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Location: Montgomery Area, Alabama, United States

Former BUFF driver; self-styled military historian; paid (a lot) to write about beating plowshares into swords; NOT Foamy the Squirrel, contrary to all appearances. Wesleyan Jihadi Name: Sibling Railgun of Reasoned Discourse

Sunday, January 29, 2006

My Recent Silence, or Travelblogging Part 3

My personal pace this month past has been insane, even though this was betokened by silence here in my tiny corner of the blogosphere. My family spent two weeks right after Christmas in Houston and then on a cruse, and I left immediately after to for two and a half weeks in the slums of North Las Vegas, on a "business trip" that was an utter waste of time, but demonstrated to me better than any recent experience how contractors working for the government are little better than gypsies, bilking taxpayers out of millions. More on that anon. For now, suffice it to say that I've been too busy to blog for quite some time.

The only time available for blogging was over MLK weekend and then I had time for only one entry, touting our slowly enlivening space program -- thanks be to the boys and gilrs at JPL.

Ironically enough, we began our travels a month ago in Houston by touring the NASA Establishment's shrine to itself, the Johnson Space Center. It was great fun, even though I was inclined to smirk at its self-congratulatory puffery from time to time. The motto, "failure is not an option," of Apollo 13 fame, appeared everywhere without the slightest tinge of irony. I was inclined to say, "really? Can you say 'Challenger?'."

Success ain't much of an option either

It is amazing how primitive the Shuttle's cockpit seems: decades-old technology. seemingly less advanced than the B-52s I flew many moons ago and defintely a generation behind even the most rudimentary glass-cockpited aircraft like the T-1.

Cessnas now have more advanced cockpits

From Houston's not-so-beautiful port, we boarded our beautiful ship. We were supposed to ship out of New Orleans, but Katrina had other plans for that unfortunate town.

Norwegian Sun, sharing the quay with container ship cargo

and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico. On this cruise, we secured a suite with a huge balcony, rather than just a cabin with a porthole,

so the view was remarkable.

On the way, of course, we detoured to pick up what appeared to be two desperate refugees from Castroland. They were, instead, two of the dumbest drug smugglers (barely) alive. They lovingly baled their doobage, but neglected to pack any food or water. It's a shame the Coast Guard sent them back to Cuba; they would have made splendid Democratic voters.

The white bales floating near the jon boat were filled with cocaine

Our first stop was a cruiseline-owned island in the Bahamas

Life on the reef was remarkable

Followed the next day by a sojourn to Atlantis, in Nassau

Which claims one of the largest aquariums (aquaria?) in the world.

Atlantis: Perfect place for an Evil Underwater Lair

Where sharks (with no laser beams on their frickin' heads, sadly)
share the waters with giant, cranky mutated sea bass

And where the artwork seems suitably bizarre

Uncle Ken tickles a shark

We spent the next day in Jamaica, where we scaled a waterfall and swam with dolphins. Forgive the Ugly Americanism, but Jamaica is otherwise a rather unremarkable Third World country -- not the soul-numbing dirt-poverty of, say, Honduras (or any other Latin, vice British, based culture), but with a bit of industriousness, it could be so much more. Perhaps more time would have revealed its charms.

From Montego Bay, we sailed west to Grand Cayman, another charming, Bahama-like Brit colony, where we got up close and personal with giant sea turtles (again, sadly, no laser beams)

And stingrays. Almost enough to make one yearn for a marine biologist's life.

Our final port of call was San Miguel, Cozumel, which, if I didn't know it well from previous trips, I would have regarded as a dump. In fact, Cozumel is a charming place, but it suffered terribly from hurricane damage this year -- especially Rita, which spent 70 hours stalled out over the island. All things considered, Cozumel is bouncing back nicely, despite the destruction of its main piers. My day was spent mostly shopping and eating.

Damage to the sea wall in San Miguel

Posting this many pix leaves me too tired to rail further against slimy contractors, so I'll bid a fond adieu for now, on behalf of the entire cruise gang....

Dockside: Our entire Motley Krewe, sans your intrepid reporter


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Sunday, January 15, 2006


This is cool.

Stardust is the first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to the exploration of a comet, and the first robotic mission designed to return extraterrestrial material from outside the orbit of the Moon.

The Stardust spacecraft was launched on February 7, 1999, from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, aboard a Delta II rocket. The primary goal of Stardust is to collect dust and carbon-based samples during its closest encounter with Comet Wild 2
More space success from the boys and girls at JPL.

You know, when you get away from city lights, the sky really does look like this.


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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Travelblogging, Part 2 -- Izmud's Excellent Adventure

Correspondent Izmud has been off line for quite awhile. There is a reason: he and his wife went off on a fabulous Mitteleuropiche adventure, which he shares with us which I append some of my own (obnoxiously jingoistic) comments.

28 Nov 05, 6:15 pm

The adventure has begun! [Our son] dropped us off at Dulles airport (his girlfriend accompanied us). Check in with Air France went pretty fast so [my wife] and I had some time to kill in the terminal waiting to board. Pushback was on time, and our Boeing 777 is now airborne over the eastern seaboard and headed northeast over Newfoundland, Greenland, southern England and into Paris.

That was close! When I learned that a person I esteemed as a red-blooded American had flown Air France, I almost stopped reading. Fortunately, the aircraft was a Boeing, so that at least avoided the double apache-danse bitch-slap of flying Aeireue ffRauwnce on an Aeireue Bueuxse.

The entertainment computer has crashed and the crew is attempting to reset. If it doesn’t, we won’t have movies or music for the flight. Could be a long 7.5 hours. We’ll see.

What’dya expect from Aaeauar Frrrrraunsue? Damn Frogs probably added the entertainment system after market as a sop to one of their 1,657,987 unions. And it worked about as well as …. well, a French computer.

This isn't part of Izmud's post ... I just wanted
to give readers a visual reminder that said, "Air France."

The gentleman next to me ([my wife had] the window, I’m [was in] the middle—ugh) works for the World Bank in Palestine. He’s a nice elderly American, but he speaks French as well. He encourages me to look at an executive placement website for overseas developing countries. I doubt [my wife] would want to live in a developing country but I’ll check it out. Time to read my book—Friedman’s The Earth is Flat. Dinner soon.

29 Nov

Well, Air France scheduled flights too close together so we ended up running through DeGaulle airport in Paris to catch our plane to Vienna. Its dawn, and we’re groggy, so imagine our dismay when we round a corner and see at least 300 people in front of us to go through immigration to get to the next terminal—and 1 (yes one!) booth open.

Welcome to the glorious New Dawn of Socialism With a Human Face.

Calmly walk to front of line despite stares and one rude comment,

“…daumme Americaine Boosh-louving cowboys! Go a-way now, or ve vill taunt you some more!” Was it accompanied by a dismissive back-handed wave?

tell them plane leaves in 10 minutes—they process our papers and we begin running again. We arrive breathless 5 minutes after scheduled departure time, only to sit for 20 minutes while others also so afflicted arrive as the hold the departure for them. The flight is uneventful, but there is lots of snow the ground—going to be cold.

The Astoria is downtown in the Old City district right off the Karstenstrasse, the main walkway through the area—hotel has a nice feel of 19th century elegance and charm. The strasse has many pricey shops and restaurants, but no worse than any other big city/capital.

We’re tired by the time we reach the room—no real sleep on the planes. We took a 3 hour nap and rose about 3pm to explore the area. St. Stephan’s Cathedral is just up the street —- massive high medieval church with ornate decoration. It’s in the 30’s so the air is nippy. We eat dinner at a restaurant across the street from the Astoria. [My wife] is surprised she likes the German-style cuisine—doesn’t taste like German back home in USA. She eats German version of chicken cordon bleu but loves my wienerschnitzel and fried potatoes.

All the streets are decked out for the holidays and are especially pretty at night. Crowds stroll the streets and walkways until 8pm or so, window shopping, stopping at the clusters of Christmas market huts that fill key intersections, or drinking hot spiced wine and “punsch”. We stopped into another of the 350 Catholic churches in Vienna—this one st. Peter’s —- this one with ties to the Priory of Scion, Father Escriva, I think. Interesting. We stop later into the Sacher café to have the famous torte and coffee (I have apfelstrudel and Coke!).

Dirty American culture...can't get away from it, even in the civilized world!

Early to bed tonight.

30 Nov

We rise early to eat the magnificent breakfast provided for guests —- meats and cheeses and fruit and breads and yogurt and cereals -— excellent. We hook up with our bus tour at 9am -— Marko is our guide and he speaks English, German, Spanish, and Italian. Our 3.5 hour ride has some stops where we get out and sight see including a tour of the Schonbrun Palace. It’s bright yellow and quite fancy as you’d expect for a city with royalty. There’s also a Christmas market outside and we sample the hot wine while shopping prior to the walking tour—decent but I prefer my red wine a bit cooler.

petit-bourgeoise fool!

While beautiful we don’t see all that much of the palace and would like to have seen the kitchens, dining room or the servant’s quarters.

The tour ends at the Opera House and we walk around the Ring strasse to the Hofburg Palace (seen earlier but not entered). The Lipizzaner stallions train here at the Spanish riding school, but we won’t see them as the time is wrong. Before going in to tour we eat a late lunch –- I have an excellent speatzle (noodles and cheese) with ham and Michelle eats wursts and potatoes—very tasty. As we wander over to the Hofburg to see the Imperial Apartments and the Treasury we meet a tiny American woman with a Brit accent who now lives in Vienna. She’s very talkative and helps us with several tips about what to see and when.

The apartments are okay but again you don’t get to see the more mundane parts of the house. The treasure is fantastic but perhaps not quite as elegant or decadent as England. However, some of the relics are astounding. They have, supposedly, the Spear of Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side while dying on the cross. That is set inside another larger spear supposedly carried by Charlemagne. There’s also a gold encased cross filled with wood---you guessed it—supposedly the True Cross. Amazing to look at though you have to doubt the authenticity.

Every parish church in Europe has a relic of some sort. If every one was genuine, Christ would had to have been crucified on a cross 7,500 ft tall by 4,000 ft wide and "Longinus' " spear would really have made virgins swoon (never mind the Roman soldier's identifty being apocryphal anyway...)

From there we go to the town Hall—sounds humble but in true Viennese fashion it’s a gigantic gothic building sprouting multiple spires and lit up at night to be just beautiful. At its foot is yet another large Christmas market which we explore (feet are getting a bit sore now). Bought a few trinkets and giant shortbread sandwich cookie dipped in chocolate and filled with raspberry jam -— yum!

1 Dec

Today we walked to Belvedere Palace (about 3 miles) after our usual hearty breakfast. From the yard you have a beautiful view of the city (it’s on a low hill). The main house is now a museum filled with a variety of exhibits that hide much of the exquisite decoration, especially theinteresting brown marble. We walk through the art part rather quickly except for the Gustav Klimt display—his work we liked. They also had a showing of recent (post WWI) history of Austria—very interesting perspective. They acknowledge their guilt over their role in the holocaust but sidestep their primary role in starting both World Wars! They make it all sound so “inevitable”. Humbug.

Then off to the military museum, because you know you just can’t see enough of that ([my wife] rolling her eyes now). It’s just a ways up the hill further and is located in a former military compound/armory. All but one building are not converted to either mundane government buildings or apartments—interesting. The “fortress” now houses displays from about 1600 through WW2. The Napoleonic section is excellent including five captured French Eagle standards, numerous flags, weapons, etc. There’s a WW2 German 88mm gun in flack position, some impressive turreted bunkers from WW1, and lots of armor. We meet an American minister visiting his daughter (in college) who came out for a conference.

Next stop is the Sudbahnhof —- the train/bus station on the south end of town—and eat a late lunch. Afterward we check the trains for tomorrow and the following day. From there we ride the subway back to the Schonbrun Palace to revisit the Christmas Market. Then we subway again across town to the Danube River. It’s dark (night falls at 4:30pm) and temps are in the 20’s. We see a massive cathedral—the Church of Mexico! Odd. It squats right along the bank of the river with towering spires and dome. Not well lit inside but pretty nonetheless, and the outside lights definitely give it a medieval look with it s red and green roofs. We take the footbridge out to the middle of the river and shoot a picture or two, but hustle back to the subway and back to St. Stephansplatz. We grab some snacks and sit in the Starbucks window staying warm and people-watching the shoppers strolling by. Relaxing.

2 Dec

We’re up early again, fed (overfed?) and some last minute shopping and strolling, then jump in our cab to the Sudbahnhof. The train departs around noon for Brno in the Czech Republic. The ride is first class, which means you get a cabin to yourself rather than ride in a communal car with lots of seats like a bus. We arrive about 2 hours later and are somewhat intimidated at first. It’s crowded, noisy, ad the signs are not in English. Also, most people we speak with do not speak it either, unlike Vienna. After 20 minutes or so we find an ATM to get the local currency Koruna (crowns)—about 24 per dollar. The first cab we hail won’t take us to the hotel—don’t know why except we think he thinks it’s too close. By my map it’s over a mile and we aren’t walking up the hill with all the bags. Talk to a cop (not much help) then hail another cab—he takes us—relief! The Best Western International is the largest/nicest in town -— about a 3 star of 5, I’d say.

We drop the bags and grab some food in the hotel. The local food is interesting but not a good as Vienna—veal and potatoes for me, goulash for the wife. We hire a tour guide through the hotel staff—her name is Monika Fousova. She walks us around for about 2 hours showing us the local sights. She speaks English fairly well as she lived in England for a year. Up the hill facing the hotel is a castle from earlier times, several times renovated. There are some of the reenactors in uniform from tomorrow’s show wandering about (Polish, Italian, French). The view form the hill is spectacular and the city is very large. The twin spires of St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral and the town hall dominate the skyline. It’s very cold after dark, under 20 plus the wind chill of 10 kts wind. The town hall spire is built crooked—it seems the city tried to stiff the builder so he made it that way on purpose! There’s a 12’ crocodile handing in it’s foyer -— a strange gift from a visiting noble. There’s also at least two monuments thanking God for ending two plagues—only lost about 20% of the town. We arrange to join Monika and her group the next day for the Austerlitz (Slavkov is now the name) reenactment. She’s nice, late 20’s, short, stocky, and definitely Slavic.

Well, there goes your Slavic vote ....

3 Dec

The big day! The real Austerlitz was fought yesterday but the 3rd is a Saturday so more amenable to everyone’s schedules. After a buffet breakfast featuring some strange items vegetable and meet salad for breakfast?!?!?!?) we meet Monika and about 8 others in the lobby and board a bus. We drive out the Olusz Road past the Slatina Barracks where the reenactors have been housed. The large area is just off the road and about a nile square and fenced where the battle will occur. Three sets of stadium-style seats have been erected, each withit’s own food tent in the rear. I estimate 5000 reenactors and 25,000 spectators -— they are nearly 6 people deep all the way around as far a I can see, plus the stands where we will sit. They serve us two meals—the first a cold lunch/snack of a hero sandwich, a sweet roll, an apple, and all the water, coffee, hot wine, or beer you can drink. I can tell you the Czech beer is very good. We also receive souvenir ponchos (it’s overcast and could rain or snow). There are vendors of all kinds surrounding the filed selling food and trinkets. I purchase some well-painted 75mm figures and take lots of photos prior to the event starting.

Color me jealous

Once the battle starts the announcing is all in Czech but since I know the battle history I can follow the action and tell Michelle and our new friends Pascal and Dorit what is happening. They are a French/German couple living in Cologne, Germany and just here for the event like us. They are very nice and speak decent English—better than our French or German. Eventually the cold gets to Michelle and she retreats for the last hour to the food tent, but the fighting is marvelous. Imagine hundreds of men at a time marching and firing muskets, about 20 cannons going off one after another, and dozens of cavalry charging back and forth—all in beautiful colorful uniforms with flags waving and cordite in the air. The volleys , staged explosions, men cheering, officer’s yelling, burning buildings (reduced scale representing towns), and all the smoke really gives the feeling of being there. Awesome. After it ends they parade in review for the audience—what a grand sight. By the way, Napoleon is an American (father is from the US, mother is French), and he speaks both English and French well as I witness when he talks to the media. After the show I join Michelle for the hot goulash soup (spicy), schnitzel, and more beer! By the way, the Czechs seem like friendly people, perhaps a bit more so than the Austrians who are pretty typically German.

On the way back from the battle we stop at the Zuran heights, location of the French command post at the start of the battle. Not much to see as the weather and visibility have deteriorated, and it’s pretty chilly, but the rise of the Pratzen Heights across the shallow valley is barely visible, location of the Allied HQ at the start of the battle.. Snap a couple pics and run for the bus. Once we get ttohe hotel we head for the mall near the train station to do some shopping prior to departure. We eat some gelato (tasty), buy fruit and nuts for the train ride, and few other presents, and head back for the bags.

In the Brno train station the crowd has subsided a bit. There are a number of manual workers, some obviously inebriated, in the station. One is ranting about something and makes everyone nervous. A young man eventually quiets the fellow and sends him on his way. The train is on time and runs from here through Bratislava (Slovakia capital) to Budapest. The ride is quiet with the usual visits from the conductors for tickets and the border inspectors for5 passports. It’s supposed to be non-smoking in the car but someone is and it’s annoying—we suspect the conductor. We arrive at 11:45 pm, tired. An English speaking cabby meets us in the train station as we depart and we haggle over the price to the hotel, settling on about $10. He agrees to accept Korunna or Euro rather than their Forints. He’s chatty and tells us about the capital as we drive to hotel.

The Hilton in the Buda side of Budapest is built into the ruins of the original castle on the hill overlooking the Danube, the parliament Building, and adjacent to the massive St. Matthias church. It’s really beautiful and an incorporates much of the ruins in the architecture so there are sections of rock wall interspersed with the wood paneling—truly a 5-start experience.

4 Dec

We slept late, and throwing open the curtains shows a beautiful sunshine-drenched view of the Danube and surrounding area. It’s a million dollar view. We go out in search of breakfast as the hotel wants to charge $25 per head, and closed for a private group anyway. Temp is in the 30s as we step outside, but bright and clear. We find a café and have veal and fries (me) and shish kebab (my wife). We share a chocolate cake with ginger spices—interesting. Fortified we head out to explore, wandering through a church ruins, the military history museum, fisherman’s bastion, St. Matthias church, and many shops. The church is very ornate inside and out—the exterior very gothic and the interior very Byzantine with every surface decorated, beautiful stained glass, and lots of gold. The museum is fairly small but has an interesting section on the medieval Arpad dynasty that descended from the Huns. We also stroll down the castle wall to the Palace where the Pr3esident now lives and the various government offices reside. We see a building built in 1806 after Napoleon conquered them. It houses the treasury offices—lots of guards inside and out.

Returning to the hotel after dark we sit in the bar and drink wine(me or coffee and read waiting for a restaurant (Kiraly) down the street to open for a late (7pm) evening meal. The restaurant is fancier than we thought from the outside—should have worn a tie and jacket but they seat us anyway. There is a quartet playing background music for the diners (xylophone, violin, viola, and bass)—a mixture of classical pieces and some Hungarian music. I order pheasant with truffled potatoes and Michelle gets chicken paprika and dumplings. The food is incredibly delicious, and the presentation just fantastic. Little sliced dried fruits add contrasting flavors to the meal. Meanwhile, the violinist is amazing—guy should be playing at the Kennedy Center not here (xylophonist is very good too). At 9pm they quartet adds two dancers (young man and woman) in local costume doing a variety of dances, interspersed with another older gentleman (60+) with a great tenor voice who sings songs in German (must do opera on the side—he’s awesome too). Among others, the singer does “If I were a Rich Man” in German—awesome.

Dessert is a Gundel crepe for me (Gundels is famous here in BP for this dessert)—fluffy crepe half covered in a bittersweet chocolate, filled with a walnut/honey concoction—excellent but very rich. Michelle has mouse cups that are delicious, and drinks a traditional Hungarian cocktail that tastes somewhat like a Manhattan. The whole evening runs $100 and is worth every penny.

What do you weigh by this time, Izmud? I thought I overate on the cruse I just finished ...

5 Dec

Tour day today as we take a cab to the big covered market in Pest—it’s cold and raining and will rain all day and night. The hangar-like building is filled with stalls of all types. The lower floor has lots of green grocers, butchers, bakers, and other fresh and unfinished foods. The upstairs is open in the middle and holds finished foods (hot meal) and retail goods with lots of leather, crystal, clothing, wood and pottery. We purchase some apples and grapes to start, followed by bread and two kinds of salami for our little feast.

From here we head north looking at shops en route to our pre-arranged bus tour. We stop and share a coke and burger at the first McDonalds behind the Iron Curtain. First time I’ve seen leather seats in a McD’s. It tastes the same as home contrary to our expectation. Our bus tour is led by Anna whose German is better than her English. She’s late 30’s, bottle blond and stocky. She takes us all over both sides of the city stopping to take pictures a several spots like Heroes Square and the citadel topping the hill to the south of our hotel and overlooking the river from a different vantage. The wife and I wander off to take a picture of the Freedom Statue erected by the Soviets when they “liberated” Hungary form the Germans in WW2. The tour ends at 4;30pm and we head for the church of St. Istvan on foot through the puddles. St. Istvan is the first Christian King who converts his country much as Constantine did to Rome, but it’s a political move to get help holding off the Turks. The church is closed a so is our next stop, the Jewish Synagogue (second largest in the world, after NYC). Both are pretty outside but closed earlier. Oh well. We eat an average meal at a buffet style diner —- my wife eating a spinach/chicken roll and I eat a thick goulash with beef, barley, and sauerkraut in it, plus fried potato chips. Warmed up now, we walk to the Chain Bridge and cross the Danube. We ride the Fundicular (train car) up the hill to the hotel—nice view at night with all the lights. We hit a little market for cokes and relax and read until 10:30pm.

6 Dec

We rise at 7:30am and walk back to the small market for some breakfast (5 kinds of bread/pastry), banana, juice, and coke. The hotel provides Michelle’s coffee—she says hey don’t know how to decaf over here. Checkout is at 9:30am and our cabbie takes us to the airport. His name is Laszlo (Laci for his friends—pronounced Latsie), and he gives us a running commentary en route. His English is good and he says he has relatives in England and the US, and one who is Steven Spielberg’s lawyer—I’m doubtful but he seems sincere. We arrive fairly quickly (25 minutes and have some time to kill so more shopping in the Duty free store and exchange our currency back to dollars.

Air France is late again by 25 minutes but the flight attendant assures us we’ll make up most of that. Sure. The switch in Paris goes better this time, and we get into Dulles on time. Drew is waiting for us and we arrive safe and sound, glad to be home but sad the adventure is over.

Overall thoughts:

Central Europe was definitely fun and do-able. Though we encountered some language problems we were always able to overcome them. The cost of living in all these countries is lower than here, probably highest in Austria, but the average person doesn’t earn all that much. The woman in the hotel store in Brno earned about $350/month take home and had to pay about $250/mo. For her rent, living on the rest. She said that was typical salary for the city. Learn at least the basics of each language—thank you, please, how much, and excuse me and you’ll be fine. The capitals are undoubtedly more expensive than other areas. We probably don’t need to see Hungary again, but we’d like to see more of Austria and the city of Prague. I’m encouraged that my wife liked German food.

We stayed very busy touring but also took time to relax, reading or people watching—it was a good balance. The tour encouraged romance at times too -— strolling along pretty lighted walkways, local music playing or overlooking a panoramic vista of city and river—very magical. [My wife] and I travel well together —- this is probably the best trip we’ve taken, and [we] both wanted to extend this one another few days. We’re looking forward to the next one.

Izmud & Co.

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