Saturday, October 31, 2009

McDonald's leaves Iceland in the cold

As if their tanking currency wasn't bad enough, Iceland will no longer have any McDonald's after midnight tonight due to high imported food prices. Guess that means they're off Thomas Friedman's do-not-bomb list. Sorry, Björk!

New corporate identity

After nearly four years of being content with the Blogger default header, I decided to slap on a new logo today. I think it's just what this 'ol blog needs to attract the hearts and minds of the "now" generation.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rolling out to Reimers Ranch

Kate's Aunt P.K. is in town this weekend, so we decided to take advantage of the perfect weather by going out to Milton Reimers Ranch Park.

Located on the Pedernales River in the far western reaches of Travis County, Reimers Ranch is well-known to rock-climbers and mountain bikers, but it has only been in the Travis County Parks system since 2006. This was the first time I'd been out there.

With the recent rains bringing the Hill Country back to life, our quick day trip was well worth the $8 admission. I think we'll bring a picnic next time. Here are a few amateur snapshots to give you a better idea of how bucolic things are right now.

The flowers are blooming...

...and the water is flowing.

The mission-style "village" on the bluff was actually the movie set of the 2004 version of The Alamo.

Not quite the Playboy Mansion grotto, but close.

The Pedernales heads toward Lake Travis under clear blue skies.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hat Creek can't compete

I finally dropped by the newly opened Hat Creek Burger Company that recently took over the Arby’s at 5400 Burnet Rd. Though I still give Hat Creek high marks for saving the vintage Arby's cowboy hat sign, my overall verdict on their food is adequate at best.

I ordered the Big Hat Combo #1, which retails for $6.93, tax included. The double-pattied burger was unattractive despite the color contrast provided by green leaf lettuce and purple onion. More importantly, it was smallish for its price point. The coarsely ground, Premium Gold Angus beef patties had no real flavor other than that of black pepper. The vegetables and mustard couldn’t compensate, leaving a burger that was bland and lifeless.

On the plus side, the fries were quite good. Served shoestring-style with the skins on, they arrived in my car piping hot and golden brown. Maybe they could’ve been a little more crisp, but that’s a minor quibble. A not-so-minor quibble was that my 20-ounce cup of Diet Dr Pepper (you know, for my health) was mostly ice.

I don’t mind paying a bit more for to support a local chain that uses higher quality ingredients, but Hat Creek pales in comparison to P. Terry’s, which costs less and tastes better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Changes ahead for Rapid Rewards

Southwest Airlines plans to unveil its retooled Rapid Rewards program late next year. While there’s no word yet on if you’ll be still able to get a free roundtrip ticket for 16 flights, the revamping of frequent flyer programs often means getting less than what you got before. Southwest is trying to make itself more attractive to highfalutin’ business travelers, so I imagine some sort of tiered awards system is inevitable.

One potential upside is that Southwest is looking into codesharing agreements with other airlines under the revised program. If you could earn credit toward international flights on Southwest, many business travelers would happily ditch American for Southwest once they cashed in their OneWorld miles.

Personally, I’d like to see a Southwest/JetBlue codeshare since most of my air travel these days involves intra-Texas hops on Southwest and Austin/Boston runs on JetBlue. I don’t think this will happen because Southwest and JetBlue are direct low-fare competitors, but with a baby on the way and a coterie of relatives in New England, I’m all about mileage maximization.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When SWAT came a-callin'

It's been a crazy day here in the soul-crushing, pedestrian-hostile North Dallas suburb of Addison. I got no sleep last night, which left me less than fully charged for a full slate of Texas HIV/STD Community Planning Group meetings.

Just as we were wrapping up, I checked the web to see what was going on back home and found out there was a SWAT team standoff on our block. I immediately called Kate and she rushed home from work only to find our street blocked off by an army of APD officers and vehicles.

Fortunately for everyone, the standoff (which, as it turned out, wasn't actually a standoff at all) ended peacefully and without injury around 5:30. The bomb squad truck drove away and Kate was allowed by the authorities to go home and use the bathroom. Good thing it didn't drag on any longer because denying a pregnant lady restroom rights could've easily spiraled into Dog Day Afternoon.

Heard it through the Grapevine

Here’s a bit of bad news for North Austin libation lovers - Austinist reports that Grapevine Market will close on Dec. 15.

While Grapevine’s (ahem) liquidation - which starts next week - may result in some good pre-holiday deals, I will sorely miss their comprehensive beer selection. It was a great place to pick up a decent wine on the way to a party when you didn’t have time to futz with Spec’s or Central Market. Of course, the fact that you could always get in and out of Grapevine quickly is almost certainly a large part of why they won’t be around in 2010.

Monday, October 12, 2009

It's a boy!

Kate and I found out the gender of our baby at last week's ultrasound. Having notified immediate family and friends, I can now say we are having a boy.

At our previous ultrasound, the technician said, "I think this might be a, wait, that's a finger." Kinda gave a whole new meaning to the term "prick-tease."

I would've been surprised - though not disappointed - if the baby was a girl, but I'm quite elated about the prospect of fathering a son. Although I know it won't necessarily make me a better dad, having some vague recollection of what it was like to be a boy can't hurt. I still act like a 12-year-old boy much of the time, too.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The other marriage penalty

The Oct. 2 New York Times ran an illuminating analysis that attempts to quantify the lifetime financial costs incurred by same-sex couples for living in a country that doesn't recognize their right to marry. Reporters Tara Siegel Bernard and Ron Lieber estimate gay couples could be paying anywhere from $28,595 to $211,993 more than financially similar straight couples.

Few will be surprised to learn that access to affordable health insurance is a big driver of this disparity. Most U.S. companies and governments - including the State of Texas - do not allow their employees to cover same-sex spouses as dependents under their group health plans. Even if a company offers domestic partner coverage, the federal tax code treats a same-sex partner's coverage as taxable income, so you can't use pretax dollars to pay the premiums.

Same-sex couples also get screwed on Social Security benefits, estate taxes, adoption costs, and pension plans that pay a survivor benefit to a heterosexual spouse but not a same-sex one. They cannot fund a non-working spouse's portion of a joint IRA and they wind up paying higher legal fees to codify rights that straight couples take for granted.

The one area where heterosexual couples might pay more is if both of them earn roughly the same amount, which could trigger the so-called "marriage penalty." However, this doesn't even come close to making up for all the ways our system cheats same-sex couples. Equal protection, anyone?