31 May 2010

wtf is a Downers Grove?

for a 2-day training seminar, I recently found myself in the suburban hell known as Downers Grove, IL. (as the joke at work went, "I can't recall the name, something like Upper's Meadow").

Chicago is one of those cities that, given a feature limiting its expansion (specifically, a giant lake), has grown on a hub and spoke system. this has given rise to a number of communities that sprang up along railroad stops. though it's not exactly my style, downtowns like Arlington Heights have a certain charm to them, especially given a fairly-recent rejuvenation of pedestrian and bike traffic in some suburbs centered around the trainstop. Keeping with my example, one can detrain in Arlington Heights and have quick walking access to a number of new shops, restaurants, and condos, in a semi-dense area with a mixture of new construction, rehab, and new-cum-olde.

this makes it all the more distressing to end up in a Downers Grove. maybe there's a nice downtown i just didn't come across (and let's not pretend that all of Arlington Heights is pedestrian/bicycle friendly), but what I did see is a travesty: networks of high-capacity expressways and thoroughfares, small clusters of mini-skyscrapers adorned with company names (Microsoft, SAP), with all other areas filled in by malls, stripmalls, box stores, parking lots, and only one neighborhood that i happened to stumble into (read as: i got lost).

had i been plopped down into this area without context, i would have had a very difficult time naming it as a Chicago suburb, or even taking an educated guess on which state I was in. my first guess probably would have been southern California.

stuck in traffic on Butterfield Road, headed to meet some co-workers for dinner (in a stripmall, naturally), I surveyed the stores and read off the chains: Chili's, Best Buy, Toys R Us, etc etc. Like catalog shopping that you get to do in person, and all the parking lots are connected. And that's what Butterfield felt like to me, with its 6 lanes, not including the double-turn lanes, and lights designed to funnel traffic in and out of parking lots: just a way of shuttling you between the places where you make the money and where to stop off to spend the money.

certainly, there must be more to DG than what i saw, because the alternative is that the 50,000 some people who live there find comfort in all their box stores.

happily, it's a convenient 1 hour and 20 minutes from where i live (unless there's a Cubs game, then add 40 minutes to my return trip), and kind of in the middle of friggin' nowhere. Even the flown-in trainer had to rent a car, as DG is nowhere near an airport or downtown Chicago, both of which I can reasonably access from my house without a car.

though i understand the reasons how a place like DG came to be, including the homeowner's desire to "get away from the city", the village's desire to attract commerce, and the corporations desire for tax breaks and their logo on their own building, i am stunned that anyone would wake up, take a serious look at what's out their window, and proclaim, "yes, this is what i've always wanted."

i'm really trying to put aside my own biases and imagine myself as someone who would want to live in place like Downers Grove. and i'm failing.

30 May 2010

cellartracker and cor.kz

cellartracker.com seems to be the site to use if you want to track your wine collection. cor.kz seems to be the iphone software to use if you want to integrate with cellartracker.

as the gf and i have been buying more and more wine lately (our collection now stands at a "mighty" 17 bottles), and personally i cannot recall the relevant details needed to re-purchase a bottle we liked, i thought it high time to solve this with software.

cor.kz sells for $3.99 and allows you to create a free cellartracker account right from the app. donation levels at the site allow for extra features, such as access to professional scores and the ability to track larger inventories.

the iphone app has a barcode scanner built in, which found 10 of our 17 bottles. back to my laptop, typing in the UPC code found 2 more, which means I had to enter details of 5 bottles by hand and contribute them back to the database. frankly, I was a little surprised that we'd managed to buy 5 unknown bottles.

syncing is pretty much instantaneous. i gifted a second copy of cor.kz to the gf and set up her copy to point to the same cellartracker instance. i encountered no issues.

the app and site are a little clunky, i'm afraid to say. happily, cellartracker has a site in beta, grapestories.com, which sports a much prettier interface. it's entirely possible that cellartracker is highly functional, i just thought its 1993 web-era look is a bit of an embarrassment. the navigation with cor.kz can be a little confusing at times.

entering new bottles at cellartracker wasn't the most streamlined of processes, but it's functional enough. i'm not sure it's possible with cor.kz, nor if it's gotten better at grapestories. they make it possible to start with a similar bottle and change details, but the one time i tried it, i found one field where it was not possible to enter a new value, causing me to hit my back button about 8 times to hit the "start from scratch" button. clunky.

at the free level, there's no access to professional scores, but there is access to members' scores. each bottle you search for or add will show that average score. some bottles have a lot of scores, but our highest-ranked bottle has a score based on just one person. it seems there should be better management of that (e.g. exclude scores with fewer than n datapoints).

there are some other nice touches, like the ability to track ordering and delivery of your bottles separately, and the location and bin number in your house. of course you can also track the price and from where you purchased, and upload your own photo of the label. and one of my favorite features is the ability to sort by drinking age. i discovered with some horror that some bottles we purchased recently should have, at least according to other members, already been consumed. frankly, i don't know enough about wine to know if that's a big deal or not.

at drink time (in cor.kz, there's a nice button to indicate you drank a bottle), you can make your own tasting notes and have access to others' notes. there's also a kind of social networking built-in, where you can make friends with other members and become fans of them.

despite the clunkiness, it solves my needs and should assist in our buying and drinking processes.

additional thoughts:

it seems the iphone app doesn't cache your collection, and has to retrieve it from the server each time you launch the app. seems un-necessary and, in a pinch, could be problematic.

i think there's tons of opportunity for better data presentation. i'd mentioned the sorting, but everything is always presented as a list, with the same kind of line item renderer. it'd be nice, for example, to provide a view that occurred along a time line, such as when viewing by vintage or recommended drinking. or having views that representing groupings, such as by country or varietal. best would be a way to start with a dish/cuisine, and grab recommendations for wines from your collection that matched. good god, if they don't start implementing some of this, i may just have to write it my damn self. somewhere on the web there must be sites that provide such a service in a way that can be accessed programatically...

23 May 2010

the Pacific

I regard Band of Brothers as some of the finest film-making i've seen. without trying to get up my hopes too much, i eagerly anticipated the airing of The Pacific. i think it helped that there were 9 intervening years.

what didn't help is that: the Pacific isn't very good.

or at least i should say, "when compared to Band of Brothers," as comparisons are inevitable.

the Pacific is certainly watchable (unless you're squeamish), it has some solid and moving performances, and it has moments of well-executed intensity.

it also has long periods of boredom, lacks focus, provides disjointed character and battle arcs, and wasn't as well cast as BoB.

i thought BoB had, among other strengths, two standouts: 1) the decision to follow a single company throughout the war, and 2) casting mostly unknown actors. The Pacific followed the second (with the exception of Jon Seda), but did not follow the first. I think that was to its detriment.

personally, i think i'm also suffering from knowing (much) more about the european theater than the pacific; i suspect the same is true for a number of viewers. i recognize that may have contributed to my lower enjoyment, so perhaps that's unfair. But i also think making the same choice as BoB -- following a single company -- could have provided that missing context and contributed to a better viewing experience.

that said, i'm sure the producers had discussions about formula, and wanted to do something different, such as starting some character arcs prior to enlisting. I think i would have agreed with this choice more had it paid off better. to me, it simply felt different.

it also didn't feel as epic as BoB. the series carried along with more or less the same energy, and all of a sudden, the Japanese had surrendered. it really felt as though the series was just getting started, so this was certainly "an odd turn of events".

it wasn't until the last two episodes where i finally started caring -- but not very much -- about what happened to the characters. at the end of BoB, when the reveal was made of "who was who" (matching characters to their real-life counterparts), that was moving. the Pacific used the same technique, without the same gravity.

11 May 2010

it costs me more to come home than it does to go to work

what's up, CTA, with your silly fare structure?

like the Oyster Card, i do appreciate the simplicity of my Chicago Card Plus. but i thought the advantage of buying into the low-personnel-involvement solution was savings passed on to the rider. perhaps not. looking at the fare structure, it's minimal.

further, it costs me $2.25 to get to work, taking a bus first and then a train. the reverse, with the train first, costs me $2.50. i don't understand why the order matters.

the station near my work is next to a bus depot. if i were so inclined, i could leave work, card into a bus, immediately leave the bus and get on the train. my last transfer would be free, so this would save me 25 cents.

how counter-intuitive is that?

09 May 2010

i remain nitpicky

i think they mean the food is affordable, as i like to think that the prices are free. "How much for a burger and fries?" "I'll tell you for only twenty-nine cents."

08 May 2010

tripit and Flight Update Pro

though i've known about it for some time, today i finally signed up for tripit, a mobile-friendly site that organizes travel info.

the two cool things about it, for me, are:

  1. you can forward email itineraries to them, and they'll parse out the plans

  2. easy integration with the iPhone app Flight Update Pro

For my upcoming trip to England, I forwarded my AA email, and within minutes that info was on my phone in Flight Update Pro. i've not worked with any other iphone travel app, but when comparing I liked the FUP screens: all the info you need most frequently is easily accessible/readable, it'll show you flight progress, and it even has some quick-send emails like "I have arrived at LHR" and "I am picking up my bags at the baggage claim area", with the ability to include the flight status. Nice touch.

tripit does a whole lot more, which i'll probably never take advantage of, but i certainly appreciate the effortless integration of the flight stuff into the phone. Previously, I would dutifully type that stuff into Notes (never wanted to leave it in an email, and risk having it pushed too far down the stack and off the phone, and deleted from the server [yeah I'm still a POP guy]), and this is a much better solution all round.

02 May 2010

i don't know how to walk

image from here.

i suffer from chronic lower-back pain, though weekly massages and adjustments keep that at bay. i also suffer from chronic knee pain, which flares up after i've been doing a lot of walking, like i've been doing over the past month or so.

climbing stairs is the worst, which i can make bearable by applying a slight downward pressure at the top of my kneecap while pushing off.

both my massage therapist and chiropractor are telling me my leg muscles are too tight, and i should be stretching more. that seems to help, marginally. but i'm wondering if i'm causing the issues by wearing shoes with too much padding / arch support, and that i'm just flat out walking incorrectly.

the gf bought a pair of Vibram 5-Fingers today, which is making me jealous as I can't locate any in my size (even Vibram themselves are out). I like the idea of the "shoes", and have been walking barefoot in the house lately. What I've found is that I make a great clomping sound by coming down heel first; barefoot, that feels un-natural and un-coordinated. i then switch to ball-first (or ball-only), and that feels better but seems un-sustainable. in response, i actually googled "how to walk barefoot" and came across the posted image.

i'm hoping to re-learn how to walk, and further hoping that the effort will have a positive effect on my knees, lower-back, hips, etc.

i've spent the last year re-learning how to eat, but i'm afraid the walking may actually pose more of a challenge.

update: this Masai Barefoot Technology looks interesting, as well.

busting mythbusters

i get a little frustrated with Mythbusters sometimes (often?).

i recently watched a show where they were testing the idea that Hungarian horsemen, firing arrows into people, could generate twice as much power as they would if stationary.

part of what frustrates me is the sloppiness with terms. "Power" is a specific term that can be measured, but at no point did they go about defining what they meant or how they were going to measure it. rather, it quickly became about measuring the penetration of arrows shot into a foam target.

in the end, using a crossbow mounted to a moving jeep, they "busted" the "myth" because the crossbows shot from the jeep penetrated @ some 9", versus some 7" when stationary.

obviously, that's not twice as much "power".

they did not discuss the relationship between said depth of penetration and power, nor did they do any experiments on the substance under target to determine if that relationship is linear. all that was simply assumed, which I suppose is kind of irrelevant as the original claim suddenly transformed from "measurement" of "power" to what kind of killing effect the arrows had on their opponents.

i'm assuming they have all kinds of advisers behind the scenes, telling them how sloppy they're being, and then being overruled by producers concerned with "making good TV" and "not losing the audience."

this could be a good, informative show. I have to think this isn't at cross-purposes with being popular.

good god, backup really is that complicated

at least if one wants to duplicate the convenience of apple's Time Capsule.

i've been combing over posts @ readynas.com, which is an excellent resource for Netgear NAS products. though it seems easier than ever to run Time Machine software with non-Apple devices, there are still a lot of issues. upgrading osx versions, running multiple Time Machine users, and running Parallels caused issues for a number of users.

those anecdotes are also peppered with cries of "NAS isn't a backup solution!" Which is a shame, given that's exactly what i wanted to use it for. so then i was pricing out 2 TB external drives to back up the NAS.

Time Machine tracks revisions to files, such that one restore their computer to the exact state from a date in the past (chewing up a lot of extra disk space in the process). That's a neat use case, but one I don't really need. I version my own files when it's important to me, what I need from a backup system is something for that rainy day if my laptop is stolen or the drive dies.

iow, I need the latest snapshot, that's it.

seems I already have everything I need for that: external firewire drives and Super Duper. I contacted the author and he confirmed for me that NAS solutions, while having some nice features, doesn't allow Super Duper to make a bootable backup the way it does with a dedicated device.

so I suppose I'll stick with my 3-prong approach, using Mobile Me Sync, Backup of some files to the apple servers, and Super Duper for the entire image.