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Home Christmas Lights Synchronized to Music

Posted on December 24th 2010 by Arthur in Funny, Life in America

The other night we drove to Kenosha WI to see a house with lights synchronized to music. There’s a sign in the front yard that tells you what FM frequency to listen to in your car so that you can listen along to the songs. The house we visited (at 6834 106th Ave in Kenosha WI) had over 25,000 lights programmed to 30 different songs. I thought it was hilarious and very nicely done. I had never seen anything like it, but there are apparently a few more people across the country who do this.

Below is my video of the house in Kenosha (sorry, it’s a bit shaky), followed by other ones I found on YouTube:

The next house is in Pleasant Grove, Utah (more info):

This house in O’Fallon MO has a lot of videos that you can see here (more info):

The following house is in Round Rock TX (more info):

This house with over 80,000 lights is in Sawyer MN:

This one is from Providence Village TX (more info):

Here’s a classic video that has been making the rounds on YouTube for over 5 years. This house is in Mason, Ohio:

80’s Weekend at McHenry Outdoor Theater

Posted on September 18th 2010 by Arthur in Chicago, Life in America, Movies

It’s 80’s Weekend at the “C” You At The Movies outdoor theater in McHenry IL this weekend and last night we saw The Goonies and Back to the Future, a double feature! We arrived at 6:30pm when the gates opened and found a nice place next to a speaker pole. In the next hour the place filled up with cars. Many people took out chairs and sat outside their vehicle while others pulled in backwards and sat in the back of their car, or on top in case of trucks. It had been at least ten years since we went to a drive-in theater and it was a lot of fun.


Top view from Google Maps, with the screen in the upper-left

McHenry Outdoor Theater
Back of the screen

McHenry Outdoor Theater

McHenry Outdoor Theater

McHenry Outdoor Theater

McHenry Outdoor Theater

McHenry Outdoor Theater

What’s wrong with American bikes?

Posted on September 4th 2010 by Arthur in Life in America, Shopping & Stuff

A lot of things are bigger and better in America, but in my opinion bicycles are not among them. We’ve been looking around to buy a new bike, since we didn’t bring our old ones when we moved here from the Netherlands, but unfortunately bikes here are nothing like the sturdy and useful bikes that millions of Europeans use daily to shop and go to work. No wonder everyone drives a car around here!

First of all, it seems that 99% of bikes being used and new ones sold in stores are too small for adults. Only a small amount of the more expensive bikes have larger frames that seem the right size for adults, but most of the mountain, hybrid, urban and cruisers have quite low seats compared to the average European bike. Also, the steering wheel is often at the same level as the seat, causing you to be hunched forward all the time, and you can often move the steering wheel up only a tiny bit. I find it very uncomfortable to be on a small bike and leaning forward for a long time.

Sure, people here don’t use their bike for shopping and going to work. Most use their bike for exercise, so I understand that many people prefer a sportier and lighter bike. But what I don’t understand is why the bikes lack so many basic features. Here’s a typical bike you’ll find at a bike store:

American bike

As you can see, it is stripped down: there is are no lights, fenders, chain cover, lock or racks. These are accessories you can purchase, but most people don’t and leave the store with a bike that looks just like this. Why? Do people enjoy getting mud on their butt when they go through a puddle? Is it fun to get grease all over your pants from the exposed chain? I don’t get it.

Stores do have fenders, covers and racks for sale, but they seem very light and simple compared to the accessories that come standard with European bikes. And not all models can have these accessories installed. The chain covers that are sold separately are always just a simple piece of metal that doesn’t cover the entire chain, leaving the rest exposed to the elements. And most racks are tiny and can’t handle much weight.

Compare above American bike with a typical Dutch bike:

Dutch bike

On this bike, which is sold like this, the chain is completely covered, there’s a sturdy back rack that can hold a lot of weight, the tires are covered with fenders, there are lights on both sides, reflectors on the wheels and tires and a permanent lock under the seat. The steering wheel is also generally higher, making it more comfortable.

Why are there no bikes like this sold here? It seems to me that many more Americans may take their bike instead of car if bikes were more functional and more comfortable. Sigh … I wish we had imported our old bikes when we moved here.

OMG, a hummingbird!

Posted on June 6th 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Life in America, Nature

Fourteen months after we put up our first hummingbird feeder, we have finally seen one in our backyard. Yeah! We first put up a feeder filled with delicious nectar (home-made: 1 part sugar, 3 parts water) on April 2nd, 2009. Unfortunately we never saw one all spring and summer last year. And to make matters worse: raccoons often stop by at night to knock down the hummingbird feeder. They’ve broken a few and we keep having to fill them up.

Early this morning, before leaving on a walk at Rollins Savanna, Amy was looking outside when she saw something small fly by our feeders. She didn’t know what it was, but it made a U-turn and flew back to our orange oriole feeder, which has bigger holes than the red hummingbird feeder (you can see both in the picture below). It was a hummer! We watched the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird for a few minutes, as she hovered above the hole, going back and forth to take a sip.

After this joyous moment we ran outside to put fresh nectar in both feeders and Amy put up her Wingscapes Birdcam to see if it the bird would come back later in the day. At the end of the day there were over 1,500 pictures on the camera!! Most of them were of an empty feeder; the cam takes pictures of movement and the feeder had been blowing in the wind all day. 1,499 of the pictures had nothing on it … but one did!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

It’s hard to see, but it looks like this one has a dark chin, which means that it may be a male. That would mean we had a whopping TWO hummingbirds in our yard today! :)

We’ll keep the cam on the hummingbird feeder for a while, now that we know there are some around here. Hopefully we’ll get better pictures one day.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Biggest Week in American Birding 2010

Posted on May 21st 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Life in America, Nature

Magee Marsh, a wildlife area in northern Ohio, is considered one of the best places in the United States to witness spring migration of neotropical birds. Lake Erie forms a natural barrier and birds pile up in large numbers as they rest and refuel before they continue their journey across the water. From mid-April through May thousands of birders flock down to the area to witness the event. A boardwalk (of approximately 0.8 miles) that runs through the marsh provides an excellent opportunity to watch these beautiful birds up close.

Magee Marsh boardwalk

This year, a birding festival named The Biggest Week in American Birding was organized for the first time. It was a huge success and hopefully will become an annual event. For 10 days there were many activities, like bus trips, guided walks, workshops and talks. We had the pleasure to attend the festival last week from Thursday to Sunday and stayed in nearby Port Clinton.

Magee Marsh sign

We spent a lot of time on the boardwalk, which was simply amazing. Birds flit around at eye level and they are apparently so tired and hungry from their long journey that they do not mind the people watching them up close. In our first minute on the boardwalk we spotted a Black-throated Blue Warbler right in front of us and we watched it for about 10 minutes hopping around just a few feet from our faces. This is a really good way to observe these birds and learn them. We had already seen quite a few warblers here in Illinois last year, but they are often in the tree tops, making them just small specks and hard to identify. In total we saw about two dozen different warblers at Magee Marsh and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (which is right next door) and a hundred other species.

American Redstart
American Redstart

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler on a nest right along the boardwalk

Friday was by far the best day bird-wise. On Thursday afternoon we were on a shore bird excursion, standing in a field watching some Black-bellied Plovers, when all of a sudden temperatures went up about 20 degrees and it became very windy. These southern winds brought a huge amount of birds to the area and Friday the warblers were everywhere.

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager

Organizers of the festival and bird guides from Tropical Birding were tweeting rare sightings throughout the day, so we were often checking our iPhone for updates. The boardwalk is numbered, so it would say something like “Gold-winged Warbler at marker 25 MM boardwalk” and people who still hadn’t seen one of those would go and try to find it. At one time on Friday we were standing on the boardwalk when Chicago birder Eric Gyllenhaal passed us and told us to check our tweets. He was referring to:

Twitter: Kirtlands on Magee east beach 300 yards east of parking lot Kenn K

OMG, that’s from Kenn Kaufman, world-renowned birder and author, who just saw one of the rarest warblers nearby. No wonder people were running over to see it. But what were the chances that it would still be hanging around when we finally got there? We started walking toward the beach, about a mile away, and more and more people joined us. When we arrived at the end of the parking lot we saw a long line of people walking along the beach to the place where Kenn was standing. We ended up having great looks at the rare little warbler, and so did an estimated 4,000 other people that day. The bird stayed there almost all day (very cooperative!), just hopping around on some low bushes at eye level. People around us were overjoyed, many thanking Kenn for a life bird that they had been trying to see for years.

Flock of birders watching the Kirtland's Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh
Flock of birders watching the Kirtland’s Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh

Kirtland's Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh
The rare Kirtland’s Warbler

In the four days we stayed in the area we spent a lot of time on the boardwalk, walked around Ottawa NWR and attended several workshops, presentations (including one by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller who, in 2008, broke the world record for most bird species seen in a year), and a bus trip to Oak Openings. We also attended a bird banding demonstration at Black Swamp Bird Observatory. Below you can see a Magnolia Warbler held by one of the banders. Check out these other bird banding pictures at BSBO that Amy took.

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler handled by bird bander at Black Swamp Bird Observatory

If we get the chance we’ll definitely go to the Biggest Week again next year.
It was great. :)

Charging for incoming texts should not be allowed

Posted on April 2nd 2010 by Arthur in Life in America, Science & technology

A major difference between Europe and the US when it comes to mobile phones is that carriers in the US charge their customers for incoming calls and text messages while in Europe they don’t. If I get a 10-minute call from someone then 10 minutes go off of my allotted plan minutes. And if I receive a text message I have to pay for it, or it goes off of my allotted messages for the month.

I don’t have a messaging plan on my AT&T phone, so I pay $0.20 for each message that I send and receive. I don’t mind this because I hardly use text messaging, but lately I have been getting more and more spam messages and ones with some random words from numbers I don’t know. This is extremely annoying because AT&T charges me $0.20 for each of these.

Why does the FCC even allow this to occur? Charging for incoming phone calls is okay, I guess, as you can simply not pick up if you don’t recognize the number, but text messages just arrive and there’s nothing you can do about it. Someone could send me 1,000 text messages right now and I’d have to pay $200 for them. This should not be allowed!

AT&T has a website at mymessages.wireless.att.com where you can block text messages that were sent as email, but it’s not possible to block regular messages that were sent from mobile phones, which is most of the ones I receive. It also only works for short 5-digit numbers, but I tried to block some of these and still received text messages from them, so it didn’t work.

I called AT&T and the representative told me that I can block up to 15 regular phone numbers on my account. Why only 15? If this trend continues I’ll soon get unwanted text messages from way more than just 15 different numbers. Fortunately, AT&T allowed me to completely block my text messaging capabilities. I’ve read about other carriers who don’t have this option and customers are forced to receive these spam messages and pay for them. I can’t believe the FCC allows this. Imagine you’d have to pay for each spam email you receive or unsolicited mail you get delivered to your home. That’s ridiculous!

AT&T and other operators in the US should really stop charging for incoming text messages (as is the case in most of the world!) or at the very least allow their customers to keep a list of numbers from friends and family that they do want to receive texts from and block everything else.

NBC’s Poor Coverage of the Vancouver Olympics

Posted on February 15th 2010 by Arthur in Life in America, Television

Rant alert! NBC is doing an awful job covering the Vancouver Winter Olympics to the American people. The TV channel shows mostly recaps, commercials, profiles of athletes, talking heads, reruns of the fatal luge accident and things like “the history of snowboarding” … but hardly any live sporting events. I’m really amazed by how poor the coverage is. Tonight I wanted to watch the 500m speed skating race but at the time of the event NBC was showing a travel show about Vancouver. When I returned some time later they had a piece about polar bears in Manitoba (I’m not kidding). The speed skating event is now long over but highlights will be shown later tonight. No thanks, I’ve already seen the results.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they allowed us to watch live feeds online, but the only live video on nbcolympics.com are hockey and curling. No other sports are shown live here! The website does offer a lot of replays, but they are only available for people with a TV subscription. That’s right, you have to log in to Comcast, AT&T or whatever your TV provider is to watch NBC’s Olympic videos online. That is wrong on so many levels. NBC is a free broadcast station! I’ve read of people who tried to log in with their cable account only to be shown a message that they don’t have the premium package. At least it works for us, and we have the smallest Comcast package.

My family in the Netherlands (and I’m sure in most other countries in the world) can watch the games on multiple stations on TV and multiple feeds online. Unfortunately these live videos on foreign websites are blocked for people outside these countries, because of rights issues. It’s unfortunate that there are no alternatives for us here. In Holland I used to be able to switch to Euronews, BBC, Belgian, German or French TV … but here it’s just NBC.

It isn’t even so bad for us here in the Chicago area. On the west coast NBC is apparently showing everything on tape-delay! People in California and Seattle are in the same timezone as the actual Olympics in Vancouver and they are seeing everything 2 or 3 hours late. Even the opening ceremony on Friday was shown 2 hours late. That’s just unacceptable in a time when everyone’s on Twitter and Facebook sharing things. It’s just impossible for people on the west coast to see anything without first hearing the results somewhere. Local NBC affiliates have started to apologize about the matter.

For more people complaining about NBC poor coverage see #nbcfail on Twitter or the NBC Olympics Coverage Sucks group on Facebook.

Cold winter

Posted on January 8th 2010 by Arthur in Life in America, Weather

We’ve been having a couple of cold weeks here recently, with temperatures some days not getting above 15°F (-10°C) during the day and getting below 0°F (-20°C) during the night. In the last 24 hours we had over a foot (31 cm) of snow here. We just spent a good half hour clearing our driveway this morning, which was a lot of fun. :) I hope the mailman can reach our mailbox today.

We’ve lived here for a year now and I’ve been comparing our utility costs to what we paid for gas, electricity and water back in Holland when we lived in Leiden. We have our heater on a lot more here because of the cold weather, but we still use about the same amount of gas here as we did in our old house. The reason for this is that our old house in Leiden (which was built in 1915) had lots of leaks and our current house is very well insulated. But, our total gas costs are about five times less than what we paid in Holland!

Another big difference with utilities here is that our gas and electricity companies (two different companies) come by once per month to read our meters, which are on the outside of our house. In Holland our gas and electricity came from the same company and they only came by once per year to check the meters. They calculate the average and you pay a fixed monthly price. At the end of the year you’d have to pay the difference or get money back. Our utility companies here come by 23 more times in a single year than they did in Holland, yet gas is 5 times cheaper and electricity is quite a bit cheaper too. It’s also quite nice to get a monthly bill for exactly how much we used. The bill has a historical graph on it too, and we can even see how much the previous tenants used over the last years to compare.

Rockslide leads to BEARS!

Posted on November 24th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Nature, Travel

On our drive back from Florida last week we were happily driving through the smoky mountains in North Carolina on Interstate 40 when we saw one of those signs flashing that tell you to listen to an AM frequency for an important traffic message. From the radio we learned that a rock slide about 20 miles in front of us was blocking the highway! Travelers were urged to drive back to Asheville and take Route 26 to Kingsport and then Route 80 to Knoxville. OMG, that’s a 150 mile detour!

Looking at the map we noticed that we could also get off at the next exit and drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to get to the 80. That sounded like a lot more fun than 150 miles more highway.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (29)
The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the natural fog that often hangs over the range. The fog is the result of warm humid air from the Gulf of Mexico that cools rapidly in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

So we got off the highway and drove along a winding road through the towns of Maggie Valley (very cute) and Cherokee (wow, huge casinos!) toward the park. At Oconaluftee visitor center we made a short stop to look at the shop and get a stamp for my National Parks Passport.

My National Parks Passport with my stamp from Great Smoky Mountains National Park
My National Parks Passport with my new stamp

Half-way through the park we stopped at a look-out point on the pass where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. We had some great views of the smokies and even saw a couple of birds like this American Robin and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. We also walked a tiny part of the Appalachian Trail, but only for a few hundred yards because it was getting dark. Maybe once we’ll walk the whole 2,178 miles.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (16)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (14)

Then, when least expected, it happened. We were driving down the mountain when all of a sudden there were a bunch of cars stopped on the side of a road. About a dozen people were outside their cars looking down at something. We got out of our car too and saw an American Black Bear walking through the forest. Whoa! It was the first wild bear we’d ever seen!

Here’s a neat video that Amy took:

A few miles down the road we encountered another group of people standing on the side of the road. We got out again and saw a second bear! This one was a bit larger and much closer to the road. At first we were looking into the distance and couldn’t find it, but then all of a sudden we noticed it was foraging through the leaves only about 30 feet away from us below the road! The bear only looked up every 30 seconds or so, to make sure we weren’t doing anything stupid, and then went on with his business.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (28)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (27)

The bears were both so relaxed, we figured they are used to tourists standing nearby … as long as they stay on the road. The first bear was on an inclined piece of land where the road curved. There were cars stopped at the top and we could also see some cars and people below staring at the bear. At one point we noticed that a man from down below had walked toward the bear in the forest and was hiding behind a tree to take pictures. The man was only about 30 feet away! When the man made a noise the bear looked up and she did not like the human in her territory. The man slowly backed up and managed to get back to the car. What an idiot. He must not watch The Colbert Report or he would have known that bears are the #1 Threat to America. ;)

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