Friday, February 27, 2009

Is Now the Time to Buy?

I have an arguably over-simplified view of the housing market; I believe it looks like the graph on the left. This graph represents my "gut feel" approach to deciding whether or not to buy a house.

I believe that typically, housing prices follow a mostly linear upward path (indicated by the black line). However, the recent economic fiasco as caused the geometric deviation illustrated by the red curve.

If you already owned property, the best time to sell would have been point A. Clearly, we are already past that. If you plan on buying, any time after point B is the best time, with point C being the best. So the question is: where are we on the curve? Have we even passed point B yet?

I honestly don't know; in fact, nobody knows. Of course, a lot of people think they know, but only time will tell. My hunch, based solely on the "feel" of things, is that we are a bit past point B. I asked my dad about this, and he thinks we haven't even passed B yet. But both of us are basically just guessing.

Anyway, I'd like to hear the comments and ideas people have regarding our position on the curve. My wife and I are loosely thinking about buying... is now a good time?

Side note: I made that graph with a nifty little program called xfig.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pullup Training: Become a Pullup Enthusiast

At dinner this weekend, a friend of mine mentioned that he's trying to increase his pullup count. I told him I'd email him information on a couple programs with which I am familiar. As I thought about what I'd include in my email, I realized I have enough knowledge about pullups to warrant a blog post.

First off, a disclaimer. A fair characterization of me is "pullup enthusiast" rather than "pullup professional". Ever since I had any interest in physical fitness, I've always wanted to do more pullups. But it wasn't until a year or so ago when I discovered CrossFit that I really got serious about training my pullups. Anyone who knows about CrossFit knows about its emphasis on bodyweight exercises, and pullups appear in a lot of workouts. So while my pullup numbers have improved in the last year or two, my numbers still won't impress too many people. Furthermore, there are myriad pullup resources on the Internet; the CrossFit site alone has just about all the information you need.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd add one more article on pullups to the Interweb, to share what I've learned over the last couple years, and hopefully provide a starting point for others.

The first thing to note is that the pullup has many variations:
  • Perhaps the most common form is the dead hang or static pullup. This is where you hang from a bar, feet not touching the ground, and using only the muscles in your arms and back to pull your body up to where your chin clears the bar. Some people call this a chinup; my understanding is that a pullup is when you perform this movement with your palms facing away from you; chinup is when your palms are oriented towards you. My informal conclusion is that people generally find the chinup slightly easier.
  • A "pullup" in the CrossFit context implies the kipping pullup. A lot of people call these "cheating" pullups. The goal is in fact to make the movement faster, and engage more muscles than just your arms and back; the goal is power generation. In short, the idea is to use your hips (not so much legs) to generate momentum, then quickly pull yourself towards the bar. It is a complicated movement that took me a long time to understand and execute correctly. Go here and search for "kipping" to see instructional videos on this fantastic exercise.
  • Jumping pullups are a great variation for beginners. Fortunately, they have a self-explanatory name: start with your feet on the ground, jump up, grab the bar, and pull until your chin is over the bar. The idea is that you will generate upward momentum from your legs, which are obviously stronger than your arms. Assuming your legs help you enough to clear the bar, you can then work the "negative" of the exercise (lowering yourself) using only your arms.
  • Weighted pullups. Also self-explanatory: add weight to your body when doing pullups. There exist belt-like chain devices that facilitate adding weight to your body; there are weighted vests; my low-tech solution is to just hold dumbbells between my ankles with my feet.
  • Assisted pullups: these are the opposite of weighted pullups: through some means, you effectively make your body weigh less, reducing the amount of effort required to pull yourself up. Many gyms have a machine specifically designed for this: you basically stand or rest your needs on a platform as you do pullups. The platform is reverse weighted---it pushes up on your body (just like a human spotter). You can also buy what are basically large rubber bands that have the same effect (i.e. the band supports some of your weight).
Of course that list is by no means complete! There are other variations, including flying, butterfly, one-armed, towel, ring, and so many more... but the above make up the the "pullup foundation", vital for beginners, but equally important for intermediate to advanced trainers.

There are two popular pullup programs that I've discovered on the Web: Recon Ron and Armstrong. The Armstrong Pullup Program has you doing a different pullup "workout" each day of the week. The emphasis is on daily variation. The Recon Ron Pullup Program is what is often referred to as a "grease the groove" program: constant repetition at about 70% of your maximum effort. It's easy enough to find these programs via web search, but for convenience, here are some redundant links:


Recon Ron:

A lot of people will say, "I can't even do one pullup, how can I even start these programs?" Use the variations described above, particularly jumping and/or assisted pullups. Another starting point is to simply hang from the bar---yes, I mean hang, with your arms extended. If you cannot even perform one unassisted pullup, then hanging will in itself be a workout: it takes a lot of grip strength; it will also stretch and strengthen a lot of muscles you probably didn't even know existed. Hang from the bar as long as you can, until you basically fall off from muscle fatigue. Rest a couple minutes, then do it again. Do five sets of this every day for a week. Be sure to record your hang times.

Once you are comfortable with your hang (or get bored---simply hanging is extremely monotonous), try again with the jumping pullup. The jumping pullup is really a two-for-one exercise: not only will you build strength in your "pullup muscles" (primarily the back and arms), but you'll work your legs. As an added bonus, if you try to do as many jumping pullups as you can in a short amount of time, you'll also get in a cardiovascular workout (or what CrossFit calls metabolic conditioning).

Both the Armstrong and Recon Ron pullup programs are aimed at doing strict form/dead hang pullups. But there's no reason why you can't do the program(s) with jumping pullups or assisted pullups.

Ultimately, like everything in life, if you want to improve something you have to work at it. If you want to be stronger at pullups, train on pullups. For me, becoming a pullup enthusiast helped me improve the most. That is, learning more about pullups, variations and programs. It's boring to do the same number of sets/reps of dead hang pullups day in, day out. But it becomes less so if you vary the kind of pullups you do: jumping, assisted, kipping, dead-hang; throw in a weighted set when you're feeling particularly strong or have met some goal. Even if you can only do, for example, assisted or jumping pullups, the approach or workout can be varied sufficiently to fight monotony. The Armstrong program is especially helpful in this regard: each day is a different approach: max effort, ladder, working sets, etc. The simple pullup can become an almost entirely different exercise when you start playing with the time between sets, the number of reps per set, etc.

Hopefully this article will serve as a starting point for all the other budding pullup enthusiasts out there.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Comcast Rant

Apparently, Comcast owns the equipment in the multi-unit building in which I live, meaning, they are my only option when it comes to cable TV. To be sure, I tried calling the other local providers, and they cannot provide service to my building. My wife and I both have cell phones, so we don't need a land line. But our building has one of those pager/buzzer units that allows visitors to call us from the front door, and allows us to unlock the door via the phone. My wife and I kept our cellphone numbers when we moved to Chicago, meaning that the pager/buzzer unit actually has to make a long distance call to reach our cell phones. And I found out the hard way that this pager/buzzer system has the most expensive long distance plan known to man. Because of this reason, we need some kind of local number.

Initially, we went with Comcast's "Triple Play" plan, which gives us high-speed Internet, cable TV, and phone service. The promotional rate is $99/month, which, sadly, is pretty reasonable for all those services in the Chicago area. However, the advertised price is a bit of a teaser, since it doesn't include equipment rental ($3/month for the modem) and all the various taxes.

After a while, we noticed something about their phone service: despite the fact that we rarely used it, it was often not working correctly: either there would be no dial tone, or we would be unable to receive calls. We don't have too many visitors, but we missed a lot of package deliveries (visitors are actually a simpler case---they know to call our cellphones if the buzzer isn't working; the delivery folks aren't that patient). A lot of the convenience of ordering food for home delivery was removed when we had to use our cellphones instead of Comcast's unreliable phone line: first by explaining our non-local area code (of which many restaurants are suspicious), then having to give special instructions regarding the effectively broken buzzer.

Feeling a general resentment towards Comcast, I embarked on a mission of reducing the amount of money I pay to them every month. My first step was to get rid of the $3/month modem rental fee. Since I had Internet and voice service through them, this required a special kind of modem---not just a "vanilla" cablemodem, but one that is also an EMTA (i.e. supports VOIP voice-over-IP). The Comcast-supplied modem was an Arris TM402P. After a bit of research, I came to believe that they would support the Motorola SBV5220, so I bought one on eBay.

When I received the modem, I spent about three hours on the phone with Comcast, trying to get it to work. At one point, the Internet was working; then the technician to whom I was speaking swapped two configuration parameters, and it stopped working. At this point, he decided he needed more information on the modem: where did I get it? He had to go to his supervisor who said that they needed to perform an "equipment research" on the modem. I had to fax them my proof of purchase (eBay invoice). A few days later, they got back to me and said that the modem isn't one of theirs, so I can't use it! To this day, I am convinced that if the person I was working with hadn't misconfigured their system, the modem would have worked fine. I have no way to prove this, but I truly believe they were simply refusing to let me use my own modem on a bogus reason. (Note: I abbreviated this story somewhat; see here for some forum posts where I go into more detail. What's also curious is that they'll let you use your own modem for Internet service, but not for voice.)

So I was stuck with Comcast's modem and its $3/month rental fee, and their under-performing voice service. Then I had an epiphany: VOIP, which allows one to have traditional phone service over the Internet. Skype and Vonage are two of the more popular VOIP providers; however, they are relatively expensive if you want to have an actual phone number that allows incoming calls from "normal" phones (i.e. non-VOIP phones, such as landlines and cellphones). This is our basic requirement: that pager/buzzer box in our building just dials a phone number whenever someone pages us.

After a bit more research, I found out that there are a lot of other VOIP providers; enough that it's easy to find one that has plans or a la carte services to meet specific needs. I went with CallWithUs. I basically pre-pay for outgoing minutes (I think the rate is 1.5 cents/minute), and pay $4/month for a local phone number with 3000 incoming minutes.

Back to Comcast: with them out of the equation for phone service, I can lower my bill in two ways: use my own modem, and drop Comcast's clearly over-priced, under-performing phone service. My wife called to have the phone service removed; I wasn't there for the call, but she said she was on the phone for over an hour! Actually, Comcast hung up on her on the first call; the second call required the hour of phone tree navigation, being transferred several times, asking to talk to the supervisor, etc... My wife was not working at the time, so she could afford to spend her time trying to get a better rate with Comcast. But what about people who have jobs and/or families?

Anyway, the phone service cancellation was approved. However, it takes 48 hours to process. I called within that 48 hour window, and tried to get my (Internet-only) cable modem (Motorola SURFboard SB5101) set up. We started down the process: I was gave the Comcast representative information about my modem, we did tests, but it wouldn't work. After discussing the issue with the supervisor, the problem was determined to be the outstanding work order on the voice shutoff. Okay, so I just have to wait out the full 48 hours, no problem...

On the second call (after the 48 hours), the representative I spoke to said he needed to talk to his supervisor before he could authorise use of my own modem. He came back and said that I had to return Comcast's modem before they could set up mine! I patiently argued with the guy for a while, then asked to speak to the supervisor directly. The supervisor repeated what the first guy said: they cannot set up my modem until I return the rented one. I couldn't believe it! I spent over 45 minutes arguing with him:
  • I said I've been through this process twice now, once with the VOIP+Internet modem, and again the previous night (when I was told I had to wait 48 hours). On neither occasion was I told that I had to first return the rented modem. I asked if this was a new policy, and he said no.
  • I also said, what if I return the modem, and come home and find out the new one does not work for some reason? Then I have to drive back to the office and re-claim it.
  • What if the office doesn't do the paperwork correctly, and says I didn't actually return it?
The supervisor basically stone-walled me. He kept saying, "I understand your concern, but I cannot do this until you return our modem."

I ended that conversation, then immediately called back. But this time I used different options on the phone tree. I got through to a girl who was very nice, and literally had me up and running on the new modem in less than 15 minutes! She didn't have to speak with her supervisor, she didn't mention anything about returning Comcast's modem... just asked for the information she needed, did whatever it is she does, had me do a few tests, and it was done. The call with her was the kind I expect when dealing with any company's customer service: polite, friendly, knowledgeable, competent, honest.

Based on my experience with Comcast, my theory is that a fairly large majority of their customer service employees are either grossly incompetent, or shady used car salesman types. My wife offered up an equally believable theory: that all their employees are instructed to flat out deny some high percentage of requests that would result in the customer paying less money to Comcast.

Sadly, my experience with Comcast is on par with the service and policies of the land-line provider I had back home (Ameritech, probably AT&T now). In my life, I have yet to have a positive experience with a big telecommunications company. Likewise, I've never heard anyone else relate a positive experience with big telcom. There are stories of above-mediocre service with smaller and/or independent providers. But these aren't available everywhere, and are facing increasingly monopoly-like pressure from the big players. My wife actually used to work for a small, family-owned telcom company: she said it is unlikely that they will be able to stay in business due to companies like AT&T overcharging for the leasing of their lines; companies like Verizon underselling them; and having no political clout with the FCC and local governments.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Bucket of Value Balls for You and Me

Ever have a friend who seemed to change after he got married?

One of my personal philosophies is that people in general are defined by their values. I generally believe the cliche "actions speak louder than words"; that what somebody does is significantly more indicative of their character than what he says (even more telling is the consistency (or lack thereof) between what one says and does). What one does is generally dictated by his values (though perhaps not always consciously), i.e. what is important to him.

I made the observation that there is a limit to an individual's values. Think of values as different-sized balls in a bucket. Everyone's bucket has a fixed capacity. The size of the ball is proportional to the severity of the value: the bigger the ball, the more important the value. So the bucket can only hold so many balls. To change one's values means to shrink, grow, add or remove balls. The bucket of value balls might even be considered someone's soul or essence.

Naturally, most people have "big balls" in their buckets for basic human needs: food, shelter, rest. Those values that are necessary-for-survival aren't particularly interesting in this discussion.

However, the rest of the balls, and their infinitely different sizes, make up each person's identity. For example, we all know (or at least know of) somebody with passion: someone who relentlessly pursues some goal, with seemingly limitless energy. Famous examples include star athletes like Michael Jordan, and industry captains such as Warren Buffet. (However, passionate people are not always successful, but these folks rarely make the evening news.) The passionate types have a singular "value ball" that is huge relative to us "average" folks.

Some times people come across as hypocritical: they say one thing and do another. As I mentioned above, I believe their actions are truly representative of their values. So why say something different? Two theories: one is that that a person is just that, a hypocrite---think politicians and the stereotypical shady used car salesman. The other theory is that the person actually doesn't know himself well enough. A lot of people spend a lifetime trying to find their passion; and because the biggest value ball can be so hard to find, surely the other, lesser value balls can be equally well-hidden.

This is my explanation for why people sometimes appear to change when they get married. Perhaps you and a buddy played golf every Sunday until he got married. Now he spends Sundays with his wife's family. You could argue that your friend changed---he used to love golf, now he never wants to play! However, consider that, to your friend, golf is actually a smaller value ball than you once perceived. Or, maybe his new spouse made him realize that there is another, larger value ball that he has overlooked all his life. It's even possible that the golf value ball shrunk to make room for a new or increased value ball that is shared with the wife. Assuming that the collection of value balls creates one's personality, this suggest that your friend did in fact change. However, I don't think value balls are capable of rapid change. In this example, to your friend, golf was a sufficiently small value ball that removing it from the bucket (or shrinking it sufficiently) to make room for another value wasn't actually as big of a change as you perceived it to be. A final consideration: value balls may change dramatically in a short period of time, but the change is short-lived. In this case, your friend removes the golf value ball from his bucket. In time, though, he realizes he gave up something more important to him than he initially realized. Eventually he'll re-claim the golf value ball, and adjust all the other values accordingly to make room in the bucket. Thus, on the long-term horizon, the bucket's changes are minimal and gradual.

Consider your behaviors, and the behaviors of everyone you know. Of what values are these actions indicative? What values are expressed most consistently? Is what you say consistent with what you do? Think about the hardest decisions you've made in your life---why were they difficult? Was it because of conflicting values? Have your hard decisions taught you more about yourself?

Friday, February 6, 2009

What Really Motivates You To Work?

I was just thinking about the early days at my first job out of college. I worked for a huge, global manufacturing company. Naturally, they had enough new hires at any given time to have a whole orientation program for new employees. On day one or two, I was in a large conference room with 20 or 30 other greenhorns. We were doing the stereotypical "ice breaking" group exercises.

One question that came up was, "What motivates you to work?" We were actually seated in pairs, and the assignment was to "interview" your neighbor, and in turn be interviewed by him. After the interviews were done, we went around the room, presenting our neighbor's answer to the question.

Most people, as you might guess, gave fairly predictable responses, along the lines of "I enjoy being challenged, having the opportunity to do good work, making the company profitable, and learning new things." I'm sure a lot of people feel that way; if they truly do, I'm sure most would agree it's a healthy attitude, and certainly benefits the employer. But the cynical side of me says that at least some of those responses were canned, and just paying lip-service to the situation.

What really motivates the deviants would have been interesting. I was one of the deviants who wasn't afraid to tell the truth. My reason: fear. I even remember my neighbor presenting it to the class---he was visibly uncomfortable presenting such a non-conformist view.

But it was honest: I came to work every day because I didn't want to get fired, because I wanted a paycheck.

About a year or so into the job, I probably would have given the same answer, albeit with less cynicism. I truly enjoyed the job for the most part, and what was happening to me was more or less in line with everyone else's motivators: I was challenged, I was doing a lot of good work, I could see exactly how my work was saving the company money (implicitly making it more profitable), and I was learning a lot. Not to mention, I made a lot of good friends. Still, my initial motivator---not wanting to get fired---was valid. Even at the peak of that job experience, I can honestly say, I was still fundamentally doing it for the paycheck, not for the love of it. And looking back, I don't know how I really could have true, honest passion for the work, when it really all revolved around some soulless corporation that, at the end of the day, only saw me as a "resource", a cost.

It makes me wonder: what percentage of the world really, truly does their job for the love of it? What percentage of the working populace is honestly passionate about their work? I would wager that the figure is relatively low. My guess is that the overwhelming majority of the working populace falls into one of two broad categories: simply keeping a job because they have no other choice; or, having a job that they keep to pay the bills, but like it only just enough to not ruminate on the fact that it's not their true passion.

It also makes me wonder: imagine you had the god-like power of instantly putting every working person into a position exactly aligned with their passion(s) and pay them exactly what they want. Would the work that needs to get done---to keep society functioning and to retain some semblance of civility---actually get done? Or would we have too many people doing less important work, and too few people doing necessary jobs?

The question implies that we all know what is most important and what is not. Of course that's a philosophic question; certainly beyond the scope of this post. Still, I can't help but wonder what society would be like if everyone could do exactly what they wanted and live at whatever comfort level they deem necessary.

I'll sign off now, to let the reader reflect on some of the ideas: what really motivates you to work? Ignoring money issues, if you could do any job in the world, what would it be? And consider the thought experiment: what would society look like if everybody did exactly what they want?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shopping for a Gym

So far, this blog has no central theme, and that's mostly by design. I'm hoping that eventually I'll have enough posts that readers will be able to discern a definite character of this blog. Right now, I haven't said enough to really show much character. But when I originally (well, the second time anyway) conceived of the blog idea, I figured it would mostly be populated with things I think about most often: computer stuff (software and hardware), music, exercise and fitness, jobs and careers, and perhaps politics on rare occasion.

Today's post is health and fitness related: what to look for in a gym. For me, the ideal is actually a home gym. But living in a smallish condo, I don't have enough room for all the equipment I need. So I'm stuck being a regular in the public gym scene.

Since moving to Chicago, I've belonged to the same gym. In my opinion, it's quality has steadily degraded. Often, I spend too much time grumbling to myself about the stuff I don't like, instead of focusing on my workout. So I decided that, if I do switch gyms, I want to have prepared a checklist of things that are important to me, so I don't overlook something. Hopefully others will find this information useful.

A lot of these things are probably obvious, but there are some "little things" that I think are easy to forget. How important each of these criteria are is a matter of personal preference. So, in no particular order:
  1. Location. Probably very important or most important for a lot of people. But, think about how the location will affect you on a day-to-day basis. What is the gym's proximity with relation to your home? to your work? How about weekends, and days off, how will the gym's location affect you? Also consider the neighborhood: are you likely to get mugged coming in or out of it?
  2. Parking. If you drive to the gym (to which you must admit there is at least some irony), then consider parking: is there plenty of it? Is it conveniently located? Is it free? Keep your safety in mind as well, particularly if the neighborhood leaves a little to be desired.
  3. Equipment. Make sure they have what you need. This is obvious, but, the deeper question is: even if they have what you need, will you be able to use it when you want it? Is there more than one piece of the equipment you need? For me, the power rack/squat stands and Olympic barbell set are absolutely crucial. If that equipment was regularly unavailable, my gym would be worthless to me. For my fellow CrossFitters, here are some things you should look for that are less common in "mainstream" gyms:
    • Kettlebells
    • Bumper plates instead of iron plates
    • Plenty of squat stands/power racks
    • Plenty of chinup bars (and a policy that allows kipping pullups)
    • Dip stations
    • Concept-2 rowing machines
    • A Roman chair for glute-ham situps and back extensions
    • Jump ropes
  4. Availability. What are the operational hours of the gym? Are they conducive to your schedule? There is a gym I go to on occasion: I am not a member, so I pay on a per-visit basis. They recently reduced their weekend hours. If I was a paying member, I would be irate, since they reduced weekend afternoon availability---the only time I'm likely to go to the gym on the weekend! The point is, be careful if your typical workout time is at one of the extremes of the gym's open hours. I doubt many gyms would do this, but it would be worthwhile to get an availability clause added to your contract: e.g., if the gym reduces it's availability, your cost goes down proportionally.
  5. Upkeep. This is huge, and I'd wager that it often goes unnoticed. But how well maintained is the facility? Some things to consider:
    • Are the weights put away? Take a stroll around the weight room. At my gym, practically no one re-racks their weights. Every time I go to the power rack, the previous user has left his weights behind. Same for the flat benches. Same for the curl bars. Heck, yesterday, I saw a huge pile of dumbbells strewn about the floor---literally right next to the rack!
    • How clean is the equipment? The maintenance staff at my gym keeps the towels clean and available, the floors and mirrors clean, but I've never seen the staff wipe down the equipment. Never. At my previous gym, the staff regularly walked through and wiped down all surfaces on every piece of equipment. Are you willing to count on the courtesy of every other member to wipe down the equipment when they're done?
    • Is electronic equipment maintained? Most gyms have a lot of treadmills. Take note of how many are "out of order" before you sign the contract. Make several visits, and see how long the equipment stays "out of order". My gym has two Concept-2 rowing machines; for the last week, the displays have been non-functional on both. This to me is indicative of "reactive" maintenance as opposed to "proactive" maintenance.
    • Are the barbells oiled regularly? This isn't a show-stopper, but before you sign a contract, load and unload a few plates onto a barbell---you'll know if it's been oiled recently or not. If not, it's another sign that the gym might be on the "reactive" maintenance system (i.e., gym maintenance is somewhat your responsibility).
  6. Member Demographics. Take this for what it's worth. Maybe you don't care. But my current gym increasingly has the kind of people who stand around and talk more than actually exercise. It's not that bad, but I've seen worse. One gym I used to visit occasionally was effectively a hangout for young adults: the overwhelming majority of the people there were screwing around, rather than getting in a good workout. Also, there seems to be a strong correlation between the types of people that screw around and the types of people that don't re-rack the weights. Also, lookout for people talking on their cellphones while in the exercise area. This should be strictly disallowed, in my opinion.
  7. Music. Ask what the music policy is, then, when you visit (preferably multiple times), check that the music is consistent with what you were told. My preference would be no music; for the people that must have music, they can wear headphones. Instead, most gyms seem to take the opposite approach: for the people that don't like our music, they can wear headphones. (This is more of a mini-rant, since I hate the music my gym plays.)
  8. Policies. This may not apply to a lot of people, but, for those of us who CrossFit, it's an enormous consideration: a lot of the things we do are considered "dangerous", or at least sufficiently non-mainstream enough to be discouraged. A few particulars:
    • Chalk. Surprisingly, a lot of places simply don't allow chalk. If I can't use chalk, it eliminates about half the exercises I can do. I don't want to wear gloves, and my hands sweat profusely. A lot of people are offended by chalk, saying that it effectively makes the gym dirty. I don't equate unclean with chalk.
    • Dropping weights. I'll be the first to admit that this is annoying. However, it's sometimes necessary. With apologies to Bill Clinton, weight dropping should be safe, legal, and rare.
    • Kipping pullups. I've never seen this explicitly forbidden, but I've had "trainers" discourage me from doing them.
    • Olympic lifts. Some places simply forbid them. Avoid these places.
    • Improvisation. CrossFit is all about improvisation: it's general encouraged, but specifically when equipment is lacking. When you are pre-viewing a potential gym, and something is missing, ask if you can improvise. As an example: when I was on my honeymoon, the resort's gym didn't have a pullup bar. But there was a structural support bar. I used that for pullups. The "trainer" there gave me a lecture on improvising (although in all fairness, he did let me keep doing it).
Before signing any contract, I strongly recommend making at least a couple visits to the gym at the time you plan on being there. There is no sense in screening a gym on the weekend, if you'll usually be there during the week. Be particularly careful about more popular times, such as early morning, the evening (i.e. before and after a lot of people's working hours), and noon/lunchtime. Note that in my experience, the time of year also makes a huge difference: January always seems to be the busiest (I call that the "New Year's Resolution" crowd).

The ideal, I believe, is to buy a week (or perhaps a month) membership, and use that time to prove out your prospective gym. If you decide to stay, pro-rate the amount to your full-term membership; if not, you lose the cost of the abbreviated membership. I've never actually done this, and if I had to guess, I'd say that most gyms won't allow such a policy. But, if you talk to a manager, and are polite yet persistent, you ought to be able to negotiate such a deal.