June 26, 2017

News


Sunday, November 29, 2009
We had an absolutely wonderful trip to Big Bend National Park over Thanksgiving.


We had lots of fun and made lots of memories.

The pictures of our trip are separated for the 3 segments of our trip: our stay in Kerrville, the adventure in Big Bend, and our stop in San Antonio on the way home. You can see all the great pictures of our trip here.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009
Yes. The website is still alive. I've let so many events and pictures stack up that it has taken me all weekend to go through them, get them organized, and get them on the website.

The good news is, there are some incredibly cute pictures and videos for you to go through. Some of the recent additions include:
Sorry these are so late!

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009
7.04:

This morning I had a meeting with a professor at the Polytechnic University in Milan. That meeting went great, although I had some pretty interesting adventures with the train rides into the appropriate area of Milan. But, in the end, I made it, had a great conversation, and headed back to Como.

When I got back to the hotel, I met up with Christian and heard about her trip out on the lake and her visit to Villa Carlotta. She said it was gorgeous. I'm looking forward to seeing (and sharing) those pictures.

We headed out into town to look for some lunch, and eventually came across a supermarket. We thought it might be good to buy a few things and bring them back to the hotel. We got some sandwiches, some fruit, potato chips, and some Bellini (a fruity, carbonated wine with peaches added). It made for a pretty neat lunch.

After lunch, we had a great nap in the hotel room, and then headed out later to walk around and find some dinner. Turns out, one of the stages for public music (like we listened to last night) is set up in the Piazza right next to our hotel, so we went and got some pizza to bring back to the hotel. The balcony of our room looks into the square so we could eat there and watch the band perform. Unfortunately, they got delayed due to a storm that moved in over the mountains, but as I am writing this, they have cranked back up and are jamming out in the square.

I really miss my kids. Christian showed me some pictures of them on her phone, and I wish I could be with them now. Just a couple more days.


7.05:

Had breakfast and got a transfer over to the Milan airport. Everything went pretty smooth flying into Munich, except we hit some bad weather and got waived off of a landing due to winds (first time that has happened to me... wheels down, almost on the runway, then throttle up and pull away... kind of scary until you hear from the pilot what is going on).

In Munich, called the hotel and got a transfer to the Best Western. The hotel is in a more residential area, but it was nice. Very clean. Very sharp looking. Free internet!!! Finally!!! But, no A/C (thank goodness we could open the window and let the cool air in). Thanks to the free internet, if there would have been A/C here, this may have been my favorite hotel (and it was only a temporary stay before catching our flight to Atlanta).

At night, decided to go walk to one of the only hotels in the area since the prices in the hotel restaurant seemed steep and didn't have anything we really wanted. It was a nice Italian restaurant, and we had great service and some amazing food. Also, we had a summer beer here that is half beer and half lemonade (It was great!!! Thanks to Mike for this suggestion.).

So, as hard as it is to write this... I think the best Italian food we had... was in Germany. I know, that sounds bad. But, I'm being honest. It really was great. And the German beer with it made for an interesting combination.

Walked back to the hotel and prepared to head home tomorrow.


7.06:

Checked out of the hotel, only to find out that the airport transfer service was not free!! We had to shell out quite a bit of money for the transfers to and from the airport. Oh well. I want to get home!

Got to the airport and had to check our bags in. All of the European airlines have had automated stations for checking bags, printing boarding passes, etc. Now we are back to Delta. I wish I had taken a picture of the insanely long line. And we checked in online!! When we got up to check our bags, one was 4kg too heavy. They threatened to charge us $150 if we didn't lighten it, so we opened up all our bags and started shuffling. After 2 or 3 tries, we got it under weight, but ultimately, the same amount of weight is going on the plane, so I don't exactly understand. Why don't they require that the average weight of your bags be below a certain amount?

Got through security, although one of the police stared at my passport for a while and asked why Christian's passport had a stamp from France, but mine didn't.

"Didn't you say you too have traveled together the entire time?"

"Yes"

"Then why don't you have a stamp?"

"I don't know... I guess we went in different lines."

I really didn't know. But, I think he was suspicious that we were lying. Ultimately, he decided to let us through. We got through security, waited for a while, and got on the plane.

The flight into Atlanta was fairly uneventful. The 767 had individual screens for each passenger so you could pick, watch, and pause your own movie, tv show, or music. Also, you could play games against other passengers, like poker, chess and trivia. Pretty cool.

Made it into Atlanta and went through some pretty intense security and customs controls. While we were waiting for our luggage to come out (you have to recheck luggage here even if you are getting a connecting flight), a homeland security officer was going around with a beagle and sniffing people's bags and carry-ons. It was amazing to see him work. He sniffed the bag of an older lady a few feet from us and he immediately, made a motion and sat down by the bag and stared at his handler. The handler looked at the lady and said, "You have fruit in there?"

Her face dropped. She must have remembered something that she forgot about in her bag. The officer looked in her bag and found an apple.

She mentioned that she had forgotten to claim it on the customs form (there is a section for food, fruit, and vegetables) and that she would go throw it away. "Wait he said. He needs to touch it." With that, he took the apple and let the beagle smell it and touch it with his nose. The handler then gave him a treat and started working him again. Really amazing to see what dogs are capable of. We saw quite a few seeing eye dogs during out travels as well. It is amazing how well composed they are in airports and subway trains.

In Atlanta, through security, rechecked luggage, found our gate, sat down, and saw the sign flip showing a 2 hour delay. Oh man. We waited for hours in the aorport (we were there early and already had some time to wait nominally). Then, it clicked again. Now it was delayed about 2.5 hours.

Delta. Friggin Delta. I can't think of one aspect of being an airline that they did not screw up. They had delays. They had maintenance problems with the planes. They had paperwork problems with the planes. They had poor service at the counter. They lost our luggage. They even destroyed one of our bags. Short of crashing, they did everything they could do to screw up being an airline.

When we finally made it into Lafayette, I was so tired I could barely see. We started walking, following a line of people. I was barely conscious. I would occasionally look up to make sure I was still following Christian and the line of people. I was a zombie. And then I heard it.

"Mommy! Daddy!".

Neo's voice rang out.

"Dad-eee!!! Dad-eeeeeeeee!" I heard Charlie say. Once his feet hit the ground, he ran to me as fast as he could. Oh man. What a feeling. I went and saw some of the oldest and most beautiful art and buildings in the world. But yet, in the end, it was my wife and my kids that I discovered. I see them and love them in an even stronger way. It was a trip of a lifetime. It is so good to be home.

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Friday, July 03, 2009
7.01:

Woke up, had breakfast, and ventured out again.

We headed to the science museum (can't remember the exact name). It was ok, but not really exciting. After buying the tickets we realized most of it was closed. The tickets were discounted, but I wonder if we should have went at all. Nevertheless, the stuff we did see was neat. It is pretty amazing to see the machines that people built hundreds of years ago. Some were as simple as a machine the could detect the exact moment of solar noon. Others, fancy telescopes and astronomy devices.

After the museum, we did some very last minute shopping.

We headed to the hotel, checked out, and went to the train station. It was pretty easy to find the right train, get on, and head to Venice. The train ride was nice. We met a family from Florida, and saw some beautiful mountain scenery out the window. After a couple of stops, we were in Venice.

Venice was hot, and after seeing the endless line of people trying to get tickets for the Vaporetto (the water bus line), we decided to go on an adventure and walk to the hotel, rather than taking the water bus. The walk wasn't that bad, except for the fact that every time we crossed a canal, we had to go over a bridge with the luggage. That made it difficult. Since we only had one map that started close to the grand canal, we couldn't get far from it. Eventually, we found the tiny alleyway leading to our hotel (there are lots of tiny alleys between buildings here).

The hotel is nice, although no free internet . We are in one of the last remaining portions of Venice where locals still live, so outside of our windows we can see the apartments of locals with laundry on lines and gardens in the window.

After checking in, we headed out for dinner and some sightseeing. We went in a gorgeous church, walked to the Rialto bridge, looked through the shops, and found a local restaurant.

In the restaurant, we proceeded to order way too much wine (1 liter, for two people who don't drink). The food was mediocre. I had salmon which wasn't very good. Christian ordered a pizza with cheese, shrimp, and mushrooms. It also was mediocre. Although, with that much wine you stop caring what the food tastes like after a while. Needless to say, after our dinner and liter of wine, we decided to stay close to the hotel and make it an early night.


7.02:

Woke up late this morning, washed some clothes in the bathroom, and then headed to breakfast in the hotel. The breakfast here is probably the weakest of all the hotels we've been to, consisting of some rolls, croissants, and some cereal. Still, it was sufficient. During breakfast, we met some nice couples from Canada and exchanged travel stories.

After breakfast, we headed to our walking tour of Venice. We saw St. Mark's Basillica and a few other things. I won't write too much about it as it was definitely the weakest of all the tours we have been on. We used the same tour company twice in Rome and once in Florence, and always had good experiences, although this tour was just boring. I can't tell if it was just the tour, or the tour guide, but it was weak. It was definitely not an issue of knowledge - she could answer any question from people in the group, and I often found their questions to be more interesting than the stuff she was talking about. Oh well. Still, I learned some things about Venice.

After the tour, we walked around some more around the Rialto Bridge and took some pictures during the daytime (we were there last night). We headed back to the hotel and took a nap.

When we woke up, we ventured out one last time, only after the Apostoli Palace hotel clerk accused us of stealing cookies.

The story, basically, is that in the breakfast area next to our room there was a cart with crackers and biscotti. There was also a table with some candy in a bowl. Christian and I decided to grab some crackers in our bag for when we were walking around.

When we got downstairs, we were scolded by the clerk who was watching us on the surveillance video. He said that if we took the cookies, there would be none left for breakfast. I told him we didn't realize they were for breakfast only, and that we would put them back (I thought they were snacks for guests, just like the candy on the table appeared to be). He insisted that we could keep them, but I insisted that we would put them back if it was that important.

And we left. And I got mad to be honest. I mean, I understand if they don't want people taking them. But if something is important enough to say something to a paying guest that will make them feel like complete crap, then really, you should just invest the 50 cents on a sign that says "For breakfast only. Please do not take". If it isn't important enough for a sign, then it shouldn't be important enough to something that will make your guests feel bad. I was really aggravated when I left there.

And while I'm on the hotel, I can't really suggest that people stay there. The lack of internet, the mediocre breakfast, and the horrendous smell coming out of the drain pipes all put this hotel on the lower end of hotels we stayed at. And the cookie incident just made it worse. The one positive thing that had going for them was the cold A/C.

When walking around, we walked some of the areas with fewer tourists and more locals. Eventually, I saw a sign for a small restaurant called "Ostaria alla Staffa". Inside, we asked the man behind the counter for a menu, and he explained that they had no menu, but told us what he was cooking tonight. We liked that.

We sat down and ordered a half-liter of wine (lesson learned from the night before), and talked with Franco (the man behind the counter). He was very nice and was happy to explain things to us and help us with our Italian. Christian had a pasta with a creme sauce, and I had a pasta with a primavera sauce. It was good, but I was not extremely full. I decided to ask if he had desserts. He explained the three desserts that he had, which prompted my question "Which one is your favorite?". He made a face and tapped his chin. "Dis is problem," he said. He went on to say why he liked each one and that his wife made the filling in the cheesecake very light and he liked that.

"So your wife made the creme filling in the cheesecake?"

"She make all of the desserts" he said.

Awesome. I love food with a story. I had a slice of cheesecake with strawberry topping. Delicious.

I told him we would like to get a picture with him. He agreed but asked if we could send a postcard from where we were from (he had postcards from customers from all over the place). He asked where we were from.

"Houston."

"Ahh, Houston!" Then he used his finger as he pretended it was a rocket launching with the "pkew" sound to go with it.

"Yes." I nodded. "I work there. At NASA."

His eyes got big. He yelled something in Italian and started writing something on a piece of paper. He handed it to me. It was an address for us to mail him a postcard from there. He also gave me his email address. I was excited just seeing a foreigner immediately associating Houston with the space program.

So, another dinner. Another story.

Then we walked quite a bit around Venice, looking in shops, taking more pictures, and having more laughs, before heading to the hotel. We head out tomorrow. And to be honest, I'm glad. Venice just didn't seem like the right fit for us. We had fun anyway though.


7.03:

Woke up and ate breakfast at the hotel. During breakfast, we spoke with a lovely couple from Kent England. They were very nice and we chatted about all sort of things.

After breakfast, we checked out and rode the vaporetta (waterbus) to the train station. This was fairly uneventful. At the train station, we easily found our train and got on (as usual).

On the train, we met a great couple from Toronto, who had children in the movie business. One of them was getting married by Lake Como. It turns out, the man was the father of a celebrity actress (I'll keep her name out for privacy), but it was really neat to talk with them. We had similar interests and curiousities and had lots to share. We have met some really interesting people throughtout the trip from all over the world.

Then, we had a horrible train experience in Milan. Our train was delayed for quite a while. When it showed up, we tried to find the right coach and had lots of trouble. When we did get on a coach, we found someone in our seats. They explained to us we had first class tickets and this was second class. We had lots of trouble getting off the train as it was severely packed. When we finally managed to work our way through the extremely rude crowds (people would simply refuse to duck in a seat temporarily to let you pass), we got off and saw an employee of the train. We yelled for help and he pointed to the front of a train car. When we got on it, we started looking for our seats, and when we finally got there, the same employee (who was obviously the one who serves drinks on the train), had drinks and supplies all over the seats, so there was no way we could sit there. We asked him again (since he was the one who told us to get on this train) for some help and he threw his hands up and said "I can't help you. I can't help you."

Now I was steaming. This guy could speak english, so that was not the issue, but something else was going on. How could we have ridden 5 trains without a single problem and now, all of a sudden, we are frantically searching and can't find our seat.

I grabbed the ticket and ran off the train to find someone to help. I saw another employee of the train service, but this time wearing a special hat (I believe he was the conductor of the train if that is the right position. Other employees were asking him questions). I had struck gold. I ran up to him and pointed to my ticket. He looked me in the eye, scoffed, and turned around and started walking away from me, mumbling something in Italian. I stood there shouting, "But where do we go?" and he just kept walking away.

I couldn't believe it. These were people we were paying. This is not the DMV we are talking about here, but people we are PAYING for a train ticket. I started walking back to get Christian.

There, I saw a woman who asked if I needed help. I explained that we didn't know how to find our seat. She then proceeded to tell me that there is some confusion because there was problems with the other train so this train was being used as a substitute. The only possible explanation I can see for why employees were being so rude is that they were being asked to pick up an extra set of passengers or maybe passengers from another company. Not that that justifies being rude to the passengers, but I can't wrap my head around how some people here can be so blatantly rude to people. If that man had done that to a big ol' corn-fed texan in the US, I'm pretty certain he would have gotten a fist in his mouth.

To top it all off, when the conductor got on and started checking tickets, I saw him chatting with the guy who told us that he wouldn't help us, and it seemed pretty clear that they were friends. This first guy later walked by and gave me a smirk. I was pretty fired up.

Finally, we got to Milan. When we got off the train, I saw passengers trying to get on running up to the train conductor, and he was being rude to them too!!! I saw this asian guy ask him a question and then have this surprised look on his face when the guy motioned and walked away.

As we rolled our bags past him, I made a point to get his attention and say "Thanks for all your help earlier. You were a really big help. You ass." I can only hope he understood.

And so, now I'm angry. And like my father, it takes me quite a while to reset. But I did, and when we got to the hotel by taxi, I was hoping everything would be better.

The "Hotel Metropole & Suisse" staff member greeted us and pulled up our reservation. He said we had the room but breakfast was not included. Christian immediately said "uhhhh", because she new we had arranged with our travel agent to have breakfast included. We pulled out the voucher which very explicitly said breakfast included. The man thought we were arguing with him, so he started getting short with us. We told him we would call our travel agent since there was obviously some sort of mixup (we did later and she said she would handle it). After getting to our room, the view is absolutely gorgeous... except for the huge construction cranes right in front of the window. The jack-hammering was shaking the room.

To make things worse, the bathroom wasn't clean (Christian wasn't too happy about that), and the internet is not only not free, but quite expensive (6 euros for one hour.. about $9 USD and hour). Oh well, I was going to just have to get over it.

I went back downstairs to ask about how to get across the lake using the boats, and where we could go for dinner. The receptionist was again very short, just handing me a boat schedule and telling me there were some good restaurants in the area. That was literally all he said. I asked again for a suggestion and he said there were plenty of good restaurants. After being so upset with some of the people we have dealt with, I was ready to leave and go walk around with Christian.

We walked a bit and found some cool sights. The lake is gorgeous. We decided to stop in one place and order some food to go. We had seen some shady benches next to the lake, and rather then dealing with people, I was up for taking some food to-go, and going and eating it by the lake. We did, and it was delicious.

One interesting story about the guy we ordered the sandwiches from - he was very helpful and was helping us order, when he noticed my Walt Disney World hat. He asked me where I got it and I told him in Orlando.

"I work there", he said.

"Really?"

"Yes. In Epcot Center. I work in the Italian restaurant in the area where they have food from different parts of the world."

Apparently, he works there most of the year, and then returns to Como occasionally. What is interesting is that we ate in that restaurant when we went there! And given the time of year that we went, it is very probably that he would have been there.

"Small world," he said, I believe pun intended.

After eating by the lake and taking in the sights, we went up to our room to sit on the balcony and people watch.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
6.28:

Missed updating my journal for a while, so I'll just have to hit the highlights of today :(

- toured Colosseum - Wow. What a sight! And to think, this was built in only 8 years!! The giant stones... no mortar!! They used a keystone.

- toured Roman Forum and Palatine Hill ruins - Also amazing. Some of the building built before Christ are just insane. Huge columns made of single pieces of stone. Still standing. It is almost unbelievable to see what the ancient Romans had built.

- saw Mamertine Prison - This is the prison where St. Peter was held before being crucified upside down. This was a very interesting place, with a hole in the ceiling where prisoners were lowered. Peter would be chained to the walls here (his chains are in a church here in Rome), with dead bodies all around, rats, and people waiting to die.

- saw the Pantheon - After seeing what we did of Rome, this was one of my favorites in terms of ancient Roman buildings. All of the other ancient Roman buildings have been damaged, but this building is almost unscathed. An incredible place. The oculus is incredible, with a beam of light hitting an area inside. Rapheal and some other significant persons are buried here. If you go to Rome, don't miss this one.

- had gelato from giolitti's - This is Rome's oldest "gelateria"

- took "where's mommy" pictures on the spanish steps - Fun pictures we sent home with mommy in a sea of tourists on the steps.

- took the subway back to the hotel and prepared to leave


6.29:

Checked out of the hotel this morning and walked over to the Termini train station (it was close to our hotel). Took a little while to figure out which train to get on, but we ultimately committed to what we decided was the right train and the right car (but disagreed with the posted signs - which was part of our hesitation). Ultimately, we were in the right place, and we met a great couple from North Carolina. We had a great chat with them, had a nap, and saw some beautiful Roman and Tuscan countryside.

Once in Florence, our hotel was just across the street, so it was quick (and cheap) to get there. We got settled and headed out to find a place to eat. We went to one of the place suggested by the hotel, but the attitude of the server and the prices on the menu quickly convinced us to try something else. We found another one and were greeted by a lovely lady who was very helpful in explaining the specials and the prices. We ate there and had a great time.

After eating, we explored a bit of Florence and then walked around the Brunelleschi's famous dome at the Duomo of Florence. Incredible. The cathedral exterior is also quite incredible. Headed back to the hotel.


6.30:

Woke up and had breakfast in our new hotel. It was good, but not as good as the breakfast at our hotel in Munich (but this hotel has free wireless internet!). Met up with our guide and headed out for a great walking tour of Florence (or Firenze as it is called here). Saw some amazing things. The Renaissance truly was born here in Florence (which is why Michelangelo's David is often used as the icon of the period). The architecture and the art are interesting, but most interesting to me is the open-mindedness of the period. This was the true reason the Renaissance flourished throughout Europe. It represented possibilities... a common man could aspire to be something greater, but using his brain and his gifts. Europe would begin thinking again, like the ancient Romans did over a thousand years before. One wonders what caused all of the Western world to stop using their brains for a thousand years. But regardless, it was in Florence that they began anew. Many of the great Renaissance sculptures are here, and quite a few of the originals are outside in the public!!! Some have been moved inside museums, but many of the great sculptures remain outside in the elements, and at the risk of crazy people who climb on them and do stupid things (Every great sculpture here and in Rome had these stories. On Michelangelo's David, there is someone's initials carved into his thigh. On Michelangelo's Pieta, someone brought in a hammer and climbed on it and started beating it. Etc.).

The tour ended in the museum that houses Michelangelo's David. Wow. What a sight to see the real thing. The guide explained so many great things to us. Why his statue was different from the one's before it (like Donatello's)... Why David appears the way he does. Why there is a tree in the background. Why his veins are so apparent. Why there is controversy over whether or not the pose is supposed to be just before or just after the battle with Goliath. Why the hands and feet appear to be enlarged. Why the toes look different. Etc. And even without all of that great info, the statue itself is truly amazing to look at. Knowing a little about how Michelangelo sculpted differently from other artists makes it even more impressive.

After the tour, we walked around and shopped a bit, and ended with a hot panini sandwich and slice of pizza from a local sandwich shop. Very good stuff. Took a nap at the hotel.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009
Trip Journal Part 2:

6.26:

had breakfast. talked with the great hotel staff about the best way to get back to the airport with luggage. Decided to take the bus, and bought the bus pass. Attended the Friday morning portion of the conference and saw a great talk Dr. Gerhard Hirzinger from the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. It is amazing what they have done in the field of robotics. Everything from space to surgical robotics. Also imaging and 3d modeling. Really cool stuff. Attended some splinter sessions. The first was a collection of presentations on walking robots (some papers on bipedal and quadrapedal) and one presentation on a robotic manaquin that could be used to tailor make mens formal wear. Very interesting. I suggested to the presenter that the technology could be of interest to those in the space industry for fitting of spacesuits, not only for the custom fit, but also to show the range of expansion of an individuals bodies in zero G (the spinal cord expanding for example). I'm not sure that there would be interest since I don't work with that at all, but something to look into perhaps.

while on the bus to the airport, I'll take a second to remark on the driving in Germany. My goodness people here drive fast, and with no margin for error. They drive very close and make very close turns. The bus driver from the airport made turns i would barely be able to make in my truck. Our cab driver was zipping through munich on wet roads at an incredible rate (although more like a professional driver, not like a madman). Somehow though, it all works. I think that people here are generally much better drivers than in the US. Talking with one of my German friends from the conference, he said most of it is due to the fact that all of the drivers follow the rules very closely. He also prepared us for what driving will be like in Italy. Based off what I have heard, I bet we will have some stories to bring back from Italy.

Checked out of the hotel and took our bags to the bus stop near the central train station. Caught the bus to the airport to head to Rome. Flight was fairly uneventful. The airline staff were very helpful and friendly. Our driver for our transfer to the hotel was awesome. He showed us many things and helped us to get situated in Rome.

Our hotel was nice, but in a bad area of Rome (lots of graffiti and trash everywhere). The hotel staff also seemed a bit standoffish at first, but later, when working our a dinner location, and help with the subway, it got better.

For dinner, we ate at a little restaurant that can hold about 30 people max. The food and service were outstanding, but the price was a little high (although, as we are discovering, everything is high). The prices were not out of line with the dishes. We had amazing food, laughed, and shared an entire bottle of Chianti. Good times.


6.27:

The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel then made our way onto the subway. We got to the city center and started walking. We saw many old buildings and statues, although it was hard to know what anything was. Later, we started following the Rick Steve's walking tour suggestion, but we should have started that sooner. Eventually, we were at the Victor Emmanuel Monument. This was a monument made for the first king of the unified Italy. After that, we headed to the famous Trevi Fountain where we threw in a coin and made a wish. With a cup of Gelato in hand, we got back to the subway to head to the Vatican for our tour.

Our tour was incredible. We had headsets so we could hear our guide even amongst a sea of people. Her knowledge was very extensive. You could tell she was holding back some of her knowledge and excitements so that we would have time to see everything we could. No question challenged her knowledge.. even ones about the smallest details.

The Vatican museum... the Sistene Chapel... St. Peter's Basilica. These things were so amazing, that I don't want to talk about them. I feel like my words would only do injustice to them and give you an impression that is not big enough. I truly started to doubt how men on earth could be capable of creating such things. I'm sure we will have many stories to tell from here. I saw a quote somewhere that said,

"Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving." -- Werner Herzog

I think that is how I feel now.

After the vatican, we visited some shops and saw some really beautiful but expensive stuff. Then, we took off to eat. Which leads us to a good story.

We decided to take the Rick Steves book out and see what restaurants he recommended in the Vatican area. One, which will remain nameless, looked pretty good so we followed directions on the map and went there. We were greeted by a waiter who seemed annoyed at our presence (you read that correctly). He spoke without looking at us, and then eventually came back and asked me what I wanted to drink. I said "water". Christian then started to say "and I'll have" and the waiter turned around and walked away from her.

Christian looked at me with some eyes that I was glad were not for me. The waiter was an older gentlemen, so I thought, on a longshot, maybe he expected me to order drinks for the both of us. I don't have any idea how that would extrapolate out to ignoring the lady at the table, but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.

He returned with the water and turned around. Christian raised her hand and started to say "Scussi... can we have a menu?" and the man said something without turning around and facing her. Again, the eyes came my direction. I ducked. I asked if she wanted to leave. She was disgusted, but said she would stay. I said "C'mon... let's just go. There are plenty of other restaurants that want our business", but she said no. We would stay. I thought I could hear some teeth grinding but I couldn't be sure.

When the waiter returned, he returned with about 6 bowls of appetizers. He said some things in Italian saying, "please please... enjoy". He walked away and we quickly asked each other... "is this free?"

Returning again, Christian asked "Quanto Costo?" (how much?), and he shook his head from shoulder to shoulder and waved his hands saying something like "not much... you enjoy". After some language barrier issues, a younger waiter decided to translate and pointed to the appetizer selection on the menu that specifed a spread of everything. It was about 9 Euros (about $14 USD).

Based entirely off of Christian's eyebrows and the rate at which she closed her menu, I knew we were leaving. As we stood up, the waiter started apologizing (although I think that had a little to do with the fact that the other waiters saw that he had been pressuring us and being rude to us). I told him thank you, paid for the bottle of water, then we walked out. We walked further down to a restaurant that was not in the Rick Steve's book, but had a great dinner. Things were great, and I really like the story we got from that other restaurant. I think it was worth the 2 Euros.

Tomorrow, we take the historical tour including the Colosseum!!

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Friday, June 26, 2009
Trip Journal part 1:

6.23:

got to airport, then heard that our plane that was coming from atlanta had to be turned back to atlanta. not exactly the vote of confidence you want in your plane.

since we missed out connecting flight to munich, we will now have a flight to paris and then munich. unfortunately, this means I will miss the conference in the morning.


6.24:

more delays... finally made it into paris. Had a huge trek across the France airport to make our plane to Munich just in time. The french lady in security laughed at me. She pointed to my hat and said something in french. So I took it off planning to walk through the security scanner with it off. She laughed, called me back, and then put my hat on the conveyor belt. So far, even with the language barriers, all of the Air France workers could run circles around the Delta employees.

finally made it into munich, after missing an entire day of the conference, to find out that our bags are still in atlanta, and won't be here today, or tomorrow morning, which means i'm going to the conference in the clothes I have on. unbelievably aggravated. also, the stupid phone card that i bought (to avoid the hassles of roaming with my phone overseas) is turning out to be a giant pain in the ass. trying to add funds to the account goes to a screen saying an account administrator will try to do it within 24 hours??? nice.

This forced us to spend our entire evening trying to quickly go shopping and get a sweater i could wear tomorrow before the shops close. had dinner at "Wirsthaus in der Au" which was really good. Had a really good waitress which helped us out.

without our luggage, we are also missing our power adapter, so our laptop battery is all we have left to charge our phones. So far the trip is way too stressful!!!


6.25:

had breakfast in the hotel and took off to learn how to use the subway system in munich to get to the conference hotel. after some confusion, finally figured it out (mostly) and got to the hotel. To add to the stress of being under-dressed for the conference, it was raining in the morning. Since I had no umbrella, I arrived soaking wet. Under-dressed and soaking wet, I walked up to the registration counter. That was uncomfortable.

Attended an incredible talk from Dr. Sankai, the founder of Cyberdyne (no kidding... cyberdyne... like the Terminator movies). The company research is HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) and they have applications from everything from entertainment (providing resistance and environmental forces for VR games) to replacement limbs. Some of the "challenges" he showed were things like helping a man with polio to move his legs for the first time in his life, to SCI patients learning to walk again. Truly amazing stuff.

Attended some splinter sessions afterwards with 4 talks in each one. Some were very interesting. I particularly enjoyed one from a gentleman from Carnegie Mellon University. He talked about redundant robots (7 or more joints) and how there were indices to measure a robots ability with respect to its primary tasks (such as range of motion), but nothing related to secondary objectives of redundant robots, such as Torque limiting or obstacle avoidance. Since enhancing the design of a robot for obstacle avoidance (changing its morphology for example) may take away from the first objective (line tracking), he proposes a way to modify the performace indexes of others to include the secondary objective/first objective ratio. I can't reproduce his words very well, but i hope to do so once i get a look at the proceedings.

after the morning sessions, got back to the hotel to change into nice clothes (our bags showed up!), and then return with christian for the dinner cruise. took the subway this time and had a much easier time. The dinner cruise was very nice. Christian and I had great conversation with folks from Germany, England, Turkey and the US. This was really the first relaxing event of the trip, so we really enjoyed it. Tomorrow I will have a few more sessions in the morning at the conference, then it is off to Rome!

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Thursday, March 05, 2009
After quite a bit of research and shopping, Neo and I finally got our new tent. We decided on the "Kelty Gunnison 4.1". I like the fact that it has aluminum poles instead of fiberglass, and that it has two doors and two vestibules. It is a 4 person tent, but light enough to be just on the hairy edge of a backpacking tent.


We set it up in the living room and it is pretty cool. Should be plenty big enough for me and the boys and also big enough for all of us if we just want to use it to sleep. When the boys get older, I'm sure they will want their own tent anyway.

Looking forward to a few tent camping trips this year!

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Monday, January 26, 2009
Christian had a rally for her jewelry business in Dallas this weekend. We (me and the boys) decided to go with her after her travel plans fell through.

We decided to splurge a bit and visited the Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine, TX as sort of a mini vacation. Mom came and visited us after her rally finished up.

The place is pretty expensive, but we managed to have a great time and cut costs where we could. Pictures from the trip are here.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008
We are back from our trip and had a great time. The plane rides all seemed to work out well. The hotel stay was nice. The rental car worked out. We did have a few hiccups, but overall, it had to be considered a great success.


Our view of the shuttle launch was brief like I said in the previous post, but the night launch was truly spectacular. You can see our view in the video below:



After the launch, we did quite a few things. We swam at the hotel pool and made a brief trip to the beach.


We also went to a interactive science museum called "Wonder Works". Probably the coolest part about the place is that the building is built as if it is an upside down house that crashed into another building:


We also went to a dinner magic show there that we all really enjoyed.

The trip also included a few games of putt-putt, a father son go-cart race, plenty of time in the car, fun in the hotel room, and ice-cream.


These few pictures don't really do the trip much justice though. You should really check them all out here.

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Monday, March 12, 2007
On Friday we left for Bastrop State Park. Earlier in the week, I was able to book the last remaining cabin there for Friday night and Saturday night (Spring break just started so most places are full).

We left Friday afternoon and managed to get there before the sun went down. Thanks to my handy dandy Texas State Parks Pass that my brother got me for Christmas (great gift bub), we didn't have to pay to get in (which probably saved us close to $70 bucks for 3 days at 2 state parks). After checking in, we got to our cabin and unloaded. The cabin was very cool: it was one of the older cabins that was built in the park in the 1930's. It is a stone and log cabin made entirely of native woods. Right outside the cabin is a picnic area and fire ring which was nice. Reading some of the brochures, it looks like building the first 5 cabins like this proved to be way too time intensive and expensive than was planned, so the remaining cabins were wood framed.

Neo and I took off into the woods with his metal detector and searched around for about 45 minutes. At first we were only able to find pennies (we found 4), but then we found a ring (Christian said it was marked as 14K) and a musket ball/bullet. Not bad for 45 minutes. Neo was very excited. I was too... it's like treasure hunting :)

We built a fire and roasted some hot dogs for supper. Afterwards, we all fell asleep at different times... it was obvious we were all very tired.

The next morning, after some breakfast, Neo and I kicked the soccer ball for a bit, and then we walked around in the woods for a while. After we got back to the cabin, we loaded up the truck and took the scenic drive over to Buesher State Park. It is a beautiful drive down some very hilly and winding roads. Beautiful as it was, it was making Christian car sick, so we didn't do that again. At Buescher, we played at one of the playgrounds and had lunch. On the way back, we picked up some bait for fishing in the afternoon.

We went to the cabin and rested before heading back to Buescher to go fishing. Even though there is a nice lake right outside our cabin, we couldn't fish in the lake at Bastrop because it was closed to protect the breeding of the Houston toad.

Fishing at Buescher was great. As usual, Neo caught more fish than I did.

Then we went and ate at a little country restaurant called Maxine's. The food was pretty good, including some really good crawfish soup. It was made even better by the live blues music.

Our last day in Bastrop was the best one. After we checked out of our cabin, we got ready for a hike on one of the great trails. Right before we got on the trail, a gentleman hiking with his family (a large family) asked if he was going in the right direction to get back to the front gate. Now I knew that he was roughly at the midpoint of the circle, and he had a long, long way to walk back to the front gate. Not to mention, I had just drove it in the truck, and there were some really steep hills in there. I grabbed the map and showed him, and it looked like his heart fell into his shoes. I could see his wife and the rest of the kids approaching in the background, and I could tell that he REALLY didn't want to deliver this information. So I said, "can we give you guys a" and before I could say "ride", one of his daughters yelled "Yes!!". They all hopped in the back of the truck and we helped them get back to their camper.

After that, we went on our hike. The hike was really nice and a good workout. After we got back to the truck, we headed back to Buescher for some last minute fishing. This was awesome. We whipped out the coleman stove and Christian cooked some incredible hamburgers and bacon, and we had the best bacon cheeseburgers under an oak tree. Fishing with Neo was great. This time, he was casting and catching fish without any assistance at all. And of course, he caught more fish than me.

After that, we headed back to Houston. We had an almost perfect drive until we got to our exit in Houston. Right there, we sat in near standstill traffic for about 2 hours before finally continuing home.

It was a truly great and relaxing trip. It was so good, that I hardly remember that I was sick the entire time. That's how good it was.

The part I think I will remember most was while Neo and I were quietly fishing for the second time.

"Neo, you have to tell me how you catch those fish so good."

"Well, dad, you have to be patient." (I had been telling him this over and over when he would get bored or distracted.) "... you have to be patient, and watch your cork. And then... sometimes... sometimes you gotta kinda look at that cork... and you look at it... and you have to get mad at it a little bit."

"I need to get mad at it?"

"Yeah... you gotta get mad at it a little bit."

You can see the pictures here and you can see Neo's pictures in his March folder.

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Friday, January 19, 2007
Vacation pictures are up. You can find them here. Neo's pictures are on his page in his January folder.

Also, I started a personal blog for me. Many times I want to blog about technical stuff or personal things that don't really fit on the family blog, so I decided to make one for me, similar to Christian's blog. Today is also the first day of my diet and I want to blog about my successes and failures, so that was also motivation to start it. You can find it here.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007
I am sitting in the Orlando airport right now waiting for our flight back to Houston. Since we have quite a while to sit here, I figured I would check some email and also fill you guys in on our trip.

Overall, I am very pleased with our first big family vacation. I am anxious to go home and book our vacation for next year, although we have one last piece of information we have to settle before we can set it up. Not sure where we are going to go yet, but I do know we are going somewhere.

Neo had a great time traveling for the first time. He liked the plane ride and really enjoyed Disney World. He has taken a liking to roller-coasters and he and I rode all of 'em. He rode Goofy's Barnstormer, Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, and even Expedition Everest (Disney's new big coaster). It was so fun to ride those with him.

The cruise was also nice, although we dealt with a lot of health issues. Thankfully, no one got motion sickness although the boat was rocking like a horse sometimes. I started out with some sort of nasal infection. Neo picked it up as well, and eventually progressed to a full fever and he didn't want to get out of bed. Our last couple of days were spent in our stateroom trying to nurse him back to health.

It was almost funny how many things started to hit us during the cruise. The ship was bucking like a rodeo horse. Neo was sick. Then the paint and varnish fumes filled our room which made us nauseated. Then while we slept in the 8 foot waves, our closet doors would slide back and forth and slam up against the closet walls. Christian and I got up about 5 times to engineer different solutions using towels, shoes, luggage, life vests, etc. Neo woke up this morning and started walking like a zombie to the bathroom and made a very angry comment about the bathroom door rattling in the night... Christian and I were laughing pretty hard.

So, even though the cruise was not ideal, I understand that travelling with children will never be ideal. We made the most of it and made lots of good memories. Funny stories to ask us about... the banana in the bag, "take a left at the pineapple", and "if you want a cake, ask for one". haha... I'm laughing just writing them down.

I don't have pictures up on the website yet, but I will soon. We took pictures both with Neo's camera and with ours so we have quite a few. I will let you know when I have them up on the websites.

We had a good first trip, and I am looking forward to many more family vacations.

oh yeah... How bout dem Saints!!! Who Dat!! ... that made the vacation just a little bit sweeter :)

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Sunday, October 01, 2006
Sorry about not keeping up with the posts.

A lot has been going on. John and I had a great trip into Louisiana for career day at UL. Also, Christian had a good birthday weekend. She hasn't posted yet, but I'm sure she will have a few words about it on her blog soon :)

There are lots of birthdays going on... there was Christian's this weekend... Neo's next weekend... Kam's this weekend... Dad's last week... Mom's this week... Mrs. Pam's this week...Paw Paw's coming up... geez. I don't know why I am surprised... it is this way every year :)

There are also a few pics of Neo at baseball in his folder for this month.

Speaking of Neo... if you plan on coming in from out of town for Neo's birthday next week, please be sure to let Christian and I know that you are definitely coming so that we can organize sleeping arrangements. Thanks! As far as gifts for him... clothes are good... XBOX games (regular XBOX, not 360) and Nintendo DS games are good... he doesn't play with typical toys and action figures much. Money is also good - he has a bank and knows what it is like to save money, so he will appreciate it.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006
I had a wonderful birthday weekend. It started with sleeping late. Then we had a big breakfast. Then we watched the shuttle launch. Then we played baseball in the front yard. Then we played XBOX. Then we took naps. Then we went to a Japanese Hibachi restaurant for my birthday dinner (it was wonderful). Then we played some more XBOX. Then we slept late again. Then we ate an even bigger breakfast. Then we took naps. Then we played some XBOX. You get the idea...

Thanks to everyone for a wonderful birthday. I got lots of phone calls and birthday cards... I am loved by many people. Thanks to all of you. Neo told me before he went to bed that he loved me and he thought I had the best birthday party ever. I couldn't agree more.

Looking at the website, I'm realizing that I forgot to put a link to the pictures from San Francisco. You can see our pics from the trip here.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006
San Francisco is a pretty awesome place. California, for that matter, is a pretty awesome place. Cool weather. Clean air. It was so nice to be able to enjoy the outdoors... that is probably what I enjoyed the most.

Of course, the real reason I was there was for a wedding for one of my college buddies, Mike. Mike and Mindy had a beautiful wedding in Sausalito, California in a church on the side of the mountain. The reception was amazing. It was on the water and they had some amazing food. Also, the rehearsal dinner the night before was amazing as well.

Christian, Neo, and I want to congratulate Mike and Mindy on their new life together. We will keep them in our prayers.

After the wedding, I got to tour a bit of the area with some of my college buddies. We went to a comedy club one night which was pretty fun and saw Patton Oswalt (the geeky guy "Spence" on King of Queens). We also visited Alcatraz, went to the Muir Woods (home of the tallest trees in the world), went to the top of Mt. Tamalpais (which was on top of the clouds) and took a wine tour at the Benziger Winery in Sonoma Valley (which is next to Napa Valley).

I didn't get many souveniers, but the one nice thing I got was two bottles of wine for Vince and Amy. I don't remember exactly what they were, but one was a Reserve Chardonnay, and the other was an estate wine (a blend). The estate wine (also known as "single vineyard") means it is made solely from grapes on the Benziger estate and none of the other grapes from other farms are used. There is very limited production of this obviously, so it is only available to people on the tour and to people in their wine club... it is not usually available in stores. The chardonnay is a reserve wine, which is also very low distribution and hard to get. You can see some previous reserve wines and estate wines on their website here. Overall, I was very impressed with the company, the family, and the wine. If you haven't tried it, look for it the next time you are at the store. Vince and Amy - the wine should arrive when they feel the weather is cool enough that the shipping process won't diminish the wine due to heat, so I would expect it in the next month or two. Enjoy it and let me know how you like it!

Congratulations again to Mike and Mindy for a beautiful wedding and their new family.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Just wanted to let everyone know that I am back from my trip to San Francisco. I went last weekend to see my good buddy Mike get married.

I don't have all of the pictures yet, so later I will post them and make a more detailed post about the trip.

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Monday, May 08, 2006
Thankfully, we didn't try to go on the camping trip this weekend - there was a rather large storm that blew in Friday night that certainly would have made tent camping pretty miserable.

On Saturday, we went to take pictures for Neo's baseball team. The game following it was cancelled because of the rain. Good thing. The pictures took so long that we would not have made it out in time to play anyway.

After the pictures, we went to the shoe store where Christian bought me an early anniversary gift: 1 pair of dress black shoes and 1 pair of tennis shoes. This was great because I have had black slacks with no shoes to wear them with for about a year. Also, I have been wearing the same old dilapidated tennis shoes for about 4 years and they hurt my back and feet something awful. Now, I'm all set shoe-wise.

Later in the afternoon, we went to a birthday party for one of Neo's friends at school. It was at a gymnastics place, so the kids had a great time bouncing around, jumping on trampolines, and swinging on ropes.

On Sunday I woke up early to cut the grass. Afterwards, we went to church and then went to a small festival that the church was having. We had fun eating hot dogs, getting balloon animals, playing the cake wheel and even playing blackjack.

All in all, it was a good, fairly relaxing weekend.

Since I received my anniversary gift a bit early, I decided to give Christian her combination anniversary/mother's day gift a bit early as well... this.

This will be our first REAL family vacation together and I can't tell you how excited we are. When you think about raising a family, one of the fun ideas you think about is family vacations. I have always wanted to do something like this... in fact, I wish we could go every year... but it always seems just out of reach.

I won't divulge the exact date here, but it is sometime in 2007. The really hard part about this is that we plan on giving this as a gift to Neo for Christmas, which means we (including all of you!) will have to keep this a complete secret for quite a while. I cannot wait to see his face light up to hear that he is going to Disney world and on a big boat. We have all sorts of cute ideas for the gift - maybe a letter from Mickey Mouse... maybe a countdown calendar till we leave... Christian and I are very, very excited.

Looks like they aren't free though... I'm sure we'll find some money... I haven't even checked the sofa cushions yet!

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