[Part 1] [Part 2]



Trigger Warning: Here there be dragons. Or, at least, serpents. Elizabeth, you've been warned.


Having survived the Great Coax Caper and the Putrid Possum Pestilence, we were looking forward to a relaxing hike on the newly-christened Horseshoe Creek Trail with The Nephew, his wife, and their dog Sophie. (I briefly introduced the Trail in this novel-length post from last December.) So, at mid-morning on Saturday we caravanned up to the south trailhead, which is at the end of the winsomely-named Mausoleum Road.

You get to the trailhead by way of Mountain Dew Road, a steep and winding street that meanders through neighborhoods interspersed with the typical Texas Hill Country scrub woods. As we neared the Mausoleum Road turnoff, we encountered this lovely beast stretched out across the pavement:

Photo - Big honkin' rattlesnake

I jumped out of the truck and cautiously (an understatement) approached the snake, and snapped a few photos. Photo of rattlesnake rattleI estimate it was about 3-3 1/2' in length, but what was most striking (pun intended) was the thickness of its body. Rattlers tend to be this way, but some who have seen this photo suggest that this one was either pregnant or had just eaten a large meal. In any event, this was not only the first rattlesnake we've seen in the four years we've been coming to Horseshoe Bay, but also one of the largest we've encountered, period. A closeup of the non-business end of the snake clearly shows nine rattles plus a button...not a record by any means, but still a pretty good noisemaker. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, you can't judge the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles; they add one each time they shed their skin, but they might shed multiple times in a year.)

The snake paid us no mind, and didn't move until we got back in the truck. At that point, I had to make a decision regarding its fate. Had it been in an absolute wilderness with no homes or public trails around, I probably would have let it go, but in this case it was (1) moving toward the trail we were about to hike, and (2) fairly close to a number of houses. So, I chose to inflict Death by Michelin on the serpent. I'm never happy about having to kill an animal, but this one had the obvious potential to do serious harm to humans and their pets.

We proceeded to the trailhead, determined to do the planned hike, but you can bet that the thought of encountering more of these rattlers was at the forefront of all our minds. Horseshoe Creek Trail is not particularly challenging, but at this time of the year, it's covered with leaves and it passes over and through rocky terrain that provides perfect camouflage for snakes. I led the hike and didn't really see much on the first leg other than the ground immediately in front of me, trying to make sure we weren't stepping on anything hazardous to our health. Relaxing? Well, not really.

Fortunately, we didn't come across another snake, but my singleminded attention to the ground almost resulted in an even worse encounter.

We came to a rise in the trail, a section that required stepping onto some rocks, and at the last second, I looked up just in time to see a Big. Honkin'. Spider (!) drop down at eye-level. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a classic case study in arachnophobia, and this freaked me out way more than that rattlesnake. 

The spider had stretched its web completely across the trail, a distance of at least four feet, from a tree on one side to a bush on the other. Had I not seen it in time, I not only would have had a spider on my face, but I would have been wrapped in a web, and I think we all know what that leads to. 

Webbed Frodo
In my mind, every spider is named Shelob.

I may have screamed like a little girl, just the tiniest bit, but we did find an easy detour around this horror, and the rest of the hike was pleasantly uneventful. Here are a handful of photos take along the trail; click on the photos to see larger uncropped versions.

Horseshoe Creek - Not quite a stream in the desert, but close Horseshoe Creek Trail The trail winds through some semi-rugged terrain In places, you can catch a brief view of Lake LBJ The trail passes some serious boulders. Horseshoe Creek Sophie leading the rest of the intrepid band


OK, there was one stretch of dry creek bed that contained a startling reminder that perhaps the snake we encountered earlier was just an infant, a mere worm compared to what might inhabit that rough terrain through which we were traipsing:

Photo - animal skeleton

Is this the skeleton of a harmless deer...or is it more likely the remains of a prehistoric dinoserpent whose descendants still inhabit these hills? You'll have to decide for yourself; I'm still on spider watch.
[Part 1

Now, where were we? Oh, yes...I had completed a successful repair of a shredded coax cable that restored our satellite TV access, and life was good.

Except...something was slightly amiss in the air. There was a lingering odor, a smell that seemed to grow stronger depending on which way the breeze was blowing, and where one stood in the back yard.

As the afternoon went on and the temperature rose, the smell got stronger and became the unmistakable odor of something dead and putrefying. And, as far as I could tell, it was coming from beneath our deck.

I had feared this ever since we bought the house last fall and witnessed an armadillo crawling out from under the deck one night. What was the likelihood that an animal would expire under the deck, and how would we deal with it?

I wanted to seal all the possible entry points, but it was a Catch-22 situation: what if I locked in a nocturnal critter, causing its death by starvation, and thus birthing the exact scenario I was working to avoid?

But now, we had to confront the reality head-on. There was a bit of urgency to the task, apart from the increasingly offensive aroma in our back yard. We were expecting the arrival of guests that evening, and they were bringing their dog who would undoubtedly freak out at the possibility of rolling around in something dead. Hey, that's what dogs do, right?

*sigh*

The first order of business was to locate the exact source of the odor, because that would help me understand what would be needed to deal with it. There were no large openings in the deck, and I was fresh out of remote-controlled robotic nano-cameras to send in a search-and-recovery mission. So, I did the next best thing: I watched where the flies were swarming, grabbed my industrial strength flashlight, and began shining it into the small seams between the deck planks. My fly-directed instinct was accurate, and I quickly spotlighted a tail. As I moved across the next several seams, a clear picture emerged of an expired possum, and a fairly large one at that.

So, I knew what I was dealing with, and where it was located. I now had to figure out how to get to it. I first tried taking up the decking directly above the malodorous marsupial, but the wood screws had become inextricably merged with the decking and this approach was a non-starter.

Plan B was to remove a section of the deck siding directly adjacent to the stinking stiff. This was significantly easier than removing the decking, but still not without its challenges. I won't go into the minutiae of the process; suffice it to say that it required another trip to Ace Hardware, and I'm now the proud owner of a 4-foot crowbar, a mini-hacksaw, and a new garden rake. [Aside: This is a problem with having a second home...many of your tools reside somewhere else.]

Removing the siding was a relatively quick job - apart from the run to the hardware store - and it led to the most unpleasant part of the task: retrieving the reeking remains. That's where the rake came in, if you were wondering. We [by then, MLB was at my side, offering spiritual solace and a second pair of hands] put a heavy duty trash bag on the ground, and I endeavored to rake the offensive opossum out from under the deck and into the bag.

Normally, at this point in a task, I would take a photograph to document the proceedings. But the thought of having a picture of a squishy, maggot-infested carcass on my phone trumped my documentarian tendencies. Feel free to thank me, dear reader. However, that doesn't mean that we don't have visual proof of the episode, courtesy of our game camera. I hope the following isn't too shocking.

Photographic proof: possums wear shirts!

[Note: I realize that some of you are thinking, "what a noob!" because this type of thing is old hat to you - the dead animal, not discovering it's actually Pogo - because you've lived in the country long enough to have encountered it many times over, and then some. But it's brand new territory for us city folks.]

With many exclamations along the lines of "ewww" and "ick" and "yuck" (and it's not easy to emit such exclamations whilst holding your breath) we managed to roll the corroded corpse into the bag, which I quickly sealed and hauled downwind for safekeeping until I could permanently dispose of it. MLB scattered some odor-absorbing pellets under the deck, and I then reattached the siding with a single wood screw on each end, in case we ever had to repeat this process.

Within an hour or so, only the keenest of noses could detect that anything was ever amiss in the back yard. Of course, that keen nose did eventually show up on the end of a curious German shepherd, but after much earnest sniffing, she lost interest and began to focus on the more important task of stick chasing.

However, there's one nagging thought: what was the cause of death? Silly me; I failed to perform an autopsy, so now I'm left with only speculation. As a wise coworker told reminded me, "everything dies," so it could have been natural causes. But what if it was something more sinister, like a hit by the local squirrel mafia? We've also had some suspicious characters roaming our back yard when all law-abiding mammals should be snuggled in bed. Perhaps there's a reason they always wear masks.

Raccoons: Nature's little felons

Anyway, to recap: two crises dealt with, and we could now relax for the rest of the weekend.

OK, there was just ONE. MORE. THING. 


After a month-long family crisis that ended in a bittersweet manner, we headed for our Hill Country hideaway for a long weekend of regenerative relaxation. We looked forward to a time of recuperation, both emotional and physical.

But, you know what they say about telling God your plans. Here's a hint: don't.

Our first indication that things might not play out exactly as we hoped came almost as soon as we walked through the door, when we discovered that our satellite-connected TV displayed the dreaded blue screen indicating no signal. MLB spent a half hour on the phone with DirecTV lack-of-support, booting and rebooting the box to no avail, while being assured that there was no apparent problem with our dish. She finally had to schedule a service call, which couldn't happen for a week.

Accepting the inevitable, we continued settling in, and then went into the back yard to check things out. It didn't take me long to discover this:

Pieces of shredded coax cable

There was a two-foot gap in the cable running from the satellite dish into the attic. The cable hadn't just been severed...it had been annihilated, as if a band of marauding mutant squirrels with titanium teeth had gone medieval on it. Of course, there was also the [more boring] likelihood that the lawn service had shredded it with a mower.

I'll confess that I have never tried to splice a coax cable. Unlike speaker wire that's drop-dead simple in construction, coax is mysterious and finicky, and repairing it requires special tools, connectors, and expertise; I was 0-for-3 in those areas. This was a challenge I was unprepared for, but faced with the possibility of four days of nothing but conversation, I was motivated to conquer it.

The first order of business was to solve the tool and connector crises. I turned to that trusty stalwart companion of every inadequate DIYer, the Home Depot, and found this coax repair kit. These tools would allow me to put connectors on the ends of the severed cable. I also bought a short length of ready-made coax, and a couple of splice connectors.

I then found a YouTube video explaining the intricacies of arcane art of coax repair. Along with the printed instructions that accompanied the tool kit, I now possessed the knowledge to do the job. Probably. Possibly. Well, we'd soon find out.

Taking a tip from the aforementioned video, I stopped by Ace Hardware and picked up some heat-shrink tubing to weatherproof the new connections, which would be reburied once the repairs were made.

I found some old coax in the attic and made a couple of practice runs with the tools to make sure I understood the repair process. The process was a lot easier than I expected; it's really just a matter of having the right tools for the job. Satisfied with the results, I moved over to the severed cable and...discovered a complication. Surprising, right? That never happens.

It turns out that the satellite coax has a ground wire running its entire length. That makes sense, and I suspect it's actually required by local building codes. But the coax I got didn't have the associated ground wire. So, off again to Ace to get a spool of copper wire to splice the ground wire. Fortunately, our local store is well-equipped and had just what I needed.

Back to the cable repair. Enduring the 90-degree heat, high humidity, and hungry mosquitos, I managed to affix new connectors to the severed cable, insert the coax splice with the adapters, and add the ground wire splice. I used a butane lighter on the heat shrink tubing to seal the connections, and wrapped the entire length in heavy-duty, weatherproof electrical tape. It was time to find out if I passed the coax repair initiation test.

I turned on the TV in the living room while MLB turned on the one in the bedroom. "We have a picture!" she yelled from the bedroom. However, the living room TV still had no signal. It took only a quick reboot of the box to remedy that, and we were back in business.

This was a small but significant victory, and meant that the rest of the weekend would be spent in relaxation and recovery.

Well...not exactly.


Dear City of Midland,

My wife and I are homeowners in Woodland Park, at the far north end of "A" Street. We are also bicyclists, and we were pretty excited when you re-striped "A" Street from Mockingbird south to Loop 250 and created a nice wide lane for cyclists, runners, and walkers. As far as I know, this was the first truly functional bike lane in Midland (those in the downtown area are, frankly, dangerous jokes, but I suspect you know that). It's only a mile in length, but it gave hope to us for what might come.

However...

I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but simply creating bike lanes isn't really enough. They must be maintained. And the city is falling short in this regard.

Residential streets - especially those like "A" Street where a lot of adjacent development is taking place - attract a lot of debris: sand, gravel, miscellaneous trash. Before the bike lanes were installed, that debris was forced into the gutter by traffic. Guess where it collects now?

Instead of blowing against the curb and settling in the gutter, it tends to spread evenly across the width of the bike lane. It's actually a pretty interesting phenomenon - it's almost like a tractor beam for debris overlays the bike lane, and nothing remains in the roadway.

This is not too much of an issue for runners, and walkers probably don't notice it at all. But it's a really big deal for us cyclists. Bike tires are more vulnerable to flats than you might think, especially those skinny tires on so-called racing bikes ridden by those guys in colorful spandex. That's not my wife and me, but there are a lot of them out there. A blowout on a bike is a dangerous occurrence, especially in the presence of passing traffic.

The best way to avoid that issue is to avoid the bike lane, so, ironically, what we now have is the situation where people are cycling in traffic lanes that are more narrow than before, in order to avoid the problematic wider-than-before bike lanes.

I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but it seems to me that if you install a bike lane, that automatically comes with an obligation to maintain it. And maintenance seems pretty straightforward: send a street sweeper up and down "A" Street twice a month. That seems like a reasonable approach, doesn't it? We're not asking for someone to get up early every morning and hand-sweep the street (I've been places where that happens, by the way).

Let me be clear. I do appreciate the planning and effort that went into creating these bike lanes. I think it's a wonderful start to making Midland a better place to ride bikes, which in turn enhances the perceived quality of life for a lot people. I just wish the great start wasn't being subverted by the less than stellar follow-through.

Your pal,

Eric

Nocona, Texas: A pleasant surprise
April 9, 2017 8:03 PM | Posted in: ,

Our road trip began in Midland, Texas, after lunch last Thursday and ended 950 miles later, on the following Saturday morning. During that time, we--MLB, my mother, and I--traveled through some of the best and worst parts of Texas.

The purpose of the trip was twofold, with one being significantly more enjoyable than the other. Our immediate destination was the city cemetery at Nocona, where we would attend the graveside service of my mother's sister who passed away about a week earlier.

Our second stop would be in Fort Worth, where my mother would visit with her remaining sibling (out of the original eleven twelve*), an older sister who was unable to travel to attend the service.

The round trip from Midland to Nocona, then to Fort Worth and back to Midland was about 720 miles. The remainder of the mileage came on Saturday morning when we drove Mother home to Fort Stockton and then returned to Midland.

Below is a map showing the route we took, in case you want to retrace our tire tracks. The annotations didn't appear on the original Google Map, but they should have.

Google Map excerpt

The drive from Midland to Abilene is rarely a treat for the eyes, and this trip was no exception, although the appearance of thick patches of bluebonnets around Sweetwater, thanks to the mild winter and timely rainfall, was a pleasant surprise. But the real surprise came as we turned northward from Abilene and entered the hilly plateau country of north central Texas (it probably has a specific regional name, but darned if I could find it). I've only been that way a few times, but I had never seen the foliage so green and thick nor the ponds, creeks, and lakes so full. An added pleasure was the absence of oilfield service trucks and oil tankers, an increasingly rare phenomenon in the Permian Basin.

While the second half of the drive to Nocona was a pleasant surprise, the actual town of Nocona was doubly so. We had reservations at the Red River Station Inn, located in the heart of downtown (if you can apply such anatomical references to an area of two blocks), and it turned out to be a delightful place to stay. The RRSI is a B&B-style inn consisting of ten rooms, each with a theme based on regional historical characters (we stayed in the Quanah Parker and Joe Hancock rooms. I knew about Quanah Parker, but I was unfamiliar with Joe Hancock, which turns out to be the name of both a famous Texas quarter horse and the man who owned him).

Photo - Red River Station Inn front desk
Front desk and spiral staircase leading to dining room and veranda

Photo - Red River Station Inn 1st floor hallway
The Inn's first floor layout seems to mimic an Old West town main street.

Photo - Red River Station Inn front desk
The decor in the 2nd floor hallway leading to the veranda is indisputably Texan.

The innkeeper and owner, Bob Ferguson, helped design and remodel the existing building to create the hotel, and the before-and-after photos on the website give some idea of the work that went into that project. It would be a great weekend getaway for anyone within a hundred miles of Nocona, and I'm not the only one to think that...reservations are hard to come by this time of year.

The inn offers free beer and wine in the evenings in the upstairs dining room and veranda, and DIY breakfasts each morning. An additional dining option is next door at the newly-constructed Red River Pizzeria, another pleasant surprise, featuring a variety of pasta dishes as well as hand-tossed pizzas.

Nocona and the surrounding area apparently has a lot going on. The town has a museum showcasing 120 classic cars (located downtown), and the annual classic car show and auction in May attracts people from all over the country. We also met the co-owners of the 4R Ranch Winery who described an apparently never-ending series of events, both public and private, going on at their location near Muenster, a short drive from Nocona. Several new businesses have opened or will soon open in downtown Nocona. 

Photo - Bench made from pickup bed
You can't park your truck on the sidewalk, but you can still sit on the pickup bed.

And if all that's not enough to attract you, the town has what I believe are the widest downtown parking spaces in the world. Seriously, I could have parked my truck sideways in the angled space. If the town achieves its apparent goal of becoming the next Fredericksburg, it will have to narrow those spaces to provide more parking.

Photo - Red River Station Inn and street parking
Those cars in front of the Inn are NOT parallel-parked.

Following a short but sweet and moving graveside service for my aunt, we headed for Fort Worth for another short and sweet visit with another aunt. This drive wasn't as pleasant as the previous day's, however, as we spent more time than desired on that special piece of Hell on Earth known at Interstate 35. Crews have been working on I-35 since the Ice Age, and will undoubtably be working on it when Jesus returns (much to the relief of those who will be raptured from the non-moving traffic in which they've been trapped since childhood). I told my mother that I'm now officially too old to ever do that again, and she agreed.

As an aside, I mentioned above that my aunt and my mother are the two remaining children from a brood of eleven twelve*. I find it interesting to reflect on the naming conventions their parents employed for the kiddos. I'm going to try to list the siblings, from oldest to youngest (more or less; some of the older details are fuzzy), to give you a taste of how children's names have changed over the past century. There was Seiver, Tressie, Ora, Odell, Richard (they obviously slipped up there and succumbed to conventionality), Rease, Curtis*, Burtis, Helen (another middle-of-the-road name), Euvela, Melba, and Jasper.

Now, contrast that with the siblings on my dad's side: Ray, Robert, John, Joe, Martin, Sally, Alice, David, Margaret. My dad's parents apparently drew on the Hardy Boys collection for naming inspiration.

We spend a little more than an hour visiting in Fort Worth, and besides the nice time with my aunt and her son and his wife, I also scored a few packages of waffle mix from my cousin Jerry, aka The Wafflemeister. (His secret: mix buttermilk and sweet milk in equal portions. But you didn't hear it from me.) We then hit the road for the return trip at about 5:00 p.m. and you know what that means. Fortunately, we made pretty good time getting away from Fort Worth and the further west we went, the lighter the traffic.

We did see the aftermath of three accidents, one of which was a horrific multi-vehicle affair that necessitated the landing of a life-flight helicopter on the interstate and backed up traffic for about five miles. Fortunately for us, all of those wrecks were on the eastbound side of the interstate, and our only delays were from the rubberneckers on our side.

This was not a trip I'd care to repeat on a regular basis, but all things considered, it was a good time and accomplished a couple of worthy goals.

*Update: Thanks to cousin Marshall for reminding me that I forgot my Uncle Curtis (which made for twelve sibs, not eleven. In my [weak] defense, I'm not sure that I ever met Curtis. But he shouldn't be forgotten.

PSA: Ballroom Music for DJs
March 31, 2017 6:43 PM | Posted in: ,

I received an email a few months ago from a DJ in Alabama who was preparing for an upcoming event where a number of ballroom dancers would be present, and he wanted some help in preparing a playlist. He admitted that he tended to play the same songs over and over when he got requests for a particular dance style, due to his lack of knowledge about ballroom. 
 
He had run across this list that I had posted several years ago, and since the iTunes Store link for each song no longer worked (thanks a bunch, Apple), he didn't know which musicians performed the songs on the list, and asked if I had a list that included the artists.
 
I was able to re-create that list for him, and I took the opportunity to add a few more recent songs. He was quite appreciative, and told me that he was adding the list to his file of "things to always carry to a gig."
 
My observation is that many (most?) DJs aren't very knowledgeable about ballroom dance music or steps (heck, a lot of band leaders aren't either; some seem to think that every song with a vaguely Latin beat is a bossa nova. I'm a ballroom dancer and I don't know how to do a bossa nova.). This isn't surprising, since ballroom dancers are likely a small and shrinking audience at most events. I was more than happy to help this gentleman because it meant being able to support and promote ballroom in some small way.
 
It also caused me to consider the likelihood that there are other DJs out there who are in the same boat: they don't often work a ballroom crowd, but when they do, they feel a bit inadequate for the undertaking. With that in mind, I'm going to draw upon my decade-plus dance experience (including five years of preparing ballroom playlists), and offer some tips to DJs in case Mr. Google leads them to this page.
 
  • I have created a downloadable list of suggested songs showing song title, artist, and suggested dance step (PDF format).

  • The waltz is your friend. Waltzes are to ballroom dancers like the Star Spangled Banner is to most Americans (some NFL players excluded): if you want to get their attention, or better yet, get them on the dance floor, play a waltz. 

  • But don't play a fast waltz. Mr. Bojangles is a great song, but a bad choice for a dance song...it's too fast (and too long...see below). The best waltzes are slow and romantic, and the ladies will make sure the guys get them onto the dance floor. Moon River is always a great choice; for something more contemporary, try Easy by Rascal Flatts.

  • Many Latin-flavored songs lend themselves to both rumba and cha cha steps, so when in doubt, simply introduce the song as "Latin." Leave it up to the dancers to decide what to do. Santana's Smooth is a great example of a song that will accommodate both steps, as is the Pussycat Dolls' version of Sway.

  • West Coast swing is completely different from East Coast swing (the latter is noted on the playlist simply as "swing"). However, while one can generally do an East Coast swing  to a West Coast number, vice versa is rarely true. Wilson Pickett's Mustang Sally is a good example of a song that works for both steps. If you're at a loss for a West Coast tune, find a slow blues number; it will likely work.

  • If someone asks you for a Night Club 2 Step or Night Club Slow, they're wanting a slow, romantic song (sometime referred to as a "belt buckle rubbing song"). Unchained Melody or Patsy Cline's Crazy will always do the trick.

  • If you're playing a gig that is primarily geared toward ballroom, be sure to vary the songs. There's nothing more aggravating than getting three or four of the same steps in a row, whether they're fox trot, waltz, Latin, or swing. This will require some advance planning, and even the best plans will be derailed by special requests, but try to vary the steps as much as possible.

  • Ballroom dancers differ from the usual party crowd in wanting to have a little time between songs. For one thing, since ballroom is always partner dancing, this gives the gentlemen time to escort the ladies back to their seats after a dance, if they're not a couple.

  • Never include a song that's more than four minutes long. (Rules are made to be broken, and this one can at least be bent, but try to adhere to it.) The Gotan Project's Santa Maria tango from the movie Shall We Dance is popular, but at almost six minutes, it's too dang long for most dancers. Unless you're a pro, you don't have enough tango steps to fill six minutes of music.

  • Line Dancing Prohibited!
  • Keep the volume reasonable. If you normally crank Uptown Funk to 10, Fly Me to the Moon should be around 7. Ballroom lends itself to conversation while dancing, and chest-pounding bass won't make the DJ any friends.

  • Unless your client has given you strict instructions to the contrary, it's OK to throw in some non-ballroom songs, as long as you don't overdo it. The occasional Texas 2 Step, polka, or a "Golden Oldie" tune like The Twist is actually a welcome change for even ballroom dancers. And, what the heck, see if you can get away with Uptown Funk near the end of the gig...you might be surprised at the good response.

  • Last, but certainly not least, line dances shall not be tolerated. Remember when I said rules are made to be broken? This one isn't. Not even in Texas. (I can't, however, speak for Alabama.)

Running Down the Rabbit Hole
March 10, 2017 3:14 PM | Posted in: ,

Wait. Is it really "down the rabbit hole," or is it "down the rabbit trail"? Or is it "bunny trail"? Hold that thought; it might become relevant later on.

I went for a run on Wednesday after work, the first one this year (in Midland). It was...well...you know how sometimes you get into a workout and it starts out hard and you're feeling miserable but at some point you settle into a groove and it becomes almost effortless and you think you could just do it forever? This was nothing like that. It started out bad and basically stayed that way, until the point where it got worse. Which was almost immediately.

Visual contrasting the beginning of my workout with the ending
In all honesty, I didn't look this good at either the beginning or end.

In 45 minutes of running primarily on the trails around the neighborhood, I managed only a painful 4.3 miles, and I was dead tired when I got home. The next day, my legs — and my quadriceps in particular — were incredibly sore. I couldn't help wondering why running outside was so different than running on a treadmill, and why my frequent workout on an elliptical trainer didn't better prepare me for that run. Naturally, I turned to Mr. Google for answers, and he helpfully provided some potentially useful links.

The first one was a general discussion of the pros and cons of running on a treadmill, and the key takeaway is that there's really no difference other than the presence of wind resistance and the possibility of terrain changes when running outside. The article then offered this simple tip, via reference to a scientific study: set your treadmill on a 1% incline and it will provide exactly the same workout as running outside. Genius! Why didn't I think of that?

But I wasn't content to leave it there, so I followed some other links, including one on the respected Runner's World website. That article muddied the waters considerably, stating that the 1% guideline was "mostly urban myth." It in turn linked to this blog post by Dr. Casey Kerrigan. Kerrigan seems to be a fairly credible source, given her background as a distance runner, Harvard-educated physician, and noted researcher specializing in running biomechanics. 

With support from the National Institute of Health, she has done extensive studies on treadmill running. One of those studies demonstrated that there is absolutely no significant biomechanical differences in treadmill workouts done at slight inclines, declines, or when level. Her article also cited the results of this study concluding that treadmill workouts are more efficient than any other type of indoor exercise equipment (sorry, elliptical/stairmaster/rowing machine/exercise bike owners).

Winding my way down this rabbit hole (see what I did there?) made me feel better about running on a treadmill, but it did nothing to explain why that outdoor run was so challenging. So I have to offer my own theory. Neither the treadmill nor the elliptical can duplicate the challenges of running along a rutted trail where footing is often sketchy and the surface varies from sand to hard-packed caliche to loose rocks (and while it's a bit too early for this to be a big concern, later on I would be additionally distracted by the possibility of rattlesnakes in the road). I realized during the run that I was lifting my feet higher on the trail to navigate around and over the dips, ruts, and rocks, and I think this put a lot more stress on my legs than running indoors or on pavement.

In the end, it boils down to a simple rule - specificity of training. You can get aerobically fit by cycling...but cycling alone will not ensure that you can run a marathon. (The reverse is also true; running will not get you into cycling condition; your legs and lungs might be up to the task, but cycling stresses other parts of your body and you'll realize that after about 30 minutes on that narrow saddle). So, if I want to get more comfortable with trail running, I simply have to do more trail running.

Random Thursday
February 23, 2017 3:09 PM | Posted in:

I'm sitting at home on my day off, listening to Beethoven because Alexa can't find any classical guitar music in her catalog of "tens of millions of songs," feeling sick and bored, so I figure, "why should I be alone in this condition...I'll blog something!" Welcome to my nightmare.

I went to the doctor this morning, several days later than I should have gone because I'm a guy and I vacillate between believing that I can absolutely will my body into health, and believing that "OMG...I'm going to die and somebody please bring me cheetos and NyQuil!" Anyway, the diagnosis was (1) no flu - good; (2) no pneumonia - very good; (3) you're a big sissy so go away and let us focus on that man with viral hemorrhagic fever puddling in the waiting room, and by the way we need to quarantine you for roughly three weeks.

OK, I'm just kidding about (3); I actually have a mild case of bronchitis (although there's still apparently a 5% chance of having a strain of flu that has hitherto not been identified, since the nasal swab test* has a 95% accuracy record). So, we're going the usual Z-Pak/steroids/cough suppressant routine and we'll see if I survive to not watch the Academy Awards.

While I was sitting in the exam room, I noticed this on the wall:

Lego Pain Assessment Tool

This is apparently a real thing, created I think as a tongue-in-cheek graphic, but here it is...prominently displayed on the wall of a real doctor office. Is it intended to help kids communicate their level of discomfort? If so, did anyone stop to think that the "DEATH IMMINENT" agonized face might be a tad, um, traumatizing to a child?

It occurs to me that this chart could easily be adapted to a number of different scenarios, like, say, "reactions by certain groups to the results of the last presidential election." I'll let you run with that.

Anyway, this being Thursday, and seeing as how it's been a month of Sundays since I did a Random Thursday post, here are a few things around the interwebz that recently caught my eye.

Out on the Texas Ranch Where Scientists Study Death (NSFW)

[Note: The NSFW refers to some possibly disturbing photos of human bodies and body parts, not pictures of Trump's hair or recordings of Pelosi's voice (yes, we're equal opportunity mockers here at the Gazette)]

So, you know those TV shows like NCIS, or CSI, or Criminal Minds where you inevitably end up watching someone in a lab or a morgue piddle around inside a body cavity, drawing remarkable conclusions about the deceased person's cause of death and body wash preferences? Turns out those actor guys are portraying people who really know that stuff because they've dealt with it in the field...that field being the Freeman Ranch in Central Texas, home to Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology's Research Facility, the latter being an integral part of the University's Forensic Anthropology Center. FACTS is dedicated to training students to become those experts portrayed on TV, and the reality is probably more dramatic than the fictionalized version.

Wired Magazine has published a short article and photo gallery that beautifully captures the important work done at FACTS, while respecting the dignity of the remains that have been donated to facilitate this work.

Fun Fact: If you do the right search on Google Earth for the Freeman Ranch, you see that someone has dropped a pin and labeled it "Freeman Ranch Body Farm." So much for respecting dignity.

These dance moves are scientifically proven to be sexy

I think we can all agree that Elaine's dance moves on Seinfeld set the bar for unsexy dancing (no disrespect to those who seek to emulate her steps while building their case for an insanity defense), but how can we possibly know what moves will bring out the lusty beast in our partners? Well, science.

Some folks with apparent government funding and endless time on their hands have analyzed dance moves by both women and men (separate studies to prolong cash flow), and have determined those guaranteed to drive dance partners mad with desire. Heaven help us, they've even come up with a way to statistically analyze factors such as movement variability, speed, and amplitude for all body parts involved in dancing.

Let's cut to the chase...or the boogeying, if you will. Here are the "Good Dancing" moves for men and women. Try to ignore the fact that the good dancing for guys starts out with the Running Man; the researchers and test subjects are Brits, after all, and allowances must be made for suspect judgment in this area.




Annoying, Disgusting, Effective: Pharma TV Character Actors Embrace Quirkiness at Every Turn

I've noticed that most of the TV channels I tend to watch most frequently seem to have an overabundance of ads for pharmaceuticals. Well, heck...ALL of the TV channels seem to fall into this category, now that I think about it. But have you ever thought about the careers of those handful of actors who portray more, well, memorable characters in those ads... like the walking, talking ball of phlegm or the disruptive digestive tract (who, incidentally, actually has a name: Irritabelle. How twee.)? I know I haven't, but I still found this article on Ad Age pretty interesting. Some of these folks appear to make a pretty good living playing body parts or byproducts, and the grosser, the better.

Yet, even though the article claims that someone named Ilana Becker portrays Irritabelle, I'm not convinced that it's not really comedienne Kathy Griffin who is moonlighting in the part. Skeptical? So was I, but photos don't lie.

Kathy Griffin vs Irritabelle

Here's a possum

Kathy Griffin vs Irritabelle


*To be perfectly honest, they should refer to this as the "brain instrusion test," because that 6-inch swab was pretty much rammed its entire length to get the flu-detection sample. 

The Cretaceous Clapper
January 26, 2017 2:00 PM | Posted in:

One of my favorite gifts last Christmas was completely unexpected: a sound-activated moving 3D triceratops wooden puzzle.

My wife found it at our local Steinmart (it's sadly no longer available via their website, but here's what appears to be an acceptable alternative).

The box looked a bit intimidating, as I've found that I'm usually less skilled than the average 8 year old when it comes to following instructions.

Triceratops puzzle box

My feeling of impending doom grew stronger when I removed the contents, consisting of three sheets of surprisingly sturdy wood (the puzzle pieces were pre-scored for easy extraction), a battery powered motor, and a large sheet of detailed instructions.

Triceratops puzzle pieces cutouts

Fortunately, the instructions were much clearer than I expected, as they not only included drawings of how each numbered piece fit with the others, but also photos of how the puzzle looked at each step. That combination of photos and drawings is something that should be standard for all assembly instructions that are more complicated than "install batteries." And the puzzle pieces were of higher than expected quality. I had to sand only a couple of pieces to make them fit together, something that the designers anticipated because they included a small piece of sandpaper for that purpose.

It took about an hour to assemble the dinosaur. And, as is always the case with my DIY projects, I had a piece left over:

Triceratops puzzle - leftover piece

I went back through the instructions a couple of times, and then asked my wife to do the same, and neither of us could find any reference to A20. Well played, Triceratops Puzzle Manufacturer.

Even with a possibly missing component, the final result was fairly impressive, especially if you're a fan of Ray Harryhausen's work in Jason and the Argonauts (and, really, who isn't?).

Completed triceratops 3D puzzle

"But, Eric..." I'm sure you're asking, "...how does it work? Is it realistic? Is the dinosaur on the box roaring, shooting out laser beams, or just throwing up?"

Wonder no more. The sound you hear at the very beginning of the following video is my snapping fingers (clapping one's hands while holding a camera is just as tricky as you imagine), which activates the device. There are actually three levels of activity depending on the number of claps (or finger snaps...or coughs, for that matter, as I discovered in startling fashion one evening).



I have it on good authority (well, almost adequate authority) that the "roar" is very close to the actual noises made by an actual triceratops, as it was modeled on fossilized sound waves discovered in a cave in remote Colorado (to be exact, in the sewer system under 16th Street in downtown Denver).*

One of my cousins who is a skilled builder of furniture and worker of wood advised me to apply some sandpaper to the bottoms of the dino's feet on one side to make it walk in a straight line, and I may do this someday, but the circular path has some advantages.

I think we can all agree that clapper technology has reached its pinnacle in this application.

*Not really. Prehistoric sound waves aren't fossilized; they're preserved in amber. Go watch Jurassic Park again.

Midland to Refugees: Welcome!
January 19, 2017 9:13 AM | Posted in: ,

Three refugee families are arriving in Midland next Wednesday. Any of the following items would be greatly appreciated...
That was the beginning of a message left by a neighbor on our development's Nextdoor newsfeed last week. The message included a long list of household items needed to help those families get a new start in a new country. We later learned that the International Rescue Committee (IRC) was sponsoring the families, which were coming from either Cuba, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Africa), or Iraq.

Given the recent increasingly provocative anti-immigration rhetoric permeating social media, I was curious to see how this appeal would go over in our conservative-leaning community (I assumed our neighborhood mirrored the city as a whole in this regard; I saw no "HRC for President" yard signs during the campaign). Sure enough, this response appeared shortly after the initial posting:
I'm sorry but we have people here that are in dire need of help including our Vets.
I may be guilty of reading too much into this reply, but this was how I interpreted the comment: these people are not us, and aren't as deserving of our help as those who are us. 

I have no quibble with the idea that we can always do more to help others in our community. I agree that illegal immigration represents a real and significant threat in a number of ways. I don't agree that helping citizens and helping refugees are mutually exclusive activities, especially in a city that's as prosperous as Midland. 

I also see a troubling halo effect of extending the disdain for illegal immigrants to fully vetted and sponsored political refugees, for whom coming to America is not just fulfilling an economic wish, but is possibly a lifeline for survival. 

With all this in mind, I watched the online conversation unfold... 

First, there was no reply to the "I'm sorry but..." comment. Hmmm. Did silence mean agreement?

Then the replies trickled in, all directed to the original post. Some wanted more details about the families, or the organization. Some wanted to know where to drop off donations. Others posted notices of what they would donate. Finally, a few days after the initial appeal, this was posted by the original writer, who had volunteered to collect all donations and deliver them to the organization:
My car is totally full so I'm dropping all of it off this morning...
In short, this was just about a perfect response. No histrionics; no arguing; no defensive (or offensive) rebuttals...just a quiet, positive response to a call to action that demonstrates that for some of us, at least, America is still a place for "...your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Update: A representative of the IRC came to our neighborhood yesterday afternoon to pick up additional donations of household goods.

Update 2: For more about the refugee families in Midland, check out this article that appeared in today's edition of the local newspaper (front page, at that).