Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Step Aside Fruit Ninja, I've got Doom To Play

My friend Nick reported the astounding news: Doom has been ported to Android. There's nothing to it, you just head over to Google Play and install it like any other app. And it works!

OK, the controls are a bit awkward. I'm not quite sure (yet) how to effortlessly cruise around. But, I can shoot, change weapons (chainsaw anyone?!), so I'm off to a good start. The graphics look smooth enough, and most importantly, the sound track is there. You've got to love the growling, shooting and other gruesome sounds.

I've never been a gamer, but Doom holds a special place in my heart. True, it's one of two games I ever mastered (the original Super Mario Bros, was the other), but there's more to it than that. I can't fully recall the circumstances, but back in high school I had reason to be on a college campus with a group, and we found ourselves in the computer lab. For reasons that escape me, a networked copy of Doom was kicked off, and all us kids went to work shooting at each other. It would turn out to be my first exposure to Computer Lab Culture. The geeks in that Computer Science (CS) lab had technology (Doom) that mere mortals could barely imagine.

When I went to college and majored in CS, I practically lived in the CS lab. And it was in the lab that I learned to master tools that would only become widespread years later. It was one of those environments where you could practically learn by osmosis. Nowadays, with kids bringing massively powerful computers to school, I wonder if the lab holds the same importance?

The Time Traveler's Cheat Sheet

How have I not seen this Time Traveler's Cheat Sheet? And what's a Time Traveler's Cheat Sheet? It's a pithy summary of how to recreate modern technology, from creating the compass, to investing pasteurization, to E=MC2. And it's awesome.

(Click to enlarge)

I give you the ultimate summer project for your teenager: recreate (and of course, blog about), as many items on the list as possible.

Oh, I get it. The author created it recently, and then went back to 2009 to post it.

Monday, December 30, 2013

What I Love About Geo Caching

Take this guy, right here:

He's part of an Edgar Alan Poe Geocache.

Even though he's rather big, he's essentially invisible. I knew where to look, and it still took me a few minutes of circling the tree he lives in before I found him.

And that's what I love about Geocaching: you get to play the role of explorer and discoverer, oftentimes in a location that looks like it has nothing worth exploring or discovering. But looks can be deceiving!

The Chap-Kit: The Utility Kit for Your Skinny Jeans

Every spy worth his or her salt has an E&E Kit stashed somewhere on them. E&E? That's Escape and Evade, and is used for exactly what you think it's used for: busting out of the handcuffs the bad guys have so foolishly locked you in, so you can continue on with your mission of rescuing the prince/princess. Being a fan of nearly anything kit based, this sort of thing is right up may alley.

Alas, carrying around a handcuff key (or better yet, 10 of them) and a diamond saw are probably going to cause more headaches than they fix. Still, I can adapt the concept, right?

Building on the idea that you can turn a Chapstick into a cash container, I couldn't resist turning it into asmall utility kit. I give you the Chap-Kit:


Paired up with a Binder-Clip Wallet and you've got a super compact, Eagle Scout Approved, setup.

If you're like me, you're more likely to use the kit to trim a stray thread on a shirt, or use the safety pin to replace a lost pants button, than you are to need to bust out of some North Korean jail. But hey, you never know. See, that paper clip could easily save the day:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Parchment Paper, My New Kitchen Best Friend

Shira was doing some baking over the weekend, and I noticed she was using Parchment Paper (as I've seen her do in he past). Surely some blogger has reported in on the bazillion uses for this stuff, right?

Of course right. I give you: 10 Handy Uses for Parchment Paper, Parchment Paper Has Numerous Kitchen Uses and 6 New Uses For Parchment Paper

Apparently, this is handy stuff. It's not quite as versatile as Aluminum Foil, but it appears to be more food friendly.

My favorite ideas: using to make food cones (like eating fries or popcorn from a cone), using it to collect up sifted ingredients (I just grated cheese onto a sheet, which was more convenient than a plate) and making meal packets like I used to do in Scouts with tin foil (put veggies and meat in foil, wrap it up, toss it in the fire. A while later, enjoy your raw but good intentioned meal).

What's your favorite use for Parchment Paper?

Update: Shira noted this comment on the Rachel Ray blog, which brings up a good point: isn't all this playing with Parchment Paper a waste of money?

Jolyne Dunn says:
November 18, 2013 at 12:29 am
Apparently money is no object for you. Parchment paper is expensive. I use it very sparingly.

Emily Wyckoff says:
November 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm
@Jolyne – Quite the contrary! I used to think parchment paper was outrageous too until I started buying in bulk. I buy giant rolls on amazon – here is the link – http://www.amazon.com/PaperChef-Culinary-Parchment-15-Inch-98-4-Feet/dp/B008FIUUX6/ref=pd_sim_k_6. 100 feet is $20. I usually only need to buy 2 each year and I have a baking business so I use a lot. I am also saving money on water (less dishes) and new pots and pans (saves on wear and tear).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Metro Silva Compass, Or How I Overcome My Terrible Sense of Direction

I received some wonderful traits from my Dad, his amazing sense of direction wasn't one of them. To this day, ever time I take the Metro downtown I have alarm bells going off in my head saying that I'm heading the wrong direction, even though I'm clearly on the right train. On many matters I'll trust my gut, which way to turn isn't one of them.

To overcome this, I've gotten in the habit of carrying a compass on my keychain. And sure enough, I use it quite a bit; both on the trail as well as when I'm navigating in the city.

Technically my phone should be able to tackle this job, but I've found that an analog compass is often quicker to use and more reliable. And best of all, it doesn't have batteries and operates in countries where I don't have a cell phone plan.

Even though I like carrying a compass, I'd yet find one that was truly ideal. To be fair, a compass is a delicate instrument, and I'm essentially looking for a tiny one I can cram into my pocket and kick around all day.

Enter the Metro Compass. It's made by Silva, and seems like it was custom made for me:

Have you ever walked out of a subway station in the steel-and-glass canyon of a new city, map in hand, and wondered which way to go? That won't happen when you're carrying Silva's new Metro compass.The cool, ultra-compact design of Silva Metro marries mobility with ease-of-use for quick orientation in the fast-moving urban environment.

Could this be The One?

For reasons that escape me, this particular compass isn't available in the US. That means that while it's only an eBay purchase away, I probably paid more for shipping than I did for the actual product.

The compass arrived a few days ago. Here are few points worth noting:

1. This guy is bigger than I expected. As you can see, it's noticeably larger than my previous button compass. Operationally, this is a good thing as its easier to read. However, from a keychain carry perspective it's almost at the practical limit of what I'm willing to cram in my pocket. See what I mean?

2. The build quality is solid. The rubber housing and carabiner look like they may actually hold up to life in my pocket. There's a 5 year warranty on the compass, so who knows, maybe this one will have staying power?

3. Holy smokes, that directional needle is fast and consistent! I've found that button compasses are often quite slow to come around to pointing North. Sure, it will get there, but often with me tapping on the case. Not so with this guy. It dang near snaps to North. This is what I'd expect from a "real" compass.

4. The carabiner looks like it's going to be a practical feature. For times when I need to refer to the compass more often (say I'm on a day hike), I like that I can trivially un-clip the compass from my keychain and attach it to a belt loop.

Bottom one, it's bigger and pricier than some options, but it does the direction thing really well.

Assuming it can keep up this performance, I think it will maintain a slot on my keychain.

Here's a few more shots to give you an idea of how it looks:

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

20 First Dates

19 years ago last night I had a date. A first date, actually. I remember the restaurant (Ho Ho) and what I ordered (Marpo Tofu). Mostly though, I remember the girl. Stunning. Brilliant. Gorgeous. And boy, did I want a second date.

Last night I had a date. The restaurant was a different Chinese one. And I got a different tofu dish. But it was the same girl and she was just as brilliant, stunning and gorgeous. And I still hope I'll get another date with her.

For our first date Shira and I drove to some ridiculously out of the way restaurant to insure we wouldn't run into any of our (read: her) friends. We kept that tradition alive by heading to our favorite Chinese place in Atlantic City.

Oh, they have gambing there too? I had no idea.

Merry Christmas to all, and happy 19th first date anniversary babe!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sharks, Jelly Fish and a Heck of a lot Inspiration

I dare you to watch Diana Nyad's TED talk and not feel inspired.


Divide and Conquer: Firefox Profiles For A More Sane Web Browsing Experience

Firefox Profiles has to be one of the most underrated features a browser has ever offered. Back in the day when multiple users shared a single Windows account, Firefox Profiles allowed you to have different setups for each person in the family. That way, Dad's recipe bookmarks didn't get in the way of Mom's sport scores. Between the feature being relatively hard to setup and the fact that Windows now offers multiple accounts by default, Firefox Profiles are all but ignored.

Luckily for us, this feature has never gone away. Every time you start Firefox, unless you say otherwise, the default profile is used. But it's time to go Full Power User on Firefox, and setup some profiles. Whenever I start Firefox I'm greeted by the following choice:

Briefly, here's how I use each profile:

Surf. This should probably just be called 'Work', but whatever. This is where I have all my tabs relating to, well, work stuff. I'm logged into Google Apps here, and any other web app that relates to my day job. This profile has a few key plugins, and I almost never clear the cookies or cache on it.

Dev. This is where the magic happens. I use this profile to develop and debug web related stuff. This profile has a number of key plugins (Firebug, Fiddler, DNS flusher, etc.) that could potentially slow down normal web surfing. I clear the cookies and cache on this profile all the time. Nothing in this tab is considered sacred.

Dev Jr.. This is another dev instance. Having two allows me to log in as two different users to the same website (each profile has its own cookies, and therefor session data). Or, I can use 'Dev' to log in as the admin to a site and 'Dev Jr.' as a regular user.

Personal. Personal stuff lives here. By using a separate profile, my Personal Gmail never gets mixed up with my business Google Apps (both are accessed via mail.google.com). Just like 'Surf' there aren't many plugins needed to power this profile.

Browse. 'Browse' is as close to a default instance of Firefox as I can get. No plugins, no bookmarks, no anything. I use it when Firefox seems broken, as I can quickly tell if it's some issue with plain old Firefox or my particular configuration.

As a person who uses his computer for both Business and Personal stuff, I can't imagine life without multiple profiles.

As mentioned, setting up profiles is relatively cumbersome. Apparently, there are Firefox Plugins to make managing profiles easier.

OK, now you've got all these different profiles running. How the heck do you tell them apart? My preferred way is to give each one a theme. I tend use dramatically different color schemes, so it's relatively easy to tell which browser does which job.

Finally, I have the following AutoHotKey definition setup to run when I log in:

HotKey, ^#s, start_ff

  Run firefox.exe -no-remote -profilemanager

As a result, holding down Control+Windows-Key+s brings up the Firefox Profile Manager, and let's me pick which instance of Firefox I want to start.

I've recently discovered that Chrome has a similar feature, though I don't know how well it works in practice.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Attaching a Word Doc to an E-mail? Resist! There's a Better Way

You've just finished typing up minutes from your last team meeting and now need to share them with the group. It's so tempting to attach the 'docx' file you created in Word to an e-mail and and click send.

Noooooooooooo! Don't do it!

See, as soon as you send off that email you're going to realize that you forgot to fix Jim's comment about the broken water cooler. Now what do you do, send a new version? And Sally and Bob are sure to get back to you with two different stories about why project Treadstone had to be scrapped. Then what do you do, send the minutes out yet again?

And Greg, who appears to read his email once a week is going to end up with four copies of the minutes in his email and is absolutely going to respond to the wrong one.

What's the team scribe to do?

1. Head over to drive.google.com. There, you can log in to Google Drive.

2. Setup your Upload settings. This step is key, as it will allow you to automatically import your Word doc into the Google Doc universe. Once there, you can do online collaboration with relative ease. The setting you're looking for is highlighted in the Screenshot below:

If you forget to update the above setting, don't panic. You can convert the file after you've uploaded it. Instructions for doing so are found here.

3. Upload your 'doc' file, making it available on Google Drive.

If all goes well, you'll see the file is now added to your Google Drive at the bottom of the list of files:

4. After the upload, check the formatting of the document. To open up your document, just click on it from Google Drive. Once you do so, you'll see a Word-like view of the document, ready for you to edit (and possibly fix):

5. Click the sharing button to setup how this document is shared with the rest of the world. If your team is small enough, or the document is sensitive enough, you may want to share the document with each team member individually. Do this by adding in each persons e-mail one at a time. However, when it comes to something like meeting notes, I usually take another route. I setup the document to be visible to anyone who knows the link, and give them the ability to *comment* on the document.

This allows me to e-mail out the link, and individuals don't even need to log in to add their comments. Team members can add their comments as described here.

6. Copy the Link to Share and include that in in your e-mail rather than an attachment.

Now, if you forget something in the document, you head back to Google Drive and simply edit the document (as we did in step #4). When your team checks the link, the content visible will always be the most up to date version.

And your team members can go to town and leave as many comments as they wish. You'll be notified via e-mail whenever they do.

As you "fix" the document you can send out the link with an update as to what changed. Regardless of which email a team member clicks on, they are always sent to the latest version of the document.

Google Docs even tracks your changes so you can see how the document has evolved.

The above process is definitely clunky to learn. But once you get used to real-time online collaboration of documents, you'll never want to send another 'doc' attachment again.

Here are some video tutorials that may help with the above process: Uploading and Sharing Files with Google Drive, Google drive upload, duplicate, share, file documents and Google Drive and Docs: Sharing and Collaborating.

Look Ma, My Software's on TV!

The BBC ran a story featuring one of my customers:

We've all heard about making a phone call from jail, but what about a video call? Similar to Skype, video visitation allows inmates to see their friends and family while they talk.

That 'Skype' like software was built by us. And by 'us', I mean me.

While tempting, I won't comment on the thesis of the article itself (that said software will one day lead to the end of face to face visits). But, I will take a bit of pride knowing that the software is helping connect families during a difficult time, and making a safer environment for prison guards in the process.

Here's the full report:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Unexpected Run In With My Mortality

So tonight I'm running along Military Road, a fairly wide/major street in Arlington, and I hear a sharp crack. I've heard this sound before when a squirrel or another animal managed to snap a limb off a tree.

It's dark, but to my right just a couple of yards from me it appears there's a stand of trees. The cracking sounds spooks me enough that I step off the sidewalk and into the shoulder of the street.

Then I start to hear more cracking, and I decide I'm done standing a few feet from all these trees.

As I'm running across the street, the cracking sound gets louder, and my running faster. As I'm booking it across the street there's an immense burst of white light, followed by a thunderous crash.

I keep running, not daring to look back.

A few moments later there is silence, followed by the whir of machines in what appears to be a nearby power substation.

As I regain my composure, I return to where I was jogging a few moments earlier and find a large tree is now spanning the roadway.

Holy. Smokes.

It occurs to me that had I not heeded the warning signs, I'd have been a pancake right about now.

Once I confirmed that nobody else was around (and possibly injured), I naturally went to work snapping some photos. None of them come close to doing the scene justice.

(Keep in mind, the above scene was just empty road a few minutes earlier.)

A few minutes later, some cars and walkers are on the scene. It's all good, as no one got hurt.

I call 911 and spend a longish minute on hold. I report the obstruction and after a few more pictures, continue on my otherwise uneventful run.

Apparently it's not the crazy cyclists, oblivious drivers or overzealous muggers you need to worry about in North Arlington. It's the pine trees.

Lesson learned.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I Came, I Saw, I Bootlegged

But somehow, I don't worry that the folks who put on the Elementary School Concert we attended last night are going to be too concerned with my unauthorized recordings. So here it is, one hour and 15 minutes of concert, boiled down to a handful of audio clips. It sure was adorable watching the kids learn to manage their new instruments.

Warming Up:

After a small false start, things really got going:

Wait for it...wait for it...yeah, you know that tune!

The 3rd Grade Chorus in action!

If this doesn't put you in the holiday spirit, I don't know what will:

And here's a 4th grade violin genius:

Quite the rendition of Hashivanu! Not bad, considering 99% of these kids have never heard Hebrew spoken.

And the final applause and farewell by the principal. Notice how we got a "Happy Holidays," and no "Merry Christmas." Got to love sensitive Arlington Schools.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ham (Radio) On The Cheap

There are lots of reasons to consider getting a Ham Radio License. Sure, it's cool to hack, but more importantly, the cell phone grid in the DC area is pretty dang fragile. Within minutes of a regional incident (as happened in 9/11 and the 2011 earthquake), the voice and texting capabilities of your cell phone are pretty much useless. With only a little research, you quickly learn that Ham Radio is your best bet for communication during a crisis.

Turns out, it doesn't have to be a particularly expensive hobby. Here's one approach that seems like it would work, and it's pretty dang cheap:

So there you go, $45.00 and you've got everything you need to get on the air.

Now I just need the time to study the guide to see if getting the license is even a possibility.

Along with being a low cost preparedness option, the above also seems like a terrific gift for a kid. What a way to open up their world beyond cell phones and text messaging? (Not that there's anything wrong with that world.)

Tis The Season to be Thankful: Megyn Kelly's Gift to Comedy Central

Oh, thank you Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly for explaining to us that Santa and Jesus are both white. This is just the ingredients the Daily Show and Colbert needed to make the perfect mix of comedy and insight that they are both famous for. And they didn't disappoint. Check out their terrific responses to her claims:

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

Nailed It.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best Use For A Zip Gun

Last week I learned about a new hack: the Zip Gun. A Zip Gun is essentially a home made gun, often using little more than pipe for a barrel and a few other crude parts. You can, for example, build a functioning 12 Gauge Shotgun for $7.00 or a 22 caliber the size of a key fob.

The concept is quite old, and was apparently more popular back in the 50s, before guns were dirt cheap (and the fact that kids had shop class didn't help). Of course, with 3D printable guns, the whole concept of improvised home made weaponry is back to being a popular topic.

Before you run off and build your own arsenal, keep in mind that while the general consensus is that Zip Guns you build solely for yourself are legal, they are also ridiculously dangerous. With just a little error, you could easily end up with an exploding firearm that does far more damage to the shooter, than the shootie. The same goes for 3D printed guns.

Still, I've got to give credit to one brilliant individual who had the chutzpah to make a Zip Gun and then bring it to a gun back back program:

Sergeant Louis Graziano, a firearms and tactics instructor, recalled at the news conference that about three years ago, he heard that a zip gun had been brought to a buyback. He thought that perhaps it had been “sitting around someone’s home for a long time.”

But when he learned that several other zip guns had been brought to other buyback locations within the span of a few days, or maybe even a single day, Sergeant Graziano concluded that someone had figured out a clever way to make $200 a pop.

This individual was taking $5.00 of hardware, making it look more or less like a gun, and then turning it in for a $200 bounty. And he didn't even have to pull the trigger and risk blowing off a hand.

Brilliant. Expect even more of this with 3D printable guns. It's Guns and Capitalism; is there anything more American than that?

SitAware: An Experiment in Improving Situational Awareness

One of our Krav Maga instructors mentioned a wicked "game" called Knockout. From a post on the subject, I found my way to this article on self defense. The author's thesis is that the majority of self defense should be focused on Getting off the X (that is: not being in the vulnerable situation in the first place). It's an interesting approach, and one that he hits home with this comment:

In terms of quality practice time in a 45-minute self-defense/martial art class, about 1-minute is spent on awareness (remember students, be aware of your surroundings”) and then 44 minutes is spent countering the attack you just let happen.

The absolutely rings true to me. (In defense of instructors who have said the above to me: I am attending a class to learn how to deal with the worst case scenario.)

This got me thinking: if situational awareness is so key, why not treat it like any other skill and look for ways to improve it?

With this in mind, I give you my latest little Tasker App: Sit Aware. Calling "Sit Aware" a program is actually being generous, it's really just a tiny little script that does the following:

- Every so often (say, every 2 hours during the day), Sit Aware kicks off
- A random number is generated between 1 and 5
- If the number is 1, vibrate out a pattern corresponding to the Morse code for "EX"
- If the number is 2, vibrate out a pattern corresponding to the Morse code for "S"
- If the number is anything else, do nothing

By now you're probably thinking, what the heck does this have to do with improving situational awareness?

The idea behind the program is that randomly throughout the day I'll be prompted with one of two vibrating queues. The one labeled "EX" implies that I should count up the exits in the room, the one labeled "S" implies that I should do a 360 degree scan of wherever I am, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Bottom line, I'm trying to nudge myself into paying attention more often.

I'm curious to see that what happens if I prod myself enough. Do I start noticing the above conditions without being prompted? Or am, and will I always be, oblivious to the world around me?

Here's a more formal description of the Tasker action:

SitAware (23)
 A1: Variable Randomize [ Name:%goal Min:1 Max:5 ] 
 A2: If [ %goal = 1 ]
 A3: Vibrate Pattern [ Pattern:0,300,300,900,300,300,300,300,300,900 ] 
 A4: Notify [ Title:SitAware: EX Text: Icon:null Number:0 Permanent:Off Priority:3 ] 
 A5: Else If [ %goal = 2 ]
 A6: Notify [ Title:SitAware: S Text: Icon:null Number:0 Permanent:Off Priority:3 ] 
 A7: Vibrate Pattern [ Pattern:0,300,300,300,300,300 ] 
 A8: End If 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fort Washington Park, A Hidden Gem in my Backyard

Years ago, while driving back from Mt. Vernon I notice what appeared to be a massive fort on the other side of the river. I checked around, and learned the site was appropriately named Fort Washington Park.

The location didn't get much in the way of mentions (guide books appeared to ignored it; nobody every suggested it), so while it was on my To Do list, it wasn't high on it.

Today, I finally dragged my visiting parents and brother and sister-in-law to the park.

Holy smokes! We have a friggin castle just 20 minutes from my house! OK, maybe it's not a castle, maybe it's a stone fort. But still, it's huge, and impressive looking and you can roam all around it.

How is this place not more well known?? It seems like the perfect place to bring kids to see a giant structure and get steeped in history.

Besides the fort, there are a number of other military buildings to oggle and trails to hike. The Ranger at the visitor center did a terrific job of explaining the site, and there were a few folks in costume in the fort to explain further details. I was bummed that we couldn't stay for the Ranger lead tour at 2pm.

We saw nearly half a dozen deer today, and a few potentially interesting birds. You can also fish in the park. So if the the man made structures don't do it for you, there's always the wildlife.

This place is definitely a hidden gem. It may have take me nearly 14 years to discover it, but I'm glad I finally did.

Even more photos

Friday, December 13, 2013

I am so not worthy

Shira tried out a new recipe this evening: home made eclairs!

I'm a big fan of all things cream filled, and her recipie didn't disappoint. Seriously, I snuck one before dinner and it was heavenly.

Shira's advice for a happy marriage: know her favorite jewelry, and his favorite dessert(s) and make then both appear every so often, just because.

So true, so true.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review: Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City's Most Colorful Neighborhoods

A couple weeks ago I found myself in Barnes and Nobel book store with a bunch of time to kill. It was at that point that I realized I hadn't casually browsed a bookstore in months, if not years. I leisurely moved from section to section, with no particular goal in mind. And when I got to the Internal Travel section I decided to give a little extra attention to Japan, as that's a place on our short list of next places to visit. And so I discovered Tokyo on Foot: Travels in the City's Most Colorful Neighborhoods.

While the name may sound like a traditional guidebook, it's actually far from that. The book contains various drawings the author created while on a 6 month stay in Tokyo. It follows the Urban Sketching philosophy of drawing; one that I truly enjoy. The text that accompanies the art is witty and informative. It's a book I immediately decided I wanted to read. Unfortunately, our library didn't have it, so buying it was my best option. When I received a gift certificate to B&N a week later, I knew exactly how I was going to spend it.

I've now been through the book completely, and it's really wonderful. The art didn't disappoint, and like I said, the text is quite clever and makes for a fun read. The book contains a number of hand drawn maps, which I can't begin to imagine how much effort they took to create. If we do visit Tokyo, my plan is to re-read the book and see if I can get some suggestions about places to see or things to do. With that said, I'll be sticking to a classic Frommer's Guide when it comes to actually planning and executing our trip, as this book is more memoir than guide.

Another reason I so enjoyed the book is that I strive to follow the same path the author took, when I travel. I love how he embraces not just well known sites, but finds beautiful and novel things throughout the city. And I love that rather than taking on some mindless job while he was there, he pursued his passion for drawing and turned it into something quite substantial. I doubt I'll ever pull that off, but I applaud his effort and was glad to send a few bucks his way by purchasing the book.

Beyond Whiteboarding: Cupcaking

When it comes to communication, I've always believed that a visual representation of a concept was more powerful than a strictly verbal one (see Rule #10). But, apparently, I haven't been thinking far enough outside of the box. Whiteboarding a concept is good, but Cupcaking is even better! Cupcaking? Allow me to explain.

Last night, Dawn of gym fame, was telling me about bringing a new team member up to speed on a project. This project involves tagging objects with identifiers (including serial numbers and part numbers). She wanted to emphasize to the newbie that some of the numbers were unique in some contexts, but not others. And how did she do this? By baking cupcakes, of course!

Here's a photo she took of said cupcakes:

The little flags, as you can see, contain various metadata. And the chocolate and vanilla flavors serve to divvy up the cupcakes into distinct types.

Rather than just looking at a diagram explaining which identifiers are unique, you can actually physically handle--and eat--the models. Brilliant!

Forget bringing a laptop to my next meeting, I'm going to bring one of these. Who wants to describe the architecture of a website on a whiteboard, when I can do it in tasty little cakes!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Quintessential Washington DC Snowday

Here's how yesterday played out:

6:30am: I wake up. Shira gives me the good news: all the schools in the area are closed, the Federal Government is shutdown. It's a snow day!

6:32am: I look outside. There's no snow. I inquire as to the deal.

6:33am: Shira explains to me that local news sources are reporting: (1) the snow is *coming*, perhaps up to 8 inches of it, and (2) being on the roads at this point is grounds for insanity. Sure, there's no snow, but it's coming. And it will be bad. Really bad.

6:40am: Snow starts falling. Big, wet flakes.

10:00am: I glance outside, there's a tiny amount of accumulation, but mostly it just looks nice out.

11:00am: I get on a call with a customer from Florida. As I'm explaining that we're in full lock down mode, and expecting 8 inches of snow, Shira chimes in. The forecast has been updated: we're actually expecting to get 2 inches. Whoa, what?! 2 inches of snow?

1:57pm: I step out to take some photos of the neighborhood, like I did during the ice storm the day before. Unlike that storm which left us with dramatic scenes everywhere, this one is a bit more bland. Here's a few of the more dramatic photos I capture:

In reality, it's just a nice day out:

And there you have it, life during a DC snow day. Of course, the one time that they don't shut down the city at the threat of snow is the time that it hits. And when it hits, more than likely, a massive number of people will be stranded either in DC at their work place, or on the roads. And that does actually have the makings for a significant emergency. So, as much as I rag on the snow polices around here, they aren't without some logic.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tasker + NFC = One Less Excuse for Forgetting the Laundry

NFC is one of those cool technologies that I've always wanted to put to use, but had yet to find a calling (same goes for QR codes). And then, while surfing the web over the weekend I hit on the perfect scenario: to make my washer and dryer just a little smarter.

The idea was obvious once I read it: stick an NFC tag on both the washer and dryer. Then, after starting one or the other, touch the phone to the tag. This would then setup a timer to remind me to get my butt down stairs to change out the load.

I'm a huge fan of Tasker, and really prefer to use it to automate my phone (versus learning a number of different tools). Luckily there's the Locale NFC plugin for Tasker that allows actions to be triggered by an NFC tag. I hadn't ever used the plugin, but with my new found use-case I was ready to spend a few bucks to install it and put it to use.

Turns out, the plugin works exactly as you might expect. You link the unique ID located in the NFC tag to a specific task. In the case of the washing machine the task does the following:

  1. Say "starting washing machine. See you in an hour."
  2. Waits for 1 hour
  3. Sends both Shira and me a text message saying it's time to get the laundry

Of course, I could have the task do more, but this is a good start. And here are the tags themselves:

I'm really loving the Tasker + NFC integration. I like that I don't have to write to the NFC tag itself, and that I can tweak the action after the fact even if I'm not near the tag itself. And of course, I like that I'm only limited by my creativity with Tasker for making NFC tags useful.

Now I just need to think of other clever uses for this setup. It's a wonderfully simple way to simulate a sort of smart device. Perhaps I should put some tags on the fridge and use them to log when I need to pick up more of something? Or perhaps I can sew one into my jacket and have some action take place when I put the device up to my sleeve?

What's your favorite NFC hack? Please share.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Icy Scenes in the Hood

The storm that I was mocking yesterday gave us a nice blanket of ice overnight. Fortunately, this morning it's above freezing, so that the ice is quickly disappearing. Still, I couldn't resist walking around the neighborhood grabbing a few photos. Well, more like 156 photos. But here are the ones worth actually looking at.

Schools are canceled, morning commutes were made more painful, but I'm happy because I found photographic subjects everywhere I looked.

How to Walk Across America

Apparently, walking across America is a thing people do. Sort of like the hiking the Appalachian Trail, but through cities and towns. I like pretty much any endurance challenge, so color me impressed. I found Nate Damm's guide to be an impressive one in that it gave a surprisingly practical amount of information for a ridiculously large challenge.

Some of my favorite bits of advice:

How many people have walked across America?

A lot. Don’t do this because you want to try to be in a super elite group of people. Do it because you just want to do it. It’s certainly not an everyday thing, but it’s not as special as you may be thinking. ...
Use what you have!

This is a weird motto I came up with on the walk, which is kind of hard to explain: Use what you have. But it makes sense in my weird brain. Anyway, basically, if someone offers you a candy bar, take the damn candy bar. Don’t think ‘oh, there’s a store up ahead, I’ll want a candy bar more then and I’m kind of full from breakfast’ and then get there and see the store doesn’t exist. ...
Where do you sleep?

This for me was without question the most stressful part of the walk at the beginning. With that being said, as the days went on, I gained knowledge and confidence and things got much easier. Not knowing where you’re going to sleep every night is something that you will get used to, believe it or not.

For the most part, I did what is called stealth camping off the side of the road. I’d find a hidden place in the woods or over a hill and set up my tent. It made me nervous at first, but I got used to it. Your skills at doing this will get better each time you do it. The key is just doing it over and over again.
When heading into a town, or if you know what town you’re going to be ending your day in, call the local police dispatch. This will either be a local police department number or a county sheriff dispatch. Having a smart phone comes in really handy here so you can Google this information. If you don’t have a smart phone, just ask someone where the police station is and show up there in person. That works too.

So, you call them. They answer. Say exactly this:

Hey (operators name if they say it), just have a quick question for you. My name is (your name) and I’m walking across America. I’m planning on finishing my day of walking today in (town name) and was wondering if there is anywhere that I might be able to set up my tent and get some sleep for the night, like a town park or a place like that?
How much does it cost?

Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed that it cost me so much do to my trip. I view $4,500 as a pretty high amount. If I did the same walk today, I could do it for much less because of what I learned along the way and the fact that I’m now well seasoned to the road and traveling with very little money as a permanent nomad. People such as Hobo Nick have done a walk across the country with NO MONEY at all. In other words, you shouldn’t view money as a huge obstacle, there is always a way to make your walk happen if you want it bad enough and are willing to make sacrifices.

Some adventures I hear about and think, "Man! I've got to do that!" This isn't one of them. But, I'm impressed with the anyone who pulls this off.

Go read all of Nate's advice.

And if reading isn't your thing, here's a video of Nate talking about his walk:

The Art Therapy I Didn't Know I Needed

Last Friday night, after a delightful Shabbatdinner, my Sister-in-law busted out some foam-like modeling clay. David, She and I then went to work making whatever creation came to mind.

Shira stood on the sidelines being thankful that this wasn't some mandatory art class.

Maryn, with her 3rd grade teacher skills and black belt in crafting made a perfectly sculpted snow man. From the top hat to the itty-bitty bow tie, this guy was perfect.

My creation was a tad less sophisticated. But it had heart, and I'm quite certain my mommy would be proud of me for making it.

The big surprise, to me anyway, was David's creation. It's a modern art creation that's truly wonderful. I don't exactly know what it means, but clearly it could be on display at some Modern Art Museum somewhere. If the science thing is ever a bust, making art may be my brother's backup calling.

Seriously, this was fun. Next time you've got a dinner party, leave the wine at home and bring the modeling clay. Or better yet, bring both and use both in copious amounts.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

What do you see when you look at this picture?

If you look at the above image of the incredibly light dusting of snow on one of our deck posts and think, "EMERGENCY!! Must go to Giant and buy milk, bread and toilet paper, and must cancel all activities for the rest of the day" then you're officially a Northern Virginian.

OK, so some nasty weather is scheduled to arrive at 3pm today. Does that mean we have to be in full lock down all day?

I love it here. But time after time the weather teaches us there's no reason to panic, and time after time we do.

Friday, December 06, 2013

My Latest Bag Buy: Port & Company Honeycomb Sling Pack

Years ago, Shira was given a no-frills sling backpack at a conference she attended. Being a fan of all things gear and bags I was curious to see if it was useful. I tried it in a number contexts while hiking, traveling and biking. In all cases I found it to just too small to be useful, or too uncomfortable to wear.

One day, though, I needed to head out of the house and I was wearing exercise clothes; that meant no pockets to hold all my usual crap essentials. I tossed the items in the sling bag and off I went. To my surprise, the bag worked great. Sure, it was small, but it fit the contents of my pockets just fine. And not being overlyful meant that it hugged my back and stayed out of my way. The bag was all black, and basically a backpack, so I didn't suffer from oh-dear-I'm-carrying-a-purse-and-everyone-is-laughing-at-me'itis.

And so this freebie bag became my goto bag when I ran out of room in pockets (or didn't have them) and just needed to carry one or two things. Need to grab just my DSLR and an extra lens? The bag was perfect. Heading to the gym and want to have my wallet and a water bottle handy? Again, the bag worked ideally.

I even started to put the somewhat pathetic features of the bag to use. The tiny mesh water bottle pocket on the side wouldn't come close to holding a real water bottle. But, it became the perfect spot to stash my car keys. The mesh managed to keep them secure, but visible. And the silly open pocket on the front? It worked great for clipping a blinky light to it, to add some visibility at night.

There was only one real catch to the bag: I really disliked the fact that it had the name of the conference printed in large letters on the back. Not only was this really poor OPSEC, but it wasn't even a conference *I* attended.

So, every once in a while, I'd go searching around for a replacement bag. Try as I may, I could never find anything quite the same low profile and the right size. Sure, I wanted to look like Indian Jones, but I was quite certain I wasn't going to pull off that look.

Then, one day while looking through Amazon I realized an obvious option: I could re-buy the same exact bag, but without the customized conference info. And sure enough, Amazon has it:

For $11 (and free shipping both ways), my annoyances could be resolved. And I almost pulled the trigger.

While looking at related items, I was lured into actually purchasing a similar bag. Specifically, I picked up the Port & Company Honeycomb Sling Pack. At $8.08 (and free shipping both ways) in navy blue, it was too good a deal to resist. And I figured I could always fall back on the plain old black bag if I'd preferred.

Here's what the Port & Company bag looks like:

Note the water bottle is next to the bag to give some sense of scale. There's no internal photos because, well, there's nothing internal. It's just one big pocket and one small pocket. You can see a commercial for the bag on YouTube.

I've only used the bag a single time, but here's my initial thoughts:

  • It's definitely a shorter, more squat bag than my black one. I find this annoying, as it gives it more of a purse look than a backpack look. Still, I think it works.
  • Gone are the useless water bottle pocket and flap pocket, which I had put to use and miss.
  • I'm sure the zippered front pocket will be useful. Probably more so than the extra pockets on the black bag.
  • Size wise, the navy blue bag works is pretty much equivalent to the black bag. Even though it's shorter, it seems to have slightly more depth. It fits my DSLR camera gear or my netbook; but not both at the same time. Which is the whole point. It holds my usual pocket related stuff, without any issue.
  • The sling attaches to the left side of the bag versus the right. I find this disorienting, but probably not a big deal. The bag doesn't get filled up enough to get heavy, so it doesn't really matter which shoulder it's slung over.
  • With the black bag, when I slid the bag around to access it, the zipper was on the downward facing side of the bag. That means that opening it up while wearing the bag meant that stuff was almost certainly going to fall out. With the Port & Company bag, when I access the bag, the zipper is on top. Hurray! No more stuff randomly falling out.
  • The navy blue color is just as low key a the black color. I'd feel just as comfortable bringing this to the gym as to a business meeting.
  • The quality and sturdiness of the navy blue bag is remarkable considering it was $8. This bag may not last forever, but given its price, it's really well put together.

I suppose it mainly boils down to this: is it worth trading the more squat bag shape for the ability to open it while wearing it? And I think the answer is yes. So, for $8, I do believe I've got a new when my pockets just won't hold all my crap bag. Which, given all the stuff I schelp, is more often than you might expect.