August 2013 Archives

Barn Swallow Sibs
August 26, 2013 7:18 PM | Posted in:

The second brood of front-porch barn swallows has hatched and has become the avian equivalent of teenagers, meaning that they're trying to simultaneously be completely free to do their own thing while expecting their parents to do all the important stuff for them. This has become increasingly difficult because, as far as I can tell, the parents have left for less stressful environs, leaving the two kids to fend for themselves.

That seems to be working well for them...except at night. They're now too big to fit in the mud nest, but too timid to seek out different quarters, so they're overnighting as close to "home" as possible, and trying to re-create the coziness of their younger days. Like so...

Photo - juvenile barn swallows huddled together

This is how I found them this morning around 5:30, huddled together on the quarter-inch ledge of the ceiling trim, about six feet away from the nest that will no longer accommodate them.

It's a cruel world out there, and everybody needs a buddy. I wonder how long these siblings will stick together before nature pulls them in different directions?

Shoe Blues
August 21, 2013 8:37 PM | Posted in: ,

I put on my cycling shoes yesterday and, boy, was I surprised to look down and see this:

Photo of cycling shoe with delaminating sole

Shocking, right? They just don't make shoes like they used to. Where's the pride of craftsmanship, the burning desire to create goods that stand the test of time? I mean, if a pair of cycling shoes will last only 18 years before the sole starts to delaminate, what will be next? A refrigerator that runs only 20 years?

Fortunately, situations like this are precisely why God invented duct tape:

Photo of cycling shoe repaired with duct tape

I think I can get another decade or two out of this.

A Tale of Two LCDs
August 20, 2013 8:49 PM | Posted in:

Think there's no real difference between one brand of LCD computer monitor vs. another? Think again, after viewing the following images:

Comparison of same photo as viewed on two different monitors

These are screenshots of the same image as it appears on the two monitors currently residing on my desk at home. The one on the left was taken from a 10 year old 19" NEC monitor; the one on the right comes from a 2 year old 24" Dell display. Neither monitor has been calibrated; their settings are what came out of the box. I did try to improve the NEC's image by fiddling with the on-monitor settings, but what you see is the best it can do.

It's pretty obvious that the image on the right is superior in almost every respect. (If it's not obvious, you might want to make an appointment with your local optometrist. Or buy a better monitor because, dude, yours is seriously hosed.) Both monitors cost about the same amount of money (~$600), although in inflation-adjusted dollars the NEC was actually more expensive. But, then, what piece of tech equipment wasn't more expensive in 2003 than it is today?

There's no clear consensus that I can find on whether LCD displays degrade over time. At one time, I thought it was a given that they did, but most people seem to think that the only change is that the image might get a bit darker. That phenomenon alone doesn't explain the differences shown above.

I think the point here is that if you're shopping for a computer monitor and plan to do some color-critical work, it would be advisable to take a flash drive with a sample photo on it and view it on the models you're considering buying. That's easier said than done in our world of online shopping, but if you can pull it off, you'll probably find it was worth the effort. 

For me, it confirms the wisdom of my decision to use the Dell for all my Photoshop and iMovie work, while saving the NEC for activities such as web browsing.

Garden Shots
August 18, 2013 3:19 PM | Posted in: ,

I strapped on the trusty macro lens yesterday afternoon and spent a very hot half hour shooting some of the plants my wife has done such an excellent job of nurturing through our continuing drought. Below are images of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and lantana. I'll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

Most of these pictures will eventually appear in somewhat larger form in the Gazette's Gallery, if I will ever make the time to put them there.

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Little Porch of Horrors: Return of the Bling
August 17, 2013 9:40 AM | Posted in: ,

Experimentation with animated GIFs continues, this time with some selective desaturation and background blurring.

Animation of blooming hibiscus

Little Porch of Horrors: The Sequel
August 16, 2013 2:41 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm not going to quit until I get this right. Or something.

I tried my hand at a timelapse sequence of a blooming hibiscus about a week ago. The sequence was OK, but my camera's battery pooped out before the bloom opened completely.

Yesterday, a new camera housing arrived, one that will allow me to connect the camera to a power source, and so I arranged things this morning to once again try to capture the full blooming sequence.

I got closer...well, actually, I got too close. I did get the whole blooming sequence, but as it turned out, the GoPro video camera needs a bit more space between it and the main subject. What I ended up with was a series of slightly out of focus photos, until the flower opened almost fully, at which time the camera figured out what it should be focusing on.

So, I needed to get a little creative in order to mask the poor quality of the initial photos. I did this by cropping and reducing the size of the photos, then converting the initial shots to black and white, with the latter effect being gradually faded through the timelapse sequence. Here's the result:

Timelapse of hibiscus bloom opening

I really shouldn't worry too much about the quality of the photos, since the GIF format that's required for the animation dictates a significant loss of quality anyway. I do like the idea of applying different effects to the frames through the sequence of the animation, so if you're getting tired of seeing these things, I have bad news for you. The boredom will continue until you get interested.

Chicago: 40 Years Later
August 15, 2013 10:39 PM | Posted in: ,

On Tuesday night we went to the Chicago concert at the WinPAC, along with however many other people it takes to fill that venue (oh, it's 1,827 folks, according to the technical specs). The show was announced as a sellout and while I did see a few scattered empty seats, I'm sure it was due to unexpected conflicts such as labor pains and/or alien abductions.

Chicago's logoI've been a semi-fan of Chicago ever since the early days. I wouldn't classify myself as an acolyte, unlike my pal Berry, for whom Tuesday's performance was akin to a worship experience, but their eponymous 1970 album was one of the first two LPs I ever bought with my own money (the other being the Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It For The Money). I think most band nerds of that era - I was a clarinetist, with one whimsical dalliance with a baritone sax - were at least a bit enamored with the radical concept that guys playing something other than guitars and drums could actually be cool, although when it came to jazz-rock, I really preferred Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Anyway, Debbie and I attended a Chicago concert as students at A&M in the early Seventies, and while we didn't remember much about it (it was the early Seventies, dig?), the chance to repeat the event had some sentimental attraction to it. Here are ten takeaways from the concert.

  1. If you seek longevity as a musician, acquire some skill on an instrument other than your voice. Inevitably, the old guys lose the upper registers (or in the case of Gary Lewis, all the registers), but the horn players can rock it until the day they pass to that Great Spit Valve in the Sky. Chicago has done a good job of finding younger replacement vocalists (who are also great instrumentalists) while keeping a core group of four original members.

  2. On the other hand, it doesn't matter how menacingly you thrust your trombone at the audience, that instrument will never be sexy. (I'm looking at you, James Pankow.)

  3. The WinPAC continues to impress as a classy venue, but bands need to realize that they're not playing to a 50,000 seat amphitheater, and the audience really can hear quite well even if the volume is only cranked to, say, eight. An eleven on the volume dial is just painful. (And then again, I'm willing to entertain the plausible suggestion that I'm simply getting old and crankly.)

  4. According to the female half of the couple with whom we attended the concert, Colour My World is a frightfully boring song. I confess that I had forgotten how much I agree with that assessment.

  5. On the other hand, I could have listened to Chicago's arrangement of Steve Winwood's classic I'm A Man all night long - even cranked to 11 - as well as the encore performance of 25 or 6 to 4.

  6. To the person sitting either directly behind me or next to me who made an unfortunate dining choice before the concert I offer one word of advice: Beano. Seriously, folks...it's an intimate venue; skip the pre-concert beans and broccoli next time. K'thx.

  7. Wally Reyes is a fairly recent addition to the group, giving a stellar performance as a percussionist, and apparently having the best time of anyone on the stage, judging by the big grin on his face throughout the performance. Based on his enthusiasm and energy level, I would have never judged him to be almost 60 years old.

  8. As long as I'm complaining about the loud music, I might as well throw the lighting guys under the bus, too. We're sitting there in the cozy semi-darkness and suddenly we're hit with a few hundred-thousand-candlepower spotlights, and it's not an enjoyable experience, unless you were planning on burning out your retinas later anyway. Don't do that. We don't care if the band sees us or not.

  9. I attribute this next observation to the relatively advanced average age of those in attendance, but we as a group were an awfully polite bunch of drivers when exiting the parking lot after the concert. Despite the large crowd, traffic moved quickly, and I saw a lot of considerate people taking turns letting people into the flow. Well, there was one driver in a Mercedes coupe who apparently had more important things to do than the rest of us, but the exception made the rule even more obvious.

  10. I wonder if I was the only person in the audience who, after hearing Walter Parazaider's flute solos, thought it would be really great if we could get Jethro Tull to come to Midland.

    ...I might as well crank it to 11 myself, with a bonus observation...

  11. What's up with encores, anyway? Who are we fooling? Who are they fooling? Just play the song(s) you knew all along you were going to play, and spare us the requirement of offering the adulation that earns us the privilege of hearing them. K'thx.

Little Porch of Horrors
August 11, 2013 1:55 PM | Posted in: ,

We had one of those rare mornings with not a breath of wind, and I noticed an unopened bloom on the hibiscus on our back porch. I decided this was a great opportunity to create a time lapse using the GoPro Hero 3 camera so I grabbed the tripod and camera and set things up.

I didn't activate the wifi, in an attempt to conserve battery life, so I couldn't monitor the pictures via my phone; I had to sort of aim the camera in the general direction of the flower, counting on the ultra-wide lens to catch the action (however slowly it might move). I set the timer to one frame per minute and headed back inside. 

What I didn't count on was how pitiful the camera's battery life is even without wifi. It shut down after about two hours. I later realized that I could have waited another twenty minutes to begin the process and probably ended up with the flower in full bloom, but, as they say, it is what it is.

With a little work in Photoshop (I chose 15 photos along the timeline, then duplicated and reversed the sequence), the following living, breathing hibiscus just popped out. It's sort of freaky, really. (If you have a slow internet connection, be patient...this is a 1.5 mb gif image).

Time lapse of blooming hibiscus

By the way, Primelapse.com seems to be an excellent resource if you're interested in timelapse photography.
I observed a couple of instances of unusual behavior on the part of some young animals this week, and they made me wonder about whether such behavior was learned or instinctive.

My drive to work each day takes me for a mile down a street called Mockingbird, the length of which on one side is mostly undeveloped pasture that belongs to Midland Country Club. A lot of wildlife comes out of that pasture and crosses the road, for reasons that perhaps only a chicken might be privy to.

On Wednesday, I observed a couple of young cottontail rabbits foraging side-by-side in the grass next to the curb on the side of the street across from the pasture. As I came upon them, they froze for an instant, then immediately bolted...in opposite directions, both away and toward me [despite what this biologist states with such British authority]. One had the poor judgment to bolt right in front of my truck (he fortunately managed to avoid getting squished); the other ran perpendicular to my line of travel, but away from me.

I can't recall seeing two rabbits bolt in that fashion before, but it made me wonder if the tactic of moving in opposite directions was an instinctual reaction designed to ensure that at worst only one of the pair would succumb to an attack by a predator. It seems highly unlikely that a single predator could bring down both bunnies even if they ran in the same direction, but it still raised the question of whether the maneuver was learned, instinctual, or just a random occurrence.

[It could be that rabbits are more noble than people, because everyone knows that the first rule of hiking in bear country is to make sure you can run faster than your partner.]

The second scenario played out on our front porch yesterday evening. We have a new brood of barn swallow hatchlings in the nest above the porch, and I was being my usual nosy, annoying self by standing and watching the little guys, who were just old enough to poke their beaks over the edge of the nest in anticipation that someone would drop something delicious into them.

Baby barn swallow in nestThey took absolutely no note of my presence...unlike the parents. They returned from what I presume was a foraging expedition and took immediate umbrage at my presence, buzzing me like tiny fighter jets [I never have a badminton racket when I need one]. But here's the interesting thing: just before they began their strafing runs, they let out with loud chirps that sounded to my un-barn-swallow-like ears just like all the calls they make. But as I kept my eyes on the babies in the nest, at the first sound of the chirp, all the young ones ducked back into the nest and did not reappear, even though under normal circumstances the appearance of one of the parents would bring them up for feeding.

I have to think that chirp was simultaneously a warning to me, but also an alarm to the hatchlings. Again, I wondered whether they were hatched with the instinctive recognition of such warnings, or if there was some kind of learning curve involved.

I doubt that anyone has a definitive answer to these questions, although I did find this page with some insights about (and recordings of) the barn swallow calls and songs. If the website is to be believed, male barn swallows give out fake alarm calls if their mate seems to be getting frisky with another male (although in this case I'm pretty sure there's nothing fake about it), raising more questions about instinct vs. learned behavior.

I don't want to read too much into a couple of isolated incidents - we could just be dealing with aberrant, deviant, and/or typical youthfully rebellious behavior. But these questions add to the fun of observing the natural world around us.

Cruising the Interwebz
August 8, 2013 10:21 PM | Posted in:

Note: This is an old timey blog post, the kind you might have read in the early Oughts, where people were still sharing interesting finds on the web. It's not done much anymore. I'm not sure why.

I've been accumulating links over the past few weeks, primarily from Twitter but also from some random exploring I've done on my own. Here are some of them you might find worth checking out.

  • There's a guy named Bob Buckter who paints ladies. It's not what you think. He colorizes Edwardian and Victorian houses, and the results are stunning. Here's a gallery of some of his work; the before-and-after comparisons are particularly striking. But the obvious question is...who do you get when the need for repainting inevitably rolls around?
Closeup of painted house

  • I mentioned Twitter above. Twitter gets a bad rap, primarily from people who either have never used it, or never figured out how to use it properly. Here's a hint: pick who you follow on Twitter according to your hobbies and interests. You might then be surprised at its usefulness. But enough of the soapbox; if you use Twitter, you might find tweetping.net interesting. Granted, it's a hipster website (do we really need to see worldwide Twitter activity in realtime?), but it's also a very pretty one. And the world needs more pretty websites.

    Are you as shocked as I am that the interior of Africa has apparently not discovered the joy of the tweet? But see that pinpoint in West Texas? Guess who. Uh huh.

Closeup of painted house

  • At great expense to my emotional stability, I have resisted the urge to join the Johnny "Call Me Johnny Football But Only After You Allegedly Pay Me Some Money" Manziel imbroglio. And I'm still not going to waste valuable pixels at this point; I'm sorta over JFFM, especially after his parents tried to go all medieval on my alma mater. My message to them is simple: Don't blame A&M for your deficient parenting skills, mom and dad. You're the Chief Enablers of his ingrained penchant for boorish behavior. And read this article.
  • For those for whom one or two pictures of your awesome burrito at Freebirds just aren't enough, there's SnappyCam, a $.99 app that lets you use your iPhone 5 to take 20 full resolution photos per second. Even if you have an old-and-busted version like the iPhone 4S, you can grab 12 frames per second, according to this review on PetaPixel (which, by the way, is a recommended follow on Twitter for anyone interested in photography - @petapixel). 

SnappyCam screenshot

  • Speaking of photography, whatever you think it might be like to be the official presidential photographer, you're probably wrong. PetaPixel (there you go again) has a great interview with Dubya's photographer, Eric Draper. I had no idea his access was basically 24/7, which had to be simultaneously exciting and, well, creepy. 
George W. Bush and the First Lady

  • Finally, I can't resist throwing in a bike video. These guys have developed a shaft-drive recumbent, for reasons I don't fully understand (heavier? yep. more complicated? check. more expensive? you bet.), other than that's what engineers do. But they're still cool-looking bikes, and the world could do worse than have more cool-looking bikes.

Hardly a day passes that I don't hear a news report or see a post on social media or talk to someone who complains about the high cost of insurance and/or medical treatment. I guess I've been somewhat naive about the reasons, but something happened to me today that brings it into crystal clear focus. 

Me, a pawnFirst, a little background. More than a year ago I had a diagnostic procedure performed locally, at the recommendation of a surgeon. I was told upfront that my insurance wouldn't cover the procedure; despite the intense pain I was experiencing and the absence of a diagnosis, I would first have to undergo weeks of physical therapy - even though the therapist wouldn't know what he was treating, only the symptoms - before I could have the tests that would diagnose the cause. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

The procedure was expensive, and the surgeon's office kindly directed me to the lowest cost provider they knew, although I wasn't told upfront what the cost would be. But when it came time to pay, the clerk told me that no payment was due; my insurance would pay. I was puzzled, but happy. I assumed that the doctor had managed to convince my insurance company of the medical necessity of the procedure, and all was good.

Imagine my surprise when, more than six months later, I received a bill from the clinic in the amount of about $5,000. Perhaps the doctor wasn't such a good negotiator after all.

I immediately called the toll-free number on the face of the invoice to speak with someone from the billing department, and I was connected to Julia (not her real name). I explained the situation to Julia, emphasizing that her clinic (I assumed that she was affiliated with it, and not just an outsourced billing department) had expressly told me that my insurance would cover the bill, and that I had never received any communication from my insurance company regarding the claim. She agreed that seemed odd, and when she pulled up my file, she had a good explanation: a claim was never filed.

I asked if they would file one, because I was getting conflicting messages from them. On the one hand, yes, insurance will cover it; on the other, a bill for $5,000, without ever checking with the insurance company. She agreed to do that. 

But, in addition to asking for an actual claim to be filed, I noticed on the bill they sent that there was a 50% discount if it was paid within 14 days. That's quite a savings, and I assumed it was designed to stimulate payment and avoid the expense and hassle of a collection agency. I asked for and got Julia's assurance that if the insurance did indeed reject the claim, I would still be able to take the 50% discount (bringing the bill down to $2500 - I don't doubt your arithmetic prowess, but keep that number in mind).

This commenced several months of back and forth that I won't detail except to say that Julia didn't follow-up with the insurance company, and I began to receive additional invoices, now stating that if I didn't pay up, a collection agency would be called in. Oh, and the mention of the discount was absent. Each time, I called Julia and she promised to work things out, to put the account on hold pending a final answer from the insurance company...an answer that wasn't coming because someone obviously wasn't asking a question.

That brings us to this afternoon, when I called once more, only to find that Julia was out of the office, but Maria (not her real name) was covering for her. I dreaded having to start from scratch, but Maria quickly came up to speed on the situation. She promised to call the insurance company immediately and let me know the outcome.

"Immediately" was actually a couple of hours, but Maria did call and said that she had called the insurance company and they were denying the claim. I then asked about the discount, pointing out that Julia had consistently promised me I'd be able to take it.

Her quite unexpected response? "Oh, I think I can do better than that."

*crickets*

"Oh, really," I replied.

"Oh, yes...we can offer our self-pay discount."

"And...what would that be, exactly?"

I could hear her doing the math. "You would owe us $1,100. That's a better deal, isn't it?"

*crickets*

"Oh, yeah, I think I can swing that."

Let's recap, shall we?

  • My insurance company insists on treatment for an undiagnosed malady before I can get a diagnosis.

  • The cheapest alternative for the diagnostic treatment (and trust me when I tell you it was nothing exotic) still costs as much as a decent used car.

  • The diagnostic facility misinterpreted my insurance coverage, and then never followed up to confirm it, until I pressed the issue.

  • And once we resolved the insurance issue - and only then - they offered me a 75% discount on what they were planning to charge the insurance company*. 
Our entire medical system appears to be a huge game between healthcare consortiums and insurance companies, the rules of which seem to change arbitrarily and illogically, and the playing out accompanied by a series of knowing winks, with the patient caught in the middle, hapless and clueless. In this case, the system worked to my advantage (I think; perhaps I just have lowered expectations), but no wonder Americans are increasingly cynical about the the whole thing.

And the sad thing is that no one has the solution, and if they did, they wouldn't have the will/power to implement it.

*As my wife pointed out, had the insurance company agreed to cover the procedure, it's a sure bet they would have negotiated a significant discount with the provider. Nobody ever pays list price...except those who don't know any better.

Lauding Lund (Corb, that is...)
August 4, 2013 6:14 PM | Posted in:

Much to the chagrin of my professional musician friends, I don't usually buy albums. In the age of digital downloads, I pick and choose the songs I like best, and ignore the rest. I realize this is a symbolic slap in the face to those artists who put a lot of time and thought into crafting an album (although I secretly wonder why all that time and thought generally wraps up with an even number of songs...ten, twelve, or - occasionally - fourteen; does creativity abhor an odd number?). Nevertheless, it's rare that every song on an album resonates with me, and I feel no guilt in refusing to pay for those that don't.

Album cover - Cabin FeverBut I made one of those rare exceptions this weekend, when I ran across Corb Lund's Cabin Fever, an album released last August. I confess that I was actually seeking a single song that I'd been hearing on Sirius-XM lately, but I got to noodling around with the other cuts on the album and realized that there wasn't a stray in the herd.

If you were to combine the lyrical prowess of Randy Newman, the authentic cowboyishness of Chris LeDoux (rest his soul), and the utter defiance of any categorization of Willie Nelson, you might begin to construct a musician like Corb Lund. He's a Canadian who launched his musical career as the bass player for the speed metal band The Smalls (although Lund disputes that musical label as well).

In any event, I find the stories that Lund tells in his songs to be fascinating, although you have to listen fast because the guy can cram more lyrics into less time than any rapper in the hood. But beyond that, the music itself is imaginative and diverse. On Cabin Fever, he cycles through western swing, boogie-woogie, Marty Robbins-style balladeering, roadhouse blues, and straight out rock and roll, and throws in a few songs that can't be pigeonholed. And you can always detect a thread of dry, self-deprecating humor running through the lyrics, as if you and he are sharing an inside joke.

And he somehow manages to make yodeling cool.

I managed to find videos of three of my most favoritist cuts from Cabin Fever. Anyone who ever showed steers in 4H or FFA, or who owned and/or worked on a ranch will appreciate the sentiments of Cows Around. (There's a live acoustic solo performance of this song on YouTube and it's worth watching, but I wanted to showcase the overall musical prowess of Lund's band, the Hurtin' Albertans.)  Dig Gravedigger Dig is an ode to an under-appreciated occupation; the video is a great showcase for Lund's sense of humor (it steals a scene from Thriller, for example). And, last but certainly not least, The Gothest Girl I Can seems to be dedicated to Abby on NCIS, and is guaranteed to make you want to dance.

If you can't resist the call of songs with titles like Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner (a cautionary tale about off-the-books firearm sales) and Mein Deutsches Motorrad (an ode to BMW motorcycles) - and, really, who can? - I strongly suggest downloading Cabin Fever and giving it a dozen consecutive listening.






Riot (Florally speaking)
August 3, 2013 4:11 PM | Posted in: ,

In the midst of a brutal drought, and on a day of 100+ degree temperatures, wildflowers still find a way.

Wildflowers in West Texas

This image is a composite of three photos of the same plant I found growing in the pasture west of our neighborhood, taken at different focal lengths and slightly different angles. I overlaid them in Photoshop, experimented with various blending options for each layer until I found a combination I liked, inverted one layer, and laid the Vibrance and Unsharp Mask on pretty thick.

Our Lowcountry Tour Moves to Charleston
August 2, 2013 7:53 PM | Posted in:

The final leg of our South Carolina vacation (about which I've written here, here, and here) took us to Charleston, which takes its name from some historic figure (either Charlie Chaplin or Nick Charles, as I recall, although my memory is a little fuzzy).

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon, following a rather harrowing drive through one of the heaviest downpours either of us have experienced. Our hotel was located in the historic downtown area [you can pretty much tack "historic" onto any Charleston-related noun and be OK] which doesn't have the most driver-friendly layout in the world. But thanks to our geographically astute disembodied GPS guide, we made every turn correctly and arrived in pretty good shape. We were immediately greeted by Sam, the bell captain, who, upon learning our names, called us by them every time he saw us for the duration of our stay. I assume he did this for all the hotel guests, and while the hotel consists of only 50 rooms, that's still an impressive performance.

The hotel? It was the French Quarter Inn, and it reeked of elegance. Here's a quick photographic tour; you know the drill - click on the little pictures to see the big ones.

French Quarter Inn French Quarter Inn French Quarter Inn  - Stairwell French Quarter Inn - Stairwell Railing French Quarter Inn - 2nd Floor Courtyard The view from the 2nd floor balcony

The hotel is only a couple of blocks from the historic Charleston Harbor, and the historic Battery (dontcha call it "Battery Park," unless you're a Yankee and don't know any better) is a stroll of a mile or so past many historic fountains, historic mansions, and historic other things.

The harbor walk
A rare moment without sweating, wheezing runners, while strolling along Charleston Harbor

The harbor walk
The US Custom House is rife with pediments, entablatures, dentiled cornices, and balustrades. Why, it even sports an architrave.

The Battery at Charleston
The Battery has many statues of historic figures looking solemn or stoic. The more important ones managed both looks.

The harbor walk
There were many historic fountains, generally filled with urchins. The human youthful kind, not the spiny sea creature kind. Did you know that the pineapple is the Old South's version of a welcome mat?

A cobblestoned street
These are some serious cobblestones. Also, I was apparently
adjusting the handle on my head when this photo was taken .

Interior of one of the City Market  buildings
Our hotel was just a block from the historic Charleston City Market, which resembled a series of brick doublewides filled wall-to-wall with sweaty people. We bought stuff.

Rogue plant life on the side of buildings
I've seen ivy-covered homes before, but I've never seen ferns growing near the roofline of a three-story mansion.
You'd have to be awfully good with a weedeater to take care of that.

St
Charleston has many historic and/or old buildings, like The Cathedral of
St. John the Baptist. Many photographers suffer from chronic neck cricks .

I know I've been a bit irreverant with my commentary (ed. - ya think?), but the old downtown area of Charleston really is made for walking, and the beauty of the city is undeniable. It's full of architectural wonders adjacent to high end shopping and enough wonderful restaurants to rival any major metropolitan area.

We were about a mile from the South Carolina Aquarium, so we strolled down one morning and spent several interesting hours dodging the approximately eight million eight-year-olds who had descended like seagulls on the carcass of an exploded Great White Shark. Actually, watching and hearing the kids' reactions to some of the attractions was part of the fun...especially the poor kid who sat behind us in the 4D National Geographic Sea Monsters theatrical showing, and midway through the mildly scary film started blubbering and pleading for "someone PLEASE take me out of here! Please take me out!!" I suspect he had nightmares filled with marine dinosaurs for weeks, poor little guy.

Photo of some mook in 3D glasses
I'm pretty sure the kid was frightened by what was on the screen, and not by what was in the next row.

Hands-on exhibits are apparently a big deal now at aquariums, and this one let kids stroke stingrays - I couldn't help thinking, "Crikey!" and wondering what's next? Let's put a brown recluse spider down your sock and see what happens! - and fondle sea urchins. I stepped on a sea urchin once in Jamaica, and the only future encounter I want to have with one will be with me wielding a 5-pound sledge and a blowtorch.

We try to visit aquariums wherever we go and Charleston's ranks right up there on the Fun Scale. It's actually a combination aquarium and zoo, with small exhibits of birds, reptiles, and mammals, along with showcasing the typical watery denizens...including a two-story 385,000 gallon Ocean Gallery complete with miked scuba divers who narrate and take questions from the audience about the swirling sealife that surrounds them. Very impressive. Here are a few other scenes from the aquarium.

Albino alligator
They claimed this albino gator was alive, but we watched it for approximately 14 hours and never saw it move.
It was only later that we learned we'd been looking at a poster for the gator exhibit.

St
Did you know that some owls really aren't all that wise?

Pelican
What do pelicans dream about?

One of the exhibits was entitled Madagascar Journey, featuring the habitats and inhabitants of the island. It included a large lemur exhibit (well, the lemurs were pretty much regular size) with a tunnel that kids could crawl through and then pop up into a plexiglass dome in the middle of the action. Of course, if you know lemurs, you know that their primary action is sleeping, but I'm sure that between naps they were entertained by the kids.

On the way into the exhibit, we noticed a huge crowd pressed up against a small glassed-in enclosure. There were too many people to tell what it was, but everyone was rapt in their attention to whatever that enclosure contained. By the time we left, the crowd had thinned and we understood what had them excited. It was feeding time in the python cage, and the main course starred a little white rat. I tell you this up front so that you can scroll past the following pop-up photos if you so choose. (Weenie.)

Python enjoying a white furry meal Python enjoying a white furry meal
Our last day in Charleston was actually spent in the water in Mount Pleasant, which is located just across the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. South Carolinians seem to be proud of their bridges, and I can see why.

big honkin' bridge
This bridge actually has a great bike/walking path along its entire span, and there were scores of people taking advantage of it.

We rented a couple of paddleboards at Nature Adventures Outfitters, where you launch directly onto Shem Creek, a quiet waterway that's practically teeming with dolphins. A couple of them surfaced close enough that we could hear them exhale and see the spray from their blowholes.

Debbie paddleboarding on Shem Creek
Debbie keeps an eye out for dolphins on Shem Creek.

Shem Creek opens onto Charleston Harbor, and if we looked closely, we could see the general area of our hotel in the distance. Paddleboarding in open water is a bit more challenging than in the calm of a sheltered creek, but the only trouble we experienced was when a jerk in a speedboat pulled up right behind me and gunned the engine, trying to knock me off the board with the resulting wake. (Didn't work.)

Debbie paddleboarding on Shem Creek
The Gilligan's Island theme song kept running through my head.

We headed into a freshening breeze (that's sailor talk, of course), and eventually got close enough to the Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary to realize that the noise and the smell were sufficient to convince us we didn't need to get any closer. In any event, there's a bigtime fine associated with going ashore on the 22-acre sandpit island, which hosts an amazing variety of birdlife.

At the same time we were heading into the Harbor, a huge container ship was coming in. The ship was the MSC Heidi, a 1,089' 108,000 ton deadweight container vessel registered in Panama. I figured it was a couple of miles away from us, but we turned around and let the boat's wake carry us back toward land. The Heidi ended up docking close enough that we could see it from our hotel window, and I would have loved to see the gigantic container cranes unload it, but I never saw it happen.

Container cranes at the docks
It's difficult to imagine just how honkin' big these cranes are.

Container cranes at the docks
They reminded me of something out of Star Wars or War of the Worlds.

No Charleston trip report would be complete without talking about the food. Oh my. Each restaurant tried to outdo its competition in trumpeting its fresh, locally-sourced seafood and produce, and every meal was memorable. We ate dinner at three different restaurants, each one with a very different approach:

  • Our first night, we dined at Tristan, which is actually attached to, but not affiliated with the French Quarter Inn. Tristan is the kind of restaurant you'd see spotlighted on The Food Network, with the chef competing in Iron Chef. This is a destination for foodies, and for "adventurous" eaters who - like us - don't recognize many of the ingredients comprising the dishes set before them. We had the five course chef's special, and I couldn't name for you a single dish. We were both glad we ate there, but it wasn't our favorite meal.

  • The next night we walked a block to the Lowcountry Bistro, an unassuming narrown, two-story restaurant on Market Street. Their menu was more our style, with plenty of recognizable dishes like shrimp and grits with fried green tomatoes (which I had), and crab-stuffed flounder with white cheddar and ham grits (which Debbie had). I also had a delicious appetizer featuring pork belly, which is the grub-du-jour in South Carolina. We highly recommend this restaurant.

  • Our final night in South Carolina, we elected to go in a different dining direction, and went to Mercato, also located a block from the hotel on Market Street. Mercato is an Italian restaurant with a great atmosphere, especially if you get the big table right in front of the smooth jazz trio - like we did. The food is very good, although nothing spectacular (with the exception of their pork belly appetizer, an imaginative cannelloni dish that was amazing). Again, we highly recommend Mercato, especially if you want a change from ten days of seafood.

The complimentary breakfasts at the French Quarter Inn were up to the standards you'd expect from a highly-acclaimed hotel. No sign of DIY waffles or little boxs of Raisin Bran. Instead, they offered DIY mimosas and fresh berry-and-yogurt parfaits, individual breakfast quiches, chocolate-filled croissants (Tristan provided their pastries, and those we could recognize - and appreciate), and much, much more.

Charleston turned out to be a great place to visit and we'll make it a part of any future trips to South Carolina.

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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