Thursday, February 11, 2016

Is it OK to talk to strangers?

When I was younger my parents used to tell me "don't talk to strangers", but what I observed them doing was "talk to strangers at every opportunity". This attitude was quite typical in Ireland and it still is a cultural norm.

The Irish Tourist Board is very proud of the fact that surveys of visitors to Ireland report that the people are very friendly. However, the reason for the friendliness is simply a desire to meet strangers.

The reason for this is because Irish culture evolved in a situation where people lived in small villages and everyone knew each other very well In this situation when you met a local person, there was a good chance that you already knew a lot about that person's life so it is not surprising that the conversation might tend to be a little boring. In contrast, on the rare occasions when you met a stranger/tourist you made a special effort to speak to that stranger because it would be an interesting conversation where you might learn something new.

So you see the famous Irish friendliness is in fact just a way to relieve the boredom of living in what until recently used to be a very mono-cultural society.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

My First ParkRun

A colleague at work has been  trying to encourage me to join the ParkRun movement. He correctly predicted that I would find the event really fun, but the timing on Saturday morning wasn't ideal and so it was this week before I got a chance to join in the Porterstown event which is less than 2km from where I live.

It was a very icy morning so I had to be careful of my step as I ran to the venue. When I got there I could see there was a big crowd and a great atmosphere - partly due to the fact that it was associated with Operation Transformation, I was immediately put in a good mood by the positive vibe coming from the other participants.

I knew the focus was more on competing than on speed, but I checked the previous results to see the pace. I was delighted to see that the leader in 50-54 male group was someone I already knew. The atmosphere of the race encouraged me to ran faster than normal. I was timed at 28 minutes and 32 seconds. My normal is between 30 and 35 minutes for 5km.

It may be my first ParkRun, but it definitely won't be my last.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My new Headphone Hat

While I appreciate all of the Christmas presents I got this year, I was particularly taken by the usefulness of a present of a Bluetooth Headphone Hat.This is a regular knitted hat which has two small speakers hidden in the seam which allow it to act as a Bluetooth Headset.

.My initial impression was that this was a fun gimmick - an impression reinforced by the fact that the brand name is Techfun. However, I now realise it is a really useful and practical gadget.

I normally wear a Bluetooth Headset while running so that I can listen to podcasts. However, the action of running tends to shake many headsets off my head - which means that I need to choose a headset that wraps around my ears and can be quite uncomfortable to wear for extended periods. The headphone hat is quite comfortable to wear and while the sound quality is not great, it is certainly good enough for my needs. In addition I would need to wear a hat like this anyway while running at this time of year, this means that I can reduce my number of pieces of equipment by combining a set of headphones with a hat.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fitbit steps for running, walking and cycling

I recently got a FitBit activity tracker and have been having great fun competing with family members who live abroad to see which of us can take the most steps. It is a fun way for me  feel connected to them by looking at their activity logs even if time zone differences make it impractical to actually speak to them.

As part of a discussion about one of our step challenges I was asked if the FitBit was giving me credit for taking steps while I cycled. (I think I might have been subtly accused of cheating in the challenge).

The honest answer was that I didn't know how/if the FitBit was giving me step credit for cycling. So, in order to test this out, I checked what steps I was given credit for when involved in various different activities.

This is my results:
  • Running - I checked my FitBit before and after a few runs and found that it gives me credit for almost exactly 1,000 steps per km. This seems consistent with the fact that I probably have a stride length of roughly 1 metre while jogging.
  • Walking - when I go for a walk with the dog, I get credit for 8-10% more steps than if I ran the same distance. This probably means that my stride is shorter while walking than it is when running. The fact that it is slightly more variable is probably because I wander around a little while walking the dog, but rigidly put one foot in front of the other when running.
  • Cycling - Twice daily I cycle the route between home and work so I have lots of chances to measure how many steps I get credit for when doing this journey. My FitBit seems to give me credit for somewhere between 700 and 1,800 steps for this 8 km journey. This is a strange reading from a few points of view:
    • I do tend to take a few real steps at the start and end of the journey as I wheel the bike in and out of the shed, but this would probably be 10s of steps not 100s.
    • On the other hand, it could be argued that each time I push the pedals up and down this is effectively the same motion as a step. But, if was what the FitBit counts as steps, then it is seriously underestimating the number of pedal turns that I would do.
    • The other thing that is strange is that there is so much variation in step count - some journeys were more than twice as many steps as others despite the fact that I was going on exactly the same route.

      I think (but can't prove) that the key factor is how often I wobble. If I was cycling nice and steady on a flat road, my wrist would be staying still on the handlebars and the FitBit would count that as resting. However if I was wobbling from side to side, the up and down motion of my left wrist would probably move up and down in a similar way to if I was walking. The amount of wobbling I do would probably vary from day to day depending upon traffic and other factors.
  • Working - I work as a software engineer so my work involves virtually no physical movement (which is why it is a very unhealthy occupation). The FitBit should not give me credit for any steps while I work. I tested this one day by looking at my step count when I came into work and then checking it 1 hour later.

    The FitBit said I took 7 steps in that hour - initially I thought it was giving me false credit, but then I remembered that during the hour I had left my seat once to look at a colleague's screen to help solve a problem he was having (his desk is beside mine so 7 steps sounds right for there and back). Therefore I think that it correctly gives me no credit for activity while working.
  • Sleeping - I know that I tend to toss and turn a lot during my sleep. In fact my FitBit sleep data tends to show frequent periods of red in the middle of the deep blue sleep time (the red periods are times when the FitBit thinks I am awake/restless - I am not sure how it decides that). I thought that the FitBit might give me credit for steps when I was really just tossing about restlessly during the night. However, it seems that it doesn't.

    The FitBit resets its step counter at midnight and I would normally be asleep by then (or at least lying in bed trying to sleep). So I decided to check my FitBit on a few mornings straight away after I got up out of bed. It would normally give me credit for a small number of steps, but never more than about 10-15 steps per night.
Overall I think that the FitBit gives a reasonably accurate measurement of activity level even if it is off significantly when measuring cycling.

I have read on-line about a legal case over how inaccurate the FitBit heart rate monitoring function can be. I don't doubt that the readings are often wrong, but I think the real problem is why were people expecting that a simple wrist-watch with two LEDs built into it could really provide accurate readings? (Medical professionals use complex and expensive devices to take the same reading.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Should women cover their hair in public?

It is only relatively recently that Ireland has had a significant number of immigrants and so seeing a woman wearing a burqua  is still something strange. I was recently having a conversation on the topic and it is interesting that the male and female reaction seems quite different.

I don't have strong feelings on the topic. I think it is slightly ludicrous as a fashion statement, but if women want to dress this way I see no reason to stop them. The women in contrast felt strongly that the wearing of a burqua was a terrible thing and should be strongly discouraged. They also were quite convinced that no woman chooses to dress this way of their own free will and that the real people to "blame" were their husbands and/or fathers who make them dress in this way.

I don't really know any  burqua wearing females (the outfit tends to discourage casual social chat), but I don't think that they are forced to wear the burqua. Instead I think it is just a social taboo against uncovering their head in public in much the same way  that Irish society has a taboo on women uncovering their breasts in public. Irish fathers and/or mothers don't explicitly tell their daughters to cover up, but girls just pick up the taboo by observing older girls and women.

In France it is considered socially OK for women to sunbathe topless. In fact the practice is so common that visiting Irish women who leave on their bikini tops look out of place in much the same way that burqua wearers look out of place in Ireland.

We would rightly be outraged if laws were enacted to force Irish women to remove their bikini tops if they didn't feel comfortable doing that. In the same way it is natural that Muslims would be outraged if we tried to restrict their freedom to wear the burqua in public if they want.

Some people say that burqua wearing women are a scary sight. Ironically Catholic nuns used to dress in very similar outfits when I was a child. Mind you they were very terrifying for a young child to encounter - but that is another days discussion.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Spotify's new running mode

Recently, Spotify notified me of their new running mode whereby their mobile phone detects the pace at which you are running and then selects songs with a tempo to match this. I decided to try it out yesterday morning as I went for a run. In general I was very impressed.

When you select running mode, you need to tell the app the initial pace to start the selection process from (probably because I was standing still rather than running when I launched the app). I started at 160 bpm as they recommend and then they asked me to select a playlist of songs from which they would choose music for me. I chose the epic playlist and it seemed to pick suitable songs whose beat encouraged me to stay going at the same pace (i.e. they weren't racing along like a Darude song which would encourage me to sprint and at the same time they didn't pick relaxing Whale sounds which would have slowed me to a walk).

Overall, I think that I like this feature and will use it again. In fact I ran 10km with this run rather than my more normal 5km route so this is proof of its effectiveness. One complaint I would have is the fact that it kept repeating the same song - maybe I was stuck at the same pace but still it could get boring on a long run.

One interesting thing I noticed is that Strava interacts with Spotify by turning down the music when it has statistics to report, so it is easier to hear. In contrast, BeyondPod pauses the podcast playback completely until Strava has finished reading out stats.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Is Hungary trying to re-establish the Iron Curtain

It is with a mixture of amazement and disappointment that I read recent reports that the Hungarian government is building a fence along its borders. In historical terms,  is relatively recently that the Hungarian people were rightly outraged about the existence of the Iron Curtain which restricted their rights to freely travel within Europe. Does nobody in power over there not see the irony that they are putting in place a shiny new version of the same thing that they fought so hard to pull down.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Migration between countries and within countries

There is currently a major migration crisis in Europe, because there are so many people from Africa and the Middle East who want to come into the EU. The USA have a similar problem with large numbers of people from Mexico trying to cross the border into USA. The consensus is that the problem will be solved by tightening up the border controls. However, I think that the problems might eventually be solved better by allowing free migration to all.

I know this might seem counter intuitive but I think that this lesson comes from a smaller scale migration crisis which we have within Ireland. Basically too many people want to move from relatively poorer areas in the west of Ireland to the greater Dublin area in the East where jobs prospects are better. Everyone agrees that the scale of the migration is unsustainable and it has led to unsustainable growth in rent pries which makes it difficult for people on a normal wage to afford to live.

The big difference with this local migration crisis and the larger one is that there is no international border involved. Hence, nobody is proposing to introduce border controls at the M50 junctions. Instead politicians seek out much more positive steps to solve the crisis e.g. giving companies special grants and/or tax breaks to relocate to an economically disadvantaged part of the country.

It is no longer considered OK to discriminate against people based upon their race or gender, but for some strange reason, it is generally accepted that it is still OK to discriminate against people based upon where  they happened to be born. I know that I am very lucky because I was born in USA to parents who were in turn born in Ireland. This means that I am free to live almost anywhere I like in Europe or North America. But, wht are people who happened to be born in Mexico or Syria denied that right?

Perhaps the same solution could work on a global scale or maybe I am just dreaming?

Friday, August 28, 2015

What kind of person does Watson think I am?

I just heard about a new demo site for showing the capabilities of IBM Watson running on BlueMix. The demo at claims to be able to tell your personality from a sample of what you have written. I was initially very skeptical about the chance of this working well, but I decided to give it a try anyway, using some text from this blog.

What it said was:
You are skeptical and shrewd.
You are independent: you have a strong desire to have time to yourself. You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. And you are unconcerned with art: you are less concerned with artistic or creative activities than most people who participated in our surveys.
You are motivated to seek out experiences that provide a strong feeling of prestige.
You consider achieving success to guide a large part of what you do: you seek out opportunities to improve yourself and demonstrate that you are a capable person. You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done.
Amazingly this is a very good summary of how I see myself (which of course could be very different from how other people see me). I was especially impressed with the part where they say that I have very little time for art. This is actually true, but there was no mention of anything to do with art or what I thought about it in the sample text I gave it.

Why not try it to see what your personality is really like. It only takes a few seconds. If you really want to know what is happening under the covers you can read this article which describes the internals, but it is quite complicated.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Monopoly Challenge (Dublin Edition)

A colleague of mine who lives near London, recently posted to Facebook that he was planning to complete the Monopoly Challenge. This is an informal game whereby people try to see how many of the streets mentioned on the Monopoly board they can visit on a single day (proving it by a picture of them standing beside the street sign). This sounds like a really fun activity and so I have decided to see if I could do the same with the Dublin edition of Monopoly.

Initially I thought it would be easy, because as far as I remembered most of the streets were quite close to Dublin city centre. However, when I dug out my old Monopoly board I was reminded that three of the streets included are actually in Cork (over 250km away). Luckily a quick search online told me that in more recent versions of the board the Cork streets have been replaced by Dublin ones. I decided to be kind to myself and use this newer Dublin only version.

There is now an even newer electronic version of the game where players pay for their properties and rents with a swipe card rather than using the quaint old bank notes. Apparently the street list was updated again for this version, but I decided not to use this version since it is too far away from the Monopoly game I remember fondly.

Looking at various stuff written online about the challenge, it seems that the rules are not well defined. So I decided I would make up my own set of rules - I know this sounds like cheating but at least I am defining the rules before I start rather than changing them as I go along.
  • Time limit - people seem to set the time limit anywhere between an hour and 24 hours. I decided to pick 3 hours as a limit that will allow me a chance to get a good proportion of the streets and at the same time stops me getting bored.
  • Transport methods - some people specify that the challenge has to be done by foot, while others say that anything goes. I personally intend doing it on a bike which is probably the fastest way to do it in crowded city centre traffic.
  • Order - some people say that you can do the streets in any order while others insist that the streets need to be visited in the order they appear on the board. I decided it would be fun to use the stricter version of the rule.
  • Non-street spaces are a little bit tricky to locate, but with some imagination a suitable proxy location can be found:
    • Crumlin and Kimmage are not streets as such, but I intend using Crumlin Rd and Kimmage Rd as proxies for the relevant area.
    • Transport hubs can be dealt with by taking a picture with the name of the relevant hub. I might get to BusAras and maybe Heuston station, but there isn't any realistic chance that I will be visiting Dublin Airport never mind Shannon Airport.
    • Community Chest - this is normally defined as any charity shop.
    • Income Tax - a picture outside the local PAYE office should meet this one.
    • Chance - I will treat these spaces as wild cards with any street counting as a match
    • In Jail - people in London use the Tower of London for this space, but I will use Mountjoy Prison instead.
    • Electric Company - there are electrical distribution cabinets scattered through the city. However. I am sure I will find it hard to locate one when its turn comes.
    • Free Parking - in principle this is easy, find any place where you can legally park for free. However, I don't think it will be easy to find one near the city centre - especially if you are strict and say that the parking space in question has to be currently unoccupied.
    • Water works - supposedly Irish Water have been busy recently installing water meters all over the country. Lets see if I can find one to take a picture of. 
    • Super Tax - apparently the revenue commissioners have a special unit based in Dublin Castle who look after the tax affairs of high net worth individuals. I think this would be ideal for the Super Tax space, but I am not sure if the unit has a sign outside.
  • Use of technology - most people don't mention any restrictions here, but since part of the challenge is to see how well I know the city, I will ban the use of google maps or any other navigation aid on my phone. When/if I get lost it might be fun to try out that old fashioned method of navigation by asking random strangers for directions.
    Of course this doesn't mean I can't use Google maps to help plan the journey in advance. In fact I produced a handy personalised google map with all of the locations.
  • Scoring - some people use complex algorithms involving the price of the streets on the board, but I think I will use a simpler scheme where one point is awarded for each street/space and a bonus point is awarded for getting all streets of a particular colour.
My daughter has agreed to help me with the challenge and we will do it on Saturday if the weather permits. Watch this space for a report on how we get on.