Thursday, July 31, 2014

Backpacking Like It's 1999



Yes, that's me in a gigantic backpack standing at National Airport. And yes, there's a story to go with it.

Shira and I are off to go camping. But rather than jump in the car and drive, we're taking an airplane to our final destination. At this destination we're picking up one more camper, and then we'll be heading off to a campground.

The question then becomes: how do you transport a weekend's worth of car camping gear from DC to Georgia in a sane manner?

First, we laid out all the goodies we'd need; tent, sleeping bags, food, etc. I then took a look at it all, and realized there was no way I was cramming all this gear into my usual lightweight backpacking bag. Even if I could cram it all in, I'm not sure it would survive the plane trip.

And I then I remembered my Lowe Contour IV. This bag is epic. I took it to Philmont (twice?) and on countless camping trips in Scouts. It's huge and built like a tank. So I dragged it out and started filling it. The thing just swallows up gear like it's nothing. In said pack is a 4 man tent, 3 sleeping bags, 3 Neorest air mattresses, cooking gear, bug spray, suntan lotion and other around the campsite neccessities, and an inflatable 2 "person" (read: kid) boat. Yes, the pack contains an actual boat.

All loaded up, it's only about 40 lbs, which surprises me. Back in the day, I got the packer over 50lbs to do Philmont. How I did this is beyond me, and I simply look back and cringe. What the heck was I thinking?

But the Lowe Contour IV is truly a bag of beauty. It's got so many cool features, part of me wishes I could use it as a regular backpacking option. But the heavyweight fabric, countless straps, massive hip belt and such all come at a cost. The bag probably weighs as much as my typical base weight for an overnighter. And it's so massive, I'd never fill it with backpacking gear.

Still, it felt good to heft it on. Brings back those Scouting days memories.

Pocket Sized Domino Set - Free to Make, Fun to Play

This Instructable was too useful and easy not to make: Pocket Size Traveler's Dominoes.

Just print off the provided PDF and snip out all the Dominoes. I got a little fancy and did a bit of poor man's laminating: I covered the paper with clear packing tape before cutting out the individual pieces. If I had used card stock, they would have felt even more professional (though, they'd be less compact).

Here's how they came out:

The "set" fits in small plastic pill bag and is nice and portable:

Dominoes is one of those universal games that can appeal to both kids and adults. For kids, it's a great way to work on numbers, pattern matching and logic and reasoning all by playing a fun game. Here's a basic set of instructions.

This set fits well with my almost-no-supplies needed game collection. Happy playing!

Remember: there's not excuse for being bored.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

More DC Mall Trivia: Where does this Tree Live?

Did you know we had an 80 year old Cork Tree on the DC Mall? I didn't. But here it is:

So, smart guys and gals, here's today's question: where does it live?

The answer can be found here. This Cork Tree is listed among a handful of other Witness Trees that are located on the Mall. Next time you think you've seen all the monuments, go in search of these trees and you'll find something just as special.

I captured the above photo while on a run yesterday. Here's a few more photos from that run:

Think you know the DC mall? Answer me this question, then.

So Harmless Looking, So Psychoactive, So Poisonous

While taking a walk a couple days ago, I noticed this healthy, flowering weed:

Those white, trumpet like flowers, sure do add some beauty to the landscape. But look a little closer, and you see this guy has spikey green fruit:

Some quick double checking confirmed it: this inviting plant is actually Jimson Weed, which is poisionous, though apparently abused by some as a hallucinogenic properties. It gets its name from this story:

In 1676, British soldiers were sent to stop the Rebellion of Bacon. Jamestown weed (Jimsonweed) was boiled for inclusion in a salad, which the soldiers readily ate. The hallucinogenic properties of jimsonweed took affect.

As told by Robert Beverly in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705): The soldiers presented "a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.

"In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves - though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after 11 days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed."

Lest you think this story is embellished, modern descriptions of the drug's effect are pretty much the same. If it doesn't kill you, it'll give you one heck of an awful trip.

Just a gentle reminder that Mother Nature doesn't mess around. I expect someone will eventually notice this plant and yank it out. Heck, I should probably do the community a service and do just that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gotcha of the Day: Accessing AWS EC2 Tags from within PHP

I've got bunch of dedicated EC2 instances running, and I'd like an easy way to configure the web app that runs on them. While I could control their configuration any number of ways, it occurred to me that it would be pretty dang sweet to be able to set parameters from within the Amazon Web Console. Each instance can have a number of tags associated with it, so if I could access those tags from within the server, I'd be golden.

Turns out, getting access to the tags isn't especially hard and is explained here. Essentially, you need to grab two programs from the web: ec2-metadata (or, use curl) and ec2-describe-tags.

Given these tools, I was able to write the following init script:

#!/bin/bash

##
## Capture the ec2 tags associated with this server. Not
## really a long running process. Just something that can
## be invoked whenever
##

RETVAL=0
prog=`basename $0`
ec2_metadata=/usr/local/bin/ec2-metadata
ec2_describe_tags=/usr/local/bin/ec2-describe-tags
etc_tags=/usr/local/etc/ec2-tags

function start() {
  echo -n "Starting $prog: "
  instance_id=`$ec2_metadata | grep instance-id: | sed 's/^.*: //'`
  $ec2_describe_tags | grep  $instance_id | awk -F'\t' '{printf "%s:%s\n", $4, $5}' > $etc_tags
  echo "OK"
}

function stop() {
  echo "Stopping $prog: OK"
}

case "$1" in
  start)
    start
    ;;
  stop)
    stop
    ;;
  restart)
    stop
    start
    ;;
  *)
    echo "Usage: $prog {start|stop|restart}"
    RETVAL=2
esac

(This lives in /etc/rc.d/init.d/ec2tags)

I then setup a softlink to this init script in /etc/rc.d/rc3.d/S80ec2tags.

Now, when the server boots the script runs, which generates /usr/local/etc/ec2-tags. For now, I'm manually updating the configuration by changing the parameters and running /etc/rc.d/init.d/ec2tags restart. Though, that could certainly be setup to be automated.

Finally, to get access these values in PHP, I've written this function:

function app_env() {
  $env = array();
  $fd = fopen("/usr/local/etc/ec2-tags", "r");
  while($line = fgets($fd)) {
    list($key, $value) = explode(":", $line);
    $env[trim($key)] = trim($value);
  }
  return $env;
}

And I'm all set. Now, my PHP code can efficiently read EC2 tags, and I can control the configuration of my servers from a central location.

Like Lego Blocks For Your Yard

I have to admit, a gray block of cement doesn't strike me as an ideal gardening tool. But, if you trust the web, you'll see that I'm wrong on this one. Cinder blocks turn out to be a Lego-like tool for creating gardening solutions. Because of their natural heft, they allow you to do many interesting projects without using any additional tools. Just stack, and go. You can use them to fill up large areas, small areas, build up, or create terraces. Pretty dang impressive.

I think they'd fit well with the experimental gardening approach I've been fooling around with this year. They let you start small, see what works, and add on as necessary.

Now, if I can just convince Shira that gray blocks of cement in our yard are going to look glorious, I'll be all set. (Yeah, good luck with that.)

Below are some samples from the web of ways cinder blocks have been deployed. Click on the images to see the story behind each design.

Check out pinterest for even more designs. And here's a list of projects for all those left over cinder blocks you've got lying around after you overbought for your garden.

Monday, July 28, 2014

One More Billy Joel Post

A picture's worth a 1000 words, so what's 30 seconds of audio worth?

I'm not sure, but I know it's worth something.

Listening to this ridiculously low quality recording from a 2005 U2 Concert may not mean much to you, but to me, it's nothing short of a time machine.

In that spirit, here's some audio snippets from the Billy Joel concert we attended over the weekend.

Listen to all audio clips I captured here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Piano Man's Still Got It

Last night we saw Billy Joel in concert, and to be expected, he really rocked the place. It's actually my second time seeing him play, the first time was 8 years ago at the Verizon Center.

Watching him play at Nationals Park was a real treat. For one thing, it was the perfect night for open air seating. And for another, most of the ballpark restaurants were open, so I was able to get a Veggie Cheese Steak and it was actually pretty good. (Let's ignore the fact that the prices are criminal, and between the "steak" sandwich and an ice cream cone I needed to take out a second mortgage on the house.)

Gavin Degraw opened for Billy, and he certainly gave it his all. But the sound system just wasn't tuned for his setup, and the result was loud music, but I couldn't really understand the lyrics. Luckily, Billy's setup was tuned to perfection, and he was nice and clear.

Now, I'm not much of a Billy Joel aficionado. Still, I'e been hearing him play my whole life, and his music triggers quite a few memories. I'd get out on the dance floor at USY Dances with my Older Brother to rock out to We Didn't Start The Fire, and I remember sitting in my family room listening to the River of Dreams CD over and over again (that was back before you had instant free access to any song in the world). Of the 23 songs he played last night, I knew 22 of them (time to listen to Zanzibar to learn that one, too). I could at least mumble along to all 22 songs, which isn't something I can say for nearly any other artist on the planet.

Thinking back to our last concert with Billy, I'm pretty sure he had the same set list, and the same rotating piano, and the same black suit (man, that had to have been hot!). But, I can hardly blame him; people came to hear his hits, and that's what he delivered.

An amazing musician, and amazing time!

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Rule of Thumb for Success

Seth Godin gives lots of insights in this interview, but one quick nugget to take away is this:

If I fail more than you, I win.

(The presumption of course, is that the failures we're talking about aren't the catastrophic kind. They may hurt, but they'll allow you to get back in the game and try again.)

Think about the above statement, and you'll see it has powerful implications.

Give the whole interview a watch, it's more than worth your time:

Thanks to Wisdom and Wonder for pointing me to the video.

Name that Tree: Wispy Pink Flower Edition

For months now, I've been coming across this tree with unusual pink flowers, but for one reason or another, I haven't been able to grab a photo of it. That changed last night while running along the Custis Trail. I finally got a few basic photos:

Don't those blossoms look like they belong in a tropical paradise, or at the very least, in a botanical garden? What the heck is this tree doing randomly along Custis Trail, and more importantly, what's it called?

Not quite sure the technical term to describe the flowers, I just took my best guess and entered the following into Google Images: Tree Wispy Pink Flowers. The first hit was a perfect match:

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Google Images is an amazing tool for plant identification.

According to that first hit I was looking at a Memosa Tree (aka Silk Tree, aka Albizia julibrissin). Apparently the trees are both exotic looking and tough as nails, as they will grow pretty much anywhere (including along a random bike trail). It's not all good news, though, as they are considered an invasive species in Virginia, and all those blossoms leave quite a mess, which make them less than ideal for urban design.

There's various back and forth as to what parts of the tree are edible. There doesn't appear to be a common part of the tree people consume, yet in the comments here, people claim that eat just about all of it. It has a tradition of being used for medical purposes, including making tea from the leaves and using the bark as a "mood enhancer". Though, the exact details are all a little sketchy.

Bottom line: looks like this is one of those trees to marvel at, but avoid planting or nibbling on.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Large Format Photography On The (Very) Cheap

Merging my love of photography, building stuff and clever hacks, this Shoebox Large Format camera is officially awesome:

All you need to build one are a shoebox, some black cardboard paper, a punch tool and a lens. The creator of the project had an old camera lying around they could tear apart for the lens. It looks like this $4.00 (for two!) option from SciPlus would suffice (both are positive meniscus lenses, right?).

The trickier issue is the "film" side of things. The author used photo paper, which isn't too terribly expensive, but then you've got to craft some sort of photo developing lab, to actually bring the prints to life.

I wonder if you could build the camera, but replace the back with tissue paper thereby creating a camera obscura. Then, you could go old school and drape a black cloth over the whole thing. You'd then climb underneath and snap a photo of the back of the camera with your cell phone.

Or is that cheating?

Either way, it's a fun project to try. I may have to pick up the lenses just to have them on hand to experiment with.

Check out the instructions for a sample of the images produced by the camera. Impressive stuff.

Via: brainwagon

Entertained and Informed, No Electricity Needed

Two days ago I caught this piece from the NPR archive: Cigar Stories: El Lector - He Who Reads (also found here) and I was really impressed. Apparently, back in the heyday of hand rolled cigars, the workers would make their task a lot less tedious by hiring a professional reader. He'd sit at a central lectern and regale them with various tales.

Apparently, the content they read was all over the board: from local and international news, to novels and poetry, to political manifestos, to anything else the workers wanted.

The result: the workers were not only entertained, but well educated and informed. No electricity or Internet required; just some reading material and an individual with a gift for projecting his voice to potentially hundreds of people.

That's a mighty brilliant hack. Low tech, and highly effective.

Here, give the piece a listen:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Picking The Right Stove for a Destination Camping Trip

We've got a camping trip coming up in a few weeks, but there's a wrinkle: we're flying to the location. Most of our gear can be taken on the plane without a problem; the big exception being the stove fuel. What's a traveling camper to do?

1. Go Stoveless. I'd be all over this option, except this violates Rule #3, which isn't acceptable.

2. Rely on a campfire. Again, this would be my preference, but I'm not quite sure what the destination will have in terms of wood availability (I do know the fires are allowed in designated areas). Better to bring a stove, then chance it.

3. Bring our MSR Pocket Rocket stove. This bad boy is remarkably effective, but I'm not sure how easy it's going to be to get fuel. Again, I don't want to leave our meals to chance. Shipping the IsoPro fuel appears to be a no-no.

4. Bring an alcohol stove. Finding HEET, the readily available fuel alcohol stoves typically use, shouldn't be too tricky. Between gas stations, Auto Parts stores and Walmart someone has to have it. On the other hand, HEET is an anti-freeze product, so it's not exactly in season. While probably available, it's still not a sure thing.

5. Hit WalMart and buy a cheap Coleman stove and propane canister. I seriously considered this option, especially because this camping trip isn't exactly backpacking (though, it's not exactly car camping either). But, what would I do with the supplies when I was done? Seems like a waste / hassle for one weekend.

6. Use an Esbit Stove. I experimented with one a couple of trips ago, and was pleased at how effective it was. Most importantly, they use the one fuel that we can ship ahead of time. There are other advantages to Esbit: they don't spill like alcohol, they're easy to take inventory of, and they are naturally lightweight. The cons, is that they are a crude method of cooking, and there's some variation in burn time and efficiency. You can definitely cook on these guys, so I know that they aren't purely a gimmick.

The winner: the Esbit Stove. I love that I can ship the fuel ahead of time and know exactly where I stand with it. The 12 tablets I ordered should be more than enough for 2 dinners, and 2 breakfasts. This setup should also work because I planning to use the stove as more of a backup, than a primary cooking option (at least for dinners).

While I'm at it, I'll also keep an eye open for a bottle of HEET when we land at our destination. If I can find such a bottle, creating a field expedient alcohol stove should be easy enough. (Just pick up a couple of cans of soda at the same time and there are your raw materials.)

Do. Or Do Not. There is No Try. At least when it comes to drawing Yoda.

Makes and Takes recently featured an excellent set of Learn To Draw Resources for kids. I'm a big fan of Ed Emberley's books, which use similar techniques, but have the benefit of being always available (well, available anywhere you've got the web. Which is always.).

Consider this How to Draw Yoda example from Art for Kids:

It's really well done, and definitely something that would work well for an older kid to follow along with.

I also love the mix and match robot drawing ideas. Definitely a keeper.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Snaking Through The Grass

I'll Never Look At Unmatched Socks The Same Way Again

I wanted a way to carry a heap of batteries with me on our latest trip, and it turned out this little black ditty bag did the job perfectly:

It's soft and padded, so the batteries didn't scratch up any of the camera gear they were packed next to.

Of course, that's not a real stuff sack, but a quickly improvised one by snipping off the toe of a lonely black dress sock. It's one of the 5 uses for old socks that Intense Angler suggested in a recent video. Very handy (or footy?) stuff. I'll definitely never look at unmatched socks again in the same way.

Oh, and here's a 6th use for unmatched socks: as inspiration for short stories (seriously, the tale of Left and Right sock are pretty dang intense).

Here's Intense Angler's video. Give it a watch, and start putting that pile of unmatched socks to use:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Castles on a Hill, Secret Ponds and Bamboo Paths -- Gotta Love Boston!

What a whirlwind weekend it's been! We arrived in Boston on Friday, and we're headed back to DC now, Sunday afternoon. We promised the kids lots of adventures while we were here, and I think we managed to deliver.

On Friday, I wanted to do some hiking in the Blue Hills Reservation. We arrived at the reservation and I finally inspected the trail map. There was a kid friendly loop around a pond, but that's not what I had in mind. Instead, I wanted to truck up hill a half mile to see the Blue Hill Observatory, a weather station which has been in operation since 1885 (It's "the oldest, continuously operating weather Observatory in the United States"!!) I've seen pictures of the weather station, and it looks like a castle tower, so I promised the kids that if they made it up the hill, they'd see a castle.

We started up the hill, and it quickly became apparent that this was most certainly not a kid friendly trail, and would have probably been out of reach of many adults. Not only was the trail steep, but there were sections that required traversing various boulders and cracks. The whole trip up, Shira and I kept looking at each other: how the heck are we going to make it down?.

We only had the two older kids with us, so against all reasonable judgment we pushed forward. The kids ended up doing amazingly, and they summitted the hill with relative ease. At the top was a weather station, and sure enough, it looked like a castle. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to go up into the building, so we had to make do with playing 'Troll' on the grounds outside the station. (And how does one play troll? An unsuspecting victim sits quietly while, the Trolls jump up from behind them and scare them. It's non-stop fun for 5 year olds.)

After the crazy hike up the mountain, Shira and I really wanted a more gentle path down, so we started down a road that stopped at the weather station. The kids were disappointed; they wanted to go back and play on the rocks that we had just scurried up.

Luckily, as we walked a little ways down the road I saw a sign for an observation tower and I hoped that would distract them. The tower was relatively close to the road, and a trivial walk to get to. The kids were thrilled, they'd found another castle. For the rest of the trip, everyone we passed would get informed by the kid that they had just seen two different castles (and that one was closed).

We took a red dotted trail down the mountain and while it was steep, it was easy compared to the way up. The kids were pleased to get some rock time, and quickly figured out how to slide down the large boulders on their butts.

At the bottom of the hill was the Trailside Museum, which turned out to be a sort of itty bitty zoo. They had enclosures for turtles, a bald eagle, a few turkey vultures, a lone white tailed deer and the kids' favorite: a hyper-active river otter. It was nature on a very small scale, but one they could appreciate.

The way back to the car required a half mile walk along the sidewalk of a fairly major road. I had Dovid's hand while Shira held Chana's. Dovid and I were a ways back, and as we approached the parking lot he decided we needed to sprint to catch up. Chana would have none of it, and she took off with Shira. To my amazement, the kids finished our mountain climbing adventure not too exhausted to move, but running their little hearts out. It was an awesome hike, and the kids far exceeded what I could ever expect a 5 year old to do.

On Saturday, Shabbat, we headed off to another adventure: this one to a "secret pond." Our destination was Chandler's Pond, a small spot of blue on the map, relatively close to the kids' house. This time we had all 4 children. To our surprise, little Tzipora lead the way, often running in front. I remember a couple visits ago when her walking range was measured in yards (if not feet!) before she was too tired to move.

We made it to the pond, and it was absolutely delightful. There were a number of different bird species (including a Blue Heron) that I got excited about, but I don't think impressed the kids. They, however, loved collecting up feathers, exploring all the snails they discovered and their favorite activity: chucking sticks into the water. With my new outlook on feathers and this commercial playing in the back of my head, I encouraged the kids to just explore and take it all in. After fun times at the pond, and before we had one of them fall in, we went across to a massive field and played ball.

I had some fun 1 on 1 time with Gavriella while the other kids played ball. She's such a cutie, and slowly, but surely warming up to her very big, and very active Uncle Ben. We'll get there.

Nap time was easy on Saturday, as everybody was completely exhausted from the walk and play time.

And then there was today, Sunday. I just had to squeeze in one more outdoor activity. We hit Back Bay Fens. The kids loved running around the rose garden, climbing on the war memorial, getting up close to the ducks and walking through a bamboo trail. The collection of gardens that folks can rent also made for a fun maze to walk through,

All in all, we had a fantastic time. And I learned that when the trail is out of control steep and rocky, just put a pair of 5 year olds on point. They'll figure out a path for you.

View All Photos

Friday, July 18, 2014

Leap of Faith



(Yes, we're in Boston, and yes, many, many more photos are on the way. Stay tuned.)

A Little Truth In Advertising: About Those Dozens of Uses for Coffee Filters

One of my favorite parts of the Internet are the lists of clever uses for everyday objects. Why, just yesterday I referenced 20 Uses for Post-It Notes, and thoroughly enjoyed the list.

But, sometimes these lists grow to be a little too good to be true. Case in point Coffee Filters (which have at least 66 uses!). The Survival Mom took a closer look at some of these uses, and found out that most simply don't work.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm actually a big fan of coffee filters. I like using them as sort of disposable bowls for snacks (among other users). But, one thing I like more than a good hack: the truth.

So, thanks The Surival Mom for helping make the Internet a little bit more realistic. And here's to actually trying the hacks I so love to report on. (Except for maybe the prison escape with dental floss hack. I'll leave that one to the pros.)

Go read the article: The Reality of Coffee Filters for Preparedness Uses (Hint: Mostly Fail!)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Little Bushcraft Love

Growing up in Boy Scouts, I was raised on the Leave No Trace (LNT) outdoors philosophy. The goal is simple: when you go hiking, camping or any other outdoor pursuit, you should leave the environment exactly (if not better) than you found it. This philosophy is valuable for a number of reasons, but the primary one is obvious: when you leave an area pristine, the next individual can come along and enjoy it just like you did. It's a solid philosophy, and one that I'm glad to follow. So much so, that even the thought of plucking a common wild edible just seems wrong.

There is, however, another way to embrace the outdoors (OK, there are tons of ways) and that is through Bushcrafting. With LNT, you're an observer in nature, standing on the sidelines taking it all in. With Bushcrafting, however, you're a participant actually using the natural resources in front of you. You're not just watching nature, you're part of nature.

When you make this transition, there's suddenly a whole swath of information that's useful, if not essential to know. For example, understanding the different types of trees and plants isn't just an exercise in identification, it's genuinely useful in eating and living better outdoors. Another example: when you can quickly whip up cooking utensils form the materials around you, it's that much less you need to pack in.

Bushcrafting, like any other pursuit, can be good and it can be evil. Spend anytime on YouTube and you'll see people haphazardly testing hatches without giving any thought to the damage they are doing to the trees around them. On the other hand, there are those who tread carefully and show that humans can actually play an import role in living within an environment. One such individual is MCQ Bushcraft, who's video Solo Five Day Hunting & Bushcraft really got me appreciating what Bushcraft has to offer.

MCQ, in my opinion, shows Bushcraft at it's best: a fun and useful way to connect to the outdoors and make life out there more pleasant. He demonstrates a number of key skills, like finding wild edibles and cooking over an open fire, all the while without getting hung up on procedural details (for some Bushcraft means that all your gear needs to be old school: think lots of canvas and a big 'ol axe. MCQ, uses a Cordora and other modern materials, and makes do quite well with a knife and folding saw). It doesn't hurt that his video is quite well produced, and more watchable than many 'survival' TV shows out there. (And he's got that authoritarian, yet soothing British accent going, too.)

Anyway, check out this particular video below as well as the others he has created (his Slingshot Squirrel Hunting video is also a terrific one to watch, albeit a bit bloody. Still, definitely worth it if you eat meat.)

I'm not dragging an axe into the woods any time soon, but I'm definitely going to look for ways to include some of the Bushcraft philosophy in my outdoor adventures.

Worth a follow: www.mcqbushcraft.co.uk.

An Improvised Revenue Stream

You've got a great website with tons of visitors, but you need to pay the bills, right? So, what's a company to do? Why, slap advertisements all over it, of course. Sure, nobody likes the ads (well, except for the ad company), but you've got bring in a little cash some how.

This is a discussion I've had plenty of times with website owners, and I very much feel their pain. Still, whenever I notice a website that brings in some revenue without ads I'm intrigued and think it's worth a mention.

The latest revenue hack I've seen: Improvised Life's Store. I'm a big fan of the blog Improvised Life, and their idea of having their own store makes perfect sense. If they're going to write about an item, why not make it easy for folks to buy it, too?. (Note: the sequence here is critical. I really do believe they stumble over products they love, and then decide to sell them, versus just putting up junk).

By making the content primary and the store a nice add-on, they've traded in annoying ads for a helpful resource. Well done.

But it actually gets better. If you look at the items in their store, you'll notice there's no add to cart button. Instead, it's just a link to Amazon with an affiliate code.

They've added a store, but didn't implement an eCommerce solution. This is brilliant. Sure, they won't make as much as an affiliate as they would selling the items themselves, but the level of effort is vastly reduced. They don't need to worrying about billing, customer service, or convincing users it's safe to buy from them. And of course, for many (most? some?) Amazon buyers, their shipping will be free thanks to Prime.

They've developed a helpful resource that brings in a few dollars, and no developers were harmed (or necessarily utilized in the process). Bravo!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Taming that Ultra Bright DVR Clock

We had an electrical storm a few days ago which knocked out power. When the juice was finally back, we turned on our DVR only to find that it was empty. Zilch. The content was long gone, and so was our list of shows to record. To be sure, this is a first world problem.

Verizon ended up expressing us a replacement cable box/DVR. And luckily, we had backed up our DVR settings to the cloud previously (Tip: if you have Fios and haven't backed up your DVR to the cloud, do so RIGHT NOW. It's easy to do, and why it's not done automatically is beyond me.), so restoring the schedule of shows to record was easy. Finally, there was Hulu to turn to catch up on the shows that we had, but lost (My plea to Shira: see, we can drop Fios and just use Hulu was not met with approval.).

This left me with one itty bitt problem remaining. The new DVR Verizon sent us is great, except the clock is terrifically bright. Which might be cool if the DVR wasn't in our bedroom, where the last thing we need is another nightlight (We've got multiple laptops, cellphones and printer to provide ample ambient light).

What I wanted was a set of dimmys, to tame the clock. But, I didn't have a set lying around and it was bed time. What to do?

Looking around, I saw a stack of multi-colored Post-It notes. I slapped a bright pink one the face of the clock, turned off the light, and what do you know? The clock was dim yet visible. And the pink paper turned the LED into a red (possibly night-vision friendly) color.

Here's what the final setup looks like:

(The Scotch Tape is a bit of overkill. But it keeps the paper flat against the clock, which makes it more visible when the lights are on.)

It won't win me any design awards, but it works. Never underestimate the power of a Post-It Note.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: Meister Gel-Padded ProWrap Hand Wraps

In Krav Maga, we're regularly switching between having our hands wrapped, unwrapped, and using boxing gloves. While old school wraps are nice and simple, I like being able to switch between the three modes quickly. That means utilizing some sort of gloves.

My first upgrade from basic wraps was a set of Title Speed Wraps (generously provided by my friend Dawn!). My first thought was that they were quite flimsy, but I quickly grew to like them (they get pretty poor reviews; I must be one of the few fans out there). I liked that they went on quickly, provided some basic support, and didn't really get in the way when I wanted to do more bare-handed style practice. Best of all, they were washable, so when everything got nasty, they could be easily cleaned.

Still, after a year or so of use, they were toast. I thought I'd mix it up and tried out Meister's Gel-Padded speedwraps. While I've only used them a few weeks, I really like them.

They are definitely more substantial than the Title Speedwraps, with the 26" wrist strap providing solid wrist support. At the same time, they're all fabric and relatively lightweight, so I maintain quite a bit of dexterity when I use them alone.

They work well under boxing gloves over; providing support I quickly noticed was lacking when I went a round without them.

The only catch with these wraps is that apparently my wrist size isn't within their target market. Even though I bought the Medium/Small size, they wrist wrap overshoots the Vecro by a good few inches. The result: I'd end up with a tail flapping around. It's not only annoying and not particularly secure, but when executing some moves would scratch the neck of the poor person I was paired up with.

The most field expedient solution was to throw a loop of athletic tape around my wrists. That held everything in place nicely. A more long term solution was to sew some extra Velcro and in place:

(That's before I did any sewing. I'm proud to say that one set of strips Velcro I secured with dental floss instead of regular thread. Mmmmm, minty fresh, and tough as nails.)

I'm still very much a newbie in the world of Krav Maga and fighting. But I know that some days it's nice to be able to practice with lots of protection (read: boxing gloves), and sometimes it's nice to practice with the bare minimum (read: bare handed). And these speed-wraps give me a solid compromise for both worlds. They may not be as badass as some MMA gloves, but they are comfortable and get the job done.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Oxon Hill Farm - Farm Fun For The Fam

This last weekend, we visited Oxon Hill Farm (aka Oxon Cove Park). I'd been meaning to check out the historic farms in the area, and Oxon hill seemed like a solid first bet.

Oxon Hill consists of a bunch of buildings to explore, animals to oggle and grounds to stroll. The views of Alexandria in the distance were surprising and gorgeous. We saw cows, horses, chickens, turkeys and one very nervous kitty (who by the time we saw him, had a gaggle of kids trying to pet him all at once). There are ranger led programs which apparently get you closer to the animals, but we just did our own thing. At 9am on a Sunday, we had the whole farm to ourselves. It was both delightful and a bit eerie. By the time we left, there were all of 10 cars in the parking lot. Like Fort Washington, in any other city this would probably be a pretty major site. But, given how many things there are to do in DC, Oxon Hill Farm is pretty low on most people's TO DO list.

This is definitely one of those places where you'll get out of it what you want. You could easily be a cynic and say, "this is it?" Or, you could you embrace your inner Old McDonald, and love the place. No surprise, I chose the latter approach. For a kids who likes animals, nature or just appreciate space to run, this place would rock.

It didn't hurt that the farm was free, and 20 minutes from Arlington. Low effort, and cute animals to check out (and in my case, photograph); we've got a winner!

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