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l'enfer du North Island

  a brief chat about Fitocracy Friday 17 February 2012 link

Quantification is interesting. You take something more seriously if it can be assigned numbers. Hands up anyone who keeps an eye on their play numbers in iTunes or on Anyone else ever found themselves thinking "I need to listen to this track all the way to the end, so it'll be registered in the stats"? Adding a number to it makes things more real.

The first time I bought a cycle computer, I laughed at the instruction in the manual that it was important to actually watch the road and not just spend all your time staring at the computer. And then I used it, and understood why the put the warning in. The first time you use a cycle computer, you spend half your time riding along watching your speed, checking how far you've gone, what your maximum speed is, how your current speed compares. Because you can get a value for it, you start to actually care about your average speed. The distance you've cycled, down to a decimal place, is the measure of the ride.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, excessive quantification can suck the joy out of an activity; but it doesn't have to. After a short while, you stop caring about most of the stats. Maybe you look down to check your current speed, maybe you use the odo at the end of the ride to check the total distance. You can throttle it back a bit and use those urges for good. I've been logging my mileage for the last three years using BikeJournal. The act of recording the ride encourages me to ride more, or to ride for longer, to get my stats up a bit. For the curious, my average yearly mileage is a nose under 4000km.

Similarly, people respond well to formal recognition of challenges. I used to be a member of Audax UK, the organisation for long-distance cyclists. The gold standard for long-distance cycling events is the quadriennial Paris-Brest-Paris - 1200km in under 90 hours - but the original idea for a randonnee (or audax) ride is 200km within a single day, arbitrarily fixed at 14 hours. Anyone completing those (I've done a couple) is known as a "randonneur". As part of this, Audax UK has a series of badges and patches available for purchase when you've completed a ride, or fulfilled some other criteria. So you can work towards, say, the Brevet Populaire, requiring you to complete rides of 50, 100, and 150k. Or the Randonneur 1000, for those who've ridden a 100k, 200k, 300k, and 400k of total other rides. These are completely arbitrary; but the awards are designed to encourage people to ride more and longer events, and to recognise those who've made the effort to do so. There's a little boy scout inside all of us, and knowing that you'll get a badge if you make an effort... helps you make the effort.

And all of this comes together in the new web tool Fitocracy. To paraphrase Rodger, it's a way of using the videogame centre in your brain to get yourself to take exercise. The basic idea is: you get points for doing exercises. As you get more points, you gain levels in the game. It's intended to harness that impulse that drives people to spend eight hours a night playing World of Warcraft to spend one hour a day getting active.

And it seems to work pretty well. Arbitrarily assigning points to exercises works as a motivational tool where simply knowing that it's good for you doesn't. It assigns point values to various exercises to encourage you towards better types of exercise - going for a gentle stroll earns fewer points than a quick hike up a hill, for instance. The level mechanism is designed so that the early levels are very easy to progress through (I logged my daily cycle commute and immediately hit level 3 from the off). It has a "quest" mechanism, where you can get extra points for doing various different activities - which works well to encourage you to try out different activities (the fact that I jogged a mile at lunchtime today attests to this). "Achievements" give you something to work towards, unlocking "badges" (with associated points) when you pass certain exercise milestones. There's a lot of useful social network mechanisms, making it easy to see what your friends are doing. I'm particularly fond of the "props" mechanism, which is basically a variant of the "like" button used to give your friends a boost for an achievement (leveling up, a particularly hard workout, etc).

The main issue that I have with the site is to do with the design of the points system. It's designed to nudge you towards more effective training. Or, to put it another way, it's biased towards a certain set of activities that the site admins think is most efficacious. Basically, to get maximum points, you need to be doing a weights-style strength training regime with a particular rep count. Recently the admins tweaked the points formula, with the effect that some ways of exercising (low rep sets) were put at a slight relative disadvantage. They announced this, and lo, a huge number of users did mightily whine that the change meant that powerlifting-style 3-5 rep sets were being disadvantaged. One comment summed it up by asking "what is this, Fitocracy or Toneocracy?" - because of course, the only reason that anyone could want to do exercise is to get really big muscles, and doing high repitition work to increase endurance is clearly a mad and foolish idea. This also manifests itself in, for example, my 20k bike ride to work (50 mins on the bike, allowing for traffic) cashing out as roughly equivalent in points to five sets of weighted barbell squats. The algorithm also has other amusing consequences: my ride home from work is tougher than my ride to work, on account of the dirty great hill at the end of it - but because I take a bit longer (the hill!), I get fewer points for it (even with the difficulty set to "hills"). That said, this emphasis on strength training isn't that big a deal unless you're desperately competing with your friends. I find the fact that I get some points is a good motivation - I'm not yet at the point of complaining that my favoured training methodology doesn't get an extra points boost (is there a way to get extra points for a fartlek routine?). It's working well enough for me, and has encouraged me to get back into the gym. So from that perspective, a win.

Fitocracy's currently in beta. Invitations are available pretty regularly, or drop me a line if you'd like me to send you an invite code.

  brief statement of support for the Urewera 4 Tuesday 14 February 2012 link

The trial of the "Urewera 4" has commenced. I'd like to take a brief moment to say that two members of the "Urewera 4" are friends of ours (Urs and Em). I actually don't know much about their politics, but I know them as people. I trust them. They've looked after my children. Both our kids love Urs. I've looked after their son. He's a great lad. They're good people.

I'm not going to go into details about the charges about them, but I will say that I broadly agree with this analysis by Nicky Hagar. I'd point out that to my certain knowledge Em has met John Key in the flesh (at Parihaka) after the original arrests: clearly the DPS, whose job is to keep the PM safe, took a look at the potential threat that these dangerous "terrorists" posed and thought "FFS, there's no bloody risk." And I'll also note that in NZ, when a far-right survivalist group founded and lead by Kyle Chapman (ex-leader of the NZ National Front, who also leads the "Right Wing Resistance" and wants to set up a whites-only community) runs around the forest in camo gear carrying rifles and doing military-style preparations, they don't get busted by the cops, they get TV appearances with ex All Blacks. But combine a Maori group doing similar, with a counter-terrorism unit that - contra to the DPS brief - was desperate to find any possible evidence of internal terrorism within NZ before they get reassigned to traffic duty, a shit-ton of surveillance to cherry-pick quotes from, a few people who talk big when they've had a few beers, and a couple of cops keen for career advancement. The result is the clusterfuck of wasted effort, illegal surveillance, police face-saving and general waste of taxpayer resource that we see.

I'd just like to stand up and say that I support Urs and Emily, and hope that the jury throws the charges out.

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