Monthly Archives: December 2007

Only in Austin: P. Terry’s Burger Stand

“Only in America” has become something of an expression, in the United States, to talk about things which are possibly only found in this country. As a cultural anthropologist, I can’t help but question the validity of those claims of “American exceptionalism” when I hear them. As a non-citizen, I tend to perceive those claims as rather nationalistic in tone.

But it’s all good.

And it can be fun to apply the same concept to Austin, as it’s a rather unique city. Austinites have almost a patriotic attachment to their city. It might even come from the fact that most of them come from elsewhere… ūüėČ

As the name implies, P. Terry’s Burger Stand is a small hamburger restaurant. Had seen it before (it’s in my neighborhood) but didn’t really know what it was. Noticed that the Austin Chronicle’s readers poll had the place listed as Best Fast Food for 2007. Became intrigued, browsed their site

As it turns out, they’re “Anti-Fast Food” and the owner opened the place after reading Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. They use “ethical” meat, get fresh produce every day, pay their employees decent wages, and seem to genuinely care about things besides profit. They play a bit of “Austin humor” in the fact that their vegetarian burgers are on the “South Austin Addition” part of their menu.

Had “The Double” as a combo, with iced tea as the drink. It didn’t really take longer than at a fast food to get the food ready. The tea was rather good (and unsweetened iced tea is one of the things I like about living in the South). The fries were nice, somewhere between typical fast food fries and genuine Belgian fries. Hadn’t noticed that the double was a cheeseburger (I don’t like processed cheese) but it was rather good as burgers come.

Things which surprise me for such a “high-minded” place:

  • The burger tastes almost exactly like a generic burger from a mainstream chain. Same type of sauce, iceberg lettuce, bun… Not that it’s a bad thing as it probably makes it easier to reach the “mainstream consumers.” But I somehow expected something which would be very unique in taste. Maybe not like La Paryse or even like Frite Alors. But at least like BellePro.
  • It’s mostly a drive-thru. As a compulsive pedestrian, I can’t help but associate drive-thrus with consumer culture, conspicuous consumption, etc. Not as “Anti-Fast Food” as a sit-in burger joint.
  • They use as much wrapping material as any fast food chain location would. It does make sense for a drive-thru to wrap the food but, since I ate on premises, I thought they might have used a reusable tray or something vaguely “ecological” like that.
  • In the “pleasant surprise” category: their food is very decently priced. Especially when compared to the average meal in this city. I also mean to imply that the portions are rather big, which does make their pricing even more impressive but also goes with the whole “American fast food” model.

Overall, a nice experience. And I do perceive something “typically Austin” about the place. It’s both very clearly connected with mainstream U.S. culture and just a bit on the quirky side of things. Noticed the same balance at the Book People bookstore and at the Magnolia Caf√© diner (“Sorry, we’re open”). Not to mention all the coffeeshops like the Flipnotics Coffeespace from where I’m sending this blog entry.


How to Inflate an Air Bed with built-in Sponge Pump?

A similar one to this, but bought at Target (Deco brand but same picture):

Image: Quality Double Flocked Air Bed with built in Sponge pump by FUN ZONE

The package didn’t contain instructions. The way the pump works is a bit awkward and, for a while, I really wasn’t sure it was working. Went online looking for instructions. Closest I came to helpful advice was this Amazon comment. It eventually did work but it took a while and I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t do it properly.

What I did: took off the cap and valve from the pump and pumped using my bare foot making sure I was covering the hole with my foot while pressing the pump and letting air in while lifting my foot. Because the sponge pump sends the air in other parts of the mattress, it’s hard to see that the mattress is in fact being inflated. There are two other valves on the mattress but they seem not to be used while inflating the airbed using the pump.

It might have taken me less time blowing the airbed with my mouth, especially given the time I spent looking for instructions. After all, I’m a longtime sax player and a lifetime non-smoker. My lungs are working properly.

To be honest, I did feel rather silly being unsure as to how this inflator worked. And I’m not completely reassured. Guess I just became accustomed to reading detailed instructions, even when they’re insufficient. Even a single diagram without any word would have been quite useful.

Now, we need to find out how long this will last as a mattress. We plan to use it as our bed until our furniture comes in from Montreal, which might take a few weeks. Hadn’t noticed the comments on the Target.com site saying how this airbed may deflate after just a few uses. The box does include a small puncture repair kit. Let’s hope it won’t be needed under normal conditions.


Reviewing Austin

Been in Austin for ten days. Using Google Maps and Google Earth,¬†had planned¬†to go to some places in town, especially coffee and beer places.Currently sitting on the patio at¬†Spider House, sipping a rather nice weizen from¬†Live Oak Brewing. Coming in after¬†spending time¬†at¬†Flipnotics, another patio-worthy caf√©. Not that it’s so warm (13¬įC/55¬įF) but it’s fun to be on a patio in late December.¬†¬†Been updating my map of “Places of interest in Austin.” Added a few things, changed the color of markers for places I’ve visited.¬†Google Maps¬†Some quick observations.

  • Still can’t help but compare with other places. Keep getting “flashes” from many different places. That’s probably what you get when you move 21 times in almost exactly seven years.
  • The city was quite empty, the last few days. Typical of a college town. Things seem much better today.
  • Good potential for a real coffee scene but, so far, the only two places where coffee was good were¬†JP’s Java¬†and¬†Caff√® Medici. These were the top two¬†recommended places in Austin¬†for coffee and espresso, on CoffeeGeek. Not disappointed with either place.
  • The beer scene is interesting, overall. Texas has very restrictive beer laws but Texas micros and brewpubs are doing interesting things. Will finally meet some members of the¬†Zealots brewclub¬†tonight. Should be fun to talk about beer. Some of my favorites so far,¬†Real Ale Roggenbier,¬†Uncle Billy’s¬†Bitchin’ Camaro, and this here¬†Live Oak¬†Hefeweisse.
  • Maybe I just prefer pulled pork over beef brisket but, so far, I’ve had some really nice pulled pork and the beef brisket has been relatively uninteresting. Can’t wait until I start barbecuing on my own.
  • Someone said Austin was a slacker town. Not hard to believe. And it can be fun to be in a place where slacking is ok. For one thing, servers aren’t constantly harassing me to order drinks.
  • There seems to be something of a “town and gown” issue, here. Maybe not as much as in¬†Bloomington. But still. It seems like students control part of the town (the caf√©s/bars) and “normal people” are found elsewhere. One big difference with Bloomington is that people of different ages do seem to mingle, to a certain extent.¬†
  • Though we’re luckily located in an ideal part of town for¬†public transportation, Austin really is a car-city. The MidWest is already pretty intense in terms of car-emphasis, Austin is more car-oriented than I expected. For instance, car drivers pay no attention to pedestrians even when turning left while the “walking” light is on. And it might have more to do with the weather than anything else but there seems to be more SUVs and less bicycles than I’d see in the MidWest.
  • Public transportation is cheap and rather useful downtown. It seems not to work so well for anyone living at any distance from downtown. There are some free routes, a bus connects the airport with both UT and downtown, and the monthly pass is nice (10$ for 31 days, starting at any point).
  • Because the city is spread out, it does seem difficult to do things without a car. Haven’t really felt the need for a car yet and we’ve been lucky enough to get help from a car-owning friend last weekend. Yet a pedestrian lifestyle seems a bit difficult to sustain in Austin. At the same time, the downtown area is relatively small and weather is less of a problem at this point than it could be in Montreal. People keep telling us that the heat of the summer will surely force us to get a car with air conditioning. We’ll see.
  • Grocery stores are a bit difficult to get to but they seem rather interesting. By decreasing order of preference, so far:¬†Central Market, ¬†H-E-B,¬†Whole Foods. Whole Foods has a good selection for certain products, but it’s quite expensive. Central Market seems to have as good a selection for most things yet its prices are rather decent. At H-E-B, we were able to buy some things (produce especially) for much cheaper than what we might pay in Montreal (where food is very inexpensive). Even though it makes a lot of sense in terms of regional differences, it’s still funny to see that tomatoes or cranberries are much more expensive here than in Montreal while oranges and avocados are significantly cheaper. Overall, we’ll be finding ways not to spend too much on grocery.
  • On average, restaurants cost about the same thing as they would in small U.S. cities: less expensive than in Boston but more expensive than in Montreal. Unsurprisingly, Mexican and barbecue restaurants seem to offer the best “bang for the buck.” And there are some places for¬†inexpensive all you can eat pizza. While it’s not the type of food the typical foodie would brag about, it’s nice to have the option.
  • Won’t say much about people’s attitudes because it easily gets me to go into “ethnographic fieldwork mode,” which isn’t what I want to do tonight. Let’s just say that it’s part of the adaptation.¬†¬†Not “culture shock.” Just, getting to learn how to behave in a new city.
  • Despite the lack of snow and the scattered palm trees, it doesn’t so much feel like a Southern city. Maybe because most Austinites come from other parts of the country. Similarly, it doesn’t really feel like Texas. Maybe the town and gown division has something to do with this.
  • There are some nice things to look at but the overall visual aspect of the city isn’t necessarily made to impress. Maybe just my own biases but, to me, Austin looks more like¬†South Bend, Moncton, or¬†Springfield¬†than like New Orleans, Boston, or Chicago.

Overall, an interesting experience so far. Can’t say I really got the pulse of the city, though.


BlogFlock

Tester Flock 1.0 pour bloguer…

Blogged with Flock


Flock est stable?

Bonne question. Si oui, √ßa peut √™tre assez agr√©able. J’utilise Flock depuis un moment d√©j√† et certains trucs m’emb√™tent. Comme le fait qu’il puisse me demander constamment de configurer mon blogue. Et je suis pas certain de trouver l’interface de bloguage si g√©niale que √ßa. Mais, bon, on peut pas tout avoir, para√ģt-il…

Blogged with Flock

Tags: , ,


√Čloge de la patience

Tout simple. Pendant un petit coup de cafard. Essaie de sortir une corde d’un ourlet.

T√Ęche ni facile, ni difficile. Un de ces trucs pratiques que chacun doit savoir faire. Le ¬ętruc¬Ľ c’est, selon ce que ma m√©moire m’intimait de faire, d’utiliser une aiguille pour tirer la corde le long de l’ourlet.

Pas d’aiguille sous la main.

Tire avec les doigts, en maintenant le bout de la corde et en glissant l’ourlet le long de la corde. √áa fonctionne, mais c’est long. Surtout pour passer √† travers une couture. √áa vient, tranquillement.

Jusqu’√† l’ouverture de l’ourlet par laquelle la corde doit passer. C’est ici que le b√Ęt blesse. Plusieurs minutes √† m’acharner sur ce petit bout de corde.

Arrêter si près du but? Pas question.

Tout essayé.

D√©cide de poser l’ouvrage, un instant.

Le reprends, sans grande conviction. T√Ętonne un peu… √áa y est! La corde est sortie!

Et le bien que cette petite r√©ussite m’a fait valait la peine. Me sens mieux.

Surtout que je suis sur la terrasse du café Flipnotics, près de chez moi. Ambiance sympathique. Connexion sans-fil gratuite. Café passable à moyen. Espresso semi-correct. Décor amusant. Oiseaux qui se promènent sur la terrasse.

Je serai probablement ici de temps √† autres. Histoire de m’acclimater.


Port-Based “Sangria”

Ok, it doesn’t really taste like sangria. But it’s a similar drink. And it’s pretty nice, IMHO.

A bit of ruby port, some fresh ginger, lime juice, and orange juice. Haven’t measured the proportions but the result is pretty close to what I thought it’d be. It’d work rather well with “Christmas spices” like dry ginger and cinnamon.

While living in NoHo, MA, I bought a bottle of very inexpensive ruby port at Whole Foods. Can’t remember the brand but it was simply delicious. Better than most Tawny ports, IMHO. And much less expensive than almost any wine. So I became interested in ruby port.

Tried a few other rubies. Including some that was sold in Quebec. For almost three times the price of what I bought in Massachusetts. And not as pleasurable.

Today (Christmas Eve), I went to a liquor store right here in Austin with the definite intention of buying ruby port. Got some Taylor and some Fairbanks. The Fairbanks was even cheaper than the Taylor and, as it so happens, I prefer it. There’s something to these ruby ports that I find quite nice. Can’t quite put my finger on it but it’s related to “freshness.” They do taste “green” but in a nice way. This Fairbanks ruby port I got is still not exactly what I’m looking for, but it’s pretty nice.

I started mixing the Taylor with some lime juice. Then thought about sangria, so I added orange juice and fresh ginger. Quite a nice mix. Summery.

Quite fitting for my first snowless Christmas in years.

Anyhoo… As I’m here, all alone on Christmas Eve, I thought I’d blog about my experiments and experience.

Fun!


Lydon at His Best: Comeback Edition

Already posted a blog entry about Radio Open Source (ROS) host Christopher Lydon being at his best when he gives guests a lot of room.

I’ve also been overtly critical of Lydon, in the past. Nothing personal. ROS is a show that gets me thinking and I tend to think critically. I still could have voiced my opinions in a softer manner but blogging, like other forms of online communication, often makes it too easy to use inflammatory language.

At one point, I even posted a remarkably arrogant entry about my perception of what ROS should do.

But, what’s funny, what the show has become is pretty much what I had in mind. Not in format. But in spirit. And it works quite well for me.

Lydon posted a detailed entry (apparently co-authored by ROS producer Mary McGrath) on the thought process involved in building the new ROS show:

Open Source ¬Ľ Blog Archive ¬Ľ As We Were Saying‚Ķ

Despite the “peacock terms” used, the blog entry seems to imply a “leaner/meaner” ROS which gives much room for Lydon to do his best work. Since it started again a few weeks ago, the show has been focusing on topics and issues particularly dear to Lydon including Jazz, American cultural identity, U.S. politics, and Transcendentalism (those four are linked, of course). It’s much less of a radio show and much more of a an actual podcast as we have come to understand them in the four years since Lydon and Dave Winer “have done the first podcast in human history.” In other words Lydon, a (former) NYT journalist, has been able to adapt to podcasting, which he invented.

What is perhaps most counter-intuitive in Lydon’s adaptation is that he went from a typical “live radio talk show” format with guests and callers to a “conversation” show without callers, all the way to very focused shows with extended interviews of varying lengths. Which means that there’s in fact less of the “listener’s voice” in the show than there ever was. In fact, there seems to be a lot less comments about ROS episodes than there were before. Yet the show is more “podcasty.”

How?

Well, for one thing, there doesn’t seem to be as strict a release schedule as there would be on a radio show. While most podcasters say that regularity in episode releases is the key to a successful podcast, it seems to me that the scheduling flexibility afforded podcasts and blogs is a major part of their appeal. You don’t release something just because you have to. You release it because it’s as ready as you want it to be.

Then there’s the flexibility in length. Not that the variability is so great. Most episodes released since the comeback are between 30 and 45 minutes. Statistically significant, but not extreme variability in podcasting terms. The difference is more about what a rigid duration requirement does to a conversation. From simple conversational cues, it’s quite easy to spot which podcasts are live broadcasts, which are edited shows, and which are free-form. Won’t do a rundown right now but it would make for an interesting little paper.

The other dimension of the new ROS which makes it more podcasty is that it’s now clearly a Lydon show. He’s really doing his thing. With support from other people, but with his own passions in mind. He’s having fun. He’s being himself. And despite everything I’ve written about him as a host, I quite enjoy the honesty of a show centered on Lydon’s passions. As counter-intuitive as this might sound given the peacock terms used in the show’s blog, it makes for a less-arrogant show. Sure, it’s still involved in American nationalism/exceptionalism. But it’s now the representation of a specific series of voices, not a show pretending to represent everything and everyone.

So, in brief, I like it.

And, yes, it’s among the podcasts which make me think.


Flickr

This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing.


Here Am I, in Austin

Lots to talk about. Too little time, right now.

And I don’t tend to blog about that kind of “personal diary” content, so much.

But I’m in Austin, TX. The start of a new phase for me.

Flew in from snowy Montreal. Things are going rather well, with very minor hiccups.

It does feel weird.


Confessions d’un amateur de caf√©

Topo de Janie Gosselin sur le café à Montréal.
Janie Gosselin : J’aime ta couleur caf√© | Actuel | Cyberpresse
Elle parle de Caff√® in Gamba, Veritas, ¬ęToi, moi & caf√©¬Ľ… et de votre humble serviteur.

En fait, √ßa me surprend un peu qu’elle puisse me mettre autant en √©vidence. Mais si √ßa peut donner la puce √† l’oreille de plus de gens, qu’il se passe quelque-chose du c√īt√© caf√© √† Montr√©al, c’est peut-√™tre pas plus mal. Surtout qu’on a encore peu parl√© de la sc√®ne du caf√© √† Montr√©al, √† part lors d’un √©pisode de L’√©picerie.

Ah oui, pour pr√©ciser. L’¬ę√©quivalent d’une quinzaine d’espressos par jour¬Ľ, c’est parce que je bois deux fois du caf√© de ma caf√©ti√®re moka de six tasses et plusieurs autres caf√©s durant la journ√©e, y compris des espressos et du caf√© de ma caf√©ti√®re Brikka. C’est une fa√ßon de parler, mais on dirait que √ßa marque… ūüėČ

J’imagine que je vais devoir faire plus de billet sur le caf√©, y compris en fran√ßais. La plupart de mes billets sur le caf√© sont en anglais.


Praises for AT&T

Wow!

I’m impressed.

No, I’m not a shill for AT&T. And I’m not even an AT&T customer yet.

So, what am I impressed by?

Customer service.

Quality of customer service.

Customer service representatives who do their job well.

Instead of just assuming that it should happen all the time and complain when it doesn’t, I get really impressed when it happens. Call me weird or na√Įve. Really, I don’t mind. I’m funny that way.

So…

My wife and I are moving to Austin, TX in a couple of weeks. She’s currently in NoHo, Massachusetts while I’m in Montreal, Qc. Because she doesn’t currently have her “social” for the U.S., I was to order phone and broadband services. We basically don’t need anything else, besides electricity.

Shopped around a bit. Asked some people over there about alternatives. People who are currently with AT&T said they had no problem with it. Someone with MCI is thinking of switching back to AT&T. Some people gave me more specific advice on plans, including measured service.

For one thing, AT&T’s phone plans are very affordable. Hard to beat, even. Measured service is exactly what we need as we’ll be making very few calls. It’s mostly a way to get incoming calls and have a landline for emergencies. I might end up with a cellphone at some point, but not right away.

Broadband isn’t too different. As someone said, broadband is pretty much a commodity so, unless there’s a very specific issue, any provider would do. I’ve been using DSL with Bell for a while and it’s quite decent. AT&T’s DSL plans are, again, very affordable and quite flexible. Better yet, the plans have no term commitment.

So I was pretty much set. I wanted to get a measured line as our primary residential phone line and the “Pro DSL” package (3Mbps).

Started the ordering process online. Entered our new home’s address. Wasn’t in the database. Spelled out the street number instead of using a digit and the address was found. But with the wrong zip code. Not slightly wrong, as from a neighbourhood close by. Completely wrong. Hundreds of miles away. But the city name was right. Didn’t want to risk it so I decided to complete the order with some assistance.

While doing all of this, a floating box appeared on the page to allow me to chat with a CSR. Normally, such a box might be quite annoying. But, in this case, it was exactly what I needed.

So I chatted with a CSR named Rachel. Got straightforward answers to all questions I had. One advantage of doing this kind of thing through chat is that it’s easy to copy and paste. Plus, you don’t get issues with trying to perceive tone or anything. It works.

I still needed to call customer service if I wanted to check the address from the database. Seemed perfectly reasonable. I could have proceeded with an online order but I really wanted to make sure everything was set right.

So I called the toll-free number, using Skype. (My headset is quite comfortable.)

Contrary to the experience most people have on most occasions, the voice-activated system was actually quite good. Very conversational and natural. Did a good job at recognizing everything which would be in a restricted list (numbers, place names, yes/no answers…). The recognition of a free-form answer was trickier but the NLP itself was quite efficient. It’s just that it’s difficult to pinpoint an issue like the one I was having with a few words. What’s more interesting, though, is that the system “failed gracefully.” Not only did it allow me to try another way to phrase my issue but it provided different examples every time. The nice little added touch was that, the first time it failed to understand my query, it asked “Did I get that right?” and when I answered “no” it actually said “My mistake.” Sounds really silly, but little things like that do help.

I got my query right the third time (by broadening it) and, after confirmation that this was what I wanted, I was directed to a CSR. Waiting time was less than a minute.

At this point, I just wanted to get information about the database entry for our address. My expectations were fairly low. But the CSR did exactly what he needed to do. (Didn’t catch his name. Given his accent, I would be very surprised if he weren’t from the U.S.) While I was just calling to make sure the address was right, I ended up ordering the services directly through the CSR. I may have missed on a deal but I really think it was worth it. The CSR was that good.

What did this CSR do so right? Simple things.

  • He adopted exactly the right tone with me, neither patronizing nor “salesmanish.”
  • He adopted the appropriate “colloquial yet respectful” form of speech.
  • He solved the database issue very efficiently.
  • He understood exactly what I wanted. Right away, he understood that the phone line I wanted was the most basic one.
  • He never tried to upsell me on anything. In fact, he reassured me that I might not need a protection plan for the lines in our new place.
  • He was frank about what the complimentary calling card would be. (I’m still getting it and I’m sure I’ll use it in an emergency, despite the ridiculously high rates charged.)
  • He explained everything he was doing.
  • He never put me on hold.
  • He explained every detail of each plan I was ordering.
  • He answered questions I didn’t even realize I wanted to ask.
  • He did everything his job required him to do.

I fully realize that many an administrator would look at this list and think that this CSR should get reprimanded or even fired. Especially since he was frank with me and never tried to upsell me on anything. But what many an administrator doesn’t seem to understand is that this quality of customer service goes a long way to bring in faithful customers.

I think that one key here is “basic psychology” and the importance of context. This CSR was able to adapt to my “style” right away. His strategy might not have worked with somebody else. But I’m actually convinced that he would have adapted his strategy according to my reactions. The exact opposite of “cookie cutter solutions.” Customized, personalized, tailored service. As if we were doing business in a small store.

Naysayers will say that my experience was positive because I was actually ordering a service. It will surely go downhill from there. That’s quite possible but, if it does, we will just switch our services to some other company. Not having a term commitment is very valuable, in this case. Besides, I will likely not have to do business with them directly very frequently, unless the services stop working. And the prices are low enough that our stakes in the matter are also quite low.

One reason I’m thinking so much about this is that I have done phone surveys about CSRs in the past. In fact, the surveys were about a phone company. When I completed the order and ended my call to customer service, I was thinking about my answers to survey questions (if I ever get asked). What is sad about surveys is that it’s impossible to give anyone any insight as to what, to me, constitutes excellent customer service. Sure, the ethnographer in me has to say this. But I think it goes beyond the differences in research methodology.

I just wish more people were to understand needs of different people.


MuniWiFi in Rural Quebec

Municipalité de Nouvelle Miguasha Gaspésie Québec Canada

Nouvelle, a rather small village of 2000 inhabitants in Eastern Quebec, is rolling out an inexpensive plan for municipal wireless using WiMAX.

MuniWiFi has often been criticised, especially in the United States. Some plans, especially in large cities, have been pegged as anti-competitive and “bad for business.” Sprint Nextel’s involvement in WiMAX¬† is possibly being reconsidered. But the Nouvelle plan seems different.

In this case, the municipality isn’t competing with a private provider since wiring up the region wouldn’t be profitable for a private provider anyway. According to a short report on a tech podcast over at Radio-Canada, the plan is to integrate the WiMax plan as a utility on residents’ tax bill. Apparently, the plan would cost 50$ (CAD) a year for each household.

Given the current economic conditions for remote parts of Quebec, this could easily be the beginning of a new trend. Not that a small village would suddenly be transformed into a hub of tech expertise. But opportunities for telecommuting can eventually reverse the trend toward “rural exodus.” Some comment writers on the Radio-Canada piece mention the possibility to bring young people back to rural areas in Quebec. In fact, there’s currently a government-sponsored campaign to get young people to move away from urban areas back into rural areas. Similar campaigns exist to get newcomers (immigrants and migrants) to move to those areas. Much of these campaigns might have more to do with employment than with anything else and the notion seems to be that the best way to attract anyone to those regions is to have good employment opportunities.

At the same time, some urbanites are moving to those regions. Gaspésie, where this WiFi-savvy village is located, is one such region which attracts increasing number of wealthy urbanites who move there to avoid the stresses of city life. The result is often that real-estate prices are going up for the most desirable places, making it more difficult for young locals to get their own propriety. It also seems that some urbanites fail to engage in the local communities to which they moved, thereby creating some tension between individuals in those communities.