Thursday, January 31, 2013

DC Braces itself for another storm. I chuckle.

Thanks to my Rochester roots, I just have to share a few quotes from this article on the impending snow storm:

Maryland had already treated more than half of its major roads, including highways, as of 4 p.m. Thursday, according to Charlie Gischlar with the Maryland State Highway Administration.

At 2 a.m. Friday, 210 trucks will begin to clear the roads and treat the major thoroughfares again.
Trucks have already pre-treated the roads with a brine solution.
"They can do that up to 48 hours before a storm. It dries on the roadway. That helps melt it until we can get salt down," Lisle says. ...
In Virginia, 350 trucks will hit the roads at midnight to pre-treat before the snow begins to fall. They are covering main thoroughfares in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, according to VDOT spokesperson Joan Morris.

And how much snow are we preparing for? Brace yourself..."at least a half-inch of snow across the D.C. region."

Half. An. Inch.

While they are at it, I wonder if they will cancel school, too? Heck, I could use another trip to the art museum.

Making A Super Simple Alcohol Stove

I've fiddled a bit with alcohol stoves before, but I'd yet to find the right combination of stove, pot stand, and pot that I could put together effortlessly and cheaply (read: free). That is, until I found this stove idea, which couldn't be simpler. Here's how you make it:

  1. Cut off the bottom of a soda can
  2. Use a whole punch or scissors to cut vents in the top of the stove
  3. There is no third step

Here's what the "stove" looks like when it's done:

To use the stove, you pour some fuel into the soda can, light the fuel, and plop a pot on top. There's no messing around with filling a mostly sealed stove, and best of all you don't need to bother with a pot stand. The stove is the stand.

I had no problem cranking two of these out, taking about 5 minutes each. For one I used a razor blade to slice open the can, for the other I used a scissors. I won't get any points for aesthetics, but it got the job done:

For the pot, I used a Blue Diamond Almond can, which will allow you to easily boil up a cup or so of water. Along with the pot, I used a mess of tin foil. Here's the whole setup in action:

HEET fuel really does burn almost completely clear, so yes, it's kind of hard to tell that the stove is working its magic. For my test, I couldn't have been any more unscientific: I put a splash of HEET fuel in the stove and in about 7 minutes I had an almost boiling cup of water. Unfortunately, I ran out of fuel before the small bubbles in the water turned into a rolling boil. I believe this estimate when it says:

With about .5 oz of Heet, this stove will simmer 2 cups of water in 5-6 minutes, and achieve a rolling boil in 8-9 minutes (and then go out).

The stove, a bunch of tin foil and a lighter fit neatly in a Blue Diamond pot and it weighs almost nothing. Here's the setup packed up:

As for fuel, I've re-purposed some TSA friendly 3oz containers. My plan is to store 3oz of HEET with each stove, along with 3oz of 91% isopropyl alcohol. The isopropyl alcohol burns a lot dirtier than the HEET, which means that it's not as efficient. On the other hand, it gives off quite a bit light and heat, turns the stove into more of a heater / signaling device. In the right context, that could be really handy.

My plan, for now, is to package all this up and chuck one into the trunk of each car. A few years back we had a nasty storm which left people stranded for hours, if not all night, in the cold. By being prepared for that scenario, I figure it will never happen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: Eating Aliens

I can't recall a more striking book transition than that of 30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Known By The Time She's 30 and Eating Aliens by Jackson Landers. Even the verbosity of the titles suggests a big switcharoo is ahead.

Eating Aliens turned out to be an absolute page turner about one man's quest to hunt and eat invasive species. It starts off with a bang, as you join the author on a graphically depicted hunt for a black spiney tailed iguana, along with an equally graphic description of preparing one for a meal. It was just the dose of Man Reading I needed after pondering the challenges women go through when they turn that serious age of 30.

Had the book been nothing more than a romp through the woods (or, Florida subdivisions, in the case of hunting iguanas), it would have been fun enough. But, it turns out it was much more. It was an education on invasive species and how they develop, a view into the ethical world of hunting for one's food and one heck of a road trip described by a talented writer. Landers has a sort of humility that lets him get in over his head, and at times fail to meet his goals, yet you want to root for him the whole way.

Landers' ultimate goal is quite admirable: he wants to educate the world that invasive species do have a solution. Us. If instead of lamenting the overpopulation of Canadian Geese, for example, we decided we could eat them, the result would be an animal population returned to correct levels and more people with full bellies. It's a message so simple and so powerful, it's amazing that it's not already the norm. Can one man trigger a revolution to eat our way out of invasive species? Not sure, but if anyone can, it's Jackson Landers.

As an entrepreneur, I'm struck at the simple path Landers has outlined towards a successful and environmentally beneficial business. 1) Find an invasive species. 2) Market it. 3) Get rich. 4) Help fix the environment. How can you argue with that?

In fact, a quick search of invasive species in Arlington VA turns up a reference to English Ivy. Another Google search, and you realize that English Ivy has a number of important health benefits. Why not collect, process and sell the stuff as a business? Sure, there are no doubt countless roadblocks to doing this. But that's the case with any idea. But how many ideas can have such a positive impact by their execution alone?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Fort Hunt Park - WW II Spycraft meets a day in the Park

On paper, Fort Hunt looks like a fun place to check out. Besides the usual hiking and picnicking options, it's got a number of structures that can be visited and is the site of some serious World War II spycraft. The park is located a few minutes drive from Mount Vernon, which means that it's only about 15 minutes away from Arlington.

In reality, though, most of the park is open space, and we failed to find any sort of detailed map to give us a clue as to what we should check out. Our 8 year old and I discovered one trail that went off in the woods a bit, but it was almost always within the sight of a road. And while the dilapidated buildings are cool, it's harder to explain a secret government POW camp to an 8 year old than one might think.

So, I can't declare Fort Hunt a resounding success.

Still, if you want a nice stroll, plenty of open space to play ball and a dose of history, it seems like it would be a winner. Perhaps we just went on a day that was too chilly to enjoy it?

It definitely needs a geocache. Maybe that can be my contribution to improving the park, next time I visit.

You should definitely take a few minutes to read up on P.O. Box 1142 - it's got spooky government project written all over it.

Update: This American Life has an enlightening story on PO Box 1142, it's definitely worth a listen.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Heads on a Stick and a Heaping Pile of Crabs - Putting a Snow Day to Good Use

Today was the Snow Day That Wasn't. As a result, our 8 year old had no school. After running some errands (family rule: chores first, then fun), I decided it was time to ditch work for the day and go have an adventure. Normally, I'd go the hiking/geocaching route, but given the cold gray day, I figured it was the perfect day to explore a few Smithsonians.

By now, our 8 year old has done the usual suspects (American History, Natural History and Air & Space Museums) a number of times. I figured we should try something different, so I set my sights on the National Gallery of Art. I found parking next to the Hirshhorn Gallery, and given how chilly it was outside, that would have to do.

The first exhibit you see is in the courtyard, and it's a series of animal heads. It was actually a really fun and kid friendly display, so that started things off on a good note.

I didn't expect to spend a long time at an art museum. I was just hoping we could have a look around, maybe find a piece or two could like or laugh at, and then move on to another museum. The Hrishhorn, ended up fitting this goal perfectly.

We walked through the Ai Weiwei exhibition, and with the right mindset, it was a lot of fun. Who doesn't love a heaping pile of crabs? Or the photos of the artist dropping a vase? Or a big old collection of stools glued together? I'm not sure what the photo essay of the building of the Olympic Stadium was supposed to mean, but they sure were impressive pictures.

After we had our fill of art, we head to the Natural History Museum's cafeteria, which is quite posh (and pricey), considering it's in the basement of a museum. We found two small, out of the way, exhibits to peruse (Birds of DC and When Time and Duty Permit: Collecting During WWII) and made our way back to the car. On the way back, we ducked into the National Museum of African Art for a bit. We saw more museum than art here (lots of empty space, and not many exhibits we could find), but we were still pleased we could duck in and take a look around.

The most amazing part of our day: we arrived back at the car to find it wasn't ticketed. Somehow I had managed to obey the parking laws and fill the meter correctly. Whoo!

It was a fun and eclectic day of museum hopping.

Name this weather emergency

Take a good, long look at the picture below. What weather emergency is shown?

If you guessed "snow day" give yourself a gold star!

Yes, Arlington Public Schools canceled school on account of rain. There was a threat of ice storm conditions, but it has yet to materialize.

This has to be some sort of  record for least necessary school canceling.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The 11 Year Old Rock Climbing Master

Want to be impressed? Take a few minutes and watch 11 year old Brooke Raboutou's story. She's a rock climber who is doing amazing things at an amazingly young age. You'll feel impressed, and like an underachiever after just a few minutes of watching:

If you want to skip the video, you can read this article for the Cliff Notes version. Still, the video is totally worth it.

Doing More With Less, Style Edition

I came across this photo and caption, and I just have to respect it as a mighty impressive hack:

Sometimes I think I’m pretty creative…and then I see Natalie Portman’s stunt double wearing a sleeveless, V-neck, cropped, side-tie top that she improvised on the spot from a freakin’ trash bag…and I realize that I actually have quite a ways to go. I mean look at the fit and the shoulders on this – the shoulders are perfect.

Whether it's photography, programming, rocket science or, in the case above, style -- it's amazing what can be accomplished by someone with few resources and a lots of skill.

I want to love my job as much as Jorge Sprave and be as clever as the stunt double above.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Winter Finally Arrives

Two things:

  1. Apparently a 1/2 inch of snow counts as major weather event - major enough that schools were delayed two hours. At least they didn't shut down the government over this.
  2. There's was something magical about kids playing at the bus stop during this first snow of the year. The running and skidding around, awkward snowball throwing and even attempted snowman building. The whole scene was out of a Hallmark commercial.

It's snowball make'n time:

Hurry up, let's build a snowman before the bus comes:


Struggle on grass, struggle on. You can persevere through this winter storm.

Review: 30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Should Know By The Time She's 30

On a number of occasions I've come across books suggesting what every guy should know. It's usually a list of wide ranging skills like: use jumper cables, cook the perfect soufflé, win a fencing match, tie a clove hitch -- that sort of thing. One of these days I'll actually pick up and read (and perhaps try to master) one of these books. In the mean time, though, I couldn't resist checking out a book on the same topic for women when I saw it at the library. Think of it as a little intelligence gathering effort (knowing is half the battle - right?).

It turns out, a woman needs remarkably few specific skills by the time she's 30 (compared to men). As far as I can tell, she only needs to master one: "how to kiss in a way that communicates perfectly what you would and wouldn't like to happen next." It's not exactly how to use jumper cables, but still quite handy, I suppose.

Women also need just a few essential physical items by the time they are 30: "a purse, suitcase and umbrella you're not ashamed to be seen carrying;" "something perfect to wear if the employer or man of your dreams wants to see you in an hour" and "a set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill and a black lace bra." Again, pretty handy stuff. I'd probably add to that a Swiss Army knife, and a quality flashlight, but that's just me.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to the emotional housekeeping that a 30 year old woman needs to do. It boils down to, and I'm paraphrasing here: It's time to grow up. This is how. And it's not so bad.

Apparently, the 20 somethings of a women can be pretty sweet, what with all the fun that can be had. But at 30, it's time to face reality: your 20 something days of flitting around are now behind you. Get used to it. Better yet, embrace it.

Alright, enough of me being snarky. The fact of the matter is, the lessons espoused in this book (having privacy, being willing to live alone even if you don't want to, outgrowing childish habits, etc.) are not exclusive to women. Nor are they exclusive to 30 year olds. They are lessons we all need to learn some time or another. And while I didn't learn to use jumper cables or cook the perfect soufflé (I already know how to tie a clove hitch), I was reminded about many an important life lesson.

My biggest take away: women spend an awful lot of time thinking about stuff that guys don't give a second thought to.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Business Lessons from Tom and Gary

When I talk to folks about their ideas, I often suggest they try the following mental exercise:

Think through how you would implement your idea if you had no money to work with. Now imagine you've got some money (say, $10-20k). Now imagine you've got millions of dollars. What can you learn from each solution?

The goal behind this exercise is to help individuals let go of the some of the "musts" that they think their software needs, and help them realize that they can do amazing things with less.

I don't expect folks to choose the zero dollar solution, but I often want people realize that it *is* possible. You can have huge impact with a free Blogger account, clever use of Twitter and a handful of marketing books from the library. Over and over I learn that what's important isn't how sophisticated the software is, but how meaningfully it solves real people's problems. Deliver value, and almost everything else will take care of itself.

As you can imagine, I love finding examples of this in the wild. Which brings you to my new favorite discovery: 150 Boom Boxes and the Best Dance Party You’ve Never Been To. That link points to a recent Wired article which features Tom and Gary's Decentralized Dance Party.

Tom and Gary wanted to make an impact in the entertainment world. They could have gone the standard route, and opened up their own dance club, or put together some sort of dance party service. Instead, they came up with their own notion of decentralized dance parties.

The technology is wonderfully simple: an iPod connected to a radio transmitter, and whole lot of cheap boom boxes tuned into that frequency (and locked in with Duct Tape, of course). To top it off, the setup is "controlled" by a Nintendo Power Glove. And by controlled, I mean that it's warn for dramatic effect.

Sure, this isn't truly a Zero Dollar implementation. But for all intents and purposes, it really is. They deliver true value, and in return, folks don't care that the setup is rough around the edges. In fact, that roughness only adds to the effect.

You want to change the world with your idea. Let Tom and Gary show you the way. Solve a real problem, deliver real value, and do it with less. Or, do it with more. Whatever. Just do it!

An Excellent Way To Misuse Poll Data

I was reading this article from CNN and was struck by the following paragraph:

It's the culture, stupid

Conservatives are losing the culture war when, according to a 2011 Pew Research poll, 49% of Americans ages 18-29 have a positive view of socialism while just 46% have a positive view of capitalism. Such views are the products of our education system and the movies, music and entertainment young Americans consume. We must change those cultural institutions before we can truly change our political institutions in the long term.

This seems to expand on the Republican Narrative: not only is our President a Socialist, but now most of the population is too!. It's a powerful message, and will certainly reinforce the notion that half the country is living a flawed ideology.

My first instinct is to think - huh, really? I can't imagine most of the population even understands the nuances of what socialism really is (I know I certainly don't), and while capitalism without controls is unreliable, nobody I know is advocating that.

While I was skeptical, the article linked to this poll as proof.

A quick glance at the graphic at the top of the poll shows this:

Without reading any further, it seems that socialism has the most negative view, while capitalism is in the middle. Not exactly what the article on CNN suggested. Still, this poll suggests that capitalism may not be as universally accepted as I thought. Then I read:

Of these terms, socialism is the more politically polarizing – the reaction is almost universally negative among conservatives, while generally positive among liberals.

Whoa. You're telling me that all this poll measured was how much people like the term socialism. That's it? In other words, when I say the word "capitalist" do you imagine a young, female business owner or the character from Monopoly. That tells you something, but not all that much. Just who's winning the war on terminology.

I'll give Bennett, the author of the CNN article, some credit. He found a poll that could support the narrative he wants to provide. Unfortunately, it still doesn't prove that his narrative has any resemblance to reality.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Woody Allen's Tech: Exactly What You Expect It To Be

From the folks over at ImprovisedLife: woody allen’s writing tools (what do you really need to work?):

Of course he copies and pastes by, well, copying and pasting (technically, stapling).

One day there are going to do a video of me, and I'm going to be droning on about the power of emacs, and people will think the same thing they think of Allen: awwww, how both simultaneously cute and dreadful. But I don't care, emacs is clearly a tank, and that's what counts.

Gotcha of the Day: Setting up an Adobe AIR App to run as a Launcher on Android

One of my customer's wants to turn a collection of Android tablets into devices that just run their Adobe AIR Android App. Effectively, they want them to run in a kiosk mode.

My thought was that I'd have to either leverage an existing app launcher, or code my own, to support this. Turns out, it's much easier than this. I found the answer clearly spelled out here:

Making an application that can be installed as a Home Screen is simple; you just have to add the HOME intent category to the main Activity's intent filter.

Hard to believe, but all one needs to do is to hack the AndroidManifest.xml and you're all set.

This is slightly tricky in the Adobe AIR world because: (a) you don't have direct access to the AndroidManifest.xml and (b) you don't directly create or name the specific activity that gets run in the app. It took fiddling, but I solved both these issues by putting the following in my Air App's application descriptor:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
<application xmlns="">

  <!-- standard descriptor stuff goes here -->

        <!-- other android manifest stuff, like permissions, go here -->
          <activity android:name=".AppEntry"> 
              <action android:name="android.intent.action.MAIN" />
              <category android:name="android.intent.category.HOME"/> 
              <category android:name="android.intent.category.DEFAULT" />

Setting android:name=".AppEntry" is especially key, otherwise the device won't be able to start your application up properly.

Once you've updated your deployment descriptor and rebuilt and installed the apk file, you must do the following:

  1. Click on the home button on your device
  2. You should get a system dialog asking you which application should complete the action
  3. Choose your application and click 'Always'
  4. Reboot your device
  5. Confirm, when it starts up, that the only application available is yours

If all went well, you'll have turned your general purpose tablet or phone into a one-app-wonder.

To get things back to normal, remove your app using a tool like adb.exe or MobileGo from Wondershare. I don't know much about the later option, other than it's quite a bit more user friendly than adb.exe, so it may be more appropriate to an audience who just wants to experiment with the kiosk app you've built.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration 2013: I Came, I Saw, I Went Home For Hot Chocolate

Four years ago, I froze my butt off as I attended the 2009 Inauguration. This year, I couldn't justify the frostbite. Still, I couldn't resist hopping on my bike and zipping down to the mall to check out the action.

The scene was pretty much as you'd expect it - lots of people waiting around and big rows of porta-potties. Security, like 2009, wasn't especially high or extensive. There was a military presence with lots of soldiers in camo, though I didn't see any guns. In fact, the mood was generally relaxed, with not a single police office or soldier barking orders, or yelling at me for taking my bike somewhere it shouldn't have been.

The highlight of my little visit was riding on all the closed streets. There's just something unreal about riding on Washington Blvd in front of the Pentagon that feels especially naughty.

I only spent about two hours in the city, and made it back as the inauguration proper was beginning. There's something to be said for watching an Obama speech (not known for his brevity) from within a warm house, sipping hot chocolate.

Some of the 250 or so photos I took.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Windy Run Trail and Park - A Perfect Slice of Next Door Nature

Yesterday, I used my running time to explore the trail at Windy Run Park in North Arlington. What starts off as a well defined path turns into a real trail, with a number of stream crossings to spice things up. It is a relatively short trail, but given the secluded woods and the fact that I didn't see anyone else during my visit, it absolutely had a Real Hiking feeling to it.

I also found a geocache in the area. It's one of the largest and easiest finds I've had, which makes it an especially family friendly one. Given the lack of camouflage of the cache, I've really got to think this stretch of park doesn't get a lot of visitors.

The trail ends at the Potomac Heritage Trail, which also provides for some terrific hiking.

About the only thing I didn't get out of this little trail exploration was any wildlife sightings. Though, if I had sat my butt down and been quite for a few minutes, that may have changed.

If you're craving an outdoor adventure, and don't want to travel far, you definitely need to check out this park. It's Next Door Nature at its finest.