General update

An update written by Ben for a change. After all, Franci has written almost all of the posts on this blog. As it happens, the last one Ben wrote was almost a year ago.

Ben is busy with various things. Both being a dad by night (and evening) and a computer programmer by day. Ben is also an elder at church, helping lead services, organize various things, and helping out with various pastoral issues.

Change, they say, is as good as a holiday. Coordinating people and tasks has crept back into his job description — he recently moved to a new team within TripAdvisor and is managing three software developers. Content Management Systems (CMS) is what we’re tasked to build. Companies within TripAdvisor will be able to use this unified system to to easily produce hotel- and travel-related pages and websites. Commuting to work (an hour each way) can be tiring, but I use the time to read, or to write blog posts like this one.

Dad visited us recently, on the way to the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) in Toronto. Dad is very handy with wood, as you probably know, so he helped me build this picnic table (the pajama-clad girls appeared afterwards):

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Esther is growing in stature (and good will with God and man). Every day she gets up at about 6:45am, sneaks down the stairs, and plays with Lego or reads quietly in the lounge. Enthusiastic about any craft, she’s often making cards, pictures, or whatever else. “Emotional” is a good word to sum up her reaction to various things — much more so than either of the other kids, which can be both good and bad. Esther was also very stoked to have a few days recently when she had Mum all to herself for the morning — one of these mornings she got a special trip with Mum to the nail salon:

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Franci has a bit of a lighter (or different) load right now as our homeschoolers are taking a break. For a few weeks more she’ll be catching up on various tasks, sorting and tidying rooms, reading, etc. Franci has been keeping busy (outside of the usual family busyness) with serving at church in various capacities: Fellowship Meal (organizing our once-a-month church shared lunch), Sunday School, and catching up with and mentoring some women. Fruit and veggies have also featured of late: she bought 10kg of very ripe blueberries and made lots of jam, pies, etc; and she signed up to a veggie co-op through which we get a good quantity of veggies every week. For a photo, here’s one of her carrying Laurelin’s 4th birthday cake:

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Going to go camping in early September! Goal is for me to take a couple of days off work on either side of Labour weekend, go into the mountains (a couple of hours away), and set up tent. Good for the whole family to get away, and the kids are definitely looking forward to it.

Hannah and Peter were here recently and stayed a couple of nights when they drove Lydia and Andrew here from Lancaster, PA. How nice it was to catch up with both couples again. Hopefully Lydia and Andrew had a good time! His first time in the States, and I don’t think Lydia’s been back for many years either. Heading into the city on a bus, they caught the subway from the bus terminal down to JFK airport, where they flew back to Australia.

I can safely say that we’ve had a hot early summer, though the last couple of weeks have been a lot more mild. In the early part of July, Franci and the girls went regularly to a nearby friend’s pool and made good use of that. Inside it’s generally cool enough thanks to air conditioning, especially at my work where they seem to like making it feel like a fridge.

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Jetsetter was the TripAdvisor team that I was on, and jetsetting is what we’ll be doing (God willing) in late December and January when we fly to New Zealand for a trip in their summer. Just like last time, I’ll be going for about two weeks, and Franci and the girls will be staying on for several extra weeks. Joyful we are as we look forward to seeing family and friends again in person.

Kicking around a rough plan, Franci and I, for our family to head back to New Zealand to live (for good?) in the year 2020 Anno Domino. Kids will be a bit older then, and our hope is to visit South Africa and Namibia (where Franci was born and grew up, respectively) on our way back.

Laurelin is our most stubborn descendant. Laughs a lot, and causes plenty of laughter, too. Life will be good to her, we think, if she overcomes the sinful childish aspects of this stubbornness and turns it into determination (that’s what we’re working towards, in any case). Lately she’s had a break from preschool — during the school year she attends a local preschool three mornings a week, giving Franci a break and an opportunity to focus on homeschooling the other two. Laurelin recently turned four:

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Marica went to a five-day summer camp recently with a friend from homeschooling circles. Mostly outdoor activities, it was a Christian-run camp, and she had a blast. My update on her wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that apart from being our most outdoor-loving girl, she’s also our biggest bookworm, reading half a dozen thick books per week is not uncommon. More good books needed — please send title suggestions our way!

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Never one to shy away from geekdom, I’ve written a couple of technical articles about nerdy projects I’ve done recently. Naturally you can view those on my website, if you’re interested: a pentomino puzzle solver, toy Python-to-assembly compiler, and tiny Git client.

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The 12 pentominoes (18 with their mirror images)

Outdoors stuff tends to happen more in summer, so there have been lots of trips to the park, lots of playing outside in the sprinkler, and we hope to make it to the beach at least once.

Pulled pork is a favourite around here. Partly because there’s a nearby Southern BBQ place where we sometimes eat or get takeaway. Passionate about their food, we often get juicy barbequed brisket, pulled pork, and spicy baked beans — yum! Perhaps if you visit we’ll take you there?

Quite a bit of the time we’re too busy: mostly self-inflicated, partly a reflection of our involvement at church or with visitors, and with homeschooling things. Quiet is nice sometimes, and we’re trying to carve out enough of that here and there.

Reading aloud is something I really enjoy doing with and for the older two girls. Rarely do we go a week without at least several nights of reading another chapter in our book. Right now we’re about half way through N. D. Wilson’s A Door Before, a prequel to both his 100 Cupboards and his Ashtown Burials books. Really it’s a bit too intense for my taste, but we love his strong and realistic characters, his moral outlook, and his desire to bring solid fantasy from British to American soil.

Seafood festivals are a lot of fun: a Reformed church over on Long Island recently hosted one. Sun, seafood (lobsters, clams), salad, and sports were the order of the day — including a no-hands watermelon eating competition which I tried my hand at:

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Trees are a wonderful thing. Three or four weeks ago we planted a small (1.5 metre high) dogwood tree in our back yard. The soil that we dug out for the roots was probably the hardest, stoniest soil I’ve ever dealt with.

Unbroken is a great movie that Franci and I watched recently. Unusually good for a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s a war story that you should definitely watch (not to mention read about its fascinating hero Louis Zamperini).

Violin and guitar are the two new instruments that Esther and Marica will be learning this coming school year (aside from piano, which they have to take). Very rewarding to be part of a homeschooling group where the kids can learn quality music at reasonable prices.

We had a good time recently with Franci’s sister Angelique, who was here with her son Tyson for a visit in June. Went in to the city a couple of times, but mostly stayed local and did quieter things with the kids.

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Xylophones (well, glockenspiels really, but that doesn’t start with X) are another instrument that Franci will be using in the homeschool co-op music class that she’ll be teaching this coming year.

Yesterday evening we had our pastor and his wife around for dinner. You always know it’ll be a fabulous time with those two (and it was).

Zero more paragraphs to go after this one. Zank you for listening. Zon’t forget to comment if you have comments or questions!

Making Marica Grate Again!

As the cruel parents we are, tonight we decided to make Marica grate – again:

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Sorry, couldn’t resist.

But after I thought of the pun, I think there’s a serious point here, along the lines of that P. J. O’Rourke quip: “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

Talking politics is all the rage today: pro-Trump, anti-Trump, this that and the other Facebook post. But life goes on, kids need putting to bed, and dishes need doing. Doing the small things right … that’s how to save the world.

The job front

In the last couple of months I’ve had a bit of a change job-wise (Franci said it was about time for me to write). I had been a software engineer for Oyster.com — now part of TripAdvisor — for just over six years, and decided it was time for a change and some new work experience while we’re here in the States.

So I started looking around, and interviewed with several companies: Google, Paperless Post, and a couple of others. Google was interesting to interview with, but they said no (at least for the role I was looking for). So I was looking pretty hard at the Paperless offer, but then my boss offered me a new role within TripAdvisor working on a different team and with different technologies … and for various reasons, that’s the role I ended up taking. TripAdvisor is a really good company to work for.

The role is with Jetsetter, another sub-company of TripAdvisor, and it’s still software development, though I’m not managing a team anymore. Jetsetter, like Oyster, is a hotel review website, but they’re more focused on “travel inspiration” and at least traditionally a bit more of a luxury brand. I’m using different technologies (see below) and the team culture is somewhat different, but oddly enough I’m sitting only a few metres away from where I was before. So a substantial change, just not a geographical one. :-)

For the tech geeks among you: to date Jetsetter is mostly written in Scala and Node.js and React, and has a microservices approach on the backend. (In constrast, Oyster has an almost exclusively Python-based, monolithic backend.) I’m introducing some Python on the team with my first project, a new photo import system and image web server.

I’ve been with the new team for about a month now, and it’s been good so far!

In other news, I’ve signed up to teach a computer programming class at our homeschool co-op. It’ll be an hour every second Friday, starting in September, continuing for the full school year. I plan to do a few lessons on computing history and the basics of how computers work (binary, computer maths, what a programming language is), and then spend the rest of the year teaching basic programming skills while working on a project — a little computer game or website or some such. Franci will be sitting in on the class too, which is cool.

Thanks for listening, and signing off for now!

The new GiftyWeddings.com

Most of you know that I (this is Ben posting for a change) run a little wedding gift registry website called GiftyWeddings.com. It’s been going for almost eight years now, helping several couples every month create nice simple gift registries that aren’t tied to a particular store.

The design of the site was never exactly stellar (being designed by yours truly), but with bigger computer screens (and smaller phones!) it had started to look pretty dated:

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I do like old-school, but … it was definitely time for an update.

So I’ve spent the last couple of months of bus commutes rebuilding the site: a new design, new implementation, new server, and new payment system. Here’s what it looks like now:

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Complete with a fun photo of my wife going down a flying fox (zip-line) in her wedding dress.

So I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s an improvement. And the user interface is also significantly nicer, and works well on mobile phones — great for when your guests are out shopping for your wedding gift and want to cross an item off using their phone.

So if you know someone who’s getting married, please help our small, family-owned side business and point them to GiftyWeddings.com. :-)

If you’re of a nerdy bent and want to know what tools I used to build the new site, this list is for you:

I have good things to say about all those tools. React was new for me and a good experience. Stripe Checkout is an amazingly simple service to set up — highly recommended.

Please contact me if you have any feedback about the new site!

Lego Tower version 1

Marica and Esther and I (Ben) have been playing with Lego on Saturdays. Marica’s built up a decent collection of small Lego sets over the past several birthdays and Christmases, and building things with them is one of my favourite inside things to do with the kids.

Marica loves building sets from instructions, I enjoy building more free form stuff, and Esther likes playing with the stuff that’s been made. Each to his own. :-)

Last weekend we made a 15-story skyscraper, using a good portion of the straight Lego pieces we have. The footprint was an 8×8 square, and our “rules” were that each story had to be of the same colour, have at least one window, have a floor, and be at least five bricks high. Here are some photos Franci took:

The following week we added 7 more stories out of mixed colors (and didn’t necessarily have great floors), but unfortunately we didn’t take any photos of version 2 before it crashed to the ground from a child-induced earthquake.

A hobbit comes of age

As everyone knows — well, at least everyone who’s a fan of Tolkien — a hobbit comes of age at 33. I turned this ripe old age the other day, and had a fabulous party, mostly organized by Franci, my lovely hobbit-wife.

No Admittance Except on Party Business

We had some great, down-to-earth hobbit food cooked by Franci with some help from Lillian: loads of mushrooms (fried in butter), homemade bread rolls with “Beorn’s” creamed honey and butter, Mum’s meatloaf (“dwarvish meatloaf”), punch (“Miruvor”), ale from The Green Dragon, “Sauron’s eyeballs” deviled eggs, and lots of other yummy things I’m forgetting.

I wrote a little speech that kind of paralleled Bilbo’s speech at his “eleventy-first” birthday party (and Frodo’s 33rd). There were a couple of Lord of the Rings-based games and riddles.

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There was a small crowd of maybe 15 mostly from church and a couple from work. A few people even dressed up.

In true Hobbit-fashion, Franci and I organized and wrapped gifts for each of the guests (though there were no silver spoons).

Gifts for the guestsAll in all, a fun time! I highly recommend a Hobbit coming-of-age party for your next trend-setting event. :-)

 

Mr Rubik’s back

Marica and I went to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City last Saturday to see their new Rubik’s Cube exhibition, which was being opened by Ernő Rubik, the inventor of the cube. I own a cube, but still have no idea how to solve it…

Mr Rubik seemed like a fairly unassuming guy with a mild Eastern European accent. We are more or less celebrities by association now, as we got to see his back — he’s the guy in the blue shirt:

Erno Rubik's backFranci said, “At least you got a good photo of the paparazzi!” Well, I did also get this photo:

Erno Rubik's sideThe guy to the left of him is Anthony Brooks, a world-record “speedcuber”, who solved seven cubes in under a minute while we watched:

Anthony Brooks solving cubes

Reuters has a short article and video clip in case you’re interested in further info.

Marica wasn’t fussed on Mr Rubik and the crowds, but she did enjoy some of the rest of the exhibit, including “programming” a robot to follow a line:

Marica programming a robot

Marica by the fake cubeMarica in front of the giant cube