28 June 2005

Fitness in the New Century

Posted by Jameson Penn

Recently Fairfax County opened its first Recreation Center (Cub Run RECenter) in more than 15 years, and fortunately, it is located right in my neighborhood. Really, it's no surprise given that the Sully District is the fastest growing region in the County, between the growth in population as well as home assessment values. However, as a renter, that translates into nothing more than frustration and higher rent. But now I have a new RECenter so all is well.

While the RECenter is state-of-the-art in every way a public facility can be, I have found the greatest benefit to be the fitness gym. Situated in a wide open, well-ventilated room are plenty of weight machines outfitted with the the FitLinxx service, or what I consider to be the future of fitness for overweight and lazy Americans. From the FitLinxx website:
FitLinxx is a computerized system that attaches directly to existing fitness equipment, adding an extraordinary “intelligent” dimension to the workout experience for the first time. FitLinxx “learns” users' programs, “coaches” them individually through their workout for better form, safety and confidence during every exercise, and “tracks” their progress over time.
Behind the scenes, all the exercise machines are networked into a central database, providing exercisers and staff access to a wealth of information on individual progress and a unique set of motivational tools. The system can be accessed on workout-floor kiosks, at the staff computer station, or anytime/anywhere on the web.

As a high school athlete, I was very familiar with weight training but never experienced any enjoyment from it. By using FitLinxx,fitness has tapped into the gamer in me. My disinterest in working out was likely due to the lack of realized goals you experience. Sure, your sweat and effort is rewarded by a healthier body, but let's face it: such a mid-to-long-term goal is rarely enough of an incentive for most of us. What FitLinxx does is infuse short-term goals to keep your focus. Before you realize, the short-term goals add up to a long term goal of being in a much healthier position.

If you complete your set within the computer's target range, you are greeted with blips and bleeps that cheer you on by letting you know how far you've gone. When you are finished with the machine, the LCD screen tells you what is the next machine in your workout.

We're currently looking at a culture where various industries are taking cues from one of the most successful ones out there: the gaming industry. Now, movies and televison shows are looking and feeling more like video games than what they were, say, ten or fifteen years ago.

As Steven Johnson discussed in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, interactivity is the essence of the media's evolution, where static platforms (sit-coms, box-office movies, etc.) are finding they must either adapt or wither away. After using the FitLinxx system for more than a month now, I strongly believe that Johnson's thesis goes well beyond pop culture and the entertainment industry. If this is any indication, the whole world has something to learn from interactive products that exist in our world.

In the mean time, I'll take advantage of my local gym's great offerings and be well on my way to being in better shape than I have experienced in quite some time.

13 June 2005

Freakonomics on Assymetric Information

Posted by Jameson Penn
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
[pg. 70]

If you were to assume that many experts use their information to your detriment, you'd be right. Experts depend on the fact that you don't have the information they do. Or that you are so bufuddled by the complexity of their operation that you wouldn't know what to do with the information if you had it...Armed with information, experts can exert a gigantic, if unspoken, leverage: fear.

12 June 2005

How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

Posted by Jameson Penn

Everything Bad is Good For You
Steven Johnson

FOR DECADES, we’ve worked under the [false] assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards…THE DIRTY little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun. When you put the game down and move back into the real world, you may find yourself mentally working through the problem you’ve been wrestling with…If this is MINDLESS ESCAPISM, it’s a strangely masochistic.


Because I enjoyed this book, I’ll start with the negatives: The idea behind this book could have been condensed into a book either half its size or at least an abstract fit for an Atlantic Monthly; and very strong observations and cultural inferences made but driven into the reader’s head through repetition.

Now the positives: I found the author’s ideas to be insightful and a refreshing offering to the debate. This book supported many prior thoughts and conversations that I have had with my wife and coworkers over cultural trends. The visual depiction of the Sleeper Curve was great reinforcement for the idea. Before VCRs, television shows were designed to serve an instantaneous purpose. If you missed a show or want to see it again, reruns didn’t happen for six months and syndication wasn’t for another five years.

With the dawn of cheaper DVDs and growing in-demand consumer electronics, the opportunity was ripe for shows to change focus from one hour story arch to one capable of stretching across many seasons and intertwine with other subplots.

09 June 2005

On Modernizing the FBI

Posted by Jameson Penn

[T]he Virtual Case File system suffered from having to adapt to the FBI's dramatic post-9/11 mission change, which called upon the bureau to focus on preventing terrorism as much as fighting more conventional crimes. Yet the technology also fell victim to much more workaday problems, including a shuffling of FBI CIOs and project managers, ever-changing project requirements, and an insistence on building the system from the ground up as a customized application. The result was a $170 million bust that the bureau tested briefly, then put on the shelf indefinitely.

When it comes to completing an objective, I have found that it is sometimes best to take action before the planning phase has been completed. Of course, this depends on the complexity of the project as well as the parties involved. But in many cases it is easier to alter or undo something than to never have an idea leave the ground.

From what I have read about the FBI’s general practice, it does not surprise me that such an ambitious project as the Virtual Case File System experienced the outcome it did. Admittedly, it is an unfair expectation to demand that the FBI not allow ever-changing requirements on projects such as the now-defunct Virtual Case File. However, it is how those changes are integrated and consequently applied to the on-going project that makes the difference.

I’m sure that politics play a large role in how the FBI operates, particularly on the IT management level, as evidenced by the constant game of musical chairs they seem to play. But isn’t anyone running a calculator as the costs of scrapping various projects for new ones are ticking off?

The question remains: what motivated the decision-makers to opt for a new costly system rather than fix the replacement for the previous legacy system (RIP, Automated Case Management System)? Given that the FBI’s IT budget has grown from $3.3b in FY01 to $5.1b in FY05, it is safe to say it’s not penny-pinching.

Under the new management of CIO Zalmai Azmi, the FBI is seeking to consolidate IT spending which will shore up additional funds during an already-booming time for Federal IT spending.

Soon after being appointed acting CIO in December 2003, Azmi called for an inventory of the bureau's IT assets and created a master list of applications, networks, databases, and other key IT components. "We found that one of the reasons we have the stovepipes was because different technology was being developed by different agencies within the bureau," Azmi says.

By compiling a consolidated list of IT assets, the FBI has a golden opportunity to get its mission accomplished. However, I wonder what has taken so long to do something so obvious?

06 June 2005

Automation Killed the Radio Star

Posted by Jameson Penn
Ultimately, we can expect digital DJs to use file analysis combined with metadata, perhaps with more information like song lyrics and personal listening patterns. But even at this primitive stage of robo-DJ'ing, the results can be amazing.

Yes, I know that my enjoyment comes largely because the universe of songs I'm working from are all self-selected favorites, and I also know that very special transitions seem more significant because I notice them more than the more common, unremarkable segues. Yet surprisingly often, I get the same satori-esque chills that I did in the days when FM DJs were the oracles of the air.

For a little more than 5 years, I've been playing desktop DJ using various computer programs that have run the gamut of the utterly worthless and clunky to the smooth and intuitive. MixMeister, the program I have latched onto for the better part of four and a half years, is by far the best and most versatile pieces of software for which I've become acquainted.

MixMeister gives its users the ability to create and alter mixes based on various factors such as beats per minute (BPM), allowing professional sounding mixes using essentially amateurish tools.

At my peak, I (aka dj connor) was creating a full-length mix cd (80 minutes) nearly every one or two weeks. Admittedly, this was during my college days when time allowed such endeavors. As I have grown up and joined the workforce, I can't possibly devote as much time as before to my home-dj hobby.

I am pleased to see less time-consuming alternatives coming to market, as seen here. While I will never regard MoodLogic or MusicMagicMaker as complete substitutes to my digital dj-ing, it's satisfying to know that I can cater my music on the fly. And with my present position as an ipod-owner, a disc-less world is forever closer.

03 June 2005

Into the Fire Dell Goes

Posted by Jameson Penn

Horrified Dell executives scrambled this week to undo a public relations nightmare that erupted after one of its salesmen equated buying IBM/Lenovo PCs with support for China's communist government.

A Chinese paper published emails from a US Dell salesman identified only as "Chris" which contained unusual tactics meant to sway IBM customers from buying Lenovo hardware. After the emails were printed, Dell China apologized to Lenovo and said it would enforce disciplinary action against "Chris". Dell can little afford bad press in a high-growth market where it has struggled to outsell local rivals.


Perhaps it was just a cold-calling shmoozer attempting to strike at the protectionist fears in his dear clients; however, as Dell is gearing up to take on Lenovo in its own domestic market, it surely doesn't need such press.

Welcome to My World

Posted by Jameson Penn

It's been awhile since I've posted anything and I figured it would be best to get back into the swing of things with a bit of a change. I would like to use this blog to bring attention to ideas, news, etc. that I find of interest.

In the future, you can expect posts pertaining to the following:
  • Free-market economics
  • Government's intrusion in the lives of individuals and corporations
  • Public choice theory
  • Technological change and its impact on various industries
  • Business services consulting
  • Globalization debate and developmental economics
  • Intellectual impact of video games
  • Technology's convergence with pop culture
I do hope you enjoy reading my thoughts as much as I enjoy sharing them.