Friday, May 31, 2013

15th Wedding Anniversary Trip - Day 1

Our 15th Wedding Annivesary Trip started off with quite a treat. We boarded what may be just about the best plane I've ever been on. Shira and I were tucked privately into our own little twosome row, there was plenty of space in the overhead bin for my luggage, and the entertainment center was one of those fancy ones where you can select from over 200 on demand movies. As if that weren't enough, each movie had a trailer - so I could have just sat back and watched trailer after trailer. And the feature that tops all other features: the seat had a standard outlet I could plug my computer into. No more stressing over battery life of my laptop and cellphone.

It was, however, "just about" the best plane I've been on and not the best. That's because it wasn't able to fly. After about an hour, which I didn't notice because I was too busy watching trailers, they announced that our plane had mechanical issues.

We deboarded and a short 5 hours leater boarded a new plane. This one lacked nearly every amenity the first plane had, but did have the one feature the other lacked: we were able to fly in it.

We landed in Paris, dropped our bags at the hotel and immediately set out on a mission: to find and attend the French Open.

All of Shira's planning paid off as our hotel was a 5 minute metro ride to Roland Garros, the stadium that hosts The Open.

After going through an impressive ticket verification process we found ourselves on the grounds. Nadal was playing a match at the time, though we didn't have tickets to the court he was on. Still, watching him on the big screen and listening to the cheers live, was quite a thrill.

We attended a number of matches today, and everywhere we went we found names we recognized. People of note that we saw today were Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka. It was definitely a special kind of thrill.

We had tickets to the main court, and I was surprised at how relatively small it was. Our seats were high up, but compared to some venues (like say a football field or bascketball court), we were right on the action. And watching folks play tennis on the side courts felt like going to a little league game. The scale is almost comically small.

We've got a few more days of the Open ahead of us, so expect me to share more details over that time. Here are few snapshots. Sorry ladies, it was cold out, and so it was only Tsonga who gave us the thrill of a shirt change. Seriously, all of a sudden I hear cat calls from behind us, and look up and see him changing. Holy muscles. Anyway, search the photos below to find it.

One last thing. The biggest difference between Paris and home that I've noticed so far? There are so many smokers. I can't recall the last time I was walking down the street and was surrounded by so many people lighting up.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fighting Programming Skills Stagnation

These days I do almost all my programming in either PHP, JavaScript or ActionScript. You know, totally mainstream programming languages. And while I work on a variety of clients, much of the code I write boils down to standard patterns: store X in the database; pull Y out; render it for the user. While this similarity is helpful from a business perspective (it's easier to predict how long software will take to write), it's also dangerous: one can be lulled into stagnation. It's tempting to keep using the same tools and strategies from project to project, all the while missing out on new programming language advances.

My secret weapon for dealing with this is none other than Scheme. Scheme has always had a tradition of experimentation with programming language features outside the mainstream. And while I don't typically use these features in production code, I do find that they serve a more important purpose: they force me out of my programming comfort zone. For example continuations, mixins, first class syntax objects are all concepts I wouldn't normally come across during my day.

Consider this recent post on a threading macro as an example. The code introduces a new high level syntax, and leverages a few clever low level Racket (a Scheme implementation) features. To be honest, I don't fully understand the code in this post. But that's exactly my point, by forcing myself to wrap my head around new concepts, I'm exposing myself to programming constructs I wouldn't normally come across.

I can definitely tell that my PHP code has been influenced by this practice. For example, I was so impressed with how the World programming model handles state, that I've incorporated a similar concept into my PHP code.

Scheme works well for me because I know it fairly well and it has an active experimental community. Really, however, any programming language that emphasizes features outside the mainstream should work for the above purposes.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: Learning to Fly: An Uncommon Memoir of Human Flight, Unexpected Love, and One Amazing Dog

I was expecting Learning to Fly: An Uncommon Memoir of Human Flight, Unexpected Love, and One Amazing Dog by Steph Davis to provide me with an armchair adrenaline rush. If Davis isn't doing some ridiculously tricky climbing attempt, then she's probably doing some ridiculously tricky BASE jumping feat. Apparently she's wired to embrace the kind of activities that cause me to sweat just reading about them.

I really enjoyed how she took me into both the climbing and falling worlds, providing me with just enough background to appreciate what she's accomplished, but not so much that the book ever became tedious. I especially liked her explanation of her free solo attempts. Free soloing is when a rock climber skips all of the safety of ropes and a partner and just climbs. It is by all measures absurdly dangerous with an incredibly slim margin of error. Still, I was surprised at the process Davis uses to prepare for and execute a free climb. In the book she describes how she practices with ropes first, and then effectively memorizes the holds she intends to use. Essentially, a free climb for her is a dance with hundreds, if not thousands, of specific steps. It's a remarkable process and one I was delighted to join her on. Her discussions of learning to BASE jump were no less impressive.

The book, however, isn't just about crazy sports I'm never going to do. It's also about how Davis copes with a failed marriage and a climbing career that comes crashing down around her. I found this aspect of the book no less compelling, and found myself rooting for her to regain her life balance just as I was pulling for her to accomplish her next big stunt.

All in all, an excellent read.

But enough words, let's watch Steph Davis be amazing:

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Family, Food and Fun in Rochester, NY

This past weekend part of Shira's extended family got together for a family reunion. It was loads of fun, with lots of delicious food and opportunities to catch up with folks we haven't seen in years. But really, it was a chance to smother my sister-in-law's kids with love! I took well over a thousand pictures this weekend, but lucky for you, I've whittled them down to just the essentials.

Because the kids had to take naps they weren't able to tag along for the tour of Rochester the rest of the family was on. So, Shira and I took the kids and their nanny Michelle for a super quick trip to High Falls in Downtown. It turned out to be the perfect little mini adventure for us. The kids could oggle the falls, run on the bridge and take in a train crossing in the distance. Michelle got to catch a glimpse of iconic Rochester buildings and see a billboard for Genesee beer. And I got yet another reminder of how tiny and remarkable the city of Rochester is.

Family, food and fun. What more could a guy ask for?

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

What I Learned In Boy Scouts

I learned an awful lot from being a Boy Scout and earning the rank of Eagle Scout. I learned the importance of service, and doing the right thing without expectation of praise or reward. I learned that I could surpass my own expectations and the value of leaving my comfort zone. I learned leadership skills that I call on to this very day. I learned the value of being prepared and self sufficiency.

I learned nothing about sex.

Sex and sexuality was simply a topic that never came up.

What qualities make for an excellent adult Scout Leader? He or she should be patient enough to allow kids to play with fire, knives and guns, yet safety conscious enough to keep them blowing themselves up, slicing off a limb or shooting out an eye. The best scout leaders I had the privilege of knowing could tell wonderful stories and serve as role models and cared deeply for the children in their care.

Not once did the home life of an adult leader come up. In most cases, I'm not sure I could tell you if the leader was single or married. It didn't matter for our purposes.

Given this experience, you can appreciate the confusion and anger I feel towards the Boy Scouts of America for their decision to make sexual orientation of leaders and scouts a criteria for membership.

At best, this practice limits the pool of boys and adults who can participate in Scouting. This is dangerous because the members of a troop, both Scouts and leaders, greatly impact the quality of experience of those involved. In short, you need the best boys and the best leaders to have a great Scouting experience.

At worst, this practice sows the seeds of bigotry and intolerance among its members. After all, how else should a 12 year boy interpret the ruling that says that his Dad can't participate in Scouting because his other parent is also a Dad?

Recently, the Boy Scouts of America voted to allow gay boys to participate in Scouts. Good, but nearly good enough. If they were truly serious about the values that go into making a good Scout, they would allow gay leaders to participate. Enough said.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Men At Work

With all this construction going on by my house, it's simply not possible to walk by without snapping some photos. Here's the more interesting ones from today.

Review: Wald #582 Folding Rear Mounted Bike Basket (aka Mesh Wire Panniers)

The Wald #582 wire bike baskets seemed like an ideal way to add some cargo space to my bike. I figured unlike bag-based panniers, I would have these suckers on my bike at all time, which means having storage space even when I didn't think I would need it. The utilitarian designed seemed to be more focused on making an efficient tool, rather than creating something flashy.

From the Amazon reviews I thought installation might be a bit tricky. But I figured I could solve that issue by having my local bike shop install them when they were doing other maintenance to my bike.

And things went pretty much to plan: my mother-in-law was generous enough to buy me them for my birthday and the bike shop installed them (they didn't even giggle in front of me for me lack of manlieness know-how). Here's how they look installed:

They really are as handy and functional as the Amazon reviewers suggest.

Unfortunately, I quickly ran into two issues. First off, these guys are heavy! I did a quick measurement and in theory they both come to a weight of something like 6lbs, but they feel quite a bit heavier than that. My bike is by no means especially lightweight, but I was amazed at how heavy it had become with the additional of these baskets. The thought of schlepping extra weight up the numerous hills of Arlington just doesn't appeal.

Second of all, I was surprised at how differently my bike handled when I filled them up. Naturally they messed with the balance of the bike that I'm used to, and I found myself surprisingly unsteady. Apparently, riding with panniers is something that takes getting used to, and I just don't have the skills or confidence yet to make me comfortable tooling around with them.

In the end, I returned baskets and kept the bike rack. I also picked up a cargo net, which I'm thinking will give me some extra space to store stuff without the extra weight or balance issue.

Bottom line: panniers, and these specifically, are wonderfully functional, but be aware there's no free lunch. Opt for these guys and you'll be carrying quite a bit of noticeable weight (even when empty) and you'll need some time to get used to riding under these new conditions. Another plus for ditching the panniers in exchange for just a rack: it's a proven strategy for lightweight bike touring .

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The One Resource You'll Need to Unroot Your Galaxy S3

For the most part, I've been enjoying having a rooted phone. It's let me hack away in Tasker with wild abandon. When Shira received an OS Update from T-mobile that my rooted phone wasn't able to receive I started to think unrooting may be in my future.

Of late, I've noticed that my battery life is getting worse and worse. Today I did a little unscientific testing: I charged the device to 100% unplugged it and waited an hour. I was down to 95%. That's 5% of battery usage while just having the phone sit next to me (WiFi, GPS and the screen were off the whole time). I gave it another hour, and lost 4% more of the batter. Over the next hour I lost a whopping 10%. Recently I tried replacing the battery, but saw no improvement. My thinking is that one of my apps must be going berserk and using battery juice, but which one? Whenever I opened up the battery status menu it said all my usage was due to the screen and went so far as to list no apps..

Between my awful battery life and the lack of ability to get updates, I figured it was time to wipe the slate clean and start over. But now that I had a rooted phone, how the heck did I get it back to a clean slate?

The answer is to slowly and carefully follow every single step of this article: [GUIDE] How-To Completely Unroot Your Galaxy SIII |Zero Flash Counter|"Normal" Status. Just like rooting, there are many resources out there, and many of them are out of date and contain broken links. Finding a reliable guide is awfully tricky.

The above procedure is especially harrowing because of the state my phone was left in between steps 4 and 5. It just sat there with the Samsung logo gently pulsating. That's all it would do. I had turned my phone into a creepy looking paperweight. Luckily, step 5 brought the device back from the dead.

Be warned: you'll be starting with a totally clean slate with the above steps. I had to re-establish my Google accounts and re-install my apps from Google Play. You don't appreciate how many odds and ends are saved on your phone (alarms, podcast subscriptions, etc.) until you start fresh.

But, as exercises go, this is a good one to do every year or so. There's nothing like that brand new phone feeling that you get as a byproduct of a full reset.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

3 Examples of Creative People Embracing The Shake

The term Embracing the Shake comes from this TED Talk, and refers to an individual embracing their limitations to make something great. Here are three examples I've stumbled upon in the last 24 hours:

The Programmer: What do you if you're a programmer who realizes that creativity is essential for the work you want to do, yet don't have the resources to pay a pro? Naturally, you write software to be creative for you:

We are incredibly pessimistic about our own creativity. Yet, games clearly need some developer creativity to feel right: graphics, music, level design, etc. We cannot justify spending research resources on creating such content through traditional means: paying artists, musicians, and designers. Thus, we will restrict ourselves to using free resources (such as Creative Commons music and art) as well as algorithmically created content.

In fact, by using algorithmically created content---in particular, level design---we can learn more about game design itself. The best way to demonstrate understanding of something is to teach it to someone. The stupider that person is, the better a job you must do. There is nothing stupider than a computer, so procedurally generated content requires a great understanding of that content.

This will also help ensure that our games are playable by us. Since we can't pay anyone else to test them and we can't rely on others to be passionate about them, we must be our own testers. But if they had static designs---like most games---we would necessarily tire of them (as video game testers often express remorsefully.) But with procedural generation, we hope they will retain their excitement indefinitely.

Look at that: more testable software out of the limitation of not being able to hire a specialist.

The Playwright: Last night I was chatting to a playwright who participated in a most unusual project to create one of her plays. The project is called the A Train Plays and it works like this:

All of the [A Train Plays] are set on the A train and created on the A train. The evening before the first performance, three librettists meet the producers at 207th Street. Picking a number between 3 and 5 to determine the number of characters, the librettists cast their show by choosing that number of headshots in a blind draw. Cast in hand, the writers hop on the A train and begin writing the books for three 15-minute musicals.

When the librettists reach the Far Rockaway stop, they randomly select, through another blind draw, their collaborative lyricists, composers and choreographers, who have been awaiting their arrival at a nearby McDonalds! Now teamed, the collaborators board the train to head back uptown.

[...more rules trimmed...]

Each team only has until show time THE NEXT DAY at 8:00 p.m. to weave these newly-minted theatrical experiences into as show to be shared, fully produced and off book, with the audience at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 24 hours later.

So there you have it, a play written and performed about 24 hours later. I couldn't believe it, but NPR says it's true, so it has to be. Talk about limitations.

The Artist: And finally the example that gave me the name for this post. This is one enlightening and fun TED talk, well worth the 10 minutes to watch it. Go ahead:

Embrace The Shake. In fact, it's among the best entrepreneurial advice I could offer.

Forth in Racket, Mind-bending and Beautiful

Jay McCarthy's efficient implementation of Forth in 85 lines of Racket is beautiful. It demonstrates how you can integrate two different programming paradigms in one environment, and it does so with some impressive macro-fu. Consider his goals:

  1. We must be able to define functions in Forth that are callable from Forth, always.
  2. We must be able to give functions stack effect annotations to enable them to be called from Racket.
  3. We must be able to lift Racket functions to Forth so they are oblivious to the stack, like turning + into :+.
  4. We must be able to lower Racket functions to Forth so they can directly affect the stack, like writing :over.
  5. We must be able to enter Forth from Racket arbitrarily, such as to write testing forms like check-forth.

Meeting all those goals is an impressive feat.

As a functional tool, I'm not sure I see much of a use for it (yet). As a novel case study and series of examples, it's fantastic.

Monday, May 20, 2013

I Love NY

Today I had the pleasure of meeting one of my long time clients face to face for the first time. I did so by hopping on the Acela Express and making my way to NY.

While my trip was brief (I'm heading back now as I post this), it was an enjoyable trip.

It's always fun putting faces to names, especially after you've been working with folks for years.

NY is, well, NY. The skyline is gorgeous, the crowds overwhelming, and the pizza greasy (yum!). What's not to love?

This is my second trip on an Acela Express and I continue to be very impressed. Plenty of leg room, free WiFi and AC Power at every seat makes for a really productive trip. In some respects security couldn't be more laxed. Nobody checked my bags or person. On the other hand, the "see something-say something" campaign is really intensive. A pre-boarding video clip I caught was so thorough I felt like I was participating in a counter terrorism course (remember: there are no suspicious people, just suspicious behavior! Whatever that means.)

I walked away from the video feeling as though security was in my and other passengers hands, not in some central authority. It's an interesting approach, and I wonder how well it works compared to the airport model.

All in all, it was a great trip. I'm only sorry I didn't get more time to wander the streets trying to get more photos.

In Praise Of Farkle

Farkle is a game I received for my birthday (thanks Elana and Shmuel!), and has quickly turned into my goto distraction when I've got a willing partner and a few minutes (or more!) to play. Heck, I tossed it into my coat pocket when we went out to dinner a few nights ago just in case we had time to kill while waiting for a table. In my defense, I have the pocket edition which is no bigger than an old school 35mm film canister.

The game play is easy once you figure out a few basic rules. Essentially you're rolling dice, keeping score and deciding if you want to risk another roll. It kind-of-sort-of reminds me of craps, though it's much simpler to play and doesn't usually involve betting.

Farkle is easy enough to play that our 8 year old can get into, yet it's intriguing enough that adults will want to play too. Speaking of our 8 year old, the game gives an excellent opportunity to practice adding fairly large numbers (between 0 and 10,000) and has been a great hidden learning tool. You can start a game in a minute or two, pause it, and return to it later, which makes it a great kids activity when you've got only a few minutes to kill. I imagine it would make a fun party game because you can play it in a group and it doesn't require a heck of a lot of concentration to play.

You can purchase an official Farkel set, but if you can track down 6 dice you'll have exactly the same thing. I've checked, and there are numerous electronic versions of the game for Android, and surely they exist for iOS.

If you get clever about using a book and a bookmark to keep score, the game can be played without writing, which makes it Shabbat Friendly.

Will Farkle be the last game you ever buy? Of course not. But as a casual game goes, it's hard to beat.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Another Glover-Archbold Trail Encounter

I took another run along the C&O canal and the Archbold Trail this morning. I'm telling you, that trail is truly a bit of wilderness heaven nestled in fancy shmancy DC.

As I hit my turn around point on the trail I heard a sort of grunting noise. I paused trying to figure out what animal could be making that odd sound when it happened again in a different part of the forest. It took me about 5 minutes to untangle the mystery: it was two or more frogs croaking away. I didn't get any good photos, but trust me, it was a most excellent experience.

Here a few shots I took along the way.

Update: While I didn't have much luck capturing any photos of the frogs, check out this snippet of audio. You need to get about 20 seconds into it, but once you do, you an hear two frogs making a racket:

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Blooming Weed

Thankfully, people ignored this big 'ol weed along the side of the road. The result,it bloomed into something wonderful.

There's a deep thought in there, no?

Ultralight Backpacking Meets Cylcing

I do love gear lists, especially lightweight ones. Which is why discovering Ultralight Bicycle Touring was like hitting the jackpot. The site contains a series of articles that talk about how to do long distance biking with a minimum of weight:

For the impatient ones, here is a summary of my current cycling set-up.
  • I have an entry-level road bike (weighing a bit less than 10 kg), which has eyelets for rear rack. Tyres are rather narrow, 25-622 to 30-622.
  • I use ordinary pedals and light sport shoes (no clipless shoes/pedals nor clips&straps), no second footware.
  • I don't use cooking equipment.
  • I don't use panniers.
  • I carry my stuff in stuff bag on the rear rack and in a little bag (a converted saddle bag) on the handlebar.
  • ...

Much of the advice matches up with with ultralight backpacking, including the suggestion that you focus on a few heavyweight items first:

A common mistake that we all make as newcomers to ultralight cycling is to start with cutting the handle of a tooth brush. The prospective ultralighter, on the contrary, should start with thinking big. There are 7 big ones (in terms of weight or volume) which you should consider first:
  • bicycle,
  • tent,
  • sleeping bag,
  • sleeping pad,
  • cooking equipment,
  • carriers
  • and - last but definitely not least - clothes.

Definitely lots of helpful advice here. In fact, I'm surprised it's not considered more mainstream by now. But who knows, maybe it is.

Go to: Ultralight Cycling

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Hipster Whiteboard

Combine my love of whiteboards, index cards, notepads and cramming stuff in my pockets and what do you end up with? The Hipster Whiteboard:

Inspired by the Hipster PDA, and specifically this keychain version I stumbled upon today.

Making a Hipster Whiteboard couldn't be any easier: simply cover a 3x5 index card in Scotch Packing Tape and you're done.

To complete the setup, I added a tiny whiteboard marker I picked up from Target recently for $1.00.

Will it be useful? Don't know. I can imagine it would be fun for a kid to play with. And I do love my whiteboards of all sizes. So it's a resounding maybe.

Perhaps I should apply a layer of tape to my tablet, so I can use it as a whiteboard? That may be useful for sketching ideas out at my desk.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Person-to-Person Cool Tool (or: how to talk to anyone about anything)

Difficult conversations, are well, difficult. Talking to your boss about unfair treatment at work, talking to your son's teacher about his report card, talking to your neighbor about his barking dog, talking to your wife about pretty much anything, etc. can get might tricky. You know you need to be assertive, yet flexible. Understanding, yet firm. Luckily for me, a few years back I accidentally rented Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most on tape (or was it CD?) and listened to it. To my amazement, it gave me a set of concrete tools for dealing with exactly those types of conversation. I find that I use the advice from this one book on an almost weekly basis; and it has come in handy in everything from dealing with conflicts at work to dealing with our 8 year old.

Back when I listened to the book I apparently wasn't blogging, so I don't have any notes to refer to. In fact, over time I'd even forgotten the title of the book. I just held on to a few key lessons that shaped how I viewed conversations.

And then a few weeks back at the library I was perusing the business section and the title Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most jumped out at me. Could I have really found this gem? After flipping through a few pages I confirmed that yes, this was the book that had shaped my problem solving skills so thoroughly over the years.

Naturally I rented the book and re-read it. I was especially curious to see how creative my memory had gotten; could the book really live up to the hype I'd ascribed to it?

To my pleasant surprise, it was exactly the opposite problem. Yes, many of the key principles I'd been following were right there in the book. But, there were quite a few that I'd forgotten. In fact, I found that nearly every page contained some brilliant insight, many of which had been lost to me over time. It lived up to the hype and then some.

In short, if you have interaction with other people (which you do), you need to read this book. Don't think of it as a self-help book, think of it as Cool Tool for communicating with others. It's like showing up with a pneumatic nail gun instead of a big 'ol stick. Both might technically drive nails, but one's going to make life a lot easier.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Helpful Parenting Advice from An Amazon Review

Somewhat appropriate because it's Mother's day. Here's the Lansky AX-911 - Fire Battle Axe:

There are three Amazon reviews on this item. The first talks about using the axe to clear brush. The second is from a less than pleased customer:

1.0 out of 5 stars - Horrible
By Tim

This axe was terrible at removing diapers from small children. Would avoid using it for this task. Didn't come with any warning on the packaging.

The third review, however, takes serious issue with this complaint:

5.0 out of 5 stars - this is amazing for diapers don't let others discourage you!
By adam jackson

Let us be honest here. Who really wants a baby? Another reviewer complained about it's inability to remove diapers. It's tricky but if you imagine your removing the baby from the diaper, (not the other way around) you won't even notice the collateral damage. ten outta ten.

That explains why I have so much trouble with diapering kids, I'm thinking about it the wrong way around.

Friday, May 10, 2013

4 Macro Hacks Resources

Been loving macro photography of late and I took a few minutes to poke around to see what kind of hacks / improvisations people have come up with. Here are four handy resources:

  • Dirt Cheap Lighting Hacks - here are some recipes for creating a number of tools to help with lighting macro shots. These are clever ideas for helping to provide that little extra umph! to your macro shots.
  • Got a lens? You've got macro capability - this is a clever list of objects that can have their lens' extracted and re-purposed into a macro lens. Got a spare DVD player lying around? Or an extra pair of dollar store glasses? You've got a macro lens, you just don't know it.
  • DSLR - Lens Reversal Hack - if you've got a DSLR, then a $9.00 adapter can be used to flip the lens around. The result is an instant macro setup. As the article explains:
    Right off the bat, let me say that if you want to get serious about macro (close-up) photography this isn’t the best solution. There are good reasons that lenses are engineered specifically with that type of photography in mind. The downside is of coarse, those specialized lenses come with a price. At only $9 I highly recommend this as a starting point or way of experimenting with macro photography.
    The article then goes on to show some absolutely amazing shots. For $9.00, the results are really impressive.
  • Macro Photography Tricks - an excellent set of tips from the folks over at Photojojo. The lenses they sell are really high quality, while improvising can be fun, they'll get you right to the good part - taking photos.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Pretty in Purple

I couldn't resist capturing some photos of these flowers as I walked back to my car from morning minyan. They were absolutely stunning.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Love Letter To Plywood

From Exploriment, I give you a Love Letter to Plywood. This video is pretty much what the name suggests: 10 minutes of pure praise for a building material I've probably never given more than 3 minutes of thought.

Actually, I'll take that back. I have thought about plywood, but almost always in the context of it being a cheap replacement for "real" wood.

After watching this video, I no longer have this opinion.

Steel is the King of all building materials...
Plywood is the Queen.

Shots from the Hood, Including The Happiest Cat

It's hard to tell from the picture below, but that cat isn't just strolling through the neighborhood. He's strutting. I can tell the difference because in his mouth is a large, limp, rat. This is the second time I've seen him doing this; the first time I was so shocked I missed my chance to grab a photo.

Part of me thinks I should be outraged or disgusted by this scene, but more of me is impressed with the cat and thankful that the food chain is working. Sure, it's easier to stomach when the local food chain is invisible, but doesn't change the fact that it's there. For almost everyone but man it really *is* a jungle out there, with life and death being the struggle of the day.

Fortunately, these photos need less of an explanation and are a whole lot less deep.

A DC Mystery Finally Exposed

For as long as I can remember, whenever we're heading out of DC via Foxhall Road, when we hit Canal Road I make mention of what appears to be a trailhead a little ways into the brush. Come on, I beg Shira, just this once let's throw off all our responsibilities and investigate the area. We never do. Or, more accurately, never did. Tonight I changed all that by plotting my running route in the area of said mystery trail into hopes that I'd finally uncover what was there.

The route I had planned was super simple: run across the Key Bridge, jog along the C&O Canal, take my mystery trail to Reservoir road, run down 35th st, and finally return to Rossyln. About 5 miles.

The route turned out to be a terrific one. The water level on the canal was high and gave me a good sense of what it must have looked like back in the day when it was a working thoroughfare. There's was a spooky (and smelly) tunnel that was an ideal photo subject, and finally I made it to my mystery trail.

Turns out, it's no mystery at all. It's named the Glover-Archbold Trail and it runs for about 3 miles through DC. It's amazing how just a few feet into the trail I felt like I was in another world. I heard quite a bit of jet noise from passing airliners, but other than that, all I heard was bird song. It was absolutely delightful. Just like some trails in Arlington, what it loses in raw distance it more than makes up for in ambiance.

As if to nail home the point, as I was jogging along I saw a large black bird with a bright red crown. Seriously, it looked like some exotic animal had escaped the zoo. Of course I wasn't quick enough to get a snapshot. I'm almost certain it was a Pileated Woodpecker. It was magnificent.

If you're anywhere near Georgetown, you'll definitely want to take some time to explore the trail. Think of it as the perfect antidote to all that Georgetown shopping and congestion.

Here's a few pictures from my run. Special effects provided by Pudding Camera, a really high quality camera app for Android that's tons of fun to use.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Front Pocket First Aid Kit

Continuing on my theme of comptact first aid kits, I give you the Front Pocket First Aid Kit:

I work in a suit and tie, low risk office environment . I often travel to government buildings and have to go thru the security screens. I evolved an EDC first aid kit, years ago. Not exactly a trauma kit, but its multi-use, light and cheap. Sometimes I carry two of them.

The "kit" is a well laundered, yellow or orange cotton bandanna . I HOT dry iron it and keep folding it to pocket size as I fold it and iron it flat. It's almost sterile, certainly it's aseptic. While its still HOT, I slip it into a sterile Gerber breast milk bag, press it flat with a book and seal the bag. I reinforce the edges with Gorilla Tape. Next I cut a bit of clear plastic report cover, 5"x2". I wrap four feet of Gorilla Tape onto the plastic. Then I tape the flat roll of tape to the bandanna packet.

The whole unit is ~5.25" x 3.5"x .25". It weighs next to nothing. I keep it in my front pocket with my wallet. Good security against pick pocketing. This unit is a bandage, chest seal, sling, tourniquet (with a pen barrel), smoke mask, signal flag and oh yes, handkerchief! Works for me and my whole family. Light and unobtrusive enough so that even the non prep oriented family members are willing to carry it, after a bit of nagging.

The above was posted on an Internet Forum. As a rule, when someone posts any sort of advice on a forum another person immediately needs to come by and claim that advice is not only wrong, but most likely deadly. The fact that nobody did so with the above idea, gives me hope that it's actually useful.

More proof that few things are more useful than a good 'ol bandana.

I'm tempted to try the above packing technique on a Triangular Bandage. It might make them even more compact than they come as packaged. And smaller is better.

Monday, May 06, 2013

We're Alive - A Terrific Radio Drama

This past weekend I finally got around to doing battle with the weeds in our front yard (I won the battle, they're winning the war). As a result, I had quite a bit of gray time to fill. Rather than start a new audio book, I decided I'd try out a multi-chapter podcast I'd had downloaded on my phone.

The production is named We're Alive, and the domain name that hosts it says it all: That's right, this is a good old fashion zombie story.

I'm a few chapters into the podcast, and it's playing out much like you'd expect: the Zombie Apocalypse arrives, and a rag-tag bunch of individuals are figuring out how they are going to stay alive. I'm in the early stages of the story, so the plot is fairly predictable.

What's remarkable is just how high quality this production is. This isn't a guy sitting around reading into a Logitech microphone (not that there's anything wrong with that); these are real actors, with real skills bringing the story to life. Clearly there was a time when radio dramas dominated the entertainment universe, and a project like this shows they can still very much work.

While I'm certain that the individuals taking part in this project think radio is the perfect format for telling their story, I can't help but think of a Lloyd Kaufman's advice to wannabe movie makers:

Should you let the budget that you've attained dictate the grandiosity of your screenplay that you write? Common knowledge says that if you've got a five-dollar budget, you shouldn't attempt to recreate the roman coliseum games in all their splendor and glory. But common knowledge is for assholes. I say that if that's your story you really want to make, a box of assorted animal crackers can be bought for $.98, monofilament can be pilfered from your Dad's fishing kit, and those little green army men can be easily turned into gladiators with the aid of a handy disposable lighter.

In other words, if you've got the idea for a fantastic movie, and a tiny budget, maybe this audio only podcast model fits the bill? It's all storytelling, right? And the podcast model makes content delivery a snap.

You can start listening by clicking here. If nothing else, you might pickup some useful skills to help deal with that impending Zombie Infestation.

Friday, May 03, 2013

How to capture a lightning strike with your camera phone

Tone did just that:

Lightning strike

His solution? Shoot video and pull a still frame from it. That's a clever hack, if I do say so myself.

This photo is part of a Galaxy S3 flickr photo pool which I've been watching lately. It's provided terrific inspiration and is my daily reminder that It's not about the camera, it's about the photographer.

Tone's hack reminds me of the suggestion that Earnest Ward offered about drawing birds in motion:

Leonardo de Vinci included studies of birds in flight in his sketchbooks. But, unfortunately, most of us lack his gifted photographic memory. Modern point-and-shoot cameras can produce marvelous hi-res images that can capture the briefest moment in time, but are notorious for their lagging shutters. (Push the button and wait, and wait, for the shutter to release.) This can be very frustrating and will all but rule out trying to capture an image of your subject in motion.

Fortunate, if you have a modestly priced digital camera that you purchased within the past year or so you may very well have an excellent working alternative to "press and pray". Your camera may offer an HD video option. And HD video -- teamed with either your computer or large-screen TV -- can provide excellent photo-quality stills for you to study and learn from.

Poem of the Day: What Work Is

What Work Is, by Philip Levine, is powerful stuff. Like most poetry, I won't claim that I totally get it. But it's definitely worth taking a few minutes and listening to.

You can hear the poet read his poem here, which a bit of introduction for context. Or, better yet, just watch this riveting performance:

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Art In Progress

An Urban Sketcher doing his thing. There was lots of activity at this Georgetown Intersection, yet, he was clearly in his own place.

Preparing For Take Off

Or was that bird coming in for a landing? Hard to tell after the fact.

If I had a little bit longer lens, this would have been a potentially sweet shot. Instead, I was using my Galaxy S3 and ways off from the subject. Oh well. I'll strive to be stealthier next time.

Review: Worth Dying For: A Jack Reacher Novel

A couple weeks back, I came across a post mentioning a fictional character I'd never heard of before: Jack Reacher. I was curious enough to do a Google search, and learned that he's the main character of a book series. Last weekend, I left town in a hurry, but before I did, I downloaded a Reacher audio book to Overdrive. Before I knew it, I was totally hooked on listening to Lee Child's Worth Dying For.

It's not the first in the Reacher series, but it only takes about 3 minutes to figure Reacher out. He's smart, strong, a loner and of course, has a thing for justice.

I found the storyline of Worth Dying For pulled me, and for the last few days, whenever possible, I've been listening to it. I was quite sure that everything was going to work out in the end, but the slow reveal of the full storyline and seeing how each of the bad guys bites the dust, made for a really fun read (or listen, I suppose).

The main character that Reacher most reminds me of is Mitch Rapp, another fictional series character who's built like a tank and ready to take down any army. Shira's a fan of Rapp, but I tend to find him too political (his view seems to be: civilians are naive, the military is a bureaucracy and if you want anything done, it has to be done by the CIA; rule of law is for wimps) and too sure of himself.

Importantly, Reacher showed himself to be as much detective as he was bad ass. His Sherlock Holmes like deductive skills made for just as much fun as his butt kicking capabilities. Think Gregory House meets John McClane. He can't resist solving the puzzle, and while he's not looking for a fight, he's not going to lose one either.

I make it a point, when possible, to know as little as possible about a book before I start it. I'll skip reading the teaser on the back, the Amazon reviews and even an introduction or preface. I'd rather just have the book unfold as the author intended it. In this case, I was glad I did. It becomes clear pretty early on that the bag guys in the book are moving some sort of "product" around, and was quite proud of myself when I figured out what said product was before it was announced. As is also my habit, after the book was finished, I read the Amazon reviews and was surprised to see a good half of the book was given away in the blurb, including what type of smuggling operation was going on. What a shame that must be to not have a chance to reason it out for yourself.

If you're looking for a fun little distraction, go rent a Reacher book from the library. I have a hunch that it doesn't even matter which one. I bet you'll enjoy it. Or hate it. But it'll be one of those extremes.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Using the Nissan Thermos Backpack Bottle to Elevate my Tea Drinking

Back when the Dot Com bubble was bursting, and I outgrew drinking Mountain Dew in the morning, I noticed that our designer would start his day drinking a most delicious smelling hot beverage. I knew it was tea, but surely it was some sort of rare blend. All my previous experiences with tea were blah. No, he assured me, it was just plain tea. Nothing fancy. Then it occurred to me: in the past I had gravitated towards the fruity teas my mom always offered folks after dinner, and I was always disappointed when the drink tasted nothing like the fruit on the package. And thus I became a lover of plain old black tea. I'll enjoy a mint or green tea every now and then, but my preferred drink is just regular old Lipton Tea.

A few weeks back, at a Chinese Restaurant, we were served tea. Out came not only small cups and a teapot, but a stand and lit tea candle to keep the pot warm. Like one of these guys. This, I immediately decided, I needed for my desk. That way, I could have hot tea throughout the day, rather than the usual large mug worth which is either scalding hot or luke warm (yes, a real First World Problem).

There were flaws with this plan, though. First, my desk is pretty crowded as it is; adding a tea set wasn't really going to fit. And Second, and this is probably a tad bit more important, the thought of having a small fire burning beside me, just waiting to be knocked over, is a less than ideal situation. Sure, I could have gone the USB peripheral route, but where's the fun in that?

So I put the idea on hold.

Then it was my Birthday, and my Mother-in-Law was generous enough to get me a Nissan Thermos Backpack Bottle which promised to keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. The first night, I put it to the test: I filled it with boiling hot tea at 7pm, and didn't touch it till 5am. At which point I took a sip. The result: hot tea. Not tepid tea. Not warm tea. But hot tea. Not really a surprise, as the bottle has 595 5-star reviews on Amazon. 10 hours probably wasn't even pushing the limits of this guy.

In fact, it did such a good job of keeping scalding tea hot that drinking from the thermos is was almost guaranteed to result in first degree burns. An impressive feat, but culinarily not very useful.

So I took a cue from the Chinese restaurant and brought up a small tea cup to my office. For the last few days I've been dispensing hot tea throughout the day. It's the same effect as the candle warmer, minus the potential to burn down the house. A small cup of tea cools down pretty fast, so I'm burning myself less, too. The whole experience feels all formal and deliberate. And the tea tastes great.

Actually, I really am impressed with the thermos as a useful tool. The thought that you can bring along a hot or cold liquid anywhere you go without fear of it spilling is impressive.

Next up, I've got branch out from tea and start thinking bigger. I give you: Thermos Cooking. Essentially, you can use a thermos of really hot water as a sort of improvised crock-pot. This is really handy if you're eating on the go. Which, because I work from home, I don't tend to do a whole lot of during the work day. Unless you consider that terrifically arduous walk to the kitchen.