Spring is finally here

Posted by Arthur in Nature

Yesterday we had a late afternoon walk at Grant Woods, a forest preserve just a few minutes from where we live. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and at 60°F (16°C) it was the first time we didn’t have to wear our winter coats this year!

Grant Woods

There was still some snow on the ground, which caused an eery low fog to hang around the forest. It also made it very humid, with all that melting snow, and a challenge to walk through all the ice and mud. The bottom of our pants were soaking wet after finishing the 1.8 mile trail.

We saw a group of ten deer, which was a nice treat. They would all freeze each time we stopped walking. Look, they’re doing it right now:

Grant Woods

Lots of birds that weren’t here a few days ago were suddenly singing all around us. We saw American Robins, Grackles and heard Killdeer too, all birds that just arrived from the warmer south. Hundreds of male Red-winged Blackbirds were singing, which is always a welcome indication of the return of spring. I look forward to spending more time outside in the weeks and months ahead. 🙂

Grant Woods

March 11th 2010 | 11:14 pm CET | No Comments »

10 Lost Designs on CafePress

Posted by Arthur in Pop culture, Shopping & Stuff, Television

Last month, CafePress made a deal with ABC allowing people to make their own Lost designs on t-shirts and other products using names and logos from the TV show. As Lost fans we got to work and had a lot of fun making some designs. Here are ten of our Lost designs:

LOST Ajira Airlines Go Back to the Island

More »

March 11th 2010 | 3:27 pm CET | No Comments »

NBC’s Poor Coverage of the Vancouver Olympics

Posted 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.

February 15th 2010 | 10:58 pm CET | 3 Comments »

Cold winter

Posted 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.

January 8th 2010 | 10:45 am CET | No Comments »

Tips for viewing a shuttle launch from the causeway

Posted by Amy in Space, Travel

There are only five more Space Shuttle missions before the program is retired. We had a great time viewing the launch of STS-129 in mid-November. We planned our schedule by using information provided to us by NASA that accompanied our tickets, and reading a few trip reports made by other shuttle fans. Here are my tips for making the most out of viewing a shuttle launch from the causeway.

Wear shoes, not sandals. I love my Tevas and wear them almost exclusively in the spring, summer and fall. They were the only shoes I brought with me during a holiday in India and they were all I needed. They were the only shoes I brought to Florida and were fine everywhere except the causeway. The brittle dry grass hurt my feet, I was bitten on the top of my foot and middle toe by something within two minutes of arriving and cut my heel on a sharp rock in the grass.

Owie dry grass with hidden dangers.

The literature that accompanied our tickets said that backpacks and food were prohibited at the causeway. We saw tons of people with both monster backpacks and buffets of food at the causeway. Just saying.

We had read that in case of a launch cancellation or postponement after ticket-holders got on the bus to the causeway, one would have to purchase a new causeway ticket. For this reason we thought it would be a good idea to wait until as late as possible to get on one of the causeway buses. But the tickets are relinquished when you get in line, not when you get on the bus. Plus, as soon as you get in line you receive a voucher, shown below, which can be redeemed for a ticket once you return to KSC. We really didn’t understand how things would work in the event of a canceled launch after boarding the bus, and we were anxious about it. Hopefully this info will save someone reading this the same anxiety. We waited for about 45 minutes to get on a bus and we were among the last brought to the causeway, having to sit farther away than many others who had gotten in line and boarded buses much earlier. If we were going to do this again, we would get on the bus as soon as possible and wait out at the causeway. Especially if the chances for launch are as good as they were for STS-129 that day – 70% for go.

Voucher in case of launch cancellation after bus boarding.

Look at the launch – especially if it’s your first time. When we got back in the bus after the launch I was surprised how many people were showing each other the videos and photos they took of the launch. Even if you have professional equipment, from your causeway viewing site your video or photos will never be as good as what NASA provides. Watch the launch, enjoy the experience, and watch the professional videos later.

Bring your best optics. If you have a scope, bring it.

The launch was sweet to see through the scope.

Do a little wildlife watching while you’re waiting. Especially if you’ve traveled a great distance to view the launch, the wildlife in Florida probably has some different flora and fauna on offer than you’re used to at home. We watched the birds, of course, including an Osprey who had a very nice view from a perch about halfway between us and the shuttle. While waiting on the bus to return to KSC, we were treated to a few dolphin sightings.

While at KSC, before boarding the bus to the causeway, there are a lot of activities available. On the morning of our launch, they were even running bus tours to the gantry and Saturn V building. Many attractions were open as soon as we were able to get inside, from 6:00AM or so. During our previous launch-viewing attempt, attractions and shops were open in the middle of the night! KSC status updates are usually interesting and they were running NASA TV in the astronaut experience building, where we got to watch the astronauts boarding the shuttle as it was happening.

When looking for a place to sit on the causeway, you will probably want to find a spot where you can see the shuttle unobstructed by the small mangrove islands that lay in the water between the causeway and the launch pad. For this reason we walked further from the shuttle itself when we got off the bus. We found a prime viewing spot and were soon surrounded by other viewers. We were, however, exactly between two loudspeakers, so we had a hard time hearing the announcements. An unobstructed spot as close as possible to a speaker would have been a better choice. On the other hand, we were getting updates from SpaceFlightNow via Twitter while we were waiting, which sometimes informed us of what was going on before the info came over the loudspeakers.

Our view of the launch pad between mangrove islands.

If we had to do it all again, I don’t think we would lug all of our stuff around all morning. We got to KSC very early and had an awesome parking spot. Still we carried our spotting scope, cameras, binoculars and lawn chairs around with us from building to building until we got on the bus. If you keep an eye on the crowds and don’t wait until too late, you should be able to leave your causeway stuff in your car until you want to get on the bus. Get a handstamp as you exit so you can come back in again.

Finally, tickets for the next launch go on sale this Wednesday. We had some drama obtaining our tickets, but eventually calling is what worked for us. If you’re going to try online, why not try calling for tickets at the same time?

January 4th 2010 | 8:26 pm CET | 10 Comments »

Arthur’s Best of 2009

Posted by Arthur in Personal

The year is almost to an end. 2009 was my first full year as an American resident, after moving here from the Netherlands in September 2008. Here is a list of my personal favorites of the year 2009:

Best Experience: Space Shuttle Launch (16 November 2009)

Space Shuttle DiscoveryWe drove to Florida twice this year to try and see a Shuttle launch. We first tried in June for the STS-127 launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour. We spent a week in a hotel on the Space Coast but bad weather and a leaking fuel tank made NASA scrub the launch. We got tickets for the causeway again for STS-127 and finally saw the lift-off of Space Shuttle Atlantis on 16 November. It was spectacular.

Best Movie: Star Trek

Star TrekI haven’t seen Avatar yet, so my opinion on this can still change before the end of this year, but for now J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation of Star Trek was my favorite film of the year. The actors were great, the story was awesome, the special effects were amazing! I am looking forward to seeing more of these. Runner-up: Up!

Best Bird Sighting: Barred Owl (19 November 2009)

Barred OwlWhen driving back from Florida in November we stopped at a small nature reserve in North Carolina called Great Swamp Sanctuary. We saw lots of Pileated Woodpeckers, heard our lifer Carolina Chickadee and the best bird of the day (or year!) was a Barred Owl that flew across the path right in front of us and landed in a nearby tree.

Best Waterfall: Niagara Falls (29 April 2009)

Arthur at the Niagara FallsIn April, when my parents came to America to visit us, we took a roadtrip to the Niagara Falls for a few days. We drove from our home in Illinois through Indiana, Michigan and Ontario and spent the night on the Canadian side of the falls. The next morning we all got soaking wet on the Maid of the Mist boat tour. We had a wonderful time and were very impressed with the magnificent falls.

Best Pizza: Flippers Pizzeria

PizzaI’m not a big fan of the thick American-style pizza that is served in 99% of pizza places here. The best pizza I ever had was the pizza napoletana in Naples. These thin pizzas made in brick ovens are simply delicious. The closest to the style and taste of this pizza that we have found in this country so far is at Flippers Pizzeria in the Orlando area.

Best Kick-in-the-pants: CafePress Announcement

CafePress Bad, Zazzle GoodWe own a few webshops where we sell our designs on print-on-demand t-shirts and gifts. At the beginning of this year we were mostly using CafePress and business was going well. In April, CafePress suddenly announced some major changes that hurt thousands of shopkeepers, including us. We lost a lot of money from this awful announcement, but it was a great kick-in-the-pants to start moving our designs to other (better) PODs, like Zazzle.

Best Book Signing: Buzz Aldrin (22 July 2009)

Buzz AldrinOn July 22nd we went to An Evening with Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell organized by the Adler Planetarium and afterward Buzz signed my copy of his book Magnificent Desolation. Runner-up: At the the Midwest Birding Sympsium in Ohio we had The Sibley Guide to Trees signed by David Sibley, author of North America’s best bird guide.

Best New TV Show: Modern Family + The Middle (tie)

Brick of The MiddleThere are a few new TV shows this fall that we are watching, including FlashForward and V, but every week I look most forward to ABC’s Comedy Wednesday with two of my favorite new shows: The Middle and Modern Family. Though not as good as, say, Seinfeld or Arrested Development, these are two excellent sitcoms.

Best Newly Visited Museum: Harley Davidson Museum (16 April 2009)

Harley Davidson MuseumIn April we drove to Milwaukee to visit the Harley Davidson Museum. The purpose of our visit was mainly to see the Indiana Jones exhibit, but we were surprised at how much we enjoyed the museum, considering we are not motorcycle enthusiasts. The museum has a huge collection of motorcycles and other Harley-Davidson memorabilia, and the history of the company is extremely well laid out in beautiful displays.

Best Holiday: Groundhog Day in Woodstock (2 February 2009)

Brick of The MiddleGroundhog Day starring Bill Murray is one of my favorite movies, and we now live just 30 minutes away from the town where the movie was filmed: Woodstock, Illinois. Every year around February 2nd this cute town organizes Groundhog Days, with special events. We had a tour of the filming locations led by the movie’s location manager and on the actual day we got up early to see Woodstock Willie predict six more weeks of winter.

Best Mammal Sighting: Black Bears (19 November 2009)

American Black BearDriving back from Florida in November we had to make a detour through Smokey Mountains National Parks because of a rock-slide on the interstate. To our surprise we saw two American Black Bears close to the road. It was the first time we had seen bears in the wild.

Best New Sandwich: PB & Banana

Peanut Butter and Banana SandwichWhen visiting a 50s Diner somewhere this year, I ordered their “Hunka Hunka Love” sandwich. It was the first time I had a grilled sandwich with peanut butter and banana, and I was sold! I have since made many of these at home and I love them. Peanut Butter, Banana and Bacon was apparently Elvis’ favorite sandwich, but I find it fine without the bacon.

Best Parade: St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago (14 March 2009)

St. Patrick's Day Parade ChicagoOn March 14th we went to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago and had a great time. The parade took about 3 hours and we burnt our faces in the bright sun as we stood there catching candy and free gifts thrown from the floats. About 400,000 people watched the parade, and I guess at least twice as many were in the parade. Seeing them greenify the Chicago River was very neat to see too.

Best New Lunch Place: Noodles & Company + Sweet Tomatoes (tie)

Noodles CompanyWhen we moved to the US I was afraid that we’d have to mostly have burgers and fries when on the road, but we’ve found a few really nice restaurant chains with some nice vegetarian options. Two of my favorite ones ares: Noodles & Company (love the Indonesian Peanut Sauté) and Sweet Tomatoes (delicious soups, salads and the corn bread is so yummy).

Best Soda: Pepsi Throwback

Pepsi ThrowbackMost of the soft drinks made in this country use high-fructose corn syrup as the sweetener. I don’t like the syrupy taste of these American sodas and it makes me feel bad too. There are just a handful of alternative brands that use natural sugar, but they are hard to find around here. Pepsi has limited runs of Pepsi Throwback made with real sugar and I like this a lot. They just started another limited run this week and I stocked up for the next months.

Best New Computer Game: Tales of Monkey Island

Tales of Monkey IslandThe original Secret of Monkey Island (1990) is my favorite computer game of all time. I was really excited to learn earlier this year that a new adventure with Guybrush Threepwood was in the making: Tales of Monkey Island. I’ve been playing this game lately and I love it. It’s a great new Monkey Island adventure.

December 18th 2009 | 8:49 pm CET | No Comments »

LOL at Rifftrax Live

Posted by Arthur in Movies, Pop culture

Tonight we had a lot of fun at a live show of RiffTrax at our local cinema. The stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 made fun at some hilarious Christmas shorts. Fathom Events organizes these special broadcasts that are streamed live to cinemas across the country. It’s a pretty cool thing.

We also went to the first Rifftrax in August, when they riffed Plan 9 From Outer Space. The Christmas shorts they picked for tonight’s show were SO funny … weird stuff! It was fun that special guest “Weird Al” Yankovic was there too, but I expected him to sing a song or two at least. We had a blast and I hope they’re going to do more of these.

Rifftrax Christmas

December 16th 2009 | 10:58 pm CET | No Comments »

Great Swamp Sanctuary, Walterboro SC

Posted by Arthur in Birds, Forest Preserves, Nature

On our drive back from Florida we spent the night at a Days Inn in Walterboro, South Carolina. We learned that just 3 minutes from the hotel and the I-95 is a nature preserve called the Great Swamp Sanctuary. We checked it out the next morning and had a great walk.

Great Swamp Sanctuary in Walterboro South Carolina

At the end of a long straight trail is a swampy area with lots of bird-filled snags. We saw four different woodpeckers, including several Pileated Woodpeckers (picture below), Carolina Chickadee, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bluebird, Hermit Thrush and several other birds. The longer we stood there looking at the swamp, the more birds flew in from all around us.

Pileated Woodpecker at Great Swamp Sanctuary
Pileated Woodpecker

When walking back to the car we saw something fly across the way in front of us and land in a tree right next to the path. It was a Barred Owl … the first Barred Owl we had ever seen in the wild!

Barred Owl at Great Swamp Sanctuary

We had seen a few Barred Owls this year from Bird Rehabilitation centers, so we recognized it immediately. It’s also Amy’s favorite owl, so it was a thrill to see it in the wild. We watched it for a while. When we walked further and approached it, the owl calmly flew a bit further into the woods and landed on another tree, where we could look at it again. We had seen about 85 bird species on our trip to Florida, but this one was our favorite! What a great sighting. 🙂

Barred Owl at Great Swamp Sanctuary

November 29th 2009 | 7:57 pm CET | No Comments »

Stunning Atlantis launch video

Posted by Arthur in Space, Videos

Space Shuttle Atlantis just landed safely back at Kennedy Space Center. I wish we could have been there to witness it. On our visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge last week we learned that a great place to watch the landing is from the park’s visitor center, which lies just at the beginning of the nearly 3 mile long runway. You must know exactly when to look though, as you won’t be able to see the shuttle coming and it’ll fly right overhead.

Here’s a great video compilation of the STS-129 launch, compiled by NASA’s Systems Engineering & Integration (via Facebook):

November 27th 2009 | 8:56 am CET | No Comments »

Rockslide leads to BEARS!

Posted 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. 😉

November 24th 2009 | 10:03 pm CET | 1 Comment »