Driving Mr. Crazy
September 13, 2014 11:20 AM | Posted in: ,

Everyone who drives slower than me is an idiot, and everyone who drives faster than me is a jerk.
 --Me, and probably every other driver in Midland, Texas

Last week, while driving home after work, I encountered the following at consecutive intersections:

  • A driver in a pickup turned left in front of me after the signal had turned green for me to go through the intersection. Having driven in Midland for decades, I anticipated that and had slowed. What I didn't anticipate was the woman in the small sedan hugging his bumper and completely blocked from view who never came close to making a legal turn, and who glared at me for almost t-boning her.

  • A few blocks later, I pulled up behind an overly (in my opinion) timid driver who stopped as soon as the light turned yellow, causing us both to have to wait for the city's longest signal (an admittedly subjective assessment but after a day at the office, it's entirely warranted, if you know what I mean).

So, let's recap. Within the space of three minutes, I was angered by (1) a driver who ran a red light, and (B) a driver who refused to run a [almost-red] light. What's wrong with this picture?

Ask anyone who regularly drives the streets of our fair city and they'll tell you that the population of insane drivers has skyrocketed in direct proportion to the rig count. But, having said that, I've realized that my hypocritical attitude is not doing my mental state and blood pressure any favors...and it's certainly not improving the driving habits of others.

I confess that I have many faults, but angry judgment of other drivers is one of the worst, and the preceding realization has brought that into focus. I'm now making a conscious effort to remain calm in the face of what I perceive (and, honestly, it's a fair judgment) as inconsiderate, inattentive, and just plain bad driving. My wife will likely tell you that the effort is a work in progress with little discernible improvement, but I really am trying. As is the case with much in life, I can't control my surroundings, but I can control my reaction to them.

Well, theoretically, anyway.

Nest Report
September 5, 2014 8:38 PM | Posted in:

One of the guys at work claimed he'd seen a hummingbird nest in one of the trees outside our new office building. I was skeptical; in all our years of putting up feeders and watching the little guys, I'd never seen a hummer's nest.

So, today after lunch, Debbie and I walked past a live oak tree and she said it was where the nest was allegedly located. I looked up and immediately saw this:

Hummingbird nest

OK, so it's not the best photo in the world. The wind was gusting and it was threatening rain, and my phone had a hard time figuring out where to focus. But this is definitely a hummingbird's nest, no larger than two inches across. I figured it would be hidden better, but the tiny size means it's difficult to spot unless you're seriously searching for it.

I didn't see any activity around the nest and it was too high in the branches for me to peek inside. I have the same problem with the barn swallow nest on our front porch, but the occupants have no problem peeking at me:

Barn swallow nest with two fledglings

Here's the interesting thing about this. This is the THIRD brood of hatchlings this season in this nest! The swallows have been frisky little things this summer. And notice how the nest has grown taller; it's almost bumping up against the ceiling.

I'm not sure whether I'll leave this nest up once they migrate for the winter. As I've mentioned before, it's in a fairly out-of-the-way location, and if I knock it down, they might pick a less convenient place to rebuild. But after two years, it's bound to be pretty gross, and maybe it's time to make them start over next spring.

In closing, here's a picture of our Horseshoe Bay watch lizard, Poirot the Anole.

Green anole on fence


Camera Sunday
August 26, 2014 8:32 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent some time last Sunday afternoon wandering around the grounds, camera in hand, looking for photo ops. As usual, once I focused on the trees instead of the forest*, a number of interesting details emerged, most of which involved flying creatures of the six-legged variety.

Flesh Fly

This insect goes by the rather unappealing name of "flesh fly" (genus Sarcophaga), a fly that gets its name from its preference for dining on rotten meat. Our goal is to have dispensed with all rotten meat by each Sunday, so this specimen had to be content with its perch on a Texas Mountain Laurel leaf.

Flesh Fly

Another flesh fly. I like this photo as much for the matrix of twigs and limbs as for the insect subject.

Cutter Bee on Vitex blooms

Our Vitex trees are blooming and attracting a multitude of bees (and hummingbirds). Above is a leafcutter bee getting lost in a mass of blooms.

We don't see a lot of bumblebees around here, and they seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate, so it was encouraging to see several of them working over the vitex blooms.

Bumblebee on Vitex blooms
Bumblebee on Vitex blooms

Not everything was about airborne invertebrates, though.

Liriope Bloom

This is a bloom on a liriope, more commonly known as monkey grass. They don't bloom very often, at least in our flowerbeds, probably because they don't get enough water (but that's just a guess). So it's a treat to find them flowering.

And in conclusion, this...because...well, gnarly.

Vitex branches

*We don't actually have a forest, so this is a metaphor...or a simile...or something. It's definitely not an onomatopoeia.

Pardon me...could you spare some T-Rex urine?
August 23, 2014 2:58 PM | Posted in: ,

MLB was trimming the ground cover on the east side of our yard and when she pulled back a section from the wall, this is what she found:

Hatched quail eggs

As perceptive Gazette readers - which is both of you, I believe - will recall, we recently had a family of quail in our back yard, including nine chicks. And I'm pretty sure there are nine hatched eggs in the above photo. So, exercising my excellent deductive skills, I have concluded that this could have been the nest from whence they sprung.

However, I'm not going on record with a conclusive statement because there's always another possibility...

Jurassic Park raptor holding egg

Lose your place in a maze of fonts? Wordmark.it
August 22, 2014 10:40 PM | Posted in:


I have 23 folders named "fonts" on my desktop Mac. My default font library contains 500 font families. [Side note: Most of them are unfamiliar to me; I think they appeared when I upgraded my OS to Mavericks earlier this summer. I think I would have remembered intentionally acquiring Yu Mincho Demibold, or Wawati or Sinhala Sangam.] In short, I have too many fonts, although that's still not enough.

As a result, because of the impossibility - for me, anyway - of keeping track of what I have installed on my machine, I tend to reuse the same small subset. If only there was a way to see at a glance what fonts I have at my disposal...and what they look like.

I'm in luck, because thanks to a website called wordmark.it, I can do just that. It uses some clever scripting to identify and then display all installed fonts, using the text of your choosing so you can compare the alternatives. Here's a screen shot of a portion of the results:

Screen capture of wordmark.it

This brings to your desktop, for your fonts, a similar capability that vendors like MyFonts.com have used for years to allow you to compare typefaces. Of course, on those sites you're limited to what the service is selling.

The fonts appear in alphabetical order and you can resize the samples and reverse the display to white-on-black. You can also adjust tracking (but not kerning), and zoom via magnifying glass if you want to get really up close and personal with the details of the typeface.

I have to admit that while this is a quite useful tool, it's also a little creepy in that it's reading data on your computer and if it can do that with fonts then what else might it be snooping on, but I'm being paranoid, aren't I? I don't pretend to understand the workings of the Flash script that makes this possible, and I had actually forgotten that ActionScript (as Adobe calls this scripting language) now works with iOS devices, so this website will work with iPhones and iPads.The site's privacy statement and terms of service are essentially boilerplate and don't address the details of how your data is being accessed or what safeguards are in place around that access. So, let your tolerance for risk be your guide.

Regardless of those potential concerns, I'm adding this website to my list of helpful design tools, and now that I know what Wawati looks like, I may start using it in all my personal correspondence.

Arachnophotos
August 17, 2014 9:50 AM | Posted in: ,

I've never made a secret of my dislike for spiders. There are people for whom I have great respect who think spiders make great pets, but I'd just as soon invite a family of cobras to live in our bedroom as tolerate a single eight legged freak.

We recently transplanted a couple of tall junipers into slightly larger and more stable pots, and each of them was home to at least one of these:

Black widow spider

Perhaps you don't recognize it; perhaps this angle will help:

Black widow spider

Even the photos give me the willies. And because we've had some favorable weather conditions this summer, there are a bunch of these lovely creatures around the house (thankfully all on the outside). [In the interest of full disclosure and without a shred of remorse, I will report that this particular black widow was in the throes of death, thanks to my good pal Raid.]

That's not to say that I can't appreciate the skill of certain of the species in creating things of beauty, even if they'll never themselves be objects of my desire. This morning, while enjoying a cup of coffee and the newspaper on the front porch this morning before church, I noticed the following installation, which had been constructed overnight. The light was just right for a few photos.

Spider web
Spider web
Spider web

In the interest of full disclosure...the little guy in the first two photos is still busy at work, doing whatever his spidery little heart desires. I'm not a total monster...as long as he stays on his side of the car seat.

Mockingbirdlets
August 11, 2014 9:50 PM | Posted in:

I discovered a mockingbird nest in the lower limbs of the Chinese pistache planted in our back yard. I had been hearing odd chirps coming at fairly regular intervals over the preceding few days, but didn't really think anything about it until Saturday afternoon when I noticed some unusually persistent mockingbird presence around the tree. 

I took a chance (the last time we had a mockingbird nest in our yard, I had to wear a motorcycle helmet to protect myself while mowing the lawn) and took a quick glance inside the foliage. Sure enough, there was a typical crudely built nest holding two sleeping mockingbirdlets. The parents weren't happy about the intrusion, but they exhibited remarkable restraint and I was able to back away unscathed.

A mockingbird warns me away from its nesting babies

I thought you might enjoy seeing a little nature in action, so I made the following video from footage taken on Saturday with a GoPro camera on the end of a monopod, and some additional footage from a Canon video camera that I shot this evening, as a sort of follow-up to the tale. (Note: If you watched this video on Sunday via my Vimeo account, you might want to take another look, as I've replaced that movie with this slightly extended version that details some slightly troubling developments.)


Toward the end of the footage shot this evening, one of the adults did take a dive at me, but I think it was just a warning shot out of habit, given that the nest is empty. I'd really like to know what happened to the second baby, but it was starting to rain and I didn't have a chance to take a good look at all the potential hiding places in our back yard.
I've always been enamored of black and white photography, dating back to the little Polaroid that I used in the Sixties. Seeing some of Ansel Adams's work in Santa Fe only added to the attraction of that medium. 

All of my photography nowadays is in color, although I occasionally experiment with black and white effects in post-processing, using Photoshop. You have to be careful with it, because it can become gimmicky and contrived, and I've never really been able to recreate the drama that true professionals bring to the approach.

Plus, converting color photos to black and white in Photoshop is challenging. I might start out with a vision of how I want the final image to look, but making that happen is often an exercise in frustration. That's why I was excited when I ran across a reference to an application called Tonality that has only one goal: to convert color photos into black and white images.

The app's designer bills it as "the world's most complete black and white photo editor" and that sounds like typical marketing hype, but after spending some time with it, I have no basis to argue against that claim, although I freely admit that I haven't used that many alternatives. With 150+ presets and a practically infinite number of settings to vary them, it appears there's pretty much nothing Tonality can't do in the realm of black and white post-processing.

The user interface is simple enough that you can use it effectively within 60 seconds of installing the software, and powerful enough that you - well, I, anyway - need to spend time in the online user guide to understand all the options.

But pictures are worth a thousand words, or 10,000 of my words, so here's a sample of the results I got from Tonality after playing with it for a while.

First, the original image (you may have seen this before in these pages):

Color photo

And here are some of the black and white versions, each created using one of Tonality's presets:

B&W photo
B&W photo
B&W photo
B&W photo
B&W photo

I'm pretty sure I could have come close to creating each of these effects in Photoshop, but it would have taken me far longer than the single click on a preset button that Tonality required to generate the images.

And even though it's billed as a black and white photo editor, Tonality also has color management options that allow you to selectively add hues back into the image. I haven't spent much time with them but they look promising.

Tonality is a standalone application (there's a Pro version that can be installed as a Photoshop plug-in), meaning that it doesn't require another image editing program to do its thing, It doesn't have a resize option, which I would miss, but it does have a crop tool. It has one-click sharing capability for all the major social media, and one-click "Open In:" options for nine major image editing programs, including Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom, and iPhoto. You can also export the finished product as one of ten formats.

Tonality is available via the Mac App Store at a special introductory price of $19.99, and I think it's a bargain at twice that price...which it normally is. (Of course, I assume you picked up on the fact that this is Mac-only software.)

Compressor.io: free online image compression
August 6, 2014 10:00 PM | Posted in:

It's been awhile since I posted anything design-related. There are a number of reasons for that, none of which involve a lack of interest on my part (although there might be the slightest bit of laziness at work). But I ran across a link to an intriguing website called Compressor.io that purports to shrink the size of your images (JPG, PNG, GIF, or SVG) by up to 90% without significantly affecting quality. Next to being able to enlarge photos without affecting quality, compression to save space and download time is the holy grail of website design, although it's not nearly as important today as it was in the days of dialup.

Anyway, I decided to test the service and got mixed results. First, the good news: the "lossy" compression option is impressive. Below is the "pre-processed" image (in JPG format); it weighs in at a hefty 326kb.

Photo of a hibiscus stamen

Now, here's the result after running it through the lossy compression option of Compressor:

Photo of a hibiscus stamen

It's fairly easy to discern a slight fuzziness in the second image, especially on the "hairs" of the flower, but the image is pretty darned good, overall...considering it's now only 37kb, or only 11% of the original size.

I then tested the lossless compression option, and the results were much less impressive. Oh, the image quality was excellent, but...well, see for yourself in this screenshot from the website:

Screen capture of Compressor results
 
I have no idea why, but Compressor was unable to wring out any kilobytes without affecting image quality.

Compressor currently limits the size of each uploaded image to 10mb, and you can upload only one image at a time, but the developer says he's working on an increased size limit and batch upload. (He's also willing to entertain a $10 million offer for the service, in case you have some cash burning a hole in your pocket.)

Despite the disappointing results with the lossless option, I'm going to bookmark the site for future use because the lossy option really does deliver as promised. While I don't do much design work for others anymore, this still may have some practically use for my personal projects.
[Insert pithy yet winsome introductory text here. Please.]

  • Every now and then, something happens that restores my faith in humanity and I think that perhaps there really is some hope for mankind. Then I read Facebook comments and come to my senses.

Dos Equis Man: I don't always read FB comments, but when I do, I want to claw my eyes out

  • Forget Ebola. What I want is a concentrated scientific and medical research effort to find a cure for that strange malady that results in the loss of use of a person's left index finger the moment they get behind the wheel of a car in Midland, Texas. You know, the finger that activates the turn signal.

  • Similarly, what is it about grocery store parking lots that cause otherwise sane people to acquire the emotional state of a rabid menopausal bobcat with hemorrhoids? Last night, a "lady" almost rammed me trying to get to a parking space before me (and I wasn't even trying to park). Fortunately, I was able to nudge her walker out of the way with my truck bumper and get on with my business. 

  • In keeping with the mindset that anyone who drives slower than me is an idiot and anyone who drives faster is a jerk, I believe that women drivers don't use turn signals because they're too preoccupied with cell phones, and men don't use them because they think that communicating their intentions is a sign of weakness.

Tom Hanks: Use the turn signal!

  • If the Cold War turns hot and we have to start building bomb shelters again, I'm making mine out of the cardboard that Chobani uses in their four-packs. I'm pretty sure that stuff could withstand anything the Russkies could throw at it.

  • I'm so Midland, I think the name of my city is an adjective. (Seriously, folks...stop it. Just stop it.)