Friday, June 28, 2013

15 Years Ago

If you had told me, 15 years ago today, that I'd be happily married to a smart, pretty, amazing, wonderful life partner, I'd say "of course." Why else would I marry her?

I'm just glad I was right.

Happy 15th babe.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Point Your Face at This

I picked up Point Your Face At This off the library shelf, flipped through it, had to rent it. My reasoning was simple: I was curious if a book consisting of 288 pages of crudely drawn pictures and no explanatory text could make for good reading. The answer I'm happy to report is a definite Yes.

On one hand the drawings are for the most part quite simplistic. But the visual storytelling is wonderfully clever. Sometimes I'd get the joke immediately, other times I might have to spend a moment or two with the page. There's only a couple of PG-13 (I don't think you could call them R-rated) related pages, the rest are pretty wholesome fun. Another impressive feat if you ask me.

When I finished the book I checked over at Amazon to see if could learn about the author. Turns out, I do know him. He's Demetri Martin and he did a number of appearances on the Daily Show. He's apparently a stand up comedian, which actually makes perfect sense. In many respects, the book is essentially a visual stand up routine. In stand up, the comic starts off on a seemingly random tangent and you wait to see what twist makes it funny. Same goes with the book. You open up a page, sort out what you're looking at, and frequently smile or laugh.

Of course, I'm biased. I have an affinity towards the clever, simple. A story in 140 characters, a web server in 10 lines of code and a wordwide communication protocol using two symbols are my idea of beauty. So a book filled with seemingly "simple" drawings? Heck Yeah!

Canon EOS T3i in AV Mode with bulit in Flash - A Lot Smarter Than I thought

During my last vacation I made a conscious effort to shoot my Canon EOS T3i almost exclusively on Aperture Priority (AV) mode. For the most part, this worked out really well. It gave me some creative control, but didn't have the I'm paying more attention to my settings than my subject feeling that Manual mode gives me. I noticed that there were a number of times when I was falling back to the basic automatic mode and it wasn't immediately obvious why that was.

Then it hit me as to what the scenario was: I was often indoors and needed to shoot with a flash. When I turned on the flash in AV mode, the shutter speed wouldn't really change. If I was turning on the flash because there wasn't enough light to let me get the shot while holding the camera steady, adding the flash didn't appear to help. What the heck was going on? Thanks to Google, I now know that my camera wasn't behaving randomly. Found these three articles which explain the problem and solution well: Canon Cameras – Using Flash in Aperture Priority (Av) Mode , Flash Photography with Canon EOS Cameras and Fill-in flash with program & aperture priority modes.

First off, this article articulates the problem quite well:

Canon engineers decided long ago that the best way to use flash is to have it blend in with the scene’s ambient light rather than over power it. Because of this a Canon camera in Aperture Priority (Av) Mode will assess the available light at the photographer selected aperture, set the proper shutter speed for exposure accordingly and then balance in some flash fill light.

This method of adding flash produces lovely results, unfortunately when Av mode is used with flash indoors the shutter speeds can be far too slow for hand holding the camera.

In other words, turning on the flash in AV mode on my EOS may not appear to do much (the shutter speed and aperture don't change), but the camera is working. Specifically, it's working to add just enough light to the scene so the flash works with, not overpowers, the ambient light. This is wonderful to know, and means that I'll be more inclined to turn on the flash while in AV mode. In theory, it shouldn't overpower the scene, but fill it in.

But what about my original problem just needing to get the shot minus any ambient light? Turns out, Program (P) mode is designed to handle this case. I just tried it: I pointed my camera to a dark scene and switched to P mode. The result is a shutter speed at 1/60th of a second and an aperture to match the flash. This article explains it even better:

The overriding principle of Program (P) mode in flash photography is that the camera tries to set a high shutter speed so that you can hold your camera by hand and not rely on a tripod. If that means the background is dark, so be it.

The P mode is actually a little smarter than that. Apparently, it uses two rules:

1) If ambient light levels are fairly bright (above 13 EV) then P mode assumes you want to fill-flash your foreground subject. It meters for ambient light and uses flash, usually at a low-power setting, to fill in the foreground.

2) If ambient light levels are not bright (below 10 EV) then P mode assumes that you want to illuminate the foreground subject with the flash. It sets a shutter speed between 1/60 sec and the fastest X-sync speed (see above) your camera can attain. The aperture is determined by the camera’s built-in program.

One last bit of useful information. The Manual (M) mode also plays nicely with the flash:

In manual exposure mode you specify both the aperture and shutter speed, and your exposure settings will determine how the background (ambient lighting) is exposed. The subject, however, can still be illuminated by the automatic flash metering system since the flash can automatically calculate flash output levels for you. This is a marked contrast to the olden days, when photographers would carry around little flash exposure tables with them in order to work out manual flash settings.

Ever since high school, I've had a keen understanding of how P, Av, Tv and M modes work. Sure, I've slacked off and relied on fully automatic at times, but the concept of exposure was always there in the back of my head. What I hadn't realized till recently was how little understanding I've had about how the flash works with all of this. I assumed the flash was pretty dumb, just dumping out gobs of light. As I've learned, this couldn't be farther from the case. So now I've got a whole bunch of new tools in the toolbox.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Power of Truth in Advertising

Just a friendly reminder: embracing your strengths and accepting your weaknesses is powerful life strategy. Or better yet, watch this commercial for the Smart Fortwo car.

See what I mean?

Stop trying to pretend your good at everything. I know I'm not.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Simple and Clever - Irresistibly Creative Hacks

Here's a smattering of simple and clever hacks I've come across today:

  • Instant Free Lending Library - I've seen this sort of setup before, and I love it. In fact, a while back Shira finished a book she had picked up off the freebie shelf from the library. Now that she was done with it, how should it find its next owner? A little lending library in a mailbox in front of our house would have been a great way to pass it on to a stranger. (Instead, we shared it with a friend who was interested in reading it.)
  • Book Title Poetry - What a wonderfully simple and creative idea. I bet this could be a painless way to introduce kids to poetry.
  • Graphite Powered Player Piano - This simple little electronics project does a great job of showing how a basic idea (using pencil marks as a resistor) can be used in really clever ways. I need to collect up these parts for a rainy day project.
  • Portraits without Faces - This is really thought provoking collection of portraits, all without a single face showing. Very clever. Vai:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Fishing Ashburn's Beaverdam Reservoir

My dad was in town this last weekend, and he, my brother and I were going to have a few hours to kill in Ashburn, VA. But what to do? Why fishing, of course! According to this article there are two especially good places to fish in Ashburn: Beaverdam Reservoir and the Upper Potomac. The reservoir was closer to where we needed to be, so we thought we'd give it a try.

We picked up 18 nightcrawlers from Dicks Sporing Goods the day before and with a minimal amount of tackle, made our way out to the the reservoir. As we approached, the two lane road turned into a one lane (yet, bidirectional) dirt road. And before we knew it, we were at a boat dock on a massive lake-like body of water. The day had started off gray and down pouring. Yet, by the time we got out of the car we had wished we brought less rain gear and more sun screen. The day turned out to be hot and sunny, dang near perfect.

We started off by fishing off of a boat dock near where Reservoir Road ends. My dad and brother quickly caught a few small sunfish. And then we walked a road to a trail and fished a few shady spots.

I was using my hiking/ultralight fishing kit for most of the day, which consists of a bunch of fishing line wrapped around a small cylindrical container. I was able to pull in a number (5?) of the small sunfish using it, and it was actually quite fun. To mix things up, I also wrapped some fishing line around a Bud Light can and gave that setup a try. That combined with more weight at the end of the line gave me a larger casting distance.

My dad and brother both had big strikes on their lines, but they weren't able to pull in anything larger than the itty bitty ones that I was catching in close to the shore. Despite attempts to use fancy tackle, all the fish were interested in were the worms we had brought with us.

All in all, it was a fantastic success.

Rosebush Reset

Back in 2006 it was planted.

In 2008 it was out of control.

In 2010 it was a towering 8ft monster.

And last Friday, the rosebush which was looking more like a rose-tree finally got a major trimming. From this:

to this:

Of course, the before photos do this guy justice. Somehow, despite my complete lack of ability to grow even the most meager fruits and vegetables, this guy thrived.

Anyway, he's finally back to a more manageable size. Let's see how long he takes to hit 6 feet again...

Ben's 4 Rules for Selling Your Programming Skills to Others

A few days ago, one of my friends came to me with an interesting dilemma: he had a buddy in Poland who was a really sharp programmer, but was getting paid around $7.50(!) per hour. What could he do to get that rate up?

One might respond, "sorry, overseas programmers are always going to get paid peanuts," but I don't believe that. One of the first things you learn in business (and life) is that finding good people is hard. Really hard. If you find someone who reliably delivers what they promise, you hold onto them and pay them a premium. This is true whether they live next door or half way around the world.

Instead of a nice and pithy answer, I gave a long rambling response. But thinking about it further, my advice is to do these four things:

1. Decide who you want to be. This is trickier than it sounds. Do you want to be grab any project at any cost programmer, who's happy with $7.50 per hour? Or do you want to be a $300/hr WordPress guru?

2. Be that person. It's not enough to have slick copy on a website making promises. You need to both project the image of the programmer you want to be, and more importantly, follow through with what that image entails. A $300/hr WordPress programmer has his work done early, provides excellent communication, includes all relevant documentation without being asked and makes any and all changes without argument. In short, they blow their customers away. Can you do that?

3. Say no. If all goes well, people are going to you to step outside your predefined role. It may be a request to take on a job at a lower rate, or it may be a huge project with tempting amount of money behind it. Resist. In the former case, you need to keep yourself available to take on work that does fit Who You Are. In the latter case, you need to make sure you don't take on projects you can't deliver on (see #2). All this isn't to say that stretching a bit isn't a good thing. Taking on a project that requires you to step a bit of your comfort zone is a great way to grow.

4. Grow. None of this is going to happen overnight. You need to slowly and steadily define yourself, increase your rate, and find your niche.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Little Debugging

Captured on my Galaxy S3 using a Photojojo macro lens:

These insects were enjoying this supposed weed that's in bloom throughout the hood.

When Boys Turn Into Giants

I know, every time I see my friend Danielle and her four boys I have to post something on my blog about how grown up they are and how old I am. It must get old for readers. And I'd like to stop. But it happened again last night! The crew was in the area and stopped by for a little face to face catch up time (something we're way overdue for). I ask you, please explain how this:

turns into:

Granted, that took 7 years. But in my whole life I never had a 10th of that muscle on the couch.

Still, I've come to the same conclusion as always: I'm old; they're grown up.

I'm especially proud of the older boys, as they are both playing baseball on their college team.

Also, for the record it's still "the four boys" - it's just that one of them was on a canoeing trip at the time of this photo. Man it sounds like a terrific adventure.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Running Late? Tasker To The Rescue

Yesterday I was running late. I mean literally running late. I had gone for a run in DC, and is my custom I got totally lost. By the time I was headed back in the right direction I was hopelessly late to meet Shira. At a stoplight I hammered out two sentence text: "running late." That's about all the energy I could muster for the task of warning her.

As I jogged toward our meeting point it occurred to me that I should be able to automate what I had just done. And by the time I had finished my run I had a new little tasker app designed in my head. I give you: Report Location.

First I created a trivial Task with the following actions:

1. Get Location
2. Variable SET: %loc_esc = %LOC
3. Variable Convert: URL Encode %loc_esc
4. Send SMS: Number = Shira's phone number,
   Body: "My location:

When I run this script Shira gets an SMS message with a URL that contains a link to my current location. Clicking on it gives her the open of opening up Google Maps.

So rather than reporting that I'm running late I can just show her where I'm at. But my little setup goes one step further.

I attached the above Task to a named profile ("Report Location Profile") which had the criteria set to:

 From: 00:01
 To: 23:59
 Repeat: 5 minutes

In other words I put this task in a profile that runs all day, every 5 minutes. That's a whole lot of SMSs.

To finish this guy off I created two new tasks: Start Report Location and Stop Report Location. They both have the same shape:

1. Notify: Title = "Report Location (On|Off)"
2. Vibrate: Time = 248
3. Profile Status: Name = Report Location Profile, Set: (On|Off)

In other words, when I run the on version of the task I trigger a notification message ("Location Report On"), vibrate the phone for 248 millis (so I get tactile feedback) and most importantly enable the named profile above. Running the off version of the task does exactly what you'd expect, giving a sane message and turning off the profile.

Finally, I added two short-cuts to my home screen: Start Report Location and Stop Report Location.

Next time I'm running late I need only hit one icon on my screen. Then, every 5 minutes or so Shira will get an update of my location.

Now, if only Tasker could get me to run faster...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Going, Going...almost Gone

In about 3 1/2 months the Navy Annex has gone from:


What you're seeing there is the last segment of building remaining. Hard believe that in a little while the Navy Annex will be just a memory.

Here's a wider angle shot of the scene:

In other exciting (for me) neighborhood news, I heard and saw a new species of bird. The photos I was able to capture of it are pretty poor, but it was all black with exquisite red and yellow stripes on its wings:

When I got back to my house I used Google Image search to trivially find out its name. It's a Red Winged Black Bird and they are "one of the most abundant birds across North America." In other words, I'm basically oblivious to my surroundings for not having noticed it sooner. Still, I'll take whatever little pleasures I can get.

Who Can Learn What From Vine

Vine is a service that allows you to create itty bitty videos (like this one). It's a service that received plenty of buzz, but I hadn't played with it till this last weekend. As case studies go, I think the service offers plenty to learn from. But who should learn what?


In my day job I frequently talk to people about their ideas, and how they can best be turned into software. One of the first things I try to explain is that my little company builds software out in relatively small stages or versions. Figuring out what should go into Version 1 is often tricky. To help, I give my customers three guidelines to work with, all of which Vine appears to have nailed perfectly. They are:

1. Build as little as possible. Playing with Vine, especially on Android, you quickly realize how many features are missing. You can't save a video as draft, control it's privacy access or go back and edit a video. I'm sure there are folks clamoring for these features, but Vine has stayed disciplined (or maybe they have so few resources, they have no choice), that they have yet to build them in.

The negative side of this is that customers are going to kvetch. The positive side is that with all those features missing, you can focus on producing a quality user experience with the features you do create. In this case, Vine is so simple, that you can't stop playing with it. Creating a video is a one touch affair. Another bonus: by building less, Vine has had to leverage existing platforms to pick up the slack. Rather than reinvent a network broadcasting tool Vine uses Twitter. (Of course, Vine was bought by Twitter, so it's no surprise about that relationship.)

Make the tool general purpose. Which community is going to find Vine to be a killer app? It could be obvious ones, like new parents or travelers, but it could just as easily be unexpected groups like ER Doctors or football coaches. By creating a general purpose tool, they leave the door open to attract a number of potentially surprising audiences.

Put another way: by changing their message, Vine can potentially reach a new market; all without any software changes. That's a huge feature if you're software budget is limited.

It really solves a problem I have. This is absolutely key. Building an application missing lots of features you should be a recipe for disaster. But, if it truly solves a problem, folks will stick with it warts and all. They'll even love it. You can even expect your audiacne to find creative ways around these problems. Just as importantly, as you grow, you can add in missing features. So what problem does Vine solve so elegantly? Well, it's a First World Problem, but still a problem: how can I tell my story in a way that's efficient for me to create and efficient for my audience to consume.

Let's say I'm at my kid's soccer game. Sure, I could take out my cell phone and snap a few picture - but will that capture the scene? Probably not. I could capture 15 minutes of video, but who the heck wants to watch all that content? I could edit my 15 minutes of video down to just the good parts, but who has the time for that? Or, I could pop-open Vine, hold down the screen a couple of times, and I'm done. The experienced is captured, and even if it's awful, it's going to be at most 6 seconds long. Surely everyone can stand to lose 6 seconds, right?

By balancing the above three criteria, Vine can afford to build a minimal application, yet still gain a significant enough following. The result: customers will hang around as it grows into a full fledged app.

One of the challenges beginners have with creating software is that much of software they use has far outgrown it's Version 1 days. Facebook, eBay, Quickbooks, etc. are now mature products with millions of dollars invested into them. For the entrepreneur trying to do big things with few resources these are horrible examples to follow. Vine, on the other hand, is in those early stages. But better pay attention quick, my guess is that they are growing a rate where their early-day status will be behind them in no time.

Camera Manufacturers

For years, conventional wisdom was that a cell phone camera would do in a pinch if you didn't have a "real" camera on you. With apps like Vine, though, it's becoming clear that one day people are going to prefer the functionality of their cell phone over a relatively dumb camera. Vine may not be the camera killer app, but I think it certainly is part of a trend.

Consider the Galaxy S3's panorama feature. You can use it to quickly capture a 180 degree or even 360 degree view of a scene. Even when I'm carrying my DSLR, I find that I pull my Galaxy S3 out to capture panoramas. Sure, I could use desktop software to stitch together DSLR images together, but why go through the hassle?

When I shop for a camera I'm considering the following:

  • Image quality
  • Shutter lag
  • Battery life
  • Focal length (zoom lens) choices
  • Compactness

My Galaxy S3 now has all of those bases covered, except for the focal length options, as well as point and shoot cameras. Heck, in many respects it competes well with my DSLR. Now when I factor in the nifty software tricks and easy sharing my phone offers, and gets harder and harder to justify buying a separate camera. When someone figures out how to add a 28-200mm lens to a cell phone, the race will be pretty much over.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Gotcha of the Day: Shira is calling but my phone isn't ringing

Yesterday Shira tried calling me on my Galaxy S3 a number of times and, every time she did the calls were sent to voice mail. No ringing and no sign of a missed call on my Android device. I figured it was a networking fluke. Then she tried it again today, and there were still kicked to voice mail. Then I tried from our home phone, same problem. Uh-oh, time to call T-mobile tech support and see what they suggest.

I had visions of them having me do a full reset or something to fix this issue. Instead, the technician walked me through 3 different steps to fix the issue:

1. Check to see if Blocking Mode is enabled. Blocking Mode allows you to silence your phone for part or all of the day. I've experimented with this in the past, but prefer to whip up some Tasker recipes instead. Strike 1.

2. Turn off call forwarding. If call forwarding were on, then someone else's phone would be getting all my calls. Gulp. This is turned off by "calling" ##004#. That almost certainly wasn't the problem, but I did it anyway. Strike 2.

3. Check the phone's Auto Rejection list. These are phone numbers that go right to voice mail. I didn't even realize I had this feature. You go to: Phone App > Settings > Call Rejection > Auto reject list. Sure enough, Shira's number and our home number were on this list. Crack—Home Run!.

Apparently, in the contact manager, I had somehow managed to select the "Add to reject list" menu item on Shira's contact (some sort of Freudian slip?). Our home number is associated with her, so it just so happened to include all the numbers I was testing with.

Every once in a while I call T-mobile support and they are really, truly helpful. This was one of those times. Well done T-mobile.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Capturing Some Buzz

Today was a delightful day to talk a walk through the neighborhood. The weeds are looking gorgeous, and these two bees were kind enough to sit still as I captured half a dozen photos of them. All taken with my Galaxy S3.

It's All In Your Head

Two useful blogs posts today that you'll see are somewhat related:

The Voice - Danny Gregory has a wonderful piece on that voice we all have inside us that tries to scare us away from trying new things. Not only is his description of the voice dead on, but he gives a refreshingly simple way to beat it (basically: don't outsmart it, out dumb it). For me, The Voice reminds me of an oncoming freight train: the closer I get to trying that new thing, the louder it tries to convince me not to.

Parcour and Inner Peace - this is a wonderful documentary which covers the sport of Parcour (aka fre running). While slightly less risky than say free climbing, it's still both extremely physically taxing and pretty dang risky. I love running, but I doubt I'll be adding flipping and leaping to it anytime. The movie goes beyond merely showcasing the sport of parcour, it talks about how for its participants it actually unlocks the key to inner peace. As I was listening to this description it occurred to me that they were perfectly describing that mental state of flow.

So yeah, if parcour is your thing, go for it. And heck, you should try it (ignore the voice that says you can't!), because maybe it will become your thing. But the bigger take away I had was the reminder that you need activities in your life that you can attain flow in. That's probably the easiest path happiness one could take. Whether it's your job, or your hobby, seek this out and don't stop till you've found it.

But even if you ignore my blabbing on about a topic near and dear to me, you should take some time to watch the video. It's exquisitely produced.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: Death in a Strange Country

Every once in a while I manage to pair a reading of a book with a vacation that manages to improve both. One of my favorite examples of this was reading Bill Bryson's In A Sunburned Country while in Australia. I managed to do it again, this time with my trip to Venice and Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon. The book was recommended to me before my trip, and it couldn't have been a better choice.

First off, the descriptions of Venice are wonderfully vivid. The food, the landscape, the people, Leon could have been describing the scenery of our trip. It definitely gave my visit there another dimension.

Next up, I very much liked the main character, Commissario Guido Brunetti. He's sort of an anti-Jack Reacher. Sure, he's a sharp detective, but definitely not a super hero. He's a likable guy, who's qualities include honesty, sincerity and perseverance, not the ability to beat up bad guys and deliver cold hard justice. Fitting with the anit-Reacher theme, he's a family man, with a truly loving marriage and real kids. I can't think of another detective who manages to be both good at his job, and come home to an understanding wife and kids. Seriously, who else gets to do this?

Finally, I loved the Italian and Venetian take on things. It's always tricky to generalize, but I think the author did a relatively good job of capturing America's smugness and how this must come across to the rest of the world. At the same time, the book made me appreciate the power of corruption and how thankful I am that I'm surrounded by a community where the rule of law is supreme.

Oh, I have to add, once again I was appalled at how much information the Amazon blurb gives away about the book. 3/4 of the plot is laid out for you to read in summary form. I'm just thankful I didn't read it ahead of time, and got to enjoy the pace set by Leon to share the story.

For a different type of detective book, I'd definitely recommend it. And if you're heading to Venice, it should be required reading.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

15th Wedding Anniversary Trip - Day 12, The Last Day

I'm typing out this blog post over the Atlantic Ocean, or more specifically: traveling: 535mph, altitude: 33,000ft, distance traveled: 2321mi, distance to go: 1761m, temperature: -59F. We're on our way back to reality. So far I've watched two movies: Die Hard 5 and Loopers. The former was fun though not nearly as impressive as the earlier movies, and the latter was a total brain scrambler.

I forgot to mention in my last post, here is the specific location of our Love Lock: Pont (bridge) Des Arts, 4 light posts in from the Louvre side, 3 fence posts back towards the Louvre, back another 4 1/2", up 7". When you visit Paris, you should stop by and say hello.

Things that impressed me about Paris:

  • The bread & pastries! We started each day with a trip to a bakery, and bought treats to last us the day. It was wonderfully delicious and also one of the most reasonably priced things to buy in Paris.
  • The metro system. Paris is huge. The metro system gets you everywhere you need to go. We never waited more than 4 minutes for a train (even on weekends!), and they don't threaten you with arrest if you bring snacks on board (thank you DC Metro!). The ticketing system is also refreshingly simple: buy ticket, feed into machine, done. None of this crazy variable fare nonsense.
  • The Louvre. It is as impressive as its reputation suggests.
  • The architecture in general. Just wandering through Paris I found myself impressed with the large number of interesting buildings and streets.
  • T-mobile's WiFi calling. OK, technically this isn't a Paris thing, but a T-mobile thing. Once you get WiFi, using my Galaxy S3 I was able to place calls and send text messages to the US for no charge and no hassle. It felt so surreal to be able to just dial a US number with no extra headache or charges.
  • The days last forever; This time of year it gets dark at around 10pm. This meant that I'd look outside at 8pm and think it was 4 in the afternoon.
  • It was easy to get around using English. We've been to some places (like Panama), where English isn't spoken as often as you might think. Not in Paris, most of the restaurant menus, and most of the people we met spoke English. That alone helps make it a super easy city to explore.
  • The various little supermarkets spread throughout the city. We found that we could easily stock up for a picnic lunch, dinner or snack at a reasonable price. One store we found even had a realtively large Kosher section, so we were able to pick up Kosher turkey and parve snacks to go with it.
  • Paris is relatively well connected WiFi wise. We saw signs in some of the parks promising WiFi, which I'm glad to say I didn't have a need to use. Another good sign: both of our hotels offered it for free.

Things that didn't impress me about Paris:

  • Breakfast. Apparently there's a standard French breakfast. For $8.00 to $10.00, you get a glass of OJ, a cup of a hot drink of your choice and some bit of bread (maybe a croissant, maybe part of a baguette). That's a fine breakfast (especially if you are anti Atkins), but for $10 that's pretty dang steep. My morning tea regularly cost me $4.00. That's $4.00 for a tea bag and a cup of hot water.
  • Dog poop. Apparently they are pretty lax about cleaning up after their doggies. This is one of Shira's pet peeves.
  • Prices (food, hotel, etc.) are high, space is at a premium. Welcome to a big city in Europe. If you like eating dinner in a restaurant where you're 4 inches away from your neighbors, you'll love a typical restaurant in Paris. The food will most likely be exquisite, but you need to rearrange the furniture to get in and out of your table.

Perhaps the strongest thing I can say about Paris is that we liked it so much we'd absolutely go back if given the chance. There's so much to see, I feel like we hardly scratched the surface.

The first disappointment of our trip

Turns out, the "Petit Casino" in the airport is a convenience store, not a little casino. D'oh.

Waiting in the gate for our plane now. I enjoyed the small luxury of not needing to remove my shoes during security.

They just mentioned something about a delay due to a strike with aircraft control. This might get interesting.

Luckily Shira and I stopped at a bakery before we left for the airport, so we are all stocked up on for French goodies!

Monday, June 10, 2013

15th Anniversary Trip - Day 11

Day 11, our last full day in Paris. You would think the list of things to do would be quite long. However, that wasn't the case. That's because today is Monday, and on Monday, most museums and sites are closed. As I flipped through our Frommers Paris, I kept finding interesting site after interesting site that was closed today.

I finally found one that looked especially interesting: Musee de l'armee. As the name suggests, this is a military musuem. Frommers promised "if it can kill, it's enshrined here." And they're pretty much right, the museum was massive covering everything from stone weapons to D-day. Of course, there's a huge amount of history to go with it, so much so, that I quickly lost track of France's timeline.

The Musee de l'armee is housed in a building adjacent to Napoleon's Tomb, and had a special exhibition of the emperor himself. Also included in the museum was an impressive set of relief maps, which are effectively 3D models of a particular location. These maps were used for military planning purposes, and one can only imagine the effort that went into creating them.

After the museum and a visit to Napoleon's tomb, we made our way back to the section of town with a number of Kosher restaurants. I stuffed myself full of schwarma, falafel and parve deserts from the Kosher bakery next door. I more than needed the long walk back to our hotel to try to walk off some of lunch. Even 6 hours later I can't imagine taking another bite of anything (but I will, of course. Probably a piece of french bread or pastry.).

On our way back to our hotel we stopped at one of the lock bridges we had seen. I purchased a 2 euro lock, and using one of the tools on my key chain, etched in a message. We bolted it to the fence through the keys in the Seine. If our wedding 15 years or so ago didn't make it official, this lock surely has. We're in love.

And now I've got to turn my attention to the less fun part of the journey. Things like packing up, starting to plan our trip to the airport. What an awesome trip it's been, I couldn't ask for it to have gone any differently.

View Photos

15th Anniversary Trip - Day 10

You didn't have to be a tennis guru to know that when the French Open bracket was released and the two top players were meeting in the semi-finals, that the final could go one of two ways. Either there would be a miraculous upset of a top favorite, or an easy victory. Today turned out to be the latter. Rafa Nadal easily won the tournament, making history, breaking records and showing his continued dominance on the French clay.

Actually, the final score doesn't really do his oppenent David Ferrer justice. He put in a good fight, and in many games made inroads against Rafa. But in the end, he couldn't gain traction and lost in three straight sets.

The most excitement of the match actually came from off the court. We witnessed a series of protests that caused quite some attention. A dozen seats down from us in our row some folks stood up and started chanting and got removed from the stadium, in the distance we could see some folks unravel a banner and wave lit flares over another court, and finally an individual managed to light a flare and jump onto the court before he was taken down by security. It was all a site to see, but didn't significantly impact the game.

Having watched a heck of a lot of tennis over the last 10 days, I have to say that while I'm impressed at the players, I'm also quite impressed by the ball kids and line judges. These people are effectively invisible and yet manage to perform with nearly the precision of a machine.

Consider this: there are only six balls in play at any time during a match. This means that regardless of where a ball ends up on the court, it needs to be seamlessly delivered back to the player with no apparent delay. The ball kids appear to have strict protocols that they follow to make sure they stay out of the way, yet effectively chase down balls.

While line judges don't have to run around, they do need to be extremely alert and quick reacting when a ball travels near their boundary. They have to make calls quickly and with absolute confidence.

Like I said, they work together to form a machine. There was a thank you made to the ball kids and judges at the very end of the medal ceremony. If it were up to me, I'd create a new tradition where they get thanks at the end of every match.

The French Open is now behind us. I count myself very fortunate for having been to so many of its games. I also count myself very fortunate that I'm not going to another tennis match for quite some time. At least I hope not.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

15th Anniversary Trip - Day 9

Day 9 was a see Paris day. We traipsed along the Seine, gaping at buildings and trying to take in the amazing sites. But one of the most touching sites we saw wasn't in our guidebook. As we came upon a bridge we realized it was absolutely covered in relatively small locks. Written on the locks were various names and inscriptions.

Apparently we had found a Lock Bridge. The ritual goes like this: you inscribe (or write) you and your true love's name on the lock, attach it to the bridge and throw the key into the Seine.

Maybe it was the mood I was in, but I found the whole thing so wholesome and romantic.

On our way to the hotel a couple days earlier we had passed next to the Louvre, the world renowned art museum. I was determined not to step in there to take in just the well known pieces of art. No, if I was going to the Louvre it would be with hours to spend and no sense of urgency.

Shira was kind enough to let me play my little game, and so in the afternoon on Day 9, we hit the Louvre. I couldn't resist purchasing the add on audio/video tour guide. I figured that if I was going to take the time to see this well known museum I should try to get as much from it as possible.

So I put the headphones on, and selected the "Masterpieces" tour of the museum. As the device talked me through various rooms Shira tagged behind me, snapping some photos and generally trying to be very patient.

Whatever expectations I had of the Louvre, they were blown away with what I actually saw. It's not just the art, but the massive scale that it's available on. It's statue after statue, painting after painting, all presented in huge galleries. Clearly you could come here every day of your vacation and only begin to scratch the surface of the collection.

When my hour long tour was done, I was ready to take another, but figured Shira needed a break. As I returned the audio/video setup--which I highly recommend if you visit--I realized that my tour had essentially shown me the handful of high profile pieces in the museum (with much commentary along the way). My goal of not acting like a typical tourist had failed miserably. But that's OK, what I saw left me too impressed to care.

View Photos

15th Anniversary Trip - Day 8

Day 8 was the French Open Semi-Finals. Due to a ranking glitch, Nadal and Djokovic, arguably the two best players in the sport right now, were facing off. This is the match Shira and I were very much hoping we'd get to see, and it looked like it was actually going to happen.

Our train left Venice an hour or so late, which we feared may impact our day at the Open, but luckily it didn't. In fact, everything went super smooth and before we knew it, we were in the stands watching these two Tennis greats take the court.

The first set was fairly even with Rafa taking it. The second set Djokovic managed to take, though he was clearly losing steam. The third set was a blood bath, with Djokovic winning only a single game. It looked like this epic battle was going to be anything but, with Nadal sweeping the match. But in classic Djokovic style, he managed to fight off Nadal and take the match into 5 sets. Djokovic started the 5th set strongly pulling ahead, but by the end, he made a number of easy errors, and lost the match 9 games to 7.

I very much wanted my boy Djokovic to upset Nadal, which would have put him a huge step closer to winning the French for the first time. But, that wasn't in the cards. Still, the match was an awesome one. There's nothing like being in a stadium of 14,000, all collectively gasping as a player attempts to make a point, and erupting in applause when they do. The tension was so intense that I had to put down my camera and just focus on watching these two guys battle it out.

So not the outcome I wanted, but certainly the match I was hoping to see.

Other highlights of the day: watching ladies wheelchair tennis and watching a 45 and older doubles match. I didn't know the players, but Shira was clear that Mats Vilander was a tennis great. The former is a remarkable demonstration of skill and endurance, the latter was just plain fun.

With this big match behind us, we can now take a breath and enjoy our last couple days in Paris. And yes, we've got the Finals to watch, so we aren't quit done with le Tennis quite yet.

View Photos

Saturday, June 08, 2013

15th Anniversary Trip - Day 7

Day 7 started with a humble request to Shira: please navigate us to the Jewish Ghetto. By consulting three maps she was able to get us to the correct location without even a hint of getting us lost. She's good.

The Jewish Ghetto is small - about 2 large city blocks. At one point it contained around 4,000 Jews. They lived there not by choice, but by strict law that controlled their comings and goings. According to our tour guide, there's now about 400 Jews in the whole of Venice and it's surrounding environs, and there are many more funerals per year than brises.

With that many Jews in close proximity it's no surprise that they had to have a number of shuls, I believe the total number came out to 5. We had a chance to tour 3 of them. The shuls we were in date back to the 1500 or 1600's, and as the tour guide kept reminding us, everything we see there is original. In some respects the shuls look exactly like you would expect an Orthodox shul to look like: an ark for the torah, a reading desk, various inscriptions in Hebrew, a ladies section, etc. But in other respects, they are totally foreign. Jews at the time were forbidden to be craftsmen, yet had money to hire the best. So the architects and designers of the shuls weren't Jewish. That explains why one of them has gorgeous greek colums and the ark looks it could pass for the front of a church.

While the shuls have been in continous use (even to this day, they get a few uses every year), many of the reasons behind the symbols on display have been lost. Consider the case of large sea shell above the doorway in one of the shuls. What is this non-kosher item doing there? Does it represent the wash basin used by the Levi'm, or was it simply an in-vogue symbol of the time, so the architect put it in place? Nobody knows. But being Jews, we have no problem coming up with a handful of explanations, and using the one we prefer the best.

After the museum, we went in search of Kosher food for lunch. We found an especially nice place, and we ate lunch only a few feet from the edge of one of the canals. It was like out a movie.

While we ordered a number of standard dishes (hummos, kabobs, etc.), I couldn't resist ordering the classic Venetian dish of sardines and onions. It arrived, and looked exactly like its contents suggested it would: a heaping pile of onions over sardines mixed with some oil based sauce. It was absolutely delicious, with a sweet flavor. By far the best sardine related dish I've ever had. If you make it to Venice, I highly recommend you search out a restaurant that offers this treat.

From there, we explored more random parts of the city until it was time to head to the train station. After a 45 minute delay we boarded our overnight train to Paris, which is where I'm typing this from now.

I'm so thankful that I was able to make it to see and experience Venice. It suffers from the usual woes any popular city has: too many tourists, too many souvenir shops and too many people out to make a quick buck off of an unsusupecting tourist. But, the beauty and sheer wonderment of a city with canals instead of streets makes it all worth it. Throw in a dose of Jewish history, and the glass making on Murano, and you have a city that more than compensates for any detractors.

But enough about Venice, it's back to Paris and the French Open!!

View Photos

Thursday, June 06, 2013

15th Anniversary Trip - Day 6

Today we explored Murano and Burano, two islands a short boat ride away from Venice. Murano is famous for its glass, and Burano, its lace. Both islands, for the most part, lived up to their hype.

We saw two different glass blowing operations on Murano, and they were both equally impressive. It boggles the mind the amazing creations that they fashion using little more than a long hollow metal tube, a pair of tongs and a heck of a lot of heat. Apparently the glass blowing ovens are kept at 2100 degrees F 24 hours a day, as it takes days to bring them up to that temperature.

One of the most amazing sites we saw today, if not during our entire trip, was when a master glass blower pulled a blob of hot glass from the furance. With seemingly little effort he drew out various lengths of it and shaped it. Before my eyes, in about 20 seconds, he managed to create a horse sculpture. The legs, mane, tail, and head were all pulled from that one blob in fluid motions. Truly stunning.

Another cool part of the trip: our guidebook reported that behind the alter of the Santa Maria e San Donato church were dragon bones! I can now report that dragon bones are large, but not as large as you might expect. Maybe this was a relatively petite dragon that Saint Donato dispatched?

I continue to be fascinated with Venice as a city. Of course all goods must be moved in and out of the city by boat, or if on land, by cart. I stood there like a 5 year and old and snapped photos of the trash boat as it did its duty hauling away Venice's garbage. I suppose this sort of scene is to be expected, but to a land lubber like myself it was really cool.

Tomorrow is our last day on the island, and then it's back to solid ground in Paris and more tennis. Now that I'm invested, I'm actually quite excited to see how this whole French Open thing works itself out. Look for us in the very top row of the men's semi finals and the men's finals! And I mean very top!

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

15th Anniversary Trip - Day 5

Our 13 hour overnight train ride from Paris to Venice was uneventful. Sure, I felt like a sardine packed in a canister for 13 hours. But it was a clean canister, and had enough room that I never really felt claustrophobic. Our Italian car-mates departed from the train around 5:30am which gave us about 4 hours of alone time in the cabin, most of which we dozed away.

The Venice train station looks like any other in the world. But as soon as you walk through the gates you're transformed into another world. It was like stepping into Oz. Gone are streets and cars; replaced by canals and boats. It was an even more delightful scene than I've ever imagined.

If we thought navigating Paris took skill, Venice requries a PhD. in orienteering. The "roads", none of which contain cars, and some of which are only a few feet wide are marked. But the map we have doesn't name them all (or most), and there is absolutely no rhyme or reason behind their layout. Consider our hotel. It has an entrance on the Grand Canal. However, to access it, you've got to take one apparent back alley to an even smaller apparent back alley, only to find yourself in a gorgeous hotel.

When I asked people who had been to Venice what I should expect to do, they said just get lost and wander around. This turns out to be trivial to do. One minute you're walking along the next you turn a corner and you're at a canal. Nobody appears to bother with directions, it wouldn't do any good as they would just be too confusing.

We made our way to the main square, Piazza San Marco, the narrow paths gave way to large passages which added open air markets and lots and lots of tourists. It was both depressing and awesome to see such crowds.

We visited the musuem in the Basicalla of St. Mark, the main attraction at Piazza San Marco. I'm hardly an authority on churches, but this one was awfully impressive. The gigantic church is covered in mosaics, which when you consider that each one is made up of tiny fragments of colored rock, makes it a nearly unfathomable project.

Still, for all the glitz of the main square, I'll take the quiet narrow paths and canals around our hotel. It's that side of Venice that keeps me taking out my camera everytime we approach another small bridge.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

15th Wedding Anniversary Trip - Day 4

Finally, a day in Paris where we would actually get to see some of Paris. But what to do? For simplicity, we decided we'd pick one of the walking tours in our Frommer's book and see where it took us.

The first walking tour went so well, we decided we'd do the other two included in the book. That was about 6 miles of sight seeing.

The tours made for a diverse day, we saw various "Hotels", churches and the Pantheon as well as more esoteric items like the narrowest street in paris, the oldest houses and the location where the term "bistro" was first used. It was just delightful.

For all the amazing sights though, the best experience in Paris may be a simple trip to the Patesserie. Every day of the trip has started by stocking up on various breads, crossaints and other miscellanous items. They have all been heavenly. Today we tried a black bread mixed with Chocolate which I lack the words to describe how good it was. We also tried a raspberry treat was equally as good, but I'm not even sure what it was. It clearly wasn't bread or a cake. It was just delicious. I could go on and on about the bread products, but I'll spare you. I'll just say that Paris is not onboard with the whole Atkins craze, and lives in a parallel universe where carbs and chocolate are considered essential.

My gosh Paris is large. Their metro system makes the DC one look like a toy. But to Shira's credit, she got us to every point we needed to without a single incorrect train selection. Regardless of its size, it seems that everywhere you look is an amazing building, street or Church. Everytime I think we've seen the most impressive site, we turn the corner and see something new. This is truly a city you could explore again and again and still not see it all.

I'm actually composing this blog post not from a hotel room but from a night train. We're on our way to Venice. If all goes exceedingly well, when we wake up tomorrow, we'll be in a new country with a new city to explore.

We are sharing a sleeper car with a delightful couple from Milan, Italy whoe speak about as much English as we do Italian. The sleeping arrangements are pretty tight, though not as tight as they could be. There's 4 of us in this one car, but there could be 6 sleeping in the same space, so I'm thankful.

It's past our bedtime, and I'm curious to see if I can catch any Zzzz's in our little cube, so I'm going to say goodnight. See you in Venice!

15th Wedding Anniversary - Day 3

Today we went back for a 3rd day of Tennis. We started the day with a mixed doubles match. Mixed doubles is one of my favorite type of matches to watch. I always imagine I'm viewing a double date, and not some blood thirsty death match. Because it's doubles, it tends to move quickly and doesn't go for as many sets as a mens match.

After the doubles match we headed to the main stadium to settle in for about 7 hours of watching singles tennis play. We watched Serena crush her oppenent, and then to my surprise, she gave her match interview in French; very impressive. Then we watched a crowd favorite, the Frenchman Tsonga beat his oppenent. At one point, he actually raised his hand and asked for the crowd to quiet down so he could refocus. He swept his match as expected.

During the Serena match I snuck away from the stadium to explore the Roland-Garros musuem. The museum was the first I'd been to in France. It chronicles not only the history of tennis but also that of Roland Garros, the man. I had no idea that he was the first to do a solo air flight across the Mediterranean or that he invented the forward facing air plane machine gun, making him the first ever fighter pilot. It was well worth the 45 minutes to take it in.

Back on the court, we watched the legend, Roger Federer, take on Gilles Simon, a Frenchman ranked in the top 30. The match got off to the expected start, Federer crushed Simon in first set, 6-1 (or was it 6-2?). And then Simon started to come alive, taking the next two sets. The crowd was elated that their countryman looked like he might be victorious.

In the end, though, Federer took the match showing he had just that much more stamina. What a thrill it was to be watching a Frenchman getting cheered on by his countrymen. By the end, nearly every point earned him a standing ovation.

On our way back to the hotel, we detoured to explore what appeared to be a mini-version of the statue of liberty. Indeed it was, though whether it was a model or what purpose it served is beyond us, as the plaque describing it was in French.

My first few days of the French Open are behind me, and tomorrow we turn our attention to sight seeing. I've got to say, I enjoyed the tennis immensely. Though, I think I've probably had enough tennis for the next few years, at least.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

15th Wedding Anniversary Trip - Day 2

Allow me to summarize day 2 of our Anniversary trip: tennis, tennis, tennis and more tennis. About 10 hours worth! I can't exactly complain though, as we got to see two of the biggest names in the sport: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Novak is a personal favorite of mine, as I love his amazing endurance that allows him to come back from way behind, and his awesome court coverage ability.

A couple of other highlights from the day: catching a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and stopping at a bakery to pick up 5 different kinds of amazingly delicious breads.

Did I mention we got to watch Nadal and Djokovic do shirt changes?

Tomorrow is scheduled to be more of the same. I'm either going to absolutely love watching tennis by the end of this experience, or I'll never want to watch it again.