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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!

Six months of Comcast

Posted on August 3rd 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Television

We’ve had Comcast cable TV and internet now for six months. When we moved here in February earlier this year, I signed up for Comcast’s 6-month promotion for their cheapest TV package and 16 mbps internet speed for $69 per month. There are actually some surcharges to that and the total costs are around $90 per month ($9 for the HD box, $3 for the cable modem, etc).

I find that Comcast can be very unclear about their pricing structure. I’ve called them a couple of times asking what the regular price will be after these first six months and got different answers. The monthly bills I receive are just hilariously complicated; the first one in February was completely wrong and even the Comcast person on the phone did not understand what was meant with the different figures and charges listed. Unlike Dish Network, which clearly states in their ads what the promotional price and regular price is, with Comcast you really need to dig and read fine print to find out what the regular price will be after your promotion ends. It’s all very sneaky. It turns out that starting this month our monthly Comcast bill would go up to about $135.

That’s really too much. We hardly watch any TV besides the basic local channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, etc) which are free with antenna (and in crystal clear HD too). We get about 100 channels in our Comcast TV package and only watch a handful of them. In fact, there are some I’d really like to have but those are not included. I’d like to have SyFy Channel and NASA TV, but those are in the next package up, with 70 more channels. I really wish one could just pick the channels you wanted and pay for those. I refuse to pay an additional $20 per month just to get SyFy and NASA. NASA TV especially should be included; it’s a public channel paid for by taxpapers and you can even watch it for free online!

I’ve read a few times that you can call Comcast and negotiate about the price. I can’t believe this is common practice here in the United States. I’ve haggled on the price of souvenirs in Egypt and India, but never on that of my cable television bill. But apparently it’s quite normal to call your TV provider here, tell them you will leave if they don’t lower your monthly costs and they’ll give you an offer. I called them this morning and told them that I wanted to cancel my TV package and just have internet. Immediately they had another promotion to offer that I could take advantage of. For just $69 per month I can continue to have the same TV and internet service for the next 12 months. With surcharges this comes down to the same price I’ve been paying per month. It’s not really an option to cancel TV and keep internet, because that would be about the same price. It’s really a ‘buy one get one free’ deal. *sigh*

So now we’ll have Comcast for another 12 months and I’ll have to watch my SyFy shows online. Not all shows are available online for free, but I’ve figured that buying those that are not free is still cheaper than paying for the next package at Comcast. Comcast really needs get their act together. More and more people are canceling their cable TV since websites like Hulu are offering TV shows online. I would pay Comcast the same for less channels if I could pick which ones I wanted. I know it should be possible technically, they’re just trying to hang on to the old ways for as long as they can.

200th Birdorable!

Posted on July 30th 2009 by Arthur in Birds

We started Birdorable.com almost three years ago and in this time have created 200 different cute birds, from Abyssinian Lovebird to Zebra Finch. The birds are available on thousands of different products. The first dozen birds we cutified were American backyard birds, like the Cardinal and Blue Jay, and almost all the others since have been requested by people visiting the website. For the last 17 days we’ve been having a Birdorable Bonanza leading up to the 200th bird, adding a new one every day. Today we finally added our 200th bird: the Dodo. To see all our 200 birds visit our Meet the Birds page.

Each time we publish a new bird I take a photo of its natural surroundings and put the Birdorable in it. Here’s a list of the last 17 pictures I made for each post on our Birdorable blog leading up to the Dodo:

184: Scarlet Ibis

Cute Birdorable Scarlet Ibis

More »

Foto Friday: Waiting for a band

Posted on July 24th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Forest Preserves, Foto Friday, Illinois, Nature

Can you guess what’s in the bags hanging in this tree?

Bird bags hanging in a tree

Those bags have different birds inside them, ready to be banded. There’s Common Yellowthroat, Bluebirds, Song Sparrows and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Doesn’t it look a little surreal?

We visited a group of bird banders last Tuesday morning at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve and observed their work for a couple of hours. They told us about bird banding and showed us how they handle and band the birds. They had ten mist nets set up that they use to catch birds and every half hour they walked past all the nets to take out the birds that got caught. After carefully removing each bird from the net it was put in a little bag and then hung in this tree until they were ready for banding. It was an interesting experience.

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat

Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow

Bird banders at work
Bird banders at work

Celebrating Apollo 11: An Evening with Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell

Posted on July 23rd 2009 by Arthur in Chicago, Illinois, Space

Yesterday we spent the day in Chicago to visit the Adler Planetarium and see legendary Apollo and Gemini astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell at a special event organized by the museum. We had a great time and even got to shortly meet Buzz Aldrin in the end as he signed our copy of his new autobiography Magnificent Desolation.

Adler's Apollo celebration poster
Poster for the Apollo 11 Celebration at Adler Planetarium with the famous picture of Buzz Aldrin on the moon with Neil Armstrong and the lunar module reflected in his visor

We took the 7:38am train from Round Lake Beach and arrived at Chicago’s Union Station at 8:55. Here we took bus 130 to the Museum Campus where we spent the rest of the morning and better part of the afternoon at the Adler Planetarium. The last time we had been here was about 10 years ago, and a lot of the exhibits had changed since. There’s a nice new exhibit about the Apollo program called Shoot for the Moon that tells the story of astronaut Jim Lovell’s life and career using artifacts from his personal collection. It even includes the fully-restored Gemini 12 spacecraft flown by Captain Lovell and Buzz Aldrin in 1966, which is on long-term loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

Jim Lovell's artifacts
Jim Lovell’s helmet and glove. Note the glove has a little booklet attached to it with instructions about the extravehicular activities the astronaut was supposed to perform on the moon, but unfortunately it was never used because Apollo 13 never made it to the moon

Shoot for the Moon was closed for the public for a short time in the morning and in the afternoon as Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell were visiting. We did not get to see them there, but that was okay as we were going to see them in the evening anyway. After the museum we walked to Shedd Aquarium and took a Shoreline Sightseeing water taxi to Navy Pier where we had dinner at Capi’s Italian Kitchen.

The special event with the astronauts took place starting at 7pm at the Thorne Auditorium of Northwestern University, just north of Navy Pier. We walked there and there was already a huge line outside when we arrived at 6:15pm. Unfortunately it was not allowed to take pictures during the interview but everyone started to take pictures when it was over so we quickly took this one:

Jim Lovell's artifacts
From left: moderator Craig Nelson, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell

The two astronauts were on stage talking about their experiences in the Gemini and Apollo programs. They received a huge applause from the 800 people in the auditorium when they arrived and a standing ovation when they left. The interview was moderated by author Craig Nelson (Rocket Men) and lasted about 90 minutes. Questions that had been gathered from the audience were read and answered too.

It was wonderful to see the two American heroes in person and afterward Buzz Aldrin was available to sign his new book Magnificent Desolation.

Buzz Aldrin signing books

The interview ended at about 8:30pm and people poured out of the auditorium to stand in line for Buzz’s book signing in the hall, where a table had been set up. I think that they underestimated the number of people interested in the signing as it was a bit of a chaos to get everyone organized into an orderly line, which eventually extended to well outside onto the street. We were toward the end of the line and people there were getting worried that it would take hours to get through the line and that Buzz may not stay that long. A couple of the organizers came outside to reassure people that Buzz knew how long the line was and that he personally guaranteed that everyone who wanted to get a signature would get one, even if you have multiple books to sign. That was nice!

It actually went pretty fast and within an hour we were there. Buzz was signing very quickly and was not doing any personalizing. When it was my turn I thanked him profoundly and told him what an honor it was. He looked up, smiled at me and moved on to the next book. He is without a doubt the coolest person I have ever met in person. He was the second person to walk on the moon, which is probably the highest achievement of mankind.

Here I am proudly displaying my signed book before we ran to catch our train:

Signed book

We Choose the Moon

Posted on July 14th 2009 by Arthur in Illinois, Space, Websites & Tools

July 16th will mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, culminating in Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to step foot on the moon on July 20th in 1969. To commemorate this historic event, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum has set up an incredibly cool online experience which allows you to track the Apollo 11 mission from pre-launch to lunar touchdown. You can visit the website at wechoosethemoon.org where you can see that the pre-launch is already underway:

Screenshot of We Choose the Moon.org

As part of the Apollo 11 celebration, former NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell will be at Northwestern University in Chicago on July 22nd for an evening discussion reflecting on their careers in space. We got two tickets for this event, which you can order here. Buzz Aldrin, of course, was the second man to set foot on the moon on Apollo 11, and Jim Lovell became most famous as the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which suffered an explosion on its way to the moon but was brought back safely to Earth. It’ll be interesting and exciting to see these two legendary astronauts in real life next week. Aldrin will also be signing copies of his new book, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.