Friday, June 29, 2007

woodland home in wales

Catching up on boingboing feeds today led me to this fantastic (in all senses of the word) web site detailing how a low-impact woodland home came into being.

I especially enjoy the "how" tab showing it rise from the meadow. If only there were a time-lapse of the build, I'd be in heaven.

I'm rather jealous of his skills, even though he professes not to have any:
Oh and by the way I am not a builder or carpenter, my experience is only having a go at one similar house 2yrs before and a bit of mucking around inbetween. This kind of building is accessible to anyone. My main relevant skills were being able bodied, having self belief and perseverance and a mate or two to give a lift now and again.
Perseverance indeed.

Monday, June 25, 2007

DVDs up-converted to 720 from a Mac?

As I've previously posted, the Planet Earth series on Discovery Channel was eye-poppingly amazing on our Toshiba plasma TV. Definitely worth filling up the HD DVR with those episodes.

My lovely wife noted how much I liked Planet Earth and got me the HD DVD version for Father's Day. The only problem: we don't have a HD DVD player in the house. So, she exchanged for the standard definition DVD format, and, wow, what a difference it makes (unfortunately, not in a good way). I miss my Planet Earth in High Def!

Back in January, I blogged about our A/V tech stack, and you'll notice there's a distinct lack of a DVD player in there outside what's available via our Mac mini. So, I see a couple paths ahead:
  1. Get a new standalone DVD player (HD? Blu-Ray? which format's gonna win?) and figure out how to get yet another HDMI cable into and through our HK AVR245. (a DVR and a Mac and a DVD player, oh my!) The AVR245's only got two HDMI inputs, and I'm reaaaally reluctant to go back to an external switcher, especially given the 245's handling of the audio separately from the video.
  2. Figure out how to get an HD player inside our Mac Mini (highly unlikely, but a man can dream, no?)
  3. Figure out how to get our Mac Mini to upconvert the DVD it plays from 480 to 720 (feels like this could be a fruitful path)
I'll give #3 a shot and blog about my progress.

UPDATE: Didn't take too long to find the following sage advice (dollop of common sense?) in an HD forum regarding upconverting from 480p to 720p:
[I]f you're expecting the results to look better than the original standard-def DVD, you'll be disappointed. There is no conversion process that can add detail that isn't present in the original. You will in fact lose some quality because the target resolution isn't an exact multiple of the original.
Looks like I'll just have to "settle" for the standard-def look and enjoy catching Planet Earth on Discovery HD now and then.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

a use case for twitter

Last night, after having to reset our HR20 HD DVR (again), the wife and I settled in to watch another episode of "Last Comic Standing." (LCS)

We both enjoy seeing standup comedy, and the majority of the times we've cried together have been thanks to the hilarity of a newly discovered standup comedian on a televised stage.

Anyway, as we're watching LCS go to commercial break, we discover NBC is trying to milk more money out of the audience by displaying the setup of a joke on screen and inviting folks to text a number to get the punch line. 

The hitch? it costs 99 cents for the privilege of getting the punch line, and the setups all look to be about 5th grade humor, at best.

So, why not nominate someone to pony up 99 cents to get the punch line and then tweet it to the collective Twitter? Simply keep the public twitter timeline open during broadcast, and you'll save at least $5 each over the course of a show!

Maybe one of the other 200,000 viewers of LCS will take the bait?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

our special netflix membership program

For the first time I can remember, we've finally hit our quota in the number of Netflix DVDs we can have in any given month.

It's not too much to brag about, as we're on the 2 at-a-time (4 a month) plan, but if you knew our viewing habits, you'd be impressed that it's taken this long since we joined Netflix back in November 2004.

Why's this a blog-worthy event? Well, for giggles, I decided to see how long we have to wait before starting a new month (June 26) and how much it'd cost to be on the 2 at-a-time (unlimited) plan.

I follow the convenient embedded hyperlink to the Change Membership page and see this friendly notice at the bottom:

Please Note: You are currently on a special membership program.
If you change your membership, you will lose this special program.

Sure enough, as I scan the membership selections (who the heck has time for 8 at-a-time?), there's no such thing as a 2 at-a-time (4 a month) plan to be seen for my rate of $11.99 a month. I can pay $3 more to lift the monthly limit or $2 less to get 1 at-a-time unlimited.

I kinda like my inexpensive, yet special, status. So for now, at least, I'll keep what I've got.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

favorite firefox keyboard shortcuts

I've been using Firefox since it was in beta, and it's only recently I've discovered keyboard shortcuts over and above the standard command-L to put the cursor in the URL bar. Given the number of other Firefox users that are surprised when I share the tips, I thought I'd put them up here for all to share:

NOTE: I'm a Mac user, so most of these shortcuts use the Command (aka "Apple") Key in combination with a letter/number. I've shortened the key name to be, simply, Cmd. I assume this equates to "Ctrl" on the PC, but ymmv.

  • Cmd+L = puts the cursor in URL bar
  • Cmd+K = puts the cursor in the web search box to the right of the URL
  • bar (defaults to Google Search)
  • Cmd+T = opens a new tab
  • Cmd+[number key] = toggles the browser to the tab corresponding to the number pressed (counting left-to-right)
  • spacebar = page down
  • shift+spacebar = page up

And a bonus, Apple-only key command that's not limited to Firefox:

Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+8 = reverses the colors on the display (press the key
combo again to toggle back). I find this feature very useful when
using my laptop outdoors when it's really bright and sunny. Makes the
screen much easier to read.

Anyone else got some favorite keyboard shortcuts for Firefox?

Friday, June 15, 2007

ok computer is ten years old!?!

Spooky to learn that Radiohead's OK Computer was released ten years ago tomorrow in the UK. (thanks, kottke)

That is, spooky in a "where did the time go?" sense. I still get the shivers when I hear the opening guitar wail on Airbag, as I know I'm in for a solid hour of brilliance courtesy the boys in the band.

It took me quite a few listens to appreciate the artistry of the track "Fitter Happier" but now I find it a welcome reminder of my time using the funky text-to-speech feature on Apple computers that provided hours of entertainment listening to the man-in-the-box read aloud a string of profanities. Ah, good times.

In honor of its release anniversary (and again on July 1 when it was released State-side), I'll be sure to spend some hammock time listening to the whole thing via iPod tomorrow. Won't you join me from the comfy place of your choosing?

new UI design on the DirecTV HR20 HD DVR

Looks like the graphic designers at DirecTV had a few extra cycles to burn, so they've updated the UI and color scheme on the HR20's navigation.

The first sign of the new look is on the warning/welcome screen that pops up as soon as you click any of the menu buttons on your receiver. Besides touting a new "lighter" color scheme, the feature they tout the most is the fact you can now easily see what the colored buttons on the remote are for. That's it?

What I've noticed so far:
  • multiple episodes of the same show now show up in the list as one item with a folder icon next to it (replaces the old right-facing arrow)
  • help text on what the colored buttons are for have moved from directly under the minimized live picture (upper right) to the strip along the bottom of the screen. Yes, more conspicuous, but it now seems like we've lost some vertical space that otherwise should be used to display program info. The six lines of program info seems overwhlemed by everything else on the screen, and now the space under the minimized live picture is dead space.
  • the lighter colors (lots of white and light blue) definitely brightens the interface up from the old dark-blue-and-gold scheme (I guess the Cub Scouts sued to get their colors back). The drawback to the new light-and-airy scheme? You're completely overwhelmed by it when catching up on your recorded shows at night in a darkened house. It's as if someone turned all the lights on again, and it takes a moment for your eyes adjust enough to read what's on the screen.
  • Navigating through programs (play, ffwd, rewind, skip) brings up a newly designed progress bar overlay across the bottom of the program image that I swear is twice as big as it used to be. So much for trying to fast forward through sporting events... you lose the bottom third of the image (and therefore stats and scores) thanks to this new progress bar. ick.
I'll give the new look another week before I firm up an opinion on like v dislike.

One remote control trick I've learned for the HR20 is the ability to put markers on a recorded show to easily skip back to them next time I watch. Here's how:
During playback of a recorded show, pause the recording and press the green button to creates a bookmark. You'll see it show up as a little notch on the progress bar. To move to a bookmark, click the menu button and then select the desired bookmark from the menu and the HR20 DVR jumps directly to the scene you bookmarked.
UPDATE: A couple more "hidden" features to the HR20 as announced in DirecTV's e-newsletter:
  • Group Play—Play recorded shows continuously, one after the other. Press "Play" on a folder of recorded shows in your Playlist to enable this feature.
  • Display Options—Your grid guide can now page up and down faster. To enable this feature, press "MENU", then go to Help & Settings > Setup > Display and turn "Scrolling Effects" OFF.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

growing upside-down tomatoes, day 75

We're 75 days into our upside-down tomato experiment (click the picture to get access to the set of photos documenting the growth so far).

Compared to the three plants that are in the ground, this thing's a monster... at least four times as voluminous as the others. My concern about this hanging plant is that it looks big and beautiful but it my not set fruit, even though it's flowering.

Granted, this isn't a controlled experiment between the hanging plant and the terrestrial plants: the watering schedule and volume are different (down below, they're on a timed drip irrigation system). Also, the ground itself isn't as rich and nutritious as what's in the hanging bucket.

The experiment isn't close to being over, however, and I have my fingers crossed we'll be plucking yellow pear tomatoes from underneath the hanging bucket for the entire month of July.

:UPDATE: I took a closer look at the plant last night and counted at least a dozen tomato fruits in various stage of development. We have fruit! w00t!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

file under: so what if we don't eat it?

A Page One promo on today reveals this tidbit (reg required to follow the link):

Estonia's effort to forge a post-Soviet national identity hinges, in part, on Baltic herring. Following an emotional debate, Estonia selected the small, oily animal as its national fish. One problem: few Estonians actually eat it.
It got me thinking: what would the Journal have written back in June, 1782 when the Continental Congress officially adopted the Seal of the United States with its Bald Eagle grasping arrows and an olive branch? Probably something along the likes of:
United States Chooses a National Bird
The United State's effort to forge a post-English national identity hinges, in part, on the Bald Eagle. Following an emotional debate, the Continental Congress selected the bird of prey as its national bird. One problem: few Americans actually eat it.
Of course, if Benjamin Franklin had his way with nominating the turkey as our national bird, we'd be munching away on it daily.

grocery shopping just got easier

Got a promo today introducing me to the new Amazon Grocery Store and I think I've finally found the solution to getting all our regularly used non-perishables that avoids driving to the store.

Since we're an Prime customer, we get all-you-can-eat free second-day shipping on items. Couple that with the fact most of our shopping list items stay on the chalkboard in our kitchen at least two days, and there's no real difference between buying from or going down to the local Safeway.

(I'd looked into buying groceries from, but decided I didn't want to pay the $4.95 delivery fee... call me cheap)

So, now we can get our big bulky items like Diapers or Pet Supplies for the dog or even Gourmet Spices in bulk.

A quick scan shows that prices are quite competitive, and most the brands I'd buy at the local store are carried.

Will give it a whirl and post later how it worked for us. Any other Amazon Grocery Store customers out there?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

copper river salmon for dinner(s)

copper river chinook filet
Originally uploaded by thomas pix
Tonight, I cut up the rest of the salmon we're not going to eat in the next couple days for the deep-freeze.

I still can't believe the color of the meat on these wild-caught salmon. Definitely not pale like their farm-raised cousins. We got a great price on them, ($8.99 per pound after haggling with the fishmonger) and the cooler seemed to keep them fine on the flight from SeaTac to SFO after the TSA folks confiscated our ice.

I prepared our first filet by pan-frying it with thinly-sliced onions. Here's how:
  • Started by heating up olive oil and a dab of butter in a 10-inch saute pan at medium-high until the butter sizzled.
  • Then, lay the filet skin-side down in the pan and cooked two minutes before flipping it over (with care!) to cook skin-side up for another two minutes.
  • Toss in half an onion thinly sliced and cover.
  • Cook for six minutes or so on medium-low heat until the fish is done.
  • Remove the fish and set aside to keep it warm.
  • Blast the heat under the onions and deglaze the pan with about 1/4 cup water plus 2 Tbsp lemon juice.
  • Once the sauce reduces by half (and the onions are translucent), pour the sauce over the salmon, garnish with lemon wedges and serve over rice.
Melt-in-your-mouth delicious!

Tomorrow night: we broil it

Monday, June 11, 2007

cool design: US govt budget

I'm a fan of interesting and new graphic representations of otherwise mundane data, and this poster of how the US government's budget is allocated: Death and Taxes certainly fits the bill.
Not only is the design cool, but the interface to zoom in and out on the web page is clever as well. (a two-fer!)

airline lost our child's car seat

The kicker on our trip home from Seattle last night was the fact that two of our three pieces made it to SFO with us, just fine.

The missing (crucial) piece of luggage that didn't show up was the car seat for our youngest. I'd been keeping an eye on the odd-size luggage window which is where the car seats are usually delivered, but no luck there. So, after watching the both the odd-size window open and close and the luggage carousel spin for 45 minutes AFTER we'd taken our first two bags off, it was clear no more pieces were coming through. Finally, it was time to make the fateful trip to the baggage claim agents to inquire what was up.

I was able to narrow down which of the bar code claim tickets belonged to the car seat and handed it over to the agent asking for an update on the status of my kid's checked car seat.

"Oh, this didn't even scan," said the agent, looking back and forth between the ticket and her computer screen.

Translation: it didn't even make it INTO the system at SeaTac, so no way it was going to arrive at SFO that night. She apologized for the inconvenience while handing me a form and a pen.

While I was filling out the United Airlines Delayed Baggage Report form, the agent disappeared into a side office.

Then the amazing thing happened: she re-emerged with a brand new Even-Flo car seat for us to use until United was able to find our missing car seat and deliver it to us. We'd simply hand over the loaner when our own was delivered.

Call me a cynic, but I'd fully expected a shoulder shrug and apology, not a replacement seat. So, what could have been a really bad experience turned out to be a redemptive customer service exchange. Nice touch.

Oh, and her final tip for me: don't bother calling the 800-number on the back of the Delayed Baggage Report... call the United Premier Exec dedicated customer support line instead.

Traveling thru SeaTac (boo Hertz)

Couple random observations about traveling through SeaTac this past weekend:

  • Always, ALWAYS check for car rental contract before driving away. I've got Hertz Gold, so I can go straight to my car. Did so this time and noticed the contract wasn't there. Spent 5 minutes in the Hertz VIP lounge with several other folks in the same boat. Time well spent, as when we drove out of the rental car garage (and into the rain) to the gate where you show license and contract, there were several cars pulled over to the side with flashers on. I overheard one of the gate agents comment "none of them got their contracts, call those Hertz [folks] and get them out here now!" The agent didn't say "folks" but you get the idea.
  • When Hertz says "Green class" and offers you a Toyota Camry, it is NOT the Camry hybrid. I fell for the marketing (and paid $3 a day extra for the privilege), and the extra room in the car was worth it, but if you think you're going hybrid in Hertz's Green Class, save your money.
  • Pulling into the Hertz car return 36 hours after leaving, the three folks working the return lanes simultaneously gestured for me to get into three separate lanes. I finally picked the one closest to where I wanted to go and stopped the car. The return agents then bickered at each other in a language I couldn't understand until finally one of them started checking out the car for damage. I'm not one for hand-holding at car-return, but a simple "Hi, how was the car, sorry we were confusing you," would go a long way.
  • If you buy fish at Pike Place Market thinking you can carry it on the plane, be warned that TSA is under strict orders to confiscate your ice. Yes, you read that right. We spent an extra 1o minutes at security as the agent struggled to open our odorless cooler to extract two small ice blocks from within. Given there are no pointy objects available at the checkpoint (they must be discarded prior to screening), it was amusing to watch the guy struggle to get thru the packing tap. No, I wasn't about to volunteer my car key to help, for fear of getting the key confiscated as a potentially deadly weapon, too. The whole remove-the-ice trick was security theater at its finest, and I'm glad our flight was short enough that the prized package of Copper River Salmon filets didn't spoil. Isn't there some way the Pike Place fishmongers can work out something with the TSA folks to mitigate this problem? (oh, and to the TSA lady who suggested we check the box of fish: I'd rather we not just give it away to the baggage handlers... I'd rather keep it close to me for the duration of our trip.)
In all, I have to say I'm less than impressed by our trip through SeaTac. I am, however, really impressed with the Seattle area and won't let the airport experience stop me from coming back again.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

the fast security lane at SFO

the family is flying to Seattle this morning, and since I saw how busy things were coming back into SFO from Boston last Saturday morning, I knew security would be a looooong wait.

We (me, the wife and two small girls) got to the security line a good 90 minutes before boarding. When we got to the TSA agent to present our IDs, she asked how many of us were together (four) and then she whisked us around the long lines and to a special lane with hardly any wait.

I thought we were going to be subjected to the new puffer technology (where you step inside an enclosed machine and it shoots puffs of air at you from head to toe), but no. What did all the people in this lane have in common? we all were traveling with small children.


Take those obviously prone to gum up the security screening procedures and give them their special lane. Keeps the other lanes moving quickly, and enables the comraderie and patience of new parents to help each other out.

I even saw them letting the wheelchair bound thru the same lane as us.

A gold star to whomever thought this crowd control measure up.

Maybe I'll borrow a kid next time I need to fly.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

serving time at the DMV isn't as bad as it used to be

Someone stole the plate off our minivan yesterday, and the first thing I did after consoling Left Coast Mom for the bad luck of finding was to go to the California DMV site and try to set up an appointment so as to avoid spending tons of time in the lobby.

Yes, we could have driven around a while sans plate (we had a police report to back up our claim of the plate being stolen), but LCMom wasn't too thrilled at the thought of driving around without everything being legit. I don't blame her.

However, the earliest appointment available at the DMV was on June 14... over a week away.

I screwed up my courage and decided to go in as soon as the local DMV office opened this morning at 8am and wait it out.

One thing conspired with another, and I didn't actually make it to the DMV until 10 past 8. 

Imagine my surprise when I not only walked straight up to the DMV air-traffic-control person (the multilingual one who says, "why are you here? here's your form... here's your number.. wait over there" all day long). 

I got my form, sat down, and if I hadn't hurried to complete it, I would've had to do so standing in front of the clerk waiting to serve me.

I was walked out of the DMV at 8:20a with brand new plates.

For years, I've given the DMV a bad rap as "the great equalizer that makes everyone wait a long time no matter your stature in life." 

I stand corrected. Color me impressed.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

sculpture garden under the sea off Grenada

In catching up on my boingboing feeds, I'm just now finding out about Jason Taylor's Underwater Sculpture garden off the coast of Grenada.

The sculptures are life-sized human forms that he's carefully placed in 4 to 9 meters of water off the west coast of Grenada. It's a simple concept, yet he's executed it brilliantly.

While the still photo gallery gives a great overview of the pieces, I'm a sucker for video, and the piano etude playing in the background is the perfect choice for this 2 minute video tour. And if you're like me and wonder just how Jason did it all, he's even shared pix of his process.

My favorite pieces are the Vicissitudes (a circle of standing human forms in 4.5m of water) and the hauntingly beautiful La Diablesse at 7.5m. Yet another reason to head back to the West Indies.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

new home for the chooks

new home for the chooks
new home for the chooks,
originally uploaded by thomas pix.
The Eglu has arrived, and after a little more than an hour, I was able to put it together and move the girls in.

I was really impressed with the way the packaging was handled... the Omlet folks have done a splendid job with the product design. The only nits to pick are with the instructions on how to set things up, and the expectation for how long it'll take.

The instructions start with the sentence "Assembling the eglu and run - this shouldn't take much more than 20 minutes and is very simple."

Very simple? Yes.

20 minutes? No. Not even. Maybe if you've been putting these things together for years and are racing a fellow employee for bragging rights you can do it in 20 minutes, but for the average Joe (or Thomas as the case may be)... plan on an hour.
The handy "The Omlet Guide" included with the eglu was surprisingly informative and entertaining in addition to instructional regarding how to set up the 'glu.

In all, I'm very pleased with our purchase. But I already miss hearing the girls' cheep cheep as I type my blog. Hope they're sleeping safe and sound in their new eglu.

Note: this is a duplicate post of what's appearing over on my Urban Chickens blog. I inadvertently published it here straight from my Flickr account, but it's worth keeping here if for nothing but the cool technology that the eglu represents.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

ten years of cathedrals and bazaars

Wow. I just was reminded that this month marks the ten year anniversary of
publication of the seminal essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (links to First Monday version).

As I was first starting to explore the whole open source/mass collaboration
phenomena, this essay had an enormous impact on my understanding what was
to come. It's worth reading again (which I will do to mark the occasion).