Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! I hope tomorrow is a day filled with joy and peace. My mom and brother are in Oregon visiting us this year. I can already tell I'm not going to get a lot of sleep due to late night conversation with my brother, but it's totally worth it.

Our house also smells delicious thanks to wonderful holiday cooking by Jessi. Speaking of Jessi, I thought I'd share a clip from her favorite Christmas movie, Elf.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Man, Play and Games [Book Review]

I came across this book while listening to a podcast called TWiT (This Week in Tech), which was talking about an article on Farmville, which referenced Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois in talking about what makes a game. It sounded like an interesting book, and I was pleased to find it pretty good.

Caillois starts out defining what play is and then takes on the task of classifying each type of play. One of the funny parts about the book is that Caillois keeps talking about how difficult it is to do given the nature of play and games. Check out the quote below to see what I mean.

Another interesting thing about this book is the language used. Caillois was a French professor, and therefore wrote the book in French; then it was translated by Meyer Barash who was also a university professor. As a result, the language used is very formal. I found myself having to take my time to reading and had to take a break after a few pages to digest what I just read. I'd like to share a small excerpt to demonstrate the type of language used. This is the first paragraph of the second chapter.

"The multitude and infinite variety of games at first causes one to despair of discovering a principle of classification capable of subsuming them under a small number of well-defined categories. Games also possess so many different characteristics that many approaches are possible. Current usage sufficiently demonstrates the degree of hesitance and uncertainty: indeed, several classification are employed concurrently. To oppose card games to games of skill, to oppose parlor games to those played in a stadium is meaningless. In effect, the implement used in the game is chosen as a classificatory instrument in the one case; in the other, the qualification required; in a third the number of players and the atmosphere of the game, and lastly the place in which the contest is waged. An additional over-all complication is that the same game can be played alone or with others. A particular game may require several skills simultaneously, or none." (page 11)

See what I mean?

Caillois defines play as having 6 features:

  1. Free: you don't have to play if you don't want to.
  2. Separate: has limits of space and time which are defined and fixed in advanced.
  3. Uncertain: the outcome is unknown, nor can it be known. Plus the player has some room to make decisions which affect the outcome.
  4. Unproductive: Does not create goods, or wealth. At most an exchange of property, but the net impact is zero.
  5. Governed by rules: worldly rules are suspended and a new set of rules are followed.
  6. Make-believe: an awareness that you're in a type of second reality; not "real life".

I found those to be pretty interesting and he does a good job of giving his reasoning. Caillois then goes on to give his 4 classifications of games:

  1. Competition: Games that require skill. You are dependent on your own ability to compete. An example might be a push-up contest, or a 100m dash.
  2. Chance: The opposite of competition. Instead, you depend fully on the fates. Examples, include anything that uses a coin flip or dice roll.
  3. Simulation: Games where you are pretending to be something other than yourself. The theater is all about simulation.
  4. Vertigo: These are games, or activities, that give you some sort of rush, or in some way change your mental state. Riding roller-coasters, spinning in circles, and even drinking alcohol are this type of game.

As you've probably already figured out, these types of games can all be combined with some sort of shared activity. Think of a football game:

It starts off with chance, the coin flip, to see who gets the ball first. Then the competition for the players begins: It depends on who calls the better plays and executes the strategy better. For the crowd, it's a simulation as they're watching people dressed up perform on the field. There might be side bets, chance, going on too. They themselves might even be dressed up. The players and the crowd might also experience vertigo: The crowd by shouting and drinking. The players by taking and giving big hits.

Callois finishes up the book talking about different cultures and how the type of play in that culture influences it. I honestly didn't find this section as interesting. I was more interested in the games themselves and how they were thought of.

Overall, I found this a fun book to read. The language was a challenge, but the ideas were solid. I really enjoyed thinking about the different aspects of games and play. At the very least, it has given me a new framework to talk about and evaluate games. I've also learned more about my preferences, and can better articulate them now: For example, I prefer games of competition over chance. I also like games where the odds, the uncertainty, is fairly even. If the chances of me winning are low, I don't enjoy it as much.

Should you read this book? Probably not. It's really for the person who is into gaming, and more importantly, into understanding how games work. Game developers must read this book; casual gamers don't need to bother.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Visiting Singapore

Last week I got to visit Singapore for work. This was my first time in Asia. As is usually the case, this was planned only a few weeks before it happened, the majority of the time I spent in an office (though, as you'll read in a bit, I did get to do fun things), and Jessi had to go to her work. Therefore, like my trip to Germany, Jessi didn't come along.

The team I'm on interacts with another group of analysis in Singapore. They are responsible for laserjet toner sales in Asia-Pacific (AP) and our job is to help them evaluate how well they did historically and plan for the future. The team in AP is a great bunch of people and AP itself is seeing some explosive growth. This particular trip was to resolve a data issue - mainly, how many HP printers we think are in AP. My boss brought me along to be the data junky during our discussions. By the end of the trip we were able to resolve all of the issues. We were also able to build better relationships and have a little tourist fun.

Speaking of fun, the first day we were there we decided to see the city while we acclimated to the new time zone. We checked out a couple of the main attractions:

The Singapore Flyer: A huge enclosed ferris wheel which lets you see the whole city.

The Marina Bay Sands Skypark: An area that connects three towers together. There's a great view, a pool and a restaurant.

The Merlion: One of the main symbols of Singapore.

The last night we were there, we went on the Singapore Zoo Night Safari: This tour was awesome! We got to see bats, flying squirrels, lions and tigers.

Overall, it was a great trip. Our work was really productive and I learned a lot about Asia in general.

My lunch one afternoon

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Elite. Best of the Best

My brother recently installed Microsoft Access on his computer and was asking me what my skill level was at using it (presumably so he could ask me for help if he needed it). I found myself struggling to describe my level of proficiency. I can use Access better than most... so better than average, but I wouldn't call myself an expert.

This lead to a discussion trying to categorize different skill levels. We eventually had to ditch the idea of "categories" because it didn't quite capture the relative, continuous, nature of skills. Instead, we thought of different levels.

So I present to you the 6 different skill levels we thought of. I give a brief description helping to clarify what each level means. Then I provide a few examples that are commonly used when referring to this level.

Why 6? I actually started with 3 (Beginning, Intermediate, Advanced), but found it didn't capture those transitory levels - like for my MS Access skills. Being that skill levels are on a continuum, there are probably an infinite number of levels, but here I'm trying to capture the most common ones. So this starts out at beginner and goes beyond advanced.

You have no clue about what you're doing. As a matter of fact, you're probably hurting the situation.
  • N00b (Newbie) - oh the irony of putting it's definition in parentheses...
  • Beginner
  • Novice
  • Rookie
  • Horrible

You're learning, but not quite there yet. Or, for whatever reason, you haven't taken the time to learn the basics. Lots of people give up here. You're probably not actually adding any positive value yet.
  • Grasshopper
  • Padawan
  • Apprentice
  • Unskilled
  • Bad

Most people are here. They can get regular stuff done, but struggle when an issue arises.
  • Normal
  • Intermediate
  • Average
  • OK
  • Amateur

Comfortable enough to mess around, solve problems and learn new tricks. Often good enough to impress lower levels with your ingenuity.
  • Hacker
  • Pretty Good
  • Skillful

You are great, and you know it. People regularly come to you for help because it's rare that you don't know the answer, or can't find it in under 5 minutes. You could probably get paid at this level. Given the prestige of this and the next level, many of these terms are over, and inappropriately, used.
  • Expert
  • Advanced
  • Master
  • Jedi
  • Great
  • Professional

People are inspired by you. You never have problems, instead you find problems. Chuck Norris is here.
  • Legend
  • L33T (Elite)
  • Best of the Best
  • Guru
  • All-Star

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010: Tree Hunting and Jessi's Birthday

This Thanksgiving Jessi and I decided not to travel anywhere. Come to think of it... I don't think we travelled last year either... interesting...

Anyways, Jessi's brother and sister came to visit us and we had a blast. On Thanksgiving day we eat way too much food with friends. Then we spent the rest of the day playing board games. I got destroyed in Risk, but found the magic carrot in Killer Bunnies.

Friday was a pretty relaxing day. Since we decided to have Thanksgiving with friends after we bought all our food, we decided to have another Thanksgiving meal on Friday. This was the first time Jessi cooked a turkey all by herself. She was a little freaked out about it, but did a great job. Here's a quick video of her preparing the turkey:

The turkey turned out delicious.

Saturday was Jessi's birthday and we decided to start off the day hunting for our Christmas tree.The weather was perfect and within a short while we found the perfect tree and chopped it down. I made sure to take lots of video because I wanted to try out iMovie's new create-your-own trailer feature. So, here's a teaser trailer of all the fun we had:

The rest of Saturday and Sunday we spent hanging out. One highlight was bowling. This last video is a slideshow I made using iPhoto which shows everything we were up to:

It was great having Jessi's brother and sister visit. Now we're turning our attention towards Christmas where my brother and mom will be visiting.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cell Phone Usage Trends

Be prepared to feast your eyes on a bunch of data!

The idea of this project came from two events. First, my Mom and sister recently joined my phone plan. As such, our costs are different and I'm curious to see how they actually use their phones. Second, for another project it was suggested that I learn how to use R - an open source statistical tool. So, I thought this would be a good occasion to take it out for a spin.

Well.. I didn't get too far on the R side of things. I was able to generate the chart at the top in about 10 minutes. It's pretty cool except for one not-so-small problem. Looking at the x-axis: what does 200 mean? Well, basically, it's the 200th call I during this billing cycle. I wanted to change the x-axis to reflect dates, but after 40 minutes of reading tutorials I gave up. So, not even a full hour in and I decided to move on.

With my brief time with R, it looks pretty cool and potentially very powerful. I'm not convinced it's the best tool for doing ad hoc data displays, but generating repeat reports or doing more advanced stats might be right up it's alley. I'll learn more over time, but for the remainder of my time I switched back to trusty ol' Excel.

Anyways, on with the findings!

I've broken this up into 3 parts: Phone minutes, text messages and data used. It's pretty cool to see the differences in how each of us use our phones. For context, here's what we're all using:

Dawn (Mom) -> iPhone
James (Me) -> iPhone
Jessi (Wife) -> iPhone
Matthew (Brother) -> Feature Phone
Lisa (Sister) ->  Feature Phone

Phone Minutes
First we'll look at minutes used. I don't differentiate on whether the minutes are free (off peak, A-list, or mobile-to-mobile), but just focus on how much the device is used.

Well, I'm clearly the winner when it comes to talking on the phone. This isn't a surprise since I use my phone for work. If you take a quick look a the graph up top you'll notice I either have short conversations or talk for about an hour. It's also not a surprise that my mom and Lisa have similar total minutes because a majority of their calls are to each other.

Next I decided to break it out by the day of the week.

Apparently Monday is a great day to talk. I'll have to ask Matthew who he chats with on Mondays. I'm also surprised with how consistent Lisa is. Since she has classes 2 days I week I would have expected to see those days lower. Interesting.

Then I got a little "stats fancy". I wanted to see the average length of a phone call. However, just looking at the averages wasn't good enough. I also wanted to see a relative spread. So, the dot is the average. The blue lines are a single standard deviation; it gives a feel for the range in which most of the calls fall.

So when my mom and Lisa talk, they're super fast conversations. This follows what I've observed: Lisa will call my mom multiple times a day just to say hi. My distribution is so spread out because of those office calls. The data actually looks bi-variate to me, which means there are really two patters merging. It would take a lot of effort (too much to actually do it), but it would be cool to separate my work vs. personal calls. I'd probably find that my patter falls closer to Jessi's.

Text Messages
Next we'll take a look at text messages. I bundled MMS and SMS together.

And I thought Matthew sent a lot of text messages! If Matthew and Lisa are any sign of where the world is heading..  Wow! You can't read it because of Matthew and Lisa, but my mom is right under 300 and Jessi & I are just above 200. I guess it's a good thing we have the unlimited plan. By the way, Lisa is averaging 80 text messages a day. Matthew only sends 51 a day. Who are they sending all of these to?

I thought it would be interesting to again break up the days of the week.

I'm trying to figure out what it is Jessi and I do on Tuesdays which results in a bunch of texts being sent. Matthew also drops way off on the weekends. That's probably because he's actually hanging out with his girlfriend and therefore doesn't need to text her as often.

Data Used
This next group was a total surprise to me. This does not include accessing the internet via wi-fi. I'm sure if it did, I would give my mom a run for it.

This is the second month my mom has had her phone and she's clearly figured out the power of the iPhone.

Next I looked a the number of times we access the internet using the data network. This includes anytime we check our email, use the browser, or use an app which connects online.

OK - weird. I use the phone for internet related activities just as much as my mom, but have the lowest overall usages. What's up with that? Furthermore, when Jessi gets online, she means business. What is she doing? I'll explain what I think it is in just a little bit.

First, here's another look at our average usage measured in Mega Bytes.

So, I had a little look into the usage pattern of my mom. It turns out she likes to use her phone for directions. When she does, it uses a ton of data. You can see these huge spikes (which makes the rest of the graph worthless) that go from 1MB to 15MB.

For me, it's just a bunch of super quick look-ups. I'll turn my email app on to let the messages load. Turn the phone off. Look at my news feed. Phone off. Look at email that's loaded. Phone off. Add something to my to-do list. Phone off. Add something else to my to-do list that I just remembered. Phone off. And so on. Without multi-tasking all of those are independent tasks.

Jessi can't stand the constant bouncing. When she decides to use her phone, she sticks with one app at a time. She also likes to use Pandora which uses a lot of data.

So there you have it. Lots of data as promised. No real conclusions, just interesting to look at.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Facebook's Implied Agency Contract

From Flowing Data, one of my favorite blogs
Jessi and I have started talking a real estate management class and it's been a ton of fun. The first part of the class talked about the Agent / Principal Relationship. I'm not sure why these terms were chosen, but the Principal is the owner of something (a house, a car, their body) and the Agent is someone one acts on behalf of the Principal. Here are a couple examples:
  • A real estate agent (Agent) sells a house of a home owner (Principal).
  • A husband (Agent) can make medical decisions for his wife (Principal) if she's incapable.
  • The CEO (Agent) runs a company for the stockholders (Principals).
What we've learned is that there are many types of relationships. Some are very explicit where it's spelled out exactly what the Agent can do for the Principal - called an Express Contract. In many ways, this is what a privacy policy is: it clearly states what a company (Agent) can, and cannot, do with a user's data (Principal).

There's another type of relationship called an Implied Contract. The idea behind this one is that if the Agent does something and the Principal doesn't say "Don't do that", then that action becomes part of the contract. Here's an example:

You're standing in line to checkout at the grocery store. Suddenly, somebody cuts in front you. If you've been in this position, you know there's a short amount of time when you can say something. You also know that eventually there comes a point in time that if you haven't said anything yet... it's too late and that person will get to stay there. Otherwise, it would be completely awkward to mention it because you've let them stay there so long already. You have implicitly allowed them to cut.

Another way to think about an Implied Contract vs. an Express Contract:
An Implied Contract is seeking forgiveness
An Express Contract is asking permission

OK, that's the concept. Now for the application: Facebook.

I like the service that Facebook provides. I enjoy connecting with my friends and reading about what they're up to. However, I do not like Facebook the company. I am apprehensive about their intentions and don't like the way they implement many of their changes... I know. I know. I'm just as hypocritical as someone who hates Walmart but shops there anyways because "they have such ridiculously low prices."

Anyways, last week was the Web 2.0 summit and  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's Founder and CEO, was interviewed. In the blog post's recap there was one paragraph that stuck out to me:

"The conversation also turned to Facebook’s habit of asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Zuckerberg didn’t really address this directly, choosing instead to discuss the value of the relationship between people who have deemed each other friends. Yes, it’s possible to tag someone in a bad photo or add them to spammy groups, but the user made the decision to add this person as their friend, which confers that power to them. The answer Zuckberberg can’t say: pushing the limits without asking for permission is what allowed Facebook to grow this much, this quickly."

You see, whenever Facebook changes something, they do it in hopes that not enough people say "Don't do that." With over 500 million users, the chances of enough people rejecting the changes (and voting with their clicks), is so small that Facebook doesn't have to worry about it. Worse yet, now Facebook has set an Implied Contract of being able to make changes and forcing it upon people.

This really bothers me.

As such, I have a hopeful prediction regarding the future of Facebook. The nice part about the web is that I don't have to wait too long to see if it comes true. Here's my prediction:

I don't think I'm the only one who doesn't like the way Facebook (the company) treats me. I think many people feel trapped like I do: so many of my friends are already on Facebook that if I want to get any sort of interaction (comments, likes, etc.), I too need to be on there. This situation feels very similar to what Microsoft had just a little while ago with their operating system.

My prediction is that a true competitor will emerge sometime in the future. It will probably never be as big as Facebook just because Facebook has reached a tipping point, but it will address many of the issues I have. When that option emerges, I will definitely be checking it out. I know it will also force Facebook to change how it treats users, which is good for everyone.

Side note: Facebook is proud to own the "social graph" - all your friend connections. Wouldn't be interesting if they continue to "own" it, but all the sharing and interaction happens on other sites. Yes Facebook, you won, but it just might have been the wrong fight...

Finally, one of the things that has kept Microsoft (and Google too, I suppose) so dominate is that it makes ridiculous amounts of money. That allows it to afford the resources to keep innovating and at the very least buying competitors before they become a true threat. Facebook has yet to attain that type of revenue stream. This leaves them vulnerable. If another group is able to create a similar (preferably better) product, and generate strong revenue off it - just like Google did - then Facebook will be in major trouble... And I won't feel bad for them.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Harry Potter and the Audio Book

I feel like I've mentioned this before, but I can't find it anywhere, so I must not have...

For the last 6 months I've been listening to the Harry Potter books (I'm a huge fan of audio books after all). I recently finished the 6th book with one more to go. With the first part of the last movie coming out, I've hit a decision point: Push ahead with the last book and then watch the movies later? Or watch the first movie now and listen to the book after I've seen both parts (which won't be until summer time)?

So far I've enjoyed each of the movies and am afraid I'll ruin the last movie if I read the book first. After all, the books really are much better than the movies.

After (probably too much) debating, I've decided I'm going to hold off on the last book until I've seen both parts of the last movie. I figure I'm not in a rush to finish the series, and after being immersed in the Harry Potter world for the last 6 months, I really am looking forward to seeing all the movies again.

On a final note, which has to be caveated since I haven't seen or heard the last book, I'd like to share my favorites so far:

My favorite movie is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (4).
My favorite book is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (6).
Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix (5) is probably my least favorite.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010 - A Disturbing Trend

I do not have cable. I don't even own a television. The only way Jessi and I watch something is on our computers. The only two services we really depend on are Netflix and Hulu. Netflix continues to be amazing. I pay $9 a month to get 1 DVD at a time plus unlimited online streaming. Over time, their library has been expanding and so have the devices I can watch on - all of it commercial free. Netflix is awesome, and probably part of the reason why I'm suddenly leery of Hulu.

We use Hulu to watch are favorite TV shows (Chuck, The Office, and Bones). When we first started, we technically didn't have commercials. We would get a black screen saying Hulu couldn't load a message from their sponsors (just like the picture). It was great! A 15-30 second break to take a pause and then right back to the show.

Eventually, Hulu figured out their problem and began successfully showing commercials. It still wasn't too bad because it was still only a single 15-30 second commercial and the cost was free. However, the start of this fall things changed. Now Hulu shows 2 commercials where each range from 30 seconds, to one that was 1 minute, 15 seconds. Furthermore, if you want to watch Hulu on anything other than your computer's browser, it'll cost you $10 per month - commercials still included.

I can clearly see where this is headed.

I can easily imagine a day where Hulu is making me sit through 3 to 4 minutes of commercials and still charging me $10 per month for that privilege - even for 1st run shows. Since I only watch these 3 shows, the math starts to break down. $2/show on iTunes * 22 episodes * 3 Shows = $132 per year. That's only $1 more per month - which I can watch on any device I own and has no commercials. If I'm really patient, I can wait until the DVDs come out and watch them on Netflix for no additional cost.

I suppose another solution is to stop watching TV all together and then I really don't care about what Hulu does, but that doesn't seem to be an immediate option.

If I worked for Hulu, my advice would be to cut the monthly price to $8 per month and cut the commercials back down to a minimum (with sometimes no commercials. Pandora does this. A company will pay to NOT play audio, but just display an ad while the next song plays.).

If I worked for Netflix, my advice would be to figure out how to get streaming TV shows as they're happening, or at most 1 week after they air. I would even pay another $2 per month if they offered my 3 shows that way. If they did that, I would switch fully over to Netflix for all my TV shows and movies.

Maybe I'm coming to conclusions too soon, but in my opinion Hulu is headed down a negative track. If this continues, I'll be on the look out for a replacement, even if the video quality isn't as good.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

October - Rest and Relaxation

For the last few months I've talked about how crazy our lives have been. This month however, was a nice break from the constant rush. Don't get me wrong, we were busy, but it was a different type. Here's what we were up to:

The beginning of the month started with my trip down to San Francisco. It was a blast on all accounts. I got to drive a van, help some people in the city, and see my family. I've already shared a lot about the trip and you can read more about it here.

Then Jessi and I began leading small groups, with some friends, for the freshman high school students at our church. Jessi's group of girls sounds fantastic. They get 6-8 showing up each week and are talking about lies girls tell themselves. The girls have a lot of fun while at the same time holding deep conversations. The intent is to work with these students through their graduation - so for four years. It's very exciting.

I've also already shared about us joining the Mac family. Jessi is loving the Mac life. She's constantly telling me she loves her MacBook. It's actually pretty funny. I also think my iMac is fantastic. For me, the transition to iWork has been an interesting one. I've been playing around and learning a lot. I think Pages is just as good, if not a little better than, as Word. Keynote works differently than PowerPoint, and over time I'll learn all the tricks, but right now they seem to be on par. Though, I'll be honest, I was asked to help with a PowerPoint project and I chickened out - I used PowerPoint on my work computer to make it. Finally, Excel is clearly more powerful than Numbers. Besides the apparent lack of pivot tables, the formatting controls just don't seem as good. How do you copy styles of multiple cells? I can't figure it out. I'm sure over time I'll get more comfortable, but I'm glad I have Excel close by on my work machine for now. I also need to find a good Photoshop replacement. I'm thinking about checking out Pixelmator because it's gotten good reviews.

I turned 27 on October 18th. That was a lot of fun. My parents got me a Superman lunch box (like the one you would expect a 1st grader to be carrying around - yeah, it's awesome). Jessi pampered me for the weekend. I wrote a while back about spending on experiences instead of stuff. So that's what Jessi gave me - a wonderfully relaxing weekend. It was perfect.

Finally, a sports update. This month, my friend David and I received our third stripe in Jiu Jitsu. What does this mean? It means we're one step closer to fulfilling our dreams of getting our blue belts. Assuming we continue at our current pace, we'll be able to test for blue belt in February. When that happens, you won't want to mess with us because we could put you into a vicious arm bar or choke! It's been a blast getting to go with David.

I also wanted to share two items I found while playing on internet this month. The first is a venn diagram showing the relationship between the internet and privacy.

Internet VS Privacy - A Helpful Venn Diagram

The second is a video clip showing how ink is made. This is different than printer ink, but fascinating to watch. It's also inspiring to see someone else's passion about what they do.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

San Francisco Mission Trip

Watching a musician play on the wharf
On October 6th I had the opportunity to head down to San Francisco with some high school students from church for a weekend full of serving. I talked about it earlier, but mostly just reflected on being about to drive the van. This time I'd like to share about the actual trip.

As a leader I mostly hung back, watched and made sure they didn't do any too foolish. That's a relatively new experience for me, but it was good. Also, because of the type of helping we were doing, it wasn't always appropriate to take pictures. So the few I have are mostly of us just hanging out.

Sixteen of us headed down to SF. It took about 10 hours of driving (4 the first night, 6 the next morning). The first day we got there, we were early, so we headed down to the wharf to hang out and let the student buy some souvenirs. What made it super awesome was that it was Fleet Week at the time. So while we were driving across the Bay Bridge there was a jet doing laps and tricks around the city. Once on the wharf I couldn't help but just stare up in the sky in amazement. Then, as we were leaving, the Blue Angels came out and were practicing their moves. It was so much fun to watch!

Playing air hockey in our living area
That night we headed out to the House Of Chicken & Waffles. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised - mixing fried chicken with a waffle is actually pretty good. Afterwards, we headed on a prayer tour. For the tour we drove around while our host told us about the city, it's struggles, it's uniqueness, and how we can pray for it. It was an eye opening experience.

The next morning (Friday) we headed to the SOMA district (South Of Market Street). Lots of Internet start-ups are here because it's close to the financial district, yet is relatively affordable. Being "affordable" also tends attracts many homeless and disadvantaged people. We got to do something called a City Search where we walked around and talked to people on the street. We asked about what they like about SF, what they dislike, what problems they face, etc. It was a great learning experience. The group was also given $2 per person for lunch. We pooled our money so we could get something cheap and then be able to buy food for someone else.

That afternoon we got down to some old fashioned work at the SF Food Bank. We sorted bell peppers and packaged up spaghetti. Their mission is to feed the hungry in SF, and so far they are succeeding.

On Saturday morning we got to serve in Oakland. We headed out to St. Vincent de Paul's where they provide free meals to people in the community. We helped to prepare and serve the meals. I got to walk around the outside and clean. Then I got to stand around and watch for anyone causing a problem (then I would report it and let someone else deal with it).

Taking a break at the SF Food Bank
Saturday afternoon we headed back to SF near the Gold Gate Park. The students were given $20 with a simple task: Find someone in need and figure out a way to meet that need. They could help one person, or many people. For this task I really hung back, so I'm not 100% sure what the students did, but I know they fed a couple people and bought a blank for another person. It was fun watching them as they became more comfortable in the city.

Saturday evening we ate at the Red Sea Restaurant. There you don't use any utensils. You use your hands with food that's on a shared family platter. It's a fun experience! Also, since my parents live in the Bay Area, they were able to come up to Oakland and have dinner with the group. It was so nice being able to see them, even though it was very short.

Sunday was marked by waking up early and driving all the way back to Corvallis. 10 hours of driving after a long weekend wasn't easy, but there were some fun conversation to help pass the time. We hit topics from favorite Disney villain to what the student's dating plans are. It all ended in a game of Uno (no, I didn't play, just listened) and much loud singing.

Mr. Jones standing on Jones St.
It was a great trip and I'm really glad I was able to participate.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Welcome To Mac

Back in March I talked about entering the computer market. Jessi's computer had just crashed and she didn't want to replace the hard drive for a third time. Furthermore, we had always dream of one day switching to Mac. I grew up using Macs and Jessi loves her iPhone - it seemed to make sense.

The original plan was for me to buy a Mac Mini because I already owned a mouse, keyboard & monitor. Then Jessi could use my current laptop until we saved up enough to get her a new computer some time in the future. Funny how plans work out.

In the mean time, we still had to save for the Mini. So, we decided to share my laptop. A laptop, which actually gets used like a desktop: I had an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, webcam, hard drive and a printer hooked up to it. For the amount of time I spent on my computer, I had decided it was worth investing in better hardware to make using it more comfortable. The only downside was the loss of mobility, but after I graduated school my computer hadn't moved anyways.

Anyways, there we were: sharing an older computer. This went as you might expect. My laptop slowed down to a crawl and we constantly gave each other the [loving] stink eye when we came into the office it find it already in use. Then, things really went downhill: The power brick failed.

I don't know why it broke. I hadn't moved the computer in a very long time, but it did. The place where the cord and the brick connect would start sparking and the monitor would flicker. Yeah, not great for many reasons. Jessi made a quick fix that involved blue painter's tap, but was still a fire hazard.

So, here we are: down one computer with another one quickly fading. I still have my work computer, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want me sharing it with Jessi. At this point, we had only been half-heartily saving. I wanted a new computer, but we had always found other excellent things to spend our money on (lots of camping and trips). This time round we got serious.

On one of our trips up to Portland we stopped by the Apple Store to see what our options where. I went in thinking I would get a Mini and Jessi might be interested in the iPad, whiling syncing her files on the Mini. I think we spent 45 minutes of the sales person's time debating over what would be the best solution given our needs. When it was all done, we decide the best options were a MacBook for Jessi and an iMac for me.

Jessi wanted portability, the ability to check email/calendar/facebook, do general web surfing, watch Hulu/Netflix (including the DVDs), and write the occasional document. The iPad actually came at a close second, but Jessi also didn't want to manager her files on my computer and feel like she had to ask permission to get on my computer. I don't blame her.

I wanted to do everything Jessi wanted, plus make complicated spreadsheets, play games, program for the web/iOS, and have plenty of storage (having an external drive as your main drive isn't fun). I needed to increase a few of the specks on the Mini to get everything I wanted. For a couple hundred more, I could get all of it with the iMac. Since it already came with a monitor, webcam, keyboard & mouse, I could sell all my accessories and maybe even come out ahead (I didn't, I just repurposed everything, as you can see in the picture).

So now I knew what we wanted and we began the saving process. Finally, at the end of September we decided to pull the trigger. Shortly after we had our new machines. We've been playing with them ever since. I've mostly been slowly adding my music, pictures and videos. Jessi has been loving her computer. Of course, now I've found myself in a strange position...

When we used Windows machines, Jessi would ask me a question and I knew the answer. Often I didn't even have to look at the screen to tell her what to do. However, whenever she asks me how to do something on her Mac, I honestly don't know. However, and this is what makes Macs so awesome, my answer has been a question back: "How do you think it should work?" Jessi would tell me, and I'd say to give it a try. In EVERY SINGLE CASE, it as worked exactly the way Jessi wanted it to.

Here's a simple example: We wanted to play our Netflix DVD. Jessi asked me how to do that, to which I gave my question back. Jessi said, "I want to put the DVD in and have it start playing." I told her that sounded reasonable and give it a try. She put the DVD in and... wait for it... the movie started playing right away! I half expected to see a window popping up asking to play, but nope, it work exactly how Jessi wanted it to. This is one of many examples (setting our our wireless HP printer was 1,000 times easier than on my HP work laptop!). It's obvious that Apple spends a significant amount of time watching how customers use their computers and then make changes to fit their customers.

So, we're now living in the Mac ecosystem and loving it. Given the amount of time we spend on our computers, it made sense to get something that we would both be happy with - and we are both really happy. Personally, I'm really excited to start diving into the iOS SDK and make a couple fun apps for my iPhone.

One last thought: I now find myself in another strange position. On October 20th Apple will be holding a special event to talk about new things for Mac. I find myself excited about what they have to share, but also hoping it's not too crazy so I don't feel like I have something super old. It'll be fine no matter what. I'm still glad we are in the Mac ecosystem even if it is a little out of date. I mean, I still have a 3G iPhone and it still works just fine.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Crazy September: Tractors, Cars & A Cabin

I thought September was supposed to be a down month, but as it progressed it quickly become clear that the busy-ness would continue. Rumor has it that October is supposed to be much calmer... we'll see how that goes.

We started off the month in California visiting my family. We celebrated my grandma's 80th birthday with a surprise party. It was great seeing everyone and getting to be with my family for a short while. We definitely need to make it a point to visit more often. I drove down for a week and worked at my parent's kitchen table. Right before labor day, Jessi flew down and we drove back up together. I always forget how wonderful the weather is down there. Now if only they could fix the traffic problem!

We then got to work on re-grading our yard. I already talked a bit about it earlier. The tractor was a blast and the results look good. The grass is growing strong and we've gone back and filled in spots we originally missed with more seed. By the time winter hits, our grass should be looking good. This grass is "self-repairing" which I think is a fancy way of saying it grows like a weed. So hopefully after a full season of growing it'll cover everywhere no matter what.

Right after we finished with the yard, Jessi's car stopped working. That's when I had my man moment and fixed it. That was a definitely learning experience that I hopefully won't have to repeat for a bit (knock on wood). You can read more about it here.

Then, Jessi's dad came to visit for two days. We picked him up at the Portland Airport, visited Willamette University and Honeywood Winery. We also made pizza and delicious hot chocolate for dessert. We really enjoyed seeing him.

Then, we went to Sunriver for a weekend in a cabin. We went with a couple friends and relaxed quite a bit. Jessi and I also hiked up Smith Rock which has an amazing view of the surrounding area. You can read more about it here.

Finally, at the tail end of September I went to Boise, ID for a meeting. It was a fast trip, but well worth it. I got to see my team and learn more about how my job fits in with the larger organization. I must admit, Boise is a pretty nice place. If it didn't take me further way from my family, I might consider living there someday.

This month though, is surprisingly devoid of lots of activities. The only thing we have going on now is a trip I'm taking to San Francisco with our church's high school group (10/6-10/10). We'll be spending a couple days helping the homeless and needy. It should be a memorable experience. I'm particularly excited because this will be the first time I get to drive a church van. For years (since I was in high school) I've been sitting in the back seat wishing I could help with driving. I've reviewed all my driver rules and am ready to get everyone there safely. Please pray for a safe trip and that we touch the hearts of those around us.

That's it this month. Lots and lots of activities. I'll leave you with a short, but awesome video.

A quick insight into the difference between Jessi and I: I watched the video and thought the kick was awesome. Jessi saw the video and only felt sorry for the kid who got kicked. Weird.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sunriver Weekend Get-Away

Sunriver Cabin
Earlier this year Jessi and I attended an event put on by Friends of the Family Ministries. Friends of the Family Ministries is a non-profit, non-denominational organization committed to building healthy relationships and healthy homes in the Mid-Willamette Valley of Oregon. They provide a variety of services including counseling, workshops and seminars teaching and coaching. It's a really cool organization.

Kitchen Area
During this event they had a silent auction where all the items were donated and the money went to support this organization. One of the items was a weekend trip to Sunriver near Bend, Or. We bid on the item and ended up winning! It was very exciting. It was a 4 bedroom cabin with a hot tub, big-screen TV, kitchen, and plenty of couches. Here's a video of Jessi giving a tour:

Living Room
We invited another couple to join us. The entire weekend was one of relaxing and simply taking it very easy. I accomplished lots of reading, multiple naps and ate really well. We also went on walks, played some board games and watched a couple episodes of CSI (Jessi loves it). All and all, it was relaxing and it sounded like everyone had fun.

On the way home, Jessi and I decided to check out Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, OR. We hiked up to the top and then went back down the other side. Here's a video of us at the top:

Lots of rock climbers come here to take on one of the many surfaces available. We saw at least a dozen people making their way up the rock. Here's a fun little video of Jessi climbing down a rock:

Here are more pictures of the trip:

On Top of Smith Rock

Enjoying our view up top

Inside a rock cavern - these are all over!

Looking back up the rock

A beautiful view walking around Smith Rock

Monday, September 20, 2010

Man Moment: Fixing A Car

I got to experience a man moment last week. Jessi's car wouldn't start Monday morning and I was able to fix it by Thursday night.

It's funny, I remember helping my dad fix cars while growing up. I remember there also being more than a couple tense moments either because a screw wouldn't move, we couldn't see properly, something else breaks, or a whole myriad of things not going smoothly. I think being on your back, getting dirty, and having sore arms from cranking on screws leads to much of the frustration. I also clearly remember thinking I didn't want to put myself through that same anguish. Funny how things change when you grow up.

So, Jessi's car wouldn't start. All we heard was a clicking noise. Who knows what that means. This is my first official car problem after all. I try the obvious: grab the jumper cables. Nothing. Next, I switch our car batteries. My car still works, Jessi's still clicks mockingly.

It's at this time we decide to give my dad a call. His prognosis is that it might be the starter. The clicking sound is it engaging, but it's now turning the engine over. I hop online and figure out where it's located: Right under the engine, a little to the passenger side. Oh wait! Before I can even get to the starter I need to figure out how to get under the car. It's at this point that projects start to get out of control...
My home-made ramp

I go to Home Depot and buy a 12'  2"x6". I cut it up into smaller pieces and create a ramp. Of course, Jessi's car can't start, so we need to jack it way up into the air to fit the ramp under the tire. Using her car's jack and my truck's jack we lift the car high enough to fit the ramp under the wheel. We meet our first mile stone.

By the way, notice the straw on the ground? We had just finished our yard project the night before and hadn't even cleaned up yet. Projects are starting to pile on top of each other!

Then Oregon happens. Yep, it started raining. So, we once again got diverted from the project at hand. We grabbed the tarp we put under our tent when camping and throw it over the car. We then use the straps in my truck, which are normally used to tie down objects, to pull the tarp into the air. If you could imagine, it's really starting to look like a work zone. We've got the car in the air and a tarp covering the front of the vehicle. Now we can actually get down to work on taking the starter out.

Taking the starter out is relatively easy. There are only two bolts holding it in, two wires connected to it, and a small plastic case protecting the gears from the elements. If it wasn't for the front axle being the way, this would be a slam dunk. Still, this being our first time ever doing this, it took quite a while to get it off. I might have, possibly, yelled a couple times during the process. During the process I also managed to break my socket wrench. I'll admit it wasn't the highest quality wrench, but I was kind of shocked at how easily I broke it. Though, now I have a brand new one, with a lifetime warranty, so I can't complain too loudly.
The starter

Oh yeah, there were also a couple bolts my sockets couldn't reach so I also got a new 10", 6" and 3" extender set. Now that I think about it, I might have actually come out ahead on this project.

Anyways, we bought a new starter and installed it. I also cleaned off all the ends of the cables. There was a little bit of corrosion around the battery's positive terminal and we wanted to eliminate all possible problems.

Since I had to work during the day, I could only fit in working on the car a couple hours in the morning and then a few hours in the evening before it got too dark. Because Jessi drove my truck to work I also had to wait until the evening before we could get parts. So, it took until Thursday evening before we got her car working again.

It was a great feeling to hear it start up. We were able to diagnose the problem and fix it. Since we have a car maintenance budget, this didn't cost us anything out of ordinary to fix it, which was really nice. I'm sure if we had taken it to a mechanic the total cost wouldn't have been so reasonable (I wouldn't have gotten any new tools). It's now, after being an adult and paying my own bills with my own money, I understand why my dad put up with fixing his cars himself. The difference is material. Cars are just simple enough that with some advice pretty much anyone can fix basic issues.

So I'm now officially in the DIY car fixer-upper club. Depending on how big the next issue is, we'll see if I decide to stay in the club or buy my way out. Right now, after stepping away for a little bit, I feel confident I might be able to handle it. Or, at the very least be able to diagnose the issue with the advice of others like my dad.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yard Re-Grading Project Completed

A little while back I blogged about starting our re-grading project. I am happy to report after many, many!, hours of work it's completed.

The whole reason for the project revolved around drainage. When we started, the slope of the yard went towards the building. Now the slope falls away from the building, or in some cases is flat, which is still better.

Here's what we ended up doing:

  • We didn't water our lawn and let it die. Then we cut it super short so we didn't have grass everywhere.

  • We borrowed a friend's rototiller and did a quick first pass over the yard. Then we did a deeper pass along the edges. This took a while.
Rototilling the edges
  • Then we rented a tractor. Before we could do that, we had to ask permission from our neighbors to drive the tractor on their land to get to our backyard. It's a farm where the owners rarely ever seem to be around. We wrote a letter explaining who we are and what we wanted to do. A few days later I got a call from a nice gentleman who gave us permission to drive the tractor on the corner of their land.

    Running the tractor
  • The tractor had a huge rototiller on the back and a bucket on the front. First we rototilled the entire yard. Then I used the front bucket to move the dirt around to change to slope to falling away from the building. This, not surprisingly, is harder than it looks. I have a new found respect for how easy my dad makes it look. Here's a video of Jessi running the tractor:

  • Then we used an AC rake (image) my dad let us borrow to smooth out the ground and add the finishing touches.

  • We then bought grass seed, a seed spreader, and a banana sprinkler (image). We spread the seed everywhere.

  • We also bought straw from a neighboring farm down the road and spread it all over the yard. We read online that using straw can be helpful:
    • It protects the seeds from birds
    • It stops the seeds from blowing away
    • It traps moisture in
    • It provides nutrients when it starts to decompose
The straw to cover the seed
  • Now we are in the watering stages. Since we're just starting to head into fall & winter, the seed should get enough water. For those dryer days I'll be moving the sprinkler around to make sure the ground stays moist.

      Watering the ground
      That was our project. It was a lot of work, but hopefully it will result in less water getting under the building. We also bought new downspouts which kicks the water a couple feet away from the building instead of a couple inches. We'll find out this winter if it all worked. Here's another video of us admiring the yard:

      Tuesday, September 07, 2010

      Chrome Nanny

      I'd like to share one of my new favorite extensions for Chrome: Chrome Nanny. I'm always on the lookout for programs that will help me be more productive, and this one definitely accomplishes that. First, a quick primer on Chrome.

      Chrome is a web browser, which is the program used to view web sites on the internet. Windows comes with Internet Explorer and Macs come with Safari built in. Other popular browsers are Firefox and Opera (the Wii uses Opera for it's internet channel). The difference between each of these browsers is the code used to render a web page. Each group has their opinion of the best way to show a webpage. Some, like Chrome, focus on speed. Other might focus on features. Each browser also has add-ons (or extensions), made by third party developers, which you can install to change how the browser works.

      I use Chrome for three reasons. First, it's super fast at loading webpages. When I think about how long I spend on the internet, those seconds start to add up. Second, I like the minimalist look of the browser. This lets me see more of the page at once. Third, it has almost every other add-on other browsers have so I'm not missing out on features. So that's Chrome.

      One add-on I really like is Chrome Nanny. I was finding that I'd have periods of time when I would spend too much time reading news or goofing off. It wasn't horrible, but I'm constantly looking for ways to improve. Most site blockers, like parental controls, block sites all the time, but I only wanted sites blocked part of the time. When I learned about this add-on, I decided to give it a spin. It does exactly what I want while being relatively easy to use.

      In the picture above you can see I have a bunch of sites blocked at the time I took the screen shot. I can specify the day of the week, the time period, and the total amount of time I can visit the sites when they're not blocked. As you can see in the second section, Gmail is allowed but I only have 58 minutes left during this day (I allow myself 1 hour each day). You can also track the amount of time you spend on a site. It's currently empty since I haven't visited any of those sites yet this morning. I track how much time I spend on Pandora, Hulu and Netflix.

      As I first mentioned, it's really useful for productivity. I block all entertainment sites from 7am - 10:30am and 11:30am - 4:30pm on week days (yes, I consider news as entertainment). When they're not blocked, I can only spend a cumulative 2 hours on these sites.

      I've found that's enough time for me to keep up on news/friends while staying focused when I'm supposed to be working. In the mean time, I do what I'm supposed to do - which is work. I highly recommend trying it out if you find you sometimes get stuck goofing off when you should be working.

      Wednesday, September 01, 2010

      Playing Hard in August

      And August happened.

      The beginning of the month Jessi spent a week in Colorado hanging out with her family. It was a time to simply relax and be around them. The last time we were in Colorado she didn't have enough time with them, and this trip made up for that. She literally arrived without a schedule and spent time hanging around. Jessi said it was very relaxing and a fun time. During the weekend she was gone, so I went over to a friend's house and played games all weekend.

      We then participate in a church event called Beach Olympics. The high school and middle school kids are put into 8 teams and taken to the coast. On the beach they compete in 8 different events during the day. The first even was called "China Dig". The goal is to create the longest distance between a hole and a mound of sand. There is also a tug-a-war, a relay, steal the bacon, and an event requiring the kids to run out into the ocean. It's a great outreach event because students invite their friends and at the end of the day we have a BBQ and the gospel is presented to them. The kids love it.

      As I've talked about before, Jessi and I started our back yard re-grading project. It is proving to be a long task like I thought, but I think we might actually finish it in a reasonable amount of time. Having Jessi around during the summer gave us a great start.

      We also embarked on the second annual Parry-Furlo camping trip. I've set the date in November to remind me to start looking for yurts. They're available 9 months in advance and they're usually taken fast. Hopefully by being on top of it we'll get one for next year.

      Finally, Jessi will be starting school today which makes for an official end to her summer. I'm getting to spend it down in California with my family through Labor Day. It's fun to work in the kitchen and just be around family.

      As you can tell, we've done a lot of playing this last month. It was a blast, and I must admit I'm ready for a semi-calm and regular fall to start. Though, I've joined a football fantasy league, so I doubt it'll be too relaxing.

      With so much going on this month I did manage to find a couple items worth sharing. The first is a guy who is summarizing the Bible one chapter a day via Twitter (@biblesummary). It's fun to see how he summarizes each chapter. He's still only in Genesis, so it'll be easy to catch up.

      The second item is this video about PowerPoint: