Connerisms

Conner's been on a roll lately. Here's some of his latest gems.



PC250029I walk in the door from work. All the kids are hiding behind the Christmas Tree. Normally no presents go under the tree till Christmas Eve.

Conner: [Stern Voice] Daddy, there's nothing under the tree for you!
Alex: Conner be quiet!!!
Me: There isn't?
Conner: No Nothing!
...
Conner: Can we open it and build it tonight?




PC260089Usually I'm the person that builds Legos with Conner because I really enjoy it. Conner and Christine are talking.

Conner: Mommy, last night Lydia (the babysitter) helped me build a lego ship.
Christine: yeah...
Conner: So girls can build legos!!! [sounding as if he caught her in a lie]
Christine: Of course girls can build Legos.
Conner: [very sweet voice] Mommy, can you help me build these legos?



Legos Part II
Conner built a bunch of Lego Tie Fighters one day. He was showing them to Christine and explaining why he added so many laser guns to them.

"Mommy look! They are fighting Yoda and Yoda's using the forest."

Guess the "Forest" is strong with him.




P7290068It snowed the other day. Some of the heaviest snow I've ever lifted. While I was at work a our driveway was plowed in. Christine went outside to shovel us out. After a few minutes Conner stuck his head out the door and said

"Mommy, can you stop digging in the snow and come play with me?"









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Conner with Santa on Christmas Eve

Clarification on The Snow Man

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Our latest set of family pictures featured a giant snow man and he is awesome. But the fairytale of his origin has gotten a little out of hand

Before I had even seen the pictures Christine posted I started  getting calls and emails congratulating me on building such a great snowman.

The thing is,  I didn't put a flake of snow on that Snowman.  I was at work when he came to life that day.

For the record, this magnificent snowman is entirely Christine's work. And the children say he could laugh and play just the same as you and me.

The Ginger Bread House

This year Christine brought home one of those pre-fab ginger bread houses and whipped the kids up into a decorating frenzy.  We opened the box to discover that it wasn't completely pre-fab.


Ginger Bread Start


The icing/glue instructions were a little complicated and required adjustments for altitude and relative humidity.  You can make a pan of brownies with an egg and some water, but for some reason this ginger bread house icing required a mass spectrometer, a digital hydrometer and static free safe room. Needless to say we eyeballed it.


Ginger bread with lego supports


Pretty quickly we realized the roof panels were not going to stay up on their own so Alex and Conner built lego supports.


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We feverishly added candy as the walls slowly came apart.


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And just before bedtime... Thud.


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I'm no expert, but I'm guessing the image on the box was photo-shopped.

My Winning Kiva Contest Video!




Click to see my Kiva and the loans that change lives video


Best if viewed full screen (click on the bottom right of the video).



Ok, so I haven't actually won yet, but I can with your help!

Above is the video I submitted into Kiva's contest on Tongal. The contest has 2 parts:
  1. Judges form Kiva pick their favorite video describing Kiva and how to make a loan
  2. Most unique views - this is where you can help!
The winner of part 2 is the video that gets viewed by the most people viewers. Tongal (the contest website) counts each time a new person watches the video.

So please click play and have a look.

If you like the video, share it with your friends and tell them to share it with their friends! You'll be doing me a favor and more importantly you'll be spreading the word about Kiva!



Update 1:45am: A few people have already asked me how I made the video. I did it with a combination of Prezi and a little iMovie magic. I'll post details on that in a few days. In the mean time, please share the video with your friends!


Update December 21, 2009 10:41pm: The first part of the contest has ended and I didn't win. Actually I didn't even place. I was mildly bummed out about this, but Alex was in the ER yesterday after a shoveling accident and I'm so happy that he's OK and  I've got a healthy family, it's hard to get too upset about the video contest.

The second part of the contest (most views) goes until January 31st 2010, but my guess is the winning videos will get so much press from Kiva it will be very hard to compete for most views.  In the end Kiva wins, and that is good.

The View Over Boston

This week I was in San Jose, CA for work. This was the view over Boston as I took off at 6am Monday morning.


View Above Boston

Conner's Birthday and School Visit

Conner's Self Named 'Thinking Face' I can hardly believe it. Conner is 4!

This year on Conner's birthday I spent the day at school with him. They have this thing called "Circle time" where they sit in a constantly moving shape that can only be described as not quite a circle.

At Conner's birthday circle time the kids were asked to name one thing for which they were thankful. As they went around the room there was a clear pet theme. Cats, dogs, snakes etc. Katie, a friend of our family, broke the cycle and did her family proud by saying she was thankful for Mom and Dad.

As we continued around the circle the kids got back to their pet theme and we heard about more cats and hamsters... Until we got to Conner. Conner, ever the pragmatist, was thankful for "The Bathroom." Man that kid is funny.  Nothing makes me laugh quite like Conner.

His favorite activity these days is building Lego space ships. We've been doing this a lot lately, and when we're not working on one together he's usually off creating a new ship complete with a story to explain its origins and future adventures.

Left to his own devices he can sit and do puzzles and build ships for an eternity; his face a mask of  concentration.  And when he plays with others his smile and enthusiasm are contagious.  He just seems to love life and in doing so he makes life more fun for me.

Here's a quick video montage of a few of Conner's adventures this year.



Video of Conner Year 4
 
 





* The picture above is what Conner calls his "Thinking Face."  I laugh every time he makes this face.

Allison's Room Demolition

The latest in a string of home projects is renovating Allison's Room.   I was motivated to get it done because he has a brown carpet in her room that was so old it was disintegrating and giving off a bad plastic smell.

So we decided pull up the floors, paint the walls and of course give the windows my father's Craftsman window frame treatment as seen in the bathroom and dining room.

As I started pulling up the floors I realized that this is the sort of activity I often tell my boys to stop doing.  So I called Alex into the room, handed him a crow bar and stood back...




Video of Alex Pulling up Subfloor I


He made short work of the floor.





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I'm starting to understand why sons were so desired in places manual labor is a way of life. They really are helpful.






Video of Alex Explaining The Job



I ended up doing most of the vacuuming until Allison decided she wanted to try.  I've never seen anyone enjoy demolition cleanup like she does.





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Conner was sick when we were tearing up the room, but he did help me paint a few days later. More on that in a future post.

More pictures of the destruction are in our Allison's Room Demolition flickr set.

Backyard Fall Colors

We had a great season for leaf colors this year. And we didn't have to go far. These are a few pics from our backyard.



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This is the view directly over the kids swing set.





Quince Tree and more




Some more of this years pics are in our Fall Colors flickr set.

The Wile E. Coyote House Maintenance Methodology

A few months ago, a raccoon started frequenting our back deck. It started when we didn't clear the table after dinner and he snuck in through a broken screen and helped us out.






Video of Raccoon on our Back Deck





Video of Raccoon on our Back Deck Table




So I repaired the screens and he stopped frequenting our dinner table.

And then I noticed that our bird feeder had fallen off its' hook and broken open. I didn't put 2 and 2 together at first. I actually thought the wind had blown it off the hook which is fairly ridiculous considering it survived every weather event last year including the ice storm of 2008.





With and Without Ice
The bird feeder before and after the ice storm


Then one night I saw the raccoon out our kitchen window, and boy do I wish I'd had a camera. He climbed up the tree, reached down and grabbed the bird feeder, lifted it up off the hook, looked up, made eye contact with me, smiled (yes that giant rodent smiled), and then he dropped the bird feeder 15 feet. It promptly burst open, he sauntered down the tree and proceeded to eat the bird seed.

For a few days I toyed with a  Wile E. Coyote-esque response... Something involving dynamite or a catapult. But then I started having visions of me, standing on my roof, pulling a stick out from under a boulder only to have it defy gravity, roll up my roof and smoosh me.

In the end I had to use a carabiner to attach the bird feeder to the tree.  It takes a little more effort to refill, but I didn't have to go to the hospital and it's saving us a fortune in bird seed.

Graduation

Paul J Russell Masters Diploma On June 4th, 2009 I graduated from Harvard University with a Masters in software engineering for the field of information technology.

When I started, my naive assumption was that I'd learn little in the process of getting the degree, but it would be good for my resume.  Its' value on my resume remains to be tested, but the many things I learned in the process of getting this degree have been immensely useful.

There is simply no substitute for implementing a SQL parser in C to make you realize that C is the wrong language in which to author a SQL parser.

I distinctly remember a beautiful spring day when Alex and Christine were playing in our front yard and I was having trouble concentrating on that SQL parser code. The lure of fun was very strong much, but I had to get my homework done.  The house was new and we didn't have curtains yet, so I nailed a comforter to the window. There it stayed till I finished the database class. A full time job and a kid (now 3 kids) doesn't leave much time for school.

I lost most of that spring, but I got an A. And despite that rather ridiculous SQL Parser assignment, which was only made worse by the professor's parting comment that they "Probably wouldn't bother with it next year because it was a waste of time", there were loads of valuable lessons at Harvard. The work I did there helped shape the way I think about software and I'm surprised by how well the instincts I developed there serve me every day.


Literally Making Money On Education

I work for Cisco Systems which provided me a great tuition reimbursement program.

Cisco asks that I note the following -"Opinions expressed here and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors, not those of Cisco."

The way tuition reimbursement works, I pay the tuition up front, and as long as I get a good final grade, they cut me a check for the tuition after the class ends. While there were a few side costs such as the $100 printing and binding cost for my Masters Thesis, Cisco basically picked up the tab for my education with the exception of the interest I lost on having the initial tuition cost tied up.

The geek in me couldn't help but figure out how much my degree had cost.

The chart below tracks my out of pocket tuition costs as compared to an identical investment in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI). On July 23, 2009 my final reimbursement check arrived and it contained $328 more than if I had invested in the DJI. That money is already being put to use on Kiva.org.


When this all started my hope was to be able to say I went to Harvard for a few hundred bucks in lost interest opportunity. Unfortunately, the recent collapse of the stock market caused me to make money on the deal.  I'm not begrudging the gain of $328 bucks, but I'd trade it to get 40% of my 401k and the world economy back.  Hopefully the Kiva entrepreneurs put that money to good use.


Ceremony

I didn't attend the graduation ceremony, but I did make a trip into campus to pick up my diploma. It was my own personal graduation ceremony. That day the rain came off and on and it was refreshing to be walking around outside on a weekday.

Graduation giftI walked up the 7 flights of stairs to the Dean's office at 51 Brattle Street and a woman I believe was the Dean's secretary presented me with my diploma. She did it with a lot of flair; took it out of the envelope, read a bit, shook my hand and congratulated me.  It was quite a rush.

There was another piece of paper in there that said I made the Dean's list which came as a complete surprise. I was so busy trying to graduate I actually didn't pay much attention to my cumulative grades.

Afterward I stopped by the Coop and picked up a Harvard window sticker for my car, and a Harvard Key-chain medallion to hang on the now empty bottle of Tullamore Dew gifted to me by my grandmother for graduation. That wasn't my first or last bottle of Tullamore Dew, but it was the best whiskey I've ever tasted.

Star Wars in Concert

Saturday night Christine and I went out on a date.  She made reservations at a fancy restaurant in Boston and when we got there she surprised me with tickets to Star Wars in Concert!


Star Wars in Concert
The orchestra as it appeared from our seats.


Star Wars in Concert was two hours of live Star Wars music, action packed movie scenes, laser light shows and live commentary Anthony Daniels who does an amazing C3PO impression.  We had a blast!

Our Star Wars in Concert flickr set has more pictures from that night.


Most Robust

Alex came up with the idea of having a Lego building contest. He invited a few friends over and each brought a unique creation. Alex assigned Christine and I to judge the entries and award ribbons to the winners.

Christine created these ribbons and my job was to come up with award titles that best matched each of the kids Lego creations.  My favorite award went to Conner.


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Pumpkin Pie

This was on the doors step of one of the houses we visited last night.




It made me hungry and eager to know the circumference of that pumkin all at once.

My Work View



I spend most of my day on the phone and in front of a computer. It can be a bit tedious interacting with the world through a phone, but every once in a while I get away from my desk and take a call from this window. Those calls always seem to end too quickly.

How I Switched to Wind Power


Today is Blog Action Day when thousands of bloggers unite to discuss a single issue. This year's topic is Climate Change. As I've recently stumbled across a surprisingly easy way to reduce my home's greenhouse gas emissions, I thought I would share.

One of the things I learned from My Ecological Footprint effort is that making meaningful changes in one's behavior isn't easy. That's why I was so skeptical and eventually pleasantly surprised when I came across the chance to switch our house's electricity generation over to 100% wind power.

For this to make sense, you have to know a little bit about where our electricity comes from. I used my son Conner's crayons to draw up this highly scientific illustration of how the system works.




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Figure 1. Where Electricity Comes From


In most places the electric company purchases their electricity from producers who make the electricity using all different methods. Some producers burn coal, some burn garbage, some use hydro (water) power and some even use the wind to make electricity.  These producers sell the electricity to the electric company who put it all in a big metaphorical bucket. The electric company then run wires from their bucket to your house.

When your kid flips a light-switch in our house, electricity flows out of the electric company's bucket over the wires and through your lamps creating light. You then spend the rest of your life chasing your kids around the house telling them to turn off the lights and stop wasting electricity.


The Problem

Most of the electricity used by MA electric companies comes from burning coal, which is very cheap since the US sits on top of massive deposits of coal. Unfortunately burning coal is:
  1. Very messy 
  2. A major contributor to climate change
Basically, every time I turn on a light in my house I'm evaporating some of the Earth's coal into the air which has the unfortunate side effect of causing climate change.




The Solution is a Breeze
 
Unfortunate puns aside, a great alternative to burning coal is to harness the wind to produce electricity. This is becoming popular on farm land where there's lots of space, and the wind turbines can co-exist on the same land as the crops.  Maple Ridge Wind Farm in New York is one such wind electricity producer and they just happen to provide electricity to my electric company.

Perfect right? Why not move everyone to wind power immediately?

Well there's a catch.  Because large scale wind power generation hasn't had time to mature like coal based production, electricity from wind costs more than electricity from coal.  Electric companies, being in business to make a profit, are unlikely to choose a more expensive source of electricity to sell to us.

That's why I was so skeptical when I learned that NSTAR was offering the option to switch to 100% wind generated electricity generated by Maple Ridge Wind Farm.  So I started researching how it worked, and kept digging until I found the wind turbines supplying the wind power to NSTAR. My sources are listed below and my conclusion is that there's a legitimate product and business model here.






Maple Ridge Wind Turbines on Bing Maps
Figure 2. Maple Ridge Wind Turbines on Bing Maps


The way it works is pretty simple. When you sign up for NSTAR or National Grid's green option, they agree to purchase whatever electricity you use from Maple Ridge Wind Farm, and in return you agree to pay the extra 1.396 cents per kWh it costs NSTAR to get electricity from wind instead of coal.

For our family, switching to 100% wind generated electricity adds between $7 and $15 a month depending on weather or not my relatives are visiting. 


Resources: Switching to Green electricity from NSTAR (sign-up page) and National Grid Renewable Energy and National Grid Renewable Energy FAQ.

Resources: Maple Ridge Wind Farm on Google Maps and Bing Maps and Wikipedia





Debating the Particulars

Some people who were really paying attention to the crayon diagram above may have noticed that there is no guarantee that the electrons that come into my house were the ones generated by the wind farm.

That argument goes something like "But it's not worth it because  you're almost definitely getting some coal based electrons from the electric company bucket!"

To that I say "Very perceptive of you, but it's totally worth it!" While Heisenberg's commitment issues keep me from determining where each electron comes from, it's safe to say that I'm getting some coal generated electrons out of their bucket. But that really isn't the point.

The point is that by choosing the 100% wind option I'm helping, in a very affordable way, to mature the wind industry and reduce my carbon and pollution footprint at the same time.


Imagine
 
Imagine what would happen if everyone switched over to wind power.

Electric companies would be in a mad rush to meet the demand... More wind producers would pop up.

As countries like China and India ramped up their electricity production they would find that because of our $7 a month investment to switch, wind technology had matured and the costs of producing wind power had bottomed out.

All of a sudden it is now cheaper for them to generate power with renewable wind than to bother blowing the tops of mountains to find coal.

Less coal would get burned and fewer greenhouse gasses would get pumped into the sky...  The air would literally be sweeter to breath as the pollution from coal faded away.

That's a pretty good deal for $7 a month...


How to Switch to Wind

It was extremely easy to switch. Once I was satisfied that this was a great option for our family, I just went to the NSTAR Green sign-up website and typed in my account number and zip code and then pressed a button saying switch me to wind power.

A month later I was using 100% wind energy. How cool is that!?!

If you want to see what it would cost you to switch to wind power this spiffy gadget from NSTAR will tell you.





Figure 3. NSTAR's Green Calculator (scroll to bottom of linked page)



Seriously, a few clicks and our carbon footprint was dramatically reduced!  I still follow my kids around the house telling them to turn off the lights, because fate has decree that I am destine to relive the torment I put my mother through.

Still, it's great knowing that our lights aren't contributing to climate change. My favorite part is when I turn them on I know we're helping to grow a sustainable and renewable industry.

A Chance to Fix the US PATRIOT Act

Tomorrow our government is voting on making substantial changes to our civil rights. If you already know the back story on the USA PATRIOT Act you should jump ahead to Jim Burrows post Fix the USA PATRIOT Act which describes what's going on and how you can influence the vote.  If not, I'll do my best to explain.


A little over a month after the attacks of 9.11.2001 our government passed the USA PATRIOT Act.  It was intended to give the government tools to fight the people who attacked us, but in our haste to make those tools available we did more harm than good.

In the 3 days between October 23rd and 26th of 2001 the 342 pages of the USA PATRIOT Act were introduced into the House of Representatives, passed through all committees, passed in the House and Senate and finally signed into law by President Bush. That is really fast by any standard.

Even though much of the content of the USA PATRIOT Act was controversial, there was no debate.  Fear ruled the day, which is understandable because the months after the attacks were a really scary time.

The one saving grace of the USA PATRIOT Act was its sunset clauses.  They made it such that many of the more controversial provisions would expire unless the government voted to re-authorize them.  It was a brilliant fail safe mechanism put in at the behest of Republican Representative Richard Army to keep our fear fueled legislation from becoming permanent.

I started paying attention years later in 2008. In my attempts to understand how our government was dealing with the PATRIOT Act I wrote a 3 part series called Figuring out FISA.




I learned a lot about the history of privacy and the rights afforded by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights while researching and writing those posts. But when I wrote them, decisions had already been made, votes had been taken and I was writing about history.


A Second Chance



Tomorrow at 10am EST our government is voting to keep or remove some of the nastier parts of the PATRIOT ACT.

Fix the USA PATRIOT Act is a great post by Jim Burrows explaining, in simple terms, where things stand and what you can influence the vote and the future of our civil liberties.  It's a quick read and the videos are really interesting. All told, if you take action to influence the vote, it will take about 17 minutes out of your day.

I'm investing that time and more because I feel that it's critical to the fabric of our country that we fix the mistakes we made in those fearful months of late 2001.

Please have a look at Jim's Fix the USA PATRIOT Act post and help us to Get FISA (and the PATRIOT Act) Right.

Fall Has Come to New England

The colors are really starting to show. I took these at Conner's Soccer practice yesterday.





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U7 Soccer

This is my third year coaching Alex's soccer team and I'm really starting to enjoy it.  The goal in coaching first grade boys (U7 in soccer lingo) is to teach a little bit about soccer skills and mostly to make sure they all have fun.  This is a good thing because I'm still struggling to understand what you have to do to get a first down in this sport.

Even so, I'm still having a blast. My father took some amazing pictures at our last game.


I love this picture because taken out of context it could mean really different things. It's either:

a) Our goal is over there. Kick the ball that way.
b) Go over there and bring me back that kids head.



The Goal is Overe There




Alex is also really enjoying soccer. He's learning quickly and is elated every time he scores a goal.




Alex Kicks Off



Conner waits patiently on the sideline during the game.



Happy Boy


And comes out to play at halftime.



Happy Conner


Most of the time the boys just swarm around the ball, but from time to time we make a plan. I love it when a plan comes together.




The Secret Plan





Too cool


This is my favorite picture of the batch. I don't get angry at these games because all my energy is going into making sure the kids have fun. Apparently I just make this face some times.



Angry Coach


Still, it makes me look like a bad ass coach which is kinda cool.




The full set of pics taken by my father is here on flickr.

Segue Rides WEEEEEEE!!!!

Our neighborhood just had its annual blockparty and they had Segues again! There's a liberating feeling of joy when you step on one of these things. Almost like your flying. Words can't really describe it better than Alex does in this video.


Video of Alex on a Segue



Conner seemed to enjoy his first tandem ride as well.



Video of Conner on a Segue



Conner's First Segue Ride Alex's Segue Ride



And of course when it was all over there was the freshly made cotton candy.

Cotton Candy

Acton Arboretum

We went to the Acton Arboretum last weekend. It's an amazing place. Very calm. We took a lot of pictures. These are some of my favorites.



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Alex holding some bushes back so his brother and sister could get past



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Allison stops to smell the flowers




The rest of the pictures are in Acton Arboretum Set

Flickr Embed HTML on the Photo Page


This post is about a Greasemonkey script I just finished. If you're not either a flickr user or a geek you may want to skip this post.

One of my frustrations with blogging is getting images into my posts. All my pictures are on flickr, and while flickr gives you the HTML code to embed images it takes several clicks and some HTML editing to center the pic and remove the border.

As things to complain about go, it's almost not worth mentioning, but lately I've been posting lots of pictures and all the clicking, Flickr page reloads, and HTML editing was bugging me. So I decided to do something about it.

I wrote a Greasemonkey script called Flickr Embed HTML on the Photo Page that puts the image embed code right on the flickr photo page just above the tags. It makes the flickr photo page look like this:



Flicker Embed HTML on the Photo Page GreaseMonkey Script


Now when I want to add a picture to a post, I just copy that text right off the flickr photo page and drop and paste it in my blog. Two steps instead of seven!

To use this script you need to:
  1. Install the Firefox Greasemonkey add-on 
  2. Install my script by clicking on the nice green "Install" button on the scripts web page.


This was the first time I'd written a line of code since I finished my thesis.  It was very cathartic to fix something with code,  even if it was only the elimination of 5 clicks.

Bathroom Remodel

We recently finished remodeling our downstairs bath.  Prior to the renovation it was one of the most heinous looking rooms we have ever had in a house.

It started on a Sunday morning when I joked with Alex that the wallpaper had to go. He didn't get the joke, and I didn't have it in me to stop him once he started ripping wallpaper off the walls.




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Conner doing some plumbing

Next, we ripped out the single cracked sink and cabinet.


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Shark Bite connectors are the greatest invention since sliced bread. Just make sure you put them on correctly or you get a great water show in an unfortunate location.

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And magically the room was done.  Well, not exactly magically. There's a lot to see in the finished room.
  • Check out the window frame! My dad hand crafted a Craftsman style window frame to match the work he did in the dining room
  • I painted the bathroom in the late hours of the night while listening to back issues of the Bugle and episode 52 (The Christmas Episode) of the Acapodcast.
  • The cabinet and sinks were  donated by my parents gave us after they renovated their bathroom. My dad and I installed them with Conner's help.
Eventually I'll get around to replacing the floor, but for now everyone seems very happy with the new bathroom.