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).

Scanning the Past
January 15, 2017 9:33 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm in the process of scanning several hundred slides taken primarily by me and my father-in-law, some of which date back to the 1950s (those are his, not mine; how old do you think I am, anyway?). I'm discovering a few things, and recalling more than a few that I had forgotten.

Many of the photos have no apparent context. Most slides were stamped with the date of processing, but that only tells you when the photos may have been taken. Some of the locales of the vacation photos are recognizable, but others are not. We vacationed a lot in the mountains of Colorado and frankly, after thirty or forty years all those mountains look alike. Never underestimate the power of tagging your photos, people.

I was also a pretty lousy photographer. Most of my photos were taken with a Konica FS-1 SLR which I purchased in the Dallas area in the late 70s/early 80s. It was a pretty revolutionary camera at the time, one of the first with a built-in motor drive, and I was enamored by the technology. But, looking at the photos I took, all that technology did was enable me to take more bad pictures in a shorter amount of time. (I still have that camera, by the way.)

I apparently had no concept of fill flash, although it's conceivable that all the human subjects of my photography were in the federal witness protection program and I was doing my best to conceal their identities. And there's only so much Photoshop can do to bring those faces out of the shadows.

But, no use crying over spilt milk, or underexposed slides. I've also run across some interesting (to me) additions to the Historical Documents, including a number of glamour shots of my beloved Yamaha XS-11 motorcycle, which I bought in Dallas in 1979 and sold in 1983 after moving to Midland. I also discovered pictures of my wife as an infant (if you look up "chubby baby" in the dictionary, you'll see a photo of...well...never mind). Those are basically priceless.

Then there are the photos like the one shown below, documenting...random stuff. This one shows what passed for a home theater in 1982, or at least the one in our home.

The "A" portion of our A/V system consisted of vinyl (everything old is new again, right), and the "V" was VHS tapes streamed onto a humongous 23 inch TV (a step up from the 19 incher that was burgled from our house in Garland a couple of years earlier). I suspect those of you of a certain age can identify with this setup, but if you want more details, just mouse over each component in the following photo. Be sure to check out the leftmost video tape on the bottom shelf of the cabinet. (This also gives me a chance to geek out about a new bit of software I found called Image Map Pro that lets me create cool stuff like this.)

Band of Bow Tie Brothers
January 13, 2017 3:36 PM | Posted in:

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.
--Fight Club, in apparent violation of its own rule
Unlike with Fight Club (and very much like CrossFit fanatics/Vegan dieters/Gluten-free adherents) the first rule of bow tie wearers is: You talk about it.

I've learned the truth of this only lately. MLB gave me several bow ties for Christmas (see below), and every time I wear one, it becomes a topic of conversation with other men who also like to wear them. It's like a bond; you might say it's the tie that binds (if you were really desperate for a metaphor).

My 3 new bow ties
I'm embarrassed by how long it took me to tie these three. I blame the knit shirt.

Among bow tie wearers, the topics inevitably include (in order of typical progression):

  • Did you tie that yourself?
  • How and when did you learn to tie it?
  • What's the hardest part for you about tying one?
  • How long does it take you now to tie it?
  • How did your vocabulary expand while you were learning to tie one?
That last item seems to be particularly relevant, given the struggles to master the arcane art that most of us seem to have experienced in the beginning. But we shall speak no further of that.

The conversation will then evolve (or devolve, depending on whether you're a non-bow-tie-er trapped on the periphery) into a detailed discussion of techniques, tips, favorite ties, and amusing anecdotes (again, the degree of amusement will vary considerably amongst members of the group).

I've also found that each of us has particular eccentricities when it comes to our bow tying. My friend Sam, for example, must stand in front of a mirror while tying his, which isn't particularly unusual. The eccentric part is that he can't actually look in the mirror during the process. I have no idea how that works.

I, on the other hand, cannot don a bow tie without looking in the mirror, even though the mirror image makes my brain hurt. I used this video to master the technique, and it's the equivalent of looking in a mirror (the instructor is African American, nattily dressed, goateed, and quite skilled...but other than that, we could be identical twins), but it too made my brain hurt.

If the conversation does include those who don't wear bow ties, they tend to fall into one of two camps: (1) men who are skeptical of everything related to bow ties, and (b) women who are intrigued by them. (Note to guys who are thinking "chick magnet": This should not imply that they will be smitten by the wearer; women are just impressed by items of clothing that are challenging to put on.)

Regardless of the occasion, the dexterity with which the deed was done, or the conversational drift, any guy with a bow tie will tell you that at the end of the night, this is what makes it all worthwhile:

An untied bow tie
No, I won't talk about my bow tie; I'll let it do the talking, and it says
"yeah, boi, he tied it himself!"

Travel back in time with me, if you will, to the year 1996, and contemplate the state of technology two decades ago.
In 1996, just 20 million American adults had access to the Internet, about as many as subscribe to satellite radio today. The dot-com boom had already begun on Wall Street--Netscape went public in 1995--but what's striking about the old Web is how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for.
...
In 1996, Americans with Internet access spent fewer than 30 minutes a month surfing the Web...

Via Slate.com's Jurassic Web (2/24/09); coincidentally, Slate went live in 1996
Less than 10% of the U.S. population had internet access  but some of us were already trying to answer the implied question: how do you use it?

One rather obvious answer was to figure out who the likely audience might be, and then try to identify uses that might appeal to that audience. (Those folks would be known today as early adopters, a term that was actually coined in 1962 but which wasn't in widespread usage in 1996.) And, of course, the predictable answer for who likely fell into that demographic was college students.

And so some of us who were involved in on-campus college recruiting for our employer, ARCO Permian, had the brilliant idea of creating a website that would (1) explain what our company was and what it had to offer, via articulate and persuasive propaganda commentary, while (b) demonstrating our remarkable technical savvy and overall coolness.

The only flaw in the plan was that 10% number mentioned above. Even if college students had more ready access to the internet, a web-based approach would exclude a significant majority of them. The solution was simple: a WOAD, which was our acronym for "Website On A Disk." Impressive, right? OK, I just made that up, but it IS a cool acronym, with a kind of Celtic warrior vibe*.

Sadly, we elected to go with the more pedestrian "Portable Web Site" and it looked like this:

Photo of ARCO Permian Portable Web Site floppy disk
Note the totally pretentious copyright symbol

You remember floppy disks, with their two megabyte capacities (in HD format, that is) and magnephobia (no, it's not on the quasi-official phobia list, but it should be) tendencies. A floppy seemed to be the ideal medium for handing out to students who may or may not have had an internet connection.

Given the capacity limitations, the trick was to design a website that would fit on a disk. No problem, the actual site consisted of only four pages, and it totaled less than 250kb. And for some unknown reason, we had a link to a text-only version that consumed a massive 12kb. 

We also created a unique splash page tailored to each university we were recruiting from. Cutting edge stuff, I tell you. And, finally, we included a read_me.txt file on each disk providing detailed instructions on how, exactly, to open the website via browser (along with assurances that we had scanned the diskette "for viruses using Norton © Anti-Virus For Windows©, V. 3.0; even then I was a Mac user, but I resisted the urge to add that Apple folks needn't worry about such things).

I don't know if we ever actually hired anyone because of this tactic; I don't even recall getting any feedback about it. But it was a fun project to work on, and was one of the first of many, many websites I enjoyed building for years thereafter.

Oh...if you want to see what a 1996-vintage website looked like, well, you're in luck.



Winona Rider in King Arthur*In the 2004 movie King Arthur, the fierce tribe of Picts was referred to as "Woads," presumably because they made themselves look fierce by painting themselves with dye from the woad plant, and also because "Picts" sounds less than fierce. Some people with apparently nothing better to do dispute that as an historical misconception. 

Personally, I prefer to remember the movie for Winona Rider's Kiera Knightley's (oops!) Woad-ish costume, which would have easily won an Oscar for The Most Obviously Uncomfortable Costuming by a Major Actor or Actress in a Leading, Non-Musical Role (and I really do hope the Academy is considering the addition of such an award).