Saturday, 29 April 2017

Great Post on Barefoot Running

Hi, everyone.

I've written in the past about barefoot running in Vibrams. I just came across this blog post on Beginning Barefoot and wanted to share. Definitely worth a read, and kudos to Barefoot Dawsy for a well-balanced discussion of a subject that tends to polarizing views. It's also refreshing to read this blog in general, because the subject tends to be seen as a "fad"/craze. 

If your running routine is starting to feel stagnant, barefoot running may be worth a try. But try it for the right reasons and know that It's not for everyone (and that's okay).

Happy trails!

Friday, 3 February 2017

Set Up Freephoneline on the Grandstream HT-701 (firmware 1.0.8.2)

Greetings again!

As you may know, I'm a big fan of Freephoneline (FPL). One of the nice things is the great support provided in the online communities:

http://forum.fongo.com/index.php

http://forums.redflagdeals.com/freephoneline-ca-free-local-soft-phone-line-lifetime-voip-821229/

Over the years, I've received a lot of great help from members of the community; I've learned a lot about FPL, VoIP in general, ideal network conditions and design to best run this stuff...best of all, how to keep it up and running, and what to do when something goes wrong!

In some small way, I've tried to help and hope I have helped other users. For my own setup, I use the Grandstream HT-701 ATA (analog telephone adapter), which last I checked is the adapter that Fongo provides for their monthly phone service. While many FPL users have moved on to Obihai ATAs, there are others who still use different options from Cisco, Linksys, and Grandstream. The last available configuration guide was for an earlier firmware, so I wanted to put together something more current to help others, even if it's just a few people.

You can access the PDF here: http://forum.fongo.com/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=18839. If I have any updates to it, such as troubleshooting tips, I'll be sure to add them there.

Thanks, and hope this helps! And thanks to everyone in the two FPL communities that helped me navigate these tricky waters.

Happy savings!


Fongo Mobile Revisit

Hi all,

I just wanted to do a quick follow up on some stuff I wrote about regarding Fongo Mobile. Before I dive in, I want to be clear that I still think it offers a lot of value to people looking to save money. For me, however, it's not a viable replacement to traditional cell service like I thought it was.

 I've since switched back to a smartphone lite plan with Koodo for $30/mth + tax. I brought my own phone (my trusty Q10). So far, am a happy camper and I feel it's worth the slight increase to have proper calling (nation-wide, at that), texting, and data.

Don't get me wrong, I got a lot out of Fongo mobile when I used it, first on my Android phone, then later on my various BB10 devices. I particularly stuck with it while my wife and I were paying down our student debt; it was "good enough" service and the savings were immense. In particular, I found the texting functionality to be very good; that was a paid add-on, but coupled with a cheap $10/tax data add on, you couldn't complain.

What ruined the app for me is it's main function: to make phone calls over WiFi or data connections, instead of using up cell phone minutes.

Try as I might, I could never get those to work reliably. At times, the connection would be fine (and WiFi signal was never an issue, at least in our house). But for the most part, loved ones complained of delay in my voice (especially on data) and static. The reply I got from support (which were always super helpful, which is great for a largely free service) was to use a better router. I'd planned on buying a dual band router with better security than our last one, so I thought it might help with my calls on Fongo. Not so; the same issues persisted.

So for me, Fongo is no longer viable as a full voice and texting alternative to a traditional smartphone plan. Shame, because I really wanted it to work and recommend it to others as a fool-proof solution. However, as with a lot of these things, your mileage may vary.

And that's really what I wanted to get at in my original post; even though it served as an endorsement, I strive to cover all the potential limitations of what I recommend and strongly suggest that you test these things out for yourself and see if it works for you. Another great thing about the service: sign up for free, download the app, get a free (real) number, and start making calls over WiFi or data. Nothing to lose.

Who knows, you may have better luck than I. I hope you will.  The next time we travel overseas, I'll likely try out Fongo again so I can contact home easily; even if the limitations still exist

One thing's for certain, I'm still very much happy with Freephoneline and will continue to trumpet that service (for the DIY tinkerer) and Fongo Home Phone for the less technically inclined. So, well done to the company there!

Happy testing and happy saving!

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Workouts and Minimalism: Test Your (Max) Capacity (Part 2)

Last time (August 2016!), I wrote about Vibrams as a way of reevaluating your running and the potential benefits of minimalist running. That was part 1. It's about time I did part 2!

This time around, I'll continue the theme of minimalist workouts by taking a look at the Max Capacity training program.

Image result for max capacity

Max Capacity is a workout regimen -- 12 weeks in duration with a variety of workouts to help you build up your core strength, flexibility, and agility.

To me, this is a no frills program and that's what I like most about it. The workout "reps" are easy to understand with simple graphics and explanations. Each week is a little different; even if you do the same four workouts, week to week something may change slightly. As with most things in life, variety is a good thing.

How I Found Max Capacity

As I mentioned in my post about transitioning to Vibrams, it was a bumpy road in every sense of the phrase. Changing up routine can expose things that aren't working for you; in my case, changing my running routine exposed the fact that I didn't have a good strengthening routine to complement my running (and vice-versa). That was back in 2012.

Out of perceived necessity, I wanted to get on a schedule for strengthening. On off-days from running, my thought was I'd try some strengthening exercises (or cardio exercises such as cycling; and of course, take days off -- those are key, too). But chiefly, I needed strenghtening in some way, I needed a variety, and I needed something simple that I could just start right away. By default, I tend to fall back on the ever-familiar combo of pushups, situps, planks, etc. And left to my own devices, I likely don't get up to my (max) capacity.

As the adage goes, "There's an app for that". While I suspected some might be gimmicky, I did look around. Specifically, I searched on my BlackBerry PlayBook -- my thought was there wouldn't be a whole lot to sift through in terms of choice. :)

Happily, one of the main options was Max Capacity. I downloaded it in 2013, tried the first workout, and mostly haven't looked back.

Strength, Running, and Rest Improved

It wasn't long (2ish weeks) before I started to see and feel results. More muscle definition, better breathing, all of which parlayed into better running. One of the reasons I initially had Achilles pain when I first started using Vibrams was a lack of strength; as a result, so my physiotherapist told me at the time: other parts all the way down the posterior chain were overcompensating.

With a bit of strength built up, I could immediately see and feel a difference with my running. My stride felt lighter, the aches in my Achilles (and back) went down. Thanks to Max Capacity, I found a balance in my exercise. And thanks to its lack of gimmicks and effectiveness of the workouts,  I've stuck with it -- either following the program week-by-week or jumping in at random points to complete a workout. I've used it during travels, too, when physical activity can take a hit -- put it on your phone, open the app, and fit in a workout in your hotel room.

Reasons that I love Max Capacity

Here's a bullet list of the things that work for me and may work for you too: 
  • It's free -- no expensive gym fees!
  • It's simple and there are no gimmicks
    • Open the app/website/page in the book
    • Do the workout
    • Repeat
  • It's accessible
    • available on multiple platforms (mobile and desktop, even as a book)
    • travel-friendly -- do the workouts in your hotel room
  • You don't need a gym, fancy equipment, or trainer -- just your own desire to start!
  • You have a schedule to follow, or you can jump in at random
    • Ultimately, you have the choice here. 
    • The only person you have to answer to is yourself, not the app.
  • If you stick with it, you feel results and progress
  • It's not gimmicky
    • It's a basic but effective interface/app
    • There's no annoying notifications
    • There IS a much-appreciated applause at the end of a workout, though. I do like that.
  • Best of all, ANYONE can do it -- beginners, included. That what I was when I started and I still feel like one sometime!
(Self-reminder: use more bullet lists in my posts!)

My favourite workout? 

I love the tabatha repetitions (4 workouts, 20 second reps x 10, with 10 sec breaks in between). But lately, my favourite is the pushup/squat pyramid; a bonus workout and a challenging but satisfying one at that. It's HARD, but worth it. When getting started, you could try to get up to 10 of each and down again.

As with all of the recommendations I make, these are things that I tried out that work for me. My hope is that something in this post and others will feel familiar and relatable to you. If your workout needs a shot in the arm or you just need to start working out, and if you don't want to sift through a bunch of options that can (frankly) be intrusive and overwhelming, gives this program a try. It doesn't need a fancy, sleek UI; it's simply effective, accessible, and flexible.

Happy workouts! Don't forget to breathe, drink water, stretch, and rest. (I'm telling myself the same thing!)

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Workouts and Minimalism: Vibrams are your Eventual Friend (Part 1)

This time around, I'm going to talk about exercise and alternatives to being a gym rat with all the latest and greatest gear. In a lot of cases, the weigh, resistance, and movement of your own body is all you need. As with my other posts, I'm not trying to recommend against something like, in this case, going to the gym. But it doesn't have to be the only way. And one piece of gear that I continue to love since I tried it out are my trusty Vibrams, which I'll focus on in this post.

Warmup Anecdote

Let's rewind 15 years or so. In my case, my university added a gym, for which the student body had to pay an additional mandatory fee. As a relatively sedentary person, I was initially outraged. After paying the fee a few times, I decided if I couldn't beat them, I could try to join them. And it was then that I started using the gym.

As I got more accustomed to going, I felt the need to always have access to a gym -- otherwise, how would I work out? Surely being surrounded by barbells, ellipticals, treadmills, and sweaty people availing of all of them was part of my inspiration to push on? Put another way, I found it difficult to envision working out at all without all of these codified distractions.

A number of years later (~2005 or so), I got into running. Chiefly on the treadmill, but I started running outside. It was on the trails, paths, and roads that I realized what a step forward really felt like. It became clear to me that the treadmill (or "dreadmill", as the term of endearment goes), while beneficial with all of its preset race training, modes, and elevations, was no match for stepping on real ground and the amount of energy that was required to propel forward.

Gradually, I learned about the "proper" running shoes I was supposed to wear, with specific cushioning that corrected my overpronation. I also learned that shoes were expensive and needed to replaced early and often -- so I was told anyways! It likely comes as no surprise that I have a tendency to not accept this sort of mould and explore the alternatives. :)

Interval Training: Five Finger Time

I'd trained for a few races over the years in a few pairs of traditional running shoes (from 5ks to half marathons). The common themes were that they'd wore out quickly and I had recurring knee pains -- the latter being another narrative about runners (that largely turns out to be a myth and indicative of other issues, but that's a larger discussion possibly for another time.) Needless to say, I got tired of repeating the same behaviour and not feeling it was working for me. Whenever I hit that point, I feel: what's the harm in trying something different?

Enter Vibram five finger shoes (specifically the Komodo variety).

Image result for orange vibrams

I know what you're thinking, and no...I don't wear these for the style!

I bought my first pair in 2012.  Right away, what they lacked in style, they more than made up for in feel. Many people who use them describe what results is a style of running that feels "natural." I would agree; they felt so good.

Running suddenly felt great again. Best of all, I noticed my knee pain gradually dissipated. I felt revitalized.

Climbing the Hill: New Pain (And Gain!)

Just a quick public service announcement in the interest of preventing unnecessary injuries: If you're curious about Vibrams and take one thing away from this blog, this is it: start slow, and if you think you're starting too slow, slow it down even more until your feet adjust. I wish I took that advice; my knee pain went away, but by shifting to Vibrams too quickly, I replaced it with Achilles pain, which was even worse. It is not advisable to immediately start training for a half marathon in brand new Vibrams, even if you could previously run that distance in cushioned shoes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I'm glad I experienced the Achilles issues; the experience was a reminder that I was not diversifying my workout enough. While I could run for a long time and felt I had/have decent endurance, the next day I'd be in agony. Even with stretching. After those pains developed, I went to physio for a month or so where it became clear that I needed to build up more strength and introduce variety to my workouts. Physio exercises, bike riding, swimming, strengthening (thanks, among other things, to the Maximum Capacity workout, which I'll get into the latter in part two of this blog series).

Aside from taking that first step on a run in the early hours, I find maintaining variety to be the most challenging part of working out. Adding Vibrams and learning what I did about my body has helped me adjust and vary accordingly.

Speed Work: To Run in Everlasting Shoes

While I like a variety of workout, my favourite is still running in Vibrams -- any type of run, from free form to speed intervals to hill work.  I've run everything between 5 ks and half marathons in Vibrams and have felt great. They're also frugal living-friendly, which I'll get into in my breakdown of pros and cons.

Here are some of my favourite qualities about Vibrams:
  • The "natural" step feeling--there's something freeing about taking a step and knowing that your foot is going through the motion the way it's designed (gait). My first step in Vibrams was a mid-to-high foot strike, rather than a heel strike that typifies cushioned shoe running.
  • The fit--I always manage to get a perfect fit with Vibrams. No guessing about how much space to leave from your toe to the front of the shoe; the more flush with your toes, the better!
  • The long-term price--While a new pair of Vibrams isn't that much cheaper than a standard pair of running shoes, the amount of times you have to replace the former is far less frequent than the latter. Vibrams have no cushioning that breaks down. I'm able to run in a pair for a couple of years (I wear them to almost literal ground). Nice savings!
  • Strengthening new muscles--Cushioned shoes definitely "sheltered" some of the muscles in my legs, calves, hips, etc (the posterior chain). Vibrams bring these less used muscles to the fore; what results is a "good" sore and, over time, better strength and endurance. With cushioning out of the picture, each step is that much harder!
  • The style--I didn't love the way they looked at first, but I don't mind them now. The look signifies what the shoes stand for, for me: a return to something basic and bare bones that may raise an eyebrow (never a bad thing, IMO).
Some things I'm not a huge fan of:
  • Not ideal for winter running--My first pair (Bikilas) and second (Komodo) are definitely for milder seasons. I can usually wear them for the beginning and tail end of the winter, but I typically wear a minimalist shoe and insulated socks, to be safe.
  • Hard to find a lot of varieties in Canada--Our neighbours down south have a lot more choice (typical!) when it comes to Vibrams. If we had more choice, I might even discover that there's a variety of Vibrams that are winter-friendly. 
  • The stigma/"fad" perception--While this mentality doesn't sway me continuing to use the shoes, the thinking that they're a fad that'll just fizzle is a bit shortsighted, in my opinion. Also that they're pegged as causing more injuries--I suspect that comes from people who transition too quickly to them, as I did (refer to my comments above about Achilles tendinitis). 

Cool Down

Vibrams have been a good fit (pun intended) since I started using them four years ago. At a certain point leading up to my decision to try them, I plateaued with running, standard shoes didn't feel right, and my dull knee pain couldn't be ignored any more. I definitely transitioned too quickly to Vibrams, but learned a lot about my physical condition and what I needed to do to improve my running. Luckily, as I gained strength and slowed down on my barefoot shoes, I was able to find a routine that works for me. I pair my Vibrams with another set of minimalist shoes (as mentioned, for inclement weather); while I enjoy both, I would run in my Vibrams every time if I could.

I would recommend, without hesitation, that everyone interested in running and fitness try Vibrams. I want to qualify that, though: I'm not necessarily saying to throw out your Sauconys or Brooks and go head first into barefoot, especially if your current shoes and routine are working for you. If that's the case, Vibrams would be a nice complement to what you already do; you could do short runs or walks in them, and that'd add a variety to an already familiar type of activity for you.

If you're feeling discontent with a lot of cushioned running shoes you've tried, you might be successful with Vibrams, but start slow in every sense of the word. Taper off runs with your cushioned shoe, gradually introduce Vibrams, and build up your tolerance. You may discover new aches, new indicators of something else that's going on that you need to address; that's okay, and try not to be discouraged but rather see it as an opportunity to become a better runner. 

So, should you go with Vibrams? I say, try a pair, but go with whatever feels right on your feet -- we all have different constitutions. But find out if they're not for you, rather than taking negative hype at face value. I initially scoffed at them; now I can't imagine a run without them.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

BlackBerry 10 Smartphones are Better Than You Think

Given my goal to present alternative tech options to people, I thought it fitting to post about BlackBerry. Stay with me...

I Love BlackBerry. Yep, I Said It!


Well, I should be specific. I like BlackBerry 10 phones, especially the keyboard models (I've used the Q5 and currently use the Q10).

As a company, they've made questionable choices over the years, stemming back to resting on their laurels when the iPhone first rose to notoriety. But I'm going to curb that topic in this post. One thing for certain is that they make easy to use, good quality smartphones (yep, smartphones!).

What I want to convey is: BlackBerry 10 phones are great. They are likely better than you think.

Some tired arguments are: they're for dinosaurs, they're yesterday's news, they don't have apps, they are no longer relevant, "I didn't even realize they still exist and create phones!"

I thought all of these, too. Actually, more accurately, I didn't think much of them.

My first smartphone was an Android phone (LGP500). It was solid, did lots of cool stuff, and in general I really liked it. Except typing on a touchscreen keyboard never felt right to me. I never got used to it, but figured I'd adjust.

I never did. But I managed to get three years out of the phone. All the while, I had a BlackBerry PlayBook (their misguided attempt at a tablet). I always liked it, in spite of its shortcomings. Owning that device paved the way for my foray into using more devices by BlackBerry.

For my next smartphone, I decided to go with a BlackBerry. I never was an avid app user; I'd try new ones that seemed "cool" at the time, but really I kept using the basics -- email, browsing, texting, that sort of thing. I figured, even if the phone just did the basics, I'd enjoy typing on a real keyboard again.

I got the Q5 in 2014 off of Kijiji for $60. I immediately fell in love. This phone did the basics but also most anything any other smartphone could do. And it felt more intuitive, integrated, and "natural" than others phones I'd tried. I just got a Q10 for $25 (yep!) on Ebay and I love it even more. They have touch screen options, but I just had to go for the keyboard, and will continue to do so as long as I realistically can.

But, What About Apps?

What about them? :) Contrary to popular belief, apps exist for BlackBerries. But when I hear "apps", I sometimes translate that in my head as "gaps." In other words, the reason for a plethora of apps is to make up for gaps in the operating system.

BlackBerry 10 (their newest and wrongly overlooked operating system) had no noticeable gaps. There are great native apps, you can make shortcuts to mobile websites (and really, are they that different from an app, people?) You can even get a sizable amount of Android apps to run; BB10 has a built in Android emulator, and while it's limited, I've been able to take advantage of many Android apps that way. As with my old phone, I typically try out an app and unless it grabs me or is truly useful, I delete.

As a test, I just installed the Blogger app from the Google Play Store (yep, you can get the store working, for now). It works like a charm; I'm typing this paragraph from there.

If you want a full keyboard but you really want the app ecosystem to go with it, you could always consider the BlackBerry Priv, their latest smartphone that uses the Android operating system (ships with Lollipop 5.1.1 and recently got updated to Marshmallow 6.x). It's an option, though I feel Android is a bit fragmented and not as "user friendly" off the bat as BB10.

The Good and the Bad About BlackBerry 10

The things I immediately loved about the BB10 phones I've used:

  • The keyboard -- so, so good for all communication.
  • The operating system in general -- instantly intuitive, fast, snappy, great at handling multiple apps/browsers. I often stream music while jumping from window to window.
    • The built in browser -- simple yet elegant, and SO fast.
    • Reader mode (part of the browser -- hit the "R" key and get a text-only view of a news article, blog post, etc.
    • The email/text/other messaging integration by way of the BlackBerry Hub (IMO, their finest work)
    • In spite of a small screen, I could read on it forever (cf. reader mode comment above)
    • ALL gesture based; no clunky back buttons; just swipes and nothing more. It's to the point where I try to swipe on other devices I have and am disappointed that it doesn't work!
  • For the Q10: removable battery. This has become a dying art in mobile devices. When the battery life degrades, I can simply buy a new part, not a whole new phone -- what a concept!
  • Fongo (I wrote about them in my first blog post) works great! Side note: it's an Android port and it's fully functional on BB10.
  • Youtube works with the screen off -- great if you just want to hear audio from there and save battery (try it out on an iPhone or Android phone for comparison!)
  • Built in FM radio (I never said I was hip and with it :))-- not streaming; a real radio! Picks up local and national radio beautifully; no need to use data.
What they're not good at:
  • Video -- I watched the occasional Youtube video, but it's not ideal on the 1x1 aspect ratio of the screen.
  • Support from third party developers. As of late, some fairly big names, like WhatsApp, are retiring their apps. Not that I use much of these anyways, but I can see it being a negative for some people.
  • ...that's about it!

I Still Like The Occasional App

There are of course apps on my phone beyond what's built in. I use it heavily for podcasting, for example (and there's always the FM radio tuner if I forgot to download something over WiFi before heading out the door with my dogs!). I also use it to track some of my running. What else? GPS navigation (offline maps). Let me list off a few that I have, at the time of writing (I'll put asterisks by Android apps):
  • Antennapod* (podcasts)
  • Fongo* (VoIP/alternative to cell service, as covered in my first post)
  • NavFree (offline navigation/GPS. Works great! And yes, Google maps will work on the phone too)
  • Evernote (Preinstalled. Great note taking app that syncs on all your devices)
  • gNewsReader (RSS feeds through Feedly)
  • CascaRun Pro (fitness tracker)
  • The Weather Network
  • Shoppers Drug Mart/PC Plus* (For collecting shopping points, of course!)
  • Blogger* (Hot off the press!) 
I can install IM/persistent chat apps for my work too, as needed. The rest is simply whatever's built into the phone or a shortcut to the web page (in the case of online banking or CBC news, for example). 

If I'm looking for new functionality for my BlackBerry 10 phone, here's the general path I take:
  1. Search for a native app in BlackBerry World (their app store). If none exists...
  2. Try the mobile site, and add it to my homescreen if it's acceptable. If it doesn't work...
  3. Try to install an Android app. (It may need to be patched using Cobalt's Play Store method, a slightly tricky but doable process documented in this thread.)
That's just how I use the phone. Generally, the web or native apps work, and a good number of Android apps will work as mentioned.

(Though, at the time of writing, there are a lot of threads popping up with people trying to get Pokemon GO working on BB10 devices and they're having trouble. No skin off my back, but if you are looking to play that game, a BB may not be for you.)

Why BlackBerry?

Why am I posting about BlackBerry 10 phones? Because they don't get a fair shake and people tend to write them off. I mentioned to a coworker that I had a BlackBerry, to which she responded "poor you"; clearly, a stigma about them persists.

It doesn't help public perception that the company is struggling and they've all but moved their device production to Android offerings. But so what?

What matters is that they made great devices in BB10 phones. And what matter the most is what YOU want. In my humble opinion, they are worth a shot, and I'm willing to bet people would enjoy them if they just put aside the "BB is dead/for the birds" thoughts and just tried one out. Try typing on a keyboard again; you might be pleasantly surprised. Check out what's built into the OS; it's well designed and very easy to navigate. Take it for a test drive -- as with all of the alternatives I've posted about on my blog to date, you just might be pleasantly surprised.

If you get a BlackBerry, be sure to head over to the CrackBerry community. Their forums have lots of  great contributors and you can find a lot answers to common questions, tips, tricks (like the Cobalt Google Play Store method).

Monday, 30 May 2016

Good Invisibility

And now for something completely different...

I've been interested in minimalism lately and the new "web brutalism" -- basically, a backlash to bloated web design and a return to simple web pages for all (access them on any device, keep data charges low, create them with an emphasis on the words themselves). I heard some stuff about it on a segment on CBC Spark, one of my favourite radio shows.

As an experiment, here's a post I did on a minimalist website. It's titled "Good Invisibility."

Enjoy!