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December 25, 2014

A Successful 100k Steps Leads to a Sore, Yet Happy, Christmas

Monday's personal record setting Fitbit dashboard

Last week, I introduced a crazy and audacious goal, of knocking out 100,000 steps (as measured by Fitbit), in the name of personal achievement and to raise money for Camp Taylor, a summer camp for children with heart disease, in honor of colleague Ken Norton's son, Riley. And I'm beyond happy to say our adventure was a success.

As chronicled on all the social channels (Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for starters), +Stephen Mack and I passed the 100,000 mark shortly before 10 pm Monday night, after 16 hours of pavement pounding fun that covered more than 46 miles - seeing us start before dawn, and keep pressing forward until daylight was a distant memory. And better yet, our efforts were not in vain as many of you were eager to support us through nearly $5,000 in donations to Camp Taylor, beating our target of $4,500.

Our fundraising goal for Camp Taylor: Achieved!

As I set out in our planning, Stephen and I got nearly all our walking in through three trips along the Stevens Creek Trail, which connects Sunnyvale to the San Francisco Bay through Mountain View, just past the Google campus. We grabbed backpacks with essential snacks and fluids, multiple phone chargers for guaranteed power, and thought ahead - bringing bandaids and Advil for inevitable pain, and head-mounted lamps to break through darkness.


Some scenes from early morning Monday, before the pain.

Our initial pace was quick, as I'm accustomed, and Stephen did a solid job adjusting, as we maintained strides through most of the day, even beyond the 10, 20 and 30 mile marks. And we were lucky enough to be joined for much of the journey by friends, each of whom did a lap with us, meaning we were marching in a group of three for about 80 percent of our trek, sharing new pains, stories and sights with one another.

Having walked greater than 50,000 steps a few times myself, I knew I could hit the 100k as a stretch goal, so long as life didn't get in the way, but as our mark neared, I absolutely felt the fatigues and aches that threatened to make finishing difficult. We were each battling aches in practically every part below our waist, and our feet were a mess of blisters and soreness that wouldn't be solved until we were done.

By the 92,000 mark, just an hour and a half away from the proverbial finish line, I was nearly overcome with dizziness and a slight spell where I was a bit concerned I'd pass out and fall short. Whether I was dehydrated or had just hit a wall, I'm not sure, but with water and about 10 minutes rest, we were able to continue marching, and eventually things settled back to where they were at a good rhythm through the end.


Hitting 100,000 Fitbit steps just before 10 p.m. Monday night.

As my math had planned, we made it back to my house the final time with 99,000 steps complete. We dropped off our heavy bags, and took one last victory lap around the block, reaching 100,000 steps at 9:52 p.m., after a momentary scare that Fitbit couldn't handle six digits and our walk would have been mocked at the very end. My tracker had stuck at 99,999 steps and then jolted forward to 100,007, so no pictures of perfection exist, but we had done it. We wearily high fived one another and then trudged home to call the event a success.

As I told Ken, I promised I would do the full 100,000 steps, and we had done it. Our promise to Camp Taylor, and those supporting us with their donations, or words of encouragement in the streams, was that we would make our full effort, despite fatigue or soreness. And of course, our momentary strains that are nearly gone a few days later are nothing like the prospect of heart disease the youth we were walking for live with each day. So we had pressed on.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw little walking at all, as you can imagine. I completed the Christmas shopping Tuesday and walked around a bit Wednesday, but didn't even crack 10,000 on Fitbit. I hope you'll understand. But I wanted to thank Stephen, and his sister Joanna, our friends Roger and Ken for walking with us, and the more than fifty people who donated to Camp Taylor and really had our back. What we did was hard and fun, and it was made easier with a real and virtual team. This is the experience I'll most remember from this year's Christmas season.

If you haven't yet made your donation to Camp Taylor count, our page is open for one full year. They need all the help they can get. https://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/louisgray/fitbit100k

December 18, 2014

Taking the 100k Steps Fitbit Challenge and Raising Money for Charity

On Monday, I have a crazy plan to set a new personal record for Fitbit steps. The goal? 100,000 steps in a single day, blowing away my previous personal best by more than 50 percent, and coming close to fifty miles walked - while also helping raise money for Camp Taylor, a free summer camp for children with heart disease, in memory of Riley Norton, the son of my friend and colleague Ken Norton.

Ever since getting my Fitbit and being hooked on challenging myself to walk further and compete with friends, I've seen the allure of reaching new marks. I had my first 50,000+ step day in December of 2012, and managed more than 60,000 this September, even when I stopped pounding the pavement around 10:30 that night. I've walked 40,000 steps pushing three kids in a stroller, managed more than 200 flights of stairs in an evening in my house, and know that each personal record simply put the bar higher to make the next mark even more difficult.

But as I've seen my numbers increase, the math has a strong magnetic pull toward one-tenth of a million steps in a single day. If one averages 100 steps a minute at a good walking pace, it's fairly easy to hit 6,000 steps in an hour. Given there are 24 hours in a day, managing 16 hours of walking (plus a bit) to reach 100k is absolutely doable, assuming I can push myself to keep going.

So I've been eyeing this 100k mark with some anticipation - looking for a day where I'm out of the office, where my kids are taken care of, and I can just go, walking in a straight line until the day is finished.

This week, as I told my friend (and TiVo employee +Stephen Mack) of my plan, he said he wanted to join in the adventure as well. Stephen, who I profiled on the blog more than five years ago, has been among my most consistent Fitbit competitors for the last two years, and has yet to see a fun contest that he'll turn down - especially if it can keep you in good shape. So we've made plans to set off early in the morning Monday and achieve this goal together.

My comparatively bumpy activity from September's 60k day.

To be clear, walking at a normal pace for most of a day is by no means the toughest endurance challenge one's ever seen. It's harder to run a marathon or a 50 mile or 100 mile endurance challenge. There's no swimming or biking. No weight lifting, beyond our feet. But it requires the will to keep going even if the effort seems monotonous or never-ending. And having a second person there will make the challenge more fun.


The ideal course  will allow for us to keep walking all day without crazy hills or interruptions, even as small as traffic lights. We should be close enough to food so we can refuel beyond what we can carry, and have proper rest stops where they make sense. So I've sketched out a plan for us to navigate the Stevens Creek Trail between Sunnyvale and Mountain View, all the way to the San Francisco Baylands beyond Google's Mountain View campus. With three laps of this trail, we should be more than on our way to the 100,000 mark, and if not, we'll find a way to get there.


So you might ask... why do this? Are your egos so big that you have to take the whole day for a silly hobby of virtual badges? Are you raising money for charity or something? Well, the first answer is "because we can." The math says it's possible, and data exists so we can measure it. And the second answer is also yes. While I'm doing this no matter what, it's also great to have the wind at our backs by doing this for a good cause. So I've started a page to support Camp Taylor, and extension, Riley, who passed away in October far too young after a lifelong battle.

Our walk toward inevitable soreness and personal achievement starts in the dark hours on Monday. I'll be posting our progress as often as I can, batteries depending, with the #fitbit100k hashtag on Twitter, Google+ and all our streams. Good luck to us.

December 17, 2014

Tablets, Touch and Talk: Technology Through the Eyes of a Child

Braden With my Nexus 5, Watching the MLB At Bat app.

My children have never known a world without high speed Internet, streaming movies on demand, and a seemingly all-knowing personal assistant, available to answer their every question when asked. They've grown accustomed to concepts which once seemed fanciful, like the ability to order all sorts of items on your tablet and have them delivered in the same day, having every photo you've ever taken available to you from any device, or having video chats with just about anyone instantly. For them, there is no such thing as technology. There's just the real world, which is directly impacted by pervasive Internet.

As the major enabler of this, and someone who largely has converted from analog to digital at every opportunity, I've been especially excited to see how this impacts the way they interact with each other, what they choose to learn, and how quickly they grasp ideas - even when, to them, there is no user manual. I'm naturally curious to see what they choose to do and choose not to do, and what simply proves too hard.

My twins are now six years old, and Braden (pictured) is four. The twins are in first grade, and Braden is in preschool. The older two can read well, and do some writing, but while Braden recognizes letters, it's not as if he's sitting down with a good book yet. Despite the mild illiteracy, all three can breeze through tablet usage - from memorizing a pin or lockscreen, to finding applications, launching apps, moving them to folders, and even downloading new ones from the Google Play store. And it's not far-fetched to say Braden is actively learning to read from applications you'd never expect, like Major League Baseball's At Bat, where he's working hard to memorize stats and names of players I've never even heard of. (See also: Wired: How Videogames Like Minecraft Actually Help Kids Learn to Read)

Braden Seeing Baseball Highlights from the Majors on my Nexus 7

Given my kids' capabilities, it should come as no surprise that their primary interaction with the Web is through touch on tablet or phones. They were exposed to iPads and Android tablets early on, and have grown familiar with the practice of touching an icon to launch and app and how to navigate the apps - including the always important ability to hit the small X in a corner to close ads. And when the app isn't what they are looking for, they just ask Google. Depending on how well they ask, Google should find them what they want, whether they are looking for "videos of cupcakes", "pictures of beagles" or whatever strikes their fancy that day.

It'd be easy to say kids, like us, use technology to be entertained. They each have favorite games, and frequently open Netflix or YouTube to watch videos - or, as Braden does, the MLB At Bat app, to see highlights from all of the previous days' games. But they also use applications to draw, or for education, whether they are matching games, flashcards, or adventures that teach them language or math. And on more than one occasion, I've found my Google Express shopping cart full, with hundreds of dollars of items, from everything to do with Disney's Frozen or Minecraft, to books, toys and food. Luckily, they haven't yet figured out the last steps of the purchase, so I've always been able to clear the cart before having to explain away crazy charges.

Sarah posts to YouTube, complete with titles and emoji.

They've each also figured out the tablets and phones are capable of creative work as well. I was recently surprised with an email notifying me that I'd successfully uploaded three new videos to YouTube. After momentarily thinking I'd been hacked, I realized my daughter had not only filmed three new videos, but correctly titled them and uploaded them to my account. Meanwhile, the automatic backup capabilities of Google+ come in handy when we want to see pictures the kids have taken with our devices, from their perspective. Sarah has also been known to tell me to take a photo of something she's proud of, with the intent of my sharing it on Google+ or Facebook, saying "Daddy, take my picture and put it on the Internet."

"My" invite to Brian to join Ingress, sent by Braden.

Last week, just before I wrote my post about Ingress, I got a note from my friend Brian Fitzpatrick, thanking me for inviting him to the game. But I hadn't. Braden did. While I was at the office, Braden had opened up Ingress, sent off a dozen or so invitations to people in my address book, and unhelpfully, dropped some of my equipment into the front yard, for me to reacquire when I got home. That was amusing, and luckily for me, he didn't mess up my account any further. And this Sunday, Braden jacked up our thermostat to 82 degrees, using the Nest app, before I realized things were more than a bit toasty.

On Sunday, we were a comfortable 80 degrees in our house. Thanks, Braden.

Just as important as seeing what they're doing with my devices is seeing what they aren't doing. Aside from the Ingress invites, I've never seen the kids interested in opening up Gmail, or posting to any of my social networks. No fun tweets or posts to delete. No mass apologies to coworkers for toddler missives to internal mailing lists, and no inadvertent likes of odd posts in the stream. They're not interested in Google Drive or browsing the Web, and they've only fired up Sonos to blast music in our house a couple times. For them, the tablets are purpose driven. They have a short time to delivery of the content they're looking for, and if they can't find it, they'll ask Google in a different way, or go back to what they know works.

Just like many of us find we struggle with handwriting after years of regular typing, I'm interested to see how my kids are going to operate with analog assignments that may require pencil and paper, or if textbooks might be the rule, instead of downloadable equivalents. I'm curious to see if they'll master speed typing at a faster age than I did, thanks to the availability of computers, or if touch and voice will rule the day so they might not have to make it a priority. But for now, they're especially handy on the tablet - be it a 5 inch phone, or my Nexus 9, which Braden calls my "big tablet", as opposed to my "medium tablet" Nexus 7. And as Google Now improves, time between what they want and what they find should even further decrease. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Disclosures: I work at Google and enjoy products of ours I mentioned in the post, from Android to YouTube, Gooogle Drive, Gmail and Ingress. So do my kids.

December 09, 2014

Ingress: The Incredible & Addictive Covert Game Being Played All Around You

A little over two years ago, a small team within Google called Niantic Labs introduced Ingress, a game that adds a virtual reality layer on top of the entire world, which you can claim, defend or destroy for your cause - depending on which side you've chosen. And while I tested early versions of the game while it was developing at Google, and dabbled with it just after launch, I put it aside before jumping back in with both feet two months ago, when a pair of colleagues on my new team couldn't stop talking about it. And now I won't stop talking about it either.

Simply put, in my view, it's the most well-designed, intelligently deployed concept I've ever seen for an immersive experience on mobile, which encourages you to get off your butt, explore the world around you, and find new people to help you achieve goals together. Every facet of the application, even while it seems mysterious, is designed to help you get out of house, to explore new crannies of your neighborhood (and beyond) and discover people on your faction who need your help to achieve what would be impossible alone. I've never seen anything like it.

Some shots of Ingress badges and live portals.

As you know, I've been an avid wearables and personal fitness tracking nut for the better part of more than two years. Fitbit has been counting my steps and Moves has been showing where I go. But while Fitbit only counts my activity, it doesn't provide direction or give me a specific mission. Ingress does - making my steps matter, as they are pulled toward each new destination, and seemingly every turn provides yet another opportunity to take down an opponent, power up or build on my own space, or hack away and get new equipment to make me stronger. This combination has accelerated my near-constant walking and movement into personal record highs, consistent leaderboard domination, and I've fallen way behind in any regular TV watching.

There are many other sites dedicated to the gameplay of Ingress, so I won't go too deep, but at its heart, Ingress is a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. In the storyline, the Earth has been seeded with exotic matter (XM), and you either believe this XM will enlighten us all, or you will resist it. So from the very begining, you choose a side: The Resistance (blue) or The Enlightened (green).

The Two Factions of Ingress: Enlightened and Resistance

Once you pick a side, you then have three primary functions, much like other multi-player games. You can build sites for your faction, you can destroy the opposition, or you can continually farm for new equipment to make you stronger. This is done by visiting sites, known as portals, which consist largely of landmarks across the world, from water fountains to murals, sculptures, churches and standing structures. If it is something that can shape your mind and appears exotic, there's a good chance it's a portal.

Ingress is played globally as teams battle for position.

As one friend of mine tastefully said, you can't play Ingress "from the comfort of your own toilet." You have to move. And in especially dense places with plenty of landmarks, the next portal can be just another block or less away. So if you find yourself out to build, farm, destroy or explore, the only limit to how much you participate is your own time, and how long your phone can hold a charge. That's led to something of a cottage industry for Ingress players lugging around external phone battery charges so playing doesn't stop short at the worst time.

Now that Ingress has you out of your house, and walking with specific destinations, with the next stop just a little bit further away, you're being stretched. Stretched to find new places in your community you hadn't previously seen, new spots in other cities you've never visited, and it sets you up to be territorial, knowing that particular portals are valuable to you or your side.

The Denver, Colorado Ingress Scene: A Mess of Blue and Green

But if you really want to have an impact, you can't just go it alone. Even the most experienced Ingress player can't build a portal up much more than halfway to full strength, thanks to features in the game that limit your ability to power up portals. It takes two players to take a portal to 75%, three can take it to just over 80%, and in order for a portal to reach 100% strength, it take contributions from eight individual players. So you can deploy and hope, or you need to find people on your side who are often more than eager to help and build, destroy or hack together - spurred on by built-in communications in the app, or augmented through dedicated communities on Google+, Hangouts and other chat tools. There, people will arrange times to meet, secret build or teardown events, or provide updates about activity in their neighborhood.

One Los Altos portal in our neighborhood.

I recently heard somebody say you either go deep into Ingress or you don't go at all. And it's probably true. I originally didn't get the attraction, as a low level player. But now I've seen things I build at midnight before heading home get taken down at 1:30 in the morning, or by six a.m. the next day. I've started to recognize and greet players on both teams, and you learn the patterns of the game, as one faction gains control over a geography, or specific people just refuse to ever give up, and seemingly play around the clock. And once you go deep, it really becomes a numbers game, as every activity is counted. Every hack. Every deployment. Every link from portal to portal. Every field. Every destroyed opponent portal. The more numbers you get, the more abilities you have and the stronger you are against the competition, and the more they need to be prepared for you.

Joining the Enlightened on Ingress has brought destinations, goals and missions to the activity I was already doing with Fitbit. It's dramatically reduced (even further) my idle sitting time, it's made me see and enjoy experiences I hadn't yet gotten to around town and in neighboring cities, and I'm getting new relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds, who all hold at least one thing in common - that we're playing Ingress, and working to expand the minds of humanity. It's more than a game. It's the true reality. I hope you do check the game out, and see what it does to your daily routine. And while I don't mind more competition, it'd be awesome if you saw the world in a new light by joining the Enlightened.

Grab Ingress on Google Play for Android and on iTunes.

Disclosure: I work at Google, and the Niantic team works within Google.