Thursday, November 30, 2006

13 Uses For Vodka

Here are 13 uses for Vodka, including:

  • 2. To clean the caulking around bathtubs and showers, fill a trigger-spray bottle with vodka, spray the caulking, let set five minutes and wash clean. The alcohol in the vodka kills mold and mildew
  • 11. To relieve a fever, use a washcloth to rub vodka on your chest and back as a liniment.
  • 13. Vodka will disinfect and alleviate a jellyfish sting.
  • 15. Swish a shot of vodka over an aching tooth Allow your gums to absorb some of the alcohol to numb the pain.

I simply never imagined there would be that many uses for Vodka. Apparently, it's the duct tape of liquids.

Technology and Activism

Here's an interesting article on using mobile technology for activism. It's oriented towards teens (aren't they supposed to be playing video games and getting stalked on MySpace? Where do they find the time to change the world?!), but us adults can play along too.

The article links to a bunch of websites that focus on activism and is pretty inspirational stuff.

Via: Textually

Super-Easy Blendy Backgrounds

Here's a nifty hack for creating blended backgrounds. Using a combination of CSS and transparent images, you can end up something like:

What's nice is that the color aspect of this is located in CSS, which means you can easily tweak the background without mucking with the gradient.

Yet another CSS hack I wish I had thought of.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Lessons From Sodom and Gomorrah

I came across this interesting commentary from The Homeless Guy about Sodom and Gomorrah.

He presents some interesting evidence that may have you looking at that story differently.

From poking around it appears that he may really be on to something.

The bottom line: the story may be trying to teach us more about social justice than sex. Shocking.

BloggerSnap - Snap Me!

Red Ferret mentioned a service which allows your web page readers to include a snapshot of themselves on your web page.

Sounds both useless and entertaining! I don't have a webcam, but perhaps someone who does can contribute a snapshot?

Eight No Cost Ways to Market Your Business

While reviewing a blog entry talking about gimmicky business ideas, the author tossed out this link to Eight No Cost Ways to Market Your Business.

These are good, common sense ideas. I like that these ideas are more about adding value than fooling someone into buying your product.

A quick and useful read.

Comma: Education and Humor

I stumbled across this cute and educational story about using commas (yes, commas) while reading Joyce's blog.

It reminded me, I so need to go back and learn the formal rules of grammar, as I still tend to depend just on what feels right. Luckily, I have a wife who knows all these rules and isn't afraid to share them with me.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mp3 Player Upgrade

My trusty Mach 256MB mp3 player is in need of an upgrade. As I mentioned in my original review, the materials are basically crap. So, I'm actually surprised it's lasted this long (and I do beat it up pretty bad).

And what to upgrade to? Well, to the 1GB version of course! Tiger direct has it on sale now for $9.99.

If you still don't own an mp3 player, you should check out this deal. For $10 bucks, you really can't go wrong.

The Joy Of Txt

As you can see from the attached photo, I finally have my laptop back. I'm mobile again! While I love the huge screen, and high resolution of the desktop, nothing beats being able to carry around my laptop.

I was really surprised how easy it was to sync up my desktop and laptop. I simply copied c:\cygwin back and forth between the machines.

Because I have everything stored in my home directory (c:\cygwin\home\bsimon) I knew I grabbed all my personal files. I also ended up copying the exact same tools (emacs, X, etc.) between boxes.

That simply made switching a breeze.

I'd like to think that Cygwin's (and Unix in general) reliance on plain text files played a role here. No silly registry settings to forget about, among other Windows mysteries.

Two files that weren't in c:\cygwin that I wish I had copied over were my Firefox bookmarks and my Trillian configuration.

It sure is good to be back to my laptop toting self. I'm tempted to hold a meeting in the conference room tomorrow, so I can use the projector - just because I can!

--Ben

Monday, November 27, 2006

Another Bad Consumer Experience

And here, I was getting all agitated about a silly 5% restocking fee. That's nothing! A buddy at work was telling me about his builders, and what a crummy job they did.

So bad, in fact, that they earned their own website outlining his grievances.

I just love that he has an outlet where he can share his story with the world. Hopefully, other's will learn from his experience, or even better, the Builders will come around and try to make things right. Either way, I know I certainly won't be using CW Custom Builders anytime in the future.

I just love this picture my friend posted of a stud they used - I think this neatly sums up their devotion to quality:

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Unveiling

It's hard to believe it's been over a year since Shira's dad has passed away. Today we remembered his passing by having the unveiling of his headstone.

The attached photo shows the top of the new headstone with a bunch of small stones on it. It's Jewish tradition that when you visit a grave site you leave a stone, rather than flowers, to show that you were there.

Here's one explanation for this tradition, as described in this article:

Flowers are a good metaphor for life. Life withers; it fades like a flower. As Isaiah says "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field; grass withers and flowers fade" (Isaiah 40:6,7). For that reason, flowers are an apt symbol of passing.

But memory is supposed to be lasting. While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory. Stones do not die.

Zikhrono Livrakha

Photos from Switzerland

As promised, here are selected photos from our Switzerland trip. We ended up having a great time, despite the wet weather. We saw lots of cool sites, ate cheese and chocolate, and oggled watches and knives. Pretty much everything you should do on a trip to Switzerland (except ski!).

Goodies Galore!

Chanukah came early this year! Shira's mom opted to give us and Elana/Shmuel's gifts in person rather than during the holiday.

We made out like bandits - getting books and lots of pretty stuff for the house, among other things.

Between food and gifts, this weekend has been really fun.

--Ben

Friday, November 24, 2006

Tradition

Black Friday, so the women must be off shopping, and men must be at lunch at Hooters. For over a decade, this has been our tradition, and it was so again this year.

What can I say, some traditions are easier to keep than others.

--Ben

Mmmm, Mmmmm Good

Our ride to Rochester was totally worth it - we had a really fun family dinner.

My mom served more varieties of food than we usually see in a month, all of which tasted superb.

All in all, it was an ideal Thanksgiving.

(Note: the photo of the turkey is the amount left over, not the initial serving)

--Ben

Thursday, November 23, 2006

More things to be thankful for

More things to be thankful for, including...

- Wegmans being open so we can stop to eat somewhere

- Open WiFi access points - so that Shira can check her e-mail while I pump gas

- My wife

-SMS messages so that my brother and I can whip off quick messages between ourselves

What are you thankful for today?

--Ben

Thankful

As we drive to Rochester on this Thanksgiving, I can't help but think of some things that I'm thankful for, including:

- My wife

- My family

- Mobile internet access, including pop-before-smtp

- That I can post any view I want to on my blog without ending up in jail

- Heated seats

- XM radio

- My co-workers

- That I get to do stuff I love, and someone pays me for it

- My wife

- My friends

- The overcast sky (it make using the laptop in the car easier than on a sunny day)

- perl hashes

- My wife

And probably lots more....

--Ben

Monday, November 20, 2006

Swiss Side Trip: Castle of Chillon

With Shira in meetings all day, I got to have a little exploration day all to myself. I choose to hunt down an visit the Castle of Chillon. This involved taking a train to a neighboring city and a few mile hike along the lake. But, I'm happy to report, it was all worth it.

It turns out, the Castle of Chillon is all it claims to be, and more. I've schlepped to too many must see sites only to learn that they are little more than a pile of stones, or a building you can observe from the outside. Not so with Chillon.

Chillon includes a 30'ish point self guided tour that takes you from a few layers under ground, to all the way to a high turret. All while making your way through questionably safe passages - it's all lots of fun.

If you make it anywhere near the Montreux area of Switzerland, it's a must see.

More pictures to follow. Oh, and wish me luck getting back to my hotel in one piece.

Bonjour From Switzerland

Good Morning from Switzerland! I finally got internet access long enough to post some photos of our trip. So far, we are having a wonderful time. The weather has been a tad bit damp, but the sites, food and company have more than made up for it.

There are plenty more pictures to post, but I at least wanted to share a tiny bit of our trip with everyone.

Shira's off to business meeting today, and I'm going to try to find a castle. Hopefully, I won't start an international incident. Though I promise nothing.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Boarding

The adventure begins. I'm heading to Switzerland to meet up with Shira. With no laptop or sidekick blog updates may have to wait. See you on the flip side.

Packed

All packed up. From guide book to SD card adapter, I think I am good to go.

Testing

Test from my travel phone.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Satisfactory

My ITE-115 students rated me as satisfactory. I could take this as some sort of compliment, or that I'm not working them hard enough.

Maybe a little of both?

--Ben

Unix Blog

I just stumbled across this Unix oriented blog. If you want to become a super-efficient computer hacker, you're going to need to learn Unix. And learning it in bite-size blog post entries seems like a good way to go.

Whether it's removing empty directories or figuring out how to make VIM searches case insensitive, there's something here for any aspiring geek.

Sidekick: Hot Swapping The SD Card

When I got the new Sidekick I was psyched to see that it supported micro SD cards. However, I was disappointed that you had to remove the battery cover to get to the card.

To add insult to injury - when you take off the back of the phone, to get to the card, you are greeted by this scary warning.

I always assumed the warning was telling me that I wasn't allowed to pop in or out the SD card.

Yesterday I finally actually read the screen: it's telling me that I can't pop out the battery without shutting down. Just don't pop out the SD card when it's in use.

Oh. So it is totally hot swappable. And it was trying to tell me that all along.

So, the Sidekick redeems itself even more: the SD card slot may be out of the way, but at least it's functional.

--Ben

How I'm Found

Recently Micro Persuasion mentioned that Google Sitemaps now showed you the search terms that were brining up your website. I've played with Google Sitemaps before, but usually on the context of trying to coax Google into indexing my site. I'd never thought to hook it up to my blog.

But, in just a few short steps, I had things setup, and sure enough, Google allows you to instantly see your Top Search Queries. Here's a snapshot of some of mine:

The results are interesting. A few interesting examples...

  • Misspelling helps me a lot: I'm the second link that shows up when people search for attonery or noodels and company.
  • I'm in the 33rd spot when you search for scantily clad, you can draw your own conclusion from that.
  • I come up in the top 10 for: Jewish Ringtones, mp3 hat and perl here documents. I'm not sure what those search phrases are good for, but hey, it's always nice to be in the top 10 of anything.
  • I'm number 55 in for Soduko, which I can live with, considering I don't have anything meaningful on my blog about this topic.

I suggest you take a few minutes and setup Google Sitemaps. If nothing else, you'll learn how poor a speller you are.

Review: America (The Book) A Citizen's Guide To Democracy Inaction

Very rarely is the timing on me listening to a book on tape as good as it was with my most recent completion: Jon Stewart's America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. I was listening to the book during the recent election and I had just finished a a terrific and heavy biography. Finding something both laugh-out-loud funny and relevant to the times, was perfect.

The book on CD really is funny. Jon Stewart narrates, and he has help from the rest of the Daily Show cast, which makes for an entertaining listen. With topics ranging from the history of democracy to how bad it is in the rest of the world, I pretty much laughed my way through the entire book.

Jon even manages to use humor to push some of his political ideas, no surprise there. However, what was surprising, is where he fell out on the spectrum. I was expecting lots of right wing bashing, but in the end, he was more interested in pointing out the general flaws of the whole system. It's not so much Democrats or Republicans who will be disappointed in his book, but people who think that the status quo is working just fine.

It's the people who can look at our democracy and be proud that we only have two parties in the system and such low voter turn out. If you can stand back and see the flaws in the system, you should have no problem laughing along with Jon.

A word of warning: this book has an awful lot of cussing. So, it's not for kids. Besides, kids may have a hard time separating out when he's joking and when he's trying to make an important point.

As comedy books go, it's among the best I've ever read. I give it a 7.8/10 for being a source of many a laugh. It earned extra points for using humor as a way of approaching important issues.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Good Riddance

It's official - the camera I bought from CCI is on its way back to them.

What are the odds that it arrives in one piece and they process my return properly?

--Ben

Debate In The Classroom

I wanted to run a debate on piracy at my next ITE 115 class. But, I wasn't quite sure what the format should be.

Well, PBS to the rescue. They have a nice description of a debate lesson plan that I could use for inspiration: Reporting America at War. For Teachers . Debate: Press Censorship

It's good stuff.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Glimpse Of The Right

One of the things you have love about the internet is how you can get a peek into other's deeply held beliefs, and then be just amazed. Check out what The White Trash Republican reprinted on his blog about the election:

Why We Lost
...
But that same National Party let us down. They let our sons and daughters doing the fighting down, they let everyone who donated time and money down...

And they did it long before we ever geared up for this election.

We have faced a 24/7 propoganda onslaught from the left since the day the attacks on the Trade center.

Bush has TRIED to lead, but the Radical Left and the Dem Washington Elites refused to allow it. The media pushed LIE AFTER LIE, and we couldn't gain traction.

Really? It's the Democrats who have been lying? I had no idea. And apparently it's the Democrats who have been playing the 9/11 propaganda card.

Where do you even begin to start a conversation with a person who holds these kinds of views? What's the common ground?

I guess now I know how a Right Winger must feel when they hear Michael Moore talking.

A New Shopping Low: CCI Camera City

While my latest camera buying experience had some highs and lows, I have yet to blog about the biggest low. So here it is, my attempt to buy the camera from CCI Camera City.

To find the best price on the Canon SD 630 I simply went to Froogle and searched. I came across this deal:

Wow, I thought, $209 - that's a sweet price! So I bought it.

The next day, we got a call from CCI, I had to call back and verify the order. I took this as a good sign: they weren't some fly by the night operation simply out to take my cash, they were as worried about fraud as I was. How wrong I was.

So I called back the number they gave me, and was connected with Larry. Larry, is a salesman. A salesman's salesman. A sell ice to Eskimos kind of salesman.

He first wanted to know if I wanted to buy a case with the camera - they had one on special for $30.00. It was usually like $60.00. I explained to him a bit of what I was looking for in the case, and he explained to me that this was exactly it. And besides, I could return the case without any problems within 21 days. What did I have to lose?

Fine, I said, I'll take the case. First mistake.

Then, he explained to me that my $209.00 hadn't actually bought me the whole setup - just the camera body. The battery, manuals, etc. were $80.00 extra.

I was shocked an amazed. What a dirty trick. But still, Larry seemed nice. And he reassured me that I could return the whole setup if I wasn't happy. I had nothing to lose.

Fine, I said, I'll take the camera. Second, bigger, mistake.

The whole deal was done, and Larry explained to me that the order would be shipped first thing in the morning. He was quite convinced I was going to be happy.

I SMS'ed Shira later that night (she was off on business travel) about the situation. She wrote back immediately: "you idiot, why did you buy the camera?" Because "Larry told me to" just didn't seem like a good reason. So I kept quiet.

The next day I called Larry back and told him I wanted to cancel the order. He explained it had shipped, but not to worry, I could easily return the camera.

Sure enough, the camera came. And for one brief moment, I thought: "Ya know, this is going to work out great. The camera will be perfect. The case will be a great deal. And this will teach Shira about not trusting others."

Oy, how wrong I was. We opened up the package and I was greated with this $60.00 case:

Sure enough, I had been duped. I then checked the receipt. There weren't line items for the camera, battery and case. It was simply all lumped together for $359.00. Way more than I expected to pay for this little device.

I was annoyed, and disappointed - Larry had betrayed me. But I figured, no problem, I'll get my refund, and I'll be on my way.

I called Larry back this morning, and he explained to me that he was sales and I needed customer service. He then passed me onto the customer service department.

I was immediately connected with a nice supervisor type. I explained to him what had happened.

His first move out of the gate was a good one - he told me to keep the case, and that he would be sending me the right one. And that he would toss in a 64MB memory card. I thanked him, but explained I had since bought a new camera.

Then things kinda turned ugly. We had some words as I explained to him how disappointed I was, and how I had found a much better deal locally. In the end, he said he would give me a refund. Oh, and there would be a 5% restocking fee.

A WHAT?!?!

I pretty much lost it at this point. He explained it was company policy and well documented on the invoice, there was a 5% restocking fee - too bad. I explained to him the promise Larry had made and things kinda got ugly from there.

In the end, he did wave the restocking fee.

At the time, I was ready to sit down and write a scathing review of their company. I was ready to charge them with every abuse under the sun. But, after a few hours of calming down, I've decided that really, they are only guilty of a few wrongs:

  • Using the dirty trick of advertising the price of a camera, when you can't actually buy the camera for that price.
  • Not having sales connected with customer service. At the first hint of my disappointment, Larry should have had me talking to a customer service rep. They probably could have kept me from going out and buying a camera elsewhere.
  • Lying to me to get my business. One part of this transaction that really annoyed me was this ridiculous case. Why? Because they flat out lied to get me to buy it. I described what I wanted, and either Larry didn't know, or simply ignored me. True, we are talking about a rather minor accessory. But in the end, if they'll lie to you about that, what else will they lie to you about?
  • Not being clear about the return policy. I asked about the return policy multiple times, and was never told about the restocking fee. At the least, that's a lie of omission. Which, of course, is still a lie.

On the other hand, the camera was delivered quickly and was in great shape.

So sure, buy from them. But I think I've finally learned my lesson. I'll pass, thank you very much.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Adventures In Bargain Hunting

The Setup

Today I went shopping with a friend for a laptop (for her, not me). Along the way, I decided I would comparison shop for the best price on a new digital camera I wanted to buy. I had already done my homework, so it was just a matter of finding the right place to buy.

It turns out that all the stores I looked at had the same price for the camera: $299. This was good news to me - it meant that to get a good deal, I just needed to find one person who would want me to buy in their store badly enough as to give me a discount. Not a huge discount, just one large enough to keep me from walking out.

Here's the experience I had at each store.

Best Buy #1

Yes, I know I already complained about them once. But I was back at the store again, and thought I'd try to have them impress me again. I explained to Mike K. that he and Target had the same price on the camera. And that I would buy it from him if he could just give me the right price. His response: we price match, but don't price beat. Sorry. He suggested I go to Target, and then come back to him with a lower price.

When I asked Mike K. why I should buy at Best Buy and not target, he informed me that "the ambiance here is better." Good point. But not quite good enough.

Target

I explained to the lady at the counter my predicament: I wanted to buy the camera from someone who would beat the price of their competitor. At first she was kinda snippy, and explained that they just don't do that. Not even against Walmart!. We simply agreed that it wasn't that important for me to buy the camera there, and if I didn't, someone else would.

In the end, she suggested I talk to her manager. He was sorry, but there was nothing he could do. He simply couldn't price match.

Cost Co.

OK, now we are really getting away from standard places to buy electronics. But I figured, what the heck. If Cost Co. had a good deal (on both the laptop we were searching for, and/or the camera) I'd be all set.

Turns out, Cost Co. did have the camera - they had for an incredibly low price of $254.00. The catch: they were out of them. The guy I spoke to was really nice, but didn't have any documentation at all saying that was the price. I was just supposed to trust him that in a few days the camera's would be back in stock at that price.

At that point, I used my Sidekick to visit Costco.com and did a search on it for "Canon SD630." Turns out, the guy I spoke to was telling the truth: the price was $254.00.

Best Buy #2

Turns out, there was a Best Buy right next to Cost Co., so we checked that one out. I spoke to a very nice sales representative, who explained to me that she recommended that I buy the camera from Cost Co. After all, their prices can't be beat.

How clever of her, to use reverse psychology on me (You want me to buy a Cost Co.? Never! I'll take two models at your price instead.). Unfortunately for her, I'm just not that clever and left the store.

Staples

On our way from Best Buy #1 to Target, we passed a Staples. I know Staples has some electronics, so I thought I'd go in. Not so much to buy, but to get more data points. I was right not to think that I would buy it there: the camera had a price tag of $329.00. Worse than both Target and Best Buy.

By now I had my routine down pat: I asked if they would beat $254.00 (the new price to beat after Cost Co.), the sales rep would laugh at me. I'd go on my way, thinking that I'm trying just a bit to hard to save a few dollars.

But this last time, something remarkable happened: I explained my situation to the sales rep and he said that they do indeed price beat competitors, and that they considered Cost Co. a competitor. All I needed to do was show him that Cost Co. had the item.

All I could do was to show him my sidekick screen with the price and info on. I literally showed him the following screen:

And do you want he said? "No problem. We'll be glad to beat that price."

I was nearly speechless. I was just happy to find someone who cared enough about their own business to fight for me to shop there. Sure enough, they changed the price to $254.00 and then gave me 10% off.

Today, Staples won my business. They may have lost a few pennies on a single camera, but they've earned a glowing blog entry, a customer who will now consider them for an electronics purchase ahead of Best Buy and lots of Good Will.

Way to go Staples. I didn't know you had it in you.

Oh, and my friend ended up getting a sweet deal at Staples on a laptop today too - it was priced below what Best Buy had. So they clearly made out just fine.

Here's proof that an actual camera was purchased:

Voting and Technology

Here's a thought provoking piece on e-voting. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm pretty sure trusting the whole voting process to computers is a bad idea.

One word comes to mind: paper-trail.

Give it a read - how do you think we should be voting in the future?

Michael J. Fox - Victim of the Democrats

Here's Colbert's take on the Michael J. Fox debacle. It's priceless...

Michael J. Fox is a victim of the Democratic party and the Stemcellocracy that is cynically exploiting his disease, to try to find a cure...for his disease.

It's cute stuff, and can only be pulled off by Colbert. See the whole thing below.

Mobile Browser Start Page

Looking for a good place to point your cell phone's mobile browser? Check out Bitty Browser Mini Home. Just visit:

  http://m.bitty.com

on your cell phone, and you'll have easy access to everything from Bloglines and Amazon, to Box.net and Magnatune.

Via Micro Persuasion

Hilarious Video: Will It Blend?

Tonight at dinner Justin described this video. Excellent find Justin, this is just hilarious...

Friday, November 10, 2006

Patent Idea: Anti-Escape Key Device

This hack kept me from pressing the escape key on my keyboard. Why is this a problem?

In Windows Remote Assistance, pressing escape shuts down the connection. This is really painful, as it totally breaks your flow.

My brain, unfortunately is hard wired to hit escape at various times (end of a Firefox search, closing a dialog box, etc.), which means I'm constantly losing connection.

But not any more!

--Ben

Thursday, November 09, 2006

For the record

And for the record, the first thing I "fixed" about my temporary desktop was the background photo.

--Ben

Going Laptopless

My laptop has started acting up - and with only a week or so left on the warrantee, we decided to have it repaired.

That means no work laptop for some period of time. Oy.

So, I have this fancy new desktop temporarily. I have to admit, I like the 1600x1200 screen real estate. And they keyboard is 100 times nicer.

But, it doest support me camping out at other people's desks, or being able to bring stuff up on the projector during a meeting. So, this is definitely temporary.

I guess I'll VNC from home (great tip Kathy, thanks for the reminder!). The alternative would be a few days without evening access. But please, who are we kidding? I couldn't do that.

So far, the setup has been painless. Just drag and drop c:/cygwin and life is good.

--Ben

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lock Picking Guide

Right after I learn morse code, I'd like to learn how to pick locks.

And when I get around to it, this is the first guide I plan to check out.

So many skills to master, so little time.

Nope On A Rope

Here's someone else who had the Nope On A Rope idea: Go anywhere jotter

Of course, I was doing it back in high school ('94), long before it was considered cool to have a notebook hanging around your neck.

Quick, someone who knew me in high school add a comment to this post to tell people I'm not making this up. One does not joke about wearing office supplies as fashion accessories, it's just not right.

Logo - Still The One

Tonight I wanted to introduce the topic of programming to my students. Rather than talk about it, I wanted them to do it! But, that brought up the question: what's the best way for a total newbie to learn to program?

To make the task trickier, I wanted a method that would get my students to the point where they could write small programs on their own for next week's homework. That means they needed to learn the syntax and semantics of a language, not to mention be introduced to problem solving skills, all in about 3 hours.

My choice: Logo!

Why did I choose to dust off this classic educational language? Surely, there must have been a better option than this crusty old language?

I don't think so, and here's why:

  1. Logo has the absolutely simplest syntax possible. This means students start playing with the language in minutes, and don't get hung up on ()'s .'s and ;'s

  2. The turtle metaphor provides for instant feedback, and avoids you needing to run through mathematical examples which often scare off students.
  3. There are free versions of Logo available, and they trivial to install and run. I even turned one of them into a basic zip file so that my students wouldn't need install privileges to use the software.
  4. Despite its simplicity, you can teach some of the most important concepts of programming, including: building of abstractions, debugging techniques, recursion, modularity, and iterative design and development all using turtle graphics.
  5. Logo has its roots in Lisp, and is actually a powerful language when you begin to explore it. As this textbook demonstrates, there's plenty more to Logo than pushing a turtle around the screen. The free version, MSWLogo, provides support for 3D and sound generation, and other versions allow for you to model complex phenomena such as traffic or termites.

Using some good examples I was able to whip up a Logo Cheat Sheet for my students. This, plus a bit of lecture time and I got to witness them playing the role of developers tonight. What a beautiful sight.

Logo - it may not be sexy, but it's dang effective.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Just Arlington: Search for local information in Arlington, VA

Looking for something specific in Arlington, VA? Use the Google Co-op site below to find what you are looking for:

Just Arlington - a custom search engine to find everything about Arlington, VA
Examples:
  library hours
  concerts
  leaf pickup
  start a business

Learn more about this custom search engine here.

Fixing Google With Google

This morning, after voting it occurred to me that I really would have liked to know more about the issues at hand. I didn't have much luck finding good information about really local data - such as the bond issues, or the school board candidates.

I started to ponder how everyone else got prepared for the election. And then it hit me - I don't read the local newspaper, listen to much local radio, and I almost never watch the nightly news. All the places that this kind of information would be discussed, I simply don't consume.

Then I had my second big realization - the reason I was having so much trouble finding relevant info was that I was using Google. Finding local Arlington information felt like finding a needle in a haystack.

And then it hit me: Google just announced Google Co-op, maybe that was the answer. Google Co-op is a facility by which you define your own search engine. Naturally, it's built on top of Google. Essentially, you tell Google what sites you want to put in your custom search engine, and it will either limit itself to those sites, or simply place a higher emphasis on them.

When I first heard about Co-op (and the granddaddy of this type of site, RollyO) I just couldn't, for the life of me figure out a good use for it. Well, today I have.

In just a few minutes, I setup my own search engine: Just Arlington, which searches just sites relevant to Arlington, VA. It has the county's government site, a bunch of radio stations, a TV station and a the local newspaper. It even searches my local synagogue's website.

Now, when I search for Bonds 2006, the first hit that comes up is that for 2006 Bond Referenda Questions in Arlington.

I have to say, Google did a terrific job with Co-op. It takes just minutes to setup a useful site, and is ready to use instantly.

I'm especially impressed that the solution to my problem of Google being too generic a search provider, was solved by another Google service. Nice move G.

Doing My Civic Duty

This morning I voted, and of course blogged my thoughts at the moment. However, Blogger's posting over e-mail seems to be broken - so I'll have to more or less repeat them here. That's probably a good thing, as I'm pretty sure my thought's weren't that relevant to begin with.

Voting was pretty much uneventful. The line wasn't too long. It was actually a bit surreal, standing there with all these people from my neighborhood, knowing essentially nobody there. All there, just silently waiting our turn to make are tiny mark on this election.

When I got to the front of the line, one of the poll workers was discussing with another worker how the first voting machine had just locked up. Ahh, the joys of bringing computers to the world voting. The suggestion by the head man in charge? I kid you not - reboot.

I'd offer to install Linux on the device, but I'm pretty sure they were too busy to hear it.

Well, there you have it - please excuse me if you see three more posts like this one flood in. It's just Blogger finally catching up with me.

I Think I Could Vote For This Guy

Doing a bit of last minute research on today's election, I came across this clip of Webb. I really like how he took the high road on the questions, and how he stayed collected the whole time. Everytime Blizter offered him the bait, he didn't bite.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Hike Down Memory Lane

So, here I am talking about how a trip to the camping store is bringing back all sorts of fun memories, and I stumble across a reference to this article on boingboing.

The article is a story about Philmont Scout Ranch, and also covers some interesting Scouting history.

Now that brings back memories!

Anyone remember the tooth of time?

Now, if I could just find the pemmican bars they used to feed us with locally, I'd be all set.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Best Buy Tips: Free Marketing Advice

I just got done blogging about how poorly Best Buy treats its customers when it comes to digital cameras.

If I were in their shoes, I'd do the following:

  • Make sure every camera has a memory card in it. The amount of time it takes to snap a picture, write it to the memory card, and snap another one, is a critical measurement. You don't want your customers buying a digital camera without seeing this. In fact, your sales people could probably use this fact to get people to buy a pricier camera (naturally, only selling them what they need).
  • The camera sales people should use the shoe store model when they noticing that someone is browsing a specific camera. That is, offer to get them a model they can try on and play with. One with literally no strings attached. The battery on the floor model should be all charged up and it should be ready to go. Customers should be encouraged to shoot photos throughout the store. Perhaps posters should be hung, or a macro scene created, all with the hopes of demonstrating the capabilities of the cameras.
  • A 24 hour test drive program should be setup. If you are interested in a camera, the sales person should suggest that you take one home for 24 or 48 hours. Naturally, the customer would leave a credit card # behind. The idea would be to go home and use the camera in a real setting - take some snapshots of the memorials, try shooting pictures of your family in dim light.
  • Provide a service where you print out a free 4x6" or 5x7" snapshot to demonstrate how prints would turn out. Sure, you'll lose some money on paper and ink, but how many cameras would you sell if you could offer that kind of service? Again, showing the quality of prints could serve as justification for buying a more expensive camera.
  • Continue to hire and train employees so they can talk intelligently about cameras and digital photography.

The good news for Best Buy is that their cruddy service is currently par for the course. If they could just think differently, they could capture a market and blow away the competition.

It's a Matter Of Trust

Experience 1: Best Buy

Last night I wandered into Best Buy to look into buying a new digital camera. I'm specifically looking for one that's really tiny so that I can use it instead of my picture phone. They had a nice selection and the prices seemed reasonable. A salesman immediately came up to me to ask me if I had questions. When I did, he pointed me to various options. So far, so good.

Then I made a crazy request: rather than handling the digital cameras with a huge security device attached to them, could I please handle the camera alone? My next request, which I didn't even ask, was if they had a memory card they could drop in the camera so that I could actually see how well it took pictures.

The salesman explained to me that he was sorry, but they aren't allowed to disconnect the cameras from the security mechanisms. It's the rules.

At the time, I didn't think much of it - just a big retailer having rules.

Experience 2: REI

Shira and I went shopping for a backpack last night. As we were checking out, I asked what the return policy was, just in case the backpack didn't work out. The clerk looked at me and explained, "we don't have a return policy." What?! I thought, how can they do that? Then I read the big sign behind here -- they have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. In other words, they don't need a return policy. If you don't like what you brought, bring it back. They'll fix it. It's that simple.

So What?

I didn't tie these two experiences together till this morning. The fact is, they both boil down to one thing: trust. Best Buy simply doesn't trust me. If they let me hold the camera, I'm going to find a way to steal it. Too bad that one of the reasons that I'm buying the camera is for it's weight and size. I'll just have to eyeball it. Not to mention, I'm expected to make a $300 - $400 buying decision of a digital camera, without ever taking a photo and recording to a memory card for playback. That would be like buying a car without taking a test drive first.

And REI takes the exact opposite approach: they are all about trust. I have no doubt that if I were to go backpacking through Europe, and return the backpack in shambles saying I was not satisfied, they would take it back.

What REI gets, and Best Buy doesn't, is that money saved through not trusting your customers isn't nearly as valuable as the good will gained by trusting them.

Talk about short sighted.

Kid in a Candy Store

Today we went to REI to get a backpack for Shira and her travels. Gosh I love outdoor stores. All the cool gear, books, clothing and everything else.

I may be afraid of heights, but I can still oggle the climbing gear as though next week I'll climbing some peak. And I doubt I need Gortex extreme cold weather gear, but I figure I should check it out none the less.

Maybe it's all the fun I had as a scout in the outdoors that triggers this reaction? Or maybe it's all the bright colors.

Who knows? Who cares. It's just fun stuff.

--Ben

Friday, November 03, 2006

Review: Finding Fish

Antwone Fisher's biography, Finding Fish, is a truly remarkable story.

On one level, his story is one about how cruel people can be. His8 tale of physical, mental and sexual abuse is beyond shocking. It's a story about how wrong the system can go, to the point where he spends years in an abusive home, with not one social worker fighting for his removal. It's a story about how people can truly slip through the cracks, ending up on the street, homeless and without anything.

On the other hand, this is a story of how the system works. It's about the teachers that make a difference in his life. And about the social workers who genuinely care for him and teach him valuable lessons. And it's a story about how the Navy provided him with a family and positive environment in which to grow.

But most of all, this is a story of how sheer determination can overcome adversity. In the end, Antwone bootstrapped himself, going from a lost soul to a success.

This is a story we all need to hear. Both so that we will be there to improve the system, and help those in it, and so that we realize we too can reach our own potential.

I should mention that the narrator of this book did a terrific job. When done right, hearing a professional story teller relate a tale is a big treat. And in this case, the narrator served to enhance the quality of the story.

I give this book a 10/10. Listen to it.

--Ben

Jews and Hair Loss

And now for something on the lighter side...

Thanks to Ian for sending the link on to me.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Windows XP Find: Remote Assistance

Today I spent a bunch of time using Windows XP Remote Assistance. This is more or less the same concept as the VNC hack I previously blogged about. With Remote Assistance you get a view into, and control of, someone else's desktop. Great for tech support, debugging remote issues and for doing distance-based-pair-programming. And the best part? It's built in and easy to use.

Why didn't anyone tell me that Windows XP came with something this useful?!

To get started, just click on the Remote Assistance item on the Start Menu:

This will walk you through the process of sending an invite to someone to have them help you. The resulting e-mail contains a small binary of some kind that people click on to start a remote session.

No more asking people to painful describe every detail about the contents of their screen to me, just to realize they are running Explorer, not Internet Explorer.

Thanks Alex and Heather for teaching me about this one.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Stock Comics

The other day I was working on a presentation, and decided that it needed a comic in it to lighten it up a bit. I did a bit of Googling, and came across Randy Glasbergen's site. It's a huge collection of comics, with plenty related to business and computer topics.

Want to make fun the of tech support? Or sales? Or stress? Randy has something for everyone.

I mailed Randy asking if I could post a comic on my blog and he quickly responded that would be fine. My guess is that if you wanted to use some of his cartoons, he'd find a nice and fair way to do so.

It's hard to make a topic like Release Five: Moving from a Java centric data architecture to a scalable RDBMs powered infrastructure seem interesting. But at least I can make people giggle when I want them to.

And now a sample of Randy's work - with all the motivational books on tape I've listend to, I just found this one hilarious:


TODAYS CARTOON by Randy Glasbergen
From "Today’s Cartoon by Randy Glasbergen", posted with special permission. For many more cartoons, please visit Randy's site @ www.glasbergen.com

News with a twist: Newsmericks

These days there are all sorts of fancy schmancy ways to consume news. I just recently found a new and clever way - in lymrick form:

The news made the CSD* fan choke; He spluttered and asked, "Is it a joke?" Said the creator with pride- "If ice cream can be fried, Then why the hell can't we fry Coke?"
Yahoo news 27/10/06: A new fast food is making its debut at U.S. fairs this fall -- fried Coke. Read about it here
Really creative stuff. Aparna, keep up the excellent work!

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