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