Never pass up a chance to sit down or relieve yourself. -old Apache saying

Friday, October 30, 2009

I'm working on it!

Putting together a travelogue of our West Texas travels is hard work! Especially when strong thunderstorms are pounding the house. Thursday night the weather was nuts in Houston. I ended up huddling in the Harry Potter closet (under the stairs) while the winds howled, the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed. We had several tornado warnings and flash flood warnings issued, but as far as I can tell ... no damage here. Others, like in Shreveport, were not so lucky.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

FOX News is conservative?

No! Say it ain't so!

Poll: Fox News Is Conservative!

In a shocking poll result, a new Pew survey finds that Fox News is viewed as being the most ideologically oriented of the big three cable news channels.

Fox is viewed as being conservative by 47% of Americans, as liberal by 14% (Who are these people???), and as being neither by 24%. CNN is viewed as conservative by 11%, liberal by 37%, and neither by 33%. MSNBC is seen as conservative by 11% (Again: Who are these people???), liberal by 36%, and neither by 27%.

The poll also finds that the view of Fox as being conservative is shared across groups of people who watch different networks. However, people who watch Fox are more likely to view the other networks as being liberal.

Original item is here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Monthly Review

This country needs a healthy dose of what's best for the workers and not the owners, for a change. You know, "socialism" and "freedom" are not mutually-exclusive states of being. Western Europe is living proof of that. What is the U.S. so afraid of? Are we satisfied with the exaggerated concentrations of wealth in this country? Have we been robbed blind by the military-industrial-Congressional-media complex?

About Monthly Review

HISTORY -- In May 1949 Monthly Review began publication in New York City, as cold war hysteria gathered force in the United States. The first issue featured the lead article Why Socialism? by Albert Einstein. From the first Monthly Review spoke for socialism and against U.S. imperialism, and is still doing so today. From the first Monthly Review was independent of any political organization, and is still so today. The McCarthy era inquisition targeted Monthly Review's original editors Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, who fought back successfully. In the subsequent global upsurge against capitalism, imperialism and the commodification of life (in shorthand “1968”) Monthly Review played a global role. A generation of activists received no small part of their education as subscribers to the magazine and readers of Monthly Review Press books. In the intervening years of counter-revolution, Monthly Review has kept a steady viewpoint. That point of view is the heartfelt attempt to frame the issues of the day with one set of interests foremost in mind: those of the great majority of humankind, the propertyless.

TODAY -- Monthly Review has had but 6 editors. The original editors were Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. Leo Huberman died in 1968, and Harry Magdoff became an editor in 1969. Ellen Meiksins Wood served ably as editor in the period 1997-2000.

In May 2000 John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, themselves of the "1968" generation and educated by Monthly Review, took over the primary editorial responsibilities. Founding editor Paul Sweezy died on February 27, 2004, and a special issue devoted to his work appeared in October 2004.

On June 1, 2004 Robert McChesney ceased to be formally designated as an editor, while continuing as a contributor and a Director of the Monthly Review Foundation, the not-for-profit entity that operates both Monthly Review magazine and Monthly Review Press. Harry Magdoff died on New Year's Day, 2006. A special issue focusing on his contribution to the understanding of capitalism and imperialism appeared in October, 2006. John Bellamy Foster, the current editor, continues the tradition of combining accounts of what is new (without falling for fads) with the equally vital task of seeing the longer process. That tradition, as summarized by Paul Sweezy, is to see the present as history.

On July 14th, 2006 we began a daily web magazine featuring a broad range of articles, reviews and commentary. Revenues from subscriptions and the sales of books have always fallen short of the demands on Monthly Review's resources. This is inevitable; in today's world any anti-imperialist and socialist enterprise that finds its resources sufficient to the tasks we face must either be moribund or false. The contributions—over and above subscriptions and book sales—of a global community of several thousand people sustain Monthly Review. Monthly Review today places most of its articles on the web and our daily web magazine has attracted a substantial and growing readership. If you have found our website of value, please consider subscribing to the magazine or, better yet, becoming an Associate.

And another link here.


Blah blah blah BANG!

Day 3 & 4 - Marfa, TX.

Today, Sunday, October 18, we travel to Marfa, Texas for a couple of nights at the Hotel Paisano...

...the next leg on our journey through West Texas.

Bur first, since I am a creature of habit....

I like to have breakfast, pretty much first thing in the morning. I don't understand how some people can function on just a cup of coffee, or, worse, a soft drink first thing. Ew.

We woke to a beautiful morning at the Astronomer's Lodge, high up in the Davis Mountains, atop Mount Locke. As with dinner last night at the Lodge, breakfast is included in the cost of the room. And similarly to dinner last night, breakfast is self-serve. But they have everything I like, such as several varieties of cold cereal, with various fruits, or bagels, muffins, or assorted breakfast breads. The milk is over there in the refrigerator, as are a few kinds of fruit juices. Plenty of coffee, jellies, butter. We have to make another pot of coffee? No problem. It suited me just perfectly.

Before leaving the McDonald Observatory for Marfa, we decided to take in the 11:00 a.m. "Solar Viewing" program at the Visitors Center. They have a live camera set up for solar viewing, and they talk about all things solar: sunspots, flares, prominences, maximums and minimums, and the various stages of star development. It's very interesting, and lasted about an hour. Our sun is expected to hit its "solar maximum" again in 2012. Some are predicting it to be so strong this time that it might disrupt cellular and other electronic transmissions FOR YEARS, and maybe even worse. Could the Mayans have been that prescient? Let's hope not.

Most people in attendance next went on a tour of the 107" telescope, but we had other fish to fry. And stomachs to feed. Rumble, rumble. Time for lunch already. We took the easy route and ate at the Stardate Cafe, also in the Visitors Center, right next door to the Auditorium where we attended the Sola
r Viewing, which turned out to be a mistake. Not good. But you're a rather captive audience. Take a picnic lunch instead. Enough said.

Time to hit the road to Marfa, south from Fort Davis on state highway 17.
Another beautiful drive on a gorgeous day. So far, the weather has been awesome.

Marfa, while still at around 4400' elevation, sits on a broad flat plain, called, coincidentally, the Marfa Plain. The town has been known for many years for the "Marfa Lights" but more recently has experienced a boom in art galleries. With a population of around 2000, the town is still rather sleepy, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays, when we happened to be there. We weren't going to bother with the Marfa Lights. I figure it's just car lights anyway.

We rolled into town about 3:00 p.m. and easily found our destination, the Hotel Paisano, just one block from the county seat square. They call this "downtown" Marfa.

A block further south, where Marfa Public Radio, KRTS, is situated, they call "Midtown" Marfa. We had to laugh at that. A couple of more blocks south and you've left town.

The Hotel Paisano is quite beautiful. Built in 1930, it was a premier destination between San Antonio and El Paso. They filmed the movie, "Giant" in Marfa in 1955, and the cast and crew stayed at the Hotel Paisano. Naturally, the hotel management has been cashing in on this fact for years.

We chose to stay in Room 211, the "Rock Hudson Suite."

This second-floor suite (there are only two stories at this hotel) used to be two rooms which are now combined. There are two bathrooms, a kitchen, living room, sitting room, and a massive outdoor (rooftop) deck. The place is really cool, BUT, if you ever think about staying here, I give you TWO CAVEATS. Well, three.

One, there is no elevator in the building, so you have to climb stairs. No big deal.

Two, on the outdoor deck, there is a huge tower smack dab in the middle of it that is the exhaust vent for the 1st floor restaurant "Jett's Grill" directly below. They turn on a motor around noon every day, and it grinds and grinds and grinds away until around 11:00 p.m. each evening, disrupting your peace and
tranquility on the deck. It's really very annoying, and loud.

Three, on this same outdoor deck, there is a very bright outdoor light that cannot be turned off at night. It is so bright that it totally blots out any stargazing you may have wished to do on the deck. There are chairs on this deck with high backs which are perfect for stargazing, but the bright light prevents you from seeing much of anything. The sky was dark and clear, perfect for stargazing, but it was impossible, and very disappointing.

I complained about these last two facts to the front desk, and the woman feigned ignorance. If you are thinking about staying in this room, ask them about items two and three. If they hem and haw, stay somewhere else.

Beyond that, the hotel is pretty awesome. Great location, a cool swimming pool, a large number of gift shops carrying some great stuff, and a decent restaurant.

While checking into the hotel, our first near-catastrophe hit: I lost all of my personal keys. I usually keep them in my right-front pants pocket and obsessively check for them throughout the day. Suddenly, during check-in, they were missing. A quick scan of the suite produced nothing, so, rather than panic, which the wife was doing, I re-traced my steps, and lo and behold, found them in the trunk of our rental car. Good think I didn't lock the car keys in there too!

We took the easy route for dinner our first night there (Su
nday the 18th) and tried out Jett's Grill. It was good, but pricey. There was absolutely nothing going on in the town, as far as we could tell. Too bad we had just missed the "Open House Weekend" at the Chinati Foundation.

When we awoke Monday morning at the hotel, near-catastrophe # 2 befell us: this time, the wife could not find her purse. This was potentially much more serious than losing my personal keys, and we rather frantically searched the room to no avail. If the wife panicked when I'd misplaced my keys, now she was close to hysterical.

Again, we re-traced our steps. No sign of it at the hotel front desk or lost-and-found. The restaurant? Did she even leave the restaurant with her purse? NO! The guy at the front desk let us back into the restaurant, and whattayaknow, there it was, leaning against the wall at the same table where we had had dinner the night before! Thank goodness! She'd had only two beers with dinner, and had totally lost her mind (and her purse). All's well that end's well.

Finding breakfast Monday morning, after the purse drama, was damn near impossible. Jett's Grill only serves lunch and dinner. We found a directory of restaurants in the area, and walked to two of them that were supposed to be open for breakfast on Mondays but were in fact both closed with no explanation. Welcome to Marfa.

As we were walking around "Midtown" Marfa, hungry, I noticed a guy opening up a barber shop, so I stopped him and asked him if he knew where to get any breakfast. He laughed and said, "There's maybe one place - Alices's Cafe, out west on 90. Too far to walk."

So we got in the car and finally found it. Thank goodness for the Mexicans. The place is run by Mexican-Americans (??) and served good old-fashioned stuff like eggs, bacon, waffles, tortillas, chorizo, huevos rancheros, etc. And lots of coffee. Two breakfasts with coffee for $12? Well, alright!

We included Marfa in our West Texas itinerary because we have a friend in Houston that also has a house in Marfa, which he visits monthly, usually. But not this time. He was supposed to be there when we were there, but he had to attend to other things and couldn't make this trip. Too bad, because without him, I'm sure we didn't get a good taste of the town.

The Chinati Foundation was also closed. Hell, everything was closed on Monday, and most still on Tuesday. But that's OK. This is, after all, vacation time, so we don't want to fill every minute with activities.

We did some lollygagging around on Monday, our full day in Marfa, and some shopping at the hotel, and took some time to read, since everything was closed. Another decent, simple restaurant we found was "Carmen's Cafe," another one run by Mexican-Americans. Great food, cheap.

Can't remember where we had dinner on Monday. No big deal. Tuesday morning, before the restaurant exhaust vent started grinding away and before we had to check out, we enjoyed some quiet time on the deck reading and ... you know.

Marfa is a nice place to visit (on a weekend, I guess), but I wouldn't want to live there.

To read about Day 1 - Amtrak,
click here.

To read about Day 2 - Observatory,
click here.

To read about Day 5 & 6 - Big Bend, click here.

To read about Day 7 & 8 - Terlingua, TX., click here.

I love Weiner

Uh, I mean Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). He appears to be one of the few not "bought" by a special interest group.

Rep. Weiner Identifies 55 Republicans On Medicare Who ‘Steadfastly Oppose’ The Public Option

Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) office today released an internal study showing that 151 members of Congress “currently receive government-funded; government-administered single-payer health care — Medicare.” Of those 151 members, 55 are Republicans who also happen to be “steadfastly opposed [to] other Americans getting the public option, like the one they have chosen.” Included on Weiner’s list are anti-public option crusaders Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), and Rep. Peter King (R-NY).

This morning on C-Span, Weiner explained the idea behind the project:

WEINER: It’s more another way of looking at this debate, this discussion about the public option, to put it in focus. We went, just out of curiosity, looked at how many members of Congress get the public option. And I know a lot of people have said, “Well under the new bill, how many of you members of Congress would choose the public option?”

Well there already is one; it’s called Medicare. And we found 55 Republicans and 151 members of Congress are on Medicare right now. So they’re already getting the same type of public option that we’d like people who are without insurance to be able to get. And I guess the purpose of this list was to kind of point out some of the hypocrisy of this debate.

“You have members of Congress thumping their chest how they’re against government health care,” Weiner noted, adding, “and yet when it’s time for them to accept Medicare, they’re like, ‘Sign me up!’” Watch it.

Find the original post on Think Progress.

Turquoise Mountain

No, Turquoise Mountain is not another mountain range in West Texas that we visited recently. Turquoise Mountain is yet another worthy charity, this time involved in investing in and rebuilding Afghanistan. This non-profit is run by Rory Stewart, a Brit who has spent considerable time in Afghanistan.

It is unlikely that we are going to "bring" democracy to Afghanistan. It is more likely that the Afghans themselves, with the assistance of the world community, will rebuild their nation into something all can be proud of.

About us

Turquoise Mountain is investing in the regeneration of the historic commercial centre of Kabul, providing basic services, saving historic buildings and constructing a new bazaar and galleries for traditional craft businesses. It has established Afghanistan's first Higher Education Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture gathering some of the greatest Masters in Afghanistan and training students to produce masterpieces in wood, calligraphy and ceramics.

The Institute has been used to develop new Afghan designs, promote Afghan handicrafts through national and international exhibitions and media campaigns, open new markets, restore key parts of the Kabul museum collection, renovate public spaces and build capacity in the government and universities.

Most importantly however, the Foundation uses the resources and skills of the Institue to serve Afghan communities. Its particular focus has been the area of Murad Khane in the old city but it has also worked in a fort in Kart-e-Parwan and invested in the potter's community in the village of Istalif. In each case, the Foundation has delivered services to the community, supported local businesses, trained local students, protected historic areas, attracted visitors and improved living standards.

Visit the site.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 2 - Observatory

Saturday, October 17, started much like Friday, October 16, had ended: with a thump and a rattle and a loud BANG! I was entombed in the windowless upper bunk of our roomette on this Amtrak train to hell, and my wonderful wife was lying restlessly in the lower bunk. We both remarked after one particularly violent lurch, "WHAT THE FUCK!?!"

Somewhere west of Houston, probably about halfway to San Antonio, the train calmed down a bit. Enough so that we were able to catnap a bit, only to be awakened now and then by random lurching and shuddering. It was this way all the way to San Antonio. I lay in the upper bunk, miraculously not motion-sick, thinking that, next time, there was no way in hell we would travel by train. ANYWHERE.

As the train slowed and pulled into San Antonio, the lurching subsided. It was almost 3:00am. I could feel the train jerk to a stop. Suddenly, two of the lights that we had purposefully left on in our roomette went dark, and the ceiling air vent that I had relied upon for some "fresh" (recycled) air, went dead.

Now the train was dead still, dead silent, and the coffin-like upper bunk seemed even smaller and darker than ever. The roomette was still illuminated, but just barely, by a faint glow from an overhead light that had never gone out, but claustrophobia began to set in.

The lurching and noise out of Houston had been bad enough, but now, not even the vent was blowing, it was eerily quiet and darker than ever, and I felt a different kind of fear creeping into the tiny space with me.

I unhooked the netting and struggled out of the bunk. The wife was sleeping peacefully, miraculously. I put on my shoes and walked down the darkened hallway, coming upon our red cap attendant.

"Are we in San Antonio?" I mumbled. "Yes," the attendant said.

"How long will we be here?" I asked. "About two and a half hours," was his answer.

Oh, geez. San Antonio is a switching point for those travelers coming or going from Chicago. We were going to drop off one car that was due to head north to Chicago and would pick up two others that were traveling westbound with us. This whole dance would last until 5:30am?!

Looking and feeling disheveled and sleep-deprived, I returned to our roomette. This is not the time to strike up conversations with strangers, so I took a couple of deep breaths and climbed back inside the coffin. Other people do this all the time, right? Right?

Somehow, I climbed up into the bunk without waking up the wife below and quickly, mercifully, fell asleep. Sometime around 6:00am, we both awoke at the same time, hungry. Open breakfast (no reservations) would not be served until 6:30am in the dining car, but we gathered ourselves anyway, brushed our teeth in the airplane-like "restroom" and headed that way.

Here's a short video of moving between the cars.

Since it was too early for breakfast, we settled into the lounge car, one car past the dining car, and had it all to ourselves. One attendant was nice enough to bring us some coffee while we waited for breakfast. The moving train was rather smooth here. Whattaya know. But it was still pitch-dark outside. Could not see a thing.

One good thing about purchasing a sleeping arrangement is that all meals are included with your ticket. And free water. And coffee. The breakfast was fairly typical: the wife had a couple of waffles and bacon, which was pretty good, but I made the mistake of ordering something the waiter described as "like a quiche." I guess I wasn't thinking too clearly at the time. It was pretty horrible, but I nibbled enough from the wifes plate to satisfy my appetite. And the coffee was very good.

After breakfast, even after a gallon of coffee, we were both still so tired from the harrowing "sleep" the night before that we went back to the roomette and napped for a couple of hours. The attendant had converted the roomette to its sitting arrangement in our absence, but it was easy to lower the upper bunk once again. It was also much easier to sleep now, because the train was running smoothly and quietly, with hardly any rocking at all. Strange, but very welcome. We awoke around 10:00am to a nice gentle swaying of the train.

By this time, we were past Del Rio, and the train was climbing in altitude. From Houston, which is about 100' above sea level, to Alpine at 4400', most of this second day was a constant climbing higher and higher, which made the train go slower, and smoother. It was a very pleasant ride now, so much different from the Houston to San Antonio stretch.

The hamburger at lunch was delicious. Perfect. Feeling human again, we retired to the lounge car for awhile. Our arrival in Alpine came quickly enough, but we had some time to sit and enjoy the (somewhat austere) scenery in the lounge car. Now THIS was "train travel" that was actually enjoyable.

We rolled into Alpine about an hour early, and our rental car was there at the train station, waiting for us.

Alpine Auto Rental is the only game in town, unfortunately, which allows them to get away with charging a daily rental fee (no weekly rates - sorry!) PLUS $0.10 per mile! Take it or leave it. We took it. They keep in touch with the train's progress and so they knew it would be early, and were there with the car for us. Nice touch. It was a 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, fully equipped.

We stuffed our bags into the car and headed north to the McDonald Observatory, our overnight destination, 10 miles west of Fort Davis, on state highway 118.

Alpine is a nice little town tucked into the mountains of West Texas, population 5,000 or so, and home to Sul Ross State University. We would hang around the town a bit later in our journey, so, for now, we headed straight for the Observatory.

It's a scenic 30-mile drive up to Fort Davis from Alpine. Hell, anything not flat is scenic to us Houstonians. No, really, it was beautiful, and a gorgeous, clear, deep-blue-sky helped no small amount.

The McDonald Observatory is home to several large telescopes run by the University of Texas at Austin.

Atop Mount Locke, at 6650' elevation in the Davis Mountains, the weather was cool and perfect for stargazing.

We stopped at the Visitors Center to get our bearings around 2:00pm...

...and since check-in was not until 3:00pm, we spent some time in the Exhibit Hall (museum) of the Visitors Center. Some very cool stuff in there: interactive exhibits of astronomy, galaxies, star chemistry, the history of exploration, etc, and one of the best things is that there were CHAIRS in front of each exhibit so that you could sit and read and take your time. Since we were the only people in the Exhibit Hall at the moment, we took full advantage. Imagine! CHAIRS in a museum! Highly recommended. Since we were sleeping overnight at the Astronomers Lodge, the price of admission to the Exhibit Hall was nada.

Did you know that 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's 1609 initial use of a spyglass to view the heavens? 400 years. And the Catholic Church "forgave" Galileo for heresy what? 5 years ago? Better late than never, I guess.

From the Visitors Center, we drove up the rest of the mountain to the Astronomers Lodge and checked in. Until just a few years ago, this Lodge was only available for astronomers, but they decided to open it up to visitors who were there for one of the viewing programs.

The largest telescopes on the mountain are the 107", the 82" and the 36", but there are several smaller ones. The even-bigger HET (Hobby-Eberly Telescope) occupies a nearby mountaintop. Since we had signed up for the 36" viewing program, we got to stay in the Astronomers Lodge. For a fee, of course.

This area of Texas is still the darkest region on the continental United States, so it is ideal for telescopes. They take darkness and silence seriously up here. Astronomers typically are up all night making observations and doing research, and so sleep during the daytime.

Meals are included in the cost of the Astronomers Lodge. Dinner was a make-your-own salad and make-your-own tortillas filled with your choice of beef or chicken, along with the usual Mexican-food style condiments. It was delicious. Not much of a menu, no waiters, but as much as you wanted, and it was good. Not many Texans do not like tortillas like this.

Nice view from the dining room of the Lodge...

During dinner, we struck up a conversation with a woman and her daughter at our table. Turns out she is the wife of a University of Texas astronomy professor, and was up here helping him with research while he was in Austin teaching. She had the keys to the 82" telescope and invited us to take a private tour of the dome. A private tour? Well ... hell yeah!

Once inside the telescope's dome, she gave us the history of the Observatory. Astronomers used to stay for months at the Observatory, sleeping in quarters right inside the dome. Nowadays, they use the Lodge. We went into the main telescop
e room and the instrument was just massive. The 82" Otto Struve telescope is the first one built, in 1939, at the Observatory, and it does look rather old, but still works great. She even let us operate the controls to move the telescope into position and rotate the dome. I don't think they let you do that on the normal tour. It was too cool.

The time was getting close for our official reason for being there - the 36" telescope viewing program - so we said goodbye and thank you so much and left for the smaller telescope.

I had tinkered with the idea of majoring in Astronomy in college but didn't follow through. I can only wonder.....

The 36" telescope is just a short walk from the Lodge, so we ambled on over there and met up with a few others who were already there waiting. Our visitors group consisted of about 15 in total, ranging from old folks from Germany and Australia to young female science students from Washington State to a metal-studded couple moving from Austin to L.A.

One of the young girls (8th grade) was very sharp and was quick to answer most of our host's questions. It's good to see some interest in science in our young kids. After noticing another dim satellite passing slowly overhead through the telescopes' open dome, she told me she won an honor back at her school for noticing things moving in the sky. She spotted about five satellites in orbit, which was pretty amazing.

Our host for the 36" program, Joe, was from Indiana and had a most-unusual manner of speaking. We kept listening to the odd way he spoke and didn't pay much attention to what he was saying. Check out this video...

Silly and superficial, I know, but are we not human?

Joe pointed the 36" telescope to Jupiter (particularly bright throughout October), Neptune, and a couple of stars and galaxies several thousand light-years away. It is humbling to look at these objects, so far away, and wonder again takes over....

We also went outside the dome at one point and Joe pointed out several objects in the dark, clear night sky. The number of stars was just phenomenal. We hadn't seen so many stars since we were kids living in small towns.

The "new" moon was due on Sunday the 18th, so we had optimal stargazing conditions. Joe talked about astronomy and pointed out several constellations and clusters and we all marveled at what the hell the Greeks were thinking when they saw patterns in the sky and gave common names to the curious arrangements they saw. It is simply a profound experience to view the heavens on a clear night. That is, if you are not sitting in a brightspot like Houston.

Joe had this really cool laser pointer that, when he pointed at objects in the sky, would actually go up 50-100 feet in the air with a solid narrow beam of light, to make it really easy to see what he was pointing at, even if you weren't that close to him. I gotta get one of those. I promise I won't point it at airplanes or helicopters flying overhead!

These viewing programs are long. We started at 8:30pm and took a break around 10:00pm to walk back to the Lodge for some coffee, cookies and chitchat, and to warm up a bit. The weather gauge read 50 degrees outside, but the strong breeze must have dropped the windchill down to 40. Or less. It was COLD outside, but we were prepared by dressing snugly.

Rather than re-join the group and go back to the 36" telescope for the second half of the program (which we were told later lasted another 90 minutes!) we stayed behind at the Astronomers Lodge and called it a night.

A horrible train ride. A great train ride. A nice drive in the mountains. A mind-bending museum. Good dinner. Private tour of the 82" telescope. A wonder-inducing 36" telescope program. Trembling with awe under the Milky Way. All-in-all, a really great day.

To read about Day 1 - Amtrak, click here.

To go to Day 3 & 4 - Marfa, TX., click here.

To go to Day 5 & 6 - Big Bend, click here.

To go to Day 7 & 8 - Terlingua, TX., click here.


What an elegant solution...

Read more here.

Day 1 - Amtrak

Friday, October 16, marked the first day of our travels out to West Texas. Overall, we had a fantastic time. Overall, because the first day was sheer terror.

We had never taken an overnight train trip anywhere before. Short train rides along the NE coast of the U.S., in the Cumberland Mountains of western Maryland, and a high-speed train in Europe is about it.

Yes, Amtrak is still running. They have curtailed some of their routes, such as New Orleans to Orlando, Florida due to Hurricane Katrina and others for various reasons, but the Sunset Limited still runs from New Orleans on the east end to Los Angeles on the west. That entire trip takes about 54 hours.

We booked this trip in pieces months ago. We thought it would be cool to travel by train out to West Texas instead of the grueling 12-hour one-way automobile trip. The closest we could fly commercially is to Midland, Texas, which would then require a car rental and a drive of another four hours to get to our destination, so, we decided on the train. Que romantico!

The Amtrak train station, just NW of downtown, is a poor memory of a bygone era. It's in a dilapidated building with one large room and a few benches, and that's about it.

When I was there to pick up our tickets a couple of weeks before travel, a couple of homeless-looking guys were sleeping on one bench. The attendant on duty said that we could park our car in the adjacent parking lot for the duration of our trip, but she didn't recommend it, as almost every car that did that was broken into. Well, then. Taxi!

There is absolutely no "security" when traveling by train, at least on this route. We arrived about 9:30pm and went directly on board: no metal detectors, no drug-sniffing dogs, no menacing-looking TSA agents. Nada.

You get to take just about as much luggage as you want on the train. If you want to keep some of your bags with you, fine, but they provide some space for your larger bags that you yourself stuff your bags into. Needless to say, you could smuggle just about anything you wanted to onto the train. The interior of the train, at night, was a little creepy.

The Sunset Limited was set to depart Houston at 9:50pm to begin its 16-hour trip to Alpine, Texas, where we were going to debark. That meant, about as soon as we got to our sleeper cabin, it would be time to turn in and get some sleep. Sure enough, when we arrived at our cabin, it was already converted into its sleeping arrangement. It has two arrangements: sleeping and sitting. We were rather shocked at how tiny the space actually was.

"Sleep" is something that is very, very difficult in a train ride out of Houston. Start with the fact that our cabin was the smallest available, the "roomette." This was our first mistake. There is a 3D virtual tour of the roomette and other rooms available at this link. Be aware that distances are much less than they appear in this virtual tour. MUCH SMALLER.

The next time we travel Amtrak, IF there is a next time, we will eschew the roomette and go for something that two normal-sized humans can actually occupy.

The lower bunk of the roomette is actually not that bad. You can stretch out, you have windows to look through, and it is easy to get out of the bunk and trundle down the hallway to the bathroom or the dining car or whatever.

The upper bunk, however, which I "slept" in on the westward journey, is much more akin to a coffin. If you lay flat on your back, there is not enough room to even bend your knees upward. You have to lay on one side. There are no windows. They supply a "netting" of sorts that you hook into the ceiling to prevent you from rolling around and falling five feet to the floor. That was comforting. Not.

Our second mistake was the mere fact of departing from Houston. As you may know, Houston, and Texas, for that matter, is a "car culture." In rural Texas, it's a "truck culture." We have ripped up most of the train tracks that criss-crossed this area in order to put in more freeways, only leaving a few tracks for freight and forcing Amtrak to take a convoluted route to get out of town: west, north, south, east, south, west, north ... I lost track. Not only that, but the tracks that are still around are in pretty bad shape.

Every single intersection at grade was a loud, bumpy experience. There were some intersections that violently tossed me against the one wall, the traincar rocking left and right. One of them almost threw me into the netting, but I was hanging on for dear life. The loud crashes, thuds, and bangs made the trip out of Houston a real nightmare. A literal nightmare. No, I take that back. It wasn't a nightmare because I didn't sleep at all. It was a ride across hell. More than once, we asked each other, "WHY THE HELL DID WE DO THIS?!?"

Not a great start. I slept hardly at all until we rolled into San Antonio at 3:00am, but that story will have to wait.

To go to Day 2, click here.

To go to Day 3 & 4 - Marfa, TX., click here.

To go to Day 5 & 6 - Big Bend, click here.

To go to Day 7 & 8 - Terlingua, TX., click here.

Cold vs. Flu symptoms

This seems like a good time to compare cold and flu symptoms, seeing as how I seem to have caught a cold from that nasty Amtrak train we stumbled out of early Sunday morning in Houston. Fortunately, my symptoms are those of a cold, and not the flu.

I found the listings below here.

Symptom Cold Flu
Fever Fever is rare with a cold. Fever is usually present with the flu in up to 80% of all flu cases. A temperature of 100°F or higher for 3 to 4 days is associated with the flu.
Coughing A hacking, productive (mucus- producing) cough is often present with a cold. A non-productive (non-mucus producing) cough is usually present with the flu (sometimes referred to as dry cough).
Aches Slight body aches and pains can be part of a cold. Severe aches and pains are common with the flu.
Stuffy Nose Stuffy nose is commonly present with a cold and typically resolves spontaneously within a week. Stuffy nose is not commonly present with the flu.
Chills Chills are uncommon with a cold. 60% of people who have the flu experience chills.
Tiredness Tiredness is fairly mild with a cold. Tiredness is moderate to severe with the flu.
Sneezing Sneezing is commonly present with a cold. Sneezing is not common with the flu.
Sudden Symptoms Cold symptoms tend to develop over a few days. The flu has a rapid onset within 3-6 hours. The flu hits hard and includes sudden symptoms like high fever, aches and pains.
Headache A headache is fairly uncommon with a cold. A headache is very common with the flu, present in 80% of flu cases.
Sore Throat Sore throat is commonly present with a cold. Sore throat is not commonly present with the flu.
Chest Discomfort Chest discomfort is mild to moderate with a cold. Chest discomfort is often severe with the flu.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Back from vacation

It seems like we've been gone for a long, long time, and not just nine days. The vacation was awesome, but we are both "bushed" by lack of sleep on a rockin' and rollin' train ride.

Will have a travelogue of sorts coming up.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

We were on the roof

I spent most of the day on the roof. Sometimes you just gotta say, "Screw politics!"

It was overcast skies all day. A cool breeze blowing from the north. Heaven! Hasn't been this cool since ... April? Finally, I can get up on the roof and work on the garden and not instantly break out in a sweat that just won't quit.

Hey, wow, our ginger is flowering. A very mild, pleasant fragrance. We didn't know if it was a flowering variety. Duh!

...and more on the way ...

I've come a long way from the savannahs of the neanderthal age, I guess. I don't like to sweat, and I can choose to control my environment so that I don't have to. I'm lucky that way. Sweat gets on my glasses or in my eyes, blurring my vision, and it just pisses me off! Yeah, yeah, it's a good thing to sweat and it's good for you. It's a healthy thing to do. I must be reeeealy healthy, 'cause I can sweat just bending over. If it's hot, that is.

Avocado Junior is doing almost as well as ...

Senor Avocado

Lord, my face looks like it got some sun today. Even though it was non-stop clouds all day - no direct sun at all - my face looks like I've been at the freakin' beach. Amazing. I get a sunburn even when it's cloudy! My glasses were trying to tell me, but I didn't listen. I have those "transition" lenses that get dark in the sun and lighten up automatically inside. They got dark on the deck. Really dark. I noticed it and shrugged it off. Obviously, I was getting a lot of UV today.

Something (good) has gotten into our blueberry bush. We had the first fruit ever from the bush this spring (ok, only about 25 sweet blueberries), but since then, the bush has gone mad with growth. If this keeps up, we'll have a huge crop of berries next year.

Pulled up a couple of plants that were on their last limbs, washed out the pots with soap and gave them a scrubbing. One of our two deck boxes had 2" of water in it! It's rained a LOT over the last two weeks. Fortunately. Somehow a lot of water got inside one of the deck boxes. The other was dry. Not only was one wet inside, it had a lot of dirt in it too. Dirt which had turned to ... mud ... with water. So taking everything out of the box and cleaning out the box was an ordeal, and yet ... it was ... NO SWEAT! Yea!!!

Almost everything from the September plantings is doing well ... the Mesclun mix, from which we have already been snipping for salads ...

the dark lollo rosa is still small, but there...

...the endive ...

And we have a first fruit on the Bradley Pink tomato plant, which we transplanted from seedling only four weeks ago!

We even got a tomato on the May planting of the Green Sausage tomato plant. Finally! I think it was lucky to survive that monster heat wave this past summer, and now, in appreciation of the cooler temps, it's coming to life.

Oh, shit, time to set up the automatic watering system seein' as how we're about to be gone for several days. The timer seems to be working fine. The manifold that attaches to my spigot works, to a degree ... one of the four nozzles is leaking a bit and it'll take some more experimentation to get the right combination of hoses. Freakin' bag uh rubbish ... but ... NO SWEAT!!

Once the wife got home - had to work a few hours today ... at work - we put seeds and transplants into eleven different containers. Eleven more! As if what we already have isn't frustrating enough! It must not be, because today we planted:

1) spinach, a savoy type from Burpee, in a large pot which can hopefully have three plants;

2) fennel - florence, one of the German (bulbing) varieties. These Burpee seeds produced a really delicious bulb last time that went right into the wife's special pasta sauce.

3) chamomile - manzanilla. We tried this Ferry-Morse product once before and it produced a microscopic plant. Smallest plant I'd ever seen. We've giving it a second chance, but only a second chance.

4) lettuce - Lau's Pointed Leaf, a looseleaf heirloom variety from Baker Creek. We have three other lettuces about four weeks old doing well, so we're staggering the crop, but this is a first try for this particular variety.

5) kale - Red Winter. We've grown this Botanical Interests from seed quite well before. It's fall. Time for some more kale.

6) carrot - Little Finger. So far, poor luck with three different varieties of carrots by three different vendors. First try for this little heirloom guy from Baker Creek. This time, a pretty big pot, and I think our timing is better too. I mean, sometimes we DO learn. Sometimes. But if we strike out this time too, that may be all she wrote for us trying to grow carrots.

7) broccoli - Green Goliath, another Burpee seed. The four-week old Waltham broccoli from Baker Creek is doing ok. Staggering.

8) swiss chard - our pot full of swiss chard shoots recently totally disappeared. Not the pots. The healthy-looking shoots. We're not sure if the recent high winds just ripped them away, or maybe the legions of lizards we have unleashed on our roof ate them. The lizards are supposed to just eat the bugs, but I dunno ... so we re-planted three colors of swiss chard: yellow, pink and orange. The seven-month old swiss chard from Park Seed Co. has been producing well, but these three are all from Baker Creek, and

9) pak choi - Toy Choi. We've had good luck with these Burpee seeds in the past, so we're trying some more. They produce tasty tight buds of cabbage-like heads.

And so here's a glimpse of the final result, placed somewhat haphazardly against the wall.

Nine more edibles! And then we "potted up" a fern and a colancha for inside the house. Meaning, they moved from smaller pots to bigger pots.

Lots of time on the roof today, and dammit, I'm sorry we missed some friends who dropped by on one of their rare weekend afternoons off. We simply cannot hear the doorbell when we are outside on the roof: strike one.

We were playing music on the deck, and loud enough such that we couldn't hear the landline telephone ringing: strike two.

My mobile phone stays tucked firmly in my briefcase, which was on the 3rd floor, one level below the deck. Ain't no way I'm hearing that if it rings: strike three.

I really should pull my mobile out on the weekends, at least. And I guess I need to wire the landline phone into my stereo so I can hear it when it rings. And wire my front door bell so that it rings over the stereo too. It can be done. It was a very pleasant afternoon, and it would have been even moreso if I had heard that company was at the front door! HELLO!! Thanks for the bread. It's delicious!