Fitbit One – The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is Not A Line

This review has some back story to it. A few years ago, I had gotten quite … what’s the word… chunky. Chubby. Pudgy. Definitely thick around the middle. My wife and I both went into overdrive to get healthy, using a site called SparkPeople to log our calorie intake and making a concerted effort at exercise. At the time, I was working from home and the boys were being home-schooled. So no commute to work meant I had about 70 minutes every day that I wasn’t stuck in a car. I got into running and, during the winter, made it to the gym.

The pants went from a size 38″ to a 36″ to a 34″. Had to go to the jeweler to re-size my wedding band because it was falling off my finger. Long story short: I lost almost 30 pounds.

And then life changed. 

I changed jobs and needed to go back to the office. I figured, “All I need to do is maintain my weight, so how hard can that be?” In other words, I stopped using SparkPeople to log what I was eating. Here’s a quick formula for you: Stop exercising + Stop counting calories = Weight Gain.

The 34″s are in the back of the closet. Didn’t quite need to take out the 38″s thankfully, and while the ring is a bit snug I didn’t need a trip to the jeweler’s. But both of those things lurked if I didn’t change something.

So …. ugh. Enter Back on the Program Take II. 

Definitely went right back to SparkPeople. Great site for logging everything you eat. Just about everything and anything you can eat can be found there. And now they have a handy “scan the barcode” portion of their mobile app that makes it even easier. Other members of the site share their foods as well, so there’s a massive database of food. Once you get your favorites going over a period of time, they’re right there for you to click on and add as you’re eating. 

The bigger challenge was exercise. The new job doesn’t leave a ton of time for getting to the gym, especially during the week, so how to ensure I was burning more than I was eating? 

Enter the Fitbit One . As usual I hemmed and hawed over which fitness tracker to use. And with so many new ones about to hit the market, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to jump in or wait it out. But my wife, who is the Queen of Research, finally took the plunge on a Fitbit One. And like the iPad and the laptop she also brought into the house, I oooh’d and awwww’d over it and bought myself one a week later. 🙂

The Fitbit tracks a lot of stuff. Your steps, your active minutes, the number of floors you walk up (it has an altimeter), and works that out to calorie burn. It syncs with SparkPeople so that you can see whether what you’re burning is more than what you’re taking in. And it allows you to change all the settings for each one of these for daily goals. It also has a sleep mode to tell you how long and how well you’re sleeping, which I find very interesting. And then, to boot, it sends you a weekly view of all of this data in an email or you can pull it up directly from their site or the mobile app. 

All of which makes it a great little device. But how do you make sure you’re getting your steps every day? How do you get from Point A (your current weight) to Point B (your goal weight) when you have to commute to work every day and sit in meetings?

This is where the title of this little blog comes in. This is how the Fitbit motivates. Need to make a Mother Nature stop? Don’t visit the nearest bathroom. Need to have a 1 on 1 meeting with an employee? Ask if they’d like to walk (either outside or inside) for the discussion. Need to carry groceries in from the car? Make two trips instead of one. The son’s breakfast is in the toaster? Don’t stand there and wait for it, make a couple trips around the island while you wait for it to pop.

You get the picture. This is where the Fitbit really makes you work for your steps. Unless I’m really in a hurry, I’m taking a meandering path to where I’m going. I actually don’t mind having to go back upstairs for something if I’ve forgotten it on the way down. 

The Fitbit has made me cognizant of how much I’m moving, and it’s making me aware that I can take those extra few minutes to put a few extra steps in between where I am and where I’m headed. And that’s helping me get from where I was weight-wise to where I want to be. After three weeks I’m down more than eight pounds, thanks to both Fitbit and SparkPeople.

And it’s also working for our dogs, because my wife and I get a few extra steps in after dinner walking them around the neighborhood. 🙂

From Good to Bad – Why Fantasy’s Heroes Are Changing For the Better

I came across two entirely separate comments recently that got me thinking about the heroes in modern fantasy. The first comment actually came from a reviewer of my novel who indicated that she was surprised that one of my bad guys had “kind of” redeemed himself. The second comment came from Mark Lawrence, the author of Prince of Thorns, whose series is being considered for a television show. The question was this: “Is Jorg too bad to be commercial as a lead”?

And so I got to thinking about the morality of fantasy heroes. James Sutter wrote a guest essay about this very topic a few years ago, and it contains many of the thoughts I considered putting down here: http://suvudu.com/2011/11/guest-essay-james-l-sutter-the-gray-zone-moral-ambiguity-in-fantasy.html. To summarize: fantasy has grown up. It is no longer a world where good and evil are easily identified as separate players on a chessboard.  

And that’s a good thing.

Why is moral ambiguity, the “graying” of characters, a good thing? Because when you read a work of fiction, it always works best when you can relate to a character. And most mature readers are going to relate to mature characters… and most mature characters are neither a Knightly Paragon of Virtue nor the Harbinger of Ultimate Evil. Most characters fall somewhere in between, and when as writers we can bring the realism of a character’s moral compass, that tendency to “sway into the gray,” then readers relate.

Sutter wrote about the success of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and certainly there is plenty to like in Martin’s world. But Martin is just one of the modern fantasists helping to mature the characters in this genre. Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers is a perfect example of a character you absolutely love, but who has a dark side a mile wide. The aforementioned Prince Jorg of Lawrence’s Broken Empire series is another such anti-hero. You both cheer for these characters and cringe at what they’re capable of doing.

And so too with my own characters. Even those readers would call “bad.” I didn’t necessarily want to write good characters or bad characters. I want to write characters who resemble real people. Characters with goals, loves, hates, ambitions, dreams. Those goals might be seen as worthy or reprehensible, but the important part is that those characters truly believe in what they’re doing. 

Perhaps more important than what these characters are capable of is how these characters feel afterwards. Logen is almost apologetic at what he accomplishes as The Bloody Nine. And anyone who’s ever seen or felt the passion related to an athlete saying “whatever it takes” can relate to Jorg. These characters don’t necessarily want to be bad, but they have to do bad things to achieve their goals. And those goals are typically things the reader recognizes as worthy.

What all of this means is that when you pick up a fantasy novel, don’t expect the typical cardboard cut out of a one-dimensional character. That knight in shining armor isn’t automatically a “good” guy, and that guy with the dark cloak and the pointed beard isn’t automatically a “bad” guy. 

Or maybe they are. But it’s also quite possible that that knight will do terrible things to achieve what you’d consider a “good” end. And that that “bad” guy with the pointed beard can redeem himself in the end by doing something amazing.

Book Review – Joe Abercrombie – “Half a King”

In his previous six novels, starting with The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie introduced us to characters who were neither good nor evil, but morally gray. These characters exist in a grim, dark world at war, where bleak cynicism is worn on the sleeve of just about everyone the reader encounters. Were these books to be turned into a television series, here in the US they’d be rated TV L S V (for Language, Sex and Violence). They are full of adult content and themes, and they are some of my favorite pieces of fantasy fiction.

So it was with a great deal of excitement and some trepidation that I ordered Half a King from netgalley.com for the purpose of providing a review. This would be Abercrombie’s first foray into writing a young adult novel, and while he has commented on his own blog about what that means to him, it’s a departure from a style that has created a frothing fanbase ready for the next bloody adventure. Can Abercrombie refine the raw for a new audience, while keeping enough of the grimness that has brought him such success?

Let’s find out.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about influences and inspirations. While reading Half a King, I recognized several different pieces of literature that influenced or inspired Abercrombie in telling this tale. To name a few: Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Series, Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, Lois McMaster Bujold’s character Miles Vorkosigan and even a nod to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.  Abercrombie deftly pulls these pieces together to tell a well-worn tale, a coming-of-age story containing oaths, revenge, bloody battles and—something also new to Abercrombie’s works—hope.

Update – Since the publication of this review, Abercrombie has commented on Twitter that of the influences I mention, he has only actually read one, and that after Half a King was written. I should not have assumed to know what the writer has read or attempted my psychic powers to determine what influenced him. I apologize for that. Perhaps the proper wording would be to suggest that readers will recognize in this story characters, themes and events from other tales in fiction. This reader did.

Prince Yarvi is handicapped, born with a maimed left hand. In a realm full of fighters—akin to Vikings—he is an outcast. He cannot hold a shield, and so he pursues the path of a Minister, adviser to kings. But before he can take the Minister’s test, his father and brother are killed. Thrust into the role of King, Yarvi vows to avenge those who killed his father. Little does he know that his oath will lead him on an adventure spanning several countries, where he will befriend those he would normally have shunned, and lead him back home a changed man.

The story itself is a common one, as many coming-of-age stories are. Getting Yarvi from point A, our weak but lovable protagonist, to point B, our clever but still lovable protagonist, is the goal. Yarvi is a new type of character for Abercrombie. In his previous novels, getting from point A to point B typically involved put an axe through someone as quickly as possible. The shortest distance between two points typically involved the edge of a sword. But Yarvi isn’t a fighter; he’s a thinker. The knowledge he has gained in training for the Ministry is extremely useful as he collects allies who become friends along the way.

This is where we start to see Abercrombie hone his craft. Some will lament that this is not “an Ambercrombie book” but I think they’re missing the point. Abercrombie’s trademarks are still here: you’re still right in the midst of the action; you’ll feel the punch that dislodges teeth; you’ll hear the whistle of the blade that just misses its target. There’s blood here. It’s PG-13 blood, but Yarvi leaves his fair share of desolation in his wake. Not to the level of the Bloody Nine, but only Death himself could equal such devastation. No, what you’re going to learn here is that Abercrombie can write compelling characters, can give us characters who do more than kill without asking questions and actually care about the welfare of others. While the rawness is toned down, there’s still an edge.

In summary, if you’re an Abercrombie fan who’s been leery about having your teen read any of his previous works, then this is a wonderful introduction for them. They are going to be entertained. If you’re an Abercrombie fan looking for just more of the same, you’ll need to come in with your eyes open. This isn’t more of the same, but it is evidence of an author growing his boundaries and improving his art. I enjoyed Half a King and look forward to the next book in the series.

I’m also one of the frothing fanbase that will eagerly anticipate Abercrombie’s return to the dark, grim, bleak worlds he imagines… but with greater expectation for the tales he’ll tell.