Monday, March 18, 2013

Illini Visitor's Guide to Austin

As most of you know, the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team will be playing in Austin, my current hometown, for the 2013 NCAA tournament this Friday, March 22.  I decided to write this blog post to benefit the Illini fans who will be visiting Austin.  But let's start off by listing my credentials - the credentials that I believe allow me to write a valid "Illini Guide to Austin" blog post.  I grew up in Illinois - the northwest suburbs of Chicago to be a little more specific, and I went to The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 4 years (2005-2009).  In October 2010, I moved to Austin for a new job.  Since then, I've been exploring Austin for the sole purpose of writing this very blog post.

During my time in Illinois, I became a die-hard fan of all things Illinois/Chicago: sports, weather, food, the skyline, and people (except politicians).  These loyalties have been tested and examined now that I live squarely in the middle of "ya'll" & boot country - neither of which have I adopted into my vocabulary or wardrobe, respectively.  I've had to defend the Cubs, Bears, and Illini on many occasions; I've almost rehearsed my rhetoric on the "magic" of winter and beauty of fall; yes, we put an entire pickle spear on our hotdogs and our pizza is thicker than your accent; supposedly everything's bigger in Texas, but I'm pretty sure our Tower tops anything down here.  The only reason I'm taking the time to delineate all these things is to clarify that I haven't "sold out."  The opinions of Austin that follow are free of the "don't mess with Texas" nationalistic mindset that is superbly prevalent in most anyone who was born here (they have stars and/or the outline of the state everywhere, for goodness sake).  So, please continue - my 23 years in Illinois and 2+ years in Austin are the background for this post.

What we know so far is that Illinois is a 7-seed playing Colorado on Friday.  I'll assume that most fans will arrive on Thursday evening/night.  I'll also assume that those traveling to Austin will be staying in town until Sunday night whether the Illini win on Friday and play again on Sunday or lose on Friday and don't play again until November.  This schedule really gives you approximately 2 days to explore Austin, which I will try to take into account, but I don't think it would be possible to fit all the fun below into two days unless you're riding on horseback (which isn't out of the question).

Usually when friends come to visit us in Austin, we spent part of the time showing them around but most of the time eating.  There are so many cool places to dine in Austin; here are a few "must-eats" during your short stay.
  • Rudy's BBQ - sarcastically titled "The worst BBQ in Texas" due to the fact that they're all located in gas stations and feature wax paper instead of plates, Rudy's moist beef brisket is the main reason that cows exist.  This is a must.
  • Torchy's Tacos - while you couldn't go wrong with several taco places in Austin (like TacoDeli, for example), Torchy's is still my favorite.  There are multiple locations and great menu choices for breakfast, lunch, or dinner - my wife loves the "Fried Avocado" taco.  These are "Damn Good Tacos."
  • Food from a truck - Austin has a thriving "trailer food" scene that has come to partially define the culinary experience.  If you're looking for Asian (East Side King or Coat & Thai), Indian (Nomad Dosa or G'Raj Mahal), Sandwiches (Snarky's Moo Bawk Oink or All City Subs), or anything else your heart/stomach desires, someone will be happy to hand it to you thru a truck window.  Other must-trys are dessert trucks - Hey Cupcake and Gourdough's are worth the trip.  Check out Food Trailers Austin for an extensive map list.
  • Hopdoddy Burger Bar - Texas burgers!  "Hopdoddy was created to express the perfect union of burgers and beer."  All natural, hand-crafted burgers and a celebration of local beer; if you're in the mood for some beef, this is the place.  (It's also located conveniently on one of the most visited streets in Austin, South Congress.  More on that later.)
  • Chuy's Tex Mex - there may be more authentic or healthy options for Tex-Mex in Austin, but there's not a more "Austin" Tex-Mex place in Austin.  Chuy's helps keep Austin weird with their strange decor and "Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom" sauce.  Not only that, but if you get there during happy hour, they have discount margaritas and free chips, salsa, queso, and beef!
  • Whole Foods - you've probably heard of Whole Foods, the king of natural food grocery stores, whose corporate headquarters are in downtown Austin.  While it's still a (very large) grocery store, the downtown location does offer lots of great options for fresh cooked food in their cafeteria area and a good view of the surrounding Austin streets from the rooftop tables.
  • Uchi or Uchiko - a little more taxing on the wallet, but these two neo-Japanese restaurants are the most highly acclaimed establishments in the Austin area (Uchiko is a spinoff of Uchi by the same owner and chef).  The aura and menu are both designed to create an experience that won't disappoint.
I would give you a list of bars to visit, similar to the restaurants above, but the nightlife scene is more about the desired atmosphere instead of the actual drinks on the menu.
  • If you're looking for a crazy, drunk night where the street on which you're stumbling is shut down for easy access to all the bars on either side, go to 6th Street.  It's great people watching if nothing else, but you can find the occasional good show and even some hidden gems, like Midnight Cowboy, located along this historic strip of entertainment venues.
  • If you're looking for the progressive hipster/young adult scene where all the bars are old, remodeled homes, Rainey Street is the spot.  There's at least 9 or 10 bars in this former neighborhood that are worth your time, especially Icenhauer's (a personal favorite), Bar 96 (gotta love playing bags), and The Lustre Pearl (pictured above - ping pong anyone?).
  • If you're looking for a country bar, let me remind you that I'm from the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, and I don't know anything about places like that.  I actually avoid them if I can.
  • There are also a few good dive bars and pubs in different locations around Austin such as the Pour House, Barfly's, The Flying Saucer, Hopfield's, Red's Porch, and Moonshine (the last two are more restaurants, but good places to grab a drink outside).
It would be tough to fit all these places in during a weekend visit to Austin; I've even left some out, like Barton Springs Pool & a few music venues, because I know you're visiting in March for a weekend.  (Just making sure you remembered that I designed this blog post for you Illini fans).  But while you're here, I hope you can mark a few of these off and experience some of the best attractions that Austin has to offer.
  • Texas State Capitol & Bob Bullock History Museum - when you come to the Capital you have to see the Capitol, and since the history museum is just right up the road, why not get your full share of Texas history & nationalism in one fell swoop!
  • South Congress - I originally had "SoCo" further down the list (only because I was randomly writing things down), and I planned on saying, "This should be further up the list."  But instead, I decided to move it up.  The quintessential Austin street, this is where you'll find food trucks, restaurants, old-time candy shops, lots of hipsters, lots of tourists, stores full of weird artifacts, and a famous "I love you so much" wall, in addition to lots of other little places - all with a great view of the Capitol building.  Don't miss it.
  • Mount Bonnell - one of the highest points in Austin, you can get a great view of the city, the surrounding hills, and some of the most expensive houses in town.  A good spot to take some pictures and enjoy the nice weather.
  • The Oasis - another great vantage point, the Oasis is the spot to visit if you want a fantastic view of the sunset over Lake Travis. Unfortunately, Lake Travis is approximately 40+ feet lower than normal, due to recent drought conditions, so it's not as picturesque as usual.
  • Alamo Drafthouse - I'm not sure I would really recommend this place since it's a theater, and there's so much else to do during your short amount of time in Austin.  But if you have an overwhelming urge to see a movie, find the nearest Alamo Drafthouse, and don't eat beforehand.  It's dinner AND a movie all in one with some great beers available.  Definitely an Austin staple.
  • Zilker Park - if you have an afternoon and want to explore Austin's largest park within city limits, head over to Zilker. This is where the annual Austin City Limits Fest is held each year, as well as the Trail of Lights during Christmas time, and several other events throughout the year.  When it's not hosting one of those things, it's a great location to bring your dog, play some soccer, frisbee, volleyball, football, or simply read on the grass.
  • Explore Town Lake - also known as Lady Bird Lake, it looks a lot more like a river to me.  Town Lake sits in the shadow of the Austin skyline, and provides runners, bikers, kayakers, and canoers with a great location for all types of exercise.  If you're not interested in running/walking around the lake, there are many places nearby to rent a kayak or other water vehicle.  Town Lake sits conveniently in between downtown Austin and South Congress, so you could easily plan it into one of your day's adventures.
Maybe all this information will be helpful to at least one person who will be visiting Austin this week.  I know that there are many other places on the internet that provide you with travel tips and recommended sights, so I appreciate you taking the time to get all the way thru this post (if you just scrolled to the bottom to see how long it is, then just go back to Yelp or TripAdvisor).  Does the opinion of a guy from the northwest suburbs of Chicago living here in Austin mean something to you?  I would hope so (unless you're a Sox fan).  But either way - go out, enjoy the city, and go Illini.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Favorite Firefox Add-ons

By now, I'm sure you're all familiar with Firefox - the best internet browser since Netscape.  But what you may not be familiar with are all the wonderful "add-ons" that make it the best internet browser available.  Many argue that Google Chrome, Rockmelt, Opera, and (hopefully not) Internet Explorer have their advantages, which they may, but no browser provides you with the options for customization and personalization like Firefox does.

You can do almost anything you want your browser to do with available add-ons.  They're similar to "apps" on the iPhone.  Everything from display themes, to tab control, to music playback, to downloading assistance, to coding - there's something for everyone.  People can even create "Sometimes, a vast array of options can be overwhelming.  So, I'm going to take some time to outline my favorites, organized from the most important to the least important - at least for my use. Please, feel free to add comments with the add-ons that you use.  I'll be happy to check them out!

First, understand that I'm doing a review of add-ons based on Firefox version 3.6.  Firefox 4 is in development, and not all of these add-ons are guaranteed to work with that newer version.  Here's a link to the Firefox Add-on Website.  For links to each individual add-on listed below, click the icon for it.

 AdBlock Plus
This add-on is a must have.  You know all those annoying advertisements on the sides of many websites?  AdBlock Plus effectively blocks ALL OF THEM.  The ones on Facebook are especially annoying - "Single and alone?" "New jobs in your area?" etc.  You won't have to worry about them anymore. Gone. Like magic. The magic of Firefox Add-ons!

IE Tab 2
Although Firefox has overtaken Internet Explorer in terms of popularity, there are still many websites that were designed to run correctly on IE and don't work right in Firefox.  This is especially the case with lots of internal company websites (my employer included).  This handy add-on renders the website you are viewing in Internet Explorer without having to leave Firefox!  Very handy.

Download Statusbar
Isn't it a little inconvenient that every time you want to download something in Firefox, that pop-up window appears and shows you the status of your download.  Who likes pop-ups?  The answer to that question since 1998 has been "no one."  This add-on appears on the bottom bar of the browser only when you've chosen to download something and displays all the information about the current download.  Then, it disappears either after you've double clicked it to open the download or after a specified amount of time.

"WOT" stands for "Web Of Trust."  According to the developer, "Traffic-light rating symbols show which websites you can trust when you search, shop and surf on the Web."  It's based on many factors including other user's ratings of a specific website.  The symbols will show up next to your search results on Google or Bing to let you know which sites may or may not be spam.

 Tab Kit
This was an add-on that I realized would be beneficial as soon as I started using Firefox almost 5 years ago.  There are lots of options to control your tab behavior included, but the one that I find most beneficial is the tab-coloring and tab-grouping options.  This is very helpful for those of us who open a lot of tabs during a browing session.  You can collapse a group of tabs (all the same color) into the size of one tab.  Combine this with the next add-on, and you can really save yourself some space on the tab bar.

As described by the designer (who is Japanese), "The width of the specified tab becomes small, up to the size of the favicon."  If you don't know what a "favicon" is, it's the small icon next to the name of your tab.  You can set it to shrink size by double clicking, Alt+click, Ctrl+click, etc.

 Facebook Toolbar
What a strange symbol!  What does that "f" inside of a blue box mean?  As if you weren't already connected enough, you can integrate your Facebook life into your browser with this add-on.

 ForecastFox Weather
This is pretty self-explanatory.  Forecastfox creates a small forecast in one of the specified "bars" of your browser.  I choose to put mine in the same bar as "File" "Edit" "View" etc. but on the right side of the browser.  It is very easy to customize.

I just recently discovered this gem after asking myself, "I wonder if I can designate shortcut keys to access my favorite sites."  As promised, you can do almost anything with Firefox Add-ons.  With this add-on you designate a combination of "action keys" to initiate the add-on, and then a shortcut key to open the site. Example: "Alt+S, F" launches Facebook in a new tab; "Alt+S, G" launches Google.  It's just a quicker way to get to your favorite sites without having to locate the links in your bookmarks bar.

Read It Later
This add-on should probably be higher on the list, since I use it all the time.  Once you create an account on Read It Later's website, you can save pages to read later simply by clicking the little yellow icon in the URL bar of Firefox.  It's a reading list that travels with you across different computers and devices (iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.).  It also installs another icon on your browser that you can click to drop down a menu to view the webpages you've saved to "read later."

Smart Bookmarks Bar
Do you have a lot of bookmarks in your bookmarks bar? This add-on simply hides the names of the bookmarks in that bar until your mouse is over the one you want to click.  Then it expands the name next to the favicon.

If you listen to music while you browse the web, this add-on is definitely useful.  FoxyTunes lets you control almost any media player and find lyrics, covers, videos, bios and much more with a click right from your browser.  It will also automatically detect what current program is playing music or video and switch to the controls for that program (iTunes, Windows Media, YouTube, etc.).

Echofon for Twitter
The only reason that this add-on is so far down the list is that I know there are still lots of people who don't use Twitter.  Why?  I'm not sure.  But this add-on is a must-have if you ARE cool.  It looks kind of like Facebook Chat, but for Twitter in your browser.  Supports multiple accounts.

Firefox Environment Backup Extension "allows you to quickly and easily backup your Firefox extensions. In fact, it goes beyond just backing up -- It will actually rebuild your extensions individually into installable .xpi files."  What this means is that you won't have to worry about losing your awesome collection of Firefox add-ons, bookmarks, history, etc. ever again.  It will back up your "environment" so that you can transfer it to a new computer or other location.

And finally... a few add-ons simply for fun - the descriptions of which I will simply copy from their developers on the Firefox Add-on website.

The about:me page provides a fun way to see personalized patterns in browser usage, including trends in browsing history and download activity.  (If you put "about:me" into the browser address bar it will display a page the shows your browser usage).

Cubs Watcher
 Unobtrusive updates on today's game.  Refreshes every 100 years.  (Just kidding about that last part.)

AddThis for Firefox is the best add-on to make sharing and bookmarking simple. Have all your favorite web 2.0 social networking, bookmarking, blogging, and e-mail services at your fingertips. Share any page, anytime, with anyone.

Screengrab! saves webpages as images.  It will capture what you can see in the window, the entire page, just a selection, a particular frame... basically it saves webpages as images - either to a file, or to the clipboard. It captures Flash too!

 Personas Plus
Personas are free, easy-to-install "skins" for Firefox. Personas Plus extends that built-in functionality to give you even more control and easier access to new, popular, and your own favorite Personas.

I know that it's been a long time since I posted on World Wide Wilson, but this was a topic about which I've wanted to write for a long time.  Hopefully it's been beneficial for you and will make your browsing that much more convenient in the future.  Till next time...