Las Vegas Sucks

While in Las Vegas in March, I realized that the tales about this city are mostly a pack of lies. Here is what I discovered:

  1. Food is expensive. $12.95 buys a Golden Corral-class buffet dinner—if you go a few miles off the strip. The lunch buffet at the Bellagio is $17.95. Yes, good food, but very pricey. The strip has less expensive options, but they are all still considerably more expensive than the exact same foods in normal places.
  2. Shows are expensive. Try around $100 per ticket for bad seats at the better shows.
  3. Hotels are expensive. My decent but plain room in the MGM Grand would have been over $400 per night if I hadn’t booked it in advance on a conference rate. Even then, they try to nickel and dime you on everything: $1 per phone call, $11.99 per 24 hours of internet access, $4.50 for each trip to or from the airport (even though the MGM Grand is barely two miles from the airport!—I got a free shuttle in DC for a hotel much further away), $20 per access to the fitness center, etc.
  4. Entertainment is expensive. $12.50 just for just one ride the New York, New York rollercoaster, $10 just to go up the Stratosphere tower (much more if you do any of the rides), $15 for the Bellagio museum, $16 for the Mandalay Bay shark tank. Nearly everything on the strip is a poor value.
  5. (The next two items are not complaints. They are interesting observations.) Plenty of chintzy displays. From the statue shows at Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops to the volcano in front of the Mirage, you can pass plenty of time on the chintzy displays. Except for the Fountains at Bellagio, all of the shows are low brow shtick.
  6. Lights, lights, and more lights. The strip and downtown are brightly lit at night. Lighting adorns or lights almost every surface. Huge video screens are visible for blocks. A few blocks of downtown are covered by a massive video screen. You look up, and all you see is a gargantuan video screen that stretches for the length of a few football fields! This is not a complaint; the lights were entertaining.
  7. (Back in character, I am complaining again.) Hucksters are everywhere! Almost every street corner has hucksters handing out cards for whores and strippers. You’ll have a hard time finding a place that doesn’t use aggressive tactics to sell you overpriced tickets or give “invitations” to additional purchasing “opportunities,” sucking you in with lines like “when did you get married” or “you from the area”?
  8. The $10,000 bill display is gone! The Horseshoe Casino sold off its display of 100 $10,000 bills to a collector! Dang!
  9. Lots of thugs. When I was in a bathroom in Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops, a guy in the stall next to me conversed in street talk with a buddy in the ‘hood on his Nextel phone. They were celebrating that someone had just killed a cop. This was far from the only thuggish behavior I observed.
  10. The shopping is crap. Well, let me rephrase: if you like useless, overpriced, designer crap, or if you think money is made on trees and is just begging to be spent on trivial nothingness, then you’ll love Las Vegas shopping. The strip is crammed full of shops that cater to wasteful spending.
  11. The best stuff is not in Las Vegas. You have to get out of town to do the really good stuff. Death Valley is about 150 miles away. Hoover Dam and Red Rock Canyon are about a 45 minute drive away. There’s also Mount Charleston, Lake Mead, and other worthwhile places.

Las Vegas is a great place if you’re into expensive vacations in an environment of debauchery, gluttony, smut, and filth. I’m glad I experienced Las Vegas, but I feel fortunate that I had plenty of opportunities to get away from the strip. Las Vegas is an “interesting” place to visit, and I doubt I’ll go back anytime soon.

June Vacation

UPDATE (8/10/06): That Oil and Gas Park is in Scott, LA. Yahoo Maps finally has good aerial photography, so I was able to pick it out of an aerial photo.

UPDATE (4/25/06): The “decommissioned” “draw bridge” that I mention about 1/4 way down is actually a swing bridge, and it’s operational per this site.

UPDATE (9/30/05): Those corny blue dogs that I mention about halfway down are the work of

This year I spent most of my June away from home. Here are the details.

The first week was Microsoft Tech Ed 2005 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. I took a Delta flight out with a connection in Atlanta.

Tech Ed is a large annual conference put on by Microsoft for people who develop software with Microsoft tools and use their enterprise server products. The conference ran from Monday through Friday.

I stayed at the Orlando World Center Marriott. The place was nice, but it felt like a jail. Even though I could see Downtown Disney from the hotel, I had no way of getting there. The property is bounded by fences, a divided highway, and Interstate 4. I could not get anywhere without using a taxi or other transportation for hire. I would have to walk across I-4 and a swamp to get to Downtown Disney. The Microsoft Tech Ed buses only ran between the convention center and hotels, so they weren’t much help.

This map clearly illustrates the problem:

The hotel is at the end of World Center Dr. It is bounded by major highways on all sides.

Here’s a view of the prison, I mean hotel:

(I took this picture on my cell phone camera as I was leaving for the last time.)

Microsoft rented out Universal Studios for all conference participants for Thursday night. Man, I’ll tell you what: Universal Studios Florida is a waste of time. If I paid to get in during a normal day and had to wait in ridiculously long lines in the heat for their puny, pathetic rides, I would have felt ripped off. The only thing halfway entertaining was the Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue, a cheesy live performance. Interestingly, I felt like I had to walk through a mile of stores just to get from the front entrance back to the parking lot.

Back at the convention center, I noticed a plumbing alteration that I have never seen before:

Notice a pipe that branches off the main drain line? Only a few sinks had this. Is this an overflow drain? If so, why did only a few sinks have this?

Here’s a picture of the outside of the convention center, also captured on my cell phone:

The conference ended Friday, and by 3:00 PM, I was on a direct flight to Houston on Continental Airlines to meet the wife and kid. While on the flight, I snapped some pictures of boats in the Gulf of Mexico:

I also took pictures of offshore platforms, but none of them focused right.

I also got some pictures of the dirt road adjacent to the washed out TX 87:

What’s the purpose of the little loop in the road? To avoid some kind of inlet?

Here is where TX 124, part of the TX 87 detour, meets back up with the still-maintained part of TX 87 near High Island.

The TX 146 bridge over the Houston Ship Channel:

See that peninsula in the distance in the below photograph? Would you believe that used to be an upscale neighborhood? Yup, that marsh was the Brownwood Subdivision of Baytown. It subsided several feet and flooded often due to groundwater pumping. This view is looking southwesterly, and I-10 is crisscrossing the picture along the bottom.

San Jacinto Monument:

Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge over the Houston Ship Channel:

This is where the improved US 90 ends in northeast Houston:

Notice that just above the improved US 90’s end is brief road segment that resembles just the access roads around an unused freeway right of way? I wonder if this is part of the future US 90 alignment? Also, crossing US 90 at this point is Beltway 8. The Sam Houston Tollway main lanes are supposedly going to be built by 2007. They need to get moving quickly to meet that!

I landed at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal E, the international terminal. My wife and kid were correctly waiting for me somewhere in that terminal, but unfortunately my baggage claim was in Terminal C! After about an hour and a few phone calls, we met up and departed the airport. We all spent that night at some old friends’ house in Pearland.

The next day, Saturday, we saw my father’s new house and church. I noticed that the sanctuary was constructed of similar materials and had similar angles and designs as Cokesbury United Methodist Church, a church my father held for 10 years. It turns out that both buildings were designed by the same architectural firm!

Nothing too exciting happened the rest of the weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, all three of us piled in our car and headed out to New Orleans, LA. We made a detour through Groves, TX, where I lived in the late 80s. I enjoyed a Papa Levi’s snow cone and saw some of my old haunts. We were only in Groves for about 20 minutes.

Since moving away from Groves, I forgot about this old draw bridge on TX 73 headed towards Orange:

It has been decommissioned, but I think it was operational when I lived in Groves. We rarely went to Orange, so I cannot remember for sure.

Louisiana welcomes us:

One nice stop was at a little park/arboretum just south of I-10 in Scott called the Louisiana Oil and Gas Park. (aerial photo) It was on a curved road segment, located next to some restaurant that was closed, and across the road from a gas station. We fed Alec some homemade chocolate chip oatmeal cookies and let him walk around for a while.

Here’s a picture of that endless bridge over the Atchafalaya Swamp. Fortunately for motorists, even though the speed limit lowers to 60 over the bridge, there is nowhere for cops to hide except on the other side of a few bridges. All the crossovers are blocked off. If you don’t like paying the “speed tax,” you have little to worry about on this bridge.

Alec is reasonably happy in the back seat:

That’s one of those goofy sign towers on the swamp bridge in the background.

We stopped by Ralph and Kacoo’s in Baton Rouge for supper. While there I was amazed to see a Winchester Boy Scout rifle! It’s the rifle in the center of this photo:

Close ups:

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was another long I-10 bridge, but not as long as the bridge west of Baton Rouge.

We arrived at the hotel at around 10:30 PM. Alec was beyond exhausted. He was so tired that he just slept on my shoulder when I pulled him out of the car. He never sleeps on people, so this was a rare treat.

We reserved a room in advance at the Wyndham Bourbon Orleans. This is a 4 star hotel, but we got the room for really cheap since it’s off-season. Considering parking rates, it was probably cheaper (and infinitely more convenient) for us to stay here than try to stay at an outlying hotel and drive in every day. This hotel is right in the French Quarter, two blocks south of Bourbon St., and immediately north of Jackson Square. It was a great location! For the next two days, we walked or rode the streetcars everywhere.

First we went to the Audubon Zoo. We took the St. Charles Streetcar from Canal to the zoo. (Well, to the north side of Audubon Park where we caught a zoo shuttle.)

Here’s what the streetcar track looked like most of the way:

The zoo was neat, but the stifling heat kept most animals indoors. Lunch was a downright bargain for the zoo. Jennifer and I ate for only $7.50!

After that, we went to Jackson Square and toured St. Louis Cathedral. That was a good stop. We then planned on following an AAA French Quarter walking tour. However, a few blocks into the tour, we realized that we could care less whether a particular building was owned by the 1908 Governor’s cousin’s daughter’s roommate’s ex-wife. Plus it was blazing hot, and Alec has trouble sleeping in the stroller. So we quit and headed back to the hotel for a nap.

That evening, we went to the Riverwalk Mall for supper. The mall was mostly a tourist trap. It was interesting, though, because it is a long mall split on several levels. The mall gave great views of the Mississippi and the US 90 bridge.

That night, Alec was still happy despite the heat:

The next day we hopped on the Canal St. Streetcar (air conditioned!) and headed to City Park. We toured the New Orleans Botanical Garden and Sculpture Garden. The botanical garden was interesting, but I think most of the blooms had already disappeared due to the heat. The sculpture garden was full of typical, weird modern sculptures. One thing I enjoyed was this sculpture:

I enjoyed this because it was the subject of a Valentine’s Day stamp in 1973.

We headed back and got a great lunch at The Gumbo Shop by Jackson Square. The lunch prices were reasonable, and they gave us more than we could eat.

After a respite at the hotel, we went on a 2 hour cruise on the Steamboat Natchez. I wasn’t all that impressed, mainly because the cruise was blisteringly hot. We were on the side of the top level, and there was virtually no wind. They should at least install fans. But near the end of the cruise, we discovered that the 2nd level near the front has a great wind. Dang, I wish we had discovered that earlier! Alec wasn’t enjoying the heat:

After the cruise, I had to snap a picture of one of the the local, dominant bus company’s buses. The company name entertainingly combines two potentially offensive words:

What a name!

After the cruise, we went to the Aquarium of the Americas.

After the aquarium, we returned to the hotel to give Alec more nap time.

At around 6:45 PM, we headed out for supper. We decided to see what was on Canal St. This meant another walk down Bourbon St.:

After reviewing our options, we chose to board the St. Charles St. Streetcar and head to Copeland’s. We were at the restaurant by 8:30. Alec was tired and fussy by this time, so we had to take turns eating for part of the meal. The meal was really good.

After that we headed back to the hotel. We walked down Bourbon St. again to get from Canal St. to the hotel. Two “beading ceremonies” happened in our vicinity, but the crowds were too thick to see anything juicy.

The next morning we had breakfast at Cafe Du Monde. The beignets and coffee were overrated. I don’t recommend their food unless you like greasy funnel cakes. That’s all the beignets taste like.

Walking back to the hotel, I got a good shot of the cathedral in Jackson Square:

I also finally got a picture of this goofy art store a half block south of the hotel. All the store had were variations of a stupid blue dog:

What kind of bonehead runs this place?

Here’s a picture of the hotel:

After that, we headed out of town. We drove north through Slidell for a little scenery (not!), then got on I-59. We took I-59 to Meridian, then US 45 north to Amory, MS where Jennifer’s grandparents live. On the way, we stopped by the University of Southern Mississippi to see their new polymer science building. The facility would have been impressive in a major university, not just in quaint little Hattiesburg, MS!

Here are all our bags. Can you believe we fit all this junk in our Nissan Maxima?

Who says you need a stinkin’ SUV to do a vacation? We fit plenty of stuff in the Maxima and we had a much more comfortable, safe, and efficient ride to boot! (Yes, NHTSA stats show that overall, there are still more fatalities in SUVs than in traditional cars. The supposed safety aspect of SUVs is marketing bunk. Don’t believe it.)

There’s not much to speak of in downtown Amory, but Bill’s Hamburgers still does good business:

This is something you’ll never see in bigger cities:

A closer look shows a Bible with a weekly suggested reading:

Alec gives a devilish look while Great Grandma watches:

He thinks, “I’m making surprise in my pants for Mommy!”

After we were done in Mississippi, we headed back to Texas by way of US 82, I-55, and then I-20. We briefly stopped in Vicksburg. This is the entrance to the old US 80 Vicksburg river crossing:

This is a view of both the new I-20 (left) and old US 80 (right) bridges:

The old bridge also carries a railroad crossing:

40 or so years ago, this used to be a toll bridge. I guess this was the toll collection station? Believe it or not, this bridge still collects tolls from the railway cars that pass through it.

Notice the curves? This is narrow pavement, so it could have been scary to pass by a large truck headed the opposite direction:

Want something better? My flight to Atlanta followed I-20. I got some pictures of these bridges from the air:

The rest of the drive home was uneventful. We arrived home on a Monday.

Wednesday night I dug up part of my sewer pipe. (More info.)

On Thursday I took off for the 7th Annual Chevrolet Nova Listserv Gathering in Amarillo, TX. (Jennifer and Alec stayed home.) This year, we only had 8 Novas show up:

That green Nova in the background is a fine specimen. It is a ’73 and has less than 8,000 original miles!

My favorite part of the weekend was a side trip to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. At the park, seven of us walked the trail to the Lighthouse Formation. We were treated to all sorts of wonderful scenery like this:

Here’s the formation:

A view from towards the top of the formation:

The formation itself is quite tall:

A spectacular treat were walks through trails that were chock full of flowers:

It was unreal! Look how tall they are:

Fields of flowers:

Close up:

Notice how many blooms had yet to open? That field would probably have been even more spectacular a week or two later.

Can’t forget the obligatory stop by Cadillac Ranch.

Did you know this display was moved a few years ago?

We defaced one of the cars with a 2005 Gathering sticker and our signatures:

How cute. A town named Bushland in the middle of Bush Country:

This wouldn’t be a real gathering if we didn’t have at least one failure this year! Shawn, one of the Nova owners, noticed that his car was leaking motor oil too quickly. Here are some people checking it out:

After starting the car, some people noticed that oil was draining off the top back of the block too quickly. It was too even of a drain pattern to be the rear intake manifold seal, so they speculated that it must be the oil pressure sending unit.

A little investigation with fingers caused the oil pressure sending unit to snap off a brass tube. (This guy had a complicated arrangement so that he could have two sending units–one for a gauge and one for an idiot light.) This left part of the tube in the engine block. This tube was probably about to break from fatigue anyway.

This is a major problem. If he started the car, oil would gush straight out of the block.

Fortunately, someone brought an EZ Out to the gathering. After breaking a “Made in India” wrench, Shawn removed the brass piece from his block.

The gauge sender was too fat to fit in the spot without another brass extension, so Shawn just hooked the stock idiot light sending unit back into place.

The guy on the right, Mike, is who had the EZ Out:

Funny story: after the gathering was done, Shawn was on his way back to St. Louis. Just on the other side of Oklahoma City, one of his exhaust valve springs broke in two places! Fortunately, Mike, who lives in Ohio, was about an hour behind him. After several cell phone calls and emails to our listserv, we managed to help Shawn contact Mike. Mike was flat towing a Nova behind his Jeep Grand Cherokee. Mike simply unhooked his Nova and hooked up Shawn’s Nova. Shawn drove Mike’s Nova, following Mike at up to 80 MPH, all the way back to St. Louis. Mike is now known as the listserv’s Guardian Angel. This isn’t the first time he has been a hero at a gathering.

On the way back to Dallas, we noticed that the Hardeman County rest area on US 287 was called a “Safety Rest Area” and had a tornado shelter. It also has slides and an air conditioned lobby. I’ve never seen such a fancy rest stop!

I also noticed a lot of telegraph-style poles near adjacent railroad tracks. It’s the one in the foreground in this picture:

It wasn’t initially clear whether they are still used? I remember seeing these a lot more when I was younger, but I rarely see them anymore.

We also saw the aftermath of a crash that probably ruined someone’s vacation:

It looked like this guy jumped on his brakes and went out of control. He was headed the other direction.

That’s my June vacation! I have never been away from home for that long.

More Sewer Fun

Today I have mostly finished the biggest single project I have ever done at my house. I replaced about 3 feet of iron sewer pipe.

It all started on Wednesday, June 22, the night before I left for the 7th Annual Nova Listserv Gathering in Amarillo. (Ironically, this problem happened just a few weeks after the prior major sewer malfunction, which happened the night before I was to leave for a different trip!) My wife told me that the shower stopped up, but the toilets eventually flushed. Since everything drained back out eventually, I thought this was just another occasional backup that cleared itself up.

No such luck. That night, while the washing machine was emptying, sewer water crept into both the shower and the bathtub. Not good!

I went outside and pulled off the sewer cleanout cap. Unlike last time, no water shot up at me. This means that there is a blockage under the house. This is mostly good because it means the expensive-to-replace main sewer line–the one that runs through my back yard–was working fine.

Peering down into the cleanout, I noticed something funny at the very bottom:

You can barely make it out in this picture, but at the bottom of the cleanout is a root tendril or two. So I jammed my arm down the cleanout (it’s only about 1½ feet deep) and was able to feel a lot more roots just upstream of the cleanout.

I got out my spade shovel and started digging. About 30 minutes later, I hit the sewer pipe. As soon as I hit it, sewer water backed into the hole:

I felt around and found the pipe. I felt a large hole in the top of the pipe. Feeling around more, I could feel a huge mass of roots. I worked on the roots for about 30 minutes with my hands and with the saw blade on my pocket knife, but I couldn’t budge a single root! I also tried snaking a 14/3 Romex wire into the mess, hoping I could dislodge it. No such luck. I got the wire to poke through the roots, but when I pulled the wire back out, the roots seemed to have collapsed back in on themselves because no more water flowed. (I could watch down the cleanout pipe to see if any water was flowing.) These roots were packed in very tightly. It’s a wonder that anything ever flowed down that pipe!

I dug around some more to get better access, and in the process I found an old, rusty file. I salvaged the file, dug it into the roots, and leveraged it against the edge of the pipe opening. By doing that, I finally was able to rip the roots out:

You can see the hole just upstream of the cleanout (it’s about 1½ feet lower than the top of the cleanout), and the rusty file is laying in the dirt just to the left of the hole. The water drained out of the hole by this point, so I obviously cleared out the obstruction.

At this point, I had almost spent about 1½ hours on this job. I needed to pack for the Nova trip, so I called it a night. I left the pipe like this until I got back.

Here are some of the amazingly thick roots:

Here’s a closer look at the hole:

That’s the file to the left. The hole was a root magnet!

Later investigation shows that the roots almost certainly came from a taproot from the redbud tree in the middle of my back yard (panoramic picture).

I spent a portion of 3 nights over the following week digging up the area. Here’s where I ended up Saturday morning:

Now I have almost full access to the area. That’s my house’s old gas line running adjacent to the sewer line. The gas line was replaced a few years ago, and the replacement was run to a foundation vent about 10 feet away from this point.

The hole expanded:

I later discovered that this hole was just part of a large crack that went the entire circumference of the pipe.

A neighbor kindly let me borrow his reciprocating saw. (The common name brand is Milwaukee Sawzall.) Here is the first cut:

Notice the clean cut on the left and the jagged edge on the right. This is why I believe the pipe was cracked/rotted all the way through at this point.

By the way, it took me about 30 to 45 minutes to make each complete cut through this pipe. From this cutting, I learned a few lessons on cutting sewer pipes with a reciprocating saw:

  1. Use the right blade. I started out with the blades that the neighbor gave me. They were 24 tooth per inch blades that were designed to cut through metal up to 1/8″ thick. I chewed through those blades way too quickly. (I gave him a whole new package of those blades when I returned his saw.) I later got 14 tooth per inch blades that were for metal 1/8″ to to 1/4″. Those made it go a little quicker, but I hear that there are still better blades out there.
  2. Go slow. This reciprocating saw had two speeds: fast and faster. I think both speeds were probably too fast for the job. I may have sped up the job if I had a saw with more speeds or a variable speed trigger. Because of the high speeds, the blades got too hot and quickly dulled.
  3. Use water or lubricant. Water or lubricant can help keep down temperatures and lengthen a blade’s life.

A guy I know who has a lot of experience doing this says that with an even better blade and slower speed, I could have cut through that pipe in 2 minutes tops. That’s a dramatic difference from 45 minutes! Unfortunately, I never realized this and spent way too long on each cut.

After another cut, I got the whole piece out:

Notice the not so nice edge on the cut on the right side? Let’s take a closer look:

The weight of the whole pipe assembly caused it to rotate and snap off, taking a sizable chunk of pipe with it. Because of this, I had to make a third cut so that I could mate pipe up with a flat edge.

This is what I accomplished before I turned in for the night:

(I took this picture the following morning.) You’re seeing 4″ schedule 40 PVC pipe, a 2-way cleanout, and two fittings to mate the PVC to the iron pipe. Since I had to dig everything out anyway, I elected to replace the existing cleanout. You may have noticed that the previous cleanout only went one way: away from the house. If a plumber needs to auger under my house, he has to get on the roof and go down the roof vent. All four plumbers I have dealt with charge significantly more to go on the roof, mainly due to the extra liability. Installing this 2-way cleanout is a huge cost savings.

This worked great except the fitting on the part away from the house leaked. Here’s a closeup:

You can see that the pipe fits funny, and the coupling just doesn’t cut the mustard.

After church (where I was first exposed to the concept of “fundamentalist heresy”–I don’t like fundamentalism, but it had never before occurred to me that fundamentalism is a heresy), we stopped by Home Depot, where I got better fittings.

Back out it goes. In pulling it out, the side of the sewer that goes to the city sewer dumped its contents in my pit. You’re seeing chopped up strawberry greens in the water:

This part of the pipe has a natural sag, meaning that it collects water. I can’t blame a 53 year old pipe from sagging a bit! So when you pull out the new fitting, a little water comes out. This isn’t a problem “per se” as it doesn’t really reduce the capacity of my sewer line; it’s just an indication that some settlement has occurred over time.

Here’s the assembly back in place with the new couplers:

This is what the coupler looks like up close:

It’s two hose clamps around a much thicker, much longer rubber piece. You tighten each hose clamp to 60 in/lbs, a pretty light load.

At this point, I am done with the sewer part. But I still have an elective repair to make. (Can we say “scope creep”?)

You may have noticed this spindly old water line running to a hose bibb:

Shortly after I moved in, I accidentally bent it down almost flat to the ground. By the looks of that pipe, I wasn’t the first person do to that. Additionally, about ½ foot from where it comes out from under the foundation is an old style cutoff valve, just waiting to start leaking. This whole thing had to go.

I replaced it with new copper, eliminated that cutoff valve (a later visual inspection showed it was partially shut, restricting water flow), and used a quarter turn full port ball valve. Here’s what I ended up with:

This is a far superior setup, and it doesn’t stick out of the ground almost a whole foot like the previous one. That quarter turn valve is so easy to turn compared to that leaky old gate valve!

When I was soldering this to the house’s pipe, I had a problem with water entering the pipe. Water siphons off heat, so there was no way for me to build up enough heat to solder. I had to use the old plumber’s trick of stuffing bread up the pipe to stop the water flow. That did the trick! This is what that union ended up looking like:

I screwed in the hose bibb into a 90 degree brass fitting that I sweat soldered directly into the copper:

Here’s the bread after it got ejected from the hose:


So far nothing’s leaking. As long as everything stays dry for a day or two, I’m filling in the hole.