Monday, January 31, 2011

Useful Object of the Day: Dental Floss

One of the items in my Toddler Airplane Survival Kit is dental floss. I figured it would be worth a few minutes of distraction as our little one yanked out yards and yards of the substance. Turns out, he wasn't really interested in making a mess - though he did find the click of the container opening and closing to be especially satisfying and that did keep his attention for some time. While playing with the floss though, I noticed something I hadn't before: the stuff is remarkably strong. I mean, really strong. It got me thinking - maybe there are other uses for dental floss besides teeth and baby distraction?

And of course, there. A simple Google search turns up all sorts of goodies:

Apparently, floss is stronger than your typical thread, so it makes an ideal sewing repair option.

Seriously, this is powerful stuff. And it's dirt cheap, compact and if you always carry some with you - has the benefit of helping to get the remains of dinner out of your teeth.

Time to add this to my EDC.

You need another distraction, and I have the perfect one

A friend of mine has been publishing a clever and humorous web comic: microkosmic.com. As if publishing a web comic wouldn't be tricky enough, he does it all through the photos of toys (mainly legos).

Here's a sample one that happens to be only a single frame:

Who knew my beloved legos could be so expressive?

As distractions go, it's a quick one, so it's worth giving in to. The portraits sections is also worth a peek. Again, who knew you could capture a person so well in legos?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Embracing the Snow Day

Arlington County Schools are off today because of the storm, which means that day care is off, which means that I2X is having a snow day!

I could sit around and complain about how the snow stopped at like 10pm last night, and they had *all* night to clean it up - yet school was still closed today. But that would just be me being a Rochester/Buffalo weather snob. Nope, I decided today I would embrace the snow day.

The little one and I took a little sled-hiking adventure at Gravelly Point. After 30 minutes of suiting up we were ready to make our way over to the park.

Once there, we did a nice trudge through the effectively empty park. Reagan National Airport was open, and flights were streaming off the runway every few minutes, which made the adventure all the more fun.

After about 15 minutes, I turned around and started pulling the sled back to our car. At this point, our little one decided he absolutely needed to be up and out of the sled. So, I carried here and dragged the sled back to our car.

Here's a few photos from our little adventure. Also notice the bonus animated GIF which is a collection of photos I shot when were at home and our little guy was getting his snow sea-legs.

create avatar

Using Facebook in Stealth Mode

Want to give this whole Facebook thing a try, but sure you're privacy and identity will be lost in the process? Well, I've got a solution. Check out Stealth Mode: Making Yourself Completely Invisible on Facebook, a relatively brief article that discusses all the measures you can take to lock down your Facebook account.

It's probably a sane idea to start off with a totally locked down account, and then open up features as you decide you really need them.

Personally, I take the exact opposite approach to my Facebook account, and online life. I make nearly all of it public. This forces me to make a simple choice anytime I want to post something in cyberspace: say it to the universe, or don't say it at all. This avoids the messy situation of trying to share information with a select group of people, only to have it accidentally leak.

Still, the locked down Facebook approach may be just what you or your child needs.

Thanks to my Brother David for passing along this one!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TED Talk: Where good ideas come from

This was yet another gem passed to me by brother: TED Talk: Steven Johnson, Where good ideas come from.

It's a short and highly entertaining talk about where ideas come from — a topic I have a keen interest in.

I especially appreciated how Johnson's research suggests that there's real power in sharing your ideas with others. I've made the case for this before, so there's no surprise I think he's right on with his thinking.

It's actually quite impressive how many insights Johnson was able to pack into 17 minutes of video.

Watch and enjoy!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My New Favorite Cookie: ShaSha Co's Cocoa Snaps

Seriously, how often does one discover a new favorite cookie? I'd say not often, but, that's just whatShaSha Co's Cocoa Snaps pulled off.

Let's see, they are:

  • Kosher Parve
  • Dairy free
  • Relatively low fat and calories (140 calories and 4.5g of fat)
  • Generous in serving size - 15 to be exact
  • Quite tasty - just the right mix of chocolate and some spice action going on in the background

We picked up a container from Wegmans, and I was smitten.

They really are tasty, and more so when smothered in whip cream (come to think of it, what wouldn't taste good smothered in whip cream?).

(I can't believe I just wrote an entire blog post about a cookie. Just goes to show that around here there really are no rules as to what can be blogged about.)

Through the eyes of a 17 month old: The World's Greatest YouTube Video

For the last week or so, our little one has had a song stuck in his head. Ask him what he wants to hear, and he'll inevitably tell you "Baa-Baa" - as in Baa, Baa Black Sheep. He knows how to ask for other options ("e-i-o" is Old McDonald, and "name-o" is BINGO, for example), but his first choice is definitely Baa-Baa.

This thirst for all things Baa-Baa related has also extended to the precious few minutes he gets to play on one of our beat up laptops (which he affectionately calls "lap"). For the last few days, he's not only requested laptop time, but also urgently requested his, dare I say, first favorite video: Nursery Rhymes - Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Unlike usual laptop time, he isn't just interested in hitting buttons (he recently discovered that the CD tray pops out when just the right button is hit. Now, *this*, was the pure awesomeness). Instead, he'll sit quietly and watch Baa-Baa play out. When it's done, he'll plead for a replay of the video.

It's amazing, precious and a bit scary all at the same time.

So here it is, a 17 month's old idea of great media. Warning - everything about this video is off, and it's painful to watch. At this age, he's got a little ways to go before his tastes are more refined. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Toddler Airplane Survival Kit

Between our last few trips and useful links the web, I was inspired to redouble my efforts to make plane travel as painless as possible for us and our 17 month old.

See, he's at a tricky age - not so young that he's just satisfied with snoozing and sitting in one place, but not old enough to be bribed with a Disney DVD. He wants to move and explore. Always. And the fact that we have 6 cubic feet to ourselves isn't something he quite understands yet.

So, I took at a shot at developing an Airplane Survival Kit for him. It basically focused on three areas: brain activities (reading, drawing), tactile activities (opening containers, playing with various textures) and controlled destruction (un-spooling dental floss, sticking tape everywhere, etc.). I figured the last category would be especially important to provide - what toddler can't resist doing something they aren't supposed to?

Here's what was in the kit:

  • Travel Magna Doodle
  • 3 books rented from the library that he had never seen before. Two had photos, 1 had hand drawings. All contained some objects he knows the words for.
  • ID holder retractor thingy
  • Heavy duty tin foil
  • Couple of balloons
  • New container of dental floss
  • Unbreakable comb
  • Handful of colored pipe cleaners
  • Toothbrush that packs within itself
  • Handful of glow sticks
  • Various colored toothbrush containers
  • Roll of masking tape
  • Squigglet
  • Velcro cable tie
  • A few pairs of medical gloves (not shown)

As you can see, it all packed down quite snugly. There was actually more room to add stuff, if I felt like it.

How did it perform?

This last weekend, I had a chance to field test the kit on flights to and from Boston. The flights were a little under an hour. I've got to say, many items in the kit performed well.

The Magna Doodle, for example, was a definite winner. Last time we traveled, I brought along crayon and paper for him to use. Even with supervision, he managed to tag the wall, both sides of the tray table and his seat, before I could wrestle the crayon away from him. The Magna Doodle let him do some serious drawing without the potential mess. That, and the erase feature was just as fascinating to him as the ability to draw.

Other items like the dental floss were used in ways I hadn't expected. I would have imagined that he would have gotten much joy from unspooling the 20+yards of material. But really, we just ended up getting into a fascinating game of open-and-close. I'd flip open the cap, he'd close it. Repeat. Hey, it kept him in one place and occupied, which more than worked for me. In general, he liked playing with the containers.

The medical gloves inflated perfectly into characters he could interact with. And the texture of the Squigglet was as interesting to him as I thought it would be. He tugged away on that sucker, but nothing broke.

One trick that did work well, was that instead of asking for a drink, I asked for a cup and a couple ice cubes. Our little one entertained himself by playing with the cubes. Again, it was a bit of destruction, but didn't do any harm.

Overall, the kit worked well, and it was nice to have a variety of items to bounce between.

Have any suggestions for what I should add to it?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Tzipora Sara Highlight Collection

We had an absolutely wonderful time this weekend meeting our new niece, Tizpora Sara and hanging out with the Twins.

We managed to narrow down over 400 photos to this collection of 50 or so. It wasn't easy - these kids are cute, and everything they do is cute - but we didn't want to subject anyone to that large an album.

Of course, after a weekend of running after 4 children, Shira and I are both totally exhausted. But it's a good exhausted.

Enjoy!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Funnies: When Animals Get Chatty, with a Surfing Bonus

My brother David sent me this wonderfully clever set of animal clips. It's family friendly humor that Just Works. I think the dental scene is just too perfect.

As a bonus, I stumbled on this clip fairly randomly. It involves Iceland, Snow and Surfing. You've got to see it to appreciate it.

Making of Iceland segment from 'Castles In The Sky' Uploaded by broadbandsports.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Meeting Tzipora Sara

This afternoon we arrived in Boston and I got to meet my newest niece, Tzipora Sara! She's 7 pounds of cute and perfection. Seriously, she's a total angel.

We also got to see the twins, which was such a joy. They are talking and have such personality! I especially loved Chana's singing along with the ABC song, and Dovid's super-disarming grin that can get him out of any jam.

I've taken hundreds of photos since I arrived, but between our Little Guy, The Twins and Tzipora, I'm too wiped to put them all up. So here's just a few to whet your appetite. More coming soon!

Review: Thunderstruck

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson follows two stories - Marconi's invention of wireless communication and a well known London murder. As you might imagine, these seemingly disparate stories collide in an clever way.

I've got to say, I really enjoyed the book. Larson's style strikes me as fairly unique. On one hand, he gives you a massive amount of detail with respect to characters and setting. He just can't help himself, it seems. The information is just too interesting not to share. On the other hand, he manages to put the reader in the position of putting together the pieces of the puzzle, rather than spoon feeding you every conclusion. Of course, this is a tad bit frustrating, but I do appreciate that he has faith in his readers and this technique definitely makes for a better story. The technique was actually so effective that he got me to actually verbally gasp at surprise at the end of the book - not something a book on CD usually gets me to do.

What makes the story, though, is the characters. And chief among them is Marconi. He's got the social blindness and uber-focus of a true geek, and the information-spinning and big-picture tactics of a dot com CEO. Consider that he not only invented wireless communication as a practical tool, but also dealt with the tricky issue of competition and communication monopolies by inventing the notion of Wireless Service. That is, rather than a company buying his hardware, they sign onto his service.

On the murder side - it really is a brain teaser of a case. Shira's into her share of true crime books and it was fun being able to introduce her to such a classic story.

Overall, the book is an excellent read with plenty of historical, technical and business lessons. Just prepare yourself to get flooded with information — a quick read, this isn't.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

America in Handy Quote Form

This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African American President.
–Allen Ginsburg, via Mark Shields

Watch the full exchange:

Via crooksandliars.com

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

An Instant, Toddler Friendly, Mobile Acquarium

The other day, we took our little one to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Of all the displays there, the tank of brightly colored fish were his favorite.

I looked around on the Android Market for a fish tank app, but didn't find one that worked for me. So, I googled around, and here's what I came up with:

  • Point your Bar Code app at:
    qrcode
  • Follow the URL that got scanned
  • Long-press on the video of the fish tank, and select the full screen icon in the top left hand corner
  • Voila! You've got fishies on your screen!

Of course, this is just a looping clip of video - but for our 17 month old, it works.

The original video is hosted from pond5.com, which is a fun site to browse with your Android. Any video can be opened up full screen and played. While I love YouTube, it seems like there's definite value in pond5's content.

Happy fishing!

Google Chrome - Choosing business intel gathering over market share

Last night, I was installing Chrome on my netbook. When I got to the end of the setup, I received this prompt:

You couldn't really fault Google for setting Google Chrome to the Google Search Engine. After all, if someone is interested in Chrome, they are probably a fan of Google already.

And, these days, there are plenty of sneaky software installs that not only pick preferences like this for you - but might go behind your back and set the search engine of all your browsers. Heck, I just downloaded 7zip and somehow my Firefox home page got set to a new default. How sneaky.

Instead, Google has you pick from them and their competitors. Perhaps Google isn't just being non-sneaky here. If I had to guess, they are actually using the Chrome install as a chance to gather a little intel. Using this procedure, give users a chance to opt out of using Google, and then they can measure who doesn't.

So often, I see businesses who take every opportunity to make their service the one you use. Stopping, every once in a while, and seeing what people actually prefer - now that seems like something you could actually learn from. And if you can learn from it, you can make your product or service better.

Using this strategy you might lose some market share in the short term. But, in the long term you won't be blind to what your customers actually we want.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Gotcha of the Day: Dealing with multiple partions in Windows 7

The previous owner of my netbook had split the drive into a C:\ and D:\ partition. D: had the bulk of the space.

Back when I was doing Linux installs, I had a firm appreciation for setting up a machine utilizing multiple partitions. If /var had its own partition, then a run away log file couldn't fill up the root file system. And a small root file system meant less chance of it getting corrupted during a power loss.

But, I wasn't quite sure what the value would be in a Windows 7 box.

At first, I tried to embrace the idea. I looked around for ways to relocate C:\Users\ben to an alternate drive, but everywhere I looked suggested this was going to be especially tricky to do. Then I looked into using symbolic links, but I found that they didn't appear to work with Cygwin.

OK, if I couldn't use both partitions, maybe I could remove one, and go back to the typical big C:\ drive approach.

Again, using my past Linux experience, I expected this to be a dicey path to follow. Back in the day, you could use Partion Magic to manipulate partitions. But, it was a fragile thing to do, and not something you wanted to attempt unless you really had to.

And here's where Windows 7 really surprised me. Windows 7 has a built in utility for manipulating partitions.

I brought it up, deleted the D:\ partition, and resized C:\ all in about 30 seconds. It was effortless.

I love it when Windows 7 surprises me with a feature like that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Icetastic

The view from my parents upstairs window. Winter sure is pretty.

I Just Flew Into Rochester...

and boy are my arms cold!

Seriously, the snow covered landscape from my window seat really was gorgeous. The snow looks so pure from that vantage point.

There's snow on the ground here, what appears to be a few inches of it. But, rather than declaring it a state of emergency, like we do in DC, they call it "winter."

I could probably do without the Feels Like of 7°F that it was this morning - but that comes with the territory.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Yet Another Religious Tire Experience

Yet another flat tire while on the way shul. This is getting ridiculous.  Surely G-d is sending me a message, but what could it be?

Thankfully, of all the places to get a flat tire, shul is an ideal one. It's warm, has plenty of toys for our little guy to play with, and the Rabbi was kind enough to baby sit while I coordinated with the auto rescue guy changing the tire.

So, all in all, I'm thankful.

What's your theory?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thinking about Content Licensing

A while back, I got an e-mail from a firm asking me if they could use one of my photos of Atlantic City to create artwork for a piece they were doing on Boardwalk Empire. Could they? Could they? Heck yeah! For about 45 minutes I felt like an absolute rock star. Unfortunately, they quickly got back to me and told me that I had missed their deadline and they had to go another route. Alas, I missed out on a few minutes of my 15 minutes of fame.

Tonight, as I published some code, I got to thinking again about the content I publish here and how I'm happy to have folks use it.

It occurred to me, I really should put up some sort of legal statement that makes the rules of how you can use the content I publish here clear. Of course, I know nothing about the technical pitfalls of this sort of thing.

Luckily, the Creative Commons folks have done the heavy lifting. They even have a quick little tool you can use to to figure out which license of theirs you'd like to attach to your work. I ran through this and arrive at this one:

Creative Commons License
This work by Ben Simon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Going through this exercise has been a good one. It has given me a chance to think about who I want using my content and how I want it to be used. Of course, you may find the Creative Commons too broad - but for me, it seems to work perfectly. Regardless, if you publish content on the web, even as a personal blog, it's probably an important exercise to go through.

Now, when someone stumbles on my work and wants to use it, hopefully, they'll be no roadblocks in their way. 15 minute of fame, here I come!

A Terse SQLite API for Adobe AIR

Love the native SQLite support in Adobe AIR. Hate how verbose it is.

Here's my attempt at an API which supports pithier code:

Grab the Db object here. Below are some examples that show usage.

Use & Enjoy!

// Setup
db:Db = new Db();
db.sqlConnection = ... // magic construct your sql connection

// Run a statement and ignore the results
db.exec("CREATE TABLE IF NOT EXISTS people(id INTEGER PRIMARY KEY AUTOINCREMENT, name TEXT, ph TEXT)");

// Same as above, but use parameters
for(var i:int = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  db.exec(["INSERT INTO people(name,ph) VALUES(?,?)", "Foo" + i, "555-" + (1212 + i)]);
}

// Extract data from DB and put it into an imaginary UI
db.each("SELECT * FROM people WHERE name LIKE 'A%'",
        function(row:Object):void {
          ui.updateUi(row.name, row.ph);
        });

// Same as above, but work with a single row
db.first(["SELECT COUNT(*) AS num FROM people WHERE name LIKE ?", query],
         function(found) {
          if(found) {
            ui.setStatus("There are " + found.num + " matches");
          } else {
            ui.setStatus("Oh uh, nothing found!");
          }
         });

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Recipe: Tag Team Stew

This is the recipe we've been following for making stew lately. The ingredients are common enough, but the procedure we use to cook them is a bit on the odd side. It's all a result of trial and error, and what seems to work.


At 12:00pm, Ben combines the following into the crock pot. Setting the pot on high.

  • 1 can of diced potatoes
  • 2 containers of whole, fresh,mushrooms
  • 2 yellow onions
  • 1 container Trader Joe's Kosher Stew Meat
  • 1 8oz container of chicken broth
  • Three handfuls of baby carrots
  • A sprinkle of corn starch
  • Garlic salt
  • A liberal splashing of Texaspete's Hotter Hot Sauce
  • A couple of shakes of red paper

At 2pm, Ben turns the crock pot down to low.

At 5pm, Shira (who's just home from work), adds flour, soy sauce and anything else that strikes her fancy. She turns the crock pot back up to high.

At 6:30pm, delicious stew is served.

The Joy of Mastering New Vocabulary

Here's an audio clip I captured of our little guy practicing one of his new words, and having a fun old time doing it.

For the record: I recorded the clip using Voice Recorder, then imported the .gp3 file into Windows Movie Maker. I added a graphic and a title, and poof I was done.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Philmont Cookbook - Some tasty memories

My dad sent me this PDF today: The Philmont Country Cookbook.

I actually made two trips out to Philmont and both were an absolute joy. The food wasn't all that memorable, though I do recall on one of our trips we did some trail work and were rewarded with canned peaches. Yum, that was tasty!

Other odds and ends I remember...

  • One year I went with my brother Josh who was actually in charge of the group
  • I recall that on this trip with my brother lent me his backup pair of polypropylene socks because my feet were in a bad way. It was an act of kindness I'm still appreciative to this day
  • Food - along with the canned peaches I recall learning about the joy of pemican bars. They looked like food, but if memory servers me, were actually highly compressed bails of hay
  • I'm sure my pack weighed too much. All our gear was heavy. Carrying 60lbs wasn't out of the question. Man, I was a fool back then.
  • On the way to Philmont we did a white-water rafting trip. I recall, calling my parents and telling them how I just signed a release saying that if I died, it wasn't the rafting company's fault. How kind of me.
  • 14 days with a single shower. Man, those were the days.

Who knew a cookbook could bring back such fond memories?

Of course, if I had blogged the trip back then, I could have just looked up the posts to trigger the memories. Oh well, what did I know.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Phone Friday: MusicGrid - Music generation for babies

Our little one is just beginning to see laptops and phones as more than a chew toy. We've got a ways to go, but I can see the wheels turning in his head as he begins to appreciate that these devices might have some real entertainment value. With that in mind, I'm really glad I found MusicGrid. The app's description just doesn't do it justice:

Technically a step sequencers, MusicGrid was inspired by the funky Tenori-on and the great online ToneMatrix.

Huh?

But download it and give it a try and it makes sense in just a few seconds. You're presented with a grid. As you rake your finger over the screen, various cells in the grid are turned on. While you're doing this, the program is sweeping across the grid playing a tone for each enabled cell.

Through, what I can only describe as magic, no matter what you draw you get a pleasing little song out of the deal.

Don't take my word for it, try the web version — ToneMatrix — that inspired the mobile app to see what I mean.

Music creation is made so simple, our 16 month old can play along. The tactile and interactive interface is perfect for kids of all ages.

I'd love to see a way to record the songs - but even without that feature, it's still a fun little app.

While not as sexy - it's also worth checking out the always impressive Toddler Lock. It let's our little one play with the screen without needing as much supervision, as he can't leave the app and call customers of mine.

A Better Way To Offer Phone Support

Today, I was given a task by the wife: Cancel our trial subscription to the Quickbooks Time & Billing Manager tool we signed up for. We had gotten an e-mail from Intuit about our first month's charge and we didn't want to continue to use the tool.

Here's went through to get the job done:

  • Found the Contact Us link on the e-mail notifying me about the charge, clicked it, and found a phone number for Intuit Support
  • Navigated through 5 different levels of phone tree
  • Talked to a person at Quickbooks Technical support who couldn't help me, because he's in support not billing. He transferred me.
  • Talked to another person in Technical support, who again, said he couldn't help me. But, gave me a number I could in to in about 30 minutes (when they opened) to get the problem solved.
  • Called the given number and talked a very confused member of the Bill Pay team, who against my warning, transferred me again to Quickbooks Technical support.
  • Talked to a nice lady who transferred me back to the Intuit phone number I called earlier in the day.
  • Navigated the prompts from this morning differently and ended up at a Customer Server rep and not Technical Support. Was transferred again.
  • Finally talked to someone, who in a matter of minutes, canceled my subscription and gave me a refund for the charge.

Thing is, I wasn't really upset by any of this. This strikes me as normal for my interaction with Inuit, or really, most big companies. After all, there's all these limitations they have: the voice prompts can only be so specific and they can only have some many levels of phone tree. Not to mention, with such a huge company, I can't expect everyone to offer support or even know where to find it, for every product they offer..

But, thinking through this further it occurred to me that there was a better way.

Why not use click to call to offer an extensive directory on Quickbooks.com (or intuit.com or wherever)? They wouldn't be exposing phone numbers, and could have as deep and thorough a tree of options as they wanted. I could imagine something like:

  • ...
  • Quikbooks Phone Support
    • ...
    • Quickbooks Time & Billing Manager
      • Problem logging in Call
      • Sign up for the free trial Call
      • Stop the free trial Call
      • Questions about using Call
      • ...
    • ...
    • ...
  • ...

Obviously, many of the Call buttons go to the same location - but they could be organized and structured in a way that made sense to the outside user. And, because you're not exposing phone numbers, you can re-organize them behind the scenes as often as you want.

You could even taken this one step further, allowing people like myself to associate specific questions with the Call option they selected. Then add in digg style wisdom-of-the-crowds behavior, so that as a new type of question comes up, more and more people would rank the right number to call. The result being that as more people get help, your help system gets easier to use.

In this case, though, there's actually an even cleverer solution they could implement. The e-mail I got from Inuit has the From address:

Intuit Customer Service <No_Reply@notifications.intuit.com>

Ahhh, the classic, No_Reply technique. But why? Wouldn't having reply support here be perfect? Imagine if the From address not only went to a human, but had embedded in it information about this transaction.

Getting my question answered should have been as easy as hitting the reply button and asking: "How can I cancel this trial?"

And why not mix the two concepts? Why not have a Call about this e-mail button I can click on and immediately get to an individual who's ready to talk about this specific e-mail?

I know support systems hardly seem like the place to innovate. But think about how valuable it could be. And the the technology to do this is available and just itching to be used for stuff like this. You just need to put some effort into the problem, and most importantly understand that this is an example of a problem, not constraint.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review: America by Heart

I had actually started a quite comprehensive critique of American by Heart - Sarah Palin's latest book. But, screw it. If Sarah's book can have a shoot-from-the-hip-folksy feel to it, so can my review. (Note: I will find a way to work at least on You Betcha! into this review).

As stories go, I found the book to contain little that was new. I felt like it was the book version of the narrative coming out of the Republican party for the last two years or so. It was like reading a highlights real: everything from Jeremiah Wright to Bristol Palin's Dancing with the Stars is mentioned. With the exception of the last chapter on Palin's own take on Faith and Leadership, there wasn't really anything new for me in here.

And it's packed full of wonderful gems like:

The deep unrest in America today wasn't caused by the color of the president's skin but the content of his policies. And more and more, it seems that the starting point for these policies is the liberal view that the Constitution is a flawed document. (p24)

Really? Liberals hate the constitution? Really?

Or this one:

We have a president, perhaps for the first time since the founding of our republic, who expresses his belief that America is not the greatest earth force for good the world has ever known. Now, I know that sounds a little overblown to many educated liberals, a little jingoistic. But so many of us do believe America is the exceptional force for good. America is not a perfect place. We have made mistakes, and allowed some terrible things in our history. Given the sordid historical record of virtually every other country on this planet, however, I think our pride in America is perfectly justified. Yet our current president seems to see nothing uniquely admirable about an America that fought two world wars and sought not one inch of territory or one dollar of plunder...(p264)

Really? Obama doesn't like America enough? Really?

This is just silly. I mean, it would be silly, but enough people want to believe this crap that when Sarah Palin says it, it becomes true. And thanks to this book not only has she said these things, but they're in print. So it definitely has to be true.

I really, truly wanted to like this book. I really, truly wanted to say that if I had grown up with Republican parents, surrounded by Republican friends, I'd totally be down with this book. But, I just can't. It's too shallow, too simplistic and too willing to fudge the facts when the story demands it.

Oh fooey, I'm at the end of the post and I didn't manage to work in a You Betcha. Am I disappointed? You Betcha!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Forgetting Math and Other Inspiration for a Good Planning Strategy

I love this home schooling story by Kille Crowe on her blog:

[Kelli recounting a week of home schooling successes]
We had done so many great experiments in science and built a fort for history.

Just as I was practicing my acceptance speech for the Great Mom Awards (GMA's),

Alex commented to me,

"It is kinda weird that we didn't even do math all week."

WHAT?

I had forgotten to do MATH?

All

week?

I think these forgot the math moments are definitely possible while running a small business. You're humming along, and then bam!, you realize that you forgot something essential. Lately, I've been thinking about disaster recovery, and that's a perfect example of a topic that's easy to ignore and regret later.

The solution for Kelli was to develop a monthly chart that she and her kids could work against. All it takes her is a couple hours once a month to do planning for her 3 kids.

I love that she found a simple solution which kept her on track, yet didn't bog her down with process and busy work.

I'm not quite sure what my "monthly chart" should look like for my small business. But after reading Kelli's story, I'm pretty certain I need one.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Hack of the Day: Making a Free Capacitive Stylus (or, how to use your phone and keep your hands warm)

With cold weather upon us, the fact that my G2's touch screen doesn't work through gloves has been bothersome. I'd had a few half baked ideas as to how to deal with this: (1) buy a pair of photographer's gloves that allow finger tips easy access or use (2) nose dialing (crazy, but just crazy enough to work maybe?).

Today, I learned that a real solution to this problem exists: the capacitive stylus. These appear to be like the old school stylus of the Palm days, yet with some sort of magic that makes them work on touch screen's like the G2 and iPhone.

$13.00 was a bit more than I wanted to spend on an item which I may not get much use out of - so I figured I'd google around and see if there's was a cheaper option out there.

And there is. How about Free: pocketnow.com: How to make a free capacitive stylus. The bottom line is that an anti-static bag, when rubbed against the screen, will work as though your finger was touching it. By rolling up the anti-static bag and taping it you've got an instant stylus.

I tried it with a bag I had lying around and sure enough it worked. Tomorrow I hope to get out my x-acto knife and some tape and see if I can actually make something that's a compact and workable stylus.

(Full disclosure: Pocketnow.com is a client of mine. But, I'm not plugging this link because of this. I simply googled for capacitive stylus and they were the first link in the non-paid results)

The Achievement Test: The sanest piece of poltical writing I've read in months

My brother pointed me to an op-ed by David Brooks: The Achievement Test. If you read one thing this month relating to politics, please make it this piece.

Brooks offers up an alternative to the Cut the size government at all costs or Protect government programs at all costs mentalities. Instead, he proposes we do something wild and crazy: evaluate the choices we make about government not based on buzz words and political posturing, but on whether the choice would generate any good for the country:*

The best way to measure government is not by volume, but by what you might call the Achievement Test. Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?

His article gives examples where "Big Government" meets this criteria, and examples where it doesn't. He also shows that the same can be said of "Small Government."

His vision of how the Achievement Test could be used makes quite a bit of sense:

Reframing the argument around achievement wouldn’t end partisan division. Democrats and Republicans differ on what makes an economy productive. But it would allow for horse-trading.

As part of the budget process, Republicans could champion the things they believe will enhance productivity and mobility. Many of these will mean making sure people have the incentives to take risks and the freedom to adjust to foreign competition: a flatter, simpler tax code with lower corporate rates, a smaller debt burden, predictable regulations, affordable entitlements.

Democrats could champion the things they believe will enhance productivity and mobility. Many of these will mean making sure everybody has the tools to compete: early childhood education, infrastructure programs to create jobs, immigration policies that recruit talent, incentives for energy innovation.

And perhaps the key point is this:

The two agendas sit in tension, but they are not contradictory.

I think this point especially has been lost over the past few years. Anything Obama is for, McCain, Palin, Boehner and McConnell have to be vehemently against. Everything from Health Care to whether Obama can give a pep-talk to students has been met with resistance. From what I can see, the use of the filibuster just underscores the problem — when any progress by the other side is a loss, it means that every opportunity to block progress is a win and worthy of this extreme maneuver.

Tension is a good thing. Deadlock due to resolve that the views of each party are necessarily diametrically opposed is nothing but bad news.

Serious, I wonder who I could get to read Brook's article to actually talk some sense into these guys?

*Or as Obama and no doubt others have said: we don't need bigger government or smaller government - we need smarter government

Monday, January 03, 2011

Setting up an S3 backup solution on a CentOS VPS

I wanted to expand on the built in backup facilities Rimuhosting provides, and I figured S3 would be the way to go.

Attempt #1: s3fs

My first attempt was to use s3fs to make my S3 bucket available, and then use rsync to copy to it. I read about the idea here and was sold.

The setup instructions in the original post didn't quite apply to the CentOS server I was using. Via a combination of Google and trial and error, I came up with the follow yum install commands:

sudo yum install fuse fuse-devel python-devel
sudo yum install curl-devel
sudo yum install libxml-devel
sudo yum install libxml2-devel
cd ~/util/src
wget http://s3fs.googlecode.com/files/s3fs-r191-source.tar.gz
tar xzf s3fs-r191-source.tar.gz
cd s3fs
sudo make install

I entered the command:

sudo mkdir /mnt/s3
sudo /usr/bin/s3fs yourbucket -o accessKeyId=yourS3key -o secretAccessKey=yourS3secretkey /mnt/s3

And to my absolute amazement, it worked - I was able to trivially access my S3 bucket as though it were just another file system.

I kicked off an rsync command to test out the backup - and that's where I ran into the catch. It was so very s l o w. After a couple of minutes, only an itty bitty fraction of the 3 Gigs of data that needed to be backed up where in the S3 share.

Attempt #2: duplicity

Reading through the comments of the above approach, another user suggested duplicity as a work around for the sluggish S3FS behavior.

All it took was a simple:

 sudo yum install duplicity

and the duplicity was ready for use.

I found this HOWTO which gives specific tips about how to use duplicity over S3.

My final backup script wasn't far from what was shown there on that page. Here's what I arrived at:

#!/bin/bash

export PASSPHRASE=XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
export AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID=XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
export AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY=XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

dirs="/var/svn \
     /var/www \
     /home \
     /usr/local/stuff"

for d in $dirs; do
  prefix=$(basename $d)
  echo duplicity $d s3+http://backup.bucket.name/$prefix
  duplicity $d s3+http://backup.bucket.name/$prefix
  echo ""
done

The script above is a little chatty for testing purposes.

I was able to backup about 4Gigs of data in about 45 minutes (or, what felt like 30 minutes - I lost track of time).

I like the duplicity approach for a variety of reasons:

  • The standard file formats (tar+GPG) make sense from a backup perspective
  • The incremental backup functionality means that backups should be a relatively quick affair going forward
  • Restoring files is quite easy. I did a quick test and had no problems with it
  • The app has a unix'ish feel to it - it does one thing and does it well

I've added duplicity to cron and we'll see tomorrow how my 3am backup goes.

All in all, this seems like a winning solution. I'll also keep S3FS around too, as it's a wonderfully clever way to access S3 buckets.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Old Town though an Old Camera

We had an excellent night out last night in Old Town Alexandria, and I couldn't resist snapping a few retro camera snapshots.

We had dinner at Red Rocks, a classy pizza joint, and ice cream at Pops down the street. While the food was great, having a baby sitter and spending the evening with friends and not chasing a 16month old around a restaurant was truly precious.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

I've Been Uncled Again!

A super huge Mazel Tov to Elana and Shmuel on the birth of our my newest Niece: Tzipora Sara!

What an angel!

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