Mpow fitness tracker

I recently tried to improve my fitness levels. I decided to pick some simple options that required little in the way of equipment: swimming and jogging. After a while, I wanted to better track my activities and started looking at what gadgets were available. My requirements were simple and cheap (less than £50), ideally tracking heart rate as well as steps. Waterproof would be nice to have so I could swim with it too.

This wouldn’t be my first attempt. A few years ago I had one of the original Jawbone Up bracelets. It tracked my steps and sleep. It synced with my iPhone using the headphone jack, which was a bit fiddly but worked. How has the market progressed since then?

FitBit seems to be the leader if you discount the Apple Watch (which I did, for price reasons). Their gear seems to be well regarded but was a bit pricier than I’d hoped. Then I stumbled on this MPOW bracelet. I’d had good luck with MPOW before (with these wireless headphones) and decided to give it a try. It met all my criteria: cheap, waterproof, step and heart rate monitors. And, like most modern trackers, it synced using Bluetooth. It was about half the price of the cheapest FitBit and a third of the price of their equivalent unit that has a display and heart-rate monitor. Too good to be true?

First impressions were good. It fits well on your wrist and the display is clear. The step counter seems accurate and the heart-rate monitor fairly closely matches the (less convenient) equipment in the gym. The sleep tracking seems a little dubious but works about as well as the Jawbone Up I had a few years ago. I get about a week’s usage on a single charge.

Contrary to some of the comments I’ve seen, the software does sync with the Health app on the iPhone.

The biggest complaint I have is that, despite being waterproof, it doesn’t really understand swimming; it records your heart-rate but it doesn’t register as exercise. You may also be disappointed if you’re hoping to be able to see notifications from your phone. I found that it didn’t work reliably. Maybe it works better on Android?

Finally, the app sometimes appears to go a bit crazy and takes a ridiculous amount of my phone’s battery.

I’m not clear what triggers it but it’s annoying.

Overall, though, they’re really just quibbles considering the price. Is it as good as the equivalent FitBit? Probably not. But it’s great for the price.

C25k Diary (Part 2)

To recap, I tried to complete the Couch to 5k programme because I wanted to get fitter, but I was (am) pretty unfit when I started and came across a few challenges by week three. We return as I started on week 4.

Long story short, I blazed through week four. By being conservative with week three, I was ready for a slightly harder run.

I was on a roll and just knew I’d be fine for week 5.

I found the first day quite tough but I managed.

I psyched myself up for the second day, convincing myself not only that I could do it but maybe even at a slightly higher speed.

I knew that the first stage was a five minute jog. I wasn’t paying close attention to the time but, after a while, it kind of felt like a long five minutes. I glanced at the time. 6:20. Hmm.

It turns out that my assumption that each week was the same cycle, just repeated three times, was incorrect. The first day felt like a bit of a jump; the second a stretch; the third, well, having never done more than eight minutes non-stop, running a full twenty minutes sounded practically impossible.

I did the first couple of days but chickened out doing the third day. I re-did day one and then, on a Friday when I knew that I didn’t have to be very mobile and had a two day rest, I dared the twenty minute run. And I managed it. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared.

To celebrate my success at week five, I decided to invest in some new running shoes. This may have been a mistake.

I did day one and two of week six. My calves and shins ached, though they recovered within an hour.

I didn’t try day three, I just wasn’t feeling ready. Instead I chose to re-do day one. But I didn’t even manage that. This was my first day when I hadn’t managed a complete run.

It made me sad until I realised this was the first time I’d been unable to finish — every other time I’d finished, even if I’d be practically walking by the end. There probably had to be a first time and week six feels like a respectable point.

I didn’t really know how to describe the ache. It took my wife to ask “Is it a shin splint?”

In retrospect, I think I had just been pushing myself too hard. The shoes may have needed a little wearing in but I’ve been using them ever since without trouble. I rested a bit, went back a couple of days in the programme, lowered my speed a little and I managed to complete the week.

Again, the lesson was to push myself but not to push too hard, to back off a little and not to be afraid to repeat either individual days or whole weeks.

Come back soon for weeks seven and eight!


This video of an elephant going for a walk reminded me of the time I rode one myself when on holiday in Thailand.

We clambered onto the wobbly wooden seat that was perched on the animals back. The driver sat in front of us just behind the elephants head. He had a worrying stick that he used to give “encouragement” and directions. There were a number of us in the group and we had a caravan of elephants, or whatever the collective noun for elephants is.

We left town, with the driver using the stick often. It looked needlessly brutal from my perspective, but the opinion of an urban westerner probably doesn’t carry much weight in this regard.

After a while we were walking beside a field. I don’t recall the crop — I want to say sugar cane — but the elephant clearly knew what it was.

He stopped. The driver hit it with the stick. He carefully turned ninety degrees, walked down the bank into the field, plucked a plant out of the ground, turned one hundred and eighty degrees, up the hill to the path, turned back in the direction we started and continued, all the while having the driver hit him with that stick with increasing vigour.

Presumably the elephant felt the stick. Presumably it knew what the man wanted, what the man was telling him. But the elephant clearly didn’t care. It wanted the food more than it cared about what the puny human wanted. “I’ll do what you ask but don’t forget who’s boss.”

I think I always loved elephants. But I loved them that little but more after this.


I don’t normally read “franchise” books. I’ve avoided Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who spin-offs but thought I’d try “Solo” featuring James Bond, mostly as as it was written by William Boyd who is one of my favourite authors.

It was a quick read, some nice twists. It has more gruesome violence than you get in the movies, which surprised me. Fleming purists may argue that it’s not the Bond of the books, but nothing offended me.

Overall not one of Boyd’s more memorable books but enjoyable.

C25k Diary

As it’s the New Year and many people are thinking about reviewing their exercise regime, I thought this might be a good time to write about my experience with Couch to 5K (C25K), a well-known programme for training anyone to be able to run five kilometres.

I should point out that this isn’t a real-time diary. I started it late last year and, as I write this, I have not yet completed a full 5km run. But — spoiler alert — I’m still making progress. There have been a few bumps on the way which, I think, is what makes this worth writing about.

My motivation for writing this is two-fold.

First, most of the advice I’ve seen on the internet about jogging is for people who are already reasonably fit or at least have some idea of what they’re doing. This doesn’t describe me.

Second, by writing this publicly I’ll be more motivated to actually finish!

But, stepping back a little, let’s talk about my background. I have not done much “formal” exercise for around a decade, by which I mean I’ve not been to a gym or done any sports. I’m active, though. By virtue of living in a city and not owning a car, I walk a lot. I did try to do C25K a couple of years ago but managed to hurt my knee so badly that I was literally limping for a couple of weeks. (The advice I’d found at the time suggested pushing past the pain. This was bad advice.)

My motivation for trying again is that I need to do more exercise! And jogging is simple, cheap and needs no specialised equipment. I decided to start indoors, in a gym, because I’m a coward and a realist. I knew that if I could find an excuse for not exercising (like it being cold, raining, dark or a Tuesday), I would use it.

So my strategy was: go to the gym every weekday, straight after dropping the kids off at school. This was because I would already be out of the house and halfway to the gym. No good excuse not to go. I’d do the C25K three days a week and swimming the two others. And I wouldn’t beat myself up if I needed to miss one or two sessions a week.

I used the C25K app. I have quibbles with it but it mostly works as advertised. You tap “Start” and it guides you through the programme, both on screen and with voice instructions. You can play music in the background, but I found that I often tried to jog to the beat rather than the pace I was trying to maintain and switched to listening to podcasts instead.

The first week is pretty simple: “a brisk five-minute warm-up walk. Then alternate between 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes.”

I managed it without too much difficulty. I was pleased that week two was fairly straight-forward too. The third week, however, was a challenge.

“A brisk five-minute warmup walk, then do two repetitions of the following: jog for 90 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, jog for 3 minutes, walk for three minutes.”

Given that I was finding it hard, what should be strategy be? Should I keep going but run more slowly? Should I keep repeating week 3 until I could manage it? Repeat it until I could manage it comfortably?

The app provided no advice. There was no obvious way of repeating previously completed sessions and no FAQ section. Last time I just kept going, but I ended up hurting myself and giving up. I knew what not to do.

I didn’t find much on the web. Mostly the pages were “C25K is an eight-week programme to get you running 5km.” This suggested that I shouldn’t be repeating weeks. Yet, if the daily programme is always about 30 minutes then slowing down clearly wasn’t going to work either — I’d never hit the 5km.

What was the escape valve? Give up and feel like a failure?

In the end, I found a site that advocated repeating weeks, so that’s what I did. I tried hard not to feel like a failure.

I ended up repeating week three three times before I felt happy progressing to the next week. In hindsight, I was probably a little conservative and I could have progressed earlier.

I found that the app does allow you to go back though I didn’t find it entirely obvious. If this is how you’re supposed to do it, calling them weeks is pretty misleading and, I think, doesn’t help people as unfit as myself. If they were called, say, units I wouldn’t feel so bad repeating one.

The takeaway is that even someone pretty unfit lasted a few weeks before struggling and was still able to find a way through. If I can do it, you can!

My first setback and the solution I found feels like a good place to pause. Come back soon to find how I did on weeks four onwards!

Reading 2017

This is the time when people write lists about the past year and the year coming. Why have original content when you can have listicles? And why should I be the one to miss out? So here, just as I did last year, are a few notes about most of the books I read.

Civil War

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and offshoots like their Netflix TV shows, but I’ve never really read the original comic books. I thought I should change that.

I’ve never really read comic books. I was into comic comic books, like the Beano, and loved Oink (kind of like a kids version of Viz) but never the “serious” ones such as Marvel and DC. To ease myself in, I deliberately picked a storyline that I knew from the movies, the idea being I could compare and contrast.

I confess, I thought I’d like it more. I’m not sure if I picked a bad sample or it’s just that I’m not familiar with how to read a comic book, but I don’t think it was my kind of thing.

Becoming Steve Jobs

I hesitated to read another Jobs biography after the disappointing Isaacson “authorised” version. I heard good things about this one and the consensus was broadly correct. (It has been well reviewed and I don’t have much extra to add.)

Speccy Nation

I’ve never been a huge gamer but the time I probably played the most games was in the mid-eighties on a Sinclair Spectrum. That made this the perfect nostalgia book. It has a well chosen selection of classic games and a brief commentary about them.

You could quibble with some of the picks (or absences) but overall it completely hit the mark. If you have fond memories of Kempston joysticks and rubber keyboards, you’ll enjoy this one.

Once Upon A Time In The West… Country

I’ve known about Tony Hawks since at least Morris Minor and the Majors. I’ve read his books, watched his movies and even, on a couple of occasions, drank in the same pub (though I never spoke to him). Which is to say that I was predisposed to like this book, and I did.

The bad news is that it’s really one for the fans. It lacks the comic hook of Around Ireland with a Fridge, or the structure of Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. It’s not even a travelogue. It’s just a bunch of loosely connected stories of “stuff that Tony did,” which is amusing and entertaining enough but makes it far from a classic.

The Good, the Bad and the Smug

As someone who loves Douglas Adams, people often recommend “similar” authors. So it was with Tom Holt. I had no idea what his best material is so this was pretty much picked at random.

I liked it. The whole “new evil” line may age badly (just like H2G2’s obsession with digital watches) but anyone with a sense of humour and a memory of the Blair years would probably enjoy this. I see more Holt books in my future.


I’d “heard good things about” this but overall found it a bit disappointing. Huge chunks of the book were telling me that I’m not alone in being an introvert, there are lots of us around and there’s nothing to apologise for.

Sorry, I know that. I wanted to learn how to more effectively use my “quiet power” rather than seek therapy. I wouldn’t say that it absolutely failed on that but I would say that I probably wasn’t the right audience.


This was another “you’re a Douglas Adams fan, you’ll like this” suggestion. And it’s good one. Like, Tom Holt, I wasn’t sure which of John Scalzi’s books are the best but this one I picked based on the premise. While not completely original, the idea that the “redshirts” in a Star Trek-like universe are always the first to die has good comic potential that’s put to good use. Recommended.

Algorithms to Live by

I found it in a bookshop and decided to take a punt because of the first chapter: say you’re looking to buy a house. At what point do you stop looking and make an offer? Buy too soon and you might miss out on something great. Wait too long and you will miss the best available. This book claimed to have the answer.

As a conceit to show practical uses of algorithms it works well. Some of the later chapters feel like they stray from the path a little but it’s still clearly written and mostly enjoyable.


This wins the prize for my most travelled book of the year. For reasons unrelated to the content, I took it on a few trips without ever actually getting the chance to read it.

It starts slowly and builds to a mostly satisfying ending. If you like Will Smiths other work — everything from The Thick of It to Veep — it might be worth picking up a copy (especially if you can get it for a few quid as I did!) but it seems unlikely to be the start of a successful career as a novelist…

The Elephant in the Room

An easy, short read about some of the madness behind the Republican Party. Worth a shot if you’re interested in American politics.

The Three-Body Problem

Despite the awards and praise, I didn’t rate this book. Large parts feel like monologues rather than storytelling, which is a shame as there are some nice ideas and the scale is impressive. I also found the characters to be thin and unsympathetic. But if you values ideas over storytelling I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t read it.

The Soul of the New Machine

This is one of those classic pop-science computer books that I never got around reading until now. And… I like the idea. Focusing on the people behind the new machine is still pretty rare, and the descriptions of technical subjects are clear and without significant loss of accuracy. But there’s something about it that doesn’t quite work for me. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why. I’m glad I read it but it took a while to get through.

Everything else

I read or skimmed quite a few other books:

  • Brexit: What the hell happens now? I re-read this to find out how much remain-ers could say “I told you so.” Quite a lot it turns out.
  • The Diversity Illusion. I tried to learn about “the other side” of the Brexit debate but this book was awful. He spends more time writing about how you can’t talk about immigration than actually writing about it. When he does write about it, he often contradicts himself within a few paragraphs. For instance, he notes that a robust immigration policy is not necessarily racist (true) but then immediately starts talking about people who are visibly different or non-white (which is). Maybe there are good arguments against diversity and immigration but you won’t find them here.
  • Managing Humans. I read the first edition of this a few years ago and thought it might be worth catching up with the new edition. As before, Rands has some great advice wrapped in relatable anecdotes. If you’re in IT and work in a leadership or management role, it’s worth a read.
  • Speccy Nation, Volume 2: The digital decade. I enjoyed the first book, but this one didn’t quite work. The first book let the games do the talking, but in this the author did a lot of introspection and all the most memorable games had already been covered in the first book.

Photography, opinions and other random ramblings by Stephen Darlington