No job is harder than teaching public school. So how does Jamie Scott, the integrated-physics and chemistry teacher at HISD's Hamilton Middle School, make it look like so much fun? The big, blond, smiling bear of a man is clearly doing something right. His students come home from citywide science fairs covered with ribbons and beaming with pride. But even Scott must have been overwhelmed by his eighth-graders' success this past summer. All year long Allison Carr, Jonathan Lew, Haley O'Neil and Skyler Schawe worked under Scott's supervision on a project for the Bayer Corporation National Science Foundation for Community Innovation Competition. The kids called their project the Science Squad. It was an amazingly elegant idea. The four eighth-graders developed a series of mini hands-on lessons that they could take into elementary schools and thus inspire fifth-graders to get excited about all those science classes they'd be taking once they got to middle school. The Science Squad won at each level of competition, and the students finally found themselves competing this summer at Walt Disney World, where not only did they bring home a second-place trophy, but they and Scott won a $25,000 grant to fund the training of future Science Squad members. Teaching really doesn't get any better than this.
Houston has a special fondness for its firearms. That's obvious from the sheer number and variety of outlets, from Carter's Country -- that Wal-Mart of weaponry -- to other high-profile retailers. Top Gun takes a different, specialized tact. Just like most golfers know they shouldn't buy clubs until they test them out, Top Gun realizes that live-fire is the only sure way for a shooter to know that this gun's just right. Tucked away in a small building a block south of Richmond, Top Gun has one of the rare indoor (and air-conditioned) shooting ranges. The state-of-the-art 15-lane facility can be used to test-fire potential purchases. And there are special bargains for those who want to buy the rental weapons. There isn't a huge on-site inventory, but the veteran staff can help novices find the best-suited guns for them, and soon have 'em ready. And with the upscale range awaiting, you can be assured of always hitting the mark on purchases. Top Gun's approach is right on target.
The nice thing about having a mall like Town & Country crash and burn is that rent plummets to the point that more obscure independent stores like Toys for All can move in. Specializing in vintage toys and games spanning the entire spectrum of obsessive-compulsive hobbies, from Beanie Babies and Barbies to board games and Hot Wheels, this store even manages to carry a larger selection than the average chain mall stores. The only downside is that the place serves adult clientele more than the under-12 set. Still, the shop carries enough of the latest toy lines and harder-to-find items from the current fads to keep the little ones smiling. Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Stacked unceremoniously under the sale racks at the back of Vanessa Riley's boutique are sheets and sheets of drawings of chic, oh-so-European women in slinky, oh-so-European suits and gowns. Their haphazard nondisplay belies their significance. This is no ordinary designer store where some anonymous underling in a faraway fashion house conceives the ready-to-wear fare. In this boutique, the woman who drew those sketches is standing in her red suede stiletto boots amid her three-dimensional creations: feather-boa-topped jackets, ankle-skimming coats, sharply tailored pinstriped suits and sensual silk spaghetti-strapped dresses. Riley runs about the shop asking in her brassy British accent if she can help you find something. And if you don't find something you like, well, Riley will just whip up something special for you. For an extra $45, any of her designs can be custom-cut to fit you in nearly any fabric you choose. Pinning and tucking and draping and complimenting, Vanessa Riley will make you feel like a supermodel, only shorter. Fabulous, darling.
Anybody who has tuned in to PBS's Antiques Roadshow marvels at how veteran appraisers quickly scan somebody's closet clutter and come up with rich histories and details on such obscure items. Paul F. Wishnow takes it one step further. Each Sunday morning on KPRC Radio (950 AM), he delivers a wealth of information without even seeing the items of interest to callers. He guides them through a thorough examination that usually yields the elusive answers to the value and heritage of the possessions. Time has increased their worth -- and it certainly has added to his expertise. His dad had Houston's oldest antique shop (it opened in 1922) when Paul was born. Wishnow Furniture and Antiques is still going strong (his father died in 1958). In 1974 Paul picked up his accreditation from the recognized U.S. and international appraisers' societies, and has been gleaning the gems from the junk ever since.
Though not expected on the market before early next year, FrogPad, developed by Houston-based FrogPad L.L.C., could revolutionize the exploding market for wireless Web technology. While the gadgets -- smart phones, handheld PCs and personal digital assistants, like the Palm -- are getting smaller and more sophisticated, manufacturers have yet to figure out how to incorporate a practical, easy-to-use keypad that allows the full range of letters and numbers to be entered. Smaller than a pocket paperback, the FrogPad offers the same functions as the traditional 104-key "Qwerty" keyboard, but with only 19 keys. The secret is in the location of keys for the 15 letters used most frequently, which, combined with four secondary keys, allows for easy one-handed use. FrogPad is relatively effortless to master: Users can learn how to type 40 words per minute in ten hours, compared to the 56 hours it takes on a traditional keyboard. The first widespread use of FrogPad likely will be on cellular phones. Inventor Kenzo Tsubai and his partner, Linda Marroquin, recently met in Helsinki with representatives from Nokia, whose strategy, according to its 1999 annual report, is to combine mobile phones and PCs into a single "personal communication tool."
Jerry Turner doesn't fit the wrecker-driver profile. Towing cars is a cutthroat kind of business, but Turner just isn't a cutthroat kind of guy. He'll advise drivers at accident scenes, for example, of their right to refuse his assistance and to select the wrecker company of their choice. If he sees a towing scam at a sporting-event parking lot, he'll warn unsuspecting drivers of the danger. If he hooks you up and you have a legitimate excuse, he won't shake you down for the tow fee before releasing your car. If he does tow you, there are no hidden fees or extortionate prices to confront. He can recommend a good, honest mechanic. He's even an interesting conversationalist with an engaging laugh. Despite these qualities, or perhaps because of them, Turner has built a following of breakdown victims who insist on dialing his number when the engine quits.
Every shop's stock of booze pales in comparison to the famed downtown Spec's, where enthusiasts can spend hours browsing among the thousands of bottles of wine from every region of every alcohol-producing nation in the world. But most people don't have hours to browse, and the massive selection can overwhelm the average couple-of-liters-a-week consumer. Not to mention, for example, the impossibility of distinguishing between the 436 varieties of cabernet with hints of currant and blackberry, or calculating the subtle differences between a 90 and a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. A more manageable but equally satisfying option can be found at the satellite Spec's on Holcombe, which offers no small selection of vintage wines, real ales and superior spirits to choose from, yet can be navigated during a lunch break or rush hour. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the place retains the snobless, relaxed atmosphere of its big brother. Though ideal for that perfect, affordable complement to the evening meal, the Holcombe Spec's is happy to accommodate if only a three-figure burgundy, rare single-malt scotch or other showpiece will do.
Black-haired, pale-skinned and soft-spoken Byriah Dailey has earned a reputation as a clean, safe and super-professional piercer at his seven-year-old shop, Taurian. But with the addition of piercer Steve Joyner, who relocated to Houston earlier this spring from Obscurities Precision Piercing in Dallas, some of the best Texas piercers now work under the same roof. Joyner, who credits his Native American heritage with his interest in tattoos, piercing and scarification, is vice president of the Association of Professional Piercers, of which all piercers at Taurian are members. He also worked with the state health department to write Texas's regulations for the piercing industry. And at Taurian, they follow those guidelines strictly. No ID? No tongue ring for you. Had a drink or two beforehand? No eyebrow ring for you because of the risk of bleeding. "If someone isn't anatomically right for a certain piercing, we're just not going to do it and put in whatever jewelry they want. It's not 'cause we're trying to be assholes," Dailey says. "We're concerned about the safety of piercing." Taurian also makes 70 percent of its jewelry in house and offers a collection of hand-carved bone jewelry imported from Indonesia.

You won't encounter a "mystery" section at Brazos Bookstore; nor can you order a mocha au lait. A fabulous collection of books and a knowledgeable staff are this classy enclave's draw. Brazos clearly places quality over quantity. Perusing the literature, history and art sections, you will be hard-pressed to find a throwaway title. DeLillo and Dostoyevsky share shelf space with newcomers like Jennifer Egan and Nathan Englander. Gibbons's history of Rome roosts near a new biography on Rosa Parks. Brazos has an excellent selection of art books and current literary reviews. Those who like their writers in the flesh can enjoy the store's fine reading series, which has brought such luminaries as Doris Lessing, Jerzy Kosinski and, recently, Martin Amis to the Bayou City. An adjoining gallery space showcases the work of artists and designers like renowned architect Frank O. Gehry.

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