Nurses make all the difference

It’s hard to find time to blog or write or do much of anything aside from take care of our new baby, but I’ve been itching to write this post since we left the hospital last week.

When you’re expecting a baby, you can tour the hospital. They show you the rooms in labor and delivery and in maternity and the nursery wing. They tell you about the amenities, the security, and medical technologies they have available. After our stay at Hartford Hospital, I can honestly tell you that none of those things are that important. What made our stay there amazing were the nurses and care staff. To a person, they were thoughtful, kind, attentive, and, most of all, helpful.

Helpful is under-appreciated. Helpful could be knowing what to say when a mom is upset because her son isn’t latching on right. It could be the nurse that stays in the room reassuring the new parents because, let’s face it, new parents worry a lot (especially us). Or it could be the PCA that gets the mom some extra supplies or juice containers. Our nurses and PCAs at Hartford Hospital were the best.

To all the nurses and care staff at Hartford Hospital that took care of Heidi and my son, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you. You made our time at the hospital comfortable and helped Heidi and I get comfortable with caring for our new son, from swaddling instructions to breast feeding help. Our time at the hospital exceeded our expectations in just about every way. Thank you.

Acadia National Park: one of my favorite places

Bubble Pond, along the carriage road

For so many reasons, Acadia National Park is special to Heidi and me. If you haven’t been, you’re missing out on one of the treasures of the National Park system and, really, of the east coast. The beauty of the park is remarkable (just look at the photo on the right!). Acadia’s real strength, though, is how accessible and easy it is to explore. The park is crisscrossed with miles of easy to ride carriage roads and easily reachable trails. It’s an easy, if long drive up to the park from New York or anywhere in New England, and has a great little town right outside the park in Bar Harbor. Whether you go for a drive on the Park Loop Road, or a hike or bike ride on the trails or carriage roads, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of water, islands, and the rugged coast of Maine.

On our most recent trip, I made time to take a long bike ride through the eastern half of the park. The carriage roads, built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as a labor of love, run through some of the most beautiful sections of the park. There are different loop combinations possible, allowing you to choose the duration and difficulty of your ride, run, or walk with ease. Some of the roads hug the lakes and ponds through the park, while others follow ridge lines or climb mountains in the park, leading to spectacular views out over all of Mount Desert Island. There are some challenging climbs, but since the roads are graded for horse-drawn carriages, there aren’t many of them. On the other hand, because of Acadia’s mountains and glacial past, there are really no flats anywhere. As one of my guide books said, the good thing is that nearly every climb is rewarded with a good view and a nice downhill after.

The route I chose covered about 33 miles, around 30 inside the park on the carriage roads (there’s a map below). While riding, I saw a number of families and groups riding around. I even saw a number of older couples (60+) making their way around the carriage roads. The western part of my loop (miles 6-13 in the map below), and the climb to the top of Day Mountain were among the quietest portions. I passed only a handful of riders and joggers. The portions closer to Jordan Pond & Eagle Lake were the busiest. If you know the park at all, that probably wasn’t surprising. I highly recommend getting away from the busy portions if you have the time. Just bring some food & a decent amount of water and give yourself enough time to take breaks and enjoy the views.

The one thing I wish I had was a guidebook for Acadia. I carried a bike map and a small guide for the roads, but concerned about weight, I left everything else except the water and my cell phone behind. After I tweeted about my ride, though, a developer based in Maine sent me a tweet about an iPhone & Android app he’d built for Acadia National Park. He offered to let me take a look for free and to offer feedback. After taking a look, I really wish I had it on the ride. The app is Chimani Acadia National Park, developed by Chimani, LLC. The app is beautifully designed and well thought out. It contains trail maps, cycling routes, sunset/sunrise info, ranger events and even an audio tour for the Park Loop Road. The app also has a schedule and route map for the free Island Explorer busses. Best of all, everything works without a network connection. Acadia may be many things, but cell phone friendly it isn’t, so this is a requirement for a park app.

Ride cheat sheet
5 right
3 left
2 left
4 right
6 right
9 right
11 right
13 right
18 left
19 right
20 left
21 left
14 right
15 left
16 left
17 left or loop day mtn
7 right
6 right
4 right
back to Bar Harbor, shop

My guide book was a little better in a few ways, though. First, the app’s maps don’t really have a turn-by-turn set of instructions for any of the routes or trails. They just indicate the starting position of a route or some portion, and list out points of interest. It would be great if they included turns at the sign posts. Every intersection on the carriage roads is numbered and is usually a three way intersection, so your choices always basically boil down to right or left. For each route, then, “directions” are a list of left & right turns. For example, the box to the right shows my cheat sheet for the ride (Note: I amended this while on the ride, so it doesn’t match the route above). It would be great if the app either listed the turns or allowed the user to create a cheat sheet like this.

That being said, it’s a great complement to a good bike map. The routes all include points of interest with some background info. For example, the carriage roads include many beautiful stone bridges throughout the parks. If I would have used this for my ride, I would’ve tweaked my route to include the Cliffside Bridge, which sounds spectacular.

Overall, the app looks solid and worth having if you’re going through the park. My only advice is not to rely on the app as your primary map when you’re hiking or biking. For one thing, the maps aren’t detailed enough. Most importantly, though, batteries don’t die on paper maps. Many of the maps you can pick up at the Visitor Center are also waterproof. For what it’s worth, I usually keep my phone inside a ziplock back when I ride in case it rains along with a little cash and one credit card.

My paper map was an awesome one that’s available at the Visitor Center. It’s the “Complete Hiking Trail & Carriage Road Map” by the Friends of Acadia. It’s $3.50 and well worth it.

Top of Day Mountain, Acadia National Park

This ride was also the first time I’ve been on any sort of mountain bike in years. I rented a nice Cannondale F4 from Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop. This was my first time renting there, but I’d be happy to do it again. You really can’t go wrong at any of the shops along Cottage St. in Bar Harbor, but they had a full bike shop attached, which was great for last minute gear I needed.

The F4 is a nice ride. While it felt super slow compared to my road bike, it was really pretty damn fun to zoom around the park without worrying as much about the gravel or rocks. I recommend staying away from road bikes on the carriage roads. I wanted the wider tires of a comfort bike or mountain bike on the gravel. I also really appreciated the hill friendly gearing on the mountain bike. I’ve been on the roads using a comfort bike and was fine, so just use your judgement. Bikes aren’t allowed on the hiking trails, so there’s no real easy opportunities to truly go trail riding, as far as I know. It was the first time I really wish I had a cross bike.

Heidi and I also went on a whale watch. This was my first time doing one. I didn’t really expect much from the trip, thinking we might be lucky if we saw even one whale. Boy, was I wrong. We saw at least 4 finback whales playing and diving. No breaches (leaps out of the water), but we saw a fin slap and a number of terminal dives where we saw the tail before it disappeared below the surface. We did a sunset whale watch, so we were treated to some beautiful views on the way home. If you’ve never been on one, highly recommended. Just remember to dress warmly. We were freezing out on the water, and when the boat really gets moving, you feel like you’re in a wind tunnel experiment about wind chill. We were both freezing, but didn’t want to take a chance we’d miss a whale sighting. Definitely, bring fall/winter layers (sweatshirt or fleece plus windbreaker or warmer jacket, etc.). It’s a great way to spend time with nature when you don’t want to be out in the park or can’t hike (say, if you’re with a pregnant wife, for example 🙂 ) I’m really glad we went on this.

Beyond all the nature and hiking and biking, Bar Harbor and the other towns on the island have great, great restaurants. A lot of places are very vegetarian friendly, and there’s a variety of cuisines to suit whatever you might want. There are great restaurants all over, including Thai, Mexican, Greek, Italian, and lots of seafood. A lot of the restaurants use locally sourced ingredients, too. Good stuff. Some of the places we like include Guinness & Porcelli’s, Lompoc Cafe, McKay’s Public House, and a number of the pizza joints on Cottage and everything on Rodick St. There are also some great restaurants in Southwest Harbor and in some of the other towns on the island, so be sure to get out and explore!

Atlantean Inn, Bar Harbor

Finally, getting a place to stay up there can be a bit expensive during the high season. The best thing we’ve found is to rent a house for a week and try to go up with another couple or family. We’ve done this a few times now and it’s really the most cost effective way to go. You can eat in, since you have a kitchen, and make lunches for your hikes/rides/whatever. The other thing we’ve done is camped. The park has a number of campgrounds nearby and many are reasonably priced and have showers and other amenities. We’ve stayed at Smuggler’s Den Campground. They had a shower and a pool and a shop on the campgrounds for things you may have forgotten. On our most recent trip, we went a little more upscale, since it was our anniversary, and stayed at a phenomenal B&B called the Atlantean Inn. The owners were awesome, balancing the being helpful but giving us space thing perfectly. Our room was great, and the breakfasts were amazing. They cook vegetarian breakfasts, but I’d be surprised if most non-vegetarians would notice or care, the food was that good. I really loved staying there. Too bad they don’t allow kids, otherwise we’d probably plan another trip in a few years.

Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island are really great places to visit. Hopefully this has given you a taste of some of things you can do there and why I really love the place. Even with everything I’ve mentioned, there’s so much more (the only fjord on the east coast!, the first place in the U.S. to see a sunrise!).

I have a lot of good photographs up on Flickr from our recent trip, and would also suggest checking out Faith’s beautiful photo set from her recent trip. This is a gorgeous park and a rugged and beautiful part of the world. Whether you’ve been there before or not, I hope you get a chance to visit soon.

Binoculars for looking at butterflies and insects? Who knew?

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A while ago, I was looking at (and tweeted about) some dude’s travel gear list and noticed a nice pair of binoculars in the pack, a pair of Pentax Papilio 8.5×21 binoculars. I saved it to my Amazon Wish List and this year Heidi bought them for me for my birthday. We’ve taken them on a short hike near our house and I’ve been messing with them here and there. I want to point out a couple of nice things about the set that might make them useful for some of you.

The cool thing about these binoculars is that they can focus at things about 2 feet away. While this may seem sort of silly for the traditional use for binoculars, the cool thing is that you can actually focus on things like bugs, butterflies, and flowers. They almost work like a magnifying glass but from a distance. If, like me, you’re curious about the little critters but are mildly afraid of getting too close, this is a great thing. I suspect kids would have a great time with these out in the woods just looking at all the little things in the woods.

The Papilios are decent at range. They’re not particularly powerful. At 8.5x you’ll find some cameras with more powerful zoom. Binoculars are nice, though, because you can look at things with a larger field of view and in better viewing conditions than a little screen on the back of a camera. I could see using them for casual bird watching or checking out animals from a distance. We’re not serious birders, but our primary use will be on hikes and longer rides.

I was also pleased by how light they were. On our walk, I hardly noticed I was carrying them. If you want a pair of binoculars, this is a good pair to take a look at. I really like them so far.

The Back-to-Basics Egg Muffin Toaster

Back to Basics Egg and Muffin Toaster

I’ve been remiss in my blogging responsibilities and, for that, I apologize. It’s already January 5th and I haven’t mentioned the most unusual of my Christmas gifts this year. It’s the Back to Basics Egg and Muffin 2 slice Toaster and Egg Poacher. No, really!

What is this thing? Well, if you’ve ever had or seen an McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, you know exactly what this machine makes. It’s a combination toaster and egg maker that has a special cycle that poaches the egg and pops the toasted bread at exactly the same moment. Take your warm bread and your poached egg, add some cheese and/or meat of your choice and, voila!, home made breakfast sandwich. It also can hard boil eggs, so if you’re an egg fan, you can just use the egg part.

Heidi and I have been using egg substitute rather than real eggs or scrambling the egg before putting it in the machine since I’m not a fan of the runny yolk in a poached egg. Aside from that, I can add veggie sausage, different kinds of cheese, and better muffins than what McDonald’s might use. Choosing my own ingredients and making a warm breakfast sandwich so easily is worth it.

I found out about this machine from Fahrad Manjoo’s enthusiastic review on Salon. For $29.99, I was willing to give it a try. It works as well as he said, and the sandwiches are much tastier than anything I remember from McD’s. If you like Egg McMuffins, this is the machine for you.

Update: Forgot to mention another egg-related device. A buddy at work who stays fit eats eggs pretty much every day. I had him in our office Secret Santa so I got him the Krups Egg Express Egg Cooker as his gift. He loves it and says it does a great job making hard boiled eggs. So, in case you’re just into eggs without the bread (say, you’re an Atkins person), this is a pretty decent machine. Amazon shows it at $22.32, but I bought it from Amazon for $19.99. Not sure why the price went up.

One year with the best universal remote I’ve ever used: Logitech Harmony Universal Remote

That’s pretty much the review right there in the headline, but as I continue to stall actually finishing my work for, uh, work (I’m suffering from the coder equivalent of writers block on one problem at the moment), here’s a quick endorsement for the Logitech Harmony line of universal remotes. While a bit expensive for most casual TV viewers, it’s a great device for those of us with more than 3 things attached to the TV. I had an XBox 360, PS2, DVR, Receiver, and cable box when I bought this remote. I have the XBox 360 version which works great for the combination of devices I have. The rest of this review assumes the features of that version, though it should apply to most of them.

The best thing about this remote is that it comes with software for your home Mac or PC to configure the remote. The one thing that drives me insane about most universal remotes, including some high end ones, is trying to program the remote on the remote itself. Too often you have to point the remotes at each other and go through a manual, button-by-button programming for each remote. Ugh.

The Harmony does away with that (for the most part). It leverages a web-based service that allows your remote to pull updated definitions from Logitech. This way, they’re not limited to what devices they can fit on the remote’s memory. New TV in 3 years? Odds are that Logitech will have the device added into their DB. Occasionally, you have to verify which version of a particular model you have and that requires pointing its remote at the Logitech remote, but that’s OK because it’s easier than trying to find a revision number or firmware revision from the TV or device.

The remote also uses an “activity” based approach rather than a device based approach. So, for example, I have an activity called “Watch TV” that turns on the TV, sets it to the right input, and turns on the DirecTV DVR. I chose a couple of shortcuts I want featured by selecting them in a menu, and I have one touch access to common functions like the Guide or the List of programs on the DVR.

The great thing about this approach is that I can create a lot of activities quickly and easily. For example, I have a “Watch DVD” activity along with a “Watch DVD (no receiver)” activity. You can use either to watch DVDs, but the first turns on the surround sound and uses the receiver to control the volume while the second activity uses the TV for audio instead.

Also, because it understands typical viewing patterns, replacing devices is pretty easy. When I swapped TVs recently, I walked through a few menus and the software replaced the old TV with the new one in all the activities where it made sense.

My only complaint is really a minor issue. The remote needs to “know” whether your devices are on or off, so it’s really important that you use the remote only to turn things on and off. Takes some getting used to if you’re in the habit of hitting the power switch on the TV.

Trust me, it’s worth the money if you have a several devices attached to your home theater. I love it and can’t imagine going to another remote.

Washed out colors on a MacBook Pro (or any Mac OS X Computer)

Another bit of Google fodder, in case others run into this problem. BTW, this applies to a computer running Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), but I’m assuming similar controls exist in Leopard. I’ll know in a day or two. 🙂

So, on my work MacBook Pro, I noticed that the colors were extremely washed out. The gradients in the title bar of my applications almost looked like two color stripes. NetNewsWire lost the nice pinstripes, and on my development application, some of the tints on my background colors were off or not visible. For example, #FAFAFF, which should be a very, very light blue was showing up as white on my screen.

It sure seemed like the contrast was off, but the Displays Preference Pane only allows you to either change the brightness or try to calibrate the display using a fairly complex and meaningless tool (for those of us not doing professional color work, at least).

Well, after using the handy search feature in System Preferences and searching for contrast, I found that the Universal Access preference pane contains an override for the contrast for your system apparently to allow people with different vision problems to use the display. Somehow, and I’m not really sure how, this Enhance Contrast setting was set away from “Normal” or the far left. Bringing that setting to Normal has gotten my colors and gradients back. Trust me, it was weird living in an unsubtle world.