Monday, May 25, 2009

Bending the rules and writing a blog for writing's sake

Well, yesterday I said I had a short technical piece in mind and that I'd write it up before going to bed. Didn't happen. So, perhaps writing the blog counts as writing? :) As you see, I'm almost as good in coming up with new rules as they are at Guinness. But, I'm confessing all my sins and short-comings here publicly and hope that at some point the shame will overcome my natural laziness and serve as a boost to keep with the resolution. :)

Anyway, today I ran the same ~7k as yesterday. Yesterday I went for high HR and did a number of sprints along the way. It took just over 35 minutes (including the stairs up to the apartment). Today my legs felt a bit tired, I think I didn't stretch well enough after yesterday's run. Anyway, I had planned a more leisurely run, and so I wanted to keep my HR lower and just go with a slow pace. And my HR was more than 10 BPM lower than yesterday, and this time it took me 43 minutes. So, a drop of about one minute per kilometre in speed, HR well within limits and now, after proper stretching legs feeling energised again. The weather was better, as well, I went out later in the evening and there was a nice, cooling wind.

I'm changing my diet, as well. As a diabetic I've needed to count my carbs and be aware of the differences between fast and slow carbs and have an idea of the GI of different foods. And I've already noticed that it's actually a good idea, both in terms of blood sugar and body weight to try to limit carb intake. And now I've given that a push, too, going for low carb. So lots of salads and greens, fresh fish, meat and full-fat, wholesome, clean stuff. We'll see how it goes, I've been a carb junkie before...

Writing, you ask? Yes, going through data and making lots of notes. Not necessarily the kind of writing I meant originally, but I'll get in a stint of proper stuff before going to sleep today. I promise. Today was a good day otherwise, I managed to do a lot of stuff that had been lying around on my desk. Less clutter on desk, less clutter in mind...

Anyway, I thought I'd follow someone's advice (honestly, I don't remember where I heard this from - sounded stupid at that time) and make it easier to continue writing tomorrow by starting today and then leaving it in the middle of a thought. Easier to remember where to start in the morning... I don't know, that could be silly, and it doesn't take into account that I'd need to sleep as well, and I'm not a good sleeper with half-written thoughts in my head. I'll let you know how it worked out.

I should add pics to these posts, they look boring.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Running and writing is back - with a vengeance

Remember, I read this piece by Haruki Murakami in the New Yorker. He is one of my favourite writers, and also a jazz-aficionado and a long distance runner. He runs every day. He probably writes every day. Don't know how much he jazzes every day, but that's beside the point.

I said I wanted to run and write every day, because that'd help me write my thesis and also get me fit. Then life happened and it was snowing and dark, and there were too many excuses to choose from and way too much work. To my defence, there was reading and skiing, and data analysis and gym, but those things aren't writing and running, not even close.

So, here it is again: resolution to a) run b) write every day. Yes, this one comes with the same kind of a lame-ass set of rules that those Guinness World records. I was so disappointed as a kid when I learned that if someone had made the world record in rope skipping that would be 4 days 3 hours, they were actually allowed to take a 5 minute break every hour, and a longer break twice a day. How misleading is that? How about the record of holding your breath? Anyway, my lame and misleading rule is that there can be one day off per week.

Anyway, here we go. Yesterday's run was a bit longer, 70 minutes. I was aiming for an even pace that would be below one of the thresholds (never remember which one is the anaerobic and which the aerobic one...), but for some reason my HR was somewhat higher than what it felt like. I decided to go by the feeling, and although the average HR was about 165, it felt more like 155 to me. At some point I tried to slow down to get the HR below 159 (my approximate threshold), but that'd require a very slow pace indeed, so I decided to go with the higher rate, and run by the feeling. Yesterday was my day off writing, as I just finished a paper on Friday.

Today I went for a "shorter but sharper" run, about 35 minutes, and this time I was trying to be a bit faster. I kept HR up all the time, pumping it even higher by sprinting all uphills (there weren't many). It's really warm already and I really don't like running when it's hot. Today's temperature was around 20, but with the sun shining and especially when the wind wasn't cooling, it was almost too much for me already. Nordic people, pfft. But, the run was OK, and I hope the writing will be, as well. I have an idea of a short technical section I could write today.

Oh, one more thing about writing. Just like in training (for any sport, really) you have these periods when you build basic stamina, then others when you focus on technique, or really gaining mass or flexibility or speed etc. I'm now thinking of writing in the same way. My basic stamina period (loads of reading) is finished, for example. This week is "mass season", when I try to bulk up and get as much raw text as I can. After that, I'll start organising and pruning. I have the basic outline and structure already set and know pretty much what goes where, but I feel I need one more of these textual surges to accumulate enough material for the book. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tweet tweet..

Just recently I've started using Twitter. It's the "microblog" service where people send 140 character messages to whoever is following your feed, and receive these messages from whoever they are following. Think Facebook status updates with two crucial differences: 1) there's nothing else but these messages (no throwing sheep, no quizzes, no groups to join and no events to maybe attend); 2) following people is asymmetric, so that people don' t need to follow you before you can follow them. So, you shouldn't think of it as yet another Facebook, because Twitter is not so much about keeping in contact with your friends, and it's more about keeping in touch with issues.

Why is it so popular? Well, like any other social networking service, it is fun if your friends are there. Facebook had it's origins in the campuses, where everyone joined FB because everyone else joined, and then after reaching a certain critical mass it exploded and now everyone is there because everyone is there. With Twitter, the original users were the Silicon Valley folks, techies and internet entrepreneurs, and everyone who wanted to associate with that culture of 24/7 mobile online existence. And it's then expanded from there, with the help of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Fry, Shaq O'Neal or Britney, and now more and more people are joining it, and it's growing faster and faster, even this side of the Pond.

Another reason for its attractiveness is the 140 character limit. Throughout, technical limitations have encouraged creativity rather than stifled it. Think of smileys for instance, or the original Star Wars films. Stephen Fry is a great example of how 140 characters is plenty if you are a wordsmith. Interestingly, a whole industry has sprouted around Twitter. The site itself is very plain and simple, the user interface isn't great, and at a first glance you just can't see why anyone would bother to use it. But nobody uses Twitter via Twitter. There are a number of applications, desktop or mobile, that focus on improving the user experience by adding flitering, search, grouping, URL-shortening and picture-linking functionalities, or integration with other social networks, emails or calendars. And suddenly this starts to make more sense.

I'm using Nambu to read and send my tweets, and will try the Seesmic desktop next. Also, if I spot something interesting while surfing the webs of inter, I click my bookmarklet and save and share the link via Twitter and/or Facebook. There are photo-sharing sites, such as mobypicture that are well integrated with Twitter, so that you can take a snapshot with your cell phone, store it to your onine gallery, caption it and send to your Twitter feed for your followers to see.

So, what's the value of this? It CAN be used productively, it can be useful, and more than just a waste of time / procrastination. But, you have to find the right people to follow. This is where hashtags come in. Often, to improve searchability, people "tag" their tweets, so for instance, while writing about an article they read about brains they add #brain or #neuroscience in the tweet. Not everyone does this, because it consumes your valuable 140 chars, but enough people do, and you can find those people by writing #brain or #neuroscience to the search box. And, you'll see all recent tweets with that hashtag and can then follow the people who sent the most interesting ones.

This is also where retweeting comes in handy. It's customary to forward interesting tweets to your feed, i.e. retweet them. To do this, you add RT @username to the copy-pasted tweet and send it (this is where the applications like Nambu are great, they do these at a click of a button). So, you can find new interesting people by following people who have been RT:d by those you've already following.

Twitter is fast. So many times the fastest way to hear about breaking news is via Twitter. And, as "everyone" has a phone with a Twitter app in their pocket, you can find first hand info about events in twitter.

But Twitter has its dark side, and finding a way to make it useful for your purposes will take some time. There's a lot of "noise", as the system encourages shouting over listening. There are spammers around, and also many "online marketing gurus" out there trying to pitch their services. People who are reporting what they had for breakfast and others who keep on sending the same links to the "hilarious pics" that outdate even the Arpanet. But luckily, after a while you'll find people that are really interesting or useful, and learn to get rid of the noise. And then you can for instance follow the astronaut who tweets from the orbit or "A mum and a wife with a really cool day job..."

Pic: Twitter / Guardian

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Facebook fads

After throwing sheep, poking each other and sending champagne or Tiffany jewelery to each other, Facebook users are now by travelling back in time to the age of slam books. Everyone is writing notes, such as "25 things about me", tagging their friends in those notes and spreading these memes around the site faster than influenza.

This is an interesting phenomenon from a couple of perspectives. First, it is a great example of spreading of ideas - how something in a network gets really quickly really big, after it first catches on and gets above a certain threshold. At first there were just a couple of my friends writing these notes, and that 25 questions -one was the first I paid attention to. And now there's practically nothing else in my news feed -- I've completely lost count of how many different "fill in your answers to this note, post it to your profile and tag all your friends" there are.

The other interesting thing is that not so long ago, and of course still, people used the various facebook apps to do these kinds of things. There are numerous applications where you'd fill in questionnaires and then the system automatically compared your answers with those of your friends'. You'd need to add the application first, though, and usually at some stage be exposed to advertising that would make money for FB and perhaps even the providers of these applications. But, not completely unlike the SMS, people have now taken a functionality of the system and adapted it to their needs - no middle men or special applications needed. All you need is the ability to a) post text on your profile, b) tag friends on it and c) get those results posted to the news feed.

So, this slam book phenomenon is an example of spreading of ideas in a network, people adapting technology for their communication and networking needs, and how it all is unpredictable in a familiar, almost predictable way.

Of course, just like global travel has increased the spread of viruses and diseases, this seemingly low threshold of adopting and trying out new stuff in FB has made the system inherently vulnerable for scams and viruses. Malware, like the Koobface worm have been spreading in the system, hackers abusing both the relatively lax vetting process of new applications and the openness of the system and trust of the user base. How does this sound so familiar? Didn't we have exactly these kinds of problems when the internet was new and viruses started to spread?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Scrapheap challenge

You know plans, right? Those things we like to make when we are trying to avoid doing real work. The stuff that when done well, makes the whole project half-way ready, or things that are made so they can be changed later.

Or occasionally, those things that you can just scrap and forget about. There are two ways to look at this. One is that a "project" starts with an idea, then a plan is made (at which point the idea is often lost, at least if planning takes place in a committee), it's then changed a couple of times and it all ends when the plans are scrapped.

There's another angle, however. Everything starts with some old plans being scrapped. Everything starts with learning from old mistakes, and you start your new project with more knowledge than you'd have if you'd managed to convince yourself that you got this brand new idea that needs to be materialised. An old plan crashing and burning often brings down with it old ideas and unrealistic or misguided expectations, and so the collateral damage of the old plan helps to make the new plan more feasible and more likely to succeed.

Ok, enough of this cryptic nonsense. I had to cancel my registration at the Paris Marathon. There was no way I could get in shape in time - I've not been able to do the training I thought I needed, but most importantly it didn't look likely that I'd be able to pick it up the coming month. Moreover, what was supposed to be a healthy balance for work has become an additional stress.

So, the plan is dead, long live the new plan! Marathon is still on, but I'll have to find another date, possibly Finlandia Marathon in the end of the summer, possibly something sooner. This also helps me to diversify training - I've signed up for a gym membership, first time ever. In Cambridge I didn't need to, there were good facilities for Uni members, more so for the boatclub, and even some organised by the college. The university gym was crowded, hot, but at least it was open from early till late. Here things are different. It's amazing to think that we have the only sports science faculty in the country, and for all 14 000 students and 3000 staff there is one gym, not very big, and it's open only from 8 AM to 8 pm. They've opened a "gym" just for staff, which is open 8 AM - 4 pm. And they even specify, that using the gym isn't part of your working hours. So, you have to do extra time in the evening so you can use the staff gym (which is basically a closet in the bomb-proof basement of the admin building, and has about 2 machines) during the day. Smart. Really good thinking - I'm sure the investment will prove to be a good one.

So, I'm going to see what SATS has to offer on Monday. If I like it, I'll sign up and start making new plans based on being a paying member. At least their opening hours are based on what their customers need and not on janitors' working hours or something random.

On other news, plenty of scrapped plans and changes on the way in life in general. My three-year relationship recently ended and now there's the fun of packing things, trying to remember who owns the kettle and who bought the chair and of course the sadness of saying goodbye - to the person, and also everything that goes with a person, being a couple and living together. Sad, but I feel that this plan had to be scrapped so that something new can be given birth at some point in the future.

(Pic: NASA)

Monday, February 09, 2009

See you later, elevator

The elevator at our building broke down today. I was going up and called the elevator. Oddly, it overshot by about six inches, and refused to move again. The doors won't lock, the buttons light up as you press them but nothing happens. The lift's gone on strike.

As it was me who in a way broke the elevator, I thought I should be the one to call maintenance about it. I called the 24h on-call number, but got no answer. Then I tried to call the caretaker's office with even worse results.

It seems that the receptionist there is new and not familiar with the phone system, or the phone system is broken. Anyway, it only rings once or twice, after which the call gets forwarded to emptiness. It's not that they hang up, you just get silence. Except for once, when I actually ended up talking to someone else trying to call the company. It felt like being in the middle of some stupid prank call, where you answer the phone as if you're the one who called. As things were getting weirder at their phone center, I decided to email them instead. And then the 24h on-call lift maintenance guy called me back.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Left-handed skiing

I hate today's weather. It's warm (+3), grey and wet. It's sloshy as snow is melting down and although we already had a good cover of snow and perfect winter weather since Christmas, there are already spots of brown appearing from under the quickly vanishing snow.

I used to say that during the winter, my mood can be reliably predicted from the weather report - I'm happy when it's snowing, and depressed when it's like this, when snow is melting. I've always been a fan of winter sports, or winter activities in general. There's so much fun to be had during winter: skiing, both downhill and cross-country, skating, ice-hockey (or whatever variants of it that you can play safely without needing all that protective gear) building snowcastles and skijumps etc.

I had somewhat lost touch with winter, having spent a number of "winters" in Cambridge, where winter is the time when you need an extra layer of lycra to go rowing, and people play football instead of cricket, which is a summer sport. They close schools and the whole country goes to panic mode when the annual "cold snap" arrives, with temperatures below 0 for two days. The traffic grinds to a screeching halt when the centimetre of snow falls. Not much wintry outdoor fun to be had there.

I've been more into downhill skiing before, but now with the marathon looming in under 3 months time, I tried to do a lot of cross-country skiing during the new year holiday we spent in Lapland. And it felt great, and so I bought a pair of skis as soon as I got home. I got them on Thursday, and went skiing every day after that.

I know I have my work cut out in terms of learning proper technique, although I have some experience, so that it can't be said I have two left feet. The salesperson seemed to think I had two left hands, however, because I noticed that the reason why the ski poles didn't seem to fit that well - I had two left-handed ones (the straps are slightly different). So I went to change them for a new pair, but now unfortunately the snow is escaping.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

New year resolution and testing mobile blogging

Happy new year!

New year always brings with it new resolutions and new things. I made
a resolution, as well. I've decided to "write and run" every day, at
least a little bit. This probably means more blogging activity,
although most of the writing effort will be channelled to academic
writing and basically finishing the damn book.

The other new thing is related to this writing resolution. I'm writing
this note on the Nokia 9300i communicator I got from work as one of
the professors upgraded to iPhone. This is my first "smartphone" and
so I've got a lot of catching up to do in terms of finding out what
can be done with these things.
I've now managed to configure this to work in the WLAN at home and at
the office and got the Bluetooth link to work between this and my
laptop. I've found some cool applications, such as gmail, and am now
trying to post by email to my blog.

I'll be reporting how my new mobile life is working out, and whether
this will become a productivity tool. So far it has been a time-eater
and a toy for procrastination. :) But it has only been a day...