Monthly Archives: June 2016

Review: Pavlok

ALT. TITLE: The lengths I’ll go to in order to build my portfolio of tech writing pieces.

What’s that on your wrist? Is it a FitBit? Oh my god, it does WHAT?

Wearables are all the rage right now. You know, tech what you can WEAR on your bod. Years ago I jumped on the wear-wagon and got myself a Jawbone UP. It promised me the world; track your eating, your movement, your sleep! Become a new person overnight and accessorise that person with a funky neon bracelet.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. I was too lazy to ever input the calories, or ever walk anywhere, and the sleep thing was more of an annoyance than anything. It also stopped working after it got wet a few times and so I just gave up on it.

But apparently I don’t learn from these mistakes and was lured into the trap of believing that my life wouldn’t be complete without the latest must-have wrist trap: a Pavlok. Pavlok describes itself as “the first device that breaks habits by deleting temptation.” If that reads like it’s some kind of brainwashing, then I’d say that’s more or less right. Working off Pavlovian conditioning (geddit? not sure what the ‘lok’ bit is though), it’s a wearable bracelet that gives you a mild electric shock when you press it. Yes, that’s really what it is. Here’s a couple of picture images:

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As you can see, it’s actually just a battery that fits into a larger plastic sheath. Put together, the whole thing is slightly larger than a watch, which makes it pretty clunky to wear. If you wear long-sleeved shirts, then you either have to hoik your cuffs over it all the time, or permanently live with asymetrical sleeves (the horror). Compare this to the figure-hugging design of the FitBit or Jawbone UP, devices which are meant to be as much fashion accessories as a piece of tech. There’s clearly work to be done at Pavlok in the design department.

But what can they do, really? The device is basically just a battery you strap to yourself. It’s got some other stuff in there like a Bluetooth receiver, vibration capabilities, some kind of little speaker and lots of LEDs for status displays. But it is mostly a battery and as such, there is a direct relationship between its size and utility (battery life). But that’s one for the boffins to figure out. LET’S TALK ABOUT PAIN.

So this thing gives you electric shocks when you press it. The shocks are meant to be unpleasant. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel conditioned to stop, would you? For the faint of heart, you can control the level of the zap through the mind-boggingly superfluous app, or by lightly tapping the Pavlok itself. When I started, I had it at around 25% but I soon had to increase that as I became used to the sensation. And eventually it stopped being painful at all, which I think is a problem. Just as the body learns to condition behaviour to negative stimuli, so too is it able to adapt to them.

When I was little, I tried Stop’n’Grow to prevent nail biting. It’s basically a bitter-tasting nail varnish that you use to help yourself off biting. But of course you simply get used to the taste. As I’d got the Pavlok to help myself stop biting my nails too, it was kind of ironic that I ran into this same issue. I guess my body/mind just loves biting nails so much that it’ll do anything to keep at it. You could punch me in the face really really hard every time I bit, and I’d probably still go right at ’em. In fact, that’d only make me more anxious and make me bite even more.

Because that’s the real issue, isn’t it? Habits like nail biting, hair pulling, and skin picking aren’t done so much because of the positive feelings derived from them, but as a outer manifestation of an inner unrest. Compare to smoking, for instance, in which you’re physically addicted to a substance and demanding that in and of itself. There’s no ‘rush’ from nail biting, just a relief. So you can’t treat nail biting in the same way as you’d treat smoking, or similar habits. I don’t think I’ll ever stop biting my nails until I conquer my own inner anxieties, and strapping an electric shock device to myself can’t be the right direction.

It also bears an all-too-similar appearance to ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy), in which electric shocks are administered to treat mental health problems. As history – and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – has taught us, this isn’t really the right approach.

But psychology aside, it’s worth talking about the product as a piece of technology. Functionally, it works fine. The device is responsive to the touch and mostly zaps me just as I’d expect. On the occasion that I don’t feel anything, it’s usually a result of not having the strap done up tight enough to complete the circuit, so my bad I guess.

One fundamental flaw in the idea, as many, many people I’ve talked to about it have pointed out, is that you have to self-administer the shocks. So it’s entirely on you to make sure that you’re properly treating yourself. This is a pretty big drawback, as the exercise collapses back down into a matter of willpower. If I don’t have the willpower to stop myself biting, it’s a big leap to assume I’ll have the willpower to instead give myself an electric shock every time I notice myself biting.

That’s the other problem, I have to notice it. Habits like nail biting are mostly unconscious. A lot of the time I don’t even notice my hand at my mouth, it just pops up there of its own accord. So I’ve had to rely on other people to remind me that I’m biting and then shock myself. In a few cases, people have taken this to mean literally grabbing my wrist and shocking me, which isn’t much fun. And if people are going to remind me to shock myself, maybe they could just tell me to biting in the first place? Noticing a pattern yet? Basically, the Pavlok seems to do a lot of work to make itself redundant.

I should add that there is a function in the Pavlok app (which works over Bluetooth, available on iOS/Android) that automatically zaps when you put your hand to your face. I guess the device has an inbuilt accelerometer. This sounds like the perfect solution, but I never once got it to work. Also, most people have TWO WRISTS so it’s literally a half measure. Nice try, though!

The app also doesn’t do anything else like tracking your movement or anything. So if you want to do that, I guess you’ll need to buy ANOTHER wristband? Depends how much you value your wrist real estate I guess. The app does have a Headspace-style mindfulness course that guides you through your first days with the device, but it wasn’t anything special.

Anyway, I want to wrap this up with a very sarcastic conclusion. I’m of the opinion that the Pavlok device is a fine implementation of a dubious idea. Not only that, but that everything it does can be just as well done by a humble elastic band. So let’s compare.

PAVLOK

Pros:

  • Works most of the time
  • Could help improve your habits (there is some science supporting it, and I did see some improvements in my nails in the few months I wore it)
  • Could trick your gullible friends into thinking you have a cooler device like a FitBit
  • Getting people to put the device on and using the app to remotely shock them over and over again is great fun.
  • Decent battery life

Cons:

  • Will probably kill you if you have a heart condition
  • $179
  • Painful at the highest settings, ineffective at lower ones
  • Needing to rely on other people for it to really do anything
  • Having to put up with people asking you if it’s a FitBit all the time
  • Having to explain what the device is, and why anyone would ever willingly want to shock themselves (“No, it’s not a masochistic thing”)
  • Running the gauntlet of getting it through airport security (I never took it away with me, but imagine having to explain “Oh this, it’s just my device that gives people electric shocks…”).
  • Bigger than Godzilla.

PINGING YOURSELF WITH AN ELASTIC BAND

Pros:

  • Works all of the time
  • Literally the same psychological benefits as Pavlok
  • Comes in lots of different shapes, sizes, and colours
  • You can buy like 100 for £1
  • Infinite battery life

Cons:

  • Breaks easily (but very replaceable).
  • Doesn’t give you anything interesting to write a tech blog about
  • er… that might be it?

So, my verdict?

elastic-band

Go elastic.

My milk shapes bring all the numbers to social media

TW: Hairy male body, Lactose

My ongoing quest to become the world’s greatest fashion, beauty, and lifestyle blogger knows no bounds. I’ve already blown away my critics with a series of award-winning (Best Fashion Videos: cookywook YouTube Awards 2016fashion videos, and now I’m taking on modelling.

My inspiration came from friend-of-the-blog, Megs, aka Wonderful You. A powerful brand in and of herself, Megs works with the photography wizard that is Alex Cameron. Alex is a freelance photographer specialising in weddings, fashion photography, and portraits. Megs and Alex have done loads of work together doing all kinds of lovely shoots. If you visited the exhibition of Alex’s work at Espresso Library recently, you’ll have seen this pic of Megs as part of the Giants series. And that’s all great.

But the one photo the two did together that really caught my eye was this one of Megs in some milk.

Milk.

It’s cool, right? And as an aspiring beauty, fashion, and lifestyle blogger it’s my obligation to try and one-up it. So that’s what I did.

With Alex’s permission and support we set up a little photoshoot at her base in Cottenham. We weren’t blessed with the best weather in the world, but we got enough breaks in the cloud to get some decent shooting time.

But first things first. I had to buy a paddling pool. And milk. Lots of milk. Around 40 pints of milk in total. The woman on the till at Sainsbury’s seemed pretty nonplussed about us buying such a large quantity of milk, offering a cursory ‘so what’s the milk for?’ more as small talk than anything substantial. She’s seen it all before I guess.

But it turns out that even that much milk doesn’t go too far when you’re filling up a paddling pool. I read in horror that the capacity of the child’s pool I’d bought off Amazon was actually 666L (why that of all numbers?). That’s roughly 1172 pints, or 1132 pints more than we had. But the good news was that we didn’t really need to fill the pool, and also that you can dilute milk quite a lot (pro tip: use whole milk!) without losing much in the way of opacity. But turning a puddle of milk into a luxurious silk bath with just a garden hose takes a long time.

In the meantime, we took some shots of folks flying around the garden. Here’s me.

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I won’t spoil the magic of how it works, because it’s REAL ACTUAL MAGIC.

Soon enough, the milk was ready and in I got. Yes, I got down to my pants, specially selected to best match the milk and pool. Yes, it was super embarrassing. Yes, several of my close friends were watching. Yes, it was super super cold. And yes, I didn’t really know what I was going to do once I got in.

I mean, do you go for a straight-up modelling thing, pulling all those weird shapes that models do? Or just mess around and do loads of jokey stuff? Well, I ended up going for some kind of ironic extreme, playing down the whole thing but kind of taking it really seriously at the same time.

We tried to make it a bit playful by chucking some flowers in with me. And someone handed me a cup of tea as a prop. At one point, Edd poured milk over me as an action shot, an experience that was not unlike being waterboarded.

BUT ENOUGH YAPPING HERE’S WHAT YOU CAME FOR

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Some kind of foetal thing. Very pretentious.

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I like that in this one I’m smiling. I spent a lot of the shoot laughing.

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MILK SHAPES DO YOU GET IT LIKE MILKSHAKE THE KELIS SONG

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Not sure what the idea was with this one.

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TEA.

About 20 minutes later, I climbed out. I was cold, wet, and both my ears and nose were clogged with milk. Let me tell you, no amount of showering will get that out. I could smell milk for days. Hell, I can still hear it. But it was fun.

What I’m trying to figure out now is how to get the most out of the photos for my PERSONAL BRAND. Yes, it all comes down to numbers. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – you gotta think about it all. (Still working on the LinkedIn strategy). Social marketing is literally my day job, so this is an interesting little exercise. Hopefully this blog will work wonders. Please RT and share and offer me book deals.

OK THAT’S ALL BYE BYE


If you want silly (or sensible) photos taken of you for any reason, contact Alex Cameron here.

Richard’s 2016: Week 24

(Read up on what #Richards2016 is all about here.)

Hello. Another week then. Coming up to six months shortly. Maybe I’ll try and do something special for that. But knowing my luck (and levels of effort at this point), I probably won’t. Still, stay tuned.

 June 11th: Corn on the Cob Day

Not just corn, but a whole meal of wonderful food. Not actually cooked by me, but I sort of assisted in its production (rubbing butter on the corn), so it still counts.

June 12th: Red Rose Day

So. I’m going to do a full blog post on this later (probably tomorrow), but I did a sort of… photoshoot. Roses were involved. As was milk. Here’s a snippet for your eyes to enjoy.

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See, there’s a rose in there! More to follow.

June 13th: Sewing Machine Day

There was no way I was going to be able to do this, was I? So I borrowed a day from fellow-daysman Toby.

Look at him work that sewing machine! Powerful stuff.

June 14th: World Blood Donor Day

So, I recently became a certified platelets donor. It’s like a more hardcore version of being a blood donor because it takes longer. Yup, a further 90 minutes of having an uncomfortably thick needle lodged in your arm. But I haven’t actually had a go at donating  any yet.

So I tried to book an appointment on this day for my first platelet donation. But it’s tricky. Because it takes so long, it means it has to start at least 90 minutes before they shut. But they shut at like 7. I finish work at 6. You can see the issue. So we’re currently trying to figure out what to do about this.

I’ve got some sort of appointment in a few weeks. That’s good enough for me, and all this faff is surely enough to fill the requirements of Blood Donor Day.

Also, GIVE BLOOD.

June 15th: Smile Power Day

Don’t ever say I don’t smile.

June 16th: Fresh Veggies Day

The logic checks out. I order the same thing from Subway everytime:

Steak and Cheese. Toasted. Plus onions, lettuce, peppers, olives, and jalapenos. I call it ‘The Richard’ and it’s the greatest. AND it’s full of fresh vegetables. YUM.

June 17th: Eat Your Vegetables Day

Two vegetables days in a row?! Why, I oughta…

Anyway, I had a delicious lamb kofte wrap from Merhaba. Yum again.


COMING UP

  • June 18th: Splurge Day
  • June 19th: World Sickle Cell Awareness Day
  • June 20th: American Eagle Day
  • June 21st: Cherry Tart Day
  • June 22nd: Onion Rings Day
  • June 23rd: Public Service Day
  • June 24th: Take Your Dog to Work Day

NICE. See you then, friends.

Richard’s 2016: Weeks 22 & 23

(Read up on what #Richards2016 is all about here.)

Right, so I know I said I wouldn’t do any more double weeks. But here we are. I really just need to stop leaving the country so often. Anyway, here’s what my life has been about.

May 28th: Hamburger Day

For the second time this year, I was out on a stag do. Oy oyyy! Thankfully we passed through a restaurant (Jamie’s Italian), and I managed to grab a burger. I’d describe it “as more or less ok.”

SIDE NOTE OF FUN

At one point of the evening, we ended up in some wine bar. There, we found the funniest book of all time.
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MICHAEL JACKSON: BEER HUNTER.

May 29th: Biscuit Day

I was born to do this.

May 30th – June 4th: ?????

Yeah this is when I was in Sweden on a work trip. WHO EVEN KNOWS if I did my days out there? You can’t prove I didn’t. Anyway, to make up for that, here are some assorted photos of what I was getting up to. Maybe you can piece together some sort of exciting adventure story from them.2016-06-02 17.59.41

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Basically lots of fun and busyness.

June 5th: Environment Day

I LIVE IN THE ENVIRONMENT LOOOOOLLLLL

June 6th: Yo-Yo Day

Yeah, that’s me with a yo-yo in bed. I often yo-yo in bed. It helps me think.

June 7th: Chocolate Ice Cream Day

ANOTHER ONE IN THE BANK.

Someone tried to argue that a Magnum isn’t a chocolate ice cream – it’s actually a vanilla ice cream with a chocolate shell. But NAH, the shell is still ice cream. It’s all ice cream, baby!

June 8th: Best Friends Day

Went out to Pizza Express with some of my best mates! Here is one: Mr Rorey Jones of Atlanta, Georgia.

I know it says selfie, but just ignore that. It’s obviously not me.

June 9th: Jerky Day

I was a bit of a jerk to people? Like I had a go at my workmate’s t-shirt, when actually I thought it was ok. That kinda thing. A lot of people didn’t notice though???

June 10th: Ball Point Pen Day

Seriously, who invented these things? They are literally the worst.

OK THAT’S IT. I think we may have hit a new low over the past fortnight. But I guess that means the only way is UP? Hell yeah baby.


Coming up:

  • June 11th: Corn on the Cob Day
  • June 12th: Loving Day
  • June 13th: Sewing Machine Day
  • June 14th: World Blood Donor Day
  • June 15th: Smile Power Day
  • June 16th: Fresh Veggies Day
  • June 17th: Apple Strudel Day

See you in the future!

Review: Headspace

Mindfulness is all the rage right now. Well, I suppose ‘rage’ isn’t the right word. Mindfulness is all the calm right now. (Eugh, I’d delete that sentence if it wasn’t the best opening I could come up with).

From colouring books to origami, it seems like everybody wants in on it.

And I’m a pretty big advocate myself. I first heard about it in a counselling session for anxiety/depression, where I was told it’s being increasingly prescribed as a treatment option by the NHS. At first I was sceptical. If all my years of philosophy had taught me anything, it was that you can’t think your way out of problems. But I gave it a go, and it worked. But how?

There’s a great section in Infinite Jest where one of the characters is going through Alcoholics Anonymous, and reflecting on the mantras they use to help people through recovery. Chief of these is the simple refrain: “keep coming back.” Even if it doesn’t seem to be working, the very act of returning again and again seems to have some therapeutic value. And so it seems to be with mindfulness. It’s a bit like a magic trick. I’m not sure how it works, I’m just sure it does work. But you have to stick it out.

But what is mindfulness, anyway? The best definition I can jumble together is that it’s the practice of having a ‘conscious experience’ of your life. Like imagine you’re sitting on a bus or something. Maybe you’re thinking about where you’re going, who you’re seeing. Boom, that’s an open door for anxiety (are the people on the bus looking at me? / am i going to be late? / what if the bus breaks down? / what if i miss my stop?). Imagine instead that you simply do a mental inventory of what you’re actually experiencing: I’m sitting on a bus, this seat is uncomfortable, that man over there smells bad, there’s a nice view out the window.

Sounds lame, right? But it’s actually a very grounding experience. Extended further, you can start looking even further inward to catalogue your own thoughts. There’s a worry, there’s some anxiety, there’s a pain in my foot. It’s not really about judging these thoughts, or trying to overcome them. It’s just observing. And somehow (it’s really a mystery, to me) they start melting away.

But you do need to practice. And that’s where apps come in.

Yes, mindfulness has apps. Lots of them. Chief among them: Headspace.

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What does the app do? Well, it gives you little mindfulness sessions. These consist of your mindfulness guide (a chap called Andy, who we’ll get to in a bit) taking you on a little tour of your body and mind. These all follow more or less the same structure:

  • Sitting down comfortably
  • Focussing on your breathing
  • Closing your eyes
  • ‘Scanning’ up and down your body, focussing on the sensations
  • Counting your breaths
  • Allowing yourself to get distracted, but turning your attention back to the breathing
  • A few moments of nothingness (no thoughts, no counting)
  • Then all of the above in reverse again

Yes, it’s that simple. At first glance it feels pretty light on content – and that’s sort of right.

The app begins with a 10-session intro that you can try for free. I’d actually highly recommend it if you’re at all interested. At least try the one session if you’re curious, or even sceptical. Beyond that, the app offers you a couple of different courses. These include a focus on your health – for example – or relationships. Then there’s some other simple add-ons like one-off emergency sessions, sessions for walking, and so on.

I tried the health course and picked some things that claimed to be specifically geared towards anxiety. I found that beyond a few different bits of narration in the sessions, they weren’t drastically different to what was in the initial course of ten. They were, however, a bit longer, creeping towards 20 minutes. Now, of course, we can all surely spare 20 minutes out of our days – probably a good idea to re-evaluate your life in general if you can’t. But man, that 20 minutes can drag.

So many times I wanted to do something really badly, like playing that video game or something. And I’ll admit that a few times I cracked and just put the app on in the background while I did other stuff. It’s just kinda boring. But I did stick with it.

At least until I figured out that I had more or less memorised the entire sequence of meditation. The student had become the master, and I no longer needed the app. Also, each session is downloaded onto your phone (rather than streamed for some reason) and each has to be manually deleted – so it ended up consuming loads of space.

Would I recommend it? Well, maybe. The app itself is quite lovely and well-designed. But you can get the same features pretty much with any other mindfulness app. I mean, all you really need is someone to say “think about this… ok now think about this” and once you get the hang of it you don’t even need that. Sure, you don’t get Andy’s lovely soothing voice (think Iwan Rheon), but that’s by-the-by. I use another app at the moment called Calm which is pretty sweet. And it doesn’t cost you £4.99 a month.

Which brings me to my last point. The thing feels a bit like a cash-in.

I mean, it’s pretty expensive. For a fiver a month, I can almost get all the films and TV I want on Netflix. I know it’s comparing apples and oranges, but paying a fiver a month (or £249.85 for ‘forever’ access) feels steep. Especially since it’s meant to be a resource to help people with their mental health. It’s this weird mix of lovely helpful wonderful natural therapy and hardline business. And don’t think it’s not about business.

o-ANDY-PUDDICOMBE-facebook

This is Andy, chief Headspace person. Here’s what the website says about him:

In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India.

After said monking about, he ended up founding Headspace. He then became a millionaire. Ah yes, the classic monk-to-riches success story. Doesn’t quite sit right, does it?

I’m not saying the brand should be a charity, of course. Capitalism is the force that drives innovation, etc. etc. And they do run a ‘get some / give some‘ program that gives out Headspace subscriptions to those in need… leveraged on the number they sell to paying subscribers. But.. just.. hmm…

I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel about the ethical standing of all this.

In short:

  • Mindfulness is good and seems to work.
  • Headspace have a very attractive package for the first-time mindfull-er.
  • You can get what you need from it just out of the free offering.
  • There’s equally solid offerings out there, without the fancy branding.

Annndddd, breathe.