Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ecuador Adventure - Days 4, 5 and 6

I'm typing this blog entry on our way back from Cotopaxi National Park. The scenery is just breathtaking. To my right and left are mountain ranges bathed in puffy clouds. They sort of remind me of California, where there are gorgeous peaks everywhere. But, there's one main difference: here the mountains are covered in a blanket of emerald green. The different shades make them look like well manicured lawns. We're cruising down the Pan American highway, specifically in a section with multiple lanes in both directions. This means that we don't have to worry about crazy car passing mixed with blind curves. I'm thankful for this, but I think Shira misses the challenge a bit. Every few miles we see a cow or two grazing along the side of the road. Another unusual sight we'll see now and then are cows grazing on what appear to be impossibly steep slopes of a mountain. How they get up there is beyond me. While this is a major highway, we see pedestrians running across it every now and then and bicyclists trudging up and down the hills. No easy feat given the altitude of 10,000 feet plus.

Cotopaxi National Park is home to, no surprise, Cotopaxi Volcano. Cotopaxi is massive, and most of the time we were in the park its summit was covered in cloud cover. The ecosystem found at the national park was unexpected. In some ways it was reminiscent of desert conditions with wide open spaces and scrubby, low growing plants. But, unlike a desert, just about everything is a shade of green.

We did a couple mile loop hike, and then drove up to a parking area at the base of Cotopaxi, which is at 15,266 feet (according to my Phone's GPS). Even at the parking lot the conditions were fairly brutal; frigid temperatures, wind and sleet. I'm cured of any hopes I had of doing a serious hike of Cotopaxi. I'm glad to admire it from a distance. The park is filled with wild horses and we spent some time ogling them. I was also excited to see various birds, although I do have to admit to being a tad bit disappointed when I realized that a flock of them were effectively seagulls. Still, they are Andean Gulls, so that's got to count for something. All in all, the park was fantastic and a terrific contrast to the Cloud Forest we hiked earlier in the week.

Yesterday, we did a side trip to Otavalo, a town famous for its various markets. Like the trip to Cotopaxi, the scenery was just amazing. Though, on this ride Shira got to drive like an Ecuadorian and practice overtaking cars while I held on for dear life. One highlight of the day: trying a new street food. The food is named Chochos and is a vegetarian form of ceviche. It consists of beans, popcorn and chips covered in salsa and lime juice. It's absolutely delicious, and I'm telling you now, one day it's going to catch on in the states.

On our way back from Otavalo, we stopped at another "center of the world" monument. This one is supposed to truly be on the equator. While there, we get a little talk about the site, and the suggestion that we've been looking at the globe all wrong. It should be turned on its side, to match the actual orientation of the Equator. Like: so. Whoa! Mind blown.

Last night we finally made it into Old Town for a terrific evening with our friends Matt and Abbie. We saw various churches lit up, though Shira was spared from touring any of them. Dinner was delicious with some of the highlights including a soup that contained generous portions of cheese and slices of avocado, a delicious quinoa burger and for desert hot chocolate with queso. That's right, hot chocolate with cheese. I love all things cheese, so I enjoyed it. But, I wouldn't expect this to catch on in the States anytime soon.

After dinner we strolled through Old Town and the place was hopping. We passed a band made up exclusively of members of the Police. At one point, there were two bands and a dance show all performing within a 30 foot radius. Good times.

The day before our trip to Otavalo we spent exploring Quito. We thoroughly enjoyed the Botanical Gardens which had an impressive display of Ecuadorian Orchids, crops (who knew quinoa was so decorative?) and a huge rose garden. But the highlight by far was the building full of carnivorous plants; what amazing creatures! I've seen various displays of carnivorous plants, but this was by far the largest and most impressive.

Also, during our explore Quito day, we visited a fruit and veggie market. In Ecuador, "exotic" (to us) fruit is plentiful, varying and dirt cheap. At the market, we just pointed to random fruits, and we'd get a bag full for $1.00. Once we got home, we had one heck of a time tasting our bounty. I'm officially a huge fan of Sweet Granadilla, and could totally pass on Banana Passionfruit. When you cut both of these fruits you find a mass of gelatinous seeds, though the Grandilla is quite sweet while Banana Passionfruit is sour. Our top pick for new fruit was the Uvillas (aka Golden Berry), which are a sort of cherry tomato sized fruit. Shira and I both found them addictive enough that we would eat them by the handful.

Ecuadorians love of fruit and cheese mean that even though this is hardly the most vegetarian friendly place we've been to, dining here is a pleasure.

Speaking of fruit and cheese: while exploring Quito I tried another street food which consisted of a grilled plantain (or banana?), sliced open and filled with cheese. Like the hot chocolate with cheese, I enjoyed it, but I don't see it catching on any time soon.

Hard to believe that tomorrow we head back to DC. I'm going to have to get used to not having exotic fruit at every meal and Shira's going to have to start obeying traffic laws again. It's going to be a tough transition for both of us. In the mean time, I'm going to continue to soak up all Ecuador has to offer.

Day 4 Photos, Day 5 Photos, Day 6 Photos

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Ecuador Adventure - Days 1, 2 and 3

We're in Ecuador and it's awesome! Today is our 3rd day here. The first day was essentially a travel day. We learned a couple of important lessons: (1) Quito is huge and surrounded by gorgeous mountains, (2) traffic is crazy here, and (3) the altitude messes with your head. Seriously, I keep getting low grade headaches, and I find that I'm catching my breath after activity which shouldn't wear me out (like walking up steps). I guess that's life in the highest official capital city in the world.

On day two we headed out of town with our first stop being at Mitad del Mundo (aka, the Middle of the World) monument. Along with snapping many photos of us straddling the Equator, we also got to see some terrific views of Quito from the top of the monument. From there, we continued on our way to the town of Mindo and access to a Cloud Forest.

The ride to Mindo was a harrowing one. Ecuadorian drivers are known for being a little, shall we say, creative. And on the one lane twisty mountain roads, they pass with fairly reckless abandon. For sure they treat solid yellow lines approaching blind curves as merely a suggestion that you shouldn't pass, and not a requirement. Shira, for her credit, more than kept up and by the end of the trip had the hang of it. I just held on for dear life.

Once we got to Mindo, but before we hit the trail, we decided to have lunch. The menu was in Spanish, but not to fear, we have Google Translate and T-mobile Free Data (seriously, we get better data access here then we do in Rochester, NY). I explain to the waitress: we'd like one Tilapia in Mushroom sauce (grilled), and one order of scrambled eggs. So naturally, what comes out is: one Tilapia in mushroom sauce, one Tilapia that's been grilled and two orders of scrambled eggs. Apparently my Google Translate skills need work, but lunch was excellent.

Hiking through the Cloud Forest was awesome. I chickened-out and wouldn't take the sketchy looking cable car across the ravine, so rather than see 4 waterfalls we took a trail to see one of them. Still, the hike was top notch. We saw plants that belonged in a Dr. Seuss book, a number of interesting birds. And when we finally reached the waterfall, I was able to put my feet in the chilly water to relax.

Today we did more hiking, but much closer to home. Specifically, we traipsed around Parque Metropolitano, a massive park with plenty of unmarked trails. We caught a glimpse of hummingbirds and found more interesting plants to gape at. There's also a number of large sculptures throughout the park, so I'm going to count the hike as a visit to an art museum.

Another highlight of today: we celebrated Thanksgiving with our friends, Matt and Abbie, and their two adorable children, who we came here to visit. They live in Quito and were generous enough to open their home to us this trip. So not only am I thankful for all the usual stuff (an amazing wife, wonderful family, terrific job, heat, air conditioning, shoes, etc.) I'm also thankful to have such awesome friends. To their credit, they created the perfect thanksgiving feast, including homemade cranberries and pumpkin pie. This is no easy feat considering Ecuadorians don't eat cranberries or pumpkin. Along with their culinary skills, Matt and Abbie have also been invaluable in giving us the lay of the land. Like, say, this tip that our guide book failed to mention: public bathrooms (including restaurants) often have the toilet paper available *outside* the stall, and you should grab some before you enter. That was super good to know and came in handy almost immediately. Another approach, which we saw at Mitad del Mundo, is to make entrance to the bathrooms free, but charge for the TP. Very clever.

As you can see, we're having a blast. Enjoy some pictures of the trip below.

Day 1 and 2's Photos, Day 3's Photos

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Greetings From The Middle

The middle of the world that is!

Shira and I are in Ecuador and today we made it to the Equator (or close enough). We also visited a Cloud Forest and had other adventures, too. But I'm too wiped for a full update. Expect one soon.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Time The Nazi's Landed In North America, And More Praise for My Grandpa

My Grandfather served as a meteorologist in WWII. The family lore is that his missions included flying into Hurricanes in the South Pacific. And while I've always appreciated the value of his service, this story managed to make me appreciate it even more:

On October 22, 1943, Germany made its only armed landing on the North American continent of the Second World War. On that day, the U-boat U-537 anchored at the northern end of Labrador and its crew loaded ten cylindrical canisters, each weighing about 220 pounds, onto rubber rafts and then ashore.

So there you have it, the *only* armed Nazi landing in North America. And what was the purpose? To setup a weather station (known as Weather Station Kurt).

The station was one of 26 manufactured by Siemens and deployed around the North Atlantic to give German meteorologists data on weather as it moved across the Atlantic.

Here's a photo of the station taken by the crew that installed it:

Imagine the risk and effort that the Germans went through, and all in the name of predicting the weather.

The Germans did a thorough job of hiding the station:

The station was camouflaged, and components were marked in English with the words “Canadian Meteor Service.” Not only was there no such agency, but Labrador was part of Newfoundland and not Canada. The station was placed far enough North in the hope, apparently realized, that the Innuit of Labrador would not encounter it. To confuse anyone who might stumble upon the remote site, empty American cigarette packages were strewn about.

In fact, it remained hidden until the mystery finally unraveled in 1977.

It's also worth noting that the technology used in the station was quite advanced for the day:

The technological expertise demonstrated by this 1943 station found in Labrador is impressive. Its operation was described in German technical journals in 1953, but officials in Canada's atmospheric environment service concede that we did not set up similar systems ourselves until the early 1960's.

Granted, modern stations are more sophisticated, use solar power, and provide a much wider and more precise range of information. There are 64 automated weather stations in the Canadian north today. It is doubtful, however, if any of them could have been packaged into 10 cylinders weighing no more than 220 lbs. each and capable of being loaded into and unloaded from a conventional World War II submarine.

The complete story can be found here (thanks to this blog for that link).

To me, this shows that weather data in World War II wasn't some nice to have bit of information. It was crucial for planning and executing your strategy, and lives and equipment were worth risking to attain it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

3 Way Better Options Than The Now Defunct Arlington Streetcar Project

And just like that, the Arlington Streetcar project has been canceled. We've been hearing about this project in one form or another for the last 15 years. So part of me is disappointed that after getting so close to reality, it was quashed.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that a streetcar would have actually solved the the traffic congestion nightmare that is the Pike. Today, you can be stuck behind a car that's behind a bus that's behind a stopped car. Now add a streetcar to this mix, and it's not a pretty picture.

Also, I've got to say I'm actually impressed that a major project which received funding and had awarded contracts could be more or less stopped on a dime. That shows flexibility and agility that I don't often associate with government (national or local). Another way to view the decision is as a bunch of politicians saving their own butts in the next election. Let's hope this wasn't their motivation.

Anyway, the streetcar is dead, time to move on. In fact, I think we can do far better than the streetcar. And no, I'm not interested in building the once proposed metro line. Never going to happen.

Solution #1: Monorail. I'm telling you, we *need* a monorail down Columbia Pike. Think about it: it would be far sexier than a streetcar or bus, and assuming it's elevated, it would zip down the pike while traffic below was crawling. But don't take my word for it, read this and this. Oh, still not convinced? Well, then watch this:

Solution #2: Gondolas. The only thing slicker than a monorail down the Pike would be a series of gondolas. Just imagine stepping into your own private cabin and gently floating down the Pike while the suckers in cars below do battle with each other. It may not be the fastest way to move people, but it would be efficient. And awesome. Again, don't take my word for it, read this, this and this. And before you laugh off the gondolas, note that the idea may hit closer to home than you imagine:

In Georgetown, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., community leaders are studying a proposal to use gondolas to cross the Potomac River, connecting Georgetown to the Rosslyn Metro station in Arlington County, Virginia.

“We feel like it is an interesting idea and maybe could be a solution to the problems we’re facing,” says Joe Sternlieb, chief executive of the Georgetown Business Improvement District.

Georgetown community leaders raised the idea after visiting Portland, where an aerial tram, opened in 2006, connects the waterfront to the Oregon Health and Science University, Sternlieb says. The group is raising $200,000 to explore the concept.

Solution #3: Dedicated Scooter Lanes. OK, I'm reaching here, but hear me out. The problem with the Pike is getting folks from point A to B efficiently. What if we reconfigured the roads to carve out a section open only to Scooter (or Moped) traffic. My thinking is that scooters are relatively low costs and efficient for moving individuals around the city. Back in 2010 Brisbane floated this exact idea:

“We’ve got the bicycle lanes, but it would actually help to have a dedicated separate moped lane that’s undercover.”

Mr McLindon called for a rethink of “rarely used” T2 transit lanes, saying many cars stuck in traffic contained only one person and transport planners had to “start thinking outside the square”.

Better, safer options for moped riders within 10 kilometres of the Brisbane CBD could prompt more people to take up the environmentally friendly, cost-effective option, he said.

Heck, as long as I'm in fantasy land, we could also consider augmenting the Capital Bike Share to rent out Scooters (or maybe it's more of a Zipcar thing? Zipscoot?). And at the same station, we could have a baguette vending machine, so you could truly look the part while zipping down the Pike.

The streetcar is dead. It's time to start thinking outside the square. Let's do something awesome!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lights, Camera... Action

My wife, the TV star! Finally, all those migraines she's gotten have paid off. Yesterday, we had a reporter from one of the local TV stations in the house interviewing her about weather-triggered headaches. She knocked the interview out of the park! (If I do say so myself.)

Pop Quiz: what are these folks standing around for?

151 years ago today someone snapped this photo of a crowd:

The question: what are they gathered for?

Click here for the answer, and here for more photos of the event.

Hint: it's hard to tell from the above picture, but upon further analysis, the picture was photobombed by some guy in a top hat.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Means Something to Someone, Columbia Pike Edition

Last Tuesday, as I had codes and code breaking on my brain, I couldn't help but notice a few coded messages just waiting to be cracked as Shira and I took a walk down Columbia Pike. Here's a few of the more interesting specimens I found. These all mean something to someone.

OK, this rock isn't a mystery to me and it's technically not located right on the pike (it's a few hundred feet off, on a side street). But none the less, this SW No. 6 DC Boundary Marker is too cool not to include on the list:

For the last 222 years or so, this chunk of rock has done it's part to mark of the 10 by 10 mile square that was supposed to be DC. That may not mean much to us today, but back in the 1790's and 1800's I'm sure this was mighty helpful.

And speaking of construction symbols, check out these markings on what appears to be a control box for a set of traffic lights:

Those symbols look like they could be a wiring diagram. But why etch them in cement? Seems like overkill. Or, if it does need to be permanently recorded, why not use an official sign?

And check out this masterpiece:

That block of roman numerals in the bottom right hand corner are just begging for a little amateur cryptanalysis. It may not be Kryptos, but I bet it would be fun to try to crack.

And while not a code, I do have to share this license plate we saw as we were heading home. Seems to fit the theme, no? That may be the best use of a vanity license plate. Ever.

Cramming Darwin into My Cell Phone

My father, a Professor of Biology, is fond of telling his students (and children): Darwin is always in the room. The idea, as he's explained to me, is that the basic elements of evolution (competition, mutation, adaptation, selection, etc.) are present in all biological processes, no matter how big or small. So if Darwin can be in the room, why not in my computer?

I give you the latest exercise from Programming Praxis: Dawkin's Weasel. This exercise requires that you implement the basic constructs of evolution in code:

I don’t know who it was first pointed out that, given enough time, a monkey bashing away at random on a typewriter could produce all the works of Shakespeare. The operative phrase is, of course, given enough time. Let us limit the task facing our monkey somewhat. Suppose that he has to produce, not the complete works of Shakespeare but just the short sentence ‘Methinks it is like a weasel’, and we shall make it relatively easy by giving him a typewriter with a restricted keyboard, one with just the 26 (capital) letters, and a space bar. How long will he take to write this one little sentence?
We again use our computer monkey, but with a crucial difference in its program. It again begins by choosing a random sequence of 28 letters, just as before … it duplicates it repeatedly, but with a certain chance of random error – ‘mutation’ – in the copying. The computer examines the mutant nonsense phrases, the ‘progeny’ of the original phrase, and chooses the one which, however slightly, most resembles the target phrase, METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL.

Writing the prescribed algorithm was easy enough. You can find the complete source code here and the highlights below. Writing the code efficiently, on the other hand, turned out to be more elusive. My version creeps along, taking about 25 minutes to produce an answer. Why the sluggishness? I could blame it on the fact that I'm running it on an interpreter on my phone, but really, it's slow because I haven't take the time to make it fast. Still, after exactly 333 successive generations the system went from pure randomness to the target phrase (on run #2, it only took 211 generations to produce the right match). Slow and steady, that seems appropriate for the topic anyway.

As a programmer, I can't help but marvel at how simple and effective this algorithm is. By providing two key elements: (a) a way to introduce change and (b) a way to score the results, I'm able to write code that finds a solution even though I have no idea what the ideal path to producing that solution is. It's no surprise that there's a whole area of programming dedicated to this approach.

While I think this exercise nicely demonstrates some key aspects of evolution, my favorite experiment on the topic is still this one. In this case, the power of mutation (a key ingredient for evolution) is shown using the act of tracing a single vertical line. Spoiler alert: all those tiny errors introduce when a person tries and fails to copy the line exactly turn into significant changes. The results are pretty staggering. If you want to skip all the chit chat, and just see the effect in action, check out this video.

And here's the code for our computer monkeys:

; requires sort from:

(define goal (string->list "METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL"))

(define (range low high)
 (if (> low high) '()
     (cons low (range (+ 1 low) high))))

(define (rand-char)
 (let ((offset (random-integer 27)))
  (if (= offset 26) #\space
      (integer->char (+ 65 offset)))))
(define (mutate input)
 (map (lambda (x)
       (let ((rand (random-integer 100)))
        (if (< rand 5) (rand-char) x)))
(define (score input)
 (let loop ((value 0) (input input) (goal goal))
  (cond ((null? input) value)
         (loop (if (equal? (car input) (car goal))
                   (+ 1 value) 0)
               (cdr input) (cdr goal))))))
(define (bang)
 (map (lambda (c) (rand-char)) goal))

(define (tick input)
 (let ((attempts
         (sort (map (lambda (i) (mutate input)) (range 1 100))
               (lambda (x y)
                 (> (score x) (score y))))))
   (car attempts)))
(define (solve)
 (let loop ((generation 0) (input (bang)))
  (cond ((equal? goal input) generation)
         (display (list generation (score input))) (newline)
         (loop (+ 1 generation)
               (tick input))))))

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I Believe I Can Fly. Or, at least bounce with gusto.

Here's a recipe for kid Nirvana: fill up a large space with trampolines. Add a continuously run a dodge-ball game and basketball dunking area on said trampolines. And just for the heck of it, add a pit of foam squares children can launch themselves into with complete disregard for their safety. Intrigued? I give you Sky Zone, "the world’s first indoor trampoline park."

Shira and I watched with awe as the kids dove, literally at times, head first into the action. Even Shira and I got in some bouncing time. I got targeted big time by the kids while playing dodge-ball. It was like out of a scene where the inmates play the guards in football, only I was the guard and the children were the inmates and they finally saw a way to bring the pain!

Shira and I were both impressed by the operation at Sky Zone. The staff kept a close eye on the kids, and the place was as safe as one could expect. It wasn't exactly dirt cheap; but for a once in a while adventure, it was definitely worth it. It's certainly an activity you should drag your children to at least once in their lives. And don't blame me if you end up at urgent care...

Some photos of the kids at play:

View Photos

He's 2, and He's a Creative Genius!

Our cousin Andy is two! After downing some delicious Menchy's Fro-Yo, I busted out a few cans of Play-Doh that I had left over from Halloween. Andy quickly went to work creating great art.

I should have saved his creation, no doubt they will one day be worth millions.

Happy Birthday big guy!

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Bic-Kit - More adventures in pocket preparedness

In the spirit of the Chap-Kit, I give you the Bic-Kit. It's yet another compact utility kit that lets my inner-Boy Scout come out to play. For just about any outdoor activity, I'm thinking this tiny setup could be a nice insurance policy.

People have been wrapping stuff around stuff for as long as there's been stuff. So, I doubt this is truly an original concept. But here it is regardless:

The first shot shows most of the required items assembled (whoops, forgot the lanyard). You've got a roll of Gorilla tape, some 100lb test fishing line, a needle, a #22 Scalpel blade, paper clip and of course, a Bic Lighter.

Construction is obvious: tape the paper clip, blade and needle to the lighter, then wrap in fishing line. I placed a piece of paper over the blade before taping it to reduce the chance the glue from the tape would mess with the blade. The finishing touch was to attach a bright pink shoe lace to the setup as a lanyard. I had visions of attaching a black piece of paracord, but the shoelace was lying around.

So, let's examine what you get when you carry this bad boy around:

  • A full size lighter, useful for making fire, providing light and generally being awesome
  • A very sharp blade which can be attached, thanks to the fishing line, to a larger object to make a serviceable knife
  • 30 feet of cordage. The line I used is actually pretty impressive stuff. It's quite strong and doesn't tangle easily. The only thing it probably wouldn't be good for is fishing. But, cordage, like fire and a blade, has about a million uses.
  • A needle because, why not
  • A few inches of duct tape, which could be useful for repairs - (blister treatment anyone?)
  • A paper clip
  • An extra shoe lace, which like cordage in general, has a million uses

Besides being compact and easily attached to a belt loop, bag strap or PFD, this kit is ready to be used immediately. The Bic lighter works fine with the fishing cord wrapped around it, and the lanyard can be popped off easily enough to be multi-purposed. Unspooling the fishing line will is a pain, but if you want to get to the contents inside, it'll be the least of your worries.

Oh, and I could probably have taped / wrapped the lighter with more items. My preference is to have a useful and compact setup with fewer high quality items, than an unwieldy setup which claims to do everything.

Would I want to spend a night in the woods or be part of a SERE exercise with only a Bic-Kit on my person? No thank you. But as a last ditch kit, you could do far worse.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jewish Wisdom, Numeric Edition

I've often wondered what non-Jewish charities think when checks come in for $18, $36, or $54. These amounts may appear random, but they are anything but. Chabad explains:

Eighteen is the numerical value of the Hebrew word "chai" which means "life." It is a Jewish custom to give monetary gifts in increments of 18, thus symbolically blessing the recipient of the gift with a good long life.

This word to number conversion isn't just restricted to the word life. Any word can be mapped to a series of digits and interpreted. The practice is known as Gematria:

Because every letter of the alphabet has a numerical value, every word also has a numerical value. For example, the word Torah (Tav-Vav-Reish-Hei) has the numerical value 611 (400+6+200+5). There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words.

Any Rabbi worth his salt will have many word to number, and number to word meanings memorized. This comes in handy when someone shares that today is, say, their 34th birthday. "Such good luck!" he can exclaim and then go on to explain that the word for "to be strong, powerful; strength" also adds up to 34. See, it's a sign!

This morning, after morning minyan I wanted to drop a special amount in the in pushke in honor of my Father-in-Law's English yahrzeit (Z"L). I suppose I could have asked one of the Rabbis present for some Gematria suggestions but instead I asked Google. And while Google has many features built in, it doesn't yet calculate Gematria on the fly. But, it did put me to this handy web page: Hebrew Gematria: Values from 1 - 99.

And so I spent a few minutes browsing the list, looking for a word or phrase that would capture my Father-in-Law.

In the end, I dropped a $10 bill in the pushke. My reasoning goes like this. One Gematria for 5 is: "to introduce a question: that." And if there's one principle my Father-in-Law taught me it was the importance of asking questions. Don't just accept the what you're told; question it! And so two 5's--double asking questions--seemed like just the right sentiment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Carrot Clarinet, A 5 minute 29 second lesson on Creativity

Linsey Pollak gives us this terse definition of creativity:

Creativity is the putting together of two previously unrelated things, could be objects or ideas, and creating something new.

He then goes on to prove his point by combining a carrot and saxophone mouth piece to make a Carrot Clarinet. Trust me, you've got to see it to believe it:

(Watch Video)

Not bad for a vegetable based instrument. But wait, there's more. Check out Pollak's website to catch him playing other improvised instruments. (Dang, that man rocks on the condom bagpipe)

While I'm not sure this is my favorite definition of creativity, it does make for a brilliant strategy when you're feeling stumped.

Most people treat creativity like some kind of spiritual energy that’s floating around the air, possessing only the lucky bastards. That’s Bull[pucky] with a capital B.

In fact, being creative is super-easy. Once you discover the two tactics I’m going to unveil in this post, you’ll be potentially creative forever.

Find out the whole story here. But suffice to say, next time you're stumped, try combining two unrelated concepts and see what happens. I bet the results are awesome.

Thanks to my Dad for sharing this Ted talk with me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The World War II Code Breakers Next Door - Discovering Arlington Hall

The year is 1942. The allies are hard at work trying to crack the coded messages of both the Germans and Japanese. And where, do you suppose, was the largest message center in the world at that time? Why, right here in Arlington, VA. The location is known as Arlington Hall (or Arlington Hall Station). These days, the entrance to US Army National Guard Readiness Center is as close as I can get to it:

The work at Arlington Hall and cryptography at that time in general, was mighty impressive. For one thing, back in 1942 the term computer was a job description, much like a teacher or plumber. And the number of individuals involved was quite large:

By the end of World War II approximately 8,000 civilian and military employees worked at Arlington Hall Station on twenty-four-hour, six-day-a-week schedule.

Though, as you can see from photo below, even then IBM was on the case!

There was nothing casual about the work being completed at the site:

Women accepted into the cryptographic field were sworn to secrecy. The penalty for discussing the work outside of approved channels could be death, as it was considered an act of treason during a time of war. One Wac still recalled more than fifty years later, the first lecture she received: “Don’t talk.” The Army informed her and her fellow Wacs that no one was to know of their work. Anyone caught discussing it would be treated as a spy and shot. The Navy gave their WAVES the same warning.

But it wasn't just brute force work that was completed at Arlington Hall. The Japanese Army codes were cracked thanks to the individual's working at the Hall. One source sums it up this way:

Communications intelligence provided by Arlington Hall was the Army's most important single source of information during World War II.

I simply never knew.

And then there are the women. Unlike most jobs in the military, cryptography was "never a traditionally male job." So it was no surprise that many women worked at Arlington Hall and significantly contributed to the effort.

But these weren't just nameless worker bees. Consider this snapshot:

On the surface, this looks like another photo of nameless women hard at work in Arlington Hall. However, the individual in the front right is none other than Ann Caracristi. Consider her career track:

Ann Caracristi came to work as a cryptanalyst with the Army Signal Intelligence Service in 1942. Initially, she sorted Japanese Army messages but quickly advanced to cryptanalysis and then supervision. She helped pioneer the application of early computers in cryptanalysis and established a laboratory for studying new communications phenomena.

Her expertise and professionalism responding to tough intelligence problems brought her rapid advancement at NSA. In 1959, she was promoted to supergrade and in 1975, she became the first woman at NSA to be promoted to GS-18. She was the first woman to be named NSA Deputy Director in 1980. Also in 1980, she received the Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the DoD's highest civilian honor.

From message sorting to NSA Deputy Director, impressive, no?

Arlington Hall's history doesn't stop with the end of WW II. The origins of both the DIA and NSA can be found there. And then there's project Venona, which involved decoding messages from the Soviet Union. Though, that's another post for another day.

So next time you drive by 4000 Arlington Boulevard take a moment to realize just how pivotal this site was to the survival and success of our nation at war. And how 50 years before Barbie declared 'math class is tough' women were using math to save lives and alter the course of history.

Caption Me: Big Bird Edition

This hawk (maybe a broad winged?) was kind enough to sit still for a few minutes while I collected up my DSLR, attached my telephoto lens, removed the screen from our kitchen window and snapped 86 photos of him (or her?).

This whole wildlife-photography-from-the-comfort-of-your-kitchen stuff is a real treat.

I call this sequence: "Oh...really?!"

And I call this one: "Just keeping my distance."

If you know what type of Hawk this is, I'd love to hear it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Moment to Kvell: My Niece, the Star

Yesterday, after a fun picnic, Shira and I made our way to my niece's school, where we saw her perform the lead role in the Diary of Anne Frank. My expectations were blown away: my niece and the rest of the cast did an outstanding job portraying this important and heartrending story. The acting, the set, and the technical aspects all added up to a show beyond what I'd expect at the high school level.

Here's a couple of snapshots from the evening: the first is of Anne and Peter having a private moment in the attic (insert nervous comments from my brother). And the next is of the diary itself after the show. Apparently the red and white checked cover on the diary is historically accurate.

We're so proud of her!

Photo Fun in Fall Philly

This past Sunday, as we headed up to see my Niece star in her school play, we stopped in Fairmont Park for a quick picnic. When Shira was in college, she lived under 2 miles away from the park, yet at the time, it seemed a world away.

With the shining sun, crisp air and wonderfully colored leaves, it was a quintessential fall day. The kind that makes you think, "wow, there may be something to these 'seasons'." Don't worry, frigid days are ahead which will wipe this thought from your brain.

Still, with such a perfect setting how could I resist playing photographer? So Shira had to suffer through a photo shoot. At the same time, the ducks in the pond were also fun to photograph. Don't ask me which subject I shot more photos of.

All I know is that I continue to be fascinated by Philadelphia, and every time I visit I find more I want to explore.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Closest I'll Ever Come To Growing My Own Etrog

Of the 20+ etrog seeds I planted this year, it looks like 3 have germinated. Check out a few close ups of two of them:

These may not look like much, but anytime life emerges from the dirt I'm in awe.

As long as I was in the plating spirit, and having just identified amaranth in the wild, I figured I might as well throw a few of the tiny seeds I had lying around in some dirt and see what happens. I found this YouTube seed-starer recommendation to be a winner. All you need are a couple of toilet paper rolls, a Tupperware container, some dirt and a sheet of plastic wrap. The video walks you through making a tiny greenhouse, which I plopped on top of our water heater to simulate toasty conditions. A few days after planting the seeds there was life!

At this point, I don't have high hopes for either the etrog seeds or the amaranth. But, just watching the plants peek through the soil is reward enough for me.