Ramadan Part 4: Asr

The third of the three daily prayers of Islam is Asr, or “afternoon”.

Fast update: Thirsty with a slight headache. Still not very hungry,

I like the fact that Islamic times seem to be tied to nature. The prayers are tied to the motion of the Sun and the Islamic calendar is lunar. This means is it about 10 to 11 days shorter than the solar year and thus the months move around. The cycle repeats itself every 33 years, which means that in about 16 years Ramadan will coincide with the winter solstice, which will make the whole fasting thing a piece of cake in the northern hemisphere.

It must be difficult to fast properly in the far north. I looked up Bergen, Norway, which is where my friend Alex lives, and Fajr occurs 85 minutes earlier than Pittsboro and Maghrib over two hours later, so add about 3.5 hours to your fast. Then I looked up Punta Arenas, Chile, and Fajr happens over three hours later than here and Maghrib five hours before, so that must make fasting a breeze.

Some places allow using the times for Mecca in place of local time when they are extreme, but I think I would be willing to suffer a bit now for an easy time of it in a decade or so.

I plan ahead.

I miss the seasons. I could be sitting in my office (which doesn’t really have a window) and whether it is high summer or the dead of winter I’m going to experience about the same amount of light and the same temperature. I’m not sure if that is healthy, as I think it is healthier for us to change with the seasons.

When I was a child there were four seasons. When it got cold there was turkey for Thanksgiving and Santa came from Christmas. In late Spring we waited for permission to go outside barefoot. Summers were lazy and hot. When I started to attend school, there were three seasons: Fall semestre, Spring semestre and Summer. I looked forward to each and marked the years by their passing.

Now it is just one long season with a slight change in wardrobe depending on the weather. Sure, there are holidays but they don’t represent the seasonal change that I used to experience. When we as a society were mainly agrarian, the seasons still existed as work followed the cycle of planting. Now it just seems we are driven to do more, faster. There is little time to reflect and recharge. I like to close the office the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day for mandatory “brain regrooving” but even that isn’t quite enough.

Again, no answers, just thinking about the questions.

Ramadan Part 3: Dhuhr

The afternoon prayer in Islam is called Dhuhr. It falls halfway between the first prayer at dawn, Fajr, and the last prayer at nightfall, Isha’a.

Fast update: no real hunger but I am getting thirsty. The “no water” rule kinda sucks.

I think it must be hard to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim country. For example, my app went off to tell me about Dhuhr while I was in the middle of a haircut. In a Muslim country everyone would be aware of the prayer times, but I can imagine a number of conflicts happening in countries outside of them.

My thought for this prayer time is that it is possible I wouldn’t be able to write this if not for Islam. Here is my argument.

After the fall of the Roman empire, European civilization fell into what is often called the Dark Ages. There was a sharp decline in the amount of scholarly work being published, and the original term “dark” was used to indicate a lack of written records of the time. Needless to say, since publication is a key part of the scientific method, not much science was advanced during that period in Europe.

However, in the Middle East there was an Islamic Golden Age where science was both preserved, encouraged and advanced. A lot of that information was fed back into Europe during the Renaissance, and since modern science arose out of that period my computer might not exist without the Mohammedans.

It seems quite the contrast with modern ideas of Muslims, mainly through the acts of radical Islamists. I am constantly filled with sadness when I read about the destruction of historic sites, especially those I haven’t visited. When I was in Syria I visited Saidnaya, a town where Aramaic (the language of Christ) is still spoken. I visited a church from the sixth century that still stands and rarely have I felt the palpable weight of history as when I entered the original sanctuary.

Where I live in the US we have nearly 400 years of history. When I was in Damascus I walked through streets that had been around for thousands of years and saw buildings nearly 1500 years old. It would be a shame to lose that.

I’m not sure how to stop further destruction, but I do know that it starts with understanding.

Ramadan Part 2: Fajr

According to my phone, dawn arrived at 04:37, so no food or drink until 20:37 tonight.

In Arabic Fajr means “dawn” and it is also the name of the first of five daily prayers practicing Muslims make.

For this post I thought I’d share some of my views on religion. Since this can be a sensitive topic I do want to stress that these are my views and I am not trying to force them on anyone or to suggest that your views are wrong.

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church where I was baptized and confirmed when I was old enough. My mother was raised Catholic and on my Father’s side the men were raised Presbyterian and the women Catholic, so I have some exposure to Catholicism. My middle name is “Paul” after Pope Paul VI, as my maternal grandmother wanted to make sure I had a good saint’s name after I was christened “Tarus”.

In my teens I went through the same period of questioning that a lot of kids go through. I think there was a time that I would have claimed to be an atheist, but that passed as I experienced more of the world.

For example, take a look at your hand. As I look at mine I see lines across my palm, a cut on my index finger that I got from swapping a hard drive in an old Mac Mini earlier this week, nails that need trimming with a small amount of dirt underneath them from loading hay in the barn yesterday. The human hand is an amazing thing, and I can’t help but think that there was something spiritual in its creation. It is so well designed.

At some point in my life I accepted Pascal’s Wager. Since the rewards of believing in God are infinite and there is a finite possibility God exists, one should believe in God since you have everything to gain and little to lose. But then the choice became: which God?

I actively explored a lot of religions, but organized religion seemed to have one main flaw: they all want to answer the questions for you that are the most worth asking.

For example, I bet I could take two twin women, religious spinsters together all of their lives, and find some point of religion on which they disagree. It isn’t cut and dried. The word of God, whether it comes from the Bible, the Qu’ran or the Torah, requires interpretation.

Now, if I take St. Thomas Aquinas’s argument of the existence of God through perfection, a perfect God would have given me an ability to reason my way to being the best person I could be. In other words, I should be able to determine, with study, right from wrong, and then take action because I believe it in my heart and not because some guy in dark clothes told me I had to or I would go to Hell.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about what are the right things to do and what are wrong.

One of my “holy” books is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. I keep a copy by my desk for those hard days. In it, he explains in simple terms concepts of the Tao, the idea that everything is connected and that there are certain harmonies to existence. When one is in sync with those harmonies, it is known as “happiness”. If you work against them, you will be unhappy. This is a gross oversimplification but I hope you get the gist. If I had to put a label on my religion, I would chose “lapsed Taoist”.

I also consider myself a Christian as in “a follower of the teachings of Christ” but most Christians would claim I wasn’t one since I think the point of whether or not he was the Son of God is moot. He said some pretty cool things that really fit into the idea of the Tao, such as “ask and it shall be given”, “knock and it shall be opened” and “turn the other cheek”.

I had a pen pal in an author named George Alec Effinger who died too young in 2002. He wrote a futuristic cyberpunk series set in a Middle Eastern world, which was one of my first exposures to the Islamic culture and Ramadan (in his books people just slept during the day for the month and worked at night). One quote he wrote that was supposed to be from the Qu’ran was “God delights in the infinite variety of his creation”. While I haven’t been able to confirm that is truly from that book (it doesn’t exist as written in any English translation I’ve found), I do like the sentiment.

I think if we spent more time “delighting” in our differences, we’d all be happier.

I still don’t see any light in the East, but I did my research and apparently it is okay to go back to bed after Fajr, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll be back this afternoon.

Ramadan Part 1: Suhūr

Muslims have three standard meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) like most cultures around the world, but during Ramadan those are often reduced to two: Suhūr before fasting and Iftar to end the fast.

The fasting starts at dawn, not sunrise, or as most people call it “o’dark thirty”.

I usually eat fruit for breakfast so that is what I made for Suhūr. I added in some Greek yogurt and some pomegranate juice, as well as a large glass of water. I’ve been told you want to avoid salt as it can make you thirsty. No food or drink, including water, is allowed during the fast.

I found myself paranoid that I would oversleep, and I ended up waking at 03:58 – two minutes before my alarm. As I write this I keep looking out to the East to see if there is any light. Dawn isn’t supposed to be until 04:37, but you are supposed to stop eating ten or so minutes before just to be sure.

So with my sugar, my fiber and my water, I think I’m ready to make it through the day.

Ramadan Part 0: Niyyah

There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, roughly 23% of the population of the planet. There are five main “pillars” of Islam, and these are:

  • Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith.
  • Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
  • Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.
  • Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.
  • Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.

We are currently in the month of Ramadan, a holy month spent fasting and reflecting. The Islamic calendar is based on the moon, not the sun, and so holy days tend to move around a bit each year. Since this year Ramadan corresponds with the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, the days are particularly long. Since fasting is done from dawn to sunset, this means the fast lasts a lot longer than if Ramadan had occurred in the winter.

I have friends who are Muslim, and one of them, Mohammad (not all Muslims are named Mohammad but this one is) mentioned to me that in Michigan, with its large Muslim population, they are starting a tradition of inviting their non-Muslim neighbors to join them in fasting for one day.

As someone who is always seeking out new experiences, I thought, hey, that sounds like something to try, so tomorrow I plan to spend one day in the shoes of a Muslim. I will wake up around 4am for Suhūr (a pre-fasting meal) and while I don’t pray I plan to stop for Salat and write a little reflective blog post for each of the five times a devout Muslim would pray. I also plan to keep Halal for the day (I don’t plan to break my fast with some North Carolina pork BBQ and a beer, for example).

I should point out that I’m doing this with no guidance outside of what I can find on the Internet, and the lovely little app called Muslim Pro which will help me keep track of times. In much the same way as I believe in a concept called “karma” but do not claim to understand that term as a formal Hindu religious concept, I want to apologize in advance if I get something wrong. I mean no offense and only seek understanding.

Oooh, and it turns out that part of the process of fasting is to announce one’s intention to fast. That is called “niyyah” and this is mine.

Review: Kurios by Cirque du Soleil

I love Cirque du Soleil. I’ve seen more Cirque shows that I can accurately remember. This weekend I saw Kurios in Atlanta and it is my new favorite.

It is hard to beat Alegria, the first live Cirque performance I ever saw. Andrea and I were living in Santa Rosa, California, and we drove down to San Francisco to see the American premiere of the show. As we were sitting there, we were overcome with a sense of joy and wonder that we had not experienced since we were children, and we later identified the emotion as “delight”. It’s the delight of a young child on Christmas morning, and it comes all too rarely in our adult lives.

Now, I am not saying that Kurios is the best Cirque show ever created. First, I haven’t seen them all, and second, there are individual acts, like the Balance Goddess in Amaluna, that I liked more than any single act in Kurios, but the show taken as a whole was really, really strong.

I want to state that I am not a Cirque “fan boy”. I don’t see everything they produce nor do I think everything they do is golden. When a new show is announced we look at the description, and sometimes a show comes near to us that doesn’t seem that interesting. However, when I learned that this show was to be “steampunk” Cirque, I was in from the start.

It is hard for me to accurately define steampunk. According to Wikipedia it is a subgenre of science fiction, but outside of books it tends to reflect a sense of fascination and wonder often identified with the late Victorian era. It can appeal to certain people involved with technology since that world is becoming more and more virtual (you can almost live in virtual worlds accessed via your “phone” where you interact with your virtual friends and have virtual relationships) and in contrast steampunk is very physical. Before electricity became easily available, most motive energy was derived from steam, which resulted in a very mechanical aesthetic. Think clockwork gears, brass and struts, such as this steampunk keyboard.

Or, if you need another example, just check out the Kurios set:

The stage is circular, like most Cirque shows, although this one had a small raised area along the edge that would often host a number of odd devices and people that would travel along its track. In the back were two large clockwork towers, and as the show started the center stage was dominated by a large chair with various devices hanging off of it. Like the shows I’ve seen before, it would start off with various characters wandering through the audience. One was a mystical turbaned man with a large sphere sticking out of the turban. Various images were projected on the sphere and occasionally he would stop in front of an audience member, touch his temple and the images would change as if he was seeing the person’s future or dreams.

The first main character we are introduced to is the Seeker – a man with white, unkempt hair in a lab coat. He wandered around the set playing with the various devices, and he was assisted by a number of clockwork “kurios” would would help clean the lab, ride a bicycle to generate power, etc. Cirque shows usually start off this way to allow for stragglers to get to their seats. Another Cirque tradition is a clown in the role of Master of Ceremonies, this time played by Facundo Gimenez channeling a half-Italian, half-Spanish character who goes through the usual introduction involving exits, phones and the prohibition against photography.

The show kicks off properly by a parade by the band and the introduction of a whole group of characters, all in period dress. I liked the music in Kurios more than the last few performances I’ve seen and I loved how they integrated it into the show – in the main opening number the percussionists use a table, themselves and pretty much everything else as instruments.

We also get to meet the other main characters. There is Nico the Accordion Man whose clothing contains hundreds of folds that can make him look tall or short. Klara wears a metallic hoop skirt that acts as an antenna so that she can receive invisible signals. The most imposing character is Mr. Microcosmos, whose body is made up of a huge sphere that looks like a Bathysphere used for exploring the sea, although he also appears in the opening number as the front of a large train that expels many other members of the cast. It is out of this sphere that one of the best surprises of all pops out: Mini Lili is played by Antanina Satsura is 3.2 feet tall and weight 39 pounds. She is a perfectly proportioned little person who provides a counterpoint to the size of Mr. Microcosmos. At one point Mr. Microcosmos is on stage in a much larger device that opens up to reveal Mini Lili’s parlour, complete with wingback chair and chandelier, where she sits making a phone call.

What I loved about Kurios was this level of detail. They really carry the theme throughout the show. Outside of the Bathysphere, there are a lot of references to sea life. There is a contortion act done on the back of a huge mechanical hand where the performers wear these sea-life inspired costumes that work really well in the piece, and the second half opens with a trampoline aerial performance that also invokes the sea in the form of jumping fish. It didn’t take me long to find a scholarly reference that the Victorians were very much interested in things like sea life, as this was the first time that the technology existed to start exploring that part of our planet.

Which brings me to the only miss of the night: the invisible circus. A large round elevated stage is rolled out to the front and the clown played by Gimenez describes various acts being performed by “invisible” players, including a man riding a unicycle on a high wire, a lion taming act and even a high dive into a pool filled with three inches of water. Like a mechanical flea circus, you see various things move and even see the splash when the invisible diver lands, but I found the whole act strained and not funny.

I was so jaded by the bit that when Gimenez led a woman from the audience on stage for a mime performance I was ready for the same uncomfortable feeling. The act was him pretending to be on a date, and in the set up you understand he has both a bird and a cat as pets. He answers the “door” and leads her to a couch where he mimes some of the hesitation that can come from a first date. To alleviate this he goes off in search of drinks, but then reappears as the bird. The lady from the audience did a great job of playing along and I was starting to warm to the bit, when the bird is eaten by the cat (also played by Després) who then hops up on the couch to investigate the lady.

As a cat owner, what followed was one of the most talented and hilarious pantomimes of the behavior of a cat I’ve ever seen. I was crying I was laughing so hard. Thus, all is forgiven.

I’m not going to go through and describe all of the acts as a) I didn’t take notes and b) you can find it elsewhere, but what makes this my favorite show was how well it all integrated into the theme. It was like they took it to the next level. For example, most Cirque shows have a hand-balancing act. The performer comes out and slowly builds a tower on which they will do various feats of balancing. This one started out as a dinner party hosted by Klara and attended by some of the other characters, including the turbaned mystic from the beginning of the show. At one point he levitates a candelabra, but it won’t come down. So another guest starts stacking chairs to get high enough to retrieve it.

As the tower gets higher and higher, the lights go on in the catwalk above the stage where a duplicate dinner party is revealed, only this one is upside down. They too build a tower but this one heads down toward the stage. While the hand-balancing act was entertaining on its own, it was this extra level of theatricality that made me love this show.

My overall favorite act was one called Rola Bola. A man in a aviator’s costume comes out and does a balancing act on a small platform on top of a ball. Good, but I’d seen that before. Then he builds up a small stack of acrylic cylinders and boards, and he separates them with a smaller metallic cylinder on its side. Again, I had seen something like that before. It wasn’t until he added a second metallic cylinder, perpendicular to the first, that I started to think “wow”. Now there are at least two axes of motion, and when the whole thing was raised into the air I knew I was in for something special.

Not only did he balance on this contraption, he took of his jacket and contorted metal loops around his body, all while remaining balanced. He ended that part of the act by rotating the whole thing 360 degrees. Truly impressive.

He followed that up by adding a third metal cylinder and another stack of objects that at this point was so high he had to use a little pole to get on top of it. Once again elevated, he was able to remain balanced with these three plus axes of motion, although there was little room left for acrobatics.

Is Kurios perfect? No, I saw a few mistakes at Saturday night’s Atlanta show and the invisible circus bit really could be dropped, but overall it is one of the the strongest Cirque shows in recent memory and I might even have to see it again.

It’s in Atlanta until the beginning of May, when it moves on to Boston, DC. New York and Miami. If you can make I highly recommend you get a ticket. You won’t be disappointed.

Travel: Barcelona – Part One

Well I never been to Spain
But I kinda like the music
Say the ladies are insane there
And they sure know how to use it

Hoyt Axton

In the weeks leading up to my first trip to Spain, I would joke about the fact that “I never been to Spain”. Guess I can’t use that line anymore.

Spain is the 37th country I’ve been lucky enough to visit. Although I spent the entire time in Barcelona, I loved the city so much I don’t know if I’d ever want to leave it.

And there is a lot to love. That I was there on business meant that I didn’t get to see as much of the city as I would have liked, but what I did see was amazing. Beautiful architecture, wonderful weather and some of the nicest people I’ve met outside of the United States.

Oh, and good food and drink, of course.

I landed on a Saturday, and as luck would have it my hotel room was ready. When I travel east it is usually an overnight flight where I arrive mid-morning. If I can, I like to sleep for a few hours, wake up before dusk, and then stay up to a normal bedtime. If I can do that, I tend to adapt to the local time quickly, but sometimes my room isn’t ready and I have to make other plans. Luck was with me, so I took a nap and got up around 16:00 to wander around the city. I ended up wandering the Barrio Gotico (Gothic Quarter), a warren of old streets which was kind of fun yet spooky, since it was dark and there were few people about due to some rain showers.

It was also that night I learned something cool about Spain. Where I live it is not unusual for restaurants to close about 20:00 (8pm). Around 19:40 I walked into a restaurant and asked for a seat (in my broken Spanish). The person I talked to tried to explain something to me, and after a minute or so I realized that the restaurant didn’t even open until 20:00.

I knew I would love this town.

I had the next day to myself, so I decided to play Ingress. This took me all over the main parts of the city. In fact, I walked about 25km that day alone.

This took me past the famous Sagrada Familia.

I didn’t plan ahead and the line was long, so I missed seeing the inside of Gaudí’s masterpiece, but it is on the list for next time.

After the weekend I spent most of the time working. We would start around 9:00 to 9:30 and go until 20:00. We would eat lunch sometime around 15:00-16:00, and unlike the US where lunch is usually a trip to a fast food restaurant, every place we went to had a “set” lunch, often referred to as “el menú del día”. For a set price, between 9 and 11 euros, you get two plates, a drink (including a beer or wine) and a dessert. So civilized, and good for you.

As I was in a major city, I wanted to indulge my passion for vintage cocktails. Number 42 on the list of the World’s Top 50 bars is Dry Martini, and when I mentioned to friends that I wanted to go there, they also suggested a place called Boadas.

Since Boadas was closer, I decided to try it first.

Boadas is a triangular-shaped room off of the touristy Las Ramblas. I immediately fell in love with the atmosphere: intimate, with dark paneled walls. Crowded, but with a few open seats. Older bartenders dressed in tuxedos.

Now in preparation for my trip I spent a lot of time practicing my Spanish on Duolingo. If you haven’t heard of it, it is a website where you can learn languages for free. They “gamify” the whole process so it’s fun, and I actually got compliments on my Spanish skills. They will remind you to visit every day, and I felt guilty when my string of 21 days broke. I wanted to tell Duolingo “but, I’m actually practicing my Spanish in Spain!”

I should mention that most people here speak Catalan, a language derived from Roman Latin, along with Spanish. It can get confusing, such as the time I was given a menu and it took me a full minute to realize it was in Italian.

Anyway, back to Boadas. I went up to the bar and asked, in Spanish, if they had a drink menu. They did not – they just made classic cocktails. Cool, I thought, and I asked for a Golden Dawn. The bartender looked at me with a confused expression and said he didn’t know that one. No worries, it’s pretty obscure, how about a Scofflaw? No, he replied, we only make “classic” cocktails.

Okay, if that’s the game you want to play, how about a Brandy Crusta?

At this point the guy next to me at the bar, who I later learned was from Zurich, was like “good one!”. Of course, the bartender didn’t know of the Brandy Crusta. I explained that it was the origin of such drinks as the Margarita and Sidecar.

Sidecar! He knew that one, so for 9€ I got a very good sidecar, but the whole experience was a little disappointing. They were offering a cocktail special called the “Leap Craddock”. I, of course, was familiar with Harry Craddock, but I had never heard of this drink. I think it might have been their interpretation of the Leap Year Cocktail, but I didn’t stick around to find out. Perhaps my accent and elementary Spanish skills had something to do with it, so I won’t put the whole blame on the bartender.

Later in the week I did make it to Dry Martini.

This was slightly larger than Boadas but with just as much atmosphere. The bartenders here wore ties and white jackets. I went up to the bar and introduced myself to Paco. When I asked if he had a drink menu he produced two: one for Martinis and one for other cocktails.

The Martini menu included 100 drinks, many of them classics that I wouldn’t exactly call Martinis, but I was willing to overlook that. For my first drink I decided to follow the adage “when in Rome” so I ordered a classic Martini. They do theirs with equal parts gin and vermouth, which is practically unheard of, but the final product was delicious. Part of the secret is that they stir it in a huge pitcher completely full of ice, so when it is finally served it is oh so ice cold.

It was one of the best Martinis I’ve ever had.

I mentioned to Paco, in Spanish, that I had a cocktail blog. He asked if I spoke English, and when I said “yes” he introduced me to Lorenzo. Lorenzo was originally from Italy and he is also a fan of Ted Haigh’s book. One of the first things he said to me was “I think my favorite cocktail of his is the Golden Dawn”.

¡Hermano!

We had a really nice discussion about cocktails, starting with how the Golden Dawn should always be made in equal proportions (which goes against my friend and cocktail chef Justin, but he does just have that one flaw. Well, maybe two as he doesn’t like Tiki drinks). It was nice how a love of real cocktails can bring people together.

As I was sitting at the bar, contented, I decided I would like some food. Since lunch was pretty filling, I was wondering if I could just get something small, then I realized I was in the country that invented small dishes. I asked for a tapas menu and ordered the “Dry Martini Potatoes” and a tuna dish. Both were very tasty and just the right portions.

For my final cocktail I went with an old favorite, The Last Word. Equal parts gin, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse and lime juice. I thought the dried lime slice was a nice touch.

As much as I would have liked to go there every night, it didn’t happen. I was able to take two of my customers back on Friday, the last night I was in town. Both Paco and Lorenzo were working, and I think I made an impression since they seemed to remember me.

Although we weren’t in Lorenzo’s section, he came by to chat and I asked if he would make, off the menu, three Golden Dawns. He was more than happy to do so:

I actually was a little unhappy, since his were better than mine. I think he has access to superior Calvados.

Anyway, I plan to return in September with Andrea and so I should have more to say on the culture of Barcelona than just a synopsis of the cocktail culture, not that focusing on the cocktail culture is a bad thing.

Review: Netgear Arlo Wireless Camera

I live on a 22 acre horse farm ten miles from the nearest gas station. Being so remote, I like to have cameras set up so that I can monitor what’s going on.

While finding indoor cameras is pretty simple, I am always on the lookout for good outdoor cameras. Due to issues with running wires, the more self-contained a camera is, the better it will fit my needs. One popular brand of outdoor camera is Foscam, but even their wireless units come with a honkin’ huge plug that supports an RJ-45 wired connection. Trying to mount that on the house can be a pain. I had to drill a 1.25 inch hole in the eave just to slide the connector through and then plug it with a piece of dowel rod.

When I listened to Jeremy Garcia review the Netgear Arlo on Bad Voltage, it seemed to be just the camera I needed. Totally wireless, most of the space in the tiny camera is used to contain four CR123 lithium batteries. The camera talks to a base station that handles all of the heavy lifting.

I use an application that runs on my Synology system called “Surveillance Station” to manage my cameras and a quick Google search turned up an article on a site called WCCFTech by a guy named Ali Naqi, who wrote:

Surveillance station is truly incredible and does not require any additional resources in terms of a dedicated PVR for recording from wired cameras. We used NETGEAR’S Arlo webcams to test the Surveillance Station – which can run up to 30 frames per second at 720p maximum currently. The Arlo is one of the best surveillance camera being completely portable unlike most cameras and weatherproof. Exceptional but we would love Surveillance Station to start supporting 1080p as soon as possible.

As Stuart Langridge would say, what a load of bollocks. It seems apparent that WCCFTech is a site just designed to generate ad revenue, and I’m pretty certain “Ali Naqi” doesn’t even exist. I should have read through the comments, where a number of people point out that the Arlo doesn’t work with the Surveillance Station.

Which is a shame.

Based on that article, I added the Arlo to my Amazon wishlist and my sister bought it for my birthday. I just got time to play with it this weekend (we’re snowed in here in North Carolina).

Once I managed to free it from its package, the setup was straightforward. The base station is about the size of a home network router, and you plug that in to the wall and wire it to your network with the included RJ-45 cable. You then log into http://arlo.netgear.com and set up an account.

The next step is to load the batteries into the camera, and once done you press the “sync” button on the base station and then the “sync” button on the camera. If all goes well, you will see video on the web page.

And that’s the problem.

Look, I read 1984 many years before 1984 and I have no desire to have video from my house going God knows where on the Internet. Did I mention I live on a farm? Where I can’t see my neighbors? Which means I might wander out and about in various states of undress? Trust me, no one wants to see that, and I sure as hell don’t want it recorded on some server I can’t control.

And lack of control is central to the Arlo. I couldn’t even find a way to change or determine the IP address of the base station to see if it was hackable. Now I’m certain I could have figured it out by looking at the DHCP logs on my router, but I didn’t see a way to turn off the uploading of video even if I could have gotten it to work with my system. Even if I wanted to send video to strangers, my DSL connection has crappy upstream speed and we’re not getting better broadband out here any time soon.

On an up note, I was hit over the head with the fact that the Arlo does contain GPL’d code. There is a prominent link on the setup screen:

and clicking on it gets you a pop up that displays the GPL.

There wasn’t any link to actually download the code or a description of what code was covered by the GPL, but perhaps someone with more talent and free time than I have will find a way to open this device up.

Because, it is really cute. It’s tiny, and the mounting mechanism is ingenious. There is a strong magnet on the back of the camera and it ships with a spherical mount that would let you place the camera pretty much anywhere. To reposition it, just pull it off and move it. Of course, this means almost anyone could walk by and pull it off, so you’d want to mount it in a hard to reach location.

But for now it’s on its way back to Amazon. I did find it funny that Amazon sends along a whole bunch of “Warning: Lithium Battery” labels for the box.

It’s funny because they certainly weren’t there on the box in which it was shipped to me.

Sorry that there isn’t more of a review, but I am not one of those people who can exchange convenience for privacy (or freedom), and at a price north of US$160 it’s too expensive to play with. I’m looking at the D-Link DCS-2330L as a replacement, and if I decide to get one I’ll post a review here.

Review: Logitech K380 Bluetooth Keyboard

I have an older Mac Mini hooked up to my television. For the most part it just serves up the content from my weather station, but every so often I need to use a browser or other application that is most easily done on the computer.

I used to have an Apple bluetooth keyboard, but even though I had removed one of the AA batteries, the other decided to leak all over the inside of the device so I threw it out. Needing a new keyboard, I found the Logitech K380:

It’s inexpensive, light and what I like most about it is its ability to connect to up to three devices. Pairing is a cinch – just press and hold the number you wish to assign to the device and it will show up to be discovered. Your device will prompt you to type a series of numbers into the keyboard, and if you do it right you’ll be connected.

Easy peasy.

So now I have the Mini, a tablet and my phone all paired and when I need a keyboard it’s always ready. I’m not sure I’d want to use it as my main keyboard (I use a mechanical one from Code) but at half the price of the Apple one it does the job nicely.

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Yesterday I managed to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and even though I was ten days late to the party, I managed to get there spoiler free. If you haven’t seen it and you want to remain spoiler free, stop reading now. If you really liked it and went out and bought a Darth Vader humidifier and are sucking right now on a GoGurt lightsaber, you might want to stop reading now.

Although I’ve waited a long time to see this movie, it turns out that I saw it back in 1977 when it was just called Star Wars. This is pretty much the same movie. That said, it is still my third favorite in the franchise. Since this review is somewhat critical of the movie, I would expect to be blasted by the fanboys if anyone actually read this blog. So, set your blasters on stun (and yes, I plan to mash up all kinds of stuff in this review).

The action in the film takes place 30 or so years after Return of the Jedi. The emperor died but it doesn’t look like much has happened to the Empire. They still have Star Destroyers, stormtroopers and they seem to be pretty much in charge of things. They are called The First Order, mainly so that a lot of Nazi symbolism can be dragged into the Star Wars universe. The so called New Republic, which popped up after the Empire died, is apparently limited to one little planet and a couple of large space ships. The rebellion is now called The Resistance, so, with the exception of a few scenes containing dead Empire war gear, it is still pretty much business as usual.

In the opening scroll, we learn that Luke Skywalker is missing. Turns out that he tried to rebuild the Jedi order, but one of his students went bad and destroyed all of his work (and I assume, killed all the younglings). Rumour has it that he went off in search of the first Jedi temple, but no one seems to know where that is.

Princess Leia, now General Organa, sends one of her best pilots, Poe, to a planet called Jakku (a desert planet, e.g. Tatooine) to retrieve a clue to Luke’s whereabouts. The mission is interrupted by a squadron of The First Order and a Darth Vader wannabe called Kylo Ren. Ren has a dark helmet and cool light saber that looks like flames, since we all know the dark side baddies have to have their own signature weapon. He can also freeze a blaster bolt in mid-air, which seems to indicate he is pretty powerful. Anyway, the squad kills most of the people in the little village, but one of the stormtroopers, later called Finn, starts to have second thoughts and refuses to shoot people. They return to the Star Destroyer with Poe as a captive.

Anyway, the clue, which turns out to be part of a map, is hidden in a piece of merchandising called BB-8. The droid escapes and meets up with Rey, an orphan scavenger with flawless skin and perfect teeth living in a dead AT-AT. She senses that there is something special about the droid, and even when offered a lot for him, refuses to sell. Meanwhile, up in space, Ren tortures Poe to discover that the clue is in BB-8, but Poe escapes with the help of Finn. Together they crash on Jakku, but only Finn survives.

Soon Finn (also with flawless skin and teeth, but one can assume he was grown in a vat somewhere or at least had better rations) meets up with Rey and BB-8 at the same time The First Order starts attacking the planet based on Poe’s intel. They escape in a junked ship which, viola!, turns out to be the Millennium Falcon. This was, of course, the first time our heroes had ever escaped from a desert planet in that ship, right?

They get away only to be captured by another ship (again, sound familiar?) run by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Now, I wish they had explained this part a little better. See, space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. So the thought that they would just show up as soon as the Falcon leaves the atmosphere is just wrong. And they could have explained it away with something like a hidden transponder, but if they did I missed it (while I didn’t doze during the film, my attention did wander at times).

Anyway, soon there ensues some cool action sequences that exist to show that Solo is still a rogue, again they misuse the term “parsec” as a unit of time, and our heroes escape.

Meanwhile, the bad guys are quite put out at losing the droid, so they confer with the Lord Grand Poohbah Snape, played by Andy Serkis in his usual CGI glory. He tells them to use their nifty new Starkiller Base (which is a sun-powered Death Star on steroids) on the home planet of the New Republic’s Senate, and it is able to do so from quite a distance (’cause, see, it’s bigger).

Han leads Chewbacca, Rey and Finn to Ireland, I mean, Takodano, and a version of the original Mos Eisley Cantina (on steriods). By this time news of the missing droid has spread. There is a huge dude with a cute girl in the bar as a throwback to Jabba the Hutt who work for The First Order, and another dude with a mouth made up with one of those old timey microphones who works for the Resistance, so pretty soon everybody knows where the droid is to be found. We are introduced to the owner of the bar, Maz Kanata, who plays the role of Yoda, but her character was original enough that I’ll give them a pass on this one. Rey finds herself drawn to a vault in which she finds a light saber that once belonged to Anakin Skywalker and, later, Luke. When she touches it she has a vision, and we can assume that she has what it takes to be a Jedi.

Well, the bad guys show up and start blowing up the place, and Rey is captured. Before total victory, the Resistance shows up (yay! Poe is alive) and Finn takes up the light saber. While he doesn’t demonstrate Jedi powers, it remains to be seen if he will become a knight. Ren figures out that Rey has seen the map, so all he has to do it get it from her memories, so The First Order leaves.

Back on the Starkiller Base, Rey is strapped into an interrogation chair when Ren comes in to get the information from her. Here he takes off his helmet, which we learn is just for show, as underneath it is Hayden Christensen in a black wig, but with the same whine. She discovers that she has the ability to block her thoughts from him, and, frustrated, he gets called off to a meeting with General Hux and High Supreme Bad Guy Snape. Here is where Darth Vader would have mind-strangled the General like he did Admiral Motti, but Ren just whines about how strong Rey is. Snape, sensing another he can turn to the dark side, says to bring her to him right after they use the new fancy weapon to destroy the Rebel, I mean, Resistance, base.

Unfortunately for that plan, Rey discovers she has mad Jedi skillz and escapes. Since I’ve spoiled enough of this so far, let me wrap up the last bit of the movie with our heroes meet back up, a major character dies, and X-wing fighters fly into a trench and blow up the weapon before it can destroy the base.

Sound familiar?

Oh, Rey eventually finds Luke, who manages second billing despite 20 seconds of screen time and no dialog. Jedi master, psssh, his agent is the Jedi master.

Do I want my $15 back. No. Overall, I think it would be difficult to reboot this series and make everyone happy. If the goal was to make a movie to introduce a new generation into what Star Wars was to mine, I think they succeeded. Also, if the goal was to make a metric asston of money, they did that as well.

I give it a solid B, but I am eager to see where it goes from here. There is a lot of potential, although I hope they deviate a bit from the the original story line. If Luke and Rey end up training on a swamp planet, I might get a bit snarky.