Friday, December 31, 2010

A New, New Year's Tradition

This morning, Shira baked her first key-lime pie. It was absolutely delicious, and I think the perfect way to get thoughts of a sweet year ahead.

My suggestion is that every December 31st she bake a new form of pie, and my job is to eat it.

Sounds like a winning tradition, no?

The recipe for the pie can be found here:
http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/easy-key-lime-pie-i/

Here's to a happy and healthy 2011!

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Wonderful, Fantastic, Grand, Marvelous, Howling and Extrodinary API

I needed a facility for finding related words. Luckily, I was able to find the Big Huge Thesaurus API.

As web services go, it's pretty dang near perfect:

  • You can get up and running with a free API key for testing purposes in a few seconds
  • The API is as simple as invoking a URL in the format: http://words.bighugelabs.com/api/2/API_KEY/WORD_TO_LOOKUP/
  • The API will return a variety of formats, from basic text to JSON and XML
  • It's hacker friendly, in that you can rig up a php CURL function in a few minutes, or even just test it out in your web browser

In fact, here's the PHP code I wrote to access it. Feel free to use and enjoy:

/*
 * Find related words. 'word' is the word to search for.
 * `narrow_to_relationship' will cause just matches of a particular relationship
 * to return.
 *
 * Leave off the second option to get back all results.
 *
 * Possible values for narrow_to_relationship: syn (synonym),
 * ant (antonyms), rel (related) and sim (similar).
 *
 * Return back an array of arrays of data -or an array of a specific
 * type of words.
 */
function find_related_words($word, $narrow_to_relationship = false) {
  $key = BIGHUGELABS_API_KEY;
  $url = "http://words.bighugelabs.com/api/2/$key/" . urlencode($word) . "/";

  $ch = curl_init($url);
  curl_setopt($ch, CURLOPT_RETURNTRANSFER, true);
  curl_setopt($ch, CURLOPT_TIMEOUT, 3);
  curl_setopt($ch, CURLOPT_FOLLOWLOCATION, true);
  $lines = preg_split('/[\n\r]/', curl_exec($ch));

  $results = array();
  foreach($lines as $l) {
    $values = explode("|", $l);
    if($narrow_to_relationship) {
      if($narrow_to_relationship == $values[1]) {
        $results[] = $values[2];
      }
    } else {
      $results[] = array('part' => $values[0], 'relationship' => $values[1], 'word' => $values[2]);
    }
  }
  return $results;
}

// Sample Usage
$I_am_a = find_related_words("hacker"); // get back all terms related to hacker
$I_want_to_be = find_related_words("hacker", "syn"); // get back a list of synonyms

Using a thesaurus is a simple way to make a user's input seem a lot smarter. I'm actually surprised I've gone this long without integrating one into an app before. Luckily, using the facility was a breeze.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Riveting Radio: A Fireman's Tale (with a bonus story about kissing twins)

Lately, I've really been enjoying XM Channel 136 (technically, Public Radio Exchange). The stories that are run there are often quite captivating. Last night, I caught a Moth story. Specifically, Bronx is Burning by Tom Zeigler.

It was definitely a Driveway Moment.

You can give it a listen here or below:

Note - the above audio clip starts off with a story on a totally different topic. It's quite funny too and worth giving a listen to.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gotcha of the Day: Surviving Win32/Cycbot.B Virus

Yesterday, I was surfing the web on my Windows Vista laptop when I noticed a window that appeared to be a virus scanner doing a scan. How clever, I thought, a website had popped up an HTML window that looked like a system scanner. My heart sank as I realized, however, that the "virus scanner" was actually a running program and not a fake.

I realized, at that moment, I'd been hit by some sort of malware. And what nasty malware it was, it managed to do at least the following:

  • Hook into the Windows Vista virus checking framework. It then reported that every executable was infected, and provided me a way of fixing it - mainly, to run the bogus virus checker.
  • It installed itself under common windows program names such as dwm.exe, crss.exe. This means that when the virus is running, examining the task manager doesn't report anything out of the ordinary
  • It hooked my web browsers into a proxy running on localhost. This means that all web traffic was being passed through one of the files virus installed

It probably did a lot of other nasty things, too.

Of course, I had a lapsed version of Norton on that laptop, so it was effectively unprotected. Yeah, that was a mistake.

Getting myself out of this jam hasn't exactly been straightforward. Here's what I've fumbled my way through:

  • Using F8 at boot time, booted into Safe Mode and ran Windows Defender. It reported I had an infection of Win32/Cycbot.B and that it was very bad news. It also claimed to clean up the issue, but when I booted up my laptop, it was still hosed.
  • Using F8 at boot time, booted into a set of recovery tools Windows provides. I then rolled back to a recovery point from a few days earlier. The system was still corrupted when I booted up, but it was in much better shape. It no longer attempted to start up the fake virus checker.
  • Booting into regular Windows Vista, I maually disabled the web proxy the virus setup. Without this step, my web browsers weren't functioning properly
  • Installed Norton Virus Checker and kicked off a full disk scan

At the moment, Norton has scanned 2,653,182 files and isn't finished yet. It has found 203 issues.

I'm not quite out of the woods yet, but things are definitely looking up.

The key lessons learned:

  • Never skimp on having an up to date virus checker
  • My strategy of having regularly switching between multiple laptops has meant that this hassle hasn't caused any downtime in my work

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: the people who craft these viruses are geniuses. If they would use their brains for good, instead of evil, we'd be living in a better world.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Monday Funnies: Courses for Men and Women

This imaginary Course List sure made for some fun reading. It's split up into Courses for Women taught by Men, and Courses for Men taught by Women.

I was going to quote a few items from each list, but every time I considered taking one from the Courses for Women taught by Men, I thought about the trouble I would get in from the wife. So, I'll stick to the Courses for Men taught by Women.

101 Combating Stupidity

102 You Too Can Do Housework

103 P.M.S. – Learning When To Keep Your Mouth Shut

104 How To Fill An Ice Cube Tray

105 We Do Not Want Sleazy Underthings for Christmas – Give Us Money

Read and enjoy.

Taxis, Kids and Carseats

I've often wondered, but never taken the time to research the question: does a child need to be in a car seat while riding in a bus? What about a taxi?

Turns out, Virginia law is pretty clear about the this:

§ 46.2-1095. Child restraint devices required when transporting certain children; safety belts for passengers less than eighteen years old required; penalty.

A. Any person who drives on the highways of Virginia any motor vehicle manufactured after January 1, 1968, shall ensure that any child, up to age eight, whom he transports therein is provided with and properly secured in a child restraint device of a type which meets the standards adopted by the United States Department of Transportation.

(The above quote is trimmed slightly - you can read the entire law here)

The above should come as no surprise, right?

Now, here for the kicker:

E. Nothing in this section shall apply to taxicabs, school buses, executive sedans, or limousines.

Apparently, by law, you don't need to have your child in a car seat while they are in a taxi, bus or executive sedan.

If I squint, I can kind of see why a bus may be OK to not have a child in a car seat (it's a different kind of vehicle than a car; often going slower; and we don't use seatbelts while riding in them.). But not using a car seat in a taxicab? That seems just seems wrong.

Guess this is a case where the law is more lenient than you'd expect. Or maybe the powerful taxicab lobby is at work here? Who knows.

More info on the topic here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Run on Taters

I know they were calling for a "Monster Storm" and people often buy out bread and milk. But why isn't there a single bag of potatoes in the store? Are potatoes the new emergency food? Why wasn't I notified?

Update: The snow was very much a no-show. In fact, it's pretty amazing how we dodged the storm.

Friday, December 24, 2010

New Wheels for the Weekend

I consider myself to be a fairly experienced traveler. I also consider myself fairly organized. Yet, regardless of these two facts, no matter how big or small the trip is, I inevitably forget something. Always. It's almost a relief when, within the first hour or so, I have that head slapping moment and realized what I forgot.

Our weekend trip to Atlantic City was no different. Our big forget: the stroller. D'oh. I could try to explain how it is possible to forget such an essential item, but that would be a waste of time.

Luckily, I also had a fix.

We could have tried to hit a Wal-Mart or Target on the way to AC to pickup a temporary stroller, but that would have required a pretty big detour.

Instead, I recalled that last time I had been in the Rite Aid near Ballys, i had seen they were selling a very basic stroller (no doubt for emergencies like this).

Happily, my memory served me well and sure enough, Rite Aid was indeed selling a simple umbrella stroller. This little oops ended up costing me $16.99 to correct.

And how well does a $17 stroller work? Surprisingly well, actually. It's no-frills of course. But it is very lightweight and at $17 we won't mind if it gets damaged, stained or otherwise ruined. It won't replace the Maclaren I love so much, but as a backup stroller, to insure each car has one at all times, it is perfect.

It's worth mentioning that I've seen this same basic stroller at CVS too. So if you find yourself in need of a quick set of wheels, either CVS or Rite Aid can save the day.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sarah Palin - Proving She's Queen of the Zinger

Yesterday I rented up Sara Palin's new book America by Heart from the library. I just couldn't help myself. I've promised myself I'm going to read it with an open mind. With that in mind, I offer up the following:

We all know Mrs. Palin has an absolute gift for distributing zingers. Like, say, at the Republican Convention where we were introduced to her and she offered up this one:

Before I became governor of Alaska I was mayor of my home town. I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer except you have actual responsibilities.

Youch, that one stung. Or this one from a few days ago:

Where are the s'mores ingredients? This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.

Not quite as potent as the zinger above, but still, a pretty strong jab at the First Lady. And of course there have been many between those two examples.

Quick test - how many pages in do you think you need to go in Palin's new book before you get to her zinging someone?

The answer: 0.

That's right, on the very first page she manages to come out with a real gem:

[She opens the book by talking about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - a touching film about an outsider making a difference in Washington, DC]

Most of all, it's a movie about the timeless truths of American handed down to us from our forefathers and foremothers.

[Wait for it...wait for it...]

In other words, it's a movie Hollywood would never make today.

Bam! She goes on to explain about Hollywood:

No doubt, most of today's Hollywood hotshots think movies like Mr. Smith are sappy and uncool, foolish sentimentalism about a country they seem to prefer to run down rather than build up. During the Iraq War, Hollywood produced a whole slew of movies that portrayed the United States as motivated by vengeance and oil, with the troops as mindless pawns.

Yeah, so there!

I used to think I was bothered by these comments because they came across so mean spirited. But if I'm honest with myself, when one of my guys lands a juicy one, is my first thought that it's being mean? Of course not.

No, my problem with statements like these is that they just don't hold up under thoughtful examination.

Consider the first comment. When Sarah Palin resigned her position as Governor of Alaska, one of her explanations was as follows:

She said leaving office is in the best interest of the state and will allow her to more effectively advocate for issues of importance to her, including energy independence and national security.

Essentially, she left job as Governor so she could do a more important job: be a community organizer (albeit one of a more virtual community). Yes, just a few months earlier, she was mocking community organizers, and now she is one (and does a great job of it too).

As for her comment to Michelle Obama - try flipping it around. Imagine Palin was advocating for a serious childhood condition that affects 1 in 3 children. Do you think Michelle Obama mocking her for doing this would have been appropriate? Of course not. Michelle would have been branded as cruel and ignorant.

And the Hollywood comment, I'm just not sure what the heck she's talking about. Which movies is she referring to? When I think about serious Hollywood movies about war, I think about Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker. Sure, these movies aren't pro war - but I'd say they capture the hell that war is, and the valor of our troops serve with. How would she like war portrayed?

And what does she mean by "run down versus build up" our country? Sure, many in Hollywood lean to the left - maybe very far to the left. But does that mean they want to tear down their country? Of course not. You may not agree with their methods for making this country a better place, but surely you can at least agree they're trying to do something to that end?

I get that she's good at delivering these lines. And I get that these lines make perfect sound bites and Twitter chatter. But I for one, hope that I find out she's more than just a zinger factory in this book. I'm really hoping that along with these clever one liners there are actually nuanced thought content.

As you can imagine, I'll be reporting my findings.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Never Too Early To Teach Children How To Change The World

While reading Three Cups of Tea, I proudly noted to myself that not only had I heard of Mortenson's home town of Bozeman Montana, but I even had a friend who lived there. Tonight, we saw that friend and he generously gave us a signed copy of Listen to the Wind - the children's version of the Three Cups of Tea story.

Shira read it aloud to our 16 month old and myself, and while I'm not sure he followed every word of it (if only it included more about bananas, yogurt and airplanes - some of his favorite words of late. Alas, it didn't), I certainly enjoyed it. The story imparts wonderful lessons about the power of an individual to help others and the universal nature of education. Heck, the lesson that a Muslim Cleric can be a force for good is probably something many American adults need to learn.

The book even points kids to a charity that they can get involved in pennies for peace - where they can learn that something as simple as collecting up apparently worthless pennies can be a force for good.

Sure is nice to know that you don't have to be grown up to start making a difference.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Because you don't have to celebrate Christmas to appreciate a Christmas Miracle

Go read this. Or, the Washington Post write up over here. Wow, just wow.

Next time someone tells me that the Internet and social media is going to be the downfall of civilization I'm pointing them to this story.

Geesh, makes me wonder how I should change the world today.

Review: My Life as an Experiment: One Man's Humble Quest to Improve Himself

Pick something you want to accomplish but that's tough to do. Say, lose weight or start a business.

Now, what if instead of attacking your goal head on, you designed an experiment around it. So, you decide you're going to do 3 workouts a week on FitTV and eat 5 servings of veggies a day for a month. Or, you are going to develop a business plan and pitch it to 10 people.

You might lose weight or get that business started, or you might not.

The experiment approach has some interesting benefits: first, it's bounded - you aren't making a life change, just trying something out. The limited time frame means you'll have a better chance of toughing it out. Second, there is no possibility for failure, just the collection of data. You might find that after a month, you weigh more than you started, or that 10 people hate your idea. That's OK. You conducted the experiment, got the data, and can move on. Experiments work best when the data is shared with a community, which means the effort you put in can serve to help others. Finally, experiments make it easy to frame attempts gone horribly wrong in a humorous context, rather than shrinking in failure.

What does all this have to do with A. J. Jacob's My Life as an Experiment? Everything. My Life as an Experiment tracks a variety of tests Jacobs runs from living life through the eyes of a beautiful woman, to mimicking George Washington's life. He's apparently the guru of life experiments.

The book itself is wonderful: Jacobs manages to find the perfect balance between successes and failures in his experiments, gives us plenty of lessons to learn and wraps the whole package in humor. I was concerned that the text would come off as a bit holier-than-though ("Look at me and what *I've* done!) - but that isn't the case at all.

I also think it serves as a good template for designing your own life experiments - a problem solving technique, as you can see above, I think has a lot of value.

Read (or in my case, listen to) the book for the wonderful stories, or use it as a how to guide. Either way, you can't go wrong.

Note: I listened to the Book on CD version, which as a bonus is read by Jacobs himself. I for one found his reading delightful and probably enjoyed it more because of this.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Traveling with the Samsung N150 Netbook

One of main reasons I purchased a Netbook was for travel. I loved the idea of having a laptop with me for fixing issues or blogging, yet that was extra small so it didn't add to the stuff I was schlepping.

I just got back from a trip where I had a chance to test these assumptions.

Turns out, I definitely made the right call. The Samsung N150 totally performed as expected.

For most of the trip, we didn't have reliable WiFi, so the N150 just sat in its sleeve. It was small enough, that it didn't take up much real estate while packing. And also, not valuable enough, that I had worries it was going to be taken from the rooms we were staying at (though, we stayed at small resorts, where I'm sure theft is very rare).

I had a few occasions to do some writing for blogging purposes, and the laptop worked great for this.

Mid way through the trip, I finally needed the Samsung to actually work. I used Skype to chat with folks back in the states about a medical issue (everyone's fine, now, thanks) and I used subversion/sitecopy to grab files, and deploy them to fix a client's broken site.

While I wouldn't want the N150 to be my everyday laptop, it definitely worked great as "I don't think I'll need a laptop, but better bring one just in case" option.

A Simple Idea For Spreading The Truth

No surprise, people believe totally false things in the world of politics. Like, say:

Though the CBO concluded that the health reform law would reduce the budget deficit, 53% of voters thought most economists have concluded that health reform will increase the deficit.

Or, say:

Though the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that climate change is occurring, 45% of voters thought most scientists think climate change is not occurring (12%) or that scientists are evenly divided (33%).

Or, say:

31% believed it was proven true that the US Chamber of Commerce spent large amounts of money it had raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates

Or, say:

86% assumed their taxes had gone up (38%) or stayed the same (48%), while only 10% were aware that their taxes had gone down since 2009

More examples here. And the big lie of the year, is here.

The easy one to blame for these lies are the news media. I'll give you that delivering news and information is tricky business and that if you aren't careful, your viewers will end up with false information.

Maybe the answer isn't to suggest that news networks should be unbiased. Maybe that's just not possible. Instead, maybe they should expect an error rate in the system, and use a feedback loop to correct it.

In other words, find out what your viewers think is true that isn't - and then address it head on.

Seems like a simple way to demonstrate that you're serious about the truth.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Belize Adventure Complete, Slowing getting back to normal

Our week long adventure in Belize is complete. We had an absolute blast. You can read about it here, or just jump right to the photos over here.

My inbox is totally overflowing, as is my TODO list. But, it was all worth it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Belize Adventure - Day 7

Day 7 - our last day finally arrived. Our hotel bill reflected our little one's presence: $25BZ for a broken vase, and $50BZ for a broken clock. In my opinion, the clock had it coming to it - it was way too fragile to belong in a hotel room with tile floor.

Our main adventure for the day was making it from our resort to the airport. We made a cursory attempt to visit Belize City - but we really didn't have the time, nor energy, to visit this chaotic city. I did get some ice cream from a random shop on the street, and found it pretty blah. Who messes up chocolate ice cream?

We made it to the tiny airport with plenty of time. There was absolutely no line when we went through security - what a pleasure that was. And our plane left on time. We flew through Miami, which was a heck of a lot more chaotic than Belize, but painless none the less. Our flight was delayed 30 minutes due to weather in DC. I suppose that's a preview of what we have to face when we land in DC.

All in all, I'd say our Belize trip was an outstanding one. The sites and activities were absolutely top notch. The Mayan ruins are on par with our trip to Pompei - though they are on different scales. Our accommodations - both Mystic River Resort and Lamanai Outpost Lodge, exceeded expectations. The staff at both definitely went above and beyond to make sure we were happy (Mystic River cooked us pancakes with soy milk so our little one could eat them; Lamanai had a waitress who would carry our little one around and let us get a few minutes of peace during dinner).

The biggest surprise was just how underdeveloped Belize was. I always thought of Belize as an exotic getaway, not a country filled with crumbling shacks and roads in massive need of a good paving. It's easy to forget just how wealthy a country I live in, and this trip reminded me in stark detail how much this is the case.

I think Shira summed up the trip best when she remarked that she felt like we were on a Reality TV show. Challanges kept popping up (quick - your child has a 102 degree fever, and the nearest doctor is 2hrs away by rough road. What do you do?!) and it was our job to negotiate them. Sometimes we'd gracefully rise to meet them, other times we'd trip all over each other. But, in the end, nobody was kicked off the island, and we had an excellent time.

More Photos

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Three Cups of Tea

3 Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Relin is a Dayenu type of book.

Had the story just been about Greg's valiant, but failed attempt to climb K2 - it would have been enough.

Had the story also included his wandering into, and connecting with, a village in Pakistan - that too, would have been enough.

Had the story included these things, and Greg's audacious attempt to build a single school in that tiny villiage in Pakistan - that for sure, would have been enough.

But the book includes these adventures, and many more. You've got Greg falling in love getting married in a matter of days. You've got him surviving a kidnapping incident that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Heck, you have 9/11 taking place that shapes and molds his mission even further.

And the cool part is just how Human Greg is. He makes mistakes and missteps, yet manages to show how you can come out on top.

It sounds cliche, but this book really does capture one individual's attempt to change the world. Read it for inspiration. Read it to get a pulse on a region and religion that so many of us still don't understand. Read it, because when the movie comes out, you're going to want tell folks that what they are seeing aren't Hollywood embellishments, but the real thing.

Just read it.

Belize Adventure - Day 6

Whooo! Our little guy slept the night!! Since we got here, he hasn't been feeling anywhere near 100%. During the previous nights of the trip he was massively congested and getting up every few hours. But not so last night - he slept from 7pm till 5:45 am. What a victory.

Our first official activity of the day was a visit to the Green Hills Butterfly farm. For $10, they'll take you into a screened in house filled with thousands of butterflies and give you an education as to how they raise them and what the different types they house. They sure are magnificent creatures.

We then made our way into the Pine Ridge Nature reserve. We made it as far as Rio Frio Cave. Caving is a big deal in Belize, and it's something we'd probably have done more of if we didn't have a 16 month old along for the ride. The Rio Frio Cave turned out to be the perfect way to get a little dose of caving and do it in a family friendly way. The cave is gigantic, which means there's no claustrophobia concerns. And it has an opening at both ends of the cave, which means it never gets 100% dark. Like I said, it's a cave for the whole family.

We also did some hiking and visited the Rio Frio pools - a site which was beautiful in and of itself.

Oh, and here's a tip - the Fodors book says that the 1000Ft Falls is relatively close to the Rio Frio Pools. The turn off to the falls is, but the actual falls is about 15 miles away. This doesn't sound so bad, but on Belize's rutted dirt roads, this is quite a schlep. We weren't committed enough to see the falls to make the journey.

More Photos

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gotcha of the Day: HP Mini boots to Grub Recovery Prompt, not Windows 7

Our next door neighbor brought over their HP Mini Laptop which was having some serious boot issues. You'd turn it on, and rather than booting to Windows 7, it would leave you at a prompt like so:

error: no such device XXXX
grub rescue>

Apparently, the previous owner of the laptop installed Windows over the Linux distribution that came with the laptop. Hence the unexpected mix of the Grub boot loader and Windows 7.

Here's how I got this sucker booting again (I'll spare you the false starts and just give you the recipe that worked):

  • Downloaded the very cool Ultimate Boot CD
  • Followed the instructions to generate a bootable USB thumbdrive
  • Plugged in the thumbdrive, turned on the laptop, and hit F9
  • Selected the thumbdrive from the list of bootable devices
  • Selected UBCD FreeDOS from the menu
  • Selected the first option for booting, and watch lots of exotic looking messages scroll by
  • Selected Launch to access the UBCD applications
  • Selected HDD Boot Management
  • Selected MBRWork
  • Selected option 5, Install standard MBR code and confirmed my selection
  • Hit escape a bunch of times to get back to a DOS prompt
  • Pressed Control-Alt-Delete and held my breath
  • Watched in amazement as Windows booted

Looks like my guess that the Master Boot Record got hosed was right. Whew. Looks like those low level Linux installs of years ago really paid off.

My suggestion: prepare the Ultimate Boot CD on a thumbdrive now, and have it ready to go. Sooner or later, you're going to need at least one of the many tools it offers.

Belize Adventure - Day 5

We started off Day 5 of our trip with a visit to the Belize Botanical Gardens - a starred attraction in the Fodors guidebook. We had two choices for getting to the gardens: take a 45 minute drive over very bumpy roads, or take a 3 minute canoe river trip down stream. We opted for the canoe. There's just something incredibly satisfying about using water travel for such a utilitarian purpose. I for one felt like quite the outdoors man.

Our canoe ride was for the most part uneventful and quite fun. That is, except that our little one repeatedly tried to climb out of the canoe. Apparently he's a little confused as to when we are supposed to float above the water, and when we are supposed to swim in it.

The Botanical Gardens were wonderful. The foreman of the gardens took us around, and his informative explanations made for a delightful tour. We've been to bigger botanical gardens before - but this one was the most enjoyable to visit.

The other highlight of Day 5 was a trip to the Cahal Pech ruins. The book claims that these are among the smaller Mayan ruins in the area, so my expectations were set fairly low. They need not have been - these were wonderful. There's plenty to climb in and around, and I more than got my Ancient Mayan Ruin fix for the day.

More Photos

Monday, December 13, 2010

Belize Adventure - Day 4

Most of today was spent getting from Northern Belize to Western Belize - about 10 miles or so small shacks, or homes that looked they should be condemned were quite prevalent along the way. Even the capital city of Belmopan was hardly impressive, lacking any kind of polish that we could see. Though, we did get some terrific pizza there - so that's at least one redeeming quality.

One highlight of our trip through Belize was a stop at the Belize Zoo. It claims to hold the title as the best little zoo in the world. And the fact is, it really was very nice. Our little one is now at an age where he can start to appreciate the animals - excitedly repeating "cat, cat" when we saw an ocelot. The zoo did look in surprising disrepair in some places. Apparently, that's due to Hurricane Richard who came through a few months ago and did major damage to parks in the area.

Mystic River Resort, where we ended up that night, was a real gem. Our little cottage is more polished than in Lamanai, and dinner from the restaurant was quite delicious.

Each room has a fireplace, and the evening was cool enough that I went ahead and started a fire. I'm embarrassed to say how many matches it took to get the sucker started. Our little one learned a variety of new terms with regard to the fire: "Hot," "owie," and "not cool" - which was he was glad to repeat. Of course, they mean nothing to him, so he says these words as he approaches the fireplace anyway.

More Photos

Why You Need To Install 7-Zip

You might as well go ahead and install 7-zip now, you're going to need it.

Why? Well, not because you want to use the fancy shmancy .7z compression. Nah, .zip works just fine. And not because you need a way to extract .zip files - Windows has fine built in support (sure, it took them long enough to add it - but it's there now).

Nope, you need 7-zip because sooner or later one of the following will happen:

  • Some joker will send you a .rar file, which is yet another zip like format
  • You'll want to extract or browse through a .iso file

7-zip will handle both of these cases seamlessly.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Belize Adventure - Day 3

Today we tackled what we actually came to Lamanai to see: the Lamanai Mayan Ruins. We took a short boat ride to the park containing the ruins and started our guided tour there.

About all I remembered from my social studies class about the Mayans was that they were into the sacrifice thing. And turns out, that's quite true. In fact, our guide (who apparently has Mayan roots) said that the Mayans were actually quite an aggresive people, and didn't mind war or bloodshead per se.

Well, when they weren't at war or sacarficing something, they seemed to be building stuff. Because, wow, the ruins are impressive. You can actually get quite upclose to most of the buildings, climbing the impressive looking steps to their summits. In fact, our little one got to practice that word a lot: steps he would say in a surprisingly clear fashion.

I doubt the pictures do the place justice - it was just an amazing site to see. The ambiance is also perfect because in the jungle, out of sight, are howler monkeys doing their thing. They sound like some sort of large predator - certainly not something I would want to mess with. We did see one monkey sleeping up high in a tree - and as you can imagine, they look a lot cuter then they sound.

More Photos

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Belize Adventure - Day 2

The main event for Day 2 was a medicine walk. Essentially, our guide was going to take us through the jungle and point out various plants with medicinal properties. Turns out, in the jungle, you only have to walk a few feet before you find such a plant. And so we took a relatively slow walk, first on the grounds of our lodge, and then into the town nearby, stopping every few minutes to learn about a new plant its impressive effects on the body.

While the tour was great, getting to walk through the nearby town with a guide was probably even more interesting. The word that seems to best describe what we saw was undeveloped. Most of the homes don't have electricity, and the school appeared to have outhouses for the students to use. I asked how many people lived in a small, two room house, and was told it was a family with 4 children. The people of the town didn't appear to be poor - they were just living a totally different lifestyle than we can imagine.

While on our tour, a van pulled into the town honking his horn. Apparently, he was the tortilla man, delivering fresh tortillas. And how much do you think a package of say 29 tortillas costs? Oh, about 60 cents US. And that's more expensive than usual, as the price has gone up lately because the cost of corn has increased.

We ate lunch in the town, and was again treated to a wonderfully delicious meal. Then again, I like cheese, rice, corn and beans - the staples of the food we were served. So, I could hardly go wrong.

We brought along a backpack to carry our little one in - which was a smart move. This isn't stroller territory at all. He liked the walk, and slept for a good chunk of it. At lunch, the ladies at the restaurant were glad to play with him and sit him on their laps. It's amazing how universal children are, with everyone being glad to pick up our little guy any chance they can.

In the afternoon, we got really wild and crazy and took a family canoe trip. Shira and our little guy were in front and I paddled in back. I'm happy to report the only thing we lost overboard was a hat, and even that we were deftly able to retrieve.

Our little one then spent a good 30 minutes wading in the water and splashing around. It's amazing how sometimes it takes so little to entertain a 15 month old.

By the time evening rolled around, we noticed that our little one wasn't feeling so hot. In fact, we could tell he had a fever. How he managed to come down with something so quickly (heck, it's the first full day in Belize!) is beyond me - but he did it. Luckily, we brought plenty of baby Tylenol and with a dose on-board he was back to being happy.

Never, never, never leave home without that stuff. I'd sooner travel without diapers and wipes. (OK, that's probably not true..but you get the idea.)

More Photos

Friday, December 10, 2010

Phone Friday: Pastedroid as ultra-lightweight publishing tool

I really like pastebin.com. They allow you to easily publish information (usually, code) so that others can access it via unique URL. The site has some cool features, such as keeping your data around forever or expiring it.

During a recent visit to the site, I noticed they are now offering Pastedroid an Android app for quickly generating Pastebin entries.

The app is setup much like you would expect to be: you can publish content, set various options (such as the subdomain to publish on) and review the past links you've published.

The result is a cool tool that could be used for publishing snippets of information with almost zero effort. Just enter the data, and Paste. Every bit of information gets it's own unique URL and is safely archived forever. By organizing your content into a subdomain, you can keep all your data together.

It's definitely worth experimenting with.

Belize Adventure - Day 1

Our flights to Belize were fairly uneventful. So was Customs in Belize and the rental car desk. In fact, if anything, the whole arrival was almost too calm. I'm used to arriving in a foreign country and being swarmed by taxis and other people all trying to help you out. Not in Belize, it was one calm experience.

We immediately made our way out of Belize City (not really seeing anythying city like) and started up the Northern Highway to Lamanai Outpost Lodge - where we planned to spend the first half of our trip.

Calling the Northern Highway a Highway is probably being a bit too generous. Yes, it's 55mph, but there are no painted lines of any kind, and then every few miles there are speed bumps. Yes, speed bumps.

The scenery along the road was gorgeous - everything was so green and the sky was a perfect blue and filled with puffy white clouds. Every once in a while we'd pass a building and I'd wonder if it was a home or business, abanonded, or being built, or just in a state of disrepair.

As promised by the guidebook, about 3/4 of the way into the drive we came across a Mennonite Community. I have to say, it was a surreal experience to suddenly see families in horse and buggies, all dressed in plaid shirts or dresses and wonderful hats. I felt more like we were in Pennsylvania among the Amish, than thousands of miles away in a foreign country.

After leaving the Northern Highway, the road got rougher and rougher till it was not much more than gravel covered pot holes. Now I see why Hertz only rents you 4 wheel drive vehicles.

Finally, we reached the lodge and started getting settled for the night. The particular little building we are staying in is quite comfy, feeling rustic enough for my tastes, yet upscale enough for Shira. Having no TV and no telphone help to set the stage for the kind of trip we were planning.

We had the first of many meals provided by the lodge, and it was quite good. They were more than glad to meet our vegetarian meal request.

Then it was off to bed, realizing just how exhausted we were from a day of traveling.

More Photos

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A Failed Whitehouse Bid

Now I know how Hillary Clinton must feel. If only we wanted it more.

OK, maybe not.

Last night, a friend of ours invited us to join her on a White House Holiday tour. Apparently, it's like the regular White House tour (which I've never been on), only with festive decorations you're encouraged to snap photos of. Sounded like fun to me.

After standing inline for an hour or so, in what felt like sub-arctic temperatures, we were informed that the list of people for the timeslot we were in got hosed. They weren't able to verify our names and birthdates and such. Bottom line, our tour group wasn't going to happen.

So, the closest I got to the White House was the treasury building. Which was dressed up nicely for the holiday season:

I also grabbed this snapshot of the monument, which I can only assume, testifies to the long American tradition of standing around in DC freezing your butt off while waiting to get through a security checkpoint:

The nightly was hardly a bust. Besides getting to spend some quality time with our friend Lauren, we also go to experience that special joy of going from being an absolute popsicle to warming up at a Cosi with with hot chocolate and tomato soup. You've got to reach a certain level of cold before the experience really has any meaning - and I do believe we were there.

We also had a chance to tackle one of those great traveling mysteries: how would you go anywhere with a 15 month old, without bringing a bag full of stuff? Sure, traveling the world without luggage is easy, but try that with a baby.

The problem was, the White House has extremely strict rules about what you can and can't bring on the tour. Strollers, bags, purses, food, drink are all forbidden. Heck even pens aren't allowed. They also make it clear that there's nowhere to store any stuff you bring along, so bringing a diaper bag and leaving it in a locker wasn't going to work either.

Here's what we ended up bringing along - which managed to work well:

  • A single diaper in a zip lock bag
  • A Ziplock bag full of graham crackers, with the expectation they would be thrown out to get through security
  • An 8oz bottle of soy milk, again, with the expectation that we'd be asked to dump it before the tour
  • The famous Moby Wrap - a stroller was out, and our little guy isn't so little any more. While he's a little big for the Moby Wrap, it did the job really well: I was able to more or less wear it under my coat when it wasn't in use, and when we did need it for the metro ride home, it was there

It was just the absolute basics - something I wouldn't normally want to depend on. But, it's good to know, that if you needed to go baggless, it would be possible.

Luckily, we don't have to wait 4 years before we try again - hopefully we'll have better luck next year.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

That Socialist Agenda

From today's press conference:

The single most important jobs program we can put in place is a growing economy. The single most important anti-poverty program we can put in place is making sure folks have jobs and the economy is growing.

We can do a whole bunch of other stuff, but if the economy is not growing, if the private sector is not hiring faster than it’s currently hiring, then we are going to continue to have problems no matter how many programs we put into place.

How can people hear the President talk like this and walk away thinking he's a socialist. Seriously, how?

I like my politicians to be upfront and pragmatic, and I think Obama was just that in his press conference today. Either that, or I heard the frustrations of a guy who looks seriously sleep deprived.

How do you think he did?

Gotcha of the Day: Generating a Page of Note Cards from an Excel Doc

A client of mine had a novel idea that involved generating printable note cards from data in database (yes, I'm being intentionally vague here - bare with me). The most obvious way to tackle this sort of thing is to use MS Word Mail Merge.

It's fairly easy to wire a Word Doc into an Excel spreadsheet and include mail merge fields on the page. I ended up with something like this:

The gotcha, is that when I merged the Excel and Word document, I found that each page contained a grid of the same Question and Answer pairs. That is, if my first question was: "How are you?" and the answer was "Good" - then I got "How are you? Good" repeated throughout the page. The second page contained a grid of the second question and so on.

Of course, the goal was to have the question/answer change throughout the page.

And the fix for this? The answer is nestled under the little Rules menu on the Mailings tab. By selecting this menu, you can choose Next Record:

Doing this will insert an instruction into your document, which, as you might suggest, tells Word to look at the next row in Excel. Apparently, Next Record is usually not needed because one is implicitly added when you go to a new page.

The final document now looks something like so:

While I do love my lightweight tools and Google Docs, every once in a while, Word does show off its strength. And merging documents is just one of those tasks.

Monday, December 06, 2010

How to feel better about the WikiLeaks kerfuffle

The WikiLeaks debacle got ya down? I've got the fix. reader or watch what Fareed Zakaria has to say on the matter:

I think John Kerry's assessment is right on too, though not quite as uplifting as Fareed's.

One thing I do wonder about is if too much credit is being given to WikiLeaks itself for being the source of the problem. After all, they didn't steal the information - someone else did that. They published it. Thing is, years ago, if you had lots of sensitive information and you wanted to get it out to the world you were pretty limited in what you could do - basically, you had to make your case to a news paper or magazine.

But these days, anyone who wants a publishing platform can have one. Just sign up for a Blogger or Facebook account. Heck, people leak sensitive information on these platforms all the time.

Sure, if you were to attempt to publish such sensitive data on a mainstream platform, it would be shut down. But how much effort would it take to find a nefarious hosting provider that wouldn't mind being involved? That, plus a free WordPress download, and you'd be good to go.

Ever since I saw Julian Assange on Colbert explaining his goal of maximizing political impact, I've thought he was bad news. And the leaks just reinforce that. But, isn't he just the messenger? A messenger that's not even really that important?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Fuel for the Boy

Mmmmm...Soy Milk! This batch ought to last us a few weeks, at least. (Note: these are 64oz containers, not your usual 32oz ones.)

Such is the joy of having a growing boy in the house with a milk allergy.

Tip: Whole Foods will give you a case discount if you buy 8 cartons at once. A fact I never thought I'd need to know.

(I'm actually tapping this message out as I wait for the 8th carton)

Update: They didn't actually have an 8th carton in stock. However, they were nice enough to give me the case discount on 7. Got to give them credit for the nice customer service move.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Phone Friday: Putting Retro Camera to Use

Last Friday I mentioned the Retro Camera app and how it looked like it would be a fun one. Today, I had a client in DC to visit, and on the way back figured I'd put the camera app to use.

This app is awesome! I tried a few different approaches to snapping photos: (1) the usual deliberate method of picking an interesting subject and lining up the shot, (2) taking surreptitious photos by not having the camera up at my eye and just winging it and (3) picking an intentionally boring subject (like an elevator warning sign) and just relying on the retro look to make it interesting. Other added constraints: I was in a hurry and it was bitter cold outside.

I think all three approaches worked pretty well - with my best results coming from method #2.

You really can't miss when you're using this app. I've got to say, it's a really fun way to experience the joy of photography in a fresh way. And when I think of the alternative of buying a retro camera, feeding it film and then getting the film developed I appreciate just what a money saver this app is.

A Lesson in Civility

Let's say you've got a website you're pouring your heart into. And then let's say someone comes along and copies nearly every part of it. And then let's say they reach out to you all buddy-buddy like. What do you do?

Well, you'd probably spit fire back at them.

Personally, I'd hope to find a way to respond with the same calm directness that Bernard over at everyday-carry.com did.

He ran into just this experience, and his post responding to the copycat is definitely worth reading. He actually manages to fill it with useful advice, as well as some honest introspection into his own motives. It's an excellent example of thoughtfulness trumping gut reaction.

Not to mention, the site is an absolute blast to peruse. What, with all those fun gadgets that us Eagle Scouts so love to have on hand for any occasion.

One of these days, when I find the time, I'll submit my own pocket dump to the site. And then I hope to get a little of Bernard's pithy wisdom on what I schlep around every day.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Tis the Season for the Chanukah Viral Video

Happy 2nd day of Chankuah ya'll!

Today, 3 people independently recommended this video to me. Apparently, it's this year's run away hit. And you know what? It's good stuff. So get into the Hanukkuah spirit with a little song...

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Iran's Google Earth Discovery

A while back, I came across this collection of unusual Google Earth finds. It's an impressive list and worth taking a few minutes to gape at.

Though, my Brother David passed me one not on the list, that I think may top them all:

Regardless of whether it was happenstance or an act of architectural subterfuge, government officials in Iran were incensed this week when they discovered the outline of a Star of David atop the roof of the headquarters of Iran Air, Al- Arabiya reported on Monday.

The six-pointed star was discovered by an eagle-eyed Google Earth user recently, over three decades after the building that houses the national airline of the Islamic Republic was constructed by Israeli engineers.

And here's the photo:

And I have to admit, of all the comments on the page, this one gave me quote a chuckle:

Israel should send F15s to remove it

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