Photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

I was captivated by this photo someone shared on Twitter and tracked it down in the Library of Congress archives. It's an undated, uncredited picture of what some have dubbed the "Mark Twain Tree" (which is how it was titled on the Twitter post). I can't confirm this (and, in fact, I doubt it; see below for my reasoning), but if it's true, this California sequoia was felled in 1891 at the age of 1,341 years, according to this website. The tree was 331 feet tall, and the base of its trunk measured 90 feet in circumference. Although a couple of cross sections were saved, the rest of the massive tree went to make "grape stakes, fence posts and shingles."

Those are the facts surrounding this image, and they comprise a remarkable story on their own.

On the other hand...I have questions. Questions that might generate other stories. Let's take a closer look at parts of the photo, and wonder...

Closeup of portion of photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

  • Who are these people? Are they married? If so, why are they standing apart from each other?
  • On a related note, is the fact that the man is standing closer to the saw than to the woman meaningful?
  • What was the woman's role at the job site?
  • The woman seems to be dressed more formally than one might expect at a lumber harvesting operation. Was she a visitor?
  • Her expression doesn't seem to indicate that she's happy to be there. Is there a reason other than that was the typical expression for photographic subjects during that era?
  • The man's garb, on the other hand, is well-worn, even shabby. But should we assume that he was a member of the team who felled the tree?
Let's move to the man on the ladder...

Closeup of portion of photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

  • It's not readily evident from the full photo, but this man is missing part of his right forefinger. How did he lose it?
  • Is that a wound on his forehead, or simply a strange hair pattern?
  • The ladder on which he's standing is obviously hand-built. Was he nervous about mounting and posing on it?
There are a couple of tools in the photo...

Closeup of portion of photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

  • What was the purpose of the mallet (seen at the lower left of the original photo)? Was is used to drive wedges into the cut to keep the saw from binding?
  • The white rod (seen leaning against the tree on the right of the photo) might possibly be a sort of crowbar, but it doesn't appear metallic. What was its composition and purpose?
  • And while we're cogitating on the tools, how about that saw? If the circumference was 90', the diameter was almost 30' and you'd want a few feet extra for a good cutting action. Who made saws that long? From a distance, the photo suggests that two saws were welded together, but a closeup shows no obvious seam. Also, the saw is bowed along its length, rather than being straight. Did this provide more control of the cut, or is it designed to speed up the cut?
  • However...the man standing on the ground is perhaps 6 feet tall. The trunk he's standing in front of is not five times his height...it's closer to three, making the circumference less than 60 feet. Assuming the 90' circumference reported for the Mark Twain Tree is true, this cannot be the same tree. So, where and when was this photo taken?
  • How long did it take to cut down the tree? Hours? Days? Did it fall precisely where the lumberjacks intended?
  • Once the tree was felled, at least two additional cuts were made to create the cross sections mentioned in the article linked above. This implies that the saw operators worked from ladders on either side of the trunk. We might imagine that the sawing itself would be easier, but balancing on ladders surely complicated the process. Were there any ladder-related mishaps?
  • And, finally, did those who cut down this centuries old tree feel any remorse at their actions?
In the cosmic scheme of things, none of these questions are important. My point in raising them is simply to suggest that curiosity about seemingly trivial details might lead to fascinating stories, when answered with imagination and creativity. That's your assignment for the day.

Miss-App
July 25, 2015 3:11 PM | Posted in: ,

Update (July 27, 2015): The following post details some issues with the new app that caused me to withdraw my recommendation for its use. I brought those to the developer's attention a few days ago, and just received a reply. They say they are working on some of the styling issues and investigating why one article is not displaying in its entirety. More important, they have turned off the feature that caused external links to appear as links to my own articles, which I felt was misleading and inappropriate. Given this response, I withdraw my withdrawal of my recommendation. Or something. Does that make sense?

A couple of days ago, I gave a halfhearted recommendation to a new Fire Ant Gazette iOS app. I was willing to live with the weaknesses of the app - primarily the poor translation of the formatting of the blog - in exchange for the admittedly selfish and subjective "cool factor." 

However, having lived with the app a while longer, I've uncovered a couple of additional issues that have caused me to change my mind.

The first problem is the app's inexplicable tendency to leave out entire sentences. This was demonstrated in rather ironic fashion when the first sentence of the post linked above was omitted from the app version. This is ironic because that sentence contained the link to the app download page.

The second issue is more egregious, because it tries to pass off promotional material from the app developer, DWNLD, as something I've posted. Take a look at this screenshot from the app:

Screenshot of Fire Ant Gazette app
The highlighted icon is an ad link.

The portion highlighted in yellow is actually a link to DWNLD's website, but it's formatted and placed in the "Read More" section where everything else is a link to additional Gazette articles. I think this is misleading and I don't appreciate the implication that I'm somehow endorsing or recommending DWNLD's services. 

I initially thought that this is a marketing ploy for DWNLD, but I now realize that almost every post has a similar link (or links) in the "Read More" section which lead to external, third party websites linked in the specific article. Again, this is misleading, as it appears that they are links to more Gazette articles. It's also superfluous, because I already provided embedded links in the article; there's no need to randomly recreate them in the "Read More" section.

In effect, DWNLD is coopting my content, and deciding what to emphasize. I don't appreciate the editorial intervention.

I emailed DWNLD with my concerns about both of these issues, but have not received a response. Where that leaves things is that, for now anyway, I no longer recommend downloading this app. And if I can't get either an acceptable explanation or solution, I'm going to request that the app be removed from the App Store. 

I have enough trouble managing the Gazette writer without also having to manage a third party "editor."

There's an App for This
July 23, 2015 6:02 PM | Posted in: ,

Screenshot of Gazette app download pageThe Fire Ant Gazette now has its own app, thereby proving there's no content too worthless to warrant such treatment.

Lest you think I've suddenly acquired ambition and skill, let me assure you that I had nothing to do with it. A company called DWNLD specializes in creating turnkey apps from existing websites, and their apparent business model is to do this on an unsolicited basis, and then to notify the content owner of its existence. Why they chose the Gazette for this treatment is a mystery, but "desperation" comes to mind.

Not only did DWNLD (not sure why they chose to yell their name) create the app, but they did the heavy lifting to get it added to Apple's App Store so that anyone with inadequate media consumption standards can download and install it for free (sorry, Android and Windows users...this is an iOS-only joint).

Regardless of the reason, I confess that it seems pretty cool that this blog has its own mobile app. (OK, to be honest, I find it hilariously ironic that this Content Freeā„¢ site should have yet another way of delivery.)

The app isn't perfect, even apart from its questionable choice of content. For one thing, it's ad-supported, which is how DWNLD makes its money (I get nothing from those ads). So far, the ads have been non-obtrusive and inoffensive, floating at the bottom of the window, although every now and then, a dismissible full-page ad appears.

Also, the translation from my Movable Type blog layout to the app's format is quirky. Some odd line breaks appear at random, and it appears not to recognize some rather basic HTML formatting (like unordered lists). It also doesn't recognize custom style sheets. Navigation through the site is non-intuitive and so far I've been unable to determine whether I can make the app display more than a dozen or so articles (which some visitors will feel is a mercy). Based on the sketchy documentation, it appears the conversion is optimized for WordPress sites, so outlier formats get a more cavalier treatment.

Some of the links in the articles that the app picks up lead back to the actual Gazette website, in a fashion similar to the way Facebook opens website links. This tells me that DWNLD hasn't converted the entire blog, and it's a bit jarring to jump from the mobile-friendly layout into the not-so-friendly website. On the other hand, that does then allow one to access the complete navigation options for the site.

DWNLD provides a few customization options for app owners via a dashboard which is accessible either via a separate mobile app or via desktop browser. I'm still exploring those options, which appear to be limited to layout selection, fonts, and colors. There's an option to upload a logo, but I haven't mastered it because it's not appearing anywhere in the app. Theoretically, any updates to options are automatically published to the App Store.

Screenshot of app on iPhone

On the plus side, the app does a good job of displaying photos and embedded videos, and it pulls photo captions from the ALT tag, thereby reinforcing the importance of that meta data. It seems to recognize and handle jQuery scripts, such as photo slideshows, although not perfectly. The content itself is displayed in a pleasing manner, and is of course optimized for mobile viewing, something I haven't taken the time to make the Gazette's website do. But, really, that's the whole point of the app: it's not intended to be a replacement for a desktop-accessible website.

Do I recommend this app? I guess my answer falls into the realm of "sure, why not?" It has some obvious flaws, but also some advantages for mobile device visitors. If I was at all concerned about website traffic, I might worry about cannibalization, but I'm not and I don't. The app does lose the serendipity of stumbling across content via search engine, and that's a shame. But the geeky part of me is having a bit of fun figuring out how the whole thing works. And, as I said at the top, it's kinda cool to have a Fire Ant app. So if this is your cup of tea...feel free to drink deeply!

Screenshot of app download page

Rockin' Rabbit
July 16, 2015 8:31 PM | Posted in: ,

I think this speaks for itself.

Cottontail rabbit stretched out on a rock
Texas has 500 times more water underground than anything you see above the surface.  The question is, how much do we pump and how fast?
Late last year I reported on a project called Our Desired Future that focuses on issues surrounding groundwater conservation in Texas. I'm now happy to report that the new ODF website has launched, and one of its first video features is about the "rule of capture" in Texas, using Pecos County and Fort Stockton - my hometown - as examples of the complications that arise when people are allowed to legally pump all the water they can.

You can watch it on the ODF website, or you can view it right here:



Our Desired Future is an impressive and interesting resource for anyone interested in the potential impact of groundwater depletion in Texas. Most of our state is no longer in the grip of the years-long drought that emptied many of our lakes, but we're in no position to be complacent with respect to water usage. Education is key to combating complacency.

Regardless of where you come down on the issue of water ownership, the stories and statistics on the new website are worth spending time with.

Fish Dinner
July 7, 2015 5:43 PM | Posted in: ,

We were giving some friends an afternoon tour of Horseshoe Bay and were driving across the low water crossing where Slick Rock Creek empties into Lake LBJ when I spotted a crane* diving under the water, presumably in pursuit of a fish. Sure enough, he surfaced shortly thereafter with a large silver fish grasped firmly in his beak.

The crane walked slowly over to a shallow water-filled depression in the rocks and dropped the fish, which was still weakly wriggling. The depression was just deep enough to prevent the fish from escaping back to the lake.

Crane with fish in bill

The bird stood over the fish for a brief moment, seemingly contemplating his next move (or, perhaps, praying over his next meal).

Crane inspecting captured fish

After another brief pause, he bent down, picked up the fish, and...well, you can imagine what happened next. OK, you don't have to imagine, because video. You might want to go to full-screen for the playback.



I stripped out the audio from the movie to spare you the exclamations of "yuck!" at the point the fish went down the bird's gullet and seemed to pause for a last wriggle. That could have just been the crane's throat muscles at work...yeah, we'll go with that.

If this has whetted your appetite (no pun intended) for another video of a bird swallowing an impressive meal, try this one from an earlier trip to South Carolina.

*I've referred to the bird as a crane, but to be honest, I'm just guessing at that. It does vaguely resemble a sandhill crane but the coloring doesn't really match. However, the photos and video aren't sufficiently clear, and I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable, to render a positive ID. Feel free to email me if you have a better idea.

Desert Willow: Destruction & Rehab
June 26, 2015 3:15 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers may recall my report on the Great Ice Storm of 2015, in which I chronicled the apparent destruction of the beautiful desert willow in our back yard. That event was heartbreaking, and it even made the cover (with accompanying article) [PDF] of the newsletter for the Texas chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. That was a dubious recognition, to be sure, and at the time I thought it might be an obituary.

Six months later, though, the outlook is brighter, thanks to a tree's stubborn persistence (and a little bit of elbow grease on my part). I'm happy to report that we may have the equivalent of a phoenix rising from its ashes in the form of our back yard willow.

Let's trace the major stops in this journey of rebirth, shall we?

It's New Year's Eve 2014 in Midland, Texas, and we're starting to see a bit of winter in the form of a light coating of ice. We weren't particularly concerned at this point; the tree was actually kind of pretty.

Tree on 12/31/14

However, disaster struck two days later, when a stronger ice storm followed that initial event. At 9:45 a.m. the tree was starting to show the burden of the accumulating ice.

Tree on 1/2/15

Over the course of the next hour, the thickening layers of ice began to break major limbs on the tree, as you can see in this photo taken at 11:00 a.m.

Tree on 1/2/15

An hour later, the tree was stressed beyond its limits and the trunk split down to below ground level. This picture was taken at 12:30 p.m.

Tree on 1/2/15

I knew the broken limbs couldn't be salvaged, so I immediately took them off with a bow saw. Here's what the tree looked like by 1:00 p.m. that same day.

Tree on 1/2/15

At this point, all I could think about was how we were going to get rid of the carcass, and what might go in its place. It's worth noting that some have estimated that as many as 40% of the trees in Midland suffered damage from this ice storm, so we were not alone.

However, a couple of weeks later I began to wonder if there was some way to at least make the tree look better, whether we decided to keep it or not. I used a ratcheting tiedown to pull the tree trunk back together (sort of), drilled a hole through both halves, and bolted a threaded metal rod with big washers on each side to hold it in place. (When I grow up, I now want to be an orthopedic surgeon.) I had no illusions that this was a cure, but at least the sight of the tree didn't make us want to cry. Here's how it looked on January 16th.

Tree on 1/16/15

Fast forward a few months. Spring rolls around and in typical desert survival fashion, the tree seems to not realize it's been mortally wounded, as you can see from this photo from April 29th.

Tree on 4/29/15

Cute, huh? But, seriously, nothing that hints at something we can work with. However, I'm having trouble working up the energy to do much about it, other than remove some of the remaining limbs that were hanging over the fence into the alley.

May comes around, as it inevitably does, and we get rainfall bordering on record amounts, and the tree gets a growth spurt that would make any adolescent boy proud. By June 5th, the tree begins to vaguely resemble Wilson, the volleyball that kept Tom Hanks company in the movie Castaway.

Tree on 6/5/15

The tree is now putting on new growth so quickly that you can almost see it in real time. In just over two weeks, it looks like a shrub on steroids, as this picture from June 21st illustrates.

Tree on 6/21/15

At this point, we decide we should just roll with it and see how things play out. There are still some wayward limbs that don't fit in with the new aesthetic...

Tree on 6/25/15

...but the trusty (and only somewhat rusty) bow saw makes short work of them. The result - for now anyway - is the reborn tree shown below that we'll allow to develop the remainder of this year, and then do some additional shaping in the off-season. The moral of the story? Never give up on Mother Nature. Life is resilient, if given the chance.

Tree on 6/25/15 after final pruning

Note: I'm not a professional arborist, and I haven't consulted one, which might be a mistake. If you have any suggestions based on actual experience to help us mold this tree into a masterpiece, feel free to share them.

Car Repair Customer Service Done Right
June 20, 2015 10:19 AM | Posted in: ,

Note: The following is an unabashed plug for a local business. If you're a competitor, don't take it personally. Better yet, use it as motivation.

So, my truck suddenly developed a rather severe front-end shimmy (a highly technical automotive term, implying that my vehicle was demon-possessed), and I began to imagine all sorts of complicated (and expensive) issues. When my usual strategy of ignoring mechanical issues until they went away didn't work, I decided to seek professional help. 

LogoI'd had some mildly unsatisfactory encounters with the dealership, so I did some research and selected Christian Brothers Automotive, a nationally franchised business, as the Shop Least Likely To Disappoint And/Or Bankrupt Me. The business had a very high ratio of positive-to-negative reviews on Google (including at least one from someone I knew), plus their location and hours were very convenient. Here's what happened...

I arrived at the shop a couple of minutes before opening time at 7:00 a.m. Not only were the doors unlocked and the lights on - something that hadn't always been the case at the dealership's advertised opening time - but they were instantly ready to help. I didn't have to wait for the computer to boot up, or for the coffee to finish brewing, or for the front-desk guy to adjust his attitude.

I explained the problem, gave them my contact information and key, and was assured of a call as soon as they'd had a chance to check things out. I was in their clean and comfortable courtesy car (driven by the shop's very personable owner, Trey) on my way to the office by 7:15.

I got a call shortly before 8:00 telling me that they had narrowed things down to a possible issue with one of the tires, and asking permission to rotate a couple of them to test the theory. I told them where to find the security socket for the locking lug nuts, and hung up with another assurance of a call when they had something else to report.

I had another call before 9:00 telling me that the tire swap had indeed eliminated the shimmy issue, but that I probably should get a replacement tire pretty quickly. They theorized that the tire might be delaminating on the inside, since there was no obvious external defect. In any event, the truck was ready to go, and I was relieved to know that there were no complicated (and expensive) repairs to deal with (not that a new tire is an inexpensive proposition nowadays*).

My wife dropped me off at the shop at lunch and I went in the office to settle up. They grabbed my key off the rack, handed it to me, and said "you're all set."

"Uh...OK...but what do I owe you?"

"Nothing. You don't owe us anything."

"Wait a minute...I know you spent some time working on it; surely you need to get paid for that."

"Don't worry about it. Have a great day!"

Alrighty then. That, my friends, is a textbook strategy for creating loyal customers. Customers who also act as evangelists for the business. Customers like, well, yours truly.

*The cloudy lining to this blue sky story is that the following day I had to drop $300 on a new tire. Another technical car repair term is "ouch."

When Species Collide
June 19, 2015 3:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Red Fox
Update (6/21/15) - A lot of people have asked if we're feeding this fox, and that's why he's in our yard so often. The answer is an emphatic "no." I have no doubt that there are some people who are providing food, perhaps inadvertently, in the form of cat or dog food, but I would never leave food for a wild animal. They shouldn't get too comfortable around, or come to depend on humans. Having said that, I do leave a five gallon bucket of rain water uncovered on our back porch, and I've seen the fox get a drink from it from time to time.

If you've spent much time around mockingbirds, you probably know that they're quite territorial, and will vigorously defend what they believe to be their personal space (which is generally arbitrary and expansive). I've shared this before but on at least one occasion I've worn a motorcycle helmet while mowing the lawn to protect my head from a spiteful mockingbird.

I've seen them repeatedly dive at cats, squirrels, and dogs; they're seemingly fearless, and quite persistent. (At the risk of being overly anthropomorphic, I don't believe they're sadistic, like blue jays, which have been known to swoop down and grab baby birds of other species and then drop them to their deaths, seemingly for the fun of it.)

So, it was no great surprise when I witnessed a mockingbird harassing our back yard fox earlier this week. We suspect there's a nest hidden in the thick foliage of the Mexican elder that's planted next to the back wall. I was fortunate enough to have my video camera running when it happened.



By the way - let me put this as delicately as possible - if you watch closely toward the end of the video, I believe there's evidence that dispels the question of whether we're dealing with a regnard or a vixen.

Filling the Dance Gap
June 16, 2015 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent much of a Sunday afternoon downloading Seventies and Eighties TV show theme songs from iTunes and editing them* into gain-consistent 20-second clips with tasteful fade-ins and -outs to serve as fillers between songs in the playlist I'm compiling for an upcoming ballroom dance. If this sounds like fun, you must be a geek, like me. 

You may wonder why a ballroom dance would require the Batman theme as a transition between a fox trot and a waltz. It's a good question, and the answer is simple: it doesn't. But the interval between songs in a prerecorded playlist poses a challenge for the dance DJ or playlist organizer. Continuous music doesn't allow the dancers to gracefully exit the floor to either change partners or take a breather; a comfortable gap solves this problem. 

Now, if a live band has any kind of personality at all, it can fill the space with banter, but with a prerecorded playlist, the gap turns into an awkward silence. One solution is to provide a snippet of music to serve as a transition, such as this one:



Choosing the right music for this purpose presents its own challenge. A snippet of an actual dance song might lead some to believe that it was meant for, well, dancing, and that's awkward in and of itself, as it fades out after twenty seconds. I've found that people respond well to something whimsical and completely different from the dance music, and old TV or movie theme songs seem to perfectly fit the bill.

Not only does this approach fill the silence while providing time for the dancers to do whatever they need to do between songs, it also provides a source of conversation as they attempt to identify some familiar jingles that they may not have heard in a long time. However, one must consider the likely demographics of the attendees, who may be more familiar with the theme from I Love Lucy than that from Friends (or vice versa).

The downside to using filler music, or for that matter, filler silence, is that there's that much less music for dancing. A typical dance set for our group is about fifty minutes, with a ten minute break. That's time enough for about fifteen continuous songs/dances, but a 20-second spacer after each song means that you'll get one or two fewer dances per set. To be honest, most people don't dance to every song in a set, so that's not a big deal. And for those who have the energy to continue dancing, I'll populate the breaks with music, although those songs tend to be out on the fringes of acceptable ballroom dance tunes (think polkas, or country 2 Step, or cumbias).
 
*I use an audio editing app called DSP Quattro for tasks like this. Now that Apple has dropped its DRM from music purchased from the iTunes Store, you can edit songs directly from your hard drive, although the app must first convert them from the native .m4a format to the .aiff format.

Dancing Batman illustration created by Jesse Lonergan