Saturday, December 30, 2006

Austin to Boston - Part 1

I just got back from a three-day whirlwind tour of Boston and vicinity with Kate. The fast clip of events left no time for posting, but I had a great time visiting there for the first time at the hand of a native New Englander girlfriend.

I caught the year-old JetBlue nonstop to Boston on Wednesday morning. They service the route with Embraer E190 regional jets, which are bigger than most regional jets but smaller than mainliners. Without planes like the E190, Austin probably wouldn't have nonstop service to Boston.

You can watch live TV at every seat on JetBlue flights, which is a decent way to wile away four hours. They're also pretty generous with the Cokes and snacks, going so far as to invite you to ask for seconds. I wish they'd start flying to the West Coast from here. A nonstop to Oakland would suit my personal travel needs quite well.

Kate was already in Massachusetts for the holidays, so she picked me up at Logan Airport. We drove to Cambridge and had a very nice dinner in Harvard Square at a place called Upstairs on the Square.

Although the cold weather didn't exceed the hard freezes we have in Austin once or twice a year, it was still pretty bracing to my Texan frame. Therefore, I had no complaints when Kate suggested a stop at Burdick Chocolate for a cup of the best hot chocolate you can imagine. We also had some fine beer at John Harvard's Brew House. Boston is one of the world's great beer cities and I'd like to go back there and do a little more purposeful sampling one of these days.

As it was, Kate's dad graciously invited us to stay at his new vacation house overlooking Sakonnet Bay in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The drive down there took an hour and a half. I was plum-tuckered out by 10pm, a function of both a long day of traveling and the fact that it gets dark around 4pm in Boston during the winter. Having the sun retire so early can really do a number on your circadian rhythms.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

President Gerald Ford R.I.P.

Former President Gerald Ford has died at age 93. Betty Ford made the announcement this evening via a statement. He had been in declining health for some time.

Although I think Ford did our nation a grave disservice by granting an unconditional pardon to Richard Nixon, I always had a soft spot for him because he was the only president I ever saw in person. I think he was the most fundamentally decent of all the Republican presidents who have served in my lifetime.

One afternoon in 1976, President Ford's motorcade came down Mockingbird Lane in Dallas. I was six years old at the time. We lived a block away, so we dutifully walked over to Mockingbird and lined the street along with most of Highland Park. After what seemed like dozens of police motorcycles and Secret Service cars (this was less than a year after Squeaky Fromme's assassination attempt), I caught a brief glimpse of Ford waving through the window of his limousine.

After the motorcade passed, my friends and I returned to the sandbox. I recall one of my more outspoken friends said "President Ford is a doo-doo head," or something to that effect. Another friend, apparently mistaking the president for some kind of god figure, then said, "Don't say that. He can hear you, you know!"

One of the more morbid aspects of working for the government is that we usually get the day off for presidential funerals. It'll be interesting to see how they handle the special case of Ford, who wasn't elected president - or vice president, for that matter - and only served from August of 1974 (Nixon's resignation) to January of 1977 (Carter's inauguration).

James Brown at the Apollo for the Last Time

James Brown's body will lie in repose at Harlem's Apollo Theater on Thursday afternoon. That is about as appropriate a memorial for the Godfather of Soul as I can imagine.

The clip above is a classic J.B. performance of "Prisoner of Love" and "Please, Please, Please" from the T.A.M.I. Show at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1965. T.A.M.I. is supposed to be released on DVD by Dick Clark Productions at some point in the not-too-distant future, but with its long history of licensing problems, I'll believe that when I see it.

Enjoying That Property Tax Cut? Thank a Smoker!

At the risk of being an enabler, all smokers in Texas should know that now is the time to stock up on cigarettes for the new year.

Beginning Monday, you'll pay at least $1 more per pack and about $12 more per carton for cigarettes in Texas. The new tax scheme, passed by the state legislature earlier this year, is designed to help offset a property tax cut that will primarily benefit the wealthiest among us while starving our public schools.

I'm not sure what happens when enough Texans quit smoking to negate the fiscal bang of this particular sin tax, but as long as they don't start taxing curse words, I'll keep my goddamn mouth shut.

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown is Dead

The good feelings of another Bloody Mary Christmas morning with my parents in Houston were tempered somewhat by the sad news of James Brown's death today at the age of 73.

I was fortunate enough to see the Godfather play at Stubb's on May 10 (see review). I knew it might be my last chance to see James Brown and I wasn't going to miss him this time around.

I'd heard his more recent shows were hit-or-miss, but even though he couldn't sing or move like he did at the Apollo Theatre in 1962, there was still plenty of vitality in his performance. I'm not sure I'll ever get to see a more influential musician in the flesh.

Photo by Gary Miller

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Time for the Jews

Anyone who loves the Phil Spector Christmas album will dig this Robert Smigel "TV Funhouse" segment with Darlene Love on vocals from last year's Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Betty Butterfield On Wal-Mart

If you've lived in Texas awhile, you've met at least one woman who closely resembles Betty Butterfield.

Shown here, Betty minces no words in describing the horrors of shopping at the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

*For the record, I don't think Ms. Butterfield's pill-addled hysteria aligns with most of the current opposition to Wal-Mart in my neighborhood.

A Turd in the Ivory Tower

If having the brains of John F. Kennedy splattered on its downtown streets wasn’t enough, yesterday’s announcement that SMU is entering negotiations to build the oxymoronic George W. Bush Presidential Library is sure to make Dallas the undisputed epicenter of American presidential infamy for all time.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Here's to Everson Walls

In the midst of having to stomach yet another installment of Terrell Owens' idiocy, it’s extra nice to hear that former all-pro Dallas Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls is donating one of his kidneys to former Cowboys running back Ron Springs. Springs, 50, has diabetes and has been fighting kidney disease since 2002. He had to have his right foot amputated two years ago.

"A lot of people say you do something like this only for family," Walls said. "Well, we're family."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

DANGER: Seasonal Weather Approaching

All the people who were complaining about it being 80 degrees in Austin this past weekend are about to get their wish for seasonal holiday weather.

A big Arctic blast is headed this way as I write. Things are already nasty in the Texas Panhandle. There's even a remote chance of snow on Christmas Eve.

I wouldn't mind a little dusting of snow for Christmas. Austin hasn't had an appreciable snowfall (i.e., snow you can actually see on the ground) since 2004. I remember it snowing in Houston on Christmas Eve in 2003, too.

The more likely prospect of sleet is decidedly less cheery. You've never seen a bigger bunch of drooling nitwits than Texans trying to drive in icy weather. The resulting TV news footage of vehicles helplessly sliding into one another is almost as big an embarrassment to my home state as our president (who, incidentally, was born in Connecticut).

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Wal-Mart May Eat Itself

According to this article by James J. Cramer in New York magazine, uppity neighborhood groups like Responsible Growth for Northcross are the least of Wal-Mart’s problems.

Between its underperforming stock and flatlining sales growth, the world’s largest retailer is steadily losing ground to more appealing stores like Target and JCPenney. They are beginning to look more like the bloated, pre-bankruptcy K-Mart every day, and we all remember what Rain Man had to say about those guys.

Wal-Mart has a huge image problem on its hands. People don’t feel good about shopping there. Aside from the company’s remarkably screwy ethics, consumers have gotten wise to the fact that Wal-Mart doesn’t “always” have the lowest prices. When you do find a bargain there, it’s often a piece of crap. What good is a $40 DVD player if it breaks in two months?

I can deal with huge crowds and messy stores if I can get a good buy, but if Wal-Mart can’t consistently win the price/quality point after all that, why should I subject myself to everything else that sucks about them?

Cramer has some common sense suggestions for how Wal-Mart might right itself:

First, it has to acknowledge that the wheels have fallen off the Bentonville Bus. Then it has to bring in some savvy merchants from the outside and give them a real chance to improve the quality of the stores—the atmosphere, the merchandise, the service, everything—without raising prices. (And it wouldn’t hurt if Wal-Mart would create, if not a Starbucks pro-labor feel, at least something that makes shoppers feel that it’s not a global retailing bully and its workers aren’t all desperate retired folks.)

The biggest enemies of Wal-Mart are the people running the company who ignore such advice.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Toys "R" Us Animated Christmas Ad

This animated Toys "R" Us spot from the mid-70s is one of my all-time favorite Christmas commercials. It always made me feel warm inside when it came on. The explosion of toys at the end is like something out of a dream.

AA Plans Nonstop Austin-Seattle Flight

American Airlines has released its summer 2007 flight schedule and Austin is scheduled to get nonstop service to Seattle beginning April 10, 2007. AA plans to fly the four-hour route with an MD-80, not a cramped regional jet.

Despite all the high-tech traffic generated by the Microsoft-Dell axis, I'm not sure there's enough "nerd bird" traffic between Austin and Seattle to warrant mainline jet service. On the other hand, American is now codesharing with Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air out of Seattle, which will provide one-stop service to Austin for smaller cities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Either way, I have friends and relations in Seattle, so I'm glad to see it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Everybody Do the Schism

Several conservative Episcopalian congregations in Virginia (the same state that made whites marrying blacks a crime until the Supreme Court made them stop in 1967) are now scampering into the arms of homophobic African dioceses to avoid having to answer to a gay bishop.

The newly-aligned churches will serve as reverse missionary outposts to bring the not-so-good news about homosexuality to Americans.

Two of these churches sit on tax-free real estate in northern Virginia worth approximately $27 million. I hope the Episcopal Church makes them pay through the nose to leave.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Taco Bueno Taps Austin

Today I received a flurry of e-mails from friends who grew up in the Texas/Oklahoma border region about a new Taco Bueno opening in early 2007 at the corner of Mopac and Slaughter.

Local franchisee EatDrink, LLC out of Texarkana has big plans for the Abilene-born, Dallas-based chain. They eventually plan to open up to 14 locations in Central Texas.

Whether Taco Bueno can steal enough market share from Taco Bell to thrive here is open for debate. There was once a Taco Bueno in Round Rock, but it closed several years ago. The chain has radically altered its concept since then, so they might do better this time around.

Negative publicity surrounding the E. coli scare at Taco Bells in the Northeast probably won't hurt, either.

I Will Not Blog About Wal-Mart Again This Week

I'm getting tired of all Wal-Mart, all the time, but whether you have a horse in the Northcross Mall redevelopment or not, do read Michael King's bigger-picture piece on the so-called "Wal-Mart effect" on our society in today's Chron. Here's just one of the money quotes:

If a Dallas developer and a transnational juggernaut can impose a project this massive and disruptive in the midst of several established, residential neighborhoods, without so much as a public-hearing process to fully address its implications and consequences, then what good is a city government?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another Year, Another Conference

Over the past several months, the bulk of my government job (I can't really call it a 'day job' anymore now that I've given up on my tap dancing career) has been consumed by preparations for the Texas HIV/STD Conference.

We're closing up shop tomorrow and my feet couldn't be happier. Although I'm glad it's over, it's also a little bit sad to put another conference to bed. Despite the stress of preparing for it, I like to see all my out-of-town colleagues in one place every other year.

You can learn plenty about the conference here, but your Eye on Austin (a.k.a. KEYE-TV) gives you the 15-second version here along with some good news about a decline in breast cancer rates.

Fighting City Hall

About 150 protesters showed up at Austin City Hall this afternoon to speak out against the Northcross Wal-Mart development. I couldn't be there, but the Chron's Wells Dunbar has a report here.

Although Lincoln Properties has now joined Wal-Mart in its 60-day suspension of the project, it wasn't before Lincoln filed a second site plan at the same time Wal-Mart announced the 60-day suspension. In other words, the suspension is nothing but more public relations. Don't let the headlines fool you.

If there's no other reason to oppose Wal-Mart and Lincoln Properties' plans for Northcross, it's because they've dealt with the public in bad faith from the word go. This is how a company becomes the most hated retailer on the planet.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wal-Mart Suspends Northcross Plans for 60 Days

Wal-Mart announced today that it is suspending its designs on Northcross Mall for 60 days to talk with surrounding neighborhoods.

While the city already approved Wal-Mart's site plan (under somewhat spurious circumstances), they have yet to approve a remodeling or building permit. Richard Suttle, Wal-Mart's attorney for this project, says the company hopes to address some of the points of neighborhood opposition during the 60-day delay.

This is a good public relations move on Wal-Mart's part, but whether it's any more than that remains to be seen.

Northcross Wal-Mart Update

Austin City Council has added the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter at Northcross Mall to its Thursday agenda.

While some council members don't believe the city can legally stop the project, Brewster McCracken told the Statesman he wants to review the site review approval anyway.

"We know that at least one procedural requirement was not followed," he said. "We also know there is great interest in seeing a better type of development on that site. But we're trying to find out what our choices are."

Responsible Growth for Northcross has gathered over 3,500 signatures from residents in the affected neighborhoods in opposition to the 220,000-plus square-foot retail behemoth.

Meanwhile, the Real Estate Council of Austin is urging its members to voice their opposition to Austin's proposed "big box" ordinance that would've required Wal-Mart and Lincoln Properties to notify neighborhoods of this development prior to getting the site plan approved by the city.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Larry Kane and the Smell of Incense

Since I'm right in the thick of helping to coordinate a biennial conference for 800 people, here's some more classic Houston TV for ya.

Up through the Sixties, many local TV stations produced teen dance shows to compete with American Bandstand. In Houston, it was The Larry Kane Show, aired weekdays over KTRK.

This garbled 1968 clip is of Dallas-based Southwest F.O.B. performing a cover of the West Coast Experimental Pop Art Band's "Smell of Incense." The song was a regional hit, but the Stax distribution deal they talk about failed to break "Incense" into the national top 40. Personally, I prefer the original.

They also refer to a place called Catacombs, which was a teen club located at 3003 S. Post Oak Rd. Catacombs later moved to the corner of University and Kirby, which was a Half Price Books for most of the time I lived in Houston. I'm not sure what's there now.

It's pretty hilarious to listen to these guys with thick Texas drawls whip up a psychedelic frenzy. Southwest F.O.B. members Dan Seals and John Colley became England Dan and John Ford Coley in the Seventies, scoring a number one hit with "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Houston's Channel 39 Nears 40

If you grew up in Houston in the Seventies, you probably watched KHTV Channel 39 every day after school.

In addition to Flintstones and Brady Bunch reruns, KHTV showed local shows like Don Mahoney and Jeanna Clare (a low-budget, western-themed kiddie talent show), News Before the Hour (local high school students reading the news) and, of course, Houston Wrestling with Paul Boesch (taped every Friday night at the now-demolished Sam Houston Coliseum).

KHTV stupidly changed its call letters to KHWB in 1999 to reflect its WB affiliation, which means the station had to change names again this year to KHCW.

This CW39 News clip from September 17 chronicles 40 years of Channel 39 with some great old footage from the glory days of UHF.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Chilean Dictator Pinochet Dies

Good riddance to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who finally died today at the age of 91.

Pinochet led a military coup against democratically-elected Marxist president Salvador Allende in 1973. More than 3,000 people were murdered for political reasons under Pinochet's 17-year reign. His old age and declining health kept him from ever having to fully account for his misdeeds.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

I Love the Smell of Rotting Flesh in the Morning

Now that we’ve got our own IKEA, what else does the Austin area need to make itself a real metropolis? A 50-story skyscraper? Major league sports? Nonstop flights to Europe?

Well, how about an outdoor laboratory for the study of human decomposition?

According to Friday’s Texas Government Insider, Texas State University in San Marcos is thinking about building such a facility to allow researchers and law enforcement officials to observe the decomposition process in order to better predict approximate times of death. Only two other states – California and Tennessee – have similar laboratories.

The facility would require a six-acre tract that could be surrounded by prison fencing and monitored by video surveillance. They’ll also need a lot of Lysol.

Friday, December 08, 2006

North Austin Gets Its Anglo On

Can North Austin support two cheesy Anglo-themed pub concepts right across the street from each other? With this month’s grand opening of Bagpipes Pub & Eatery right across the street from Sherlock’s Baker St. Pub & Grill at Burnet and 183, we will soon find out.

I’m baffled that Bagpipes would choose a location so close to the better-established Sherlock’s, especially in a shopping center facing away from one-way service road traffic where other restaurants have met quick and unceremonious demise. Moreover, Bagpipes is only open until midnight. Sherlock’s stays open until 2am.

On the other hand, Bagpipes has umpteen plasma TV screens and a wait staff dressed up like naughty Scottish schoolgirls, which will go a long way toward pulling in the coveted Boorish Lout demographic – at least until they get sued by the Tilted Kilt under the trade dress infringement precedent set by the 1992 Supreme Court case, Taco Cabana, Inc v. Two Pesos, Inc.

Hell, I may just pop into Bagpipes myself in the coming weeks for research purposes. Any place that has Bass Ale on tap within stumbling distance of my home is worth a cursory visit.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

City Approved Wal-Mart Without Knowledge of City

While there’s no smoking gun, Katherine Gregor’s story in today’s Austin Chronicle gives the best forensic analysis to date on how the Northcross Wal-Mart Supercenter proposal wound its way through city channels with no opportunity for public input until the site plan was approved.

The revelation that city manager Toby Futrell’s husband is employed by Wal-Mart is duly notable (she announced yesterday that she was recusing herself from the case), but I think it’s much more troubling that no city official can explain why the “big box” ordinance and the adoption of improved commercial design standards were hung up in review at the same time the single largest store in Travis County was being approved.

As council member Brewster McCracken stated, “I don't know which would be more alarming, that they knew about it or that they didn't know about it."

Ye Gads, A Twister!

There was a tornado in northwest London today that injured six and damaged several homes.

Tornadoes aren’t unheard of in Great Britain, but they are somewhat rare. They only have about 33 a year on average, according to the Tornado and Storm Research Organization. Central London was struck by a tornado in 1099 that destroyed the church of St. Mary Le Bow along with 600 homes. On November 23, 1981, there was a tornado outbreak in England that spawned as many as 105 twisters.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The New Titter Times

A couple of my Ron Titter bandmates have been up to some pretty cool stuff lately.

Guitarist/keyboardist David Wyatt has composed a percussion piece based on a future RTB song called “Whup Cream” and the Golden Hornet Project’s percussion ensemble will be playing it tonight along with compositions from Josh Robins (Invincible Czars), Graham Reynolds (Golden Arm Trio), Peter Stopschinski (Brown Whornet) and two-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated composer P. Kellach Waddle. The show starts at 8pm at The Off Center at 2211-A Hidalgo. Buy tickets here.

Meanwhile, our drummer/chef Joel Fried just made Texas Monthly’s list of “The 63 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die” with his “Cowboy Taco,” available at both Austin locations of Tacodeli. He created the taco by combining chunks of tenderloin with grilled corn, carmelized onions, queso fresco and guacamole. Joel’s was one of only eight tacos to be photographed, which gives him the unique license to boast, “There’s a picture of my taco in Texas Monthly!”

Sorry, Joel, it was just too easy.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Tree with All the Trimmings

This past weekend, I ended my self-imposed two-year sabbatical on Christmas trees with a vengeance. Kate and I picked out this six-foot Douglas fir and decorated it Saturday night to the strains of Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas and Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You.

I'd planned to put the tree near my front door, but it was too wide and unwieldy to fit there. Instead we placed it in the converted garage den, or as I call it, the Rompus Room. Hopefully I won't accidentally kick it over while singing along with Van Halen's first album.

The other good thing about this year's tree placement is that it's further away from my bedroom. I used to have bad dreams about Christmas trees coming to life and attacking me.

Friday, December 01, 2006

1961 Civil Defense Aviation Grounding

While many people assume 9/11 was the first time U.S. commercial aviation was brought to a nationwide halt, this Universal International newsreel footage narrated by Ed Herlihy shows an admittedly-less-dire 1961 precedent in which all civil planes were grounded for 12 hours while the U.S. and Canada successfully defended North America against a mock Soviet air attack.