November 23rd, 2014

Android Wear: almost there, but not quite

Android Wear is Google’s take on what a smart watch could be. Whereas Apple’s smart watch won’t come out until early next year, the first watches running Android Wear started appearing last summer. Unfortunately, of the several models of watch that were announced the model people wanted most – the Moto 360 – was delayed quite a long time. Last week I finally got my hands on one.

Moto 360 running Android Wear

First off, let me say that I love Moto’s hardware. The design is beautiful: it’s a piece of fashion you won’t mind being seen with. I was surprised to find that though the 360 is by necessity quite big (though not as big as some fashionable normal watches), once I put it on I quickly forgot it was even there. The leather strap is quite comfortable, and the device doesn’t way enough to be noticeable. This is exactly as a watch should be: there when you need it, forgotten the moment it’s covered by your sleeve again.

The software on the other hand leaves a lot to be desired. In my experience there isn’t a function on Android Wear which isn’t at least a bit buggy. Notifications disappear or fail to even show up at all. The voice commands have to be stated in exactly the right words to work, and even then the odds of it doing exactly what you want are 50/50.

One function which works somewhat reliably if you know how to use it is note-taking. If I bring the watch to my face, say calmly and clearly “ok, google”, wait a second and say “take a note” and wait a few more seconds, then a screen will come up on my watch telling me to dictate my note. Of course, it can’t be more than a couple of words and I have to speak very calmly, or the watch will inform me that it “didn’t catch that”. When I do succeed, my voice will be converted to text in a new note placed in Google Keep. I tried to have my notes saved to OneNote instead, but no luck. Being quick to respond for once, Microsoft has already released an app to make OneNote availble on Wear, but I couldn’t get it to work.

As for the voice to text conversion, I’d say that it is, again, somewhat reliable. It’ll catch most common words correctly, but proper names and brand names just don’t work. I haven’t even attempted to dictate to my watch in Dutch: if it is even possible in the first place I doubt it’s nearly as accurate as English.

And yet I don’t regret buying this device. Unreliable as they are, I find the functions of Android Wear very handy. You won’t realize what a bother it is to dig out your phone every time you need something until you have the option of leaving your phone where it is and just bring up your wrist instead. If my phone is buzzing in my pocket my first instinct is no longer to get it out and look at it: I just take a look at my watch instead. “Ah, apparently my old college buddy liked the picture I posted on Twitter a couple of minutes ago. That’s nice to know.” Or if some crazy idea hits me while I’m on the road (which happens a lot actually), I can make a note to look into it once I get home. Even if it takes a little effort, and even a retry, to do so. “I should write about a library for my experimental storytelling blog.” Noted. It gives a feeling of security.

Besides, I doubt these bugs will be around for very long. Android Wear was released quickly, perhaps even a little too quickly. But now that the watches are out there and people are using it, it will grow fast. Apparently the first big update hit just a while ago, and the next one is already underway. It may take a few months to get most of the bugs out, and no software product I know is ever 100% bug-free. But if even at half power Android Wear is already this useful, I don’t doubt that within a few years there will be as many smart watch users as there are smart phone users.

November 19th, 2014

Surface Pro 3: Review

In this post I will be reviewing the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. About a month ago, I got the core i5, 256G SSD, 8GB RAM version with type-cover. And I won’t make you read to the bottom to give you my overall conclusion: this device is freaking amazing! Let me tell you how came to that realization.

Surface Pro 3 with and without type cover

Why the Surface Pro 3?

For some time I’ve been looking for the ideal device to supplement my desktop PC. I wanted a device that I could read a book or the news on while I’m sitting on the couch, a device I could use as an office suite at e.g. the library or which I could program on while sitting in a coffeeshop. Normally, that would be two devices: one tablet for casual use and a laptop or powerbook for more serious applications. But I was being headstrong. Surely, I thought, in this day and age it should be so hard to have one device that does both?

So I looked at what was on offer. Something light and small enough to comfortably use in any circumstance, but with enough power to do serious work on. That naturally led to the MacBook. Which I seriously considered buying, were it not for two things. For one, I prefer freedom and customizability over usability and prettiness, which is why the last time I tried to use OSX we didn’t get along. And for another, I just don’t like the laptop/powerbook form-factor because it has an integrated keyboard. I know hardware keyboards are often useful, but when I don’t want to type I want to be able to get rid of it.

So, this being the year of the supersized tablets, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 12 and a bluetooth keyboard. Surely this device should be able to handle all of my needs? As it turned out, not so much. The hardware was up to it, I think, but not the OS.

So when the Surface Pro 3 came out with full-on Windows 8 rather than Windows RT, it was love at first sight. It’s light, it’s reasonably thin, it has a built-in kickstand, and it packs hardware comparable to what you’d find in a MacBook. It has a type-cover that you can attach and detach at will. And it comes with a pen as well. Not that I’m a serious digital artist (I merely dabble), but at this point it was just icing on the cake. The price was a bitter pill to swallow, I’ll admit. But I was looking for the best, and willing to pay for it.

surface-pro-3-1

So how did it work out?

It worked out great! I’ve had the device with me on a number of trips. I’ve used my Surface on trains, buses, in coffeeshops, from my couch and in bed. I’ve watched movies on it, written code on it, played a cool RPG on it, written blog posts on it. In short: it does everything I could want it to do, and it’s supremely comfortable to use.

The Windows Store was able to provide me with apps which fulfilled my basic needs. But the best part is that I’m not restricted to using only these apps. If I want to transfer some files, I can use Filezilla. If I want to work on my Rails application, I can start up Aptana. If I need to test something on Linux, I can use VMWare Player. Yes, you heard it right: I’m running VM’s on a slate device. If you don’t think that’s cool as hell, you may as well give up now because we will never see eye to eye on anything.

Once I was convinced that this was the device for me, I got myself some accessories: a small USB hub, an ethernet adapter, an adapter that offers displayport, DVI and HDMI. Then I took all of these with me to work. I hooked up the charger, an external monitor, a full-size keyboard and a USB mouse and I copied the VM holding the application I’d been working on for a client. And presto: I was doing my professional application development on a 1.76 pounds (800 g) tablet!

I’ve also gotten the base station at home and hooked it up to my monitor, a second mouse and a bluetooth keyboard. If I hadn’t recently bought a new desktop PC, I would be using my Surface as my main desktop system as well. For now I run Linux on my main desktop PC and use the Surface for Windows-only software like certain games.

But there you have it: it’s a big investment, but it will get you a single device to replace your desktop PC, your laptop and your tablet (and if you’re willing to use only Skype it could even replace your phone)! Remember those dreams we had of a SciFi-like future where every person could have a single personal device that could interface with anything and be used for anything? That day is here.

October 26th, 2014

Life without regrets

“Live as if there is no tomorrow!”

Bullshit.

Like many platitudes, this one certainly sounds enthusiastic and inspirational. But it has no practical application. If there were no tomorrow, people would be spending what money they have today, desperately trying to fit as many pleasant experiences in what few hours we had left. We’d have no regard for consequences or the state of the world around us because hey, it’ll all be gone tomorrow anyway, right?

In reality, tomorrow does come, rent will be due, and you have to be at work on time. Telling people to live as if there is no tomorrow is like teasing a draft horse for not breaking its bonds and racing off into the great wild outdoors. Our existence is not free of consequence, and no sane person would live their life as if it were.

“Live each day as if it were your last.”

Closer, but still no cigar. At least by now we’re already admitting that the world around us and the people in it will still exist tomorrow. That means murder is off the table. Still, if we knew for certain that our lives would end by tomorrow, we’d be spending all our money partying late into the night. In reality, the alarm clock is going to go off at 6 o’clock tomorrow and you’ll hate yourself if you stay up too late.

Rephrase it like this: “Live so that if today is your last day, you’ll have no regrets.” Unfortunately, that probably won’t fit on a T-shirt.

I like this phrase better because it’s close enough to our daily reality to actually be of some use in shaping our lives. It acknowledges the fact that daily live isn’t going to stop and wait for you. Instead, this phrase invites a thought experiment. Imagine yourself at the end of today, finding out by whatever means that, unbeknownst to you, today has been the last day of your life. Imagine yourself sitting on your bed after hearing this news and reflecting on your life. What do you regret doing? What do you regret not doing?

Now it’s very easy to say that you regret not hopping in a plane for Tahiti this morning. But that’s not the point. This morning you had no idea that today would be your last day, so there is no way you would have done something that extreme. The point is to look back at your life as it has been up to this point, not to compare it to a Hollywood movie. Your life has come to here. Is this the place where you wanted to end up?  How much of your life has become this way by your choices? What might have been, if you had made different choices?

In my experience from having reflected on my life throughout the years, what I most often regret is wasted time. Time spent idly watching TV when I could have gotten more enjoyment and satisfaction by doing something creative with my time. Like writing a blogpost, pursuing new interests, gaining new knowledge and skills.

I gain important insights from reflecting like this. I learn where to direct my time and energy so that I can gain the most happiness in my life. I’m going to get up tomorrow and go to work. If tomorrow turns out to be my last day, I won’t regret that I went to work. I’ll regret it if I went to work I didn’t enjoy doing. I’ll regret not having fought more often to make my own dreams a reality. I’ll regret spending the evening watching re-runs rather than writing something interesting or building something useful.

I don’t care about fame or legacy. But I do care whether I leave behind a world that has become even marginally better by my having been here. If there are handful of people out there who can do their work easier because of some program I wrote, or people who smiled more often because they came across some content I shared with them, then indeed I have no regrets.

I regret nothing!

October 12th, 2014

What’s the worst that could happen?

Although admittedly I have lived a pretty sheltered and blessed life, I have faced some setbacks just as everybody has. I have been fortunate enough to have found some effective ways of dealing with such things. Thanks to this, I have a very robust mental health which I’m quite proud of. I want to share some of the strategies I use, in the hope that they may be of use to others. Because I would love nothing better than for all people to be happy and content. I think that any person being unhappy or depressed is simply a terrible waste if it can be avoided.

So lately I’ve been having some problems with work. This has been weighing on my mind, to the point that even during my off-time I couldn’t relax. I kept running simulations in my head of conversations I might have with my supervisors to discuss these problems: what I’d say, what they’d say. I care about what they think of me: this company is run by kind people, and they’ve been very flexible in meeting some of my earlier concerns. I worried that I’d seem ungrateful by bringing these things up, even to the point of imagining doomsday scenarios where I’d be fired in anger and never find another job again.

Ridiculous, I know, even as I’m thinking it. But simply telling your mind to stop such thoughts never does anything. I tried a number of other mental tricks I’ve picked up through the years: a deep breath, distracting myself with something else, trying to think of nothing at all, trying to work it all out rationally and then set it aside. It was no use. The problem, among other things, was that I was trying to go about my normal routine while I was doing all this thinking (browsing tumblr in this case). Once I noticed that all this worrying was giving me an upset stomach, I stopped what I was doing. I’ve not encountered a problem yet that can’t be solved or at the very least made tolerable by meditation.

An important thing when trying to use meditation is these circumstances is to not keep trying the same tricks you’ve been trying before, and not to let the worrying thoughts run around your head in circles as they always tend to do. You have to make a clean break from your thoughts. It sometimes takes me several tries over the course of an hour, and in one or two cases I’ve even failed completely to break with the soundtrack  playing on repeat in my head. But I keep trying again, until in the end I manage to get free of them.

This is the crucial stage. When you’ve finally managed to clear your head (I literally feel like space has opened up inside my skull), you may be tempted to enjoy the peace of silence and not do anything else. But that won’t resolve your problems, and after just a few hours back in your daily routine that peace will be gone. No, now is the time to find an answer to your problems, something convincing that will help you keep those same worries at bay if they ever come back.

Personally, I’m a very spiritual person, and on many occasions I have found my answer in faith. But not so this time: this time the answer turned out to be more psychological (which fortunately means it applies to agnostics and atheist as well, bless them :). This time I applied another strategy that has helped me before when I worry about what the future may bring. I imagine how things will turn out for me if my worst fears come to be realised. And then I try to see beyond the immediate shock that comes with such a doom scenario, and see all the beautiful things that will still be true, even if the worst should happen.

What if things turn ugly at work, and I end up leaving while in dispute with my employer. What if this affects my future job prospects, so that I can’t find the kind of work anymore that I’m used to? In that case, I’m going to have to find a different sort of career, which means new experiences and interesting new ways of thinking. And regardless of whether I will ever find a good job where I can comfortably stay, the sun will still shine, won’t it? Summer is still going to follow spring, the green leaves and strong grass are still going to come out, aren’t they? And books! Glorious books! They’ll still be there, whatever else happens, and I’m always going to have at least some time in which to read them. So I’m still going to witness beautiful, incredible, inspirational stories. I can still paint, still play the piano, still go for long walks. My family will still be there, and all the wonderful people that inhabit this world. I can still learn new things, new philosophies, new languages. I can improve myself and enrich my own world, even if I don’t have a penny to my name.

It’s one thing to read such things or to think about them, but you really have to feel them, to experience them, to believe in them. Once I managed this, the weight I didn’t even know was wearing on my soul fell away. I laughed in relieve. And once again, as many times before, I realised what a fool I had been for worrying, for letting those thoughts fester for hours when with a little effort I could have come to this place where the world is filled with promise and the grey clouds have drifted away. Gods help me if I ever forget this very simple truth. But fortunately I know how to effectively deal with persistent worries and now, so do you.

May peace and happiness be with you always.

Redge

July 27th, 2014

A Walk in the Park

Methought I walked in a dream
in the park, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Each man and woman content
in their own world, a story of a lifetime fleetingly glanced,
side by side, a library of books read only by a few.

Yet peace shines through the covers and needs no words.
Enough to walk or rest here, together yet alone,
lifes touching without connecting
as we share a dream outside of time
of a lazy Sunday afternoon that never ended.

July 25th, 2014

Soylent: how to make your own

For my final post on my new Soylent experiment I thought I’d give you a little glimpse of how I make a batch of Soylent. The whole process takes maybe five minutes, and makes for three square meals.

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I sometimes add some chocolate, strawberries or other stuff to add some flavour, but that’s optional.

So I’ve been on Soylent for over three weeks now. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be going back to only regular food any time soon. I eat Soylent for breakfast and lunch on most days, and dinner when I don’t want to bother with preparing anything. Grocery shopping has become completely optional, which saves money but more importantly is far more convenient. Also I hardly ever need to wash any dishes anymore. I feel fit and I have more regular and pleasant trips to the toilet than I’ve had in years. I have learned to put my Soylent lunch in the fridge when I get to work in the morning, or else by noon it’ll have spoiled. Other than that I haven’t had any drawbacks to speak off. In conclusion I’m all set to stay on Soylent for years to come.

July 23rd, 2014

Soylent: days seven and eight

Days seven and eight of my Soylent experience.

Not much to tell about my one week anniversary. More colleagues were interested in the subject, although none of them dared a taste. They looked at soylent.me and some other sites, and tentatively agreed that it might be convenient, but just too weird for their tastes.

On day eight I had another day off work. I finished my last Soylent for breakfast, then headed out to buy some utensils to make it even easier to prepare more. I bought a plastic container to hold the whey protein powder, a funnel so I can fill up a normal bottle with Soylent if I want, and a new pitcher (so far I’ve been storing my Soylent in the fridge in my blender jar). The plastic container turned out to work well, so I’ll pick up more of them to hold the other powders.

Once I’d brought my haul home, I mixed up a fresh batch for lunch. So far I’d been using raspberry-flavoured whey protein powder, but this time I also threw in a sample of peanut-chocolate flavour that I got free with my purchase. Turns out the peanut-chocolate flavour is far stronger, and very tasty. I’ll order that flavour for my next protein powder shipment, but that’ll be a while yet: I still have over 4 kilos of the stuff left, which should last me well into august.

I took my lunch with me in my trusty flask and once again spent most of my day outdoors. The book of the day was Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. I found it very interesting, but it’s written to disprove popular science about neurological differences between genders, which I didn’t put much faith in to begin with. Still, I was surprised at the research showing how deeply ingrained our conceptions of gender are in our minds. The peanut-chocolate Soylent was tasty at first, but quickly faded into the background. All in all a very fulfilling day.

July 23rd, 2014

Soylent: days five and six

Days five and six of my Soylent experience.

Over the weekend I tried out my new recipe, but it didn’t work very well. I’m guessing that 1900kcal is just too low: I felt slow and weak. So for dinner, I cooked myself a nice tikka masala. It was especially tasty and satisfying after a few days of only Soylent. Now that I’ve tested out living on Soylent alone, I figure from now on I’ll go back to regular dinners whenever I have time to cook properly. And I’ve adjusted my recipe to 2100kcal, the same as the original.

Other than that, it’s been a pretty miserable weekend all-round. The weather is hot, I got sunburn, I could hardly sleep and the house is stifling yet marginally cooler than outside. I’m looking forward to returning to our air-conditioned office come Monday.

July 23rd, 2014

Soylent: day four

Day four of my Soylent experience.

I had to rush to the toilet this morning. I guess the pizza experiment is officially a failure. Maybe I’ll try something a little easier next time, like a nice salad.

Anyway, the recipe I’d been using, tasty and complete v3, got updated to “Complete Food v4“. It drops the hemp protein in favor of pea protein. Great! Here I got all enthusiastic and bought 5 kilos of hemp protein, even though the recipe only calls for 40 grams a day. So that should last me — let me do the math — 125 days. I guess I’ll be sticking with the old recipe for a while longer…

Actually, I’d already made a personal copy of the old recipe and I spent much of last night working on it. I tried shifting the energy intake from mostly carbohydrates to mostly protein and fats. For one thing, I already take in a lot of sugar in my drinks during the day — though I can of course compensate for this simply by putting in a litte less maltodextrin than the recipe actually calls for. For another, some of the research I read on low-protein diets seems plausible.

That’s right! I actually did some research. I created a personal nutrient profile of about 1900 kcal per day from 30% carbs, 30% protein and 40% fat. I tried going for 40% protein, but more of the protein powder combined with the vitamin pill creates a small overdose of folate. Not Earth-shattering, and the jury is still out on the effects of high folate intake, but if I’m putting together a daily diet I might as well try to make it as good as I can.

After that I took some of the interesting new stuff from v4 like flaxseed and also added skimmed milk (fortunately I’m not lactose-intolerant). I figured, from a biological perspective, that milk has to contain some beneficial stuff that may not be tracked yet in the Soylent nutrient list. But getting all this stuff balanced out was a real chore, let me tell you.

I have to say that the Soylent DIY section works like a charm. There’s a few minor usability issues here and there, but for the most part it’s very easy to pull together existing data both on which nutrients you need, and how much of those nutrients each ingredient provides.

So now I have a new recipe. I call this new concoction Powerthirst. If Soylent isn’t afraid to name itself after some horribly bad movie, than I can do the same. I haven’t tried it out yet though: I need to get the new ingredients first.

So for today, I poured myself breakfast and lunch from the chocolate batch I made a couple of days ago. I also drank more water and found that it did wonders. I read last night that some Soylent users forget to hydrate properly since we’re sipping liquid food the whole time. Up to now I’d been feeling a little queasy after the bike trip to work, but not today.

Friday is fish day at the office: somebody takes orders for fried fish and somebody else goes to collect it. I always order the fish fries — which is considered a kid food but what do I care? It’s pretty devoid of nutrients other than fat as well, but that didn’t stop me from ordering it again.

That left me pretty full, and I didn’t finish the whole portion of Soylent I’d brought with me. I did pour one of my colleagues a cup — he’d gotten curious after reading some of the previous entries of this series. He seemed pleasantly surprised. He said he clearly tasted the chocolate, and really not much flavour beside that.

When everybody got ready to leave for the weekend, I noticed there was still a small stack of bananas left. They were still fine now, but they’d probably be tossed out come monday. Since nobody wanted them, I took them home with me and promptly made a banana-Soylent batch for tomorrow.

July 23rd, 2014

Soylent: day three

Day three of my Soylent experience.

It’s starting to get easier to put away half a litre of goo without taking nearly an hour to do it. I started the morning with the first portion of another strawberry batch that I’d mixed the day before, then took the second portion with me to work. I got some mild interest from colleagues.

As it happens, it was my turn to set the lunch table, which is pretty ironic since I don’t sit at it myself any more. My partner in this task had heard of Soylent and was interested in my experiences. I told him how it didn’t taste particularly bad or delicious to me, and how I’d spend less than half an hour so far on all my food this week. He was interested to learn that I mixed my own Soylent: he’d heard that Soylent could be ordered but not that it’s only available in the US for now. I asked whether he’d be interested in some samples from my own batches, and he was.

Coming home from work, I decided on impulse to buy myself a pizza, just to show to myself that I could still deal with regular food as well. But the experience was almost bizarre. Only a week ago, the prospect of a pizza all to myself would have been very enticing to me. Now, it didn’t really hold any attraction. I didn’t dislike the idea, but I seemed to hold it in the no higher regard than stopping on the way to pick up a magazine.

neutral

Things got even stranger when I came home. I had to pre-heat the oven, and wait for it to warm up before putting in the pizza. After a mere three days, this now felt like a useless waste of time. I’m (slightly) hungry, and I could have been sipping my dinner half an hour ago!

When the pizza was finally done, the experience of eating it was more of the same: no dislike, but it wasn’t really doing much for me either. Once I was done, I felt stuffed and heavy. Not an unexpected result from eating a whole pizza by myself, but my recent experience provided me with a new frame of reference that made this whole pizza thing seem… clumsy.

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