Thursday, April 24, 2014

Catching Some Rays

Kitestring: A Safety-net for Your Cell Phone and Inspiration for the Entrepreneur

My Sister-in-Law sent me this link: This New App Could've Prevented My Friend's Rape. The 'app' in question is Kitestring, a website designed for personal safety.

I've got a few quibbles with the article: (1) It's not obvious to me how this, or any app could have prevented the rape the story describes. And (2), the 'app' isn't an app at all, but a website and SMS based service. So yeah, don't bother searching Google Play or iTunes, you won't find anything there related to site in question.

Still, the article gets points for mentioning the service. I like Kitestring as both utility as well as a case study for entrepreneurs.

The service is quite simple: you report that you're starting a trip of a certain duration. At the end of the trip, the system checks in with you. If you send the system your check-in word, you're all clear. If you don't respond, or send the system your duress code, your emergency contacts are notified. The entire webapp consists of one page where you can set your various 'words', maintain your emergency contact list and customize the message to go out.

The system would work well for those walking home late at night, heading out on a trail for a trail, or even when stopping for gas in a shady neighborhood. I could see using it before heading out on an epic hike or monster bicycling trip. It would provide an automatic backup in case I got lost or delayed. I could even imagine parents using this as a sort of pop-quiz for their kids: they setup a trip on their behalf, and if they don't check in, they get a phone call and tracked down.

The system doesn't do anything fancy with the user's GPS or have extensive options. But I think that's a good thing. The simplicity means that it works, and you'll use it.

As an idea guy / programmer, I'm always going on and on with folks about how they can turn their big-huge-awesome idea into something that they can start building today. I have no idea who's behind Kitestring, and I have no idea what their philosophy actually is, but on the surface it completely matches up to what I tell my customers.

I can see the pitch: let's revolutionize personal security! Let's make it app based, location based and fault tolerant. Let's use a heart rate sensors to detect if the person really is in duress. Let's use the camera to snap a picture of the assailant. Let's integrate this in with 911 so the police can be seamlessly dispatched. Let's develop an advanced algorithm to detect false alarms from true crises. And I say terrific! Let's do it all! But let's start with version 1.0.

Version 1.0 needs to be small (it'll cost you less, be faster to build and more importantly, lower risk) but mighty. It needs to capture the very essence of the idea without having any extraneous features. Ideally, it could be used in a number of contexts, allowing people to re-purpose the system in ways the creators never thought possible. It needs to deliver true value, and pique users interest so that they'll give you feedback on what to develop next. And it needs to be something you can start on today without anyone's permission.

I believe Kitestring has nailed these essentials. Is it perfect? Of course not. But they appeared to have hit all the above points. If you're looking for inspiration for building out your idea, they'd be a good place to start.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Life's Little (Not Kosher for Passover) Treasures

That's real Tater-Tots and real ketchup (read: corn syrup based) - yum!

Both of these were off limits until last night at 8:40'ish pm. I'm still at the "oh, look, it's not Passover anymore" stage of eating. In another day or two, this will be gone and I'll stop blogging my lunch. Maybe.

Review: The Dark River and The Golden City

I have a literary habit I'm not especially proud of: sometimes, when I read book one of a series that I especially enjoy, I'll explicitly stop there. Dune. The Hunger Games. The Traveler. These are all books that pulled me and left me thoroughly impressed. At some level I wanted to keep that feeling of surprise and discovery that comes with a truly enjoyable book and that's often lacking in later books in the series.

On a whim, decided I to side step this rule started listening to book two of the Forth Realm trilogy. I had read and was smitten with book one, The Traveler, so I entered into book two, Dark River, with high hopes. Of course, being a trilogy, the second book ends on a fairly low note. Not to worry, I was able to immediately rent and listen to book three, The Golden City.

In many respects, these are both solid books. At their best, they blend cultural and historical references in clever ways. The notion that religious prophets are travelers, or how free runners naturally abhor The Vast Machine are quite inventive. I think it's also important to remember that while a number of the plot elements have become part of our cultural discussion (NSA spying on the web? Person of Interest), back when these books were written that simply wasn't so. I still like nearly all the characters, and find the whole relationship between Harlequins and Travelers to be fascinating. I'd buy Sparro's Way of the Sword in a minute and I'm ready to add a stick of chalk to my EDC so I can leave harlequin lute's on sidewalks and such.

But, there's no way these books can touch the original.

The book is obviously a pro-privacy manifesto, which I'm OK with. It pushes me to appreciate a perspective that's easily ignored. Yet, after two more books of preaching, the message become a bit tiresome. But worse than that, I found that there were just too many convenient plot twists that made the story feel sort of cheap. Perhaps I would have preferred a narrower scope of a story in exchange for a bit more realism (ignore the fact that I just used the word realism in a book that espouses the ability to jump between realms of reality).

Or maybe, my original hypothesis holds: what made the book so enjoyable was a sense of discovery and freshness that just can't be maintained through three books. I don't know. I do know that I'd recommend the first book, and not the latter ones.

I do give the author credit though, he is quite creative. Apparently, he's managed to keep his identity a secret and he's promoted this idea that you can be him. That is, he's encouraging folks to talk about his books, and claim to have his identity. A bit of a publicity stunt, but a fun one at that.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Truth in Advertising - Passover edition

In their defense, these Vanilla Flavored Vegetable Fat Mini Bars are quite tasty. Seriously, this is our third or fourth year buying them, and they always surprise me as to how good they are. (Guess copious amounts of vegetable fat will make anything taste good.)

Hope you're enjoying the last few days of Passover.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Quote of the Day

What happened to my thinking mallet?

Overheard while on a call with a customer today.

Review: Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins

In many respects, Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis is the opposite of Headhunters on my Doorstep, another travel book I started reading at the same time.

Empire takes place in the frigid Antarctic while Headhunters has the author sweating it out in the South Seas. Empire has a more serious and introspective feel, while Headhunters is all about the laughs and introduces you to a number of characters on the islands.

But really, both books are about a journey where the author needs to face some pretty serious challenges. And that made Empire a page turner. Try as I might, I just can't imagine the cold and dark of an Antarctic winter. But Francis tries his best to take me there.

Like Headhunters, Empire goes off on wonderful tangents to give us a history of the area. There are well known stories such as the Shackleton expedition which I could hear told over and over again, as well as some more esoteric journeys I'd never heard of. And of course, there's plenty of description of the wild life (or lack there of) which also makes for interesting and inspirational reading.

All in all, the book is a wonderful travelogue. And what it lacks in side splitting humor it makes up for in genuinely good writing.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Passover Seders 2014 - After Action Report

We had two wonderful Passover Seders this year. Following in my Father's tradition, both David and I came prepared with a number of items to discuss (it's part Seder, part small group study - what can I say, my Dad's a professor). Here's a few items we covered and links to learn more. In no particular order:

Why was Rabbi Akiva's Seder different from all other Seders? - an interesting political take on the Seder we read about during the Seder (whoa, it's an infinite loop of Seders!).

The Malbim Hagaddah - this is a wonderful take on explaining how the Haggadah is structured. It poses a number of thorny, yet important questions, and then deftly answers them. Really insightful stuff. I especially liked the explanation about the need to recite the Passover story, versus just making sure you recall it (or are wise enough to have mastered it). The idea being that the Seder isn't about ourselves, but about forming a chain of remembrance. So great, you know the story, but if you fail to pass it on, it will end with you.

A D’rash on “I Will Harden Pharaoh’s Heart - we had a short discussion about the ramifications of Pharaoh having his free will taken away during the Passover story. The D'Rash covers a number of well known explanations and finishes with this powerful bit of prose:

So here were all these questions running through my mind as I stood in awe and wonder before Rameses II’s statues in the desert in Abu Simble. How much more so must have been the awe and wonder of the ancient Egyptians as they looked up at these statues believing they stood before the god-Pharaoh?

Since the people believed he was a god, his powers must have been unlimited. Pharaoh could loose the bound and bind the loose. This being the case, God wanted to prove that Pharaoh was not a god but a human being, just like his people. If he were truly a god and omnipotent, then he could loosen his heart which God had hardened. But if he were unable to do so, he was not a god and the Egyptians would know that the Lord is God.

Passover Seders During the Civil War - Reading through a number of letters describing improvised Civil War Seders was both amusing and powerful. I learned too that Lincoln was assassinated on the 5th day of Passover, and the Jews observed it as a day of mourning.

I found David's explanation that the verse "Let all who are hungry, come and eat ..." could be interpreted to as a call to those around the table to give the Seder their full and undivided attention to be a moving one.

I thoroughly enjoyed our impromptu discussion of the "Pour out thy wrath ..." set of verses. One take away was this: the Haggadah has us take on many perspectives (the rich free man who doesn't pour his own wine and reclines while eating, the poor slave who takes a bit of bread and keeps the majority of it for later, etc.). To sandwich in the perspective of one who's crying out for G-d's help and vengeance during the joyful songs of Hallel seems both appropriate and meaningful. All those different angles make for a more complete Seder experience. With that context, the verses no longer seem so out of place and jarring.

For the first time, Shira made chicken soup from scratch with her usual batch of home made mazto balls. It was outstanding. So outstanding, that after the soup course I couldn't possible eat another bite. But of course, I did (I had her Pineapple Chicken, Shepherd's pie, Cauliflower Muffins and 3 home made deserts to eat).

I had a vague notion of starting a new tradition this year. Maryn and I enjoy an Arts and Crafts Shabbat when possible, so I was curious if we could do something a little crafty during the Seder. My reasoning: why limit the telling of our story to just words? Maryn ran with the idea and produced some amazing results. Check out what she did with the limited supplies I provided:

You've got: Pharaoh, baby Moses in a basket, the Ten Commandments, a burning bush, 3 of the plagues (hail, frogs and locusts), Moses parting the sea and a Seder plate with a cup of win in the center! I don't know how she's going to top herself next year!

All in all, it was a wonderful time. And such a joy to be at my Brother and Sister-in-Law's first Seder as a married couple.

Monday, April 14, 2014

DC in Bloom

Apparently every flowering plant and tree in the DC area has chosen this last week to explode with color. It's astounding. I can't walk anywhere without pulling out my cell phone to snap a few pictures. The biggest surprise was Theodore Roosevelt Island. Large swaths of the island are covered with a bright yellow wild flower; it's like out of a movie set or something. Truly gorgeous.

By the way, these are my first set of pictures from my new Galaxy S5. The camera does a number of new tricks which I've still got to learn. The image quality seems to be at least as good as the S3, if not noticeably better. Gone are the days when I'd take out my new cell phone, snap some pictures, and think "oh well, maybe my next cell phone camera will be usable." Nope, I've got to give credit to phone manufactures, they've really started packing their devices with very usable cameras.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chicken soup

Some assembly still required.

Shira is cooking, I'm cleaning, and overall nobody is panicking. Passover is just about here.



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