Monday, July 31, 2017

Rocking out to Journey

This past weekend Shira surprised me with a mini-getaway to National Harbor to see Journey. It was exactly one month since our 19 year wedding anniversary, and was the perfect way to celebrate another year of wedded bliss. While Journey was playing at MGM, the rooms there were crazy expensive. A relatively short walk away was the Gaylord Hotel, which has views and decor to match, but at a far more reasonable rate. As if to only reinforce her decision to avoid the crazy splurge, a few days before the concert she got an offer to stay at the Gaylord for $84 per night. That's crazy cheap around here. Anyway, it was all meant to be.

The original plan was to ride our bikes to the hotel, making for one incredibly luxurious s24o. But, alas, mother nature had other ideas. Last Friday night we had record rain in DC, so we cheated and drove.

The concert started with Asia playing for about an hour. I don't really have any connection to Asia, so when the band of mostly aging rock stars took the stage I had my doubts. I was further confused why the lead singer was closely watching an iPad during the performance. Surely he's been singing these songs since I was practically in diapers? Eventually, it all became clear. The lead singer we saw was new to the band, having replaced the one that passed away at the beginning of this year. Ultimately, the guys did great and won me over. Aging or not, these guys can rock!

At Asia's first note it hit me: man, I should have brought earplugs, as they were plenty loud and the venue relatively small. While roadies were tearing down Asia's instruments and setting up for Journey, I dashed out of the venue to the front desk of the hotel. I asked if they had an extra set of earplugs. The gal at the front desk couldn't have been nicer, and personally went to house keeping to get us two pairs. Those earplugs made the rest of the concert far more enjoyable.

And then it was time to rock out to Journey!

They put on a fantastic concert, with all of the well known songs delivered as promised. Their lead singer is a firecracker of a performer, bounding around the stage like, well, a rockstar. The 5 plus minute drum solo by Steve Smith was nothing short of magical. And while Shira found the electric guitar solos painful to listen to (sorry, babe), I enjoyed them. They brought to mind some of the guitar performances I've been listening to on YouTube lately. I would have enjoyed a little more chatter from the band, say giving a bit of background about the songs. But they mostly stuck to playing, letting the music stand on its own.

I'd heard rumors that the MGM theater was quite a bit smaller than other local venues, and now I can confirm it. We sat in the very back row of the lowest section and had an excellent view of everything. If a band you're interested is playing there, it's almost certainly worth the extra cost to get in. It's hard to call a 3000 seat theater intimate, but compared to 25,000 seats at Jiffy Lube Live, it absolutely is.

Here's a few audio snippets from the concert. Enjoy!

Listen to all audio clips

Even with the weather not cooperating, it was still an awesome weekend. Happy 19th and one month Babe!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Accidental Amaranth

This year, the spring planting season got away from me and I didn't have a chance to try any new gardening experiments. But nature apparently had other plans in store for me. To my surprise, a random garden container started to sprout what appeared to be Red Leaf Amaranth. This isn't that miraculous, as I'd planted amaranth years ago. But still, I took no measure to help it grow and I don't even recall it growing in this particular container.

I assumed that with the crazy heat and lack of rain we had, surely the plant would give up. But instead, it's been thriving:

Today I pinched off a few leaves and added it to my tortilla tuna melt:

The result was very tasty.

Red Leaf Amaranth is supposed to have a spinach like flavor, and I can confirm it does. It's not at all bitter.

If you're looking for a remarkably resilient, tasty and good looking plant to grow, I can definitely recommend Amaranth.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Weekly Discoveries: Iranian Tunes, Music Powered by Home Depot and a Close-to-Home Fishing Challenge

I find myself returning again,and again to Radio station KEXP's channel to find all sorts of interesting music. Two discoveries last week were performances by Rahim AlHaj and Vieux Farka Touré. Both full concerts offer interesting tunes and a bit of chatter to expand your musical mind. Rahim AlHaj's work is especially moving.

Unstrung13's introducing: the 2x4 lap steel diddley plank! may seem like little more than a walk-through of a homemade musical instrument. But stick with it, at 2 minutes in, you'll get one of the best performances of Bush's Comedown I've ever seen or heard. Especially, when you consider he's basically playing a Home Depot built instrument. Very cool.

On the other end of the spectrum, it's hard to imagine that smooshing 17 musicians, many playing unique instruments into a cubical would make for a pleasant musical experience. But as NPR's Tiny Desk Concert staring Mother Falcon shows, this can totally work. Man there's a lot going on there in a small space.

Georgia by Vance Joy sure packs a lot into one video. But what's it mean? I've got no idea. But I thought this YouTube comment was on to something:

It took me a minute to understand, but I think the video is showing the disconnect between today's young people and previous generations. For most of us in the 'developed' world, war is a distant concept, and something we don't encounter first-hand. The older men on the production team in the video are crying while filming because they had been in war, and war to them is a very real experience. While the young people on the production team are rolling their eyes, or apathetic, and acting like "why are these old guys freaking out? It's just a movie." But for these older men, the scene is more than a movie, it is like reliving a part of their past, and the memories of losing their friends/fellow soldiers. Truly an amazing video to a beautiful song.

I think this similar theme holds for the gay relationship in the video. For the younger generation, it may seem passé, while the older generation may see this sharing love so openly as revolutionary and touching concept.

All I know is, I love Joy's work and find myself cranking his music when I need something familiar and fun.

On the non-musical side, 1Rod1ReelFishing's SURVIVAL FISHING CHALLENGE!!! (NO Lures & NO Bait) is now one of my favorite fishing videos of all time. 1Rod1Reel often pulls amazing fish out of the Tidal Basin, just a few miles from my house and in the middle of DC Monuments. (Side note: when J. was visiting us last week, I took him down to the Tidal Basin to do some fishing. We didn't catch anything, but were easily able to transition to snapping photos of the nearby monuments. Good times!). But this time, he tackled a different challenge: he walked into the woods with nothing more than a rod, reel and a hook and caught himself some fish.

You could quibble if this was a true 'survival' fishing challenge, he did have a rod and reel after all. But that hardly detracts from the video. He shows fishing at it's simplest: find some bait, put it on a hook, and catch fish. He makes it looks so easy and reminds us non-fishermen that this is a skill and knowledge game, not a race to own the most tackle. On top of all that, I've been to the location he was fishing, it's Patapsco State Park and it's located a stone's throw from DC. Next time my Dad's in town and he wants to do some stream fishing, I'll know where to suggest we go.

View all the videos Here:

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Come on Baby Light My Fire - Using an empty Bic

Most people would be disappointed to discover their Mini Bic Lighter was out of fuel. But not me. When I found an empty Bic I realized I could finally try this hack: Micro Fire Starting Kit Howto. The idea is to turn a normal Bic lighter into a knock off Spark-Lite Fire Starter.

The how-to has you completely disassemble the lighter, then only reassemble the spark generating portion of the lighter. Here's a few action shots:

(The video walks you through all these steps, and it doesn't take more than a few minutes to do. The majority of time is spent being careful you don't break off some plastic part or have a spring go flying.)

I've marveled before at the miraculous nature of the simple Bic Lighter, and taking one apart only makes me appreciate it more.

Next up, it was time to try it out. I started by trying to get some tissue paper to light, but had no luck. I then cheated, by spraying a few puffs of Everclear on the paper. As you might imagine, that quickly caught fire:

Later on, after I had put the camera away, I tried again with getting a piece of tissue paper to light. I held the sparker just over the paper and sure enough, it caught.

The video calls for cutting down the created lighter to a 1/3 of the Mini Bic size and packing the newly created void with tinder. I haven't gotten to this step, as I'm not sure what I'll be using the sparker for.

On one hand, this tiny sparker is a terrific piece of kit. It's super small and fulfills a really important task (generating a spark). On the other hand, a filled Bic Lighter is far more valuable, as it doesn't call for high-quality tinder to actually use the spark. And, if you have a Bic Lighter and it runs out of gas, you essentially have the sparker. So for now, I think I'll rely on the Bic Lighter that I carry in my man bag, though it is awfully tempting to attach this guy to my key chain as a backup.

The most valuable aspect of this project is that it shows you that by removing a few pieces of metal, you can get far better access to a Bic's spark. In fact you, don't need to take the entire lighter apart to get this behavior. This is important, as it lets you turn a dead lighter into a more functional tool. It boils down to this: don't be the guy or gal who preaches about how even an empty Bic Lighter is useful. Instead, be the one who actually shows this to be true.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Me Without Pants, and Other Sights from a Trip Down Memory Lane

Before taking off to Ocean City and the surrounding area, Shira and I had a delightful weekend in Cape May with family. The highlight of the trip was a rambunctious Friday night dinner followed by a 'slide show.' The slides (served up via Chromebit) were of scans I had done of a few of my Mom and Dad's old albums.

I used ScanCafe to digitize the photos, and I couldn't be happier with the results. They even did some touch up work which vastly improved a couple of photos (consider this before, and this after). The process isn't especially cheap, but the memories are priceless, so it's totally worth it in my book.

What a treasure it was getting to browse through these snapshots with the fam! I got to see photos of my Dad finishing Marathons, visits with uncles, aunts and cousins and lots (and lots!) of snapshots of my older brother. Of course, I can't complain, as my younger brother was barely represented. Sorry bro. There are quite a few photos of me sans pants, which only foreshadows my work from home status.

View all the photos

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sun, Sand and Horses - Ocean City and the Eastern Shore

Our goal for day 1 was to make it to Ocean City. However, there was a big chunk of green space on the map that was too interesting to pass up: Blackwater Wildlife Preserve. Blackwater is home to many interesting birds and has wonderful views. The recommended way to see the park is by driving the wildlife loop, which means that for much of this experience we were sitting in a cool, air conditioned, car. As much as I love hiking, this was pretty luxurious.

Turning off from the Wildlife Loop, after seeing Blackwater, we discovered the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center. We stopped in to check it out, and were amply rewarded. The center tells the story of Tubman's life and highlight other sites in the area related to the Underground Railroad. While I know the general story of Harriet Tumbman, getting a chance to learn more details only made me marvel at her more. What an amazing soul. It was also interesting to see her connections to Frederick Douglas and Rochester, NY. I look forward to getting back to the area to explore more of her legacy.

We started day 2 by seeking out a nearby lighthouse and Shipwreck Musuem. Alas, we started the day too early, and so the lighthouse wasn't open yet. We improvised by hitting one of the many mini-golf places along the main drive. While J. had played real golf before, he claims he had never played mini-golf. It took him a few holes to get the setup figured out, but he was a pro in no time.

His favorite obstacle of the course was one where you had to hit the ball up a slight ramp to have it jump some water. In my infinite wisdom, I decided I'd stand near the hole and get a GIF of him making the shot. J. hadn't quite figured out how much oomph he was going to need to make the shot, so he decided to act like he was at the driving range. Needless to say, I almost got nailed pretty badly, but It all worked out OK as the GIF we made was pretty sweet. But yeah, lesson learned: don't stand downrange of an 8 year old newbie golfer.

The lighthouse was a fine specimen and worth a visit, even though you can't climb to the top. However, you can straddle the marker out front which allows you to have one foot in Maryland and the other in Delaware. It's not quite as exciting as straddling the Equator or the date line, but it was fun none the less.

From there we made our way to the Shipwreck Museum. As promised the museum is at the top floor of a shlocky souvenir shop. As we made our way towards the museum, my hopes sank. Surely we were in for little more than a tourist trap.

As we walked through the museum, it appeared as though we were looking at authentic artifacts recovered from real ship wrecks. From dishware to pirate swords, the collection was fairly broad. Still a bit incredulous, I asked the lady manning the front desk if these were really all authentic items. She reported that they were, and were all pulled out of the ocean by the same gentleman. And just then, the treasure hunter himself walked out of a side room and we had a chance to chat.

This guy was awesome! After exchanging a few words, he ducked into a side office and returned with a *massive* Megaldon shark tooth, and a bar of sliver for J. to pose with. We continued to chat and he showed us a few other remarkable specimens and even let J. pose with a real gold bar.

This place is a true gem in Ocean City. In a location so filled with fake and plastic everything, to find real treasures was such a treat.

After a morning filled with history (and mini-golf) it was finally time to hit the beach! Sure, the water was a bit chilly, but once doused, it was definitely a fun time playing among the crashing waves.

It was hard to believe, but after only one full day in O.C. it was time transition to a new part of the Eastern Shore. Our destination for the day would be the Maryland State Park campground on Assateague Island. However, before we setup camp we decided to explore the surrounding area.

First up, we made our way to the other end of Assateague Island, to visit the lighthouse at Chincoteague. This lighthouse, unlike the one visited the day before, is still in use and you can walk to the top. J. made it all of 10 steps before announcing that he was exhausted and couldn't go on. With much effort, the three of us made it to the top. The views were awesome, although my fear of heights insured I wouldn't spend too much time at the top.

We also took a brief hike in Chincoteague where we got to see the park's famous horses off in the distance. On our way back to our car I had J. collect up a big 'ol pile of pine needles for use as tinder for the upcoming night's fire. I may not be able to teach this boy to hit a home run or make a three point jumper, but I do believe I'm doing a top notch job in the fire building department.

After the lighthouse and hike, we made our way to the NASA Wallops Island facility. The visitor's center was relatively small, but it had interesting exhibits and rockets to oggle on the grounds. The hacker in me loves the balloon work they do there. It's a low cost, low tech alternative to launching rockets that's remarkably effective.

From NASA we made our way back to Assateague State Park in Maryland where we found the campground that would be home for about 24 hours.

Camping on Assateauge Island is full of contrasts. On one hand, you're just a few hundred feet from the beach, which you share with wild horses. It also turns out that the bathroom facilities are top notch (earning Shira's coveted A++ status) and our campsite was relatively spacious. On the other hand, there isn't a speck of shade, so between the bugs, sand, wind and sun you have all the makings of a hellscape.

We did our homework and came prepared: we brought a canopy for shade and extra huge sand stakes for the tent. We also arrived relatively late in the day, after the temperature had been at its hottest. The result was an awesome camping experience, and as the sun went down the stars lit up, became even more so.

For reasons I can't fully explain, we were spared a massive electrical storm in the evening, and had no rain at all. Though due to the proximity to the ocean, during evening, every surface gained a thick layer of moisture.

After setting up camp we made our way to the beach, which was nearly empty and had a wonderful sense of calm about it. Perhaps it was lack of people when compared to Ocean City, or maybe the surf was just a little less pounding, but whatever it was, it was like a totally different experience from the day before. J. and I played in the waves and collected up shells. It felt like we were on our own exclusive island.

We used the tinder we collected earlier in the day to make a most righteous fire, and enjoyed hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks. Yum! This kind of camping is easy!

As we were preparing dinner, J. announced that he had seen a kid his own age at a campsite nearby who had an extra (play) sword, and could he go over and play with the kid? And thus J. made a new friend: Luke. They would spend the rest of the trip playing together, whether it was on the beach or around the campground. I had forgotten how quickly 8 year olds can make friends, and how invaluable a spare plastic sword can be.

Luke asked J. if he would be interested in Ghost Crabbing, something I'd never heard about. The kids took flashlights to the beach and searched out little crabs. Each boy found one, so it was a success.

The next morning we awoke to a perfect sunrise and had a little breakfast. It seemed like our 'chilly' morning turned into a hot day in just a few minutes. Ahhhh, there were those hellscape conditions we were promised. Of course, the solution to the heat was obvious: hit the beach, so that's what we did.

While J. played in the surf I did a bit of shell collecting. At one point, I grabbed a handful of sand only to discover a few tiny shells in it. Looking closer, I realized that the shells were intact and that I was actually holding a series of thumbnail sized clams. I shared my discover with J., who put them in the moat of the castle he was constructing.

A few minutes later J. remarked that the clams had moved! Sure they did J. No, seriously, he promised they did. OK, show me.

He took one of the tiny clams and laid it on its side. He prodded it a bit. And wouldn't you know it, but a tiny membrane came out of the shell, flitted to life, and the clam both righted and burrowed itself in the sand. How did it do that?! It was an awesome display of nature's prowess, in tiny form, anyway.

Before we knew it, it was time to pack up camp and hit the road. Our Eastern Shore adventure had come to a close. As if to give us one more chance at a memory, a group of horses staged themselves at the exit of the park so we could snap one last set of pics.