Saturday, April 30, 2016

Very Small Owls

After evicting ants from the owl box last year ... and no owls, this year it has been colonized by bees. Not sure if these are Africanized or not. We were able to walk around underneath with no aggression, so perhaps we are just helping out the "good" bees. I am wondering if this bunch is from a swarming of the hives that the beekeeper down the street has. At this, point it is already past were I could do anything about it anyways.

Fitbit Alta - Securing the Bracelet

In reverting back to a simpler fitness tracking ecosystem, I have acquired a Fitbit Alta. By the way, this is a nice refresh of the old Fitbit Force that I had for awhile. It is similar in size and comfort to the Garmin Vivosmart that I used last year. Reading the screen is much easier but interacting with notifications is awkward. I have also given up on MyFitnessPal, having found that the most recent version of the Fitbit app and website provide a food database and food management software that is as good or better. In addition to my steps not arriving in Fitbit in a timely manner, the other problem I had been plagued with was seemingly random calorie synchronization between the two products.

Anyway, one concern I had going back to this sort of bracelet was losing it. There is no buckle, just a pair of friction posts for a clasp. This is like the Vivosmart which I lost twice when the end caught on something and came off my arm without my noticing ... that gets expensive. One really awesome aspect of the Fitbit Alta is the new bracelet design. Each side clamps on to the tracker body and is intended to be removed to change colors. I have already upgraded to one of the faux-leather bands because it is more comfortable, especially when sweating, though I wish it came in a darker color.

Looking over the detachment mechanism lead me to come up with a neat "life hack".  Even though the bracelet is only supposed to be detachable while off the arm, I found that by slipping my pinky-finger under as shown, I could push the release lever while sliding the bracelet up and off the tracker body.

This maneuver is impossible to do by accident but can serve as a secure way of removing the device from my arm instead of using the clasp. I wrapped some sewing thread around the posts of the clasp from the inside and secured with some knots. This prevents the clasp from being undone, does not damage the bracelet ... and can be undone if this trick proves not work. Each morning when I shower and charge the unit, I can apply the "pinky slip" to take the unit off. Otherwise, it says on all day without worry of losing it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pebble Health - Not a Success

I have been using the Pebble Time smart watch for four months now and have posted several times about integration of step-data from the Pebble to other ecosystems. Most recently, I described my forays into using those steps as part of diet tracking. That application proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Let me first say that I absolutely love the Pebble as a smart watch. Its ergonomics, comfort, user-interface experience, and price are all outstanding. The smart notification handling is especially well done and the open time-line concept was great, even if artificially chopped off after two days. On the watch itself, the activity and sleep tracking are also very accurate. The problem is that Pebble has basically provided no ecosystem for this data.

Other vendors have chosen to support Apple HealthKit as a secondary means of exporting and sharing health data. Pebble, on the other hand, has made that their only ecosystem (on Android devices, they use Google Fit for which I cannot comment). By going this route, Pebble provides no reliable system of record for my data. The only storage is in HealthKit on the phone, a platform which seems clever at first but which I don't think is not up to the task of managing data exchange. There is no on-line access to the information so data visualization is limited to the piss-poor dashboard provided by Apple ... worthless. Also, the whole social experience of comparing activity is precluded.

Data backup and restore is seriously flawed. I have been screwed by this twice now. In one case, my Pebble installation was so stuffed that I had to delete and reinstall it. In the process, I lost all of my health data and had to reenter it from a spreadsheet I had luckily exported manually a few days prior. The only true backup facility is to rely on the iPhone backup and to do a full restore of the phone. That means reverting everything back to the last backup point, not just the health data and certainly not selective data. This is not an acceptable solution. With Fitbit, Garmin, or other activity tracker ecosystems I have used, once the data gets to the cloud, I don't have to worry about it ... someone else takes care of it.

Integration on the phone just does not make sense as an architecture. An iPhone is a client device ... it is not a server and it sure isn't a workable event fabric. Integrating through HealthKit means that I have to: ensure that all of the relevant apps are launched, ensure that I tickle each of the apps during the day and do so in the appropriate order, worry about whether a data pull happens before the necessary data push, deal with iOS background eventing not working correctly. Thes are all problems that have plagued me during this experiment. Sorry, this HealthKit solution just doesn't cut it.

Though I had gotten my multi-hop solution working for end-of-year reporting of steps to my employer, the solution fell apart completely with diet tracking. In order to correctly plan my evening meals, I need to know how many calories I have available. Therefore, I need up-to-date step information pushed into MyFitnessPal. Unfortunately, when all was working smoothly, my steps arrived 2 hours late. Often, my steps would not arrive until the next morning. Even more frustrating were instances where several thousand steps never made it across. This was a case of pull-before-push and data reconciliation required un-installation and re-installation of apps on the phone. Are you kidding?!

Forget it, this integration experiment is a failure. Despite the woefully inadequate smart-notification support, I have switched back to using a Fitbit device. I don't want to cover my arm with devices, so the Pebble goes in the junk pile. My conclusion from this experiment is that, if Pebble wants to be a credible player in the activity-tracking market, it must create its own on-line ecosystem and it must forge partnerships with other key players such as MyFitnessPal to integrate their data in the cloud. As it stands, they just have a fancy pedometer, not a fitness solution.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Becoming a Martin Landlord

Today, I took my first venture into becoming a Purple Martin landlord. Though it is likely too late in the season to establish a colony, I may still be able to attract birds to check the place out for next season. I had not previously considered doing this, thinking that our location was too closed in to attract martins. However, I found that a neighbor a couple of streets over, on a much more confined property, has a active colony of about two dozen birds.

I acquired this kit on-line from the Purple Martin Conservation Association. It feels very solidly built and the gourds have Starling resistant entrance holes. The whole gourd rack lowers using a pulley system in order to do nest checks. I also installed optional owl guards on the top row and a predator baffle on the pole, as I have done on the bluebird houses. The concrete pier is 36" x 12" extending partly above ground. We will make a raised rock landscape feature around the base.

I don't know where to get "pine straw" around here so I filled the gourds with "normal" straw. Since taking the pictures, I have also numbered all of the gourds for record keeping.

On day two of dawn song playing, I found two Starlings sitting on the upper perch rods ... sigh, another species to control.

The story continues on another post with the arrival of my first pair.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Carolina Wrens Fledge

Ah the irony. After building two great bird-house camera studios, a pair of Carolina Wrens got into the shed and nested in my hardhat hanging on the wall.  I moved one of my mini cameras over and got some images. This one is the day before fledging and the largest of the chicks is experimenting with leaving the nest cavity and exploring the rim of the hat.

The video below shows the chicks actually fledging. The video is sideways because of how the camera was rotated.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Yellow-throated Warbler on Second Try

This was our second weekend to take a drive down to Commons Ford Park in south Austin looking for the Yellow-throated Warbler reported near the boathouse. Last weekend, we had gone on Easter Sunday and by mid-afternoon it was a zoo of picnickers. We had run into Joe Hood, another Austin-area birder who had seen the warbler earlier in the morning. We heard what we were fairly sure was the Yellow-throated in the tree cover on the other side of the sluice and later in the mix of cottonwoods and cypress to the far left of the boathouse where we were joined by three other birders. I never did see the elusive critter and did not log the observation.

Today, again due to other obligations, we got there later than desired. This warbler is very loud and we heard it as soon as we got to the boathouse, again on the other side of the sluice. I prepared for another frustrating afternoon. However, I finally spotted it when if flew to one of the closer trees. We then spent an hour or so tracking it from tree to tree hoping it would come down lower so we could get a more detailed look. We can't complain though as we got some nice colorful photos despite the distance. This makes bird number 300 on my life list; a great bird with which to reach that milestone!

We also found a Northern Parula at along the trail leading back to the parking lot. A passer-by asked what we were looking for and we answered "small birds called warblers." Her reply was, "oh, those are the ones that are taking all of our land." Given the struggle for the survival of the Golden-cheek Warbler, that was a pretty depressing opinion to hear.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Clay-Colored Sparrows in Yard

A week or so after seeing Chipping Sparrows in the yard, today we saw a lone Clay-Colored Sparrow. This is a first for our yard in what has been a very interesting sparrow season at home. We have also seen Lincoln, Chipping, White-throated regularly as well. Not sure what has changed this year.