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Stuff by Brian

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Proposed MA Gun Control Laws

Posted on January 18, 2013 at 10:01 PM Comments comments (374)
You may have seen the headlines that New York passed new gun control regulations literally under cover of darkness on Wednesday.  If you missed it or didn't see the specifics, this article has a good summary.

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is proposing some legislation with some similar provisions.  Here's the official page.

There's some stuff in here that makes sense, but other items are just bizarre.

  • Mental health records to the US Attorney General for firearms purchase background checks: Sure - background checks make sense and the more relevant info, the better.
  • Background checks required for gun show sales: Sure - they're not actually different from going to a shop, so why make a distinction?
  • Dropping the limit on magazine size from 10 to 7: This seems totally arbitrary and intrusive since 10 round magazines have become common.  It seems like there's some weird language for currently owned magazines - if you're caught with more than 7 rounds in your legal magazine, you can be punished with 2 or more years in prison.  Seriously? The magazines I have are not transparent, so I might accidentally load 8 rounds...
  • Requiring private sales to occur at a licensed dealer: I'm on the fence on this one. It does allow background checks, but it's unclear on what the shop would actually do. If they're supposed to process the transfer, there's no way they'll prioritize private sales over their paying customers.
  • Limit buyers to one purchase per month: This doesn't make any sense. 

There's another proposal (summaryfull text) floating around that encompasses many of these conditions and adds a few more.

  • Improve Basic Firearms Safety Courses: Most importantly live shooting must be part of the curriculum. I absolutely agree with this portion - I strongly believe that you can sit in a classroom for a couple hours (3, in my case) and talk through the basics of firearms use and safety, but there's really no substitute to hitting the range with an instructor and practicing. The mechanics of aiming and shooting practice are nice, but the critical lessons are how to handle firearms when you're not shooting.
  • Add a 25% sales tax on all ammunition and firearms: Claims the money will be dedicated to firearms licensing, police training, mental health services, and victim’s services. This just seems like punishment for law abiding gun buyers.
  • Require liability insurance for possession of a firearm, rifle or shotgun: This section pretty much says TBD, but sounds like yet another way of making guns prohibitively expensive in Massachusetts.

As you can see, there's a mix of good and bad.  Many of these measures are simply not approaching the problem from the right direction.  Here's what I would like to see added - let me know what you think.

Require new licensees to demonstrate their ability to securely store firearms

After the applicant is approved and before a purchase or transfer can be made, he or she must demonstrate to local law enforcement how the firearms are to be stored.  The benefit here is twofold: reduce the risk of theft and reduce the risk of accidental injury.  If the appropriate background checks are in place for legal acquisition of guns and measures are taken to prevent illegal acquisition of guns, everyone will be safer.

I Love You, Google Services but...

Posted on January 6, 2013 at 2:24 PM Comments comments (120)
I own an Android phone (Galaxy Nexus) and an Android tablet (Transformer Prime) and I use Gmail, Google Drive, Google Now, Google+ and Maps all the time.  These services are great and improving all the time, but sometimes they just don't interact or behave the way they should and it bugs me.  Here they are in order of WTFness.

Maps vs. Navigation

On my Android devices, I use both Maps and Navigation pretty extensively.  The relationship between these two apps is strange - they're included together, you can jump between them with button pushes, but they're still separate.

Here are some examples:
  • Contacts - I've been unable to find any way to find my contacts in Maps, but it's readily available in Navigation.  Also, neither allows me to just start typing a contact's name into search.
  • Recent locations - I search for a place in Maps to get an idea of how long it's going to take.  Later, I jump right into Navigation to actually navigate there and it's nowhere to be found - I have to type it again.

Fortunately, Google Now supports both of these actions, but it's frustrating that they're not integrated, particularly since they're packaged together.

Google+ Messenger vs. Google Talk

These applications are clearly distinct, since messages and conversations are not shared between the two, but where the heck do my Google+ messenger conversations go? They seem to only be accessible through the mobile app, but the purpose is unclear to me.

Also, there are still mentions of "Video Chat".  This seems to be distinct from Hangouts, but it shouldn't be.  Video chat and voice chat should all be hangouts and the naming should be consistent.

UI Inconsistency

I was just using chat through Gmail and then opened up a Google+ window.  Dutifully, the chat window appeared, but it looks different.  To make matters a bit stranger, the G+ version showed "This chat is no longer off the record", which makes me wonder if it was off the record while I was in Gmail?  Also, the "More" menu has different options in Gmail and G+.  Why can't I send my friend an SMS in G+?

Final Thoughts

This post is a bit ranty, but don't get me wrong, I still love Google services and will continue to use them, but it would be really nice to have everything "just work".

Home Theater Configuration

Posted on December 12, 2012 at 1:36 AM Comments comments (79)
I setup a new home theater configuration awhile back and never really got around to writing about it.  

First my motivation:

  • I'm a computer geek
  • I don't like renting equipment from the cable company
  • I wanted more DVR space

I initially started my home theater quest when I read about the HDHomeRun Prime.  If you're not familiar with the HDHomeRun line, they're network accessible TV tuners - the idea is that you have a pool of tuners that any device on your network can access and stream.  The HDHomerun Prime adds a CableCard into the mix, allowing my  to access channels that I get as a Verizon subscriber with 3 separate tuners.  After a lot of waiting and delays, the HDHomerun Prime finally came out and I began to play around with it.

Here's my initial setup:

  • Living Room: DVR cable box ($12/rental)
  • Bedroom: Digital Adapter ($4/month) - this is required for any TV using Fios that doesn't have a full cable box on it and only gets SD programming.
  • PC: No capability to watch TV - connected via wifi

Problems to solve in new configuration:

  • Only had a Wireless G network - way too slow to stream HD to non-connected devices
  • Need PC to do recording
  • Need device to watch TV in the bedroom


Hardware for new configuration:

  • HDHomerun Prime - $250 at the time, $130 now
  • Dell Zino HD $350 - energy efficient mobile dual core processor, 3 gigs RAM, came with 500 GB HD, upgraded to 2 TB drive I had.
  • Cheap IR receiver for PC - (need to find the link)
  • Belkin Gigabit Powerline adapters - $60 each at the time, only available in sets of 2. I needed 3, but had to buy 4
  • 1 CableCard from Verizon ($4/month)
  • Had a 2 TB hard drive 
  • Had an XBox 360
  • Had a gigabit switch (optional)
  • Had a Harmony remote

New configuration in Living Room:

  • Zino directly connected to the TV via HDMI and Fios router
  • HDHomerun plugged into incoming cable and Fios router
  • Fios router connected to Belkin powerline adapter via ethernet

New configuration in Bedroom:

  • XBox 360 plugged into powerline adapter via ethernet

New configuration in Office:

  • Desktop PC connected to powerline adapter via ethernet

Software Configuration:
To get the basics up and running, you'll need a Windows PC with Windows Media Center.  I started with Windows 7 and recently upgraded to Windows 8 which Media Center is still free.  

Once you have Windows Media Center up and running:

  1. Run the Digital Cable Advisor - install from the Extras Gallery in Media Center.  I'm not 100% sure what this thing does, but it scans your system and sets some flag indicating that you're good to go.  
  2. Download and install the HDHomerun software from Silicondust
  3. Navigate through the HDHomerun setup and scan for channels, etc.
  4. Open Windows Media Center and Setup TV signal - I didn't have to do anything special here besides enter my zip code and picking my cable provider.
  5. Watch live TV - Windows Media Center is actually pretty nice for scheduling, browsing, and viewing live and recorded TV
  6. Repeat for any other PCs you want to use the HDHomerun

Add your XBox 360 as an extender - I'll let Microsoft explain this bit.

Notice that I said this is just the basic setup - I'll follow up with another post detailing some of the awesome benefits of using a PC as a DVR.  I don't want to spoil it, but automatic commercial skipping and remote TV viewing are among the features I'm enjoying.

OK, so how is it working out for you?

Mostly good with a few annoyances.

First the good:

  • 2 TBs of storage is plenty for all of my music and recordings. If you need more, you can upgrade to a NAS or add more storage as necessary.
  • I can watch TV on my PC upstairs while I'm doing other things
  • I can (theoretically) watch HD TV in the bedroom - I'll get to this in a moment...
  • Software stuff - commercial skipping, remote scheduling, streaming remotely

Annoyances:
  • Powerline network adapters have great potential, but aren't providing the speed that I want.  The result is that HD streaming is choppy or downright impossible away from the living room.  These things tend to be YMMV since different houses have different circuitry, interference, etc.  I'll echo a recommendation I read online - buy some from a local retailer with a nice long return policy, try them out and see what sort of speeds you get, and if you're not happy, bring them back.  Personally, I'm going to look into what it would cost to wire several rooms in my house for ethernet so I can stream HD and transfer files at breakneck speed - I'll post on this once I actually get around to it.
  • XBox 360 as an extender doesn't seem to work great - this could simply be a side effect of the bad network speed, but it doesn't seem to run particularly smoothly.

Bottom line:
If you're playing along at home, you may have noticed that I spent around $800 and I'm only saving $12/month in rentals.  OK, you're right - I'm not exactly rolling in extra cash at the end of this project.  As I'm writing this, I'm finding that basically everything I purchased for this build is half the price, so if you're interested in this task now, it's a much better deal now.

If you're like me, you probably have enough parts to build an HTPC laying around the house, so you could probably save some money in that area.  I went with the Zino because of its awesome form factor.


Day 22: London (6/10)

Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:38 PM Comments comments (65)
Today is our last day in Europe! As per usual, we woke up, had our tea and donuts, and then set out for the day.  Our flight was at 5:40, so we had some time in the morning.  We checked out of the hotel (but left our bags) and headed over to the Imperial War Museum.  We walked there because we needed the miles - we needed 5 miles on the day to hit 150 for the trip.  We got to the Imperial War Museum at around 10:45, paid our donation and wandered in. They do a free guided tour twice a day, so we looked around until 11:30 when that was going on.  

The main atrium of the building is impressive.  They have all sorts of vehicles from jeeps, tanks, submarines, planes, rockets and more. One of the tanks was captured in battle when it's engine block was hit with shells and you could actually see the holes in the armor where the shells went through! They had a one-man submarine that had been captured when the pilot was killed by carbon monoxide. They had a two-man submarine called the "Human Torpedo", which was launched from a parent submarine, traveled under any submarine nets, and planted explosive charges on enemy vessels from below. They also had an old London bus that had been moved from the city to the front lines as a troop transport. You can imagine how comfortable a city bus was going over rough terrain.  They had both V1 and V2 rockets, a little scouting zeppelin-type vehicle, General Montgomery's tank, various artillery from different time periods, lots and lots of information.

The tour highlighted a few generations of vehicles and we got some interesting background on the usage, success, and failures of many of them. We had to leave around 1 in order to make sure we could grab lunch, get back to the hotel, and then get to the airport so we had to move pretty quickly. There was more information than I could absorb about World War I and World War II.  There was tons of details on the effects of World War II on the British citizens, which was very interesting. They ran a clever campaign calling on citizens to turn in their pots and pans to help build one of the fighters (I think it was the Spitfire) - of course, none of the materials turned in were actually used to build the planes, but it was a good way to get the citizens involved. There was an exhibit called the "Trench Experience", which was modeled after World War I trenches so you got a brief glimpse at what it was like. 
We had seen signs about an exhibit called "The Secret War", which was about the history of espionage in warfare. It was fairly similar to the other exhibits with artifacts from various time periods and detailed descriptions about how they were used. This was right near the end of our visit, so we didn't get to spend much time here, but I did learn that the British decoded a message outlining Germany's plans to ally with Mexico to attack the US. This plan obviously never came to fruition, but definitely played an important role in America's decision to join in the fighting.

We left the museum and headed to a nearby pub to grab some food. To this point, we hadn't had the British Pub experience yet. We went in and let the staff know we were there and took seats outside. We waited a little while and no one came back, so I went inside to order. Sam got a pie with vegetables in it and I got roast beef with gravy. The food was alright, but we ate it quickly and headed to the Tube. We got back to the hotel, grabbed our stuff, and the hopped back on the Tube to the airport. Overall, our hotel being in Piccadilly Circus was very convenient. We were right in the middle of everything and both train station we arrived at and Heathrow are right on the Piccadilly line. It was a long, jam-packed ride to the airport, but we made it there, went through security and were at our gate in plenty of time.  We had some pounds left, so we bought a bunch of snacks and then went to the duty free shop to finish it off. The prices weren't particularly good on booze, so we ended buying two tins of the special Twinings Jubilee tea blend, which pretty much wiped us out.

We headed to the gate and Sam's soda exploded upon opening, so she had to go change, but we still had lots of time. I looked at the pedometer and realized we were about 1300 (about a half mile) short of our 150 mile goal, so I decided to do a few laps around the terminal to finish it off. I did about 2.5 laps and then we had to board.  We reached our goal on the fairly long walk from the gate to the plane, but we made it! For some reason, our seats on the plane were not together, but when I checked in, I had swapped them so they were one in front of the other - both middle seats in their rows.

The flight was totally full, but we both managed to keep ourselves entertained. For dinner, they served spicy butter chicken, cous cous salad, and a fruity yogurt-type dessert.  It was all very good - I'm very impressed with British Airways and would definitely fly them again.  Neither of us managed to sleep, so by the time we got to Logan, it was 7:30pm which was a net difference of 2 hours from when we left. We walked out of the terminal and had to catch the Blue line. We had just spent 3 weeks wandering through new cities and finding our way around, but we could not find the blue line stop. There were no signs inside the airport that directly indicated blue line, so we walked outside and managed to spot it.  We hopped on the Orange line and got the disappointing yet entirely unsurprising news that we would have to take a bus from Sullivan Square due to construction.  This of course took forever, but eventually we got to Malden, picked up the pup, and headed home. Sam's brakes were really loud for the first 5-10 minutes of driving, but they returned to normal after that. My car battery had died (I think due to my phone charger), so we had to jump it.
All in all: an awesome trip, but we were happy to be home.

Walking Distance: 5.24 miles
Steps: 12,896

Pictures from this day here!

Day 21: London (6/9)

Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:30 PM Comments comments (79)
We woke up, had our tea and donuts and then headed over towards Olympic Village. We figured that since we're here, we have to see all this stuff even if it's not terribly exciting at the moment. We hopped on the Bakerloo line, swapped to the district line, cruised for 10+ stops and hopped off. There was a guy from the tour company who directed us to walk about a half mile to find some more guides. The tour itself was not terribly interesting - we spent a lot of time walking before we even got near Olympic Park. We did learn that England got the Olympics as a way to accelerate their regeneration of the poorest area of the city, saw several residential buildings that were built (and we assume furnished) by Ikea, and also learned that the area where Olympic Park sits was literally a landfill for some of England. We couldn't get into the park at all, so we ended up walking around the outside. I took a bunch of pictures through the fence and then we walked a little further and had some unobstructed views of the stadium, the big tower sculpture, and the aquatic center.  We ended at a giant mall, so we headed to the food court. I got some lamb curry and naan and Sam got some sort of fried rice dish, which was very spicy. It seems that the Brits have a different definition of food courts since this food was better (and pricier) than anything I had ever gotten at a food court before.  After lunch, we hopped back on the Tube to head back to the hotel.

Along the way, we passed through Trafalgar Square and ran into a festival run by a group called Jesus Loving People Loving People. They had a concert going and voice over presentations. It was pretty weird, so we kept going. We got back to the hotel around 2:30pm and the show wasn't until 7:30pm, so we had some time to kill. I went down to the fitness center at the hotel to work out a bit and Sam headed to the pool, steam room, and jacuzzi.  We got showered and headed out to dinner before the show.

We walked past the theater several blocks to get to a specific Thai restaurant that we had seen with Pre- and Post- theater specials.  Turns out, it was a chain called Thai Square and we had passed at least one other location to get there.  We ordered the fixed menu, which looked pretty appetizing.  For starters, we each got a spring roll, small dumpling, chicken satay, and a treasure bag (little bag made out of crunchy noodles with meat in them).  These were all pretty good.  Then dinner arrived, which was green chicken curry, stir fry with cashews, and some thick rice noodles.  Both the stir fry and curry were good, but the noodles didn't have a ton of flavor.  Dessert was a banana fritter with ice cream - the banana was just the slightest bit crispy and the ice cream was good as well.

We headed over to the show, grabbed some gin and tonics and waited for the show to begin.  Neither of us had really heard a ton about Sweeney Todd, but it was excellent. The basic plot is that the main character (Sweeney Todd, of course) was married and had a daughter. One day, a corrupt judge charged him with something bogus and sent him away for many years and also taking his wife and daughter.  The play opens with Sweeney Todd's returning to London to seek his wife and daughter.  He meets a woman (Mrs. Lovett) whom he knew before he left and she tells him of his wife and daughter's fates: his wife poisoned herself and the judge who sent him away has his daughter essentially in captivity. She also reveals that she kept his barber's tools from before and she returns them to him. He vows revenge against the judge and anyone else who was involved with his exile and his wife's death.
All in all, the play is incredibly well done. The story is dark with several twists and turns along the way, but has lots of comic relief along the way including a particularly amusing song that Mrs. Lovett sings about her pies being the worst in London. We were sitting in the second row of the balcony, which was absolutely perfect because many important events happen at the barber shop, which is on a raised platform in the middle of the stage.  This was right at eye level for us, which was awesome. The musical numbers were well done and the actors were quite good as well. All in all, an excellent way to spend our last evening in Europe.

Walking Distance: 6.41 miles
Steps: 15,780 - we're about 5 miles short of 150 miles total for the trip!

Pictures from this day here!

Day 20: London (6/8)

Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:26 PM Comments comments (96)
Our planned itinerary for the day: head over to St. James park and wander around for awhile until the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and then head to Westminster Abbey. We drank our tea in the hotel room and ate our Krispy Kreme donuts and then headed out.  After a short walk over to St. James park, we came across the square where the beach volleyball for the Olympics is happening.  We had been watching the news the night before and they were showing how they were going to play beach volleyball in the landlocked city - they took the square in front of the Prime Minister's office and put up a bunch of bleachers and were going to bring in 3,000 tons of sand. Pretty cool.  We continued through the park to Buckingham Palace and along the way there were lots of workers taking down seating and structures that were setup for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, which had happened over the weekend and the first couple days of this week.  For this reason, the area in front of Buckingham palace was closed and the changing of the guard was not going to happen, so we had to freestyle a bit.  We decided to go to Westminster Abbey early and then hit the British Museum in the afternoon, which would work out since it is open late on Friday.

We followed the audio guide through Westminster Abbey, pausing to look at all the elaborate tombs of kings, poets, and other famous people and standing on the spots where kings and queens were crowned and married. The Abbey had something we had been missing since we arrived in London: a dated timeline of the monarchs of England! The Tower tour had been a bit confusing because various events involving various rulers happened at different parts of the Tower.  We didn't really get a good sense of continuity until now, so that was good, but it did unveil an interesting situation that had been alluded to elsewhere: a joint King and Queen. We spent some time looking at the family tree and still couldn't figure it out, so we need to do a bit more research into exactly how the line of succession works and how there can be ties.  We got all the way through the tour and I realized that we hadn't seen Innocents Corner, which is where the two young childrens' bodies from the Tower were moved in the 1930s.  We asked a staff member and she directed us to it. It was not labeled particularly well, so I'm not surprised we missed it.

We grabbed some sandwiches and decided to make a stop at the Twinings store.  We had read that they they offered a free tea tasting and were likely to have tea flavors (just typed flavours by accident...haha) that we couldn't get in the US. We poured some tea and chatted with a couple from Florida and another couple from Iowa.  Sam had cranberry orange and cherry cinnamon and I tried Assam and Lapsang Suong.  The Assam was milder than I had hoped, but the Lapsang Suong was smoky and delicious.  Sam liked both of her teas and we ended up buying a box of Lapsang and a box of the Cherry Cinnamon.

On our way over to the British Museum, we passed by the theater where Sweeney Todd is playing. We had talked about getting some theater tickets, so we stopped in to see what they had.  Sure enough, they had tickets available for the following night, so we bought some.  A night at the theater seemed like a good way to spend our final evening in Europe.

We headed over to the British Museum and after losing the path a couple of times with streets randomly changing names, we arrived. We started with the Rick Steves' audio guide and followed it through Egypt, but it was an overview and we wanted to see more, so we skipped it and just wandered. We stopped by the Rosetta Stone but it was totally packed with people, so we quickly moved on.  They had several huge stone sarcophagi, which were really cool.  They were covered in hieroglyphics and drawings of the various gods. 

After perusing some more ancient sculptures, we headed upstairs to the mummy rooms. These rooms were of course packed, but it was still cool to see. The most interesting thing to me was the application of modern science to learn about these mummies.  Scientists use X-Rays and CAT scans to examine the bodies inside and can determine how well the body is preserved and how big the body actually is.  The other interesting bit was that one body was examined awhile ago to determine cause of death and it was believed to be an ovarian cyst. Later analysis revealed that the cyst was benign and the actual cause of death was pneumonia. Scientists have also been able to find evidence of tuberculosis, cholera, lice, parasites, and ailments that still exist today.  Crazy stuff! After the mummies, we arrived at "Ginger". "Ginger" is a 5400 year old body that was not mummified, but was preserved by the hot dry sand that he was buried in and gets his nickname from his red hair.  It really is amazing to see something so ancient that is so well preserved.

We spent a couple hours traveling through the ancient middle east and Rome, which caused Sam to forget what country we were actually in.  We came across a small exhibit about the Olympic medals. They had displays describing how the medals were made and had the various molds for the medals and then 4 actual gold medals to show the variations.  It was cool to see this up close since we'll be seeing it all on TV in a month and a half.  After this, they had a small section that was filled with all sorts of clocks. We had gotten a lot of this information at the Galileo museum in Florence, but they had some unique ones that we hadn't seen.  There was a ship that apparently rolled around, fired its cannons, and little figures on the top of the mast struck small bells on the hour.  Unfortunately, it wasn't working, but that would have been awesome to see.  The other interesting, but highly imprecise clock used a ramp with a small steel ball on it that rolled back and forth weaving its way across a plate.  It took (roughly) thirty seconds to get to the end, at which point it hit a pin, which swapped the incline to the other direction.  Pretty cool.

By this time, we wearing down, so we retrieved the camera bag and recharged with some free Greek yogurt samples we got as we were walking and headed over to Ancient Greece to see the Parthenon pieces. They had some computer generated reconstructions of the building and plaster casts of the border depicting a procession around the outside.  They also had the remains of the original, but they were separate so it was often tough to imagine the completed figures.  The rest of the ruins were similar - you could sometimes tell what it used to be, but many pieces were spread across several museums and not much remained.  The low-tech approach could have been to put the pictures of the original or the casts above or below the original so the viewer could see what it was supposed to look like.  My idea for a high tech approach would be an augmented reality phone app that you can use to see the whole sculpture or scene maybe even in the context of the rest of the building.  Overall, it was cool to see the ruins, but it would have been better if it was easier to see what they once were.

Thoroughly exhausted, we left the museum to find some dinner. We had seen a place called Yo! Sushi which has a conveyor belt that you take from and then you get charged based on the quantity and color of the plates you ate.  We had both been craving sushi, so we walked to it and ate there. Each plate only contains a small amount of sushi, so we ended up eating a lot despite me drinking tons of water and Sam having a few bowls of miso soup (which was free refills).  It was pretty good and hit the spot.

We topped off our tonic supply and headed back to the hotel, watched the end of an episode of Eastenders, a few episodes of Family Guy and American Dad and went to sleep.

Walking Distance: 8.35 miles
Steps: 20,575

Pictures from this day here!

Day 19: London (6/7)

Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:22 PM Comments comments (174)
We had a bit of an alarm clock snafu with the time change.  Both of us changed our watches, but we didn't remember to change the time on the iPhone - since we don't actually have phone service, it doesn't automatically update from the network.  The alarm went off at 7am instead of 8am, so we got off to a bit of a weird start.  We headed out for Tower of London at about 9:30 and stopped at a place around the corner that had huge elaborate cakes to grab some breakfast.  I got a raspberry and blueberry muffin and Sam got a muffin with sliced almonds on top that turned out to have a tasty apple filling.  We hopped on the Tube and headed over to Tower Hill and ate our muffins before heading into the Tower.  It's pricey to get in (20 pounds per person) but I remembered really liking it last time and the book confirmed. 
We got our tickets and headed right to the Waterloo barracks to visit the crown jewels.  As you walk into the building, you are greeted with the story of the jewels and then before you get to the jewels themselves, you see a video of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  The cool thing about this exhibit is that all of the items on display actually get used during various ceremonies.  One of the early displays has a bunch of maces that are used by various groups at various times and there are open spaces for the maces of the House of Parliament and House of Lords that are at Parliament today.  After these displays, you walk through some incredibly thick steel doors (weighing 2 tons each!) and there in front of you are the crown jewels.  They have moving sidewalks to keep the crowds moving, but you can go back around afterwards to get another look, which of course we did.  There are several crowns, sceptres, orbs, and other items that are covered in beautiful diamonds and other precious stones.  They're very impressive.

Next up is all of the dishes and things used in ceremonial banquets.  The highlight for us was the HUGE royal punch bowl that holds 144 bottles of wine and comes with a MASSIVE ladle, all gold and elaborately decorated. There are also several different salt holders for different rulers, which are all interesting. One of them looks like some sort of Arabian palace, of course covered in jewels.

We finished our crown jewels visit with about 10 minutes to spare before the next Beefeater tour, so we quickly walked back to the entrance to catch that.  It was as good as I remembered - the guide was entertaining and the stories of the Tower included murder, treason, torture, betrayal, and really everything else a good fictional thriller would have, except they were all true! Unlike France who seemed to change from republic to monarchy on a pretty regular basis, Britain has had a monarch almost continuously for 1,000 years.  That said, the peasants seemed perfectly capable of capturing and beheading any kings or queens that got out of line, so things seemed to work out pretty well. 

After the tour, we wandered around to see everything else the Tower had to offer.  We went in the White Tower, which was the original structure of the Tower of London, which houses a bunch of armor and artifacts from the Tower's history and an ancient chapel which still has the original stonework from when it was constructed in 1100.  We walked along the walls and went into several towers with various exhibits.  One of the interesting ones was the menagerie - for a long time, exotic animals were housed at the Tower.  They were brought back from conquered lands and received as gifts from various other parties. The Tower had an elephant, a polar bear, a grizzly bear, a lion, lots of monkeys, and an ostrich among others. The small exhibit here described how the polar bear was attached to a long rope and sent into the Thames to fish, the monkeys roamed free in a furnished room where visitors could walk among them (until a monkey attacked a boy), and how the keepers really didn't know what to feed these animals or how to treat them.  Apparently the grizzly bear was fed cakes and bread and the ostrich died after eating a nail, since the keepers thought ostriches ate iron.

There were two stories in particular at the Tower that caught my attention. The first was when the people decided to overthrow Charles I and create a republic. If I recall correctly, they caught him and beheaded him and setup the new government.  
Sometime later, they decided the republic wasn't doing it for them, so they invited Charles I's son Charles II to come back and be king.  This was particularly interesting to me because it demonstrates the loyalty to the royal blood lines.  You would think that the people might be hesitant to bring back the son of the king they overthrew, but he was next in the line of succession, so it only made sense that he would take over.
The other story was of the two young princes.  (Look up the exact details). The two boys disappeared from the tower at the ages of 9 and 12 and were never heard from again. Pretty darn mysterious.  Some time later, some construction work was being done on the Tower when some workers came across some bodies that had been hidden some stairs. These bodies were excavated in the 1930s and determined to be the same age as the princes at the time of their disappearance.  To this day,  nobody knows if the princes were killed or by whom.

After we finished up at the Tower, we were going to wander across the Tower Bridge, but it was pouring so we decided to go find some food and head back.  There was a fish and chips place right outside the Tower, so we went there and got some food.  The fish was very much shaped like a fish, so we could tell that it wasn't the super processed stuff you get at a fast food place. It was pretty good and the fries were nice and crispy. So far we've had Indian food and fish and chips - we've done a pretty good job of covering traditional English food!

Once we got back to the hotel, we dropped our stuff off and decided to make a quick run to get some snacks since we had an early dinner. This may be the funniest collection of items I have ever purchased at a grocery store: gin, tonic, a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, two cans of Pringles (Cheese & Onion and Prawn Cocktail?!) and chocolate shortbread cookies. We got back to the hotel, made up some gin and tonics and watched TV for awhile. We keep catching episodes of this British soap opera called Eastenders and we're getting kinda into it...

Walking Distance: 4.24 miles
Steps: 10,453

Pictures from this day here!

Day 18: London (6/6)

Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:19 PM Comments comments (89)
We woke up at 10 since we didn't really have time to do anything with our train to London at 12:15pm.  We packed up our stuff and were out of the hotel by 11am.  Last time I was in Paris, we ate at a restaurant called Pomme de Pain a lot so we decided to try and find one on our way to the train.  We looked it up on the web - there was one on the way to the Metro, so we set out towards it.  We got to the spot where it was supposed to be and couldn't find it. We went down a couple streets nearby and it was nowhere to be found.  I was disappointed, but we had to keep moving.  We only had about 20 euros left, so we stopped at another place to get sandwiches and drinks.  We used about 15 euros and then hopped on the Metro to Gare du Nord.  Once we got there, we headed toward the Eurostar area.  Along the way, we found some desserts so we bought some of those and used up all but 2-3 euros. By this time, it was 11:35 or so.  We headed up to the train and were greeted with airport style security and passport control.  This was a big contrast to all the other train stations where, in most cases, you simply hopped on the train and then when you were on, someone would check it.  By the time we filled out the paperwork, got our passports stamped, and got through security, it was 12:05pm.  We walked quickly to the first car and got on - a few minutes later the train left. We thought we had left ourselves plenty of time, but it ended up being very close.

We ate our sandwiches on the train and Sam listened to some London audioguides while I read the guidebook to try and figure out a game plan.  We made it to the tunnel a bit early, so we had to pause to wait our turn to enter but then we were on our way again.  We got into London at 1:30pm (with the time change) and walked to the Underground.  They sell paper tickets, but you'd be crazy to use them since they're twice as expensive as using the Oyster Card.  I got one Oyster Card for the two of us thinking that we could both use it, but when we went through the turnstyle, it rejected the second usage. Sam bought another one and we were on our way.  Fortunately, we were staying near Piccadilly Circus, so we just took the Piccadilly line.  We arrived at Piccadilly Circus and looked at a nearby map - our hotel was on it, so we headed over there and checked in.  Once again, we got a nice hotel on Hotwire.  The price was fairly reasonable and the location was awesome - we're right in the middle of everything.  The room was spacious, the beds (there were two of them, so we just pushed them together) were comfy, and they had washcloths! None of our other hotels on the trip had them, so this was a nice surprise. At the desk, the also explained that they had partnered with Tate Modern and Tate Britain (two art museums in the area) and had complimentary passes that we could use.  I had put Tate Modern on the list of things to do anyway, so we headed out to do that. 

Our original plan was to walk over there, but the concierge recommended we take the bus instead since it would take 45 minutes to walk there.  Well, as it turns out, it took us about that long on the bus so it ended up not mattering.  We went into the museum and started with an exhibit of Damien Hirst's work. This was very much modern art and was a refreshing change from all of the Renaissance and prior art that we had seen to this point. He had all sorts of different works mainly centered around a few themes: dots in a grid pattern, dead animals in formaldehyde, flies, butterflies, and medicine.  Throughout the exhibit, there were lots of canvases with dots that were all the same size, but of varying colors.  He had many different animals in formaldehyde including: a sheep, two cows each cut into halves so you could walk through the middle and see each side, two different types of sharks, a dove, and a bunch of fish.  All of them were suspended as if in action. He had a couple circle of life sorts of exhibits - one was a box where flies hatched and grew and then a wall with some holes in it and on the other side was a severed cows head and a bug zapper. Very odd.  The other related exhibit was a room that was filled with butterflies and plants. The butterflies were free to fly around and there was food in the center for them to eat.  It was very interesting being in there because butterflies were very frequently landing on people and the attendants in the room would gently grab them and toss them back into the air.  I liked this one, but Sam didn't like it because all of the other butterfly works were composed of butterfly wings. There was a circular canvas that was entirely covered in dead flies - the signs said not to touch the works, but they really didn't have to worry about people touching this one.

After this exhibit, we wandered around to a few others.  There was quite a bit of modern and surrealist art that was fun to interpret.  There was another area that had videos playing of interviews of Lebanese people who were asked to choose an object that was significant to them from the civil war period.  It was interesting to hear their stories of how they dealt with the war and the uncertainty and the objects on display in the room.

We arrived pretty late, so closing time was rapidly approaching but we had to see one last Damien Hirst work - it was a skull completely encrusted with diamonds. There was a bit of a line to get in to see it, but it was spectacular.  Every inch of it was covered and sparkling with a large diamond in the middle of the forehead. Pretty cool.

The museum had free wifi, so I looked up an Indian restaurant in the area and we headed towards it.  We got to the right spot, but didn't find a restaurant.  We walked up and down the street a few times and found the address - there was business with the same name as the restaurant we were looking for, but it was a recruiting firm...Google fail. We decided just head back to the hotel and ask the concierge for a good place around there.  As we were walking back to St. Paul's Cathedral to catch a bus, it started pouring.  Despite our previous troubles with the slow buses, we hopped on one just to stay dry. Once again, it took forever.  We got off at Trafalgar Square and walked the rest of the way back to our hotel, which wasn't far.  The concierge suggested an Indian place that was around the corner, so we headed over there to grab some food.

The restaurant was on the second floor, so we checked in with the man at the door and then took the elevator up. We each ordered a beer and then ordered dinner.  We got lamb biryani (flavored rice with incredibly tender bits of lamb in it), some cucumber yogurt to go with it, some naan, and some kofta (fried balls of vegetables in a sauce).  It was pricey (90 pounds), but incredibly tasty.  We were reading an ad on the map where National Geographic called this place the best in the world.

Walking Distance: 6.09 miles
Steps: 15,000

Pictures from this day here!

Day 17: Paris (6/5)

Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:15 PM Comments comments (94)
We slept in pretty late and then headed out for the day.  We grabbed some pastries for breakfast and hopped on the metro to Sacre Coeur. If you're familiar with Sacre Coeur, you'll understand that we earned every step of that trip.  We walked uphill for a long way and then climbed a lot of steps to get up to the top.  Once we got there, we sat for a bit to catch our breath and then headed inside the church. It's not as lavishly decorated as some of the other churches we have visited (athough to be fair, we've hit several of the most lavish churches) but it has a spectacular mosaic over the altar.  Overall, the walk through the church was quick so we snapped some pictures and then walked down the hill to see the one remaining windmill on the large hill (there used to be over 30!). It looks ridiculously out of place and definitely does not ever get enough wind to actually rotate today. Nothing too exciting, but we saw it.

Next up on the agenda was the Army Museum, which includes Napoleon's Tomb.  We had noticed that the museum was open until 9pm on Tuesdays, so this worked out well with how our day unfolded. On our way to the museum, we went on a quest to find a Croque Monsieur. Sam and I both loved these things last time we were in Paris, but they turned out to be tougher to find than we expected.  Finally, after about a half hour of walking we found a cafe that had them and sat down.  They were just as tasty as we remembered - a ham and cheese sandwich toasted with lots of tasty melted cheese on top.

We headed over to the museum and bought our tickets.  The place is pretty big and has a couple distinct sections: Louis XIV to Napoleon III, Charles de Gaulle, Arms and Armor, and World War I and II.  We went in this order during out visit.  We had read that this museum was interesting, but we found ourselves not very far into the museum after 2.5 hours!  They have all sorts of swords, guns, uniforms, medical equipment, you name it from all time periods. They had tons of information about the composition of Napoleon's army, some very interesting animated displays about particular battles (I watched Austerlitz and Waterloo) and really more information than you can possibly absorb.  They also have Napoleon's horse stuffed and on display...yeah...

After this, we headed to the Charles de Gaulle area.  They had free audio guides that used infrared to play certain clips and interviews when you got to particular locations.  This mostly worked well, but had a few glitches.  We listened to these for about a half hour until the main movie started.  The movie was highly informative and interesting - I really didn't know much at all about Charles de Gaulle, but between the exhibit and the movie, I really learned why he is France's all-time hero.

After this exhibit, we headed over to Napoleon's tomb.  The building has a giant dome and Napoleon's tomb is the centerpiece.  Also buried there are Napoleon's brother Joseph and defensive strategist Vauban, who did extensive work perfecting city defenses.  Napoleon's tomb is (as you would expect) way over the top.  You can see it from the main floor of the building, but it is actually located in the crypt and is a giant box made out of polished stone.  Around it are carvings describing Napoleon's social policies and a grand statue of the emperor himself.

After this, we headed over to see the remaining exhibits, but were annoyed to find out that they had closed.  Nothing we had read indicated that some parts of the museum closed, so this was particularly frustrating.  Only the areas we visited first were open late, so we were done at the museum.

Today, we planned accordingly and brought all of the layers we had with us including rain jackets.  Tonight, we were going to see the Eiffel Tower no matter what.  We headed over to Rue Cler to grab some dinner - I had the Duck Confit and Sam had steak tartare (slightly cooked at the suggestion of our waitress).  The duck was very tasty - it was so tender that you didn't even need a knife to eat it.  The groups on both sides of us were American - one of women asked us if we were visiting and then offered to take our picture.  It was kinda strange, but we agreed so we didn't appear rude.  The couple on the other side of us was from North Carolina, so we chatted with them a bit while we were waiting for our check.

It had been raining on and off all day, but it stopped for a bit after dinner.  We wandered over to the Eiffel Tower in search of some dessert to eat while we waited for the lights to turn on and sparkle. This turned out to be surprisingly difficult and the rain picked up again, but we eventually settled for crepes across the street from the Eiffel Tower.  I fully expected them to be expensive (which they were - 4.50 each), but they were actually very good.  They had a Nutella filling and were topped with tasty whipped cream.  They were very messy to eat, but were really the perfect snack.  We took shelter under the tower until 9:55 or so and then wandered out in front to get a good view.  Ten o'clock rolled around and the tower got all sparkly for 5 minutes.  It was excellent.  We hopped and the Metro and called it a night.  Off to London tomorrow!

Walking Distance: 8.71 miles
Steps: 21,444

Pictures from this day here!

Day 16: Paris (6/4)

Posted on August 12, 2012 at 12:10 PM Comments comments (85)
The train lost an hour sometime during the night, but for some reason, our attendant woke us up at our original requested time.  Instead of getting an extra hour of sleep, we spent this time wishing the ride was over.  Once we finally got to Paris, we stepped off the train and were greeted with clouds and cold.  For the first time on the trip, we throw on our sweatshirts and hopped on the Metro to drop our bags off at the hotel.  Since the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, this was our only chance to head there.  We decided to walk since it wasn't too far, but as usual we ended up somewhere different than we expected.  We got our bearings and got back on track - we didn't take a longer route, just a different route.  We crossed the bridge over to the Louvre and saw a large group of kids. All of a sudden, three police officers on bicycles came around the corner and the kids scattered.  The officers caught a bunch of them and made them tear up their pieces of cardboard with grids on them and throw away their pens.  We really had no idea what the kids were getting in trouble for, but everybody seemed upset.  Very odd, but we wandered down by the Seine and ate our train breakfast before heading into the Louvre.

We had both been to the Louvre before, but we were both interesting in going again.  We waited in line for about a half hour and then made our way in.  The museum had run out of English guides, so we were left to our high school French skills. Surprisingly, this worked very well.  We both found that we were able to read 90% of the descriptions of the works! We were also surprised that a huge portion of the first several rooms were from the Borghese collection, which we had visited at the Borghese gallery just a few days before. Given the size of the collection at the gallery and the Louvre, we could see why they needed both locations.   We spent awhile look at the Borghese and other collections of sculptures and then decided it was time to go look at some paintings.

We've seen an awful lot of paintings on this trip, so most of them were familiar.  We quickly came across The Coronation of Napoleon, which is my favorite painting.  If you haven't seen it, Napoleon is at the center crowning his queen and the entire wall-sized painting is filled with other detailed figures.  Before long, we were hungry so we decided to eat at the cafe in the museum.  We waited for probably thirty minutes before finally getting a table and ordering our pre-made sandwiches and chips.
After lunch, we wandered through the museum for another several hours stopping by the Mona Lisa since you have to while you're there and checked out the Marriage at Cana, which was more interesting to us.  We found our way to the large indoor courtyards and checked out all of the sculptures before heading out of the museum pretty exhausted.

We headed back to the hotel for a quick nap and to figure out where we were going to go for dinner.  We headed to a restaurant nearby - I got the steak tartare and Sam got chicken with mashed potatoes.  Both were very tasty - the steak tartare was pretty plain by itself, but they provided onions, garlic, and a few other seasonings to mix in. I hadn't had it before, but I figured I had to while we were in France.  We also got a bottle of wine - I don't know exactly what it was, but it was light and pleasant.
After dinner, we had ambitions of heading over to the Eiffel Tower to see the area at night, but we both agreed that it was too cold and damp.  We headed back to the hotel to figure out what to do tomorrow and then go to sleep.

Walking Distance: 7.28 miles
Steps: 17,937

Pictures from this day here!

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