Travel Statistics

Travel stats. We all love them. But where’s the best place to go to find out where you’ve been?

IAG, my employer and owner of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and the newly launched LEVEL has been running a corporate accelerator programme for startups, called “Hangar 51“. I’ve been sponsoring the “Data Driven Decisions” category, and one of the startups I’ve been working with is esplorio, an automated travel journal service.

One of the things IAG and esplorio have been working on together is to offer our customers the opportunity to link their esplorio and BA Executive Club accounts, to give them a combined view of their data. Whilst we are sorting out the technical details, I thought I’d do a one person “proof of concept” by manually consolidating my own data.

Esplorio is a relatively young service, but it enables you to link to your Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare accounts. This means that I have data in Esplorio going back to 2011, which was when I joined Foursquare.

My BA data starts in 2004. This is when BA thinks I joined the Executive Club. I’m pretty sure that I joined before this, but maybe BA knows me better than I do.

According to esplorio, I’ve been to 30 countries and have travelled 454,648 miles. BA thinks I’ve been to 24 countries and have flown 351,818 miles. Whilst the two data sources agree on 21 countries, BA missed 9 that esplorio had and esplorio missed 3 so the true total is 33. Which I think demonstrates the power of combining data and also makes me think I’ve spent too much time on a plane.

Tech hunting in Israel

The Old City, Jerusalem

After three weeks catching up with ‘the day job’, I’m finally getting round to writing about a recent tech scouting trip to Israel. Four days of meeting with entrepreneurs, investors, startup companies and other participants in the Israeli technology and innovation ecosystem.

I had high expectations for the trip. Israel has acquired a reputation as the second most important centre for technology and innovation (the undisputed global capital of course remains “The Valley”). My already high expectations were exceeded and I came away deeply impressed by what has been achieved there. But overall, the thing that impressed me most was the sheer entrepreneurialism and energy of the people that I met. The willingness to take risks in pursuit of big rewards, and to treat “failure” as a opportunity to do better next time, drawing on the lessons learnt.

The UK has much to learn I think from Israel about how to foster and support innovation and create the jobs and companies of the future. There are lessons for governments, for companies and for individuals and I’d definitely recommend a trip.

Oh… and Jerusalem is pretty amazing too!

Want to lose weight? There’s an app for that.

Withing Scale

Withing Scale

This is the second instalment in a series of posts in which I am trying to answer the question of how I lost 16 lbs in under 11 weeks. I am not saying that this is the all time greatest dieting achievement, I’m simply trying to give a proper answer to the many people who have asked me how I did it.

To recap, the first three steps were: 1) Make a decision and mean it; 2) Set a target; and 3) Tracking inputs and outputs. This post is about the technology available to help you to do this third step.

Step 4: Leverage technology

There are many reasons to tool up with technology to help you succeed in your mission to lose weight.

Firstly, keeping regular track of the progress you are making is essential for motivation and knowing how you are doing, so that if things aren’t working you can adapt. My weapon of choice here is the Withings Scale. This connects to your WIFI and automatically uploads your weight and fat % measurements to the web (by default to a private account if you don’t want to broadcast your vital statistics to the world). It is easy to use and the iPhone and iPad apps provide a wealth of charting and tracking data. Nowadays of course, they’ve “gamified” the experience and whilst the “congratulations, you are now 50% of the way towards your weekly weight loss goal” messages are a bit banal, they do actually help to keep you motivated and interested.

Secondly, the technology takes the grind out of properly tracking the input side – what you eat, drink and how many calories you’ve burned through exercise. It really does help to be able to link your input actions to the resulting outputs of weight, fat percentage and body measurements. Whilst the correlation between inputs and outputs is far from perfect on a daily basis, measured over a few days it really is very strong. And it is the input side that you control. After a while, knowing that each glass of wine means another 20 minutes on the cross-trainer to burn it off really does start to drive behaviour. When you know you are behind against your weekly calorie target, that second helping doesn’t seem so attractive.

MyFitnessPal

MyFitnessPal

In terms of apps, I’m using Runkeeper to track cross-trainer sessions, walks, cycle rides and runs and MyFitnessPal to track calories. Both of these integrate with the Withings app and so you can view all your information on an integrated dashboard. The Withings Pulse activity and sleep tracker is also good.

So technology can be a big plus for motivation and help you stay on target in terms of keeping to your daily and weekly net calorie budgets. For me, as a technology enthusiast, it has also helped to keep me interested in “the project”. But for anyone wanting to follow “the Boyle weight loss plan”, I’m afraid that this is the end of the easy part. The next step in the journey will require you to get up from the sofa and out from behind your desk and start burning the calories. Tomorrow’s post will deal with how I have found the time and motivation to average 50 minutes of exercise a day.

DRM rant

Simon Pegg in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

I have a complaint. The media companies and broadband internet companies have consipired to make me break the law and contribute to global warming. They are also wasting my time. And all for no good reason.

I can buy a high quality encoding of the latest films on blu-ray. I like it that they usually include a DVD version and a “digital copy”. When the media companies first started doing this, I was thrilled. Finally, I thought, the dinosaurs have caught up with the fact that increasingly people want to watch their media “on the go”, on laptops and iPads. Or set up a media server at home, streaming content around the house over WIFI. But to my dismay, I then discovered how low the quality of the digital copy is. Let me use the example of a recent acquisition, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (an excellent film by the way).

Format Resolution
Blu-ray 1920×817
DVD 1024×436
Digital copy 853×354

These are the output resolutions on the screen, excluding the black bars. This flatters both the DVD and the digital copy through the use of non-square pixels. The actual number of horizontal pixels in the DVD and digital copy files are really 720 and 640 pixels respectively.

The digital copy maches the quality offered as a purchased download from iTunes, which is worse than DVD. Why? With the latest iPad and Macbook Pro having screen resolutions higher than even the blu-ray file, it certainly isn’t because the quality is “good enough”.

Presumably, one reason is to limit the download sizes. But why make you download the “digital copy”, rather than include it on the disk? Forcing the customer to download the file unnecessarily uses up often scarce bandwidth.

The answer given to these questions by the media companies of course is “anti piracy” and “digital rights management” or DRM. But does all this inconvenience being inflicted on the honest consumer actually prevent piracy? Of course not. It is straightforward for the knowledgable (which certainly includes the professional pirates) to rip the high resolution blu-ray files from the disk. There’s a great guide here for example. It is even easier to rip the DVD.

In my own case, the distance of my house to the telephone exchange forces me to use satellite broadband, which comes with an impossibly constraining bandwidth cap, even with the most expensive plan. So even if I was prepared to put up with the lower quality, downloading movies from iTunes is simply not an option for me. To watch the content I have purchased at good quality on my high resolution iPad requires me to waste time and energy ripping the blu-ray files and re-encoding.

I suppose that the approach of the movie companies does reduce “casual piracy”. Making it hard for most people to make a high quality copy for their friends may result in a few more blu-ray disks being sold. But somehow, I can’t see how taking such a customer unfriendly and backward looking approach can be in the long run interests of the movie industry.

It certainly annoys the hell out of me!

Instagram

Hyde Park

Hyde Park

I’ve been having fun taking and sharing photos with Instagram. You can only post photos using the dedicated iPhone app. The low resolution and the creative filters it prompts you to apply really encourage you to concentrate on composition, creativity and interesting subjects. Sharing the results on twitter or facebook is a breeze. Highly recommended.

iPad Gripes

iPad screenshot

iPad editing gripes

Well, I’ve had the iPad now for almost two months and disaster has struck. Apple have finally started shipping in the UK, so now everyone will have one. To be fair, they remain in short supply, so maybe I can still feel a little smug for a while longer.

On the plus side, Apple are now allowing us foreigners to buy their iWork apps. I’ve no idea why they restricted sales until now to US registered iTunes accounts. It’s not like you can run out of download copies. Anyway, this means I am writing this using the iPad version of Pages, and jolly nice it is too.

But enough compliments, this post is about my complaints – my accumulated list of gripes as a two month veteran iPadder.  I’m not going to rant about the over-reflective screen, the greasy fingerprint challenge, the lack of flash or the convoluted workflow to get documents on or off the device. These have been much discussed elsewhere. No, it’s the little annoyances that I need to get off my chest. The iPad equivalents of the paper cuts and gnat bites that irritate and annoy out of all proportion to their seriousness.

Top of the list is the lack of cursor keys on the virtual keyboard. Positioning the cursor in a block of text by tapping with your finger works surprisingly well and the magnifying glass feature helps get to the precise spot. But when fat fingers have made you miss your mark by one character, having left and right cursor keys would be so much simpler and quicker. Likewise, when you need to go back and correct something you just typed, having a non-destructive alternative to the backspace key would be great. The OS obviously supports it, because it works when I connect my Apple Bluetooth keyboard. Maybe adding two more virtual keys would have been too expensive….

Next gripe is the auto capitalisation feature. Yes, I know you can turn it off. And I have. The problem is that it is actually very useful and I wish I could leave it on. But it is just slightly too stupid. Why exactly it thinks that capitalising the first letter of an email address when filling in a web form is the right thing to do is beyond me.

I’ve also been experiencing random application crashes, maybe once or twice a day. Playing video sometimes results in a complete system freeze, from which the only escape is a full restart. Whether this is the fault of the iPad or the app developer’s coding is hard to say. But it does somewhat dilute the device’s credentials as an easy to use alternative to a laptop for less sophisticated users.

Overall though, this is a remarkably impressive machine for version 1.0. The most telling verdict is that it has rarely left my side. Here’s hoping that the next OS upgrade will sort out the remaining annoyances and bugs.

iPad first impressions

Steve Jobs with iPad

Steve's latest invention

I was in the US last week, a few days after the release of Apple’s latest invention, the iPad. This was a happy, if expensive, coincidence since us Brits are not permitted to buy one until later this month. Although I now have my hands on the hardware, Apple will still not allow me to buy their iBooks or iWorks apps with my UK registered iTunes account, which is a little frustrating to say the least.

It has been quite hard to get to know the device properly in the four days since I handed over my Amex card to the overworked Apple Store employee in Santa Monica. One problem has been the constant interruptions from friends and passers-by. Whether it is the amazing buzz that Apple have created, or the wonderfully sexy design, but you cannot sit in a hotel lobby and simply use the device. You are in constant demonstration mode. I only wish that Apple paid a referral commission.

Another problem with getting to know the iPad is that, like its smaller predecessors, so much of the experience and functionality of the device is driven by the applications you install. Part of the fun of the last few days has been rediscovering favourite apps, reinvented for the new platform. One such is NetNewsWire, an RSS reader. The iPhone version is excellent, making browsing and reading news stories amazingly easy on such a small screened device. However, on the iPad, it makes it a wonderfully fluid and enjoyable experience. The dedicated media apps like the New York Times viewer are even better. The interesting thing is that I also have NetNewsWire for the Mac and the iPad version provides a superior experience. The combination of a touch interface and a decent sized screen that you can lay on your lap really works for media consumption.

It’s also great for watching video, looking at or showing off photos and reading books. I had a great opportunity to test this out on my eleven hour flight back from LA. The highly reflective screen can be problematic, but overall it is an almost ideal personal entertainment solution when travelling. I also have a Kindle and the backlit screen on iPad works much better on a flight. I will still be using my Kindle though; in bright sunshine or for handholding it wins out. The brilliant thing is that there is a Kindle app for the iPad, which means that I can mix and match, using each for what it is best at.

Ease of use is definitely a strong point. As Steve Jobs told us when announcing the device, anyone who owns an iPhone or iPod Touch already knows how to use it. But the familiarity is deceptive. The vastly larger screen real estate transforms the experience in a way which is both subtle and at the same time addictive. After using the iPad for a while, the previously wonderful iPhone user interface now feels horribly cramped and inelegant.

One advantage of the iPad that it is easy to underestimate at first is the social dimension. Sitting in a meeting or at home with a laptop in front of you is somehow a mildly anti-social thing to do. The screen in front of you acts as an barrier, sending subliminal but strong signals which distance you from others. It is the technological equivalent of reading the paper with it held up in front of your face. An iPad laid flat in front of you leaves you psychologically still part of the group.

It’s less good as a document creation tool. The on screen keyboard works really well and you can also attach a bluetooth keyboard, which helps when writing lots of text. I started writing this post on the iPad, using the WordPress app. I was managing fine, although the app seems to have a cut and paste bug at the moment, but I have to admit that I am now writing this on my laptop. Not only is it a better tool for the job, my iPad has been ‘borrowed’ by my son, who is now merrily killing Zombies on it. This is the iPad’s other great strong point, gaming. I also suspect that it will be the most profitable for Apple and the biggest drain on my own personal productivity!

Gone Mac

Mac Pro

Mac Pro

Our main desktop machine died last week. Power supply failure, I’d guess from the symptoms. All the backups fully up to date and the drives readable from another machine anyway, so no drama. Actually an opportunity to buy a nice, shiny new machine! You can tell I’m a bloke, can’t you.

I had been flirting with the dark side for a few months with my Macbook Pro laptop, and decided to take the plunge and ‘go Mac’ with the main machine too. All now set up (pretty much) and working great.

Looks nice and shiny too…