Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cape Town Adventure - Day 8

As if we didn't get enough hiking in yesterday, we thought we would try a recommended hike at Silvermine Reserve. The terrain was much simpler than Table Mountain, but the vegetation and views were still top notch. One section of the hike to the Elephant Eye Cave was precarious, which reminded us of what we went through yesterday, but again, the views and the cave made it worth the sore muscles.

After Silvermine, we made our way to lunch in Hout Bay via Chapman's Peak Drive. Wow. This drive is highly recommended and the scenery can't be beat. I definitely got white knuckles as I held on while Shira wound her way along the narrow, curvy highway with the ocean below.

We finished the day at the World of Birds and Monkey Jungle, which allowed up close and personal viewing of monkeys and birds without a pesky fence in between you and them. It's ironic that we would do heights and birds in one day, as those are pretty much my two most dreaded things. But, both were worth the discomfort. Even I had to admit the birds were quite an impressive collection.

Still, tomorrow I'm taking Shira to extra museums to make up for this!

View all photos from today

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cape Town Adventure - Day 7

My first thoughts when I saw Cape Town by day were: (1) Wow, what an amazing site Table Mountain is. And (2), how the heck am I ever going to get up there? With my paralyzing fear of hights, this just isn't going to be possible.

Luckily, Shira had made arrangements ahead of time with a guide to take us up, so there wasn't any question - we were doing the mountain.

Today, at around 7:30am we left the road and started hiking up part of the mountain. And up, and up and up some more. The views along the way were amazing. The vegetation was both recognizable (hey, that looks like a pine cone!) but totally foreign (but it's growing out of a small plant, not a pine tree). We scrambled up rocks, traversed valleys and gaped at awesome views.

Along the way, it was our guide Margaret from Table Mountain Walks who kept us going. "It's all easy" was her refrain, and I just kept asking her to repeat this, as I traveled higher and higher up.

Lunch was outstanding, but of course, climbing a mountain and hiking 11km or so, will make almost any food taste great.

With the climb and lunch completed, and the views photographed as well as possible (which is to say, not well at all - how do you capture that much landscape?!) there was only the minor detail of getting down the mountain. We could have opted for the cable car, but please, we wanted the whole hiking experience. So, it was down the Platteklip Gorge for us.

Wikipedia calls this gorge "an easy and direct ascent to the summit." The direct part is correct, the easy part is a bit of an understatement. The gorge is essentially a natural rock staircase that requires quite a bit of care to make your way down.

Down the gorge we trudged. At one point, our guide took out her cell phone and called the cars to pick us up. Only one hour left of walking *down* to go. Ugh.

When it was all said and done, this has to be one of the most challenging and enjoyable hikes we've ever done. I felt like we really took in Table Mountain, and Shira really nailed it choosing Table Mountain Walks as our guide. If you are thinking of hiking up Table Mountain, Margaret is the one you want leading the way!

See all the pictures from today.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cape Town Adventure - Day 6

One of the highly recommended activities when visiting Cape Town is that of touring wine country. We aren't really big wine people, so I wasn't exactly sure if we were going to indulge. Shira, in a stroke of brilliance, found a perfect solution: we toured a single winery: Zandwijk. What makes Zandwijk so unique is that it's the only fully Kosher winery in South Africa.

We had a wonderful tasting of wine and cheese, an excellent walk around the grounds (including a little chat with Frank, who's been tending the winery for 29 years!) and generally got a flavor of the whole wine tour thing.

From Zandwijk, we made our way to Franschhoek, an adorable little town in the heart of wine country. They had all the essentials there: excellent food, a cute museum, more gardens and most importantly, gelato.

I finally got to try some South African food (or so I was told), including some cold pickled fish in a curry sauce and Bobotie - a yummy lentil dish. Both were quite delish.

We finished up our evening with another critical sight seeing location: the nearby casino. As casinos go, it was remarkably in almost every way: they had an impressive number of reasonably priced restaurants, a large kid friendly arcade, a movie theater and even an ice skating rink. Unfortunately, they don't have craps, and the blackjack tables were on continuous auto-shufflers. Feh. So, it was impressive in every way *except* the gambling. Still, we actually walked out of there a few Rand ahead. Always a treat, regardless of the currency.

View all photos from today.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cape Town Adventure - Day 4

Today was a walk-around-and-see-the-local-sites day. Cape Town definitely didn't disappoint. The Castle is not only interesting architecturally, but contains, 3, count 'em 3, museums. I enjoyed each thoroughly.

We also made our way to the Slave Lodge, which tells of the horrific slave conditions within Cape Town itself.

Finally, we made our way through Company Gardens, where we found the oldest tree to be cultivated in South Africa.

I admit it, there were more museums to go to, but even my brain was too full to take in any more information.

Of all the sites we saw, one of the most impressive was an exhibit on Hugh Tracey. Tracey apparently went throughout Africa recording the various types of music performed by the natives.

I can just imagine Hugh explaining to his parents his chosen profession. You want to do what now, son? Are you kidding me?

All in all, a most fun day. And there's still plenty for us to see and learn around town. I know Shira's excited to no end for this.

See all photos from today

Cape Town Adventure - Day 5

Today started with a trip to Robben Island - the offshore prison which was used to house political prisoners during Apartheid. The island's history starts quite a bit before that, when it served as both a prison and leper colony. In other words, this was never really a place you wanted to find yourself.

As if the tour, fascilities and general atmosphere weren't enough to drive home the occasion, the actual tour through the cell block is done by a former inmate. Our guide had served 7 years on the island, and shared some harsh stories. It just boggles the mind that as I was in middle school, there were inmates in this jail, serving under the harshest of conditions. And now, tour groups of all nationalities can walk through the area.

After the island, we made our way to Goldies, a Kosher restaurant in Cape Town. I pigged out on schwarma and chips, it was outstanding.

We finished the day with a trip to Kirsenbosch Gardens. As botanical gardens go, it was outstanding. There were quite a few plants that I'd never seen anything quite like.

One tip, if you visit the gardens: you can take a path up towards table mountain. Don't, as we did, assume that it loops back around into the gardens. After about 45 minutes of walking, we finally got the hint that we were no longer on the grounds of the gardens. We did indeed make it back without problems, though for future reference, it's a great place to start some long hikes. Just make sure you intend to do this before you set out.

View all photos from today

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cape Town Adventure - Day 3

What an adventure we had today! It all started with renting a car, and making our way to Cape Point, the very southern tip of South Africa. This would be tricky enough to do in a foreign city, but throw in the fact that they drive on the wrong side of the road, and this becomes really interesting.

Along the way, we stopped for a most excellent breakfast in Simon's Town (how could we not stop?), where I got a nice dose of museum viewing in.

From Simon's town, we made our way to Boulder's beach, where we saw the colony of Penguins which set up shop there in the 80's. The life of a penguin looks pretty chill - lots of sitting around getting admired by tourists with an occasional dip in the water for some fishing.

After the penguins, we made our way to Cape Point. As you would imagine, the views from this Southern most point were spectacular. After schlepping up the hill to the old lighthouse, we made our way to the actual Cape of Good Hope.

In college, I infamously flubbed an essay when I blanked on who or what a Vasco Da Gama was. I wrote extensively about how this related to the Samurai of Japan (yeah, I was reaching in a major way that day). Of course, Da Gama was an explorer - but not just any explorer, he was one of the first to sail around the Cape of Good hope and on to India. It was fitting, therefore, that I should finally get to glimpse the history I so massively butchered in college.

A number of people, and signs, warned of baboons in the park. They have a reputation for snatching the food right from your hand. As we stepped out of the car, and got ourselves ready, we heard rustling in the bushes nearby. I calmly told myself it was just the shrubs making my imagination act up. As we turned and walked through the parking lot, a couple of toursists were in front of us carrying their picnic lunch. Sure enough, out of the bushes appeared a baboon, who deftly snatched the bag of food and carefully opened it up to eat as his own lunch. So classic.

This was truly an awesome day with awesome sights.

View all photos

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Cape Town Adventure - Day 2

We woke up for the 2nd day of our Cape Town adventure surprisingly refreshed. We spent most of the day at the V&A waterfront. But, have no fear, there's a maritime musuem and aquarium there, so I learned about history and science in the process.

A big accomplishment was setting up our cell phone's to operate here. We purchased a SIM card from Vodacom, which was a pretty painless experience. The card itself cost about 2 bucks, though the minutes aren't quite as cheap. Before you can utilize your phone on an alternate network you need to get Unlocked. This used to be a somewhat sketchy process, as the phone carriers had no incentive to allow you to do this (essentially, you have a phone that's locked into them). Apparently, things have changed for the better in this department, as all I needed to do get my phone unlocked was to call T-mobile and ask them for a special code. Not sure if all cell companies are this accomodating or if T-mobile stands out in this department.

Another unexpected treat: we had the most delicious and authentic falafel today. Seriously, it was like eating on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Tomorrow we hope to get out of the city and do a bit of exploring of the nearby area. No matter what happens, driving on the left side of the road, guarantees it's going to be a big adventure!

View Photos

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cape Town Adventure - Day 1

25 hours ago we left our door step, and in just a few minutes, I hope to hit the sack in Cape Town, South Africa.

All things equal, this has been an amazingly easy journey. Our flights with KLM were both above average. Sure, we had a few hiccups (they lost my vegetarian meal the first flight, Shira's video capability was broken the second flight), but all in all, we came out ahead. Through a bit of luck, for our 11 hour flight, we were seated in Economy Plus. Nowhere near as exciting as getting upgraded to business class, but still a victory when every inch of legroom counts. And KLM's entermainment options are top notch, with what seems like dozens of movies to pick from.

We also have a new favorite airport: Amsterdam's. Where else do you have a museum and library for me to poke around in, and a casino with table games for my wife to kill some time at?

One highlights of the flight (besides seeing Battle Los Angels - whoo, what a fun movie!), was getting a glimpse at some of the African desert. I snapped a few pictures of it, but they don't do the scenery justice. It didn't look like thee were signs of life for miles and miles.

As for Cape Town itself, we really havnen't seen anything yet. Everyone has been quite kind to us, and there's not the usual rushing that seems to happen when checking into a US hotel.

Tomorrow the real fun begins.

View Pictures

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

5 Nifty Features of Canon EOS T3i

I'm really enjoying my new Canon EOS T3i. While making my way through the manual, I've come across a number of features that just had me say Hmmm, that's pretty slick. None of these are Earth shattering, and heck, this is my first DSLR - so perhaps these are all standard? Still, to me, they're cool.

1. While playing back images, you can assign a number of stars rating. The rating you provide is added to the metadata of the image, and seamlessly shows up in Windows and Picasa. I tend to take bazillions of pictures, and the rating mechanism seems like an easy way to do some in-camera editing. I can easily assign meanings to each of the levels of rating, and then take action on them when I download the images.

Related feature: you can set the Artist and Copyright that's embedded in the image. It's kind of neat to see that information show up in Windows and Picasa automatically.

2. The self-timer can shoot a sequence of photos. The first time I setup a self timer shot, I explicitly set the count down to 10 seconds. Once it reached 10 seconds, a photo snapped. Then another. Then another. Apparently, I had set the number of shots to take 10, not the duration. This feature is especially handy for a large group - set it to take 10 shots, and you're chances of catching everyone's eyes open has just increased 10x (right?).

3. There's a mode dial setting for fully automatic without flash. I like my manual modes (see below). And, I've never been a fan of a camera having lots of specific modes (sports, portraits, night, etc.), the problem being that I'm not quite sure what each mode buys me, and rarely am I shooting the exact topic the mode calls for. Regardless, I do very much like the idea of an auto-everything mode to fall back on. Pick up camera, point, shoot, and know you've got a photo. The neat thing here is that I can set it to all auto mode, minus the flash. I usually shoot without a flash, as it's going to attract less attention. So, if I snapped off some quick pictures, it's reassuring to me to know that I'm not going to be blasting off the flash unexpectedly.

I've tried to get good about leaving the camera in this mode, with the idea being that the camera is always ready to go.

4. You can easily control which folder you're saving photos into. Like I said above, I tend to shoot a whole lot of pictures. If I can organize them into folders, my life organizing them is going to be much easier. The cameras I've owned in the past let you explicitly start a new folder to shoot photos in, but the EOS T3i kicks this up a notch. First, you can not only create new folders, but select past folders. You can also see how many pictures are being stored in each folder. The camera even adapts fairly well to existing folders.

As a bonus, hitting the Menu key takes you back to the previous setting you were messing with. So frequently, when I hit menu, it's all set up to muck with the folder settings.

Finally, you can add shortcuts on a custom menu. Sure enough, a short cut to folder management was the first one I made.

5. I'm impressed with how close I can come to treating this DLSR like my original film SLR. Sure, I can switch into manual exposure mode, but that's just the beginning. The viewfinder's exposure compensation turns into an old school light meter, and the side of the lens even includes a depth-of-field preview. Heck, you can customize the camera so the auto-focus happens when you press the exposure-lock (aka: "*") button, the result being that when you press the shutter button no further delay happens - a photo is just snapped (you could also switch manual focus mode, too). You can even turn off the LCD screen, or rotate it so that it faces inward to avoid chimping.

On a side note: I wonder what would happen if a camera manufacturer came out with a DSLR that was more or less the equivalent of the Pentax K1000. That is, a digital camera that offered only manual modes, a light meter and almost no other features. Would they sell only to retro buyers with too much nostalgia and money on their hands? Or would it be an an appealing alternative to the feature-heavy cameras that are out there?

6. Video Snapshots may be a worthwhile feature. This bonus item isn't something I can actually say is useful, as I haven't tried it. But, the manual describes a Video Snapshot Feature where you shoot a series of 2-8 second clips and glue them together into a longer movie.

Could be a useful way to get me to shoot video, and one that doesn't require much editing. Or, it could be a waste of time. A little experimenting should clear that one up.

What EOS features do you especially like? What am I missing?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Worth a Read: Street Photography Tips and Techniques

Looking through PictureCorrect.com's Top 10 Photography Articles of 2011 (is it top 10 time already?!), I found the one on Street Photography to be especially interesting.

The first tip that caught me was this one:

You’ll be headed out to a tourist spot, so dress like a tourist. I’m not kidding. Although you may have lived in your city for 50 years, get yourself a tourist map and dress like you have just arrived from the mid-west on vacation. I’ll leave that part for you to figure out.

Visit a crowded tourist attraction where everyone has a camera. Dress and act as just another tourist. Study your tourist map. Gawk at the landmark like everyone else. And keep an eye out for interesting subjects.

And why do you want to look like a tourist? So you can do this:

Start off like everyone else. Take pictures of the landmark. Keeping the camera to your eye you can now scan through the crowd for something interesting. As you take pictures, do not remove the camera from your eye even after you have the shot you wanted. Continue to move the camera around pretending to take pictures. Never give away the fact that you’ve taken someone’s picture by removing the camera from your eye after taking the shot.

You may not find anyone worth shooting, but this is an easy way to get started. It shouldn’t be very scary, and you will find that even while standing very close to your subjects you can take their pictures without arousing suspicion. You can employ the same techniques at street fairs, or parades. Just about any crowded area which is filled with tourists is a good place to practice.

The article goes on from there, giving even more useful tips. But that one alone, is both brilliant and simple enough to work.

Time to hit the National Mall, and see if I can't put this, and other tips, to use.

Update: apparently street photography is a big topic on my RSS feed today. These two articles are also worth reading on the subject.

Latest Home Improvement: Adding a Shed

We were so pleased with the construction of our deck, that when we started thinking about putting a shed in, it was a no brainer to call Ed again.

Check out the sweet little mini-house he built for us below. I'd have more pictures to upload, but he built it so dang fast. He did the whole thing in two (long) days.

It's kind of a shame I have to fill it with random stuff. Part of me wants to install a desk and hammock, and call it The Office. Sure, it'd be chilly in the winter, and sweltering in the summer, but it would be my own. But, in the end, I know better - it's going to be an excellent little storage location.

Built by: Buzzi 3 Construction.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Phone Friday: 2 Player Reactor - A no brainer game recommendation

I've never really got into gaming. Sure, I mastered Super Mario Brothers and Doom - but that's pretty much where my gaming expertise ends. Every once in while I'll poke around the Android Market for games, but I don't usually get into them. But, I do believe I've found an exception: 2 Player Reactor.

I found 2 Player Reactor after having a bit of a brilliant thought: perhaps there's a two person game that I could have Shira and myself download, and next time we're waiting around for a train to arrive, we could play against each other. The odds of finding a game we'd both want to play were slim. And it's not unusual to have no cell phone access when we're standing around waiting for a Metro train. So, the whole thing was a long shot.

Turns out, 2 Player Reactor fit the bill perfectly. The game, as the name suggests, is a played by two people. The clever part, though, is you don't play it over the Internet. Nope, it's simpler than that - you play it on the same handset.

The Reactor part of the name comes from the actual game play: you and you opponent take part in tiny little exercises and the first to get the right answer gets a point. For example, the screen may show a series of color names that have a particular color to them. When the name and the color matches ("blue" is shown in blue, versus "blue" being shown in red), you click your section of the screen. The winner gets a point, the loser loses a point. After a number of questions the game ends a winner is pronounced.

My explanation is more complicated than the game itself.

I just love the simplicity behind the game. I love that it actually makes your phone more social, rather than less so. And I love that every once in a while, I'm faster on the draw than my wife and I get to earn a few points.

A related game is 2 Player Ripples, which is quite a bit more chill than the speedfest of Reactor 2. But, it too has its place.

Both are definitely worth having on your phone. I'd expect this app would work well for kids, too.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Most Dangerous Plugin In the Office: WP SQL Executioner

Wired has a wonderful little section in their magazine titled Most Dangerous Object in the Office, where they goof around with something completely inappropriate. It's in this spirit of recklessness that I share my new favorite WordPress plugin: SQL Executioner.

Last night I found myself in a somewhat typical predicament: I had access to a customer's WordPress install, but what I really needed was low level database access. In the past I had access to phpMyAdmin, but somewhere along the lines, a password got changed and I couldn't get in. Rather than give up and mail the customer, I thought I'd find a work around.

My first thought was to port an ancient PHP script I'd written to setup a super lightweight interactive MySQL query environment. But, before I did, I thought I'd poke around see if anyone had done this already.

Sure enough, Justin Watt had done exactly this (years ago, no less!). Which is what WP SQL Executioner is. Essentially, it's a text box that will blindly execute any SQL you throw at it.

Insanely dangerous? You bet. Useful in a pinch. Definitely.

In my defense, the WordPress install I was working on last night was in a development environment. Additionally, I removed the plugin when I was done with it.

As tools go, it's a sharp one. But who doesn't love sharp tools?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tool of the Day: s3-bash - lightweight Amazon S3 access

When a server I have full control needs access to Amazon's S3 service, I usually turn to either duplicity or S3cmd. Both are polished tools that make it dang near trivial to push content to S3.

Today, however, I ran into a little bit a snag - I need to push thousands of files to S3, but I don't have full control over the server. Installing various libraries and such wasn't a possibility. My first assumption was that I was going to need to push the data to a server that did have s3cmd installed (probably using ssh+tar). Turns out, there was a better and simpler way: use s3-bash.

s3-bash, as the name implies, is a variety of s3 related scripts that leverage commonly installed tools. To my amazement (and appreciation!), I was able to upload these scripts to the serer in question, ssh in, and use them to access S3.

I took a peek in the files, and they really are masterfully written. Integrating with Amazon has some tricky requirements (such as the need to derive a request signature), and finding work arounds to do all this using standard tools is quite slick.

With that said, I couldn't help make my life a little easier by writing a wrapper shell script around the s3-* family of commands. The idea is that rather than specify the credentials on every command line use, my wrapper script could take care of that. Here's my wrapper:

#!/bin/bash

##
## A custom wrapper around s3-bash to make calling it easier
##

bash_home=/path/to/the/s3-bash/commands
secret=$bash_home/amz.secret
key=`cat $bash_home/amz.key`
headers=$bash_home/amz.headers
what=$1 ; shift

$bash_home/s3-$what -k $key -s $secret  -a $headers "$@"

I invoke this script by saying:

  s3 get -T foo /bucket.name/file/path/bar.txt

Notice how the script provides the -k and -s option, which are used for authentication. It also provides a -a argument, which provides Amazon specif headers. In my case, this file contains:

  x-amz-acl: public-read

This forces all files that I upload to be readable by the public.

With my s3 command in place, I was able to push a whole tree of files by running the command:

 find * -name '*.xlv' | while read f ; do echo $f ; s3 put -T $f /bucket.client.com/$f ; done

Gosh I love Linux! Add s3-bash to your toolkit today, you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera

Now that I'm back to hauling around an SLR, I thought it would make sense to do some refresher reading on the topic of photography. In a number of places, I saw Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson recommended and fortunately enough, our library had a copy. I was sold.

Reading through the book, I was struck by two seemingly opposite sensations: (1) man, this is just basic photography stuff and (2) this stuff is really, really powerful.

Even though the text covers digital photography, the core concepts are the same as when Mr. Tschorke was teaching them to me in high school: shutter speed controls how sharp or blurry a photo will be; aperture controls the depth of field; and ISO controls how sensitive the film is. Fiddle with these, and the same scene can have dramatically different results. I knew this before the book, and I've been since reminded of it after. But, being taken through these core concepts again, really did bring them to the forefront of my mind and remind me just how powerful they can be.

The book also includes a number of suggestions on how to meter various types of scenes. In this digital age it seems like these tips wouldn't be necessary any longer - just shoot the photo, examine it on the LCD screen, and adjust. But, I was awfully proud of myself when I added +1 stops of exposure to some photos I took at the ice rink. Instead of gray ice, I got white, just like the book suggested.

The fundamentals are powerful. If you're shooting photos and haven't brushed up on the basics in a while, it's worth taking the time to get reacquainted with the founding principles of photography.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fall In (and Around) Arlington

The last week or so has been a happy confluence of events: first, the weather has been fantastic. We've had a ton of crisp, perfect falls. Second of all, I'm absolutely loving my new Canon EOS T3i. Any reservations I had about a DSLR have melted away - this thing makes photography so much fun. Finally, Shira's bike riding skills have been building seemingly exponentially. We've done a couple of 10+ mile rides, and just yesterday, we rode into 8 miles into Old Town Alexandria.

All this means that I've been outdoors, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery. I've snapped quite a number of photos, though none have seemed to capture quite how gorgeous fall can be in DC. Still, I keep trying. Here's the best of what I've taken so far.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ice and Ice Cream - A Fun Day With Kids

What a fun day! We did ice skating with one kid, lunch and the most delicious dessert with another (oh yeah, the parents were there too, but who cares about them?). For our little figure skater, it was his first time ever on ice and he did amazingly well. Not only did he hold on tight as we made our way around the rink, but he was even able to go solo from his Mom to Shira (while I was snapping photos, of course). We did the ice skating at Pentagon Row, where for years we've seen people skating but finally tried it ourselves. Friday at 10am turns out to be a most excellent time to get on the ice, as we had the place to ourselves.

As for baby Aurora, she was so interactive today. She decided that my yapping away and constant hand gestures when I talked were especially delightful (which is a good thing, because that's just me). With her, we discovered The Dairy Godmother, a fun dessert spot. The pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin whoopie pie were both delicious.

I shot about 370 photos today, but thanks to Shira, they've been paired down to just a lean 16. Here you go:

(visit the full album)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Music Source of the Day: SoundCloud.com

Looks like I'm going to get to continue my music related blog posting. Somehow I managed to trip over SoundCloud.com, and I'm quite impressed.

I managed to follow a link on the site to the tag tech house, clicked on the first song, and sat back while it continuously played "hot" songs from that category. As one song finishes, the next automatically starts up - it even takes me to the next page in the search results.

What I find most impressive is the quality and diversity of House music I've managed to listen to. No annoying commercials or other cruft to get in the way, just a seemingly endless supply of tunes.

For the songs that I found myself especially rock'n out to, I flagged as a favorite. Here, check them out.

SoundCloud.com is more than just a place to find content, they also offer extensive publishing/hosting facilities. Alas, I don't really much (anything?) to publish there. Though, I've downloaded the Android app just in case I do find some sound worth capturing and sharing.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Review: E-Z Deck Wash

About a week ago I was given an assignment: clean off the gunk on the railing of our front porch. My first attempt involved soap, water and a sponge. Turns out, whatever was on the railing, it was not at all bothered by this assault. So, off I went to my favorite hardware store to find a solution.

I came home with a bottle of E-Z Deck Wash, which promised dramatic results with just a simple application, waiting 10 minutes, and washing it off.

How'd it do? Well, here's the before picture:

And here's the after:

Not too shabby for 5 minutes of applying, 10 minutes of waiting, and 3 minutes of washing off.

In general, the porch looks a whole lot better. I can see some streaking where some parts of the deck got more chemistry than others, but overall, it's a huge improvement.

A few other notes: (1) our porch is made of composite material which Deck Wash claims to be compatible with. I've now tested it, and it apparently is. (2) It's nasty stuff, so I'm glad I took the time to wear nitrile gloves and crummy old clothes.

Is this the perfect solution to cleaning a deck? Not sure. But, it did the job quickly and painlessly. So, until someone suggests otherwise, I'm sold!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

RTTTL - The Simplest (and Most Hackable) Sound Format Ever.

As long as I'm on a sound kick I'll share one more discovery I recently made: RTTTL, or RingTone Text Transfer Language. This is a trivial ascii format for describing ring tones:

RTTTL (RingTone Text Transfer Language) is the primary format used to distribute ringtones for Nokia phones. An RTTTL file is a text file, containing the ringtone name, a control section and a section containing a comma separated sequence of ring tone commands. White space must be ignored by any reader application.

Example:
Simpsons:d=4,o=5,b=160:32p,c.6,e6,f#6,8a6,g.6,e6,c6,8a,8f#,8f#,8f#,2g

I copied the above string of gibberish into an .rtttl file on my Android phone, and sure enough, out poured the Simpson's theme song.

With about 10 BNF rules, it's drop dead simple. It seems like it would be a terrifically simple format to generate music problematically, allowing anyone to fool around with programming based music composition.

Of course, producing something enjoyable to listen to is a little tricky, but hey, if you can make 8 bit music sound good, then this shouldn't be that hard, right?

Agreeing with Bill Kristol - Unusual, but True

I don't often agree with Bill Kristol, but I think his assessment of Herman Cain is right on. For example, I too found the "boldness" and outsiderness of Cain's 9-9-9 plan to be appealing. I'm now convinced it doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but I like that he put it forward.

Here, watch all of Kristol's remarks:

Dev Site of the Day: soundjay.com

I'm working on an app that needed just the right sound effect for one of the pages. I whipped up a quick flex app to play the sound easily enough, but got stuck trying to figure out a source for sound effects. Any search that included the word mp3 seemed to return back junk/dead links.

Luckily I stumbled on soundjay.com. It works just like you'd expect it would. Pick a topic, (say, clock sounds), hit the play button to listen to the effect, and if you like it, download it.

I'm using this sound for development purposes, so I didn't investigate the license too thoroughly. Though their request of not selling or posting the audio file was easy enough to comply with.

If you need a sound effect, soundjay seems like the right place to start.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Review: Science Fair Season: welve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch and What It Takes to Win

What's better than an uplifting story about a kid who overcomes all odds? 12 different stories about such kids! And that's what Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch ... and What It Takes to Win is all about. The book profiles 12 kids, 6 of whom are competing in the 2009 ISEF (the Superbowl of science fairs, if you will). I found each story to be riveting.—I'd pick up the book and couldn't put it down until I was done with the chapter. I never thought a book about science fairs would quite pull me in, but oh was I wrong.

Besides excellent storytelling, what makes the book truly remarkable is the diversity of the kids. Some are whiz kids from babyhood, while others fall into science unexpectedly. Some have parents that support them, while others come from painfully broken homes. Some manage to find their way to the very best schools, while one is home schooled. Some are of average income, and some are exceedingly poor. Some seem destined to win geek style contents, while others don't fit the profile at all. And yet, all the stories are amazing.

The odds that these kids overcome are just remarkable. You can't help but want to cheer them on. If you're a parent, or work with kids, or just have a soul, you need to pick this book up and read it. What an excellent reminder that people can achieve amazing things, even under the most trying circumstances.

In the end, much like Geeks, this book is really an excellent plug for getting involved in mentoring. Read it, and see how you can get involved.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Racing for a Good Cause

What an adventure today! Shira and I completed the National Race to End Women's Cancer today. It was Shira's first ever race, and my 3rd. The course was through Downtown DC, past the Capital Building, a number of Smithsonian's - it couldn't have been more picturesque. We ran with our friends Aaron and Katy, who completed the course a good 20 minutes faster than us. What a great time, helping out a great cause.

Yes, I was proud of myself for snapping a photo of Shira crossing her first ever finish line!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Caption Me


Fun Photo Friday

A smattering of photos/collection of photos that are worth killing some time on a Friday:

Enjoy!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Radio Station Of The Day: Club Glow

I like me some electronic and house music. When listening to it, I often imagine throngs of people rocking out in some European country. It was then, with a little bit of surprise, that I discovered there's a bit of a electronic music scene here in DC. I give you: Club Glow.

Throughout today I've been making my way through their various audio clips. Here, give it a listen.

I'm telling you, house is flow friendly music. Put it on, start coding, and the hours just fly by.

Also worth checking out is the staff picks from the folks who power the Club Glow blog. It's an easy to see the variety of stuff that's out there.

The oddest part about this music is that it's taking place just down the street from me. It's tempting to hit a Thursday night show. Think anyone would mind if I brought along a laptop to kick back and program to the music?

One last tip: You can drop the following URL into Google Listen to have all this audio slurped down into your Android phone: http://clubglow.podomatic.com/rss2.xml.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

$5 to a More Scary Holloween

As long as I'm on the topic of easy ways to scare the kiddies during Halloween, it's worth mentioning this link I just found: DYI $5 Fog Machine.

Following a simple recipe, you can produce smoke - perfect for setting that spooky mood. Here's how:

(watch the video)

My New Old Bike

Now that Shira's learning to ride a bike, and I've enjoyed getting out on two wheels, I was official overdue to take action with my old bike from high school. I dutifully moved it here, stored it in the shed, and left it. That was about 12 years ago. It was time to face facts: either the bike was toast and needed to be left at the curb, or I needed to resurrect it and put it to good use.

With some trepidation, and a hint of embarrassment, I schlped the bike to the bike shop down the street: Papillon Cycles. There I sheepishly asked if this heap of items (two detached and flat tires, and the frame itself) could be saved. I was prepared for snickering at the very least. I got none of that. The kid behind the counter inspected it, and what I saw as a mess, he as a perfectly serviceable bike. He started rattling off new parts it would need (break shoes, cables, etc.). I just nodded as knowingly as I could.

I left the bike with them for about two weeks, and yesterday went to pick it up. There I was greeted with a bike in perfect working condition. Yes, there's definitely signs of wear and tear, and a fair amount of surface rust. But, I drove it out of the store and it worked quite well - the breaking and shifting were spot on. The amazing thing: the whole cleanup job cost me about $130 - not much more than what I'd expect to pay for a yearly tuneup.

When considering my bike options, one piece of advice I kept reading was that the most important thing was to find a reputable bike shop. And I believe I've found just that with Papillion Cycles. They could have charged me an arm and a leg. They could have sold me on the latest technology. They could have laughed me out of the store for even considering riding a bike with rust on it. Instead, they did none of this. They saw a perfectly solid bike, that I should go and enjoy.

At some point, I'll no doubt want something fancier (and less rusty), and when I do, I'll no doubt start my shopping at Papillion.

Here's how the old girl cleaned up - not too shabby.

Now I've just got to take advantage of this clear whether while I can, and get out and ride!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

15 Minutes to a more scary Halloween

I came down stairs last night, and playing over a set of speakers was this wonderfully scary soundtrack. David had come up with the idea of placing the portable outdoor speakers my Mom gave me (excellent gift, Mom!) by the door. Shira suggested we find a clip on YouTube to play. David quickly found this one. It's perfect, right? The problem: the clip runs for 4 minutes and then ends.

That's where I could pitch in and help. I installed the Download YouTube Video firefox plugin and grabbed the .mp4 file from YouTube. (Incidentally, the plugin works so well, it adds a button to the UI to download the files that took me some time to notice. I wasn't expecting the plugin to blend into the UI so seamlessly.). I then double clicked on the .mp4 file and it opened up in QuickTime player. Under the View menu, I selected Loop and we were good to go.

David had a strobe light which we put in the front window of the house, and we finished the whole thing off by taping up an old Cabbage Patch doll (Shira announced: "Shoshanah! What did you do to Shoshanah?!" -- it was so cute.) in front of the window to give the strobe light something to highlight.

The whole affair took about 15 minutes to put together, but was scary enough that some of the kids refused to come all the way up the the steps to get candy. A number of the parents commented on the use of the Cabbage Patch doll. David even wondered if we had gone too scary.

Nahhh, one of the important lessons of Halloween is that what often looks scary, isn't.

How did you make your house scary for the occasion?

The Best (and Geekiest) Reality TV. Ever.

I've discovered VimGolf in Emacs and I'm officially hooked and amazed.

When I saw VimGolf I assumed it was an example of playing a game in the vim editor (what? emacs has games, shouldn't vim?). But, that wasn't quite it. Instead, VimGolf is apparently a type of challenge vimer's have com up with: how can you perform an editing task in the fewest keystrokes.

And VimGolf in Emacs is exactly what you'd suspect it would be. Tim Visher fires up his emacs and solves the VimGolf challenges. And yes, he records the session and puts it up on vimeo for all to see.

Here's an example:

VimGolf in Emacs 018 - categorize the shopping list from Tim Visher on Vimeo.

(watch the video)

Is your World Rocked? Of course it is. You're welcome.

Found via the incredibly useful Planet Emacsen, which is filled with all things emacs.

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