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.

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.

Review: Focused Space Incubator Backpack

I recently started using "The Incubator" backpack by Focused Space, and I really like it. In fact, I think it's one of my favorite laptop / travel backpacks so far (and I've used quite a few).

Looks and comfort

Click to embiggen

This definitely feels like a high-end backpack, with quality on par with Tumi, Briggs & Riley, and other high-end backpacks and I think it is reasonably priced considering the quality.

 The Incubator backpack has a trendy design that looks business-oriented enough that you can take it to any meeting, but trendy enough that you can use it for non-business use.  It is very sturdy and the fit & finish is exceptional.  It is also pretty light, so it doesn't make things too heavy on its own and it keeps a fairly slim profile so it fits under the seat easily.

The straps are very adjustable, comfortable (memory foam), and have a sternum strap to keep it in place for longer walks or hikes.  I'm a pretty tall person and this fits me well (many business backpacks have dinky straps that don't work for me)  and it will also adjust down for the typically-sized person.

There is a handle on top so you can carry this backpack (the handle is a tad small, but works fine).  There are also a lot of small loops on the top and on the straps that you can use to attach things to the pack ( the hoops are handy - I use one of these loops with a small "Bandits" bungee cord to hold the bag on my roller bag when I'm walking through airports).

Pockets galore

One of the things I like best is that there are a lot of pockets in this backpack.  I have a lot of gadgets, charing cables, and small odds & ends, and this bag has enough small pockets inside to create a "place for everything" kind of organization system.

There are also two large zippered compartments on the fron for keys, breath mints, your phone, hard drives, and other things you may need to access quickly. 

Click to embiggen

For larger electronic devices, the main compartment features a laptop / notebook pocket with a very soft lining, which will hold a 15" or smaller device comfortably.  There is also a smaller, dedicated pocket intended for iPads or other tablets. 

There are smaller side compartments you can use for storage (I keep my backup hard drive in one, and my business card wallet in the other). 

There is a small pocket on the front that you can use for things like glasses (it's plush-lined), or earbuds (my preferred use for this pocket) to allow easy access.  

There is an additional, larger pocket at the top of the back panel that is hidden and can be a good "stash" pocket for ID's, passports, thumb drives, an MP3 player or other larger, special items. You can see it in the picture on the right, at the very top of the back of the bag, just underneath the top part of the shoulder straps.

Good organization, nice amount of space

These pockets make it easy to organize the small stuff, and leave a nice amount of room for everything else.  There is plenty of room for files and a couple of books, noise canceling headphones in a case, etc.

Speaking of folders, check out my earlier article on how to create backpack folders, which I created for my previous backpack.   They work great in this one, as well.

In spite of the large amount of space, this backpack doesn't balloon up like others I've had - which I consider to be a plus.  This backpack still stays snug and streamlined looking even when it's full, which makes it easy for air travel. 

Awesome, but not perfect

As I mentioned, this is my favorite backpack so far but it still has a few things that get in the way of perfection:

  • I mentioned that this backpack is snug.  If you are used to over-stuffing a backpack, you can't get away with that on this one - it doesn't stretch a lot.
  • While it isn't an issue for me, I now a lot of people who carry water bottles with them when they travel, and this bag doesn't really have a suitable external pocket for that.  If you have a water bottle with a clip / carabiner on it, you could clip it to the outside of the bag, but there isn't a water bottle pocket. 

The bottom line 

In summary, the Focused Space Incubator backpack is an impressive, business friendly backpack with strong organization, good protection for your gadgets, and a very comfortable travel companion.

8+ Practical Tips for Avoiding Pickpockets

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A week or so back, I was in Amsterdam and my phone was stolen from my pocket on the street.  I'm usually very cautious, wary, etc. when I'm in an area known for pickpockets, but I let me guard down for a few minutes and paid the price. 

With that in mind, here are some good general tips to protect yourself from pickpockets. 

  1. Be an informed visitor.  You can usually find out if the city you're going to is known for pickpockets with a quick search of the internet. Searching for "pickpockets <city name>" will usually let you know pretty quickly.  I already knew Amsterdam was known for pickpockets, since I used to live in The Netherlands.  Other cities that are infamous for this are Rome, Barcelona, Prague, Madrid, Paris, and Florence.
  2. When you go out, only take what you need.  Leave your passport, spare credit cards, and other belongings in the hotel safe.  I usually only take some cash, and an "emergency" credit card with me and lock the rest away (along with my iPad, computer, camera, etc.)
  3.  Put the things you do take with you in a front pocket or a hidden pocket.  It is much harder to get things out of your front pocket without you noticing.  Also, if you just have the cards and some cash in your front pocket, it is much less conspicuous.
  4. Avoid walking into or through crowds.  This one can be a challenge sometimes, but avoid crowds where you can - inside a crowd, people can rub up against you easily, and you can't tell what they are doing.
  5.  Try to blend in.  Pickpockets are on the lookout for people who look like they are lost, unfamiliar with the area, etc. so avoid looking at maps, wandering around in a confused or disoriented way, or other things that would indicate you are a tourist.  This includes trying to dress in a way that is consistent with the locals, if at all possible.
  6. Don't talk to strangers.  If someone approaches you to engage with you, be very wary - they may be trying to distract you so that an accomplice can grab your goodies while you aren't paying attention.
  7. Consider carrying a "decoy wallet."  I have a friend who carries an old wallet in his back pocket with some old hotel room keys (they look kind of like credit cards) and a few $1 bills in it.  He keeps this in his back pocket as bait for a pickpocket, and follows the guidelines above.  I don't know if it works or not, but it seems like a plausible idea.
  8. Know what you have, and have a backup if you can.  Make sure you have an accurate inventory of what you've taken with you, even if you plan to lock it in your room safe.   I have scans of the front and back of my credit cards, my passport, and my drivers license in an encrypted file on cloud storage (I use 1Password for this) so I can get to it from anywhere.  This tells me what I've lost, what number to call, and provides me with a "punch list" of the things to cancel or have replaced in the event they get stolen.

    Along these lines, also make sure you have information on whatever electronics you're carrying - serial number, make & model, IMEI number if it's a phone, etc.  It is also a good idea to permanently mark your gadgets with your name if you're comfortable with doing that.

OK, OK...I knew all of this.  So what did I do wrong?  In hindsight, I violated rules 3, 5 and 6.  

  • I violated rule 3 by letting my guard down and putting my phone in my outside jacket pocket for easier access.  
  • I violated rule 5 by looking at my phone periodically to make sure I was on the right street using Google maps.  This probably made me stand out as a tourist. 
  • I violated rule 6 by talking with someone who was asking me a bunch of questions, and I foolishly engaged with him (he turned out to have a couple of nearby accomplices that I didn't notice at first and who were smooth enough that I didn't think of them til later).

Rule 3 is probably what did me in, though.  Had I kept my phone in my right front pocket (as I usually do), I don't think they'd have gotten it without me noticing.  As it was, they got my phone, which I noticed about 5 minutes later but they were long gone by then.

By the way, as soon as I got to my hotel I called AT&T and reported the phone stolen and they blacklisted it on their network and disabled my account.  I'm sure glad my phone was locked with a password and had a short auto-lock timeout!

I'm also glad it wasn't my passport or anything else essential.  That reminds me - if you carry your phone with you, make sure you have copies of all your vital information from the phone, so you can re-provision it when you're done.  For iPhones, this means backing up regularly to iCloud or your computer; for Android phones, this means ensuring you're syncing with Google regularly, or using one of the many backup apps available in the Google Play store.

What about you?  Any tips to add or pickpocket stories to share? 

Pack a sport coat, suit coat, or blazer without wrinkling

Last week, I shared some of my tips for packing without wrinkling.  I mentioned the Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Folders that I love, and stated you can use them for dress shirts, pants, and jackets.  That is true, but I stopped using them for jackets in favor of another method.

You see, I am tall, and have wide shoulders, so my jackets didn't fit inside the Pack-It folders very well.  I now use the method shown in the video below.

This method works very well and I use it all the time.  When you arrive at your hotel, simply unfold and hang the jacket in your closet, and it will look great the next morning.

This method has another advantage - if you decide you want to toss your jacket into your suitcase (to be more comfortable on the plane, for example), you simply fold it like this, open your suitcase, put the jacket inside on top of your other clothes, and carefully zip the suitcase shut.  Very simple.