TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2005
Heading back to Wisconsin

We woke up early today and I got started re-potting Mom's violets. I don't think they had been potted since I did it about one year ago- so we fixed all the goose necks and in a couple of months they should be happily blooming once again :) I also took home some great little suckers- more plants, hmmmmm where to put them.

After the plants were ready for another year, I got to perm Mom's hair. Now I think that I have done this before, but Mom had to lead me through the pattern again. I was setting the curlers so tight that Dad had to go get more curlers so I could finish one side. I am happy to say that the perm turned out wonderfully!

After a busy morning we all enjoyed a delicious lunch of shrimp scampi with rice, some guacamole and chips, with the finishing touch- rhubarb pie. After relaxing a bit we got all of our stuff together (traveling with our trusty backpacks) and headed for the airport. On the way back to Madison I got some wonderful pictures of a large thunderhead and some beautiful column cumulus. Enjoy!

Posted by Laura @ 9:30 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2005
Balloons + helium + chair = ?????

Our morning today was doing a little bit of work, with me reviewing another paper for the LLL conference, and Laura reading a bit for her cs354 class. Lunch was a scrumptious spaghetti and sauce meal for Laura, while I had a delicous turkey sandwich, Laura's parents always find the best fresh loafs of bread.

In the afternoon, it was an adventure to the local Half Priced Books. Round Rock seems to have a great selection in their store of used books of all varieties. We poured over the cook books and especially the travel books this time, looking for resources for our German trip, and found a small study book for an intro German class, complete with stickers to mark up our apartment in German! I also lucked into finding a complete copy of the Settlers of Catan Travel Edition for $5.98! This will be great when we go on trips and don't want to pack too many games.

We've been on a recent Thai food streak with our cooking, and so we thought it would be cool to make some of our favorite dishes for Laura's parents tonight. We cooked up a yellow potato curry with coconut milk (my favorite) and a chicken Pad Thai (Laura's favorite) complete with peanuts and spicy peppers, with rice on the side. It will be a favorite we continue to cook.

Our movie selections for tonight were Ocean's 12, not as exciting as the original, seemed like the actors had more fun than we did watching them, and Danny Deckchair, a great independent movie from Australia where a man goes ballooning on his deck chair and lands in another town, getting a chance to start his life over and fall in love again. Much better than expected. :)

Posted by Mark @ 9:28 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

SUNDAY, MAY 29, 2005
Birthday's come once a year!

For my birthday's I like to be around my family and enjoy some of my favorite treats with them. Today was a wonderful birthday which started off at the local Houston I-hop where I got crepes and strawberries (no ice cream today with the drive back I don't need a sugar high :) ). At breakfast, I got a wonderful mushroom cookbook and a book on entertaining with cheese from my parents. With all of our "social engagements" these will definitely come in handy- a cheese and mushroom combo makes a wonderful occasion for both Mark (Mr. cheese lover) and Laura (Ms. mushroom lover). Mark got me a wonderful book we had seen first at the castle in North Carolina called Forgotten Arts and Crafts- it describes how to do things we take for granted every day- just up my alley.

On the road home we saw much countryside and took a detour to swing by a delicious local meat store- the smells of BBQ making us all hungry. After swinging my favorite sandwich shop- Tex-anwiches, for lunch (I wrote down the order of ingredients this time- Schlotskzys just isn't the same) and then took nice relaxing naps. After waking up, Mark and I headed out to visit Half Priced Books down the street (we found a great book for learning German) and picked up some great movies from the local Hastings: Collateral, In good company. Mark was very impressed that Hastings had the two top games on their wall- Settlers of Catan and Carcassone.

For dinner, Dad made the best steak I have had in a long time! I have to get that recipe!! Mom added the best accompaniment for any steak- mashed potatoes & gravy- I really need to practice that delicious gravy too. Needless to say we all had full tummies tonight!!

Posted by Laura @ 9:27 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

SATURDAY, MAY 28, 2005
Steamy Houston

On the 27th we headed out to Brennan (just north of Houston) to visit the Blue Bell factory. It was an amazing site. All of that delicious ice cream being made beneath our very feet. First we had a wonderful picnic lunch while we waited for our tour time. Then we saw a brief movie about the founders of Blue Bell, we started at the pasteurization vats and saw all of the impressive tubing to mix different amounts of sugars and additives to the fresh milk brought in from surrounding farms. Then we saw the adding of special ingredients- that day they were making some ice cream with Maraschino cherries (I have such a craving for them), some with wedding cake and at the far end ice cream sandwiches.

The machines were amazing- there was a lid lifter to grab the heavy face of the lid and force the lips of the tops to face the same direction. When filling the 1/2 gallon containers, the containers would be spinned to get an even distribution of the frozen concoction. After the lids were placed on, the containers were turned upside down to obtain a good seal. I am still fascinated with the sandwich making machines- how machines can efficiently perform monotonous tasks with such efficiency is really impressive.

After the tour we got a cup of ice cream- I got birthday cake (a bit of a chocolate rush) with Dad, Mark and Mom got vanilla- cool refreshing treats in the TX heat. Heading further south we landed at my aunt and uncle's in the outskirts of Houston. We arrived just in time for grilled hamburgers by Roger Westoff and got a tour of the apartment above the garage that Roger has been working on over the years. That evening we had some fun playing games with my cousins Katy and Mathew. First was Modern Art (a bidding game) with Mark, me, Mom and Katy- we all did quite well. Next Mathew brought out Clue and we had a round. Finally we finished up with a Modern Art finally and were all impressed when my younger cousin Mathew won!

On the 28th, Mark, Mom, Dad and I headed out to visit down town Houston and see the botanical gardens. They were rather small but had an impressive collection of roses in full bloom. I went rather picture happy! Walking across the street we visited the Japanese gardens and saw some beautiful blue herons eying the fish. Next we drove a couple of blocks to visit the Museum of printing history. It was shockingly empty for a Saturday. Once inside we found out it was much larger than we imagined. Starting with the history of writing, Rosetta stone, we got a page of the Guttenberg bible printed from a working printing press while we watched. There were many old printing presses (much tinier than I thought they would be)- did you know that some presses could create a whole page in lead (which can be melted and used again) so you don't have to fuss with individual letters. There were also accounts of famous events printed in various papers from the very start of printing in the states.

We also got to see a very interesting video about the importance of keeping written history- starting with the Egyptians using papyrus, Greeks and Romans with their amazing libraries (unfortunately ruined). There was also an interesting discussion about the "dark ages" where lack of education and written word had a large impact on the people's quality of life.

After such an exciting morning, we headed back to the gardens and had a delicious picnic lunch at the reflecting pool where Mark and I fed more pigeons than we could count. We also saw a handsome woodpecker on a nearby tree and learned about the intelligence of the blackbirds (they break up large pieces of bread with their beaks or by soaking them in water where the "not so smart" pigeons would ignore them after they couldn't get a beak full).

Around 5 we headed to the Hofbrau- Katy's favorite restaurant (she's graduating from high school tonight). She got one of my favorites- chicken fried steak. I split a slightly more healthy (I like to think so at least) chicken fried chicken with my Mom- the creamy white gravy was heavenly. After a quick change, we headed over to the Graduation Ceremony. Katy graduated head of her class and gave a very nice speech!

After saying a quick hello to my uncle Norman, aunt Ann, Grandma and Grandpa, Katy headed off to her graduation party and we headed over to have milk shakes at a nearby Waterburger. I really enjoyed the vanilla shake- I will have to get it more often! Whew, what a day!

Posted by Laura @ 9:25 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Mall Wars and Star Wars

Today we are headed out to San Marcus. We visited the University campus down where Dad takes his classes. He showed us around the hilly campus and we spied many a soft-shelled and hard-shelled turtle in the ponds along with some perch in the chilly San Marcus river. After a delicious lunch at Luby's we headed to the nearby outlet mall to visit Jockey (best women's underwear on earth), Sony (to quiz the staff about their digital video camera's- not as impressive as my current digital camera my Mom got me two years ago) and lastly Lee's (for some $8 pants- I still can't believe the deal).

After all the shopping, we headed in to the discount bookstore where Mark and Mom found some great finds. On the drive home we stopped to see the last Star Wars movie in all its digital glory- I am not just talking digital sound (that has been around for a good amount of time now), but digital video. Oh yeah! It was amazing. The detail was astounding. I am spoiled from ever watching another movie in theatres unless it is digital.

Afterwards we headed next door to one of my favorite restaurants (next to Olive garden, Serloin Stockade, and Sa be Thong), Super Salad. I love buffets- where I don't have to tell the wait-person to remove this or that, add this or that, I can just save myself the trouble and do it myself! Over dinner we discussed the amazing final movie to the Star Wars saga- definitely a movie moment (and movie technology) to remember.

What a day!

Posted by Laura @ 9:22 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Halls and Malls

When I visit home, we always keep busy. It is nice to drive around to the old haunts and see what has changed and what has stayed the same. With all of the growth that Round Rock has had recently, not much has stayed the same. Now there is a gigantic overpass going in as the town tries to make some money on commuters going to/from Austin.

Today we headed into the heart of downtown Austin to visit the most amazing food store I have ever seen- the Super Whole Foods. I love a store with good produce- and you really can't get much better! We picked up some beautiful globe artichokes (some of the best we ever had- Mark's favorite), a cute purple artichoke, we gawked over the amazing asortment of fresh mushrooms (they had fresh porchines, truffles, and some lovely blues- I was captivated). There were more kinds of fresh shrimp then I knew existed. Mom got some delicious soy dip and some fresh Prussian bread while I eyed the handmade soaps for a very long time...

After a delicious and fresh luch we headed over to the mall to look at my first apple store. I loved all of the gizmos- amazing, wonderful (and expensive) little toys lining the shelves! After drooling we headed down past where Mom use to work at TYC to look at a game store- Great hall games where my parents picked up some chips for Mark over winter. After looking around, we found a slightly used copy of Fresh Fish copy- by an amazing guy who dyes his hair green and likes to start the titles of all his games with FF.

What an amazing day!

Posted by Laura @ 9:21 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2005
Texas skies

For our annual Trip to Texas this May, we found the best tickets through Chicago. Laura's advisor had some good advice about how to park for cheap, so we tested out the local Park-N-Jet, about a mile from O'Hare. We were a little nervous about leaving our car in a fenced-in area in the middle of urban Chicago, but there were enough other cars there to make us feel safer. And after a short shuttle bus trip to the airport, we were on a non-stop flight to Austin, a much better option than layovers anyday. The flight was a large jet and relatively calm weather followed us down, giving us a great view of the texas skies as we arrived. Laura has begun reading the A is for Alibi murder mystery series on this trip by Sue Grafton. With her up to P so far, it should be a good way to pass the time for a while. I think they should all have "Murder" in the title somewhere, but then I just like saying Murder in a creepy voice.

Laura's parents found us in baggage claim, but this trip we'd only used Laura's new backpack, as we were preparing ourselves for light travel and packing through Europe later this fall. We stopped by an authentic mexican lunch spot for some distinctly tasty beans and some tacos and enchilladas for lunch. After a brief rest and wandering around her parents' back yard, we had a peppery mushroom rice dish for dinner with fresh yellow squash and asparagus, yum!

Posted by Mark @ 9:19 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

SATURDAY, MAY 21, 2005
Spring has sprung

We are just about to head down to TX to visit my folks and have to get some last minute gardening done. Fortunately Natalie said that she can water our plot while we are gone if there is no rain. It is really hard to leave one's garden when you just put in a whole bunch of seeds (since the frost deadline just past). Fortunately I got a large number of seeds as Christmas gifts so I can replant some sections if they don't make it. Cross your fingers.

Posted by Laura @ 9:18 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

TUESDAY, MAY 17, 2005
Modern Art Gaming

Tonight was a quiet night of gaming with Burr and Natalie. First up was the quick intro game of Clocktowers where we introduced it to Natalie, and before no time she was building the towers like the rest of us, with the game ending close as usual. Next up was our new game of Modern Art, a recent gift from Laura to add to our game collection. It's the first auction game we've had, and this one includes all types of auctions as we vie for selling and collecting the most fashionable pieces of art each round. There's once-around auctions where eveyone has one chance to purchase the piece of art, simultaneous auctions like the auctioneer, a fixed price auction, and a double auction option to sell two pieces of art at once. The prices would fluxuate from round to round as we each tried to influence which would be the most valuable, and it was a very fun game that we'll have to play more often. Our final game was a round or two of Zendo, building logical puzzles to solve for the ultimate zen theory of good vs. bad, while some took only a few turns others went around for a while before we could divine the true nature of the rules.

Posted by Mark @ 9:17 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Too much horse riding?

This spring I have been fortunate to take classes from a wonderful instructor: Andi Bill. She is an amazingly knowledgeable individual that will soon be president of the Hoofers Equestrian club. Due to some of her competitions throughout the Spring term, we had to make up some lessons on the 16th and 17th. Usually I ride once a week and feel very refreshed afterwards. But today I was "feeling the burn." I have always had weak ankles- I don't wear pointy high heels, or play sports that will cause undue stress to my ankles, I have also been wearing light ankle supports for the past couple of weeks. Recently I have been trying some exercises to increase the strength of both ankles without much success. I can usually make it through all but the last 5 or so minutes of the lesson before my right ankle looses its strength- but after yesterday's exertions, my ankles could only take the first half of the lesson, after that it was sitting the trot instead of posting and being a bit more careful. I like to think that I could never ride enough, but I think it is time for a stronger brace!

At the end of the lessons, Andi talked to us all about our improvements- which was really exciting. I had really improved- I hadn't ridden since I was 18, and that was Western. Looking back at the first couple of lessons, I am really proud of myself for making such strides. Andi says that I can move up to E2 lessons- I can't wait for the next session!

Posted by Laura @ 9:17 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2005

Today I graduated with my second Masters in Industrial and Systems Engineering. This time I did not attend the big ceremony- it was fun the last time because I had so many friends graduating with me. But there really is no order to it- you print your name clearly on a slip of paper and get to walk across the stage and shake hands with people you never met.

Instead, Mark and I drove around town looking for garage sales and found plant sales all over the place. This is the weekend that the Olbrich garden has their spring plant sales. And all surrounding neighborhoods have community plant sales. The arboreteum started off our tour (I had seen signs posted above University Ave. for several weeks) and we got the most adorable blueberry bush- now I have seen blueberries in the store, but had no idea what a blueberry bush looked like- I can't wait to see the blossoms and have our own fresh berries!

Overall we hit 5 sales and happily got some presents for our garden and my parents (shh- it's a secret). The last sale we hit we really cleaned up- they were ready to call it a day and everything was half off- so we got some sage and lily of the valley for our plot. I love all the amazing community events that Madison has to offer!

To wrap up our celebration, we headed over to the olive garden for a delicous salad, I got a chicken, roasted red bell pepper and roasted garlic pasta dish with the cutest pasta, unfortuantely Mark couldn't get his first choice dish and sampled off some of mine. Overall a very relaxing and enjoyable celebration of 3 years of hard work.

Posted by Laura @ 9:16 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

FRIDAY, MAY 13, 2005

It was time for another meeting of the Usonian Games group for a bit of playtesting. Jayson worked on this month's bgdf.com design challenge, where there needed to be a manufacturing process and a neat gizmo, so he had a robot design game game with a tipping cup to determine when the game would begin. We played a few times, making suggestions and testing out the limits of the different mechanisms. We followed this up with a run through Die Wichtelmanner, the entry we make for April, and a test with the new version of Schism with much faster turns and simultaneous voting. I think it's starting to feel like a real game now, but I worry it is too related to a few other games to make it really stand out, I'd like to have a more original mechanism.

Posted by Mark @ 9:15 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

TUESDAY, MAY 10, 2005
Neverending Domination

May 10

Laura and I started playing games early tonight, and were able to get in Yinsh before anyone else showed up. It's always fun to play two-player games with Laura as we're usually evenly matched and like to discuss strategies and game play as we go.

Next we pulled out Domination, as the multi-player abstract games had worked well two weeks before. I found this while visiting my parents over Christmas, and brought it back to see how it would fare with our tuesday night gaming group. We're already 0-1 for old Sid Sackson games, as Quinto was underwhelming, but I still had hopes.

Domination is a pure abstract described by Sackson in his Gamut of Games book, and can be played with a checkers set. The rules are simple, move a stack as many spaces as it is tall, split a tower and move as many pieces as you split from the top, or use a reserve piece to cap any tower on the board. If there is no legal move, you lose. Sounds simple and elegant, just what we like to play. (for a full rules description, see Greg Schlosser's session report).

Matt was the first to arrive, so we set up the board for two players and started building our towers. In no time, there were half as many pieces on the board, giving us the feeling of a fast game on the way to a quick resolution. But then we started splitting towers, which opened our field of options, as well as capturing pieces, giving us reserve pieces (or paratroopers as I like to call them). All of a sudden, the end didn't look so near, and we continued shuffling pieces around the board. It made sense to always try to capture, since you're either taking your opponents pieces out of the game, or giving yourself reserve pieces. In the end, it was the reserve pieces that made the difference, as I was down to two 2-height towers and Matt had two pieces in reserve, capping my towers for the win.

Meanwhile, Mike and Kathleen stopped by, and since Domination had pieces for up to four players (not many abstracts do) we gave it a go with all four of us. Once again, the pieces stacked quickly at the beginning, but the middle game bogged down in the capturing of pieces and splitting of towers. After a good amount of maneuvering, Kathleen was the first person knocked out of play. But not for long; her pieces were hidden in some of the tall towers on the board, and before long, these towers were split and she was back in the game. Next it was Mike's turn to be eliminated. While splitting and revealing your opponent's color wasn't such a big deal in the two-player game, it could cause large swings in the four-person game. Mike was back in soon enough, and then I was out, and Mike was out, so it was Matt versus Kathleen, but soon enough I was back in with a tower. We were down to two to three towers each, and Matt was trying to stack his towers just right and eliminate more pieces, but he couldn't split them to be the correct height without letting others back in the game. I pounced and removed Kathleen's towers, jumped around a while to get a tall stack again, but revealed Kathleen, who then eliminated Matt. By now, it was about 1.5 hours into the game, and to end our frustration, Kathleen committed suicide and set me up for the capture win. But I recorded it as a win for everyone, or at least a draw.

The game had the speed of Checkers moves, but without the quick resolution we were hoping for. It seemed to build and then go nowhere. It reminded me of Chinese Checkers, where the endgame is all but determined half-way through the game, but here, we couldn't tell who would win; the game seemed over and time for a resignation, but we couldn't tell who would win. In Yinsh, one of our favorites, there is a rising tension as the board is filled with pieces, and it becomes inevitable to have a line of 5 possible somewhere; here, there was no rising tension, only frustration. Pieces were removed from the board at a snail's pace; in the four-player game we had only about 10 pieces left in total, but the game could have gone another 10 minutes were it not for Kathleen's sacrifice. If we had taken some time for deep thought and planned out our next few moves, we might have had a chance at a quick end game, but we felt like we were in Chess, chasing a king with a king and rook, but having no ideas for a good endgame strategy.

So, it might be heresy, but Sackson struck out again, 0-2 with the Goadrich Gamers. Domination might be back as a 2-player game for Laura and myself, but the four player game is out. Kathleen and Mike headed out, so Matt and myself finished off the night with a much less tedious game of San Juan, constructing buildings and choosing roles and managing just enough luck to keep us interested. Sometimes luck can be a good thing. Along with definite mechanics leading to a conclusion.

Posted by Mark @ 9:13 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Finders keepers

Mark and I have been very fortunate to find some real treasures at garage sales around Madison, now that summer is upon us, we have been eager to hit the garage sales around the neighborhoods. This time we found a whole neighborhood organizing a garage sale this weekend and found a real treasure at one. Mark and I are going to Germany in August and have been looking for a smart backpack to carry all our "stuff" around in comfortably- unfortunately these packs can run between $100-300. Today we found one for me for only $40 (according to the internet, it is regularly $240). Needless to say it made my day. As we were traveling back to our apartment via the back roads, we found a golden key sale (where everything that relatives don't want gets sold) and we found a beautiful match to Mark's gram's hourdourve glasses and tray set. Gram's collection only had the plates, but now we added a set of glasses to the collection. Great finds!!

Posted by Laura @ 9:13 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

FRIDAY, MAY 6, 2005
Steak & Music

Tonight Mark and I had a night on the town! We went to the Tornado room down town- famous for their steaks. I had a lovely T-bone with enough marbling to make it melt in your mouth. I ate the entire steak. Mark had a hefty sirloin- that was a bit too red for the both of us. Mine might have been redder than I like, but with the dim lighting I couldn't tell- fortunately. To accompany our fine meal, we had hash browns covered in butter and some crunch veggies on ice. We also had a lovely assortment of bread including homemade breadsticks, corn muffin, and an herbed loaf.

After we were happily stuffed, we headed downstairs to the red lit bar for Burr's CD release party. Burr Settles is Mark's officemate at UW. After a bit of difficulty with the amp, we happily listened to Burr play some wonderful songs and met up with some old friends- Matt Anderson was back in town after working for a game company in D.C. We also saw Jen Beckam who will be getting married later this summer, Matt Lavine who is a regular at our game night adventures, and Natalie- Burr's wife- who is just about to leave for an artistic adventure overseas.

Overall a wonderful night of amazing food, wonderful music and great friends.

Posted by Laura @ 9:12 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

TUESDAY, MAY 3, 2005
Who shot the Sheriff?

Matt and Burr showed up first for Game Night tonight, and as we were waiting for Kathleen and Natalie, we played the old standard Carcassonne. We all went off on different strategies, and as we all knew the game well, there was much competition for the final farmer field, with Matt eventually overpowering us all to win in a clean sweep. This game never fails to make a picturesque landscape scene and is a great way to open the games.

Burr and Natalie had recently received Bang! from some friends and were eager to try it out, and as Kathleen had showed up, we set up for a 5 player game. Bang is a western-themed outlaws vs lawmen game, but player's roles are unknown except for the sheriff. A good part of the game is trying to deduce who is who and take your shots accordingly. It took a while to get through the rules, as the cards could use much better descriptions of the effects of the actions, however there have to be some sacrificies to make the cards work for a multi-lingual publishing audience. Just as Burr finished the rules, he had to head out to pick up Natalie, so the rest of us played a quick 4 player game. Bullets were flying, guns were upgraded, and beer was drunk to survive, as we worked our way around the table until the outlaws proved victorious. With Burr and Natalie back, the 6 player game got into full swing, and we were all a bit more trepadacious about shooting the Sheriff, giving Sheriff Natalie the win in a few rounds, with me as her loyal deputy.

Posted by Mark @ 9:10 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

SUNDAY, MAY 1, 2005
Lincoln Logs!

We also went out this afternoon to tour the local garage sales, as they seem to sprout up faster than flowers in the spring time. Our travels eventually lead to Fitchburg, where we found the mother load, a whole subdevelopment of about 15 individual garage sales! We found some shirts for Laura, a few present surprizes, some board games (always on the lookout for some gems) and our best find, a classic set of Lincoln Logs. We tried to find a good set when shopping for our nephew's Christmas present last year, and the only ones we could find were themed set, with settlers, highway men: lots of plastic people, but not many logs. But here, we found a complete set, deep stained wood, green slats for the roof, all for only $3! So we're all set for a visit from our nephews to entertain away the hours. Hooray!

Posted by Laura @ 10:23 PM CDT [Permanent URL]