Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Learning to unicycle + awesome videos

Just thought it would be helpful to give a quick review of my time learning to unicycle.  I decided to learn in 2009, and in all, it originally took about 1 or 2 weeks, depending how you count, and I found it most helpful to practice for 20 minutes per day.  Any amount of time longer than that was unproductive, as the muscles and balancing required for this sport were so different than anything I'd done, and so I lost control a bit after that long.  So in summary: short, sweet, don't change things, and repeat.

Also, it's a great skill to learn, to keep your brain in learning mode and agile, and I think that this guy's assessments of the benefits of juggling carry over to unicycling quite well:

  1. brain growth
  2. body comfort
  3. stress relief
  4. focus retention
  5. coordination boosting
  6. being interesting
  7. improved learning
  8. unboring meditation

I'm not completely sold on the meditation, but most of the others hold!  Read more here.

New Hobby for HB

Wherein I display to the world, for accountability, my desire to learn to ride a unicycle, with very little external input.  I practiced for about 20 minutes per day, and let my muscles take their time in learning the new motions.

Unicycle: Days 6 & 7

Day 6 is when I started actually riding without holding onto things - traveling up to 30 feet or so (I had limited space).  Day 7 is when I switched shoes - bad idea.  Keep all variables constant in the beginning!

Unicycle: Days 8 & 9

Practie makes perfect!  Trying to ride on new surfaces - bumpy walkways, around buildings, etc.  First time to circumnavigate the block, with multiple dismounts (falls).

Unicycle: Day 10

Inventing challenges!  I decided to go to the school down the street and use their wide-open spaces.  Rode around the basketball court a few times without falling!

Day 15: Let's go to the park

Practiced riding up and down smooth paths, and continued to realize that riding on grass is difficult with a small wheel!

Unicycle progress tracker

Again, when learning, try to keep the equipment setup as unchanged as possible!

Day 17: Hittin' the (unicycle) gym

Wherein I continued to create new challenges for myself, to practice turning both directions, such as on a slalom course, shown here.  Basically just trying to improve my riding control.

What's next?

Not sure!  I haven't ever learned to ride backwards for any real distance, nor have I learned to "hover" in place, by riding forward & backward quickly.  Another option is to give up the pavement and learn to ride more 'diverse' terrain.  Enjoy!

Three awesome youtube videos about unicycling:




My posts, in reverse order, for some reason:

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Stephen Hawking's public lecture at Caltech

... in which I freely admit that I only partially understood some of the topics which he discussed, but don't yet admit that his institution (which grew out of Oxford) is any more superior than my future institution.  :-)  Also, apologies for the poor grammar, sentence, and paragraph structure.

Overall, I loved the lecture.  It was accessible to someone who had only read "A Brief History of Time" but also engaging enough for the host professors to comment on new theories in the field.  Loved it.  Professor Hawking also has an awesome sense of humor.

Info: Hosted by Caltech

Prof Hawking started with a rundown throughout the past few thousand years of humans' understanding of our role in the universe, starting with a tribal group (can't remember where) that believed a typical myth with a main god, who invented the sun, creatures, and stars.  Skipping along, he discussed Aristotle, and then Kant, who held that there are possible universes that exist in space independent of time.  Einstein came along and showed that there is a link between space and time.  Yay.

He discussed that time outside of the universe as we know it is undefined.  It's not that there is no time, or that time would run negative, but more like you couldn't have one without the other (I imagine this as us existing on an X,Y plane, and trying to graph a point with only one coordinate.  Impossible.

He mentioned how if we thought there was a specific start to time, we would probably have to arbitrarily pick it, and then that point would be incomplete, as one moment earlier there would be a lack of information (ie. no space).

He explained that one requirement of a good model was that it gave hypotheses that could be tested and proven true or false.  fuzziness in notes here...   (But that previous point is worth remembering!)

Then we come a bit more into the modern discussion on the origins of the universe, and that the stars are not spread evenly, but formed into galaxies, and that when Hubble first observed the galaxies outside our own, he found a peculiar thing: more galaxies were moving away from us than towards us.  This meant that the universe was not created stagnant and continued unchanging, but rather that the universe is expanding (by observing that the farthest galaxies were moving the fastest).  This means that earlier in time, the galaxies were closer together, and that possibly, they could have been colocated at some "beginning point."

So then people (?) came up with the "Steady State Theory" that although galaxies were, indeed, spreading out, that new galaxies were continually being formed from newly created matter.  Unfortunately, this was proven untrue by noting the uniform radio noise when observing space.

The next theory that came was the Collapse Fail Theory - again starting with the idea that there was no start to the universe, but rather that it was continually expanding (our cycle now) and contracting (just before our cycle now, and will happen again).  The theory says that in the case of a collapse of the universe to a near single point, with a lack of symmetry, the matter in the universe would simply slingshot around the center of mass of the universe and then expand again.  Professor Hawking disproved this, though I'm ashamed to say I don't understand.  He basically proved that asymmetry during collapse couldn't happen.

Then the discourse got lighter for a bit and he joked about the ambient microwaves from space being very ineffective at defrosting our frozen pizzas, as well as joking about his fear of the Inquisition, in light of his presentations at the Vatican (and a bit of a jab at JP2's lack of scientific knowledge [though I think Prof Hawking is allowed to make that joke regarding most other humans on the planet, to be fair]).

He discussed the rate of inflation in Germany after WWI, and how it wasn't such a good thing, but that the rate of expansion of the universe after the Big Bang dwarfed the German currency inflation, and that *was* a good thing.  On the order of one million, trillion, trillion fold within a fraction of a second.  (Turns out that this is related to a second thesis of his "Hawking Radiation" idea, more later.)

Extreme inflation right after the big bang.

We looked at some maps of the universe, which was sweet.
Map of the infant universe, from WMAP data.  (By the way, over 100 WikiPedia pages link to this image.  For real.

Professor Hawking discussed how General Relativity doesn't cover quantum items, which fall under quantum theory.  Which is fine, except when you realize that the entire universe might be tiny as viewed from the outside, and in that case, our entire universe might follow quantum theory.  So we've got some challenges there, since we think we've got all the items under General Relativity under control / understanding.  To answer this, we learned about Feynman's "Sum History" of universes in which every possibility is indeed possible, but with various weighting for probability.  

Now onto the "No Boundary Proposal" that Prof Hawking and Prof Hartle (UCSB) proposed.  In this, we have a formation of the universe in a Euclidean frame of reference, where there is no time, and simply space on each of two axes.  At some point, this transitions to a Lorentzian frame, where time replaces one axis and we now have the space-time that Einstein helped us understand.  (See image below) The explanation of the Euclidean frame is much like the bottom half of the earth.  If you traveled to the South Pole, you would find yourself at a point.  Now, if someone asked you to travel south, you would not be able to.  Not for lack of trying, or lack of space, but more that there exists no point more southerly.  It's undefined.  Just as the laws of physics hold on our Earth's South Pole, so should the laws of nature hold at the beginning of time, at this space X space frame.
Hartle-Hawking model of Big Bang

He discussed *very* briefly the "M theory" which is a collection of theories that try and answer the deep questions such as "Why are we here", "Where did we come from" and "Why do we have this set of laws, and not some other set of laws."  Lots of multiple universe stuff going on for a minute.

M Theory representation

His closing suggestions:

"Look up at the stars, not down at your feet!  ...  Be curious! ...  It matters that you don't just give up!"
(I like how he doesn't say "don't give up" but instead "It matters that you don't just give up!")

In the Q&A we discussed Hawking Radiation which is the idea that radiation is emitted at the event horizon of black holes, and this is a possible way that the energy escapes.  In a second, later case, Hawking Radiation is the radiation emitted at the horizon of the Big Bang, which would have disturbed the uniform density of all matter to break up into dense pockets that eventually became galaxies.

He mentioned that now that we have matter (mostly) figured out (though he hates being a bit wrong on the Higgs Boson), that we have a grasp on 6% of the universe: the normal matter.  Now we can delve into the 27% of the universe: dark matter, and then onto the remaining 68% which is dark energy.  Whew!

A few other questions about Quantum Entanglement and the Big Bang Black Hole Theory, in which Prof Hawking discussed the necessity of an event horizon to move as matter is consumed (and the fact that nothing could know of this move before it moves, because there could be matter further ahead of you, about go go over the event horizon) as well as killing the idea that matter that enters black holes could somehow be forming other universes (and be a possible source of our universe).

Successful End of Event!
Better info:
Better graphic:

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pebble Smartwatch Review

Wanted to share a few notes on the Pebble Smartwatch, which came out of the largest Kickstarter crowdfunding to date (as far as I know), and which I wrote about in December.  The team raised $10M in 38 days, and delivered my watch roughly 9 months after the close of the campaign, 5 months later than promised.  Despite the late delivery (FCC approval!), I'm still very happy.  As I've noted to others, part of supporting a kickstarter campaign is to support entrepreneurs, as I think they make our communities stronger.  On top of that, I got an awesome watch!
(Here's an interesting article/debate about how investing relates to Kickstarter.)

I'm very happy with the watch.  I felt that they did an excellent job, and even over-delivered in a few ways:
  1. Battery life is excellent.  They noted roughly a week, and that's what I get.  You might say that they delivered what they promised, but even the most honest teams in tech (Apple, Motorola, etc.) regularly give ridiculously high battery estimates, and so I was prepared for a couple of days of battery life.  My pebble lasts usually about 7 days, in my experience of a month of daily use.
  2. Screen and backlight are done perfectly.  Flick or tap your watch to see the backlight, fades out nicely, impossible to tell if the backlight is on or off during the day, contrast is super high.  LOVE it.
  3. Water-resistance to 5 ATM.  That's 130 ft below the surface.  Granted, the rating is more helpful in surviving streams of shower water than in deep free diving, for me, but the point remains that they delivered.  I was surprised by this, as the water resistance was a 'stretch goal' - when I contributed to the campaign, they hadn't decided to make that a feature.
  4. The software development team is continuing to put out software.  There was a major update just after I got my phone, and that as well as the primary setup were quite simple.  There's still some room for improvements, but the point is that they are attentive to forums/user needs, and are active in addressing those requests.  (Glad they included an easy-to-set alarm, but will have to install a countdown timer for help with daily stretching!)
  5. Build quality is good, though I expected that.  Buttons work well, magnetic-attach charging cord is super simple to use, wrist strap is comfortable.
  6. Software development through the SDK is going wild.  Super creative watch faces, like this animated Mario one, and games and other apps starting to be released, as well.  (Also, don't forget, there's horrible clock faces as well!)
    Casio 'retro' watchface: "Dub 91

    Tetris!  Well... Pebblis block game.

    (Working on some pretty watch faces! )
Now the downsides:

  1. The screen is plastic.  I knew this when contributing, but went forward anyway, I felt it was unrealistic to expect this group to pull off a glass screen.  Scared for the potential of scratching, I got a few Skinomi screen protectors and after a botched-application the first time around, have been using my Pebble for a week with the Skinomi on there, and very happy with how it looks.  No double-reflection or unsightly seams.

  2. The amount of notifications seems a bit finicky.  Lately I'm receiving a deluge of wrist-vibrations for next-appointments, and haven't found a good way to handle that.  Good news: it's fixable with software updates.
Now the suggestions / requests:
  1. Menus: It should never be possible to create disturbing action by repeated pressing of single button from home screen.  As it is now, in a meeting, if I lean on a table and depress the 'enter' button, music will start playing from my phone.  I apparently did this in my sleep last night.  I'm weird, I know.
  2. Screen polarity: It would be excellent to have an option to set all non-graphical applications (ie. menus and notifications) to reverse polarity; the visual display would be much more appealing, as you wouldn't notice the large bezel of the watch, but rather notice the watch being black, and then white text floating in the middle.
Final thought: When people ask what it's good for, and I tell them about incoming call / text / email screening, silent alarm clock, music control on the phone, various displays, I almost forget to tell them the most important thing:
It's an awesome watch for telling time!  It's the first real watch I've bought, and I love it!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Brad Feld in Pasadena on Startup Communities

Here are my notes from attending a discussion with Brad Feld at Caltech, hosted by the Caltech Entrepreneurs Forum:
The event was organized by Pasadena Innovation Council (or Innovate Pasadena?)

These are just jotted down notes, if you have questions on how they fit together, ask in the comments.  There was a Q+A after Brad's mini-lecture.

Thanks to BackCode for the picture!

Four principles are required to build a successful startup community:

1. The movement must be led by entrepreneurs as leaders.  The movement also requires supportive roles from the government, universities, lawyers, etc.

2 The movement should be planned with the long term view in mind -- 20 years.  Since startups generally  take 5-20 year, possibly an average of 7, there needs to be some continuity and multiple rounds of successes and failures before the community is solid.  Plan with this long term view.  (i.e. Do not look at quarterly or annual rhythms.)

3 The movement must be radically inclusive of all people at any level.  Anyone who wants to help is welcome.  There should be cooperation between startups  even if they are in the same space; they are all competing for a massive pie, so there is more than likely room for all to succeed, which will be easier if people are sharing success stories and lessons.  This is not a zero sum game, there is tons of extra talent outside startup world.  Bad actors filter themselves out - they'll simply not be a good fit and be less interested as time goes on.  Number 3 is the easiest to miss.  

3.5 There should be an attitude of "give before you get".  Rewards come in strange ways, but if the attitude is to give first, there will always be massive rewards as the group grows.  There is a need for people to interact without a transactional relationship (e.g. "I did X for you, so I expect you do do Y for me."  Instead, just do X, and then move on, do X again if it benefits someone in the group.  Then Y will come.)

4 There should be a super saturation of events.  There should always be something going on.  Don't worry about overlap, as the community starts, information will start to flow.  Host regular meetups.  Don't hold back on organizing - there's no license required.  Simply start events, see the turnout, and move on from there.  Smart people will make time for events, if only as a way to meet talent, new partners, etc.

The topic of "Networks vs. Hierarchies" came up a number of times.  The global financial meltdown was a tipping point for networks vs hierarchies.  Status matters less.   Get access by helping others.  Flattening of hierarchies yields networks, which are efficient. Innovation and renewable.  

Factoid: Brad believes that you can't motivate people, you can only create a context or environment that will motivate them.

Brad has written a few books.  From what I hear, they're excellent.

Brad keeps a blog:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Back of the napkin: should gyms be human powered?

Just wanted to draw out a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation for folks, to investigate whether workout facilities / gyms should be 'human powered' by means of treadmills, bicycles / spin machines, or other equipment.  Imagine this waaay better drawn and appearing on XKCD or TheOatmeal.  :-)

First things first, I should say that I LOVE BICYCLE RIDING!  It's fun, healthy, encourages community bonding, basically free, reduces pollution, and it looks beautiful.

Now, on to the calculation.  How much power does a human create, roughly?  Well, a pro cyclist like Lance might make something in the neighborhood of 450 Watts.  An average adult cyclist who would go to a gym to work out might make something like 100 Watts.  (And a child might make 50 Watts, to use round numbers.)

Assume for ease of calculation that a stationary bike rider in the gym can create 100 Watts.

As a base unit, assume that they pedal for 1 hour; this would create 100 Wh (100 Watt-hours).

But electricity is normally measured in kWh (kiloWatt-hours), so we'll need 10 hours of riding, either one person for 10 hours, or 10 people on the same bike for 1 hour, etc., which yields 1 kWh of power generation.

So now let's step back to the bigger picture and find out what this same amount of energy (1 kWh) of electricity costs.  Depending where you are, and what fuel sources are used, it will generally cost between $0.08 and $0.15, so we'll use the nice and round number of $0.10.  (The latest power bill at my apartment in Pasadena shows 9.1 cents / kWh.)

So at the end of the day we're given the option to buy the electricity for 10 cents, or to have someone ride a bicycle for 10 hours straight.

Your choice: pedal a stationary bike for 10 hours, or fish a dime out of your pocket.


Now let's remember that we still have to buy the electrical generator (alternator) motor unit, and any sensors and display that get attached to the bicycle, and to hook up the unit to the electric grid.  This could be done as cheaply as $50, but more than likely would cost a bit more.  Again, for round numbers we'll use $100.

So now we have to pay off the parts, and at a rate of $0.10 per day, it will take us 1000 days to pay off.  If we round the length of a year down to a nice and round 333 days, that's 3 years of daily operation, 7 days a week, 10 hours per day.  During that time there's no allowance for maintenance or mechanical failure.  If the bike can operate this way for 3 years, then:
 Congrats!  That very next day, you'll be saving 1 cent for every 1 hour of pedaling.

And this is why we don't power many things with human power anymore.

Extra Assumptions:
1) Here we assume that humans want to pedal for free.  Even if they want 1 cent per hour (Note: this happens to be well below the US minimum wage of 725 cents per hour.), then there is never a payback on the electricity generation.
2) Above, we assume that there is 100% conversion efficiency between their leg output and the electricity generation.  In reality, we could use something between 50 and 70% efficiency.  But for now we'll use 100% conversion.  If we do de-rate to the round number of 50 percent efficiency, then the break-even on the capital cost of equipment is going to be 6 years.

Clip art is awesome, and I found the images used here on the following sites: