November 2019 Archives

Alert Gazette readers are accustomed to reading accounts of tragic outcomes for my DIY projects. Those outcomes aren't always my fault - anyone can set fire to their own pants while welding - but, I'll admit that I'm not really the most capable handyman. So, it gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure to report that I've recently had not one but three (!) victories in this area. Granted, none of them will make the Popular Mechanics Hall of Fame, but at least no burning clothing was evident.

Keyed Up

We recently inherited from my parents a beautiful and massive antique sideboard, which now graces our dining room. It has two pairs of locking doors that require skeleton keys to unlock. The keys also function as handles to open those doors.

Antique sideboard

The sideboard had two keys of different sizes for each pair of doors, which was fine, but a bit inconvenient when we had to move a key from one lock to the other if we needed to get inside both doors. It would be great to have a second key for the set of doors we used most often.

The last time we were at my parents' home, I ran across an orphan skeleton key in a desk. Could it be that this was a missing key for the sideboard? I was excited to check when we got back to our house.

Unfortunately, it wasn't even close to fitting the lock. But as I compared it to the original key, I noticed that the barrel of the new key was identical to the old key, and the bit (the flat part that slides inside the lock) was similar...but where it differed, it did so because it had too much metal. That was key (pun intended) to my plan: metal can always be cut away. I figured that a steady hand and a Dremel tool would be all that was needed to create a duplicate key, and I had one of those things.

Fortunately, most skeleton keys and their locks are not precision instruments, and as with horseshoes and hand grenades, close is good enough. After a cut here and a grind there, we ended up with a second key that does the trick.

Below is a before-and-after comparison of the new key (shown on the left). The yellow shapes on bit of the key show how the original key looked before I worked on it. Drag the vertical yellow bar to the left to uncover the modified bit.

Skeleton keys before modification 'Skeleton keys after mods

It does occur to me (after the fact, of course) that somewhere there's a lock that's now missing a key. Oh, well. We'll burn that bridge when we get to it.


Buoyed by that incredible display of knowledge, skill, and blind stupid luck, I shifted my attention to another critical task: removing the warp from one of the wooden doors on an armadillo trap.

Shortly after receiving a second trap from The Armadillo Trap company, one end began to develop a noticeable warp. After about a month, the warp progressed to the point where the door would no longer drop into place, and a trap with a permanent open exit is basically just a fun house for animals. I contacted the company about getting a replacement door (they sell them but I didn't think I should have to pay for their manufacturing defect), and in a show of remarkable customer non-service, they never responded. I took matters into my own hands.

It's a proven fact that that which can be warped, can be unwarped. Possibly. I just made up that fact, but I'm pretty sure it might apply to things made out of wood. Possibly. Anyway, armed with that made-up fact, I filled a pan with water, put the door into the water, and placed a 30-pound weight on top of it, centered over the warp. I left the door in the water for 24 hours, then removed it. The warp had straightened somewhat, so the next step was to complete the process.

I fastened a couple of short lengths of 2x4 to the door using large C-clamps and left them on the door for another 24 hours. At the end of that time, the warp had been removed to the point where the door now functioned as it should. So, the aforementioned made-up fact is, in fact, a real least where armadillo trap doors are concerned.


We live in a small, gated neighborhood, in a town with a crime rate so low as to be basically non-existent. To my knowledge, there's never been a break-in in the history of our neighborhood. So, obviously we need a security system...according to someone in our household, who shall remain nameless (but whose nom-de-blog starts with an M, ends with a B, and has an L in the middle).

I resisted as long as I could, but despairing of ever again having a home-cooked meal I finally relented and agreed to try out a system from SimpliSafe, the DIY security folks. I used their website to configure a system for our house, with the total coming to just over $500 for the equipment. However, since everybody spies or eavesdrops on everything I do, shortly after configuring the system I was notified of a 30% discount (there's a 50% "Black Friday" discount today!), and with that plus some credit card perks, I snagged everything for around $35 out-of-pocket.

Photo - SimpliSafe base stationThe shipment arrived a couple of weeks later (hey, SimpliSafe guys...check out Amazon's delivery system, how 'bout?), in a rather small box filled with even smaller boxes. The system consists of a base station that connects to your wifi (if you have one; it uses a cellular connection in the absence of wifi); a keypad that connects to the base station; and multiple types of sensors that also connect to the base station. Ours included multiple door sensors (we have seven exterior doors, not counting garage doors), glass breakage sensors, motion detection sensors, a camera, and an extra ear-splitting siren guaranteed to deafen any bad guys who have the misfortune of opening the wrong door at the wrong time. (We will also probably suffer heart attacks, so it's a wash.) You can also get sensors for water leaks, fires, and windows.

Setup and installation was figuratively a piece of cake, with one minor exception. Each sensor must be recognized by and connected to the base station. This should be as simple as selecting the sensor type in the SimpliSafe app (did I mention that you need to install an app on your phone or tablet for easiest installation?) and then pressing a button on the top of the sensor. In a perfect world, the base station immediately identifies the sensor and tells you in an Alexa/Siri/Google Assistant-like voice that it's cool with it, but in my case, it never did and so I couldn't tell if the sensor was activated or not. I didn't know how long to press the sensor button, and if my button-pressing duration was insufficient or too long  or too wimpy or what.

Fortunately, even without the vocal feedback from the sensor, one can check the connected sensors section of the app and the serial number of each connected sensor will appear. So, here's Installation Tip #1: keep each little sensor box because it has the serial number on the outside; it's a way to verify which sensor has been connected, if you and the base station aren't on speaking terms. You can then use the app to rename the sensor, to something like "Doorway to the 5th dimension" or "Window in the hellion's room" or whatever is most applicable to your mindset. I tended to the less imaginative labels such as "master bedroom" and "front door," but that's just how I roll.

Note: I later ordered a couple of additional sensors and the sensor-to-base-station connection worked flawlessly, in that as soon as I pressed the button on the sensor, the base station told me in no uncertain terms that we were in business. Still not sure what happened with the original installation, although we were having some minor wifi issues at the time.

Sensor installation is straightforward. Each one comes with mounting screws, but they also have built-in adhesive strips if you're wary of commitment or just don't want to drill holes in throughout your house. All sensors, cameras, and keypads are wireless; the only thing that's plugged in is the base station. Make sure you have plenty of CR2032 coin batteries on hand...they are the Official Power Source of Security for SimpliSafe (and while all sensors ship with batteries, several of our door sensors came complete with "low battery" warnings).

If you've had any kind of monitored security system before, the SimpliSafe operation will be completely intuitive. Set up a four digit disable code, create a safe word for false alarms (ours is fir...ah, you almost caught me, didn't you?), and press "home," "away," or "off" buttons depending on whether you're hom...well, you know. The $15 per month remote monitoring provided by SimpliSafe is optional, but if you're gonna have a security system, you might want to have one that's actually, you know, *secure*. And the "no contract" month-to-month, cancel-at-any-time monitoring arrangement is much more homeowner friendly than pretty much any other service out there.

Our system has been in place for about a month and I'm disappointed to report that we haven't yet experienced a break-in. Well, not counting the time I walked out the door one morning without disarming the alarm. #learningcurve

Random Thursday: The Friday Edition
November 15, 2019 1:14 PM | Posted in:

That was fun! I had forgotten how enjoyable it is to write about a variety of topics, thereby demonstrating that my shallow and uninformed opinions run not only deep but also extremely wide. So, let's do it again, shall we, as the topics of the day are compelling.

Before we get started on the subjects you really came here for, let's talk about Myles Garrett. By now, almost everyone has seen or heard about what he did last night during the Cleveland Browns/Pittsburg Steelers football game. Here's a visual reminder:

Myles Garrett hitting the opposing quarterback with his own helmet
Is this assault and battery...or justifiable retaliation?

Count me as one of the many who are faulting Garrett for something that appears to be an egregious act of violence. But there are some counterarguments regarding what happened on the field just prior to this that might - might - lend some understanding, if not exoneration, to Garrett's actions. It will be interesting to see what a full investigation reveals (and I'm sure the NFL wants to do exactly that, considering that this involves one of the most gifted athletes in the league).

I'm a big fan of TV ads, mainly because they're usually more interesting than the shows they interrupt. The ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance featuring the tongue-tied actor cracks me up, as does the "Stay in your lane, bro..." only-OK tattoo artist pitching AT&T's...something.

Most local ads, however, fall short in terms of both production and entertainment value. I suspect it's because they don't have the budgetary luxury of being subtle and hoping you can figure out what they're peddling or why you should give them money. But there's one local company that seems to recognize the value of creative ads, and that's Austin-based Radiant Plumbing and Air Conditioning. If you're not in the Austin TV market, you're missing out on the following gem:

Seriously, isn't this an example of what we wish all local TV ads could be? The ad is just cheesy enough to let you know it's all in good fun, but the production values are first rate. It's an ad worth watching multiple times just to pick up on all the details you might miss the first time.

Alert Gazette readers will recall my promise not to write a 50,000 word novel during this year's National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo (which, as of today's date, would mean there are 25,000 words that have escaped a fate worse than death at the fingers of my keyboard...aaaaannnd that's the worst word picture I've painted in a long time, and that's saying something), thereby extending my streak to twenty years of not doing this. 

However, I am toying with the idea of possibly pretending to participate in NaNoGenMo, because it's more my speed cup of tea jam style (?). The National Novel Generation Month has a similar premise to NaNoWriMo except that instead of dedicating valuable synapse circuitry to stringing 50,000 words together, you get a machine to do it for you. 

My Leaf Blower Writing AssistantThis is a great idea; it's about time machines started pulling their weight. Although I'm pretty sure there are some authors who grokked to this approach years ago (I'm looking at you, Little Stevie King).

The chief challenge of letting a machine write your stuff for you is finding just the write right device to suit your style. In my case, I'm thinking that a Craftsman gasoline-powered leaf blower would do the trick.


Me: What are you watching?

Her: It's Halloween II.

Me: It's also 9:30 in the morning.

Her: I'd rather watch this, where everyone is dying, instead of the impeachment proceedings, where everyone's lying.

Me: ...

Say, did you see the story about the cows who were found on an island four miles from where they were supposed to be? It appears that they were caught up by Hurricane Dorian back in September and somehow ended up on an island on North Carolina's Outer Bank.

According to the headline, the cows swam to their new grazing grounds, even though - as the writer puts it - swimming that far is "outside their general range of expertise." I tend to agree with this assessment, given my own extensive bovine expertise, having seen a number of cows alongside the road over the years. I think the more likely explanation is also more intriguing.

Cows are much more adept that we generally give them credit for
Hang four, dudette...udderly gnarly!

In closing (I'll bet you thought we'd never get here), we had one of those cold, crisp, clear mornings that make our eastern exposure a joy to view. The combination of bright sunshine, 32º temperature, and 93% humidity created a peaceful scene that I never tire of seeing. Hope your day is just as peaceful.

Mist rising up from Pecan Creek in Horseshoe Bay, Texas
I can't remember the last time I posted something to the Random Thursday category. Fortunately, my archivist is on top of things and tells me that it's been (a) almost six months since I wrote a Random Thursday article, and (b) more than two years since I actually posted a Random Thursday thing on an actual Thursday. I trust you're sufficiently impressed with the efficiency of the Gazette's back-office staff (even if it only serves to highlight the inadequacy of its actual blogging staff).

Today is yet another dreary, drizzly, depressingly dour day...the 87th consecutive one, or so it seems. But for one brief shining (literally) moment yesterday afternoon, the clouds in the western sky lifted, and a solar-powered spotlight illuminated the oak trees across the creek. MLB was the first to notice and draw it to my attention, whereupon I snapped a photo with my phone through one of our living room windows.

I was going for a simple scenery picture, but as I took the picture I noticed a large white bird flapping its way into the frame. It was a great egret, and it landed in the creek and immediately began fishing for its supper. Its appearance add some visual interest to the photo, as shown below.

Photo of sunset, great egret, and whitetail deer

However, what I didn't notice until later was another animal in the photo. It's hard to spot in the above image, but you might be able to discern it if you look closely. Hint: Look in the open area.

By the way, while I'm pretty sure the bird is a great egret, there's enough general confusion about whether a given bird is an egret, or a heron, or a crane that someone (the National Wildlife Foundation) has gone to the trouble of creating a page to address this very important identification issue. The key takeaway from this page for me is that egrets are actually a type of heron, which I never knew.

Speaking of archives (you're still with me, right?), I've been going through some old posts - dating back to 2002, when I first fired up the Gazette - as part of a Top Secret Project which may or may not come to light in the near future.

In going through those archives, I was struck by a couple of things. First, I wrote some pretty cringeworthy things, which at the time I was sure were quite insightful and wise, but which I now realize only elicited the kind of condescending sympathy from readers that one usually reserves for kindly old dementia patients.

But, more striking was the amount of interaction that bloggers and non-blogging readers had with one another, back in the Golden Age of Blogging (which I define as the early-to-mid Oughts). As I've lamented on other occasions, Facebook and other social media outlets have supplanted those kinds of interactions, and while they're not necessarily worse, they're not the same, and some of us just can't abide change. I think there was a lot more "iron sharpening iron" in the comment sections of many blogs than I've seen nowadays in the aforementioned social media. is what it is and there's no going back, but I reserve the right to be nostalgic about the good ol' days.

I also appreciate more than ever some of you who are reading this and who have dropped by, even if sporadically, pretty much since the beginning. You know who you are.

I had planned to close with a video of a possum that was strolling blithely past our sliding glass door yesterday, shortly after I took the photo at the top of the page. However, in my haste to get a video with my phone, I failed to notice that when I touched the "record" button, nothing happened, so when I hit the "stop" button after the possum exited the premises, I captured eight seconds of our deck and my foot. 

But, not to worry. There's plenty of possum faces to go around.

Photo - Closeup of a possum's face
It's the first day of November and I'm extending my streak to twenty years of not participating in NaNoWriMo. If that term is unfamiliar and you don't have the inclination to click on the link that I toiled and sweated over -- not that I'm complaining -- here's an abbreviated introduction.

NaNoWriMo is twee code for "National Novel Writing Month." It began in 1999 as a way to encourage people to write a 50,000 word (or longer) novel during the thirty days of the month. That works out to1,666.666667 words per day, by the way; I assume the numbers to the right of the decimal represent punctuation, if one indulges in such plebeian undertakings. According to the website (feel free to visit it should you doubt my reporting), 21 people participated in the first edition. In 2017, more than 300,000 aspiring novelists around the world participated. NaNoWriMo has expanded its scope by becoming a non-profit organization tasked with supporting and encouraging writers year-round, not just in November, although that 50,000 word deal is still what it's best known for. All that is noble as a grape, to quote a famous space pirate.

Every year, I spend literally minutes thinking about participating. I could be the next...I don't know...who's a good novelist? Stevie King? Aggie Christie? Little Johnny Grisham? And then reality sets it. I manage to write about three blog posts a month, none of them approaching 1,666.666667 words (although I DO use a lot of commas and parentheses and that's not nothing), so upping that output and extending it to a daily occurrence is about as likely as the Washington Nationals winn...oh, never mind. Bad metaphor. Or simile. Or...something. Definitely not an onomatopoeia.

It's not just that I can't gin out a bunch of words, it's also that I have nothing interesting to say that would warrant a torrent. (OK, that was pretty cool, if I do say so myself.) Literary creativity is not my strong suit, or at least as it applies to an actual plot. I mean, I founded this blog on the goal of providing quality Content Free™ writing, and I'm proud to say that I've rarely let my readers down in that regard. But it's not because I'm intentionally trying by curbing my innate talents. As the prophet Harry Callahan wisely observed, a man's got to know his own limitations, and mine are tightly clustered around a lack of sustainable creativity. And I'm fine with that; I really am. I've come to embrace my narrow focus on topics of little-to-no interest to Main Street, coupled with a writing style that calls for large doses of Ritalin and/or The Botanist.

So, I tip my cap to those aspiring or accomplished writers who have committed themselves to the admirable discipline of pounding the keyboard for the next thirty days in hopes that range from "this will be the next NYT best seller" to "this will chase away those personal demons that continue to plague me" or "my bucket list will then be one item shorter," because all of those motivations are worthy.

As for me, I plan to focus on my plan of not having a plan and being surprised at how things work out.

By the way, according to Microsoft Word, I've just written 538 words, not including this graf (I got no credit for punctuation; thanks a bunch, Bill Gates), and I'm spent. Time for a nap.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from November 2019 listed from newest to oldest.

October 2019 is the previous archive.

December 2019 is the next archive.

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