Archive for November, 2014

Getting back into fitness

by Oliver on Sunday, November 30th, 2014.

I’ve just created a new category on this blog – Health – and recategorised one of the older articles I wrote a while ago. Being a confirmed computer geek, fitness has never really been very high on my priority list until I got into kayaking when I was about 24 or so. I managed to keep that up for several years and ended up quite fit – completing a 111km kayaking marathon three times in consecutive years and also a 5-day 404km marathon at the end of 2006. Sadly around 2007 I moved and various other factors made it more difficult to keep up kayaking, and I gave it up completely when I moved to Germany in 2009.

Since having a child in 2010 it’s been harder to recover my fitness regime. For a while I was going to the gym, but I tend to get a bit bored doing that. We borrowed a bike trailer and for maybe 6 months I was cycling almost every morning about 20km with my son sitting in the trailer behind me – it was actually a lot of fun and good exercise, picking different routes around Berlin to explore. Another winter came and inevitably I stopped exercising again and really I didn’t find anything suitable to do for a couple of years. I tried running a few times but ended up with very sore knees after no more than 5km.

A couple of years ago I discovered the Berliner Mauerweg – the entire course of the original 160km Berlin Wall built in the early 60s. It is possible to walk and even ride a bike around the whole thing. I had cycled a few 20-30km sections from time to time but last year finally undertook to cycle around the whole thing in one day, and started preparing by cycling 30-50km sections until I had finished the whole thing and had familiarised myself with the entire length. Some sections I rode more than once, so I made sure to try both directions so that I could plan to ride the entire 160km in the most logical way possible. Largely this comes down to which direction is easiest to find your way along, since some parts are not well signposted and it is easy to lose your way. Finally, and fittingly, on Tag der Deutschen Einheit last year I rode around the whole thing. The weather was perfect, I set out in the dark at 6am and finished around 4:30pm, tired but happy. I took about 3-4L of water too much for the journey but had it been hotter I might have used it all up – probably good to have been on the safe side.

I’d like to ride it again but it’s a big undertaking (and that’s not on a road bike either – just a normal “Herrenrad”). Late last year I took a bamboo bike building course, with the intention of racing it in some of the amateur races that seem to be frequently happening around the country. Finally, in August of this year, I did race the bike and had a great time doing so. There are definitely plenty of cycle-nuts at SoundCloud so for fitness I could easily stick with them and make that my primary sport.

For reasons that I still don’t understand, earlier in the year I started getting interested in doing Tough Mudder. I suspect it was a banner ad or a suggested group while I was on Facebook – that shows you how powerful these messages can be without you even realising it! After watching a few videos and immersing myself in the subject I was hopelessly addicted to the idea of doing it, and signed up, not really knowing yet how I’d get to the point of physically achieving that level of fitness required. Right after finishing the Vattenfall Cyclassic race I started doing fitness training classes twice every week, and even managed to convince a couple of co-workers to sign up not only to the training sessions but Tough Mudder itself. Along the way to Tough Mudder I also ran a bunch of amateur 10km “trail run” races in preparation, such as the Volvo Tierparklauf, Potsdamer Herbstlauf and TrailRun Berlin.

Despite training quite a lot before Tough Mudder, I still feel I was unprepared. The 18km distance was not much of a problem, but I did find that any time I went significantly over 12km beforehand that my legs would be extremely sore for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. I actually didn’t run much at all in the two weeks before Tough Mudder because of it – something I am doing or not doing is leading to excessive recovery time between exercises, and if I’m going to further improve my fitness this is something I’ll have to address. Upper body and core strength (really important when climbing high walls I discovered) were also nowhere near what I’d like them to be. I recorded the whole thing on my GoPro and have an fun-size edit available for viewing here:

In the run-up to Tough Mudder I managed to sign up for the Müggelsee Halbmarathon as well, and at 21km is far and away the longest run I’ve ever done uninterrupted. Excluding Tough Mudder I had previously done the Sydney City to Surf a couple of times, which is 14km and I had always had extremely sore knees and legs in general after doing that. Unfortunately the Halbmarathon came only a week after Tough Mudder so I hadn’t fully recovered, and so did the whole thing in a reasonable amount of leg pain. Then I had to take another couple of weeks off running to recover again, which is really unfortunate as I had also signed up for Getting Tough which is on the 6th of December. The last few weeks I’ve been training on my own for this race, which is 23km and in the cold of winter. You should really check it out, it’s amazing:

I’m feeling far more unprepared for this one, mostly because of the extreme cold conditions. I’ve developed a reasonable training regime for it, which consists of a roughly 10-11km run to Volkspark Friedrichshain, a bit of hill running, various upper-body and core strength exercises like bear crawling, climbing walls, climbing nets, monkey bars, dips, pushups etc, with running in-between to recover. I’ve been getting up at least two mornings during Monday to Friday at 6am and doing this routine all in the complete dark before sunrise. Yesterday’s session was the first where the temperature was actually at freezing point and it was nice to know that I was at least clothed well enough to be comfortable at that temperature.

But even when this event is over I have others on the horizon. I’m looking into signing up for No Guts No Glory – both the “chicken run” race which is a 6km night run on the Saturday, and the “No Way Out” race which is a regular day race of 17km on the Sunday. If I manage to complete Getting Tough and keep up my training, I figure that by February I should be able to tackle both of these races given that the first one is relatively short. Not sure what my chances are for convincing anyone to join me though!

On a similar note, I’ve been keeping my eye on various other OCR websites like Mudstacle and Nuclear Races, and other general running event websites that aggregate together information on different race styles. It has exposed the fact that the bulk of these events are in the UK; certainly I can find things to do in Germany but not so much. The USA seems to have a lot more of the “flashier” events like Zombie Runs and Spartan Races (which seem to be much more competitive). I’m considering going over to the UK for a few events next year but haven’t yet identified any that I’d definitely want to do. I’d also like to do as many Tough Mudders as I can next year, and would like to do one Spartan Race at least, to see how they are, but would need to be in much better shape for them.

On the complete opposite side to physical fitness, I’ve also been considering mental fitness. Since I’ve had a large recent shift in my career, more towards engineering management and away from an individual technical contributor role, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and self-reflection on where I want to be going and how I’m performing in my role. The main take-away from this has been that my mind is extremely cluttered at the moment and it is very hard to find my way through the fog. Part of the management training I’ve been doing at work has involved using Headspace – a meditation app designed to help you gain a bit more control over your presence of mind. I’ve had some, but not much progress, with this.

Along similar lines a former co-worker of mine mentioned that he was going to do a Vipassana meditation course. It is 10 days of no talking, frugal eating, and basically just intense meditation and self-reflection. The me of prior to using Headspace would have laughed at the suggestion – I’ve never considered myself a “meditation person” (and I would use those scare-quotes). At this point in my life and career, and having identified that I can’t mentally break through the fog on my own without having had enough self-reflection to identify and answer fundamental questions about myself, I am very tempted to go on a Vipassana course. Finding 10 days to do this would be really the biggest challenge, but perhaps something I can make steps towards in the coming months. There’s nothing stopping me from starting with a single day, or even a whole weekend to meditate. Come to think of it, I should probably find something now and just book it, as has been my habit with OCR events the last few months.

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Sunday, November 30th, 2014 Health No Comments

Changing of the HTPC guard

by Oliver on Sunday, November 30th, 2014.

Way back in 2010 I wrote about my acquisition of a Zotac HD-ID11 ZBox “home theatre PC”. Since then it has served me fairly well, although I suspect I ran it too hot for the last year or two. After several Ubuntu and XBMC upgrades I noticed that it tended to idle pretty hot despite not really doing much most of the time, and was able to ignore this until it started restarting itself frequently, presumably due to thermal cutoffs. I ordered some replacement heatsink thermal pads and replaced the dried out old ones on the CPU and GPU, and was able to coax it back to life.

Until this week, unfortunately, when it stopped responding altogether and eventually would just sit there with the fan running at full speed and the power light staying red (which usually means it is powered off). So, good night my sweet prince. It’s an annoyance for several reasons:

  • There was a time in my life (let’s say teenage years and early twenties) when I was obsessed with hardware, and would gladly give up weeks of free time for such mundane and ultimately pointless exercises such as getting my ancient Sun Sparcstation 5 to run fully diskless by booting Debian Woody with a 2.2 kernel over BOOTP and using NFS for its root filesystem. I have practically no “free” time these days and getting hardware to work is usually an exercise in cargo-culting and futility. I prefer writing software to fix problems.
  • Even in 2014, it seems as though picking the right hardware to run under Linux is still difficult. To be clear – I should be able to look at the Amazon page for a given piece of equipment and just see printed there “Linux supported”, then click the “buy it now button”. This is made harder due to also sometimes needing ARM support.
  • The ZBox was doing way more than just serving as an HTPC. It was also our IPv6 tunnel gateway, fileserver, TimeMachine backup server, wiki server, Transmission torrent client + webserver and also copied backups to Amazon Glacier for remote offline storage.
  • I just dislike buying more stuff and having to fix broken things. There are so many little inconveniences in my daily life like fruitlessly trying to cancel our old internet connection, or finally getting around to booking a doctor’s appointment to get a referral for physiotherapy that it ends up feeling like death by a thousand paper cuts. The total amount of all these little things adds up in the active mind and paralyses me from actually doing any of them. Adding one more thing just adds more to the burden.

But I digress… I’ve already had a Raspberry Pi for some time now and planned to use it to experiment with OpenCV with a small webcam but put that activity on the backburner and never got back to it. While I’m slightly concerned about its relatively low clock speed and on-board RAM (I’ve got the 512MB “B” version), it is still the easiest and cheapest replacement on hard for the ZBox. What was missing was a plastic case, wireless adaptor since my cable modem and wireless router are now on the other side of the living room, and a USB hub since I’ve read that the Pi doesn’t deliver enough power on the USB ports, leading to problems with wifi adaptors. I purchased these items:

At about €24 total, that was much cheaper than replacing the ZBox with another current-generation HTPC, which typically would set me back €200-300. I of course checked beforehand on the Raspberry Pi forums that the wifi adaptor would work, so I was reasonably confident that I had a winning combination. I received the boxes yesterday and got to setting up all the new toys, expecting it (as many websites had mentioned) to all work flawlessly from the start.

Not so! Despite recognising the wifi adaptor and loading the correct kernel module, it just wouldn’t work. I fiddled with wpa_supplicant as we all do when first trying to figure out what is going wrong, but to no avail. I found this blog post from some other enterprising person who had managed to get it working – and all without much additional effort, and still wasn’t able to replicate the conditions for success. Eventually I downloaded images for OpenElec, Raspbian and the latest Raspbmc (I had been running an older image of Raspbmc from much earlier in the year) and tried them all without them working.

It was actually only when I read through the above blog post again that I realised something – the wifi adaptor actually lights up when it is working! I have the Pi, drive array, USB Hub and a bunch of cables almost entirely hidden away under the TV on a shelf, so I couldn’t easily see any lights down there. Arbitrarily, I decided to plug the adaptor directly into the Pi as it is in the picture on that blog post. It worked! That was the lightbulb moment – and brought back all the memories of trying to fix hardware problems earlier in my life.

After that it was pretty easy to identify the problem – the wifi adaptor apparently doesn’t like to work when plugged in the D-Link hub next to another device. The hub has 4 downstream ports (one of which is a “fast charge” port – presumably it outputs more than 500mA if necessary) – two on one side of the square and two on the neighbouring side. One other side is blank and the rear has the upstream port and power socket. If the wifi adaptor is on one side with another device – either my external drive array or the wireless keyboard transceiver – it won’t work. If it is on one side by itself, it works fine. The main irritation is that when it doesn’t work it still appears to the system and does everything but light up and send/receive wifi signals. It turns out that this makes it very hard to figure out what is going wrong!

Moral of the story is: when you have hardware problems, even in 2014 it helps to go back to first principles of hardware diagnosis. Isolate the new hardware, try to replicate known working conditions with no additional unknowns, then gradually add your own peculiarities back into the equation until you have identified the problem.

The next issue to tackle will be how to run all of those additional services in only ~300MB of the remaining RAM on this little computer.

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Sunday, November 30th, 2014 Tech No Comments