Category Archives: techno enthusiasts

Body and Tech: My Year in Quantified Self

Though I’m a qual, I started quantifying my self a year ago.

Not Even Started Yet

This post is long. You’ve been warned.

This post is about my experience with the Quantified Self (QuantSelf). As such, it may sound quite enthusiastic, as my perspective on my own selfquantification is optimistic. I do have several issues with the Quantified Self notion generally and with the technology associated with selfquantification. Those issues will have to wait until a future blogpost.

While I realize QuantSelf is broader than fitness/wellness/health tracking, my own selfquantification experience focuses on working with my body to improve my health. My future posts on the Quantified Self would probably address the rest more specifically.

You might notice that I frequently link to the DC Rainmaker site, which is a remarkably invaluable source of information and insight about a number of things related to fitness and fitness technology. Honestly, I don’t know how this guy does it. He’s a one-man shop for everything related to sports and fitness gadgets.

Though many QuantSelf devices are already available on the market, very few of them are available in Quebec. On occasion, I think about getting one shipped to someone I know in the US and then manage to pick it up in person, get a friend to bring it to Montreal, or get it reshipped. If there were such a thing as the ideal QuantSelf device, for me, I might do so.

(The title of this post refers to the song Body and Soul, and I perceive something of a broader shift in the mind/body dualism, even leading to post- and transhumanism. But this post is more about my own self.)

Quaint Quant

I can be quite skeptical of quantitative data. Not that quants aren’t adept at telling us very convincing things. But numbers tend to hide many issues, when used improperly. People who are well-versed in quantitative analysis can do fascinating things, leading to genuine insight. But many other people use numbers as a way to “prove” diverse things, sometimes remaining oblivious to methodological and epistemological issues with quantification.

Still, I have been accumulating fairly large amounts of quantitative data about my self. Especially about somatic dimensions of my self.

Started with this a while ago, but it’s really in January 2013 that my Quantified Self ways took prominence in my life.

Start Counting

It all started with the Wahoo Fitness fisica key and soft heartrate strap. Bought those years ago (April 2011), after thinking about it for months (December 2010).

Had tried different exercise/workout/fitness regimens over the years, but kept getting worried about possible negative effects. For instance, some of the exercises I’d try in a gym would quickly send my heart racing to the top of my healthy range. Though, in the past, I had been in a more decent shape than people might have surmised, I was in bad enough shape at that point that it was better for me to exercise caution while exercising.

At least, that’s the summary of what happened which might make sense to a number of people. Though I was severely overweight for most of my life, I had long periods of time during which I was able to run up long flights of stairs without getting out of breath. This has changed in the past several years, along with other health issues. The other health issues are much more draining and they may not be related to weight, but weight is the part on which people tend to focus, because it’s so visible. For instance, doctors who meet me for a few minutes, only once, will spend more time talking about weight than a legitimate health concern I have. It’s easy for me to lose weight, but I wanted to do it in the best possible way. Cavalier attitudes are discouraging.

Habits, Old and New

Something I like about my (in this case not-so-sorry) self is that I can effortlessly train myself into new habits. I’m exactly the opposite of someone who’d get hooked on almost anything. I never smoked or took drugs, so I’ve never had to kick one of those trickiest of habits. But I often stop drinking coffee or alcohol with no issue whatsoever. Case in point: I’m fairly well-known as a coffee geek yet I drank less than two full cups of coffee during the last two months.

Getting new habits is as easy for me as kicking new ones. Not that it’s perfect, of course. I occasionally forget to bring down the lid on the toilet seat. But if I put my mind to something, I can usually undertake it. Willpower, intrinsic motivation, and selfdiscipline are among my strengths.

My health is a significant part of this. What I started a year ago is an exercise and fitness habit that I’ve been able to maintain and might keep up for a while, if I decide to do so.

Part of it is a Pilates-infused yoga habit that I brought to my life last January and which became a daily routine in February or March. As is the case with other things in my life, I was able to add this routine to my life after getting encouragement from experts. In this case, yoga and Pilates instructors. Though it may be less impressive than other things I’ve done, this routine has clearly had a tremendous impact on my life.

Spoiler alert: I also took on a workout schedule with an exercise bike. Biked 2015 miles between January 16, 2013 and January 15, 2014.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So Close, Yet So Far

Flashback to March, 2011. Long before I really got into QuantSelf.

At the time, I had the motivation to get back into shape, but I had to find a way to do it safely. The fact that I didn’t have access to a family physician played a part in that.

So I got the Wahoo key, a dongle which allows an iOS device to connect to ANT+ equipment, such as heartrate straps (including the one I bought at the same time as the key). Which means that I was able to track my heartrate during exercise using my iPod touch and iPad (I later got an iPhone).

Used that setup on occasion. Including at the gym. Worked fairly well as a way to keep track of my workouts, but I had some difficulty fitting gym workouts in my schedule. Not only does it take a lot of time to go to a gym (even one connected to my office by a tunnel), but my other health issues made it very difficult to do any kind of exercise for several hours after any meal. In fact, those other health issues made most exercise very unpleasant. I understand the notion of pushing your limits, getting out of your comfort zone. I’m fine with some types of discomfort and I don’t feel the need to prove to anyone that I can push my limits. But the kind of discomfort I’m talking about was more discouraging than anything else. For one thing, I wasn’t feeling anything pleasant at any point during or after exercising.

So, although I had some equipment to keep track of my workouts, I wasn’t working out on that regular a basis.

I know, typical, right? But that’s before I really started in QuantSelf.

Baby Steps

In the meantime (November, 2011), I got a Jawbone UP wristband. First generation.

That device was my first real foray into “Quantified Self”, as it’s normally understood. It allowed me to track my steps and my sleep. Something about this felt good. Turns out that, under normal circumstances, my stepcount can be fairly decent, which is in itself encouraging. And connecting to this type of data had the effect of helping me notice some correlations between my activity and my energy levels. There have been times when I’ve felt like I hadn’t walked much and then noticed that I had been fairly active. And vice-versa. I wasn’t getting into such data that intensely, but I had started accumulating some data on my steps.

Gotta start somewhere.

Sleepwalking

My sleep was more interesting, as I was noticing some difficult nights. An encouraging thing, to me, is that it usually doesn’t take me much time to get to sleep (about 10 minutes, according to the UP). Neat stuff, but not earth-shattering.

Obviously, the UP stopped working. Got refunded, and all, but it was still “a bummer”. My experience with the first generation UP had given me a taste of QuantSelf, but the whole thing was inconclusive.

Feeling Pressure

Fastforward to late December, 2012 and early January, 2013. The holiday break was a very difficult time for me, physically. I was getting all sorts of issues, compounding one another. One of them was a series of intense headaches. I had been getting those on occasion since Summer, 2011. By late 2012, my headaches were becoming more frequent and longer-lasting. On occasion, physicians at walk-in clinics had told me that my headaches probably had to do with blood pressure and they had encouraged me to take my pressure at the pharmacy, once in a while. While my pressure had been normal-to-optimal (110/80) for a large part of my life, it was becoming clear that my blood pressure had increased and was occasionally getting into more dangerous territory. So I eventually decided to buy a bloodpressure monitor.

Which became my first selfquantification method. Since my bloodpressure monitor is a basic no-frills model, it doesn’t sync to anything or send data anywhere. But I started manually tracking my bloodpressure by taking pictures and putting the data in a spreadsheet. Because the monitor often gives me different readings (especially depending on which arm I got them from), I would input lowest and highest readings from each arm in my spreadsheet.

Tensio

My first bloodpressure reading, that first evening (January 3, 2013), was enough of a concern that a nurse at Quebec’s phone health consultation service recommended that I consult with a physician at yet another walk-in clinic. (Can you tell not having a family physician was an issue? I eventually got one, but that’s another post.) Not that it was an emergency, but it was a good idea to take this seriously.

So, on January 4, 2013, I went to meet Dr. Anthony Rizzuto, a general practitioner at a walk-in clinic in my neighbourhood.

Getting Attention

At the clinic, I was diagnosed with hypertension (high bloodpressure). Though that health issue was less troublesome to me than the rest, it got me the attention of that physician who gave me exactly the right kind of support. Thanks to that doctor, a bit of medication, and all sorts of efforts on my part, that issue was soon under control and I’m clearly out of the woods on this one. I’ve documented the whole thing in my previous blogpost. Summary version of that post (it’s in French, after all): more than extrinsic motivation, the right kind of encouragement can make all the difference in the world. (In all honesty, I already had all the intrinsic motivation I needed. No worries there!)

Really, that bloodpressure issue wasn’t that big of a deal. Sure, it got me a bit worried, especially about risks of getting a stroke. But I had been more worried and discouraged by other health issues, so that bloodpressure issue wasn’t the main thing. The fact that hypertension got me medical attention is the best part, though. Some things I was unable to do on my own. I needed encouragement, of course, but I also needed professional advice. More specifically, I felt that I needed a green light. A license to exercise.

Y’know how, in the US especially, “they” keep saying that you should “consult a physician” before doing strenuous exercise? Y’know, the fine print on exercise programs, fitness tools, and the like? Though I don’t live in the US anymore and we don’t have the same litigation culture here, I took that admonition to heart. So I was hesitant to take on a full fitness/training/exercise routine before I could consult with a physician. I didn’t have a family doctor, so it was difficult.

But, a year ago, I got the medical attention I needed. Since we’re not in the US, questions about the possibility to undertake exercise are met with some surprise. Still, I was able to get “approval” on doing more exercise. In fact, exercise was part of a solution to the hypertension issue which had brought this (minimal level of) medical attention to my case.

So I got exactly what I needed. A nod from a licensed medical practitioner. “Go ahead.”

Weight, Weight! Don’t Tell Me![1]

Something I got soon after visiting the clinic was a scale. More specifically, I got a Conair WW54C Weight Watchers Body Analysis Digital Precision Scale. I would weigh myself everyday (more than once a day, in fact) and write down the measures for total weight, body water percentage, and body fat percentage. As with the bloodpressure monitor, I was doing this by hand, since my scale wasn’t connected in any way to another device or to a network.

Weighing My Options

I eventually bought a second scale, a Starfrit iFit. That one is even more basic than the Weight Watchers scale, as it doesn’t do any “body analysis” beyond weight. But having two scales makes me much more confident about the readings I get. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I keep getting significant discrepancies in my readings. On a given scale, I would weigh myself three times and keep the average. The delta between the highest and lowest readings on that same scale would often be 200g or half a pound. The delta between the two scales can be as much as 500g or over one pound. Unfortunately, these discrepancies aren’t regular: it’s not that one scale is offset from the other by a certain amount. One day, the Weight Watchers has the highest readings and the Starfrit has the highest readings. I try to position myself the same way on each scale every time and I think both of them are on as flat a surface as I can get. But I keep getting different readings. I was writing down averages from both scales in my spreadsheet. As I often weighed myself more than once a day and would get a total of six readings every time, that was a significant amount of time spent on getting the most basic of data.

Food for Thought

At the same time, I started tracking my calories intake. I had done so in the past, including with the USDA National Nutrient Database on PalmOS devices (along with the Eat Watch app from the Hacker’s Diet). Things have improved quite a bit since that time. Not that tracking calories has become effortless, far from it. It’s still a chore, an ordeal, a pain in the neck, and possibly a relatively bad idea. Still, it’s now easier to input food items in a database which provides extensive nutritional data on most items. Because these databases are partly crowdsourced, it’s possible to add values for items which are specific to Canada, for instance. It’s also become easier to get nutritional values for diverse items online, including meals at restaurant chains. Though I don’t tend to eat at chain restaurants, tracking my calories encouraged me to do so, however insidiously.

But I digress.

Nutritional data also became part of my QuantSelf spreadsheet. Along with data from my bloodpressure monitor and body composition scale, I would copy nutritional values (protein, fat, sodium, carbohydrates…) from a database. At one point, I even started calculating my estimated and actual weightloss in that spreadsheet. Before doing so, I needed to know my calories expenditure.

Zipping

One of the first things I got besides the bloodpressure monitor and scale(s) was a fitbit Zip. Two months earlier (November, 2012), I had bought a fitbit One. But I lost it. The Zip was less expensive and, though it lacks some of the One’s features (tracking elevation, for instance), it was good enough for my needs at the time.

In fact, I prefer the Zip over the One, mostly because it uses a coin battery, so it doesn’t need to be recharged. I’ve been carrying it for a year and my fitbit profile has some useful data about my activity. Sure, it’s just a “glorified pedometer”. But the glorification is welcomed, as regular synchronization over Bluetooth is very useful a feature. My Zip isn’t a big deal, for me. It’s as much of a part of my life as my glasses, though I wear it more often (including during my sleep, though it doesn’t track sleep data).

Stepping UP

I also bought a new Jawbone UP. Yep, despite issues I had with the first generation one. Unfortunately, the UP isn’t really that much more reliable now than it was at the time. But they keep replacing it. A couple or weeks ago, my UP stopped working and I got a replacement. I think it’s the fifth one.

Despite its unreliability, I really like the UP for its sleeptracking and “gentle waking” features. If it hadn’t been for the UP, I probably wouldn’t have realized the importance of sleep as deeply as I have. In other words, the encouragement to sleep more is something I didn’t realize I needed. Plus, it’s really neat to wake up to a gentle buzz, at an appropriate point in my sleep cycle. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the UP just for this, but it’s something I miss every time my UP stops working. And there’s been several of those times.

My favourite among UP’s features is one they added, through firmware, after a while (though it might have been in the current UP from the start). It’s the ability to take “smart naps”. Meaning that I can set an alarm to wake me up after a certain time or after I’ve slept a certain amount of time. The way I set it up, I can take a 20 minute nap and I’ll be awaken by the UP after a maximum of 35 minutes. Without this alarm, I’d oversleep and likely feel more messed up after the nap than before. The alarm is also reassuring in that it makes the nap fit neatly my schedule. I don’t nap everyday, but naps are one of these underrated things I feel could be discussed more. Especially when it comes to heavy work sessions such as writing reports or grading papers. My life might shift radically in the near future and it’s quite possible that naps will be erased from my workweek indefinitely. But chances are that my workweek will also become much more manageable once I stop freelancing.

The UP also notifies me when I’ve been inactive for a certain duration (say, 45 minutes). It only does so a few times a month, on average, because I don’t tend to be that inactive. Exceptions are during long stretches of writing, so it’s a useful reminder to take a break. In fact, the UP just buzzed while I was writing this post so I should go and do my routine.

(It’s fun to write on my iPad while working out. Although, I tend to remain in the aerobic/endurance or even in the fitness/fatburning zone. I should still reach mile 2100 during this workout.)

Contrary to the fitbit Zip, the UP does require a charge on a regular basis. In fact, it seems that the battery is a large part of the reliability issue. So, after a while, I got into the habit of plugging my UP to the wall during my daily yoga/Pilates routine. My routine usually takes over half an hour and the UP is usually charged after 20 minutes.

Back UP

It may seem strange to have two activity trackers with complete feature overlap (there’s nothing the fitbit Zip does that the Jawbone UP doesn’t do). I probably wouldn’t have planned it this way, had I been able to get a Jawbone UP right at first. If I were to do it now, I might get a different device from either fitbit or Jawbone (the Nike+ FuelBand is offputting, to me).

I do find it useful to have two activity trackers. For one thing, the UP is unreliable enough that the Zip is useful as a backup. The Zip also stopped working once, so there’s been six periods of time during the past year during which I only had one fitness tracker. Having two trackers means that there’s no hiatus in my tracking, which has a significant impact in the routine aspect of selfquantification. Chances are slim that I would have completely given up on QuantSelf during such a hiatus. But I would probably have been less encouraged by selfquantification had I been forced to depend on one device.

Having two devices also helps me get a more accurate picture of my activities. Though the Zip and UP allegedly track the same steps, there’s usually some discrepancy between the two, as is fairly common among activity trackers. For some reasons, the discrepancy has actually decreased after a few months (and after I adapted my UP usage to my workout). But it’s useful to have two sources of data points.

Especially when I do an actual workout.

Been Working Out, Haven’t You?

In January, last year, I also bought an exercise bike, for use in my apartment. I know, sounds like a cliché, right? Getting an exercise bike after New Year? Well, it wasn’t a New Year’s resolution but, had it been one, I could be proud to say I kept it (my hypothetical resolution; I know, weird structure; you get what I mean, right?).

Right away, I started doing bike workouts on a very regular basis. From three to five times a week, during most weeks. Contrary to going to a gym, exercising at home is easy to fit in my freelancing schedule. I almost always work out before breakfast, so there’s no digestion issue involved. Since I’m by myself, it means I feel no pressure or judgment from others, a very significant factor in my case. Though I’m an extrovert’s extrovert (86 percentile), gyms are really offputting, to me. Because of my bodyshape, age, and overall appearance, I really feel like I don’t “fit”. It does depend on the gym, and I had a fairly good time at UMoncton’s Ceps back in 2003. But ConU’s gym wasn’t a place where I enjoyed working out.

My home workouts have become a fun part of my week. Not that the effort level is low, but I often do different things while working out, including listen to podcasts and music, reading, and even writing. As many people know, music can be very encouraging during a workout. So can a podcast, as it takes your attention elsewhere and you might accomplish more than you thought, during a podcast. Same thing with reading and writing, and I wrote part of this post while working out.

Sure, I could do most of this in a gym. The convenience factor at home is just too high, though. I can have as many things as I want by my sides, on a table and on a chair, so I just have to reach out when I need any of them. Apart from headphones, a music playing device, and a towel (all things I’d have at a gym) I typically have the following items with me when I do a home workout:

  • Travel mug full of tea
  • Stainless steel water bottle full of herbal tea (proper tea is theft)
  • Britta bottle full of water (I do drink a lot of fluid while working out)
  • three mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, Nexus 7)
  • Small weights,
  • Reading glasses
  • Squeeze balls

Wouldn’t be so easy to bring all of that to a gym. Not to mention that I can wear whatever I want, listen to whatever I want, and make whatever noise I want (I occasionally yell beats to music, as it’s fun and encouraging). I know some athletic people prefer gym workouts over home ones. I’m not athletic. And I know what I prefer.

On Track

Since this post is nominally about QuantSelf, how do I track my workouts, you ask? Well, it turns out that my Zip and UP do help me track them out, though in different ways. To get the UP to track my bike workouts, I have to put it around one of my pedals, a trick which took me a while to figure out.

2014-01-22 18.38.24

The Zip tracks my workouts from its usual position but it often counts way fewer “steps” than the UP does. So that’s one level of tracking. My workouts are part of my stepcounts for the days during which I do them.

Putting My Heart into IT

More importantly, though, my bike workouts have made my heartrate strap very useful. By pairing the strap with Digifit’s iBiker app, I get continuous heartrate monitoring, with full heartrate chart, notifications about “zones” (such as “fat burning”, “aerobic”, and “anaerobic”), and a recovery mode which lets me know how quickly my heartrate decreases after the workout. (I could also control the music app, but I tend to listen to Rdio instead.) The main reason I chose iBiker is that it works natively on the iPad. Early on, I decided I’d use my iPad to track my workouts because the battery lasts longer than on an iPhone or iPod touch, and the large display accommodates more information. The charts iBiker produces are quite neat and all the data can be synced to Digifit’s cloud service, which also syncs with my account on the fitbit cloud service (notice how everything has a cloud service?).

20140103-162048.jpg

Heartrate monitoring is close to essential, for workouts. Sure, it’d be possible to do exercise without it. But the difference it makes is more significant than one might imagine. It’s one of those things that one may only grok after trying it. Since I’m able to monitor my heartrate in realtime, I’m able to pace myself, to manage my exertion. By looking at the chart in realtime, I can tell how long I’ve spent at which intensity level and can decide to remain in a “zone” for as long as I want. Continuous feedback means that I can experiment with adjustment to the workout’s effort level, by pedaling faster or increasing tension. It’s also encouraging to notice that I need increasing intensity levels to reach higher heartrates, since my physical condition has been improving tremendously over the past year. I really value any encouragement I can get.

Now, I know it’s possible to get continuous heartrate monitoring on gym equipment. But I’ve noticed in the past that this monitoring wasn’t that reliable as I would often lose the heartrate signal, probably because of perspiration. On equipment I’ve tried, it wasn’t possible to see a graphical representation of my heartrate through the whole workout so, although I knew my current heartrate, I couldn’t really tell how long I was maintaining it. Not to mention that it wasn’t possible to sync that data to anything. Even though some of that equipment can allegedly be used with a special key to transfer data to a computer, that key wasn’t available.

It’d also be possible to do continuous heartrate monitoring with a “fitness watch”. A big issue with most of these is that data cannot be transferred to another device. Several of the new “wearable devices” do add this functionality. But these devices are quite expensive and, as far as I can see in most in-depth reviews, not necessarily that reliable. Besides, their displays are so small that it’d be impossible to get as complete a heartrate chart as the one I get on iBiker. I got pretty excited about the Neptune Pine, though, and I feel sad I had to cancel my pledge at the very last minute (for financial reasons). Sounds like it can become a rather neat device.

As should be obvious, by now, the bike I got (Marcy Recumbent Mag Cycle ME–709 from Impex) is a no-frills one. It was among the least expensive exercise bikes I’ve seen but it was also one with high ratings on Amazon. It’s as basic as you can get and I’ve been looking into upgrading. But other exercise bikes aren’t that significantly improved over this one. I don’t currently have enough money to buy a highend bike, but money isn’t the only issue. What I’d really like to get is exercise equipment which can be paired with another device, especially a tablet. Have yet to see an exercise bike, rower, treadmill, or elliptical which does. At any price. Sure, I could eventually find ways to hack things together to get more communication between my devices, but that’d be a lot of work for little results. For instance, it might be possible to find a cadence sensor which works on an exercise bike (or tweak one to make it work), thereby giving some indication of pace/speed and distance. However, I doubt that there’s exercise equipment which would allow a tablet to control tension/strength/difficulty. It’d be so neat if it were available. Obviously, it’s far from a requirement. But none of the QuantSelf stuff is required to have a good time while exercising.

Off the Bike

I use iBiker and my heartrate monitor during other activities besides bike workouts. Despite its name, iBiker supports several activity types (including walking and hiking) and has a category for “Other” activities. I occasionally use iBiker on my iPhone when I go on a walk for fitness reasons. Brisk walks do seem to help me in my fitness regime, but I tend to focus on bike workouts instead. I already walk a fair bit and much of that walking is relatively intense, so I feel less of a need to do it as an exercise, these days. And I rarely have my heartrate strap with me when I decide to take a walk. At some point, I had bought a Garmin footpod and kept installing it on shoes I was wearing. I did use it on occasion, including during a trip to Europe (June–July, 2012). It tends to require a bit of time to successfully pair with a mobile app, but it works as advertised. Yet, I haven’t really been quantifying my walks in the same way, so it hasn’t been as useful as I had wished.

More frequently, I use iBiker and my heartrate strap during my yoga/Pilates routine. “Do you really get your heart running fast enough to make it worthwhile”, you ask? No, but that’s kind of the point. Apart from a few peaks, my heartrate charts during such a routine tends to remain in Zone 0, or “Warmup/Cooldown”. The peaks are interesting because they correspond to a few moves and poses which do feel a bit harder (such as pushups or even the plank pose). That, to me, is valuable information and I kind of wish I could see which moves and poses I’ve done for how long using some QuantSelf tool. I even thought about filming myself, but I would then need to label each pose or move by hand, something I’d be very unlikely to do more than once or twice. It sounds like the Atlas might be used in such a way, as it’s supposed to recognize different activities, including custom ones. Not only is it not available, yet, but it’s so targeted at the high performance fitness training niche that I don’t think it could work for me.

One thing I’ve noticed from my iBiker-tracked routine is that my resting heartrate has gone down very significantly. As with my recovery and the amount of effort necessary to increase my heartrate, I interpret this as a positive sign. With other indicators, I could get a fuller picture of my routine’s effectiveness. I mean, I feel its tremendous effectiveness in diverse ways, including sensations I’d have a hard time explaining (such as an “opening of the lungs” and a capacity to kill discomfort in three breaths). The increase in my flexibility is something I could almost measure. But I don’t really have tools to fully quantify my yoga routine. That might be a good thing.

Another situation in which I’ve worn my heartrate strap is… while sleeping. Again, the idea here is clearly not to measure how many calories I burn or to monitor how “strenuous” sleeping can be as an exercise. But it’s interesting to pair the sleep data from my UP with some data from my heart during sleep. Even there, the decrease in my heartrate is quite significant, which signals to me a large improvement in the quality of my sleep. Last summer (July, 2013), I tracked a night during which my average heartrate was actually within Zone 1. More recently (November, 2013), my sleeping heartrate was below my resting heartrate, as it should be.

Using the Wahoo key on those occasions can be quite inconvenient. When I was using it to track my brisk walks, I would frequently lose signal, as the dongle was disconnecting from my iPad or iPhone. For some reason, I would also lose signal while sleeping (though the dongle would remain unmoved).

So I eventually bought a Blue HR, from Wahoo, to replace the key+strap combination. Instead of ANT+, the Blue HR uses Bluetooth LE to connect directly with a phone or tablet, without any need for a dongle. I bought it in part because of the frequent disconnections with the Wahoo key. I rarely had those problems during bike exercises, but I thought having a more reliable signal might encourage me to track my activities. I also thought I might be able to pair the Blue HR with a version of iBiker running on my Nexus 7 (first generation). It doesn’t seem to work and I think the Nexus 7 doesn’t support Bluetooth LE. I was also able to hand down my ANT+ setup (Wahoo key, heartrate strap, and footpod) to someone who might find it useful as a way to track walks. We’ll see how that goes.

‘Figures!

Going back to my QuantSelf spreadsheet. iBiker, Zip, and UP all output counts of burnt calories. Since Digifit iBiker syncs with my fitbit account, I’ve been using the fitbit number.

Inputting that number in the spreadsheet meant that I was able to measure how many extra calories I had burnt as compared to calories I had ingested. That number then allowed me to evaluate how much weight I had lost on a given day. For a while, my average was around 135g, but I had stretches of quicker weightloss (to the point that I was almost scolded by a doctor after losing too much weight in too little time). Something which struck me is that, despite the imprecision of so many things in that spreadsheet, the evaluated weightloss and actual loss of weight were remarkably similar. Not that there was perfect synchronization between the two, as it takes a bit of time to see the results of burning more calories. But I was able to predict my weight with surprising accuracy, and pinpoint patterns in some of the discrepancies. There was a kind of cycle by which the actual number would trail the predicted one, for a few days. My guess is that it had to do with something like water retention and I tried adjusting from the lowest figure (when I seem to be the least hydrated) and the highest one (when I seem to retain the most water in my body).

Obsessed, Much?

ObsessiveSpreadsheet

As is clear to almost anyone, this was getting rather obsessive. Which is the reason I’ve used the past tense with many of these statements. I basically don’t use my QuantSelf spreadsheet, anymore. One reason is that (in March, 2013) I was advised by a healthcare professional (a nutrition specialist) to stop counting my calories intake and focus on eating until I’m satiated while ramping up my exercise, a bit (in intensity, while decreasing frequency). It was probably good advice, but it did have a somewhat discouraging effect. I agree that the whole process had become excessive and that it wasn’t really sustainable. But what replaced it was, for a while, not that useful. It’s only in November, 2013 that a nutritionist/dietician was able to give me useful advice to complement what I had been given. My current approach is much better than any other approach I’ve used, in large part because it allows me to control some of my digestive issues.

So stopping the calories-focused monitoring was a great idea. I eventually stopped updating most columns in my spreadsheet.

What I kept writing down was the set of readings from my two “dumb” scales.

Scaling Up

Abandoning my spreadsheet didn’t imply that I had stopped selfquantifying.

In fact, I stepped up my QuantSelf a bit, about a month ago (December, 2013) by getting a Withings WS–50 Smart Body Analyzer. That WiFi-enabled scale is practically the prototype of QuantSelf and Internet of Things devices. More than I had imagined, it’s “just the thing I needed” in my selfquantified life.

The main advantage it has over my Weight Watchers scale is that it syncs data with my Withings cloud service account. That’s significant because the automated data collection saves me from my obsessive spreadsheet while letting me learn about my weightloss progression. Bingo!

Sure, I could do the same thing by hand, adding my scale readings to any of my other accounts. Not only would it be a chore to do so, but it’d encourage me to dig too deep in those figures. I learnt a lot during my obsessive phase, but I don’t need to go back to that mode. There are many approaches in between that excessive data collection and letting Withings do the work. I don’t even need to explore those intermediary approaches.

There are other things to like about the Withings scale. One is Position Control™, which does seem to increase the accuracy of the measurements. Its weight-tracking graphs (app and Web) are quite reassuring, as they show clear trends, between disparate datapoints. WithingsWeightKg WithingsLeanMassPercent

This Withings scale also measures heartrate, something I find less useful given my usage of a continuous heartrate monitor. Finally, it has sensors for air temperature and CO2 levels, which are features I’d expect in a (pre-Google) Nest product.

Though it does measure body fat percentage, the Withings Smart Body Analyzer doesn’t measure water percentage or bone mass, contrary to my low-end Weight Watchers body composition scale. Funnily enough, it’s around the time I got the Withings that I finally started gaining enough muscle mass to be able to notice the shift on the Weight Watchers. Prior to that, including during my excessive phase, my body fat and body water percentages added up to a very stable number. I would occasionally notice fluctuations of ~0.1%, but no downward trend. I did notice trends in my overall condition when the body water percentage was a bit higher, but it never went very high. Since late November or early December, those percentages started changing for the first time. My body fat percentage decreased by almost 2%, my body water percentage increased by more than 1%, and the total of the two decreased by 0.6%. Since these percentages are now stable and I have other indicators going in the same direction, I think this improvement in fat vs. water is real and my muscle mass did start to increase a bit (contrary to what a friend said can happen with people our age). It may not sound like much but I’ll take whatever encouragement I get, especially in such a short amount of time.

The Ideal QuantSelf Device

On his The Talk Show podcast, Gruber has been dismissing the craze in QuantSelf and fitness devices, qualifying them as a solved problem. I know what he means, but I gather his experience differs from mine.

I feel we’re in the “Rio Volt era” of the QuantSelf story.

The Rio Volt was one of the first CD players which could read MP3 files. I got one, at the time, and it was a significant piece of my music listening experience. I started ripping many of my CDs and creating fairly large compilations that I could bring with me as I traveled. I had a carrying case for the Volt and about 12 CDs, which means that I could carry about 8GB of music (or about 140 hours at the 128kbps bitrate which was so common at the time). Quite a bit less than my whole CD collection (about 150GB), but a whole lot more than what I was used to. As I was traveling and moving frequently, at the time, the Volt helped me get into rather… excessive music listening habits. Maybe not excessive compared to a contemporary teenager in terms of time, but music listening had become quite important to me, at a time when I wasn’t playing music as frequently as before.

There have been many other music players before, during, and after the Rio Volt. The one which really changed things was probably… the Microsoft Zune? Nah, just kidding. The iRiver players were much cooler (I had an iRiver H–120 which I used as a really neat fieldrecording device). Some people might argue that things really took a turn when Apple released the iPod. Dunno about that, I’m no Apple fanboi.

Regardless of which MP3-playing device was most prominent, it’s probably clear to most people that music players have changed a lot since the days of the Creative Nomad and the Rio Volt. Some of these changes could possibly have been predicted, at the time. But I’m convinced that very few people understood the implications of those changes.

Current QuantSelf devices don’t appear very crude. And they’re certainly quite diverse. CES2014 was the site of a number of announcements, demos, and releases having to do with QuantSelf, fitness, Internet of Things, and wearable devices (unsurprisingly, DC Rainmaker has a useful two-part roundup). But despite my interest in some of these devices, I really don’t think we’ve reached the real breakthrough with those devices.

In terms of fitness/wellness/health devices, specifically, I sometimes daydream about features or featuresets. For instance, I really wish a given device would combine the key features of some existing devices, as in the case of body water measurements and the Withings Smart Body Analyzer. A “killer feature”, for me, would be strapless continuous 24/7 heartrate monitoring which could be standalone (keeping the data without transmitting it) yet able to sync data with other devices for display and analysis, and which would work at rest as well as during workouts, underwater as well as in dry contexts.

Some devices (including the Basis B1 and Mio Alpha) seem to come close to this, but they all have little flaws, imperfections, tradeoffs. At an engineering level, it should be an interesting problem so I fully expect that we’ll at least see an incremental evolution from the current state of the market. Some devices measure body temperature and perspiration. These can be useful indicators of activity level and might help one gain insight about other aspects of the physical self. I happen to perspire profusely, so I’d be interested in that kind of data. As is often the case, unexpected usage of such tools could prove very innovative.

How about a device which does some blood analysis, making it easier to gain data on nutrients or cholesterol levels? I often think about the risks of selfdiagnosis and selfmedication. Those issues, related to QuantSelf, will probably come in a future post.

I also daydream about something deeper, though more imprecise. More than a featureset or a “killer feature”, I’m thinking about the potential for QuantSelf as a whole. Yes, I also think about many tricky issues around selfquantification. But I perceive something interesting going on with some of these devices. Some affordances of Quantified Self technology. Including the connections this technology can have with other technologies and domains, including tablets and smartphones, patient-focused medicine, Internet of Things, prosumption, “wearable hubs”, crowdsourced research, 3D printing, postindustrialization, and technological appropriation. These are my issues, in the sense that they’re things about which I care and think. I don’t necessarily mean issues as problems or worries, but things which either give me pause or get me to discuss with others.

Much of this will come in later posts, I guess. Including a series of issues I have with self-quantification, expanded from some of the things I’ve alluded to, here.

Walkthrough

These lines are separated from many of the preceding ones (I don’t write linearly) by a relatively brisk walk from a café to my place. Even without any QuantSelf device, I have quite a bit of data about this walk. For instance, I know it took me 40 minutes because I checked the time before and after. According to Google Maps, it’s between 4,1km and 4,2km from that café to my place, depending on which path one might take (I took an alternative route, but it’s probably close to the Google Maps directions, in terms of distance). It’s also supposed to be a 50 minute walk, so I feel fairly good about my pace (encouraging!). I also know it’s –20°C, outside (–28°C with windchill, according to one source). I could probably get some data about elevation, which might be interesting (I’d say about half of that walk was going up).

With two of my QuantSelf devices (UP and Zip), I get even more data. For instance, I can tell how many steps I took (it looks like it’s close to 5k, but I could get a more precise figure). I also realize the intensity of this activity, as both devices show that I started at a moderate pace followed by an intense pace for most of the duration. These devices also include this walk in measuring calories burnt (2.1Mcal according to UP, 2.7Mcal according to Zip), distance walked (11.2km according to Zip, 12.3km according to UP), active minutes (117’ Zip, 149’ UP), and stepcount (16.4k UP, 15.7k Zip). Not too shabby, considering that it’s still early evening as I write these lines.

2014-01-21 18.47.54 2014-01-21 18.47.48 2014-01-21 18.46.47

Since I didn’t have my heartrate monitor on me and didn’t specifically track this activity, there’s a fair bit of data I don’t have. For instance, I don’t know which part was most strenuous. And I don’t know how quickly I recovered. If I don’t note it down, it’s difficult to compare this activity to other activities. I might remember more or less which streets I took, but I’d need to map it myself. These are all things I could have gotten from a fitness app coupled with my heartrate monitor.

As is the case with cameras, the best QuantSelf device is the one you have with you.

I’m glad I have data about this walk. Chances are I would have taken public transit had it not been for my QuantSelf devices. There weren’t that many people walking across the Mont-Royal park, by this weather.

Would I get fitter more efficiently if I had the ideal tool for selfquantification? I doubt it.

Besides, I’m not in that much of a hurry.


  1. Don’t like my puns? Well, it’s my blogpost and I’ll cry if I want to.  ↩

Obligatory Nexus7 Test Post

Got my Nexus 7 a while ago,  but I wasn’t finding a use case for it. Thanks to a friend advising me to give Swiftkey a try,  I might actually make it work.
Something I might find especially useful about Swiftkey is the fact that I can mix languages,  quelque-chose que je fais assez souvent sur iOS mais qui demande un changement constant de clavier. Since I like Android’s speech recognition,  a combination of SwiftKey and speech might allow me to work efficiently.
Un truc que je remarque rapidement,  par contre,  c’est que le fait de passer d’un système à l’autre demande un certain temps de transfert de mots de passe. J’utilise des outils pour conserver des mots de passe sécuritaires,  et ils existent sur plusieurs plates-formes,  mais ça demande quand même un certain temps.
We’ll see how things go,  after a while. I do want to like Android’s and,  contrary to popular belief, I can be pretty open minded about such things. But I need appropriate contexts to try out different use cases. Otherwise,  having people yell at me because I’m yet to be sold on Android hasn’t been helpful.
Ok,  the test is enough for now. Having issues with the Swiftkey spacebar in landscape,  but I’m sure I’ll get used to it. Let’s post this and edit later.

Wearable Hub: Getting the Ball Rolling

Statement

After years of hype, wearable devices are happening. What wearable computing lacks is a way to integrate devices into a broader system.

Disclaimer/Disclosure/Warning

  • For the past two months or so, I’ve been taking notes about this “wearable hub” idea (started around CES’s time, as wearable devices like the Pebble and Google Glass were discussed with more intensity). At this point, I have over 3000 words in notes, which probably means that I’d have enough material for a long essay. This post is just a way to release a few ideas and to “think aloud” about what wearables may mean.
  • Some of these notes have to do with the fact that I started using a few wearable devices to monitor my activities, after a health issue pushed me to start doing some exercise.
  • I’m not a technologist nor do I play one on this blog. I’m primarily an ethnographer, with diverse interests in technology and its implications for human beings. I do research on technological appropriation and some of the course I teach relate to the social dimensions of technology. Some of the approaches to technology that I discuss in those courses relate to constructionism and Actor-Network Theory.
  • I consider myself a “geek ethnographer” in the sense that I take part in geek culture (and have come out as a geek) but I’m also an outsider to geekdom.
  • Contrary to the likes of McLuhan, Carr, and Morozov, my perspective on technology and society is non-deterministic. The way I use them, “implication” and “affordance” aren’t about causal effects or, even, about direct connections. I’m not saying that society is causing technology to appear nor am I proposing a line from tools to social impacts. Technology and society are in a complex system.
  • Further, my approach isn’t predictive. I’m not saying what will happen based on technological advances nor am I saying what technology will appear. I’m thinking about the meaning of technology in an intersubjective way.
  • My personal attitude on tools and gadgets is rather ambivalent. This becomes clear as I go back and forth between techno-enthusiastic contexts (where I can almost appear like a Luddite) and techno-skeptical contexts (where some might label me as a gadget freak). I integrate a number of tools in my life but I can be quite wary about them.
  • I’m not wedded to the ideas I’m putting forth, here. They’re just broad musings of what might be. More than anything, I hope to generate thoughtful discussion. That’s why I start this post with a broad statement (not my usual style).
  • Of course, I know that other people have had similar ideas and I know that a concept of “wearable hub” already exists. It’s obvious enough that it’s one of these things which can be invented independently.

From Wearables to Hubs

Back in the 1990s, “wearable computing” became something of a futuristic buzzword, often having to do with articles of clothing. There have been many experiments and prototypes converging on an idea that we would, one day, be able to wear something resembling a full computer. Meanwhile, “personal digital assistants” became something of a niche product and embedded systems became an important dimension of car manufacturing.

Fast-forward to 2007, when a significant shift in the use of smartphones occurred. Smartphones existed before that time, but their usages, meanings, and positions in the public discourse changed quite radically around the time of the iPhone’s release. Not that the iPhone itself “caused a smartphone revolution” or that smartphone adoption suddenly reached a “tipping point”. I conceive of this shift as a complex interplay between society and tools. Not only more Kuhn than Popper, but more Latour than Kurzweil.

Smartphones, it may be argued, “happened”.

Without being described as “wearable devices”, smartphones started playing some of the functions people might have assigned to wearable devices. The move was subtle enough that Limor Fried recently described it as a realization she’s been having. Some tech enthusiasts may be designing location-aware purses and heads-up displays in the form of glasses. Smartphones are already doing a lot of the things wearables were supposed to do. Many people “wear” smartphones at most times during their waking lives and these Internet-connected devices are full of sensors. With the proliferation of cases, one might even perceive some of them as fashion accessories, like watches and sunglasses.

Where smartphones become more interesting, in terms of wearable computing, is as de facto wearable hubs.

My Wearable Devices

Which brings me to mention the four sensors I’ve been using more extensively during the past two months:

Yes, these all have to do with fitness (and there’s quite a bit of overlap between them). And, yes, I started using them a few days after the New Year. But it’s not about holiday gifts or New Year’s resolutions. I’ve had some of these devices for a while and decided to use them after consulting with a physician about hypertension. Not only have they helped me quite a bit in solving some health issues, but these devices got me to think.

(I carry several other things with me at most times. Some of my favourites include Tenqa REMXD Bluetooth headphones and the LiveScribe echo smartpen.)

One aspect is that they’re all about the so-called “quantified self”. As a qualitative researcher, I tend to be skeptical of quants. In this case, though, the stats I’m collecting about myself fit with my qualitative approach. Along with quantitative data from these devices, I’ve started collecting qualitative data about my life. The next step is to integrate all those data points automatically.

These sensors are also connected to “gamification”, a tendency I find worrisome, preferring playfulness. Though game mechanics are applied to the use of these sensors, I choose to rely on my intrinsic motivation, not paying much attention to scores and badges.

But the part which pushed me to start taking the most notes was that all these sensors connect with my iOS ()and Android) devices. And this is where the “wearable hub” comes into play. None of these devices is autonomous. They’re all part of my personal “arsenal”, the equipment I have on my me on most occasions. Though there are many similarities between them, they still serve different purposes, which are much more limited than those “wearable computers” might have been expected to serve. Without a central device serving as a type of “hub”, these sensors wouldn’t be very useful. This “hub” needs not be a smartphone, despite the fact that, by default, smartphones are taken to be the key piece in this kind of setup.

In my personal scenario, I do use a smartphone as a hub. But I also use tablets. And I could easily use an existing device of another type (say, an iPod touch), or even a new type of device meant to serve as a wearable hub. Smartphones’ “hub” affordances aren’t exclusive.

From Digital Hub to Wearable Hub

Most of the devices which would likely serve as hubs for wearable sensors can be described as “Post-PC”. They’re clearly “personal” and they’re arguably “computers”. Yet they’re significantly different from the “Personal Computers” which have been so important at the end of last century (desktop and laptop computers not used as servers, regardless of the OS they run).

Wearability is a key point, here. But it’s not just a matter of weight or form factor. A wearable hub needs to be wireless in at least two important ways: independent from a power source and connected to other devices through radio waves. The fact that they’re worn at all times also implies a certain degree of integration with other things carried throughout the day (wallets, purses, backpacks, pockets…). These devices may also be more “personal” than PCs because they may be more apparent and more amenable to customization than PCs.

Smartphones fit the bill as wearable hubs. Their form factors and battery life make them wearable enough. Bluetooth (or ANT+, Nike+, etc.) has been used to pair them wirelessly with sensors. Their connectivity to GPS and cellular networking as well as their audio and visual i/o can have interesting uses (mapping a walk, data updates during a commute, voice feedback…). And though they’re far from ubiquitous, smartphones have become quite common in key markets.

Part of the reason I keep thinking about “hubs” has to do with comments made in 2001 by then Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the “digital lifestyle” age in “PC evolution” (video of Jobs’s presentation; as an anthropologist, I’ll refrain from commenting on the evolutionary analogies):

We believe the PC, or more… importantly, the Mac can become the “digital hub” of our emerging digital lifestyle, with the ability to add tremendous value to … other digital devices.

… like camcorders, portable media players, cellphones, digital cameras, handheld organizers, etc. (Though they weren’t mentioned, other peripherals like printers and webcams also connect to PCs.)

The PC was thus going to serve as a hub, “not only adding value to these devices but interconnecting them, as well”.

At the time, key PC affordances which distinguished them from those other digital devices:

  • Big screen affording more complex user interfaces
  • Large, inexpensive hard disk storage
  • Burning DVDs and CDs
  • Internet connectivity, especially broadband
  • Running complex applications (including media processing software like the iLife suite)

Though Jobs pinpointed iLife applications as the basis for this “digital hub” vision, it sounds like FireWire was meant to be an even more important part of this vision. Of course, USB has supplanted FireWire in most use cases. It’s interesting, then, to notice that Apple only recently started shipping Macs with USB 3. In fact, DVD burning is absent from recent Macs. In 2001, the Mac might have been at the forefront of this “digital lifestyle” age. In 2013, the Mac has moved away from its role as “digital hub”.

In the meantime, the iPhone has become one of the best known examples of what I’m calling “wearable hubs”. It has a small screen and small, expensive storage (by today’s standards). It also can’t burn DVDs. But it does have nearly-ubiquitous Internet connectivity and can run fairly complex applications, some of which are adapted from the iLife suite. And though it does have wired connectivity (through Lightning or the “dock connector”), its main hub affordances have to do with Bluetooth.

It’s interesting to note that the same Steve Jobs, who used the “digital hub” concept to explain that the PC wasn’t dead in 2001, is partly responsible for popularizing the concept of “post-PC devices” six years later. One might perceive hypocrisy in this much delayed apparent flip-flop. On the other hand, Steve Jobs’s 2007 comments (video) were somewhat nuanced, as to the role of post-PC devices. What’s more interesting, though, is to think about the implications of the shift between two views of digital devices, regardless of Apple’s position through that shift.

Some post-PC devices (including the iPhone, until quite recently) do require a connection to a PC. In this sense, a smartphone might maintain its position with regards to the PC as digital hub. Yet, some of those devices are used independently of PCs, including by some people who never owned PCs.

Post-Smartphone Hubs

It’s possible to imagine a wearable hub outside of the smartphone (and tablet) paradigm. While smartphones are a convenient way to interconnect wearables, their hub-related affordances still sound limited: they lack large displays and their storage space is quite expensive. Their battery life may also be something to consider in terms of serving as hubs. Their form factors make some sense, when functioning as phones. Yet they have little to do with their use as hubs.

Part of the realization, for me, came from the fact that I’ve been using a tablet as something of an untethered hub. Since I use Bluetooth headphones, I can listen to podcasts and music while my tablet is in my backpack without being entangled in a cable. Sounds trivial but it’s one of these affordances I find quite significant. Delegating music playing functions to my tablet relates in part to battery life and use of storage. The tablet’s display has no importance in this scenario. In fact, given some communication between devices, my smartphone could serve as a display for my tablet. So could a “smartwatch” or “smartglasses”.

The Body Hub

Which led me to think about other devices which would work as wearable hubs. I originally thought about backpackable and pocketable devices.

But a friend had a more striking idea:

Under Armour’s Recharge Energy Suit may be an extreme version of this, one which would fit nicely among things Cathi Bond likes to discuss with Nora Young on The Sniffer. Nora herself has been discussing wearables on her blog as well as on her radio show. Sure, part of this concept is quite futuristic. But a sensor mesh undershirt is a neat idea for several reasons.

  • It’s easy to think of various sensors it may contain.
  • Given its surface area, it could hold enough battery power to supplement other devices.
  • It can be quite comfortable in cold weather and might even help diffuse heat in warmer climates.
  • Though wearable, it needs not be visible.
  • Thieves would probably have a hard time stealing it.
  • Vibration and haptic feedback on the body can open interesting possibilities.

Not that it’s the perfect digital hub and I’m sure there are multiple objections to a connected undershirt (including issues with radio signals). But I find the idea rather fun to think, partly because it’s so far away from the use of phones, glasses, and watches as smart devices.

Another thing I find neat, and it may partly be a coincidence, is the very notion of a “mesh”.

The Wearable Mesh

Mesh networking is a neat concept, which generates more hype than practical uses. As an alternative to WiFi access points and cellular connectivity, it’s unclear that it may “take the world by storm”. But as a way to connect personal devices, it might have some potential. After all, as Bernard Benhamou recently pointed out on France Culture’s Place de la toile, the Internet of Things may not require always-on full-bandwith connectivity. Typically, wearable sensors use fairly little bandwidth or only use it for limited amounts of time. A wearable mesh could connect wearable devices to one another while also exchanging data through the Internet itself.

Or with local devices. Smart cities, near field communication, and digital appliances occupy interesting positions among widely-discussed tendencies in the tech world. They may all have something to do with wearable devices. For instance, data exchanged between transit systems and their users could go through wearable devices. And while mobile payment systems can work through smartphones and other cellphones, wallet functions can also be fulfilled by other wearable devices.

Alternative Futures

Which might provide an appropriate segue into the ambivalence I feel toward the “wearable hub” concept I’m describing. Though I propose these ideas as if I were enthusiastic about them, they all give me pause. As a big fan of critical thinking, I like to think about “what might be” to generate questions and discussions exposing a diversity of viewpoints about the future.

Mass media discussions about these issues tend to focus on such things as privacy, availability, norms, and usefulness. Google Glass has generated quite a bit of buzz about all four. Other wearables may mainly raise issues for one or two of these broad dimensions. But the broad domain of wearable computing raises a lot more issues.

Technology enthusiasts enjoy discussing issues through the dualism between dystopia and utopia. An obvious issue with this dualism is that humans disagree about the two categories. Simply put, one person’s dystopia can be another person’s utopia, not to mention the nuanced views of people who see complex relationships between values and social change.

In such a context, a sociologist’s reflex may be to ask about the implications of these diverse values and opinions. For instance:

  • How do people construct these values?
  • Who decides which values are more important?
  • How might social groups cope with changes in values?

Discussing these issues and more, in a broad frame, might be quite useful. Some of the trickiest issues are raised after some changes in technology have already happened. From writing to cars, any technological context has unexpected implications. An ecological view of these implications could broaden the discussion.

I tend to like the concept of the “drift-off moment”, during which listeners (or readers) start thinking about the possibilities afforded a new tool (or concept). In the context of a sales pitch, the idea is that these possibilities are positive, a potential buyer is thinking about the ways she might use a newfangled device. But I also like the deeper process of thinking about all sorts of implications, regardless of their value.

So…

What might be the implications of a wearable hub?

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Future of Learning Content

If indeed Apple plans to announce not just more affordable textbook options for students, but also more interactive, immersive ebook experiences…

Forecasting next week’s Apple education event (Dan Moren and Lex Friedman for Macworld)

I’m still in catchup mode (was sick during the break), but it’s hard to let this pass. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like to blog about: wishful thinking and speculation about education. Sometimes, my crazy predictions are fairly accurate. But my pleasure at blogging these things has little to do with the predictions game. I’m no prospectivist. I just like to build wishlists.

In this case, I’ll try to make it short. But I’m having drift-off moments just thinking about the possibilities. I do have a lot to say about this but we’ll see how things go.

Overall, I agree with the three main predictions in that MacWorld piece: Apple might come out with eBook creation tools, office software, and desktop reading solutions. I’m interested in all of these and have been thinking about the implications.

That MacWorld piece, like most media coverage of textbooks, these days, talks about the weight of physical textbooks as a major issue. It’s a common refrain and large bookbags/backpacks have symbolized a key problem with “education”. Moren and Friedman finish up with a zinger about lecturing. Also a common complaint. In fact, I’ve been on the record (for a while) about issues with lecturing. Which is where I think more reflection might help.

For one thing, alternative models to lecturing can imply more than a quip about the entertainment value of teaching. Inside the teaching world, there’s a lot of talk about the notion that teaching is a lot more than providing access to content. There’s a huge difference between reading a book and taking a class. But it sounds like this message isn’t heard and that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the role of teaching.

It’s quite likely that Apple’s announcement may make things worse.

I don’t like textbooks but I do use them. I’m not the only teacher who dislikes textbook while still using them. But I feel the need to justify myself. In fact, I’ve been on the record about this. So, in that context, I think improvements in textbooks may distract us from a bigger issue and even lead us in the wrong direction. By focusing even more on content-creation, we’re commodifying education. What’s more, we’re subsuming education to a publishing model. We all know how that’s going. What’s tragic, IMHO, is that textbook publishers themselves are going in the direction of magazines! If, ten years from now, people want to know when we went wrong with textbook publishing, it’ll probably be a good idea for them to trace back from now. In theory, magazine-style textbooks may make a lot of sense to those who perceive learning to be indissociable from content consumption. I personally consider these magazine-style textbooks to be the most egregious of aberrations because, in practice, learning is radically different from content consumption.

So… If, on Thursday, Apple ends up announcing deals with textbook publishers to make it easier for them to, say, create and distribute free ad-supported magazine-style textbooks, I’ll be going through a large range of very negative emotions. Coming out of it, I might perceive a silverlining in the fact that these things can fairly easily be subverted. I like this kind of technological subversion and it makes me quite enthusiastic.

In fact, I’ve had this thought about iAd producer (Apple’s tool for creating mobile ads). Never tried it but, when I heard about it, it sounded like something which could make it easy to produce interactive content outside of mobile advertising. I don’t think the tool itself is restricted to Apple’s iAd, but I could see how the company might use the same underlying technology to create some content-creation tool.

“But,” you say, “you just said that you think learning isn’t about content.” Quite so. I’m not saying that I think these tools should be the future of learning. But creating interactive content can be part of something wider, which does relate to learning.

The point isn’t that I don’t like content. The point is that I don’t think content should be the exclusive focus of learning. To me, allowing textbook publishers to push more magazine-style content more easily is going in the wrong direction. Allowing diverse people (including learners and teachers) to easily create interactive content might in fact be a step in the right direction. It’s nothing new, but it’s an interesting path.

In fact, despite my dislike of a content emphasis in learning, I’m quite interested in “learning objects”. In fact, I did a presentation about them during the Spirit of Inquiry conference at Concordia, a few years ago (PDF).

A neat (but Flash-based) example of a learning object was introduced to me during that same conference: Mouse Party. The production value is quite high, the learning content seems relatively high, and it’s easily accessible.

But it’s based on Flash.

Which leads me to another part of the issue: formats.

I personally try to avoid Flash as much as possible. While a large number of people have done amazing things with Flash, it’s my sincere (and humble) opinion that Flash’s time has come and gone. I do agree with Steve Jobs on this. Not out of fanboism (I’m no Apple fanboi), not because I have something against Adobe (I don’t), not because I have a vested interested in an alternative technology. I just think that mobile Flash isn’t going anywhere and that. Even on the desktop, I think Flash-free is the way to go. Never installed Flash on my desktop computer, since I bought it in July. I do run Chrome for the occasional Flash-only video. But Flash isn’t the only video format out there and I almost never come across interesting content which actually relies on something exclusive to Flash. Flash-based standalone apps (like Rdio and Machinarium) are a different issue as Flash was more of a development platform for them and they’re available as Flash-free apps on Apple’s own iOS.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s announcements had something to do with a platform for interactive content as an alternative to Adobe Flash. In fact, I’d be quite enthusiastic about that. Especially given Apple’s mobile emphasis. We might be getting further in “mobile computing for the rest of us”.

Part of this may be related to HTML5. I was quite enthusiastic when Tumult released its “Hype” HTML5-creation tool. I only used it to create an HTML5 version of my playfulness talk. But I enjoyed it and can see a lot of potential.

Especially in view of interactive content. It’s an old concept and there are many tools out there to create interactive content (from Apple’s own QuickTime to Microsoft PowerPoint). But the shift to interactive content has been slower than many people (including educational technologists) would have predicted. In other words, there’s still a lot to be done with interactive content. Especially if you think about multitouch-based mobile devices.

Which eventually brings me back to learning and teaching.

I don’t “teach naked”, I do use slides in class. In fact, my slides are mostly bullet points, something presentation specialists like to deride. Thing is, though, my slides aren’t really meant for presentation and, while they sure are “content”, I don’t really use them as such. Basically, I use them as a combination of cue cards, whiteboard, and coursenotes. Though I may sound defensive about this, I’m quite comfortable with my use of slides in the classroom.

Yet, I’ve been looking intently for other solutions.

For instance, I used to create outlines in OmniOutliner that I would then send to LaTeX to produce both slides and printable outlines (as PDFs). I’ve thought about using S5, but it doesn’t really fit in my workflow. So I end up creating Keynote files on my Mac, uploading them (as PowerPoint) before class, and using them in the classroom using my iPad. Not ideal, but rather convenient.

(Interestingly enough, the main thing I need to do today is create PowerPoint slides as ancillary material for a textbook.)

In all of these cases, the result isn’t really interactive. Sure, I could add buttons and interactive content to the slides. But the basic model is linear, not interactive. The reason I don’t feel bad about it is that my teaching is very interactive (the largest proportion of classtime is devoted to open discussions, even with 100-plus students). But I still wish I could have something more appropriate.

I have used other tools, especially whiteboarding and mindmapping ones. Basically, I elicit topics and themes from students and we discuss them in a semi-structured way. But flow remains an issue, both in terms of workflow and in terms of conversation flow.

So if Apple were to come up with tools making it easy to create interactive content, I might integrate them in my classroom work. A “killer feature” here is if interaction could be recorded during class and then uploaded as an interactive podcast (à la ProfCast).

Of course, content-creation tools might make a lot of sense outside the classroom. Not only could they help distribute the results of classroom interactions but they could help in creating learning material to be used ahead of class. These could include the aforementioned learning objects (like Mouse Party) as well as interactive quizzes (like Hot Potatoes) and even interactive textbooks (like Moglue) and educational apps (plenty of these in the App Store).

Which brings me back to textbooks, the alleged focus of this education event.

One of my main issues with textbooks, including online ones, is usability. I read pretty much everything online, including all the material for my courses (on my iPad) but I find CourseSmart and its ilk to be almost completely unusable. These online textbooks are, in my experience, much worse than scanned and OCRed versions of the same texts (in part because they don’t allow for offline access but also because they make navigation much more difficult than in GoodReader).

What I envision is an improvement over PDFs.

Part of the issue has to do with PDF itself. Despite all its benefits, Adobe’s “Portable Document Format” is the relic of a bygone era. Sure, it’s ubiquitous and can preserve formatting. It’s also easy to integrate in diverse tools. In fact, if I understand things correctly, PDF replaced Display PostScript as the basis for Quartz 2D, a core part of Mac OS X’s graphics rendering. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t be supplemented by something else.

Part of the improvement has to do with flexibility. Because of its emphasis on preserving print layouts, PDF tends to enforce print-based ideas. This is where EPUB is at a significant advantage. In a way, EPUB textbooks might be the first step away from the printed model.

From what I can gather, EPUB files are a bit like Web archives. Unlike PDFs, they can be reformatted at will, just like webpages can. In fact, iBooks and other EPUB readers (including Adobe’s, IIRC) allow for on-the-fly reformatting, which puts the reader in control of a much greater part of the reading experience. This is exactly the kind of thing publishers fail to grasp: readers, consumers, and users want more control on the experience. EPUB textbooks would thus be easier to read than PDFs.

EPUB is the basis for Apple’s iBooks and iBookstore and people seem to be assuming that Thursday’s announcement will be about iBooks. Makes sense and it’d be nice to see an improvement over iBooks. For one thing, it could support EPUB 3. There are conversion tools but, AFAICT, iBooks is stuck with EPUB 2.0. An advantage there is that EPUBs can possibly include scripts and interactivity. Which could make things quite interesting.

Interactive formats abound. In fact, PDFs can include some interactivity. But, as mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of room for improvement in interactive content. In part, creation tools could be “democratized”.

Which gets me thinking about recent discussions over the fate of HyperCard. While I understand John Gruber’s longstanding position, I find room for HyperCard-like tools. Like some others, I even had some hopes for ATX-based TileStack (an attempt to bring HyperCard stacks back to life, online). And I could see some HyperCard thinking in an alternative to both Flash and PDF.

“Huh?”, you ask?

Well, yes. It may sound strange but there’s something about HyperCard which could make sense in the longer term. Especially if we get away from the print model behind PDFs and the interaction model behind Flash. And learning objects might be the ideal context for this.

Part of this is about hyperlinking.  It’s no secret that HyperCard was among HTML precursors. As the part of HTML which we just take for granted, hyperlinking is among the most undervalued features of online content. Sure, we understand the value of sharing links on social networking systems. And there’s a lot to be said about bookmarking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about social bookmarking and I have a wishlist about sharing tools, somewhere. But I’m thinking about something much more basic: hyperlinking is one of the major differences between online and offline wriiting.

Think about the differences between, say, a Wikibook and a printed textbook. My guess is that most people would focus on the writing style, tone, copy-editing, breadth, reviewing process, etc. All of these are relevant. In fact, my sociology classes came up with variations on these as disadvantages of the Wikibook over printed textbooks. Prior to classroom discussion about these differences, however, I mentioned several advantages of the Wikibook:

  • Cover bases
  • Straightforward
  • Open Access
  • Editable
  • Linked

(Strangely enough, embedded content from iWork.com isn’t available and I can’t log into my iWork.com account. Maybe it has to do with Thursday’s announcement?)

That list of advantages is one I’ve been using since I started to use this Wikibook… excerpt for the last one. And this is one which hit me, recently, as being more important than the others.

So, in class, I talked about the value of links and it’s been on my mind quite a bit. Especially in view of textbooks. And critical thinking.

See, academic (and semi-academic) writing is based on references, citations, quotes. English-speaking academics are likely to be the people in the world of publishing who cite the most profusely. It’s not rare for a single paragraph of academic writing in English to contain ten citations or more, often stringed in parentheses (Smith 1999, 2005a, 2005b; Smith and Wesson 1943, 2010). And I’m not talking about Proust-style paragraphs either. I’m convinced that, with some quick searches, I could come up with a paragraph of academic writing which has less “narrative content” than citation.

Textbooks aren’t the most egregious example of what I’d consider over-citing. But they do rely on citations quite a bit. As I work more specifically on textbook content, I notice even more clearly the importance of citations. In fact, in my head, I started distinguishing some patterns in textbook content. For instance, there are sections which mostly contain direct explanations of key concepts while other sections focus on personal anecdotes from the authors or extended quotes from two sides of the debate. But one of the most obvious sections are summaries from key texts.

For instance (hypothetical example):

As Nora Smith explained in her 1968 study Coming Up with Something to Say, the concept of interpretation has a basis in cognition.

Smith (1968: 23) argued that Pierce’s interpretant had nothing to do with theatre.

These citations are less conspicuous than they’d be in peer-reviewed journals. But they’re a central part of textbook writing. One of their functions should be to allow readers (undergraduate students, mostly) to learn more about a topic. So, when a student wants to know more about Nora Smith’s reading of Pierce, she “just” have to locate Smith’s book, go to the right page, scan the text for the read for the name “Pierce”, and read the relevant paragraph. Nothing to it.

Compare this to, say, a blogpost. I only cite one text, here. But it’s linked instead of being merely cited. So readers can quickly know more about the context for what I’m discussing before going to the library.

Better yet, this other blogpost of mine is typical of what I’ve been calling a linkfest, a post containing a large number of links. Had I put citations instead of links, the “narrative” content of this post would be much less than the citations. Basically, the content was a list of contextualized links. Much textbook content is just like that.

In my experience, online textbooks are citation-heavy and take almost no benefit from linking. Oh, sure, some publisher may replace citations with links. But the result would still not be the same as writing meant for online reading because ex post facto link additions are quite different from link-enhanced writing. I’m not talking about technological determinism, here. I’m talking about appropriate tool use. Online texts can be quite different from printed ones and writing for an online context could benefit greatly from this difference.

In other words, I care less about what tools publishers are likely to use to create online textbooks than about a shift in the practice of online textbooks.

So, if Apple comes out with content-creation tools on Thursday (which sounds likely), here are some of my wishes:

  • Use of open standards like HTML5 and EPUB (possibly a combination of the two).
  • Completely cross-platform (should go without saying, but Apple’s track record isn’t that great, here).
  • Open Access.
  • Link library.
  • Voice support.
  • Mobile creation tools as powerful as desktop ones (more like GarageBand than like iWork).
  • HyperCard-style emphasis on hyperlinked structures (à la “mini-site” instead of web archives).
  • Focus on rich interaction (possibly based on the SproutCore web framework).
  • Replacement for iWeb (which is being killed along with MobileMe).
  • Ease creation of lecturecasts.
  • Deep integration with iTunes U.
  • Combination of document (à la Pages or Word), presentation (à la Keynote or PowerPoint), and standalone apps (à la The Elements or even Myst).
  • Full support for course management systems.
  • Integration of textbook material and ancillary material (including study guides, instructor manuals, testbanks, presentation files, interactive quizzes, glossaries, lesson plans, coursenotes, etc.).
  • Outlining support (more like OmniOutliner or even like OneNote than like Keynote or Pages).
  • Mindmapping support (unlikely, but would be cool).
  • Whiteboard support (both in-class and online).
  • Collaboration features (à la Adobe Connect).
  • Support for iCloud (almost a given, but it opens up interesting possibilities).
  • iWork integration (sounds likely, but still in my wishlist).
  • Embeddable content (à la iWork.com).
  • Stability, ease of use, and low-cost (i.e., not Adobe Flash or Acrobat).
  • Better support than Apple currently provides for podcast production and publishing.
  • More publisher support than for iBooks.
  • Geared toward normal users, including learners and educators.

The last three are probably where the problem lies. It’s likely that Apple has courted textbook publishers and may have convinced them that they should up their game with online textbooks. It’s clear to me that publishers risk to fall into oblivion if they don’t wake up to the potential of learning content. But I sure hope the announcement goes beyond an agreement with publishers.

Rumour has it that part of the announcement might have to do with bypassing state certification processes, in the US. That would be a big headline-grabber because the issue of state certification is something of wedge issue. Could be interesting, especially if it means free textbooks (though I sure hope they won’t be ad-supported). But that’s much less interesting than what could be done with learning content.

User-generated content” may be one of the core improvements in recent computing history, much of which is relevant for teaching. As fellow anthro Mike Wesch has said:

We’ll  need to rethink a few things…

And Wesch sure has been thinking about learning.

Problem is, publishers and “user-generated content” don’t go well together. I’m guessing that it’s part of the reason for Apple’s insufficient support for “user-generated content”. For better or worse, Apple primarily perceives its users as consumers. In some cases, Apple sides with consumers to make publishers change their tune. In other cases, it seems to be conspiring with publishers against consumers. But in most cases, Apple fails to see its core users as content producers. In the “collective mind of Apple”, the “quality content” that people should care about is produced by professionals. What normal users do isn’t really “content”. iTunes U isn’t an exception, those of us who give lectures aren’t Apple’s core users (even though the education market as a whole has traditionally being an important part of Apple’s business). The fact that Apple courts us underlines the notion that we, teachers and publishers (i.e. non-students), are the ones creating the content. In other words, Apple supports the old model of publishing along with the old model of education. Of course, they’re far from alone in this obsolete mindframe. But they happen to have several of the tools which could be useful in rethinking education.

Thursday’s events is likely to focus on textbooks. But much more is needed to shift the balance between publishers and learners. Including a major evolution in podcasting.

Podcasting is especially relevant, here. I’ve often thought about what Apple could do to enhance podcasting for learning. Way beyond iTunes U. Into something much more interactive. And I don’t just mean “interactive content” which can be manipulated seamless using multitouch gestures. I’m thinking about the back-and-forth of learning and teaching, the conversational model of interactivity which clearly distinguishes courses from mere content.

Syllabus Display Screenshot

Using WordPress as a Syllabus Database: Learning is Fun

(More screenshots in a previous post on this blog.)

Worked on a WordPress project all night, the night before last. Was able to put together a preliminary version of a syllabus database that I’ve been meaning to build for an academic association with which I’m working.

There are some remaining bugs to solve but, I must say, I’m rather pleased with the results so far. In fact, I’ve been able to solve the most obvious bugs rather quickly, last night.

More importantly, I’ve learnt a lot. And I think I can build a lot of things on top of that learning experience.

Part of the inspiration comes from Kyle Jones’s blogpost about a “staff directory”. In addition, Justin Tadlock has had a large (and positive) impact on my learning process, either through his WordPress-related blogposts about custom post types and his work on the Hybrid Theme (especially through the amazing support forums). Not to mention WordCamp Montrealofficial documentationplugin pagestutorials, and a lot of forum- and blogposts about diverse things surrounding WordPress (including CSS).

I got a lot of indirect help and I wouldn’t have been able to go very far in my project without that help. But, basically, it’s been a learning experience for me as an individual. I’m sure more skilled people would have been able to whip this up in no time.

Thing is, it’s been fun. Close to Csíkszentmihályi’s notion of “flow”. (Philippe’s a friend of mine who did research on flow and videogames. He’s the one who first introduced me to “flow”, in this sense.)

So, how did I achieve this? Well, through both plugins and theme files.

To create this database, I’ve originally been using three plugins from More Plugins: More Fields, More Taxonomies, and More Types. Had also done so in my previous attempt at a content database. At the time, these plugins helped me in several ways. But, with the current WordPress release (3.2.1), the current versions of these plugins (2.0.5.2, 1.0.1, and 1.1.1b1, respectively) are a bit buggy.

In fact, I ended up coding my custom taxonomies “from scratch”, after running into apparent problems with the More Taxonomies plugin. Eventually did the same thing with my “Syllabus” post type, replacing More Types. Wasn’t very difficult and it solved some rather tricky bugs.

Naïvely, I thought that the plugins’ export function would actually create that code, so I’d be able to put it in my own files and get rid of that plugin. But it’s not the case. Doh! Unfortunately, the support forums don’t seem so helpful either, with many questions left unanswered. So I wouldn’t really recommend these plugins apart from their pedagogical value.

The plugins were useful in helping me get around some “conceptual” issues, but it seems safer and more practical to code things from scratch, at least with taxonomies and custom post types. For “custom metaboxes”, I’m not sure I’ll have as easy a time replacing More Fields as I did replacing More Taxonomies and More Types. (More Fields helps create custom fields in the post editing interface.)

Besides the More Plugins, I’m only using two other plugins: Jonathan Christopher’s Attachments and the very versatile google doc embedder (gde) by Kevin Davis.

Attachments provides an easy way to attach files to a post and, importantly, its plugin page provides usable notes about implementation which greatly helped me in my learning process. I think I could code in some of that plugin’s functionality, now that I get a better idea of how WordPress attachments work. But it seems not to be too buggy so I’ll probably keep it.

As its name does not imply, gde can embed any file from a rather large array of file types: Adobe Reader (PDF), Microsoft Office (doc/docx, ppt/pptx/pps, xsl/xslx), and iWork Pages, along with multipage image files (tiff, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, SVG, EPS/PS…). The file format support comes from Google Docs Viewer (hence the plugin name).

In fact, I just realized that GDV supports zip and RAR archives. Had heard (from Gina Trapani) of that archive support in Gmail but didn’t realize it applied to GDV. Tried displaying a zip file through gde, last night, and it didn’t work. Posted something about this on the plugin’s forum and “k3davis” already fixed this, mentioning me in the 2.2 release notes.

Allowing the display of archives might be very useful, in this case. It’s fairly easily to get people to put files in a zip archive and upload it. In fact, several mail clients do all of this automatically, so there’s probably a way to get documents through emailed zip files and display the content along with the syllabus.

So, a cool plugin became cooler.

Syllabus Database (archive)

GDE Error: Unable to load profile settings

As it so happens, gde is already installed on the academic site for which I’m building this very same syllabus database. In that case, I’ve been using gde to embed PDF files (for instance, in this page providing web enhancements page for an article in the association’s journal). So I knew it could be useful in terms of displaying course outlines and such, within individual pages of the syllabus database.

What I wasn’t sure I could do is programmatically embed files added to a syllabus page. In other words, I knew I could display these files using some shortcode on appropriate files’ URLs (including those of attached files). What I wasn’t sure how to do (and had a hard time figuring out) is how to send these URLs from a field in the database: I knew how to manually enter the code, but I didn’t know how to automatically display the results of the code when a link is entered in the right place.

The reason this matters is that I would like “normal human beings” (i.e., noncoders and, mostly, nongeeks) to enter the relevant information for their syllabi. One of WordPress’s advantages is the fact that, despite its power, it’s very easy to get nongeeks to do neat things with it. I’d like the syllabus database to be this type of neat thing.

The Attachmentsplugin helps, but still isn’t completely ideal. It does allow for drag-and-drop upload and it does provide a minimalist interface for attaching uploaded files to blogposts.

First Attach Button (Screenshot)

Screenshot of First “Attach” Button

In the first case, it’s just a matter of clicking the Attach button and dropping a file in the appropriate field. In the second case, it’s a matter of clicking another Attachbutton.

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)

Screenshot of the Second “Attach” Button

The problem is between these two Attach buttons.

File Uploaded Screenshot

Screenshot of the Uploaded File

The part of the process between uploading the file and finding the Attach button takes several nonobvious  steps. After the file has been uploaded, the most obvious buttons are Insert into Post and Save all changes, neither of which sounds particularly useful in this context. But Save all changes is the one which should be clicked.

To get to the second Attach button, I first need to go to the Media Library a second time. Recently uploaded images are showing.

Images Only Screenshot

Screenshot of the Media Library Only Showing Images

For other types of files, I then click All Types, which shows a reverse chronological list of all recently uploaded files (older files can be found through the Search Media field). I then click on the Show link associated with a given file (most likely, the most recent upload, which is the first in the list).

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)

Screenshot of the second “Attach” Button

Then, finally, the final Attach button shows up.

Clicking it, the file is attached to the current post, which was the reason behind the whole process. Thanks to both gde and Attachments, that file is then displayed along with the rest of the syllabus entry.

It only takes a matter of seconds to minutes, to attach a file (depending on filesize, connection speed, etc.). Not that long. And the media library can be very useful in many ways. But I just imagine myself explaining the process to instructors and other people submitting syllabi for inclusion the the database.

Far from ideal.

A much easier process is the one of adding files by pasting a file URL in a field. Which is exactly what I’ve added as a possibility for a syllabus’s main document (say, the PDF version of the syllabus).

Course Data Screenshot

Screenshot of the Course Data Box

Passing that URL to gde, I can automatically display the document in the document page, as I’m doing with attachments from the media library.  The problem with this, obviously, is that it requires a public URL for the document. The very same “media library” can be used to upload documents. In fact, copying the URL from an uploaded file is easier than finding the “Attach” button as explained previously. But it makes the upload a separate process on the main site. A process which can be taught fairly easily, but a process which isn’t immediately obvious.

I might make use of a DropBox account for just this kind of situation. It’s also a separate process, but it’s one which may be easier for some people.

In the end, I’ll have to see with users what makes the most sense for them.

In the past, I’ve used plugins like  Contact Form 7 (CF7), by Takayuki Miyoshi, and Fast Secure Contact Form (FSCF)  by Mike Challis to try and implement something similar. A major advantage is that they allow for submissions by users who aren’t logged in. This might be a dealmaking feature for either FSCF or CF7, as I don’t necessarily want to create accounts for everyone who might submit a syllabus. Had issues with user registration, in the past. Like attachments, onboarding remains an issue for a lot of people. Also, thanks to yet other plugins like Michael Simpson’s Contact Form to Database (CFDB), it should be possible to make form submissions into pending items in the syllabus database. I’ll be looking into this.

Another solution might be Gravity Forms. Unlike the plugins I’ve mentioned so far, it’s a commercial product. But it sounds like it might offer some rather neat features which may make syllabus submission a much more interesting process. However, it’s meant for a very different use case, which has more to do with “lead data management” and other business-focused usage. I could innovate through its use. But there might be more appropriate solutions.

As is often the case with WordPress, the “There’s a plugin for that” motto can lead to innovation.  Even documenting the process (by blogging it) can be a source of neat ideas.

A set of ideas I’ve had, for this syllabus database, came from looking into the Pods CMS Framework for WordPress. Had heard about Pods CMS through the WordCast Conversations podcast. For several reasons, it sent me on an idea spree and, for days, I was taking copious notes about what could be done. Not only about this syllabus database but about a full “learning object repository” built on top of WordPress. The reason I want to use WordPress is that, not only am I a “fanboi” of Automattic (the organization behind WordPress) but I readily plead guilty to using WordPress as a Golden Hammer. There are multiple ways to build a learning object repository. (Somehow, I’m convinced that some of my Web developing friends that Ruby on Rails is the ideal solution.) But I’ve got many of my more interesting ideas through looking into Pods CMS, a framework for WordPress and I don’t know the first thing about RoR.

Overall, Pods CMS sounds like a neat approach. Its pros and cons make it sound like an interesting alternative to WordPress’s custom post types for certain projects, as well as a significant shift from the main ways WordPress is used. During WordCamp Montreal, people I asked about it were wary of Pods. I eventually thought I would wait for version 2.0 to come out before investing significant effort in it.

In the meantime, what I’ve built is a useful base knowledge of how to use WordPress as a content database.

Can’t wait to finish adding features and fixing bugs, so I can release it to the academic organization. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.

Even if they don’t ever use it, I’ve gained a lot of practical insight into how to do such things. It may be obvious to others but it does wonders to my satisfaction levels.

I’m truly in flow!

iCloud Dreams

Got lots more to blog, including something about “received knowledge”. And a list of things I love about Google. (I’m also getting started on “logical punctuation”, as you may already be noticing…)

But, at the risk of attracting trolls and Apple haters, I thought I’d post some notes from a daydreaming session. In some ways, it’s easier to write than the rest. And it’s more “time-sensitive”, in that my thoughts will likely sound very silly, very soon.

But I don’t care.

So, yes, this post is about iCloud, which will be officially unveiled in a few hours. No, it doesn’t mean that I expect anything specific from iCloud or that I trust Apple to deliver something awesome.

Contrary to what some people seem to think, I’m no Apple fanboi. I use a number of Apple products and I find several of them to be close to the ideal in my workflow, but I don’t have any sort of deep involvement in “the Cult of Mac”, Apple Inc., AAPL, or even Apple-focused development. I use the tools and like them, but I don’t think Apple will save us any more than will Facebook, Dell, Google, Amazon, Twitter, HP, or Microsoft.

[Automattic, on the other hand;-) ]

So, back to iCloud…

According to many, “cloud computing” (whatever that means) is a domain in which Apple has been relatively weak. I tend to share that opinion, despite the fact that a number of tools that I use have to do with either “the cloud”, Apple, or both. What might give trolls and haters some ammo is that I do have a MobileMe subscription. But there’s a lot I dislike about it and the only features I really find valuable are “over-the-air” syncing (henceforth “OTA”) and “Find My iPhone”. And since I use GSync on my iPod touch, MobileMe’s OTA isn’t that incredibly important. Depending on what iCloud may be, my MobileMe renewal (which comes up in a few days) could be a very hard sell. I don’t regret having it as it did help me retrieve my iPad. But it’s rather expensive if it’s the only thing it does. (Then again, so is insurance of any kind, but I digress…)

So, I’m no MobileMe poweruser. Why would I care about iCloud?

In some ways, I don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t. Until very recently, though I saw rumours about Apple’s new “cloud services”, I was only vaguely intrigued about it. I did think that it might solve my MobileMe issue. But I treated these rumours with a lot of skepticism and a rather low level of interest.

Yet, today, iCloud has been giving me a drift-off moment. Like Android did, at some point.

It’s not that I have predictions to make about iCloud. I’m not even speculating, really. But it got me to think. And, I admit, I enjoy thinking.

Without further ado (about nothing), my fanciful thoughts stemming from a short daydreaming session about iCloud…

The main thing people seem to be expecting  (based on rumoured negotiations with music publishers) is a music streaming service similar to Music Beta by Google or a digital file storage service similar to Amazon Cloud Drive. Both of these are quite neat and I could see myself using something like this. But it’s not exactly what makes me dream. While iTunes integration might make Apple’s version of a music streaming service somewhat more useful than the others. Besides, rumours have it that, through agreements with the recording industry, iCloud might sync music without requiring long uploads. It’s quite possible that this only works with tracks purchased on iTunes, which would upset those whose expectations are high, but could already be useful to some.

Where I’m beginning to drift off, though, is when I start thinking about OTA for podcasts. It’s been high up on my wishlist, as a feature, and you might say that it’s a pet peeve with iOS devices for podcatching. Having to sync my iPod touch to my main desktop just to have my podcast list up-to-date is a major hassle. Sure, there are apps which sync podcasts OTA. Problem is, they can’t add podcasts to the native iOS media player, which is a dealbreaker in my case. (As absurd as it may sound to others, one reason this is a dealbreaker is that I now listen to everything at doublespeed. Hey, it’s my podcast library and I listen to it as I want, ok?)

So, OTA podcasts would constitute a significant enhancement to my experience. Nothing absolutely required and possibly not that significant for others, but it’d really help me in more ways than one could imagine.

Thing is, syncing my iPod touch isn’t just about podcasts, even though podcatching is my main motivation to sync. After all, I don’t listen to podcasts yet I still sync my iPad. So, what else? Well, backing up is the main other thing, and it might be one of the core reason for Apple’s implicit insistence on syncing. That’d be classic Apple. Data loss can be such a big problem that they’d “do what they can” to prevent users from losing data. Far from perfect, in my experience (I ended up having some problems when I lost my “iTunes Library” file). And quite annoying when it meant that the sync would take a very long time to finish at precisely the point when I’m trying to leave home. But a classic Apple move, even in the way Apple haters may mean it.

So OTA synchronization of the whole iOS device, and not just podcasts or music, would be a definite plus, in this perspective. If it does end up coming with iCloud, it’d provide support to the idea that the tethering of iOS devices to desktop computers is really about ensuring that users back up their devices…

…and stay up to date. Firmware updates aren’t that frequent, but they’re probably a major part of the equation for Apple.

But not so much for me. If OTA podcasts were available, I’d still sync my iOS devices on occasion, through whatever means necessary. In fact, were I to use an Android device, a backup app would be essential, to me. So still not much dreaming from the backup aspect of iCloud.

Although… Sync is much broader than preventing device-specific data loss and making sure your device has the latest firmware.

For one thing, it does encompass some of the aforementioned OTA functionalities in MobileMe. Useful, but still not dreamworthy.

We get a bit closer to a “dream come true” if we talk about Xmarks, a bookmark-sync service originally meant for Firefox.  Sure, it sounds incredibly prosaic. But OTA bookmarks would open up a wide range of possibilities. This is about a qualitative difference from going OTA. In the case of backups, it’s about avoiding an annoyance but, arguably, it’s not really about changing something major about our behaviour. (Then again, maybe it is, with people who don’t back their devices up.) Point is, with something as simple as bookmarks, OTA is “disruptive”. At least, it gets me to daydream. One reason is that:

…no matter how fundamental they have been for the Web, links and bookmarks have yet to find their full value.

Hmm… Ok, perhaps a bit hyperbolic… So let me rephrase…

There’s still a lot to be done with URLs and, as simple as they are, I love thinking about links. Maybe I’m just obsessed with URLs.

As it so happens, I have a full list of thoughts about “link processing” and I’ve already blogged about related topics (on more than one occasion, in different contexts, going back to relatively early blogposts). And I even think social science can help.

I mean, think about it! There’s so much you can do, with links! Much of it is obvious, but I’d argue, rarely discussed. For instance, it’s very clear that we can post links pretty much anywhere. Doing so, we’re sharing their “content”. (In a semiotic sense, links are indices. I wish we can move from the “semantic Web” to the “semiotic Web”. But that’s another issue.) Sharing a link is the basic act of the social Web. It’s so obvious and frequent that it seems not to require discussion”.

Another obvious thing about links: we can measure the number of times they’re followed. In 2011, more than thirty years after hypertext has been introduced as a stable concept, much of the Web’s finances still relies on “clickthroughs”. Seems important.

And there’s a lot of processing which can be done with URLs: shortening them, adding them to “to do” lists, checking them for validity, keeping them in link libraries, archiving their “content”, showing them as external or internal links, preventing them from “rotting away”, showing the wordcount or reading time of the item they “target”, display them as QR codes, abuse them, etc.

As you can notice, it’s easy to get me on a tangent simply thinking about URLs. What’s this have t’do with iCloud, you ask? Probably not much, in terms of the actual service which will be announced at Moscone. But I’ve been dreaming about iCloud as a way to integrate Diigo, Instapaper, Delicious, reddit, digg, Slashdot, StumbleUpon, Spurl, The NethernetXmarks

Hey, I told you I was dreaming! Something as simple as managing, processing, sharing, and archiving links in iCloud could lead to just about anything, in my imagination.

And speaking of Xmarks… It’s now owned by Lastpass, a company which focus on password management. IMHO, some Lastpass-like features could make their way in diverse products, including iCloud. Is this far-fetched? Possibly. But secure handling of passwords can be a major issue in both of Apple’s new operating systems (Mac OS X Lion and iOS5). From “keychains” to SSO, there’s a lot of work to be done which relates to password management, in my mind.

Which leads me to think about authentication in general and the rumours about “deep Twitter integration in iOS 5”. (Not directly related to iCloud, but who knows?) Again, something which can send me (and others) on drift-off moments. What if this integration suddenly made iOS devices more useful in terms of social networking services? Something to ponder, if one has a propensity for pondering.

At the same time, given the relative lack of activity on iTunes Ping, I wouldn’t bet on Twitter integration having that major an impact by itself. Not unlike Google, Apple has a hard time making a mark on the social Web. Now, if Twitter integration does connect to everything else Apple does, it could lead to interesting things. A full-fledged online identity? Access to contacts for not only messaging and photo sharing but for collaboration, group management, and media sharing? Not betting on any of this, but it could be fun. Again, not specific to iCloud, but quite related to “The Cloud”. If Twitter integration is deep enough, in iOS 5, it’d be possible to use iOS devices for “cloud computing”, getting further into the “post-PC era”.

An iCloud feature which is expected by several people, is something like an OTA version of the “iTunes file sharing” feature in iOS. Several apps (especially Apple’s own apps) use iTunes and a USB cable to share files. It was a welcome addition to iTunes 9.1 but it’s rather inconvenient. So many other apps rely on Dropbox for file sharing.

Which leads me to dream about iCloud as a replacement for Dropbox. Sounds extremely unlikely that it’ll have the full Dropbox feature set, especially if one thinks about the “Pro 50” and “Pro 100” plans on Dropbox. But I dream of the day when Apple’s iDisk will compete with Dropbox. Not that I’m convinced it ever will. But it’d make Apple’s devices all the more useful if it did.

Something similar, which isn’t frequently discussed directly, in connection with iCloud rumours, but which would rock: Mozy- or Carbonite-style backup, for Mac OS X machines. Sounds very unlikely that Apple will ever offer something like this but, as crazy as it may sound, the connection between Time Capsule and iCloud would be great if it went that far. From a user’s perspective, the similarities between Time Machine backup and “backing up in the cloud” (à la Mozy/Carbonite) are quite obvious. The advantages of both are clear. And while no hardware announcement is supposed to make its way to the WWDC 2011 keynote, I’d give the Time Capsule some consideration if it provided me with the equivalent of what I currently have with Mozy. Not to mention that Mozy has already sparked some drift-off moments, in me, before they announced their new plans. What if I could have a single service which combines features from Mozy, Time Machine, Dropbox, and YouSendIt?

I even think about the possibilities in terms of web hosting. As it stands, MobileMe does allow for some Web publishing through the iWeb application in its iLife suite. But iWeb has never been a major effort for Apple and it hasn’t been seen a significant update in quite a while. What if iCloud could become a true webhost just like, say… iWeb.com? (Semi-disclaimer: I won a free account with iWeb.com, last Fall, and I host some sites there. I also know some of the people who work there…)

Yet again, I don’t expect this to happen. It’s not speculation, on my part. It’s a daydream.

The reason this makes me dream is that I find all these things to be related and I wish they were integrated more seamlessly. Something about which Apple haters may not care much is the type of integration represented by iTunes. As clunky as iTunes may be, in some respects, it’s quite a success in terms of integrating a lot of different things. In fact, it probably overextended its reach a bit too much and we need to replace it. Apple needs to replace iTunes and we should also replace iTunes in our lives.

Like Gruber, I end up thinking about iCloud in relation to iTunes more than in relation to MobileMe. But I also dream about the ideal cloud service, which would not only sync and backup files between iOS devices, hundreds of millions of iTunes store accounts, and Macs, but replace several of the services for which I’m paying monthly fees.

Here’s to dreaming…

Other parts of this crazy, iCloud-infused daydream, in notes form: