Category Archives: Uncategorized

2AM to Seattle

Monday morning, 1:45AM.

Laura and I walk into the boys’ room. We turn on the light. Nothing happens. (They’re sound sleepers.)

“Boys, it’s time to get up to go get on the train!”

Four eyes pop open. “Yay! Oh I’m so excited!”

And then, “Meow!” (They enjoy playing with their stuffed cats that Laura got them for Christmas.)

Before long, it was out the door to the train station. We even had time to stop at a donut shop along the way.

We climbed into our family bedroom (a sleeping car room on Amtrak specifically designed for families of four), and as the train started to move, the excitement of what was going on crept in. Yes, it’s 2:42AM, but these are two happy boys:

2014-08-04 02

Jacob and Oliver love trains, and this was the beginning of a 3-day train trip from Newton to Seattle that would take us through Kansas, Colorado, the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, Arizona, Los Angeles, up the California coast, through the Cascades, and on to Seattle. Whew!

Here we are later that morning before breakfast:


Here’s our train at a station stop in La Junta, CO:


And at the beautiful small mountain town of Raton, NM:


Some of the passing scenery in New Mexico:


Through it all, we found many things to pass the time. I don’t think anybody was bored. I took the boys “exploring the train” several times — we’d walk from one end to the other and see what all was there. There was always the dining car for our meals, the lounge car for watching the passing scenery, and on the Coast Starlight, the Pacific Parlor Car.

Here we are getting ready for breakfast one morning.


Getting to select meals and order in the “train restaurant” was a big deal for the boys.


Laura brought one of her origami books, which even managed to pull the boys away from the passing scenery in the lounge car for quite some time.


Origami is serious business:


They had some fun wrapping themselves around my feet and challenging me to move. And were delighted when I could move even though they were trying to weight me down!


Several games of Uno were played, but even those sometimes couldn’t compete with the passing scenery:


The Coast Starlight features the Pacific Parlor Car, which was built over 50 years ago for the Santa Fe Hi-Level trains. They’ve been updated; the upper level is a lounge and small restaurant, and the lower level has been turned into a small theater. They show movies in there twice a day, but most of the time, the place is empty. A great place to go with little boys to run around and play games.


The boys and I sort of invented a new game: roadrunner and coyote, loosely based on the old Looney Tunes cartoons. Jacob and Oliver would be roadrunners, running around and yelling “MEEP MEEP!” Meanwhile, I was the coyote, who would try to catch them — even briefly succeeding sometimes — but ultimately fail in some hilarious way. It burned a lot of energy.

And, of course, the parlor car was good for scenery-watching too:


We were right along the Pacific Ocean for several hours – sometimes there would be a highway or a town between us and the beach, but usually there was nothing at all between us and the coast. It was beautiful to watch the jagged coastline go by, to gaze out onto the ocean, watching the birds — apparently so beautiful that I didn’t even think to take some photos.

Laura’s parents live in California, and took a connecting train. I had arranged for them to have a sleeping car room near ours, so for the last day of the trip, we had a group of 6. Here are the boys with their grandparents at lunch Wednesday:

2014-08-06 11

We stepped off the train in Seattle into beautiful King Street Station.


Our first day in Seattle was a quiet day of not too much. Laura’s relatives live near Lake Washington, so we went out there to play. The boys enjoyed gathering black rocks along the shore.


We went blackberry picking after that – filled up buckets for a cobbler.

The next day, we rode the Seattle Monorail. The boys have been talking about this for months — a kind of train they’ve never been on. That was the biggest thing in their minds that they were waiting for. They got to ride in the very front, by the operator.


Nice view from up there.


We walked through the Pike Market — I hadn’t been in such a large and crowded place like that since I was in Guadalajara:


At the Seattle Aquarium, we all had a great time checking out all the exhibits. The “please touch” one was a particular hit.


Walking underneath the salmon tank was fun too.

We spent a couple of days doing things closer to downtown. Laura’s cousin works at MOHAI, the Museum of History and Industry, so we spent a morning there. The boys particularly enjoyed the old periscope mounted to the top of the building, and the exhibit on chocolate (of course!)


They love any kind of transportation, so of course we had to get a ride on the Seattle Streetcar that comes by MOHAI.


All weekend long, we had been noticing the seaplanes taking off from Lake Washington and Lake Union (near MOHAI). So finally I decided to investigate, and one morning while Laura was doing things with her cousin, the boys and I took a short seaplane ride from one lake to another, and then rode every method of transportation we could except for ferries (we did that the next day). Here is our Kenmore Air plane:


The view of Lake Washington from 1000 feet was beautiful:


I think we got a better view than the Space Needle, and it probably cost about the same anyhow.


After splashdown, we took the streetcar to a place where we could eat lunch right by the monorail tracks. Then we rode the monorail again. Then we caught a train (it went underground a bit so it was a “subway” to them!) and rode it a few blocks.

There is even scenery underground, it seems.


We rode a bus back, and saved one last adventure for the next day: a ferry to Bainbridge Island.

2014-08-11 14

2014-08-11 16

Laura and I even got some time to ourselves to go have lunch at an amazing Greek restaurant to celebrate a year since we got engaged. It’s amazing to think that, by now, it’s only a few months until our wedding anniversary too!

There are many special memories of the weekend I could mention — visiting with Laura’s family, watching the boys play with her uncle’s pipe organ (it’s in his house!), watching the boys play with their grandparents, having all six of us on the train for a day, flying paper airplanes off the balcony, enjoying the cool breeze on the ferry and the beautiful mountains behind the lake. One of my favorites is waking up to high-pitched “Meow? Meow meow meow! Wake up, brother!” sorts of sounds. There was so much cat-play on the trip, and it was cute to hear. I have the feeling we won’t hear things like that much more.

So many times on the trip I heard, “Oh dad, I am so excited!” I never get tired of hearing that. And, of course, I was excited, too.

Review: The Wheel of Time

Five years ago, I opened The Eye of the World, the first book in the Wheel of Time series, and read:

“Lord of the Morning,” he said, “I have come for you.”

On the island, the air shimmered and coalesced. The black-clad man stood staring at the fiery mountain rising out of the plain. His face twisted in rage and contempt. “You cannot escape so easily, Dragon. It is not done between us. It will not be done until the end of time.”

Then he was gone, and the mountain and the island stood alone. Waiting.

And then, as often, Robert Jordan began books citing some of the prophecy he invented:

And it came to pass in those days, as it had come before and would come again, that the Dark lay heavy on the land and weighed down the hearts of men, and the green things failed, and hope died. And men cried out to the Creator, saying, O Light of the Heavens, Light of the World, let the Promised One be born of the mountain, according to the prophecies, as he was in ages past and will be in ages to come. Let the Prince of the Morning sing to the land that green things will grow and the valleys give forth lambs. Let the arm of the Lord of the Dawn shelter us from the Dark, and the great sword of justice defend us. Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.

—from Charal Drianaan to Calamon,
The Cycle of the Dragon.
Author unknown, the Fourth Age

And then, the grand opening to each of the books in the 11,000-page series, something like this:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road.

And yesterday, 11,000 pages later, I have completed the series. Really, how could I have put down a book with such a majestic beginning as that? It hinted at the epic that was to come, the amazing literature I was going to read. I didn’t read it straight through; I enjoyed books like War and Peace along the way. But what a trip the Wheel of Time series was. The characters were so detailed, so deep, the setting so elaborate, the plots so grand and also so small — everyone from servants to queens were well-represented in the books. Not every section was a page-turner; in fact, around the 4th or 5th book, the series started to plod for a thousand pages or two, reading more like a history book than a novel. Sometimes the prejudices and stereotypes of the characters, particularly the sexism that both the men and women displayed, were frustrating to read. I never quite figured out of this was brilliant writing (making the reader feel frustrated at the plodding pace of the book when it was describing characters being frustrated at the plodding pace of events), or if it could have been trimmed down by 2/3 in some places.

But really, the number of brilliant endings, laugh-out-loud situations, and page-turning suspense that somehow managed to build over hundreds, and then even thousands of pages, outweighed the flaws.

Politics is a foggy mire full of snakes.

– The Eye of the World

“Ah.” Furlan washed his hands in one direction, then rubbed them in the other. “Ah. Forgive me, Master Andra, but Lady Alys is a fierce sounding woman.”

“Only with those who displease her,” Lan said blandly. “Her bite is far worse than her bark.”

“Ah. Ah. Ah. Your rooms are this way. . .”

– The Dragon Reborn

One of the marks of truly good writing is that I leave a book or series with a sense of sadness or nostalgia, leaving characters that seem almost like friends. I felt that after finishing the last book in the series, A Memory of Light. The ending was deep, and satisfying, but ultimately left me wanting even more — even more than 11,000 pages, somehow.

“Elienda and Briain woke from the dream.” She might have been speaking of the weather rather than two deaths among women she knew. “We all must wake eventually.”

– Knife of Dreams

I was often touched by the way the Aiel referred to each other. A desert people, their fond farewall was “may you always find water and shade.” A fitting metaphor for anyone’s life, I think. And they referred to their spouse as “shade of my heart.”

Jordan touched on quite a few themes of religion and philosophy. In that quote above, he has the Aiel referring to death as waking from a dream. An intriguing metaphor, isn’t it? He even writes conflicts of philosophy, religion, and culture into the series.

I was particularly impressed with his treatment of theodicy and the problem of evil (the argument and religious response relating to the presence of evil in the world in the face of a loving God.) It is the most impressive treatment I have seen in fiction, and does a better job of advancing the theodistic argument than many philosophers have, I suspect. It is hard to really go into that one here because of the length and potential for spoilers.

I can, however, comment on his treatment of existential nihilism — the theory that life and the universe is without meaning, and the sometimes-related comment that “what does anything matter then anyway?” Here are a couple of quotes:

“In Maradon, I saw what had been done to men who followed me. I saw Light in them, Min. Defying the Dark One no matter the length of his shadow. We will live, that defiance said. We will love and we will hope. And I saw him trying so hard to destroy that. He knows that if he could break them, it would mean something. Something much more than Maradon. Breaking the spirit of men…he thirsts for that. He struck far harder than he otherwise would have because he wanted to break my spirit.” His voice grew softer and he opened his eyes, looking down at her. “And so I stood against him.”

– Towers of Midnight

“What if I think it’s all meaningless?” he demanded with the loud voice of a king. “What if I don’t want it to keep turning? We live our lives by the blood of others! And those others become forgotten. What good is it if everything we know will fade? Great deeds or great tragedies, neither means anything! They will become legends, then those legends will be forgotten, then it will all start over again!”

Why? Rand thought with wonder. Because each time we live, we get to love again.

It felt relaxing to stare out at that distant light, so welcoming and noble. “Storms will soon come,” it seemed to say. “But for now, I am here.” I am here.

– The Gathering Storm

I unfortunately can’t put in in its proper context due to spoilers, but it is a pivotal turning point in the series, relating to the preservation of the world. By giving what we might normally call a characteristic or behavior — evil — an almost-human voice and character, it can be discussed in interesting ways.

We are always more afraid than we wish to be, but we can always be braver than we expect. Hold on to your heart, and the Aes Sedai cannot harm what is really you, your heart. They are not nearly so far above us as we believed. May you always find water and shade, Egwene. And always remember your heart.”

– Lord of Chaos

“Eben is dead. Would you want to forget your pain if you lost that hulking giant of yours? Have your feelings for him cut away like some spoiled chunk of flesh in an otherwise good roast?”

– The Gathering Storm

These quotes are examples of characters in the series dealing with difficult situations. In one, a character is yelled at for offering to use her special powers to numb the pain of another person over a death. It brings up a question that those of us that have known pain might find interesting: would we really have wanted our pain erased? And suggests perhaps not. That there is a benefit to it. That we get through it by embracing it — by embracing it while still being true to our heart.

He had four rules concerning action and information. Never make a plan without knowing as much as you can of the enemy. Never be afraid to change your plans when you receive new information. Never believe you know everything. And never wait to know everything.

– Lord of Chaos

Sometimes the series treats us to logical thinkers, whether they are generals or innkeepers, and gives us little tidbits like this one.

Androl brushed off his hands, smiling. Children were so adaptable. Before them, centuries of tradition, terror and superstition could melt away like butter left too long in the sun.

– Towers of Midnight

And sometimes, things to chew over. Isn’t that an interesting comment on prejudice? Children aren’t born prejudiced; we can see how easily they make friends with anyone. It is sad that we teach them to be, isn’t it?

Wheel of Time is a fine story, expertly woven. But it is not just a story. It is true, in the sense that it illuminates truths, just like Romeo and Juliet can. In it, I see lessons and echoes of the civil rights era, comments on what makes good leaders, characters wrestling with decisions without adequate data, people putting on a mask of emotions, sacrifice, and the overall theme of the entire series: the power of love and compassion.

The inspiration of the series for me — well, it is there, but it may take a few more days to figure it out. I think it has something to do with this: “The wind rose high and free, to soar in an open sky with no clouds.”

Jacob’s Pretend Train Office




“Train office to train 5213.”

More silence.

“Train office to train 5213. Is there an emergency?”

At this point, I had a decision to make. Jacob’s voice was sounding a little vexed over the radio he was using to talk to me from the next room. Do I answer it, even though he had told me I was a different train number? I decided yes.

So I said into my radio, “What do you need, train office?”

An exasperated sigh came over my radio. “DAD! You are train 51. If I call a different train, DO NOT ANSWER!”

Well. I guess now I know.

Jacob has been having a lot of fun with radios lately. His favorite game is to pretend to be a train dispatcher. He’ll tell me, Laura, or Oliver where to go, what track to take, what passengers to pick up, or anything else he can come up with. Sometimes one radio isn’t enough — he may even have two radios clipped to him in various places.

We play radio hide and seek (where you use radios to give hints or tell people when you’re ready to be found). We play train office. We use radios to communicate across the room sometimes, even. Pretty amazing to see him doing that.

He’s taken an interest in my amateur radios, too. He’s been practicing — under close supervision, of course — how to use them, and how to properly give his callsign on the air. The boy is a natural. It’s fun to watch him dive into something like that and enjoy it so much!

End of a year


Such were the cries a few first graders raised Monday. Laura and I had gone to school to eat lunch with Jacob — this was his last week of first grade. We stayed for recess after lunch, and Jacob and his friend told us to pretend to be a shark lurking underneath the bridges and things of the playground. I was told that “adults are too old to climb up here.” So Laura and I started chasing Jacob and his friend around the playground equipment. And, much to their delight, they were usually able to evade us. And, to their even greater delight, sometimes I could reach up and brush a shoe or leg.

Pretty soon Laura had enough of the game, but about then other kids started to notice what was going on. Shark-taunting began (“nana-booboo!”), and pretty soon half a dozen first-graders were running away from the shark! Eventually, it was time to go in, and it had been a great time.

Jacob had been proud to have Laura and me there to eat lunch with him. He got to be the first in his class to go to lunch, happily slipping into the tour guide role he loves. Sometimes he would tell us in exacting detail what would happen. Other times, I’d ask something like how will we know when lunch is over, and he’d get a sly smile and say, “You will see!”

The next day was Jacob’s last at school, and Oliver had also recently finished preschool. So Laura and I planned a “graduation party”. We came up with some ideas of things they might like to do, and let them choose. Thankfully they both agreed on a choice: water slide.

My parents gave them water slides one time, and we got one out, hooked it up to the hose, and let them have fun. And boy, did they ever!


And after the better part of an hour running with delight on the water slide, they decided to turn another slide into a water slide. So I helped them rig up a hose on our slide, and they’d slide down it, and splash into a giant mud puddle at the bottom. Or, as the case may be, just stand in the mud, enjoying it.


We then went out to eat at one of their favorite restaurants and even had time to play in a park.

Yes, a wonderful celebration. All four of us were wearing smiles that day.

It reminded me of Jacob’s school year, but also of the past year — it was about a year ago that Jacob and Oliver first had the chance to really meet Laura. I have many photos and stories from the past year that I’ll be sharing in the next little while. What an incredible year it has been!

A Dry Spring

Spring in the prairie is a bit of an odd thing this year. Here and there, near ditches and creeks, a short, soft blanket of lush green grass covers the ground. A few feet away, patches of green are visible between the brown shoots of last year’s grass. Some trees are already turning green, purple, red, and white, while others stand still and brown, stubbornly insisting that spring is not here yet. To look at the thermometer may not be much guide either; two days after the temperature was nearly 90, we woke to see a dusting of snow on the ground.

It’s been dry, terribly try in Kansas. Grass next to a gravel driveway or road often has a chalkish layer of dust on it, kicked up by passing cars or even a stiff wind. The earth thirsts.

It is somehow fitting to celebrate Easter, that spring holiday, in the midst of the dry ground, to remember that water is not the only thing that can quench thirst.

Easter morning began sleepily, as we got up early to head to a sunrise service. It was in a pasture just outside a small Kansas town, and we gathered there at about 6:15, wearing only light jackets against the breeze. A fire was burning, and there was water on hand to quickly douse any grass that caught first that wasn’t supposed to — and it was occasionally used.

I was doing the prelude for the service, playing on my penny whistle. I enjoyed being able to do that, and was glad that the wind was calm enough that it didn’t interfere too much with the music.

We sang some hymns, listened to some Bible readings, and just stood in silence, listening to the crackle of the fire, some country dogs playing, and watching the sky to the east transform as the sun came up.

Then it was on to church for breakfast, and a break before the Easter service — the pipe organ ringing, piano playing with it, and deep trombone and full sanctuary of people singing our 4-part Easter hymns celebrating the day. Laura had the idea of pinning carnations onto the cross, and we got to watch everyone come up and add theirs.

Jacob and Oliver enjoyed the sunrise service. They decided they would keep a watchful eye on the first and the dogs, they enjoyed muffins at breakfast and playing in the church after that. But if you are 4 or 7, what is Easter without an Easter egg hunt? And they got in several.

Laura and I hid some eggs around the yard. Jacob asked me to use a radio to tell them when the eggs were ready. Here they are, bounding out the door to begin the hunt!

And, of course, if you are 4 or 7 and have a geek for a dad, you will naturally think to bring radios with you to the next hunt. To tell your brother what you’re finding, of course.

It was a good weekend, and in fact, Jacob even volunteered to put up a “wet floor” sign after he spilled some water:

On the last car ride of the day, Jacob decided he would write a story about his Easter. He decided he would publish a big book, and be a famous author and make other children happy. Oliver, of course, decided he needed an Easter story also. We couldn’t very well publish a book in the car, but I did manage to use my phone to capture their stories.

It’s been a long and busy week, but there is much to be joyful about, even when tired.

Springtime in the Mountains

The scene: early one morning as the sun has just started to rise. Jacob and Oliver, ages 7 and 4, are the first people to wake up in the house — their grandparents’ in California, where the four of us are visiting for the first time as a family.

They have a conversation and decide that would be a good to go “find a mystery.”

They decide to take their flashlights — pink and blue, matching each boy’s favorite color — and slowly, but not very quietly, open their bedroom door and creep out.

“Brother, you forgot your flashlight!” says Oliver.

“Oh, thanks brother! I’ll get it!” says Jacob.

Meanwhile, Laura’s mom wakes up, and notices two boys with flashlights creeping through the living room. Pretty soon they reach the kitchen, open the dishwasher, spy a suspicious-looking bowl, and decide that they have found the mystery — a clean bowl!

Or, at least that’s the story that I pieced together based on what a 4-year-old and the grandma he awakened told me.

We were on our first family trip to the Fresno, California area, to visit Laura’s parents — Jacob and Oliver’s new grandparents. They’ve played together before, but as this was our first visit to their place, there was quite the excitement. The boys had flown before, but it was several years ago and neither of them remember it well, so they were excited about that, too.

The night before, Jacob woke up to tell me “Dad, I am too excited to sleep. I think I will go downstairs and watch some TV.” He didn’t get too far with that plan. But he was excited. We went through security at the laid-back Wichita airport (where the TSA agents smile and there are often no security lines at all). We found our gate with enough time to grab lunch, which we did. The boys and I then did what we often do to kill time: explore. We explored the terminal, watching carpet-layers cut out carpet for the jetway, watching the construction of the new Terminal 3 out the window. And, of course, watching airplanes take off and land from the terminal’s large windows.

Finally it was our turn to board, and we all got on the plane: Jacob and Oliver with their backpacks of on-board activites, Laura and me with the rest of our carryon luggage, for the short trip to Denver.

Jacob and Oliver’s noses were pressed against the windows. Or, well, Jacob’s was. Oliver’s window was a little too high for him, but he was thrilled anyhow. They delighted in the airplane snacks, and the fact that they were allowed to drink pop on the plane. We packed books and some new art supplies for them (colored post-its, pages from a train-themed page-a-day calendar, a notebook, and a set of colored pens really seemed to do the trick.)

We had a choice of 35 minutes or 4 hours between flights in Denver, and I had chosen 4 hours, thinking that would be a lot less stressful with boys. And it was. We found a nice corner of the mezzanine to sit for awhile — they did art projects and played a game with Laura. Then I took them exploring Denver. We rode the moving sidewalks up and down the terminal, took a train ride to another terminal and back, ate supper all together, and flew to Fresno.

We had stopped in the Wichita airport to buy them each a souvenir airplane, and these came out often during the rest of the trip.

They enjoyed the mockups of the sequoias in Fresno Yosemite International Airport, enjoyed their beds and their room at the house, and did actually manage to fall asleep eventually.

We had a few days there, where they played in a park, with bubbles on the patio, or croquet in the yard (I even discovered Jacob happily using the cast his broken arm is in as a hammer to pound the hoops into the ground!)

There are a lot of miniatures in the house, and the boys enjoyed exploring the dollhouses — and especially the N-gauge model train. Jacob enjoyed it so much he asked me to record a video of him playing with the trains.

Evenings often brought book-reading, from the many children’s books in the house. At home, Laura and I and both boys often scrunch onto an oversized chair and read a book and sing a song (one I make up on whatever topic they choose). Over there, we often had Laura, Jacob, Oliver, Laura’s mom, and me scrunched up somewhere while the boys heard a story read to them by their grandma. That happened plenty of times other than bedtime, too. (Or Jacob would take his favorite books and read them to himself.)

Laura’s parents organized a reception Sunday for us, for the people from that area that couldn’t make it to our wedding. Jacob and Oliver, predictably, had fun playing and even talked to some of the adults. The adults that didn’t ask Jacob about his cast, anyhow (he dislikes talking about it).

The boys discovered a live mic at the church where the reception was, and do I detect two future pastors in our midst?

We had a great time at Laura’s uncle and aunt’s place. The boys were happy to discover an orange tree in their backyard, a tetherball post not far away, and an uncle ready to give them a demonstration of a “swimming pool vacuum cleaner” or sit at the piano with them. Jacob’s favorite part, though, was when the hamburger buns his great uncle were toasting were left on the grill during the prayer before the meal, got a bit scorched, and the uncle remarked with a chuckle that “I guess the Lord was tired of listening to me drone on!” Jacob loved his meal, and cackled at the thought of a prayer causing buns to get scorched.

But their highlight was the visit to the sequoias at Kings Canyon National Park the next day. The excitement had been building for that day all weekend. On the way out, we stopped at a fruit stand and bought some delicious strawberries — the fresh, juicy, sweet and tasty kind that are red all the way through. We continued up through the foothills, stopping periodically to get out and stretch, look at the sights, take some photos, or borrow grandpa’s binoculars.

I knew we’d be traveling in two cars, so I had the thought to pack some 2-way radios before we left. I gave one to the boys and one to the grandparents. All weekend long, whenever the six of us went somewhere, the boys (and especially Jacob) would give directions to the car that was following. “Turn right! … The light is green! … Catch up, you’re going too slow!” So all the way into the mountains, Jacob would send back instructions on what to do.

We saw Grant Grove, home to the worlds third-largest tree (267ft/81m tall and 3000 years old). It’s quite the impressive tree — the trunk’s diameter near the ground is 29ft or almost 9m. As we walked the trails, their speed kept increasing as they were hunting for the “tree tunnel” I had told them about — a tree that fell centuries ago and had been hollowed out to make a home. That trunk was easily 8ft or more in diameter, and I could stand up completely in places. We found it, to much delight from the boys — “So this is what it’s like to be inside a tree!”

Our trip home brought a delay in Denver and a missed flight, which excited the boys when I told them “now we get to eat supper in the airport!” I wonder how long that tactic will work… But Jacob was also excited because the plane we were put on in the end was bigger than the one we were scheduled on, so that was another piece of excitement.

We got home, and I carried two sleeping boys in from the car, upstairs, tucked them in, pulled off their shoes, and put their favorite stuffed animals in their arms. They were happy to be home, and with memories to treasure for a long time.

Good all-day light laptop?

I am trying to find a laptop with all-day battery life that’s fairly light. Perhaps I am dreaming too big here, but I thought I’d toss out my hopes and see if there are any recommendations.

I am hoping for:

  • Battery life around 9 hours powered up
  • Fairly light. 2 or 3 pounds would be good.
  • Small. 10″ to 12″ screen is fine.
  • CPU – needs to be something “real”. No ARM or Atom.
  • Storage – size is less important than performance.
  • Screen – resolution has to be better than 768 vertical lines.
  • Ideally, capable of running Debian well.

The point is that I want to be able to do general web browsing with a real browser (Firefox), run Thunderbird for mail, hopefully even be able to run a VM or two under KVM or VirtualBox (with the understanding that this will kill battery life).

I have been using a Thinkpad T420s for a couple of years now. Its battery life wasn’t great even when it was new, and is worse now, of course. An Asus TF700t tablet has great battery life, but the storage system in it is so slow that I rather suspect that the browser cache is hurting, not helping, performance.

I am also rather disappointed with the Android system. I can’t really develop for it with my usual tools. Enough components are closed that, like Windows or MacOS X, I can’t feel like I can truly trust it with sensitive data. Although it has SSH clients available, the SSH server there wants you to pay to use public key auth, and the SSH clients don’t work all that well. Git can work, sort of. Battery life is great, and the keyboard is fine, but even flashing a different OS won’t fix that terrible performance.

I’ve had people recommend certain Asus laptops, a Microsoft Surface Pro, or a Macbook Air. Any thoughts?

Migrated from Hetzner to OVH hosting

Since August 2011, my sites such as have been running on a Xen-backed virtual private server (VPS) at Hetzner Online, based in Germany. I had what they called their VQ19 package, which included 2GB RAM, 80GB HDD, 100Mb NIC and 4TB transfer.

Unlike many other VPS hosts, I never had performance problems. However, I did sometimes have hardware problems with the host, and it could take hours to resolve. Their tech support only works business hours German time, which was also a problem.

Meanwhile, OVH, a large European hosting company, recently opened a datacenter in Canada. Although they no longer offer their value-line Kimsufi dedicated servers there — starting at $11.50/mo — they do offer their midrange SoYouStart servers there. $50/mo gets a person a 4-core 3.2GHz Xeon server with 32GB RAM, 2x2TB SATA HDD, 200Mbps bandwidth. Not bad at all! The Kimsufi options are still good for lower-end needs as well.

I signed up for one of the SoYouStart servers. I’ve been pleased with my choice to migrate, and at the possibilities that having hardware like that at my disposal open up, but it is not without its downside.

The primary downside is lack of any kind of KVM console. If the server doesn’t boot, I can’t see the Grub error message (or whatever) behind it. They do provide hardware support and automatic technician dispatching when the server isn’t pingable, but… they state they have no KVM access at all. They support many OS flavors, and have a premade image for them, but there is no using a custom ISO to install; if you want ZFS on Linux, for instance, you can’t very easily build it into root.

My server was promised within 72 hours, but delivered much quicker: within about 1. I had two times they said they had to replace a motherboard within the first day; once they did it in 30 minutes, and the other took them 2.5 hours for some reason. They do have phone support, which answers almost immediately, but the people there are not the people actually in the datacenter. It was frustrating with a server down for hours and nobody really commenting on what was going on.

The server performs quite well, and after the initial issues, I’ve been happy.

I was initially planning an all-ZFS installation. SoYouStart does offer a rescue environment, but it doesn’t support ZFS, so I figured I better stick with an ext4 root at least. The default Debian install uses RAID1 on md-raid, with a 20GB root partition and the rest of the 2TB drive in /home, and then a swap partition on each drive (mysteriously NOT in the RAID!) So I broke the mirror on /home and converted those into the two legs of a mirrored vdev for a zpool.

I run all of the real work inside KVM VMs, so that should minimize the number of times I have to do anything to the root filesystem that could cause trouble.

SoYouStart includes 100GB of space on a separate FTP server for backup purposes. I have scripts that upload nightly tarballs of the root filesystem, plus full “zfs send” streams of everything else. Every hour, it uploads an incremental “zfs send” stream as well. This all works quite nicely; even if the machine is a complete loss, I’d never lose more than an hour’s work, and could restore it completely from a rescue environment. Very nice!

I’ll write more in a few days about the ZFS setup I’m using, and some KVM discoveries as well.

Delicious Holiday Recipes

I’ve come up with some new favorites this season. The boys and Laura were around for all three, and I am happy to report there were many kitchen smiles over these!

From-Scratch Hot Chocolate

There’s something about hot chocolate made from scratch, with chocolate melted into milk, instead of a powder stirred in. It takes quite a bit more time, and probably has more calories, but it is quite delicious.

The key to a delicious result where milk is concerned is to take things slow and keep stirring. You don’t want the chocolate to scorch at the bottom of the pan. Heating up the milk before the chocolate should help things mix in more easily as well.

  • Begin with 3 cups milk and 1 cup heavy whipping cream. Heat slowly over moderate to low heat, stirring periodically. Once you see bubbles start to form around the edges, it is plenty hot (or even a bit more hot than it needs to be).
  • Add one cup of semisweet chocolate chips, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract.
  • Stir constantly until all the chocolate is melted and well mixed. There will still be some small bits of chocolate within, but if it is all done slowly like this, the chocolate should be pretty well melted.

The basis for this recipe was here, and it called for 2 cups milk and 2 cups half-and-half. I trust my heavy whipping cream was fine! There are also some other variations on that site.

This nearly made my little cast iron kettle overflow, so next time I made a 3/4 recipe.

Hot Spiced Cider

We put up a Christmas tree yesterday, so I thought hot spiced cider would be perfect for the occasion. I went searching for recipes, and many of them called for cloves (which have to be sifted out later or put in a spice bag). I wasn’t going to have time to delay two boys from setting up a Christmas tree long enough for that, so I found this basic recipe to work well. However, I, as usual, made some modifications ;-)

  • Warm 4 cups apple cider (not juice, as the recipe suggests) in a pot.
  • Add 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • Add 1/4 tsp nutmeg or allspice (I used allspice because I was mysteriously out of nutmeg, but will probably use nutmeg next time)
  • Add 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • Stir constantly until sufficiently dissolved. Pour immediately before drinking, as the contents will tend to separate.

Mmmmm…. yum….

Turkey or Chicken Noodle Soup

The annual “what to do with all that leftover turkey” quest strikes again. I like chicken noodle soup, so why not a turkey noodle soup done the same way?

Here’s what I used, roughly, in my large 6-quart cast iron cooking pot (aka “Dutch oven”):

  • 9 cups chicken/turkey broth. Your own if you have it, or the canned variety works. Or make your own with boullion if you have it.
  • 2 chopped yellow onions. (I added half a chopped red onion as well because I had it sitting around. Nobody complained, but 2.5 onions was a little much.)
  • 4 tsp fresh basil or 1 tsp dried basil
  • 4 tsp fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp beef bouillon
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 20 oz frozen mixed vegetables (I’d probably add more than that next year; this wasn’t quite enough)
  • Plenty of wide egg noodles. The recipe I used called for 1 cup, which was laughably inadequate. I just dumped until it looked right, and then the package was almost empty so I dumped the rest in too.
  • 4 cups cooked turkey or chicken, cubed (a kitchen scissors makes quick work of that)
  • Two 14.5-oz cans diced tomatoes (do not drain)

Start with the broth, onion, basil, oregano, pepper, and bay leaf. Heat up the mixture and add the vegetables. Bring it to boiling, then add the uncooked noodles. Return to boiling, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 8 minutes. Add the turkey or chicken and diced tomatoes, and simmer until hot enough to serve.

The nice thing about soups is that they freeze well and make great winter leftovers. This recipe makes quite a lot of soup; you may wish to halve it.

This recipe was adapted from one in a Better Homes & Gardens cookbook.

Two Kittens

Almost every time he got off the bus for the past month and a half, Jacob started his afternoon in the same way. Before toys, before his trains and his toy bus, before anything indoors, he went for our cats. Here he is, cradling his favorite, Tigger:

Laura and I both grew up around cats. We had been talking about kittens, and shortly after we got engaged, one of my relatives offered us some free kittens. We went to his place one evening and selected two of them – one calico and one tiger-colored. Since what is now my place will soon be our place, they came to live with me. Our cats were one of the first things we did to prepare for our lives together.

Oliver wanted to name them some rather impractical sentence-long names (“The Cat Who Always Likes To Run”), so Laura and I suggested some names from one of their favorite books: Tigger and Roo. They both liked the names, but Oliver thought they should be called “Tigger the Digger” and “Roo the Runner”. Never mind that they were just 6 weeks old at the time, and not really old enough to either dig or run. Here’s Oliver with Roo, the day after the kittens arrived here.

I have always had outside cats, both because I’m allergic to cats so I need them to be outside, and because they sometimes literally quiver with joy of being outdoors. Tigger and Roo often chased insects, wrestled with each other, ran up (and slowly came back down) trees, and just loved the outside. Sometimes, I have taken my laptop and wireless headset and work from the back porch. The kittens climb up my jeans, inspect the laptop, and once Roo even fell asleep on my lap at one of those times.

Jacob has been particularly attached to Tigger, calling him “my very best friend.” When Jacob picks him up after school, Tigger often purrs while cradled in Jacob’s arms, and Jacob comments that “Tigger loves me. Oh dad, he knows I am his friend!”

The kittens have been growing, and becoming more and more comfortable with their home in the country. Whenever I go outside, it isn’t long before there are two energetic kittens near my feet, running back and forth, sometimes being very difficult to avoid stepping on. I call and I see little heads looking at me, from up in a tree, or peeking out from the grain elevator door, or from under the grill. They stare for just a second, and then start running, sometimes comically crashing into something in their haste.

Yesterday when I went to give them food, I called and no cats came. I was concerned, and walked around the yard, but at some point either they come or they don’t.

Yesterday afternoon, just after the bus dropped off Jacob, I discovered Tigger on the ground, motionless. Once Jacob was in the house, I went to investigate, and found Tigger was dead. As I was moving his body, I saw Roo was dead, too. Both apparently from some sort of sudden physical injury — a bit mysterious, because neither of them were at a place where they had ever gone before. While all this was happening, I had to also think about how I was going to tell the boys about this.

I tried to minimize what he could see, Jacob had caught an unavoidable glimpse of Tigger as we were walking back from the bus, but didn’t know exactly what had happened. He waited in the house, and when I came back, asked me if Tigger was dead. I said he was. Jacob started crying, saying, “Oh Dad, I am so sad”, and reached up for a hug. I picked him up and held him, then sat down on the couch and let him curl up on my lap. I could quite honestly let him know he wasn’t alone, telling him I am sad, too.

Oliver arrived not long after, and he too was sad, though not as much as Jacob. Both boys pretty soon wanted to see them. I decided this was important for them for closure, and to understand, so while they waited in the house, I went back out to arrange the kittens to hide their faces, the part that looks most unnatural after they die. The boys and I walked out to where I put them, then I carried both of them the last few feet. We stood a little ways back — close enough to see who was there, far enough to not get too much detail — and they were both sniffling. I tried to put voice to the occasion, saying, “Goodbye, Tigger and Roo. We love you.” Oliver asked if they could hear us. I said “No, but I told them what I felt like anyway.” Jacob, through tears, said, “Dad, maybe they are in heaven now.”

We went back inside. Jacob said, “Oh dad, I am so sad. This is the saddest day of my life. My heart is breaking.” Hearing a 7-year-old say that isn’t exactly easy for a dad. Pretty soon he was thinking of sort of comfort activities to do, saying “I think I would feel better if we did…” So they decided to watch a favorite TV program. Jacob asked if Laura knew yet, and when I said no, he got his take-charge voice and said, “Dad, you will start the TV show for us. While we are watching, you will send Laura an email to tell her about Tigger and Roo. OK?” What could I say, it wasn’t a bad idea.

Pretty soon both boys were talking and laughing. It was Big Truck Night last night, at a town about half an hour away. It’s an annual event we were already planning to attend, where all sorts of Big Trucks – firetrucks, school bus, combine, bucket truck, cement truck, etc – show up and are open for kids to climb in and explore. It’s always a highlight for them. They played and sang happily as we drove, excitedly opened and closed the big door on the school bus and yelled “All Aboard!” from the top of the combine. We ate dinner, and drove back home. When we got home, Jacob mentioned the cats again, in a sort of matter-of-fact way, and also wanted to make sure he knew Laura had got the message.

A person never wakes up expecting to have to dump a bowl of un-eaten cat food, or to give an impromptu cat funeral for little boys. As it was happening, I wished they hadn’t been around right then. But in retrospect, I am glad they were. They had been part of life for those kittens, and it is only right that they could be included in being part of death. They got visual closure this way, and will never wonder if the cats are coming back someday. They had a chance to say goodbye.

Here is how I remember the kittens.