Howdy there, y'all. Today is National Mutt Day, and it's also National Fritters Day, which is appropriate since fritters are the mutts of the food world. And it's doubly appropriate because this blog is considered to be the fritter of the blogosphere.

Today we're exploring the wonderful worlds of Hallmark Christmas movies, the opening of a new local hiking trail, unbelievable behavior of venomous snakes (watch for the warning sign, o ye of much Ophidiophobia), and possibly other stuff. Let's wade into the deep end without a lifeguard, shall we?

Hallmark: Taking Christ out of Christmas. (Sad, but not my battle.)

I drafted a lengthy screed about The Hallmark Channel's Christmas movies and how they attribute the meaning of Christmas to everything except the birth of Christ. But in a totally unexpected turn of events, I changed my mind about posting it. 

I have to admit that it's a pretty impressive feat to produce two dozen new Christmas-themed movies without once mentioning the name of Jesus (not that I've watched all of them, but my wife and I have viewed enough to feel confident with the extrapolation), but the same can be said for a multitude of very successful such movies that are much less family-friendly than what Hallmark has created (e.g. Scrooged, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and Die Hard [don't get me started]).

Anyway, there are better places to get your theology, like, you know, the Bible. 

There's never a Packaging Engineer around when you need one.

I'd like to think that I'm in pretty good shape for the shape I'm in. I can do fifty pushups, eight crunches, ten pull-ups, run four miles (slowly), and bicycle fifteen or twenty. That's pretty good, isn't it, for someone approaching a milestone age of none-of-your-business? What I can't do is open these:

Photo - Tiny blister packs of Claritin antihistamine that defy human intrusion
These should come with their own power tools for opening.

This is a blister pack of Claritin antihistamine, which in the Hill Country is essential for surviving allergy season, aka All Year, Every Year -- and the nuclear launch codes should be protected from tampering so well. I have yet to extract one of these pills without resorting to the kitchen shears (I guess I could use a box cutter, but that opens another whole can of worms, as well as potentially an artery).

It's been a few years since I weighed in on the pressing issue of packaging design and practice, but obviously the industry is still using gorillas and/or Dwayne Johnson as its test subjects. The rest of us mere mortals remain unamused, and occasionally unmedicated.

In local news, a new nature park is about to open. I've already tested it.

The grand opening for the new Horseshoe Bay Nature Park is about ten days away, but Debbie and I have already taken it for a test run. The park and the half mile trail are two miles from our house, and we've been watching the months-long construction progress at the halfway point of one of our regular running routes.

A few days ago, we saw that all the construction equipment had been moved off, and I later noticed a couple of folks walking their dog on the trail. So the next time we ran that direction, we decided to add the trail loop to our route. The park going to be a terrific addition to an already terrific place to live.

Photo - A portion of the trail in the new Horseshoe Bay Nature Park

Fog Flight

Foggy mornings are a rarity in these parts. We had one today, and I did a quick drone launch in the back yard around sunrise to document the occasion. Here are a couple of photos from the short flight.

Photo - Our neighborhood in the fog at an altitude of 100 feet
 Above: This is what our neighborhood looked like from an altitude of ~100 feet.

Below: And here's what the view was from ~350 feet.
Photo - Our neighborhood in the fog at an altitude of 350 feet

Warning: Snake photos and/or descriptions ahead

Warning! Snake photo ahead!

I may have previously mentioned that I follow the Facebook page for the Kentucky Reptile Zoo. These folks are performing the critical -- and dangerous -- work of extracting venom from a wide variety of snakes for the purposes of medical research (some of the components of venom are used in treating certain diseases) as well as for antivenom for treating victims (human and non-human) of snake bites. 

They also provide a lot of educational material about reptiles and I've learned quite a bit about snakes from their Facebook postings.

A couple of weeks ago, they posted a photo of one of the zoo's snake handlers holding a western diamondback rattlesnake, along with a caption reading "Why finger placement [when holding a venomous snake] must be perfect." The reason? Some snakes can actually point their fangs backwards, outside their mouths (!) or even through the bottom of their mouths* (!!). And the above-mentioned photo showed the proof of this statement. (Note: I've colored the fang and sheath in red to more clearly highlight this phenomenon; the pointy tip is the business end of the fang.)

Photo - Rattlesnake with fang pointing backwards, outside of mouth

I don't know about you, but I can't come up with a single scenario in which I'd be tempted to grab a rattlesnake's head, but if there was ever any doubt in my mind about that...it's now long gone.

*Remember the 2007 movie, Live Free or Die Hard, where the exciting climax had John McClane shooting himself through the shoulder in order to serve the bad guy his just deserts**? Well, the snake's behavior in this regard seems to be the same kind of self-inflicted wound with a purpose.

**No, I didn't misspell it, and no, it's not "just desserts" (unless there's a bakery around with a twee name). Don't take my word for it; ask the Grammar Girl

HEB Giveth...And Taketh Away
November 29, 2021 3:53 PM | Posted in:

Mondays are our usual grocery shopping days, and today was no exception. The HEB store in Marble Falls was practically deserted when we got there around noon...at least compared to the pre-Thanksgiving madness of last week.

We picked up everything on our list plus about fifty things that weren't and headed for the checkout, where the wait was infintesi...infitensi...really short. I started bagging the groceries as they came down the tiny treadmill, so I couldn't discern the subject of the discussion that the checker was having with Debbie regarding a package of coconut shrimp. The checker kept scanning the package and staring at her screen with obvious puzzlement, and she finally picked up the Food Fone and called for a manager. One quickly appeared, they had a brief consultation, and after he left the checker said, "well, today is your lucky day."

I asked Debbie was was going on and she said we were getting the shrimp for twenty cents, which is how the package was marked.

Photo - Label on a package of coconut shrimp showing a price of twenty cents
I hope we don't discover that these are actually helium-filled shrimp.

My guess is that somebody weighed and labeled the package before it had shrimp added to it. We would have been happy to pay the real price -- I'm not sure why they didn't just weigh the package on the checkout line scales and apply the per-pound price, but it was the manager's call. Anyway, we joked about needing to buy lottery tickets -- hilarity ensued -- paid out, and headed back to Horseshoe Bay.

On the way, Debbie started inspecting the receipt and said something to the effect that perhaps we weren't so lucky today after all. Here's what she noticed on the receipt:

Photo - Portion of a grocery receipt showing $39 for a bottle of lemon juice
Next time, we're not choosing the juice from Magic Lemons.

So, this one is more difficult to understand (although it might explain why nobody before us appeared to have taken a bottle of lemon juice from the display). Even though the bottle of juice was marked correctly (see below), the scanning system rang it up as ten times the correct amount.

Photo - Label on a bottle of lemon juice showing a price of $3.98
At $3.98, it's a deal. At ten times that, it's a steal...for someone.

I don't anticipate having any trouble whatsoever getting a refund for the difference in price, and I can't help wondering if I won't be the only customer who experienced this foodie faux pas. But, the lesson is obvious: even for the stores with the best reputations, Доверяй, но проверяй, or -- if you don't speak Russian, which is highly unlikely given the sophistication of the typical Gazette reader -- trust but verify.

[Update (11/30/21): As expected, getting a refund for the LJO {lemon juice overcharge} was painless. This is apparently not the first time something like this has happened. I suppose there will always be the potential for human error when inputting prices for thousands of different items. I wonder if HEB has considered using some kind of AI to reality test the price that's input against the nature of the item, e.g. there should never be a can of refried beans with a price in excess of $10.] 
A few weeks ago, I made a life-changing decision and I've been dealing with the implications the past few days. That decision? I ordered a new desktop computer, and I've been slogging through the process of attempting to re-create my decades-long work processes on it.

If that sounds overly dramatic, you need to understand that my last desktop computer was purchased in 2009. I'm tempted to use the dog years method of calculating age, but despite the persistent (if fading power) of Moore's Law, it would be an exaggeration to say that my old Mac Pro was the equivalent of 84 years old. In fact, it still has its girlish figure, and performs like it's hardly 60 years old.

I [obviously] put off the upgrade for as long as I could, but I finally reached the point where (1) I could no longer upgrade the operating system because Apple's OS wasn't compatible with the hardware, and (2) the same was true of much of my important software, the most current and capable versions requiring that unobtainable operating system. The thought of trying to upgrade incredibly out-of-date hardware and software was intimidating, but the vanishing capabilities of the computer finally convinced me to take the plunge.

My first thought was to take the route I traveled in 2009, which was to get the fastest and most powerful desktop computer Apple made. So I went to Apple's configuration page for its Mac Pro tower (the rack-mount version being unneeded and too expensive). After selecting the most powerful option for each component (i.e. memory, hard drive, graphics card, etc.), the grand total was -- are you sitting down? -- $52, 748, before sales tax. That's pretty close to what we paid for our first house. Sure, that house didn't have 8 terabytes of SSD storage, but it did have a fireplace. So, onto Plan B.

I settled on Apple's 27" iMac, albeit with some reservations. The iMac is a beautiful, fast, all-in-one machine, but its expandability gave me pause. I had four hard drives in my old desktop, and "needed" all of them. I also was accustomed to have dual monitors and I wasn't sure if/how I could pull that off. As it turns out, all it takes is a bit more money. 

But before addressing those hardware issues, I had to get at least the most critical data ported over from the old box to the new one. This turned out to be incredibly simple, a process that any long-time iPhone user can relate to. In the simplest terms, the two computers were introduced to each other, agreed to go out for drinks and a romantic evening, and when all defenses were down, the new computer pilfered the old one's purse. It's a story as old as 80-column punch cards. 

I let that process unwind overnight, and when I checked the next morning, the new computer was ready to go with the applications and data I needed to perform the most immediate tasks. Well, sort of. There was a whole slew of third-party applications that aren't supported by Apple's latest operating system (version 12, aka Monterey). Some of them were shareware that only needed updates; some were obsolete and could be deleted without angst. But a few others required some extra attention, specifically all of Adobe's programs, which I rely on daily. The two critical apps are Photoshop and Acrobat, and this is where I had to bite the bullet and hand over my credit card.

If you haven't kept up with Adobe's business model over the years, you might not know that you can no longer buy the company's flagship programs; they're available only via subscription in something called Creative Cloud. For someone like me, accustomed to owning software rather than renting it, this requirement was hard to swallow, but the alternatives weren't good either. Fortunately, through a special bundling deal, I got the two aforementioned programs plus a whole slew of others (which I may or may not need in the future...but at least they're available) for a fairly nominal cost. The benefit of going this route is that the programs are never out-of-date, and I also have the option of storing files in the cloud. That latter option is not a good one right one, given our horrible data and bandwidth limits on our internet account, but if our city ever claws itself into the 21st century, that option will become more attractive.

So, after working my way through the software issues -- which took a day or so -- I focused on the hardware challenges. First up: how to solve the hard drive expansion question. I turned to my go-to source for Mac hardware: Other World Computing. They sell an external drive enclosure that accommodates four hard drives and connects to a Mac via a single Thunderbolt (USB-C) connection. The Thunderbay 4 arrived yesterday, and before bedtime I had physically transferred three of the old Mac's hard drives into the new enclosure and confirmed that they mounted properly onto the iMac's desktop. Then, earlier today I extracted the boot drive from the old box and put it into storage (you know, just in case), and took an older backup boot drive from storage, installed it in the enclosure, erased and reformatted it, and boom! -- 10 terabytes of storage on the new computer, even more than on the old one.

The OWC Thunderbay 4 four-bay hard drive enclosure
The Thunderbay 4-bay hard drive enclosure. It can also be configured
as a RAID with the addition of some software, but I don't need that capability.

The dual monitor situation was not solved so easily, primarily because I'm an idiot and ordered the wrong adapter to connect the DVI port on the monitor to the Thunderbolt 3 port on the iMac. In my defense, I didn't know Thunderbolt from Chevy Bolt when I order the new computer, and I certainly didn't realize there are four iterations of Thunderbolt connections. Had I taken to the time to do a little research, I wouldn't have made the mistake of getting a DVI-to-DisplayPort/Thunderbolt 2 adapter, which is as useless to me as...well...something really useless. (The correct adapter will arrive next week and should return to me the coveted dual-monitor setup.)

The whole setup
Here's the new setup as it now appears (yeah, I need to do some cable management). I kept my old wired keyboard and Logitech wireless mouse, because I use the numeric keypad daily, and I like a scroll wheel. Apple's Magic Mouse is cool, but a bit too touch-sensitive for my taste.

I've been using the new computer for a couple of days and despite the pain of the transition, I must admit that I should have done this a long time ago. The resolution on the new iMac's display is pretty breathtaking and I really could get by without a second monitor because of the size. The speed and power of the new computer is gratifying. I once considered myself a "power user" because of my web development work requirements. That's no longer the case, but the nobody ever wished their computer was slower, did they?

I've still got a learning curve to climb in a couple of areas. Apple no longer supports iMovie (although it still runs), so I ordered an installation of Apple's Final Cut Pro to handle video editing projects. I've fired it up and the interface doesn't seem to be that much different from iMovie, but I'm counting on a lot more capabilities and more polished product.

Along those same lines, on the surface the new version of Photoshop doesn't appear to be much changed from the old and decrepit v. 5.0 I've used for years, but there's still a lot to explore.

For the geekier Gazette gazers (not to be confused with geezers), here's a brief comparison of the technical specs for the old and new computers.

Specification 2009 Mac Pro 2020 iMac
Operating System OS X El Capitan (10.11.6) OS X Monterey (12.0.1)
Processor 2.66 GHz Quad-Core Xeon) 3.6 GHz 10-Core Core i9
Memory 8 GB 1066 MHz DDR3 ECC 64 GB 2667 MHz DDR4
Graphics ATI Radeon HD 4870 512 MB AMD Radeon Pro 5500 XT 8 GB

Reflecting on Nineteen Years of Blogging
November 8, 2021 6:30 AM | Posted in:

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the Fire Ant Gazette. In the WWW (Wonderful World of Weddings), the 19th anniversary is represented by bronze -- the metal, not the color -- which apparently symbolizes strength and endurance, and I suppose that's apropos for almost a fifth of a century of writing stuff for no apparent reason other than it's what I like to do.

When I started the blog, in the patriotically angry aftermath of 9/11 -- the start of the Golden Age of Blogging, may it rest in peace, I was game to take on all sorts of topics. I wrote about politics, local and otherwise; religion, mine or others; sociological and cultural phenomenon, controversial or -- well, always controversial -- and all without the self-realization that I didn't know anything about any of that stuff. Thankfully, for myself and those of you kind and patient enough to bear with me, I finally figured that out and stopped. Well, mostly.

I recently ran across a tweet by Peter Sagal, the author, Runner's World columnist, and NPR correspondent, in which he laid out his rules for doing Twitter. I've stolen borrowed them because they also apply to blogging, and represent more or less my evolution from an ignorant firebrand-ish writer to an ignorant, easier-to-get-along-with dude. I'll let you judge how closely I'm now adhering to most of Sagal's suggestions:

Peter Sagal's Twitter Rules

A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me how they would know when I posted something new on the Gazette. I was extremely flattered by the question, even as I secretly pitied their obviously skewed priorities, and I half-jokingly replied, "just visit the Gazette every day and you'll know." I really hope none of you are doing that because I don't need any more pressure that I already put on myself, but, boy, do I appreciate all of you guys who do stop by periodically to do me the extreme favor of pretending to be interested in what I put on the Gazette. 

As I wrote above, I do this because I like doing it...but I like doing it because I like you. I hope we can stay together a while longer.
I'm continually amazed at the responses stimulated by some of the things I post on the Gazette, and nothing has surprised me more than the number of folks interested in the Atlantic Richfield Company's (ARCO) Corporate artwork collection. Two decades after ARCO was assimilated by and subsumed into BP (affectionately known as The Borg by we who are completely over it), I'm still getting regular inquiries from folks wanting to know if I can provide either an identification of or additional information about a piece of artwork they've acquired and which carries an Atlantic Richfield identifier. (I almost never can, by the way. Most of these inquiries come from the West Coast or the Chicago area, and all of my information relates to the Midland offices.)

I also get notes like this one that came to my inbox a couple of days ago.
Hi Eric,
I came across your blog and really enjoyed reading about the history of ARCO's art collection. I found your writing as I was doing research on a corporate art collection we are offering for auction that came in from TXU Energy here in Dallas.
 
Once we got all the art to the gallery, we found ARCO labels on everything. I hope you'll enjoy taking a look at everything we have in the collection--it will all be sold at auction November 17th. Please let me know if you have any questions--we'd be thrilled for you to include this update and then the auction results in your blog.
 
Here is the link for the full auction:
 
Here is a listing of everything from the ARCO/TXU collection:
 
Best,
Katy Alexander
Dallas Auction Gallery
214-688-5801
I agreed to help them publicize the auction since it ties closely with the running theme of previous ARCO artwork posts on the Gazette.

A little history is in order. ARCO spent almost $200 million to build a 48 story tower -- designed by I.M. Pei -- in downtown Dallas to house the headquarters staff for its ARCO Oil & Gas operating company (AOGC). In 1994, AOGC was split into four operating units, and the tower was sold to Texas Utilities (later TXU) for a reported $29 million. Apparently, some of the artwork in the tower was included in the sale, and some or all of those pieces are now in this auction.

The second link in Katy's email above is a bit misleading. There are 51 pieces listed on the auction page, but I went through the descriptions of each of them and only 42 refer to the ARCO connection. I've compiled a list of the lot numbers that explicitly reference ARCO as the source of the piece. [Update (11/7): Katy informed me that they believe that all of the pieces originated with ARCO, but some may have lost their labels over the years. I have no reason to doubt that, but, as they say, caveat emptor.]

0037 0038 0039 0040 0053 0054
0077 0078 0079 0080 0081 0082
0083 0105 0106 0107 0108 0109
0111 0112 0125 0126 0128 0130
0131 0152 0153 0154 0155 0156
0157 0158 0159 0160 0164 0177
0178 0179 0180 0220 0234 0235

The artist most often represented in this collection is Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), an American artist known for his conceptual and minimalistic works. Clyde Connell (1991-1998) is also represented by several pieces; she was generally known as a sculptor but the artwork here is ink on paper.

The estimated values (auction house estimates) for these pieces range from $300 to $15,000 (the latter being for Lots 0157 and 0158, both being 20-piece sets of framed serigraphs by LeWitt. 

Image of Herbert Bayer's tapestry entitled 'Event'
Herbert Bayer tapestry - "Event" (1980) - 60"w x 61"h
Image via Live Auctioneers, Dallas, Texas

For me personally, the most interesting piece is Lot 0161, a 1980 framed tapestry (shown above) by Bauhaus student/teacher and prolific artist Herbert Bayer (1900-1985). It's not described as being from ARCO's collection, although we know that ARCO did have quite a few pieces by Bayer in various offices, and he worked closely with ARCO's curators when they were building the corporate collection.

If you're an ARCO (or TXU) alumnus or simply interested in art, you should peruse this collection. Who knows? You, too, could end up with a piece of American corporate history!

[Note: This post was made as a courtesy -- in addition to being something of personal interest to me -- and there is no commercial relationship or financial consideration whatsoever between the Fire Ant Gazette and Live Auctioneers. The Gazette does not accept paid advertising or unsolicited guest articles.]
Last weekend we met friends in San Antonio and spent a few days enjoying some quite varied activities and events in that amazing city. If you haven't been to SA before, or if your exposure has been limited to the often frantic and always touristy downtown portion of the Riverwalk, the following is a sort of travelogue with some ideas for you to consider.

Friday, October 29

We booked rooms at the Wyndham Garden Riverwalk/Museum Reach. As you may or may not know, the San Antonio Riverwalk extends north of downtown for about two miles, ending at the Pearl District. This is the second quietest section of the Riverwalk (the quietest being the long stretch south of downtown which runs past the King William District and eventually dwindles down into the undeveloped portion of the San Antonio River), and you can probably guess why part of it is called the Museum Reach. The museums and the Wyndham are about halfway between downtown (to the south) and the Pearl District (to the north).

Debbie and I booked a river view room, and it did have one, but the view from a ground floor room is a bit less than spectacular. Still, the room was convenient to the hotel's coffee bar each morning.

Photo - The view from our 'balcony'
The view from our "balcony" was not breathtaking, but it was peaceful. 

After reading a rather glowing review in Texas Monthly, I had booked a reservation for us at Mixtli, a "progressive Mexican restaurant" located just south of downtown. The restaurant features a fixed, multi-course tasting menu that focuses on the cuisine inspired by a specific region of Mexico. This menu stays in place for an extended period of time, then it moves to another region. Our visit corresponded with the focus on the Chiapas region, which is in the southern part of Mexico, down to the border with Guatemala. 

Dinner proved to be quite an adventure, beginning with my inability to even locate the restaurant despite knowing the address. We finally parked and walked to another restaurant to ask directions. As it turns out, we were parked less than a hundred yards from Mixtli; they could really invest in better signage.

The Chiapas menu began in September and runs through mid-December, so the preceding link may or may not be out of date by the time you see it. But I've provided a list of the courses below and their published ingredients, and in some cases my best guess as to as explanation of some of those ingredients. I've also provided photos of some of the courses. We were given a brief primer about each course by a chef or server, but the noise level in the restaurant along with MANY unfamiliar culinary terms and Mexican references generally prevented us from gaining any meaningful education. Mixtli would do well in the future to provide a written synopsis for diners to take home with them.

Our quartet judged the experience as worthwhile, to the point of considering repeating it when we're back in January for a concert. Not every dish was a home run with every one of us; for example, the Arroz Verde didn't do much for me, but the other three enjoyed it greatly, while the Costillas Chiapanecas (pork ribs) were a big hit with three of us, but the fourth didn't care for them. We were unanimous in our praise for the potato bread with coffee butter, the Crab Chileatole, and the Selva Lacandona; the Tamal de Bola wasn't anyone's favorite. But in some way, each dish gave us a [literal] taste of the region, one that none of us were that familiar with.

Chiapas Tasting Menu

  1. Potato Bread -- coffee cultured butter, chile morita, vanilla salt
  2. Crab Chileatole (a thick soup) -- masa, dry chiles, crab
  3. Ceviche de Jamaica -- hibiscus, avocado, swordfish
  4. Tamal de Bola -- shrimp, epazote (aromatic herb), mole de cameron (shrimp mole)
  5. Ocosingo (a Chiapan municipality) -- queso de bola (soft cheese), vegetable picadillo, dried fruits
  6. Selva Lacandona (a Chiapan rainforest) -- banana, black beans, acocil (crayfish)
  7. Arroz Verde -- wood mushrooms, poblano, flowers
  8. Costillas Chiapanecas -- pork ribs, mole Chiapaneco, dried papaya and pineapple
  9. Dessert -- chimbo (honey water soaked cake), cafe de olli (spiced coffee), cajeta (caramel sauce)
  10. Mignardises (petit fours)

Photo - Crab Chileatole via Mixtli Restaurant Photo - Ceviche de Jamaica via Mixtli Restaurant
Photo - Tamal de Bola via Mixtli Restaurant Photo - Ocosingo via Mixtli Restaurant
Photo - Selva Lacandona via Mixtli Restaurant Photo - Arroz Verde via Mixtli Restaurant

We left sated, yet energized. We* also got lost going back to the hotel...and not for the last time, as it turned out.

[Note that when you make a reservation for dinner at Mixtli, you're buying a non-refundable ticket, not making a reservation for which you'll pay later if and when you show up.]

*And by "we" I mean, of course, me.

Saturday, October 30

Debbie and I headed out for a run at daybreak, something we would repeat the next two mornings as well. We were not the only runners and walkers on the Riverwalk paths, but our route was also far from crowded. The weather was ideal...temperatures in the upper 50s-to-lower 60s and no wind. And, unlike our normal running routes, there are no hills.

Photo - A view of the Riverwalk in front of our hotel, looking south
The Riverwalk view to the south of our hotel; the locks are at the top of the photo. 

Below is a view looking to the north. The careful observer 
will spot Christmas decorations already in place.
Photo - A view of the Riverwalk in front of our hotel, looking south

Afterward, the four of us walked a long block to the newest location of local chain Tia's Taco Hut on St. Mary's Street, the Wyndham choosing to not provide a hot breakfast. That turned out to be a blessing because TTH was an exceptional choice for a good, inexpensive desayuno. This became our daily morning habit.

After breakfast, we walked to the Pearl District, where we found the weekly Farmer's Market in full swing. It being the [extended] weekend of Halloween and Día de los Muertos, the people watching was good, and the dog watching was even better. We wandered through the booths and stores for a couple of hours before heading back down the Riverwalk in search of lunch, and finally landed at Elsewhere Kitchen, an uber-casual, outdoor dining establishment with pretty good food.

Photo - The Dia de Los Muertos altar at The Pearl
This elaborate display is the Pearl District's Día de los Muertos altar.

We then strolled another quarter mile or so south to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where Octobinfest was underway. This is a free annual event that celebrates the German and Mexican influences that combined to help create San Antonio's rather unique culture. This was our first time to attend, and I had flagged it on my calendar because of the appearance of three musical acts: Off The Grid (an Austin based polka trio that also does rock-and-roll covers set to polka arrangements), Los Texmaniacs (a San Antonio-based, Grammy award winning Tejano/Conjunto/Tex-Mex quartet), and Leonardo "Flaco" Jiménez (possibly the world's greatest accordionist and former member of the Texas Tornados super-group). [Some Horseshoe Bayans reading this might recall that Los Texmaniacs did an outdoor concert at Quail Point about a year ago as a part of the Cultural Enrichment program...and they were a big hit.]

The common thread connecting these three acts is the accordion, which in the hands of virtuosos like Flaco, or Josh Baca, or Joe Klaus will put to rest the ridicule heaped upon the instrument thanks to mediocre wedding bands in the Catskills. Besides hearing some terrific music, we also got a bit of education, e.g. learning the difference between chromatic and diatonic accordions (the latter plays different notes on the push and pull -- i.e. the reeds are bisonoric, while the former plays the same note). Off The Grid utilizes a chromatic accordion, while Los Texmaniacs and Flaco use diatonics.  [Check this website if you want to learn more about this topic...because I know you do.]

Photo - Los Texmaniacs performing at Octobinfest
Above: Max Baca (playing the 12-string 
bajo sexto), and his nephew Josh Baca
(on the accordion), are the heart of Los Texmaniacs.

Below: Flaco Jiménez may be in his 80s, but he still knows his way
around a squeeze-box.
Photo - Flaco Jimenez performing at Octobinfest

We didn't stay for the entire program because we weren't finished with the day's musical adventures. We walked back to the hotel and got some rest -- I think by this time I had clocked almost eleven miles on my fitness app -- and around 8:30 we piled into the truck and headed for the Pearl District. That's normally a three minute drive from the hotel, assuming that the first thing you don't do is turn the wrong way at the first intersection you come to. That minor fiasco was quickly corrected with a Fast and Furious drift and a U-turn, and we made it to the Pearl in time for our reservation for the late show at Jazz Texas.

I'm pretty sure I've raved about Jazz Texas before on these pages. But for you newcomers, the venue is a smallish, classy basement speakeasy/restaurant/jazz club with a huge bar, excellent kitchen, and absolutely wonderful music. On weeknights, the music is provided by a variety of groups representing a variety of genres, but on the weekends, the draw is the Doc Watkins Orchestra, a ten-piece ensemble (plus vocalist, usually) that plays everything from classic jazz to western swing. Doc Watkins -- a well-known figure in the San Antonio music scene -- is the pianist and also just happens to own the club. We've been to Jazz Texas on numerous occasions and have never been disappointed by the music (or the food, for that matter).

This evening was no exception (although we were hoping for another performance of Sing, Sing, Sing, because they absolutely kill that swing standard).

Photo - The stairs leading down to Jazz Texas
Above: These stairs lead down to Jazz Texas, in the basement of
the food court at the Pearl District.

Below: The Doc Watkins Orchestra, featuring vocals by Meg Bodi,
in full swing mode at Jazz Texas.
Photo - The Doc Watkins Orchestra performing at Jazz Texas

This was a fine ending to a busy day, and we were back at the hotel well before midnight, thanks in large part to my unerring ability to retrace my automotive steps...finally.

Sunday

Sunday dawned cool and clear, and Debbie and I did our usual daybreak run up and down the Riverwalk, then we all walked back to Tia's Taco Hut for another leisurely breakfast. The only thing on our agenda was a visit to San Antonio's very fine zoo. Debbie and I had been there in May for a fundraiser ("Zoo La-La!") but it took place at night and a lot of the animals had gone to bed by the time we arrived. Plus, the reptile house wasn't open at all, and I'd been moping about that for months. (Watching the US Congress at work wasn't really the acceptable substitute one would expect.)

Unlike in March when we had to park a half mile away, we actually scored a parking spot in the main lot and soon thereafter started our tour. We quickly discovered that the zoo was literally overrun with dinosaurs.

Photo - An animatronic dinosaur making friends with a little princess
This princess was determined to make friends with the animatronic raptor. 

These dinosaurs -- some of them much larger than the little guy pictured above -- are probably part of a temporary exhibit, although that's just a guess. There was probably a sign explaining their presence but I was too excited to notice.

Since this was Halloween, fully half of the zoo patrons were in costume, which again made for good people watching. But we were there for the four-legged (and two-winged, and no-legged) animals and we spent a few hours taking in the sights.

One of my favorite displays was in the aquarium. Have you ever heard of upside-down jellyfish? If teenagers were invertebrates, they would likely have evolved from these jellyfish, as they spend most of their time resting on the ocean floor -- upside down, of course, tentacles floating above them, waiting for food to float into their whatever-passes-for-jellyfish-mouths. I admired their commitment to doing nothing, and they were quite pretty.

We watched a 12-foot long alligator climb out of the water and find a good spot in the sun for a nap. We saw a huge male jaguar emerge from his den and heard him howl lustily for the female that is housed nearby (the new jaguar habitat is a work of architectural and ecological art, and must be seen to understand how cool it is). We observed flamingos duel with each other over some perceived slight until one slinked away in pink shame. And by the end of the day -- a rather hot and humid one -- we finally found our spirit animal:

Photo - A muddy rhino sleeping on a bed of straw
This rhino simply collapsed and went to sleep on its lunch, sort of like
what I almost did during the 10-course dinner on Friday. 

We left the zoo around 3:00 or so and headed in search of something cold and Mexicany, and ended up at Mi Tierra. No visit to San Antonio is complete with a stop at that fabled restaurante, although thinking we could get a table in less than an hour on a Sunday afternoon was the height of naivety. Still, we persisted and we overcame. 

The rest of the afternoon and early evening was spent in serious downtime mode, with much reading through closed eyelids taking place. We did break long enough to visit the hotel restaurant for a glass of Cab and some dessert; we were the only people in the joint besides the bored waitstaff. I guess most people head home on Sundays.

The next morning was a rinse-and-repeat cycle for Debbie and me: dawn run, a final Taco Hut breakfast with our friends, then pack and load and say our goodbyes. They headed south and we headed north. We were all tired and ready to get home, and, I suspect, looking forward to when we can return and do it again. (Oh look! There's already a date on our January 2022 calendar.)

Happy Thursday, y'all! Today is National Chocolate Day. And is it a coincidence that it's also National Internal Medicine Day, as well as National First Responders Day? I think not; you should take comfort in knowing that if you overindulge in the food of the gods, *someone* has your back. Or insides. Or...whatever.



The Horseshoe Bay Cultural Enrichment organization sponsored a delightful concert last Sunday afternoon, featuring an Austin-based group called Sister Golden Hair (hereinafter, SGH). And, yes, that's a direct reference to the song by the same name recorded in released in 1975 by the band America.

Photo - Sister Golden Hair in concert in the Hill Country Community Theater
Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- MST3K, right? It's actually the stage
at the Hill Country Community Theater in Cottonwood Shores.

SGH covers songs from the Golden Age of Music: the 60s and 70s-D (i.e. minus disco, because no one wants to relive that). Their playlist was perfect for the crowd in attendance as they -- OK, fine..we -- skew boomerish. IOW, this is our music.

The band has some videos up on their website and on YouTube, but the vids don't do their musical gifts justice. If you have a chance to catch them live, don't pass it up. Our only complaint is the same one we almost always have, and it's not the band's fault: no dance floor.



We had a wee bit of wind early yesterday morning, and awoke to this scene in front of our house.

Photo - downed tree limbs blocking the street

This mess is a combination of cedar elm and live oak limbs. It appears that the elm limb (the nearest to the foreground of the photo) snapped off, hit the oak limb -- you may be able to make out the broken stump in the upper left of the photo)  on the way down, and both crashed into the street. Fortunately, ours is the only house at the end of a cul-de-sac, so there no traffic was blocked.

It's hard to get sense of the scale of this pile of debris. It took about an hour of chainsaw work to break it down into manageable pieces, which in turn required five pickup loads to haul to the city's yard waste collection area.

Photo - a view of the cedar elm
The part of the trunk where the limb broke is in the upper middle part of the photo.

Ironically, I had scheduled a visit by an arborist next week to come out and assess the health of our trees, and to give us an estimate for cleaning them up. This particularly cedar elm is probably fifty feet tall, and I can't help wondering if it needs to be taken out completely. That would be a shame, but the prospect of more falling limbs is frightening, to say the least. 



Speaking of chainsaws, I'm not sure I've mentioned that I bought a new one back in August.

Photo - my new EGO chainsaw

Having acquired an EGO battery-powered lawn mower in May, I was already impressed with the quality and performance of the brand's products, and I was tired of working around the extension cord of the decades-old 12" electric chainsaw I inherited from my father-in-law. After a bit of research on the various models made by EGO, I chose the 18 incher, as I was swayed by the higher RPM (which equates to more and easier cutting power). 

While this is not a professional-level saw that would be used for hours of work on a daily basis, it's more than adequate for occasional use by someone like me. I've used it on tree limbs up to 12" in diameter and it's never skipped a beat. I mentioned above that it took an hour or so of cutting and trimming on the downed limbs, and the battery still had a 20% charge.

The saw is quieter than a gas powered model, and requires less maintenance. I really like the fact that you can turn it off to clear the work area, then it restarts -- immediately and every time -- with a push of a button.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that this is the model Leatherface would choose to wreak havoc on humanity, but he's got issues other than his commitment to environmentally-friendly lawn equipment.



Take a look at this photo, if you dare. No, don't just glance at it; take a really close look

Horrifying photo of female wolf spider covered with baby spiderlets

You've no doubt seen something like this before, although if you're like me, you poured bleach in your eyes in an attempt to forget the sight. This is a female wolf spider and she's lumpy not because of arachnid cellulite, but because she's covered with -- wait for it! -- wolf spiderlets. (You can see that a couple of them have been kicked off the mothership, probably for bad behavior, although what constitutes bad behavior for a spider is beyond my desire to contemplate.)

Now, if your initial impulse upon seeing this photo is to grab a can of Raid and spray your monitor, you're not alone. Actually, you may be alone, but many people share your revulsion at seeing a nasty a** spider covered with babies. And that would have been my normal response, but for the intervention of the Facebook group,  Antman's Hill (which I've previously referenced).

As I've become more educated about the species, I view it with slightly less loathing than before. While wolf spiders will bite if threatened, their bite is deemed "medically insignificant" to humans, a description that falls a bit short in the reassurance category, but that's just me. Anyway, they do have an ecological niche -- they eat other insects that we humans might deem even more undesirable, although, frankly, I've had a hard time finding out exactly which insects those might be. 

Also, they have eight eyes. In the preceding photo, all the little white dots are spider eyeballs reflecting my phone camera's flash. Let's say there are twenty baby spiders hitchhiking on mom's back. That's *cipher cipher* 168 eyes. All those eyes apparently are useful in hunting prey. Wolf spiders don't spin webs...they track down and jump on unwary edible bystanders, not unlike Congresspersons looking for additional sources of revenue from unwary taxpayers.

So, the next time you see a sight like this, have a little empathy, especially if you're a mother. How would you like to have your kids riding your back? What's that you say? Oh...OK...never mind.



OK, lest you think I've gone soft, that wolf spider family was in our garage. I would be much less sanguine about its presence had it been in our house. Also, I'm pretty sure that Jim Morrison, our resident Texas spiny lizard, ate it the next day. Hakuna matata, y'all.

Hey, fellow earthlings and others...happy Thursday. Today is National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day, but it's also National Reptile Awareness Day, and wouldn't you know it -- there are a couple of snake photos at the bottom of this post (following the grapefruit-looking mushroom pictures). So, here's your mashed-up warning sign (aren't I clever?):

Graphic: Warning -- Photos of snakes follow


I do have a few non-serpenty photos to share with you, but let's get some other pressing matters out of the way first.



Screen capture of a tweet from an A&M studentAs some of you know, I'm a proud Texas A&M graduate -- class of NOYB -- as is MLB. You might have heard that A&M's football team inexplicably beat the [at that time] #1 team in the nation, the University of Confusing Mascots of Alabama. Yeah, I know; this outcome was accompanied by reports of an ice storm in Hell and of Nancy Pelosi resigning in order to concentrate on training for the hammer throw in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Anyway, I have it on good authority that it actually happened. The football thing, that is, not the Hell thing. I don't know about Pelosi.

It's not like this doesn't happen regularly. Why, it was only nine years ago that we prevailed over [at that time] #1 Alabama on their home field. (What happened during the intervening years is irrelevant and unimportant.) Anyway, while we can certainly pretend like we've been there before, we're really not such skilled actors. There was great rejoicing in Aggieland, as evidenced by this thread of reactions to the Alabama win.



Besides being a fan of A&M, I'm also a big fan of opossums...which are not the same as possums, no matter how thick you lay on the Texas twang when you say it. If you're not also a big fan, it may be because you haven't read this short-but-extremely-enlightening introduction to them. Now's your chance.



OK, I promised photos and I'm occasionally a man of my word.

We went to the annual Main Street car show in downtown Marble Falls back at the beginning of October. We always enjoy viewing the scores of classic and not-so-classic autos lined up downtown. Most of the owners are more than happy to exposit at length about the details and history of their particular vehicle, occasionally even if you don't want to hear it. (You can ask Debbie about that.) 

You may fancy yourself an automotive aficionado, and if so, surely you can identify the vehicle from whence this photo was crafted.

Photo of the back windows of a ... yeah, you figure it out

Betcha wish you had one today. (If you do, I don't want to hear about it. Not that that will stop you from telling me.)

A week later, we traveled to outskirts of civilization, otherwise known as Fort Stockton, my hometown as well as that of my brother and his wife, whom we went to visit. When I say "outskirts of civilization," I mean that in a [mostly] good way. There's a great deal I like about that part of Texas resting west of the Pecos river, including views like this on a morning run from within the city limits. It may not look like much to you, but it's home to me.

Photo of the horizon from Fort Stockton, Texas

However, our new home in the Hill Country offers some pretty good views as well. (Does it still qualify as new after four years?)

Photo of Pecan Creek in Horseshoe Bay, Texas

Fall in the Texas Hill Country usually lasts for only a short time, but it can be achingly beautiful. This is a view of the section of Pecan Creek directly behind our house (you can just make out part of our roof on the left).

It hasn't been a particularly rainy fall in Central Texas, at least not in our part of the Hill Country. But it's been wet enough to bring out some unusual fungi. Debbie spotted this one in front of our house and initially wondered who had put a dried out grapefruit on our yard. Use your imagination.

Photo of a mushroom that resembles a grapefruit
Photo of a mushroom that resembles a grapefruit

See, the top photo is like the grapefruit rind, and the bottom one is like the inside...well, I hate it when I have to explain my citrus-themed fungi photos.

And now, we have arrived at the part of the program where...

Venomous snake photos follow

Since it's the aforementioned day to be aware of reptiles, I'll share a couple of pictures of a cottonmouth (aka "water moccasin" [I can never spell 'moccasin' correctly on the first try]) we encountered on the neighborhood low water crossing one night about a month ago.

Debbie and I were heading home on our golf cart after dark after a cruise around the neighborhood (visiting with neighbors kept us out later than usual), and found this small cottonmouth -- about 18" in length -- in the middle of the street that crosses the creek. This was the third or fourth snake we've encountered in this exact spot since summer, as they seem to like the warm pavement after sunset.

Photo - Cottonmouth snake in the road

The snake was not motivated to move out of the street, and I had nothing handy to convince it to do so. We eventually found a small stick and I managed to herd it back into the creek, but not before a car appeared and stopped beside our golf cart. The driver exited, and I was prepared to offer a defense of what I was doing. To my relief, he immediately recognized the species, and was equally interested in getting it off the street and out of danger.

Cottonmouths have a reputation for being aggressive, but I haven't found that to be true at all. This one was annoyed by the stick, but never struck at it or attempted to crawl toward me. They're very quick but also very awkward on land, and their erratic movements can startle you if you don't know what to expect. Anyway, the encounter ended peacefully and everyone went on their way without trauma.

It's sometimes difficult to distinguish a non-venomous water snake from a cottonmouth, so I cropped the following closeup to help. Note the black "mask" running horizontally across the eye; that's a sure sign of a cottonmouth and it won't be present on a water snake. You also won't see the pattern on the belly on a water snake (the most common species in our area is, in fact, the plain-bellied water snake).

Photo - closeup of a cottonmouth snake's head

This closeup also shows the vertical pupil of the snake's eye; non-venomous water snakes have round pupils. (But don't rely on this as the sole identifier, because in certain lighting conditions even the cottonmouth's pupil will appear rounded.)

Regardless, if you're not absolutely unsure of the snake's identity, just leave it alone -- admire it from a distance, or quote poetry to it, or shower it with verbal imprecations -- and it will return the favor.

Toast Alert
October 18, 2021 4:01 PM | Posted in: ,

I hate to disappoint you if you came here looking for tips regarding scorched bread, but while I am an acknowledged -- yet exceedingly humble -- expert on the subject, I'm actually here to warn you about the app named Toast

You may have encountered Toast at a restaurant that has adopted it as its point-of-sale management tool. It apparently does a lot of different tasks for the restaurant, but the one I'm writing about is the ability to allow patrons to pay their tabs via phone using Apple Pay or another mobile wallet app. I'm a big fan of this capability, primarily because I'm impatient and the check settlement process at many (most?) restaurants is inefficient and time-consuming.

My typical experience with this process goes something like this. The server brings the ticket to your table and then immediately goes to take the orders for a party of fourteen non-English-speaking tourists who require an explanation via Google Translate of every item on the menu. Thirty minutes later, the server comes back to pick up your payment, and if you're paying by cash, you will inevitably need change because you only have two twenties for a $21 tab. That takes another thirty minutes because the server remembers that their car needs a new inspection sticker and what better time to go get it than right now. 

Photo - The bill for our brunchGiven that usual state of affairs, I was pleasantly surprised on Saturday when Debbie and I stopped by Hill & Vine* in Fredericksburg for brunch and found that the restaurant accepted Apple Pay via the Toast platform. Our printed check had a QR code that took us to a digital version that could be paid via whatever credit or debit cards I had loaded in my iPhone's wallet app. (The option to pay via debit card is especially nice since there's no physical card to be handed over to someone. I don't mind doing that with a credit card, but I never use a debit card if someone else has to touch it.)

I scanned the QR code -- and inadvertently took a photo of it, shown at right. As it turns out, I'm glad I did, as it helps me illustrate the ensuing chain of events.

The QR code let me open the aforementioned digital version where I could choose my payment method, which in this case was a debit card via Apple Pay. It also allowed me to add a tip for the server, and I selected the 20% option and hit the "pay now" button.

I immediately received a confirmation from Apple Pay, followed quickly by a confirmation email from Toast. But I noticed something strange about both confirmations, shown side-by-side below. See if you can spot the puzzling aspect.

Photo - Apple Pay receiptPhoto - Emailed payment confirmation from Toast
The Apple Pay confirmation is on the left; the Toast confirmation is on the right. They both have the same total, and that equals the total on the bill. That's good, right? Well...

Alert Gazette reader that you are, you've no doubt instantly noticed the same thing I did: there's no tip.

I flagged down the server and asked if she was able to confirm exactly what payment was entered into the restaurant's system, because the last thing I ever want to do is stiff the help. She punched around on the keypad of her little magic ordering device and pulled up the internal receipt and showed it to me. Nope; no tip appeared. I was sure I had selected one, but the evidence indicated otherwise.

I apologized, pulled a $20 from my wallet, and asked her for $10 in change. It took long enough for that to happen that I would have been just as well off to pay cash to begin with, but we were finally able to leave the restaurant with a clear conscience. All was well.

That is, until I looked at our checking account balance this morning and saw what actually hit the account via our debit card.

Screen capture - bank statement

How about that? My original 20% tip magically appeared on the actual hit to our checking account. Thanks to the obscure machinations of the Toast app -- or, possibly, the inability of the server to access the final payment screen on her magic tablet -- said server ended up with a generous 40%+ gratuity (my initial 20% on the card plus the apologetic sawbuck). 

This is a long and boring cautionary tale for those who seek to remove time from the transaction cost of a restaurant meal. I have a hard time believing that the Toast app is really that inept, but the documentation seems to indicate otherwise. 
This issue with Toast is a different animal than with normal credit card processing. When you leave a tip via a credit card, there are actually two steps to the transaction. The cost of the meal was automatically charged to your account at the time the tab was rung up. The tip, however, is manually added by the restaurant after the fact. That's why the before-tip total often shows up in your bank account as pending charge, and the final tab+tip amount later appears as the final total. The Toast process, OTOH, appears to include the tip in its final computation of the total charge -- IOW, we're actually "ringing up" the total charge on the app -- which is why the absence of the tip on the confirmation is puzzling. Here endeth the lesson on credit/debit card tips.
The moral of the story has nothing to do with my leaving a relatively exorbitant tip; $10 extra dollars is not remotely life-changing in this situation. But as an increasing number of restaurants move toward "pay at the table" mobile options, it seems that one has to have an increased sense of skepticism about whether those options really work as one would expect.

I have, by the way, left some feedback on Toast's app to document what took place, and gave the developers permission to contact me if they'd like further details. We'll see whether that happens.

*Hill & Vine is, for those of you who are familiar with Fredericksburg, Texas, the restaurant that was constructed and opened this year on the site of the much beloved Peach Tree Restaurant and Gift Shop. As much as we enjoyed our Peach Tree experiences, stretching back decades, I have to admit that H&V is a more-than-worthy replacement for that venue. If it's not already, it will become yet another must-visit location on the Hill Country scene.

Solving a Catholic Mystery Statue
October 15, 2021 12:10 PM | Posted in:

We were recently in Fort Stockton and while we were there, we visited one of our favorite stores, Bella Terrazas. Bella Terrazas is owned and managed by Amy Terrazas, a special family friend, and the store is filled from floor to ceiling with an amazing variety of decor, almost all of which was hecho en México. We can spend an hour or more just browsing through the store's inventory (and visiting with Amy)...and it's rare that time isn't all we spend there, IYKWIM.

One section of the store is dedicated to Roman Catholic icons and symbols, which are exotic and sometimes puzzling to our Southern Baptist eyes. But we saw something on this visit that raised our puzzlement to previous uncharted heights:

Photo - Shrink-wrapped statue of St Jude

I confess that my first thought after seeing this five-feet-tall, shrink-wrapped statue was "why does Jesus have a bloody stake coming out of His head?" (And I mean no disrespect whatsoever to adherents to the Catholic faith.)

It didn't occur to me to ask Amy for an explanation; after all, she's not a tour guide and we certainly weren't the target purchasing audience. So I waited until we got home to try to find an explanation for what this statue represented.

My extensive research -- literally minutes of googling -- was initially frustrating. Search terms like "statue of Jesus with a candle on His head" (I had decided that surely that wasn't a stake) led nowhere. I decided to cast a wider net, and eventually searching for images of "Mexican saint candles" took me to what seemed like some promising leads. I had to wade through prayer candles dedicated to Keanu Reeves (?!) and other "celebrities" but I finally scrolled down to a tiny image of Saint Jude with what appeared to be a light on top of his head.

So, I googled "Mexican St Jude statues" and found that this is a common portrayal of Jude the Apostle. I eventually landed on this website dedicated to him, and it answered all of my questions, and more, about the symbology of the statue pictured above.

The "candle" is actually a flame and it represents the descending of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost (see the biblical reference: Acts 2:3-4). The medallion held by the statue  is embossed with the likeness of Jesus, and its significance is explained on the website linked in the preceding paragraph. Even the green color of the statue's robe is symbolic, as it represents hope and renewal (and of course even many of us Protestants know Jude as the patron saint of lost causes, and even if we're not, we know the good work being done by St. Jude Children's Hospital).

I don't care to get into any kind of theological discussions surrounding the veneration of saints, mainly because I'm not qualified (although that's rarely stopped me before). But I'm afflicted with a natural curiosity about things like this, and enjoy learning more about the world around me. I suspect I share this trait with some of you, and I hope this meandering trail led you to some new observations of your own.