Category Archives: Friends & Family

Returning to Huntsville, sort of

This was my first weekend in Huntsville without the boys.

A quick review: my sons moved back to Alabama with their mother last summer. Since then, I have been commuting about every other weekend to see them. This has been an expensive hassle, but it’s been worth it to spend time with them. Recently I started investigating rental houses, on the theory that renting a house might be in the same cost ballpark as renting hotel rooms and buying restaurant food. After some digging, I found that Zillow has a fairly comprehensive set of tools for searching rental properties, and that led me to Trish Hagin, a REALTOR in Huntsville. (Side note: REALTOR is always supposed to be capitalized. I only know this since my grandfather was one, but that’s no reason not to inflict my trivia knowledge on you.) Trish and her husband Jeff were prompt, personable, and effective; they helped me find a great place in a fairly new development in Madison. It’s about a mile from Matt’s elementary school, and within easy distance of David and Tom’s respective high schools. 

Last week, Tom helped me pack up two ABF ReloCubes. These are  6′ x 7′ x 8′ containers. ABF drops off the empties; you pack them with your stuff, then ABF comes to fetch them and deliver them where and when you tell them to. The first cube was around $2600; adding a second cube only added $900 or so. Compared to the cost of renting a truck, fueling it on a cross-country drive, paying for hotels, and taking time off work, the cubes were a much better deal, and ABF both picked up and delivered where and when they promised.

We stuffed the cubes full of all the stuff that had been in my mini-storage unit, and ABF had the cubes spotted in my driveway about 10:15 Friday morning. I’d arrived on the redeye about 30 minutes before that, met the leasing agent to get the keys, and welcomed a 3-man crew from the Huntsville “Two Men and a Truck” franchise. The movers did a superb job; I’ll be calling them back next time I need to move in metro Huntsville. Anyway, within a couple of hours, everything was out of the pods and in the house. I spent the entire rest of the weekend unpacking boxes, assembling furniture, buying supplies (you know, important stuff like diet Coke, peaches, and an HDMI cable). By the time I left, both bathrooms, the kitchen, and the laundry room were all functional, and I’d slept in my own bed (with clean sheets), watched some Olympics on the wall-mount TV that came with the house, and fired Comcast as a potential ISP because they took my installation order without bothering to tell me that they don’t serve my neighborhood. Speaking of neighborhood: my house is the one with the red rectangle. From my back porch, I can see a huge yard/pasture that has a couple of resident horses, a nice-looking pond, and a semi-rustic green sheet-metal barn. The street name has a large number of anagrams, but the best one is “Madcap Male Rest”, an eponym so good that I’m thinking of having a sign made.

Aerial

Anyway, the house is just about ready for the boys; I need beds for Dave and Tom, and we need a sofa of some kind, plus a vacuum cleaner. The boys will be coming out for a visit in a week or two, and we’ll go back a couple of days early to get the rest squared away. I should note that at present I’ll be commuting to the house to stay with the boys; I am not, at present, moving permanently to Huntsville, although I’ve made no secret to my boss of the fact that my goal is to do exactly that.

It was very odd to be driving around Huntsville and Madison without the boys; I’ve gotten more used to being without them in California. Luckily I’ll be seeing them soon.

A few bonus observations:

  • The Huntsville Times Sunday sports section had no mention of the Olympics. And they wonder why people don’t read the printed paper.
  • We had a great thunderstorm Saturday afternoon, with huge raindrops and plenty of dazzle and boom. I miss storms like that. With the front and back storm doors open, I got a nice breeze through the house, too.
  • AT&T’s cell service in my neighborhood ranges from “not great” to “no service.” This is not encouraging. 
  • Everywhere I went– Costco, Best Buy, restaurants, grocery stores, the U-Haul place, the airport– I was reminded how friendly and open the majority of folks in Huntsville are. Not just the staff, either; the customers as well. This is a lovely contrast to some other places I’ve lived.
  • Fish tacos? Nope. Not a Huntsville thing.

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Thursday trivia #56

  • If you’re at all interested in computer forensics (and, really, who isn’t?), this piece from the Boston Phoenix makes for great reading; it describes how cops found the “Craigslist Killer.”
  • Microsoft is changing their professional certifications again, reintroducing the MCSE (this time branded as “Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert.”) It’s not completely clear to me what this means for people who hold the MCITP certification; there will be an upgrade path of some kind from Microsoft Certified Master to the new MCSM credential. I’ll write more about this when I understand it better.
  • “Deaths from traffic accidents around April 15, traditionally the last day to file individual income taxes in the U.S., rose 6 percent on average on each of the last 30 years of tax filing days compared with a day during the week prior and a week later.” Think about that for a second. (Note to self: file electronically and then stay home on April 17th.)
  • It’s nice to see this well-known principle getting better coverage: people make poor monitors for computers. Humans stink at repetitive monitoring of things that rarely change.
  • Turns out that Australia has a simple process for getting a “certificate of validation,” which allows you to fly about the country with a US pilot’s license. Hmmmm…

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Thursday trivia #55

  • The Marines have landed in Darwin, Australia, and the situation is well in hand. I had an interesting discussion with a coworker about whether this was a provocation of the Chinese or a necessary move to register our continued interest in the Pacific Rim. I lean towards the latter, but not everyone agrees.
  • I’ve finally started watching Game of Thrones after having read all of the books. So far I’m delighted, in particular by the characterizations. Barristan Selmy, Syrio Forel, and a host of other characters are very much as I imagined them, and the set design is superb. (However, I did wonder why all the characters have British accents. The BBC has one possible answer.)
  • Why’d I take the plunge? U-Verse had a promotion: 3 months of free HBO. I signed up and immediately fired up the HBO Go app on my Xbox. It works superbly, including Kinect integration for voice control. The HBO Go app also works well on my Mac, so I connected it to the hotel-room TV here in San Diego and watched Game of Thrones on it too. WELCOME TO THE FUTURE.
  • I really like the new Trending app for iOS. It combines stock data with news about the companies in your portfolio. Since it’s free, go get it.
  • Fascinating story on ferries in Alaska. There’s more to it than you might have suspected.
  • Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation: fun, quick read. Recommended.
  • Today’s fun cloud computing game: anyone can play.
  • Tuesday and Wednesday I went running at Shoreline Park in San Diego. It was beautiful: sunshine, sailboats, a few SH-60s. Here’s a panorama I took with Photosynth:

http://photosynth.net/embed.aspx?cid=d26f798e-29b5-428c-b7de-daa1632a21f1&delayLoad=true&slideShowPlaying=false

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Thursday trivia #53

  • I note with sadness the passing of CAPT Carroll LeFon, USN (ret). He was a fighter pilot until the end, a stalwart patriot, and a great American, and I say this with no trace whatsoever of irony.
  • Fascinating BBC article on recycling of medical implants: hips, knees, etc. get turned into turbine blades and other artifacts.
  • Since I’ve been in Pensacola, I’ve gotten to rent a number of different vehicles. So far, the Chrysler 300 I’m currently driving is my favorite. Comfortable, powerful, quiet, and stylish. The interior is well-assembled, and the avionics (or whatever you call them in cars) work very well, with none of the Bluetooth bugs I’ve gotten accustomed to working around in other vehicles. Plus, as Tom says, Eminem drives one, so what’s not to like?
  • Brilliant news: LodgeNet (you know, the hotel-TV folks) have produced an app that turns your device into a TV remote for your hotel TV. I love this because, quite frankly, those remotes are swimming in germs.
  • I’ve long been a nuclear-weapons nerd, so Restricted Data is like catnip.
  • Speaking of which: Perimeter.
  • I’m taking my FAA written exam this week. So far I’ve accumulated about 70 hours of flight time, and I only need a few more specific things before i can take my check ride. However, the weather here in Pensacola is worsening, so I doubt I’ll be able to finish up before I leave.
  • This collection of LEGO science models gives me a strong urge to break out the LEGOs. Like I needed a reason…

 

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Happy Mardi Gras

The boys and I are just back from a wonderful trip to South Louisiana for a mini-family reunion. Missie started the ball rolling a few months ago, so I made precautionary hotel reservations just in case. Things worked out beautifully– the boys had Friday and Monday off, so I picked them up in Montgomery Thursday night, and we stayed overnight in Mobile. Friday morning, we got up and drove to Houma; along the way we stopped at the National World War II Museum. I’d been there before, but the boys hadn’t, and they were pretty much wide-eyed throughout the entire tour. A stop in Luling for a shrimp poboy, and poof! we were in Houma.

That night we went to the Krewe of Aphrodite parade. In case you hadn’t guessed, this krewe’s court is all-female, and all the floats were crewed by women. I’m not sure if that was a factor in the boys’ massive haul of beads, but it could have been. We all had a grand time; we then joined Doug, Shawn, Missie, Jody, and the girls for Mexican.

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the boys ended up heavily laden with beads, plus all sorts of other random paraphernalia.

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sadly, Piranha Rentals doesn’t actually rent piranhas.

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not actual size

Saturday drove around to check out Houma, which has grown quite a bit since my last visit– to say nothing of how much it’s grown since I lived there. Terrebonne Parish as a whole had about 94,000 people in 1980, shortly before I moved away. The 2010 census says it now has around 112,000 people, but that seems low based on the size and bustle of what used to be a fairly quiet small town. We were supposed to marshal at Mr. Poboy (which I highly recommend), but we had some time to kill. I decided to drive out towards the airport, and what a good decision that turned out to be!

As we were driving, I saw what looked like a DC-3… then another one… then some other large propellor transport, all parked behind a hangar labeled “AIRBORNE SUPPORT.” We drove over to their hangar, and after a little poking around a gentleman (whose name, sadly, I didn’t write down) came out and offered us a tour of their operations. At first, he asked if we were with the media; I later learned that various media organizations were using shotgun mikes, pole-mounted cameras, and other surveillance devices to eavesdrop on their operations during cleanup of the BP Macondo oil spill. Once he was satisfied that we weren’t part of any sinister plots, he could not have been more helpful and friendly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Airborne Support is a contractor that provides aerial spraying services to Clean Gulf Associates, an oil-industry-funded non-profit that maintains emergency response equipment and staff for spill cleanup. I’ll have to read up more on both of them when I have time.

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The aircraft shown above is one of the DC-3s we saw (its web page is here.). More properly, it’s actually a C-47A, the military variant of the DC-3. This one was built in 1944 and is still flying! That’s not uncommon, as aircraft have a much longer life than most people realize. It’s fitted with a large tank that holds chemical dispersant; the spray plane flies at low altitude (30-50 feet above the water) and sprays in a pattern determined by a spotter plane flying at a higher altitude. The interior is bare-bones: there’s a big tank for the dispersant and that’s it. The cockpit below is mostly original, too, with the addition of a Garmin 530, some 1970s-vintage radios, and an overhead-mounted agricultural specialty GPS. The seats, yokes, and so on are all original, though.

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my sons have the rare distinction of having been both in the cockpit of an operational DC-3 and the captain’s chair of a Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier


After the tour, we joined the family at Mr. Poboy for an excellent meal. I had the fried shrimp poboy, which was served with excellent soft French bread. The shrimp were apparently fried in Zatarain’s, which is my go-to seasoning, and were plentiful and of good texture. (I wasn’t sold on the fries, though; our Luling gas station fries were better). Then we went over to Ricky’s house, where Ricky and Carey cooked up two huge pots of food: seafood gumbo and pastalaya respectively. Both were superb, as was the lemon icebox pie that someone made (I’m not sure who, but it was certainly good).

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Carey’s pastalaya pot is almost, but not quite, big enough to cook a small child in. Sadly you can’t see Ricky’s epic two-burner cooking stand but it was busy too.

One of the things I love about visiting my family is that it’s a given that all the men can cook well. I am by far the worst male cook in my family, but I’m working on it!

We stayed at Ricky’s until well after dark; the steady, heavy rain didn’t dampen our spirits, although it did force cancellation of the scheduled parades. We were too full to care, however. Sunday morning we had breakfast en masse at Waffle House, conveniently located next to our hotel, then went in search of another parade– this one the Krewe of Terraneans. We stayed for the first four or five floats, then headed west for A Cajun Man’s Swamp Tour, run by Black Guidry. I’d taken the boys on it before several years ago, and I don’t think Black’s jokes have changed much since then, but we got some great looks at wildlife, including turtles, young alligators, and nutria. The weather had cleared by the time we left the dock and it was clear, sunny, and very pleasant out on the water.

DSC 0699Capt. Guidry playing his Cajun accordion

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A third turtle decamped the log just as I was pressing the shutter button.

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He looks pretty comfortable, doesn’t he?

Sunday night we had dinner at Boudreau & Thibodeaux’s in Houma. The food was excellent, and the wait staff did their best to feed all 30 of us in a reasonable amount of time. I had some delicious grilled catfish and a small number of Tom’s two pounds of crawfish. He certainly did them justice, as you can see in the before-and-after pictures below.

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Monday all we did was drive back: Houma to Montgomery for me to drop the boys off, then back to Pensacola: just under 500 statute miles all told. Great trip, and we’re all looking forward to doing it again next year!

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Thursday trivia #52

  • Remarkably enough, there are people who don’t know about Atomic Fireballs. Herewith some educational materials in case you are one such.
  • Apple released a beta of the new Mac OS Messages app, which is supposed to let you exchange iMessages with iOS users. So far it doesn’t seem to work consistently; I have messages on my phone that didn’t show up on the computer and vice versa. It’s a neat idea, though, so I’m looking forward to them getting all the bugs out.
  • The BBC reboot of Sherlock Holmes (cleverly titled Sherlock) is fantastic. I recommend it highly. It’s on Netflix.
  • Ever heard of the Heavy Press Program? No? Then read this article and marvel at the wonders of American industry. Seriously.

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Thursday trivia #49

I want to lead off this edition by giving mad props to my friend and coworker Brian Hill, who’s just chronicled the results of a two-year program to improve his health. tl;dr: vastly improved his health, lost 80 lbs, and has turned into a muscle beast. Check it out. I wonder if I can afford him as a personal trainer?

In other news:

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Thursday trivia #48

[ putting this in the “FAIL” category since it’s no longer Thursday, but better late than never…]

To begin with, my hearty congratulations to Tony Redmond on receiving a “Distinguished” award from the Society for Technical Communications (STC) for Exchange 2010 Inside Out. This is quite an honor, but a well-deserved one. I read and edit a great deal of material focused on Exchange, and Tony’s book is the best I’ve encountered. Well done.

  • And speaking of books: I have the galleys for Bruce Schneier’s latest book, Liars and Outliers. It’s been an interesting read so far, although much of what he has to say about the nature of trust and how trust granting works seems intuitively obvious.
  • Looks like I’ll be speaking at TEC 2012 in San Diego. That should be fun; I thoroughly enjoyed speaking at TEC 2010 in Vegas.
  • I think it’s telling that if you search for “Exchange Connections 2012” you get this page, which doesn’t actually mention Exchange Connections– you have to scroll the list of icons over to the right to see it at all, and the textual conference descriptions don’t mention it. That’s rather sad. The page that is ostensibly about Exchange Connections is even worse.
  • After next week my teaching schedule will lighten up a bit, so I’m hopeful that I’ll be spending a lot more time flying.
  • Some people tend to think that their negative statements and claims won’t get back to their intended target. Wrong-o.

 

 

 

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Thursday trivia #47

All sorts of stuff to trivialize this week!

  • This very cool story of the man whose life inspired the character of Omar Little on The Wire shows that there is redemption available, and that there can be a second– or even a third– act in our lives if we want it and will work towards it.
  • The Nokia Lumia 800 is really, really tempting me.
  • Risk identification and mitigation is really important in aviation. That was the first thing I thought of when I read this blog post at AVWeb. Personally, I wouldn’t have attempted that flight in those conditions.
  • I just grabbed an app that purports to take you from your couch to being ready to run a 10K race in 14 weeks. The app maker says I can just jump in at the 5K stage and be good to go. We’ll see.
  • Walking one mile drunk turns out to be 8x more dangerous than driving one mile drunk. Given the number of people I see making poorly-thought-out street crossings in Pensacola, I can certainly believe it.
  • This clip of local news bloopers from 2011 isn’t safe for work, but it sure is funny.
  • I just signed up to take my Florida CCW class, which will result in me getting a Florida non-resident CCW permit. Good times!

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2011 in review

Last year I decided to do a year-end retrospective. It was short and to the point. I still like the idea of summarizing the year, and I still like the idea of doing so concisely, so here’s what I want to say about 2011: it was better than some years and worse than others.

I accomplished some of the personal and professional goals I’d set for myself, but there are some others that are yet incomplete, so I have some things to strive towards in the coming year. I made progress on some fronts and had setbacks– some self-inflicted, some not– in others.

I have a lot to work on in the coming year.

America’s 1st Sergeant sums it up nicely with this post on the concept of initium. I have a number of personal, professional, and life initiatives underway that I hope will bear fruit in 2012. If they don’t, it won’t be due to lack of initiative or effort on my part.

Thanks to all my family and friends for their support and help during the past year, and here’s wishing all who read this a prosperous, safe, and happy 2012!

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Cruising for Christmas, part 2

(See part 1 for the beginning of our Christmas cruise adventure. One note: I failed to mention how much we all loved the conch fritters at Caroline’s in Key West. I’d never had them before but look forward to having them again.)

Our at-sea day on Boxing Day was uneventful; the boys spent much of the day hanging out in their various clubs, while I parked myself with a good book on the fantail in the “Serenity” adults-only area. There were a lot of noisy young adults there, but it was quite a bit more pleasant than the high-noise, high-traffic area around the pool on the Lido deck, plus the view from the stern of the ship was stunning. For our elegant dinner that night, we had lobster and alligator fritters,  both of which were very, very popular with all four of us.

I actually forgot to mention the high point of our first sea day. David and I signed up for the “Behind the Fun” tour, a $55, 3-hour tour of several “backstage” areas on the ship. The tour includes the ship’s laundry (staffed exclusively by Indonesians, as are all Carnival ships; there’s sort of an unofficial Indonesian mafia that finds jobs for family members, fellow villagers, etc.), the kitchen (which is huge, spotless, and busy), the engine control room (crewed by a chief engineer who perfectly fit the stereotype of a brusque, grease-stained technophile), and the ship’s bridge, where we got to meet the captain and a couple of other deck officers. The whole thing was fascinating; we learned a ton about the operations that take place behind the scenes and that helped us better appreciate the largely invisible efforts that the staff has to make to keep everything running smoothly.

On the 27th, we made port in Nassau, which is where we’d booked two major activities: a Segway beach tour and a visit with the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism’s “People to People” program. I’d read about both of these on CruiseCritic, and the four of us were all excited about them both. Sadly, the People-to-People meeting never materialized. I registered on 11 December and never heard anything back until the 20th or so; I immediately answered the email I got from them but never heard back. We met the van from  Bahamas Segway and Beach Experience promptly at 0930 and were richly entertained by Meeks, our driver, on the 15-minute van ride to the nature preserve. This is a bit of a grandiose term; it’s really a nearly 200-acre plot that was originally supposed to be a resort before ownership and tax disputes put the land into a title dispute from which it hasn’t recovered. In any event, the property is gorgeous, with a number of nature trails and a gorgeous area where we stopped to recharge the Segways and learn how to plait palm fronds (seriously! one of the other tour attendees was from Jamaica and taught all 3 boys how to do it.)

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The four of us at the Segway beach area

The experience of riding the Segway itself was fantastic! My only complaint is that I was going too fast, hit a soft spot in the trail, overcorrected, and went flying– it is, in fact, possible to wreck a Segway. Fortunately the expensive Segway was undamaged; I wound up with a sore neck, a broken camera, and wounded pride, but nothing too serious. Despite that, the whole Segway experience was superb; the tour company did a great job, the weather could not have been nicer, and riding the Segway itself is a blast. I recommend this tour very, very highly.

People-to-People? Not so much. Despite all my efforts, I couldn’t get hold of an actual human until the morning of our arrival, and they had no record of our visit. The lady I spoke to was quite apologetic and tried really hard to find someone for us, but she didn’t succeed until nearly 1pm, when we were just sitting down to order lunch. With a requirement to be back aboard ship at 5pm, there was no way to make it work, which was really disappointing. Maybe next time.

We had lunch at the Fish Fry, a strip of restaurants right outside downtown Nassau. I don’t remember the name of the place where we ate, but the food– conch, shrimp, and grouper, all fried– was superb. After lunch, we walked the 1.5 miles or so back to the cruise ship pier, going past Junkanoo Beach. It was a beautiful walk along the water, as you can see from the two pictures below.

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The view from Junkanoo Beach out towards the water

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Another view, this one towards the cruise ship pier

Of course, these pics (and all the others from this point on) came from my iPhone, since my D40 wouldn’t admit that there was a lens connected to it. It is now on its way back to Nikon’s body and fender shop; if they can’t fix it for a reasonable cost I’ll pick up either a D3100 or a D5100.

On the 28th, we were due into Freeport at 0800. I woke up about 0735 and went forward but didn’t see land anywhere. What I did find was wind gusting 15-25 knots. Sure enough, the winds in Freeport were too high for us to safely dock, so we had another sea day instead. This was disappointing, as we’d booked a bottom-fishing expedition that promised barracuda, shark, and other fun sea life. However, we all had a good day playing Uno, drinking too much soda, and generally taking advantage of all the services aboard the ship.

Debarkation on the 29th was quite smooth. Our cabins were both on the Verandah deck inboard; we had V12 and V20, which were nicely appointed and very convenient to the observation area. Because we were first-time Carnival cruisers on a discount fare, we were assigned a debarkation number of 2 (out of 30 or so). This was great, since we wanted to get back to Pensacola, not linger on the ship like the long-time cruisers. After a delicious breakfast, they called our group and within 20 minutes we were out and waiting for the Avis shuttle van. The debarkation and customs process was flawless and quick.

Service and staffing, overall, were on a par with Disney and Princess. I thought that Princess had the best dining room staff and cabin stewards, but Carnival’s were quite good. For the price we paid, the accommodations and service were quite good, and I would happily cruise with Carnival again– hopefully soon!

 

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Cruising for Christmas, part 1

So this year I wanted to do something different with the boys. Arlene and I have been able to work together to share the boys during holidays, long weekends, and so on, and when she offered me some extra time with the boys over their Christmas break I jumped at the chance. David wanted to stay in Huntsville with his girlfriend; no one wanted to go to California, and I was not going to spend Christmas in a hotel room. After talking it over with them in some depth, we decided to take a cruise.

Thanks to the fine folks at VacationsToGo, we identified the 24 December sailing of the Carnival Ecstasy as our best bet. Alexander, our travel agent, did a superb job. This is my second booking with VacationsToGo, and it won’t be the last. We got what I considered to be a great price on the cruise, and Alexander handled all the arrangements because I was locked in The Bunker during most of the planning period.

We were set to depart Port Canaveral on Christmas Eve. After a long drive from Montgomery to Valdosta to Cocoa Beach, we stopped at the KSC Visitors’ Center for the big KSC tour. Unfortunately, we missed the last tour bus, though we did get to go ice skating (or, more precisely, the boys did; I was having no part of that.) The tickets were very expensive relative to what you get (~ $43/person), and I didn’t feel like the exhibits were worth the money. They also don’t accept a Space and Rocket Center membership as reciprocal, which is too bad.

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Tom, cold-chillin’ on the ice at the KSC mini-rink

One of the fun things about our KSC visit was the holiday decorations; the rocket garden had a huge tree, and there were decorations at the ISS mural as well.

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your tax dollars at work

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Closest I’ll ever get to the ISS

When we were done at KSC, we settled in at the International Palms Resort in Cocoa Beach, which I found through Kayak. For $53 a night, it was quite decent, although not fancy. We didn’t use any of the “resort” features, which include a basketball court and a boardwalk leading to the beach. Instead, we went to do some last-minute Christmas shopping at Walmart, a process which we reprised the next morning at both Walmart and Merritt Square Mall. Once all the shopping was done, we dropped our rental car off at Avis in Cocoa Beach and took their shuttle to the cruise ship terminal. Note: if you’re thinking about doing the same thing, be forewarned that the Avis staff was completely overwhelmed when we were there. We waited nearly an hour for the right shuttle, and the staff was just flappin’. They were obviously in a rush to get everything done before they closed, but their customer service suffered as a result.

The boarding process went smoothly and fairly quickly. We got aboard and started exploring the ship, which has a sort of metro-art-deco feel to it. Lots of neon (and faux neon), etc. I didn’t especially care for it. I think the ship, which was built in ’91, is showing its age, and I vaguely remember that Carnival is planning on refurbishing it in the near future. Anyway, we got settled in fairly fast, although our luggage didn’t show up until much later. At dinner, we met our table companions: a couple from upstate New York and a mother (with a daughter and two sons, all older than my boys) from Shreveport. David, Tom, and I all ordered escargot as an appetizer, and Matt tried them and decided that he liked them too– score!

Christmas Day was a blast. We opened presents in the morning, then made port in Key West and set out for our snorkeling trip, booked through Fury Watersports. I recommend them highly: great equipment and a superbly friendly staff made them a great choice. The snorkeling itself was eventful. Tom was one of the first ones in the water, and he was the first one out after an encounter with a Portuguese man-o-war. Then David got in, then Matt and I. Matt was very reluctant after Tom’s sting, and even with gentle encouragement from Missy (one of the boat crew; she did a great job with Matt) he wasn’t having any. Shortly thereafter I got stung by a moon jellyfish, and then David poked one accidentally and got stung on the finger. The snorkeling itself was anticlimax; I didn’t see anything except a few grouper. The weather and water were gorgeous though, and I loved being out on the water.

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David in full snorkeling regalia


 

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Matt and I get ready to get in the water

 

 

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Tom and Missy on the snorkel boat

After we made it back to Key West, we had a delicious lunch of conch fritters and shrimp poboys at Caroline’s, walked around Duval Street for a while, and had superb key lime pie at the Key West Key Lime Pie Company. At lunch, Matt pulled his own tooth, so that was his injury du jour— more permanent than a jellyfish sting. Back aboard ship, we had dinner, and the boys went to parties at their individual age clubs. Carnival, like Disney, has clubs for various age groups. David and Tom very quickly took to their peers; Matt thought the activities for his age group were lame, probably because he thinks he’s as old as his brothers (and partly because they were kinda lame by comparison.) Surprisingly, Christmas wasn’t an occasion for an elegant or formal night, although the food and service were excellent. (I should take this opportunity to point out that the ship was decorated quite nicely for the holidays– lots of tinsel, lights, Christmas ornaments, and so on.)

This is getting a bit long, so I’ll wrap it up in a second post once I’ve had a bit of recovery time. We just got back to Pensacola today and I need a bit of a respite from my vacation…

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A few pictures from Fleet Week 2011

The boys and I made a pilgrimage to Fleet Week 2011 in San Francisco this past weekend. Selected photos are here. We drove to Pier 30 and parked, where we started with a tour of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), which was well-provisioned with a nice selection of Marine vehicles and aircraft. Among other things, the boys got to check out a HiMARS truck, where thanks to Marine Cpl. Lamb from the great state of Tennessee the boys got to see a cellphone video he took of a fire mission in Afghanistan; a V-22, an AH-1Z Cobra (which I hadn’t seen before), and a variety of crew-served and individual weapons. The boys also got to hear an unusual call on the 1MC: “Man down, man down, man down on the flight deck!” A visitor tripped over a tiedown chain, so the Navy surged a bunch of corpsman to make sure he wasn’t hurt. They liked that quite a bit.

A quick taxi ride took us over to Marina Green for the airshow proper.

Having learned my lesson from last year, I’d rented a Sigma 50-500mm lens from LensRentals.com. I figured that this lens, which was every bit as big and heavy as advertised, would do a better job of capturing the action than my own 70-300. Sure enough, it did, but with a couple of caveats. It turns out that it’s a lot harder to take pictures of fast-moving aircraft with a telephoto lens than you might think. This problem was compounded by the fact that autofocus on the Sigma is fairly slow. Accordingly, I had a hard time getting pictures that were both well-framed and well-focused. However, some of them came out quite well.. I deleted the others, that being the major advantage of a digital camera. Tom and I between us took almost 600 pictures, about 150 of which were good enough to make the initial cut. I’ve posted a few of the better ones on my Flickr “airplanes” set.

Side note about LensRentals.com: I could not have been more pleased with their prices or service. I will definitely use them again, possibly for the Veterans’ Day airshow that the Blue Angels traditionally put on at NAS Pensacola. I recommend them highly.

The taxi ride on the way back might have been the highlight of the show: we had the same crazy, gravel-voiced, wrong-side-of-the-road-driving-on driver who scared the stuffing out of us last year. The odds against getting the same driver two years in a row must have been very high but… well, there it was. We survived, barely, and the four of us laughed uncontrollably for several minutes after exiting the cab. Whether the laughter was from relief at our survival or amusement at running into the same guy two years running, I couldn’t say.

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DC day 4

[OK, so I am terribly delinquent about not posting this, y’know, within a month of the actual trip. So sue me.]

Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday. What a day!

Here’s what we did: the Capitol tour, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Library of Congress. That’s a pretty full schedule. A few brief notes because I’m too tired to write a long post rhapsodizing about it all.

First, the Capitol: it’s quite imposing, but the tour was wonderful. The Great Hall is amazing, and the statuary gallery is quite striking as well. Unfortunately, our elected servants were taking an extended vacation so we didn’t get to tour the House or Senate chambers, but the building and grounds were well worth seeing.

I loved the Library of Congress. David thought it would be like a public library, only bigger, so he was somewhat disappointed that he couldn’t just waltz in and pick out an arbitrary book to read. However, there are a ton of interactive exhibits, including one that traced the development of the Gulf Coast under Spanish and French rule; that was worth a good look. The interactives are all computerized touch-screen kiosks that are very well done.

For lunch, we went to the National Museum of the American Indian. This was surprisingly interesting, although I was a bit saddened to see that there wasn’t much in the way of buffalo-related displays, although they did have a really nifty collection of Native American art . However, the Mitsitam Cafe there was probably the best place we ate all week. I had a pulled buffalo sandwich that was superb, and everything everyone else had– wild salmon, a buffalo burger, and I-forget-what-else– was well-prepared and tasty. (In fact we went back to the cafe later in the week for another lunch.) The cafe was packed, which is a pretty good indicator that we weren’t the only ones who liked it.

After our lunch it was time for the National Air and Space Museum. What a fantastic place! I’d been to the Udvar-Hazy Center before, which is excellent in its own right, but getting to see artifacts like the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis literally sent chills up my spine. They even have UAVs now, as you can see from the photostream. David and I flew in a 2-man F-4 Phantom simulator and had a blast, scoring the highest number of kills for the day (a whopping, not really, 7.) Like all the other Smithsonian museums, NASM closes at 5pm, so we left and went back to the hotel for a swim.

For dinner, we walked over to the waterfront area just south of L’Enfant Plaza. There are a number of seafood stands there, and I’d heard it was a good place to eat. It would have been, too, had it not started to thunderstorm. We sought refuge inside Phillips Seafood Buffet, one of the only restaurants to actually offer indoor seating. The seafood was delicious, and I’m pretty sure, given the quantity we all ate, that we represented a net loss to the restaurant despite the stiff prices.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel (thankfully, it had stopped raining) for a little TV and rack time. We had to rest up for Thursday, which was going to pack a 1-2 punch.

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DC day 3

Tuesday was our first car day. I didn’t want to hassle with renting a car for the entire trip, so I reserved a car with Avis at Union Station. A quick cab ride later, I drove back to the hotel, picked everyone up, and we were off to Annapolis. (This is glossing over some details, like how one of my children, whom I will not name, took an inordinate amount of time to get ready so that we got a really late start.) Our late start meant that we missed our planned breakfast at McDonald’s, but as we headed north we found a convenient Chick-Fil-A and had an early lunch instead.

We tried to drive directly to the US Naval Academy (USNA) visitor center, but this proved to be impossible because none of us knew where we were going. We backtracked to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and took the free shuttle to the visitors’ center. Actually, Mom and the boys did that while I stayed with the car to conduct a short Q&A for a webcast I’d done for Windows IT Pro. This turned out to be a real problem because I’d planned on using my iPhone as a tethered Internet connection for my laptop. This seemed like a reasonable plan, and I tested it at the hotel, where tethering worked fine. (Well, OK, the truth: it was slower than I liked but it was also cheaper than hotel wi-fi, so it was adequate.) However, I had a hard time maintaining a connection, and when I did it was unusually slow. I eventually got in to the webcast site about 5 minutes before it was scheduled to be over, so I missed the Q&A– my apologies to anyone whose question went unanswered.

That done, I caught the shuttle bus and met everyone at the visitors’ center. It has a terrific array of Navy-related artifacts, including the Freedom 7 capsule flown by Alan Shepherd (USNA 1945) and a wonderful gift shop. Everyone else had already seen that stuff, though, so we went right to the tour. (David is really interested in attending USNA, so he went to an admissions presentation instead, though he rejoined us later.)

Our tour guide was terrific. He clearly knew a great deal about Annapolis and Navy history, and we got to see all the highlights, including the crypt of John Paul Jones beneath the chapel (fascinating story alert here), the Lejeune Building (a/k/a the gym; he got bonus points for properly pronouncing it “Luh-jern”), Dahlgren Hall, and the enormous Bancroft Hall dorm complex. We arrived shortly before the end of the formal class day, so we got to see lots of midshipment strolling around. “Strolling” isn’t quite the right word, but neither is “marching”… perhaps I should stick with “walking” and leave it at that.

After our tour, we went back outside to catch the shuttle bus, just in time to see the local police arresting four people for dropping beer bottles off their roof onto the street. This proved a valuable learning opportunity for the boys, who had never actually seen 5-0 roll up on someone and cuff them. The drive back to Union Station to drop off the car was almost anticlimactic after that episode.

For dinner, we decided to go to Chinatown… where we ate at Fuddruckers. It’s pretty funny, but the Chinatown gate is flanked by a Starbucks on one side and Fuddruckers on the other. Despite the incongruity, we had a great meal, then went back to the hotel to watch a little CNN and zonk out for the night.

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