Saturday, December 20, 2014

Chanukah in Boston

Shira and I gave ourselves a special Chanukah treat: we're visiting our nieces and nephew in Boston!

Yesterday we took the kids to the Children's Discovery Museum in Acton. The kids have been asking to go back pretty much since we left the place a year ago. Even though not a lot has changed (a room filled with stuffed animals became a camping room, equipped with fake campfire and tent for the kids to play in), they still loved the "museum." They may be getting a tad bit old for it, but they certainly had a blast.

This was Gavriella's first trip to the museum, and she absolutely loved it. Check out the photos below of her playing with her reflections in two mirrors. Watching her make sense of of her copies was quite the treat!

Today we had the usual laid back Shabbat. Post Shabbat we squeezed in a few activities, including some Ed Emberley drawing. Definite good times.

On a completely different note, today we got to me Abraham, Georgia's new little brother. He's sooooooo tiny, and so adorable. Such a treat!

View Photos

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fire and Ice, a Fun Project

It's Day 2 of the Festival of Lights, so it makes sense to post something light related. Here's a cool project: Diy Botanical Ice Luminaries. Follow the instructions and if all goes well, you end up with a creation like this:

For the truly creative, it would be interesting to fashion a menorah out of ice. It's all a matter of finding the right forms to work with, though I've yet to figure out what those may be. But some creative soul on the web (or my Sister-in-Law) will no doubt figure this out. When this happens, do share.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thank Honda and Other Religious Ideas

It isn't often that Shira and I find a theologically related article that we can both agree on, but it happened when she sent me this one: When my son survived a serious accident, I didn’t thank God. I thanked Honda. Here's the setup:

Last Friday night, a semi-trailer pushed the car my son was driving into a Jersey barrier. The trailer’s back wheel landed on the hood of the car, less than six inches from my son’s head. Every window shattered, throwing glass inches from his face.

But my son has not a scratch on him.

I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that I wrote a letter to Honda praising the expertly engineered safety features that saved his life. I explained that I had been in an equally serious accident 18 years earlier and had suffered a serious brain injury and broken bones all over the right side of my body, requiring countless surgeries.

I posted the letter on Facebook, and closed it with this:

> I want to extend my thanks to the engineers who used their intelligence and skill to create a car that safe, to the crash test dummies who have died a thousand horrible deaths and to your executives who did not scrimp on safety.
> Thank you, Honda.

That last line rubbed some people the wrong way. While many who left comments on my post were just glad that my son was alive and well, others wanted to know why I had thanked Honda for that outcome. The entity that deserved my thanks, they said, was God. One commenter wrote: “I am thankful that God held your son in His embrace and I am curious why you thanked Honda rather than Him.”

What makes this story especially interesting to me is the point the author makes later in the article:

Over many years of thinking about religion and faith, I have noticed that something sad and somewhat strange happens when we thank God: We tend to stop there. We simply overlook the decisions, the science, the policies and the people who contributed to the “miracle.” To put it another way: When we focus on supernatural deliverance from harm, we often ignore all of the human ways we can improve our own safety. I am concerned that we may associate survival of serious accidents with the unpredictable hand of Providence, not with airbags, safety testing and the regulations that have put them in place.

I think this is an important and valid point. It reminds me of the old joke:

So there's this huge flood one day, and an entire town looks like it's going to be swallowed up by the waters. And the Police and Rescue Agencies are running all over the place trying to get people to safety.

So they send the rescue boat over to this house where a guy's sitting on the roof with the water lapping around his ankles and they say "Come on, quickly, there isn't much time"

To which he says "Nah, it's ok, God will Provide"

So about an hour later they're zooming past in the boat again and they notice the guy's still there, only the water's up to his waist, almost at the top of the roof.. "Quick" they say, get in the boat, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

"Nah, don't worry - God will Provide"

An hour after that a rescue helicopter flies over the area and notices the guy, who must be standing on the peak of the roof now, with only his head and shoulders out of the water. "GRAB THE ROPE!" they cry "IT'S YOUR ONLY HOPE!"

"Don't worry" he replies calmly "God will provide."

So he gets drowned of course. And he goes to heaven, and is a little ticked off with god for drowning him like that, and expresses his concern saying "I had FAITH, I BELIEVED in you - and still you didn't help me"

"HELP YOU?!" God replies "What MORE did you want - I sent you two boats and a helicopter!"

This story actually came at an interesting time. I'm writing this post on the first day of Chanukah, a holiday where we recognize and celebrate miracles. Here's to doing that, and to appreciating all the miraculous things happen in our lives. And when those events happen, here's to saying thanks to all those who help make those miracles happen! Even Honda.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Install this app, and clear your mind

I've had two fresh nudges to experiment with meditation. The first is from our instructor over at EvolveAll martial arts gym. He starts his classes with a minute or two of meditation, and it's a wonderfully pleasant way to start the class. The other influence is from our Rabbi, no less.

This past Shabbat I managed to make it to services early enough to join her for her 9:30am meditation club. The idea is to help congregants relax and open their mind so that they can get the most out of services. This may seem like a new-age shmaltzy practice, but it's in fact quite ancient. If it worked for the Rabbis of the Talmud, who am I to argue with the practice?

Anyway, the Rabbi lead us on a guided meditation and I tried my best to keep up. When it was over I was amazed at just how relaxed I had become. It was like a spa treatment minus the hassle of going to the spa.

Between our instructor and our Rabbi, I'm thinking there really may be something to this meditation fad!

With this new found respect for meditation, I thought I should take the next geeky step and install a Guided Meditation app on my phone. That way, next time I'm stranded in an airport or coping with a bout of insomnia, I can put the time to good use.

Our Martial Arts instructor suggested we try headspace, though I was a bit turned off by the subscription fee. Instead, I installed's app, which of course, also has quite a bit of paid content. Though, it does contain enough free content to get me started (headspace also offers some free content; so in the end, they are probably equivalent).

I really shouldn't be knocking the paid content side of this. For this type of app, quality is essential and paying a few bucks for it is more than justified.

So go ahead and try one of these apps. If you're like me, you'll be amazed at how much impact you can have on your self by literally doing nothing.

Oh, and as a bonus tip: head over to The music and background image alone should help chill you out.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Accidental Arborist

A little over a month ago I was psyched: I had 3 tiny little buds peeking up from the dirt where I had planted my etrog seeds. I was content; life had been created where there was none and surely the little guys wouldn't make it much longer. And then a funny thing happened, more and more seeds sprouted. Before I knew it, I had an entire (very tiny) etrog forest:

I don't really have any idea what I am doing, but I figured that trying to fashion some sort of greenhouse would be a good thing. So I combined a file holder and some Saran Wrap to make a micro greenhouse:

To dress things up, I dropped in a temperature / humidity meter I had lying into the dirt with the plant. It showed that the humidity stayed quite high, so I guess that's a good thing.

This last weekend I finally bit the bullet and moved some of the plants out of the Tupperware where they had been into real pots:

I still don't have high hopes for these guys, so I figure I better celebrate as many successes as I can. I'm sure I'm over-watering them, or under-sunning them or something. But they continue to live and I continue to be surprised.

Incidentally, the seeds DCT planted have also done surprisingly well:

Though, that's what I love about fava beans, they're a robust enough plant they even survive me.

Perfectly Poached Eggs in 45 Seconds

Well, this is extremely handy to know: if you take a tea cup, add half a cup of water to it, drop an egg in it, cover it with a saucer and microwave the arrangement for 45 seconds you end up with a poached egg:

The egg on the left was in the microwave for 1 minute and the egg on the right was in for 45 seconds. At 30 seconds the egg was totally uncooked.

(Oh, and for the sake of completeness breakfast also consisted of a Trader Joe's veggie sausage patty and Utz's Pumpernickel Pretzel Sticks - yum!)

I suppose you're supposed to scoff at this method of egg preparation:

Look, no one should really cook eggs in a microwave if there’s a stove nearby. Because they’re just not going to taste as good. ...

But that's a load of hooey. The above method was fast and quite tasty. And you're not limited poaching, here's 11 more methods for egg prep in the microwave.

You're welcome.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fearless, Courageous and a little bit Crazy: The Pilots of the Aéropostale

Try doing a Google Image search for Aéropostale. If you're like me, you'll receive a page full of company logos and store photos. Now hold that thought.

I'm making my way through Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book which includes lyrical descriptions of him and his fellow Aéropostale pilots. And let me tell you, these guys were incredible. Think Pony Express, but in the air, with unreliable aircraft, extremely limited instruments, and the slimmest margin for error. Just about every flight involved risking your life.

Now consider those Google search results. To have the term Aéropostale usurped by a trendy clothing company is just pathetic.

Take this tale of Henri Guillaumet, an Aéropostale pilot who's route consisted of crossing the Andes:

This particular flight took place in June 1930. The Buenos Aires-Santiago route, which had opened several months before, was the most difficult of all, and the famous pilot Mermoz had chosen Guillaumet to fly it. The Andes' peaks rose to an altitude of 7,000 metres; planes at this time could not reach such heights and so had to weave their way through the mountains.

When he left Santiago in his Potez 25, Guillaumet had made this flight a hundred times before. At an altitude of 6,500 metres, he ran into a huge storm. He set down near Laguna Diamente, a lake that he knew. When he tried to take off again, a layer of snow, 80 centimetres deep, overturned his machine. Hidden under his plane, he could hear other Aeropostale planes that had been sent to rescue him, but he wasn't able to see them. He decided to walk, dressed in his leather pilot suit and an overcoat.

Spoiler alert: depending on the account you read he either walked for 3 days and 3 nights or 5 days and 4 nights before he was finally rescued. Within 3 weeks he was flying again. And most importantly, after the snow melted the plane was recovered and the mail was finally forwarded on to its final destination. The letters were marked in a classically bureaucratic manner with the phrase "Service Delay." Delay indeed.

This should be a snapshot of the recovered plane:

And here's one of those "Service Delay" letters:

Speaking of delivering the mail by plane, there's actually an important airmail site about 10 minutes drive from our home. That would be the field where the first mail delivery flight occurred between DC and New York with a stop over in Philadelphia:

On that fog shrouded mid-May morning in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson handed his personal letter of greetings to a very young and relatively inexperienced Army Air Service pilot at Potomac Park polo grounds in Washington, DC, to be flown to the Mayor of New York City, via a relay stopover at Philadelphia, PA. Simultaneously, another Army pilot was departing from Hazelhurst Field on Long Island, NY, for the same relay handover point in Philly. This may sound simple to modern readers, but in wartime 1918, with springtime dense morning fog over the entire northeast coast, and no available pilots trained in ANY cross country navigation, let alone instrument flying, this was taking extremely high risk.

Like nearly all demos, the presenters thought they had a foolproof plan. And like nearly all demos, nothing worked as expected. In this case, the plan was to have the pilot fly Northeast to Philadelphia by using railroad tracks as a navigational reference. Yeah, didn't quite work out:

A short time [after takeoff], a phone call was received at the polo field communications tent. It was Lt. Boyle. He had gotten lost and made an emergency landing in a farmer’s field. The stub crops caught the landing gear spreader bar and the prop dug in and flipped the JN onto its back. He was unhurt. The mail was not damaged or lost. His location was a farm in Waldorf, MD, southeast of Washington, not northeast. He had followed the railroad tracks, but the wrong tracks.

D'oh. How classic.

I'm telling you, I'll never look at a letter stamped "Air Mail" quite the same way again. These guys are my new heroes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Create Your Own Personal Bat Phone in 30 Minutes

Here's a nifty hardware project: Handmade Intercom Using Vintage Phones and Buzzer DIY. The idea is that hard wiring up a pair of vintage (push button?) phones requires little more than telephone cord and a 9 volt battery. The creator of the tutorial, Teddy Hashee, shows how a phone line splitter can be used to make the project look especially clean.

The tutorial also sets up a buzzer to simulate a ringer. I find that section of the tutorial to be quite clever as it shows how you can leverage the complexity of the phone without having to understand all the details of it (something I do in programming daily, yet panic and forget to do when dealing with hardware).

The author of the tutorial knocks this project out in 30 minutes. I'm sure it would take a weekend, if not two, for me to pull it off. But when I was done, I would have a point-to-point Bat Phone. How cool would that be? (OK, I don't really have a need for such a thing. When Shira needs my attention, depending on distance and urgency, yelling or placing a cell phone call usually works just fine.)

Here, watch the tutorial:

View Video


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Review: Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World

I was about 30 pages into Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, when it hit me: this book was published 7 years *before* The Four Hour Work Week. In fact, many of the stories happened years, if not decades earlier.

This is important because it helps put the book into context. If this book were written today, it would almost be a novelty. Another individual finding inner peace through minimalism and lifestyle design. Good for them. However, in a world where I step off the plane in Ecuador and have instant access to the web from my phone, this bare bones lifestyle may actually not be so bare.

But Rita Golden Gelman, author of Tales of a Female Nomad, was embracing this lifestyle long before Tim Ferris showed us The Way. Niceties like Skype, AirBNB, Google Translate and even e-mail simply hadn't been invented yet. And more than that, there weren't websites and books that articulated how a simple and mobile lifestyle could actually be a healthy and fulfilling one. In this light, Gelman's journeys are downright impressive.

Another element of this story that makes it unique is that Gelman jumps into this lifestyle not as an eager 20-something, but as an out-of-shape 40 year old divorcee, with no vagabonding experience. She needs to figure it all out from scratch. Big props to her for pulling this off.

So her accomplishments are great, and the stories solid ones. However, as a narrative, I'm not entirely blown away. It took me most of the book to figure out why, but I do believe I finally untangled it.

I believe that Gelman was almost shooting for a fairly raw log of her stories. She's willing to share her successes and failures, as well as the successes and failures of those around her. It's that last bit that I think through me the most. Travel long enough and you'll find amazing people, as well as jerks. And she appears to dutifully document both. At first it almost came across as passive aggressive. Sure, you can be a jerk to me, but I'm the wrighter, I'll get the last word in. But, I think that's being unkind. I think Gelman was just trying to capture the good and bad. And so if you're going report on the person who generously opened their home to you, then you might as well report on people who took advantage of you.

In the end, I found her books nowhere near as entertaining as a Bill Bryson adventure (the Gold Standard, if you will). But, if you're interested in long term travel, this is definitely an important book to read. She demonstrates over and over again how you can make your own serendipity while traveling, and how this can lead to amazing experiences. At the same time, she also shows how things don't always go as planned and how loneliness, disappointment and missed opportunities also come with the lifestyle. Read it to soak up all her lessons.

Oh, and lesson learned: never piss off a writer.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Trigraphs, Diana Pads and Zombies

I'm browsing this guy's zombie response kit when I noticed this item here:

This naturally raises the questions: (a) what's a tri-graph and (b) how does it help with "clandestine" communications?

Of course, the Internet explains: a tri-graph (or is it trigraph?) is a lookup table used in One Time Pad (OTP) encryption. One example of an OTP are pages and pages of random text. If you and I have copies of the same one time pad, then we can use a tri-graph as follows:

1. Pick a line in the OTP (known as our key text). Say:


2. Write the clear text below it:


(that's: meet at 10 tonight)

3. For each letter, look up the key text and plain text character in the trigraph and find the resulting encrypted text.


Because of the symmetric nature of the tri-graph, I can decode the text using the same procedure. That is, if I look up a key and encrypted letter, I will arrive and the decoded letter.

That may seem like a neat parlor trick, but the fact is, the above encryption is actually quite strong. In fact, assuming that the pads are truly randomly generated, never reused and never compromised the system is unbreakable.

One use case for the above system was during the Vietnam War:

Special Forces were one of (if not the only) units in Vietnam to utilize Morse code on a regular basis. We used a method of encryption called the Diana Cryptosystem.

The basis of these "One-Time Pads", is that there were only two matching pads in existence, and they would only be used one time. They were booklets that contained randomly generated groups of 5-letter "words;” 30 words to a page. The person sending a message would first write the letters to the message, over these random groups of words. Included in the front of each one-time pad was a one-page encryption table. If I wanted to send the letter "P", and the letter under the "P" was an "A", then I would send a "K". The person listening on the frequency at the other end, would have the other matching pad. They would write the letter they received (a "K") over the letter in their one-time pad (an "A"), and decipher it based on the table, yielding the original letter "P".

Each communication site in Vietnam (we had over 100 A-Camps along the Cambodian / Laotian border, and some 20 B-detachment sites spread over the country) had a different pad, depending on the location they were having the commo-check with. It obviously was very important that both people were using the appropriate matching pads, or the deciphered messages would not make any sense.

After a while, most of us became so proficient with the system, that we actually learned the deciphering matrix by heart. No matter what pads anyone had, the combinations always were the same. i.e. Any 3 letters always went together, regardless of the order; "BKO"/"KOB"/"OBK"/"BOK". After listening to thousands and thousands of transmissions, it really got quite simple. If I was listening to code, and a letter "B" was sent (now remember, we usually sent around 20-25 "words" (5 letters per word) a minute, hence the importance of the "speed" keys!), and the letter it was associated with was an "O", most of us would decipher as we heard it, and just write the "K". That may sound like quite a yarn, but it is absolutely true.

That's my kind of solution: simple enough that a a soldier can manually execute the encryption and send it over Morse Code, yet sophisticated enough that the code was effectively unbreakable.

Naturally, I had to experiment with this encryption, and of course, write some code to make it easier to play with. You can find the code here, or copied below. The code provides two top level function: make-pad which generates characters for a one time pad and tri-lookup which does the tri-graph lookup:

(In the session above, k is the key text and p is the plain text)

Thinking more about this form of encryption, it's remarkable how practical it could be. For example, if both my wife and I had a business card sized piece of paper packed with random characters, we could send dozens of short messages to each other using the above technique. Furthermore, any stream of text that we agree upon could be used as a key. While random text would be ideal, technically any string of characters would work. We could use song lyrics, the 5th paragraph from the 2nd story on the 3rd page of the New York Times, street names from a map, ingredients on a shampoo bottle, etc. Heck, you could even incorporate the clue to the key in the messages. For example:

 K541 8151 Z781 0742 AI06 PU72 EBXBH HGOXU

Where K541 8151 Z781 0742 AI06 PU72 corresponds to tweet 541815178107420672 (the spaces and letters are meant to throw off attackers).

Of course, straying from randomized text definitely weakens the setup. I wouldn't want to protect state secrets or call in an air strike using these short-cuts. But, this would work for leaving a romantic note to my wife or other less than sensitive message.

At the end of the day, I suppose the most important question is: does a tri-graph belong in your zombie fighting kit? Heck yeah! It also belongs in your kids play fort setup, and teenager's clandestine communication kit.

;; Implement a version of One Time Pad encryption.
;; Use a trigraph / diana pad method

(define (a->i letter)
 (- (char->integer letter) 65))
(define (i->a index)
 (integer->char (+ 65 index)))
(define (rand-char)
 (i->a (random-integer 26)))

(define (range low high)
 (if (> low high) '() (cons low (range (+ 1 low) high))))
(define (head items)
 (let loop ((i 0) (items items) (accum '()))
  (cond ((or (null? items) (= i 5)) (reverse accum))
         (loop (+ i 1) (cdr items) (cons (car items) accum))))))

(define (tail items)
 (reverse (head (reverse items))))
(define (make-pad rows cols)
 (define (make-block)
  (apply string (map (lambda (i) (rand-char)) (range 1 5))))
 (define (make-row)
  (for-each (lambda (i)
             (if (> i 1) (display " ")) 
             (display (make-block)))
            (range 1 cols)))
 (for-each (lambda (i)
             (make-row) (newline))
           (range 1 rows)))

(define (tri-row i)
 (reverse (map (lambda (pos)
                 (i->a (modulo (- pos i) 26)))
          (range 0 25))))

(define (tri-lookup key plain)
 (let loop ((key (string->list key))
            (plain (string->list plain))
            (coded '()))
  (cond ((null? plain) (apply string (reverse coded)))
        ((equal? #\space (car plain))
         (loop (cdr key) (cdr plain)
               (cons #\space coded)))
         (let ((row (a->i (car plain)))
               (col (a->i (car key))))
           (loop (cdr key) (cdr plain) 
                 (cons (list-ref (tri-row row) col) coded)))))))          
(define k "ASDFA POUYK")
(define p "HELLO WORLD")


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