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Archive for December, 2005

Our Las Vegas vacation

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

Well, it’s been a week since we got back, and I spent a few days getting the pictures all re-sized, rotated, and put up in the photogallery. I haven’t really described anything, though.

Sunday

So, we left out of OKC on December 18. We got into Vegas nearly on schedule, but because our seats were literally the last row on the airplane (we managed to be on the same flight as the UCO women’s basketball team and a large wedding party) we were rather late in getting off the plane. I suppose that should have been a sign about how the rest of the trip would be. Well, after getting off the plane we made our way over to the baggage claim. The head flight attendant told us that our luggage would be on carousel 3 or 4, so we stood there between them for a half hour before the bags finally came out.

Then, we made our way over to the On Demand Sedan (ODS) service that we paid for with our vacation package. We waited for the next available van to arrive and when one pulled up the driver took our bags and we got in. We were the first on the bus and the driver wanted to wait for more passengers for some efficiency (perfectly understandable), so we sat there for another 10 minutes for other people to arrive and get in. After he gets them all loaded up he tells us that we should get off and take the van behind us, because they would be going to our hotel faster. So we get off and the driver gets our bags for us and he passes us to the next van. That driver proceeds to tell us that he’s full already and we’ll need to wait for another ODS van. So, what are we supposed to do other than stand there and wait for the next van. We get on the next van after a few minutes and have to wait yet again for more people. Well, we were lucky enough to at least get a nice Oklahoman family from Ada for fellow passengers. Then we were off to the Luxor.

Once at the Luxor, we had to find the registration desk. It’s interesting, because the main entrance leads right to the registration desk, but the bus and van entrance is on the other side of the casino floor with very poor signage pointing the right way. We found our way to the desk and proceeded to get in the shortest check-in line. Well, it was physically the shortest line. It turned out to be the line of longest wait. At this point we had about 20 minutes to get to the Blue Man Group show at the Venetian we had tickets for. We had sorely underestimated the amount of time it would take for us to get from the airport. After we got our room key for our room on the 13th floor (a detail that I neglected to realize until after we had left Vegas), we made our way across the casino to the inclinator and up to our room to dump our bags. We then ran to the taxi stand at the main entrance to catch a taxi to the Venetian. Taxis are by far the fastest way around Las Vegas. You don’t really have to wait for them, you don’t have to park them, and they’ll take you straight where you need to go. They just cost a lot.

We got to the show just in time. In fact, they continued seating a little beyond the scheduled time, so we had a chance to catch our breaths before the lights came down. Having seen one of the Blue Man Group‘s shows in 2001 I had some idea what the show would be like, and it was along similar lines, but it definitely had changed. There were several new skits that they did. Overall, I quite enjoyed the show. It’s most definitely a fun show and appropriate for all ages. The only people that I would highly recommend not going to see it are those that might have issues with seizures due to flashing lights. There are quite a few flashing lights. Also, for those that don’t wish to be an interactive part of the audience, don’t get seats in the front section. They are distributed plastic covers before the show due to the paint splashing and whatnot. It was a great way to start our vacation.

After the show, we made reservations for Emeril’s Delmonico Steakhouse there in the Venetian for the next night. We walked around a bit to some of the Venetian and also found a Wolfgang Puck bistro in a beautiful indoor “outdoor” setting on another floor. Shinta decided she was too tired to eat anything very nice, so we set about trying to find our way back to the hotel. Before heading to Vegas, we read about a relatively new monorail system there and that it was a money saver. So, as the nearest station was at Harrah’s we headed over there to find the station. Naturally, we got a little lost and wound up walking around some parking lot alleys until we found it. So much for getting directions from the information desk. Anyway, we bought some 3-day passes at the machines and took the train to the MGM Grand, which is the station closest to our hotel. Now, the MGM Grand is the largest hotel in the world (and for another factoid, the Luxor is the third largest), and it definitely lives up to that pedigree. We spent quite a bit of time trying to find the walkway to the Tropicana. Then we used the walkway from the Tropicana to the Excalibur and walked the rest of the way down Las Vegas Boulevard to the Luxor. It’s quite a ways. In fact, it took us over an hour to get back to the Luxor.

We were tired, and it was late, but we still hadn’t had dinner yet. The Pyramid Cafe was the only food establishment still open, so we got in line there. Naturally, despite being about 4 places back in line, we waited nearly a half hour before being seated. It was not so nice having to stand there for no apparent reason. There were plenty of seats available, but I think that maybe they were just low on wait staff. Well, when we were finally seated we had to wait quite a while for the waitress to come take our order. The choices were rather sparse and expensive. I had the fish and chips. It wasn’t that great, but half-way through it I put in an order for a vanilla bean milk shake. That was the best milkshake I’ve ever had. Oh that was good, and I kept thinking about it for the rest of the trip. Then we went back to the room to get some rest. We were scheduled for an early pickup for the Grand Canyon.

Monday

We got around “early” (it wasn’t so early considering we were still on Central Daylight Time) the next morning for pickup by the Vision Tours bus. It took us to their office at the North Las Vegas Airpark. Most of the bus, and by most I mean 98% of the other passengers, were Japanese tourists. We happened to sit at the front of the bus before they arrived, so we were lucky enough to get off the bus and to the front of the check-in line first. Well, the line was a two stage thing. The first stage was for checking in. The second stage was for weighing and getting our seats. As we were checking in, the tour operator waived the entire Japanese tour group (nearly 40 people) bypass the check-in line and go straight to second stage. So, when we were done checking in, we had to wait in another rather lengthy line before getting to go to the waiting area. When we got to the waiting area, it was pretty obvious that we were the only English speaking tourists in the group. There was us, the large Japanese group, and a smaller Chinese group all scheduled for the same tour. For all of us, they had three planes ready being prepped. Apparently, there are quite a few Japanese tourists that take such tours — to the point that pretty much everything was done in Japanese and then we were informed afterward. Not really much of a problem, but it was interesting. It was too bad for the Chinese group. They only got a few token words in Chinese to help them along and make sure they got back to the bus on time. It was a really nice tour overall. We had a nice bus driver, Martin, who is a retired Los Angles policeman that decided to move to a state with reasonable firearms laws. Turns out his wife uses a Makarov for CCW and he’s also got a CZ-52. Firearms can bring people together. Great tour! I took way too many photos (available for perusing in my photogallery).

We got back to the hotel that afternoon and got caught by some marketing sharks on the way back to the room. They were offering some food vouchers, show tickets, and free rooms if we’d go listen to some sales pitch the next morning. The first thing that came to mind was “hell no”, but Shinta seemed interested. She’s the boss, so I went along with it. Maybe some free rooms at the hotel would make up for a little time. More on that later.

After a long day walking around at the high altitude of the Grand Canyon (7,000 feet or so) I was pooped, so I wanted a nap before we headed out for our nice dinner at Emeril’s. We had reservations at 8pm, so we got all dressed up and left before 7pm. We figured we get a nice stroll over there and have plenty of time to spare. To all those out there that don’t wear high heeled boots regularly (and maybe those that do, I don’t know), that’s a little too far for comfort. By this point, we’d discovered that there is a tram betwen the Luxor, Excalibur, and Mandalay Bay hotels, so we took the tram to the Excalibur, and then walked to the Tropicana and then to the MGM. By that point, Shinta’s feet were killing her and we might as well have been walking on broken glass the rest of the way to the restaurant. We got a little lost in the MGM and finally found the monorail station. We took the monorail down to the Harrah’s / Imperial Palace station and then slowly walked over to the Venetian. We managed to only be about 5 minutes late. So, with that slight taint to the evening’s enjoyment, we were seated and started the wonderful experience of eating in one of Emeril’s fine restaurants.

Let me just say that Emeril’s Delmonico Steakhouse has the best food I have ever eaten in my life. It redefines flavor. As far as I’m concerned, I never have to go back to Texas de Brazil, which is the most expensive and one of the best meals I could have locally. Everything else I’ve ever tasted pales in comparison. I’ll leave the bite by bite review for my restaurant review section, but I’ll say it again, Emeril’s Delmonico Steakhouse has the best food I have ever eaten in my life. Well, after three or four hours of stuffing ourselves with some of Emeril’s divine cuisine, we rolled out of there and slowly made our way back to the Luxor (again, referring to the pain of those high heeled boots).

Tuesday

The next morning we got up and got around to go to the sales pitch we signed up for. Naturally, we would up being the youngest pair leaving from our hotel. They took us down to their new sales offices at some strip mall a few miles South on Las Vegas Boulevard. It was pretty evident that we weren’t the only ones bribed into the same situation. That place was packed. Anyway, we just had to sit through a little sales pitch, right? Of course they had to try and do a decent sales pitch. They did a demographic match and gave us a really young sales guy, Cale. He’s probably our age, maybe a little younger. I don’t think he really expected to make a sale on us anyway and told us up front that the time-shares he’s pitching either will make sense for us or they won’t. No hard feelings. He’s doing his job. So, he went about the sales pitch. Honestly, Cale is a nice guy, but the sale pitch itself there in the office was pretty sorry. I don’t think it was him. It came down to the little sales book he was supposed to present. It was a little too “perfect”. It was just off in that way. Anyway, then he took us down to the property to show us the model room. Now that and what he was saying during the showing and the drive to and from was great. It really sold itself, but his words and the answers he had to our questions were spot on. So, back at the sales pitch office he goes a little further and makes sure we don’t have any more questions before bringing in the manager to actually talk numbers. At that point we still had absolutely no intention of purchasing anything. Well, the managers were quite good at there jobs. They threw just enough incentives at us that we sat there running numbers for a while and then one more to push us over the edge. I still can’t believe we (as we put it) “bought the villiage”. So, we are now proud owners of the Las Vegas Grandview time-share resort. I actually feel really good about it. We should have it paid for in a year or so and it’ll give us a lifetime of vacations. I’m excited, but I don’t think I’ll be completely past the nervousness until we’ve actually used it once. We’ll see how that goes.

For getting him a sale, Cale offered us a ride back instead of having to take the Shuttle bus. We took him up on it and got a ride back to the Bellagio so we could catch one of the fountain shows. We also went inside to take a look at their beautiful indoor garden. It was done up in a winter holiday theme. I’d say Christmas theme, but the closest hint of Christmas was some red and green colors. Other than that there were some polar bears, some big snow flakes, and what I would otherwise call a Christmas tree. After catching the fountain show I wanted to head next door to Caesar’s Palace to go to Caesar’s forum, a large and nice mall. There’s a Sony Style store there I wanted to see. We came. We saw. We took a picture. It was cool to see so much Sony stuff in one place. They even had a W800i sitting out hooked up to a portable speaker system. Something that sort of surprised me is that they have a back room for Qualia stuff. They had a Japanese lady manning a desk back there and I got the impression that show room wasn’t for the average walk-ins (especially considering the price of things in the Qualia line), so we didn’t go in. I finally got to see pretty much the entire Sony TV line. Their Plasma screens are pretty much perfection. When we can afford it someday, that’s what I want.

At that point, we needed to start heading back to the hotel so that we might get something to eat before our back to back shows. We just needed to redeem the Dame Edna passes to make sure we had our seats. So, about an hour later, we were back at the Luxor and in the ticket line. We get up to the counter and find out that Dame Edna wasn’t playing on Tuesday. So we head back over to the marketing shark’s booth to get that fixed. They “just found out” about the mistake themselves and gave us $100 in food vouchers for our trouble. So, now we have 2 days to use $125 in Luxor food vouchers. We decide to go to Fusia, a modern Asian food bistro and restaurant. Turns out they are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We then proceed to try several other places — all of which are closed. So, despite having gone to a steakhouse the day before, we wind up at the Luxor Steak House. Well, I again will leave a full review to my restaurant review section, but I will just say that it’s no Emeril’s. We don’t get out of there for very cheap (despite not even getting dessert), but it was simply less than satisfying. Anyway, we were still quite full.

We finished early enough to go back to the room for a little while before hitting our second show Fantasy. What can I say about the show? It was pretty good. I enjoyed it. It was almost completely musical numbers and therefore internationally friendly, as was appropriate for the audience. What sucked was the comic relief. There really wasn’t much room for a guy in the show like they used, but oh well. They had to give the prop hands some time to change the sets and the girls some time to change costumes. He was a little too goofy, but at least he could dance.

Wednesday

Not having any morning plans we didn’t get up so early on Wednesday. When we finally got around we realized just how late it was and decided we had better step up our sightseeing a bit. We took a taxi to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch and some shopping. Surprisingly, I forgot to take any pictures. I had a large delicious grouper steak sandwich. The Hard Rock isn’t on the strip and it’s a bit far to walk, so the taxi we took there wasn’t just for time saving. We grabbed another taxi back to the Strip. In fact, we went ahead and went straight to the Coca-Cola and M&M stores. We spent quite a bit of time there shopping and looking at all the cool stuff. The Coca-Cola store was the better of the two, but it only had two levels open. The M&M store had some four levels open and it was jam packed with people. We picked up quite a bit of loot out of there for Christmas gifts. Cool stuff and we’ll have to go back.

Then we were off to see Fremont Street. I had really hoped for Shinta to get to see the cool show. Well, after getting to a monorail station and all the way down to the Sahara, we were supposed to take the 108 bus to Fremont Street. That’s the recommended route according to the monorail guide. So we wait at the 108 bus stop for a half hour before a bus even comes by. Turns out it’s not very tourist friendly. There were several of us tourists attempting to take the same route, but the bus was a very very dirty city bus that sucked in pretty much every way. There was a lot of lower income people on it that use it for normal transportation (not really a problem), but several of them were of the homeless and crazy variety. It was obvious several of the tourists were more than a bit concerned about their safety (me included). So when we finally got to Fremont Street we were just on time to leave if we wanted to get back to the MGM Grand in time for the 7;30pm Cirque du Soleil: KA we thought we had tickets for. We stood around for a little while to get some quick pictures, but didn’t get to see the show before we decided to take a taxi to the MGM Grand.

That was a much much better ride back, even though it had to be the crappiest taxi I’ve ever been in. We got there with some time to spare so we got some reservations at the Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill for after the show. We were loaded down with our shopping bags, but we just didn’t have time to go all the way back to the Luxor first. As we stood in line to get into the KA theater I pulled out our tickets. Low and behold, we didn’t have tickets for the 7:30pm show. We had tickets for the 10:30pm show. So, with that embarrassment discovered (at least it was before we got to the front of the line) we went back to the Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill to change our reservations and eat. Luckily, due to the show starting, the restaurant was emptying out and it was okay for us to change our reservations. Again, we were holding up the food to Emeril’s standard and were once again disappointed. It was not bad, but it wasn’t Emeril’s. More on that in my restaurant review section. We ate our meal and had plenty of time before our 10:30pm show so we took all our stuff back to the hotel and got a quick rest before heading back for the show.

This time, to see a bit more, we came back through the New York – New York instead of the Tropicana. From what we saw, it wasn’t really that impressive. They had some neat stuff in the shops, but nothing that we just had to have. We got a little lost with this new route, but not too badly. We got to the KA theater in plenty of time for the show.

KA really begins from the moment you enter the theater. From the ticket checker guy to the general usher, everything was part of the show. They all wore costumes and portrayed characters. It was very cool. Upon being seated you get a very immersive experience. The stage area was obviously ahead of us, but there were some elaborate scaffolding setup on either side of the theater extending far back behind most of the audience. The sound system and lighting obviously extended around the audience to further this. Just sitting there waiting for the show to begin flames were shooting up from somewhere in the deep pit of the stage area and cool sounds were coming from everywhere in the sound system.

The show itself never really started with any particularly defined “and now here is our show” kind of event or announcement. Slowly characters simply started appearing on the scaffolding and doing what appeared to be manual labor. That went on for some time even while people were still being seated. I guess that was to make people less noticing of their presence. Then, progressively, there were more and they started to do other things like swing from ropes and jump between levels. This proceeded to the point where some of them, dressed somewhat like ninjas, dropped upside down from ropes onto ledges dividing sections of the audience. They proceeded to run around before reversing the process and “flying” back up to the scaffolding. Very neat. These characters seem to converse, yell, and argue in their own language. This continues while a couple of show characters appear in the stage area to kind of interact with the audience. They do the best “no cell phones, photography, or smoking” message I’ve ever seen involving the throwing of “an audience member” into the fire pit. Pretty funny.

Then these scaffold minions culminate in a shouting jumping session as they are “called” toward the center by their “leader” to attack a “happy” scene that comes forth out toward the audience. Now, I don’t want to ruin the show for anyone else that wishes to go see it. So I’m not going to detail every little piece of the action, but I will point out a few things. First of all, this is the most amazing show I’ve ever seen. They really do an outstanding job. I will certainly be seeing some other Cirque du Soleil shows in the future. They truely push the envelope. From the real arrows they shoot in the big opening attack scene, to the effortless looking acrobatics this show is bigger than life. Foremost in their tooling is the moving stage. At times, the engineer in me began to focus more on the monsterous mechanisms that must be involved instead of the show itself. They employ a giant moving stage with four degrees of freedom. It is complete with trap doors and is almost multilevel within itself. It allows for an amazing boat scene and even works as a vertical stage. It’s purely amazing and so well utilized. Their computer generated projected effects were quite good as well. Utilizing those, they were able to portray an underwater scene that truely has you believing the characters are swimming around in a giant 4 story tank in front of you. Beautiful technical, pyrotechnic (I just had to mention this one separately), athletic, and artistic work all around. Anyone heading to Vegas should catch this show. Be sure to book your tickets in advance as I kept hearing that the shows were sold out every day. In fact, I noticed they were selling stand-by tickets at the ticket counter.

After the show, it was rather late, we were tired, and we had to get up “early” to catch our flight. So, we strolled back to the hotel and did our little bit of gambling for the trip. We lost $6, which sounds great, but we only played $6. So much for $0.02 slots. It didn’t last very long either.

Thursday

So, Thursday we get up early and check out so that we’re ready for the ODS pickup at 8:30am. We’re actually early and get on one of their earlier vans that was there. We get to the airports and head to the Champion Air desk. That had to be the single longest airline check-in line I’ve ever been in. It just seemed to go on forever. It wrapped around the inside of the check-in area. It was so long that it actually interfered with several other check-in lines. Well, we finally got through that line. It moved pretty well, but it still took a good 45 minutes. The desk people were pros and really kept things going. So, we headed to the terminal itself. We were supposed to be leaving out of Gate 14. We made the long trek out to the gate and got a couple of seats in the waiting area. We were some of the first to arrive for our flight, but as other people arrived it became rather obvious to us that we would once again be on the same flight as the UCO women’s basketball team and that wedding party. What are the chances? Even more coincidentally, we wound up flying out on the same physical airplane with the same crew. I’ve never had that happen before. That was pretty cool. The flight back was pretty uneventful. It was a nice end to a long, busy trip.

Photos all up

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

I’ve now got basically all the vacation photos up. I’ve tried to sort them out a bit, but I’m not real happy with what I’ve done. I’ll fix it if I figure out something better. I’m more interested in doing the panorama compositions. At least they are viewable now. Most of the shots are of the general point-and-shoot nature and tend to be a little fuzzy, but there are some really good ones. In working with this new camera (Sony DSC-P200) for the first time, I’ve had to relearn how to do a number of things I’m more used to on my camera (Sony DSC-F707). Several of the manual settings I was looking for still allude me, but the automatic modes are still quite good. In particular I like the low-light capabilities of this camera. I intentionally turned off the flash for basically all the shooting due to my disdain of flashes going off in my face (on the receiving end). My camera’s low light capability is rather bad, but I can still coax some decent pictures out of it. This new camera is much much better, but it has more to do with improvements in the software, than the lens. The lens on my camera is far superior, but the software on this new camera does an outstanding job if you hold the camera very still. Much of the fuzzy shots you see are the result of my not being steady enough with the camera. This is quite evident when you compare the Grand Canyon pictures with the rather dark Las Vegas pictures. My hand was probably less steady in that thin mountain air of the Grand Canyon and the pictures are much sharper due to the camera being able to work with more light. Ah well, live and learn.

First set of vacation pictures up

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

I’ve put up the first set of pictures from our vacation. This is the largest group and are pictures from the Grand Canyon tour we took on December 19, 2005. The gallery makes it seem like there are tons of pictures, but many are parts that will be later assembled into panoramas. I already ran one set through Panorama Factory (trial version that leaves the big logo in the middle of the image) and it came out stunning (aside from the logo), so it’ll be nice to see how they all turn out in the end. There’s no telling how long it will take before those are done. I’m leaning toward using an array of open source tools that we have to figure out first. Here’s a quick link to the gallery:

http://www.boontheekul.org/dustin/…Grand_Canyon_-_2005-12-19

Being Sick Sucks

Monday, December 26th, 2005

Well, I’m sick. Based on what has been discussed on the news, it may be the California flu. It sucks. I’ve got plenty to post, but maybe after I feel a little better. More later.

All done

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Finished my last exam today. The professor shows up a tad late (which is actually early for him), and starts handing out the exams. He said he’s made a long one for us and that it’s better, because it means each question is worth less points. That’s great, if we had time to finish them. So after the hour and fifty minutes it’s obvious only one or two people have left (they probably gave up). He gives us another 40 minutes, so we had two and a half hours. I still didn’t finish, but I’m sure I’d have needed quite a bit more time to solve a few of those problems if I ever would have figured them out. At least it wasn’t quite as difficult as the last exam in there. We’ll see how nice he is in the grading. Here’s to hoping for a huge curve.

Funny anti gun control article

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

I came across a link to this anti gun control “article” today. Pretty funny. It has more one liners than I’ve ever seen in one place before. Most of them make pretty good points.

http://www.michaelzwilliamson.com/rants/guncontrol.php

Three down

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

Three final exams complete now. The two today were a split. One went well (at least I think it did). The other was a mess. The first half to two-thirds was fine, but the last bit killed me and I eventually ran out of time. I’m not particularly positive about tomorrow’s exam either, but we’ll see how it goes.

One down

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

I finished my first final exam today. It went well. The practice test that the professor put on her website had several of the questions verbatim on it, which made it a breeze. At least that one will help my average. I can’t seem to get motivated to do any more studying.

As an aside, I really like ffmpeg. It’s an outstanding little utility I’ve been testing out, trying to encode videos for my W800i. It works quite well. I’ve got several videos done with it now and it seems to do absolutely everything I need, except cut out sections of video (which I can do with Virtualdub if need be). Command-line tools are the best.

Crunch Time

Monday, December 12th, 2005

It’s crunch time, aka finals week. I’ve got 4 exams Tuesday through Thursday. I just can’t remember the order. I’ll print that out off out of Kontact at work tomorrow (later today) and get my study schedule worked out. I honestly don’t think these exams are gonna be helping my averages any, but maybe I’ll be wrong. I’ve got to print out all my notes asap to let me study without having to worry about battery power. It’s gonna be interesting.

Weather

Saturday, December 10th, 2005

I added a current weather plug-in to WordPress. The upside is that it works well, but the downside is that IE doesn’t support PNG transparency. The icons it comes with look really nice, but just aren’t any good in IE. There are some alternate icons that use GIF transparency, but they suck. So, until I redo the icons myself to negate the need for transparency, they’ll look “right” on browsers other than IE.