Friday, February 19, 2016

Getting full use out of the touchpad of my new mini-laptop

I am the only person in my house who doesn't have an iPad because I never thought I would find one useful.  Instead I recently splashed out and bought myself a HP mini laptop. It is a little bit like an iPad because it is roughly the same size and hence it fits the gap between a full size laptop and a smartphone. However, it has a full keyboard so there is no awkward touch typing and it runs a real operating system rather than Apple's restricted iOS.

The machine came with Windows 10 and since they place a few restrictions making it difficult to install another operating system (e.g. Ubuntu) I have been forced to learn how to use it. Overall the experience was not too bad - but that will be the subject of another blog post. This article will focus on the touch pad.

The laptop came with a sheet of paper which (among other things) described how to make best use of the touchpad. I read this with great interest, but I was disappointed to find that some of the gestures did not work as they suggested. I did a bit of googling and found an article giving a different set of gestures and a video with even  more suggestions for how it might work, but again many gestures they described didn't work when I tried them. Eventually I found an article on how-to-geek which explained that apparently the touchpad on my laptop is not of high enough quality for all of the gestures to work (Windows apparently disables many gestures when it detects that the touchpad hardware is not of brand that it has certified).

This list shows the gestures that I found to work - this might work on other laptops or might not, but it is definitely worth trying them.
  • Drag a finger gently across the touchpad to move the mouse.
  • Press on the left-bottom corner of the touchpad to emulate a click on the left mouse button.
  • Press with a single finger on the right-bottom corner of the touchpad or press anywhere on the touchpad with two fingers to emulate a click on the right mouse button.
  • Press hard anywhere on the touchpad apart from the bottom right corner to emulate a left click. I guess this gesture requires a considerable amount of pressure to avoid the user accidentally triggering a left mouse click while dragging the mouse
  • While clicking the mouse with one finger, you can move the mouse with another finger. This allows you to do drag-and-drop.
  • When you press on the touchpad with two fingers, you can zoom in by moving your fingers apart or zoom out by moving them closer together. This pinch/stretch gesture is the same as is commonly available on smartphones.
  • If you click on the touchpad with two fingers and maintain a constant distance between them you can scroll text up or down by moving your fingers up or down. You can even use this two-fingered gesture to scroll left or right if there is a horizontal scroll option in your application.
  • If you find two finger scrolling too awkward, you can configure your system to scroll by dragging a single finger up and down on the right hand side of the touchpad. (by default this option is disabled).
None of the three-finger gestures seemed to work for me (possibly due to limitations of my hardware).  In any case I think the above list of gestures is complicated enough to remember.

Monday, February 15, 2016

This shower is definitely closed

At work they are currently doing some maintenance on the toilets and shower facilities. I think they expect that people might ignore the instructions not to use the facilities while the works are in progress. As a result they put warning signs telling people to keep out which make it look like someone died in there.

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?