February 2011 Archives

Charlie, Charlie, Charlie...
February 28, 2011 3:44 PM | Posted in:

Forgive me if this is the 97th time today that you've seen someone compare Charlie Sheen to a slow motion train wreck that refuses to let you avert your eyes, but I can't think of a better analogy.

I don't want to waste a lot of pixels on the guy, but I can't resist responding to his statement during an interview conducted over the weekend that he's "tired of pretending [he's] not a total, bitchin' rock star from Mars." Actually, he might be surprised at how many of us do believe he's from another planet, but it's probably not accompanied by the sort of adulation he expects.

Got news for you, Charlie: the total fraction of the world's population who gives a flying fritter about anything you do is so infinitesimally small as to be unmeasurable. It probably rounds to zero. It's the little flagellum that waves weakly on the very tip of The Long Tail.

Your professional niche is inconsequential. All the sitcoms in Hollywood could vanish overnight and the only impact would be an instantaneous uptick in Society's collective IQ (which, granted, would be immediately reversed by the inflow of "reality" programming).

Plus, there's the inconvenient fact that what you're doing isn't even acting. You're playing, what...an immature-but-aging philanderer with a substance abuse problem? How is that acting, even in your universe? You should be thanking your lucky stars every day of your life that someone is willing to pay you a boatload of money to be yourself.

Because, frankly, yourself is sort of getting on our nerves.

Pi Plate
February 27, 2011 5:32 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, the creator calls it a "pi bowl," but that's semantics, and not very punny, to boot. Anyway, this ceramic concoction is etched with the first 1,498 decimal places of pi, and can be ordered in a variety of colors via Etsy. [Via Neatorama]

Photo of bowl

Tracking Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton
February 25, 2011 9:45 AM | Posted in: ,

Last Monday, February 21, we made a day trip to Fort Stockton to visit family, and were pleased to see that Comanche Springs was again flowing. This is a fairly dependable annual occurrence each winter, when the agricultural irrigation west of town ceases and the water level in the aquifer rises sufficiently for the water to exit at several surface locations in Rooney Park.

In light of an ongoing battle concerning local water rights - and specifically a proposal to pipe up to 42 million gallons per day from Fort Stockton to Midland - there's a legitimate concern about whether we'll ever again see the springs flow like this. While studies seem to indicate that the aquifer continually recharges, I doubt that it does so to an extent that will permit exit to the surface. I decided to document the output of the springs from beginning to end.

Click on each photo to view a larger version. You can also navigate through the entire suite of pictures if you wish to skip the commentary.

As I mentioned above, the springs come up in several locations around Rooney Park. These sources look like big holes in the ground containing standing water; the flow of the stream is not readily evident, and in fact the water looks like algae-laden runoff. It gets much better.


The third source (the exit from which shown at right above) is at the swimming pool and long-time visitors to the pool will remember the metal cage around it. It's been there for many decades, as evidenced by the undated photo shown below that I borrowed from a caver website. [Comanche Springs Cave is a lightly-explored but quite extensive series of caverns and tunnels that were carved out by the flow of the springs. Some theorize that the system might be as much as 100 miles in length. Exploration is made difficult by the unpredictability of the water table.]

Rooney Park is bisected by a canal that runs from the southwest corner of the park past the swimming pool and exits the park at the northeast corner. Water from the springs is channeled into the canal. The photo on the left shows the beginning section, and the one on the right is exiting the park. The bridge in the background is on the Sanderson Highway (Highway 285). As you can see, the water level in the canal has risen considerably by this point.


After exiting the park, the finished portion of the canal comes to an end just east of the Highway 285 bridge.


As I stood on a concrete embankment overlooking this "pond," a hawk flew out of the underbrush at the left and passed me at eye level, not fifty feet away. It happened too quickly to get a photo, but I was transfixed by the sight.

From here, the stream wanders east and north, eventually flowing under East Dickinson Blvd (aka East 9th Street, aka Business I-10). The satellite photo below clearly shows the meandering nature of the stream. It also demonstrates the life-giving effect of live water in a desert environment.

Following are pictures of the stream at the East Dickinson bridge. In the middle photo, you can see that the water is a welcome attraction to overwintering waterfowl. The third shows the water flowing along the highway right-of-way just before it runs under the bridge, heading north.


The stream continues northeast and crosses under Interstate 10, where it flows across the service road.

We can infer from the above photo that the flow of water is a limited seasonal event; otherwise, the city/county/state (jurisdiction isn't clear to me) would construct a bridge or tunnel to deal with the stream.

From here, the water flows into a privately-owned pasture* and empties into what I believe is a caliche pit. I'm not positive about that, but I do know that alert travelers along I-10 can catch a glimpse of what looks like a very small lake just north of the highway. Whether this is a playa lake or a pit is unknown to me; readers with knowledge about this are invited to share in the comments section. Again, though, we can turn to Google's satellite photo that seems to indicate that the end point is more of a depression than a pit. Zoom in on the map below to see what I mean. [Update: I stand corrected. That large whitish area on the satellite photo does appear to be a pit; it's dry in this version of the photo. But the stream also appears to continue north and then east (follow the green "trail," where it sort of peters out. That's what I initially looked at.]

In any event, by this point the stream was flowing vigorously, and running water through a West Texas pasture is a beautiful sight.

If you look closely at the third photo, you'll see where ducks took off from the water after I startled them; they're flying in the distance.

I shot the following short video with my Canon point-and-shoot to provide an idea of the strength of the stream's flow at this point.

It's been estimated that Comanche Springs once flowed at a rate of 60 million gallons per day or more. According to a 2009 report in the Fort Stockton Pioneer (link no longer available), the flow was estimated at 1.5 million gallons per day, on average, but subject to significant daily variation. That's still a pretty hefty stream in the desert. And the question of whether it's better to let this natural flow continue, benefiting "only" wildlife and pasture, or to capture it and send it to a city whose water supply is dwindling is a legitimate one. Regardless of the outcome of the debate, we should enjoy the beauty of Comanche Springs whenever the opportunity occurs.

*Full disclosure: I'm pretty sure I was trespassing in order to take the photos and videos in the pasture. Although I didn't see a "Posted" or "No Trespassing" sign, the fact that I stepped over a fence to gain access means that I went where I shouldn't have gone. If I had planned this trip, I would have contacted the landowner for permission, and I have no doubt it would have been granted. As it is, I have no excuse, other than a desire to share this special phenomenon with others. You should not follow my example.

Random Thursday
February 23, 2011 6:33 AM | Posted in:

Some triviata while wondering about the real difference between a prank call and outright lying to get an interview.

  • I wrote last week about "investing" in a venture via KickStarter that will produce a stylus cap to use with devices with capacitive touch screens. I'm pleased to report that the project has been fully funded (over-funded, in fact) and is moving into the "refinement" phase. If all goes well, the product should enter the manufacturing phase in April, and ship beginning in late April or early May. It's fascinating to follow the progress of an idea from conception to sales.

  • A logical extension of the KickStarter concept would be to allow ordinary people to become venture capitalists on a micro scale. As it stands, "backers" are repaid with product at reduced prices, but don't share in any profits. It would be a logistical challenge, but I wonder how the dynamics of the backer concept might change if the rewards for backing a concept were tied more directly to the commercial success of the project?

  • I link regularly to Seth Godin's articles, because doing so makes me look smarter. Here's another insightful look at the way the web has changed a fundamental aspect of society: Asymmetrical mass favors, a tragedy of our commons. And here's his next-day follow-up, describing the flip side: the asymmetrical gift.

  • Say, is it OK for Christians to curse?

  • I linked to the following video via Facebook yesterday but I think it's worth sharing here. It's a brief look into the workday of a Foley artist - the creative types who come up with sound effects to match the action on a movie screen. (And, for the record, the reality isn't all that far removed from Monty Python's Holy Grail shtick.) [Link via Neatorama]

  • One of the frequent requests I get from clients is to add copyright notices to their websites. It's a common misconception that such notices are required in order to have an enforceable copyright, but in fact such a notice is not required under US law. Here's a great article, written in layman's terms, that clears up some other common misunderstanding about copyrights.

  • I've swum with sharks, with rays, with turtles, with barracuda, with moray eels, and with porpoises, but never with a coelacanth. I like fish that grin.

  • Wow. Just, wow.

  • Got a new wireless laser printer this week, replacing my almost-eight-years old HP Laserjet. There's nothing wrong with the HP, but it needs a new toner cartridge, which is around $120. The new printer, a Brother HL-2270DW, was a whopping $94 plus shipping. Sort of a no-brainer. I may do a more complete review on it if I find time, but I'm overall quite happy with it, despite a couple of quirks.

Seeking Silence
February 22, 2011 3:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I solved a tricky little problem today and want to document it in case anyone else encounters it. But first, some background.

Our ballroom dance club is trying something different at our March dance. Up to now, we've always had live music, and that tradition will continue. But, for a variety of reasons, we're going to try some prerecorded music, sort of DJ-style...without the DJ.

I've created a play list in iTunes of about 50 songs for the evening, providing a wide variety of music for the most popular steps (foxtrot, waltz, swing, rumba, cha cha, tango, and salsa), and we're going to stream the music through a sound system via an iPad. The music is outstanding, but when Debbie and I gave the play list a run-through (well, a dance-through, to be exact), we discovered an unanticipated problem. There's not enough time between the songs.

Now, you would typically want the DJ to keep the music going in a continuous stream, but this isn't a nightclub or mosh pit. Well, sometimes it does resemble a mosh pit, but that's mostly unintentional. Anyway, ballroom dancing is a bit more formal, and we want to give people some time to get on and off the floor.

Here's the problem. iTunes, by default, puts two seconds between each song in a play list, and there's no preference or option to change that. There is an option to cross-fade songs (one fades out while the next fades in), but that doesn't help us a bit.

I tried googling a solution and found that this situation is not a problem for the vast majority of folks. In fact, most people want to know how to shorten the gap between songs. I did find one suggestion to put a short recording of, well, nothing in between each song but that seemed inelegant and tedious. Surely Apple, in its ubër-elegant and ultra-non-tedious design, had a better solution.

Uh, nope. I posted my dilemma on the discussion board on the  Apple website and the only workable solution that was suggested was - you guessed it - an "empty" audio file used as a spacer between songs. (This approach is reminiscent of a staple of website design back in the 90s, before CSS, when we used 1 pixel transparent GIFs to provide the desired spacing around various elements on the website. Can you say "inelegant" and "tedious"? And, uh, "effective"?)

So, I found a 15-second "empty" mp3 and downloaded it (it was advertised as a free download; I just hope the creators actually cleared the copyright issues around that bit of silence). I then imported it into iTunes, and dragged it into my play list.

Once in the play list, I copied-and-pasted the mp3 as many times as was needed to separate the songs, and then dragged the instances of the mp3 through the play list to provide the inter-song gaps. That's when I realized again the genius of Apple's iTunes music database approach. The actual "song" resides in one place; the duplicates are simply pointers to that one song.

Why is this important? Well, I discovered that 15 seconds was too long. That pause borders on uncomfortable. Ten seconds would be just about right. But that means I have to delete all those 15-second gaps, find a 10-second mp3, and repeat the import/copy/paste/drag process, right? Wrong.

If you select "Get Info" under the "File" menu in iTunes for a highlighted song, it provides an option (under the Option tab - go figure) for specifying a start and end time for the selected song. This allows a sort of on-the-fly cropping of an audio file, and it was the perfect solution for my "got 15 seconds of nothing but need only 10" problem. I simply selected one of the instances of the silent mp3 and set the end time to 10 seconds. As if by magick, all the other copies of the mp3 took on that same setting throughout the play list.

Now, this is where the elegance finally appears. Since I haven't physically edited the sound file, there are still 15 seconds of silence contained therein, and if I decide I want a larger gap, I can restore up to the full amount with that single setting. (There is a complication if I want to use, say, a 10 second gap on one play list and 15 seconds on another. In that case, I'll need to physically duplicate the original mp3, rename it, and import it to iTunes.)

So, there's a pretty detailed solution to a rather obscure problem. But if someone out there needs a way to increase the gap between songs in iTunes (that's a little trick to help Google find this post) then I'm happy to share what I've learned, and my job here is finished. Heck, I'll even provide a link so you can download your own slice of silence.

I'll let you know how the dance turns out. We're a little nervous. Ballroom dancers are such traditionalists, and they're like a pack of rabid hyenas under a full moon if things don't suit them.

Two Vids for the Weekend
February 18, 2011 11:30 AM | Posted in: ,

Why is it that the Japanese excel at sword fighting? Perhaps they've had more practice, or perhaps they see it not just as a battle technique, but as an art form. Exhibit A:

[Link via Neatorama]

Then there's this kind of art form, the kind that either makes you want to grab a board and join them, or curl into a ball and hide:

This is the trailer from a film entitled The Art of Flight, scheduled for release this fall. This movie appears to raise the ante on Warren Miller to a disturbing level. And if you're wondering which of the above categories I fall into, well, my heart is in the former but my head is in the latter.

[Link via Twisted Shifter]

Random Thursday
February 17, 2011 6:43 AM | Posted in:

The folks over at Neatorama have proclaimed that the Fire Ant Gazette represents the apex of human achievement. OK, I just made that up. They were actually referring to these ties that incorporate bubble wrap. If that's not random enough for you, try this on for size:

  • Sleeper Movie of the Week Recommendation - Tortilla Soup, a 2001 film starring Hector Elizondo, Elizabeth Peña, Raquel Welch, and Paul Rodriguez. It's available for streaming via Netflix. Don't watch it while hungry, because the cooking scenes will cause drooling in sufficient quantities to ruin the furniture.

  • Got giant hulking fingers that don't play well with your iPad or iPhone? These stylus caps are designed to work with any capacitive touch screen and they fit on various models of regular writing instruments by Bic, Sharpie, and Pilot. This is a great idea for those who want to sketch on their iDevices, or for anyone who just wants a little more precision.

  • The preceding product is actually under development, and the inventor is raising funds via KickStarter in order to continue to market. This is my first interaction with the site, which seems to be a "micro-venture-capital" service for new inventions and other intellectual or artistic creations. Interesting concept, tapping into the "long tail" of investing. I made a small pledge to the Stylus Cap project just to see how it plays out.

  • Speaking of good new ideas, what if the Redbox DVD rental model was adopted by public libraries? Here's what it might look like. Vending machines for library books just strikes me as an excellent idea that probably will never catch on. I don't imagine that many municipal libraries have the budget to implement something like this. [Link via...you guessed it...Neatorama]

  • Here's a good reason to always carry a camera. Although in hindsight, this guy would have been better served with a flashlight and a GPS. But, still.

  • Interesting tweet came across the feed today:
    @Redistrict: Startling age gap between Ds & Rs in House: GOP has 41 reps under 45, Dems 12. Dems have 35 reps over 70, Reps 19. Wow.
  • The Boston Globe's wonderful photo feature, The Big Picture, focuses on the just-completed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Great perspectives from what is arguably the world's most prestigious dog show.

  • Finally, while the job market in West Texas is such that pretty much anyone who wants to work can do so, in other parts of the country, people are going to great lengths just to get someone to look at their résumés. This is leading to some very creative approaches. I applaud the forward-thinking in this example, but I wonder how many HR departments would take the time to assimilate the message. [Link via Web Designer Depot]

My Geeky Valentine
February 16, 2011 8:05 AM | Posted in:

This is what happens when two gadget freaks hook up. For Valentine's Day, I gave my wife the obligatory box of Godiva chocolates...and an iPod nano that she could mount on a wrist strap Photo - ZaggMate iPad case with keyboard and use as a casual watch. In turn, she gave me a ZaggMate iPad case with built-in Bluetooth keyboard.

The ZaggMate is one of the better ideas to come down the pike. As the photo shows, the iPad fits snugly face-down, presenting a solid aluminum surface all around in a form factor that is barely thicker and heavier than the iPad by itself. But when the two units are separated, the tablet rests solidly, in either landscape or portrait mode, in a padded slot and links wirelessly to the keyboard.

The keyboard itself is full-featured, if not quite full-sized. Besides all the standard keys, it sports a series of iPad-specific controls: there are keys to put the tablet to sleep, jump to the home screen, bring up the search screen, and show/hide the iPad's software keyboard. There are also keys for controlling slideshows, as well as music via the iPod application.

I mentioned that the Zagg's keyboard was not quite full-sized, and that's the only drawback I've found for the device. Because it's almost like a regular keyboard, I have a tendency to try to use it like one, instead of focusing on the fact that the keys are smaller and closer together than normal. Fast touch typing is possible, but it takes a while to make the mental and physical transition from a normal keyboard. Regardless, typing speed and accuracy are several orders of magnitude better than using the iPad's virtual keyboard.

One minor surprise: I've been unable to pair the Zagg keyboard with my MacBook Pro. I don't know that I'd ever use the two together, but I still figured that they'd connect. I'm not sure what's up with that.

Character Development in Serial Novels
February 15, 2011 10:14 PM | Posted in:

I wrote a bit late last year about Tim Dorsey's series of novels in this Random Thursday post. At that time, I had read three of the installments and was starting on the fourth. As of earlier this evening, I've now finished a dozen, and have just downloaded the 13th (and last) in the series.

In the beginning, I inadvertently skipped around in the series before I realized that Dorsey had published a recommended reading order; even though the series has a linear story, he intended the books to be read in order of publication date. Fortunately, my oversight probably resulted in his selling more books than he might otherwise have.

The reason is simple: had I begun with the first book in the series, Florida Roadkill, I likely would never have sought out subsequent offerings, because I didn't like the main character. Dorsey's portrayal of Serge Storms, an amoral, borderline psychopathic, hyperactive Florida history addict and budding serial killer evoked little sympathy or affinity in this reader...and small wonder, you're thinking. What's to love about a serial killer? (Disregard Dexter for a moment.)

But here's an interesting thing, and a lesson for authors. Whether intentionally or by accident, Dorsey evolved Serge's personality into someone who - if not exactly lovable or sympathetic - is multi-faceted enough to engender something akin to goodwill on the part of readers who are patient enough to get to know him.

For example, in the introductory novel, Serge wasn't much of a drinker, but he did indulge in the occasional beer. In subsequent books, he was a teetotaler, which made him more interesting when contrasted with the completely hopeless addicts who inexplicably became his sidekicks and companions. In the beginning, he was humorless and ruthless; later, his ruthlessness was still evident, but it was tempered with a kind of vigilante justice that he directed toward those who preyed on the most helpless segments of society. (OK, there was still the occasional random, overly violent murder, but nobody's perfect.) Serge also became more introspective, exploring his own motivations along with the readers, although this exercise was generally more entertaining than enlightening.

Dorsey did something else with his main character that offers a good lesson for authors: he never completely described his physical characteristics. Medium height, athletically thin, prematurely gray, with piercing eyes. That's pretty much all there is to know about Serge's appearance throughout the series. This approach allows the reader to modify the character to his or her own notions, for better or worse. Sometimes less really is more.

The Serge Series (my own title; Dorsey has never, to my knowledge, put a label on it) won't be to everyone's taste. But as a primer on how to develop a recurring character, it's downright fascinating.

Random Thursday
February 10, 2011 7:49 AM | Posted in:

Let's dispense with the pleasantries and dive right in:

  • Rebecca Silver is an artist and designer living in New York City, and she's undertaken an ambitious project: to interview a different "creative mind" each day and post the interview on her blog, 10 Answers. The blog title comes from the fact that she asks each person the same ten questions, which I suppose simplifies the process quite a bit.

    Anyway, the reason I feel compelled to mention this is the one-word response that Tuesday's interviewee, graffiti artist Caleb Neelon, gave for the question If you had an extra hour each day what would you do with it? His answer, passeggiata, sent me to the dictionary where I learned that this is an Italian word referring to an evening stroll by the residents of a town. I like that. It implies activity, but not too much, with an emphasis on community and a sense of place. I agree; we could probably all do with more passeggiata. It's unfortunate that so many of our neighborhoods and communities aren't designed with that in mind. [Or perhaps our culture isn't designed with that in mind.]

  • Suppose the Wachowski Brothers (Matrix trilogy) hooked up with the Brothers Grimm (fairy tales, scary) to make a movie, and they called in Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to handle the cinematography duties. The result might be something like Ink, a 2009 movie that I streamed over Netflix last week. Have you ever watched a film that was so beautifully shot and skillfully edited that you actually thought to yourself, "dang, this movie is beautifully shot and skillfully edited," and it was a bit of a distraction, focusing on the technical aspects of the movie while still trying to keep up with the plot and dialog? Ink did that to me. If you're in the market for a "quirky," grown-up jewel of a fairy tale, I highly recommend this one. [Rated R, primarily for language]

  • It's too late for Valentine's Day 2011, but keep Tweet Rings in mind for next year. Just think how touched and amazed your sweetie will be to receive a high-tech titanium or silver ring etched with your favorite tweet. Look out, James Avery; the social media jewelers are breathing down your neck.

  • If you want something less hipsterish but no less geeky, check out Type Rings, another product by the Tweet Rings people. Billed as "rings for type lovers," this jewelry can be customized with your favorite quote etched in your favorite font (subject to availability). Nothing says "love" quite like "I love you" written out in Comic Sans.

  • You have to respect a creative megalomaniac like Phillip Toledano, who had a vast army of skilled Chinese artisans re-create historic works of dictator art, using his head in place of the original tyrant. The show starts here, where Kim Jong Phil's realization that he must live in a "closed loop of self-delusion" is brought to vivid life. I'm inspired by such a sense of clarity. [Link via Neatorama]

  • Heard this line from a country song on the radion yesterday: "I'm at home getting hammered while she's out getting nailed." [Banjo & Sullivan] Can't decide if the literary technique is chiastic, or juxtapositional, or something else entirely. Probably doesn't matter.

  • In closing, this proves that a company's staff web page doesn't have to be dull. Move your mouse around the page and over some of the staff photos to see what I mean. [Link via Twisted Sifter]
[Part 1 is here]

The shivering bubba - and for ease of reference, why don't we just call him Bubba? - perched atop his overturned airboat seemed nice enough, but he was obviously skeptical that the skinny, neoprene-clad guy riding a piece of styrofoam with a sail could be any help. To be honest, I shared his skepticism.

We discussed a couple of alternatives. He did have friends across the lake, and I could certainly sail back to them and describe his predicament, but they didn't have another boat and so that approach didn't seem too beneficial. Pleasure Lake had no facilities, no marina, no infrastructure, so there was no one "in charge" we could seek help from, and this was before cell phones were common. We both came to the conclusion that if anything was going to be done, it would have to be us doing it. And the obvious solution was to sail both of us to shore.

Fortunately, my sailboard - a Mistral Maui - was what is known as a "floater." I earlier used the term facetiously to describe Bubba, but it's an actual term of art in the sailboard business. A floater is a board with significant buoyancy, enough that it will easily support the weight of the sailor even when not in motion. Floaters are good boards for beginners, and they're also good for light wind conditions: the SUVs of sailboards.

At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called "sinkers," and you can guess why. They are smaller, less-buoyant boards that are very maneuverable and fairly unforgiving: the sports cars of sailboards. Many sinkers are so non-buoyant that the only way to mount them is to catch a gust of wind strong enough to lift the sailor out of the water and onto the board; this technique is called a water-start, and I think I managed to do it exactly once in my rather short sailboarding career.

But I digress. My board was quite buoyant (11'-12' in length and about 200 liters of displacement) and I could walk from end to end and barely dip below water level. The bigger question was whether it would support more than twice my weight. Much more.

I described my plan to Bubba.

"I'm going to carry you on my sailboard to the shore."

His eyebrows went up, but he didn't protest.

"I think this will work," I went on, sounding more sure than I was, "but you're still going to get wetter and colder than you are now. This sailboard won't support our total combined weight, but even if it did, I'm guessing you've never stood on a board, and it's harder than it looks. I can't afford for you to bring us both down."

Bubba nodded his understanding.

"Now, what I need for you to do is to slide into the water and partway up onto the board on your belly, grabbing the center of board, about where I'm standing. Let your legs trail in the water, and I'll try to get us to shore as quickly as possible."

Miraculously, he was able to pull himself onto the sailboard without pulling us both into the water, and I was relieved to find that we were sufficiently stable that this plan might actually have a chance to succeed. Now all we needed was some wind.

It was getting late in the afternoon - still plenty of daylight left, but the wind was starting to die, as it often does. But one advantage of having a floater is that you also probably have a huge sail, because you're anticipating lighter winds. That was indeed the case with my setup, and even a 5 mph wind would be sufficient for our purposes. (Truth be known, we would have been in more trouble had the winds been too high.)

As it turned out, the winds were favorable and we moved steadily toward shore. I'm not sure who was more relieved when we hit water shallow enough for Bubba to wade and hop onto dry land. By that time, he was turning a bit bluish, shivering uncontrollably, but the sunlight was welcome and the mile-long hike he had to get back to his truck would no doubt dry him out and warm him up. We shook hands and he set out. I climbed back on my board and headed across the lake.

I often wonder if and how he would have made it to shore without my help. Chances are that the water temperature wasn't cold enough that a twenty minute swim would have been fatal, but there's always a risk of cramping, or worse. All in all, it was probably fortuitous that I picked that afternoon to go sailing.

I never knew the guy's name. I also never heard how they got that airboat out of the lake.
Game wardens recovered the body of a Stanton woman on Sunday, one of two family members who died in a Scurry County boating accident over the weekend. Erin Cook was transported to a hospital, as well, where she was pronounced dead due to hypothermia. The body of Melody Cook, who didn't make it to shore, was found Sunday morning at 8:50 a.m.

This account of a tragic accident appears on the front page of today's Midland Reporter Telegram [online version], and as I read it, I had vivid memories of a similar incident that had a much happier ending.

Long time West Texans may recall that in the mid 1980s, the normally dry playa lake next to I-20 between Stanton and Big Spring was filled to capacity by runoff from record-breaking rainfall. At that time, it was named "Pleasure Lake" by wags, evoking a verdant image that was completely incongruent with the reality of a puddle in the middle of a mesquite-filled pasture. Of course, everything's bigger in Texas, and that "puddle" covered a good number of acres with water that was 6-8 feet deep in places.

The sudden appearance of a "lake" where none existed before produced a rather striking tableau for travelers scooting down Interstate 20, as the generally choppy surface of the water was made even more agitated by a double handful of sailboarders who were thrilled to find a windswept and generally boat-free body of water so close at hand. I was one of those fortunate folks on whom Mother Nature smiled briefly, and I spent a number of weekend afternoons honing my windsurfing skills at Pleasure Lake.

Thus I found myself in the middle of the lake one crisp fall afternoon, pushed smoothly across the water by light-but-steady breezes. The water was cold enough that I was wearing a drysuit (which is like a wetsuit except you stay, well, dry) and neoprene booties and gloves. The air temperature was probably in the 70s, and water temps were somewhat lower than that - not frigid, but also not something you'd want to spend much time in without protection. Or even with protection, for that matter.

We rarely had to share the water with boats, thanks to the shallowness of the "lake" and the lack of boat ramps, but during this particular afternoon, somebody had managed to get one of those Everglades-style, and evidently homemade airboats into the water. Some bubba was buzzing around the lake in it; I don't recall that he was being reckless or even annoying, but the noise was an intrusion in the normally mellow surroundings.

Suddenly, I noticed that I no longer noticed any noise. I looked across the water a few hundred yards and there was the airboat, only it was sitting at an odd angle, and not moving. I swung my sail around and headed over to see what was up.

What was up was the bottom of the boat, and the bubba driver was propped up on the floats, trying to stay out of the water. He'd managed to flip the dang boat, and was flung into the cold water. By the time I got close, his teeth were already chattering. He was about a hundred yards from the shore, the sun was getting lower in the sky, and by the looks of him, he was probably more of a floater than a swimmer, if you get my drift. Hmm. A quandary, and one that could get rather uncomfortable rather quickly.

Check back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion...which can be found here.

Super Bowl Ads: Winners and Losers
February 6, 2011 9:05 PM | Posted in:

My winners: The VW "Little Darth Vader" ad and the Chevy Silverado "Timmy's where...?" ad.

My losers: GoDaddy.com's teaser and the Groupon ad with Timothy Hutton.

My sentimental favorite: the full-length version of the Jack Ingram's HEB ad (was that a national ad, or just aired in Texas?).

Overall, I thought this was one of the weaker Super Bowls in terms of the quality of the ads. But I think that every year.

Super Bowl: Fourth Quarter
February 6, 2011 8:18 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, maybe concerned that you might be caught in the celebration. Green Bay wins the big one.

OK, maybe just a little angsty.

If you're a Bayou Verde fan, you should be very, very worried right about now.
"Desert and Mirrors and Teacher" - Camaro: Love the car more than the ad.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"I can hear you now" - Verizon: Works better for me than the us-vs-AT&T approach.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Mouldy Bay's offense has been their best defense. But if they don't score a TD here, they'll lose the game by one point.
"Reanimated Benzes" - Mercedes-Benz: Meh.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Cane in the Face" - House: Good as the show itself.
Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants

"Beaver in Road" - Bridgestone Tires: What is it with all these animals in the road?
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Contractually Obligated" - GoDaddy.com: Yeah, that's the GoDaddy we expected.
Ant Rating: Rating: 1 Ant

"Racing Stripe Beetle" - VW Beetle: Nice music, fun animation.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants
Bayeaux Vert seems incapable of stopping the Pittroplex's offense.

"Old Technology" - Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: Love the guy with the turntable and the headphones.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Wondering" - Pepsi Max: Surprisingly edgy for a soft drink ad...and it doesn't work.
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Talking Cars" - Cars.com: Talking cars work in the movies, but here...not so much.
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Dogsitter" - Bud Light: Attractively quirky.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Pittsdown wanted to challenge that last catch, but they've already used two timeouts this half, and would lose the third if the challenge failed. Strategery.

Another Pottsburg turnover. But can Bayou Verde capitalize? Or capitolize?
"Classic TV Shows" - NFL: Gimmicky, but cute.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Jack Ingram" - HEB: Sorry, but this one is off the hook. Be sure to watch the full version on YouTube (although the short version is most excellent as it features Aggieland...whoop!).
Ant Rating: Rating: 5 Ants

Super Bowl: Third Quarter
February 6, 2011 7:01 PM | Posted in: ,

So much for a quick-moving quarter. *yawn*

Oh, the most exciting play in professional football: a challenge from the sideline!

The best thing about the third quarter is that it's passed quickly.

"Eminem in Detroit" - Chrysler: Inspiring? Uh, how 'bout insipid? Inscrutable?
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Funky Bistro with Adrian what's-his-face" - Stella Artois: Singing to a beer. It's a French thing.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Old time service station" - Carmax: Inadvertent snicker.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

I do appreciate Fox for not running a commercial immediately following every kickoff.

"Psychedelia" - Hyundai Elantra: Have I said "meh" yet?
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Timothy Hutton" - Groupon: Uh...what th'?
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Border Crossing" - Coca Cola: Not bad. Not great, but not bad.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

How about that...might be a game here after all.

"Cram it in the Boot" - Mini Cooper Countryman: How do you say "meh" with a British accent?
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Test Baby" - HomeAway.com: Double-meh.
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

And, we're back, following a nutritious meal of corn dogs and cheese sticks.

"Let others go first" - Cars.com: Meh
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Tailor" - eTrade: Uh, I expected more.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Ozzy & Justin" - Best Buy: "What's a Bieber?" Classic.
Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants

Super Bowl: Second Quarter
February 6, 2011 6:18 PM | Posted in: ,

See you after the big halftime show, featuring the English Peas, or some other vegetable.

Your dedicated correspondent just had a boiled shrimp snack and it was awful. That is all.

And the Pottsville Feelers draw within a hat-trick. Could be a game after all.

Big Ben done got his bell rung. Green Bay loses a key pass defender. Generalissimo Franco is still dead.
"On Star Facebook Updates While Driving" - Chevy Cruze: Do we really need yet another driving distraction. I'm rating this down just for the concept.
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Kid in a Candy Store..." - CarMax: Not bad, not bad.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Pittstown forgot to show up for the game. Sorry, Jeff. 
"Loggers" - Snickers: Nothing new. (OK, I was actually "out of the room" when this ad aired and didn't catch the end. Mike informed me that it was Roseanne Barr getting flattened, which does redeem the ad significantly.)
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Monkey Parkers" - Some online job service: Ditto
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Oh, look. Some more scoring between commercials.
"Lord of the Rings parody" - Coca-Cola: Did I predict this or what?
Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants

"Tiny Darth Vader" - Volkswagen Passat: Totally cute.
Ant Rating: Rating: 5 Ants

"Western - Tiny Dancer" - Budweiser: Full of surprises, starting with Fargo's Peter Stormare cast as the gunslinger.
Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants

"Faith Hill and Unreal Rack" - Teleflora: Having Faith Hill kick it off made the ending surprisingly good.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Motorola Zoom: Take a slap at Apple at your own risk.
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Exhaust" - BMW Diesel: LIke diesel smoke is a bad thing?
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Ads between quarters:

"Reply All Email...Not" - Bridgestone Tire: Great use of special effects.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Tech History" - Volt by Chevy: Evoking Hendrix? Works for me.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"New .co Girl" - GoDaddy.com: OK, that WAS funny. I'm shocked.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Super Bowl: First Quarter
February 6, 2011 5:25 PM | Posted in: ,

"Eminem" - Lipton Tea: Uh, OK...
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

Cowboys and Aliens? Count me in!

"Everybody wants one" - Kia Optima:  Just for the special FX
Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants

"Cool guys befriend dork" - Pepsi Max: Shot to the crotch. Very original, Pepsi. Go sit over there by Bud Light and consider your sins.
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Resurrected Grandpa" - Doritos: They're just beating me down.
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Touchdown, Greenburgh Slackers. Some guy named Jordie just redeemed himself.

3rd round...

"Product Placement" - Bud Light: Somebody just phoned it in.
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Tommy's in Trouble?" - Chevy Silverado: Great concept, well-done. Good dog, Lassie, er, Chevy. Best ad thus far.
Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants
2nd round...

"Finger sucking, pants-sniffing" - Doritos: A bit too gross and weird
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Retirement home" - Chevy Cruze: Let's make fun of the old folks
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Abusive Wife" - Pepsi Max (But only because of the last scene)
Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants


OK, first ads of the game, and they're obviously trying to manage expectations:

"Hack Job" - Bud Light: OK satire of an HGTV show

Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

"Pug through the glass door" - Doritos: Lame
Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

"Mercedes Trap" - Audi: 3 Good use of Kenny G

Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

If you're unsure how to handicap this game, use the approach employed by my wife's second cousin, who, albeit quite cute and employed, is inexplicably unmarried, and who decides who to root for, in the absence of any other compelling reason, by which quarterback is most dateable. In this case, unsurprisingly, she's pulling for Green Bay.
By the way, this is the first Super Bowl in a long time where we can almost interpret the roman numeral, XLV, which is the metric equivalent of 183.

Oh, I missed the kick-off. But no one has scored yet so that's OK.
Has Christina ever sung this song before? That was, well, pretty bad, overall.
I guess there's nothing wrong with it, but those guys do realize that they don't have to put their caps over their hearts when they sing "America the Beautiful," don't they?

Big roar from the crowd when George and Laura appeared on the Big Screens. Cool.
Smoke machines? Really, NFL? Oh, look...there's Christina Aguilera.
The Steelers may be playing in the home of the Dallas Cowboys, but they couldn't manage to beat the Cowboys during the 2010 season. OK, so they didn't play the 'Boyz, but, still...
OK, the recitation of the Declaration of Independence was pretty cool, albeit a bit incongruous. There were lots of ex-football players saying lots of big words.

Did you catch Terry Bradshaw's interview with Pre-Felon Ben Roethlisberger? Sheesh, guys, get a room.
At the risk of sounding like I know what I'm doing, I need to lay out a few ground rules so you'll be able to recognize when things inevitably start to go south and we descend into uncontrolled chaos.

First, it's important to be able to quickly recognize the team I'm writing about. There's nothing worse than thinking I'm talking about the ugly shoes of the Pittsbay Stackers, when in reality I'm dissing the Greenburgh Feelers. So, to make things more clear, I'll refer to the latter as "those guys" and the former as "the Cheese Whiz Heads." Note: If the game gets crazy, I may inadvertently reverse the references; in that case, just go by the context and you'll be fine.

Second, we use an elaborate rating system to judge the ads, a rating system developed over years of analyzing the best data I could make up. It's called The Ant System® and it goes something like this: it's a sliding scale of 1-5 ants, with 5 ants represented by something like Coke's "Teach the World to Sing" ad, and 1 ant represented by anything produced by GoDaddy.com. But how, you might ask, will I recognize the rating? Good question. Watch carefully for the subtle clues:

Ant Rating: Rating: 1 Ant

Ant Rating: Rating: 2 Ants

Ant Rating: Rating: 3 Ants

Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants

Ant Rating: Rating: 5 Ants

Third, you should always feel free to weigh in with your own observations, opinions, recipes, paranoid delusions, and predictions, keeping in mind of course that by leaving a comment you've confirmed my suspicion that you also didn't get invited to a Super Bowl party.

OK, I think that about covers it. Any questions?

Oh, I almost forgot. If you want some insights from someone who actually cares about the game itself (what a concept!), check out Jeff's place.

Super Bowl Ads: Pre-Game Predictions
February 6, 2011 3:36 PM | Posted in: ,

We're about ninety minutes away from kick-off, which gives me plenty of time to do the usual in-depth preparation that I'm known for. That's why I'm watching something on The Food Channel, working up an appetite for Super Bowl snax.

I don't think The Food Channel will be showing any of the Super Bowl ads, but I feel confident in making a few predictions for what's coming up. To wit:

  • There will be plenty of ads featuring animals acting like humans, and being really hilarious in the process.

  • There will also be plenty of ads featuring humans acting like animals, and being much less hilarious in the process. (I'm thinking of you, Bud Light.)

  • Kids will be big, and guys will be big kids.

  • At least one sports figure will appear in a commercial that will cause him (or her) to wonder, tomorrow, "what was I thinking?"

  • GoDaddy.com will be in a class by itself, that is to say, class-less.

Speaking of GoDaddy, one of its biggest competitors, Network Solutions, has posted a parody ad on its website, employing Cloris Leachman as "the Go Granny." It's not hilarious, and it's a little offensive in its own right, but it is a shot over the GoDaddy bow.

Let the games begin!
Against my better judgment, the Gazette will once more be the scene of uninformed opinion and inexpert commentary regarding just about everything related to the Super Bowl. You're invited to join in with your insights, as we select the best and worst TV ads for the year.

Tune in around kick-off, assuming I'm up from my nap by then.

Craftsman Cordless Inflator
February 5, 2011 10:28 AM | Posted in:

I was a little skeptical when I opened the Christmas gift from my brother and saw what looked like a cordless drill. It was actually a Craftsman "cordless inflator" - a portable air pump that uses the standard Sears 19.2 volt battery system. I had no doubt that it was a reliable piece of equipment, but given its small size, how could it be an effective tool for inflating tires?

Photo - Cordless InflatorAs it turns out, this little guy can move an amazing amount of air in a very short period, and has replaced the floor pump that I previously used to inflate our bicycle tires, as well as the 12-volt inflator I used for bigger jobs.

The inflator has a built-in pressure gauge, and the unit is rated to 200 psi, meaning it easily inflates our 110 psi bike tires. And did I mention it moves a lot of air? Earlier this week, the tire pressure monitoring system on my Honda Ridgeline indicated that one of truck's tires was under-inflated. It took less than two minutes for the Craftsman inflator to bring the tire's pressure from 27 to 31 psi.

The inflator also has a nifty automatic shut-off feature that allows you to specify a pressure setting that turns off the pump once that pressure is achieved.

The only caveat is that the pressure gauge accuracy needs to be calibrated. In the case of my unit, the gauge reads 4-5 psi high, meaning that I need to set it for around 35 psi to achieve 30 psi (I determined this by using the Ridgeline's built-in pressure monitoring...assuming that it's accurate. But I also double-checked it with a pencil gauge.). But once you know the adjustment, operation is a no-brainer.

If you already have tools that use the Sears 19.2 volt battery system, this inflator would be a very economical and useful addition to your workshop or garage. The unit comes with a battery, but it doesn't include a charger, so you'll need to factor in that purchase if you don't already own any related products, and those chargers are not inexpensive.

Random Thursday - The Cold Weather Edition
February 3, 2011 9:34 AM | Posted in:

While the current cold snap isn't record-breaking, it does represent the most extreme temperatures in recent memory and, if nothing else, providing new fodder for discussion. To wit:

  • How embarrassing is it that the Great State of Texas is having to rely on Mexico for electricity to bridge the supply gap, thanks to about 10% of our power plants being offline, apparently caught unprepared for the bitter cold. On the other hand, it's a nice change from the usual exports of drugs and violence.

  • So far, we've experienced only one of the "rolling blackouts," during a 30-minute spell yesterday morning. It occurred before sunrise, but after we were out of bed, and the absolute darkness that we rarely experience was, frankly, a little bit thrilling. It was a reminder of how much artificial light exists even after we've turned out the lights...small night lights, LED clock faces, glowing on/off buttons on various electronic devices, etc. But it wasn't just the darkness that muted the senses. When all power goes off, so does all artificial sound, at least in our house. Frankly, we could probably do with some of that sensory deprivation at bit more often. I'd rather it happen when it's warmer than 8° though.

  • OK, I need to amend something in that previous paragraph. We didn't have absolute quiet when the power went off thanks to the insistent and irritating alarms from the four uninterruptible power supplies that protect most of our computer and home theater equipment. That's a design feature; they're battery powered and the whole point is to let you know when there's been a complete power failure (as if you wouldn't figure that out anyway). So, I had to crawl under desks and reach into pitch black cabinets to silence the alarms.

  • The rolling blackout didn't cause any damage, but we may not come through the cold spell unscathed. One of water lines from our reverse osmosis unit is frozen and the obvious worry is that when it finally thaws (perhaps tomorrow afternoon?), we'll find out the hard way that it's cracked. Because of the way the line is routed through the walls and attic, I can't get to it to check it, or to try to thaw it out. So, we've got that to look forward to.

  • Despite the name of this here blog-like thing, fire ants are not my favorite critters. One of the silver linings for the brutal cold is that it may decimate the fire ant population, and that would be a very good thing. Fire ants are warm weather insects, although they seem to have adapted as they've expanded their territory out of the Deep South. Only time will tell if they've burrowed deep enough this winter to survive extended near-zero temperatures. I was visiting with our exterminator yesterday, and he admitted that he didn't know how it would turn out, but was hopeful that it would at least knock back the population.

  • The cold weather is also playing hob with car electronics. The "check tire pressure" indicator light now burns continuously on my Ridgeline, even though the tire it says is out of bounds actually has the highest pressure of the four. I have no idea how to reset the fool thing. I may have to invest in one of those automotive diagnostic kits that allows your iPhone to interface with the car's onboard computer.

    Update: I should have googled before posting. Turns out that the tire pressure monitoring system on the Ridgeline resets automatically when the tires are inflated to 29 psi. I had added air, but only to 28 psi.

  • In closing, let me just observe that ducks are either really macho, or really well insulated.

How cold is it...?
February 2, 2011 5:30 PM | Posted in:

It's so cold that I spotted this floating in the middle of our neighborhood pond earlier today:

Photo of a polar bear on an iceberg

Now, that's something you don't see everyday. Where did all those ducks come from, anyway?

[Tip of the ski cap to my buddy Jim for partial inspiration. Yeah, that's right; I'm shifting the blame.]

Using an iPad as a second monitor
February 2, 2011 6:08 AM | Posted in: ,

I love my 13" MacBook Pro. It's portable and powerful, and capable of doing every work-related task I throw at it when I'm traveling. But...

That display is so teensy. I know; that's the compromise I made when I selected that model, but it's occasionally (OK, often) aggravating not to be able to see two open documents simultaneously. Gee, if there was only some way to add another display, but without having to lug along another piece of equipment. Life would be so good.

Air Display IconWell, effective yesterday, life is so good. Yesterday, I purchased (for the princely sum of $9.99) a little application called Air Display from the App Store thereby increasing my laptop's screen area by about 55%. Air Display allows you to connect your iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) to your laptop or desktop computer and use it as a second (or third) monitor.

The main requirement is that the computer and the iPad have to be connected to the same wi-fi network, but once the app is installed on the iPad (and a small "helper app" put on the computer), the connection to each other is quick and sure. You can configure the app to automatically connect to your iPad when they're both in range, or you can do it manually.

And it works as advertised. There's some latency in the iPad's screen so you wouldn't want to use it for gaming or videos while functioning as a second monitor, but the resolution is crystal clear for documents and still graphics - probably even better than on my laptop.

With Air Display, I can put a Word doc on the iPad and use it to copy and paste text into an HTML doc on my laptop. Or I can monitor a website on one device while doing a blog post on the other. The really slick thing is that you can move the iPad wherever you want it - even put it in your lap - and reorient it to landscape/portrait mode and the picture automatically adjusts.

The iPad's touch screen continues to operate even while connected as a monitor, so you can navigate that device via either mouse or touch. According to the documentation, depending on your operating system, you can even use multi-touch gestures on the iPad, although I haven't tried that.

The Air Display works with both Mac and Windows machines (but check system requirements for both), and with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. And again, this app works only if you have access to a wi-fi network.

Note: Your mileage may vary, but I do find that the auto-connect feature is a bit jicky. If I use app switching on the iPad (double click of the Home button) to select a different app, and then switch back to Air Display, it doesn't always return to the original state. I'm not sure if I'm doing something wrong or if that's a bug. But when it does work, it's like having a Very Smart Monitor.

Note #2: I took advantage of Avatron's live chat support feature and the tech confirmed that the reconnect feature was somewhat dependent on the length of time you were away from the app. Jumping away for a few seconds to check WeatherBug is probably OK; leaving for a few minutes to play Angry Birds will require a reconnect. I hope they'll fix this in a subsequent release.
Anyone driving slower than me is an idiot.
Anyone driving faster than me is a jerk.
The preceding observation is perhaps the best reason that the proposal to create a 24-hour hotline that allows Texans to report bad drivers is a bad idea. I fear that many of us lack the objectivity and discipline to distinguish dangerous drivers from those who are simply ill-mannered (or whose driving habits just differ from ours).

I doubt that any law enforcement office in the state is adequately staffed to deal with the flood of calls regarding someone's idea of "dangerous driving," and I don't understand how response time could be adequate to deal with a truly dangerous situation. In addition, there's the possibility for abuse. Your neighbor parked his trash can on your side of the property line? Well, just call him in for "dangerous driving." How about if the car in front of you is sporting a bumper sticker for the "wrong" college, or the driver is of the "wrong" ethnic group? Without some accountability built into the process, those things alone could lead someone to file a report.

Then there's the subjective assessment of what constitutes "dangerous driving." The guy who routinely rolls the stop sign at the end of your lightly-traveled cul-de-sac is in technical violation of the law, but is he driving dangerously?

In fairness, according to the above-linked report, this idea seems to have some traction with local law enforcement officials, so I'm obviously missing something. I simply worry that a law like this shifts the ability to be a jerk and/or an idiot from the steering wheel to the cell phone.

About this Archive

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

January 2011 is the previous archive.

March 2011 is the next archive.

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