Friday, February 25, 2011

Will tries interval training

Lately I've been doing some high-intensity interval training, where "high" takes into account that I'm a baby boomer with a desk job. If you have my sort of Homer-Simpson-esque physique, then start with things you can do without injury, not what the 18-year-old neighbor can do without injury. ObDisclaimer: Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen.

Studies (1, 2) conclude that brief interval training periods two or three times per week, totaling just a few minutes of high-intensity exercise per session, can produce benefits similar to those from tedious 90- to 120-minute aerobic Jane Fonda workouts. The clearly measurable part appears to be that you can bump up the oxygen usage of your muscles, which means that your muscle mass has increased as has the number of mitochondria. Interval training also causes your muscles to continue burning extra calories for several hours following your workout (1, 2, 3). If I leave my heart-rate monitor on, I see that my heart rate remains mildly elevated long after I've stopped.

After about a month of doing this, I haven't seen any visible shrinkage of my midsection, but I've definitely got better stamina. I have a much easier time climbing stairs or getting up from sitting on the floor. All my exercise has been lower body, to take advantage of the larger muscles, but I'm pretty sure I've gained strength in my upper body as well.

I think I would benefit faster if I were more careful with my diet. I keep thinking about cutting back on carbs, maybe I'll actually do that. Silly to put in the trouble to exercise and not add the piece that would actually allow me to lose some body fat. Sillier still to regard interval training as a license to eat donuts.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Random punditry regarding IBM's Watson

I followed with considerable interest this week the game show Jeopardy! where one of the contestants was an artificial intelligence built by IBM called Watson.

Ordinarily I would try to offer some unique insight of my own about Watson. I would be tempted to acknowledge Ken Jennings' rephrasing of the now-ubiquitous Simpsons quote, "I, for one, welcome our new XYZ overlords". And I'd give my thoughts about what problems of modern society might be effectively addressed by this new technology, possibly in economics, medicine, or social policy.

But so many large buckets of ink have already been poured over the topic of Watson that I think I'll kick back and let the harder-working pundits and bloggers have this one. So let's get started.

An online publication called Washington Technology, whose business is to ensure that Beltway contractors know just enough 1337speak to get by, mentions that Watson will now be working with some medical schools, presumably to suck their knowledge into its database. The original source for that information appears to be an AP news story. Then it will absorb speech recognition technology from Nuance, Inc who had previously absorbed Dragon Systems. This will address the problem Watson faced during game play that it could only receive queries as electronic text messages.

Not much insight from EETimes, alas. They talk about a couple of pedestrian applications of data mining (basically what Netflix or Amazon does all day) in medical diagnosis where, like Watson's possible Jeopardy answers, each is assigned a confidence level, and in... wait for it... identifying patterns in shopping behavior, like the card readers at my local grocery store. Gee, that sounds world-transforming.

MSNBC talks about the same stuff Washington Technology talked about, and adds the data mining angle, this time playing Whack-a-Terrorist with license plates, credit card transactions, Internet activity, flight manifests, phone records, bank records, blah blah blah, every dystopian movie you've seen since 1993.

That appears to cover 99% of the recent writings about Watson. A little disappointing. Maybe I'll need to come up with something myself after all. Hmm. Maybe Watson's next skill set should be online punditry.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Watson competes on Jeopardy

Watson is a computer developed by IBM researchers with the goal of competing on the game show Jeopardy. Watson's appearance on Jeopardy is in only two days, during which it will compete against the planet's two best human Jeopardy players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson will be appearing on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

This is a publicity event for IBM in the same spirit as the 1997 six-game chess match in which Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov. But this is much more important. Deep Blue's technology was applicable only to chess and other deterministic games, amounting to a deep search of the tree of possible future moves.

Watson uses a much broader range of technologies in natural language processing, data mining, machine learning, and resolving ambiguities of communication. It is much likelier that work done on Watson will be applicable to really important problems in medicine, economics, foreign policy, and other areas where there is a significant opportunity to raise the quality of human life.

I don't ordinarily go around recommending that people watch a particular television program, but I'll make an exception here. I'll make this easy: go to Jeopardy's When-to-Watch page, click on your state, and see history unfold. As if Egypt wasn't enough history unfolding for the month of February. If you're in the Boston area, Jeopardy is at 7:30 PM on WBZ (channel 4).

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Android app: a timer for Sprint 8 workouts

I recently learned about an interesting exercise technique called Sprint 8, promoted by a guy named Phil Campbell, due to my sister's interest in Joseph Mercola, a doctor who took an interest in Sprint 8. The idea is pretty simple. Pick a favorite exercise, maybe a stairmaster or a stationary bike, and do eight sprints in the following way. Remember to consult your physician before starting any exercise program.
  • Do two or three minutes of warm-up, nothing too strenuous.
  • Push yourself for 30 seconds. Work as hard as you can without risk of injury. This is a "sprint".
  • For 90 seconds to 2 minutes, move to a slower easier pace. Catch your breath. This is called "active resting".
  • Do a second 30-second sprint, followed by another 90-to-120-second active rest.
  • Repeat until you've done a total of eight sprints.
The Android app is a timer for doing Sprint 8, and the source code is posted on Github. If you're set up for Android app development, feel free to compile it and try it on your Android phone. The app is now available in the Android Market.

There's a lot of exercise physiology knowledge to Sprint 8 that, in all honesty, I haven't yet studied. Maybe I will in future, and possibly blog about it. But I do know that after just a couple of short Sprint 8 workouts I feel really good. My back pain is way down and I get less winded when I climb a flight of stairs. Sprint 8 workouts are claimed to produce human growth hormone (the stuff outlawed in Olympic and professional sports because it gives athletes an unfair competitive advantage) which appears to have anti-aging effects. Also see "interval training", believed to work well for fat loss.