May 2010 Archives

Memorial Day 2010
May 31, 2010 8:46 AM | Posted in:

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California

Oriole
May 29, 2010 3:37 PM | Posted in: ,

There's something funky going on inside my camera, because this photo of an oriole in my neighbor's tree is definitely not accurate, color-wise. But it's still a cool bird, and one that's not commonly found around here.


Charles Krauthammer's column in the Washington Post [thanks to Soccer Dad for the link] points out the sad irony in the circumstances that contributed to the Gulf oil spill, opening with the question of why we were drilling through a mile of ocean to begin with:

Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama's tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we've had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some will take issue with Mr. Krauthammer's pragmatism (paraphrase: we'll always have catastrophic oil spills, so why not make sure they occur in less sensitive areas?) and I think he's minimizing a couple of immutable realities of the industry (oil is where you find it, and the "easy" oil has been found), but his point is nevertheless valid. By forcing oil companies to explore in areas where the environmental and economic effects of [inevitable] mistakes are magnified, those who claim to be advocates for the environment have actually done it a disservice.

Of course, logic and reality have never been the Environistas strong points. Some of them are the same people who object to wind farms off the coast of New England because they'll spoil the view.

Design vs. Development: Real Life Example
May 28, 2010 6:32 AM | Posted in:

Remember this post from a week ago, in which I discussed the difference between designing a website and developing it? I can now provide a practical example.

We just went live with a new website for Stacy Peterson, a local illustrator and graphic designer. Stacy is a design pro (she did the illustrations for one of Madonna's children's books, The English Roses: To Good To Be True) and as such certainly didn't need my limited skills in that area. So she brought me a fully realized design and it was my job to translate the printed layouts into something that rendered accurately in web browsers. I worked with Stacy's artwork which was in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator formats, and tried to replicate as closely as possible the vision she laid out for her site.

As gifted as Stacy is in the area of graphic design and illustration, she would be the first to admit that she's not an expert in website design and the mechanics that make a site functional. Her design presented some challenges from a development perspective - things that are quite simple to do in print media, like the nice drop shadow surrounding the main content window, or the seamless tiling of the flowery page background - are harder to replicate in a website. Finding solutions that work across a wide range of browsers and platforms is an ongoing challenge for everyone who builds websites, but especially when the design is conceived with no forethought about how those issues might come into play.

The new website includes some tasty jQuery scripts (for the illustration popups and the book cover slideshow) and some semi-complex CSS (I finally had to resort to a separate style sheet for Internet Explorer 6 and earlier to work around some conflicts between the aforementioned scripts and certain parts of the design; if you're still using IE6, you have my deepest sympathies, although only if someone is forcing you to do so).

We did have to compromise on a couple of rather insignificant design details that didn't work as well on screen as they did on paper, but overall, I think I succeeded in creating code that accurately brings Stacy's design onto your computer monitor while keeping it compliant with current standards and as visible as possible to search engines.

And, if I've played my developer role correctly, the only thing you're aware of is Stacy's beautiful artwork.

American Basket Flower
May 27, 2010 1:55 PM | Posted in: ,

I love these big flowers, with their mix of delicate fronds and business-like spines.

This and a few other new images will be up at the Gallery pretty soon.

Photo - American Basket Flower set against blue sky and clouds

Screen Door on a Submarine?
May 26, 2010 8:08 AM | Posted in:

Prepare to toss your preconceived notions about the compromises one has to make in order to live on the water. This is a fascinating look at a floating house in the Seattle area [link via Twisted Sifter]. The architectural creativity is inspiring, but I'm puzzled by one minor detail, which is best described by this floor plan drawing:

Drawing

Wouldn't the basement on a floating house be, like, underwater? What am I missing here? The article doesn't even touch on this aspect of the home.

I have to admit that the sub-sea basement idea is pretty cool, especially if the level contained lots of viewports (which seems not to be the case based on the drawing...just a couple in the "bunk room").

There's also no mention of the depth of the water where the home is placed, so I suppose that the basement could actually extend into the seabed.

I'd also like to know more details about how they've run the plumbing lines.

And, finally, I'm curious about how much this cost to build...and what the owners are paying for flood insurance.

Random Thursday
May 26, 2010 6:30 AM | Posted in:

Scattershooting while contemplating a four day weekend...

  • It's been a while since I wrote anything remotely Apple-fanboyish, so indulge me for pointing out that yesterday was a red letter day in that company's history, as its market capitalization at the close of trading exceeded that of arch-rival Microsoft. Market cap is for all practical purposes a meaningless number, but it doesn't seem like it was all that long ago that Microsoft was giving Apple a cash infusion to keep it afloat and bolster Microsoft's claims that it wasn't a monopoly. Actually, nowadays the term "arch-rival" probably imbues Microsoft with more credibility than it deserves. It's a competitor, and a strong one, but no longer the one that Apple looks for under the bed before turning in at night.

  • We finally got around to watching Avatar (it feels good to be part of such an elite group of a billion others), and while I'll admit it considerably raised the technical bar for speculative fiction on film, I'm much less impressed with James Cameron's feel for the storytelling aspect of the genre. I can't help wondering how much better Avatar would have been if the science fiction details had been outsourced to the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Neal Stephenson, or David Brin, with those gentlemen being able to pass along their creative visions to Cameron's ace technicians.

    Some of the details in Avatar were laughable, like the reference to unobtanium, the mystery substance for which the human corporation was willing to destroy another race to, uh, obtain. Besides being a lame name for such a supposedly precious substance, it's not even original. The vehicle used to bore a hole to the center of the earth in the 2003 movie The Core was constructed from unobtanium. (But even that reference wasn't original; bike magazines have been referring to exotic frame materials by that term for decades.)

  • On the other hand, I'll watch any movie where Neytiri is the starring "actress." That's one hot CG alien chick.

  • Speaking of hot alien chicks, I understand that Megan Fox wasn't invited to the Transformers 3 soiree. There goes the lone reason to watch this train wreck of a film franchise.

  • If you follow me on Twitter (and why wouldn't you, other than it's the most boring thing in the world?), you can skip this next bit since I've already ranted about it there. But I'm getting fed up with those yahoos who think that the federal government is either more competent or more motivated than BP in getting the Gulf oil leak plugged. If I wasn't dead certain it would result in a significantly worse disaster than we're now seeing, I'd be in favor of turning the whole thing over to the Feds just so those folks could once and for all understand that the Feds are not the omnipotent, omniscient force they envision in their dreams (hallucinations?). [And, further, BP and the rest of the companies out there are not the uncaring, reckless, stumbling bozos the media is determined to paint them.]

  • Ever wonder what the guys in the Dyson warehouse do when the boss is away? Me neither, but here's the answer anyway [Link via Neatorama]. I have to admit that those bladeless fans are definitely awesome.

  • Last but far from least, and just in time for Memorial Day, here's a moving video produced by the Igniter Media Group in Dallas. This was forwarded to me by my pal Gene, who got it from a couple whose son worked on the creation of the video, and who happens to be a former Midlander. Good, powerful stuff.

I just checked the dove's nest in the palm tree and found it bereft of dove and eggs. I don't know where the bird went, but the eggs are lying at the base of the tree, victims of poor architectural planning and some stiff West Texas wind.

We can but hope that the local dove gene pool is thereby strengthened, but I somehow doubt it.

Flaming Sky
May 25, 2010 6:26 AM | Posted in: ,

Photo of sunset and clouds

New Neighbors
May 24, 2010 6:32 PM | Posted in: ,

I recently wrote about the mockingbird nest in one of the trees in our front yard. The fact is, while we don't have that many trees, and they're not that big, those we do have are apparently quite attractive to the local birds. Besides the aforementioned mockingbirds, we have a western king bird nest in our live oak, and then there's this:

Dove nest in palm tree

Can you make out that mass of junk in the middle of the palm tree (and we're using the word "tree" quite loosely here; it's more of a palm bush or palm shrub). It's a dove's nest, perched precariously a full three feet above the ground.

We discovered it last weekend, and noticed it only when the nesting dove exploded from the tree as we walked by. Closer inspection revealed this (it's been a while...forever, in fact, since I've been able to photograph down into a nest without a ladder):

Dove nest with eggs in palm tree

The mother is quite skittish, and with good reason. She didn't exactly pick an obscure spot for the young 'uns. But I was able to point a telephoto lens around the corner and catch her hard at work:

Dove nesting in palm tree

As soon as she spotted me, she burst from the nest and took up residence on the neighbor's roof, keeping an eye on me:

Dove on roof

Dove as a species don't strike me as very intelligent; they're the avian counterpart to sheep. However, this choice of location for a nest isn't as dumb as it might seem. Sure, it's close to the ground, but it's also protected by a seven foot wall and locked gates. There's danger from weather, but that's a given regardless of location, but, otherwise, unless another marauding bird makes an appearance, this may be a good place to raise a family. We'd like to think of our neighborhood in those terms, anyway.

Design vs. Development
May 21, 2010 8:05 AM | Posted in:

When people ask me what I do for a living, I generally tell them that I build websites, but if I want it to sound more impressive [than it really is] I say that I'm a website designer. That's not technically accurate though, and not just because I don't really make a living at it (but that's another issue).

Technically, I'm a website designer/developer, but the distinction between design and development may not be meaningful to many people. It's not complicated, though. Every website goes through a design phase where conscious (we hope) decisions are made about layout, color scheme, font selection, graphics, etc. and a development phase where the coding and scripting necessary to make the design accessible to web browsers is applied. This is analogous to building a house, where an architect comes up with the floor plan and a construction crew executes it.

The design stage is the glamorous part of the process - it's where the obvious creativity takes place - but the development stage is where equal parts of creativity and practicality are combined, and that combination can be as challenging as it is non-obvious.

There's an unending dialog (or debate) in my profession about those challenges. Designers claim that developers always monkey with the layout and compromise the vision the former have worked so hard to create. Developers accuse designers of being impractical, of coming up with design elements that can't be replicated in the real world. And, often, I think both have legitimate complaints.

Lately, I've had more pure development projects than ever before, where someone comes to me with a complete design (as opposed to an idea or a vision) and wants me to make it happen. I'm working with ad agencies on a couple of websites, and with an artist on another, and they don't really need my design skills (which is a good thing, because those skills are pretty rudimentary). And, frankly, I'm dealing with some of the frustrations of the design-vs-development debate.

For one thing, a lot of designers come from print backgrounds, and the rules for print are often vastly different than for web. In some cases, print provides more flexibility and freedom, and the design elements I'm asked to implement just don't translate well to screen display. In other cases, the web provides possibilities that the designers aren't taking advantage of - to their clients' detriment - and I have to try to figure out a way to diplomatically educate them as to how their designs might be improved. In addition, print designers aren't necessarily keeping up with the latest trends in web design, which can result in layouts that looked dated from the very beginning. I'm not suggesting that all such trends are positive and should be blindly followed, but there is value in incorporating elements of current trends into more traditional layouts.

When I both design and build a website, my design ideas are explicitly influenced or tempered by my understanding of how difficult it will be to bring those ideas into practice. This is good for my client, as it makes me more efficient in getting the job done and saves the client money. But it probably results in more pedantic design work as I rarely push the envelope to try things that I'm not sure will work.

The designers I'm working with now have no such limitations, unless they've consulted with me in advance and we've discussed the technical pros and cons of their ideas (and, ideally, that happens frequently). Still, more often than not, I'm asked to do some things that left to my own devices I wouldn't try because I know they're impractical.

Despite the challenges, I enjoy playing the role of developer, especially when the designer has considerably more talent than me (which is most of them). I enjoy taking someone's vision for a website and figuring out how to bring it to life in a website using the appropriate technologies while adhering to web standards to ensure that all visitors can access the site. I know the glory is in the design, but the satisfaction at the end of the day for me is in knowing that I made something work...something that someone else finds useful.

In other words, I build websites.

It's going to get ugly
May 19, 2010 7:53 AM | Posted in: ,

I predict war will break out within the next few months, and I'll probably be on the losing end. A mockingbird is building a nest in the live oak tree planted in our front yard.

Last Sunday I noticed the bird flying into the tree on a couple of occasions, seeming to pay no mind to us as we sat on the front porch (well, I sat while Debbie pruned shrubs, a pleasing tableau to my mind), but the implications didn't sink in. Yesterday, though, I noticed it was continuing to pay close attention to the tree, often with twigs or grass in its mouth, so I conducted a closer inspection. The nest is almost complete, and it's less than ten feet from ground level.

This does not bode well for lawn mowing this summer. Nesting mockingbirds are fiercely protective of their eggs and young, and their bravado borders on foolishness. They also have sharp beaks and claws and they know how to use them.

It's highly entertaining to watch mockingbirds torment cats that wander into their territory; it's less so when you're on the receiving end of their attention. I once donned a motorcycle helmet to finish mowing our lawn (which might explain why our neighbors generally crossed the street when walking past our house) when we lived in Garland*, but only after a kamikaze attack left the top of my bare head oozing blood. I had a similar experience at our previous house, although no injuries were sustained other than to my pride as I ran for cover in my own yard.

So, I'm pessimistic about the prospects for peaceful co-existence this summer. I no longer own a motorcycle, but I may put my bike helmet by the front door...just in case.

*Yep, that's the same "Garland, Texas" referred to in unflattering terms in the opening scenes of Zombieland. I have no idea why the filmmakers decided to pick on Garland (especially since the movie was shot primarily in Georgia), but I can assure you that the city does not look like it was destroyed by zombies. For the most part.

Deluge Aftermath
May 15, 2010 3:26 PM | Posted in: ,

If you live in West Texas then yesterday's torrential rain is old news, but a 3"+ rainfall is still rare enough in these parts to make it worth writing about...or at least worth posting a few photos.

Our neighborhood didn't sustain any damage from the rain or the hail, other than leaves knocked off various shrubs and trees. The drainage system out here performed admirably, unlike in other parts of Midland. And Debbie and I actually missed most of the excitement as we were enjoying Iron Man 2 while the heaviest part of the storm moved across the city (although it was sometimes hard to distinguish movie sound effects from Mother Nature's).

Here's a photo of our neighborhood's south pond. The water level is about 4' higher than normal. If you can't quite make out the sign, it says "No Swimming or Wading," and it's normally on dry ground. That junk floating in the water is mulch that washed down from the bank.

Photo of partially submerged dock

Here's another view showing the sidewalk that normally leads to the dock.

Photo of partially submerged dock

Despite the heavy rains, we still managed to have a spectacular sunset.

Photo of sunset and thunderhead

The thunderhead in the distance was moving away from us. We were more than happy to share it with someone else.

Not my fault
May 14, 2010 8:51 AM | Posted in:

I had a post written and ready to publish and the server ate it. Really. It's not my fault, and it should count toward my quota. [I'm now only 3, 452 posts in arrears, give or take.]

More Gallery Images
May 13, 2010 2:17 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, you should know the drill by now when you see that post title. Drop by the Gallery to see a half dozen new images, not all of them as weird as this:

Photo of cottontail rabbit

Ice Sage
May 13, 2010 6:40 AM | Posted in: ,

We were driving through a neighborhood yesterday and Debbie observed a lone Desert Willow that - as she put it - was "blooming up a storm." Most of them aren't blooming yet, and so my response about the over-achiever was that it would be sorry when it froze. OK, so it wasn't that funny...but it was prescient, sort of.

Last night around 11:00 a line of thunderstorms rolled across our area, dumping some brief heavy rain, along with small but fierce hail. When Debbie retrieved the newspaper at 5:30 this morning (we also have an over-achieving paper carrier), she found this scene in our flowerbed:

Layer of hailstones surrounding flowers

Despite morning temperatures in the mid-50s, these little flowers were still packed in ice from the hailstorm. Besides being beaten, there's a good chance they won't survive the chill, although our hope is that the ground temperature didn't drop to a killing degree.

[Fortunately, this appears to be the worst damage we sustained from the hail, and this occurred only because the icy balls rolled off the roof and accumulated in one unfortunate spot.]

"It will be a cold day in July before..." is a common aphorism around here, but perhaps we should start referring to ice storms in May.
Need a new job? Do what this guy did - capitalize on the narcissistic tendencies of bosses by purchasing their names as keywords, and wait for them to Google themselves.

This is a rather striking example of combining tech savvy with insight into human nature and psychology. No wonder he actually landed a job with this approach. [Link via Neatorama]


Gulf Oil Leak Perspective
May 12, 2010 6:01 PM | Posted in: ,

Last Sunday's newspaper carried a letter to the editor from a prominent local oilman in which he chastised the news media for continuing to report the volume of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in terms of gallons instead of barrels. He apparently believes that this is yet another attempt by the media to sensationalize the extent of the leak, thereby casting the oil and gas industry in a bad light. I'd link to the letter but for some reason the only letters on the paper's website are from the prior Sunday. Anyway, my recollection is that the writer closed by sarcastically suggesting that the media should report the spill in terms of teaspoons if they really want to sensationalize things.

Normally, I'd be the first to jump on the "media bias" bandwagon, but in this rare instance, I think the writer is wrong. First, there's just no way to sensationalize a disastrous situation like this, unless you try to compare it to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, or Britney Spears's comeback attempts. An oil slick hundreds of miles in area that has the potential of destroying an ecosystem and a generation of people who depend upon it for their livelihood is, by definition, a Very Serious Thing, and it's a useless distraction to argue about the metric by which it's quantified.

But second - and here's my real point - there's no reason to fault the media for describing something in terms that the average reader/viewer/listener can relate to (especially if it's also accurate), and, frankly, nobody knows what a barrel of oil looks like. I worked in the oil business for 25 years and I never saw a barrel of oil, outside of a museum display set up to show what a barrel of oil looks like because no one would know otherwise. I've seen plenty of 55-gallon drums of chemicals and other products, but never a physical 42-gallon barrel, and I'll bet I'm not alone.

The barrel is an abstraction, an arbitrary volume agreed upon back in the early days of the oil industry (before the term "Texas tea" had any meaning whatsoever), according to my extensive research (well, I did read an article from Wikipedia). And while I'm sure that originally there were actual 42-gallon barrels (I'll have to go back and watch There Will Be Blood again), I'm pretty sure that no one alive today actually witnessed that. On the other hand, everyone can relate to a gallon - we've all seen gallons of milk or gasoline or cheap wine - so it's only natural to use that as a way to describe an oil spill or leak.

A rose by any other name smells just as sweet, and a Rhode Island-sized layer of oil on the ocean's surface described in any other terms is just as disastrous. Oops...there I go, sensationalizing again. Besides, who how big is Rhode Island, anyway? I think we have bigger counties in West Texas.

More Nature Photography
May 10, 2010 4:18 PM | Posted in: ,

I was driving north on "A" Street this morning, returning to the neighborhood after a quick run to the bank, and caught a flash of movement across the road. I pulled over, grabbed the little Sony point-and-shoot that I keep in the car for just such occasions, and got this:

Photo of a wild turkey
Photo of a wild turkey

Yeah, I know; it looks like the Loch Ness monster but it's actually a wild turkey. I've never seen one around Midland. I apologize for the lack of detail in the photos but this bird was quite skittish and my camera was maxed out. Anyone else ever seen a wild turkey this close to the Midland city limits?

Another cool thing. When I got out of the car to take the second photo, I glanced down and spotted this wildflower:

Photo of a wildflower

It has a vague resemblance to a bluebonnet, but the color is amazing. I was as impressed with the flower as I was with the bird.

West Texas Wildflowers
May 6, 2010 8:22 AM | Posted in: ,

Our part of the state is better known for tumbleweeds than wildflowers, but when we get a little spring rainfall, things change dramatically.

I took a 30-minute stroll yesterday morning, and within a three-block area found sixteen different varieties of wildflowers. OK, most of them are technically flowering weeds, but, you know, potato/potahto.

Some of these may at first glance appear to be duplicates, but if you look closely, you'll see that they're different varieties. And please don't ask me to identify them; the only ones I can name are the bluebonnet, the chocolate daisy, and the purple nightshade.

Click on the photo for a bigger version.

Update: I spent some time browsing various wildflower-related websites and I *think* I've identified most of the flowers. Feel free to correct me or to provide identities for the three species I couldn't match to anything in my "research."

Top row (l-r): Blue curls, Huisache daisy, Purple nightshade, Coreopsis
2nd row (l-r): Limestone gaura, Chocolate daisy, Unknown, Rabbit tobacco
3rd row (l-r): Blackfoot daisy, Gray vervain, Paper daisy, Unknown
4th row (l-r): Bluebonnet, Firewheel, Unknown, Dahlberg daisy

Photo collage - West Texas wildflowers

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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