Saturday, April 19, 2014

A special message from Sonoma




Happy 39th Anniversary 
Mom & Dad!


Saturday, February 15, 2014

NASA's Space Exploration Vehicle



Yesterday Jeremy, myself, and our friend, Chris, got to drive the NASA SEV Chariot Rover.  The Rover was designed in in the Dexterous Robotics Lab where I work, however the team that designed it is part of a different group, in a different building, so I don't get to interact with them very often.

It was a great experience to learn more about what they are doing and to drive the rover.  It was so much fun!

Jody was nice enough to take us out to the rock yard and we each got to drive through the craters and up and down the rock hill.

The Chariot Rover has six wheel modules, each with independent suspension, drive, steering and 2 feet of travel.   It also is equip with crab drive.  All this allows the rover to traverse even the most difficult terrains.

Here are some pictures of us driving up and around the rock yard.





Check out my flickr page for more photos and videos!


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Meet Valkyrie

I am very excited to be able to share with you all the robot that I have spent the last 9 months working on.  It's been so hard to keep this a secret, but I have been very fortunate to work with an amazing team of people on this awesome project.

Meet Valkyrie. 

She is a highly dexterous bipedal walking robot designed by an awesome team of engineers at the Johnson Space Center to compete in the Darpa Robotics Challenge (DRC).

The DRC is a robotics competition bringing together the best of the best from around the world.  The goal of this challenge is to build a dexterous robot that can perform a variety of tasks in hazardous environments and perform disaster response operations, much like those seen at the Fukushima reactor site.

The project was kicked off in October 2012 with several tracks.  Our team has chosen to compete in Track A, which means we were responsible for building our own hardware and software from the ground up.  There are five other teams in the Track A category, one of which is RoboSimian, another NASA team from JPL in California.

Teams not wanting to design their own hardware, had the choice of participating in the Virtual Robotics Challenge.  These teams had to design software to run a simulated Atlas robot through a variety of tasks demonstrating robotic control, locomotion, and manipulation.  Those teams ranked highest were awarded an Atlas robot by Boston Dynamics which they will use to compete with along side the Track A teams this December in Florida.  (Side note: Our partner on the X1 Exoskeleton project, IHMC, placed first in the virtual challenge!)

This years trials will run the robots through a series of disaster recovery tasks, one at a time.  Some of the tasks include walking over rough terrain, clearing debris, climbing a ladder, driving a cart, walking up to and through a doorway, actuating power tools, and manipulating hoses and valves, to name a few.

To read more about the Robotics Challenge, click HERE.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Smokin'

A few months back we were staying at our friends house in Austin, when he introduced us to the world of smoking.

No, not that type of smoking.  Texas smoking.  As in meat.  Delicious delicious meat.


He had just purchased a Trager smoker, technically a pellet grill, and was eager to make some ribs for us.  Using the 321 method (explained below) he proceeded to make the most amazing ribs that I've ever had at someones house.  And that includes my dad's ribs, which are pretty freaken amazing.

I was hooked.

Fast forward 3 weeks and I finally convince Jeremy that we NEEDED one of these for ourselves.

We head down to Costco and 2 trips later (that's a whole other story) we arrive home with 1 smoker and 3 bags of pellets: hickory, apple, mesquite.


First meal: Ribs.




For these we followed the Trager cookbook recipe and employed the 3-2-1 method.

Smoke for 3 hours, wrap and "cook" at 225 for 2 hours, unwrap and continue to cook at 225 for 1 more hour to let the meat tighten.

They were fall off the bone tender.



Here you can see them nicely arranged on the smoker.

We did notice the skin was a little tough, but I think we could avoid that by using a mop sauce as described below.

For the rub we used only a dry rub consisting of Rib Tickler and Joe's Stuff.


Meal 2: Brisket

Let me start by saying, we live in TX and in Texas there is no such thing as a small brisket.  Good luck finding anything under 10 lbs.  For our first brisket experience we chose a 12 lb prime brisket from Costco.  

It fit on the smoker quite nicely don't you think.

Again we used a dry rub consisting of Rib Tickler, Joe's Stuff, and Saltlick dry rub.

We also made a mop sauce of 2 cups of Saint Arnold's Octoberfest, 2 tbsp worcestershire sauce, and 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar.

 
We smoked the brisket for 4 hours, uncovered, coating with the mop sauce (in a spray bottle) every hour.

We then cooked it at 225 for 6 more hours, mopping every 1.5 hours, until the internal temp read about 195 deg.

Finally we wrapped it in foil and old towels and let it rest in a cooler for 30 minutes.

It was awesome.  I'm not a huge brisket fan, mostly because I find it to be too dry, but this was super moist and delicious.  Two thumbs up.

In addition to brisket and ribs, we've also done chicken (cooked at 350) and burgers.  The burgers were okay, but the chicken was very juicy and had a perfectly crisp skin.

I'm so glad we made the investment, and I can't wait to see what we decide to smoke next week!


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Germany Part V - Munich

(For Part IV click HERE)

Dachau

Our final three days centered around Munich, but before we even got into the city we stopped to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp.  Originally I had wanted to take a guided tour from Radius Tours because I think you get so much more interesting information this way, but we couldn't really get Max's feeding schedule to line up well with the tour schedule.  If you can't take a guided tour, don't worry, everything is documented in English and you can rent audio guides, which we did, for about 7E/pp.  

It's really hard to put into words the feeling that you get walking around Dachau.  You can't explain it.  All I can say is that it is worth a visit to anyone in the area.  Although we don't like to talk about it, what happened in Dachau and hundreds of other places across Europe is part of our history and something we all need to learn from.  Dachau is a great place to explore the history of the Nazi regime because it became the model for all other concentration camps. Visiting the Documentation Center in Nuremberg a few days before really set the stage for our visit here.  

München

After a visit to Dachau, we headed into Munich.  We stayed at the Hotel Mercure in the old city right near the Marienplatz.  We first dropped our bags at the hotel then went to return the rental car; we wouldn't be needing it anymore.  I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to walk back from the car drop off.  We could have also taken the train, but the walk was pretty short and gave us a chance to explore a little.  

It was just about time for dinner once we got in and Jeremy wanted to check out the first of four biergartens that we would hit up during our stay.  The first place we visited was Viktualienmarkt.  The small beer garden actually sits in the center of this farmers market; sit in at the tables with cloths for full service or without to self serve.  The process is the same as every other biergarten except this one is pretty small.  First you grab a table, then you head over to the food stalls to grab some food and to the beer meister to get some delicious libations.  Here they offered 1/2 and Full liters of beer as well as 1/2 liters of Weißebeer.  Up to this point we had been eating a variety of sausages at nearly every meal (bratwurst, nuremburg bratwurst, weisswurst, etc) so tonight I was determined to get something different.  But alas, I couldn't find the chicken guy, so wurst it was!  


The next morning we woke up casually and took our time at breakfast.  We spent part of the morning exploring the Marienplatz and the surrounding area before continuing our beer garden adventures later in the afternoon.  I was really mesmerized by the Neo-Gothic architecture of the New Town Hall.  It is so intricately decorated and check out this little guy climbing the corner tower.   Look closely at the faces of the figures right near his head.  To the people of Munich this New Town Hall is also  home to their beloved glockenspiel (Center of the building).  This giant spiel goes off every day at 11 and Noon and hundreds of people flock to the platz to watch.  We were one of those people.  Gotta tell ya... eh.  If of all the things you do in Munich, this is the event you miss, don't let it break your heart.  After 3 minutes or so Jeremy and I looked at each other, looked at the spiel, looked at the crowd looking at the spiel, looked at each other again, then left.  

In münchen steht ein Hofbräuhaus

Once the clock struck noon it was time to go biergartening (is that a word?!?).  We first stopped by the famous Hofbräuhaus.  Because we were there so early it wasn't really crowded, but there was an Oompah band playing.  After changing tables a few times due to smokers and other issues, we finally settled down and ordered.  At this point Jeremy said "no more sausage," so he ordered himself some meatloaf.  Well, the joke was on him.  This so called "meatloaf" was pretty much a hot dog loaf.  Yea.  To make this little dish all you have to do is take a hot dog out of its skin, press it into patty form and you've got yourself a Hofbräuhaus meat loaf.  Gross.  But the beer was tasty, pretzels good, and Max seemed to have fun too.  (No, I didn't feed my kid beer, but he seemed to be mesmerized looking through the glass)  

Augustiner Beer Garden

After the visit to the Hofbräuhaus, we walked across town and past the train station to the Augustiner Beer Garden.  There are several Augustiner restaurants scattered throughout the old city, however the big biergarten is out past the train station.  It's a pretty easy walk.  

Much like the Augustiner Bräustübl in Salzburg (similar name, not related) this biergarten is great for a true under-the-trees 
experience.  The weather was perfect, the trees provided a nice shaded area, and the beer was good.  Like other places there are service and self-serve areas, so watch which table you pick.  Here we also enjoyed some liptauer (see right) and chicken.  Yes, we finally found some chicken.  

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by a park to feed Max.  When we got there he was sleeping so peacefully we decided it would be best not to wake him and instead just wait it out... at the Park Cafe... with beer.  We just sat outside and split a half liter, but the inside of this place is really cool.  If we weren't ready to call it a day, and if my body was able to handle more, it would have been really neat to lounge inside and sip some wine.  

English Garden

Our last day in Munich we decided to take it really easy.  We had contemplated taking a guided tour of the city, but we were both feeling kind of done.  Instead we headed up to the English Garden.  This is Munich's equivalent to Central Park.  It's huge and awesome.  You don't even realize you are in the middle of this big city.  As Rick Steve's suggested, we entered the park from the south side at the intersection with the river.  From here you can follow the river up through the park.  There are two reasons to do it this way.


Reason 1: Surfers.  Yes, surfers.  The formation of the river forms a unique wave right at the bridge where surfers gather each day to test out their latest moves.  I guess when you don't live close to the ocean this is the best you're gonna get. I shot a short video you can watch over on my vimeo page HERE.  

After watching the surfers for a while, we continued our walk through the park.  It's such a lovely area and a great place to relax.  It was the perfect way to spend our last day in Germany.  Here's a family shot that we got along the river.



Continuing along the river, brought us to reason #2 for following this path: The Chinese Tower Beer Garden.  I suppose its a redundant statement to say this 6,000 seat beer garden is huge, but it IS huge.  We found ourselves a little seat out of the sun where we could listen to the Oompah band play, watch the crazy Austrian soccer fans, and eat some lunch.  (side note: apparently there was a World Cup qualifying match between Austria and Germany being played in Munich later that night... Germany won... I think). 

After spending the rest of the day relaxing in the garden, we headed back to the Marienplatz.  That night we ate dinner at Restaurant Opatija.  This little restaurant off the beaten path has an eclectic Italian and Balkan menu.  Jeremy got a big seafood salad and I had some pasta carbonara.  Totally not German, and totally awesome.

Before heading back to the hotel, we took the elevator down to the S-bahn to get our airport tickets and scope things out.  The elevator is located right in the Marienplatz which made it very convenient the next morning.  To get an airport ticket, simply use one of the automated machines (the newer blue/gray ones) and check the schedule on the opposite wall.  The S8 and the S1 run to the airport but the S8 is more direct (from what we understand).  Though either way you have to change once.  Also don't forget to stamp your ticket in the little blue machine before going down to the track. 

At the time we visited there was a lot of construction going on so some of the sections were blocked off.  When we purchased our tickets Jeremy took the escalator down to track 1 to scope things out.  What we didn't realize until the next morning, was that the escalator went down to track 1, but the elevator only took you to the main floor (purchasing and validating of tickets) and to track 2.  We had no idea how to get to track 1!  We looked around for a bit, and I'm sure there was some way to get down there, but we were too nervous about missing our train, so we took the escalator.  After having done this a few times already with a stroller, I knew it could be done, but it still scared the crap out of me.  We did have to change trains once, but that was pretty easy.

We flew home from Munich to Frankfurt then a direct flight from Frankfurt to Houston.  Once again we had the bassinet going back and Max did a really great job.  He's a traveling champ and we can't wait to take him on his next vacation.  

We had a great time in Germany and would highly recommend it for anyone considering a trip to Europe.  Traveling with an infant does have it's challenges, but you know, it really wasn't bad and once we were there we were doing anything we normally would have done at home except in a different country.  Yes, we did have to buy diapers and wipes while we were over there, but it wasn't hard.  (though at first we did buy the generic german brand thinking we would save money but soon realized why its worth it to buy name brand Pampers).  I know that Max won't remember any of the trip, but I think the exposure to traveling and people and new places will have a positive effect on him and we will always remember the great time we had.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Germany Part IV - Rothenburg ob der Tauber

(For Part III click HERE)


Rothenburg ob der Tauber

After leaving Salzburg we headed back to northern Bavaria to the perfectly preserved, quintessential medieval city: Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Rothenburg is probably my favorite city in all of Germany.  I love how quaint it is.

We stayed at Hotel Kloster-Stüble in Room 15.  The room was very nice and spacious, and the included breakfast was terrific.  It was your typical German breakfast with delicious fresh made breads, cheeses and meats.  They also offered mimosas and eggs to order.  It was nice to have fried eggs for the first time in two weeks.  The only thing unusual we noticed about our room was the incline of the floor.   It must have been at least a 3-4 degree incline from one side of the room to the other.  We joked that we had to hike uphill to get from the bathroom to the crib.

Due to major construction on the autobahn running up from Salzburg, we got into town pretty late.  So we just walked around the market square, peeked into some windows, then had dinner at the hotel restaurant.  It was a really good meal and worthwhile even if you aren't staying at Kloster-Stüble.  (plus they had a bench seat for Max to lay on).

The next two days we spent walking around the town and relaxing.

Christmas Village


Of course the first thing we had to do was hit up the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village.  It is amazing.  There are actually two stores, one smaller and more manageable (far fewer people) and the other is huge and very elaborate.  We did most of our shopping in the smaller store, then we took Max to the bigger store to look at all the lights and moving marionettes.  I could have easily spent another hour in the bigger village, but Jeremy clearly wanted to go and I had already spent enough money.  

We also stopped by the Teddy Bear store and bought Max a Steiff Teddy named Charlie.  I wanted him to have something special from Germany and these handmade bears are perfect.  He looked so cute with his new Teddy and his Lambie from Oberammergau.  He's really enjoying sitting up now and being able to look around.

After shopping we grabbed some lunch at an outdoor cafe called Reichs-Küchenmeister (flammkuchen, sausage, and beer of course).  Fortunately we were able to find a table where there weren't people smoking right next to us. After lunch we did a little more shopping in this cute children's store and bought max two wooden puzzles as well as a wooden stacking tower.  We then headed over to the Crime and Punishment Museum.  I gotta say, the museum was interesting, but not really as good as all the hype.  I'd only rate at 2.5 stars.

Over the two days we also took the opportunity to do laundry.  It was pretty easy to find the place but there's no way that I would have stopped by a laundromat like that in the states.  It's ironic how a place designed to clean your clothes could be so dirty.  The laundromat is just outside the walled part of the city, so it was an easy walk and we brought lunch sandwiches with us to occupy the time.

Night Watchman Tour


One of the most recommended activities in Rothenburg is taking the Night Watchman's Tour.  7E/pp and well worth it, 5 stars.  This guy is as informative as he is funny.  He captivates you with his voice and you are drawn listening to him explain the history of the city.  

Did you know the city was spared in WWII because some high ranking official in the US Army, who had never visited Rothenburg, had seen pictures of the town growing up and though it was so beautiful that didn't want to see the town destroyed.  So he gave the order for the US Army to first offer a surrender by the Germans before leveling the city.  Although the Germans were under strict orders not to surrender, the German commander was out of the city when the offer from the US forces came in and the lieutenant commander, probably understanding that there were no other good options, took the offer, and thus the city was spared.  Pretty neat.

Walking the Wall

Another great activity to do in Rothenburg is walk the wall.  It's the only city (I believe) whose wall is completely intact and you can walk about 75% of it.  Jeremy and I started just after breakfast and we spent about 2 hours just strolling along with Max.  It's pretty wide in some sections but narrow in others, so I wouldn't advise a stroller.  Between certain hours of the day you can also climb the Roedertor tower at the East end of the town for an amazing view of the city; though the hours seem to be a little loose so its best to go right in the middle of the open window.  Also note that it costs 2E to enter the tower room at the top and that you pay only after you've climbed the 135 steps to the top, so bring some coins with you.

While in Rothenburg we ate at three really good restaurants.  The first of which I told you about earlier, but I also want to mention Zur Hölle and Gaststätte Bürgerkeller.  Both of these were recommended by Rick Steves and the first, Zur Hölle, is practically the only place open past 8pm, and literally translated means Hell.  It is described as "dark and foreboding" but it is awesome.  Really cool little bar/restaurant that serves up amazing food and great wine (and beer of course).  There are a few little nooks throughout the small building nestled with tables and we sat in this cute little area off to one side.  Here is also the first place that we had Liptauer, a savory paprika cream cheese spread.  Delicious!

Our second night we ate at Gaststätte Bürgerkeller.  This also gets high marks from us, but unfortunately the owner told us that after 27 years in the business he would be closing down in December of this year, so unless you're going to Rothenburg soon you'll probably miss out on this little gem.

During one of our relaxing days here we also dropped into Restaurant Glocke.  Next to the restaurant is a wine store but you can also go into the restaurant at anytime (we went around 3) and ask to do a wine tasting.  They have a 4,40E deal which lets you sample 5 Franconian wines.  We did a dry white and a red tasting.  Keep in mind the wine of the region is white, so there are about 10x more white wines to choose from than reds.  The tasting was a nice way to escape all the people and relax for a bit.  We weren't there during dinner but from what we could tell this would probably be a great place to eat.

Nuremberg

Our last day in Rothenburg we took a quick side trip over to Nuremburg to see the Nazi Documentation Center and the old town.  The Documentation Center now houses a very interesting museum exploring not so much the Holocaust itself but the perfect storm of events leading up to it.  We spent about 2.5 hours in the exhibit and we probably could have spent even more if it weren't for Max's feeding schedule.  

We then drove into the old town and walked around for about two hours.  We followed the walking tour of Nuremberg (or Nürnberg) as outlined in the Rick Steve's guidebook.  Here's a picture of Max and Jeremy in front of a really creepy fountain.  I will say, I was really impressed by the architecture throughout the city, especially St. Lawrence Church.  Wow.

It was really nice to have been stationary for a few days, but it was time to leave and head to the last city on our vacation, Munich.  

(continue to part V HERE)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Germany Part III - Salzburg

(For Part II click HERE)

Salzburg

After leaving Füssen we headed down to Salzburg in Austria.  We had hoped to make it down by dinner time, but the 3 hour drive turned into a 5 hour drive thanks to construction everywhere.  I understand that Germans love their roads, but what's the point of an autobahn if you have to slow down every 15km for construction.  It made for a very long drive with a cranky baby by the end.

We finally arrived in Salzburg around 7pm and checked into our hotel: Haus Arenberg.  As it turns out, this was the last weekend of the month long music festival in Salzburg, so finding a hotel was pretty difficult, even a few months out. Although had originally wanted to stay in the old town, this place was only a 15 minute walk out and was actually really nice.  The breakfast was delicious.  (breakfast was my favorite meal of the day.  Probably because it gave us a chance to sit and relax and just enjoy each others company without sightseeing or being out and about with other people.  Plus the european bread and butter is really good)

A walk around the town

Although we originally had planed to take a salt mine tour outside of Salzburg, we decided it would be more fun to spend our only full day there exploring the old town.  We started off by following the Rick Steves guided tour of the city.  This is a really cool city.

We walked along the river and over into the old town to begin our walk in Mozartplatz, an open square with a big statue of Mozart.  While the statue was mildly impressive, what was really cool was the hundred or more large bean bags spread across the square with several tall columns of books dotted throughout.  There were people just hanging out; walk over, pick up a book, grab a bean bag and sit back and relax.

We then continued around the town admiring old buildings, cathedrals, and the beauty of the mountains.  We stopped to listen to some street music and even purchased a CD from one of the performing trios.  After walking through St. Peter's Cemetery we decided to break off from the guide book and head up to the Fortress.

Hohensalzburg Fortress

Instead of taking the funicular up to the top, we took the long steep walk around.  Although we decided not to tour the castle, we did enjoy the sweeping views of the city.

We then continued along following the recommended Mönchsberg Walk as described in the Rick Steves book.  This walk takes you on a nice 30 minute hike through the woods high above the city.  We stopped at the Gasthaus Stadtalm cafe along the way for lunch, and while we ate outside taking in views of the city below, the bees swarming the tables proved too much and we ate in haste and left quickly.

Augustiner Bräustübl 

Continuing along our walk, we had a very specific destination in mind.  The Augustiner Bräustübl beer garden.  This huge 1,000-seat beer garden is located within a monk-run brewery.  It was awesome.



Located inside are two large ornate indoor rooms, one for smoking and one for non-smoking.  There are also about 10 food stands serving up everything from sausage and potato salad to salty spiral sliced radishes, large pretzels, and apple strudel.  Leaving the building you step out onto the huge courtyard shaded by chestnut trees.  Although they have some waiter service, for beer only, it is best to go self-serve (schank means self-serve and its cheaper).


The process for getting a beer is this.  Walk under the awning and pay the man 3E for 1/2 liter or 6E for a full liter.  With receipt in hand, pick up your mug from the wall and wash it in the large sink.  Hand the mug and the ticket to the beer meister standing in front of the large wooden barrel (yes barrel) of beer.  Enjoy.

Don't both asking about types, unlike most beer gardens there is only one type on tap... and it is delicious.  I wish we could get this stuff in the states.

When we first arrived we specifically picked a table outside way in the back where we hoped no one would sit near us.  Unfortunately after about 20 minutes it started to get really crowded and the tables filled in.  We were doing okay until a group of 4 sat down next to us and all whipped out their cigarettes and started puffing away.  Like literally 6 feet away from the kid.  Come on!  I know you can smoke outside, and I know most Europeans can't sit down without having a cigarette in hand, but you think you could have picked a different table?  Ugh.  We tried moving to another table, but we quickly realized that we couldn't get away from the smoke outside, so we moved into the non-smoking room inside.  It was still pretty cool.

Hellbrunn Castle

The next morning before heading out, we stopped by Hellbrunn Castle.  I remember visiting this castle 13 years ago when I came here with my parents and I was excited to show Jeremy.  The castle itself isn't anything exciting, but the gardens are really neat.  Prince Archbishop Stittikus created these gardens to play tricks on his friends when he entertained.  They are lined with water driven marionettes, trick fountains and water traps ready to surprise his visitors.  Even Max got a little wet.  :)


After visiting the castle it was time to head off to Rothenburg ob der Tauber...

(continue to part IV HERE)