Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Important Reminder

Just a heads up, I'm going to start using this quote whenever I get into political discussions. You've been warned.

The plural of anecdote is not data.
~ Roger Brinner

Via: Wisdom and Wonder

repl.it - Love It! And Learn to program with two URLs

This morning I worked up a solution to today's Programming Praxis challenge (find it here). The code was simple enough to write (and yes, I wrote it on my Galaxy S5). A few minutes after I committed the solution to git, I decided I wanted to tweak a function name.

Github provides an easy enough way to edit a file and commit the change. The catch is that I know from countless goofs that even the most trivial change needs to be checked before committing. I could fire up my Android Scheme Dev environment without much difficulty, but at the time, I had a Firefox window open to Github on my Laptop. It occurred to me: surely there had to be an online Scheme REPL I could test my fix with. Then I wouldn't have to leave my browser (much less my dev environment).

I give you repl.it. Here's my fix in action:

Now I know this snippet of code was pretty trivial, but still, I'm floored by how impressive repl.it is. As an educational tool, it's nothing short of amazing. All you need is a web browser and some time, and you can be on your way to learning how to program.

repl.it isn't limited to Scheme dev either. Of particular note is the presence of a Forth interpreter, which is another language I enjoy puttering around with.

OK Ladies and Gentlemen, ready to learn to program? Here are the two URLs you're going to need:

  1. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP). Depending on who you ask, it's either the greatest text ever written on the topic of programming, or absolute junk. I belong to the former camp.
  2. repl.it. Don't just read SICP, execute it. Run the code. Solve the examples. repl.it seems powerful enough to do just that.

So stop surfing, and start learning!

Monday, September 29, 2014

It's all in your head: Adventures in Generating Site Specific Passwords

The Blums Mental Hash (BMH) algorithm, a programming exercise I worked on this last weekend, won't let me go. Quick review, the BMH is supposed to be a mental exercise you can go through to generate a unique password for any website. The algorithm and its intentions are explained here:

Good passwords are hard to remember. A pattern that makes a password memorable is likely to make it vulnerable to attack. If remembering one secure password is hard, remembering many such passwords is entirely impractical. So people who have gone to the effort of creating one good password use it for many different accounts. A security breach anywhere that password is used means that the password is vulnerable everywhere else it is used.

It is much safer to have different passwords for every account. Then if one password is compromised, the damage is limited to a single account. One way to accomplish this would be to have software compute a password for each account by encrypting the name of the account. For example, your password for Home Depot could be the result of encrypting the text "homedepot." This way accounts with different names would automatically have different passwords. (In practice, it might be possible but highly unlikely for two account names to result in the same password.)
Is it possible to create encryption algorithms that a human can execute but that a computer cannot break? It doesn't seem at first that this should be possible, but Turing Award winner Manuel Blum believes it may be. He presented his proposed algorithm at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. He emphasized that his method takes a lot of up-front effort to learn but then it can be carried out quickly. To prove this claim, he demonstrated that at least one person has in fact used the method, namely himself! He said he can usually come up with a password in under 20 seconds.

There are a couple of questions that keep floating around in my head?

The problem of generating passwords on a per-site-basis is monumentally difficult. Yet, Blum's algorithm is pretty simple. It's still beyond what most (anyone?) would go through to generate a password, but it shows huge promise. It makes me wonder if the problem of generating passwords doesn't have some solution analogous to what the CAPTCHA provided against SPAM bots. In that case, most SPAM bots were stopped in their tracks all by using a technique that a PHP programmer could whip up in a couple hour's worth of work. (Hint: learn GD).

Another thought: the BMH works by walking through each letter in the domain name, and generating a unique password entry for it. At the core is a key which says how digits should be mapped to numbers, and from there, how they should be shuffled. I wonder if a physical device--think stack of cards, or string of beads--could be used to assist. Imagine if your key was a set of colored beads on a lanyard, and you used them to translate a domain name to a password. Crazy, but it almost seems possible.

And another: I always think of cryptography as requiring mind bending math skills. But the BMH shows that this doesn't need to be the case. You should study this algorithm, if only to appreciate that security doesn't need to come at the cost of complexity.

Finally, I was wondering if there's a way to put the BMH code I've written to use. While I couldn't think of a way to leverage the Scheme version of the code, it occurred to me that if I had a JavaScript version I may be able to write a bookmarklet that uses the code. So that's what I did. Here's a JavaScript version of the BMH algorithm and here's a Bookmarklet:

(Huge thanks to Peter Coles for the Bookmarklet generator -- man that's awesome!)

With the Bookmarklet in place, I can click my toolbar and be provided with a password that corresponds to the domain name in use. (Ssssh, don't tell anyone: my "password" for blogger.com is @TuZeMe@NiWaZe--Ni3).

There are a number of issues with the Bookmarklet, but the obvious (and fatal) one is that the keys are stored in the source code. That means that if you drag the Bookmarklet to your browser, you'll get the same passwords I do. Which is not what you intended. The solution would be to store the key parameters in the bookmarklet itself. But that would be messier than I need for this trivial example. Perhaps if I'm still infatuated with this algorithm next week, I'll add support for this.

More Scheme Dev on Android, Now With Git Support

Continuing on my Scheme on Android kick, here's a solution to the most recent Programming Praxis problem. It's actually quite an interesting challenge:

It is generally accepted wisdom that people should use different passwords for each of their online accounts. Unfortunately, few people do that because of the difficulty of remembering so many passwords.

Manuel Blum — he’s the guy in the middle of the Blum Blum Shub sandwich — suggests an algorithm that hashes a web site name into a password. Further, his algorithm is cryptographically secure, so no one else can determine your password, and can be worked mentally, without a computer or even pencil and paper.

Read more about the algorithm here. I don't have the mental muscle to execute the hash in my head, but it was a terrific little coding challenge.

I used the same setup as last time: Gambit Scheme + DroidEdit + Perixx 805L Keyboard. For the most part, I found myself writing and executing Scheme with little regard for the fact that I was working on a cell phone. That, of course, is what I'm after.

Two improvements I've made in the setup:

First, I've defined a procedure named lex, which I can invoke to reload the source file I'm working on:

This combined with a couple of keyboard shortcuts to switch between Gambit and DroidEdit means that I can modify, reload and execute new code with relative ease. Having the source code live in ex1.scm means that the entire solution to the problem will be in one file. Which for the purposes of developing solutions to these brain teasers is ideal.

Second, I've setup git in Terminal IDE. So now, when I'm finished developing a solution, I can archive it. DroidEdit has built in support for Git, but I prefer a command line interface to version control.

Setting up Terminal IDE took just a bit of wrangling. Here's what I did:

  • Made sure the appropriate public key was in Github.
  • On a Linux machine that had the dropbear ssh tools installed, I converted my private key to be in the dropbear format:
    mkdir ~/tmp/working
    cp ~/.ssh/id_dsa ~/tmp/working
    cd ~/tmp/working
    ssh-keygen -p -f id_dsa # strip the encryption from the openssh key
    dropbearconvert openssh dropbear id_dsa id_dsa.db
    # Copy id_dsa.db to the Galaxy S5
    rm -rf ~/tmp/working
  • Checked the key on my phone by running the following within Terminal IDE:
    ssh -i id_dsa.db git@github.com
  • Within Terminal IDE, I created a wrapper script named gitssh to launch ssh properly:
    ssh -i $HOME/id_dsa.db $*
  • Still within Terminal IDE, I set the GIT_SSH variable to the above script:

    setenv GIT_SSH=gitssh
  • I was then able to launch git commands as usual:
     git clone ssh://git@github.com/benjisimon/code

Happy on the go hacking!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

5 Outdoorsy Uses for Old T-Shirts

A couple weeks ago Shira and I did a closet t-shirt clean out. When we were done we had a pretty sizable pile of t-shirts which were way to frayed to donate. We could just toss them in the trash (how many rags does one need?), but surely the Internet would have some terrific suggestions for putting these bad boys to use. Right? Well, almost right.

Lists do indeed abound: 39 Ways To Reuse, Restyle, And Rewear Your Old t-shirts, 50 Ways to Repurpose an Old t-shirt, 28 Innovative Ways To Use Old T-shirts, to name just a few. The catch is that most of the suggestions are either fashion related or are craft ideas outside my skill set.

Still, with all the great ideas out there, there had to be some Ben-appropriate uses for this heap of shirts. After a bunch of research, here's what I've come up with. Think function of fashion. Hope this helps.

1. Make a Bandana

It's trivial to cut a square of material out of a t-shirt, tie it around a pack strap or shove it in a pocket, and you've got one of the world's best outdoor multi-tools. (Here's 180 uses for a bandana, if you don't believe me). These particular bandanas would work well for activities that may involve messy jobs. If they get too grimy, you won't be sad to toss them.

2. Make Char Cloth

Assuming your old t-shirts are of the 100% cotton variety, then you can make char cloth from them. Char cloth is apparently a useful and time tested fire starting material. I've never used it before (I'm a dryer lint and Bic lighter kind of guy), but with all this cotton around, it's worth a try.

3. Master Making Cordage

One common t-shirt project is to braid or weave a new creation from t-shirt "yarn". Following this procedure, you can effectively turn a t-shirt into a length of cordage. Practicing this on some ancient t-shirts would help you master a skill which could really come in handy in the wilderness. Not to mention, if you make the cordage wide enough, you effectively have a scarf, which is handy in its own right.

4. Ninja Mask Improvise a Balaclava

I've covered this use of a t-shirt before: From t-shirt to Ninja Mask in 5 Easy Steps. I'd assume this approach would work just as well with a used t-shirt.

5. Create a Tote Bag

One frequently recommended use for old t-shirts that is functional is to create a tote bag. The whole procedure can be done in just a couple of minutes: (1) lop off the sleeves, (2) cut a wider opening on the neck and (3) close up the bottom of the shirt. The procedure is well described here, and gives you three options for sealing up the bottom of the bag. You can sew it, create a sort of draw string or cut fringes and ties the fringes off. I've tried that third approach, though before I tied the fringes off, I flipped the shirt inside out. Once the fringes are all tied off, and the bag is flipped back the right side around, the bottom is sealed and there's no dangly fabric in the way.

At first glance, these totes bags are of limited outdoor use. But, I think they may have more going for them then I originally thought. Given the right t-shirt, this may be perfect bag for a kid to bring along on a hike. The fact that the cotton breathes well and you don't really care about staining the bag, it might work well for collecting wild edibles. And finally, the soft fabric might be ideal for storing fragile gear off season. And just like the cordage above, practicing making the bag ahead of time means that if you ever need to improvise one, you'll know what you need to do.

So get snipping!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Are we there yet? Writing and Running Scheme Code on Android

Here's the solution to the most recent Programming Praxis problem. It's not the most pithy or elegant code, but it gets the job done:

; Solution to: http://programmingpraxis.com/2014/09/23/triangle-roll-up/
(define first car)
(define second cadr)

(define (sum row)
  (let loop ((row row) (result '()))
    (if (= (length row) 1)
        (reverse result)
        (loop (cdr row)
              (cons (+ (first row) (second row))
(define (roll numbers)
  (let loop ((numbers numbers) (result (list numbers)))
    (cond ((< (length numbers) 2)
           (reverse result))
           (loop (sum numbers) (cons (sum numbers) result))))))
 (define (fmt results)
   (for-each (lambda (r)
               (display r)
              (reverse results)))

> (fmt (roll '(4 7 6 3 7)))
(46 41)
(24 22 19)
(11 13 9 10)
(4 7 6 3 7)

One reason it's not streamlined: I worked out the solution on my Galaxy S5. As a Schemer at heart, I've always wanted to have a Scheme interpreter running on my phone . Unfortunately, I've never found an environment robust enough to be anything more than a basic demo.

But times change, so I figured it was worth checking the Play Store for new Scheme options.

To my delight I found quite a few. There's Scheme REPL, Scheme Droid, Gambit and Scheme Pad. They're all very promising. I figured trying to solve the Programmin Praxis problem would be an ideal test. Note, I'm using my Perixx 805L Keyboard for text entry. None of these environments would be of any use without an external keyboard. As usual, the Perixx worked really well. (Allowing me to develop a Scheme solution and compose this blog entry.)

Casually browsing through the apps, Scheme Pad looked most promising. It had a way to load and save files and included parenthesis matching. Paren matching is absolutely key. Unfortunately, Scheme Pad is too smart for its own good. It tries to automatically send lines of code to the REPL as you enter them, and I quickly found that I could confuse the app. When it works, it's awesome, but I found myself having to load and reload my example file to keep it working.

Back to the drawing board.

When I went back to the apps, I was pretty bummed out. None of them had the paren matching Scheme Pad had, so they really weren't going to be realistic solutions.

Then I thought I'd take another approach. What if I used an external text editor to do the authoring of the scheme file and just used one of the REPLs to interpret it.

After a couple of false starts I found Droid Edit, which is quite the impressive editor. It does paren matching, text highlighting, and responds to keyboard short cuts. I'll almost certainly be buying the pro version to get rid of the ad in the bottom right hand corner.

I found that I was able to scratch out some Scheme code without any difficulty. I could then flip over to the Gambit REPL and load in my file:

(load "/sdcard/Documents/ex1.scm")

The Gambit App allows you to scroll back in the REPL and hit enter on a previously run expression. This queues up the expression for you to edit and run. The result is that I had to type my load command once and then could re-run it.

The edit, Alt-Tab, load, run, loop isn't quite the most efficient way to program. But, both the editor and REPL are excelling what they do, so it seems reasonable to put up with the two app solution.

Not to mention, I'm fairly certain I could automate the process further by using the External Keyboard app's shortcuts or perhaps using Tasker.

Here's some screenshots of the development in action:

I think it'll take a bit more tweaking, but it does seem that a Scheme environment that Really Works is achievable on Android.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tasker AutoRemote - Remote Programming Of Your Android Device, The Easy Way

Tasker AutoRemote is a slick little Android App that allows you to remotely access your Android device from any Net connected device. It effectively provides you with a URL you can invoke and thereby pass messages to your phone. Those messages can then be acted upon by Tasker.

Once I worked out a few kinks, Tasker AutoRemote became a fun way to integrate remote Linux servers with my phone. Consider the notification from the command line "problem" I worked out a while back. To summarize, I wanted a way to have my computer notify me when a long running task was done. The solution was speak.exe, an AutoHotKey app that uses text-to-voice to get my attention. I can now run the following command locally::

  make ; speak "Done compiling. Back to work"

With AutoRemote, it's trivial to extend this example so that I can run:

  make ; andsay "Done compiling. Back to work!"

and have the voice chime in over my phone. I don't need to be in front of my computer any longer, and the command works just as well on my local desktop, as it does on a far off remote Linux server.

On the Linux side, I've implemented a general purpose andsend script that invokes my device's URL with arbitrary arguments and content being read from stdin:


## Send data to an android device using Tasker's Auto Remote

if [ $# -eq 0 ] ; then
  echo "Usage: `basename $0` command [arg ...]"
  exit 1
  command=$1 ; shift
  while [ $# -gt 0 ] ; do
    command="$command $1" ; shift

echo -n "$command=:=" > $tmp
cat                  >> $tmp

curl -s $base -d "key=$key" --data-urlencode "message@$tmp" > /dev/null
rm -f $tmp

I've then setup a number of wrapper commands that invoke andsend. Here's andsay's:

andsend "Say"

And here are the scripts for andclip, which stores text in my Android device's clipboard and andsms which fires off an SMS to a number of my choice:

-- andclip
andsend "SetClipboard"

-- andsms
if [ -z "$1" ] ; then
  echo "Usage: `basename $0` phone-number"
  andsend SendSms $1

It's all pretty basic stuff. I'm leveraging the convention that AutoRemote uses that messages have the format: word1 word2 ...=:=arbitrary text....

Most of the magic happens on the Android side of things. And even then, the profile to implement andsay is pretty trivial. Here's the Tasker description for it:

Profile: AutoRemote, Say (35)
State: AutoRemote [ Configuration:^Say (regex) ]
Enter: Anon (36)
  A1: Say [ Text:%arcomm
            Continue Task Immediately:Off ] 

With this in place, I can type the command in my office, to be run on a server in Denver, and be notified of the task completion while I'm making lunch in the kitchen. Life is good!

Monday, September 22, 2014

3 Bugs - 2 Identified, 1 Mystery

Yesterday, we caught a glimpse of a number of interesting insects.

First, there's these guys:

Some time ago, I figured out that was milkweed (it's a 'pod' dummy, not a 'cone'). It turns out these little guys are appropriately known as Milkweed Bugs. They're not especially notable, except that they are harmless and make good specimins to study.

And then there's this guy:

Check out the 'spikes' on his back. He's a Wheel Bug (again, pretty well named I'd say) and looks like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. The Wheel Bug belongs to the slickly named assassin group, and though it's hard to tell in the above photo, he has one massive fang. So, should you mess with Wheel Bugs? No, no you should not:

Q:What insect has the most painful sting, in your opinion?

A: That is a good question and I feel I am qualified to answer it because I have been bitten and stung by just about everything that bites and stings.

Over the years I have been bitten by venomous snakes nine times (two copperheads, one water moccasin and six rattlesnakes). I have been stung by a half dozen scorpions, several centipedes, a black widow and several other spiders, fire ants, harvester ants, velvet ants (wingless wasps), bats, rats and cats.

Without a doubt the most painful bite I have sustained was from a wheel bug.
(Read More...)

Some good news: Wheel Bugs aren't aggressive. If you leave them alone, they shouldn't bother you. Still, I think I'll pass on taking close ups of Wheel Bugs in the future.

And finally, the mystery. Check this guy out:

I mean, he doesn't even look like a guy (or gal, for that matter). He looks like a chunk of leaf or something. But, when I got close enough, he started moving. It's alive!

So what is it? Any ideas?

Sights from a Sunday - Apples, Overlooks and Retail. Lots of Retail.

Yesterday, Shira and I managed to mix in a little Apple Picking at Hollin Farms, hiking at Sky Meadows State Park (a few miles from Hollin Farms) and shopping at Fair Lakes Center (located on the way home from Sky Meadows).

Hollin Farms was a winner. They had quite a variety of apples to pick from, and while the open area of the orchard didn't strike us as particularly large, it served our purposes well. And Sky Meadows is just gorgeous. Holy Smokes! Has it really been 6 years since we've been there? That was a lifetime ago. Besides the fond memories of hanging with The Boys there, it's also one of the first glimpses I had of the Appalachian Trail. The small backpacking trips we've done along the AT can probably be traced back to that sighting.

But the most impressive and awe inspiring part of the day was Fair Lakes Center. How can a Target, BJs and Walmart and 55 other retail establishments all exist in one shopping center? (Like, Modells Sports next to Sports Authority, right next to Target and Walmart, that also sell sporting goods. Mind. Blown.) That seems like enough retail infrastructure to power a small 3rd world country. Yeesh. I don't know whether to be appalled, proud or just thankful for the convenience. Here in Arlington, we have relatively close access to Target and BJs, but not like this. Is that what life is like in the suburbs?

Some photos from the day...

Thew view from Hollin Farms:

Shira picking forbidden fruit.

Apple tree leaves. At this point, Shira's annoyed at me for not paying attention to the task at hand.

Mission accomplished!

Let's do the Overlook trail at Sky Meadows. It's gorgeous, is it not?

Us. Did I mention that the Overlook trail was all uphill? You're welcome.


Pretty, and appropriately named, Milkweed Bug.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Road, Rocks and Running

Tonight I included a section of the Potomac Heritage Trail in my run. Specifically the section from Chain Bridge to Donaldson Run. It contains some sections that are more rock scramble'able than runnable. But still, it was lots of fun.

Here's the route.

And some pictures from the trail.

Well, That Was A Handy Item To Have In The Bike Bag

This morning, while riding home from Shul, my bike's chain managed to get derailed. Luckily, I was in a location where I could easily pull off to the sidewalk and fix it. But before I did, I popped open my bike bag and pulled this guy out:

That there would be a roll of atheltic tape stuffed with a pair of Nitrile glove.

I put the gloves on and went to work. Within 15 seconds I had my bike back in business, minus grease covered hands. Score one for being prepared.

Caption Me

Sew Cool - What a Fashion Blog Can Teach You About Your Life Goals

See, this is what I'm always blabbering about. Let's say you have dreams of being a fashion designer and long to be a style trendsetter. The problem with this little hobby of yours is that it involves buying lots of new, trendy clothes. Which is (a) expensive, and (b) wasteful. What are you to do? If you're brilliant, you do what ReFashionista did. You use the difficulty, and embrace your reality:

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to change the way the world thinks about fashion. I was sickened by the rise of fast fashion giants who rely on unethical labor practices. I was worried about the impact on our planet as people tossed out their one-time-wear duds more and more quickly to make room for the newer & cheaper clothing.

I was also quite broke and couldn’t afford new clothes.

One day, while digging through the racks at my local thrift store, I started thinking about how easily some of the ugly pieces I was looking at could be transformed into something new.

I could dress well on the cheap without hurting the environment, I didn’t have to support unfair labor practices, and I could have a fun new hobby!

Her site, ReFashionista.net is wonderfully entertaining, even to a non-fashion guy like myself. Her writing style is cheery, she's rigorously devoted to her mission (seems like she's been going strong since 2010) and she's focused on educating others. This makes for a site that's equal parts chatty blog, fashion showcase and How-To guide. And the results speak for themselves. Consider this example:

So go, be inspired. Live your best life by embracing your limitations.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Pen is Mightier Than The Drum Kit

Dang, those are some mad music making skills:

(View Video)

An 8th Thing To Do With Sardines: Fish Tacos

So I wanted to try another sardine recipe and the other 6 on this list weren't doing it for me. So I thought, what the heck, I'll improvise. Looking around, it seemed as if I had all the necessary ingredients to make fish (like) tacos. So here's what I did:

Step 1. Go around the kitchen and gather up whatever.

Step 2. Use that trick where you bread an item and then put a light coat of oil on it:

In this case, I'm using the sardines as a base, the egg for glue and panko for breading. The Misto, a gift from my brother, is perfect for giving that perfect coating of olive oil to the breading.

Step 3. Throw the breaded fish in the broiler for 4 minutes on each side

At this point, I'm like holy crap, this may actually work.

Step 4. Make tacos and enjoy!

Whoa, that actually tastes pretty good! And, you can even be a smug environmentalist while eating them.

Hike the PCT. Never leave your desk.

What started with a What's in my Pack video turned into me watching Biophthera hike the PCT. He's actually hiking it right now, with his last check-in being at 2,155 miles(!!). It's hard to believe that while I've been hacking away on various projects, Biophthera (aka Joe Brewer, aka Apache) has been logging miles through deserts, mountains and every terrain in-between.

Each video in the playlist below is about 20 minutes long and covers 150-200 miles of hiking. The first couple videos suffer from some sound issues, but that gets worked out in later videos.

There's a number of things I like about these videos. The scenery and terrain are gorgeous, and vary incredibly. One video may show a section of scrubbed desert, and a few videos later, snow and high mountains are the new setting. The narration on the video is well done, too.

Naturally, I'm also impressed with the technical aspects of the setup. Using little more than an iPhone, recharagble battery, and something like the StickPic (or maybe a DIY version), Biophthera is able to capture remarkable footage from a number of different angels. YouTube then provides a no-brainer publishing platform where the world can follow along. It's amazing how effective all this is, especially considering the weight and cost.

My favorite part of the videos though, without a doubt, is Biophthera's unbelievably steady demeanor. Everything that he encounter's is some degree of cool. There are probably hundreds of dangerous aspects to what he's doing, and yet his confidence never waivers even slightly. Wildfires in the area? No big deal. Scorching heat from the desert, or deadly drop-offs in the mountains? It's all cool. Seeing a couple of bear cubs on the trail? Again, very cool. Never mind the fact that getting between a mamma bear and her cubs is a truly dangerous situation. As he's hiking the last section of Half-Dome he encounters the so called cables, which are described by another hiker thusly:

I vividly remember my reaction upon first seeing the route's cable section: I was astonished and terrified. Astonished that such a flagrant hazard could exist in modern-day, liability-adverse America; terrified I was actually going to go up it.

Even this sight doesn't stand in his way. A few moments later, he's filming from the top of Half-Dome. The cables freaked me out so much, that I had to actually take off my headphones and look away as he filmed them. And I'm sitting at my desk, with full knowledge that he's uploaded later videos so he *has* to be OK.

This all makes me wonder: does this kind of confidence come with experience (once you've hiked 1,000 miles, what can phase you?) or is it just something you're hard wired with? I don't know, but I'm impressed, and I'm going to focus on channeling his totally chill attitude next time I'm faced with a stressful situation.

So watch and marvel at what a person can do. It's such a gift to have a front row seat to this experience.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Want Stress Free Air Travel? I'll Give You Stress Free Air Travel

Advice like this is all the rage on the Internet:

What I learned not to travel with

Rolly luggage (sure it looks fancy, but avoid anything with wheels. You will just end up carrying more stuff you don’t need, and it will make traveling very unpleasant. I recommend to never check anything in when traveling. It will cause you a lot of headaches (checking luggage fee, lines at airport, and risk of losing your luggage– which has happened numerous occasions to me in the past)

In other words: checked baggage is for chumps.

Yes, checking a bag will often cost you some cash. And if the flight is short enough, it could be a significant percentage of the cost of the flight. So there are times when Shira and I go out of our way to travel carry-on only. But I'll tell you, that's not the stress free way to travel.

Here's the approach I've learned to be the most stress free:

  • Pack a very small carry on bag. The actual bag doesn't matter, but the size does. It needs to easily fit under the seat in front of you. This sling bag works well, as does the daypack from the REI Stratocruiser luggage. But really, any small backpack or messenger bag will work.
  • In the carry on bag goes the following: my Go Bag goodies, any fragile items (read: laptop, camera and/or lenses) and a lightweight long sleeve shirt (it can be 110°F outside, and it will still be frigid on the plane). If I have any medication I need to bring with me, that goes in the carry on, too.
  • Right before I check our bags, I take a couple of photos of them (to help in describing a lost bag)
  • Check my luggage, knowing that I may never see the bags again. And most importantly, be OK with that. Yes, it'll mean that we might have to improvise for a few days when we land, but I'll just count that as the first adventure in our trip.

Not only does this arrangement make getting around in the airport easier (no bag, wheely or not, to drag around), and security less of a hassle, but it means you don't have to fight for overhead space when boarding. When you fly carry-on only and plan to use an overhead bin, you don't know until you are essentially on the plane and seated whether your bag will be flying with you or whether you'll need to check it.

To me, that fight for overhead space is far more stressful than waiting to drop off or pickup luggage. And having less to carry around in the airport and on the plane is just a nice bonus.

So that works for me. What works for you?

Who's the Daddy?

It's quiz time...

Who's considered the father of portrait photography?

Answer: Samual Morse. That's right, the man that's known for inventing the telegraph, actually played a significant role in the development of photography. From The History and Practice of the Art of Photography:

It is to Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, the distinguished inventor of the Magnetic Telegraph, of New York, that we are indebted for the application of Photography, to portrait taking. He was in Paris, for the purpose of presenting to the scientific world his Electro-Magnetic Telegraph, at the time, (1838,) M. Daguerre announced his splendid discovery, and its astounding results having an important bearing on the arts of design arrested his attention. In his letter to me on the subject, the Professor gives the following interesting facts.

"The process was a secret, and negociations were then in progress, for the disclosure of it to the public between the French government and the distinguished discoverer. M. Daguerre had shown his results to the king, and to a few only of the distinguished savans, and by the advice of M. Arago, had determined to wait the action of the French Chambers, before showing them to any other persons. I was exceedingly desirous of seeing them, but knew not how to approach M. Daguerre who was a stranger to me. On mentioning my desire to Robert Walsh, Esq., our worthy Consul, he said to me; 'state that you are an American, the inventor of the Telegraph, request to see them, and invite him in turn to see the Telegraph, and I know enough of the urbanity and liberal feelings of the French, to insure you an invitation.' I was successfull in my application, and with a young friend, since deceased, the promising son of Edward Delevan, Esq., I passed a most delightful hour with M. Daguerre, and his enchanting sun-pictures. My letter containing an account of this visit, and these pictures, was the first announcement in this country of this splendid discovery."

"I may here add the singular sequel to this visit. On the succeeding day M. Daguerre paid me a visit to see the Telegraph and witness its operations. He seemed much gratified and remained with me perhaps two hours; two melancholy hours to him, as they afterwards proved; or while he was with me, his buildings, including his diorama, his studio, his laboratory, with all the beautiful pictures I had seen the day before, were consumed by fire. Fortunately for mankind, matter only was consumed, the soul and mind of the genius, and the process were still in existence."

On his return home, Professor Morse waited with impatience for the revelation of M. Daguerre's process, and no sooner was it published than he procured a copy of the work containing it, and at once commenced taking Daguerreotype pictures. At first his object was solely to furnish his studio with studies from nature; but his experiments led him into a belief of the practicability of procuring portraits by the process, and he was undoubtedly the first whose attempts were attended with success. Thinking, at that time, that it was necessary to place the sitters in a very strong light, they were all taken with their eyes closed.

In this case, it was Morse's fame that let him get a glimpse of the cutting edge photo tech of the day. Alas, I wasn't able to turn up any photos that Morse took (eyes closed, or not), but I did find this collection of journal pages:

Learn more here and here.

Who's considered the father of TV?

I know that Morse invented the telegraph, Marconi the radio, Edison the phonograph and Alexander Graham Bell telephone. But who's considered the father of TV?

As we were driving through DC this weekend we passed Rock Creek Cemetery. As I perused their list of famous residents I came across this line:

Who the heck is Charles Truman Jenkins?

It took a bit of digging, but I realized that I was actually looking for Charles Francis Jenkins, the inventor of Radiovision. He actually broadcast images using a radio station in Wheaton, MD (or was it in DC?), W3XK. We've come quite a distance from the first TV's:

Radiovisors were mechanical scanning-drum devices manufactured by the Jenkins Television Corporation, as part of their radiovision system. Founded in 1928, the Jenkins Television Corporation sold several thousand sets to the public that cost between $85 and $135. The radiovisor was a multitube radio set that had a special attachment for receiving pictures, a cloudy 40 to 48 line image projected onto a six-inch square mirror. Charles Jenkins preferred the names radiovisor and radiovision over television.

Still, that must have been one heck of a sight to see!

Unfortunately, I can't find any vintage Radiovision videos. But, you can check out the patent for the Radio vision mechanism:

In fact, many of Charle Jenkin's Patents are quite interesting.He seemed to have an interest not only in broadcasting content (like say, billboard radio picture receiver), but also in enhancing airplane technology (like his refueling airplanes mid flight patent).

It's actually pretty remarkable, he certainly saw the world as it is today (where billboards are in fact remote controlled, and military inflight refueling is the norm) 75 years ago. Not too shabby.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

After finishing 1984 I had a simple goal for my next book: find one that doesn't give me nightmares. Is that too much to ask? I clicked over to the popular fiction section at our library's eBooks collection and went hunting for my next book. I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (TGWTDT) by Steig Larsson was available. That book was popular, wasn't it? I decided to give it a try.

Alas, I failed: while TGWTDT was quite readable, it was also quite disturbing (though in a different way then 1984).

Everything about TGWTDT seems to be taken to the extreme. There's extreme violence (especially against women). Extreme revenge. Extreme closure. Even the plot is detailed to extreme. Is this a book about the ethics of the publishing world? A women trying to struggle against society's norms? A love story? A hunt for a murderer? A cold case mystery? A tale of corporate greed and excess? Yes. Steig Larsson, like Eric Larson apparently can't help but include intense detail in his books. This makes for a story that's a little tedious to get into, but once I was hooked, I couldn't put it down.

It's odd, I've still got mixed feelings about the book as to whether I liked it or not. I certainly found some of the plot lines riveting, and I suppose the thoroughness of the character development worked for me. At first, all the Swedish names and places through me off, but by the end of the book, I had most of it sorted out. But, I'm bothered by how cliche some of book turned out to be. And there's no denying it, the book was too brutal for my tastes (it did have the original title Men Who Hate Women, which shows where the book's head is at.)

In the end, I'll chalk this up to a book I enjoyed but wouldn't recommend. And I made the mistake of watching the movie trailer; yeesh. I should have known better. I had images of all the characters in my head, and I didn't need to corrupt them with Hollywood's interpretation of the book. (Not to mention, how could you possibly pack a book of this ridiculous scope into one movie? And why would you bother to try?).

I will say that it gives me hope that Larrson's trilogy is a best seller. This is anything but a quick read, and to know that people stick with it gives me hope in society.

Still, one book from the trilogy will be enough, thank you very much.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Space Inspired Goodies - Problem Solving, That Moment, and One Heck of a Good View

A few Space related stories I've stumbled upon of late...

Problem Solving, Astronaut Style

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Apollo 13 is when a team of engineers has to figure out how to solve a CO2 crisis threatening to kill the crew:

As Apollo 13 sped toward Earth, mission control was beginning to worry about a new problem. While the lunar module had enough spare oxygen to accommodate Swigert as well as the intended lunar module crew of Lovell and Haise, carbon dioxide was beginning to build up. Normally lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters absorbed the gas from the air and prevented it from reaching dangerous levels, but the canisters onboard the Aquarius were being overwhelmed. The Odyssey had more than enough spare LiOH canisters onboard, but these canisters were square and couldn't fit into the holes intended for the lunar modules' round canisters.

Mission control needed a way to put a square peg into a round hole. Fortunately, as with the lunar module activation sequence, somebody was ahead of the game.

As reported in Lost Moon, Lovell's book about the Apollo 13 mission (cowritten by Jeffery Kluger; republished as Apollo 13), Ed Smylie, one of the engineers who developed and tested life support systems for NASA, had recognized that carbon dioxide was going to be a problem as soon as he heard the lunar module was being pressed into service after the explosion.

For two days straight since then, his team had worked on how to jury-rig the Odyssey's canisters to the Aquarius's life support system. Now, using materials known to be available onboard the spacecraft--a sock, a plastic bag, the cover of a flight manual, lots of duct tape, and so on--the crew assembled Smylie's strange contraption and taped it into place. [See photo, Breathing Easy]. Carbon dioxide levels immediately began to fall into the safe range. Mission control had served up another miracle.

Best of all, the story is true. Now that's problem solving.

Recently, I caught Michael Massimino telling a Moth Story about his own problem solving in space. It's not quite as life and death as the C02 crisis with Apollo 13, but it still shows all the great hallmarks of a good space hack: there's a team working feverishly at home, lots of improvisation, and at the end of the day, a couple of fearless astronauts need to pull it all off. A great listen.

That Moment When Impossible Stops Being Impossible

My Brother passed me this video: How do we measure the distance of stars?. It's a well done and includes a great explanation to a tricky problem. But what I truly love about the video takes places 2 minutes and 39 seconds in. Seriously, hit play on the video below, skip to 1 minute 40 seconds or so and sit back and watch:

Did you catch that? That's the moment when the questioner goes from thinking something is impossible (measuring the distance to a star) to realizing it's totally possible. I adore that feeling. For me, it frequently happens when I'm debugging. The software's doing something it absolutely, positively can not do. And then it all clicks, and in an instant I realize that I was wrong.

If you don't have a pursuit that gives you this opportunity to be so wrong, and then so right, then you're missing out. It's a rush.

The Earth, Live and on TV

Curious what an astronaut sees when he looks out the window? Sure you are. Just head over to NASA's HDEV page.

Here's the feed now:

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

If you visit this page, you can get audio to accompany the video. The audio is apparently chit-chat between the crew and mission control. I caught a random conversation about dumping urine. Hey, gotta pee in space, too. Definitely a great resource.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Beauty in 15 Random Bits

I found this approach to generating random, yet pleasing looking images to be just too cool not to fiddle with. The developer behind Invader.Fractal has put together a slick demonstration of what happens when you randomlly fill out a 15 bit grid and then mirror it in rendered form.

Using the concept, I whipped up a bit of JavaScript code to do the same thing. You can find that code here, and you can see it in action by visiting this page. Here's a screenshot of my toy page in action:

I'm a fan of the power simplistic images can hold but even I never imaged that such a simple algorithm could give life to such interesting characters.

Thanks to Christian Kellermann's post, which pointed me to Invader.Fractal in the first place.

Gillette - The Best a Traveling Man Can Get

When it comes to shaving, I think every individual has a responsibility to at least try shaving with a double bladed safety razor. Compared to the latest Gillette gizmo based razor, they are dirt cheap (how about a 2 year supply of blades for $13.00) and wicked sharp. Sure, you may not like a safety razor, but it's only marketing mind games that are keeping you from trying them.

But, there's a context where safety razor greatness fails: travel. Those single edged razor blades are a no-no through TSA. Incidentally, even blades I've been using for a week or longer are still incredibly sharp, and tossing them in the trash feels like a waste. At some point, I'm going to have to figure out a use for all those used blades (throwing stars may be a bit much).

Anyway, when I travel, my safety razor stays at home. Sure, I could bring the shaver and pick up blades at my destination, but that seems like a hassle I don't need.

For travel, I like to bring along my aging Gillette Sensor Excel. The Sensor Excel was apparently introduced in the early 1990's, so this bad boy is considered Old School. As such, it's compact and bell and whistle free. No ergonomic design here, or batteries required; just a basic handle that takes a basic 2 blade cartridge.

Normally, I wouldn't be making such a fuss about an outdated razor, but I was excited to find that another company, Tri-Flexxx is making blades for this handle. I was able to buy 24 cartridge at a reasonable price tag ($1.20 each, versus say $2.60 or $4.25 for cutting edge tech). Because I only use these for travel, and even our longest trips only use up one cartridge, this 24 pack should last and last.

Here's what the setup looks like in use:

It's official, the Sensor Excel is my favorite travel razor. It's compact, affordable and gives a solid shave. What more could I ask for?

Incidentally, I don't bother to carry shaving cream when I travel. I'll typically use the freebie shampoo to shave with (and wash clothes with, too). And if that's not an option, I'll scrounge up some other option (check the Net, there are tones of options: conditioner, baby oil, olive oil, even peanut butter). Leaving the shaving cream at home means one less thing to carry in the Dopp Kit or worry about passing through security.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Black Squirrels in Arlington - Blame (or Thank) Canada

This past Shabbat, as I was walking home from shul with a relative newcomer to the area, we saw a black squirrel. I started to relay a story that my Brother had recently told me about their origin, but quickly realized I verify what the heck I was saying before I started spreading it as fact. So here's what we know about black squirrels in the area:

In a nutshell: Where did Washington’s black squirrels come from?

They came from Canada, specifically from Rondeau Provincial Park, a peninsula in Morpeth, Ontario, that juts like a uvula into Lake Erie.

The first batch of black squirrels — eight in number — was sent to the National Zoo in 1902 by Thomas W. Gibson, Ontario’s superintendent for parks. Smithsonian secretary Samuel P. Langley, in his report to Congress that year, wrote that the squirrels were accepted “in exchange,” and, indeed, checking Canadian records, Answer Man discovered that Rondeau park received an unspecified number of gray squirrels from the Smithsonian. (They are “doing nicely,” reported park caretaker Isaac Gardiner.)

We also know that the squirrels were released into the "northwestern part of the zoo."

The juicy bits of the story appear be lost to history. Mainly: was the exchange done for scientific reasons, or was it pure hubris? And was the introduction intended to spread outside the zoo, or was that an oops?

In the end, the National Zoo got lucky. The squirrels do well here, living in peace with their gray neighbors and haven't upset the ecosystem in a significant way.

But that's not something we should take for granted. Lest we forget the lesson of Thomas Austin who in 1859 wrote this off hand comment about another fluffy creature he thought would be a good idea to introduce into his neighborhood:

"The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting."

And thus started Australia's famous Rabbit outbreak. By 1900 the rabbits had reached plague proportions, with the country scrambling to figure out how to contain the problem. One novel (ridiculous?) solution: build the world's longest rabbit fence (yeah, this failed). In the end, biological warfare did the trick, with the myxomatosis virus being strategically used to wipe out 99.98% of the rabbit population (without harming humans or other species - wow!).

So yeah, the National Zoo got lucky. Let's not try that trick again.

A Cork Board Mystery

These hand written directories, found at the Willington Rest Area in Connecticut, are absolutely fascinating:

What kind of soul takes the time to write this information down to help out strangers they'll never meet? And these are posted in a highway rest stop, which most locals wouldn't have a need to visit.

When we stopped at the rest area a group of Scouts (perhaps this troop?) was offering up free coffee, doughnuts and bagels. Maybe they are responsible for this info. But somehow, this doesn't strike me as writing from the hand of a Scout.

Regardless, I'm both impressed and give a bit more hope for our society.

And don't tell me you can't think of novel ways to improve your community: in this case, all it took was a pen, paper and some time.

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Head Scratcher

When comparing these two different hair products I was left, well, scratching my head. Seriously, what's the difference between 'disheveled' and 'messy'?

I'm telling you, I'd rather be sent on a Maxi-pads buying mission then attempt to purchase men's hair styling products. I just don't get them.

Anyone want to explain?

Just Hanging Around

Name that Fruit: Sort of pear shaped, but grows along the trail

Yesterday, I'm hiking along the Potomac Heritage Trail when I came across this odd looking fruit:

And it wasn't an isolated case, all along the trail I noticed these fruits:

That looks like something you'd buy at the grocery store, no? Alas, all my on-trail Googling failed me; I couldn't get a positive ID.

Once home I did a Google Image search for Green Fruit Growing in Pairs and what do you know, an image popped up that matched my specimen:

Apparently, I had found a PawPaw fruit. And with further Googling, I learned that it's no surprise that I found them where I did. According to this NPR Story they are known to grow along the Potomac River:

Recently, I heard about a secret snack. Kayakers who paddle the waters near Washington, D.C., told me about a mango-like fruit that grows along the banks of the Potomac — a speckled and homely skin that hides a tasty treat.

A tropical-like fruit here, really? Yep. It's the only temperate member of a tropical family of trees. You can't buy the pawpaw in stores, so for years, the only way to eat them was straight from the tree.

So, what looked like a tasty fruit was in fact a tasty fruit. And not just any fruit, but the largest edible fruit that is Native to the US. And to nosh on one is to enjoy the same treat that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did. Historic, yum!

I've been hiking the PHT since at least 2009 and I'd never seen any evidence of these guys. I suppose that speaks to both my ignorance as well as the joy of hiking. Even if you've covered the same ground multiple times, there's still new discoveries waiting to be made.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Let's Go For A Run (In Your Head)

Come along with me as I jog through Potomac Overlook Park. This is about 18 minutes of an hour long run (with most of the run being me getting to and from the park). At first glance, there's not much here in this audio clip. But if you think of it as an ambient experience, you'll actually pick up a number of different clues (like the various stream crossings and me sucking wind as I tackle a big o'l chunk of uphill trail).

So put on the headphones, turn off the lights, and let's run.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Lesson learned: when in doubt, wrap it in a crescent roll

Continuing on my foodie kick, I've got to ask: why wasn't I informed earlier about the incredible power of crescent rolls? Perhaps it's because the usual brands I see at the store aren't marked as Kosher, so I've never had a chance to pick one up. But Immaculate Crescent Rolls are marked Kosher, and so I couldn't resist picking up a can.

I thought I had remembered seeing a couple of recipes that I wanted to try using them for. Turns out, crescent rolls are the Swiss Army knife of dough. The Internet is a buzz with listcles on the topic: 10 Super-Easy Crescent Ideas, 48 Breakfasts and Desserts using Pillsbury Crescent Rolls, 20 Delicious Recipes Using Crescent Rolls, and of course Buzzfeed's 15 Delicious Things You Can Stuff In A Crescent Roll. Best of all, many of these recipes are just a couple of ingredients. The yummy dough apparently does the heavy lifting.

Now it's true, they are dairy, so that means no Pigs and Peppers in Bed (where the 'pigs' are hot dogs). But meat substitutes abound these days, so that's hardly a hurdle.

This morning I dropped cheese (pepper jack and cheddar), soy sausage and some onions into the center of a rectangle of crescent dough (as suggested here. I did saute the sausage and onions for a bit while the oven was heating up). After 13 or so minutes at 359° I had these bad boys:

And sure enough, they tasted heavenly. If I'd spent more than 2 minutes making them (and if I'd put a little egg white on the outside), they'd look much better. But in terms of taste, they are awesome. Cheese and buttery goodness, who can complain?

Oh crescent rolls, where have you been all my life?

Caption Me


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