Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A year in books

This year, Andrea and I each made an effort to read more books. I bought Andrea a new Kindle to replace her Kobo that broke, and a day hardly goes by without her reading something from it. The following is a list of books in what I believe is the order in which I read them this year:
House Lust was recommended to me by my friend Jacek after I recommended The 100 Thing Challenge to him. I had previously read Switch -- an excellent book I discussed earlier this year, and have been meaning to read Freakonomics for some time. I just finished The Art of Happiness the other day. The Small House Book is mostly pictures of the various tiny homes Jay Shafer builds; it seems a little disingenuous to say I "read" that one, but I'm including it nonetheless.

Many of these books I was able to pick up either from swap.com or from the Great River Regional or Hennepin County libraries.

Of these books, I would recommend The Giver, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Game Theory (at least for math/computer geeks), Switch, Freakonomics, House Lust, and The Art of Happiness.

For Christmas, my parents bought me Toward a Psychology of Being (Abraham Maslow), which I have started reading and hope to have finished soon.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas at the Shireys' House

Yesterday, we went to my parents' place for the Shirey family Christmas. While we were waiting for the turkey to finish cooking, Dad, the boys and I went outside to play on the pond. Dad pushed them around with the broom:
And the boys ate plenty of snow:

We spent the better part of the day with Mom and Dad, eating turkey, zonking out on the couch, playing with the various toys they bought for Jacob and Reed, and so on.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 Christmas Gifts, Part IV

Our Christmas traditions include spending Christmas Eve with the Nieters, Christmas morning just our little family, and Christmas afternoon with the Shireys. We don't really do any sort of formal gift exchange with my side, but lately we've been pseudo-randomly selecting among the six of us -- Andrea, Krista, Becca and their husbands -- for an exchange. This year, I made a gift for Abe. (Last year, I made a hammock for Becca out of used climbing rope.)

I decided I would start with a tall beer glass, and etch an 'A' into it using the same technique I did for Ryan and Jenn's Babbage Tech glasses. The result isn't what I was hoping for, but it wasn't too bad:

Next, I decided that he should be able to fill his glass, so I went to Coborn's and picked up a six pack sampler consisting of:
And I created custom labels for each one. At 96x96 DPI, they're very nearly the exact same size as the original labels with the exception of the Guinness label (Dagda's Irish Stout), which covers both front and back labels.

Added to the left is one of Christ's Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.
Budai, Hotei, or "the laughing Buddha" is associated with contentment.

Dagda was a Celtic protector of tribes, associated with a bottomless cauldron from which no man left unsatisfied.
Shiva is part of the Hindu trinity: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector and Shiva the destroyer or transformer. Om is added to the bottom right.
Ra is the Egyptian god whose tears became honey bees. 1.2 Djas is roughly 12 fluid ounces.

2011 Christmas Gifts, Part III

For the Lansing side's Christmas gift exchange, Andrea randomly picked one of her cousins who is in college. In addition to one other gift, she thought it would be neat to make a book safe. The idea came from the case Dad made for my eReader:

I picked up a few books from the Great River Regional Library in St. Cloud, cut the pages out, and Dad and I made some frames out of some wood he had in his basement. The work is actually very fast and quite easy. Here's the end product:

Money and key are staying with us.
Fairly non-descript profile.
Granted, a Reader's Digest on my bookshelf doesn't really fit in with my books on programming, philosophy, Buddhism, and social psychology.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011 Christmas Gifts, Part II

Yesterday I posted about the etched Babbage Technologies tumbler glasses I made for Ryan and Jenn. This post is about two gifts for our friends Aaron and Elissa Ballman.

The first and more straightforward gift for them is something I originally received from my boss Becki: apple pie schnapps. The recipe is very straightforward and requires no exotic ingredients:
  • 1 gal. apple cider
  • 1/2 gal. apple juice
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. brown sugar
  • 7 cinnamon sticks
  • Cook until almost boiling.  Let cool slightly.  Add 1 liter bottle of Everclear.
We used 190 proof Everclear from Wisconsin -- only the best for our friends! I expect the bottle will be gone in a matter of days.

The second gift took a good deal more time. Nearly every Saturday, the Ballmans and we play Dominion. For some time, I have been half-jokingly suggesting we create our own cards for the game. I finally decided to go for it and create a few cards that we could throw into the mix every so often.

I did some searching and found a few existing homemade variants, but none that I particularly liked. I wanted something more personal. I found some Dominion blanks online and started to create cards, but then I decided that -- being a software engineer -- I should leave it to software to build my cards, and instead, I would build said software.

Several hours of coding here and there later, and I had the Dominion CardBuilder application ready to go. In very short order, I churned out 11 (probably mediocre) cards:


(For what it's worth, I'm assuming my work with these images falls under the fair use clause of US copyright law.)

A few things should probably be clarified with respect to these cards:
  •  I originally started off thinking I would do a set of Calvin and Hobbes cards, but I realized that I wasn't sure how much the Ballmans like that strip. I then thought I would make some cards relating to teamwork, but we don't play Dominion that way terribly often. Then I figured making it into a drinking game would be interesting, but we don't really drink that much when playing (usually a drink or two over the course of the night). By this point, I created enough cards that seemed random that I just went ahead and created whatever I thought seemed interesting.
  • White Wizard, Balrog and Hex are the only cards that are dependent upon any other cards in this "expansion."
  • "Team Suck" is the name we gave to our never-materialized summer volleyball team. It never materialized for good reason.
  • Aaron and I are rather big fans of Bruce Campbell (mostly from Army of Darkness and Bubba Ho-Tep). Quoting Ash is a favorite past-time of mine.
  • "The Gambler" is an ode to Andrea, as she loves that Kenny Rogers song. Except when she loses:
November 24, 2006: Andrea's first bitter taste of defeat at the hands of Kenny Rogers.
Even though my application isn't world class, Aaron urged me to put it up online for others to use. I am cleaning up the interface a bit and will put it up on dingostick.com soon.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 Christmas Gifts, Part I

This year's de facto theme for Christmas gifts has been: made from scratch. Mostly. For the most part, I'm quite happy how things have turned out. So for the next few days, I'm going to post details on everything we've made.

The first gift was for Ryan and Jenn Olson. Ryan and I have been in business for six years, and I tend to gravitate toward some sort of Babbage Tech gift for them. This year, I bought some small tumbler glasses from Target and some glass etching cream from CraftsDirect, and I had Luke print out the Babbage logo in vinyl. I applied the vinyl to the glasses, painted on the etching cream and let it sit for five minutes. Then I removed the vinyl, wiped away the cream and repeated on the other three glasses. The results are pretty good:

Friday, December 16, 2011

The importance of second opinions

I had my tires replaced a couple weeks ago at Royal Tire in St. Cloud. Halfway through the work, they came out and told me my cam seals were leaking, getting oil on the timing belt. Once that happens, you need to replace the timing belt. The whole job would cost $1200 and change:

  • 2 cam seal sets @ $16.95 each
  • an a/c belt @ $28.95
  • an "alt p/s belt" (alternator/power steering, I assume) @ $28.95
  • a timing belt component kit with water pump @ $749.95
  • labor totaling $332.50
  • environmental fees @ $39.73
All said and done, they wanted $1276.07. And they also quoted me another $306.19 for a valve cover gasket and labor to install.
This morning, I dropped the Outback off at R&L Repair just down the road from my work. They got back to me in short order, telling me the seals are fine. There's a small amount of oil that had spilled during an oil change (the Subies have a narrow neck where you fill up the engine oil, so you have to fill it slowly, lest it spill). No bad seals. No leaking oil on the timing belt. I do have a torn CV joint boot, however, which Dad and I have fixed several times on various cars. It's about $75 and maybe an hour or two.

Perhaps I'm being a bit cynical, but this leads me to the conclusion that the guys at Royal Tire are either [a] completely incompetent (they didn't find the torn boot) or, more likely, [b] the stereotypical auto mechanics that screw over their customers at every chance. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe the guys at R&L missed something. But when I asked R&L how much their assessment would cost me, they waved me off and said not to worry about it. A mechanic that doesn't charge for a half hour of their expertise seems more believable.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I always wanted to be a lumberjack

Today we continued what is becoming a tradition of going on a hayride with my parents to get their Christmas tree. We went to Tallakson's Tree Farm just down the road, which is where we went last year. This time, however, the Days came with us.

Dad drove the tractor, occasionally trading off with Reed:

When we got there, we parked and wandered around, looking at various trees:

Ultimately, we felled a mighty blue spruce, had some sense shaken into it (and needles out of it), wrapped it up and brought it back to my parents' house.

In other news, I recently finished the book House Lust: America's Obsession with Our Homes. While not particularly exciting, it was rather interesting -- particularly the discussions about how extremely oversized homes have become.

Today is Bodhi Day, so to commemorate, I am starting to read The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Still Recovering

The day after Thanksgiving, Jacob went into the St. Cloud Surgical Center to have his tonsils and adenoids removed, as well as his sinuses tidied up. In true Jacob-style, he handled it like a champ! We explained everything before it happened. He didn't once complain about fasting before the procedures. He took the medicine before-hand without a fuss and even walked into the OR and climbed on the table himself. When we brought him home, he ate and drank without an issue. I was wondering if he would have any pain the way he was playing.

Fast forward a few days. Jacob is healing well. He sleeps great at night, plays during the day and rarely complains about his pain. I'm so impressed with how well he's doing. I haven't brought him to daycare or preschool yet. Maybe he would do just fine, but I want to make sure he's ready for the rough play. The only thing that he really doesn't like is medicine time. They gave him liquid Vicodin and apparently it doesn't taste good.

This time at home has given me the opportunity to play more with him. Grandpa Sam and Grandma Ann bought him Candy Land to help him recover. We've played that a few times. It's hard to lose, but I refuse to let him cheat and win. Kids need to know how to be a good winner and loser. Grandma Sarah and Grandpa Doug bought him a Thomas the Train magazine that we've been working on. There are tons of activities like counting the engines and tracing numbers. I'm impressed with his level of concentration. Krista and Abe bought Jacob some jingle bells; so that he doesn't have to strain his voice during recovery. He thinks is a pretty cool gift. The other day, I tried to take a nap. The bells were rung right away. I think the mother-lode came from Becca and Josh. They bought Jake new pajamas (which he has hardly removed since Friday), chap stick (lipstick), and several new toys. The paddle ball game, squishy caterpillar and Color Magic paper have been some favorites.

I feel blessed that the surgeon preformed the procedures well and without complications; and I feel blessed that our family and friends have been so supportive. But mostly, I feel so blessed that Jacob is recovering so well.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Days since ER visit: 1

The clock has been reset again.

My parents asked if I could help them re-shingle the roof of the cabin this weekend, and because Andrea had a wedding rehearsal Friday and a wedding Saturday, she stayed home and I took the boys up north. Jacob coughed a bit on the way up, but not too bad.

When we got up to the cabin, he started coughing worse, breathing harder, and generally seemed to be in worsening condition (though his attitude was stellar). Andrea came up post-haste, and we ended up taking him to the emergency room in Brainerd right around midnight.

This kid is one hell of a trooper. Despite having a very hard time breathing, he was happy as a clam. He was only disappointed when he found out that he couldn't go back to the cabin and had to stay overnight in the pediatric unit. That didn't last long, though, as he got some Legos to play with as well as a whale beanie baby.

Vomit bags are actually a good thing. They're quite fun to play with.
The tests for RSV, the flu and ear infection all came back negative. X-rays looked good. The doctors thought the symptoms seemed asthmatic. Jacob is already on the path to getting his tonsils and adenoids out (hopefully by the end of the year). Now we've got to take him in and see if he has asthma. In the meantime, he's back on a nebulizer and is taking some nasty medicine (I tasted it, and yes, it is as disgusting as he said it is). But he's taking it like a champ.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pressing cider for fun and profit

This afternoon, Jacob and I went to a coworker's house to press cider. We got maybe 25 gallons of apples from my parents and as much as ten more from Aaron and Elissa. Add twice that from one co-worker's contribution and three hours of work, and we ended up with 17 gallons of pressed cider.

The first stage was washing the apples. Since none of the apples we used had been sprayed, we pretty much just chucked them into a tote with water, sloshed them around and called it good. The blue tote on the right is not full of apples, but is nearly full of water and has several layers of apples floating on top.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Daddy and Reed's Sunday School

Yesterday was Jacob's first day of Sunday school, which Andrea taught. While the two of them were at Newman, Reed and I had our own adventure at Munsinger Gardens.

We started out walking around along the Mississippi River, and when Reed found a stick, he had to show it to me:

Then I had to have him stand next to the tall oak behind him, a la the abundant shots of people in front of sequoia trees:

I don't think he particularly liked that, as he came running back to me in a real hurry. So we snuggled together for a bit and got a self-shot:

Then we took a break and sat on the rocks for a while, looking for ducks. We couldn't find any, so we talked about the trees and the rocks. (Reed kept pointing out mommy rocks and daddy rocks and baby rocks and mommy trees and daddy trees and baby trees.) After a while, we got up and started walking. When he asked me to put his hat back on him, I realized that - after putting it in my pocket while we were sitting on the rocks - it had fallen out. So we walked back to the rocks to find his hat. I couldn't find it anywhere, but Reed sure saw it. It took me a minute to realize that he did, in fact, see his hat:

It was very slowly floating away. We stood in silence for a few minutes, watching his hat (and mittens therein), inching away from us. Had it been a warmer day, I might have been adventurous, but instead, I held Reed close and told him I was sorry for losing his hat.

In the end, it worked out okay:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

If you can't be well-rested, at least you can be adored

(Said to Andrea one morning when our kids woke up entirely too early.)

I finished reading Switch the other day, and last night I decided what book I would pick up next: Climb: Stories of Survival from Rock, Snow and Ice. Andrea bought that book for me before we were married -- probably close to 10 years ago. I had not cracked it open until now. Oops.

Climb starts off with a prologue about a number of people who have died tragically while rock climbing. The first essay discusses a few of the tragedies that author observed: four events in which five friends died on some mountain face. This book is going to be a real pick-me-up.

In other news, Reed apparently loves to be the center of attention. I was posting on craigslist a child backpack, and as I was taking pictures, he jumped in front of the camera to be in the frame.

Andrea and I are hoping to go to Interstate Park in Taylors Falls for a day trip very soon. Unfortunately, it's getting too chilly to take the boys on an overnight camping trip, but there's plenty to do there for a few hours.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Changing the way you make decisions

I've been re-reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Chip Heath & Dan Heath) as a way to improve my productivity at work. (It's already helped me quite a bit by using some "Shape the Path" techniques.) I hit an interesting section this weekend that discusses two basic decision-making models. The first is the "consequences" model:
The consequences model is familiar to students of economics. It assumes that when we have a decision to make, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. It's a rational, analytical approach.
Then there's the "identity" model:
In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ousrelves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Notice what's missing: any calculation of costs and benefits.
This struck a chord with me. I thought about a recent decision I made that was based solely on the consequences model. I collected all the data I could, did a number of calculations, made a few adjustments to control for certain factors and then I heavily analyzed the results. My decision was ultimately based on how numbers played out. (Incidentally, I'm not satisfied with the decision I made.)

Then I thought about it some more. Most of the big decisions I make tend to use the consequences model. Should I buy this car or that car? Calculate the fuel efficiency, expected maintenance costs, insurance premiums and even weigh some non-monetary costs. Which vehicle will be better in Minnesota's winters? Will one vehicle be more of a burden than another when it comes to hauling kids around? There are costs involved there as well -- mostly in convenience. But there's little emphasis on identity. I'm not suggesting a car purchase be cosmetic; rather, how does my identity influence my decision? In such a scenario, the identity line of reasoning might go something like this:
  • Who am I? I am a person that values sustainable manufacturing processes.
  • What kind of situation is this? One car is built in a zero-landfill plant by an LEED-certified company; the other is not.
  • What would someone like me do in this situation? He or she would buy Car A instead of Car B because the former reflects environmentally-conscious values.
Another line of reasoning might be: I am a person who wants to buy American goods; one car is made by an American company; a person like me would buy that car.

I'm wondering whether the identity model would help make decisions that will ultimately lead to higher satisfaction. I suspect people place a higher relative value on identity than consequences, meaning that if the cost/benefit analysis doesn't strongly suggest you make one decision while the identity model suggests you do, it should be used as the default. It might take many thousands of dollars of extra cost on a vehicle, for example, to overcome your identity preference.

Furthermore, deferring to identity by default and using in-depth consequence analysis only when there's no strong identity preference may provide some extra fuel for the Rider discussed in Switch (which actually comes from Jonathon Haidt and his book The Happiness Hypothesis). In other words, if you consciously establish a default approach of not doing a cost analysis unless you have to and you instead focus on identity aspects, you may retain your power over the Elephant.

I'll tell you one thing: it's always better when we're together

We spent this weekend in Tofte, MN, at Bluefin Bay for Luke and Shannon's wedding, leaving the kids at Doug & Sarah's place while we partied. The order and nature of the events was pretty typical for weddings (rehearsal and rehearsal dinner on Friday; pre-ceremony events, beautiful ceremony, reception, etc.). There were a few things of note for Luke and Shannon's wedding that we'll remember for years to come.

First off, at the reception, the now-married couple had a photo booth -- an awesome idea that I had never heard about or considered before. For every set of pictures taken, two printouts were made: one for the subjects and one for a book the Kackmans get to keep. I actually really like how the pictures of me and Andrea turned out. The middle picture of that set is our 'surprised' (shocked? appalled?) look. After we took those, Andrea pulled Mom into the booth and did pretty much the same surprised shot. Luke's and my photos (on the right) were something to the effect of: morose, meh, and contemplative.

A few weeks ago, Luke asked me if -- before the wedding, while the bridesmaids and groomsmen/ushers were getting ready -- I would drive from Tofte to Grand Marais to pick up sandwich platters. The plan was to have one platter for the women and two for the men (there were four groomsmen and four ushers; also, we're all gluttons). Andrea and I made the drive, and despite being stuck behind slow drivers, it was very nice. The leaves weren't yet changing noticeably, but it was relaxing.

We got back to Tofte just in time, and we first stopped by condo #8, which is where the women were getting ready. We knocked on the door a few times, but no one answered. Andrea found someone in housekeeping who let us in so we could leave the food: one platter, a vegetarian sandwich for one of the women and a bag of condiments. We then asked if he'd help us get into #15 in case we needed it. (We figured everyone would already be there, but for some reason, they were gone from #8.) But when he asked, "Which #15? A or B?", we didn't know. The sheet I was given with instructions didn't say one way or the other.

Then a lightbulb goes off for Housekeeping Dude. We actually should be dropping these sandwiches off at Surfside -- which is a few miles down the road -- not at Bluefin. We unintentionally broke into some random peoples' condo and left them a veggie sandwich and a sandwich platter. I quick went back in and grabbed the stuff, and Andrea and I headed over to Surfside. As we're pulling in, I grab the stuff I need for the correct condo #8 -- one sandwich platter, one veggie sandwich one bag of condiments which... somehow... isn't in the car.

So to the folks at Bluefin Bay #8 who came back on September 10th to a random bag of Subway condiments amid all their stuff: no need to thank me.