Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

We're sitting in the apartment on Christmas Eve, it's raining and miserable outside so we're staying in and watching endless James Bond movies. The holiday spirit has been enhanced by a bit of tinsel and some mince pie - we actually managed to find some! Alan is making a Sri Lankan red beef curry tonight and we have been invited to Stef's house for Christmas lunch tomorrow.

To all our family, friends, and random visitors reading this, have a very Merry Christmas and a splendid New Year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Well now, a couple of weeks ago we were invited by one of Alan's colleagues, Mark, to see how he and his Dad did their homebrew beer. His parents live out by Lake Travis so we drove out there to see what was going on, and found them to be lovely people and generous hosts.

They can also brew a fine ale! We sampled a previous brew, an orange-peel beer which was delightful. And here's the homebrew kit - a bit further on from our plastic barrel:

Explanations (and better pictures) can be found at Mark's website.

I promised you Christmas lights, didn't I? We went down to 37th Street last week, where the whole street is known for putting on lots of lights. The kind of street that gets lots of visitors walking and driving by just to look at them. Here's a few pictures, not brilliant but you get the idea. I'm still hoping to get to Zilker Park for the lights down there.

Last Saturday night we held a small party. We spent the entirety of Saturday daytime preparing for it, then some friends who shall remain nameless (to protect their dignity) showed up. Slightly less people than we had anticipated, and the fridge was stocked altogether too healthily with Beer. So we drank it.

It was a very good evening!

Sunday was mostly spent recovering... ;-)

Last night I had a go at High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography for the first time. There's been some buzz about it on the forums I frequent so I thought I'd check it out. The basic idea is that you take several photos (3-5 or so) of the same scene at different exposures, then use some magic software to combine them, so you retain all the shadows and highlights and have detail in all of them, so nothing is all shadowed or all blown out.

Here's one I tried yesterday of the apartment. Notice how you can see outside the windows, where normally the windows would be bright white if I'd just exposed for the darker interior.

I'm hoping to get to the opening of a photo exhibition tomorrow night downtown, a chap called Trey Ratcliff has been doing this HDR stuff for a while and has some amazing stuff. Check it out here.

(Update) Here, I just tried another one, a scene from Las Vegas.
Original photo:

HDR version:

Now, I guess it's up to the subject matter of the picture as to whether this works or not for what you're trying to do. Some might argue in this case the silhouette is a more powerful frame. Either way, this is a great tool. I think I'm going to have some fun with this.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Things are quiet and steady

We're still alive, in case anyone is wondering. Just getting on with normal life.

Alan finally has his car back! It's still not quite finished, it's missing a new boot liner and the badges for the back. They're waiting for those to come in but it's all perfectly driveable, so Alan is driving it, in a much-relieved kind of fashion. The actual repair has been done very well; the shut lines on the new boot lid are parallel to the body and the paint matches nicely. Unfortunately they've managed to scratch the roof but they have said they will fix it.

Meanwhile, the US Government has now decided they want to see our visas and other documents before they will issue me a work permit. (A) they already know these details - they issued the visas! - and (b) why didn't they ask to see them when they called me down to San Antonio the other week? *sigh*

I finished my stained glass course last night. Won't know what to do with myself on Thursday nights now.

Tuesday morning dawned bright and shiny with a full moon. I dashed outside (well, as dashy as I get in the early AM) with the camera; went up onto the car park top level which is the highest point of our building and for some distance around. You get good views off the top.

Dawn is coming and the clouds are tinged with orange. The moon is setting. This was taken with my new wide-angle lens at about its widest setting.

Here's the moon. This is almost full sized - click here to see the full shot, cropped but not resized. Taken with my 400mm long zoom which equates to about 560mm on my camera due to the smaller sensor. These next two were using the same lens.

Dawn breaks. I think the crane and tower are over at the old airport where they are turning the whole area into basically a new town.

Looking towards the city. You can see the Capitol building (domed), the Frost Bank tower (spiky) and the University tower (square-topped), amongst other towers.

I still haven't got near any Christmas lights with the camera but hope to change that soon. Will keep y'all posted...

Saturday, November 25, 2006


The eagle eyed reader will have noticed me mention doing a stained glass course. I've been going on Thursday nights for the last 6 weeks. We are making one lead panel and one copper foil panel. Today I finished my lead panel. It's about 20 inches wide.

I made this!:

Friday, November 24, 2006


It's Thanksgiving weekend here in the US of A, the biggest holiday of the year. So, a few words about it.

But first, this - by request, here is a pic of the POS that Alan is currently driving, a Vlad, properly known as a Chevrolet Impala:

Word from the garage is that Alan's car is almost fixed but they are waiting on one more part. We should have it back soon....

Alan bought me my Christmas present a month early on Wednesday. He figured I might as well have the use of it. A shiny new wide-angle lens :-) Here's a pic from the first outing, from my favourite vantage point overlooking the bridge on Loop 360:

And now to Thanksgiving. I think this holiday is originally to thank the Founding Fathers for discovering America and creating the country. However it's basically a big family get-together during which Americans eat copious amounts of turkey. A big turkey dinner is the tradition; it's also known as Turkey Day.

We had been invited to join Alan's colleagues Steve and Sarah for Thanksgiving dinner, to which they had invited others as well. There were eleven people at dinner, some from the company and their respective wives/husbands. Sarah had made a great dinner, with sweet potato, roast veg, sweetcorn, broccoli, cornbread, British and American stuffing. Not to mention all the tasty nibbles beforehand.

Another of Alan's mob, Stef, turned up with a second turkey and his own means of cooking it. Deep-fried turkey! Here we introduce Thanksgiving dinner, Stef-style:

Take an enormous box of cooking oil:

And a turkey:

Pour the oil into the burner:

Wait for it to heat up to 350 degrees, and drink some beer:

One person should carefully and slowly lower the turkey in. The rest of the audience should retreat to a safe distance at this point. There will be much bubbling and hissing.

Cook it for 3 minutes per pound.

Here's the finished result. It was more moist than the oven-cooked one but they were both equally nice. The deep-frying didn't make it as oily as you'd imagine, at all.

So there you are, that's our first introduction to Thanksgiving. And very good it was too.

Today - the day after Thanksgiving - is known as Black Friday. This is when the sales start, the Christmas shopping commences, the stores all open at 5am (really) and the retailers go into the black financially for the first time in the year. From here on in, Christmas will be in earnest. Shopping will need to be done, lights will appear on the houses and I expect things to get generally mental. We will keep you posted.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

San Antonio and other things

We had our first visitor this week. Our friend Terry has finished his training in San Antonio and was travelling up country via parents and friends to rejoin Ericka in their new house in North Carolina. So his first stop was at our house in Austin. It was really good to see him. We went out to the Iron Works for some barbeque, then came back, watched TV and chilled out. Doesn't sound mega exciting I know but it was cool.

I had to go down to San Antonio myself last Friday. I've applied for my work permit, so the US Government decided they wanted another fingerprint and photograph, to check I was me, I assume. I had to be down there for 8am, which meant leaving Austin at 06:15. My trusty Jeep got me there in good time and I was out by 08:30. What to do, now I'd driven all the way down there? Go to the zoo, of course!

Off I went to San Antonio Zoo and spent a very pleasant few hours wandering around the various animals. They have a lot of birds, a Komodo dragon and lots of curious cats, amongst many other things. Here's a few pictures:

African animals

A pair of Fossa; very rare cat-like creatures from Madagascar

Two lizards in the reptile house.

We went to the Draughthouse on Friday night as seems to have developed into the usual. This fine establishment serves many excellent beers and is within walking distance of the house. Damn!

This morning we went out on our bicycles. We rode down Shoal Creek, to Town Lake, onto the hike and bike trail. It was a gloriously sunny morning, not too warm, just perfect for cycling. We were out for a couple of hours. Alan got his second puncture in as many times out on his new bike. Luckily it was on the way back, only a few hundred yards from the house.

In the afternoon we went to the cinema, to see 'Stranger than Fiction'. This is about a tax auditor who starts hearing a voice in his head narrating his life. When he discovers the voice belongs to an author who likes to kill off her main characters, he has to find her. It's a great film, go and see it!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mayfield Nature Preserve

I found a new place today, just off the end of 35th St down by the river. There are many trails here and it is very peaceful. The summerhouse has lovely gardens, filled with peafowl. They come right up to you if you stay still. There's a few photos here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Quick update

Just a small update to let any readers out there know we're still alive.

We went down to San Antonio last Saturday for Lackland AFB air show, which was very good. Pictures here. We met up with our friend Terry at the show, who is doing some training in San Antonio before he moves back up to North Carolina. He's coming to stay tomorrow night which will be good.

Sunday morning we went out onto the lake with Dave, who did some wake skating while Alan drove the boat and I lounged around ;-) Alan had a quick go at wakeboarding but stopped as his wrist was too sore. My shoulder is still dodgy so I gave it a miss this time. It was lovely to be out on the lake though, it was a very still, calm morning although it was very dull and grey. We were the only ones on the water aside from a fisherman.

Alan flew off to California on Sunday evening; he's back late tonight. He is annoyed though as he just phoned the garage and they told him that one of the load-bearing parts in the back of the car has been damaged, and they don't carry that part in the USA, so they will have to go back to VW Europe to find out what they can do. Quite why they don't have parts is beyond me. Looks like we will have a POS rental for a while yet.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Las Vegas

We had a great few days in Las Vegas last week. Flew out on Wednesday morning very early up to DFW, then on to LAS, arriving at 09:30 so we had the full day ahead. The flight across the desert was amazing - there really is NOTHING but sand for about three whole States! We flew over the Grand Canyon on the way in, which was very impressive. Sadly I had neither camera nor window seat so no pictures this time. We will have to go and do a helicopter tour sometime. Plenty of people are doing it - there is a constant stream of helicopters flying over the city all day, every day.

We had a limo waiting for us at the airport, which whisked us the short distance to the Hard Rock Hotel. This is very cool - everything about the place is based on rock music. There are guitars everywhere, the corridor lighting is made of cymbals (must have cost a fortune; cymbals ain't cheap!), the lifts have leopard-skin-coloured carpets and leather and chrome walls. Sounds tacky, right? The thing is, it's so over the top it is actually really well done, and a mere taste of what awaited us in town!

After dumping our bags at the hotel, we thought we'd walk down the the Strip. Alan has been in Vegas a couple of times before but this was my first visit. So off we set... and walked, and walked, and walked. Las Vegas is deceptive - what we thought was going to take us 10 minutes actually took us 30 minutes. The Strip hotels were plainly visible from our hotel but they are SO HUGE that they look a lot closer than they really are.

We got there eventually and started along the line of hotel/casinos. They are all themed after something or another and the juxtaposition of cultures and styles is riotous. You can hop from Arabia to Paris to Italy to Ancient Rome to Ancient Egypt in minutes. Every hotel is themed right down to the finest detail and you can really lose yourself in some of them. They all have giant casinos in the bottom; you walk in off the street right into the slot machine halls. Alan says they're a lot quieter than they used to be since they have done away with the machines paying out coins - they print bits of paper now which you take to a cashier to collect your winnings.

Most of the hotels have shopping malls inside too. These have to be seen to be believed, as they are done out inside as though you were outside. The shop frontages are built in a European style; the ceilings are painted with sky. The shops are a mix of things you might find in malls around America, as well as plenty of designer clothes and upmarket shops.

At night, of course, the whole place lights up in fabulous colour. Every building is lit up, there are signs everywhere and the town comes out to play. There are many sideshows and entertainments along the Strip, such as the pirate battle outside Treasure Island, the volcano at the Mirage and our favourite, the fountains at the Bellagio. These play every 15 minutes at night, they are lit up and controlled in time with music. They make astonishing patterns, they're very beautiful and are also impressive in a technical sense, it's an amazing piece of engineering.

I have no decent photos of the Bellagio. I have a lot of crap ones which I'm not showing you here - it's really hard to get a decent shot when the place won't fit in your lens and you're being blown away by how cool the thing is that you're watching! You can all go here for the succinct explanation or here, click on 'Attractions' and choose the Fountains to find out more about them. I also recommend you go here to see the Google Earth satellite image - you can clearly see the fountain generators in the huge lake out the front. Look a bit to the right and you'll also see the 1/2 scale, 540-ft tall Eiffel Tower replica at Paris Hotel. Impressive, isn't it?

Stay on Google Maps a minute and scroll north up the Strip; follow it until you find the Wynn hotel - a curved, orangey coloured tall building. Check out the large golf course behind this. And remember we're in the middle of the desert. We had a very nice meal at the Wynn on the Thursday night, with the guys who had invited us to be in Las Vegas. Alan was presenting a talk at the software company Synopsys's conference. So the Synopsys guys took us out, to this very fine French restaurant. Thanks, guys!

If you continue northeast a bit, you'll get to the Las Vegas Hilton. This was on my to-do list as they host the Star Trek Experience. This is very cool indeed. You walk inside, and the whole casino floor is done out like the Promenade deck on Deep Space Nine. There is a Quark's Cafe, Garak's Tailors (for souvenir shirts, of course), the whole nine yards.

The Experience itself consists of two rides. These use a mix of live actors, pre-scripted computer screens and various props/pyrotechnics/wind machines/seats that jab you in the back and make you jump! In the first one, we were taken on board Copernicus space station, which was then attacked by the Borg. They had us taken onto a shuttlecraft which tried to escape, but the Borg drew us into a Cube and tried to assimilate us. The second ride started with us being beamed aboard the Enterprise, where we walked through the Bridge, with Commander Riker talking to us from the viewscreen, the down in the Turbolift to another shuttlecraft. This was a full-on motion simulator, so the doors closed, the lights came on outside to reveal us sitting in a shuttle bay. The outer doors opened, we lifted off and out into space, into the middle of a battle with some Klingons! Ducking, diving, wheeling, looping flying frenzy ensued which was great fun. The whole Experience was very cool; well worth doing.

Up this end of the Strip also lies the Sahara hotel, and outside here is a Driving Experience. For the very reasonable sum of $10 you can drive two vehicles on their custom built track. So we each drove a Corvette around the racetrack, and then a Hummer H2 arund the off-road circuit. I discovered that driving off road is much more palatable when you're actually doing the driving!

So, that probably covers most of our time in Las Vegas. We were both very tired by the end; sore feet from walking so much.

And by now you're wondering if there's any pictures. Of course there are! here, here, and here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Silver linings

Things are improving again, we are coming out of the shadows.

Car: We have gone through the other party's insurance and they have confirmed they are at fault and will pay for it to be fixed. This is good as (a) it will get fixed and (b) it doesn't affect our no-claims. So we're waiting on the garage to call us now to arrange a time for it to go in. I think they're waiting on parts to be delivered.

This seems to be the story at the moment - I'm also waiting on the Jeep garage to call, as they are waiting on parts too. I'm meant to be having an iPod connector fitted. At some point...

People that we've spoken to about the incident seem to be of similar opinions, for example: it was lucky the other driver was insured (about 1/3 of drivers are not), it happens all the time etc. One chap said his shiny new car got hit only one hour after picking it up - at least ours lasted 22 hours! You do see a lot of dented cars about here. And people seem very blasé about it; recommending body shops they've used 'several times', etc. The insurance company themselves said they get a disproportionately large number of claims from the downtown Austin area. So perhaps it is something we will have to learn to live with.

TV: We went shopping last Sunday and bought a new TV set. It's a nice one, a larger screen than we had before. It's also HD capable. We get a few channels broadcast over the air in HD and the picture is very sharp. The TV is also NTSC-only, however, as they all are here. We had a few days where we thought our mostly region 2 / PAL-format DVD collection was basically expensive coasters, until Alan went back to the manual for the DVD player and found a way to force NTSC output. So we are saved! Gives us a good excuse to watch all our favourite films again :-)

I got my social security number last week too. Now I'm a real person!

Last Saturday saw us at New Braunfels, about 2/3 of the way to San Antonio. They held an airshow to benefit the Moonlight Fund, a burns victim charity. Somewhat ironically, we did both get very sunburnt as we were facing into the sun all day, even with sun cream on. However the air show was very good, with a jet-powered truck, an aeroplane landing on a Winnebago, plenty of aerobatics etc. Pictures are here.

Tomorrow morning we will be out of the door at sparrowfart AM to catch a 6am flight to Las Vegas! Alan has to work but the people he is seeing have said he can bring a guest, so I get to wield my camera about the city for a couple of days. We'll be back on Friday.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Oh fer smeg's sake

The TV has just blown up.

I think we need to go back to bed for a few days.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bad luck comes in threes

They say bad luck comes in threes, don't they? Alan broke his tooth the other day. So he got his first taste of American dental treatment. Usual thing: very good, very expensive.

Thursday night I went for my first class in a stained glass course. It was good. More about this another day.

Friday night, we went to Georgetown to pick up Alan's shiny new car. He bought a VW Golf GTI, (Rabbit GTI for our American readers) in sparkly metallic black. It looked lovely waiting for us in the parking lot. Apparently VW are doing a promotion at the moment in which they proclaim that 'VWs Rock!' and as a result of this, we are meant to get a custom VW electric guitar in the post soon, which you're meant to be able to plug into the car... Anyway, Alan drove it back. He thought it was great.

We then get back in the house and find the washing machine has got stuck (again) and has been churning water through the rinse cycle for the last two hours. I guess that's cost us a couple of hundred bucks on our water bill. You have no idea how much water an American washing machine gets through.

Today (Saturday) we drove over to Fredericksburg for a fly-in. The weather was perfectly flyable until we got past Johnson City, when it started raining. Heavily. The airport was not actually raining but was very damp and only a few aeroplanes had made it in. I got some photos of what was there but nothing was flying. That said, Gillespie County Airport is a great facility, with brand new hangars, a hotel, diner and conference center. We'll be back, hopefully on a nicer day.

So we went back to Austin via a few shops for some stuff we needed. About a block from the apartment, we were waiting at some lights. They went green, Alan stalled the car - unfamiliar gearbox, wrong gear. And **WHACK** from behind as the huge GMC Yukon truck went straight in the back of us. Goodbye shiny car, hello very dented and bruised car. Hadn't even had it 24 hours.

Everyone is OK at least. The Golf's rear bumper is totally stoved in. The boot (trunk) lid will need to be replaced. Luckily the glass looks intact. Of course, the only damage to the Yukon was a slightly bent license plate.

We're meant to have an estimator chap around tomorrow and the car is scheduled to go for fixing at 08:30 Monday morning. To be honest, that's pretty quick work on the insurance company's part. We were only yesterday being pleased that we will save $400 next insurance period for having Texas driving licenses, but now we are hoping this might not affect our no-claims, as if we lose that, it's going to be another $1000 instead, and insurance is expensive enough as it is.


Oh, we did finally get our mattress at least. We get to sleep on our new bed tonight at last.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Things are starting to happen

Yes, my post rate on this blog is slowing down. (Is anyone even reading this?) Life is settling into its usual rythyms of work and weekends. Still got loads of unpacking to do of course.

We went to see Patricia Vonne last weekend. She played at Jovita's on South First. We'd been for some food beforehand at Evanita's Botanitas, a very fine interior Mexican restaurant. Noted amongst other things for serving six kinds of salsa with their tortilla chips. Yum :-) Anyway, Ms Vonne was most excellent. She plays her own style; rock mixed with Latino, dancing, lots of energy. Her current album is called Guitars and Castanets, both of which she uses to great effect. Find more about her here.

Jovitas signboard

This week, Alan became a real person. He got his social security number! I'm still waiting on mine; hopefully it will come in the next day or two. This means America will now deal with us, Alan is allowed to get finance deals, take out services, write cheques; that sort of thing, kinda handy for buying cars/houses/cable TV/mobile phones really. And yes, we already have the TV and phones but we had to pay hefty deposits, which we should now get back hopefully.

So we went to the garage last night to pay for the Jeep! Now the Jeep is officially ours :-) They swapped our dealer plates for an 'untitled vehicle' plate, so I should get real plates in about three weeks. You only get plates when the vehicle is titled and registered, here. Title means you own it. Registration is done at State level. It's kind of like the British V5 but split into two. Anyway, it seems to work. You see a lot of vehicles driving about with untitled plates on though - must be a lot of new cars around at any one time. The '11 02' means I have until the 2nd November (20 days) to get real plates. The garage handles all that - I just have to fetch them or (or they'll post them) when they turn up.

Untitled Vehicle plate

Got it washed yesterday too. I was too embarrassed to take it to the garage looking as mucky as it did. So I thought I'd try the place down the road. Get this - you drive in, three guys vacuum the inside, one drives it round to the wash, it goes through that (automated), then four ladies dry it off, polish the outside, polish the inside/dash, clean the windows and generally make it lovely. That costs the princely sum of $11 (about six quid)!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Austin music

Well, the place is slowly getting straightened out. I have spent the whole week opening boxes and sorting the contents. We now have a basically functional living room with TV, DVD and sofa/chairs in generally conventional settings.

Power requirements are the biggest headache in America. We had to buy a power transformer to be able to feed our electricals with 240V. Anything that requires 50Hz is debatable but the DVD player seems to work on 60Hz, thank God. Some things have universal power supplies that take either 240V or 120V but not everything does, of course.

Friday night we went to the Draughhouse for some beer, then up to Chilis for some food. Chilis serve really huge margaritas. This one was made with blue curacao:

Saturday, we had to do a certain amount of shopping but we went down to the Old Pecan Street Arts Festival, which consists of about 300 artists/vendors, three music stages and plenty of food/drink stands. We'd come down for the arts but mainly to see the band Vallejo, a local crowd which we have become aware of. They are a rock band with a heavy dose of Latino about them and they are most excellent.
Vallejo at the Pecan Street Festival.

After Vallejo's set, we figured we would try to get into Antone's club to see Fastball, a band who we have known for a couple of years. We only found out very recently they are actually from Austin. Anyway, we saw the gig in the paper but thought there would be no tickets left. As it turned out we got straight in :-) Two minutes later, Stef arrived, whose party we'd been at the other day, so he joined us.

A couple of other bands were up first. The Mad Dukes had some good tunes but needed to polish their delivery somewhat. They were followed by Stereovolt who we enjoyed a lot. Then came Fastball. They totally rocked! They played loads of tunes that we knew and every one was top notch. They had fun doing it, too. Afterwards, they came to the front to sign CDs. We now have a shiny new signed Fastball CD :-) They were very nice chaps. The show finished with Cruiserweight who seemed very promising, but unfortunately the sound man screwed the sound so all we were getting was distortion. So we left. Got home after 1am anyway. It was a very good night.

A bit dark for my phone but here's Fastball.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I may have mentioned it being like a building site around here. Yesterday I got an educational view from the balcony as the builders poured concrete into the new pathway below. They're quite skilled about it actually. The big machine pours the concrete in, then they spread it out evenly, smooth it over etc. A guy comes a long with a flat broom on a stick with a pointy bit in the middle, with which he cuts grooves to make concrete panels. No measuring, he just makes nice even grooves along the length of the path. Then a guy with a normal broom sweeps the surface to make the textured walkway. Another couple of guys make the edges extra smooth to finish them nicely, then finally a guy sprays the whole thing with some kind of liquid - I guess this is a hardening agent or similar. It dries quickly in the sun.

Here's a gratuitous shot of the giant pouring machine - it's angled as that's the only way I could fit it in:
Concrete pouring machine

Anyway, yesterday also brought the arrival of our sea freight. This is where the rest of our house joins us in the apartment. The good news is that it all seems to be present, although we haven't opened all the boxes yet to see if things are intact (but so far, so good). However....

Oh. My. God. How much stuff do we have?!?!?!?!

Remember our nice spacious apartment?
Lots of lovely space

It's turned into this:

We have taken a storage room. Only snag is that it's in the other building. We looked at the ones in our building but they were tiny. Building 2 has much bigger rooms, and we are going to need the space... so all our books, CDs, old kitchen stuff, shed/garden stuff etc are all going to be put away.

We hit on another tiny snaglet as well. We bought a new bed a couple of weeks ago, wanting to use our existing bed for the spare room. So off we trotted to the bed shop, where we ordered a king size bed.

Yesterday we reckoned we'd put our British king size mattress onto said new bed (the new mattress hasn't arrived yet) so we had somewhere to sleep, otherwise Alan would have to build the second bed.

Here we discovered the hithertofore unknown difference in British and American king sizes:

American Kings must be bigger too

I guess we need to buy new sheets....

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Picture pages

I made a couple of web pages of various things:

Air and water - cloudscapes, sunsets and rainbows

Lake Life - creatures around the lake by our apartment

Just back in from wakeboarding at the cable lake down in New Braunfels. It was fun but hard work. It's a good place though; you don't have to worry about getting up onto the water, they launch you from a sitting position. We both managed a couple of reasonable attempts but most of the time were swiftly in the water... More practise required!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Drivin' Cars, Part 2

Wednesday continued in a splendid fashion. We went via a boat shop to buy some buoyancy jackets - just in case Dave asks us wakeboarding again, and anyway we intend to go and rent a kayak now and again for a laugh.

Then it was on up to Georgetown, where a shiny thing awaited me. We didn't know if we'd be able to collect the shiny thing as we still had to sort out finance etc.

The answer turned out to be a resounding yes!

Without further ado:
Introducing..... Jo's Extra Shiny Most Excellent New Jeep Wrangler!

Four litres, six cylinders of finest American horsepower! Isn't she lovely? As you can see, she has a hard top - makes it nice and civilised inside, quiet too. There's a curious mix of basic and refinement inside - no electric windows or central locking (they ony add weight, don't want that!), but we have air conditioning and a seven-speaker stereo with subwoofer (yeah!), as well as an uprated rear axle, cruise control and a leather steering wheel.

The fact we have this vehicle in our possession already is amazing. We turned up at the garage; they'd got the vehicle all nicely prepared for us. We have not yet paid for it and they let us take it anyway! We have to go back as soon as we get our social security numbers; then they will arrange finance for us. So we have it as a 'borrowed vehicle' until then. We must look trustworthy or something!


So, I drove it back home last night, followed by Alan in the rental wagon. The journey was a little stressful - a brand new car, manual transmission, wrong side of the road (and more to the point, the gearstick on the wrong side), the fact I'd been concentrating all morning on driving an automatic perfectly, and my internal map of Austin is pretty tarnished through disuse.... so yes, I took the wrong turn off the Interstate and stalled it once or twice, but we got home in one piece and all was well :-)


I've been out driving this afternoon :-) I had to wait in all morning though for our air freight to be delivered - it was (we now have an iron! No more creased clothes!) and also for a chap to come and fix things in the apartment. He arrived at lunchtime so I was free after that.

Meanwhile, an email came in telling me I'd won a Bob Seger CD from KLBJ, the local rock radio station. Woo-hoo! So, marvellous excuse to drive my new vehicle. Up the road I went, picked up the CD, put it in the CD player and roared off up the Interstate, rocking out to some fine new tunes :-)

She's much easier to drive today. I'm getting used to the long-throw clutch and lazy action between gearshifts. This isn't a racing machine, after all. We went over to 360 bridge and up to Emma Long Park, where these pictures were taken. With the proper camera, this time ;-) I am now looking forward to plenty more driving!


Drivin' Cars, Part 1

It's been an eventful week so far. Monday night we were out with some of Alan's colleagues; we met at the Ginger Man for a few beers, then on to (I think it's called) Mike and Angie's Pizza for some, well, pizza. A very fine evening.

On Tuesday, our old friends Preston and Mary-Jane Clark arrived to take us out for a meal. They drove us to a place not too far away called Frisco, which MJ used to work in whilst in college. She opened the restaurant in 1953! It serves comfort food - steaks, fries, chili, onion rings etc. Very good they are too. It was lovely to see Preston and MJ again and we caught up splendidly throughout the evening.

Wednesday was our big day, however. We had scheduled to meet with Michele and go and attempt our driving tests.

The driving test centre is just up the road from here. We met there at 07:50 to be ready for opening at eight. We went in and presented ourselves along with our passports and UK driving licences. They looked at the passports and ignored the driving licences. This was a relief as we'd been told they might try to confiscate our UK licences - they will confiscate an out-of-state license if it's a US one as you're only meant to have one at a time.

Because we didn't have social security numbers yet, we had to fill in an extra bit of paper with our name and address, in addition to the usual application form. The driving test costs $24. We had to first do a vision test. They have a machine on the desk which you rest your forehead on, and look into. There's a chart inside similar to one an optician might have, with letters in different sizes on top and some circles in different colours underneath to test for colour blindness.

Next came the general knowlege test which is done on a computer. The lady asked me to sit at terminal 8 - the computer terminals are placed around the edge of the room, it's not like a classroom. I sat down and the computer started doing its thing. It's a multiple choice test in which you must pick an answer from three or four possible choices. They don't make it entirely clear that the first questions are practise ones to get you used to the question-answer system, however, so when the first two asked me to choose my date of birth and then my name, I was sitting there thinking, "You have got to be kidding!" There's meant to be 30 questions and you must get 21 correct to pass. I only got asked 24 as I'd answered enough correctly. There were questions about road signs, what to do if other drivers do X, Y or Z; how far to park away from certain items etc. Some are a little ambiguous but most are OK; a lot are just common sense.

Alan, however, had the misfortune to have about five questions on minors (under-21), drinking offences and the fines issued to minors. He also got given a question that asked what the thinking distance is when stopping from 20 mph. It's 44 feet, according to the driving manual, so that's what he answered. The computer said it was 22 feet. Also, we both had a question asking how far you should park from a fire plug. Not knowing what a fire plug was, but presuming it was the same as a fire hydrant, we both answered 30 feet. The computer said 15 feet.

Alan queried this with the examiner lady, and said the computer was wrong, and asked her to compare with the book. She did so, agreed, and told him to carry on anyway... Michele later queried it with the lady on the main desk. She admitted there were actually 3 or 4 wrong answers in their computer, but every time the corrected it, the computer overwrote them with the wrong answers again!

Anyway, we both passed our computer tests so it was off to do our practical tests. We had to drive the car around and join a queue as there are only two or three driving examiners. We thought it was a closed course driving test but it turns out they take you onto the road after all.

The test starts with the examiner first checking you have the right to drive your car - they check your insurance and title, if you own it, or in our case they checked our rental agreement. Next they check your horn, indicators and brake lights are working. They don't check your headlights though for some reason.

Then they ask you to pull away and drive towards a long thin bit of road, still inside the test centre. Cue much checking of mirrors first ;-) Once on this bit of road, they ask you to stop, then do a parallel park into the space between two poles set up for the purpose. These poles are very bent, suggesting some people aren't too good at this. I slotted the car in - it was wierd though, poles are harder to see than cars - and he bade me drive out again, up to a line further down. He had me stop and reverse in a straight line for a while. Then it was out onto the open road.

The road part was surprisingly short. We turnned right, then left, then left, then right, and right, maybe one more right, then left back into the test centre. The route encompassed a few stop signs and in my case, some pedestrian hazards (duly slowed down for) but that's about it. The examiner askes you to park up in a particular set of parking bays and that's it! He told me I'd passed, then Alan got in the car and it was his turn.

Meanwhile, I took my paperwork back into the test centre building where they took my photo, congratulated me for passing, and issued me with a paper temporary licence. We should get our photocards in a couple of weeks, in the mail.

So Alan and I are both now licenced Texas drivers!

Alan and Michele said that while I was out driving, they saw one poor girl go out and the instructor drove back.... I guess some people didn't get so lucky that day...

Our next stop was the Social Security office. We have applied for our numbers. Unfortunately, despite waiting for the requisite 10 days since entering the country, our I-94 forms have not yet crept through the system. So they have to make an extra check on our application. Hopefully we should get our numbers in 2-3 weeks, but we will see.

After this, we said farewell to Michele and continued with the rest of our day.

Monday, September 11, 2006

An Austiny weekend

It was the Big Game this weekend - Texas Longhorns versus Ohio State Buckeyes, playing football against each other on Saturday evening. The American variety of course, not soccer. These are the top two teams in college football so a lot of interest was being take in the game.

College football is big business here. They were saying on the TV that the Longhorns stadium had its biggest ever crowd in it - 90,000 people. Rumours of 20,000 Ohio fans coming into town were believable on Friday night, when every bar along 6th Street turned red with their shirts. The rest of the town turned burnt orange - Longhorns colour - and I do mean the whole town; I have never seen so many people supporting a single team. Manchester United have a lot to learn!! Tickets for this game were going on eBay for up to $4000. There was a lot of hype going on. We joined in - when in Rome - I bought a hat and Alan has a shirt :-)

Come game time, we were in a bar downtown (where else?!) and sitting outside. This gave us a lovely view of the diamond-four formation of USAF F-15 fighter jets doing a flypast of the stadium, followed by two flankers. We stayed in the bar to watch the game for a couple of hours - enough to see the single touchdown scored by the Longhorns. We had to go as we were up early the next morning. Sadly the Longhorns lost the game 28-7 to Ohio - the first game lost in the last 21 played.

Pink truck with cowhorns
Gratuitous picture of a truck with cowhorns on for all those people who didn't believe me that these existed! Spotted parked on Congress on Saturday night.

Next morning, we had been invited to go wakeboarding by Dave, one of Alan's colleagues. This is a cross between waterskiing and snowboarding, i.e. you have both feet attached to a short board and you are towed behind the boat. The idea is to use the wake of the boat as a ramp to jump off and do tricks etc.

Early morning view
Here's the lake at about 06:45 on Sunday morning. The lake water level is about 30 feet lower than usual; they desperately need rain to fill it up. The lakeside is sprinkled with boathouses that should be in the water but have been left high and dry.

The first step in wakeboarding is to get out of the water and upright on the board, which Dave makes look easy but proves to be a bit tricky do achieve. After several attempts, however, I did manage to get the hang of getting out of the water. I still haven't got entirely upright, but did manage a couple of short runs where I was crouched on the board, feeling the water skitting underneath before lunching it in one way or another. It's too easy to dig the front edge of the board in which pitches you off forwards, or just not get balanced forward enough so you fall backwards etc.

I think we may try the cable lake south of here next weekend, which is apparently like a water-based ski lift; you have a series of ropes pulling you around a circle to train you in wakeboarding. Alan needs to get himself a lifevest first though - Dave didn't have one in his size and without the extra buoyancy of the jacket, Alan couldn't get enough angle to lift himself out of the water.

Dave wakeboarding
Here's Dave showing us how it should be done. Better pictures coming when I take my proper camera!

Dave jumping
Dave getting some air off a wake ramp.

So thanks to Dave to a great morning. We went off and got some lunch at the New World Deli after this, then went to Wal-Mart to buy a vacuum cleaner and other household cleaning items. We also visited a computer museum which Alan particularly enjoyed.

Last night saw us walking along 43rd street to Duval, where a cluster of eateries and bars may be found. We had dinner in Mother's Cafe And Garden, which is a vegetarian restaurant. The food was excellent. I has a spinach lasagne and Alan had a stir-fry. We then hopped across the road to a bar, where we sat outside in the warm evening air and ejoyed a few Pilsener Urquells. Verrry nice. We'll be back there, I do believe!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New chairs and a night out

We took delivery of our new chairs yesterday afternoon, that we had ordered from Eurway, a fine store that is what IKEA should be but isn't. They also delivered our bed but that will remain unassembled until we get our mattress.

New chairs

Yesterday evening we went into town to join a few chaps from Alan's work, for tea. We were due to meet at the Iron Works for some barbeque. Alan and I were early into town, so we stopped by the Ginger Man for a swift ale.

This hot dog stand was parked next door. I don't think I'll be eating there!

Doggy Style Hot Dogs

I assume the American meaning of this name is the same as in Britain?!!

We enjoyed our beer and later, our meal, and afterwards found our way to the Cedar Door for some Mexican Martinis. These are very tasty. From Austin 360's review of the Cedar Door:

Cedar Door's Original Mexican Martini
In a 16-oz. shaker glass full of ice combine:
1 1/2 oz. Sauza Gold Tequila
1 1/2 oz. Hiram Walker Triple Sec

Finish with freshly squeezed lime juice, a splash of orange juice and sweet and sour. Shake well and serve in a champagne glass with a salted rim, garnished with three olives on a sword pick and lime wedge. Toast "To the Door!"

We didn't toast, but we did enjoy :-)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Picture time

We thoroughly enjoyed the concert last night. It was the Austin Symphony, conducted by Peter Bay, featuring Joshua Bell on violin. He is a virtuoso who has played virtually since he was born; he has been on the world scene for 20 years and is now only in his early 30s. You could say he was a bit good. The programme was the following:
Schuman American Festival Overture
Beethoven Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61
Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73
The Austin Symphony are doing a Beethoven season this year. We may well go and hear some more.

Today we went to look at motor vehicles. There's a shiny one north of here with my name on. That's all I'm saying until it gets a bit closer to becoming reality. Mwahaha! ;-)

We went to the cinema this evening. There's a new Mike Judge film out, 'Idiocracy'. It was very good; very funny.

Time for some photos. These are of varied quality as they're taken with my new cellphone, which is much better outside during the bright daylight than inside or in artifical light.

The apartment block
Here is the end of our apartment block, with the lake in front of it. The main road, Guadalupe, is behind from this angle.

Living room
Our living room. You can see the kitchen on the left, Alan on the right and our new rug in the foreground. The lake is outside the window. Furniture is mid-Atlantic.

Kitchen 1
A view of our kitchen showing the sink and dishwasher.

Kitchen 2
The cooker, fridge and microwave.

Here's the guest bathroom. The master is the same but with two sinks.

OK, that's your lot for tonight. We have to start work tomorrow. That's going to be a shock!