Thursday, October 31, 2013

What's in a Name? The Space Blanket

You know those handy mylar sheets that work great for keeping body heat in and wind and moisture out? They go by a number of names, including "Space Blankets." I'd always imagined that the "space" part of the name was a sort of marketing gimmick. You know, Mylar being a space-age material, or something.

It turns out, the name has quite a bit more meaning than I imagined. Mylar was definitely a NASA invention, but that's not all. There's actually this impressive little story that explains how the blankets earned their name:

The first United States experimental space station in orbit, Skylab, lost its thermal protection shield, or sun-shade, during launch on May 14, 1973. Sans a shield, temperatures in Skylab became dangerously high, rendering the orbital workshop uninhabitable and threatening to ruin the interior insulation and adhesive. Something had to be done quickly before the first crew could be sent to man the orbiting lab.

Engineers and scientists worked around the clock to develop an emergency repair procedure. In this picture, two seamstresses stitch together a sun-shade for the craft. The Skylab crew and the repair kits were launched just 11 days after the incident. The crew deployed the sun-shade during an EVA (Extravehicular Activity) the next day.

The sun-shade, you guessed it, was a big o'l Mylar sheet. Or Space Blanket, if you will.

Here's more info on Skylab.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Trail Running Kit, v1.0

Lately, I've been doing a bit of trail running. With any activity, comes the requirement of packing the perfect kit. The goal: have the essentials, but don't overdo it. This is especially true for trail running, where the whole point is to stay in motion.

So here it is, my Trail Running kit v1.0:

  • Handkerchief. For blowing my nose, keeping the rest of the gear quiet and about 100 other things
  • Mylar Blanket. Useful for treating shock, providing cover from the rain, or staying warmed up during a break.
  • Ibuprofen. These get crammed into the core of the athletic tape and are basically invisible.
  • Athletic tape. Lots of uses for this on the trail, from helping with sprains to leaving messages.
  • Utility Key Chain. This is my standard key chain full of goodies. The compass, knife, flashlight and whistle are especially handy to have on the trail. The USB drive, less so. But it's attached, and I don't bother removing it.
  • Buff. This serves as a hat / neck warmer / balaclava. Useful for runs where it's kind of iffy as to whether or not it'll be chilly. For the weight, the Buff provides quite a bit of warmth.
  • Galaxy S3. For me, trail running is often an excuse to get out and take pictures. Plus, I'll use My Tracks to track interesting runs. Who knows, maybe this device will keep me from getting lost.
  • Amphipod AirFlow Microstretch Belt. This little belt-pack is key. It expands to hold all of the above stuff without issue. I have a SPIBelt that looks to hold the same amount of volume, but the Amphipod holds quite a bit more. I didn't want to go with a full size backpack or even a large fanny pack, as that would clearly be overkill for the relatively short-near-civilizations runs I do. This Amphipod pack is perfect.

This probably seems like a lot (it does to me), but it packs down quite compactly. In fact, my original goal was to just take along the emergency blanket and tape. Those two items should handle most first aid scenarios. I had enough room to toss in my key chain, which provides me with another round of useful tools. Finally, the handkerchief keeps stuff from jiggling around and is useful in its own right. The Buff gets added to the belt as needed.

By the way, I only schlep this gear when trail running. When doing usual road running I try to bring nothing but my phone, a key and maybe a handkerchief. There's something about the woods, and a trail strewn with rocks and roots that just urges me to carry stuff. Must be the Boy Scout training.

Rejoicing in one of Life's Great Mysteries

Here's one of life's great mysteries: Snyder's of Hanover's Bacon Cheddar Pretzel Pieces are *Kosher*. And I can confirm they're tasty, too.

Or as Benjamin Franklin Didn't say:

Artificial bacon flavoring is proof that G-d loves us, and wants us to be happy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Practice Your Photo Skills, Never Leave The Comfort of Your Desk Chair

Fernando Pereira Gomes is a real person, and a real photographer. Yet, his latest work is strictly virtual. In a wonderfully clever move, he's created a street photography project using the virtual streets of Grand Theft Auto 5.

The results are oddly compelling. Consider this example:

I suppose I could be a cynic and scoff at the idea of shooting photography in a virtual world. But, I won't. The rules of composition that go with photography don't change just because you're working strictly with pixels. And the patience required to get a good shot is just as necessary in a virtual world as it is in the real one.

At the end of the day, all that matters is whether or not the photograph is compelling.

Via: Web Urbanist: Real Street Photographer Documents Virtual Life in GTA V

And Now, It's Just Dirt

We sent from this:

to this:

In just about 11 months.

Not too shabby.

Here's another photo of construction at the old Navy Annex site. This one was tweaked by snapseed, a terrific little app for on phone photo-editing.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Trail Running Turkey Run Loop

We had a perfectly crisp day to do a little trail running yesterday, so I thought we'd give Turkey Run Loop a try. Turkey Run is connected to my favorite trail of late: the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT). Though the loop we were going to attempt didn't cover all that much ground on the PHT, I was still glad to be running on a section of it.

As for Turkey Run Loop, we attempted to follow the instructions on Things started off clearly enough, with clear signage and nice yellow blazes. However, as we made our way up Dead Run things got a bit hazy. Specifically, we got to the following line in the instructions:

Just after passing under the GW parkway bridge, turn left, cross the run and follow the yellow markers southeast until you reach Turkey Run again.

We had no problem finding the GW Parkway Bridge. And once we crossed under it we found a yellow'ish blazed trail. But it didn't head off in a Southeast direction. We took the trail, and continued to follow the bright yellow-green markers until we came across some dog-walkers. They explained to us that we were outside the park and nowhere near Turkey Run. We made our way back, found the GW Bridge again, but for the life of us couldn't find the trail turn off.

It turns out that that according to the map we inspected after the fact, we needed to turn left *before* not after the GW Parkway Bridge. D'oh. Note to self: bring a map, and don't just rely on a narrative and trail markings.

We backtracked to the PHT, and then ran Southeast. We did this until we picked up a sign for Parkway Headquarters. We then took that trail back to Parking Lot C, where we started.

While I was disappointed that we couldn't do the loop as described, what we did end up doing was terrific. Most of it was quite runnable with some fun hills. Parts of the PHT continue to be really rocky and less than ideal for trail running. But views of the Potomac more than make up for it.

Here's a useful map of the area, which I didn't have with me. And here's the Yelp review page, which I'm not entirely sure does the area justice.

And of course, here are some photos:

A Bumper Sticker You'll Only See in Arlington

I'm willing to bet event Kathleen Sebelius doesn't even have one of these bumper stickers. But I wasn't at all surprised to see it on a car at the Columbia Pike Farmer's Market:

On a somewhat related note, I just learned the following trivia about Arlington County's stance on secession during the the Civil War:

On May 23, 1861, Virginia held a referendum to vote on secession from the Union. Although Arlington’s small, rural population of approximately 1,400 voted, by a 2-1 margin, to remain a part of the Union, it was the only precinct to do so. Most of the state, including the City of Alexandria, voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession.

Perhaps we need a new moto? Arlington: Being not Real Virginia since 1861

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Black Tie'ing It For A Good Cause

For years we've been supporters of the Arlington Free Clinic, and for years we have received an invite to their Black Tie Gala. And for years we've passed the night by.

But not this year!

Shira put on a little black dress, I donned my tux, and Gala'ing we went.

The party was great. The vegetarian option for dinner was exquisite. I don't even know what I ate, other than the fact it was good and definitely not meat. The 10 piece band made for great dancing and our tablemates were delightful.

What a wonderful evening for a wonderful cause.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A few What If's

What if, at the start of the development for the team split the source code into two source trees? One containing a small amount of sensitive code, and the other contained the bulk of the project which wasn't private.

And what if this second source tree was made available on Github or at

And what if every programmer in the world could peek in on the source code and track it's development?

I can imagine the Internet self organizing around this. I can imagine people giving feedback, finding bugs and recommending fixes. I can imagine we'd hear programmers sounding the alarm that the system wasn't scalable long before it failed a load test. I can imagine people donating their time to make the site a success. I can imagine there would be a lot less finger pointing when the website had issues.

Of course, I'm a fan of sharing when it comes to code, so I'd naturally see this relatively simple act as a powerful one.

Project Manager's Dilemma: To Share or Not To Share?

There are essentially two approaches to sharing the software you've developed with stakeholders. You've got the Masterpiece method and you've got the Chicago method.

With the Masterpiece approach, you sit your stakeholders down and show them, well, your masterpiece. That is, you essentially wait until the software is completed and then wow them with the finished product.

The Chicago approach, so named because the dubious political phrase Vote Early and Vote Often, involves sharing every phase of the software with your stakeholder. From the very first blank screen with the name of the software in the title, to the finished product, you share it all.

The Masterpiece method is tempting for a number of reasons. First, which programmer or project manager doesn't live for the day when they can wow their bosses or the board of directors? Secondly, over-sharing leaves room for lots of questions ("why doesn't this button work? How come search doesn't find X? and so on), which increases project overhead and may damage expectations. And finally, showing each phase of the project is practically inviting scope-creep.

In my experience practicing the Chicago method, those possibilities for conflict are typically critical advantages. All those questions are really an opportunity to bring stakeholders on board and give them ownership in the project. And scope-creep? More often then not, the changes are important course corrections. Sure, they may deviate from the original plan, but they often make for a much better product.

Finally, the Chicago method counteracts the biggest issue with the Masterpiece approach: the possibility of catastrophic disappointment. What happens when you've worked for months on a product and finally sit the stake holders down, only to have them walk away unimpressed, disappointed, or flat out angry? At a minimum, the stakeholders are going to provide feed. Like, say, "excellent start, now just re-arrange the order process so it's 4 steps instead of 16," From a project management perspective, you've walked into this meeting assuming you're wrapping things up, but you leave with hours of re-work and re-testing ahead of you.

In many respects, it's this catastrophic disappointment we're seeing right now with One report I'm hard pressed to believe suggests that 20% of the 500 million lines of code need to be rewritten. I don't know how you arrive at that sort of estimate. But I know that if you're over-sharing with the right folks, then you're a lot less likely to get into such a broken state in the first place.

I've also seen attempts by folks to try a middle-of-the-road approach. They want to wait until the software is at some milestone, and then start sharing it. Like the Masterpiece method, I think you're setting yourself up for failure. All you're doing is raising expectations to a place that's often had to meet.

Bottom line: when it comes to software, Share Early and Share Often.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Super Simple PHP Google Spreadsheet API

Over this weekend I was doing a bit of tool development for my own company and needed to pull in and update some data from a Google Spreadsheet. I continue to be a huge fan of using a Google Spreadsheet to manage data accessed from PHP. The folks at Zend provide a fairly comprehensive API for working with Google Spreadsheets, but it was overkill for what I needed to accomplish.

After thinking over the problem I needed to solve, I determined there were only two functions I'd need: sgs_list($worksheet_name) and sgs_walk($worksheet_name, $callback). The description of each is below:

  • sgs_list($worksheet_name) - given a worksheet name (the text in the tab at the bottom of a spreadsheet), pull back an array that represents each row of the spreadsheet. The array consists of key/value pairs, where the key is the heading of the row. Basically, this pulls in a Spreadsheet as standard a PHP array, and allows me to opperate on a spreadsheet much like a database result set.
  • sgs_walk($worksheet_name, $callback) - this function is similar to sgs_list(...). But rather than returning an array of Spreadsheet rows (which are themselves an associative array), it invokes $callback once for each row. And then there's a tiny bit of magic: if $callback returns an array, the Worksheet is updated to reflect the changed array. If $callback returns true (or any non-array value), then no change to the spreadsheet is made.

sgs_walk is a fairly clean way of updating a spreadsheet without worry about the details of doing so. You're just setting and returning an array; it couldn't be easier.

Every time I use Google Spreadsheets from a programmable context I'm amazed the power and ease of accessing data that would normally seem out of reach.

You can download my trivial little API here. And you can download a sample of how it's used here. Feel free to hack this to bits; if it's useful, have at it!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Trail Running on the Cabin John Park Trail

Yesterday was the perfect day to be outside. So how could we not finish it up with a nice trail run through the fall foliage? But where to go? In a hurry to find a location, I visited and started reading down the list of DC recommendations.

I'm not exactly sure why, but Cabin John Park Trail jumped out at me. Looking at the description, it appeared easy to find, the distance seemed about right (6 miles) and the instructions to just stay on the blue blazed trail seemed nice and simple.

We jumped in the car, and 23 minutes later (why, oh why, is there massive traffic on Sunday afternoon on the Beltway?!) we were at the Locust Grove Nature Center, ready to start our run.

To my surprise, the trail absolutely lived up to all my expectations. It was beautiful, free enough of obstructions to truly run on and well marked. It was hilly enough to keep things interesting; but not so steep that the downhills were unrunnable. We got a little disoriented when we popped out at the road 2 miles out, and didn't catch that we were supposed to walk down it a ways (the instructions say 40 yards, I think it's longer) to pick up the trail again. Instead, we followed a blaze into a camp ground by accident, which still made for a fine location to run in.

Apparently, the section of trail we covered is only part of the Cabin John Stream Valley Trail, which has a full length of 8.8 miles. That means that we've got plenty more miles to explore.

Definitely recommend this for trail running, or any other excuse for getting out into nature.

Meeting Nora, Exploring Reston

Nora is precious. Nora is perfect. Nora's just a few weeks old.

Nora happens to live in Reston (with her sisters and Mommy and Daddy). So yesterday, while visiting Her (and her sisters and her Mommy and Daddy) we took a walk. I was expecting a typical walk through surface streets, but was instead was treated to a terrific little hike along a trail. Turns out, Reston has 55 miles of such trails, something I had no idea about. I just assumed they had the Town Center and the usual suburban sprawl. Apparently, I couldn't have been more wrong.

So yesterday, in perfect weather, we got to tramp through leaves, do a little goecaching (which eluded us, argh!) and even saw a few deer, like this guy:

It was the perfect way to spend the morning, and I walked a way a more educated man.

Getting the Nexus 7 in touch with it's Linux Roots

On a whim, a plugged a USB Host OTG into our Nexus 7 and attached my IOGear wireless keyboard and trackball to it. After furiously clicking the reset button on both the keyboard and USB dongle the most amazing thing happened, the keyboard Just Worked.

That's right, a little mouse pointer appeared on the screen when I moved the trackball and the keyboard, well, keyboarded.

I then installed Terminal IDE (no rooting needed) and suddenly I was in Linux-land. I could access files, use vim and generally do anything BusyBox would allow. Even a number of keyboard shortcuts worked, including Alt-Tab to switch among windows.

Of course, I wanted to do more. From my reading, I see that emacs should totally be possible (whoo!), but I've yet to try it. A little testing to get opkg and a number of additional Linux programs to run on the device was a flop (the instructions call for running wget over adb.exe shell, but that command isn't found), so I've still got work to do.

Apparently, if I'm feeling up to it, I can go as far as turning the Nexus 7 into a full blown Linux box. Two options I've found: (a) run Debian alongside Android or (b) boot up Ubuntu instead of Android on the device. (a) requires root access and (b) requires a factory reset, so both options are somewhat extreme. But still, good to know they are out there.

In the mean time, I'm weighing whether or not I should get a tiny bluetooth keyboard so that I can make the setup a whole lot more portable. I'm also wondering how much of this I can do on my Galaxy S3. If I had the right set of Unix tools on my cellphone and a keyboard to access them, there may be times I could get away with not bringing along my Netbook when I travel. I usually do this as an insurance policy in case I need to fix some broken code, but with vim, svn and a few other utilities I may be able to do that from my phone. One can dream, right?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Two More Tools in the Fight Against Bots and Spammers

For some time, the CAPTCHA has been considered the definitive way to keep bots and spammers off your site. But, like any ecosystem, both sides need to continually evolve. And simply making the CAPTCHA harder and harder to read isn't the answer (I'm looking at you, reCAPTCHA, with your dang near impossible to read letters I'm supposed to interpret.) Recently, I've implemented two alternatives / additions to a CAPTCHA that are relatively easy to program, and as a bonus are invisible to end users.

Excluding Bots: Honey Pot Form SPAM Trap

The Honey Pot form trap is so terrifically simple and clever that it definitely falls into the Why didn't I think of that? category. Here's how it works: you create your form as normal, but make sure to include one extra text input field. Using CSS, you can mark that form field as invisible to users. You then update your form handling code to refuse to accept submissions that have that extra form field filled in. Users won't fill in the field (how can they, it's invisible?); bots on the other hand are typically too crude to interpret CSS, so they will go ahead and submit something for the form field. And Bam! you've just excluded bots without the user ever knowing it.

I've used a similar approach in the past and leveraged JavaScript. For example, I set a hidden form field to have the value no in it. At form submission time, I replace that value with yes. Because bots don't typically implement JavaScript, this too filters them out.

But I think the Honey Pot approach is even more elegant.

Excluding Spammers: CleanTalk and StopForumSpam

While excluding bots is a good thing, many of my customers have reported spammers getting past the CAPTCHAs on their site. That implies to me that these spammers in particular have hired real people to fill in forms, rather than depend on bots to do their dirty work. In that case, a CAPTCHA or Honey Pot isn't going to make a difference. But what can make a difference are sites like CleanTalk and StopForumSpam. These sites both work on the same principle: these human form filler-outers are lazy. They often use the same username, email and source IP address for multiple sites they SPAM.

Given this, both CleanTalk and StopForumSpam host a blacklist that you can query to see if a person signing up on your site has been flagged as a known spammer.

While not quite as trivial as the Honey Pot to implement, it's really not that tricky. One curl request is all it takes to see if a given username, email or IP is potentially bad news.

While it's a never ending battle to tame SPAM, these two approaches definitely help fight the good fight. And they do so with relatively minimal effort.

Review: Nathan Light Spur

It's official, as I'm heading out for my run in the evening it's dark out. That means that it's time to get back into the habit of running with lights dangling from my clothing.

I'm still a big fan of the eGear Guardian Strobe Light, which clips in any number of places and just works. But, the other day Shira returned home from an REI trip with a new light for me to try: the Nathan Light Spur.

Here's what looks like in action:

The Light Spur is a relatively stiff U-shaped piece of plastic that you wrap around the back of your shoe. You can then switch between continuous-on, strobe and off.

The two obvious questions are: (1) does this thing really stay in place? and (2) is it annoying?

I've only run with it a couple of times, but so far it has been rock solid. I'm using it on a pair of traditional running shoes; I'm not sure how comfortable this would be on a minimalist setup. I'm also only running with one Light Spur, and the lack of symmetry hasn't caused any problems.

As for whether or not it's annoying, when I first put it on I could notice the slight difference in weight and pressure it caused. But, after a few minutes, I forgot it was there. I then wore the Light Spur around for a couple of days without even realizing that it was still attached. For me, it is basically invisible.

I've got to say, I'm really impressed. While not quite as versatile as the eGear strobes, It Just Works. I can truly clip it and forget it. I don't have to worry about my shirt covering up the strobe, or figure out some strategy for getting it attached.

If you run at night, this item is a no-brainer. I also bet it would be fun for shooting long exposure shots at night. But that's another topic for another day.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Adventures In Man Bagging

I'm always on the lookout for the perfect man bag to schlep around my stuff. With that in mind, I found Mark LaFlamme's man-bag experiment to be a wonderfully entertaining read.

Over the past few weeks, half the people I've met out in the world have remarked that I'm a brave soul. A man of singular courage. A fearless fellow who has never said no to a challenge.

The other half implied, through a rich range of verbiage, that I'm a girl. A brave, brave little girl.

It's the purse I've been carrying around. You will note that I did not say "shoulder bag" or "man bag" or any other term that attempts to gild this lily. I am not fooled.

Read the rest

I won't be deterred. One day I'll find my ideal man bag, and I'll wear it with pride. Until Shira refuses to out with me. And then I'll go back to stuffing my pockets.

Slow Cooker Taco Chiken Chili, Shira Style

Tonight we had Slow Cooker Taco Chicken Chili but modified ever so slightly to be Shira Style.

And what is Shira Style you ask? Easy:

  • Start with the complete recipe
  • Adjust it for what we happen to have on hand: removed the corn, only used one can of stewed tomatoes
  • Add in Shira's 4 Food Groups: Mushrooms, Onions, Black Olives and of course Hot Dogs

The result?

And because it was done in the crock-pot, it was steaming hot when we walked in from the gym this evening.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Pen is Mightier than the the Pricing Gun

You see that red, handwritten word on the package of chocolate chips below?

It says the word "Sample" and the initials of an employee at Whole Foods.

Shira was looking for the usual Vegan chocolate chips she buys and they were all out. A random employee saw her searching, and asked if he could help. After determining they had none in the back, he suggested she try another option. I wasn't there, but she tells me that he then took out a pen and marked them as a sample. Poof. They were were free.

When checking out, there was no charge or static from the person ringing her up. Apparently, this practice is an accepted one.

Can you imagine having a business where every employee has permission to give away products if they feel its in the best interest of the store? What a terrific way to demonstrate trust to both employees and customers alike.

Good job Whole Foods. Yet another example of superior customer service.

As long as we're talking Whole Foods, check out this video. It pretty much nails every trip I've ever had to the store:

25 Uses for Atheltic Tape on the Trail

If I'm going to carry some piece of gear, like say athletic tape to deal with sprains, it sure does make sense to think about other ways it can be put to use. So here you are, 25 ways to use athletic tape on the trail.

Related: 34 Ways to use Duct Tape for Survival.

Have any suggestions to add? With something like tape, there's always more uses!

  1. First aid for a sprained ankle
  2. Tape your knee for additional support
  3. Create a pressure bandage
  4. Cover blisters to provide protection from further rubbing
  5. Tape hands and fingers to provide protection during rock scrambling
  6. Lash a shelter together
  7. Make a sunglass keeper
  8. Make a necklace to hold light gear (i.e., a whistle) nearby
  9. Hang gear from a tree to dry
  10. Attach a flashlight to a hat or other piece of gear for an improvised headlamp
  11. Combine with sticks to create a rigid splint
  12. Use with a mylar blanket or garbage bag to make a better fitting emergency poncho
  13. Repair ripped clothing
  14. Create arrows or lettering to share info with a search team
  15. Use the adhesive to remove cactus spines
  16. Rip off and keep small pieces of tape to use as a counter / improvised ranger beads
  17. Create a hair band to keep your hair out of your face
  18. Attach money or ID to your gear
  19. Label your gear
  20. Tape a bundle of gear together that's being cached for later
  21. Make an emergency set of glasses
  22. Add racing strips / visibility stripes to dark clothing
  23. Make a quick release attachment for gear
  24. Fashion a zipper pull
  25. Leave as bread crumbs along the trail

Bonus guy friendly tip: cover your nipples to avoid chafing!

Review: North To Freedom

Recently I was visiting the house I grew up in and was looking over the book shelves for something to occupy my time with. Randomly, I picked up North to Freedom by Anne Holm. The text I was holding had a Copyright Date of 1965 imprinted on it, and yet after reading a few pages, the strongest comparison I could make was to The Hunger Games.

Both books are written for kids and yet both books are structured around themes that seem anything but kid friendly. In the case of North to Freedom the story follows the main character David as he flees a concentration camp and tries to survive. Like The Hunger Games, North to Freedom contains a main character stuck in a no-win situation that you root for. And most importantly, both books were so riveting that I couldn't put either of them down.

David has spent his entire life in a concentration camp, so when he busts free the author has the opportunity to explore all sorts of wide ranging ideas: like happiness, beauty, faith, love and evil. As David wrestles with life on the outside, we get a unique view into the thought process of someone who doesn't take freedom for granted. As a philosophy text alone, it's wonderfully thought provoking.

But the text is more than just good fodder for discussion groups. It's a solid adventure story that pulled me in. I got myself full invested in David and truly hoped I'd get a good outcome for him.

I think this would be an excellent book to read together with your 10 year old or so child. Sure, there are some nail biting scenes, but in the end, the book does manage to stay kid friendly. More importantly, the lessons the book can teach are so immensely valuable, it's worth risking a few nightmares over (says the guy who doesn't have to deal with said nightmares.).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Butler's Orchard Pumpkin Festival

Yesterday, we took advantage of Columbus Day, and went with friends to the Butler's Orchard Pumpkin Festival. As you can see below, the kids had a great time. It was your typical animal feeding, pony riding, corn maze running, rubber ducky racing, burlap sliding good time. Our first order of business when we arrived was to eat, and we assumed that the food stand serving hot dogs, hamburgers and veggie burgers was our only option. But, in fact, there was a whole other location serving up a number of veggie options, including vegan chili.

Having a sunny day for the first time in forever (OK, 4-5 days?) didn't hurt either.

The only part of the festival that gave me pause was the admission fee. $11 per person (including kids) made for a pretty expensive day. More than that, it was a big enough cost that it left me wondering: was I getting my money's worth here? If we had come back on any old day of fruit picking, the slides, rubber duckies (which, I was the undefeated racing champion) and other games would have been there to play with for free.

I suppose this sort of event has taken on a similar role as the farmer's market down the street. Traditionally, a farmer's market is a good way to save money, but around here, they are actually more expensive than the super market across the street. Instead, you're paying for the privilege of buying from a local source. With a festival like this, you're paying a premium to keep the sort of farm friendly fun alive in the DC area. And you know, I think I'm OK with that.

Anyway, the important part is we had a great time. I suppose it's also good that we didn't end up losing anyone in the corn maze.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Mystery of the Locked Toolbox

While helping to organize the the infamous clock parts, I noticed my grandfather's toolbox. Of course, it was probably filled with your run of the mill tools. However, it had a big, thick padlock on it. That meant that I couldn't pop it open and confirm this. What if the toolbox was filled with gold bars, or some other precious items?! I mean, a locked toolbox is a brilliant hide-in-plain-sight location, right?

I just had to know what was inside.

I started off by examining the toolbox and lock and it all looked very solid. Had I access to a bolt cutters, I would have just given those a try. Briefly, I thought about using a hacksaw to cut through the lock, but that seemed like an awful lot of work, and I didn't really have the time.

Naturally, I thought of the book I had read, How To Open Locks With Improvised Tools, and started to think up ways I could put together a quick set of lock picks. But again, no quick options seemed available.

Finally, I came up with a plan: I'd try utilizing one technique, and if that failed, I'd let the project go. I was certain the idea I had in mind was a dud, but I at least had to give it a shot.

So I dragged the heavy toolbox (because gold bars are heavy, right?) out into an open area. I popped a paper clip off my keychain, crammed it in the lock and started twisting. I had no idea what I expected to accomplish, other than mangling the paper clip. But still, I twisted away.

To my absolute shock, and amazement, after 30 seconds, the lock appeared to turn. After a few more moments, the lock popped open. Holy. Smokes. I did it!! I had defeated the ancient and solid looking lock!

I opened up the lid of the toolbox, and Oh well, there were no gold bars to be found.

I have no illusion about what went on here. Obviously the lock had corroded internally and mechanism was no longer working. I was lucky that all that was needed was a bit of brute force to open the lock. Still, I'll chalk this up as a win, if only for trying something creative.

In the end, Grandpa ended up giving me something better than gold bars. He gave me a puzzle, a chance to prove that I could work a seemingly impossible problem, and an opportunity to save the day using a paper clip. Best of all, he gave me a story. (One I plan to enhance over time just like he would!)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Forget drinking more water, you need to drink more whiskey

Let's lighten the mood around here, shall we?

Here's a post Grandpa would more than approve of: 22 Excellent Reasons To Drink More Whiskey.

My two big take aways:

  1. If the health effects of Red Wine are good, then those for Whiskey must be awesome. Bye-bye cancer, heart disease and dementia!
  2. Forget hording gold for the coming zombie apocalypse (or economic collapse due to a debt ceiling default; pick your poison), I'm hording whiskey. It's just a smart investment.

Maybe I should add one of these to my keychain, so I'm always prepared?

At Rest

At a traditional Jewish funeral, the attendees grab shovels and fill in the grave with dirt. What you're seeing above is this task, completed.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Final Goodbye to Grandpa

It is with great sadness that I report that my Grandfather has passed away. The obituary and details about shiva are found here. At 93.99 years old, he had a full life. He was a WWII veteran, small business owner, parent, Yiddish aficionado and probably a dozen other things. But to me, he was tied with my Grandpa Arnie for World's Best Grandpa. What an immense blessing I was given to have him in my life for so long.

When I think about Grandpa, these important lessons come to mind:

  • Having a default demeanor that's filled with warmth and kindness goes a long, long way.
  • When in doubt, tell a story.
  • Never ruin a good story with the truth.
  • Laughter is the second best medicine. Whiskey is the first.
  • True love isn't something you find only in books and movies. It's what he found in his wife (and my Grandma) of 65 years.
  • Change isn't the end. Whether it was starting up a number of different businesses; moving to Rochester relatively late in life; or dealing with macular degeneration; the one constant in life is change. And he navigated it all.
  • It's OK to need a push in life from those who love us. All that navigation he did in the change I just mentioned? He got help (way to go, Mom!), but in the end, embraced it.
  • Family is priority #1. Embrace the one you have, quirks and all.

We lost a good soul with the passing of my Grandpa. He will be greatly missed.

Update: Here's the Eulogy my Dad gave for my Grandpa:

Lately. I have been thinking about the commandment to "Honor your Father and Mother"

When you are very young;

You really don't know there is such a requirement - what you do know is that the love and warmth you do receive is clearly unconditional - In the beginning, in spite of your crying which makes tired parents even more tired and in spite of making awful messes. Later when I failed science because I procrastinated and didn't do my "Fish Notebook".

I remember snippets from this time:

That I never received a potch from the "old man", or for that matter hearing the phrase "Wait till your father gets home".

That I learned early not to eat all the gribinous before he came home.

That my dad was not a reader - in fact I can't remember ever seeing him spending time with a book Yet, I remember one almost miraculous night - where the whole family lay on my parents bed and dad read out loud in an accented voice from "The Education of Hyman Kaplan".

And through this time:

I don't think I told him how much I loved him and appreciated everything he did.

When you are 13 and now actually have mitzvah of honoring you parents like to perform - I was still not much better at doing it. And this in spite of the fact that the love of my parents and their sacrifice was so much more obvious.

I didn't see my father a lot - he worked hard - 6 days a week.

And when he did come home he was tired and we didn't do those father-son things that take up much of children's times today like baseball and soccer..

My Mom and Dad didn't take a lot of vacations, but I had everything I needed

And when I become the first to go to college, finances are never a consideration

Two more recollections from this period


The Green Plymouth with the big fins. My father loved cars. He loved to drive, and every time he looked - he bought. I remember cold winter nights where he would go out late to start his car and warm the engine (even covering it with a blanket) so it would start in the morning.

He was a man who was not afraid to do new things and take chances.

He opened a clothing store "Marilyn's" on the south side of Chicago.

He took a correspondence course to learn to repair Watches - and because he was very good with his hands and patient even after his full days work, he learned quickly. The pantry at home became a watch repair station. And later he even owned a Jewelry Store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago for a short time.

And yet through this time:

I don't think I told him how much I loved him and appreciated everything he did.

And then like so many young people - I went away to have an Education, Career, Marriage

And the opportunities to honor my father and mother become sporadic.

There were Phone calls

Brief visits back home

Celebrations of Life events in MY new life - babies, bar mitzvahs and, birthdays.

This was a long period of time - in my case almost 30 years. And so for this part of my fathers life I only have some stories, pictures and reminiscences of what was for him was the best of times. He was making very good money selling boots to the Navy and it was just my dad and my mother.

My parents took cruises with their good friends Micky and Mel and Madge. If you asked my father, he had seen the world and "been there"

After his retirement from sales, my mom insisted he do something to get out of the house. He become "Father Tyme" Opened his first really successful store. He traveled to buy broken clocks, which he then fixed and sold.

Winters in Florida. Golf, eating at the "Pastrami Club", and sitting around the pool with good friends for hours in the afternoon before going out to eat again at the "early bird special".

And while all this is going on he recovered from many medical challenges. He healed quickly.

And yet through this time as well:

I don't think I really told him how much I loved him and appreciated everything he did.

But then the Mel dies, Micky moves away and Madge passes on - and my parents ties to Chicago grow weak.

And they come to Rochester 15 years ago -

They say they came to see the kids grow up - of course the kids had already grown up and left town

I think they came because they knew that you can't age successfully if you are without a support network - family and friends. And you need a person with caregiver in their soul like my incredible wife.

It was a wonderful reappearance of my parents - and so the 5th commandment came to the front and center.

And what a time they had here

Many of you know my parents from this time so I don't have to say much except that:

My Father aged sweetly

He loved the people around him

He loved a good martini - and the bar at the Kochman wedding was for him the dream of a lifetime

He reveled in telling stories in English and Yiddish

He especially appreciated women - and found their conversations far more interesting then anything men ever had to talk about.

And this time, especially after my mother passed away 6 years ago I had many opportunities to tell him how much I loved him and appreciated everything he did.

Finally, it struck me a couple days ago that the commandment to honor your father and mother is maintained even when your parents are no longer here.

Certainly the 7 days, 30 days and first year after their passing. In these times it is all about them and reliving the honor they deserve.

But it continues.

At the yartzeit

Every time we say yischor

As you tell your own children and their children about where they came from and who both directly and indirectly influenced them.

And finally in the way you carry out your OWN life - for surely you are their agents here on Earth when they are no longer here, just as your children and the people you influence will be your agents on Earth when the time comes.

93 years 363 days - it was a good life, an interesting life, an important life, and one which sends out ripples that will influence us all for generations to come.

And here's an article published about my Grandpa:

Massively Throwing Off Your Google Analytics eCommerce Stats in One Easy Step

One of my clients was looking through their Google Analytics eCommerce stats when they were surprised to see this completely whacky amount. Under transactions, it stated that one of the orders had a revenue value of: ($9,223,372,022,317.22).

That's special, no?

Google Analytics for eCommerce is fairly easy to setup. You just need to invoke some JavaScript, specifically the _addTrans() function.

My first thought when I saw that whacky number was that it was due to a type conversion issue. Suppose I have:

 var x = "30";
 var y = "50";
 alert(x + y);

You might think that the above value is 80, but of course, the answer is 3050. That is, I was thinking the above massive (well, super tiny massive) number was constructed out of string concatenation.

Turns out, my guess was wrong and the answer was even easier. Apparently, the total for the order was being set to NaN. And I was sending the following to Google:
  utmtto=NaN&  **** Notice the NaN

Apparently, when Google interprets the text NaN it's coming up with that super tiny value.

I fixed the bug that was causing the total to be NaN in JavaScript, and now I'm good to go.

Still, it's surprising how easy it was to get that ridiculous value in Analytics.

Dave Chappelle on Being Yourself

Fame = Success = Happiness, right?

Apparently, not for legendary comic, Dave Chappelle. He elegantly sums this all up in a few sentences here. My favorite part:

...Then I've got to make some real choices, man. Is that what I want for myself? Did I get too big? I like people. I like entertaining. And the higher up I go, for some reason, the less happy that I am....I'm gonna find a way to be myself.

There you have it, wisdom from Dave Chappelle. Be a self-observer, and if you're not happy, do something about it. Even if everyone says you should be happy. Turns out, that's not enough.

Don't know who Dave Chappell is? Allow me to introduce you. I haven't seen a whole lot of his work, but of what I have seen, this is my favorite routine:

(Note: there's a fair amount of cussing in here, so this one isn't for kids)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

You'll never guess where Washington, DC's Reservoir Road leads to

I've been on Reservoir Road in DC plenty of times, but I never really considered the name. Turns out, it may be one of the most honest things in DC: it actually takes you to the Georgetown Reservoir. Who knew?

I found this out because I decided to make the Reservoir the destination for my evening run. Here's the route I took:

View Georgetown Reservoir in a larger map

Unfortunately, the reservoir has a tall fence and doesn't appear to have a path that goes around it (I arrived after dark, it was hard to confirm this). So, unlike other reservoir's we've been to, this one isn't ideal. But, definitely worth checking out.

Like I said, I arrived after dark so my pictures had to be a bit creative:

As a bonus, I was treated to an amazing sunset as I ran across the Key Bridge:

Clock Parts! Get Your Clock Parts!

This uncaptioned photo from a recent post deserves some explanation:

What you're looking at, is what my Sister-in-Law correctly identified as the infamous Clock Parts!

My grandfather owned a clock store, and the story went that when he and my Grandma moved to Rochester, they boxed up his store and moved it with them. The result was that for years, we talked about the Clock Parts in their basement.

We referred to them often enough that it became a sort of short hand for something that sounded valuable, but to the average person it wasn't really. Something like:

"For Chanukah, Grandpa's going to buy me a car. But Don't worry, I'm sure he'll let you have some clock parts!"

On this last visit, for the first time in my life, I got a peek into my Grandparent's basement storage unit. Sure enough, there are boxes and boxes worth of clock related items (including tools, manuals, clock oil, etc.)! Here's two more samples:

Sure, a clock or watch repair person could get a lot of use out of these parts. But the crafter in me imagines that you could power an entire etsy store from jewelry and other items made from these parts.

So what do you say, know anyone who could use a lifetime supply of clock innards? Seriously, let me know, I can get a you a terrific price.

Another Potomac Heritage Trail Running Report

The Potomac Heritage Trail from Theodore Roosevelt Island parking lot to Windy Run is an excellent little trail run, right in Arlington itself. The trail is free enough of obstacles that you can jog it with relative ease, yet it's challenging enough that you feel like you're in the back country and not running in a city park.

This last weekend, we thought we'd try running another section of the trail, specially from Windy Run to Chain Bridge:
View Potomac Heritage Trail: Windy Run to Chain Bridge in a larger map

This section of trail, I'm sorry to report, actually makes for pretty poor trail running. The obstacle to runnable ground ratio just isn't there. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic hike, with delightful little rock scrambles. But, don't expect to cover it at anything resembling a runner's pace. Unless of course, you've got mad trail running skills, in which case, what the heck are you reading my blog for? You should be off video'ing yourself running down a cliff or something.

Some scenes from the trail:

By the way, I brought along some atheltic tape this run, and actually taped up Shira's knee a bit to give it some extra support. I'm sure an athletic trainer would have been mortified with my technique, but Shira tells me it was at least partially effective. Chalk another one up for being prepared!