January 2011 Archives

RIP, Elsie
January 31, 2011 10:32 PM | Posted in:

I have very sad news to report. The unthinkable has happened, and the free spirited pup known as Elsie had a fatal encounter with a car today.

Photo of ElsieWe do our very best to protect our animals against the dangers of the world, but the one thing we can't always do is protect them against themselves. Elsie had a loving home with people who would have done anything for her, but something in her nature seemed to make her want something else. In a way, that was a big part of why we loved her (without even knowing her), but it also made us fear for her.

Colin has left a loving tribute to Elsie on the above-linked website, and more importantly, a call to action. I hope you'll read the whole thing and see what you may be led to do. Knowing the Gazette's readers, I know Elsie's memory will be honored in significant ways.

Please join me in sympathy for Molly and Colin. I'm sure Elsie is eluding angels right now, with a big grin on her face, but I suspect it will be awhile before her people can grin again.

If you live in Midland, you may or may not be aware that the Lone Star Sanctuary for Animals (formerly the Lone Star SPCA) gratefully accepts memorial donations

Ever wanted to direct your own choir?
January 31, 2011 4:18 PM | Posted in:

The creator of this page calls it "The Zombie Tabernacle Choir." I think it looks more like something from a Dia de los Muertos tribute, but the site owner is obviously insane and so I'm more than happy to play along.

Just click on one of the, um, undead singers to get started. It will be clear what you should do next.

The entire website is mesmerizing in a 70s-FrontPage-designish, epilepsy-inducing manner. Not that there's anything wrong with that
Thanks to the increasing multitudes of idiot jerk spammers - leaving 100-200 bogus comments per week - I've decided to require registration before you can leave a comment. Registration is quick and easy, and if you've already got an account with Google, Yahoo, WordPress, Movable Type, or several other popular online services, you can use that sign-in to leave a comment.

I'm sorry to have to do this, but it's just another way that idiot jerk spammers are ruining everything. Thanks for your understanding. 

"Dancers Among Us"
January 30, 2011 8:31 AM | Posted in: ,

So, I'm a fan of dancing, and I'm a fan of photography. Thus, this series called "Dancers Among Us" just absolutely fascinates me. I think you'll find it equally fascinating. There are more than 120 photographs in the collection, but it's really worth the time to page through the gallery.

The pictures are essentially stop-action photos of dancers performing moves or contortions in situations that seem incongruous. 

And, for sheer whimsy, this is my favorite photo fo the collection.

My next trike
January 29, 2011 9:15 AM | Posted in: ,

With a price starting at almost $4,000 (before shipping from the UK), it's not likely that I'll ever own an ICE Vortex, but that doesn't prevent me from drooling over it.

Photo - ICE Vortex Trike
This is one good looking, beautifully constructed trike. Carbon fiber seat, folding frame, dual disc brakes. 33 pounds is feather weight for a trike.

But I must confess that another attraction is the excellent design of ICE's website. If you take a minute to visit the above link, and click on the various controls to rotate the photos and view details, you'll quickly see what I mean. And the cool thing is that the site uses no Flash. The scripts that pop up the additional teasers, do the image rotations, and display the detailed photos and descriptions are all jQuery, meaning that it all works just as well on an iPhone as on a desktop with 27" monitor. And every photo can be viewed at full resolution; some of the detailed images are >12 megapixels.

It's a self-serving statement, perhaps, but companies should never underestimate the value of a well-designed website, especially one that works - and works well - on all devices.

Random Thursday - The Friday Edition
January 28, 2011 1:41 PM | Posted in:

Scattershooting while attempting to deal with the psychic fallout from the realization that Toni Basil is 67 years old.

  • Who says Facebook is a waste of time? I just learned a new word by looking at it: zygodactyl. What's it mean? Well, maybe you should be using Facebook, too. No, wait...that just takes up your valuable blog-reading time. Zygodactyl refers to a bird's foot that has two toes facing forward and two facing backwards. Such a bird might not know if it's coming or going, but then neither would a predator. What's a common zygodactyl (around here, anyway)? Try our good friend, the roadrunner. Thanks, Burr!
  • Just heard on The Rachel Ray Show (yeah, so what?) that 2011 is going to be the Year of the Hot Dog. According to her website, "artisanal hot dogs" will be all the rage this year. I applaud that prediction as a decked-out hot dog is surely one example of God's love. However, I'm not sure that Ms. Ray and I courting the same canine cuisine if she thinks salmon can ever be a part of a real dog.

  • The interwebz and morning shows are abuzz about the gorilla that "walks like a man." Here's the vid:

    This was later proven to be a case of mistaken identity, after Russell Crowe admitted to getting a "little hammered" and finding himself in an unfamiliar setting. No, just kidding; this is simply the inevitable evolution of the species. It won't be long before this gorilla is leaving his dirty clothes on the bedroom floor, laughing at animated sitcoms, and scratching himself in public. Oh, wait...

  • "Was Genghis Khan history's greenest conqueror?" According to this article, Mr. Khan's gentle sweep across most of the globe resulted in the return of a bunch of previously tilled and cultivated land to oxygen-restoring forests, making the entire world breathe a little easier. How did he do it, and are there any lessons we can learn for today's world? Yes, and yes. The approach is simple: he killed approximately 40 million humans, which was a rather significant percentage of the world's population at that time. The lesson is equally clear: never, EVER look at a Greenpeace "warrior" in quite the same light again. (Link via Neatorama)

  • It's been reported that streaming videos from Netflix consumes up to 20% of US internet bandwidth during peak hours. This doesn't just make Netflix the big dog of online media delivery, but also makes it a valuable source of data regarding the health and vigor of the web in general. And thus when the company publishes a graph showing the performance of sixteen major internet service providers based on how well they deliver data, we probably need to pay attention. [Click here to jump directly to the big honking graph if you don't care about methodology or caveats and just want to see how your old-and-busted cable provider is doing.] The Netflix chart shows a rolling three-month average of kilobits-per-second. I was a little surprised to see that our provider, Suddenlink, was consistently the third or fourth fastest provider. Interestingly, none of the providers could actually deliver the bandwidth needed to stream Netflix's HD movies at full resolution. So, when you hear claims from any ISP about its streaming HD content, take it with a large grain of salt. [Link via Subtraction]
  • Oh, and by the way, Netflix - thanks for the almost undecipherable chart. Seriously, I had to download the PNG, open it in Photoshop, and use the Eyedropper tool to confirm which red line went with which provider. Colorblind users might as well be dogs. The lesson here is Genghis Khan-simple: if you need to use more than one shade of the same color in a graph, then color should not be the only way to identify the data plot. Use on-graph labels, or tic marks or...something.
We'll close with this super-slo-mo video of a Shaolin monk throwing a needle through a pane of glass. This apparently is an indication of the level of spirituality the monk has achieved. I wonder if our church's pulpit committee thought about employing this test to weed out candidates for our recently-filled pastor's slot? At the very least, they could have tested for the ability to throw a camel through the eye of a needle...

Damber Alert (aka "Doggie Amber")
January 27, 2011 5:28 PM | Posted in:

Remember Rosie? Of course you do; how could you forget the wiliest, craftiest, elusive-est canine on the planet? Well, she's back. Or, rather, she's not, but her people's blog is.

Rosie's name is now Elsie, proving that...well, I don't think it proves anything, now that I think about it. I doubt that Elsie is playing this incredibly fun (for her) game of hide-and-seek because she has a different name than before. But who really knows what goes through the mind of a dog? I certainly don't. It's hard enough trying to understand the motivations of women, and then you throw a different species into the mix and the inevitable result includes infrared cameras and heartache.

Anyway, send good thoughts toward Maryland, because while I may seem to make light of the matter, Molly and Colin are worried sick and their little dog does not need to be on the mean streets, regardless of how much said pup is yukking* it up.

*I briefly toyed with the alternate spelling of "yucking," but that's a little too evocative of throw-up.

Restoring the historical archives
January 25, 2011 2:27 PM | Posted in: ,

When I redesigned and "re-purposed" the Fire Ant Gazette in mid-2009, I deleted all posts dating back to inception - November, 2002. While I don't remember the exact number of articles I'd posted during that seven year period, I think it was around 3,800, and I felt that most of them would not be missed.

Lately, however, I've been feeling a bit nostalgic and have been selectively restoring some of those old posts. I wanted primarily to restore some of the book reviews I've done over the years (check the Reading & Writing archive category to find those that I deemed worthy of re-introducing), but I also ran across some additional "notable" posts, including:

My biggest regret is that I couldn't import the many comments from readers that accompanied most of these posts (Abbye's post had more than fifty, left by kind-hearted, sympathetic folks).

This process has also been a reminder of why I started blogging in the first place, and the terrible mistake I made when I decided for reasons that are no longer clear to me (or sane, for that matter) that I was going to start over and do it in a format and in a style that didn't encourage feedback. I forgot how much fun we had.

I think the best days of the Gazette are gone and can't be recovered. Too many things have changed in the way we use the web and social media, and I apparently no longer have the discipline - or, perhaps, the skill - to foment discussions like we had in "the good old days." Eh, it is what it is, right?

But, for whatever it's worth, this exercise has rekindled an enthusiasm for the Gazette, and I hope that I can bring some increased energy to these virtual pages. Who knows? Maybe this Facebook fad will blow over and blogs will become the next big thing. ;-)

No Love For West Texas, State or Federal
January 25, 2011 9:45 AM | Posted in:

The Midland Reporter Telegram reports that funding for new highway projects in West Texas will be non-existent for the next three years, and that per capita transportation spending for our region ranks next to last (only the Wichita Falls region ranks lower). And adding insult to injury, most of the post offices on the list for closing this year also fall in West Texas.

According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, the USPS has begun the process of closing 491 branches (and is reviewing the continued viability of 2,000 more). Of the nine Texas branches slated for closing, five are in West Texas:

  • Notrees
  • Toyahvale
  • Cee Vee (60 miles east of Plainview)
  • Silver (20 miles south of Colorado City)
  • Alanreed (50 miles east of Amarillo)
Now, by most measures, these branches are located in the very definition of "the middle of nowhere." (How many of you have ever heard of Cee Vee or Alanreed? I hadn't.), and none of them have robust populations. But closing the local post office is bound to be a blow to civic pride (the Toyahvale website boasts that its post office has been in operation since 1891), as well as posing an actual hardship for the residents. I suspect that for many of these small communities, the post office is closest thing to a central gathering area, a social and cultural focal point where rural neighbors can stay in touch with one another.

I suppose the citizens of Toyahvale will make the five minute drive to Balmorhea for their Forever Stamps, and those living around Notrees will probably use the post office in Goldsmith.

It's hard to argue with the economic justification for these actions, but it feels like an old and familiar way of life is being lost to a death by a thousand cuts.
The web is abuzz today about the passing of Jack LaLanne at age 96. The guy was the human equivalent of the Energizer bunny, and he's probably doing jumping jacks in his specially-modified jumpsuit (slits for angel wings, right?) as I type this.

In memory of the world's first "fitness guru," here's a YouTube video of the first episode of his television show, which began in 1951 (one of the few things on the net that was broadcast before I was born, by the way).

Link via Neatorama

Couple of things strike me about this broadcast. First, the ballet slippers; no "fitness trainers" or running shoes existed in those days. Second, the cool workout music: a Hammond organ played offstage. Did LaLanne also pioneer the use of music as a backdrop for exercise?

We may mock his fashion sense and manic sincerity, but the fact is that many of his ideas have stood the test of time and have been scientifically validated.

Fire Ant Sighting
January 23, 2011 6:29 PM | Posted in:

It's been a while since we had a Fire Ant sighting, possibly due to the fact that only eight people actually own Genuine Fire Ant Gazette Merchandise, and most of them never go anywhere. But this sighting is perhaps from the most exotic location yet: Mali, West Africa.

Photo of Fire Ant T-Shirt

That's my pal Gene, who's been on a mission trip for the past two weeks. Gene is sporting a rare collector's edition of a discontinued model of a Fire Ant shirt.

This may be just the motivation I need to update the Gazette's online store with new designs! Or, not. But if you are one of the fortunate few with the good taste to sport official Fire Ant couture and also have the nerve to wear it in public (it's really easier if you're traveling as those judgmental onlookers will likely never see you again), send me a photo and you can be a part of fashion history!

Movie Night at La Casa
January 22, 2011 1:06 PM | Posted in: ,

We were still fighting colds last night and we used that as an excuse to brew some Keurig coffee (Donut Shop Decaf for her; Caribou regular for me) and stream a couple of movies (Netflix via Apple TV, if you care about things like that. And you should. The technical details are crucial to the whole ambiance thing.). We didn't plan it, but the movies ended up having a common theme.

[Note: There be spoilers ahead. Ye be warned.]

First up was 1981's Wolfen, a "horror/suspense" movie starring a gravelly-voiced and grim-countenanced Albert Finney (yeah, OK, those are his normal acting modes) and a wise-cracking and jive-talking Gregory Hines (uh, same thing, although he does meet an unexpected fate as dinner) who are trying to solve a series of gruesome murders in The Big Apple. As we all know, it turns out to be a pack of wolves (or are they?) who prefer tenement living and derelicts to woodlands and Bambi.

About halfway through the movie it occurred to me that this wasn't the film I was expecting to see; I had it confused with The Howling, a somewhat-better-than-average werewolf movie from - coincidentally - the same year as Wolfen. Same oeuvre, more or less. Common mistake, I'm sure.

What I did not realize is that Wolfen was written by Whitley Streiber, the author of Critical Mass, a novel about nuclear terrorism that I teased a bit in this post last December. Streiber also wrote The Day After Tomorrow and The Hunger, both of which were adapted to movies of varying quality. The latter starred Catherine Deneuve, who should make any top 10 list of sexy actresses, regardless of era. But I digress.

Well, actually, I don't digress; I'm tru wit dis one. (Quick: what movie is that line from?*)

Feeling somewhat unfulfilled by an absence of werewolves, we then chose Frozen (which reminds me of a joke about Presbyterians that wouldn't be appropriate at all at this point), a movie made just last year about three yahoos - a girl and two guys - who get stuck on a ski lift. The fact that it's already made it to Netflix's streaming catalog should give you some insight as to the quality of this production. It stars some Gen Y/Z actor slackers who look awfully familiar, but, then, they do all look alike, don't they?

I guess Shawn Ashmore would be the most recognizable of the cast, as he has a recurring role in the X-Men series. I'm sure it's one of those little Hollywood insider jokes that Shawn's X-Men character is known as Iceman, and in this movie he battles death by freezing.

Well, I'd like to say that Frozen is an undiscovered, under-appreciated gem of a movie, and it does have its moments, but for the most part you're left despairing about the destiny of our nation if kids like this are its future. You know how in the teen slasher flicks the soon-to-be-decapitated and/or disembowled kids always approach the closed closet door, trembling but without the apparent will to resist, and despite the audience's audible warnings, open the stupid door anyway? Those kids were Rhodes scholars compared to these three bozos, for whom logic is as evanescent as ambition.

I actually awoke in the middle of last night thinking, "I can't believe they didn't ..." Sure, that probably says more about me than about the movie, but that's not the point.

Anyway, I mentioned above that these two movies had something unexpected in common, and that was that - well, remember that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine posits that a wild Australian canine devoured a lady's progeny? Well, guess what the leading cause of death in Frozen turns out to be? That's right; nobody gets iced (in the literal sense), but a pack of wolves does turn out to be a troubling complication to being stuck on a chairlift. I think we both know where this is heading, so there's no need to say more. Suffice it to say that by the end of this movie, we were all rooting for the wolves.

Every movie review must provide a reference to another movie in order to establish the credibility of the reviewer (while ironically exposing his inability to come up with anything original), and so I will compare Frozen to Open Water, the 2003 movie about the scuba divers who are stranded in shark infested waters and end up detonating a nuclear device over Las Vegas to extract revenge. OK, I may have embellished that a bit, but I was trying to avoid irony. Anyway, in both movies the protagonists go through the same "bonding through tribulation" phases, sort of. So, I hope that helps.

There you have: our Friday Night At the Movies en la casa. We should have had popcorn.

*Here's a hint: it starred that annoying actor with a recurring role in the Lethal Weapon series. No, that other annoying actor.

Random Thursday - The Friday Edition
January 21, 2011 7:42 AM | Posted in:

Yesterday was sort of a lost day. Debbie had her LASIK "touch up" surgery - it went well, according to the doctor - and we were both fighting colds, so once we got her home we just crashed. That's my excuse for this late Random Thursday post.

  • The Ballroom Dance Society is using recorded music for its March dance instead of a live band. To my knowledge, this is the first time in the twenty year history of the group that this has been tried, and we have no idea how it will be received. In theory, it should be a separate but equal answer (as Pogo would put it), and in some ways superior (e.g. no uneven performances, a wider variety of steps, better volume control, etc.) but a live band does provide a certain attractive ambiance. In any event, we had to come up with a 3-hour playlist, which is harder to do than you might imagine. If you're interested, here's what we ended up with.

  • Pantone has selected Honeysuckle as the 2011 Color of the Year, supplanting the apparently old-and-busted Turquoise that was all the rage last year. In case you can't picture Honeysuckle, think pink.
    "In times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going - perfect to ward off the blues," explains Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute®. "Honeysuckle derives its positive qualities from a powerful bond to its mother color red, the most physical, viscerally alive hue in the spectrum."
    It's nice to know that we can recession-proof our lives via color, although I could have sworn that that particular accomplishment depended more on green.

  • Ever seen a front wheel drive, rear wheel steering recumbent trike? Me neither, until now:

    Jouta Recumbent Trike

    This particular bike is made by a Dutch company called Jouta. I admire the creativity of the design and engineering, although I'm not sure what benefits accrue to this approach. [Link via the Recumbent Blog]

  • This sneaked in under the radar: Starbucks has just rolled out its Mobile Payment App nationwide. If you have an iPhone or a Blackberry, once you install the free Mobile Card app, you can make purchases at Starbucks simply by waving your phone in front of the store's scanner. Sure, it's a hipster way of buying coffee, and it still requires having a Starbucks card, but you avoid the tedium of having to extract the card from your wallet and interact with the barista. Plastic is so 2010. (And, yes, both Midland Starbucks are set up for mobile pay, according to the app. I figured we'd fall under an asterisked category entitled, "Please check back for future service announcements.")

  • Speaking of Starbucks, there was a lot of media hoo-haw surrounding the company's announcement of its new 31-ounce "Trenta" iced coffee, and much of that reporting seemed to center on the outrageous quantity of caffeine. Makes sense, other than its utter rubbish, factually speaking. According to the Starbucks website, the Trenta has only 195 mg of caffeine, which is 65 mg less than the 12 oz "tall" version of its regular brewed coffee. Anyone who has tried the iced coffee knows that about half the volume of the drink is, well, ice...plain old zero calorie, zero caffeine, frozen water. Our society may well be over-caffeinated, but it's not because of a 31 ounce iced coffee from Starbucks.

Santana in Las Vegas
January 20, 2011 3:46 PM | Posted in:

I made my first visit to Las Vegas last week, and I don't plan on returning anytime soon. The exception would be if someone offers us tickets to see another performance by Santana at the Hard Rock Hotel, which was the high point of our trip.

The show is called Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits. The title is an allusion to the group's 1999 album, Supernatural, which won nine Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. It's also fitting given Carlos Santana's apparent fixation on mysticism and spirituality that falls just a wee bit outside the mainstream. More about that later.

Our seats were dead center, nine rows back from the stage, and afforded a great view of the proceedings. I had an immediate regret for not bringing my camera; I didn't expect that cameras would be allowed, but people were openly shooting photos and video throughout the concert. I took a few pictures via my phone's camera, but the quality is not good. Still, you can get a sense of the stage setup. Click on each photo to get a bigger version.

Santana in ConcertSantana in ConcertSantana in Concert

The third photo above shows Carlos with his double guitar setup. If you caught his live performance of Maria Maria on Dancing With The Stars last season, it will be familiar to you. Not being a guitarist, I couldn't tell you why he uses two instruments on that song, but I can tell you that the results justify the means.

The next surprise came when Carlos announced that several of the band members, including himself, had been dealing with bouts of bronchitis. As a result, he did almost no singing, but that proved to be no hindrance to our enjoyment of the music whatsoever. In fact, Carlos's strength has never been his vocals, but he does know how to surround himself with gifted musicians, and the current lineup was amazingly talented. This is an All Star band, without question, and each member has a deep and impressive resume.

There were two lead vocalists, Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, each with different-but-complementary styles. The trumpet player, Bill Ortiz, and trombonist, Jeff Cressman (who looks like a high school science teacher but way cooler) were not relegated to background sounds but had frequent and impressive solos. The keyboardist, Dave Mathews (no, it's a different one) had biceps like a longshoreman, and the bass player, Benny Rietveld, grinned nonstop through the entire 2+ hour performance.

Santana has three percussionists: Raul Rekow on congas, Dennis Chambers on trap set, and Karl Perazzo on everything under the sun. The other guitarist and backup vocalist, Tommy Anthony, had a mobster vibe going along with a surprisingly pure tenor voice.

And, of course, Carlos Santana fronted the whole group, perpetually moving around the stage, acting as maestro but never demanding the spotlight. Carlos was born in 1947, and he's never tried to be younger than he is, but you couldn't tell his age by listening to his guitar playing. His fingers are as nimble as ever.

One of the things I've always liked about Santana is the variety of the music. Sure, it's always got a Latin-tinge, but genres don't mean much to the group. One of my favorite songs of the night was a 70s-style funkfest, with each member of the band showcasing his talents. Then, completely out of left field, they do a rendition of She's Not There, the 1964 hit from The Zombies, featuring Tommy Anthony on vocals.

Of course, they also played all the classic Santana hits, from Black Magic Woman to Oye Como Va to Smooth. After the concert ended, the obligatory standing ovation brought the band back on stage where they picked an odd selection for their encore: Soul Sacrifice, the song featured in the Woodstock movie. I say "odd" not because it's not a great song, but bands typically don't save their longest pieces for the very end of the concert, when they're already worn out. (Perazzo in particular was visibly dragging by that point.) But it was evident that these guys love what they're doing, and they really like working with each other. Their enthusiasm for the music was perhaps even more attractive than their considerable talents.

There were only a couple of weaknesses in the overall experience. First, either the sound tech was continuously rotating the master knob toward 10 or our ears were just hammered into submission, but the music seemed to get louder and louder through the evening, to the point where it was actually painful in a few places. (I know; if the music's too loud, you're too old.) Second, Carlos really needs to stick to playing music and skip the preaching. At one point while introducing a song he rambled on about the equivalent of rainbows and unicorns past the point of comfort. On the other hand, he's never been shy about his spirituality, so I guess it just comes with the territory. And, of course, I'd have been perfectly comfortable if he'd been sharing a message of Biblically-correct Christianity, whereas I suspect that would have had many others in the audience wriggling in their seats in dismay.

The bottom line is simple: if you're a fan of Santana, or of Latin-flavored rock, this show is a must-see. Performances will continue at the Hard Rock Hotel in April and May, and it's a better excuse than most to make a quick trip to Vegas. You won't be disappointed.

Random Thursday - The Truncated Edition
January 13, 2011 6:30 AM | Posted in:

Gotta lotta stuff about to happen, so here are just a few things that caught my eye lately:

  • The 33.3 Art Show features the re-imagination by 33 designers (plus one child, hence the .3) of various album covers from back when vinyl king. Most of the designers are from the American Heartland - Iowa and Kansas and Oklahoma - with a smattering of more exotic locales thrown in.

  • We've been searching for something to mount on a rather large expanse of bare wall in our dining area. This has great appeal to me, but *someone* seems to be a bit narrow-minded and has vetoed it.

  • At first glance, the Pogoplug Pro seems to be a must-have device for sharing large files across the 'net without using a service like Dropbox or Box.net. But, frankly, the user reviews haven't been kind. Any Gazette readers tried it?

  • I don't have one of the new square versions of the iPod nano, but it would almost be worth buying one just to get one of these wrist bands that let it do double duty as a watch.

  • And, last but certainly not least, which of these is different from the others: Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Janet Jackson, Keith Urban, Clay Walker, and Jason Aldean. Well, according to the organizers of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, absolutely nothing, because they've all been booked to perform during the two-week run. I can't even come up with a good joke about which rodeo event is Jackson's favorite.
I no longer pay much attention to this blog's visitor stats. When I first started the Gazette, I had a free Site Meter account and monitored it regularly, but that was back in the salad days when blogs were the only social media outlet (and when I actually worked harder at it). When I redesigned/relaunched the site a couple of years ago, I dropped the account and now I just have the stats program that comes with my hosting account, and it records visits to my entire domain, not just to the blog. So, the stats aren't that meaningful for gauging readership.

That doesn't mean they aren't entertaining and sometimes perplexing, though. The one reporting category that I occasionally enjoy reviewing is the list of search keyphrases - phrases that people enter into search engines and that somehow lead them to the Gazette.

It's sometimes obvious why this blog came up for a particular search phrase. Take this one, for example, from earlier this month: is toby keith giving credit to robert earl keen for bullets in a gun. That's an obvious match to this post (and, as far as I know, the answer to the Unknown Seeker's question is "no, he isn't.").

Others are less obvious, but still logical. For example: american bandstand had regular dancers there was a dancer named debbie but i can't remeber [sic] her last name. While I never posted any single article that provided a good match for this quaint query, the Gazette has a "Ballroom Dance" archive page that combines all the posts in that category, and the fact that I have a wife named Debbie and she's a dancer makes that page come up in the third spot on Google when that term is entered.

This month I've gotten a steady stream of visitors who are searching for articles related to Netflix DVD-only plans, A&M/LSU football history, the Canon S95 camera, QR codes, and fire ants (I always feel bad about those poor souls coming to the Gazette in hopes of solving their fire ant issues). Those topics could lead logically to this blog, as I've recently posted about all of them (well, except for fire ants...wonder why anyone would come here looking for that topic?). But there's a whole slew of phrases for which the link to this blog are rather tenuous:

  • what's my personal year
  • nincompoop generation
  • lyrics button up your overcoat daydream you'll get a pain when you re on a treee [sic]
  • deadhead skulls
  • what scary tv show had tumbleweeds on a porch in the intro?
  • he hails from a country where they speak of spokeless wheels
Finally, there are the searches that cause one to wonder about the emotional state of the seeker, or the circumstances that might lead to the necessity of googling these phrases:

  • tell google maps that we exist
  • how to write a story about a fire after christmas
  • pictures of big rats*
  • discharge of an unloaded gun
  • I hate Midland
  • ever had one of those days
  • it's going to get ugly
  • bad service when to fire employees
  • is there a virus that causes a coomputer [sic] to catch fire
  • why do bicyclists wear those clothes
And my personal favorite:

  • ballroom dances inspired by fish and ants
If nothing else, this illustrates the paradox that accompanies the increased "intelligence" of search technology on the web. Search results are often more rich in content, but not necessarily in usefulness. On the other hand, usefulness is in the eye of the beholder, and I can but hope that people who came to the Fire Ant Gazette based on the previous search phrases were satisfied with what they found.

*Believe it or not, "big rats" was the most frequently used phrase in 2010 to find this blog via a search engine. Maybe I need to consider a name change for the Gazette.
Broken Blu-ray discKhoi Vinh is a well-respected designer (he reworked the website for the New York Times) and is in demand as a speaker at tech and design conferences around the world. In other words, he's a bit of a geek. And thus I find his experiences with and observations about the current state of Blu-Ray to be sadly affirming of my own. Here's his money quote:
What I wanted, and what I would be willing to guess most consumers want out of Blu-Ray, is simply better looking home video. That shouldn't have been hard to do at all, but the business agenda of the entertainment and technology industries stepped in and subverted that simple equation until it became a complex mess. If you haven't yet made the switch to Blu-Ray, I would urge you to consider carefully before you do.
Khoi is expressing frustration at consumer-grade technology that has professional-grade complexity. I share his pain. Our Sony Blu-Ray disc player continues to gather dust because it refuses to cooperate with our Onkyo A/V receiver. For a long while, I blamed the receiver, and even sent it in for diagnostics and repair. It was returned after a months-long interval while the service company tried without success to replicate the problem. We still can't use the player without plugging it directly into the TV, bypassing the receiver's video circuitry (although still being able to use the digital audio). As a result, we simply don't watch Blu-Ray movies.

As Vinh observes, the Blu-Ray picture is exquisite...when it works. But in my experience, this technology is still not ready for prime time on too many levels.

Back Yard Visitor
January 10, 2011 6:16 PM | Posted in:

I glanced at the backyard just before lunch this morning, and my eye caught an unusual shape in our Mexican Elder*, which has been significantly denuded by the winter cold. I looked a bit more carefully - the figure was definitely bird-shaped, but much larger than the usual vagrants. I moved to another window to get a different perspective, and sure enough, it was a hawk.

I quickly walked to my office, mounted the zoom lens on my SLR (there must be a natural and immutable law of nature that holds that the lens you need at any given time isn't the one on your camera) and moved back to the window, not at all sure that the hawk would still be there. But he was, and he posed for a wide variety of shots, occasionally jumping to the ground, then back into the low-hanging branches of the tree.

I was so intent on watching his head that I failed to notice that he had something grasped in a claw. I finally recognized the carcass of a bird, probably a dove, and one much worse for the wear. I wonder if the hawk body-slammed its prey in our backyard and spent some time there tearing it up?

After a few minutes, I think he noticed me moving from window to window, pointing a camera lens at him, and decided to retire to a more secluded spot.

Click on the small photos below to see bigger versions. Keep in mind that these were shot through less than pristine window glass (it's been a bit dusty around here lately).


*Can't place what a Mexican Elder looks like, much less a denuded one? Here's a little better shot of the tree, along with the partially obscure bird.

Photo - Hawk in Mexican Elder

Mad Woodworking Skillz
January 10, 2011 9:24 AM | Posted in: ,

I once carved a rattlesnake out of a two-by-four. Took me three days. And several two-by-fours.

Link via Neatorama
Taking a cue from another local blogger who is recycling some of her material (I don't have clearance to link, in case you're wondering), and in response to something that recently arose on Facebook (an exchange between two sisters, one of which happens to be my spousal unit), it seems appropriate - essential, even - to revisit an event that occurred during the Christmas of 2006.

OK, so where were we? Let's see...peace, joy, presents, blah, blah, blah...oh yeah, plumbing.

We have to backtrack to early Christmas afternoon, when some potato peels were fed to the garbage disposer in my father-in-law's kitchen sink. I'm not saying who did it, or what volume was sent down the drain; that's not important and won't be, until we bring it up again at a future family gathering.

Anyway, we all know that while garbage disposers are marketed as being able to, you know, dispose of garbage, their actual function is to keep the federal government's Full Employment Act for Plumbers in effect, and the insertion of anything more substantial than melted ice and not more than eight sesame seeds at one time is a really bad idea.

So, the end result was a clogged kitchen drain. No big deal; happens all the time, especially during holidays, when professional help is unavailable, and the liquor stores are closed, too. We went ahead and ate Christmas dinner (consisting of the traditional brisket, pinto beans, mashed potatoes [peels off, unfortunately], and crescent rolls, the latter suffering greatly at the hands of the Nephew, who eats them by the dozen) and then waited until the Dallas Cowboys were looking especially ugly during another nationally televised embarrassment to explore the possibility that the clog was just under the sink. Which, of course, it wasn't. It never is, but you still have to disconnect all the pipes and get doused with yucky water in order to confirm what you knew all along.

We sent a poor man's plumbing snake (a metal tape measure) down the pipe that ran through the kitchen wall, hoping the clog was nearby. Which, of course, it wasn't. So we quickly reached the end of the very short checklist of Things I Know How To Do When It Comes To Plumbing, except for the last item, which doesn't do you any good on Christmas Day in Fort Stockton, because it's "Call a plumber," and good luck with that. Heck, even Wal-Mart was closed so we couldn't buy and apply the requisite ten gallons of Drano (The Extra Useless Version). We were somewhat optimistic that we'd make progress because we were able to send a pretty good load of water down the drain before it backed up again, so chances were that the clog was becoming more porous. Perhaps it would miraculously dissolve. It was, after all, Christmas. Did I mention that already?

So we did the next best thing which was to rejoin the Cowboy fiasco still in progress, biding our time until something more entertaining came on TV. We were just settling into a state of Christmas miasma...no, wait...that's not the right word. Myopia? Misanthropy? Something starting with an "m." Anyway, we were pleasantly zoning out when it happened. Without warning, great gouts of evil black water began spouting up from the double sink in the kitchen, as if we'd tapped the very springs of hell.

Much running around and yelling and waving of arms ensued, by parties varied and sundry, including the dogs, who, while limited by a lack of arms, more than compensated with what passed for yelling. It was a malevolent mystery (more "m" words, except those are right, I think): where could the water be coming from? The dishwasher wasn't running; even we were smart enough to know better than that.

Then I heard that familiar ka-chunk...ka-chunk. I ran into the garage, opened the laundry room door, and -- sure enough -- the clothes washer was busily pumping black water back into the kitchen sink, where it was attempting to re-create an Everglades Christmas. I slammed my palm against the knob to turn the washing machine off, and ran back inside to survey the damage. The kitchen carpet was completely saturated, all the way into the dining room. We rushed out to the workshop and grabbed the big honkin' Sears wet/dry shop vac and I started squeegeeing the water from the floor. Fortunately, the carpet is thin and not laid over a pad, so the vacuum was pretty effective in getting the excess water up; after all, those Craftsman shop vacs will suck the skin off an anvil. After the emergency vacuuming, we set out a box fan and let the dry west Texas air do its thing.

Nobody fessed up to starting the washing machine, and I can't argue with that, since there weren't any clothes in it. All we can figure is that all that water we thought we were putting down the drain and which was moving through the "porous clog" was, in fact, backing up into the washing machine, which at some point, for reasons and by abilities still unperceived, decided that it was time to drain, sending the water back whence it came. If anyone has a better explanation, we'll be happy to entertain it.

It made for quite an exciting Christmas evening, which we capped off by watching the first few episodes from the first season of Northern Exposure. So, things could have been worse.

Well, they actually did get that way, but that's another story for another time.

Digging the QR Code
January 8, 2011 2:18 PM | Posted in:

You've seen them here and there, and you'll see them even more frequently in the future - those black-and-white squares that look like a dying dot-matrix printer spit them out. They're QR Codes, and they're tiny gateways to all kinds of good stuff.

QR Codes (the "QR" stands for "Quick Response") were created in Japan in 1994 for tracking auto parts, but their use has expanded exponentially since then. For example, many airlines now print QR Codes on their tickets/boarding passes to provide unique identifiers for passengers. Their usefulness is in the ability to provide a fair amount of information in a small space, and in an easy-to-read form.

Well, it's easy to read if you have the right scanning software. There are a lot of QR scanning apps available for camera-equipped mobile phones. If you have a phone running the Android operating system you may have something called Barcode Scanner installed on it. It's based on Google's XZing library, and variants both free and paid are available for all popular platforms. I use (and highly recommend) the free iPhone app RedLaser.

By now you may be completely confused, especially if you can't picture a QR Code. So, given that a picture is worth, well, you know, here are a couple of actual working examples. If you have a camera phone and scanning software, try scanning each and see what happens

QR Code containing my contact info
QR Code containing my blog URL
The first block contains my contact information (and a little bonus message from yours truly!). Depending on your phone platform and software, when you scan this QR Code, it may attempt to automatically add that information to your contacts. The second block contains the URL to this blog; scanning it should give you the option of opening that URL in your web browser without having to type anything else.

The uses for these little blocks of information are limited only by one's imagination. Put one on your business card or sales brochure to direct people to your website. Add them to a coffee mug or t-shirt or any other promotional material to allow your tech-savvy audience to access more information.

The last piece of the puzzle? How to generate these codes, of course. Google the phrase "QR code generator" and you'll find an amazing number of free services. The codes shown above were generated using Google's own such service.

I'm already kicking around the idea of a QR Code-equipped Fire Ant coffee mug and coaster, and maybe even a hoodie with nothing but a giant QR on the back. Those things are just for fun, but I also have a few clients who should consider using QR Codes in their promotional material. As I implied above, the technology requirements limit the audience for these purposes, but that audience will inevitably continue to broaden.

Mad/Bad/Rad Dog
January 7, 2011 2:01 PM | Posted in: ,

It's been a while since I posted a link to a weird website that has no apparent purpose other than confirming that some people have too much time on their hands. And I know you've missed them. So, here. [Via Twisted Sifter's Friday Shirk Report, which also includes a link to this bit of doggiecentric hilarity

Random Thursday
January 6, 2011 6:43 AM | Posted in:

Oh, boy...the first Random Thursday of 2011. I hope it's a good one! (See, I never know what I'm going to write until it happens, and the words flow like the aftereffects of a bad batch of shrimp.)

  • Let's wax nostalgic for a bit. Remember when ordering from an out-of-town company meant getting a paper catalog, tearing out the form and filling it out by hand, in the processing computing the shipping, sales tax, and order total yourself, carefully recording your credit card number in those little boxes (no such thing as a security code back then, by the way), putting it into an envelope, dropping it in the mail, and then waiting for delivery without being able to track the status in real time (or at all, for that matter)? Those were the good old days of delayed gratification, and remembering them is a good segue for today's column by George Will in which he explores how the reduction of "life's frictional costs" has changed us individually and as a society. I recommend it.

  • It doesn't happen very often, but even Macs sometimes lock up with the equivalent of the BSOD. I got a call yesterday from a friend whose high dollar Mac Pro ingested a DVD and wouldn't eject it. This is normally child's play to fix, but for some unknown reason, her entire system was also frozen. She couldn't use the keyboard or mouse, and all applications and settings were unresponsive. I googled around and found a rather desperate technique involving a business card, and passed it along, albeit without much hope that it would actually work. She called back in ten minutes, ecstatic. So, Mac users, if this strange thing ever happens to you, don't discount this potential solution.

  • January typically brings a lot of "Best Of" lists related to the previous year, and one of my favorites is MyFonts.com's Top Fonts. This year's list contains some typically impressive fonts - my favorite on the list is Origins, although I can envision very few web-related uses for it - but what strikes me is the flowery language the editors use to describe typefaces, evoking the work of professional wine tasters or product description writers for  The J. Peterman Company.  But, anyone who can wax poetic at the sight of fonts is OK in my book.

  • I suspect you've seen the following video, about the homeless man with the "classic radio voice." But it's worth re-watching. Not only is his voice amazing, but his situation and how he's coping with it is somehow winsome, and you just want to root for him to succeed. I suspect he will, somehow. [Update: His strategy is working; he's making the morning talk show rounds and "job offers are pouring in."]

  • I dig Venn diagrams, especially the ones that purport to show relationships of dubious credibility but maximum hilarity. Here's a good example that's recently been making the rounds (source unknown):

    The only thing is, according to this article, this is not really a Venn diagram. Or, as Crocodile Dundee would say were he a statistician instead of a knife-wielding gadabout, you call that a Venn diagram? That's not a Venn diagram; this is a Venn diagram:

    If the implications escape you, don't worry. We're all good at different things. As are TSA agents, doctors, and...well, you get the picture. But Andrew Plotkin's article, linked above, is still an amusing deconstruction of the original gag, and manages to be educational at the same time. This is the stuff that makes the interwebz sick (and I mean that in the good way that the cool kids say it).

  • Rick Aschman is a Christian missionary and a linguist specializing in "indigenous Amerindian languages." His hobby, however, is categorizing and collecting samples of American English dialects, and he's got a fascinating website devoted to those efforts. He's categorized those dialects into eight major groupings, based primarily on geography, each with a myriad of sub-dialects. The website has a clickable map that leads to a table of cities and towns, with links to examples of the representative dialect for those locations.

    West Texas is included in the "Inland South" category, and Aschman provides distinct examples of dialects originating from residents of cities such as Fort Stockton (oilman Clayton Williams), Odessa (singer Larry Gatlin), San Angelo (actor Fess Parker), Uvalde (actress Dale Evans) and Midland (General Tommy Franks). The linguistic categorizations are quite interesting, although the representative samples should be taken with a heaping helping of salt. While I won't dispute that Claytie talks like a lot of West Texans I know, I suspect that Dallasites will balk at being represented by the dulcet nasal tones of H. Ross Perot.
I received an email yesterday from Josh Wallaert, the web editor for Places, which is described as an interdisciplinary journal of contemporary architecture, landscape, and urbanism, with particular emphasis on the public realm as physical place and social ideal. Josh wanted to draw attention to a new essay by Cornell University architecture professor Jim Williamson.

I was a bit skeptical that an article emanating from an Ivy League school would be of much interest to Gazette readers, but I clicked over...and think you should do the same. With an enigmatic title, What Passes for Beauty: A Death in Texas recounts the author's experience designing a grave site for a West Texas rancher while working for a firm in Midland during the 1970s.

It's an anecdote that accurately captures some of the spirit of the region, both in terms of the character of the land and of its ranching inhabitants. It's also an interesting coincidence that Professor Williamson's on-campus address is Sibley Hall, given that the Sibley ranching family has a long and storied history in West Texas.

The only minor quibble I have with the article is that it's apparently been a while since Williamson has visited the Permian Basin, given his observation that the oil is now "mostly gone." He would likely be amazed at the current vitality in the oil and gas industry in our region.

Traffic Light Sync System on Holiday?
January 4, 2011 1:24 PM | Posted in:

Dear City of Midland,

I guess I missed part of the description of the $1.8 million of our money you paid for the new traffic light synchronization system, the part where that is a recurring annual fee rather than a one-time payment. I infer that's the case because you've apparently failed to renew the system for the new year, based on my experience earlier today of driving north on Garfield Street and hitting five out of six possible red lights. Big Spring Street seems similarly afflicted.

I'm pretty sure I speak for many Midland drivers when I suggest that you need to read the fine print on the next light synchronization system you acquire, and make sure you've actually bought it, instead of just renting it. You might have those guys in the Planning Division look it over for you; I suspect they're paying a lot more attention to details nowadays.

Your pal,


Netflix No DVD Plan: What's Missing
January 4, 2011 6:30 AM | Posted in:

We've just switched our Netflix plan from the "3 DVDs out at-a-time" plan to the "Watching instantly (no DVDs)" plan, thereby saving money ($19.99/month vs. $7.99/month). We don't watch enough movies on DVD to make the rental plan worthwhile.

If Netflix has disclosed how many movies and TV program episodes it has available for "instant watching" (its term for streaming content over the internet), I can't find it. The inventory looks considerable when you're browsing through the company's website. But the streaming content is a fraction of what's available via DVD, and anyone thinking about going disk-free needs to understand exactly what they're giving up.

In an admittedly dangerous precedent, I did some research yesterday evening in an attempt to better characterize the Netflix streaming inventory. I selected the Top 100 Grossing Movies (US market only) for 2008, 2009, and 2010 and correlated those lists to the content available for streaming via Netflix. Every one of the 300 movies was either available on DVD, or was coming to Netflix via DVD (many of the top 2010 movies are still in first-run status).

The availability of those movies for streaming was a starkly different picture. Only nine of the 2010 movies are available via streaming, which wasn't terribly surprising given the typical time lag between first runs and rental availability. 2009 fared better, but still only 33 movies on the list can be watched via streaming. The real shocker came when I cross-checked the 2008 list: only TWO of the Top 100 are available: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the #20 movie that year), and Defiance, which was last on the Top 100 list. These findings seem to conflict with the company's statement that Netflix has streaming access to films that brought in about 49 percent of the 2010 box office revenues, although they may be including TV shows in that number. [Source]

We don't see a lot of movies at the theater anymore, and haven't felt deprived, so losing access for many of them isn't really a big deal for us. But any film fan who is contemplating a switch to the Netflix no-DVD plan should consider carefully what they're giving up. You may end up spending more on gasoline to drive back and forth to the nearest Red Box to get movie satisfaction if you halt the shipment of Netflix DVDs.
The year was 1970. I was a freshman at Texas A&M, a clarinet player in the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band, a member of the Corps of Cadets, and the epitome of cluelessness long before that term had become entrenched in our cultural vocabulary.

There was nothing about being at A&M, in the band, in the Corps, that was comfortable for me. There were more students at the university than the entire population of my hometown, and more people in my chemistry class than in my high school. As a fish in the Corps, I was not just the low man on the totem pole...I couldn't even see the totem pole. The 300-member band seemed like more of a rugby scrum with a musical score than the finely-tuned group I was used to in high school. Sure, we looked awesome when viewed from the grandstand fifty yards away, but our steps (well, mine, anyway) were powered by pure adrenaline-fired fear: fear of being the one guy (no girls in the band back then, nosireebob) seen to miss a step; fear of being decapitated by an out-of-control trombone player; fear of missing a note. OK, strike that last one. None of us fish dared play a note while marching; we were too busy concentrating on the steps.

It was hard to imagine being in a more alien environment...and then I found myself in the stands at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge (properly pronounced "bah-TONE roooooooozh") surrounded by tens of thousands apparently insane screaming Cajuns (I later learned that those terms were completely redundant, as a matter of normal circumstance) anticipating a feast on our sad Aggie carcasses. Yes, this was my first experience with LSU college football, and if I'd known what a reference to Mad Max and Thunderdome meant back then, I might have had some context for the event.

We came into the football game as huge underdogs, a position we'd earned through much hard work, and which would continue to accompany us throughout my college career. (We actually celebrated beating TCU, and everybody beat TCU; no kiddies, this was before TCU learned how to play Big Boy football.) So it was no surprise that A&M trailed LSU late in the fourth quarter, albeit by a surprisingly thin margin. But a loss is a loss, and the mostly inebriated LSU fans (at least the ones I could see, the ones who openly carried their fifths of Southern Comfort into the stadium, a practice that I still believe was encouraged) were rowdy and enthusiastic in their affirmation of our incompetence.

Suddenly, the inconceivable happened. Who was that guy running for his life, carrying an oblong leather object, being chased by a pack of Tigers? And why was the stadium suddenly and fearfully silent? And why wasn't I paying more attention to the game instead of worrying about how many pushups I'd be doing on the long bus ride home?

History was being made on that field, and I was clueless. The immediate consequences quickly became obvious as A&M's Hugh McElroy turned a short pass into a 79-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left in the game, and the Aggies upset LSU 20-18. A&M fans departed the stadium quickly and in relative quiet, since they weren't sure about the laws regarding carrying firearms on the LSU campus. For its part, the Aggie Band left in formation, with the outer row of cadets handing their instruments to others so they could act as bouncers for any irate Tiger fans attempting to penetrate the ranks. (An unwritten rule was that any outsider who intruded on one side of the band's formation was escorted through the interior to the other side, albeit slowly and painfully, if you get my drift.)

The historical significance of that game wasn't obvious to me, other than understanding that A&M had just beaten LSU, which almost never happened. Honestly, it wasn't until I read this story this morning that I realized the greater significance: Hugh McElroy, who scored that miracle touchdown, was the first black player to start for A&M, and his was the first score by a black player. If this ground-breaking achievement was noted in the Bryan-College Station or A&M press at the time, I missed it (which certainly could have been the case). I'm pleased to see that the story is getting some coverage now, in anticipation of an A&M/LSU rematch in the Cotton Bowl on Friday.

A&M lost the remainder of its games that season. I lasted one year in the Corps and the band, electing not to return despite earning a unit award, and I never really developed a clue. But that evening in Baton Rouge will be forever embedded in my memory. And, fortunately, I now have an even better reason for remembering it.

Best Laid Plans
January 1, 2011 10:12 AM | Posted in:

If you're seeking reasons not to make New Year's resolutions, look no further than what happened to us last night. We can't be assured that our plans for the next four hours will succeed, much less those for the next 365 days.

We had planned to bring in the new year at a dance, but after a little more than an hour, Debbie started feeling a bit queasy and we decided sticking around was in no one's best interests. So we headed home and spent the rest of the night streaming episodes of Dead Like Me via Netflix, her dozing on one couch and me on the other. We roused ourselves just in time to crawl into bed at midnight...not exactly the champagne toast that had been planned for the dance, but also not the worst thing in the world.

The good news is that she was feeling fine by morning, even arising at 7:00 and putting in some miles on the treadmill (while I slept...the best part). The only thing we can figure is that she had some kind of inner ear deal going, perhaps related to congestion in her head.

The lesson seems pretty clear, though. It's good - even advisable - to make plans, but it's better to recognize that we can't control everything, and that our ability to adapt and make the best of fluid situations is essential to our emotional well-being.

I don't make New Year's resolutions, but there's value in identifying areas in my life that need improvement, and being more patient and flexible is a worthwhile goal. Perhaps 2011 will be the year that brings some progress in that area. We'll just see how it goes (hey, I'm improving already!).

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2010 is the previous archive.

February 2011 is the next archive.

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