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Outliers and redheaded step-children.

Treadmill Desk Update

Several weeks ago, all that walking on my treadmill desk put me at 6 pounds below my starting weight.  I gained 1 back, which is probably a combination of muscle building and eating more.  Even with the gain, my pants are a little loose, so I really do think muscle buildup is at least a small factor.

I’m doing 6-8 miles per day, at speeds between 1.5 and 2.0 MPH, having ramped up from 4 miles per day a few weeks ago.  Once I max out my mileage, I may add ankle weights, except some paranoid part of me wonders if that’ll make people think I’m under house arrest and wearing tracking devices.

There’s this couch to 10k program that some friends of mine (only one with an online presence, AFAIK) have participated in, and I thought it’d be cool to see if I could catch up to them while working 🙂  It’s not exactly the same thing, since they actually run the 10k, and I’m walking it, but I’m a lot more productive during my miles than they are…


Some of you knew this was in the works, but I just wanted to formally announce that Sun and I have proven that we’re of the same species and are expecting a baby girl in mid-April 🙂

Feel free to include name recommendations if you reply, though we’re leaning toward Daphne Kira.

Quick Update

I’ve been busy.  In one week, life managed to pack car trouble, a consulting deadline, final preparation for a talk I gave at CPOSC 2008, and visit from an old friend.  Except for the car trouble, all were welcome, but you can see why the RSS feed has been empty.

At the conference, I learned that my blog has managed to hook at least one other person on the treadmill desk concept, since he built his own treadmill desk after reading about mine.  While I didn’t invent the concept, I do feel pleased that my little project has had some ripple effect throughout the internets.

Treadmill Desk Update

After 7 days of treadmill desk usage, I’ve lost a pound.  I haven’t altered my diet or anything – just constantly walking at 1.0 MPH while I use my laptop.  I’ve averaged about 3 miles a day, mostly a mix of 2-mile and 4-mile days.  I’m aiming to get to 6 miles a day, but my feet may disapprove.  It may be time to get some actual walking shoes designed by engineers.

Treadmill Desk

I am accustomed to creating and sometimes evaluating ideas that seem insane, and when I heard about treadmill desks, I was half-certain that the very concept was only created to sell treadmills in a waning economy.  Surely it would go down in history alongside the 19th century exercise equipment like the beard roller and the fat-shaker.

When you get over the initial shock of the blending the gym with the office, it seems like one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas.  It takes exercise from a serial activity for which few people have time and turns it into a parallel activity that you accomplish in the background while doing work.  By parallelizing it, you create swaths of exercise time that you would not otherwise have.

But can it really be that simple?  How would you type?  What would your brain do to you for walking while not moving?  Will people hear noise (treadmill motor, footsteps, huffing, puffing) when you’re on the phone?  And wouldn’t a treadmill take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money?

For the answers to those questions, all I had to go by were some pretty positive anecdotes, but nothing beats personal experience.  With a budget of $500, I set about to make a treadmill desk.  I telecommute, so my office configuration and contents are up to me.  That may not apply to you, but maybe you have a manager who will let you give it a try.

You will find that researching which treadmill to buy is not an easy task, and I have no one-size-fits-all advice.  Most reviews of treadmills that I came across were for newer models and assessed reliability/warranty, weight limit, maximum speed, and running comfort.  In my case, I only need it to go about 1.0 MPH, support up to 200 pounds (I’m at 162) so I was happy to consider models that do not hold up to the rigors of running or high weight.  While going cheap would be a mistake, a mid-priced unit could have a motor that lasts for years at 1.0 MPH, if it’s meant to last at all at its maximum speed of, say, 10.0 MPH.  The more expensive models are aimed at supporting the pounding that running gives to the deck and the stress it gives to the motor, and you don’t need them for your treadmill desk.

I gave preference to units with horizontal handlebars, since you do need to add a desktop to it, and I wanted to start out level.  I also decided that there was no need to get a new one, just one that was new enough that I could find replacement parts if it failed, and new enough to have some non-structural pieces made of plastic and not depleted uranium.  Thanks to Fleet, I learned that Craigslist isn’t just for San Francisco, and I was able to pick up a 2-year-old Horizon CST 3.5 treadmill with 2 years left on its extended warranty for $325.

Day 1 was spent moving it into the office, which was its own workout, after which I cobbled together a quick desk surface that I laid across the treadmill’s horizontal handlebars.  I was able to play a little WarCraft III online, too.  Day 2 was my first work day with it.  I managed to get 4 miles in, after which I realized that I should have tried 1 and ramped up.  I had some trouble walking over the weekend 🙂  Day 3 was another work day, and I decided to do 2 miles.  Day 4 was the first day with walking shoes instead of unshod feet, and I think I got 4 miles done.

Side-effects.  Your brain filters out patterns of motion very well as a way to present you with a relatively stable world under most conditions.  However, this doesn’t instantly switch on or off, as you know if you spin around in a circle very fast and try to stop.  Here are some brain problems that went away after Day 2:

  • Dizziness.  You’re walking, which your brain associates with forward motion, so it loads up the whole “moving forward” perception filter.  The only problem is that you aren’t moving.  When you walk in place long enough and then stop, you see the world moving.  When you actually walk, you feel as if you’re moving faster than you really are.
  • When I first started using it, the text on my laptop’s screen seemed to not be in a straight line.  That’s gone now, and it looks straight again.
  • Typos.  Ok, I still make these sometimes, but their frequency is decreasing rapidly.  Even while resting my hands on the laptop, my fingers pivot around as I walk, so it’s an adjustment.
  • Hunger.  WTF, I’m doing this to lose my “programmer gut” and I get hungry enough to throw Vanilla Coke at all the calories I just burned. This was mostly an issue on Day 2, when I ate my normal small lunch and walked 4 miles.  After adjusting to have a larger lunch, I’m not getting hungry in the afternoon anymore.

That’s it for now.  As I finish it up and turn it into a real desk, I’ll post more.  Feel free to ask questions!

(As requested, a picture of Treadmill Desk 0.8 alpha follows.)

Treadmill Desk Alpha

Apparently, People Read This Stuff

Slides from my recent talk were downloaded an unexpected number of times, leading me to conclude that either I’m being abused by aggressive PDF-indexing search bots, or that more people than I suspected may actually read my blog.

If you haven’t posted a comment so far, feel free to just say hi.  I’m still content to write what comes into my mind, but if anyone has a particular topic of interest, it may prod me into action to turn a half-baked concept into an actual readable post.  (You’d pass out if you saw all the drafts I have queued up…)

Buying Online: Convenience vs. Security

I run an online store, and one of the features we offer is shipping to an address that isn’t the customer’s billing address. I did this for a couple of years without verifying that the shipping address was connected to the card holder, until some limo driver in Ohio defrauded us and other online stores by ordering items as one of his previous customers. He knew the real billing address because he picked the victim up at his house, and he used his own home address as the shipping address. Unfortunately, not all fraudsters are as dumb as this man, or the problem might weed itself out genetically.

Nowadays, we call the credit card company to verify that the customer’s shipping address is registered as an alternate shipping address with their account. This ensures that the actual card holder(*) has provided the address, rather than just someone who knows the card number and the real customer’s billing address. Ironically, even though I always offer to provide all the information and only ask for a yes or no response on the validity of the shipping address, some credit card companies won’t even talk to me because I’m not the cardholder, citing “security reasons.” It’s for “security reasons” that I’m doing this in the first place. Thankfully, these short-sighted policies are rare.

I know of no way to automate this, and it’s not clear that it’s even possible without each credit card licensee wanting to provide this service and agreeing on a common API(**). This means that the process is not convenient for the store, and it’s not convenient for customers who have no alternate shipping address on file and are asked to add one. Most large online stores don’t go through the pains of manually doing this verification, preferring to combat fraud through some combination of automated heuristics that don’t work all the time, random manual auditing, and after-the-fact actions like litigation. This means that all someone needs is your address and your card information, and they can probably order whatever they want and have it shipped wherever they want. It gets worse when the fraudster lives near you, since it’d pass any distance-based heuristics for guessing whether or not a shipping location is ok.

Think about who could have your address and your card information: cab companies, limousine companies, Lowe’s/Home Depot delivery, moving companies, or a cashier at a restaurant who copied your card information and looked up your address. “But Bob,” you say. “This is FUD! If it’s so easy to get this information, why hasn’t everyone become the victim of credit card fraud?” First of all, lots of people do fall victim to it. Credit card fraud is big business on all sides of the issue. Having said that, there’s a relatively small percentage of people who have access to your full credit card information, since it’s in the best interests of the business owners to make sure they minimize the number of eyes that can see it. I suppose it’s also fairly easy to catch most people who commit credit card fraud, especially when they can’t resist ordering lots of items and helping investigators to narrow down the search, so perhaps the failures of individuals sustain the notion amongst most would-be fraudsters that it’s too much risk for too little gain. It may also be the case that everyone has had someone try to commit fraud using their credit card, but some combination of store action and credit card company heuristics caught it before it happened.

Whether or not you choose to worry about this is up to you, but if you want to help stores out that do take the extra steps to make sure items bought with your card can only be sent to addresses that are associated with you, it’s easy to add an alternate shipping address to your credit card account. Just call up customer service, tell them you’d like to list an alternate shipping address, and they’ll know what to do because it’s far more common than you might have known. Then when people like me go through the manual process of calling up to make sure it’s your alternate shipping address and not some random place where a fraudster decided to hang out and wait, your order will go through without further intervention on your part.

(*) or at least someone who has access to so much sensitive information that they seem to be the actual cardholder

(**) This is one of the rare times when I think government regulation would help.