Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Great Smoky Mountains, Part 3: Second Day in the Great Smokies

Continued from Part 2.

So, we got up bright and early to get the most out of our day. Our first stop was to grab breakfast at a friendly little restaurant called the Carriage House. Food was as expected and provided us with our morning energy.

On the way to the Chimney Tops trail, our first destination inside the park, we stopped numerous times to take cool pictures. Here are a few of them. The beautiful scenery and the fall colors were really something to admire.

Chimney Tops trail is classified as strenuous despite being only 4 miles out-and-back. The first mile is actually pretty easy, but the second mile that takes you to the Chimney Tops is fairly steep. Overall, the hike wasn't so bad with around 1350 feet of elevation gain. When we finally made it to the Chimney Tops, I can't say I climbed to the top. I think very few actually do, as it looks incredibly dangerous.

Okay, with that out of the way, the next stop was to check out the highest point in the Great Smokies, Clingmans Dome, while the skies were clear. We had checked the weather report and learned that there was a high likelihood of showers the next day.

It's not much of a hike, in fact I would say it was more of a fairly steep walk on a paved trail. As you near the end, there is a curved structure that you walk up that takes you to the observation deck (that's me on the structure below). When you finally make it, you are rewarded by a really nice 360-degree view of everything.

On our way down, we learned that there was an alternate path to and from the top that allows you to traverse part of the famous Appalachian Trail.

Not far from Clingmans Dome is the Newfound Gap, a mountain pass near the center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and home of the Rockefeller Memorial where the park was first dedicated. This pass sits atop the Tennessee-North Carolina Border and also provided a few decent views. None of the pictures of the landscape came out well, but I did manage to capture one really cool shot of some branches on a tree in that area.

After this, we pretty much called it a day and headed to Gatlinburg, Tennessee where we were going to spend the next two nights. Much to our surprise, that town is comical. Picture a really corny carnival and now put it at the border of the incredibly scenic Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The town was littered with many restaurants, souvenir shops, Western dress-up photography joints, and family fun establishments.

Here's my one and only picture of Gatlinburg's main street... I just liked the name Ole Smoky Moonshine.

Following dinner (and after we recovered from the shock that was Gatlinburg), we headed to our hotel, Bent Creek Golf Village, which was fortunately a fair distance from the madness. The hotel was wonderful. The room was basically a small one-bedroom apartment. I would definitely recommend staying there if you don't mind a 15 minute drive to and from downtown Gatlinburg.

And, that's all for now.

Continue to Part 4.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Great Smoky Mountains, Part 2: Our First Offical Day in the Great Smokies

Continued from Part 1.

So, we make it to Townsend after driving for several hours. We stop off at the Visitors Center and buy a few hiking trail guides and maps of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While there, I flipped through their guestbook, and I see that no one else has signed in from the West Coast. Even though it is the most visited National Park, I have yet to really meet any Californians that have been there (except those that have spent some time out East).

Anyway, we decide that our introduction to the park would be a recommended driving tour of Cades Cove. Since it was both recommended and accessible to virtually anyone with a vehicle, it was quite popular. There was a ton of traffic as we drove the loop, which took us to various historical structures as well as meadows and landscape.

Here's a Primitive Baptist Church built in the late 1800's.

And, here is the John Oliver Cabin built in the early 1800's.

It seems that bats have taken up residence at this old cabin...

Here's a photo taken from the car during the drive.

At some point during this driving tour, we started getting the itch to do something a bit more active. So, we decided to hike to Abrams Falls, which is one of the trails that Cades Cove offers. It was a 5 mile round trip hike to the falls, and it gave us our first real glimpse of the fall colors.

One silly thing that happened was that we somehow lost an hour when we arrived at the trailhead. We couldn't figure it out, and we assumed that Daylight Savings must have occurred (only much later on in the trip did we learn that Tennessee actually spans two time zones) -- keep that in mind if you ever do make it out there.

In any case, this trail was not too difficult (rated Moderate), and it served as a perfect introduction. It was really nice to get out of the car and hike around. The fall colors were really cool, and I'm sure that none of these pictures really do them much justice.

Here's a shot taken while on the trail.

And, Abrams Falls...

After this hike, we called it a day, and made our way back to Townsend. It's a sleepy gateway town, and there's really not much going on. We went to a restaurant called Smoky Junction, and had some trout. Nothing too special, but it certainly was not bad.

Shortly after dinner, we went to bed as we were planning on waking up early to do some more exploring.

Continue to Part 3.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Great Smoky Mountains, Part 1: Nashville

Continued from the Introduction...

First, some of you might be wondering, why Tennessee? Well, Southwest Airlines had this deal where they sectioned the US into three zones. And, there was a cheap fixed rate based on the zoning. So, I looked at the East Coast destinations and jokingly suggested Nashville. However, after some internet image searches, we saw the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, especially during the changing of the fall colors. Add a bottle of wine to the mix, and soon we had tickets to Nashville.

Though Nashville was not meant to be the highlight of our trip, we figured spending the first weekend out there would be nice. Plus, the National Park would be a lot less crowded during the week.

Our first meal was at Monell's at their newest location (the former New Orleans Manor) just a few miles from the airport -- it was recommended by a lady on our flight who lived in nearby Murfreesboro. It was a good introduction to Southern cooking. We were promptly seated at a table of strangers, and food was served to the table as it would for a traditional family dinner. We passed the dishes around the table and basically helped ourselves to as much as we wanted. Yes, it was all-you-can-eat, but it was not at all a crappy buffet-style meal. In fact, it was delicious. If you ever find yourself out that way, go give them a try.

Monell's at the Manor

My First Plate of Food at Monell's

The first touristy thing we did was check out the Grand Ole Opry House and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. The hotel is absolutely beautiful (and huge!). The Grand Ole Opry backstage tour was interesting, but I think you need to be more of a country music fan to truly appreciate it. If you, like me prior to the tour, knew very little about the Grand Ole Opry, it is apparently a very big thing in the country music world... being invited to join is a much bigger accomplishment than winning a Grammy Award.

Grand Ole Opry House

Gaylord Opryland Hotel

Inside the Gaylord Opryland Hotel

One of the many Flowers Inside

We also went downtown to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame. If you are not big on country music, I suggest you drop by an hour before closing as we did for the discounted ticket price. There were a lot of things to see there, and it was pretty well organized I thought. Much of it was interesting, so I think it's worth a visit.

Featured Exhibit: Chet Atkins

On the Floor of the Rotunda

While downtown, we checked out a highly recommended spot to eat... Jack's Bar-B-Que. It was a really casual place where you order at the counter with a tray and you get your food right away. The meat was delicious, but I wasn't as big a fan of the side dishes. I felt the sides at Monell's were much better.

Jack's BBQ

After pigging out a bit on meat, we went to a few other spots for food and entertainment. One of them was a place called The Stage On Broadway. One thing to note about Nashville, at least in the section of downtown where we visited, is that every single bar had a live band playing. This was very cool. The nightlife we saw on a Sunday was much more impressive compared to nearly all other cities I've ever been.

Band Playing at The Stage

Shelby Street Bridge Overlooking the Cumberland River

Before we left, we stopped by Tennessee's original pancake house, the Pancake Pantry. The pancakes were quite good, but the coffee was very much the opposite. Overall, it was alright, nothing that wowed me, but also not much negative save for the coffee.

Tennessee's First Pancake House

From here we headed off to Townsend, TN, one of the gateway cities into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

To be continued... Part 2.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Great Smoky Mountains

Recently, I went on a week long trip to hike about in the Great Smoky Mountains during the fall colors season. Here are a few pics to serve as as an introduction. I'll post more of a trip report as time permits.

Continue to Part 1: Nashville.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2001

I really haven't posted much on this blog. I guess it's been a couple of months.

They say that you know where you were and exactly what you were doing when you first learned of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 ten years ago. I know that it is certainly true for me. I had just woken up in a Long Beach hotel. I was getting dressed, trying hard not to be late for Day 2 of a 3-day Matlab programming training class. I flipped on the television hoping to catch a glimpse of how the markets were trading before I went away for the day. Instead of the usual stock market crap on CNBC, I saw images of the Twin Towers burning.

It was unreal. I remember wondering if we were going to see more attacks or not. I did eventually make it to my class, but as expected, there was little to no discussion about Matlab. Everyone in that class sat there the entire time processing feelings and talking about what had just happened. It was a rather unfamiliar experience for me, and it felt quite strange to say the least.

The following day, I remember calling up my company's office manager to ask her to contact the rental car company. I was not going to be returning the car with the complete shutdown of all air travel. I drove that rental car with a broken left turn signal back to the Bay Area that night, after the final day of the class was over.

It was a weird time, and I remember everything was rather uneasy, at least for me, for at least a few weeks. I can only hope that this horrible event ultimately catalyzed some positive changes for the world -- though, I still feel that many of the TSA-related restrictions that were born are ineffective and do little more than annoy travelers.

I guess I'll just end this by saying to all the victims of the attack, both direct and indirect, and as cliche as it may sound: 9/11 will be a day not to be forgotten. Take care.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

My Highest Scoring Scrabble Game Ever

I regularly play Scrabble with a friend, and I'll say that while I have an edge on her, we're similarly skilled. Anyway, I finished a game against her today with a score that far surpasses any that I've ever had... a whopping 692 points (691 + 1 for her unplayed tile).

It was a triple bingo game for me, which is rare, but not ridiculous. What made it ridiculous is that two of the three bingoes were of the elusive triple-triple variety (SLUICING and REINVITE for 149 and 185, respectively).

Here's the final board along with the moves.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Glass Blowing Class

Not long ago, we had the opportunity to take a 4-hour glass class thanks to GroupOn. The class was offered at the Revere Glass School in Berkeley from 6-10pm. Just so you all know, glass blowing was always on my list of something to try out, so I'm really glad I finally got the chance to experience the magic of playing with fire and glass.

The class was small. There were only 5 of us and the instructor, who has been working with glass for quite a number of years. He was really chill, and you could tell that he was definitely into the art of glass.

Anyway, we started off just playing around with the glass and the flames to get a feel for how the glass interacts with the heat. But, very quickly we progressed from learning to control the glass through constant steady rotation to creating marbles.

Of course, the early attempts at making marbles were pathetic. The marbles looked more like oddly shaped eggs than spheres. But, in time, we got the hang of it and moved on to making pendants including some color accenting. We also learned how to create a loop to hold the string.

Here's one of my better pendants.

As you can see from the image, I experimented with trying to make a clam shell-like form. I thought it looked pretty cool in the end, so I was satisfied with my creation.

After making a couple pendants and fumbling around, we moved on to creating a mini sculpture. I opted to create a turtle, which was suggested for its simplicity. I added some color to it, and I thought it ended up really nice. Here's the glass turtle I created.

Finally, we worked up to actual glass blowing. During this part of the class, we learned how to blow glass bubbles. It's a lot more difficult than you would think. The glass has to be heated quite uniformly, otherwise only the hotter parts would expand out. This means that if the glass were unevenly heated, you'd get weird bulges where you were expecting more regular spherical bubbles.

Anyway, here's some weird hollow ornamental glass piece I made. Purely by accident, I wound up creating a bubble within the bubble (you should be able to make it out in the image below). Apparently, if certain temperatures are achieved, you can cause air temperature changes to create an effective vacuum, ultimately sucking in other glass parts.

If it's not obvious by now, I will say that I had a wonderful experience. I strongly recommend that anyone who has even the slightest bit of curiosity about glass blowing take a class.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BAMM On My Head

Earnings for Books-A-Million (BAMM) did not come through... the results sent the stock down a fair bit today. After looking at the results and listening to the conference call replay, I'm not yet convinced that I'm wrong about this one, and so I bought a second (and, likely final) piece at 4.07, doubling the size of my position. This brings the cost basis down to around 4.35.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Call me crazy, but I think that there may a good deal of value in Books-A-Million (BAMM). For those of you that were in the market ten or so years ago, this name might sound familiar, as their shares shot up when they established an online presence during the crazy bubble days. For those from the South, East, and Midwest, the name should be a familiar one. After all, they are the nation's third largest brick-and-mortar book retailer with around 200 superstores and 30 traditional stores.

Fast forward to today, and surprisingly, the company has survived. It is not worth so much these days (Market Cap ~$73MM at 4.61) despite its current profitability. Also, Borders' recent bankruptcy filing can do nothing but help BAMM. Their numbers, while not the 'let's buy hand over fist' cheap (as was the case when Wet Seal (WTSLA) was trading sub-$2 with $0.95 in cash net-of-debt), seem to indicate undervaluation.

Obviously, growth isn't there right now, and this is going to be a turnaround/survivor story.

Anyway, I also think there is some hidden value in Books-A-Million as well. I'm talking about their equity interest (40% stake) in Yogurt Mountain, which has a presence in some of their superstores as well as in malls, etc. Last year, when the company made its investment, I believe Yogurt Mountain had fewer than 5 shops. Today, I counted 27 locations.

I may be wrong about this, but as I always say... I'm planning to put money where my mouth is. I'm not entirely convinced this is worthwhile, so I'm likely going to start on the smaller side. Even so, the stock is pretty thinly traded, so I'll have to be a bit careful when I do my buying. If shares spike higher for whatever reason before I establish any position, I won't be chasing it.

If you think I'm crazy, please let me know. I would very much like to hear what others think.

----- Edit #1 -----

I just got a partial fill on my initial order, so it looks like I'm now the proud (for now) Books-A-Million shareholder at $4.61.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A True Death Ride

I'm a proponent of euthanasia. However, I'm too lazy to write much about my view of it. I found this interesting... a bit macabre, but interesting nonetheless. What a crazy and deadly ride.

Euthanasia Coaster Wiki

Euthanasia Coaster: Inventor's Video

Friday, April 29, 2011

SunPower Bid

So, last October, I picked up a small piece of SunPower (SPWRA) in the $13-14 range. Today, the major French energy company, Total (TOT), announced that it would buy 60% of the company for $23.25 a share.

Too bad I did not buy more, but it's still a nice pop. Maybe it's time to exit this one and find a new home for the cash. I suppose that gives me something to think about it this weekend.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Killer Farts

Here's something that I've thought about on and off for some time, but since I've never spent any time researching it, it may be completely inaccurate. So, we know that one of the best ways to prevent sickness is by keeping clean... washing our hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, not leaving random food around, etc. Ingesting poop is pretty much going to be a health hazard.

Now, when someone farts and you smell it, usually it smells bad... kinda like poop. Now, does that mean that poop particles actually made it into your nose? If it were the case that the poop particles did not actually leave someone's anus and find their way into your nose, then you wouldn't smell it, right?

Does that mean that farting in public (where others can smell it) can increase the spreading of disease? Or, does it not work that way? Same goes for people that take rather odoriferous dumps in a public bathroom stall... are they affecting the health of others?

Maybe it is not necessary for a particulate to enter your nose for you to smell something, but that just doesn't seem right. Anyone have any answers?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Logic Problem

I'm a big nerd. Here's a problem for all you other nerds out there.

We have 25 balls of different weights. We would like to find out which are the 5 heaviest in order. In other words, we would like to know which ball is the heaviest, 2nd heaviest, 3rd heaviest, 4th heaviest, and 5th heaviest. The only tool we have available to conduct any measurements on these balls is what I'm calling a Relative Weighing device.

This device allows up to 5 balls to be loaded into it one at a time. Once all the balls are inserted, you press a button and the device prints out the ball order that corresponds to heaviest to lightest. As soon as the button is pushed, the device's memory is cleared and all you have is the printout.

For example: Say that you put in Balls 1 through 5 into the machine in that order. The Relative Weighing device might return 3, 4, 2, 1, 5 to indicate that Ball 3 is heavier than Ball 4 is heavier than Ball 2, and so on.

Now, for the question: What is the fewest weigh-ins using our special device to determine the 5 heaviest balls in order?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Special Relativity and the Law

Just had a brief conversation with a friend involving time dilation, and on a complete tangent, I came up with a couple questions that seemed interesting. If ever in the future we are able to travel at ridiculous fast speeds such that time dilation becomes a real factor, then these questions might become relevant.

For those that are unfamiliar with time dilation, it is basically an effect of traveling very fast (we're talking about speeds like one-quarter the speed of light). The effect is that those traveling at the very high speed will age slowly as compared to those that aren't.

Say I hop into a super fast space shuttle and fly away from the Earth maintaining my high velocity for a year and return back to Earth. I've aged a year, but everything/everyone on Earth would have aged much more depending how fast I was going... they might end up aging 30 years, for example.

Anyway, enough of the basic background information. Here are two legal cases that I thought would be interesting for you philosophical and lawyer types.

1) A man, 40, has worked for about 20 years, paying enough in Social Security making him eligible for Old Age Social Security benefits when he is 67. He now hops into his special spaceship that allows him to travel very fast. He ages 6 months, but the Earth has aged 27 years. He is now 67 years old based on his birthdate. Should he be allowed to collect the Social Security benefits?

2) A male high school student, 15, is pursued by his high school teacher. They wind up having a secret relationship. She is much older than him, and thus any sexual relationship between them is clearly unlawful and she would be charged with statutory rape if their secret relationship were known to authorities. They both hop in their special spaceship and they each age 3 weeks, but the world around them has aged 3 years. To the world, he is now 18 (but, clearly he's only a 15 year-old kid). Should their relationship now be considered a legal one?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Don't Forget the Attachment

I accidentally ran into an automatic feature of Gmail the other day that I found useful, as it saved me from having to send a corrective e-mail. So, it turns out that if the body of your e-mail contains text that is indicative of your intent to attach a file, but you neglect to attach a file, then Gmail warns you of your potential omission.

After a little playing around, here are some phrases that trigger the warning:

"Attached is"
"Attached are"
"I've attached"
"Find the attached"
"See the attached"
"Attached file"

Here are some phrases that do not trigger the warning, but probably should:

"Attached a file"
"A file attached"
"Check out the attachment"
"File attachment"
"Attached document"
"Attached spreadsheet"

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Adding to Cameco Position

Roughly a year ago, I purchased shares of Cameco (CCJ), one of the largest nuclear energy companies around, in two batches at around $27 and $28. Shares appreciated nicely up until last week when Japan suffered a major earthquake. Not surprisingly, nuclear energy stocks across the board have been pummeled following the nuclear reactor problems and concerns that resulted from the quake.

I remain convinced that nuclear energy won't be going away any time soon, and I do believe that once the panic subsides, shares should return to favor.

True to my nature, I'm putting money where my mouth is, and I've added substantially to my current CCJ position. I've a little more than doubled the position with new shares purchased at the $30 level.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


I like to think that I'm good at rock-paper-scissors. I bet on this game frequently with friends, and I'm well ahead lifetime. Mostly, my strategy involves talking to my opponent and more or less getting in their heads. Saying things like, "You know I'm going to throw rock. So, you probably want to throw paper." evokes some sort of response. And, over time, when playing against the same opponents, you sort of build a history of their actions and base your play on what you recall.

In the end, maybe I'm just one lucky SOB.

The NY Times put out a RPS game with a trained computer that over time exploits your weaknesses and tendencies. I played 35 rounds against it, and the nerd in me is celebrating my victory.

Human: 14
CPU: 10

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Walk This Way

So, the company I work for participates in the Virgin Health Miles program. As a result, a bunch of us have been wearing pedometers provided by the program. As a participant, you get paid by racking up pedometer steps by walking, running, or other forms of exercise. In addition, you can set up challenges to spice things up a bit.

A co-worker and I started up a one-on-one challenge with the goal of putting up as many steps as we could in two weeks. To make a long story shorter, on the final day before we left work we both checked in. I had slacked a bit in the last couple days and I was down over 11,000 steps. I could either give up or just go for a win.

The contest would end at midnight, so at around 9pm, I did 7 miles (some jogging and mostly walking) and checked in my steps. I found that I was up about 2000 steps. I figured it may have been enough, but I wasn't too sure. You're allowed to check-in the previous days miles the next day for challenge purposes. And, I had no idea whether or not my opponent might have put up some real numbers in the final hours as well.

Anyway, with about ten to fifteen minutes until midnight, I decide what the heck, let me run up and down my stairs for five more minutes. I racked up another 500 or so steps, and checked them in. And, that was that.

Today, I find myself a victor by a final margin of... 79 steps! I don't know how much closer you can get when the totals are in the 135K range. Pretty funny. My co-worker was not amused. She can't even look at my face right now. I have to watch out now though as I'm sure she and others in the office will no longer be slacking in the final hours of any future challenge.

Monday, February 07, 2011


It's been quite a while since I've done any fancy dining. The dry spell was broken last night when we went to Quince in San Francisco. We arrived a little early for our reservation, but it wasn't too crowded and so we were seated immediately.

After perusing the menu some, we stuck with our original plan which was for the Seafood and Shellfish tasting menu with the wine pairing. I've been drinking a bit more wine recently, and so it seemed fitting to splurge a bit on this occasion.

The bread came soon after we ordered. There were two selections, a baguette and also an onion roll. While both were good, we thought the onion roll was extremely flavorful. It was so good, in fact, that I think by the end of the meal I ate four of them (and only one baguette).

The amuse bouche was decent, but nothing super special. There was a little fried lobster snack, a miniature beet salad, and a cold, refreshing pea soup.

Amuse Bouche - Lobster Snack, Beet Salad, Pea Soup

Our first dish was really excellent and was quite possibly my favorite for the night. It was a 'ravioli' composed of sea urchin wrapped in halibut sashimi. On the side, there were mandarin oranges. I can't really describe how awesome this tasted. Given enough of it, I could definitely make a meal out of this dish alone.

Seafood Ravioli - Sea Urchin Wrapped in Halibut Sashimi

The next dish was a seafood pasta with a squid ink sauce. This dish worked for me. First, it had sardines, clams, mussels, and scallops. For those of you that know me well, I really do like sardines. I find myself eating them straight out of the can more often than I'd like to admit. On top of that, I'm a real fan of squid ink sauce. So, this dish really worked for me. I do think that some might not enjoy it so much.

Seafood Pasta with Squid Ink - Mussels, Clams, Sardines, and Scallops

This dish was followed by lobster and split pea dumplings. I don't appreciate lobster as much as most, but I still enjoyed the dish. I thought the pea dumplings were fairly ordinary. Overall, I would say this was one of my least favorite for the night.

Lobster and Split Pea Dumplings

The next dish was turbot with artichokes and carrots. The sauce was light tasting and worked really well. The fish was delicious. I think this was my second favorite dish following the seafood ravioli.

Turbot with Artichokes and Carrots

After a blood orange palate cleansing dish...

Blood Orange Palate Cleanser

We were on to dessert, a lemon tart and meringue.

Lemon Tart and Meringue

And, the night ended with some petit fours. There was a lemon candy, white chocolate, and also a pistachio nougat. The candy was a bit sweet, but the chocolate and nougat were to my liking.

Petit Fours - Lemon Candy, Chocolate, and Pistachio Nougat

I would say that all in all, I had a pleasant dining experience at Quince, and I would recommend the restaurant to others. One thing to know is that, at least when we were there, the other diners were a fair bit older than us. But, I never felt out of place, so I guess that would only be an issue if you made it out to be one.