The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 8, 2014

We’re Quickly Running Out of Frontiers Here: A Week in Alaska by Sea, Part 1

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:00 am

As much as I suspect a lot of us would like to have it hang around a little while longer, it looks like Summer has just come to an end.  As always, this is roughly when you start looking over what you did over the Summer and trying to make sure you didn’t waste it.  In my case, I have to admit that it just didn’t feel like I’ve really done much.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I had been more than about 50 miles from home at any given point this Summer, and in fact hadn’t really traveled anywhere since the last Disneyland trip me and my friend took back in April just before our Annual Passes expired.  A lot of this is due to the fact that our big vacation for the Summer got scheduled for just about the last possible time we could have scheduled it, set to end just two days before the Autumnal Equinox.  To put the situation into football terms (I hear football is kind of popular around Seattle these days,) it’s basically a matter of being down 28-3  with a minute and a half to go in the fourth quarter, and trying to get down the field for a garbage time touchdown just so it looks like you didn’t get completely blown out.

Then again, much of the reason that we didn’t do much this Summer was because we had this particular trip planned.  Admittedly, in spite of the fact that I’ve done quite a bit of cruising over the past few years, Alaska has never been all that high on my list of possible destinations.  As I believe I’ve said here before, to me it seems like Alaska has the type of weather than I go on vacation to get away from. Then again, it was my friends who were planning this particular trip, so in a lot of ways I was just along for the ride.  Not that there was much of a ride involved anyway (at least not until we boarded the ship.)  One of the nice things about cruising to Alaska is that a lot of ships use Seattle as their homeport during the Alaska season.  For two Summers I have worked in Downtown Seattle just off the waterfront, which means that if I look out the window in some of the conference rooms at the office I can see the ships docked at either Bell Street Pier about half a mile away, or Smith Cove several miles beyond that.  It certainly makes the prospect of just hopping aboard one sound a lot more tantalizing when you can actually see the ships in port.  If nothing else, it’s kind of nice to take a cruise and not have to fly across the country twice to get there in back (nothing against Fort Lauderdale, which is a perfectly nice place to get away from the weather, but a quick 12-mile taxi ride to the pier is, shockingly, a little easier to deal with than a flight of 2,800 miles in each direction (not to mention a fair bit cheaper.)

The itinerary for this particular cruise would be a 7-day roundtrip out of Seattle, making stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, as well as a day spent aboard the ship as it cruises slowly through Glacier Bay National Park (other ships with a similar itinerary may omit Glacier Bay in favor of Tracy Arm Fjord.)  Since I had been to none of those places (except for Victoria on a previous cruise) before, I didn’t know a whole lot about what to expect.  The ship, on the other hand, was in large part a known quantity, as if you’ve been on one Grand-class Princess ship you should have little trouble finding your way around any of the other ones.  The Golden Princess is one of the older ships in the fleet (she first sailed in 2001,) and is a sister ship to the Grand Princess and Star Princess.  Although these three ships were originally virtually identical, over time a number of renovations have taken the three ships in significantly different directions.  Nonetheless, even with the various changes between the three ships you are going to find that the passenger experience is pretty consistent across the Princess fleet regardless of which ship you happen to be on.  All in all, it’s not a bad way to go.

After the jump, a look at some of the highlights from the trip.


January 19, 2014

We’re Only at Home When We’re on the Run

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:43 am

(Optional soundtrack for this post, if for no other reason than the fact that I’ve had this particular song stuck in my head for most of the past month.)

Although I’ve done a fair bit of traveling over the years, there’s no doubt that 2013 is by far the most traveling I’ve done in one year.  In addition to the usual commuting back and forth to work and wandering around the local area, I’ve been on seven different trips of various lengths over the course of the year, and over the course of my travels I have been as far as 4,200 miles away from home.  Granted, most of my trips have been much shorter than that, but with two trips to the East Coast, thirteen days spent at sea and a number of other interesting little side trips along the way, it occurs to me that I’ve probably put in quite a few miles over the course of the last year.  Even though I don’t expect to be doing nearly as much travel this year as I did last year, I thought it might make an interesting exercise to try to figure out just how much traveling I actually did last year.  If I count all the different methods of transportation I used to get around over the course of the year (including ones such as walking and riding the bus) it becomes just about impossible to get an exact amount (it’s not like I’m keeping track of all this stuff very well) but for things like air, sea or rail, it’s actually pretty easy to figure out the distances involved.  With that in mind, I’m going to make a (quite possibly misguided) attempt to estimate just how many miles I traveled across all of the various modes of transportation I used last year.

Driving:  This is probably going to be the least  accurate part of this, since I haven’t really kept track of this all that well.  That means I can’t really do much better than an educated guess.  I figure that in an average year I probably drive somewhere between 10 and 12 thousand miles, give or take a thousand or so.  I’ve owned my car for just about 6 1/2 years now, and have somewhere in the neighborhood of 68,000 miles, which averages out to about 10,460 miles or so per year.   Nonetheless, I feel like I’ve done more driving than that over the past year, since I do commute to my job in Downtown Seattle and back at least a couple of times a week, possibly more.  Back when I worked in Downtown Bellevue a couple of years ago and didn’t need to drive at all to get to work and back, I know that the overall usage on my car was significantly lower.  Ultimately it averages out, but just to keep things convenient I’m just going to say that I drove (or rode in other people’s cars) for around 12,000 miles last year.  During the last year I didn’t go on any roadtrips in my own car, and I don’t recall having my car more than about 50 miles away from home at any given time.  Typically those would be included in the overall total, but since there weren’t any to speak of, I don’t need to account for any.

Of course, that’s only what I drove in my own car.  On the various trips I’ve taken in the past year, I figure I’ve put in a decent number of miles in various rental cars as well.  Between three different trips to Disneyland (which I figure typically involve around 300 miles or so, based on roughly a 100-mile round trip between LAX and the place we stay when we go down there, 3-4 days of a 50-mile round trip between the condo and parks, plus another 50 miles or so for miscellaneous driving (sightseeing, trips to the store, etc.)  to make a total of about 350 miles per trip.  There were also a couple of other trips (a quick weekend business trip to San Jose, plus the days before and after the December cruise in Florida) where I drove rental cars, but generally didn’t drive nearly as much on those ones.  I’ll estimate about another 200 miles of driving total for those two trips (although I suspect that number is high.)  I suppose if I ever bothered to keep the receipts for these trips I’d be able to get more exact numbers here (apparently the rental car companies are a lot more meticulous about this type of thing than I am) but since we’re pretty much working off estimates here this works.  If I add all this together, I come up with a total of around 1,950 miles driven in rental cars.

In addition to driving in rental cars, there was also the trip to Atlanta back in May for my brother’s wedding, followed by a road trip up to Charlotte, North Carolina to see a NASCAR race and back.  The shortest route between Atlanta and Charlotte would be I-85 (which is the route we took back to Atlanta afterward, roughly 266 miles) but since the wedding reception was in Augusta, we ended up taking a different route that took I-20 to Columbia South Carolina, then I-77 from there to Charlotte, for a total of around 344 miles.  Given the drive to Charlotte and back, plus miscellaneous driving for various things along the way (including a day spent in the Charlotte area touring around the various NASCAR teams’ race shops,) I estimate this trip to have been roughly 700 miles total.

Given all of the various driving and riding in cars I’ve done over the course of the past year, I’m going to estimate a total of somewhere around 13,950 miles traveled by car (both as a driver and as a passenger) over the past year.  Since I figure I’m probably not being very precise with this anyway, I might as well just go ahead and round that up to make it an even 14,000.

By Mass Transit:  In addition to driving, I also frequently commute by bus as well.  This is another one that is somewhat difficult to accurately estimate, but fortunately there’s at least some record keeping going on here, thanks to the ORCA card that I use to pay my bus fare.  if you look on the ORCA website, you can find a record of all the bus rides you’ve taken for a specified period of time.  which means that I can see that I rode on Metro and SoundTransit buses 207 times during 2013.  I can also see which buses I rode on.  Most of the time the bus I ride is either the 212 or 554 that goes to and from the Eastgate Park and Ride, and these two routes (and related routes with different numbers but which follow basically the same routing) accounted for 177 of the 207 trips.  By my estimate, each trip on this route is roughly 9.8 miles in each direction, for a total of 1,734.6 miles.  In addition to that, I also took 24 trips on route 550 (which is the direct bus from Downtown Bellevue that goes to Seattle.  If I take this one I don’t have to drive to the park-and-ride, but I also find it generally takes 10-15 minutes longer in each direction if I take this one than it does if I take the 212/554)  By messing around with some of the routing tools on Bing Maps, I can estimate that this route is roughly  11.5 miles for each trip, for a total of 276 miles on Route 550.  I also rode twice on Route 522 (a round trip from Kenmore Park-and-Ride to Downtown Seattle and back, about 15 miles each way) and there are 4 other trips I can’t be certain of (I think they may have been local trips in Downtown Seattle, I’ll just ignore those.)  I also rode once on the Light Rail from International District to Sea-Tac Airport (about 14.5 miles.)  If I add all these together, it comes out to an estimate of 2,055 miles total (give or take a couple) riding on mass transit last year.  I suppose if I really wanted to get nitpicky here (well, more so than I already am) I could probably try to figure out the distance I rode on Disneyland parking shuttles or the free trams they provide in Laguna Beach during a visit there, but that just makes my brain hurt.

By Train: This one’s actually pretty easy to figure out.   I took one train trip last year from Vancouver BC to Seattle aboard the Amtrak Cascades following the cruise we took in May.  According to the Wikipedia Article for the Amtrak Cascades, the distance from Vancouver to Seattle by rail is 157 miles.

By Air:  Perhaps not surprisingly, this ends up being where most of the distance traveled in the last year comes from.  Fortunately, it’s quite easy to get a fairly precise distance for all the flights I took last year, since  the various resources offered to frequent flyers for the purpose of figuring out their miles make it easy to find distances between airports, including connecting flights.  Based on the various flights I took last year, this is what the distances would look like:

  • SEA <-> LAX (3 round trips:)  1,908 miles roundtrip x 3 = 5,724 miles
  • LAX -> SFO -> SEA (one trip, one way:) 1,016 miles
  • SEA <-> ATL (1 round trip:) 4,360 miles
  • SEA <-> SJC (1 round trip:) 1,392 miles
  • SEA -> ATL -> FLL (1 trip, one way): 2,762 miles
  • FLL -> MSP -> SEA (1 trip, one way:) 2,880 miles

When I combine all of these together, I come up with a grand total of 18,134 miles traveled by air in 2013.  At this rate, I suspect that I might even manage to get a free flight with frequent flyer miles in another 3 or 4 years.

By Sea:  I suspect that most people don’t have this one on their list these days, but given the two cruises I was on last year, this accounts for a pretty significant chunk of mileage as well.  On the last day of each cruise, Princess Cruises provides each passenger with what is known as a Log of the Cruise, which describes where the ship has been and provides some statistics on the cruise, including the total distances between ports and the overall distance sailed.  It is from this that I get the distances for the two cruises I took last year:

  • Island Princess, Pacific Coastal (3 days, Los Angeles to Vancouver, no port stops:) 1,718 statute miles, 1,494 nautical miles
  • Emerald Princess, Southern Caribbean Medley (10 days, Roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale, stops at Eleuthera (Bahamas), St. Thomas, Dominica, Grenada, Bonaire, Aruba:)  3,565 statute miles, 3,100 nautical miles

Between these two cruises, this comes out to a total of 5,283 statute miles (4,594 nautical miles) traveled by sea last year.  Not that I was paying much attention to any of them…

Unless there’s something I’m forgetting here, this should account for all the traveling I did last year, both at home and abroad, by land, air and sea.  Now to add all of this up:

  • By car (both driving and as a passenger): 14,000 miles
  • By mass transit:  2,055 miles
  • By train:  157 miles
  • By air:  18,134 miles
  • By sea:  5,283 miles
  • Total: 39,629 miles

So when all was said and done, I came up with a total of nearly 40,000 miles traveled last year, which would be enough mileage to circle the Earth nearly 1.6 times.  That seems like an awful lot of traveling, but I do also know people who can end up traveling twice that many miles in a year on a regular basis (one of my friends did a two-week trip to Southeast Asia by way of Australia last year, plus another trip to India for work, and those two trips by themselves would probably come close to matching my whole mileage total for the year) whereas this past year was a fairly unusual one for me in that I did a lot more traveling than I usually do.  I do plan to continue traveling this coming year, but I seriously doubt I’ll be putting in quite as many miles.  On the other hand, I never know just where I’m going to end up.  After all, these things seem to have a tendency to sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

December 12, 2013

Live from the Lido deck

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 7:41 pm

 photo 20131212_193124.jpg

Date:  Um….  Not quite sure really.  Thursday, perhaps?
Time:  Kind of late in the evening.
Temperature: Not really freaking cold, which is about as much as I care about the subject at this point.
Location:  Somewhere on the leeward side of the West Indies, headed toward Dominica.

It’s kind of a quiet night aboard the Emerald Princess, with not much of not going on this evening.  Club Fusion at the aft end of the Promenade deck is showing a football game, which is just about the most packed I’ve seen the pace all week.  None of the other lounges are showing much of note, and the big movie screen is showing some movie I’ve never heard of.  My traveling companion is, unlike myself, inclined to go to bed at sane times in the evening, so I figure that vacating the premises for a while is probably the best course of action.  Since that doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for activities that don’t involve either watching people dump big piles of money into the slots or dumping big piles of money into the slots myself, I figure I have a bit of time to do some blogging.

The day today was spent in lovely St. Thomas, where the agenda included a visit to Trunk Bay on St. John, and a brief shopping trip in Charlotte Amalie, also known as the Wal-Mart of the Caribbean (although ironically there isn’t actually a Wal-Mart there, just a Kmart.)  The snorkeling at Trunk Bay went far better than the earlier attempt at snorkeling at Princess Cays a couple of days ago, where the waves made everything to murky to see anything.  The beach at Trunk Bay is also just as nice as advertised, making for a lovely couple of hours (one of the big drawbacks to cruising is that there never seems to be enough time in any one place, one of these days I really need to take a land trip out here…)  As for the shopping, I ended up with a shiny new automatic watch I probably don’t need.  Oddly though, my attempts at finding fake Rolexes didn’t bear much fruit today.  Plenty of fake handbags in the flea market though.  There were alleged Pradas, Coaches, Guccis, Tory Burches, Michael Kors and Burberries all over the place, but oddly enough not a single fake Louis Vuitton to be found anywhere.  Presumably they sent someone over to crack down recently.  The next four days each have a port stop (tomorrow is Dominica, followed by Grenada, Bonaire and Aruba,) then there are two more sea days before arriving back in Fort Lauderdale to disembark.  Maybe there will be better luck there (not that I actually need any fake Rolexes or anything like that…)

One thing you learn quickly when taking a cruise is that it tends to mess with your sense of time.  If I was at home this would be pretty close to the peak of the holiday season, with all the pomp and circumstance in downtown Bellevue that always accompanies it.  Around these parts, Christmas seems to be some vague thing that is happening, but doesn’t really seem to be all that big a deal.  Sure there are all the obligatory decorations on the ship and in the ports (as well as the obligatory reggae versions of all the usual Christmas staples) but it all seems out of place when it’s 78 degrees and sunny everywhere we’ve been so far.  If it wasn’t for a few trees and decorations scattered around, it could easily pass for the middle of April around here.  Taking a longer itinerary than the usual 7 days tends to mess with ones sense of time as well.  Even though we’ve only been on board for four days do far, it already feels like we’ve been here for ages.  And we have a whole week left before it’s time to head home (the flight back is the day after we get of the ship to save the hassle of trying to fly out the same day.)

All in all, it has been quite interesting so far, but my traveling companion seems to be wishing things were a little more active around the ship, particularly in the evenings.  Although I’ve been pretty loyal to Princess in my cruising, I’m starting to think the next time I come down here I will probably need to try out one of the Oasis class ships on Royal Caribbean, if for no other reason than a change of pace.  To be honest, I’m not a big party type person, but even I have to admit that things do get a little slow at night here.  I suppose it’s either that or Carnival, but I think that might be just a little to much party and/or booze cruise for my tastes.  Then again, as long as I can get away from things for a while, that’s really what matters here.

December 4, 2013

Random Thoughts: What a Short Strange Trip It’s Been

Filed under: Food, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:52 am

There seems to be some sort of a strange limbo that one finds themselves in when something long anticipated is about to arrive, but is still not quite here just yet.  The two weeks of vacation that I’ve been planning for the past six months are coming up this weekend, but I can’t quite mentally check out just yet since various work-related things have picked this time to flare up and keep me busy.  As I noted a couple of posts ago, I ended up on a whirlwind business trip to Silicon Valley a couple of weeks ago, and although the tight schedule didn’t allow time to do much besides work, I did manage to sneak a couple of other things in along the way.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to talk about from the upcoming cruise (although some of it might have to wait until I get back) but in the meantime, here’s a few random thoughts left over from the trip:

One of my personal cardinal rules while traveling is that whenever possible, I try to eat at places that I cannot find at home.  This means that for the most part I avoid the major chains, and try to seek out the more local type places or restaurants endemic to the area in which I’m traveling.  I do this not because I’m any sort of a food snob (although I suspect on occasion I might be one whenever it happens to be convenient) but mostly because it’s a way to take advantage of the limited time I have to travel.  After all, it there’s a place I can go to on a typical Wednesday night, why would I spend vacation time there?  Anyway, while on this particular trip I had limited time for just about everything, so I wanted to find something not too far from the hotel, yet something with a bit of history to it.  A search of some Yelp reviews came up with Original Joe’s in Downtown San Jose, an Italian restaurant and steakhouse boasting a long history and generous portions.    After braving a fair bit of traffic in the downtown area and a couple of unplanned sorties into way-too-narrow parking lots, I found my way to the place, and after a short wait found my way to a spot at the counter.  As you might expect, this place is a throwback to a previous era, with decorations little changed since the restaurant’s opening many years ago.  Another interesting feature of this restaurant was an open kitchen, where one can watch the frenzy of activity as steaks were grilled, pastas were served up, veggies were sauteed (sometimes with the theatrics that a conveniently flammable bit of something-or-other can add to the whole experience) and things generally hummed along at a frantic pace as a hungry Saturday night crowd (when I arrived, the people in front of me were warned that the wait for a table could be as much as an hour) was served.

As a place with a 57-year history in the same location, there’s bound to be a few stories to be told, and as luck would have it, I found just the person to tell them.  Seated next to me at the counter was a regular of this particular establishment, who first visited the restaurant at the age of thirteen, and who had been visiting the restaurant for over 50 years.  And he seemed more than happy to talk about it with a newcomer who had no idea the place even existed two hours before.  The waiter had been there a month, but was getting used to it pretty well.  The guy working the saute pans was one of four guys trained for the (suprisingly complex) job a few years ago, but was the only one who actually made it through.  Some of the guys in the kitchen had been there as much as thirty years.  He knew everyone there, and many came to visit.  There were also plenty of stories.  The computers for order tracking in the kitchen were installed only a few years ago as they recovered from a fire (apparently one of two the place has had in its history,) but even with modern technology they still call out all the orders anyway.  In the end, the New York Strip was pretty good (maybe not the best I’ve ever had, but I’ve definitely paid more money for much worse steaks over the years) but it was the guy who knew everyone in the place except for the random stranger who happened to be sitting next to him that really made the experience for me.  And that, in a nutshell, is why I seek these types of places out when I’m on the road.  Even if the food isn’t always amazing at places like this (it’s rarely quite that memorable, but at the same time it’s rarely disappointing,) sometimes it’s worth visiting a place like this just for the experience.

Flying in and out of cities I’ve never visited before typically means visiting unfamiliar airports as well, and for lack of much else to do on the way back, I took the opportunity to wander up and down the shockingly long hallways of the San Jose Airport while awaiting my return flight home after the business I had been sent down to take care of was completed.  As airports go, the one in San Jose is relatively small compared to most of the ones I fly in and out of (28 gates total, most of them being in one big long line) but it’s also one of the more modern ones I’ve seen, with Terminal B having opened to passengers just a few years ago.  Heeding the now standard advice to arrive two hours before my flight’s departure time, a short security line left me with most of that two hours to wait, which left plenty of time to wander.  It turns out that the walk from gate 28 (where the security checkpoint for terminal B is located) to gate 1 in the other terminal comes out to pretty close to half a mile in each direction.  With flights coming in and out of Terminal B constantly (most of them Southwest and Alaska flights), you get the impression that this is a rather busy airport in spite of its size, but as you wander down to the older Terminal A, you find that things get a lot quieter fast.

One particularly interesting sight along the way was an ANA 787 Dreamliner parked at Gate 15, getting ready to board a flight to Tokyo.  I’ve seen a few Dreamliners flying around here and there in the skies over Seattle, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to see one up (reasonably) close.  Sure it’s had its highly publicized problems, but it’s still quite interesting to see one.

As the gate numbers go down, the activity in the terminal seems to go down with them, to the point that by the time you reach the waiting area where gates 1-7 are located the place is, for all intents and purposes, a ghost town.  Whatever newsstands and restaurants used to serve this part of the terminal now appear to be shuttered due to lack of interest.  A Bane-Of-My-Existence AA MD-80 sits idle at one of the gates, waiting for nobody in particular.  A couple of the gates have signs up indicating long-haul flights that are several hours away, giving no reason for anyone to really be here in the first place.  In fact, the only source of sound in this part of the terminal at all seems to be the occasional clangs and clicks of a kinetic sculpture, busily whirring away and accomplishing nothing useful while nobody pays any attention to it (well, nobody until I showed up and watched for a few minutes, I’m admittedly a sucker for these kinds of things.)  These days, it seems like every airport I fly into is as busy as ever (especially if you’ve got three flights of people waiting at one gate, as seemed to be the case with my outbound flight from Seattle) so it’s a little odd and quite possibly just a bit eerie to see nothing happening in an airport where you would expect the exact opposite.  Then again, all it takes is a little walk, and everything is back to the way you’d expect it to be.  21 gates and a world away, it seems.

Oh, and apropos of nothing, here’s a picture I took of the Android lawn statues in front of Building 44 of the Googleplex in Mountain View.  Granted, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to do a lot of sightseeing while I was down there, but given the fact that practically my entire job right now involves working with Android right now (and most of the phones and tablets I have here at home run it too) I figured it was worth a visit.  Aside from the big Android in the back (the one next to the donut) they really aren’t nearly as big as you might think.  The Jellybean and KitKat ones aren’t much taller than I am.  Maybe if I had more than 18 hours notice that I’d be flying down I’d have more time to plan things like this next time, but sometimes you just need to cram in whatever you can cram in.

November 23, 2013

Fun with unexpected business travel: Actually, I don’t really know the way to San Jose.

Filed under: Random Stuff, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 1:48 pm

(Edit:  Apparently the Android WordPress app can’t be bothered to resize images, leaving a ridiculously huge image on the front page.  Those responsible have been sacked.  I’ll fix it when I’m on something better than gerbil-powered hotel Wi-Fi.)

As of 4:30 yesterday, I’m pretty sure my weekend plans didn’t include anything about flying down to Silicon Valley for an unexpected debugging session to try to troubleshoot a problem with a car that is blocking a rather important test. Apparently that’s what happened though, since I’m currently on a badly delayed plane to San Jose (remember kids, you can’t spell “Southwest Airlines” without “Late”!) to try to solve a problem with about half of the usual debugging tools I normally have at my disposal and only a vague idea of what’s going on.  Given the fact that the FAA has finally done away with that archaic rule about no electronic devices below 10,000 feet, I’ve actually got enough time to do some blogging on one of these relatively short flights.  Given the fact that the plane is not currently plummeting to Earth in an impressive fireball of doom I’ve got to figure the risk was pretty nonexistent in the first place.  This particular plane seems to be staffed by a rather snarky crew of flight attendants, which made for a rather interesting safety spiel prior to takeoff (we were warned of what to do just in case the Southwest Airlines flight turns into a Royal Caribbean cruise, and it didn’t involve any trips to the buffet unfortunately.)

Even though work has been quite hectic for the past few months , it had actually slowed down over the past few weeks, to the point that I can actually leave the office at a somewhat reasonable time most days.  Of course assorted fire drills do still pop up every so often, but that’s pretty much par for the course no matter where you are.  I am also now just two weeks away from the big vacation I’ve been looking forward to for six months now, and starting to get ready for that.  Granted, the past year has provided more than adequate opportunities to travel (something I am grateful for, and something I suspect I will not always have the chance to do,) but for years now I’ve been in sort of a limbo where as I jumped from contact to contact at Microsoft and elsewhere, I always found myself in one of two situations:  Plenty of money and to many obligations to go anywhere, or plenty of time, but no money to spend on traveling.

It has only been within the last couple of years that I have been able to manage both at the same time, and I’m taking advantage of the situation while I can.  I also consider myself fortunate to have good friends to travel with, one of whom will be joining me on the upcoming trip.  With Thanksgiving coming up next week I will save most of that for the annual “Going Around the Table”post, but even if things aren’t quite perfect for me right now ( and aren’t likely to be perfect anytime soon) I do still have to consider myself fortunate for the opportunities I have right now, and good people to share them with.

In the meantime, I might as well sit back and enjoy the flight, and hope I know what I’m doing well enough to do some good here.  At least I can’t say I lead a boring life these days, right?

October 11, 2013

Too much magic? Maybe.

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 9:39 am

Last night I was visiting with my siblings at my parents’ house since my brother was in town for a few days, and my sister made the observation that lately it seems like I haven’t been doing anything but working or going on vacation.  To be perfectly honest, I think she has a point on that one.  It does seem like I’m either spending way too much time at work or I’m not spending much time at work at all.  I can’t remember the last time I actually worked a regular 40-hour week, since I seem to be either working well in excess of that (including weekends on occasion) or being out for a day or two.  In the end it all seems to even out, and even with plans to take two whole weeks off in December. I still suspect I will be pretty close to the standard 2,080 hours that comprise a year of 40-hour work weeks. 

I’m fortunate to work at a place that allows the flexibility to travel as much as I do, even if I do occasionally end up working long hour.  One of the people I work with on my current project actually spent a month in Europe visiting family recently, then got back here and promptly got sent to England for work for two weeks, came back, then got sent over again.  Another one got sent to Japan for several weeks as well.  So far I haven’t had to do any business travel in my job,  but I suspect it’s a matter of time at this point.

As often seems to be the case, I’m writing this on an airplane, taking my typical Friday morning flight down to LA for yet another weekend at Disneyland.  Yeah, I know I seem to be spending an awful lot of time there lately, but given how much I’ve spent on my annual passes, I figure I should try to get as much use out of the things as I possibly can.  I don’t I would be able to visit nearly as often as I do if I didn’t have friends whose parents generously allow us to stay at their condo in Orange County when we go down there, thus saving us the cost of hotels.  As long as we have that available, we can do a trip for a few days for basically the cost of plane tickets, a rental car, food and incidentals.  Granted, all that can still add up pretty quickly (there’s still no such thing as a cheap Disney trip unless you’re a local) and the whole thing is entirely dependent on having an Annual Pass ($650 for the premium one when me and my friend bought them, $670 now) but add long as you’re spreading out the costs of that over several trips, even that becomes cheaper in the long run.

But perhaps the biggest effect of having the annual pass is that it completely changes the way you do Disneyland.  The last trip me and my friend took a couple of months ago was nothing like some of the other trips I’ve been on.  Neither of us was inclined to bother rushing to do anything.  We didn’t really care if we got to do every ride and see everything.  We didn’t bother rushing to your drop or staying excessively late to cram in the last couple of rides.  There are some obsessive planner types who would consider a trip like that up be a total waste, but to be honest, that was one of the best trips to Disneyland that I’ve been on.  Given the fact that this trip will be with a much larger group, I’m not sure how this one will turn out, but it should still be interesting.

September 5, 2013

Just a Little Bit of Pixie Dust…

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:21 am

Even though I have been known to make occasional attempts to pass myself off as being a mature responsible adult in recent years, to be perfectly honest I’ve never really been all that good at it.  Sure I’ve managed to tick off a reasonable number of the items on the big checklist, but there’s still quite a few that I haven’t figured out yet, and a few of them I’ve never been all that inclined to really bother with.  As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been reading this Blog for any length of time, one of the items in the “not going to bother growing up” category would be my little Disney habit.  Since my first trip to Disneyland as an adult back in early 2006, I’ve taken seven more trips to Disneyland for 3-5 days at a time (with another trip with my friends coming up next month), one trip to Disney World,  and I’ve now had an Annual Pass since 2011.

Naturally, this has led some people to ask just what it is that keeps me going back there so often.  And while I’m not sure I could truly answer that question, I generally tell them that it’s a nice convenient place to get away from things for a bit.  Getting there takes only about a 2-hour flight from here (and it’s reasonably easy to find cheap flights from here to LAX if you do a bit of looking and planning ahead.)  If I’m traveling with my friends, generally we don’t need a hotel since their parents own a condo about 25 miles away from the parks where they generously let us stay when we take our trips down.  This means that if we have annual passes to the parks (which are admittedly a fairly significant upfront cost,) we can generally do a trip to the parks for not much more than the cost of flights, a rental car and food.  Not that it will be a particularly relaxing getaway (it doesn’t matter how easy you’re taking it, there’s still no such thing as a relaxing Disneyland vacation)  but it will still provide plenty of opportunity to get away from things for a bit, and plenty to take your mind off of whatever it needs to be taken off of at the time.  And no matter when you go, it still seems like there’s always something new to see, be it a new show, a new ride (or a change to an existing ride) or even on occasion something as big as an entirely new land.  On the flip side, there’s also a good chance that for one reason or another you’re going to end up missing out on something along the way too (the trip me and my friend took in April happened to coincide with an unplanned closure of Space Mountain, and this trip saw both the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain closed for various reasons.)  Naturally, this can be a disappointment, but if you know how to plan around things it generally shouldn’t end up being too big a deal.

Of course, if you happen to be making what you expect to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disneyland, chances are your plans are going to be a lot different from they would be if you happen to be an annual passholder that makes several visits a year.  Gradually you learn the little tricks and the shortcuts  to get around things and out of the long lines.  We happen to be firm believers in going through the gift shops to get around crowds on Main Street and along other paths; it saves time, gets you out of the sun (which turned out to be a significant issue on our most recent trip, where temperatures reached well into the Nineties with high humidity) and only occasionally results in ill-advised impulse buys.  You also start to figure out where the best places to eat (and possibly save a few bucks) are, both inside and outside of the parks.  And you also start to learn other tricks to make things easier (for example, if you have a tendency to bring ridiculous props into the parks to take silly ride photos, it’s a good idea to rent a locker to store stuff in.)  Even though I’ve been coming to the parks for years now, this really feels like the first trip where I’ve really felt like we knew what we were doing.  I think I know the freeways around Los Angeles well enough now that I can (mostly) find my way around without needing to use the GPS on my phone, we were doing a good job of staying out of crowds, long lines and the sun, we weren’t really under any pressure to do anything, and (most of) our ride photos turned out reasonably well.  Unfortunately, we did have some problems with the excessive heat (who wouldn’t?) that did put as crimp on our plans for a couple of days, but that pretty much seems to come with the territory when you go down there during the Summer months.  We probably should have learned our lesson last year when we went in August, but apparently this time around the temperatures were well above average for this time of year, and the heat index was close to 106 degrees when the humidity is factored in.  I’m guessing things should be a little more tolerable when we go back in October, but with the way things are going these days, who knows?  Anyway, regardless of the ups and downs it was still an enjoyable trip with good company, and perhaps most importantly, it provided a nice little excuse to forget about work for a bit.

Oh, and another of the little traditions I’ve developed on our Disneyland trips is one of making up random Disney facts out of thin air and posting them over on my Facebook wall.  To bring this post to a close, here is a sampling of some of our Disneyland Facts that are Not True from the most recent trip:

  • Anyone who has been visiting Disneyland for long enough knows that the old Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland was replaced in 1979 by the much more thrilling Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but few people know that the creation of BTMRR was prompted by an accidental discovery of a significant deposit of rare earth minerals underneath Nature’s Wonderland in 1975. As the ride was being built, a small but productive mining operation was commenced several hundred feet below the attraction, and continues to this day. For most of the past year the ride has been closed, ostensibly to facilitate a replacement of the tracks, but in addition to the work above ground, an exploratory shaft is currently being dug toward the Matterhorn in hopes of finding even larger deposits.
  • Although the Haunted Mansion is advertised to have 999 Happy Haunts, in reality Disney’s internal standards allow for a variance of plus or minus two percent on any given day to account for scheduling conflicts or other issues that might arise. Although they do manage an exact count of 999 on most days, the Mansion can be considered to be operating normally with as few as 980 Happy Haunts or as many as 1,019. On March 14th 2009, a mishap in scheduling resulted in a record 1,143 Happy Haunts in the Mansion for a short time before the ride was brought down to rectify the problem.
  • In July of 2009, the Captain Jack Sparrow animatronic in the final scene of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride suffered a major malfunction. Rather than risk extended downtime to the ride during the busiest part of the year to make repairs, Disney hired Johnny Depp to replace the broken animatronic in the ride for three days. He did such a good job of staying in character that the ruse was not discovered until several weeks later by Disneyphiles reviewing YouTube videos of the ride and noticing discrepancies in the motions compared to the existing figure.
  • Although it is rarely seen by park guests, there is in fact an alternate path on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride that does not lead you to the Gates of Doom. Naturally, you get there by not looking into the Eye of Mara, which is nearly impossible to get 12 tourists on a ride car to cooperate on at once. If you are fortunate enough to reach this alternate path there will not be untold riches or eternal youth, but you may get free t-shirts, snacks, Disney gift cards or possibly even free admission to the park. Naturally, the ride is considerably shorter than normal along this alternate path.

August 7, 2013

A Twilight Walk Through Downtown Bellevue on a Fine Summer’s Evening

Filed under: Bellevue, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 11:18 pm

In case you haven’t noticed, around here Summer weather is a finite resource, and the time you’re spending reading this probably means you’re wasting it right this very minute.  Unless you happen to be reading it in the middle of the night or in the middle of February, in which case carry on.   After all, the climate around here provides no shortage of dreary 45-degree overcast days throughout the Fall, Winter and Spring, but the local meteorologists have taken to keeping track of summer weather (which they define as any recorded temperature over 80 degrees)  in minutes (in case you were wondering, as of the time this post is being written, the count stands at 4,537 and change for the year.)  Naturally, this means you need to take advantage of the nice weather whenever you get the chance.

With the way things have been at work lately, I’ve found that it’s been a little tough to find the time to take advantage of the Summer weather.  Sure, there’s (usually) weekends to go out and do stuff, and me and my friends have generally made adequate use of them when work doesn’t get in the way, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the week can be ignored.  A couple of evenings ago after I got home from work, the weather was just about perfect to go out and spend some time outside.  Lately in the evenings I’ve been spending time in the exercise room here at my apartment building, but since I managed to do 40 minutes on the elliptical trainer the night before, I figured I could get away with something a little less strenuous on this particular evening, and went out for a nice little walk right around twilight as darkness began to fall upon the city.

As I’ve alluded to in some of my previous posts, since I work over in Downtown Seattle these days and seem to spend inordinate amounts of time at the office lately, on occasion I find that I can feel a bit disconnected from the community I live in.  At times it seems like I end up going from home to work and back for weeks at a time, without much more than an occasional trip out for supplies or food in the evenings to break up the routine.  And yet, even if I’m spending all my time in this “disconnected” state, as soon as I return for a visit everything is immediately familiar once again.  Over time as you spend a lot of time in a certain place, you build up a mental map of it, to the point that you could be away from somewhere for years, and yet as soon as you return there you immediately know your way around.  Sure things can and will change over time, but ultimately things will still be familiar.  And yet, even if you think you know a place, you can still find things you never knew about, especially if you get a bit outside of your normal routine.

Sure enough, as I took my journey on this particular evening, I found a few surprises waiting for me in places I thought I knew well.  After the jump, follow along as I take a walk through Downtown Bellevue as nightfall descends upon the city.


June 10, 2013

Just Another Sunday on the Couch Watching NASCAR

Filed under: Cars, Sports, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 12:19 am

Auto racing has always been one of those things for me that I tend to enjoy watching (and participating in the very limited occasions when I get to do so, mostly in video games and the occasional go-karting outing) but that I’ve never gotten myself particularly involved in.  This comes mostly from my Dad’s tendency to spend Sunday afternoons on the couch watching races while we were growing up, a habit which continues to this day.  Although we got exposed to all sorts of different types of races and different series over the years, it was NASCAR that tended to dominate the Sunday afternoon viewing, mostly because that what was on most of the time.  Over time we did tend to pick a few favorite drivers on the circuit (mostly the Roush drivers, and Mark Martin in particular) but mostly we tended to end up rooting more for certain drivers to lose and/or end up in the wall or in the pits with a blown engine.  Originally Dale Earnhardt was by and large the chosen bete noir in the Lutz household, but he was soon replaced by Jeff Gordon, who then eventually gave way to Jimmie Johnson and the other Hendrick drivers…  Basically whoever happened to be ending up in Victory Lane a lot driving a Chevy.  Needless to say, we ended up disappointed a lot.

As for actually going to the races, I have only been to two of them previously, both at Phoenix in the early Nineties when we still lived in New Mexico.  On one of those occasions, we actually ended up getting our tickets from a member of Dale Earnhardt’s crew who was handing out some of their extras while we were waiting in line to get a ticket for one of my friends who had joined us at the last minute.  We already had tickets, but when we saw that the freebie ticket was in a prime location on the front stretch that was much better than ours in the Turn 3 grandstands, we were able to trade our other tickets for ones in the same location.  Sure enough, Earnhardt won that race, but I don’t think we complained too much about that one.  Since then I’ve been meaning for a while to try to attend another NASCAR race, but the opportunity hasn’t ever really presented itself.  Until now.

Thanks to a surprisingly large number of coincidences, me and my parents just happened to find ourselves in the right place at the right time to get a rather unique opportunity to watch the recent Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway from a condo overlooking the track in turn 1.  First of all, we happened to be in the general vicinity, thanks to my brother’s wedding the day before the race.  Second, we happened to be in Charlotte the day of the race, since my brother’s return flight was there.  Third, my friends were already there with their parents, who own the condo in the first place (my friends’ father has a business that involves working with NASCAR teams on a regular basis,) who extended the invitation for us to join them to watch the race from their condo.   Thanks to their invitation and all the various coincidences that had to happen to get there in the first place, we had the privilege of experiencing a NASCAR race from what just may be the best seats in the house that are not traveling at over 180 miles per hour.  Naturally, I took plenty of photos.  After the jump, a look at some of the sights of a NASCAR race, as seen from on high (and down low.)


May 10, 2013

Yes, Lutzes are Still Cruise-Taking Nerds.

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 10:28 am


For someone who has frequent flyer cards on three different airlines, I really don’t travel all that much.  Nonetheless, it sure seems like I’m doing a lot of traveling these days.  Once again, I’m blogging from an airplane as I had down for the second of three trips in two months (the third coming up in a couple of weeks when I head down to Atlanta for my brother’s wedding and apparently a bit of aimless wandering around the Deep South.)  Nonetheless, for as much traveling as I have been doing lately, I never quite seem to completely get the hang of it, and always manage to forget something.  This time around, I managed to completely forget to bring any chargers for my phone or Kindle.  Given the fact that I don’t really plan to use either of them much for the next few days, this probably isn’t a big deal.

If you’ve been reading this Blog for long enough, you’ll know that I tend to spend a lot of my vacations these days either at Disneyland or on a cruise ship, and since I just did the other one a couple of weeks ago, you can probably guess which one I’m doing this time.  It’s just a quick three-day trip up the coast from LA to Vancouver, but with as busy as work has been lately, the respite is certainly welcome at this point.  It also provides a chance to try out a type of ship I haven’t been on before (I have made plenty of trips on the various Grand class Princess ships. But this will be my first time on one of the two Panamax ships in the fleet.)  This particular trip doesn’t stop anywhere, but we will have a little bit of time to spend in Vancouver between getting off the ship and taking a train back to Seattle.  So far, I don’t think we have any idea what we’re supposed to do there, but I’m sure we’ll figure out something.

There’s already talk of doing a 12-day Mediterranean cruise next Summer as well, but at this point that seems so far away that it’s hard to think to much about that one.  I haven’t been to Europe in over 20 years since I went to Germany for three weeks back in 1993, so that sounds like an interesting way to go see the Old Continent.  Then again, I hear those Mediterranean itineraries are pretty packed with ports almost every day, so that might not exactly be the best cruise to relax on either.

Ever have one of those vacation where you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation by the time you’re done?  For some reason that seems to happen a lot for me lately.  Then again, this one has been planned well in advance of any of the other recent trips (I believe we booked this back in November) so the other ones might be the stressful vacations you take just so you have an excuse to take a relaxing one.  And since this cruis has no stops, there should be plenty of time to do whatever I want, up to and including nothing. In just a few short hours I plan to be doing plenty of that for a while.

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