Sunday, June 02, 2013


A few days ago, as I walked around our neighborhood, I was startled by the sound of something entering the water in the pond near our house.  I looked and saw a giant turtle slowly descending into the depths.  "Man, just missed him", I thought.  Little did I know it was a mere foreshadowing of what was to come...

The Volo Bog is only a few miles from our house, but somehow, in all the years we've lived here, I had never gone hiking there.  So today, on a cloudy, chilly day in June, I went.  It was beautiful, lush, green, forest-y, with literally no one else on the trail.  And towards the end of the hike, I was rewarded with.. you guessed it... a giant turtle!  I captured over seven minutes of heart-stopping Glorious Turtle Footage!  Yes, over seven minutes!

Without too much further ado, here is the video.  It's best viewed in a large format, so I won't embed it here, but link to it instead.  Enjoy the turtle.  And the crickets.

Tip: We've been sharing things slightly more frequently over on Google+, so if you're interested, go to, sign up, add us to a circle, and turn on email notification for the circle. Then anything we share will go directly to your email inbox.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bikes and Trails

Way back around the middle of March we experienced an awesomely epic heat wave, the likes of which no weather forecaster or record book around here had ever seen. For 10 straight days we had highs in the 80s! In March! We were shattering record high temperatures every day, to the point that it became old news. Another day. Another record high. We even tied the record for most consecutive days of breaking record highs!

In the middle of this epic awesomeness, Wendy and I bought new bikes. And they’re awesome.

This spring, not one, but two new bike stores opened up near our house. So I went to both and did some test riding. I found one I liked, then brought Wendy along to give the women’s version a test ride. Her first comment was “Oh, this is nice. I like it!”. That sealed the deal. The winning bikes were Giant Sedonas from Epic Cycle and Fitness. They’re comfort bikes, so they’ve got the upright riding style of mountain bikes, along with suspensions for the front wheel and seat post.

The very next day we went to the Prairie Trail and rode our bikes to Wisconsin. The Prairie Trail is a 26-mile bike trail that runs from the city of Algonquin (which is well south of us) all the way to Wisconsin. We live just a few minutes from the midpoint of the trail.

Blue is the Prairie Trail. Red is the Hebron Trail.
Green is a connecting trail.

It’s certainly fun and impressive to say we rode our bikes to Wisconsin, but the truth is on this particular day, since it was our first major ride, we started in Glacial Park which is only 5 miles from the border. So to Wisconsin and back was just about 11 miles. Not the longest ride (last year my longest was 30 miles), but still an impressive feat for a couple of amateurs on their first ride of the season.

Reaching the northern end of the Prairie Trail is always fun. The trail dumps you out into a cul-de-sac in a small neighborhood in Lake Genoa, WI. It’s almost like you wind up in someone’s back yard. There is at least a small park with a bench and a playground nearby. It’s a good place to stop for a rest.

The end of the trail runs between two houses
and stops in a cul-de-sac.

And as further proof you’ve entered Wisconsin, one of the houses in the cul-de-sac has a Packers helmet for a mailbox:

Click to embiggen

Since that first trip, we’ve tried to do a weekend ride whenever the weather allows. The Prairie Trail is always our first choice because of its proximity. We’ve explored the majority of it, but have yet to ride the southern third. There are several connecting trails, too. We rode the Hebron Trail one weekend, which is a 5 mile path connecting to the Prairie Trail just before Wisconsin.  And I’ve since discovered many, many more trails in northern Illinois (and southern Wisconsin) that we’re hoping to ride someday, too.

I always track our rides on my Android phone using My Tracks. After one month of bike riding, we’d ridden 100 miles. We’re currently at 110 miles -- our rides lately have been less frequent because the past few weekends were either cold or rainy, or both.

Yes, cold and rainy. The epic heat wave is now a distant (but blissful) memory. We were fortunate, at least, to have a gradual return to normal temps. There was no jarring 40 degree temperature drop. Just 70s, 60s, 50s, then 40s. An interesting footnote to the heat wave is that for only the second time ever, March was actually warmer on average than April.

Now that May is here, temperatures are steadily creeping back up. Next week’s forecast calls for sunny and clear skies in the 70s. So hopefully we’ll get back into our regular weekend rides.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Android Tips

Cory recently asked me what must-have apps he should get for his new Android SkyRocket.  That got me thinking not just about apps, but about what Android tips in general I've found useful.  This long-winded post is my answer.

First, a few Android tips:

Stop the beeping!

Android syncs to your Google account so all of your emails, contacts, calendars, books, and everything else under the Google sun stays up-to-date on your phone.  This is cool, but I remember the day after I got my Android, I was driving home when my phone suddenly started beeping and buzzing like crazy because I’d just gotten the perfect storm of notifications: new emails, new text messages, new instant messages, and new voicemail notifications.  I was trying to sort through all of those, while driving, and all I wanted to know was: “Am I getting a phone call?”.  The answer, it turned out, was no.

To help cut down on all the notification noise, I disabled automatic sign-in for the Google Talk app, thus eliminating instant messages.  Any time I want to use instant messaging, I start Google Talk and sign-in manually.  I also configured the Gmail app to not use ringtones or vibrate when an email arrives.  I still get an alert in the notification bar along the top, just no audio or buzzing.  This setting took a while to locate; on my phone it’s under a “Labels to Notify” section in the Gmail app settings.

It’s also possible to completely turn off all Google syncing completely.  I did this for a while, but eventually turned it back on; it’s much more convenient.

View recently opened apps

Press and hold the Home button to pull up a list of recently-opened apps.  This is handy, especially when I want to jump back and forth between several apps.

Use widgets

Normally when you see an icon on your phone’s home screen, you press it and an app starts up.  Widgets are like icons, but with functionality.  When you press a widget, the app doesn’t start up, but instead performs an action.  For example, Android comes with a “Power Control” widget that lets you turn features on or off from your home screen (features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, Screen Brightness, and Syncing).

Not all apps have widgets.  You can see what widgets are available and add them to your home screen by long pressing on an empty area of the home screen and selecting “Widgets” from the popup menu.  To delete a widget, press and hold a widget.  A trash can will appear which you can drag the widget into.

Extend battery life

The more you use your phone’s various features (GPS, Bluetooth, data), the faster your battery will drain.  Ideally, a smartphone battery should last for a day under normal usage.  If yours isn’t, keep an eye on how often GPS, Bluetooth, and data are being used.  Use the Power Control widget to disable them when not needed.


Below are some of my favorite apps.  There’s a link to each app on the web version of Google Play (formerly called Android Market).  If you sign in to the web version, you can remotely install the apps to your phone.  Just click the Install button, and within a few minutes the app will be installed on your phone, provided your phone has internet access.  Most of these are free, but a few are paid apps.

Lookout Security & Anti-Virus
This is the first app you should install on your phone.  It scans every app on your phone for viruses and will help you find your phone if you lose it.  The last part is what makes it so cool.  If you lose your phone, you can log in to the website and pinpoint your phone.  Their company blog is full of stories from people who used the app to find their lost phone.

Handcent SMS
A text messaging app.  When I got my Android phone, the built-in text messaging app was too basic for many people, and this app is what everyone recommended to use instead.  I’ve always used it and enjoyed it, to the point that I’ve never bothered trying any other app for text messaging.

If you have a monthly data limit, Onavo will track your data usage and turn off your data if you start to exceed your limit.  It has many other features, including showing which apps are using the most data, and determining if you should switch data plans.  If you have Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), many of these features are built-in to Android, so this app may not be as useful.

Google Sky Map
I’ve written about this before here and here.  It’s an interactive star map, and the #1 reason why I got an Android phone.

Just like Google Sky Map, but with much more detail.  And, if you have a computerized telescope, you can hook your phone up to it and use this app to control your telescope.

Star Odyssey
A super-cool guide to over 60 of the brightest stars.  More here.

Tesla LED
A simple, but very useful app: it turns on your camera’s flash to serve as a flashlight.  I’m always surprised at how bright the camera flash is.  And, it has a widget letting you turn the flash on directly from your home screen.

Movies, reviews, showtimes, buy tickets, watch trailers, manage Netflix queue. 'Nuff said.

My Tracks
Use GPS to track your outdoor exercise.  I use this every time I go bike riding.  It shows where you are and where you’ve been using Google Maps, and tracks all kind of stats, like your total time, distance, speed, elevation, etc.  I’ve written about it before here.

If you’ve ever wondered what song is playing on the radio, this app is for you.  Start it up, press the Listen button, and it records a few seconds of audio, and then tells you the name and artist of the song.  And, for some songs, it can even pinpoint the exact part of the song that’s playing and scroll lyrics in time with it.  Really, really cool.  There's a free and a paid version.

I use this for taking notes.  It syncs your notes to the website.  There are tons of note-taking apps; this is just the one I use.

Paper Camera
A camera app that lets you apply different photo effects in real time.  While it’s very cool, I’ve never really used it for anything other than showing people how very cool it is.

Android is extremely customizable.  If you don’t like something, there’s probably a way to customize it, and that goes for the keyboard.  Of the many different keyboard alternatives, Swype is my favorite so far because it’s much faster to type.  Instead of pressing each individual key, you slide your finger across the keyboard to each letter, only lifting your finger at the end of each word.  Swype is not available in Google Play, but it does come pre-installed in some phones.  If you have it preinstalled, you may need to activate it; If you don’t, you can still download it directly from  In either case, you can get more info here.

Settings Profiles Lite
There are a number of apps that let you configure your phone’s settings based on a set of rules; this is one of them.  I use it to keep my phone on vibrate while I’m at work.  It works like this:  I set a repeating event on my Google calendar for the hours I’m usually at work, Monday - Friday.  The calendar then syncs to the phone.  When this app sees the work event start in the morning, it sets my phone to vibrate.  When the work event ends in the evening, it turns the ringer back on.  There are many different combinations of settings and rules an app like this is capable of.  I’ve only barely scratched the surface.  I’m using the free version of this app, which is limited to 1 rule.  The paid version has no restrictions.

WiFi File Explorer
Wirelessly transfer files between your phone and computer.  When you open this app, it starts up a small web server on your phone and gives you its address.  Go to your computer, type that address into your web browser, and you’re presented with an interface that lets you upload or download files from your phone.  Very handy.

Mobile Metronome
Just what it says: a metronome.  Wendy uses it when practicing the piano.

Bonsai Blast
Cut the Rope
Temple Run
These are some of the games I’ve enjoyed playing.

Papa Johns
Thin-crust garden fresh pizza with a side of cheesesticks.  Delicious.

Amazon App Store + Free App of the Day

Amazon has released their own Android market.  You can use both it and Google Play on your Android phone.  Since Amazon’s market directly competes with Google Play, you can’t download it from there; you have to get it directly from Amazon here.  It’s a bit complicated to install, but the steps are well documented.  For the most part, apps in Amazon’s App Store are also in Google Play.  The one advantage of using Amazon’s version is that they offer a free paid app every day.  I’ve gotten some good apps this way, but they’re few and far between.  For the most part I don’t download their free daily app.

Find More Apps

How do you find new apps?  How do you know if they’re good?

Here are my tips:

  • Search Google Play for topics you’re interested in.  If you find an app that looks promising, read the reviews and check the app’s ratings.  See how many people have installed it.  Look at the list of related apps and compare reviews/ratings/install numbers.
  • Check out Amazon’s free app of the day
  • Try  It shows recently popular apps, and has its own Android app which will analyze your installed apps and provide recommendations.  It also has social features that let you see what apps your friends have installed.
  • Read Android news sites.  They often have articles exploring apps.  For example, the site has a weekly feature listing the Top 10 most updated apps for the week.


When you find an app you like, rate it!  Leave a comment!  Mention what you like and/or don’t like.  Developers are always happy to get feedback.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The End of the World As We Know It

The end of January was an exciting time for us.  First, we threw caution to the wind and adopted a black cat!  Around the same time, the Sun erupted with several solar flares aimed at Earth. A few days after that, a nuclear power plant in northern Illinois lost power, causing one reactor to shut down, and releasing steam with traces of radiation. And later that same day, there was an earthquake centered almost directly underneath our house!

First, our new cat:

He's a very handsome black cat with green eyes, and is 6 years old. His name is Gordon. That was his name at the shelter and we decided to keep it. This way I can pretend it's a subtle Batman reference to Commissioner Gordon -- an ally of Batman who "shares the hero's deep commitment to ridding the dark and corrupt city of crime".

The shelter still has a YouTube video of Gordon online. If you'd like to see him in action (or rather in inaction), check it out while it's still available here.

He spent most of his life at the shelter, getting overlooked by adopters because he's a black cat (they're adopted half as often as other cats), and also because he's shy. We discovered, though, that he is a purring machine. Almost as soon as we started petting him he began purring and rolled over so we could rub his belly. We took that as a positive sign, and as several people have said, you don't choose the cat, the cat chooses you.

It's taken a few weeks for Gordon to adjust to our house, but he's been getting more comfortable and becoming more active. Last night, for example, he chased a red laser pointer through the entire house. He still gets freaked out and runs away when Wendy or I are walking around, but he is also quite happy to be petted when he's lying in his favorite spot -- one of our dining room chairs.

Finally, the earthquake:

I was sitting upstairs one night when I heard a loud THUMP! My first thought was a tree limb had fallen on our roof.  Wendy was in the basement but didn't hear anything, so I went outside to look around. Nothing looked amiss, so I went back in and forgot about it.

The next day Wendy sent me a link to a story in the paper: it had been an earthquake! It was a magnitude 2.4 quake, occurred 6 miles below the surface, and the epicenter was only half a mile from our house! People all over the area heard the same thump sound, with some reporting a few seconds of rattling afterwards. Fortunately, there was no damage.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's December!

  • The most wonderful time of the year!

We recently visited the Christkindlmarket in Chicago, which is a German-style open air Christmas market. It's held in Daley Plaza, only about a half-mile from the train station, so we took the Metra downtown and then walked to the market. It's actually been a very mild winter in northern Illinois (so far...), but we managed to pick one of the coldest days we've had to visit. Luckily, once we got there, we were jammed into such a mass of humanity that, for the most part, we weren't even that cold.

Thanks, mass of humanity!
We figured it would be crowded, but there were times it was so crowded we could barely move. We persevered, though, and did some Christmas shopping for our families and also ate some delicious German food.

Steaming hot potato pancakes and a cherry strudel
The whole experience was a lot of fun, but I think I would recommend visiting on a weekday next time. Also, I think I'd recommend long underwear - I didn't feel super cold, but once we got back into the warmth of the train station, I realized I hadn't been able to feel my legs for several hours!

The top of the Christmas tree is just peeking over the stall.

  • The other reason it's the most wonderful time of the year!

I work with some really nice and very generous people. And this time of year, I think they must secretly be competing to see who can give me the most chocolate. This has happened every year I've been in this department (this is the third Christmas). In the past week, I have brought home two bags of truffles (dark and milk chocolate), a box of mint-chocolate meltaways, a tin full of various flavors of Hershey's kisses, some white-chocolate cranberry bark, chocolate-covered pretzels, chocolate-caramel-pecan turtles, and the only outliers, a flavored olive oil and vinegar set and some candied pecans.

Luckily, Randy has risen to the occasion spectacularly! I came home from work yesterday to discover that I did not have nearly as many chocolates left as I had when I left for work. Luckily (or maybe unluckily?), there is still a lot of chocolate left...

  • Other delicious things we have eaten lately
Fortunately, we have eaten other tasty and much less-fattening foods recently. My mom has been on a pickling and canning kick for the past few years, and over Thanksgiving, we finally were able to get some jars of pickles. I cannot even describe how tasty these pickles are - the jars we've opened so far are bread and butter pickles, which I didn't even think I liked, and Randy and I can't seem to stop eating them. Thanks, Mom!

We've also been on a real roasted Brussels sprouts kick recently. They are so, so good! We ate them a few times last year, but this year I've been buying them more regularly. We had them yesterday with dinner and polished off a pound between the two of us. Here is a good basic recipe to get you started - if you like broccoli, you will like these. I promise. You can also make a balsamic vinegar glaze to toss them with, and I understand that they are also fantastic tossed with some crumbled bacon, if you're into that sort of thing.

We recently found some labneh at a new grocery store near us as well. Last year, when we went to the Panama Canal, Randy and I ended up flying out to Florida a day early to avoid a big snow storm and to be sure we wouldn't literally miss the boat. That meant we had an extra day at our hotel, with no car to get anywhere. Luckily, there was a Middle Eastern bakery/deli kind of place just across the parking lot that had pretty good reviews on Yelp. I still am not quite sure what kind of food exactly they were serving, but Randy and I were almost the only non-Middle Eastern people there, so I'm guessing that whatever it was, was probably pretty authentic. It was definitely tasty - one of the things we had was a flatbread sandwich-type thing with labneh (which is kind of like yogurt cheese) and sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers on it. We re-created it several times at home last year with Greek yogurt, but I think it's even better with real labneh.

Not much, but snow!
When the winter began, they were predicting that it was going to be a lot like last year's - very cold and very snowy. And so far, it just hasn't been. Not all that cold, and basically no snow yet. As of yesterday, Chicago's official snow total for the year was at .5 inch, only 7 percent of the amount of snow we had gotten as of this time last year. We hadn't really gotten any measurable snow up here. But late last night, we finally got some measurable snow. Just 10 months ago, that scene was a very different picture!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

It's October!

October is a great month to:

1.  Read John Bellairs books

Last month I bought a complete set of John Bellairs books on eBay:

It's a set of 28 books, all first editions, and 20 of them have artwork by Edward Gorey.  They are fantastically creepy.  I've put up photos of each book with Gorey artwork here.

If you're not sure where to start, try his most famous book, The House with a Clock in its Walls.

2.  Read the Monstrumologist series

The third book in the series, The Isle of Blood, came out last month.  We both read it and loved it. It's the best one so far, and is beautifully and gorgeously written.  The series is literary horror for young adults, with heavy emphasis on literary.  And it's classic horror, ala Frankenstein, not horror-movie horror.  The books are fantastic.  You must read them!  I've written about the first two books here and here.

This is one of my favorite movies, and every time October rolls around I want to watch it.  I have no idea why, because there's nothing at all creepy or Autumn-like about it.  It's about a barber in the late 1940's who becomes involved in a blackmail scheme leading to murder.  But it's shot in black-and-white, has beautiful cinematography, and is very moody and atmospheric.

Wendy and I first saw this movie purely by accident when it was released.  We went to see the movie From Hell, but the opening scene was too gruesome for Wendy to watch, so we walked out and wandered the theater's hallways until we found another movie that was about to start.  It was The Man Who Wasn't There.

4.  Star-gaze

In the southern sky, look for Fomalhaut (FOE-mal-oh).  Because there are no other bright stars near it, it's been called the Lonely Star of Autumn.  It's also orbited by a planet, which has been directly photographed by Hubble.

Also keep an eye out for Algol.  It's a binary star, and about every 3 nights it dims dramatically because the fainter star eclipses the brighter star.  This periodic dimming/brightening earned it the name Demon Star.

5.  Watch college football

Of course, any month is a great month to watch college football!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Arcturus, Clocks, and Elgin

One of the best stories I came across while creating my Android app involved the star Arcturus.  Arcturus is a binary star system in the constellation Bootes, and is the 4th brightest star in the night sky.

The story was this:

In 1933, Chicago hosted the World's Fair.  Astronomers at the time had recently calculated that Arcturus was about 40 light years away.  So light just arriving from the star had begun its journey 40 years prior, in 1893, which happened to be the last time Chicago hosted the World's Fair.  So organizers decided to open the 1933 Fair by using light from Arcturus to turn on the fairground's lights on opening night.

Here's how it worked:  four telescopes around the country were outfitted with a photoelectric cell, which converts light to electricity.  These cells were a new invention, and were being promoted at the Fair.  On opening night, the four telescopes were trained on Arcturus, whose light entered the telescope, got converted to electricity, and sent via telegraph to Chicago where, with much fanfare, it tripped a switch that illuminated the fairgrounds.  

Four telescopes were used in case one site was cloudy.  The four telescope locations were:
  • Harvard University
  • Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh
  • Yerkes Observatory in southern Wisconsin
  • University of Illinois
Apparently the event was such a hit with the public that organizers decided to repeat it each night, with the Elgin Observatory taking over Arcturus-observing duties.  Elgin, by the way, is a town about 30 minutes south of where we live.

At this point, I thought three things:  1) "That's a really cool story", 2) "Hey, Yerkes Observatory! We've been there!", and 3) "Elgin has an observatory?"

A bit of googling revealed that Elgin does have an observatory, although it's not open to the public.  I also discovered the Elgin Historical Museum, and learned that Elgin once had a large watch factory.

I found all of this very interesting, so Wendy and I went to the Museum a few weeks ago:

It was much bigger and nicer than we were expecting.  And there was much more to Elgin's history that we didn't know.  Here's a bit of what we learned:
  • During the late 1800's, Elgin was the center of the country's dairy industry.  The price of butter across the country was set each day in Elgin.  Also, sticks of butter used to be short and squat (and might still be on the West Coast?).  Elgin introduced the long, skinny sticks of butter that are the norm today.  These are supposedly "better", but we didn't see any explanation as to why that is.
  • For the first half of the 20th century, Elgin had a huge watch-making factory, which dominated the world's watch-making industry.  Elgin watches were sold in nearly every jewelry store in the country, and the phrase "Elgin watches" was a common one and was synonymous with high-quality watches.
  • At the beginning of the 1900's there were a number of train wrecks caused by engineers having inaccurate watches.  President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a new standard of accuracy for watches, so the Elgin watch factory built the Elgin Observatory which allowed watch-makers to track time more accurately using the stars.
  • During WWII, the watch factory switched to manufacturing high precision aircraft parts.  Unfortunately, after the war, it had fallen too far behind the rest of the watch industry, and combined with changing consumer tastes, it didn't survive.  The factory was eventually torn down, although the Observatory was spared.
  • There are a lot of Elgin watches on display at the Museum.
After a few hours at the museum, we drove by the Observatory and snapped a picture:

This was much more than I expected to learn from writing an app!