Your Key to the City… CityPass!

Last year my family joyfully discovered CityPass… the kiddos were finally old enough to enjoy all the museums and attractions our fair city has to offer and so, we decided to take a few days off and make a staycation of it.citypass vacation tickets

Upon researching the CityPass, I was even happier to discover that CityPass is offered in a multitude of really awesome vacation spots… New York, Seattle and San Francisco to name a few.  And new to the list, Southern California! Yes, that’s right, Universal Studios, Disneyland, and the San Diego Zoo… plus a whole lot more are now easier to afford.

For the cost of a family of four to visit any 2 local attractions’ you can purchase a CityPass and gain access to at least 6 of the big name museums and local city draws.

Plus no waiting in lines (really… Space Center Houston, locally just known as NASA, has a special line just for CityPass folks.) It made site seeing with the kiddos just a little bit easier.

Another really cool feature is the pass lasts for 9 days…   have some time off stacked up, don’t want to rush through your visit, no worries… you can wrap your travels around 2 weekends.

So, from this mom to you… I pass along the gift of the CityPass. Thinking about vacationing this summer’ I suggest picking your spot from one of the those listed on

Happy Summer!

Build Your Own River Radio!

We all know Texas heat is brutal and most of us spend all summer trying to escape but there is a compromise.   Stick your butt in an inner tube and take that combo to the freezing cold waters of the west Texas rivers.   One of my family and friends most relished traditions is a yearly visit to the Guadalupe River which usually occurs during the Memorial holiday weekend, obviously a popular time of year for this ritual, as the convergence of the rest of the state’s population is near overwhelming at times.

The cooling waters of the Guadalupe, Comal, Frio and other Texas water ways have much to offer in relief and rescue from the Texas summer heat but, in my opinion, lack one key element to the optimal tubing experience.   Music, as one of my colleagues pointed out in an earlier post in this series, is essential.   Problem is water and electronics don’t mix so well and the water resistant equipment that is available falls short if you’re trying to share your tasty tunes with anyone within beer launching range.   That’s where the not so high tech redneck radio cooler comes to the rescue.   Here’s a brief description of how to build your own river radio.   This can easily be assembled by the intermediately skilled craftsman that’s familiar with simple electronics and basic material fabrications.

Here’s a check list of what you’ll need.

1. Roller cooler 40qt (wheels are a must cause this thing is kinda heavy)

2. Car battery (size depends on how much you weight you want to lug around and how much play time you want from your entertainment system)

3. Pair of car stereo speakers, 6×9 or smaller w/polypropylene cones (key to water resistance)

4. Car amplifier (don’t go to crazy on the amps, it doesn’t improve the sound all that much and it drains the play hours from battery)

5. Stereo patch cable

6. Some type of MP3 player, iPod, iPhone

7. Silicone adhesive

8. Electrical toggle switch

9. PVC pipe 2 inch or larger and adhesives for snorkel (optional)

Tools? In a pinch I could make this work with a utility blade and a pair of pliers but for a clean job you’ll want a few more selections on your work bench.   Nothing more than your standard drill, pliers and screwdrivers will accomplish the task at hand but a Dremel tool with a cutting bit can really speed up the process and make for a cleaner build. So here’s what you do:

1. Open that pair of polypropylene speakers and find the template for the speaker hole cut-outs to   mark your ice chest for surgery.   Don’t start cutting just yet, you’ll want to layout the entire job before starting your fabrications.

2. Next, position the battery in the ice chest and determine whether or not you’ll have enough clearance between the speaker magnets and the battery.   I’ve never known this to be an issue but if you went all out on some big speakers you may have a problem.






3. So now that you know the ice chest has the capacity to house your speakers and battery you may consider the option of adding the snorkel.   If so, you’ll want to position the snorkel pipe thru the top of the ice chest so it does not interfere with the speaker or battery placement and mark the cut out accordingly. The snorkel servers two purposes; it improves the quality of the sound by allowing the speakers to breath from the in-out movement of the speaker cones and it also cools the electronics just a bit.   I’ve gone years without the snorkel without problems but if you’re looking for the best quality in sound you’ll want to include it.

4. Let’s don’t forget that amplifier, make sure that fits as well.   Depending how creative you are you can mount the amplifier to the side of the inside wall of the ice chest or just place it in that little snack tray that comes included with most ice chest which you usually toss out.






5. Now that your well laid plans for stereophonic paradise are in order, mark your speaker cut-outs (higher is better) and commence to cutting.   This is where you’ll utilize the Dremel tool to trace along the template markings.   Note that the ice chest walls are thick so don’t expect to cut all the way through to the inner lining.   You’ll just want to cut through the first layer of plastic and complete your oval or circular cut out. Once that’s done you’ll peel off the plastic layer revealing a foam insulator beneath.   You can then cut out the foam using a utility blade or the Dremel tool.   Repeat these steps for the second speaker.






6. Now you have the speaker holes cut out you can mount the speakers.   Depending on what type of speakers you have you can either mount them directly to the surface of the outer skin or drill holes all the way thru the inner lining and bolt them on from the backside (preferred). After the speakers are mounted seal the edges with the silicon.






7. If you choose the snorkel option I would do this next.   This takes some imagination in fabrication but what you’re shooting for is the tightest fit possible so make your cut outs as precise as possible and insert the PVC thru the top of the ice chest.   To hold it in place position female ends on either side of the lid giving minimum space to the male fitting in the middle creating a sandwich of the lid between the two.   Use silicon to seal the edges then fasten the other PVC fittings in a manner that creates a U on top of the cooler.













8. Now you can place the battery inside the cooler and, again, depending on how fancy you want to get you can secure the battery in some fashion or just let it sit on the bottom of the cooler.






9. Next, wire and mount the amplifier. Not necessarily in that order but don’t mount the amplifier where you can’t see or reach the connections for the speakers and power.






10. Now you have all the components in place complete the wiring per the manufacture’s instructions using the toggle switch as the “remote on”.






11. Now plug in your MP3 player using the RCA cables to the amps input source and that’s it! You’re all ready to rock-and-float!










More project photos here

Film That Family Fun!

Summer break is finally here! You’ve packed the cooler, fueled your car, and programmed that GPS. It’s time for a vacation! Whether your traveling to England or just down to Galveston, you don’t want to forget sunscreen or a new HD camcorder for capturing all sorts of family fun.

With advancing technology like HD, there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of camcorders on the market, all wanting you to buy them for your next-get-away. This can be daunting at first but don’t fret! I spent weeks last summer deciding what camera to purchase (with my own money I might add). I ultimately broke my potential cameras down into 3 different categories based on price. This is how I will break it down today as well.

The Flip (Portability)

Price: $159.99

I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about this camera. Weighing in at just 5 oz, this little device has become an icon for portable video. With the addition of HD and the simplicity of the design, it’s easy for anyone to pick up and use almost instantly. It’s a great device to have on the road for all those moments when you don’t have time to pull out a full fledged video camera. The device does suffer for fashion however, the portability knocks out mini DV tapes (leaving only an hour of recording space!) and many basic features. Beyond the 2x digital zoom, there isn’t much else one can do.

My Take: The iPad of video cameras. While the device is amazing and useful for many occasions, at the end of the day the lack of features and 1 hour recording space isn’t enough to handle my week long trip to England. I see the Flip to be a great supplemental device to my main camera, as if my Flip is my video sketchpad.

Pros: Extremely portable, Full HD, ease-of-use, (great for day trips).

Cons: Few functions, 1 hour recording life, no accessories.

Panasonic HDC-TM55k HD (Functionality)

Price: $448.99

The middle ground device in this review, and probably the camera most people end up buying. An AVCHD 8GB built in memory camcorder boasting full 1920 x 1080i HD resolution, and an impressive 35x zoom. The camera houses an impressive set of features like, auto face-recognition, auto power LCD, intelligent auto (senses the shooting conditions and optimizes all settings to shoot the “best” video), notice a theme here? This camera would shoot a movie by it’s self if it knew how. All these auto features are aimed at home movie makers who don’t know how or don’t have time to mess with settings.

My Take: The array of auto features is a double edged sword. For some, the ability to just point and shoot nice video is all they need, and if so, buy this camera. Maybe it’s just the inner filmmaker in me crying out about the lack of control. I enjoy being able to tweak the camera to find the best look, but by no means might you have the same intention.

Pros: Full HD, full auto, portable, built-in wide angle lens, optical image stabilizer, 2.7″ LCD display.

Cons: Touch display (This tends to dirty the HD screen and make it hard to navigate while shooting), Flash memory (compresses video which lowers quality vs. minidv tapes)

Canon HV40 (Control)

Price: $949.00

The highest-end model coming in at just under 1k. Packing a huge punch in a small camera, some features include: full HD, 10x optical zoom and stabilization, and an advanced accessory shoe. However, the beauty of this camera does not lie within the HD or the basic features, but rather one special one, the ability to choose different frame rates. If the sound of that doesn’t make you jump up and shout then you probably should choose the camera above. Basically, choosing different frame rates, allows your movies to look more like film, or if your shooting high-speed action you can choose a higher frame rate. The number of frames per second the camera takes, ultimately effects your final movie, and few cameras under 1k include this feature. This is the camera I use to make all of my movies.

My Take: A water-downed professional camera in a small device. If your willing to pay a little more, this device can be perfect for that geeky Mom or Dad. This is the camera I ultimately ended up buying because of the control I have with the picture and with the accessory shoe which you can attach microphones and lights. If you feel like you don’t need these features (if they don’t get you all worked up!) then paying the price probably isn’t worth it. I absolutely love this camera, because it allows me to have professional control at a consumer price, so if you have any aspiring Spielberg’s in the family, pick this one up!

Pros: Full HD, Different frame rates (24, 30, 30i), MiniDV (can be good or bad), accessory shoe for mics and lights, super-range optical image stabilizer.

Cons: Price, MiniDV.

This wraps up my take on these cameras, I hope this helps you decide what to take on your next family outing. If you are looking to buy these cameras or look at more, I suggest B&H, a store (and online store) located in NYC. I have bought ALL of my cameras and camera gear from them the last couple of years and they have been the best place to find what you need. There are tons of cameras out there to take on your trip but of course, if all else fails, just take your iPhone.

Good luck and happy shooting!