Heather's Dance Recital

Heather has been in a toddler dance class for the past year.  They had their recital today.  Heather thought it was the most amazing thing ever.  I think she burned through 3 days worth of energy reserves during and after it.

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The studio strictly forbids anyone recording video during the performance (they're more than happy to sell you a DVD for $40 though).  So I only have photos.  Their pricing only really irks me because they charge admission for the recital at $16 per person.  At a rough estimate they brought in around $10,000 at the recital (held at the high school), seems like they could afford to provide the video at a reasonable price (considering everyone has to pay for their own costume, makeup, shoes, and to be in the class in the first place).

They had a picture day a few weeks ago and we bought a print from that so we'd have at least one high quality picture of Heather in her costume:

Heather Dance Costume (s)

At the recital the lighting was challenging.  To compensate for low light, I used a wide aperture (and thus shallow depth of field, making focus difficult) and still needed to apply a rather aggressive noise-reduction algorithm.  And then my task was complicated by the guy in front of me who, just as Heather's class came on stage, pulled his cellphone out to take pictures.  We were sitting in the third row, so our heads were actually below the level of the stage, which is why the dancers are cut off at the shin in every picture.  So the pictures aren't amazing, but I think they get the gist across.

They gave each dancer a little medal after the performance.  No matter what we say, Heather is convinced this means she "won" and was the best dancer.  She is incredibly competitive.  We have no idea where she gets it from.  If anything, we go out of our way to downplay any competitive aspect of the activities she participates in.

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After the recital I asked her where she wanted to go for dinner to celebrate.  She chose Chick-fil-a.  We left at about 3pm and she fell asleep on the way there and on the way back and then went to bed at about 6:15pm (hence why we left for dinner around 3pm).  Going to bed she was complaining that her stomach hurt and her head hurt.  I think she's just beyond exhausted; hopefully she's feeling better in the morning.

As we were leaving the theater, Heather got tripped and fell pretty hard.  She was crying and one of the studio's employees (possibly the owner) gave her a fancy cookie from their concession stand to try and cheer her up (you can see the cookie in the last picture below).

Enjoy the photos:

Railtown and Mercer Caverns

The next day after Columbia, Mom and Dad were headed up to Idaho.  We went and visited Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and then Mercer Caverns.

IMGP3247asWe arrived just in time to catch the 12:00 train.  It was hot.  If you can, you want to sit on one of the cars with open sides; the breeze keeps it much cooler than the cars with just open windows.

IMGP3225asAt the halfway point the train stops and the engine decouples and then hooks back up on the other side to take us back.

IMGP3255asWhile that was happening all the kids were piled up at the end of the train watching.  I was standing at halfway back in the car to make room.  Then I hear Heather screaming for me.

As I work my way up to her I discover that she'd gotten her head stuck in the gate at the back of the car.  Before I can get to her a woman helped her get her head out.  Heather then turned to her, thinking it was me, and really lost it.  At that point I was only a step away though, so I picked her up and carried her off to try and calm down.

After she calmed down we went back to the end of the car to look out again.  The crowd had dispersed by this time so it was mostly just us and another little boy.  For unknown reasons Heather pushed the boy so I grabbed her arms to discuss why that was not acceptable during which she kicked him [sigh].  So I picked her up again and carried her off screaming.  That part was less than great.

It could have been more relaxing.  I would recommend against visiting when it's over 100 F out.

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We got back in the van, bought some cold water, and headed off towards Mercer.  At least underground it would be cooler.

On our way there we crossed this bridge.  This sort of highlights California's water problem.  You can see where the water level is supposed to be and used to be.  The little pull-off here has a plaque commemorating this location as the location of one of the first ferry crossings for this water.  At the moment you'd have to work your way pretty far down the cliff to cross the water.

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We stopped for lunch in Murphys, which we discovered is apparently a somewhat hoity-toity little town that was having some sort of festival so it was packed.  After contemplating driving back the opposite direction to find some less crowded food, we eventually decided to be adventurous and just go with it.  So we found a parking lot and loaded up the strollers.

We had been heading for the Murphys Grille, but then stumbled upon Peppermint Stick (which didn't sound like a restaurant when we saw it on the GPS receiver).  But they had food and ice-cream which, again, it being over 100 F sounded like a good idea.  We enjoyed some really tasty and plentiful burgers and shakes.

After lunch it was time to delve into the earth where it was blessedly 55 F.  We were concerned we might get chilly in shorts and t-shirts, but let me assure you, the tour is only long enough for the cool air to feel nice.  Heather did end up wearing her jacket, but we ended up just carrying our other jackets the whole time.

I didn't take the camera into the cavern as I was concerned I might end up needing to carry Heather, so I only have pictures from my phone, but the lack of light was mostly too difficult to get any pictures worth looking at.  But I did get this one near the entrance:

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On the cavern tour Heather was a perfect little angel.  The heat seems to really affect her ability to concentrate and maintain her self-control.

After the cavern tour it was time to pile back in the van and head home.

Columbia, CA - Old Timey Town

For the past couple of weeks Mom and Dad have been wandering around the western states and last weekend we met up in Columbia, CA.  It's technically a State Historic Park, but it's still an actual town too.  The main street and surrounding area is a preserved gold-rush era mining town (though they have paved the road).

But, before we talk about the town, let's back up a moment to the night before.  The only arrangement we'd made with Mom and Dad was to meet them in Columbia Friday morning.  Then Jess and I decided drive out Thursday night to give us a better chance of getting an early start in the town before it got too hot (forecast was for over 100 F).

I called the hotel at which we had booked a room for Friday night, but they were sold out for Thursday.  So I found another hotel a couple towns over and booked a room there.  As it turned out that was where Mom and Dad were staying.

We left town late Thursday evening to avoid sitting in traffic (it was going to be a ~1.75 hour drive already).  Heather eventually fell asleep and we pulled in to the hotel's parking lot around 10:30pm.  After groggily working her way up the stairs to our room, Heather was startled by Mom stepping out of the room right next to ours to say, "Hello."  Turns out, grandparents popping out of doors unexpectedly late at night was not something Heather was going to tolerate.  She pretty much lost it.

IMGP3124asAnyway, we eventually got to sleep and Heather was somewhat less wary in the morning.

In town we had a blacksmith put our name on a horseshoe (this was something Jess was super excited to do):

IMG_20150621_145908asWe also did candle dipping (again, something Jess was super excited about):

IMGP3196asWe had lunch at one of the restaurants (with sarsaparilla) during which Heather had a few meltdowns; heat and hunger didn't combine well for her.  As it turned out, we then left Heather's water bottle at the restaurant and didn't notice for several hours.  When I went back to get it the worker greeted me with, "Oh yeah, you had the screaming blond-haired girl.  She was memorable."  Yah....

IMGP3134as IMGP3136asWe took a stagecoach ride which was set upon by a bandit:

IMGP3145as IMGP3171as IMGP3158asHeather panned for gold.  She found some rocks, which she declared to be her treasure, but nothing of value.

IMGP3180asAnd we had some ice-cream to cool down from the heat:

IMGP3184asIMGP3187asAnd Heather enjoyed spending time at the antique bowling alley:

IMGP3211asIt was a good time.  It was hot, but most of the buildings were air-conditioned and the old trees along main street provided nice shade.

Apparently the real secret is to go during cooler months and rent one of the cottages (there are cottages and hotel rooms available only through the ReserveAmerica system as they're run by the Park Service).  The cottages don't have air-conditioning, but they seem to have plenty of room and are reasonably priced.

Bonus pictures:

Decisions are made by those who show up

The article "Inside Obama's Stealth Startup" was published yesterday over at fastcompany.com.  It discusses the U.S. Digital Service as well as 18F and the effort to bring government tech into the 21st century.  When these stories post I oftentimes take a look at the comment threads on common tech watering holes like Slashdot and HackerNews.  Generally speaking, Slashdot comment threads are rather cynical while HackerNews tends to be more optimistic, but overall it provides some kind of view into how the greater tech world is responding.  So I was surprised at the amount of cynicism expressed in the comments on HackerNews on this article.

Now, I tend to be fairly cynical, the only negative remark on my annual performance appraisals has always been that I should try to be less cynical.  (Personally, I think my cynicism has helped make our team successful, but I digress...) While I may be somewhat cynical, I'm also on the inside of government work.  I know my team members and their skills.  I know the mission space my software is used in.  And I know my background and motivations.

I understand feeling that nothing in government could really be improved so this whole thing must be nothing more than a PR campaign.  It's not.  This is possibly the first genuine attempt at meaningfully improving government tech services ever.  And there are more people pushing for it than just those in the U.S.D.S. or 18F.

I'm reminded of a quote from The West Wing: "Decisions are made by those who show up."

The government isn't just another corporation out to make a profit.  It is the thing which makes our country more than some lines on a map.  If it's not working the way you want it to then you have two choices: whine and complain on the Internet about how broken it is or show up and do something about it.

torbakhopper via Flickr - Creative Commons Licensed
torbakhopper via Flickr - Creative Commons Licensed

The government is likely to continue to exist for some time to come*.  If we're not trying to make it better then it's not going to get better.  If you know me well you know I am not Mr. Patriotic, and in fact I find patriotism dangerous as it is often used to stifle dissent.  This isn't about being patriotic or that somehow the U.S. is better than other countries.  This is about the U.S. government being our government.  And it was created upon the idea that the citizens should have some say in how their government operates.

For years technology in government has fallen behind due to thousands of qualified techies deciding they would rather chase piles of money by selling ads and shiny, metal gadgets than trying to make the government better.  And I get that it's not just about the money. Fighting bureaucracy is hard and exhausting.

But if we don't fight it then it's only going to get worse.  And we can change it.  I have changed my small corner of it.

When I started in my job 6 years ago the source code for this group was stored in an ancient deployment of SVN, the applications were built on homegrown J2EE frameworks with no documentation, missing source code, years behind industry best practices, and with release cycles measured in months.  The code was like spaghetti, it barely functioned, and the intended users hated it.  They disliked it so much that they continued throwing their data into Excel to avoid using the custom software which was supposed to be more useful than Excel.  There was no reason for it but culture and lack of energy to fight for change.

When I joined, the existing software group had disbanded.  I still haven't gotten a full story about what happened, but on my first day on the job the "team" consisted of myself, a database administrator, and a team manager.  Seeing the catastrophe of code that was in front of me I pushed on the manager to let me build a prototype using a modern framework (what did we have to lose, after all?).  It was a smash success and that prototype grew to become one of our core applications.

Now, with the help of willing managers and with our tiny team of software developers (just me, then 2, then 4, now ~7) we've made massive changes.  We use Git for our version control, we build our applications on popular open-source frameworks and libraries, we follow industry best practices as much as possible, our release cycles are measured in weeks and sometimes days.  Our users love the software and constantly ask for more advanced tools.  Our management estimates our technology environment to be at least a year ahead of any other organization in our mission space, we have saved the government millions of dollars, and we have saved lives.

Fighting the bureaucracy is hard.  Some days you think it would just be easier to give in.  It would be easier to give in.  But then nothing gets better.

We have enough work to keep a team twice our size busy but we can't find qualified people to fill the positions.  If the qualified people choose money over service then government technology will continue to suffer.

Our government is what we make of it and the decisions are made by those who show up.

So show up.

Camping

Heather has been asking to go camping for several weeks, but while I was still in class there was no way it was going to happen.  So once that wrapped up I decided to stop putting it off and pick a date.  So I took the afternoon off on Friday, and Heather and I packed up the car, and then sat in traffic... (Jess and Corinne stayed home.)

I wanted to get on the road by 1:00-1:30, but inevitably it took longer.  We were driving by 2:30 which I thought would still be alright, but no.  It was stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic from Livermore out the other side of Stockton.  That drive should normally take like 40 minutes, but it was over an hour and a half.  Then we had another hour of driving to do on top of that.  Heather fell asleep, which was good given the amount of sleep she was likely to get in the tent.

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We drove out to Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park.  I liked it when I was there last year--quiet, secluded, trees, and shade.  Presumably there are comparable locations closer to home, but I couldn't figure out how to find them.

We got to the campground, picked out a spot and got our stuff unpacked.  Then we wandered about looking at the bark houses and grinding rocks.  The high for the day was in the upper 90's and we probably should have rescheduled, but that's tough to do with a 3-year-old whose heart is set on the adventure.  Once it cooled down a bit we got our fire going and roasted our hotdogs for dinner.

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Once dinner was cleaned up it was time for s'mores.  I had neglected to put the chocolate bars in the cooler.  But it wasn't a total loss, I bought the "fun size" chocolate bars which are still salvageable after becoming bags of liquid chocolate.

After Heather was asleep I played with the camera for a bit.  Couldn't get any usable pictures of the stars, but I got this really fun picture of one of the neighboring campsites:

IMGP3086asI really like the light hitting the trees.  And a picture of the fire:

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In the morning we had breakfast of Silly Circles (off-brand Fruit Loops) at like 5:30 AM since that's when Heather decided that it was too light out to sleep.  Then we went for a hike and back to the bark houses and grinding rocks while it was still cool and shady.  After that it was time to pack up and head home.

Heather fell asleep, but I woke her up for lunch at A&W.  She was excited to discover they have mini corndogs and milk, her favorite meal.  Then we stopped at the Ghirardelli chocolate outlet and ice-cream shop in Lathrop for an ice-cream sundae.

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Heather declared it, "The best camping trip ever," so I guess it was a success.  I think we avoided sunburn and heatstroke with only mild sleep deprivation.

It occurred to me that I could set up the camera on the tripod to take pictures automatically so we'd have some pictures of the both of us camping.  Then I thought about turning them into a little video.  So enjoy the 4-minute abridged version of the trip with more music and less heat (sadly, I didn't take the camera with us hiking or to the historical sites).

If your browser doesn't want to play the video you can download it here: Camping June 12-13 2015 (small)

Audio credits, in order of use:
"The end of the last adventure" by soundtrackmusic.org - Creative Commons Licensed
"Chimney Fire" by reinsamba - Creative Commons Licensed
"Calm Sky" by [SMJ] Music - Creative Commons Licensed
"Ocarina - Sun's Song" by ZREO - Creative Commons Licensed
"Call to Adventure" by KevinMacLeod - Creative Commons Licensed