My FitBit and Me

In early January, Angela and I got matching his-and-hers FitBit One’s to start tracking our activity. Angela’s actually been wearing a pedometer for years now. But the FitBit does a lot more data tracking than a simple pedometer. I’ve been wearing it everyday since then.

There a few technologies I’ve adopted that I would consider life-changing. Maybe not the sort that change the entire course of my life, but certainly that have had a dramatic impact on my day-to-day behavior. DVR (TiVo), smartphone (iPhone), and a personal activity tracker (FitBit). As a professional, I’ve always been at a desk for a lot of my time. But when I practiced engineering, I was often going on site visits and moving around throughout the day. Now that I’ve been working remotely for a software company, that’s not the case. My activity level can vary dramatically from day-to-day. I had no idea just how much until I started wearing the FitBit.

Pocket Location

I keep my FitBit one clipped to the watch pocket in my Jeans.

One day I’d break 10,000 steps shortly before lunch (if I went running, typically). On another day, I might be lucky to approach 2,000 steps. What’s more, is my eating varied just as much. And my activity (i.e., caloric expense) had absolutely no correlation with my eating (i.e., caloric intake). So my body would one day get twice as many calories as it really needed and another not enough. I was essentially training my caveman-era/lizard-brained body to hold on to every scrap of calories it got because who knew what tomorrow would bring.

Daily Achievement Unlocked!

Meeting your daily goals comes with bonus endorphins!

Wearing the FitBit and carefully tracking my calories eaten has help to change that behavior. I now track my calorie intake using LoseIt1. Having a number of activity goals —steps, active minutes, stairs, and miles— all of which gamify my physical activity. Of course, I don’t meet the targets all (most?) of the time, but just having the goals points me in the right direction rather than stumbling around in the dark.

Of course, just tracking the data is one thing. It would be all too easy to just pile it all together in some useless place. FitBit’s web site and iPhone app are really exceptional. In fact, I sort of use my FitBit as just a recorder (and occasional timepiece) and rarely take it out of my pocket. I simply use the iPhone app. On an iPhone 4S or newer, the smartphone syncs directly to the FitBit via Bluetooth 4.

Power Walker

I must have gotten lost that day.

I also use the FitBit to track my sleep, although that’s more to make sure I’m getting enough rather than judging the quality of it. Apparently, I’m generally 98% efficient at sleeping, whatever that means. The velcro wrist strap is a pain and tends to come off my arm. I’m on my second wrist strap, as well as second silicone clip. As a result, I’m considering upgrading to a Force next year. The One has been great so far.

  1. LoseIt has a great iPhone app and syncs both ways with a FitBit account.

A DITA & DITA Open Toolkit Reading List

I was in the process of reorganizing my computer science and technical writing shelf today during lunch when I began to notice a pattern: I have quite a few books related to DITA and the underlying technologies of the DITA Open Toolkit. Well, this isn’t by coincidence. It’s a big part of my job and something I’m really interested in. But it occurred to me just how much time I’ve spent pouring through these texts of structured authoring and XML-based technology—all in hopes of grokking this for my job.

Some Light Reading on DITA

So, in no particular order, here’s a list of some of my books on the subject:

DITA

XML

A couple of books on Ant & JavaScript that I haven’t even gotten to yet:

And, some wider shots of my (sort of) organized bookshelves:

Non-Fiction Bookshelves

Office Shelves

  1. I have the first edition. I’d recommend getting the later edition.

Regular Expressions versus XSLT

Last week I came across an epic rant within a forum thread1 about why using regular expressions for parsing XML is a bad idea.

The <center> cannot hold it is too late. The force of regex and HTML together in the same conceptual space will destroy your mind like so much watery putty.

At first, I was a little surprised. I love using regular expressions to make bulk changes throughout an XHTML document or even across a project consisting of hundreds of files. But, after reading through the post several times and thinkng about what I’ve been able to accomplish with some (relatively) simple XSLT files and a XML parser, it occurred to me that it is absolutely correct.

You, see as great as regular expressions are, they are not aware of the context. They have no idea if your matching a pattern within a C++ routine or an XHTML file. They can only parse characters and short strings as they are, with no understanding of their meaning.

EXstensible Stylesheet Language Transforms, on the other hand, are solely for the purpose of manipulating XML content. By definition, they are aware of XML elements and their attributes. The entire purpose of them is high-level modifications. In fact, after having used them now to successfully convert some XHTML to DITA XML, I have to say the powers feel almost god-like.

RegEx still have their use with XML—particularly with badly formed SGML/HTML one might have had dumped in their lap. But if the need is actually manipulating XML elements or attributes within a file (or even across files), then it’s really foolish to try to accomplish something with multiple regular expressions when a single XSL template will do (and often without the unintended consequences of a greedy RegEx).

  1. And when I say epic, I mean it goes from making a case as to why RegEx is simply insufficiently high-level enough to deal with HTML parsing to opening the gates of the abyss and letting the deep ones in to your mind.

Space Dog

Aside

I have read numerous times how Gene Roddenberry—the creator of Star Trek—preferred the eyes and mouth of an actor playing some alien not be obscured by makeup. The theory goes that this allows the actor to actually, well, act and the audience better empathize with the character. This makes good sense on a series like Star Trek, where the interaction with aliens is often less shoot ‘em up and more diplomacy and moral drama. However, I had never considered this point extending to dogs.

Windows Explorer in Windows 8

I read this post on Improvements in the Windows Explorer earlier today with quite a bit of excitement. There’s a lot to learn in here about the thought process that goes behind the Ribbon UI which was developed at Microsoft and is finally reaching the Explorer window. I, personally, welcome the changes and think it is great that they are exposing so many power features but with the ability to make the interface as minimal as needed for someone who won’t use them. As someone who’s getting into more UX design, particularly when it comes to Ribbon UI applications, this sort of stuff is invaluable.

Gruber mentioned it in an aside piece, pointing out that Apple and Microsoft are really diverging in terms of UI design1. This is certainly true when comparing the (still in Alpha) Windows 8 Explorer window with the UI changes in OSX Lion. While it is fair to argue that Microsoft’s UI is busy, I think Apple has gone a bit too far in the other direction. My largest gripe is that all the color has been removed from most icons, making it a bit harder to differentiate one gray square from another. The ribbon can be minimized in any Ribbon UI program—resulting in what are functionally just graphical menus. There is a tool (oddly, with a gray gear icon) in the Finder which is “Perform tasks with the selected item(s)” which generally accomplishes the same task. Of course, it is just a menu and limited to practical menus sizes (no different than a right-click contextual menu at all).

Context menu in the OS X Lion Finder, or, as I like to call it: the puddle of gray blocks

The Windows 7 Explorer dialog is similarly simple, with a menu-ish toolbar providing some context-sensitive tools along the top. This interface looks a bit like Internet Explorer 8, but that is still different enough to most Windows programs that I think many users just never got used to the controls. In IE, the main purpose is browsing. Hiding settings, etc. aren’t needed most of the time and I’d wager many users don’t even know about them. However, I think anyone using a file manager is often looking to do more than just browse those files.

Windows 7 Explorer

The relatively stripped down Explorer interface in Windows 7

Windows 8—assuming that many of these features don’t get stripped out or watered down by some larger committee (as has happened to Windows releases in the past; thus Vista)—seems to try to cater to both casual users by way of the collapsable Ribbon and even the Metro UI (which will prevent many users from even seeing the Explorer window) as well as to power users who think that reducing the number of clicks to show hidden items from five down to two is awesome. Trying to have it both ways may very well not work, as is too often the case.

But, right or wrong, the Finder in OSX Lion is still going to be nearly as lousy after Windows 8 as it was when OS X first launched2. At least the Windows team is willing to listen to criticism and make some drastic changes.

  1. Fair to point out that Gruber didn’t mention any criticism of either, though if I had to place money on where his preferences lie, I’d go with Apple.
  2. There seem to be nearly as many Finder replacements for OS X as there are Explorer replacement/add-ons for Windows. However, the popularity of the $40 Path Finder really suggests how cumbersome Finder can be.

Get Your Backup On

Today is World Backup Day. Now, before you start looking over your shoulder or throwing the car in reverse, keep in mind this means backing up your data.

As in hard drives.

The Problem

The fact that most people probably don’t really think about data when they hear the phrase back up doesn’t really bode well for such an awareness campaign. However, as more of our daily lives — even the non-geeks out there — become more digital than physical, it is important for all of us to think about this. How many photos of your vacations, videos of your kids, purchases of music and film, purchased software with download-only delivery, or important documents that are no where else but stored in a series of ones and zeros on a hard disk? I know that in our household, it is pretty much everything of any importance for almost the past decade.

As a result of all that digital content, we have an enormous amount of storage in our house. Among our three main computers — my iMac desktop, Angela’s laptop, and my work laptop — we have nearly 2.25 terabytes of storage1. That number alone is the sort of thing that would have sounded like pure science fiction a couple of decades ago. Today, it’s really not that much at all2.

What’s more, while today’s computers and their hard drives are fairly robust, these things do fail. Even when that happens, it isn’t the end of the world. Data can be recovered but it is far from cheap. In a world of Free, the price for data recovery is still dramatically high. It is much cheaper, much simpler, and less stressful to know that you have backups in place and that the data is just a couple of click away instead of waiting for something to happen and crossing your fingers.

Our Solution

The golden rule is that anything digital worth keeping should have three copies:

  1. one “working” (the one on your computer)
  2. one “local” (on a hard drive connected to your computer or on your home network)
  3. one “off site” (either a rotated hard disk system or backup online)

This provides physical separation of your backups and while this was the sort of luxury that only large companies could afford years ago, it is simple and (relatively) cheap today with the dramatic drop in price of large hard drives and high-speed internet connections.

We use a set of hard disks that I either purchases for this purpose or put together from old equipment for our local backups. We use a hodge-podge of software to manage these backups:

  • Time Machine on Angela’s laptop3
  • Shirt Pocket’s Super-Duper to perform a weekly backup of my desktop (physically connected). The main benefit of using Super-Duper is that rather than a file-by-file backup, the external backup is an exact clone. I use Super-Duper as a drive cloner anytime I need to swap internal drives on a mac, as well.
  • Maxtor’s Backup to perform daily backups of my work laptop (physically connected)

That covers our local backups, but it is extremely important to also keep a remote backup in case of physical disaster or theft. For that, we use

  • For both our home computers, we use Carbonite. It is dead simple and works constantly to ensure we have a remote backup. Additionally, Carbonite allows us to access our files from pretty much anywhere so it acts as cloud storage for pretty much anything. There are similar services available, but I don’t know of any that offer the ease of use couple with ease of retrieval.
  • For my work laptop, my company uses a similar online storage system. While I imagine it is even more robust, the interface seems needlessly complex and sluggish to me. However, it has saved my bacon in recovering some important work files and I’m very thankful that they provide this to all of us remote workers.

In terms of cost, our entire local storage system could be purchased for about $250 (going rate is around $100/ terabyte for external storage). Carbonite is $55 per year per machine, though it’s cheaper for longer periods and you can use some coupons to get a month or two for free. So, for roughly $500, it is possible to provide an extremely robust backup for our home computers (if your work doesn’t pay to back up your work computer, they should) for nearly the entire expected life of those machines. It’s far from cheap but the peace of mind and ease of use is really worth it.

Ask anyone who has lost even a fraction of their digital photo albums or music collection and I’m sure they’ll agree.

So, snap to it and do yourself a big favor.

  1. And, yes, over half of that is full.
  2. I should also note that I’m excluding the additional 2.5 terabytes in TiVo storage in our house. While hard drive failure on one of these would be a pain and I’d hate to not be able to catch up on Fringe, it is far from catastrophic.
  3. Time Machine on a Airport Extreme Base Station router is like magic. I cannot think of any easier to use and better performing local network backup system. The only drawback is that Time Machine requires a ton of space to keep backups for even a relatively recent backup time period.

Star Trek: The Animated Series Online

When I was a kid growing up in the eighties, in a very rural part of the country, my exposure to Star Trek was somewhat limited. I was too young to the original series that much, opting for Lost in Space reruns if they were on, instead. However, when Nickelodeon began showing reruns of Star Trek: The Animated Series
, I was very much into it.

Unlike the original series (and, for that matter, subsequent ST series), this show had very alien-looking aliens1. Though some of the stories were cribbed almost line for line from the original series, some others were new and even more fantastic than anything with live actors. My wife is a die-hard ST: The Next Generation fan and I’d venture most folks either go for the original series or TNG. The Animated Series has always been my favorite.

So I’m very excited that CBS is streaming all of the episodes on StarTrek.com.

Decent animation, good stories, and voice acting from the origonal series stars (including, the wonderful James Doohan as Arex as well as his more famous character, Scotty)

I just watched the first episode over lunch and I can’t wait to watch more with the family. Given the very different budgetary concerns of animation, where special effects are cheap but each frame costs a lot, the show has little movement in any given shot but the shots are often dramatic. In fact, rather than looking as dated as one might expect, much of the show looks like a modern flash-animated series for those very same reasons. The stories are excellent; on par with a good science fiction novel and with less techno-babble than many series in the genre suffer from2. Though

  1. I have read that part of this was Gene Rodenbury’s desire to never cover the actor’s features. He seemed to feel that a more realistic portrayal of an alien’s emotions and facial expressions was more important that make-up and prosthetics. Admirable, though there is absolutely no reason to believe that alien species would express things in the same way as us (or even have the same emotions or logic), given that pretty much no other species on Earth does.
  2. The jargon used in the first episode is actually all pretty sound science and very little of it is just science-y sounding filler.

Printing in iOS With Your Old Printer

The feature that I (and I’m sure, many) was most looking forward to in iOS 4.2 was printing. Apple advertised this as one of the main features and, having used Bonjour to configure many a printer in the past, I looked forward to actually being able to use it. Bonjour is Apple’s nearly-zero configuration utility for sharing resources (mostly printers) among computers on a network. It is one of the best examples of Apple’s it just works motto. If you’ve never tried to configure a printer on a network then you can’t really appreciate the special level of Hell from which this little technology saves you.

Not having any printers makes my iPhone sad.

So, despite this, I was upset that Apple had all but canned printing in the final release of iOS 4.2. Oh, sure it works with a handful of new HP printers. However, I wasn’t really interested in purchasing a fancy new printer when I have an old HP that works just fine, thank you very much. I am holding out hope that this is a matter of not releasing the feature until it really does just work. Regardless, it seems like a half-baked way to put a feature out there. I had even told friends that they should consider buying an iPad because printing would becoming soon. I’m not looking forward to explaining the rest of the story to them (as they are not really techies and are likely to simply blame me).

Fortunately, there are a couple of nice mac utilities that can at last bridge the gap for our household (an OS X computer which is on and shares a printer): Fingerprint by Collobos and Printopia by Ecamm Network. I downloaded a copy of Fingerprint (free seven day trial which allows you to ensure it works with your network & printer). Open the application, select my shared printer, and then print from my iPhone 4.

That’s it.

The Fingerprint utility window. Not really much else to show here, actually.

Zero configuration. It simply uses Bonjour to tell my iPhone that there is a printer available. I select that printer and set the number of copies I want. All other settings are just the default for the printer (so, no grayscale printer, for example). I can also save to my desktop or DropBox folder in .PDF file format, which is great for saving and sharing things which I don’t really need tp keep a hard copy. Fingerprint even includes the capability send it your print job to iPhoto, which is a nice touch. In fact, that is how I transferred all the iPhone screenshots for this post.

Note: Apparently, Printopia does all these things as well (minus the iPhoto bit) for a couple of dollars more, so I chose Fingerprint. However, Printopia is nice in that it is added to the System Preferences panel instead of being a separate application.

The printer options screen and printer selection screen once Fingerprint is running on any machine on the same network.

Fingerprint is $7.99, which is a lot cheaper than a new printer and easily worth it for our household to have this feature. The application has in-app purchasing and licensing if you decide to purchase and they accept credit card or PayPal.

We still do print things from time-to-time and having that ability on our iPhones (and iPad, someday… right, dear?) is awesome. Because Apple may never release this for just any old printer. They really aren’t known for supporting legacy hardware, after all.

Here’s a video of how simple printing in iOS is, once it works:

Printing in iOS 4.2 using FingerPrint from Jason Coleman on Vimeo.

Dark Sun Worldwide Game Day Recap

While I might not be the strongest believer in fate, I happily recognize and accept serendipity when it occurs. I had signed up for the lastest Dungeons & Dragons Worldwide Game Day — to get players familiar with the new Dark Sun Campaign Setting supplement — with my local gaming group. As it turns out, I went to the wrong of the two venue addresses listed on the page. As luck would have it, there was another group there playing the same adventure (it is worldwide, after all) who had a seat for one more person. Not wanting to let me scheduled afternoon of gaming go by (thanks, Angela!), I jumped in.

It can be a mixed bag when going to a game table blind, but generally it is a good experience. This was a great experience. The individual running the table had loads of giveaways and free drinks arranged for players. The group I was gaming were friendly and eager to play off one another during the four five1 hours of gaming. I missed the chance to play with some old gaming pals of mine but making new friends is always fun for me and these are guys I hope to roll some dice again with soon.

WWGD Dark Sun

The ambushes just kept coming in this adventure. Dark Sun is a place where elves and templars are trouble, and we kept running into them.

As for the adventure itself, it was a good one. Sure it was the typical "You’re in a bar together in the village and are approached by someone offering gold to find something … " but it did capture some of the elements that make Dark Sun a unique setting and offered some nice opportunities for role playing. As a matter of fact, I a great opportunity to ham it up when my character lept into the dark pit ahead of the group and them climbed back up to report what he’d seen. I’d have gladly done so without the promise of real-world reward, but I got voted best role-player of the session and won a set of condition cards for it.

D&D Condition Card Set

Thanks to the group for voting me to get these cards; which I will be using in every game from now on in 4th Ed.

So, enjoyed playing Dark Sun enough that I’m going to (literally, as soon as click the Publish button) go pick up a copy of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book. It’s like Dune meets Mad Max, but with d20s and I can’t wait to play some more.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting

Update: No, I wasn’t using "literally" in a figurative sense.


  1. As it turns out, Dark Sun can have some additional random encounters due to the nature of the setting. We ended up running an hour later than scheduled but it was no less fun and my terrific wife entertained the kids without once calling me to ask where in the hell was I at. I’m not sure I’d have had that kind of patience in her shoes, and she’s awesome for being so cool about it. And if you think I’m just trying to score some points; I can assure you she never reads this site.

Steam on the Mac

While I think it’s great that Steam is finally available for mac users, I’ve still yet to benefit from it. I first bought Portal about two years ago and played it via Boot Camp on my iMac. It was just as wonderful as everyone said it was and I had a great time. Some time later, Parallels 4 allowed me to play it on a virtual machine. No longer needing to reboot was nice but the video was still a bit choppy. I would have never made it past some of the later levels if it had been that way in Boot Camp. Fortunately, Parallels has only gotten better with gaming and Portal looks and plays great on my iMac.

Portal On My mac

Ironically, a year and a half later, Valve releases Steam for the mac and gives Portal away for free to everyone. Okay, that’s not the ironic part; that’s actually really awesome of them. The irony is in that I can’t play Portal on Steam for the mac because my video card doesn’t meet some as-yet-unknown system requirements.

The Cake *IS* a Lie

It’s pretty clear this dialog box hasn’t been updated for the Mac port. Yes, there is a link there for “Show Minimum Requirements …” and no, it doesn’t do anything.

That’s right. Valve doesn’t know what the system requirements are and I can’t find them anywhere on their store/site/steam/labyrinth. But they know that my mac can’t handle it. Except that it has been playing this same game for over two years.

Let’s face it: my iMac isn’t that new. It’s over four years old now and is on it’s second video adapter. But, it still works fine and the video adapter is far from being a poor one1. So I can understand that it might not be able to play every game; especially not the latest. But Portal isn’t a new game. Portal is was released three-and-a-half years ago and it didn’t really push the limits of PC gaming hardware then.

The real issue in all this actually has little to do with Portal. I’ve already played it through three times over2. My issue lies in the fact that I have no way of known what the system requirements are for a game. I wouldn’t even know if I could play it at all until after I’d bought it. Even then, the message is so cryptic as to be useless. Is this something that is a true limitation or is it as arbitrary as having a “white list” of hardware? I don’t know, but I’m not going to spend a penny on a game until I know for sure I can play it.

Not that I have any time for gaming anyway, mind you.

Update: I did find some system requirements at the bottom of the Portal product page. I suspect I just didn’t look there (despite it being the obvious place). As you can see, I did find some mixed messages. The clearly state that Mac requires a GeForce 8 card or better, which is both unfortunate and still confusing. In the meantime, I downloaded the demo for Torchlight, which plays just fine on my mac (if a bit sluggish when a lot of enemies are on screen). I’m hooked and will cease to complain about Portal.

Update 2: I just downloaded an update for Portal. I now get an error message with data for my OS and graphics card. The link to minimum system requirements for the game also now takes me to the product page system requirements section.

There have also been a number of reviews and news pieces for Steam on the mac which have pointed out that a lot of my issues are due to the fact that Mac OS doesn’t take full advantage of the graphics hardware (poorly written or older drivers) when compared to a Windows machine. This partially explains my issue. However, the virtual machine doesn’t have native access to the graphics card (as evidenced by the fact that the graphics card is displayed as a “Parallels Graphics Adapter” and not the actual card. Still, Parallels does taught better graphics support and I have no doubt they have squeezed every ounce of performance they could get out of Windows for VM gaming purposes.

On a somewhat related note, Steam for mac seems to not play very well with Spaces on my iMac running OS X 10.6.3. It seemed to leave pop-ups, tool tips, or something on other Spaces when it wasn’t in focus, and would then try to jump back to those at odd times. I finally had to turn Spaces off just to prevent me from screaming at my computer any more.

  1. It’s an NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT
  2. That 6 hour figure you see above doesn’t really seem correct to me; I’m not that fast of a gamer.