Monday, February 15, 2016

In search of sit stand desk solutions

Numerous health related studies the last few years have pointed to sitting for long periods as being extremely detrimental to good health.  One Canadian study has even described sitting as "the new smoking".  I don't know if I'd go that far but too many years of sitting at a desk writing code has taken its toll on my back, and my health in general if I'm being honest. More and more, back related pain is forcing me to take frequent breaks and interfering with my focus.  As a true believer in "the zone", I know I do my best work when I'm hyper-focused for long stretches. Getting into "the zone" is hard enough but maintaining that level of concentration with an aching back is impossible.

The solution to my back pain is most often just standing, moving, and stretching. Of course, the longer I put off the break, the worse the pain and longer it takes for me to get comfortable again. The solution is obvious, work from a standing position.  At home, I've begun working on my laptop standing at the kitchen island and so far, no pain. In fact, I feel great but I do worry that a full eight or nine hour day might be too tiring, at least until I can build up some strength. To begin at least, I'm going to focus on "sit stand desk" solutions that transition between sitting and standing positions without a great deal of effort.

Work will provide a standing desk solution for anyone who asks but my situation is a bit more complicated.  I spend most of my day working in a customer lab where I can't permanently modify the setup. Worse, I often must change computers in order to use some specialized equipment. So my attempted solution going forward is twofold.  First, I requested a standing desk at my office. My IT guy thought he could find me something in the company warehouse.  Google and Amazon have raided my company for the last few years and we just can't seem to keep up our headcount. Maybe the only good thing is that there are many old computer desk setups just waiting for a new owner. Second, I'm now searching for a portable solution I can carry with me. The solution must be easy to setup and tear down and, since I intend to pay for this experiment, it has to be inexpensive. Time to get creative.

UPDATE: Sometimes people surprise me.  Word got out that I was looking at standing desk setups and both my work locations jumped up and offered to provide me with a sit stand desk solution. I must admit I was humbled by their response.  Both locations even went with the same desk: the Varidesk Pro Plus 36.

My primary office unit was installed almost immediately and the first day I started to feel the benefits. After just a few days standing roughly 90% of my time, I feel great and I swear I have more energy and better focus.  My legs are tired at the end of the day but it's that good tired that comes at the end of an intense workout. Given a few weeks, I think I'll build up my endurance and I'm betting I won't even feel it after that.

I was skeptical of the standing desk fad but I am now a believer.  I only wish I had done this years ago. I thought it might be too hard to focus while standing.  I was so wrong. It may not be a fair comparison given where I started but I feel just as focused.  Time will tell.  I'll update this post after a few months and tell people how this lifehack works long-term.  Till then, I'll be on my feet. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mi Band - My $15 fitness tracker gets the job done

If you're looking for a simple fitness tracker to count your daily steps, provide simple sleep tracking, work with the Google Fit app, and run for over a month on a single charge, look no further than the Xiaomi Mi Band.

I paid only $15 with free shipping from GearBest and only just missed a sale for $11. In my eyes, that makes the Mi Band too inexpensive to pass up.  I've started 2016 with the goal of walking 10000 steps every day.  I won't always reach that goal but I will be able to track my progress and that does wonders for motivating me to drive up my step count. I always forgot my pedometer but the Mi Band stays on my wrist, even in the shower, so I can't forget it.

This ultra barebones wristband gets the job done.  Program the Mi Band with your daily goal and the Mi Band provides three leds that indicate your progress in thirds toward your selected goal. Raise your wrist and the Mi Band displays your current status.  One led blinking means your working on the first third of your goal. One solid led and one blinking says you've finished the irst fthird of your goal and you've working on the second third.  Your goal has been completed once all three leds are solid.  Need an accurate count?  Just use your smartphone and read the step count over Bluetooth LE. Want to track your steps over time?  Google Fit will automatically download and save your daily results.

So if you're not trying a fitness tracker because of the cost, don't wait.  If it ends up in your top drawer with all those other gadgets, you won't have wasted much money.  On the other hand, you might use it.  Who knows, maybe someday I'll "upgrade" to a better fitness tracker. Oddly, I don't even know what that means.  For me, this works.  If it broke, don't fix it.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

New Years Lifehacks

Let's face it, people rarely keep their New Years resolutions because most of us choose resolutions that are unpleasant. Lose weight, exercise more, work harder and longer hours, and so on. It's not that these are bad choices but we choose them because we don't really want to do those things. No wonder people normally give up on their resolutions only a short number of weeks into the year.

Last year I decided to try something a little different. Instead of a typical New Years resolution to do or not do something major, I made a small, easy to keep, change to my normal routine in the hopes of improving my life. Isn't that really the goal anyway? I had gotten into the habit of listening to talk radio during my commute and found the constant hopeless negative energy was really started to affect my mood.  I was wasting 1.5 hours of each weekday making myself less happy. So to kickoff 2015, I decided to make better use of that time. But instead of a resolution like "learn German from a set of CDs", I just decided to listen to podcasts and pre-program a mix of educational, news, and entertainment content.  With a smartphone and a good podcatcher app, this is a simple change but one that has truly been 100% positive. And on days I'm sick of podcasts, I stream music but I always avoid the radio if I can.  No news and absolutely no talk radio.

My morning commute is now filled with technology news, science discussions, engineering lectures, and the occasional comedy podcast to lighten my day. It's these type of changes that I've sometimes heard described as "lifehacks", small changes to improve our well-being. In a future post, I'll list some of my favorite podcasts and why I'm such a fan. But for now, I want to discuss my next planned lifehacks.

For 2016, I want to work on starting my day earlier to give me more time in the morning to walk my German Shepard, something I love to do.  Problem is, I have always had trouble waking up in the morning, especially during the dark mornings of winter. In the summer, I typically wake with the sunrise which gave me the idea for something to try. My solution? I purchased a Philips HF3510 Wake-up Light, an alarm clock that simulates the sunrise and eases me into wakefulness. I love it!  I now wake feeling more rested and never hit the snooze button.  Of course, my dog loves it as well since we get more time together in the morning and I have more energy to start my day.

I have some other changes planned and I'll share them later. I would also be curious what small positive changes others have tried and how that's played out.  But remember, I'm not giving up coffee, chocolate, scifi, or the occasional piece of red meat.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Chromebook impulse buy

I am writing this post from the keyboard of my new Asus C201 Chromebook.  Normally, I research my technology purchases to death, reading every review and weighing every choice, however, when I saw the $159 little Asus, I was honestly a little excited by the possibilities and my thoughts started racing.  Are these little inexpensive laptops a game changer? Has Google really created an ecosystem that is a reasonable option over the purchase of a Mac or a PC? At such a low cost, these small laptops could become as common as a smartphone while providing greater utility.

So for a modest investment I can experiment without the post purchase guilt.  But it's more than that.  I have a perfect use case for this little Chromebook, my everyday laptop is a top of the line 17 inch beast that is quite frankly more of a portable desktop than a true laptop. I really needed a portable email machine and lightweight writing tool without the power cord, heat, and slow to boot and slow to shutdown behavior of my Windows laptop. I had tried to keep my email and writing to a cellphone and tablet but without a keyboard, my messages tended to be short and tagged with an apology for my brevity. I'm hope this will be easier and may even give me the motivation to get back to this blog.

So the experiment begins ...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cox TV Flex Watch

Is this the future of cable TV?  A new package from Cox Cable makes a tempting offer for a cord cutter wanna be.  These days more and more customers are cutting the cord and relying on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.  Many more customers want to drop the bloated cable channel packages that force you to buy 200+ channels to get the 7-8 channels the average viewer actually watches but remain subscribers for either sports or a favorite channel like HBO.

Now Cox Cable is helping to close that gap with a special bundle designed to keep cord cutters as TV subscribers. The Cox TV Flex Watch package includes  their Internet Prefered package with 25 Mbps download speed, the TV Starter local HD channels, an interactive on-screen guide, on demand programming, 45 channels of commercial-free digital quality music, an HD receiver, plus HBO and Starz for $60/month to start and $80/month after the promotional period. That's the same as the price for just the internet to start and the extra $20 a month provides real channels I'm likely to watch.

Cox offer me my local sports channels and maybe ESPN for a reasonable price and I'm in

Saturday, June 7, 2014

"Cord Shaving"

People tend to forget that the easiest way to cut your cable bill is just to reduce the services you pay for. Sure you can take the “chicken challenge” and call your cable provider to cancel your cable service in the hope of getting a last minute deal. From the stories I've been hearing cable companies are playing harder to get these days, and most people would rather avoid these high drama exchanges.  I intend to try for a better rate myself soon but I’ll likely need to change cable operators to get a significantly better deal.  That said, when I do sign up with the new provider I’m planning to cut my service level to save even more money.

Subscriptions to HBO, Showtime, and other premium TV channels have declined over the past two years while Netflix and other subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services have gained in popularity. A recent NPD Group report noted a 6% overall decline in U.S. households subscribing to premium TV channels over the same period while households subscribing to SVOD services grew by 4%.

 I currently pay for HBO but how I got HBO is the funny story.  My wife fed up with the high cable bill says, “Give me the bill and I’ll get them to give us a better deal.”  That night, I find out the only deal they would give her is “free HBO” for a few months.  Hey better than nothing!  She tried but unless you’re ready and willing to cancel they often won’t budge. So now I have a $16/month HBO subscription I need to cancel.  I rarely watch HBO and for the same money I’d be better off buying the movies I really want off Amazon and I’ll just binge watch Games of Thrones at some later date.  No spoilers please!

Someday, I would like to "cut the cord" and cancel cable TV completely. For now, I'll settle for “cord shaving” while I learn to change my viewing habits to focus on more online content.  My first major move was to replaced my land-line.  Second, I’m dropping HBO.  And third I’m dropping those pesky little channel packages that seem like a deal at the time but really add up.  For me, I have the “Sports and Information” package which I thought I needed for local baseball coverage.  Turns out I didn't.  I’ll save $10/month just dropping that package and I doubt I’ll miss the NBA or Tennis channel.  In my case, I found over $70/month in net savings without even breaking a sweat. Best yet, I sure feel better when I pay the cable bill.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

FIOS is coming

Sometimes the fates converge and I think this is one of those moments.  Right after I started my recent efforts to reduce our cable/internet/phone bill, I noticed a large number of Dig Safe markings on the road and grass covered right of ways in my neighborhood.  The mystery was solved a few days later when we received a notice from a Verizon FIOS contractor letting us know they would be installing underground fiber on our street.

While I’m excited about the idea of fiber to the house, I’m much more interested in a new local cable TV market with two equal competitors.  The last time we called our current cable company looking for a better deal; our provider was unwilling to reduce our bill since I believe they realized we lacked any equivalent options.   I don’t find Satellite providers an acceptable alternative and Verizon had previously skipped our development due to its underground utilities but now we have options, good options.

Some of the recent Verizon introductory offers are impressive but are less so in our case due to our current configuration.  Of course, the most impressive deals include TV, internet, and phone but I’ve happily removed our landline from the control of my cable provider.  Not having to port your phone number every time to you change cable providers should greatly ease the process of switching to the cable provider with the best offer.  This is some ways is similar to never using the cable provider’s domain name in your email address.  Use a Gmail account or similar provider or use your own domain name like I do and you’ll save yourself a headache the next time you switch. Given that getting a good price on cable almost demands changing provides every couple years, it seems smart to plan ahead.

Deals for the two service FIOS TV and internet bundles have far less in the way of savings then the three service packages but are still much cheaper than our current cable provider.  Our issue is the added cost of each TV on FIOS.  Verizon requires a box for each TV and their set top boxes are also more expensive.  We still keep a number of old sets throughout the house: guest room, kitchen, treadmill, craft/sewing area but these extra box costs eat up most of the additional savings.  I’m considering dropping those outlets but I’d rather keep them.  Our decision to changes providers is still up in the air but I’m leaning toward FIOS at the moment.