Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reaching The Depths and Heights of Manliness in 2 Hours

First, how low can a guy go?

I was tagging along with Shira at her salon, and when she was done, she physically dragged me over to Anita who specializes in threading. And what is threading you ask? It's a hair removal process women have to endure to look their best. For oh, about the last 15 years or so, Shira's been nagging me to get my eyebrows tamed. She has a dream that I'll get them threaded and they will look Brad-Pitt-Perfect. With the my brother's wedding coming up, many reminders about how open minded I'm supposed to be, and a bit of physical persuasion, she managed to get me to sit down in Anita's chair.

Before I knew it, I was getting threaded. The process consists of her using a piece of thread to grasp a few of my precious eyebrows and then she rips them out. It alternates between being uncomfortable to being downright painful. I've now got more empathy than ever for women who do this on a regular basis.

The whole process took about 5 minutes, though it felt like about an hour.

And here's the before and after shots:

Holy crap - I now have perfect, robotic, movie star grade eyebrows. Freaky, right?

At this point, I've pretty much handed over my manhood to Anita (who was quite nice and assured me that she works with men all the time. Yeah, that was sweet of her to say). And I'm confident enough in my manhood to be OK with that.

And then we went to Krav Maga class where I earned back some serious man points. Besides doing important man stuff like sweating and punching, we finished off the class by completing what our instructor called a Sierra 100. That's 100 burpees, 100 push ups, 100 sit ups and 100 squats. I'm glad none of you were there to see me actually perform this feat, as I'm sure I looked like some sort of wounded / dying animal. But I can proudly say that I managed to at least eek out every required rep (though some of my pushups were especially pathetic).

So here I sit, my arms are sore and my eyebrows are perfect. What more can a modern man ask for?

The Power of a Chutzpah in Two Stories

Story #1: All you need is a clipboard, whistle and a heck of a lot of chutzpah:

Trying to get tickets at Alpine Valley, wanted to see Eric Clapton, live in concert, and NOT in the nose bleed section, friend and I got up real early, drove out there, to find a lot of people already standing around waiting to the ticket booth to open.

After a while, a guy with an Alpine Valley t-shirt, Alpine Valley cap, clip board and a whistle.

About 10 min before the window opened....He blows the whistle, waving his clip board around, and had every one line up.....was kinda surprised it wasn't in alphabetical order or by in grade school.

So, everyone does get in line, like the sheeple we are........Window opens and he was the first in line.......buys his tickets and left.

200 people just stood there wondering what had just happened.....LOL

Story #2: The fastest ambulance? A motorcycle.

This relatively short TEDmed talk explains the origins of United Hatzalah, an effort in Israel to deliver first aid in minutes. On the surface a smart phone based, volunteer powered, scooter riding life saving force doesn't seem all that crazy. Yet, when you consider that it was originally started by a 17 year old who was laughed out of the room by seasoned EMTs, you appreciate that only in hindsight was the idea obvious. Add to this the fact that Jews and Arabs seamlessly work together to save each other's lives, and you know this is something special. Here, give the video a watch to see what I mean:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

100 Uses for a Bic Pen

A few days ago I was using a classic Bic Pen in a project and thought about how amazing this little device is. It may not capture quite the pinnacle of human achievement that the Bic Lighter has, but it comes awfully close.

Surely, someone must have cataloged all myriad of uses for this nearly 60 year old object, right?. But alas, I could find a comprehensive list. So I set out to create one of my own.

Here it is: 100 uses for a Bic Pen.

Some uses are obvious, some uses are a stretch and some uses exist only in my imagination. The two populations that seem to get the most out of Bic Pens are prison inmates and pot heads. The former I expected, the latter I didn't. I had no idea how many forums exist on the web dedicated to the discussion of illegal drug use. Shows what you what a sheltered life I live.

My favorite ideas: #37, #63, and #82.

So what usages did I miss?

  1. for writing
  2. as a straw
  3. as a toy "telescope" for kids
  4. to unlock a bike lock (link)
  5. to make a crossbow (Link)
  6. for an improvised tracheotomy (on TV, anyway) (Link)
  7. as a paper punch
  8. to store & pass secret messages (pop out the tube of ink, insert a small paper scroll, put ink back)
  9. to make a chandelier (Link)
  10. use the sharper end of the pen top to scrape away excess glue
  11. as an improvised stabbing weapon (Link)
  12. to shuttle back and forth messages: run a long string through the tube, tape a message to the tube, send on its way
  13. as a source of plastic to melt down (Link)
  14. as a wire guide
  15. use the ink to ruin a perfectly good white shirt
  16. use the pen top to enhance your key chain flashlight (Link)
  17. create a blow gun / spitball delivery device
  18. use as a ruler
  19. remove the guts and use to carry toothpicks or other small objects
  20. as a building material kids projects (think Lincoln Logs, but using pens)
  21. make it into a syringe (Link)
  22. make a tattoo gun (Link)
  23. as finger splint
  24. to perform an Age Test (Link)
  25. to make an antique radio alignment tool (Link)
  26. to make a home made resistor (Link)
  27. to make a Gamebit screwdriver (Link)
  28. to make a Smart Phone Stylus (Link)
  29. to make a Battlestar Galactica Colonial Viper Toy (Link)
  30. take two and melt / shape ends into a pair of chopsticks
  31. as container for geocaching
  32. use the ink to refill a fancy pen (Link)
  33. to build a Tesla coil (Link)
  34. to make a coil gun (Link)
  35. to draw amazing portraits (Link)
  36. to amaze your friends with a bout of Pen Spinning (Link)
  37. to unlock push button (privacy) locks using the ink cartridge (Link)
  38. to pick gunk out of your teeth using the end of the cap or ink cartridge
  39. to leave reminders on the back of your hand
  40. to help produce anonymous snail mail by writing in all caps using a Bic Pen (Link)
  41. to make a mini key chain pen (Link)
  42. to capture a fingerprints (press your finger into a large smudge of ink, then onto white paper)
  43. to rewind cassette tapes (Link)
  44. as a paint stirrer
  45. two pens (with ink removed) + pots = a toddler drum set
  46. to depress recessed reset buttons
  47. as a travel size duct tape container by wrapping the outside of the pen with several feet of tape (Link)
  48. to make a good impression by having a pen ready to give away
  49. to tighten a tourniquet (Link)
  50. to make a fishing lure (Link)
  51. to make a hide-in-plain-sight backup handcuff key (Link)
  52. as a sheath for for pointy objects (Link)
  53. to turn into a set of eating utensils (Link)
  54. to make a whistle (Link)
  55. to create expensive looking art by adding a feather (Link)
  56. as replacement piping (Link)
  57. as a bubble level (Link)
  58. as a fake "poke in the back" weapon (Link)
  59. to poke an eye out (Link)
  60. as a magic wand
  61. to construct a set of scales
  62. as a probe
  63. to conduct a horizontal gaze nystagmus test (Link)
  64. to make a model rocket (Link)
  65. to fashion a crafty clay pen (Link)
  66. to create a scytale cipher (Link)
  67. to create a practice morse code key
  68. to create your own Rorschach test (just bust open the pen cartridge on a sheet of folded white paper)
  69. hold your hair in place with a chopsticks style hairdo (Link)
  70. chew on for stress relief, or bite on during bullet removal
  71. for use as a guide for drawing straight lines
  72. to make a mini spud gun (Link)
  73. to play an improvised version of spin-the-bottle
  74. as a shim
  75. to make a fishing pole (Link)
  76. to draw perfect circles (use a thumb tack, string and pen)
  77. to find out which way is North (Link)
  78. to keep track of the growth of (relatively short) plants
  79. to make a THC pipe (Link)
  80. to magnetize the pen for easy storage & access (Link)
  81. to hold a wilderness survival kit (Link)
  82. as a covert seed carrying device and planter (Link)
  83. stash one behind your ear for memorable effect when meeting the Queen (Link)
  84. to make a Bic Pen bat and play pen ball indoors (Link)
  85. to create new slang (there's no definition of Bic Pen in (Link)
  86. to determine trajectory of shooter by inserting into a bullet hole
  87. to pick up evidence on a TV crime drama without leaving finger prints
  88. to create a pin-hole camera (Link)
  89. as a back scratcher (Link)
  90. to power your own, fancier, pen shell (Link)
  91. to do popsicle stick math (Link)
  92. to make a orange peel gun (Link)
  93. to make Pen Man (add googly eyes and decorate) (Link)
  94. to make a kid's treasure box (Link)
  95. to create train track for a homemade train set (Link)
  96. to perform the Bic Pen magic trick (Link)
  97. to create a Lego sized catapult (Link)
  98. to make a pencil holder, that allows you to use small pencils (Link)
  99. to create dummy AA batteries (Link)
  100. to show scale in photos by putting an object next to the pen (Link)

Day Hiking Kit, v3.0

As I was packing up camping gear from our last trip I came across an extra Adventure Medical Kits Heatsheet (a fancy mylar blanket). I noticed the rectangular shape and wondered how it might fit into a Snack Bag Size Ziploc bag (6.5 x 3.3"). Somewhat surprisingly, it fit perfectly. In fact, it had just enough room left over to add in a Mini Bic lighter.

I give you Day Hiking Kit v3.0, an even leaner than 2.0 and downright nano-sized compared to v1.0:


A kit like this only works if (a) you're carrying most of the outdoor essentials in your pockets already (knife, flashlight, compass, whistle, etc.), (b) for less intense day-hikes (for a monster hike in the backcountry, I'm still bringing v2.0) and (c) if you consider that your highest priority in a survival situation isn't food or water, it's shelter (hence the importance of the mylar blanket).

For a simple area day hike, especially on days when I've already got my pockets bulging, this little kit should be about all I need.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Overheard in DC: "none other than Helen Keller"

Yesterday I'm running through Georgetown and I see a not-uncommon site: a tour guide addressing a gaggle of what appeared to be DC visitors. They were across the street in front of a relatively interesting building. As I jogged by, I heard the tour guide say: "none other than Helen Keller". I looked over to the building and tried to figure out some context to the quote:

I noticed Alexander Graham Bell's name on the building and decided I'd Google it when I got home.

So what the heck do Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone), Helen Keller (who was blind and deaf) and Georgetown have in common? Actually, a heck of a lot. The building I had run by was the Volta Laboratory and Bureau. It was constructed in 1893 under the direction of Alexander Graham Bell to serve as a center of information for deaf and hard of hearing persons. At age 13, Helen Keller was there at the ground breaking.

Even this was no mere coincidence. Bell and Keller were actually good friends. From the Library of Congress:

Bell was, above all, a teacher of the deaf, and it was this very subject and the professional expertise he developed on the nature of sound that enabled him to invent the telephone. His friendship with the deaf and blind Helen Keller, a frequent guest with the Bell family, spilled over into science. Bell described what Annie Sullivan had done in teaching the young Helen to communicate by means of finger spelling as "not a miracle but a brilliantly successful experiment." Here Bell is "talking" to Helen Keller surrounded by family and friends. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Here's the photo:

Bell had a personal connection to the deaf community, his mother was hard of hearing and his wife was deaf. The Library of Congress has quite a collection of letters between Bell and Keller.

Unfortunately, there is "limited accessibility to the public" and you can only get into the building by appointment.

Still, it's worth taking the time to learn about the projects conducted at the site. Remarkable stuff.

Just About The Perfect Shoes

The Perfect Shoes do not exist. I know this, and yet at every opportunity, I search for them. Here's my definition of the perfect shoe:

  • Comfortable
  • As little styling as possible - they should just look like generic shoes
  • No company logo
  • No bright / flashy colors
  • Work well with jeans, shorts and khakis
  • In a pinch, should be able to wear them in a dressy context (while, say, traveling)
  • In a pinch, should work for running and other exercise activities
  • Should be cheap (less than $30)

Feiyue shoes come close: they've got the comfort and budget down, but Shira never liked the styling, and the logo makes it definitely a casual option. So, I continued to search.

And then a few weeks ago I discovered these guys at Old Navy:

As you can see, it's a simple canvas sneaker, minus any logo or funky styling. And best of all, there were $21.00. I picked up a pair, and I've been finding them to be quite comfortable. They obviously don't replace my running, hiking or play in the mud shoes, but they do have quite a range of uses.

And if you act today, you can use the promo code WOW to save 30% off. That's shoes for about $15.00. That's hard to argue with, no?

I'll still be keeping an eye out for the perfect shoes, but until then, these are my new favorites.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Birds, Bees and a Geocache

Yesterday I had some errands to run with our 8 year old near Potomac Yards in Alexandria. When the errands were done, we decided to squeeze in a quick Geocaching session. We decided we'd go after this cache: GC3YW66: Charlie Brown Tree. It was located an oddly shaped green space I hadn't ever explored:

View Larger Map

What we found there was a delightful little nature trail, birds chirping, lots of bees buzzing and interesting views of a cool looking swamp. We had no problem finding the cache, so I'd definitely consider this one an excellent choice for a beginner.

From poking around, I can't even find a name for this little slice of nature. I suppose you might consider it as part of the Potomac Greens development or something. All I know is that it is a perfect place to explore if you've got the time, especially for kids. The park is relatively close to the Metro tracks, so if you're little one doesn't like birds and flowers, you can always resort to a little trainspotting.

As we were walking back to the car, I spied what appeared to be my new favorite plant: Queen Ann's Lace. We pulled up a stalk and gave it a whiff; what do you know, it does smell like carrot! (Because it is carrot, wild carrot, that is.) Hey, I'll take my discoveries wherever I can get them.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Random Videos that Moved Me: A Little, A Little More and A Lot

Over the last couple days I've seen some random videos, that well, moved me. Or, they at least left a big enough of an impression that I've got to share.

Moved me Level: A Little

First up, C4 Random Acts: 'This Way Up'. This video should get an award for Best Use of a Cardboard Box. Want to shoot a film and need to represent a rip in the space-time continuum? Forget the special effects, and use a cardboard box and basic editing techniques. See what I mean:

C4 Random Acts: 'This Way Up' from Spike Morris on Vimeo.

Also in the "yeah, I can't get this video out of my head" is this video by Louis Vuitton reciting a famous speech from Muhammad Ali:

Louis Vuitton "Dream" - Directed by Stuart McIntyre in collaboration with Ogilvy Paris from Steam Films on Vimeo.

Moved me Level: A Little More

In the Moved me a little more category, you've got this set of videos from the Everybody Streets documentary. The Everbody Streets movie tells the story of a number of street photographers in New York. I really enjoyed the interviews they provided as outtakes. There's just a special feeling conveyed when you hear someone talk about something they love doing and feel honored that they've gotten to do it. Plus, New Yorkers can be so awesome with their in-your-face attitude.

Moved me Level: A Lot

And finally in the Moved me a Lot department, I give you Mike DeStefano: Franny's Last Ride. I had a driveway moment yesterday as I refused to leave my car until I heard how the story ended. Life is about magical moments; ones you simply can't manufacture. The best you can do is take risks and embrace them when they do happen.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Difference Between Seeing and Paying Attention

For just about 4 months now, at 1:57pm I've been pushing away from my desk and taking a walk. And just about every weekday, I walk exact same path. Today, along my usual route I was struck to see a rather healthy collection of these plants:

Look familiar? They should, I blogged about them for the first time earlier this morning. My best estimate it that it's either Queen Ann's Lace or some poisonous look-alike.

The two big take aways I have from this:

1. Wow, how oblivious can one be? Perhaps they weren't in full bloom until recently, and so I might have a small excuse. But really, who are we kidding? I just haven't been paying attention. This is actually been one of the enjoyable parts of walking the same route frequently; you get a chance to discover new things that you'd normally take no notice of.

2. You don't need to go to some far off, exotic location to spot interesting plants. The weeds on the side of the road will do just fine. This applies to wild edibles, too.

Name those Plants: Pretty Flower Edition

On my last run through Theodore Roosevelt Island I learned about Elephant Ears. This time, I spotted two especially distinctive flowering plants which I figured would be easy to identify. Here they are:

The first set of photos just scream trumpet to me, so that's what I searched for. And sure enough, that's what they are: Trumpet Creeper (or more technically, Campsis radicans). As the phrase creeper suggests, they are actually vines, and not a tree or bush like I originally thought. They're just so tangled up with their host, that it was hard to tell they weren't one plant.

Trumpet Creeper (or Trumpet Vine) doesn't appear to have many uses. You can't eat it, and touching it may give you contact dermatitis. It is pretty to look at, and birds (apparently including hummingbirds) and insects like the flowers, so they probably make ideal photographic subjects. In fact, you'll notice in one of my photos above that there's an insect in the flower, which I didn't even realize till I started authoring this post.

The second plant just looks like it should be Queen Ann's Lace, a plant I've heard of but never learned to identify. And it seems that it just may be. I wasn't able to get especially close to the plant to photograph all the details (it was off the boardwalk, and technically I was supposed to be running, not playing amateur botanist). Unlike Trumpet Vines, Queen Ann's Lace isn't just pretty, but has many uses, too. Including being edible, as it's the wild version of carrot that we eat. The roots and leaves are edible, and apparently you can fry up the flowers, which of course, must taste good.

The only catch with the Queens Ann Lace is that it looks similar to Poison Hemlock and Fool's Parsley, both of which are poisonous, the former of which can kill you.

Update: Here are some links for putting Queen Ann's Lace to use: make salt, jelly, tea, and cake. And maybe even contraception!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Mystery of the Important Looking Steps

If you spend enough time around the Lincoln Memorial you'll eventually notice some important looking steps behind them.

Nowadays the steps are mainly used by overachieving fitness buffs. In fact, a couple of days ago Shira and I took a run into DC and I went out of my way to hit those steps for some stair-master action. I'm sure I didn't look as impressive as I thought I did, but it was fun to at least play Rocky.

Still, what's up with the steps?

According to various sources, those important steps were actually *intended* to be important, but it was never meant to be:

Here's the story: When construction began on Arlington Memorial Bridge in 1926, plans included a curved set of steps leading down to the Potomac on the Washington side. This was envisioned as a ceremonial entrance to the city, where VIPs could arrive by barge. It would also, The Post reported at the time, "afford a landing place for small boats."

Instead of welcoming dignitaries, the steps were put to use for what Americans do best: sitting around:

Well, it didn't really work out [as a welcoming location] and they weren't really put to their intended use. They were eventually used after a proposal to park a barge on the Potomac as a stage for concerts. The steps made an excellent venue for summer music concerts.

On July 14th, 1935, the first concert was to be held there and the national Symphony Orchestra would perform

Apparently, for about 30 years the steps were used as part of an improvised venue. The practice only stopped when air traffic in DCA put a damper on things.

Believe it or not, you actually know these steps, even though you don't think you know them. Check out how the Washington Post described the first concert on the steps:

Wagner's dramatic overture, "Die Meistersinger," will open the concert by the National Symphony Orchestra this evening at the Watergate, thus launching a summer symphony series for Washington. ...

Arrangements for accommodating the expected listeners have been completed. The barge and orchestra shell, anchored off the Watergate banks, has been equipped with modern sound amplification devices which will carry the music to all sections of the Watergate without tone distortion.

To expedite the seating of patrons, it has been requested that holders of the cheaper tickets enter from the upper level of the Watergate or the plaza of the Lincoln Memorial, and occupy places on the steps. Patrons holding higher priced tickets are to enter through the underpasses on the lower level. Box offices on both upper and lower levels will be open each concert evening at 6:30 P. M.

All tickets purchased in advance will have rain checks attached. If rain forces cancellation of a concert or interrupts a program before intermission time, the checks will entitle holders to admission at the following concert without additional cost.

That's right, these steps were the original Watergate. In fact, many think that it's these steps which gave the name to the Watergate complex, which in turn gave us the famous scandal name, watergate. (Another tempting explanation for the name Watergate is the fact that the complex is quite close to Lock #1 of C&O, which is literally a gate that controls water.)

Here are some pics from our run to the area:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Big Run Loop with a Small Addition

I've got a long standing joke with a friend of ours about how I'm going to be responsible for introducing her son to the joys of backpacking. Take him into the back country anytime I want, she keeps telling me. Well, be careful what you wish for, is all I have to say.

This last weekend our little joke became a reality. Shira and I did a short overnight backpacking trip in Shenandoah, and we brought her 4 year old son along. How many miles can a 4 year old walk? I didn't know, but was about to find out.

I picked a beginner backpacking trip from the Shenandoah's website. I selected Big Run Loop because it was (relatively) short, and for sentimental reasons as it covers a small section of the Appalachian Trail. We had no problem finding the trail head, eating lunch and getting underway.

At this point, I should probably point out that Shira is one heck of a trooper. Actually, trooper doesn't really cover it. She was stepping into the woods with a 4 year and carrying around 30lbs of gear on her back.

As we started on the first day's hike, we quickly learned that our 4 year old's boundless energy apparently did have a bound. A number of times he just stopped walking, and then would ask out loud, "why did we stop?" A few times he'd see an especially tempting down hill stretch and he would sit down on the trail as though he was going to slide down. Only once, after we'd been at it for a couple of hours, did he say with all sincerity: "OK, let's go home now."

We ended up covering about 2.3 miles in 3 hours. How much hiking can a preschooler tolerate? Apparently, not that much.

We got to the camp site and started setting up the tent. Our hiking buddy did a grand job of helping. When I say that a Timberline 4 Man tent is so easy to set up even a child can do it, I now have proof.

As is the case with *every other* backpacking trip I've done in Shenandoah, at 4pm, as we were finishing getting the tent set up, a thunderstorm started. We did like we always do, and piled in the tent to wait it out. A couple of times the thunder scared the little guy, but he just hid under his sleeping bag. After about 10 minutes in the tent he discovered that he could use our Thermarest inflatable mattreses as jumping platforms. Basically, he turned our tent into a bouncy house. He was having such fun, and I was amazed that our Neorests didn't burst under the punishment.

Finally the storm passed and we could start dinner. Shenandoah has a strict no-fires-in-the-backcountry policy, so we were going to have to pass on the iconic image of cooking over an open fire. Still, there was no way Shira was going to pass up cooking hot dogs on a stick, so that's exactly what we did. Instead of a crackling fire, we cooked over the subtle jet-engine sound of our MSR PocketRocket stove. Even though the method was a little unconventional, the dogs tasted great. And what 4 year old doesn't enjoy eating dinner off a stick? For dessert, Shira roasted some marshmallows. It was gourmet backpacking cooking at its best.

While we were unpacking, our trail buddy noticed the red plastic case that the MSR PocketRocket comes in. He immediately declared it a boat and asked if we could take it down to the small stream nearby for some sailing time. After dinner we did; and to my surprise, the top of the case floated perfectly. The whole thing was magical: he'd place the case in the stream and then give us blow by blow commentary of how the boat was making its away among the rocks. When it finally got hung up, I'd collect it up and give to him to repeat the process. We brought along a couple of kid friendly items to play with (crayons, a scavenger hunt sheet, Fresnel lens, etc.) but by far the most fun we had was with that red stove case.

And then it was bed time. On paper, the setup looked perfect: three handsome inflated mattresses in a 4 person tent. Plenty of space. Shira would sleep on one side, I on the other, and the little guy in the middle. Except he didn't quite see it that way. When we finally managed to get him into his sleeping bag he declared that he wanted to sleep with Shira, in her bag. Shira tried to explain that only person can fit into a mummy bag at a time. He ignored her, and after a minute or two, squirmed his way into her bag. It couldn't have been a more precious sight. After accomplishing it, Shira made him get out, and tried getting him to occupy his own space. Finally, exhaustion kicked in and I fell asleep. When I briefly awoke at 1am, everybody was sleeping. So, somehow they got it all figured out.

At 5am I woke up and started the morning routine. When I peeked back in the tent I found the little guy sleeping perpendicular across all three mattresses. So cute.

We cleaned up camp, did a little more "boating" and then it was time for our hike out. I suppose I should have taken a little closer look at the route before selecting it. What we had in front of us was about 2 miles of uphill hiking. And we're not talking gentle up hill; we're talking switchbacks and seemingly endless trail. And thus began our 2 and half hour negotiation to keep our little guy moving.

We tried it all: playing games (see how many colors you can find in the woods!), pointing out interesting sights ("Hey!, come here and check out this cool looking rock"), setting up challenges ("I bet you can't touch Shira's backpack, if you can you can be the leader!"), proposing rocks to have a rest on ("oooh, look up there, a perfect rest rock!"), having him jump off logs and bribery. A lot of bribery. If you had passed us on the trail, you would have heard many a variation on the following phrase: "At the next trail blaze you can have a banana chip, you want one of those, right?" And don't tell anyone, but I even dispensed with a little leave no trace camping rules and allowed the little guy to pick and carry a number of ferns. If ferns can survive on this planet for millions of years, surely they can handle a 4 year old?

Given the fact that you're reading this, you know how the story ends: we did manage to traverse the tail and all that was harmed were a few ferns.

We had a 3 hour ride home from Shenandoah, and the little guy slept every minute of it. The following night, I slept like a baby.

So, should you take your 4 year old backpacking? Absolutely. But keep the mileage low. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself. I'll even offer a 100% guarantee that your trip will be memorable.

View Photos

Gear List: Backpacking with a Preschooler

This last weekend we went on an overnight backpacking trip, and brought along our friend's 4 year old (trip report and photos coming soon!). This was our first time backpacking with a preschooler, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. Our full list of gear can be found here. However, a number of items worked especially well.

  • Sesame Street Elmo Toddler Backpack - this turned out to be the perfect size for him to carry. It fit snacks, hand sanitizer, his bandana, a few LED lights and an 8oz water bottle on the side. Best of all, he could be satisfied copying us, as we all traipsed down the trail wearing packs.
  • Laser Finger Beams - these toy LED lights have nothing to do with lasers. They're just super cheap LED flashlights in a number of colors. The different colors provided plenty of entertainment (whether it was dark out or not). And because you buy them in bulk, it's not a problem when the batteries die or you misplace them in the tent or along the trail.
  • Fresnel lens - This guy is cheap, lightweight and provides a fun point of view even when you're stuck in the tent during a rain storm.
  • Scavanger Hunt Forms - if you look around, there are quite a few outdoor scavenger hunt forms. I found one that I think was about the right level of difficulty for a 4 year old, though, they can get quite sophisticated. In the end, we didn't actually use the form, but for a regular old day hike it would probably be great.
  • Stickers! - Kids love stickers; backpackers love lightweight items; it's a match made in heaven!
  • 8oz Deer Park Water Bottle - small enough so that he could carry it in his pack, but still sufficient to provide for hydration. And the bottle is disposable, so no harm comes from it getting lost.

And which item provided the most entertainment on the trek? Our red MSR PocketRocket stove case! Our camping buddy immediately identified it as a boat, and took great pleasure (with our supervision) sailing it by dropping it in the water and watching it float down the stream.

Rule #1 when dealing with kids or backpacking (or marriage): improvise!

I should also mentioned I followed Shira's 3 Rules of Backpacking. And because I followed them, we had an especially kid (and adult!) friendly trip.

Shira's 3 Rules of Backpacking

Shira has 3 rules that must be observed when I take her backpacking:

  1. We will sleep in a large, robust tent. Almost certainly a Eureka Timberline 4 Man Tent.
  2. She can bring whatever she wants on the trail, no questions asked. If she wants to bring a 4lb bag of M&M's and deodorant, then that's OK. Sub-rule: she will carry said items.
  3. We will eat hot dogs for the first night's dinner. Preferably cooked on a stick, followed by roasting marshmallows.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

15 Minutes of Newspaper Fame

If you happen to pickup a copy of the Boston Globe today, and flip over to the Globe West section you might be in for a dose of deja vu. Printed below the shot of the gal jumping into the water is a photo that *I* took! I shot it a few weeks back while visiting my nieces and nephew in Boston on the 4th of July.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, folks from Garden in the Woods were able to track down my blog post that mentioned them. They asked if I wouldn't mind allowing them to pass on one of my photos to the Globe for publication. Mind? How about I'd be beyond flattered.

And everything came together so that it could indeed appear in print. A special thanks to my Sister-in-Law who had to jump through a series of hoops (including getting a hold of a physical copy of the Globe) to make this happen.

Look Ma, I'm famous!

Update: as if that one photo weren't cool enough, one of my Sister-in-Law's friends found another one on Check it out:

Too cool.

Learn to Program X in Y minutes

Earlier today I noticed a message on the Racket-Lang mailing list with the subject Learn Racket in 10 Minutes. Of course I was intrigued, and what I found was a link to Learn X in Y minutes. This clever little site contains a number of 1 page descriptions of programming languages.

There's a number of things I like about this site.

First, the documentation is surprisingly helpful. I was walking through the Erlang document, and I was surprised at how quickly it refreshed my memory with the details of the language. You're not going to learn how to program from these guides, but if you already have skill in one language, they'll help you get some sort of basic proficiency with another.

Second, I love the simplicity behind the site. There's no clutter to be found, just a clean description of a dozen plus languages. You could easily over think the concept and try to make it some sort of ultimate portal to programming languages. But doing so, would probably mean that the concept would never get off the ground. The site creator did a great job of resisting the urge to make this complex.

Finally, I love the distributed nature of the site. The site owner doesn't depend on knowing all these languages perfectly. Instead, he's got a facility setup to take in submissions. That means that it can steadily grow.

This is the kind of site that a person can put together a rough version of over a weekend using existing tools. All that was needed was the idea and some mental effort to make it happen. It may be simple, but it's also quite powerful.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go learn some more programming languages.

7-Word Autobiographies

Today's excerise in creativity comes from Improvised Life: 7-word autobiographies. The topic is just what you think it is; write your life story in 7 words.

After a few minutes of pondering, here's (appropriately) 7 versions that I came up with:

Happy. Annoyingly, thinks you should be too.

Frequently wrong; and better off for it.

Pithy is good. Rarely pulled it off.

He got excited about 7 word biographies.

Met, married and lived happily ever after.

Ben: Pithy Programmer, Happy Husband, Bodacious Blogger

Steadily working towards that "A for effort"

Incidentally, when you ask Shira to describe me, she'll often say: he's an open book on tape.

OK, your turn. What 7 words sum up your existence?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Gotcha of the Day: One Config Tweak To Bring Down a PHP Based Server

This morning I was deploying a quick little fix for an HTML rendering problem. I was performing various substr operations, and I saw I had an off-by-one (say it with me, "O-B-1") error. I fixed the code and pushed it to the server. Within about 3 seconds I realized I had made a pretty awful mistake. The code I pushed had an obvious bug and would never complete; it contained an infinite loop.

No problem, I figured the page would churn for a few seconds and then return PHP exceeded time limit error. Except that didn't happen.

My web browser was hung, and so was my ssh session. I could try to enter commands, but nothing was taking.

I suddenly had a very big problem.

I ended up waking the system administrator and having him reboot the server. I fixed my coding goof and all was well with the world.

The question, though, was how on Earth did I manage to bring down a server with a simple PHP script? That's not supposed to happen.

My first guess was that someone had set a really large timeout in php.ini and as a result, the usual infinite loop protection was gone. A quick check of the php.ini showed that this was not the case. It turned out to be a much more sinister setting. It was this one line:

  memory_limit = -1

The -1 in this context tells PHP to go ahead and use as much memory as it wants. This is of course is a terrible, horrible, awful idea. And I just provided why.

With the memory_limit set to -1, my script started consuming massive amounts of memory, and there was no ceiling to stop it. Within a few seconds I had probably allocated all free RAM, and then swap. I couldn't enter commands at my ssh prompt because I wasn't able to swap the process back into memory.

I ended up setting this value to 256Meg, which should be ample for regular use, and not detrimental in the case of an infinite loop.

I learned some time ago that blindly allocating resources is almost always a bad idea. Eventually something is going to give. And you'd rather have it be something controlled, like a PHP process, then the whole dang server.

Two Guys and a Bot

They're doing quite a bit of construction around our house, and frequently I'll see the classic scenario where one poor schlub is digging away, while 5 guys stand around and watch (his managers, no doubt). But today, I had to chuckle as I walked past this sight:

In this case, both guys were standing around and the remote controlled vehicle was doing the work. Who knew that one of the most important qualifications for construction was time spent playing Mario Cart?

The bots are here folks, just get used to it.

Personally, I'm convinced that the closest we are going to get to flying cars is when we all have our own personal drones making various trips the supermarket on our behalf.

Here are a couple more photos from my walk through constructionville. In this case, it's the Navy Annex and it's just about demolished. No sign of any bots here, just guys using big machines to turn buildings into palm sized chunks of stone.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tisha B'av and Hope

Today is Tisha B'av, the saddest day in Jewish history. I find it one of the hardest holidays to observe. Not just because you can't eat or drink for 24 hours, that's not pleasant, but hardly impossible. No, I find it tricky because you're supposed to avoid being upbeat and joyous. As I noted a few years ago, you're not even supposed to greet people.

My problem: I'm just too much of an optimist for all this doom and gloom.

Luckily, we have the book of Eichah (Lamentations) to help get me in the proper state of mind. We read it last night, as is traditionally done, by candle light. The text is surprisingly vivid, with heartbreaking descriptions of a starving and crushed people. The book is chanted in a unique melody which further helps to make the whole occasion quite somber (here give it a listen).

As I was making my way through the text though, I noticed something that I hadn't caught in previous years.

Eichah, like nearly all Jewish readings, ends on a slightly positive note. As low as we are supposed to feel on Tisha B'Av, it just wouldn't be appropriate to leave off without some hope.

Yet, as I was making my way through the text, I was surprised to see that half way through Chapter 3 there's a noticeable change in the text. It makes a clear turn to the positive: "Yet, this I bear in mind; therefore I still hope: G-d's kindness surely has not ended ..." (3:22). This goes on for a number of versus, changing the book temporarily from one about desolation to one about hope. Of course, this is hardly a discovery to those who have taken the time to study the text, but for someone who reads the book once a year it was a novel thing to put together. This left me with the question: what the heck was this positive message doing in the middle of a book that had another chapter and a half to go of misery before two slightly upbeat verses would end it?

Those a lot smarter than me have some interesting suggestions. Valveteen Rabbi mentions the tradition that each chapter in Eichah represents the same scene but from a different person's perspective. Lavlor-Anah suggests that these verses can be used as a guide for Jewish mourning. Others suggest that chapter 3 was simply an add on, perhaps by a scribe who thought he could improve on the work.

I can't help but look at this through my own lens. Perhaps Jeremiah, or whoever the author of Eichah was, was like me too much of an optimist. The scene in front of them was too devastating not to record it for future generations to read and learn from. At the same time the message of hope couldn't wait either. Better to squeeze it in the third chapter, than wait till the end.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Scientists and Vacations

Improvised Life pointed me to this interview with A. O. Wilson, and I found myself really getting into it. Much of it is inspiration and applies to programmers as well as it does to scientist (especially the persistent myth that you need extensive math skills to be a programmer). The host then asks him to explain one of his seemingly controversial statements: Scientists don't take vacations..

Ahhh, I figured I knew how he was going to respond. Sure, scientists go on vacations, but their mind is always working. I may be hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but watching a colony of ants may inspire me to build a new kind of distributed co-operative system.

Nope. He actually meant what he said: scientists don't take vacations. He explained that he didn't know any serious scientists who were deep sea fishermen or had other hobbies. They were too engrossed in science to have time for such things.

Quick, someone tell my dad, a biologist, that he's not supposed to enjoy fishing.

Seriously, what a load of malarkey. Of course scientists take vacations and have hobbies. How else do they get inspired to think totally outside the box? Or, as Wilson himself said so elegantly, how else do they learn to think like a poet?

Give the interview a listen -- am I missing something here?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Valentine's Day gift with staying power

Flowers last a few days, maybe a week, right? Alonzo new what he was doing with this gift. 114 years later the gift is still going strong.

So if you want to say I love you forever to your true love, say it with a concrete cylinder.

Found at Fort C.F. Smith park. No idea the story behind it.

While at the park, I couldn't resist snapping a few photos of the beautiful flowers.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: The Longest Race

In Ed Ayres, The Longest Race we're taken on a run. Not just any run, but a 50 mile ultra-marathon. The author uses this run as a device to pass along to us a combination of history and philosophical musings. It's a clever technique and one I can relate to. I'll often get lost in my thoughts while I run, many times thinking I've got most of the world understood (all of this goes away as soon as I stop and a normal level of oxygen returns to my brain).

The run isn't just any old jog through the park, but the JFK 50 Mile Ultra marathon.. A few interesting tidbits about this race: the JFK 50 is one of the oldest ultra marathon events and was developed in response to a challenge by then President John F. Kennedy:

Perhaps Kennedy's most famous intervention in the area of fitness, and an indicator of the extent to which the Council became identified with him, was the fifty-mile march. The idea of the march developed from Kennedy's discovery in late 1962 of an executive order from Theodore Roosevelt challenging U.S. Marine officers to finish 50 miles (80 km) in twenty hours. Kennedy passed the document on to his own marine commandant, General David M. Shoup, and suggested that Shoup bring it up to him as his, Shoup's, own discovery, with the proposal that modern day marines should duplicate this feat.

Not only that, but the race takes place in my backyard, covering parts of the Appalachian Trail, Harper's Ferry and Antietam Battlefield. The running part of the book is a hit.

The same could be said for the history. The JFK 50 route is an easy gateway to a number of cool topics (the Civil War, C&O Canal, etc.) which Ayres explores. Though a good portion of the book explores a historical topic that goes far beyond the 1800's. Ayres uses his journey to delve into the Running Man Theory of Evolution. That's the idea that our prehistoric brethren weren't just skilled tool makers and problem solvers, but were uniquely designed to run. The theory suggests that while other animals may be able to run faster in short bursts, humans were capable or running for much longer durations (no fur, for example, reduced our chances of overheating).

Ayres wants to impress upon us that these ancient humans weren't just dumb cave dwellers like our popular imagery suggests, but were most likely a creative and content bunch. He's probably on to something, just because people don't live like we do, doesn't mean that they were necessarily unhappy. Sure, they had no internet, but they also had no traffic jams.

And then there's Ayres' philosophizing. That's where he loses me. It seemed like every few pages there was a mini rant about how this generation, or perhaps civilization in general, had lost its way. It's typical stuff: this generation wants instant gratification, whereas when he grew up slow and steady was appreciated. This generation has no problem decimating the Earth, while his generation appreciated and loved it. Here's a sample:

Our parents' and grandparents' generations believed that the rewards of life come from years of hard work, but we were conditioned--by commercial advertising and promises of politicians--to want those rewards now: the winning lottery ticket, the lawsuit award, the casino jackpot, the racetrack win, the guy from that "you may already have won" contest coming to our door with a check for ten million dollars--and, soon, the clever day trade, the lucrative initial public offering, the merger, the flipped house, the illicit Nigerian fortune. We'd become a nation of impatient two-year-olds!

He relates these rants to endurance running by suggesting that thanks to technology we're obsessed with speed and have lost sight of the big picture.

Of course, there's an element of truth to what he's suggesting. More stuff, faster, is frequently not a good thing. But this notion that greed or impatience were invented in the last 50 years because of TV is just absurd. Every generation looks at the generation that follows it and thinks they are lazy and irresponsible. That's because the next generation is made of young people who are lazy and irresponsible. And most of those young people will grow up and realize what's important, and that instant gratification isn't it. As my Father-in-Law Z"L used to say: "Youth is Wasted on the Young."

After all, the motivation behind Ponce de León's search for the fountain of youth and most of the SPAM that gets sent my way is the same.

As for Ayre's thoughts on technology, I think it's worth reviewing what Douglas Adams had to say on the topic:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

My grandparent probably thought TV was destroying society, their grandparents probably thought it was radio that would be our undoing and their grandparents were probably sure that the speed of information introduced by the telegraph would turn us into mindless zombies. As Douglas says, this probably goes all the way back to the wheel.

There's another side to these rants which get me all hot and bothered though. It's the arrogance displayed by those who pine for a time that never was, and implicitly suggest that life for all was as good as life for them. Ahhhh, the iconic 50's. They were probably a great time if you were a white male. Sure, parents lived in absolute fear of a disease that could randomly crippled their children, and we were on a head-on collision with nuclear holocaust and complete planetary destruction, but still, good times. Now, if you were a woman interested in being CEO, good luck. And if you were black, and wanted your kids to go to high quality schools, well you were probably out of luck there, too.

I'm not suggesting that we have nothing to learn from the past, or that we haven't lost our way in some regards. I'm just too much of an optimist who believes our best days are ahead of us when we embrace both growth and change as well as our history.

In the end, I suppose Ayres did his job. I found myself thinking about his book on my last few runs, and perhaps that's the greatest compliment I can offer.

Name That Plant: Swamp Edition

Yesterday, while running along the boardwalk of Theodore Roosevelt Island I noticed stands of this especially large and healthy looking plant:

When I got home and did some Googling I learned that apparently I had found a variety of Elephant Ear Plant, though I wasn't able to figure out the exact genre. Apparently the plant is traditionally found in the tropics, but the swamp like area of the park and our typical high humidity, high heat temperatures of summer, seem like a fit for this guy.

As is typical (for me) with plant identification, it's unclear as to whether or not what I found was edible. There's some evidence to suggest it both is and isn't. There's also evidence to suggest that the plant is edible, yet it contains sap that will sting if handled.

Taro root, a common food, comes from a Elephant Ear Plant. Though I'll probably go to Whole Foods next time I need to pick up some, rather than Theodore Roosevelt Island. Still, it is awfully tempting to investigate (with gloves!) the plants on the island to see if I can fully determine what I was running past. Any Virginia/DC/Maryland natives have a clue as to what I was looking at?

More Info.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Chocolatey Hack: Brownies in a Mug

Good news chocolate lovers: if you've got a few common baking ingredients lying around, a microwave, and 5 minutes you can make Brownies in a Cup. A big thanks to CrazyRussianHacker for the video showing how it can be done. There are plenty of web pages that describe the recipe, but it's just not the same without the Russian accent and safety goggles.

See what I mean:

Here's a thought: none of the ingredients require refrigeration (sugar, flour, salt, cocoa, oil). Couldn't you pre-measure the ingredients into little zip lock baggies and store them in a mug? Then, when an emergency strikes (say, a bad day the office), you could deploy this sucker for quick results. In other words, forget the Wedding Day Survival Kit and the Urban Survival Kit and focus on what's really important: A Chocolate Survival Kit.

Last Wall Standing

Out of the original 7 buildings of the Navy Annex they are now down to one wall:

It's been fun to walk by and see more and more of the complex reduced to rubble.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gotcha of the Day: FMS's "FLV segment cache is full" error stops recording, continues to broadcast video

I'm running Flash Media Server (FMS) 4.5.3 on Linux for a client and yesterday found an odd condition while doing development. The custom flash client I've written managed to fill up the FLV Segment Cache which caused the video I was publishing to stop recording. That's annoying and all, but I was even more surprised to learn that the flash playback client continued to receive the stream. In other words, I was broadcasting video I *thought* I was recording, and was being viewed in real time, but actually wasn't getting recorded.

I can't think of a more troubling scenario: to be streaming out video, assuming its getting recorded, only to find out after the fact that the recording never happened.

While I could kvetch about why FMS would allow this scenario to happen, that wouldn't do me much good. What I needed was a fix.

The first thing I did was dial down SERVER.FLVCACHE_MAXSIZE to 1 megabyte in conf/fms.ini. My logic being that I wanted to be able to recreate the scenario as easily as possible. I found that with only a couple of streams going I was now able to recreate the issue and confirm the scenario above.

I also noticed that when the FLV segment cache is full message was logged the publishing client received two events: NetStream.Record.Stop and NetStream.Record.Stop.

The fix for this, then, turned out to be just a couple of lines of code. I detect those events and close down the stream when they come in. Something like:

                          function(evt:NetStatusEvent):void {
                            if( == 'NetStream.Record.Stop' ||
                      == 'NetStream.Record.NoAccess') {
    // use the netstream as normal

I confirmed that when I encounter the FLV cache full issue, the playback client freezes as the stream is no longer published. Just like I want.

I tried an upgraded to FMS 4.5.5 but the above condition still happens.

Ouch! A Few Kubotan Options

A couple of Krav Maga classes ago one of our classmates noticed Shira's odd looking keychain. When she asked about it, Shira explained that it was a Kubotan (or is it spelled Kubaton?), a self defense tool. A Kubotan is really nothing more than a short stick that can be used in both clever and obvious ways. Clever in that law enforcement officers can be trained to use it to leverage pressure points and gain "compliance," and obvious in that if you jab someone in the eyeball it's going to just friggin hurt.

The Kubotan was created in the 1970's by Takayuki Kubota and was originally targeted for use by female LAPD officers. The small form factor means that it can be outright carried, yet with proper training, it's supposed to be useful for taking down individuals of nearly any size. See what I mean?

Because a Kubotan is nothing more than a short stick, there are a number of options for packaging them up. Here are some obvious ones:

  • The classic version. It has no sharp points and just looks like a large'ish key fob. For $7.00, how can you go wrong?
  • The stylus version. This version looks more discrete but still does the same job. Notice the pen clip; put this guy in your pocket and nobody will know you're carrying anything unusual. Take it out for the walk through the dark parking lot at night.
  • The pen version. You get both a self defense weapon as well as an actual writing implement. These types of pens are known as a "tactical pens" and there's a quite a number of them out there. You can actually pay pretty big bucks for these guys. I know that the Shrade one I linked to is built quite well.
  • The Sharpie version. Yes, Sharpie makes a metal version of its classic marker. This isn't nearly as strong as the Shrade version, but if you're going to be some place where you want to carry some sort of protection and don't want to be hassled (say, an airport), this is one way to go. Learn more about this approach here.

Of course I need to provide a disclaimer to all this. (1) you should assume I know nothing about this topic. I first heard about Kubotans in college when my friend Jen explained to me what the wooden stick was on her key chain. I vividly remember her talking about being able to jab someone in the throat with it; a painful yet memorable thought. My experience though is pretty much limited to reading about the topic and watching YouTube videos. (2) You absolutely positively need some training to make any self defense tool or technique work. I've been enjoying (and getting crushed in) the Krav Maga classes we've been taking, and I can recommend those. Whatever you do, don't assume you can just figure it out on the fly.

Update: By the way, this is the model of Kubotan Shira had on her keychain: Alpha Innovations Kubotan.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Almost Zero Dollar, Zero Ounce Candle Lantern

Yesterday, I stumbled on this DIY ultralight weight candle lantern. It consists of two clear plastic cups holding a candle with a bit of water between them. It uses a set of binder clips to hold the cups together. It's lightweight and cheap, but I wondered: (a) doesn't the water make for a hassle setting this up? And (b) where would I find just the right size clear cups? (See a video of the setup here)

This morning, to my surprise, I got my answer to (b). When I opened our pantry to get my morning tea I was greeted by the following set of plastic cups:

I grabbed a cup from the package and dropped in a tea light candle. Sure enough, it fit perfectly. Turns out Hefty Clear 10oz Plastic Party cups are the perfect size this project.

With the candle in the cup, I lit the wick and waited to see if the plastic would melt. While the top of the cup got warm, the sides didn't. I'm satisfied that extra cup and cooling water aren't necessary. Here's how the setup looks when in use:

The "lantern" wasn't effected by the breeze outside or the ceiling fan in my office. Further more, the whole setup is quite stable. In the field, I'd probably use some dental floss to hang this up. I probably wouldn't use this setup inside of a tent, though.

Given the weight and affordability, I think this lighting hack is hard to beat. As a bonus both the candle and cup can be used for other purposes, so there's really no excuse not to bring them along while backpacking.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Missing man

As I was walking past Arlington Cemetery I noticed a few fighters appear overhead.  As they flew by, one peeled off making the Missing Man Formation.

Powerful stuff.

The included photo was the best I was able capture with my cell phone.