Monday, January 28, 2008

geeking out on the run: Nike+ iPod Sport Kit

I can't stress enough just how great I think the Nike+ iPod Sport Kit is in helping me to while away the miles I spend jogging.

Judging by the number of referrals from this blog over to my triathlon training blog, many of you are already following along as I prepare to run my first triathlon in April. So you're no stranger to the praise for this handy little tool that helps motivate you to run farther, faster and having more fun. For those of you who haven't visited the other blog, I think this gadget warrants a write-up here on hvy TK - Tech & Trends.

The Nike+ iPod Sport Kit works like this:

  • install the transponder that fits inside your shoe (if you shell out for the special Nike shoes) or attached to your shoe via a pouch on your laces
  • attach the receiver to your iPod Nano (it only works with the nano)
  • follow the directions found on the new Nike+iPod menu on your iPod to track your run either by time or distance
  • after the run, connect your iPod Nano to your iTunes and you'll be invited to automagically submit your stats to the NikePlus web site (say yes!)
  • the NikePlus site now charts your runs (distance v pace), tracks your mileage and calories and time and pace, and allows you to set goals for yourself or challenge others to a virtual "race" where your stats are compared.

I've coupled my iPod Sport kit with the great steady-beat podcast mixes over at DJ Steveboy's Podrunner blog and have seen my running skills improve from barely-run-a-mile to finishing a 7.1 mile run with a smile.

Heck, if I can make this transformation with a little technology assist, anybody can do it. Give it a try!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Winter Update details for DirecTV HR20 HD DVR

It's been a week now since the winter update was downloaded to our HR20 and we were greeted with the following heads-up descriptions from our friends at DirecTV (in italics) and my commentary on each:

Menu Changes: with the larger text size and new order of things, the menu is now easier to read and get around
Um, I can't really tell if the text size is indeed larger (I'll take their word for it), and the new order of things seems to be referring to the fact that setup is now the fifth item in the list, and "manage recordings" is on the top level (was it always there?)

Screen Options: in the Guide, My Playlist or while watching TV, you can use the YELLOW color key to view available options.
This is actually a pretty cool update: pressing the YELLOW color key in the various environs results in the following menus:
  • Guide: Sort programs by category, jump to a date and time, change favorites list
  • My Playlist: Mark programs to delete, sort programs by category, change order of Playlist, open/close all
  • Watching TV: View previous channels, Closed Captioning, Change favorites list, audio options
Closed Captioning: We've added a quick on/off switch to TV options. To give it a try, press YELLOW while watching TV.
I'm pretty impressed with the CC function so far, especially with two young kids who LOVE to scream and yell just when I'm trying to listen to crucial dialog.

So, they're making incremental improvements to the experience.

I'd still trade all the above to get a better signal on our local FSN-HD channel so I can see hockey in high-def. As it is, the signal's not strong enough so we suffer through pixelated pucks all the time. sigh

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

RSS demystified by Howard Rheingold

Last week, I gave an informal brown bag session at work on how to use Google Reader to track information flows. I'm trying to convert folks here into leveraging RSS feeds to keep on top of things instead of our old-school ways of browsing sites checking to see if things have been updated.

I started off the session with Lee LeFever's CommonCraft show on RSS in Plain Text. And then I went on to demo Google Reader and how it worked and the advantages of sharing feeds and collaborative filtering, etc.

In hindsight, I didn't do a very good job of it. Sure, they learned a little, but not all I'd hoped.

And my assessment of my effectiveness was driven home yet again when I watched Howard Rheingold's recent vlog post: Introduction to RSS. He's a great teacher, and I can learn a lot from paying attention to the little things he does so well.

For one, Howard's setup of the problem is great:
Information is abundant.
Access to information is infinitely easy
Way-finding requires skill

Finding the information that matters and knowing why it matters in the unordered flow is probably the most important task and skill in my life.
Howard starts the hunting and gathering part of in his day by reading blogs (many, many blogs) as the first level of his filtering the "unordered flow." And how he keeps up with 100s of blogs for this first level of filtering? via RSS.

Then Howard delivers the solution with a comprehensive walk through of how he uses Bloglines to track his RSS feeds.

Go watch Howard's vlog on RSS now. Your investing seven and a half minutes watching it now will be repaid handsomely as you cut down your time spent browsing and instead let the info flow to you.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lost a Netflix DVD? Replace it cheaply via Amazon

I lost one of our Netflix DVDs (don't know where or how) and I was shocked! to find out that Netflix was going to charge me $20 to replace it.

Here's how to replace a missing Netflix movie MUCH cheaper than their quoted $20:
  1. Go to
  2. Search for the missing movie title in question
  3. Follow the "new and used from $price" link (DO NOT BUY THE MOVIE NEW!)
  4. Select the item in "Used - Like New" condition from the seller with the most positive feedback. Depending on the title, you'll be paying anywhere from $0.98 to $4.98 for the disc
  5. Get it shipped to you as economically as possible (therefore is the cheapest method)
  6. Once it arrives, remove the DVD from the packaging, put a post-it note with your name and email address on the label side of the DVD
  7. Slip the post-it noted DVD into the same postage-paid mailer as your next returned DVD. If you're on the one-at-a-time plan, mail the DVD to Netflix, PO Box 49021, San Jose, CA 95161
  8. Voila! you've saved yourself at least a month's worth of Netflix fees
FWIW, I think the folks at Netflix will forgive the first missing DVD if you tell them it was lost in the mail. Not sure how many folks actually successfully pull this "dog ate my homework" story off a single time. Needless to say, this isn't the first time a Netflix DVD has gone missing in our house.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

RIP Sir Edmund Hillary

How very strange that just eight days after posting my observation that I was seeing a mountaineering theme in many things, I learn that Sir Edmund Hillary has just passed away at 88 years old.

From the AP obit, there's much to admire of Sir Ed, as New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark relates:

The gangling New Zealander devoted much of his life to aiding the
mountain people of Nepal and took his fame in stride, preferring to be
called "Ed" and considering himself just an ordinary beekeeper.

"Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest
abilities. In reality, he was a colossus. He was an heroic figure who
not only 'knocked off' Everest but lived a life of determination,
humility, and generosity," Clark said in a statement.

"The legendary mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist is the best-known New Zealander ever to have lived," she said.

I'm still only half-way through the account of Hillary's first summit of Everest yet I know finishing it will be an odd experience now that I know its author and protagonist has passed. He was always careful to make sure that no matter the risk, he remained in control so that no one ever died on any of his expeditions.

Granted, the stakes weren't even remotely as high when we climbed Mt Whitney last Fall. But still, our ascent left a lot to be desired in terms of coordination and caring for the entire group. Sure, half of us made it, but I still can't quite let go of the guilt of leaving the others behind to stumble their way back to the cars unattended.

As I look at the 2008 Mt Whitney Lottery Application taped to the wall of my pod, I'm more determined to return to the top this time, and to make sure the whole climbing party makes it with me. This year I hope to be the kind of climbing group leader that Hillary would be proud of.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

wow, more pressure to get hi-def DVD

Thanks to, I found this direct comparison of HD v DVD images of select scenes in Fellowship of the Rings (LeftCoastMom would approve).

You'll need to mouse over each of the ten images to see what the HD version details over and above the DVD shot.
And here I thought I could avoid the high def DVD bug (Blu-Ray looks to be the right choice?)

Monday, January 07, 2008

Tulley's dangerous things you should let your kids do

Gever Tulley is the founder of the Tinkering School and in this talk he shows how these things (really, there are six of them) will make your kids stronger and smarter and actually safer.

For those on a tight schedule, Tullye's list includes:
  1. Play with fire
  2. Use a pocketknife
  3. Throw a spear
  4. Deconstruct appliances
  5. Break the DMCA
  6. Drive a Car (bonus item)
He details the WHY behind the each item on the list in this TED video (embedded below), or your you can visit the TED site to see it there.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

i heart radiohead all over again - scotch mist video

Thanks to @tempo on the Twitter, I found this YouTube-hosted film of Radiohead shortly after 590,000 folks had viewed it. (I'm always in the second half-million, it seems)

The film was made for New Year's Eve 2007 and features the band in the studio and elsewhere playing every song on the new In Rainbows album with some pretty bizarre interstitials. Par for the course for Radiohead fans, I guess.

If the above embed doesn't work for you, see it on the YouTube - Radiohead - Scotch Mist page.

Oh, and true to my word in my post about downloading In Rainbows for free, I've purchased the physical CD of In Rainbows, and it's on its way from Amazon.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

inspirations from a soldier's "in the event of my death" post

Maj Andrew Olmsted (a prolific blogger who blogged as Andrew in Iraq for the Rocky Mountain News) was killed in Iraq on Jan 3, 2008 when his team was ambushed (and became, possibly, the first American casualties of the year).

"I am leaving this message for you because it appears I must leave sooner than I intended. I would have preferred to say this in person, but since I cannot, let me say it here."

At his request, on the event of his death, blogger hilzoy has published a post authored by Maj Olmstead to the Obsidian Wings blog.

What I don't want this to be is a chance for me, or anyone else, to be maudlin. I'm dead. That sucks, at least for me and my family and friends. But all the tears in the world aren't going to bring me back, so I would prefer that people remember the good things about me rather than mourning my loss. (If it turns out a specific number of tears will, in fact, bring me back to life, then by all means, break out the onions.)

Honoring Maj Olmstead's request, I won't speak to the politics of his passing. I can, however, speak to the emotions of the posting. It's a heartbreaking read. I can only imagine how tough it was to write (he'd last revised the post in July 2007), yet I wonder

I don't even know how to start a similar "on the event of my death" letter, but I think I should try. At the very least, it'll show me where and on whom I need focus my energies.

Oh, and let me know when it's time to break out the onions.

POST-PUBLISH UPDATE: On a second reading of this (and an anonymous tip), I think I need to clarify why I feel the need to write my own "on the event of my death" letter. Maj Olmstead closed his letter admitting he "wasn't the greatest husband." God help me if I get to the end my letter saying I wish I'd been a better husband, a better father, a better son. If I do get close to writing something like that down, it's a sure sign my current priorities are way out of whack, and I'd better change them in a hurry. There's no excuse not to. When else will I get the chance?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

blood donation gone wrong: no good deed goes unpunished

One of my resolutions this year is to be a more regular blood donor. I've got O positive, so my blood's always in demand, and the only thing preventing me from donating six times a year (the maximum) is laziness. With this resolution in mind, I reacted immediately when I got my email request from Stanford requesting I come in to donate soon. I picked up the phone this afternoon at 2pm, and picking an empty spot in the blood center schedule, snagged a same-day 6:15pm appointment for a whole blood donation.

I figured I'd be able to donate and get home in time to eat dinner before the San Jose Sharks game started at 7:30. Silly me.

Instead, I got a lesson in seeing the "get out the donor" efforts employed by the Blood Banks might be focusing on the wrong part of the equation: Stop spending your resources trying to get rewards for donors (free ice cream, free movie tix, free tshirts) and instead spend your resources making the donation experience efficient and rewarding in itself.

Let's fast forward through the highlights of my blood donation experience tonight:
  • I arrived for my appointment at 6:05pm (a good ten minutes early) to find the waiting area packed with others waiting to be processed
  • I filled out my usual paperwork and started waiting for my health screen at 6:10pm
  • Called for my health screen at 6:50pm, cleared by Tech A by 7pm
  • Waited in an empty donation room for 10 minutes before Tech B finally came in to stick me
  • Tech B botches the stick and states he has to do the other arm and must get new needle/bag kit.
  • Tech B disappears
  • I wait with no update for 15 minutes while two other techs (Tech A and Tech C) tend to other later-arriving donors
  • At 7:30pm (75 minutes after my appointment time), Tech B finishes with the other donor and comes over to stick me in my (only) good arm
  • I finish bloodletting in my usual 5 minutes and am cleaned up and bandaged shortly thereafter
  • After 15 minutes resting in the canteen, I'm on the road home at 7:50pm, an hour later than I'd planned when setting the appointment, trying to figure out why I've resolved to do this to myself five more times this year
Looking back on tonight's experience, I see ample opportunity for process improvement here:
  1. Treat your regular donors like repeat customers: thank them for the business and see if there's anything that'll ensure they come back again. I have to imagine it's harder to get a first-time donor in the door than it is to get someone to repeat
  2. Appointment-holding donors should be given preference over walk-in donors, period
  3. If you're running behind, respect the donors waiting by acknowledging the delay and giving your best guess as to how far behind you're running
  4. Don't leave a volunteer donor alone in a room waiting to be stuck by a tech, ever
  5. Don't pass a donor from one staffer to another without informing the donor. The donor should be the FIRST one informed of a transfer and why its happening
Not sure why I'm so compelled to give blood, but I know I'll be back once I'm eligible again (Feb 28). This donation was by far my least pleasant experience, ever.

It's not the fact that I had to be stuck twice. It's the fact I felt so taken-for-granted throughout the entire experience. Ample room for improvement. I'll let you know how they do come March.

NYTimes Year in Pictures: good pix, novel UI

The NYTimes has posted its 2007: The Year in Pictures collection, and of all the pix collections I've seen so far, this one is getting closest to a true navigate-as-you-wish interface.

  • The collection is divided into nine groups with thumbnails for each on the main page
  • Each group of photos can be thumbnailed and scanned (although this isn't the default setting)
  • Captions for each photo (toggle on/off)
  • For those that care, there's a soundtrack for each group (toggle on/off)
  • No way to see the entire collection as a set of thumbnails
  • Default presentation forces the slideshow into full-screen mode
  • "Drag photos to scan thumbnails" interface is nonstandard and feels weird
  • Where are the links to the accompanying stories?
Overall, however, I'm impressed with the work of the crew listed in the credits: Josh  Haner, Lisa Iaboni, Tom Jackson, Sarah Kramer and Meaghan Looram

Maybe the IHT photo folks can learn from the NYT team?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Another shining example of DirecTV's ineptitude serving customers

So, after spending 15 minutes on the phone with DIrecTV's technical support the other day trying to find missing HD channels, I find the following email in my inbox:

January 1, 2008

Thomas K, thank you for your recent call to DIRECTV. Did you know that you can access your account information 24 hours a day by simply logging in at

When you register your account online, you will be able to:
  • Pay your DIRECTV bill or sign up for Auto Bill Pay
  • Upgrade your programming or hardware
  • Order Pay Per View movies and events
  • Update your email subscriptions
Visit and take advantage of 24-hour online access.

You are receiving this email as a result of your recent phone call with a DIRECTV customer service representative. DIRECTV reserves the right to contact you via email regarding business transactions.

Before deleting the email, I replied:

January 2, 2008

DirecTV, thank you for your recent email. Did you know you can check your very own account lists to find out I've already registered my account online?

Please take a look at your call files to see why, exactly, I spoke with your customer service representative (it was for technical support with the HD DVR) before emailing non-germaine information again.

Respectfully yours,

We'll see if I get anything but the standard bounce-back. Harrumph.

mountaineering theme in many things

I've noticed a real strong affinity to mountaineering stuff as of late...
And now today I discover this great video of Dr. Rodrigo Jordan from the Leading@Google collection on YouTube:

I know this is all pointing toward something just around the corner... maybe it's a reminder I need to get my name in for the lottery to climb Mt Whitney again this summer when there's no snow on the summit!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

DirecTV service level slipping again

While DirecTV has continued to add new HD channels to its broadcast lineup, it seems they're more interested in how many they can "broadcast" than in how many we can "receive" on the HR20 HD DVR supplied by DirecTV. I guess that's something in the small print.

On several HD channels (mostly on our Showtime HD channels), we're getting pixelated pictures with the audio cutting in and out, which is the classic sign of signal loss. On other channels like Food Network HD (chan 231-1) and VH1 HD (335-1), we get no signal whatsoever, and instead are given a litany of troubleshooting instructions on the screen instead, including:
  • check all the cables from the TV to the dish to make sure they're connected
  • unplug and then replug all the cables together again
  • do a soft reset of the receiver
  • call customer support and refer to code 771
I did all of them, and then threw in a hard reset (unplug the power for 30 seconds) before finally breaking down to call DirecTV customer support (meta-gripe: why the heck don't they list the phone number navigable from anywhere ON the receiver? why must I log in to the web site to get the number?)

After dialing in and navigating the phone tree to get a live person, I quickly blazed through level 1 support and was transfered to the HD technical support crew. Fifteen minutes of phone-based trouble shooting included such things as:
  • making sure my BBC converters were working (you can test yourself by navigating to channels 480 and 481 to see what's displayed)
  • switching the lines in from one port to another
  • checking the connections of the lines at the splitter outside the house
  • navigating to various working HD channels to make sure some worked while the two offenders (Food and VH1) still did not
No resolution to my problem after all that, so I was told next up is a service call that will cost me $70 plus any parts or additional labor to fix things. To get two extra channels? Fat f*ing chance. I decline.

But wait! I'm informed there's a special: if I sign up for the tech insurance plan at $7 a month, I can get the first service call for only $15 (plus parts/labor). Maybe I'm not aware of how expensive the receiver and remote are (the remote replacement is $87!) Again, no thanks.

So, after six months or so of being satisfied with service quality, DirecTV has reverted back to its old ways in providing sub-par service. Not very thrilled to be back here with them. It really seems the folks at DirecTV don't much care about negative word-of-mouth. Maybe it's because their competition, Comcast, seems to have the same disdain.