Monday, February 29, 2016

Indian Head Rail Trail - 26 miles of prime bike riding terrain

Yesterday was the perfect weather for a bike ride, and the Indian Head Rail Trail was the perfect location to make it happen. Because the trail follows an old rail road bed, it's nearly devoid of hills, and it manages to run along some wonderful natural areas. It's also very well maintained, has plenty of benches and nature viewing sites and generally it was as smooth as could be.

It was a bit of a drive to get there, but getting in a change of scenery on a well maintained trail on a beautiful day was completely worth it.

Roller Skating: Good Times, Good Therapy

Our friends Lauren and Nick asked if we'd like to join them and their kids at Roller Skating Night at Thomas Jefferson Community Center. Apparently, this is an Arlington thing to do which we've never heard of, much less considered attending. We were in!

This wasn't my first time skating around a gymnasium to the popular tunes of the day. That honor goes to the after school skating parties we'd had in elementary school (Shira claims it was at Brookside Elementary School; I've got no way to confirm this). While the details are now hazy, I remember clearly that these skating parties were optimized for the coordinated and the popular; of which I was neither. I can clearly recall skating to Van Halen's Jump, with the more capable skaters taking flight at the lyric's command to jump. And then there was the couple's skate. Perhaps I worked up the courage to ask a girl to let me hold her hand as we did loops in the gym, probably not. Like I said, it was for the coordinated and popular.

Well, this last Saturday night I got to show my 8 year old self just how far I'd come. OK, when the DJ played the Cupid Shuffle, I had no dance moves to offer up. I gingerly skated around the gym with exactly the same lack of grace I had as an 8 year old. But in terms of holding the hand of a pretty girl, well, that part I'd absolutely nailed. One out of two, ain't bad.

If you're looking for some family fun, you should definitely check out the Roller Skating nights. If nothing else, it's cheaper than therapy.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Friendly Skies

We just took off from a very cloudy Chicago, O'Hare airport and burst through the clouds to blue sky and a carpet of perfect puffy clouds. Onward to DC!

Thursday, February 25, 2016


From a run earlier this morning along Coyote Creek Trail.

And a snapshot of the sun coming up at the same time.

Now that's the way to start the day!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Almaden Quicksilver County Park: The Perfect Sunny Day Destination

This whole working while it's 70°F and sunny out is harder than it looks. Fortunately, I finished up with my meetings early enough that I could venture out into San Jose with a bit of daylight. But where to go?

After a some Googling, I decided to hit up Almaden Quicksilver Park. The park, as the name suggests, was the site of a quicksilver (or Mercury) mine, one of the largest (perhaps second or even first) in the world. Not only did it promise 34 miles of trail, but there's also various abandoned mine structures to check out. That's my kryptonite: put a historic marker on a map and like a moth to a flame, I've got search it out.

The first order of business: getting from downtown to the park. I accomplished this using Uber, my first use of the service. I've got to say, I'm quite impressed. Taxi services have good reason to worry; what with the hassle free pricing and incredibly smooth experience, I imagine I'll be doing plenty of Ubering in the future.

Once at the trail head I picked up a map and started plodding up hill. Calling the location a County Park almost seems like a misnomer. This is nearly pristine wilderness that goes on and on for miles. I did a 6 mile loop and didn't touch the vast majority of the park. I saw beautiful flowers, countless interesting bird species, stunning overlooks, various mine detritus and even a ragged looking deer (which had an oddly white, rather than brown hide. Hmmm.). I walked through a stand of Manzanita trees and was shocked at their unique beauty.

As if all this weren't interesting enough, it appears that the mine even played a role during the Civil War. Check out this article to find out why Lincoln personally made moves to acquire the mine and then had to back off. Interesting stuff.

If you find yourself in San Jose on a sunny day, the park is absolutely worth a visit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Room With a View and Capturing Said View

I'm working this week from San Jose, CA. The operative word there is 'working.' That means that this evening, while the sun was setting I was programming and not out playing. Still, nothing stopped me from propping up my phone on the window of my hotel room and capturing the sunset.

Note to self: whenever shooting time-lapses (or are they hyperlapses?), plug in the phone! I learned this lesson the hard way after my phone complete crashed due to a dead battery. To the phone's credit the video I shot wasn't corrupted, which was pretty impressive.

The result is that I shot two time-lapses, both using the very slick (and free!) Framelapse app. The process couldn't be simpler: find a way to prop up the phone, hit record on Framelapse and upload to YouTube. To make the movies even remotely watchable, I swapped in some audio.

OK, they aren't going to win any awards, but they were easy to shoot and let me both work and play at the same time.

Sunset Take #1, includes the battery failure:

Sunset Take #2:

New Rule: The Little Boy and The Zen Master; We'll See

Every once in a while a bit philosophy will resonate so strongly for so long, that I'll add it to my list of My Rules. And so it is with the story of the Little Boy and the Zen Master. Years ago, I saw Charlie Wilson's War, and while most of the movie has left my consciousness, the final scene has stayed with me. Here it is:

The abbreviated version of the story goes like this:

On his sixteenth birthday the boy gets a horse as a present. All of the people in the village say, "Oh, how wonderful!"

The Zen master says, "We'll see."

One day, the boy is riding and gets thrown off the horse and hurts his leg. He's no longer able to walk, so all of the villagers say, "How terrible!"

The Zen master says, "We'll see."

Some time passes and the village goes to war. All of the other young men get sent off to fight, but this boy can't fight because his leg is messed up. All of the villagers say, "How wonderful!"

The Zen master says, "We'll see."

My take away of the story is this: there are no doubt definitively good and bad things that happen in life. But without time, it's not clear whether an event falls into one category or the other.

Be patient. You'll see.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: The Martian

Imagine if a team of writers were sitting around scheming on how to write a book optimized just for me. The conversation would probably go like this:

Writer 1: Obviously, it needs to be about problem solving and improvisation.

Writer 2: Definitely. And it should include a full range of hacks, from complicated marvels to uses of simple machines.

Writer 3: And it needs to have some witty banter. Ben's not going to want read just page after page of hack. It has to be spiked with funny lines.

Writer 2: For sure. And we need to make sure it crosses disciplines. Yes, computer programming should help save the day, but so should chemistry, physics, and botany.

Writer 1: Botany?

Writer 2: Oh, yeah. Ben loves that stuff. And it should include Morse Code. Trust me.

Writer 3: And don't forget, it can't just be the hero that's the brilliant one. We need to spread the spirit of inventiveness and great ideas to most, if not all, characters in the book.

Writer 2: Does it need complete closure?

Writer 1: Nahhhh, that's Shira's thing, not Ben's. Speaking of Shira though, it would be ideal if she could read and enjoy the book, too.

Writer 2: Hmmm, that's going to be tricky. They don't usually read the same books. But I'm sure we can think of something.

Writer 1: OK, let's go to work!

And if the the team of writers had absolutely nailed it, they probably still wouldn't have written something as appropriate as Andy Weir's, The Martian. Yes, the book is that good.

It was our friend Dawn, over a a year ago who read The Martian and immediately thought it would be a good fit for me. Then Shira read the book and she totally agreed. So we put the book on hold at the library and waited. A few weeks ago, the book version of the book (versus the audio version of the book) became available. So we rented it from the library. Problem was, I was in the middle of another book at the same time. And besides, who has time to actually read a book (listening, on the other hand, is easy).

Shira totally Mark Watney'd* that problem: rather than wait around for the audio book, *she'd* read it to me. Yeah, she enjoyed the book that much, and more importantly, she knew I'd enjoy the book that much, that she read it aloud to me. For the record, she's an excellent narrator.

So the book is awesome and hits all the points above. If anything, I found all the problem solving almost tiring, as my brain futilely tried to keep up with Mark Watney as he overcame obstacle after obstacle. To Andy Weir's credit, he found a nice balance of giving Watney success and challenges, so that the book had an excellent flow to it.

While I can appreciate a dystopian novel as much as the next guy, and I've got nothing against wizards and vampires, I do think there's something fundamentally awesome about having the spotlight on a science-based, problem solving book. Will this inspire folks to overcome obstacles in their own life, or want to get involved in the world of scientific discovery? Heck, will it influence our space program? Perhaps not. But like any great book, it has the power to teach and inspire you in ways you may not expect.

Oh, and it's a fun read, too.

*Mark Watney'd - the main character in the book, Mark Watney, is constantly solving problems. So much so, that Shira and I now use his name as a shorthand for a clever solution or fix.

Friday, February 19, 2016

African Scarification Meets Arlington Art

I'm jogging along last night when I ran by a statue I've been by plenty of times, but this time, something caught my eye:

Specifically, these patterns:

Notice the two stacks of three dots each? That's the standard arrangement for braille. If that's the case, then I was looking at a secret message, hidden in plain sight. How cool is that?

Next to the statue is a plaque explaining the piece of art in front of me. It's also documented here:

Artist Winnie Owens-Hart is a native of Halls Hill/High View Park (HHHVP), the neighborhood this park commemorates. Owens-Hart was commissioned to develop artwork reflective of the history and values of this predominantly African-American community. Interested in symbolizing HHHVP’s strong sense of community, the artist designed The Family, a monumental steel sculpture of a man, woman, and child with clasped hands. Arranged in a triangular configuration, this grouping symbolizes unity among families and residents of the neighborhood. The woman’s skirt is beautified with patterned relief, representative of traditional African scarification. Within this design is Braille text that acknowledges the vital role families play in the neighborhood. Five letters, HHHVP, stand on the west side of the park and provide prominent neighborhood identification.

Turns out, there is a braille message written in the statue. I snapped a few close up photos and this morning I did a little decoding:

I won't reveal the entire text, but one section of the statue reads:

Halls Hill
High View
African American
Families Are Our

So what's up with the use of braille? My first guess was that some prominent person in the neighborhood had been blind, or worked with blind. But this isn't the case. Instead, I think the big clue is the mention above of African scarification. A quick Google Search is all it took to educate me on Scarification. The concept is in the same vein as tattooing (making a permanent mark on your body), but no big surprise, uses scaring to accomplish this. Sounds pretty awful to me, but I suppose it's no different than getting a tattoo; it's either your thing, or it isn't.

From reading up on scarification, it does appear that it had a practical use: it could be used as a reliable way to identify yourself or convey some critical piece of information (such as which tribe/clan you belonged to). And so it is with our braille message: to the untrained eye, it appears as an interesting geometric design, but to those in the know it passes along vital information.

The use of an African tradition makes sense, as this particular neighborhood is featured prominently in Arlington's African American history.

I've got to say that I'm impressed with the artist's choices here. They manage to convey an important message and do so in a way that only serves to strengthen that message.

A few related links. First, the FDR Memorial features braille too, but folks were pretty upset about its use. Read about the controversy here. I've got opinions on this, but I'll save them for another blog post. Second, this video on art appreciation still resonates with me, and was in the back of my head while I was examining the above piece. Definitely worth watching.

Update: So here's an observation I had over the weekend: it's easy for me to dismiss scarification as, well, barbaric. Yet, as a Jew, I fully embrace and appreciate the important right of circumcision. And what's the difference between scarification and circumcision? Effectively, none Far less than I'd imagined. They both serve to provide an indelible mark that shows devotion and membership to a particular.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Florida fun: Shuttles and Bricks

What a weekend! We ticked off two more Florida attractions. This is normally the time when I mention that I'm 30,000 feet above the ground and heading back to DC. Not this time, this time I'm typing this blog entry from ground level with a mere 646 road miles ahead of us. Thanks to weather in DC, our flight was canceled, and Shira decided to take matters in her own hands and we're driving home. Take that American Airlines!

Up first was a fun day at Kennedy Space Center. Shira and I had been there years ago, so I was a bit concerned that we'd be underwhelmed. Furthermore, we had our friend's 6 year old with us, so I wasn't sure how much he'd get out of it. Turned out, all my concerns were for naught. Since our last visit they've added the massive Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, which everyone thoroughly enjoyed. We also got to hear a presentation by Jerry Ross, an astronaut who is currently tied for a record number of space flights. We took in one of the two Imax films available, which of course was breathtaking.

Sure, most of the material presented is basically propaganda to get more funding for NASA. But it's awesome propaganda! Many of the exhibits are absolutely moving and leave you just amazed at what we've been able to accomplish. From the tiny and primitive Mercury rockets, to the massive Saturn V that's as long as a football field, to the Shuttle's 1000 switches, to the transport-crawlers capable of carrying 18,000,000 lbs of hardware, everything on display is hyperbole objectified.

I tend to be a big proponent of unmanned space travel, like the Curiosity Rover. I think these projects find a nice balance between being economical and helping to propel science and technology further. But the case they presented for sending people to places that are literally out of this world is hard to argue with. Mars, by 2030 baby!

As if all these slick space goodies weren't enough, the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center also serve as a wildlife refuge. We saw gators, wild pigs and a dozen different bird species all without trying. Definitely a nice bonus.

After a fun day at KSC we made our way to Lake Wales, Florida, staging ourselves for the next part of our adventure.

Bright and early we made our way to Legoland for a day of amusement park fun. Our friend's 6 year old had survived the educational part of the weekend, it was time to just play! After visiting a number of Disney parks, as well as Dutch Wonderland, I've got to say that Legoland may be number one in terms of what's available for kids and adults to do. It's got rides, but it also has Legos! There were both formal and informal building areas, where you could flex your Lego muscles. We also took in an entertaining water ski show and 4d movie, which is pretty standard at the parks we've been to.

The Miniworld exhibit far exceeded my expectations. It's a bunch of Lego models of different cities, what's the big deal, right? Except the detail is stunning and there are hidden gems throughout. Throughout Miniworld there are buttons you can press that trigger some action, like say having a fountain turn on. Our young traveler thoroughly enjoyed running from "city to city" pressing every button; and we were glad to have him do just this.

As if this wasn't cool enough, the good builders at Legoworld have extended Miniworld to have an extensive Star Wars section. Dude, they've got the Battle of Hoth modeled, and it's nothing short of awesome. Press the right button and Luke raises up to one of the AT-ATs. Sure, our friend's 6 year old was more impressed with the Darth Mal statue, but that's just the foolishness of youth.

So while we certainly enjoyed Legoland, they've definitely got some room for improvement. First off, their line management seemed to be seriously lacking. This is Legoland, you're telling me you can't design a sort of trough that follows the snaking of the line and allows kids to build Legos while they're waiting? Yes, many of the rides offered a sort of corral where kids could play with Legos while their parents waited in line. But the only Legos offered there were basic Duplo blocks. Which brings me to my next observation: it seemed like the park was understaffed. Those corrals where the kids played with Legos didn't have an employee, so it was basically kid anarchy. Or take the two-level carousel: with one employee running the ride, she needed to check every kid on the ride before she could start it up. With two or more ride attendants, the ride could be cycled through twice as fast, improving the line experience.

Finally, I don't get why Legoland needs to be so stingy with Legos. The informal areas where you sift through thousands of pieces to create something; what would the big deal be with letting kids take them home? These are random Lego pieces, something Legoland must have a near infinite supply of, why not let kids just have them? The minifigure trading policy, where a kid can swap their minifgure with a park employee's figure, is a neat concept. But why not give each kid entering the park a minifigure? Does my ticket not cover the extra $3.00? I just hate when parks nickel and dime you for these sort of things.

By the way, our friend's 6 year old, the real reason we were at Legoland, had absolutely no complaints. From the Lego figures that welcome you into the park to the the final Chima ride we went on that soaked us both, he loved it all.

Today, to squeeze in one last mini-adventure, we did about 3 miles of hiking at Bulow Creek State Park. At the entrance of the park is a 400 year old Live Oak tree, which was quite a sight to behold. A quiet tramp through the woods was the perfect antidote to a day spent rushing around an amusement park.

Such good times!

View Photos

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

John Glenn on Fear

John Glenn knows a thing or two about fear. He was the first American to orbit the planet and was venturing into a world that was fraught with unknowns and danger. Heck, the trip started by being launched atop a intercontinental ballistic missile.

In his pilot's flight report for this mission he outright addresses this fear:

Many people were concerned about my mental state during this and earlier delays, which are a part of preparation for a manned space flight. People have repeatedly asked whether I was afraid before the mission. Humans always have fear of an unknown situation — this is normal. The important thing is what we do about it. If fear is permitted to become a paralyzing thing that interferes with proper action, then it is harmful. The best antidote to fear is to know all we can about a situation. It is lack of knowledge which often misleads people when they try to imagine the feelings of an astronaut about to launch. During the years of preparation for Project Mercury, the unknown areas have been shrunk, we feel, to an acceptable level. For those who have not had the advantage of this training, the unknowns appear huge and insurmountable, and the level of confidence of the uninformed is lowered by an appropriate amount.

All the members of the Mercury team have been working towards this space flight opportunity for a long time. We have not dreaded it; we have looked forward to it. After 3 years we cannot be unduly concerned by a few delays. The important consideration is that everything be ready, that nothing be jeopardized by haste which can be preserved by prudent action.

So there's your recipe: want to reduce fear, increase knowledge. That's not just wisdom for Astronauts.

The entire Mercury 6 report makes for fascinating reading, and includes the audio transcript of the entire mission.

A text version of the report can be found here. You can find the audio for the mission here.

From Above

A few aerial shots I captured on our trip this last weekend (pics and text coming soon, I promise). The first one is of DC and includes the George Washington Masonic Memorial.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Unexpected Road Trip

Thanks to winter weather in DC, our weekend get-away ended with a 10 hour road trip instead of a 2 hour flight. But I really don't have anything to complain about. While Shira's driving, I've had strong cell signal so I've been able to "work" away on my cell phone, catching up on work, e-mail and stuff (read: playing). In fact, the trickiest part of the ride has been passing all those interesting brown signs. Museums, battlefields and monuments; every time I glance up I see another brown sign that looks interesting.

After much prodding I did manage to get Shira to stop at South of the Border, "American's Favorite Highway Oasis." Alas, the Sombrero shaped tower was closed, as was the reptile lagoon . D'oh. Back into the car for more driving.

Man, I'm lucky to have a wife who loves to drive.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Other Kind of Fox News

You know, news involving an actual fox. Today, as I was finishing up my run, I was shocked to see a fox casually stroll across the street and into a random yard. Naturally, I tried to grab a photo (or 10), but I was pretty far away. Here's my best shot:

The fox was just, so, foxy. I mean, it looked absolutely unmistakably like a fox. Apparently we have a sizable fox population in Arlington, but I'd never come across one in the "wild." What a treat!

Occupy Wall Street's Clever Communication Hack

When I say Occupy Wall Street you think, hand signals to allow a group to come to consensus, right? Yeah, me neither. But apparently, it's true, the Occupy Movement had a series of gestures to allow groups of protesters to give feedback on a large scale without interrupting the speaker. Combining this with the human microphone and you've got a facility to involve large groups in a decision making process.

Don't believe me? See the hand signals in action here. And here's a cheatsheet to print out and refer to until you've got them mastered:

The part of me that loves an elegant, low tech solution, thinks this idea is downright awesome. The rest of me finds this pretty cringe worthy. I'd love to meet the Tea Party protester who remarks, "this movement is alright and all, but what it really needs is a way to find consensus as a group."

Still, a clever hack is a clever hack, even if I don't fully get its purpose.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From Fiction to Fact to Hate, A Remarkably Short Path

About 5 weeks ago CNN highlighted a study on how we share misinformation. The study is found here and says exactly what you think it says. Thanks to our internal narratives, the power of echo chambers, and our unprecedented ability to share information, we can turn rumors into beliefs "which, once adopted, are rarely corrected."

As if to drive home the point, CNN's Fareed Zakaria was sucked into this exact process and the result wasn't pretty. It started with a piece of "satire" on

I'm not sure you call an article with the headline "CNN host Fareed Zakaria calls for jihad rape of white women" satire, but I suppose you could argue that the site is obviously over the top and shouldn't be considered the source for a breaking scandal. But, the cycle didn't stop there. Site's like and picked up the story and repeated it as news.

(Note the 58,019 shares of this article; yikes!)

As the comments of the article show, people reading the post assumed it was true:

Of course, Twitter had to get in on the fun, too. On Twitter, an individual's Tweet more-or-less carries the same weight as any institution. So when Nathan Pole offers up a clever Tweet on the topic, it looks totally legit:

Naturally, I'm appalled by all of this. So, how do we fix it? Well, that's where things get hazy for me. Consider where we are at.

First, we have sites dedicated to debunking rumors, crowd-based article ranking and ferreting out facts; people choose to ignore them or better yet, discount them as not to be trusted.

Second, there are the echo chambers. The above study captures the dark side of this phenomena well:

Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization. This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia

And while the online world has made these "communities of interest" more robust than ever, they're also far more accessible. With one click, you can explore communities that that you would normally have no access to. From Home Schooling to Men's Rights to Children of Deaf Adults, it only takes a few clicks to jump into these communities. Simply put, stepping out of our echo chambers and into our neighbor's has never been easier.

And finally, the same technology that flattens the hierarchy and allows bad ideas to be spread with ease, can be used to spread good ideas. Shira's been following the case of Adnan Syed, an individual who may get his murder charge retried thanks to a podcast. The advocates of Adnan leverage Twitter, and my new favorite toy: Periscope to do on the spot public broadcasts of the latest changes in the case. The whole arrangement is a master class in using technology to effect change.

So how do we keep fiction from turning into fact, and these facts from being the basis for our decision making? At the end of the day, I've got no idea. But I know the problem is real, and that any solution could do just as much harm as good.

How would you address this conundrum?

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The $0.72, Indestructible Compass

I've always liked carrying a compass on my keychain, but as I recently noted, delicate instruments and front pockets don't mix. While the TAC Compass I'm currently carrying seems to be holding up, I'm already thinking about the day when it fails me.

Inspired by this now defunct magent compass, I got to thinking: what if instead of carrying a compass I carried a high powered magnet and a way for it to pivot? That's really all a compass is, as a magnet will naturally point North/South if given the chance. So taking a cue from a project like this one, I picked up a 10 pack of 4x8mm Magnet N35 Rare Earth Neodymium magnets from eBay.

When they arrived, I put a piece of dental floss between two magnets, and like magic, the magnets aligned themselves on the North/South axis. I added a bit of red nail polish to the side that points North, and my "compass" was basically complete. The neodymium magnets are remarkably strong, and even with a twist or two in the dental floss, they'll hold their North/South position. The dental floss is optional, as long as the magnets can freely position themselves, they'll show you North; like using the old leaf floating in water trick.

This is all well and good in my kitchen, but I was obviously curious how this setup would perform in the great outdoors. So last night, while on my run, I stopped to take take some readings. It was cold, dark and windy. For reference, I dropped my Metro compass on the grass and shot a photo:

North is to the left. Then I dangled my magnet compass. I helped steady it, and even then, it took a few moments before it settled on a location:

And sure enough, the red dot is pointing left, or North. That's good. Sure, it's far from precise, but it did get the right general direction. And then I snapped a photo for reference. That's the Washington Monument off in the distance, and I'm standing between the Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington Cemetery:

And this is why I need to carry a compass: with every fiber of my being, I was absolutely sure that both compasses were wrong, North was obviously straight ahead. I know this because when we drive North to Baltimore we often head through DC. That's just simple reasoning. And it's also 100% wrong:

The above is a screenshot of Google Maps, where North is up. You can plainly see that I was facing East, as both compasses were trying to tell me. Like I said, I just need to carry and trust a compass.

What the magnet compass loses in terms of accuracy it gains in terms of durability and cost. I picked up 10 magnets for $3.60, which means that each compass is a $0.72 investment (not including the dental floss; you do floss don't you?). For now, I've stashed the magnets in my Chap-Kit, they fit in there effortlessly. Given my terrible sense of direction and how compasses tend to go on me at the most inopportune times, I may start carrying this little magnet setup as a backup. Either way, it's a nice little tool in the toolkit.