Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to be a Foodie on $4.00 a Day

I find Leanne Brown's Good & Cheap cookbook to be absolutely fascinating. The book is targeted to those on SNAP, the program previously known as food stamps. Like most cookbooks, this is an exercise in creative constraints, and her goal of "eating well on $4.00 per day" is about as constraining as you can get.

In hindsight, publishing a cookbook targeting food stamp recipients just makes good sense. According to one study, there's 7.3 million vegetarians in the US, a population with countless cookbook options. Contrast that to the 46 million(!) people on SNAP, and you see that there's absolutely a market there.

But Brown isn't in it for the big bucks. She offers Good & Cheap for free on her website, and has allowed people to donate the books to those in need. What a fantastic example of using a personal passion (cooking and cookbooks) to help change the world for the better. It's great reminder that with a bit of creativity, what you love to do can be turned into a force for good.

What I find most surprising, however, is how Brown meets her goal of cooking on $4.00 per day. I'd sum up her apparent strategy like so: buying generic pasta at the store is cheap, but buying flour and eggs and making your own pasta is even cheaper! In Brown's universe, you spend the bulk of your money on quality staples and splurge on spices and other extravagances that will go the distance. The result is a cookbook that's as much of a learning tool as it is a source of frugal living. I'd never considered making my own pasta, or perogies or tortillas. Those are items you *have* to buy at the store, right? Apparently not.

That's not to say that every recipe in the book is replicating store bought items. In fact, many are (to me) quite original (cauliflower tacos, anyone?), with a large emphasis on vegetarian options. Perhaps a better subtitle for the book should have been how to be a foodie on $4.00 per day. I say that in the best sense of the word foodie, where a person truly enjoys the food they're eating and is eager to seek out quality and originality. To bring that mindset to those on a limited budget is incredibly empowering.

Ultimately, I think Brown made a simple calculation: people on food stamps lack money, not brains. Her reasoning makes for a terrifically powerful resource. Instead of being a ruled by the deal of the day at the supermarket, you can control your own food destiny. That's an important lesson for people on any budget.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

CDT Summer 2016 Recap

This past Sunday we dropped Chana, Dovid and Tzipora back off in Boston, after 9 days of fun and adventure. As we sort through photos and clean-up toys, I can't help but reflect on a few of wonderful moments we had with the kids.

Dovid the curious.. But why? This was Dovid's signature phrase from the week. At one point we were all sitting around reading through Shel Silverstein's poetry and after *every* poem Dovid would chime in: But why? Oh, to be so curious!

Chana the empathetic. As we were walking down the jetway to board our plane back to Boston Chana made a remarkable statement: Uncle Ben, thanks for the toy. She was referring to the little tchotchke I had given the kids to help keep them occupied in the boarding area. I have to admit, I was taken aback: without even the slightest hint, she was saying thank you. Looking back over the week, Chana displayed this sort of maturity a number of times and we're so proud of her.

Tzipora the actress. No doubt, my niece will have a career in movies should she choose to pursue one. She's able to deliver lines with the kind of drama and flare that seems downright professional. Like the time I asked her how she'd liked camp and she solemnly held her fingers up in an X (don't worry, follow on days were far improved), expressing in one gesture what a heap of words could never accomplish.

My favorite moment, though, came when I called for her to set the table. She was in the other room playing with a now defunct cell phone, pretending to speak French(!) to an acquaintance. When she finally finished the call (and there was certainly no rushing her), she scolded me for my rude behavior: Uncle Ben, I was on the phone with my friend from Paris who had her birthday today! Her tone and words made it clear: was I raised in a barn? Had I no manners or respect for others? How could I do anything but smile.

Chana the artist. Give this girl markers and let her go to work! She colored, she freehand-drew and she experimented with my Ed Emberley books. Next time, I'm going to have to find more time to sit with her and draw. I'm just so proud of her for jumping in and making art.

Dovid the shoe aficionado. Who would have known that a trip to the shoe store would have been so enlightening? I put a new pair of Sketchers on the boy and I asked him to take a test walk. Feh, he would have none of that. Instead, he thoroughly tested the shoes by bounding through the store. It was a joy to watch.

And his pride for his new shoes didn't stop there. On the airplane he gave the flight attendant, who just wanted to know his drink order, quite the explanation about his shoes. He explained that his sneakers had the z-strap and memory foam features, and that while his new Shabbos shoes lacked these features, they were still quite comfortable and gave him high jumping abilities. The girls, for their part, also very much liked their new shoes. At some point, it was explained to them that the big puffy soles were like walking on little trampolines. They loved this. I'm sure I never appreciated my shoes as much as they do, and for that I'm sorry.

Tzipora the naturalist. I've already recounted a number of anecdotes about Tzipora's encounter's with nature, but it bears repeating. While camping we found various discarded insect exoskeletons, and it was always Tzipora who was most comfortable handling them. Alas, she didn't always use her powers for good. At one point she picked up the cicada skeleton and placed it on top of the water jug. This of course freaked her brother out, who wanted nothing to do with remains of this creature. Stop torturing your brother, I said, and had her move it to a more out of the way location.

The Comedians. All three kids loved telling jokes. In fact, loved is nowhere near a strong enough word. For them, telling a joke was like performing a verbal magic trick. Did it matter that their entire repertoire consisted of about 4 knock-knock jokes? Not at all. They'd tell and retell the jokes, with wild abandoned. At one point, they asked Shira to teach them some "adult jokes." Using discretion, Shira taught them this gem: Where do pencils go on vacation? Pennsylvania. Their minds were blown, and this became their new favorite joke.

Picture it: we're flying back to Boston and we're sitting in the following arrangement: window, Chana, Me, Dovid, aisle, Shira, Tzipora, stranger, window. At one point, Dovid decides it's time to entertain the stranger on the end of the row next to Tzipora. He yells across the aisle, Shira and his sister: Want to hear a joke? Where do pencils go on vacation?. Said stranger was a good sport and kindly played along. They just loved it. Next year, comedy camp for the whole lot of them.

My gosh the kids are growing up. What a privilege it is to get to witness this!

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Lake Anna State Park - Kid Friendly Hiking, Fishing and Swimming

While I can't say that Lake Anna State Park is the ideal campground in general, I can say that for our one-night camping trip with Tzipora, Dovid and Chana, it was perfect! The campground, especially when compared to the adventure of a few weeks ago, was dang near empty. We saw a few other tents, but almost no other campers during our entire stay.

The first order of business: setup the tent, which the kids were glad to assist with. From there, we headed down to the lake area and spent some time fishing in the kid friendly pond. While the pond was the ideal fishing spot, with places for the kids to sit and all, the fish weren't biting. Tzipora occupied herself by busting open the worms and playing with them.

After fishing, it was time to focus on dinner. We had plenty of dry wood, so I had no problem lighting a fire. After a meal of hot dogs, potatoes, beans and smores, it was finally time to call it a night. Like last year, the weather was absolutely flawless. We slept with the tent fly off and could stare up to see the perfect night sky dotted with thousands of stars.

The real reason to visit Lake Anna is to hit the lake. And the next morning that's exactly what we did. The plan was to get in a short hike, then hit the beach and finally do a little more fishing.

We did a 1.6 mile hike, with me lagging behind with Tzipora. She alternated between being terrified of the daddy long legs, which as we would learn later in the day from Google, aren't even spiders and stopping to inspect and collect interesting looking leaves. She'd see an interesting leaf. Pick it up. Fish the flashlight out of her shoulder bag. Shine the light on the specimen. After a few moments of close examination, she'd put the flashlight and leaf back in her bag. She repeated this process a good half dozen or more times. It was all very Jane Goodall.

We also made other important discoveries: mainly she found and *touched* a toad, that hopped off before we could photograph it. She also found a beautiful butterfly that couldn't or wouldn't fly away from us. Tzipora's working theory: the wings of the butterfly must have been wet. Between this hike and the worm incident of the night before, she's definitely our little naturalist in training.

After we knocked out the hike we could get to the good stuff: hitting the beach at Lake Anna. This was truly the perfect spot for the kids who love water, but are pretty firm about not getting dunked underneath. The water temperature was perfect and I enjoyed frolicking in it as much as the kids did. After our successful visit to Breezy Point Beach earlier in the week, I wasn't quite sure how Lake Anna would stack up. It definitely held its own; what it lacked in waves and prehistoric shark teeth it more than made up for in gentle, sandy beach perfection.

After swimming and PB&J lunch, we squeezed in one more little mini activity. I took Dovid back to the fishing pond for one more go. While Dovid wanted to fish in Lake Anna proper, I thought our luck would be better in the smaller pond. And I was right. On the second to last cast before we left, Dovid pulled in a fish! My guess is that it was a 3~4" sunfish, and Dovid was quite excited to actually land it. He was disappointed when I explained we had to toss it back, but he got to add it to his fishing successes.

After 45 minutes of fishing, it was time to call it quits, pack up the car and head back to civilization.

I really was impressed with all that Lake Anna had to offer: the low-key beach, kid friendly fishing and easy hiking loop were just what we needed. I'd love to have explored the gold mine, but alas, this kid friendly program that Lake Anna State Park offers wasn't timed right with our visit. Next time.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

An Emacs Friendly Caps Lock Configuration on Windows

While this may be obvious, I was pretty dang pleased with myself when I managed to turn the Caps Lock key on my Windows 10 computer into an emacs friendly Hyper key. Here's what I did:

Step 1. Use AutoHotKey to trivially map the Caps Lock key to the Windows Menu key, or as AutoHotKey calls it, the AppsKey.

;; Add this to your standard AutoHotKey configuration
CapsLock::AppsKey

Step 2. Use this elisp code to capture the Menu key from within emacs and map it to the Hyper modifier:

;; http://ergoemacs.org/emacs/emacs_hyper_super_keys.html
(setq w32-pass-apps-to-system nil)
(setq w32-apps-modifier 'hyper) ; Menu/App key

Step 3. Enjoy! I can now map any key binding using the H- modifier. Here's some code I added to my PHP setup:

(defun bs-php-mode-hook ()
  (local-set-key '[backtab] 'indent-relative)
  (local-set-key (kbd "<H-left>") 'beginning-of-defun)
  (local-set-key (kbd "<H-right>") 'end-of-defun)
  (auto-complete-mode t)
  (require 'ac-php)
  (setq ac-sources  '(ac-source-php ))
  (yas-global-mode 1)
  (setq indent-tabs-mode nil)
  (setq php-template-compatibility nil)
  (setq c-basic-offset 2))

The result: when I open up a PHP file, I can jump between function definitions by holding down Caps Lock and left or right arrow.

I feel like I just won the keyboard shortcut lottery!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

BYOWB - The Joy of the Portable Whiteboard

Between my love of whiteboards and my fascination with all things portable, the Noteboard was pretty much custom built for me. The Noteboard is a collection laminated 3x5 cards that can fold out, like a city map, to produce a 15"x35" whiteboard.

My Mother-in-Law was kind enough to gift me one (thanks Mom!). I'd played with it a couple of times, but had yet to find the perfect use for it.

Earlier this week I had an onsite meeting, and while the other attendees busted out their laptops and leather bound notebooks, I took out my Noteboard. I unfolded about half of it, making for a relatively contained workspace. As we started into the meeting, I used each individual 3x5 section to capture a different core concept. When the bulk of the meeting was over, I had a fantastic summary in front of me. When I ran out of cards, I simply unfolded another row.

Once I was satisfied with my notes, I took out my cell phone and snapped a photo. And just like that, I had captured my notes for posterity.

As we wrapped up the meeting, a discussion of source code repositories came up, and I quickly sketched out various branching strategies on my now cleaned off whiteboard space. This was the kind of discussion that absolutely needs a drawing to make sense, and the Noteboard provided the perfect space to create it.

I went into the meeting wary of how useful the Noteboard would be in real life. Would it be too bulky? Nope, you can fold it in half and still write on it. Does it need to be hung up to be useful? Nope, just treating it like a large sheet of notebook paper works just fine. Would the underlying 3x5 notecards be too limiting? Nope, they're perfect for capture core concepts.

As you can tell, I left a believer.

Years ago I stopped bringing a laptop to meetings. They've always been more of a distraction than anything else, and my Phone + Bluetooth Keyboard + browser / ssh is surprisingly capable. But the Noteboard is now officially considered must bring gear. I'll have to pick up a collection of mini whiteboard markers to bring my note taking to a new level.

Bonus tip: when I got home, I realized that the "hand sanitizer" I carry would be ideal for getting and keeping the cards nice and clean.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Turtles at Sunrise

Back in High School, I'd run with a group of friends before school. We called ourselves the Turtles and were quite fine with the implication that we were slow and steady.

There's nothing quite like getting a run with friends at 5am, when the rest of the city is still asleep, and your inbox (or high school math homework) can be thoroughly ignored. Time seems to stop, as all that matters is good conversation and pounding out footsteps.

This morning, we had a partial reunion of the Turtles as Elizabeth and I squeezed in a morning run. Such fun! We effectively caught sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial, something that if I'd planned would never have happened.

Go Turtles!

The Making of a Good Fish Tale

A couple of months ago, while talking with Chana, Dovid and Tzipora about their summer visit, I mentioned we might go fishing. And just like that, they decided this was a must do activity. From then on, any discussion of their visit would include the reminder that we were going fishing (with Dovid already concerned about how we'd prepare all the fish we were obviously going to catch). Heck, the first thing they said when we arrived in Boston to pick them up is that they were excited to go fishing and camping.

Now don't get me wrong, I was eager to take them fishing. But I also knew that it may very well not happen, and if it did happen, they may be disappointed with the experience. Fishing often consists of a lot of waiting around, not exactly 7 and 5 year old strengths.

This morning, I realized I'd have a window of time to take them fishing tonight and decided to go for it.

The first problem: I didn't have any gear for them. Without any options left, I went to Dick Sporting Goods, found the fishing section and asked a person working there for help. He walked me through the kid friendly pole options, and handed me the sinkers, hooks and live bait that I would need. He even showed me the multi-color bobbers that he thought the kids would enjoy (which they did).

I considered my rod and reel options: I could buy a low end adult setup, but they just looked huge when I imagined them in the hands of the kids, or I could buy what was obviously kid oriented junk. As a compromise, again at the recommendation of this clerk, I picked up three Zebco Dock Demons. These are short fishing rods, but designed for adult use. I left the store fully armed for our fishing adventure and totally pleased with my brick and mortar shopping experience. Go Dicks!

The next problem: where to actually take them fishing. I'd been considering the C&O Canal in Georgetown, but I wasn't sure that was my best option. So I decided I'd head over to Fletchers Cove: that would get us canal and Potomac access, and most importantly, a small bait shop where I could ask for advice. When I arrived, the guys at the kiosk highly recommended the canal. One of the clerks explained that he and "everyone else" had learned to fish on the canal. Perfect, say no more.

So there I was, with three kids, three tiny rods and a body of water. Let's fish!

I have to say, the kids did amazingly well. Our first few casts into the canal showed no sign of life. But as we walked up 20 yards or so, I could see some smaller fish. I had Tzipora drop her line in, and the fish took her worm. This was fun!

And so for the next 45 minutes or so, we worked this little section of the canal. I'd bait a hook, toss a line out, hand a kid a rod and repeat. While the kids weren't catching fish, they were having their bait taken and getting more and more comfortable with the worms as well as the rest of the process.

And then Dovid announced, as I was helping bait Tzipora's line, that he had a fish on. I went over to help him, assuming that he had snagged the bottom, but found that he had reeled in a catfish. I got a few blurry pictures of it as it flopped around, and then, without any disappointment on my part, we lost it while trying to bring it ashore. Trust me, this guy was huge! He must have been at least 15 inches, if not longer. We'd caught a fish. Hurray!

Before I knew it, it was time to pack it in. The kids all left happy. When they had arrived, they'd been squeamish about the worms, yet and when we left, they were all confident enough to handle the bits of worm left on their hook, tossing it into the canal for the fish to enjoy. They'd come a long way in about an hour.

Speaking of worms, as we were driving to the canal, we had quite the philosophical discussion on the use of worms; PETA would have been proud. The kids were shocked to learn that we'd be using live bait, and couldn't fathom why it was appropriate to skewer and then drowned another creature. I wasn't planning on having such a deep conversation, but I guess I'm glad that they're thoughtful kids. They worried especially that some of the worms may be babies, and wouldn't it be a tragedy if they were hurt.

In the end, the fish got a good meal from us and the kids learned that real fishing is more complex than what they'd imagined. But they also saw first hand that it's tons of fun. Mission accomplished.

I can't recommend the Zebco Dock Demon highly enough for kids. Every once in a while you get lucky with a last minute purchase, and this was definitely one of those times.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Breezy Point All The Beach Fun, A Lot Less Of The Beach Drive

With Chana, Dovid and Tzipora in from Boston, we decided the perfect Sunday adventure would be a trip to the beach. Rather than schlep hours and hours to the shore, we decided to take a chance on one of the closer bay beaches nearby. At just about an hour away, it's hard to argue with the convenience of Breezy Point. We did pause at the warning about jellyfish, as we had a recent encounter and knew that a sting would put quite a damper on the day. But still, we went for it.

Good thing we did. As soon as we arrived it became obvious that we'd be just fine. The swimming area is apparently netted off, and as a result, there was no sign of jellyfish all day.

Generally, Breezy Point delivered. The water was warm enough that the kids could enjoy swimming, we went early enough that we had plenty of space to spread out. The wind even cooperated and we got some kite flying in, too. I brought our $20 inflatable raft and the kids had a blast on it. We brought along a football, which the older kids enjoyed playing with. I took Dovid aside to do a bit of beach combing, and even found a shark tooth, though he was far more interested in the waves crashing than anything else.

Perhaps the best part of the trip was watching the transformation of the little ones. Dovid, Chana and Tzipora all started off quite timid in the water, with fears of jellyfish and getting pulled out to sea top of mind. By the end, they were romping away without a care in the world. It's exactly as it should be.

This wasn't the most pristine beach I've ever been to (that honor still goes to this one), but sure made for a fun Sunday. Everyone had a blast.

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