May 2011 Archives

My Apologies to Internet Explorer Users
May 31, 2011 5:14 PM | Posted in: ,

I rarely pass up a chance to either make fun of or otherwise denigrate Microsoft's browser, especially the older versions (I'm looking at you, IE6...and also you, IE7, and to a somewhat lesser extent you, IE8. IE9, you seem to be an OK dude.). The strange behaviors and outright bugs in those browsers create a kind of special hell for web developers, and it's an ongoing struggle to decide whether to go to the extra, often significant trouble to make a website look and work the same in those old browsers as it will in modern browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari, or to just let the IE users see a funky, stripped-down version of the site. More and more, I lean toward the latter approach.

It's never my intent (or a good idea) to cause a site to be completely unusable or inaccessible to an IE user. That's just spiteful if done intentionally, and no good purpose is served. But, sometimes things happen inadvertently, and, embarrassingly enough, that has been the case with this here blog-like thing for a number of months.

I found out today (via my wife, whose employer uses IE7 as its standard browser) that the main page of the Gazette suffered from a syndrome that I've coined "The Incredible Shrinking Text." It seems that as you scroll down the last eight or ten entries on the home page, the font size decreases until it's all but illegible by the time you get to the last entry.

This issue doesn't appear in the "modern" browsers I mentioned above, and I was unaware that IE was having a problem, since Microsoft stopped building a Mac version of IE years ago. I immediately knew what was causing it - in theory anyway; it had to be caused by a relative font-size declaration in the style sheet for the blog's main template that wasn't being cleared, and thus continued to iterate into smaller and smaller text as each subsequent post inherited the proportionately smaller font styling. (Don't worry if that doesn't make any sense.) However, it took me a while to track it down and fix it. Believe it or not, I have better things to do than troubleshoot my own blog.

Interestingly, from one perspective IE was actually handling the coding error properly by recognizing it and trying to apply it. The other browsers were assuming that it was a mistake and ignoring it. While the ends justified the means for them in this case, you could make a solid argument that we really don't want software second-guessing us. (I hold up auto-complete on smartphones as Exhibit A for this argument.)

Regardless, I apologize to any of you who suffered eyestrain from trying to read the increasingly small text on the Gazette. I suppose the fact that this has been going on for months and I just now learned of it could be due to the fact that not that many people are still using old versions of IE, or that those who do were keeping current with the blog and thus not discovering the problems with the older entries. Or, no one is reading.

Random Holiday Nature Scenes
May 30, 2011 9:30 PM | Posted in: ,

We had a rather uneventful Memorial Day, without much to report. We did go on a couple of walks around the neighborhood, and I thought I'd share a few sightings of local flora and fauna.

The first was actually last night, and not local at all, at least not in the "neighborhood" sense of the word. We were coming home from visiting with friends who live about ten miles south of town, and we spotted something white flashing in the pasture not far from the road. I immediately recognized it as the north end of a southbound pronghorn (which, of course, is not really an antelope). I've always heard that there are a few pronghorn around Midland County, but this was my first sighting. Very cool. Unfortunately, while we did have a camera in the car, we weren't quick enough to get a shot.

Photo - Cottontail rabbit relaxing

The next two pictures are of two pairs of quail that were hanging around the north pond. The first one seems to be doing his impression of the king of the hill (I guess he's got a bird's eye view of things):

Photo - Quail standing on boards

The next one is a photo of the other two quail flying away in a panic. I had spotted them earlier and figured they'd fly when we got closer, so I had my point-and-shoot aimed in the direction I guessed they'd fly. They were as fast as I expected, and I didn't know if I'd even gotten them in the shot until I downloaded the photos onto my computer.

Photo - Quail flying away

The final photo is simply a reminder that if you want to find something green in Midland, you can drive out to Woodland Park and pretend we're not in a drought of epic proportions.

Photo - Wildflowers along sidewalk
It's important to keep the Historical Records up to date, so here's what's happening in the front part of la hacienda:

Barn Swallows - When last we checked in on the little #@*%& fellows, their nest was almost complete. It's now finished and positioned so close to the ceiling that we can't see inside the nest, even with our tallest ladder. They think they're so smart, but they underestimate the vastness of my tool inventory, specifically the small round mirror mounted on the telescoping, articulating arm. (I knew I'd have a use for that someday, besides helping me locate stuff that I drop behind the workbench.)

So, here's what's inside the mysterious nest:

Photo of barn swallow egg reflected in mirror

Interesting that there's only one egg in the nest. I thought they usually had a multi-egg clutches.

By the way, I hope you're impressed by the photo, as I stood near the top of a 12-foot ladder, holding the mirror in one hand and the camera in the other, while Debbie re-read my life insurance policy.

Moving on to the flora, I'm pleased to report that our pomegranate-tree-reborn-as-a-bush is growing like a weed, which it is, by definition. Anyway, we put this funky three-sided tomato cage around it to tame its wildness, and it's now 3' tall. Pretty sure it won't have any fruit this year, but we're hopeful about 2012, assuming the world doesn't end.

Photo of pomegranate bush

And, finally, our palm tree has fully recovered from its close encounter of the frostbite kind. It's still a bit lopsided from where Debbie had to prune the dead fronds following that bitter freeze (feels a bit weird to be writing about it, given that it's around 100° as I type this).

Photo of palm tree
By the way, don't let the apparently green grass in our lawn fool you; it's becoming increasingly heat-stressed due to the watering restrictions. I'm not sure why it looks this good; the back lawn is more brown than green. And based on the long range weather forecast, it's going to get worse before it gets better. Pray for rain!
It's been several days and I'm still stewing about the final results from Dancing With The Stars. The fact that Chelsea Kane, by far the best dancer on the show this season, didn't even make the top two is astounding to begin with, but to think that she was beaten by Kirstie Alley, who was perhaps the 6th or 7th best dancer of the bunch takes the cake. (And we're not making any jokes about Kirstie eating it, because she really did do a great job in getting in shape and losing weight during the course of the season. I'll grant her that much.)

I realize that DWTS is an entertainment show that happens to use ballroom dancing as a focus to get people interested, rather than a vehicle to showcase - and reward - good dancing. But this is the first season in memory that the best dancer didn't make the top two, and one of the rare times that the best dancer didn't end up winning (Donny Osmond comes to mind as one of those exceptions, winning over Mya who was clearly more talented as a dancer).

This drives home what was probably already obvious to everyone else: DWTS is a popularity contest and the judging is secondary to viewer voting. I get that, and it is what it is. But I shall no longer be an engaged viewer for that reason. DWTS will have to get along without me and my expert commentary. I hope they're prepared to meet that challenge.

For their parts, Chelsea has been a most gracious second runner-up, and winner Hines Ward has been nothing but gentlemanly and gracious throughout the entire season. I was impressed with Ward's development as a dancer...and he was definitely the second-best on the show.

Also, if you're wondering if I'm embarrassed, making such a big deal over an insignificant-in-the-cosmic-sense-of-things TV show, the answer is no, I'm not. I'm a blogger, and that's how we roll.

Random Thursday
May 26, 2011 8:32 AM | Posted in:

It's been a while, but since Random Thursday posts are like falling off a bicycle, I think I remember how to do them: just start typing and let gravity do the heavy lifting. Or is that "heavy dropping"?

  • And speaking of falling off a bicycle, we sort of did that last weekend. Well, what we did was more like falling with our bicycle, but the result was the same. Remember Artie Johnson's recurring tricycle schtick in Laugh In? Yeah, we repeated that exact thing on a neighborhood street, thanks to shoes that suddenly wouldn't unclip from pedals as we pulled up to a stop sign. No injuries and no damage resulted from our slow-motion descent to the pavement. That's one advantage of riding a recumbent; you're much closer to the ground when you embark on stupid bike tricks. 

  • We're gonna need a bigger hard drive. High-end camera maker Hasselblad has announced a new model that produces 200-megapixel images. And we thought HD video took up a lot of storage space.

  • Whenever you start thinking your workplace is insane, go visit this site for a reality-check. [Warning: bad language and disturbing mental images throughout] Be sure to read the About page; context is everything for this slice-of-working-life blog.

  • As we consider the implications of worldwide natural disasters, an obvious question is "where do you go to be safe?" According to a study published in the New York Times, the answer is "not Dallas." In fact, of the eight "Highest Risk" metropolitan areas, four are in Texas, including Corpus Christi, Houston, and Austin. Two of the lowest risk areas are in Oregon, but as the previous bullet point proves, not all significant dangers originate with Mother Nature.

    It's interesting to note that Odessa appears to have a slightly higher risk of natural disasters than Midland. There's no explanation provided; the reader is invited to supply his or her own theories.

  • Here are some work samples from a photographer who specializes in closeups of snakes, very pretty ones, at that. Some of you know better than to click on that link; the rest of you will be rewarded by some captivating images.
ABC is airing promos for a new summer fictional drama entitled Combat Hospital. This is a Canadian-conceived show set in 2006 in a military hospital at the Kandahar Airbase in Afghanistan, and purports to depict "the frantic lives of the hospital's resident doctors and nurses from Canada, America, the UK and other allied countries."

Wartime hospital dramas on TV are nothing new. M.A.S.H. was set during the Korean War, and China Beach depicted an evacuation hospital during the Viet Nam War. But both of these shows were created years after the conflicts they dramatized. Combat Hospital will be a fictionalized account of an ongoing war, and that raises some moral and ethical issues in my mind. There's much that doesn't feel right about having a fictional account of a war simultaneous with the actual death and suffering that's taking place on a daily basis in Afghanistan.

  • The show will undoubtedly depict casualties in graphic fashion. What will be the effect of such scenes on viewers with family members or friends who are in actual harm's way?

  • The doctors will surely be able to save some lives in the show. How does that play with viewers whose loved ones weren't saved? And when the inevitable medical failures occur, is there a "multiplier effect" for the grief and trauma of those who suffered loss in real life?

  • Are there ethical implications of having actors portraying soldiers and being paid many times more than the salaries of those men and women in the military who are not acting but serving in the same roles?

  • If the story lines play out true to "Hollywood" form, there will be subplots involving "foxhole romances," and dark humor. Will those things trivialize the real life-and-death drama of the ongoing war? And while there's no doubt that humor is a healing and strengthening technique even in times of intense stress, does it matter that such humor is originating from a writer's imagination? (I don't know if any of the show's writers have served in the military, and specifically in Afghanistan. That could make a difference in the answer to some of these questions.)

  • Will the show's writers be able to keep their personal opinions about the war out of the story lines, or will Combat Hospital be a vehicle for propagandizing a specific political viewpoint? And if the program promotes an agenda or perspective that's the slightest bit at odds with American military goals and strategies, how might that feed the enemy's own propaganda machine and morale?
We live in an age of compressed news cycles and real-time reporting. That's not a bad thing, unless you subscribe to an "ignorance is bliss" philosophy. But when that leads to an overlap or blurring of lines between actual and dramatized events, troubling questions arise.

One might argue that such TV shows serve a useful purpose in helping us to remember the truth in the saying "war is hell," and the reality of the sacrifices being made each day by those serving in the military (and their civilian support infrastructure). The counterargument is that if the actual news reports aren't sufficient for such purposes, then a fictionalized television show won't make any difference.

For me, and I suspect for many other Americans, Combat Hospital is too much, too soon.

Currency Devaluation
May 25, 2011 6:34 AM | Posted in: ,

Make Your Franklin is a "community art project" that lets folks redesign the US one hundred dollar bill and upload the results to an online gallery. The site even provides a high resolution scan (7300x3000 pixel) of a Benjamin in case you don't have one handy (and I never do).

A lot of the entries show careful and sophisticated design considerations; just as many are pretty crappy (a technical art term). And while I think there are few suggested designs that may be an improvement on the original, I feel obligated to submit my own design in the hope of introducing some badly-needed comic relief sanity to the country's currency:

$100 Reimagined

Stationary Hummer
May 24, 2011 6:02 PM | Posted in: ,

So, say you're a hummingbird trying to cope with 40mph+ winds, blowing dust and smoke from wildfires on the north and the south, temperatures in the 90s and humidity around 5%. What would you do?

Probably the same thing this little guy is doing...perching on a tomato cage sheltered by a concrete block wall, and leaving the hovering to the helicopters.

Photo - Hummingbird perched on tomato cage

Underwater Flight
May 20, 2011 7:20 AM | Posted in:

It's been years since we've been scuba diving, following a period where we took a dive trip for seven or eight consecutive years. We enjoyed the sport immensely, but other priorities - financial and otherwise - took over, and our gear is probably slowly succumbing to dry rot in our closet.

It's hard to explain to a non-diver how amazing it is to "fly" through the water, over and around reefs, inspecting aquatic flora and fauna whose diversity boggles the mind. When properly weighted*, one can move in three dimensions almost as effortlessly as a bird in the air (notice that I didn't say as gracefully; that's still a stretch).

That's why I find the photos on this website so compelling. The context of being underwater, yet over areas that people normally walk, ride bikes, or sit and read books or have conversations adds a unique psychic perspective to the sport. Conversely, it would be equally interesting to hike through the area having once dived it.

I'd love to dive this spot, but for one detail: the water is probably frigid, given its source is melted snow! The diver in the photo appears to be wearing a dry suit, a must for cold water diving.

Link via Neatorama

*A scuba diver fights a continuous battle between the body's natural buoyancy and the weight of the gear, with the goal being neutral buoyancy - the ability to hang motionless in the water. Depending on body type, one may need as much as 30 pounds of lead weight to achieve neutral buoyancy. On the other hand, the last time I dived, I wore no additional weights.
If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, we've just been enslaved due to inattention.

I stepped onto the front porch this morning, just before daybreak, and this caught my eye:

Photo - Barn Swallow Nest

I swear, that nest was not there yesterday at noon, when Debbie and I did our usual lunch hour tour of the front yard (yes, our lives are filled with excitement and danger!). But it does explain why barn swallows were so seemingly perturbed as we sat on the front porch last night, eating ice cream and reading, until sunset. We thought they just wanted to go to bed, since they frequently perch overnight on the small ledge provided by the ceiling trim.

I had planned to check the nest this morning and if there were no eggs in it, to knock it down. But I did a quick check of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and found that I'm too late. Once the nest is built, it's illegal to destroy it, whether or not it has eggs or babies. We'll have to wait until the birds migrate away next fall.

The good news is that the nest is not over our front door, and is situated so that the inevitable mess will be manageable. I'd rather it not be there at all, and I take it somewhat personally that the birds won this battle, but the war is a long one and I'll bandage my wounds and plot my counterstrike. The immediate price the birds will pay will be my camera invading their space on a frequent basis.

Photo - Barn Swallow Flying in Front of Nest

Bike Shopping
May 18, 2011 2:15 PM | Posted in:

Our 13-year-old Ryan Duplex recumbent tandem is starting to show its age (aren't we all?). It's been a great bike and over the thousands of miles we've had it, we've had to walk home only once (well, twice...but the second time was my fault, not the bike's) due to a mechanical problem. And even that was possibly due to a less-than-perfect repair job by someone who should have known better. We've certainly gotten our money's worth, and it's still quite rideable, but technology has advanced, and we're getting the itch to update our steel steed.

Here's what we're considering: a Gulfstream, manufactured by Longbikes, based in Englewood, Colorado. The Gulfstream looks similar to the Duplex for good reason. In 1999, Dick Ryan sold his company to Longbikes and they took over the manufacturing. (According to this article, Ryan repurchased the company, but I'm pretty sure it's not in active business.) Longbikes has tweaked the design and components to produce a bike with cleaner lines and to take advantage of technological advances such as disk brakes.

Photo - Gulfstream Recumbent Tandem

Another reason for upgrading is that the transport of the Duplex has grown increasingly problematic. We'll solve this issue by having two S&S couplings installed on the new bike which will allow us to easily (uh, I hope) break the bike into two halves, which will solve our transportation issues. (The photo above shows the two couplings on the main tubes, just behind the front seat.) We briefly considered the option of eight couplings, which allows the bike to be transported in two suitcases, but changed our minds when the president of Longbikes dissuaded us due to the excessive complexity of the manufacturing (and the additional $3,000 had a little to do with the change of heart!).

There are any number of different recumbent tandem designs, and some are no doubt faster and sportier-looking, but I can't imagine any of them offer a better combination of comfort and stability than this one.

While we haven't definitely decided to pull the trigger on this new acquisition, it's pretty appealing. And if we could work the timing so that we were able to drive to Colorado for a vacation and pick up the new bike on the way, that would be awesome. Some of our best vacation and cycling memories are of riding the Duplex around Summit County, CO.

So, stay tuned and we'll keep you up-to-date. We still have to jump the biggest hurdle: what color should the new bike be? For some odd reason, maroon seems to keeping bubbling to the top.
I daresay that Georges Seurat's painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is only recognizable to most people in the most vague, I-think-I've-seen-a-poster-of-that-somewhere-before sort of way, and most of us would surely not be able to describe it sight unseen. I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with this; the painting is more than a hundred years old and Seurat is not a tip-of-the-tongue artist like, say, van Gogh or Monet.

But I find it very interesting that when the cast of NBC's TV show, The Office, is inserted into an updated, posterized version of this painting, people absolutely come alive with passionate discussions of every detail of the scene. If you don't believe me, click the preceding link and scroll through the comments section.

Here's a comparison of the two scenes; click on the yellow vertical slider and move it across the original painting to reveal the TV poster. By the way, if you are indeed one of those artsy purists who knows their stuff, I apologize for cropping the original slightly to make it overlay more closely to the poster. Sacrilege, I know, but we really just lost the umbrella lady's bustle, and a tiny sliver off the top of the painting.

Seurat's Painting 'The Office' Poster

I guess it's not a big deal, but it kind of saddens me that we can get so excited over a TV show and its characters, and yet a piece of amazing artwork merits nary a second glance. Have we become so cheap in our pursuits?

And here's how out of touch I am: I didn't even know Michael was no longer on "The Office."
Today's newspaper ran this AP story under the headline, "Mutant pointy boots create a craze." When I first saw the headline, I thought, "well, so what's new? I've seen lots of pointy boots on the dance floor, at country dances."

Uh, well, no.

Photo of pointy boots

Those, my friend, are Pointy Boots. Those are "you'll poke your eye out, and your dance partner's too" Pointy Boots. Those are "medieval court jester" Pointy Boots. And I have to grudgingly admit it takes a real man to do something so silly, something that's rivaled in the fashion world only by the hats at the Royal Wedding.

I realize that significant cultural gaps exist throughout the world, and I have great respect for most aspects of the Mexican culture. But it appears somebody is playing a big joke on these vatos.

Someone claimed that this phenomenon is huge in Dallas, I can't see it catching on in Texas, especially in certain parts of the state. For example, I doubt that you'll ever see this on the A&M campus:

Badly Photoshopped photo

There is one thing from this report that really bothers me. In the aforementioned AP story, a fellow named Francisco Garcia is quoted thusly:
There are some steps where you have to cross your feet and throw yourself to the ground...
Francisco, I don't appreciate your taking credit for my signature move, which I've perfected through years of diligent practice. Now, granted, my partner isn't particularly wild when I try it in the middle of a waltz, but that's an entirely different issue.
And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
This passage of Scripture, excerpted from the 9th chapter of Luke (and quoted here from the New American Standard version of the Bible) has so many incredible implications and questions that volumes of speculation could be crafted about it. 

If you're not familiar with the context of the passage, Jesus was seeking some prayerful solitude at the top of a mountain (having just fed 5,000 people a week earlier) and brought along a few of His disciples (Peter, James, and John). Those three probably had no clue about the scene that was about to unfold. And, as was often the case, they fell asleep, only to awake to the incredible tableau.

I'm not qualified to do a rigorous exegesis of the passage, but as a curious and overly imaginative reader, here are some random thoughts I have whenever I read it:

  • When I was a corporate drone, I was part of a small team that went to the headquarters office in Los Angeles to make a presentation to corporate staff. At that time, my employer was one of the ten largest companies in the U.S. During a break in the meeting, we were standing around shooting the breeze with some of the corporate guys, including the CEO, and I thought, "how cool is this, to be hobknobbing with a guy who makes more in a week than I do in a year?" Now, multiply that feeling by about a billion, and perhaps we get an idea of what Moses and Elijah were thinking as they conversed with the CEO of the Universe.

  • On the other hand, were they talking to Jesus God, or to Jesus Man, if you know what I mean? They were discussing "His departure," which I interpret to mean His crucifixion and death, so perhaps divinity took a backseat to humanity in this instance.

  • Anyway, I would love to know the nature of the conversation. Were Moses and Elijah encouraging Jesus? Were they comforting Him, or giving Him advice? Did they really know the details of what was about to happen? And if they did, how did they find out? Does God conduct staff meetings and share things like that with a few special folks? And what was Jesus saying to them? "Yeah, I'm really dreading my little trip to Jerusalem. I don't suppose you guys want to come with me...? These guys I have now have good hearts, but man, they fall asleep easily." OK, seriously though - what did they talk about?

  • A couple of verses later in this passage, Dr. Luke refers to the departure of Moses and Elijah, and even that intrigues me. Elijah already had a reputation for dramatic exits, but this sort of sounds like they just...walked off? To where? Was there a stairway to heaven? An escalator? Am I being too literal? Perhaps.

  • And, finally, while we have a lot of details about what happened to Jesus following this event, I don't recall reading any other reports from or about Moses and Elijah. So, I wonder if they went back to the Father and filled Him in on the confab. Of course, He already knew all the details, but perhaps it was for their benefit, although to what purpose I can't imagine. It's not like they needed anything else to bolster their faith, for example. I mean, you're already in heaven, getting your marching orders directly from the top.

  • And speaking of that, this just occurred to me: why did God send those two, instead of His angels, like He did after Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness? Was it important for Jesus to converse with other humans (albeit glorified ones)?
I could go on and on; this is one of those passages that just unfolds like a mystical, infinite origami, revealing more mysterious beauty with each new exposed surface. If you have any insights, revelations, or questions of your own about it, I'd love to hear them.

It's only fair to look at what one theologian has to say about this passage. William Barclay calls the transfiguration "another of the great hinges in Jesus' life upon earth." He goes on to say:
What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration we can never know, but we do know that something tremendous did happen. Jesus had gone there to seek the approval of God for the decisive step he was about to take. There Moses and Elijah appeared to him. Moses was the great law-giver of the people of Israel; Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. It was as if the princes of Israel's life and thought and religion told Jesus to go on.

Ant Band
May 13, 2011 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, feast your eyes on this little jewel:

Photo - Fire Ant Gazette silicon wristband

That's right - it's an authentic Fire Ant Gazette wrist band, crafted by otherworldly artisans deep beneath the earth (in the general area of Wickett) from the finest silicon harvested by documented workers from the forests of Silicon Valley, and tinted in Classic Lead-Free Pewter to accentuate the elegance of the finest evening wear and/or t-shirts. It's embossed with the iconic Fire Ant and the reverse side has the URL imprinted with this oddly playful font that evokes the mystery and wonder of Walt Disney after a three day binge with the dwarves.

What's more amazing is that one of these beauties can be yours for a song - well, for a poem, to be more precise. I'll send one to the first three people to leave a haiku about fire ants in the comment section of this post. 

Because, frankly, I don't know what I'm going to do with a case of these things. So help me out here, will ya? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Before there was Flash, the primary means of displaying movement on a web page was via animated GIFs, low resolution graphics with mostly clumsy transitions. Animated GIFs have mostly been relegated to retro-cult status, with very few serious uses for the format (although done properly, with the right graphics, they provide a quite passable substitute for a Flash banner ad). But that's changing, at least artistically, with the increasing popularity of a technique called "cinemagraphy" (not to be confused with the film-making term, cinematography). 

Cinemagraphs are animated GIFs in which only part of the scene moves. The effect can be quite subtle, and also quite striking and unexpected. Someone has referred to them as "Harry Potter style moving photos," and if you've seen any of those movies, you can probably relate to that description. Of course, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a semi-animated one is surely worth even more.

Cinemagraph by Jamie Beck
Photo by Jamie Beck; animation by Kevin Burg; posted on model Coco Rocha's blog

This is a great example of how a photo can be made even more striking with the addition of subtle movement, and the repurposing of the GIF format is brilliant: old and busted is made into new and hotness.

This example was created via a collaboration between photographer Jamie Beck and web designer Kevin Burg. This interview doesn't provide any insight into what techniques they used to create this specific image, but tutorials for making cinemagraphs are starting to pop up here and there

I'd love to try my hand at this, now that I have an HD camcorder. It appears that all you need is a suitable short bit of video and Photoshop (to be honest, while I think I knew that you could edit video in Photoshop, I've never tried it and had completely forgotten that fact). Sounds simple, right?

Actually, making an animated GIF in Photoshop is quite simple, almost point-and-click simple. The above example is a series of 35 layers, each displayed with an interval of .07 seconds, and set to loop endlessly. The key is to choose the right source image.

The downside to cinemagraphs is that they yield very large files. The one shown above is almost 400kb and I've seen some that are multi-megabyte in size. That makes them somewhat impractical for inclusion in the typical website design, although the size and composition of the image can be managed to yield smaller sizes.
One of our local TV stations made a provocative post on Facebook this morning, on the subject of the Congressional hearings about gasoline prices, and whether oil companies "should get these tax breaks as oil and gas prices continue to soar, even if it impacted business here in West Texas?"

The comments were predictably appalling in their lack of understanding of even the most fundamental economic realities, both concerning oil company earnings and taxes, and the pricing of crude oil and gasoline. Here's a sample, completely unedited (you might want to have a barf bag handy):
IF the United States were to opt out of OPEC (or just do away with OPEC all together), WE would be able to survive and support ourselves.

if anything they need to PAY BACK the money theyve stolen from us over the past 10 years

why not just stop importing oil, and stop putting money into terrorist pockets thus making our country vulnerable.

Pshh there should be a law against gas going above a certain price. And if for some reason it has to go above that set price for any length of time the oil companies should be fined and that money should be paid back by them to the American people during income tax as their way of saying sorry we are ripping you guys off here's your money back.

NOPE. Everybody I know is STRUGGLING. Why should THEY GET A BREAK-OF ANY KIND??? Let the ppl that go to work-EVERYDAY-get a break!

they make profits, why shold they get a break!

Well. It's hard to believe that our nation has an economic crisis, given the simplicity of the solutions these budding Nobel laureate geniuses have pointed out. How could we have been so stupid as to miss the fact that we could have just done away with OPEC and - voila! - gasoline would be cheap and life would be good. And I was particularly surprised to learn that the US has apparently secretly been a member of OPEC all these years. Why, it makes perfect sense now that I've been shown the light!

Enough of the sarcasm (not really, but let's rise above it for the time being). How about let's defy tradition and base our opinions on facts for a change? To wit:

  • The profit margin in the oil and gas industry is 6-8%. Perspective: this was lower than all manufacturers as a whole, and much lower (by a factor of 2-3x) than pharmaceutical and computer manufacturers. [Source]

  • The oil industry generates almost $100 million PER DAY in revenue for the US Federal Government [Source]

  • Between 2004 and 2008 the industry incurred more than $300 billion in income taxes, more than half of which went to the US Federal Government [Source]

  • Oil prices are NOT SET BY OIL COMPANIES. [No source required; it's just fact, like the sun rising in the east]

  • ExxonMobil is frequently used as the poster child for all the things wrong with the oil and gas industry. In the last three months of 2010, they earned a little more than 2 cents per gallon on gasoline, diesel and other finished products made and sold in the US. And gasoline sales made up only 3% of the companies net income. And as far as taxes go, over the past five years, ExxonMobil incurred a total U.S. tax expense of almost $59 billion, which is $18 billion more than it earned in the United States during the same period.  [Source]

  • And, finally, in case there's some lingering doubt, the US is not, has never been, and never will be (thanks to many factors, not the least of which is our own federal government) a member of OPEC. Sheesh.
The facts surrounding the "tax breaks" alluded to by the TV station are beyond the scope of this post, but it's worth noting that many of them are not oil and gas industry-specific; they apply equally to all manufacturing industries.

If you get some kind of perverse pleasure from punishing oil and gas companies by raising their taxes, so be it. Just recognize that (a) it won't result in lower gasoline prices, and (b) it will, in fact, result in lowered US production of oil and gas, and the logical supply-and-demand impact will be...oh, never mind. That economic concept is apparently too complicated for some people to grasp.

Update: I intended to include a link to George's excellent post over at Sleepless In Midland wherein he breaks down the supposed "subsidies" that oil companies enjoy.

Cake Break(ing and Entering)
May 11, 2011 9:29 AM | Posted in:

I think Dante left out at least one important level of Hell when he penned Inferno. Surely there's a special punishment reserved for whoever invented those plastic cake containers that you get at the grocery store. 

You know what I'm talking about - those blasted snap-together covers that require an advanced degree in engineering to disassemble. As you start separating the top from the bottom, the pieces somehow magically reconnect as you go around the container, and you find yourself in the confectionary equivalent of an endless do-loop. (If you're a bicyclist, you've probably experienced the same phenomenon with a tire and rim; just about the time you think you've broken the bead, the other side snaps back into place and you're at square one - or circle one.) The energy expended to get into these things could lead to the best weight-loss strategy ever invented.

And even when you succeed in opening the container, the price you pay is having cake bits fly around the room like straw in a tornado. Coconut cakes are particularly susceptible to this problem. And don't get me started on the incredibly annoying snapping sounds that accompanies the extrication attempts. Our smoke detector alarm should have that decibel level.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here's an actual photo of me trying to access said coconut cake in our kitchen. Someone needs to invent the equivalent of a powered can opener to deal with these infernal creations. Otherwise, I'm breaking out the chainsaw.

Photo - Trying to break into a cake container
Random observations while contemplating an age-old question: exactly how much Angel Food Cake is the equivalent of one piece of chocolate cherry fudge cake?

Oh, and reader beware. Here there be snark. In large quantities. And possibly *gasp* sarcasm.

  • Think the EPA isn't out of control? First, they* want to shut down the oil and gas industry in West Texas because of a lizard, and now they're going after the U.S. Navy, claiming bin Laden's burial at sea is an egregious example of ocean pollution.

  • OK, maybe that's a bad example; hard to disagree with that judgment. But it's interesting to note that BP was all in favor of the burial at sea, so they wouldn't be the only ones responsible for scum in the ocean.

  • You were warned, weren't you?

  • Julianne Hough was the featured entertainer at last Saturday's American Cancer Society Round-Up at the CAF Hangar. You probably know her best from Dancing With The Stars, which she has abandoned in order to pursue careers in music and movies. She's billed as a country musician, though, and while my definition of country music is pretty broad and flexible, I just couldn't stretch it far enough to encompass most of her music. Much of it was so pop-ish as to be indistinguishable from every other young energetic blond female singer on the scene today.

  • That's not to say she isn't talented - she is, very much so - but her musical choices didn't work for us. Ironically, the most country-sounding songs were also the ones that rocked the hardest, and those were very good indeed. It's hard to say what demographic she's shooting for, but I'd like to see her stay a little edgier. She'll never compete with Gretchen Wilson or Miranda Lambert in that regard, but even Carrie Underwood can play the bad girl (or mad girl) when it suits her.

  • Frankly, Julianne was upstage by the other act that played before and after her, Midland's own The Rankin Twins. They graduated from Midland Lee High School a few years ago and are now based in Austin, with one CD to their credit and another coming out this week (May 14th, to be exact). Their music is danceable rockin' country, even if they have one of the geekiest-looking backup bands in the business. And to top it off, they're Aggies. Whoop!

  • One last thing about Round-Up (which is a hugely successful fundraiser for the ACS...the live auction alone raised more than $200,000 Saturday night): the CAF Hangar is a marginal venue for such an affair. I'm sure the organizers couldn't predict the 99 degree temps that were present at 7:00 p.m., but they surely suspected that the non-air-conditioned facility wouldn't be too comfortable, as they provided cardboard fans at each table. And to add insult to [imagined] injury, they appropriated all the men's restrooms for the women, and place a few porta-johns outside for the guys. And did I mention that they didn't light them? I'll leave to your imagination the condition of those facilities at the end of the evening, factoring in the effects of the open bar.

  • The drought continues in West Texas. It's so dry that the deer are coming into town looking for water. In fact, someone slammed one with their car last week, just down the road from us (on Mockingbird Lane just west of Hwy. 349, for those who live around here).
*OK, technically it's the US Fish & Wildlife Service that's hot and bothered about the lizard, but the joke** doesn't work as well if it's factually accurate. Work with me here, will ya?

**OK, technically it's debatable whether this qualifies as a joke. Give me a break, will ya?

We're on the map
May 6, 2011 9:20 AM | Posted in:

Way back in the summer of '09 I complained about the fact that our then-three-year-old neighborhood still wasn't appearing on Google Maps. I also wrote about contacting Tele Atlas, the company who provides the mapping data for Google and many other companies in assorted industries. And then I promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Imagine my surprise last week when an email arrived in my inbox from Tele Atlas with a status report:Thank you for contacting Tele Atlas. Based on a review of your report, we can now confirm that the change you suggested has been made. It will go out in the next release of our map database. This report is now closed.
Tele Atlas supplies maps to the companies that make devices or applications, not directly to the people who use them. We update the map we supply so these companies can incorporate the map update in their own systems. When this process is complete, your change will be made available to you. It may be possible to purchase an updated map; please contact your device manufacturer or application provider for further information.

Thanks again for your willingness to help keep Tele Atlas maps up-to-date and accurate!

The email contained a link that further confirmed the company's handling of my feedback.

I'm pretty sure Tele Atlas's response lagged behind the actual mapping updates, because our neighborhood has been appearing on Google Maps for some time, although I have no idea when it first showed up. (Interestingly, the street view still shows a photo of our three-year-old house under construction. I guess driving through the streets of Midland isn't at the top of Google's to-do list.)

It's nice to know that there are companies who do respond to feedback from clients. We'll ignore the actual response time in this case.

Coincidentally, we just received a letter from Honda informing us that an updated DVD is available for our truck's navigation system (for "just" $150). Honda uses NAVTEQ for its mapping data, and NAVTEQ's data has been more up-to-date than that provided by Tele Atlas. I guess we'll spring for the update, although we haven't made much use of the Ridgeline's nav system lately. In fact, the last time we used it, it led us miles out of our way, into the middle of a pasture instead of to the hotel adjacent to the interstate we exited in order to follow the device's instructions. OK, perhaps that's an indication that an upgrade is advisable.
I see that the Midland Reporter Telegram is officially supporting Clayton Williams's request to pump and sell to Midland more than 40 million gallons of water each day from his land west of Fort Stockton. The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District board begins hearings today to consider the issue, which has huge ramifications for a variety of stakeholders.

The MRT's editorialist acknowledges that competing interests make compelling arguments for and against this transfer of our region's most precious resource.

Nevertheless, we think Williams' plan stands the test of Texas law and science. First, Texas tradition allows property owners to harvest, ship and sell goods coming from the owned property. Oil is a good example. Property owners share in oil revenue as royalty owners when oil is discovered on their property. We see little difference in this model here with the exception that Williams plans to do the harvesting of the water himself rather than through an investor such as an oil company.

I'm not a lawyer or an expert in the area of Texas water and mineral rights, but I do question the analogy to the oil industry. While it's true that mineral owners in Texas have the right to capture the oil and gas under the acreage they own, that right is not unlimited. There are laws and regulations designed to protect adjacent mineral owners from drainage of their property by another owner.

In addition, there are also laws and regulations governing how water can be taken from surface streams and rivers. As far as I know, a private landowner does not have an unrestricted right to dam a river and take all the water from to the detriment of those living downstream. In the sense that the aquifer in question in Pecos County can be likened to an underground stream, there's a legitimate question as to whether the kind of pumping proposed by Williams is encroaching on the rights of those landowners "downstream." (It's an indisputable fact that formerly free-flowing springs to the east - the direction the aquifer extends - dry up when pumping begins.)

The idea that granting the pumping permit is consistent with current law might mean that perhaps the law itself needs to be revisited. If this issue ends up in the Supreme Court, as some think, a fresh look at an old law might be the most useful outcome.

Reading List
May 3, 2011 9:08 PM | Posted in:

Here's what I'm reading now. Well, not right now, because I'm writing this. Don't be so literal (pun intended). Also, because I know you care about such things, I'm including a parenthetical note about the method of word delivery.

  • The Dark Design - The third installment of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld saga. Riverworld is ridiculously audacious in scope and complexity, and should be on the must-read list of every aficionado of speculative fiction [or, sci-fi geek, if you prefer]. (iBooks edition on iPad)

  • Freddy and Fredericka - I read Mark Helprin's hilariously insightful novel about the future king of England a year ago (read my brief review here). It seemed like a logical choice to accompany the hype surrounding the royal wedding. And it's even better the second time around. (Kindle edition on iPad)

  • Low Country Summer - This is, frankly, a chick-flick novel, authored by Dorothea Benton Frank. I'm reading it because the publisher, HarperCollins, sent me a copy to review. Don't tell anyone, but it's pretty darned good. Watch for a complete review within the next few weeks. (Treeware version)
How can I possibly balance three such disparate tomes, you might ask. It's actually easy, now that I've given up completely on trying to focus or concentrate on any given subject for more than fifteen consecutive minutes. I blame social media, artificial sweeteners, and an increasing awareness of human mortality.
Willie Nelson's concert in a less-than-packed Horseshoe Arena last night was a model of efficiency.

His bus backed through the doors of the coliseum at around 7:25 p.m., behind a stage that was a model of minimalism: one snare drum, two beat-up amps, a piano, and a couple of microphone stands. Willie appeared ten minutes later- wearing his trademark black t-shirt tucked into his old-man jeans (I'd call them dungarees if I actually knew what that meant), wearing a dime-store black felt hat that inevitably gave way to a series of pre-tied bandannas which he routinely pitched into the audience to their apparent great approval.

Without fanfare, he hitched up his pick-worn guitar Trigger - an instrument which, like Willie himself, has been rode hard and put up wet - with that funky hooked strap, and launched into a musical performance that was, well, workmanlike, if not inspiring. Did he know where he was? He never gave any indication - none of those "helloooooo, West Texas!" or "gee, it's great to be in Midland!" cliches employed by insincere lesser lights. In fact, in keeping with the theme of spareness, he wasted few words on the audience (a brief exception being his introduction of a couple songs - I Ain't Superman and You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore - he wrote while laid up following "that carpal surgery").

Willie's voice remains clear and strong, and his guitar playing, if not always precise, is consistently passionate. (And surprisingly energetic at times. During one song, the title of which escapes me at the moment, he jackhammered a crescendoing beat, steady as an electronic metronome, that made me fear that poor Trigger would finally shatter into a hundred shard, strings ricocheting throughout the venue, and possibly taking out one of Willie's big-haired female fans.)

He paid musical homage to some of the great "outlaw" country artists, including Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Charles (OK, that one's a stretch), and the original outlaw himself, Hank Williams. Sometimes, the tunes were almost unrecognizable as he put his on spin on the old songs, but that's forgivable. After four decades of singing them, you'd also be forgiven for trying to find something fresh.

Willie has surrounded himself with good musicians, which should surprise no one. His "little sister," Bobbie, is an excellent pianist, especially on the more honky-tonkyish numbers, and the virtuoso harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, brought a welcome dimension to the band's otherwise sparse sound.

Almost precisely 90 minutes after starting, he unhooked his guitar, tossed the last of the bandannas, and exited the stage. The crowd cheered expectantly, anticipating an encore in response to its standing anticipation that wasn't fulfilled, as the roadies immediately began packing equipment and clearing the stage. But I heard no complaints about the short show; people were instead marveling, "well, he is almost 80, after all."

I'm not a huge fan of Willie Nelson's music (gee, was it that noticeable?), but I must admit that this was a very enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes (and I'm trying to ignore the fact that it worked out to $1/minute, based on our ticket prices). Every Texan should experience him in concert at least once, and find some comfort in a storytelling style that seems to be fading from the musical landscape.

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