Friday, June 29, 2012

Alaskan Adventure: Day 4

Day 4 was spent in Skagway, a former gold mining town that now mainly exists as a tourist destination. The town is about 30 x 5 blocks, so it's tiny to say the least. Usually a town of this size would be little more than a tourist trap. However, from my perspective, Skagway pulls off being a place you'd actually want to see. Yes, there's lots of souvenir shops, but they seem to contain some actual Alaskan products, versus the Made In China stuff you'd usually find. There's also colorful history, cute looking buildings and a fairly expansive set of trails you can hike to bypass the entire tourist scene.

Most of the day, however, wasn't spent in Skagway. Instead, we splurged on a cruise excursion. The excursion was named something like the "Wildlife Cruise and Safari." What it turned out to be was an exploration of the Davidson Glacier. This involved a 45 minute boat trip, a bus ride and a canoe trip, all which put us within 50 feet or so of a very impressive glacier. Along with an up close view of the glacier, we saw a couple of whales and a whole heap of sea lions.

With the exception of lunch, everything about the excursion was top notch. Getting a whole group of people from the cruise ship to the glacier was non-trivial, and the tour company did it smoothly. Apparently, there's a Kosher Cruise being run on our boat, so about 1/2 of our group (if not more) were obviously fellow Member's of the Tribe. So yeah, it was a bit silly to serve us all Turkey and Cheese sandwiches.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the glacier, next to the sheer beauty of course, is how quickly it's disappearing. In just 10 years, the glacier has receded a massive distance. In fact, that's a common theme among all the glaciers we've seen. It really is true, if you want to see these wonders, you better get here soon.

But don't worry, I took about 780 photos on day 4, so if you can't make it to the glacier in person, my photos should have you covered.

Once we made it back to Skagway, Shira and I took our own little excursion to the Gold Rush Cemetery at the edge of town. It's exactly the kind of quirky site that I love to explore, and had a beautiful waterfall as an extra bonus.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Alaskan Adventure: Hello from Glacier Bay

A short video shot while at Glacier Bay in front of Margerie Glacier. The video doesn't do the glacier justice. It's a mile wide and 20+ miles long. Photos to follow.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Alaskan Adventure: Day 3

Day #3 was a day of firsts. The first, first: I had my very first massage. We're celebrating our 14 year(!) wedding anniversary this trip, and Shira thought it would be romantic to have a couple's message. The whole notion of a stranger rubbing me pretty much freaked me out - what if I hated it? What if I loved it? What the heck, it sounded romantic, why not give it a try?

Apparently, I missed the memo where I was explained just how painful massage is. The goal of a message, apparently, is to collect all the lactic acid from a particular part of your muscle into a tight little ball, and then rub it till it dissipates, which meant that I spent a good bit of the massage groaning - and not good groaning either. In the end, it was a fun and romantic adventure, but I truly don't see the appeal.

At 2pm, our boat docked in Juneau, where we were met with an overcast and rainy day. Hardly perfect weather, but that's life in Southeast Alaska, we're told. We got off the boat and made it to our second first of the day: Mendenhall Glacier.

Wow. Our photos just don't do this natural wonder justice. The glacier really is a massive river of blue ice. We took a 3+ mile hike around the surrounding area, which was also gorgeous. The area is a rainforest, but not the type we're used to seeing in the tropics.

As we were walking back to the bus, directly across from the visitor center, we saw a crowd gathered with cameras out. We quickly joined, and sure enough, there was a relatively small black bear about 10 feet off into the woods. There was a park ranger standing next to me, and as as long as she wasn't concerned, I wasn't either.

How typical is it: you hike through miles and miles of pristine wilderness, and then see the bear across from the visitor center?

After the glacier we explored Juneau, but it was really too wet and cold to wander too far.

All in all, and amazing day.

Alaskan Adventure: Day 2

You might think that day #2, spent at sea, would be one spent lounging around and perhaps reading. Not, so. The ship had plenty of activities for us to get involved in, and we couldn't resist doing so.

This included: an abs workout class, a run around the boat's jogging deck, a trip to the spa, cup cake decorating, a total body fitness class, playing Deal or No Deal, watching a Frankie Valli tribute and playing along with the Newlywed Game.

The weather partially cooperated, but there wasn't a whole lot to see. I'm convinced that I saw a whale when I looked out our porthole in the morning, but chances are, it was just seaweed or my imagination.

All in all, a fun day of activities as we waited to hit our first port.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Alaskan Adventure: Day 1

I'm writing this post from the library of the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl. In front of me is water as far as the eye can see, with light cloud cover and the silhouette of mountains in the distance. I haven't got the foggiest idea where I am, or what land may be in front of me. And I'm totally cool with that. I do know that tomorrow we arrive in Juneau, Alaska. But, today is just a relaxing day at sea.

Our Alaskan Adventure all began Sunday morning, when we kicked around Seattle for a few hours. What a lovely downtown, filled with great places to explore (including the Olympic Sculpture Garden, Pike Place Market and the tiny-but-cute waterfall garden). Then, off it was to the port where we checked our luggage and made our way onto the ship. Given the volume of people boarding, it was done in a relatively orderly fashion.

A few years back, Shira and I cruised on Norwegian and loved it, so it was the natural choice for our second cruise. What's surprised us this trip is just how similar this ship is to the one cruised on in the Western Mediterranean. Everything is in the same spots, the services offered are essentially the same (but now we've got bowling alley, whoo!) - heck many of the venues have the exact same names. Even the flow of activities seem about the same. This has all made for a wonderfully familiar feeling. While it's exciting to be cruising, it doesn't have some of the stress we had the first time trying to get oriented.

So far, the accommodations have been great. Our stateroom is totally adequate, and the food--with the exception of some truly unimpressive soft serve ice cream--has been quite good. I've taken about a bazillion photos, but there really hasn't been much to see yet. Just lots of open water.

All in all, things are going great. The goal of this day at sea was to kick back and relax, and that's what we're managing to do. Tomorrow, when we get off the boat, I can go into find-a-way-to-overdo-it mode. But for now, my biggest dilemma is figuring out which few photos I'm going to post to the blog (considering the slow Internet connectivity).

Friday, June 22, 2012

Raspberry Pi - Techie Yummyness

I finally got around to discovering the Raspberry Pi project - and boy is it a fun one. It's along the same lines as my beloved OLPC project. That is, it's a charity organization that wants to get computers into the hands of kids for educational purposes. (There's also plenty of differences between the projects).

The Raspberry Pi is tiny, about the size of a credit card, and dirty cheap - just $35. Though, it's just the core computer and needs you to provide a keyboard and monitor among other things. It's the ultimate geek project, and I have the urge to buy one Just Because.

Here, see it in action:

Seems to me, that whether they intended it or not, they dodged some of issues that plagued the OLPC project, including:

  • Not allowing the marketing to outpace the technology. The technology behind the OLPC was amazing. But, not as amazing as the polished marketing effort made it look. The result: lots of disappointed owners. Selling the Pi as just a raw circuit board is brilliant: it speaks loudly and clearly that this is great technology, but don't expect polish (yet).
  • The devices are getting into the right hands. Again, because of the bare bones look, it's tech geeks that are going to be drawn to this thing. And that's a good thing, because at this stage, that's who needs to be playing with it. A general user would just get frustrated.

Two more thoughts:

1. Getting computers into the hands of kids to teach programming is among the most noble causes in the world. But, the reality is, it's us software developers who need to be working on creative solutions to do this. The hardware, while sexy and amazing, is the easy part. Coming up with a software pack and course work, now that's truly tricky territory. The Racket folks have made some excellent progress in this department, it seems.

2. I love the notion of a kid having his own computer, even one he plugs and sets up himself. It takes some of the mystery out of the process, and reminds them that this isn't some magic box. There's also a sort of ownership that goes with it. To that end, you could actually simulate something like the Raspberry Pi by running Linux on a thumb drive. Again, it becomes the child's computer, even if isn't exactly all their hardware.

All in all, a most excellent project. And more importantly, when is it going to boot up into a Scheme machine?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Just Might Be The Perfect Desk

I give you the Notepad Desk:

A desk that consists of a gigantic notepad placed on a table. That's just too awesome.

The only tweak I'd consider is replacing the notepad with a whiteboard surface. Thing is, this is actually probably trivial to do. Just use this showerboard hack. Heck, I've already got the boring old folding table ask desk thing going...

Seriously, next trip to Home Depot, I'm bringing some whiteboard markers and my table measurements.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Watching A Pro At Work

Been quite a few weeks for our friends the 4 Boys. First Caleb Graduates (actually, that was his second commencement we attended, the first one was here - holy smokes, I'm old!), and now Brady is having his Bar Mitzvah! Back to back simchas, what more can one ask for?

Today, I stopped by the shul to catch the boys doing their rehearsal and to watch our friend Erin shoot the photos (yeah, that friend Erin). It was all so official, and brought back vague memories of my own Bar Mitzvah.

My parents always had this philosophy about the photos of events like this. Once they're captured, the event is effectively over. Sure, the Bar Mitzvah actually has to happen, but years from now, it'll be the photos you refer to, and that will shape how you saw the event. So, once the photos are done, you can take a deep breath, the hard part is done. It's a philosophy I've tried to embrace.

Even though I had every intention of staying out of the way, I couldn't resist at least snapping a few photos of Erin at work.

While Brady was getting photographed, Forrest wandered to the lectern and did his best Conservative Rabbi impression. Frankly, I've got to say he nailed it. I'm not sure if he should be a Rabbi, actor, or perhaps both. See what I mean?

Google Spreadsheets - Automatic Unit Detection?

Earlier today, I was working with a Google Spreadsheet that contained a column of numbers. In one row I entered 50Yd, which the Spreadsheet formatted as text. No surprise there. In another row I entered 10ft, which Google reformatted as 10 Ft and right aligned like a number.

See this example:

See, =isnumber(10ft) is true.

Is it just me, or did Google detect the units on this number? All the other suffixes I tried (in, yd, mi) seemed to fail to trigger this capability. I was really hoping that I could add up various units and have the spreadsheet do the correct math. But alas, this doesn't work. Yet.

A randomly anomaly? Easter egg? Indication of what's to come? What do you make of it?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Intertsection of Book Burning and Blogging Your Lunch

There's not much book burning and blogging your lunch have in common. One is both evil and vile, while the other is considered the ultimate waste of space on the Internet. Turns out, their both excellent ways to make change happen.

Check these stories out: Leo Burnett Detroit Saves Local Library by Threatening Book Burning and Nine-Year-Old's Cafeteria Food Blog Goes Viral.

Both are stories of small taking on, and winning against big. Brilliant, all around.

You don't even have to read the book burning story, you can catch it all on this 3 minute video right here:

And who would have ever thought a 9 year could have raised $134,000 in charity?

Sometimes the Internet is truly awesome.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Snippet of The Class Play and Sing-along

Today I attended our 7 year old's class play and sing-along. Oooh, I wish I could post some video and pictures. It was so, so, so adorable. But alas, you're going to have to use your imagination instead.

Here's the audio from one of the songs they sang:

There's the future folks, and they're all on their way to being marine biologists.

Update: Here's another audio clip. Teaching kids about recycling -- what kind of socialist-hippie-values school is this?!

Blueberry Picking and Exploring Theodore Roosevelt Island

Yesterday we spent another fun and productive day at Butler's Orchard, this time picking blueberries. The blueberries were oh so plump and delicious. Our 7 year old was a picking maven, filling up the bucket with quality berries just as fast as Shira was (of course, I was too busy taking photos to have time to pick berries).

In the afternoon, myself our little one hit up Theodore Roosevelt Island for a little next door nature.

All in all, it was a perfect day.

The Second Best Part of an Edible Arrangements

The best part, of course, is the fruit. Yum! Thanks to my Mother-in-law for the arrangement - it was delicious!

The second best part, is that the arrangement is built using about 300 little plastic sticks. Disassemble the arrangement, run them through the dishwasher, and bam! you've got some fun building materials.

My first thought was to put my pioneering merit badge skills to use:

Not too shabby, right?

Our seven year old, however, decided that they could be joined together with masking tape - which actually worked quite a bit better than string. From there, he put together a single family home:

It's amazing what you can accomplish with plastic sticks, masking tape, construction paper and imagination.

Shira even got in on the action and helped construct a bridge, which made an appearance as part of our larger Jenga project:

NOTE: all photos were taken by our 7 year old - he's on his way to being the photographer, if I do say so myself.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Altoids Tin to the Rescue - A Math Games Surivival Kit

So I'm totally sold on the power of Games for Math to help teach our 7 year old various mathematical concepts. And, I'm also in love with packaging up gear (especially in Altoids tins). So it was a natural idea to mix the two together.

So here you go, the core items needed to play most of the games in Game for Math. Of course, being an Altoids Tin, it's compact enough to take anywhere.

  • A sheet of stickers
  • A 6 sided die
  • Quarters, Nickles, Dimes and Pennies
  • The tin itself
  • 20 colored paper clips
  • 20 index cards, cut to fit
  • A 10cm and 10in piece of string, with a black mark for each inch or centemeter
  • Not shown: a tissue stuffed into the top to keep the items from moving around and making noise

Using these simple items, you can play counting, measuring, arithmetic more games.

If I really had it together, I would create a Google Spreadsheet that named each game and gave a quick synopsis to remind one how to play. Like other books I've read, this one cries out for a mobile app to go along with it. The app wouldn't need to do anything more then recount each game, but still, that would be a huge help.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hiking Gear Checklist - Retro Edition

I admit it, I love me a good gear list. Even a retro one. The one below is taken from The Boy Mechanic, a book I couldn't resist renting from the library. The Boy Mechanic chronicles old Popular Mechanics articles, mainly to remind unsuspecting readers just how pathetic we are nowadays (What? You can't make your own steamer trunk for travel? What's wrong with you?).

Camping in the early 1900's was in many respects quite a different affair than it is today. For one thing, setting up camp meant cutting down a good bit of lumber to create your tent and other structures. And hunting and fishing was all but assumed. Most of the gear looks painfully heavy to schlep, but still, it's fun to browse through and definitely has inspiration value.

Below is what we'd probably term a Personal Survival Kit or PSK. Here's the explanation:

The woodsman well knows that it is an easy matter to stray farther from camp then he intended to when starting out, and that it is a common enough occurrence to lose one's bearings and become temporarily lost. To prepare for this possible emergency and spend a comfortable night away from camp, he carries in his pockets a little packet of useful articles and stows away a tiny package containing a small amount of nutritious food.

And here it is, the recommended gear list:

  • Soup tablets
  • A piece of summer sausage
  • Some tea

Naturally, this is wrapped up in an "oiled silk" and packed in a flat tin box. (Even then, Altoids Tins were essential equipment.)

Gear Pouch contains:

  • Fishing line
  • Finishing hooks
  • 1 ft. of surgeon's adhesive plaster
  • Need and thread
  • Safety pins
  • Coil of copper or brass wire

Pockets and Belt contains:

  • Rife & cartridges
  • Knife
  • Match safe
  • Compass
  • Map
  • Pipe
  • Tobacco
  • A little money
  • Lightweight axe or Tomahawk
  • Tin cup

In some respects, that's not too terribly far off from what I carry on a somewhat serious hike. Though, my absolutely minimum kit these days consists of:

Of course, that's assuming I'm hiking in a place where there's a good bit of traffic and civilization isn't far off.

It sure would feed the ego carrying a Tomahawk on my hip, though I can't imagine it would be of any use. Well, other than hurting myself with it of course.

Update: Earlier today I was reading about a recommended way to create a quick shelter. Just find an Evergreen tree, and chop it most of the way down, about 5 feet from the ground. The result will be a big o'l tree laying on its side that you can pull branches from to create a shelter. A clever idea and a good use for a hatchet, but oh my gosh, think of the amount of damage one hiker is causing. Yikes.

A Moment To Kvell - Watching One Of The 4 Boys Graudate

What a thrill is was watching our friend Caleb, one of the 4 Boys graduate from high school. In some respects, I felt like High School graduation was just yesterday. Me in my shorts and sneakers (with a gown over it, who cares what you where underneath, right?), at the Eastman Theater, I can actually picture it pretty clearly in my mind.

On the other hand, as I was walking across the stage to accept my diploma, Caleb was just being born! Just a few years later, we'd meet him and get to watch him grow up.

OK, I'm old.

The graduation was held outside in Jiffy Lube Live, which turned out to make for a wonderful venue. The night was just the right temperature. The storm brewing, with bolts of lighting flashing in the distance as we left the parking lot provided for a little dramatic effect.

Here are a few photos from last night. If you want see more, click on over to here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Games for Math

Games for Math opens up with the following anecdote: the author sets up two rows of 5 pennies in front of Julie. One row, she declares is hers, the other belongs to Julie. She asks Julie, who is in Kindergarten, to count the pennies. She can and does. She asks her if they each have the same number of pennies. She declares they do. Now, the author mixes things up: she takes her row of pennies and spreads them out. She then asks Julie if they still have the same number. Nope, Julie explains, now the author has more. The author puts another penny in her row, and proceeds to line them up so they take up the same space. Again, she asks Julie if they have the same amount. Julie can count she has 5 pennies and the author has 6, but that still doesn't stop her from answering that they have the same number.

Julie, as we can tell, is confusing the amount of space objects take up with how many there are. This, according to the author, is actually a normal phase children go through. At some point, Julie will get it, but for now, her understanding of the world is fundamentally flawed.

I found all of this incredibly fascinating. What a powerful example of how children aren't just little adults. In other words, the way I see the world may be totally different than our 7 year old, who's still figuring these concepts out.

And that's where Games for Math comes in. It's an unassuming book, published in the 80's with hand drawn illustrations. Definitely easy to pass by. Yet, it's incredibly powerful. Not only does it teach parents about the mindset difference between them and their kids, but it gives games - fun ones, actually - to help bridge the gap. I was expecting the games to consist of thinly veiled drilling exercises, and that's definitely not the case. In fact, memorization really takes a back seat in the book. Just play the games, and the memorization will take care of itself. I especially appreciated that there are games to help teach the concepts that one might assume were obvious to a kid (like the game that involves putting away groceries to teach the abstract concept of grouping).

Some of the games presented require some prep time, others can be done on the fly. They require the kind of items that you already have lying around - paper clips, coins, a deck of cards, etc.

Perhaps the most important value part of the book is the mindset it puts the parent in. If you've got gray time, you've got time to practice some math. And best of all, it can be fun.

Games for Math covers K through 3rd grade. Parents with younger or older kids may want to read it for inspiration. I'm definitely glad I found the book before summer, which seems like the perfect time to put these lessons to use.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Two Container Hacks

One small, one big.

The Small Container. While boiling up some hard boiled eggs for breakfast, I had a spark of a memory: I realized that as a kid I used to love eating soft boiled eggs, and hadn't had one in years. So, I checked the web for the proper timing. Sure enough, after 4 minutes of boiling, I had a candidate ready to eat. But then it hit me, as a kid we had these tiny plastic egg cups we used to mount the soft boiled egg in. And then you'd carefully tap, break and peal the top of the egg off of. Of course, I didn't have one of those egg cup thingies. But, I did have a shot glass. It worked perfectly.

The Big Container. While on our way to the bus stop, our little guy and myself noticed this clever use of a broken planter. Wedged in just so, it looked perfect. What an excellent way to upcycle a container destined for the trash.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Home Hacking, and Hacking Homes

Two articles on hacking and homes that caught my attention today.

1. Easy Home Tricks a pinterest that documents an amazing number of clever ways to fix and improve your home. Check it out and get lost in the awesomeness. Via Improvised Life.

2. Michael McDaniel: Cheap, effective shelter for disaster relief. This TED talk covers the vision of Michael McDaniel to develop instant housing. Talk about inspiring stuff. Rather than just kicking around ideas, he went out and executed. And like any good project, there were countless roadblocks in his way, all of them seemingly impossible to overcome. Yet, he overcame.

It's relatively short, so give it a watch:

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Gotcha of the Day: Facebook Like Button Not Working

The Facebook Like buttons on one my client's sites had stopped working. The button appeared and all, but always showed 0 likes. You could click the like button and it appeared to register the click. But a refresh showed that it didn't take.

My first attempt to fix this was to look at the Net panel in FireBug. I was able to find the requests made to facebook and they all looked legit.

Moving on, I realized that the Facebook widget is actually generated by a single, easily reproducible request. The following link does all the heavy lifting:

(Where XYZ is the URL encoded URL you wish to have liked.)

When I plugged in the page I wanted to like, it gave me the broken behavior. If I plugged in another URL, say it worked fine.

Simplifying matters even more, I took the above URL and stripped it down even further to just:

Aha! When I did this I actually got notified of an error when I clicked the like button.

Unfortunately, the message was pretty dang cryptic:

The app ID "ABC" specified within the "fb:app_id" meta tag was invalid.


This, however, led me to this handy dandy page: the Facebook Debugger.

Putting the URL in there that I was trying to like popped up a much clearer error message. Apparently one of the meta tags I was using for the OpenGraph spec had an incorrect value. Fixing that, fixed the problem.

The Facebook debugger is actually handy for more than just fixing problems like this. It will give you a preview of what your Like'd posts will look like on Facebook and give you an easy way to experiment with new values.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Two Examples Of The Power of the Letter

Exhibit A: Jeff Greenwald tells the story of meeting Arthur C. Clarke. It's riveting radio with a most delightful story. And the catalyst behind it all is a simple letter.

Exhibit B: Want to have political influence? I mean, really be heard by a politician? Turns out, you don't need technology or money, what you need is the simple letter (well, probably lots of letters, but still).

At first glance, it's a crazy notion, but listening to Omar Ahmed's TED talk, it makes perfect sense. Letters are hard to ignore and carry a special sort of weight.

Makes me want to go out and buy a book of stamps.

Whoops, I Accidentally Picked Up A Mantra

Yesterday evening, I was running a quick errand when I caught a piece on public radio about the Mantra Trailer. This is a project whereby a woman goes around and educates people about the power of mantras and where possible collects them.

I have to admit, I found the whole concept to be way too new-age/hippie for my liking. What a silly concept I thought, repeating the same short phrase over and over again. Like people really do that?

And then it hit me, as I was waiting for a stop light to change, of late I've found myself doing exactly this. I'll be working on some especially thorny problem*, or stuck in traffic, and I find myself repeating the same phrase. And so here it is, my mantra, that I subconsciously started reciting:

Everything, is going to be OK.

I wish I had come up with something more exotic or deeper. But, that's it. So far, everything indeed has been OK - so I guess it's working.

Check out the Mantra Trailer project to listen to other people's mantras. And who knows, maybe you'll discover your own?

Speaking of which, if you've got one, I'd love to hear/read it.

*Yes, I do indeed talk to myself outloud when I work. Such is the joy of working for yourself from home. Yeah, I wouldn't last 10 minutes in a traditional office.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Behold! The Power of Jenga Blocks

Over the weekend, our 7 year old and I were kicking around our library when it occurred to me that we may be able to put our Jenga blocks to more use than merely game playing . That, plus some cardboard from the recycling bin, a cheapo LED flashlight or two, and some plastic dinosaurs from a book my Mom gave us (thanks Mom!) turned into a most excellent Dino Headquarters:

The really fun part is, he can build a configuration, take a few snapshots with his camera, and then tear it down to build something new. Lots of fun. And all from items we had on hand.

It's so easy to fall into the trap of lusting after the next toy/gadget. It sure is nice to put what you've already got lying around to use!