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:: Broiling in Vegas

"On behalf of the whole flight team here at Southwest, we thank you for flying with us to sunny Las Vegas. Have fun while you're here, but remember to drink water every chance you get because the current temperature outside is 114 degrees." Jesus. What am I doing back here in Vegas? Every time I find myself in this soulless overglorified truckstop I tell myself it'll be my last. Like always though, something came up. This time I'm here to present a paper at a half-baked conference on work I did with an intern of mine last summer. I don't know if the conference makes this trip better or worse.

As I step off the plane into the walkway that feeds you into the airport I'm reminded of just how hot 114 degrees really is. You can feel the heat radiating off the metal walls- it's like some hotbox they'd use at Guantanamo to cook confessions out of prisoners. Half way down the pipe I start hearing the slot machine chatter that is the inescapable voice of Las Vegas. The first time you visit this town the chatter sounds like opportunity, so cleverly broadcast through the city in a single rumbling voice. However, the more trips you make to this town, the more the chatter reminds you of the gurgling noise a hose on septic service truck makes, as people's souls are sucked out of their backs, one coin at a time.

I get my bags and walk outside into the shaded heat to catch a van to my hotel. The other riders in the van are excited to see what their respective hotels have to offer. At each hotel stop, our numbers become smaller, with the remaining riders sizing up the recently departed by the quality of their hotel. MGM? Well, someone has money. Excalibur? Ok, dungeon master. Hooters? How sleazy. My stop this week is New York, New York. Maybe my grumpy mood matches what the rest of the people on the van think of as New Yorkers. Heh.

While I've walked through it before, this is the first time I've actually stayed in the New York, New York hotel. On the outside they have small versions of famous NYC sites and make the hotel rooms look like they're part of the NYC skyline. The inside has movie-like versions of central park and the narrow streets of NYC. Walking through the twisty maze of NYNY's casino labrynth, I couldn't help but think that the whole thing really was a lot like NYC, just without the constant smell of urine. My room was pretty high up, facing towards the Vegas strip. In addition to a view of all the hopeless ant-like people streaming along the streets in 114 degree weather, my room has a fine view of the Coney Island rollercoaster that's been built on the roof of a lower building in the NYNY casino. As I would learn later on that night, the roller coaster goes by every ten minutes or so, until a little bit after midnight. I guess late night noise just adds to the NYC ambience.

Since my last visit, Las Vegas has finished its cross-town monorail. As a connoisseur of public transportation, I braved the heat and wandered across the street to try to find an enterance. It took a lot more walking than I thought was required, but I finally found the station and paid my $9 for a round-trip ticket. The ride was pretty awful, snaking along the backside of hotels and jotting around properties where the hotels did not want the monorail. Similar to other monorails, it was a shaky ride that made me wonder how structurally sound the whole thing was.

At the end of the ride was something that made this whole trip worthwhile. There, just before the exit turnstyles of the hot open-air station was a monorail security guard sitting on a stool. In order to make this outdoor job bearable, the guard had brought an air-conditioning window unit and placed it on the stool next to her. When she stood in just the right position, she'd be in this tiny stream of cool air while the rest of us suffered just a little bit more from the heat produced by the other side of the unit. It was a scene that perfectly captured the whole Las Vegas mentality, but one that I couldn't bring myself to take a picture of. Las Vegas, I've got to never come back here.

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:: Cutting Cable

Bills.. bills.. bills.. And not the kind that's known for losing the super bowl either. No, today I'm complaining about all of the monthly bills that have been clogging up the Noodles' mail box. Land-line phone with long-distance: $50. Cell phone with roll-over minutes: $40. Basic Cable TV: $15. Cable-based Internet: $45. Two-movie Netflix: $15. Pickle-of-the-month membership: etc.. While nothing really stands out as a bank-breaker (besides our mortgage), they all add up and make you feel like you're being nickle-and-dimed into middle-class oblivion.

Throw in the fact that there's a lot of service redundancy and it becomes even more annoying. Ideally, we'd ditch the land-line and switch to making all of our calls on the cell phone. However, Cingular doesn't get great coverage out here, so I often find myself standing outside whenever we're home and someone calls us on it. Another option would be voice over IP. However, I don't put much faith in the 911 handling of voip. Plus, we'd still be stuck with cable-based internet, which is the most bill we think is the most outrageous.

The lack of an obvious optimal solution has resulted in us doing nothing for quite some time. But then.. out of nowhere, the TV shows we watch on a regular basis (Lost and 24) all had their shocking season finales. Once those shows ended, it was clear that there wasn't going to be anything good on for several months. So.. we decided to take the plunge and cut cable service (TV and internet) all together. And that's why we haven't updated the web page in a long time. It's because we've adopted an Amish life style.

Ok, not really. We in fact ordered DSL Internet service through SBC/AT+T before the cable went away. The price was unbeatable for the area: they had a deal where it's $18/month for 1.5Mb/s DSL with free equipment. They also gave us three free months because we switched from cable. While cable was a little peppier (3Mb/s), we hardly even notice since we really don't move that much data these days.

I have to admit that living without cable tv has been kind of rough for me. You never know how addicted you are to something until it gets taken away. As a means of getting my tv fix, I've rigged up an indoor antenna that brings in about 10 fuzzy channels. Unfortunately, seven of those channels are in Spanish (Telemundo!) and one is in Korean. The one English channel that comes in really well is Action 36, which has a tendency to alternate between COPS and Tyra! reruns (no joke- they show two hours of back-to-back COPS every Monday night). I'd like to say that the endless COPS programming is a deterrent to watching TV, but like I said, I'm hooked. No, I don't watch more than a few minutes at a time, but I have to admit there's that spark of hope in the back of my mind that I'll turn on the tv at some point and there will be an episode where COPS is driving through my old neighborhood in Atlanta.

We'll see how long we can go without cable. I feel that my tv standards can't drop any lower, so maybe we can survive or learn how to live without it. Bah..

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:: Yosemite

Yosemite National Park. Check.

[ Blink blink blink goes the cursor in my editor. What exactly did we do there? Amy volunteers to write this one, if I agree to watch Benjamin for an hour. While tedious, watching Benjamin sounds a lot easier than writing, so Amy's taking this post. ]

So yeah.. after three years of living in California we finally made it out to Yosemite National Park. And not just us, but all four of our parents as well. We figured Benjamin needed to see all of his grandparents at once so he doesn't get them confused with each other later on.

Craig's dad found a really nice "cabin" (actually a fully-equipped house) on the far side of the park. It had 3 bedrooms so we all piled in together. We arrived around dinner time, so the first order of business was to drink several whiskey sours each. Well, Craig and Amy went easy on the booze, knowing Benjamin would be waking them up several times in the night, as well as bright and early the next morning. Hahaha. Guess who was hung over the next morning? Not Craig and Amy! Not Benjamin! It was then that somebody read the cabin's "high altitude orientation" pamphlet, which basically advised no alcohol for the first 24 hours, lots of water, and plenty of rest. It didn't mention whiskey and wine as recommended ways to adjust.

After a low-key breakfast, we all headed out to see the natural wonders we were supposedly surrounded by. Ever since moving to California, we had been hearing about how breathtakingly amazing the Yosemite Valley is. It's only 3 hours from Livermore, so we figured we would get out there one of these weekends. It turns out everyone was right, and Yosemite really is one of the most beautiful places we've ever seen. Why hadn't we come here sooner? Why are we such slackers?

We hit all the major sights that were accessible by very short hikes from the main road. Bridal Veil Falls, which was impressively torrential from the spring thaw, Yosemite Falls, an overlook of the whole valley, and various views of the mountains towering over us, including the ever-present Half Dome. We kept trying (with no success) to find rock climbers on the face of the cliffs with the zoom on our camera.

The second day we drove up to Glacier Point, which provided even more breathtaking views, this time from a very high altitude. We lingered at the two overlooks all morning. There's really not a good way to describe how impressive the valley is. We didn't want to leave, but after some restorative ice cream, we wound our way back down the mountain. After lunch at the cabin, we decided Benjamin needed some time to roll around on the floor and play, rather than continue being strapped into his car seat. So we stayed behind while the grandparents went to see what was yet another natural wonder, the giant redwoods of Mariposa Grove.

That night we had a very good dinner at the Mountain Room, which is the Park's second-nicest restaurant. We weren't completely at ease with the thought of taking a 6 month old to the Ahwahnee Dining Room, which is described as "the crown jewel of Yosemite dining." Yeah, not with a baby, no thanks! The Mountain Room was awesome, not too formal with great food.

The next morning we went our separate ways -- Craig's parents continued going north, on their way to Glacier National Park in Montana, while the rest of us made our way home. Maybe next we can all go to Hawaii together!

Amy thinks Benjamin is a more compelling sight
than the gorgeous panorama in front of her.

More pictures can be found in our Kodak Gallery. Check out Yosemite Day 1 and Day 2.

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:: S.F. Ferries

Amy's mom was in town and it was a beautiful day out, so we headed down to San Francisco to try something different- the bay ferries. The four of us (Amy, Benjamin, Amy's mom, and I) drove down to Jack London Square (near Oakland) and caught the ferry to Embarcaderro. The ride was a little chilly, but it was a lot of fun to arrive at the city by boat.

At Embarcaderro we caught the tail end of the morning's farmer's market and met up with Genevieve. While we were there, Frontier Airlines had a weird advertising thing to promote their new comfortable seats. A troop of six people dressed in airline seat costumes walked around and did a little dance while a flight attendant talked about how great their seats were. Occasionally the seats would walk up behind a kid and pretend like they were going to scoop them up. Oh yeah, and they'd swing their little armrests around as part of their dance. Weird.

After reviewing the ferry schedules at Embarcaderro, we realized that we needed to go down to fisherman's wharf if we wanted to go anywhere anytime soon. Fortunately, we'd bought the extra ($1) "short hop" tickets for the ferry to the wharf, so we didn't have to take a (packed) trolley. At fisherman's wharf, we waited around for a long time and then caught the ferry out to Tiburon (Tiburon is across the bay on the peninsula that the Golden Gate Bridge connects to, and is the town next to Sausalito).

Due to poor planning, we stranded ourselves in Tiburon for a long time. We thought we'd be able to just stay on the ferry and ride back without getting off at Tiburon, but that didn't work out and we were forced to hand around Tiburon for a couple of hours. Outside of a train museum, there wasn't that much to do in Tiburon, so we just found a cool spot in the shade and played with Benjamin.

The ferry finally came and picked us up (plus about a hundred bikers) for the trip back. We jumped ship at the wharf and climbed aboard a boat taking us back to Jack London Square. Overall, the ferries were a great way to kill some time around San Francisco (especially if it's warm outside). However, I think we'll spend a little more time plotting out ferry schedules before we set off next time.

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:: Weekend in L.A.

I've been jonsing to leave the house again, so for this Memorial day weekend we set our sites on Los Angeles. Why LA? Two reasons. First, my brother Todd was in Long Beach this week for a Lazers conference and had some free time at the end of the week. Second, we've been talking with Douglas and Diane on and off about a visit, and discovered that they were going to be free for parts of the weekend. The way schedules worked out this year, I also had both Friday and Monday off, so we set out late Thursday to see how far south we could make it.

It wasn't long into the drive that I began regretting a decision I had made earlier in the day to have the Golf's cracked windshield replaced. If you've never had your windshield replaced, they basically just pop the thing out and glue a new one in its place. Outside of a couple flimsy metal tabs, the expoxy is really the only thing keeping the windshield attached to your car. The reason why it wasn't such a bright idea to replace the windshield just before a long drive is that the epoxy takes a long time to dry and smells pretty bad. It wasn't all that threatening, but my child-raising instincts nagged at me the whole time- I kept thinking of scenarios where we'd all pass out and I'd drive the car off a cliff. I also kept worrying that the glue wasn't strong enough and the strong gusts of wind in the central valley were going to somehow blow the windshield off the car. Needless to say, I was happy when we finally pulled off of I-5 to stay at hotel for the night.

Friday morning we got up and joined the masses that were skipping out of work early to rush off on holiday. We made good time until we hit the edge of L.A., where everything came to a crawl. Unfortunately, our first destination was at the opposite end of L.A. in Long Beach, so we didn't have much choice but to endure it. We were able to cleverly jog around a long stretch of stalled traffic, thanks to Amy's navigation skills, but still, we didn't get to our hotel until 2pm. We got in touch with Todd and spent the afternoon walking around Long Beach. Later that evening Douglas and Diane drove all the way down from Glendale to hang out with us. While Amy had to stay back at the hotel to watch over Benjamin while he slept, the rest of us went to a restaurant on the water that was pretty happening. It was kind of interesting having three differnet national labs represented at the table- we all griped about lab politics and how lab life isn't what any of us thought it would be.

Saturday, Amy and I packed up and drove around LA somewhat aimlessly. It's always funny to be back in LA- I forget how big it is and how many roads and towns there are. We stopped off in Pasadena to see what's changed in the last 5 years. I barely recognized any of it, except Cal Tech and the downtown. It seems a lot more city-like now, but I think that's only because Livermore is so small. From there we headed over to Glendale and checked into the Hilton. The Hilton was pricey, but we figured that we might as well stay somewhere nice, now that we don't travel so much. They put us up high in a nice room, which was pretty nice. Douglas and Diane came over and we hung out by the pool for a while, and then went out to a restaurant way up in the hills. In accordance with LA laws, the restaurant had a good view so it only had to provide mediocre food. The views were worth it though- we took turns taking Benjamin outside to look at the valley's sprawl from above.

Sunday we met up with Douglas and Diane again for a picnic lunch in the park. Heh, we learned that while Amy and I had pretty much collapsed upon returning to the hotel, they had gone out to see a movie and have a snack. Oh yeah, we used to do stuff like that. It's amazing just how fast things change when you have a child.

Rather than drive back with everyone else, Amy and I hit the road on Sunday afternoon. We took the Coastal route back, since I-5 is so boring. Traffic was bad in LA so it took a long time to get going. We stopped in Santa Barbara to walk around and have dinner at a cool vegetarian co-op. The rest of the drive back was pretty rough- Benjamin really lost it while we were still a couple of miles from home. We stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere to get out and walk around. The lady working the counter was really nice and talked with us a while about kids. Funny how kids are this universal conversation starter. No matter how different people are, everyone seems to be the same when you start talking about raising kids. The stop calmed Benjamin down and made that last leg of the drive bearable.

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