This spring, Sandra and I decided to take a vacation to St. Louis, Missouri with Charlotte and my mother.
I did find some humor that almost universally, the response was "St. Louis? Why would you want to go there? Do you have family there?" from friends and coworkers of both Sandra and my mother.
Of course, you may be asking yourself the same. But I decided a while ago that I hate vacations, but I love exploring and visiting new places and because Charlotte is still very young, for practical reasons, it's easier to visit destinations that are a relatively short flight away and has some kid friendly attractions.
We left on a Saturday afternoon and arrived at STL (to rain and cold weather). We decided to have dinner at a Steak and Shake near the hotel as both of us have seen them in our previous stops through the midwest but never stopped at one. It was pretty good -- right up there with Five Guys and In-&-Out.
From there, we made our way to City Museum.
I will say this: I think this alone is worth visiting STL for if you have children (or if you're a big kid at heart). City Museum cannot really be described in words. It is a fantasy world in the truest sense of that word -- it is the world of Labyrinth, NeverEnding Story, Goonies, and a dash of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory realized in our world. You can get lost in there for days exploring every nook of the Enchanted Caves or crawling through the various tunnels and passage ways.
Forget Disney; City Museum is the one place that every child should have a chance to visit once in their lifetime (before they become too big to fit into some of the passages!).
Be sure to stop here on a weekend when it's open until midnight and there are tons of kids around -- you can really feel the magic and energy of this place come to life.
I definitely plan on bringing my daughter back here at least one more time in her lifetime.
St. Louis Zoo
Fortunately, our second day there was a gorgeous day as we had planned to visit St. Louis Zoo. Having visited San Diego Zoo twice now, St. Louis Zoo had big benchmark to live up to.
One important thing to note is that there is no entrance fee to this zoo. You might think that it would impact the quality of the zoo, but I am pretty amazed at the quality, quantity, and variety of exhibits at this zoo. And because entrance to the zoo is free, we spread out our visits and returned two times (three visits total over three days).
I have to say, in terms of the overall design, it certainly doesn't come close to San Diego, but in terms of the exhibits? I think it blows San Diego away! The herpatarium, bird house and garden, and the insectarium in particular were top notch; some of the best exhibits of their kind that I've seen at any zoo. Sandra and I also noted that the animals at this zoo were particularly active compared to animals at many other zoos that we've been to.
We really enjoyed the zoo and Charlotte had a great time seeing many of the animals that she's learned about in person. The only disappointment is that her favorite animal seemed to be "Mr. Rhino" who decided he would hide on the second and third trips (the third trip was specifically to see him).
Missouri Botanical Garden
Also on our agenda was the Missouri Botanical Garden or "mobot". Because the zoo was free to reenter and because the weather on the second day was amazing, we decided to leave the zoo early and visit mobot. At this time of year, there's not much in the outdoor exhibits so it's hard to compare it to say Longwood Gardens (which we frequent) or Cheekwood. And certainly, it felt smaller than either of those (Longwood for sure), but I still found it to be beautiful and interesting, especially the Climatron and Temperate House.
It is unfortunate that we did a poor job of timing our visit. Had we scheduled our trip 3-4 weeks later, mobot would have surely been amazing as it would be in full spring bloom by then.
Of course, we also stopped downtown to see The Arch on our third day (after another stop at the zoo to visit the exhibits we skipped the day before). I didn't expect much out of it, but I do have to say that driving up to it through the city, the structure is massive and seemingly alien in nature; it doesn't seem of this world -- I couldn't take my eyes off of it!
While there was not much to see while we were there, we thought it would be cool to show pictures of it to Charlotte when she gets older so we stopped and took pictures and visited the Gateway Museum in the lower level.
We showed up at Pappy's somewhat late for lunch as Charlotte decided to take a nap. I was hoping that by getting in around 2, we would avoid most of the crowd and it sure seemed promising walking up to the entrance. However, upon opening the door, we were greeted with a line that was at least 50 patrons long. We debated on staying given that Charlotte was surely hungry and it looked like it would be at least 45 minutes before we got to eat. But we stuck it out and it was worth it (so worth it).
I would say that this was one of the highlights of the trip. The ribs were fantastic -- smokey, crisp on the outside, tender and moist on the inside, and so flavorful. The pulled pork and turkey were amazing as well. We ate a good sized portion, but none of it left us feeling heavy. While I normally hate waiting in line for anything, this was definitely one time where I'm glad that we stuck around.
City Coffeehouse and Creperie
For breakfast on our final day, we decided to get a special treat and headed into the business district to hit up City Coffeehouse and Creperie.
This is definitely a must-visit destination if you plan on stopping here as the crepes were all delicious and fantastic (we each ordered a different one and shared them).
What We Missed
There are a few places that we didn't make it to either because they weren't open yet or the timing didn't work out; I think we will definitely be back to STL once more.
STL also seemed to have some great nightlife scenes and many, many awesome breweries and pubs. It's a shame that Sandra and I weren't able to get do visit these on this trip!
Contrary to popular sentiment, St. Louis is a fantastic place to take a vacation, especially if you have kids. City Museum, the zoo, and mobot are enough to keep you occupied for quite a while and because the zoo doesn't have an entrance fee, you can really plan multiple trips to the zoo and break up your trip. This is great because it gives you an opportunity to get out there and try some of the amazing food in the area.
I also found that getting around STL was pretty easy. We never really hit any traffic nor did we have to drive very far for anything that we wanted to do; everything was within a 15-20 minute drive, tops!
Prices were great as well. Of course, the zoo is free. Mobot is $8 for adults (compared to $26 at Longwood Gardens). City Museum is $12 for adults so I think it's a very wallet friendly destination for families.
If you plan on visiting STL, I would definitely recommend no earlier than the middle of April but optimally for the beginning of May as I'm sure the scenery at the zoo, mobot, the Arch, and Grant's Farm would be beautiful by then.
My pineapple first showed a fruit in January and I was worried that it would do...something...while I was away. It's been slow going, but here it's still going:
Unorganized thoughts from Switzerland:
- It reminds me a little of Taipei, oddly enough. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it has a similar feel (except it's not 98% Asian and things are a lot more expensive). I think it's the way the shops are built, the little markets, the meandering back alleys, the smaller cars, the bicycles (though in Taiwan, it's mostly motor scooters), the closeness of everything. Of course, the air is much nicer here and the buildings much older.
- There racial diversity is pretty surprising. I would have thought it more like Utah, to be honest, but there is a noticeable presence of minorities here.
- Things are expensive.
- Lots of bicycles...everywhere. Men, women, professionals, students, young, old-- all sorts of folks can be seen riding their bicycles in the morning. Also, people don't generally lock their bicycles; they just park them and go. A fellow American traveler commented that in the US, they'd probably all be on the back of a pickup truck in under 10 minutes...
- Basel, where I'm staying, is very small and very walkable. However, the free tram system here is superb and traveler friendly. They are frequent and accessible from nearly everywhere in the city - no need to purchase tickets.
- As a consequence of the previous two bullet points, there aren't very many cars here for a metropolitan and business center.
- Maybe I notice it more because I back up to the woods at home, but there is a surprising lack of insects.
- The toilet paper is much thicker and the sheets are longer (yes, these sorts of mundane things interest me).
- The city is very clean compared to other metropolitan areas I've visited.
- The coffee is fantastic nearly everywhere I've had coffee (maybe this is a general European characteristic). Even the hotel coffee is superb! It surprised me to see several Starbucks in my wanderings in the city given the general quality of the coffee I've had here exceeded the coffee I've had at any of the US Starbucks I've had. A fellow Danish traveler said that it's because it's "American" and folks like the flavored coffees, which is absurd to me.
- The McDonald's here is the most expensive McDonald's I've ever had. That said, the Big Tasty was huge and had bacon and the bun had caramelized onions on top. Way better than in the US.
- Smoking - it's everywhere. I guess I'm not used to this anymore as there's pretty much no open areas where people can smoke back in NJ. I will tell you this: I do not miss that aspect of New Jersey.
- The aforementioned Danish traveler mentioned that he never eats breakfast at hotels here in Europe but never skips them in the US. I can understand why. The breakfast fare here is mostly bread, cheese, bread, cereal, and more bread. Not quite as satisfying as some bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, and hash browns.
One of my favorite things about summer is watching the bumblebees at work on my Salvias — they love the stuff.
Growing up in the Internet Age, I've become fairly accustomed to and comfortable with buying just about everything online.
But even for me, ordering wood floors online -- by the pallet, no less -- was fraught with "what if's" and a bit of trepidation. It isn't one of those things that you can just return if you get it and you don't like it or it's damaged or something and it's not exactly easy to get more product if you happen to be short a few square feet.
After doing much research and collecting dozens of samples (over a period of a few years...), I finally decided that I was ready to pull the trigger a few weeks ago and decided on BuildDirect.com for a couple of reasons:
- They were having a sale on some really nice engineered mahogany.
- Their prices couldn't be beat, even factoring in delivery charges (which are very high compared to some other e-tailers).
- Their web app was top notch; very well done.
This review is for people who are considering ordering from them (or ordering flooring online in general) since there weren't many online resources when I was researching them.
The sample ordering process is pretty simple and the samples are free (minus a delivery fee). I've ordered at least a dozen samples from them over a period of two or three years, trying to find the perfect flooring. Compared to other online flooring companies, I've found that they give pretty generous sample sizes in terms of length so you can get a better feel for the wood. I will note that there are some products which you have to call to obtain a sample for.
I would recommend that when ordering certain types of wood, get multiple samples since with mahogany or Brazilian cherry, for example, different boards can show dramatically different colors and patterns. We were considering mahogany, Brazilian cherry, acacia, and some of their twisted strand bamboo (really, really nice floors, IMO - definitely check these out).
I particularly like how the web app displays the weight information, the delivery source, and calculates the cost of shipping and adds it to the price per square foot calculation.
Their sample ordering process gets a 5/5.
Once you've decided on your flooring type and measured your square footage, the next step is to go online and order the flooring. It should be noted that you should probably order at least 110% of your measured square footage. We had installers put down our floors and the first crew wasn't very conservative with their usage and we ended up one box short. At that point, you really have a tough choice to make; for us, we've decided to sell the extra flooring (or give it away to family members) instead of ordering additional flooring since the shipping costs would be silly. Our kitchen was supposed to get the wood as well, but since we were short about 30 square feet, we decided to just leave it for now.
The initial ordering process is generally pretty easy. It's not much more difficult than the sample ordering process. However, there does seem to be this extra step of having to call their offices to confirm the order and what not. At times, it can be difficult to reach anyone in the office (a secretary always picks up, but then you need to be transferred to the right department). This became a pain-in-the-ass game of phone tag trying to reach the guy.
It was also a bit of a pain to adjust the order size once I had the installer come out and measure and estimate. Again, it was hard to reach someone in the right department.
They were also initially somewhat inflexible with their pricing. I had purchased a large quantity (most of it) on a sale price but then wanted to add an additional 400 or so square feet and some accessory pieces. The sales rep. initially gave me some beef about adding the additional square footage at the original sales price until my wife called and threatened to cancel the order. We did get the flooring at the sale price, but I don't understand why they made us jump through hoops to get it considering this order was coming in at several thousand dollars already.
One minor gripe is that you can't just go online and order more accessories; if you try to do it online, you have to order more product to be able to do it. It seems like you should be able to go to your original order and add a limited quantity of product or accessory pieces. In the end, I simply had to call them up to get one or two more transition pieces, but still, it would have been easier to do it online.
Their ordering process gets a 2.5/5.
The delivery was probably one of the most annoying aspects. The first issue is that their delivery window is very large; you won't know when you'll get it until you get a call the day before asking you to schedule delivery. This is a pain in the ass.
The second issue is that while their web site is generally pretty well done, their delivery estimates aren't very well integrated with their stock levels as we were delayed by a month as their stock levels were low. This wasn't an issue for us since our schedule was flexible, but I can see how this might be an issue if you're in the process of building a house and you have a much less flexible timeline.
The actual delivery itself was a bit of a pain as well. The product comes in pallets, but the pallets for our product were like 8x4 (oblong), which makes it a bit harder to store (say in your garage since you have to clear out a lot more space). Not only that, they're only supposed to drop it in your driveway! As I wasn't home that week, we asked my father-in-law to accept delivery for us. He gave the driver a $50 tip to help him get it into the garage using his hand lift. Just beware that the delivery process is less than optimal for average folk.
It would be one thing if they could give you a very specific delivery date and then you could schedule your installers to be there at the same time to move/install the product, but the combination of such a wide delivery window and delivery service (driveway drop) makes it a bit of a pain.
On the other hand, I have to say, the product was very well packaged and had no damage at all. This was one of my primary concerns, that there would be damage during transit and that we'd have to deal with a messy return process.
Their delivery process gets a 3/5.
Despite all that, the wife and I absolutely love the floors. The engineered material is pretty good at this price point when you compare it against the stuff you'd find in big box stores like Home Depot or even from Lumber Liquidators. The specific engineered flooring that we got, their house brand Vanier Santos Mahogany, came with a 4mm wear layer. At this price point, if you were going to get it from HD or Lowes, you'd probably be getting something like a 0.5mm wear layer. With a 4mm wear layer, it can be sanded and refinished at least once in its lifetime (probably twice).
From a durability perspective, we've only had it for a few weeks now, but we have three cats and as far as I can tell, it looks to be holding up well to their claws. I was worried about rolling around in the office chairs and leaving marks, but so far, it's been fine, even without a protective plastic mat or an area rug.
I was a bit worried watching the installers handle the product since they were pretty rough with it, tossing around pieces here and there, stepping over them, hammering it pretty heavily with rubber mallets...but it held up. There were only like one or two places where their rough handling was apparent (possibly from dropping a nail gun). Otherwise, the boards seemed fairly resilient - no breakage, no splitting of the veneer from the base, no cracking. I should note that watching the installers cut the boards lengthwise, they did it by simply using a hand held circular saw and they were able to get very clean cuts. I would think this speaks a bit to the workability of the product.
Overall, in the 60 some boxes that were installed, there were probably only 3-4 boards that had defects in them (hairline cracks in the finish, splintered tongue, etc) and only a few boards which weren't very attractive (only based on the specific tree or the section of the tree that it was cut from - we set these aside or used them in closets). Otherwise, the boards were remarkably well milled and 99% perfect in terms of being square and straight. The accessory pieces also matched nicely in terms of color and finish.
The packaging should also be noted as well: the contents of each box were sealed with fairly durable plastic and there were thin layers of foam sheets between each layer of the product inside the box. I was pretty impressed with the lengths they went to ensure that the product wasn't going to be damaged in transit (although I wasn't too happy about how much waste this generated).
The product itself gets a 5/5.
I'd say I'd probably order from them again in the future and would recommend them to friends and family. In the end, I think it's a great value as long as you're willing to plan it out properly and accept the risks with ordering this stuff sight unseen (it can be really hard to judge some types of flooring based on samples).
I'd say it's a solid 4/5.
Just some random photos to unload from the camera.
We recently saw this little guy scouring our Mums for prey:
Spent the weekend in Tennessee. Stopped by a BBQ/country music festival in Nashville. Got myself some Bayou Billy's homebrew soda. Love their tagline: "Put Some South In Your Mouth":
You're supposed to keep the mug for lifetime $1 refills. Sandra particularly liked how I carried mine around:
Spent Sunday at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens just outside of Nashville. Amazing place; a shame that I didn't have a better camera, lens, and -- well -- skill to capture it all.
The main mansion was beautiful as well, however, photography wasn't allowed. The backstory is that it was once owned by one of the early investors in Maxwell House Coffee (The Cheek family). There's a whole section of the garden, the sculpture trail, that we didn't do...maybe next time. Also, there's supposed to be a Dale Chihuly exhibit next year if you're planning on making a trip to Tennessee!
If you're ever in Tennessee, don't pass up the chance to stop by Cheekwood. Bring some comfortable hiking/walking shoes, a bottle of water, a nice camera, and some time. Oh, and finally: where did this guy come from?
Got myself a Bialetti cappucino/latte set this week. I have to say, I'm pretty impressed. Check out the results for yourself:
It comes with a milk frother cup, which worked out really well.
Check out my Amazon review:
I'm a pretty "average" coffee drinker; I'm not so into it that I'm going to be roasting my own beans anytime soon. On the other hand, I've also had my share of watered down and bitter tasting sludge water once in a while from national chains as well and I can appreciate a good cup of coffee.
This little device seems like a good middle ground. Not so steep in price that you feel like you need to be a coffee snob to really appreciate it, and yet it produces an above average cup of cappuccino. You can certainly spend a lot more on a coffee preparation device, but there's no guarantee that you're going to get results that really justify the extra cost.
Compared to some devices I've used in the past, I would list the key pros of this one as:
1. Very easy to clean. The frothing cup has a non-stick coating and it's easy to rinse out. The percolator is pretty easy to assemble/disassemble once it's cool. All the parts are easy to remove and rinse clean. The coffee grinds are very easy to remove as well (one of my main concerns).
2. The frothing cup works GREAT. I was a bit tepid to try it out with some organic skim milk, but it worked out great! I set about 3/4 cup of milk over very low heat until I saw a bit of steam coming off the cup and put the plunger over it and within 10-15 pumps, I had a nice, thick, frothy mixture (even with skim milk!).
3. Paired with some Illy coffee, the coffee came out very, very well. Perhaps the best coffee I've had in quite a while. No bitterness and, to my surprise, even with the fine grind of the beans, the coffee was pretty much free of grinds.
4. To my surprise, I was able to get a bit of crema! Yes, it's possible even with this relatively cheap device (there are a few videos on Youtube demonstrating this).
A few things held this combo back from being a 5 star product:
1. The directions are TERRIBLE. No suggestions on the amount of grinds to use (yes, to some degree, this is really dependent on your personal taste, but at least give me a baseline!). There's also no suggestion on the grind to use either (I ended up using a fine grind Illy). There's no measuring cup and at least on mine, there were no water level markers on the inside of the percolator. I ended up filling it about 3/4 of the way to the valve. As for grinds, I ended up using a bit more than 2 tablespoons and it seemed to work out well for me.
2. Unless you're standing next to the thing the whole time, there's really no way of telling when it's done; you really have to kind of stand there and watch it. With enough usage, I assume that you'll get the time down, but it would be nice if had some mechanism to alert you when it's done.
3. At least on my gas stove, it takes a while to heat up. Compared to a drip machine or other electric percolators I've used in the past, this device does take a bit more time since you can't really use high heat on your stove (unless you have an electric one). Since the base is rather small, you have to use it over a smaller burner and even then, you may have to use a rather low heat setting. All of this means that it takes a while for it to heat up. While this might contribute to a better tasting coffee, it also means more time.
All in all, I think it was well worth the $40 some dollars I paid for it. It's a great weekend companion; it's very satisfying to wake up on a lazy Sunday morning and make a cup of cappuccino for the wife and I and sit back and relax, without having to get dressed and rush out into the cold winter air. It's probably not ideal for every day use as it is a bit more time consuming and there is a bit more cleanup involved compared to a paper filter drip machine. But then again, if your working life is busy and hectic, it might be just the thing you need to slow down for a moment and enjoy a hot cup of cappuccino!
Heroin in Afghanistan
A cool story on how some enterprising individuals are working to battle the heroin trade originating in Afghanistan:
A former homeless drug abuser from Swindon is the unlikely champion of an initiative that aims to fight Afghanistan’s vast narcotics economy – with fruit juice.
James Brett, 39, who once spent a year living rough before becoming a fruit juice magnate, is behind a scheme that aims to replace opium fields with pomegranate orchards.
Mr Brett’s scheme will begin in March with 100,000 pomegranate saplings in the eastern province of Nangahar. He hopes eventually to plant 175,000 hectares (432,250 acres) of orchards across the country.
This is all sorts of awesome (well, because I love pomegranates :-P)!
Chinese New Year!
Happy Chinese New Year! (Year of the Ox)
I've been working through Eric Brechner's I.M Wright's Hard Code. I'll have more on this in the coming weeks as I continue to digest the awesomeness of this book. Excellent pieces on software engineering and dealing with the mess of it all. Highly recommended reading. I finished this up on my trip to Taiwan...
It's been a long 2009 for me already.
My grandmother passed away near midnight on January 8th. It's kind of strange, I wasn't all that close to her, but in the aftermath of my weeklong trip to Taiwan to attend services, I feel a sudden sense of emptiness. It's a sort of spiritual/cultural/familial emptiness...an uncertainty about the future of my ties to Taiwan and to my family there.
I was quite surprised that my family wasn't as emotional as I would have expected; but then again, to reach the ripe age 88 is not a terrible fate. It was quite sudden for my grandmother, who was about as energetic and lively as a 8 year hold hopped up on a few bottles of pop. My goodness, you would not believe the copious amounts of food that she could consume for a frame no bigger than 5' (maybe).
She was from a different generation, a generation that saved every yuan, ate every last grain of rice, and lived simple, disciplined lives. She was stubborn to the end, from what I heard from my aunts, but it was her way of expressing her love for her family. I think the following phrase best summed up her view of her matriarchical role:
The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
-- Nelson Henderson
So I've been pretty depressed through all of this. The Chinese place great emphasis on the family name and as the only son of her only son, it seems that the tradition of the Chen family will end with me as my children will surely grow up as Americans who may never really connect with their Chinese heritage. I have an itch now to sell my house, store most of my stuff with my mom, and move back to Taiwan for a few years to better learn Chinese (I'm conversational on a 3rd or 4th grade level), get to know my aunts and cousins, and enjoy the awesomeness that is Taiwan.
For now, it's just a pipe dream.
My house backs a small forest. So from time to time, we get some interesting visitors.
I saved these guys while I was mowing the lawn...I hope I didn't kill any of their siblings :-S
I briefly considered feeding them to my bearded dragon, Quincy, but decided that it was better to just put them back.
This deer came by about two weeks ago:
It was pretty cool because he walked right out into the main yard before he got spooked and ran back into the woods.
We've also had a red fox visit our back yard one time. There's also this little garden snake living under our front stairs which I keep seeing every few weeks. I've been trying to catch him, but who knew snakes could crawl backwards?
This is quite exciting: my wife is now a published author (with her own ISBN and everything :-D)!
Check out her book The Parent Connection for Singapore Math.
She's also got a media set, you know, if you've got $459 and nothing better to spend it on