Exercise Tracking Applications

I enjoy going out for a jog a few times each week. It is a good way to keep in shape, and it it gives me some personal time to zone out, listen to a podcast or music, or just collect my thoughts. I'm also a geek, and I love stats. I love collecting stats from my runs. I've used a number of different run tracking gadgets and applications, and I thought I would share my thoughts on each.

RunKeeper is a mobile application available for both iPhone and Android that uses the GPSr built into the phone to track your run, hike, bike, or any other type of trip. It uses the GPSr information to determine your location and speed, and can provide both mapping at run statistics information.

The user interface for RunKeeper is not pretty, but the real killer for me on this product is that the GPSr accuracy is horrible. This is surprising when you consider other applications running on the same hardware gave much better results, as you will see later. I made two runs with RunKeeper, and both showed totally unrealistic pace and distance information, and the track on the map was all over the place. Other gripes include a lack of integration to music on the device and no support for voice enunciation.

The only positive thing to say about RunKeeper is that the online portal where runs are stored is actually quite nice. Oh, and the price is just right at Free.

RunStar is a jogging application available only on the Android platform. It integrates with the music service to play your favorite playlist, or randomly play through the entire library. It has a power song feature which will play a specific track at the press of a button. RunStar tracks your run using the GPSr of your Android phone.

The user interface for RunStar is very nicely done. The UI is clean and well designed for use in an armband while you run with large buttons and text display. It even includes a custom sleep screen that displays your run stats. The GPSr tracking is actually quite good, which is surprising considering the horrible performance of the RunKeeper application on the same hardware. RunStar offers Twitter integration, allowing you to tweet the summary stats for your run, and Facebook integration is coming.

There are some nags I have with the application though. First, there is no online portal to view a summary of all runs. Instead, the only place to review your previous runs is via the app on your phone. Second, voice enunciation would be great. Voice enunciation is a feature that periodically speaks over your music to let you know your current distance, time, and pace.

RunStar is currently in beta development, and you can load the app for free. From the website and disabled features in the app, it is clear that the developers have some ambitious goals. This is definitely an app to watch.

My Tracks is another Android only application for tracking your exercise. Like the previous applications it utilizes the GPSr on your device to track your location and determine your distance traveled, speed, elevation, and other stats.

The My Tracks user interface is somewhere between RunKeeper and RunStar. It isn't a great UI for use while running, but it is easy to understand and use. There are three main views: the map, trip computer, and speed / elevation graph. Unfortunately, My Tracks does not include direct integration with the music features of the device, so you will need to manage your music / podcast playing separately from tracking your run. Also, the default accuracy setting for the GPS is pretty awful (over 600') so my first run thought I was tearing around town at speeds on par with The Flash. On my second run I dialed it down to the most accurate setting (33') and the run tracking was very good.

Your My Tracks data can be uploaded both to Google Docs and to Google Maps. This allows you to review runs online, and also to share them with friends. My Tracks does not offer Twitter, Facebook, or other social media integration, so tweeting your stats must be done manually.

One huge advantage My Tracks has over the RunStar and RunKeeper is voice enunciation. You can setup the interval at which you will be notified, and the voice over states your distance, time, and pace. I love this feature, as it lets me know if I'm dogging it or if I have attacked to hard early.

The Nike+ system is available in stand-alone form as a USB wrist band, or integrated with your iPod Touch, iPod Nano, or iPhone. The Nike+ system is unique from the others mentioned here as it uses a pedometer placed in the shoe rather than a GPSr to track your run. This limits the use of the Nike+ system to walks, jogs, running, and hiking. It is not able to track cycling, kayaking, or other sports that lack a foot impact. On the other hand, the Nike+ system is the only one mentioned here that will work for treadmill workouts.

The Nike+ user interface is dead simple on your iPod. I place it on par with the RunStar UI, as it is easy to use during a workout, and clear how to setup a run and get started. While the pedometer can only count steps, after configuring your stride length it is quite good at providing an estimate of your distance traveled. The voice enunciation support on the iPod is superior to My Tracks in that it can be configured to announce stats based on distance intervals in addition to time intervals, and includes an on demand announcement as well. Like RunStar, the Nike+ integrates with the music on your device and allows for playing a playlist or randomly playing the entire library. The Power Song feature is also present.

The Nike+ website is vastly superior to the others mentioned here. When you dock your iPod your run is uploaded to the Nike+ site where you can review it along with all of your other runs. You can add friends through the site and compare runs and total progress. You can set goals and share maps with other runners for nice running routes. Nike+ offers integration to both Twitter and Facebook, allowing you to automatically post your run stats to either service.

The only thing missing from the Nike+ system is a GPSr to track the route of your run (note: this might be either under development or available on the iPhone version, I have only used the iPod Nano version). Another potential drawback to the Nike+ system is that it requires the pebble pedometer in your shoe. While you can use the pebble in any pair of shoes, it is most comfortable with Nike+ branded shoes. If you happen to forget either the pebble or your shoes when you want to go for a run, you won't be able to track your run.

My Pick
I love the Nike+ system, and feel that of the systems mentioned here it is the clear winner. Unfortunately, I packed away my Nike+ dongle for my iPod Nano when we prepared to move, so I haven't been able to use it. Of the apps available on my Android phone, the My Tracks service is the one I will be using for now, but I'm keeping an eye on RunStar as I feel it has great potential.

Effective Presenting

I've given a number of presentations to a variety of audiences. Over time I've developed a mental list of things to look for in providing an effective presentation.

Ear lobes and eye balls.
Where do you want the audience's attention? If you are giving a presentation, you want the audience to be focusing on you and the words you are saying. Complicated slides with lots of text and images will distract your audience from what you are saying and give them an excuse to tune out. Make sure the content on the slide is an augmentation of your spoken content, not a replacement for it.

PowerPoint is a horrible format for a white paper.
If your goal is to deliver documentation, deliver a document. Slides are for presentations, not documentation. There is nothing worse than sitting in a presentation where the presenter does nothing more than read their slides to you.

Expect to be interrupted.
If your audience is paying attention, they should have questions. Be prepared to stop at any moment and discuss either a detail of what you said or a detail on your slide. This is a good argument for limiting content, both spoken and on the slide, as it limits interruptions and side conversations. If you haven't been stopped, no one is listening.

Build in transitions.
For group presentations, build in a transition to cue the next speaker. Jumping directly to the first content slide of a follow-up speaker gives the audience time to digest the slide and make assumptions without the guidance of the speaker. This can lead to an ambush, or lack of attention.

Be concise.
You are brilliant. You've done an incredible amount of research on your topic and you want to show your audience how brilliant you are. Your audience, on the other hand, is probably bored and pressed for time. Assume your audience is a bunch of six year old kids hopped up on mountain dew and pixie sticks. Get your message across directly and immediately. Follow-up with reinforcement.

Be consistent.
Use a consistent layout. Turn on snap to grid and rulers. Be sure that common content elements appear in the same position throughout. Do not make your audience go hunting around the slide. Get familiar with the slide master.

Know your message.
Related to being concise, know the message you are trying to deliver. Everything you say or show should be geared towards reinforcing that message. If you can't relate the slide or discussion to your message, remove it.

Time the material.
Practice the presentation to get a feel for timing. Are you way over your time limit? Way under? Leave 10-20% of your available time for discussion.

One idea per slide.
Just because you can fit a lot of things on one slide doesn't mean you should. Focus on just one concept per slide. Loading a slide up with multiple concepts will only lead to confusion.

All those slides you took out to be concise: put them in a different slide deck. Any additional material that someone might ask you for, such as data to backup your findings, keep in that second slide deck. Call it your Fully Updated (F.U.) slide deck. This way, if you suffer the misfortune of someone in the audience questioning your research, you've got it covered with a big F.U.

Wake 'em up
Let's face it, you and everyone in that room would rather be somewhere else. The longer the presentation the higher likelihood that your audience will lose interest. Throw something in there to wake them up. It can be anything, speaker transitions, physical samples, audience participation, home video of you bungee jumping, whatever. Find a way to break the monotony.

Warning signs that things are going very, very wrong
  • No interruptions
  • Waiting on audience to finish reading / digesting your slide
  • Your spoken content doesn't track with your slides
  • Lack of eye contact
Warning signs that things are going very, very well
  • Lots of interruptions / questions
  • Audience discussion
  • Eye contact

Related Materials
Here are links to great materials on effective presenting.
Don't Make Me Think - Geared towards web usability, but applicable to presentations as well
TED Talks - Watch a few of these videos online. These are some of the world's greatest presenters exhibiting their craft.

eBook Readers

I enjoy reading books from time to time, and the amount of reading I have done over the past few years has really increased. Maybe it is a sign of getting older, but I find myself spending less time on video games and more time on movies and books. A number of my friends are avid readers as well, and it is nice to keep up with what everyone is reading through the GoodReads website. One of my friends, @asniksch, is an avid reader and was an early adopter of the Sony eReader products. I scoffed with derision at the idea: paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege to pay double the regular price of a book, and then to be limited to battery life? It seemed ludicrous. He liked the product, but noted a number of major drawbacks that resulted in disuse after a period of time.

Next came the Kindle, and not long after, the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. @asniksch, ever the early adopter, got one and touted the features of the platform. Again, I scoffed. At $500, the price was much too high to be reasonable, and electronic books were still priced higher than dead tree books. Sure, for the heavy traveler it would be great to be able to carry several books without loading down your bags. I'm not a heavy traveler though. I haven't asked him about his Kindle recently, but I get the impression that he is much happier with it than with the Sony product. In addition, several more of my acquaintances have picked up a Kindle and have talked about how nice they are.

A couple of things have changed since I last scoffed at eReaders. First, I've been traveling quite a bit more. Second, my reading time has significantly increased. Third, the price of eBook readers has dropped significantly. Both the Kindle and nook are available for around $260, which is nearly half of what they cost a couple of years ago. Apple has entered the arena with the iPad, which is not a dedicated book reader but does have that functionality.

So now it is time for me to eat a bit of crow. @asniksch was ahead of his time, but he was right to think that the eReader was a viable product. I am totally drooling over a nook, and really hoping to get one for Father's Day. The ability to take a number of books with me as I travel is a big winner. In addition, we are about to move into a tiny home while we build our new home. I won't have the space to maintain my trophy case of books. An eReader is an excellent space saver. The free wireless service is a big winner too. One thing that struck me as interesting recently is that I book I want to reader, Edenborn by Nick Sagan, was not available in dead tree format in bookstores, but was available in electronic format. Also, another book I want to read is only available in hardback version in stores, and the electronic version price is much lower.

Maybe I have allowed my gadget lust to overrule my better sense. I'll be crossing my fingers for a new toy, and let you know how I like it if I get one.

Jade Mason