Monday, December 26, 2011

Best Christmas Present Ever

Living in a tent, my feet get cold.  This is the best Christmas present ever!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all! 

May the Christmas Cheer find you wherever you are!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why I Love Lancashire

Other than the fact that my lovely wife was born here, and my brother-in-law, who is referred to as the "coolest brother-in-law in the world" resides here, there are two more reasons that I love Lancashire.

The first would be pies and pasties.  Pictured below from left to right are a meat pie, a Cornish pasty, and a cheese and onion pie.

Another reason, which I discovered today, is the live Christmas entertainment in the grocery stores.  Pretty much makes the American Salvation Army ringers look like a bunch of Tiny Tims.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Snow in Chorley

We awoke to a dusting of snow this morning that grew to a slushy, wet blanket by mid-day.

Given that it is Friday and the sun is sinking slowly along with the temperature, this should make for an interesting pub crawl this evening.

(Edit next morning)  Sure enough, wandering home in the wee hours of the morning, I stopped off for some late night munchies.  This sign was clearly targeted at me.

After a quick bite, all that remained was to slide down the black ice to my bed.

It was a quiet night in Chorley town centre.

But the sidewalks were good fun.

A Lovely Day in Rivington, Lancashire

What a lovely day for a walk around the reservoir, Jepson's Farm, and Lead Mine Clough in Rivington, Lancashire!  Of course, a lovely day in December in Rivington means that it's raining over there, and not here...

...and if you look to the coast, it might actually have been sunny a moment ago.

I've been here many times visiting family and friends, but I've always been confined to the inside of bungalows and pubs as there never seems to be enough time.  This is the first chance I've had time to take a leisurely walk around.  It is everything I imagined it to be.  The sharp wind on my cheek as we walked the ridge, the squish of black mud and fresh dung under foot, the sheep keeping clear as they sense my excessive libido, and everything wrapped in a hundred shades of green.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Goldman Sachs has a Great Deal for you, and it's FDIC-insured!

Feeling a little short of cash because your life savings is only getting 1/2% in that CD? Don't worry, Goldman Sachs has an "investment" that I'm sure you'll love. Only the "smartest guys in the room" could create a financial product this amazing.

It's a CD - Certificate of Deposit, so the FDIC insures the first $250,000. Sounds good so far, right? Words like FDIC and Guaranteed make me feel good. It gets better. It pays 0.5%, so nothing too exciting there. But wait! It's also linked to the changes in the Dow Jones Industrial average, so if this stock market index goes up, you earn more than 0.5%. You can earn up to 2% extra per month if the stock market goes up 2% or more! Amazing! Only Goldman Sachs could come up with a CD that is FDIC-insured and, as Bloomberg quotes the Goldman sales literature, offers "annual returns at a minimum of about 0.5 percent and a possible maximum of 24 percent, according to a preliminary sales document."

But wait, there's more! 

If you read down in the Bloomberg article, there's one paragraph that catches my eye: "The four-year CD tracks the monthly percentage change in the Dow, with gains capped at 1.5 percent to 2 percent and no floor on the declines. That means if the Dow advanced 5 percent, the monthly return would be recorded as no more than 2 percent, while a drop of the same amount would be taken in full."

Let's see, "a drop...would be taken in full" that line about "a minimum of about 0.5 percent" taken from the Goldman Sachs literature isn't exactly accurate, is it?  It should be "we'll give you a small taste of gains from the stock market in good months, and we'll keep everything you make above 2%, but in down months, you're going to eat the entire loss."  Goldman gets the gains, the investor takes the losses.  Perfect.  It's just like being a taxpayer.

Let's take a hypothetical example of the CD linked to the S&P500 that is structured this way using recent history.  The S&P500 was up almost 11% in Oct-11.  You get 2%, great!  Your banker gets 9%, but they deserve it for being such smart guys, right?  Sep-11, S&P500 down (7%), you lose (7%), your banker gets their fee.  S&P500 down (5%) in Aug-11, you lose (5%), your banker gets their fee.  It's the perfect product - for your bankster!

Disclaimer: of course, the CD may be structured using annual returns or net returns over the entire 4 year period, so my hypothetical example using monthly returns may be unfair.  If you're really interested, go read the sales document.  Lay down with the dogs, and get all the fleas you want.  I just enjoy anything that lets me say "your bankster keeps the gains, you take the loss."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve - Escape from L.A.

Mono Lake is among the oldest lakes in North America, and it anchors the western end of the Great Basin with Great Salt Lake on the eastern end.  The Great Basin has no outlet to the ocean, so water is lost only through evaporation.  The salts left behind create a salty and alkaline environment that supports a surprising amount of life.  Between 4 trillion and 12 trillion brine shrimp populate Mono Lake, along with the alkali fly which begins its life underwater, and is also found in abundance during warmer months.  Thanks to the prodigious number of shrimp and flies, Mono Lake provides a nesting ground for over 2 million migratory birds each year!

Thankfully, one man, David Gaines, realized how special this place was in 1978.  At the time, the Vampire that is Los Angeles had sucked over half of the water out of Mono Lake by diverting the creeks that flow into it with callous disregard for the destruction of the environment.  David Gaines realized that L.A. had sucked the life and every drop of water out of Owens Lake, and that Mono would be next.  His activism, with the support of many others, and ultimately the action of the California court system, saved the lake.  By 1982, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had sucked more than half of the water out of Mono Lake.  In human terms, they lowered the lake level by 45 feet, taking it from 4.3 million acre-feet of water to only 2.1 million acre-feet.  Thanks to David Gaines, LADWP now only receives 25% of the water that should flow into Mono Lake, and guidelines are in place to prevent the lake from being drawn down to levels that would risk killing all life.  As the lake level dropped, the salinity doubled, putting the brine shrimp and alkali fly populations at risk.  No shrimp, no flies - no birds.  Fortunately, the Mono Lake Committee had the foresight to negotiate a deal whereby LADWP received funding to build a waste water reclamation facility, so now L.A. residents can drink their own excrement instead of the clean water of the High Sierra.

On a beautiful winter day with none of the wind that has been whipping across northern California, the Tufa rising out of Mono Lake create an otherworldly spectacle.

Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve provides a number of trails to access the lake, and an unimproved boat ramp.  Only a few days ago, another threat to Mono Lake, California's inability to control its public debt, was deflected.  This park was slated for closure, but funding has been found in the form of parking fees for the park. 

The Tufa shown in these photos are the equivalent of fossilized springs.  As fresh water rises up through fault lines and enters the hypersaline water of Mono Lake, the interaction of calcium-rich fresh water and carbonates in the salt water forms these calcium carbonate towers.  As the water levels were drawn down, the tufa towers were exposed.  Check out the moon keyholed in a tufa tower below!

Thanks again to the incredible loss of water in Mono Lake, the loop trail at South Tufa takes you through immense gardens of tufa now exposed on dry land.

The unique and interesting tidbits about Mono Lake just keep coming!  Did you know that NASA found the first organism ever that is able to replace some of its phosphorus with arsenic in order to sustain its growth when starved of phosphorus?  This discovery is still being debated.  As well, Storm Thorgerson's fantastic photo The Diver was taken here for the album Wish You Were Here.  It shows a man diving into Mono Lake without creating a ripple, with the Tufa Towers in the background.  It was created by having the diver do a handstand until all of the ripples had faded away.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

This is Life

Sorry we haven't been posting much during November, this is what we've been up to:

Other than two days over the Thanksgiving holiday, we haven't seen a lift line!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More culture in Carson City - yes, I said Carson City

Whoa Nellie, we went from breakfast at Heidi's with the windmill circling outside, to the Nevada State Museum, where we celebrated la Dia de los Muertos with Aztec dancers, to the Carson City Brewery Arts Center for a baroque concert featuring virtuosos from as far away as Chicago and San Francisco.  What a day!  Here it is in pictures!

I thought the day couldn't get any better that this when we tucked into the breakfast of champions: a Yodeler, a Farmhouse Skillet, and an Empire Skillet.  Heidi's is fantastic - great food, great service, great windmill!

It was tough to believe the day could get any better, but when we walked into the Nevada State Museum, we discovered it was la Dia de los Muertos! 

On la Dia de los Muertos, we honor our ancestors who have died, by creating ofrendas (offerings, displays of things that were loved by the departed or that remind us of them), by celebrating and remembering them.  What a wonderful holiday and a wonderful concept.  I'm a devout atheist, but I am also not so foolhardy as to rule out anything.  The thought that we should honor my wife's father by remembering his favorite whiskey and brand of cigar, or my departed uncle's favorite magazine and vodka, or my aunt's favorite song, and that we should do this every year not in sadness but in celebration, makes this a beautiful holiday and a great hedge in case they are actually watching over us every day.  On top of this, the Nevada State Museum is a gem amongst small museums, well-funded, well-presented, and educational.  The displays were fantastic, and the dancers were amazing.

So, you're thinking, surely we couldn't absorb much more culture without having our heads explode?  The coup-de-grace was the Reno Baroque Ensemble in an intimate setting in the Carson City Brewery Arts center.  This was an intimate and up close concert that really brought history to life for our son, already a huge history buff.  In his words, "wow, there's no way I can download this on my iPod".

Our son with cellist Farley Pearce, who laid down the back beat for a fantastic concert!

Our son with conductor, musicologist, and vocalist Eric Gault, who conducted the Reno Baroque Ensemble.

Our son with featured violinist Martin Davids, who also arranged one of the compositions that we enjoyed tonight.  Along with inspiring guest violinist Ruth Lenz, and stunning violinist Olga Archdekin, they put on an incredible show.

Who'dve thunk it in Carson City, Nevada?

But that's not all!  Tonight I stopped into the High Sierra Brewing Company after the concert to sample their great stout and IPA.  Just when I thought life couldn't get any better, in walks one of the members of the Phanton of the Opera orchestra, and Mark D. Williams, the Phantom of the Opera himself (seated on the far right below).  It was a pleasure buying them a beer!

It just doesn't get any better than this!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Carson City - a bit of "culture" - family demands break from camping when it snows!

So we've ended up in Carson City, NV, a great little town that offers a bit of culture after camping.  We've had a blast eating, drinking, and hitting the local children's museum. 

We traveled on the winds of the incoming low from the Bay of Alaska.  It was breezy enough to whip up the waves of Topaz Lake near the CA-NV state line.

Once we landed in Carson City, we ended up staying in Hardman House, an inexpensive but clean hotel right near a number of attractions we wanted to visit - the Carson City Children's Museum, the Nevada State Museum, and the Community Center where Phantom of the Opera happens to be playing this weekend!

Once we settled in, the next requirement was, of course, food!  We wandered into Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint because there was a giant movie-theatre-sized sign that indicated "BREWERY" right next door.  The meal was OK, and the beer was strong, so they evened out.  I had the Jamaican jerk pulled pork sandwich with a habanero slaw, which was nicely spicy but greasy, with the upgrade to the sweet potato chips.  3.5 out of 5 stars.

Our son, when freed from the normal choice of broccoli or broccoli that is usual camping fare, went for the bacon bleu burger (surprise, surprise).  It was a bit dry, but he loved it none the less!  After a couple of cream sodas, he'll eat anything and give it 5 stars!

Finally, my wife went for the savory pie, a mix of pork and butternut squash under a layer of mashed potatoes.  It looked great, but unfortunately, the cook gave her the knuckle off of the pig, so it was full of gristly bits, and not so nice to chew.

Sorry if the pix above are a bit blurry.  I will say one thing about the iPhone vs Droid - the iPhone blows the Droid away as far a pictures are concerned.  The Droid just seems to be getting more and more finicky about taking pix, while the iPhone just gets better with age.  Now, Verizon still blows AT&T away for service, reliability, and cost, but the Droid camera is a joke compared to a three-version out of date iPhone (3GS). 

After we slept the meal off, we walked across the parking lot to the Northern Nevada Children's Museum.

It was a hoot!  It's not big, and it's not fancy, but we were the only people there on a Friday morning, so we could play with the toys with unlimited access.  Our son does his best Michael Jackson Billie Jean impression...

The virtual tilting maze took up hours....

...and we had fun with the balloon launcher (click on the image below for animation!).  I failed to mention, we also actually learned some Nevada history and facts about the minerals and geology of the state, but I didn't take any pictures of that!

Finally, we played Angry Birds with our son's head.

Next, we topped up the tanks at Z Bistro, which has the BEST FRENCH FRIES IN THE WORLD.  Really, these fries were that good.  It was like they had been blanched in sugar-water, then deep fried - they were sweet and super-crispy on the outside, but the inside was soft as...well, you know.  Ooo-la-la.  Here's a picture of my z-burger, our son's french onion soup (also very good), and my wife's ratatouille crepe made with buckwheat flour in the true Norman style.

Now we're off to Phantom of the Opera in our best camping wear..we're lookin' purty, and rarin' for some dessert on the walk back.  More on this later!

OK, it's a little blurry but no flash a matter of fact, I caught an earful from the wife for even bringing the camera!

I had no idea this show was a complex as it was, and the Carson City troupe presenting it was incredible.  The layer upon layer of singing and choreography, the show within a show, was fantastic, almost as amazing as moonrise over the Tetons.  I'm just glad that our son is now old enough to realize without being told that the music he's been hearing for the last 9 years on various TV programs came from this show, not the other way around.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Yosemite National Park - Amazing Sights, but it's the Disneyland of National Parks!

Yosemite National Park has amazing scenery.  Incredible, giant rocks surround a lush, green valley filled with not only pine, but also sugar maple and oak.  Much of the park is at lower altitudes, making it incredibly lush compared to the High Sierra that we have been hiking around Mammoth Lakes.

The fall colors were just starting, but I imagine that Yosemite will be spectacular in a week or two.  Look at that maple in the bottom right of the picture below.

We were amazed that the waterfalls were still flowing this late in the year, even if at a fraction of their spring volume, so we got lucky there.  Maybe in the spring, Yosemite will make a better impression when the water is flowing full bore.

Unfortunately, you can't escape the fact that Yosemite also features 4 million visitors a year, and it seems like all 4 million try to crowd into the Valley.  It also seems to be staffed by volunteers, and most people in uniforms that we encountered had only superficial knowledge of the area.  It was quite a change from Glacier, Yellowstone, and the Tetons, where every person in a uniform that we spoke to seemed to have a geology degree.  The ranger-led presentation we attended at the Lodge on the geology of Yosemite was great, and the presenter obviously knew her stuff, but she was the exception rather than the rule.  We have obviously been spoiled by the high caliber of the staff in the aforementioned Parks, so Yosemite's volunteer staff were a bit of a let down. 

When we first arrived in the Yosemite Valley, we went straight to the campground reservations booth to check out the waiting list for a campsite on a Tuesday morning in the "off season".  Unfortunately, the off-season doesn't really seem to exist here at the moment, and the list was about thirty names long before noon.  Next, we checked out Camp 4, which showed as "open", but when we got there, it looked more like a gathering of the Rainbow People than a campground (and to be clear, I'm not saying that it is a gathering of Rainbow People, just that it looks a lot like what I encountered at "the Slab" in Ocala one March when I stumbled onto a gathering of Rainbow People).  We bailed quickly on the Valley, and headed south to Wawona.  This turned out to be the right move.  The Wawona Campground was open, and clean, with plenty of sites available in the early afternoon.  It was entertaining to get back from a day of hiking, and sit in our campsite enjoying a freshly cooked hot meal of white chili or black beans and rice, and watch a few dozen cars and RVs who hadn't hit the campsite lottery in the Valley race around the Wawona campground trying to find an empty spot.  We ended up sharing our sight with fellow tent campers every night - once with a nice young couple from Israel, once with some hard drinking Dutch, and once with a couple from California.

Despite this evening rush, Wawona was a good spot to pitch the tent for the week.  There was a Pioneer History Center less than a mile down the road.  The Wawona Hotel next door had wireless access, and a restaurant if I needed a night off from cooking.  There is also the Tenaya Lodge just outside the park, where we enjoyed a hot meal and a fizzy soda one night when our son was feeling a bit green around the gills due to the time spent driving back and forth on the winding roads of the Park.  Glacier Point was about an hour away, as was Yosemite Valley, so most days began and ended with the same drive, and three days of this and a recharged Nintendo DSi gave him a brush with car sickness that was miraculously fixed with an orange soda and a cheeseburger.  Finally, there were good hikes and the Mariposa Grove seven miles down the road from Wawona, which, while crowded, were nothing like the trails in the Yosemite Valley.

We had previously been through the Muir Woods north of San Francisco and seen the coastal redwoods, but the four-mile hike through the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias was stunning.  The parking lot and the lower trail is crowded, but few people actually hike up the path to Upper Grove at the top of the trail.  There is a tram that runs up and down a paved road, but it runs infrequently enough that we hiked in almost complete peace and privacy to the top.

When you reach the top, near the "museum", the giant trees scattered about with bright green spaces between presents a scene that tops anything we saw in Muir Woods.

If you look carefully, you can see my wife at the bottom left of the picture above, and of course, the "museum" is in the center background.  This is truly one of those "places of power", where you stop and stand in awe of what surrounds you.