Tag Archives: technology

Thinking on Our Feet

One recent Wednesday morning I wrapped up a hot, long early run feeling like indulging myself. I walked to the nearby coffee shop and gazed with longing upon the chocolate pistachio croissant on display there.

But there was a problem. “Sorry,” the manager said. “Our system is down.”

She spent the next few minutes trying to wake it up while I waited and other customers came in. She gave up and looked at us in despair. “I can’t even take your orders. I’m calling the main office now.”

Part of me wanted to point out the prices were posted, the espresso machine was working, and she could take cash. The rest of me, in shameless sang-froid, wanted to see if she could figure this out herself. She did not. So I left, sans coffee and croissant, as did the customers behind me.

If you’re expecting a rant on how we’ve becomes slaves to technology, you’re only partly right. We have, of course. But the root cause here wasn’t a tech fail, it was a process fail. Is the purpose of the coffee shop to keep its ordering system up? No, it’s to sell coffee and food. The manager should have been trained in how to keep selling despite a failure. Something like this:

“Okay, Jane, the computer system has failed. We still need $300 per hour in revenue to stay in business. And customers are waiting. What do you do?” Very similar to what my father experienced in private pilot training, when his instructor shut off the engine mid-flight and said, “Now what?”

Technology is great. It saves time, reduces errors, and lets us do so much more than we could without it. At the cost of some of our independence. I don’t think that the growing interest in “off-the-grid” living, foraging skills, and the like is any coincidence. All of us ought to try at least one activity that requires us to think on our feet, and figure out how to survive when conditions aren’t easy. That’s what we’ve always been best at.

For me, that activity is ultrarunning. In a road race, there’s usually a crowd to follow, the running surface is smooth, and help is plentiful. In a trail ultra the footing is almost never certain, course markings can be missed, and I’m running by myself for most of the race. And the weather can vary a lot during one. So while I can get into a flow, and enjoy the scenery around me, I need to stay attentive to many things, and adjust “on the fly” at times. (*)

Okay, now what?

And yet, even with this awareness, I’m not immune to feeling stressed when I experience a process failure.

At the next Wednesday morning run, we’d just set off when I realized I’d forgotten to put on my Garmin watch. Yikes! No way to track my pace and distance. What to do? Fortunately, it is actually possible to run without a GPS watch, so I got through it, though I kept wanting to tap my wrist at stoplights. Backup plan? Ask someone with a watch how far we’d run.

Afterward, I returned to the coffee shop. Their system was back up, and I got my pastry. The manager even admitted she’d forgotten about their backup system. I tossed out the word, “cash” and she laughed. I wonder if she knows what it is.


(*) The recent tragedy during an ultra in China has made the need for good preparation and attentiveness to conditions even more visible and important. I’ll express my thoughts on this in a future post.

My Cellphone, the Enabler

My daughter stopped her conversation with her mother in mid-sentence and looked across the table at me.

“Dad, what are you doing?”

I looked up at her.

“We’re having brunch together as a family, and you’re on your phone? Playing BRIDGE?”

I apologized and put the phone away, but it was too late. My worst fears had been realized. I had become that guy.

And I hate that guy.

Despite thirty-plus years in high tech and being an early and enthusiastic consumer of the Internet, I was a late adapter to cellphones, especially the “smart” variety. I actively resist any personal technology that is, or tries to be, smarter than I am. To my wife and kids, who have no such reservations, this has been a source of both vexation and amusement.

But why get an expensive, complicated toy? Texting, photos and (you radical!) phone calls were all I needed. Flip phones were robust and perhaps more importantly, contained no enablers. As a card-carrying introvert, with books, video games, and other enticements all around me, the last thing I needed was another avenue to withdraw from active society.

Tech the way I like it. Simple and non-threatening.

And I share personal information with anyone or any thing on a strictly “need to know” basis.  I don’t need a phone that remembers my birthday or anniversary, or is aware of my height, weight, and cup size. When I’m asked by some social media platform to review a restaurant I left five minutes ago, I’m not impressed. I’m creeped out.

I’d be a content phone Luddite even now were it not for my darling wife, who is a fan of devices that want to get to know her. She loves her smartphone and fitness watch and has not only embraced Alexa, she’s brought her into our bedroom, with which I am still not entirely comfortable.

“I need a new phone,” she said one fateful day at the computer, a familiar refrain that I could usually acknowledge and get on with life. But not this time. “Look, there’s a sale on the <hot new phone at the time>. We can get two and have matching phones!”

This held no attraction for me, but my protest was weak. I’d started my own business recently and one of my clients had told me straight up that I really should have a smartphone. So I trundled over to have a look. Like all smartphones it was too bulky for my liking, but it had a decent camera and battery life. So I took a deep breath and said okay-if-that’s-what-you-really-want-it’s-okay-with-me.

And down the slippery slope I started.

What am I going to DO with this thing?

I laid down some ground rules. As always, if I received an incoming call or text while driving or in a meeting – or I just didn’t feel like it – I was not going to reflexively reach for the phone. It works for me, not the other way round. Plus “those guys/girls” (and you know who you are) drive me nuts when they do that.

And apps were going to be minimal. A weather app, for sure, and one for my business account at the credit union. Other convenient apps have snuck in there, but I’d say overall I’ve kept to this one. In particular I’ve resisted games and other “entertainment” apps. I spend enough time already staring at screens.

But I am a student of the game of bridge. I don’t actually play much, but I enjoy reading about it and solving puzzles on how to declare or defend various hands. So I broke down and installed a bridge app. I like that I can “undo” steps and try something different, or skip quickly to another hand. It’s good for when I have a few spare moments for mental exercise. The risk is reaching the point where it interferes with personal interactions, which of course is “that guy” behavior.

And there at a nice restaurant, having brunch with my family, it happened. I hadn’t even thought about what I was doing. I’d dropped out of the active conversation, my thoughts strayed to the last hand I’d pondered earlier, and, well, there I was. Busted.

Proper family time!

Fortunately I was forgiven for my transgression, and I have resolved to be more careful in the future. My phone is going to remain a convenient tool, not a way of life. As for Alexa, she can stay for the time being, but if she ever starts recommending certain performance-enhancing products she’s going to find a new home at the bottom of a lake.

Brave New Wearable World

My Garmin GPS watch has a built-in heart rate monitor. It communicates with a sensor that I strap around my chest. Then while I’m running I can read my heart rate real-time on the watch. It’s a very useful feature.

I don’t use it.

Why not? Well, the strap is annoying to wear. And I don’t know what my target heart rate should be for a given workout anyway. So even if I were to use it and collect all the data, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Which is one of the issues that wearable tech is bringing to the forefront, in particular in the medical device field. Here’s what just one new device called the Simband can collect and track:

Simband fitness trackerThe Simband … can keep tabs on your daily steps, heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and how much sweat your sweat glands are producing.

I’m not disputing that this can be useful. And there’s nothing revolutionary about what it’s collecting. But this technology promises to disrupt the established medical model. We’re moving from doctors collecting selected information on an as-needed basis to handling floods of information coming in 24/7. It’s a change from assaying some ore samples to trying to filter out a few particles of gold from an onrushing river.

email_overloadThe fast growth in gadgets that can track your vital stats has the attention of the Food and Drug Administration as well. Medical devices are heavily regulated worldwide and must receive FDA approval before they can be sold in the U.S. The key is figuring out where an app crosses the line from providing information to attempting a diagnosis or prescribing treatment, and thus becomes a medical device.

So early in 2015 FDA published guidance that differentiates so-called “general wellness” products from those that pose risk to the user or provide medical advice. (If you’re one of those perverse individuals who likes reading government documents, you can access it here.) But here’s the gist of it: devices that strictly track information you would use for training or general health improvement are not subject to FDA regulation.

So the tracking of heart rate, calories consumed, sleep patterns and the like are fine. And the annoying app CARROT that I mentioned last time can suggest you are gravitationally challenged as long as it doesn’t diagnose you as clinically obese. (Some comfort, eh?)

It wasn't me! My phone said your butt looked fat!

It wasn’t me! My PHONE said you have enough butt for both of us!

Behavior is another hurdle to medical wearables becoming commonplace. According to a 2013 study, while one in 10 Americans owned an activity tracker, nearly half had stopped using them after six months. And the main consumers of wearable tech right now are millennials – young, healthy, and who readily embrace new tech. It’s unclear how the older and less affluent – those most likely to have chronic health issues – will embrace the new technology.

Finally, there’s the problem of protecting against those you don’t want seeing your training and/or medical history. Data privacy regulations like HIPAA are all well and good, but (surprise!) not everyone respects them. There are lots of people and organizations out there who would find your personal medical data very useful. Can a phone, watch, or other wearable keep data safe, or can the “cloud” can be made secure? I guess we’ll find out.

And perhaps I will be kicked into this brave new world anyway. Last week after the Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon, my watch went kaput. So I will be getting a new one which will most likely have a heart rate monitor easier to access and use. And, no doubt, many other features I didn’t know I couldn’t live without. I can’t wait.

How did people ever run without all this stuff.

How did people ever go running without all this stuff?

Running Tech: Luddite vs. Gadget Man

I was at my desk, innocently trying to get some work done, when GadgetMan came into my office. He had something to show me. Something he was sure was going to improve my running experience.

We all know a GM, right? He who must have (and show off) the Latest and Greatest of all things, especially with technical toys like phones, tablets, and cool apps. I find GMs harmless, if a bit annoying, and I can usually avoid or ignore them. But our company’s GM is one to whom I owe fealty and obeisance, so I had to pay attention. Besides, he couldn’t accuse me of wasting company time.

RunKeeper ProGM knows I am a runner, and that I keep track of my split times and distances with a Garmin ForeRunner watch. He runs a bit himself and once used a watch, too, but when the RunKeeper Pro app for the iPhone came out, he threw it away. And that’s what he came to “sell” me. The watch would screw things up on occasion, he informed me. And if he forgot to pause it at stoplights, or forget to restart it, the information would be (gasp) inaccurate. The iPhone app, he said, performs flawlessly, and I should ditch my obsolete piece of junk and get this app.

Perhaps RK Pro does work well – I’m not disputing that. But there are two problems with adopting his suggestion. First, I’d need to get an iPhone, which I have no interest in. I don’t even own a smartphone. (Which, by the way, GM and my loving wife are in active and gleeful collaboration to change.) Second, my Garmin suits me just fine. Most of its features I don’t even use; with the iPhone and RunKeeper there would just be more stuff I wouldn’t use.

Now even though I have no smartphone or fancy apps, (and despite my wife’s claim) I am no Luddite. My degree is in computer science, and I have spent my entire professional life in high tech, including 12 years developing software. And I love reading Gizmag and seeing how fast technology is improving. But I tend not to invest in it until I have a real need for it. I didn’t even get my watch until I began training for my first full marathon. And even then it’s an older model watch. (I like the big display.)

An oldie but a goodie: the Forerunner 305.

An oldie but a goodie: the Forerunner 305.

I use the Garmin for distance, pace, and split times, mostly. I have also used the heart rate monitor occasionally (and probably should use it more often). Every now and then I upload the data to Garmin Connect. I suppose I should actually check my accumulated run data now and then. I might learn something. Until then I’ll rely on my Excel spreadsheet, where I’ve recorded every run since April 2008.

So I don’t feel the need to update my running tech at present. (And I take a certain perverse pleasure in playing contrarian with GadgetMan.)

Question for you all: What technology do you use for running? And could you live without it now?


P.S. While Gadget Men can be a bit annoying, they actually tend to have many good qualities (which includes the one to whom I owe fealty and obeisance). See this article from Digital Crossroads for the good news about gadget hounds.