Trackers eBook Now Available On Amazon & iTunes

Trackers by Richard MacManusI’m pleased to announce that my book, Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health, is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store for $7.99 and the Apple iTunes Store for $9.99. Click on one of the following links to purchase the book:

Amazon Kindle Store

Apple iTunes Store

The ebook will also soon be available on Google Play, the Kobo Store and Nook Books. The paperback version will be released in New Zealand bookstores on 1 January.

If you enjoy reading Trackers, please consider rating it on Goodreads.

My book tells the story of the rise of self-tracking, the practice of measuring and monitoring your health through technologies such as smartphone apps, wearables and personal genomics. In the book you’ll discover how Fitbit and MyFitnessPal began, the pros and cons of 23andMe’s genetics service, how the new wave of doctors is adapting to self-tracking, and much more.

I hope you enjoy the book and let me know in the comments here, or on FacebookTwitter, Google+ or Goodreads, what you think of it!

RicMac’s Top 10 Tech Of 2014

Every December since 2004, I’ve posted a year in review of Internet technology. In 2010, I began doing a top 10 list of my favorite technology products and I’m continuing that format this year.

2014 has been a particularly interesting year for new media, with innovations in blogging, podcasting, curation and paid content. Three of my top ten are examples of new media innovation.

My debut book about self-tracking, Trackers, will be released on Amazon and other platforms later this month. Naturally enough, three of my top 10 tech products are for health tracking. Not as many as in 2013 (five), but 2013 was when I wrote my book and so that’s when I used them the most. In many ways the best is yet to come with self-tracking, with the launch of Apple Watch in early 2015 set to shake things up.

It’s also been a good year for ‘real world’ Web: Uber, Airbnb, Square, Apple Pay and other services that bring the Internet onto Main Street. I only had room for one of these services in my top ten, but it’s the most representative of what’s great about this trend.

The other three tech products in my list are consumer services: for note-taking, password management, and music. Here we go…

1. Evernote

Evernote

For the fourth year in a row, Evernote is my top technology product. It’s where I plan and organize everything: my book projects, my personal goals, house hunting, business ideas, etc. The fact that I can access – and add to – this information on all of my computing devices makes it an indispensable tool for me. I still use paper notebooks too, for daily notes and for handwritten journals, but they complement my usage of Evernote rather than compete with it.

2. Airbnb

Airbnb

This year I discovered the beauties of Airbnb, the social bed n’ breakfast service. On a book research trip to the US in May and June, I stayed with Airbnb hosts in Boston, New York and Palo Alto. Not only was this much less expensive than staying in hotels, I also thoroughly enjoyed meeting the locals and getting to know their neighborhoods. Airbnb has been disrupting the hotel business for a few years now. It’s an industry that needed to be disrupted, with its exorbitant daily rates, bad Wifi and thin walls. Uber has similarly disrupted the taxi industry and has gotten far more press than Airbnb this year. But for me, Airbnb is the best example currently of the Internet overhauling a complacent ‘real world’ market.

3. MyFitnessPal

MyFitnessPal

MyFitnessPal is a smartphone app that allows you to track what you eat. One chapter in my book Trackers is devoted to the history of MyFitnessPal and the implications of using it. This year, the company has continued to improve its world-class app and further bulk up its already powerful database of food data. Of all the apps I used when writing Trackers, MyFitnessPal was the most useful to me.

4. Bleacher Report

Bleacher Report

2014 has been a great year for independent media companies and in my view there is none better than Bleacher Report right now. Its ‘TeamStream’ smartphone app was my regular companion while watching the 2014 NBA Finals, the football World Cup, and the baseball World Series. The live data, stream of real-time tweets, and post-match analysis (particularly Alex Dimond during the World Cup, perhaps the best blogger-analyst around right now), all added to my experience of watching a live sports match. I also like how you can follow certain teams in the app and continue to get news year-round.

5. Fitbit

Fitbit

The subject of another chapter in my book Trackers, Fitbit has faced a lot of competition this year in a crowded self-tracking market. It’s going to get a lot tougher next year, when Apple Watch is released. But this year at least, Fitbit more than held its own. From the $100 Zip to the $250 Surge (due for release in 2015), it has a solid range of clip-on and wrist-worn activity trackers. I’d really like to see an indie tracking company hold off the inevitable surge into self-tracking from Apple, Google, Microsoft and other bigcos in 2015 and beyond. Fitbit seems the best bet to do that, although Jawbone’s UP is also doing good things in this market. Go the indies!

6. 1Password

1Password

With the plethora of web sites, apps and services we now have to deal with on a daily basis, a good password manager is essential these days. I use 1Password to create and maintain an individual password for each service, which is the safest way to keep your data private across the Web. The addition of Apple’s touch ID for 1Password this year was a further reason to like it.

7. Overcast

Overcast

2014 was an excellent year for podcasting. I found myself listening to more podcasts (and audio books) this year, partly thanks to new podcast apps such as Overcast. Basically a replacement for iTunes, which gets clunkier and cruftier every year, Overcast makes it easy to find new podcasts. Its organization of shows and categories needs some work, but features such as sound enhancement make Overcast a better choice than iTunes. Note: Overcast is iPhone only, but here’s a list of Android podcast apps.

The Bugle

As for my favorite podcast shows this year, they included: The Bugle (if you think John Oliver is funny, wait till you hear his Bugle partner Andy Zaltzman and his infamous pun runs), NPR All Songs Considered (still the best music show), Bret Easton Ellis Podcast (a revelation this year, with his opinionated interviews), and The Partially Examined Life (my regular philosophy fix).

8. Spotify

Spotify

Another mainstay of my top 10 list each year is Spotify. It’s had to battle Taylor Swift and others in the music industry this year, but for the consumer Spotify is a wonderful tool for finding new music and exploring back catalogs. I also love Spotify because it’s helping to keep the album format alive and flourishing. Playlists on Beats and personalized streaming on Pandora are all well and good. But the album is the supreme artistic format of music, even in this digital age – and Spotify respects and promotes that more than its competitors.

9. MediaREDEF

REDEF

The email newsletter made a surprising comeback this year and there’s no better example than Jason Hirschhorn’s MediaREDEF. It also happens to be content curation at its finest. Every day I open up this email and find several fascinating stories. They’re usually things I wouldn’t have found on Techmeme (the best daily tech news aggregator), my RSS feeds in Feedly, or in social media like Facebook and Twitter. The Web is too noisy nowadays, so filtering services like MediaREDEF are needed and appreciated.

10. Glucose Buddy

Glucose Buddy

Azumio’s diabetes management app, Glucose Buddy, is possibly my most used app. As a type 1 diabetic, I enter my blood sugar readings into GB Pro 5-6 times a day. Every month, I export my data to a spreadsheet to analyze it further – although GB Pro has excellent graphing features, so I could do that in-app if I wanted. One of the wonderful things about the self-tracking movement is that there’s an app for every aspect of your health. GB Pro is my go-to diabetes app.

Honorable Mentions:

Here are some of the technology products that didn’t quite make my top 10, but which I also found very useful this year:

  • Medium: still evolving, but in 2014 it brought blogging back into fashion.
  • iPhone 6 Plus: feels like a man-purse to carry around, but undeniably great for Web content.
  • Feedly: my favorite RSS Reader, in this post-Google Reader world.
  • FB Messenger: Facebook got a lot of flak for making messaging a standalone app, but it was the obvious thing to do – I use it a lot.
  • Dropbox: the King of Cloud; plus, again, support the indies!
  • Techmeme: as mentioned above, continues to be the leading tech news aggregator; I also read Mediagazer daily.
  • OmniOutliner: my outlining software of choice in 2014.
  • Hootsuite: had a much needed design overhaul this year, which made this Twitter list manager essential to me.

Writer’s Log, 3/10/14: Update On Books 1 & 2

I’ve just completed the first draft of the opening chapter for my second book, on the topic of augmented intelligence. I’m very pleased with the story arc of this book. It took me many months to work it out, but I have a solid structure now. That plus the experience gained from writing book #1 have led me into a good writing flow early on. I hope that continues! I’ll tell you more about this book in future updates.

As for book #1, it’s about to make its debut at the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair – the world’s largest trade fair for books. The book is entitled Trackers: How Technology Is Helping Us Monitor & Improve Our Health and is set for public release this January. I’ve gotten very encouraging feedback so far, from people in the industry who have read it and written promotional blurbs. I can’t wait for everyone else to read it! This process seems to have taken forever, as I finished writing it at the end of last year. However the good news is that the book is even more relevant now, since self-tracking is only just beginning to ramp up. When Trackers is released – with any luck concurrently with Apple Watch – I’m sure it’ll be well timed.

What Apple Watch Means For Trackers

Apple Watch

This morning Apple announced its much anticipated smartwatch, called Apple Watch. It will be released “early 2015,” which I’m thrilled to say is also when my book about self-tracking will be released! My book, entitled Trackers: How Technology Is Helping Us Monitor & Improve Our Health, is about how technology is fundamentally changing how we track our daily health and care for our bodies. The book tells the stories behind the Fitbit activity tracker, food-logging app MyFitnessPal, personal genomics company 23andMe, and other self-tracking pioneers.

There’s nothing in the new Apple Watch that usurps the functionality of those existing tracking products. But what the Apple Watch will do is take self-tracking mainstream in a big way.

When I began writing my book, Trackers, I knew it had to be about more than the technology. Because at the time I started, I couldn’t know what tracking product Apple – or indeed any other company – would eventually release. I only knew that newer and better tracking products would come out; and that Apple’s would be a game-changer. So in writing my book, I prepared for that. Instead of writing about how to use the existing products, I focused on the philosophy and usefulness of health tracking.

This promotional video is a great overview of what Apple Watch will bring to the self-tracking table:

 

I should note firstly that Apple Watch is not solely focused on health tracking. The tracking is just one of many features that Apple Watch appears to have. Indeed its timekeeping and social features were highlighted in Apple CEO Tim Cook’s keynote today. But I personally think the self-tracking functionality in Apple Watch will be one of the most appreciated features, when the new watch becomes available in early 2015. Apple says that its watch is “made to measure all the ways you move.” Here’s how Apple explains the tracking features:

Apple Watch unites the capabilities of an all-day fitness tracker and a highly advanced sports watch in one device you can wear all the time. It can track a wider variety of activities because it’s able to collect more types of data. It uses an accelerometer to measure your total body movement. It has a custom sensor that can measure intensity by tracking your heart rate. And it uses the GPS and Wi‑Fi in your iPhone to track how far you’ve moved.

Note that you’ll need an iPhone in order to use the Apple Watch. But that’s hardly surprising, in this era of big tech companies tying you into their platforms.

3 Rings To Rule Them All

OK that’s the hardware side of it. There’s also the software.

Apple Watch fitness

The watch will come with an “Activity app,” which will be a circular visualization of your daily health.

The Activity app on Apple Watch provides a simple and powerful graphic of your daily activity, with three rings telling you everything you need to know. The Move ring shows how many calories you’ve burned. The Exercise ring shows how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve done. And the Stand ring shows how often you’ve stood up to take a break from sitting. The goal? Sit less, move more, and get some exercise by completing each ring every day.

Apple Watch

I think the key part of the software will be how Apple Watch motivates you to “lead a healthier life by being more active” (that quote is from the video):

Each week, Apple Watch suggests a new Move goal for how many active calories to burn per day, based on your recent history. Adjust it up or down until it feels just right. You close the Move ring when you meet your personal active calorie burn goal for the day.

This gets at the heart of self-tracking, and what my book is all about. In order to stay healthy, you need to understand your body and what its needs are. Technology on its own doesn’t do that, but it can help. That’s what fascinated me about Fitbit, MyFitnessPal and even the controversial 23andMe. This is what excites me about the new Apple Watch too – it’ll help you monitor and maintain your health. Whether that’s through exercise or the watch simply telling you that you’re sitting down too much, Apple Watch will help you “minimize your sedentary time throughout the day.”

Apple Watch iphone

The iPhone will complement the Apple Watch, in that it will enable you to “track your progress over time.”

Apple Watch lets you see your daily activity at a glance. To see your progress and trends over longer periods of time, there’s Fitness — an Apple Watch companion app on your iPhone. You can view your activity history, workouts, and achievements by the day, the week, and the month. And it’s easy to zoom in on the details to see just how far you’ve come.

Health App

Apple Watch will also be able to connect with third party apps, like Fitbit:

There’s also a Health app on iPhone that allows you to share your activity and workout data with your favorite third-party health and fitness apps.

In conclusion, the Apple Watch looks to be a highly advanced – and great looking – smartwatch. Plus it turns out that the publication of my Trackers book will be perfectly timed to coincide with its release. So when you buy your Apple Watch in early 2015, I hope you buy my book too!

Viv: Siri Mark II

Viv

Two co-founders of Siri, the virtual assistant in Apple’s iPhone and iPad, have just announced their latest startup: Viv. It’s another virtual assistant.

RicMac’s Two Cents: Siri is a big part of the book I’m currently writing. I see it as the first widely popular consumer AI product. I’m writing about “augmented intelligence” and Siri is, to my mind, the prototypical app of that kind in the current era. By the sounds of the Wired profile, Viv is the next big step for Siri-like functionality. It’s going to be an open platform, meaning that hundreds of different apps will hook into it. The company is calling it “the global brain” and “an intelligent interface to everything.” Those are huge claims, even in an industry that thrives on hype. But if anyone can deliver that vision, it’s Adam Cheyer and Dag Kittlaus. I interviewed Cheyer for my book, along with Siri’s other co-founder Tom Gruber (he’s still at Apple). If Cheyer’s track record is anything to go by, Viv will be a very significant product in the future of AI. One to watch!

IBM’s Brain Inspired Computer Chip

SyNAPSE

IBM is touting a “new type of computer chip, SyNAPSE, whose architecture is inspired by the human brain.”

RicMac’s Two Cents: Traditional computers rely on ‘brute force’ in order to be intelligent (the so-called von Neumann architecture), but this new chip is modeled on how the brain works. A key point is that this technology will complement the brute force approach, not replace it. As the Forbes article put it: “…to crunch big numbers and do heavy computational lifting, we’ll still need conventional computers. Where these “cognitive” computers come in is in analyzing and discerning patterns in that data.” It’s early days and so far IBM’s technology, which is backed by DARPA, has yet to prove itself in the real world. But I like that the focus is on complementing the traditional computer chip, which in turn complements our own brains. So the ideal result would be having both kinds of chips augmenting our native intelligence. I’ll be tracking this with interest.

Further Facts:

The chip attempts to mimic the way brains recognize patterns, relying on densely interconnected webs of transistors similar to the brain’s neural networks. (New York Times)

Each core of the chip is modeled on a simplified version of the brain’s neural architecture. The core contains 256 “neurons” (processors), 256 “axons” (memory) and 64,000 “synapses” (communications between neurons and axons). This structure is a radical departure from the von Neumann architecture that’s the basis of virtually every computer today. (Forbes)

In a von Neumann computer, the storage and handling of data is divvied up between the machine’s main memory and its central processing unit. To do their work, computers carry out a set of instructions, or programs, sequentially by shuttling data from memory (where it’s stored) to the CPU (where it’s crunched). Because the memory and CPU are separated, data needs to be transferred constantly. (Wired)

Augmented Chat: Emu Acquired By Google

Emu

Today Google bought Emu, an iPhone app which TechCrunch described as “an IM client with Siri-like intelligence.”

RicMac’s Two Cents: Emu is a great example of how apps and Web services are getting smarter, taking some of the cognitive load off us humans. While messaging apps are a dime a dozen currently, adding virtual assistant technology to messaging was an inspired idea. I expect to see this ‘smart’ functionality in the next versions of the big IM services: Apple’s iMessage, Facebook’s Messenger, Skype, etc. And of course, what a smart move by Google – yet another AI (artificial intelligence) technology it has snapped up.

Further Facts: The ties to Siri are deep. Emu co-founder Gummi Hafsteinsson was VP Product at Siri, prior to its acquisition by Apple in 2010. He continued working on the Siri team at Apple up till January 2012, then co-founded Emu a month later with Yahoo alumni Dave Feldman. Hafsteinsson told TC in April 2014 how Emu was inspired by Siri: “I felt that you kind of had to engage Siri all the time, and I wanted to create an assistant that was more in the background and proactive.” Interestingly, he described this as a “Google Now-like” concept – implying that Google Now is more sophisticated than Siri.

Here’s an Emu company video that shows how clunky our current txting and messaging interfaces are, compared to Emu’s automation of background tasks.

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