Flying Friday: “When Penguins Flew and Water Burned” (review)

I don’t bother to review very many books, in part because I read a lot and in part because writing reviews takes time away from reading. However, I recently received the Kindle version of When Penguins Flew and Water Burned and wanted to quickly recommend it. The book is a recap of the career of Jim Clonts, a B-52 navigator (and, later, radar navigator) during the tail end of the Cold War. Clonts writes in an engaging style, and his tales of life on a bomber crew are absolutely fascinating if you’re at all interested in military aviation. Although his crew position is navigator, he’s also a pilot and so there’s a fair bit of inside-baseball talk. The book is moderately heavy on jargon, as you might expect, but it’s still pretty approachable even if you don’t know anything about bombers or the USAF in general. Well worth a read if you’re flight-minded.

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Training Tuesday: the software and services

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s known me for more than 5 minutes (or read more than one article on this blog): I’m a nerd and I like gadgets. In an effort to get the most out of my training, I’ve tried a variety of different services to track, analyze, and store my workouts, and I frequently see people asking questions about services such as Strava and TrainingPeaks online, so I thought I’d jot down a few Cliffs Notes to help people figure out which services might be right for them.

First, let’s stipulate that pretty much every fitness device manufacturer (Garmin, Jawbone, Withings, Suunto, et al) has their own branded website. I don’t use any of these (except Garmin’s, about which more in a minute). Most devices require you to sync them with the manufacturer’s website. Sometimes those websites can sync to others (more on that in a second), and sometimes they cannot.

The latest trend in this market is the emergence of services such as Apple Health and Microsoft Health that want to aggregate all sorts of your fitness data (with some surprising omissions), analyze it, and then give you “actionable insights.” The things I’m writing about here are all targeted specifically at fitness, not necessarily overall health. For example, none of these sites directly lets you track the foods you eat (though some partner with food trackers). I’m not writing about the Microsoft or Apple services (or Google’s for that matter…. hahahahaha, like I’d give Google all my health data) because I don’t use them, but that might be a good topic for a future article.

Garmin ConnectGarmin recently updated their Connect service, so the version I’m writing about is labeled the “modern” version on the service itself. There’s also a “classic” version which seems to mostly have the same features, but I don’t use it.

Garmin ships a very wide range of products that plug into Garmin Connect: from fitness trackers to multisport watches to action cameras to special-purpose swim and golf watches, if it says “Garmin” on the front and isn’t a GPS, it probably will display data in GC.

The screenshot below gives you an idea of what GC looks like. You can customize each of the tabs across the top (“Sports” being shown in this case) with data blocks, adding, removing, and positioning blocks as you like. The other day, a new block labeled “Golf” showed up, but I gave it the heave-ho posthaste since, of all the fitness activities I enjoy, golf is not one of them.

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When I got my first Garmin device, I went to the GC site, signed up for an account, downloaded the sync software, and plugged in. This was all seamless, and the instructions provided were clear. Keep in mind that Garmin requires you to use sync software on your PC or Mac to sync your device, although if your device supports Wi-Fi or Bluetooth sync you may not need a computer at all. This sync software has nothing to do with the GC website itself, which you can use from anywhere.

(Personal note to my WP posse: there’s a decent Windows Phone app called Astro Fitness that can sync with GC.)

Overall, GC is my favorite of the connected-device services. While its social features are poor compared to Strava, and it lacks some of the specialty features from MapMyRide/MapMyRun (such as the ability to automatically choose a route if you give it a starting point and a distance), it looks good and is highly customizable. It also integrates pretty broadly into the wider fitness ecosystem; it can automatically sync with TrainingPeaks and Nike+ and can import food data from MyFitnessPal. Garmin’s support is forum-based and has done a good job answering the few issues I’ve raised.
Suunto MovescountIf you own a Suunto device, you’ll be using this to sync workouts from your device and to change many of the settings for the device itself. Suunto, in general, prefers a simpler on-device UI, so you need the website for things such as specifying which activities you want to track or what data fields to display on the watch. On the other hand, that makes the device a bit easier to use, though it means that if you forget to change a critical setting before a race or event, you can’t change it on the watch.

Below, you can see what a typical activity on Movescount looks like. Note that while Garmin Connect uses tabs, Suunto prefers a scrolling vertical layout, so you’re not seeing everything in this picture that would actually be displayed on the page.

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Like GC, Movescount shows you the pace, speed, distance, and location of your activities. It’s important to remember that what you’re seeing is based what the device recorded. While some Garmin devices will compute recovery time themselves, Suunto’s devices don’t, so the recovery time and PTE figures you see here are calculated by the service. On the other hand, the Ambit 2s can calculate “swolf” swim metrics, so Movescount will show them to you.

One persistent issue I had with the Movescount web site is that the distances shown for swims don’t necessarily match what the watch says or what gets synced to external services. For example, if I swim 300m according to the watch, it’s common for the site to say that I swam 275m (or maybe 325m, if it’s feeling generous) but then to display the correct distance when I sync through Tapiirik. Suunto’s support is aware of this problem, but hasn’t fixed it in the six months or so since I reported it. That’s sadly typical of my experiences with their support; the staff seems friendly, but they don’t get stuff done. In addition, the site had multiple weekend-long outages during the nine months or so I was using it daily. While these outages are harmless, they were quite annoying

Movescount has fairly weak social features, although it can automatically post links to your workouts on Facebook and/or Twitter. The site has a ton of groups for various sports, but the ones I was interested in had very few people— a testament to Suunto’s niche status in the fitness world. (Perhaps the groups for diving, hiking, etc were better populated?) Overall, a decent tool but not up to the standard of GC in my opinion.

Strava

Strava’s tagline is “Prove it.” The goal of the site is to help you “analyze and compare your data against yourself, friends, and pros.” To do this, you can either use the iOS or Android app, or a compatible Windows Phone app such as CycleTracks, or a GPS device (which can be a watch, a bike computer, or any of the other supported devices) to track your workouts. As you ride and run, Strava tracks your performance; the fastest person on a given route is labeled as the “king (or queen) of the mountain” (KOM or QOM) and gets a little badge.

Post-workout, you get a display similar to the below. There are three interesting things about this summary. First is the data panel just to the right of the ride title. It shows average and max speeds, heart rates, etc. This is very similar to what you see on other similar sites. Second, notice the “top results” list above the map. Strava automatically tracked my progress across designated parts of the route (known as “segments”) and noticed when my performance was good.

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Third is the segments list itself, which you can’t see on this page because the window wasn’t big enough. As you can see below, in the expanded view, for each segment I can see how I performed compared to other people who have ridden or run the same segment. The “Analyze” button zooms in on that segment to show graphs of speed, power, cadence, and elevation for the segment alone, while the “Compare” button lets you track your performance against the KOM or against anyone on your friends list. You can break your performance down to see how it stacks up against people in your age group, weight bracket, friends list, and so on. This is both powerful and motivating, especially when you couple it with the goals feature, which allows you to set a time goal for a particular segment.

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Speaking of friends: Strava has the best social features of any of these sites. You can follow (and/or be followed by) your friends, but there are also extensive features for forming clubs. For example, our local “We Run Huntsville” group has a Strava club, so when I look at the activity list I see what my real-world running friends have been doing. Same with my Complete Human Performance coaching posse, and so on. Strava also has a healthy environment of challenges (such as “complete a half-marathon this month” or “bike 250Km”). These challenges don’t win you anything except a little digital badge, plus bragging rights,  but as part of the overall goal-setting ethos of the site they’re valuable as spurs.

The basic Strava site is free, although you can pay more for the Premium version, which includes more analytical features, plus videos, workout plans, and other goodies. If you’re interested in giving Premium a try send me an email; I have a few codes that are good for a free month each.)

TrainingPeaks

I use TrainingPeaks (or TP, as it’s universally known) because my coach makes me. He puts workouts in, and they appear on my calendar, as you can see in the screenshot below. Because TP syncs to Garmin (and other services), when I complete a workout its data is almost always automatically assigned to the correct workout; in rare cases, I have to manually download an activity file and then attach it in TP. TP calculates a bunch of metrics that my coach can use to keep my training workload where it should be. As an athlete, I don’t necessarily see all of this data (nor, as a novice, would I know how to interpret it), but the overall ability to plan and track workouts is very useful. You can use this solo just by putting in your workout schedule (and TP has training plans for marathons, various triathlons, etc. that help automate this process). I’d love to see the local Fleet Feet start using this for workout tracking, for example. One very nice feature of TP Premium is that it can export an iCal calendar, so when I tag a workout on TP with a time, it shows up in my calendar— a very useful aid to overall time management.

Google ChromeScreenSnapz007One complaint I have about TP is that there’s no Windows Phone app, and their web site doesn’t work well at all in mobile IE. I typically copy weight workouts to OneNote (then turn them into checklists, yay!) but it would be nice to be able to see workout details on a device without that extra step. I also have often heard my coach and my fellow CHP athletes complain about refresh and stability problems with TP but haven’t had many problems with it myself. I will say that TP’s support staff are excellent; every time I’ve had a question or problem, they have quickly and efficiently resolved it. The premium version of TP is $10/month.

TrainerRoad

I LOVE THIS SERVICE and have written about it a couple of times before (most recently here). It combines bike workout plans with power measurement (either using a power meter or an algorithm that estimates power output based on your wheel speed and the resistance profile of your indoor trainer), then gives you immediate feedback about your power on the bike. You run the TR app on your iOS device or PC, and you immediately see what your performance looks like. The center graph in the screenshot below is basically what you see during a workout: the yellow trace is your power output. During a workout, you also see your cadence, heart rate, and other useful data. It makes working out to a specific standard much easier: you ride until the yellow line is where you want it over the blue, then hold it— easier said than done, but much easier (at least for me) than trying to figure it out on my own.

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TR costs $10/month, which gives you access both to the service (and its ability to sync directly to Garmin Connect, which is nice) and its workout library, which includes all sorts of cycling-specific training plans. I recommend it highly.

Tapiirik

Tapiirik is very simple: it syncs services. You can choose to sync any supported service to any other supported service, in any combination. For a while, I had RunKeeper, Strava, TrainingPeaks, and Endomondo all set up. Suunto would sync to RunKeeper, which would sync through Tapiirik to the other services I use (some of which had their own sync relationships, such as the link from RunKeeper to Fitocracy). Now that Garmin, Strava, and TrainingPeaks all talk to each other, I don’t use this much any more but it’s a valuable tool if you want to talk to any of the services it supports.For $2/year this is a superb value.

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Everything else

MapMyFitness: this is really a collection of very similar sites: MapMyRide, MapMyRun, etc. My favorite feature here is the “route genius”, which will lay out a route of the specified distance given a starting point and workout type. This service costs around $30/year for the premium version, which is required to use “route genius”. I use it because I got a year for free when I bought my headphones, but you may not find the features that compelling.

Nike+: this is the software I first started with. I liked it, but it only does running, and it only works with the Nike+ app for iOS (and maybe Android?) While the presentation is top notch, it lacks many of the features in Strava and Garmin, so I ditched it. Garmin recently added sync with Nike+, so if I ever go back to an iOS device I might take a look at it again.

There are lots of other services in this same mold: Runkeeper is another example. And then there are tons of apps that work with these services on various platforms… and more coming all the while. So this article isn’t comprehensive, and it will probably be outdated sooner than I’d like, but such is life with cloud services.. even when those services are supposed to be for something fun.

 

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Training Tuesday: first week with the Garmin Fenix 3

Not long after I got my Garmin 920xt, Garmin announced the Fenix 3, which combines the same Connect IQ software platform with a round face and (to me) a much more attractive industrial design. I ordered one in January, figuring that I could probably sell the 920xt without too much trouble, then I settled in to wait for its arrival. I’ve had it about a week now, just long enough to get a sense of how it compares to the 920xt.

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First,I love the physical appearance and build quality of the watch. It reminds me of the Suunto Ambit 2s, though it’s a bit heavier. Whereas the 920xt felt plastic-y (makes sense, given that it was plastic), the Fenix 3 feels like a real watch. Screen brightness and clarity are excellent; the screen is a different shape but has the same resolution as the one in the 920xt. One significant difference is that the 920xt has six hardware buttons, while the Fenix 3 only has five. They’re also arranged very differently; for example, the “up” button on the 920xt and the “start/stop” button on the Fenix 3 are in the same location, on the upper right side of the watch. The difference in button location has been the hardest thing for me to get used to. Starting and stopping activities is easy, but there’s no longer a single-button shortcut for “connect to wifi” and there’s no dedicated button to bring up settings— instead, you hold down the “up” button. I’m still trying to master the button combo to enter drill mode when swimming and have occasionally fumbled with the other buttons in the midst of an activity, but I’m getting used to it now.

In terms of functionality, the Fenix 3 does everything the 920xt does for tracking runs, swims, and so on. However, it has four additional sensors: an altimeter, a barometer, a compass, and a temperature sensor. The Fenix 3 software thus has several features missing from the 920xt, including the ability to display data from all those sensors, “trail run” and “hike” activity modes that track your altitude using the altimeter instead of GPS altitude, and a slightly different UI paradigm for interacting with the sensors: each sensor type has its own dedicated widget, which you page through using the “up” and “down” buttons. Here’s a quick video I shot showing what the widget displays look like. The widget labeled “VIRB” is there for controlling Garmin VIRB action cameras. I much prefer having a separate widget for this than the 920xt approach of having the VIRB controller be a data page that appears within an activity. Here’s a quick video I shot showing a little of what the user interface looks like.

 

There’s about a $50 cost difference between the 920xt and the Fenix 3, assuming you buy just the watch and not the bundle with the heart-rate strap (and that you buy the basic Fenix 3, not the fancier and heavier one with sapphire glass). For me, the cost was well worth having a nicer-looking watch. One downside to the form factor of the Fenix 3 is that there currently isn’t a quick-release kit, as there is for the 920xt, so if I want to use it while riding the bike I’ll need to improvise a mount. That’s a small disadvantage, though, for the way I use the watch.

Of course, the back-end Garmin Connect service doesn’t care which watch you use to gather your data as long as it has the Garmin logo on the front, so switching the 920xt for the Fenix 3 was a non-issue there.

If you’d like to know more about the Fenix 3, I highly recommend this lengthy review at dcrainmaker. It goes into much more detail about the watch, how it works, and how it compares to its peers.

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License usage reporting in Office 365, part 2

If you’ve been wondering where part 2 of my series on reporting in Office 365 was, wonder no more; it just went live this morning.

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Microsoft rolls out Clutter admin improvements

Back in November, I wrote about my early experience with the Office 365 Clutter feature. I’ve been using it on and off– mostly off, due to a rare bug that surfaced because my mailbox is actually hosted on a portion of the Office 365 cloud that descends from the old Exchange Labs “friends and family” tenant. The bug kept Clutter from correctly moving clutter messages automatically; once it was fixed things returned to normal after I re-enabled the Clutter feature, and I’ve been happily using it since.

One of the big advantages of Office 365 is that the service team can develop and release new features much faster than they can for on-premises services. Sure enough, Microsoft today announced three new features for Clutter.

The biggest of these is the ability to create transport rules that flag messages, or senders, as exempt from Clutter processing. This is exactly the same thing as specifying safe senders for message hygiene filtering, although the implementation is a little different. You’ll create a transport rule that has the conditions and exceptions you want, but with an action that adds a header value of “ClutterBypassedByTransportRuleOverride: TRUE”, as described here. I have not personally had even a single false positive from Clutter since I’ve been testing it, and I haven’t seen any complaints about false positive problems from other users, MVPs, or customers. Having said that, Microsoft was smart to include a way to exempt certain messages from processing, as this will soothe some users and tenant administrators who are worried about the potential to have important messages be misdirected.

Second, the Clutter folder can now be managed by retention policies. This is an eminently logical thing to do, and it nicely highlights the flexibility of Exchange’s messaging records management system.

Rounding out the trio, you now have a very limited ability to customize the message that users see when they enable Clutter for their mailboxes: you can change the display name that the notification appears to be from, and you’ll soon be abe to change the logo. Frankly, this is weak sauce; there’s no way to customize the text of the notification, add custom URLs to it, or otherwise modify it in a useful way. Long-time Exchange administrators will recognize a familiar pattern exemplified by customizable delivery status notifications (DSNs), quota warning messages, and MailTips in previous versions of Exchange: first Microsoft delivered a useful feature with no customization capability, then they enabled limited customization, then (after prolonged complaining from customers) they broadened the range of things that could be customized. Let’s hope that pattern holds here.

There’s still one weak spot in the Clutter feature set: it still requires individual users to opt in (or out). While it’s true that users would likely be alarmed by the sudden forceful application or removal of the Clutter feature from their mailboxes, it’s also true that Office 365 as a whole needs to provide better controls for administrators to regulate which service features users have access to. I am hopeful that we’ll see better admin controls (and reporting) for this feature in the future.

While these improvements aren’t necessarily earth-shaking, they do add some welcome utility to what is already a valuable feature. Clutter is a great example of a feature that can make a measurable positive difference in users’ satisfaction with the service, and I look forward to more improvements in the feature.

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License usage reporting in Office 365, part 1

On this blog, I write about whatever interests me. To the chagrin of some folks, this often includes aviation, fitness, and various complaints, but hey.. it could be worse. I save the really inane stuff for Twitter.

Besides the content I post here, though, I also blog at the Summit 7 Systems blog collective. Right now I’m publishing a series on reporting in Office 365. The first part of the series, on license usage reporting, is here, and the second part will be published shortly. In general, when I post content there that might be of interest to readers here, I’ll cross-post it with a short post like this one.

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Flying Friday: of shops and annuals

I haven’t been flying much lately, sad to say. This is mostly because of weather, but partly because I have been busy with other things. However, as spring approaches, I’ve been eager to get back in the air. A couple of weeks ago, I went flying with John, my CFII, and shot some practice instrument approaches. While I was a bit rusty, I was still able to fly a good ILS, even in the winds, but I had a little bit of trouble making the KLN94 do what I wanted to get set up for the GPS approach into Huntsville… its time is coming, though, and I hope to finally get the Avidyne IFD540 installed in early summer. That’s still some time away, though. There are two hurdles to cross first: getting our engine monitor installed and getting the plane through its required annual inspection.

First, the engine monitor. Like almost all other airplanes of this vintage, 706 has a battery of analog gauges that report on the engine health. There’s nothing wrong with this, as these instruments tend to be very reliable. The tachometer, manifold pressure gauge, and fuel flow gauge are all very important. However, the standard engine instruments have several shortcomings. First, our plane had a conventional single gauge for reporting exhaust gas temperature (EGT), and the aftermarket cylinder head temperature (CHT) gauge wasn’t working. The problem with single-channel EGT and CHT instruments is that they only tell you what one cylinder is doing, so there’s no way to see what’s going on with the other five cylinders. Second is that the gauges are scattered all around the panel; besides the EGT and CHT indicators, there’s a suction gauge (which tells you whether the engine-driven vacuum pump that drives the gyros is working), the fuel gauges, and so on. Third is that these gauges only show instantaneous data, not trends, and they don’t alert you to unusual conditions.

The solution: get an engine monitor. After much shopping and head-scratching, we settled on the CGR-30P from Electronics International. The video below will give you an idea of what this magic box does:

From my perspective, the CGR-30P does two critical things: it alerts you when an engine parameter goes out of limits (say, if the oil pressure decreases unexpectedly), and it logs data that can be used for later analysis. As a nice side benefit, it monitors CHT and EGT for all six cylinders, which has the dual benefit of giving early indication of potential misbehavior and providing the data we need to operate the engine as efficiently as possible.

(Brief digression: there is a lot of religious argument over the “correct” way to adjust the fuel/air mixture in piston engines. This article by noted mechanic Mike Busch explains the topic, and the debate, very well, along with recommending the approach that I will be using once I have accurate CHT and EGT data).

Getting the CGR-30P installed, though, requires an avionics shop. Derek and I have struggled with finding a good local shop. There’s no avionics shop at our home field, and C-Cubed, which used to be at Huntsville,  closed a few months ago. Their spot was taken over by a company called Advanced Technical Avionics (ATA). After a brief period of confusion occasioned by a management change (translation: someone got fired), we got the plane into the shop on Tuesday to start the installation. With any luck, in a week or so, the plane will be back in the air– which is good, as I have a trip planned to New Orleans next month for the New Orleans Sprint triathlon, my first of the year.

Right after I get back from New Orleans, the plane needs to go in for its annual inspection. Every general aviation aircraft is required to undergo a comprehensive airworthiness inspection each year. There are specific things that the shop will check based on the engine and airframe manufacturer’s recommendations, and there can be other things that need checking or adjustment based on how much the plane has been flown. For example, some components need to be checked every 100 or 500 hours. (This example inspection checklist gives you an idea of some of the things that must be inspected.) Then, because this is a 40-year-old airplane, there will inevitably be some things that need to be repaired or replaced because they’re worn out or broken. For example, our air conditioner doesn’t work any longer, so we’ll have the shop take a look at it as long as they’re crawling around inside the plane.

On the advice of Savvy, our maintenance management company, we’re using a Piper service center for the annual– DLK Aviation in Kennesaw, Georgia. That means that we’ll have to ferry the plane there and back again; I’ll probably rent a plane from Redstone and pick Derek up after he drops the plane off, but driving isn’t out of the question. Once the plane arrives, after one to two weeks (and some unknown amount of money, depending on whether there are any expensive surprises), we’ll have the plane back and be good for another year.

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