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Getting tickets for the next Space Shuttle launch

Posted on October 21st 2009 by Arthur in Space

Yesterday morning at 8:00am CT launch viewing ticket for the next Space Shuttle launch went on sale. We tried this back in June when I managed to get causeway tickets but we drove to Florida just to find out that STS-127 had been scrubbed. For so long I’ve wanted to see a Space Shuttle launch, and with only six more launches left (the last Space Shuttle mission is in September 2010) we decided to try again for the next one on November 16th.

The NASA causeway is the best place to view a launch. It’s still six miles from the launch pad, but it’s an unobstructed view and it’s the closest they let regular people watch (the press and NASA people get to watch from three miles away). The number of tickets is limited and they are known to sell out fast. We were ready yesterday morning refreshing the order page on the Kennedy Space Center website a few minutes before 8:00am. On my screen I had a window open with an atomic clock to know exactly what time it was. At 7:59:50am the “Buy” button appeared on the order page. Amy and I, each on our own computer, immediately tried to buy two tickets, but no luck. It immediately said “Sold Out”.

Oh no, how can these tickets be sold out in a matter of seconds? We didn’t believe this and figured there must be a problem with the website. For the next few minutes we kept refreshing the page and trying to add the tickets to our shopping cart, but each time we got “Sold Out” . Then all of a sudden I got through and got a form to enter my details. Whoo-hoo! A clock at the top of the page started counting down; you have 8 minutes to complete the order and then the tickets will be made available to other people again. I had already put all my address and payment details in a Notepad so all I had to do was paste them into the form. When I was done and clicked the button to confirm my order I suddenly got the “Sold Out” error. Drats!

By this time it was about 8:10am and I knew for sure now that there was a problem with the website. After all, I should have had 8 minutes to complete the order! I decided to try and give them a call while Amy continued to refresh the page on her computer. I kept getting a busy signal for about 10 minutes and then finally got through. I pressed “2” for information about Shuttle launches, then “3” to order tickets only to be told that they’re experiencing a high volume of calls right now and please try again later. What? I finally got through and then they hang up on me? I hung up and tried dialing again and again and again. Each time it was busy and every 20 tries or so I got through but was hung up again.

At 8:30am or so the website homepage finally said that all tickets were sold out and I still hadn’t been able to talk to anyone on the phone. I found a Tweet from someone that said “DO NOT TRY the website. Call them instead.” and on the Facebook page of Kennedy Space Center some people were having a discussion about the website problem and some said they had just been able to order tickets by phone. So I didn’t want to give up.

I figured out that after being told to hang up I could press “0” to return to the main menu and try it again without having to dial again. Hey, that was handy. I went through this maybe fifty times: 2, 3 .. told to hang up .. 0, 2, 3 … told to hang up .. 0, 2, 3 … etc. FINALLY I got through and was put on hold. I was going to speak to the next available rep. By this time it was 8:45am and I didn’t have any hope that tickets were still available, but at the very least I wanted to find out if my online order from earlier had gone through.

After 5 minutes of waiting I finally got to speak to someone. She said that they still had tickets left! But only “dine with an astronaut” tickets. These tickets are $20 more expensive and you get to have breakfast with a real astronaut in the morning before you take the bus to the causeway to see the launch. Well, I didn’t have to think twice about that! Of course, gimme two of those! I gave all my details over the phone and that was it.

Wow, that was a stressful one hour of trying to get these tickets yesterday morning. I never received a confirmation by email yesterday, so this morning I called them again (got through right away this time) and they confirmed that we’re in the system and the tickets will be mailed to us on November 2nd. I’m so looking forward to going to Florida again and really hope the launch won’t be scrubbed this time. Keep your fingers crossed!

STS-125 Clears the Tower

Good backyard bird week

Posted on October 17th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Illinois, Life in America, Nature

We’ve had a good week for backyard birding. Not only did the White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos return for the winter, we also had five new song birds! Since we moved to this house in February we’ve been keeping track of all the birds we’ve seen in our backyard. This week we added five new species.

It started last Monday with a Yellow-rumped Warbler that was hanging out in the back and the next day Amy spotted the first Chipping Sparrow at our feeder. On Wednesday we heard a thump against the window and found a little Golden-crowned Kinglet laying on the roof, knocked out. We picked it up and put it in a box in a warm place. A half hour later it started to scratch around in the box so we let it out in the backyard. The kinglet immediately flew to our tallest tree and we watched it for a while as it was flitting around the tree top looking for bugs. Yesterday we saw our first Red-breasted Nuthatch flying back-and-forth between a feeder and a tree and just a few minutes later a Ruby-crowned Kinglet was hopping around the big tree where we had earlier seen the recuperated Golden-crowned.

Wow, that makes 30 different species in our yard so far! I never guessed we’d get so many in our suburban neighborhood! Especially the beautiful warbler and kinglets were a huge surprise. We’ve also been seeing a Cooper’s Hawk almost every day, terrorizing our song birds. Last week we saw him eat a House Sparrow and Amy caught it on video (gruesome!). He likes to sit on the lightest slat of our fence, which is the same color has himself, so he blends right in.

Here’s our complete backyard species list:

  1. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (16 October 2009)
  2. Red-breasted Nuthatch (16 October 2009)
  3. Golden-crowned Kinglet (14 October 2009)
  4. Chipping Sparrow (13 October 2009)
  5. Yellow-rumped Warbler (12 October 2009)
  6. House Wren (3 August 2009)
  7. Blue Jay (31 May 2009)
  8. Northern Flicker (25 May 2009)
  9. Red-tailed Hawk (24 May 2009)
  10. Ring-billed Gull (19 May 2009)
  11. Baltimore Oriole (18 May 2009)
  12. Common Grackle (6 May 2009)
  13. White-crowned Sparrow (6 May 2009)
  14. Tree Swallow (May 2009)
  15. Brown-headed Cowbird (April 2009)
  16. Common Starling (30 March 2009)
  17. American Tree Sparrow (30 March 2009)
  18. Downy Woodpecker (20 March 2009)
  19. American Robin (18 March 2009)
  20. Song Sparrow (15 March 2009)
  21. Red-winged Blackbird (15 March 2009)
  22. American Crow (March 2009)
  23. Northern Cardinal (15 March 2009)
  24. House Sparrow (12 March 2009)
  25. Mourning Dove (6 March 2009)
  26. House Finch (6 March 2009)
  27. Black-capped Chickadee (3 March 2009)
  28. Cooper’s Hawk (March 2009)
  29. Dark-eyed Junco (26 February 2009)
  30. American Goldfinch (22 February 2009)

Blue Jay

We need a tax on plastic bags

Posted on September 30th 2009 by Arthur in Environment, Life in America

I’ve been living here now for just over a year, and I can’t believe the amount of plastic that is being used, especially at grocery stores. We usually bring our own reusable bags when we go shopping, but 99 out of 100 other people don’t, at least not where we shop. Even gallons of milk, with a perfectly fine handle to carry, are often double-bagged (or triple!) because the cashier or bagger thinks the milk is too heavy for just one bag. It doesn’t even occur to them that the customer could just as well carry the jug by its handle. The other day we went to K-Mart to buy a six-pack of half liter bottles of Coke for our road trip. The pack had a beautiful strong handle to carry them, but the cashier still tried to double-bag them before we stopped her. What a waste!

Sometimes it’s even impossible to not use the plastic bags. Many grocery stores have baggers at the end of every register that start bagging your stuff before you have a chance to hand them your reusable bag. And places like K-Mart and Walmart often have one of those carousels full of plastic bags at every register that cashiers drop the stuff in, making it impractical to use your own reusable bag because there’s simply no space to put it.

Pile of plastic bags

According to, the people of this planet use over 500,000,000,000 (500 billion) plastic bags annually, or almost 1 million per minute! One million new bags a minute?! That’s hard too imagine. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States alone uses 100 billion annually, which cost the country an estimated 12 million barrels of oil to produce.

When we lived in Holland we would occasionally drive down to France to do some grocery shopping for things we couldn’t normally get, at mega supermarkets like E. Leclerc or Carrefour. Until a few years ago they were using plastic bags everywhere. They would give you a hundred for free if you wanted to, packing just a few items in each bag. Every family was leaving their local supermarché‎ with their purchased goods in a ton of plastic bags. Then all of a sudden the government passed a law to tax plastic bags. The next time we visited the country every single French shopper was carrying their re-usable bags into the store. It was an amazing transformation, but it was like it had never been any different. It is that easy!

Back in 2001, Ireland was the first nation to tax plastic bags as a way to stop them from littering the countryside. Before the tax, every Irish man, woman and child would use an average of 300 bags per year, a total of 1.2 billion per year for the country. Besides generating more than $175m for the government, the 7-year-old tax has reduced the country’s use of disposable bags by 90%. Apparently that is not yet enough, because this week the Irish government announced it is doubling its tax from 22 euro cents to 44 cents per bag.

France and Ireland are not the only countries that are taking measures to push consumers to use more eco-friendly products. Belgium enacted a “picnic” tax in 2007, which includes saran wrap and aluminum foil. Earlier this year, even China banned stores from giving out free plastic bags!

Obama promised change and the environment is among his to priorities. So what about a federal tax on plastic bags, or at least encourage states to implement one? Sure, in the beginning people will be outraged, but before they realize they’ll be walking from their car to their local Piggly Wiggly with a nice reusable shopping bag. We’ll save millions of barrels of oil each year and 100,000s of sea turtles too.

Grass police

Posted on September 29th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America

The house across the street from us has been empty since we moved in here. Every two weeks or so a landscaping company, hired by the owner, comes by to mow the grass. We noticed that the last few times they forgot to remove some weeds in front of the garage, and those are now a couple of feet tall. No big deal, you hardly notice it.

This morning there was a white truck, with the text “Code Department” on the side, parked in front of the house. The driver was straining his neck looking at the house while taking notes. The man stepped out of his truck with a measuring stick and walked around taking pictures of the weeds while holding the stick next to them.

1832 lawnmower

I like a nicely manicured and landscaped lawn, it looks beautiful, but is it any business of the city to tell people how long their grass should be? Now, if my neighbor had piles of garbage on his lawn, was playing loud music late at night or had a hemp farm in his backyard, those are things the police should write a ticket for … but grass that is a few inches too long? Come on!

When we moved here in February we went to the City Hall to ask if there was any information they had for us, about garbage pick-up and things like that. There was nothing. Actually, all they gave us was a newsletter from 2007. I had no idea there was a grass ordinance like this. I just checked their website and indeed grass in our community may not be taller than 8 inches (20 cm).

A couple of weeks ago our neighbor came to borrow our lawnmower because his had just broken down and he claimed that the ‘police’ had told him that morning to mow his lawn or get a fine the next day. I didn’t believe him about the police until today. The neighbor’s grass didn’t seem that long at all! Maybe some patches were slightly over 8 inches, but to fine him for that? Come on!

Slightly longer grass is actually better for the environment. Besides the obvious reason that using your gas-powered lawnmower less often saves gas, longer grass also requires less watering as moisture is reserved in the leafs and it provides a natural habitat for insects, worms and other food for birds.

I understand people want to live in a neat Wisteria Lane-type neighborhood with perfect lawns, but it seems a bit ridiculous to give out fines for having grass that is a bit too long.

Day at the Field Museum

Posted on September 26th 2009 by Arthur in Chicago, Illinois, Museums

Today we spent the day at The Field Museum in Chicago. It had been a while since we had been to this excellent museum. One of the reasons we went today was to see a lecture by author Glen Chilton on his new book about Labrador Ducks. Amy wrote some more about this here.

Field Museum
Main Hall of the museum

Field Museum
Me in front of the display of T-Rex Sue

Rocky Mountain NP, 5 years ago

Posted on September 10th 2009 by Arthur in Travel

Five years ago today we were in Estes Park on our roadtrip to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. We stayed in a cottage at Tiny Town (now apparently called Trout Haven Ranch Cabins) and spent the day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Tiny Town Cottages, Estes Park CO
Tiny Town Cottages, Estes Park

Chasm Falls
Chasm Falls on Fall River Road

Stellar's Jay
A Stellar’s Jay

View from Trail Ridge Road
View from Trail Ridge Road

Alpine Visitor Center
Alpine Visitor Center

Elk seen from Alpine Visitor Center
Herd of elk seen from Alpine Visitor Center

Drop on leaf

Rocky Mountain National Park

On our drive back to Estes Park it suddenly started snowing. The sky darkened while the mountains were still illuminated from the low sun …

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Hummingbird Festival

Posted on September 3rd 2009 by Arthur in Birds

Last Saturday we visited the Hummingbird Festival at Camp Sagawau. We learned about hummingbirds, watched how they capture them for banding and we saw a bander at work. Amy posted about the event on her birding blog: I was a migrating hummingbird, Capturing fast fliers, Tools for banding a hummingbird and Hummingbird groupies.

Hummingbird banding

First American Summer

Posted on August 30th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America

I can’t believe we’ve almost lived here for a whole year already. Last year at this time our house in Leiden was almost empty and we were just a few weeks away from our big move across the Atlantic. The last 11 months have gone so fast! I am really enjoying our first year here in Illinois. The winter was the coldest I’ve ever experienced, and this summer is the warmest and sunniest summer I’ve ever had.

You wouldn’t think so from the weather reports, though … when you watch the news all they do is complain about what a crappy summer we’re having. Last night the weatherman said that it’s been “chilly for the last three months”. Okay, July may have been the coldest July in 67 years, with an average temperature of 68.9°F (20.5°C), but I wouldn’t call it chilly.

For someone who is used to the cloudier, wetter and cooler weather in the Netherlands, this summer has been great so far. What I love most is all the sunshine! Chicago gets about 2,500 hours of sunshine each year, compared to 1,500 in Holland. Unfortunately the days are much shorter here (sunset is about 90 minutes earlier here in summer), but in those shorter days you get much more sunshine. Whole weeks go by here without seeing a single cloud, and when there are clouds they seem much higher up in the sky than in Europe. I guess it has something to do with the higher elevation here. In any case, less rain and less clouds is great.

Another thing I like about the weather here is that it is so predictable. Don’t laugh, I’m serious! Meteorologists can see low-pressure systems coming from thousands of miles away as they approach Chicago, usually from the west. As a result, rain forecasts can be very accurate. I’m used to much more unpredictable weather in the Netherlands, due to the effect of the sea on the climate there. It’s so nice to know when it’s going to rain! For instance, they’ll say that it will rain from 1pm to 3pm, and sure enough at 3pm the skies clear and out comes the sun. They don’t always get it right, of course, but most of the time they do.

We had a lot of bugs in our small backyard in Leiden, spiders and slugs mostly. I’m not a big fan of bugs – actually I hate bugs – but there’s a few here that I think are pretty cool. First of all there’s the crickets. I can’t believe how loud they are! We live in a suburb north of Chicago, but sitting here with my window open and the chorus of crickets outside you’d think we’re somewhere in the Amazonian jungle. It’s incredible these little guys can make such loud sounds, but I haven’t minded so far. I think they’re pretty funny actually. Whenever we stop talking and hear the crickets outside I have the feeling that one of us just told a bad joke. We started watching season 9 of Frasier this week and there was one episode where Martin brings a cricket into Frasier’s apartment, which drives him mad. I never heard of such a thing, but apparently it happens and I can imagine now how annoying that would be. I hope our crickets will stay outside.

We’ve also had some lightning bugs (aka fireflies) in our yard a few times. I haven’t seen any lately, but around dusk they light up like fireworks, it’s very neat. I saw my first firefly in June when we were in Alabama driving back from NASA. There were thousands of them on the side of the road, it was gorgeous. They’re now my favorite bug!

We’ve been doing a lot of outside activities this summer, walking, canoeing and biking, enjoying the extra sun, warmer temperatures and less rain than we’d been used to. It has been a bit cooler the last few days, but the forecast this week is sunny every day with temperatures of about 70°F (21°C) to 75°F (24°C). That’s perfect weather if you ask me! I hope we’ll still have a few nice months before the cold winter starts and it’s time to get out the shovels and skis. These extreme seasons sure are fun! :)

Craziest Thing I’ve Ever Seen: Advertising on the Moon

Posted on August 9th 2009 by Arthur in Craziest Things I've Ever Seen, Space

Moon Publicity is selling 44 regions of the visible side of the moon to place huge letter advertising to be created with rovers. Robots will be used to create several small ridges in the lunar dust over large areas that capture shadows and shape them to form logos, domains names or memorials. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen!

This must be a prank. It would just be a dumb idea because: 1. the moon has an uneven surface, so good luck making straight letters; 2. it would cost billions of dollars to send up enough robots to finish the job, 3. It would take ages to finish it (Spirit and Opportunity have been on Mars for 6 years and have only traveled a combined 15 miles, and the diameter of the moon is 3,474 miles), 4. the letters would be too small and faint to read from Earth and 5. it would ruin the moon forever … so many people would be against it that I doubt any sensible company would be willing to spend billions on this advertising stunt.

Comcast billing is SO hinky!

Posted on August 6th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Television

It seems that I only write about bad things on this blog, but I have another rant about Comcast I just have to write here. A few days ago I signed up for another 12-month promotion to get Comcast TV and Internet for $85 per month. If I hadn’t called Comcast, our monthly cable costs would have gone up to $135, which is the regular price.

Today I received my statement for the next period and the total amount due is $135. Obviously, I thought that this was the regular price and the promotion hadn’t kicked in yet, but upon closer inspection it does have the promotion price, but there is a mysterious $50 surcharge for internet installation. Why are they charging me $50 for installation when 1. we’ve had internet at this address for six months and 2. installation is free; we didn’t pay anything for installation six months ago! It’s like they ‘accidentally’ put in the $50 to bring the total amount to what I would have paid if I hadn’t signed up for the new promotion, just to see if I was paying attention. The exact same thing happened a few months ago when my bill was completely wrong. I had paid too much the month before, but to level it out in the next bill they put in a bogus deposit amount just to make the total amount be exactly like the previous amount’s balance. Talk about creative accounting!

I just called Comcast and they acknowledged the mistake and I only need to pay $85 this month. Will I get a new statement? No, they can’t do that.

You really have to pay attention with these guys. I signed up for automatic payments for all our other monthly bills, but Comcast is the only company I don’t trust and I continue to pay them manually each month. If you have Comcast, check your bills and make sure they are not screwing you too!