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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 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 where you can see that the pre-launch is already underway:

Screenshot of We Choose the

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.

Indy 5 in 2011 and new Monkey Island games, wow!

Posted on July 6th 2009 by Arthur in Movies, Pop culture

Harrison Ford as Indiana JonesFor some weeks there have been rumours about a fifth Indiana Jones movie and today The Insider is reporting that Harrison Ford will indeed play the famous archaeologist one more time. Shooting will not begin until next year for a release in 2011.

This is great news. Despite all the negative criticism that Crystal Skull received I still liked that film a lot. Here’s hoping that the last one with Ford will be even better and that he’ll pass on the fedora to Shia to continue the Indiana Jones franchise.

I also just found out at that LucasArts is reviving their classic adventure games by making them available for the first time ever as digital downloads. The first round of releases will take place on July 8th (on Steam) and will include Indiana Jones the the Last Crusade (1989), Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992), Loom (1990) and The Dig (1995). I have fond memories of playing all four of these games and it’s great that they’re finally re-releasing them.

Also, there’s a brand-new Monkey Island game on the way! Tales of Monkey Island (PC and WiiWare) is the latest adventure of Guybrush Threepwood which will be released in five monthly episodes starting tomorrow! I did not know about this until just now .. how exciting! Here’s a trailer:

And that’s not all … There’s also an enhanced re-make of the first Monkey Island from 1990 on the way: The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition (PC and XBox Live) will be released on July 15th and will feature completely new art in the style of the original game presented in 1080i widescreen, a re-mastered score and a new streamlined interface. And what’s cool is that at any time during the game you can switch between the old 256 color version and the enhanced version. Wow!

Birding at Viera Wetlands

Posted on June 25th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Travel

While we were waiting for the shuttle launch at the Space Coast last week, we did some birding at Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera and saw lots of different birds including 6 lifers. We also wanted to go to Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge, but that place was locked down by NASA for security reasons until the shuttle would be launched (or scrubbed), so we went to Viera wetlands twice.

Entrance sign for Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera
Entrance of Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera

The 35-acre wetlands are actually a water reclamation facility for Brevard County, but the area has been perfectly set up for birding, with one-way roads for driving birders (maximum speed 10 mph) and two observation decks. The last time we visited a similar place was at the sewege ponds at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, but that place was not set up for birding at all. We expected something similar, but Viera Wetlands was very different and more like a nature reserve than a government facility.

Map of Viera wetlands
Map of Viera wetlands

Roads at Viera wetlands

Overview of Viera wetlands

Viera wetlands

We made the mistake on our first visit to keep the windows open the entire time, resulting in literally hundreds of mosquitoes getting in our car. Later that day we let out at least 50 of them while driving by opening our window occassionally. We thought we had gotten rid of most of them, but after leaving our car parked somewhere for 15 minutes, baking in the sun, we found the dashboard, our seats and the floor were covered in dead ones. So on our second visit to the wetlands we decided to keep the windows closed and only open our doors once in a while to get out or take pictures. This was a much better experience.

American Alligator at Viera Wetlands

Alligator signA sign at the entrance read: This is alligator mating season and alligators are more aggressive at this time of year. Please stay on the roadway and stay away from water for your safety, but they were quite calm and not so loud.

Among the many birds we saw were Summer Tanager, Glossy Ibis, Sandhill Crane, Pied-billed Grebe, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Green Heron, Loggerhead Shrike, Anhinga, Osprey, Limpkin, Least Bittern, Crested Caracar, Green Heron, Roseate Spoonbill and Tricolored Heron.

Great White Egret
Great Egret

Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

Green Heron
Green Heron

White Ibis
White Ibis

By far the coolest bird we saw was this Crested Caracara, the symbol of the wetlands and our best lifer of the trip. Both days we were there the Caracara was perched on the same tree.

Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara

Unfortunately the bird was back lit both times we were there, so we didn’t get a great look at him. Here’s a much better picture:

Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara by Shadow Hunter

Our midnight adventure at Kennedy Space Center for the failed launch attempt of STS-127

Posted on June 23rd 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We’ve been back since last Friday from our trip to Florida to see the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour for its STS-127 mission. A week ago at this time, on Tuesday night, we were getting ready to leave for Kennedy Space Center. Fueling of the external tank was supposed to start at 8pm that evening, but there was a tremendous thunder storm over central Florida that delayed the activities. Nevertheless, we left our hotel in Kissimmee at 9pm to head for Kennedy Space Center in a torrential downpour.

It was by far the worst thunder storm I had ever seen, with lightning every few seconds. It was about a 90 minute drive and we saw hundreds of huge bolts of lightning that spanned large parts of the sky. It was quite something to watch, but meanwhile fueling had still not started. At 10:30pm we arrived at Kennedy Space Center and were surprised that we could just drive right into the parking lot without getting our vehicle placard checked. The information we had received with our Launch Transportation Tickets to see the shuttle launch from the NASA causeway made it sound like the placard was the most important thing, or you wouldn’t be able to enter the grounds. It turned out that we were there just before the place was locked down, and hundreds of cars were already at the parking lot. Most of them were people without Launch Transportation Tickets and vehicle placards wanting to view the launch from Kennedy Space Center, which is the closest place to watch a launch after the NASA causeway, albeit it being an obstructed view.

Most of the cars had sleeping people in them. Some people in trucks had mattresses in the back with sleeping children. We parked our car and walked to the entrance to see what was going on. There a couple of hundred people were sitting and standing in line for the park to open at 11pm, but it was still lightning and it was now almost 3 hours after fueling was supposed to start. At a few minutes before 11pm the storm stopped and people cheered as we learned that fueling operations had begun, but still 6-and-a-half hours before lift-off from that point. We headed back to our car as the entrance to KSC opened and people started buying tickets. Many more cars were arriving and touring buses too. We tried to sleep in our car for a few hours, until shortly before 1am when the bad news came.

I received a tweet on my phone from SpaceflightNow at about 12:57am that said: “A leak has reoccurred in the gaseous hydrogen venting system between the launch pad and space shuttle Endeavour, NASA confirms.”


We left our car and headed for the KSC to find out if it was true. People were still pouring inside with their folding chairs and huge bags full of stuff to watch the launch (many people were getting inside with large backpacks too, even though backpacks of any size are supposed to be strictly forbidden). I asked one of the security guys if the launch had been scrubbed, but he had not heard of a leak. We walked across the central plaza which was packed with people walking around to see the exhibits and having ice cream and drinks. It was a bit surreal to be there in the middle of the night with everything open as if it’s normal. It was clear that most people there had not heard of the new leak yet. We walked to the Launch Status Center in the back of the park to see if there was anyone there, and sure enough it was packed with people and someone from NASA was just finishing the 1am mission status briefing.

Kennedy Space Center
Photo by papillion_1 (from another launch)

These briefings are really great. We had attended one the day before when visiting Kennedy Space Center and were told all about the shuttle launch and the upcoming launch of LRO and LCROSS as they showed live feeds from security cameras from places like the launch pad, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building and even inside the shuttle bay of Discovery, which was being prepared for STS-128.

People were just leaving the briefing as we arrived and I asked someone if they had talked about the leak. The man didn’t know what I was talking about, but suddenly a NASA guy came in and told everyone about the leak, but the launch had not been scrubbed at this time. We sat down on a bench to await further information as we watched NASA TV on two large screens with live views of the launch pad.

STS-126 Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch
Photo by astronomicalfamily

We sat there for about an hour, while the guy that had done the 1am briefing stayed to explain things we saw on the screen and answer any questions from people. I had read a lot of tips online about viewing a launch but I hadn’t read about this great briefing area.

At 1:56am the bad news came that the launch had actually been scrubbed, so no launch for us. We walked back to the entrance, but there were still a lot of people walking around the attractions and the plaza oblivious of the fact that they were there for nothing as the launched had just been scrubbed. I thought it was a bit weird that they didn’t announce these sort of things throughout the park to the thousands of people there. When we got to our car a lot of people were leaving, so many had obviously heard the news by then. I wonder how many people were still unaware sleeping in their car.

It wasn’t too bad leaving the space coast and driving back to Orlando. We were only in a short jam getting from the 405 onto the 407. We were of course very disappointed about not seeing the launch, but I still thought it was a great experience to be at Kennedy Space Center in the middle of the night. We drove back to Chicago the next day.

The next launch attempt for STS-127 will be on July 11th.

Ready for Lift-off

Posted on June 15th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We’re ready for the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is now scheduled for Wednesday morning at 5:40am. We spent today at Kennedy Space Center and had a great time. It was one of the bus drivers who told us this afternoon that they just decided to give the shuttle another try on Wednesday. The Atlas 5 rocket with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been pushed back to Thursday.

Our new arrival time at KSC, which is the absolute latest that we are allowed to be there, is 12:30am! We asked at Guest Services how long we should allow for driving from Orlando and she informed us 4 hours as roads will be packed with people coming to see the launch, even that early in the morning! OMG, so we’ll be leaving our hotel some time around 8:30 in the evening!

Space Shuttle Explorer
Me in front of Space Shuttle Explorer, a full-scale replica of an orbiter at KSC

No Launch For You

Posted on June 13th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We got up at 12:30am this morning to head to Kennedy Space Center for the scheduled launch of STS-127. Right after getting up I checked my phone for any tweets from SpaceflightNow for the last updates and it all looked good; the last one said that fueling was going smoothly and the clock continued counting down toward a liftoff at 7:17am. I proceeded to brush my teeth when all of a sudden a new message came in:

NASA has just called a scrub for today. A leak has developed while fueling space shuttle Endeavour. A news conference is planned overnight.

So no launch today. 🙁

Space Shuttle Endeavour on Launch Pad 39A © NASA

We stayed up to see the press conference at 1:45. It took more than a half hour for any news media to pick up the cancelled launch. Even the homepage of wasn’t updated for an hour with the news. Thanks to Twitter we knew about the cancellation before we got in our car and headed for the space center. Thank you Twitter! 🙂

I had read that Endeavour had a window of only 3 days (June 13th through 15th) because of the Atlas 5 rocket that was to launch on June 17th to bring two new satellites to the moon. In the overnight press conference they said that it will take at least 4 days to fix the leak, so we thought that’s it; no shuttle launch this month. But then, to our surprise, they mentioned in the press conference the possibility of delaying the Atlas 5 mission and letting Endeavour go first. They even said that if the Atlas 5 rocket goes first, and it launches on the 17th, then Endeavour’s still has one chance on the 20th (it takes 2 days to reset equipment between launches). Mission managers are now planning to meet tomorrow at 2pm to examine the repair plans and determine the new launch date.

We spent the day birding at the Space Coast and then drove to Orlando. We’re going to wait for the results of tomorrow’s meeting and then decide what to do. If Endeavour’s next launch attempt is on Wednesday then we will wait for that. But if the moon mission goes first and they still want to try the shuttle on Saturday June 20th then we may not wait for that and drive back. Or maybe we’ll stay and watch the Atlas 5 launch, although we don’t have tickets for that launch so it would be from far away.

We’re disappointed about the scrubbed launch but we knew this could happen. There are still 7 more shuttle missions planned until the end of next year so if we don’t see this one go up we have a few more chances. At least we had a great taste of summer, with 90+oF here every day. Whatever happens we plan to spend the day at Kennedy Space Center on Monday and use part of our launch viewing tickets that way. I’m really looking forward to that. 🙂