What I Read

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews at work lately, and one of the questions I like to ask is what they read to keep current. In my job I am constantly evaluating new technologies and incorporating new things into our work, and it’s essential that I stay up to date with the latest in news, software development practices, gadgets, and just the field in general. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen something in my daily reading and used it in my work or at home. I rarely comment or contribute to the sites; I prefer just to watch and not participate in what’s usually a flame war by people with questionable qualifications. I read some of the sites at work, but most at home after work.

So here is my list of things I read daily in the industry:

  • http://slashdot.org – I’ve been reading this for 10 years and have only commented a few times, but I check this many times a day and have used information I’ve found on this site for all kinds of things.
  • http://news.yahoo.com – I read this a few times a day to keep up with the news in general. I’ve found this site is the best news aggregation site of the ones I’ve tried.
  • http://finance.google.com – I use this to track a few stocks and look at relevant business news and new pay day loans opportunity’s.
  • http://digg.com – I usually do this from home as it has interesting stuff in all kinds of categories.
  • http://gizmodo.com – This site is useful for the latest in gadget and technology news.
  • http://engadget.com – Almost identical to Gizmodo, and they often report on the same things, but sometimes they have a different interpretation.
  • http://joelonsoftware.com – Joel Spolsky’s blog. Somewhat diluted with his own advertising for his talks and conferences, but often has good articles on managing a tech company.
  • http://www.reddit.com/r/joel/ – This channel of reddit is for articles similar to the ones Joel writes.
  • http://thedailywtf.com/ – Every day an article or two about some curious piece of code or business practice.
  • http://www.lifehacker.com – Nifty tools and tricks for technology and geek life.
  • http://fark.com – Mostly curious or silly news, this is great for keeping up with the strange stories that are likely to come up in conversations.

That’s every day, sometimes a few times during the day. I’d say I spend about 2 hours reading stuff each day, though only about 1/2 an hour to an hour of that is at work, and usually in a few spare moments while I’m in between meetings or tasks.

This list does a pretty good job of keeping me up to date in the world.

Seeing with closed eyes

I’ve been working on my laser pointer recently, and in the course of my work I made an interesting biological discovery. Laser pointers are ridiculously bright. You can shine them on a finger and they’ll light up the finger so that you can see it from the other side.

You’re not supposed to shine lasers directly into the eye because they are so bright. Most laser pointers, though, are class 3 or lower, meaning they won’t do permanent damage if exposed briefly. Still, my eyes are not something I like to risk, so I don’t shine it into my eye intentionally.

However, in the course of fiddling with the pointer while waiting for a process, I held it against my temple, turned it on absentmindedly, and saw some red. At first I thought that the laser must be reflecting off of something and getting into my eye somehow, but it didn’t make any sense. It was a blurry red light and was clearly more intense closer to my temple. The light wasn’t escaping outside and reflecting off anything, either, because the laser was directly against my temple. I concluded that the light was actually traveling through my temple and into my eyeball and hitting my retina without going through my iris.

This is not a huge discovery. In fact, you can simulate the effect quite easily with nothing but a bright environment. Close your eyes. Then put your hands in front of your eyes. It gets even darker. With just your eyes closed, light is still passing through the lids and into the eye. With the temple, it just takes more light to get through to the retina.

I’m not too concerned about losing my eyesight from doing this, but I’m not going to keep doing it. It’s interesting that I can see things without having it go through the front of my eye.

The Subtle Mechanics of Popcorn Poppers

In my old apartment I didn’t have a popcorn maker. I would put some vegetable oil in a sauce pan, pour a layer of popcorn kernels in, cover it, and heat it until the popcorn was ready. I didn’t have an electric one. Now that I’ve moved in to the new place, Erin has the electric variety, so I’ve been using that. I was making popcorn this evening and thinking about the popcorn popper and how it worked, and specifically how kernels can remain unpopped.

By observation, at the beginning of the popping a kernel at the bottom will pop up, sending the kernels above it flying, and often out of the popper. This is a huge loss of kernels for no good reason. They’re perfectly fine kernels that were prematurely propelled out of the popper. As the popping intensifies, the popped corn doesn’t all escape out of the cylinder and into the bowl, forming a sort of protective layer to keep unpopped kernels from shooting out of the cylinder. The steady current of hot air elevates this layer and at times it looses cohesion and the layer breaks down and all escapes the cylinder into the bowl, allowing unpopped corn to escape again. It’s a delicate balance.

In order to preserve as many kernels as possible, I’ve played around with some tools. Initially I tried a spoon. By holding the spoon inside the chute and over the cylinder I could partially block the exit of the cylinder. A couple kernels still escape, but because I prevent the popped corn from leaving, the protective layer builds up faster. Further, I can control the flow of popcorn out of the chute, ensuring that the protective layer remains without breaking down early. The only catch was that the spoon was too short and the hot air was heating up the whole metal spoon and by the end burning my fingers.

I could use a large wooden spoon from now on. That would cover up more of the cylinder and eliminate the heat problem but could introduce a congestion problem if it gets in the way and clogs up the chute and doesn’t allow me the fine control of the protective layer.

A better design of the popper might have been a taller and slightly inverted funnel cylinder. Both the tallness and the funnel shape would make it more difficult for stray kernels to escape while also facilitating a sound protective layer and retaining the heat inside for longer.

The final adjustment that could be made to retrofit existing popcorn poppers would be to the clear plastic piece that fits over the popper. With the installation of an adjustable gate, you could cover the opening to the chute entirely, ensuring no kernels escaped and retaining the heat inside the popper for longer. As the popping progresses, the gate could be opened by varying levels to allow the protective layer to remain as popped corn passed through the gate.

But I’m probably overthinking this. The spoon will work for now.

I’ve Moved!

In mid-March I moved out of my old apartment and into a new one. It’s only a mile or two away from the old place, but it’s a big step up. If you want the address, just ask.

There were a few reasons for moving. I was getting tired of the old place. I just wanted a change of scenery. The old place was loud, too. The neighbors were constantly making a stream of noise from the tv, dog, and child. There wasn’t enough room to really host anything, either. And they were raising the rent again. Finally, it wasn’t big enough for two people and a dog.

So we’ve got a new place now. It’s a two bedroom loft style apartment. On the main floor is the kitchen, full bath, bedroom, dining room, and living room. Upstairs is a bedroom, bath, and utility room with washer and dryer. Splitting the costs of the place, it’s cheaper than what I’m paying now, I have twice as much space, a much quieter and cooler apartment, laundry here, a better neighborhood, and a 24 hour gym and rec room with indoor racquetball courts. We’ve already started playing racquetball twice a week.

I really like this new apartment, and I’m excited for all the fun times I’ll have in it.


Friday I took the day off to judge a middle school science fair. I’d never judged this particular science fair before, so the location was new to me. There were a few people I knew there, which was nice. It was the standard judging; lots of scientists and engineers from all the engineering firms and laboratories around, some house moms, and a spattering of retired folks. The first round I judged 8th graders. I got through my 12 and had my score sheet handed in right on time. Because it was required, there were over 150 8th graders, 175 7th graders, and the optional 6th graders had 5 entries. There was quite a variety of skill in the entries. Some of them were obviously done in the nights before and with little preparation or consideration. The worst was clearly the volcano; it’s such a cliche, and he didn’t even understand what was going on with the baking soda and vinegar, calling it an explosion and attempting to measure the height as his variable. There were also the ones where the parents helped a lot. Those are the ones where I ask questions they likely weren’t coached on. Things like “If you had changed this part of it, what do you think would happen?” and “Can you explain what the difference is between carbonated soda and flat soda?”. Some of the parents were sneaky; sometimes they’ll raid their labs for materials, but then make sure they’re using household ingredients instead of the lab chemicals. I always ask what kind of help they had.

The second round I took the 6th graders. There were 5 entries and 5 judges. We did each one, so each of the kids had to give their spiel five times. Two were clearly above the other three, though each had some really creative bits to it. One of the judges made me mad, though. Our ratings were exactly opposite, and his explanation was merely “they weren’t interesting to me.” That he was judging based on how interesting the project was to him was infuriating. The science fair isn’t about flashy or interesting, it’s about the scientific method; identifying a problem or question, designing an experiment and hypothesis, performing the experiment and measuring the results, analyzing the results, and forming a conclusion. There are steps like doing background research, validating your results, making observations, and ensuring safety and correct procedures. I make sure they went through the process, not look for the most interesting projects. Sure, the interesting projects will have identified a unique problem with a practical application and conclusive results, but not all science is like that. Fortunately the other 3 judges all ranked the 6th graders like I did and the girl who extracted DNA and compared the size of the DNA to the size of the genome and fruit for various plants beat the girl who used a flashlight and a glue stick to explain why the sky is blue without ever really understanding.

The second round took a long time because two judges from the other grades took forever to complete their score sheets, and the people going on to the next round couldn’t be determined until their ranking was done. So 45 minutes late we started the third round. I had 7th graders this time, and since it was distilled to the top 14 entries, they were all pretty good. I was a little concerned about safety with the girl who tested the amount of bacteria in various animal feces (including human), and fortunately she didn’t bring her samples to school. Sadly, school ended before we had a chance to get to everyone, so we were rushed at the very end and weren’t able to judge everyone. I filled out my score sheet as best as I could and left blanks in the middle of the pack for the two entries I hadn’t seen. That way their scores would be least impacted by the guy who hadn’t seen their entries, and the ones that I ranked highest and lowest would have their scores affected. I went back to work for an hour before heading home.

I made some brownies really quick and headed over to Nick and Carolyn’s place for spaghetti. Then we watched Flash Of Genius (a courtroom drama (more judging)). After that it was You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, which was surprisingly hilarious.

Saturday morning I woke up early and made it to the WSU campus for Science Bowl judging. I got my shirt and name tag and made my way to the room. There were a lot of judges there. More than we had duties for, in fact. It’s ridiculously difficult to break into the volunteering scene around here. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to volunteer for something only to find out that there were too many people already and that they didn’t really need more judges. And getting to be veteran enough that you have any real important duties takes at least a decade. I’m not exaggerating; Carolyn asked. So I sat out for two rounds with no responsibilities at all. Fortunately, I did get to be the science judge for two rounds, and I got two read questions for one round. I absolutely love reading the questions, and I have to say I’m really good at it. I don’t mispronounce words, I don’t trip over my sentences, and I go at an even but quick pace that doesn’t allow for the kids to chat or get rowdy and gets through most of the questions in the round. Anyway, I’ve only been doing this for three years, so my room was one of the rooms that was only needed for the round robins until noon. After that the better teams went into the double elimination, and only some of the rooms were used.

I went home for an hour, then went to Emily’s to pick up the girls and go wine tasting (or wine judging if you prefer). Since I was driving, and I’m not a fan of red wines anyway, I stuck to only one or two tastes per winery. We went to Terra Blanca, Oakwood Cellars, Dessert Wind, Snoqualmie, and Heaven’s Cave. The girls bought something at each of the places we went, but I held out and only bought a single bottle at the last place; it was a unique and very tasty and smooth Riesling. The timing was perfect and we made it to our dinner reservation in Prosser at Picazo 717 at exactly the right time. We ordered a bunch of appetizers; sardines, calamari, flat bread, and a cheese plate, and they were all good. The others got paella, and I got a pork chop with apricot chipotle sauce that was delicious. I’m definitely going to have to try to make something similar at home. For dessert I had creme brulee. After the restaurant I drove people home and went home myself, satisfied with a pretty good day.


Friday night I had another migraine. It endured for about 10 hours, which was about normal for them. I don’t have them often, but I’m starting to figure out under what conditions they occur.

What they’re like

Usually I can tell it’s starting at about mid-day. It’s a small pain in the back of the skull and right behind the eyes. I can continue to work until about 3-4pm before I have to head home. I try to sleep it off and can usually have a small nap. Sometimes if I manage a longer nap I can cut off the migraine. When I wake up I’m really hungry and have no problem eating and am fine the rest of the evening.

If the nap doesn’t work, I’m in for a horrible evening. The pain in the back of the skull is bad, but the pain behind the eyes is monumental. I get sensitive to light and sound. It becomes like a storm in my brain. I have thoughts really fast and really scattered, and my brain is constantly trying to think in sentences but can never finish them before moving on to the next sentence. It’s almost like my brain goes from a steady candle to a raging wildfire.

I can’t eat or drink during the migraine, either. I typically try to force a few nilla wafers down and some Gatorade, but that’s only so that I have something to come out during the inevitable oral evacuation.

I typically squirm in bed, trying unsuccessfully to get to sleep, uncomfortable with light and sound, and incapable of doing anything else. Somehow, finally, sleep comes. when I wake up, the head no longer hurts, and I’m starving and eat a late dinner.

What triggers them

I’m pretty sure that what triggers them is a combination of high stress, high brain activity, and little or no food. The hard part about identifying the triggers is that I think they’re preordained the day before.

I already eat dangerously little. Usually skipping breakfast and lunch, I often survive off whatever food is put out for free in the public kitchen at work. When I get home I make a dinner and try to make enough so that I can have leftovers for lunch the next day. So I bring a lunch about 2-3 days a week. This is fine for the normal work day because my intake matches how much I burn. I usually keep poptarts, fruit snacks, and beef jerky in my office for when I need to eat. But on days where I’m really busy, giving lots of demos, going to meetings, doing a lot of work, and spending 10 or more hours at work, I’m burning energy a lot faster, and I don’t have an opportunity to get more food because I’m so busy. The same thing happens when I’m on travel. I will be in unfamiliar places with unusual schedules and doing more than normal. That means I’ll be burning more and consuming less, which will trigger.

When I was in college I would get them regularly once a week on either Sunday or Monday. That was about when it started. Same symptoms, same triggers. I didn’t have as many my Junior and Senior years, but they started up regularly again during my first year in Richland when I was eating much less and working 10-12 hour days every day.

Attempted remedies

You’d think knowing about these triggers would encourage me to eat more. I really have no excuse. I like to cook. I like to eat. I just like to do other things more. And when I’m busy doing stuff I just don’t think about eating. During the migraines eating doesn’t help. Once the pain starts at mid-day, it’s too late to cut it off by eating, and throughout the rest of the migraine the food doesn’t stay down if I try.

I’ve tried the standard pills, like Ibuprofen, Aspirin, and Alleve, but they do nothing at all.

I’ve tried putting myself to sleep. I usually watch an episode of the Simpsons every night to fall asleep, so I tried to use a Pavlovian response and play a Simpsons episode, but that got me nowhere. Being in my bed in a dark and quiet room didn’t help, either. It’s really hard to get to sleep.

I’ve tried just thinking through it and concentrating on the pain and getting it out. Admittedly not a really scientific method, but I had time and no other ideas, so I tried that. Needless to say, that didn’t work, either.

Since my brain is usually running really fast, I tried to do something that would slow my brain down; something engaging and mind-numbing. Movies actually do fairly well as a remedy. Despite the sensitivity to light and sound, I can often watch a movie, though often I just listen without watching. The movie allows me to stop thinking and not focus so much on the pain. Sometimes it even helps me fall asleep as well, which is ultimately the only thing that cures the migraine.


I’m definitely not a fan of the migraines. They cut my day short, take me out for the whole evening, and hurt a lot. That I don’t have an instant remedy bugs me a little, and it would be nice if I could recognize a symptom and avoid the migraine instead of seeing a symptom after it’s already too late. I hope it gets better in the future, too. Maybe I’ll grow out of them. Maybe they’ll get worse or more frequent. Maybe I’ll figure out how to avoid them completely.

Christmas 08, New Years, and a long vacation

On the day before Christmas I took a much deserved vacation that turned out to be fun and relaxing and happy. Well, it didn’t start that way. The original plan had been to go to Corvallis for a couple days to see the family, then drive up I5 to Winlock to see Erin’s family then go back to Olympia for a few days, then go up to Seattle for New Years, then spend a couple more days in Olympia, and finally go home on the 4th. Weather changed some of that. The road through the gorge to Portland was closed for days. All the other roads through Oregon to get to Corvallis were just as bad. Passes were closed, too. I could have ended up stuck in Richland for Christmas. At the last minute I had to cancel the Corvallis part of the trip. The gorge had opened that night, but it was very sketchy, and even the Portland metro area had chains required for all vehicles. My family was sad, but I wasn’t the only one that had to cancel because of the weather. The good news, though, was that both Snoqualmie and White Pass were open. Erin had gotten her car stuck in the snow, so she wouldn’t have been able to meet me in Winlock, so I decided to go through Snoqualmie, pick her up in Olympia, then go with her down to Winlock. I started the drive down there and it was hairy the whole way. I don’t think I traveled a mile without snow or water on the road. There were accidents all along the roads; cars off the side, tracks leading off the road and back on it, even a few semis in various stages of not right side up. So my white knuckles went well with the rest of the scenery.

It was when I got to the pass, though, that things got particularly exciting. It went from traction tires advised to traction tires required right after I passed the sign, and I didn’t have traction tires. I chugged along, though, and despite the conditions did ok. There wasn’t a lot of traffic and the traffic that was there was all polite and reasonable. The roads hadn’t been plowed in a while so we were making our own tracks and trying to stick to lanes but also drive safely. I made it to the peak and hadn’t had any problems yet. I put my car into a lower gear for the ride down and didn’t encounter another car for a few miles down the slope. I thought things would be great soon as I got down and out of the snow zone. The next 50 miles were anything but.

The snow was pretty high on the roads. In fact, it was deep enough that I was scraping the underside the whole way. It was soft snow, so it wasn’t going to hurt my car, but it meant that I had to push harder and had less traction. Riding in tracks helped a little, but I was still sliding around a lot. It was a barely controlled ride on a very big sled. I didn’t have to deal with a lot of other vehicles, so I stayed in the middle of the road and took the corners at exactly the right speed not to start sliding. Every second my car was telling me it was scared and barely holding on.

The scariest moment came out of nowhere. I had bunched up with a few cars, and as we came around a curve there was a semi off the road on the left and another one off the road to the right. Not completely off the road, but on the shoulder. This acted like a funnel in the middle of the curve, so all the cars had to bunch together some more, which was really bad. Since we were all slowing, too, I started to slide horizontally down the bank of the curve. I tried to keep my speed up and even it out and get back in line without doing anything drastic, and kept sliding until I was into untouched powder on the side of the road. It was high enough that it started coming up over my hood, but I was not about to give up and stop. That would have been very bad, not just for me, but for all the cars who would probably be in a similar situation behind me and have to try to dodge my stuck car. So I plowed through and kept trying to get back on the road. I think the car right behind me was having issues too because he was right in my blind spot and wasn’t giving me room to get back on the road. I assume he wasn’t in total control, because as I started to creep back his car suddenly turned and he swerved into another lane. I’d rather not think there was malice in the car behind me, but I have been wondering what was going through his mind as he saw me struggling to stay on the road and not have him hit me. Anyway, I made it back on the road and did everything I could to get my speed back up to something maintainable so that I wouldn’t stop. The whole time I never got below 25mph, but if I had lost any more momentum than I had, it would have been a very different story. Fortunately, everything turned out ok. In my rearview mirror I saw the others that came around the corner with me and miraculously there were no accidents and nobody left the road.

That wasn’t the end of the excitement. The bunch split up again and I had most of the road to myself, but the snow was just as deep and scraping my bottom, and it turned into a whiteout. I couldn’t see more than 100 feet. Fortunately, I found a car ahead of me and got to a distance where I could just barely see his taillights, and I followed him until there was visibility again. Eventually all the snow disappeared and we were almost in Seattle. The rest of the road down to Olympia was just wet and very easy. That is, until I got into Olympia, where there was at least 4 inches of packed slippery snow on the roads. I didn’t so much park on the side of the road as slide into it and resolve that since I couldn’t move it would have to do as a parking spot. I picked up Erin and we had some adventures pushing my car out and getting back on the road.

Getting to Winlock wasn’t any better. For miles Erin and I drove through pouring rain/snow, and Erin’s dog got scared enough watching the road that he hid behind the driver seat. Once we arrived in Winlock, we made it towards her parents’ house, only to be thwarted by a very steep and slippery hill. We put the chains on and barely made it there. I parked and was very glad to have made it all the way safely.

Staying with Erin’s parents was fun. We had a good Christmas party with a lot of their relatives, and a white elephant gift exchange, and some games. The next day we went for a walk in the woods and played in the snow and watched some movies. The next morning we returned to Olympia, this time in much better weather and without nearly as much excitement. Parking was still a matter of accepting where you landed more than putting the car where you intend, but I didn’t plan to move for a few days.

Monday and Tuesday Erin and I worked. I had brought my laptop with me so I was able to work from her place while she went to work and did her thing. We made dinner together, watched movies in the evening or went out to play pool. It was all very nice and happy and cooperative.

On the 31st we drove up to Seattle. We had gotten tickets for a huge party on the waterfront with 5000 people and 5 dance floors playing club, salsa, 70s, 80s, and lounge music, plus a stand-up comedy stage, and we were pretty excited. We checked in to our hotel, took a break, and got ready for the evening. We took a taxi down to a group of restaurants near the waterfront convention center and had some good sushi and bento, then walked to the party. We explored the enormous complex and did some salsa, then happened to run into Erin’s friends just as we were wondering when they would show up. The four of us stuck together for a while, but it quickly got frustrating as we all waited for the others to smoke, get a drink, go to use┬áthe bathroom, disappear for a while. With 25 minutes to the countdown Erin went to the bar to try to get us drinks to toast. After standing in line for 10 minutes and not getting anywhere, she came back, and I gave it a try. I had been watching the bars, so I had an idea where to go and how to insert myself into the throng to get to the front. I showed the bartender my cell phone with my order typed out and she laughed and gave me the drinks. With 12 minutes before the countdown, Erin and I gave up on the others and went to do what we had planned to do. We went over to the retro dance stage where there were windows looking out to the space needle. At the countdown the fireworks started, and we counted down out loud with everyone else crammed up against the windows, celebrating at the new year.

We then did our own thing for a while. We took a break at the live comedy, went to a couple of the other stages and danced a little, and managed to meet up with the others as things were starting to simmer down and lots of people were leaving. Erin got her coat, and we made our way outside to try to find a cab.

Finding a cab was tricky. First, it was raining and cold, and I hadn’t brought a jacket, and Erin was in a dress and heels, so we were a little more exposed than I preferred. We walked up to where we were before with the restaurants and saw a few taxis, but finding one that wasn’t already taken was tough. So we used the Chicago strategy we had developed and started walking in the direction we thought they were coming from. I saw a taxi that almost seemed to be hiding and made eye contact with the driver, who showed he was available. I grabbed Erin and we hopped in. Before we could close the door, another guy was talking to the driver saying he had been waiting over an hour, that he would pay more than we would, and that he wanted to share the cab even though he had four people and was going in a different direction. The driver said no and the guy cussed a little and left. Then the driver pointed out that the guy could have walked there in less than ten minutes. The bad news was that the cab was a fixed $20, about triple what it cost earlier that night. We weren’t in a position to argue, and we had a discussion about civil engineering and concrete as he zipped through traffic and did some creative driving. We made it back to the hotel safely.

The next morning we got breakfast barely in time, and didn’t really do much during the day. We walked across the highway into Capitol Hill, and ate at a nice Nepalese place called Annapurna Cafe. It was good food. Then we walked back and drove over to Chinatown to see a very unusual but decently entertaining play/shadow puppet show. After that we headed back to Capitol Hill and a place called the War Room, where we had fascinating conversations and made ourselves uncomfortable as the only white people in a room dancing to reggae. After that it was back to the hotel.

The morning of the 2nd we checked out of the hotel and stopped in Tacoma. We went to the Glass Museum, lunch, and the Washington History Museum, then drove back to Olympia. The next couple days we didn’t do a whole lot. We went bowling, we played pool, we cheated the foosball machine by stuffing wallets into the goals so we wouldn’t run out of balls and could play as long as we wanted.

Sunday morning it was time for me to return, and we said our goodbyes and ended after ten days together almost the whole time. We could easily have kept going.

Thanksgiving 08/Portland

The four day weekend was a great opportunity to see a lot of people. I was going to see my Oregon family as I had for I think the last seven or eight years. It’s always nice to see them and catch up on things. I asked what I could bring for food and ended up with cheese balls. Granted, a lot of people were going to be there and since I was traveling further than most of them I could hardly be expected to prepare the turkey or one of the other essentials. Still, I was a little unhappy with cheese balls. However, it ended up an opportunity instead of a chore, and I had a lot of fun with it.

Knowing that it would likely be one of the less-consumed appetizers, I wasn’t about to make a large volume of it. I also know that if there are multiple flavors people will likely try all of them. So, with my interest being to create something that would be completely consumed, I set out to make many small cheese balls. I looked at a variety of recipes and saw some similarities and some interesting twists. Cheese balls are essentially cream cheese, other cheeses, and flavoring. I made a base of cream cheese, mozzarella, and cheddar. I split that in half and added more mozzarella and cheddar to it. This gave me two different consistencies of cream cheese, one harder and one softer and easier to dip. So that was a learning experience. Next I split those halves again into four separate cheese balls. Then I added flavors. For the first one I had some blackberry jam that Erin had made and given me. I thought a sweet berry flavor would go very well as a cheese ball, so I added it until it tasted right. That one was one of my favorite of the four. I took another of the balls and put sliced green onions in it. It was ok; seemed pretty traditional. The third was ranch dressing, which I thought was the most traditional, but which ultimately was my least favorite. The fourth one I tried something spicy; chili sauce. The red kind you would find in a Thai restaurant. I added that until it tasted right, and indeed it did taste right. It was soft at first as the cream cheese said hello to the tongue. After a moment the chili sauce announced its presence, not impolitely interrupting the conversation but instead like the coolest guy arriving fashionably late to a party and setting a whole new energy level in the room. Anyway, that one was awesome.

At around 11pm, though, I got an email from my cousin saying that she had considered my offer of a dessert and they would gladly have a cheesecake or key lime pie. I was one egg short of enough for the pie, but I had all the ingredients for the cheesecake in my apartment. I’m not sure what kind of a guy that makes me, that I would just happen to have everything. People have commented on the completeness of my cupboards. Anyway, I got to work, taking half the cheesecake and making it chocolate and then swirling it into the vanilla. I think it turned out great.

There was another reason for the cheesecake, though. Erin and I had been talking that week, and it occurred to us that Portland was right in between Corvallis, where I would be staying Thursday and Friday night, and Winlock, where Erin would be staying. So we decided to see each other Saturday night and spend some time in Portland. So if things worked out how I expected, I would be able to save some cheesecake from the dinner and give it to her that weekend. I had made her a blackberry cheesecake a while before when she came to Richland, but she hadn’t taken any back with her and regretted it. This was an opportunity to make it all better.

I got to bed at around 2am, and was up bright and early so I could make the drive to Portland. I arrived right when I said I would, and everyone was happy to see me and vice versa. We talked, we watched a little TV, we argued politics, we cooked, I played with the boys, it was all good. The food went over well, and it was interesting hearing who preferred which cheese balls. The pre-dinner and dinner and desserts were all great, and I was a very happy boy. Then I drove down to Corvallis to hang out with my aunt and uncle and spent the night there.

The next day Uncle Les took me duck hunting. I’m not really a fan of hunting, but I don’t have any objection to it, and it made my uncle happy, so I thought I’d tag along and see what he enjoyed about it. We got all geared up, and drove out to the duck club. Once we had signed in we trudged over to the duck blind and sat and waited and talked. It certainly wasn’t a thrill a minute, but it was enjoyable. We saw a lot of geese, but it was fairly late in the day to see any ducks, so we were starting to lose interest. In a flash, though, a duck went by the blind, Uncle Les jumped up and aimed the gun as I moved to give him room, he fired, and I caught a glimpse of the duck dropping exactly like it does on Duck Hunt for Nintendo. Cass, the dog, ran out after it and grabbed it out of the pond, then proceeded to bring it back to shore; the far shore. Les went chasing after it and crossed the pond and finally got the dog to behave and relinquish the duck before they came back to the blind. While he de-feathered the catch, we hung around the blind some more in the hopes of seeing another duck, but were not lucky a second time. We gathered up our things and headed back to the truck, then home.

That evening I went out to a Chinese buffet with my Grandpa and then back to his house to chat for a couple hours. Then it was back to bed. In the morning I got up and made my way North back to Portland. Erin and I had decided to stay at the Jupiter Hotel, where I had stayed with my friends for the Phantom of the Opera, and she arrived before I did. We had a mid-afternoon drink and light dinner at the hotel bar, the Doug Fir, then watched some Mythbusters while we decided what to do with our evening.

Carolyn had suggested a place called Oba Restaurant, so we went there. It was really good food. The chili mojito was less good, but the soup was so tasty and filling we had a hard time getting through even half of our entrees and we had to tell the waiter to cancel the dessert, which was really disappointing since we really liked the place. We had planned to go out to the bars, but weren’t feeling up to it, so we just took a taxi back to the hotel. In the morning we looked around for a place for breakfast and were supremely disappointed with Old Wives’ Tales restaurant. The food wasn’t good; the hot chocolate was the worst I’ve ever had (how do you screw up hot chocolate? they found a way).

It was about noon on Sunday, and we had checked out of the hotel and both wanted to get back during daylight, so we said our goodbyes and drove back to our cities.

Kayaking in Olympia

In November I went to Olympia to see Erin. One of the mornings we went to an interesting place on the water for brunch called [[http://tugboatannies.com/|Tugboat Annie’s]]. For $20 you get your choice of breakfast, coffee, and a couple hours on the kayak. It was a great deal, though since it was foggy and cold in November nobody else was taking up on the offer and we were told we could take as much time as we wanted. The breakfast was good (yay Hollandaise), and we read through the binder of instructions while we ate. Then we headed out to the kayaks and picked out a couple and got inside. I went out on the water first, and since I had never kayaked before, only rafted and canoed, was a little unstable at first. I quickly got the hang of it, though, and was soon sliding through the water with ease.

We started off along the Western coast and explored a logging area where they took the logs out of the water and either chipped them or put them on barges or put them on rails. It was hard to tell, and since it was a Sunday morning there wasn’t any activity. In fact, it was dead out. There was a lot of fog, the water was eerily calm, and there was no traffic making noise. We could whisper to each other and hear birds in the distance, but that was about it.

We continued to move North along the inlet, chatting and exploring the coast and piles of logs chained and floating in the water. Once we got to the end of the log pile, which was enormous, we followed it around and went back South. For a while a seal was curious about us and followed us around.

Eventually we made it back to the marina and checked out some of the boats, then returned our kayaks and locked them up, and returned the keys to the restaurant. To our surprise, we had been gone pretty close to two hours, and it was about right for us. It was chilly out, we had done as much exploring as we wanted, and we had had fun. It was a nice little adventure.

Chicago Conference/Halloween

With only a couple weeks before Halloween, Erin and I still hadn’t made plans for Halloween. We had options in both Olympia and Richland, but neither of us wanted to be in our home towns, hoping instead to find something fairly large and fun somewhere else.

In a parallel story, I was working on going to Chicago for a conference. The same company that had sent me to San Diego was now preparing for a conference in their home town of Chicago, and had expressed an interest in bringing me there not only to attend the conference with them but also get familiar with their offices and meet the people with whom I may have worked to integrate our software. It was a pretty important conference on emergency management called TCIP (Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness (http://www.ctc.org/)), and was essentially an opportunity for government, corporate, and emergency response people to get together and talk about needs and what technologies can fill those needs. Anyway, it was the perfect conference for me to attend for a variety of reasons.

Our parallel stories met in a moment of clarity when it occurred to me that the conference ended a day before Halloween, I have friends in Chicago I’d love to see and who would gladly put me up for a night, and there was no reason Erin couldn’t come, too. So I made my plans to go to Chicago for the conference, and she made her plans, and she arrived the second day of the conference. During the day I attended the conference, and she went off and explored the city and a couple graduate schools she was interested in. In the evenings we had dinner and explored the city some more. I was lucky enough to get a hotel room at the Hyatt Regency where the conference was being held and had a great view that included the river, the lake, downtown, and even Navy Pier:

On Thursday night we went out to dinner at a nice restaurant called Catch Thirty-Five, then saw Wicked, which was amazing. Afterward we met up with Adam and Sarah at the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the Hancock Tower and had a great view of downtown at night. It was really handy being downtown because we could either walk or take a taxi anywhere we needed to go.

Friday the conference was winding up and by noon was over. Before I finish with the conference, though, there was something really cool about being there. There were screenshots of software I had written in four of the booths there. One of them was a client using mobile software in San Diego. Another was a group visualizing sensor data in Los Angeles. A third was the PNNL booth showing off some mobile stuff and some visual analytics stuff. And the fourth was a DHS booth showing off more of the same research from PNNL. It was really cool to be able to go up to those booths and see the screenshots and introduce myself (some of them I’d only ever exchanged emails). I was able to do work on a few different projects while I was there, get some good ideas, and attend a lot of the conference sessions that were really relevant. In some cases I think I even had more expertise than the people presenting. I guess that’s a sign that I should be getting more of my knowledge out of my head and into papers and conferences and not just software. Still, the conference was a very good thing for me to have attended.

After it ended, I had arranged to go down to the offices of the other company to meet them and show them some software and answer their questions. It was an interesting demo, full of technical… challenges. I managed to delete a database moments before the demo, which caused some problems, but fortunately I had a backup. It wasn’t a full backup, though, so there were some issues, and some things required being behind the PNNL firewall for it to work. Unfortunately, the lab was going through a bit of a crisis at the time, and had cut off most of the internet access. Still, I managed to show what I wanted, answer their questions accurately and completely, and even get them interested in some more parts.

After the meeting, Erin and I met back up, then went to the pier to see it and get a hot dog, then walked back to get ready for the night. We met my friends for dinner late at a place called Greek Islands Restaurant, where we all stuffed ourselves pretty well. Then it was out to Wicker Park for some drinks and bar hopping. I had my Napolean Dynamite costume with the wig and hair, and Erin was a medieval peasant:

The quality and number of costumes was astounding. We had so much fun going from bar to bar, seeing everybody dressed up and having fun together. Some really elaborate costumes that had to have taken countless hours of construction. We made our way to most of the places in the Wicker Park area, pushing through throngs of people. It was getting late, and the others decided to leave, but Erin and I stuck it out for a while longer, but not much. Then came the inevitable closing of some of the bars, and that meant all the taxis were being snatched up. We spent a long time looking for one. Eventually we decided to pick a main direction and start walking, thinking that if we got out far enough we’d find an open taxi heading into the throng before picking someone up. Ultimately, it worked, and we got back to the hotel safely.

The next morning I had to check out of the hotel because it was for the conference, not my weekend vacation. We left our bags at the desk for the day and took a bus up to Lincoln Park, where we first looked for a place to have some brunch and happened on the most fantastic place ever. It was a buffet brunch that obviously catered to the Friday night partiers. The place is called Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap, and it was amazing, and we weren’t the only ones who thought so. The place was full of people who looked like they were recovering from a long night.

After brunch, we went back to Lincoln Park to see the zoo. At first we only saw the farm animal section and were quite unimpressed, Erin having grown up on a farm, and me having grown up in Montana. Surely that couldn’t be all to the great Lincoln Park zoo. We continued our exploration of the park and thankfully found the rest of the zoo, which turned out to be pretty cool and bigger than we expected.

After the zoo we sat down for a while and planned the rest of the day. We didn’t have a hotel room, we wanted to inconvenience Adam and Sarah as little as possible, we wanted something cheap, and we wanted something convenient to the L. We tried a few hotels, we tried a few hostels, and we did some hard looking, thanks mostly to Google Maps on my mobile phone. Sadly, we came up with nothing, though. In the end we called Adam and he was more than happy to have us for the night. We took the bus back to the hotel to pick up our bags then got back on the bus to go to Hyde Park and Adam’s place.

Once we arrived we chilled for a while. Erin took a nap while Adam and I watched a movie. We played some Mario Kart, too. Sarah was at a conference, and when she got back she had to prepare for an evening party as part of the conference. We planned for her to go to that while Adam and Erin and I went to dinner, then we’d pick her up and go to a nightclub. I donned my Napolean Dynamite costume and we headed out. Sadly, all the places we tried to go to eat were closed, and we spent over forty five minutes looking for a place to eat, finally settling on a place that sold pizza by the slice in a part of town I could never find again. Sarah gave us a call when she was done and we returned to pick her up. Then it was off to the club. We picked Excalibur because it had everything in one place, and since it was cold outside we really didn’t want to be doing a lot of traveling. It was a good choice. The main dance floor was just ok. We went up a few floors and across the hall to the techno floor and spent most of our time there. We also meandered down to the other stage on the first floor, but didn’t stay there long. Mostly we were in the techno section. Even though it was the day after Halloween, people were still dressed up in their costumes, and it was again a lot of fun to see everybody dressed up. There was also a breakdancing circle at one point, and I was lucky enough to be near it, so I jumped in and did some Napolean dancing in my costume, to great effect. Sadly, I think I was the one there with the best skills to offer. The other people who tried the circle weren’t nearly the caliber I’d expect in Chicago, so I was a little disappointed. Meh.

One observation I’ve made about noisy clubs is that my cell phone is great for communicating. Rather than yelling into other people’s ears, I’ll just type a message and show it to them, then hand them the phone and they’ll type a response. Since my phone has a full keyboard and touch screen, it’s easy and fast to type or draw pictures. The other huge benefit, and I’ve great responses to this, is to type out my drink order before I get to the bar, then just show them the screen when they get to me. No yelling, no confusion, it’s fast and easy and you can order more complex drinks than the basics. It’s really a win-win.

The four of us seemed to be done with the club all within 15 minutes of each other, so none of us felt bad about leaving; it was just unanimously time to go. We made our way out and headed back to Adam’s where we crashed in the living room. The next morning Erin and I both had fairly early flights, so we called for a taxi to get to the airport and let the others sleep in. We got through security with no problems, and I walked Erin to her flight and said goodbye, then headed to mine.

It was probably my best Halloween so far, and a really good conference, and I love Chicago, so I don’t know how the experience could have been any better.