Alex Conner and R2D2

I got an R2D2 droid for Christmas. It responds to voice commands, plays games and dances. This is the sort of thing that a kid growing up with Star Wars could only dream of. It turns out that watching the boys interact with R2 was even more fun than playing with him myself.

The Mystery Of The Wandering Music Files

I'll tell you up front. The flaming pile of camel poop did it. It started innocently enough. Alex, Conner and I decided to listen to some music. I fired up iTunes, clicked on The Bear Missed The Train and got a error saying the file was missing. Huh? What do you mean missing?!? We've played that song 20 times a day for the last 6 months!

So I did some digging and found that (1) The Bear Missed The Train was missing from my nicely organized mp3 collection and (2) it looked like someone threw up in the "My Music" folder.

After a little investigation I concluded that ~500 mp3s had been moved out of my nicely organized music collection into an folder structure that can only be described by chaos theory. In this case a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and then a rogue program takes ~500 of your most frequently used music files and scatters them around your file system as if your computer was hit by a tsunami.

So what happened? Why now? It turns out that yesterday John and Reza turned on Windows Media player, henceforth referred to as The Flaming Pile of Camel Poop, for the first time in months in order to play some home movies. During the few minutes they were using it, The Flaming Pile of Camel Poop read in part of my music library and regurgitated it all over the "My Music" folder.

Here's how it works. If you open The Flaming Pile of Camel Poop and click on Tools-> Options->Media Library there is a section called Automatic media information updates for files and under there, you find a check box that reads Rename and rearrange music using media information. It should actually read Scatter my music files about tsunami style because it rearranges files based on media information that appears to be retrieved from the result of the afore mentioned butterfly effect. This feature (and I call it a feature in the loosest sense) is turned on by default. iTunes also has such a feature but they have the good sense to turn it off by default.

In the end our heroes prevailed. They were forced to play with blocks without The Bear Missed The Train while pondering what sort of Flaming Pile of Camel Poop would take away our music. But after about 30 minutes of this they decided to blame John and Reza and that's when all the pieces fell into place. In the end I got to use *VersionBackup for the first time to restore lost files to my computer.

*VersionBackup is a free windows based backup software that I switched over to a few months ago. Its easy to use and it saved The Bear Missed The Train from the wrath of The Flaming Pile of Camel Poop with just a few clicks.

Senator Barack Obama's Podcast

I found Senator Barack Obama's podcast mid last year. I've listened to all the episodes back to the beginning of 2006 when he started podcasting and am very impressed. Each week he talks in a fair amount detail on at least one topic. The conventional wisdom suggests that bearing a detailed opinion in today's political climate isn't such a good political move. As a result we basically get debate trough soundbites which is both unproductive and embarrassing. Senator Obama's podcast goes against the grain of that mentality and is, as far as I can tell, the only frequent podcast produced by an elected official where he or she takes the time to describe the details of current issues and his opinion on them. For that matter it is currently the only podcast produced by a US Senator. I did find a few single episode podcasts where a citizen interviewed a senator and mid last year a few Congressmen and women started podcasting, but the quality of the content (and accessibility of their websites) doesn't come close the material being produced by Senator Obama.

I'm not sure which was more impressive to me, Senator Obama's willingness to state his opinions in detail, or his initiative to adopt an accessible and free technology for a practical purpose in government. Either way podcasting strikes me as an excellent way for an elected officials to reach out to their constituent base with much more value than can be conveyed in a soundbite.

Free Moving Boxes

boxes3 Moving? Need to store something? Building a fort in your living room and need materials? Here are two ways you can get moving boxes free & save a tree at the same time. Both of these solutions helps reduce emissions into the environment. Reuse (especially in this case) is almost always more efficient than recycling because it still takes energy to recycle.

1) Bookstores get their books in high quality boxes that are the perfect size for packing most household items. They turn around and immediately throw away or recycle these boxes which are still in near if not perfect condition.

How to get bookstore boxes:
  1. Call your local brick and mortar bookstore (usually ask for the information desk or a manager).
  2. Tell them you're moving (or building a fort) and ask if you can have some of their used boxes.
  3. Remember to say please. It never hurts to be nice. :)

Their responses will vary from giving you a fixed number to offering you free reign of more boxes than you can imagine. If they say no, just call the next closest store. I've found it's rare they say no, and typically it's a specific person at the store that doesn't know the store policy is to give away the boxes to anyone that asks.

2) The Freecycle Network™ is made up of many individual groups across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. This organization manages local mailing lists all over the USA. The Freecycle Network was started in May 2003 to promote waste reduction in Tucson's downtown and help save desert landscape from being taken over by landfills. The Network provides individuals and non-profits an electronic forum to "recycle" unwanted items. One person's trash can truly be another's treasure!

How to get freecycle boxes:
  1. Visit the website
  2. Join the mailing list for your local community.
  3. Offer something to the mailing list. Freecycle edict suggests that the first post to a list should be an offer. But not to worry, you're moving so this is a good time to get rid of your hand carved Elvis figurine collection.
  4. Search the list for Moving Boxes and if you don't see any post a message with the subject "WANTED: Moving Boxes".

When You're Done
Once you're done be sure to pass the boxes on to someone else that needs them. There are lots of people on that will be happy to take them off your hands. Any of the boxes that are in bad shape can be recycled!

A Beautiful Spring Day in January

Today January 6th 2007 it was 68 degrees outside in Massachusetts. Alex and I spent a few hours playing outside with neighborhood kids. He showed me a number of techniques for relocating water by jumping in giant puddles of mud. Later he moved a big pile of wet sand about two feet left. We played on the swing-set and barbecued hamburgers for lunch. Later that afternoon, while Alex napped, Conner and I went out for a walk and hung out with some more neighbors. We were outside for an hour in jeans and a sweatshirts. It was a beautiful day to be outside.

Tonight we noticed that it was warm in the house. The heat has been off all day and its 73 degrees inside. If I didn't know better I'd think it was May.

Alexisms Defined

up·stressed (ob-strÄ›ssed') adjective - afflicted with or marked by anxious uneasiness or trouble or grief compounded with suffering severe strain or distress. "Mommy are you upstressed?"
[Origin: Alex on seeing his mother after the second day of taking care of two sick kids and her stomach flue ridden husband

Unga·bunga (uhnga-bun-ga) interjection - (a yell of exhilaration, used by Alex before jumping on a sleeping parent.)
[Origin: From the Sesame Street Cookie Monster exclamation "cowabunga"]

Re·magining (ree-maj-in-ing) verb - to form mental images of things that have or might have already happened; use the imagination to for a memory.
[Origin: The mind of a child completely untethered by the common perception of the space time continuum ]

Staying Up to Date - RSS Feeds and Friends News

Keeping track of new is difficult because there are so may sources and mediums. TV, radio, papers, local, world, friends news & pictures (a big deal when your friends have kids), blogs, picture sets, software updates, podcasts, speeches, shared documents, lists.  In the past 6 months I've been introduced to a few simple technologies that when combined make it very easy to keep track of information coming from lots of sources. The end result is something very cool. The best example I can think of is that I can see pictures of my niece before my brother even tells me there available online!

The Technologies:

  • RSS Feeds  - Websites publish lists of updates—called "feeds"—that indicate when new content has been posted. When you subscribe to a feed, Google Reader starts monitoring that feed for updates.  RSS and Atom are the two most popular feed formats. - google reader help

  • Google Reader   - is a Web-based aggregator, capable of reading Atom and RSS feeds. It also allows you to publish a single feed made up of 2 or more feeds. This republishing an aggregate feed is very cool.

  • iTunes Podcast feed subscriptions - iTunes provides the ability to subscribe to a feed that is not available in the iTunes store. [From iTunes Advanced-> Subscribe to Podcast -> copy your podcast feed URL]

  • Google Personalized Home Page   -  A customizable web page where you can add modules to display just about anything you want. Weather, gmail, calendar, task lists, pictures, news & a Google Reader module and many more. When you go to the page it is updated with the latest info from each of those sources.

  • Google Reader Homepage Module   - A module for the personalized home page that allows for a scrollable list of posts in a feed and the ability to read the content of the post without leaving the page.

  • - a social bookmarking website that allows you to bookmark any link on the web and tag/label each one. RSS feeds are available for your entire list or any specific tag.

The Monitor List:
Keeping up with friends websites and pictures can be hard. Checking people's websites for updates is impractical, especially if they update infrequently. So I basically end up not doing it and losing track of people. That's why this is my favorite use of GR so far. Here's how it works:

  1. Subscribe to the feeds posted by people I like to keep track of. [OK that sounds creepy, but its not meant to be.] I'm talking about blogs of friends, authors who's book I found interesting, leads on projects like Ubuntu, or flickr photo sets using Mike's photo set feed creator or even the blog of some software or service I recently started using.
  2. Label/tag/folder all of these feeds something like "monitor in a non creepy way".
  3. Add the GR home page module to my personalized home page and chose my "monitor in a non creepy way" list.

Now when any of those feeds are updated it appears on my home page. There is no remembering to visit people's websites and I still stay up to date. If my brother posts pictures, a friend updates his blog, or a software I'm using announces a new release it shows up on my homepage! You name it if its on the web and I'm interested I can get it sent right to my homepage. Best of all its a very filtered news feed of only that stuff I care about.

Global Podcast Management:
Subscribing to podcasts typically requires an application, (like iTunes) that sits on a specific machine. If you want to change or update the items you're subscribed to you need to be at that computer. If you want to listen to a recent podcast and you haven't updated your mp3 player on that computer your SOL. Here's how you can do podcast management & listening without a base computer.

  1. Using Google Reader Subscribe to some podcast feeds and (in google reader) label them podcast.
  2. From Google Reader share the "podcast" feed.
  3. In iTunes or your podcast reader of choice, subscribe to your shared "podcast" feed. [From iTunes Advanced-> Subscribe to Podcast -> copy your podcast feed URL]

Thanks to my brother for coming up with this one! The benefits are these things three:

  1. No need to go to your "base" computer to subscribe and unsubscribe to podcasts. Its all managed via the GR on the web.
  2. You can listen to podcasts on google reader via its build in mp3 player, so you can get the most up to date podcasts without having to refresh your mp3 player or loading iTunes.
  3. You can add individual podcast episodes to the feed (because you can label either a feed or a single episode in GR). For example, I like to listen to the Friday podcast of NPR's On Point, but the feed for On Point has en episode every day of the week. Using individual post labels I can add this one episode a week to my "podcast" feed without getting all the others from that week.

The one down side is that iTunes seems to group all the podcasts under the name of the feed instead of their feed title. This appears to be a limitation of iTunes as the actual name of each posts feed is in the google reader feed.

Other Useful Tricks:

  • Document Changes: Most online document editors have an RSS feed for changes. When co-authoring subscribing to the feed and putting it on your homepage lets you know when its updated.

  • Personal News Channels: As with the monitor list its easy to create feeds for other topics. For example news about specific industries, NGOs, local events, or company news.

  • Sharing Fun Stuff: Using bookmark movies or books you like and share the RSS feed with friends. They can add the feed to their monitor list and get an update whenever you add something to the list.