Category Archives: Travel

Back In The USSR

Russia has declassified a huge, Soviet-era bunker buried deep underground in a residential area. It’s unclear what it was originally used for (possibly launching/coordinating nuclear attacks), but it was clearly set up to withstand a nuclear attack. Now it’s a Cold War themed museum. Some great photos here, especially the propaganda posters.

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Vacation Dining – Las Vegas and OC

It’s been a while since my last post, been busy working and eating. It would be nice if I could say that I’ve also been working out, but mostly I’ve been eating. I had a chance to go to Las Vegas a few times and also hung around with the family close to home. In both instances, I took a chance to try a few new food items and also to remind myself why I like some items in the first place. And here are my random musings — definitely not a comprehensive list, but hey, I was on vacation !!!

Las Vegas

I definitely wanted to have a good Pastrami sandwich in Sin City (I mean, every cardinal sin is represented there, so why not gluttony?) As it turns out, I found a place that had a very nicely put-together sandwich and did not leave me feeling stuffed: Greenberg’s Deli  in the New York, New York Casino. They had matzo ball soup, which was a very nice touch to accompany my pastrami. I passed on the yummy potato salad, I was feeling somewhat full. This place was recommended by CT team members as better than the Carnegie Deli elsewhere on the strip and it delivered the taste. And better priced too….

I also took my son to the Las Vegas Grand Prix  and besides having 3 tracks of go-karts (kiddie, medium, expert) they also had a pretty good deal on cheese pizza ($5.00 for a large with 1 topping). Heck, given the price I would overlook bad taste, but it was actually pretty good !! The trick is to ask them to put extra cheese as the free topping. And the crust was nice and thin; you can’t go too wrong when you have thin NY-style crust.

I also tried another comfort food, Smash Burger Las Vegas . This is another burger joint in the In-N-Out price and quality category; more so, they are actually located about 100 yards from In-N-Out !! Now that’s confidence. As it turns out, these 2 restaurants are so good that they actually support each other by providing a destination hamburger experience. Why go to a cheap hamburger place when you can try a better burger for a little more cash? Smash Burger offers choices of toppings and flattens their patties so that they overlap the bun. Not sure if this improves flavor (I would think it would make them drier) because I prefer to order their Chicago dog. But their rosemary fries are the best I have tasted. Ever. Even better than my all-time fast-food favorites at McDonalds.

Finally, I had dinner at Prime at the Bellagio; I wanted to try their dry-aged beef. Would it compare to my experience at Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Paris last year?? Sad to say, the answer is no. The view of the famous Bellagio water fountain show is definitely better at Paris, across the street. And the beef, despite the premium price, was not a totally memorable experience. It was very tender and the taste was good, especially when coupled with the various chef’s sauces that were proferred. But the experience did now compare favorably with the Roast Duck I had at Paris. But hey, I’m comparing apples and oranges, so it’s not really fair. Still, I will be going back to Eiffel Tower Restaurant next year. The Eiffel Tower is also cheaper, although not as nicely decorated as Prime; but you never notice the decor because you are staring out the window panes: the view is what Paris is selling and it is pretty nice.

Back Home

At home, I’ve been doing the Food Truck circuit. I was able to visit 2 events where several food trucks were present but I still ended up eating at Grill Them All Burgers both times. At the Fullerton Food Truck RoundUp  it was tough to pass up all of the other trucks but I was interested in trying the H-100 tater tots at Grill Them All. Seeing someone eating a $12.00 lobster tail on a stick was a pretty tempting suggestion, but I stuck to my guns.1

At today’s Din Din Food Truck Event, I had to pass Central American tapas and Lomo Arigato food truck to complete my tour of the top 3 burgers at Grill Them All. But I’ve now had the three that I wanted: Waste ‘Em All, Molly Hatchet, The Behemoth. You can read more about them here.  You may not be a burger aficionado, but you should be able to find other delicacies at these gourmet food trucks. They also post their locations on Twitter and on their own websites, so you can find them easily.

  1. The picture shows a really long line in front of Grill Them All; they tend to be one of  the more popular truck in the circuit. []

A Letter To My Congressman

I’ve never written to a Congressman before, but these new airport security measures have inspired me to do so. Here is my letter:

Congressman,

I’m writing to say that I oppose the new invasive airport security procedures (backscatter imaging and aggressive pat-downs). You’re probably hearing this a lot, but perhaps not from people with my background.

First, I’m not a frequent flyer. I fly on average once per year to visit my family during Christmas. And it appears that the airports I’m scheduled to fly out of do not have the full body scanners. Even though this may not affect me for a while, I want to voice my opinion while there is still time to do something about it (and save taxpayer’s money).

Second, I am a registered Republican and while I don’t always vote straight Republican, you’ve had my vote whenever you’ve appeared on my ballot.

Third, I consider myself something of a patriot. I have over a decade in the defense industry. I watched with horror as the towers fell, and I understand the need for security. However, regarding these procedures, I think the cost to our liberty is too high.

I also object to the supporters of this initiative who frame this issue in black and white: we either give up all our rights as travelers and fly with complete safety, or we let anyone and anything on board our aircraft and watch them fall from the sky. Clearly, nobody has to make this choice.

I know you are busy, but please take the time to read this fascinating article about how Israel, who faces terror threats far more often than we do, has secured their airports without engaging in security tactics that are demeaning and demoralizing. Yes, it will take personnel with more training and intelligence than your average TSA employee, but I believe this is exactly what travelers would like to see and would be happy to pay the price.

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/744199

Thank you.

Japan: The Bad With The Good

At one point I was seriously considering moving to Japan. As my buddy Hiro described it, it seemed a good fit for me. I even began studying Japanese at a local college. At some point it didn’t seem feasible to get a job there, but it always seemed cool. Tim Rogers is a man who did move there, got a job, and has been living there for several years. At kotaku.com he writes honestly about stuff he’s getting fed up with. From his complaints I’m not sure it would have worked out for me, esp. reading about the nonstop smoking and almost mandatory drinking. I’d still like to take a long vacation there and see for myself, but it’s good to be informed. Read the article here and judge for yourself.

Are Demons Real ?

With the upcoming release of the fictional “Angels and Demons”  (or as I call it DaVinci Code part deux) I have to ask the real question: Are there real demons??  Are they walking among us as seen in the movie “Constantine?”

Constantine battles demons

We have plenty of fictional film evidence to show these demonic beings (Constantine, again) but now I think we’ve had enough evidence in the news programs to proceed with a real discussion:


   * Alabama shooter kills 10
   * German shooter kills 10
   * Oakland shooter kills 3 cops.
   * and on and on……

Yes, I understand that out of a billion inhabitants a few people out of their minds is normal.  But what drove them out of their minds?  99.99999 percent of the population can neutralize the instict to kill their enemies/ loved ones/ strangers on the street,  so what tips these .00001 percent over the edge? 
My answer: demons.

And not the run-of-the-mill demons that make you go for that extra slice of pie for dessert or make you lie to your friends about missing their party last week.   I’m talking about the true evil that makes you contemplate flying yourself and a plane full of fuel into a building.  Demons that can literally drive you out of your rational mind and do something indescribable.

Some time ago I attended a church that printed a series of questions on the back of their bulletin.  These were questions that could be used to initiate discussions about ethics, morals, spirituality, etc.  Aptly enough, this section was called “The Back of the Bulletin” 1  For some reason, I was attracted to keep their discussion titled “Demons, Are They Real?”  but never got a chance to start this investigation.  The time for that investigation is now. 

Over the next few weeks, I will post each new question from The Back of the Bulletin on this blog, and hopefully a spirited (sic) discussion will follow.   Just to give you my background:   I’m an engineer and not attracted to the artifacts of the world beyond the veil (those things we cannot see) such as spirits, ghosts, demons, etc. I’ve never seen a UFO or experienced anything that cannot be explained by science, physics, chemistry, gaming theory. I do believe in God and therefore must believe in Satan.  For whatever reason, they both feel that they need entities to carry out some actions, so therefore I believe in angels and demons.  I don’t believe that demons make you cheat on your taxes or grab extra food at a buffet; these are behaviors that can be easily explained by our background as opportunistic hominid foragers more than by the spiritual world.

But when a rational person (and millions of years of evolution has resulted in a fairly stable brain) goes on a rampage, I have to believe that there was an extra spiritual push in there, somewhere.   I will discuss the mechanics of the brain and how it can be gamed to see/feel/experience something extraordinary,  but there’s been no proof that the deranged individuals that we are discussing were under the influence at the time of their terror sprees.  Sherlock Holmes would not settle on demons as the underlying influence2  but we may surprise ourselves when we start eliminating all other factors from the equation.

  1. Better than what you usually find there: Bulletin sponsored by You’re Next Funeral Home []
  2. Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth. []

Crack Team Agent Ensures Successful Mission

Ever since I was a child I have dreamed of watching a space shuttle launch in person and my opportunity finally came last week on a visit to Florida. After several changes to the launch date NASA finally settled on August 7th for the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-118). We were able to obtain congressional passes from Representative J. Sestak through non-Crack Team personnel and viewed the launch for free from the NASA causeway viewing area.

Several things happened the week before the launch which conspired against my chances to see a successful launch. 1st, NASA was having trouble launching the mars probe Phoenix. They needed to get this probe on its way before its launch window closed or they would have to wait 2 years for the next window to open. NASA said they would probably delay the shuttle launch until after Phoenix was launched. Then, the orbiter failed a pressure leak test due to a poorly installed pressure seal. Thankfully, Phoenix was launched on August 4th and NASA got the faulty seal replaced. They only had to move the launch date 1 day to August 8th.

We arrived at the Merrit Island Mall to meet the bus for Kennedy Space Center. The bus took us to the parking lot of the visitors center where we went through the dumbest security inspection I have ever seen. We were asked to leave the bus and bring all of our smaller belongings but were allowed to leave larger items like folding beach chairs on the bus. Why we were allowed to leave items about the size and shape of a shoulder launched missile on the bus is beyond me. Once off the bus, we put our bags on a table and passed through a metal detector. The security guard ran his wand over my bag and when it squawked he asked me what was inside. After telling him I had a camera and a lens inside he said “ok” and I got back on the bus without the guard actually looking to see if I was telling the truth. The same thing could have been accomplished much faster if the guard just popped his head on the bus and asked if we were carrying anything not allowed on the launch site, except we were never told what we weren’t allowed to bring and we were nowhere near our cars if they decided something we had was not allowed.

After we got back on the bus we were driven to the NASA causeway viewing area. I have to give it to NASA for getting something right. With very little information to go on I had feared the worst. The temperature in Florida at the time was over 100�F with the heat index. I assumed we were going to be dropped off onto an empty field and left there until after the launch. When we arrived there were chairs covered with tents, vendors selling food, and water stations where you could refill water bottles for free. There was a light breeze so the temperature wasn’t too unpleasant and there were very few, if any, mosquitos. Also, all the busses that took people to the viewing area stayed there with their air conditioners running so you could hang out on the bus until just before the launch if you wanted to. I got the impression that, unlike Universal and Disney, NASA actually wanted us to survive the experience.

I spent several weeks prior to my trip arranging to have an acceptable amount of photographic equipment on hand and in hindsight I would have done things a little differently. I own a Canon 5D and borrowed a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L zoom lens and rented a Canon EF 2.0x II teleconverter. This gave me an 800mm f/11 lens which I mounted on my Manfrotto 3021 tripod. In addition, I unwisely used both a haze filter and a circular polarizer which made the viewfinder very dark. I took a meter reading through the camera and then set it to manual at ISO 400, f/11, 1/250s so the bright exhaust from the solid rocket boosters wouldn’t cause incorrect exposures during liftoff. I also turned off the image stabilization on the lens (which gets confused on a tripod) and the autofocus (which wouldn’t have worked anyway). The launch was on SLC-39A which was about 6 miles from the viewing area and it was a very hazy day. I was lucky for the launch to be on the southern pad which is about 2 miles closer than the northern pad. The launch was scheduled for 6:36:36PM EST and as the sun went down the haze cleared up a bit and it offered a nice off angle light source behind and to the left of the viewing area. I was able to take this photo at approximately T+5 seconds.

Space Shuttle Endeavour

If I ever get the chance to do it again I would pay the cost of renting the Canon 400mm f/2.8L telephoto lens to use with the teleconverter. I would get the same focal length but would have an aperture large enough to let my camera auto focus and could have used a lower ISO for less noise in the digital image. I had a very hard time manually focusing with the viewfinder so dark from the small aperture and the setting sun and the circular polarizer. If I did get stuck manually focusing again I would at least replace the viewfinder screen in the camera with one designed for such a purpose.

There was 1 technical issue during the countdown where they werent sure if the hatch was properly sealed or not but they got it straightened out during the built-in countdown holds and there was no delay to the launch, which was nice since there was only about a 5 minute launch window and I didn’t think I could bear the heat again the next day.

There was a PA system at the viewing area so we could hear the public affairs officer doing the final countdown and everyone in the crowd started counting along with him at T-10 seconds (is it possible to resist counting down a rocket launch?). We could see the cloud of steam that rises when the main engines fire at about T-6 seconds and it completely engulfed the orbiter. AT about T+2 seconds you could see the nose of the external tank poke out above the steam and then the rest of the orbiter appeared. I have watched many shuttle launches on television but seeing the exhaust from the solid rocket boosters is completely different in person, even from 6 miles away. It’s hard to estimate how high off the ground the orbiter was when we heard the sound of the main engines firing but it was at least several hundred feet. Then a few seconds later we heard the roar of the solids which was unlike anything I have ever heard, or felt. You could feel the sound in your chest and it was louder and more powerful than any base at any concert or club I’ve been too. It was simply amazing.

With a pair of Canon 8×23 binoculars I was able to track the orbiter fairly easily and saw the solids separate at about T+124 seconds. I looked away for an instant to see what the solids looked like without the binoculars and was never able to reaquire the orbiter. By this time all that you could see was an extremely bright dot in the sky that was getting fainter as time went by.

During the ascent several pieces of foam broke off the external tank and cause a gouge in the heat shield on the underside of the orbiter. NASA officials currently believe that it won’t present any danger to the orbiter during re-entry.

It was an amazing experience that I will remember for a lifetime and I even ended up with a great photograph which will find its way onto my wall at some point.

I would like to thank God, Subaru, Goodyear, and Starbucks

For pretty much saving my life 20 minutes ago. I was on the 405 South near Cerritos, meditating on religion, when I realized cars don’t usually make U-turns on the 405. It looked like the car attempting this was not very successful. Then I noticed a pickup in front of me in my lane, only it’s perpendicular to the dotted white lines – SWERVE LEFT. The U-turn car is now in the left lane – STAY RIGHT. Another car has turned itself around in the right shoulder and – CRASH – CLANG – it knocks over a freeway street lamp – THOSE FUCKERS ARE BIG – into my lane – SWERVE LEFT. And old, dark blue pickup, rear end smashed in, drives on in front of me. Did it cause the accident? An uninsured motorist? Drunk driver? Innocent victim? I have no idea.

“Is it safe?”
“Yes, it’s safe, it’s very safe, it’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.”

Ordeal over, I call 911. All operators busy, everyone else beat me to it.

So I’d like to thank God for interrupting my conversation with Him, and keeping me cool through everything. In my mind, at least, I was Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. But without Franka Potente riding shotgun, sadly.

I’d like to thank Subaru for making the Impreza WRX capable of swerving around the random obstacles materializing in front of me while going 65+ MPH. It’s like one of those BMW commercials, except BMW can suck my balls.

I’d like to thank Goodyear, and it’s fine Eagle F1 GS-D3 tires, which did not complain as I broke, accelerated, and swerved around various cars and freeway paraphernalia.

I’d like to thank Starbucks for keeping it’s Hollywood and Highland location open to 12:30am (although 1am would be more appropriate at that location on a Saturday night), and it’s fine Caramel Macchiato beverage, for keeping me alert.

Amen.

Best Craps in Vegas

I just came back from Vegas where I found a new favorite place to play craps: Casino Royale. It’s situated between The Venetian and Harrah’s, and is well known for having the best odds on the strip. This is certainly true for for their craps game. We’re talking 100x odds and $2 minimums! This allows you to play very close to an even money game. I used the 5-count from the Frank Scoblete craps books, putting come bets after the 2-, 3-, and 4-counts, so I was up on 3 numbers by the 5-count, when I placed my odds bets: $20 on the 6 and 8, $10 on the other point numbers. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play as long as I wanted. I’ve found craps isn’t a game for those pressed for time.
     I should also point out that it’s clean and much more pleasant than the downtown casinos; they have lower minimums, but aren’t worth the cab fare.
     I also wanted to try $2-$4 poker, but as I’m allergic to smoke, that won’t happen until they open a non-smoking poker room. I doubt that will happen anytime soon.