Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Escape! Midway! Oorah!

This past weekend we hosted my Mother-in-Law and her boyfriend. We did a number of enjoyable activities, each of which left me with quite the impression.


First off, with the help of my Brother and Sister-in-Law, the six of us busted out of Escape Room Arlington. This was Shira and my third Escape Room, and our first one solved without hints! This particular Escape Room is located up the street from us, so Shira and I were excited to try it out, if only to support a hyper-local business. We were all impressed the experience. The challenge, entitled Secret in the Attic sounded scary, but as promised was wholesome family fun.

The room employed a number of tricks we'd seen in our past Escape Rooms, as well as some game-changing new ones. The room was complex enough that we could all be busy working on different puzzles, yet it was easy enough that we kept making forward progress. If you're new to the Escape Room concept and looking for a good first challenge, Escape Arlington's Secret in the Attic is ideal.


Saturday night we took in the movie Midway, which takes you through the Battle of Midway during World War II. I'm still processing this movie and I haven't determined whether I liked it or not. On one hand, the story arc seems long to the point of being excessive. I get that to appreciate Midway as a turning point you have to understand just how much of an underdog the US Navy was. But my gosh, that made for a long run-up to the action. Of course, had the film skimped on backstory, I'd probably be griping about how the film needed more context.

And then there are the cliche characters. Perhaps these really were made-for-movie personalities, but everyone from the geeky code breaker to cowboy-fighter-pilot seemed to fit the exact stereotype you'd have for that role. I'm not buying it.

On the plus side, the attack scenes are done well and give you a sense of how seemingly impossible the task of taking out a Japanese aircraft carrier would be.

I was surprised when I glanced over at the IMDB reviews at just how many folks liked the movie. The consensus from the top reviewers was that the movie gets the historic facts right with a minimum of distractions. So maybe the movie deserves more credit then I'm prepared to give it.


We finished our weekend with a visit to the National Museum of Marine Corps. Shira and I have been to the museum a number of times, but it still ranks as one of the best in the area. While I enjoyed my stroll through the various exhibits, it occurred to me after the fact that I really should have mixed things up. At minimum, I should have walked the museum in reverse. Even better, I should plopped myself down in one spot and done some sketching or writing. The exhibits are quite immersive and this would have been a chance to do some battlefield sketching without getting shot at.

As with past visits to the museum, I picked up a number of fresh insights and learned about a number of new personalities. One of which was Kerr Eby who's credited with the following drawing:

Eby's involvement in WWII was unexpected to say the least:

When the United States declared war in 1941, Eby tried to enlist, but was turned down because of his age. He instead received his opportunity to participate when Abbott Laboratories developed its combat artist program. Between October 1943 and January 1944, he traveled with Marines in the South Pacific and witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the war, landing with the invasion force at Tarawa and living three weeks in a foxhole on Bougainville.

Wait, Combat Artist Program? Yes, Combat Art was a thing:

In January 1943, George Biddle, a mural artist and the brother of the U.S. Secretary General, was invited by the assistant Secretary of War to form a War Department Art Advisory committee and serve as chair. The army, inspired by the success of a small war artist program in WWI, had been considering sending artists into battle since early 1942. Biddle's committee, which would be responsible for selecting the artists, included the noted artist Henry Varnum Poor, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Francis Henry Taylor, and the writer John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was an active supporter of the war art program, and wrote to Biddle: "It seems to me that a total war would require the use not only of all of the material resources of the nation but also the spiritual and psychological participation of the whole people. And the only psychic communication we have is through the arts."

What's remarkable was the mission given to these artists:

...Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel that it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line battle landscapes; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troops, of prisoners, of the natives of the countries you visit;- never official portraits; the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture. Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart's content. Express if you can, realistically or symbolically, the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake's mysticism, by Goya's cynicism and savagery, by Delacroix's romanticism, by Daumier's humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our committee wants to assist you to that end.

Here's a gallery of art produced by the Abbott Labs project that Eby was involved in. The army, for their part, is still collecting art from its soldiers.

I love this notion of using art as a tool to capture what photography, film or prose may fail to grasp.

What a fun and thought provoking weekend!

Friday, November 15, 2019

Sun Setting; Moon Rising

I'm loving the new Samsung S9+ Night Mode. The second pic was taken using this mode and almost certainly wouldn't have come out as well using the standard 'Photo' mode.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Giving Arlington the Run Around

For some time now I've wondered if I could run the perimeter of Arlington, VA. Looking at the boundaries of the county, however, I didn't see an obvious route:

The mostly straight edges of the North-West and South-West borders slice randomly across streets, both big and small. And the Southern tip, which hugs Quaker Lane also intersects Route 395, which is no-go for pedestrians.

Once I relaxed my goal to a rough approximation of Arlington's boundaries, an obvious route did present itself. Starting at Chain Bridge, I could connect the Potomac Heritage Trail, Mount Vernon Trail, Four Mile Run Trail, the WO&D Trail and finally knock out a few miles on Williamsburg Boulevard and I'd effectively have a run around'ish Arlington.

Yesterday afternoon, around 3pm, I tackled this route:

The only surprise in the run came about 30 seconds in. As planned, I left my car at Chain Bridge and started out on the PHT. I ran under the bridge and where the first ascent began I found a washed out section of trail:

I didn't know quite how to get around this obstacle and wasn't sure if I should hit stop and restart my timer on the other side. Ultimately, I just went for it and found myself climbing hand-over-hand out of the gully.

The rest of the run was uneventful. The water level was low enough on the Potomac that the PHT was easily traversed. By the time I hit the Mount Vernon trail the wind had picked up and even a few snow flurries made an appearance. Though, if anything, this kept others off the trail and gave me the path to myself. The full moon and mostly clear sky made gorgeous night running.

In one of the Northern sections of the WO&D I encountered a big 'ol Trail Closed sign, though I followed the detour signs and was able to stay more or less on track.

I had originally planned to run the route in reverse, but given that I'd be finishing in the dark, I decided to tackle the technical trail first. This was a smart move, though it did mean that the second half of the run was all uphill:

Fortunately, the entire route gains only 1,200 feet. After 20 miles of running though, the 'hills' of North Arlington certainly felt substantial.

Overall, I can't recommend this route highly enough.

I was disciplined and snacked every 30 minutes, which for the most part kept my energy level up. While I could have no doubt consumed more calories at these points, I was thankful that my stomach cooperated the entire run. On past long runs I've given in to the urge to snarf down a bunch of food all at once and I was immediately rewarded with a stomach ache. Not last night. More details on the food and gear I used on the run are coming soon.

Here's before and after photos from my parking spot and a few pics along the way.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Phillip Phillips and The Myth Making It

I know little about the artist Phillip Phillips. I will forever associate his music with the 2012 US Olympics Gymnastics coverage, as one of his songs was featured heavily there. I also know that a couple of his songs on in solid rotation on the radio.

One evening, I made my way over to his Playlists on YouTube and listened to his most recent album, Collateral. It was good stuff!

What caught my eye, however, were the stats on a number of the songs. Consider My Name:

Personally, I'd be blown away if I produced content that racked up 8,500 views. With that said, I'm astounded at how few views the songs on Collateral have accumulated. Here's a guy with a video that has logged nearly 80 *million* views, and has more than half a million subscribers. And yet he can put out an an album over a year ago, and comparatively nobody has listened to it.

I can't help but see this through the lens of building a business and other creative endeavors in my life. One wants there to be a rule: I'll bust my butt to 'make it' and then I should be able to coast from there. As Phillip Phillip's music shows, this rule doesn't exist. Here's a guy who by all measures has 'made it.' And yet, he has to hustle like any other artist or entrepreneur to keep making it.

I find this both comforting and alarming. Alarming not because of the effort that's involved, but because if you're doing this right, it means that failure is always an option. And comforting, because this is a great equalizer.

In short: past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes. Even if you're a fancy music star.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running

I found Peter Sagal's Incomplete Book of Running to be a delightful 'listen.' It's part how-to, part philosophical treatise on running and mostly entertaining memoir. Sagal is a host on NPR, so I suppose it's not surprising he'd put together a very entertaining audio book.

The how-to aspect of Sagal's book is useful; I could see gifting the book to someone who wants to be a runner but doesn't know where to start. And the witty writing left me smiling, if not outright laughing through a number of his personal stories. Another factor that makes the book work is how he shares his daemons and missteps in such a way that they are fuel for something greater. His battles with weight, depression and relationships are something he may want to forget, but we benefit greatly by hearing his complete story.

After coming off series of dense and epic reads, the Incomplete Runner was just what I needed to lighten things up, while still listening to something thought provoking. Regardless of your relationship with running, you'll be glad you gave the book a chance.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Why Yes, That is a Load Bearing Cookie

We had a fun weekend playing with J & A. Highlights included playing Tangrams and 'building' a Trader Joe's Haunted Cookie House. The house was fun to assemble, but as was our experience with similar kits, it wasn't especially tasty. What it lacked in freshness it more than made up for in entertainment value.

The Tangrams were perfect for both J and A. J tackled some of the puzzles without hints; something I don't typically attempt. And A was thrilled when the shape finally came together. See her moment of joy in the gif below. Too precious!

Friday, November 01, 2019

DC's Latest Memorial Treat

Whenever I think I've found the last unexpected, novel and interesting monument in DC, I find another.

I give you the National Fire Dog Memorial, located at F St NW and 5th St NW:

The monument was inspired by Colorado’s first arson dog – Erin. Her handler, Agent Jerry Means with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation created the monument when Erin passed away May 2010 from cancer. Agent Means wanted to recognize the tireless contributions arson dogs make in arson investigations. The monument design is a standing fire fighter looking down on his canine partner, who is looking back up at his handler ready to work. The monument is titled “From Ashes to Answers”.

It's about a half mile detour from the National Gallery of Art and there isn't much more to see than the pictures below. Still, it's worth taking the time to check it out in person. I'm not a dog person, but even I was moved by my visit.

OK DC, what quirky memorial is going to surprise me next?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Seeing the Big Picture | Simplifying Route Navigation with the Garmin InReach Mini

If the YouTube search results are to be believed, David Goggins is a beast. And yet, on one of his recent adventures he made a classic tactical error: he got lost. It took him something like 12 hours and 28 miles to correct his error.

So while nearly all of David Goggins' feats are out of reach, this one I can totally identify with.

Goggins started his challenge with a device that displayed every waypoint he would encounter. He may simply have neglected to check his phone, which would have shown he made an obvious wrong turn. Or perhaps the phone was on the fritz and was giving him bogus GPS readings. Or maybe his phone got damaged, as it did with this luckless fastpacker:

After filming myself saying "I’m about to start my Long Trail FKT attempt. The time is 5:55am, I have until 11:20pm on Thursday 13th to make it to Canada", I put my phone down on the rock so I had a free hand to slap some mosquitoes. Seconds later I watched it slide down the rock and into the mud. My inreach pinged and I left. 100 yards into it, I went to check my phone and the screen was cracked and none responsive. It wasn't even 6am yet and I’d already run in to my first major problem.

Whatever the cause of Goggins' error was, it could almost certainly have been mitigated if he'd used a backup navigation device. In my case, that means loading the waypoints for my trip into both my phone and my Garmin InReach Mini. I primarily carry the InReach for its messaging capabilities, but its ability to direct you to a waypoint means that it can serve double duty. Add to the fact that its can receive in-field weather updates, and it's value as a device goes up even further.

One challenge I have when using my InReach for navigation is that it doesn't provide an overall map view. It will gladly route me to any waypoint it has recorded, including waypoints I may capture on the fly, but its silent as to where I am in terms of the big picture.

I thought about different ways to address this and came up with the following approach. Say I'm planning a West Virginia backpacking trip and I've got a bunch of waypoints:

Point Latitude Longitude
P1 38.713948 -79.633575
P2 38.704731 -79.62324
P3 38.700589 -79.602883
P4 38.697418 -79.582321
P5 38.699603 -79.581602
P6 38.69036 -79.566269
P7 38.705401 -79.55281
P8 38.71179 -79.54994
P9 38.751097 -79.517305
P10 38.732984 -79.600516

If I could plot those points on a simple grid, and printed out this grid, I'd have an overview which may be helpful for navigation purposes. This turned out to be easy to do in Google Sheets. I started off by converting the latitude and longitude values into UTM coordinates. I used the strategy outlined here to do this. Essentially, you grab this JavaScript library and wrap it up in an Sheets AppScript function.

Once I did this, I found my waypoints could be represented as UTM coordinates:

P1 17 618798.5526 4285919.941
P2 17 619712.5004 4284910.563
P3 17 621489.6755 4284477.713
P4 17 623283.2186 4284153.287
P5 17 623341.9928 4284396.73
P6 17 624691.4408 4283391.762
P7 17 625835.6589 4285079.309
P8 17 626073.9983 4285792.264
P9 17 628840.9109 4290199.752
P10 17 621640.5795 4288075.824

While these numbers look crazy, they're actually just meters East and North from an origin point. Using a bit of trivial math, it's possible to normalize these values into kilometers from the most South-East point.

Point East North
P1 0.000 2.528
P2 0.914 1.519
P3 2.691 1.086
P4 4.485 0.762
P5 4.543 1.005
P6 5.893 0.000
P7 7.037 1.688
P8 7.275 2.401
P9 10.042 6.808
P10 2.842 4.684

Using Google Sheets, I can plot these with an X/Y chart:

I could imagine printing out and laminating this chart to create an index-card sized overview of all the waypoints on a route. The plot is setup such that each grid space represents one kilometer, allowing me to easily estimate distances between points.

After going through the effort of creating this plot I realized I could also take the latitude, longitude and point names and import them into a Google 'My Map'. I could then print off a zoomed out view of the map and get something similar to my plot, only with map features visible:

Is the map view more valuable than my waypoint view? If so, then I all my UTM math was for not. Or maybe the two resources are most useful when combined. I could use the map view to help me understand the terrain, and the plot view to understand the distance between points.

Either way, I'm armed with an overview that simplifies navigating with the InReach Mini.

As for what happens if I simply neglect to check my navigational aids; that's a problem for another day. I may never conquer challenges on the scale of a David Goggins, but you best believe I'm going to learn from his missteps.

Here's are examples of the plot view, and map view.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Montreal Day 7 - An Ending and a Beginning

[Composed 8/19/2019]

Today was your typical last-day-of-a-trip. We spent the morning cleaning and packing, had a somewhat hurried lunch of Pizza and then made it to the airport to catch our flight to Boston. The airport experience was especially nice, as we cleared US Customs while still in Montreal. That meant that when we'd land in Boston we could forgo waiting in a massive Customs line there.

The timing of our trip turned out to be quite fortuitous. We landed in Boston and met my Sister and Brother-in-Law there. Only, they didn't swoop in and drive the kids home. Instead, the family was meeting up at Logan Airport to fly down to Florida and begin a new life in Tampa. We'd effectively ended up taking the kids during the last week my Sister and Brother-in-Law lived in Boston, and had spared the kids a week of packing up. C, T, G--you're welcome.

On top of this, my Mother-in-Law was also in town and at the airport. It was surreal catching up in the Jet Blue ticketing area and taking family pics. Our little adventure was coming to a close, but the kids were starting a brand new, much larger one. I was so excited for them.

Looking at my Brother and Sister-in-Law, with their 4 children and 2 cats in tow, I couldn't help but offer to leverage our TSA Precheck status to get the kids through security minus the long wait in line. We did this and as we were walking away my Sister-in-Law asked if we'd take one of the cats through security, too. As it was just carrying an extra duffle bag, we figured, why not.

When we hit the security checkpoint, Shira, who was holding the cat was asked her preference: take out the cat and scan the bag here, or go into a room and let the cat out in a more contained space. Uh, this suddenly became more than either of us had bargained for. She smartly opted to go into a private space. The cat was apparently let out of the carrier, the carrier scanned and the real challenge began: how to get the cat back in the carrier?

Neither Shira nor I are cat people, and I'm allergic to the critters. Fortunately, T quickly stepped up and gingerly coaxed the cat back into the carrier. Crisis averted; well done T!

After getting all souls through security and meeting up with the parents on the other side, it was finally time to say goodbye to the kids. Lots of hugs and selfies were shared. Then we had a quick airport meal with my Mother-in-Law and then it was our turn to get on a flight and head home.

Montreal was truly a fantastic destination. Growing up close to Canada I'd had my share of trips to Niagara Falls and Toronto. But Montreal was like stepping into another country altogether. French isn't just some shiny accessory, like say the monarchy is to the UK; it's their preferred language. I wanted to show the kids a new culture, and Montreal delivered. The fact that it was a stone's throw from Boston was a nice bonus. Especially considering the kids are now down in Florida, where a trip to Montreal is no longer around the corner.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The World Series. Up Close and Personal.

I don't know how our friend Grant did it, but he scored tickets to Game 3 of the World Series and invited us to join him. While I'm not much of a baseball fan, even I was jazzed to be attending this epic event.

We had standing room only tickets, but Shira and Grant had a plan. They knew of the perfect spot along first base where we could see all the action. In fact, this was their spot just last week at an NLCS game. We arrived early and hustled past the hoards of fans to find their perfect spot was occupied by TV cameras. Undeterred, we setup next to the cameras and found we had an amazing view:

Everything, minus the number of runs the Nationals scored, was awesome. The weather, the french fries, the camaraderie, much of the action on the field and of course the exhilarated fans. While there are plenty of interesting stats from the game, the one that stung the most were the 12 runners Left on Base. Every inning it seemed the Nats would get runners into scoring position and then leave them there. By the end of the game, you could just feel the energy lagging in the park. Curse you Nationals for getting our hopes up!

The Baby Shark craze was on full display at the ballpark, with costumes, signs and of course hand signals. Earlier in the day, the National Cathedral released a video of their organists playing the Baby Shark Theme Song; so yeah, our town couldn't be more Baby Shark obsessed.

A perfect metaphor for the night were the LED Wristbands that were found at every seat in the park. When we arrived, I noticed that the seats in front of us had a plastic bag containing a wristband. Because we didn't have seats, we weren't given one but we got there early enough so I could examine the one placed in the seat in front of me. At first I thought it might be a glorified NFC tag, but between examining the bracelet and doing some web searching, I realized it was an LED band.

From what I read on the web, we were in for a treat. The bands would be controlled remotely, and they should allow the packed house to be lit up in clever ways. One glowing wristband isn't much, but 43,000 of them would be awesome. I hoped I'd get to swipe one on the way out of the park so I could take it home and try hacking it.

Before the game started, a guy came around with a bucket full of wristbands and handed them out to us. Score!

This was going to be awesome: not only was I going to see my home team cruise to victory in a World Series game, but I was going to get a front row seat to a massive wearable tech extravaganza.

Alas, neither event happened. The Nationals couldn't continue their winning momentum, and my wristband while occasionally lit up, was a complete disappointment. Mine would come on, but those standing next to me wouldn't. Forget seeing sick LED patterns, the wristbands failed to do anything of real value. Not unlike the Nats offense.

I was probably one of the few people in the park that night thinking: man, whoever promised that these 40,000+ wristbands were going to work is in a heap of trouble. Thank heavens I'm not on that tech team.

The game was held on Shabbat, a night I don't typically drive. The game closed out at around midnight and I cajoled Shira into letting us walk the 5 miles home from the park. To her credit, even after spending 7+ hours standing at the game, she indulged me. We got home around 2:20am, and I have to say, it was a glorious walk. The weather was perfect, and we felt unexpectedly secure wandering DC and Arlington at night.

While not everything went our way that night, it was truly a joy to be there.


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