Saturday, 29 December 2007

How a library should be


I like libraries, and Salt Lake City public library is awesome. The architecture is amazing, the collection is huge and current, and there are two coffee shops inside. The library won the Library Journal's 2006 library of the year award.

Australian libraries should adopt this approach:
  1. Create beautiful building with room for retail stores.
  2. Provide free underground parking and easy access to public transport for quick drop-off/collection of items.
  3. Charge rent for retail spaces to supplement library funds.

Do it right and libraries could be self-sufficient and still free for the public. Oh, and every library should have a coffee shop!

Friday, 28 December 2007

$3.70 per second and the ride of a lifetime


I'm packing it. I'm about to take a ride down the Salt Lake City Olympic bobsled track, the fastest bobsled track in the world, and the only one in the world that allows members of the public to ride it. My driver is Pat Brown who, bizarrely, was the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team in Calgary who was played by John Candy in the movie Cool Runnings.

I don't say anything about the movie, because word is the movie was an inaccurate portrayal of Pat, and Disney didn't give him the courtesy of consulting on the character. I really really don't want to piss him off because they have sent thousands of customers down the track, but there was one sled that flipped with members of the public inside, so I want him to be fully concentrating :)

The three paying customers, me and two randoms, pile into the four man sled and Pat slips in last. It is really cramped and I have a new found appreciation for the Olympians who push the sled and quickly pack in four guys with gigantic thighs as it rapidly accelerates down the track. We get a push from the staff and the sled picks up speed as we approach the first turn.

We soon reach our top speed of 79.1 mph (127 km/h) and pull about 4 G's through each turn. It feels like someone is smashing my head into my chest and squishing my stomach, making me feel nauseous. The G's come off as we exit each turn and seem to come back almost instantly as we hit the next turn. The whole time I'm wondering how Pat can concentrate on driving the sled since all my focus is on trying to arch my back and hunch my shoulders to fight the G forces. The sled crashes through 15 turns along the ice, feeling like we are driving over corrugations rather than super slick ice. I'm scared, but less so than bungy jumping or on amusement park rides.


Man, what a ride.

We cover the full Olympic track in 54.4 seconds; for a $200 ride that is $3.70 per second and it was worth every cent. The money goes towards cutting costs for the US bobsled, luge and skeleton athletes who use the track. The track is maintained by hand and the ice is built up using a painstaking manual process that requires constant care, and costs many thousands of dollars per day.

Deer joins US bobsled team


We did a tour of the Olympic Park near Salt Lake City, where the 2002 Olympic bobseld, luge, skeleton, and ski jump events were held. It has an great museum that even includes a long video about Alisa Camplin's win and footage of her practising ski jumping into a dirty brown dam with leeches at home in Australia. Stephen Bradbury also gets a mention in the same video, which made Em and I burst into laughter to the surprise of all the Americans sitting around us!


Our tour guide had plenty of wacky stories, like how he thinks he is the only person in the world to have ridden a tyre inner tube down the almost vertical ski jump landing ramp head first. My favourite was the deer who decided to jump into the bobsled track and ride it all the way to the bottom. The photo is of some guys working on the track who do a massive double take when they almost get knocked over by a deer hurtling down the track! It rode the track all the way to the end where the maintenance guys pushed it out with brooms.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Good snow, but with good snow comes...

Avalanches. Something we don't have to worry about in Australia!

I was riding the chairlift at Alta on Christmas day, wondering why people were letting off massive firecrackers at a ski resort. I soon realised that the explosions echoing off the cliffs were a group of skiers trying to create an avalanche...on purpose. They were part of the avalanche patrol that skis into avalanche-prone areas after big snow falls to detonate explosives to try and trigger an avalanche. When they decide no snow is going to come down they open the run to the public.

This is a very real danger, and YouTube has videos of avalanches at Alta on Mt. Baldy where I was skiing the Ballroom. Unknown to us, a skier actually died at a nearby resort two days before we started skiing while skiing an in-bounds double black. Eeek.

Ski Utah! The greatest snow on earth

Utahns wear their skiing creds on their number plates, and I believe the claim. Utah powder friggin rocks. Alta has been rated the best place in the country for powder and there are some awesome YouTube videos that will give you some idea. We spent two days at Alta and one at Brighton.

At Alta I skied Catherine's area off the supreme lift and Ballroom and West Rustler off Collins. Em skiied the grizzly tow :) At Brighton I mainly skied off Great Western. Alta involved a fair bit of traversing and even some hiking to get to some of the coolest blacks whereas access was easier at Brighton.

Alta has some of the best skiers in the world, and is one of a handful of ski resorts that actually ban snowboarders. This has led Burton to offer $5k for the best video of snowboaders poaching slopes at Alta and other banned resorts!

The snow was amazing, with a big dump on Christmas eve and super cold conditions that kept it good the whole time we were there. Maximums at the lifts were about 10°F (-12°C) on the 25th and 26th, and on the 27th at Brighton the temperature at the bottom of Great Western at 3:30 pm was 0°F (-17.7°C), bearing in mind I was catching the lift to the top of the mountain which was 1995 ft (608 m) higher! Chemical feet and hand warmers kept me cosy, and it was lucky we had brought our own because the ski shop sold their entire supply!

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Don't you people have families?

Was the cry from a skier when he reached the top of a run at Alta and saw the line of people waiting to get first tracks on the newly opened Ballroom area. Skiing Christmas day was a first for Em and I, and we were surprised how many people turned out, although the lift lines were still pretty much non-existent.

The UTA ski bus was the only public transport running, and when we got out on the street at 8 am to catch it the silence was eerie. We had planned ahead for Christmas dinner, because everything except Denny's was closed so we had leftover Italian from Olive Garden in our hotel room. Classy.

Monday, 24 December 2007

A good thorough evangelising


We took the compulsory evangelism that was thinly disguised as a tour of The Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). It is an interesting place: the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the LDS Conference Centre which features a 21,000 seat theatre and rooftop garden complete with multi-storey cascading waterfalls.

The church has done their marketing homework, since all the tours are given by young good looking girls. As we toured we were introduced to about 10 different Australian "sisters", and also ran into the head of the LDS church Gordon Hinckley who was out for a morning walk. The girls giving us the tour got pretty excited.

The temple grounds were lit up with an amazing array of christmas lights, really beautiful in fresh snow.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

My favourite american store names


  • Nordstrom (department store): Sounds like a nerdy kid who got wedgied at school.
  • Fuddruckers (build your own hamburger restaurant): Needs no explanation.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

All Christmas. All the time.

We went to see the local Christmas lights display in Columbia (see Em's blog). While we were driving I sought out some Christmas music on the radio. Turns out Baltimore has two radio stations that are 'All Christmas. All the time'. No wonder I can never find any decent music in the entire FM spectrum.

There are also so many people here with FM transmitters in cars for iPods, GPS nav etc. that the excellent national public radio station I listen to often gets drowned out by country music from the gigantic chevy ute driving beside me on the freeway. I'm thinking of engaging in some guerilla FM warfare by tuning my GPS to the same frequency and playing a track that says 'This broadcast has been interrupted because you have terrible taste in music'.

Friday, 14 December 2007

First brush with baltimore crime, still alive


My bike got stolen :( It was in our 'secure' parking underneath the apartment and locked with *two* thick cable bike locks, which were only slightly thinner than the cable they were locked to...They used bolt cutters or similar to cut through the locks. I wondered why they hadn't taken any of the other less secured bikes (or Em's) in the garage, but after having a look around I could see they were all pretty crap.

When I reported it to the cops they actually sent an officer over! Whoah! Don't you guys have like hundreds of unsolved murders? Oh well, I appreciate the effort: top marks BPD. Should be covered by insurance, so looks like I'm getting a new bike and it will be living up in the apartment with us!

Monday, 10 December 2007

Snow in Baltimore

No 'snow day' unfortunately, but enough for everything to go nuts. We got 4 inches, which meant all the schools closed early, I could go into work late the next day, and all the Americans from the northern states got to laugh at the Marylanders and tell war stories about finding your car in a car park under 6 feet of snow.

I've come to the conclusion that although Americans think our country is scary with the snakes and spiders, it has nothing on the deadly American environment that is snow, ice, elk, deer, cars, and road-rage all mixed up together.

Tim and I were much more excited than any of the Americans, who seemed to see the snow merely as something that stuffed up your commute. I made a snowman on top of Tim's car which survived the drive to the climbing gym :)

Friday, 30 November 2007

You know you're in a cold climate when


  • You own a serious-looking ice scraper/snow brush.
  • Your windscreen wiper fluid is replaced with this chemical stuff that melts ice instantly (cool!)
  • You have an emergency kit in the boot with blanket, kitty litter for traction on snow/ice, headtorch, reflective triangle, gloves, chemical handwarmers etc.
  • You have a lock de-icer spray.
  • There is a phone number you can call to find out if you have to go to work, OR (if you are lucky) pass go, collect $200 and go directly to the bar for a 'snow day'.

PS. The chemical handwarmers are awesome and were really handy at the Grand Canyon and in Utah. They cost about $2 for 10 and provide a good amount of warmth for 10-12 hours - amazing! I'm taking some with me next time I ski - no more cold hands on the chairlift :)

Scariest dude I have met so far

On the plane on the way back from Utah, this guy from Cincinnati Kentucky sits next to me:

  • kentucky: How bout dat security at the airports dese days? huh?
  • me: yeah, it is pretty tight these days
  • kentucky: I just feel so dam nekkid witout mah knife!
  • me: *oh crap*

Where angels dare: Best. Walk. Ever.


Ahhhh Zion. I'm getting shivers now just thinking about how amazing it is. It is now also the home of my favourite walk ever - Angels Landing.

You ascend this gigantic cliff to Scout's lookout with an amazing view down the canyon. The next half a mile winds its way along the spine of the outcrop with chains to help you. At its narrowest the ridge of rock is about 6 ft wide with a 1500 ft (450 m) sheer drop to the canyon floor on either side. Most exposure I have felt outside of a rock climbing harness!

I started the walk about 9 am when the temperature was well below freezing so I was pretty much the only person on it. Luckily there was a couple of women up the top when I got there to take my photo! They had been feeding the chipmunks (very naughty) so they, the chipmunks, went crazy when I got there, climbing all over my bag looking for food like cute little mice.

We stayed in the watchman campground at the mouth of the canyon, with huge cliffs rising up on either side of us. Only a small part of one of the campgrounds was open, and there were only about four other people crazy enough to be camping in tents :)

Zion was great, and I'm already planning my next trip. Multi-day hike over the rim up to the north of the park and canyoning the narrows from the top. Maybe some climbing, although it is not for the faint hearted!

I also want to go back to other parts of the Grand Escalante-Staircase National Monument which encompasses Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef etc. Utah is one gigantic geological outdoor playground!

I've tried polygamy


Actually I haven't but I wish I had. Hang on, this is coming out all wrong. I almost bought one of these shirts but decided on some other Utah beer shirts that I could actually wear without offending people.

The beer is from a Utah brewery with a sense of humour: Wasatch Brew Pub, named after the mountains behind Salt Lake City.

Hoodoo? We did.


Bryce Canyon's rock formations called 'hoodoos' are really bizarre and beautiful. Unfortunately they are far too soft to be climbable :(

The park is quite small and the hikes we did covered it pretty well. It was cold overnight 10 F (-12 C), and none of the campgrounds were open so we stayed in a hotel, which provided a tactical shower in the middle of our camping sessions. The lake outside the hotel was frozen solid enough for me to walk out onto it!

For a state with a supposedly restricted relationship with alcohol, I have never seen a bottle shop so prominently displayed in a hotel, and with such gigantic bottles of spirits....

The moon reached full while we were there and we saw an amazing moonrise over the hoodoos.

A very grand canyon

The Grand Canyon is awesome. Really awesome. We did a few different walks but the coolest was the Bright Angel trail, which descends down into the canyon. The dust on the trail was an inescapable fine talcum powder produced in different colours depending on which geological rock layer you were in.

I waved goodbye to Em a couple of miles in and charged down a total of 3060 ft (930 m) to Indian Garden, the campground at the end of the first day's hike of the trek from south to north rim. It was a beautiful campground, and 10 degrees warmer than on the south rim. Plenty of deer and elk wandering around.

The scale of the cliffs just blows you away. We great sunsets and moonrises with a beautiful almost full moon.

This was my second trip, but I still plan to come back and hike rim-to-rim either on the bright angel or kaibab trails. I'd also like to explore the north rim a bit too, since it is wilder than the south. Oh and I want to raft at least part of the river as well :)

Drive Utah! Why is that car following so close?


Why is that car driving right on top of that bus. Whoah, they are actually towing it! This was one of the smaller ones we saw. It wasn't uncommon to see a semi-trailer sized caravan-bus (with expandable sides) towing a full sized 4WD. Do these people have lots of oil company shares or what?

Oh and most of the highways in the desert were 75 mph (120 km/h) with one lane each way, meaning most people did around 85 mph (137 km/h) - sheesh! That is one fast oncoming car on the other side of a yellow line...

Oh man, I'm going to have to ring roadside assistance to find out how to start this car


We hired a Prius for our thanksgiving trip: Vegas -> Grand Canyon -> Bryce Canyon -> Zion -> Vegas (see Em's blog for all the details).

It was so frickin cool, and one of the cheapest cars you could hire! Of course all cars are cheaper to buy here: a new Prius is about US$25k, while in Australia it is more like AU$37k. We have seen quite a lot of Prius' on the streets here.

Good points:

  • Space-age power-on button instead of key ignition.
  • Average of 46 miles/gallon (5.1 L/100km) over our whole trip.
  • Uses braking energy to charge the battery.
  • Cool little touch screen showing use of the battery/engine and fuel consumption graphs.
  • Super stealthy quiet.

Bad points:

  • Space-age power-on button instead of key ignition (see below).
  • Bit slow on takeoff - tries to use the battery as much as possible during petrol-hungry acceleration from stationary.
  • Lack of boot space - mainly taken up by battery.


We were at the grand canyon, its 19 F (-7 C) at about 8am and we have just had a very long cold night in the tent (see Em's blog for whinging). I got into the car to start it up and get us some warmth and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't turn on. In had the key blob in the slot and was pressing the button with no results. The rental company didn't leave us an instruction manual so I made a fairly embarassing call to roadside assistance:


assist: Put the key in the slot
me: yep
assist: Put your foot on the brake
me: awwww you're kidding me!
assist: Push the power button

Stupid car trying to be so smart. I had the friggin handbrake on, why do I need my foot on the brake pedal as well?!?

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Drop the gun, or pick a room

That's the slogan on the side of the huge gaol in central Baltimore. It seems that plenty of people are picking the latter, with the murder count for this year at 256 on Nov 9.

With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise you that Baltimore was the setting for Homicide: Life on the street based on Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. Simon was a Baltimore Sun reporter who followed around a BPD homicide squad for a year. I'm going to read the book and watch some episodes.

Actually we saw a big hollywood movie being filmed on the harbour on Friday night, but I'll let Em blog about that :)

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Ausball = AFL for americans and expats

We had our last Ausball game of the season today. It is a really fun modification of AFL, the main differences are:

  • Tiny field by AFL standards so only 9 a side (5 guys 4 girls)
  • A girl has to touch the ball in the forward half before you can score a goal
  • No bouncing, but you can only run with the ball for 3 seconds
  • No tackling, once you are tagged you have to get rid of the ball

If we had it at home I would play it as a social sport. The league, and post-game drinking scene, here are pretty small compared to the giant that is "kickball". Kickball is an excuse to go to the bar thinly disguised as a sport. It is pretty much baseball but instead of using a bat, you kick a big red ball. We're probably going to give that a crack next season too!

Intercourse in Pennsylvania


We got our Amish on last weekend. Em has been wanting to see Amish country since we first decided we were going to the US, so we put on our straw hats and drove to Intercourse, PA.

I think the most interesting things I discovered are the seemingly arbitrary distinctions they make about their lifestyle, like:

  • Electricity is not allowed, but giant propane gas tanks, gas powered fridges, lights etc. are OK
  • Sports and modern sports equipment (baseball bats, volleyballs etc.) are OK, but organised sports leagues or clubs are not
  • Clothes are plain, and even buttons are considered too fancy but modern shoes are OK
  • Horses are used for transport and ploughing but tractors are used for jobs like threshing wheat

Of course each house and community is a little different so these are just average cases. I think the strangest thing I didn't know about the Amish is that their religious services are entirely in German, also known as "Pennsylvania Dutch". This is amazing considering a church service is 3-4 hours with 2 sermons, the longer one usually about an hour and a half!

Monday, 5 November 2007

Time to open an export business

I've already blogged about how cheap outdoors gear is here, but it gets better. The other day I got a pair of adidas footy boots for $30, they probably would have been about $150-200 at home. You also can't buy any type of jeans (even fancy trendy ones) for more than $30, whereas at home you can't buy respectable jeans for less than about $80, and probably more like $100-120.

I find this pretty strange. Why do we pay so much for things like jeans, particularly Levis? This site has some ideas which are basically that Levis are sold as fashion items in Europe and Asia, whereas in America they are a commonplace commodity item. Also, once you have paid $30 it would be hard to justify forking out four times that amount, so for Levis to attempt that in the states would be suicide.

Time to open an export business.

Koreans know fresh food

We went to this awesome Korean supermarket in nearby Ellicott City called H Mart. The fruit and veg range and quality there was amazing, and extremely cheap (better than home). The supermarket is giant and had all the interesting cuts of meat, whole fish, korean packaging you would expect.

Generally we have found that good quality fresh food is available pretty much everywhere, although it does tend to be slightly more expensive than at home. The only pineapple around is Costa Rican which goes for about $6, mind you it is far and away the best pineapple I have ever had so maybe it's worth it!

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Almost killed in freak trebuchet pumpkin flinging accident


Well, killed is probably exaggerating slightly. Here's how it went down.

We went to the World Championship Punkin Chunkin event in Delware, which is basically 70,000 people watching semi-trailer-sized air cannons fire pumpkins as far as possible across a field.

This event is possibly the weirdest and coolest thing I have seen so far. Check out our photos on flickr, or the official gallery. The world champion is second amendment, a 14 ton monster with 30 m barrel that holds the world record of 4,434.28 ft (1.35 km). Pumpkins are a standard size of 3.6 - 4.5 kg. There was a strong wind blowing (absolutely freezing cold), which meant no world records were set, but the best of the day was '10 inch' at 3,416.15 feet (1.04 km). Friggin amazing.

There are heaps of different categories, my personal favourite is the Trebuchet, despite one almost cleaning me up.

We were standing behind one of the trebuchets that was about to fire. Rigid safety standards were in force - i.e. there was a small net behind the machine and some effort was made to part the crowd behind the machine just before firing.
I was standing just to the side of the "cleared" area, with Em and our friend Nando a few steps away.

While the safety guy was still trying to get the people parked in camping chairs to move away from the back of the machine, the guy who owned the trebuchet decided it was time to let loose. So people weren't even watching when the 4 kg pumpkin came out of the sling early and hurtled directly towards me. Luckily I had been paying attention and frantically pushed my way out of its path, but in less than a second from leaving the trebuchet it hit the crowd, smashing into a man and the young girl he was carrying. He had been pushing out of the way like everyone else and got tangled in a camp chair.

Amazingly both he and the girl seemed OK, and an ambulance arrived a few minutes later to take them away. The organiser's reaction was 'we told you to get out of the way' and they started firing again a few minutes later. Nice. This kind of put a dampener on the day, so we went and got something to eat then made our way back to the car. Just as we were getting back to the car we heard a dull thunk - another pumpkin had been launched out of a trebuchet backwards, flown over the crowd, and almost made it to the parking lot. At the start of the day I had been more worried about the gigantic air compressors exploding!

Centrifugal catapult throws pumpkin
video

"Yankee Siege" trebuchet lets loose
video

Compressed air pumpkin cannon
video

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Baltimore police tactical response unit with rear stealth

I got a bit excited about this button on the Baltimore police tactical response unit we saw at the Baltimore big truck day. Unfortunately it is not a Klingon cloaking device, it just turns the rear lights off :(

Monday, 29 October 2007

Public transport trauma, another car back on the road

Now I know why everyone drives. I rode my bike to the train station, got on, and everything was going fine until there was a 'signalling error' which meant the train slowed down to about 10 miles/h and arrived at the station 15 minutes late.

So I missed the last connection from the station and was stuck with no way to work. I called work, got the number for a cab company, forgot the number immediately because I didn't have a pen (apparently my brain registers can't hold 10 digits), rang em, got another number and scratched it into the concrete with a pebble. Waited about 15 minutes for the cab, and arrived at work 1 hr 45 min after leaving home, at a cost of $14 one-way.

On the way back the train was (only) 10 minutes late, which meant the trip home was 2 hours long. Man. Driving takes 30min and costs about $5/day in petrol. I'm sorry planet, I tried but they broke me :(

Halloween = best 'holiday' ever

Halloween is so much fun. We carved a pumpkin, and it looks awesome, check out em's blog for a picture. The pumpkin cost us $4 (!) and is waaaay softer than the pumpkins at home. There is no way you could carve a Queensland blue with a cheap plastic carving kit from walmart :(

We went out on saturday night to a club where pretty much everyone was dressed up. The costumes are amazing. For girls it seems to be an excuse to wear the sluttiest outfits possible, which works out well for everyone. We went to pub trivia tonight and saw donald duck, the geico gecko, devil pimp, priest and catholic schoolgirl, scarecrows, pirates, and heaps more. My favourite from the other night was a guy in a hospital gown pushing a drip stand with a drip bag full of vodka.

The Halloween stores are so good, you can get all sorts of ready-made costumes as well as any props you need to make your own, and decorations for your house. We were recommended this haunted house but it looks way too friggin scary for me. Yes, I am a wuss.

REI is awesome

Outdoors gear is so much cheaper here! I spent a ridiculous amount of time in a store called REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) that has every sort of outdoors gear you can think of without any of the hunting stuff. I even managed to convince Em she should get a climbing harness, since there were Black Diamond womens harnesses for $45 :)

I bought a small, super lightweight thermarest for hiking, 10 Black Diamond nuts (yes, non-climbers you can snigger now), daisy chain and other assorted stuff. I'm also going to get new rock boots, harness, and rope while I'm here - 60m dry core for $150, was almost $400 for the rope Al and I bought back home.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Every US State in Alphabetical Order - Think about it

No its not us. It's this guy who bought a car from the same guy who sold us our car - Voldemort's brother John Riddle. Doing every state alphabetically is seriously insane, he will have driven through some of those central states so many times....New Mexico to New York via (roughly if you draw a straight line) Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania. Way to spend some time in your car.

Lead paint is nasty

An article about a paper linking crime reductions to the introduction of unleaded petrol made it onto slashdot this week. I wonder if the prevalence of lead paint in Baltimore is contributing to its horrendous crime stats?

This reminds me of the link made between legalised abortion and crime reductions by economics superstar Steven Levitt, which was subsequently the subject of much controversy.

Monday, 22 October 2007

E. coli with your coffee?

Minimising wasted coffee cups is all well and good (see previous post), but I forgot about the worst part of that approach. There isn't anywhere to wash your mug, so you have to do it in the toilets. Gross. There are no kitchen break-out type areas because:

a. Everyone uses disposable coffee cups.
b. Practically no-one drinks tea; kettles pretty much don't exist, although we did manage to get one for home.
c. Microwaves are available in the cafeteria for heating food.

More coffee trauma, but I'm determined...

Today I took the plunge and walked up to Starbucks with my coffee mug.

Me: Hi, do you mind if I get my coffee in this mug?
Starbucks money girl: No. *tone implies "you're an idiot"*
Me: OK great.

I pay for the coffee, leave my mug on the counter, and walk over to the pick-up area. I then watch coffee mug sit on the counter as other people are served, and two people get their coffee before me. Grr... Walk over, pick up mug.

Me: Can I get my tall latte in this mug please?
Starbucks coffee girl: *Blank stare*
Starbucks coffee girl: *Takes mug off me*
Starbucks coffee girl: *Look implies "you're an idiot"*

So I got my coffee, and it wasn't TOO traumatic. Hopefully if I do this every day they will eventually join the dots and figure out what to do. The guys from the team were watching all this and found it pretty funny.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Turducken: symphony of meat

One of our friends told us about turduckens. Man this is the coolest idea for thanksgiving. You take a turkey, stuff it with a duck, and then stuff that with a chicken. Turkey + duck + chicken = turducken. Making one sounds like a lot of work, but maybe we will buy one!

Suckiest theme song ever

Our DVR has been working overtime on the Sci-Fi channel :) So many shows with star in the title....I've been watching a fair bit of Star Trek: Enterprise, which has the suckiest theme song of all time. I can't believe how many people rate it on that youtube site. One guy has a go at it and is shot down by the very convincing and statistically sound argument:

dude youre a dumbass. the percentage of people that listen to country is about 63%. I know this because at my school, 3/4 of the students listen to country.

Yeah.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Tastes like pumpkin...

I had a pumpkin spice latte. It really tasted like pumpkin with cinnamon-like spices. It was pretty tasty, but I won't be buying it again. I am going to have to get one of the eggnog lattes at Christmas though....

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Most satisfying thing so far

Telling people that contrary to popular belief, Fosters is not "Australian for beer" but "Australian for effective marketing campaign to sell terrible beer to foreigners".

A loose interpretation of cappuccino

At the corner store near visitors centre in Shenandoah:

me: I'll have a cappuccino please
girl: French vanilla or mocha?
me: *sinking feeling* Oh no, just plain?
girl: We don't have plain
me: riiiiight. How about vanilla then.

What I got didn't really resemble coffee in any way, more like "inspired by" coffee.

In keeping with the Halloween season, Starbucks has brought out the coffee crime known as Pumpkin Spice Latte. I'm going to try and get one at work tomorrow.

Beary good time in Shenandoah

We went to shenandoah NP in Virginia:


View Larger Map

on Sunday, camped the night at Big Meadows and came back on Monday night.

The trip was awesome and the park was beautiful in all its autumn glory. We saw some great mountain scenery and got a lot of walking in, taking the longer less travelled routes. Great little waterfalls choked with leaves and mountaintop views. The trees in the valleys and most of the understory had changed colour, but the upper canopy was still mostly green.

The campground was amazing - the facilities were excellent and we could even choose which site we wanted online. We picked a "walk to" campsite, which was right on the edge of the campground, so there was just national park on one side of us. The design was better than any of the popular national parks grounds I have been to at home, with large stretches of bush in between each site so you felt like you were almost on your own despite there being 290 sites! The deer were not scared of humans at all, and we had a number wander through and around our campsite.

Each site had a lockable bear bin for food storage as Shenandoah has one of the largest black bear populations in the US. We were excited by having to lock all our food away. The excitement continued when about midnight I was woken by a loud sniffing sound and something brushing up and down the side of the tent! It wasn't a deer. I proceeded to shit myself for the next few minutes, after which our friend decided that we didn't have any food in the tent after all. Unfortunately I was busting to go to the toilet for the rest of the night but too scared to go out in the dark :( Em managed to sleep through the encounter, which was the best result for everyone.

We topped it off by seeing a bear on sunday on the other side of a small gully, which was close enough to see it clearly but far enough away to have a good running head start :)

Oh, and check out Em's blog for the wedding ring saga....

Friday, 12 October 2007

There's a 't' there!

Every second commercial is actually for some sort of asthma medication. It is slowly driving me insane hearing the word "azma" all the time. C'mon! There's a "t" in there!

No medical problem is too personal for a TV commercial

The extent of TV advertising for medical products over here is amazing. No topic is off limits:

- Genital herpes creams
- KY Jelly
- Erectile dysfunction medication

I remember the endless parodies of the Metamucil ad when it came out in Australia. We ain't seen nothin.

There must be some law about disclosing side effects during the commercial too. I wonder how effective the ad for a medication is when at the end it says may cause fainting, vomiting, heart palpitations etc. They don't just say it really fast at the end either, the law must say something like the side effects information has to be delivered at the same speed as the commercial.

Update: I have some new favourites. My favourite new side effect is "gas with oily discharge" - whoah, gross. I think the most ridiculous case of the cure being worse than the disease is Requip for Restless Leg Syndrome, which apart from the usual dizziness, nausea, drowsiness etc. might cause:

...urges to behave in a way unusual for them. Examples of this are an unusual urge to gamble or increased sexual urges and/or behaviors....Hallucinations (unreal sounds, visions, or sensations) have been reported in patients taking Requip.

I think I'd take the restless leg.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Eating corn makes you yellow

The chicken meat here is yellow! Why?

The answer comes from the aussie woolies homeshop website: "The flesh and fat of corn-fed chicken is slightly yellow rather than the usual pinkish colour."

There doesn't seem to be any conclusive research to determine if corn-fed or grain-fed chicken is nutritionally better. I'm less scared of the fluro yellow now though :)

What's with the eggs?

Why do they have white eggs over here? Do they paint them? Why would they do that?

Turns out egg colour is the same colour as the chicken's earlobe! Different areas of the world seem to have preferences for the types of egg laying chickens they raise. I'm not sure you can get any white chicken eggs at home. Here the organic eggs tend to be brown and the most common colour is white.

Now to find out why chicken breast looks yellow. Organic chicken looks what I think of as a "normal" pink while all other chicken has a definite yellow tinge. I know what you're thinking and no it isn't the packaging.

"Why are half the stations closed? City that never sleeps my arse"

We went to New York! Em has covered it much more comprehensively on her blog, so check it out :)

Highlights:

- Hearing an a cappella group of guys singing for change on the subway
- Seeing a genuine NY subway rat
- View from the 86th floor of the empire state: awesome!
- Riding bikes through central park
- General central park awesomeness
- Ellis island immigration museum was really interesting
- Giant, fresh Chinese buffet lunch for $4 in Chinatown

Lowlights:

- Really confusing subway: "Is this an express train? Damn we're going to Coney Island", "Trains only stop here after midnight - why do they mark it on the map??", "Why are half the stations closed? City that never sleeps my arse"
- Hot subway: "Why is it 10 degrees hotter down here?" (it must have been about 30 degrees on the street)
- Paying another $15 each ($66 for both of us) to go to the 102nd floor of the empire state, which pretty much sucked.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Manholes in the middle of the road - why? Sewer steam - why?

Who was the guy who thought: I have to build some access points into this sewerage system, I know lets put them in the middle of every road. Why? As the road surface changes over the years you eventually end up with either a 20cm raised lip of tar around the edge of the manhole, or a 20cm drop down from the road surface.

Either way you have created a driving obstacle course. Roads are bad enough with natural potholes without designing in extra ones!

Also for some reason the sewers steam...This is pretty gross, but why have all these grates and manholes so that millions of people have to step through clouds of sewerage every day?

I know lets just weld a plate over it...

They do this thing with roadworks here, where instead of fixing the road, they dig it up a bit then weld a gigantic metal plate (about 2m x 2m) over the top. They don't stop with one plate either, so you end up with 5 or 6 overlapping plates that makes for wonderful driving.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

I suck at parallel parking on the right hand side

We went and got our drivers licenses today at the Annapolis MVA. It all worked out pretty well, mainly because Em did all the planning and checking to make sure we had all the documents we needed. Amongst other things we had to sit a written test and do a short driving test.

I was sweating the last 6 questions of the written test as you needed 17/20 to pass and I already had three wrong! Should probably have memorised the 180 page Maryland road rules guide first...

Next came the driving test which is cruising around a little course they have set up in the carpark. I was super nervous, mainly because I didn't want to have to drive all the way back and wait another few hours in the MVA to do it again! I forgot to indicate my first turn - whoops. I also had about 7 goes at the reverse parallel park, my excuse is that its different on the right hand side, and I didn't have any time to practice :) They are much softer with that than we are, as long as you don't mount the kerb and complete it within 3 minutes you can do pretty much anything.

So I passed, and Em did much better than I did :( Only took about 4 hours and one trip. This is actually pretty reasonable compared to some horror stories from other Aussies.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Random jazz wake up call

This morning at about 6:30 some jazz filtered into my unconscious. While I was wondering if the person next door had their alarm clock set to a jazz radio station Em got out of bed and looked outside. "There's a jazz band outside" - and so there was. In a truly made for TV experience they set up about 6:30, played about 4 songs and then packed up before there was anyone awake to appreciate the music. Weird.

PS. I love the double glazing here :) Every apartment we looked at was either double or triple glazed!

Thursday, 27 September 2007

What the 'Merlan' drug and alcohol awareness test taught me

- LSD isn't as addictive as other drugs, and you get interesting hallucinations
- The chemical name for PCP is Phencyclidine: we were actually tested on this, so it must make us safer drivers knowing this information
- Cheating is OK: we saw a girl with the answers on her phone blatantly copying them onto the answer sheet
- Wearing a "Praha Drinking Team" shirt to a drug and alcohol awareness exam is not a problem: this is lucky for me because I didn't realise what I was wearing until we were about to walk in the door...

Our GPS is awesome

Our GPS is awesome (Tomtom 720). You can chuck an SD card in it and play MP3s via FM transmitter to the stereo. When the GPS needs to give a direction it fades down the music, says its bit, and fades the music back up. Super cool.

2005? really?

So our car is a 2005 model. However, it has all the modern features of the 1970s like an AM/FM radio (not even a cassette deck) and manual locking doors. It also includes a boot that doesn't have an electric release or automatic locking - you have to use the key every time you shut it.

They couldn't have saved much money on the stereo because we went to Best Buy and got a AM/FM CD player with USB jack and stereo in (for ipods etc.) for $70. I don't think you could get this at home for less than about $500 - we're going to get another one to take home :)

Baseball = peanuts, $6 beers, and trying not to get smacked in the head with a ball

We went and saw the Orioles play the Blue Jays last night - we walked past Babe Ruth's house(!) to the Camden Yards stadium. Poor old Orioles are doing pretty badly this season, so the stadium wasn't exactly full. Was still heaps of fun, as this was our first taste of major league baseball.

I ate my bodyweight in peanuts that I shelled myself. This would have been fine except we were sitting in the wrong seats for the first 45 minutes and when the right people turned up they had to sit in a gigantic pile of peanut shells distributed all around my seat - whoops!

There is quite an incentive to pay close attention to the game. The net behind the batter is pretty small and foul balls flew into the crowd at great speeds, making meaty smacking sounds when they hit spectators....

Quiznos, Thames

Very literal pronunciation, I'm not sure if that makes it easier or harder! Surely Quiznos is a spanish word that shouldn't be pronounced "Quiz-nose"? My first guess was "Kiss-nos". And yes, Thames is "Thaimes" rhymes with flames.

Oh, and we are moving to Bawlmer, Merlan :)

We have a doorman

We have a doorman. That is so freakin cool.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Damn, my wallet is not manly enough

Today I found out my wallet is "gay", purely because it has a change purse! Turns out Americans don't ever use coins. This makes a lot of sense because I've been carrying around a fairly uncomfortable half a kilo of silver and copper for the past couple of weeks.

This is how it works: you get coins in change (in the rare event you actually use cash) which you just throw in your pocket and then into a piggybank when you get home - hence no change purse in your wallet. When that gets full there are counting machines in the supermarkets that you can chuck massive amounts of coins into and get paper money back. Man, someone should put that in lonely planet or something because I have cursed the use of pennies on every trip to the US.

So effectively the population has eliminated all practical use of coins, except perhaps parking meters. I wonder how much money the US government would save in minting/metals costs if they eliminated all coins under 25c.....Apparently with the current cost of copper pennies are worth more as copper metal than as currency.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

If you need help with learning languages, I know a guy

At the supermarket checkout

guy: You guys aren't from around here?
me: That's right
guy: Are you Australian?
me: yup
guy: Yeah, I have this thing for languages. I'm not a language savant or anything, but I just know languages.
me: right
guy: Yeah, I'm not a language savant, but if you put me in a room with a Russian guy, I could learn Russian in like three weeks.
me: *sigh*

He then proceeded to hold us up in the checkout because he thought he had been charged 10 cents extra (he hadn't). Lucky I didn't get a gun when I opened my bank account.

GPS - Where would I be without you?

We have a GPS with our hire car and it is awesome. It even has a receiver for a traffic monitoring service, that warns you if there is traffic ahead and can also route you around the problem. Unfortunately this sounds better than it is - it didn't tell us about slow traffic in Baltimore when it was there, and warned us when things were fine...

We will definitely be getting a GPS for our new car.

I'm trying decide between the Garmin Streetpilot c550 we have in the hire car and the Tomtom 720 which has the FM transmitter (plays MP3s from SD card) and Map Share community map functionality that allows the community to correct map errors and holes.

A small american car - oxymoron?

The most pressing thing for us was to get a car. On Friday we bought a Chevy Aveo, which is the smallest car we looked at. We had a number of people (including Americans) advise us against American cars, but in our price range that was pretty much all that was available.

Cars are generally cheaper over here, but to get something we wouldn't have to spend all year fixing meant we had to spend at least $US 8-9k. We went through Enterprise Car Sales because they are haggle free and give you a 1 year warranty, which is perfect for us (although it doesn't cover absolutely everything). They sell ex-rental cars, which sounds scary but has benefits too like regular servicing, low miles etc. We went to one regular dealer, which was just as slimy an experience as at home.

The haggle-free thing is really cool, wish we had that at home, we spent a lot of time looking at carmax as well.

Here is the Kelly Blue Book for the Aveo. Photos to follow soon!

One of your finest ales please wench!

We went to the renaissance festival today. It was cool. Lots of beer, smoked turkey legs, jousting, crazy costumes: http://www.rennfest.com/ The facilities are massive and housed in permanent buildings in the forest.

We spent Saturday with Angus in Baltimore which was fun - he showed us around the neighbourhood, we're still trying to decide where to live.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Mobile phones

Phones are actually pretty expensive here, despite everyone being totally addicted to them (or perhaps because of it..) The worst thing is you pay to RECEIVE calls, as well as to make them. Not only that, on the T-mobile prepaid plans it is 15c to send a text, and 15c to RECEIVE one! Gaah! If we send a text between us that is effectively 30c :(

AT&T prepaid has a deal where you get unlimited free calls to other AT&T phones, which sounds really good until you find out that each day you use the phone (including to receive a call or check voicemail) you are charged a $1 access fee. So a call between us would cost $2 plus the call cost :(

Annapolis and Columbia

So we ventured a bit further afield in the last couple of days. On Saturday we drove to Annapolis:


View Larger Map

and watched all the rich people parade their boats around the harbour. It was crazy crowded because it is the Labor day long weekend here (and summer).

We visited the Annapolis Naval Academy, which was really cool. Kinda like ADFA but on a giant scale. We are going to get a card reader tomorrow so we can upload photos, but here is a photo from flickr of the huge dining hall - we counted seats for about 2500.

Tried to order a flat white today, and ended up getting a short black - oh well. Guess it is cappuccino or latte from now on!

Today we drove around Columbia:


View Larger Map

where we are thinking of living. It is kind of Canberra-esque, planned with lots of parks, small man-made lakes, and greenery. The houses look very....American. Lots of white and flagpoles, very different to home.

PS. The blog is "G in the US" not some sort of roman god "Gintheus" :)

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Arrived in the US

Well, here we are. I'm a bit jetlagged, but the the flights all went really well and em liked her first sip of the qantas business class kool-aid. All our bags turned up, so it was a very pain free trip! Tim and Angus met us at the airport, and we grilled Tim about phones, houses, bank accounts and all manner of things over a burger.

I managed not to drive on the wrong side of the road on the way to the hotel, but spoiled it by trying to get into the wrong side of the car....twice.

Anyway, more as interesting things happen.