May 2013 Archives

Rain/Dance
May 29, 2013 10:09 PM | Posted in: ,

Even though there is some Biblical support for the adage that if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans, I've never bought into that concept except as it applies to plans that are clearly contrary to His will. And so when I tell you that we took our bike to Fredericksburg for a long weekend of riding and ended up getting on it not even once because it rained every day, don't believe for a second that I think God broke a region-wide drought just to foil our plans.

Not that it didn't cross my mind.

But I do believe that when a door closes, a floor opens, and thus we found ourselves in the happy position of dancing through an entire Memorial Day weekend, in ways we never imagined. But I'm getting ahead of myself. And I hope you're intrigued enough to stick around for yet more vacation slides.

But first, you need to know that I now plan to devote my life to becoming the premier frottoirist in Texas, if not the world, as I've come to realize that the rubboard represents the pinnacle of musical achievement in the history of mankind. There's really no higher calling.

Frottoir player - Zydeco Angels
My new musical hero

Accommodations

We booked three nights in the "Gabrielle" unit of the Patio Sisters bed & breakfast (motto: "big bed...no breakfast"). If you follow the preceding link, you'll see a professional presentation of the photos I took, shown below, except you'd never know there was a toilet by looking at the professional pictures. So I recommend going with mine, especially since I spent so much time on them. But it's your call.

Exterior View Our door had a name The patio The fireplace More patio We never even uncovered the hot tub The interior was spare We were never sure of the barrel's purpose Good bed, excessively pillowed Country chic ceiling Metal-lined shower with bumpy floor Ah...there's the toilette

Here are the takeaways from the weekend's accommodations:

Pros:

  • Great location - within walking distance of Main Street, but far enough to escape much of the traffic noise.
  • Quiet
  • New constructions - clean and well-maintained; everything worked
  • Comfortable bed and effective HVAC
Cons:

  • The corrugated metal and rustic wood motif was a bit tiresome
  • River rock on shower floor very uncomfortable on some feet, and overhead "rain" shower head may not be everyone's cup of tea
  • No closets. No chest of drawers or bureau. No problem if you don't mind living out of your suitcase.
There was a time when I'd have listed "no breakfast" as a drawback, but the current standard seems to be to provide certificates good for breakfast (or, frequently, lunch) at local eateries. In this case, we had certificates for $7 each for each night's stay, and the restaurants were ones we liked anyway (Bejas Grill, Rathskeller, Java Ranch, etc.). The certificates never cover the entire cost of a meal - at least, not the way we eat; YMMV - but it's a nice gesture, and beats the meager "continental" breakfasts served by many B&Bs that still give lip service to the second "B."

Dining

I already touched on that above, so we may as well round things out. Frequent visitors to Fredericksburg will recognize the following:

  • Peach Tree Tea Room - sandwich sampler and chilled avocado soup ($$)
  • Pasta Bella - eggplant parmigiana ($$)
  • Bejas Grill - fish tacos, chips and hot salsa ("hot" as in who microwaves their salsa?!) ($$)
  • Hondo's - grilled mahi mahi sandwich ($$)
  • Navajo Grill - beef tenderloin and lemon pie with a brûlée topping and fresh berries ($$$$)
Oh, and this...

Big honkin' German pancake
Big honkin' German pancake

Shopping

It rained on and off through the weekend. Did I already mention that? So the time that we would have spent on the bike was instead spent going through every store on the main drag. Every. Store. Fortunately (for me), the only thing we bought was foodstuffs, and empty calorie stuff at that.

That means we passed up some real finds.

Cowboy wine bottle holder
This would be an elegant addition to any decor

Nature

The Texas Hill Country has not completely escaped the drought that has ravaged most of Texas, but it's faring pretty well this year - especially after last weekend. Did I mention that it rained all weekend? San Antonio got some historic, flooding rainfall, and while Fredericksburg wasn't similarly afflicted, I suspect that over the next week or so the landscape will start to display the luxurious green hues that should be the norm. Also mosquitos, stifling humidity, and fire ants, but what's lemonade without a few lemons?

I understand that the bluebonnet crop wasn't quite as good this year as in the past, but that doesn't mean that the wildflowers didn't make a showing.

Wildflower-filled pasture
Wildflower-filled pasture

You don't have to get out of the city limits to enjoy nature. This guy was sunning just a block from Main Street.

Turtle
Witness some of the worst looking legs and feet in the Animal Kingdom

We went for a walk around the neighborhood at dusk on Sunday, and were mesmerized by the sight of dozens of fireflies twinkling all around us. Fireflies make make even really good things better.

We also drove through a number of neighborhoods, with an eye toward possibly investing in some real estate at some point. There were some very nice neighborhoods where people had seemingly neglected their properties, as we saw broken and even boarded-up windows. This was puzzling and a little disturbing until we learned that the town had been hit by a monster hailstorm about a week earlier...softball-sized hail had done a number on houses across the north side of Fredericksburg. We saw big agave plants that had been smashed to jelly, and oak trees stripped of their foliage; cars were missing moonroofs, and houses had tarp-covered voids where skylights once resided. Bad mojo, and the only thing that would have kept something like that out of the news was the F5 tornado that tore through Oklahoma the following day.

Entertainment ("Here there be dancing")

You perhaps heard that it rained most of the weekend, thereby stifling our cycling plans. We even skipped our planned outing to Luckenbach on Friday night, not wanting to deal with the muddy conditions. But we're nothing if not adaptable. As it turned out, the annual Crawfish Festival was taking place within walking distance of our B&B, and for $15 each, we got weekend passes to live music starting around lunch each day.

Variety was the musical theme for the weekend. On Friday night, we danced to country music by Jake Hooker and the Outsiders, on Saturday night we danced to big band ballroom music (at the Hangar Hotel, at a fundraiser for the USO) provided by Bill Smallwood and the Lone Star Swing Orchestra, and on Sunday afternoon we boogied to zydeco as performed by Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels. And somewhere in there we squeezed in some Latin moves to an arrangement of Santana's Black Magic Woman as ably rendered by the Walburg Boys (who, in an awesome display of musical versatility, also provided some of the best yodeling we've ever heard, although, frankly, that's not saying all that much).

There's something about copious amounts of crawfish and Cajun music that makes otherwise normal people make questionable choices in haberdashery. Beer might have also made a contribution.

People wearing crawdad hats
Head-mounted crustaceans: cutting-edge fashion trend

The dance floor at the Hangar Hotel was small and tacky (in the sense of being sticky, not in poor taste, although to a dancer the two are synonymous). Also, because the orchestra had "swing" in its name, and there was a swing dance lesson beforehand, most of the dancers seemed to feel obligated to dance swing steps to every song, which made doing foxtrots and waltzes somewhat challenging. But it's a rare thing to be able to dance to a big band doing the standards of times past, and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Hangar Hotel dance
All reet, you jive hep-cats

The floor was slightly less crowded at the Crawfish Festival, especially on Sunday afternoon.

Dance area at the Crawfish Festival

The thing about good music and an open floor is that it leads to, well, dancing...and that dancing can originate from unexpected (but delightful) sources.



So, what's your excuse?


That gentleman rolled in with his walker and spent most of the afternoon twitching in his chair until he finally couldn't stand it any longer and had to give in to the urge to surge.

The music, by the way, was provided by the aforementioned Zydeco Angels.

Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels

That's Jean-Pierre on the squeezebox, but the real star is, of course, the rubboard player. Did you know you could get special rubboard gloves? They're the mark of a true professional; here's a closeup:

Gloves of a frottoir player

Actually, these are very high-tech compared to most, which use either bottle caps or thimbles to generate the percussive sounds. Also, rubboards (aka frottoirs) are not exactly cheap. But I'll let nothing stand in my way of becoming a world-class washboardist, so I'm cashing in my 401K. Pretty soon.

So, we didn't get to bicycle around some of our favorite haunts, but we didn't let the rain dampen our enthusiasm. It pays to have a fallback passion, one that doesn't depend on the weather. As long as we can find some good music and a bit of floorspace, we'll do just fine. And last weekend, Fredericksburg repeatedly rose to the occasion.
The planned Energy Tower now has its own Wikipedia page, so it will inevitably be built, because they can't put anything in Wikipedia that's misleading, right? That means that a large number (or small number or a handful or one-or-two) Midlanders will be inconsolable over the demolition of the now-vacant county courthouse occupying a full block of prime downtown real estate, citing its historical significance or some such illogical sentimentality.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for saving/restoring/using truly historical structures, especially when the architecture is unique or even notable. I'm afraid that our courthouse qualifies on neither account.

It was built in 1930, and might be a candidate for protection in its original condition, but it was remodeled in the early 1970s and whatever unique qualities it may have exhibited were plastered over by a shiny new and very unremarkable façade. It has all the grace and charm of a Motel 6, no offense to Motel 6 of course. It's the Pontiac Aztec of Texas courthouses.

The building now stands empty, as the former tenants couldn't wait to vacate the premises for more modern, livable, non-flooding, non-vermin-infested quarters in a high rise in another part of downtown.

That's no slam against Midland. West Texas has more than its share of unremarkable county courthouses. Jump over to this page and hover over the various counties and you'll see a wide range of architecture, ranging from classic (e.g. Jeff Davis and Crockett Counties) to early modern bureaucratic (e.g. Ector and Martin Counties).

In any event, a building constructed in the 70s certainly hasn't the bona fides to compete with, say, the Cass County courthouse in Linden, Texas, which was built in 1961 and is still in active use for its original purpose.

Even if the courthouse building displayed its original architecture, given that it's not being used for anything else and Midland has more than its share of museums and libraries, I would argue that reusing that real estate for something more attractive and practical just makes good sense. But as a 70s relic, I'll shed no tears over its demise.

Poster - Not all Texas Courthouses are Worth Saving
The wreath hanging on our front door isn't really a Christmas wreath. Well, it did start out that way, but when Debbie was unable to find a spring wreath she liked, she hung a few spring-y accessories on it and decided to leave it up for a while. But I suspect a few people in the neighborhood wondered why the red-and-gold decoration was still up in May.

It's because we didn't have the heart to take it down after we discovered a bird nest full of eggs in late April.

The nest was constructed immediately next to the beveled glass in our door, giving us a, well, birds-eye view into it. And, of course, I couldn't resist hauling out the camera from time-to-time, much to the annoyance of the mother birdie.

A month to the day after the eggs hatched, introducing three new birds to the world, the nest was abandoned, the young ones having spread their wings and flown the coop. Here's a brief look at how it unfolded.

Disclaimer: I mentioned the beveled glass above. It presented some unavoidable photographic challenges, as did the extreme backlit conditions during daylight hours. I did the best I could with what I had.

April 18 - And so it begins

The momma bird was so skittish, this is the only photo I was able to get of her, shortly after she laid the eggs.

Mother bird

May 1 - The Hatching: A look only a mother could love.

Hatching bird egg

May 9 - They eat and poop. But mostly eat.

Baby birds

May 16 - Even pre-teen birds have attitudes

Juvenile bird

May 17 - Getting adventuresome

Juvenile bird

May 18 - Ready to fly?

Juvenile bird

At this point, sensing that we wouldn't have the birds around much longer, I had the brilliant idea to mount my GoPro camera on the front door and take a series of photos. I put a strip of clear packing tape on the glass, and then stuck an adhesive GoPro mount onto the tape, reasoning that it would be easier to remove that way. I then assembled an articulating mount and set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds. Here's what the rig looked like:

GoPro camera mounted on door

Good idea; poor execution. For one thing, I had waited two days too long to think of this. The birds were now too active and skittish and wouldn't stay in the nest. (Plus, one had already left the nest.) The GoPro also didn't handle the backlighting very well. Out of the 200 photos it took, here's one of the best.

Birds ready to fly the nest

I might have been a bit late, but if I'd waited six hours longer, I'd have been too late. Both remaining birds had flown away, never to return, by evening.

I still have two more opportunities to be an annoying intruder, as we've discovered another nest - containing five eggs - in the palm tree at the corner of our front porch. We're also giving in for the first time and letting barn swallows build a nest in a fairly innocuous part of the front porch.

And speaking of good ideas poorly executed, never underestimate the sticking power of clear packing tape to clean glass.

Spring Vacation 2013: San Diego/Las Vegas
May 18, 2013 2:52 PM | Posted in:

Yeah, I know that looking at someone else's vacation photos is lame, but, really, if you had anything better to do you wouldn't be here. Am I right?

In what's becoming something of a tradition for us, we headed back to San Diego last month, and made a brief stopover in Las Vegas on the way home. April is a great time of year for this itinerary. San Diego is much too crowded in the summer, and Las Vegas is much too hot.

As usual, we stayed at the Glorieta Bay Inn. As a resort, it's nothing special, but the location in Coronado is ideal, and the price is right, especially compared to the high-end and iconic Del Coronado which is across the street.

Speaking of the Del, it's celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and they managed to wrap one of the hotel spires with a big honking gold ribbon to commemorate the occasion.

Photo of the Del Coronado

Downtown San Diego is across the bay from Coronado. There are so many great photo ops; this is one my favorites.

Photo of the San Diego Skyline

We're always in awe of the horticultural richness of this area. The record low temperature for Coronado was 29º in 1949, and the highest monthly average temperature is 77º (in August), so just about anything except tumbleweeds flourishes there.

Photo of a flowering Bird of Paradise

We took a short drive down the coast to Imperial Beach (which, frankly, was kind of smelly), and were impressed by this ice plant-covered vacant lot next to a cozy beach house.

Photo of blooming ice plants

It's still California, however, and will someday disappear into the sea.

Photo of an earthquake warning sign

This was our fourth trip to San Diego, but just our first time to tour the USS Midway, the aircraft carrier that's now a floating naval museum. It's a fascinating experience, whether or not you're a history and/or military buff. The flight deck is home to many aircraft, and where there are warbirds, there are armaments. Who doesn't love armaments?

Photo of guns and stuff on an airplane

And more armaments...

Photo of guns and stuff on an airplane

I've already used the term "iconic" once in this post, but another San Diego icon is the "sailor kissing nurse" statue on the Embarcadero, which is visible from the USS Midway. It's an inspiring sculpture.

Photo of somebody kissing

Speaking of the Embarcadero, it's a great place to stroll on a Sunday afternoon and take a look at the modest bass boats anchored in the bay.

Photo of the Vibrant Curiosity

This is the 280-foot superyacht Vibrant Curiosity. See that triple row of silver rails running vertically up and over the top of the boat? That the track for an interior elevator so the guests don't have to weary themselves with a long climb up the stairs. (Impressive as it is, it's still puny compared to the 330-foot Attessa IV that was docked here last year.)

Another must-see destination in San Diego is the collection of museums at Balboa Park. We never tire of the Air & Space and Automotive Museums.

Photo of window-mounted car air conditioner

Remember when car air conditioners looked like that? You do? Wow...you must be really old.

Photo of Hercules motorcycle with Wankel engine

This is a Hercules Wankel 2000, a German motorcycle introduced in 1974. It was the first motorcycle with a rotary engine offered for sale to the general public.

By the way, Debbie got lots of admiring stares as she paraded through Balboa Park in her Mayan princess costume and pet jaguar. OK, not really. San Diegoans are quite jaded, and no one gave her a second look.

Photo of a real Mayan princess

I never figured out whether this was an alligator or a crocodile. Whichever, he hasn't been eating well.

Photo of reptile sculpture

I also never figured out why Debbie insisted on wearing 3D glasses throughout the trip. It's a good look, though.

Photo of Debbie in 3D glasses

Our stay in San Diego ended all too soon, and we hopped on a Southwest flight to Las Vegas, where we'd booked a room at the Vdara Hotel. This is a fairly new hotel on the Strip (it opened in 2009) and we were attracted to it because it's non-smoking and doesn't have a casino. It's also centrally located, overlooking the Bellagio and next door to the Aria.

We had a room on the 42nd floor, and we were sort of disappointed by the rustic nature of the surroundings. We actually had to get out of bed and walk over to the wall to operate the remote-controlled shades on the huge picture windows that spanned the entire length of our 582 square foot room. I mean, really?

Like you, I've always wondered what happened to all those canoes from summer camp once they reach the end of their floatiness. Wonder no more...this is the "sculpture" in front of the Vdara (that's the Aria in the background).

Photo of canoe sculpture

Here's the view from our room, looking down on the fountains at the neighboring Bellagio.

Photo of the Fountains at the Bellagio

Even from 400' up and behind plate glass we could hear the faint sounds of the fountains when they fired off.

You can make out the inner workings of the fountains from this angle. Those guys walking around are the pool cleaners.

Photo of fountains

I had never thought about it before, but there's a lot of trash on the sidewalks of the Strip, as well as a lot of tipsy and/or inattentive/inconsiderate people (I'm sorry to burst your bubble if this was a shock to you), and so a lot of gunk ends up in the Bellagio's pool. Someone has to keep it clean, and these are the guys, dressed in their wetsuits and floating on their party barge. A Saturday morning is an ideal time for this work.

Photo of fountain cleaners

Whereas San Diego is chockfull of natural wonders, most of the amazements in Las Vegas are manmade. Doesn't make them any less notable, of course.

Photo of a hotel lobby

Photo of giant mushrooms

We don't go to Vegas to gamble; we're there for the shows, and we saw one each night we were there. On Thursday night, we caught a taxi down to the Stratosphere where Frankie Moreno has a nightly show. This is an awesome musical show by a guy who will likely someday be headlining a show in one of the premier hotels in Las Vegas. Moreno and his brother are musicians and songwriters, and they've put together an first-rate band that specializes in what I would call "big band music with an edge." The only way it could have been better is if we could have danced.

Photo of Frankie Moreno and band

By the way, don't confuse this show with that of Frank Marino, who is a female impersonator. You might be surprised if you expect one and get the other.

On Saturday night, we went to see the production of Jersey Boys at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel. If you're one of the few people in the nation who aren't familiar with this long-running show, it's the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and it was very entertaining, although the language will make a sailor blush (but probably not a 14 year old high schooler).

We also had a good view of the Paris hotel from our window:

Photo of Paris Las Vegas Hotel

It's good to go on vacation, but it's also good to come back home, especially following the municipal insanity known as Las Vegas. We're now looking forward to a summer trip to Hilton Head Island. Stay tuned for more pictures...don't say you weren't warned!

Grading the Hybrid Bit Performance
May 17, 2013 10:03 PM | Posted in:

Remember this post? We finally got to run that fancy drill bit, two months later than planned thanks to some unexpected complications in the previous well. (If you work in the oil industry, you may recognize the phrase "unexpected complications" as a practical synonym for "business as usual.")

We drilled through a very tough formation that was up to 100% chert, and even this specially designed bit met its match. To refresh your memory, here's what the new bit looked like:

Photo of bit

And here's what it looked like coming out of the hole, after drilling about 900' in 80 hours:

Photo of bit

Quite a difference. The bit was under-gauge (meaning that it had a smaller diameter than when it went in, and drilling a smaller hole than planned can cause huge problems later), and the cones were frozen and perilously close to coming off completely. The diamond cutters on the "fins" were completely worn off, and the bit was badly cored (the phenomenon where the center of the tool is worn down).

At first glance, you might think the experiment was a failure, but it's not quite that straightforward. What we don't know is how a conventional bit might have fared in that same rock formation. We might have destroyed multiple bits trying to drill through that chert; this one came out ugly, but it came out in one piece, and came close to reaching our goals for it.

Is it worth the extra money we paid for it? That's something the engineers and our management will have to decide. But we got to see another vivid example of the challenges we face in drilling for oil in the Permian Basin.
In late April Canon released a new point-and-shoot camera, the PowerShot N. I pre-ordered it from Amazon.com (where I now see that it's temporarily out of stock) based primarily on two features described in a preview article: an 8:1 optical zoom, and built-in WiFi. It didn't hurt that the camera is about 20% smaller than my all-time favorite P&S, Canon's workhorse PowerShot S95 (which has been replaced by the S110), and came with a price just under $300.

Photo of cameraAfter a too-lengthy wait, the camera arrived and I've been using it for a couple of weeks. It's taken some getting used to, thanks to some design decisions made by Canon's engineers (or are they engineering decisions made by their designers?). If you look closely at the photo, you'll see a silver ring with three notches encircling the lens. That's the zoom control; twist it one way to zoom in and the other to zoom out. Another ring that protrudes past the zoom ring - it's difficult to discern from the photo - is the shutter release. You press that ring from either the top or bottom to take the photo.

These unusual controls are designed to give you more flexibility in camera position, in order to take advantage of the flip-up LED screen that covers the entire back of the camera. It's easier to hold the camera at a low angle and take photos than it would be with conventional shutter and zoom buttons. I haven't had a lot of reasons to try that out yet, and while it may indeed be a helpful design feature, I've also had some accidental snaps while I get accustomed to the layout.

Photo quality is good, especially outdoors. Flash photos leave something to be desired; the flash isn't much more powerful than in a smartphone. That's a compromise that comes with such a tiny form factor. Don't expect to use the 8x zoom to get details from across a dark room.

The camera takes full 1080p HD video and provides the welcome ability to snap a still photo while recording video without interrupting the movie. It also offers a super-slo-mo, 120 frames-per-second video recording capability (but only for short recordings) that provides some pretty amazing results.

It's said that the best camera is the one you have with you, and from that perspective, the N is a good choice due to its combination of small size and innovative features, especially if you want to share photos on-the-go via Facebook or Twitter. Being able to take high quality photos and HD video (better than you can get on your phone) and then use your phone to put them on social media is a hard-to-resist capability.

Samba Ambitions
May 14, 2013 9:53 PM | Posted in: ,

Note: Miss me? I missed you. I'm trying to ease back into this blogging thing, and the best way to do that is to either (1) steal something from someone else, or (b) repeat myself. Being the overachiever I've deluded myself into thinking I am, I choose to do both. Miss me?

Maybe it's the influence of Dancing With The Stars, or perhaps the impending change of seasons that will usher in beach-like weather (if not actual beaches), but MLB and I have had an urge to dance ourselves some samba lately. Unfortunately, samba is our weak link; we rarely get a good song from the dance bands around here, so we don't practice it, and so we frankly suck at it. But that's gonna change, because The Mavericks are making it impossible not to samba, thanks to this song.



Seriously, can you resist that beat and the fun they have with that song? Neither can we. And so instead of watching the DWTS results show, we were practicing boto fogas, traveling voltas, and samba maxixes.

Need another example of a samba from a more familiar genre (assuming you're a Texan, of course)? Clay Walker is happy to oblige:


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This page is an archive of entries from May 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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