Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Coffee Plant

Some friends of mine recently gave me a coffee plant. It's quite
small right now. It'll be a few years before I get any beans from it.

(<i>note: this is a test of posting to my blog from my iPhone.</I>)

[Edit: obviously, based on the above, I have a problem including HTML tags when posting via the iPhone. Hmmm.... I'll have to research that.]

[Edit#2: from what I've read, the "Mail-to-Blogger" feature (which is what I used to post from the iPhone) does not support embedded HTML tags if the email is sent as plain text. It instead escapes any HTML tags so you see the tags in the post. If your email client supports sending HTML email, then you can use that client to make bold and italics and what not and Blogger will automatically include those text attributes in the post. Unfortunately, the iPhone email client sends only plain text. Oh well. At least I can include a photo!]

Random Eye Dull Photo - Bee

In honor of my recent bee-clash, here's a picture I took about 8 years ago back when I got my first digital camera (a Sony Mavica).

It's very yellow (the picture, that is, not my first camera).

I know, bees and wasps and hornets are all different, and I've been using the phrase bee when I really am talking about wasps, or maybe hornets. And this picture is definitely of a bee, not a wasp. So, don't base any scientific insect studies on the contents of my blog, ok?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bees: 3 Brian: 2 (or Bad Bee Karma)

Yesterday I discovered some hornets were building a nest in the outside basement door at my condo. When I say "discovered", it wasn't one of the those "Aha"-type scientific discoveries. This was more of uncomfortable realization that some hornets were buzzing around my head and were bumping into my body as I was walking through the doorway.

Unfortunately for me, this door is the main exit I must use for bringing large items out from storage (such as my kayak). I managed to avoid getting stung yesterday, but today, while trying to put my kayak away, I didn't have as much luck. The hornets appear to have made a nest in the grated window frame of the door. It's a heavy steel door - sorta what you might expect to see on the outside of a factory building (which makes sense since the condo used to be a factory). I figured I'd just prop the door open, keeping the hornets on the other side of the door while I lugged a bunch of kayaking and windsurfing gear back into my storage unit.

This plan didn't go so well. The hornets appear to have a great sense of navigation, so much so that the hornet scouts, returning from whatever missions hornet scouts perform, flew directly to the location where the door's window used to be. And then they'd just hover there - apparently knowing they were in the right place - but for some reason unbeknownst to them, their home was no longer there. Meanwhile, I just plowed right through the doorway, assuming the hornets would all be where I now temporarily relocated their home. This put me on a nice collision course with some disoriented hornets. I was able to successfully brush off the one hornet on the back of my neck that appeared be interested in seeing if its home was down my shirt, but I didn't have as much luck with the other one that decided to just sting me in the back without any warning.

I had tried to be nice, but I draw the line at getting stung in the back. So, I had to resort to another mass killing. Out came the can of Raid raining death on all hornets in the vicinity. (Actually, it was a much slower process. I first had to walk to the nearby convenience store, discover Raid for hornets and wasps isn't a convenience item, walk back home, get in the car, drive a bit further to the local Stop & Shop, navigate the aisles, wait in a long line, pay for the Raid (death only costs $4.99), drive back home, and then send poison rain down upon my hornet adversaries. But, that takes a lot longer to say.)

So, I now racked up some more bad-karma points with the bee-kind. And killing all those hornets doesn't make my back feel any better.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dr. Horrible

A friend at work mentioned this odd little item to me.

It's a bit hard to describe in one sentence, but I'll try: it's a three episode super-villain musical comedy. Yeah, it sounds weird. And it is. But, it's also very entertaining - especially if you like campy comic-bookish stuff, or musicals. Also, unlike most super-hero type stories, this one is told from the perspective of the villain.

It's from the twisted mind of Joss Whedon - the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He did it as a low budget experiment during the Hollywood writers strike. If you like some of his earlier work, it's definitely worth taking a look. You can view a trailer of the show by clicking the above picture, or you can go to iTunes and buy all three episodes for $3.99 (or buy just one for $1.99; but if it turns out you like it, it'll cost you more to then buy the other two).

Friday, July 25, 2008

Importance of Goals

I was recently talking with a friend of mine about the importance of goals. Actually, it was more like he was reminding me of the importance of having goals in life.

I had come to the realization that I was just sort of bored with life. I had become very content with life and found myself coasting along in a comfort zone. I think the boredom got me thinking along the lines of "Hmmm... would it even matter if I died right now? I'm actually happy and content, so wouldn't now be a good time to die rather than when I'm old and feeble and struggling to survive." Anyhow, no, I wasn't suicidal - it was more just a casual thought - exploring the whole concept of the point of life and death and what not. But, it did make me realize I was missing something - I don't think it's normal to be content or ok with the idea that it would be fine if I died in a car crash on the the way home from work - like there's nothing that would be left undone or unfinished.

And that's where my friend's comment about goals made me realize the problem. I no longer had any goals! I was no longer challenging myself - instead I was just living a comfortable life.

So, I'm now in the process of setting some goals. And this brings up the topic of a worthwhile video to watch if you have the time. If you haven't already seen it, and you have an hour to spare, check out the "last lecture" by Randy Pausch on the subject of "Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.". You can view it here.

If you haven't heard of Randy Pausch, he was a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who had been diagnosed with a terminal case of pancreatic cancer in 2007. Late last year he gave a lecture as part of series where the person giving the talk was asked to present what they thought would be most important if this were to be their last lecture they ever gave. In his case, the theme of the lecture series was not so hypothetical. He passed away today.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Black Ships Festival

This weekend is the Black Ships Festival in Newport, RI. It's a celebration of Japan culture, oddly in remembrance of the United States forcing the Japanese to negotiate a treaty back in the mid-1800s due to the arrival of the US "black ships"..

The commodore of the fleet of ships was from Newport, RI, so they hold the festival here.

I spent the day at the festival today, mainly to watch martial arts demonstration put on by various schools. While the festival is supposed to be celebrating Japanese culture, the organizers tend to think any martial arts form is Japanese. This gave a wide range of styles at the festival - some Japanese, some obviously not. In any case, it was a worthwhile opportunity to just see a bunch of different styles of martial arts all at one location.

The first event of the day for me was watching an Aikido school - Newport Aikikai. As can be seen by this first picture, at this school they teach people to levitate!

Now that's learning to fall from a decent height!   It was a great demonstration and was about an hour and a half long in 90+ degree humid weather.   I saw this school's demonstration two years ago and during that one I had no idea what they were doing.  Two years ago (at least the part of the demo I watched) it was more of a silent demo with students practicing techniques with no explanation.   This time around the sensei gave a bit of explanation of some of the techniques. Plus, due to my own martial arts experience I had a better understanding of what I was watching.  

It was interesting to see a lot of similarities in their techniques to what I am learning in Palace Hand at the Kodokai Dojo.   They're definitely different martial arts, but a lot of the joint manipulations were the very similar. 

It was impressive how many students they could fit on a small mat area and have them all practice their techniques at the same time without anyone colliding.

This elderly couple definitely won the "cutest couple" award for the day.   I love the little picnic basket with the red and white checkered cloth.  They stayed the whole day and watched all the martial arts demonstrations.

After the Aikido demonstration, there was a "ninja" demonstration which I had a hard time taking seriously. While it had some realistic techniques displayed, it mainly seemed really goofy and sloppy. Watching the techniques being performed reminded me of kids playing "ninja" - they demonstrated all their techniques in super slow motion. Plus some of the explanations of how various weapons were used seemed a bit far-fetched. Even the physical fitness of the instructor and students gave the impression that they never really exercised very hard. Sorry, I didn't take any pictures. Plus, can you even take a picture of a ninja? Won't there just be a blank spot in the picture where they were?

After the ninja, there were two other martial arts demonstrations that were a bit iffy as far as what I think of regarding traditional martial arts. One was a local kempo school which seemed to have more of an emphasis on building false confidence (by cheering on the students during their demonstration) than having actual good technique. The second school was a chain school that gave a very flashy high-powered acrobatic demonstration set to music. It was great entertainment, but was in no way something I would call martial arts. It had lots of back-flips and spinning kicks and flipping weapons around like batons, but I'd have to call it more of a dance or acrobatic demonstration than martial arts. In the intro to the demo, the speaker even said something along the lines of, "This is the type of martial arts you'll see in the movies." I.e. totally unrealistic stuff that only makes a good show. One of this school's advertised selling points is they build confidence and help you get comfortable with public speaking. I don't even know if they claim you might be able to defend yourself. But, if you're interested in getting into performance art, then it might be a good place to go. Again, no pictures from these two demos. I probably should have taken some of people flying through the air.  It might have made a nice snapshot or two.

Throughout the day, there was a school from New York demonstrating what I can best describe as "historic" martial arts - all sorts of techniques using various types of weapons from the Edo period in Japan. It was interesting to take a break from the other demonstrations and watch this one - it seemed there was always a different weapon or technique being demonstrated.  This group was putting on demonstrations from 10 in the morning 'til 4:00 in the afternoon. Given the heat and humidity, they must have been beat by the end of the day. The following are a few pictures during their demo.

In the picture below, the guy on the left is holding a practice ball and chain (actually made of cloth for safety).  According to the guy presenting the demo, this is what was used within the palace walls for restraining an attacker. Supposedly it was forbidden for the guards to draw blood within the palace walls.

In this final picture, the guy is holding a practice police baton from the Edo period. (Sorry, I forgot the Japanese name of the weapon.)  It's normally made all of metal, but for practice it has wooden parts.  The all metal version is useful for disarming sword wielding attackers.

The final demonstration of the day was by a Rhode Island jiujitsu school - Kuntao Jiujitsu. This school stresses practical self-defense. It was a great demonstration of self-defense techniques and the sensei has a great knack for talking to a crowd. Unfortunately, this late in the day I was a bit tired and didn't take any pictures.

All in all, it was a good time at the festival. It was interesting to be able to see several different martial arts styles and notice a lot of similar themes in techniques throughout the groups as well as some very different approaches to a similar situation. It was definitely a worthwhile trip.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Charities in need of help

I just ran across this article in the local paper today. Apparently charities are running into financial trouble due to the downturn in the economy. So, if you can afford it, don't forget to donate to your local charities - especially now!

UPDATE: Came across this other snippet about the charity crunch. Somewhat interesting is the search engine hosting the link. It's a clever idea - you register a charity you want to donate to and then use their ad-funded search engine (called Goodsearch) and they donate a portion of their ad revenues to the charity you selected. Goodsearch LLC is not a non-profit themselves, but they do donate 50% of their ad revenue to the charities their users specify, so I suppose it's better than Google, which keeps 100% of their ad revenue (as far as I know). It might be worth a look.

The one sour point for me is Goodsearch LLC has apparently applied for a patent on this idea. I really dislike the concept of patenting a business process. My personal opinion is patents should be reserved for actual physical inventions. But hey, this is how the law is right now, so you can't blame them for taking advantage of it - just like Amazon's dubious patent on "one click shopping". Yes, Amazon really does have a patent on that. Our patent system needs work...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A minor rant on politeness

I went into the big city of Providence yesterday afternoon (while all dehydrated) to visit the Home Depot closest to where I live. I was picking up a couple of gallons of paint. I hadn't been in the city in a long time and had forgotten how much I disliked this particular Home Depot. I'm not sure whether it's because of it's location (not the best part of the city - maybe they frequently have to deal with people causing trouble - i.e. armed robbery, punks spray painting graffiti in the lawn and garden shop, drug deals going on in the plumbing department, etc.), but both times I've gone there I've had bad experiences with employees being rather rude.

In this latest experience, I walked up to a cash register with no lines. The register had the little lamp lit indicating it was open, and there was a cashier there apparently ready to serve. So, with a gun clearly visible in my hand, I demanded all the cash in the register and the woman just turned away and began chatting with an adjacent cashier! What's up with that? Hello, I have a gun! Pay attention to me!

Ok, no, that's not really what happened. Rewind a bit. No firearms were involved. Same situation, but no gun.

Instead I had two gallons of paint in my hands. When I approached the register, the woman immediately turned away and began to talk to the adjacent cashier. Apparently the other cashier was having trouble looking up a price of something on her register so she wanted the cashier in my aisle to look it up on her register. No problem - I'm patient. However, after 5 minutes (no I'm not exaggerating) of this continuing where she'd look something up, print out some paperwork, look somthing else up, etc., I began to wonder whether the cashier even realized I was still waiting. Not once did she even acknowledge my presence with a "Sorry, this will take a minute," or "You might want to use a different line." Finally, I asked the cashier if I should move to a different line. Instead of answering, she just continued to keep her back to me and just said something like "Ummm...." and it appeared she was finishing up with her side project. Then, when she finally did turn around to ring up my items, there was still no acknowledgement that I was even standing there. No greeting, no thanks for waiting, not even any eye contact - I just got a nice view of the top of her head. She just focused on the cans of paint, told them how much they cost, and then asked the paint cans if she could see their ID because the paint cans were purchasing themselves with a credit card. She didn't even thank the paint cans as they left the store. I should note the paint can carrier (that would be me) did his best to offer a cheerful "thank you" regardless.

Granted, I wasn't in the best of moods at the time, so it could be I took a more negative impression to the whole situation. But, there's something to be said for simple courtesy. It goes a long way.

If at any point the cashier just uttered a simple "Hi, this'll take a minute," I wouldn't have thought anything of the wait. But to be totally ignored - it's a weird feeling that gives the impression one doesn't matter.

But, in the grand scheme of things, I don't matter. So maybe it was good to be reminded of that. Perhaps the cashier was doing her part to teach me my place in the universe. (But don't go using that as an excuse for being rude!)

The importance of liquid

Yesterday I was feeling totally run down and in a bit of lousy mood. I couldn't figure out why until I realized around 4:30 in the afternoon that I hadn't had anything to drink all day - other than the milk that was mixed in my bowl of cereal in the morning and a 1/4 of a cup of milk with my lunch. The fridge was empty of all beverages at the time - other than the tiny amount of milk I finished off. And after I had lunch, I was distracted doing other things and never thought of getting a better drink of something.

I suppose being a white guy, it never occurred to me I could get water from the tap. (Yeah, it's that controversial topic again... it's a joke - come on, it's funny. Really.)

Dehydration is a pretty lousy feeling. On the plus side, I didn't have to use the bathroom for the whole day!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lost iPod Touch

The iPod Touch has a built-in feature which allows it to determine your rough location based on the WiFi access point to which you are currently connected. Well, it appears there's something seriously wrong with the program - here's what I got for a search for finding nearby pizza places.

Zooming out on the map a bit (the blue circle is my estimated location), it appears I'm in Denmark!

Apparently my condo has an unknown Tardis-like function. When I look out my window, it seems I'm in Woonsocket, RI, but obviously the inside of my condo is actually in Denmark. Or maybe my iPod has really powerful WiFi antenna and I'm connected to someone's WiFi AP in Denmark...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Random Eye Dull Photo #13 - Cloud Patterns

I liked the cloud cover in this view on the road from Tanzania back to Kenya.   It definitely looks better in a larger view (click on it), but it's still not really impressive.   I think what I initially liked about it is the variety of shapes of clouds, especially the one that looks like smoke coming out of a volcano.   

Based on it's shape, I'm assuming this mountain was once a volcano, but I could be mistaken.   I should have brought my GPS with me - then I could have looked up the location when I got back home to see what mountain it is.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Old School Coffee Making

While in Seattle, I got to have some very very good espresso drinks - probably the best I've ever had - at Espresso Vivace. The friends I travelled with have some very nice coffee making equipment at home and have been experimenting with reproducing the drinks we savored at Vivace. Lately I've been greatly enjoying these home brewed espresso drinks whenever I visit these friends. After building up a nice addiction to these tasty treats, I finally decided to try my hand at making the drinks at my own home.

Unfortunately, the equipment usually used for making espresso is not cheap. Most coffee fan sites (such as Coffee Geek) recommend to get good results you need a good grinder and a good espresso machine. While "good" is a relative term, it is generally recommended you spend several hundred dollars on a grinder and a similar price (or more) on the actual espresso machine. The gadgeteer in me was tempted to go this route and splurge, spending close to $1000 on top of the line equipment, but I really had a hard time justifying such a pricey expenditure. Sure, in the long run it would be cheaper than going to a coffee shop every day, but I don't really do that anyhow, and for something I'd realistically use only a few times a week, it seemed a bit extravagant. So, I researched some alternatives.

Instead of an expensive electric grinder, I found a wooden hand grinder made in Germany by Zassenhaus. It allows fine control of the grinding of beans producing a range from course grinds for drip coffee to fine grinds for espresso. It costs a fraction of the price of a good electric grinder and you even get the benefit of some arm exercise.

While reading more about the espresso making process, I also learned of some old-fashioned methods for making what is close to the modern-day espresso.  It's not quite espresso, but it's the result of an inventor's attempt to reproduce espresso on the stove-top.  Specifically, I am referring to the moka pot.   It was invented in Italy in 1933 and was a huge success.   Supposedly, today in Italy almost every household has a moka pot.   And, to make it more enticing, a moka pot only costs about $30. Definitely worth a try at that price.

The above picture is the 3 cup moka pot - this one cost $20. It's quite small - actually smaller than the wooden grinder. It's made by Bialetti - they've got a cute logo:

Here's a cut-away view of what the moka pot looks like inside.

You put water in the bottom chamber and finely ground coffee goes in a metal filter (2) in the middle. You then heat the pot. The bottom tank will become pressurized as the water heats up, forcing steam and hot water though the coffee contained in the filter in the middle (4). The end result is a strong espresso-like brew that collects in the top chamber (6).  There's a safety valve (5) on the side of the pot to prevent any catastrophes with excessive pressure.

In addition to the grinder and moka pot, I also needed a way to make frothy espresso drinks like lattes. Usually, it's done with some stream contraption built into the espresso machine. Without an espresso machine, I needed an alternative, so I went with a small battery operated hand-held milk frother. It was another low-cost alternative - all stainless-steel construction yet only cost $12. It even came with a stand.

The ponies finally arrived and I received my moka pot and milk frother today! With this recent Amazon shipment I have now assembled my collection of old school coffee brewing tools. Hopefully I'll now be able to create some tasty espresso beverages. I'll post my results once I get a chance to try them out.

Update: I revised the bit about the moka pot.  Originally I said it predated the espresso machine, which was incorrect.  It was invented in reaction to the popularity of espresso from coffee bars in Italy in the early 20th century. 

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Random Eye Dull Photo #12 - Watersnake?

A friend of mine spotted this little guy while we were hiking along an old rail trail in the Douglas State Forest.

It was sitting on the edge of the trail and blended in well with the dark grey gravel from the old rail bed. At first I thought it was dead - a couple of motorized dirt bikes had just gone by and the snake was laying in what appeared to be one of their tire tracks. Fortunately, it turned out to be fine and was soon slithering on its way.

I'm not 100% certain what kind of snake it is. At first I thought it was a black racer, but then noticed the slight banding on its body. Also, the scales on this snake are keeled (they have a raised ridge along the center of each scale) and a black racer has smooth scales. My best guess is its a water snake, which would make sense for the location - there was a swamp on both sides of the trail. Watersnakes have a banding pattern and have keeled scales. The only other snake that comes close to this description would be a rat snake, but from the pictures I've seen, it didn't really look very much like one of those. And rat snakes are rare and endangered in Massachusetts, so it's unlikely that was one.

This particular snake was pretty small - maybe 12 to 14 inches - at least that's my rough estimate. In this final picture you can get a sense of its size based on the tire track in the left foreground and bicycle track in the right background. (Click on the picture to get a slightly larger view.)

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Tale of Two Shippers

This past Sunday I placed an order for several items with Amazon. Because of what was ordered, Amazon shipped the items from two different warehouses using two different "lowest cost" shipping methods - UPS and the US Postal Service. Both packages left Amazon's warehouses on the same day - June 30th - and both packages left the shippers' facilities on July 1st.

And here's where it gets interesting. Package #1 was shipped from Harrisburg, PA via UPS. It traveled a total of 366 miles and I received it the very next day (July 2nd). It took less than 30 hours! This gives an average delivery speed of 12.2 miles per hour.

Package #2, shipped via USPS, came from Springfield, MA - just 70 miles from where I live - and it still hasn't arrived! From the limited tracking information provided by the US Postal Service, the package left the Springfield, MA facility on July 1st, the same day the UPS package did. But apparently in a cost reducing move due to high gas prices, the US government is now using ponies for their parcel post delivery. Assuming I receive the package on Monday (and that's wishful thinking), this would mean it took 7 days to deliver a package just 70 miles. That's an average speed of less than a half mile an hour! I guess that's why they call it snail mail. From a snail's point of view, I suppose that's actually a very fast speed.

Anyhow, the lesson I take away from this is UPS is a far more efficient shipping method than the US Postal Service. In just one day my package travelled through three different UPS distribution centers and arrived at my doorstep. Coming up on seven days now and my US Postal Service package has passed through just one postal center and it's not certain where the package is or when it will actually arrive. I can only imagine there's some team of ponies slowly trudging their way through southeastern Massachusetts working their way toward the Rhode Island border. Hopefully they avoid the thunderstorms this weekend. Those poor ponies...

Friday, July 04, 2008

Random Eye Dull Photo #11 - Flamingos

Back to Lake Nakuru. The above photo should give a good idea of just how many flamingos there were on the shore of the lake - the pale pink stuff in the water are all flamingos. Supposedly this is home to the largest colony of flamingos in the world. If you click on the photo you should be able to see a bit more detail. The shore looks a bit white due to the high level of salt in the lake.

Here is a more narrow view from ground level.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Random Eye Dull Photo #10 - Butt Mountain

For some odd reason, the locals in Tanzania said this was called Butt Mountain. I can't imagine why...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Writer's Almanac

I often gauge how late I'm running for work in the morning by where I am on the road when the 5 minute The Writer's Almanac segment comes on the radio. It's hosted by Garrison Keillor (from A Prairie Home Companion fame) and usually has an interesting tidbit or two that makes the five minutes worth the listen.

The segment always includes a reading of a poem. A few days ago there was one I particularly liked - you can read the full version here. It's The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver and ends with the following few lines:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Anyhow, if you don't have this little segment on your local public radio station, it is also available as a podcast. You might find it worth a listen.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Random Eye Dull Photo #9 - Kicked myself

While driving to the Northern Cascades in Washington, we stopped at a gas station that had an interesting contraption set up outside:

As you can see in this close-up, there's a crank you can turn to have the boots on the spokes kick you in the butt. Just what every gas station needs.

Of course, I had to try it out. I figured since I was paying over $4 for gas, I may as well give myself some more abuse while I'm at it.