Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Well...Christmas is only THREE DAYS AWAY! And I am now officially on Holiday VACATION! (our entire shop closes down every year from just before Xmas to just after New Years...which is why I don't get all the other holidays throughout the year such as Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, Cinco de Mayo, Flag Day, First day of Summer, Mothers & Fathers Days, Patriots Day, First day of Autumn, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Every full moon day, and  finally Veterans Day like Jeannie does. OK, she doesn't actually get every full moon day off, but it seems like it.

Anyway, I digress. It's almost Christmas time! Can you BELIEVE IT?

Those that have known me for awhile will know that I go to great lengths every year to make my own Christmas card. I have been doing this since 1997. Digging thru my archive of cards (I have every one), it appears I missed 2 years: 2008 and 2009. I only recall missing one year, I will have to figure out if this is true. Anyway, it's fun to read back thru and see what I (we) were doing and such. My 'rhyme' (verse, ditty, ode) has been my hallmark since the beginning. Someday I might go thru and capture them all for a nostalgic mosey down memory lane (to capture them for the blog I have to "print screen", then paste into Photoshop and crop to size for all 4 of the 'pages' (they're all made in Microsoft Publisher using a quarter-fold, so there are actually 4 printed surfaces). 

I guess I should just post the card and shut up. OK, here you go, my 2011 Christmas card, in 4 part harmony (pretend the first part is the cover, then part 2 is when you open it up under the cover, and so on to the back page).

And there you have it.

MERRY CHRISTMAS to all of the loyal the In-mates AND (Out-mates) of the Asylum! I hope your Holidays are spectacular! Stay safe and warm, see you back NEXT YEAR!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lights (and an important "Swans a-Swimming" update near the bottom)

Holy Moley! Christmas is less than a WEEK away! How did this happen? Where did the year go?

I've been away on travel most of the last 3 months, and things around the house have taken a backseat to that. I know that all the neighbors (along with Pacific Gas & Electric, local airline pilots, AND the Space Station Astronauts) have been wondering if I was going to put my Christmas lights up this year.

Well, never fear. I FINALLY got them up this last weekend. THANKFULLY I do a drawing every year as I take them down, detailing things such as how many strands go where, what color they are, where the plugs are, any extension cords needed (by color and length), and what plugs into which auto-timer unit (I have 2 of them). Having this data from the last year saves me countless hours of re-inventing my layout each year. And also each year it seems I do slight improvements on last years design, thus requiring a complete re-draw every year. If I was REALLY smart I'd get a nice computer drawn layout of the house (along with the side bushes/fences on both sides AND the entire roof) in a few sheets of 11x17 paper. Then I could add in my lights as I go in the deconstruction phase.

Probably one of the most time consuming parts of the installation is unpacking all the strands, placing them in groups according to bulb color (all my strands are single-color bulbs in either clear, green, red, blue or yellow). THEN I carry a small tube of grease with me as I squeeze a small blob into my fingers, then wipe a thin layer on the prongs of the plug, then plug it into my power cord to verify ALL the lights come on. This little step has saved me tons of time from putting up a strand only to find a bulb is out causing typically a third of the strand to be dead. Finding the bad bulb on installed strands can be rough, as you have to pull the bulbs in the dead area one by one testing them (I have built a little testing device where I pull the bulb, touch it to my tester contacts and a LED either lights or not. If it lights the bulb is good and I plug it back in and move onto the next, repeating this until I find the bad bulb. This way I don't have to work with a powered strand, standing on a ladder, or in wet grass or up on the roof. It beats going down the strand with a good bulb as there can be more than one bad bulb, and this will find them all.

I also try to add a little something more or different every year (also why I need a re-draw). This year I FINALLY got the roof totally figured out, where I have lights in each edge./line. Also of much importance is balancing how many strands I have tied into each other and also into the timer units. I have it pretty well balanced and I think a MAX of 5 or 6 strands in a row. I know this is more than you are SUPPOSED to do, however greasing my contacts means they NEVER corrode when they get wet (which will cause arcing and sparking, and will increase resistance causing a commensurate increase in current draw to power the strands, thus increasing the risk of blowing the tiny little fuses in the base of each plug). I almost never blow the little fuses.

Unlike my neighbor Louie. He cracks me up. EVERY single year. He LOVES to put up lights just like I do. But he goes with the "fling them up" method. Every single year he runs an extension cord to one corner of his house, and then proceeds with his flinging. As he goes, the next strand plugs into the last strand. And so on. And so on. He had well over 30 strands last year ALL plugged into ONE power cord. And he wonders why EVERY SINGLE YEAR he has to replace those little fuses. I've gone over and over how he needs to at the VERY LEAST split the house in half and run in BOTH directions from his one power cord! This method alone would cut the strands in a row by HALF! (note: I "loan" him all the strands for his roof every's our little fun joke. And every year after he takes everything down he brings the box back and I store it in my attic with MY strands. And every year I take the box down and over to his house to borrow 'again'. These are the oldest strands I own: they are the multi-color bulbs per strand. Jeannie hates them for some reason, so I just loan them to my neighbor and HE puts them up. Good solution I think. He doesn't need to buy more lights, and I am still getting use out of them, sort of). Also of note: ALL the strands I buy are the cheap strands of 100 bulbs. I usually get them at Home Depot....and usually pay round $4 per strand I think (been a few years since I've bought any). I'd buy them after the holidays, but usually they are pretty cleaned out and getting the single-color strands is harder. Also of note: I haven't bought any strands for a few years now, and many of them are at least 5 years old, some much older.

I figure it's hard to justify the cost of buying new LED lights when I'd need about 50 strands. AND, all my friends and family who have bought them have been seeing a distressing number of bulb failures. I think they get ONE spare LED with each strand. They are SUPPOSED to last nearly forever, but I put mine outside and it's a pretty harsh environment. Thus I continue to use my old strands and yes, I pay a bit more for the power. But these are at least the newer model tiny bulbs, unlike the OLD kind we had a kid with each bulb being a REAL bulb sucking down a few watts per.

And so, without further adieu, I give you my (our) light display for 2011 (if you click on the picture you get a pretty high res version showing MUCH better detail):

Funny....just looking at the picture I've found ANOTHER improvement I need to make. This years NEW embellishment is the Christmas tree on the roof. I had one strand of green and one of red left over. It's kind of hard to see in the picture I think, but trust me: it's a tree. I mostly did it because I KNEW it would further show MY superiority of light-mastery and also crush Louie even MORE (which it DID) . But he puts up a good fight year after year and we have great fun (mostly the fun is me making fun how I should be standing by his house with a fire extinguisher and such). And btw, on the far left, the lights above my green bush is the right corner of his house,,,but being as some of them they are MY lights I figure they can  go ahead an peek into my picture). Between the two of us we totally shame our entire subdivision. I'm always hopeful some new joyful holiday spirited person will jump into the fray. And as always, I await our challenger.

UPDATE!  12-20 6:45pm
I was totally remiss forgetting this next part (I'm SO VERY SORRY JEANNIE!) Last Saturday night we went to a Christmas party at one of her co-workers house. They throw a real nice party too. Every party they have there is a themed contest requiring some sort of food you bring. This year the theme was the 12 Days of Christmas, and the food item was to be a dessert. Jeannie had hemmed and hawed and searched hi and lo, and came up with a creme-puff swan as her entry (actually there was a whole bunch of them). She made the pastries from scratch while I was out putting up the lights. I had planned on helping her (as typically I'm the 'artsy-fartsy' one in the family while she is the logical numbers person (she's a CPA). Well....I came in from my light-fest and lo and behold, she had come up with THIS:

I was floored! It looked AWESOME!!! The puff-pastry part is cut in half, then the bottom half stays intact while the top half is cut in half to form the wings. You place them sticking up and fill w/ the goodly filling and whip creme, sprinkled w/ powdered sugar. I can tell you from EATING them that the pastry part was crunchy-sweet (ie: PERFECTLY DELICIOUS!) and the filling was just tasty tasty tasty! She's made some really amazing desserts, but I think this is her, uhm, excuse me, but's her "Swan Song!"

As I was looking at them, the filling was kind of starting to melt and go gooey, and settling into the puff some (our friend and weekend house-guest who is also named Matt made the comment that they were turning into "Ugly Ducklings"). So she quickly made room (by pulling out a bunch of frozen food) and put those that would fit in the freezer, and the rest into the refrigerator. When we got to the party they graciously made space in their freezer for the large tray of swimmers.

AND THEN IT WAS TIME! The host laid out the rules for his 2 pre-selected judges. They were scoring on artistic appearance, creativity, and taste, and there was an entire table full of entries (and at least 3 other "Swans a-Swimming' entries of totally different construction). And so, guess who won? OH YES SHE DID!!  This picture is of the very last Swan A-Swimming' was the only one that survived the carnage of the food-fest, and I grabbed it and brought it home (as I realized that I did NOT get any pictures of them before we left!). And after getting the picture, I most graciously let our house guest Matt eat the final Swan (though it killed me to do it). But hey...I'm a giver...what can I say.

And so...that is the saga of the 2011 Swans a-Swimming. I hope she makes them again sometime just for us. I LOVE CREME PUFFS!

I'll post my Christmas card with my 2011 verse later this week. Stay warm everybody!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kona, part II

On Friday (our LAST full day on the island) I had arranged a helicopter flight over the volcano. I've been to the Big Island many times and have not yet seen the lava! I think I only went once BEFORE Kilauea started erupting (around 1983 or 84, when I got to swim at the famous Black Sand Beach at Kalapana, (which was totally covered over in the early eruptions way back in 1986 I think). Anyway, EVERY time I've been to the Big Island since the eruptions started, for one reason or another I have never seen the flowing lava. Jeannie went there with her friend Barb when we lived on Oahu, and they hiked out over the hardened lava to where the fresh stuff was flowing into the ocean. She says they were so close that it hurt (keep in mind that lava is around 2200 degrees F...when you think of a HOT oven being around 400F, well...2200 is beyond our comprehension hot!)

But I digress. I checked in with the park website and lo and behold, my luck was still there. My BAD luck I mean. The lava has shifted it's flow pattern as lava does, and it's not flowing into the ocean right now. It's pretty much all underground except for some flow areas that are weeping out of the lava tubes and creeping down the hill....but no red-hot rivers of lava to be found. RATS!!!! If I wanted to see anything other than miles (and miles, and miles) of hardened lava, I needed to do it from the air. I considered an airplane tour and a helicopter tour. Finally I settled on a helo tour, however it required me to get over to Hilo by 12:15 for a 1pm 50 minute flight. No one else in our group was really interested in doing the helo flight (or spending the $ to do it, though in all honesty it was quite reasonable). But nobody had any problem with us all driving up and over Saddle Road (between Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau volcanos) and down into Hilo. The drive was around 95 miles, and in years past Saddle Road was SO horrible that you weren't allowed to take rental cars on it. However in recent years they have resurfaced most of the bad areas, and totally re-routed the other bad spots. So now the drive took about 2 and a half hours, and was quite scenic too!

The tour company was called "Blue Hawaiian Helicopters" and they are the only company who flies helo's on ALL the islands. I got a real good price booking online too! (plus you get a free T shirt AND a complimentary "Visions of Hawaii" dvd, which is shot in full HD with footage from their tours on all the islands....of a BEST OF HAWAII dvd). I was pretty excited about the trip as I've never been on a helicopter before, AND I will FINALLY see some lava!!!!

 This is my helicopter! (well, not actually mine...but I did borrow it for almost an hour). I was in the right rear seat, and there were 4 other passengers. Each person gets a set of  Bose noise canceling headphones tied into the intercom system. Our pilot (Zack) really narrates the tour very well, and fills in the non-scenic flight time with history and such about the island. Soon after takeoff we were already over the east rift zone which is where the current eruption (for the last 25 years) is coming from. It's all part of Kilauea volcano, which is actually part of Mauna Loa I believe. Every volcano has many 'vents' (places lava COULD come out) and the eruption that has been going for many many years now is from the Pu'u O vent (pronounced Pooo-oooo-OH).

  The Pu'u O vent. 

It's a decent size volcano cone, and the HOT spot of the moment is obvious. Thru the escaping steam and gas (a lot of sulpher dioxide which I'm told when mixed with seawater creates an airborne sulfuric acid,  and is VERY BAD for those in it's path who need to breath). If you blow up this picture (click on it) you can see a bunch of the scientific equipment on the lip just about in the middle of the picture.
 Closeup of the vent as we fly right over the top

If you click on this picture and blow it up more, you can see a red spot thru the steam in the lower left area...this is the boiling lava caldera of the Pu'u O vent (at this exact moment...Zack says things change here fast...he flies over it many times a day and it can change from trip to trip). There were moments in the flight when suddenly the gas/steam would blow away and all of a sudden you see clear as day the huge pool of red molten lava. But before I could snap a picture (which was only do'able when MY side of the helo was facing the vent), it would shift back and cover it up again. I snapped this shot just as it was being 're-covered' from a clear view. Suffice to say, it was AWESOME (you'll just have to trust me). And it's at moments like that (when I'm staring down into a red-hot pool of molten lava) that I ponder what noise I would make if the helicopter broke.

Anyway....after many swoops over the vent for both sides of the helo, Zack then took us over the 'skylights', which are holes in the top of a lava if you will. The lava tubes are how the lava travels underground, and the island is FULL of them. I've walked inside a BIG one a few years back, it's quite famous. It's called the "Thurston Lava Tube". If you are ever on the BI, I"d recommend it as part of your Volcano's Natnional Park tour. Just bring a flashlight...funny how dark it can be inside a BLACK tunnel.

 A skylight. You can clearly see the gas escaping. It's like looking into a portal of Hell (my guess as to what that would look like). But it's VERY COOL (oops...I mean HOT! VERY VERY VERY HOT!)

After many passes over two different skylights in the area, he then took us to the ONLY house remaining of all the hundreds of homes that USED to be in the big subdivision called Royal Gardens (which was totally wiped out during the same flows that covered the black sand beach). The man still lives there in his house, and he's quite famous. The locals call him "Lava Jack". As the HUGE lava flow was heading down the mountain many years back burning home after home into vapors and covering the beautiful jungle with lava, it suddenly parted and went around a small blob of land like some kind of miracle. None of the homes in the entire area were insured (as you can't get insurance if you're in a high-risk lava zone, which is ALL of the southern Big Island) so it was a total loss for everybody concerned. It's hard to comprehend losing EVERYTHING you own AND all your money.  
The blob of untouched land. Lava Jack's house is the small orange roof in the upper third of the blob. All the other homes in the entire subdivision were burned. You can see the light gray is the older lava, and there have been numerous recent flows all around it  including right at the very top of the blob (all the dark black parts). Zack says Jack's in danger every minute of every day, as the black stuff is all very recent and still slowly moving.

 A different view of the untouched land looking straight uphill.  Here you can really see the magical parting of the lava, where it separated and then re-joined at the bottom. Apparently Lava Jack moved to this plot of land when he was 22 years old (a LONG time ago) because he wanted to 'get away from everybody'. Then the roads opened up and houses started sprouting up all over the place, and before he knew it he had hundreds of neighbors. But not now...he is truly 'away from everybody' (be careful what you wish for!) and if his house remains untouched, he will be away from everybody (except the helo's and tourist's oogling his property) for the rest of his life! He had a trail over the lava to the nearest town up until a few months ago when one of the recent flows covered  it. Zack said sometimes you would see him on his dirt-bike cruising to/from his property. You see, Jack is world famous. He us is one of the VERY few people with a permit to hike around in the area. The state allows it because he must be able to get to/from his home. For anybody else to go hiking around in this area of active lava flows is an $18,000 fine and up to a year in prison. IF you live. I'm betting he's no dummy and has learned a LOT of where he can and can't hike. He could very easily break-thru and fall into a lava tube. Even if it wasn't active, he could be hurt and there would be nobody to rescue him. Now that his 'short' trail has been covered, he has a 7 mile hike to get supplies (and a 7 mile hike BACK). There's no water or electricity at his house, and likely won't be for the rest of his life. He opens up his house as a B&B every now and then, and people can fly in via helicopter. Zack says he takes them out on walking tours of the area (I guess he can get away with that with his permit). GO jack!! You are my hero!

After we leave Jacks area we fly down to the coast (not very far) where the lava USED to flow into the ocean. As we start flying back towards Hilo along the coast,  we pass a portion of the Royal Gardens subdivision where people have finally been allowed to rebuild. However you are rebuilding on TOP of the lava flow, and will still have NO insurance, and there also will never (in their lifetimes) be power or water. The hardy residents have bulldozed simple roads on top of the lava and someone must have come out and surveyed out the land plots and away they built. Zack said that when your home is taken by the volcano, YOU are still liable to pay the property taxes on YOUR property, even though it's buried under lava. And you now have two choices: pay the property tax on your land (that in some cases will not be habitable in your lifetime) or NOT pay,  and then your plot of land is turned back over to the state. These people apparently kept paying their taxes and even though it took about 20 years or so, were FINALLY were allowed to rebuild.

Can you imagine living on top of the lava with no power, water, or sewers for the REST of your life? These are some tough cookies! (also know that this area is a good drive away from any decent town with shopping available).

After that we headed up the coast and finally back over Hilo, and the last views we saw were some nice waterfalls and pools on a river that runs right thru Hilo. It was pretty but I didn't get any great shots post-worthy. I took a LOT of pics during the tour, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And after, it turns out they do an HD recording of the ENTIRE FLIGHT. There are 3 cameras underneath the helo, and one inside looking back at us passengers! It includes all the pilots narrations and any questions we asked (we each had a microphone/switch in our lap, and anytime we wanted to talk we waited for a quiet moment and pushed the switch and talked....the entire complement is on the intercom). And for the paltry sum of $24 I bought a copy of the tour! Of course we watched it back at the timeshare and I didn't really even need to narrate much as Zack was doing that the entire time. The only downside was the audio portion of the intercom was rather crackly over-driven...but other than that they all got to go on the tour with me. The only downside was that of the 4 cameras, the pilot has to switch which camera is actually recording. Usually he did a good job and as he was talking about something he'd switch the system to that camera (and occasionally to the view of us as we were asking questions). But as we flew along this entire section of the rebuilt houses he forgot to switch the view, so the camera was looking straight ahead as the flew along the coast.

 After the tour. I took this shot...and if you blow it up, you can see Zack waving to me from the pilots seat (same side as a car). Also of note (and I didn't know this until later), if you look WAY BACK to the left and behind the chopper, Jeannie, John and Donna were parked waiting for me to arrive. Jeannie is standing out waving at me to the passenger side of the silver car, and Donna took a picture of me taking THIS picture while Jeannie waved. I had NO IDEA they were there, and we all laughed when I zoomed in on MY picture back at the timeshare and could see them!

 After the tour we had lunch at a local cafe, and then proceeded back up Saddle Road. Hilo was totally buried in clouds as is typical of the east side of the island, but as we climb up into the saddle area (between the 2 GINORMOUS volcanoes) we drive right into the sun. Both Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau are shield volcanoes, meaning their cones are a very mild climb angle and they are spread out over an incredible amount of land. Mauna Loa is technically the highest mountain on the planet, higher than Mt Everest. The seafloor around the Big Island is at 18,000 feet. The hot-spot in the earth's crust that created the islands spewed lava from the bottom and created island after island, starting with Kauai (the farthest north island) and ending with the Big Island. The summit of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Keau are both over 13,000 feet...I think ML is around 13,700 and MK is just about 25 or so feet shorter. Add that to the 18,000 feet that they rise off the seafloor and they are both over 31,000 feet tall.

 This is Mauna Loa rising up above Saddle road. Behind us is Mauna Keau. You can see how slight the climb angle is of this MASSIVE mountain of lava. And you get a small sense of how HUGE this island is, that these two gigantic volcano's pretty much made up most of the island. The climb is so gentle as you descend thru the clouds that you have no idea how much mountain is above you (as you almost NEVER see the summits from below the perpetual cloud layer). We are probably at about 8000 feet where this photo was taken.
 And this is Mauna Keau. 

Notice that it is shaped very differently from it's big sister though. MK is world-famous for the observatories on it's summit. Our last trip to the island my brother in law John and I took a stargazing tour where they picked us up in Kona and drove us to the tippy-top for sunset. We got to stand on an overlook and wave our arms, casting the largest shadows we will most likely ever cast. You could clearly see your HUGE arm waving on top of the clouds miles and miles away, stretching into forever. As the sun set it got cold quite quickly, and we all jumped into the van and he drove us down to about 9000 feet (just above the clouds) where he setup an amazing 9" reflecting telescope, and then proceeded to amaze us with the stellar sights (and hot chocolate and snacks too). If you are ever in the Big Island I'd highly recommend this was fabulous! After the tour he drops everybody off at their respective pick-up-points (ours was in Kona, just a short drive from the timeshare). If you click on this picture, you might be able to see a tiny bit of the road as it crosses just to the right of the middle of the a small depression with the highest spot to it's left. You can't quite see the multiple observatories from this angle, but there are times as you drive the Saddle Road you can see sunlight glinting off the shiny HUGE domes. Mauna Keau is reputed to be one of the best stargazing spots in the world, as it's above something like 95% of the moisture and such that is in the air, and also as the Big Island has very strict 'light' rules (as in: no upward emanating light is allowed...all streetlights must have hoods on them, stuff like that). So there is almost NO light pollution up there.

I don't have any further pictures worthy of posting from this trip. We were flying out the next morning (Saturday) and this was pretty much the final hurrah. As always I'll surely miss Kona and the Big Island. This trip was quite relaxing as we didn't spend TOO much time behind the windshield, or running ourselves ragged doing thing after thing. Mostly we just enjoyed being in Hawaii again, wearing shorts, T-shirts and flip flops all the time. And eating some tasty foods and lots of tasty beers. All in all, not a bad vacation. John was a real trooper with his newly broken arm, and we were very glad he was able to come after all. I know he was quite sad that it's actually QUITE hard to do dollar-bill origami with only one hand (one of our past-times we enjoy when sitting around drinking beer, eating poke and other snacks and just chilling at the timeshare on the lani). I however managed to mostly decode the very difficult to understand instructions and made a PAIR of flip-flops (using 1 dollar bills). John bought the book of instructions years ago on our first trip here, and he brings it each time. I also made some kind of a 'fat star' thing. Years back I made a Hawaiian shirt, a gecko and a turtle. Jeannie keeps them all in her secretary on display, reminding us of the fun times we had together.

OK...this got long (imagine THAT!)...hope everybody has their Christmas shopping done and can sit back and ENJOY the holiday season!

Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas in Hawaiian) to you all!