Homer's Travels: April 2009

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Raindrops On Photos

This month's Boston.com photo contest theme was 'April Showers' which really limited what I could submit. This April hasn't been very rainy and most of the good rain occurred at night when photography conditions sucked. I finally decided to submit a flower shot that has the requisite raindrops.

There are only 138 submissions so far so it seems other people are also having trouble capturing a good rain shot. That's good news for my chances but, unfortunately, quite a few of the 138 submissions are pretty good.

On a somewhat related subject, I officially signed up for SoFoBoMo today. I think my theme will be Omaha Colors (or some other color spectrum variations).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nebraska Updates The Rules

Last month I wrote about the Nebraska Geopicting contest. I submitted my pictures a couple of days before the end of the contest period and, at that time, the leader had a couple hundred votes. Within 24 hours the leader had jumped over 1,800 votes. It seemed a little suspicious to me since the contest wasn't that well known. It didn't help that the picture in the lead seemed mediocre to me. I can't remember where the voting peeked at but the explosive growth in votes had a definite rotten smell to it.

Apparently the state of Nebraska is learning a little about photography contests on the internets. I received an e-mail from them this morning saying that all the losing pictures were automatically entered into the next quarterly contest (I already knew this) and that previous vote counts would be zeroed out. They also linked to updated rules. Two of the rules are interesting:

"- One vote per photo per person will be accepted each quarter. Any suspicious voting practices may cause the votes and/or the photo to be discounted and/or disqualified.
- The Nebraska Department of Economic Development’s Travel and Tourism Division reserves the right to remove any votes or contestants for any reason."
Gee, I wonder if someone padded their votes ...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Geopicting Contest - Second Quarter

Nebraska has updated their Geopicting contest page.  I submitted four pictures during the first quarter contest (only two made in before the deadline).  All four pictures have carried over to the second quarter contest.  Please take the time to vote for my pictures.  Vote as many times as you can..  To make it easy to vote, I have added my picture to the sidebar on the right and I linked the picture to the voting page.  Thank you for your votes!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Summer Preview

Nice preview of summer we're having here. It's been in the upper 80's for the past couple days. I turned off the furnace and turned on the air conditioner. Even watered the lawn a bit.

Yesterday I managed to get out of the house and went downtown for lunch and some ice cream (Maggie Moo's Better Batter ice cream with chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough). I did a circuit around the mall area. Half the trees (mostly the Oaks) were still looking pretty dead looking but the others were in full bloom and parts of this downtown park really felt like spring. Just look at this picture. Leafless on the left, flowers on the right - gorgeous.

The water, the centerpiece of the mall area, needs some serious work. The water is this pea green color and there is scum and trash floating along the edges and in the corners - Gagh! Hopefully Omaha will use some of it's stimulus money to spruce up the place. I was surprised to find that there are fish in the soup. A lot of fish actually. The fish seem to be afraid of the light as they were clustered in the shadow of a bridge.

In the evening the Wife and I went to see a Quasi-Live performance of the This American Life radio program. The show was recorded live and the performances were beamed to some 430 movie theaters around the country. It was pretty good. Funny stories told by familiar voices. There was even live music performed by Joss Whedon (He sang some of his singing commentary from his Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog DVD).

I was impressed by the crowd - our theater was about two thirds full - about the same amount as a regular movie. The crowd was a mix of hip youngster and hip oldster. I wore the shirt I bought at the live performance we attended a couple years ago. I kind of felt like a Trekkie wearing a Star trek uniform. Since nobody seemed to recognize it, I didn't feel too geeky.

Today, part two of the summer preview, I took my Mom out for lunch at Goldbergs known for their "Burgers, Beer, & Bloody Marys." It was good enough. Neither of us had the burgers, beer, or bloody marys.

It all comes to an end tonight with some thunderstorms and a 30°F drop in the temperature. Preview Over.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Book: Iain M. Banks' "The Player Of Games"

Iain M. Banks' "The Player of Games" is my second Culture novel and I am in a confusing place - I like the world Banks has created but the story he tells is rather bland. What's a guy to do?

The Culture is a post-human, post-singularity technological utopia. Technology is ubiquitous and invisible. As a matter of fact, Banks' seldom discusses the Culture's technology. Thing's that seem impossible simply work somehow. Reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This technology underpins a decentralised, almost anarchic governance. Everyone is free to do what they wish and there is abundance of everything.

"The Player of Games" follows Gurgeh, a game player (duh). Game playing appears to be an important thing for Banks as he uses it as a subplot/backdrop in "Consider Phlebas". The nature of the Culture diminishes the stakes of game playing. There is no money. Everything is abundant. Everyone can have anything anytime they want it. How do you wager in such a world? This inevitably leads Gurgeh, the best human game player in the Culture, to become bored. Gurgeh, through a rather complicated plot device, decides to join with the Culture organization known as Contact, to travel to a non-Culture empire to play, what is described as, the ultimate game.

The game of Apex is a game that governs a brutal empire. Periodic tournaments choose whole will be emperor. The Culture is invited to play in the games as a good will gesture between the two galactic powers. The complexity of Apex is supposed to be unprecedented. I found this hard to swallow. The Culture is led by incredibly advanced artificial intelligences known as Minds. They are orders of magnitude superior to humans and have access to nearly unlimited knowledge. It seems to me that the Culture could come up with more complex and more challenging games.

The novel follows Gurgeh's progress in the game and, through his innocent Culture point of view, his discovery of the empire's barbarism and decadence. I think this is Bank's attempt to show the problems with our culture through the eyes of his fictitious Culture but I think he is a little heavy handed and he falls flat. In the end there is a twist that, unfortunately, is telegraphed light years ahead. There is little real surprise or new perspective in this story.

So what's a guy to do? I like the Culture. I want to learn more about it. But the creator of this wonderful universe, the author, is a rather blah story teller. His style is readable but the characters lack some depth and the action, what little there is, is ordinary and predictable. I intend to read the third book but my hopes are not very high that it will be any better.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hiking Nebraska: Hayworth Park And The Bellevue Nature And History Trail

Yesterday turned out to be too nice to stay inside. Unfortunately I didn't have any hikes planned. What I did have was a list of ten geocaches that I had compiled a while back. The caches were located in, or north of, Hayworth Park in nearby Bellevue, NE. My cache hunt turned into a short but pleasant hike.

Hayworth park is a fairly large park bordering the Missouri River. The park offers camping and boat launching facilities. I parked near the southern end of the park near the start of a Lewis & Clarke historic walk - something I will have to visit in the future. My GPS took me north on a paved path along the river.

The first three caches ("Amish Country", "Watchful", and "OBEY the LAW") were in the developed part of the park and were small micro-caches. I'd expected my cache searching ability, my geosense, would be rusty as I'd not search for caches since last August but I found these three with very little effort. I liked "Watchful" the most, a small container hidden behind a reflector. I'd seen similar caches before which made it easier.

The trail ended as I crossed under the Bellevue Bridge and found an unpaved trail entering a wooded, undeveloped area. The trail was easy to follow but it needed a little maintenance. The trail followed the river closely. Unlike other river trails, there were several places where you could actually get to the water's edge. I didn't see too much wildlife but there was evidence of beaver activity and some busy bees. Along this trail I found three more caches: "Fallen Giant", "Alea Iacta Est - The Hides of March", and "Kramer Vs. Kramer".

The trail ends at a mysterious structure. It looks like it was involved with either barges or a ferry. The windows were covered in chain link and the doors were welded shut cutting off easy access to the river. It was obviously a teen hang out and everything was covered in graffiti. The Best Man mentioned something this last weekend about taking pictures of old decaying buildings. There is something about the juxtaposition of urban decay and wild nature that fascinates me. I can be hiking in some of the most beautiful nature, but when I come upon something remotely man-made, the remains of a wall or an old homestead, I just have to take pictures.

Past the mystery building the trail follows a grass field before coming to an end at a fence. From here you can see the trailhead for the Bellevue Nature and History trail. While most of the signs say this, one refers to the trail as the Eagle Point Trail. The signs also give different trail lengths, 1.3 and 1.5 miles round trip. The trails consists of two, long and thin, connected loops. Along the trails there are three "plazas". Each plaza has descriptive plaques placed around a mosaic platform. The plazas describe the River History, Birding, and Trade Post of the area. I learned that the the Carolina Parakeet was once common in the area until hunters and farmers forced them into extinction. When I think Nebraska, I don't think parakeet. I can thank hunters and farmers for that.

After passing the plazas the trail curves back to the south and, along a short boardwalk, passes a marshy wetland. For some reason I always find marshes to be an unexpected surprise. I really shouldn't since where there is a river there is surely to be a wetland nearby but I'm still always caught by surprise. I like the vibrant greens of Nebraska wetlands. Most of the wetlands I saw in California were ... dry.

Along this this trail I found three more caches: "Balance Beam", "Tuning Fork", and "Gator Bait".

After arriving back to the trailhead, I followed the Hayworth trail back to the car. I drove the car to another cache, "WHEELS", located near a bicycle monument near the end of the Keystone/Bellevue Loop bicycle trail. Unfortunately I could not find the cache. I will have to try again sometime.

The total distance for this hike was 3.5 miles. I want to thank GeekHiker for reminding me that short hikes can be fun and interesting too and the cache hiders for introducing me to these trails. Some pictures can be found here.

Oh yeah, Almost forgot.

Happy Earth Day!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Haverhill Debate Society

This weekend we went to the Haverhill Social Club for a get together of the Wife's family.  This is the second time we've met up there and I think it will become a new family tradition s everyone there had a great time.  Unlike out last time, since the social club now serves food, we decided to not bring Homer with us.  My Mom house/Homer sat for us.  THANKS MOM!

The five or so hours that we spent there was filled with drink, food, drink, discussion, drink, cigars, and more drink.  The GodSon brought his girlfriend  and she was introduced to the others in the extended family.  Very nice young lady - that makes me sound old but she's too old to be a 'girl' and too young to be just a 'lady'.  Anyway, we all like her and she seemed to fit right in.

The highlight of the visit, second only to the people, was getting to visit the basement of the bar.  This place is pretty old and the basement is full of cool old bar stuff.  The basement is accessed through a door in the floor.  I don't think the owners liked us going down there but we weren't listening and just open it up and streamed down the stairs.  Spooky, dusty, dank, and awesome! That's what it was.

After we left the social club we went to the hotel in nearby Marsalltown where the party continued in the pool and hot tub.  The hot tub, where I spent all my time, was a little too hot.  I felt like I was being boiled like a lobster so I ended up sitting on the side and boiled just my feet.  The highlight here was trying to figure out the tactful way to tell someone that their junk was out of their trunks.  The answer turned out to be by cell phone.

After the pool came the gathering in the hotel's breakfast area.  The main topics here, as they always seem to be, were controversial political and social questions - the Iowa same sex marriage thing being the newest addition to our lively and thoroughly entertaining discussions.  I've concluded that the items we talk about have no solutions being, as they are, antithetical to compromise.  All this means is we will never run out of things to talk about and thank God for that.  Our discussion with these people is what I enjoy the most.

With all the fun that was had, I have to say that a lot happened that probably shouldn't have.  Things lubricated by the liberal flow of alcohol.  Things forgotten because of the alcohol.  It is also fair to say that no real harm was done and it will all be a great story to tell the next time we get together.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Photograph: Colored Herd

My head feels like they've been running through my head most of this afternoon.

"Colored Herd"
by Bruce H.

Monday, April 13, 2009

SoFoBoMo Ideas Or Lack Of Ideas

May is approaching rapidly and I still haven't decided what theme I should use for my SoFoBoMo project.  I've been debating several ideas in my head but haven't made a firm decision yet.  The themes I am considering are:
  • Old Neon Signs or Old Signs in general.  While Omaha has a bunch, I am concerned there may not be enough to meet the 35 pictures minimum.  I've counted around 14 neon signs so far and finding another 21 may be a challenge.  Of course, some signs would need more than one picture to capture adequately and, assuming two pictures per sign, I would need to find four more signs.
  • The Color Spectrum.  Take six pictures each predominately of one of six colors (red, orange, yellow, blue, and violet/purple).  I thought this might be a good theme but finding six interesting pictures of some of the colors (orange and purple especially) may be difficult.  I've walked around the downtown area looking at the colors, or lack of colors.  I never realized just how much red  and how little orange there is in this world of ours.  
  • Monuments, Statues, and Public Art.  This would be the easiest as Omaha is statue and public art happy and, to capture some statues/monuments adequately, you have to have multiple pictures of each piece of art.  The only problem is that I like color and most statues/monuments are monotone.
  • Shapes.  This would be fairly easy as well.  Take pictures of circles, triangles, and squares.  The architecture of Omaha would supply ample examples.
  • Architecture.  Omaha buildings are many, interesting, and varied.  I would like this theme better if I knew something about architecture.
  • Sun Up to Sun Down.  Open the book with a sunrise, finish it with a sunset, and fill it with 32 pictures taken during the 12+ hours in between.  The challenge here would be to take 32 interesting pictures.  My good to bad picture ratio sucks so I would have to take a ton of pictures to get what I need.  As the Wife says, it would involve a lot of running around.  This could be the most interesting theme - sort of a themeless theme actually- but also the most difficult.
Do any of these themes sound interesting?  More importantly, do any sound doable? So, what do you think?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Couple Of Cool Things South Of Walnut

Today was a day for a drive so the Wife and I went to Walnut, Iowa for some antiquing and picture taking.  On the way home we headed south to get a picture of the B-24 bomber memorial south of town.  The memorial, a model of a B-24 that turns with the wind,  is for a B-24 that crashed there in 1944 killing all seven of the flight crew.

After taking this picture, and as we left, I noticed something across the road in a nearby farm field.

We thought the tree might be behind the silo and the whole thing was an illusion but, after we turned around and went back for a closer look (yes, we turned around and went back to look at a silo and a tree), We saw that the tree was growing out of the silo.  Here's a view looking up through a hatch in the silo.

It was pretty cool.  Of course, your standard of coolness may be different from mine but you would have thought it was cool if you'd been there.  Trust me.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Top Fifty For ManyHighways

Congrats to the GodSon (ManyHighways).  His Boston.com submission for March's contest is in the top 50.  Voting starts tomorrow so head over to the Boston.com RAW and start voting.  This link takes you to the main page.  Tomorrow I'll update this post with the actual voting link once it's been published.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Photograph: Glass - Water - Hair

I took this picture at the Haverhill Social Club at a family get together. We'll be going back for another in a week and a half. I hope to get more pictures, have fun with the folks-in-law, and meet the GodSon's new main squeeze.

"Glass - Water - Hair"
by Bruce H.

P.S. The hair is Homer's.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Book: Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone"

I'm not sure you've noticed, and I can't remember if I've mentioned it before, but I alternate between fiction and nonfiction.  (actually I have mentioned this before.)  It was time for non-fiction.  I chose Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier".

This is one of those life stories that too few read about, so many should read about, and way too many live.  "A Long Way Gone" is the memoir of a young man, actually only a boy of 12 years, that lost his family to the rebels of Sierra Leone and was 'recruited' into the army at the young age of 13.  Ismael Beah , now 28 years old, recounts his life with war and how he was rescued.

The story is a compelling one.  It is one I was interested in - a story that cannot be adequately told in a short 218 pages. The book predominantly talks of Baeh's separation from his family when the rebels attacked his village and his rescue years later by the United Nations and Non-Government Organizations .  You can tell that Beah has a good memory and attention to detail but you can also tell that his telling of his story is clouded by the emotions the memories invoke.  The part that I was most interested, his life as a child soldier, feels glossed over like he didn't really want to write about it and included a minimum to satisfy his publishers.  I was left wanting more.  I also understand his reluctance to document the atrocities he participated in.

Do these vague voids mean you shouldn't read this book?  Definitely not.  Lacking as it does, it still tells a compelling story of loss, despair, and rescue.  I recommend this book with reservations. 

Note: There is some dispute about the veracity of Baeh's telling of his life story.  True or not, experiences similar to what he writes about do occur and the power of this story should not be diminished.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Winter's Last Gasp

It's spring, right?  April showers, right?  This is what it looks like outside right now:

Winds are in the teens, gusting to the twenties, and the snow is 'falling' horizontally.  The wind slid our barbecue to the center of our deck.  The north side of everything is plastered with snow.  The dead tree in the picture lost it's south half - blown over by the wind sometime this morning.

The wonderful thing about Midwest weather is that all the snow we are getting today will be completely gone by tomorrow afternoon.  It's practically melting on contact with the ground.

I'm looking forward to the rain.  I like rain to a certain extent.  It can often ruin my plans but the sound of the falling rain can be so relaxing.  It also helps that the Boston.com photo contest theme for April is April Showers.  Hopefully I get a winning picture this month.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Cranes! ... The Cranes!

Some of the busiest bird migration flyways pass through west and central Nebraska. One of the more well known migrations is the Sandhill Cranes. Every year between mid-February and mid-April hundred of thousands of cranes stop along the Platte River on their migration north. This year the Wife and I decided to join them.

We headed west to the Kearney - Grand Island area. There are three main viewing places in the area: The Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (FKSRA), the Rowe Sanctuary, and the Crane Meadows Nature Center. Our hotel was nearer to Crane Meadows so we decided to save that viewing area for Sunday morning choosing to go the Kearney area first.

As we got closer to Grand Island you could see large groups of cranes foraging for food in the empty farm fields. The number of birds we saw along the way boded well for us seeing the cranes along the river.

As we approached Kearney we realized it would be a little too early to go to FKSRA so we decided to check out Kearney's Great Platte River Road Archway. The archway is a mildly cheesy, but otherwise informative, museum covering history of all the trails that headed west through Nebraska (The Lewis and Clark, Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express, Oregon, and California national historic trails, among others) including the more modern Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental highway and once described as America's Main Street. The archway is a two story building straddling Interstate 80. The structure is pretty impressive. Over 300 Feet Long and high enough to house a two story museum and still allow traffic to go under it.

The museum itself is rather typical. Lots of history told using cheap looking dioramas and recorded audio playing on you headphones. It wasn't bad but it was ... meh. One of the best parts was looking out the two windows at the top at the speeding traffic below. Radar guns displayed the traffic speed proving that a lot of people think the limit is only voluntary.

After we'd finished the museum, and bought a couple travel magnets, we headed out to FKSRA to check out the layout. FKSRA is a cluster of swimming and fishing ponds not too far from the Platte River. It was small and peaceful. We parked the car and walked the short one third mile to the converted 1893 railroad trestle that crossed the Platte. The river is very wide and very shallow and provides an ideal habitat for the Sandhill Crane. There were very few people there as the cranes don't come to roost by the river until sunset. There was a pretty stiff breeze blowing so we knew we would have to be dressed warm when we returned at sunset.

We drove back into Kearney and stopped and had an early steak dinner at Whiskey Creek. The food was good but the service was not tip-worthy.

We got back to the bridge around an hour before sunset. I took pictures of the river and the setting sun while we waited for the arrival of the cranes. I had my tripod with me but the wind was hard enough to cause it to vibrate which negated its usefulness.

The bridge was soon full of people with binoculars and cameras. The crane's calls announced their arrival. Waves of cranes flew overhead making a rather unique honking-quacking-squawking call. Unfortunately most of them just flew over. You see, the Wife and I had the misperception that you would experience that National Geographic moment surrounded my thousands of cranes, up close and personal. Talking with some of the watchers we learned that cranes are hunted in neighboring states (it's illegal in Nebraska) and they are rather skittish around people. Once the sun dipped under the horizon some of the cranes began settling down on the sand bars in the distance. I'm guessing at least a mile away. While I was a little disappointed by that, the shear quantity of cranes, and the awesome chatter they made, made up for the lack of close encounters.

A bit after 8:00 PM it was getting chilly so we headed back to the car. We headed out, turning around briefly to take a picture of the last bit of twilight reflecting off one of the ponds. One of the best pictures I've ever taken in my opinion.

Our hotel had a heated pool and hot tub and we were looking forward to thawing out but, when we checked in, the pool room was full of drunk parents ignoring their noisy, obnoxious gaggle of 8-10 year olds running rampant. We decided that a warm bed would have to suffice.

Sunday was an early morning. We drove to the Crane Meadow Nature Center and found people already lining up along a bridge. We walked out on the bridge and looked out over the dark river. There were large groups of cranes to the east and west of us but, like the previous night, they were far off. Through the binoculars you could see the cranes starting to stir. The sun peeked up over the horizon and the cacophony started. It took them a while to start taking flight, heading out to the fields to feed. We were up on the bridge for about three hours before the pain in our toes and fingers from the cold convinced us that we'd had enough.

Back at the hotel the hot tub and pool were empty so we got into our trunks and took a good long, delicious soak in the hot tub. If we'd not seen any birds at all, the hot tub would have been worth the trip all by itself.

The soak was followed by the quest for breakfast. We had a couple of spots on out list - small, quirky sounding places. The were both closed. We ended up at a less that interesting Perkin's which, never the less, served a pretty good breakfast.

On our way out of town we looked for a marker. It was supposed to mark where you could actually see surviving wagon wheel ruts (swales) from the original trail wagons. We did manage to find the marker (erected in 1922 I believe). The corner of the field that it marked was fenced off to protect the area. It wasn't that impressive (these things rarely are). The long grass obscured everything but you could see some depressions where a wagon may have gone a hundred years ago.

Our last stop before heading home was next to a field full of cranes. I took maybe ten steps away from the car toward them and they all took flight. I didn't manage to get very close at all or get a decent picture. They were way too skittish. We now know why people fork over $125 for a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary. A blind would be the only way you could get close. Maybe next time.

We had a busy few days. It was definitely not a restful weekend but we both had a good time and enjoyed our attempts at birding. While I didn't get very many good pictures of cranes, I got quite a few good sunset and sunrise pictures. These pictures can be found here.