Monday, October 31, 2011

Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus - One heck of a show on Earth

This weekend, my mom had a brilliant idea to entertain the whole family: go to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Where else could their kids (that's me!) and their grand kids all go together for a fun, indoor (it was at, or felt like, freezing) time? Her idea turned out to be genius.

I have to admit - I went into the circus expecting to be either unimpressed, or offended (not sure by what, but I was ready for it), or both. Turns out, there was nothing to object to here. It was just a fun time. The various gymnast routines, high wire acts and such, really are impressive. You'd have to be a real cynic to think otherwise.

I could have done without the animal acts, which played a relatively minor role in the show. Part of me just cringes at how circus animals used to be treated (or still are?), and wonder if it's all worth it. It does seem like Barnum is involved with animal conservation and takes complaints seriously, so perhaps my concerns are unfounded.

More importantly, the circus gave me a chance to play with my new Canon T3i. I took about 500 photos of the event (man that camera makes snapping photos easier than ever), and most of the photos were pretty unimpressive. *But*, I wasn't plagued by my usual lag issues and any exposure issues were definitely within my control to fix. Alas, the camera doesn't automatically take great photos, but in the end, I really was pleased with how it performed. I'm more and more sold on the weight to capability ratio.

Here's a few photos. And don't be skeptical like me, just take your kids and enjoy.

Friday, October 28, 2011

An Unexpected Gift - A Canon EOS T3i

Yesterday, after work, Shira hands me a note and stands back. The note read something like: "Here's a gift you don't want. But, I know better, so here you go. Don't be too annoyed." She then handed me an Amazon box. This, of course, wasn't making any sense to me.

I opened the Amazon box, and it all became clear. Inside was a Canon EOS T3i - a digital SLR. Wow.

I'm usually into the smallest, lightest, camera I can get my hands on. I've always written off Digital SLRs as being too clunky. Clunky means not bringing it along, and not bringing it along means no photos.

In many respects, my Lumix TZ50 is a fantastic camera. It's tiny, has a great zoom, and a number of funky features. Yet, compared to a DSLR, it's sloooooow. Capture action with it is painful. Shira obviously noted my continued frustration, and took matters into her own hands.

She tells me she did quite a bit of research and arrived at the EOS T3i because it would be a good fit for me. And I think she's right. My first impressions are thus: it's relatively lightweight, has every feature I could ask for and more and most importantly, it's blazingly fast. You press the shutter button down, and snap, a photo has been captured. No agonizing delay as the subject gets away.

There's a 300 page manual, of which I'm about 60 pages into, so I still have quite a bit to learn. But as cameras go, it's definitely a game changer.

My only concern, as you might imagine, is that I'm not sure how practical it is to walk around with a DSLR hanging from your neck. True, I went through high school that way (ahhh, shooting photos for the high school paper, The Trapezoid - good times!). But, I'm not sure I'm ready to be Mr Tourist everywhere I go with a camera. I can stash the camera in a camera bag, but if there's one thing I've learned, it's that storing the camera in a case is the best way to *not* get photos. I typically carry my Lumix in my front pocket, ready to be pressed into service at a moment's notice. I'm sure I'll figure something out with the DSLR.

I definitely know I'm in the honeymoon phase of this relationship. I'm trying to remain skeptical about schlepping this big camera around. Shira's promised me that if I'm not totally sold on the camera, it can be taken back.

Here are a few inaugural photos from the camera. Nothing special, but I figure I should at least publish a few shots.

I guess the moral of this whole episode is that it pays to be married to someone who knows you better than you do.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gummy Bears as Hacking Material

Last night, we caught the pilot episode of Covert Affairs, which contained an odd little scene where the main character defeated a fingerprint scanner with a Listerine strip (how MacGyver'ish -- right?). I was curious if the maneuver was totally Hollywood or if there was indeed anything behind the technique. Turns out, it may have been the most realistic part of the show.

Mythbusters showed that you can defeat at least one type of fingerprint scanner using a photo copy as well as a couple of other approaches.

But even better was the hacker who came up with this recipe:

Japanese cryptographer Tsutomu Matsumoto used gelatin, the ingredient in Gummi Bears, to forge a replica finger that fooled 11 fingerprint scanners during tests in 2002. Gelatine has virtually the same capacitance as a finger's skin, meaning it can fool scanners designed to detect electrical charges within the human body.

"Simply form the clear gelatine finger over your own [which] lets you hide it as you press your own finger onto the sensor. After [the reader] lets you in, eat the evidence," BT chief technology officer Bruce Schneier said of the so-called Gummi Bear attack.

Ahhh, Gummy Bears - delicious and hackable.

For a show that was nearly all fluff and make believe, it was actually a clever little hack.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Georgeous and Easy -- Linux Running From a Thumb Drive

It seems like every few years I'm re-amazed at the ability to run Linux from a thumb drive. Mostly for the heck of it, I decided I'd give it yet another try. Needless to say, I'm still quite amazed.

It's now so drop dead simple, there's simply no reason *not* to have Linux box on a thumb drive. Here's what you do:

  • Plug your thumb drive into to your windows computer
  • Download and launch UNetbootin
  • Select Linux Mint
  • Select the correct drive letter at the bottom
  • Click OK
  • Wait...

When it's all done, pop the thumb drive into a laptop or computer that will boot off a thumb drive, and sit back and be amazed.

Two things really knocked my socks off here: First, how easy UNetbootin was to operate. What used to a bunch of arcane commands is now fully automated. You don't even have to download the version of linux you want to install, it'll do that for you.

Second, Linux Mint is gorgeous. It comes up with a polished looking desktop. The controls to connect up to my wireless network were exactly where Windows taught me they would be. Again, no arcane commands to run. Running Firefox just worked. Ssh and terminal, again, just work.

This isn't just a Linux distribution, it's a Linux distribution that non-techies can use.

Now that I've got a Linux box I can carry around in my pocket, I've got to think of a good use for it. Think the business center at the next hotel I stay at would mind if I booted into Linux? Hmmm...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: Notes on Teaching: A Short Guide to an Essential Skill

I grabbed Notes on Teaching: A Short Guide to an Essential Skill as I was walking out of the library. It was in the new books section, one of my favorite places to find random things to read. It's essentially a collection of relatively short tips (each one or two paragraphs long) about being a better teacher.

Here's a couple of examples:

16. Come prepared.
Students work hard for a teacher who works hard.l Successful preparation depends on practical details: accurate estimates on timing (plan for everything to take twice as long as you think it will), materials at the ready, technology tested before class...
The satkes are high. Sweat the details.

17. Don't over-prepare.
Stuffing the agenda with the whole phylum Arhropoda or history of Australasia undermines absorption, reflection, and spontaneity. In a 45- or 50- minute session, you can focus on, at most, one big idea.

I found the book delightfully easy to read, and plan to bring back a number of copies to bring back to my middle and high school self, to hand out to teachers, if time travel is ever invented.

Pondering the lessons of the book, though, I found that it had a much wider appeal than I might have originally thought.

See, if you're a parent, or child care provider, or manager, or salesperson, or bus driver, or just bout any other job that involves interacting with others - you probably do some teaching. And I do believe this book could help you do it that much better. The above points apply just as much to middle school teachers, as it does to someone running a sales call, or a scientist presenting his data.

Definitely worth picking up.

A book like this also cries out for some kind of mobile app. I should be able to click a button and get a random bit of advice as I'm standing and waiting for the next metro train to arrive. There's a whole class of books out there that provide wisdom, which really needs to be read a number of times, that could benefit for that sort of app.

Gotcha of the Day: Scripting a Non-Scripting Friendly Windows App

One of my clients wants to automate a process he usually has his team do manually. According to the docs, you can run the command like so:

  c:\app\foo.exe /silent input.txt

Invoking this from PHP should be trivial. Just invoke:

 exec("c:\\app\\foo.exe /silent $input");

But, there are a least two hurdles that kept this from being so simple:

(1) /silent, to the developers of this application, apparently meant "mostly silent." For reasons that I can only imagine, when you run foo.exe, it runs silently until the end, when it pops up a dialog box explaining that it's done and how many records it processed. This, of course, causes the above PHP command to hang, because the application never truly finishes. When I think about how absurd this decision was, to make /silent not really be silent, I can't help but work myself up into a rage. Amazing. What kind of amateur program would whip up an app that was almost, but purposely not, scriptable? Anyway, that's my reality, so no use in getting too upset about it.

(2) The application relies on various registry settings being properly set. Even then you can provide the input on the command line, another directory needs to be set for the /silent to work. Without having the correct registry settings, /silent is ignored, and a verbose wizard interface is launched. Exactly what you don't want to have happen from a PHP script.

Not being much of a Windows system person, I really wasn't quite sure how to attack solving this problem. I found PHP code for tweaking the registry, but the Windows dialog thing was still a road block. Until somehow, I managed to trip over AutoHotKey again. Previously, I used AutoHotKey to develop a quick shortcut for inserting the current date in Google Docs. Now I was starting to think I may be able to leverage some of the more sophisticated features.

My first solution involved AutoHotKey's SetTimer function. I attached a timer that checked every 300 milliseconds for the presence of the "all done" dialog box. When it found it, it closed it automatically. To my utter amazement, the code worked beautifully. Well, mostly beautifully. I quickly ran into the problem that running AutoHotKey from the command line was monitoring the user Ben's session, whereas, the PHP is running under the System user. That meant that just kicking off AutoHotKey as Ben, wasn't sufficient for detecting a random window in a PHP process.

After much fiddling, I arrived at a solution that I'm generally pleased with. Rather than using a timer, I have my PHP script call a single shot AutoHotKey script. This script, in turn, kicks off foo.exe. That is, my PHP file says:

 exec("c:\\apps\AutoHotKey\\AutoHotKey /f c:\\apps\foo_launcher.ahk");

And foo_launcher.ahk consists of:

;; Kick off foo.exe and deal with the Windows based annoyances that keep
;; it from being cleanly scriptable.

;; This is critical, without it, the correct window was never visible.
DetectHiddenWindows, On

Gosub Setup
Gosub Go

      , Software\Foo\Settings, LoadDirectory
      , C:\app\foo\incoming

      , Software\Foo\Settings, SaveDirectory
      , C:\app\foo\outgoing

  Run, C:\app\foo.exe /silent c:\app\foo\incoming\data.txt
  WinWait, Foo Finished

Essentially, the script starts off by setting various registry settings, kicks off foo.exe and waits around for the window to appear. When it's found, it poofs it, and we're done.

Because the script is run directly, I don't need to worry about having the the host Windows box pre-configured to use AutoHotKey. Nor do I need to worry that AutoHotKey may die and my PHP script will be broken.

A Few Words About AutoHotKey

AutoHotKey really is an amazing tool. It may be up there with tools like Netcat or Apache mod_rewrite -- terse and confusing to learn, but exceedingly powerful, and capable of being beneficial for years to come. Tasks that would be painful, like say reading and writing from the registry, are trivial in AutoHotKey. Forget Windows batch files, AutoHotKey, despite its clunky syntax, is going to be way more powerful and simpler to use.

It may also be a handy way to learn programming. That's because the emphasis is on getting stuff done, and the programming concepts become secondary to that.

It's worth learning today.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Quick and Dirty Method For Laptop Tamper Detection

Let's put on our James Bond had for a minute. You're off traveling in an exotic location, and while there you've got a romantic dinner planned with your wife (what can I say, in my universe James Bond is happily married). It would be a real downer to bring your laptop along for the evening, but if you leave it in the hotel room, how can you be sure it wasn't tampered with? Perhaps you should cancel your date?

Of course not. What you need is a simple way of detecting what, if any files, were changed while you were off smooth talking your wife. What you really want, it turns out, is Tripwire, but you want it in a Windows context. After poking around, I found a surprisingly simple (and dated?) solution to this need: FCIV: Microsoft's File Checksum Integrity Checker. This tiny little app does exactly what you'd want it to do.

First off, download FCIV and copy it to your thumb drive. Say, d:\bin. It's portable, so you don't have to worry about copying it to the thumb drive.

While you're sure the computer is in a sane state, run:

  d:\bin\fciv -add c:\ -r -xml d:\db\snapshot.xml

The above command does what you'd expect it would do - it recursively (-r) descends the C:\ drive, building up a database of checkums to a file on your thumb drive.

My laptop, which has 47Gigs of used space, took a little over an hour to index. Run this command and head off to bed.

As a bonus, I'd also suggest running regedit and going to File > Export ... to dump the registry to D: as well. That way, by dumping the registry later, and doing a diff, you can tell what's changed.

Grab the thumb drive and head out to your hot date. As long as the thumb drive is within your control, you'll be able to verify your computer later.

After the big night out, you'd return to your computer, plug in the thumb drive and enter:

  d:\bin\fciv -v -xml d:\db\snapshot.xml

This command runs the verification routine. It will again scan all of C:\ and this time spit out what has changed. Again, this isn't exactly fast, but it'll get the job done.

The good news is that no matter which files get changed, you'll get notified about them. Also, you're running the command from your thumb drive, so there's no way for an attacker to mess with fciv itself, a neat little trick which would have made this all for naught.

But, with that said, an attacker may have installed his own nefarious version of cmd.exe or some performed some other wicked trick that I can't even imagine. So alas, if you were really a super agent, you wouldn't want to use the above technique. At the very least, you'd need to boot your computer into a safe (maybe read-only) operating system, and check it there. However, if you're a mere mortal like myself, and just want to know what files an installation of software may have tweaked, or what files get modified when a particular command is run, fciv is handy. And who knows, one day you may find yourself in a situation where you want to do tamper detection on a computer, and this little hack may be better than nothing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tips for Installing Flash Media Server on Amazon's EC2

Last night I installed Flash Media Server on an Amazon EC2 server. While the instructions are for the most part helpful, I did run into a couple of unusual snags:

  1. Despite what I thought I read in the docs, Flash Media Server apparently requires a 64bit system. When I attempted to install it on a 32bit system, I received an error about 'i686' not being a valid architecture. This is easy enough in Amazon - just fire up a 64Bit server and move on with life. Still, I could have done without losing the time spent configuring the 32bit system.
  2. I used the standard Amazon AMI: Basic 64-bit Amazon Linux AMI 2011.09 (AMI Id: ami-7341831a) to start my instance. When running the installer it complained about a missing libcap library. A quick check using rpm -qa | grep libcap showed that the library was indeed installed. However, with a bit more investigation I learned that the binaries that come with FMS require version 1.0 of this library. I ran: sudo yum install compat-libcap1 to install this library, and the install proceeded as expected.
  3. Although the documentation tried to warn me about how an Apache instance comes with FWS, I didn't quite get that (I assumed it would work with installed Apache server). Your best bet is to avoid installing httpd on the server altogether (the Basic AMI doesn't come with it, so just don't bother installing it). That way, you won't run into issues with one instance of Apache stealing the port from another instance.
  4. For the FWS demos to properly work, you'll want the following inbound ports open in your security group: 80 (for http), 1111 (for admin) and 1935 (for rtmp - live video).

Other than those gotchas, the install went smoothly. And more importantly, I'm quite impressed by FWS's capabilities. There was a time when this sort of video integration would have been a herculean effort. Now it's just a matter of writing some ActionScript.

Gotcha of the day: Emacs SVN support breaks with SVN 1.7

Early tonight, I upgraded my Cygwin install, which gave me access to SVN 1.7. No biggie, right? I went to run my usually set of SVN commands, and got a warning about how I needed to run svn upgrade before I could continue.

Nervous, but yet determined to move forward with the latest set of tools, I ran svn upgrade on one of my source trees. Nothing particularly exotic happened. As I had hoped, svn continued to function as normally.

That is, until I typed svn-status in emacs. At which point, emacs loudly complained: foo is not Subversion controlled (missing .svn directory). Run dired instead?. D'oh!

Apparently, Subversion 1.7 does away with the convention of storing metadata in individual .svn directories. This is probably a good thing, though by now I'm so used to this, I can't really say I'm glad they made this call. All I know is that psvn.el, one of the standard svn modes is now broken. Life without functioning Subversion inside of emacs is miserable indeed.

At first I tried to remove the various checks for .svn directories in the psvn.el source code. But I quickly got over my head. For plan B, I decided I would try an alternate emacs mode: dsvn. Fortunately, dsvn.el doesn't depend on .svn directories, and so it handled the new layout just fine.

For the most part, dsvn appears to be a drop in replacement for psvn -- though the *-* (select all modified) command I was used to running doesn't appear to exist. Still, I should be able to add that in if I really need to.

Bottom line: I've got emacs and Subversion 1.7 back to playing nice. Crisis averted. Whew.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

99% Stories

I suppose I'm still taking in the whole Occupy Wall Street movement. Is it just the Left adopting the Right's Tea Party tactics? Is that even a bad thing?

Take We Are The 99 Percent - a site that records people's personal stories in the movement. I read them, and I'm heart broken.

I admit it, part of me (the optimist, no doubt) wants to tell these people to get their acts together and take responsibility for their situation. And then part of me wonders if perhaps the deck really is stacked against these people. Maybe all the ingenuity in the world wouldn't get me out of the pickle many of them are in.

Forget taking sides, I think I'm just going to ponder for a while.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pumpkin Picking with a Purpose

Want to get into the Halloween spirit and feel good about doing it? If you're in the Northern Virginia area, stop by Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill and grab your pumpkin there. The story behind the pumpkin patch is impressive. The church gives half of each pumpkin sale to the Indian reservation that grows them (apparently, from New Mexico), and the other half go to local charities in the area. According to the person I spoke with yesterday, the church doesn't keep any of the sale.

So, go ahead and do at least one thing for Halloween you can feel good about.

Difficult Run, Proving Difficult to Hike

Previously, Shira and I were close to hiking Difficult Run, but instead opted to explore the Cross Country Tail. Yesterday, we again made an attempt at the hike,but this time, found that the trail was closed due to weather.

Luckily, we noticed a trail head for Great Falls Park as we were making our way back to our car. The map seemed clear enough, so we decided we'd hike around. It turned out to be a smart move, as the hiking was quite nice. The leaves are changing, so there was a whole smattering of color - from bright green to dark brown.

The park offers some ruins you can explore, which always appeal to me (history, history, history!). We also caught a glimpse of the river below, and it was gorgeous. While the woods were fun to trudge through, I'm eager to come back and hike around the river.

Great Falls is definitely a gem in the area. And Difficult Run trail will have to continue to wait.

View A Hike Through Great Falls Park in a larger map

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Super Simple Amazon Affiliate Integration

A while back I signed up with Amazon's Affiliate program. I wasn't expecting to rake in lots of cash, but I figured, as long as I link to Amazon (as I frequently do when I mention a physical item), I might as well get some sort of credit for it.

After signing up, I fiddled around with various link builders, to try to connect my my blog with Amazon. Unfortunately, the HTML that the links produced always looked out of place. And besides, it was a pain to go through the link building process. I rather just copy and paste the link from Amazon and move on with life. So, I more or less forgot about the program.

Then, a couple weeks back, I had a client who asked me about using the Advertising API. One of the take-aways from that project is that integration with Amazon doesn't need to be nearly as painful as I originally had thought.

Here's all you need to do to setup an affiliate link to Amazon:

  • Figure out what your tracking ID is. Once you log in over at Amazon, this is prominently displayed.
  • Copy and paste the normal link to to the product on Amazon. Something like:
  • And now for the magic: append &tag=TRACKING_ID to the URL. The above link becomes:

That's all there is to it. Who knew that all those fancy link builders I was tripping over was adding a single parameter to the URL?

Should be that easy.

A First Longish Bikeshare Bike Ride

Yesterday, I had my first long'ish bike ride using the local bikeshare bikes. Shira went off to the gym for an hour, and I hit the road.

I managed to cover around 9 miles in about an hour. Far more than I would accomplish while running, though for a real cyclist, probably not much of a feat.

I spent time in bike lanes (which I now appreciate more than ever), in traffic, on the sidewalk, and for much of the ride, on trails. In many respect, the trails were more treacherous than the road. With runners and walkers to dodge, and bike traffic whizzing by, and a narrow strip of asphalt to work with, it's a miracle there aren't more accidents. Of course, this was mostly my own dang fault, as I managed to get myself on the Mount Vernon trail near DCA airport, which even I know is usually quite congested. I should have stuck to 4 Mile Run trail, which in my experience, has less traffic.

This was definitely a mental workout more than a physical one. I did a couple of relatively small hills, and found that the Bikeshare bikes did managed to let me up them (leveraged all 3 speeds, baby!) and man, was that a workout. But, I felt like I was comfortably cruising along for most of the ride. I guess they aren't called comfort bikes for nothing. On the mental side, there was always some obstacle I needed to keep an eye out for. I can definitely see some advantages to throwing the bike in a car, driving into the country, and taking a nice relaxing cruise where traffic/other bikers aren't going to be in your face.

All in all, though, this was a lot of fun. I'm not sure substituting an hour of biking for an hour of running is going to make sense from an exercise perspective -- but from a good-times perspective, this was a no brainer.

Here's the route I covered:

View A First Longish Bike Ride in a larger map

If you haven't tried the bikeshare setup yet, it's definitely worth a shot.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Scribbling with Light

Last night, I accompanied my friend Greg as he demonstrated his impressive creative skills in the night photography arena. While I was there to be his loyal assistant (in theory, fighting off bum and Capital police alike, as he took cool long exposure shots), I couldn't help busting out my own camera to try my hand at drawing with light.

The results were quite eh. Nothing impressive, but I'm sure glad I got to try. And I've got some ideas for next time, too.

The Lumix TZ50, does come with the ability to shoot 15, 30 and 60 second exposures. But, I found that it was just too dang sensitive, and most of my shots had too much light in them. Still, what do you want for a budget pocket camera?

Try It, You'll Like It: Moth Radio

Every now and then, I'll be in the car, listening to PRX and I'll hear a story from The Moth. I finally got around to adding their subscription to Google Listen, and so now I get regularly updated stories on my Android. Today's stories included one about fatherhood and one about friendship - both delivered most excellently.

Here's how you can consume these stories:

  • On your laptop/desktop via: the website and YouTube
  • On your Android device: open up Google Listen, search for "The Moth", add a subscription. Enjoy.
  • Via iTunes, of course.
  • Bonus: you can contribute your own story on their site, too

It's really entertaining radio and storytelling.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Capital Bikeshare and Adventures in learning to ride a bike

Back in 2008 I remarked how cool it would be if we had a bike sharing program like we saw in Barcelona. For some time now, a similar program, Capital Bikeshare has been available, and today we finally bit the bullet and gave it a try.

There's only one minor detail which has kept us from trying the service earlier: Shira hadn't ridden a bike since she was 12, and even then, it was only a couple of times. Not that I'd had so much biking experience either.

We rented from a bike stand at 15th st. and Hayes in Pentagon City, which turned out to be the perfect location. There's a park there with a decent sized parking lot, which had a turn around area we could practice in. The actual rental process took just a couple minutes. The hardest part was figuring out how to unlock the bikes. I entered the correct code, but it took me a time or two to figure out how I needed to lift the handlebars to get the bike out.

As the old saying suggests, I was able to get on the bike and within a few seconds, it all came back to me. I'm not ready to take on the Tour, but I was steady enough to head out for a day's worth of biking.

Shira, on the other hand, was effectively starting from scratch. In about 10 minutes, we went from me walking next to her providing some support, to her soloing around. Sure, a 7 year old on a dirt bike came by that put us both to shame. But, it's amazing how quickly Shira was able to figure out this biking thing. Another couple practice sessions and we'll be good to.

So far, I really like the Bikeshare concept. The bikes are nice and solid, comfortable to ride, and most importantly, not something I need to maintain.

Founding Farmers and a visit to the White House

We met our good friends in from out of town at Founding Farmers, a trendy brunch spot in DC. I was a little skeptical that it was going to be more hype than taste, but I was wrong to be concerned. I had poached eggs with leek and beat hash browns, and I've got to admit, it was mighty delicious. They also have an impressive vegan menu, which we didn't see - but that may have been because it was brunch time. Shira and I would definitely go back, especially to try something from the vegan menu.

After brunch, we made our way down to the White House. It was fairly quiet down there, with only the usual smattering of tourists. Apparently all the protesters were out for brunch.

Definitely a great way to spend a Sunday morning.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Upgrading your brain: A quick path to learning shorthand

Last night, during a bout of insomnia (thankfully, a rare occurrence), I Googled Learn Shorthand, and found my way to this overview of various short hand methods. See, I've always had this theory that rather than upgrading the latest device out there, maybe I should just upgrade my brain. I nearly always carry a notepad around, and being able to take notes in it faster and more reliably would be huge.

I remember looking at the back of a steno notepad and being fascinated by the various squiggles that made up Gregg Shorthand. The above link finally explained what they were all about:

John Robert Gregg devised the most famous of alternative systems in 1888. All lines are of the same thickness, position relative to a line is irrelevant so lined paper is not needed, and awkward diacritical marks are avoided though not abscent. Gregg Shorthand won out over Pitman Shorthand in America, and was widely taught in public schools as an essential skill needed by office workers to take dictation. Many books are available, and most public libraries in America will have copies. Unfortunately, Gregg Shorthand is only a shorthand system; you can only write outlines of words. If you write something and then immediately transcribe it, as secretaries tend to do, then no major problem, but if you try to read something you wrote last year, then a major effort may be needed to decipher it, unless, that is, you have so mastered the system that you can sight read thousands of brief forms.

Outlines of words? Thousands of brief forms? Yikes. And this isn't even the most complex system. Pitman shorthand, developed in 1837, "is based on geometrical curves and lines in varying lengths and angles written on lined paper. Lines are also written thin or thick using a special flexible fountain pen tip, though a pencil will work. " Again, yikes.

Further down the page I read about alphabetic shorthand:

Most systems consist of rules for abbreviating words together with memorized abbreviations. If the rules are consistently applied, they can be reversed to decode your notes. These systems have the advantage of working with both pen and paper, and with keyboards. Word processing software, such as Word, could possibly be set up to decode and expand words as you type which would allow you to speed type.

Now we're talking. One of the systems mentioned is Speedwriting, which I realized, I had actually encountered a number of years back. While browsing books at my in-laws house, I found a Speedwriting study guide, which not only explained Speedwriting was all about, but provided exercises you could try out. (Which, to my mother-in-law's credit, she had completed!). I had forgotten, until last night, just how cool the system is.

While the rules for Speedwriting can get complex, it's structured as a series of principles that build on each other. In theory, you could just practice the first few, and where needed, fall back on long hand. Here they are:

  1. Forget all silent letters - just write exactly what you hear: are = r, known = no
  2. Leave short vowels out - only write long vowels like 'a' as in 'May'; 'e' as in 'eat';'i' as in 'ice'; 'o' as in 'own'; 'u' as in 'you': sail = sal, own = on
  3. Always write a vowel that's at the beginning of a word: off = of, if = if
  4. Write k for the sound 'k', or hard 'c' as in 'cut': case = kas, lock = lk
  5. Write j for the sound 'j', or soft 'g' as in 'age': judge = jj, college = klj
  6. Write ch for the sound 'ch': cheap = cep, touch = tc
  7. Write m and w without the middle bar (so M looks like an arc, W looks like a bowl)
  8. Don't cross t's or dot i's.
  9. Distinguish a T from an L by having the l loops, and the t be a straight line
  10. Mark the end of a sentence with a backslash: \

Of course, there's more, but with just those rules, you can already make impressive gains in how much briefer you can write and type. I also found it helpful to refer to this digram which reminds me how to make cursive lettering (so that's what a capital T looks like who knew?).

As a bonus, by using shorthand, your notes will almost certainly be illegible to others. It's about as secure a system as rot13, but should keep most prying eyes away.

All of a sudden, the abbreviations teens have come up with for texting, take on a whole new meaning and value. Not to long ago, these kids would have had to take a course to teach them shorthand, instead, they've invited their own.

Update: Two useful resources: (1) A comparison between handwriting vs machine transcript, and (2) a video of someone doing shorthand at 100 words per minute. Amazing, I can't imagine how one does that! (That's using the Handywrite system, not the Speedwriting from above).

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Review: Sea to Summit Ultrasil Daypack

I love my Flip & Tumble reusable bag. It's the perfect blend of compact and durable. Toss it in your pocket, and you've got a reliable extra bag you can count on. There's only one area where it's a flop: it fails the Wife will be seen in public while I use it test. Sure, it's fine for groceries. And maybe for carrying books back from the library. But as a general purposes bag, uh, no thank you. Too close to a purse, I suppose.

On the lookout for a more versatile replacement, I decided to give the Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Daypack a try. It's a backpack, so it got Shira's seal of approval off the bat. It's also wonderfully compact. I can drop it in a cargo-shorts pocket and there's a minimal amount of bulge. The only thing that jumped out as an issue was the thin little straps. It's hard to tell, but they really are quite narrow:

I thought, there's just no way this bag is going to hold up. And yet, it has. It's totally become my favorite bag.

The volume, 20 liters, seems just right for typical everyday carry. I can toss it my pocket as we head out of the house, and fill it with library books, or a few items from the store. And if I don't end filling it, it's tiny enough that it really doesn't matter. The material is impressively strong. I've used it for day hikes where I carried a 2 liter bladder and various other outdoorsy stuff. Yesterday, I brought it to a conference and filled it with my netbook and portable office, my urban "survival" kit, a water bottle (a Vapur collapsible bottle, another item worthy of a rave review), and a snack. As you can see, the bag nicely swallows up the contents:

When I arrived at the conference, they handed me a messenger bag (mostly for scwhag, but also a vehicle for conference materials). I was able to drop the daypack right in the messenger bag, and be on my way. If I had brought a larger bag, I would have probably end up carrying around both.

I've tried other foldable backpacks in the past. But they usually suffer from one of two problems: either they don't fold down that small, and so the fact that its packable isn't really of much use, or it is compact, but rips easily because the material is so flimsy. From what I can tell, Sea to Summit cracked the problem and found a way to deliver the best of both worlds.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

How Kosher Are Drone Attacks?

Obama and Dick Cheney agree that it was OK to kill Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone attack. Dennis Kucinich, about as far away on the political spectrum as possible, both thing it was wrong and illegal. Heck, Ron Paul is talking about impeaching Obama over the incident.

This certainly makes for interesting reading. And it's always a little amusing to see people who normally disagree, link up on a topic. What it doesn't do, however, is help you understand the actual nuances of the case in question.

I did some poking around, and did find some useful resources. I share them here in the spirit of treating this issue like it should be: a complex one that needs to be understood from a multitude of angles.

First off, here's the transcript of a speech given by Harold Koh, a lawyer for the Obama administration. He gave it back in March of 2010, and specifically addresses some of the legal issues behind drone based targeted killings. Agree with it or not, at least it's spelled out. Here's a Rise of The Drones II: Examining the Legality of Unmanned Targeting to be surprisingly riveting (transcript is here). It was held back in April of 2010, and they specifically discuss the possibility of targeting Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone. The experts on the panel show just how divided the legal pros are on this. Some see no problem with the administration's strategy, as outlined by Koh, others see it as obviously flawed. I'm still making my way through the all the videos of the hearings, but the topic of citizenship was brought up and there seems to be some agreement that it's not the issue which the legality of drone attacks pivots on. In other words, if you believe it's OK to use drones in this type of context, the fact that the person you're targeting is an American citizen isn't really a roadblock. On the other hand, if you think that it's not a valid use of force, then the fact that the target is American or not isn't really relevant.

The hearings are on YouTube and I'll embed them below. Definitely worth a watch.

The Case for Non-Smart Phones

Last night at dinner, we enacted one of those favorite rituals you go through with older-generations (and, incidentally, my brother's girlfriend): laughing at their ridiculously out-dated phones. A flip phone? No data plan? A 1 megapixel camera? No apps? Ha! Even Grandpa's phone, with its voice recognition technology, is fancier! How do you survive? Sure, as pastimes go this is mostly harmless. But, I never quite feel right getting in on the action.

One classic reason why a dumb-phone is preferable over a smart-phone is articulated here: Why I Dumped My iPhone--And I'm Not Going Back. Basically, if you aren't careful, your soul will get swallowed up in all this technology. Before you know it you're paying more attention to a 2x3 inch screen than you are to the people around you.

And of course, there's the old I don't want to have to learn something new argument, which, I suppose I can also appreciate.

But, from my perspective, neither of these arguments really hold much sway. Nope, for me, using a dumb-phone is all about the Hawthore Effect. The Hawthore Effect goes like this:

The term was coined in 1950 by Henry A. Landsberger when analysing older experiments from 1924-1932 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if its workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made and slumped when the study was concluded.

In other words, if you tweaked the work conditions one way (making it brighter), productivity improved, and you tweaked it the opposite way (making it dimmer), it also improved. The point wasn't the content of the change, but the fact that workers were trying something new.

I think switching styles of phones also falls into this pattern. Switch to a dumb phone and you get the benefit of not having technology weigh you down. Switch to a smart phone, and real problems (like, when is the next Metro train arriving), are solved.

As long as you have the right sense of adventure, then I say switch. You may just see a benefit. Of course, it works both ways. So, yeah, upgrade that old crufty phone to the latest model and enjoy. Or, take the retro approach, and get back to simplicity. It's all about your mindset, not the hardware.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Rejoicing in the new Linux Journal digital edition

I've been subscribing to the Linux journal for more than a decade. Until recently, I could grab an old copy off my bookshelf and flip through the Good Old days. Every once in a while I'd considered giving up my subscription - do I really need more paper delivered to my house? How relevant are most of the articles to me? But, inevitably, there would be some tidbit of information or a lead on a new bit of technology which would make it all worth while. From basic shell scripting (about 10 years ago), to Facebook apps, to jQuery, I've found the Linux Journal gives me just enough info to introduce me to a topic and get me on my way, without information overload.

So, I was a bit sad when they recently switched to digital only versions. The cool thing about magazines is the space they create for serendipity. Online, I'm often searching/filter what I'm reading. Which means that I find what I'm looking for, but not what might be truly useful. But with Linux Journal or Wired magazine, I'm forced to open my eyes to topics I didn't even know I was interested in. The effect can be quite powerful.

Would the digital version of Linux Journal really give me that same opportunity? At first I didn't think so. Was I really going to page through a PDF on my computer? Almost certainly not. But, as I downloaded my first digital copy of the Journal I realized that they are offering it in epub format, too. Then it hit me, the digital version of Linux Journal would make the ideal companion for my Android. Its high quality content I can pre-load and read at my leisure. Because of its standalone nature, it's accessible when the Network isn't - on airplanes, the subway, etc.

I get my space for serendipity *and* instant access. I'm thinking this could actually be useful.

Reading the Linux Journal on Android

Not sure if this is the best experience for reading the Linux Journal, but it seems to work for me:

  1. Install Aldiko eBook reader. It's free
  2. Download the .epub version of the Linux Journal. I downloaded the file named dlj210.epub
  3. Attach your Android to your computer via USB
  4. When prompted by your Android, click Turn on USB storage
  5. Open up Windows Explorer and browse over to the drive where your Android SD card can be found
  6. In a near useless attempt to keep things on the SD card organized, I created the directory D:\Content\Magazines\Linux Journal
  7. Copy the .epub file into this directory
  8. Unplug your Android, or turn off USB Storage
  9. Fire up Aldiko
  10. Click on the Home icon in the top left hand corner
  11. Click on SD Card
  12. Navigate to Content\Magazines\Linux Journal
  13. Click the checkmark next to the .epub .epub file
  14. Click Import ot Aldiko

At this point, the magazine is imported and you can read it like any other resources.

Now go, be inspired!