Friday, November 29, 2013

Dired, Sweet Dired, in emacs on my Galaxy S3

I celebrated the fact that emacs runs on my Android phone, yet lamented that dired, a key feature wasn't working. One quick Google search and I found a discussion outlining this issue. And best of all, a fix was provided. I went ahead and added the following into my .emacs and I was good to go:

;; emacs settings to make stuff work on my Galaxy S3

;; Fix dired on Android
(require 'ls-lisp)
(setq ls-lisp-use-insert-directory-program nil)

;; Relax tab completion a bit we're on a tiny keybaord.
(setq read-file-name-completion-ignore-case t)
(setq read-buffer-completion-ignore-case t)

;; Where to start up
(cd "/mnt/sdcard")

(Note: only the highlighted lines are required. The other lines are just configuration options to make life on the tiny screen easier)

Look at all those pretty dired buffers!

One potential gotcha is that Control-Space doesn't set the mark on my little keyboard. After poking around, I accidentally learned that hitting the search button (the key with a magnifying glass in the row of media buttons) does set the mark. That will take some practice, but functionality wise, it's good enough.

Next step: disable touchwiz and have emacs be the only app that starts when I power on my phone!

The Path to the Perfect Thanksgivingukkah

1. Bust out the Rotato. This As Seen on TV item may look like a gimmick, but it truly works. It makes peeling potatoes an absolute breeze:

2. Stand back and watch Shira make delicious latkes. Plead with her to really char a few, because that's how you had them growing up. It doesn't really work, because it's not in her blood.

3. Light candles.

OK, maybe not these candles. Apparently, this box of candles wasn't exactly stored properly.

4. Gather good friends and eat. Along with the perfect latkes, add cranberries, and at least one dish made with an orange substance. (For us, it was a sweet potato dish). Turkey (or any meat, actually) isn't required.

5. Pie!!!!

This Frozen Peanut Butter Oreo Pie includes copious amounts of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. It was heavenly. For good measure, also include donuts. Because, you know, Hanukkah.

6. Craft with a little one. After spending too much time at the table, it's time to get away and make something. In our case, it was duct tape beads strung on colorful pipe cleaners. I'm sure I could come up with some symbolism behind this project, but alas, it's just one that I had recently tried (and failed at).

Now you're good to go for the next Thankgivingukkah, which happens in 70,000 years or so.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Emacs on my Galaxy S3

My dreams of turning my cell phone into a Linux hacker's delight is nearly complete: I've managed to get emacs running on it.

Emacs can actually be found in the play store and installed with a couple of screen taps like any other free app. But, like others who tried before me, I was getting a segfault when starting it up. Between my recent Android upgrade and using 8pt font, it now starts up without issue.

Check out these gorgeous screencaps:

Much of the functionality seems to Just Work. Having Bluetooth Keyboard I pretty much essential, as it makes accessing key combinations (be it via the control key or M-x) straightforward.

The big catch so far is that dired doesn't work. This is slightly problematic as I use it all the time, many times without even thinking about it. One alternate solution is to use *eshell* which provides another way of navigating the file system and easily open up files. It's not quite as fast to use as dired, but with tab-completion and aliases it should do the job.

The other thing I need to figure out is the cleanest way to setup my $HOME directory. But I'm confident I can figure that out.

Emacs in the palm of my's Geek Heaven.

Because I Can

I'm posting this shot of a runaway at Boston's Logan airport not because it's great photography, but because I can. This was our first trip were we didn't need to power down all our electronic devices during take off and landing.

Other than giving me a few new chances to grab some photos (none of which ever really turn out like I hope), this policy change doesn't really impact me. I'm usually too busy gripping the arm rests and mumbling to myself about how those terrified feelings I'm getting aren't real. You know, the ones that keep suggesting that I'm hurling through the sky in a metal tube held together by a few flimsy rivets. No, take off and landing are no time for eBook readers and mp3 players, they're convince myself this is totally safe despite all evidence to the contrary time.

Still, flying is a miracle and I'll take 90 minutes of it over 10 hours of driving anytime.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pre-Gala Photos

A few weeks ago we attended the Arlington Free Clinic Gala. It was a fun time for an excellent cause.  As long as we were getting dressed up, I suggested to Shira that we should have our portraits taken earlier in the day (yes it took 15 years of marriage, but I did eventually figure out Shira loves that sort of thing).

With that suggestion in place, I stood back and let Shira take care of the details.  She arranged a portrait session with our good friend, and pro photographer, Erin.  We ended up doing a shoot at Meadowlark Gardens right before the event.

In the past I would have ranked a photo shoot up there with such pleasant activities as, say, getting a root canal.  But, we've used Erin before so I knew the experience was going to be painless. Perhaps even fun (actually, we had a great time).  She's got this knack for letting me just be me, and  yet she captures these photos that are priceless.

So here's a few photos from the day.  Doesn't my wife look stunning?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Boston Pre-Thanksgiving trip - day 3

When we woke up in Boston this morning there was a "Feels Like" of 4 degrees outside. So yeah, any hopes I had of doing outdoor activities were squashed. Luckily we were prepared for this. Before coming to Boston a friend had recommended the Discovery Museums, located 30 or so minutes out of town. And so that became our destination for the day.

The Discovery Museums isn't what I typically think of as a museum. It's housed in a pair of old mansions, and the kids one we went today (versus the science center next door) was 100% hands on fun. Think the ultimate play house more than museum (right up Shira's alley). There was almost no electronics, just good old fashion fun like wooden trains, stuffed animals, plastic food and dishes and such. Each room in the house has its own theme, with some of them being quite clever, like one that uses clear duct work to blow a small  piece of foam from a slot where kids drop it off to a hole in the ceiling. Everything is interactive, and if kids are learning it's exclusively through play.

We loved it.  The kids loved it. Sure, it wasn't cheap ($11 per person) and most of it was old school fun, but it was worth every penny. It was certainly as nice as a fancy shmancy kids museum.

After the museum we headed back to our hotel for an indoor picnic and some duct tape fun.  I was hoping the kids would enjoy (read: kill lots of time with) the duct tape beading. But really, they had more fun with the improvised "robots" I devised out a plastic cup for a body, duct tape for arms and a coffee stirrer for antenna.

All in all, another super fun day of playing Uncle and Aunt.

View photos here

Boston Pre-Thanksgiving trip - days 1 and 2

Friday morning we arrived in a chilly Boston ready to spend the weekend with our nieces and nephew (oh, and their parents, too). Because it was cold out I tried to come prepared for some indoor kid crafty ideas. In other words, on my way out of the house I grabbed some Popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners and blue-painters tape.

After arriving and many hugs all around we went to work doing a little creative session with the supplies I brought.  In doing so I relearned two important truths:

1. I really do lack creativity when it comes to this stuff. As much as I love the idea of crafting, my results are more often than not pretty pathetic. I seriously need my sister-in-law to give me an intensive course on the subject.

2. It didn't matter one bit. So my Popsicle puppets were nothing special. The kids loved putting on a puppet show with with them anyway.  So our "airport" consisted of some painters tape outlining a landing strip on a cardboard box and a Tupperware container on top of a paper towel tube as a control tower.  To the kids, these were just like the real deal. Got to love the power of imagination.

Saturday being Shabbat we didn't make any new items. But Dovid did get to play with his airport  and Tzipora was still wearing the Masking tape necklace from the night before. Chana had fun just playing with the left over Popsicle sticks.

Our newest niece Gavriella is still very much in the sleep and eat stage of babyhood. But she did come out this evening quite awake and was fun to snuggle with.

Today it's supposed to get even colder, so we're headed to a museum. I did some Web research last night to step up my crafting game a bit.  But still, just having make believe time is all it really takes to make these kids (and me) happy.

View all photos

Thursday, November 21, 2013

In Defense of Photoshopping In Perfection

The results of photoshopping models can ranges from goofy results to all out internet-imploding-controversy. And for good reason; some of the the results are truly horrific.

I was surprised then to read DIY photography's defense of the topic (with a the perfect linkbait headline: How To Photoshop Women To Be Skinny And More Attractive) and find myself agreeing with it.

The entire article is worth reading, but this nugget seems to make a lot of sense:

Think about when you meet someone in person. You usually get a pretty good sense of their relative attractiveness instantly.

Now, think about what you are basing that opinion on.

Their visual appearance? Yes, of course.

But, you’re also basing your opinion on how they smell, how they sound, how they act, how they treat you, how they treat others – there is a whole range of externalities that go into that split second opinion.

Now think about how you judge the relative attractiveness of a person in a photograph.

The visual is all you have to go on. What’s more, you only have a visual that is frozen in a split second of time.

That little pucker of flab at the back of her dress – you would never have noticed it in real life, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in a photo. The hint of a beer belly under his t-shirt – wouldn’t have even been visible in real life, but with the lighting and the pose, it sure is distracting in a photo.

There's something to be said for this. If I've got a zit on my wedding day, why should that moment be frozen in time, when in reality that was poorly timed coincidence?

Of course, you can certainly take it too far.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Only Happy Android 4.3 Galaxy S3 User In The Entire Universe

Yesterday I learned that Android 4.3 was available for my Galaxy S3. This is good news; a software update typically comes with a handful of goodies I didn't even know I needed.

Unfortunately, after about 3 seconds of Googling, instead of finding giddy praise for this update, I found post after post like this one:

Shortly after it started rolling out, we reported that users were experiencing a number of big time issues with the software, with one owner claiming that he was dealing with no less than seven issues including:

- Phone restarting itself.

- When phone is locked and asleep, press either home key or lock key and nothing works. Battery must be removed.

- During some incoming calls the screen doesn’t display caller and the ringtone is “spluttery”.

- Alarm works only sometimes.

- Heavy battery drain during a ten minute call. It dropped by 12%.

- Notification bar shows apps that have already been downloaded. Clear them and they reappear again.

D'oh! Looks like Samsung was'd with this launch.

Any sane person would have looked at the above list and decided not to mess with the upgrade. But not me. Oh, no. How could I resist?

So, a few minutes ago I went for it. After a few minutes, my phone booted up. It has yet to start smoking, so that's a good sign.

More importantly, I noticed two new bugfix/features that are really useful to me

(1) Setting SwiftKey as the default keyboard now (appears) to survive reboots. Under the last version of Android, I'd set my keyboard choice, reboot, and be back to the Samsung default keyboard. Not a huge deal, but a hassle none the less. Now I can set SwiftKey and forget it.

(2) When I turn on my bluetooth keyboard and bring up the input method choices, I've now have a new option: to turn off the on-screen keyboard altogether:

Very handy.

So for the moment, there's at least one GS3 users who's happy with Android 4.3. Now, when all of a sudden my phone starts to go haywire, I'll no doubt have to rescind this post.

Update: So far, so good with this release. The Hands Free Mode (formerly Driving Mode) now actually works. That is, it reads out your calls and text messages (before, it didn't do this with any reliability). I've also convinced Shira to upgrade her phone, and now that we both have 4.3 we were able to use the Group Play app. You can share content on multiple devices at one time. Very slick. Not sure how useful it would be, but cool none the less.

Gotcha of the Day: Android 4.2.2 refuses to install my custom developed app

Last night I built out an updated version of an app for one of my clients. I deployed it to a location where she could install it, and she did so without issue. We're using Push-Link to manage installations of the app across multiple tablets (which I love, by the way). A few minutes later, Push-Link correctly detected that my customer had installed a version of the app which wasn't the most recent. Push-Link asked it could upgrade it?

The upgrade process started off just fine, confirming that the new app had no new permissions. However, after clicking Install my client immediately saw the message: "Application not installed."

Huh, what gives?

I tried the exact same procedure on my Galaxy Tab, and it worked just fine. That's when we realized that she was running Android 4.2.2 and I wasn't.

This morning, I upgraded my Galaxy Tab to 4.2.2 and sure enough, the upgrade procedure failed for me like it had for her.

Was this an Adobe AIR issue? A push-link issue? A new-setting-I-needed-to-disable-on-Android-4.2.2 issue?

I triggered the above error with adb logcat running. I saw no useful error messages in there.

My first clue came when I tried overwriting the app with a previous version using adb.exe and received the error: [INSTALL_FAILED_VERSION_DOWNGRADE]

Then it hit me, could Android be refusing to install an older version of the app? In the scenario above I my client installed a newer version of the app (say, version 30) on her device. Push-link then came along and wanted to upgrade it to its latest (say, version 29), which was actually older than what was on the device. In previous versions of Android, this was completely Kosher. From the adb message above, it appeared that was no longer the case.

I manually futzed with my version. I had my client install the latest software with the version hard coded to 20. And then, push-link came along and wanted to upgrade it to 29 and it did so successfully.

In the end, I suppose this all makes sense. It's a tighter security policy, which I can live with. What I don't get, however, is why the Android installer couldn't report this issue? Seems like an easy error message to show (can't install version 28, version 30 is already installed).

Night Run

What do you get when you combine running at night, the Nathan Light Spur and Android's FV-5 camera set to take long exposures? Why, this photo:

Man, it's tricky being both photographer and model. Especially when you can't see anything and you're late to meet your wife (and shouldn't be goofing off on your run in the first place).

These results aren't perfect, but they are encouraging enough to want me to try again.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

3 Uses for Android's FolderSync App

I've got a new killer Android app: FolderSync. FolderSync allows you to, behind the scenes, keep your device in sync with various cloud storage services. Here's 3 ways I've put it to work:

Add syncing to an existing app that lacks it. I'm finding that Writer is a terrific, well, writing app. Its super simple UI, with almost no options, means that it's clutter free. I've used it for drafting blog posts, keeping TODO lists and even for my speaker notes when I recently served on a panel. Conveniently, each block of text is stored as its own file. Using FileSync, I was trivially able to setup a folderpair between my local Writer directory and Google Drive. Now, all my notes magically appear in Google Drive so I can easily access them on a desktop computer. And because the sync is setup to be bidirectional, I can edit them in either location.

For auto-archiving hundreds of photos. Using Eye-Fi it's trivial to get photos pushed from my DSLR to my Galaxy S3. After a day of shooting hundreds of photos, what the heck do I do with all those pictures on my phone? Naturally, I'm going to pick through a few of them and blog them. But what about the rest? That's where FolderSync comes in. I setup a folderpair between an archive directory on my phone and an archive directory in Google Drive. And the cool part is that you can setup FolderSync so that a when a file has been successfully synchronized, it's deleted from the local directory.

This means that I can pop into Terminal IDE and type:

  mkdir Photo_Archive/My_Trip/Day-2
  mv Eye-Fi/*.JPG Photo_Archive/My_Trip/Day-2

I then kick off the sync process, and one by one, the files are pushed to Google Drive and *deleted* from my cell phone.

Meanwhile, back home, I've got a laptop setup with Google Drive sync'ing the Photo_Archive directory. That means that as I'm removing files from my phone, I'm seamlessly adding them to a computer back home. This saves me manually copying files from either an SD card or my Netbook when I return from a trip.

Because FolderSync runs seamlessly in the background, it's glad to chew through hundreds of JPEG files without complaint.

For authoring a website directly from your device. OK, this one is more proof-of-concept than anything else, but it is doable. FolderSync is glad to work with the grandaddy of all cloud services, FTP. I popped into GoDaddy, selected a domain I had parked and associated a free hosting instance with it. A few minutes later I had an FTP username and password I could plug into FolderSync. I then opened up Vim on my device and edited index.html. A few moments later, I was published on the web.

How useful is this in practice? Not sure. But it shows that my phone can publish to the world with almost no effort. And that's just to cool not to have setup.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Super Size Me - Galaxy S3 Plus an HDMI Cable

For around $10 you can buy a special cable that connects your Galaxy S3 to an HDMI compatible TV or monitor. That's right, for the cost of a large pizza you can broadcast your phone's screen to your 64" big screen TV.

Why on Earth would you want to do this? Perhaps you want to show video clips or photos on your big screen that live on your cell phone? Maybe this arrangement is useful for business folks who want to run a presentation directly from their phone. Or, maybe you're like me and looking for ways to turn your cell phone into a laptop alternative while traveling.

Regardless, the cable I can report, works quite well. I plugged it into my home TV as well as the TV in our hotel room last night and it Just Worked in both cases. I had to make sure the input on the TV was set to the right HDMI slot, and I needed to insure that the USB cable was plugged into a power source, but that was about all there was to it.

Once plugged in, the TV just shows whatever is on your device's screen. See:

With my bluetooth keyboard I felt like I had just resurrected Web TV, a failed company from years ago that offered a product that turned any old TV into a web and e-mail station. My Grandparents *loved* that product (alas, they may have been their only customers). I could see how Android on a TV could be a viable alternative to a full PC in the home, especially for the grandparent demographic.

I suppose the main catch is that the large screen doesn't really give you any additional screen real estate. The device's screen is mirrored exactly, so for example, icons on the home screen are larger, but there aren't more of them. Still, for around $10.00 it's hard to argue with this new capability.

As for how much it helped my effort to create a laptop-free travling kit, the jury is still out. I was hoping the big screen would help with image sorting and editing easier. I'm not convinced it does. Right now, I see this as another tool in the toolkit. With time, some killer use may very well be found. We'll see.

One of my concerns was that the 6ft cable was going to be bulky. In fact, the cable is fairly thin and rolls up nicely. Transporting it doesn't appear to be an issue at all.

Most hotels we stay at these days seem to have TVs with HDMI inputs, so I anticipate bringing the cable on the next few trips to see if it can truly earn its keep.

Virginia Beach Quickie

We just finished a wonderful brunch with one of my clients. The food was great and so was the company. But especially impressive was the ocean view, with a pod of dolphins swimming by no less! See, my client is located in Virginia Beach and we came down last night to see them. And now we're headed back to DC.

It's been years since we've been here. Out little strolls on the boardwalk last night and this morning only makes me want to come back when we can spend some serious time in the sun and sand. And when I do, I have every intention of calling it a Business Trip.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The MiniSuit Bluetooth Mini Keyboard and Why I Had to Have One

For as long as there has been mobile computing devices, true Geeks have asked themselves this critical question: Why the heck am I schlepping around this X pound laptop, when I could just as easily do everything I want on my Y device. Sure, I give up screen size, keyboard comfort and computing power, but think of the weight savings! From the TRS Model 100, HP200LX and IPAQ to the iPads of today, a true Geek can't resist at least attempting this (often useless) exercise.

I have to admit, after plugging my Nexus 7 into a keyboard and feeling the rush of a Bash prompt, I was once again ready to go on this quest. But why use a bulky Nexus 7 for my computing device? Surely I can go smaller. No, the perfect setup isn't a tablet; it's my phone, my trusty Galaxy S3.

But where to begin in this effort to turn my cell phone into an on-the-go laptop replacement? A Bluetooth keyboard seemed like a good start.

For years I was a dedicated hardware keyboard guy. Give me the opportunity and I'll wax on about how amazing the feel of the original Sidekick keyboard was. But, thanks to software like SwiftKey, the onscreen keyboard on my S3 isn't half bad. In fact, the predictive text makes it actually quite effective. That is, as long as I'm typing away in English. E-mail, SMSs and even blog posts can be pounded out with relative ease. But switch to an environment like a Bash prompt or vi and all that predictive text does you no good. So off I went in search of a hardware keyboard which would fill this need.

While it was tempting to get a full sized keyboard, the extra bulk and lack of a mouse, means that they probably wouldn't get much use. After all, if I'm going to carry along all these accessories, why not just bring along a laptop? Fortunately, searching around, I found that there's a whole class of Mini keyboard which seemed more appropriate. After watching this review, I decided I'd pick up a MiniSuit Bluetoth Mini Keyboard.

The review turned out to be an accurate one: the keyboard is a bit plasticy, the key travel is OK, not great and the touchpad's positioning means that the symmetry of the keyboard is out of whack. But, the review was also right about one important fact: the keyboard works quite well. It flawlessly paired with my Galaxy S3, and while it takes some practice, it's definitely usable. Most importantly, it's a full QWERTY keyboard. Every key an aspiring Linux hacker could ask for is there: alt, control, tab, pipe and more. And just as importantly, it's where you'd expect it to be (for example, the question mark is above the forward slash). There's even a Windows and Open-Apple key. There's two different ways to generate mouse events and a set of media keys as well. Another nice feature is that the keyboard is backlit. The keyboard has its own internal battery, and seems to have excellent battery life. I've used it for relatively short bursts for days without charging it.

Size wise, it's about the same size as the S3 itself:

(There's a bit of black Gorilla tape covering the blue LED that indicates the keyboard is on. I found that the light was so bright was actually annoying.)

I suppose the most important question is, how close does the keyboard get me to my dream of turning my cell phone into a laptop-killer? In many respects, it does quite well. It works well with Terminal IDE, VIM Touch and Juice SSH, so I can hack away with relatively ease. For example, I was able to pop-open Terminal IDE and tab complete my way through: mv extsdcard/Eye-Fi/* extsdcard/Photo_Archive. I hit enter, and Bam! I've moved hundreds of image files from one directory to another. Quite trivial on a Unix box, but something that would normally be a pain using an Android file manager. I had similar success with Juice SSH, allowing me to tab complete and use screen remotely without issue.

For most text I type I'm definitely slower on the keyboard than with SwiftKey. However, gaining the extra real estate from not having the soft-keyboard pop up is another win.

I did find that a few extras made life with the keyboard far better. Including:

  • Null Keyboard - switch to this keyboard and Android won't ever try to pop up a software keyboard. Useful to for insuring maximum screen real estate.
  • Ultimate Rotation Control - this oddly named app allows Android to rotate every screen, including the home screen. Why this isn't built into the Galaxy S3 from the start, I have no idea. But, having a rotated home screen is key. It means that you can prop up the device in landscape mode and keep it that way the entire time.
  • Tasker - one major annoyance: when the keyboard connection is detected, it forces the input to be the default Samsung keyboard. Then, I have to manually switch it over to the Null Keyboard. I use Tasker to make this switch easier. If I was really hard core I'd root my phone and get rid of this awful behavior.
  • Anker Astro e3 Battery Pack - while not exactly required, I find that now all my cell phone playing runs down my battery even faster than usual. By using the Anker battery pack, I have a fighting chance to keep my cell phone alive and full of juice.

How long will this use-my-phone-as-a-laptop phase last? If past attempts are any indicator, probably another couple of weeks. I'll then go back to my beloved Netbook and write a blog post about how silly I was to think I could travel without it. In the mean time, I'm enjoying that discovery phase where I figure out just how much I can stretch my phone to do.

Housing Hidden in Plain Sight

Today on a walk I noticed a number of honeycomb shaped nests like this one:

From Googling around it looks like they were probably Paper Wasp nests.

Two interesting factoids about Paper Wasps: (1) they are considered beneficial to gardens. Apparently, they feed on various insects, which actually make them a form of natural pest control (and pretty bad-ass).

(2) they have very well developed facial recognition capabilities. This may be useful for navigating their social hierarchy.

Next time I'm shooing away a wasp, I'll try to remember that they are more than just a summertime hassle.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Most Significant Accomplishment Of The Week

Five days ago I picked up this innocuous looking package of sunflower seeds. At 59 cents, they seemed like a reasonable impulse buy. And besides, I like trying new things.

And so began my 4 day (I started noshing the next day) journey in consuming 8 frustrating ounces of sunflower seeds.

I opened the package and popped a seed in my mouth. Mmmm....salty... But now what? I managed to crack open the shell only to detect the tiniest sliver of edible material. Now I had the tricky business of discarding the chaff and keeping my newly found bit of yum. This turned out to be tricky business indeed. I popped a few more seeds. Surely I was missing something obvious. Nobody goes through this much trouble to each such a tiny quantity of food.

I actually searched the package for more information. Maybe I was doing this all wrong. The good folks at FritoLay were kind enough to include instructions:


Unfortunately, I tore the package when opening it and lost the remainder of the above text. I was at least encouraged that I was indeed supposed to crack open the shells and discard 98% of the sunflower seed.

Any sane individual would have simply discarded the nearly full package of sunflower seeds and moved on with his life. But not me. I wanted to see this through. I wanted to attempt to master this new skill that was going require intense oral dexterity. I wasn't going to back down from this fight.

So for the last few days I've been hard at work, slowly making my way through this package. At least I won't be lacking for salt intake, thanks to this one package, I've got 82% of my daily sodium covered. Whoooo!

I wasn't content to simply muddle my way through this package of sunflower seeds. No, I decided I better seek out an expert. Luckily, the web had the answer. I give you the 16 step (I kid you not) WikiHow: How to Eat Sunflower Seeds.

The diagrams and text are actually quite informative.

And this evening I finally did it. I finally crunched the last seed in the pack. I'm not sure if I'm hooked and will be desperately seeking a fresh package of seeds tomorrow, or if I never want to see a sunflower (let alone a seed) again in my life.

I just know that it's Wednesday, and I've already had my greatest accomplishment of the week. That's saying something.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You Up

You wouldn't think a survey of historical weapons would make for page turning hilarity, and yet that's exactly what I found with John O'Bryan's A History Of Weapons. I suppose it all comes down to writing style. O'Bryan just kept me smiling and learning as he took me from prehistoric weapons to the Colt Revolver.

Like the Daily Show O'Bryan uses cuss words at just the right time to make me smile like a teenager. Keep that in mind if you want to buy this book as a gift.

So, what did I learn? Well, for one thing, people are amazingly gifted at devising ways of killing each other. I also have an appreciation for how seemingly all cultures, from the Knights of the Crudades to Shaolin Monks, got in on the creative (read: brutal and deadly) weapons business. Even cultures who never had access to metal weren't lacking gruesome war making tools.

Picking a favorite weapon of the bunch isn't easy. As I mentioned I'm quite impressed by the simplicity and power of the ancient sling (the kind used to kill Goliath). If I had to pick another favorite it would probably be the Tessen (disclaimer: I have yet to watch any YouTube videos where a Tessen is demonstrated. Perhaps after seeing it in action I'll change my mind.)

The Tessen looks like a traditional Chinese fan, the kind that you expect to see ladies unfold and use to cool off. Unlike your grandma's fan, this one has metal ribs and sharp points. It was a Samuri's backup / every day carry weapon of choice. It looked harmless enough, but apparently could be used as both a bashing and slicing weapon. What can I say, I have an affinity for clever designs, and making a weapon that goes everywhere and is ignored until needed is my idea of clever.

I know this book won't be for everyone, but I for one found once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down.

Snaking Into The Distance

The shot below was taken on our flight out of Jacksonville. I love how the Florida swamp(s?) look from the sky.

This image was edited by Snapseed, a terrific photo editing app for Android. See, here's the original:

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jacksonville Day 4

Today being Veterans Day meant that our friend had to work, but her son was off from school. Not to worry, Shira and I were excited to spend the day playing with our 4 year old buddy.

We started the day at Big Talbot Island State Park. Many of the state parks near Jacksonville sounded terrific, but this one had a special site to offer. Mainly, there's a beach which was supposed to be absolutely chocked full of eroded trees. With all the old trees, the beach has earned the name the "Bone Yard."

The beach didn't disappoint. The old trees made for an unique photography subject for me, and more importantly, it was a kid's paradise. With a little imagination the trees were easily pirate ships, cars and anything else a 4 year old can come up with. The trail down to the beach was about a quarter of a mile, and provided a pleasant hike and lots of bird activity.

From the beach we made our way to Fort Clinch on Amelia Island. Like St. Augustine, the fort there is actually quite well preserved. From the drawbridge to the canons to the winding steep steps, this was another terrific place to explore with a 4 year old. After poking around the fort we hit the beach in front of it for a little play time in the sand. Using shells and a lot of imagination our little friend recreated his own castle, including shell drawbridge. When leaving he had two large flat shells in his hand. When I asked what they were he explained: "they are Batman and Robin's surfboards." Well obviously, how did I miss that?

As we left Fort Clinch Park we stopped to do the short Willow Pond hike. Turns out, Willow Pond isn't a pond in the traditional sense, but a series of green swampy pools that the trail winds through. With multiple signs warning of alligator activity, it feels wonderfully spooky. You can truly appreciate how well alligators have adapted to their landscape as downed floating logs look *exactly* like an alligator snout. We didn't see any alligators, though we did see a turtle, which is probably just as well.

With those adventures behind us, we hit downtown Amelia Island for lunch and then made our way back home. It was one of those rare days that was nearly completely filled with activities that were both kid and adult friendly. Such fun.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jacksonville Day 3

Today we spent the day in St. Augustine, "the nation's oldest city" and had a fabulous time. We started off the day at the local Alligator Farm which claims to host every species of crocodile and alligator in existence.

I've been to my share of zoos and such, and while I expected our friend's 4 year old to be enamored with the place I wasn't expecting to be blown away. But blown away I was. Never before have I see so many crocodiles and alligators in one location. There were hundreds of them, and just watching them sun themselves and do their daily business (which in the middle of the day, isn't much), was quite a thrill. What gorgeous and scary animals.

From the Alligator Farm we made our way to Caps on the Water, a seemingly out of the way fish place which was actually quite crowded. And I can see why, the food was delicious and the eating-on-the-deck made for the perfect ambiance. I felt like I was in a Florida Vacation commercial as I munched away on very tasty fish tacos.

After lunch we returned to the historical downtown area of St. Augustine and did a little wandering around. Shira was spared any visits to museums because neither our friend's 4 year old nor she could tolerate them. We did get to explore the fort in town which was castle-like-enough that both the little guy and I were very excited to check it out. We played with the canons while Shira and our friend pretended not to know us.

Of all the historical sites we saw in St. Augustine I think one of my favorites was the Constitution Monument. To make a long story short, in 1812 Spain wrote its first constitution, and to celebrate the fact, required all towns throughout their empire to erect a constitution monument. Which St. Augustine did. Then, in 1814 the constitution was chucked out and towns were given a new order: you must destroy the monuments you just created. Luckily, St. Augustine didn't follow this directive. I just find this decree followed by counter-decree to be such a classic government move.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Jacksonville Florida, Days 1 and 2

We're living it up and spending Veteran's Day Weekend in Jacksonville, Florida. Not only is the weather about 20 degrees warmer than back home, but we're able to visit our good friend and her 4 year old (of backpacking fame).

We arrived yesterday, got oriented, and saw our friend in the afternoon. We busted the little one out of school a little early and officially kicked off our vacation.

We're staying down by the riverfront, and have an amazing view from our hotel window. It's the kind of scenery that causes me to just keep snapping photos. Call me an 8 year old boy, but I'm absolutely fascinated by the variety of bridges that span the river. A few of them appear to be drawbridges of sorts, and others look quite modern. It's so cool.

Today, after a wonderful breakfast at Metro Diner (I can heartily recommend the Breakfast Pie. Yum!), we took the little one for a bit of outdoor adventuring.

He hadn't napped yet, so we figured we'd head out of town and he'd sleep in the car. By the time we'd arrive at Camp Milton for some hiking, he'd be well rested. Of course, that's not how it played out. The boy stayed wide awake the whole trip (which was relatively short, 25 minutes maybe?). Convinced that a nap was critical, we decided we'd actually just keep driving hoping that eventually sleep would overtake him. Unfortunately, my curiosity beat out his urge to sleep. After randomly driving on, we managed to find Pope Duval Park.

While driving in the park, we noticed a boardwalk trail and the idea of a nap went out the window. The trail turned out to be a wonderful one. It wound through a pine forest and gave us some views of a nearby lake. The only wildlife we saw were a few spiders, but the little guy loved it all.

After the Pope Duval Park, we made our way to Camp Milton. This turned out to be a slight bust. They have a boardwalk trail, but it's really no different than the one we had just been on. From what I've ready, they occasionally have players dressed up in Civl-War era costumes, and a visitor center open to explore, but we managed to come on a day when everything was shuttered. Still, to be out in the woods in shorts and short-sleeves, enjoying a perfectly sun shiny day, it's hard to complain. So I won't.

One neat feature of Camp Milton is that they have quite a number of trees grown from either seeds or acorns originally collected from witness trees relating to the Civil War. In other words, you can look at a Magnolia tree that was grown from a hand collected seed at the site of Andersonville Prison Camp. It's a really clever way to keep history literally alive and connected to its roots.

One thing I've been reminded of this trip: never underestimate the ability for a 4 year old to remember things. Within 15 minutes of picking up our friend's little one at school he asked if he could help setup the tent to sleep in it, and whether we'd have time to play with his boat. Both of these activities come right from our overnight backpacking trip 4 months ago. Amazing.

Here's a handful of photos to get a the gist of the trip.