November 2010 Archives

Death by Facebook?
November 30, 2010 8:49 AM | Posted in:

Photo - Headstone

OK, we're not quite there yet, but if I don't get some motivation pretty soon, I might have to get out the old chisel and start working on this headstone.

Using Actors In Place of the Real Thing
November 24, 2010 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

Did you catch Gwyneth Paltrow's performance at the Country Music Awards a couple of weeks ago (watch it on YouTube)? Paltrow is, of course, an Oscar-winning actress, and with more than forty movies under her belt, is probably intimidated by nothing. But it had to give her pause, appearing before many of the most talented, experienced performers in the world of country music - at an awards show, no less, where everyone is already in a judgmental state of mind - and pretending to be a country singer herself in her public singing debut.

Paltrow stars as a washed up country singer in the upcoming movie Country Strong. Gee, that sounds awfully familiar; wonder where they came up with that idea? Of course, copying Crazy Heart isn't a bad strategy, considering that it won Jeff Bridges an Oscar. And playing a country singer on the big screen also has some mojo; just ask Reese Witherspoon, who got an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line.

But Witherspoon's portrayal had something important in common with Jamie Foxx's performance in Ray (another Oscar-garnering appearance). They were portraying real performers who were either dead or no longer active. When you can't get the actual person to play themselves, it's natural to look for an actor who can do a credible job.

Which brings me to my mild complaint about Paltrow being cast as a country singer. Don't we already have enough real country singers who are also gifted actors? Did they have to look for someone with no musical background (being married to a rocker doesn't really count), who had to learn to sing, and learn to talk country, and learn to have big hair, to play this role?

As good as Paltrow is, I can't help thinking that someone like Carrie Underwood, Reba McIntyre, or Faith Hill could do just as good a job on the acting front while being completely authentic as a country musician (and let's not get into bickering about the state of country music today, 'k?).

It's all about box office buzz, I know. Gwyneth Paltrow's name on the poster guarantees an additional xx millions of revenue for the movie, and that's fine. I like Gwyneth Paltrow, and I'm very impressed with her poise and, yes, her voice. And it didn't hurt her credibility to be paired onstage with Vince Gill. But puh-leeze don't try to tell me that she's got a future in country music. Let her take a show on the road through East Texas and Missouri and Southeast New Mexico and Gillette, Wyoming for a few years and then let's talk. In the meantime, we've got plenty of ladies who've earned the right to represent country music.

The December issue of MacWorld has a good tutorial for setting an "if found" message on the home screen of your iPhone. This is accomplished by creating an image to use as wallpaper on your iDevice, and that image is overlaid with text giving instructions regarding how to get in touch with the rightful owner of the lost device.

The example in the magazine uses the following text:

If found, please return phone to Dan Miller 415/555-5555

I'm not crazy about this example. For one thing, it's illogical; you can't return a phone to a name and a phone number. Also, I don't like the privacy implications of putting my name on my phone's screen, along with a phone number.

I think a better approach is what I've done, as shown below.

iPhone Wallpaper

No name, no extraneous text, and the phone number I actually used in place of the sample shown above is my wife's mobile phone, making it harder to cross-reference to a person. But this also has the advantage of increasing the odds of the caller actually reaching someone quickly.

I think I'm more likely to misplace or drop my phone when I'm traveling, and most of my traveling nowadays is done with my wife. Using her cell number means that we wouldn't have to wait until we got home to get information about the missing phone. I'm simply playing the odds.

While MacWorld's tutorial is directed toward the iPhone, the technique will also work for iPad and iPod touch users. The iPod's screen resolution is the same as the iPhone's (320 x 480 pixels), but the iPad's is 768 x 1024 pixels.

Here are the steps for creating your custom "If Found" message.

  1. Find a photo or image that you want to use as your wallpaper, and crop it for the device you're creating the wallpaper for (again, 320x480px for iPhone/iPod touch; 768x1024px for iPad)

  2. Use a photo editing program to overlay the cropped image with the text you want to use

  3. Save the edited image in JPG format

  4. Import the image into iPhoto

  5. Connect your iDevice to your computer, open iTunes, and on the Photos tab of your connected device, make sure that Sync Photos from iPhoto is checked, and that the event or album containing the image that you just imported is also checked. Sync your device to transfer the image to the iPhone/Pod/Pad.

  6. Disconnect the device from your computer and open the Settings panel. Select the Wallpaper setting and navigate to Last Import. Choose the image you created and click the Set Lock Screen button. You can also use the image for your Home Screen wallpaper, but it's not essential, and may not be advisable since the "return phone" text will make for a distracting background for your device's icons.

Making iPad Work
November 18, 2010 9:24 AM | Posted in: ,

I continue to cope without internet access for my desktop computer - for just another few hours, I hope - relying instead on my iPad's 3G connection. As I posted previously, I'm finding the iPad to be a poor replacement for a notebook computer for anything beyond the simplest of tasks (email and web browsing), and its limitations are glaring in some areas.

But I'm also finding that not all the problems are the fault of the device. Some of them are due to poor website design/development decisions. I've found a workaround to most of these situations (more about that in a moment), but it's annoying that I had to go to those lengths.

If you have a smartphone, you're probably accustomed to seeing so-called mobile versions of the websites you visit. This is generally a good practice, as those sites load more quickly, optimize the use of the limited screen space, and eliminate features that don't work in mobile browsers (e.g. Flash in mobile Safari). Unfortunately, this has created a new set of problems for a device like the iPad which falls into the gap between a smartphone and a full-featured/full-sized notebook or desktop computer.

This is partially Apple's fault, because its iPad version of Safari delivers a user-agent string that identifies the browser as "mobile." When a website that offers a mobile version queries that user-agent string, it will usually send the iPad to that stripped-down version, even though the device can easily handle the full version (or most of it, anyway). This behavior is often frustrating for the iPad user, especially if he or she needs the full functionality of the website for business purposes.

I have two examples. First is my webmail. When I access it via the iPad, I get the mobile version of the webmail program (in my case, it's an application called Horde). The mobile version lacks many of the mail management features of the full version. For example, I can't delete messages from the server using the mobile version.

The second example is the website I'm using to create this post. In mobile Safari, Movable Type (my blog platform) automatically delivers a barebones post creation page that basically allows me to type in text and that's about it. I have no formatting options, no control over publishing (e.g. time and date), etc. Movable Type apparently decided that those options were not important to smartphone users, but the iPad could easily take advantage of all of them. Unfortunately, we don't get to choose the version, because there's no option to force delivery of the full version of the website.

I mentioned above that I've found a workaround, and it's a pretty good one (so far, anyway). I download the Atomic Web Browser from Apple's App Store (a $.99 purchase) and this browser allows you to change the user-agent string to, in effect, impersonate the desktop version of Safari. This means that I'm being served the full version of a website, rather than the stripped-down mobile version. This has its own set of problems (if a site is built in Flash, then I'm out of luck) but it does solve the above-mentioned problems. Plus, it's a pretty good browser in its own right, incorporating tabs, View Source, multiple search engine options, ad blocker, and much more. Some have reported that it's buggy, but I haven't yet encountered any problems.

But web designers and developers need to deal with the real issue of figuring out how to serve up non-crippled versions of their websites to iPad users (and, really, even to legitimate mobile browsers). Mobile versions shouldn't lack important functionality in order to achieve simplicity. That borders on laziness. At the very least, the mobile version should provide the option of navigating back to the full version (Sports Illustrated is a good example of a website doing just that).

Programming Note - Part 2
November 17, 2010 10:22 AM | Posted in:

Barnes & Nobel's free wifi has worked well and I've been able to get caught up on the most pressing client requests, but if I have to keep coming up here to get work done, I'm going to be vibrating like a tuning fork due to a caffeine/sugar overload. I don't believe in taking their wifi services without buying something, but I can drink only so much coffee and eat only so many scones in order to justify taking up a table.

I realize that I don't have to eat/drink what I purchase, but that doesn't sit well either. Think of all the sleepy, hungry web designers in China who would love to have access to the B&N cornucopia.

Programming Note
November 17, 2010 8:43 AM | Posted in:

If you're wondering if I've once again fallen off the blogging wagon, don't get your hopes up...I'm just dealing with a dead internet connection at home, and it won't be resolved until around noon tomorrow. 

I'm not sure what Suddenlink did, but they apparently caused some fairly widespread service outages Monday night and Tuesday. For most people, a simple rebooting of their modems restored their internet service, but mine refused to awaken from its forced slumber. The Suddenlink tech went through his checklist and was unable to fix the problem remotely, so we had to schedule a house call (which, apparently, I have to pay for, even though they caused the problem; however, through a convoluted series of moves and countermoves, it appears the fee will be waived and we'll actually end up with a lower monthly cable bill. The federal government could take lessons from Suddenlink when it comes to tortuous rules.). 

I'm making do at home with my iPad and a 3G connection (which also costs money), but despite assurances by Apple to the contrary, the iPad is NOT a replacement for a real computer, at least not in my line of work. There's a whole post about its shortcomings for web design work, but I'll spare you that. I will say that our investment in external keyboards has been a lifesaver. In any event, I'm setting out shortly with laptop in hand to look for a wifi hotspot so I can at least stay just a little behind in my work. Posting will resume at the Gazette once I'm back online in my office. 

Thanks for your patience; I wish I could say I'll make it worth your while, but that would be overreaching on my part.

Ordeals just aren't what they used to be
November 15, 2010 7:56 AM | Posted in:

I was a little amused by this story in today's local newspaper, which describes the situation where the Texas law governing the issuance of concealed handgun permits to retired law enforcement officers differs from the federal statute. It seems that in Texas, some officers have to undergo the same requirements as regular citizens to obtain a permit, whereas the federal statue automatically grants them a license by virtue of their law enforcement experience.

The amusing part of the story occurred in this quote (emphasis mine):
Hamrick was eventually able to obtain a license but contacted Rep. Tom Craddick's office after the ordeal in hopes of preventing others from having to go through the process.
I suppose ordeal is in the eye of the beholder, but a few hours of classroom time and shooting a box of rounds at a target hardly seems to qualify.

But it does make one think about the nature of a true ordeal. Here are a few items that might be used as measuring sticks the next time you consider what a horrible turn your life has taken:

A true ordeal is...

  1. going through election season without a mute button on your TV remote control.

  2. watching the Dallas Cowboys play football (yesterday's surprising win notwithstanding)

  3. sitting through Bristol Palin's (bless her heart) Dancing With The Stars late season performances.

  4. waiting for the next platter of Sunday brunch cinnamon rolls to emerge from the Wall Street Bar and Grill's kitchen after the guy in front of you took the last ones.

  5. trying to use the wifi (or find a parking space) at Midland Memorial Hospital.

  6. watching Oprah interview Whoopi.
Amazon.com's "commitment to principle" lasted about twelve hours, and then it showed that it's still in the business of turning a profit and dependent on the good graces of its customers to do so.

In pulling from its virtual bookshelf the disgusting The Pedophile's Guide To Love & Pleasure: A Child-Lover's Code of Conduct, Amazon proved that even the largest retailer is not immune to public pressure, and that community standards - however fragmented or ill-defined - still carry weight in the marketplace.

The only surprises in this situation are that (1) Amazon decided to sell the book to begin with, and (2) that it tried to support that decision with a "freedom of speech" argument. In this case, the right to freedom of speech should be strongly trumped by the basic tenets of human decency, the violation of which threatens the foundation of our society. If that sounds overly dramatic, then you're just not paying attention.

One of the first websites to break this story was TechCrunch, and this article focused on an interesting phenomenon: the apparent reliance on "the Red States" and "Middle America" to be the moral gatekeepers for America. I suspect the public outcry against this book was more widespread than that, and I would caution any one group from thinking it has a monopoly on the moral high ground in general, but to the extent that "Red State" residents succeeded in convincing Amazon to change its corporate mind, I proudly claim citizenship in that group.
Remember this post where I expressed some disappointment in the outcome of the first meeting of Midland's Oil and Gas Advisory Committee (OGAC)? I'm pleased to report that my concerns have generated at least a bit of action.

In that post I mentioned that I had passed my concerns along to the OGAC's chairman, and he responded with a thorough and informative explanation of the committee's reasoning for its actions. He also passed along to the City's Oil & Gas Compliance Officer my observation about the neighborhood oil well that has not yet been landscaped according to the agreement under which the well had received approval.

Yesterday, I received an email from Ron Jenkins, the aforementioned Compliance Officer, addressing that situation. Here's an excerpt from that email.
I received a copy of your email and wanted to address your concern of the well located East of Woodland Park not being properly landscaped. I came on board with the City at the end of March. One of my goals has been identifying the wells their operators and the different ordinances associated with the individual wells that had been previously permitted. I had recently identified the MCC #8 well operated by Patriot Resources was not in compliance with the landscaping requirement. I had recently notified [a] representative of Patriot Resources and have been informed they are currently taking action to get the well location into compliance. I will continue to stay in communication with Patriot Resources and if the well location is not brought into compliance I will pursue further actions as permitted.
In my reply to Mr. Jenkins, I thanked him for his consideration of this matter. While well site landscaping is certainly not something we're losing sleep over, attention to details like this give some assurance that oil and gas developers are taking seriously their responsibilities to be "good neighbors." And it's reassuring to know that the City is also being proactive in its enforcement responsibilities.

The Mystery of Bristol Palin
November 8, 2010 6:32 AM | Posted in: ,

We were at a dance Saturday night, sitting at a table with eight other fans of Dancing With The Stars, and someone observed that they were surprised that Bristol Palin was still on the show. The consensus was that Bristol's fan base had kept her in the competition long after her skill ceased to do so.

It is ironic that the one person who really, really seems to want to go home can't do so. Bristol is obviously uncomfortable in this setting - and who can blame her? She may be the only "celebrity" in the history of the show who isn't actually a celebrity: she's not an actor, entertainer, athlete, or politician. Her public appearances have been limited to sitting on stage with her famous mom, or to giving talks to various groups about preventing teen pregnancy. In short, she's a perfect candidate for a show like DWTS, but one who is all too rare.

I know she's homesick, and appears to not really covet the spotlight, but there is some incentive for her to stay on the show as long as possible. The celebrity paychecks increase the further into the season they get, with those who make the final show pocketing a reported $350,000 for the season. I'm sure Bristol isn't hurting for money, but I would also guess that being able to earn a third of a million dollars on her own would be an affirming accomplishment for any young woman in her circumstances. As an advocate for a specific social cause, the publicity she's gaining is simply priceless. And, finally, the longer she remains, the better paid is her dance partner, Mark Ballas (the professionals earn a reported $5,000 per episode).

Strange as it may be, while she has no chance of winning, Bristol has a shot at making the final three. Her skills aren't that far behind those of Kurt Warner, and I think her fan base is much larger than Kyle Massey's. So, we could be headed for an all-female DWTS finale, with one of those finalists being the longest of shots.

I'm not sure who comprises Bristol's fan base, but I disagree with some who think it's Tea Party support that's keeping her on the show. What do you think?

Turning Eight
November 7, 2010 8:53 AM | Posted in:

Of all the made-up words that accompanied the advent of blogging, "blogiversary" is the most unwieldy and nonsensical...and yet I can't think of another one to use while announcing that today the Fire Ant Gazette turns eight years old.

In many ways, Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter) has brought blogging to its knees, but a few of us hardy souls are committed to keep making buggy whips, if only for the sheer joy of creation. And to the few remaining of you faithful readers who keep encouraging us, please accept our thanks!

Great Blue Heron in Distress
November 6, 2010 12:49 PM | Posted in: ,

We've had a Great Blue Heron hanging around the neighborhood for the past few months. It's quite a sight, especially when winging its way over the mesquite-dotted pasture that surrounds us; there's a vaguely prehistoric look to its flight. While it prefers to wade along the shoreline of the two ponds, it's not unusual to see it standing out in the pasture, head just clearing the thick grass that the early plentiful rains brought to life.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something different about the bird, specifically his flight. It's very skittish and difficult to get close to, but it appeared that it had something dangling from one leg as it took to the air. I finally decided that its leg was dangling, and I confirmed this a few days ago when I was able to get close enough to take some photos with a zoom lens. Those are shown below; click on each to see a larger version. Please note that these are difficult to look at; the injury is gruesome.

I don't have a clue as to what caused the injury. It doesn't seem to affect the bird's flight, and it doesn't look uncomfortable standing on one leg, but I can't imagine that it can hunt for food with ease, because it can't walk through the shallow waters looking for fish, frogs, and insects that make up its primary diet. One would also think that the injury makes the heron more susceptible to predators like coyotes.

I've contacted Burr Williams, executive director of the Sibley Nature Center and local wildlife expert, and he in turn has contacted a local veterinarian to see what, if anything, might be done for the bird. Capturing the poor thing will be a challenge, and rehabilitation of such a drastic injury might not be feasible. I'll let you know how this plays out.

It's a tough world out there, sometimes.

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron

Apple to increase iTunes previews to 90 seconds
November 5, 2010 1:23 PM | Posted in: ,

It's about time, literally and figuratively. The AppleBlog reports that iTunes song previews (for tracks longer than 2.5 minutes) will be tripled in length, to 90 seconds.

I've long argued for this change. Thirty seconds simply isn't long enough to decide if you like a relatively unfamiliar song (or a familiar one in a new arrangement) well enough to pay for it. I predict that this will indeed lead to more music purchases via the iTunes Store, which is Apple's argument to music labels in support of the change.

I can think of at least a couple of occasions where I've taken a chance on a song based on its short clip, and found that the clip is the equivalent of the 30 seconds of really funny material in a trailer of an overall lame ninety minute movie.

The report says that Apple got push-back on this change from some recording labels, presumably for fear that people would either just listen to the track samples rather than buying the whole songs or somehow record them. That's a ludicrous argument, but I'd be perfectly content if Apple appeased them by providing a lower-quality sample to make such unlikely piracy even less realistic. After all, when I listen to a sample on iTunes, I'm not trying to assess the sonic accuracy and every nuance of the song; I just want to understand what I'm buying before I buy it.

Thank you, Apple, for making a rational business decision that benefits the customer.
The committee considered two proposals Thursday by Pioneer Natural Resources for exceptions to requirements for landscaping and fencing around drilling rigs being added within city limits. In a 5-0 vote, committee members approved requests to forgo landscaping requirements...

The first meeting of Midland's Oil and Gas Advisory Committee (OGAC) - the group created earlier this year to ensure that oil and real estate development in our city proceeds without undue burden on each other - yielded disappointing but not unexpected results. If yesterday's meeting is a predictor of things to come, we'll see a steady stream of oil companies appearing to get exemptions from various provisions of the city's drilling ordinance, and we'll see those exceptions routinely granted.

The quote above is from the Midland Reporter Telegram's meeting coverage, and the first sentence of that article spoke to the Committee's desire to "stay in front of development." But its approval of the landscape exception flies in the face of that expressed intent.

The landscaping requirement in the City's drilling ordinance is intended to provide a cosmetic shield around a well site. Some might argue that planting trees around a site where there's not yet any real estate development is unnecessary, but that tends to overlook the fact that it takes several years for trees to grow enough to provide the effective shielding anticipated by the ordinance. Waiting until real estate development reaches the well site before requiring the landscape just delays the effectiveness of that provision...and certainly isn't a good example for staying "in front of development."

The MRT also reported that the Committee's chair, Richard Dunham*, said that developers of future real estate in the area could approach the oil operator and "work out an agreement for what landscaping is needed." In my opinion, that's a naive approach, and fails to recognize two things. First, at that point the real estate developer has no leverage to negotiate with the oil operator. Second, there's some anecdotal evidence that oil operators are ignoring such agreements already, and that the city is not taking steps to enforce them.

Exhibit "A" is a well that was drilled by Patriot Resources on Midland Country Club's property just to the east of Woodland Park. In a City Council meeting in February, 2009, that well was approved with the express requirement of a dirt berm AND the planting of trees around the berm. Almost two years later, not a single tree has been planted, as far as I can tell without trespassing on the property. The photo at right was taken this morning from "A" Street; click it to see a larger version.

I hate to extrapolate too much from a single action item from the first meeting, but it's difficult to ignore the precedent that's been set. I've been concerned from the start that the OGAC would a rubber-stamp for oil development within the city limits, and yesterday's action did little to dispel that concern.

[Update (11/9/10)] I've been notified by the city's Oil & Gas Compliance Officer that the city is aware of the non-compliance of the above-mentioned well and is working with the operator to bring it into compliance. See this update for details.

 *Disclosure: Richard is both a friend and a client. I've already expressed these concerns to him via email. I appreciate the difficulty of the task set before the members of the OGAC, but I think it's important to let the committee know how "regular folks" feel about these issues.

Random Thursday
November 4, 2010 9:04 AM | Posted in: ,

A few observations while marveling at the fact that a "Random Thursday" post is actually getting posted on a Thursday.

  • I was reading the fifth chapter of Lamentations this morning (when's the last time you read the most depressing book of the Bible?) and a particular verse caught my attention. Now, keep in mind that Lamentations was written as just that...a book of mourning over the sad state of Israel, suffering God's judgment for the nation's willful sinfulness. Many, many bad things have happened to Israel, but verse four expresses dismay at one quite specific tragedy:
We have to pay for our drinking water.

My, how things change. Or not.
  • Today is the last time I have to give my father-in-law a daily injection of post-surgery blood thinner. I'm going to suggest that, given the level of shot-giving expertise I've developed, we celebrate the occasion by me doing it blindfolded. I'll let you know how that goes.

  • We were discussing grapefruit at dinner last night (yes, our conversations represent the pinnacle of human intellectual endeavor) and everyone shared their family's peculiarities when it comes to eating that fruit. Some opted for salt; others, sugar. My family fell into the latter category, although I don't recall that we ate a lot of grapefruit when I was a child. But I remarked that we probably went the sugar route because Ruby Red grapefruit probably hadn't been invented at that time, and so the grapefruit we ate was overly tart. Well, I was wrong about that; according to Wikipedia, the Ruby Red was patented in 1929, and despite what you think, I'm not that old. But I do wonder whether any Ruby Reds ever found their way to Evans Grocery in Fort Stockton in the late '50s/early '60s.

  • Let's talk bicycles for a bit, shall we? Below is a photo of what is by far the coolest recumbent I've seen in a while. It's manufactured by an Argentinian company called Hi-Bent and while its website doesn't have an English language option, it's easy enough to determine that the bike has an aluminum frame, front and rear disc brakes, and a unique front mono-fork. Cannondale has for years spec'd its Lefty mono-fork on its high-end mountain bikes, but I can't recall seeing this on a recumbent.

    Photo - Hi-Bent Recumbent

    The other thing that caught my eye is the unusual construction of the rear frame (go to the Gallery and scroll across to bring up the rear detail). It appears that there's no wheel dropouts; the rear axle skewer must be completely removed in order remove the wheel. This seems excessively complex and I don't understand the benefits, but it's certainly a different look.

  • And, finally, while we're on the subject of bikes, how would you go about introducing a new model called "the Diablo"? If you're the German manufacturer Neil Pryde, the answer involves setting the bike on fire...and then riding it. Makes perfect sense.

The Sci-Fi World of Insects
November 1, 2010 2:19 PM | Posted in: ,

I walked over to the north pond yesterday, hoping to get some photos of the big crane that's been hanging out the past few weeks. He flew away before I could do that, so I sat at the water's edge waiting for him to return. He never came back (thanks to you, Mr. Loudmouth Cell Phone Talking Walker), but I found other things to distract me. Such as the secret alien world of flying insects.

Click on the small images for bigger versions, and to go through them slideshow-style.



Universal Truths
November 1, 2010 12:34 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm pretty sure I've seen it before, but it's been long enough that I had forgotten most of it (meaning that I may have actually read it just last week, but that's a completely different story). Anyway, Charity has posted a list of "Universal Truths" and it's perfect for a Monday that lacks any defining characteristic other than "meh."
I think my favorite is this one:
I love the sense of camaraderie when an entire line of cars team up to prevent an idiot from cutting in at the front. Stay strong, brothers and sisters!
We humans are a vindictive lot, aren't we? Good on us!

About this Archive

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

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