Sunday, December 07, 2014

Review: Garmin Vivofit Activity Band

Recently, I purchased this Garmin VivoFit activity monitor, and I am very happy with it. It's basically just a pedometer that measures steps via a motion detector. It will estimate calories and distance based on the numbers of steps you take during the day. I didn't, but you can purchase an optional heart rate monitor as an add-on for more accurate activity stats.

I did a lot of research prior to buying this device, comparing it with the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband and a few others. What swayed me to the Vivofit is the long battery life (no charging needed), and an always-on large display. There is also a simple yet effective motivator, in a little red bar.

No charging needed.
We have cell phones, laptops, e-readers, iPads, and other gadgets that need charging. Another gadget usually means more cables, adapters and power supplies. But the Vivofit is unique, as to never need charging. Most of these activity bands need to be recharged every couple of days or once a week. There are no adapters, ports or cables with the VivoFit. It contains two replaceable disk batteries that are claimed to last a year or more. There is no reason to take this band off your wrist or find yourself in a situation where you are low on juice and can't find a place to recharge. This means you are more likely to wear it at all times.

Always-on display
This activity band has a large reflective display (no backlight). Hit the button on the band and it cycles through your dalily number of steps, steps till goal is reached, distance, calories, time and date. Add the optional heart rate monitor, and that information is displayed. Most other fitness bands have a minimal display and require a continuous connection to your mobile phone to check your stats. The VivoFit's always-on display makes it more of a stand-alone device. It gives you the important information you need throughout the day. When you are ready to sync, you can get more detailed stats.

That damned red bar
An interesting user interface element is this little red bar that appears above the numerical display. You can see it in the picture above. If you have been sedentary for an hour, the red bar pops up telling you it is time to get off your butt and take a walk. If you stay inactive, the red line grows longer each 15 minutes and flashes. Get up and move around for a few minutes, and the line disappears. Its a simple yet effective motivator to get you more active throughout the day.

Sync it up
Syncing can be done on either a smart-phone or your personal computer. Garmin Connect Mobile is software that runs on iOS or Android. It requires a compatible phone with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). On an iPhone that is a 4S or later. Alternatively, you can sync with your computer using the included ANT adapter that plugs into a USB port, and software for Mac or Windows. Press and hold the button for a couple of seconds and the band syncs your data. The data is extensive, and is displayed in cards on your dashboard. Double click on the card and you drill deeper into the data, historical trends and sleep graphs. See below for a screen shot of the Dashboard. The User Interface is similar on your mobile phone.

There is another kind of sync that you can take advantage of. You can merge your step data from Vivofit with calories consumed and fitness activity from the popular MyFitnessPlan. This is a two way synchronization that enhances the reporting for both programs.

Goals and Challenges
I mentioned the little red bar in the Vivofit display, and that is a strong motivator to get you moving. But it doesn't stop there. The Vivofit dynamically sets a goal for the number of steps each day. Your goal is based on past performance (number of steps), and changes every day. If you consistently surpass your goal, the next day's goal will become tougher. Then there are challenges. Each week you are put into a Step Challenge with some other folks. A leaderboard is displayed that shows how you stand in relation to the others in your group. You can also create your own challenge groups with your friends. You also earn "badges" for winning Step Challenges and passing milestones. These features are designed to add some fun and competition to your efforts to get more active.

It's not all rosy
There are some issues. Some of these are related to maximizing battery life. The display has no backlight, so you can't see it in low light situations. Other monitors also have vibrating reminders and notifications; not the VivoFit. Syncing with Garmin Connect and MyFitness plan has sometimes been unreliable, with periods of downtime. Also the sleep reporting is weak. It would be nice to measure periods of deep sleep. You can see it graphically, but the data is not presented as well as I've seen in other programs.

In Summary
I am really enjoying my Vivofit. It has motivated me to be more active in my daily routine, hit the gym more often and be aware of my calorie intake versus calories burned. Compared to other activity bands, I like the fact that I don't have to think about charging, and I don't have to check my phone to see my daily progress. Meeting my daily goal and competing in community challenges is fun and motivating.

If you have a Garmin Vivofit or intend to get one, please contact me. I'd love to add you in a custom Challenge group.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Newport Jazz Festival 2014 Review

This years Newport Jazz Festival was a very wet affair, but that didn't keep Jazz fans from showing their love and devotion to this art form. Thousands endured the rainy weather to hear both classic jazz and modern new music. This year, the 60th anniversary of the Festival added a third day to the weekend schedule. It was a good thing they did, because the added Friday schedule was the driest day of the Festival. Here is my day-by-day review of the acts we caught during the Newport Jazz Festival. There were 43 shows scheduled over 3 days. We saw about 20. Below are the highlights of what we saw.

Jon Batiste Stay Human
Friday was a perfect sunny day for the outdoor concerts at Fort Adams Park. Hightlights for me were two modern big bands. Darcy James Argue Secret Society, and Miguel Zenon & The Identities Big Band. The former featured Darcy's "Steampunk Jazz" sound; industrial complex rhythm changes over lively horn arrangements. Miguel Zenon's large ensemble featured his regular quartet fronting a tightly arranged big band, playing compositions inspired by his Puerto Rican heritage. The day concluded for us with a rousing performance by Jon Batiste and Stay Human, evoking a New Orleans street band performance to the big Fort Stage. They had the crowd on their feet.

Pedro Martinez Group
Day two brought a deluge of rain. Usually one would be sampling the concerts, running between the three stages that are in Fort Adams State Park. But because of the heavy downpours, once you got a seat under a tent of one of the two smaller covered venues, you are best to stay put and enjoy the shows, keeping as dry as possible. We planted ourselves under the Quad Stage and heard great performances by Brian Blade Fellowship featuring his understated hymn inspired sound that had a folk music quality to it. SF Jazz Collective resurrected a "best of" set from its previous 6 albums. An outrageously awesome percussive Cuban band, Pedrito Martinez rocked the audience with its Latin beats. Late in the afternoon, the rain subsided enough to leave that tent and hear a tremendous set by the Kurt Rosenwinkel's New Quartet. The rain held off to venture to the open air large Fort Stage to hear Wynton Marsalis leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. We finished the day back under the Quad Stage Tent to hear Dave Holland and Prism. This band totally rocked out, with guitarist Robin Eubanks channeling Mahavishnu, Hendrix and Jimmy Page all at once.

Anat Cohen
Sunday, day three had more of the same weather issues, and once again we claimed our space under the Quad tent. The Cookers kicked it off with their all-star lineup of Billy Harper, Donald Harrison, Billy Hart, Cecil McBee and more. Just when I think I am growing tired of straight ahead classic jazz, I am blown away by how this music can swing so hard. Next up was Vijay Iyer's Septet. Vijay brought some modern new compositions and arrangements that ventured into avant garde, yet never lost its foundations. At one point, they broke into a very tight funky refrain that had everyone's head bobbing. That was followed by George Wein's All-Stars featuring Anat Cohen, Randy Brecker, Lew Tabakin and others. Again, the straight ahead jazz classics were kicked up a notch with heavy swing and virtuoso soloing. Gary Burton took the stage with his quartet featuring Julian Lage on guitar. No surprises here, just solid playing with that great bright sound coming from expertly executed vibes and guitar. We concluded our Newport Jazz experience at the Harbor Stage with Danillo Perez Panama 500 band. It was a laid back performance with Latin rhythms over the thoughtful improvisations by the creative Perez on piano and a harmonica soloist as well. Danillo's 3 year old son took the stage and actually played the Congas on the final piece delighting the crowd.

Despite the nasty weather, this Newport Jazz Festival was one of the best I've attended. The quality and variety of the music, the appreciation, devotion and the feeling of community shown by the jazz fans trumped any negativity that the weather brought on. It's great to see Newport Jazz Festival's founder George Wein, more than holding his own on piano at 88 yrs old, still active in organizing this historic festival for most of its 60 year existence.

Check out our complete photo gallery here:

Newport Jazz Fest gallery

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Windows 8.1 is Horrible

Full Disclosure; I am an Apple fan boy and have been since 1986 when I bought my first Mac Plus. I am also an IT professional and just as comfortable with the many varieties of Windows as I am on Mac OSX. I have provided tech support and network administration for companies with a couple dozen users to enterprise wide networks with complex domains and mixed platforms. 

Since my current job requires me to support Windows and Mac users, I was issued a MacBook Pro (MBP) with Bootcamp, allowing me to boot into either Mac OSX or Windows 7 as needed. It was configured with all of my critical applications on the Windows side. Until recently, I spent 85% of my time in the Windows world and 15% on the Mac side. Like most users, I tolerated my Windows environment with its cluttered interface, feature bloat and declining performance. The times I booted to MacOS, I was back with a friend and ally. Booting into Windows felt more like facing an adversary to my productivity.

Recently I was given the opportunity to replace my aging 6 year old MBP with the latest model; a new light unibody, Retina display, SSD storage, 7 hour battery, quad core cpu Mac. This time I configured it with all my critical tools (MS Office, Acrobat Pro, Adobe Creative Suite) on the Mac side, and run Windows side by side as a virtual machine rather than a dual boot situation.

I was issued Windows 8.1 to install and configure. After a week of concentrated use, I can say without hesitation, Windows 8.1 as shipped IS HORRIBLE.

The most recognizable feature of Windows 8 is the Start screen; a colorful display of tiles that link to commonly used apps, news, sports and advertisements for games and media content. You quickly tire of these tiles flashing and sliding around, turning your computer into an electronic billboard. Fortunately, with some time and effort you can rid yourself of the advertising and configure the Start screen to be less garish. In fact you can bypass the Start screen on bootup and make your computer more like Windows 7 (eventually you will be forced to hit the Start button and return to those tiles).
Start Screen or Desktop Billboard
Then there are the "Metro" apps. These are versions of Internet Explorer, document reader, and media viewers that are designed for touch screens and have the same look and feel as a tablet or smartphone. They are designed with giant round buttons and paired down features. They look like apps made for children in the K-3rd grade. These child-like apps are set as defaults. Click on Internet Explorer, you get Baby IE. Click on a PDF, you get Baby Reader, click on a photo, Baby Photo Viewer. Fortunately you can reset all these apps to ones of your preference in the more "mature" Desktop environment. That makes it more like Window 7.
The new Internet Explorer
In fact, in my research to find ways to make Windows 8 more palatable, I noticed that most articles written on customizing Windows 8 are really about sidestepping Windows 8 and making it more like Windows 7.  Being the nerdy type, I actually enjoyed the process of customizing my Windows 8 experience. In the end, I chose to keep booting to the Start screen although it looks nothing like the one that was installed out of the box.

I probably spent 30 hours installing Windows 8 and configuring it to work the way I want. But how many casual users will want to go through that exercise and why should they? What does it say about the Microsoft's latest UI, that so much is written about how to bypass its features?

I am happy to say that with my new MacBook Pro, I can spend 85% of my time with my friend and ally, Mac OS. I have my Windows 8.1 just a three finger swipe away to demonstrate to clients our company's Windows print drivers and utilities.  I'll do my heavy lifting on the Mac. Windows 8, to me is like a novelty, and a neat demo and testing environment that lives in a small corner of my MacBook Pro's solid state drive.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wynton criticism

Wynton Marsalis is one of the best trumpet players and band leaders on the scene today. It can't be denied that he has exceptional chops on his horn and will stand with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown and other greats in the history of post bop jazz. He has been an advocate for elevating traditional jazz as an art form in our culture and consciousness.

That being said, while he has kept the flame of traditional and bebop jazz alive, he has also been an obstacle to moving jazz forward with a young generation of listeners. Wynton's emphasis on preaching history and tradition is partially responsible for sustaining the old stereotypes of what jazz music is. It has held back recognition of more modern jazz music that might otherwise flourish with a younger audience brought up with funk, hip-hop and rock influences.

Listen to brother Branford Marsalis, Terrance Blanchard, Robert Glasper and Nicholas Payton to name a few. I don't agree with everything these cats say, but you will hear a more open modern view as to the future of jazz. Watch the film Icons among us, Jazz in the Present Tense to see how this art form is evolving to relate more with a younger audience without compromising its creative spirit.

Unfortunately, these voices rarely get heard beyond jazz's "inner circle". Wynton Marsalis remains the de facto Ambassador of Jazz through his association with Jazz At Lincoln Center (JALC), CBS News and other mainstream outlets.

Don't get me wrong. I love Wynton's playing. I dig his music for what it is, jazz founded in the hard bop era. However, his words and music are not the future of jazz and it is not the music that will endear jazz to future generations.

View the full length feature, Icons Among Us on iTunes

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Great Jazz Albums of 2013

These are my favorite jazz releases of 2013. I hesitate to call this a Best Of list, as one can't possibly claim to have heard all of the jazz releases in this age of independently produced recordings. While several of these picks are from established jazz masters (Wayne Shorter, Gary Burton, Chick Corea), there are others that rarely get the press or recognition they deserve (Earl MacDonald, Russ Kaplan). I urge you to seek out some of these lesser known artists and support their efforts.

click artist or album name to purchase on iTunes.

Wayne Shorter - Without a Net; Shorter's great quartet redefines free jazz. Great empathy between these long time collaborators is apparent throughout.

Chick Corea - The Vigil; Chick reaches back to the fusion sounds of the electric Return to Forever days, with new compositions and young virtuoso musicians.

Dave Douglas - Time Travel; Douglas pushes this fine quintet of new and established jazz cats to new heights of creativity and freedom.

Kenny Garrett - Pushing the World Away; KG continues the vibe of this quintet's prior album with new compositions that exude passion and intensity.

Gregory Porter - Liquid Spirit; Porter's much anticipated 2nd LP exemplifies his soulfulness and gospel roots combined with real jazz sensibilities

Gary Burton - Guided Tour; Burton assembled this fine quartet for his latest album. Together they bring to life his compositions and arrangements.

Noah Preminger - Haymaker; Noah's third album is a great one. A wide range of sounds and influences, from ethereal to rocking out to gorgeous ballads.

Earl MacDonald - Mirror of the Mind; Earl's use of cello instead of bass creates a colorful palette for his wonderful arrangements for this fine quartet.

Antonio Sanchez - New Life; This outstanding drummer shows his skills as a bandleader keeping all these strong soloists focused on his thoughtful arrangements.

Terance Blanchard - Magnetic; Terance knows how to tastefully use electronics to create a modern sound and stay true to his traditional jazz roots.

Chris Potter - Sirens; A quality album in its writing, arranging and playing from perhaps the best tenor player on the scene today.

Russ Kaplan+7 - The Ulysses Cycle; Kaplan has created a concept piece based on Homer's Odyssey. The listening experience is enhanced  when combined with the liner notes and illustrations provided.

Dave Holland - Prism; This great bassist and bandleader released an electric, fusion oriented album with a talented and powerful quartet or Holland, Taborn, Harland and K. Eubanks.

Greg Abate Quintet - Featuring Phil Woods; Two greats on alto sax combine for a hard hitting bop session that swings with the best of them.

Anoushka Shankar - Traces of You; Not a jazz album, but I love this release that fuses East and West musical forms that doesn't seem to compromise the quality or originality of the music.