Sunday, December 30, 2012

Panama Adventure - The Last Post

We're on our way home from Panama, as I tap this out. We're flying over white puffy clouds, without a care in the world.

We had our usual fabulous breakfast, which consisted of multiple trips to the buffet. Shira enjoyed all the fruit she could eat, and our little one was in heaven with the unlimited supply of lox and croissants.

Here are a few miscellaneous observations I made over the last week. Maybe they'll be helpful if you travel to Panama?

  • Bring a Spanish phrasebook. They use American currency, and the US had a presence here for the last 100 years. But that's all pretty much irrelevant, we found that almost nobody spoke English, and the majority of the menus and signs are in Spanish only. Sure, it was fun trying to figure things out, and the language barrier made for some good stories, but it would also have been fun to try out more Spanish.
  • Frommer's continues to be my guidebook of choice and an essential travel item. I was surprised that we weren't able to use any of the restaurant recommendations. Though I think that has more to do with the street layout and general business turn over of Panama, than the book itself.
  • The Radisson Decapolis really delivered as a family friendly hotel. The suite contained two large rooms, which meant that our little one could go to sleep and we could stay up without disturbing him. Breakfast, as I mentioned above, was also outstanding, with a large buffet, and waffles, pancakes and such included. The location was ideal, and being next to a Kosher Supermarket was a bonus I didn't even know I could ask for. The only part of the hotel that left me wanting was the concierge. A good concierge can steer you to just the right restaurant, or attraction. At the Decapolis, they were glad to run Google Map searches and print the results, but didn't really deliver any more specific information. Heck, at one point they routed us to the middle of the city to visit the marine museum instead of to an island at the Amador Causeway.
  • Bring the umbrella, leave the windbreaker at home. It down poured every day, and an umbrella would have been handy to deal with this. It would also have been handy to deal with the scorching sun at times. It was way too hot to even think about putting a rain jacket on. With all that said, there's usually shade or cover from the rain to be found. And folks are so used to the rain that nobody panics when it arrives during the day. You stand around for a few minutes and wait for it to pass, and enjoy the cooler weather that it brings.
  • While the weather was hot and humid (evidence by the sheen of sweat I have in every photo), neither the sun nor the bugs were a problem. Every day we covered ourselves in suntan lotion and bug spray, and in return we got neither sunburn or any bug bites. This was quite a pleasant surprise, as we expected the worst.
  • I used a Tide Travel pack to wash an extremely sweaty (and smelly!) dry-fit shirt and a pair of REI travel pants in the sink, and to my amazement they came out smelling great. They took the night to dry, but were ready to wear the next day.
  • I kept my phone in Airplane mode throughout the day with the screen turned all the way down, and it retained most of its charge. I found it handy for taking sound recordings in the jungle, for snapping panoramic photos on top of Ancon hill and for listening to an Overdrive audio book during the flight.

Overall, Panama was a most excellent travel destination. There was plenty to do in Panama City for the week, and had just the right mix of history, nature and activities that I was hoping for. With the language barrier, it definitely didn't feel overly familiar. And the whole Kosher scene was just more than I could have asked for.

Go visit, you'll be glad you did.

Update: After this post was written, and all electronics were turned off, we started our descent. As we approached Dulles, the plane was getting pushed around by the wind. I held my armrest and tried to look as calm and casual as possible for our 8 year old, and Shira just focused on not getting air sick. As we were just about to touch down, the plane was still getting pushed around pretty wildly, and at the last second, the pilot pulled up. As we circled around to try again, there was almost near silence in the cabin. While I was fighting back all sorts of fears, and Shira was trying to keep her stomach contents in place, our 8 year old was happily chattering away, without a care in the world. A few agonizing minutes later, the pilot got on the speaker and informed us that he had aborted the landing because of the wind. He lined up for another approach, and even though the wind was pushing us to and fro, he made the landing. After we came to a complete stop, the cabin erupted in applause. Again, our 8 year old look at us with curiosity - what was going on and did people always clap after every landing? Seriously, this boy should be an astronaut with his total lack of concern for gravity. It was a memorable ending to a memorable trip.

A few last photos from the day:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Panama Adventure - Day 7

Oy, our vacation in Panama is just about over! As I type this, we're packing up and getting ready for one last night, an early breakfast, and then it's back to DC for us. Today we tried to tick a few more must-see items off of the Panama list.

We spent the morning in Casco Viejo, a quaint little neighborhood about a 15 minute drive away (technically, it's only 5 minutes away, but you need to leave 10 minutes for traffic and turn-arounds). We parked the car at what appeared to be legal parking, and gave an old fellow watching the corner a few bucks to keep an eye out for us. We then did a walking tour of the neighborhood. We took in the plazas, ogled the architecture, and visited the Panama Canal Museum in the area. We tried to get a glimpse of the Presidential Palace, but were turned away by a guard who spoke no English, but looked like he meant business.

From Casco Veijo, we made our way to the Metropolitan National Park, which gave us another chance to sweat profusely in a jungle. Again, this is exactly what I love to do. We didn't see any large animals (just ants, a frog and a bunch of turtles), but it was still a pleasure just to take the hike.

Shira's definitely on her way to mastering driving in Panama. It turns out, there's more to it than figuring out the woefully inadequate (yet, still relatively useful) GPS maps and dealing with the lack of street signage. No, there's a whole acceptance that lanes and traffic rules (right lane must turn right, for example) are more suggestions than anything else. One habit she most definitely has not embraced is the use of her horn. In Panama, a gentle tap on the horn is a sort of "pardon me, I'm going to change lanes - I hope that isn't a problem. Too bad if it is." It's not the angry horn honk of the U.S., it's more like an audio turn signal. Though one used after the turn is in progress, rather than to warn others you *might* make the turn. Seriously, the drivers are quite nice here, and often given right of way to pedestrians. They just do it all with a sort of flare you might expect from a person driving in a video game, rather than with real cars and real lives.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Panama Adventure - Day 6

Today we spent the day touring Panama Viejo, the original site of the capital of Panama. This got us into our first museum (finally!), and some quality time perusing cool ruins. It was exactly the kind of stuff I love, and that Shira's had enough of after about 8 minutes. We also had a fun time spotting iguanas among the rocks, which is often trickier than you'd image. For example, how many iguanas are in the photo below?

(Answer: 3)

In the afternoon we spent time at the pool and finally went across the street to try a new pizza place. I'm sure it was a chain restaurant, but it was quite tasty, regardless. It was either eat there or at Popeye's or Subway. Almost nobody speaks English here, and few of the signs are in English - but they've certainly got all our fast-food. I'm not sure if I should be proud, or ashamed.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Panama Adventure - Day 5

What would a trip to Panama be without some sort of canal adventure? And that's what Shira arranged for today. We did a partial crossing of the Panama Canal, which translates to this: we were taken on a bus about half an hour of town, boarded a ferry like boat, and floated down the canal. It was awesome. The scenery and the massive container ships floating by were a sight to behold. The locks were just like those of the Erie Canal I grew up next to, only on a massive scale. Even watching the dredgers and other working boats do their thing was cool.

As great as the whole experience was, I just can't wrap my head around the feat that the Canal is. Consider this summary:

In the end, the engineers and workers minimized the mosquito threat; moved, rebuilt, and expanded the Panama Railroad; excavated over 200,000,000 cu yd (150,000,000 m3) of earth; built the world's largest (then) dam and a lake; poured about 2,000,000 cu yd (1,500,000 m3) of concrete creating a spillway at Gatun Lake to control its height; and formed three sets of double 110 feet (34 m) by 1,000 ft (300 m) ship's locks, then the largest concrete pour in the world. This was supported by an extensive buildup of U.S.-built, then-modern, heavy-duty excavation and construction equipment, and one of the world's earliest and most extensive electrical systems, used to power and control the flow of water into the locks and spillway. The United States spent almost $375,000,000 (roughly equivalent to $8,600,000,000 now[27]), including $12,000,000 to build facilities used to guard the canal, to finish the project. This was by far the largest American engineering project of that or any previous era.

Yet, as you float through the canal, it just looks like it belongs. And sure, they had to dig through the Continental Divide, but how tricky could that be? It turns out, very. The whole thing is just too much for my brain to take in. Still, it's an excellent mental exercise to think through.

I'm proud to report that the bus driver who dropped us off had to stop and ask for clarification as to how we could get to our hotel. That's how wacky the road system is here, even he needed a nudge to get us to the right spot.

After spending most of the day on the canal, we wanted to take care of a bit of nagging task. Whenever Shira and I visit a location, we usually find the nearest grocery store and stock up on snacks, water and just do the usual comparisons between home and abroad. Since we'd arrived, we heard there was a super market across the street, but hadn't found it yet. Supposedly it was in the massive mall, but after gathering much intelligence, we learned, only accessible via the parking garage. Strange, to say the least.

After the canal, we made our way into the parking area and continued to ask for the supermercado, or the Deli K as we had been told it was called. After one wrong turn, we finally found the entrance. Sure, enough, the Deli K exists. And more than that, it's a Kosher Supermarket! That's right, we randomly picked a hotel across the street from a (the?) Kosher Supermarket. While not quite as surprising as randomly walking into a Kosher restaurant, this was close. And as supermarkets go, this one was quite large.

For dinner, we made our way back to the supposed location of a few guide-book recommended eateries. We found none of them. What we did find, however, was another restaurant with a big O-U and folks in kippot eating on the terrace. For the second night in a row, I had Kosher meat out. I had a "multi-max" sandwich (or named something similar) that consisted of schnitzel, a hot dog and pastrami all together on a baguette. It was total overkill. And totally delicious.

It's official, we accidentally vacationed at the most Kosher friendly location possible.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Panama Adventure - Day 4

Day 4 started with a hike up Cerro Ancon (Read: Ancon Hill). While I was hoping for impressive views and maybe some additional wildlife settings, my real goal was to do a bit of Geocaching. Specifically, I wanted to drop off a travel bug in a new (and exciting) location. A travel bug is a small metal tag with a unique number that can be tracked as it hops from location to location. I didn't have high hopes about completing this mission: I wasn't sure we'd have time to do any geocaching, or that there would be any active caches around, or if my cellphone without a data connection would be of any use. However, all the stars lined up: the c:geo app works fine without a cell connection, there was an active cache on Ancon Hill and most importantly we had the time to go hunt for it. And today, this all came together as I poked around and found the cache. Whoo! I also picked up a new travel bug. This one has covered 15,934 miles, and has been in Canada, Colorado and Osaka Japan, and now it's on its way to Washington, DC.

Along with our Geocaching adventure, Cerro Ancon did provide some awesome views, and we even saw a Toucan in the trees. Man those birds are gorgeous. From Cerro Ancon we made our way to the Amador Causeway and found some lunch. First thing this morning I had picked up a map, and between that and the GPS, we are finally beginning to feel like we can get around this place. True, the map, physical street signs and GPS never seem to agree, but we can usually cobble together something to make some sense. When in doubt, ignore the GPS, seems to be a solid rule.

Lunch was Panamanian food, which turned out to be fish and fried plantains. My rule about deep frying still stands: anything deep fried is going to taste good and fried plantains were no exception.

After lunch we hit Punta Culebra, a marine exhibition park. Really this was another chance to take a stroll (this time through a dry forest, as apposed to a rain forest) and ogle some fish. They had a touch tank which our 8 year old enjoyed, though the real highlight was spotting a large iguana perched high up in a tree.

By the time we made it home (with no detours or mis-attempts, thank you very much!), it was time to start thinking about dinner. But what to do? We could do the hotel restaurant or the pizza place across the street, or we could take a chance and do some walking. I pushed for the walking, but as we got underway, it started to drizzle and then rain. Between the rain and a tired 8 year old, things were starting to look grim. We stepped into the first place we could find cover, which was some sort of diner looking affair. It would do, but was going to basically be a repeat of lunch. As a last ditch option, Shira went across the street to a Mediterranean looking option. After a bit, we walked out of the diner to see what Shira had to say, and I could see her beckoning us to come over.

I walked into the place and noticed that it was a typical Mediterranean setup, though as we were seated, I did notice a Mezuzah on the door. The name of the place was Karbones, and I noticed the circle K on the front of the menu. But surely that was a coincidence, right? Shira sits me down and gives me the surprising news: yes, this place is Kosher! I look around, and sure enough, most of the men in the restaurant were wearing Kippot, there were benschers in the corner, and some frum music group was playing on YouTube over the sound system. I ordered a schwarma and ate till I was going to explode, and then ate a little more. Seriously, in a place where we can't find our hotel using a GPS, how on Earth did we stumble into a Kosher restaurant? However it happened, I'm glad it did. As surprises go, this one is going to be hard to beat.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Panama Adventure - Day 3

Ever since we decided to visit Panama, I had this vision of hiking in a rich rain forest. And today, that dream came true. We did a little over 6 miles of hiking in Soberania National Park.

We saw frogs, lizards, butterflies, spiders a couple of snakes and even a Spider Monkey perched high up in a tree. We caught a really good glimpse of one exotic (to us, anyway) bird. Though, by far the most impressive creatures we saw today were the ants. Specifically the Leafcutter ants. Our photos just don't these guys justice: imagine a 10+ foot line of ants, each one schlepping a neatly cut piece of leaf. It was almost like something out of a cartoon.

As our hike finished up, I remarked to Shira that it hadn't rained yet. And sure enough, within 10 minutes, the skies opened up and we got drenched. This actually completed the jungle experience nicely. As the rain was pounding down, there was thunder crashing and not too far off in the distance some howler monkeys were making a racket. At least I think they were howler monkeys. Whatever animal it was, it was loud and not pleased by the rain.

The tricky part of the day wasn't the hike; it was driving to and from the hike. Slowly but surely we're learning to traverse the streets of Panama. Shira has no problem with the traffic or roads, it's just that the maps in our GPS are woefully inaccurate, so it just can't give us sane instructions. It's constantly trying to persuade us to go right when there's no obvious road to turn right into. Add to this the lack of tourist (read: English) friendly signage, and it's not pretty. For example, it took us 3 attempts to pull into the grocery store that had construction surrounding it. At this point, what I'm craving is a high quality set of street maps, yet I've not been able to find them.

We finished up our afternoon with a dip in the pool and then on to dinner. We definitely had a unique and fun time today. And again, I'm proud to report that our 8 year old was a real trooper. 6 miles isn't a whole lot for Shira and myself, but for him to do all that without complaining is nothing short of amazing.

And here's a few sound clips from the jungle:

Panama Adventure - Day 1 and 2

We're in Panama, and boy the is the weather awesome! Yesterday we arrived, and the trip was uneventful. Some highlights: drinking a L'Chaim of rum and some eggnog-like substance on the plane (handed out for free), stepping out into sunshine and warmth, having my wife demonstrate her international driving skills like a champ and arriving at one of largest and nicest hotel rooms we've ever stayed in (it's the Radisson Decapolis - and it's the ultimate family friendly room).

We spent 20 minutes driving from the airport to the vicinity of our hotel, and then another 20 minutes looping around the city trying to actually figure out what street sequence we needed to take to reach the hotel. Apparently in Panama, a city that's known for total lack of street signage and direction, that's par for the course.

Today Shira arranged for a trip to an Embera Indian Village. The Embera are an indigenous people that have transitioned from primarily farming the land to tourism. They couldn't have been more warm and welcoming. Lunch was fantastic: fresh tilapia, fried plantains and all the fresh fruit you could eat. The best part: it was served traditional style, meaning without silverware. Our 8 year old was in heaven with this.

Speaking of our 8 year old, he's having a blast. One of the highlights of the trip was that a fellow tourist brought along a soccer ball to donate to the village. They brought out the ball, and sure enough, within minutes, all the kids--Embera and Americans--were playing away. Soccer truly is an international language. As travel hacks go, the soccer ball is an awesome one.

We finished up this evening at a random Chinese Restaurant named Yee. It looked more like a generic diner than Chinese food place, but, whatever. They had pictures of the food and understood our feeble attempt to explain we wanted to eat vegetarian food, so that was good enough. Among the dishes we ordered was Mapo Tofu. And why is this significant? I'll tell you why. 18 years ago tonight, Shira and I had our *official* first date. And on that date I had Mapo Tofu. If you had told me then, that in 18 years I'd be sitting in Panama with her and an 8 year old, I would have probably smiled and said, "yeah, that sounds about right." So glad it worked out that way.

I should knock off now and spend some time with Shira. After all, this is an important anniversary, I hope to have many, many more Christmas Eve dates.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The 32 Megabyte Mystery

Last Friday, I'm rummaging around for a spare Micro-SD card when I come across an old 32 megabyte card. 32 megs, I think, that's tiny! My Galaxy S3 has 256 times that. Heck, at 8,192 megs, that card is now considered small.

My next thought: oooh, I bet this card is filled with grainy photos that haven't seen the light of day in years. I got psyched -- what mysterious pictures could I possibly find on here.

I popped in the card and perused. Here's a smattering of what I found:

A happpy Dovid:

A tiny Chana:


More pictures of Us:

Some of Me, as this card was from Shira's Blackberry:

I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed. Nearly all these photos appear someone on the Blog already. And those that don't, just weren't taken that long ago. As an archaeological find, this was a bust. In fact, I've been mulling this over since Friday, and here's what I've figured out:

  • My gosh technology moves fast! 32 megabytes seems impossibly small, but just a few years ago, it was top of the line. We always say this, but to see this in action really does give one pause.
  • Blogging works. Because I publish stuff on a regular basis, it gets out there and enjoyed rather than languishing in a virtual shoe-box-on-the-shelf. The same people who kvetch about how annoying people are on Facebook for publishing so many photos, are going to be the same people, years from now, who wish they had done the same.
  • I'm old. You know that concept of age being relative? When you're 7, one year is huge, when you're 70, the years just zip by? Well, apparently I'm of an age where photos from 2009 feel like they were taken last month. That's not good.

I also found two other potential sources of surprise content - a mini SD card from one of my old Sidekick devices and a 8 meg PCIMCIA card. Of course, I don't have a way to read either of these cards. But, I'm just curious enough that I might hop onto Amazon and buy an adapter to see if I can get a glimpse into these guys.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

More Sketching Inspiration

Not that you needed more inspiration to keep a sketchbook, but here you go:

My problem isn't lack of inspiration, tools (any old sketchbook should do, heck a stack of a index cards seem like a cheap a portable solution) or even technique (my drawing is at a kindergarten level - but who cares?). No it's time. When I can find a consistent block of time for drawing, the other challenges should resolve themselves.

For now, though, I'm patient. I know that I'll get that block of time sooner or later.

Via: Richard's Notes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review: The Forager’s Harvest

I saw mention of the The Forager’s Harvest on Cool Tools, so I expected it to be good. Fortunately, my library had it, so it was easy enough to secure. Even with the Cool Tools recommendation, it still managed to exceeded my expectations.

The Forager's Harvest is a essentially a book that teaches you how to identify, collect and consume a number of wild plants (about 35 of them). However, the book goes far beyond just giving you the cold hard facts, as one might expect.

First, each plant explanation starts off with a story from the author's past encounters with the plant. These are truly gems, and inspire one to actually go out and put the knowledge to good use.

More than being a reference and story book, it's also a philosophy text. Opening chapters really do call out myths of wild food collection and leave one wondering why the practice isn't more widespread. After all, there's an almost reverence associated with the practice of hunting game. Why shouldn't the practice of "hunting" wild edibles be just as revered, discussed, and engaged in. After all, our ancestors certainly relied on both practices.

Eating wild plants these days is usually associated with wilderness survival. You can just picture Less Stroud or Bear Grylls choking down some awful tasting plant matter because they couldn't manage to secure some real food. But this book turns that whole image on its head. Wild plants should taste delicious, and should be a skill practiced to enhance meals you cook in your kitchen on a daily basis, not to save up for a doomsday scenario.

There aren't many books I take out from the library, read, and decide I need to get my own copy. But that's what I'm finding with this book. I can see bringing this book along on hikes, and keeping my eyes open for putting it to use. Forget hunting wild animals, I'm ready to hunt some wild plants.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

One Big Delivery

Last Friday, Shira and I are out for a run when we notice a whole slew of tractor trailers lined up along the side of the road. This photo doesn't do them justice:

I wonder what could possibly be going on here? Was it some sort of protest or meetup?

Then Shira nailed it: they were delivering wreaths to Arlington Cemetery for their Wreaths Across America project.

See, here's one of the tractor trailers pulling into the cemetery:

Man, that's a lot of wreaths.

Name That Plant: Green Spikey Fruit Edition

Here's another attempt at identifying the plants and trees that I pass every day, but don't actually see.

I noticed this guy while on a run near the Pentagon. How sinister does he look?

Seriously, it looks like something I might see in a tropical rain forest, not along the sidewalk in Arlington.

I used my unscientific approach to identifying this guy: I typed in a bunch of attributes into Google Image search and perused the results. In this case, I searched for green spiky weed and on the first page of the results found this picture:

Apparently, I'd found some Jimson Weed.

As the spikes suggest, this sucker is poisonous. I mean, really poisonous. It's not often you see a warning like this on a plant you find on the side of the road:

Jimson weed is a dangerous plant in inexperienced hands, and an overdose is likely to be fatal.


While you can't eat it, and you probably shouldn't mess with it, the plant definitely has a lot of uses. Apparently, it can be used to treat asthma, Parkinson’s and the flu. It can also, apparently, be used as a hallucinogen and other recreational drug.

Yeah, so let's just leave this guy alone.

Still, it was a nice find in my local area.

A Little Script-Fu To Help With Image Organization

One of the easy things about iOS app development (and I haven't found many!) is creating a splash screen. You just create an image named something like Default.png and Adobe AIR or PhoneGap do the right thing.

Things get trickier when you realize that you need to maintain a whole bunch of images, and have to have them follow a specific naming convention.

Before you know it, you've got a whole slew of files named something like Default-PortraitUpsideDown@2~ipad that you have to keep track of.

I was wrestling with just such a set of images today, when I decided I could maintain them all a lot easier if they lived in a single Gimp xcf. My goal then, became as follows:

Write some Script-Fu that takes each layer of an image and saves it off to its own file, and names it per the layer name. With a single click, a whole batch of images can be created from one source.

And here's the code I came up with to accomplish this:

;; Code It
(define (bs-script-fu-save-individual-layers img)
  (let ((layers (vector->list (second (gimp-image-get-layers img))))
        (orig-file-name (car (gimp-image-get-filename img))))
    (for-each (lambda (layer)
                (let ((name (car (gimp-drawable-get-name layer)))
                       (h    (car (gimp-drawable-height layer)))
                       (w    (car (gimp-drawable-width layer))))
                  (let* ((target (car (gimp-image-new w h RGB)))
                         (layer  (car (gimp-layer-new-from-drawable layer target)))
                         (file-name (string-append (filename-dirname orig-file-name) "\\" name ".png")))
                    (gimp-image-insert-layer target layer 0 -1)
                    (gimp-layer-set-offsets layer 0 0)
                    (file-png-save-defaults RUN-NONINTERACTIVE target layer file-name file-name))))

;; Register It
 "Save Layers"
 "Save out all the layers of this image as separate files."
 "Ben Simon"
 "copyright 2012, Ideas2Executables"
 SF-IMAGE      "Image to split into layers and save" 0
(script-fu-menu-register "bs-script-fu-save-individual-layers" "<Image>/Filters/Util")

;; Utility Functions

(define (last-string-position haystack needle)
  (define (go haystack needle position)
    (if (< (string-length haystack) (string-length needle))
      (if (equal? (substring haystack
                             (- (string-length haystack) (string-length needle))
                             (string-length haystack))
        (go (substring haystack 0 (- (string-length haystack) 1))
            (- position 1)))))
  (go haystack needle (- (string-length haystack) (string-length needle))))
(define (filename-dirname f)
  (let ((pivot (last-string-position f "\\")))
    (if pivot
      (substring f 0 pivot)

Most of my effort went into writing filename-dirname and last-string-position, two utility functions. Especially last-string-position - coding that in terms of equals? and substring felt more like an interview question than my usual daily hacking.

I continue to believe in the power of The Gimp and Script-Fu. There's just something invaluable about being able to script your way out of tedious jobs.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown Related Stories Worth Reading

Just a handful of articles I found interesting and insightful:

For more goodies, check out, as he's blogged about a number of interesting stories.

Update: more stories added.

Friday, December 14, 2012

If You Read Only One Article On Troubleshooting Linux I/O Wait Issues, Make It This One

A bunch of my customer's VPS's were having odd performance issues. After looking in the usual places, I found myself needing to dig deeper. Before I knew it, I was running vmstat and trying to make sense of the results.

Once I wrapped my head around how much time was being spent waiting for IO, I decided I needed to track down which processes which were the culprits for this. This seemed like an obvious thing to do, but I couldn't find the command to give me this information. Then I found this article: Troubleshooting High I/O Wait in Linux, and things really clicked.

To cut to the chase, the command I was looking for was simply:

 for x in `seq 1 1 10`; do ps -eo state,pid,cmd | grep "^D"; echo "----"; sleep 5; done

Obvious, right?

Seriously, if you're struggling to make sense of how your system may be interacting with disk io, then go study this article.

Update: Actually, here's another really handy article to read: Linux File System Read Write Performance Test. You can run:

  dd if=/dev/zero of=speedtest bs=64k count=3200 conv=fdatasync

To get a quick sense of how fast disk write speed is.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pretty Lights and Failed Experiments

Ahhh, it's that time of year again: time to celebrate Chanukah and blog pictures of the candles to try to capture their simple beauty. Never works, but that doesn't keep me from trying.

Here are some snapshots from last night:

(The filters are the ones built into the Galaxy S3)

And I know you want an animated version, right?

Along with the usual candle setup, I had a little experiment planned, too. I was going to go old-old school and try using Olive Oil instead of candles to power a chanukiah.

I had this whole thing rigged up using shot glasses for oil vessels, paper towel for wicks, and paper clips as wick holders. See:

Shira took one look at the setup and put the kibosh on the whole experiment. In her defense, some of those shot glasses had some serious sentimental value, and I suppose it would not be wise to damage them while playing the role of the pyro-loving-Boy-Scout.

I'm not completely done with my experiment yet, though. I'm planning to pick up a cheap shot glass at the store (or something approximating it) and try using a single candle.

By the way, my setup was almost certainly not a Kosher chanukiah. Though it was probably a solid attempt to get in touch with a more authentic Hanukkah.

Regardless - here's a season of miracles. May your wife let you get away with more than you deserve!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Operation 8th Birthday Party

This last weekend wasn't just about busting boards. Nope, we had another first: Shira and I hosted our 8 year old's birthday party.

This, it turned out, is no minor affair. There's a theme/activity to consider, and then a location to host it at. For some reason, Shira wasn't excited to have 16 kids in our house at one time? I know, such a party pooper.

After quite a bit of research, she settled on what turned out to be the perfect combination: a video game truck to entertain the kids, and renting a space at an Arlington community center.

The video game truck is offered by Rolling Video Games and is exactly what you think it is: a truck where 16 kids can pile into and play games individually or together. Here's what the truck looks like (this is from their website, I don't have any good pictures of trucks without any kids in them):

We were told the truck would allow 16 kids to play at one time. I think we crammed a few more than that in, too. Many of the kids entered the truck, and didn't come out for 2 hours. The company provides a "game coach," which meant that we didn't have to figure out what kids wanted to play or change around games.

The outside of the truck opens up, and in our case, we used this so the the adults could play dancing and race car games. Everyone really did get entertained.

As for the community center, that too was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. They do rentals all the time, so that was no big deal. What was a big deal, was when we asked if we could host a 40 foot truck on the property. Their response: sure, that sounds like a lot of fun!

Another wrinkle: we wanted to rent the space on Sunday, but they had a group that had it reserved for months in a row. Rather than turning us away, they made special arrangements to fit us.

The whole experience made us feel like our event really mattered, and that they wanted to work hard to exceed our expectations.

With video games, cake (and cupcakes, and brownies, and M&M bars -- all baked by Shira!), there wasn't really much doubt that the party would go off well. And it did!.

I took many, many photos. The vast majority of which aren't appropriate to publish. But, I just have to put up this one photo. It's of one of our younger guests (he must be about 4 now - maybe?) clobbering David in Wii Sword Fighting. This kid was unstoppable!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Caption Me, DC at Night Edition

Last night, we totally lived it up. We went to dinner in Chinatown and took an evening stroll. There's just something magical about DC at night. Or, maybe it's just the feeling of knowing that you've got a baby sitter at home and not a care in the world.

Regardless, it seemed like I should take some pictures to capture the mood. I don't think I managed to do that, but at least I tried.

Quick story: we were outside the Whitehouse, and I was bragging to a friend about how slick my new Galaxy S3's camera is. I explained it had voice operation, and proceeded to hold it up and loudly say: "Shoot! Shoot!" - at which point I realized that probably wasn't the right phrase to be yelling in that location. I then switched to "Capture!" Less chance of getting tackled by Secret Service.

Anyone care to tack a crack at captioning these guys?

Come on, you know you've got a caption for these guys:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gotcha of the Day: Galaxy SIII + USB - Not Recognized by Windows 7

Here's the deal. I connected my Galaxy SIII to my Windows 7 box by way of a USB cord. The laptop beeped and chirped, and then came up with the message:

(That's: USB Device Not Device Not Recognized)

This is especially strange, because I'd been connecting up the device and various laptops for the last few days without incident.

A few days earlier I had installed the Samsung Drivers which originally allowed me to connect the device and computer. My first thought: perhaps Windows "lost" these drivers and I needed to reinstall them? Crazy, but then again, so is Windows.

I installed the drivers again. That didn't fix anything.

I rebooted the phone. Again, didn't fix anything.

I rebooted the laptop. Again, didn't fix anything.

Out of desperation, I installed Samsung Kies, thinking maybe that would nudge the setup back to working. Alas, it didn't fix anything.

Then I got to thinking: what was I doing differently today that I hadn't been doing for the last few days. I know, I was using a different USB cable.

Surely, the USB cable isn't to blame? After all, it fits into both the computer and the phone. I know that Samsung would tell me to use the original cable that came with the phone. But that's just them being pedantic, right?

Apparently not. I retrieved the cable I had been using, and sure enough, the device was immediately recognized.

So there you have it. If you can't get your Galaxy S3 (or any random device) to be detected by Windows 7, step one should be to find a new (modern?) cable.


For the last couple months, our 8 year old has been attending a Creative Martial Arts after school intro program. He's brought home numerous insights about jabs, crosses, and both snap and roundhouse kick. He's definitely enjoyed it quite a bit.

This last weekend, though, was the big test. If the students performed well enough, they'd earn their White Belts and get a chance to break a board.

Well, as you can imagine, the class rose to the occasion and put on quite a martial-arts show. Indeed, they all earned the right to crack a board in half using nothing but their fist.

I've got to admit, I was surprised at the challenge in front of these kids. It's scary enough to think that you're going to be punching a solid slab of wood, it's another to do it in front of 40+ onlooking parents.

And how'd our kid do? Well, check it out!

That there is the real deal: a board broken in half by a single cross punch.

While we were proud of our little Ninja, I was just as impressed with the studio that put on the class. They talk about how martial arts can be used to teach confidence, disciple and fitness - and we saw all that on display. That, and a lot of patience and positive reinforcement.

If you're in Arlington, and looking for a fun after school activity or camp, you should check them out.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Brand New Set of Strings

A few weeks back I take my tallis out of my tallit bag and noticed a small piece of debris fall out. I do Shabbat services, and when I'm putting my tallit away I finally get a glimpse of what the debris was: a tiny piece of tzitzit. Naturally, I approach Rabbi wondering what I should do.

She then breaks the bad news to me: sure, it may have been only a tiny bit of tzitzit, but that doesn't matter, the entire tallit is no longer kosher. I assume I need to fix that one fringe and I'll be all set. Wrong again. All four fringes need to be replaced. Not only that, but the fringes that are no longer kosher aren't just tossed out in the trash; they are stored in a genizah before they are properly buried.

I imagined that tzitzit had special status, but apparently I misunderstood just how sensitive they are. In hindsight, this makes sense. But still.

The Rabbi was kind enough to provide me with a set of kosher tzitzit, as well as a demonstration of how they are wrapped. Turns out, it's a combination knot tying and Pioneering Merit badge. While I tied one fringe on, the Rabbi tied on the other three.

As long as I was doing a bit of tallit maintenance, I decided I should tack down part of my atarah that's come loose. Luckily my Mom provided me with a sewing kit, and the Boy Scouts provided me with enough know-how to do an adequate job.

Considering my tallit has been maintenance free 20+ years, I suppose I can't really complain that I've finally got to take some action.

It was actually nice learning some of the laws of tzitzit. But that wasn't the best part. Nope, the best part was using a needle threader for the first time, and realizing that it wasn't some bit of decoration included in the sewing kit. What an amazing little device!

Some photos of my adventure...

And finally, my favorite new tool:

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Meadowlark's Walk of Lights

Shira got quite an unexpected gift on her birthday yesterday: it was just about 70°F! To celebrate both her birthday, as well as the benefits of global warming, we visited Meadowlark Graden's Walk of Lights. I would have been satisfied just visiting a new set of gardens, but to tour the lights, and not need a parka, well, that was just too much.

I tried a number of approaches to capturing the lights with my DSLR, but in the end, I wasn't really impressed with any of the results. They just don't do the gardens justice.

If you're in the area, it's definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


See rule #2.

Yeah, it's not the cleanest fix, but it seems solid enough to me.

Funny story about the Army Criminal Investigation Lab: back in 1952 Disney allowed the Army to use Mickey Mouse's likeness, what do you know, it stuck.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Name that Tree: Red Berry Edition

I'm making my way through The Forger's Harvest, and absolutely loving it. But I've had enough of sitting on the sidelines and reading about plants, today I decided to do something about. So, on my way to the bus stop I snapped some photos of a tree and decided that later in the morning I'd identify it.

I picked this particular tree because the red berries helped it stand out. Besides, I was curios if the advice we'd given our 8 year old held for this tree: eat the berries and you probably won't die, but you'll get awfully sick to your stomach. After all, that's always the advice I'd been given.

I figured I'd go about this as scientifically as possible, and so I started with the's tree identifier. After answering a few questions, I realized that I was no longer being asked anything nearly relevant about the leaves in question.

After a few more formal identification attempts, and I came up with nothing. So I totally cheated and typed tree identification berry. I scanned the pictures and realized I had a match with this one.

The caption claimed I was looking at American Holly. I did some further examination and realized that was the case. I suppose if I had to have guessed, I probably would have thought it was holly - but not celebrating Christmas, and having never had a holly wreath, it would have been just that - a guess.

This left me with two questions: (a) are the berries poisonous? (b) are there any uses for the tree?

Yes, apparently they are poisonous:

The berries of various species are slightly toxic to humans, although its poisonous properties have been exaggerated and poisoning deaths are almost unknown. Berries attract birds that eat them after the frosts have reduced toxicity. However, if household pets ingest Holly, they are very liable to be poisoned, and it is a very good idea to keep Holly decorations out of reach of pets and/or children

Well what do you know, the advice we gave our kid was exactly correct. Huh.

And does it have a use? Yes! Ignoring its magical properties for now, it can be used to create a tea. Apparently the American Holly version doesn't contain caffeine, but other variants of Holly do, can make for some excellent tea.

Apparently, American Holly can be made into tea as well - so if I get the chance to collect some leaves I may in fact give this a try. By the way, the act of drying the leaves is apparently enough to detoxify them. Without that step, you'll apparently puke your guts out.

All in all, very educational. I wonder what I can discover on the next trip to the bus stop.


There was just something pleasantly dramatic about the sunrise we caught on the way to the bus stop this morning. Perhaps it was the jet plain streaking across the sky leaving a fresh set of contrails.

Taken with my Galaxy S3