July 2010 Archives

New Gallery Images
July 30, 2010 1:33 PM | Posted in:

I discovered I had a few images backlogged and I've now added them to the Gallery, including a larger version of this one:

Stylized photo of a Scarlet Darter Dragonfly

Choices
July 29, 2010 6:10 PM | Posted in: ,

As a freelancer, I'm like a shark. No, not dangerously vicious, nor delicious in soup, but as a shark has to keep moving to stay alive, I have to keep working to stay solvent. I need to have a steady inflow of projects to keep me in business, and that has the potential to generate pressure to accept work that I wouldn't otherwise consider.

Fortunately, circumstances are such that no single project or client is that important to me. But I still have to occasionally wrestle with whether to accept a job, for a variety of reasons.

Most often, the potential client either has unreasonable expectations, or has reasonable expectations that I simply can't fulfill. If somebody wants a site done completely in Flash, or needs a database back-end, I'm not their guy, as I don't have those skills. These are pretty easy decisions.

Occasionally, I'll turn down a project because I don't think I have the design chops to do what the client needs. This is a harder call to make, because (a) it's more subjective, and (b) it's more personal...it requires admitting to a more fundamental weakness than simply not having a learned skill. I know I don't have the time or energy to learn all the possible technologies that can be brought to bear on a web development project, and so I make conscious decisions about what to learn and what to leave. But design skills are much more inherent, involving creativity and judgment. You can learn some techniques, and try to keep up with trends, but in the end, it's just you facing a blank screen and hoping you can generate something amazing (or, in my case, adequate) that works for the client. Admitting a weakness in this area is hard for me to do, although it would admittedly be more difficult if I wasn't able to remind myself that I was trained as an accountant and therefore steeped in anti-creativity (insert joke about creative accounting here).

Then there are the projects that don't play well with my values. I have a short list of those on my Services page: no porn or political sites, for example. (Oops! Did I imply a relationship between those two? My bad...) I won't work for clients whose views on certain moral or theological issues conflict with mine and where such issues will be relevant to the design or development of the website (I'd probably build a website for a voodoo priest as long as the site just marketed really good ice cream.).

Why am I writing this? I just encountered one of these situations, one that falls into the last category. The details aren't important, but I've decided to turn down the project even though I think it would actually be a lot of fun and an interesting challenge (and probably lucrative), because the client sells something that's perfectly legal, socially acceptable (in most circles), but still personally objectionable to me.

I'm thankful that my situation is such that I can afford to turn down work, shark metaphor aside. Not all freelancers are that fortunate, and I'm sure many of those that aren't still face such dilemmas and make the hard choices. 


DVD Annoyance
July 28, 2010 1:53 PM | Posted in:

Once upon a time, when I was a real blogger, I had a category called "Usability Hall of Shame," wherein was found posts about poorly designed products and websites. Sometimes I think about reinstating that category because no matter how hard I try, the world inexplicably refuses to come around to my way of thinking about how things should work.

Take commercial movie DVDs, for example. When they first appeared on the scene, it seemed that the studios were in a heated competition to see who could create the most convoluted, hard-to-read implementation of a menu. One often had to sit through an interminable animated sequence of sight and sound before finally being presented with the buttons to play the dang movie already.

I'm pleased to say that this is much better, for the most part, undoubtedly thanks to my writing about it lo these many years ago. But one area remains neglected. It's not a huge thing, but when you think about it, it's really illogical and annoying.

Almost every movie DVD has the option of activating subtitles/captions, right? And I suspect I'm not the only person with good hearing who still activates them because I watch movies while on a noisy treadmill or exercise bike.

So, here's the illogical annoyance. When one clicks the "Subtitles" menu item, why is the default always "Off"? I mean, isn't it logical to assume that one doesn't click on that menu item unless one wants subtitles or captions (since by default they're always off)?

Countless remote control clicks could be saved each and every day if DVD designers simply made the default for the Subtitles menu "English." If you're not an English speaker and want another language, you haven't lost anything, and you're still probably a click or two closer to your selection than you are with the default "Off.")

OK, I've done my part. I'll be watching for improvement, Hollywood, and not patiently, either. Don't make me come out there.

To All the Cars I've Known
July 27, 2010 1:02 PM | Posted in:

Our recent purchase of a new vehicle represented a rare event in our lives. In our almost-40 years of marriage, we've owned relatively few cars. We tend to keep cars for a long time (if not for high mileage; our commutes have generally been short to non-existent).

Anyway, I made a deal to sell the Durango - the car that is being replaced by the new Honda - and the disposal of that 11 year old vehicle brought to mind the relatively short list of the other cars we've owned. I'm sure you're dying to know more, so here goes.

  • 1972 Chevy Malibu - Did I mention that I had to get married in order to get a car? Debbie brought this red coupe with a snazzy white vinyl top with her, and we drove it through college and into the early '80s. It was a lightning rod for collisions (not our fault), and we were poor enough that we always used the insurance money for more important things (like food and rent) and so it was the most beat up of any of our cars when we finally donated it to an unknown person at the behest of our church's benevolence ministry.

  • 1977 Olds Cutlass - This was our first new car purchase, and our first "grown-up" car. It was loaded, and I can still remember the salesman warning us about the expense as we went through the checklist of options we wanted added to the vehicle. Little did he realize that we were large-living DINKs (and our family income probably totaled all of $20K at that time, but, still...). We kept this one until 1985, when it became the only car we ever traded in for a new one (and we'll never do another trade-in, by the way).

  • 1981 VW Sirocco - This was the closest I'll ever get to having a sports car, although this admittedly wasn't very close. But it did have five-on-the-floor and Recaro bucket seats. My most vivid memories were of the way it reliably died during the slightest street flooding in Midland (and at that time in the city's history, a heavy dew could cause such flooding), and how I successfully hotwired it after losing my keys in the lake one afternoon while windsurfing. We gave this car to family members in the early '90s.

  • 1985 Chevy Suburban - This was the workhorse of our stable. We actually ordered three of these at the same time, one for us, one for my parents, and one for Debbie's parents (no, we didn't pay for all of them). We hauled more gear to more places with this big honkin' V8 gas guzzler. On one trip we had a full set of scuba gear, two windsurfboards, and a tandem bicycle. This was the last car we owned to have a carburetor, a weak link that stranded us twenty miles north of Roswell one summer. I'd like to blame aliens, but the real villains were working in the shop where the car was towed, diagnosed with a bad (and expensive to replace) fuel pump, and then sent us on our way, limping back to Midland only to learn that we needed a carb rebuild. We sold the Suburban in the mid-90s.

  • 1993 Chrysler Concorde - We began a string of Mopar purchases with this green sedan, which was the most expensive car we'd owned. It was well-appointed and had a surprisingly powerful motor...and a surprisingly harsh ride. It was quite reliable and required no significant repairs, until we gave it to Debbie's parents in the early 00s, at which time everything started breaking. However, Debbie's dad is still driving it, so it's got something going for it.

  • 1995 Plymouth Neon - We may be the only people in the world to have owned a Neon that wasn't made by Dodge, and I'm still not sure how we ended up with a Plymouth. Of course, the two models were identical except for the logos. We had the dealership add power locks to this basic run-errands-around-town car (I think we took it out on the highway exactly once), and they came with a funky security system wherein the doors locked automatically within about ten seconds, whether the keys were out of the ignition or not. And if you didn't override the system just right, you had to put up with all the interior lights flashing for an interminable period, which made for some freaky nighttime errands. We gave this car to family members in the mid-00s.

  • 1999 Dodge Durango - We're now in the Modern Era, sort of. The Durango proved to be the most reliable and versatile vehicle we owned to that point. It got pretty good gas mileage, had very few mechanical eccentricities (aside from occasionally having to pop the hood and jiggle some wires to get it started), and it, too, did more than its share of hauling stuff for us. I've had up to fifty bags of cypress mulch crammed into the interior and strapped to the hitch-mounted cargo carrier. And, of course, we're now in the process of selling it.

  • 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe - This is Debbie's current car, a little SUV that has a great combination of reliability, versatility, and economy. The only problem we've had with it thus far is a stuck disc in the CD player, and who listens to CDs anymore, anyway? I've transferred the XM radio from the Durango to the Santa Fe, which solves her music listening issues. She's putting about 6,000 miles per year on this car, so I expect it to be around a while.

  • 2010 Honda Ridgeline - This, of course, brings us up-to-date with the family car history (I intentionally left out the motorcycles, by the way...and the bicycles). As you would expect, the new pickup was more expensive than any of its predecessors - it didn't cost much less than our first house - but it's got all the bells and whistles that any urban cowboyish sort of tinhorn might want. It's a keeper.

So there you have it: just nine cars in 37 years. I actually know people who have owned that many cars in three years.

Here's a final interesting (well, to me) thread that runs through this vehicular history: every one of these cars was either red or gray, in some shade or another, except for the Concorde, which was a nice dark green. I'm sure that's a sign of our schizophrenia; we're either screaming for attention or trying to fade into the background.

Ballroom Dance: A Contact Sport
July 26, 2010 8:17 AM | Posted in:

The couple moved across the dance floor, somewhat less than smoothly, obviously mismatched in terms of skill. The man provided a strong lead to which the woman bravely attempted to respond. The music had a fast beat - he later described it as "almost a quickstep," one of the more challenging of the ballroom dances, and one certainly not suited for a beginner - and as they moved across the middle of the floor their feet, instead of moving in concert, tangled briefly and the couple stumbled.

As they began their descent toward the floor, it appeared for an instant they might regain their balance but the man, in an ill-fated attempt to rescue the situation, clung to his partner rather than letting her fall free. Inexplicably, they came face-to-face, literally and forcefully, and crashed to the floor in that position, him on top of her. They immediately rolled apart and onto their backs, striking oddly similar poses, legs outstretched, holding their faces as if to reassure themselves that they were intact.

She had a broken nose and a torn nostril. His nose wasn't broken, but his eyes were already beginning to blacken. Ballroom dance had claimed yet another set of victims.


That scene played out last Saturday night, near the end of what was otherwise an enjoyable and carefree evening of dancing to the music of an outstanding band from Austin, Texas. I was an eyewitness to the mishap, which took place only a few feet from the table where we were sitting while taking a break.

This was the third serious accident (that I know of) in as many years at a club dance. All three resulted in at least one visit to the emergency room. The victim of one of those incidents suffered months of recovery. And each mishap was the result of dancers trying steps that either they or their partners were unprepared for.

I suspect that everyone who has danced regularly has had mishaps of varying degrees of seriousness, ranging from smashed toes to elbows in the face to turned ankles. My eyeglasses have gone flying across the room, and Debbie has dropped like a rock when another dancer (not me, thank goodness) stepped on her foot. Neither of us has been injured (pride doesn't count; we lost that baggage as soon as we started taking lessons!), but incidents like last Saturday night's remind us that ballroom isn't for wimps.

In fact, it might be advisable to have safety briefs at the beginning of each dance. As the police sergeant in Hill Street Blues said each day prior to the start of the next shift, "let's be careful out there." The dance floor can be a dangerous place!

Zits and Me
July 25, 2010 2:18 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm referring not to facial blemishes but to the comic strip, which is one of my favorites due to its  ability to unerringly portray the foibles and habits of teenagers. And, apparently, me.

See, we've got this new car - a Honda Ridgeline, if you must know. It's loaded with toys - navigation package, XM radio, 115 volt auxiliary power outlet, and Honda's HandsFreeLink, a Bluetooth-based system for using your cellphone and the car's GPS without actually touching those devices. Those are all really cool things, but the owner's manual is almost 400 pages, and the configuration of the technology is not always intuitive.

So, I sat in the car in the garage for more than an hour yesterday, pairing my phone to the car's system, and [making attempts at] importing my contact list into said system. At one point, my wife felt it necessary to come into the garage and observe that I reminded her of Jeremy from the aforementioned cartoon, when he and his friend took possession of an ancient, non-running VW bus and, lacking funds and skill to make it go, contented themselves with just sitting in it. I couldn't really argue with the comparison, given the less than stellar success I was having making this hands-free thing go.

I did eventually get my phonebook imported, sort of. If your first name begins with "A" through "P" and you're in my contact list, then I can call you via the car's system, but for some reason, you who are in the dread "Q-Z" category didn't make the import. I'm really sorry, but you probably won't be getting a call from me anytime soon, at least not while I'm sitting in my garage, since I still haven't figured out how to do anything with the whole shooting match while actually driving down the road.

Baby steps. Or, at best, teen-aged steps.

Nature Walk
July 24, 2010 10:47 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I went for a walk around the ponds this morning after breakfast, and as usual, encountered some interesting animals.

The geese are still hanging around. They were inexplicably strolling through the vacant lot across from our house (I saw one of them nip at some of the weed seed heads), and when they saw us walking down the street, headed our way and paralleled our course. Here's a short snippet of video I took with my phone.



They continued to walk in roughly the same direction we were headed, but they crossed the street, back and forth, inspecting who-knows-what. Some of our neighbors had congregated on a front porch and they watching the geese with great interest. One of them had a chihuahua on a long leash, and he was quite attentive, straining at the leash to get a closer look...until, that is, the geese turned toward him, at which point he quickly retreated to his master, content to switch to remote monitoring mode. We had a laugh at his expense, but I observed that it would be like us confronting a T-Rex, given the size difference between the small dog and the large goose. I didn't blame him a bit.

It took us about ten minutes to round the south pond - pausing to speak to a cottontail rabbit who thought he was hiding in plain sight just off the sidewalk - and by the time we got to the opposite side, the geese had made their way along the pond and we watched them waddle down the bank and back into the water. I suppose they were getting in their morning constitutional, as were we.

Heading toward the north pond, we spotted something in the middle of the sidewalk about 20 feet ahead. It was a horny toad. I wondered why we always seemed to see them on the walkway, and we soon got our answer. He was resting in the path where an abundance of ants were busily crossing the concrete, and it was a veritable movable feast from his perspective. We watched as he pounced on several ants who had the bad judgment to wander into his sphere of ingestion. He didn't seem to be willing to chase any of them down, content to let them come to him, but we did see him miss one ant, eat another that was close behind, then whirl around and consume the one that almost got away. Unfortunately, the scene took place too far away to capture on my phone's camera.

Rounding the north pond and heading home, we roused the usual jackrabbit contingent. They like the tall grass brought out by the summer's rainfall, but you can usually spot the black tips of their ears sticking up over the ground cover. Those guys are built for speed, and they're as shy as the geese are bold.

Take a Gander at This
July 22, 2010 9:29 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I went for an early morning run around the neighborhood last Sunday and were surprised to see these guys at the pond area.

Photo - Four Western Greylag geese

According to my extensive (one or two clicks) research, these are Western Greylag (or Graylag, if you prefer the Americanized spelling convention) geese, with the pleasingly repetitive scientific name anser anser anser (just trying typing that without inputting "answer" instead). They apparently have a wide range worldwide, but I have no idea whether these are domesticated escapees, or slightly confused travelers, seeking temporary haven while trying to recalibrate their GPS.

I expected that they would be gone very quickly, but they were still hanging around yesterday evening. In fact, they had picked up an accomplice in the form of an apparently species-confused young duck. While the geese swam slowly across the pond in single file, the duck paralleled their course a few feet away, serving as a wing man. The other ducks  were huddled together across the pond. We surmised that they'd either ostracized the youngster for bad behavior (you know how they can be), or had sent him to spy on the intruders. Or, perhaps, he simply had grand aspirations that he felt couldn't be fulfilled by normal duckhood.

On a related note, that run was chock-full of good bird sighting, as a sandhill crane also graced the northern pond. Unfortunately, he didn't stay around for long, and I wasn't able to get a photo.
Last month I wrote about a few things that I thought would improve life in Midland, Texas, including the elimination of the weekly "around Texas" section of the Midland Reporter Telegram. I'm under no illusion that my comment had anything to do with it, but I was pleased to open this morning's paper and find a new section entitled Names and Faces: A roundup of community, society, and philanthropy in Midland.

In my admittedly uninformed opinion, this is the kind of content that a local newspaper needs to focus on in order to draw readers. We have lots of other options to get state, national, and international news, but almost no options for local coverage. Whether this exact format or specific content is sustainable remains to be seen, but I find it more interesting and informative than a section of columns and reports pulled from other newspapers* concerning topics that often have no direct local appeal.

I'm sure that filling a section of local coverage each week represents a significant commitment of resources, and I appreciate the MRT's willingness to commit those resources. I hope the experiment is successful.

*Exception: This may seem illogical, but I do see value in the MRT's reprinting of selected reports from other West Texas newspapers.

Dragonfly
July 18, 2010 2:23 PM | Posted in: ,

Debbie spotted this dragonfly as we were walking around the pond earlier today. I didn't have my camera with me, but we returned about 30 minutes later and the insect was still hanging around (actually, there were two of them, chasing one another with unknown motivations).

According to this website, this is a Scarlet Darter Dragonfly (Crocothemis erythraea). Whatever the name, it's a gorgeous specimen.

Photo - Scarlet Darter Dragonfly
Photo - Scarlet Darter Dragonfly
This guy is a walking advertisement for rotator cuff surgery. But he does seem to enjoy his work.


The Steno Concerto
July 8, 2010 4:01 PM | Posted in: ,

I think this speaks for itself.


High Wire Act
July 7, 2010 8:33 AM | Posted in: ,

This walking stick was hanging from an electrical line over our B&B at Canyon Lake last week, barely in reach of my zoom lens. I don't know what he thought he'd find up there, and he seemed to make a great target for a hungry bird, but I guess he knew what he was doing. Well, insofar as any insect "knows" anything.

This is a vastly different kind of "stick" compared to the one I photographed last year. This one is Mike Tyson, while that one is Michael Cera.

Photo - Walking Stick on Electrical Line

Sunset
July 6, 2010 5:46 PM | Posted in: ,

So, how was your sunset yesterday?

Ours was pretty good.

Photo of a West Texas sunset
Photo of a West Texas sunset

About this Archive

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

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