Sunday, June 6, 2010

Vegas for the non-gambler

Paris Casino bathroom sink
Originally uploaded by siegel_jackie.
What's a person to do in Las Vegas when they don't enjoy gambling? The answer came on walking through the themed Paris casino after dinner and in need of a bathroom. The bathrooms there are gorgeous and entertaining. French language lessons are piped into the room instead of Muzak. One can learn very useful phrases for conversation in French while visiting Vegas, such as "Wow, are those real?"

That initiated our quest to find the most over-the-top casino bathroom in town. Turns out the best was the first, though the sinks in Treasure Island were pretty cool.

We checked out the bathrooms in The Bellagio, Caesers, Venetian, Excaliber, Luxor, Mirage, Mandalay Bay. If we ever go back are there bathrooms worth viewing at the other casinos?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Couch Tater Tots

I received a sales flyer today in the mail. One of the specials is a "Kiddie Recliner" Yep, a pint-sized recliner. Now Jimmy Jr. can enjoy the big game just like daddy and start developing his beer belly early.

I'd like to hope that it's on special because parents knew that their kids belong outdoors getting exercise instead of reclining in front of the big screen tv and that none were purchased at full price.

Dept. of Food and Ag putting its money where its mouth is, almost literally

I walk by the California Department of Food and Agriculture every morning on my way to work. Not long ago I was distressed to see that the buildings and grounds staff had pulled out all the perennial and annual flowers, leaving empty beds.

Soon seedlings began appearing in stringed off areas. Sure looked like lettuce and radishes. Sure enough, a vegetable garden is now growing in the beds by the front entrance to the building. The beds are on the southern side of the building, however, there are very large trees directly to the south which will shade the vegetable beds most of the day. Great concept though. I wish them luck and a large harvest.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Science Fiction and Fantasy book club reading list for 2009/2010

The still mostly librarians science fiction and fantasy book club met today for their annual book selection for extended fiscal year 2009/2010. We have been having troubles finding a date to meet in the middle of summer so selected enough books this time to get us to fall 2010.

Here are the books we will be reading. Read along and comment if you'd like.

2009/08 Doctorow, Cory / Little Brother (SF)

2009/09 Farmer, Nancy / The House of the Scorpion (SF)

2009/10 Haldeman, Joe / Camouflage (SF)

2009/11 Bujold, Lois McMaster / Sharing Knife: Beguilement (Fantasy)

2009/12 LeGuin, Ursula K. / Left Hand of Darkness (Classic)

2010/01 Vance, Jack / Last Castle (SF)

2010/02 Bulgakov, Mikhail / Master and Margarita (Fantasy)

2010/03 Stirling, S.M. / Court of the Crimson Kings (Alternate history)

2010/04 Turtledove, Harry / Rule Britannia (Alternate history)

2010/05 Grimwood, Ken / Replay (Speculative)

2010/06 Butcher, Jim / Furies of Calderon (Fantasy)

2010/07 Stross, Charles / Saturn's Children (Space opera)

2010/08 Brooks, Max / World War Z (Fantasy)

2010/09 Bellamy, Edward / Looking Backward (Classic)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Princess diverted Mexican Riviera Cruise Review

On the perfect vacation
Originally uploaded by siegel_jackie.
I traveled on the Star Princess with my sister. This was my sixth Princess cruise, first time at the Platinum Captain’s Circle level. It was my sister’s 11th Princess cruise. We traveled round-trip out of San Francisco. We chose this trip because our travel agent provided a charter bus ride from Sacramento.

Traffic in the San Francisco embarcadero area was very congested, our bus spending over an hour to go less than one mile. Once at the pier embarkation was very well organized. It didn't take very long to obtain our cruise card and go through security and board the ship.

This was the largest ship I’ve ever been on. One could tell it was designed for maximum passenger capacity and revenue generation. The Promenade deck is much narrower than older ships. There are no deck chairs on the Promenade deck, just a few benches. There is a wine bar and wine accessories shop taking up a big chunk of space on the Plaza level.

The library has been combined with the Internet Café. There are not many books available for so many passengers, nor were there many seats for people to sit in the library and read. There were plenty of Internet terminals, there were usually terminals available whenever I wandered by.

The Explorer’s Lounge, which looked like it might be a nice place to relax, was taken over all day, each sea day for storage, set up and then auction of the hundreds of pieces of framed art. The pictures were set up along every walkway, making the entire area unusable, if not a downright safety hazard.

We decided to splurge for a mini-suite. There was a sufficient amount of storage space. However, I was surprised at how narrow the cabin is. There was not much storage space in the bathroom above the counter. It would have been nice to have a medicine cabinet and some more shelving. The bathtub shower had nice water pressure. The extra shower space the bathtub afforded was very welcome. The extra space for the loveseat and table was heavily used during our sea days for reading and relaxing. On sea days the public areas of the ship were very congested with all available seating taken. Having that extra space in the cabin enabled us to relax during our cruise and not be frustrated by the shortage of public spaces.

We tried out MUTS (Movies Under The Stars) one evening. The crew works very hard to make this venue fun. Pool loungers are covered with special mats and staff hand out blankets and popcorn. It is a very nice concept.

Even with such a large ship and 2,500 passengers, we had no problem tendering. We'd have breakfast in dining room, go back to our cabin to gather our stuff and then head down to pick up tender tickets. Each time there was no waiting so we were told to proceed directly to the tenders. We were ashore in both Santa Barbara and Catalina by 9 a.m.

Some observations and annoyances:

On board the Star Princess we signed up for an internet package. There was an embarkation day special. The $100 package is usually for 250 minutes, but the special was for an additional 30 minutes. After logging off the first time the Internet Usage Summary showed that only 250 minutes were given. We asked the gentleman at the Internet Cafe desk about it and he said it would appear the next day. It didn't. The Passenger Services Desk referred us back to the Internet manager. That day he said that the Platinum credit is only for 250 minutes. We submitted a written comment/complaint to the Passenger Services desk saying that Princess Captain's Circle benefits state that Platinum card holders receive $100 credit for Internet packages, not a specific amount of time. If this is a change of policy it needs to be communicated to all Captain's Circle members. We never heard back about our complaint nor did the extra 30 minutes appear on our balance. We then let the Captain's Circle hostess know about the problem. She said that she would look into it but we never heard anything back from her either.

When will Princess do away with the costumed photography staff? Gangways were held up while people were told to stop to be photographed with a bear or eagle. One night after dinner pirate costumed staff tried to startle diners as they exited the dining room. Not cool.

For the wonderful ice cream that is served in the buffet each afternoon, the servers are not told the flavors, so they would guess. If it is green it must be mint seemed to be the theory, at least that’s the flavor I was told one day. I put chocolate sprinkles on it to make a mint-chip combination. Wrong, it was honeydew melon, which is quite good but doesn’t work well with chocolate sprinkles. This lack of knowledge of the ice cream flavor and telling people their guess could be tragic if someone had allergies and was told the flavor was one thing when it wasn't.

We ate most of our meals in the dining room. Personal choice dining in the Capri dining room on deck 5 was never congested. The food was excellent. The plates are now plain white china, more appropriate for a dining room than the floral design of the past. We asked to be seated at tables for six or less and were always accommodated. We never had to wait to be seated. The dining room has areas a step or two up from the main floor level. I don’t understand why they seat people who obviously have mobility problems (the walkers and wheelchairs should be a clue) in these elevated areas while able-bodied people are seated on the main level. I’ve been harping about this on my final comment/questionnaire for years.

The times I stopped by the gym there were always machines available. The gym has 4 elliptical machines, 12 treadmills, 2 recumbent bicycles and 2 exercycles. There are also Paramount brand weight machines.

The wifi signal is sporadic in the cabins but can be received around the atrium. There are several nice tables and chairs in the piazza with electrical outlets nearby for laptops.

This cruise was one of those affected by the swine flu travel warnings. The second night during dinner the captain announced that all stops in Mexico had been cancelled and that new stops along the California coast were being developed. This was a situation out of Princess' control and he asked that people not take their disappointment out on the crew. There were a number of very obnoxious passengers on board who did just that. I could not understand their beef. The CDC and the WHO advised that unnecessary travel to Mexico be avoided. I think Princess went above and beyond to put together the revised itinerary which included the same number of port stops, and longer port times. The logistics of working out the schedule and permits and whatever is required for a port stop must have had people scrambling and working many hours overtime. Kudos to Princess for taking lemons and making lemonade.

Speaking of lemonade, it is now available in the buffet, but must be requested from the crew. Most of the time it was wonderful but near the end of the cruise it became water with a hint of lemon.

Since no passengers or crew were allowed off during the Passenger Services Act obligatory stop in a foreign port, Ensenada in our case, US citizens did not have to go through immigration at our first stop back in the US in San Pedro/Long Beach. However, no one was let off the ship in San Pedro until all non-US citizens reported to U.S. Immigration officials. Everyone was delayed over an hour because a few people did not show up when they were supposed to and then didn't hear or ignored the PA system announcements. Why U.S. Immigration insisted that these people be processed is beyond me and why everyone was held hostage just didn’t seem right.

I enjoyed our California coastal stops, even though I had been to each port before. The weather was fabulous, the locations we stopped at were thrilled to have us, and they were all very picturesque. Yes, even San Pedro, a working port, is quite interesting and picturesque. Also, since we did not have to travel very far we were cruising at a very leisurely pace. This allowed us to use our balcony, even while at sea and to enjoy MUTS at night.

Overall I found the cruise to be everything I anticipated. I wanted a relaxing vacation and that is what I got, with good food, calm waters, and time to leave the stresses of work behind.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The case of the shrinking cruise ship libraries

Back in 2001 I sailed on the Sea Princess. The ship carries 1950 passengers. The library had many sections of shelving units, filled with current titles. There were so many titles from my "must read" that I found it difficult to choose. I finally settled on The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Today I am on the Star Princess. The ship carries 2600 passengers. The library has been merged with the internet cafe. There are only 12 sections of book shelves. If memory serves me correctly, this is half or less than on the Sea. In scanning the shelves before the library opened for the first day of business I found no current titles, nothing from my list, and most disheartening, The Blind Assassin is the only Atwood title. Granted it is a great book, but obviously Princess no longer cares to maintain their library.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Customer service - a tale of two wireless phone companies

Back in December 2002 we broke down and decided to sign up for a wireless phone plan, basically for emergency use. The "more bars" company was running a special. We picked out small simple phones at the local company store. Once home we discovered we only got a weak signal in our neighborhood. But as the intent was to have the phones for when we were on the road, that was OK. We humorously noted that we got a stronger signal at the little rural town we liked to go to for breakfast than in our city.

A year or two later we got a notice from the city about a public hearing for a request for a permit to place a cell tower in our neighborhood. Our city has quite a number of very vocal paranoids that are convinced we'll all die from electromagnetic transmissions. I knew that they'd be trying to stack the ballots as it were with calls and letters to the city. I decided to become civicly involved and wrote a letter to the city in support of the tower, stating security concerns. The local police department was recommending that residents always have their cell phones with them as they walk through their neighborhoods. My neighborhood was a dead zone.

Somehow the company got their permit and put up the tower. We finally had a strong signal at our house. That all ended around January 2, 2009. We were back to even worse signal strength than the beginning. A call to the local store confirmed that others in our neighborhood also had called in to complain. We called the national number. Call one to them ended up with them just taking a report. Call two a couple days later got them to ask a few more questions and promise to follow up. That call did provide the information that the cell tower near us was a partner tower. They promised to look more into it and give me a courtesy call in two days. A week after that call (with no courtesy call received) we got a four bar signal one night but then the very next day we got absolutely nothing, in fact when checking out the service we received an unauthorized message. Call three got them to listen a bit more and finally passed me on to a technician. That technician admitted that the partnership had been canceled. I asked if they were in negotiation to become partners again. They weren't. What was her suggestion to me? To upgrade my service. How would paying for a more expensive plan help getting a signal. I informed her that instead I would be changing carriers.

At work there was a flyer about state employee discounts through the "Can you hear me now" company. I sent an email to the state employee representative mentioned on the flyer. Seven minutes later I received a return email with plan details. She also left a voice message for me.

We changed plans and purchased new phones at a local authorized reseller. Both employees we dealt with there were knowledgeable about the "Can you hear me now" company's product and services. Based on our phone usage at the other carrier they knew we'd only be interested in the bare bones plan and phone. We got no up-sell at all.

Our first bill came and it showed activation fees when we were told the fees would be credited back immediately. I called the "Can you hear me now" company and within 5 minutes I was speaking to a live person. That person was empowered to resolve the issue after checking with a supervisor. I also received an email confirmation with the new balance noted.

Epilogue - two days after we switched I got the courtesy call from "more bars" It was a satisfaction survey.