Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Smithsonian Castle, More Than Just a Pretty Facade

One of the few disappointing (OK, perhaps more confusing than disappointing) parts of our Disney Weekend was when our friend's 5 year old wanted to go into Snow White's Castle. It was so obviously there, and yet as any adult knows, it's just a facade. You can't go in the castle I tried to explain, it's not real. Luckily, rides and food easily distracted from this point of confusion.

That's pretty much how I've always thought of the Smithsonian Castle: an impressive looking building, but little more than an enhanced tourist info booth inside.

(Photo by

While jogging by the castle this last weekend, I decided to take a few minutes and confirm my assumption from above. And of course, I learned just how wrong I was to dismiss the castle.

First off, I walked in and was immediately struck by this scene:

(Photo by

Holy smokes, there's someone buried in the castle. And it's none other than Mr. Smithsonian himself, James Smithson. His story is downright remarkable: he was an active scientist, who for reasons not fully explained, pulled off this little trick:

Toward the end of his life, under a clause in his will, he left his fortune to the United States, a place he had never visited, to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

A bold move, but one that has paid off. After all, there's been approximiately 22.8 million visits to his institution in 2015 alone.

After checking out the crypt, I found the information area that I expected. But I also found a sign leading to the Commons Gallery, West Wing. Being the curious type, I had to take a look. What I found truly surprised me. The Commons Gallery hosts the America's Treasure Chest exhibit. This exhibit is a sort of sampler for the entire Smithsonian. In the space of one large gallery, you can see everything from African Art to Zoological specimens. It really is classic Smithsonian, housing remarkable finds like a piece of the Hindenburg, Brian Boitano skates, a drinking fountain labeled Colored and lots more.

If you've got a very limited time in DC (say you're on a business trip), hitting this one gallery may be far more effective than trying try run from Smithsonian to Smithsonian, catching highlights. I could also imagine it would be the ideal place to take kids. Not only is relatively compact, but it would be a great place to play the What's your favorite item on display and why? game. It certainly would show kids that there's more to DC museums than a big elephant, some space paraphernalia and giant pandas (not that there's anything wrong with those things!).

Next time you're on the Mall, if you haven't had a chance to truly explore the castle, take 30 minutes and do so. And while you're at it, explore the gardens adjacent to it. Spotting the Monkey Puzzle Tree alone makes it worth exploring this green space.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

More Linux-on-Android success: emacs, racket and git

Shira often cringes when I join her at the craps table. Will I drop some forbidden statement like wow, nobody's rolled a 7 in forever!, thereby guaranteeing the next roll to be a 7? In general, I just don't respect the juju that goes with gambling; that underlying assumption that through external means you can control random events. Turns out, this is a studied phenomena, known as the Hot Hand Fallacy. When ProgrammingPraxis took up the topic, I knew I had to jump in and implement the exercise.

I was writing this on fresh Linux system, so the first order of business was to pull in tools. I did something along the lines of:

  apt-get install emacs racket git

The plan was to code the solution in emacs, execute it in racket and publish my work using git. Once the above command finished, I fired up emacs, kicked off a Scheme buffer powered by racket and started coding away. The ProgrammingPraxis exercise called for the implementation of an experiment mentioned in the Wall Street Journal that showed how the Hot Handy fallacy could be experienced. Here's my implementation:


(define (flip)
  (if (= (random 2) 1) 'H 'T))

(define (sample)
  (list (flip) (flip) (flip) (flip)))

(define (hot? s)
  (cond ((null? s) (void))
 ((null? (cdr s)) (void))
 ((eq? 'H (car s)) (eq? 'H (cadr s)))
 (else (void))))

(define (collect fn sample)
  (if (null? sample)
      (let ((v (fn sample)))
 (if (void? v)
     (collect fn (cdr sample))
     (cons v (collect fn (cdr sample)))))))

(define (only-true items)
  (filter (lambda (t) t) items))

(define (percentify items)
  (if (null? items) 0
      (exact-gt;inexact (/ (length (only-true items))
    (length items)))))

(define (try count thunk)
  (let loop ((avg (thunk)) (count (- count 1)))
    (if (= 0 count)
 (loop (/ (+ (thunk) avg) 2) (- count 1)))))

(define (experiment)
  (percentify (collect hot? (sample))))

Each experiment consisted of flipping a coin 4 times and reviewing the outcome. I then kicked off 2,000,000 of these experiments:

 (try 2000000 experiment)

Here's a screenshot of the results:

If you squint, you'll see that I did occasionally get close the 40% behavior mentioned in the article, though I got plenty of other behavior, too. Chances are, the implementation above is buggy.

The little Android icon in the screenshot above reveals the truly remarkable part of this exercise: the above was all executed on my Galaxy Note5 using Gnuroot. I was amazed at how nearly flawless emacs and racket performed. It was just like I was on any old Linux environment. And when I was finished with my solution, I pushed the code to github using the command line version of git.

I was disappointed to see that Gambit Scheme is no longer available on Google Play. But having access to racket and other standard Linux tools makes up for this and then some.

I did note above that the tools were nearly flawless. There were some gotchas, including:

  • emacs: The arrow keys can become undefined. A fix is shown here
  • emacs: my standard desktop configuration loaded up properly, but I did get a warning message about being "past 95% of memory limit." I don't know what that means, but it sounds scary.
  • gnuroot: I don't have a good way to swatch back and forth between a Gnuroot terminal and other Android apps. I can bring up the Gnuroot launcher, but that means having to kick off another terminal session.

But these issues were all minor when compared to how much Gnuroot Just Works.

I see that the next ProgrammingPraxis exercise also covers a gambling related topic. Time to bust out my keyboard and get to work!

Friday, October 02, 2015

Running with a Galaxy Note 5

When I jog, I rely pretty heavily on my phone. It's my camera, flashlight, locator beacon, map and general safety net. So what's the best way to run with a monster of a phone, like the Galaxy Note 5?

Due to a promise I made with Shira, a case with a belt clip is out.

My assumption was that I'd have trade the fanny pack full of trail running gear, for a fanny pack with a phone in it. This is a bummer, because I actually do get use out of the emergency items I'd be swapping out, and getting a phone in and out of a little belt pack is much more awkward than pulling it off a belt clip.

Luckily, there's a solution out there. I give you the Running Buddy 6+ "Buddy Pouch":

The pouch consists of a pocket that comfortably holds the Galaxy Note 5 (with a case, no less!), and a flap. You shove the flap on the inside of your shorts, and thanks to a couple of high power magnets, the whole setup "clicks together" and sits firmly in place. It's amazing, I've got this huge phone attached to my shorts, and the Running Buddy doesn't jiggle one bit. It's truly impressive to see in action.

While it's a fashion disaster, I've found that I can run with my phone on the front of my shorts, and my trail running gear on the back. And while I won't win any style points, I am well prepared for whatever the road may throw at me.

What's it feel like to fail?

Asking the question: What's it feel like to be wrong? has profound implications. So to, it turns out, does asking the question: What's it feel like to fail?.

Seth Godin tackled that one here. First off, you have to tease apart failing and feeling like a failure:

Failure (as seen from the outside) is an event. It's a moment when the spec isn't met, when a project isn't completed as planned.

Feelings, on the other hand, are often persistent, and they are based on stories. Stories we tell ourselves as much as stories the world tells us.

In other words, much like being wrong, failing doesn't feel like anything (unless you fail at hooking up your car's jumper cables, or the like). Feeling like a failure, however, certainly does feel like something. And something not good at that.

And here's the absolutely brilliant part:

There are people who have failed more times than you and I can count, who are happily continuing in their work.

There are others who have achieved more than most of us can imagine, who go to work each day feeling inadequate, behind, and yes, like failures and frauds.

How do you jump from one of these populations to the other? I'm not sure, but I think this and this are good places to start. Seth offers a very solid step one:

Here's the essential first step: Stop engaging with the false theory that the best way to stop feeling like a failure is to succeed.

Brilliant. Read his entire post (which I've sadly just butchered for you) here.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Wrist Kit: 80's Fashion Meets Outdoor Utility

When I head out into the woods, the items on my key chain go from handy to downright essential. So essential, that keeping them on a key chain in my pants pocket is just not the ideal solution. The key chain side of things is annoying because it's tedious to get items on and off. And the pants part of the equation isn't ideal either: what if I'm wearing shorts without pockets, or my backpack such that I can't easily access my pockets? And then there's the whole question of what do when it's time to sleep. I can shove the key chain in a tent pocket, but that puts some serious distance between me and these critical items (like the flashlight that might be handy for finding said tent pocket).

It's tempting to wear the items on a necklace of sorts. But I think dangling things around your neck without a proper quick-release is just asking for trouble. And besides, wearing a necklace doesn't solve the sleeping problem.

On this last backpacking trip I tried out a new solution, and I do believe we have a winner. I give you the Wrist Kit:

The above is a MEMO Athletics Zipper Sweatband Wristband, which I stuffed with my absolute essentials: 20ft of 100lb test braided line, Derma-Safe knife, Nitecore Titanium Whistle, Photon X-Light and Bic Mini Lighter.

These items easily fit in the sweatband, with plenty of room to spare. And to my surprise, they had almost no movement once I put the wristband on. It didn't take long for me to forget that I was even wearing the wristband, and as long as I had my right arm, I had my essentials with me. Best of all, I was able to sleep in with the MEMO on without a second thought. It just worked.

Of course, the solution isn't perfect. The items bulge, so this isn't a way to carry in stealth mode. And there's no organization to the items; I found that to get to one item I had to take off the wristband and fish out what I was after. But this was still far less tedious than taking out my key chain and disassembling it. Finally, the sweatband is warm. On our last trip, this was a good thing as it was quite chilly out. On a really hot day, I'm not sure if this solution would become unbearable after a time.

It's worth noting that you can wear the MEMO around your ankle, which may solve some of the above issues.

All I know is that I had my essential gear with me at all times, and I was totally rocking a rad look.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: Mockingjay

[Total Spoiler Alert]

I admit it, I went into the third book of the Hunger Games series with pretty low expectations. And yet, Mockingjay still managed to disappoint. For the vast majority of the book, I found my comments on book two still applied: Katniss, the main character, is still upside down emotionally. We continue to have her blaming herself for things that aren't her fault, and yet failing to take responsibility for things that are hers to own. Perhaps worse than that, the story continued to trickle on with hardly a plot twist in sight.

Seriously, what book has a weapon designed for the main character that's voice activated, yet doesn't use this capability in some pivotal scene that saves the day? But I digress.

Cleverly, the author has provided us with a a Hunger Games in each of the three books. In book one, Katniss pulls off the seemingly impossible: she's survived the games, and got her partner out, too. In the second book, she manages to accidentally start a revolution. This would be worth some points in my book if it wasn't followed by a temper tantrum that sucks any sense of accomplishment out of it. And in the third book, the 'games' consist of her and her team traversing the Capital's streets. Again, I give the author serious credit for fitting this in; yet this final quest appears to be completely useless. Other than killing off some characters and gently moving the story line along, I fail to see any advantage she gained through this exercise.

So yeah, I was unimpressed.

But then, in the final pages of the book, Katniss crossed the line from petulant teenager into sociopath territory. With her killing of president Coin and her recommending of a hunger games for the Capital, she seems to have fully embraced the evil that she was fighting. Perhaps I misheard these critical pages and am taking away the wrong impression. But seriously, how could she be so dense as to not realize her behavior is exactly that of the tyrant was was supposed to be executing?

There was one highlight of the book, though. The audio version contains a short interview with the author at the end of the book, and I found it quite fascinating. The author discusses her inspiration and remarks that as a TV writer she could totally appreciate the game-maker side of the equation. Perhaps the main character in the book isn't Katniss afterall, but the games itself? I'm probably too stuck in Katniss's behavior, though in my defense, so much of the book is spent on her emotional baggage, it's hard not to get frustrated with it. Especially when she appears to be the only character who doesn't grow. Her sister, her mother, her fellow victors; they all evolve into better versions of themselves. And yet Katniss remains locked in a state that seems to force her into bad decisions.

When the Hunger Games first came out, there was plenty of concern that the content was just not kid appropriate. How could a book that has kids killing kids be for kids? And yet, immediately, it's not the themes that bother me. No, it's the ridiculous main character. If your child is aching to read this series, by all means, let them. But you best read along with them and plan to have some frank discussions about why the main character's behavior is so wrong, so often.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Three Ridges Hike: Wet, Yet Wonderful

This past weekend we tackled the Three Ridges Hike; that's a 14 mile circuit including panoramic views, lovely mountain streams, demanding climbs and peaceful campsites. More than that, it proved that you simply can't will good weather to happen by ignoring the forecast.

As the day to leave for the hike approached, Shira kept telling me the forecast was getting rainier and colder. By the time we left, they promised 100% chance of rain on Saturday. I simply ignored these warnings, and told Shira we should go for it anyway. To her credit, she didn't believe me for a minute, yet still persevered and tackled the trip with me.

We arrived at the trail head at 4pm with heavy fog and a cold rain. These conditions, with varying amount of rain, would remain exactly the same for the next 24 hours. But we pressed. Thankfully, at the last moment I decided to take my Frogg Toggs jacket along with my wind-resistant Ghost Whisperer Anorack. I'm sure that lightweight windbreaker would have been soaked through and nearly useless in minutes. The Frogg Toggs held up great and was the perfect companion for this cold and rainy weather.

The hike starts with about a mile climb, and then a mile downhill, where you arrive at an AT shelter. That's where we spent our first night. Shira fully setup the tent and camp while I set to work trying to start a fire. This was tricky business, because (a) everything was wet and (b) the area was an established campsite so it was picked pretty clean of down wood. Ultimately, what saved the day was the somewhat random discovery of some punk wood that I kicked free from the underside of a dead tree. I'd only heard/seen YouTube videos discussing punk wood. I managed to get it lit using my lighter, and then it just slowly burned away, forming an ember that wouldn't go out. It was simply bushcraft magic at its best. Using other bits of wood I'd collected, I slowly coaxed a flame from the ember, and from there we had fire. On the surface, it was a pretty tame fire; but for myself, it was perhaps the ultimate outdoor accomplishment: fire from wet wood, started and kept alive through a gentle rain. Amazing.

Luckily, while I was playing with the fire, Shira managed to fully get our tent up and our gear inside and dry. It would rain all night, and her tent setup job worked perfectly. We were dry and warm the whole time.

Man those hotdogs we cooked the first night were tasty!

When we awoke on Saturday, the weather looked like it was going to continue to do what it had done all night: be cold and rainy. So we made the call: rather than do the 12 miles head of us over two days, we'd do it in one. We only had to tear down camp and get on our way.

Anyone who knows me, knows I'm pretty particular about my gear and always looking to optimize it. So it would probably come as a shock to know that I'm still using the same 4 Man Timberline Tent that I grew up with in Scouts. Surely there are far lighter alternatives out there? Indeed, there are. And every backpacking trip begins the same way, with me searching for alternatives and presenting them to Shira. Who always shoots them down. What can I say, she likes the spacious Timberline tent. And at just under 8lbs, it's only a couple pounds heavier than a 3 man, $300 tent. $300 for two pounds is a tough pill to swallow.

And then you have trips like this one where it sure is nice having a huge and sturdy shelter to retreat to in the cold and rain. And I learned a new trick I'd never attempted before: you can take down the tent while leaving the polls and fly up. This allowed me to pack up the mostly dry tent, while still having the soaking wet fly protect us. The Timberline poles + rainfly actually made for a pretty nifty shelter, and I could see using that in a context that called for quick sun protection.

Slowly but surely, I'm accepting the Timberline as my tent of choice for backpacking with the wife.

The 12 miles we tackled Saturday were supposed to contain quite a few grueling ups and downs. And it provided these in a big way. We found overlooks, but all we could see from them was a sheet of white. Much of the hike was done in fog, which was actually pretty surreal. Given all the ups and downs, the cool temperatures actually made hiking more enjoyable. I can't imagine how much work this hike would be in the hot, humid summer.

At about 5 miles into our hike we arrived at the shelter where we originally planned to spend the night. The scene was pretty idyllic, and if it hadn't been for the wet weather and promise of more wet weather, it would have been the ideal place to setup camp. We pushed on.

More, ups, more downs, some quick scrambles and beautiful waterfalls. There were a series of, what appeared to be, swimming holes which in 55°F weather looked pretty but far from tempting. In the summer, I bet they are perfect spot to take a cooling off dip.

And after a day of hiking, we arrived back at the AT shelter where we had spent the night. As we stopped to heat up some food for dinner, we got to talking with the hikers that were hunkered down in the shelter. Two of them were doing half-through hikes, going from Harper's Ferry to Georgia, and another hiker was tackling the full AT. After dinner, as we packed up our gear to head out, I asked if the thru-hikers wanted any of the extra food we had. We weren't staying the second night as planned, and there was no need for me to carry it out. They looked at me as though I had two heads and was offering them a winning lottery ticket. Uh yeah, we'll take whatever you got. And so between the 3 guys we divvied up our various odds and ends, including couscous, peanut butter and instant oatmeal. One guy was especially appreciative when he found the green tea in with the oatmeal. It was so classic, and was the least we could do to help these guys tackle their quest.

A little over an hour later we were back at our car. It was still raining. The fog still hadn't cleared. How nice of Mother-Nature to make it cold and wet to the end.

I kept telling Shira: see, if you can backpack in these conditions, you can backpack in any conditions. She didn't complain once the whole trip, even though it worked out exactly as she told me it would. Now that we've seen the terrain and what this hike has to offer, I can't wait to get back on a sunny day when we can actually see the vistas. But even in the cold and wet, it was still a top notch trip.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rule Number One for a Good Business

Some time ago I stumbled on one of Wood Trekker's older posts: Is it Wrong to Profit From Your Hobby? and found it thought provoking. The premise of the article is that some people's attempts to monetize their hobby ends up doing far more harm than good. My off the cuff reaction was something along the lines of: well, if you want to make a *good* business out of your hobby, go for it, but if it's going to be a crappy one, forget about it.

Which begs the question: what's a good business?.

After a number of evening jogs spent rolling this question around in head, I've come the following conclusion:

A good business must do at least one thing: exceed expectations.

Do that and you're off and running. Fail at that, and forget about it. Sure, it might be helpful to set expectations, but that's not really required; people will bring their own.

Consider a lemonade stand strategically placed along a bike trail on a hot day. What's the expectations? The lemonade should be cold and drinkable. Does matter if it's created from a mix that's mainly sugar? Not at all.

Now suppose you want to sell lemonade at your high-end artisan restaurant, with the promise of all organic ingredients and a high price tag to match. Now the expectations have clicked up quite a few notches: for $9.50, this better be the best tasting lemonade I've ever consumed.

Both businesses and products can work. Both can fail. It's all about exceeding the customer's expectations.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Galaxy Note5 - Don't Call It a Phablet

I've now had my Galaxy Note5 for a little over a week and I'm ready to render a verdict: Love It.

Specifically: love the screen size and that I now have numeric row on the standard on-screen keyboard; love that it has 4GB(!!) of RAM to make for a snappy UI; love the Pro camera mode; love that they moved the speaker from the back of the device to the bottom; love the improved fingerprint scanner which is just about perfect; love the slick integration with the S-Pen, not sure how much I'll use it, but it's definitely got potential; love the super fast start-up of the camera (hit the home button twice, wait 2 seconds and you're ready to go). See a theme here?

What I'd change: not a whole lot. I truly miss the waterproof capability provided by the S5 and I don't get the fascination with the high end materials. What's the first thing I did with my sexy new metal and glass phone? Put it in a plastic case. It now looks exactly the same as every other phone in that model of case.

As a geek, I should be outraged that Samsung ditched the removable battery and SD card. In practice, it doesn't really matter. I now rely on an external battery for recharging throughout the day; and the SD card on my Galaxy S5 didn't save me from running out of space. As long as the majority of Android apps write their data to the internal device memory, the SD card is going to remain largely unimportant.

The biggest challenge for me and the Note 5 is that I'm no longer wearing it on my hip. That was a condition of purchase: I had to retire the belt clip style case that I've depended on since my first cell phone. Carrying a gigantic phone on my belt was just too much for Shira to handle. Shira picked me up a handsome Spigen Armor Case which does its job quite well, including a very functional built in kickstand. So far, I've carried the phone in my cargo shorts pockets. With Fall officially upon is, I'm going to have to figure out a jeans solution sooner than later. One word: murse. Anyways, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Bottom line: the Galaxy Note 5 feels like a true upgrade from the S5 in every way. It's bigger, faster and just all around better. It's exactly what a phone upgrade should be. (Compare that to the S6 which would have been faster and had more memory, but would have been essentially the same form factor. Feh, who want's that?).

Oh, and stop calling it a phablet. It's just a phone. Just because your phone is tiny next to my phone, that's not my phone's fault.

Special thanks to Michael Fisher of fame who helped me figure out the Note5 was going to be the ideal fit for me. (Sure, is a client of mine, but providing me with personalized phone shopping advice is hardly in the contract.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Always on Guard

That's a close up of one of the lions that guard the Netherlands Carillon. I snapped the picture while running by during an especially soggy run.

Relevant to tonight is this snippet from a 1952 speech talking about the the small bells that would be included in the Carillon:

"To achieve real harmony, justice should be done also to the small and tiny voices, which are not supported by the might of their weight. Mankind could learn from this. So many voices in our troubled world are still unheard. Let that be an incentive for all of us when we hear the bells ringing."

Learn more here. And here's to hearing those small and tiny voices!


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