Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cooking like it's 1799

Last week's cool YouTube discovery: crafting tiny doll accessories. This week's has to be Jas. Townsend and Son's, 18th Century Cooking channel. I'm not one to watch cooking shows, but man, these pull me in. The original one that caught my interest was on making Portable Soup, thanks to this forum thread.

I love everything about these videos. Their production value is top notch, they're an excellent mix of history and practical cooking advice, and they give you a fresh take on what you can create when you have limited ingredients and cookware. Heck, I just love that someone can get dressed up in 1700's era garb and proudly tell me about what it was like to cook, eat and live in those times. Bravo! Talk about finding and sharing your passion.

But who wants to just watch someone else cook? As a nod to these videos, I figured I should at least try one of the recipes. And for that, I chose the simplest and most practical one I could find: making Ship's Biscuit. The recipe couldn't be simpler: combine flour, water and salt and bake till the biscuit is dry and rock solid. It takes just a few minutes to prepare them (and hours to cook):

They aren't much to look at, and they basically have the consistency of an art project. But that's actually the point. It's hard to believe that what I'm holding in my hand would be an essential part of a standard ration issued to sailors and soldiers. If I prepared them right, they should last for months, if not up to a year. My plan is to hold on to said biscuits and see if I can't put them to use in a few months. Yum! Right?

As an aside: this is, of course, the same ingredients for making matzo. No wonder that stuff has no problem lasting for years.

History, practical ideas and sweet looking hats. I'm telling you, this YouTube channel rocks.

Here's a few videos to get you started:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My almost half-a-pound, almost $100, travel computer setup

The ultimate travel computer: it's ultralight; inexpensive enough that you don't worry about it getting bashed around, stolen or used only occasionally; and of course, it's super capable, whether that means using it to hack code, edit photos or watch a movie. In other words, it doesn't exist. Over the years I've tried various approach to travel computing, from simply schlepping my usual work laptop, to using a Netbook to using my Cell Phone plus a bluetooth keyboard. This latter method is what I've been relying on for either overnights or for longer overseas trips, when the only "work" I'll need to do is emergency bug fixes. And while a Galaxy Note 5 + a full sized keyboard + ssh can do amazing things, there's no denying that the screen size is still a limiting factor. Which brings me to my latest attempt at a travel computer: the Asus Chromebit.

The Chromebit is part of the wave of stick computers, which like Netbooks of the day, are all the rage. For around $80, you get a fully functional computer that's the size of an oversized stick of gum. Here's my entire travel setup:

That's the Chormebit itself, the wall adapter, an HDMI extender and a tiny bluetooth keyboard. As you can see, the entire setup weighs about half a pound. Not too shabby for a little over $100.

In terms of action shots, there's really not much to show. Once you plug everything in, you end staring at a Chrome OS computer. And once you log in, you've got a Chrome browser which behaves like any other browser you've ever used. Still, here's the setup in use. One photo is from our kitchen and another in the hotel we stayed at last weekend:

It was actually pretty sweet doing route planning with Google Maps on a large screen TV.

I hadn't used Chrome OS before the Chormebit, so I didn't have much in terms of expectations. But the experimenting I've done so far has lead me to be very impressed. I've plugged this into various TVs and monitors, and it all Just Works. There's no doubt that my Mom's next computer should be a Chromebit. This is just too easy to use.

Let's see how this setup stacks up against the criteria I mentioned above:

Ultralight: Check. I've often debated with Shira where's the most secure place to store a laptop while traveling. The Chromebit gives you a new option: your front pocket.

Cheap: Check. It's hard to argue with a capable computer for $80. And the fact that it's lacking a fragile screen means that you worry far less about damaging the device.

Capable: Maybe. Probably. Hopefully. This one is an open question. Most of what I do these days is web based, from Google Docs, to Blogging to managing photos. And what's not web based can usually be addressed over ssh, which Chrome OS has clients for. In terms of hardware, when everything is finally in sync over Bluetooth, the results are quite impressive. I've had minimal problems pairing a full sized keyboard, real mouse and speaker to the Chromebit. Once theses are connected, it's like your working on a "real" computer. I haven't yet experimented with booting Linux on this device; who knows, maybe it would work. For now though, just having a full sized web browser and ssh seems to cover my bases.

But alas, the setup is perfect. There are definitely a few key 'cons' to relying on a Chromebit as a travel computer:

No HDMI Access, No Computer. My thinking is that most hotel rooms have an HDMI capable TV in them, and failing that, the business center of the hotel should have an HDMI capable monitor. That's a big assumption and one that could go terribly wrong. Even if you have access to HDMI, you need a relatively close outlet, which was almost my undoing at the last hotel we stayed at. The only good news is that the setup is light and compact enough that if you can't put it to use, there's no harm done.

Bluetooth is Bluetooth. By that I mean that regardless of the host computer, pairing Bluetooth devices can be a pain. My original plan was to depend on the Perixx keyboard I use with my phone, but the Perixx wants to pair with a single device at a time. I had visions of me being in some far off land with the Chromebit booted up, but not having a detected keyboard to actually log in. My fix, for now, is to depend on the tiny MiniSuit keyboard, which I happened to have lying around. I keep it exclusively paired with the ChromeBit and it provides reliable keyboard and mouse capability. I can then use it to pair my larger keyboard or another mouse if need be.

I'm definitely curious to see how this setup performs on the road. When I have additional field data, I'll be sure to share.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bike Friendly Park Improvements

It appears as though they've finished renovating the park near where the W&OD crosses Columbia Pike. I've got to say, I'm impressed. First off, they included a bike work-stand (equipped with tools) which is certainly handy:

And even more impressive, they included a short section of winding trail that's off the W&OD itself:

The trail is a practice area for kids and other bike newbies to get used to practice riding the trail. It's been a while since we've had to teach a child how to ride a bike, but man, this would have been helpful.

Now, if we could only train the "experienced" bikers to signal, that would be really something.

Seriously, well done Arlington County.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Adventures In Non-Roughing-It Bike Touring | Exploring Maryland's Eastern Shore

After nearly 18 years of marriage it's pretty obvious how each of us likes to mark our wedding anniversary: Me, on some ridiculous outdoor adventure, covered in muck and bug bites, and Shira, in a 5 star resort, soaking up luxury. We strive, therefore, to compromise. This year, we actually found a pretty solid balance. I got my outdoor adventure in the form of some bike touring and Shira avoided roughing it, by arranging for our base of operations to be a delightful bed and breakfast. The weather even cooperated, and the result was a fantastic weekend.

On Friday, we made our way to the quaint town of Oxford, MD. From there we jumped on the Oxford-Belleuvue Ferry and started our 7 miles or so ride to St. Michaels, MD. The ferry was an awesome way to start our weekend: it's history (the "nation's oldest privately operated ferry service") and romance (ahhh, to be on the open sea! minus the waves of the open sea) all in one.

The ride to St. Michaels is part of a well known network of bike "trails" in the area. Trails earns quotes in the previous sentence because really the bike trails are simply roads with wide shoulders and/or the occasional watch for bikers signs. Most of the roads have minimal traffic on them, and the roads that did have heavy traffic had wide shoulders, so the claim of being a bike friendly area truly does hold.

Of course we showed up in St. Michaels two minutes before the Maritime Museum closed for the day. So classic. From there we explored the town and had a delicious meal at Gina's Cafe. Yum! We biked the 7 miles back to Oxford without incident.

The next day we woke up and rode an improvised 24 mile loop throughout the area (based on this route). While we were technically near water nearly the entire trek, we mainly saw farmland and open fields. It was most excellent. For some reason, the route suggested traversing the loop clockwise. We went counter-clockwise (wanting to finish with the section of trail we'd done the night before), and this turned out to be a very smart move. The only real hills we encountered were down-hills, and had we gone the recommended route, we'd have had to slog up them (OK, I'm being dramatic - this was nearly an all flat route). Still, I'd suggest the counter-clockwise approach.

We did lunch in Easton, which is a bustling metropolis when compared to Oxford. And from there we continued on until we came across the MEBA Merchant Marine Memorial. Naturally, we had to stop and explore. I'm sorry, but passing up giant anchors is just not an option for me. From there, we finished our loop and took the ferry back to Oxford.

We've only done one other extended bike ride, so we're still very much newbies at the idea of taking a whole day to just ride. We couldn't have selected a better route to build our skills with. Easy terrain, light traffic and beautiful scenery meant that this adventure just flew by and had me definitely wanting more.

On Saturday evening we enjoyed strolling through Oxford, dipping our feet in the bay and of course getting ice cream. It was the perfect blend of outdoorsy and romance.

On our way back to DC we stopped in Annapolis and did a bit of walking around. As if to underscore how little biking we had actually done, we happened to notice a finishing area for a race and a biker came through. As we took in the scene, we realized we had just witnessed Franco Micolini complete Race Across America. In 11 days, 20 hours he had covered 3069.25 miles, traveling from Oceanside, CA to the point where we had watched him roll through. Holy smokes! Now that's biking!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cutting the electronic cord: Setting up a fully paper TODO list tracking strategy

A few months back I started a new TODO list strategy. Rather than having a master task list in the Cloud and creating a daily TODO list in a paper notebook, I maintained both an electronic and paper master task list. The electronic version was tracked in git + emacs + org-mode and the paper version was on index cards.

While git + emacs + org-mode was certainly functional, I never had cause to do anything particular sexy with the setup. In fact, I was hoping this experience would convert me from a fan of subversion to a fan of git, but alas, it only reinforced my appreciation for the simplicity of subversion.

The index cards, on the other hand, were a joy to use. I love that each project is represented by a single card, and that spreading out the cards gives me an overview of all possible tasks to work on:

My daily ritual has become this: brew a cup of tea, spread out the cards, and review where I'm at. I then choose a sequence of tasks to tackle for the day, and stack the cards accordingly:

As I complete tasks, I cross out the line item in question. Switching projects means putting the card on top at the back of the deck, and giving my full attention to newly visible card.

The 10 lines of a 3x5 index card are perfect for keeping tabs on active tasks on a project. If all goes well, project cards become a crossed out mess. No biggie, these cards get recycled (for example: as drawing canvases), and I create a fresh card for the project. The turn over in cards helps keep both physical and metal clutter to a mininum.

I have three recurring activities that I like to fit into my day: scrubbing my work e-mail, scrubbing my personal e-mail and blogging. I wrapped these cards in packing tape, to make them more durable. As a bonus, they serve as tiny whiteboards. These special cards get integrated into the daily stack like any other project.

A few weeks back I splurged on a set of colored pens, and the result is that I can now color code information on the cards with ease.

There's no doubt that part of what I enjoy about this system is that the physical actions on the card reinforce my mental goals. For example, when I sequence the cards for the day, put them in a stack, and attach a mini-binder clip, I'm reinforcing the change-over from thinking big picture to thinking only about a specific task.

So the setup works. Of late, however, the drag of maintaining tasks both electronically and in paper form was getting to me. Yes, updating a task in both places takes just a few seconds, but still, all those seconds add up. So it was time to cut the cord and either go all electronic or all paper. Given the benefits of the paper strategy, I decided to go that route.

Before switching strictly to paper, however, I needed to account for the two main benefits that the electronic system was providing. These include: the always-available always-backed-up nature of storing a text file in git, and the quick linking capabilities offered by emacs + org-mode.

I have pretty strict rule about my task list: never depend on my memory. Ever. If I were to get bonked on the head and suffer from short-term amnesia, I should be able to look at my task list and know exactly what I should work on next. So yeah, I take the integrity of my task list very seriously. Depending on a set of index cards which could be lost, forgotten in a coffee shop, run through the washing machine or destroyed in a freak tea spilling, is a bad idea. In short, I needed a backup strategy.

Turns out, this was an easy conundrum to solve. Every morning I spread out the cards to see what I should work on that day. The solution: I snap a photo of these spread out cards. Problem solved. The photo is backed up in the cloud and accessible everywhere. Yes, it means I have a daily backup and not the every-single-change backup that git provides, but I can live with that. As a bonus, it forces me to not get lazy and skip the planning-overview step of my process. Problem #1, solved.

The second challenge has to do with linking tasks to more information. As I said above, I don't like to depend on my memory. Another manifestation of this principle is that when I create a TODO item I like to link it back to a detailed source of informative. Consider this fake task list:

Project Xin-Gap
...
* Fix user login issue
....

When I documented this as a task, I knew exactly what "login issue" I was referring to. Two weeks later (or one big bonk on the head), I may have no clue. org-mode makes it very easy to link items in the outline to a URL. In the above case, I'd link the text "Fix user login issue" to either a bug report URL or to the URL of the e-mail message where the issue was reported. These links allow my TODO list to remain a sort of tip of the iceberg: the details, like the majority of the iceberg, are hidden from view. But they're there.

So how do I replicate these links in an index card environment? This one took a little longer to figure out. Possible ideas included: NFC stickers and QR Codes. Ultimately, I realized what I needed was to leverage a URL shortener.

For example, if I wanted to link to a bug report over at: http://tracker.xin-gap.com/issue/2993, I could drop that URL into bit.ly and get out something like http://bit.ly/28UgMwR. I could then note 28UgMwR on the index card. To access the bug report, I reverse the process: use the code to form a bit.ly link, which in turn will take me to the bug report. The problem is, manually running these steps for bit.ly was too time consuming and out of the question.

After experimenting a bit with YOURLS, I finally settled on an even simpler approach. I already have a URL shortener setup for my Google Apps account. It was a Google Labs Project back in the day, and somewhat shockingly, it still runs without issue. I access it via: u.ideas2executables.com. I found that I if visit the URL:

http://u.ideas2executables.com/admin.py?hash=True&main=True&action=EDIT&
 url=http%3A%2F%2Ftracker.xin-gap.com%2Fissue%2F2993&
 path=Z23

I'm taken to this page:

I can then write Z23 on my Index Card and hit Add Short Link on the above screen, and I'm all set. Google's URL shotener even comes with a Firefox Protocol Handler which means that I can type: goto:z23 and the browser will expand the URL and visit the correct page.

To streamline this process I created a bookmarklet that does almost all of this for me:

(function() {
  function c() {
    var dict = ['A','B','C','D','E','F','H','J','K','L','M','N',
                'P','Q','R','S','T','U','W','X','Y','Z',
                2,3,4,5,7,8,9];
    return dict[Math.floor(Math.random() * dict.length)];
  }
  window.open('http://u.ideas2executables.com/admin.py?hash=True&main=True&action=EDIT&' +
              'url='+encodeURIComponent(location.href) + '&' +
              'path=' + c() + c() + c(), '_blank');
}())

With one click on my toolbar, I get a browser tab opened to the add-short-link page where there's a random 3 digit code (minus any ambiguous characters like l vs 1 or 0 vs O). I note the 3 digit code on paper, click Add Short Link and close the tab. When I want to visit a task's linked item, I just enter the URL goto:ZZZ where ZZZ is the 3 digit code that I've noted.

Of course, if you want to pursue this, you'll need to setup your own link shortener. And for the life of me, I can't find any indication as to how you'd setup the Google Labs URL shortener I'm making use. But you'll figure it out, I'm sure. The bottom line is, you can combine a URL Shotener and a bookmarklet to make paper linking relatively painless.

With my two challenges solved, I went ahead and cut the electronic cord. It feels strange to depend solely on a stack of cards that I could trivially lose. But my daily photo backup gives me confidence, and the daily handling of cards reminds me that there's real power in working with physical materials.

Besides, it's only a matter of time before I refine my system again. As long as I have TODO items, I'll be on the lookout for a better way of organizing them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lessons from a very tiny Ring Pop

The most surprisingly impressive video I've seen this week has to be: DIY American Girl Doll Ring Pops. Yes, you read that right. It's a tutorial for creating itty bitty (fake) Ring Pops to go on your American Girl doll.

Perhaps it was the seemingly ridiculous nature of the video that got me to watch it. Turns out, you should watch it too:

That's amazing, isn't it?

I mean, you're sharpening your observation skills, hacking various materials, getting creative with a tiny crafting techniques and practicing the art of reverse-engineering, all in the hopes of creating a believable model.

What an excellent reminder that problem solving and engineering lessons aren't just found in coding exercises or canned lab experiments. Just embrace what you already love, and you'll get those benefits. You just have to dig deep enough.

Hurray for play!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shut up Lewis, it's a free house

Continuing on the theme of sneaky neighborhood improvements, I give you this randomly placed bird house in Clarendon:

Like the impromptu garden near our home, I applaud the creative soul who decided to dress up our urban landscape for all to benefit.

That said, I couldn't help chuckle at the scene as I recalled Demetri Martin's bird-house schtick. Give it a listen:

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Guerrilla Garden Next Door

I was walking down our street and this rock caught my eye:

Looking around, I realized that someone had cleared a small section of the tiny Arlington View Park, planted some native species, and neatly labeled them. How wonderful!

While this "park" has benches, a sandbox and turtle statue for kids to climb on, it looks really worn out. I love the addition of a mini garden, which adds some life and fresh value to this green space.

This leads me to all sorts of questions: First off, was this an official park effort? Or was this Guerrilla Gardening in action? I checked parks.arlingtonva.us, and there's no indication that this was any sort of official program. I'm so pulling for this to be guerrilla effort.

But more importantly, it gives me ideas for the massive eye-sore that's across the street from the park. Behold:

That's an overgrown yard with a condemned property on it. The For-Sale sign is long since defunct, with both the website and phone number no longer being operational. Heck, it's even behind on its taxes. Part of me was thinking it was time to kvetch to the county about this monstrosity, but maybe it would be more fun to take the work started in the Arlington View park and spread it there.

Seems like it wouldn't be that hard to clear part of the "lawn" and throw in some plants, making something beautiful and educational where detritus currently stands.

I'd love to figure out who did the improvements at Arlington View Park and then coax them into tackling the mess next door. I'd make a great Jr. Assistant Gardener, as what I lack in skills I make up for in passion and curiosity.

Who's in?

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