Conversations In The Car With Alex

On Christmas Eve Alex and I were driving to the airport to pick up his aunt and he had a few Alexisms that were instant classic .

Tolls

On the way to the airport we hit a lot of bumps in the road (literally not figuratively) and Alex was really enjoying it. Bump Yeah! Bump, bump, bump Wooo-Hooo! When we came to a toll booth on I-90 we zipped right through because we had our EZ-Pass subtly fastened in place. As soon as we went through he asked "Daddy, why don't we have to pay to ride on this bumpy road?"


Santa

Later on we were talking about Christmas and Santa.

Me: So where do you think Santa is right now?
Alex: (long pause) He's probably at the mall.

So I start mentally gearing up to deal with the the idea that Santa is shopping at the mall...Let's see... Christmas isn't about shopping... Probably too serious. Stuff doesn't come from malls its made in other places and brought to the mall... Still too serious... Santa's Elves make the toys... Yeah! that's the one. So I start off with a question.

Me: Why do you think Santa is at the mall?
Alex: So that the boys and girls that didn't get to see him yet can tell him what they want for Christmas. (long pause) Daddy, why are you smiling?

Using Comments to Tag Music Files

This is an idea that I've been rolling around in my head for a while. I finally got around to trying it and I'm really happy with the results.

The Problem:
Music systems like iTunes let you categorize music by selecting a single genre for each file or song. So a song can be categorized as a "Christmas" or as "Oldies", but not both.

Take White Christmas by the Drifters off the Home Alone soundtrack. It could be categorized as Christmas, Rock, Oldies, Soundtrack or half a dozen other ways including ones that make sense only to me like snickerdoodle. But in iTunes I have to pick only one category.

This bugs me because music (really life in general) isn't that straight forward. The category music falls into depends on my perspective at the time.

For example, when I'm in the mood for Christmas music I want to hear White Christmas, and when I'm in the mood for Oldies I still want to hear White Christmas. Right now I have to remember which one category iTunes thinks White Christmas belongs to. This idea gives me a way to put & find a song in as many categories as I want.

Tagging has emerged as a really useful method for categorizing things into more than one bucket. It's a simple concept. Simply add free form text that describe an item. Each word becomes a tag and when you want to find something you look at your list of tags and choose the tag that fits. Then you get the list of songs that contain that tag.

Tagging is available in lots of places, but hasn't made it into music players yet.

The Idea
So I came up with a simple way to use tagging with music files by adding the tags to the "comment" field in the music files. The comment field is a free form text field that is actually part of MP3 and M4A music files.

Using iTunes I would do the following to tag a song:
  1. Highlight the song or songs
  2. Right click and choose "Get Info"
  3. Type in my tags in the comment field. For Example: Christmas, Rock, Oldies, Soundtrack, snickerdoodle
  4. Click save

To get at the tags and listen to music by tags, I simply create a smart play list where the comments contain the tag I'm interested in. One for Oldies, one for Christmas, and one for snickerdoodle! And White Christmas now appears in all three!

I'd really like to see a tag cloud layout for iTunes, but for now I'll settle for smart play lists.

Benefits

  • Allows for multiple categorizations for any song.
  • Tags move with your music files so your categories move across computers and applications.
  • If something happens to iTunes or you get a new computer you don't have to re-find all the music for your play lists.
  • It makes it really easy to categorize and access your music any way you want.
  • iTunes lets you view a smart playlist in "List View" which gives you all the navigation of iTunes filtered on one tag!
Having done this for band music, driving music, work music and a bunch of other stuff, I'm really happy with how it's simplified finding what I want to listen to.

My XO Laptop Arrives

The XO laptop I purchased through the G1G1 program arrived Thursday! The "Give One" half should be delivered to a kid in January.

Until it arrived I had not realized that I have freakishly large hands. The XO is designed for kids so I had some trouble getting used to the tiny keyboard. It's getting easier each day. One of my favorite feature is the lack of a CAPS LOCK key.

As soon as I turned it on Alex and I figured out
how to make a short video using the built in camera and the "Recorder" software. I haven't figured out how to get video from the XO onto youtube yet.

Wireless Networking was amazingly easy to set up! There's this button on the keyboard that brings up a graphical representation of the networks within range (my neighborhood). I moused over looking at the names (SSID) of each network until I found mine. When I clicked on the icon for my network it prompted me for my WEP key. I typed it in and that was it. It connected. That's how easy it should always be, but as many of my relatives can attest, connecting to my home network is often too complicated to be worth the effort.

I have seen a lot of threads on the community support mailer about broken WEP on the XO. I have a hunch that WEP only works if you use 128bit HEX keys. For some reason the shorter keys don't seem to work.

Web surfing with the default browser is a little strange because (as far as I can tell) the browser can only open one page at a time.I've gotten so used to browsing with tabs that it feels very limiting to only have the one.

Even so, Gmail and the integrated Google talk work well and I haven't found any websites that don't work. I downloaded a podcast and was able to listen to it. After I installed flash Pandora started working as well, though it seems to get confused and plays multiple tracks if I try to skip tracks.

On day 2 I installed Opera which has tabbed browsing, bookmarks and lots of useful keyboard shortcuts. Despite a few bugs it works pretty well.

I got to use the terminal when installing Opera and that's when I realized that this little laptop is a full blown open linux machine that I can change any way I want. While the XO is a far cry from the speed and flashiness of a MAC or iphone, the fact that its completely open makes is a much more accessable and powerful platform for creativity. I expect to see some very cool stuff done with the XO by average people over the next few months.

E-Book with Google Reader is possibly the coolest feature.There's a built in ebook application that I haven't tried, but I did surf to google reader, flip the screen over and close the cover so that the XO becomes an ebook for my rss feeds!

Measure is Alex's favorite program. It has an Oscilloscope and he really gets a kick out of watching it as he makes different noises. There are a lot of apps installed by default, and I need to read up on what they do.

As for energy conservation, I don't have any firm numbers, but it seems like it takes a lot less juice than my MAC. It runs off a 12V DC power supply that charges its battery. I'm going to try to build a solar charger for it out of some old solar panels.

There appears to be a bug with the suspend mode. It's supposed to go to sleep when I close the cover, but the battery drains as if it was in use. There was some mention of a feature where WIFI signals wake the XO up. I'm thinking its more of a bug from my perspective, but we'll see.

Overall I'm really happy with the XO. It's fun to use, and there are lots of mysteries to explore and fun projects to try out.

This post was written and posted from my XO.

Our Christmas Giving Tradition

A few years before Alex was born Christine and I started a Christmas tradition of donating a giant pile of toys to Toys For Tots. It was a shopping bonanza. We'd usually go to the Disney Store on 50% off night and fill up on as many toys as we could carry. Sometimes a little more.

The idea that it was for charity offset the fact that we were running through a toy store like a couple of glutenous kids picking out anything of interest. But by June of this year I'd learned enough about the environmental impact of those toys that I could no longer quiet my conscious with "It's for charity." As fun as it sounds, indiscriminately buying a giant pile of toys isn't necessarily giving something nice to those kids.

That left me with a bit of a conundrum. How do I do something nice without adding to the mountain of plastic and electronics destined for our landfills?

It took a while to figure out an answer but we eventually settled on adopting some families (for Christmas) that couldn't afford gifts for their kids. Through my work and the local Wheat Center we got lists of what the kids in these families wanted/needed. We picked 4 families with a total of 8 kids who wanted/needed a mix of toys and clothes.

The requests were a bit vague and we only knew ages, clothes sizes, and toy interest. (i.e. 3 years old, size 3T, likes trucks.) So it turned out to be a little more work than Toys for Tots because we had to be specific about what we shopped for (no glutenous rush through the store grabbing toys with wild abandon) and then there was a rather daunting sorting effort preparing the toys for drop off.

Maybe it was knowing the stuff we were giving wasn't going to waste, and maybe it was the extra effort that made it seem like we were actually doing something. Whatever the reason, giving this Christmas turned out to be a lot more fun and rewarding than in years past.

When Sons Start Helping

Conner shovels!


We had biblical precipitation this weekend. Christine captured my celebration when I realized that Conner (only 2 years old) was actually shoveling snow off the driveway!

Leading in Bali

Delegates from ~180 countries met in Bali this past week to begin negotiations on a new international climate change agreement to follow the Kyoto protocol which expires in 2012.

The government of the United States of America, of the country that produces the most CO2 in the world, sent its delegates to Bali with instructions to block agreement on setting goals for reducing CO2 emissions.

I am embarrassed by my government as they "go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."


Al Gore stole the show with a 52 minute speech (full video here on Energy Policy TV). The full speech was hard to find, but it's much more impressive than the dozens of easily found short clips from this speech suggest. The short ones contain inspirational quotes. The parts where Gore said things like "My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress in Bali."

But when you watch the full speech, you'll find a lot more substance. Gore gives examples about how everything from climate change to economics to wars to our standard of living are all tied together. He gives reason for action and reasons for hope. It's an inspirational speech.

About 27 minutes in he mentioned the 350,000 Americans that "contacted him" (I'm assuming he meant via this petition) asking the US government to support action for addressing climate change. I signed that petition before his speech.

While it sounds like a simple thing to do, (compared to changing light-bulbs or switching to tap water) clicking a link and adding my name to a petition is an important and powerful action to take. It's only through citizens voicing their opinions, sharing ideas, and demanding change that the elected officials of the United States will find the political-will they need to change our country's direction, and start acting as a true leader in addressing global climate change.

NPR Democratic Candidates' Debate

NPR held a democratic debate on December 4th that is worth checking out. Here are links to the transcript and the podcast of the two hour session (including short breaks).

The thing that impressed me was NPR only focussed on 3 topics. Iran, China and Immigration. This gave the moderators and candidates a lot more time than the 30 seconds they usually get to provide their answers, challenge each other, respond and even have a back and forth discussion.

Clear differences between the candidates views started to emerge as they got further away from 30 second sound bites. There were still some of the typical evasive non-answers, (primarily by Edwards and Clinton) but there were also refreshing discussions with details about complexities of the challenges the world faces and how the candidates see us dealing with those challenges.

This one it worth the listen. It reminded me of Obama's Senate podcasts when he rose above the morass of vacuous sound bites in the news, and talked about the details and nuances of the situations the Senate was debating.

Ornis Visits and Decides To Stay

A few days ago Christine and the boys discovered a small sick bird on our front steps. It was just sitting very still and had some ice on its tail feathers. They scooped it up into a box, gave it some food water and a small towel for a nest and called a wildlife sanctuary and Teresa for info on how to care for the bird.

The plan was to let the bird rest and see if it would try to fly away the next day. If not the wildlife sanctuary said they'd take it in. Throughout the day the boys kept a vigilant watch over the bird. It seemed to be resting comfortably. It slept a lot and peaked its head up to look around every once in a while.

Just after we put the kids to bed the bird died. This wasn't unexpected. We were warned that these birds are very fragile, but it was still sad. We considered telling the boys that we let it go, but decided the truth was probably a better way to go. Telling Alex we let the bird he was looking after go, while he was sleeping, would be a major violation of the trust he put in us to watch it while he was sleeping.

The next morning Alex asked about the bird. We explained that it was sick and had died. He asked a lot of questions about when the bird would start breathing again and when it finally sunk in he was sad. I needed to get to work, but the boys some closure and more importantly, I wanted to make sure they didn't spend the day trying to hug a dead bird, so we decided to bury it.

After breakfast the boys and I got bundled up in our winter jackets and snow boots and took the bird out to the backyard. The grass was covered in a thin sheet of ice and Conner didn't weigh enough to break through. He kept slipping as he walked. We chose an out of the way spot and I started to dig.

When I was a teenager we used to get a Christmas tree with a root ball and then plant it in the yard after Christmas. As I dug a grave for the bird and I couldn't help but notice what a strange sensation it was to dig a hole through ice and snow without there being 6 inches of permafrost under the surface. Since this was the first snow of the year the ground was still soft. I don't think I'll ever forget those days of planting Christmas trees, in February, by painstakingly chiseling through the frozen ground while my father reminded me that if I had dug the hole in September, like he told me to, I wouldn't need the pickaxe.

The boys didn't seem to notice my flash of reminiscences. We buried the bird in a nice spot under a tree. When we were done saying goodbye Alex lead the way back into the house. Conner was clearly concerned about traversing the ice so I picked him up and was rewarded with a big smile. We went inside, got cleaned up, and life returned to normal.

War Drums For Iran - Do Something

For the past year the US government has been putting forth rhetoric (Bolton hopes we attack) and propaganda (Fox Attacks Iran) in an effort to build support for a war with Iran (Former CIA officer: US to attack Iran within 6 months.)

I've been trying to write a post about this for months, but every time I start I get writers block when I try to describe the insanity of wars like this. I don't pretend to know enough history to extend this to all wars but it seems clear from everything I've read, veterans I've talked to, and the experience of the last 6 years, that the Iraq war and a future Iran war is a horrible mistake.

Many people in my government seem to think of war as... Well I don't know what they are thinking, but it seems to me the moment you start sending people off to kill other people you have already lost; sadness, suffering, loss of life, loss of limbs, separation of families, loneliness, economic hardship, mental illness and neglect... and that's just what we do to our own soldiers.

In the past 24 hours I've received 2 emails from moveon.org that effectively explain what I've been unable to write. They are well written and provide reliable supporting source links. Here are copies of the mail and links to where you can sign the petition (against starting a war with Iran) and/or write a letter to your local newspaper.

Please give them a read, sign the petition and consider writing a letter. If you're not up for it, consider leaving a comment explaining why. At the very least the decision to allow war to happen should be debated.


[Email #1 Please Sign the Petition ]


Subject: Help me stop Bush from starting another war with Iran

Hi, President Bush may be on his way out, but if we don't pay attention, his last action could be starting another war with Iran. We definitely don't need the President who made such a mess in Iraq opening up another front in the Middle East.

Without a clear line in the sand, Bush's reckless actions could start a war before we have a chance to weigh our options. That's why Congress has to step up and pass a bill making it crystal clear that Bush does not have the authority to go to war with Iran.

There are bills in Congress that say just that, but our reps need to hear from us to move forward.

I just signed this petition asking Congress to stop another Bush war before it starts. Can you join me?

http://pol.moveon.org/pac/noiranwar/



Sources

1. "Shifting Targets: The Administration's plan for Iran," The New Yorker, October 8, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3097&id=&t=4&id=11739-8600900-fX0IiA&t=5

2. "US ex-generals reject Iran strike," BBC News, February 4, 2007.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6328801.stm
3. "Cheney urging strikes on Iran," McClatchy News Service, August 9, 2007.
http://www.mcclatchydc.com/227/story/18834.html




[Email #2 Write a letter to the Editor]


Subject: Bush lied today on Iran

Wow. All year President Bush has been moving America closer to war with Iran. But yesterday we learned stunning news: Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in 20031—and President Bush has known for months.2

But Bush is undeterred. This morning, he held a news conference where he actually tried to portray the news that Iran isn't building a bomb as yet another reason to confront Iran! 3 He also said he hadn't known about the new evidence—a fact contradicted by his own National Security Adviser.4

It's Iraq all over again. Bush is willing to ignore intelligence and lie to move us towards another war.

We can't let him get away with it again. Will you write a letter to the editor of your local paper reminding folks that we've heard this story before, that Bush is misleading America on Iran just as he did on Iraq? Click here:


http://pol.moveon.org/lte?campaign_id=87&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=2

The letters-to-the-editor section is one of the most widely read parts of the newspaper—a flood of letters can influence politicians, reporters, and the public. There are a couple key points we have to highlight in this critical moment:

  • Bush has been actively misleading us on Iran. Bush said today that he "only learned of the new intelligence assessment last week."5

    But according to the Washington Post, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley "said Bush was first told in August or September about intelligence indicating Iran had halted its weapons program, but was advised it would take time to evaluate." Here's the Post:

    President Bush got the world's attention this fall when he warned that a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III. But his stark warning came at least a month or two after he had first been told about fresh indications that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program.6

  • Just like he did with Iraq, Bush is ignoring the intelligence and recklessly pushing towards war. We can't afford to let Bush and Cheney start another disastrous war.
  • Congress must act now and make it clear that President Bush has no authority to strike Iran.
  • The new National Intelligence Estimate shows that Iran is not the threat Bush says it is.7

The public is very nervous about the prospect of another war, but the President's bully pulpit is powerful and he uses it to great effect. We need to raise our voices now. Please write a letter today:

http://pol.moveon.org/lte?campaign_id=87&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=3

Thanks for all you do,

–Ilyse, Tanya, Justin, Adam G., and the MoveOn.org Political Action Team
Tuesday, December 4th, 2007


Sources:

1. "U.S. Finds Iran Halted Its Nuclear Arms Effort in 2003," New York Times, December 3, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3230&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=4

2. "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3228&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=5

3. "Bush: US Must Remain Vigilant on Iran," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3231&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=6

4. "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3228&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=7

5. "Bush: US Must Remain Vigilant on Iran," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3231&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=8

6. "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy," Washington Post, December 4, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3228&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=9

7. "U.S. Finds Iran Halted Its Nuclear Arms Effort in 2003," New York Times, December 3, 2007.
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3230&id=11747-8600900-qUBEL_&t=10


Explaining the Empire

The other day I watched Star Wars IV with Alex. I guess I was about his age when I first saw it.

It was really funny to get his take on things. He asked a bunch of questions and about 30 minutes in he decided Star Wars was about C3PO and R2D2 getting separated and then finding each other again. Your basic buddy flick.

I've been watching these movies for almost 30 years and my 4 year old is pointing out things I never noticed! Kids have amazing perspective...

The one part of the movie we struggled with was "Who is the Empire?" I eventually got across the point that the Empire was an entity and not a person, but that was where my success ended.

I tried every analogy I could think of to describe the Empire to Alex but he kept responding "I don't get it." Nothing I said made sense to him.

How do you explain this to a 4 year old?
  • Corrupt government disassembled under guise of military security (Episode II)
  • Power-hungry, isolated, self-appointed dictator (Emperor)
  • Creepy half human second in command (Darth Vader)
  • Tortures people in secret (Han Solo Episode V)
  • Uses fear as a governance tool (Episode IV)
  • Fighting rebels (Episode IV-VI)

Then just as the R2D2 was taking off (with the X-Wings) to attack the Death Star/defend the rebel base, Alex asked again. "Daddy, what is the Empire?" Frustrated and tired of answering the same question over and over I went with a blunt answer that I figured would be over his head.

"The Empire is basically the Bush Administration." It hung there in the air while he thought about it... And then I saw the light go on and heard it in his voice. "Oh! Ok." He got it.

And I got a little sad and a little scared. Kids have amazing perspective...



* Photo Credit: Star Wars Storm Troopers, a fan-based group known as the "501st Legion" from 22 different countries and 26 US states, march down Colorado Boulevard in the 118th Rose Parade. Photo: AP