Thursday, September 19, 2013

It's Getting Awfully Cloudy

Yesterday I decided to take a quick trip to Best Buy to peruse the latest in electronics.  My walk through the store demonstrated the fundamental shift that is happening with today's technology.  This fundamental shift is that most "content" and "data" is moving to the "cloud".  The rows that used to be filled with software are growing smaller and are being replaced with little cards that are used to go the Internet and purchase a 365 day "pass" to access the software.  Aisles that were once filled with music and video CDs, DVD's and Blue-Ray discs are now being removed.  Instead of going to the store to buy a physical disc all content is now being access through services like Netflix, VUDU, HULU, iTunes, Pandora, etc.  

The concept of what is now called the "cloud" has been around for as long as the Internet has been running.  In it's simplest definition the "cloud" is data storage that is accessible from any place on the Internet.  Whether a person is located in the United States, Mongolia, Antarctica, Russia, or on the International Space Station - anywhere there is an Internet connection, the same data can be accessed. The "cloud" frees data from being dependent upon a specific computer, tablet, cell phone, etc.

Though the concept of the "cloud" has been around since the early days of the Internet there have been technological advances in recent years that have enabled this concept to become the backbone of commerce today.  Some of these changes have been; the ever increasing capacity of hard disc storage at lower costs, the ability to transfer greater volumes of data across transmission media and the increased efficiency of data compression algorithms.  All of these factors have created a situation in which it is as effective and cost efficient to store massive amounts of data in remote locations far away from where they will eventually be used.

For software companies and content owners the use of the cloud to manage data and content is a boon.  No longer will a company like Microsoft get a one-time payment for the purchase of the Office Suite of products, they will now get a yearly revenue stream from every person who uses their product.  Microsoft will no longer be at the whims of whether or not a person decides to upgrade to the next version, it will simply be forced to them through the yearly usage charge.  If you choose not to pay the yearly usage charge, then you won't be able to use their software at the end of the 365 days.  It's a great way to assure an ongoing revenue stream. 

All of this is great for the companies that produce the data and content but what about you the user?  To me it seems that as the trend towards the cloud gets greater, the user will lose more and more control of the things they own.  What is going to happen if you spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars building up a video library on VUDU and then for whatever reason VUDU goes bankrupt and ceases operation?  What happens to those movies that you have purchased?  An example of this has not yet happened as far as I am aware, but the best guess is that you will just be out of luck and your movies will be gone.

Another issue with all of this is the simple question, where is your data and who can access it?  Do the companies that host your data have adequate safe guards and audit procedures in place to tell if one of their employees is accessinf your data?  Here's a horrible example of what could happen.  A well meaning person takes pictures of their little kid and stores them a cloud website  - it could be any of them, Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google, etc.  An employee of that company who works in some far off country routine searches files stored by the company and grabs a copy of the kids photos and post them to some horrible website.  The parent may never even know it.  You place your files on one of those services and you are effectively giving up control of them.

Additionally with all the NSA and governmental snooping that is going on these days you can be darn sure some one or some program from big brother is looking at your data.  If you put some really attractive (nude or even non-nude) pictures of your girlfriend/wife out on one of those cloud website, you can probably bet some oily faced twenty-something "NSA Analyst" is probably looking at them. 

My personal preference is to avoid these cloud based services and data storage mechanisms as much as is possible.  There are certain ones I can't avoid, such as Fitbit where all my data is stored in their corporate cloud somewhere.  And sometimes I use cloud based data storage for ease of sharing data with friends and family, but I don't put anything important out there at all.  Unfortunately no matter what you and I do, more and more of our data and information will end up on the cloud and will be vulnerable to prying eyes or plain and simple destruction if the company hosting it goes belly up.

Those are my interesting thoughts for the day!  From a personal perspective, Zack is now one month into his freshman year of high school and so far so good.  There are some things that he needs to improve upon but in general he is doing well.  Tomorrow, Friday, September 20th is a day off of school for Zack so we are heading to the mountains tonight.  Instead of our normal I-70 route we will be taking Highway 285 into South Park and then taking a dirt road the over the continental divide at Boreas Pass and down into the town of Breckenridge.  It's a trip I have wanted to take for a long time and today is the day.  If we don't do it today, in all likelihood the route will be closed by snow the next time we head to the mountains.

It also looks as though my time of being an unemployed wanderer is coming to an end.  I'll find out for certain early next week, but the pull of making money is significant and so in early October I will go back to work as an independent consultant.  Once the deal is finalized I will write a bit more about what I will be doing.  It will be good work and it will take me back to my roots in the professional services industry for which I am very happy!

Sorry it's been so long between posts, but life has been busy and I have been focused on other areas of my life.  My next post shouldn't be so long in coming.

Until then - thanks and peace to all! ~ J.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Fitbit versus Body Media's Bodybugg - Take II

About 4 months ago I wrote a blog entry in which I compared the Fitbit Flex to Body Media's Bodybugg.  At the time I had only recently purchased the Fitbit Flex and was uncertain as to its accuracy, durability and overall ease of usage. My knowledge of the Bodybugg on the other hand was extensive as it was an old trusted friend that I had been using for years.


There has been significant interest from my readers about the comparison I made between these two devices.  The hit counter built into this blog allows for the referring URL to be determined and there have literally been hundreds if not a thousand or more hits that have come to the blog from the Google search "Fitbit vs Bodybugg.  Therefore, now that I have a lot more experience with the Fitbit it makes sense to re-visit this subject.

The key discovery from the extended usage of the Fitbit is that the Fitbit does not seem to accurately reflect the amount of calories expended during a day.  Though the Fitbit does an excellent job tracking the distance walked each day, it has a hard time turning non-walking activities into an accurate calorie burn.  Even when the activity log function is used, the Fitbit seems to discount the amount of calories that are burned for non-walking, non-running activities.  Bike riding is clearly one of those areas in which the Fitbit does a horrible job calculating the number of calories expended.  I use multiple instruments to track/estimate the number of calories I burn during my bike rides and the Fitbit routinely under counts the calorie burn by 20 - 30%.  This inaccurate calculation of calories burned is the most significant drawback to the Fitbit.

The Bodybugg on the other hand is extremely accurate in it's calculation of calories burned in any activity.  The drawback to the Bodybugg is the awkward manner in which you must wear it.  While the Fitbit is a relatively "bland" bracelet that you wear around your wrist, the Bodybugg is worn wrapped around your bicep.  Not only does it look dorky, it must be worn in very close contact with the skin which makes it feel tight and uncomfortable.

The real decision point between the devices comes down to the user's need.  Is accuracy the most critical feature for the wearer?  If it is, then the only choice is the Bodybugg.  If the accuracy of the caloric burn isn't extremely critical and the wearer is more interested in steps taken, or comfort then the Fitbit is the device of choice.

As for me - I retired my Bodybugg shortly after I purchased the Fitbit.  Despite the accuracy issue I am sticking with the Fitbit and using my experience with caloric burn rates to compensate for its inaccuracy.  I'll follow what new advancements Body Media comes up with and if they can package the Bodybugg in a different way so that it is more comfortable, I will definitely make the switch back.

Given it was a holiday yesterday, it is a short work week - yay!  I hope every one has a great rest of the week ahead!

Thanks and peace to all! ~ J.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Climbing Elephant Butte

A unique feature of Denver that very few people know about are its Mountain Parks.  In the early 20th century, the leaders of the young city of Denver concluded that it would be in the city's best interests to preserve tracts of wilderness outside of Denver's boundaries.  This decision was driven by the idea of setting aside land that might otherwise be developed so that it could be used by the people of Denver for recreation and to allow the city dwellers to escape into the wilderness.  What started in 1910 has continued and grown.  There are now 22 properties, holding over 14,000 acres of land that make up the Denver Mountain Parks system.  Many of these properties are parks in which trails, picnic shelters and other facilities have been built.  A small number of these properties have remained untouched and undeveloped.

Elephant Butte is one of the Denver Mountain Park properties that has remained untouched over all these years.  According to everything I could find on the Internet, there are no trails in the Elephant Butte property.  In the center of this preserved space is Elephant Butte, which is an 8,400 foot rocky point that looms over the Jefferson County mountain town of Evergreen.  Located to the southwest of downtown Evergreen, Elephant Butte is "sandwiched" between Evergreen Lake and the Jefferson County Open Space - Alderfers Three Sisters Park.

(Elephant Butte as seen from Blue Bird Meadow Trail in the Alderfer Three Sisters Open Space)

Each time I have gone to Alderfer Three Sisters Open Space to hike, I have looked at Elephant Butte in the distance and told myself that someday I was going to climb to the top of it.  This past Tuesday, after getting Zack off to the bus, I set out on my journey to climb Elephant Butte.

Driving to Evergreen I encountered the typical morning rush hour traffic along highway C470. It honestly wasn't that bad as Denver's rush hour traffic is no where near as congested as other cities.  Thankfully most of my journey was on the winding roads of Bear Creek Canyon.  Though traffic was sparse the sharp curves and steep inclines ensured that I kept my speed in check.

I arrived at the parking area of Three Sisters/Alderfer's Open Space and realized based upon the lack of cars that it was pretty likely I would have the trails to myself.  Looking towards Elephant Butte to the north, I reminded myself that the looks of a mountain are usually quite deceiving, as it didn't look like it would be a hard climb.  Assuming a mountain is an easy climb is a great way to get yourself into trouble!

In preparation for this climb I had done a lot of reading about Elephant Butte.  There wasn't one article in which a trail to the top was mentioned.  It was going to be an off trail bushwhack to reach the top of this mountain.  From the parking area I would strike out on the Bluebird Meadow trail and then link up with Mountain Mulhy trail.  Following this trail for about 8/10 of a mile, I would cross Buffalo Creek and then move off trail to cover the last 3/4 of a mile to the summit of Elephant Butte.

The first part of my hike was wonderful as I meandered along the trails.  Moving steadily down hill towards Buffalo Creek, I entered a small valley still in the early morning shadows.  The cool morning air was still and calm.  It seemed as though I had entered a different world removed from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.  This sense of peace and calm was further emphasized when I came across a pair of mule deer quietly grazing on the banks of Buffalo Creek.  They startled me more than I startled them and I stood there for several long minutes looking at them as they assessed whether I was a danger or not.

Letting the deer to graze in peace, I continued my journey down to the bottom of the valley and Buffalo Creek.  Taking a last look at the trail to ensure I could find my way back, I struck off into the bush.  I was able to follow a faint path along the pine needle strewn forest floor.  Eventually the heavy forest cover and the trail petered out and I found myself along the steep flanks of Elephant Butte.

To climb this mountain, I would need to carefully navigate my way up the steep slopes without putting myself into a perilous situation.  The method I use to bushwhack my way up a mountain like this is to "follow the green".  That is, I try and follow the areas in which trees and bush grow up the side of the mountain.  If a tree or shrub can grow on it, then it usually means that the ground isn't too steep to walk upon - usually.

It seemed like it took forever but I finally arrived at a point on the mountain right below the top slab of the mountain and it was there that I came across a path.  Coming across the path was both reassuring and annoying.  It was reassuring in the fact that I would be able to get my way off the mountain without having to go back they way I came and it was annoying in the fact that there was obviously a path that ran the whole way up and down the mountain.  I spent all the time and put myself in peril to reach this height on the mountain only to find that there was a path the whole way up it!

Following the path to the top was difficult at it was not a formal, well constructed path.  There were several points in which the path seemed to fade away but it was because there was an abrupt turn that wasn't marked.  Eventually I gave up on the path and got down on my hands and knees and climbed the last several hundred feet to the top.

Obtaining the summit presented a marvelous view in all directions!  I could see clearly for many miles.  Though the climb had been difficult, it was well worth it because of all the wonderful views.

 (Some of the views from the top of Elephant Butte.)

There were several peak registers in a plastic container stuffed in the hollow of a dead pine tree near the summit.  Of course I had to stop and sign the register and read what others who had come before me had written.  It is fun to see the thoughts and comments of those who have scaled the mountain.

After spending about 30 minutes enjoying the view at the top, I started back down.  Shortly after I left the top I ran into an older gentleman walking towards the summit.  We stopped and talked for a short bit and I asked him about the trail.  He was able to provide me with a couple of reference points so that I could follow the trail the whole way down.  Needless to say that made my return trip down the mountain so much quicker!

To help those who scale Elephant Butte in the future I used my GPS to mark where the informal trail to the top of Elephant Butte starts.  This trail branches off of the Mountain Mulhy trail in Alderfer Three Sisters Open Space at these coordinates -  N 39.37.736 W 105.21.609.  The branch point is not obvious at all and unless you are looking for it, you probably will not find it.  If you intend to climb Elephant Butte, use these coordinates as it will make your hike so much easier!

Elephant Butt is just one of the many hikes and climbs that I have been doing in the two weeks since Zack went back to school.  I have many more of these hikes planned in the coming days and weeks.  As the weather and the leaves begin to change, I'll be heading further into the mountains to see the wonderful colors of autumn.

I hope everyone is enjoying there long weekend and has a great day off tomorrow!

Thanks and peace to all!