Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.

 

eBike technology from Bosch - hands-on

A couple of weeks ago, Bosch eBike Systems brought an eBike out to me so I could try it out. What's an eBike, you ask? In technical terms, an eBike is a bicycle that has been augmented with an electrical assist that provides supplemental power while you pedal. In practical terms, it is an impressive tool to help you simplify your commuting or road cycling jaunts.

Bosch doesn't make the bikes - they make the "mid-drive" systems that are built into the bikes, so you can find different types, sizes and styles of bikes to fit your needs and preferences. You can find out more and locate a dealer near you at the Bosch eBike site. [Note: I receive no compensation or other consideration for this - just a free ride on an eBike].

Mount up...

I was riding a Haibike XDuro Trekking RX bike with Bosch Mid-Drive technology (provided by Cynergy E-Bikes, a local Portland company), and it was my first time riding an eBike. 

The bike looks a lot like a typical hybrid bike (built for road cycling, and off-road friendly), and I immediately noticed the weight - it was noticeably heavier than the bike I typically ride. That extra weight is because it has batteries on board, and the frame has been reinforced to handle the forces of the electrical assistance mechanism - the Bosch system is built in during the design of the bike, not bolted on afterward, so it is quite sturdy.  

Once on the bike, it rode and handled very well - it felt like a normal commuting bike, and it took no time at all to get acclimated (and it didn't feel very heavy from a rider's perspective). 

Becoming Superhuman

I rode for a couple of miles near downtown Portland, in a big loop along the Willamette River promenade, which gave me a chance to experiment on flat, straight sections as well as some good inclines, congested areas, and curves. The bike was a lot of fun to ride and I found myself thinking about what it would be like to own.

The real fun started when I turned on the eDrive -- I felt superhuman! It is hard to describe the feeling you get when you turn on the eDrive and the bike begins to surge forward, accelerate, and climb up challenging hills under the assistance of the eDrive.

The way Bosch's eDrive system works is by multiplying your power so every pound of pressure you exert on the pedals is amplified when it reaches the wheels. There are 5 modes:

  • Off:     no assistance from drive unit
  • Eco:    50% assistance from drive unit
  • Tour:    120% assistance from drive unit
  • Sport:    190% assistance from drive unit
  • Turbo:    275% assistance from drive unit

You can change modes on the fly, smoothly and without interrupting the ride. That means you can spend most of your time in Eco, but kick things into Turbo for a killer hill or to make up some time on the road when you're in a hurry.

When choosing modes, keep in mind that the more assistance you get from the eDrive, the faster you use up the battery's charge. For example, depending on conditions, the range in Turbo mode (highest assistance) is 20-40 miles. In Eco mode (least assistance) the range is 50-100 miles. The on-board control panel tells you how you're doing and estimates remaining range based on how you're using the bike.

These bikes do need to be recharged, as they don't recharge while you are riding. That said, they last quite a while - you should only have to charge the bike once or twice a week if you use it for commuting, and the recharge time is about 3 hours (you just plug the bike's charger into a normal household outlet). If you run out of power on the road, you won't be stranded - you can simply pedal it as you would a normal bike (though the additional weight may make pedaling a bit more difficult on hills without the power assist).

Who are eBikes suited for?

While anyone would enjoy this bike, it is ideally suited for commuters, as well as people who are less physically adept but want to ride in hilly terrain (or more easily keep up with more accomplished riders). Bosch says these systems are very popular with the 50 years and up crowd, since they like the physical assistance the bikes provide and typically have more disposable income to justify the extra cost (eBikes typically cost about $1500-2000 more than comparable, conventional bicycles).

Commuters will likely appreciate these bikes most - imagine riding 10 miles to work on an eBike and arriving at work without feeling like you need to take a shower; that is possible with the assistance of the eBike power drive. If you get the chance, stop by a local bike dealer who stocks eBikes, and give it a try - I think you'll be impressed.

Is Your Apple Watch's Crown Dial Getting Sticky? Don't Sweat It

I recently got an Apple Watch, and the other day I noticed the crown dial (aka the "little spinny knob thingy") was suddenly hard to rotate, and not very responsive to clicks. 

After a little thinking and experimenting, I remember that I'd been using the Watch to record workouts and it's been particularly hot in Portland lately. It seems that the minerals in my sweat were accumulating under the crown knob and making interfering with its proper operation.

Wash away your troubles

If this happens to you, the fix is easy. Simply rinse off the watch in warm (not hot) water with mild soap. Rinse the watch well and, while rinsing it, rotate the knob a bit to get the mineral crystals worked out of the mechanism.

I've done this a couple of times now, and it fixes the problem easily - in fact, since I have a sport band (the rubbery one) I think I'll just wear it in the shower to keep it clean. The watch is water-resistant and this kind of exposure should not be a problem. According to Apple:

Apple Watch is splash and water resistant but not waterproof. You can, for example, wear and use Apple Watch during exercise, in the rain, and while washing your hands, but submerging Apple Watch is not recommended. Apple Watch has a water resistance rating of IPX7 under IEC standard 60529. The leather bands are not water resistant.

By the way, there are also articles from other sources discussing tests that indicate that the Apple Watch is even more water-resistant than Apple's claims indicate.  

5 Websites That Will Make Your Life Easier

As I move through life, I like to find easier ways of doing monotonous, frustrating, or time-consuming things. In particular, I like things I can do from my phone, or my iPad when I have a few minutes to spare.

If you think picking up the phone to place a pizza order is too old-school, then you'll be delighted to know there are an abundance of websites that cater to your daily needs. Life is hectic enough, so take a weight off your shoulders by letting technology do the work. Whether you need to pass an upcoming test or are craving Ben & Jerry's at 2am, these websites have you covered:

Ship Items From Home

If you hate standing in line, you probably dread going to the post office. Good news: the United States Postal Service lets you ship items without ever setting foot in a post office. You can get shipping supplies for free online and have them sent directly to your home, then you can package up your items and schedule a free package pickup from the official U.S Postal Service website. You simply fill out an online form, choose the time and date of the pickup and include the weight or amount of your packages. Keep in mind that you can only schedule pickups Monday through Saturday and that same-day pickup is not available after 2 p.m. on the day of the pickup. Still, it's a small price to pay to avoid spending your precious free time at the post office.

Practice Your Driving Skills Online

I've got a couple of teens working on their driving permits / driver's licenses right now. Who can forget that well-loved rite of passage? OK... maybe it's not well-loved, but it doesn't have to be painful either. Online driving tests can help you practice your skills behind the wheel on days when you aren't able to convince your parents to take you for a spin. However, knowing how to drive a car is just one part of the driving exam everyone must endure and the written test is the first step toward getting that shiny new license. Free online permit practice tests are available, and you can choose the one specific to your state to prepare for the real thing come test day. Stop wasting your time memorizing the DMV manual and instead improve your knowledge with interactive practice tests.

Place Late Night Delivery Orders

Ever get the urge for a late night snack but don't feel like going out? Nighttime Nosh may be just what you're looking for. It's a late night delivery service (open until 4 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday) delivers beer and wine (subject to ID verification, of course), ice cream, personal care items, and even party supplies. This is the Internet at its finest, ladies and gents. Unfortunately, this amazing service is currently only available in Tempe, Arizona, but don't lose hope! You can still order food at any hour of the day with GrubHub, a website that finds late night delivery restaurants near you. And if you live in the Hollywood area, Pink Dot can deliver everything from groceries to booze straight to your door.

Skip Waiting on Hold

Everyone hates waiting on hold. Now you don't have to with FastCustomer. This amazingly useful website has a customer service agent call you when you're next in line. The site has over 3,000 companies on its list and, with a simple click of a button, lets you claim your spot. You can also view the approximate wait time of a business, the average minutes on hold per day for a particular company and its customer rating. Additionally, if you own a smartphone you can download the Fast Customer app or text a company's name to (936) CALL-PLS to take advantage of this free service.

Set An Alarm Clock on Your Computer

Lost your phone? Don't want to buy an alarm clock? Have access to a computer? Well then, you're in luck. Online Clock is a free service that simulates an alarm clock, complete with radio functions and a digital display. The website also lets you set a timer, stopwatch and countdown. And unlike traditional digital alarm clocks, you can set a custom background which includes options like rain, fireplace and lava lamp. If you're still not convinced, consider this alarm clock your ideal wake up call. Chances are, your computer is far away from your bed, far enough away that you'll be forced to get up if you want to turn your alarm off.

I hope these ideas are helpful. I'm getting back into the swing of things and plan more frequent posts here including more productivity tips like these, Some info on smartwatches (including the Apple Watch), and some camping gadgets I've been experimenting with. Stay tuned!

Get Work Done Even While Out of the Office

bigstock-business-technology-and-peopl-73386466.jpg

While most of us typically get our work done in the office, sometimes you just can’t be at your desk (or you choose not to be).

From getting your car fixed, to taking care of your sick child to traveling on a business trip, you often have to find ways to be productive in remote locations. Fortunately, modern technology can turn your kitchen table into a work station, and a coffee shop or auto repair shop lobby into a conference room.

Tablets and large-format phones like the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus

To stay current with your work even when out of the office, you need an easy-to-use mobile device. Invest in a tablet or a smartphone so you can email, browse the Internet and call clients and co-workers. For example, the iPhone 6 features a 5.5-inch screen that makes it easier to read documents and type out emails. If you want to get an even larger screen, the iPhone 6 Plus is a great option. I find that with my iPhone 6 Plus I can get almost as much work done as I can with a tablet. If Android is more your speed, consider the Samsung Galaxy Note, which I think is one of the best Android "phablets" available right now.

When buying a mobile device, you also should consider the coverage the carrier provides, along with your expected usage to make sure they are aligned. For instance, if you are a heavy data user and know you'll be out of WiFi range much of the time, take a look at T-Mobile. They have designed their network with cell towers closer together so that places with more people have more coverage. This means that no matter where you are working, chances are good that you will be able to connect to the Internet. The bigger deal is they offer packages with unlimited data, as well as allowing you to stream music for "free" over their data network.

In contrast, if you do have data limits on your mobile phone plan, you'll need to find a way to conserve that data as you work outside of your home or office. For these times, you can download a Free Wi-Fi Finder app so you can locate an area to work without using all your data. The best part about this app is that you can search by geography, or by type of location. This means if you need a cup of coffee while you work, the app can search only for cafés and let you know the closest place to work.

Microsoft Office 365

When it comes to getting work done on the go, nothing beats a program like Microsoft Office 365. A one-year subscription costs $99 for five devices including your smartphone and tablet. The program is cloud-based so it gives you instant access to your work email, video conferencing, file sharing and much more. That doesn't mean you have to be connected to use it - it will let you install Office on your computer and use it offline, as well, and the license includes free usage on mobile devices and tablets.

If your work involves reading and editing a lot of documents, Microsoft Office 365's Word app for iOS, Android or Windows Phone provides a mobile-friendly presentation of your data so it is easier to read on mobile devices. The same is true of the other mobile apps for Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint. Plus, the PowerPoint option includes a presenter view that lets you see your notes while your remote audience looks at each slide. This allows you to easily conduct powerful PowerPoint presentations from your tablet or smartphone while working from home or a hotel room.

One other cool note: an Office 365 subscription also includes access to OneDrive, which is Microsoft's cloud storage service. Even better: Microsoft is in the process of upgrading all personal OneDrive accounts to 10TB of storage - for all practical purposes, it's unlimited. Not a bad deal at all.

Google+ Hangouts

Sometimes you have to check in with your co-workers or your employer while you are away from the office. To do this, download Google + Hangouts for chatting, video conferencing and calling options. This extension lets you group chat and share photos as well as connect on a call with up to 10 of your co-workers. You can even record your meeting if you need to review it later. Hangouts also allows you to share screens with each other, which is ideal if you need to share a project or presentation.

There are a lot of other options that can help with productivity, such as Evernote, Skype, Facetime, etc. Which ones are your favorites? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Updated: How to lose 50 pounds in 6 months

Originally published June 17, 2014.

[February 16, 2015: Updated information about my fitness tracking bands]

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've lost over 50 pounds since last July and have learned some things along the way.  I thought I'd share some of my experience here, in the hopes that others might benefit.  By the way - I know this ended up being a bit long, but hopefully it's broken up enough to make it usable.

10 months into the process (I started trying to lose weight August 1, 2013), and I'm doing a good job of maintaining and sticking with my program  I was just updating my photo with a new one just taken for work, and I thought it was worth updating my original post from March with a bit of data.  My daughter showed me the Google search that came up with the freeze frame from a YouTube video posted last June - that's the picture on the left.

10 months into the process (I started trying to lose weight August 1, 2013), and I'm doing a good job of maintaining and sticking with my program  I was just updating my photo with a new one just taken for work, and I thought it was worth updating my original post from March with a bit of data.  My daughter showed me the Google search that came up with the freeze frame from a YouTube video posted last June - that's the picture on the left.

First, I started this journey due to a "wake up call" from my Doctor at my last physical.  Getting older, plus a lot of travel, plus some bad habits (no exercise, poor discipline when it comes to eating, etc.) had all stacked up and the odds were no longer in my favor.  Here is what I did.

Goals

Working with my doctor, I set a target weight based on my height, age, etc.  To get to my target, the basic math never changes:  you need to consume fewer calories than you burn.  I didn't want to try some "quick fix" fad diet, so I tried to approach this in a way that I could maintain over the long haul.

With the weight target in hand, I determined the number of calories needed to maintain that target weight, using an online calorie calculator.

From there, I set several goals to support my journey:

  • exercise at least 3 times per week.
  • consume calories at or below my daily target to maintain my goal weight
  • lose at least a pound a week until I reach "steady state" at this new calorie level
  • reduce my sodium intake (blood pressure was one of the concerns that came up in my physical exam)

Instrumentation

As you may gather from this blog, I'm a fan of gadgets. So, naturally, I looked for gadgets that would help me track my progress.  I used several tools for this - not required, but they help:

  • A fitness tracking band to track my exercise. [Update February 16, 2015: Fitbit has come out with updated trackers since my original pos, and I have tried all 3 of the new ones. Fitbit is by far my favorited fitness band provider, and my recommended choice right now. I have also used a Jawbone Up24 in the past and, while I like it, I prefer having a band with a digital display.  For the record, the brand of fitness band you choose isn't critical - pick one you like that has the features you need - for less stress, look for good battery life. Here are my three recommended bands at this time:
    • Fitbit Charge: This tracker is the most similar to the Fitbit Force I knew and loved. It tracks steps you take, flights of stairs you've climbed, tracks your sleep, can function as a watch, can show notifications from your smartphone, and has a vibrating alarm. Highly recommended for basic fitness tracking. You'll get 7-10 days of battery life from this (closer to 10 in my experience). The only issue I've had with this is that the clasp used can sometimes get pulled open on coats, or when reaching into bags.
    • Fitbit Charge HR: This is almost the same as the Charge, above, but adds a heart rate tracker that can track your heart rate 24/7. This one adds a more secure buckle in place of the Charge's clasp. Battery life is more like 5-7 days. This is my new favorite, since it adds the heartrate functionality but doesn't feel bulky.
    • Fitbit Surge: This is more like a traditional sports watch, with a much larger (and more useful) display. It has the same functions as the other two Fitbits above, but adds a run tracker with GPS that can record a run (time, distance, and route) even without your smartphone. It also has "record this exercise" functions for Hiking, Weights, Yoga, Elliptical, Spinning, and general Workout tracking. Battery life is about 5 days without using the GPS function - you'll need to charge much more frequently if you use the GPS function to track a run (though that feature is highly accurate, and syncs your heart rate with your location, elevation, etc.) This device is a close second for me, and would be first if the battery life were a bit longer and it were a little slimmer. End of update]
  • A Withings WiFi-enabled digital scale with body composition sensors.  This scale is accurate, automatically updates my phone (the Withings App) with my weight, body fat percentage, pulse, etc. so I can track progress over time.
  • A Withings blood pressure cuff that connects to my iPhone and records blood pressure readings.  This takes your blood pressure readings automatically, and syncs them with the same Withings App that the scale uses.  [Update: I have since upgraded to the wireless version of the WIthings blood pressure cuff - no difference in accuracy, but I love the convenience of Bluetooth.]
  • MyFitnessPal which is a great app to track what you eat, as well as to track exercise.  This also syncs automatically with my Fitbit and my WIthings scale, which is pretty cool - you can optionally allow it to subtract the calories you burn, for example, so you can eat more if you exercise more.
  • A digital food scale - this is crucial for recording your portion sizes for accuracy
  • I later added a Polar Heart Rate Sensor once I switched form walking to running.  I use their app (Polar Beat) to track distance, pace, calories burned, etc.  I like this app as it gives me audio feedback as run, such as my distance (it uses the phone GPS to track distance), pace, average hear rate, and it tracks distance and calorie records.  You can even "replay" your run on a map view, showing your pace and heart rate at different points along the run.

Of course, you don't need all of these gadgets, but I find they helped keep me motivated.  I believe the "must have" items are MyFitnessPal, the food scale, and some kind of digital scale to weigh yourself.

Habits

Since I'd developed bad habits in the past, I needed to develop new habits to be successful.  The ones I targeted were:

  • walk at least 10,000 steps per day (tracked by the Fitbit) [Update: My target is now 12,000 steps per day]
  • diligently track my food consumption with MyFitnessPal (there is a web site as well as a collection of mobile apps for most platforms)
  • exercise deliberately (i.e. beyond just "incidental" walking during the day) including while traveling
  • once I added running to my routine (more on that below) I set a goal to run at least 3 days per week for at least 30 minutes each session

Diet

At home, I began weighing my portions so I could log them.  MyFitnessPal makes that easier because of its huge database of foods, and its ability (if you're using the smartphone app) to scan a barcode and auto-populate the nutrition and portion information.  After a while, this habit of weighing your portions also helps you guesstimate portions in restaurants to keep you from going way overboard.

I found that measuring and logging my food had another effect: I started thinking about the tradeoffs I wanted to make.  For example, when I realized how many calories I was consuming with my nightly glasses of wine, I knew I either had to "reserve" space in my calorie budget to be able to have my wine or just skip it that day.  The same thing for desserts - I could have that piece of cake, but I needed to not eat something else to make the budget work.  That took a while to get used to, but it's been a good change.

One piece of advice that has really helped:  my nutritionist told me that if I "blew" a day by eating too much, not to try to make up for it by under-eating the next day.  Instead, he advised me to start fresh the next day and stick to my calorie target.  He explained that we're dealing with averages and that if I'm able to stay at or below my target most 90% of the time, I'll be able to sustain a good level of fitness.

Exercise

Easy does it

From an exercise perspective, I started out with walking.  I'd walk for an hour a day after dinner at a pretty good pace - about 4 miles per hour.  Over time, I began to mix in more hills and occasionally walk for two hours when I could afford the time.  To make the time go by more quickly, I listened to podcasts and audiobooks (I listened to Atlas Shrugged during my evening walks, for example - it is NOT a short book).  I also did a couple of weight workouts per week at my local gym - nothing too extreme, but enough to build strength and balance out the lower-body work from the walks.

Pick up the pace

After a few months, a few things changed - first, the walks got to be a bit monotonous; second, the weather got to be unfriendly; and third my travel picked up which made it harder to find time for the walks.  I started looking for more time-efficient ways to get my workout in, so I began to do more intense (faster) walks in the gym on the elliptical trainers because they worked my arms & legs at the same time.  This worked well, but also got to be a bit monotonous and some hotel gyms didn't have the elliptical trainers. 

Full speed ahead

For my next phase of changes (roughly a month ago), I decided to add running into the mix.  At first, it was challenging since there is a big difference between walking fast and running (in endurance, impact on my knees & hips, etc.)  However, with all the walking I'd done, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  I did some running outside when the weather was good enough, or in the gym on a treadmill when it wasn't - and pretty much every hotel gym has a treadmill.  I've been gradually increasing my distances and my pace to keep things challenging, and the addition of a heart rate strap has been a big help there.

Planning

Along the way, I found that planning ahead was crucial to my success.  Rather than eating what happened to be available, I began planning ahead to try to aid in making good choices.  The same was true of exercise - if I didn't plan ahead, it didn't happen.  For example:

Food Planning

  • General
    • When I'm not traveling, I tend to plan my meals more so I have more control over what I eat rather than being tempted to snack on the first thing at hand or eat something just because "it's there" - this means having a plan before you go shopping, and knowing what your options are when it comes time to prepare meals.
    • When I don't have a lunch appointment, I make and bring my own lunch - again, planning ahead so I don't make less healthy or "off plan" choices
  • Travel
    • I now travel with a stash of Kind bars in my bag (good ingredients, low sodium, and a balanced nutritional profile) in case I find that I need a quick snack on the run.  Starbucks used to carry these, but they have since replaced them with a different brand that also has good nutritional composition, albeit with fewer flavor choices (I like the Almond Cocoa flavor a lot).
    • Grab a durable fruit (like an apple or an orang) and tuck it in your carry-on bag so you have a ready snack.  
      • Carrying napkins and some empty plastic bags can help for cleanup and disposal of the core, peel, seeds, etc
  • Restaurants
    • I do some quick research ahead of time to find out what's on the menu, narrow down my choices ahead of time, and and to determine low-sodium options
      • MyFitnessPal is a big help here - it has calorie nutritional information from a lot of restaurants so you can compare choices
      • I've also noticed that more restaurants provide nutritional information on their menus or web sites, and some even include "meal builder" capabilities so you can customize your choice and see the impact of the changes in real-time

Exercise Planning

  • Schedule workouts, walks, etc. and keep the appointments (it helps to pretend you are meeting with a customer or something so you don't break the appointment)
  • Leave (or plan) time in your travel for workouts
    • for example, I sometimes take advantage of "time zone math" to get a workout in late at night on the east coast, or early in the morning on the west coast
  • Find a good place to run or walk near your office and combine a short walk with a quick lunch a couple of times a week
  • Choose "exercise friendly" hotels.  Hotels have gotten a lot better at telling you what their fitness amenities are on their web sites, which makes this easier all the time.  By the way, through this process I have grown even more for fond of Starwood hotels:
    • Some Starwood hotels (Westin, Sheraton) allow you to rent workout gear for $5 a day - including shoes.  That is hugely convenient when you don't have a lot of room in your suitcase.  Other Starwoods (Le Meridién) will even wash your workout clothes for you overnight, free of charge.
    • Starwood hotels also offer running maps of the local area with short and long running routes.
    • Their Westin brands have begun offering "Westin Workout" rooms, which allow you to reserve a room (in some locations, not all) with a treadmill or an exercise bike right in your room.  I posted a video tour of one of those rooms last year.
    • Most Starwoods offer free apples as a good, healthy snack either at the front desk, in the fitness center, or both.

Results, not just activity

I'm happy to say that this approach (while it may seem overwhelming when you read through it) has worked for me, and hasn't been as difficult as I'd feared.  I have made consistent progress:

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

  • I've lost over 50 pounds
  • I've lowered my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels dramatically
  • I've trimmed down (warning, if this goes well, you'll spend quite a bit for a new wardrobe during the first 6 months)
  • I have much better energy and overall fitness

I'm still making progress, and now that I've added more strength exercise into my routine, my weight is holding more steady.  I am now in a "maintain" mode, which I feel I can sustain. I have also learned that diet tends to trump exercise - in other words, I find that I get in more trouble with inconsistent dietary discipline than I do with inconsistent exercise discipline.

I know there is a lot wrapped up in all of this, and I've probably left some things out.  If you're looking to get into better shape, I hope my experience can help you make great progress.  If you have any questions, drop me a line via email (see my About page) or in the comments below.