Technology driven life changes

Last year, when I talked about finally seeing the Apple Watch becoming mildly useful, I had no idea what kind of a ride I was going to be on.

Generally, I’m not really concerned about my health nor fitness, but last September, when my wonderful girlfriend left for a year of study in England, I decided that I finally had enough and I wanted to lose weight.

Having a year of near-zero social obligations would totally allow me to adjust my life-style in a way that’s conducive to weight loss, so here’s what I started doing:

  • During weekdays, I greatly reduced my calorie intake to basically just a salad and a piece of bread every day (you can pry my bread from my cold dead hands – it’s the one food I think I like the most).
  • Every day, no matter the weather, no matter the workload, no matter what, I was going to walk home after my work-day in the office, or on weekends, I would just take an equivalent walk.
  • Every day, I wanted to fill the “Activity” and the “Exercise” rings on my apple watch.

Now walking home sounds like nothing special, but I’m privileged to live in Zürich Switzerland, which means that I have very easy access to forests to walk in.

So commuting home by foot meant that I could walk at least 8 kilometres (4.9 miles), climbing 330m (1082 feet), most of it through the forest.

Every day, no matter whether it was way too hot, way too cold, whether it was raining, hailing or snowing, I would walk home. And every day I would be using my Apple Watch to track what I would generously call a “Workout” (even though it was just walking – but if you go from zero sports to that, I guess it’s ok to call it that).

From September to December I started gradually increasing the distance I walk.

This is the other great thing about Zürich: Once you reach the forest (which you do by walking 20 minutes in practically any direction), you can stay in the forest for hours and hours.

First I extended the 8km walk to 10km, then 12, then 14 and finally 19 (11 miles).

During that time, I kept tracking all the vital signs I could track between the Apple Watch and a Withings scale I bought 1-2 months into this.

My walks got faster and my heart rate at rest got lower and lower, from 80 to now 60.

Every evening after the walk, I would look at the achievements handed out by my Watch which is also why I’ve never updated my movement goals in the Activity app because getting all these badges, honestly, was a lot of fun and very motivational. Every evening I would get notified of increasing my movement streak, of doubling or even tripling my movement goal and of tripling or quadrupling my exercise goal.

screenshot of the activity app

Every morning I would weigh myself and bask in the glory of the ever falling graph painted by the (back then very good) iOS app that came with the scale. I would manage to lose a very consistent 2kg (4.4lbs) per week.

Every walk I would have the chance to experience some of natures beauty.

Crazy sunsets

sunset

Beautiful sunrises

sunrise

Enchanted forests

wintery forest

And frozen creeks

frozen creek

And in spring I could watch trees grow.

When I got home after up to three hours of walk, I was dead tired at around 10pm, meaning that for the first time in ages I would get more than enough sleep and I would still be able to get up between 6 and 7.

By mid of March, after 6 months of a very strict diet and walking home every day, I was done. I had lost 40kg (88.1 lbs).

Now the challenge shifted from losing weight to not gaining weight. I decided to make the diet less strict but also continue with my walks, though I would not do the regular 19km ones any more as they would just take too long (3 hours).

But by June, I really started to notice a change: I wouldn’t feel these walks at all any more. No sweat, no reasonable change in heart rate while on them, no tiredness. The walks really felt like a waste of time.

So I started running.

I never liked running. I was always bad at it. All the way through school where I was the slowest and always felt really bad afterward, through my life until now where I just never did it. Running felt bad and I hated it.

But now things were different.

The first time I changed from walking to running, I did so after reaching the peak altitude, so it was mostly straight and a little bit downhill. But still: I ran 4km (2.48 miles) and when I got home I didn’t feel much more tired.

I was very surprised because running 4km through all of my life would have been completely unthinkable to me, but there I was. I just did.

So next day, I decided to run most of the way, just skipping the steepest parts. Suddenly, there I was, running 8km (4.9 miles), still not feeling particularly tired afterwards.

So I started tracking these runs (using both Runkeeper and Strava for technical reasons – but that’s another post), seeing improvement in my time all the way through July.

And then, on August 1st, I ran half a Marathon climbing 612m (2007 feet)

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 11.40.28.png

Considering that this was my first, it’s not even in too bad a time and what’s even more fun to me: I didn’t even feel too tired afterwards and I totally felt like I could run even farther.

So I guess after taking it very slowly and moving from walking a bit to walking more to walking a lot to running a bit to running some more, even I, the most unathletic person possible can push myself into shape.

But what’s the most interesting aspect in all of this is that without technology, the Apple Watch in particular, without the cheesy achievements, none of this would ever have been possible. I hated sports and I’m honestly still not really interested. But the prospect of getting awarded some stupid batches every day is what finally pushed me.

And now, in only a single month, my girlfriend will finally return to Switzerland and I guess she’ll find me in better shape than she’s ever seen me before in our lives. I hope that the prospect of collecting some more batches from my watch will keep me going even when the social pressure might want to tempt me into skipping a workout.

Sprite avatars in Gravatar

After the release of Google Buzz, my Google profile which I had for years finally became somewhat useful. Seeing that I really liked the avatar I’ve added to that profile, I decided, that Frog should henceforth be my official avatar.

This also meant that I wanted to add Frog to my Gravatar profile which, unfortunately proved to be… let’s say interesting.

The image resizer Gravatar provides on their site to fit the uploaded image to the sites need apparently was not designed for sprites as it tries to blow up sprites way out of proportion only to resize them back down. At first I though I could get away with cheating by uploading above picture with a huge margin added to it, but that only lead to a JavaScript error in their uploader.

In the end, this is what I have done:

  1. Convert the picture into the TGA format
  2. Scale it using hq3x (explanation of hq3x)
  3. Convert it back to png and re-add transparency (hq3x had trouble with transparency in the TGA file)
  4. Scale it to 128 pixels in height
  5. paste it into a pre-prepared 128×128 canvas
  6. upload that.

This is how my gravatar looks now, which feels quite acceptable to me:

My Gravatar

The one in google’s profile was way easier to create: Paste the original image into a 64 by 64 canvas and let google do the resizing. It’s not as perfect as the hq3x algorithm, but that suffers by the downsizing to make frog fit 128 pixels in height anyways.

The other option would be to scale using hq2x and the paste that into a 128 by 128 canvas yielding this sharper, but smaller image:

But what ever I do, frog will still be resized by Gravatar (and thus destroyed), so I went with the image that contains more colored pixels at the expense of a bit of sharpness.

linktrail – a failed startup – introduction

I guess it’s inevitable. Good ideas may fail. And good ideas may be years ahead of their time. And of course, sometimes, people just don’t listen.

But one never stops learning.

In the year 2000, I took part in a plan of a couple of guys to become the next Yahoo (Google wasn’t quite there yet back then), or, to use the words we used on the site,

For these reasons, we have designed an online environment that offers a truly new way for people to store, manage and share their favourite online resources and enables them to engage in long-lasting relationships of collaboration and trust with other users.

The idea behind the project, called linktrail, was basically what would much later on be picked up by the likes of twitter, facebook (to some extent) and the various community based news sites.

The whole thing went down the drain, but the good thing is that I was able to legally salvage the source code, the install it on a personal server of mine and to publish the source code. And now that so many years have passed, it’s probably time to tell the world about this, which is why I have decided to start this little series about the project. What is it? How was it made? And most importantly: Why did it fail? And concequently: What could we have done better?

But let’s first start with the basics.

As I said, I was able to legally acquire the database and code (which is mostly written by me anyways) and to install the site on a server of mine, so let’s get that out to start with. The site is available at linktrail.pilif.ch. What you see running there is the result of 6 months of programming by myself after a concept done by the guys I’ve worked with to create this.

What is linktrail?

If the tour we made back then is any good, then just taking it would probably be enough, but let me phrase in my words: The site is a collection of so called trails which in turn are small units, comparable to blogs, consisting of links, titles and descriptions. These micro-blogs are shown in a popup window (that’s what we had back then) beside the browser window to allow quick navigation between the different links in the trail.

Trails are made by users, either by each user on their own or as a collaborative work between multiple users. The owner of a trail can hand out permissions to everybody or their friends (using a system quite similar to what we currently see on facebook for example)

A trail is placed in a directory of trails which was built around the directory structures we used back then, though by now, we would probably do this much more different. Users can subscribe to trails they are interested in. In that case, they will be notified if a trail they are subscribed to is updated either by the owner or anybody else with the rights to update the trail.

Every user (called expert in the site’s terms) has their profile page (here’s mine) that lists the trails they created and the ones they are subscribed to.

The idea was for you as an user to find others with similar interests and form a community around those interests to collaborate on trails. An in-site messaging-system helped users to communicate with each other: Aside of just sending plain text messages, it’s possible to recommend trails (for easy one-click subscription) .

linktrail was my first real programming project, basically 6 months after graduating in what the US would call high school. Combine that fact with the fact that it was created during the high times of the browser wars (year 2000, remember)  with web standards basically non-existing, then you can imagine what a mess is running behind the scenes.

Still, the site works fine within those constraints.

In future posts, I will talk about the history of the project, about the technology behind the site, about special features and, of course, about why this all failed and what I would do differently – both in matters of code and organization.

If I woke your interest, feel free to have a look at the code of the site which I just now converted from CVS (I started using CVS about 4 months into development, so the first commit is HUGE) to SVN to git and put it up on github for public consumption. It’s licensed under a BSD license, but I doubt that you’d find anything in this mess of PHP3(!) code (though it runs unchanged(!) on PHP5 – topic of another post I guess), HTML 3.2(!) tag soup and java-script hacks.

Oh and if you can read german, I have also converted the CVS repository that contained the concept papers that were written over the time.

In preparation of this series of blog-posts, I have already made some changes to the code base (available at github):

  • login after register now works
  • warning about unencrypted(!) passwords in the registration form
  • registering requires you to solve a reCAPTCHA.

Double-blind cola test

The final analysis

Two of my coworkers decided today after lunch that it was time to solve the age-old question: Is it possible to actually detect different kinds of cola just by tasting them.

In the spirit of true science (and a hefty dose of Mythbusters), we decided to do this the right way and to create a double blind test. The idea is that not only the tester has to not know the different test subjects, but also the person administering the test to make sure that the tester is not influenced in any way.

So here’s what we have done:

  1. We bought 5 different types of cola: A can of coke light, a can of standard coke, a PET bottle of standard coke, a can of coke zero and finally, a can of the new Red Bull cola (in danger of spoiling the outcome: eek).
  2. We marked five glasses with numbers from 1 to 5 at the bottom.
  3. We asked a coworker not taking part in the actual test to fill the glasses with the respective drink.
  4. We put the glasses on our table in random order and designated each glasses position with letters from A to E.
  5. One after another, we drank the samples and noted which glass (A-E) we thought to contain what drink (1-5). As to not influence ourselves during the test, the kitchen area was off-limits for everyone but the test subject and each persons results where to be kept secret until the end of the test.
  6. We compared notes.
  7. We checked the bottom of the glasses to see how we fared.

The results are interesting:

  • Of the four people taking part in the test, all but one person guessed all types correctly. The one person who failed wasn’t able to correctly distinguish between bottled and canned standard coke.
  • Everyone instantly recognized the Red Bull Cola (no wonder there, it’s much brighter than the other contenders and it smells like cough medicine)
  • Everyone got the coke light and zero correctly.
  • Although the tester pool was way too small, it’s interesting that 75% of the testers were able to discern the coke in the bottle from the coke in the can – I would not have guessed that, but then, there’s only a 50% chance to be wrong on this one – we may all just have been lucky – at least I was, to be honest.

Fun in the office doing pointless stuff after lunch, I guess.

Life is good

Remember last week when I was ranting about nothing working as it should?

Well – this weeks feels a lot more successful than the last one. It may very well be one of the nicest weeks I’ve had in IT so far.

  • The plugin system I’ve written for our PopScan Windows Client doesn’t just work, it’s also some of the shiniest code I’ve written in my life. Everything is completely transparent and thus easy to debug and extend. Once more, simplicity lead to consistency and consistency is what I’m striving for.
  • Yesterday, we finally managed to kill a long standing bug in a certain PopScan installation which seemed to manifest itself in intermittently non-working synchronization but was apparently not at all working synchronization. Now it works consistently.
  • Over the weekend, I finally got off my ass and used some knowledge in physics and and a water-level to re-balance my projector on the ceiling mount making the picture fit the screen perfectly.
  • Just now, I’ve configured two managed switches at home to carry cable modem traffic over a separate VLAN allowing me to abandon my previously whacky setup wasting a lot of cable and looking really bad. I was forced to do that because a TV connector I’ve had mounted stopped working consistently (here’s the word again).

    The configuration I thought out worked instantly and internet downtime at home (as if somebody counts) was 20 seconds or so – the TCP connections even stayed all up.

  • I finally got mt-daapd to work consistently with all the umlauts in the file names of my iTunes collection.

If this week is an indication of how the rest of the year will be, then I’m really looking forward to this.

As the title says: Life is good.

Internet at home

I’m a usually very happy customer of Cablecom. They provide internet-over-tv-cable and as here in Switzerland, basically everyone has tv cable and because they provide nice pure ip addresses (no PPPoE stuff) and because when you are not trapped in the administrative trap, then it just works. Cablecom internet is never down, very speedy and usually I’m envied for my pings in online matches of whatever game.

All these are very good reasons to become a customer of Cablecom and depite of what you are going to read here shortly, I would probably still recommend them to other users – at least those with some technical background because, quite frankly, of all the ways to get broadband here in Switzerland, this one is the one that works the easiest and the most consistent.

But once you fall into the administrative trap, all hell breaks lose.

Here’s what happened to me (also, read my other post about Cablecom’s service):

Somewhere around the end of May I got a letter telling me that I would get sent a new cable modem. Once I’ve got that, I should give them a call so they can deactivate my old one. Also, if I don’t call, they’d automatically disable the old modem after a couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, I never got that modem. I don’t know who’s to blame and I don’t care. Also, I could not have anticipated the story as it’s now unfolding because the letter clearly said that I’d get the modem at an unknown later date, so I wasn’t worried at the time.

At the beginning of June, I’ve noticed the network going down. Not used to that, especially not as it was down for a whole day, I called the hotline and told them that I suspected them of shutting of my service despite me not reciving the modem.

They’ve confirmed that and promised me to resend the modem. Re-enabling the old one was not possible they’ve told me futher on.

One week later – not having recived the modem – I’ve called again and they told me that the order was delayed due to some CRM software change at their end, but they’ve promised me to send it that week.

Another week passes. No modem. I call again and they tell me that the reporcessing of orders was delayed, but that I will get the modem that week for sure. Knowing that this probably won’t be the case, I’ve told them that I will be on vacation and that they should send it to my office address.

Another week passes and I go to vacation.

Another week passes and I call the office to ask if the modem (that was supposed to arrive two weeks ago the latest) has arrived. Of course it didn’t. What made me actually make the call was the fact that I’ve received a press release from Cablecom announcing more customers than ever – the irony of that bringing my memory back to the non-existing internet at my home.

So I called support again. They did notice that my order was late, but they had no idea why it was taking so long, there was no way of speeding it up and they had no idea when I would get the modem (keep in mind that I’m paying CHF 79/mt for not working internet access).

At this point I’ve had enough and I’ve called someone higher up I know working at Cablecom.

In the end, I was able to get internet access using that route, but it’s not entirely official and I still have not the slightest idea of when/if the problem with my actual account will ever be fixed.

Pathetic.

Still: If everything goes well, then you have nothing to fear. From a technical standpoint, Cablecom owns all other currently widely available methods for broadband internet access, so this is what I will be sticking with. Just be prepared for longer service intermissions once you fall into the administrative trap.

They just don’t want my money

Mass Effect is a wonderful game. Its story is one of the most interesting I’ve ever witnessed in a game. The atmosphere it brings over is very deep and impressive. It’s science fiction. It contains aliens and explosions, so it’s perfect for my taste.

Also, I like the role playing elements which contain just enough stats to make the leveling process interesting while not being overly complicated.

I bought Mass Effect for the XBox 360 back in December and played through it once, while being annoyed that I had to buy it in the (albeit very good) German version (it’s practically impossible to get English originals here in Switzerland) and annoyed about the awful, awful equipment and inventory handling that made it impossible to really know how you should equip your characters (in fact, I went through half of the game in the starting equipment because I didn’t understand how to actually put the items on).

So despite the immense replayability value of the game, I left it at that one runthrough. But I bought the Mass Effect book telling the story leading up to the events of the game.

And now, the game was re-released for the PC. Considering the fact that I actually bought the Mac Pro I’m currently using with PC-gaming in mind, I pondered with the idea of buying the game again for the PC. In English and with the fixed inventory screen (they actually fixed that in the PC version. yes. so it wasn’t just my stupidity).

This may sound crazy, but as I said, the game provides incredible value to replay it: Different decisions, different choice of squad members, even choosing different classes to begin with (though I would never even have tried to play a caster in the 360 version – the interface was just too painful for that) – everything has influence on elements of the story. Playing through Mass Effect only once is clearly a waste of a very good game.

With a 25 MBit connection to the internet, I though that buying the game online would be a reasonable request too. So here’s what I’ve tried:

  1. Buy the game via Direct2Drive. All seemed to go well and it even asked me for my credit card info. But then, on the final step, it told me that my cart was empty. And a little footnote informed me that Mass Effect has been removed from the cart due to country restrictions. Thanks for telling me in advance!
  2. On the web page of the publisher, there’s a link to the EA store to buy the game online. Whatever I tried, I could only get the shop to actually provide me with the US version of the game which it refused to “ship” (hello? This is a digital download) to Switzerland – despite me trying on June 8th, two days after the official launch in Europe.
  3. I tried to trick the EA store to sell me the game none-the-less by using paypal to pay for it, giving a fake US-“shipping” address. No dice though as paypal refused to bill my account due to the “shipping” address being different from the address I’ve entered in paypal.
  4. Sure that electronic download will not work, I went to the local game store I usually get my games from. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the English version of the game and won’t be getting it.

On a world where digital goods can hop from one corner to the next in milliseconds, on a world where everyone is complaining about rampant piracy, it is impressive how hard it actually is to timely and legally get the digital goods.

Here’s what I did in the end: First I began downloading the pirated version of the game and while that download was running, I went and bought the German version of the game. When I got back from the store, the download of the English version was finished. I’ve installed it, provided it with the serial number of my German original and then played it, using the German DVD as proof of purchase.

Why does it have to be so hard to actually buy a game these days?