52 States in 8 Months

KFC in Kentucky, and a surprise in West Virginia!

Posted in East coast trip, Meals by Ulf on January 31, 2009

Our next destination was Charleston, West Virginia. But between Tennessee and West Virginia, there is the state of Kentucky. It was almost a 6 hours drive, so we had plenty of time to look at the landscape. It is a wide area with large houses somewhere along the road. A few were supposed to look like castles, others had a bourgeois touch. Many houses were just wooden ranches with fences around them. They had a midwestern touch.

But they all had one thing in common: There is always an ugly telephone line (or power line) in front of them which destroys the whole scene. Why do the Americans do this? Everybody who is able to build a road can also dig a small ditch to bury a cable.

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Anyway, we were on our way to Kentucky. Nobody really knows where the name Kentucky comes from. Even Wikipedia isn’t sure about it. However, I have a theory: Maybe they’ve just taken the name of a large fast-food chain from that area, “Kentucky Fried Chicken“?

To find out, we decided to visit one of the KFCs in Kentucky. It was just after Lexington, KY. I must admit that I had quite some problems understanding the lady at the counter, but finally she understood that I wanted some “Original Recipe fried chicken” with … actually, I did not really care about what the chicken came with *g*. I ended up saying something like “Here is my money, so give me something to eat, please”. Normally I only have trouble understanding Afro-Americans, but this lady was caucasian!

Anyway, the food turned out to be nice! I could have eaten a bit more, but it was really tasty!

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Did you notice the number of food stores in one place (on the left-hand side picture)? And our satnav did not even list all of them! You basically can’t starve along an American interstate.

Somewhen in the evening we arrived at the Charleston airport where we picked up Mila. She’s a friend of Alex from the Stuttgart area. Right now she studies “International Management” in cooperation with the Daimler AG which is mostly Economics. However, Mila never gets tired to emphasize that she likes the “international” part of her studies more than the “management”. That’s probably how she got to know Matt. Matt is an American student who spent a year or so in Europe within a “study abroad” program.

Now, Matt is from Charleston this way we could spend an evening at the house of his parents. In fact, December 26 was also Matt’s birthday, so this was a very special occasion. The following picture shows (from left to right) Alex, Matt, Matt’s father Rick, our new fellow vacationist Mila and finally Matt’s mother Sarah:

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We spent a great evening and discussed topics. Sarah for example is a teacher. Although it she does not need it for her classes, she recently learned the American Sign Language which she introduced to us. This helped her to talk to her neighbors (a deaf couple). Sometimes when she sees deaf or dumb people in public she can also use her ability as a translator.

asl_welcomeShe taught us some words (and a few letters) in ASL. The only way I remember is how to say “Welcome”. You have to move your hand on a semi-circle in front of you. The axis of the circle should be parallel to the horizon. In the end the palm of the hand should be up.

With Rick I had a nice talk about ecofriendliness. Just as many educated people I met in the US in the US, Rick and Sarah were not like we Europeans think that Americans are like. Rick told me about their effort to improve the thermal insulation of their house. His current objective was to replace the windows. The family had also recently switched to a smaller car. Rick was now driving a small Honda. He even compared the ecological impact of an artificial Christmas tree with a real one (keep in mind that it was still December 26). According to his calculations, an artificial tree would be more ecological than a real one after it has been used for four seasons.

The biggest surprise of the evening however was a map of Germany. Sarah asked us from where in Germany we originated. When I looked at the map, my first impression obviously was that it still shows the divided Germany with the old administrative divisions of the eastern German Democratic Republic and Karl-Marx-Stadt as well as Thomas-Müntzer-Stadt and Wilhelm-Pieck-Stadt (do you find any more renamed cities?).

The biggest surprise on that map however was my little home between Hanover (which they’ve printed with two “n”s. just as we do in German) and Bremen.  You can really find Staffhorst on this map! I cannot explain how our little village with something between 400 and 600 inhabitants made it to this map, but it was there! I’m still totally amazed!

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I mean, our glorious Staffhorst definitely deserves being on this map, that’s beyond debate. The thing is, most cartographer just don’t know about Staffhorst’s importance. But this one obviously was smarter :-).

Matt, Sarah, Rick: Thank you very much for your hospitality and this lovely evening!

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Our great microwave :-)

Posted in Newark by Ulf on January 30, 2009

We have a great microwave at home. At least it has a feature which I never noticed at any other microwave:

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After the timer turns the radiation off, the tray will keep on rotating until it reaches the exact position where it was started. Although it’s not really a mission-critical feature, I do like it :-).

The Country Music Hall of Fame … and a bit of lock-picking

Posted in East coast trip by Ulf on January 29, 2009

The Americans don’t have something like a “Second Christmas Day”. December 26 is a working day just like any other. For me however, that day did not start like any other day. When I woke up at about 6:30 in the morning, I tried to get into our bathroom. Unfortunately though, it was locked. This is how it must have looked like from the inside:

2008-12-26_09-33-52-christmas-trip-4078The problem with this kind of doors is that you can lock them before you close the door. That is an effective way to lock yourself out :-). So, what could I do? Alex was still sleeping, and I wanted to go to the toilet. I decided to go to the breakfast area (where they had another restroom). Afterwards I did not go to bed again but I stayed where I was and had a nice breakfast. Eating for 2,5 hours is really great, you should also try this one day! Especially if it’s an American hotel breakfast with an infinite number of muffins and doughnuts and some toasts with cream cheese — delicious! :-).

Around 9am Alex finally got up, too. He neither had a clue about why our door was locked. But he had a solution: You could basically put anything into the lock to open it. My room key from Delaware did the job, just as some of the car keys.

2008-12-26_10-04-45-christmas-trip-4084 In fact, Alex turned out to be quite a gifted lock-picker. He did not only open this door but also the doors of two of his room mates back in Atlanta.

After this little adventure came to an end we decided to go the Country Music Hall of Fame. Nashville is the mother of country music. And if Nashville is the mother, a radio show called the “Grand Ole Opry” is its heart. They started to broadcast country music in the 1920s and seemed to be quite popular. Stars like Kitty Wells, Hank Williams, Johnny Wright and Roy Clark got famous after their performances in the Opry. You don’t know any of them? Neither did we. Anyway, they where crazy about those musicians and filled a couple of halls in this museum with a special exhibition about them:

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There was one remarkable story about the Grand Ole Opry which happened in 1963. After a concert three of their musicians wanted to return to Nashville in a plane. Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas died when this plane crashed. Just three days later Jack Anglin died in a car accident on his way to Patsy’s funeral. For us it’s easy to believe that Texas Ruby’s death three weeks later is unrelated, but real country fans and conspiracy theorists will see an obvious connection.

As we moved on in the museum, a large screen with a movie about Elvis Presley announced that it might get more interesting now:

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The first real surprise was coming right away: We’ve seen the car of Webb Pierce. If you look at Webb’s Wikipedia entry, you’ll think that he was a pretty boring guy. Maybe someone for the Musikantenstadl. Or really? This is how his “Silver Dollar Convertible” looked like:

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(If you don’t have the bandwidth to open the pictures: There were guns, horseshoes, silver coins and other cowboy equipment all over the place.)

The next car was really boring compared to Webb’s car. It was Elvis Presley’s “Solid Gold Cadillac” (neither this one nor that one). Its equipment wasn’t that bad for a 1960s car, but a TV set and an automatic disc changer can be found it every mid-size car today. Well, the gold foil is not a standard equipment yet ;-).

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The remaining sections covered more recent country music. That basically meant that the musicians were more like hippies and therefore took drugs. Their names, of course, were unknown to us again. But they had many gold records and lots of funny equipment. Look for example at the guitar on the right-hand side picture:

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We also found a magazine from the late 1980s. We decided that getting a copy of it and giving it to our fellow student Franzi in Stuttgart would be a nice way for getting into trouble :-). 2008-12-26_11-48-27-christmas-trip-4109

Nashville @ Night

Posted in East coast trip by Ulf on January 28, 2009

In the evening of December 25th we visited Nashville, Tennessee. The letter “t” in “Tennessee” must really feel bored because it’s so all alone. Just like the M in Mississippi.

Anyway, I’ve to tell you about Nashville. The first thing we saw was Nashville’s large bridge over the Cumberland River. In fact, we did not see the river, but the bridge was nicely illuminated.
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Just minutes after we took this picture however, they turned the light off to save energy (that was at 11pm, but I forgot if it was 11pm CST or 11pm EST). Anyway, I liked that! Saving energy is not very common for America.

So, we then started to walk down the Broadway of “Music City”. The first two places we found were the local “Hard Rock Cafe” (which was closed) and a place that would give away free crab the day after. When we were there, it was closed, too.

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It was really a strange feeling. The whole place looked very lively. Most bars and shops were illuminated, the streets were clean. And the loudspeakers which were installed in the traffic lights plays nice country music. The sound quality was great, so we enjoyed it. If there were people on the sidewalks, I’m sure that they would have been dancing all the time :-). But there was nobody around! Do all Americans have families to spend their Christmas Days with?

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One of the few skyscrapers in Nashville is the at&t building. It was closed, obviously. But it looked really nice! Naturally it gives quite a contrast to the other buildings in downtown Nashville. Any boring standard skyscraper would have completely destructed the cityscape, but this one just didn’t. The at&t building is more like a tall castle which restrainedly stands on a rock somewhere in the background, still impressing enough to repel any neighbor from attacking the city ;-).

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Not every shop was closed. Two bars were open (Alex tried to convince me to go inside, but I refused), and there was a little gift shop. As Elvis himself invited us, we had to take a look inside.

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No, I did not buy these ;-). I content myself with getting some postcards and a mysterious sign. It showed a few crime scenes where beers had been killed. Some of you will see it once I’m back in Germany.

But the toy on the left-hand side picture really reminded me of my childhood. I think it was my grandfather who helped me to build some rubber band guns.  Mine were usually a bit longer, more like rifles. And mine did not have such a professional look. I also used clothes pins to hold a rubber band at the back end, but I think I preferred a small nail to hold it in the front.

The departure the Nashville

Posted in East coast trip by Ulf on January 27, 2009

Our main job on December 25th was to get to Nashville. But before we visited a few places in Atlanta. The first picture is from Alexander’s lab, the second one shows the place where our favorite soft drink comes from:

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Unfortunatelly it was Christmas Day, so everything was closed in the US. Alex said that he never saw the campus so empty. I did not visit the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. I visited neither the World of Coca-Cola nor the CNN Studio. And we went without the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. So all I could care about was Alexander’s 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis. It has a 4.6L V8 engine, theoretically producing 210 hp. In practice however, the engine sounds terribly at high revs so we would never come close the full power. Maybe there is something wrong about the valves.
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As most US cars this one has an automatic transmission with four gears. What it did not have, however, was cooling water and engine oil: I could not see any engine oil on the dip stick, and the remaining cooling water was about 10-15cm under the minimum marker in the reservoir. But as Alex bought some new windscreen washer fluid, we had at least enough of that one :-).

After we fixed this, we started our ride to Nashville. Well, we did not quite start immediately. When we were at a gas station, I dropped the car keys. No, they did not fall into a gully, they just landed on the tarmac. The plastic on one of the car keys (which is needed to attach it to a key ring) broke apart when it fell down, so after about 15 miles we went back home. But finally we hit the road:
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You might ask yourself why this Grand Marquis has more than one car key. Well, actually it has three of them: One is for opening the front doors. Another one is for opening the trunk, and the third key is for starting the engine. None of the keys will also fulfill the job of another one. So you can’t for example open the trunk with the key for unlocking the front doors. Well. No comment ;-).

After a nice ride of about 3-4 hours, we arrived in Nashville. Our overnight accommodation was a “Comfort Inn”. I realled liked this place! And it was cheap, too! When Alex first told me that is would cost about $70 I thought that this would be the individual price, but we paid around 70 bucks for the two of us.

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btw: Alex will also write about this trip in his blog.

Two books about Heaven!

Posted in Uncategorized by Ulf on January 27, 2009

This morning I had a funny discussion with my room mate Alvaro. He was very happy because he had just read parts of the “Book of Revelation” as a wake-up reading. At that point I did not know what “Revelation” means, so he had to explain me. It comes from “to reveal”, so the German title is “Offenbarung”.

Alvaro said that the book would give a description of what heaven is like. I figured out that I had also just read a book about how heaven is like. In my case it was the Lonely Planet tour guide for Hawaii:

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We tried to figure out which one is the better description of heaven. Alvaro said that his heaven one would only be one step away. I’m not sure what he meant. “One step” like jumping off a cliff such that you’re dead and can go to heaven? Or one step to go to a church. In fact the next church is more than one step away.

Anyway, Hawaii is only one plane ride away. Looking at the distance it is more than one step, but in fact you only have to get to some airport which is still a reasonable distance. So considering the number of steps, Hawaii is just as close as the next church.

The next advantage of the Lonely-Planet-heaven is that you can always leave Hawaii once you’ve seen everything (which is not likely to happen). The Caribbean Sea might be another heaven to go to, or the Bavarian Alps. I especially like them on the pictures from the summer months. The heaven the Bible talks about seems to me like a one-way ride. So once you chose to go there, that’s it. I don’t like the idea of not being able to return to the place where I’ve been before. Is “heaven” just another name for a prison? What did the people do wrong who ended up there?

Update: Alvaro meant the “step of faith”. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? But Google reveals that the step of faith (103,000 hits) is in fact a leap of faith (2,170,000 hits). What seemed to be as simple as  stepping one foot in front of the other just turned out to be the leaping over a large obstacle. So why does the church want people to jump? It might be easier to watch the correspondent Hollywood movie.

My “Seasonal Holiday Trip” starts with Public Transport

Posted in East coast trip by Ulf on January 26, 2009

As it took me a bit longer than expected to write about our Hawaii vacation, I can immediatly jump over to the next trip: We spent two weeks on the roads along the east coast. On Christmas Eve I was on a plane from Philly to Atlanta where I had kind-of a white Christmas. What I did not mention so far was how I got to the Philly Airport. This was my first ride on an American train. We have a local train station here in Newark which is connected to the SEPTA train service. SEPTA stands for “South Eastern Pennsylvania Anything”.

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What is different here in the US compared to Germany’s local trains?

  • The windows are smaller. You might think that this is negligible, but it really changes the atmosphere in the cabin. It’s more… well… it just does not feel like in a German RegionalExpress.
  • Much more work is done by humans: Even in Newark there was a lady sitting at the counter for selling tickets. Newark is the final station of our SEPTA R2 train with as little as 10-15 passengers on that Christmas Eve (all students). In Germany they use ticket vending machines for this job.
  • Much more work is done by humas: There are no automatic stairs near the entrance doors. In Germany trains, the stairs will automatically fold down on low station platforms. In the US, there is an Afro-American next to each door who will manually open a cover to make the stairs accessible.
  • The same man or lady who opened the doors will also announce the name of each station where the trains stops, and he or she will check all the tickets. It’s nice that they annouce every station although the train conductor does the same job again through his intercom. It’s just much easier for me to understand someone who is next to me than someone on the loudspeakers.
  • There is one remarkable thing about the tickets. It did not happen in the SEPTA trains, but in those from the NJ Transit (which we took later on to get to New York City). They did not just check all the tickets, they even replaced them. Every passanger got a new ticket saying to which station he would go. That’s a waste of money, isn’t it?

Anyway, I really liked the SEPTA trains. The coaches were nice (but slow), everyone was friendly and the prices were absolutely cheap. I guess I’ll never take the Delaware Express Shuttle service again. On some routes, public transit works even in the US!

What did not work, however, was some display panel in the Philadelphia 30th street station. Luckily my connection train to the airport would depart from Track 6 and not from Track 5:

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(Did you notice that one train is both on time and 10 minutes late?)

So, I finally flew to Atlanta. This was the flight when I managed to carry both a bottle of water and my shaver in my carry-on luggage. So I was happy :-). We spent the evening of December 24th cooking our Christmas dinner and watching TV (at least a bit).

Two more pictures from Atlanta. The first one shows the prices for firewood. Wow! Now I do understand why they use so much gasoline, it’s just so much cheaper! The second one shows Chinese stainless steel.

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LEO translates stainless to “makellos”, “fleckenfrei” and “nichtrostend”. “Stainless steel” is supposed to be “Edelstahl”. Well, no.

A quite different breakfast in 40,000ft

Posted in Hawaii, Meals by Ulf on January 25, 2009

Just a quick note on our return flights from Hawaii: Three of us ended up on different seats than we booked.

nwa_logoThe first one to change his seat was Matthias. He asked his airline if they could offer a seat where he could lay down (due to his neck problems).  They could not offer him something in the first class, but he got a seat with more legroom (which was next to an emergency exit).

300px-delta_logosvgWhile Matthias M. was discussing with the airline personnel, I chatted with the other Matthias at their gate. Suddenly the loudspeakers asked a “passenger Ulf S., I repeat: Ulf S. to proceed to gate … immediately”. That was a shock, especially as we were still twenty minutes before our bording time. Anyway, I ran to my gate as fast as I could. And for what reason? They asked me if I would change my seat  from 23A to a 26A. I mean, sure, but why do they make me run for such a minor change?

I was not the only one who was called-for in the airport. The same happened to Andi. He was also moved to another seat. But he had even more luck: They moved him to the first class.

NWA does not seem to serve any free meal to regular passengers on their flights. But since Andi was a first class passender now, he got a pre-flight Mai-Thai and afterwards a dinner at an altitude of 40,000ft:
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That seams to be appropriate for Andi :-)….

90° = π/2 of our apartment

Posted in Newark by Ulf on January 25, 2009

On the previous post I showed you the result of the hugin photo stitcher. Hugin works like this:

  1. First you take your photos and copy them to you computer.
  2. Then you import them all to hugin.
  3. Then you chose two photos and mark anchor points (that means you mark the same object on two different pictures).
  4. Then you start some optimization routines (this looks a bit like magic).
  5. Finally, Hugin will give you a stitched photo :-).

However, when I had an Olympus camera for some weeks in December, I tried its included “landscape picture” function. That camera will automatically create one large picture from about 3 or 4 single shots. The only drawback is that the resulting landscape pictures have a rather low resolution. Anyway, here is a 1.5708 rad view of our hallway:
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Although I took this picture in December, I can promise you that it always looks the same. We are only using this hallway for walking through it and for storing stuff.

Anyway, I took some more pictures of this room yesterday. Let’s see how it looks like if hugin combines the pictures:

flur_panoramabild_hugin_whiteIt’s amazing, isn’t it? I took seven pictures altogether and it took my old computer about 1 hour to combine them. Hugin needed about 1gig of RAM while my computer only had 512 MB and additional 512MB of swap space, so the whole thing was at its very limit.

PS: These are the coordinates where I found errors so far: (10365,3354), (10593,3366), (11256,2535), (11277,1425), (11220,342). Do you notice more stitching failures?

Last hours on Hawaii: We went snorkeling!

Posted in Hawaii by Ulf on January 24, 2009

On our last day on Hawaii we went into the water again. More precisely, we went on a snorkeling tour. We paid around $20 for the complete equipment and the ride to a very nice bay. I’m still completely astonished  when I look at the pictures now:

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I did not spend too much time in the water as I was a bit afraid of ending up sunburned. Still, I’ve seen a large turtle and a small hammerhead shark, both at a distance of less than a meter! And there were many shoals of fish in every imaginable color.

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As one of us took many photos from the same spot,  I tried to combine them with hugin, an open-source photo stitcher. Here is my result:

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You’ll notice some offset in the two innermost trees. So the picture isn’t perfect. But I liked playing around with the tool anyway ;-). If you are curious about the sharp bends which some of the palms have: They didn’t come frome the software, nature seems to be like that.

I’m afraid these are the last pictures I can show you from our Hawaii vacation. After all I can only conclude that this was the most intense holiday I have had. Thank you Ania, Andreas, Matthias & Matthias for this unforgetable time! I look forward to meeting all of you on some more holidays.