  • No wireless communication – must connect to computer to download data (newer version of hardware apparently has Bluetooth)
  • Requires USB dongle for recharging

Where do I go from here . . .

None of these devices are perfect or, for that matter, even very good in an absolute sense. As I said earlier, they do a decent job indicating your relative activity from day to day and in that way, they can disclose and track some valuable metrics. Many of these devices have other features that may increase their value to the user as well. The Withings Pulse can also track your pulse and blood oxygen levels and the Garmin Vivofit always shows the current time, for example.

For me, I think I’m going to move to a combination of devices. Perhaps Moves on my phone because it’s so transparent for daily activity (I’m carrying it anyway) and either the Garmin Vivofit or Withings Pulse for when I’m purposefully exercising. I’m then going to use the HumanAPI to combine the data so that I can track my overall activity in one place. Or, perhaps I’ll get some help with my OCD-ish need for collecting data and drop the whole thing altogether.

Gadget Review–Thinkpad X220

This is my third Thinkpad – first from IBM and now Lenovo. They have been my laptop of choice for as long as I can remember. An X40, then an X60s and now this new baby. Not as stylish as those unibody Macs that almost everyone I know uses these days, but I’ll take function over form any day (well, mostly – although my kids strongly disagree, I’m not entirely without style). These computers have been rock solid over the years and I’ve been able to continuously extend their lives, upgrading batteries, disks, memory and versions of Windows – eeking out more from these machines than IBM and Lenovo probably ever intended. They have been no-muss, no-fuss workhorses and I fully expect the same from the X220.

The configuration I purchased isn’t even all decked out. I selected the options that best met my needs – Sandy Bridge i5, 2.5GHz, 6GB of memory, 128GB SSD, 1366X768 IPS 16X9 12.5” display and Windows 7 64-Bit (oh yeah, baby). While that’s still a formidable laptop setup, faster processors, more memory and bigger disks are available to drive this thing faster and further.

CPU-Z-X220

The system boots fast and resumes from standby instantly. The screen is really sharp and the computer executes everything quickly. Best of all, battery life is completely outstanding. I can pound on this things for 5-6 hours without refueling. If I’m just watching videos, it’s a couple hours more than that – excellent for long plane rides.  I’ve stopped carrying my iPad. At 1.0” thick (there is another 0.25” bump where the battery is) and weighing in at about 3 pounds, it’s light and goes almost anywhere my iPad went and I like the keyboard way better.

As with most things, not all is perfect. The machine comes with IBM/Lenovo’s classic TrackPoint device, which I’ve always loved. It also comes with a touchpad. You can set the machine to recognize one or the other or both. Problem is, the touchpad sorta sucks. It doesn’t track consistently and trying to use it alongside the TrackPoint requires manual dexterity that genetics hasn’t quite yet refined. So, I have the touch pad turned off. The other problem is with the display. While it’s bright and sharp and colors are superbly reproduced, 768 pixels filling the, roughly, 6.25” screen height just doesn’t cut it. As much as media wants to go widescreen, productivity apps still long for good ol’ 4:3. Or, at least a physically taller display so that what’s displayed is easier to read. There’s just not enough vertical information displayed when trying to get real work done or even just browsing the web.

Do these problems detract from the experience? Perhaps. Everyone needs to decide for themselves. For me, the screen height thing keeps this from being a perfect, do-everything computing device, but it’s just not enough of an issue to spoil all the advantages that it offers. I suggest you take a look at one before buying to judge for yourself, though. It may be a more substantial issue for you.

The battery life on its own makes this computer terrific. Add to that the speed, great keyboard, bright display, Windows 7 and upgradeability and I think this will be my laptop for many years to come. Even if I have to do a lot of vertical scrolling.

No PMC For Me This Year

PMC-Logo-2011-180x157After seven years of riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge, a 2-day charity bike ride across Massachusetts, I’m going to have to bail out of this year’s event. The ride is a big deal for me each year because it supports a truly meaningful cause – cancer research – and the supporters of it, most of whom have been touched by cancer, really work to make it a rewarding experience. It’s a tough ride, but a total blast. I’m skipping this year because my knee, which I had surgery on in March, has not healed LIKE I WAS PROMISED! The surgeon said I’d be back in four months and now is saying it’ll be at least six. The physical therapist isn’t even that optimistic. As it turns out, the fine print in the surgery contract doesn’t say anything about commitments by a medical professional being legally binding (yes, I’m kidding).

While I’m not going to be able to do any actually pedaling in the event, I can still do some peddling (get it? pedaling vs. peddling? funny, right?). I’m still going to try and raise some money for The Jimmy Fund. To do that, I’m going to be a “virtual rider” for the PMC. It’s just what it sounds like, I’m afraid. I pretend to ride so that I can pimp the cause.

If you have the desire and ability to donate, I’d appreciate your support of the efforts at Dana Farber. I have raised $35,920 over the last 7 years and already have $4,840 committed for this year. I suppose it’s a bit lame to be seeking donations when I’ll be sitting on my butt during the 2-day ride, but if by making it a bit easier to donate I can convince a few more people to throw in with the cause, it’s worth it.

Thanks in advance!

Gadget Review–Windows Phone 7

Yeah, I’m pretty late to the game here. That said, I bet I’ve played with this (thanks Shawn!) before most of the people I know or who read this blog. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of the people I know never intend to ever giving it a try (so why are you still reading?). Well, if you’re one of those people, you owe it to yourself to at least give Windows Phone 7 fifteen minutes of playtime at your favorite phone store or, even better, a 15-30 day trial from your favorite carrier. It’s still a 1.x phone and, therefore, is missing some of the polish and completeness of it’s iPhone and Android competition, but I think it’s a fresh, cool approach to the smartphone category.

As a current Android user and a former (reformed?) iPhone user, I have a pretty good feel for what I use the phone for and what’s most important to me. I don’t play games on my phone. It’s a communication device primarily, a synced data access device (think Evernote and Smugphoto) secondarily and web browsing device tertiarily (did I just make that up?). I run a handful of apps that don’t fit into these categories, but they’re icing on the cake rather than the cake itself. In that light, I found Windows Phone 7 surprisingly satisfying and quite a bit different from the other platforms.

The first thing you notice is how fast the UI is. Everything runs smoothly without pause. Even on mediocre hardware, the OS feels quick. Add to that the constant visual feedback and animation in transitions and the experience is just cool. Also out of the shoot, Microsoft’s choices of fonts and font sizes make the display clear and easy on the eye – almost playful. The tiled, mosaic home page makes getting to what you want quick and painless. Since I use just a few apps, most of those being native to all leading phones, I can always get to what I want fast. That seems to be the goal of phone and one which it achieves . . . in a 1.x sorta way.

Email is my primary app when using a smartphone. Setting up the stock email program to work with my Gmail account (including contacts and calendar) was as easy as setting things up on Android. I’m still a bit unsure if Windows Phone uses all the correct labels from Gmail for spam, trash, etc. There’s also no basic “Archive” button, which I have become quite used to in Gmail. Also missing is threaded messaging. For some, that’ll be enough of a deal killer. Apparently, MS is going to add it in a later rev of the software. Moving between messages is easy and reading them even easier. With threaded messaging and a little more Gmail integration, this email app could blow away the stock Android app. For example, it’s much easier to move a message to a folder (change its label in Gmail-speak) than on the Android Gmail app.

Contacts get a little weird. If you’re big into email like me, your contact list is critical. Windows Phone sucks down your contacts from Facebook and merges them with your other contacts. I don’t like that at all. Segregation of contacts is important to me. I have Facebook “friends” who shouldn’t be allowed to mingle with my real friends, if you know what I mean. Apparently, there’s a way to sorta separate them, but there’s still bussing between the lists. Funny enough, Twitter followers or followees are not allowed to participate here – at all. Word on the street that this will be addressed in the next version.

As you’d expect, there aren’t many apps available. Important ones like Evernote are, but other basic ones aren’t yet there. One gets the idea that they’re coming. Just very slowly. If you’re an app hound, the list may never be long enough on this OS for you. For me, I think the key apps will be there shortly.

Perhaps the biggest current failing of the phone is no multi-tasking. Actually, I shouldn’t say that there is no multitasking, the native apps seem to do it just fine. Zune runs in the background, mail downloads in the background, etc. It’s just not available to third party apps. MS has to rectify this or this phone will be a total loser. Again, apparently they’re workin’ on it. Funny, it seems like they should know something about implementing multitasking, huh?

Browsing is fast and efficient. SMS is more than reasonable. Oh yeah, the phone works great, just like a phone should.

I was pleasantly surprised with Windows Phone 7. Can Microsoft pull it off and become a contender? I hope so. Not only because I’m a MS fan, but because I’d love to see more competition driving this market.

Windows Server 2003 (or Windows Home Server) Account Lockout

I had a long power outage yesterday that caused my servers to shut down. While they are on UPS’s, 5 hours or so without power ran ‘em dry. When I tried to hook my desktops up to them after the outage, I couldn’t access the shares one of the servers. I kept getting an error telling me that my account was locked out. When I used Remote Desktop to login to the server (with the administrator’s account), the accounts were indeed, locked.

After playing around for a while and searching for a solution on the net, I ran into a reference to a solution to a similar problem that was whacky enough to give a try. As it turns out, the clock on my server had not updated itself for some reason and, in fact, had been reset to some date in 2007. Once I updated the clock on the server to the correct date and time and reset the lock status of the account, I had no more difficulties. Apparently, this is a security feature. I just wish it had been a bit easier to diagnose.

The Real Challenge for American Car Manufacturers

It seems that most people have yet to notice, but American car companies are back. Well, not necessarily back financially, but for the most part, they’re back to building world class vehicles. Certainly, there are few cars waiting for their refresh or to be dumped and many cars and even brands have simply been removed from the scene. The new stuff coming out of Detroit, though, is really very good and, for the most part, cheaper than anything shipped to US shores.

As it turns out, though, building new world class cars was the easy part for the American manufacturers. Projecting that reality to the buying public, however, is going to take a very long time. And long-term thinking is just not an American business strength.

A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with a couple of young entrepreneurs who were both planning new car purchases to accommodate their expanding families. I asked what cars they were looking at. Their answers . . . Honda, Toyota and Nissan SUVs with a BMW or Audi as a long shot. I asked if they had considered an American car. I got blank stares. I said that there were some really nice new small SUVs offered by Chevrolet and Ford. More blank stares. I told them that I had purchased one earlier in the year. Polite, but uninterested body language. I said that the gas mileage was great, it had more interior room than its competition, the safety ratings were the same as the cars they mentioned and after 11,000 hard city miles, the car was tight and solid. Maybe some slight interest, but I may have been imagining it. I then said that the car cost about $5,000 less than its direct Japanese competition and was $10,000 to $15,000 less than its German competition. They responded, “yeah, I’ll have to look into that,” and went to discussing the Japanese and German cars.

I have to assume that if the American companies continue to produce great cars at lower prices, eventually, the buyers will come. Clearly, the companies are going to have to be patient, though. When Lexus entered the US market, no one thought that anyone would buy a high-priced, “luxury” Toyota. At first, few did. Toyota knew this – they knew that it would take a very long time to be considered an equal with the worlds’ best vehicles in that class.  The costs must have been tremendous, but they stuck with their plan and we all know the outcome. The American auto manufacturers will need similar planning, patience and stick-to-itiveness.

Keep pumping out great cars at good prices, Detroit. Eventually, the buyers will come.

Note: there is some indication that the tide is already turning. According to the cars.com blog, KickingTires, Buick is currently outselling all luxury brands in the US except BMW (they are forecasted to beat BMW too by year’s end) with only four cars in their lineup and 73% year-over-year unit sales growth in February.

The Art of Asking and Listening – Active Listening

In the Sales 101 book that I’ll eventually get around to writing, learning how to shut up may end up being the sole topic of the first chapter. It’s truly shocking to me how often I witness a sales person dominating a conversation with a customer. The less your customer speaks, the less likely it is you’re going to figure what his/her problem is and because of that, the probability that you’ll be able to discoverer an opportunity or address his/her needs will be almost zero. Simple as that.

Successful sales people listen to their customers, making each communication with a customer an opportunity for the customer to say more about themselves, their situation and their needs. As much as we have been taught that listening is a passive activity, good listening is actually an active one. It involves asking questions about what the customer is saying to show that you are, in fact, listening, that you understand what they are saying and that you are interested in learning more. As much as a conversation with a customer should never be about your ego, it should always be about their ego. Make them feel great about what they are saying and show your respect for them by working to understand fully and expressing your interest.

I was just in a meeting where two of the people at the table never said a word. This wasn’t a pecking order or hierarchy thing, they were equal players as far as the sale went. It was clear that their lack of talking had actually led them to be bored and disengaged within a few minutes of the start of the meeting. In this meeting, the sales person was doing all the talking. He never asked a single question of the two people or anyone else for that matter. At this point, I don’t think that sale will ever happen.

Societally, we often think of sales people as the best talkers. In fact, the best sales people are the great listeners.

Working on a WordPress Plugin

It’s been a long time since I’ve written any serious code, but that doesn’t keep me from dabbling every now and again. Of course, I always find myself on the steepest part of the learning curve when I come around to engaging with a new compiler, debugger, language or environment. Since I do it rarely, I tend to forget everything I learned the last time and usually end up changing something major between forays – language, environment, libraries or something – it’s new every time. That’s OK, but it takes a lot of time and energy to simply catch up let alone move forward.

My latest trial is creating, (more like changing and adding) code written in PHP. Specifically, I’m making a cut at taking over a now unsupported plugin in WordPress. As with most languages and environments, that means I have to ramp in several domains. PHP, SQL and WordPress, primarily, but there’s a bunch of smaller stuff too.

The plugin I’m working on is a branch of Now Reading Reloaded which itself is a branch of the original Now Reading plugin. The authors of both decided that they didn’t have time to continue to enhance them. After spending about a week getting my head into the process, I don’t blame them.

Now Reading Reloaded allows me to track and comment on books I read and lets me keep a virtual library that I can access and share on my blog (see the widget on the left with all the pretty book covers or the Library link in the menu for the full list). For the most part, it works well. I have made some modifications to it in the past, but minor, visual ones primarily. What I want to do is make some functional modifications that require changes deep in the guts of the code.

WordPress is conceptually simple and PHP is pretty straightforward (it’s a scripting language, though, and therefore its is always a bit funky). SQL is SQL, arcane as always, but totally standardized. Put them all together, though, and it’s somewhat dizzying, at least for a newbie at it like me. The structure of WordPress plugins is regimented, but is too complex to allow one to just dip a toe in the water. I’m going to have to do a deep dive if I’m going to pull this off.

Here goes . . .

The Science Behind Traffic Jams

Why Traffic Jams Happen width=
Via: Car Insurance Guide