Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Manchester by the Sea

For the 22nd anniversary of our first date, Shira and I hit dinner and a movie. Our choice of movie: Manchester by the Sea. As foster parents, we're always curious to see how TV and Movies portray non-traditional families, and so this seemed like a winner.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW. Stop reading if you care about that sort of thing.

My first reaction as the credits rolled was to be unimpressed. Yes, I'd surely witnessed some powerful acting, but as far as I could tell the writers of the movie didn't bother to add any sort of twist. When you watch the preview of the movie you quickly understand the setup: there's a dad, a son and an uncle; the dad dies; the uncle is unprepared to care for the son. After 137 long minutes, that's exactly where you end up. I appreciate that not every movie needs a Hollywood ending, but c'mon, give me something. My gold standard for this type of movie is, believe it or not, Big Daddy (yes, an Adam Sandler film). And that film shows how you can show growth all while staying in the realm of the real.

Over time, I've warmed just slightly to the movie. I appreciate that the writers may have managed to pull off perhaps more impressive feat than having the characters grow: we as the audience have grown. While I'm still pulling for the uncle to step up and do more, by the end of the movie, I get it. He's just got too much grief; he's just too broken. He wants to be the uncle I want him to be, he just can't. And for me, a casual observer, to come around this view point did indeed take some clever storytelling.

Ultimately, the movie just wasn't a good fit for me. I wanted an escape, and what it delivered was a cold splash of reality. Oh well, better luck next time.

A Winning View

Sunset from the new MGM Casino.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Eating, Drinking and Being Merry

What a weekend! I may never have to eat again! Whether it was Chinese Food on Christmas Eve, Star Wars on Christmas Day, Chrismakahh Dinner Sunday night or a Chanukah celebration on Monday, I ate, drank (mmmm, 'real' eggnog ... yum!) and played like there was no tomorrow. And what would a holiday celebration be without a little gambling? We busted out the dreidel for some high stakes M&M action.

And let me just say, the photos don't do Dawn's home made Christmas cookies justice - they look and tasted far better than my dim photo suggests.

Seriously, I didn't know it was possible to get a food hangover. But that's where I'm at. But man, was it totally worth it.

To good friends, family, miracles and peace on Earth!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Week one of being an Apple Fanboy | Choosing a Mac as a Primary Work Computer

OK, I'm not quite sure I'd call myself an Apple Fanboy just yet (as I'm typing this post on a Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard). However, I have phased an OS X Mac-Mini into my work environment. Recall that since 2009 I've had a simple strategy for hardware risk management: I have two work computers, and every Monday and I switch the one in use for the week. The result is that if I have a hardware failure, I can effortlessly switch to the backup.

For years, this meant running two Windows Laptops. Then I switched the arrangement to a Windows Laptop paired with a Linux Laptop. Then it was a Linux Laptop paired with a compact Windows Desktop. And now it's official: for 2017 I plan to use a Mac-Mini paired with a similar footprint Windows Desktop Machine. Here's the new setup:

Attentive readers will note that this isn't my first time owning a Mac-Mini. I've had one on the side now for about 5 years, but I ran it just when I needed to do something OS X specific, which wasn't all that often.

So it's been essentially a week in Apple land, and so far, the biggest news is that there is no news. Most things Just Work. My core tools: emacs, bash, subversion, Firefox, etc. all work just as seamlessly on OS X as they did in Windows and Linux. It's mind blowing that I can take a totally new computer and OS, use subversion to pull down my configuration and within a few minutes be working away like this was a well-worn environment.

Consider this win: I've got a relatively fancy script I use to setup ssh tunneling. I checked it out of my subversion tools repository and ran it. And just like that, it worked. Of course, it's just standard bash commands, but still, to have something relatively complex like this not require changes is just too cool.

There's really not much to report on the hardware side. Yes, the Mac-Mini is sexier than the boxy Windows computer next to it. And at at $650 or so bucks, it's relatively cheap. But the Windows box is fan-less, so it's absolutely silent, whereas the Mac-Mini makes these tiny tinkling noises. Hardly a deal breaker, but it is noticeable. The Windows box also has far more USB ports, some of which are conveniently placed on the front panel. But still, these are minor points and from a hardware perspective the Mini gets a passing grade.

On the other hand, OS X as an operating system definitely shows promise. It has that mainstream vibe that Windows has: so tools like Skype work in a polished way out of the box. *And*, it also has a strong geek vibe: I don't need to layer Unix tools on top of the OS via Cygwin, instead they are native. At one point I struggled to get ssh-agent working properly, only to realize that it was my hacky Windows setup that was breaking things. Mac apparently supports ssh-agent out of the box and I just needed to move all that crap out of the way and let it just be.

I've warmed to a number of OS X design choices quite quickly. For example, both Windows and Mac support multiple desktops, but they have one noticeable difference with respect to how multiple monitors are handled. On Windows, when I 'slide to the desktop on the left' both monitors change. On Mac, only the current monitor changes. This allows for mixing and matching of desktops. At first this was jarring, but I think it's a win.

The biggest source of pain for the last week has been the mental grinding of gears needed to adapt to new keyboard shortcuts. Consider this keyboard conundrum: on Windows, Control + a selects all the text, and the Home key takes you to the beginning of the line. On Mac, Control + a takes you to the beginning of the line, whereas Home takes you to the start of the text field you're in. So for the last week, I've been hitting Home to get back to the start of the line, and then get annoyed because I've totally lost my place and typing at the start of the document. I've tried some recipes for overriding this behavior, but ultimately, I'm just going to need to retrain my brain.

The irony is not lost on me that years ago, when I switched from Linux to Windows, I had to stop using Control + a to get to the start of a line, only to now have to relearn this habit.

Fortunately, the keybindings in emacs are universal. So for most of my coding tasks, the keyboard short-cut changes haven't been all that big an issue.

I'd consider this first week of being a Mac Guy a solid success. My brain is going to be pissed when it finds itself on a Windows environment next week, but it'll deal. For now, I'm just happy that I can be following Rule #1 for business computing hardware: Diversify

Any killer Mac utilities or features I should know about? I need an autohotkey replacement, which I think will be AppleScript. But maybe you've got a better idea; I'd love to hear it!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

From Etrog Seed to Seedling

Well that worked better than expected. The etrog seeds I planted a little over a month ago have actually turned into baby plants! Yes, I understand that's how it's supposed to work, but still, to see it work is another matter entirely.

I'm convinced that placing a clear plastic drop cloth over the whole mess of seeds created an improvised greenhouse and helped the little guys grow. Or maybe I got lucky.

Either way, I graduated a few of the seedlings into their own little pots. I wonder what will happen next...

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Monday, December 19, 2016

The Fuzzy Snail and a DC Mystery Solved

From yesterday's run:

Also, I solved the mystery of the previously unidentified smiling grotesques on the bridge near the Jefferson Memorial. That smiling face is none other than Jack Fish a former head of the National Parks. Yes, the likeness is a visual pun: it's Jack's face on the body of a fish. Sculptor humor; what are you going to do?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Joy of In-Flight Hacking

For me, programming while flying is a form of therapy. However, on our last trip to Colombia I struggled to think of a useful app to code. That is, until we started our descent into Bogota and the ideal problem hit me. I should whip up a quick and dirty currency converter to help me make sense of the crazy prices I was seeing in the guidebook. See 1 Colombian Peso (COP) is .00033 dollars, a conversion that I hadn't quite wrapped my head around*. When I saw prices like 37,000 COP I had no sense of value. Sure, I could bust out the calculator on my phone, but whipping up some slick little app seemed like much more fun.

As I started to mull over the problem I realized I had two immediately challenges: (1) how could I come up with a more streamlined UI than the calculator on my phone? And (2) how I could do this in the 20 minutes or so I had before touch down?! The clock was ticking...

I opened up Tasker and went right to work fiddling with the scenes capability. However, it wasn't long before a flight attendant came on the PA: it was time to stow those tray tables and pack away loose belongings. Argh. I had run out of time. I put my bluetooth keyboard away and resigned myself to having failed my little programming challenge.

As we continued our descent it hit me: Tasker wasn't the only way to solve this problem. What if I through together a quick Google Spreadsheet that mapped dollars to pesos? I could use this as a cheat sheet, telling me the rough value of pesos or dollars at a glance. The visual approach would be more streamlined then hand entering values, and creating a spreadsheet is something I could "program" without using a keyboard. The challenge was back on! I clumsily created this spreadsheet:

So now I knew that the 37,000 COP tchatchke was about 12 USD. This was progress!

The Google Spreadsheet solution was a step in the right direction, but did have it's own issues. Mainly, *getting* to the spreadsheet was a pain. If I was in a store, it wasn't going to be especially practical to open Google Drive, navigate to the right folder, open the document and then consult the chart. Surely I could do better than that.

By now I was starting to catch glimpses of the mountains outside of Bogota and my little hacking session was definitely coming to a close.

And then I got my final burst of inspiration: if I took a screenshot of the spreadsheet and featured it on the home screen, I'd have nearly instant access to this information. Fortunately, there's a Photo Frame Widget that's purposes is exactly this. I went ahead and snapped a screenshot of the spreadsheet, and after a few attempts at cropping it, ended up with the following widget screen:

As we touched down I had to smile: Mission Accomplished! I now had one click access to currency conversion, and I'd solved the problem in less time than it took for the plane to land. And best of all, I was so busy problem solving I forgotten to be terrified.


*After a few days, I got used to dividing all the prices by 3,000, so this was hardly an app-worthy problem. But for those first few days, keeping track of all those zeros was apparently more than my little brain could handle.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Little Love for iBagBar

Over time I've grown more impressed with the iBagBar Small Messenger Bag. It's small enough to drag everywhere, yet big enough to hold solutions to many a challenge. Whether at a concert, or hiking in the woods, the basic black canvas look lets the bag blend in (at least as much as a guy carrying a purse can). The simple, vecro-less flap means that you can silently access the bag contents. Heck, I've even learned a technique for wearing the bag as an improvised backpack (see this action shot), which came in handy for a recent bike tour.* And finally, the price tag of $20 seals the deal. This bag is a winner.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, this happened:

That's right, the leather attachment that keeps the shoulder strap in place failed in a most spectacular fashion. Just like that, the bag that was so great was now useless.

I could immediately imagine the response from folks over at EDCForums. That's what you get for buying a $20 bag. If you'd spent hundreds, you wouldn't be in this situation.

On a whim, I contacted the company through Amazon and sent them the above photo. Within a couple of hours they responded: your bag was defective, a new one is on the way.

I have to admit, I was impressed. And then the new one arrived and again found myself in a new quandary: the bag looked perfect, but the magnetic closure holding the front of it was far weaker than the original bag. It seemed almost silly to go back and kvetch about this. Still, I created a video showing the problem and sent it off to the company.

Again, they immediately responded with an apology that I had yet another defective bag. They shipped off a third bag to me which arrived in perfect condition.

And so I ended this little customer service experience even more impressed. There was no debate as to whether I was mis-using the bag, or had improper expectations of its functionality. There was just singular focus on making me happy.

iBagBar, you guys rock!

*I've searched the Internet high and low to find the video that showed me this clever messenger-bag-as-backpack technique. Yet, for the life of me, I can't find it again. If you're really curious how to wear a messenger bag/haversack/shoulder bag as a backpack let me know, I'll document this for you.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Worthy Notebook Upgrade: The Muji A7

For years now (here's proof from 2005) I've carried a cheap, 3x5 spiral notebook in my pocket. Just give me the opportunity and I'll go on and on about how many times it has saved the day. While I've occasionally been tempted to buy fancier notebooks, I've always come back to the most basic 3x5 notepad. How could I possibly justify spending nearly $10.00 for a product that has exactly the same functionality as the $1.00 model.

And besides, what if I did fall in love with a new type of notebook? Then I'd have to search high and low for it; whereas now, any grocery, pharmacy or office supply store has me covered.

On a trip to San Jose I wandered into Muji, a store that specializes in Japanese products. Their paper and pen section was just too good and I walked out with a few of their notepads.

Violating my long standing tradition of using only standard 3x5 notebooks I gave the Muji 40 page, A7 notebook a try. And alas, I fell for it.

Here's what the notebook looks like when compared to a standard 3x5 version:

And here's why I'm sold on them:

  • The A7 size means they are smaller and fit more places - in your front jeans pocket, a shirt pocket, in small pocket in your bag, etc..
  • The smaller 40 sheet capacity means I go through the notebooks faster. I consider this a feature. There's a special feeling that comes with starting a new notepad, and if I can get that feeling sooner, I'm sold.
  • The plastic covers held up well.
  • I'm convinced I'll figure out some way to leverage the clear plastic covers. Perhaps I can customize the notebook by putting a photo in the cover. Or maybe I should just tape a business card there as a form of identification.
  • The double ring binding was sturdy and didn't get crushed like the simple spiral bound notebooks often do.

The niftiest feature of all though is that one side of the pages are lined and the other side are blank. See:

This means that the pad is optimized not just for notes and TODO lists, but also for sketches, maps and other scribbles.

At a 100 Yen per notebook, or a little over a dollar, they are an absolute bargain. At least I fell in love with an affordable notebook.

By the time I'd finished using the notebooks I had purchased in the store, I'd long since forgotten their brand. Luckily, Google Maps helped figure this mystery out.

Using Muji's online store, I went ahead and purchased every last notebook they had in stock (12 of them, to be exact). Which brings me to the last bit of irony in the story: the website is no longer offering these notebooks (here's proof they were). They do carry a related product, and they may get these back in stock soon enough. But still, for years I avoided specialty notebooks for exactly this scenario. On well, first world problems.

So yeah, go ahead, ask me what good a pocket memo notepad is good for. I dare you.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Colombia Adventure - Day 9

November 28, 2016

We left our hotel this morning around 4am, where there were just a few folks out and about. The airport was a mere 12 minute taxi drive away and cost a little over $4.00. In classic Cartagena style, we left the hotel in muggy heat, boarded the airplane in a downpour and took off with only a drizzle of rain.

You might think that because we had a full day of travel planned, we wouldn't see anything new in Colombia. Not so!

We leveraged our 5 hour layover in Bogota to get in one more Colombian adventure.

After checking in our next flight and handing over our luggage we made our way to the taxi line. To the Bogota Botanical Gardens! I said to the taxi driver. He looked at me totally confused, and then off we went. I can't imagine what he was thinking: these folks just got off a plane in Bogota and the first thing they do is to go to a location I've never been to?

Before entering the gardens I enjoyed one last bit of street food: fresh squeezed orange juice and a queso arrepa, all for just a couple of bucks. After our little snack, into the garden we went.

As botanical gardens go, the Bogota version is a solid one. It seemed like quite a bit of it was under construction, so it was a little confusing where we were and weren't allowed to go. But there were absolutely interesting plants to see, and anything beats a walk in the sunshine rather than waiting in an airport.

And just like that, it was time to call an Uber and go back to the airport. The whole sidetrip was perfect, with enough time to let us enjoy the gardens and not have to stress about hitting our plane.



Epilogue

When we told folks that we were going to Colombia for our vacation we got one of two responses. For those who had been to Colombia, the response was one of joy, knowing that we'd soon to get to see a remarkable and unappreciated place. For everyone else, the reaction ranged from puzzlement to downright fear.

I'm pleased to report that the former group had it right. Bogota and Cartagena, the two cities we visited, were safe, interesting, cheap and had everything a traveler could ask for.

Looking back at our trip, there really isn't anything else I could ask for in terms of a vacation. Foodwise, Colombia with their love of chocolate, bakeries, fruit and most importantly cheese means I never went hungry. In cartagena, I could have a queso arrepa (a cheese knish, if you will), freshly cut mango and lime juice all from street vendors for about $2.50 and be perfectly well nourished. In Bogota, we started each day with an amazing breakfast, almost always including eggs and fresh bread.

From a natural perspective, the flora and fauna are hard to beat. I do wish the hiking was more accessible in both Carategna or Bogota, but in both places we found plenty of amazing nature.

Both cities provided plenty of interesting history, with Cartagena's walls and forts being a striking reminder of that city's storied past.

As for Shira, she didn't suffer either. Despite the guidebook being mum on the topic, casinos are plentiful, clean (and apparently non-smoking) and a good time. And then there are the emeralds. Because Colombia is the leading producer of emeralds in the world, it's only fair that we spend extra time browsing the selection. It's like a visit to a musuem, no? In fact, some of the larger stores even have a 'musuem' in them. Most of the sales clerks were pretty chill, with only a few stores attempting a hard sell or obviously outrageous pricing.

The weather for our trip was perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Never before had 8 days of travel looked more gloomy, with the forecast calling for copious amounts of rain every day. In Bogota, there was also the matter of the temperature being chilly, which combined with the thought of rain seriously had us worried. In Bogota, we had no meaningful encounters with rain, and the temperature never got especially uncomfortable. The rule was simple: when the sun was out, it was a bit too warm, when the sun was behind the clouds, it was a bit too chilly. In the end, I needed the hat and suglasses just as often as I needed the wind breaker.

As for Carategna, the weather was strictly *hot*, especially after Bogota. Of the three days we spent in Cartagena, the rain impacted us for all of 25 minutes. It downpoured, we took shelter under an overhang, we waited it out and the rest of the day was sunny. Note: the only time it rained was when I left my umbrella in the hotel room. Coincidence?

Security wise, we never enountered any issues. We relied on Uber to get around, and it worked remarkably well. Uber's cashless system may be a convenience in the US, but in Colombia it was a true godsend. With the exception of one time when we wandered into part of Cartagena where we didn't belong, we had no problem with getting around or concerns about getting hassled. The copious police presence was a good thing and in both Bogota and Cartagena we didn't stress about getting into trouble.

Along with Uber, Google Translate and Trip Advisor apps both deserve a shout out. Google Translate's on the fly translation feature is nothing short of magic. You simply turn on the app, point it to a Spanish menu, and poof, you're able to read it in English. And Trip Advisor was a reliable resource for figuring out what to do and where to eat with some degree of confidence. I especially like Trip Advisor's ability to give you the top N list of attractions within any location. This allowed us to find the Botanical Garden when we needed something to do near the Bogota airport.

While the above digital resources are good, I still made very heavy use of our Fodor's Colombia Guidebook. It's not as complete as Trip Advisor and Google Maps, but it's a trusted resource that gives immediate answers when I most need them. I had both the kindle and paper version, and while I used the kindle version a couple of times, it's the paper version that's still the winner.

Oh, and a huge shout out to T-Mobile. Their free data roaming worked flawlessly. From the moment we landed in Bogota, to the moment we took off, I had 3G or 4G data access the whole time. Heck, I got better service in Colombia than I do outside of Manassas.

Colombia Adventure - Day 8

November 27, 2016

The original plan for our 3rd day in Cartagena was to get out of town. But alas, none of the tours looked especially fitting for us. There's a pristine beach that would require a 45 minute (no doubt sea-sickness inducing) boat ride away, there was a mud volcano which neither Shira nor I could really get excited about, and there was an aviary an hour or so drive away, but the idea of seeing birds in cages just didn't do it for me. I do kick myself because there's a botanic gardens 45 minutes out of town which I'd loved to have gone to, but due to a Google maps confusion, didn't realize it existed until the end of the day.

So we decided to spend a leisurely day in Cartagena, and really relax on our last day of vacation.

The first order of business: head over to the main park in town with my DSLR at the ready. Throughout our time in Cartagena, we'd seen various interesting birds, ranging from spooky looking vultures to honest to goodness parrots. I was hoping that the main park in the morning would offer up the chance to grab a few snapshots of these birds.

It didn't disappoint. I must have seen 4 or 5 new species of bird, most of which I got pictures of. But the big surprise in the park: Shira noticed a sloth in the trees. Yes, a real sloth, just hanging out. And yes, it was doing its sloth slow-motion moving thing. How cool is that?

After our park photo shoot we went in search of shopping. It was at this point that the skies opened and we were slammed with our first rainstorm of the trip. This is pretty amazing considering every day was forecasted for rain. After a 20 minute downpour, the rain stopped and the rest of the day was sunny.

After a day of walking, picture taking and shopping, it was finally time to call it a night. But not before we took in dinner at our favorite place in Cartagena: Kioko Sushi. What makes Kioko so unusual is that the "rolls" they offer are downright whacky, with our favorite one being a mozzarella tempura roll with mushrooms on top. Yeah, think mozzarella sticks in sushi form. Eating there was definitely a treat.

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