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.