Monday, June 30, 2014

How well do you know the Washington, DC Mall?

Think you know it all? Here's your quiz for the day. Where can this guy be found on the mall?

Need a hint? It's close to where this view can be found.

Here's the answer.

Now for bonus points: who the heck is he? (This, by the way, I don't know. So please, enlighten me.)

Update: The man depicted is none other than Manus “Jack” Fish, a former Director of the National Parks. The statues are apparently a joke - it's Mr. Fish's face rendered on a Fish's body. Clever!

4 Steps to the Perfect Blueberry Crumble

Step 1. Recruit some of your Friend's Kids

Between their small stature, and little fingers, kids are perfect for picking blueberries!

Step 2. Head to Butler's Orchard, to pick sweet, sweet blueberries.

The earlier you arrive the better. On a sunny day like yesterday, the place was overflowing by noon.

Step 3. Come home and make yourself scarce.

I heard various sounds coming from the kitchen, but I ignored them all. I suppose berries were washed and crumble was prepared, but that's just a guess.

Step 4. Eat!

A few minute after I heard the kitchen timer go off, I appeared in the kitchen, ready to enjoy perfectly hot and fresh blueberry crumble. I was not disappointed. Yum!!

See, easy as...well...pie!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Apparently I'm Cooking Steak All Wrong, and How To Fix That Right Now

My brother, and personal barbeque consultant, sent me this video: Steak on Coals:

The video calls for cooking the steak directly on charcoal, but of course, I've got a propane grill so I'm out of luck. Or am I?

Sure, I could just hit Amazon and buy a Charcoal Grill. But, surely, there are options, right?

Of course right. All you need is container to hold the hot charcoal, so improvising a grill like this doesn't seem like it would be too tricky. If you have a spare #10 can lying around or an old school metal wagon, you can put them to work. If you've got a large ceramic planter, that apparently works, too.

But the winner for simplicity was mentioned on lifehacker.org: drop charcoal into a disposable lasagna pan, and you're basically done.

The trickier part: finding the natural chunk charcoal that's mentioned in the video. And no doubt, where you find said charcoal, can also be found a cheap grill. But still, it's good to know that caveman style cooking is only a lasagna pan away.

Review: Ties That Bind

Ties That Bind, is a collection of transcripts from the StoryCorp oral history project. StoryCorp provide a number of different methods for recording the life stories of o'l folks, including a mobile recording studio and a do it yourself option. As you can imagine, the technical details aren't nearly as important as the fact that many of the stories are nothing short of magical. Let's face it, people are amazing, and so are their stories.

I'll be honest, I was a little hesitant about reading these stories when they were originally intended for audio playback. (Yes, I appreciate the iron that many of the books I "read" were actually listened to, and this one book that I should listen to, I read.) But, this is was a library book, so there was zero cost for trying it.

The text format totally works. I was moved by just about every story in the book, with most of them just being a couple of pages long. I'm telling you, this book is Chicken Soup for the Soul (without actually being a Chicken Soup for the Soul®™ book).

Many of these stories are about people forming wonderful relationships, and how powerful these relationships can be. You just can't help but feel like People are Amazing after reading most of these stories (though, many of the stories also show cruel people can be, and people's ability to overcome this cruelty). I know my hope for humanity was increased, as well as my sense that one person can truly have an impact on the world (even if it's only through impacting another person).

One story, between Stefan Lynch and Beth Teper, especially hit a nerve. In it, Lynch talks about how she was effectively raised by a close knit community of gay men (her dad was gay, and the family disowned them). In the early 1980s, one of the men in her community came down with, what they believed to be, a form of skin cancer. Within two months, he was dead. Of course, it wasn't skin cancer, but AIDS, and for the next decade it decimated the adults in her inner circle. When I was growing up, AIDS was a relatively known quantity. People understood how it was transmitted and how to avoid it. But those early days must have been beyond terrifying. It would have truly been horrifying to have people around you dying from a disease of unknown cause and origin. I had never really thought about it that way, and Lych's story put a human face on the disease.

As a collection of quick reading, hope providing stories, this book can't be beat.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

From Basket Weaving to a Christian Biblical Take on Gay Marriage

A couple of days ago I was doing a Google image search for Basket Weaving Injuries (don't ask). In the results, I stumbled upon Pastor Colby Martin's 'unclobber' category on his blog. I don't know Colby Martin from Adam, and I certainly wasn't looking for a Christian Biblical take on Gay Marriage, but I found myself reading away regardless.

While there are places I diverge with Pastor Martin (being Jewish, the New Testament doesn't really apply; and also as Jew, no textual analysis of the Bible would be complete without looking at the corresponding Talmud, Mishnah and other sources), I still found his insights to be quite interesting. Consider for example, his analysis of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or his take on the verses in Genesis talking about the creation of woman:

Although it’s not technically a clobber passage, many people will point to Genesis chapter 2 (and a hyper-literal interpretation to boot) as foundational evidence that heterosexuality is the only God-blessed union. Here’s the perennial nail in the coffin:

21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

And there you have it. God’s design is for one man and one woman. Clear and simple.

However, when was the last time you backed up a few verses and reminded yourself of why God created the woman for the man?

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.” 18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.

Did you catch that?

Man had relationship with God. But still, God said “it is not good for the man to be alone.” So God set about to make a suitable helper for him.

After making a community of creatures for the man, the man still felt alone. None of them were suitable helpers for him. And at that point is when God makes a woman, who is a suitable helper for the man.

Man was alone. In spite of a relationship with God and other creatures. Man was alone.

And God said, “this is NOT good. Many other things have I created lately, and I’ve called them all very good. But this? This loneliness? This emptiness? This lack of relational connectedness I’ve discovered now exists within the pinnacle of my creation? It ain’t good. I got more work to do!”

God himself was not okay with man being alone.

In the world of polite conversation, one's supposed to avoid Religion and Politics, and this post tackles both - selecting a hot button political issue and a Religion I don't even belong to. So I present Pastor Martin's writings not as: "Aha! This is my guy, he's right, you're wrong!" but as "hey, this is an interesting voice and interesting writing."

I've also go to say that in this world of paid content, and highly processed listicals, it's nice to know that you can still randomly trip over genuinely interesting content. I didn't need a news aggregator, social network or gatekeeper to find it, just dumb luck and the power that anyone can publish on the web that wants to.

By the way, I never did find those (humorous) Basket Weaving Injury pics I was after. If you have some, send them my way.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Well That's Handy Advice: Use the Difficulty

Here's some insightful advice from Michael Cain's: Use the Difficulty.

Via: ImprovisedLife

And what the heck, as long as we're spouting pithy sayings, here's another: Be Like Water.

Analog vs. Digital Travel Resources

We just got back from a trip overseas and I think it's instructive to look at what travel resources were most handy:

Essentials

Lonely Planet Japan - this is your typical, old school, travel guide. As much as I like to trim weight when I travel, I keep bringing one of these along, and they keep turning out to be our most used resource. The guide regularly helped us figure out what to see, where to eat, what customs to follow and served as our translator. The guide's not perfect, but it consistently got relied upon and delivered. Throughout the trip it would be stuffed with different pieces of paper which served as bookmarks for instant on and easy access. And most importantly, it didn't run out of batteries, or lose signal once.

What we can't eat card - this 3x5 inch sheet of paper, given to us by a concierge in Kyoto, turned out to be one of our most useful resources. On it, it explains in English and Japanese what foods we can't eat (meat is out, but fish is OK, for example). While the Lonely Planet guidebook has a bunch of different phrases that could help us communicate these facts, being able to hand over a card that explicitly states what we can and can't eat turned out to be super clear. I'm very much tempted to make one of these cards anytime I head to a foreign country. It made life that much easier, and I can't believe I've traveled so many years without learning this hack.

TripAdvisor Tokyo App and TripAdvisor Kyoto App - on the digital side of things, these City Guide apps really delivered. They download their content to the device, so they operate without a network. While not quite as useful as the old school travel guide, these were definitely handy in filling in the gaps and giving us a second resource to turn to. The fact that they are free make them a no-brainer, though I'd gladly pay a few bucks to have access to them.

Nice To Have

Google.com - because we have T-mobile, we received free 3G data access while in Japan. 3G turns out to be terribly slow, but it's still usable. And there's nothing like being able to drop arbitrary questions into Google (What's Dash? or Japanese why wear surgical mask) and get answers. Even if the answers come back slowly.

Silva Metro Compass - this chunky keychain style compass is a definite winner. For getting oriented in a new city, especially after appearing out of a subway station, it can't be beat. My phone has a compass app on it, but this actual compass is much faster to use.

Google Maps - like google.com in general, having access to Google Maps, even over a slow 3G connection, is a winner. In many cases, it was frustrating to use (better to rely on the free map that the concierge has given you), but for those few times it saved the day, it was worth having.

Downright Useless

Yelp - Alas, yelp worked a little too well in some respects. It functioned properly, but all the restaurant recommendations were in Japanese script. Which is perfect if you're Japanese, but not so useful if you can't read the language.

Google Translate App - I had very high hopes for this app. In the States, it works amazingly well. Snap a photo of some Japanese script, and it tells you what the English is. I diligently downloaded Japanese as an offline language, preparing myself for the fact that I'd probably have little to no data connectivity. Unfortunately, the image scanning capability appears to happen on Google's server (which makes sense, it's tricky stuff!), which means that attempting to translate by photo ends up with the system just churning. With our humble 3G connection, it was a no-go. Another tricky aspect: Japanese is often written vertically, which the translate-by-image capability doesn't appear to handle. The Google Translate app is nothing short of magic, but in this scenario it was a dud. If we had been heading off to a country where I could have simply keyed in text, I bet the offline handling would have worked beautifully. Lesson learned: don't assume Google Translate will work in all scenarios.

Lonely Plant Japan - eBook - I was psyched to find out that our library had a digital edition of the paper guidebook that we were planning to use. I downloaded the eBook ahead of time and practiced navigating its pages. Finally, I'd get a head-to-head comparison between a digital and non-digital guidebook. If all went as planned, I could finally dispense with the bulky, heavy guidebook and start going digital. In reality, I didn't use the eBook version of the guide once. That's right, not a single time. When it came to ease of access, I so preferred the paper version that the digital version remained unused the whole trip. Sure, had I neglected to bring a paper version, I probably would have survived on the digital version. But there was absolutely no comparison between the two: paper won out in every way.

Looking back at this list it's pretty clear: analog is still winning. Even when I had almost full time access to a 3G Network and WiFi, I still vastly preferred the paper guidebook and keychain compass over Google Maps and an eBook version of the guide. That's not to say that I didn't rely on technology: at the end of each day, I was more than glad to review photos and document my thoughts on my clunky old laptop. But when walking the streets of a new city in a foreign land, I simply couldn't or didn't want to depend on apps alone.

Caption Me: Doing Laps Edition

I'll go first: Fine, I'll have one more snack. But just one more...

Not it's your turn...leave your captions in the comments.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Some Flight Video Fun

Here's a couple impressive flight-related videos.

First, consider this TED demonstration that shows what happens when you mix fancy math, with fancy hardware and fancy software. The results are nothing short of stunning:

Seriously, I found myself holding my breath as he demonstrated various athletic capabilities of quadcopters. And you've got to love the reference to Skynet the host made. Back in college I remember struggling through a differential equations class; maybe if I had know that one day that experience would have allowed me to build unbelievable cool drones, I would have gotten more out of the course. Though, probably not.

On the low-tech side, my Dad sent me over this video of some folks in Thailand having some sort of rocket-festival-thingy:

Up close, the structures look massive and clunky. Yet, sure enough (some of them) fly quite well. I'm not sure I'd want to be one of the guys running around explosives with a 10 foot torch like object, but it sure looks like everyone is having fun.

Finally, this is one of my favorite aerial photography videos on YouTube because it's just so dang simple. Buy a whole bunch of helium balloons, dangle a camera from below, and you've got an aerial photography rig. Check it out:

Every day we creep closer to the inexpensive photography drone, that I can't wait to make part of my kit.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Yet another cool photo project: LEGO Man Photographer

I love this photo project: photos from a LEGO figure's perspective:

The idea is brilliantly simple:

1. Grab a LEGO figure
2. Grab your cell phone
3. Make brilliant photos:

It's noteworthy that creator of this project, Andrew Whyte, chose to use an iPhone because it was the best tool for the job. Its lens position and depth of field was ideal, especially when compared to his DSLR.

Of course, copying this idea misses the point. Better to find your own clever way to capture the moment.

Nailed it: clickhole.com

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I can't resist piling on: clickhole.com, Onion's version of Buzzfeed, rocks. I mean, they totally nailed it:

All these stories, if tweaked just slightly, would fit perfectly on Buzzfeed (and related sites). I guess this shows just how pervasive Buzzfeed style writing has become. Forget e-mail or text messaging ruining kids ability to write or speak, the new target is going to be Buzzfeed. I can't wait till some high school student hands in a top 10 list instead of an essay for their final project on Hamlet.

I first learned about clickhole via SethGodin's Blog

Friday, June 20, 2014

Japan Adventure - Day 9 (The Last Day)

Ahhh, the last day. We arrived in Tokyo late Thursday evening, so by the time we had checked in and I had taken care of some e-mail it was past 1am on Friday morning (officially, Day #9). As I lay in bed drifting off to sleep, I felt a most remarkable and disconcerting feeling: our room (on the 36th floor) was gently rocking back and forth.

That can't be right, right?

The whole experience probably lasted only a few seconds, and Shira slept right through it. But I was more than a little alarmed. I got up and hurriedly checked the web. While there was no news on the Japanese Government Weather and Earthquake site, Twitter did indeed confirm my suspicion: we had just experienced an earthquake. I wasn't the only traveler more than a little alarmed by the experience (though, not so alarmed that I took any real action. I figured no loud sirens meant there was nothing to be concerned about.)

This morning the Japanese Weather and Earthquake site did have a log entry for seismic activity 1:48 AM JST that was indeed felt in Tokyo (though it was a "1" on the JMA Seismic Activity scale). When I asked the front desk about it, they had no knowledge of the quake. Apparently, it's just us tourists that are bothered by these things.

We didn't have much time in Tokyo this morning, so we spent it wandering the area around our hotel and doing some last minute shopping. We had breakfast at an overpriced coffee shop, which included bread and bean-paste-spread and delicious chocolate-chiffon cake. Cake for breakfast? Heck yeah, this is my last day of vacation, I'm living it to the max.

Here are some parting thoughts on Japan...

What *Didn't* Surprise Us

  • People, especially children, were polite and kind. For the most part everybody went out of their way to help us (except for a supermarket employee in Osaka, who didn't want to play my game of "let's figure out Japanese tea" - but I can't fault her for that). We even had two ladies stop us on the street in Hiroshima to chat with us. They wanted to know if we were tourists and how we were enjoying their city. Shira and I kept waiting for an ulterior motive, but it never came. I think they were just being nice / curious.
  • The trains ran on precise schedules and were easy to navigate. In the large stations, the signage would often alternate between Japanese and English. If we did have a question, any station attendant was glad to direct us to the right track number.
  • Residents of Japan really do wear surgical masks the same way we might wear a baseball cap. Apparently it's part health tool, urban camouflage and fashion statement. By the end of the trip, they were almost invisible.
  • English is found where you really need it (in the train station, on some menus, etc.), but you can't depend on the residents being able to speak it. And why should you? This is Japan, after all. See the point above about people being nice. Between the language section of our guidebook, our magic food card, and lots of smiling, we got our point across just fine.
  • The city is spotless. We saw few if any homeless people, and there were absolutely no pan-handlers. I can't recall traveling anywhere in the world that didn't have at least a few pan-handlers.

What *Did* Surprise Us

  • The water served in restaurants was among the best tasting and purest we've ever had. I know this may seem like a random point, but it was that good. It also made the trip a lot less expensive (I'm looking at you Europe and the UK) in that we didn't have to order a drink and could just enjoy the water they served us.
  • I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Japanese take their toilets *very* seriously. When we arrived at our first hotel, the toilet had an armrest full of options. I jokingly took a snapshot of it assuming that it was just our hotel being extravagant. Not so. The hotels we stayed at, many of the restaurants we ate at and many of sites we visited had just as sophisticated toilets. Heck, the toilets at the aquarium were equipped with a music option. The Powder Room in one of our restaurants had a hands free model: you walked into the room and the seat magically lifted up, when you left, it flushed. Perhaps the interest in toilets goes along with other hygienic practices like not wearing shoes inside, or getting a warm towel handed to you when you sit down for a meal (or even the surgical mask fad mentioned above)? All I know is, I like it. America needs to step up our toilet technology if we want to compete in the 21st century. We're way behind. Ironically, as sophisticated as these are, you will also find non-Western squat toilets. In fact, we often found places that gave you a choice.
  • Apparently, the Japanese don't do napkins. Either they offer the flimsiest of napkin options, or none at all. For a guy who regularly covers himself in food, this isn't ideal. The solution: I purchased a handkerchief for $3.00 and used that as a napkin. That may be the solution that many Japanese use, and it makes sense. Why waste all those paper napkins. I know that the bathroom at one of the large train stations we passed through had no paper towels or hand dryers. When Japanese men or women would come out of the bathroom, they'd produce their own hand towel, use it and return to their pocket or purse.
  • They like their stamps. At quite a number of attractions there were stamps available for kids to use to memorialize their trip. I think there's a tradition of using stamps in Japanese culture, so this may be connected to that. Regardless, if you're traveling with kids in Japan (which I think would totally work), make sure they bring along a blank journal to fill with stamps.
  • The hotels are generous with amenities. In all 4 hotels we stayed at (which were high quality hotels mind you), they provided free WiFi, free water and an extensive set of toiletries for your use (toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream, comb, etc.). More impressively, they restocked them every day. Every day we'd use the complementary 1 liter water bottle, and find it replaced when we got back to the room. I'm not sure what any of this means, but I wish American hotels would be so generous.

What was Somewhat Surprising

  • Bikes. It's Asia, so we expected there to be lots of bikes. But man, the amount of parking and their utility was beyond what I expected (double-decker bike parking was seen). It seemed like I could have purchased a shiny used bike for as little as $80. In both Kyoto and Hiroshima the standard was to have a child carrier in the back, and either a child carrier in the front or a basket. We saw a few folks riding around in spandex, but the vast majority of riders were regular folks just getting from point A to B. There's just something impressive about a mom, wearing high heels and a skirt, shuttling her two kids around like it's nothing. Probably because to her, it is nothing. Adults almost never wore helmets, though kids sometimes did. One last point about bikes: I've always been told that the proper way to size them is to have the seat high enough so that your legs are full stretched out to reach the peddles. Nearly all the bikes we saw had the seats way too low by this standard. Perhaps this arrangement works better for the stop and go city driving these folks were doing? Or maybe I've been doing it wrong all this time.
  • Food: it had its easy and hard parts. In some respects, eating was tricky because there are just some Japanese cuisines that don't have vegetarian/fish options. One night we must have walked into three different restaurants and were effectively turned away because they had nothing that we could eat. On the other hand, the restaurants knew exactly what we were talking about when we asked for a vegetarian / fish option and were glad to work with us to find an option. Heck, one restaurant just had a sign on their menu: we have no vegetarian meals. On the easy side of things, many restaurants had English menus, which made ordering much easier. But, Shira was convinced that the options on the English menu were limited when compared to the Japanese menus. In the end, it was impossible to starve while in Japan, but there were definitely times when finding food was on the trickier side.

For most of this trip I've been racking my brain trying to figure out if Japan is any more or less foreign than other places we've visited. Sure, the written language is impenetrable, but we were in such tourist friendly places that it didn't really matter. And did a Spanish menu in Buenos Aires really mean anything to me? (No, not at all.) Sure, we got tripped up by a number of conventions (ooops, we walked into the Thai restaurant without taking off our shoes first), but these were relatively few and far between. In the end, the question is probably irrelevant. What makes travel fun and interesting is embracing the location you're in, and being willing to look like an idiot. Once you can do that, everything else (except trying to buy Japanese tea in a grocery store) is easy.

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Japan Adventure - Day 8

I'm writing this post from our train, a Shinkansen (or bullet train), as we go from Hiroshima to Tokyo. We're traveling at 169Mph. While they both allow and encourage eating, the train is spotless. There's no dining car, but every once in a while a lady with a cart full of goodies comes by to offer us snacks. Every seat we've sat in has a note telling us to turn off the ringers on our cell phones, and that if we must take a call, it should be done so at the end of the car (outside a set of doors). A train full of cell phone free cars, how novel (and pleasant!).

Out the window I see various small towns zip by. In many respects, they could pass for any American town. There's houses, apartment buildings, shopping centers, malls and baseball diamonds. I think I just saw a bowling alley roll by. The houses do appear to be packed in more closely than back home. The big difference between here and the US (besides the Japanese script on the signs) is the presence of rice paddies. Each town seems to have them, and they often make up the green space within and between towns. From the train they look like green rectangles delicately filled with water that have rows of plants popping up in them. I suppose it's like driving through the Midwest and seeing cornfield after cornfield.

Dinner tonight has been another culinary adventure. On the way out of town we hit a grocery store and made our way to the prepared food section. I showed one of the store employees our card that says what we can and can't eat and pointed to a number of different meals. She then checked them out and reported back to us which were vegetarian friendly and which either contained meat or had a meat sauce. So far we've cracked open two of the meals and the results have been...well...unique. I assume we're eating vegetables and tofu, but other than the carrots, I can't really put names to anything. There's the crunchy purple things, gelatinous purple things and blocks of tofu like things. But it's an authentic experience, so I'm loving it.

We started our day with a tour of the Hiroshima Mazda plant. While the Mazda history was interesting, and the various vehicles on display noteworthy, it was the view of the assembly line at the end that proved to be the best part. It was like out of a movie. We watched as a dashboard was raised from an elevator and swung into place, a worker then bolted it in. A few moments later, the elevator disappeared and popped back up again with another one, and the worker repeated his task. We saw a glue robot apply a line of glue to a windshield, and then saw a worker snap it into place. As we finished our section of the assembly line, cars were being lifted into elevated racks, so that workers could access them from below. The whole experience was like a watching a giant Rube Goldberg machine at work, where the output just happens to be a new Mazda. I can't imagine the amount of engineering that goes into making a place like this work.

After the Mazda plant we made our way back to Peace Memorial Park to take in the sights that we missed our first night in town. This time the park was packed with people, including many school groups. At the Children's Memorial we caught a group of school children singing and presenting a collection of paper cranes (I assume they folded them), which were added to the thousands that are already present there. (The cranes are symbolic of the wish for peace, and are folded in memory of a 10 year old girl who died of leukemia 10 years after she was exposed by the bomb.). From there, we made it to the nearby museum.

A quick note on Japanese school children: good lord are they polite! Seriously, if I bump into *them* they turn and bow repeatedly. If they think a group of them are blocking my shot, one alerts the group and they all scatter. It's like they respect old people or something.

The museum takes one through the history of Hiroshima, up to the fateful day of the bombing and into the aftermath. It's really well done in nearly every way. They present declassified government memos which explain how the US chose them as a target and the logic the US used in deploying the bomb. They have two models of the city, one before the blast, one after, and the results are predictably stunning. The bomb nearly leveled the entire city. They have artifacts from the explosion ranging from a watch stopped at 8:15am, to a steel girder that appears to have effortlessly been reshaped by the blast. The most gut wrenching part of the museum takes you through the lives of the survivors both immediately after the blast and beyond. Not since the Holocaust museum have I see such devastating suffering.

The part of Hiroshima that I find most remarkable is this: they are devastated by our attack, and what's their next move? To make themselves into a city of peace and a beacon of hope that nuclear warfare will be abolished. There's no hatred or animosity towards the US, there's only a plea for peace. The museum makes clear that the atomic bomb was inhumane, but they also accept responsibility for starting the Pacific war and that war itself is devastating.

Someone noted before our trip that with a visit to Hiroshima, and our past visit to Pear Harbor, we'll have seen the symbolic start and finish of the Pacific conflict. They were right, and this hallowed ground, like Pearl Harbor, is a definite must see.

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Who says you can't buy happiness?



Apparently you can, and for only 130 yen from a Japanese vending machine. What a deal!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Japan Adventure - Day 7

Day 7 was supposed to be our hiking day, so naturally, it was raining. Still, we took the ferry to the island of Miyajima, and set course to hike to the top of Mt. Misen.

Shira arrived in Japan with an umbrella, but I figured I'd pick one up if I needed to. One of the things you realize quickly is just how essential an umbrella is to most Japanese. When the sun is out, or even if it isn't, many women have them up for sun protection. Quite a few bikes had an odd protrusion that only made sense when when a lady rode by in the rain: ahhh yes, that's an umbrella holder. So naturally, I spent a few bucks and picked up an umbrella for the hike up the mountain. To be out in the rain without an umbrella is to truly stand out as a foreigner.

Before the hike we had to walk through various shops and restaurants. I was able to fortify myself for the trek up the mountain with fish meat and soybeans on a stick. It was actually quite good!

The hike itself was challenging (only about 2.5k, but all uphill, mainly through steps), beautiful and completely peaceful. It wasn't until we approached the summit that we started to see a handful of people.

The island of Miyajima is crawling with what are effectively domesticated deer. They wander within a few feet of tourists and will eagerly eat out of your hands if you let them. It's quite a sight to see. On the way up the mountain Shira caught sight of what must have been some type of pheasant in the woods. Man, it was gorgeous. There was a mommy (assuming the mommy's plumage was more plain than the daddy's) and a baby, too. Unfortunately, it was raining and I had the wrong camera out to capture this guy. But trust me, he was stunning.

As we approached the summit of Mt. Misen we started to encounter more and more shrines and finally we arrived at the hut where Kobo Daishi lit a flame some 1200 years ago, that's still burning to this day. Impressive stuff. By the time we reached the summit and finished exploring the various shrines at the top the rain had stopped.

We made our way down the mountain via an alternate route and came across even more shrines; some as small as just a baby Buddha statue and a few coins tossed next to it as an offering. This, combined with the many rock piles made for an interesting hike.

At the bottom of the mountain was yet another temple to check out. After all the temples we'd seen in Kyoto, you'd think we'd have seen it all by now. But Dasiho-in Temple still had some wonders to show us. Like the 500 Rakan statues spread out throughout the paths which all contain unique facial expressions, or the Seven Deities of Good Fortune (insert joke about the Seven Dwarfs here), or the Ichigan Daishi which will allow you to realize your one wish if you pray hard enough for it. And there was more, too, but I'll spare you the complete details.

We finished our hike in the best way possible: Shira had blueberry "ice cream" (hard to say if it was actually made with milk, but it was tasty) and I had "fish meat" with cheese on a stick. I couldn't identify the fish or cheese used in this treat, but all in all, it was good.

Miyajima, even in the rain, was a hit.

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Japan Adventure - Day 6 (Hiroshima)

We arrived in Hiroshima as the sun was going down, but that didn't keep us from heading to the Peace Memorial Park, the location that essentially marks ground zero for the World's first atomic bomb strike.

The first structure you encounter is the A-Bomb Dome, which is the skeleton of a building which managed to "survive" the strike. (Most structures in the city were incinerated in the blast.) It's absolutely striking and my photos can't really do it justice.

From there, we walked around the Peace Memorial Park, taking in a number of other monuments, including the Peace Bell and Atomic Flame (scheduled to go out when the last nuclear weapon is disposed of).

Photographically, arriving with the light disappearing was somewhat frustrating. But it made for the perfect ambiance for taking in these important monuments. There was essentially nobody else around, so we had the place to ourselves.

Our plan is to come back in a couple days and take in all the sights again (including the museum), but as a first glimpse, our evening stroll turned out to be ideal.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Japan Adventure - Day 6 (Osaka)

Day 6 was supposed to be a simple travel day from Kyoto to Hiroshima. However, train travel is so dang effortless in Japan (at least with the JR Rail Pass), that it was a no brainer to split our trip up with a stop in Osaka. Specfically, we wanted to hit the Osaka aquarium.

Just how easy is train travel in Japan? Well, you walk into a railway office, and tell the ticket agent where you want to go. They then reserve you a spot on a specific train, and tell you what time, track number, car number and seat number you'll be sitting in. All you have to do is show up to the right track, and queue up next to the car number printed on the ground. Easy.

The Lonely Planet guidebook said that Osaka's Aquarium ranks as one of the best in the world, and I'd have to agree. It's a modern aquarium like, say, the Baltimore one we're familiar with, but it's even larger. While they had the usual otters, dolphins and rays that we're used to, it also contained a number of animals I'd never seen before.

Take the giant spider crab, which looks like it belongs on the set of a Sci-Fi movie. Or the impressive collection of Jellyfish which are essentially a living art canvas. And then there were the squid that looked like beings from another planet. Though my favorite animal in the aquarium wasn't even a fish, it was the Capybara. This guy is a rodent, and in his pictures, he looks like you'd expect a rodent to look. There's just one catch, he's absolutely ginormous. Seriously, you can't believe how big he is still you see him in person.

Lunch today was *hot* udon with eggplant tempura, a side order of edamame and rice wrapped in deep fried tofu (oddly, served cold). It was definitely a winner. Though, for dessert I ordered a crepe with banana, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It was beyond heavenly. Don't worry, this morning I had a random bean-paste based snack for breakfast; don't think I'm not getting my fill of Japanese treats.

Also on the food front, I can report that the Japanese have mastered the American style breakfast. This morning I had pancakes and toast that would give Denny's a run for its money.

Onward to Hiroshima!

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Japan Adventure - Day 5

Day 5 was spent exploring the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. We started with a hike up to the Arashiyama Monkey Park, twatayama, where the guidebook explained to us we'd find monkeys running around with us while we could feed them from within a cage.

This was only partially true, it turned out. Yes, you could go into a building and feed the monkeys while they stuck their hands through wire mesh, but it was also possible to leave the building and just observe the monkeys in their natural habitat. It turned out to be great fun. Though, I think Shira was just finally excited to see a site that didn't involve a temple or a shrine.

Speaking of shrines, as we left the monkey park, we noticed yet another shrine, this one decked out with both rice paddles and wooden tiles. Written on the rice paddles were various wishes (one hoping to get into law school, another hoping that his girlfriend would fall back in love with him). For $5, you could purchase your own paddle or tile, and write your own wish on it. (Of course, this being Japan, it's all on the honor system.) So, in the spirit of our lock-bridge in Paris, we purchased a tile and left a wish. I'm not sure how long these tiles hang out there before they are collected, but if you're in Japan, feel free to stop by and visit our wish at the base of the Monkey park.

Lunch on Day 5 was quite the adventure. We went for Zen Buddhist Vegetarian cuisine, which was served in fairly formal Japanese style. The two Japanese ladies having lunch next to us, sat on their knees the whole time and had their tray of food resting directly on the mat they were sitting on. The restaurant knew this was a bit much for us, and was kind enough to bring out little TV trays to rest our food on. Still, I have no idea how they sat in that same position for an entire meal without their legs falling asleep.

As for the food...well, just wow. I won't lie to you; eating that meal was a bit like being on a Game Show. In front of us were a number of dishes, with only the rice being recognizable. I couldn't tell if the food was hot or cold, spicy or sweet, solid or gelatinous. Each bite, nibble or slurp was a roll of the dice. Most of the items were quite good (the large round, solid objects in broth, for example), with only a few of them being completely inedible (what appeared to be seaweed salad with a very heavy dose of slime, as well as an especially gelatinous square with a dab of green on top). Overall, the meal was truly unique and I wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world.

Dinner was in many respects the opposite of lunch, as it was almost effortless. We asked the restaurant for a Thai suggestion, and they not only provided one but called ahead to make sure they had vegetarian options. They told us what bus to get on, and gave us a detailed map to the restaurant. When we got off at the correct bus stop, a nice Japanese man noticed our confusion and asked if he could help us. He pointed us in the right direction, and then after a few moments, we realized we were actually headed to the same restaurant. We walked there together, kibbizting along the way. When we arrived at the restaurant, they had both an English menu and a vegetarian-English menu, as well as a waitress who more or less spoke English. Even the seating was perfect, as we sat out on the deck during a perfect Kyoto evening and ate wonderful Thai food. It was magical. The only catch was that we had to take our shoes off at the entrance to the restaurant and wear borrowed slippers to walk out on the deck. Turns out, they don't have a pair of size 11 slippers, so I had to make do with a comically smaller pair.

Let's talk toasters for a second. On the way back to hour hotel, I wanted to step into another store on the scale of Bic Camera that we visited the day before: Yodobashi. While there, I was curious what kind of options they have for toaster ovens (the one we have at home is on its last legs). When we looked at Best Buy they had 4 or 5 choices at most. In Yodobashi they had, and I've got photos to prove it, 60+ different models to choose from. And, we're talking in configurations that I could only dream of (double-decker trays, anyone? half-rounded tray for cooking pizza?, and so on). A quick Google Search showed that that the Japanese do indeed have a fondness for toaster ovens (apparently they are compact and often do double duty as the primary oven in the house). But, consider the puzzle selection on the Toy & Hobby floor. In Toys-R-Us there's what, a wall of different puzzles you can choose from? Here there were, and again, I have the photos prove it, 6 large aisles of puzzles to choose from. I'm telling you, they take shopping to a level we just can't appreciate.

Today was our last day in Kyoto, with our trip continuing on to Hiroshima first thing in the morning. I leave Kyoto just in absolute awe of it's history and the temples that it offers. I can't recall ever being to a place where houses of worship were both in this quantity and on this scale. It's truly something you have to see to believe.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Japan Adventure - Day 4

For Day four of our Japan adventure we decided to head out to the Lonely Planet Guidebook's top rated temple: Shoren-in. While we could have taken a train or bus, we opted instead to walk. The amazing part is that while walking to this temple, we must have passed 4 or 5 other massive temples along the way. Some of these are easily multi-block structures. But no, we stayed focused. Well, mostly focused.

We ended up exploring Chion-in, the temple right before our final destination. This particular site turned out to be almost comically large. Every time we'd turn a corner we'd find yet another set of steps to climb, which would take us to a new set of buildings to explore. Along the way we came across the largest bell in Japan, as well as a number of other interesting sites.

We finally made it to Shoren-in, and found the grounds to be surprisingly small compared to many of the other temples we'd seen that day. Unlike other structures though, this one allowed us (for a few bucks) to go in and make ourselves comfortable. It turns out, Shoren-In is rated so high because it's the perfect place for quiet contemplation, not because of its massive size.

From Shoren-in, we made our way to the sprawling Heian-jingu shrine and toured its gardens.

While I didn't eat anything on a stick during day 4, we did have cold udon noodles with tofu and vegetables. I think I'll be sticking to eating my udon hot, but it was still interesting to try this delicacy. We broke down and visited a Persian / Indian restaurant for dinner. Oh, to eat naan, curry and falafel - it was delicious!

After putting in (according to my Galaxy S5's pedometer) about 29,000 steps for the day, I finally pleaded with Shira to let us take the train home rather than walk it. Of course the Kyoto metro system is easy to navigate and spotlessly clean.

We hit one final 'temple' before heading back to our hotel: Bic Camera. Bic Camera isn't just a camera store, it's 7 massive floors of retail space that sells any and all things electronics. This place makes Best Buy look like a bunch of amateurs. It's shopping overload on a level I can't even begin to describe.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Japan Adventure - Day 3

Today we explored Kyoto on foot, no minor feat considering how large the city is. The plan was simple: we'd start at our hotel and essentially walk North. By the end of the day, we should be near a vegetarian restaurant the guidebook suggested and should have hit a number of interesting sites along the way.

Our first stop was the Higashi Hongaji temple. From the street, the temple didn't look like much. But, step through the gates and you realize the grounds are huge and the buildings massive. Inside, they are down right stunning, with an alter area that defies my description.

To my further amazement, this experience repeated itself again at the next temple we stopped at, the Nigishi Hogan-ji. Again, the buildings were absolutely epic. This time we caught the tail end of a service, which contained wonderfully soothing chanting.

From the temples we made our way to the Nishiki Market, which was an eclectic combination of market stalls. In one stall, you could buy fresh veggies, the next raw sea urchin, the next cooked sea urchin, the next a pair of shoes, and then next may be a tiny sushi restaurant. It was a wonderful collection of sites, sounds and smells. For a snack, we stopped at a stall which offered what appeared to be mushroom and potato cakes on a stick. What we ended up eating was some gelatinous, fish tasting item that defies explanation. There are many wonderful foods in Japan that we've tried, this wasn't one of them.

From the market we made our way to Nijo-Jo castle. Like the temples earlier in the day, the outside of the castle was quite plain. But step inside, and you're quickly treated to a bright, colorful and gorgeous outer gate. The inside of the castle itself and the surrounding gardens were also quite beautiful.

After much walking and exploring, it was finally time to track down that vegetarian restaurant. And of course, when we arrived at the address and stopped a passing Kyoto resident, we learned that the restaurant was no more. D'oh. Luckily, there was another vegetarian restaurant a few blocks away, so we had dinner there instead.

Throughout the city we found an number of smaller, working religious shrines. While not on the scale of the temples we visited, they are quite interesting in their own way. It's fun to try to figure out what's going: I think that woman just said a prayer, dropped some coins in a slot, and then rung the bell. And that woman over there, rubbed the forehead of a stone lion, and then rubbed her own forehead, then rubbed the cheeks of the lion and then her own cheeks. And are those small sheets of paper filled with prayers and then tied onto that structure? I suppose I could Google all this to find out what it means, but for now it's more fun to just observe and try to piece this together on my own.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Japan Adventure - Days 1 and 2

We're in Japan! We landed yesterday after an uneventful (and dare I say, pleasant) flight. After 13 hours on the plane, our top priority was navigating to our hotel, getting dinner and hitting the sack.

Thanks to Shira's planning and an organized airport and train system, getting to Tokyo was painless. And thanks to T-mobile offering free data while we're here, we were able to use Google Navigation on our phones to find our hotel.

We had dinner at a noodle bar, and between our guidebook's phrase section and an English menu had no problem ordering. The noodles were good, as were the mixed vegetable skewers. But the winner was an edamame like dish that was sauteed heavily in garlic. Yum!

We only had half a day in Tokyo before we jumped on a train to Kyoto (where I'm currently writing out this post).

There're only about 1,000 things to do in Tokyo, so figuring out how to spend a morning isn't exactly trivial. In the end, we settled on checking out the Fish Market and Hama-rikyu Gardens.

The Fish Market was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook, but it also warns that it's not really a tourist attraction--it's a working market. And they were right, folks zip around in fork-lifts and it's a wonder I wasn't run over while snapping photos.

The market is huge, and before we found any fish we found fruit and vegetables. While oggling the selection, I suggested to Shira that we pick up some grapes. After all, we weren't sure where our next meal was coming from. So, she grabbed a neatly packaged bunch and went to pay. I walked off, and snapped more photos. She eventually returned without the grapes. What happened, I asked? Oh, she explained, the grapes weren't $2.70 like we thought, but $27.00. For *one* bunch. Apparently, we didn't just find the fruit section, we found the fancy fruit section.

Eventually we did discover the fish section of the market and it didn't disappoint. There were all manner of sea creatures on display, many of which I couldn't begin to identify. The market is huge, but we saw more than enough carnage for Shira to declare our visit over. Seriously, there are quite a few photos that I simply can't post, as this is a family friendly blog.

It was about 10:30am after we finished the market, and time to eat again. So, we took our hotel concierge's suggestion, and got Sushi at the "outer market" next door to the Fish Market. Purely based on proximity the market, it had to be fresh, right?

(I have to pause now to say that our train conductor just came into our car to check our tickets. This is the second or third time he's come into our car, and each time, he bows before entering, and leaving. And I'm not talking a quick bow, but one where he pauses, closes his eyes and bows. I'm not holding my breath for Amtrak to implement this policy, but it's one that I find oddly comforting.)

After the market we made our way to Hama-rikyu Gardens, which were fantastic. They won me over immediately by offering an audio tour included in our $3.00 (per person) admission. The gardens are both beautiful and filled with history. It was a terrific site to complement the rough and tumble fish market.

And now we're heading to Kyoto to continue our adventure.

So far, Japan is living up to much of the hype. The trains are spotless and run on time; the people are warm and friendly; even the image of packing the trains to capacity proved itself true when we took a rush our train this morning. Getting around and communicating hasn't been a problem. Though in Tokyo, I wouldn't expect it to be. The two most important phrases I've used are: a-ri-ga-to (thank you) and oy-shi-kat-ta (that was delicious!). Everything else has been accomplished with pointing, smiling, bowing and English.

Most importantly, we're having a blast!

Day 1's Pictures and Day 2's Pictures

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke, And Then Use the Cans For This Project

Here's a clever use for a 12 pack of coke after you've finished drinking it. Make a vertical garden:

I'm quite certain that if I attempted this, the results would end up on a BuzzFeed list like this one (thanks Maryn for sending me this link, I got quite the laugh from it!). Still, the whole notion of a garden built on a hack definitely appeals to me.

Speaking of BuzzFeed and interesting outdoor hacks, my brother passed me this link: 51 Budget Backyard DIYs That Are Borderline Genius, and I have to admit, I was quite impressed by many of the option.

Now, convincing Shira to let me try any of these out...that's a totally different story.

Via: recycleart.org.

bitgrid -- The Result of a Little Tin Can Hacking

I give you: bitgrid, a webapp without a cause. It's the result of some Tin Can Hacking.

During our last trip overseas I got the idea in my head to give myself a little programming challenge. Given the flight from DC to Paris, what kind of software could I build from scratch? I'd have at my disposal whatever was installed on my laptop, but with no Internet Connection, I was effectively on my own. I couldn't go off and grab 3rd party libraries or get answers from Google. Not to mention, I was programming all this from coach. So not only did I have to get by without StackOverflow, I'd also have to get by without legroom.

It was just me, emacs and xampp, stuck in a tin can flying at 30,000 feet.

After a little brainstorming, I decided I'd focus on building a simple little app for sharing crude images. This ended up refining itself into bitgrid, an app where you can fill in various points of a grid and share that grid with your friends. The state of the application is stored in the URL, so there's actually no database dependency. (In other words: bitgrid may not have much value, but boy does it scale!)

Here's what the webapp looks like:

And here's the URL behind that particular grid: http://bitgrid.benjisimon.com/#1G00S744K5K544S7001G.

What's bitgrid useful for? Well, that's hard to say. It's a pretty generic app, so it's got any number of uses. You could use it to make crude maps or share minimalist art. You could use it to pass secret messages, or as a sort of online ranger beads. With a little effort, you could probably create an online game with it; one that gets played by passing URLs back and forth over Twitter. The sky's the limit.

All I know is, it was a fun little diversion.

Here are some grids to get you started: one, two and three. But really, go make something amazing!

Update: (1) an anonymous user submitted a fix to the bug keeping you from highlighting an entire row of grid points, and I've applied it. And (2), I've put the repo up at github. Feel free to fork this sucker and hack away.

Update: Special thanks to Erwin Koning for finding and fixing a nasty bug in bitgrid.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Pimmit Run - Yet Another Excellent Running, Hiking and Just Being In The Woods Trail

Just when I think I know all the local trails, I go and discover a new. Yesterday, we ran part of Pimmit Run, specifically a section of the Downstream Trail, which starts at Chain Bridge. (Tip: if the parking lot is filled up at this trail head, have you're GPS route you to 4101 N Randolph Ct, Arlington, VA 22207. You can park on the street there, and take a steep bike path down to the trail.)

Pimmit Run starts as a combined trail with the Potomac Heritage Trail, but branches off on its own near a challenging stream crossing, which takes you to Fort Marcy Park. (To stay on the Pimmit Run trail, skip the stream crossing). This is a "real" trail, with terrain you'd expect to find in any outdoor adventure. It worked very well for trail running, as about 80% of it was runnable, while the remaining 20% was both interesting and a challenge. It even included a ridiculously rickety "bridge" (if you can call two fragile planks over a 6ft drop a bridge), which took some nerve to traverse.

Like any area wilderness trail in this area, it occasionally brushes up against roads and houses (and in this case, of the mansion variety), but that didn't really detract from the scenery. It's far more amazing to consider that we started 15 minutes from our home, yet were really In The Woods. All of Pimmit Run is supposed to be about 8 miles worth of trail. I could definitely see using this trail to test out gear and skills for longer hikes, as it's close enough to hit on a random week day, yet authentic enough to let you know what to expect when you hit your real trail.

We didn't see huge amounts of wildlife, but I'm sure it's there. Some sightings include: a Black Vulture (man, that's one tough looking bird!), a bunch of fish and a deer. I also came across a plant with Leaf Antlers, or more technically leaf galls. Apparently, a leaf gall encases insect eggs, and provide them protection while they develop. Yum!

More useful information on Pimmit Run can be found here. But better than reading about it, grab the kids and spouse, and just hit the trail.








View Pimmit Run in a larger map

And Today's Theme Song Is ...

... the soundtrack to Last of the Mohicans. Man, that soundtrack rocks. I haven't seen the movie in years, yet for some reason, I keep coming back to listen to its music. Which is only slightly odd, because I'm not really a soundtrack guy. But here, give it a listen and tell me it's not fantastic?

What's your favorite soundtrack of all time?

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Review: The Distancers: An American Memoir

What if you could bring your family history alive? I mean take the anecdotes you've heard about your grandparents, and great-grandparents, and make them narrative with true depth? Would you do it? That's exactly what Lee Sandlin has done with The Distancers: An American Memoir.

Sandlin effectively tells us the story of his family's last 4 generations, and does so in a way that wouldn't let me put the book down. It's quite a feat considering that his family, for the most part, is "normal." Sure, there are triumphs and tribulations, but overall, this is just the story of regular 'ol folks.

What makes this book a true gem is how it turns distinct moments in American history into a steady flow. How the heck do we go from life before the Civil War to the 1980's? By watching the characters grow and respond to a changing nation and world, we catch glimpses that answer this very question.

Also, I'm a fan of any look back at history that doesn't glorify nor denigrate it. When people want to cling to the Good Old Days, this book will remind them of life before cancer treatment or empowerment for women. And when people tell me how backward those days were, this book will remind them of the simple joys of gathering around the dinner table and how awesome the power of make believe can be for children. We need to learn from and embrace our past, and books like this help do that.

In the end though, it's Sandlin's wonderful story telling skills that make this book work.

The Pocket Linux Server I don't Really Need

For some time now I've wondered when I'm going to see a laptop type shell that I can slide my phone into. The shell would provide the screen and keyboard, but my Android device would be the brains. This would be the sort of next evolution in the phone as laptop replacement game.

Such a beast actually exists: the ClamBook. Other than the fact that you don't actually slide your phone into the laptop, it's exactly what I was imagining.

Recently though, the thought occurred to me that you could also do the reverse: use your phone as the input and output, and use a secondary device as the brains. Or, put another way: what if I had an itty bitty, headless Linux server that I could carry around. I could then ssh to it, and run more Unix'y things there, all without having to wrestle with the limitations of Android or require a proper Internet connection.

Turns out, such a beast actually exists here, too: I give you the TonidoPlug2.

This $130 device is billed as a compact Networked Attached Storage (NAS) device, or "personal cloud." But really, it's just a tiny Linux server that you can ssh to, and install any software you want on. At 5x3x1 inches, it's not something I'd want to carry everywhere, but it's still pretty dang compact. Toss in 1 Terabyte drive, and your cell phone suddenly becomes the portal to a pretty heavy duty device.

Another option, while not quite as robust, is to go the OpenWRT route, which effectively turns a wireless router into a tiny Linux server. While not quite as robust as a full Linux install, there are still a significant number of packages available to install. This platform can be remarkably cheap, say by using a $35 TP Link router (it's battery powered, no less). While not as powerful as the Tonido, it would give you that external server feeling without a separate network..

This technology really is amazing, and surprisingly quite affordable. Though, there's just one tiny problem: I don't actually need of it. At least not yet. But as soon as I outgrow the power of my Android device, I'll consider adding one of these guys.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Most Unhelpful Political Messaging. Ever.

I received this glossy direct mail piece last week from the Patrick Hope for Congress team:

(The text reads: "Democrats, don't be afraid... The Tea Party's power is as real as the monster under your bed.")

Let me get this straight, the party that assisted (or perhaps, engineered) shutting down the government, almost caused the US to default on its debt and has championed total gridlock in congress to insure *nothing gets done* for two presidential terms, has no power?

And how does telling folks that their opponent is imaginary encourage people to come out and vote?

To be fair, the inside of the mailer talks about how Patrick Hope is going to "stand up" to the Tea Party, which is a different message than saying the Tea Party isn't real.

With mailers like these it's no wonder Democrats get trounced in mid-term elections.

Correction: Giving Mulberries Their Due

I owe Mulberry trees an apology. I'm not sure if trees keep track of this sort of thing or not (what with their limited Internet access and all), but I do. I recently confirmed that the tree in our backyard is a Mulberry Tree, and that the fruit is edible.

In this post I flippantly remarked that the fruit tastes "somewhere between bland and blah."

After having had fresh mulberries for breakfast for the last few days, I can say that the above statement is somewhere between obnoxious and just plain wrong.

Assuming:

1. You understand that mulberries are going to look like blackberries, but taste different

2. You pick and eat only *ripe* mulberries. And by pick I mean ever-so-gently tap on them, and if they fall off, they are ready, otherwise leave them be

you will find that mulberries are quite delicious. They work especially well in food that's already pretty sweet (like say, ice cream or in cereal with vanilla soy milk).

The other day, as we took a walk through Arlington, I was able to take my friend Mike's advice and fruit from a number of different trees. And sure enough, some are definitely sweeter than others. But assuming they are ripe, they're all pretty decent.

How I've been walking by these trees for years and not nashing on them is beyond me. It's just like discovering raspberries on the trail, except there's no fear that there's a bear hanging out around the corner snacking on the same berry bushes.

Our 29 minutes and 5 seconds of NBC Fame

Remember that NBC adventure we had a few days back? Well, it wasn't all about Green Rooms and tours. Nope, we actually recorded an episode of Viewpoint that ran last Sunday at 7am.

On the off chance that you had something more pressing to do at 7am on a Sunday morning (like I don't know, sleep, or entertain your children), here's the episode:

COG Child Welfare Director Kamillah Bunn and Arlington County Foster Parents of the Year, the Simons, on NBC4 Viewpoint. from COG Video on Vimeo.

By now I've run all the questions that were asked through my head dozens of times, and have better answers for nearly all of them. I've got to admit, this whole come up with something clever to say while a TV camera is running is a tricky business. I can tell I'm going to have to stick to my day job.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Gotcha of the Day: Unlocking an Android Phone with a Broken Screen

Shira did the second* most unthinkable act with her LG G2 Android phone: she dropped it on concrete and cracked the screen.

The screen was still quite legible, but the touch aspect of it stopped working. That meant that she couldn't swipe her unlock pattern, thereby giving her access. Heck, she couldn't even plug in a USB cable to pull down data from the phone, because without swiping the unlock pattern, the USB drive isn't mounted.

After multiple reboots, long presses, holding down buttons and generally trying everything I could think of, I decided I was going to need to think a little further out of the box.

I grabbed my favorite On The Go (OTG) USB adapter and my IOGear Wireless Keyboard and Trackball and rigged it all up. Immediately, the phone detected the keyboard and mouse, and we were trivially able to unlock the screen using the trackball.

Shira was then able to navigate the phone, backing up various items and generally using it. She even had to admit that typing on a full size keyboard attached to her phone was remarkably effective. (Though, unlike me, she's not interested in ditching her laptop anytime soon)

Crisis averted. I'm telling you, the OTG Cable for $1.17 is one of the best mobile purchases I've ever made.

*The first is obviously dropping it in the toilet. Right?!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Get Your Outdoor Exercise On

Last night we mixed up our usual running workout by doing a body-weight workout on the Shirlington Fitness Trail. Perhaps calling it a trail is a bit generous, as it's really just a series of 4 relatively close together stations. I was pleased to find the equipment in good condition, and the instructions to comprehensive. Their are beginner, intermediate and advance options for each station and three different workout sets suggested (labeled Day 1 through Day 3). Most importantly, I found that after following Day #1's recommendations I was pretty much fully fatigued.

This is definitely a useful resource, and with the weather we had last night, far more pleasant to workout outside than inside. By adding in some running (something I plan to nag the ladies into doing next time), this short section of trail should make for a pretty complete workout.

If you're on a fitness kick, you'll definitely want to check these stations out.

Shira even managed to wrestle my cell phone away from me to capture this action pic. Good golly am I orange in this photo. What happened?

Review: A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel

Shira and I have a trip to Japan scheduled and I wanted to get further into the mood by reading / listening to a Japanese related book. I popped into Overdrive and searched the Arlington library for "Japan" and among the available results was Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel. I started listening to the audio version of the book, and quickly became hooked.

Part of what made the book so appealing is that I had zero expectations. I could clearly tell it wasn't my typical book (there are no action packed fight scenes, or dystopian landscapes--unless you consider Canada a dystopia), but I was awfully curious how the writer was going to resolve the story. So, I stuck with it, and in the end, I'm glad I did.

The basic premise is that you've got an aging Canadian writer named Ruth discovering the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao, and from there the story unfolds as we learn about both Ruth and Nao's world. Ozeki does a splendid job of keeping both worlds believable and separate, yet at the same time they are obviously parallels.

As the title suggests, Ozeki does find creative ways to explore the notion of time and how slippery it can be when you actually try to introspect it.

The book contains some NC-17 related themes that I'd usually shy away from. However, by the time the content arrived, I was too invested to stop listening. So keep that in mind if you're squeamish or considering having your kid read the book.

Finally, Nao does give wonderful descriptions of Japan and Japanese culture. I'll find out after my visit if her descriptions are at all accurate. If so, I'd chalk up "learning about Japan" as another benefit to this book.

---SPOILER ALERT---

OK, this isn't really a spoiler, but I felt like I had to give Ozeki props. When I started her book, I was curious to see where it was all going. And in the end, she managed to create a multi-layered masterpiece with a wonderfully satisfying ending. At times it was a meandering path to get there, but definitely worth the build up.

Who knew the lives of a struggling writer, teenager, Zen master, laid off software engineer and a Kamikaze Pilot could all be connected in such novel ways. The lessons they have to teach about coping with impossible situations is interesting and inspirational. Ozeki manages to let us see their struggles from both inside the head of each of these characters, as well, as from outside; it all makes for powerful reading.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Review: Satch and Me

I know few, if any baseball players, but whenever I walk into Nationals Park I smile when I walk by the Josh Gibson statue. Over a year ago now, our 8 year old Foster Son and I listened to Satch and Me on CD, which recounts the stories of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (apparently, bitter rivals). We both walked away from that book learning that Paige was one of the all time great pitchers of the game, and Gibson was one of the all time great hitters.

Out of curiosity, I searched my blog for the 'review' I had written about Satch Me to refresh my memory of the book. Alas, I couldn't find it. Apparently, I didn't write one. So, I'm writing one now.

Satch and Me is part of a series written by Dan Gutman, where hero of the story has the ability to transport back in time by touching specific baseball cards. As premises go, it's an odd one, but it opens the door for Gutman to teach us about the life and times of a baseball player. And boy does it work.

Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson both played for the Negro League in the 30's and 40's, which means that their Life and Times was one filled with racial injustice. Gutman manages to expose the reader to this at a level an 8 year old can appreciate. In fact, there's quite a bit in the book for a kid to learn from all without knowing they are learning. There's obviously the racial angle, and a sense of how the Negro League operated, but there's a positive example of an older coach who's able to connect with and guide the hero of the story. All in all, the messaging of the book is quite solid, all while being a fun read (or in our case, listen). Apparently, Satchel Paige was quite the character, and this comes through in the book as well. I especially appreciated that the book contained an epilogue that clearly explained which parts of the story are and aren't real (spoiler alert: the time travel isn't.).

If you look at the Amazon Reviews for the book, you'll see a number of parents chime in about how their non-reader kids enjoyed the book so much. And I can see that, it's a fun little adventure story you'll want your kids to read.

Name that Tree: Closer Than I Thought Edition

Learning to identify a plant is good. Learning to identify an edible plant is better. Learning to identify an edible plant that's been under my nose for years is downright awesome (and sure, a little embarrassing). It reminds me that discovery doesn't need to be done in far off lands; you need only pay attention to your daily surroundings.

So, here's a question: how far do I have to go to find a tree bearing edible fruit? That is, a tree I can casually walk up to and pick a handful of fruit from and toss it in my mouth? 5 Miles? 1 Mile? 1,000 yards? Try like 3 feet.

For years now I've been cleaning up the remarkably stain inducing berries of the tree right behind our deck. As I started paying more attention to the trees around my neighborhood, it occurred to me that these berries I was sweeping up may actually be edible. And sure enough, they are. The tree that's accessible just a few feet from the steps of my deck is indeed a Mulberry Tree, who's fruit is quite edible. For a while now I've had a hunch that this was the case, but I wanted to wait until I could inspect the berries to confirm my suspicion:

This morning, I went out and picked a handful and dropped them into my oatmeal:

All this is very exciting, though there are a few catches. First, when Walter Reeves reports that "The fruit is edible but not exactly dessert quality", he's being generous. After sampling my handful of berries, I'd say the fruit is somewhere between bland and blah. Also, the berries stain everything, a fact I've known for years.

But, Mulberries do apparently have some upsides. First, they can be used as a basic replacement for blackberries. So, they work for pies, jams and as additives for pancakes, oatmeal, and pretty much any place else fruit goes. The leaves can be made into tea, which I'm almost certainly going to have to try. You can also make ink from the berries, which puts their staining effect to good use. According to the Internet, mulberries are packed with important health benefits. I'm not sure I'm sold on all this, but it did make me feel better adding them to my oatmeal this morning. The placebo effect is still an effect, right?

But most importantly, I made yet another discovery. Hurray!

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