Christmas/Birthday/New Year’s 2009

I’m back from my 15-day holiday break. Here’s some of what I did during this festive season:

Christmas in California

I usually don’t do any Christmas-related things in California, but this year I checked out Christmas Tree Lane in Palo Alto. It was nice to get away from the land of office parks and apartment complexes and discover that yes, people actually do decorate for Christmas in this state.

We also had a couple of reindeer visit at work:

One of them was too busy eating Sophia alive to pose for a picture. And yes, that’s snow on the ground. Don’t worry, snowshoes were provided:

Last-minute flight change

I was originally scheduled to arrive in Philadelphia on the evening of Saturday, December 19th. On the 17th, my family warned me that a snowstorm was expected to hit on Saturday, and that I should probably change my flight to avoid the storm. Not wanting to take any risks, I changed my flight to the red eye on Friday night. This turned out to be a very good move.

White Christmas

The timing of my new flight was perfect, even though we had a delayed takeoff due to being overweight. It just started to snow as we got close to home from the airport, and we got to enjoy the rest of the snowfall relaxing inside. My original flight was diverted to Pittsburgh, which while in the same state, is not right next to Philadelphia. The next few days had very nice weather, with the fallen snow creating appropriate scenery for the season. Christmas Eve was an especially nice day, and while it rained on Christmas, there was still enough snow on the ground in the morning to make it a white Christmas.

Here’s a shot from the 21st:

snowy field at sunset

In 2008, I said that I wanted to get a better shot of my Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I finally got around to it this season:

charlie brown tree with blue blanket around bottom by fireplace

Note that it is now kept warm by both a fire and Linus’s blanket.

colorful fire in fireplace

Speaking of fires.

I won’t make a “stuff I got” list, but here’s one gift I just have to show off:

Mosaic in a Box - front

Mosaic in a Box - back

Yes, that’s a shrink wrapped copy of Mosaic in a Box from Egghead Software. It was definitely the biggest surprise of this Christmas. Thanks, Brendan. Be sure to click on the images for the full resolution versions if you want to read about all the great features possible when you combine the 32-bit power of Windows 95 with the 28.8 kbps speed of CompuServe.

Speaking of technology, I was unable to convert either our window candles or tree lights to LEDs in 2009. The availability of good products is a bit lacking at this point, but we’ll see what Christmas 2010 brings. On the bright side, I got a chance to take this cool picture of good old-fashioned burning filament in a window reflection:

reflection of a candle in window


Two of my favorite places to go on vacation are New Hampshire and Telluride. Just after we ran out of snow at home, we hopped on a plane bound for more snow. First stop: Lincoln, Nebraska. Plenty of snow there. I think this was my first time in Lincoln. It looked nice.

And then the next flight was to Telluride, where I’ve even seen snow in the summer. Here’s a look at the mountains as we flew in:

I’ve been skiing for almost 20 years now, and until this past trip, without a helmet. Back in March, I decided that I should finally get one, and a helmet is what I found under the tree on Christmas morning. I also got a ContourHD helmet camera. On our first day of skiing, I wasted no time in testing out both gifts, thanks to some completely unexpected airtime at the bottom of a hill. Here’s a video of the test:

The helmet worked pretty well. I landed on my head and walked away with a scraped chin and forehead as well as a sore thumb. The camera did its job too. It kept rolling… even as it rolled down the hill after becoming detached from my helmet on impact. To get an idea of just how far I flew, watch and listen carefully after the camera stops tumbling. First, you’ll hear my footsteps as I walk back to grab the camera. Then, once I have my camera, you can see how many more steps I have to take to get back to the point where my skis stopped. Even though the mount snapped apart during the fall, I was able to easily clip it right back into place. Unfortunately, while the camera is durable enough to handle a faceplant, it has trouble in the cold (a known issue). I was only able to record a few videos on the trip using that camera, which was disappointing, but VholdR will be repairing or replacing my camera before my next ski trip, so I have something to look forward to.

On New Year’s Day when it warmed up a bit, I brought the camera out for our last afternoon run. The terrain itself is a bit bleh (I prefer something with a few more trees) and it was overcast, but it was fun just to see that the camera was in fact capable of recording longer videos, so I could get a full run without it being split into multiple segments. I got a bit nervous toward the end though, and stopped the camera a few times to make sure I didn’t lose too much footage in case the switch froze up again.

Here’s part one:

Part two:

Last bit to the base of the gondola:

And then back up the gondola for the last leg to Mountain Village, featuring the tip of my nose:

Even though I don’t have many helmet-cam videos to share, I was able to capture some of the scenery with my trusty PowerShot:

And I took a short video at the top of the Revelation bowl using my new Flip camera. If you pause the video at about five seconds in and look at the center mountain peak, you may recognize it as “the mountain on the Coors can,” also known as Wilson Peak.

In addition to photos and videos, I also recorded a couple of GPS tracks using My Tracks for Android. You can check them out if you’d like: Revelation to Mountain Village, Afternoon Run. The straight segments are likely chairlift/gondola rides.

New Year’s

To celebrate New Year’s Eve in Telluride, they have a parade of skiers go down the mountain holding torches and then set off fireworks. It happens at about 6:30; so at midnight we watched the ball drop on TV just like everyone else, except on a delay. This is what it looks like:

Airport confusion

I actually got confused in an airport on the way back to California. Do you know how hard it is to get confused in an airport, a place perhaps best characterized by its navigational signage? It’s pretty difficult, but I did it at the Phoenix airport.

I arrived Terminal 4 (which I didn’t know at the time) on a US Airways flight. I checked the status of my next flight, operated by United, on my phone and saw that it was leaving from a gate in Terminal 2. I looked around and saw signs for A, B, and C gates, which I assumed were for terminals A, B, and C. I figured that the website was just wrong, and that Terminal 2 probably meant Terminal B. I checked the appropriate gate number in the B section and didn’t find my flight. In fact, I didn’t see any United flights anywhere in the B gates. I headed to the end of the terminal, where the security line was, and saw signs for the A and C gates. I looked out the windows across to both A and C, and still didn’t see any United planes sitting outside. I was really confused, and there was no indication that this whole area was actually known as “Terminal 4.” I looked up my flight on both United’s website and the airport’s website, assuming they wouldn’t reference the non-existant “Terminal 2,” but, they both insisted that I should be looking for Terminal 2.

Finally, I asked one of the electric cart drivers where the United flights were. He said that they were in Terminal 2, and to get there, I had to go past security, then go outside and look for Door 22 to get on the inter-terminal bus. After getting over the initial shock that I would have to go through the whole security process again just to change terminals, I headed out in search of Door 22. What I found however were doors with numbers much lower than 22, but labeled with signs for an airport bus. I went outside, and there was no clear indication of where a bus would stop. So, I went back in and asked at an information desk. I couldn’t believe I was actually asking for directions in an airport. They directed me upstairs (I was on the wrong level), where I was finally able to find Door 22 and the inter-terminal bus. After that things were pretty normal, only as if I had just arrived at the airport via a car, and not another flight. I don’t know of any other airport in America where you have to exit the secure area, then go through security again while changing domestic flights, even if they’re on different airlines in different terminals. It’s a good thing I had rescheduled my flights to have a long enough layover, but thanks to the crazy terminal-changing shenanigans I didn’t have time to get anything to eat.

Year-end summary

I’m not really sure the best way to pick highlights from 2009, but I’ll tell you a few things that come to mind as I write this. In my personal life, I’m happy that I started biking on a somewhat regular basis. I hope to do even more of this in 2010. At work, I’m glad that the whole video thing caught on and that Mike and Beah were able to move back to the East Coast without leaving Google.


2010 will be a big wedding year for me. And by big, I mean it will be the first year that I will attend multiple weddings. Two cousins got engaged in 2009, and I’ll be attending their weddings in June and September. My “I’m busy being the camera guy” excuse is losing its effectiveness, so I should start practicing my dance moves now. 🙂

Other than that, I’m not too sure what the year will bring, but I’m looking forward to it.


Try to guess which elements of this post were created by my new phone.

2 Last-minute gift ideas (from a geek, for anyone)

*Last-minute gifts*
It’s Christmas Eve. If you’re still looking for a last-minute gift and don’t want to go with the usual Amazon gift certificate, perhaps one of these suggestions can help.

1. Backup
You know that backups are important. Without backups, family photos, music libraries, and critical documents are one step away from being lost forever. And you may be the one who is called to try and save them. Save everyone a headache by making sure that your family’s data is safe. The easiest thing to to if you are only backing up one or two computers is to gift a subscription service such as Mozy or Carbonite. That way they have an automatic, offsite backup wherever their computers have an Internet connection. If your family uses several computers, those subscription fees can add up pretty quickly, so something like a Time Capsule is probably a better idea, and there’s a pretty good chance your local Apple Store is open on Christmas Eve (and there’s at least one open on Christmas.) Or if you still want an offsite solution, see if a Pogoplug works for you. Just make sure you set up something that backs up automatically.

2. Photo scanning
If your family has a box of negatives or slides sitting in an attic, a gift certificate (or box if you have time) to ScanCafe could be a great gift. Not only does having photos scanned provide a backup, it also means that with a digital copy, sharing and printing old photos becomes incredibly simple. For example, most of my parents’ wedding photos were never printed, probably because getting prints of all of the photos wasn’t affordable at the time. Once I finish getting them scanned, however, ordering a book of full-page photos using the services available today is something that will be very easy.

*Other ways you can help out over the holidays*
There was recently a post on the Google Blog describing something that many of us are familiar with: coming home for the holidays and providing technical support. That post mostly focused on making sure your family is running a modern browser, so I decided to add my take on some tasks you may wish to perform while you’re visiting family.

Internet access
Your family may know how to keep their OS and browser up to date, but what about router firmware? Make sure that’s current.

I also like to do a walk around the house while streaming live video (such as TWiT Live) and make sure that every room has a good wireless signal with sufficient bandwidth.

Finally, if your family has had the same ISP for a while, take a look and see if there’s room for improvement. Is the cable modem that came in a box with Excite@Home branding not serving up the full bandwidth that your family is paying for? Might be time to buy or lease a new model. And alternative providers such as FiOS may not have been available in your area last time you checked, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t now.

Contact management
There are a couple of things you can do to help manage a family member’s list of contacts: sync and de-dupe. Think about all the places your family member may access their contacts: desktop email client, web interface, and phone are pretty common. If you use a cloud-based service such as Gmail, keeping everything in sync is actually pretty easy. Check out instructions for syncing with your iPhone or Mac.

And when you have everything in sync, watch out for those duplicates that can quickly appear. I meant to do this while I was home for Thanksgiving, but I’m glad I put it off, because since then, an awesome new feature has been released which makes it super easy to consolidate a duplicate-riddled list of contacts. Procrastination pays.

OS updates
Both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 have been released since last Christmas. Do those major upgrades if necessary, but at least do the incremental updates that are available online (and train your family to respond to your OS’s automatic upgrade checks.)

Prepare for future support
One of the reasons that I don’t have a huge tech to-do list when I get home is that my family is pretty tech-savvy. But another reason is that I check in with them often via video chat, where I can easily take a look at their screens (and control their computers) from across the country. If you get your family set up with a VNC solution, you can cut down on trying to interpret what they mean by “the Internet disappeared” and save yourself from giving instructions like “Click on the… oh, man how do I describe the Chrome icon?” I personally use iChat with my family since it’s free and easy, but if you’re on Windows you might want to look into something like GoToMyPC or GoToAssist, which I’ve never actually used myself.

Have fun
If all you show your family is how to manage backups and stay updated, technology can seem pretty dull. Think of some cool things you can show off to your family, and they might be happy to have you take some time to explain what cool new stuff is available. Show off your smartphone if you have one. Maybe someone has never seen their house (or their childhood home) on Street View. Does your local newspaper or TV station have a website with an RSS feed? Introduce someone to a feed reader. Are they interested in a particular field of study? A university may have free lectures available on YouTube. Still paying for directory assistance? GOOG-411. Have a Kindle? Show that off. Anytime you reach for a gadget, consider giving a tour.

Did I miss a good gift or tech support suggestion? Add more in the comments.

Do me a salad

At a Christmas brunch, earlier this afternoon…

My cousin Chris, sitting across the table, got my attention:
“Can you do me a salad?” he asked.
“You want me to get you a salad?”
He laughed. “Yeah. Do you have any Tabasco sauce?”

I went into the kitchen and retrieved the Tabasco bottle, and presented it to him in a hilarious fashion, as it it were a bottle of wine. He played along and tasted a small portion of it before applying it to the rest of his omelette. With one of his requests fulfilled, I headed back into the kitchen and piled Caesar salad and some fruit onto a plate, and set it next to him.

As the meal ended, there was a salad plate sitting near me at the table. Nobody at the table would claim ownership of it. I started to think that maybe Chris thought that I brought him a salad plate as a joke, and I asked him if he moved the salad that he had ordered earlier.

“I asked for a salad?” He couldn’t believe it.
“Yes, you asked for a salad and then Tabasco sauce.”

I was then taught the definition of “Do me a solid.”

Christmastime – Home for Christmas

Two cats sleeping in front of a pillow that says Home for Christmas

Harry and Potter, December 2006

Stille Nacht

I’m probably going to be pretty tired when you read this after a cross-country flight, so this post’s song is “Stille Nacht” performed by Mannheim Steamroller. No, they don’t turn things upside-down and go all Mannheim Steamrollery on it like with “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” It’s a peaceful track, and it’s best enjoyed when it comes on at just the right time in a mix, and isn’t followed by “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Home for Christmas

This is my last post in the series I began on December 1st. I’m sure I’ll still have a bit more to say about Christmas this year, but during my vacation I don’t want to be tied to (self-imposed) blogging deadlines.

If everything goes according to schedule, this will be published at the time I land in Philadelphia for my Christmas vacation. I don’t have an incredible story for this post. I just want to say that I’m where I want to be.

20th in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Christmas in California

outdoor Christmas tree at night

Christmas tree, Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto, CA

White Christmas

“White Christmas” is today’s song pick. I feel a little nervous choosing it just hours before I embark on a journey across the country in December, but I do want a white Christmas, and I suppose it’s not as dangerous as choosing “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

The song describes a white Christmas as being “just like the ones I used to know,” and this is true. In my memories, I always associate Christmas with snow. While my Californian friends may assume that my home state is a frozen tundra from December through mid-March, the probability of a white Christmas where I live are actually well below 50%. So a white Christmas still requires a bit of dreaming for me, and when it does happen, it’s quite magical.

Christmas in California

Sometimes Often when I miss home, I give California a hard time. After going home for Thanksgiving, I even claimed that California doesn’t celebrate Christmas. But I’ll admit, after I settled down and got back into California mode, it did start to feel a bit like Christmas around here. It’s different, but it’s still Christmas. I’m excited to go home, but I will admit that there are some things over here that I will miss while I’m gone. I’ll miss my friends, I’ll miss my desk and ridiculous Internet connection at work, and I’ll miss some of the food. At home I’ll gain family, older friends, and homemade food, so it will still be a very merry Christmas, but just because home is good doesn’t mean California is bad. I’ve even seen some nice decorating around here, and wow, it’s actually been cold.

19th in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Advent calendar

decoration that says Happy Holidays

Christmas Wrapping

Today’s song pick is “Christmas Wrapping” performed by The Waitresses.

Advent calendar

I don’t believe I don’t have a picture of it, but I can’t find one right now. Our family has an Advent calendar which we use every year to count down the days until Christmas. Most Advent calendars you may be familiar with have small doors that you open, revealing a picture or perhaps even a treat. Ours is a bit different, and was sewn by my mom. It’s a felt Christmas tree, covered in green and gold sequins. At the top is a star, and at the bottom are 24 numbered pockets. Each pocket contains a wooden ornament for the tree. There’s a bear helping to decorate it. Each day, one of the children takes the ornament from the appropriate pocket and hangs it on one of the sequins. It looks similar to this tree, but I’ll try to get a picture of ours when I go home.

I remember in preschool we made chains made out of interlocking strips of red and green construction paper. They may have been purely decorative, but I think I remember part of the idea being that you would take off one link every day to count down to Christmas.

18th in a series of Christmasy things.