Saturday, November 10, 2012

One of the lucky ones: Garmin and superstitions

It's bad luck to be superstitious, but I'm a Sagittarean, so I've read that doesn't affect me. Still, if like Edison you can make yourself luckier by working harder, perhaps the luckier you get, the more you can take it easy.

I always wear the same t-shirt when I take a flight with my wife. I always wore the same trousers when I did stand up comedy in Hong Kong. If I have to make a speech I always write it on my hand and then never look at it. I have to have a particular pair of shorts when I do my early morning Sunday run.

If I don't do these things, the world has a habit of screwing with my plans. It's not that I think they're capable of altering my fate, but the absence of them makes it easier for mistakes to happen. If I have a different pair of shorts, I might not remember to take my keys with me because I won't remember to check they're in that particular pocket. If I don't write things down, I'll forget them. If I'm trying to decide which pair of trousers I'm going to wear, I'm devoting scant mental resource to something that isn't essential to making people laugh.

Well, I've had people laugh at my clothes, but those chuckles are few, far between and undeserved.

These habits-cum-totems of good fortune have an important role to play. They allow you to concentrate on what's important. If you know you're wearing your lucky socks, you can stop worrying about laundry and think about how you're going to impress people. If you've tied your shoelaces and undone them and tied them again you know they're not going to come undone. Just like Obama's famous lack of variety in suits: by removing the need to make a decision about something trivial, you can concentrate on deciding important things.

Still, you can't eliminate surprises. Just because I'm wearing my special travel t-shirt doesn't mean I'm going to remember my passport. Following a set routine of trouser choice doesn't prevent a group of drunken hecklers turning up and yelling at you all night. Having the right shorts doesn't stop you getting lost and having to walk home in the blazing noonday sun.

What it should do is make you more resistant to catastrophe. You can't expect to control everything, but if you can't control anything, you're going to have a hard time of it when you encounter a surprise. When I fly to a race, I don't leave my lucky shorts in my hold luggage, because if that does go missing, those shorts are one less thing to worry about. Superstitions are tools, like any other habit, that should improve your average over the long term.

It's only when you start ascribing your success or failure to some imaginary forces beyond your control or understanding that they become a hindrance.

Sadly, it feels as though Garmin are intent on making me believe in a mysterious and capricious deity; the God of Batteries.

I've had a Garmin Forerunner 205 for just over a year. It's small, light, and tends to pick up a GPS signal quickly and reliably. It doesn't have a touch screen, which means it has some fairly tactile buttons to press, rather than something you think you might or might not have swiped while you drip with sweat. It does what it needs to, basically.

Except it's a bit ... temperamental.

Out of the box, it needed a firmware update because the factory settings meant that if you plugged it into a computer and uploaded your activity, you could never upload any more activity later without doing a complicated reset.

Every so often, you'll plug it into a USB port and it will decide it's not going to talk to the computer unless you unplug it, restart the computer, plug it back in again and sigh a lot.

But these were small annoyances you could work around. It's always been perfect at logging runs, and at accepting all the delicious electricity I could feed it. I grew complacent; I should have remembered the example that Shockheaded Peter taught us:

Augustus was a chubby lad,
Great fat cheeks Augustus had.
He always did as he was told
And he never let his soup get cold.
Pain and unpleasantness of running

For a year, my Garmin would happily charge whenever I plugged it in. But then recently it started to act out. I'd leave it charging all day long, and it would only be a quarter full. I'd plug it into the wall, and a moment later it would signal that it was fully charged. I'd unplug it and it would beep to say the battery was low.

I began to believe it was fussy. Some power adaptors flavoured the electricity unpleasantly. Or it only liked to be attached to the rightmost USB socket on any computer. Or you had to whisper kind things to it when you attached the charger.

I'd still manage to charge it, but now it seemed to be due to luck rather than skill.

Finally on Friday, after a fairly tough five-and-a-bit mile run that should really have been twelve, it grew contemptuous of me and all my technological paraphernalia. I plugged it into the same USB port it's had no trouble with in six months. The PC reported that there was an unsupported device attached that was not behaving normally. I unplugged it and turned the Garmin off. It wouldn't turn on again.

I plugged it in again, assuming it was low on charge. No charge signal appeared. I unplugged it, tried a different port. Nothing. I tried another computer. Nothing. I swore. Nothing. I put it away in my desk for half an hour and then tried these things all again. Still nothing.

I discovered that with some malfunctioning Garmins, the thing to do is to press all the buttons down at once to reset it. I tried that, and then it deigned to turn on again. I plugged it back into the PC and the charging signal reappeared. I breathed a sigh of relief and left it until six that evening.

At six I unplugged it and found that it hadn't charged at all, and the battery was just about to go completely flat because it had been on all day. Nothing I did would persuade it otherwise.

Running is often quite unpleasant and painful. I still owed my training plan another 10 kilometres, but I suppose one of my superstitions is that I can't run if I don't know how fast I'm going. So I walked home instead, feeling feverish and grumpy, and almost went to bed right away.

My wife dragged me out to a bar for an hour, and I ate fried cheese and watched her drink cocktails (I'm abjuring booze from now until Osaka), and then we went home, and then I went to bed, and after half an hour she woke me up, made me put on the old Garmin 310 I thought I'd lost in Thailand long ago, and sent me out for my run.

It turns out she's got this superstition about how I need to train for a marathon before I run it. Two weeks left to find out if she's right or not.


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