Thursday, September 27, 2012

VOTE!! and My 3 1/2 Seconds of Viral Fame

I'm walking home from shul last Saturday when I saw a woman emerge from her house with a video camera and tripod. She's got quite the impressive garden so I thought she might be snapping some outdoor photos. She caught my eye and we talked, turns out, she was up to something more topical: she was on a mission to shoot a viral video and wanted to know if I could help. Her cause was convincing folks to vote. A noble cause if I ever heard one, so I was glad to be her first volunteer. She asked if I'd repeat the word "vote" into the camera, which I did. I told her my e-mail address and was on my way.

Last night a kind message arrived in my inbox along with a link to this video:

Sure enough, my 3½ seconds are present!

I love this project on so many levels: it's a great cause, it shows the power of the individual and it all happens in the local community. It shows that you don't need to depend on others to make a difference, you can start today.

Read the story behind the video. And most importantly, VOTE!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ted Talk Wisdom Meets Yom Kippur Observance

Earlier this morning, I'm hacking away, and happen to stumble over Adam Baker's Ted Talk that suggests simply: "Sell your crap. Pay your debt. Do what you love."

Adam's an excellent storyteller, and his story is now almost cliche: he and his wife have this moment of clarity and realize that they're on the hamster-wheel of life, and more importantly, that they can get off. Within a year, they've quit their jobs, sold their possessions, and are backpacking (with a 1 year old!) through Australia.

He actually covers quite a bit in his 20 minute talk, much of it about the perils of being in debt. But what really struck me was this notion of your Life Script. He realized that he was moving along the classic American Dream Script (college, wife, job, house, etc.) without ever really questioning whether this is what they wanted. Or, as he put it: "we didn't choose the script, the script chose us."

His advice: Break the Script. For him and his family, that meant selling their stuff and creating a new non-conventional life. For others, breaking the script may not be quite so dramatic. For us, in many ways, becoming Foster Parents broke our script, if only because of the unpredictable nature of that life.

Tonight starts the holiday of Yom Kippur, and it strikes me that one of the holiday's goals is to give you a chance, in a small way, to Break the Script. You do everything differently (you don't eat or drink for 24 hours, you spend most of the day in prayer, you don't work, heck you don't even wear regular shoes) with the hope of being able to have your own little moment of clarity. And it's not just Yom Kippur - the whole period from Rosh Yashanah to Hoshana Rabbah (what is that, 20 days or so?) is filled with opportunities to do this.

This video made me realize how thankful I am for these opportunities.

So, here's my wish for you this year: find a moment to examine the path your life is on, and if you're not satisfied with it, change it. Simple enough, right?

Here's Adam's talk:

And here's a little comic relief to go along with the notion that all your problems can be solved by selling everything and living out of a backpack:

Monday, September 24, 2012

Yet Another Trip to the Air Force Memorial

What can I say? We live close by, and my pictures never turn out quite as beautiful as the scene I'm trying to capture.

These photos were captured with Shira's Galaxy SII - not too shabby considering the lighting.

Holmes Run - More Next Door Nature

Yesterday, Shira and I biked a small section of trail known as Holmes Run. It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag.

On one hand, the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. I felt like I was off touring in some wilderness location. The stream the trail follows is stocked with trout, and I even had my little front pocket fishing kit with me, but we didn't have time to stop and throw in a line.

On the other hand,the trail doesn't just follow the creek, it crisscrosses it a number of times. The result is that in about 2 miles we did 5 or 6 stream crossings. This made for wet feet and a bike ride filled with interruptions. It was mildly frustrating that we couldn't just zoom along.

This is definitely a place I'll need to return to. The relatively short distance and stream crossings seems like it would be ideal for the a walk with kids. I'll also come prepared to do a little fishing. Nearby is Dora Kelly Nature Park and Winkler Botanical Reserve, two more spots which would make for fun outdoor exploration.

Next time we have a few hours free on Sunday, we'll head to this area instead of to some distant state park. Got to love the Next Door Nature.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Drawing the Emberley Way - Fast and Fun

A couple days ago I brought home Ed Emberley's Big Green Drawing Book from the library. If you've never seen an Emberley book before, a typical page looks like so:

That is, it consists of pages and pages of step by step instructions for drawing various people and stuff. Under each step in the drawing are scaled down versions of the shapes you'll be adding (like two small circles). The book is essentially the algorithm for drawing hundreds of little pictures.

Last night I sat down with our 7 year old, a piece of yellow construction paper in front of each of us, and we worked through the first couple of pictures. Here was our result:

The boy (and myself) were nothing short of elated. When he looked further in book and saw that he was going to get to draw snakes, lions and dragons, he could barely contain his excitement. And when I told him this morning that he can use the pictures to draw his own comics, I think I dang near blew his mind.

I know from my own experience that drawing is one of those things that can be incredibly frustrating. Your mind so clearly sees what you want to draw, yet your hands just don't want to cooperate. This book took away all that frustration and just let us draw something fun.

Definitely recommended for kids and adults alike.

Now, if only someone would port over these drawings to an Android app. With a phone, a handful of index cards and a few pens you'd have a complete kid friendly portable art studio. Perhaps if I take 15 minutes and take snapshots of the pages with my camera phone, I can simulate this setup?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Around Arlington - Butterflies, Cozies and Climbing

Nothing too exotic, just a few snapshot from a walk this afternoon.

Sure was nice of this guy to hold still and let me snap some shots with my camera phone.

The Street Sign Cozy Activist is at it again. I wonder how many more I'll be able to spot in Arlington? I'm not sure what the purpose of these guys are, but I'm on board with it.

Check out this funky climbing structure located in a tiny park off 1st St S. My fear of heights kept me from exploring it too much, but I expect our 7 year old will go to the top without a second thought.

My Brother David mentioned this park and structure to me a while ago, but I actually saw it for the first time today.

(The photos of the climbing grid don't really do it justice - it really does have some height to it)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Not a HAM Radio Guy, But if I was, Here's My Dream Setup

I know almost nothing about HAM Radio -- but I know a nifty system when I see it. I give you QRP: a radio broadcasting philosophy that is based on very low power operation. The result is that you can carry a complete broadcasting and receiving long distance radio station in your pockets.

See what I mean?

Amazing to consider that you can broadcast and receive messages hundreds of kilometers away using double AA batteries (or perhaps a 9 volt) and a transceiver the size of an Altoids or tuna tin.

Oh, and kit to build the transceiver is somewhere between $9 and $40.

Sure, there are limitations, like only being able to send and receive Morse Code. But still, given all the advantages, I'm really surprised these setups haven't made the leap from hacking novelty to useful emergency kit item.

I know that when we have some hiccup in the DC area, like say a mostly harmless earthquake, the cell phone networks are almost immediately swamped and can remain so for hours. Seems like the perfect time to bust out a setup like this and check in with loved ones. The setup could be small enough to be stored in the trunk of a car or at your desk, and setup when needed.

But then again, what the heck do I know? Anyone with HAM or Radio experience want to chime in here?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Geocaching as visual exercise

Took the boy Geocaching while Shira was at the gym this morning. We sought out a tiny little cache hidden in Pentagon city.

We actually found it relatively quickly. Here's what it looked like:


Thing is, I've passed this cache running dozens if not hundreds of times. Geocaching, then, I realized is all about actually seeing the environment you're in. Sure, each geocache provides you with a latitude and longitude, but that only gets you to the general vicinity. Then you're observation skills have to kick in, looking for something just a little out of place.

For me, it's an exercise worth conducting as often as I can. And while I 7 year old doesn't quite appreciate it (he was bummed the cache didn't contain toy he could swap for), it's a lesson I'm hoping he'll pick up through osmosis.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nothing Says Welcome to the Department of Defense HQ Like This Guy

Spotted at the entrance of the Pentagon.

Also, this guy was chilling in another section of the Pentagon.

Caption me, please.

Review: Rory's Story Cubes

Rory's Story Cubes are about as simple a toy as you can get. They're 9 dice with random pictures on each side. The idea is to use them to spark stories - whether they are used together or individually. There aren't any official rules to play with them, though there are some suggested games.

I first busted them out last school year when our 7 year old came home with vocabulary terms he needed to write sentences for. Frequently, his sentences would be little more than definitions. Say he had to use "discover" in a sentence, he might right down "Discover is when you learn something new." A fine sentence (for a 7 year old), but where's the pizazz? Aha! I thought, time to bust out the story cubes. He can use them as inspiration?

Yeah, not a good idea. I quickly learned that they were a distraction, not inspiration.

On a few other occasions, I took them out to play with, but for whatever reason, they were a dud.

That is until a couple of weeks ago. I've found that if I need a few minutes of entertainment, I can quickly build a story by using the following approach: roll the cubes, pick one that inspires a bit of the story, tell it until I run out of ideas (usually about 10 seconds...), roll them again, and repeat. The boy enjoys the story, and the cubes make them easy to craft.

With practice, he'll be able to do the same thing, though, it's tougher for a kid to do than I would have thought. I think that's because I can pull from a whole heap of stories (oh look, the fish cube came up -- I'll introduce a talking fish...), that he just hasn't heard yet.

It's also been fun to work together to build a story. We start by rolling all the dice, pick one, tell part of the story. Then, we take it out of rotation, and continue the story with the remaining dice. We repeat this 9 times, and we're done.

This is definitely one of those toys that I had high hopes for and was initially disappointed with. They not magic, and won't instantly make your kid a lover of story telling. But, I'm thinking this can be a fun little filler, and great to travel with, too. Definitely worth holding onto and experimenting with.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Running Light Reviews - Cyclops CYC-MHC-W Micro Mini LED and Pelican Mini Flasher 2130

Last winter, I really enjoyed running with eGear Guardian Strobe Lights. They were bright, reliable and seemed to clip to me in any number of ways. Unfortunately, "I cleaned up" one afternoon, and managed to put the strobe lights somewhere, though for the life of me, I couldn't imagine where. I knew the only way I'd ever find them again was if I went on to Amazon and ordered replacements.

As long as I was getting some new lights, I figured I might as well try out some other options. The Pelican Mini Flasher 2130, with it's multiple clips looked intriguing, as did the Cylops CYC-MHC-W Micro Mini Led hat clip light. So I went ahead and ordered these guys.

Naturally, two days after they arrived, I found my stash of Guardian Strobe lights. Still, it never hurts to try something new, right? Here's what I thought of each light.

Here's the lights for comparison's sake:

(That's the Cyclops, Pelican and finally the Guardian)

Pelican Mini Flasher 2130

I had high hopes for this guy. Pelican is a well known brand, and the clip configuration looked awfully impressive. Unfortunately, after only a few minutes, I realized it wasn't as a good a fit for me as the eGear lights. Having two different clip options is nice, but neither of them is as robust as the one on the Guardian. The Guardian also appeared to give off a brighter mulch-directional burst of light, so the exact positioning of it mattered less. I also like that the eGear can be switched into an always on light instead of just a strobe, simply by flipping over the batteries.

There may be scenarios (on a life jacket, perhaps?) where the Pelican is superior, but as far as I can tell, running isn't one of them. I'll stick with my Guardians.

Cyclops CYC-MHC-W Micro Mini Led Hat Clip

My experience with the Cyclops was almost the complete opposite of the Pelican. The first thing I noticed is just how light this guy is. It trivially clipped to my hat and I couldn't tell it was there. And with 5 LEDs, this guy is bright! The quality, especially considering this is a $6.00 item, is outstanding. The clicky on-off switch works well, and gives a reassuring click when you turn it off or on.

I've taken it on a couple of night runs so far, and it's definitely become one of my essentials (that and a whistle, of course). It makes running in the shadows of bridges and on dark bike trails a much pleasant experience, and I've got to think it makes me stand out to oncoming traffic (be it car, or bike).

I'm not much of a flashlight guy. When I go backpacking, I bring my favorite little Photon-X light keychain light. Anything else seems like overkill. In fact, I'm usually the guy complaining about folks turning on lights and ruining my night vision. But, given the tiny size of the Cylcops and the convenience, it may just have to tag along on my next trip. I could clip one to the bill of my hat and probably not even notice it was there.

This guy is a winner.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Quickie Project: The Penny Stove

For years now, I've seen folks talking about lightweight alcohol stoves as an alternative to traditional backpacking stoves. While you can buy them, traditionally you can craft one yourself from various cans and items you can find lying around your house.

As projects go, it's a tempting one. But inevitably there's the need to seek out some random shaped can (like a can of cat food, or something like that) or some other item that I don't have lying around.

Which is why I really like this particular video that describes the process. The result may not be as sexy as a fancy version, but requires absolutely nothing special to build. Just two coke cans, a scissors and a thumb tack. Oh, and a Penny.

The fact that the video creator is figuring this out as he's doing it adds to the maybe-I-can-really-do-this factor.

Next time I get stumped on a problem, maybe I'll take 15 minutes and see if I can build this sucker. I just won't forget rule #1: keep the fire extinguisher nearby.

Incidentally, I'm not thinking of using a stove like this for backpacking. Nope, the Pocket Rocket stove we use works just fine and is super lightweight. First and foremost, I look at this as a fun hack to try. Next, I think it could be handy in a power outage when you shouldn't technically be using the gas stove. Finally, it might make sense to chuck this tiny stove, a bit of fuel, a pot and some hot coco and oatmeal into the back of the car. It's hard to believe, but even in the DC area, just miles from civilization folks can get stranded in their cars in blizzards for 8+ hours.

Embrace The Slow - The DC Triathalon on a Bikeshare Bike

I just love this story from the DCist:

Amid the thousands of triathletes that completed a 25-mile bike ride as part of Sunday's Nation's Tri, Jefferson Smith certainly stood out—as we reported yesterday, he did it on a Capital Bikeshare bike.

We were curious what motivated the 42-year-old risk management professional from Falls Church, Va. to expend the money and effort—the rental cost $101, though it was waived by the D.C. Department of Transportation, and it took him over two hours to finish the cycling leg of the race—on a bike that's meant for short jumps around town. Simple, he told us: it seemed fun. But, he added, it wasn't easy.

I bet it wasn't easy! I've done 9 miles on a bikeshare bike, and can attest to the fact that three gears and 40 pounds of bike is anything but an ideal racing instrument.

Apparently, the idea came to him when he had signed up for the triathlon but procrastinated about arranging for a bike.

The reactions he received ranged from encouragement to outright shock - but apparently they were all positive.

Sometimes it pays to invent your own challenge and go after that, rather than compete for the goal everyone is after.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shipwrecked - Who's Rescuing Who?

I caught this 18 minute story by Mishak Shubaly about getting Shipwrecked on The Month last night. Wow, what brilliant story telling. Definitely worth a listen.

There's adult themes (read: drug and alcohol use) and plenty of cussing, so this isn't one for the kiddies. But us adults should enjoy it.

The player below includes this story sandwiched between two others. So, use it or find the story itself here.

A Tin Foil Hat For My Canon MX860 Printer

Our Canon MX 860 is probably the first multi function printer we've owned that really multi-functions. When all the laptops are behaving, it not only prints, but effortlessly scans to any machine, or to a thumb drive. The copying and faxing even work well.

My main issue with the printer isn't how it works at all. It's how it just sits there. The printer is a few feet from our bed and has the habit of randomly lighting up the LCD screen.

One minute I'm lying in bed, drifting off to sleep, the next the room is flooded with light as the printer is doing gosh-knows-what. Usually I kvetch. Some nights I might drag my butt out of bed to turn it off.

Then it hit me, this was an easy fix: all I needed was some scotch tape and a bit of tin foil and the printer is now permanently dark. You've just got to love tin foil, which is opaque so it doesn't allow light leakage.

Here's the setup:

Hardly glamorous, but it gets the job done.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Yo, Ho, Ho and Kindle For Me

Technically, the Kindle wasn't for me - but for one of our fellow ship mates. Yesterday, we had the most perfect weather for an afternoon of sailing on our good friend Dave's boat.

Of course, I spent a good chunk of the voyage snapping photos. But how could I not? The whole scene looked like a postcard.

Our seven year old had mixed feelings on this adventure. He liked driving the boat, and had absolutely no concern about falling overboard. At one point, we made our way to the bow of the boat, and while I held on for dear life, he simply walked behind me as though this were no big deal. Still, much of the ride was spent chilling out, and 7 year olds are years away from understanding this.

Still, it was a thrill and I'm glad we were able to share it with him. There was just something perfectly relaxing about the sea and fresh air.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Useful Skill of the Day: Learing the Jug Knot

Back in my Boy Scout days, I was a bit of a knot maven. Not only could I tie a whole set of standard Scout knots, but I could do nearly all of them blind folded, and a few of them one handed. Alas, those days are long gone. Still, for some time, I've wanted to learn a particularly handy knot: the jug knot.

Every few months, I'd take out a hank of paracord and try my hand at learning it. I'd always end up frustrated and confused. It wasn't as if there weren't enough instructions. They are everywhere! Heck, as far as I can tell, I'm actually the last person with Internet access to actually learn this knot. But, no matter how I tried, I'd end up stumped.

But not this latest go around! Between this instructable, and handful of additional resources (here, here, here, here, here and here) I finally managed to figure it out.

I found it especially helpful to put a small piece of tin foil at the site of the first bite in the rope. This made it easier to keep track of and to make sure I was pulling on the right section of cord.

Here's some proof that I figured it out:

Grab some cord, take a deep breath, and go give it a try!

Rover Gets a Home of His Own

Years ago I read an article in Make about using cardboard to create models. Hard to believe that the idea stuck with me all this years. When our little guy asked if we could construct a home for Rover, cardboard became the obvious choice.

It needs a coat of paint (which he'll provide, of course), but it came out fairly well:

It's amazing how some days, the littlest things provide perfect entertainment and learning opportunities.

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