28 March 2006

Life Without Huey, Riley, and Granddad

I don't know how this bit of information escaped me when the news came out early this month, but I don't know how I will make it six months without new strips of Boondocks. Aaron McGruder is taking a sabbatical, and as big a fan I am of the comic strip, I hadn't heard that this was coming. How DID I discover this news? Well, this is how:

While many newspapers have decided to carry alternate strips in McGruder's absence, it appears as though, at least to start, the strip will be printing from the beginning, starting yesterday. For those of you, like myself, that started reading Boondocks after it became popular, this is a good time to check out some of the older work. Since the nature of the strip is poking fun at current events, some of the older material may seem a bit dated. So far, though, the first two strips are just setting things up.

Other artists have taken sabbaticals at the height of their strips popularity, too. I recall Garry Trudeau, Gary Larson, and Bill Watterson all taking a break from Doonesbury, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes, respectively. Larson and Watterson eventually ended their strips. Come to think of it, I can hardly believe that it has been more than 10 years since Watterson ended the original strip. Anyone remember the final panel? Let's go exploring:

I get my comics reading through my 'My Yahoo' page. I have Boondocks, Fox Trot and Non Sequiter. If I didn't read these, I would never see the comics anymore. If you use this feature, you can set your own preferences to get any number of strips if you want. A good diversion for a part of the day. I have 'My Yahoo' set to give me news headlines, information about my beloved Mets, and other cool stuff like headlines from The Onion, too.

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16 March 2006

The Best Ninety Cents I Ever Spent

OK....I have left you in suspense long enough! I know that you have been on pins and needles to know just what could the Travelin' Man have spent 90 cents on that would warrant a blog entry. Well, maybe not pins and needles, but one person emailed me to find out when this long-awaited entry would come. So, without further ado, here's to you, Mr. When Are You Going to Update Your Blog Guy....

The aforementioned "Bushie" pointed out one of the local places that folks need to know about in our journey around Round Rock. Round Rock Donuts simply make some of the finest donuts around. I don't know if I could ever tell anyone how to get there again, but if you head towards downtown Round Rock, and look for the water tower pictured to the left.

Just beneath that water tower, you will find the place that many of the locals swear by. However, in an ironic twist, a family from Georgetown, TX visited campus on the one day that I was in town last week and when I raved about Round Rock Donuts, I was told that "Mom" prefers Krispy Kreme. The only logical conclusion is that "Mom" is completely off her gourd. On a side note, I think that in instances like that, I should be able to factor poor food choices into my admission decisions. If a mother is going to choose to eat Krispy Kreme over these incredible doughy creatures, I really should be able to call into question the family's ability to make a good college decision, no? Can you see this conversation develop....

Travelin' Man: "So, you got into town last night? Where did you end up grabbing dinner?"
Mom of Prospective Student: "Well, we like Italian food, so we ate at the Olive Garden."
TM: "Hmmm....I don't think this is the RIGHT university for your son. Have you looked at the school that advertises on TV late at night? You know, the one with Sally Struthers hawking degrees in court reporting and cosmetology? They might be right up your alley."

OK...I'm back from fantasyland now. Back to the donuts...

The building did not appear to have any indoor seating, but it looks like some folks like to sit on the outside patio-style furniture and devour these tasty treats. It is not visible in this picture, but under the white awning on the left side of the building is also a drive-thru convenience line.

More below the fold...

This being my first visit, I opted to go inside and check things out. I was a little late for the morning rush, but there were still quite a few customers inside. My guess is that their little parking lot can get quite full at times. They do make more than just donuts, but donuts were my mission for the day. I perused the display case and decided that I wanted a chocolate glazed Round Rock donut -- which looked like a chocolate glazed Krispy Kreme (just giving you style, not substance), but with a definite yellow-ish tint. I was told that the coloring has to do with the ingredients used - I have heard that it is buttermilk that causes the color and someone else told me that it could be real eggs. I don't know, but they sure looked good. They didn't have the original Round Rock donut in the case, and I wanted a second donut, so I asked the lovely woman helping what one other donut one should try on one's first visit. She recommended either the plain cake donut or the blueberry cake donut. I am not a huge fan of blueberry -- and also like to taste things as naturally as I can when trying for the first time -- some places like to hide behind glazes or sauces, I prefer without initially -- so, I ordered the plain cake donut.

The woman went to the back -- I just assumed that they would pull my order from the case in front of me, but apparently not. She returned with my order prepared in a bag and asked for ninety cents as payment. These are sizeable donuts, mind you -- and just FORTY-FIVE CENTS each. As she returned my change from the dollar bill I offered, she leaned over the counter and told me that she prepared a special bag for me -- since it was my first visit! She also warned me to grab a good supply of napkins, and recalling a story that Bushie told me about another fellow he introduced to these donuts, I heeded the advice.

I made it as far as my car before I had to rip open the bag. I found FOUR donuts inside. In addition to the donuts I ordered, I also found an original Round Rock donut -- piping hot, straight from the oven -- and an additional cake donut, which I can only assume was the blueberry variety that was recommended.

Well, while finding four donuts was a fortunate surprise, it also forced me to alter my eating plans, as I was also heading off to Taylor to go to Louie Mueller's BBQ -- one donut was going to be my limit, regardless of the quartet of beauties staring me down currently. I decided to go with the original -- and I was not at all disappointed. The bag was almost leaking through with the warm glaze, and it wasn't before long that my fingers were covered with a sticky, sugary mess. I can only tell you that I was ready to lick clean my camera after taking this photo:

I am glad that I started with the glazed donut, because I am sure that the fresh-from-the-oven aspect added to the overall quality. It was the best donut in the bag -- and maybe, the best donut that I have ever eaten. The chocolate covered was also delicious, and I tried to envision the same freshly baked experience. Two thumbs up. The cake donuts were good, too, in a very different way. If you are not a fan of super-sweet, this is the way to go. I am not 100% sure that blueberry was the flavored cake donut, because it did not have much of a fruity flavor, and it was actually colored pink. The server may have included a different variety, but I am just not sure. This was my least favorite of the group, but that is more from speaking highly of the other three than knocking this one.

I stuck to my plan of initially eating one donut. Following my meal at Louie Mueller's, I drove straight through to Dallas -- about 3-plus hours. The chocolate glazed and the plain cake were consumed on the highway. The (insert flavor here) cake donut was the late-night, post-work snack in the hotel room. Way too many calories for one day, but so worth it.

Upcoming posts will include my trip for BBQ, the NCAA Tournament, the recent SAT exam flap, and my subsequent travels to upstate New York. Stay tuned....

Edit: Round Rock Donuts was featured in the Dining Out: Best of 2006 post.

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Lunch with a Rogue Roodfooder

My name is not Al Gore, and I did not invent the Internet. I have, however, had web and email access for as long as I can remember, and have participated in many of the advancements to our society brought forth by such technology. I used email when it was *gasp* text-only! For that matter, I used espn.com when it was text-only. I have bought and sold stuff on eBay. I have instant messenger accounts with four major food groups. And, of course, I have used online dating services (mostly with less-than-pleasant results). But, except for a few people that I met from online dating, I haven't really "met" too many of the people I know from online life in person.

Tuesday, I had the fortunate opportunity to dine with someone I had only known previously from interactions in an online chat forum at roadfood.com. "Bushie" met me for lunch and a short tour around his home town area in northern Round Rock and Georgetown, Texas. Bushie suggested the Monument Cafe in Georgetown, which has been recommended by the Sterns.

I don't know if my picture taking is getting any better, but I do like the looks of the sky above the Monument!

If you want to see the food, continue below...
Service in this diner-esque place is quick and attentive. We were seated almost immediately, even though the place was doing a brisque lunch business at around 11:30 am. I got the impression that the place is probably frequented by many local regulars, but you are immediately given the impression that there are no strangers here for long.

Monument serves their full dinner menu after 11 am and has lunch specials daily. Bushie ordered the smothered steak, which was accompanied by Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and asparagus. I was more in the mood for a burger, and found a 6 oz. Kobe beef bacon cheeseburger. One of the options for burger sides was "half and half" -- half an order of fries and half an order of onion rings. As I had previously been advised that the onion rings were notable, I opted for the combo sides.

You will also see a fresh glass of iced tea on the table. One of my favorite things about the Monument is that the server is ever-present with tea refills -- long before your glass reaches empty. They don't just walk around with a pitcher and top-off, they offer a fresh glass, with garnish, without asking, from the time we ordered until well after the bill was paid.

Both of us agreed that the meals were good -- not overwhelmingly spectular, but surely passable. Looming over our heads was the dessert menu, however, and here is where the Monument excelled.

In the foreground is the Monument Cafe's famous chocolate pie. Hey, if Michael Stern says so, then who am I to argue? I am, however, jealous that he takes a much better picture than I do! On the back/right is a slice of hummingbird cake. I admit to never having heard of this specialty, but was told that it included pineapple, cinammon, mashed bananas, and pecans in a cake covered with a cream cheese frosting. I don't know if it is clear from the pictures, but the chocolate pie also includes a thick pecan crust, which makes for a fabulous flavor combination.

After the meal, Bushie showed me around some of the residential areas of Georgetown. I am a closet fan of older architecture -- especially churches and the like. We passed by Southwestern University, which also offers some splendid architectural views.

All in all, an excellent meal with great company. Bushie is only the second person I have ever met from roadfood.com, but both experiences were surely ones that would make me want to meet more folks who share the same love for food not offered by corporate purveyors. I look forward to my next such encounter.

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14 March 2006

STYOK About BBQ Mecca

That's right, folks. Lockhart, TX...with a population of just over 11,000 is Mecca for BBQ fans. I am pretty confident that all 11,615 residents can smoke some beef brisket better than you and me. Fortunately for me, Lockhart is just a short half-hour drive from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport -- and double fortune for me, my flight got in this afternoon around 12:30 pm. By the time I gathered my bags and found my rental car, I was ready to chow down. Face it, after two flights connecting me from Orlando to Austin with only one small Biscoff cookie package, I was ready to put away some 'Q.

I have made the trip down TX-183 a couple of times now. Each time, I try to convince myself that I am going to get off of the main road and check out either Black's or Smitty's and each time I end up pulling into the vast parking lot that precedes Kreuz's Market (pronounced as though it rhymes with 'fights').

The building is massive. The place was busy, but not at all full when I arrived (past the lunch rush), and nearly empty when I left. I suppose I should have asked some more history of this building, but I wasn't into being too chatty. I think that there was a plaque on the outside of the building that says something about a refurbishing in or around 1999. It may have been built (or refurb'ed) in 1999, but it has an old feel. Decorations include an odd assortment of old cash registers and scales, that give the impression that a nearby antique store exploded and the shrapnel landed at Kreuz's.

The menu -- "spartan" can only describe the selections. They keep things simple here, and simple works. I thought that the last time I was here, the lean beef (shoulder) was more expensive than the brisket (fatty), but now they are the same price.

Continue on down below the fold....

I wanted to sample a number of items this time around. The last time I was here, I didn't have a camera -- and, as you can tell from the photos, I am still learning to use this one! I ordered a small portion of lean shoulder beef, "fatty" brisket beef, and three pork spare ribs. This was more food than I could eat, but still ran only about $12.

If you need a scorecard, those are the pork ribs at the top, the shoulder clockwise to the right, and the brisket on the left. Plain white bread accompanies this fine meal -- and nothing else, except an iced tea (absent on photo day!).

My favorite was the shoulder. It had just enough fat to keep it moist, and some intense smoke flavor, especially on the blackened "bark" that you can see on the edges. I tried to get a close up picture, but it came out way too blurry to use. I scarfed down the shoulder meat without stopping to breathe much. I thought that the brisket was too fatty for my liking. I know that you tend to get less flavor without the fat, but this was so fatty, there didn't appear to be much meat. It was really the only disappointment, and since I had over-ordered, I didn't much care that it wasn't too good. The ribs had a brilliant peppery flavoring. Again, I tried the close-up photo to show the peppered crust from the rub:

I found the ribs quite good, even though some of the folks there told me that I would do better ordering the ribs at some of the other barbecue joints in town, and just outside of town.

One of the surprises to the day was the friendliness of the staff. They were more than helpful when I asked to take a few photos, accommodating me in any way they could. Where would I get the idea that the staff wouldn't be friendly?

Again with the blurry....GRRRR. I will get better, I promise. Anyway, the sign is still readable, and surely gives you the gist. I like that they don't serve sauce -- I like the flavor of the meat, and I am not generally a condiment guy anyway. The fork rule is just funny -- and, it is true, I didn't see a fork in the place. I also knew to come with cash from my list visit there. There is also a sign (you can see it -- blurry again -- in the photo above with the antique cash registers) that prohibits outside drink from being brought in. It just seemed like a lot of rules (even joking or half-joking ones) for a place with such all-around friendly folks.

My favorite sign in the place, though, was this one:

I tried getting this shot at various angles, and this was the best I could do. It says "Vegetarians enter here....Normal people down the hall." Behind that door is a vast, brightly lit dining room where the bulk of the patrons were sitting when I arrived. I tend to prefer to eat in this room, which is a bit darker, but has much more of a homey feel to it:

The chairs in this room are all emblazoned with the Kreuz logo:

Before I left, I asked the pitmasters in the back if they would allow me a quick picture. This one shows the wood fire burning and the sausage sitting on the far end of the smoker. They only opened it for my photo, and just to show the indirect method for smoking their product.

All in all, Kreuz Market gets two enthusiastic thumbs up from me. I will still try to hit one of the other 'Q joints the next time I get down this way, but I make no promises. It seems as though the car just knows to pull into the Kreuz parking lot without much steering from me.

I am sure that they have an address, but I have no idea what it is. Just drive south on 183 from Austin and it will be on your right. If you miss it, you're just not paying attention.

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13 March 2006

What ever happened to customer service?

I don't rant that much.

OK...I rant a lot. But, only when it is justified. Usually, the justification that I need comes in the form of dealing with morons (which, around the office, are affectionately called "mo-mo's").

One such mo-mo was encountered this week while trying to contact Continental Airlines (CO) customer service department. I think that I know a little bit about the ins and outs of traveling, but every now and again, I need some clarification on the airlines' bizarre rules and procedures. This is especially true when I change my "loyalty" (think of a stiff breeze) from one airline to another. I tend to know the rules that I need to know - and those tend to be the ones that I utilize most frequently.

I had the recent opportunity to obtain Gold Elite status with Northwest Airlines (NW). Without getting into a lot of minutiae over airline alliances, status, upgrades and the like, just know that I needed to know how my status would help me get an upgrade or elite seating assignments with CO. I should point out that I knew that my status WOULD get these benefits, I just wasn't sure how.

I thought this email to CO's customer service department would help elucidate things for me, just a little:

I purchased, this evening, a ticket from MCO-IAH on 3/30/06 and returning on 4/4/06. The Continental Confirmation Number is XXXXXX.

I am a (newly minted) Gold Elite member of NW WorldPerks (#100000000). I was informed by Northwest WorldPerks' customer service line that I would be eligible to upgrade to First Class, based on availability, and that I would be able to secure elite seating on Continental Airlines flights. I entered my WP number into the reservation, but I was not allowed to select elite seating on the seating chart.

So, my questions are, (a) Am I allowed access to elite seating on CO flights; and if so, how do I secure my choice of seat; and (b) does CO recognize my status level automatically and queue my upgrade request.

Lastly, can you also tell me in what order priority is determined for awarding elite upgrades? I understand that Platinum elites would get access ahead of Gold elites, but do all CO OnePass elites get access ahead of all WorldPerks elites (i.e. CO Plat, CO Gold, CO, Silv, NW Plat, NW Gold, NW Silv) or is it based on status within the respective programs (i.e. CO Plat, NW Plat, CO Gold, NW Gold, CO Silv, NW Silv)?

Thanks for all of your help. I look forward to flying with Continental soon.

Best regards,
The Traveling Man

Pretty clear what I am asking, right? I think so. I think that someone who works in the customer service department of an airline's frequent flier program would think so. Well......not so much.

Thank you for contacting the OnePass Service Center.

OnePass offers a promotion that matches the elite status of some other airline frequent flyer programs with an equivalent level in the OnePass Elite program. The airline you are inquiring about is not eligible to participate in the match program.

Ange Smith
OnePass Service Center
WHAT? Where on earth did ol' Ange think that I was asking about a status match to CO?

I am not so naive to think that canned email responses are not used -- and, actually, are probably appropriate in many situations. I use them myself because I often get asked the same questions over and over again in my job. However, I don't think that this person even read my email. I guess that they might have skimmed it, or simply sent it through an email filter that looks for keywords and this is the response that was shot out.

Technology should be used to ENHANCE your customer service, not replace it. The only impression that I got after dealing with CO here was that there customer service department is nothing short of shoddy.

Needless to say, I was pretty peeved. The chances of me flying with CO are pretty remote unless I have to anyway, but this is nothing that would make me want to fly them more.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I sent a reply to this email telling them that my question was not answered, and they responded back with an apology and the correct answer to my original questions. However, there should be no need to take that extra step.

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One of the Best Things About Living in Florida

For me, anyway, spring training makes that Top 10 list!

Today, I sat one row away from this....

Sitting that close and hearing the "pop" in the catcher's glove is an awesome experience.

I will also post soon about last week's experience at the World Baseball Classic.

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09 March 2006

Stuff You Oughta Know...Without Being Told by a Judge

Sometimes I have a hard time separating the real news from the fake news. Newsworthy today, however, is that new school teachers should not have sex with their students.

I can't imagine anyone needs a judge to tell them this, but apparently, they do. An Orange County (FL) judge says that new schoolteachers should sit through a half-hour presentation that would tell teachers "how damaging such relationships could be."

The judge wants to be accompanied for his presentation by a man he sent to jail for having sex with one of his students. That teacher is now serving a five-year sentence. In a related story, the jailed teacher thinks that this is a good idea!

Friends, we have a nominee for Moron of the Week. There are times when your actions are beyond what society deems acceptable behavior. Trying to defend those actions will often find you placing your oversized hoof into your mouth.

"When you're dealing with a high-school environment and you're a 22-year-old college student, you can easily get involved with a student when they're 16, 17," he said.
Aside from the fact that I don't buy into this for a second, how, exactly, does this explain his own situation? He was a 28 year-old man when his relationship began with a high school FRESHMAN. When I last checked, high school freshmen are either 13 or 14 years old. An argument could be made that a 22 year-old guy could pick up a 17 year-old girl at a club, not realize how young she is, and find himself in a uncomfortable situation -- or worse, a relationship. BUT, a 28 year-old man and a 13 year-old girl is acceptable in what circumstance?

And, yet, the man still couldn't remove his giant foot from his mouth.

"I don't think it's fair that I'm labeled as a sex offender and am grouped with other guys that are truly malicious and harm and kill little kids," he said. "There was nothing violent about my crime. Nothing against anyone's will."
Proving to me that this guy still needs a lot of therapy, he still has no concept of what he had done as being wrong. He seems not to get that having a position of power -- an educator, classroom leader, or really any position of authority (later in life, this may become your boss?) -- gives you an unfair advantage in assessing the emotional attachments of those assigned to your care. I have no problem lumping this creep in with the other pedophiles.

As far as the original story goes, fortunately, the head of the local teachers association finds the presentation proposal "insulting."

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01 March 2006

Less than a week until baseball...

My tickets for the World Baseball Classic arrived yesterday. I am now officially psyched.

The first game of the tournament in Orlando has the Dominican Republic team playing Venezuela. The amount of baseball talent that will assmbled on that field (even with the guys who have bailed out already) is almost inconceivable. The infield for the DR team will likely include Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, and Adrian Beltre. Their backups will include Rafael Furcal, Jose Reyes, Luis Castillo, and Pedro Feliz. The outfield is almost as stacked, and their pitching is pretty solid, too. The Venezuelan team is not quite as loaded, but their pitching may even be better than the DR team. Starters for Venezuela include Victor Zambrano, Johan Santana, and Freddy Garcia. Throw in a few position players like Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordonez, Omar Vizquel, Miguel Cabrera, Ramon Hernandez, and more, and this is shaping up to be quite the first-round game.

The only downside to this great matchup is that it is the first of the six games that will be played at the Orlando venue. I have lawn seats, which are general admission. That's OK - I usually buy the cheap seats whenever I go. I am just not familiar with this venue, so I am not sure where to scope out the best "seats" in the lawn area. I suspect that some of the other games, we will be able to sneak into the actual seating area and find some empties. That tactic has been perfected after years of attending the College World Series in Omaha. The only tickets I have ever purchased for that have been the general admission booklets, and we have never sat out in the general admission area. Of course, we usually attend the early round games there, not the packed finals games.

The only plan I have for Tuesday is to show up REALLY early at the stadium. If anyone else has any ideas, I'd be glad to hear 'em.

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Free Money!!!

I always wondered what it would be like to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater!

In a previous post, I mentioned a new site that outlined the best rewards for shopping online through various web portals. While shopping for the best travel deals, as I prepare for spring season, I found that I was missing out on some ways to maximize value from my work travel. So, since a colleague once again asked me today "Where DO you find this stuff?", I figure that I should share with you all.

Ebates.com is one of the most comprehensive web shopping portals on the net. They give you a rebate kickback for every qualifying purchase you make when you link to a store through their web site. The gist of it is that the store pays ebates a commission on your purchase (in the same way that web based advertising works). Most web sites keep this money as their advertising revenue (full disclosure -- when you make a purchase through the Amazon.com link on the side of the page, I get a commission -- so, do that, will you?). Ebates, instead, sends you a check for a portion of the commissions (I assume that they keep a percentage for themselves, but fair is fair).

For the other college admission folks that may read this, know that ebates offers rebates for Hilton, Hyatt, and Sheraton brand hotels; Expedia and Travelocity; and more. It may be possible to get rebates on your hotel purchases, airline tickets, and rental car fees for all of your work-related travel. Of course, since you already know how important my points are to me, you should know that this will not infringe on any other point-earning opportunities. On top of that, you will also be able to get rebates on clothing, gifts, and many other online purchases.

If you sign up through my link, we both get an additional $5 added to our accounts. I hope to have a sizeable check sometime after the end of spring travel -- just in time to spend on summer vacation!

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When you just need to be DEMOTIVATED!

There is a one day sale at one of my favorite web sites today and today only!

This is one of the lithographs hanging in our office, and there are many more just like them at despair.com. To access the one-day sale, you will need the sale password, which I am glad to share:

username: NEW
password: LEXUS

I am pretty sure it is their quaint sense of humor that I like best. From their email promoting the sale:

Yes, prices during this Blackout will yet again be so low you'll be forced to cry out, "How can you rip-off artists even sleep at night?! I HATE YOU!"

I love crap like that! I am kind of hoping that the Boss adds this one to our collection:

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