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April 27 2012

Top Stories: April 23-27, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Design your website for a graceful fail
A failure in secondary content doesn't need to take down an entire website. Here, Etsy's Mike Brittain explains how to build resilience into UIs and allow for graceful failures.

Big data in Europe
European application of big data is ramping up, but its spread is different from the patterns seen in the U.S. In this interview, Big Data Week organizers Stewart Townsend and Carlos Somohano share the key distinctions and opportunities associated with Europe's data scene.

The rewards of simple code
Simple code is born from planning, discipline and grinding work. But as author Max Kanat-Alexander notes in this interview, the benefits of simple code are worth the considerable effort it requires.


Fitness for geeks
Programmers who spend 14 hours a day in front of a computer know how hard it is to step away from the cubicle. But as "Fitness for Geeks" author Bruce Perry notes in this podcast, getting fit doesn't need to be daunting.


Joshua Bixby on the business of performance
Strangeloop's Joshua Bixby discusses the business of speed and why web performance optimization is an institutional need.


Fluent Conference: JavaScript & Beyond — Explore the changing worlds of JavaScript & HTML5 at the O'Reilly Fluent Conference, May 29 - 31 in San Francisco. Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20.

April 26 2012

Fitness for geeks

Programmers who spend 14 hours a day in front of a computer terminal writing code know how hard it is to step out of the cubicle and learn how to live a more healthy lifestyle. But getting fit doesn't need to be so daunting, and a growing number of technophiles are finding ways to make the process more appealing and relevant to their interest in data, design, and discovery. The increasing popularity of projects such as Quantified Self, smartphone apps, and gadgets dedicated to monitoring your body, generating metrics and routines for your exercise regime, and tracking your progress has created a community of like-minded geeks to share in your struggle, and even make it fun.

I recently talked with Bruce Perry, author of the just-released Fitness for Geeks, about some of the tools this crowd is using, some others they might be missing, and how the rest of us can use these tips to get healthy too. Highlights from our conversation include:

  • Debug your wetware. A programmer becomes fitter by becoming more knowledgeable about her internal software and learning how to optimize it for maximum performance and efficiency. [Discussed at the 00:21 mark]
  • Get some sleep. This one's pretty obvious, but now there are many new ways to quantify and analyze your sleep. Zeo Sleep Manager monitors your brainwaves during sleep and displays graphs for your review when you wake up, communicating wirelessly to a software-enabled clock and the web, Use your personal dashboard to identify your sleep cycles, analyze your REM, and measure the effects of different daily events (such as a stressful day or a drink before bed) on sleep. [Discussed at the 1:54 mark]
  • Use apps to assist your workouts and quantify your health. Tools such as FitBit, Nike+, Garmin Connect, AlpineReplay, and RestWise connect you and your health to the digital world where so much of the rest of your life is lived. [Discussed at the 3:46 mark]
  • Just get outside. You don't need a sophisticated routine, as long as you're moving. Doing the same thing over and over tends to create a static effect that plateaus. But you can randomize your workouts to make them more interesting. Tools such as GAIN Fitness and CrossFit's Workout of the Day (WOD) Generator will use algorithms to generate your own daily protocol. [Discussed at the 4:53 mark]
  • Fast. Intermittent fasting has been shown to lower blood pressure, normalize insulin and glucose levels, and even provide more efficient workouts while fasting. The basic guidelines for intermittent fasting is to eat only within an 8-hour window (eat dinner, don't eat at night, skip breakfast) and go the remaining16 hours on just water, coffee, and tea. [Discussed at the 7:26 mark]
  • Resist extremes. Bruce says it's okay to do a marathon or similarly challenging event for the experience, but that the oxidative stress can have a significantly negative effect on your overall and long-term health. Instead, revolve your exercise program around short-duration, high-intensity training, such as sprinting, followed by 30-40 minutes of high-intensity weights. [Discussed at the 09:09 mark]
  • Practice good stress. Various forms of acute stresses (known as hormesis) — such as moderate and high-intensity exercise, hot and cold exposure, one drink at night — can improve your health. [Discussed at the 13:02 mark]
  • Personal experiences with fitness apps. Bruce talks about using Endomondo, GPS data, and Google Earth to scout out an off-piste ski area, and I mention my own use of Google's MyTracks Android app for marathon training. [Discussed at the 15:19 mark]

The full interview is available in the following video:

Fitness for Geeks — This guide will help you experiment with one crucial system you usually ignore — your body and its health. Long hours focusing on code or circuits tends to stifle notions of nutrition, but with this book you can approach fitness through science.

October 30 2011

Emma Critchley's best shot

'This woman is a member of a swimming club. I love the way her legs and feet are hanging, almost like a squid'

Click on the image to see it in full

My work comes from my passion for diving. It deals with the underwater world: the threshold state that the body enters between breathing in and breathing out, and when you hold your breath. I'm interested in the way water changes the relationship we have with our bodies, the way we see and hear things, and the difference in gravity.

This picture was taken at a pool in Lancing, Sussex; the staff let me take pictures there out of hours.

The woman, Yvonne, is a member of Brighton Swimming Club and goes out in the sea every day, so she has a real connection with water. Here, she is lying underneath the water on a black plinth; this is a picture of her reflection on the underside of the water's surface. We're not working deep underwater – we're both standing in the shallow end, otherwise it's very hard to capture the image.

Yvonne isn't a free diver, unlike other people I've photographed, but she can hold her breath for about a minute. I stay underwater for that long, too.

I took hundreds of shots building up to this work. During this session, I probably shot about 60 pictures before finally settling on four to exhibit. I particularly love this image because of the way Yvonne's legs and feet hang almost like a squid. The bits that are distorted and blurred remind me of a Francis Bacon painting. Yet there is still a lot of clarity and reality in the top half of her body, so it very much captures that "in-between" state I look for.

CV

Born: Glasgow, 1980.

Studied: University of Brighton, and Royal College of Art, London.

Influences: "Andrei Tarkovsky, Roni Horn, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Caspar David Friedrich Luce Irigaray"

High point: "Taking part in the Saatchi New Sensations show"

Low point: "I was booked to do a talk once but no one turned up."

• This article was amended on 31 October 2011 to correct an error in Caspar David Friedrich's name


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December 18 2010

Strata Gems: A sense of self

We're publishing a new Strata Gem each day all the way through to December 24. Yesterday's Gem: Clojure is a language for data.

Strata 2011 The data revolution isn't just about big data. The smallest data can be the most important to us, and nothing more so than tracking our own activities and fitness. While standalone pedometers and other tracking devices are nothing new, today's devices are network-connected and social.

Android phones and iPhones are fitted with accelerometers, and work well as pedometers and activity monitors. RunKeeper is one application that takes advantage of this, along with GPS tracking, to log runs and rides. FitFu takes things a step further, mixing monitoring with fitness instruction and social interaction.

Phones, however ubiquitous, are still awkward to use for full-time fitness tracking. With a much smaller form factor, the Fitbit is a sensor you clip to your clothes. Throughout the day it records your movement, and at night it can sense whether you wake. With a long battery life and wireless syncing, it's the least intrusive device currently available for measuring your activity.

Fitbit data
An extract from the author's Fitbit data

Fitbit are working on delivering an API for access to your own data, but in the meantime there's an unofficial API available.

Withings produce a wi-fi enabled scale, that records weight and body mass index, uploading the data to their web site and making it available for tracking on the web or a smartphone.

The next step for these services is to move towards an API and interoperation. Right now, Fitbit requires you manually enter your own weight, and diet plans such as WeightWatchers aren't able to import your weight or activity from the other services.

For much more on recording and analyzing your own data, check out Quantified Self.

November 25 2010

Why is outdoor gear so ugly?

Covered in trademarks, packed with spurious technology, outdoor equipment lives in a parallel design universe to the rest of us. It's like hi-tech architecture, but less tasteful

In Patagonia, the wind can tear your arms off. It makes everything lean – the trees, the houses, even the people. It strafes the landscape, using rain, snow or hail as ammunition. So you need to be equipped for it. And, boy, are the tourists here equipped. They come armoured in layers of technical clothing, conspicuously branded with The North Face, Arc'teryx, Jack Wolfskin and, of course, Patagonia. Pick a sublime view, and the most prominent thing in it will be the red, yellow and blue Gore-Tex parkas scattered across the picture like Smarties.

In Punta Arenas I bought a woolly hat, and the first thing my host asked me when he saw it was whether it was "technical". It's made of wool, I said. But it wasn't until he saw the brand, Arc'teryx, that he felt reassured. I'm starting to suspect that our faith in "technical" adventure clothing is just another fetish, one that owes more to the logic of consumerism than our desire to be in the great outdoors.

Ernest Shackleton survived his so-called voyage of Endurance back from the South Pole in homemade clothing. Edmund Hillary climbed Everest wearing waterproofed cotton canvas. Today, even amateur outdoor enthusiasts are better equipped than these hardy pioneers. The advent of synthetic materials such as polyurethane and Gore-Tex, which are lighter and more effective, have democratised access to extreme climates. But why do these clothes have to look and feel so awful? I saw a gaucho ride past wearing nothing but leather and wool – he looked warm and, more to the point, dignified. By comparison, we tourists look like awkward escapees from a chemical plant.

Part of the problem is the heavy branding – we look owned. The adventure clothing industry is years behind the fashion world, which has long since recognised the seductive appeal of non-conspicuous branding, subtle details such as the four stitches that signify a Martin Margiela jumper. By contrast, adventure clothing brands have information that they are desperate to convey. A good deal of clever design has gone into these clothes. The evidence of it is daubed on sleeves, lapels, trouser legs and shoes: Polartec, Titanium, Paclite, Pro Shell, Soft Shell, Triclimate, Windwall, eVent, Power Stretch and – my favourite – HemLock. Each of these is a registered trademark, each one a patented material or system. Technical clothing comes with its own language, the language of performance. The marketing strategy revolves around presenting clothes as engineering. Sometimes, though, I suspect that we are being blinded with pseudo-science.

Looking for a simple waterproof, I found one by Vaude that looked dependable, only to discover that it cost £300. I asked the store assistant why it was so expensive and he said, "It's waterproof and, well, everything-proof, basically." For that price it should be bulletproof. Most of the rainwear I looked at turned out not to be technically waterproof. I was amazed to discover just how many degrees of non-waterproofness are represented in these adventure clothing shops. Once you've eliminated everything that looks waterproof but is in fact only windproof, you're left with two options: cheap, shapeless nylon cagoules or super-expensive, high-performance gear. The problem seems to be that synthetic materials solved the rain problem but created a breathability problem – and solving that will cost you.

Often, real innovation has gone into these products. Gore-Tex , for instance, invented by Robert Gore in 1978, is an ingenious material. Because its pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water drop, it keeps water out while allowing water vapour from an overheating body to escape. Like the smartphone of textiles, it might as well be magic. Similarly, the fleece, the mainstay of every outdoor enthusiast, is made of recycled plastic bottles – another stroke of genius. Patagonia – the brand, not the place – estimates that 25 bottles go into each garment. And instead of winding up in landfills themselves, fleeces can be recycled more or less infinitely. The only problem is that when you take off a fleece it crackles with static. Its artificiality is palpable. There is some irony in nature lovers braving the wilds wearing recycled rubbish.

However, nothing expresses the hi-tech aspirations of technical clothing like hiking shoes. I'm not talking about traditional leather hiking boots, which will last you a lifetime, but the newfangled hiking trainer. The visual language of hiking trainers is a lesson in communicating complexity. They are all ridges and ribs, meshes and membranes. They are designed to combine strength and shock absorbance with lightness, and that is a genuine achievement. It's interesting, though, how each element – every rib and membrane – has to be articulated in a different colour, to show off how many elements are involved. Like the hi-tech architecture of Rogers and Foster, these shoe designers want to express structure – engineering translates into performance. Unlike them, however, there is no restrained palette.

While some of these shoes are genuinely great products, others are simply ludicrous. American brand Merrell seems to excel in the latter. The Chameleon3 Axiom Sport (with Ortholite Anatomical Footbed) reaches new heights of ugliness and spurious technicality. If Robocop ate nothing but All-Bran and tyres, this is what his turds would look like. Merrell's marketing spiel describes it as "stripped right down to its bare essentials", but it's so burdened with superfluous nobbly bits that it's positively baroque. If this shoe was the only artefact to survive the nuclear apocalypse, what would future civilisations make of us? Possibly that we imbued walking with shamanistic significance, or that we used to plug ourselves into our mainframes by our feet.

Of course, the excessive detailing on that shoe, indeed on much adventure clothing, is a form of decoration. Those ribs, stripes and seams are meant to connote performance. They aim to awaken in the potential buyer a sense of his latent potential. And that psychological effect should not be underestimated. You want to buy something that makes you feel like you can take on the wilderness, that you are protected and empowered. On the other hand, you don't want to look like a berk. So much innovation goes into these items, but rarely can you call them good designs. Some of these brands would do well to consider Dieter Rams' dictum that good design is as little design as possible.

Adventure gear deploys the classic trick that marketing plays on the consumer, that sense that only certain equipment will do. We buy into it so readily that we convince ourselves we need things that we don't – especially men, who are natural gear queers. Is the equipment a substitute for our physical abilities? Here I am with a mountain to climb. I'm togged up in technical gear. I haven't done any exercise in two years but – technically – I'm ready.


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