Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Zoo View - An Excellent 22 Mile Bike Loop Around DC

This past weekend, we had a chance to get out and bike the length of the Capital Crescent Trail. When approaching the end of the trail, I was surprised to find the entrance to the Rock Creek Park Trail. Sure enough, rather than back tracking along the CCT, we were able to make the trip a loop and return home via the Rock Creek Trail. Apparently there's a name for this route, it's the Zoo View.

Unlike our recent trip to the end of the WO&D trail, the Capital Crescent Trail doesn't quite end in the same glory that it begins. What starts as neatly paved trail, changes names to the Georgetown Branch Trail and turns into a stone filled path, and finally ends in a random residential neighborhood. And the trip through Rock Creek Park isn't fully on the trail either, it starts and ends on one, but during a good bit of the trip, you're cruising down Beach Rd. Still, on that particular day the road was closed to motor vehicles, so it was a breeze to ride.

All in all, the Zoo View really is a terrific loop. It's got scenery ranging from wooded seclusion to Downtown Bathesda. We basically guessed our way through Rock Creek Park, and to our amazement, found the correct trail on other side. There isn't a huge elevation change, so it's not particular stressful in that regard. And best of all, there's lots of ice cream choices when you finally make it back to Georgetown.

No photos of the day out, but here's the loop.


View Captical Crescent - Rock Creek Park Trail Loop in a larger map

Gotcha of the Day: ImageMagick errors when processing large images

I'm at it again, making images for a Google Map custom map using ImageMagick. As with last time, I'm impressed with how effortlessly these tools can make slicing and dicing large images. But, I also ran into a fresh set of issues.

Error while extracting a PNG from a PDF

Kicking off:

  convert -verbose -density 1322.6667 map.pdf map.png

kicks off the following Ghostscript command:

 "gs" -q -dQUIET -dPARANOIDSAFER -dBATCH -dNOPAUSE -dNOPROMPT -dMaxBitmap=500000000 -dAlignToPixels=0 -dGridFitTT=0 \
  "-sDEVICE=pnmraw" -dTextAlphaBits=4 -dGraphicsAlphaBits=4 "-r1322.67x1322.67" \
  "-sOutputFile=/tmp/magick-XXtlfTcB" "-f/tmp/magick-XXmlIqok" "-f/tmp/magick-XXGNxDG3"

And for large values of density were failing with the message:

Error: /ioerror in --showpage--
Operand stack:
   1   true
Execution stack:
   %interp_exit   .runexec2   --nostringval--   --nostringval--   --nostringval--   2   %stopped_push   --nostringval--   --nostringval--   --nostringval--   false   1   %stopped_push   1894   1   3   %oparray_pop   1893   1   3   %oparray_pop   1877   1   3   %oparray_pop   --nostringval--   --nostringval--   2   1   1   --nostringval--   %for_pos_int_continue   --nostringval--   --nostringval--   1777   0   9   %oparray_pop   --nostringval--   --nostringval--
Dictionary stack:
   --dict:1158/1684(ro)(G)--   --dict:1/20(G)--   --dict:82/200(L)--   --dict:82/200(L)--   --dict:108/127(ro)(G)--   --dict:295/300(ro)(G)--   --dict:23/30(L)--   --dict:6/8(L)--   --dict:22/40(L)--
Current allocation mode is local
Last OS error: 28
GPL Ghostscript 9.02: Unrecoverable error, exit code 1
convert: Postscript delegate failed `map.pdf': No such file or directory @ pdf.c/ReadPDFImage/611.

I figured I had to be running out of some resource, but I couldn't tell what. To help with that, I installed strace (sudo yum install strace) and ran the command:

  strace -f -o /tmp/strace.out convert -verbose -density 1322.6667 map.pdf map.png

convert crashes like one would expect. While looking through the tail end of /tmp/strace.out I noticed this line:

24405 write(6, "\377\377...trimmed..."..., 131072) = -1 ENOSPC (No space left on device)

Of course! A df -h confirmed it: I was running out of drive space in /tmp.

The fix for this was especially easy because I'm running on Amazon AWS. In the Amazon AWS console I made a new, 50Gb EBS partition. I then mounted it from within the server. I then created a new temp directory and made use of it by setting the variable TMPDIR.

In other words, I did something like so:

 sudo mount /dev/sdf /mnt/
 sudo mkdir /mnt/ben
 sudo chown ben /mnt/ben
 mkdir /mnn/ben/tmp
 export TMPDIR=/mnt/ben/tmp
 convert -verbose -density 1322.6667 map.pdf map.png

Took a heck of a long time to finish, but finish the command did.

Error while creating tiles

Creating 256x256 tiles using ImageMagick is almost trivial. I just ran:

  convert -verbose -crop 256x256 map.png tiles/t.png

However, for especially large map.png files, I received the message:

24318 Killed                  convert -verbose -crop 256x256 map.png tiles/t.png

I figured it was the system that killed off the process, and so I checked /var/log/messages to see why. Sure enough, there was this line present:

DDD XXX kernel: [35532.036652] Out of memory: Kill process 24318 (convert) score 986 or sacrifice child

Running out of memory definitely made sense. A few options to fixing this included having the system use swap space or upgrading to a larger Amazon instance. Luckily, there's an easier way. Turns out, you can tell convert that it has limits to the amount of resources that it can allocate. Sure enough, changing the above command to one that convinced ImageMagick it had less memory available to it worked like a charm.

convert -limit memory 5GB -limit map 5GB -verbose -crop 256x256 map.png tiles/t.png

The command may have taken longer to complete, but it worked just as smoothly.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Biking, Shopping and Urgent Caring

On one hand, today was a perfect day to go on a long bike ride, soaking up the sun and building up a sweat. On the other hand, we had some clothes shopping to take care of. So, which should we do?

Shira found the perfect solution: head out to Leesburg Outlets *with* the bikes, cycle part of the WO&D trail in the morning, then change gears and shop at the outlets.

It was a perfect plant and went off almost without a hitch.

We rode on the WO&D for about 12.5 miles, until it ended in Purcellville, VA. We walked around the super cute town, and headed back to our car, which was about a mile from the outlets (parked here.

The section of trail we covered was gorgeous and in excellent condition. The fact that the weather cooperated didn't hurt either.

So, about that hitch. With about a mile and a half left in our trip, my bike caught the edge of the pavement along the side of the trail. One minute I'm cruising along, the next I'm on the ground, giving Shira the "thumbs up," I'm OK sign. Except I wasn't totally OK. I actually saw stars! (OK, flashy points of light - but still). When I pulled myself together, I realized other than a nasty gash on left arm, I was apparently unscathed. My bike survived. Even the DSLR I had on a strap around my neck appears undamaged!

Shira grabbed a bandana from her bike gear and made an impromptu bandage for my arm. After a few minutes, I was able to get on my bike and cover the last mile and half. Then it was off to a local urgent care facility. The Dr. explained that the gash on my arm was actually a divot, as I had left a small chunk of my arm on the trail. There wasn't a need for stitches, as there was nothing to stitch together. But I did get a tetanus shot out of the deal. Within 45 minutes we were done and on our way to lunch and then the outlets.

All in all, the day went great. I suppose I could have done without the trip to urgent care, but man, was I lucky. I could have been really hurt, so coming away with bruised pride and a booboo on my arm is probably a best case scenario.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Another Audio Creation - Courtesey of Miniseq

I'm on a sound kick of late, and today I had a few minutes of waiting around time, so I whipped up humble creation:

I generated it using MiniSeq, a super simple music sequencing app on Android. Unlike many similar apps out there, it supports saving your session, WAV file generation, and unlike the very cool PocketBand (previously known as uLoops), the program doesn't require a data connection. This means that you can create music anywhere, anytime.

It sure is fun to use, although quite limiting as there's no way to combine loops. Still, as a fun music experimentation tool, it's hard to beat. And I do wonder if it's possible to put together something of value even if it's just 8 notes in a loop.

I've just discovered Plasma Sound, which seems to have quite a bit of promise. It seems fairly powerful, has the ability to record, and doesn't seem to require a network to function. Next time I'm waiting around, I'll have to give that one a try.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Running Dell Diagnostics on a Vostro 3300 and Other Notes from a Crash

About a week ago, one of my laptops started acting up. I'd try to right-click and save an image in Firefox and it would just hang. At first I thought it was a Firefox plugin issue, but running Firefox in Safe Mode made no difference. Then I thought it was a Firefox issue, but Chrome showed the same problem. A full virus scan found some potential threats, but with those cleaned up, the problem still exhibited itself. I even ran Microsoft's Memory Checker and chkdsk. Nothing.

I recall being taught by Dell how to run their diagnostics, but for some reason, there's no mention of it on the diagnostics section of the Dell site.

Finally, I pulled up my old blog post and sure enough, the tip worked as well today as it did almost 4 years ago:

(1) Turn off the laptop.
(2) Hold down the function key and hit the power button.

It's that easy, yet totally not documented in place I could find.

Within a few minutes the utility had discovered a disk error, which I took a photo of with my cell phone.

Today, I called Dell, read them off my laptop's tag number and the error code, and they're sending me the replacement drive, which should fix my issue.

Besides remembering how to run Dell diagnostics, here's a few other lessons learned:

  • My switching between two laptops every week may be one of the smartest business decisions I've ever made. If I was depending on this Dell alone to function, I'd be in serious trouble right now. With a second laptop in rotation, I haven't missed a beat.
  • Carbonite is a good thing and will hopefully make recovery truly painless (though, this has yet to be seen).
  • I popped out the bad drive, plugged in a bootable USB thumb drive with Mint Linux on it, and my dieing laptop is back to life. It's been serving it's purpose well, as jukebox, web browser and ssh launching off point. Mint Linux blows me away every time I use it. I've really got to put it on a laptop that gets regular use around the house. It's too cool not to.
  • Go Blogging! Had I not taken the time to blog this information, it may have been lost to me forever.

Personal Goal: Love My Job as Much As Jörg Sprave Does

Don't get me wrong, I love my job. Really, I do. But just check out the glee in Jörg Sprave's face as he describes one his newest creations: A Steak Knife Chainsaw:

Sprave was featured in Wired a while back for his Slingshot Channel project, where he creates improvised weapons, that are both beautiful and often crazy dangerous. But he looks like he has it all under control.

Seriously, here is a man who is having a good time.

Monday, May 21, 2012

In A New York (City) State Of Mind

You'd think, having grown up in New York State, that I'd have done the New York City thing many a time. But you'd be wrong. While I've been to The City a number of times (quite a few, passing through on a Bus at 3am -- good times!), I've really never played tourist there. That is, until last weekend.

My cousin Samantha was graduating (I'm so happy for her!) and my family was converging on the Big Apple to celebrate. And celebrate we did! With pizza, cake and lots of wonderful time spent schmoozing with family. While we were in town, Shira arranged a bit of site seeing so that myself and our 7 year old could have a proper visit.

Two main highlights of the trip included a trip up the Empire State Building and watching The Lion King on Broadway. I'll admit it, I was skeptical about both. The top of a building? What's the big deal. And Lion King? Really? And man, was I so wrong.

First off, Shira got us express tickets for the Empire State Building. What a thrill it was to skip all the long lines, and be escorted to the very front. Sure, the express ticket may have cost and arm and a leg, but it was the closest I'll probably ever get to feeling like royalty. And the view from the top really was spectacular. There's just *so* *much* city! Yikes. And bam, there's Central Park in the middle of everything. Definitely recommended.

And then were was Lion King. The show is an amazing mix of actors and puppetry (for lack of a better word). On one hand, the production couldn't be more technically slick. On the other hand, the whole show a had a sort crude and minimal theme to it. It just made for a gorgeous and unusual experience.

Our 7 year old everything as well, and got a real kick out of Times Square. He took some awesome photos, which I hope can get around to blogging.

All in all, I really couldn't ask for anything more this weekend. Family. Fun adventures. Yummy pizza. It was just perfect.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Watching Life Take Shape. Surprisingly Quickly, No Less.

Apparently I'm on a hands on science kick...

My brother David and his girlfriend brought home a tiny grow-your-own basil kit for our little guy to plan. He may have picked it up from World Market, or perhaps someplace else.

All I know is, the kit came with a tiny plastic cup that looked like a planter, an itty bitty package of basil seeds and some "growing medium" (read: compact dirt). I have to admit, I was skeptical. Was our little guy going to be disappointed when this project went nowhere?

What the heck, we gave it a try.

First off, the growing medium expanded when water was put on it, which was so fun to watch that was probably worth the price of the whole project. And then we dropped our 6 tiny seeds on the dirt and waited.

Wouldn't you know it, within a day or two, we had small, clear, gelatinous masses in the dirt. Holy smokes, something was growing! Maybe it was basil. Maybe it was mold. Who cares, we did it!

Over the past few days, we've had a great time checking up on the progress of the seeds, making sure they are moist, and moving them to the window sill that is getting the most light.

I'm amazed at how quickly these seeds actually did something. Apparently, I missed that day in biology class when we talked about how seeds turn into plants.

All I know is, this has been a truly awesome project. Something you should absolutely do with your little ones. And man, am I lucky to have such a thoughtful brother and brother's girlfriend.

Here's how the plants looked today:

A Different Kind of Snapshot

When I went outside this morning to add to the trash-pickup pile I was struck by just how loud and active the birds of the neighborhood were. So surprised, I stepped back in the house and grabbed my cell phone to prepare a recording.

So here you have it, instead of a visual snapshot it's an auditory one. Close your eyes and listen:

Can't you just hear how wonderful a day it's going to be?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Do This Now: Install Lazarus Form Recovery Firefox Plugin

If you run Firefox, you absolutely positively need to stop and go install Lazarus: Form Recovery.

Earlier today, a client asked me about a ticket that I had filed with their hosting provider, and if I would mind filing it again. Of course I wouldn't mind. And of course, I didn't have a copy of the text I had written in the ticket. But, good old Lazarus Form Recovery did. I just brought up the page with form, right mouse clicked on form somewhere and selected "Recover Form."

That's what makes Lazarus so cool - it automatically saves every form you submit (knowing to skip saving credit cards and passwords), so if you crash your browser or need to submit the form again you can.

No doubt, this will get built into all browsers eventually, it's just too handy to not have.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rough Science: Reality TV As It Should Be

I stumbled on this old post on CoolTools talking about Rough Science. Here's how Cool Tool describes it:

A very cool BBC series wherein the crafty producers take a bunch of scientists and technicians to a remote location and have them recreate sophisticated tools and inventions using only the primitive materials on hand. Vines, wood, bits of metal, shells. Here: make a clock (with bell), or a device to record sounds, or how about a camera, microscope, soap and sunblock?; or go survey and map the island -- using tools of your own construction. You don't know science until you can roll your own.

And wouldn't you know it, someone has uploaded the episodes to YouTube. The quality is awful, and this is reality TV, so the acting is a bit cheesy. But, it's awesome none the less. First off, the concept of exploring science by rudimentary problem solving is just so powerful. The challenges are mind boggling (map an island in 3 days without using any survey equipment, or even pen and paper), and the solutions wonderfully clever. And the atmosphere of team building, creativity and learning from failure, makes this the kind of TV you really want to watch.

Forget watching castaways eat slimy bugs. Watch them figure out their latitude and longitude, it's much more rewarding (and educational!).

Here, watch an episode:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A few "The Most ..." moments

A somewhat random smattering of the "most X I've seen in weeks:"

The Most Romantic: Runaways Cafe II by Marilyn Hacker

For once, I hardly noticed what I ate
(salmon and broccoli and Saint-Véran).
My elbow twitched like jumping beans; sweat ran
into my shirtsleeves. Could I concentrate
on anything but your leg against mine
under the table? It was difficult,
but I impersonated an adult
looking at you, and knocking back the wine.
Now that we both want to know what we want,
now that we both want to know what we know,
it still behooves us to know what to do:
be circumspect, be generous, be brave,
be honest, be together, and behave.
At least I didn’t get white sauce down my front.

Via Poem In Your Pocket.

The Most Inspiring: Now Or Never:

The Most Clever: MaKey MaKey

What would you add?

Update:

The Most Ingenious: Biff Tannen (of Back to the Future) fame carries around this FAQ:

(Click to enlarge that)

Monday, May 14, 2012

6 Ways I'm Trying to Improve as a Photograph, and Praise for Scott Kelby

As a rule, I've found that most photography books pretty much follow the same recipe: cover the basics of exposure and some well known tips, and leave it at that. They just don't make for great reading. One exception to this I've found is Scott Kelby's Digital Photography Books series. With a title like that, you'd expect it to fit the mold - yet it doesn't. I don't recall where I first was when I picked up one of his books, but I the tips I read were novel and quite useful. I just made my way through Volume 3 of the series (thanks to our library), and it continues to impress.

Between Kelby's book and other photography blogs I've been following, I've been inspired to try out some fresh ways to improve my photo technique. Here's what I'm focusing on these days:

  1. Slow Down! I grab my camera and I feel like I should instantly be snapping pictures. Often I'll try to shoot in manual mode and find myself getting frustrated that I'm not dialing in the settings fast enough. This causes me to switch over to auto-everything mode so I can quickly snap off pictures. There may be a time and a place for this approach, but this doesn't need to be the norm. My sense from reading Kelby's Book and others is that setting up your gear *should* take time. For example, this means shooting some test shots, and seeing what various mixes of flash and natural light photography come out looking like.
  2. Stop looking for the from now on, this is how I'll shoot photos setting. I've got to get used to experimenting with all sorts of modes, ISOs, and other camera settings, rather than trying to pick just one set and using it always. For example, just bouncing between all manual and all automatic mode is missing out on a whole bunch of features my camera has to offer.
  3. Set the ISO first. This is something I'm trying as a specific way of achieving #1. Rather than leave ISO on automatic, I'm trying to get into the habit of observing the scene in front of my and consciously picking what ISO I'd like to use. Is it bright enough to go with 200? Should I skip the flash altogether and go with 3200? By thinking about ISO first, and not shutter, aperture or flash, I'm hoping to slow myself down and see more creative opportunities.
  4. Learn from the camera. Say I've got a person I want to snap photos of. I switch to manual mode, dial in my settings and shoot a couple shots. Then, switch to portrait mode on the camera, and snap a few that way. By setting the display option to show me the settings used for the shot, I can compare what the camera chose versus what I picked. The handful of times I've tried this, I've found it to be quite educational (and wouldn't you know it, the camera's settings usually make for better shots!).
  5. Instead of full Auto Mode, use Creative Modes. Nearly every digital camera I've owned, my DSLR included, has had what Canon calls "creative modes" - such as portrait mode or landscape mode. This is essentially fully automatic, but you're giving the camera an extra boost of context so it can choose the best settings. I've almost always ignored these, so much so, that I basically forget they exist. No more. Next time I want auto mode, I'm going to resist the full auto settings, and instead, opt for one of the creative modes. This should help slow me down and get me out of my looking for the one size fits all setting that doesn't exist.
  6. Use the Highlight Warning feature of my camera. This is right from Kelby's book (Volume #3, page 177). When reviewing photos in the EOS T3i, you can toggle into a mode that shows you the histogram as well as other photography data. Kelby suggests ignoring the histogram, and focusing on highlight detection. That is, the screen flashes are that are so overexposed they've lost all detail. What a cool feature, and an excellent example of Kelby advice. This is especially handy with the test shots I mention in #1.

What efforts are you consciously making to improve your photography?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Strawberries, Butterflies and Playgrounds Oh My!

What a weekend we had with Twins! On Friday, we had quite the adventurous day. It started with a trip to Butler Orchard where we picked strawberries. The Twins fairly quickly grasped the notion of picking just the red ones, and leaving the green ones untouched. Man those strawberries were sweet!

After picking berries, we randomly decided to head over to Brookside Gardens. What a gem this place is! I've never heard it mentioned in any guidebook, yet it's a top notch set of gardens with excellent grounds and interesting specimens (like the fragrance garden, originally designed for the blind). The highlight was the butterfly conservatory they currently have open, which was a real hit with the Twinners. It's hard to beat such an up close and personal exhibit.

Saturday was spent playing around the house, having friends come visit, and whooping it up at the local playground.

All in all, it was an amazing weekend. Our 7 year old did awesome, and enjoyed playing the role of older cousin. We can't wait for them to come back and visit again. It was such fun!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Twins Take DC

So how's this for crazy: Shira and I flew up to Boston this morning, met our 3 year old niece and nephew at the airport, and then flew back with them to DC. They've flown before, but it was so long ago this might as well be their first time in an airport.

Amazingly, this plan actually worked. The flights were all on time, the kids did amazingly well through the whole airport process, and nobody needed a barf bag. We even made it back to DC early enough that we had time to tackle a relatively small activity. We visited the NASA Goddard Visitor Center, which is essentially a small museum covering some of the work done at the NASA facility in town.

The museum turned out to be just what we needed. It was small enough that we could take it in without being overwhelmed, had some fun toys and demonstrations for the kids to play with, and had few pieces that the adults could be impressed with. The "Rocket Garden" made for an excellent area for our niece and nephew to run around in. As 3 year olds, they really didn't get much out of the museum, but then again, they probably weren't going to get much out of any musuem today. If you're a space/NASA fan or happen to be in the area, it's definitely worth dropping in. I wouldn't expect to make it the main activity for the day though, it's just not that large.

All in all, the Twins did remarkable today. As expected, they played really well with our little guy, and for the first time in a while, kids outnumbered the adults in the house. It's going to be an fun weekend, I can tell that already.

Now if you'll pardon me, I'm going to go collapse from sheer exhaustion.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Changing Behavior The Clever Janitor Way

I stumbled onto this snope article earlier today and thought it was a brilliant technique for changing behavior:

A principal of a small middle school had a problem with a few of the older girls starting to use lipstick. When applying it in the bathroom they would then press their lips to the mirror and leave lip prints.

Before it got out of hand he thought of a way to stop it. He gathered all the girls together that wore lipstick and told them he wanted to meet with them in the ladies room at 2pm. They gathered at 2pm and found the principal and the school custodian waiting for them.

The principal explained that it was becoming a problem for the custodian to clean the mirror every night. He said he felt the ladies did not fully understand just how much of a problem it was and he wanted them to witness just how hard it was to clean.

The custodian then demonstrated. He took a long brush on a handle out of a box. He then dipped the brush in the nearest toilet, moved to the mirror and proceeded to remove the lipstick.

That was the last day the girls pressed their lips on the mirror.

It's so tempting when trying to change behavior to get into a argument based on logic and reason. Better to skip all that, and make the consequences (yuck!) so untenable that the behavior no longer makes sense.

Snopes actually says that this legend may very well be true. And best of all, the legend itself is enough to enforce the behavior.

I'm not sure whether this is life, business or parenting lesson - I just know it's brilliant.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Review: Poem in Your Pocket (Or, how to EDC a poem)

When I saw Poem in Your Pocket at the Penn Bookstore a few months back, I knew I had to add it to my wishlist. It's a collection of poems that you're expected to pull out and carry around. Poetry in small doses, how you can you go wrong, right?

Shira picked this up for my birthday, and at the same time, cleverly got the kids version for our little one.

Nearly every day, before we leave for the bus stop, I grab a new poem. I can read it while our little guy is playing tag as we wait for the bus, or glance at on the walk back home. All day, I do just as the title suggests, and carry it in my pocket, ready to pull it out and do some ad hoc literary analysis. So yeah, I love the concept.

Unfortunately, unlike my last poetry book, nearly every poem I grabbed was almost nonsensical. Each poem seemed to be more opaque than the last. I have to admit, I was getting pretty bummed. Maybe this poetry thing really wasn't for me. And then I pulled out Gwendolyn Brooks' Song in the Front Yard (you can listen to her read it here.).

Unlike the other poems, I got this one! And boy, was it clever. What a take on on race, and in 22 lines no less.

Since then, I've got a refreshed perspective on the poems. I onow look at them as little puzzles, and not merely sources of cheap entertainment. I examine them carefully for clues and see if can make it make sense. And if I can't, no worries, there's always a fresh puzzle to try tomorrow.

Can I recommend Poem in Your Pocket? Absolutely. But just know what you're getting into. These poems are the real deal, and if you're anything like me, will leave you stumped more often than not. Still, as a person who takes the contents of his pockets seriously, I'm glad to be able to add a poem my daily carry.

Today's poem: On Mere Being. After my initial reading, I haven't got a clue what it's saying. But, give me some time, I may crack this one yet.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Why You Need a Behavioral Psychologist On Your Product Team

I found myself having a number of Aha! moments while listening to Roy Sutherland's TED talk on Perspective. His thesis seems pretty straightforward: in product design, perceived-value often loses out to what we might consider actual value, and this is a shame, because perceived value is just as important, if not more important than actual value.

One of his many examples: apparently the British Post Office wants to make an impact on how people view them, so they undertake a massive effort to increase 2 day delivery rates from 98% of first class mail to 99%. Only thing is, the average person thinks that the postal service has a deliver rate between 50-70%. Don't spend time increasing actual delivery rates, spend time educating people about what you currently accomplish.

Of course, some industries have this perceived vs. actual value equation figured out already. Car companies come to mind, knowing that we'll gladly buy the car that makes us feel X, rather than purely on the stats alone.

While the thesis of Sutherland's point is key, I think equally important is his suggestion that perceived value (or the psychological element) be a sort of voice at the table during product design. It's not that one should depend solely on perceived value alone, but that it should be included in the mix. In other words, hire yourself a behavioral psychologist, they'll do wonders. Or, short of that, at least consider the mental/emotional side of the equation before optimizing purely for hard facts and figures.

I'm really not doing the talk justice. Here, give it a watch:

Remember: at the end of the day, happiness is in your head - not in your wallet, driveway, go living room.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Got an iPad! Now What?

I've got a handful of clients who are targeting their sites towards iPads, so it made sense to pick one up to use for development/testing. (Technically, I had the idea to buy one, it took Shira to actually go out and make it happen!). So now I've got a brand new, super shiny, iPad in my hands.

The hardware is gorgeous. The user experience, while disorienting compared to Android or Windows, is clearly superb. My only problem is, other than using it as a test bed, what the heck should I use it for?

My first thought was travel. It sure is lightweight. But when I travel, I have pretty specific needs: (1) image backup/storage, (2) publishing photo and text to Blogger, (3) ssh capability and (4) some local development ability (emacs+subversion+sitecopy). I also do a bit of general web surfing and entertainment (watching Hulu, for example). My bought used on Craigslist netbook seems to be far more effective at all those tasks than an iPad. It doesn't seem obvious to me how I'd even get photos from DSLR into this guy.

Then I thought, I'll hand it off to Shira. She fiddled away. Her first thoughts were to use it as an eBook reader, a Skype platform and for watching TV (think Hulu and TV.com). It does in fact work as an eBook reader and for Skype, but so does her Galaxy S II - nearly just as well. And both Hulu and TV.com were a bust (at least the free versions of the sites). Oh, and she did setup the Epicurious.com recipe app, which has some promise.

Our little guy saw the iPad, and immediately said "oh, that has games on it." I then explained this one didn't, yet. But maybe using it as an education platform is the way to go.

I'm sure there's a killer use for the iPad -- I'm just not sure what it is. Want to help me out here? What do you find works better on the iPad than any other device?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Sweet! Most Romantic Candy Ever

On our last date in Old Town Alexandria, we wandered into a candy shop to kill some time. While poking around, Shira found this gem:

Yes, what you're looking at it is what you think you're looking at. It's an old school embossing label maker that's packed with gum.

OK, the build quality on this guy leaves a lot to be desired. And the gum tastes downright awful (that is, for about 8 seconds before it loses its flavor). But, and this is a big but, it works! You can crank out messages to your sweetheart all in the medium of bubble gum.

How romantic is that?

Thursday, May 03, 2012

4 Hacks I've Got To Try

In no particular order...

Don't know when I'll get to try these hacks out...but man, they'll be fun to try.

Review: How To Open Locks With Improvised Tools

For years, I've had How To Open Locks With Improvised Tools: Practical, Non-Destructive Ways Of Getting Back Into Just About Everything When You Lose Your Keys on my Amazon Wishlist, and for my last birthday, my Sister-in-Law's family came through and got it for me. No, I'm not planning some bank heist. I just find the notion of having a way to bypass both locks as being both practical and intellectually interesting. I've always been drawn to puzzles that seem absolutely impossible, until of course, you figure them out.

Regardless of my interest, I've now made a first pass through this book, and I've got to say, I've really enjoyed it. I need to go back and study specific parts of the book with the goal of putting the techniques to use. A simple reading of this book isn't going to teach you much.

I absolutely love the style and tone of the book. It's like having a coach over your shoulder telling you that you can do it, just give it your best effort. And don't be too disappointed if you can't pull some technique off. Oh, and you've got to practice, practice, practice!

I also love how the book changes your perspective from passive acceptance of locks to actively looking for ways around them. Most locks, despite what you might initially think, aren't impenetrable - they just require you to get creative. To see what I mean, consider this example posted on lifehacker. You'd think a chain-lock would be unstoppable, yet a bit of string and some cleverness is all it takes to defeat it.

In the end, no one technique in the book makes it worth reading. Instead, read it to expand your mind and change your perspective.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Snapshots from Old Town

Thanks to an expiring Groupon, I was "forced" to take Shira out on a date last night. I know, sneaking out on a school night - how scandalous!

The weather was perfect, and the restaurant Red Curry was excellent (at the least the appetizers and desert were, the Pad Thai was just 'eh). What a treat it was to soak up a nice summer evening!

Here's a few snapshots I was able to grab and that I'm fairly proud of.

The Sound of Extended Day

Yesterday I picked up our little guy at his extended day program during snack time. The result: gobs of kids all kibitzing away, rather than having them spread out playing. This sound clip doesn't quite do the scene justice, but for the heck of it, here goes:

Think of it as your audio snapshot of the day.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Random Gibberish as Brainstorming Material

Last week, phone fusion delivered the following transcript of a missed call to me:

... yeah my Phil Joe home call me down train looks ... how Maureen not giving thing she's still does the delivery time I had Said send which in the day call me because I need to do that I had some I'll come crashing that we'll just them trinidad outlook renewal ... good I'd like to say ... I need your sale.

Almost makes sense, but not quite. Right?

Turns out, it was PhoneFusions translation of a non-English (perhaps Chinese? All I know is it wasn't English or Hebrew) message.

If I ever have a famous hit song, or novel, or some other creative work, expected it to be based around hero Phil Joe and his girlfriend Marueen.

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