Friday, July 30, 2010

WebThumb: An Ideal Developer's Tool For Web Snapshots

Being able to take an on the fly screenshot of an arbitrary URL is a wonderfully slick feature to include in a web app. And while it's possible to rig up your own solution using Xvfb, using a third party solution is much less painful. Today I got to play with webthumb.bluga.net and pretty much fell in love.

It's about as developer friendly as you could ask:

  • Various pre-built API libraries to integrate with
  • A clean REST API that allowed me to rig up a quick and dirty curl+simplexml solution in no time
  • Lots of flexibility in terms of the sizes and formats of images generated
  • The option of including some special effects when generating the thumbnails, so they have a bit more umph.
  • Both polling and notification models for picking up images, allowing me to choose the approach that best fit my app (I went with the notification model)
  • A demonstration on their home page that lets you try out the service on any URL
  • A software developer behind it all who quickly and thoroughly answered questions about the service my client had

So yeah, I'm happy I found and am working with them.

Blogger for hosting a non-blog oriented site

Today, while checking on when the library opens near me, I noticed that they did some sort of site redesign and I was liking it.

Then I looked at the address bar - it's a blogspot.com URL. I have to say, I am really impressed - someone managed to create a Blogger site that definitely didn't strike me as a blog.

At first, I thought it might be the new Blogger Pages that made this layout possible. Though, I don't quite think that's it. Pages allow for secondary content, but still assume your home page will made up of blog posts.

Instead, I think they may have gone the route of outlined here to create a custom front page. It's a clever solution and one worth knowing about.

I'd definitely suggest reviewing the librarry site - it's an excellent example of how you can put up a solid internet presence with almost zero infrastructure or costs.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Gotcha of the Day: Creating PayPal Sandbox Accounts

The PayPal developer sandbox is a great idea that I always find a bit mind numbing to work with. You've got a developer account, and within that account, sandbox users and multiple browser windows open to manage it all. Still, it's a necessary part of working with PayPal.

I was following the Sandbox: Getting Started Guide when I ran into trouble creating sandbox users using the pre-configured options. I'd fill in all the necessary details, click submit, and get back the vague error: Account Creation Failed !!!.

The message had to be serious, as it had not one, not two, but three exclamation points after it.

But why did account creation failed?

The obvious thought was that the e-mail field had a single word in it, in this case seller instead of a real e-mail address which the docs appear to call for. But, the e-mail field is limited to 6 characters, so try as I may, I wasn't able to put a real e-mail in there.

Finally, after much poking around I realized the source of my problem: you can't use the word password as a password. I found this out while attempting to manually create a user. I changed the password to something a tad bit more advanced, and poof, the account was created.

Sure, I shouldn't have been using password as a password (even if this is a sandbox, and the user was temporary). But, perhaps they could exchange one of the exclamation marks above for the actual underlying error?

Public Service Announcement: Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning

I think Exploriment has the right idea highlighting this post on recognizing a drowning person:

The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two cause of accidental death in children, age 15 and under...

Seriously, go read the article.

While we're on the topic of recognizing dangerous situations, it's worth remembering how to recognize a stroke.

Just Hanging Around

Tonight's house hold project was to hang a plant a friend gifted to us (thanks Jenna!) in our kitchen. While this was a simple project even by my standards, I'm amazed at how smoothly it went.

Anytime I have to put hole a hole in a wall or ceiling, or heck, need to stand on a ladder with a sharp implement, is a chance to do some damage. And tonight, everything worked just like it should have.

Of course, Ayers Hardware had all the supplies I'd needed, including chain to hang the plant that I could tease apart using pliers and not a bolt cutter.

One final thought - drywall is truly amazing stuff. You look around a room and see walls. And those walls look solid. But of course, they're really thin and easily manipulated. It's illusion worth overcoming and projects like this one really help do that.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Caption Me, Multi-Photo Edition

Here are a few snapshots I've taken over the last couple days...go ahead, caption me!

For the one by candle light, I'd caption it: The power was out, but hope was not lost - we had fluff!.

Entertaining, Clever and Sadly, True

I love this clever short - it's really well done. The music is wonderful, and the story quite clever. Alas, the message, while sad, is probably true.

Thoughts?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Earn the respect, save the money

I wonder what would happen if I updated my e-mail signature to include:

Sent from my iPad

Would people think, Man, Ben is one cutting edge guy?

What do you think?

Power Outage Hack - A Religious Experience

Yesterday, at around 4pm a nasty thunderstorm was on the horizon. As we waited for it to roll in, our power mysteriously went out. We went ahead and called up the power company, and was told that it would be back on by 8pm. 8pm? The storm hadn't even started yet -- what the heck?

The storm came and went in about 30 minutes. No power. 8:00pm came and went. No power. At around 2:30am, we got power back.

Luckily, we had a handful of storm lights all charged up throughout the house, so losing power didn't exactly leave us in the dark.

While the flash lights are great, they don't have the best battery life and don't exactly light up a room. So, we decided to light some candles. First we tried lighting a few Shabbat Candles, and that worked fine - though they don't have the longest staying power. Then it hit me - I had a couple of extra Yahrzeit Candles lying around. So, we lit them up. They worked great. They are ideal because:

  • They burn for hours (their designed to go for 24)
  • They are self contained, so you don't have to worry about finding a stable candle holder or about leaking wax
  • They are intended to burn all night un-attended
  • They are cheap - you can get them online for about $1.00 each, or we usually get them at the store for like $0.89.

Next time you're at the super market, find the Jewish section (it'll have Matzah, and various forms of powered soup - don't ask me why these are considered essential, all year round items). Somewhere around there should be a nice big candle in a glass. Buy a few and be prepared.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: The Art of Travel

The audio version of The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and I did not get off to a good start. I went into the book having no expectations, and found myself instantly confused.

There were chapters, sections and subsections. There was a modern day story intertwined with that of a historic figure from the 1800's. To make matters worse, the book opens with a depressing discussion about how the act of travel is often a disappointment compared to the anticipation and memory stages of travel.

What the heck. I was disoriented and wondering where this was all going.

Thankfully, I stuck with it. After about 4 stories it finally hit me what was actually going on. de Botton was picking a general aspect of travel (Beauty - Art - Discovery - Nature), a historic figure and a trip he had taken, and then connecting all three of these things. It's actually quite brilliant.

With the model understood, I could sit back and enjoy. I ended up learning not only about interesting historic figures, but about how the author could use their example to find more meaning in his own travel adventures.

More importantly, he's inspired me to try to do the same and given me some tools to do so.

For a book that stared off as a disaster, it sure turned out to be a winner.

Phoneix Bikes - A Bike Shop on a Mission

Tonight, a friend of mine introduced me to Phoneix Bikes, a bike shop she volunteers at. When she explained to me how the setup works, I couldn't believe that I could be so oblivious to such a cool program located in Arlington, just down the street from me.

Phoenix Bikes is a non-profit that trains local youngsters to be bike mechanics. They then turn around and offer discount services to the Arlington biking community.

It's such an obvious win-win -- the students, among other benefits, get to learn new skills and the community gets a bike store they can feel good about.

Here, watch CNN's coverage of the program for a more complete explanation:

I just can't get over what a powerful force for good this program is.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Twitter as Lightweight Public Database

I was checking out the home page for a new radio station that I've been enjoying, and a note at the bottom of the page caught my eye:

Looking for tracks we played further in the past? Our extended playlist history is available on Twitter.

And sure enough, Twitter shows a record of what they've played:

It occurs to me, that normally this functionality would have been custom built into the site. A programmer would have whipped up a couple of pages that would allow you to browse and search previously played songs. However, by storing this data on Twitter they've realized a number of advantages:

  1. The browsing and searching is automatically taken care of for you
  2. Concerns about storing an infinite stream of data become someone else's problem, versus your company's DBA
  3. Users can subscribe to the stream via RSS, SMS updates or using a custom reader application. All this was done without writing any code.
  4. Twitter lends itself well to sharing (retweeting) the content
  5. The data now lives where users are more likely to look for it. This is the same principle behind selling a book on Amazon, or storing a video on YouTube. Sure, there's some pride in providing this functionality on your site, but you're missing out on reaching a huge community of users who are likely to stumble upon your offering.
  6. Programmers who would have been involved in a custom data storage and browsing solution can now be assigned to more critical tasks.

My the team over at Soma.fm is a creative bunch.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Didn't see this one coming: iPad Saves Bookbinder

You've got to love this article in Forbes that talks about how the iPad has given new life to all-but-pronounced dead business of a bookbinder.

The fit, in retrospect is obvious: who wouldn't want to wrap their sexy iPad in an equally sexy hand crafted bookbinded cover?

But still, there was an opportunity there that could have easily been missed.

Makes you wonder how your products, services or craft could be re-purposed for a digital age?

Source: SmartBrief daily e-mail.

Radio Station of the Day: Covers

Joe Cocker signing With a Little Help From My Friends. John Lennon singing Stand By Me. Dixie Chicks signing Landslide. Artists you know, singing someone else's music - that's what's playing over at Covers by Soma.fm. And it's totally delightful.

It's almost as if the artist has to work a little harder to make sure they're honoring the song their essentially signing a tribute to.

It's also been a fun way to appreciate artists or songs I don't usually listen to. For example, I can't typically stand the Cranberries -- but their cover of Go Your Own Way totally works.

Give the station a a listen, you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Coderless Apps, the Android Version

Lambda-the-ultimate has highlighting App Inventor, a tool for developing Android apps. The claims are impressive to say the least:

You can build just about any app you can imagine with App Inventor. ...

To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app's behavior.

This is the classic you-can-write-software-without-programming model which comes up every few years, if not more often.

I'm still not buying it.

Programming is a lot like writing in that there are two pretty distinct stages. First, you need to understand basic syntax so you can be understood. In the case of programming, you need to learn where to put all those curly braces or parenthesis, so the computer can parse your code. In the case of writing, you need to learn spelling and punctuation so that people can parse your text.

The second stage involves learning to write or code well. That is, how do you solve a problem, or write a story, in an efficient and elegant manner.

The first stage may seem tricky, but it's really the second stage that one spends years mastering.

To write software, like writing a novel or a blog entry, you're going to have to master both of the above stages to some degree.

I'll give you that App Inventor may make learning the first stage easier. Heck, it may cause the first stage to disappear almost entirely. But the second stage - learning how to problem solve in an efficient manner, that's still going to be required.

I could be cynical, and say that App Inventor is going to be a flop, and that to write software requires learning to think in a new way. Just like learning to write or paint requires a new thinking model as well. But, I'd rather be more optimistic.

If have success with App Inventor, it's not because no programming experience is required. Nope, it's because you've actually become a programmer. Congrats.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Arlington Find: The Sprayground

Last Thursday, Shira and I independently learned that a few Arlington county parks contain Spraygrounds. That is, playgrounds with fountains built in, designed for kids to run through them.

Shira and I had the same thought -- man, I should keep this quiet and surprise him/her with this find. Well, on Friday, neither of us could keep the secret any longer. Shira turns to me and says, "did you know that Arlington County..." and I finished "has parks with water fountains kids can run through?"

This weekend was too hot, and the discovery too big, not to give them a shot.

So, this afternoon we made our way to Drew Playground, only a couple miles from our house.

I had expected that on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon, the park would be jammed with kids. But, it turned out, there was only one other family there -- with two boys making the most of the run-through fountains. (Another family or two arrived while we were leaving.)

Our little one took to the whole scene like a fish in water. He's just taking his first few steps on his own, so he was actually able to "walk" around and explore the gushing water by himself a bit. Mix that with me carrying him and doing a bit of crawling, and he really got the whole experience.

And what an experience it was. It was neat watching him try to process all the different ways the water was behaving, and the effects he could have on it. That, and it was wonderfully refreshing.

Put this down as a definite summer find. It's good to see my county tax dollars are going to something truly worthwhile.

Here's what a sprayground looks like:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Doodle.com - The sane way to coordinate events and people

I hand out various honors at my shul, and lately, we've been trying to get better about assigning certain honors before the service starts. For the last couple months, I've been doing this via e-mail. Well, it was time to find a better system, as keeping track of everyone's availability was getting tricky in a hurry.

The fix? Doodle.com. Using Doodle, I was able to make a quick survey asking folks when they planned to be in shul over the next few weeks. They fill in their responses, and then I'm able to coordinate weeks of assignments all at once.

I suppose Doodle is just another example of sending out a survey to users. However, Doodle feels more lightweight, and for asking a single question about availability, it seems to work better than say a Google Form.

If you coordinate meetings, events or people, you've really got to give it a shot.

My first earthquake and I ...

sleep through it! D'oh. According to Arlington Alert:

The US Geological Survey reports an earthquake occurred at 5:04:49am with the epicenter in Gaithersburg. Preliminary reports from USGS said it was 3.6 There has been no reports of damage in Arlington at this time.

Full details here.

Anybody feel it?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

7 Years in the Making, 20 Minutes to Fix

When we moved into our house, years ago, the door to one of the second bedrooms kinda stuck. Over the years, as the house settled, the door just outright stopped closing. The room was typically used for storage, so we never really cared.

Every few years, we'd get the idea to fix it. We'd ask various handy men if they would do the job, and they'd always mention something about taking off the door and sanding it down. We never followed up on the job, cause it just didn't matter.

Well, Shira had enough of it, and told me it was time to fix this sucker. Examining the problem more closely, I realized I didn't need to take the door off the hinges. I just needed to get up there do some sanding.

So, the other day we happened to be near Home Depot and I stopped in. I got a wonderfully helpful clerk, who hooked me up with a $30 finishing sander. I ended up laying down a drop cloth, marking the area to sand with a pencil, and spent 20 minutes or so sanding away.

And voilĂ ! The problem was solved. Now, did I do irreparable damage to the door, and the very structural integrity of the house? Perhaps. But one more item is off my Honey-Do list and I've got a new tool in my repertoire. I'd say this job was a success by any measure.

Oh, and I didn't have any extra parts.

A Dim Memory Comes To Life

If you were to ask me about the oldest movie I could ever recollect seeing, I wouldn't know the name of it, but I would be able to tell you about an action movie where the hero busts out his football moves to take down a room full of bad guys.

Turns out, I didn't make that memory up. In fact, I remembered the scene fairly accurately. It's from Flash Gordon, which came out when I was 4 years old. The scene in question starts 8 minutes into this clip:

It's so eerie to be able to confirm a memory I've had for so many years. Oh YouTube, what would we do without you?

Apparently, you can watch the entire movie in 10 minute blocks. Just start with the first one here.

I rewatched part of it, and my gosh, it's cheesy. But man, that football scene still rocks.

Review: Tales of from the Dad Side

Shira and our Little One gave me the book on CD version of Tales from the Dad Side: Misadventures in Fatherhood, appropriately, as a Father's Day Gift. While I no longer have a work commute, I do get to make morning and afternoon runs to Day Care, so the gift was very much appreciated.

I have to say, I very much enjoyed listening to it. Doocy is a funny man, and he's had more than enough adventures to keep me entertained. Most importantly, you won't want to take the book too seriously, as the author certainly doesn't.

About the only negative thing I can say was that I found Doocy's narration style to be a bit on the goofy side at first. It was almost like he was trying to force the material to be funny, where it wasn't. But, with time, I grew attached to it and now I probably have picked up more mannerisms from him than I'd like to admit.

To Doocy's credit, it wasn't until I was pretty far into the book until I even realized who he was. As he explained, he's the host the most popular cable morning TV show, and also a character who gets skewered on The Daily Show and Colbert nightly. Even when I did learn who he was, I was pleased that his politics never once leaked into the book. Whether your a Fox News devotee, or a Daily Show fan, you'll find this book funny.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Go ahead, try to be a in a bad mood

Seriously, watch this video and tell me you're not smiling by the end?

You're welcome.

Pet Store Hack and Doggie Adventures

This last weekend, while coming up with kid friendly things to do, Uncle Ron offered me a clever parenting tip:

Want to hit the zoo on a rainy day? Just take the kids the pet store in the mall.

What a brilliant idea! I bet our little guy would be overjoyed with a trip to Petsmart and the like.

Speaking of pets and kids, the other day we were taking our little one for a walk when we came across a fenced in yard with a small dog in it. As we approached the yard, the dog approached the fence.

After about 30 seconds of the dog staring at our little one in his stroller, he let out a single loud bark. This caused our little one to visibly jump. Though, he held his ground and didn't cry. Instead, about 10 seconds later, he let loose his own loud stream of gibberish.

And so it went, the dog barking, our little one responding and on and on. It was too cute.

Man, that kid is fearless. Well, except for vacuum cleaners and some blenders, but that's understanable.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Irreverent and Inappropriate or Clever and Powerful?

David sent me this video. I watched it half in horror and half in admiration. I'm still not sure how I feel about it. What do you think?

A Trip To the US National Arboretum

With family in from out of town, we had the usual conundrum of what to do with them? Not only did we want something original and relatively close by, but also an activity that would be good to do in 93° weather.

Shira suggested the US National Arboretum, and because I'm up for eclectic sites, I totally agreed. But, as I was telling her Mom that we wanted to visit the National Arboretum -- even I became a little skeptical. With all the sites to see in DC, we were going to gape at a bunch of trees? Not the zoo. Not a famous art museum. But trees.

I'm so glad we stuck to our guns, the Arboretum was awesome.

We took in the Bonsai exhibit and herb garden and then took a 35 minute tram ride throughout the park. It was not only gorgeous to see, but no matter where we looked, we discovered amazing gems.

The Bonsai exhibit features a tree from the 1600's that was just 2 miles from ground zero when the US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (or was it Nagasaki?). Think about what a remarkable specimen that tree is.

Heck, I just had fun walking through the herb garden finding the plants that we eat all the time - wasabi, lufa (yes, apparently the famous sponges start as a particular plant) and more.

The tram turned out to be a cool (in terms of heat) way to cover lots of ground and get a great overview of the grounds.

I really can't recommend the Arboretum enough. Kids, adults, everyone should have a blast.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Discovering the Secret of Happiness

Turns out, the secret of happiness wasn't hard to learn at all. I just needed to flip to page 102 of Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom. Ready? It's 4 words:

Be satisfied
Be grateful

How hard can that be?

Seriously, I'm making my way through Have a Little Faith, and so far this little book has me totally hooked. I'm not exactly sure where the story is going -- I just know that it's funny, touching and a real page turner. Oh, and it's true - and I love true stories.

Artist of the Day: Chicane

A commenter on Chicane's Saltwater music video captured my feelings perfectly:

first 23 seconds i thought to myself why am i watching this? then at 30 second mark i added song to favorites

And so I became a fan of Chicane (not to be confused with the word chicane which is definitely worth learning).

As if Saltwater didn't have me convinced, the next track I listened to Poppiholla really sold me. This video is definitely worth a watch, as the story that plays out beautifully told.

Here, see what I mean:

And here's a whole lot more to listen to.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Second Best Use For A Beer Can

Assuming the first is drinking the actual beer, here may be the second best.

After our last little outdoor adventure, David had suggested a lightweight mug might be a good addition to the standard gear. Usually, I just bring a single bowl, and use it for everything. But he's right - drinking tea and eating oatmeal at the same time would actually be handy. While researching the topic I came across this thread:

I am looking for a lightweight mug that can boil about 2 cups of water.

...
I've been using a Heinekin Beer can. It weighs 1 oz and cost $2.50. Plus, you get to drink the beer before you leave for your trip.

And here are the instructions for making just such a mug.

I may have to pickup a six pack and make me some mugs. 1oz and $2.50 is hard to beat, especially when compared to the 4oz, $40.00 Titianium Mug.

Some Backpacking Gear Notes

Here are gear notes I scribbled down after our little backpacking adventure. Maybe you'll find them useful? Maybe I'll remember to refer back to them before my next trip?

  • Love, love, love the Neo Air mattress. It seems to manage to maximize both weight & size, as well as comfort.
  • My first night in my Mountain Hardwear Ultralamina sleeping bag was a good one. I spent the night under the stars, and was the perfect temperature the whole night.
  • I found the Adventure Medical Kits Heatsheets to be a nice upgrade from the usual Mylar emergency blanket. As promised, it folded down nicer than the standard model, was quieter to use, was an ideal groundcloth and served as a nice play area for our 10 month old.
  • I'm warming up to the Platypus 3 Liter Big Zip water bottle. I like the 3 liter capacity for camp, and the ability to fill it with less while hiking. I'm still used to traditional water bottles though. The large filling area (with a zipper) does work wonderfully well.
  • The Helios Sun Hat by Outdoor Research is a definite winner. If found it both comfortable and effective. And I do believe it doesn't look goofy in the least bit.
  • Holy Smokes! The Swedish Firesteel actually works! True, we had very dry wood, excellent tinder and kindling and some dryer lint to help out. But still, we lit a fire without matches or a lighter. Go us!
  • Note to self: Add cough drops and lots of ibuprofen to the first aid gear carried.
  • The large mesh stuff sack that came with my sleeping bag worked great as a bear bag. It was lightweight and durable
  • The LifeGear glow stick works great for in-tent lighting, but it's just not bright enough for use around a dark campsite. It's time to get Shira a nice and powerful headlamp.
  • My Ultralight Backpack by Hammock Bliss is a definite winner. It's small, but quite comfortable and has a nice number of pockets. And thanks to compact gear, I was able to use it to carry my sleeping bag, pad, extra clothes, a ziplock bag full of odds and ends (compass, lighter, etc.) and the 3L Platypus Big Zip. It's my new goto hiking bag.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Review: The Game by Neil Strauss

I was lucky to have read Emergency by Neil Strauss before reading The Game - Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. I knew, from that book, the Strauss' goal is rarely what is suggested on the cover.

In this case, while the book is about Pickup Artists and picking up women it really isn't a how-to text. I thought it may have been a sort of inspirational story about mastering your fears. In this case, Strauss goes from a shy dateless guy to a magician with the ladies. I was thinking his message was simple: if you face up to your limitations, you can grow - Look at me, I did it!.

But by half way through the book, I realized that's not the goal of the book either. (Though, there is some of that in the story and it's still a point worth taking.)

I'd rather not give away the story - like I tried not to do with emergency. But, I will say, that at the end of the day, the book is about life balance. It plays out the classic scenario of the man who gets exactly what he wishes for, and then sees it not what he imagined.

I really do like how Strauss can do such a good job of feeding you a story, and them poof, before you know it he's given you enough data to make a deep point.

The book is filled with lurid details - so it's not something you'll want to give you to your kid or teenager. But, I do recommend it. Heck, you may actually sharpen your social skills somewhere along the way.

A Little Backpacking With A Little Boy

You're never too young to learn the joy of the wilderness! That's at least what we thought as we headed out a few days ago for a little overnight backpacking trip. The unusual part: along with all our gear, we'd be toting along our 10 month old little boy. A little crazy? Perhaps, but lots of fun!

We started the trip with a 6 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail. The AT is an ideal trail because it's so well marked and has far more amenities (shelters, springs, marked water sources, plenty of hikers) than a typical trail. We also picked a section without too much in the way of elevation changes or other hazards.

The plan was to have Shira carry her gear and the boy's, David would carry his gear and the community stuff (tent, stove, etc.) and I'd carry my own gear and the kid himself. While we have a Kelty kid carrying backpack, we decided to use the Moby Wrap for transport instead. The Moby is lighter than the Kelty pack we have, and with the kid mounted on the front, it seemed to be a more stable option for the potentially rocky trail. Add to that the fact that we'd probably need to bring the Moby to help put the boy to sleep, and that the Moby is just fabric so it has multiple uses, and it was a winner. The main concern about the Moby was heat. We happened to pick days when the weather wasn't so terrible, so heat didn't turn out to be all that big a problem.

Our little guy spent most of his time either sleeping on the trail, or chattering away. What a sight we must have been, 3 backpackers wandering through the woods singing nursery rhymes. We came across a Thru-Hiker (that is, someone walking all 2000 miles of the AT) and he was astonished to see us. Giving a unique sight to someone who's walked 1000 miles of trail is a feat in itself.

After our 6 mile hike in, we made camp at Tumbling Run Shelter. We chose a campsite next to the little creek, which made for one of the most picturesque campsites I've ever spent a night at. While we busied ourselves making camp, our little one explored the forest and picnic table. I don't believe he ate all that much dirt, but any dirt he did eat I'm sure was the healthy kind. He also got to oggle a toad, lots of daddy long legs and various other bugs. Thankfully, the mosquitoes seemed to leave us all alone.

With camp made, we decided we'd trek up to Chimney Rocks to see another 1.2 miles of the AT. It was all up hill, and David carried the little guy this time -- which makes him the Best Sherpa Ever.

Once back at camp, we all dipped our feet in the creek, which was quite cold but also just what we needed.

David and I naturally built a fire. We started it, and yes I'm bragging here, by using a Fire Steel (and yes, we cheated - we also used some dryer lint). But still, starting a fire with essentially flint in steel - that's gotta earn me some Man Points.

By 8:30pm, dinner had been made and the boy had been asleep for an hour. We were all exhausted ourselves, so we headed to the tent to all call it a night. That's when things got interesting.

As soon as I lay down, I started to cough. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, but of course, it woke up the The Boy. So we'd soothe him back to sleep, only so I could wake him up again when I put my head down. Finally, I said forget it, grabbed my sleeping bag, pad and an emergency blanket, and threw them down a few feet outside the tent. I then spent a wonderful night under the stars, with no rain and with air chilly enough to keep the bugs away.

We seriously underestimated the amount of space our little guy would need in the tent. Whenever we eat at a restaurant, we have to clear the area he can reach of pretty much all items. The result is that he gets half the table, while the rest of us stack our plates and such on the other half. The same needed to happen in the tent. We should have planned to give him a nice big area to roam. Oh well, next time.

The next day, we were up at 5am, broke down camp and hiked our way out.

While the adventure was tiring, it probably only took a a good 26 hours to complete. Still, it was tons of fun. And seeing our little one explore a new world and take in the sights and sounds was such a treat. Some pictures below.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Real Value of Supreme Court Nomination Hearings

I think I may be the one person I've ever met who actually likes to watch the Supreme Court confirmation hearings. So far, Elena Kegan's hearing hasn't let me down.

Why so much love? It's not because you actually learn something about the nominee. Nah, they're way to coached to actually say anything original or damaging.

Nope, I like them because they serve as a remarkably teaching tool as to how the court system works and how judges should be behave. The nominee is questioned by Senators who all want her to step out of line, and in the process, she gives textbook answers. Answers that end up explaining interesting and tricky nuances of the justice system.

Try watching the confirmation hearing below with that context in mind - cool, no?

Reviews: Gerber Shard and the Derma-Safe Utility Knife

I can remember back years ago, as a kid, noticing the Swiss Army knife on my Grandpa's key chain and thinking it was the coolest thing on Earth. Combine that with years in the Boy Scouts (Be Prepared!) and I've been carrying a pocket knife with me since Middle School. As a result, I'm always on the lookout for new knives and other tools that let my inner MacGyver shine.

The Gerber Shard

Lately I came across the Gerber Shard and thought it would be a winner. It's a bunch of handy tools you'd find on a knife: screwdrivers, bottle opener, pry-bar, wire cutter -- but without the knife itself. This is key, as it claims to be Airline Safe.

I love the idea of having useful tools on me, but not having to worry that they'll cause me a headache when out and about. The days when a pocket knife was considered a tool are long gone - now they're weapons. Which is absurd, but that's besides the point.

The price was under $10, so I just had to give it a try. Here's what it looks like:

Alas, I have to say, handling it, I'm not impressed. Yes, it's compact - which is a good thing. But, it's too big to fit on my keychain (which is already bulging with other goodies - but that's another post, for another time). Another pro: the phillips-head screwdriver carved into the back of the shard actually worked well on a screw used to attach the door handle to the door. But, the pry-bar ends that are supposed to be used as screwdrivers seem to thick to actually function as one. It failed the does it tighten the screw holding the light switch faceplate test.

I suppose, if you're looking for a pry-bar that's inexpensive, this is the way to go. But, as a general purpose tool, I'm just not seeing it. Obviously, I'll keep the Shard on hand and would love to be proven wrong.

The Derma-Safe Utility Knife

A tool that I've actually grown quite fond of is the oddly named Derma-Safe utility knife. It's basically a razor blade that folds out of a simple plastic handle. I originally saw mention of it on Cool Tools, and I absolutely agree it belongs there.

The knife is super light, super sharp and super cheap. Unlike the Shard, it found a place on my keychain without a problem. I love the fact that it's a nice and sharp knife I can carry anywhere, and at under $2.00 a piece, if I need to toss it out because I've got it with me at the Airline Security line or while trying to get into a museum, it's no biggie. And I never worry about dulling it or ruining the blade - it's easy enough to get a new one.

The utility knife I bought months ago seems to be getting dull, so I decided I'd buy a handful more. The recommended site to buy them doesn't appear to be taking orders. Well, they took my order, but never processed it (and I got my money back - no harm, no foul). Instead, I found the best deal for the knife was on eBay. Sure, you can get them at other places like CountyComm - but who wants to pay $8.00 in shipping for a $1.70 item?

These days I've been experimenting with carrying the Derma-Safe on my keychain and multitool in my wallet. The result is most of the functionality as my old Swiss Army knife, but in a package that's nearly invisible and painlessly disposable if need be (the wallet tool costs $2.23 - and has free shipping for Prime users). Unlike my usual knife, before leaving the house, I don't need to weigh whether I'll be going somewhere it might get confiscated.

Still, I don't think Grandpa would be happy that I don't have a Swiss Army knife on hand, so I may have to go back to my old ways -- and just risk losing it.

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