Sunday, July 30, 2006

Latest Book I Read: Busting Vegas

I listened to the audio book version of Busting Vegas by Ben Mezrich. The audio book was read by the author. It has 3 of 5 stars average from 32 Amazon reviewers. I like it and would probably rate it 4 stars. Mezrich's previous book on the same topic, Bringing Down the House, has 4/5 stars from 336 reviewers.

Busting Vegas isn't about the same subject as Bringing Down the House. They're both about members of the MIT Blackjack Team, but the earlier book (Bringing Down the House) is about an earlier team and their profitable use of advanced card counting techniques. Busting Vegas is about more recent members of the team and their use of some advanced techniques that aren't strictly considered card counting. They involve statistics, precise deck cutting skills, and other methods that enabled the small team to make huge profits. Unfortunately, that kind of profit does not go unnoticed by the casinos. The members enjoyed the luxury of comp'ed suites as well as the excitement of having guns pointed at them and being beaten up. It would make for an enjoyable movie. I can't help but wonder if Mezrich wrote it that way intentionally.

Semyon Dukach, the principle character in the book has his own web site as well as a MySpace page. No WikiPedia page (yet), so there's a limit to his current celebrity. He is the one who told the story. That makes me wonder if the others might decide to tell their stories too. Knowing that the story came from Semyon made me wonder how biased it might be. Regardless, I recommend this book.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

More Big Horns and Petroglyphs Too!

One of the places I visited on my recent trip was Keyhole Canyon, in the desert south of Las Vegas. The sky was overcast so my photos didn't turn out as nice as I wanted. The site is covered in petroglyphs. Most of which are high up on the rocks making it very difficult to reach them. It gets a lot of visitors, being so close to a large city, and some of the petroglyphs have been vandalized.

I got there early in the morning to avoid the heat. It was only 95 degrees. I used the nifty zoom on my new camera to snap pics of the glyphs that were too high to reach. The small canyon ends at the base of a small (25-30 ft) pour-over with a small stagnant puddle of water that had its own swarm of insects hovering over it. At one point, I looked up to see that I was being watched by a couple big horn sheep.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Big Horn Sheep

When I was hiking in Zion I was very lucky to see some big horn sheep. I've been wanting to find and photograph them in the wild for a while, so this was really neat. I was hiking off-trail on the east side of the park. The landscape was beautiful and there were plenty of trees for shade. While sitting in the shade of a big pine tree to rest and snack, a string of 10 big horn walked by. They probably never expected to see a person there. I didn't want to spook them, so I simply pulled my small camera out of my pocket to take these shots. I waved at the big guy and he stopped and stared at me for quite a while. Then I said something, and he turned and walked away. Then the others came by. I didn't get a pic of the last two.

So then I thought to myself: so that's where the animal use trail is! Sometimes it's helpful to follow the use trails, especially for the larger animals. But it's easy to forget that deer and big horn sheep can jump much higher than I can. I followed the trail back the direction they came from only to see it head into a small dead-end canyon. The sandstone wall at the back was inclined more than 45 degrees. I was astonished to see hoof marks on that wall. It looked like some of the the sheep came down it, and slid a little bit.

Zion Pics - Testing My New Camera

One morning I decided to wander around the Virgin River in the main Zion canyon. I just wanted to mess around with my new camera. It's a Canon S3 IS. I still don't know how to work most of its functions. Here's a pic of a deer that just walked right up to me. Kinda scrawny, especially compared to the big horn sheep I saw.

The next 3 pics show the great zoom capabilities of the camera. The trail named Angel's Landing is up there on that ridge. We could barely make out hikers as white dots with the naked eye. The second pic had moderate zoom and the 3rd pic used the full 12x zoom. I really like the image stabilization. Without that, these pics would have been blurry.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

My Lodging at Zion NP

Because it's the middle of summer, I decided to not stay in the campground. I decided to stay in a hotel that I hadn't tried before, but is rated very highly in my travel book, Moon Handbooks Zion & Bryce. The Best Western Zion Park Inn is also just as expensive as the nicest hotels in Springdale, UT (that's the small town at the entrance to Zion Natl. Park).

Their swimming pool is large and the jacuzzi is also large, however the pool area is not very attractive. There's no shade to hide from the scorching sun and the view isn't anything to brag about. It's just not a very welcoming area. The putting green is large and in bad shape. They have short trails behind the hotel that pass by the Virgin River, where you can either cool your feet, or watch rafters drifting by. I took the pic here of a group of roudy young rafters. They promptly got stuck in some large boulders just below the bridge I was on.

The rooms were very average - classic Best Western. Clean. No stains. No private patio. My preferred hotels there have private patios. Complementary shampoo and soap are basic Best Western fare. My preferred hotels have fancy schmancy shampoos and soaps that actually smell nice. The toilet paper was thin - only airports have thinner stuff. The 8 channels on the TV is typical for that area.

I was eager to try the attached restaurant, the Switchback Grille. I was hoping that, since it's a Best Western, it would be a family oriented restaurant with family oriented prices. I was very disappointed. Notice the elite fare on their menu. Ugh. So I ended up walking around town to recon other dining choices. I eventually tried several during this trip, but I'll blog about one in particular. While walking around town, at one point I was almost run down by a young girl on a scooter. OK - not exactly. I was crossing a dirt side road when I noticed a young girl accelerating her scooter right toward me. I feigned an expression of fear and surprise and she gave a big smile. I ended up choosing to dine that night at the Bit & Spur Restaurant which was highly recommended in my Moon handbook and was conveniently across the street from the Best Western. It had a great selection of Mexican food. It was a pleasant surprise when my waitress introduced herself. Holly smiled really big and said "You're the guy I almost ran over!" We laughed. The food was excellent. The portions are enormous. If you eat there, be sure to bring a huge appetite, or a teenager. I couldn't finish the carnitas flauta I ordered. The prices were decent. Not cheap, but not overpriced, like many places in town.

Another observation. That tiny town seems to host a large number of art galleries and shops. I guess that being in the presence of beautiful scenery must make some people want to buy overpriced artwork.

So, in conclusion, I do not recommend the Best Western Zion Park Inn. Instead, I do recommend 2 other hotels in town. I've stayed at both, several times and they are great. My favorite is Flanigans Inn. It's located close enough to the park entrance that you can walk into the park from the hotel. The rooms are set back off the street. Most have private patios. They all have very soft and comfy interior furnishings. Big soft beds you want to jump onto. The pool is smaller (as is the putting green) but well kept with shade and a nice view of the cliffs. Their staff is very nice and friendly. The other top pick is the Desert Peal Inn. Their interior decor is very contemporary. Private patios, a large pool and jacuzzi with great views. Their lobby staff have been more on the snobby (not quite rude) side.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tire Blowout

I didn't entirely escape danger on my little adventure. One of my tires blew out. It was shredded! I have no idea how that happened. I get more then my share of punctured tires, and they've all been from road debris in the Los Angeles area. That's pretty lucky since I spend a lot of time driving off-road in Death Valley, the Mojave desert, and the Utah backcountry. My tire went flat abruptly while driving 65 mph on highway 95 south of Las Vegas. I had spent the morning driving on some easy powerline roads to find some petroglyphs in the hills. Luckily, these modern cars are pretty stable when your tire decides to shred itself. I pulled to the shoulder and changed it. Because of my remote driving habits, I have a full-sized spare on a stock rim. I've already ordered a new tire from the Tire Rack. I've used them since about 1996.

My Trip to Zion: Highway Horrors

I decided to blog about my trip to Zion Natl. Park over several posts. This one is dedicated to the dangers I encountered on the highway. I barely made it out of the Los Angeles metroplex before hitting an interesting snag. Traffic on I-15 north was slowing to almost a halt at Hesperia at 8am. Clearly there was some sort of accident up ahead, but it wasn't on the radio traffic reports, so that meant that it was fresh - and so it might take them quite a while to clean it up, and for me to get past.

Oddly though, the traffic in the right lane was moving - very very slowly. I got myself over there as quick as I could and then I could see that up ahead some cars were getting off the highway. Practically all other cars in the 3 lanes of traffic were stopped. A few cars were turning off the highway, driving across about 30 feet of dirt, and driving up the on-ramp just to get off the highway. There was a line of about 8 cars at the top of that on-ramp carefully negotiating the intersection - since the traffic signals there didn't accommodate cars driving the wrong direction on an on-ramp. My map indicated that there were no other on/off ramps coming up, and so I immediately decided that this was my new route. I drive off-road a lot, and so this little bit of dirt was simple.

So I got off the highway and onto the frontage road (which parallels I-15 for many miles) with the other adventurous drivers. To my surprise, I could then see that the highway had become a huge parking lot. About a mile of highway was covered with stopped vehicles, with many people out of their cars and milling about. Then I saw it. A car had rolled. It was laying on its side across the highway. Paramedics had arrived. Even a medical helicopter had landed on the highway.

I continued up the frontage road and found myself in a very long line of cars waiting at an intersection controlled by lights that are not programmed to handle this volume of traffic. I sat there through 2 signal cycles and realized that I was going to be there a long time. Then I spotted a few cars that were ditching the line and heading down the alley that parallels the street eveerybody is waiting to turn onto - to return to the highway. I follow 2 cars down the alley. They continued on down the alley while I turned into the Wendy's parking lot (from the alley) and cut across to the street and returned back to the highway on-ramp. Easy.

Once on the highway, it was naturally almost void of cars. A few miles further, I was actually glad to see the CHP cruiser parked on the shoulder watching for speeders who might take advantage of the open highway. So I considered myself lucky at that point. I didn't crash, didn't get stuck for an hour, didn't get a ticket. Not a bad start for my trip after all.

The Book: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

I recently finished the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. It's definitely interesting. It has 3.5/5 stars from 405 reviewers on Amazon. As with other books, I actually listened to the audio book version that is unabridged and comes on 8 CDs.

The book is a first hand account by John Perkins of his days working for Chas. T. Main (subsequently acquired and is now a subsidiary unit of Parsons, a huge engineering and construction company). At Main, Perkins was instrumental as an economist in promoting large-scale investments and infrastructure expansion in developing nations funded with loans from the World Bank and others with the intent of making them political pawns of the US. Here's an excerpt from the Amazon synopsis:

Perkins, a former chief economist at Boston strategic-consulting firm Chas. T. Main, says he was an "economic hit man" for 10 years, helping U.S. intelligence agencies and multinationals cajole and blackmail foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy and awarding lucrative contracts to American business. ... Perkins writes that his economic projections cooked the books Enron-style to convince foreign governments to accept billions of dollars of loans from the World Bank and other institutions to build dams, airports, electric grids, and other infrastructure he knew they couldn't afford. The loans were given on condition that construction and engineering contracts went to U.S. companies. Often, the money would simply be transferred from one bank account in Washington, D.C., to another one in New York or San Francisco. The deals were smoothed over with bribes for foreign officials, but it was the taxpayers in the foreign countries who had to pay back the loans. When their governments couldn't do so, as was often the case, the U.S. or its henchmen at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund would step in and essentially place the country in trusteeship, dictating everything from its spending budget to security agreements and even its United Nations votes. It was, Perkins writes, a clever way for the U.S. to expand its "empire" at the expense of Third World citizens.

The book is certainly interesting, and I have no doubts that the US government was a distant participant in these activities. So, if you're interested in histories of international lending or third-world development, you'll surely find the book interesting. Now for the down side. Perkins (IMHO) appears to have an enormous ego, based on the pivotal and central role that he describes himself as having. Later chapters cover his internal agony over leaving Main and his attempts at redemption. My friend Bobby also didn't like the end of the book. He summed up his review with this line: "He [Perkins] sounds like a dick that went all fruity but still managed to remain a dick." I think the book could have been edited to half the length without any substantial loss in value.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

I'm Back

I've been away from the blog for a while. Some sickness (strep and a cold combined) and some travel (I'll post separately about that). While I gather my thoughts for those posts, I'll tell you about the album I bought recently - and like. The album title is M'Bemba by Salif Keita. He's the grand master of folk music in Mali. He's also of royal blood there. It's really pretty good. The lyrics are in French. There's some nice acoustic guitar in it. I like 9 of the 11 tracks. The last 2 tracks are too normal / traditional.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Book I Read Recently: 1491

I recently read the book titled 1491 by Charles Mann. It has 4.5/5 stars from 93 reviewers on Amazon. My thumbnail review is: if you enjoy history books, then you'll like it.

First off, let me confess that I didn't actually _read_ the book. I listened to the abridged audio book. It was 11.25 hours on 9 CDs. Yikes! That's long. One nifty advantage of the audio book format for potentially dry material like this, is my ability to simply push the "next track/chapter" advance button on my CD player. That is a wonderful thing.

The book definitely was interesting. Here's an excerpt from a review by Publishers Weekly.
In a riveting and fast-paced history, massing archeological, anthropological, scientific and literary evidence, Mann debunks much of what we thought we knew about pre-Columbian America. Reviewing the latest, not widely reported research in Indian demography, origins and ecology, Mann zestfully demonstrates that long before any European explorers set foot in the New World, Native American cultures were flourishing with a high degree of sophistication.

So he covers a lot about Meso-American history. And goes into detailed comparisons of past research into the estimated populations of the Americas before Columbus arrived. On the down side, the book includes far more detail than the average reader may desire. I did press that advance button a couple times (and I didn't do that while listening to Jared Diamond's books).

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Cave Mountain

I feel horrible today. I feel like i've been run over by several cars. The actual reason for this is my own stupidity. Yesterday I climbed up Cave Mountain in the Mojave Desert. It's one of the few hills that I have wanted to climb - only because I drive by it so often that I eventually think: gee, it'd be fun to climb up that thing! It's not that hard of a climb really. Mostly, it's an easy class 3 hike. Near the top there's a little more exposure. This is the second time I tried to climb Cave Mountain. There's no trail, so the first time I discovered that I chose a bad route leading along a ridge line that did not get t very high.

So yesterday was a mistake. I knew it would be hot. It was only about 104 deg. I figured it would be cooler up higher on the hill. I was wrong. Near the summit it was a chilly 100 deg. Needless to say, the heat simply beat the crap out of me. I didn't make it to the top. But I was so very very close, that any normal person would have just finished it off. The first picture here shows the view of the landscape using Google Earth.
Google Earth is awesome and I used it to compare to my topo maps to find a decent route up the hill. Unfortunately, the resolution of Google's satellite images is poor enough that what looks like desert grassy hillsides is, in actuality, fields of boulders up to 10 feet diameter. But since I'd been on the hill before, I knew that. The second pic shows the summit from where I stopped. It really is close.
It took me 3 hours to get there. I was getting very tired. More than half my fluids were gone (I started with four 34 oz bottles of Gatorade Endurance and 64 oz of water. And I wasn't looking foward to the descent. Since it was pretty steep near the summit and the rocks were slipping a lot, I decided to play it safe and turn back. As it was, I experienced several episodes of leg and foot cramps on the descent.

And so ... here I am. Trying to recover. I've had a horrible headache since last evening. But I've been constantly drinking fluids. I hope this passes in a day or so. Here's another pic - taken from almost where I stopped. It makes me dizzy to look at many of my pics - which is odd because I wasn't dizzy taking them. hmmm

The next time any of my blog readers hears me say I'm going hiking in the desert in mid summer, you have my permission to hit me. Just 1 hit per person though. Still ... it's bound to be more enjoyable than this.