Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What To Do In Asheville With Kids

An old shipmate of mine is coming into Asheville soon.  He asked for some recommendations for things to do with his two 3 1/2-year-old kids.  I checked with an expert (a friend of ours who has three small kids), combined them with my own recommendations, and thought I'd share them here.

Downtown Asheville.  Downtown is very walkable.  Most of the buildings date from the early 1900's to late 1920's and have been fixed up.  Tons of restaurants, coffee shops, stores, galleries, and so on, most of which are local and not chain stores.  The fun part is bounded, more or less, by I-240 on the north, O Henry Ave on the west, Patton Ave on the south, and N. Spruce on the east, with another nice bit on Biltmore Ave (Hwy 25) running a few blocks south of Pack Square.

Health Adventure (  It's right in downtown Asheville on Pack Square.  It's a participatory, hands-on, interactive, science-oriented place that explores health, biology, and physical sciences.  Lots of fun for kids.  Open 10-5.

Splasheville.  This is in Pack Square, next to the Health Adventure.  It shoots random jets of water in the air.  Kids can run around in it and get soaked.  Better bring some towels and dry clothes.  Read about it and some other water-oriented attractions at:

Carrier Park.  This used to be the old Asheville Speedway.  When it closed, the city turned it into a park, with a large playground, volleyball, basketball, picnic areas, nature walk, river overlooks, more.  Located at 220 Amboy Rd on the west side of Asheville.

WNC Nature Center (  This showcases the natural features of western North Carolina.  It includes a petting zoo.  You can see coyotes, bears, and other critters, too.  Located on the east side of Asheville; a bit hard to find but they have directions on the web site.

River Arts District (  This is where I used to have my studio.  It's the old industrial area along the French Broad River.  Most of the industry has moved out and been replaced by artists: painters, potters, woodworkers, sculptors, you name it, they're there.  There will be studios open - some are open 7 days a week, others catch-as-catch-can.  Some great places to eat down there, too: 12 Bones Barbecue (won a national competition on Good Morning America), the Clingman Cafe, and White Duck Tacos, to name three.  Plus a brewery.

Mountain Play Lodge (  It's an indoor play center located in Arden, just south of Asheville on Hwy 25.  

The Hop (  Homemade ice cream in sometimes strange but really good flavors.  The kids will probably go for vanilla or chocolate, but the adults can get things like salted caramel, nutella, avocado, mustard, or whatever the flavor of the day is.  Two locations, one on Haywood Rd. in west Asheville, the other a mile or two north of downtown on Merrimon.

Asheville's a great place and all the above just barely scratch the surface.  If you know of other cool things to do with kids, post a comment!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Messing with the Macs

One of the things on my "to-do" list before heading out of town is to get our two Macs in good shape.  That meant updating to the new Lion operating system, updating all our software, making sure the hardware is in good shape, and taking a few security precautions.  I am not a computer junkie - to me, they're a means to an end, not an end in themselves.  But just like cars, they need a bit of attention from time to time, and right now, it's time.

The first thing I did was to put a new backup drive on Janis's iMac.  Hers had died a while back and I'd been meaning to get around to replacing it but it never percolated to the top of the list.  I did a bit of research to find a good Mac-compatible drive, along with a place to buy one, and wound up getting a 1TB Western Digital "MyBook for Mac" on sale at our local Best Buy.  Plugged it in, turned it on, and it's working like a champ.  I've got a rugged little portable external hard drive for my MacBook that works just fine, so now both of our computers are safely backed up.

The next thing was to update to the new Lion operating system.  Now, Microsoft's handling of new OS's pretty much drove me out of the Windows community three years ago.  I got tired of getting buggy installations that crashed, acted weird, and needed new drivers or patches or whatever to run my old software and accessories.  It often took a lot of fiddling over a week or two before a new "update" would work correctly, and there were several times that I deleted the update in disgust and went back to the old system.  Apple's updates have all worked as advertised.  Install it, turn it on, and you're good to go.

This time, Lion is only available as a download.  And it's a 4GB download, which is a huge file, even on a DSL line.  We're talking maybe four hours.  So I started the download just before going to bed.  Next morning (yes, still with a bit of trepidation), I hit the "install" button.  After a few interactive screens, it started installing itself, and an hour later was done.  And it worked just fine.  I've noticed, though, that everything was a lot slower at first - a lot of waiting, watching the "spinning wheel of death" the first time a program was fired up, and so on.  After a few days, things get better.  Still, both of our computers feel like they're struggling with a lot more code than before, and normal operations are taking a bit longer.

As for new features, well, there are a lot, but we haven't used them much.  I gotta learn more of what they're about before I can take advantage of them.

One new feature that looks promising is FaceTime.  This is Apple's video chat feature from the iPhone and iPad.  The reason it looks promising is that it is designed to use a small bandwidth.  We already have Apple's iChat feature on our Macs, as well as Skype, which works on all kinds of computers, but both of those require a pretty good chunk of bandwidth.  When I was in Iraq, iChat never worked and Skype could be spotty.  I'm hoping that FaceTime will be more reliable when I head off to Afghanistan.

While doing all this computer tweaking, I also wanted to do something about security.  Macs have a reputation as being safer than PC's.  That's not really true - Macs are as vulnerable to intrusion as PC's, it's just that there are so many more PC's, the bad guys spend much more effort targeting them and leaving Macs alone.  But since I'm heading to A'stan, and we already know that bad guys target good guys in places like that, I wanted to be a bit better prepared.  After a bit of research, I discovered that there's a pretty capable malware protector called Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac.  Not only is it capable, but it's free.  I installed it and it did, indeed, find a bit of malware on my MacBook.  Found it and cleaned it up.  Janis's iMac was fine, though.

I also found a neat little app called Ghostery.  It sits in Safari and tells me who's tracking my visit to any given page.  Not only that, but it lets you determine which ones to block and which ones to allow.  For example, if I go to the CNN home page, there are six sites tracking me.  Four are for companies that provide or track advertising and two are for Facebook links.  I'm blocking all the advertising tracking and allowing the social media links.  Originally, I blocked everything, but then found that some sites, like Facebook, were acting screwy.  So I reset it.  Ghostery is a free application and available for PC's as well as Macs, so you can put it on your own web browser.

So now our computers are in pretty good shape.  I just need to learn more about what these new features are in Lion.  Maybe there's something really cool ...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Three Soldiers

Recently, I was asked to create portraits of three young soldiers for an Army officer.  She had commanded a company that ran supply convoys through Iraq in 2005 and 2006.  These three soldiers had been in her company when they were killed - two by an IED and one by a sniper.  She felt their loss every day and kept framed photos of them.  These portraits were meant to give her something a bit more personal.

Commemorative and posthumous portraits are extremely difficult to do.  Getting a good likeness is hard at best; getting a good likeness that has the inner character of the individual is harder.  Add in the pressures of getting it right when the subject is no longer around, and you have to work from other people's snapshots that have the wrong posing and lighting, and you have a major headache.  Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don't.  So I am normally not interested in doing such portraits.

This time, though, I wanted to do something for this officer to help her remember her three soldiers.  Based on previous experience, I decided to do them in ink with watercolor, rather than my usual oil on canvas.  The reason was that this allowed me to separate the drawing from color, which allowed me to get the shapes and features correctly positioned in relation to each other.  It also let me use a very loose drawing pen over the underlying pencil drawing, which gave the drawings a lot of liveliness.  Had I tried to do them in oil, each stroke would have defined both color and shape, which would have made it very difficult for me to tell what was wrong and how to fix it.  And "fixing" it would probably have worked out most of the life from each of the pictures.  I might still be working on them.

But the word I heard from the client is that these pictures have hit the mark.  I'm really glad - both from a professional standpoint of creating good, accurate portraits, and from the personal standpoint of helping a young officer remember her troops.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Afghanistan Bound

I have accepted an offer from the State Department to work in Afghanistan for a year.  The current plan (subject to change) is for me to go to Washington early next month for training, and then to head down range to my new assignment at the end of September.  I'll be working on a Field Engagement Team at one of the US or NATO bases.  I don't know which team yet, and even if I did, it would probably change before I got there.  These teams are made up of representatives from State, Defense, and various other departments.  Their mission is to work with local officials and businesses to improve local conditions.

You might think I'm nuts, but I'm very excited about this opportunity.  Why would anybody be excited about going someplace that is medieval at best and a dangerously hot war zone at worst?  Well, for some of  the same reasons that people have volunteered to go to Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, or other trouble spots.  It's a chance to do something that makes an important difference to people's lives.  It's an opportunity to participate in something much bigger than my own puny concerns.  It's a national mission that has to be successful, for their sake and ours.  And it's a difficult job that not many people can or would do, but it's one that I have the skills and experience for.

To be honest, going to Afghanistan was not my first choice.  When I began my job search back in January, I focused on the US, particularly Asheville (where we now live), San Diego (where we have family and friends), and Washington, DC (which is the only place in the country with a strong economy).  I wrote about my initial thoughts in a blog post in February and then in periodic updates after that.  But while I found lots of interesting opportunities in the US, I never got so much a phone interview.  Even though I had a lot of positive comments about my resume, and even when I could show solid accomplishments in everything listed in the job qualifications, I heard nothing except the occasional "job's been filled", "we're reviewing your qualifications", or "no, thanks".  To say it was frustrating is an understatement.

But early on, I started applying for jobs in Afghanistan.  Why?  Well, frankly, I wanted to do something more important than just make money for some corporation, and while there were some great opportunities to make a contribution in the US, there weren't that many of them.  The vast majority of openings that I could reasonably apply for were to fundamentally help some company make a profit.  There's nothing wrong with that, and it could be argued that making a profit is what America is all about.  But just making a profit has never excited me, which is probably why I never did as a professional artist.  Instead, I needed something that provided a deeper meaning and purpose.  The mission in Afghanistan not only did that, but it's something that I'm qualified to do.

And it was Afghanistan that finally came through for me.  After months of hearing nothing back from my job applications, suddenly four organizations contacted me within two weeks.  Each had a very different mission in Afghanistan and all of them were very cool.  I decided to work with the Field Engagement Team in large part because it was a front-line mission.  Although the other positions paid more, they were all support roles.

I can't say Janis is excited about my going away again, but she's a trooper.  We've been through long deployments before, including my previous year and a half in Iraq, so we know what to expect.  She'll do well.

So I'm getting ready to deploy one more time.  I've filled out a ton of forms already, am fixing things around the house, making lists of things to be done in the next month and sometimes actually checking things off of it.  It feels good to have something to work toward.