Raptor Breakfast
February 7, 2015 9:33 AM | Posted in: ,

My favorite chair in the living room looks out onto the back yard where I get to see all sorts of interesting things (and it makes me wonder how much I haven't seen). Such was the case this morning.

As I was finishing my daily Bible reading a movement in the Mexican Elder near the back wall caught my eye. It appeared to be a bird that was building a nest, which I thought was rather odd for the season. So I went to the window to get a better look and realized it wasn't a construction project, but rather breakfast for a hawk.

Unfortunately, he had positioned himself in such a way that I couldn't get a good look at the object of his ingestion, although every now and then a feather floated down, so I assumed he was dining on an unfortunate dove.

I hurried to my office, grabbed my camera and swapped out the prime lens for a zoom, bumped up the ISO to 400 to account for the shadows, and started snapping photos from the back porch, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I hoped that I was as obscured from his vision as he was from mine. These were the best I could get.

Hawk in tree
Hawk in tree

The hawk finally tired of my attentions and flew away, still clutching his breakfast. I attempted to get some action shots but ended up with nothing but bricks and blue sky. However, this did seem to confirm my theory about his menu selection, as it rested on the ground underneath the branch where the hawk was perched:

Dove feather on ground

On a somewhat related note, as I was running through the pasture yesterday evening, I scared up a large covey of quail...probably twenty or thirty birds exploded into the air in various directions. Almost simultaneously with that, a hawk swooped through the scattering flock, and I wondered if he had had one in his sights just as I startled them. However, he showed no interest in following any of them, so I decided he was just messing with their tiny little heads. I'm pretty sure that's what hawks do for fun.

In closing, to take your mind off that poor dove, here's some extreme cuteness.

Sleeping fox


Fox Times Two
February 3, 2015 9:03 PM | Posted in: ,

Our fox continued to visit our back yard around noon for a few days after we filed this report. He (or she - I have no way of knowing for sure) would usually be snoozing in the sunshine on the back porch when we got home for lunch, and then vanish shortly after noon. But, just as we had grown accustomed to its presence, it stopped appearing, and that was a little disappointing.

So, yesterday we were happy to see the fox make another lunchtime appearance. But the biggest thrill was seeing that s/he had brought a friend.

While our regular visitor lounged in the grass, I watched the newcomer get acquainted with the back yard, as it explored the shrubs along the back wall. The new animal seemed more wary than "our" fox, as evidenced by the fact that when I decided to try to get some video of the pair, it quickly retreated into our ice-damaged desert willow, and kept a close eye on me from that perch for a bit before deciding to seek a paparazzi-free zone. Take a look for yourself...


The newcomer is a just a little larger than the regular visitor, which, according to the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia, means that it's a male. If this is a mated pair, we might be looking at a fine fox family later this spring or summer, assuming they think our yard is safe enough (meaning that I should be less conspicuous with the cameras, I guess).

In the video, you can see the putative male make a fairly assertive exit, while the (let's assume) female watches with a resigned (might as well be as anthropomorphic as possible) expression, as if to say, "really...this is the best back yard in the neighborhood and you're scared of a dude with a video camera?" Eventually, she follows him out (and as we headed back to the office, we watched them cross the street in front of our house, him in the lead, and her following a while later). I hope we'll see them again soon.

Random Thursday: The Saturday Edition
January 31, 2015 3:10 PM | Posted in:

A little of this, a bit of that - mindless web-surfing on a cold and damp Saturday afternoon reveals the following gems.

  • I'm a sucker for multi-tools, although I confess that I rarely find a need to use one. One reason is that even though they're generally tiny, they're still inconvenient to carry in a pocket. Leatherman has come up with a solution to that problem: a customizable multi-tool that you wear as a bracelet. If Pandora went goth, the Tread might be the result. Good luck getting that thing through airport security, though.
Leatherman Tread multi-tool

Leatherman Tread multi-tool


  • The best ideas are often the simplest ones, and Snap Power's Guidelight is a perfect example. This is an indoor night light that simply snaps onto your electrical outlet in place of the existing faceplate - no rewiring involved - and provides nice LED lighting without occupying an outlet.
Guidelight night light

  • Stepping up the food chain, price-wise, is the new Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens, which is getting rave reviews, especially considering its low price (which is almost half of what competitor Sigma charges for an equivalent lens). I'm practically salivating at the thought of the photos I could get of the fox with this lens.
Tamron 150-600 zoom lens


  • Let's switch gears and move to the category of Close Encounters of the Motorized Kind. First up, what would you do if you had a spare Lamborghini V-12 engine laying around the garage? (Setting aside for a moment the question of just what exactly happened to the rest of the car...) If your answer is to build a motorcycle around it, you might be clinically insane, but at least you have company.
Motorcycle with Lamborghini engine

  • There's insanity, and then there's sheer craziness, like paying a half million dollars for a 1969 Chevy Nova. Of course, any true 60s vintage hot rodder will tell you that the Nova was an underestimated powerhouse due to its power-to-weight ratio. And this isn't just any Nova, but rather one of Don Yenko's limited edition models, showing off with a 450-hp, 427 c.i. L-72 Corvette engine. (Update: This car actually ended up selling at auction for a mere $380,000.)
Yenko Chevy Nova

  • As long as we're hovering around 1969, let's just jump into full time-travel mode, web-wise.

    • The 45 RPM Database will let you see (and hear) the top 10 songs of every month from 1950-1989. I wanted to see what was trending the year I was born; turns out it was by a simple one-lyric tune by a guy named Bell: Mr. Watson - come here - I want to see you. I give it a 12...silly words and hard to dance to. (Seriously tho, while I won't tell you the year, I can say that the top three tunes were by guys named Al Martino, Leroy Anderson, and Percy Faith.)

    • The Washington Post has compiled a list of the 20 most visited websites each year since 1996. This list could provide fodder for a whole series of posts by itself, but here are a few observations: Yahoo is the only website to appear on every list; Penthouse made the first list, but never appeared again; Amazon first appeared in 1998; and for the past four years, Yahoo/Google/Microsoft/Facebook have occupied the top four rankings, although in varying individual positions. The real travesty is that the Fire Ant Gazette appears no where on the list, making me think that the WaPo really is a commie pinko rag.

    • Last, but certainly not least, there's this gallery by artist Flora Borsi, who specializes in software manipulated photography. The gallery is appropriately entitled "Time travel," and it consists of well-known photos with the artist's likeness inserted digitally as a highly-engaged observer. I love not only the concept, but the skill with which she brings it to realization.

Silence, please
January 26, 2015 9:41 PM | Posted in:

If you've driven north on Holiday Hill Road, starting at Briarwood and going to Greentree, you've surely noticed two rather unusual sights on the west side of the road. Both are efforts made by Fasken Oil and Ranch - the landowner - to be a good neighbor to the housing developments across the street. I'm a bit skeptical as to how effective those efforts are, but I give them credit for trying.

I'm referring to a temporary sound barrier the company has built around a drilling rig, and another that's situation next to a new office building at Fasken's Vineyard real estate development (I'd provide a link to the development but if there's a website, it's well hidden).

Here's the layout in front of the drilling rig.

Photo of sound barrier in front of drilling rig

The rig sits a couple hundred yards west of the street, with a large residential development that runs along the east side of the street. To give you a sense of the size of that barrier, a drilling rig of this type is around 100-150 feet tall; I estimate those sound barrier panels are 25-30 feet tall.

Drilling is an inherently noisy undertaking. Much of that noise comes from the diesel engines that power the rig, and those engines sit at ground level, so this arrangement may actually be effective in reducing the sound level from the drill site. I've never been outside in the vicinity, except to take these photos, so I can't say for sure. However, from another angle, you can see that the rig isn't exactly nestled within those walls, leaving plenty of space for sound to escape.

Photo of sound barrier in front of drilling rig

I suppose this could also be an attempt to prettify the drill site to some extent, although I suspect most Midlanders are pretty jaded to the sight. We certainly don't need to make rigs or production facilities look like condos.

Travel north from here a couple of miles and you'll see what looks like a drive-in movie screen running along the road. It's another sound barrier at the east end of a new two-story office building that's under construction.

Photo of sound barrier in front of building site

Again, this may serve a dual purpose of both noise abatement and visual screening, although I'm not convinced that the barrier is any more pleasant to look at than the building. But it does make an impressive structure.

Photo of sound barrier in front of building site

You can't really tell from these photos, but the supporting posts are actually fairly massive steel i-beams, which tells me this was a not-insignificant installation, both in terms of complexity and cost.

The drilling rig will likely be moved away within the next couple of weeks (barring any unforeseen complications, of which there are many possibilities...take my word for it), but the building is still months away from being finished.

I was curious as to where one might find such industrial strength sound barriers. I don't know where Fasken got theirs, but there's at least one company which specializes in precisely this sort of thing.

Fasken Oil and Ranch has a stellar reputation in our community, and efforts like this - regardless of how effective they might actually be - surely reinforce the "good neighbor" perception. Now, if they'd only start having movie night at that construction site...

Updated (1/27/15): I received an email from Tommy Taylor, a long-time Fasken employee, and he provided some clarifications and corrections that are worth noting.

First, the oil well is being drilled by Diamondback Energy, not Fasken. I confess I've never seen a well sign so I made a bad assumption about the operator. But I now remember seeing other drill sites around Midland with this same kind of enclosure - specifically one on Mockingbird Drive just west of Midkiff - so I think it's standard procedure for Diamondback when drilling close to neighborhoods. The current well isn't in the city limits so it's not a requirement, but it is a considerate move by the company.

Second, Tommy said that the sound abatement is more effective than you might think. He said the technique has been used quite often in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where the Barnett Shale wells are drilled right in the middle of neighborhoods.

And, finally, he said that the sound walls next to the new building will also serve the purpose of holding down the blowing dirt this spring, something that should have occurred to me, because that's a big deal out here. Also, he said that those i-beams will be leveled off and the panels reversed to that they present a nicer view from the street.

The Fox Returns
January 25, 2015 4:36 PM | Posted in: ,

We were leaving the house to head to church this morning when my eye caught something odd through the door that leads from our bedroom to the back porch.

Photo - sleeping gray fox

It's hard to make out from this phone photo, but it's a gray fox napping on the mat outside the door.

I opened the blinds a bit more to try to get a better view, but that disturbed his sleep and he slipped out of view. We went into the living room and watched through the shutters as he put his front paws up on one of the Home Depot buckets we use to catch rainwater, and took a long drink. I tried to video that, but the phone kept focusing on the shutters instead of the fox, so the result wasn't particularly dramatic or edifying. As we pulled out of the garage, we spotted him through the back gate. He was already resting comfortably in the grass, watching us leave.

I have no way of knowing if this is the same fox I've reported on previously, but it's been a while since we've had a visitor like this.

When we got home in the early afternoon, we checked the back yard and, sure enough, he was napping - foxes apparently aren't very energetic during the day - behind our rain barrel. I grabbed my DSLR and video camera and went fox hunting.

Photo - gray fox
Photo - gray fox

Following is four minutes of relatively non-action-packed Urocyon cinereoargenteus footage. For most of it, I was either standing or sitting less than twenty feet from the fox...who was at worst annoyed that I was interrupting his afternoon snooze. Lazy or not - I'm referring to the fox, although it could also be self-referential - I continue to be fascinated at the behavior of these animals, even as I worry that they might be getting too comfortable around humans. I don't think they're a danger to us, but I'm afraid that somebody might believe otherwise and try to harm them.

But, as the video shows, the neighborhood bunnies might need to take some precautions.



Adventures in TV mounting
January 17, 2015 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

I bought an LED TV as a Christmas present for MLB as a replacement for the remaining CRT set in the house. That TV was installed inside the built-in cabinets in our workout room, mounted on a sliding metal platform that has a few degrees of rotation so that we theoretically could view it from anywhere in the room. In practice, however, the platform didn't extend far enough to clear the open cabinet door, and part of the screen was blocked from the view of someone on the treadmill. This was frustrating, especially to you-know-who. I fully realize that this might represent the ultimate first-world problem, but that's the way we roll.

The goals in replacing the old TV were to upgrade to a high-def, non-pan-and-scan picture as well as to place it so that we could see the entire screen from any point in the room. The latter would be a challenge, though, as the construction of the cabinet and its doors meant that not just any mounting bracket would work. I needed something with a relatively long extension but that would still fold flat so that we could close the doors when the TV wasn't in use.

TV mountI found what looked like an ideal solution on a website for Displays2Go, a "full-motion" tilting, swiveling, extending articulating arm mount that uses a gas strut for smooth and adjustable action. It also looks like something out of a Pixar animated short.

This mount extends up to 23" from the wall, the longest reach I found in a configuration small enough to fit inside our cabinet. It also allows 360º rotation, which I assume might be useful if you lay on your side while watching TV.

As an aside, this mount is manufactured by a company called North Bayou. In the time-honored Chinese tradition of stealing being intellectually influenced by American business innovation, that company's logo is suspiciously similar to that of New Balance. Nevertheless, the quality of their product is indisputable.

I mentioned earlier that I had installed a sliding platform for the previous TV, and this was to be an integral piece in my plan. Even though the mount had a long reach, it still wouldn't have been enough by itself to clear the cabinet door. My plan was to somehow attach the mount to the sliding platform, so that the combination of both would achieve the goal. The challenge was figuring out how to do this.

It turned out to be a relatively simple matter. I would sandwich a board vertically between two pairs of metal L-brackets which would in turn be bolted to the metal platform, forming a wall of sorts to which the mount would be secured. A key factor in this approach was the fact that the TV - a 32" Samsung - weighs only eleven pounds (another side note: it replaces a 60-pound TV), so I didn't have to worry about whether this mounting system would be sturdy enough.

So, I bought a 1/2" slab of pine at Lowe's, along with the required L-brackets, and put my plan into place. It took some cyphering to decide on the right placement to ensure that everything fit in the space and cleared the doors, open and closed, but the actual fabrication went pretty smoothly. The installation? Eh, not so much. Can you spot the problem below?

TV mount installed backwards

This would have been perfect had I (1) been planning to watch TV from outside the house, and (b) had X-ray vision. Neither of those things really fit our lifestyle. In my defense...well, I'm an idiot. We'll leave it at that.

Following a couple of hours and an extended workout of my vocabulary, I got everything pretty well in place. Here's how the setup looks with the TV extended:

TV mounted

The TV went onto the mount with a minimum of fuss, but I discovered that two of the mounting bolts are apparently designed to be burglar-resistant. I hadn't gorilla-tightened them but when I tried to remove the TV to fine-tune the setup, I was afraid I was going to have to drill out the mounting bolts. For whatever comfort it provides, no one is going to waltz in and heist our TV with nothing but a pocket knife.

This is how it folds up to fit inside the cabinet:

TV mounted

At some point, I'll put a coat of black paint on the board and brackets to prettify it up a bit.

The other complicating factor in this whole setup was that all the connections on the TV are on the right side, which of course is the furtherest from the cabinet when the mount is extended. I had to drill another hole in the shelf to route the cables closer to the set.  The upside is that it gave me an excuse to use a Forstner drill bit, which is so much more efficient than a run-of-the-mill hole bit. I also had some leftover Mockett desk grommets to finish out the hole (I highly recommend their products).

Cable management will be a bit cleaner once we get a Tivo in that room and I can replace the component A/V cables that connect the TV to our antique non-HD DVR with an HDMI cable. The DVR served us admirably for at least a dozen years, but I can't remember the last time we burned a DVD in it, and the absence of HD is now a non-starter given the new TV. And I challenge you to find a non-technical, non-CIA blog post with a single paragraph containing this many acronyms.

I do recommend the articulating arm TV mount if you need the maximum amount of flexibility positioning a flat screen TV or monitor. Note the limitations though: max screen size of 42" and max weight of 15 pounds.

Acquiring Culture in the Hill Country
January 9, 2015 2:40 PM | Posted in: ,

During a recent stay at Horseshoe Bay we made a day trip to Fredericksburg, primarily to eat lunch at the Peach Tree Restaurant, but also to browse through the approximately 800 stores crammed into the three-block downtown shopping area. We didn't anticipate that we would leave far more cultured than we arrived...not that that would be a steep hill to climb.

For the record, an overcast 35° mid-week day in early January is the best time to visit F'burg if crowd avoidance is your goal. The Java Ranch Espresso Bar and Café was doing a brisk coffee business, but most of the other shops were barren of customers.

Most of the clothing shops cater to women (shocking, I know), but I did manage to score some awesome ankle artwork at one store:

Socks

My sock drawer is beginning to rival the Louvre, now that it houses (from left) Manet's The Fifer, Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

Perhaps you scoff at the idea of cultured footwear, but if you bothered to follow the links I've helpfully provided - we're all about education here at the Gazette - you'd be able to quote the following fascinating facts that are guaranteed to make you the life of any party:

  • The painting of the young flautist was featured in an episode of Hogan's Heroes.

  • La Goulule is French for "the glutton," and presumably referred to Louise Weber's (the real cancan dancer who was the subject of the artwork) penchant for draining the glasses on the table of the patrons lining the dance floor as she moved past them. Also, her favorite partner was a man known as "No Bones" Valentin, due to the fluid contortions he performed on the dance floor. And am I the only one who didn't realize there were male cancan dancers?

  • The original painting of The Birth of Venus is about nine feet tall. Also, there is a bit of subtle and possibly unintended humor in the Wikipedia write-up about the alternate interpretations of this artwork, particularly in the second paragraph of that section of the article. I'll leave the reader to his or her own devices in that regard.
Our last stop at the end of the day was at the River Rustic Gallery. We arrived at precisely 5:00 p.m., not realizing that was the art gallery's closing time. The woman coming out the door as we were going in was actually the manager who was about to lock up. We apologized, explaining that we were just browsing, and started to leave, but she insisted that we come in and look around, assuring us that she had nothing better to do.

This is a relatively new gallery in F'burg, and while it features work from a variety of artists, its focus is on the rock art of Carlos Moseley. And by "rock art" I mean that rocks are literally both his canvas and palette. (If you haven't been to Fredericksburg in a few years, you might remember that he had his own gallery next to the Old German Bakery and Restaurant.)

One piece in particular stood out, a "painting" entitled Two Stepping. See if you can figure out why it caught our eyes:

Rock art by Carlos Moseley

One of our favorite themes in art features fish, and the gallery had a couple of different pieces sculptured from stainless steel from an artist named Bear McLaughlin. Bear is also known as Tammy (yep, she's a she), and hails from Colorado. Based on the little I can find about her on the web - this article is the most insightful I could find - most of her work tends toward a grand scale, but this piece of wall art, entitled Big Fish, is an exception:

'Big Fish' by Bear McLaughlin

Incidentally, I hope we in some small way compensated the kind woman for keeping the gallery open for us as both of these pieces now adorn the master bedroom wall of our weekend place in Horseshoe Bay.

But the preceding examples of fine art were far from the only cosmopolitan culture we acquired during the day in Fredericksburg. I leave you with a view of a wonderful little piece of kinetic sculpture, title unknown. We didn't buy it, but the next time we're in the market for a puking chicken, this will be at the top of our list.


Ice Storm 2015: Aftermath
January 3, 2015 12:50 PM | Posted in: ,

The sun came out this morning, after four days of being missing in action, and the damage caused by yesterday's ice storm is all too obvious. We drove to the airport and back (that's another story) and saw a depressing number of broken tree limbs throughout the city. It's going to take weeks to clean up, and I suspect the tree service companies are salivating at the prospect of the extra work.

Back at home, I hauled out the trusty bow saw and went to work on our pitiful desert willow. I think I did a pretty good job of disguising the damage; if you don't look too closely, you can hardly tell it was damaged, right? Right?

Desert willow, post pruning
Just rub a little dirt on it; it'll be fine.

Fortunately, desert willow is soft wood when it's green and *sniff* alive, so it was easy to build a pile of limbs for easier disposal:

Desert willow limbs piled up

Despite the terrific damage this storm caused, the sun shining on the ice did bring out a certain beauty, which I will grudgingly acknowledge. I suppose it's a bit like having a rainbow after a flood. And since we can't do anything about it, we might as well try to take away a bit of the positive.

Ice covered live oak branches against a blue sky

Ice Storm 2015: From bad to worse
January 2, 2015 10:24 AM | Posted in: ,

I don't care what Luke Bryan thinks, there are times when rain isn't a good thing. Like, this morning.

We awoke to the sound of falling rain, which normally would be cause for rejoicing in West Texas. However, when temperature has been below freezing for more than 48 hours and the streets are already coated with ice, rainfall brings a feeling of dread. Fortunately, the view from our bedroom window seemed to dispel that notion. We even got a nice view of a hawk checking out the neighborhood from the top of a tree.

Photo of hawk perched in ice covered tree


It seems like only yesterday that I observed that the ice storm hadn't caused any damage. Oh, wait...it was yesterday.

So, at 9:44 a.m. this morning (according to the EXIF data from the camera), I took this photo of our back yard desert willow, as reassurance that the freezing rain was still not causing any lasting effects:

Photo of icy desert willow

Well.

Here's the photo I took an hour later, at 10:46 a.m. to be exact:

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

Heartbreaking, huh. Those are some major broken limbs on what was a beautiful tree. Here's a closeup; avert your eyes if you can't handle hideousness.

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

It gets worse; here's the view from the neighbors' driveway:

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

Fortunately, I don't think they have a vehicle parked in that side of their garage, but this mess is still going to require some major cleanup.

Update (same day)

Once the rain let up and I was able to get closer, I found that the damage was much worse than I thought. The main trunk is split down to below ground level. I'm pretty sure the tree is a total loss. Even if it survives - and desert willows are nothing if not hardy - it won't be something pretty enough that we'd want to look at it every day.

Photo of icy desert willow
Photo of split desert willow trunk
Photo of split desert willow trunk
I received several awesome Christmas gifts, including a new iPad air, a high-powered flashlight, and a set of electronic shooters muffs, but not every cool gadget is hi-tech. Take, for example, this macro focusing rail:

Photo of Fotodiox Focusing Rail

One of the challenges of macro photography is the shallow depth of field, meaning that often only a tiny portion of the subject is in focus. This situation can result in some very striking photos, but sometimes you want to capture the entire subject.

One way to do this is to take several photos, each of which is focused on a different part of the subject, and blend them using a program like Photoshop. This technique comes with its own challenge, and that's the difficulty of precisely focusing on different places of the subject. In an extreme closeup, even the photographer's breathing can inadvertently affect the focus area.

This problem is solved by using a tripod, but making micro adjustments in the distance to the subject can be tricky. That's where a focusing rail comes in. It attaches to a standard tripod and then the camera attaches to the rail. You then use the knobs on the rail to move the camera backwards and forwards (as well as side-to-side). This allows for very precise and uniform refocusing on the subject.

I haven't had a chance to do much with the new gadget, but I did create a simple demo that shows a bit of what it can do.

First, here's a sample macro photo of my Aggie class ring (ain't it a beauty?).

Photo of Aggie Ring

It's not a bad photo - has a pleasingly artsy look - but what if I wanted more of the details of the ring to be in focus? More like this, for example (ignore the year on the ring; I'm sure that's a typo):

Photo of Aggie Ring

This photo is actually a blend of the following images:

Focus point 1
Focus point 2
Focus point 3
Focus point 4

Each succeeding photo was taken after turning the knob on the rail a fraction of an inch to move the camera closer and bring a different part of the ring into focus. I also used the timer on the camera to avoid even the slightest shake.

I then imported these four photos into Photoshop using Adobe Bridge's "Load files into Photoshop layers tool"  (I could have also used Photoshop's "Load Files into Stack" command found in the Scripts menu). I did some minor editing to try to make the various images the same size (as you move the camera closer, the resulting photo will be a bit larger), and then applied the "Auto-Blend Layers" command (found in Photoshop's Edit menu). The first ring photo shown above sprang into being.

I found it interesting how Photoshop decided which parts of each photo to use in creating the composite image. Here's how each layer looked after the Auto-Blend command was applied:

Blend 1
Blend 2
Blend 3
Blend 4

Once again, the magic of Photoshop is somewhat baffling. But it's even more awesome to consider that focus stacking pre-dates digital photography; I can't imagine accomplishing this in a darkroom.

In case you're wondering, here's how the camera and focusing rail setup looks:

Photo of Camera and focusing rail setup

Oh, and I must give credit to this brief tutorial on PetaPixel for clarifying exactly how to use Photoshop for this technique. The more I learn, the more I understand how little I really know.

So, if you're contemplating trying your hand at macro photography, even an inexpensive focusing rail will give you more flexibility, whether or not you plan to use the blending techniques described in this article.