March 2020 Archives

Spring in this part of Texas is not really a season. If the year was a play, spring in Central Texas would be intermission...a pause between the dead brownness of winter, and the oppressive heat and mosquito swarms of summer. But that pause is, as they say, refreshing, because a lot happens during that brief interval.

[Disclaimer: The preceding is a broad generalization and one should actually never do that about weather in Texas. In fact, this year is a good example of that, as the second day of spring was 20 degrees colder than the last day of winter.]

Spring can be really beautiful around here, but it all depends on one thing: rain. We've been fortunate this year. I've measured almost eight inches of rain at our house in the first three months, pretty evenly spaced through each month. The result is a massive crop of wildflowers, plus generally happy plants and animals overall.

Everything combines to make for some interesting photographic subjects. Here's a pictorial of some springtime scenes around Casa Fire Ant.

A fine spring in the Texas Hill Country starts and ends with bluebonnets, our state flower. We scattered a some handfuls of seed around the vacant lot next door a couple of years ago. Last year, a disappointingly few came up, but this year the number increased exponentially. They were confined to plot of about a hundred square feet immediately adjacent to our lawn.

Knowing that the neighborhood's lawn maintenance crew would eventually be around to mow the lot, I used my weedeater to carefully create a very discernible border around the stand of bluebonnets. I even spent a half hour with hand clippers removing the weeds and grass around each flower so there was no chance of not observing them. Here's the result of that painstaking care:

Photo - small stand of bluebonnets
The halcyon days of our personal bluebonnet crop

It was a happy, placid scene. It brought a smile to our lips and a spring to our step and a boost to our spirits. Then the mowers arrived. You know what's coming, right?

Photo - small stand bereft of bluebonnets
The aftermath of the Great Bluebonnet Blitzkrieg

The heartless drivers of the mechanized monsters tore through our pastoral scene like Nazis through Poland a hot noisy knife through blue butter. (And to add injury to injury, they returned today in an apparent attempt to execute those few who managed to escape the initial onslaught.)

OK, it's not as though there aren't eleventy zillion other bluebonnets blanketing the landscape around here, but these were OUR BLUEBONNETS, DANGIT! *sigh* Life does go on, though.

So, let's not leave the subject of bluebonnets on such a depressing note. As the following photo demonstrates, we're all about diversity, even when it comes to the state flower:

Photo - white bluebonnets amongst the blue onesUm...whitebonnets...?

Because of genetic mutations, it's not uncommon to find white or pink variations of bluebonnets. For local readers of the Gazette, this small stand is at the corner of Bay West Blvd and Blister Gold (assuming those philistine mowers haven't gotten to them!). It's likely that these flowers will not be here next year, as their recessive genes will eventually be overrun by the dominant blues.

Another springtime phenomenon that Hill Country residents are accustomed to is pollen, and we're now entering the peak live oak pollen season where the stuff will fall like rain.

Photo - pollen-filled live oak tree
If you thought those are leaves on the live oak, you would be sadly mistaken.

The preceding photo is a good example of how the pollen manages to crowd out even the leaves on a live oak. That would be okay (well, okayer) if it stayed on the tree, although I guess that sorta defeats the purpose of pollen. Anyway, it doesn't, and you can see the results everywhere. Like, literally, EVERYWHERE.

Take our lovely Pecan Creek, after which our lovely little neighborhood is named. Here's how parts of it look now:

Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek
Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek

I've never seen quicksand except in the movies (Blazing Saddles comes to mind), but this is exactly what I imagine it looks like. However, I was surprised to see ducks swimming around in the middle of this goop, apparently unbothered, so it's either benign or ducks are as oblivious as they look.

The streets are not immune to the effects of the falling pollen. Here's what our bike tire looked like at the conclusion of our Sunday afternoon ride.

Photo - pollen covering the tread of our bicycle tire
When a bicycle doubles as a pollinator

The rain also brings out strange beauty, like this tree fungus attached to a long-dead stump that I spotted during a walk around the trail that circles our neighborhood.

Photo - golden tree fungus

Of course, spring doesn't bring only new flora; it's also the stimulus for the appearance of fauna, and around here, a lot of that fauna is of the slithery persuasion. The local Nextdoor message boards are filled with people posting photos of snakes around their abodes and asking for advice (most of which unfortunately falls into the general category of "kill 'em dead until they live no more, and then apply additional killing").

We've had a couple of visitors in our yard. In fact, a couple of days ago MLB was pulling weeds in our front yard when, as she puts it, one pulled back. Instead of grabbing a weed, she grabbed the tail of a small grass snake hidden among the ground cover. Neither were amused; fortunately, neither were harmed.

Photo - small snake in our courtyard
An eight foot long constrictor next to the world's largest acorn

While I do love myself some vernal flora and fauna, one of my favorite things about spring in these parts is the weather, which is often cool and misty and foggy. It makes for great running weather, and dramatic photos. I'll leave you with a few recent examples. Happy spring, y'all!

Photo - misty sunrise behind oak tree
Photo - sunrise behind misty creek
Photo - heavily photoshopped sunrise

A minor diversion...
March 27, 2020 2:51 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the silver linings in the COVID-19 stay-at-home protocol is that we have time to pursue trivial matters that previously would have been preempted by more important things like...well, don't ask me. I'm retired; I can pursue all the trivial matters I want, at any time. But, perhaps you aren't that fortunate, but you now have time to enjoy MY trivial pursuits.

That's a long and ridiculous introduction to the following gif that I made with my own two hands. It's a big file (4.5mb...if you scoff because you have high-speed internet and unlimited data, keep it to yourself), so it may take a while to load. But if you can watch it, give it a shot (no pun intended) and I'll tell you some stuff about it below.

Animated gif: slow motion ejection of a shell casing from a pistol

What it is

This is a slow-motion time lapse of a spent ammo casing being ejected from a pistol being fired by MLB at a target in an undisclosed location in West Texas. The gun is a Springfield Armory XD-40 Sub-Compact, firing .40 caliber S&W ammo. The XD is a sweet shooting firearm and I like it a lot, the downside being that .40 cal. ammo is more expensive than the more popular (but generally less powerful) 9mm.

How it was done

The original video was shot via an iPhone 8 using the slow-motion feature of the Camera app, and I selected about a two-second interval from that video. I did this in iPhoto, and I worked backwards from the point where the casing disappeared from sight. I clicked frame-by-frame in reverse (iPhoto tends to jump forward more than one frame at a time, hence the reverse approach) and took a screen capture of each frame using a desktop app called Snapz Pro X for Mac. Each screen capture was automatically saved in Photoshop format (.psd) for editing purposes. I captured about 65 frames in this fashion.

I decided to convert the images to grayscale for two reasons. First, grayscale allows for a sharper and smaller image in gif format. Second, I wanted to showcase (no pun intended) the casing throughout the sequence by leaving it in its original color.

To achieve this effect, I applied the following steps to each frame using my ten-year-old desktop version of Photoshop for Mac (version 12):

[Warning: Extreme geekiness ahead]

  1. Immediately after opening each frame image, I enhanced the contrast, vibrance, and sharpness using the respective tools in the app. 

  2. I zoomed into each frame 300% so get a better look at the casing. Using the lasso tool, I outlined and selected the casing, then copied it into a new layer (Layer > New > Layer via Copy).

  3. I returned to the original layer and converted it to grayscale via the Image > Adjustments > Black & White > Darker option. This yielded a slightly higher contrast image than the simple Grayscale conversion that's available in Photoshop.

  4. I then flattened the two layers and saved and closed the edited file. I opened the next frame image and repeated steps 1-3, until all frames had been completed.

  5. The images were still in individual .psd files, but in order to create the animated gif in Photoshop, I needed one file with each frame image loaded sequentially into a separate layer. I accomplished this (rather laboriously, I might add) by creating a new master .psd file, opening each frame file one-by-one, and dragging the image into the master file where it appeared as a layer.

  6. I then opened the Animation window in Photoshop and selected Make Frames From Layers. Photoshop automatically created the animated gif and I selected the option to have no delay between individual frames.

  7. I then selected File > Save for Web and Devices, selected "GIF 128 No Dither" from the optimization options in the resulting pop-up window, made sure the looping was endless, and saved the finalized animated gif to my hard drive. I uploaded it to the Gazette's server (using Fetch as my FTP program), and then crafted this post a pixel at a time (kinda) so that it appears in the glorious, mesmerizing incarnation you're now looking at.
The entire process took a couple of hours, time that I would otherwise have spent plopped down in front of the TV. Being plopped down in front of a monitor is a MUCH MORE worthwhile use of time, right?


You really need to affirm the wonderfulness of this effort; otherwise, I might be forced to upload an audio file of my clarinet playing. You've been warned.

You might be a hoarder if...
March 22, 2020 5:04 PM | Posted in:

These are strange times we're living in, and in recognition of that fact, the Gazette is relaxing its rule against publishing material that might be considered thoughtful and relevant. We apologize in advance.

Man standing in front of a mountain of toilet paper
Toilet paper not to scale. Or, maybe the man isn't. It's not important.

We're seeing reports that several of the major grocery chains and big box stores are publishing lists of items that they will no longer accept as returns. This includes non-food items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, laundry detergent, and analgesic medications. It also includes frozen foods and other non-perishables.

The "official" explanations I've seen indicate that these steps are "for the safety and health of our customers" but we all suspect what's really behind it: you folks that hoarded stuff and are now finding that you either don't need it or don't have room for it or need the money or see that the supply chain is indeed folks are just going to have to live with the consequences of your greed (and/or panic).

I don't know. I've been doing a bit of cogitating about the hoarding phenomenon, and there are probably as many different reasons for doing it as there are people doing it. Setting aside the prepper mentality that is an ongoing phenomenon for many and not just a reaction to a minor worldwide pandemic, it seems to me that a lot of regular people are simply ignoring an unspoken social contract wherein we agree, consciously or unconsciously, to be polite and considerate of our fellow Americans. I wonder how these behaviors might change if people were confronted with that proposition?

Then there's this: perhaps some people don't realize they're hoarding. Maybe they just think they're being wise and foresighted. After all, are there any published guidelines as to how much toilet paper is too much? I've never seen anything advising me that I shouldn't have twelve bottles of baby aspirin on hand, or that four gallons of laundry detergent for our household of two adults is, well, three gallons too much.

So, if no one else is going to propose some concrete guidelines, I'm willing to step up and take a swing at it. (Please keep in mind that little word "might" below; I don't know anyone's specific situation and there might actually be a household that needs 20 rolls of paper towels per person at any given time. But most of us don't.)

You might be a hoarder if you're buying...

  • toilet paper, when you already have more than five rolls per person in your household;

  • hand sanitizer or liquid soad, when you already have one bottle per person in your household;

  • 81 mg aspirin, when you already have a 100-count bottle;

  • laundry detergent, when you already have a large economy size jug (feel free to adjust this upward in households with a lot of kids);

  • rice and dried beans, when you already have 20 pounds of each;

  • Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds, when you already have two boxes (yes, I'm being very specific here, uh, on behalf of a friend)

  • paper towels, when you already have three rolls in your pantry

  • thermometers, when you already have one (seriously, why does anyone need more than one thermometer?)
These are admittedly subjective guidelines that may not stand the test of group scrutiny. Feel free to suggest alternate approaches, or add to the list of items based on what you've seen on your shopping excursions. Just keep in mind that the major retailers seem to be assuring us that the supply chain for most, if not all, of these items is intact and working properly and the issue is not supply but an unreasonable demand.

Regardless, folks, let's agree to just be nicer to each other, okay?
Hey, it's been awhile! Glad you stopped by, although I'm not fooling myself by thinking it's for any reason other than you're bored to death by social distancing and the continuous stream of bad news on the doorstep ( a song with that phrase!). Regardless, I'm happy to see you and to serve you some nutrient-free content.

Let me assure you that this is a virus-free zone. I've personally scrubbed and sanitized every pixel of this post, so feel free to cozy up to your monitor as if it was an adorable puppy named Tinky.

Say, let's talk about footwear, shall we? I'm now the proud owner of a pair of snake boots. Pretty stylish in a Blake Shelton sort of way, aren't they?

Photo - Snake boots

I've wanted a pair of these for a couple of years, ever since we moved into the house on the creek that's inhabited by snakes that might be cottonmouths and which might NOT be but I'm not taking any chances. Plus, we have vacant lots with tall grass and fallen leaves which form a perfect resting place for copperheads and, possibly, rattlesnakes...although I'll admit to having never seen either of those species in our immediate vicinity. Anyway, these boots will give me a lot more confidence when I'm weed-eating outside our fenced yard, or setting up and retrieving game cameras.

Unfortunately, they're so hot that I'll probably only wear them in the winter when there's no serpents around. It does sort of make me wish we belonged to one of those snake-handling churches, although I suppose wearing them to services there might indicate a certain deficit of faith on my part.

Speaking of shoes, the snake boots aren't the only new ones I've dealt with lately. 

I ordered a new pair of everyday, walking-around shoes in my brand of choice: New Balance. When they arrived, I was amazed at how heavy they were. I was also puzzled by the tag attached to the shoes warning me not to remove the "Electrostatic Dissipative" insoles.

Photo - Steel toe work sneakers

Well, as it turns out, what I had ordered was a pair of steel toe work sneakers weighing a pound apiece that are designed to not generate hazardous static electricity in case I wanted to be employed by a nitroglycerin factory or a meth lab.

The lesson here is that I should actually read the description of whatever I'm buying instead of just thinking, "oh, that's a pretty cool looking shoe for someone who's as uncool as me." Oh, and the irony of a retiree ordering work shoes isn't lost on me. Anyway, they were packed for return shipping the same day they arrived. Replacements are on their way...although I probably need to double-check to make sure I didn't order the high-heeled, Swarovski-bejeweled models.

Speaking of work, I've done some this winter.

Alert Gazette readers will recall that MLB painted our fireplace, An unfortunate-but-inevitable result of her efforts was to require that we build fires in the newly-renovated POS (Pit Of Smokiness, of course), and that in turn seemed to require something to burn. After getting a second mortgage to finance the acquisition of those artificial "logs" made of unadulterated carcinogenic nuclear medical waste, I came to the sad conclusion that we would need actual wood. So, I went out and bought a big honkin' maul (which sounds much more manly than a "steel wood splitter") and forty bucks worth of cut-but-not-split oak logs.

My first attempts at splitting the logs went poorly. An 8 pound maul will wreak some havoc on a piece of wood...but only if it lands on target. I had many excuses: the wind threw me off balance. The sun was in my eyes. I had my glasses on upside down. Also, I didn't have a suitable surface on which to rest a log before whaling away at it.

I remembered a vacant lot a half mile away where someone had felled a pretty big tree, cut the trunk into a dozen sections, and left them undisturbed for almost two years. One of those sections seemed to be a perfect candidate for use as a whatchamacallit...also known as a chopping block. (I think.) I backed my little truck up as close as I could to the section of tree trunk and opened the tailgate to load it...and only then realized that the block weighed pretty much the same as me. OK, that's not all that much, but you try lifting a stump of your own body weight into the bed of a truck when you can't use the principle of the lever to your advantage. (Yeah, I don't really know what that means either, except the result is soreness in bodily places where you didn't realize you even had places.)

I did finally manage to roll the stump over to the truck and oh-so-ungracefully wrangle it into the bed for transport home, where it now resides.

Photo - My chopping block and maul

Even with the chopping block, I still managed to miss the target log about a quarter of the time, but the setup works pretty well apart from operator error. Unfortunately, as we often do in Texas, we jumped directly from winter into summer, so there won't be any firewood splitting for another nine months or so.

OK, I think that brings up pretty well up to date on the goings on around Casa de Fire Ant. In closing, here's a photo of a red-shouldered hawk.

Photo - Red Shouldered Hawk in tree

And, in final conclusion, the following is presented without comment. Stay healthy, y'all.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from March 2020 listed from newest to oldest.

February 2020 is the previous archive.

April 2020 is the next archive.

Archives Index