Friday, December 26, 2008

Surprise box canyon on Rock Creek on Boxing Day

Here is Rock Creek trail near our house on Christmas Day. Chris and I and our two dogs went down and did a longer hike. I went back and did a slightly shorter route today.

Two short hikes along Rock Creek in two days has been very pleasant. I think my urge to get back in shape is rising -- now to keep it going. My proto-New Year's resolution is to do the short version of this hike, down the hill, along the trail for a bit, and then back up in about 40 minutes 4-5 times a week, or the equivalent on an elliptical trainer which is a lot less interesting.

On of the things we did was to re-explore a little box canyon right by Backdoor Cave. This little canyon is a favorite of Chris'. We hiked everybody then in the family up there and had a picnic on his birthday there a couple of years ago.

You would not even know this was here unless you looked carefully, but I noted that somebody has cleared off the trail into it a bit better, cutting down a couple of fast growing foreign species trees that had blocked the entrance. Here is a picture of the first main rock shelf, with our two dogs, Ally and Ty, exploring around.

Here is a picture of the second main rock shelf. You have to scramble up over the rocks in back of the first shelf to get there. I wasn't sure Ally, who is an old 15 1/2 for a dog, would want to do that, but she did. But she drew the line at following Ty up on to the shelf at the back of this one, where you can see Ty.

However, I was game, not quite so old for a person at 57, so I scrambled up to get a view of the rocks and gentler dry creek gulch that goes up the hill following the bed of the creek that made this little canyon over the years.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Macs vs. PCs

Funny to think about it, but I have been a Mac user for almost exactly 20 years. Before that, I had a Korean XT clone, an ATT PC, and, my first ever PC, a Kaypro, aka Darth Vader's lunchbox. Here is a shot of me in 1983 using the Kaypro in our first apartment at Michigan State.

All of them were big steps forward in their own ways, but I remember using a Mac that belonged to a colleague at Michigan State, for a long presentation we were doing, and being blown away by the ease of use, both the graphic interface in general, but dragging and dropping text, in particular -- pretty elementary now, but state of the art then.

So I have always kind of kept track of the comparisons of Macs and PCs. I had second thoughts enough to try out a Lenovo, loaded with Vista unfortunately, because I really wanted to try using the tablet option to take notes and what was at the time better voice dictation software. But Vista was a disaster and support from Lenovo more or less non-existent. I had gotten very spoiled.

Here is a collection of a bunch of the recent Mac vs. PC ads, which put the whole thing in a fairly comic vein -- funnier if you are a Mac user, I fear. Particularly funny, if one has struggled with Vista a bit.

In the meantime, my son-in-law Sam, who is fairly ambidextrous with computers, but seems to have switched from PC to MaC, sends me this gem, in which the Mac vs. PC wars morph into a transformers type battle.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Tree Ornaments as family history

One of the most fun things about Christmas at our house is trimming the tree. We have been collecting ornaments for a long time.

Some are old. Some of the ornaments go back in our families. The kind of ornament you see in the top left, almond-shaped with a recessed center, was the kind we both remember most from growing up in both our families, mine on a farm in Idaho, Sandy's in a suburb in LA. A lot of the small round ornaments here on the top of the tree go back to our childhoods, and Sandy figures that sparkly one with the pink recessed center may be getting on towards eighty-some years in her family.

This one comes from Sandy's family before she was born.

This plastic snowman ornament goes back to the 1950s in Sandy's family. They bought one for her and one for her brother, Mike. The price tag, still on the bottom, still says $.10, so you know this is either ancient or from mid-January from Garden Ridge.

Some are reasonably contemporary. I bought this one of an @ sign at a Christmas market in Sweden back when email was new and we were sort of obsessed with the wonders of the infant internet. We were enthusiastically participating at the time in a number of new communities of interest we had found on email listservs back in the early 1990s.

Sandy has been interested in most things Scandinavian for a long time. When she was in grad school at Stanford, coming back home to Los Angeles for holidays, she would sometimes stop at a "Danish" village for tourists called Solvang. This little nisse (Danish Christmas elf) dates back to one of those stops. Just to his left is an origami box ornament that Sandy made. For some reason, holidays frequently summon prodigious sieges of handicraft by Sandy, so one Christmas she made dozens of these.

Ornaments do come in from all sorts of places, which adds to the fun. The round ornament on the left, with the celtic knotwork, is a site token from a Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) event called Clancy Day in Ontario, Canada, back when we lived in Michigan and went up to SCA events in Canada a lot. (The token showed that you had paid your entrance, or site, fee, so people started making them more and more interesting, so several ended up on the tree and dozens live in a box somewhere.) The heart on the right came from the Christmas bazaar in Ã…rhus, Denmark last year. Danes love to decorate Christmas scenes and trees with red hearts, and we got into the spirit of it.

Sandy liked the heart motif long before we lived in Denmark. Here is an embroidered felt heart she made, sort of in the style of Hungarian folk art (which she also likes a lot), when when she was in college in the early 1970s.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reveling in UT's own Olmec head

It has been giving me a sheer delight that I find it hard to explain and verbalize that the University of Texas and more particularly the Institute of Latin American Studies has its own handmade reproduction of a Mesoamerican Olmec head from Mexico, made by an artist in Veracruz and donated to us by the government of that state.

Many find the head a bit weird. It is certainly not modern or much in sync with our usual supposedly tasteful European-descended public art. Even Sandy whose artistic tastes are bit more esoteric even than mine finds this irrational exuberance of mine about the head a bit odd. But it just makes break out in a truly irrational large grin every time I see it.

Part of what delights me so much is that this sits in front of the Latin American Studies building so that you walk by it every time you enter. I go there a lot to go to meetings and to use the library so my daily environment has just been brightened and a wonderful bit of what I like about Mexico planted right on my path. Sometimes even large institutions really get it right.

About the art, the official announcement says, "In contrast to a public image that identifies the Olmec (1500–400 BCE) as merely an enigmatic people who sculpted colossal stone heads of unknown gods and carved exquisite jade figurines, current scholarship recognizes Olmec culture as the foundation of civilization in Mesoamerica. Unquestionably, the Olmec not only carved magnificent monolithic public monuments, but they also originated the first inter-Mesoamerican art style. Recent discoveries in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, strongly suggest that the Olmec even may have independently invented a system of hieroglyphic writing around 1000 BCE." Read more at

Fading glories of fall

It has been a great fall season for bright fall colors and for colorful sunsets.

Here is a sunset over the pond in the park near our house. We were driving home, marveling at the sunset on the clouds, so I pursued the sunset into the park so I could hang out the window with my trusty iPhone camera and grab a picture.

It has been the best fall for tree/leaf color that I remember in ten years of living in Austin.

Here is an example of trees in the sunset on the other side of the park another day.

And here is a close up of one of the same trees.

And another tree across the park.

And the sunset on a wall at the end of the park. If you get the right angle, it hides the fact the wall is in front of a highway and lets me have the illusion I am walking in the woods or some nicely manicured wooded estate far away from cars and roads.

Texas German Christmas

Saturday we did a lot of Christmas errands, the most fun turned out to be the Christmas Market at the Texas German Free School. Just uphill from Red River in Austin, with new condos and music venues just half a block away, here was a delightful breath of Austin history. The German Free School was started in 1848 to teach German language and culture, which it is still doing. It is still in the same historic building. You can see an upper story veranda here, flying both American and German flags.

I love historical markers, so I will include a photo of the one for the school here, a bit hard to read, but go check out the original.

Texas German survives as a dialect, albeit a disappearing one. One of Sandy's colleagues, Hans Boas, studies it and people in Sandy's department, Germanic Studies, have been collecting samples for years. While at the market, we talked to a former student of Sandy's who is a Texas German and grew up speaking it. We arrived just as a singalong of Christmas songs in German had started. You can see them in the next photo.

As you can also sort of see in the photo, if you look carefully, that most of the singers are getting elderly. I was fascinated, if anything, that they had held on to their dialect for so long. My own father grew up speaking German at home in a not dissimilar Swiss German Mormon immigrant colony in southern Idaho in Montpelier on Bear Lake. He spoke German until he went to school, then was persecuted enough for speaking German that he stopped speaking it and worked hard on learning English. Then the family moved away to a more promising farming area in Idaho, in Burley, where few spoke German, so the incentive to use German was pretty well gone. By the time I came along, when he was in his 50s, all he remembered were some Swiss songs in German and a few phrases and stories. At the very end of his life, in his 90s, when he started living more in the past, I remember that he started telling a few stories from his early childhood in which some of the dialogue was in Swiss

So I was fascinated to watch a couple of small language dramas at the German Christmas song singalong. In this next photo, in the center, you can see one couple setting on a bench where the woman, who looked to be in her 40s, was singing, while her husband and son looked on. Further left, there was what looked to be a father and his adult daughter, both singing. It was fascinating and a bit poignant to watch this effort to hang onto an immigrant heritage. Makes me a bit wistful, too. I wish I had grown up speaking Swiss German and English, both.