Friday, April 09, 2021

Cheap, Loved and Sharp(er) | Putting an Edge on a $1.00 Hatchet

Earlier this week I found myself scrounging through drawers looking for a tool to pry a plastic disk from the glue pad it was cemented to. I found just the tool in my Columbia Must-Have Multi-Tool. Between the heat from the hairdryer and the leverage from the multi-tool, I had the project completed in no time.

I also got to relish in the joy my Columbia Must-Have Multi-Tool gives me.

Back in 2016 Shira and I visited Bogota, Columbia. While there we found ourselves in the equivalent of $1.00 store, and while shopping I spied a bin full of these beauties:

Did I need a poorly made combination hammer, pry-bar, hatchet, nail puller? Uh, yeah. I did. Badly. The 10 year old boy in me needed one, and the adult in me figured it would be a novel souvenir.

Back from our travels, I hadn't found a use for the multi-tool. One reason why: the hatchet blade was comically dull.

After my experience earlier this week using the pry-bar, I got to thinking that sharpening the blade may be a worthwhile undertaking. I'd end up with a more useful tool and perhaps learn something along the way.

I followed the advice offered in Home Built Workshop's How to Sharpen an Axe video. I ordered an $8.00 axe file off of Amazon, clamped the multi-tool to our kitchen island, and cautiously started to scrape away at the blade.

It was like magic! With just a few strokes of the file I could tell that I was removing metal, shaping the blade and generally making things better. It's almost like the axe file is designed for sharpening axes (spoiler alert: uh, yeah. What else would it do?). I suppose I figured that the file required a skilled operator; apparently not.

All told, I probably spent 30 minutes sharpening both sides of the blade. I found the repetitive process oddly soothing. I'm the farthest thing from an expert, but I'm almost certain I could feel when the file was at the right angle and I was making forward progress.

The blade is definitely not 'shaving sharp.' But it's vastly sharper than when I started. As you can see from the carrot I sacrificed to the cause, not only could I chop, but I could slice shavings, too. I do believe I finally have a functional blade on this sucker.

Overall, I'm really pleased with this little project. I avoided buying gimmicky or over-priced products to get the job done. Instead, I focused on learning a new skill in a low-pressure way. I couldn't have dulled the hatchet any further. About the worst I could done would have been to ruin an $8.00 file. That's a risk I was glad to take.

Want your own Columbia Must-Have Multi-Tool? You can buy the same tool on Amazon for $12.00. It's not the $1.00 or so I paid for mine in Columbia, but of course, you won't have to buy plane tickets to Bogata. So there's that.

The hatchet even comes with this notice: comes dull for your own safety, sharpen it to your own preference. You see, the dullness is a feature, not a bug! And I think they're on to something: buying a cheap hatchet and file will give you a chance to be amazed at what a little elbow grease can produce.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Four Photos, Four Truths


I captured the above photos by running by the same set of trees for 4 weeks. Here's four take-aways from this experiment.

1. Trees are Amazing

They take whatever abuse nature and humans throw at them during the winter, and just when you think they can't possibly be alive, they explode with growth. I know this is how trees work, but still, it's amazing.

2. Unix is Great

I had dozens of the photos of the above scene, yet I needed to pick the best four photos to work with. After downloading a zip file of all images, I ran the following Unix commands to organize them:

# Make a directory for each day and store all the day's photos
# in it
$ for f in *.jpg; do d=$(identify -verbose $f  | \
                         grep exif:DateTime: | \
                         awk '{print $2}' | \
                         sed 's/:/-/g'); \
    mkdir -p $d ;  \
    mv -v $f $d; \
renamed '20210311_165836.jpg' -> '2021:03:11/20210311_165836.jpg'
renamed '20210311_165840.jpg' -> '2021:03:11/20210311_165840.jpg'
renamed '20210311_165842.jpg' -> '2021:03:11/20210311_165842.jpg'
renamed '20210316_165538.jpg' -> '2021:03:16/20210316_165538.jpg'

# Launch the feh image viewer to preview each
# directory's images at once
for d in *; do (cd $d ; feh --auto-rotate -i  -E 300 -y 300  *.jpg &) ; done

Using feh I was able to get a visual overview and then pick the four best matching photos.

3. Art is Hard

In my mind's eye, this project was going to result in a composite image that displayed the breathtaking transition from lifeless landscape to Cherry Blossom Greatness that the DC area is known for.

Needless to say, I missed that mark:

You can see the transition in the above photos, but there's nothing jaw dropping about it. My attempt to capture the scene precisely the same way every week was a bust, and many of the trees around where I took these photos were bursting with flowers while the trees I focused on where relatively bare.

Ultimately, I got out of this project what I put it into. I grabbed photos while out on my run, and the results look like this.

All this makes me appreciate a well crafted art project, the likes of which takes notable time and attention. And if you do it right, folks will almost certainly think I could have done that.

4.The App I Needed

To do this project right, at a minimum I'd need more care in picking my location, more time to allow shooting multiple locations, and the use of instruments (measuring tape, compass and tripod) to confirm consistent camera placement.

However, I could have shortcut this a bit if I had a camera app that supported Onion Skinning. That is, the ability to show a partially-transparent imagine in the camera preview. This allows lining up a shot using a guide-photo.

A quick search on Google Play returned a couple of options for a camera app like this, though none of them looked like a fit for me. Ionic, my app building framework of choice, has a Camera Preview plugin. An interesting test would be to place a partially transparent image over the Image Preview component. If that works, then I could make my own 'Onion Skinning Camera App' with relative ease.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Review: A Minute to Midnight

Every once in a while Shira will be reading a book she thinks we might both enjoy, and she'll opt to read it aloud. I enjoy audio books, so I find this quite the treat. It turns reading into a shared activity, like binging a TV series. Unlike TV, we can do this while multi-tasking.

So for the last few weeks, while I loaded and unloaded the dishwasher or was cleaning the kitchen for Passover, Shira narrated David Baldacci's A Minute to Midnight.

In A Minute to Midnight I got to meet Atlee Pine, the hero of the book. I like her. Mostly. She's thoughtful and confident, without being insufferable and cocky. I can't tell if her weight lifting past adds detail to her character, or puts her over the top.

The pace of the book felt slow, but if I'm kind, I can chalk that up to Baldacci trying to keep things realistic. She encounters a series of puzzling murders, and I can appreciate that it takes time to put all the pieces together.

One aspect of the book I found surprisingly enjoyable was how Baldacci had a number of plot details that initially seemed like author goofs, but upon further reflection made sense.

Take Pine's childhood. Are we to believe that a trained FBI agent wouldn't spot the massive inconsistencies in her own parent's behavior? She can tell when a stranger is lying to her, but doesn't recognize the suspicious behavior in her own parents?

Actually, I buy that. For must of us, whatever our childhood was, was by definition normal. We can't imagine our parents as inexperienced human beings with their own baggage because to us they are Mom and Dad, not real people.

Or consider the presence of the Pagani. Are we to believe that a baddy would opt to be seen in a 20 million dollar car in a resident neighborhood? That's ridiculous. But when we consider the role of the car was to attract attention and that the person who selected the car didn't know the details of what they were picking, the choice seems plausible. Who would have thought the flashiest car in the garage would turn out to be absurdly unique?

One quirk of the book I haven't decoded: its title. I missed the first chapter (Shira started reading the book to herself before she made it an audio book), so maybe the answer was in there. But honestly, I have no idea what the title is referring to. I guess I'll have to hit Google to find out.

Should you drop everything and read A Minute To Midnight? Sadly, no. It's a fine read if you like a good o'l murder mystery, but there wasn't anything here to make it stand out for me. The story was generally slow and snapped into place at the last moment in typical fashion.

Still, as a shared reading experience, it was a positive one. And we will definitely be back for the next book in the series.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Two Tuna Based Observations

Two observations on this fine Monday morning:

First, what a world we live in! You're telling me that I can order 48 packets of tuna on Sunday night at 8pm, and they're delivered to my front door by 9am the next day? In time for second breakfast, no less! And, all this convenience for a price that's cheaper than buying at the supermarket?


And second, while we've never had an issue with our packages being stolen, and I'd never condone the practice, I can say that an itty-bitty-teensy-weensy part of me wishes that a porch pirate had nicked this one. They'd pick it up and think, hmmm, this has some heft to it I bet it's pricey electronics.

And when they opened the goods they'd be shocked to find they just stole some freak's tuna stash. Oh the very thought of the hypothetical look on their face makes me smile.

Tuna, anyone? I've got more than enough to share.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Build Your Own LG V60 Floating Bar

Shira's new LG V60 ThinQ is a sweet phone. The jury is out on whether the dual screen is genius or gimmick, but I applaud LG for the attempt. As someone who regularly busts out a bluetooth keyboard to program directly on my phone, all that screen real estate is a dream.

The Challenge

One feature that Shira misses with her new phone is the LG Floating Bar. This compact menu bar could be expanded to quickly access apps or contacts. For a while, there was a recipe for running an old version of the Floating Bar on the V60, but recently that stopped working.

Knowing her husband has mad next level programming skills (my words, not hers), she asked if I could help build her an alternative app. A quick Tasker search encouraged me that I could.

My search turned up a video I'd watched years ago, but had forgotten about. Floating Bar Demo: Auto Tools Web Screens:

So this was possible. It took me a couple of attempts, however, to figure out how to build and customize my own floating bar. I'd like to save you the trouble of figuring this out yourself, so here's a quick tutorial to get you started. Enjoy!

Step 1: Install The Tools

To make your own bar you'll need Tasker, AutoApps and AutoTools. These apps are worth paying for, so do so if you can.

Step 2: Install the Demo Floating Bar

Fire up tasker and make a new Task called FloatingBar Launcher. Add a single action: Plugins » AutoTools » Web Screen. Configure the action, selecting 'Screen Preset' and choosing 'Floating Bar.' Click the check-mark to save your work.

If all goes well, you'll find yourself back at the task definition. Run the task and you should see a floating bar appear at the top of the screen. Awesome, right?

Step 3: Try, Fail and Fix the Gravity Setting

Let's say you want the Floating Bar to appear on the right hand side of the screen versus the top. It's easy enough to edit the action you created, going to Window Settings » Gravity » Right.

Save your work and re-run the Task. If all goes as expected, then you'll notice nothing happened. You changed the gravity, but the toolbar still shows itself at the top of the screen. What gives?

What seems to be going on is that the first time you ran the task you launched your floating bar. The floating bar is still running, so when you executed the task again, no new floating bar was created. My fix, therefore, is to insert a new action into the task that closes the floating bar. This forces every execution of FloatingBar Launcher to create a fresh floating bar and use whatever settings have been selected.

Create a new action: Plugin » AutoTools » Web Screen. Configure the action and select Display Mode » Close. Yes, to close a web screen you have to make a new web screen. Just go with it. Make sure this closing action is first in the list of actions to execute and then try running the Task. If all goes well, you'll have a floating bar that respects your choice of right-side positioning.

Obviously, you'll need to use this close action with care. As it's setup above, it closes all web screens. Ultimately, you'll want to tweak it so that it just closes the one floating bar you're creating, otherwise this will mess with your other Web Screen creations; probably not what you want.

Step 4: Make It Your Own

You've now got a floating bar that you can control. The next mystery is how to replace the stock icons with your own. Turns out, that's easy. Edit the Configuration of the Floating Bar Web Screen and go to Items. Here you'll configure key aspects of your floating bar. Start by selecting the icons you want to include. AutoTools will help you out by letting you graphically select them.

Next, click on the 'Commands' field. This brings up a text box that you need to fill in with care. You want to enter a comma separated list of words here, where each word will correspond to the icon you selected. Given the icons I've chosen, I entered the following:


It's important that there are no spaces after the commas and that capitalization is consistent. Finally, I filled in the Command Prefix with FloatingBar

When I re-run the FloatingBar Launcher Task I now see a floating bar with my selected icons on it. When I click the icons I see a message showing me the word I put in the Command list prefixed by the Command Prefix. Sweet, right?

Step 5: Make It Work

We've customized our toolbar so that it shows the icons we want and generates the commands we want. Now how do we respond to those commands? Easy. Make a new Profile: Event » Plugin » AutoApps. Notice here we selected 'AutoApps' when creating the profile, not AutoTools. This wasn't obvious to me, but this is what you're after.

Configure the plugin by entering a command that your floating bar generates, for example: FloatingBar=:=Calc.

I'm going to continue with the theme of building out 'FloatingBar=:=Calc', so I created a new Task named 'FloatingBar Calc'. That task has a single Action: App » Launch App » RPN Calc.

With that profile enabled, when I click on the calculator icon in the toolbar the RPN Calc app is launched. The floating bar works!

Step 6: Make it Awesome

At this point, you should have a functional floating bar. You need to make corresponding actions for every command, and you'll want to tweak the floating bar so it looks good. Take time to browse through the AutoTools Web Screens options and customize away.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Insights from Passover, 2021 Edition

Passover 2021 is on! We're still in pandemic mode over here, so our seders were small and I attended services over Zoom. Still, I've picked up a number of new insights this year which I'm always eager to share.

A huge thanks to my Mother-in-Law for getting me a copy of The Szyk Haggadah. The graphics are both gorgeous and profound, and the commentary is terrifically insightful. I can't recommend it highly enough. You'll see below that this text is responsible for a number of fresh insights this year.

D'Za"Kh, 'ADa"Sh, Be'aCha"V

On the first day of services I posed a question we've had at past seders but kept forgetting to research. Why does the Hagadah include Rabbi Yehudah's ten letter abbreviation for the plagues?

A number of members, including Andy and Fred, suggested that the abbreviation was there for the same reason why my math teacher had me learn Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally; it's a useful device for remembering a sequence. In their eyes, as an educational aid it needs no additional explanation for its inclusion.

Rav Natan added that the Rabbis of the Talmud often liked to create mnemonics. In a section of the Haggadah where we just finished doing textual analysis (linking verses from Deuteronomy 26 to the entire Passover story), it makes sense that the Rabbis would add another favorite move of theirs, a mnemonic. In other words, we're in 'Talmud Mode,' and the Haggadah fully embraces this.

Others, like myself have looked for deeper meaning. Eliezer Segal compiled a number of these hypothesis including the the possibility that the gematria or letter grouping of Rabbi Yahudah's abbreviation has meaning.

Another explanation: there's a midrash that suggests the plagues were written on Moses' staff. Rashi neatly proposes that it was Rabbi Yehuda's abbreviation that was written there. This solution is both mystical and practical!

Finally, I can glimpse a sort of political reasoning for this inclusion as well. We take the 10 plagues for granted, though they aren't clearly enumerated in the Torah this way. Things get even more complicated when you consider Psalms 78 and 105 have different listings of plagues. Perhaps Rabbi Yehuda's inclusion is yet another attempt to cement the 10 plagues as the Haggadah has them noted.

Drops of Wine

Also at our services the discussion of spilling out wine at each of the plagues came up. There was near universal agreement that one had to be careful with the spilled wine, as surely that wine had been compromised due to being associated with plagues. It was funny to hear the jocular warning about having to avoid licking the finger you dipped into the wine glass from others, as I thought that was something only our family joked about.

Thanks to the Syzk Haggadah I learned two new variations on this tradition. The first is that some Jews spilled out wine at each of the plagues to appease the evil eye. What better way to keep your seder running smoothly than to take a moment and get the evil eye a bit drunk?

Another, more serious observation is that Szyk avoids all mention of the pouring out of wine during the recitation of the plagues. It's not clear why this is. One possibility is that given the political climate he found himself in (think Europe, 1930's) he was in no mood to embrace the custom of pouring out wine as a sign of sympathizing with the Egyptians. To Szyk, his enemies deserved the justice they had coming; there was no need for an extra serving of empathy.

On B'nai Brak

The commentary on the Syzk Haggadah suggests that the B'nai Brak seder paragraph is more than a cute story proving the point that all who are wise should continue to recite the Passover story. It suggests that this description is there to add weight to the new type of seder that Jews were supposed to embrace: one that wasn't dependent on the Temple and Pascal Sacrifice.

While a seder spent noshing and talking is familiar to us, to our ancestors it would have seen woefully incomplete, or at the very the least a dramatic change.

This explanation makes even more sense to me during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Suddenly we find ourselves having to alter our Passover practices. It's no longer families smooshed together around a table loudly arguing; or reciting Hallel in shul with devoted regulars. It's a quiet Seder evening and services over Zoom in my basement. There's still Hallel, but I'm on mute and only the leader can be heard.

While Passover may be different, it's not gone. If the Rabbis at B'nai Brak can find meaning in their new arrangement, so can we.

The Other Wicked Son

After the Four Sons we read a paragraph that talks about the timing of the seder:

It could be from Rosh Chodesh [that one would have to discuss the Exodus. However] we learn [otherwise, since] it is stated, "on that day." If it is [written] "on that day," it could be from while it is still day [before the night of the fifteenth of Nissan. However] we learn [otherwise, since] it is stated, "for the sake of this." I didn't say 'for the sake of this' except [that it be observed] when [this] matsa and maror are resting in front of you [meaning, on the night of the fifteenth].

I appreciate how this fits the theme set earlier in Haggadah with with the B'nai Brak story and the paragraph that follows it. It's teaching us that what we are doing is Kosher even though it may vary from what the Torah or Temple practices prescribed.

But why put this paragraph describing the timing of the seder after the Four Sons? Why not group it with the other paragraphs closer to the start of the seder?

Perhaps I was just in a feisty mood this year, but if I squint I can see this paragraph's placement as intentional. We imagine four personalities sitting around the table and the answers we wish to give them. I can see how this paragraph on timing speaks to a fifth personality.

This fifth 'son' I imagine is a mash-up of the wicked and wise sons. Like the Rasha he's up to no good, but he's got the wisdom of the Hacham to try to derail the seder from the inside. Why are we even here tonight? He or she offers up. The Torah tell us that we should tell the story on Rosh Chodesh. That's the first day of the month and today is the 14th. Y'all are 13 days late on your seder!

This individual has come to the table with 'proof' that his fellow seder participants are all wrong.

The Haggadah is unfazed; it has points and counter-points at the ready.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh here. Maybe this mixture of Wicked and Wise is a good thing. Perhaps the Haggadah is sending us a message that asking sharp questions is exactly what we should be doing, and that's why this answer on timing is so verbose. Don't avoid thorny questions it seems to be saying, lean in and ask away!