Blog-o! Notes from

Thu, 31 Mar 2011
New York Adventure, Day Four

Thursday in New York was the day I had planned to not plan anything. I knew that in the course of exploring on Tuesday and Wednesday we would come up with something we wanted to do on Thursday, so I left it open, "TBD".

What we decided to do was find a playground. The girls had been gazing longingly at every playground we passed on Wednesday, so we decided to carve out Thursday morning for some quality playing (them)/sitting in the sun (us) time.

Sascha directed us to the really cool playground in Central Park, but Central Park is full of winding roads with no names, and we ended up at the wrong playground. (Luckily Central Park is also full of playgrounds.) The girls played there for a while but then proclaimed it lame, so we set off with a renewed determination to find the right playground, which we eventually did: the Heckscher Playground. It features a cement fortress-like structure beside a giant (like, building-sized) rock, as well as lots of swings and a really tall slide, like I haven't seen since I was a kid.

The girls had an excellent time, Blake got a sunburn, I met a nice Irish guy and his son Finn, and we all watched a drunk girl get taken away in an ambulance (it was St. Patrick's Day).

After the playground we grabbed a hot dog and a pretzel, then walked up to the Museum of Natural History where we elected to pay $40 to get in (did you know it's a "Pay What You Can" museum?) and spent at least an hour in the Discovery Room. The Discovery Room is apparently the Museum of Natural History's best kept secret, because there were, like, five other kids in there. It's bright little room with a well-presented hands-on collection: dinosaur bones, clothes, bugs under a microscope, a cabinet of natural wonders like shells, coral, skulls and rocks. The girls had a great time exploring and Blake and I had a great time sitting.

Our next stop was a bakery at 87th and 1st to get black and white cookies. Now, I swear black and white cookies were everywhere when we were in New York in 2003, but Sascha says they fell out of fashion years before that. To be fair, "everywhere" might just mean "every Starbucks", but they certainly weren't hard to come by in 2003. In 2011, I had to ask Twitter where to get them, and my lovely friend Shawn pointed me at Glaser's Bakery. Not only are their black and white cookies delicious, they also have a fine selection of cupcakes, eclairs, danishes and things I don't even know the names of. It was totally worth the detour.

Dinner was delicious ordered-in Indian food with Sascha and Leontine and Nina, and gulab jamun for dessert, and bedtime was late.

[Posted at 22:16 by Amy Brown] link
New GetAnAccount UI.

Since we released the GetAnAccount addon, we’ve had a lot of feedback. Many of the people who commented were looking for the option of getting an ad-supported account instead of paying for email access. We were always planning on integrating ad-supported services, as soon as we could, but of course, doing this required a redesign.

One important note before we get to the good stuff: I’ve used GMail soley as an example of a well-known ad-supported email provider here. We may or may not be partnering with them, and you should not take these screenshots as proof of our intentions one way or another.

As you can see from this first mockup, the initial view makes it much more obvious that you don’t need to create a new account just to use Thunderbird.

Initial View

If you click in the bottom half, it expands up to make it more obvious that that’s what you want to do, and to allow us to display more information (although we don’t have any extra information to display there yet.

Existing Address

On the other hand, if you click on the top, we do have more information that you probably want to see before continuing on.

New Address

And this is something like what we hope to show you when the results have been returned. (Note: the Terms of Service, Existing Account, and Do It Later buttons are still there, but have been scrolled off the bottom of the dialog in this mockup.)

Search Results

And finally, once you pick one of the providers, we expand that list to show you all of the results for that provider.

Provider Chosen

Feedback, as always, is welcome, either here or in the forum.

[Posted at 21:41 by Blake Winton] link
Fri, 25 Mar 2011

A co-worker of mine recently mentioned that he had a problem where he all-too-often accidentally quit his applications by hitting ⌘-q (command-q). Since he has been having problems with Thunderbird that I can’t fix, I thought I might do a little digging and see if I could come up with some way of helping him. And so here’s what I found:

In the System Preferences application, there’s a “Keyboard” section.

The Keyboard Preference Pane

One of the things you can choose in that section is “Keyboard Shortcuts”.

The Keyboard Shortcuts

Pick a relatively innocuous function, like turning Zoom on and off.

(Note: DO NOT choose Front Row for this!)

The Access Shortcuts

And assign that function to ⌘-q.

The New Shortcut

Now, whenever you hit ⌘-q, it will do whatever you selected, instead of quitting the application. Ta-da!

[Posted at 17:48 by Blake Winton] link
Wed, 23 Mar 2011
New York Adventure, Day Three

Day three, Wednesday, dawned early but not bright with a drip, drip, drip in the living room. It was raining and the roof of our hotel was leaking into our top-floor suite. It wasn't a disastrous leak, but in the dark it produced the kind of hard-to-identify noise which makes imaginative little girls very nervous. After we had reassured the girls and set up the ice bucket to catch the drips we went downstairs for our daily waffles and doughnuts.

Our trajectory was east that day, into the wilds of Queens and ultimately to the New York Hall of Science, a.k.a. the Queens science museum. (We got in free because we have a membership at the Ontario Science Centre.) The first exhibit we visited was about science in the Muslim World, which was pretty cool. There was an interesting exhibit on light and optics, another on sports science (I believe all science museums are required to have an area devoted to sports science), and a bunch of stuff about space. It was fun but assumed a fairly high level of literacy — Cordelia was reduced to being one of those annoying little kids who runs around pounding buttons because there wasn't much designed for kids at her level.

We went for a late lunch at Tortilleria Nixtamal, a fantastic little place recommended by Sascha. We had nachos (with Mexican cheese, avocado, peppers and beans), tamales with chicken mole, pork tacos, and the girls had fish tacos. I had Mexican Coca-Cola, which is apparently sweeter than American Coca-Cola, but I didn't notice. It came in a cool bottle, though. Blake had a cool drink the name of which I have forgotten. Everything was excellent, but the nachos were my favourite — crispy chips, fresh toppings in just the right proportions. Afterwards the girls and I enjoyed an ice pop, or as mine was labelled, "Artificial Coconut Quiescently Frozen Dairy Confection". So much tastier than it sounds!

By the time we finished lunch the sun had come out and we were on track to be late meeting Leontine and Nina at the Children's Museum of the Arts in Manhattan. We found our way, with some twisting and turning, through the neighbourhood back to 103rd St station and headed west.

The Children's Museum of the Arts has lofty goals but my impression of it from the hour or so I spent there was of an arts-and-crafts oriented drop-in centre. The main floor had various art stations: painting, cutting, that stuff you make out of Borax and glue. Downstairs there was a ball pit stocked not with the usual little plastic balls but with those giant exercise balls, and a dress-up centre. It was pretty cool but I missed the "museum" part. Then again I didn't really look for it. The girls had a great time bouncing in the ball pit, dressing up, and listening to an energetic rendition of Cressida Cowell's "That Rabbit Belongs To Emily Brown". Delphine made a picture of a turtle. Blake and I got to hang out with Leontine, which was fun. She's awesome. (I love it when my friends marry awesome people.)

When the museum closed we peeled the children away and set them loose on the streets of Manhattan to terrorize passers-by with their erratic behaviour and injudicious piggybacking. Also irrepressible adorableness: they made a lovely trio.

Our intention was to go out for dinner, and since Blake was the only person with a preference, and Blake's preference was to go to Pizzeria Uno (why don't we have those here?!) we decided to go the Pizzeria Uno that's right by, I mean mere blocks away from, our hotel in Queens. So close we could almost walk it!

Closeness to the hotel was desirable because before dinner we had to stop by the hotel to deliver this painting by my friend Tanya which I had bought to give to Sascha and Leontine. Buying art for other people is always tricky, maybe even unadvisable, but I think this went pretty well. Leontine and Sascha liked it, or else they were really polite and good actors. Delphine kind of ruined it — or added a level of intrigue — by saying they were evil bubbles...

Our next mission was to get to Pizzeria Uno, which seems simple but was complicated by the fact that it's almost too far to walk, it was dinnertime and we had three small short-legged children to think of. Sascha thought it would be easier to catch a bus, Blake was with him on the bus plan, I was indifferent and Leontine was strongly against taking the bus, which is apparently her usual stance on the issue.

As always when taking the bus, it could have gone either way: the bus could have arrived promptly and taken us where we wanted to go, or we could have waited for ages and ages, getting crankier, tireder and hungrier, until we finally decided to take some other bus which got us slightly closer so we could walk the rest of the way, inevitably being passed by the original bus as we walked. Nobody's mind was changed about the value of buses that evening.

Finally we arrived at the restaurant, where we marvelled at the calorie counts on the menu, and were perplexed at the lack of prices for alcohol and the supreme awfulness of the waitress. The grown-ups all had pizza of various kinds, Nina had macaroni and cheese and Delphine and Cordelia had the exact same dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets they get at The Longest Yard three blocks from home.

Then Sascha ordered a car service to drive us home, and we all collapsed into bed — far too late for the girls and somewhat embarrassingly early for the grown-ups.

[Posted at 21:47 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 21 Mar 2011
New York Adventure, Day 2

While we were in New York we stayed at the comically-named Country Inn & Suites in Queens. It's an incongruous 9-storey building in a slightly seedy area which didn't seem to have much to offer (although we didn't explore) apart from Queensboro Plaza station, from which it's a quick ride to westbound to Manhattan or eastbound to all the cool stuff in Queens which you only know about if you have friends in, say, Jackson Heights.

One of the most important features of a hotel is a free breakfast buffet, and this one didn't disappoint. Well, I suppose if you were looking for high-quality food it might disappoint, but considering the great price we got for the room I wasn't expecting much. There were strange skinless sausage-like objects, patties of that yellow foamy "egg", cheap bagels, danishes, doughnuts and bread, coffee (or hot chocolate or hot water) out of a dispenser, and for the health-minded, bananas and tubs of fat-free yoghurt. But the highlight was the make-your-own waffle station: a dispenser oozed pre-made waffle batter which was then poured onto an electric waffle iron. Two minutes later, uncanny fluffy goodness. The girls and I had waffles and syrup for breakfast every day. (There may have been some doughnut consumption as well.) The "sausages" were savory and sagey, but the egg tasted like the cushion foam it resembled.

After carb-loading we walked down to the station to catch a train into Manhattan. We bought two seven-day MTA Metrocards — that's right: two. The girls rode the MTA all week for free! Not 60¢, not 75¢, but absolutely free. They got to duck under the turnstiles! (Each adult gets to take three children under 44" for free.)

Our first stop was Fifth Avenue, to visit F.A.O. Schwartz and then walk to the Lego Store at Rockefeller Center. Before we got to F.A.O. Schwartz our sight was arrested by the looming glass cube which heralds the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. Well... it was right there; we had to go in! They had the new iPads to play with, and I looked at docking stations for the bathroom (shut up) and Delphine and Cordelia found games to play, but all in all it didn't strike me as any cooler than any other Apple Store, apart from the great glass elevator. The children wanted to stay and play video games all day, but I impressed upon them the utter lameness of that idea and finally dragged them out.

F.A.O. Schwartz turned out to be right next door to the Apple Store, and also turned out to be closed (it was 9:30 am) so we walked down to the Lego Store, admired Lego and made custom mini-figs for a while, then walked back (with a Starbucks detour). F.A.O. Schwartz was big and toy-store-ish, and they had lots of cool stuff there, but the lines they carry are pretty much the same as the stuff at Mastermind, except more of everything and the occasional sales guy/demonstrator. Delphine was swayed by one of the demonstrators, a sweetheart shilling Myachis. That's what she spent her souvenir money on, and Cordelia bought some Playmobil.

Our next stop was the Second Avenue Deli, confusingly not found on Second Avenue at all: it's the new location! There we met up with Sascha, my oldest and bestest Internet friend and my excuse for the whole trip. We all had matzo ball soup, Blake had a brisket sandwich, I had noodle kugel and Delphine had a meatloaf sandwich. I don't think the matzo ball soup was as good as Baba's, and I don't think the noodle kugel was as good as our family recipe, but they were still very tasty. We took some rugelach and hamentashen to go and they turned out to be delicious indeed.

The Second Avenue Deli was the site of my first kosher faux pas of the day: I asked in great earnest whether Cordelia could have a glass of milk. If you're paying attention, which clearly I was not, you will note that the Second Avenue Deli is a meat restaurant and thus not likely to have handy gallons of milk hanging around for thirsty five-year-olds. I'm pretty good with kosher but I always forget about the meat/milk thing. As we shall see.

After lunch we proceeded apace (I'm trying to see how many ways I can say "went") to the Central Park Zoo. We have a perfectly good zoo in Toronto but it's miles and miles away and not easily reachable by transit, so we never go — this would be the first time Cordelia had ever been to a zoo. The Central Park Zoo is fairly teeny but the animals are all interesting: seals, penguins, polar bears, tiny adorable tamarins (my favourites). The best thing was the Tropic Zone, a building containing a rainforest stocked with a breathtaking number of fantastic tropical birds. Everywhere you looked there was another amazing bird. (They said they had fruit bats too, but I didn't see them.)

We also went to the Tisch's Children's Zoo, which was a fairly small collection of the usual petting zoo critters, along with lots of interesting climable sculptures and a giant spider web made of rope. The girls loved it but Blake and I were freezing in our optimistic spring coats. It was one of those days which are pleasantly warm when the sun shines and chilly and miserable when it doesn't, and as the day wore on the sun's appearances became more infrequent.

We finally dragged the children away on the fairly slim premise of going to Macy's to get Cordelia a pair of shoes. (The shoes we had packed for her were woefully inadequate — they kept flying off when she ran because the Velcro on the fake buckle was shot.) The Macy's turned out to be that store with the cool wooden escalators, which we were on for a long time because the kids' shoe department is on the seventh floor. We finally (not without some testiness all around) found shoes which met my requirements for price and fit and Cordelia's for sparkliness, and then set out in search of dinner.

Blake and I were in that horrible state where you're tired and hungry but too grumpy to decide on a restaurant: everything looks too expensive, too seedy, too weird or too chain-y. Finally after blocks of searching we settled on Mike's Pizzeria on 36th Street, a café-style pizza place that looked clean and nice. I ordered macaroni and cheese for the girls, smoked cheese and mushroom pizza for me, and Blake got a slice of thick-crust plain cheese pizza. When we got to the table it came to pass that Delphine didn't want macaroni and cheese, she wanted pepperoni pizza! Blake said they didn't have any but that didn't mollify Delphine any, so I agreed to take her up to the counter and ask if they had any pepperoni pizza.

Well, I know you've all figured it out by now, but I was tired. Obviously, Mike's Pizzeria was our second kosher establishment of the day (you could tell from the kippah on the guy behind the counter, and the black-hat enjoying his pizza and newspaper) but I once again didn't put it together until it was spelled out for me. Pizza ⇒ cheese ⇒ milk ⇒ no meat ⇒ no pepperoni. Sorry, kid. But the macaroni and cheese was sublime, and Delphine got her own slice of plain cheese pizza.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to get the children to bed at a decent hour, and then we watched TV on my laptop until our bedtime. (The girls slept on the pullout couch in the living room, and we had a delightfully huge and comfortable king-sized bed.)

Here are pictures.

[Posted at 16:38 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 19 Mar 2011
New York Adventure, Day 1

Our train was scheduled to leave at 8:30, so we arrived at Union Station at 7:30, possibly a little too early but I'd always rather have time to kill than hurry, especially with kids. We picked up our tickets, then treated the kids to Cinnabon cinnamon sticks, which were to be the first of many delicious, unwholesome treats over the week ahead.

On board the train we settled in, luxuriating in the space and comfort. We played with the trays and the buttons on the seats, working out all the different lounging possibilities.

The train started moving on time, and not twenty minutes later Cordelia wanted to know if we were nearly there. I explained that we would be there after lunch and dinner, so she only asked two or three times more.

We each spent our train-bound day differently: Delphine braided gimp and read a lot; I read a little, stared out of the window a lot, escorted missions to the bathroom and the snack car, and worked a bit; Cordelia looked out the window, did activity books and drew; Blake read. I created a Train Bingo for Delphine (a five-by-five grid of things to see out the window: a red roof, a horse, a water tower, a playground, etc) and then she did one for me. As on an airplane, meals were an effective diversion: we had sandwiches and carrot sticks for lunch from the Canadian snack bar, and for dinner, a meatball sub, a hot dog and a small pepperoni pizza from the American snack bar. (The snack bar changes nationality — menu, currency and staff — at the border, at the same time as the dour border guards come through checking passports and making sure no-one is smuggling in contraband fruit.)

I was alert and fully conscious in the morning, and it's a good thing I decided to get some work done then because after lunch I became listless and sluggish. It's a paradox that sitting around conserving energy is more enervating than being active, and by around 2:00 in the afternoon all I was good for was staring out the window looking for the dog, bicycle and yellow-leafed tree that Delphine's bingo had set me in search of.

New York State is not at its most beautiful in early spring; for hours, it seemed, the view was of grey swamps and grey trees, with only an occasional raven or hawk betraying life. In between the swamps there were brief views of farms and farmhouses on the higher ground.

Eventually the swamps gave way to a wide river (the Hudson, it turns out), flowing fast with great slabs of ice thrown up on either side of it. The opposite bank of the river was a towering chunk of rock scattered with leafless trees. The view was monochromatic and beautiful in its severity, like an Andrew Wyeth painting.

After dinner the children really started to get fidgety and fretful. Their normal routine has them going to bed almost immediately after dinner, but they weren't able to get to sleep at their usual time. On top of that, the day of junk food combined with very little activity left them both with upset stomachs. Cordelia finally fell asleep about forty minutes before the trip ended, but Delphine wasn't able to sleep at all and was tired and emotional when we rolled into Penn Station.

The decision to take a cab to the hotel was an easy one, even for Delphine who hates cars. Cordelia's crying about her tummyache all the way to Queens didn't impress the cabbie much, although he did not betray any emotion. Then I unknowingly undertipped him — tipping makes me panic a little bit at the best of times, and late at night after a day on a train is not the best of times. Sorry, Abdullah, wherever you are.

We arrived at the hotel around 10:15 pm and after settling in and brushing teeth we all went to bed feeling much better, glad to have finally arrived and excited about the next day.

[Posted at 11:11 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 06 Mar 2011
More February Reads

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood is a series of stories about a woman named Nell. The stories start in her childhood, move on to a weird (but just normal-weird, not freaky-weird) relationship with an older guy, and then ends with a pair of stories about her childhood and her relationship with her mother. Good, entertaining, interesting.

There's a kind of crankiness, a negativity, to Margaret Atwood's writing which stops me from reading two of her books in a row. Everything's described in the most sordid way. I mean, I could describe every annoying and stupid and gross thing about my life, and leave out all the good bits, and it would sound overwrought and terrible like Atwood's characters' lives, but really my life is not all miserable and icky, and I don't buy that Atwood's characters' lives are all miserable and icky. Sometimes it annoys me that her books are so relentlessly negative. Lighten up, lady! Give it a rest! (Lest you mistake this for intelligent literary commentary, I feel the same way about Stephen King books.)

On the other hand, the thing I love about Margaret Atwood, and this isn't something that seems to come up much, is her little jokes. (She likes that too: a friend of mine saw her do a reading, and apparently she laughs at her own jokes.)

(Careful readers will note that this is the first of my Alphabetical To-Be-Read List Plan, and that I have read several off-list books. If I'm going to get through any amount of my TBR pile I'm going to have to increase the on-list:off-list ratio.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin is our second book club book. (The girl who's planning this month's meeting decided we needed something a little lighter after The Things They Carried. On the one hand, Rwanda; on the other hand, cakes!) Baking Cakes in Kigali is about a community of ex-pats of various countries who have come to Kigali to participate in (or take advantage of) the post-war rebuilding and spending. Centreing the book on non-Rwandans is a great way to write a book about Rwanda without asking us to get into the heart of someone who lived through the genocide. Not that that's not a worthwhile thing to do, but it's not this book.

Our main character is Angel, a Tanzanian grandmother who has recently launched a custom cake business. Her husband works for the university, and is the reason they are in Kigali. They live in an apartment complex populated by people from other parts of Africa and the world, and one of the delights of the novel is reading Angel's thoughts on cultural differences within Africa. The main charm of the book is Angel, actually: her thoughts on her neighbours, on feminism, on running a small business, and on coping with hardship are reminiscent of the levelheaded philosophies of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe.

(Leading, obviously, to the question of whether these white writers are creating a new sterotype, the "practical African woman". Both Precious and Angel are admirable characters who you would want to have by your side in a crisis, but I feel like I need to hear another voice from Africa, perhaps one that isn't so tailored to my taste as a North American reader.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali isn't a work of great literature, but it was a pleasant and easy read and raises enough discussion points that I think it will make for a good book club meeting.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman was perhaps an unnecessary diversion from my TBR list, but Delphine had it out from the library and I hadn't read it, so I did. Besides, it was short. It's the story of Odd, who is odd and not entirely wanted at home, so he goes away. While he's away, he meets some more odd characters: a bear, a fox and an eagle who aren't behaving as you might expect a bear, a fox and an eagle to behave. Events transpire, Odd quests and succeeds, learns about himself and his family, saves the day and returns home stronger.

It's a wonderful little book, as you'd expect from Gaiman. He has a gloriously gentle, deadpan way of ushering you into his imagined world that I loved in the Sandman comics.

[Posted at 11:38 by Amy Brown] link