by Jon on Thursday, November 27, 2008 file under: Off Topic

With a full four days off, it seems like a good time for a "what am I thankful for" post.

Kortney has been massively supportive in the past several months. I don't tell her enough how much I appreciate her and everything she means to me.
The End of Grad School
When I started taking classes part-time in January 2006, graduation seemed really far away. Thankfully (only in this instance), time flies by faster as you get older! I'm a fan of learning, but I'll be taking a break from classes for a while.
Kortney and I scrutinize over our budget and she is rigorous about finding where every penny goes. Despite that we often feel like we're not moving in some directions (financially) as quickly as we'd like. In reality though, we're both blessed with stable jobs in a rough economy.
Free Time
This week I turned in a book review for iPhone SDK Application Development. That process was really fun to be part of. Next week, I'll get the last of my paperwork signed for ASU. After that, I feel like I have December off (with the exception of work, I suppose).
The Grays have welcomed done such an awesome job of making me feel like part of their family, which makes big family get-togethers all the more fun. I've gotten to talk to both sides of my family a lot more recently as well (but I need to do a better job at that).
This has been a pretty incredible year: My dad and Joan came out at the beginning of the year, and my Grandparents a few months later. Kortney and I went to San Diego at the end of May. I got to stand up in Ben's wedding in June. In July we spent three weeks in Europe. In October we spent a week in Texas visiting family and spending time in Austin. With several trips to Payson, AZ, and a few miscellaneous trips sprinkled around, Kortney and I put on a lot of miles this year.

That's not the entire list, but it is a good start. If you need to reach me today, you'll probably find me hovering around the pecan pie.

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LaTeX on Mac
by Jon on Sunday, August 31, 2008 file under: Technology

I haven't written any documents in LATEX since Dr. Taylor switched to an XML submission format. (Or perhaps it was during Dr. Sebern's Formal Methods class.) I started the paper portion of my thesis this weekend, and decided to delve into the wonderful world of TEX once again.

There are several ways to set up a productive LATEX environment on your Mac, but the combination that seems to work best for me is teTeX installed from MacPorts and TextMate as my editor. I've also found Skim which will automatically refresh PDFs when they are generated by pdflatex.

Alternative, there is a MacTeX, however, the download is nearly 750MB, and includes many packages which already come with OS X.

Here's a collection of sites I found useful when setting up my LATEX workflow:

If you are writing a paper, a book, or any significantly long document (there are even packages for resum?s and presentations), I'd recommend looking into TEX or LATEX. They are a refreshing change from the WYSIWIG editors we've all become so accustom to.

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Spangle 0.2 - Now in French!
by Jon on Thursday, August 28, 2008 file under: Technology

About 16 months ago I scratched an itch and wrote Spangle, an app that checks for updates to the applications you have on your Mac. It's worked well enough, and its largely stagnated since its initial 0.1 release.

Back in May, Pierre Rudloff sent me an encouraging email and a link to a French translation he had written for Spangle. I also fixed an anchoring issue with the icon in the upper left of the main window.

The most major change is that Spangle has been recompiled with llvm specifically targetting Leopard. This shouldn't affect much (except for people still using Tiger), but I was interested in seeing how seemless a transition to llvm would be.

So the 0.2 release is out and the appcast has been updated. Feel free to contact me with any comments, suggestions, or bugs.

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Switzerland: The Last Leg of Our Trip
by Jon on Sunday, August 3, 2008 file under: Off Topic
Swiss Coat of Arms

Switzerland was the last stop on our trip, and we really saved the best for last. The Alps were, by far, my favorite part of the trip. Kortney agrees.

Our first stop in Switzerland was Luzern. We came in with beautiful weather and great views of the surrounding mountains. Most of the rest of our time there was spent under an umbrella. We quickly swept through the old town and were limited to the things we could do within walking distance. We managed to get to the other side of the lake and found a theater where we almost saw Hancock. It was an almost, because it had already been translated into German, so we decided to skip it.

We decided to take an early train from Luzern and make our way into the heart of Switzerland, more specifically Lauterbrunnen in the Jungfrau region. Lauterbrunnen is lesser known, and much smaller than Interlaken to the north or Gr?ndelwald in the neighboring valley. If I could only pick one place to return to from this trip, Lauterbrunnen would be it. From our room's balcony we could see three waterfalls. The guidebook told us there were 79 throughout the valley.

The morning after we arrived we took the first cogwheel train to Jungfraujoch, a low point between the Jungfrau and Eiger summits (about 12,000 feet). At the top is an observation deck and restaurants designed for tourists, but it also serves as a launching point for climbers and glacier hikers. In an unexpected sign of bravery, Kortney agreed to walk about 500m with me across the glacier to a hut where climbers and researchers occupy. The winds were intense and the environment was stark, but the promise of a kitchen stocked with hot chocolate kept us focussed. It was not the kind of trek you should make in tennis shoes (but that was all we had), so we were both glad we doubled up on socks before we left that morning.

By the time we made it back into the valley, we had caught mountain fever. Doris, who was keeping track of things at the hotel for most of the weekend, informed us about an easy downhill hike from M?rren on one of the mountains rims just southeast. The next day we took a cable car to the top of M?nnlichen and hiked down past Klienesheidegg. During our walk we heard a thunderous crack, like if you snapped a cedar in two, and saw a new waterfall form from a low patch of snow. That afternoon we were hit with rain again, and walked to covered glacial waterfalls, which serve as the outlet for all of the melting glaciers in the region.

From Lauterbrunnen we headed to Zermatt, about two hours southwest. We were greeted with a clear day and spectacular views of the Matterhorn. Kortney's impeccable travel planning skills put us in a room with another incredible view. Zermatt sits at a much higher elevation than the Jungfrau valley we had enjoyed. It wasn't as green, the mountains appear rockier, and the tree line much closer to the town below. Unfortunately, Kortney began to get a sore throat, so our second night there was cut short.

The next morning we took the train to Lugano, well into Switzerland's Italian region. When we left the Alps, the atmosphere changed almost as rapidly as the scenery. No more snow capped peaks, and no more Swiss-German dialect: everything was written in Italian, everyone spoke Italian, and the architecture had much more Italian influence than anything Germanic. After two and a half weeks of German immersion, the Italian region was, for me, culture shock. And to top it off, I had started to come down with the same thing Kortney had.

There isn't much in Lugano itself. The town, appropriately, sits on the Swiss side of Lake Lugano. Ferries allow you to get to other towns scattered around the lake and were free with our Swiss Pass. After an afternoon in Lugano we decided the next morning we'd catch a bus to Italy and spend the day at Lake Como.

Until this point in my life, my most frightening experience as a passenger took place on the Apache Trail in Arizona. The bus ride from Lugano to Menaggio quickly eclipsed my previous experience, and I would imagine that anything more terrifying would involve serious injury or death. On the one hand, the bus driver would enter blind turns without slowing down, just a couple taps on the horn to alert drivers who might be coming the other direction. On the other hand, the two-way road often shrunk to barely the width of two compact cars, often with a sharp cliff and a lake the only alternative to collision, if those were the only available choices.

Remarkably, we made it in one piece, and had a relaxing time. Bellagio is a cute town with tight alley ways, cheap gelato, and quite a few gigantic estates. My favorite stop was Verenna, a much quieter town across from Menaggio.

Our ride back to Lugano didn't seem as death defying, but by that time, my sinuses had taken control of me, and I just wanted some to relax in bed with a constant supply of cranberry Ricolah.

Finally, we headed to Zurich, our last stop and point of departure. My throat and nose kept me in bed for most of the day, but Kortney and I were able to walk around the city later that night. From what I saw, Zurich seemed like a wonderful city, similar to Heidelburg or Luzern in its old-european charm but at the same time hip and active.

We caught a red eye from Zurich to Amsterdam, where we had a five hour layover. Several days earlier I had suggested to Kortney that we take that opportunity to spend a few hours in the city, but in my condition I just wanted to find a place to take a nap.

Amsterdam airport has several areas filled with high back, reclined lounge chairs: a comfortable place for any traveler with a long layover. The chairs we passed were all taken however. Kortney suggested following signs which pointed to a "meditation room". Upon arrival, I found a hidden stash of lounge chairs behind the meditation room, with enough open that we could take our pick.

From Amsterdam we flew into Minneapolis and finally back to Phoenix, tired and happy to be home. Our three weeks was incredible. Kortney's travel planning skills are second to none. I've tried to cover the basics of the trip, and Kortney's put them in her own words as well, but there are far to many experiences, stories, and memories to try to describe. To quote Dr. Arroway, "They should've sent a poet."

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Photo Set From Our European Vacation
by Jon on Thursday, July 31, 2008 file under: Off Topic

After a few days of struggling with Flickr+iPhoto, then running up against my upload limit, I've chosen to just post the photos on hohle.net for now. The entire gallery consist of 226 pictures which I thought were represented of our trip as well as interesting to look at.

All of these were taken with a Panasonic DMC-FX500 that we got just before we left. It replaces the Canon G3 we had primarily been using since we were married. Not only is it an ultra-compact, but it has a wider and longer lens than the Canon. I don't know how the FX500 compares to Canon's SD1100 (one of the other cameras I had been looking at) in terms of image quality and usability, but the FX500 served us really well in Europe. It's much more convenient than my G3, that's for sure.

I have a half written Switzerland/Italy post I still have to finish as well, but that will have to wait a little while longer.

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A List Apart 2008 Survey
by Jon on Wednesday, July 30, 2008 file under: Technology
I Took the 2008 Survey
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The Hills Are Alive
by Jon on Saturday, July 19, 2008 file under: Off Topic
Austrian Coat of Arms

On our way out of Austria, Kortney and I boarded what appeared to be an un-airconditioned train car. After an hour of dealing with the hot, stuffy car, we were able to find open seats in an unfilled private car. Our spirits were immediately lifted.

We enjoyed our time in Salzburg immensely. The altstadt is quaint, and the roads are pedestrian only. We paid admission to the Festung, with mixed results. The fortress has been expande several times since the 1400s, each time expanding its area (and the protection of the religious leader living there). The castle was never taken by force.

Down in the old town, Mozart has his name on everything. You can visit his Geburtshaus (birthplace), hear a concert of his music (which I can only assume are performed daily), or purchase an uncountable number of souvenirs bearing his likeness, the most famous of which is the Mozart ball. (We found the best price for this delicacy outside of Salzburg, in Hallstatt.

The best part of our stay in Austria, however, was Hallstatt, a small mining town. It takes two hours to get there by train, but the trip is worth it. The town is built on the side of the mountain, its opposite border, a glassy, swan-filled lake surrounded by mountains on all sides. The town had been used since at least 400 BC as a support for the salt mines which are estimated to be 7000 years old. The salt mine tour is fun, but a little over the top. The most fun part of the tour is sliding down a wooden slide that miners use to get in between levels of the mine. On the second slide, I clocked 33 KPH, the fastest we saw in our tour group. Hallstatt's cute town, amazing setting, and the fact that its not complely overrun by tourists make it a place to return to (if we're in this neck of the woods).

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Ich bin ein Berliner
by Jon on Saturday, July 12, 2008 file under: Off Topic
German Coat of Arms

Kortney and I have made our way from Frankfurt to Berlin, and down the Romantische Stra?e to M?nchen. My German is extremely rusty; Kortney joked when a <2 year old was speaking more fluently than us, but I can still order a K?sebrot, Breze, Bier, W?rste of all kinds, Sauerbraten and everything else we've needed to stay alive.

Wireless internet is fairly ubiquitous in all of the major cities. At all of our hotel rooms, I've been able to pick up nearly a dozen access points. But unlike America, they are all locked! No piggybacking for us. I had wanted to upload pictures as we went, but that will have to wait at least until we leave Deutschland.

This is the first time I've operated a non-US keyboard layout, and I must say, the US layout is much better for special characters (and English typing in general).

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Less Tech, More Agility
by Jon on Tuesday, July 1, 2008 file under: Off Topic
German Coat of Arms

Kortney and I have been practice packing for our impending trip to Europe, and we've agreed to go without a computer. Well, that's not entirely true, I'll be bringing a Nokia N800 which will allow us to browse the web, download local maps and driving directions, and upload the mountains (pun intended?) of pictures we're sure to take.

We bought a Panasonic FX500 in preparation for this trip. Both of our old cameras were much larger and had less focal range. I have an unwarranted fear that our camera will be stolen, so I've come up with a contingency scheme for making sure we don't lose any more pictures than necessary. At any of our stops where we have WiFi access, I'll rsync the camera's memory card with a computer back in the US using the N800. I've been testing this at home and it works really well. I'm hoping that the speed is reasonable across the pond.

Besides the internet tablet, a still camera, and a video camera, I've given up any other tech luxuries while we're on the road. No cell phone, no Mac. All together, everything fits into two backpacks - one for each of us. We're trying to stick as closely as possible to the Rick Steve's travel and packing philosophy: "Don't pack for the worst scenario. Pack for the best scenario and simply buy yourself out of any jams."

I'm hoping to finally use my Flickr account, and I maybe I'll even post updates if I wake up before Kortney.

Permanent link to Less Tech, More Agility

Builder Saved My Weekend
by Jon on Monday, June 2, 2008 file under: Technology

I want to thank the Builder team for indirectly allowing me to have a call free weekend out of town. I'm sure other XML Ruby library teams could have done it (except one, that is); but Builder was the first alternative I came across.

I have a production Rails app that I recently migrated to new hosts. The setup isn't very complicated, and for XML generation, I chose libxml-ruby, which is built on top of libxml. What seemed like a good choice at the time turned into a perfect storm of after hours calls. Between a bug in Apache's mod_proxy_blancer, what seems like double free()s in libxml-ruby, and FastCGI not properly timing out workers, I found myself constantly monitoring and killing processes.

libxml-ruby seemed like it would be the easiest component to replace, and in my search for a new XML building package, I stumbled across Builder. It worked like a charm. I was able to strip out all of my libxml-ruby code and replace it with equivalent Builder code in about an hour. All my tests passed, QA approved it, it baked in production for half a day before I left for the weekend, and I had a call free weekend not worrying about my app's stability.

This morning I checked the logs: clean as a whistle. The last error was from just before I deployed. So, hats off to the Builder team. You happened to be fresh in my mind in front REXML.

Permanent link to Builder Saved My Weekend

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