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Last weekend we met friends in San Antonio and spent a few days enjoying some quite varied activities and events in that amazing city. If you haven't been to SA before, or if your exposure has been limited to the often frantic and always touristy downtown portion of the Riverwalk, the following is a sort of travelogue with some ideas for you to consider.

Friday, October 29

We booked rooms at the Wyndham Garden Riverwalk/Museum Reach. As you may or may not know, the San Antonio Riverwalk extends north of downtown for about two miles, ending at the Pearl District. This is the second quietest section of the Riverwalk (the quietest being the long stretch south of downtown which runs past the King William District and eventually dwindles down into the undeveloped portion of the San Antonio River), and you can probably guess why part of it is called the Museum Reach. The museums and the Wyndham are about halfway between downtown (to the south) and the Pearl District (to the north).

Debbie and I booked a river view room, and it did have one, but the view from a ground floor room is a bit less than spectacular. Still, the room was convenient to the hotel's coffee bar each morning.

Photo - The view from our 'balcony'
The view from our "balcony" was not breathtaking, but it was peaceful. 

After reading a rather glowing review in Texas Monthly, I had booked a reservation for us at Mixtli, a "progressive Mexican restaurant" located just south of downtown. The restaurant features a fixed, multi-course tasting menu that focuses on the cuisine inspired by a specific region of Mexico. This menu stays in place for an extended period of time, then it moves to another region. Our visit corresponded with the focus on the Chiapas region, which is in the southern part of Mexico, down to the border with Guatemala. 

Dinner proved to be quite an adventure, beginning with my inability to even locate the restaurant despite knowing the address. We finally parked and walked to another restaurant to ask directions. As it turns out, we were parked less than a hundred yards from Mixtli; they could really invest in better signage.

The Chiapas menu began in September and runs through mid-December, so the preceding link may or may not be out of date by the time you see it. But I've provided a list of the courses below and their published ingredients, and in some cases my best guess as to as explanation of some of those ingredients. I've also provided photos of some of the courses. We were given a brief primer about each course by a chef or server, but the noise level in the restaurant along with MANY unfamiliar culinary terms and Mexican references generally prevented us from gaining any meaningful education. Mixtli would do well in the future to provide a written synopsis for diners to take home with them.

Our quartet judged the experience as worthwhile, to the point of considering repeating it when we're back in January for a concert. Not every dish was a home run with every one of us; for example, the Arroz Verde didn't do much for me, but the other three enjoyed it greatly, while the Costillas Chiapanecas (pork ribs) were a big hit with three of us, but the fourth didn't care for them. We were unanimous in our praise for the potato bread with coffee butter, the Crab Chileatole, and the Selva Lacandona; the Tamal de Bola wasn't anyone's favorite. But in some way, each dish gave us a [literal] taste of the region, one that none of us were that familiar with.

Chiapas Tasting Menu

  1. Potato Bread -- coffee cultured butter, chile morita, vanilla salt
  2. Crab Chileatole (a thick soup) -- masa, dry chiles, crab
  3. Ceviche de Jamaica -- hibiscus, avocado, swordfish
  4. Tamal de Bola -- shrimp, epazote (aromatic herb), mole de cameron (shrimp mole)
  5. Ocosingo (a Chiapan municipality) -- queso de bola (soft cheese), vegetable picadillo, dried fruits
  6. Selva Lacandona (a Chiapan rainforest) -- banana, black beans, acocil (crayfish)
  7. Arroz Verde -- wood mushrooms, poblano, flowers
  8. Costillas Chiapanecas -- pork ribs, mole Chiapaneco, dried papaya and pineapple
  9. Dessert -- chimbo (honey water soaked cake), cafe de olli (spiced coffee), cajeta (caramel sauce)
  10. Mignardises (petit fours)

Photo - Crab Chileatole via Mixtli Restaurant Photo - Ceviche de Jamaica via Mixtli Restaurant
Photo - Tamal de Bola via Mixtli Restaurant Photo - Ocosingo via Mixtli Restaurant
Photo - Selva Lacandona via Mixtli Restaurant Photo - Arroz Verde via Mixtli Restaurant

We left sated, yet energized. We* also got lost going back to the hotel...and not for the last time, as it turned out.

[Note that when you make a reservation for dinner at Mixtli, you're buying a non-refundable ticket, not making a reservation for which you'll pay later if and when you show up.]

*And by "we" I mean, of course, me.

Saturday, October 30

Debbie and I headed out for a run at daybreak, something we would repeat the next two mornings as well. We were not the only runners and walkers on the Riverwalk paths, but our route was also far from crowded. The weather was ideal...temperatures in the upper 50s-to-lower 60s and no wind. And, unlike our normal running routes, there are no hills.

Photo - A view of the Riverwalk in front of our hotel, looking south
The Riverwalk view to the south of our hotel; the locks are at the top of the photo. 

Below is a view looking to the north. The careful observer 
will spot Christmas decorations already in place.
Photo - A view of the Riverwalk in front of our hotel, looking south

Afterward, the four of us walked a long block to the newest location of local chain Tia's Taco Hut on St. Mary's Street, the Wyndham choosing to not provide a hot breakfast. That turned out to be a blessing because TTH was an exceptional choice for a good, inexpensive desayuno. This became our daily morning habit.

After breakfast, we walked to the Pearl District, where we found the weekly Farmer's Market in full swing. It being the [extended] weekend of Halloween and Día de los Muertos, the people watching was good, and the dog watching was even better. We wandered through the booths and stores for a couple of hours before heading back down the Riverwalk in search of lunch, and finally landed at Elsewhere Kitchen, an uber-casual, outdoor dining establishment with pretty good food.

Photo - The Dia de Los Muertos altar at The Pearl
This elaborate display is the Pearl District's Día de los Muertos altar.

We then strolled another quarter mile or so south to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where Octobinfest was underway. This is a free annual event that celebrates the German and Mexican influences that combined to help create San Antonio's rather unique culture. This was our first time to attend, and I had flagged it on my calendar because of the appearance of three musical acts: Off The Grid (an Austin based polka trio that also does rock-and-roll covers set to polka arrangements), Los Texmaniacs (a San Antonio-based, Grammy award winning Tejano/Conjunto/Tex-Mex quartet), and Leonardo "Flaco" Jiménez (possibly the world's greatest accordionist and former member of the Texas Tornados super-group). [Some Horseshoe Bayans reading this might recall that Los Texmaniacs did an outdoor concert at Quail Point about a year ago as a part of the Cultural Enrichment program...and they were a big hit.]

The common thread connecting these three acts is the accordion, which in the hands of virtuosos like Flaco, or Josh Baca, or Joe Klaus will put to rest the ridicule heaped upon the instrument thanks to mediocre wedding bands in the Catskills. Besides hearing some terrific music, we also got a bit of education, e.g. learning the difference between chromatic and diatonic accordions (the latter plays different notes on the push and pull -- i.e. the reeds are bisonoric, while the former plays the same note). Off The Grid utilizes a chromatic accordion, while Los Texmaniacs and Flaco use diatonics.  [Check this website if you want to learn more about this topic...because I know you do.]

Photo - Los Texmaniacs performing at Octobinfest
Above: Max Baca (playing the 12-string 
bajo sexto), and his nephew Josh Baca
(on the accordion), are the heart of Los Texmaniacs.

Below: Flaco Jiménez may be in his 80s, but he still knows his way
around a squeeze-box.
Photo - Flaco Jimenez performing at Octobinfest

We didn't stay for the entire program because we weren't finished with the day's musical adventures. We walked back to the hotel and got some rest -- I think by this time I had clocked almost eleven miles on my fitness app -- and around 8:30 we piled into the truck and headed for the Pearl District. That's normally a three minute drive from the hotel, assuming that the first thing you don't do is turn the wrong way at the first intersection you come to. That minor fiasco was quickly corrected with a Fast and Furious drift and a U-turn, and we made it to the Pearl in time for our reservation for the late show at Jazz Texas.

I'm pretty sure I've raved about Jazz Texas before on these pages. But for you newcomers, the venue is a smallish, classy basement speakeasy/restaurant/jazz club with a huge bar, excellent kitchen, and absolutely wonderful music. On weeknights, the music is provided by a variety of groups representing a variety of genres, but on the weekends, the draw is the Doc Watkins Orchestra, a ten-piece ensemble (plus vocalist, usually) that plays everything from classic jazz to western swing. Doc Watkins -- a well-known figure in the San Antonio music scene -- is the pianist and also just happens to own the club. We've been to Jazz Texas on numerous occasions and have never been disappointed by the music (or the food, for that matter).

This evening was no exception (although we were hoping for another performance of Sing, Sing, Sing, because they absolutely kill that swing standard).

Photo - The stairs leading down to Jazz Texas
Above: These stairs lead down to Jazz Texas, in the basement of
the food court at the Pearl District.

Below: The Doc Watkins Orchestra, featuring vocals by Meg Bodi,
in full swing mode at Jazz Texas.
Photo - The Doc Watkins Orchestra performing at Jazz Texas

This was a fine ending to a busy day, and we were back at the hotel well before midnight, thanks in large part to my unerring ability to retrace my automotive steps...finally.


Sunday dawned cool and clear, and Debbie and I did our usual daybreak run up and down the Riverwalk, then we all walked back to Tia's Taco Hut for another leisurely breakfast. The only thing on our agenda was a visit to San Antonio's very fine zoo. Debbie and I had been there in May for a fundraiser ("Zoo La-La!") but it took place at night and a lot of the animals had gone to bed by the time we arrived. Plus, the reptile house wasn't open at all, and I'd been moping about that for months. (Watching the US Congress at work wasn't really the acceptable substitute one would expect.)

Unlike in March when we had to park a half mile away, we actually scored a parking spot in the main lot and soon thereafter started our tour. We quickly discovered that the zoo was literally overrun with dinosaurs.

Photo - An animatronic dinosaur making friends with a little princess
This princess was determined to make friends with the animatronic raptor. 

These dinosaurs -- some of them much larger than the little guy pictured above -- are probably part of a temporary exhibit, although that's just a guess. There was probably a sign explaining their presence but I was too excited to notice.

Since this was Halloween, fully half of the zoo patrons were in costume, which again made for good people watching. But we were there for the four-legged (and two-winged, and no-legged) animals and we spent a few hours taking in the sights.

One of my favorite displays was in the aquarium. Have you ever heard of upside-down jellyfish? If teenagers were invertebrates, they would likely have evolved from these jellyfish, as they spend most of their time resting on the ocean floor -- upside down, of course, tentacles floating above them, waiting for food to float into their whatever-passes-for-jellyfish-mouths. I admired their commitment to doing nothing, and they were quite pretty.

We watched a 12-foot long alligator climb out of the water and find a good spot in the sun for a nap. We saw a huge male jaguar emerge from his den and heard him howl lustily for the female that is housed nearby (the new jaguar habitat is a work of architectural and ecological art, and must be seen to understand how cool it is). We observed flamingos duel with each other over some perceived slight until one slinked away in pink shame. And by the end of the day -- a rather hot and humid one -- we finally found our spirit animal:

Photo - A muddy rhino sleeping on a bed of straw
This rhino simply collapsed and went to sleep on its lunch, sort of like
what I almost did during the 10-course dinner on Friday. 

We left the zoo around 3:00 or so and headed in search of something cold and Mexicany, and ended up at Mi Tierra. No visit to San Antonio is complete with a stop at that fabled restaurante, although thinking we could get a table in less than an hour on a Sunday afternoon was the height of naivety. Still, we persisted and we overcame. 

The rest of the afternoon and early evening was spent in serious downtime mode, with much reading through closed eyelids taking place. We did break long enough to visit the hotel restaurant for a glass of Cab and some dessert; we were the only people in the joint besides the bored waitstaff. I guess most people head home on Sundays.

The next morning was a rinse-and-repeat cycle for Debbie and me: dawn run, a final Taco Hut breakfast with our friends, then pack and load and say our goodbyes. They headed south and we headed north. We were all tired and ready to get home, and, I suspect, looking forward to when we can return and do it again. (Oh look! There's already a date on our January 2022 calendar.)

Toast Alert
October 18, 2021 4:01 PM | Posted in: ,

I hate to disappoint you if you came here looking for tips regarding scorched bread, but while I am an acknowledged -- yet exceedingly humble -- expert on the subject, I'm actually here to warn you about the app named Toast

You may have encountered Toast at a restaurant that has adopted it as its point-of-sale management tool. It apparently does a lot of different tasks for the restaurant, but the one I'm writing about is the ability to allow patrons to pay their tabs via phone using Apple Pay or another mobile wallet app. I'm a big fan of this capability, primarily because I'm impatient and the check settlement process at many (most?) restaurants is inefficient and time-consuming.

My typical experience with this process goes something like this. The server brings the ticket to your table and then immediately goes to take the orders for a party of fourteen non-English-speaking tourists who require an explanation via Google Translate of every item on the menu. Thirty minutes later, the server comes back to pick up your payment, and if you're paying by cash, you will inevitably need change because you only have two twenties for a $21 tab. That takes another thirty minutes because the server remembers that their car needs a new inspection sticker and what better time to go get it than right now. 

Photo - The bill for our brunchGiven that usual state of affairs, I was pleasantly surprised on Saturday when Debbie and I stopped by Hill & Vine* in Fredericksburg for brunch and found that the restaurant accepted Apple Pay via the Toast platform. Our printed check had a QR code that took us to a digital version that could be paid via whatever credit or debit cards I had loaded in my iPhone's wallet app. (The option to pay via debit card is especially nice since there's no physical card to be handed over to someone. I don't mind doing that with a credit card, but I never use a debit card if someone else has to touch it.)

I scanned the QR code -- and inadvertently took a photo of it, shown at right. As it turns out, I'm glad I did, as it helps me illustrate the ensuing chain of events.

The QR code let me open the aforementioned digital version where I could choose my payment method, which in this case was a debit card via Apple Pay. It also allowed me to add a tip for the server, and I selected the 20% option and hit the "pay now" button.

I immediately received a confirmation from Apple Pay, followed quickly by a confirmation email from Toast. But I noticed something strange about both confirmations, shown side-by-side below. See if you can spot the puzzling aspect.

Photo - Apple Pay receiptPhoto - Emailed payment confirmation from Toast
The Apple Pay confirmation is on the left; the Toast confirmation is on the right. They both have the same total, and that equals the total on the bill. That's good, right? Well...

Alert Gazette reader that you are, you've no doubt instantly noticed the same thing I did: there's no tip.

I flagged down the server and asked if she was able to confirm exactly what payment was entered into the restaurant's system, because the last thing I ever want to do is stiff the help. She punched around on the keypad of her little magic ordering device and pulled up the internal receipt and showed it to me. Nope; no tip appeared. I was sure I had selected one, but the evidence indicated otherwise.

I apologized, pulled a $20 from my wallet, and asked her for $10 in change. It took long enough for that to happen that I would have been just as well off to pay cash to begin with, but we were finally able to leave the restaurant with a clear conscience. All was well.

That is, until I looked at our checking account balance this morning and saw what actually hit the account via our debit card.

Screen capture - bank statement

How about that? My original 20% tip magically appeared on the actual hit to our checking account. Thanks to the obscure machinations of the Toast app -- or, possibly, the inability of the server to access the final payment screen on her magic tablet -- said server ended up with a generous 40%+ gratuity (my initial 20% on the card plus the apologetic sawbuck). 

This is a long and boring cautionary tale for those who seek to remove time from the transaction cost of a restaurant meal. I have a hard time believing that the Toast app is really that inept, but the documentation seems to indicate otherwise. 
This issue with Toast is a different animal than with normal credit card processing. When you leave a tip via a credit card, there are actually two steps to the transaction. The cost of the meal was automatically charged to your account at the time the tab was rung up. The tip, however, is manually added by the restaurant after the fact. That's why the before-tip total often shows up in your bank account as pending charge, and the final tab+tip amount later appears as the final total. The Toast process, OTOH, appears to include the tip in its final computation of the total charge -- IOW, we're actually "ringing up" the total charge on the app -- which is why the absence of the tip on the confirmation is puzzling. Here endeth the lesson on credit/debit card tips.
The moral of the story has nothing to do with my leaving a relatively exorbitant tip; $10 extra dollars is not remotely life-changing in this situation. But as an increasing number of restaurants move toward "pay at the table" mobile options, it seems that one has to have an increased sense of skepticism about whether those options really work as one would expect.

I have, by the way, left some feedback on Toast's app to document what took place, and gave the developers permission to contact me if they'd like further details. We'll see whether that happens.

*Hill & Vine is, for those of you who are familiar with Fredericksburg, Texas, the restaurant that was constructed and opened this year on the site of the much beloved Peach Tree Restaurant and Gift Shop. As much as we enjoyed our Peach Tree experiences, stretching back decades, I have to admit that H&V is a more-than-worthy replacement for that venue. If it's not already, it will become yet another must-visit location on the Hill Country scene.
Sorry; I don't know what the post title means either.

Howdy, buckaroos, and happy Thursday to you. Today is, of course, International Bow Day, so feel free to take a bow, look for a [rain]bow, grab a bow (arrows are optional), and hye thyself to the nearest boat bow. Oh, and today is also when we are scheduled to meet at our church to plan the upcoming semester of English As A Second Language (ESL) classes, and I think the preceding sentence shows why such classes are so challenging for the students. (But don't get me started on duplicative reflexive pronouns in Spanish.)

Say, did I mention that there's a photo of a snake in this post? It's actually a really cute, derpy-looking one, but still. 

Debbie and I have recently started watching the syndicated rebroadcasts -- OK, reruns -- of Reba on The Hallmark Channel. Now, before you revoke my Man Card, let me just say three words (or four, if you're -- you are -- not into contractions): it's freakin' hilarious. I don't know why we never watched it before (its six season run ended in 2007), although the fact that it aired first on The WB and later on The CW might explain it; we only watched networks with 3-letter abbreviations. That's a personal moral decision, but feel free to make your own call on this important issue.

Reba McEntire is a fantastic comedic actress (she also does serious, heart-rending drama; I refer you to her serious, heart-rending role in Tremors). And, of course, she's dabbled in a singing career, and sews clothes in her spare time to make ends meet [Ed. That's not remotely true.]. Speaking of singing, Reba is the only sitcom in history where the lead actor also sings the show's theme song. [Ed. That's also not remotely true.] Of course, most people don't realize that Jerry Seinfeld actually played the bass line in his eponymous series [Ed. That's not remotely true; stop it!], but that doesn't require nearly as much skill as singing.

You know, I spent quite a bit of time crafting what I think was a carefully worded and thoughtful assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan. But I've reconsidered posting it. I'm not sure why any of you invest your valuable time to stop by this blog, but I am fairly confident it's not for rants about political issues or world events.

OTOH, I'm not above linking to insightful and eloquent takes on the matter.

Debbie recently discovered why our lone tomato plant was underachieving: tomato horn worms.

Photo - Tomato horn worm on tomato plant
Photo - Tomato horn worm on tomato plant

These caterpillars eventually turn into five-spotted hawk moths, but before they do, they can wreak significant havoc on one's tomato crop. Debbie actually cut ours back to the ground. You might say the surgery was successful, but the patient died.

By the way, these tomato hornworms do have a natural enemy -- braconid wasps -- and the way they kill their prey almost makes you sympathetic to the caterpillars. Experts say that if you run across a caterpillar "infected" with the wasp's "virus," don't kill it...the next generation of wasps that will eventually hatch from the caterpillar's body will provide that much more protection against the next generation of hornworms. Nature can be cool even when she kills.

[Here's where the snake photo comes in...]

Last Sunday afternoon we got more than two inches of rain in less than twenty minutes. The creek rose quickly and the city sent someone out to close the low water crossing. After the rain let up, Debbie and I walked to the crossing down the block from our house to check out the torrent.

As we were turning to go home, something at the edge of the concrete apron caught my eye. It was a water snake, seemingly trying to make some sense out of the raging river that an hour earlier was a placid, slow-moving creek.

Photo - Plain-bellied water snake in the creek
This is a plain-bellied water snake, a non-venomous, relatively common creek- and lake-side dweller whose primary diet is fish, frogs, and salamanders. This one allowed me to get within a few feet before I violated its personal space and it disappeared into the swirling water.

I regret to inform you that on Tuesday of this week, we came across a flattened PBWS in the middle of that same low water crossing. I don't know why it felt the need to cross the road, but it lost the battle with traffic. Was it the same one that I photographed? No way of knowing, but it was a little sad, nonetheless.

In closing, I posted the following photo over on my Instagram feed, and folks seemed to like it, so I thought I'd add it here for those of you who haven't drunk the IG koolaid. It's just a picture of a morning here in the Texas Hill Country.

Peace and grace to you all!

Photo of sunrise through the trees in Horseshoe Bay, Texas
Happy Thursday! Today is National Be A Millionaire Day, which means that most of you should ask your servants to read this post to you so you can save your eyesight for more important things, like counting your caviar or arranging your polo mallets by head weight.

Got a couple of albums I need to tell you about, as I seem to have them on repeat lately. Check out Brent Cobb's Keep 'Em On They Toes, and the recently released and much hyped (and definitely worthy of that hype) The Marfa Tapes by Texas musicians Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall. They're both ostensibly country in genre, but they also avoid the over-produced, over-testosteroned bro-country model that seems to permeate "mainstream" country music nowadays. 

The front page of yesterday's edition of the Wall Street Journal had a story about how people are not recognizing one another now that masks are coming off. The phenomenon is the reverse of what you might have experienced at the beginning of the pandemic: we didn't recognize folks because they were wearing masks. (Or, even better, we could use that as an excuse. "Oh, sorry...I didn't recognize you with your mask on. Don't you just hate these things?" This line of conversation provided a convenient diversion from the fact that you had forgotten the other person's name. Or so I've heard.)

But I don't want to dwell on the surprising-face-revelation aspect of the story. Instead, I draw your attention to the following excerpt* from the article:

Text of article referencing 'whoa, whoa!'

The underlined text in the last sentence is a link that leads to a 2019 article which reports on the pressing issue of how the exclamation whoa is properly spelled. This is a surprisingly active debate (try googling "the proper spelling of whoa"). And it appears that one's preferred spelling depends on which side of that typical fault line you stand: age. Or, I guess, felt age. Or pretend age. Or...well, you know what I mean.

Since nobody else seems to have come up with a rule for when you should spell it woah, and when you should stop spelling it wrong and use whoa, (see what I did there?) I'll do it. If you're over the age of thirty, using woah unironically is akin to wearing skinny jeans, Crocs, and a derby to church, pretending to like Post Malone, and sporting a Maori shoulder tattoo even though you were born in Grand Prairie, Texas, and graduated from SMU with a degree in international finance and work at a credit union. IOW, don't.

Oh, and if you are under thirty? Also don't.

*The random link to the "whoa" article was an unexpected bit of whimsy. I'd love to know why the reporter chose to send readers off on that tangent. Also, I wish we'd have been shown a photo of the employee's overly tiny facial features.

Alert Gazette readers will recall that about a year ago, I began to document the goings-on of the family of red-shouldered hawks in a tree near our house. We monitored them through mid-summer, until the juveniles departed the nest to begin their own lives. At some point, the nest itself was completely demolished, diminishing our hope that the parents would return this year.

However, a couple of months ago we started noticing the beginnings of a new nest in another live oak down the street from us. We periodically spotted hawks in that tree, and there was still an intact nest, but then they seemed to disappear for a few weeks and we thought they'd abandoned that tree in favor of another nesting spot.

Yesterday morning, as we headed out for a run, we noticed a hawk sitting on the edge of what was now an impressively large nest. That seemed to indicate that we were wrong in our assumption about the nest being abandoned.

Photo - adult red-shouldered hawk perched on the side of its nest
A ground-level view of the hawk perched on the side of the nest

So, as one does, later in the day I fired up the drone and did some spying. Look what I found:

Photo - red-shouldered hawk nestling

The adult hawks had been busy, away from our prying eyes, and there was now a nestling. However, there were three of them last year, so we don't know whether fewer eggs were laid this year, or some of them didn't hatch.

By the way -- and I'll warn you that the following photo might be disturbing if you have an huge fondness for small reptiles of the non-serpentine variety -- the small white object to the lower left of the nestling represents what I'm guessing is the remains of a recent meal. The shape appears to be the headless body of a Texas spiny lizard. It's a tough old world out there. 

Photo - closeup of a headless lizard, aka 'hawk lunch'

The nest is almost fifty feet above the ground, and is well-shielded except for an opening directly overhead that is custom-designed for a peeping drone.

Photo - red-shouldered hawk nest viewed from above'

The adult hawks were nowhere to be least not in the tree. But a hundred yards away, perched on an electrical transmission tower, I noticed that one of the adults seemed to be keeping an eye on the nest. 

I wanted to get a closer photo but the drone's battery was almost drained so I had to shoot what I could and bring it back for a landing.

Photo - adult red-shouldered hawk on a tower close to its nest

Last year was filled with challenges, but the hawk family served as a pleasant distraction. 2021 has already had its own ups and downs, but my hope is that nature will once again redeem some of those low points. Stay tuned!

Alert Gazette readers will recall that last week I posted several photos from our recent trip to South Padre Island and promised to discuss them at some point. This is that point.

I touched-up each of those photos to some extent because what came out of the camera didn't match my vision for the scene. (That sounds pretty hoity-toity, doesn't it?) I initially drafted a detailed explanation about what I was trying to achieve and how I went about processing the image with that goal in mind. But it came across and pretentious and bored even me -- and I usually love reading my own stuff -- so all I'm going to do here is present the after-and-before photos. The lesson to be learned is that with the right software, the camera is only the beginning of the creative process.

The following photo is of a man fishing in the Laguna Madre, aka "The Bay." Click-and-drag the vertical yellow line to reveal the original image.

Photo - fisherman in Laguna Madre, South Padre Island Photo - fisherman in Laguna Madre, South Padre Island

The next photo is of some gnarled trees and vines at the Atascosa Wildlife Preserve on the mainland across from South Padre Island. Again, drag the yellow bar to reveal the original photo.

Photo - gnarled trees - Atascosa Wildlife Preserve Photo - gnarled trees - Atascosa Wildlife Preserve

The final picture is of the sunset over Laguna Madre, taken from the deck of a restaurant.

You know the drill; drag the yellow bar.

Photo - sunset over Laguna Madre, South Padre Island Photo - sunset over Laguna Madre, South Padre Island

Random Thursday
May 13, 2021 10:09 AM | Posted in: ,

Note: This is an abbreviated edition of RT because alert Gazette readers deserve a break.

Today's edition of the Wall Street Journal has a report about the significant increase in cheating in schools and colleges as a result of...well...many things, including the pandemic-induced shift to online classes. I was struck by the lengths that some students are going to in their attempts to improve their academic standings without actually improving their knowledge. Take this quote from the article as an example:

Quote from the article

I grudgingly credit those students in the last example for having commendable creativity along with their disappointing ethics. (Unless, of course, the exam was in a drama class, in which case I hope they got A's.)

Most disappointing to me personally was the revelation that "Texas A&M University had a 50% increase in cheating allegations in the fall from a year earlier, with one incident involving 193 students self-reporting academic misconduct to receive lighter punishment after faculty members caught on..."

Alert Gazette readers will recall a recent post describing some of our recent trip to South Padre Island. Here are some additional photos from that trip, and I will devote a future post to some discussion about these pictures. For now, please feel free to enjoy the brevity of this offering.

Photo - Fisherman in Laguna Madre
Photo - Sunset over Laguna Madre
Photo - Gnarled trees at Atascosa Wildlife Refuge

Adios, 2020. Thanks for trying.
December 31, 2020 10:17 AM | Posted in: ,

For all its faults -- and, yes, there were multitudes -- 2020 could have been much worse.

For example, the Patriots could have won the Super Bowl. The Walking Dead could have turned out to be an ongoing documentary series. Beto O'Rourke could have fulfilled 68 Biblical prophecies. Our sun could have gone supernova...although that might not have been all bad, assuming it waited until today so that A&M could end up as a Top Five team in the absolute last CFP poll.

No, looking back on the year, I have to admit that some good things happened and even more bad things didn't occur.

On the plus side, Debbie and I discovered the pleasures joys not-absolutely-horrible experiences of running on golf courses (it only took three years of living 150 feet from one to figure it out). I had approximately 83 doctor's visits but only one of them required a bone graft. Only one of the eight new tires I bought in 2020 had to be replaced within two weeks of purchase. None of the snakes we ran across inside or immediately outside our house proved to be venomous and all of the centipedes we ran across were less than a foot long. I learned that filling a divot inside a cup of Cozy Shack rice pudding with coconut cream is akin to the nectar of the gods. And there was that one time that our internet service actually provided its promised 25 mbps download speed.

I did lose blogging momentum in 2020, ending the year with only about seventy entries (and ten of those occurred during the first ten days of January), so y'all should be thankful for that. I can honestly promise that that will occur again in 2021, because in this area, past results are indeed predictive of future performance. Plus, I'm not trapping raccoons anymore, and that will eliminate about 40% of my potential subject matter.

Anyway, all of this is to simply say...well...I'm not sure. I hope 2020 was relatively kind to you and yours, and that 2021 will improve on all the successes and joys that you found, and replace those you missed. And if 2020 was a profound disappointment in the area of personal goal achievement, perhaps you can take solace in knowing that you weren't alone:

Missing the HIPPA Mark
September 20, 2020 9:21 AM | Posted in: ,

I apologize for being unable to come up with my usual pithy yet insightful yet whimsical alliterative title for this post. If you can find a relevant alliteration to go along with "HIPPA," I'd love to hear it.

Here's an equation that I recently developed while sitting in a medical waiting room. See if you can solve it.

LTP + LTR + WRT + PI = X,

where LT is "Loud Talker", WR is "Waiting Room," and PI is "Patient Interview."

You've probably guessed already that the sum of those variables somehow relates to HIPAA*, the wonderful legislation that has resulted in the untimely deaths of millions of trees and trillions of pixels since its passage in 1996. I haven't the slightest idea of everything contained in HIPAA**, but if you're like me, you basically view it as something which is supposed to protect the privacy of our health information <cynicism>by making it inaccessible to everyone who really needs it.</cynicism>

Anyway, back to the amusing [to me] incident that led to this post. In the equation above, X is HIPPAv∞ or if you prefer, a violation of all known and unknown HIPAA privacy-related provisions. [Note: IANAL]

This equation may be used in a number of situations, but it was particularly applicable last week when, instead of taking the patient back to an office or exam room, a receptionist interviewed him in the 12'x12' waiting room full of other people in order to complete the medical information forms that should have been done ahead of the appointment. They were both loud talkers and there was no apparent reason for this approach as the patient was of sound mind as evidenced by an earlier cell phone call he took. He did try to do us a favor by turning to face the wall while he shouted into his phone, but the consequence was an amplification phenomenon that yielded the opposite result of what I assume he intended.

As a result, I (and everyone else in the room) had access to the following information about this patient:

  • his marital status
  • his medication list
  • his medical history, including recent surgeries
  • his symptoms for current visit to the clinic
  • his insurance.
Now, realistically, no harm was done. I don't know the guy, I can't remember his name, nor can I remember the details of any of the preceding data. It's really just the principle of the thing.

If you're ever in this situation, as the interviewee, I suggest developing a baby-is-sleeping-next-to-us inside voice, or asking that the conversation move to another room away from eavesdropping ears. Better yet, just do the dang paperwork before you arrive at the office. Otherwise, you might end up in a Seinfeld episode***.

*In doing my usual extensive research for this article, i.e. looking at one Wikipedia listing, I learned that the acronym I'm accustomed to using -- HIPPA -- is technically inaccurate and its usage really ticks off some of the bureaucrats. So, keep on using it.

**If you'd like to read it, here's the 349 page PDF in all of its inscrutable glory.

***I know, they're not still making Seinfeld eps. Just work with me here, OK?

My Discover card expired recently and when I popped over to their website to request a new one, I discovered (ha!) that I could choose from about 150 different designs.

My initial thought was "well, this is sorta lame," the same reaction I have to folks who order checks decorated with puppies and hummingbirds (the exception being your puppy-and-hummingbird checks which are totally awesome). But as I scrolled through the design choices, I found many to be attractive, and I began to seriously contemplate an important question: what, exactly, do I want my credit card to say about me?

It would have been a simple matter to choose a design celebrating a sports team or a university or my home state, but all of those things are clichés, and I'm anything but. (Feel free to nod your head in agreement.) So I passed on the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, Texas A&M University (still...gig 'em), and the beautiful flag of the Great State of Texas...and landed instead on...the blank cassette tape. It is, frankly, a design of genius in its simplicity and realism, and it spoke to me in unmistakeable if vaguely hissing tones.

Some of you might have been born too late to enjoy the golden era of mixtapes, but I wasn't, and I made scores of them, in many different genres, via my Kenwood stereo setup comprised of a double tape deck capable of recording songs from vinyl (and later from a CD) or dubbing from a second cassette tape. So, I chose the blank cassette design option, and within a few days had it firmly in hand, ready to let it tell the world who, exactly, it was dealing with. Only...

Now I had another problem. The blank label on the cassette image screamed silently. Nobody in their right mind had an unlabeled mixtape (unless they were trying to hide something from their parents, or so I'm told). Sure, when I used the card in a restaurant, almost without exception, the server remarked on the cool design. But I could read in their eyes the judgmental question: are you really so unimaginative that you can't label a mixtape? 

I can no longer live with that unspoken question, and so now I will choose, once and for all, a label for my mixtape Discover card that will provide the authoritative answer. Only, I'm not sure how to do that.

I admit it; this is all about impressing whoever is running the card through the reader, which, 99% of the time, is a server in a restaurant or a club. But if I'm to truly pander to those servers, I need to tailor my fake musical message to the venue, right?

For example, say I'm in a jazz club. This might be a good choice...

Photo - credit card labeled 'The Essential Dave Brubeck'

But if I'm out for a night of two-stepping at, say, Luckenbach, Brubeck won't cut it. I need...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Viva Terlingua - Jerry Jeff Walker'

On the other hand, what if I'm in a blues club. Jerry Jeff and friends are awesome, but not authentically bluesy. So, this might be the right ticket...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Painkiller - Tommy Castro'

But, we're not always slumming, so to speak. Sometimes we frequent classy joints, with tablecloths and four spoons per place setting, and tuxedoed waitstaff. They demand better...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Mozart'

But, on the other other hand, it's more likely that we're eating Tex-Mex in a downtown San Antonio restaurant, and el mesero can better relate to...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Pistolas y Leyendas - Vanessa del Fierro'

So many many scenarios to consider. It's enough to make you pay cash.

In the end, I have to be true to myself, and let the server judgments fall where they may. Here's the real me. Let it be said; let it be written.

Photo - credit card labeled 'Disraeli Gears - Cream' that I think about it...I really like Santana, and Corb Lund has recorded some great stuff lately, and The Mavericks are totally awesome, but George Strait really is The King, except that I also have an Elvis Presley "Best Of" album that exudes royalty, and Sinatra impresses everybody, and boy did Emerson, Lake & Palmer rock (although that could have been the brownies talking)...I wonder if a pencil will work?

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?
You are unique...just like everyone else.

  -- Somebody

We'd all like to think that when we leave this world, someone would take note. (OK, maybe I'm generalizing inappropriately, but work with me here.) And pretty much all of us mean something to somebody, whether we realize it or not. Nevertheless, for most of us our passing won't generate much more than perhaps a blurb in the obit section of the local newspaper, and the grief of family and friends. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and since we're dead, what do we care, anyway?

But every now and then, someone dies without being famous or infamous or even extraordinary in a Major Newspaper Headline sort of way, but they still attract attention disproportionate to what most of us think of newsworthiness. (And, again, I generalize.) Such is the case for a gentleman named Ken Fuson, who died a week ago in a hospital in Omaha.

Never heard of Ken Fuson? You're not alone. But because Ken had a sense of humor (and, possibly, a sense of destiny), his self-penned obituary ensures that more people will know about him in death than perhaps knew him in life (thanks in no small part to this reporting by the Wall Street Journal).

Ken was a journalist -- and apparently a very gifted one, at that -- and wrote his own obituary. We should all face the end of our lives with such humor and grace as Ken. He was a flawed human being -- as are we all --and he owned his flaws, but he also realized that those flaws didn't define him in any meaningful way; he was a man of faith in a faithful God. Here's what he wrote:
Ken's pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but it was faith in Jesus Christ that transformed his life. That was the one thing he never regretted. It changed everything.

For many years Ken was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Indianola and sang in the choir, which was a neat trick considering he couldn't read a note of music. The choir members will never know how much they helped him. He then joined Lutheran Church of Hope. If you want to know what God's love feels like, just walk in those doors. Seriously, right now. We'll wait. Ken's not going anywhere.
If we want to control what people think about us after we die, one way is to write our own obituaries. I submit to you that an even better way is to live lives that make those obituaries compelling reading. Ken knew.

The signs are there
January 5, 2020 7:54 PM | Posted in: ,

A couple of signs have recently caught my eye, both of which are reminders that we live in Texas, and in a not entirely civilized part of the state at that.

The first one was on the front door of our post office...which is located about a mile from our house as the crow flies (assuming the crow flies in a straight line; I don't really know much about their flight patterns).

Sign at the post office warning us that we could be eaten by big feline predators
An unwritten rule: Always hike with someone slower than you.

There are people in our neighborhood who claim to have spotted a mountain lion up the hill past our security gate. I'll take their word for it; personally, I'd much rather have the occasional bobcat passing through.

Then there's this sign.

Sign at our local hospital/sporting goods store
Y'all be in Texas now.

"So, what's the big deal?" you're probably thinking. "Every sporting goods store in the country has a sign like this."

Of course. But does every hospital gift shop? Well, hoss, maybe you've been going to the wrong hospital.

I haven't been in the gift shop to see exactly what kind of camo (scrubs? bandages? bedpans?) or hunting items (12 gauge needles? slingshots?) they stock. But I do find it interesting that the hospital sells hunting items but guns are not permitted on the premises.

An inauspicious beginning to a new decade
January 1, 2020 7:07 PM | Posted in:

Hey, happy new year/decade!

I started to write this post as if I was addressing 2020 as a real person, but I quickly realized that sounded lame, and although I'm not averse to writing lame stuff, that's not the best way to kick off a new year/decade. 

Only now I've painted myself into a corner, IYKWIM.


OK, how about this. I inadvertently left a 40% tip on last night's dinner tab, a not-so-inexpensive one at that. I have an excuse -- several of them, actually -- and I was tempted to use at least one of them, but then I saw a segment on the national news tonight about the "Shock & Claus" practice wherein folks leave servers exorbitant tips around Christmas. After hearing how the practice has impacted the recipients, I decided that I should just view my "mistake" as an unwitting way to possibly help someone whose situation might well benefit from it. (Full disclosure: it was nowhere near the >$1000 tip in the story linked above.) 

We did "ring in the New Year" -- although technically speaking, the only ringing was in my ears as a result of dancing in front of some big honkin' speakers blaring out an excellent rendition of Garth Brooks's Friends in Low Places (and you haven't experienced NYE until you've done one in Texas along with several hundred happy patrons ranging in age from 21 to none-of-your-business and most all of whom are dressed in formal wear and most all of whom know all the words to that song and most all of whom are more than happy to assist the very excellent band in performing the very excellent song) -- but as my penance for not getting into bed until almost 1:00 a.m. I awoke with a voice that would make Johnny Cash sound like a soprano in the Vienna Boys Choir. Thank you very much, cedar pollen.

The day was gloomy, threatening rain that never managed to appear, but we used the cloudy and cool weather as an excuse to build a fire, watch some of annual Twilight Zone marathon, and feast on a late lunch of ham, black-eye peas, and cornbread. Life could be much, much worse, y'know?

2020, you young rascal, you...even though I know you still won't gift us with flying cars or a non-tweeting president*, I have high hopes for you. Don't let me down.

*Don't get your undies in a bunch. They ALL tweet.
Alert Gazette readers will remember how I teased them with this preview of potential Independence Day bicycle decorations in preparation for our participation in the local (Horseshoe Bay) parade. The final modest result pictured below belies the hour or so of toil in the sauna-like confines of a garage in the middle of a Texas summer. It also doesn't capture the copious amounts of gaffer tape and nylon cable ties employed to ensure that decorations stayed comfortably (and safely) away from such operating mechanisms as brakes, chains, shifters, and wheels.

OTOH, it DOES show that we were appropriately patriotic (or, if you prefer, garish and gaudy), and ready to parade.

MLB and I pose with our decorated recumbent tandem
Photo courtesy of the very personable golf cart driver who had
the misfortune of following us in the parade.

This was our second year to ride in the HSB parade, and it was a lot of fun.  This year we were blessed with cool and cloudy conditions, unlike the Great Heatstroke Tour of 2018. The route is short -- less than 1 1/2 miles -- and lined with people of all ages from start to finish (plus a leashed pig wearing an Uncle Sam hat). There are scores of decorated golf carts, cars and truck both old and new, and the obligatory appearances of city dignitaries riding in convertibles and fire trucks. And, of course, one weird recumbent tandem bicycle.

With all due immodesty, I confess that our bike gets some of the most animated reactions from onlookers, and especially the kids. The procession moves slowly enough to allow some interaction with the spectators, and it's a blast to hear the comments. And one media photographer was apparently impressed.

Photo in the Horseshoe Bay Beacon of us riding our bike in the parade
They even spelled our names correctly.

This photo appeared in the July 11 edition of the weekly Horseshoe Bay Beacon, and ours was the only non-dignitary-transporting vehicle that made the paper. Granted, we appeared on page 9 (of a 12-page edition), but at least we were above the fold.

Disclaimer: I know, I know. Helmets. We do normally wear them. But our average speed in the parade was about 2 mph, and I doubt that we ever exceeded 4 mph, so give us a break this one time, how 'bout? Of course, at those speeds there is a distinct challenge of staying upright, so perhaps we were pushing the boundary. But that's how we roll. [Heh]

I had originally intended to use our new celebrity status as a soapbox to address some bicycle/motor vehicle interaction etiquette issues, but I think I'll save that for another day. The main takeaway would simply be: please don't run over us, even when we're not so obviously patriotic. Thanks very much!

Oh, yeah; I almost forgot. Thanks to the post-holiday sale at Hobby Lobby, next year's decorating scheme will be even more awesome. Stay tuned.

Learning Spanish to Teach English
August 30, 2018 7:47 PM | Posted in:

¿Hablas español?

Solo un poco. Pero quiero apender más.

MLB and I are volunteering as teachers in an English As A Second Language (ESL) class sponsored by our church. We inherited a class comprised of adult students primarily from Mexico. Since they are all native Spanish speakers, we are trying to improve our fluency in their native language.

There's a great deal of debate about whether ESL teachers should use Spanish (or any non-English language) in class. I won't attempt to debate the pros and cons, but I will say that when you get less than two hours per week with students, you need to be as efficient as possible in communicating concepts, and being able to set the context in their native language has been invaluable. I have yet to find a picture card or a pantomime that accurately depicts the concept of "enough."

In addition, our sometimes-bumbling attempts at Spanish provides two intangible benefits. First, I believe it demonstrates some respect for the students' culture. Second, it gives us as teachers a perspective on just how difficult learning another language can be for adults. And if we aren't afraid to mess up when we attempt Spanish, maybe the students won't fear making mistakes in English.

We've actually been working on our Spanish skills for almost a year, using two different self-paced programs. The first is Duolingo, which bills itself as "the world's most popular language learning platform." Duolingo's "active learners" count seems to support this claim, with almost 22 million English speakers taking Spanish, and 29 million Spanish speakers taking English. In all, Duolingo has about 100 English-to-xxx and xxx-to-English courses. We have downloaded the app to our tablets and phones and do lessons every morning as a part of our normal routine.

The other program we're using is Fluencia, a web-based curriculum focused solely on Spanish. Again, daily lessons in Fluencia are a part of our morning routine.

The two programs share some features. Both offer "starter" lessons for free, but their usefulness is extremely limited. The paid versions of each unlock the full potential of the programs. Both track your progress and provide daily reports via email or notifications. Both programs provide immediate feedback during the lessons about whether you're succeeding. And both allow you to provide your own feedback about the lessons themselves.*

However, the two programs are quite different in their approaches. Duolingo is more self-paced, and arranges its lessons by narrow topic (e.g. Animals, Time, Directions, Adverbs, etc.). You can pick whichever topics appeal to you the most, and each provides a series of lessons of [theoretically] increasing difficulty. Duolingo's emphasis seems to be on building vocabulary. You're on your own to figure out the grammatical rules, unless you want to exit the lessons and use Duolingo's extensive online resources.

Screen capture of Duolingo's lessons
Screen capture of Duolingo's lessons

Fluencia has a structured curriculum that you work through in linear fashion; you can't advance to the next set of lessons until you've mastered (or at least stumbled through, in my case) the previous set. Fluencia's lesson plans are built around social situations (e.g. "Explore household chores and items, celebrity, and gossip"; "Learn words for your first apartment, job interviews, banking...and describing a city"). Fluencia does a much better job of explaining grammatical rules as a part of the lesson, and it also provides lessons on Spanish culture, customs, idioms, geography, etc.

Screen capture of Fluencia's lesson
Screen capture of Fluencia's lesson

Both platforms have their drawbacks. You can download Duolingo lessons to work offline but Fluencia requires a connection to the web. Some of Duolingo's lessons seem excessively simple and repetitive, even at the advanced levels (most people really don't need to see "el hombre" twenty times to remember that it means "the man"). On the other hand, some of Fluencia's lessons are brutally hard, especially the reviews that require absolute mastery of all the lessons included in each level. My aging brain seems incapable of absorbing everything that Fluencia expects, and that gets frustrating.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Duolingo is the way it "punishes" you for not answering questions correctly. Once you miss three questions, you are locked out of the program for 24 hours. This seems like an odd way to encourage learning. The workaround is to upgrade to the paid version, then turn on a special setting that stops that ridiculous approach.

In the end, I can't recommend either program over the other, as they each provide useful tools via their different approaches. Duolingo's strength is building vocabulary; Fluencia's is providing grammatical context. 

Nevertheless, fluency is not coming easily. I feel like I have a pretty good working vocabulary, but grammar is probably still on a first-grade level. I can read Spanish pretty effectively, but speaking anything but the most rudimentary sentences is a struggle. Worst of all, listening to native speakers is completely frustrating, especially with the Latin tendency to speak quickly. (In fairness, our students often tell us that we're speaking too quickly.)

One additional resource I highly recommend is SpanishDict, a translation resource that is reliable and comprehensive. It's done more to help me understand Spanish verb conjugations than either Duolingo or Fluencia. You can access SpanishDict as either a standalone app or via its website.

*I mentioned above that these programs allow students to provide feedback about the lessons. In Duolingo's case, you can report a question for which you believe the provided answer is either wrong or excessively limited (Spanish provides multiple ways to say the same thing, but the program doesn't always recognize that.) I've discovered that this feedback actually works. I've submitted several suggestions and received prompt responses from Duolingo to the effect that they will update their program to accept my suggestions for acceptable answers.

Toilet Wars
August 24, 2017 9:41 PM | Posted in:

Species Neutral Restroom Sign

A female friend posted this on Facebook a few days ago:

Facebook post bemoaning male trashing of gender-neutral restroom

The ensuing comments provided a preview of the nuclear equivalent of the War of the Sexes, with each side accusing the other of being less sanitary or courteous when it comes to the state of public restrooms. Scholarly studies were quoted; personal anecdotes were shared; TMI lines were violated; nothing was resolved. But the "discussion" was lively and bracing.

I've been in only one "gender-neutral" (hereafter referred to as "GN" to save my typing fingers) restroom, and it was completely intimidating. It was located in a restaurant that specialized in what I call "foo foo food," and the clientele is typically female, by a significant margin. So, the restaurant has two restrooms off the main dining area, one female-only and the other GN.

Given the likelihood that the next person in the restroom after me would be a woman, I went far and above the normal bathroom behavior in an attempt to make it seem like I was never there, or that I simply went in for a moment of meditation before dessert. Toilet seat down*? Check. Sink fixtures wiped dry? Check. Mirror streaks (they weren't mine!) obliterated? Check. I did draw the line at opening the door and yelling something like "I NEED TIDY BOWL...STAT!" into the dining room, but I might have used some if it had already been present.

Ladies, please don't judge us guys too harshly when we find ourselves in the unfamiliar surroundings of a GN restroom. Keep in mind that we're probably accustomed to service station bathrooms where the decor is a foldout of the March, 1968 Playmate of the Month taped over the urinal, the floor seems to be alive, and the permeating odor is Clorox losing a battle with more truck stop burritos than you can imagine.

In other words, we're battling both nature and nurture, and pretty much losing on both accounts.

*I have been well-trained by you-know-who in Seat Upsmanship. I have many faults, but that ain't one of 'em.

As they marched us back from the river, one soldier was carrying an American flag. That flag was a beautiful sight. I wish that flag could have the same meaning to everyone in this country now.
    -- Loy Dean Lawler
Dr. Loy Dean Lawler was an optometrist who practiced for many years in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He was my wife's uncle (well, the relationship is a bit more complicated than that, but it will suffice). Loy Dean passed away in 2010 at age 86, a well-respected and devout gentleman.

He was also an Army veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. He endured four months as a prisoner of war, captured by the Germans along with thousands of his fellow American soldiers following the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1995, after returning from a reunion of the 106th Infantry Division (the first and only such reunion he could bring himself to attend), Dr. Lawler wrote his memoir of that ordeal. What follows is sometimes hard to read, but perhaps even harder for those of us raised in security and freedom to relate to. It's a stark reminder of the sacrifices that those who came before made so that we can enjoy that security and freedom. It's difficult to know exactly how to express gratitude for these sacrifices, but the least we can do is...never forget.

POW Experience
Dr. Loy Dean Lawler, Mount Pleasant, Texas

I was captured near Schoenberg close to the German border about 4:00 P.M. on December 19, 1944. I was with the 106th Infantry Division, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company E, 1st Platoon. Captain Maxey Crews was our company commander. We had 4 or 5 left out of our platoon. The rest were killed, wounded, or simply missing. We had not had food or been warm or dry since the morning of December 16th. 

Newspaper report of MIA status
Undated newspaper clipping reporting on Lawler's MIA status
At the time of our capture I was with Captain Crews near the dugout that I supposed could be called the Regimental Headquarters. I can still see the anguish and tears on Colonel [Charles C.] Cavender's face when he came out and said we were going to surrender. I can truthfully say nobody around me wanted to surrender. Captain Crews had me relay the order to cease firing and to destroy our weapons. I thought some of the guys were going to shoot me when I passed the order on. It was a problem to get everyone to quit firing. There was some firing after I destroyed my M1 rifle, and that did make me nervous, being without my M1 

We were marched out of the woods and into an open field. On our way I was nearly shot by an SS trooper when I refused to let him have my watch. I changed my mind real quick when he drew his sidearm and put it in my face. I realized later how stupid I had been. The next thing was to destroy a pen and pencil set my Mother had given me, just to keep them from getting it. We huddled together in this open field the rest of the night. Early next morning we began a march that lasted all that day and the following night. I think we went to Prum and onto Gerolstein, but am not sure. The morning of December 21st we were given a piece of bread and put in boxcars. There were 60 of us in one boxcar. It had wooden benches where some sat, and the rest had to lay underneath the benches on the hard and cold floor.

We had several that were sick or wounded and lot of the men had diarrhea. Some were so weak they simply relieved themselves in their pants. Others hollered for the helmet that was passed around and emptied through a hole in the boxcar. I didn't think until later that I hope that wasn't the same helmet that was used to give us water. There was a stove in the boxcar, but nothing to burn--it was just in the way. 

Our train was pulled onto a railroad siding in Limburg, near Frankfurt, to allow higher priority trains to move on. On the night of about December 23, we were bombed by the British. It was quite a show with all the flares and earth-shaking explosions.

We managed to get out of the boxcar. I remembered seeing a foxhole earlier that was nearby. I ran for that and jumped in with the bombs exploding. I jumped on the back of a German guard that was already in the one-man hole. I quickly pushed him back down as he tried to get up and made a fast exit. We had hopes of escaping, but were quickly rounded up after the bombing ceased. I am not sure of this, but I was told we lost 12 out of our 60 men--to the bombs and by the guards thinking some were trying to escape. One of those killed was a friend who had married the day before we left to go overseas. His body lay in front of our boxcar all Christmas eve day. A Sgt. McNamara in our group was a good singer. He was leading us in Christmas carols when the bombing started.

We stayed in the boxcar about 10 days. During that time we had 1/6th of a Red Cross parcel and water once or twice. I am a little hazy on the water that was scarce, but I know for sure about the few bites of food we received.

We arrived at Stalag IVB about December 30th and was assigned to barracks December 31st. Several of the men were too weak to move and had to be carried off the boxcar. I believe we had one die.

We had to undress and were put in a "gas" chamber and deloused before being given a small bowl of warm oatmeal. That was the best meal I ever had-and the last for several months. While at IVB, we were in bunks (hard planks) that were so close together we could hardly turn over. There was a latrine at the end of the barracks with two barrels outside the door. With so much dysentery, most of us couldn't wait our turn and had to go in the barrels. Some Poles who had been in the camp a long time would come in and eat the feces out of the barrels when they could find any of a solid nature. We were not that starved yet. Later on I did find myself digging into a cow pile with a stick, looking for something solid. I found a couple of pieces of undigested carrots that were pretty good. Our diet at IVB was watery soup with very little solids.

About the middle of January, 1945, I was transferred to a Russian work camp, arbeit Kommando L71A near Boxwitz, Germany. We were close enough to Dresden to see the lights and the bombing of that city. 

I was with a group of 100 Americans and 400 Russians. Thirty-one of us and four Russians were assigned to work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, in a coal brickette factory in Boxwitz (or Bockwitz). It was called Fabrique Eine und Zwie. We got out of bed at 4:30 in the morning, stood outside in formation for roll call. The guard would hit anyone with their hand in their pockets because it was not soldier-like. This was before daylight. We then walked one hour to work, before the 12-hour workday.

We had no breakfast--only a cup of what I call acorn coffee, barely more than warm water. Our noon meal consisted of half a Klim can of rutabaga soup without the rutabaga. The night meal was the same with a small piece of bread. On Sunday, our day off, we had only one meal, but I believe we got one small potato occasionally. If we found a worm in our soup that was good--something a little solid. Only on one occasion did we receive 1/6 of a Red Cross parcel, and that was near the time we were liberated.

My work involved some standing on a high scaffold and knocking out a ceiling with heavy hammers. I remember falling once, but wasn't seriously hurt. This didn't last very long, and the rest of the time we were working outside-stacking coal brickettes and loading things on boxcars. One day a German soldier, not one of our guards, came by on an inspection tour and told me to take my coat off--in the coldest winter ever recorded in that part of Germany. I refused. He tried to take it off, but finally gave up and moved on. He was so mad he was frothing at the mouth. I kept my coat on. 

A woman in a nearby house saw us wrestling around. She came out of the house and hid something under the snow next to a chimney. When no one was looking, I slipped over and found a small piece of cake. I mention this to let everyone know that all Germans were not bad.

The best part of our work was near the end of our captivity when the P-38s would strafe the plant. We would get to go to the bomb shelter. A German civilian worker would occasionally hide a thin slice of bread in his hat band and give it to me in the darkness of the shelter.

Our walk to and from work was rather uneventful--except for the cold. I do remember one time a Russian, while walking in formation, (we marched everywhere--never walked) stepped out of line while urinating to keep from hitting the guy in front and the German guard shot him in the face, the bullet going through both cheeks. He walked on to camp without any help.

There was a place in camp where we could take a shower--like once a week. We were separated from the Russians, but they could cut the hot water off when were in the shower and had fun doing it.

About March of 1945 I began to run a temperature and get weaker and weaker. I no longer could eat and had to give my food away. I worked as long as I could because several of the Russians were shot in bed when they couldn't get up. I was lucky, for they put me in a horse-drawn, iron-wheeled wagon with the guard, and took me to the nearest railroad station. I had pleurisy and it hurt to even breathe. I was too weak to sit up, so laying on those hard boards in the wagon and going over those cobblestone roads was a real experience.

We boarded a train for a hospital in Lebenwerda, Germany. It was an old theatre building. Our beds were planks that used to have a little straw on them. The British doctor in charge brought a German colonel in to see us. He, with one hand, put his fingers completely around my leg--just about skin and bone. The doctor was bitterly complaining to the Colonel about our condition. The next day I was taken to a regular hospital for X-rays and some other tests, and then returned to our own "hospital." Soon afterwards, the British doctor received some medicine that broke my fever and I started to get a little better. The guy next to me in the hospital was from the same barracks in our work camp, in fact, slept next to me. He died with something similar. I knew I was in bad shape when they placed this other man and me in the only two beds in our theatre hospital. I weighed 88 lbs and probably lost a little more weight before I got better. I was soon returned to the work camp. It was a strange feeling to travel on a train with German civilians. They looked at me like I was from Mars.

By April the weather began to get a little warmer. Just before we were liberated, as previously mentioned, we received 1/6th of a Red Cross parcel for each man. Prior to this we had no contact with the Red Cross. They "lost" us. About this time we began to miss some of our bread rations and the rutabaga soup without the rutabaga was replaced with some sort of sugar beet soup that was hardly edible. I traded a pack of cigarettes out of the Red Cross parcel for a loaf of bread, but it was stolen before I could eat it. I now know how a person feels when they lose all their worldly possessions.

Sometime after the middle of April all of our guards suddenly disappeared. The exception was a French soldier in German uniform. He was the only decent guard we had. He stayed with us. We could hear firing by the Russians advancing towards us. We started walking towards the American lines to keep from being captured by the Russians and, according to local rumors, marched back into Russia.

We lived off the land--like digging up potato eyes planted in the ground. We found a little burned cheese from a train that had been bombed. Here we were looking into horse and cow manure or anywhere we could find something to eat.

Just before we met the Americans at the Elbe river I was resting by the side of the road when I looked out into a field where a pregnant woman was working. A German guard began stomping her as she lay helpless on the ground. About the same time a German officer sat down beside me and told me the Americans should join up with the Germans and whip Russia while we could. We had spent several days just ahead of the Russians--like getting up (out of a barn) and separating ourselves from the Russians.

In the late afternoon of April 24th we crossed a bombed-out bridge on what I think was the Elbe River and met the Americans--273rd Infantry of the 69th Division. As they marched us back from the river, one soldier was carrying an American flag. That flag was a beautiful sight. I wish that flag could have the same meaning to everyone in this country now. During this walk one of our guys took a bicycle away from a German civilian, but several of us made him give it back. I did get a German officers sabre, but it got bent in the celebration and I threw it away.

We were put in this German home for the night. The man's wife and daughter left to stay with the neighbors, but the husband stayed with us and tried to celebrate with us. He soon passed out on his bed. I went out and milked his cow and drank the milk immediately. This was better than cognac. Our stomachs couldn't take anything very strong. The Russians arrived at the Elbe river about an hour after we did, and they were not as nice to the German civilians as we were.

Before and after photos of Loy Lawler
Loy Dean Lawler as a new recruit in the Army Specialized Training Program (left),
and as a corporal after his return. He quipped that "any POW who survived
got an immediate promotion - some way to get a promotion, huh?"

I don't remember where (maybe Trebsen, Germany), but the 69th Division took us to some barracks where we were billeted for a few days. During the first night with this I&R platoon, 273rd Infantry, 69th Division, we broke into the mess hall and stole most of their food. We returned most of it later when we found out we couldn't eat as much as we thought we could.

We were next sent to Camp Lucky Strike in France. After about two weeks and what I then thought was good food, we were put on a Liberty ship on our way back to Newport News, Virginia. A friend of mine, B. J. Carmichael, and I stayed on deck all the time. We never saw our assigned bunks.

This coincidence is worth mentioning. B. J. Carmichael, from Dallas, Texas, and I took our basic training in Camp Wheeler, Georgia. From there we were sent to the University of Alabama under the ASTP. We were still put in the same unit. We were then sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, still together. We went overseas to England and France, still together. During the Battle of the Bulge, around St. Vith, we were separated. After we were captured, we were together again. When were put in the boxcars on the way to Stalag IVB, we were together. Out of the thousands at IVB, we were in the same barracks and we both were picked for a group of 100 Americans to go to work in a Russian work camp with 400 Russians. A day or two after I went to this German hospital, here came Carmichael. 

We were together until liberated and sent to Camp Lucky Strike. Out of the thousands there, we were still on the same Liberty Ship back to the States. Finally, he was discharged from Ft. Ord, California, and I from Ft. Hood, Texas, but not before we spent a recuperation leave together in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

We haven't seen much of each other since. It is a shame we haven't, but I think both of us didn't care to dwell on the past all that much. He will always be special to me. While the bullets were flying around, I can still hear him hollering for me to "get down." 

To regress a bit, back to the work camp, I twice was put on a detail of about 6 guys to clean out the furnaces at the factory (or plant) where we worked. The ovens looked like pictures I later saw of these ovens where bodies were cremated. This was on a Sunday, supposedly our only day off. The oven doors were just big enough to crawl in, one man to a furnace. While scraping the wall down good, we stood on some grates above a bed of coals that were still hot. We couldn't stay in the ovens very long at a time. There was enough room for us to fall through the grates, but this was one time everyone was real careful. The only air we got was from the open oven door.

I say all of the above to say this. This wasn't any worse than having to stand out in the cold snow and ice at the brickette factory 12 hours a day with just a pair of G.I. boots on your feet. G.I. boots are not warm and they are not waterproof. There ought to be a special place in hell for the person who sold the Army those boots. My feet are still cold.

I know I have rambled around a bit and hit a few highlights. After almost 50 years there is no way I can remember everything. To those of you who were there, you can understand.

If you're interested in learning more about the details of the battle leading up to the capture of American soldiers following the Battle of the Bulge, feel free to check out the following accounts:

Many thanks to Loy Dean's daughter Mercy and his niece Becky for providing access to this story and photos. This has been posted with Mercy's permission.

I've posted this for two reasons. First, it's a way for me to honor a man with whom I was acquainted for decades, but only recently came to know this chapter of his story. Like so many of his generation, he rarely spoke of his wartime experiences.

Which brings me to the second reason: these veterans are leaving us at an alarming and increasing rate, and with them go the stories that illuminate their lives and educate their descendants. Those stories need to be preserved, and this is one way to do that. I did that in 2011 for my dad, and it's an honor to do that in 2017 for Loy Dean Lawler.

You may not have a similar outlet for preserving the stories of those veterans closest to you; regardless, try to take some time to interview them and capture some of their experiences and memories.

Midland to Refugees: Welcome!
January 19, 2017 9:13 AM | Posted in: ,

Three refugee families are arriving in Midland next Wednesday. Any of the following items would be greatly appreciated...
That was the beginning of a message left by a neighbor on our development's Nextdoor newsfeed last week. The message included a long list of household items needed to help those families get a new start in a new country. We later learned that the International Rescue Committee (IRC) was sponsoring the families, which were coming from either Cuba, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Africa), or Iraq.

Given the recent increasingly provocative anti-immigration rhetoric permeating social media, I was curious to see how this appeal would go over in our conservative-leaning community (I assumed our neighborhood mirrored the city as a whole in this regard; I saw no "HRC for President" yard signs during the campaign). Sure enough, this response appeared shortly after the initial posting:
I'm sorry but we have people here that are in dire need of help including our Vets.
I may be guilty of reading too much into this reply, but this was how I interpreted the comment: these people are not us, and aren't as deserving of our help as those who are us. 

I have no quibble with the idea that we can always do more to help others in our community. I agree that illegal immigration represents a real and significant threat in a number of ways. I don't agree that helping citizens and helping refugees are mutually exclusive activities, especially in a city that's as prosperous as Midland. 

I also see a troubling halo effect of extending the disdain for illegal immigrants to fully vetted and sponsored political refugees, for whom coming to America is not just fulfilling an economic wish, but is possibly a lifeline for survival. 

With all this in mind, I watched the online conversation unfold... 

First, there was no reply to the "I'm sorry but..." comment. Hmmm. Did silence mean agreement?

Then the replies trickled in, all directed to the original post. Some wanted more details about the families, or the organization. Some wanted to know where to drop off donations. Others posted notices of what they would donate. Finally, a few days after the initial appeal, this was posted by the original writer, who had volunteered to collect all donations and deliver them to the organization:
My car is totally full so I'm dropping all of it off this morning...
In short, this was just about a perfect response. No histrionics; no arguing; no defensive (or offensive) rebuttals...just a quiet, positive response to a call to action that demonstrates that for some of us, at least, America is still a place for "...your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Update: A representative of the IRC came to our neighborhood yesterday afternoon to pick up additional donations of household goods.

Update 2: For more about the refugee families in Midland, check out this article that appeared in today's edition of the local newspaper (front page, at that).
Earlier this year I reported on the grand opening of the West Texas Food Bank's main facility in Odessa. That facility - the crown jewel of the Food Bank's physical presence - was the first result of a $13 million capital campaign (an amount raised in only 13 months). The second step was revealed last night, when a sneak preview grand opening (the official public grand opening is this morning) was held at the new Midland location - the official name is the "Midland Community & Volunteer Center" - the first physical presence of the Food Bank in our city. Debbie and I were once again privileged to attend, and I wanted to share some photos from this great addition Midland's benevolence infrastructure.

[Disclaimer: These photos were taken with my phone, amid a crowd of people, so please excuse the obvious quality and framing issues.]

The new facility is located at 1601 Westcliff Drive, just south of the Andrews Highway, near the Midland County Tax Offices. The main building is a repurposed existing structure that was donated by Mike and Cindy Black and Lea and Melanie Crump (the lobby bears their names). It's only about a third of the size of the Odessa location, which is 60,000 square feet, but it purposes are a bit different and don't require the same scale.

The lobby shares some features of the Odessa facility, including the striking green logo wall, and the installation of dinner plates showing the names of the donors who made these facilities possible. A unique aspect of the Midland location is the integration of actual wooden food pallets as an architectural feature, as shown below.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Lobby

Here's a sample of some of the donor plates mentioned above. I felt compelled to highlight the plate belonging to Debbie's and my employer, SM Energy Company.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Donor Plates

Immediately off the lobby is the H-E-B Client Choice Pantry, where clients can "shop" for an assortment of food, both fresh and non-perishable. This pantry will be stocked with items specifically geared toward the nutritional needs of senior adults. H-E-B is a major donor, giving generously of both finances and food, and at the event last night their spokesman surprised the crowd with an additional $25,000 pledge.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Food Pantry

Moving further into the facility, you come to the Wayne & Jo Ann Moore Charitable Foundation Volunteer Center. This is where the work of unloading, inspecting, processing, sorting, and boxing donated food takes place...primarily by community volunteers. It is equipped with a loading dock; a "cold processing room" for inspecting meat, dairy, produce, and eggs; and a "sorting and isolation room" for storing and sorting non-perishable items.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Volunteer Center

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Loading Dock

Moving to the other end of the building, you find the administrative offices, the Bobby & Leona Cox Demonstration Kitchen, and the Henry Foundation Community Training Room.

The kitchen (named after the creator of Rosa's and Taco Villa) will be used to educate the public on how to prepare healthy meals. It has four cooking stations, and will be available to other collaborative agencies for cooking and nutrition classes.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Demonstration Kitchen

The training room has audio-visual capabilities and will also be made available to area groups for meetings and training opportunities.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Training Room

The exterior features of the facility are as impressive as the interior. There's a great playground (the Miles & Laurie Boldrick Playground) to entertain children while their adults are shopping or learning. And, in case you're wondering, there will eventually be grass on that playground (this is a REALLY new facility!). And, yes, that is my thumb in the upper right corner. Don't say I didn't warn you.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Playground

In the background of the preceding photo, you can see part of one of the two greenhouses at the site, named in honor of the J.E. & L.E. Mabee Foundation. These state-of-the-art greenhouses will be managed by the Permian Basin Master Gardeners, and will be used to educate the public about gardening, composting, etc.

The two greenhouses are configured differently, with one being a "Chinese-style" greenhouse surrounded by earthen berms, and the other being a more typical West Texas greenhouse. Both will be served by a 5,000 gallon rainwater collection system tied to the guttering on the main building.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Greenhouse

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Greenhouse

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Rainfall Collection System

There will also be an area where children can plant and tend to their own gardens (still under construction as shown below).

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Children's Gardens

The entire facility, designed by the Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, is environmentally friendly. It will eventually be equipped with a 75kW photovoltaic solar panel system that will provide up to more than 100% of the location's electrical needs (putting electricity back into the grid during the spring and fall). The building material incorporated reclaimed materials (such as the pallets I mentioned above, as well as 50 gallon drums used as light fixtures). And, finally, the polished concrete floors in the lobby contain recycled glass aggregate, and the flooring in the training room is 100% recycled compressed aspen wood.

The West Texas Food Bank is a critical asset in our region, serving millions of meals to hungry people in 19 counties across the 34,000 square miles it serves. I can't think of a more deserving recipient of your philanthropy, if you have the financial resources to share.
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...'

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?'

The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

Matthew, Chapter 25

Boxing Batch
March 10, 2016 11:06 AM | Posted in: ,

I hate to alarm you, but we have a packaging crisis in the United States. As in...too much of it. This became obvious yesterday upon the arrival of two items we had ordered.

Exhibit A is a dress that MLB purchased from the website of a well-known clothier. Here's the box in which it was shipped (I included her to give you a sense of scale):

Huge box for tiny dress

Now, I could understand this kind of packaging if she had ordered, say, a suit of medieval armor, or if she starred in a reality show on Spike TV entitled Gargantuan and Sexy, but in truth it was a little filmy dance dress, and she qualifies for only part of that imaginary TV series. Anyway, I have no idea what the shipper was thinking. Perhaps they had run short of dress-sized boxes. Perhaps they were simply responding to a perceived "bigger = more valuable" philosophy that accompanies our tendency to super-size our consumption. Or, more likely, the guy in the shipping department just grabbed the closest box.

Exhibit B came in the form of a Nutribullet (I know; that's a topic for another discussion) that we ordered from Wal-Mart. Here's how the less-than-two-feet-tall device was packaged:

Nesting boxes

In this case, the shipping department employee was either a big fan of matryoshka dolls, or really into recursion. Or, we should not completely discount that he was influenced by a recent meal of turducken. Anyway, while Nutribullet is obviously proud of its product (as evidenced by what they charge for it), packaging it more securely than a shipment of weapons-grade plutonium seems a bit excessive.

And speaking of excessive, after she unpacked the boxes, MLB spoke of the largest box being "filled with intestines." I was simultaneously intrigued and repulsed, but here's what she was referring to:

Snaking packing material

I admit to being impressed that someone was actually able to get anything else into the Master Box™ along with that air-filled serpent. I was less impressed with the effort it took to deflate each one of those little pillows so I could get them into a trash can. It was much less satisfying than bubble wrap.

Boxing Day is a big deal in Canada; perhaps the US needs to start observing an Unboxing Day.

Note: I put this post into the "Design" category, because packaging engineering is a real thing. Anyone who's ever struggled to open a box of cereal knows that the right design makes a big difference.
Debbie and I were honored to attend the grand opening of the West Texas Food Bank's new Odessa facility last Thursday, and we came away more impressed than ever with an organization that plays such an important role in our region.

The new facility was the result of a beautifully-timed capital campaign that raised more than $13 million in just thirteen months. The money was used to build the new 60,000 square foot building in Odessa, as well as a 20,000 square foot facility in Midland that should be completed this spring. The WTFB's Alpine facility will also be upgraded.

If you're unfamiliar with the WTFB - which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015 - here are a few relevant facts that will give you an idea of the work they're doing:

  • Service area: 19 counties in West Texas comprising 34,000 square miles;
  • Partners with more than 75 local hunger-relief agencies including food pantries, community kitchens, emergency organizations, shelters, residential centers, rehabilitation centers, and senior/youth centers;
  • In 2014, WTFB distributed 5 million pounds of food, or the equivalent of 4 million meals;
  • 95 cents of every dollar received goes directly to hunger relief.
The title of this post is not hyperbole; the new facility is a beautiful example of professional planning and execution. It manages to be perfectly functional while also being inviting to clients and volunteers. Parkhill, Smith & Cooper provided architectural services (and also presented a $50,000 check at the grand opening!) and Cooper Construction did a masterful job of building the facility. I could go on and on, but how about if I save many thousands of words and show you some photos?

WTFB lobby

This is the lobby of the new building. The suspended plates bear the names of the major donors to the capital campaign. (I don't know whether they'll be on permanent display or if they were just presented for the grand opening.)

WTFB lobby

This is another view of the lobby, which you'll note is named in honor of Monsignor James Bridges. Msgr. Bridges is pastor of St. Stephens Catholic Church in Midland and was instrumental in forming the Permian Basin Food Bank, which later became WTFB. In fact, he holds a significant place of honor in the lobby of the new facility (in addition to its bearing his name)...

Msgr Bridges bust and quote

As you enter the lobby, you are greeted with a view of a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, aka the BHP Billiton Community Kitchen. 

BHP Billiton Community Kitchen

As you walk past the kitchen, you get a view of the Odessa Development Corporation playground.

Odessa Development Corp Playground

This area is where children of volunteers and clients can have fun while the adults are either working or being served. There are big windows looking into the volunteer area so that kids can keep an eye on their parents and vice versa.

Just past the playground is where the really interesting stuff begins.


This huge warehouse is where non-perishable food (and other donated items and supplies) are stored. It's brightly lit and well-organized.

Loading Docks

The warehouse has four loading docks, with plenty of room for trucks (unlike the previous facility where drivers sometimes charged an extra fee because of the parking challenges).


Above is the walk-in cooler room (we can attest to the efficiency of the cooling system!), and the door at the back leads to the freezer.

Abell-Hanger Foundation Volunteer Processing Area

This is the 5,500 square feet Abell-Hanger Foundation, Inc. Volunteer Center, where community volunteers sort donated food, build food distribution boxes, and sack food for hungry children. (In 2015, 2,400 volunteers contributed 11,650 hours of service.) This venue will also seat up to 300 guests and will be made available to outside organizations who wish to host work parties combined with a time of entertainment. In the above photo, tables for the grand opening banquet are set up.

Food distribution is obviously a big part of WTFB's services, but it also offers in-house client "shopping" services via the fully-provisioned Scott & Minka Sibert Client Service Area.

Client Service Area
Client Service Area

Clients can shop for their groceries while also receiving education and advice about nutrition.

Heading upstairs, you'll find the administrative offices, as well as the board room (sponsored by the Saulsbury Family Foundation), and a community room (sponsored by Lissa & Cy Wagner and Frances & Jack Brown) with A/V capabilities that accommodates up to 100 people and is available to local groups and organizations.

Board Room
Community Room

This new facility is a jewel for West Texas, and it couldn't come at a better time, given the recent downturn in our oil-dependent economy. But this is just the start; plans are for the facility to eventually become energy independent (via solar technology to be funded by BHP Billiton). It will also feature a community garden and water collection tank.

Debbie and I are strong believers in the WTFB's mission. If you live in West Texas, I hope you'll consider giving them some support.
Before we get started, take a listen to this (length - 39 sec):

I've probably mentioned this before but I worked as a DJ at a small AM radio station in West Texas during my high school and early college years. That was back in the late 60s/early 70s, and the Viet Nam war was hot. And while the draft was still in effect, the various branches of the military were also stepping up their recruitment efforts.

Wolfman Jack USAF Program labelPart of those efforts entailed what we would today call infomercials, but which back then were referred to as public service announcements (PSA). They came in the form of prerecorded programs, usually musical, which were interspersed with promos for a specific branch of service. Radio stations were required to run a certain number of hours of PSAs each month, and the military recruiting programs were a good way to meet those requirements.

As you can imagine, stations didn't run these programs during prime time. Our station ran them on Sunday mornings. They came to us as 15-25 minute LP records (that's vinyl, kiddies), one PSA to a side. They were dated and once they were played, they were trashed.

I managed to "rescue" a half dozen or so of these PSA platters that came to us from the Air Force and from the Marine Corps. The Corps' programs were entitled Jazz on the Potomac, and were precisely 14 minutes and 30 seconds of, well, jazz. (Frankly, I never really grasped which demographic they were aiming at. Were there really that many 18-to-22 year old guys listening to jazz in the late Sixties?) They were narrated by Felix Grant, who had an almost fifty year career in radio, and whose voice was apparently created with jazz in mind. Grant's narration was educational, focusing on the music - the style and history. He made a single, low-keyed pitch for the Marine Corps during each program. Here's an example (length - 76 sec):

The USAF, on the other hand, took a different approach. Their programs were narrated by the (in)famous Wolfman Jack, and featured current rock and pop hits. The Wolfman's pitch was less polished but more lively, in keeping with the musical selections. Following is a good example, this one targeting young women (length - 1 min, 42 sec):

The music on the USAF's programs was a rather eclectic mix. I managed to save three LPs - six programs - and each had four-to-six songs. I'm not sure why I feel it's important to archive this information, but I guess it's partly for personal reference and partly to capture a bit of cultural history. In any event, here are the program listings for those three discs.

Series #11 - Program 1 - Disc 1 - Side A (July, 1972)
  • Layla - Derek & The Dominos
  • It's Too Late To Turn Back Now - Cornelius Bros. & Sister Rose
  • Sympathy For The Devil - Rolling Stones
  • Immigration Man - David Crosby & Graham Nash
Series #11 - Program 2 - Disc 1 - Side B (July, 1972)
  • Tumbling Dice - Rolling Stones
  • I Need You - America
  • Questions - Moody Blues
  • Hot Rod Lincoln - Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
  • I Didn't Get To Sleep At All Last Night - 5th Dimension
  • Hold Your Head Up - Argent
Series #11 - Program 3 - Disc 2 - Side A (July, 1972)
  • I Saw The Light - Todd Rundgren
  • Wolfman Jack - Todd Rundgren
  • What Is Life - George Harrison
  • Troglodyte - Jimmy Castor Bunch
  • Old Man - Neil Young
  • Blue Sky - Allman Brothers
Series #11 - Program 4 - Disc 2 - Side B (July, 1972)
  • 30 Days In The Hole - Humble Pie
  • People Make The World Go 'Round - Stylistics
  • Sweet Hitch Hiker - Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Someday Never Comes - Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Sylvia's Mother - Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show
Series #12 - Program 1 - Disc 1 - Side A (August, 1972)
  • Layla - Derek & The Dominos
  • Take It Easy - Eagles
  • Sunshine Superman - Donovan
  • Day By Day - Godspell
  • Brown Eyed Girl - El Chicano
Series #12 - Program 2 - Disc 1 - Side B (August, 1972)
  • Rip This Joint - Rolling Stones
  • School's Out - Alice Cooper
  • Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin
  • Long Cool Woman - Hollies
  • Conquistador - Procol Harum
  • It's Too Late To Turn Back Now - Cornelius Bros. & Sister Rose
As an aside, none of those songs would likely have made the radio station's regular playlist (with the possible exception of Day By Day). The station format was "variety" or "middle of the road," and featured primarily country (or "country & western," as it was known back then) and easy listening music. So, the USAF platters were actually pretty cool collections from my perspective.

I'm in the process of digitizing these LPs, again for whatever historical value they might have). They're in pretty bad shape; I was not able to get the album covers and didn't have the foresight to at least put them in sleeves so they've been rattling around loose and uncovered for the past four decades. The flaws add a certain authenticity and character to them (sort of like my reflection in the mirror, or so I keep telling myself). Copyright law prevents me from ever posting the entire content online, but I've done what I could.
Texas has 500 times more water underground than anything you see above the surface.  The question is, how much do we pump and how fast?
Late last year I reported on a project called Our Desired Future that focuses on issues surrounding groundwater conservation in Texas. I'm now happy to report that the new ODF website has launched, and one of its first video features is about the "rule of capture" in Texas, using Pecos County and Fort Stockton - my hometown - as examples of the complications that arise when people are allowed to legally pump all the water they can.

You can watch it on the ODF website, or you can view it right here:

Our Desired Future is an impressive and interesting resource for anyone interested in the potential impact of groundwater depletion in Texas. Most of our state is no longer in the grip of the years-long drought that emptied many of our lakes, but we're in no position to be complacent with respect to water usage. Education is key to combating complacency.

Regardless of where you come down on the issue of water ownership, the stories and statistics on the new website are worth spending time with.
A front page article in our local newspaper described how the incoming president of the University of Texas at Austin - the second largest university in Texas, by student population - has declined a $1 million salary in favor of "only" $750,000 per year (plus deferred pay, and a bonus which he also requested be capped at 10% instead of the offered 12%). Gregory Fenves is apparently concerned that a seven-figure salary could be negatively perceived by faculty and students.
I'm sure that Dr. Fenves has only the purest motives in requesting a lower salary, and in some circles his gesture is getting rave reviews, but I can't help thinking this is yet another attempt to legitimize the angst over so-called income inequality that's become a favorite cause du jour in liberal circles. And the implied, even if unintentional message he's sending to students is that rewards for achievement should somehow be limited for the "greater good of society."
A good question to ask Dr. Fenves would be "if $750,000 sends a better message than $1,000,000, wouldn't working for $0 send the best message of all?" Seriously. What level of compensation is "right" for a given position or a given level of achievement? I suspect the answer to that question for many would be "I don't know, but it's less than you're making now."
Also, in light of UT's 2014-2015 operating budget of $2.6 billion, Dr. Fenves's gesture is completely inconsequential from a fiscal perspective (it works out to about $5/student). It won't make an iota of difference in program or staff funding, or in the fees and tuition paid by students. If he wanted to truly have a measurable impact, he should have taken the full offer, then donated $250,000 each year to a scholarship fund, or to another worthy charitable cause. But this would have had the effect of transferring control from the "government" to the individual, another liberal no-no.

As a rather ironic footnote, on the same day we learn of Dr. Fenves's gesture, we also learn the details of UT's new basketball coach's contract:

As far as I know, Coach Smart hasn't offered to reduce his $22 million contract, apparently feeling that his individual accomplishments - past and expected - wholly justify that pay. I'm not really a basketball fan so I can't say whether that's a legitimate expectation, but I would never argue that he isn't entitled to receive what the University is willing to give.

Miley Cyrus Warned Us
December 20, 2014 11:13 AM | Posted in:

I've been going back through some old posts - articles that I had deleted when I thought I'd kicked the blogging addic...habit - and I ran across one that I wrote back in April of 2008. I wrote it as a reaction to a Vanity Fair profile of Miley Cyrus.

The primary focus of that post was on the semi-nude photo of Miley by acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz, but not because of the sensationalist nature of said photo of a then fifteen-year-old Disney star. I was, frankly, hammering the photographer for "phoning it in," which in turn led to a discussion of how one maintains a creative spark after years of doing the same thing over and over.

However, the 20+ comments on that post took on a life of their own (one of the things I miss most about the "golden age" of blogging) and the discussion turned to what Miley's future might be. My contribution to those musings was this gem:
I'll admit that the track record of female teen idols isn't very good in terms of a smooth transition to adulthood, but I'm not sure we should write off Miley for this one indiscretion.

While it might prove to be the first public stumble in a long downward spiral, it's equally possible that it's a wake-up call that puts her back on track.
So, anybody want to hire me as their personal stock-picker? Yeah, neither would I.

In hindsight, Miley told us everything we needed to know about her now-infamous career path, in response to the interviewer's "dumb" question.
I ask a dumb question--I'm sorry, it's hard to interview a teenager; they're intimidating--about whose career trajectory she'd like to follow. Her answer is a deft amalgam of showbiz savvy and girl-power mantra: "Before, I'd say like Hilary Duff"--the star of Disney's Lizzie McGuire--"or this person or that person. But there can't be a thousand Hilary Duffs. Then that doesn't make Hilary special. And there can't be a thousand Miley Cyruses, or that doesn't make me special. That's what a star is: they're different. A celebrity is different. So, no, mostly I want to make my own path."
Two years later, we saw the first signpost on her "path" to being "different" in what was then a shocking performance on Dancing With The Stars (but which now seems positively quaint by comparison).

There are many ways to make a of which is apparently to ride a wrecking ball in one's skivvies. But whatever we might think of Miley Cyrus today, we should never believe that it all came about by chance.

On the other hand, I'm still waiting for someone to explain to her the fundamental difference between "celebrity" and "train wreck," in terms she might be able to internalize.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions for Miley's next awesome career move? Email me or hit Facebook.

"Code 7 - Dinosaur on Aisle 9"
December 19, 2014 11:47 AM | Posted in: ,

You've been there. You've done your grocery shopping - which is stressful enough by itself - and waited at the end of an interminably long checkout queue, and you finally - finally! - get your groceries loaded onto the conveyor belt, ready for the checkout process to begin so you can move on to the important things in your life, and the guy in front of you, getting ready to pay, pulls out a...checkbook! *cue soundtrack from Psycho shower scene*
You know that guy, the inconsiderate relic whose car probably has hand-carved rock wheels? Yeah, I'm that guy.
Who writes checks anymore, anyway? Besides me, not very many people, according to this article, which cites a Federal Reserve study showing that the number of transactions conducted via written check decreased by more than 50% between 2000 and 2012. (There are still billions of checks written each year, but most of them are mine, apparently.) People are instead using debit and credit cards, with a few - most likely Tea Partiers or Preppers - resorting to cash. Interestingly, the value of cash transactions still exceeds that of either debit or credit cards, which makes sense if you assume that really big payments - like those for house down payments - exceed most credit card limits.
Anyway, I'm old school enough that I don't have a debit card...never have, probably never will. I've also never gotten comfortable buying groceries with a credit card...and I'm not prepared to offer any logical explanation whatsoever for that bias; it's just how I roll. I can say it's not because I'm averse to credit cards in general. Our credit card bill represents the largest single expenditure by far we have in any given month, although we always pay it in full, but I guess I grew up thinking that people who bought groceries on credit just weren't good money managers. Like I said, no supportable logic. In fact, the cash back programs that most credit card companies provide justify putting everything on a card, assuming you can pay off the balance each month.
But, lest you think I'm a hopeless dinosaur, I can't wait for the day that we can conduct all of our business via PayPal or by using NFC capabilities on our phones. How are these things different, conceptually, from debit cards? I don't know, but the fewer things I have to carry around in order to give someone my money, the better. (The phone-payment thing - like the system Starbucks uses [which I do love, by the way] - doesn't qualify because the phone isn't the key to the transaction; it's just the facilitator.)

In fact, in a perfect world, grocery checkout would involve rolling a cart full of items directly from the aisle to your car without even pausing at a payment terminal because an NFC reader at the door would instantly read, price, and debit your bank account for your purchases.

It's worth mentioning, if only to protect her if you ever get behind us in a grocery line, that Debbie isn't onboard with my preference for checks. As with most things in our marriage, she's simply humoring me [and since we never had teenagers, I rely on her for my required allotment of eye-rolling].

Insightful and/or supportive comments welcome; haterz will be doomed to an eternity of standing behind me in a checkout line. Either way: email me or slap something onto my Facebook page.
Alert Gazette readers may recall this post from almost two years ago, where I tracked down and photographed the elusive flow of Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton. To my knowledge, that was the last time the springs flowed, thanks to a combination of drought and continued heavy irrigation in the Belding Draw area just west of town.

Photo - Comanche Springs source

The region has had some fairly heavy rainfall over the past few weeks, but I haven't been down there to see if the springs are flowing. But we haven't seen any reports of flow in the local newspaper, and that phenomenon usually makes the front page.

So why bring this up? Well, I received an email yesterday from someone who ran across that post and wants to use some of my photos in an intriguing project entitled Our Desired Future. The accompanying website describes it as "a multimedia project to educate Texans on the interdependence of our groundwater, springs and rivers," with a stated goal "to inspire Texans to bring about the changes needed to keep waters flowing for future generations."

This is a laudable goal, and as far as I can tell, there's no hidden agenda. The material on the website presents a balanced look at the often-conflicting motivations of the various stakeholders in our state's water resources, and it effectively presents the dilemmas via stories, anecdotes, interviews, etc. with the goal of helping us understand the nature and magnitude of the problems, which unfortunately seem to have no easy answers.

Regardless, it was interesting to see that the first report focused on something going on in the aforementioned Belding Draw area of Fort Stockton, where Clayton Williams, Jr's son is undertaking something quite unfamiliar to West Texans: rice farming.

I don't have the time or energy (or knowledge) to explain the complex issues, although the story does a pretty good job of at least skimming the surface. But I do want to weigh in on something that the article touches on, and that's the idea that even if water can't be exported in liquid form straight from the source, it is still being exported in the form of crops. From this perspective, rice farming in arid West Texas is a bit of a provocative political statement. Jeff Williams, the farmer, admits that it's not logical, but he says that his family isn't being allowed to sell their water via pipeline so they're doing so via water-intensive crops such as rice and alfalfa (along with something called teff grass). And he wonders why there's a difference in the way the two are perceived.

Again, I'm not qualified to describe, much less assess, the legal issues involved, but I feel confident that there's at least one perceptual factor that muddies the waters, pun intended, and that's the perceived value of the potential uses for water that might be sold to someone else. It's pretty easy to make a case that using water to grow food is an entirely different endeavor than selling water for use in filling swimming pools or irrigating private landscaping comprised of non-native grasses, trees and shrubs that probably should never have been planted in the first place. We can argue about whether the latter uses are as economically valuable as the former, and in both cases the water is taken from its source and consumed, but I'm sure that most people will have an emotionally-charged preference.

The only quibble I have with the article itself is the statement that 35 million gallons of water can be pumped from the aquifer underlying Belding Draw every day and "still leave room to spare." The data I've seen varies depending on the agenda of those who paid for it, leading me to believe that no one really knows for sure, and no one can predict with certainty what will happen to that aquifer if the current drought persists and worsens. If this sounds like something you've heard me say before, you have a great memory.

As I mentioned at the top, Our Desired Future has some lofty and worthwhile goals. If you'd like to provide some financial support to help the team execute their plans, their website tells you how to do that.

Any thoughts? Feel free to share them via email or my Facebook page.

Driving Mr. Crazy
September 13, 2014 11:20 AM | Posted in: ,

Everyone who drives slower than me is an idiot, and everyone who drives faster than me is a jerk.
 --Me, and probably every other driver in Midland, Texas

Last week, while driving home after work, I encountered the following at consecutive intersections:

  • A driver in a pickup turned left in front of me after the signal had turned green for me to go through the intersection. Having driven in Midland for decades, I anticipated that and had slowed. What I didn't anticipate was the woman in the small sedan hugging his bumper and completely blocked from view who never came close to making a legal turn, and who glared at me for almost t-boning her.

  • A few blocks later, I pulled up behind an overly (in my opinion) timid driver who stopped as soon as the light turned yellow, causing us both to have to wait for the city's longest signal (an admittedly subjective assessment but after a day at the office, it's entirely warranted, if you know what I mean).

So, let's recap. Within the space of three minutes, I was angered by (1) a driver who ran a red light, and (B) a driver who refused to run a [almost-red] light. What's wrong with this picture?

Ask anyone who regularly drives the streets of our fair city and they'll tell you that the population of insane drivers has skyrocketed in direct proportion to the rig count. But, having said that, I've realized that my hypocritical attitude is not doing my mental state and blood pressure any favors...and it's certainly not improving the driving habits of others.

I confess that I have many faults, but angry judgment of other drivers is one of the worst, and the preceding realization has brought that into focus. I'm now making a conscious effort to remain calm in the face of what I perceive (and, honestly, it's a fair judgment) as inconsiderate, inattentive, and just plain bad driving. My wife will likely tell you that the effort is a work in progress with little discernible improvement, but I really am trying. As is the case with much in life, I can't control my surroundings, but I can control my reaction to them.

Well, theoretically, anyway.
[Insert pithy yet winsome introductory text here. Please.]

  • Every now and then, something happens that restores my faith in humanity and I think that perhaps there really is some hope for mankind. Then I read Facebook comments and come to my senses.

Dos Equis Man: I don't always read FB comments, but when I do, I want to claw my eyes out

  • Forget Ebola. What I want is a concentrated scientific and medical research effort to find a cure for that strange malady that results in the loss of use of a person's left index finger the moment they get behind the wheel of a car in Midland, Texas. You know, the finger that activates the turn signal.

  • Similarly, what is it about grocery store parking lots that cause otherwise sane people to acquire the emotional state of a rabid menopausal bobcat with hemorrhoids? Last night, a "lady" almost rammed me trying to get to a parking space before me (and I wasn't even trying to park). Fortunately, I was able to nudge her walker out of the way with my truck bumper and get on with my business. 

  • In keeping with the mindset that anyone who drives slower than me is an idiot and anyone who drives faster is a jerk, I believe that women drivers don't use turn signals because they're too preoccupied with cell phones, and men don't use them because they think that communicating their intentions is a sign of weakness.

Tom Hanks: Use the turn signal!

  • If the Cold War turns hot and we have to start building bomb shelters again, I'm making mine out of the cardboard that Chobani uses in their four-packs. I'm pretty sure that stuff could withstand anything the Russkies could throw at it.

  • I'm so Midland, I think the name of my city is an adjective. (Seriously, folks...stop it. Just stop it.)
One of our local TV stations posted a link on Facebook to its report on the decision by Midland Park Mall to prohibit the carrying of concealed handguns on its property. It's unclear whether these are new signs, but the mall's policy and the station's spotlight on the signs are drawing the reactions you'd expect from a conservative West Texas community like ours.
Against my better judgment, I skimmed through the comments left on Facebook, and amid the usual misconceptions ("that's the mall's rule and you can't be charged with anything but trespassing if you violate it") and overreactions ("I thought this was America") - and despite the almost unanimous condemnation of the mall's stance, there was one subtle-but-common thread: nobody suggested ignoring it.
I realize it's risky, if not downright stupid, to draw any sociological conclusions from a Facebook comment thread, but that observation obliquely affirms one of the basic arguments in favor of granting the right to bear concealed weapons - or, perhaps more to the point, against the idea that prohibiting concealed carry makes things safer. It's a trite saying that when firearms are banned, only criminals will have them, but the Facebook conversation seems to confirm that those who support concealed carry are also generally a law-abiding group, and are apparently not willing to break the law even if they deem it to be unfair or illogical. 
And in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I think I can safely assume that this same philosophy is not held by the criminal element in our society. Otherwise, they would not be, you know, criminals.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a concealed handgun permit. And while I fully comply with lawful prohibitions posted by businesses - and would never boycott a business simply for implementing that prohibition - I absolutely don't buy into the argument that they're making things any safer. Midland Park Mall may or may not lose any business over their stance on this issue, but its management has lost credibility with a chunk of its customer base.
About a year ago I posted an announcement regarding an upcoming series on public television called One Square Mile: Texas. One of the planned episodes was to feature Midland. Those plans have come to fruition and the Midland-centric segment will air on February 27 at 7:30 p.m. on our local PBS station.

stonegate.jpgHowever, you don't have to wait to see it, as an online pre-screening is now available. The producers also tell me that the episode will be available online at and on the website.

I strongly recommend this episode to all Midlanders, as it offers a different perspective on life in our city than we're accustomed to seeing in the national media. It's actually a series of personal stories, told by individuals and without any outside commentary or narrative. In other words, Midland (or, at least, this one square mile of Midland) speaks for itself. If you live here, you'll recognize all of the locations and perhaps some of the individuals featured on the program.

The production values are very good, and the filmmakers have managed to document various aspects of life without giving a feeling of intrusion.

I don't believe this episode is intended to be a comprehensive overview of what it's like to live in Midland. In the filmmakers words, "the purpose of the series is to explore what life actually is like for the people living and working in these square miles and to shed light on what it actually means to be Texan in contemporary American culture."

As I stated in my original post, there are many aspects of our city that aren't represented in the square mile chosen for scrutiny. You won't see any of the extremes in wealth or poverty that are to be found in other sections of Midland; there's no direct focus on the oil and gas operations that keep us alive and the only commercial activity that's present is retail. What you do get to see is a glimpse into the lives and perspectives of a few of the people who live here; you can judge for yourself whether the creators achieved their stated purpose. For me, it was a pleasant way to spend a half hour.

Hardly a day passes that I don't hear a news report or see a post on social media or talk to someone who complains about the high cost of insurance and/or medical treatment. I guess I've been somewhat naive about the reasons, but something happened to me today that brings it into crystal clear focus. 

Me, a pawnFirst, a little background. More than a year ago I had a diagnostic procedure performed locally, at the recommendation of a surgeon. I was told upfront that my insurance wouldn't cover the procedure; despite the intense pain I was experiencing and the absence of a diagnosis, I would first have to undergo weeks of physical therapy - even though the therapist wouldn't know what he was treating, only the symptoms - before I could have the tests that would diagnose the cause. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

The procedure was expensive, and the surgeon's office kindly directed me to the lowest cost provider they knew, although I wasn't told upfront what the cost would be. But when it came time to pay, the clerk told me that no payment was due; my insurance would pay. I was puzzled, but happy. I assumed that the doctor had managed to convince my insurance company of the medical necessity of the procedure, and all was good.

Imagine my surprise when, more than six months later, I received a bill from the clinic in the amount of about $5,000. Perhaps the doctor wasn't such a good negotiator after all.

I immediately called the toll-free number on the face of the invoice to speak with someone from the billing department, and I was connected to Julia (not her real name). I explained the situation to Julia, emphasizing that her clinic (I assumed that she was affiliated with it, and not just an outsourced billing department) had expressly told me that my insurance would cover the bill, and that I had never received any communication from my insurance company regarding the claim. She agreed that seemed odd, and when she pulled up my file, she had a good explanation: a claim was never filed.

I asked if they would file one, because I was getting conflicting messages from them. On the one hand, yes, insurance will cover it; on the other, a bill for $5,000, without ever checking with the insurance company. She agreed to do that. 

But, in addition to asking for an actual claim to be filed, I noticed on the bill they sent that there was a 50% discount if it was paid within 14 days. That's quite a savings, and I assumed it was designed to stimulate payment and avoid the expense and hassle of a collection agency. I asked for and got Julia's assurance that if the insurance did indeed reject the claim, I would still be able to take the 50% discount (bringing the bill down to $2500 - I don't doubt your arithmetic prowess, but keep that number in mind).

This commenced several months of back and forth that I won't detail except to say that Julia didn't follow-up with the insurance company, and I began to receive additional invoices, now stating that if I didn't pay up, a collection agency would be called in. Oh, and the mention of the discount was absent. Each time, I called Julia and she promised to work things out, to put the account on hold pending a final answer from the insurance answer that wasn't coming because someone obviously wasn't asking a question.

That brings us to this afternoon, when I called once more, only to find that Julia was out of the office, but Maria (not her real name) was covering for her. I dreaded having to start from scratch, but Maria quickly came up to speed on the situation. She promised to call the insurance company immediately and let me know the outcome.

"Immediately" was actually a couple of hours, but Maria did call and said that she had called the insurance company and they were denying the claim. I then asked about the discount, pointing out that Julia had consistently promised me I'd be able to take it.

Her quite unexpected response? "Oh, I think I can do better than that."


"Oh, really," I replied.

"Oh, yes...we can offer our self-pay discount."

"And...what would that be, exactly?"

I could hear her doing the math. "You would owe us $1,100. That's a better deal, isn't it?"


"Oh, yeah, I think I can swing that."

Let's recap, shall we?

  • My insurance company insists on treatment for an undiagnosed malady before I can get a diagnosis.

  • The cheapest alternative for the diagnostic treatment (and trust me when I tell you it was nothing exotic) still costs as much as a decent used car.

  • The diagnostic facility misinterpreted my insurance coverage, and then never followed up to confirm it, until I pressed the issue.

  • And once we resolved the insurance issue - and only then - they offered me a 75% discount on what they were planning to charge the insurance company*. 
Our entire medical system appears to be a huge game between healthcare consortiums and insurance companies, the rules of which seem to change arbitrarily and illogically, and the playing out accompanied by a series of knowing winks, with the patient caught in the middle, hapless and clueless. In this case, the system worked to my advantage (I think; perhaps I just have lowered expectations), but no wonder Americans are increasingly cynical about the the whole thing.

And the sad thing is that no one has the solution, and if they did, they wouldn't have the will/power to implement it.

*As my wife pointed out, had the insurance company agreed to cover the procedure, it's a sure bet they would have negotiated a significant discount with the provider. Nobody ever pays list price...except those who don't know any better.
I ran across a link in my Twitter feed to this article, which describes Apple's attempts to modify Siri, its voice-activated iOS "personal assistant" application, to provide more helpful feedback for people searching for suicide-related information. 
With an update to phones running iOS 6 and iOS 7, Siri now reacts with a strong, two-fold approach when mentions of suicide come up. First, the assistant offers the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and will even offer to call directly -- a new feature that makes seeking help as simple as clicking "yes" on the phone. If for whatever reason the user decides to select "no", Siri does a search of all local suicide prevention centers, offering a list and directions powered by Yelp.

According to the article, here's what Siri now returns when suicide is mentioned:

Screenshot of Siri's suicide response

However, either this update hasn't been rolled out to everyone yet, or Siri isn't particularly sympathetic to my inquiries. Whenever I tell her that "I'm thinking of suicide," she says she doesn't know what I mean, and offers to search the web for that phrase. Perhaps this is actually an iOS 7 update that will be released this fall.

Anyway, the article goes on to say that Apple isn't the only tech company sensitive to the increasing problem of suicide. Google has modified its search results so that a search for "suicide" will display a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, along with a prominent display of the toll-free number.

Unfortunately, Google hasn't completely anticipated and accounted for the results that appear immediately after that well-intentioned link. As with many searches on generic words or phrases, a Wikipedia article is at the top of the search results, and at least a portion of those results seems designed to counteract Google's efforts. Here's a screenshot of those results.


Notice the highlighted phrase? What an unfortunate placement of information for someone who might be contemplating suicide.

It's not as though folks can't or won't find such information despite the best well-meaning efforts of the companies and organizations who run the web, but this is an example of just how complex such sensitive issues can get, and even the best plans of the smartest people on the planet don't always work out as they expected.

Credit Jarred
March 5, 2013 9:52 PM | Posted in: ,

I was looking forward to an evening at home, taking care of some chores and perhaps doing some blogging, and instead I spent most of it changing credit card information and passwords on our myriad online accounts. (OK, I might have also done some blogging.) of our credit cards was compromised this morning, and someone ran up almost $800 in bogus charges.

This stock photo was stolenFortunately, I had set up an email alert for charges exceeding a certain amount, and so I was notified immediately when the first misuse hit the account. I couldn't access the credit card website from the office (not because it was blocked; I didn't have the login info with me, an oversight that has now been corrected), so I couldn't confirm the full amount of the damage until I got home.

The credit card company assured me that we wouldn't be liable for the charges, and immediately canceled the card and will send us a new one, although it will be about a week before it arrives. In the meantime, not knowing how the miscreant got hold of our card info, an abundance of caution dictates that we not only change out the credit card information on all of our online accounts, but also change passwords on those accounts.

It's probably just as well. Over the years, I've developed a bad habit of using the same password - or very similar variations - for almost all my accounts. In hindsight, "Hello1" is probably not the best choice for a password to all of our financial accounts. This episode is a good excuse to remedy that, and I'm generating unique strong passwords for the updated accounts.

Another thing I'm doing is providing answers to security questions that are lies (which came surprisingly easy, much to my dismay; I'm obviously going to have to start paying better attention in Sunday School). So, my first pet's name is Hooligan X1 Banana*, and the hospital where I was born is Chocolate DVD Pigsty**. If you're providing the actual real answers to security questions, you're providing one more piece of the puzzle to potential identity thieves.

None of these techniques work very well if you can't remember what you've set up, and if you've created properly strong passwords and random security question answers, you won't be able to remember them. Invest in a good password management app (and set a super-strong password on that you can remember!) and then go wild with the new passwords.

By the way, the bogus charges were incurred at, a website for purchasing stock photos and videos. I mean, who steals a credit card and uses it to buy pictures of daffodils in snowfields, or dinner plates in primary colors, or even photos of kittens with disbelieving expressions? Yes, I was apparently burgled by a designer. How ironic is that?

*Yeah, right.

Inauguration Day 2009: Revisited
January 21, 2013 8:08 PM | Posted in: ,

Here's what I wrote four years ago.
We rejoice today, for at long last, the fires of Mordor have been quenched, and the evil intentions of The Empire have been thwarted. How bright is that light that signals a new dawn, where Jupiter has finally aligned with Mars, and Starbucks lattes, thick with the foam of freedom, are but one thin dime, freeing us from yet another burden that had long dragged down our inherent optimism. 

If I seem a bit giddy, it's just that I'm overwhelmed by emotions today, as I confront the reality of an historic occasion. I mean, really, who ever thought we'd see the day when Arizona would make it to the Super Bowl? *rimshot* 

OK. I'm just funnin' you; I'm not that big a fan of the Cardinals (although I am a Kurt Warner fan). And, yeah, the frenzy over today's presidential inauguration has pegged the Hype-O-Meter at eleven. But, you know what? I like it. I'm thrilled that once again, America has the opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world how a free people carries out a significant transition of power at the highest levels of government. I'm ecstatic that politicians are "reaching across the aisle" in a spirit of cooperation and mutual commitment to the common good...however fleeting this phenomenon may be. I'm proud of the fact that at a very real level, we as a nation have seemed to finally put behind us a barrier to opportunity that at one time seemed insurmountable. And regardless of the cynicism that invariably dogs the sentiment, I'm buoyed by the hope that free people of good will can work together to further strengthen an already strong nation, and that our shining light on the hill can burn even brighter. 

I'm sure it's no surprise that I didn't vote for Barack Obama, and I strongly disagree with many of his apparent policies. But I've seen nothing to indicate that he's not a man of honor, and I've been impressed with the way he's comported himself in the days since the election. I want to believe that he'll continue to move toward a centrist view on many important issues facing our country, and I've always believed that a nation with the diversity of ours is best served by such a view, regardless of the party in power at any given time. 

So I do face today with the optimism of a new start, but also with a bit of cautionary advice. To those who look to the government as the source of their contentment and happiness, my warning is to be prepared for disappointment. If the best you have is the reliance on human beings to do the right thing on your behalf, I guarantee that you'll find it to be temporary, at best. We as a species are just not cut out for the job, and however superior our form of government may be, it's still energized by humans and thus prone to jumping the tracks at every inopportune moment. 

So, am I a cynic after all? It's OK if you think so, but I don't. I prefer to think that I'm a realist. My true true hope...comes from a Higher Source, one that transcends elections and political parties and all the oh-so-temporary things we seem to think are so important during this portion of our lives. And so it's very easy for me to wrap this up with this sincere wish for the day, and the days ahead: may God bless President Obama, and may God continue to bless America.

If that doesn't prove that I'm a moron, nothing will. The only prescient portion of that post addressed the uniqueness of the Arizona Cardinals making it to the Super Bowl (and even they lost that year). [By the way, I take little solace in the fact that many of you agreed with me at the time; your comments mercifully disappeared into the ether when the Gazette was rolled out in a shiny new wrapper not long after the preceding post.]

President Obama has been consistent in his ability to disappoint me in almost every fact of his administration. In my opinion, as a nation we're more polarized than ever, Obama is less centrist than ever, Congress is less effective than ever, and his administration has made our Constitution less relevant than ever. He's made it clear in word and deed, time and again, that he holds in contempt some of the values that are most important to me. The federal government is now more confiscatory and intrusive than ever before, and if Obama is not directly to blame, he's at least the poster child for the changes. The highlight of Inauguration Day 2013 is that it marks the beginning of the end of his term and I pray that we can somehow survive the next four years with our liberties intact.

Four years older and, I hope, four years wiser, and my prayer now is simply, "have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are a people of unclean hands and unclean lips."

Betsy Andreu: My New Heroine
January 18, 2013 4:45 PM | Posted in: ,

At the time of this writing, if you type "Betsy" into the Google search bar, "Betsy Andreu" comes up as the second suggested phrase, behind only Betsey Johnson, which makes no Photo of Betsysense at all because the two names are spelled differently, and I would expect that Big Brother would be well aware that I couldn't care less about some ditzy fashion designer.

Anyway, if the name Betsy Andreu doesn't ring a bell, don't feel badly; that probably means that you don't follow Lance Armstrong on Twitter. She's the wife of professional cyclist and former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, and she's the Cycling Spouse From Hell. At least, that's how Armstrong characterized her for years.

See, Betsy was the one person who early on went public with her educated opinion that Lance was doping. She paid a heavy price in the court of public opinion for her steadfast pronouncements that Armstrong was a manipulative, lying SOB. You know that song phrase, "you don't tug on Superman's cape"? Betsy not only pulled on it, she hitched it to a monster truck and tried to drag it around a rodeo arena. For her efforts, she was painted by the Armstrong cartel as deranged and psychotic, and a gullible press and fandom bought the story. And her husband's cycling career was derailed; Superman can kick butt when he wishes.

Well, guess who's vindicated...somewhat. Betsy's not completely satisfied with Armstrong's admissions of guilt - she thinks they don't go far enough - but surely she feels that the years of being viewed as the equivalent of the crazy shopping cart lady who talks to lamp posts has a somewhat happy ending.

Or, maybe not. Read this interview with her on the Sports Illustrated website and decide for yourself.

Maybe she isn't satisfied with the admissions; I can't say as I blame her. But she told the truth when it wasn't popular (or believable) and that seems to be a rare thing nowadays.

Two Things: Lance / Missy
January 16, 2013 9:25 PM | Posted in: ,

Lance Armstrong: Self-inflicted irrelevance

I'm still trying to decide how I feel about Lance Armstrong now that he's [apparently] coming clean - more or less, and no pun intended - about his use of PEDs during his cycling career. I've been a fan since his early days in the sport, and felt an inordinate amount of pride - even patriotism - in his seven Tour de France victories.

Photo - Lance Armstrong

Even so, I never really liked the guy, if that makes any sense. I had tremendous respect for his skill on the bike, and his tenacity was awe-inspiring, but there was always a dark undercurrent to his personality. When rumors about his "externally enhanced" abilities began to circulate, I bought into the whole "he's the most tested athlete in history and has never tested positive" argument...and yet. When Bicycling Magazine publish an extensive article last year, written by an admitted fan who laid out a very well researched and detailed case against Armstrong, and took no joy in doing so, it just seemed to ring true to me. And it turns out that it was.

So, where I'm at today - and this could change, for better or worse - is wondering just what kind of sociopath could cultivate such a convincing façade of lies, and aggressively - even pugnaciously - maintain it for years, leaving a wide swath of figurative bodies in the ditches, just as he often did his cycling competitors. How does a person build such a public persona, to the point where he is arguably the most recognized athlete on the planet based on his accomplishments on and off the bike, and go to bed every night knowing it's based on lies piled atop lies? Was there a point in his life where he reached a crossroads, where he could have fessed up with a minimal amount of backlash, and he made a conscious decision not to do so? Or was it out of hand before he realized it?

These are questions for others to contemplate. I don't expect he'll ever answer them, but for now, while I pose the questions, I'm really not interested in the answers. Instead, I'd much rather call attention to...

Missy Franklin: Glittering more than gold

You remember Missy, doncha? Sure, you do. She's the world-record-holding American swimmer who won four gold medals at the London Olympics last summer. She's also a 17-year-old high school student in Colorado who just turned down an estimated $3 million endorsement package in favor of staying in school in an attempt to live a normal teenager's life.

Photo - Missy Franklin

Not everyone is happy about that decision, by the way. The Wall Street Journal reports that many swimmers at neighboring high schools are dismayed at the prospect of having to compete against an Olympic gold medalist (although it sounds like the parents and coaches may have more invested in the issue than the kids themselves, like that's any great revelation). By the way, the WSJ poll accompanying the preceding story shows that almost 90% of respondents agree with her decision to continue to compete in high school meets.

Despite the sour grapes attitudes by some, most of us would agree that it's refreshing to hear about a gifted athlete who is so well-grounded. Setting aside the obvious question of "how rich ARE her parents, anyway?" it's hard to imagine that Missy will ever fall into the same self-constructed trap that Lance succumbed to. And as long as we have enough Missys to counterbalance the Lances, there's reason for optimism, at least in the wonderful world of sports.

Christmas Decorations 2012
November 25, 2012 7:51 PM | Posted in:

In an unprecedented and probably unrepeatable display of common sense, I decided to no longer venture onto the roof to hang Christmas lights. I'm going to use a pogo stick.

OK, just kidding. About the pogo stick, not the roof climbing. I feel confident that I could continue to walk around on the roof, untethered, leaning over the eaves to insert those little plastic tabs under the shingles, but why tempt fate? The roof line isn't getting any flatter, nor the ground below any softer. But we still need Christmas lights - we've always had Christmas lights - so I took a different approach this year. 

Instead of painstakingly hanging several hundred lights along the eaves, one at a time, I elected to mount them around our windows and brick arches. 


One at a time. 

Using a hot glue gun.

Several hundred.

So, instead of killing myself, I just killed time. Seems like a reasonable trade-off, doesn't it?Actually, I think they turned out pretty well...appropriately festive without being too gaudy.

Photo of Christmas lights

Incidentally, while the camera in the iPhone 4s isn't a terrific low-light instrument, it still yields a passably pleasing image, and the new Panorama mode is the bees knees.

We also found a sparkly fake Christmas tree in Fort Stockton, reminiscent of those tinsel trees that were so popular back in the swinging Sixties. This one works for us because it's, well, flat.

Photo of a tinsel Christmas treePhoto of a tinsel Christmas tree

We don't have a lot of free floor space that's appropriate for an old-fashioned, conventional, fuddy-duddy round tree, so this one works well, especially when viewed from the right perspective. Kudos to Debbie for adding the lights and the odd decorations that look like crimson squid (which, I'm sure, is a traditional addition to a nativity scene in some culture, somewhere).

My only regret is that we left the plush toy that sings Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer in Fort Stockton.
One of the fun things about blogging is that you never know who's going to show up. This email appeared in my inbox earlier this week:

Hi Eric...

Let me start by congratulating you the 'Fire Ant Gazette'...I've been enjoying not only the pics, but your descriptions are quite comical...I really enjoy your writing style. 

As a quick introduction, my name is Naomi and I'm a casting director in Los Angeles.  I came across your site while I was researching for a new show I'm casting for CMT called, 'Redneck Lawn Wars.'  

Basically we are looking for creative/unique handmade landscapes along with owners that are a little rowdy, over the top, proud and want to brag about their creativity skills.  I noticed on one of your recent posts (June 26th), you included a lawn with a Dragon in the yard...very cool. 

So, basically I'm inquiring to see if somehow you could help direct me on how to get in touch with the owner of that yard, as well as to pick your brain a little on any one else you think would be good for our show. 

I'd love to chat with you directly about more specifics of the show and what we are looking for.  I'm attaching a flyer with more info...but please reach out any time 310.555.1234.

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts...thanks in advance for any & all help.


Naomi Pacheco
Dam Legacy Entertainment
Casting Director

(Notice how I got into the whole Hollywood thing by using the ubiquitous fake "555" phone number prefix that every movie in history employs?)

Here's the flyer Ms. Pacheco attached to her email.

CMT Flyer for Lawn Wars

You may remember the "yard dragon" post referred to in the email, but if not, here's the link.

I've forwarded the email to the owner of that amazing sculpture and will let him decide how he wants to proceed. In the meantime, if any of you have a classy "redneck yard" or know of one that should be included in this new TV program, drop me an email and I'll provide you with Ms. Pacheco's contact info (or you can use the email in the flyer, but who knows what kind of starlet/intern is checking that inbox). This could be your [weed-overrun, beer-can-littered, gopher-hole-plagued] path to hick immortality!

In all seriousness - or as much seriousness as I can muster given the subject matter - this does sound like an interesting concept for a television series.

Water Musings
March 30, 2012 9:06 AM | Posted in: ,

On Sunday, the most stringent water use restrictions in memory will take effect in Midland. The city's "Drought Contingency Plan" is detailed here under the heading of "Stage 2 - Moderate Water Shortage Conditions." Earlier this week we received a letter from the city showing how our monthly water bill will increase if we use the same amount this summer as we did last summer, and it's not a pretty sight. In most cases, it's a threefold increase. (Although I must admit we're in better shape than some of our friends, one of whom is facing a $1,200/month bill if they don't change their habits.)

I'd like to be able to report that the ongoing drought, accompanying water shortage, and pessimistic outlook for improvement has universally altered attitudes, but that's not the case. 

Believe it or not, some people haven't even heard about the new restrictions. I exchanged emails with a woman in our neighborhood thanking me for sending out a reminder about the new plan, because their family "doesn't watch local news or subscribe to the local newspaper." [Unrelated side note: I'm mystified by this; how can someone take so little interest in their community? I can understand if there are economic issues at work that might limit access to news media, but our neighborhood isn't exactly in the "crack-house ghetto" category.]

Others are choosing to meet the situation head-on: they'll just get their own personal water supply by drilling a well. Someone is doing just that a couple of streets over from us. The cost of the well will likely approach 5% of the value of their home, but they have the right to decide how to spend their money. More troubling to me is the apparent attitude that, while our lakes may be drying up, there's an infinite supply of water in the aquifer underneath the city. But if a hundred new water wells are drilled each month by people who are determined to maintain their previous levels of consumption - if not increase them - I'm not sure that will be the case. And the sad result will be that some people who rely on their wells for their only source of potable water will go thirsty thanks to others who used that source to fill swimming pools and water lawns. Legal? Yes. Ethical? Questionable. Considerate? Nope.

Our homeowner's association dues are contributing to this ethical quandary.  Our neighborhood ponds are the central showpieces for the development, but they are kept full by pumping from water wells. The streams make a pretty sight, flowing through the landscape and over lovely manmade waterfalls, but I can't reconcile that with the drought-stricken pasture surrounding the development.

Some of the residents in our neighborhood are trying to get all the watering possible before the new restrictions kick in. That's my assessment, anyway, judging by the amount of water standing in the intersections and running down the gutters during the early morning hours of certain days of the week.

Photo of bucket in showerDebbie and I are doing our small part to adapt to the new paradigm. We've already been running our sprinkler system just once a week, and for less than the two total hours we'll be permitted under the new restrictions. We've managed to stay under the 10,000 gallon per month limit for the past six months, and intend to continue doing so. We also bought some five gallon buckets at Home Depot and are catching gray water from the bathtub and shower to hand-water selected plants and trees. We're also getting serious about a complete makeover of our landscaping, including removing the entire lawn and replacing it with hardscaping and xeriscaping. (A challenge will be finding a local professional landscape architect who specializes in this kind of design.)

Many people are turning to artificial turf to retain the semblance of naturally green landscape. We were once tempted to consider that, but decided against it. I think we'd be more favorably disposed if they included some artificial weeds, some half-dead spots, and some unevenly "mowed" patches to better approximate our reality.

I think the city is making a mistake by telling us that we just need to get through this next year, implying that when the new pipeline and water supply comes on line in 2013, we'll be able to go back to our profligate ways. The truth is, we'll never be able to go back - nor should we. But that's apparently a lesson that will take a generation's passing to learn.

A Trip to the Bookstore
March 2, 2012 8:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Note: What follows is an entirely accurate account. It's not my fault if "accurate" equates to "boring."

We went out for dinner tonight, not wanting to be the only people in Midland who didn't do so. If there's a restaurant in our fair city that's not making money, it's because the owners want a tax write-off. Anyway, we went to The King and I for [duh] Thai cuisine - and it occurs to me that there must be an ordinance that requires every city to have a Thai restaurant named "The King and I," except for Memphis, Tennessee, which is required to have a fried chicken restaurant named "The King and Me." But I digress.

Photo of book coverAfter dinner, we decided to head over to Barnes & Noble for coffee and dessert. Oh, and magazines. We split some kind of mixed berry cream cake thing, which was OK but not earth-shattering, and Debbie read some depressing articles in a Mother Jones while I learned how to supervise Millennials in a design firm.

We then spent a few minutes perusing the books...a novel concept, no pun intended. Anymore, I feel guilty buying an actual physical book, instead of downloading the digital version. Bookstore visits have become screening excursions, where we make lists of reading material we'll later search out on the web. And, sorry Barnes, we really don't download much from your website. I trust that our significant and regular investment in your café makes up for that slight.

That's not to say that the shelves aren't filled with interesting material. Take Dead Iron (OK, Barnes, at least I linked to your site), for example. This book is a genre mash-up of epic proportions: a steampunk Western werewolf novel. What's not to like?

If you haven't been to a Barnes & Noble recently, you might not know that there's a whole section devoted to "Teen Paranormal Romance" novels. At least, I think they're novels, and not how-to books. I'm pretty sure there are some werewolves in some of those books, too, but I'd be surprised if any zombies are involved. I think there's an untapped market for teen zombie romance novels.

I did see one book that I was tempted to buy in treeware form: American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. It's an account of a Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle. The book describes Kyle as a "native Texan," I guess as opposed to a naturalized Texan. Just so happens that he was born in Odessa, which explains his proficiency with a firearm. His longest confirmed sniper kill was 2,100 yards, using a rifle firing a .338 Lapua Magnum round.

If you want to buy that particular ammo, be prepared for sticker shock. One dealer is selling a box for $111.33 - for 20 rounds. A $5/shot, it's not a caliber for casual plinking at the range.

Uh, where was I? Oh, yeah, the bookstore. See, that's the benefit of spending some time outside the café can stimulate a stream of consciousness that, if not exactly the embodiment of creativity, will be a serviceable proxy. I recommend it.

A Cultural Historical Moment
February 20, 2012 7:57 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm no historian, but the following scene may have been a turning moment in culture.

Scene from 'Heathers'

This unassuming scene comes at approximately 8:12 into the movie Heathers, a dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, filmed in 1988. One second earlier, this group of obvious high school losers was referred to by a female character in the movie as "the geek squad."

This reference occurred a full six years before it was adopted by the computer services company that eventually became a subsidiary of Best Buy and caused an uptick in the sales of oddly-painted VW Beetles. And, as far as I can tell through my extensive research on the subject (comprised of watching 10 minutes of the movie, doing a Google search, and reading a Wikipedia article) this was the first reference in the recorded history of mankind to the phrase "geek squad."

Interestingly - amazingly, actually - the trivia page for Heathers at completely overlooks this cinematic achievement.

And they say bloggers have no legitimate journalistic credibility.
When's the last time you surfed the web? (OK, when's the last time you even heard that term?) My guess is that it's been a long while, and that you're now fidgeting on Facebook or whatever the operative phrase might be for wasting time online.

I know I've blogged about the effect Facebook has had on blogging - it's generally stifled blogging except for those bloggers who blog about the effect Facebook has had on their blogging - but I've also decided that it's probably responsible for fewer people being more adventurous in their exploration of the web. Whether this is factually supported is not the point, because I'm doing less web surfing, and I'm sure I represent the overall potential web surfing audience.

Seriously, though, do you spend time anymore simply following random links on random sites to see where they lead? It's been a few years since I've done that, and I believe a big reason is that blogs are dying out...and blogs were the best source of links to new and unusual websites.

I'm sure that in terms of absolute numbers there are still a gazillion quirky, intriguing, cutting-edge and/or insightful websites being maintained by people with no other agenda than investing time and effort in something they love. But we've settled into a comfortable routine via Facebook and it's hard to make the time or summon the effort to go looking for those sites. I suspect that the collective "we" spends 90%+ of our online time on an aggregate of about a hundred or so news, sports, or social media websites.

I'm part of the problem (if, indeed, this can be termed a problem), because I rarely post links to other sites anymore. I'm not sure why that is or what I should do about it, but as soon as I check my Wall, I'll give it some more thought and get back to you.
If you live in Midland, you're familiar with the Midland Development Corporation (MDC), the quasi-governmental agency that uses some of our taxes to bribe entice companies to either locate in Midland County or expand their operations if they're already here. The special sales tax that funds these efforts has been in place for a decade, and our newspaper recently ran a series of articles about the results of the so-called economic development efforts. Those results are rather dreary, to say the least.

The impetus behind the economic development movement in this area is to diversify the economy, which has been completely dependent on the petroleum industry for decades. The theory is sound. If we have a wider variety of industries employing folks in the Permian Basin, we'll be better positioned to weather the next bust in the cycle of oil prices.

But I can't help wondering: what if that bust never comes? What if the petroleum industry continues to to enjoy uninterrupted success for decades to come? What if the roller coaster ride is over? Would that change how we look at the need for so-called economic development? 

I think it should, and I also believe we've entered a fundamentally altered landscape for the petroleum industry that supports the idea that we don't need economic diversification. And it's a good news/bad news situation. 

First, the good news, at least for those of us in the oil bidness (or whose livelihoods are directly tied thereto). I don't know if we've entered the era of "Peak Oil," where the physical availability of oil and gas will steadily dwindle from now on, but I do believe we've hit the point where global supply and demand are balanced at a point to ensure a price that's high enough to sustain the current level of activity as far out as one can reasonably look. 

The bad news is that the only thing that will make this not be the case is a global economic meltdown that kills demand, and sends the industry spiraling down into another bust. This would imply that China and India and Brazil and the other emerging drivers of economic expansion hit a wall. I don't mean to be dramatic, but this would be catastrophic for everyone, not just the oil and gas industry. 

In addition to these economic considerations, the argument that the Permian Basin cannot physically support significant industrial expansion grows more defensible as the drought continues and water becomes increasingly scarce. I think it's a fair question to ask if we've reached - or passed - critical mass in the region in terms of population. 

Yeah, I know the counterargument to all of this: if we're not growing, we're dying. Call me a pessimist, although I prefer to think I'm simply a realist, but we're dying anyway, and not just individually, for many different reasons. But none of those reasons include the inability to diversify our local economy. 

I think it's time to man up, and own the fact that this is oil country, and always will be. Our economic diversification could be defined to include both kinds of energy - oil and gas - to borrow a line from The Blues Brothers. We should make the most of what we have in terms of natural resources for as long as we can, and continue to provide relevant technology to the rest of the world, but have no illusions about the end game. Because barring a breakthrough in quantum physics and/or collective mindset, when the oil bidness finally dies, so does global society as we know it. I'll let you decide whether that's good news or bad.

Honoring a Veteran - My Dad
November 11, 2011 8:58 AM | Posted in: ,

Seven years ago, at the urging of one of my cousins, my Dad sat down with my Mother and dictated the story of his experiences in World War II. Dad served in the Army as a machine gunner in the European Theater - he and his outfit landed at Normandy Beach shortly after D-Day - and was wounded not once, but twice. He still carries shrapnel in his arm from the second injury, which was inflicted by a German sniper.

I thought that on this Veteran's Day, the best way to honor an American who was willing to sacrifice everything for our country is to let him tell his story to a wider audience. Here it is, in unedited fashion, as recorded in October and November, 2004. And thanks, Dad - and all your fellow heroes - for setting an example of humble sacrifice.

Photo of my dad in his uniform

I graduated from Gainesville High School in May of 1940. I worked as an engine repair mechanic in Gainesville for about one year. I then went to work for Western Auto , where I was employed when I was drafted into the US army in February of 1943.

I went to Camp Wolters at Mineral Wells, TX for processing. From there I went into an anti-aircraft outfit at Palacios, TX. I served there for about one year. I was part of a gun crew that tracked planes to be shot down. While there the company was forced to make us march 40 miles. It was terribly hard on us and we decided to complain.

The gun crew I was on had ten members. We decided to talk to our commanding officer. He was not much help. We did find out that five of us had an IQ high enough to apply for Officer Training School. We were interviewed by a captain. He looked at me and said, "How old are you?" and I said, "I'm eighteen years, sir." He said, "You are too damned young to be a 2nd Lieutenant." He and I talked and he explained that my IQ was high enough to get into A.S.T.P. (Army Specialized Training Program.) I agreed to try it out. This training was for one year and I would be a 2nd Lieutenant in our engineering company, which would be building roads and bridges. He said I would go to Oklahoma A&M to get this training. I left my anti-aircraft outfit and went to Texas A&M for processing before going to Oklahoma A&M. 

I stayed at Texas A&M for about two weeks before being sent to Oklahoma A&M, where I was assigned to a company of about 160 men and we lived in a dormitory. We went to class six days a week. We marched to class and to mess hall for meals. I lived in Main Murray Hall. Everything was going well until the middle of January when we were called out one morning and the commanding officer announced, "You  are now members of the 104th Infantry Division and you will begin your new duty immediately in the desert, training." My new commanding officer was General Terry Allen, who was active in the African campaign.

We trained in the desert in Modesto, California about three months, then the 104th Infantry Division was transferred to Camp Carson, Colorado, for additional training. I had a 30 caliber machine gun as my weapon. I loved that weapon and when we fired for record, I fired a perfect score. I was a PFC (Private First Class).

We went on maneuvers (a large-scale tactical exercise carried out under simulated conditions of war) and I had my first accident.  My job was to cut off a column of troops going uphill in a ravine and I ran down to cut them off, but when I got to the ravine I saw it was too wide and too deep and I could not stop so I tried to jump across. I made it to the other side but fell to the bottom of the ravine. When I fell, the machine gun hit the arch of my right foot and broke a bone in my foot. That cost me two weeks in the hospital. 

I knew that we were going to be shipped out to Europe and the invasion of France was on schedule...I was afraid I would miss going overseas, so I aggravated everyone in the hospital to let me get back to my outfit. The lieutenant finally got tired of my griping and he released me back to my outfit. I could walk with a slight limp and was assigned to barracks orderly duty.

While stationed at Camp Carson, I was one of three soldiers who set a record by climbing to the top of Pike's Peak and back down in one day. We were in good shape. We tried to get to the top in time to ride the train down..well, we missed the train by about five minutes, so we had to return to the bottom of the climb. We made it down. I had blisters on my feet and my buddies had blood in their shoes. The M.P.'s (Military Police) caught us when we got to the bottom. After questioning us, they hauled us to our barracks and dropped us off. Our commanding officer recognized our injuries and assigned us to the barracks until we could work again.

1944 - The 104th Infantry Division finally went to Fort Dix, New Jersey. We stayed there a few days getting ready to leave the United States of America. The invasion of France had just started and we knew we would not be going to England, but would go directly into France at Omaha Beach, directly from USA. I and my machine gun fought in the hedgerows in Normandy and St. Lou. We could not go down a road because they were mined and the Germans had a habit of striking the road by aircraft. We followed the American tanks as they cleared paths through the hedgerows.

Our company had two machine guns. I had one, and the other machine gunner was an Indian from Arizona. We were a good team.

We moved into central France and finally got relief to go to Paris for a few days. The F Company, the one I was a part of, rode a train loaded with five gallon containers filled with gas. For some reason, we stopped on our way to Paris, and we noticed a number of French citizens near the train. We thought everything was O.K., but we decided to check ..and found the French were busy taking the cans of gasoline and stacking them between the rails. We rounded up the French and made them place the cans back on our train. We got to Versailles, then decided to go into Paris. We stayed at the St. Mark's Hotel in Paris, which was nice, hot showers, soft beds, cheap food and French girls! We ate and partied at a restaurant, and had a big time for about a week. We discovered where the officer's mess was, so we went early in the morning to eat free and ate up all the food that was prepared for the officer's. Another trick we learned was to watch where our waitress went to get wine when we ran out; we soon saw her go downstairs and return with a bottle of wine. Later we  kept her occupied while one of the group went downstairs and came back with several bottles of wine at no charge.

When we left Paris we were stationed in the Maginot line across the river from the Siegfried line. We stayed there about a week. The Maginot line was a series of bunkers and the Germans had every entrance zeroed in with mortar fire. We had strict orders to not stand in the openings to our quarters because we would attract German artillery. The Germans were noisy people at night, so we played a trick on them. The 415th Regiment (Timber Wolf) had at least two soldiers who could howl like a wolf. Around ten o'clock at night one soldier would howl, then another, then another. Everything on the German side became quiet and then they would set off flares to see what we were up to. This would go on every night while we were in the Maginot line.

The 104th division moved through France, fighting Germans. One day we filled fox holes that had American GI's that had been killed. We were under fire from time to time and could not locate the Germans. We saw a number of haystacks. We had a meeting and decided to fire tracer bullets into the haystacks, when we did, the haystacks caught fire. This brought the Germans out and the infantry killed all of them.

The 104th division moved out through Belgium. The people in this country were very nice to American soldiers. We were invited to spend the night in their homes. We enjoyed their hospitality for good home-cooked food. We left there and moved into Holland.

In Holland I received  a wound in my right foot from an 88 shell. The shell landed behind me and exploded. I was digging my fox hole and crawling in as I was digging. The 88 shell landed behind me and dirt covered me up completely. My buddies thought I had been killed; they were happy and shouted when they saw me come up out of the dirt. This is when I received my first purple heart. The medics wanted me to go back to first aid, but I refused after they removed the shrapnel from my foot. The 88 gun that fired the shell was 2,000 yards away from us. My friends carried my machine gun and ammunition and my pack.

We moved from Holland into the Hurtegan Forest in Germany. We dug fox holes and spent two nights in them. The first day was spent aggravating Germans along a road 500 yards from our position. We ran about ten Germans into a rock house, where we attempted to shoot them, but we did not have the right guns for the job. One soldier, who was on a 155mm gun, came up to see what was going on and he said he would take care of it. His 155mm bullet made a direct hit on the house and that was the end of that.

The next morning we were preparing to move out when I noticed a new  recruit standing under a pine tree. I told him to get into a fox hole because the Germans were near. He refused and a few minutes later I saw him fall. He was dead from a sniper's bullet. I was busy putting my pack on when I felt something hit my left side. The sniper had shot me. I did not lose consciousness. We located where the sniper was, and one of my buddies fired my machine gun until the sniper fell out of the tree where he was hiding. 

The Germans began firing artillery while the wounded and dead were being taken care of by our soldiers. The medics were picking up dead GI's when the Lieutenant said, "Here is a live one..take him back to the medics." They loaded me onto the stretcher and carried me back., and at one time, they dropped me. I warned them if they dropped me again I would shoot them with my 45 pistol. We arrived at the medics, and there they cut my clothes off and were amazed at the damage the bullet had made. It was strange, but I felt no pain...I was probably in shock. The bullet had severed the tendons of my two middle fingers of my left hand. It shattered the bone in my upper arm, between the elbow and my left shoulder. The bullet stayed embedded in the muscle in the back of my left arm, where it still remains to this day. It destroyed the nerve of my left arm. I was told later by the medics that a German POW doctor put the bones back together as well as he could. I was shipped to a hospital in Paris for another operation, after which I was shipped to England for a period of time, and I had another surgery there. 

While in England, I was in a ward with about one hundred wounded soldiers. I remember talking to a soldier in the bed next to mine. He had wounds to both arms. We looked around and every soldier, except the two of us, had one or two limbs amputated.  I could get out of my bed, so I went to the doctor's office where he told me that we were in the amputation ward. That excited me, but the doctor told me that I would make it without losing my arm, and the soldier next to me would not have to suffer an amputation, either.

I remained in the hospital for a couple of weeks before the doctor came around to tell me that I would be shipped to Scotland, and from there I would be flying back to the United States. When we got to Scotland the weather was bad and the officer in charge came by and said all that were able to walk would travel by ship, and all of the "litter patients" would travel by plane. Needless to say, I became a "litter patient" and would be flying back to the USA. The medics carried me on a stretcher onto the plane. When we arrived in New York, I was carried on a stretcher from the plane, and to my bed at the hospital. I thought they would kill me when I got off my stretcher and crawled into my bed.

The next day I was loaded onto another plane and was flown to Modesto, California. En route, we spent the night in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The officer in charge came by my cot and said, "Siegmund, I know you are from Gainesville, Texas, so I sure don't want you to leave that bed and try to go to Gainesville." I assured him that I was in no condition to do anything so foolish! When we got to Modesto, I underwent more nerve surgery to repair the damaged nerve in my arm. I was in the hospital about two weeks, and after the surgery, I received full use of my left arm. The tendons to both fingers had been repaired while I was in the hospital in Paris, so they turned out fine.

When I left California, I was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas for physical therapy. I spent about two months in therapy to strengthen my left arm. 

In October of 1945, I asked what kind of discharge I would get. The officer said it would be a medical discharge. I told them I wanted a regular discharge, but they told me that I had too much disability for a regular discharge. Well, they sent me back to my ward at Fort Sam Houston. To make a long story short, they sent me back to receive a medical discharge, which I refused again, but I finally did get a regular discharge. I worked for the next six weeks at the Occupational Therapy Center at Fort Sam Houston. On January 10. 1946, I told the person in charge of therapy that I was quitting to go to Texas A&M University to get a degree in Animal Husbandry.

I hitchhiked to Texas A&M University and enrolled in Animal Husbandry. The following May I received some good news from the US War Department informing me that I had been awarded a medical discharge and I would be paid disability compensation at 40 per cent level, which I still receive each month. My left arm is strong and I delight in talking to people who want to know how I got wounded, and they all are amazed that I still carry the bullet that did all the damage.

Our financial advisor is a fellow named Jim Cosner. Jim has impressed us over the years with his business acumen (our portfolio has done almost embarrassingly well during these, um, difficult times), integrity, and unflagging optimism. We meet about once a quarter to talk things over, get his take on what might be on the horizon, and strategize about how to deal with it. Well, by "strategize" I mean that MLB and I feign understanding and nod semi-knowingly at everything he says, and then leave it all in his lap. It's an approach that has worked well.

Anyway, we met with him today and after the usual financial discussion, he said something along the lines of "man, do I have a story to tell you!"

Jim and his family have actually relocated to Fort Collins, Colorado, even though he keeps an office in Midland and spends a lot of time here. They bought most of a building, known as Penny Flats, near downtown. Penny Flats houses three of their family businesses. The building also houses residential condos.

On Monday, October 25, an apartment building next door to Cosner's building was torched in an obvious act of arson. That building was still under construction, albeit well into the process, so it was unoccupied. However, the conflagration was so intense due to the way the arsonists fueled their fire that it jumped across to Penny Flats and what wasn't destroyed by flame was ruined by water damage. Thankfully, there was no loss of life.

Here's where the so-called Occupy Wall Street "movement" comes into the picture. OWS demonstrators had been camping out in Fort Collins for a while, and last Thursday one of them, a beekeeper named Benjamin David Gilmore, was arrested and charged with the arson that destroyed both buildings. According to OWS organizers, Gilmore showed up for the protests in mid-October.

Recognizing that it's ill-advised to paint a group of people based on the actions of one individual, it speaks volumes about the reputation that OWS has created for itself when this alleged perpetrator is identified by the media first and foremost as being a part of that "movement." (I put the term in quotes because I doubt that there's enough collective sincerity, discipline, and wisdom to qualify it as such.)

You can read more about the details of the arson arrest here.

This is a story that deserves more attention than it's gotten, in my opinion.

Youth and Beauty
November 5, 2011 10:36 AM | Posted in: ,

Even though I'm no longer in the web design business, I continue to maintain a handful of nonprofit sites on a volunteer basis, including the one belonging to the Lone Star Sanctuary for Animals. This is a local no-kill shelter for dogs and cats, and we post on the website photos and information of all the animals available for adoption, including these:

That's Jenna on the left; Jasper is on the right. But if you look on the website, you'll find only Jasper. And that's a little sad.

Photo of a dogPhoto of a dog

Jasper's been at the shelter for more than three years, awaiting adoption. Jenna was at the shelter for about three days. I got an email last night asking me to take her photo off the site as soon as possible, because they were getting so many phone calls about her that it was disrupting the staff's schedule.

People employ a wide variety of criteria to decide which pet they want, and far be it from me to judge the appropriateness of that criteria. I admit that I find some breeds of dogs more attractive than others. But this seems to be a pretty clear reminder that youth and beauty trump age and, well, not-so-beautiful, even when it comes to animals.

I hope Jenna went to a great home. I hope even more that Jasper will soon enjoy the same.
Midland is in the list of top 10 cities nationwide for the lowest unemployment and our suite of economic indicators is nearing record high levels. Here's a graphic that pretty clearly shows why that's the case.

Map showing drilling permits in Midland County

This map show the drilling permits issued for Midland County in just the last six months. Each circle represents a potential oil/gas well.

The small blue dot represents the approximate location of our neighborhood. The placement of the red dot is a bit interesting, as it's the location of our municipal airport, and we expect to see drilling take place there sometime in the next twelve or so months. Even in the heart of the oilpatch, drilling inside city limits is controversial (bringing into perspective the oft-quoted phrase "not in my backyard!"). Yesterday's well blowout in neighboring Martin County won't exactly soothe fears about drilling adjacent to Midland College and residential neighborhoods. 

But, for any number of reasons, such "progress" seems inevitable. It may seem a little hypocritical to accept the good things the current boomlet is bringing, while trying to insulate ourselves against the price it demands. OTOH, it's natural to want to insulate one's family and personal property against the risks of industrial development. I'm just surprised it's taken this long for the opposing forces to finally meet.

I, Cartographer
October 7, 2011 9:31 PM | Posted in: ,

Two months ago, I couldn't spell "cartographer," and now I am [on my way to becoming] one. As a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, my duties include generating and editing maps, and I've found the learning curve to be challenging.

There are actually two different challenges. One involves learning the systems we use for mapping. Most of our engineering and geological analysis tools (for those in the know, we use Petra and GeoGraphix) include mapping modules, as do many of our online sources of production and industry activity data. Our company has a proprietary mapping application, and I'm also learning to use ArcGIS, one of the most powerful standalone GIS programs in existence. So, thus far I've used about six different programs, none of which I'd ever seen before August 22nd. Fortunately, they all employ similar conventions and processes, so the transition from one to another isn't that tricky. But like so many things in life, they're easy to learn and difficult to master.

Ancient Map
Not one of mine.
The more interesting challenge is understanding the basic cartographic theories. I've always been fascinated by maps, but I never grasped the complexities involved with creating even the most basic maps, beginning with the fundamental issue of how one translates the features located on a sphere (the Earth - more correctly defined as a spheroid) onto a flat surface (a map displayed on paper or a computer screen).

The process of converting a three dimensional representation of the earth onto a two dimensional surface is called "projection," and humans have been experimenting with different kinds of projections for more than 2,000 years, trying to come up with the "best" way of locating geographical points of interest. The thing that all projections have in common is that they don't tell the truth...that is, none of them are completely accurate 3D-to-2D translations. They all distort one or more of the following characteristics: direction, distance, shape, or area. (For a nifty comparison of the more common map projections and their uses, advantages, and drawbacks, refer to this USGS resource.)

This is not just an academic or theoretical issue. The accuracy of maps has real and often significant implications. Maps can also be manipulated to achieve specific goals or serve specific agendas.

I'm reading a book entitled How to Lie With Maps by Mark Monmonier. I recommend it both as an easy-to-read reference for basic cartography, and as a primer on how maps are used to exert social, cultural, and/or political influence in ways that aren't necessarily ethical.

Anyway, while my specific job duties don't necessarily require that I understand some of the more esoteric cartographic principles, my natural curiosity about such things has led me to delve into a wide variety of resources, and if nothing else, I've learned how much I don't know. I've delved into the world of Great Circles, rhumb lines, sinusoidal projections, graticules, and azimuths.

That seems to be the story of my life. I keep telling myself that that's a good thing; it will keep my brain young. Someday, perhaps I'll even convince myself of that.

Steve Jobs
October 5, 2011 8:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Steve Jobs died today at age 56, and the world lost a creative visionary. Apple enthusiasts will freely admit the significance of the loss, while even those who rejected or denigrated his contributions will nevertheless continue to enjoy for years to come the benefits of the technologies he championed.

I didn't know Jobs, but I know enough about him to draw a few conclusions from his life and death.

  • Fifty-six years is too young for anyone to die, and it's a reminder that cancer sucks.

  • His net worth was estimated to be in excess of six billion dollars. Only in science fiction stories can money buy more life. Keep that in mind when setting your priorities.

  • Jobs was respected for his creativity, drive, and vision. But I never heard anyone talk about how much they loved him, or even liked him. He had a wife and kids, and I'm sure many people liked and loved him, but he'll be remembered for his achievements, not his character. I wonder if that's a legacy he'd be comfortable with.

In the end, the death of Steve Jobs seems to serve as a reminder of the wisdom of the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun.
As we creep inexorably toward the one-year mark without meaningful rainfall (how mind-boggling is that, anyway?), ideas that were once bandied about in sci-fi mode now start to take on some semblance of credibility. Like, for example, the idea that we have plenty of water available to Texas, it's just a bit on the salty side. So, let's build some big honkin' desalination plants like Saudi Arabia has and we can solve a bunch of our water shortage issues.

Unfortunately, the reality is depressingly ironic. As this Reuters article points out, the Saudis are starting to worry more about peak water than peak oil, and the cost of desalination is starting to make a significant dent in their oil-derived riches.

It's an understatement to say that the Saudis are ginning out a lot of desalinated water. The quoted figure of 3.36 million cubic meters per day equates to almost 900 million gallons per day, enough to supply the equivalent of five cities the size of Midland with their entire water usage. The problem is the expense of producing that water. Using today's currency exchange rate, it's costing almost $2.4 million per day to make the water, and that doesn't include the cost of transporting it.

Of course, the Saudis are hit with a "double dip," as they're using oil and gas to produce the water that they would otherwise have been selling to us. The article estimates that about half the cost of desalination is energy-related.

Desalination is still something that needs to be considered as a way of mitigating the effects of our extreme drought, but it's not only a long-term solution, but also an expensive one. On the other hand, all the cheap alternatives are gone.
Texas governor Rick Perry's plans to host a day of prayer and fasting in Houston's Reliant Stadium on August 6th have - not surprisingly - evoked a wide range of reactions. Some are accusing the governor of crossing the line between church and state, some are suing to stop the gathering, and some are applauding his initiative.

The local NBC television affiliate posted a question via Facebook, asking for opinions regarding the event and whether it should be called off. My non-scientific tally indicated that a pretty big (that's a statistical term of art, in case you're wondering) majority of respondents were supportive of the event. But to my mind, one of the more interesting comments accused Perry of hypocrisy, citing this report revealing that the governor has given only $14,243 to churches and religious organizations - out of total earnings of $2.68 million - during the period 2000-2009. This report, based on Perry's federal income tax returns, is leading some to conclude that he doesn't "walk the talk."

While I won't dispute that such a report does raise questions, I'm pretty sure there's no law that requires one to report all charitable deductions on one's tax return. My point? We need to be cautious in drawing conclusions about a public official's moral, ethical, religious, or any other kind of behavior and/or motivation with no other support than what's found in that official's tax return.

So, why wouldn't one report all possible deductions, as a means of lowering one's tax liability? (This question is particularly relevant to Perry, a strong advocate of smaller federal government, and state's rights; you'd think he'd be at the head of the line of those wishing to give the feds as little money as possible.) I don't have an answer to that, other than to observe that we all have our own priorities and motivations, and they're not necessarily intended for public consumption.

For example, my wife and I don't include any cash donations under $25 in our tax returns, nor do we ever include the value of non-monetary items (such as clothing and food) we donate to local charities. Why not? Well, that's our business, not yours, although I'm not offended by the question.

Anyway, while it's interesting to inspect someone else's financial records and speculate on the meanings between the lines, the numbers don't necessarily paint an accurate or complete picture. We're all more than the sum of our tax returns.

Happy Independence Day
July 4, 2011 8:08 AM | Posted in:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled hipster masses yearning to breathe free..."

According to Wikipedia, there are about 200 bicycle sharing systems worldwide. Fewer than 10% of those are in the United States, and one of those is the B-cycle program in Denver

B-cycle is actually a multi-city program, with installations in six other US cities (including San Antonio). We checked out the Denver installation today and found it to be an impressive service, but highly dependent on the having the right infrastructure.

The concept is simple: check out a bicycle for a nominal fee (which is charged to a credit or debit card) and use the bike for short trips throughout the service area. If you use the bike for trips of less than 30 minutes, you're not charged any additional fees; longer usage times incur increasingly expensive fees. The idea is to keep people from tying up the bikes for long periods, thus making them unavailable to others.

You can buy a 24-hour pass, good for unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less, for $6.00. Residents can purchase memberships that provide more access, and also provide automatic tracking of mileage, average speed, time ridden, etc., thanks to the GPS and RFID technology built into the bikes and the checkout stations.

Denver has 500 bikes in the program, with 50 check-out stations scattered mostly around downtown and in the most popular retail districts that are accessible via the city's amazing network of bike trails.

And it's those bike trails, as well as a general overall bike-friendly philosophy that make the B-cycle concept successful. It's one thing to have access to the bicycles themselves; it's quite another to have a safe and enjoyable environment for using them. 

Denver has a quite laid-back attitude toward cyclists. For example, although cycling on downtown sidewalks is technically discouraged, as long as you're not out of control, nobody really cares. Cars give cyclists the benefit of the doubt, a refreshing change from the often hostile attitudes we encounter in West Texas. And, as I mentioned previously, Denver's system of dedicated bike trails, and clearly marked, wide bike lanes make it possible to get almost anywhere by bicycle without competing with auto traffic. 

Thus, while such a program sounds attractive for any city, it would be less so in practice than in theory for most locations. A successful bike sharing program first requires a culture of bicycle acceptance (or, better, encouragement), followed by creation of an infrastructure to support the program. For many (most?) cities in the US, I suspect this is never going to happen. More's the pity.

If you ever find yourself in downtown Denver for several days, I highly recommend trying out the B-cycle system. It's a great way to get around the area without worrying about driving or parking. The bikes are well-maintained and easy to ride, even for an inexperienced cyclist.

People Watching
June 22, 2011 8:47 PM | Posted in:

Random observations of the variety of humanity that inhabits the downtown regions of Denver, Colorado.

The girl came flying down the street on her bicycle with a grin on her face, as if she knew a special secret. She had long dishwater blonde hair, and was wearing short shorts, a halter top, and angel wings. 

A tall thin young man stood ramrod straight, cheeks puffed out as he furiously blew into the black tube protruding from the bagpipes under his left arm. He was dressed in full tartan kit, from the tam atop his noggin to his, well, cowboy boots. A full-sized chromed milk can stood next to him, an optimistic receptacle for tips. The sounds he produced could be heard for blocks.

Wrapped tightly in a thermal blanket, eyes shut hard but with a peaceful countenance, the tiny sleeping girl couldn't have been more than sixteen. It was not yet 6:00 a.m. but the early commuters didn't give her a second glance, curled up on the sidewalk down the street from the four star hotel.

Two men are playing chess on the stone board permanently mounted in the median between the bus lanes. One is dressed in a charcoal gray business suit and has a bluetooth earpiece; the other is wearing a dirty tank top, ragged shorts, and rope sandals to go along with his sombrero. They both have laser focus on the game, seemingly oblivious to the motley group of five men of standing around them with equally rapt attention to their moves.

The bulky middle-aged woman of indeterminate ethnicity, dressed in brightly colored clothes and a matching wide-brimmed straw hat, sat in her wheelchair and scowled while the police officer searched the bag hanging from the back of the chair as if it contained a bomb. 
Some random thoughts - serious and not-so - about "Weinergate," the latest example of how skillful a politician can be in shooting his own foot. If only Rep. Anthony Weiner were so competent as a leader.

  • The seductiveness of the internet to cause one to do stupid things cannot be overstated. It's worse than alcohol or drugs in causing otherwise reasonable (and I'll give Rep. Weiner the benefit of the doubt here) people to do things that in other settings they'd find sick and laughable. You know, like we who are looking at him now do. "It couldn't happen to me," you're thinking right about now. Yeah, sure.

  • But, I confess that I am sorely, sorely disappointed in the internet. What are things coming to when a grown man like Rep. Weiner strikes up an "illicit" conversation with a "26-year old female" and it turns out that he's actually conversing with a 26-year old female, and not a 48 year old bald guy in boxer shorts? Is nothing sacred anymore?

  • Oh, by the way, did you catch Matt Laurer's interview with Andrew Breitbart on The Today Show? There was the faintest whiff of an inkling of the beginning of grudging MSM acknowledgment that, well, a blogger can actually be a legitimate source of news reporting.

  • Morally, Rep. Weiner has some obvious shortcomings (we're not going to pander to the lowest common denominator and address any physical characteristics), but politically, his biggest weakness is an utter failure to lie convincingly. Did anyone in America buy his "I've been hacked" story? Nope. Even John Edwards did a better job. So, Rep. Weiner, next time you're in this position (and we'll never say "never," not as long as Andrew Breitbart is holding a few more cards), you'd do well to heed the advice of that great Texas sage, Delbert McClinton:

I received an email this evening asking me to publicize an upcoming event that will raise money to build a no-kill pet adoption center inside the Midland PetSmart location. I'm happy to help with that cause, because it's an important one. Here's the jist of the appeal:
The Midland Humane Coalition is a non-profit no-kill animal organization looking to end euthanasia in Midland County. PetSmart has agreed to build a $750,000 shelter inside the Midland PetSmart location for them to find these pets homes if they can raise the money for the first year of operating expenses. 

Midland Humane Coalition is about $130,000 short on their goal of fund raising. These funds must be acquired by the first of July. 

Jake's Clays is hosting a shoot for them on June 24th-25th (flyer with more info here) to help raise them money for their adoption center. You can also go to to make a donation as well.
Please help us raise awareness about this organization's needs; it would be greatly appreciated! We need to get this information out there and help us raise the awareness about this worthy cause.
Midland needs a no-kill animal shelter like this. Every little bit helps; the Midland Humane Coalition and the babies whose lives are saved all appreciate the help.
Please consider making a donation to this worthy cause, or participate in - or better yet, sponsor - the clay shoot.
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.
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.

Watering for Show
April 23, 2011 5:49 PM | Posted in: ,

Dear, You know who you are with the big house at the golf course -

I'm sure you're aware that the city of Midland has requested that citizens cut back on their water usage by limiting their lawn watering to three days a week, between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. And you're probably also aware that they've also been asked to make sure that they monitor their sprinklers during those times so that water isn't wasted by running over the curb and down the gutter.

I assume that because of the large size of your corner lot, the better to showcase what is one of the largest, if not the largest house in the northern development of said golf course, you have at least one water well and thus are not using city water. (I don't know that for a fact; I'm simply giving you the benefit of the doubt.)

So, rather than being in direct violation of the thus-far voluntary watering restrictions, when you run your industrial strength sprinkler system during the heat and wind of the day and blissfully ignore the sparkling rivulets it generates in the gutters, you're simply guilty of condescension and poor taste. Oh, some small-minded people might point out that water is water regardless of its source, and it's all scarce and should be conserved, but we don't want to be unreasonable.

Your pal,


OK, I take no pleasure in posting something like this, even though it's based on a firsthand observation during a recent bike ride, because I live in a neighborhood that has two well-fed ponds that use and lose prodigious amounts of water, especially during the summer months. There's a part of me that thinks we should let those ponds go dry until the drought breaks, if for no other reason than as a show of solidarity with the individual families who are being asked to sacrifice their landscape in the cause.
Forbes Magazine has created an interactive graphic showing population movements into and out of every county in the United States in 2008, based on federal income tax-related data provided by the IRS. A mouse click on each county reveals lines emanating from that county to every other county where people moved to or from, and showing the number and per capita income of those who moved. Here's Midland County's snapshot:


Here are the details behind the map:

County # of People Into Midland Avg Income Per Capita - In # of People From Midland Avg Income Per Capita - Out Net Change in Population Net Income 
Kern Co, CA 30 24,200 0 - 30 726,000
Los Angeles, CA 51 18,200 18 38,800 33 229,800
Orange, CA 23 23,200 0 - 23 533,600
San Diego, CA 50 18,800 23 13,000 27 641,000
Riverside, CA 24 30,100 0 - 24 722,400
San Bernadino, CA 38 17,200 0 - 38 653,600
Clark, NV 45 11,700 0 - 45 526,500
Maricopa, AZ 77 13,500 32 39,400 45 (221,300)
Denver, CO 21 18,600 0 - 21 390,600
San Juan, NM 24 53,700 0 - 24 1,288,800
Bernalillo, NM 21 35,600 26 21,100 (5) 199,000
Dona Ana, NM 34 18,300 18 14,200 16 366,600
Chaves, NM 24 20,100 20 13,600 4 210,400
Roosevelt, NM 24 9,200 0 - 24 220,800
Eddy, NM 42 20,400 27 18,900 15 346,500
Lea, NM 136 36,000 71 18,700 65 3,568,300
Tulsa, OK 26 36,900 31 83,100 (5) (1,616,700)
Oklahoma, OK 42 25,400 49 33,500 (7) (574,700)
Cleveland, OK 24 24,800 0 - 24 595,200
Potter, TX 41 26,800 28 25,400 13 387,600
Randall, TX 65 46,300 56 22,300 9 1,760,700
Hale, TX 26 13,900 0 - 26 361,400
Lubbock, TX 327 22,400 310 21,000 17 814,800
Hockley, TX 33 20,700 0 - 33 683,100
Yoakum, TX 57 21,100 0 - 57 1,202,700
Gaines, TX 41 27,400 30 47,500 11 (301,600)
Dawson, TX 84 13,000 67 12,700 17 241,100
Scurry, TX 46 29,600 36 21,900 10 573,200
Andrews, TX 86 19,300 76 17,700 10 314,600
Martin, TX 121 18,200 109 18,300 12 207,500
Howard, TX 157 18,800 155 19,800 2 (117,400)
Mitchell, TX 0 - 23 28,000 (23) (644,000)
Nolan, TX 12 30,200 0 - 12 362,400
Winkler, TX 34 33,700 30 17,200 4 629,800
Ector, TX 1042 25,400 902 21,000 140 7,524,800
Taylor, TX 107 30,300 75 19,800 32 1,757,100
Reeves, TX 65 18,400 41 19,700 24 388,300
Ward, TX 63 26,400 61 18,300 2 546,900
Crane, TX 38 29,700 38 52,300 - (858,800)
Upton, TX 41 44,900 27 16,600 14 1,392,700
Reagan, TX 24 21,000 0 - 24 504,000
Tom Green, TX 201 18,400 117 21,900 84 1,136,100
Pecos, TX 64 36,600 54 16,700 10 1,440,600
Presidio, TX 77 9,200 45 9,200 32 294,400
Brewster, TX 102 13,700 37 11,200 65 983,000
Brown, TX 25 22,100 20 31,200 5 (71,500)
Webb, TX 34 8,400 0 - 34 285,600
Wichita, TX 42 18,200 0 - 42 764,400
Denton, TX 62 24,200 91 30,100 (29) (1,238,700)
Collin, TX 61 26,300 98 45,200 (37) (2,825,300)
Parker, TX 20 22,400 37 34,800 (17) (839,600)
Tarrant, TX 173 26,100 280 26,100 (107) (2,792,700)
Dallas, TX 163 32,300 156 34,400 7 (101,500)
Hood, TX 27 26,300 58 75,700 (31) (3,680,500)
Johnson, TX 0 - 36 31,700 (36) (1,141,200)
Ellis, TX 0 - 22 21,300 (22) (468,600)
Smith, TX 33 27,200 28 29,800 5 63,200
Gregg, TX 0 - 18 64,200 (18) (1,155,600)
McClennan, TX 20 29,800 24 14,600 (4) 245,600
Bell, TX 56 18,200 49 18,300 7 122,500
Williamson, TX 52 28,500 78 28,100 (26) (709,800)
Travis, TX 89 21,400 107 33,200 (18) (1,647,800)
Hays, TX 34 17,800 17 32,400 17 54,400
Comal, TX 22 30,800 27 52,100 (5) (729,100)
Bexar, TX 106 21,000 159 23,300 (53) (1,478,700)
Brazos, TX 22 23,500 22 30,400 - (151,800)
Montgomery, TX 52 43,600 62 48,600 (10) (746,000)
Harris, TX 265 38,800 202 46,000 63 990,000
Fort Bend, TX 66 39,900 46 39,800 20 802,600
Brazoria, TX 26 45,300 14 77,100 12 98,400
Jefferson, TX 25 24,400 0 - 25 610,000
Nueces, TX 48 23,700 18 19,400 30 788,400
Totals 5,233 4,301 932 15,438,100

It's difficult to draw any conclusions from this data without making some shaky assumptions. There's no explanation regarding methodology or clarification regarding the source of the data. There is a footnote that explains that the IRS doesn't report inter-county moves for fewer than ten people, which does explain why it appears that no one moved in or out of Midland County from or to any states other than California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma.

It's interesting to note that all interstate movements resulted in a net population gain for Midland County. 

It's a different story for many movements within Texas (although Midland still picked up a net of 491 from intrastate moves). The Metroplex in North Texas picked up a significant net gain from Midland County. My assumption is that the big movement (a net loss of 107 people) to Tarrant County (Fort Worth) was related to the Barnett Shale gas drilling boom that was in full swing in 2008.

Oddly enough, and probably contrary to common perception, the Houston area sent more people to Midland County than it took. We netted 63 people from Harris County.

Harris County was the anomaly for the major metropolitan regions in Texas. Midland had a net loss to each of the counties where Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin are located.

I have no idea what to make of the "average income per capita" numbers, which in total indicated that the net gain in income for Midland County was over $15 million. But that assumes that people moving in and out made the same income where they landed as where they started. At first glance, that seems to be a reasonable assumption, but it doesn't hold up given that there are so many reasons for people to move.

If you're a data hound, this provides plenty of playground to roam.
National Geographic has analyzed certain characteristics of the Earth's approximately 7 billion human inhabitants and offers up some interesting statistics in six categories:

  • Language: 13% speak Mandarin as their first language, vs. 5% Spanish and 5% English

  • Nationality: 19% are Chinese, 17% Indian, 4% American

  • Religion: 33% are Christian, 21% Muslim, 13% Hindu

  • Livelihood: 40% work in services, 38% in agriculture, 22% in industry

  • Living Environment: 51% live in urban environments

  • Literacy: 82% are literate

They've also created a visual that represents the "typical" human inhabitant, a composite image of a man's face using 7,000 human figures (each figure representing 1 million people). The face is that of a Han Chinese man:

The magazine also compiled the characteristics of "the most typical human" (there are over 9,000,000 of them!). The results are presented in entertaining fashion in the following YouTube video.

Original link via Neatorama
Anyone driving slower than me is an idiot.
Anyone driving faster than me is a jerk.
The preceding observation is perhaps the best reason that the proposal to create a 24-hour hotline that allows Texans to report bad drivers is a bad idea. I fear that many of us lack the objectivity and discipline to distinguish dangerous drivers from those who are simply ill-mannered (or whose driving habits just differ from ours).

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

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

In fairness, according to the above-linked report, this idea seems to have some traction with local law enforcement officials, so I'm obviously missing something. I simply worry that a law like this shifts the ability to be a jerk and/or an idiot from the steering wheel to the cell phone.
The web is abuzz today about the passing of Jack LaLanne at age 96. The guy was the human equivalent of the Energizer bunny, and he's probably doing jumping jacks in his specially-modified jumpsuit (slits for angel wings, right?) as I type this.

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

Link via Neatorama

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

We may mock his fashion sense and manic sincerity, but the fact is that many of his ideas have stood the test of time and have been scientifically validated.
The year was 1970. I was a freshman at Texas A&M, a clarinet player in the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band, a member of the Corps of Cadets, and the epitome of cluelessness long before that term had become entrenched in our cultural vocabulary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A&M lost the remainder of its games that season. I lasted one year in the Corps and the band, electing not to return despite earning a unit award, and I never really developed a clue. But that evening in Baton Rouge will be forever embedded in my memory. And, fortunately, I now have an even better reason for remembering it.'s "commitment to principle" lasted about twelve hours, and then it showed that it's still in the business of turning a profit and dependent on the good graces of its customers to do so.

In pulling from its virtual bookshelf the disgusting The Pedophile's Guide To Love & Pleasure: A Child-Lover's Code of Conduct, Amazon proved that even the largest retailer is not immune to public pressure, and that community standards - however fragmented or ill-defined - still carry weight in the marketplace.

The only surprises in this situation are that (1) Amazon decided to sell the book to begin with, and (2) that it tried to support that decision with a "freedom of speech" argument. In this case, the right to freedom of speech should be strongly trumped by the basic tenets of human decency, the violation of which threatens the foundation of our society. If that sounds overly dramatic, then you're just not paying attention.

One of the first websites to break this story was TechCrunch, and this article focused on an interesting phenomenon: the apparent reliance on "the Red States" and "Middle America" to be the moral gatekeepers for America. I suspect the public outcry against this book was more widespread than that, and I would caution any one group from thinking it has a monopoly on the moral high ground in general, but to the extent that "Red State" residents succeeded in convincing Amazon to change its corporate mind, I proudly claim citizenship in that group.

Lessons from a Class Reunion
October 11, 2010 8:53 AM | Posted in: ,

We attended our 40th high school reunion in Fort Stockton last weekend, and while it was a very enjoyable time, it was also confirmation that in some ways, you really can't go home again. A couple of lessons were learned.

Lesson #1: Boys will be boys. I'll never understand the attraction of breaking out a bottle of tequila - regardless of how exotic the brand - and posing with a raised glass (actually, a plastic cup) for a group photo. But that ritual was reenacted Saturday evening by the same group of guys who did it in high school (albeit without the premium brand, or digital recording).

Lesson #2: Survival is not a basis for close friendship.
If you weren't good friends in high school, you won't be good friends forty years later just because you show up for the reunion. We thoroughly enjoyed getting caught up with our classmates, and we were all cordial and genuinely glad to share the company. But after you've heard about kids, grandkids, parents, pets, and jobs, there's not a lot left to discuss. At that point, you revert to shared past experiences, and the old cliques become operative once more. The cool kids gravitate toward one another, just as they did four decades ago, and that inevitably means a few people land on the fringes. It's nobody's fault; it's just human nature.

The practical implication is that while we enjoyed visiting with people we hadn't seen since the last reunion, there's no great attraction to the suggestions that we all go on a cruise or have a get-together to celebrate a certain upcoming collective milestone birthday. True friendship is hard work, requiring a mutual investment of time and energy, and graduating from the same high school at the same time is, in and of itself, insufficient as a foundation for such a relationship.

I don't think any of our classmates read the Gazette, but in case any of them come across this, I want to stress that this is in no way meant to be a judgmental assessment of them. I think of all of them with fondness, and that fact that we never formed any deep, long-lasting bonds is more my fault than theirs.

Life takes us in different directions, and while the rare occasions when it brings our paths together are special, I feel no great desire to prolong them when other, more meaningful relationships await.
Remember my mild rant about the lack of critical thinking skills among students? It's not just students who are falling short in this area; some newspaper reporters appear to be challenged in this regard. Here's a quote from a story in the Los Angeles Times about the results of this survey (link to a PDF with the results of the complete survey; to take a shorter version online, visit this page) from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term "blind faith."
That's pretty provocative...and inaccurate, given that the survey is as much about the cultural and political aspects of religion as the spiritual ones. Our former pastor, Dr. Jim Denison, does a good job of explaining why the survey doesn't measure what it purports to, and why analyses like those in the LA Times are misleading.

In an exchange on Facebook someone asked me how I would craft a survey to measure "religious knowledge." I said I haven't a clue, but I'm pretty sure there's no way to assess the results of the entire history of human beings searching for God. Further, I don't think there's anything to be gained by the attempt.

I do believe that people of faith should learn as much as they can about the history and tenets of that faith, and in an increasingly diverse society, understanding important aspects of other religions is also valuable. But for many of us, it's not about what you know, but Who you know. Being able to answer Bible "trivia" won't get you to Heaven, and having an intellectual grasp of the moral imperatives of the faith isn't important if you won't apply them in daily life.

The Statistics of Dead Voters
September 24, 2010 7:46 AM | Posted in:

According to this article, Texas has twelve counties where there are more registered voters than the voting age population.

This is hardly news, as certain areas of Texas - especially in deep South Texas - have had a hallowed tradition of allowing dead people to vote. And it's not a practice that's limited to Texas. According to the article, several others states display the same phenomenon:

  • Alabama - 7 counties
  • Indiana - 12 counties
  • Kentucky - 12 counties
  • Mississippi - 17 counties
  • South Dakota - 17 counties
However, this is yet another case where statistics are a bit misleading. If you compare the total number of counties in each state with those where the voter rolls apparently contain a lot of dead people (and other non-eligible people such as felons or illegal immigrants), Texas looks a lot better. Here's the same list showing the percentage of counties that fall into this category:

  • Alabama - 10%
  • Indiana - 13%
  • Kentucky - 10%
  • Mississippi - 21%
  • South Dakota - 27%
  • Texas - 5%
So, we see that Texas is, in fact, something of an underachiever in this area.

Note: Here's the original report by the Washington Times

Filtering Criticism
September 10, 2010 8:00 AM | Posted in:

Seth Godin has a[nother] excellent post this morning entitled Interpreting Criticism. Here's the money quote:

Criticism of your idea is usually based on assumptions about the world as it is. Jackson Pollock could never have made it as an painter in the world as it was. And Harry Potter was rejected by just about everyone because for it to succeed the way kids read would have to change.

The useful element of this sort of criticism isn't that the fact that people in the status quo don't like your idea. Of course they don't. The interesting question is: what about the world as it is would have to change for your idea to be important?

We're foolish not to be open to feedback about our ideas, plans, tactics, and strategies. The key is to examine - and filter, accept, or discard - that feedback within the context of what we think we know that those providing the feedback don't.

Redesigned US Currency
August 25, 2010 3:59 PM | Posted in: ,

There have been a number of attempts to redesign US currency, which I'll readily admit looks old and drab next to that of many other countries (but which also demonstrates that beauty does not always equate to utility or value, but that's a completely different issue).

The Dollar ReDe$ign Project brings many of those attempts into a central location, and it's interesting to scroll through the wide range of variations put forth by designers.

The design firm of Dowling Duncan provides one of the more innovative approaches, with a vertical layout (based, the company says, on research into how we actually use currency) and different lengths for different denominations. The latter would solve one of the great pressing problems of currency, and that's how to make it easier for sight-impaired people to distinguish among the different denominations of bills. But, of course, putting a living president on a bill is simply not going to fly, for any number of reasons. Nevertheless, their attempt at tying each bill's amount to a symbolic historic reference (e.g. $50 = the 50 states of the Union) is laudable.

Then, there are the designs put forth by Mark Scott, a Brit (many of the designs are submitted by non-US residents apparently eager to help drag our currency into the 21st century). Sensing the inevitability of ubiquitous corporate sponsorship, he's replaced the usual political and historical references with symbols representing iconic American brands, such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and the NFL. I'm especially fond of the $50 Apple bill, although I'm sure Steve Jobs would prefer that it appear on a $100,000 note.

There are scores of designs on this site, some of them quite whimsical (including a 10 cent note with the inscription "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?").

Hat tip: Subtraction

Tattooed Teachers
August 24, 2010 8:40 AM | Posted in: ,

Semi-interesting post over at the Freakonomics blog about the possibility that college professors who have tattoos could be more successful than their non-ink-stained counterparts.

I'm pretty skeptical about the relevance of the study cited in the post, as are most of the commenters. If nothing else, showing male undergrads photos of tattooed female models* is, frankly, a really dumb idea if you're trying to assess anything other than libido. But, perhaps I'm not giving the students enough credit.

I was almost able to type that last sentence with a straight face.

*I readily admit that tattooed models are not equally attractive. For example, compare this to this.

National Night Out
August 3, 2010 10:01 PM | Posted in: ,

We joined with a number of our neighbors for National Night Out, one of more than eighty that took place this evening around Midland. It was an enjoyable time to visit with people that we don't see that often, except perhaps as our cars pass in the streets. But it was also a time to meet some of the excellent first responders who work tirelessly to keep us safe.

Photo - Sid, the Police DogTake Sid, for example. He's a seven year old Belgian Malinois, and a four year veteran of the Midland Police Department's K-9 Unit. We got to meet Sid (albeit not up close and personal, as he was on duty and not in a socializing mode) and his partner, Officer Simpson, along with another K-9 cop, Officer Garcia. Sid was born in Belgium and received his early training there. The local officers have to learn many commands in Dutch because that's how the dogs are acclimated.

The department has shifted to this breed, away from German Shepherds, because of the latter breed's tendency to injury, especially hip problems. The Malinois are slightly smaller and lighter, and thus less injury prone (only about 1% suffer from hip dysplasia). They still have a powerful bite (900-1000 psi), and are highly intelligent.

Debbie and I were interested to hear that all veterinary services for the police dogs are provided by Dr. Bobby Boyd (a fellow Fort Stocktonite) at the Tall City Veterinary Hospital. I asked how the dogs responded to office visits. The answer is, "not too well." For everything but routine shots, the dogs are muzzled and often sedated in order to protect the clinic personnel. (The handlers hold the dogs for their shots.)

By the way, a fund has been established to help pay vet bills for retired police dogs. If you're interested in making a donation, you may do so at Dr. Boyd's clinic, which is located at 4606 W. Wall St.

We also visited with Bryce Pruitt, a firefighter who drives Midland's only ladder truck. The truck made an appearance at our gathering, much to the delight of all the kids (of all ages - there's nothing like a big honkin' fire truck to make a boy out of a man!). That ladder truck makes all of the fire calls in Midland (and, in fact, was on the job at that terrible blaze that destroyed the home under construction at GreenTree last night), so its crews stay plenty busy. The ladder truck carries no water or hoses, but has a fitting and pump that allows water to flow from external sources up the ladder to where it can be directed to where it's needed. Oh, and the truck gets about 3 miles per gallon around town, so that should make you feel a little better about your SUV.

Later in the evening, our city councilman, Jeff Sparks and his wife Val made an appearance. We were his fifth or sixth stop for the evening.

This was an enjoyable time for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the chance to thank some of the police officers and firefighters who are on the front lines. It was a privilege to meet them.

And it's a source of pride that Midland, Texas, ranks among the most active cities in the US in participating in National Night Out. If your neighborhood isn't participating, perhaps it's simply waiting for someone to step forward. In our case, that someone was Berry Simpson. Perhaps next year, in your neighborhood, it could be you.

Update: Berry has posted photos from this event to his Flickr account. Yours truly appears multiple times, but you shouldn't let that stop you from checking out the pictures.

July 29, 2010 6:10 PM | Posted in: ,

As a freelancer, I'm like a shark. No, not dangerously vicious, nor delicious in soup, but as a shark has to keep moving to stay alive, I have to keep working to stay solvent. I need to have a steady inflow of projects to keep me in business, and that has the potential to generate pressure to accept work that I wouldn't otherwise consider.

Fortunately, circumstances are such that no single project or client is that important to me. But I still have to occasionally wrestle with whether to accept a job, for a variety of reasons.

Most often, the potential client either has unreasonable expectations, or has reasonable expectations that I simply can't fulfill. If somebody wants a site done completely in Flash, or needs a database back-end, I'm not their guy, as I don't have those skills. These are pretty easy decisions.

Occasionally, I'll turn down a project because I don't think I have the design chops to do what the client needs. This is a harder call to make, because (a) it's more subjective, and (b) it's more requires admitting to a more fundamental weakness than simply not having a learned skill. I know I don't have the time or energy to learn all the possible technologies that can be brought to bear on a web development project, and so I make conscious decisions about what to learn and what to leave. But design skills are much more inherent, involving creativity and judgment. You can learn some techniques, and try to keep up with trends, but in the end, it's just you facing a blank screen and hoping you can generate something amazing (or, in my case, adequate) that works for the client. Admitting a weakness in this area is hard for me to do, although it would admittedly be more difficult if I wasn't able to remind myself that I was trained as an accountant and therefore steeped in anti-creativity (insert joke about creative accounting here).

Then there are the projects that don't play well with my values. I have a short list of those on my Services page: no porn or political sites, for example. (Oops! Did I imply a relationship between those two? My bad...) I won't work for clients whose views on certain moral or theological issues conflict with mine and where such issues will be relevant to the design or development of the website (I'd probably build a website for a voodoo priest as long as the site just marketed really good ice cream.).

Why am I writing this? I just encountered one of these situations, one that falls into the last category. The details aren't important, but I've decided to turn down the project even though I think it would actually be a lot of fun and an interesting challenge (and probably lucrative), because the client sells something that's perfectly legal, socially acceptable (in most circles), but still personally objectionable to me.

I'm thankful that my situation is such that I can afford to turn down work, shark metaphor aside. Not all freelancers are that fortunate, and I'm sure many of those that aren't still face such dilemmas and make the hard choices. 

Memorial Day 2010
May 31, 2010 8:46 AM | Posted in:

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California
Charles Krauthammer's column in the Washington Post [thanks to Soccer Dad for the link] points out the sad irony in the circumstances that contributed to the Gulf oil spill, opening with the question of why we were drilling through a mile of ocean to begin with:

Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama's tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we've had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some will take issue with Mr. Krauthammer's pragmatism (paraphrase: we'll always have catastrophic oil spills, so why not make sure they occur in less sensitive areas?) and I think he's minimizing a couple of immutable realities of the industry (oil is where you find it, and the "easy" oil has been found), but his point is nevertheless valid. By forcing oil companies to explore in areas where the environmental and economic effects of [inevitable] mistakes are magnified, those who claim to be advocates for the environment have actually done it a disservice.

Of course, logic and reality have never been the Environistas strong points. Some of them are the same people who object to wind farms off the coast of New England because they'll spoil the view.
Need a new job? Do what this guy did - capitalize on the narcissistic tendencies of bosses by purchasing their names as keywords, and wait for them to Google themselves.

This is a rather striking example of combining tech savvy with insight into human nature and psychology. No wonder he actually landed a job with this approach. [Link via Neatorama]

I'm sure that you've heard that Lindsay Lohan is suing E-Trade and its advertising firm for using the name "Lindsay" in one of their wildly popular TV commercials. The "actress" wants $100 million for "pain and suffering" because - her lawyer claims - she's a "one-name celeb like Oprah or Madonna" and the TV ad sends a subliminal message that reflects badly on her image.

Excuse me? First, I feel compelled to remind Lindsay that she's made a series of choices in her life that have relegated her to the B-list (at best) of impaired and out-of-control wannabes. Having a talking baby make fun of her (even subliminally) would actually be a step up for her.

Setting aside the fact that in 1986 (the year of her birth, in case she can't remember) the name "Lindsay" was the 46th most popular girl's name in the USA (and the variant "Lindsey" ranked even higher, at 39), I think she should give careful consideration to the implications of claiming an exclusive association with certain descriptors. If her lawsuit is successful and thus requires that every time we hear "Lindsay" (or, if we have a discriminating ear, "Lindsey") we think of her, then it will have to logically follow that we'll also bring her to mind whenever we hear "pathetic," "narcissistic," and "delusional."

Then again, perhaps that horse has already bolted the stable.

Update: This just in - Oprah and Madonna are suing Lindsay and her lawyers for associating their names with hers.

Laugh for the Day (or not)
March 4, 2010 11:23 AM | Posted in: ,

If you work in the oil industry - or know anything at all about it - and are looking for a laugh, you might want to check out this article at a website called The People's Voice.

The author decries our economy's continued reliance on fossil fuels, but implies that as long as we're going to drill for oil, we ought to stop doing it where it costs so dang much money.

Inexplicably, the industry picks the most expensive places on the earth to drill for oil.

He then quotes another apparent genius in the field:

"You really don't need to know a lot about geology or oil to figure out something is wrong here, why don't they go back to the old days and drill oil wells onshore?"

I'm sure the chairmen of Exxon, Chevron, and BP are at this very moment slapping their collective foreheads and exclaiming with great vigor, "why didn't we think of that!? We should just drill where it costs less!"

After reading that, I quickly checked the address bar of my browser to make sure I hadn't been redirected to The Onion without noticing.

Interestingly, those assertions are the most reasonable things put forth by the author, as he then attributes various natural disasters around the world to the pain caused to Mother Earth by poking holes in her skin. Seriously.

During the various stages of the energy extraction process, the globe of the earth suffers limitless pain as the area where the drilling occurs. It is gradually being depressurized and cooled internally, causing cycles of contsriction [sic], joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation and searing pain as they use large drills to puncture pericardium and into the heart, sometimes as deep as 10,000 feet.

He even provides Bible verses to back up his thesis.

OK, on further review, this isn't a bit funny.

Link via The Oil Drum

I shouldn't be surprised but he can't even get the basic facts right to support his hypothesis. Drilling often occurs below 10,000 feet, but the deepest wells on record are only six miles deep. Compared to the almost 8,000 mile diameter of the earth, this is barely a pinprick to the skin, much less a penetration to the "pericardium and into the heart."

"When The Money's All Gone"
March 3, 2010 1:17 PM | Posted in: ,

Good time Charlie's on the evening news
The party's gone public, grab your dancin' shoes
Pass it around 'til we all get stoned
We'll all come down when the money's all gone.

Everybody's livin', everybody's high
Everybody's sellin' so buy, baby, buy
Everything's had and nothing is owned
Around it goes 'til the money's all gone.

When the money's all gone we'll get back to work
Get back in the garden, get back in the dirt
It's an ill wind doesn't blow some good
We can put it back together the way that we should.
It might not be the worst thing after all...
When the money's all gone.

There's only so much that can go around
The top goes up but the bottom goes down
Call it what you want to
Tell me I'm wrong
We'll all find out when the money's all gone.

When the money's all gone we'll get back to work
Get back in the garden, get back in the dirt
It's an ill wind doesn't blow some good
We can put it back together the way that we should.
It might not be the worst thing after all...
When the money's all gone.

Lose a little, you can scream and shout
But you gotta lose big 'fore they bail you out
They'll buy the bank so they can take your home
They don't need you anymore when the money's all gone.

When the money's all gone...
When the money's all gone.

When the Money's All Gone
Jason Eady & Kevin Wilkins

I've been listening to Jason Eady's music a lot lately, especially the preceding song from the album of the same name. The iTunes Store puts his music into the Country genre, but I think that's too limiting for the mixture of delta blues, zydeco, rock, and gospel that wraps around lyrics that manage to be simultaneously intelligent and catchy. When The Money's All Gone is a perfect example. It's as good an economic commentary as you'll find in the Wall Street Journal, and a heck of a lot more danceable.

Unique Local Haiti Relief Effort
February 25, 2010 2:17 PM | Posted in: ,

Vicki Jay is the director of Midland's Rays of Hope, a grief counseling resource for children (and an outreach of HospiceMidland). She leaves next week for Haiti for ten days as a part of a grief/trauma team working with children in a Haitian village that was devastated by the earthquake. That relief project could use your help. Here's the appeal; you know what to do:
On March 4 - 14, Vicki Jay will be traveling to Mizak, Haiti representing Rays of Hope on a "Volunteers in Mission - Global Ministries" relief effort.The grief/trauma team will be working directly with the children in the village as well as their families. Vicki will be serving as Camp Director for the children's camp. The camp will be staffed with other members of the team as well as Haitian leaders. The team will partner with a trauma team from China and Japan called Operation Safe and with HAPI (Haitian Artisans for Peace International), a mission group established in Haiti. In addition to the grief/trauma team, there will also be a medical team headed by Dr. Peter Reed, son of Rev. Jan Reed.

Needs: The cost of food has dramatically risen since the earthquake. In the past, $1.50 would cover the cost of supplying a hot meal for the children in the village. Due to limited supplies, that cost has risen to $4.50 per meal. The goal of the HAPI (Haitian Artisans for Peace International) is to meet the basic needs of the children, knowing that having those needs met will contribute to a more peaceful lifestyle and sense of community. Checks can be made to HospiceMidland to help supplement the expense of providing hot meals.

Rays of Hope has found t-shirts that have feelings faces with French expressive words that would complement the work we hope to do in Haiti. Fifteen dollars would cover the cost of getting a t-shirt to the kids and families in Haiti.

Rays of Hope knows that children in our community might want to give to the Children in Haiti. We would like to collect the following inexpensive items to be distributed to the children in Mizak. Items can be brought to Rays of Hope by Tuesday, March 2nd.

  • Small containers of playdough           
  • Bright colored pipe cleaners
  • Permanent markers
  • Bright colored index cards
  • Beach balls
  • Individual packets of Kleenex
  • Inflatable Balloons (not water balloons)
  • Kazoos
  • Small thick combs
  • Frisbees
Please remember the families in the Mizak village and the mission team in prayer. Please pray for the team to be effective in their relief work and for a safe return.

Rays of Hope is honored and humbled by the opportunity to participate in this relief effort. We appreciate your support of the expansion of our mission. Thank you.
Checks should be payable to HospiceMidland (designate Haiti Relief) and mailed to:

c/o Vicki Jay
911 West Texas
Midland, Texas 79701

100% of the donations will go to the Haiti Relief.

Beck Fisks Huffington
February 3, 2010 9:42 PM | Posted in: ,

Back in the Golden Years of Blogging, around 2001, a practice known as "fisking" came about, and it provided many hours of enjoyable snarkiness. If you're relatively knew to blogging, or if you have an actual life, you may not be familiar with the term, which is defined on Wikipedia as:
A point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or (especially) news story. A really stylish fisking is witty, logical, sarcastic and ruthlessly factual; flaming or hand-waving is considered poor form.

I don't see much fisking nowadays (which could be attributed to the fact that I don't spend much time reading political blogs) and I miss it just a bit. So it's good to know that the practice hasn't vanished completely, and in fact has been adopted by the edgier members of the Legacy Media.

Following is a clip of Glenn Beck applying a proper fisking to the infinitely annoying Arianna Huffington. Now, I'm not a big GB fan; his style occasionally approaches the Infinite Annoyance that Huffington has somehow managed to exceed. Nevertheless, our ideologies have much in common, and he's an equal opportunity skewerer when it comes to calling out chumps on both sides of the political aisle (and, believe me, there are plenty of them...enough to fill out, say, a whole branch or two of federal government). And, as he shows in the following video, Beck knows how to administer a proper fisking. Enjoy.

Forgetting J.D. Salinger
January 29, 2010 9:23 AM | Posted in: ,

The media is filled today with stories about the impact that J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye made on impressionable [mostly] young readers. For example, the co-hosts of NBC's Today Show shared their recollections of how the book affected them, with Matt Laurer stating that he remembered being proud that Catcher was his first "real book."

I must be one of the few people in America who don't have a similar story to share. I'm pretty sure I've read the book and I think we still have a copy somewhere in our home library, but frankly, it made absolutely no lasting impact on me. I can't recall a single detail from Catcher other than the name of the lead character, Holden Caufield. And all this talk about the author and the book has stimulated no desire whatsoever to find the book and [re]read it.

A friend recently tagged me via Facebook for the "15 Books That Affected Me" meme. While I didn't respond (Sorry, Joe; nothing personal, but I don't do Facebook memes. I don't do much of anything Facebook, but that's another story.), I did spend about thirty seconds thinking about it, and in light of today's Catcher lovefest, it seems appropriate to list at least a few books from my youth that did stay with me.

I was a big fan of science fiction as a kid, and while that ardor has cooled somewhat over the years, the books I remember most tend to come from that genre. Robert Heinlein's New Agey (the term hadn't been invented at that time, AFAIK) Stranger in a Strange Land made an impact on me, as did Harlan Ellison's short story collection, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. And, of course, the list wouldn't be complete without Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and its prequel, The Hobbit. (And in the interests of complete transparency, there was that one summer when a copy of J. D. Southern's scandalous novel Candy circulated between beach towels at the Fort Stockton public swimming pool, the "best" passages easily found by their dogeared pages.)

I wish I could point to more intellectually sophisticated reading material - and my reading habits really were more varied than they may seem - but there it is. Salinger and Catcher may have shaped a generation, but I never got on that particular bus.

"The intricate economics of terrorism"
January 15, 2010 5:33 PM | Posted in: ,

Loretta Napoleoni is an economist, journalist, political activist, and author. Her professional specialty is in the financing of terrorist activity, and how mainstream economic activity is affected by that financing. I found [via Bruce Schneier's blog] the following video of a speech given at the 2009 TEDGlobal Conference, and it's quite fascinating.

In a relatively short amount of time, Napoleoni posits that (1) most terrorists couldn't care less about the ideology of the group with which they're aligned - they're in it for much more self-serving reasons; (2) the pre-9/11 US economy benefited greatly from money-laundering activities used to finance terrorist and criminal organizations around the world, because - let's face it - everyone wants US dollars; and (3) the Patriot Act essentially shut down those money-laundering activities, causing a massive flight from the dollar to the Euro; Europe is now the center of those illicit activities, and is enjoying something of an economic boost as a result.

If you can spare fifteen minutes to watch the following vid, I think you'll be challenged by what you hear. I gained a new perspective on terrorism and the implications for how it might be more effectively fought...and perhaps why it's not being fought equally on all fronts.

One of the more Big Brotherish ideas to come down the pike in a long time is the installation of cameras at intersections to catch speeders or red light runners. At first glance, this would seem to be an ideal and objective way of dealing with lawbreakers, since there's not a lot of gray area involved in determining whether or not your car was in the intersection before the light turned red, or whether you were going faster than the posted speed limit. And while one might argue that there are theoretically mitigating circumstances for doing such things (" hamster was in labor!"), the simple fact is that those circumstances rarely (if ever) justify the risk of potentially fatal encounters at intersections.

So, the theory was that by installing cameras - and alerting the driving public of their presence - motorists' behaviors would be positively modified and the result would be fewer accidents. Well, not so fast (pun intended). In the Chicago area, a study of intersections fitted with these cameras showed either no change in accident rates, or increases in those rates, presumably from an increase in rear-end collisions as drivers suddenly realize that the intersection they're approaching has a camera and decide not to chance making the yellow light. For some states that actually bothered to check such statistics, the decision was made to ban the cameras.

It's hard not to be cynical and figure that the real reason cities want cameras at their intersections is to increase traffic citation revenue. If they were really serious about reducing accidents at such intersections, they'd either increase the amount of time the yellow light stays on, or increase the time before the green light for cross traffic switches on, or both. Both of these things have proven effective in reducing accidents at intersections.

I hope the city of Midland will be cautious in any consideration it's giving to installing such cameras.

And, in yet another fine example of the the law of unintended consequences, creative punks have learned how to use those cameras to harass their enemies.

"Portraits of Power"
December 10, 2009 1:05 PM | Posted in: ,

What do Muammar Qaddafi, Gordon Brown, Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Dmitry Medvedev, Hugo Chávez, and Benjamin Netanyahu have in common...well, besides that whole "head of state" thing? They each were photographed individually, along with forty other national leaders by Platon, staff photographer for The New Yorker, during a U.N. General Assembly last September. The results are displayed in this fascinating multimedia presentation.

I don't remember how I came across this article, but I've kept it open in a browser tab for several days even though I hadn't taken the time to look at it in detail until this morning. I hadn't realized that the photographer had added an audio commentary to each photo - a brief glimpse into the process, the situation, or most interestingly, the character of the subject of each picture.

Those comments are what elevate this presentation over the normal portfolio (setting aside the fact that there perhaps has never before been such a compilation of political power by one person at one time). The photographer is careful and diplomatic with his observations, but not to the point of banality (OK, there are some banal comments, but they're excusable). And, occasionally, his remarks tell more than the photos themselves. Be sure to listen to the commentary accompanying the image of Robert Mugabe, president/dictator of Zimbabwe.

Brain Dead Man Not - Or Not
November 24, 2009 9:41 AM | Posted in: ,

Update: Some instances of so-called "Facilitated Communication" have been scientifically debunked. Here are some media reports on those debunkings. Particularly damning is this one detailing the results of a double-blind test in which not one of 180 FC tests yielded the proper response.

By now, you'd have to be in a coma not to have heard the account of the Belgian man who was diagnosed as being "brain dead" for 23 years, but was recently found by doctors to have normal brain function and who further claims that he had been conscious through the entire period. He's now communicating via a special keyboard and thus is able to finally share his heartbreaking story with the world.

Or is he?

I saw a televised report of this story this morning on a national news show, and what I saw was a "facilitator" using the man's finger to type on a keyboard. I was puzzled about a minor detail: how does she know what he wants to type? The "facilitator" is said to be specially trained to detect - and interpret -  faint movements by the subject, and translate them into coherent communications. This is a wonderful skill to possess...if indeed it actually exists.

James Randi thinks it's a "cruel farce," and lays out his impassioned case against "Facilitated Communication," of which, he says, this is simply the most recent example.

I sincerely hope Randi is wrong about this, for the sake of the man's family at the very least. And I'm torn between wanting to believe that this man's new-found communication ability is real and his relationship with his loved ones restored, and wanting to believe that he didn't really endure 23 years of conscious silence. I have a hard time imagining anything worse than the latter.

[Link via Neatorama, but original skepticism all mine.]

Aggie Bonfire - 10 Years Later
November 18, 2009 9:42 AM | Posted in: ,

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the bonfire on the Texas A&M campus that killed twelve students and injured many others. The university marked this anniversary with a week-long observance, which culminated in a candlelight vigil and memorial service beginning at 2:42 this morning, the precise time of the collapse. Photos from that vigil plus other recollections of the tragedy are found on this Facebook event page.

Statewide, media have provided coverage of the anniversary. Perhaps the most widely seen coverage will be the story in the current edition of Texas Monthly Magazine. I haven't read the article, but by all accounts it's an accurate and even moving description of the disaster, as well as an unexpectedly sensitive treatment of the tradition and meaning for A&M students. (I say "unexpected" because Texas Monthly has a reputation for being biased toward A&M's arch-rival, the University of Texas.) The website also has an interesting video about the creation of the photo on the cover of the magazine, which features a computer-generated version of the bonfire. (Perceptive viewers will notice that a Mac was used for the 3D modeling.)

Locally, Jimmy Patterson has written an article for the Midland Reporter Telegram about the anniversary of the bonfire collapse. He's done his typically excellent job in reporting, and the only quibble I have with the article is one that probably isn't his fault anyway: if you're going to refer to the aforementioned University of Texas using the Aggie acronym, it's "tu" (lower case). I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk that up to an editor's eye.

I worked on one bonfire during my five-year stint at A&M. As a freshman in the Corps of Cadets in 1970, about the only thing I remember is how long the four-hour work sessions were, and how short the four-hour rests seemed. I was perpetually sleep-deprived anyway (that being the typical state of a Corps fish), so the bonfire work is really just a hazy memory. It was also the hardest work I'd done in my life up to that point.

The fact that I never participated in another bonfire construction (I didn't return to the Corps after my freshman year) probably puts me in that shameful "two-percenter" category, but it's a fact of Aggie life that far more students didn't work on the bonfire than did. That doesn't lessen my respect for the tradition it represents.

However, I also agree with a number of commenters on the Texas Monthly article who point out that the bonfire is not Texas A&M, nor are the rich heritage and traditions of the university diminished significantly by its absence.

My wife and I visited the on-campus Bonfire Memorial a couple of summers ago, on a day so brutally hot and humid that it was all we could do to muster the energy to walk from the car to the Stonehenge-like setting where the twelve students who perished were honored. But we found the memorial to be so moving that we spent more than an hour reading the stories of those young people, and watching other visitors move respectfully along with us, no one speaking above a whisper. To me, that desire and ability to honor fellow Aggies is the most important tradition of them all, and as long as that doesn't change, the A&M heritage is secure.

Dogs like Veterans Day, too
November 11, 2009 5:13 PM | Posted in:

I think a fitting way to wrap up Veterans Day 2009 is by watching the reactions of dogs to the return of their masters after being deployed in military service. Outstanding!

You'll also be struck by how these tough, well-trained fighting men are reduced to blathering by the sight of their overjoyed dogs. Dogs have a way of doing that to us, don't they?

No word on what cats think.

Veteran's Day
November 11, 2009 9:02 AM | Posted in:

I want to add my voice to the chorus in thanking those who have served in the US military over the years, starting with my dad (who was awarded a Purple Heart in the European Theater of WWII) and including my father-in-law and numerous uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and sons and daughters of those friends, many of whom I've never met but to whom I owe a debt of gratitude that mere words are incapable of repaying.

Thank you, one and all, and may God bless you for your dedication to your fellow Americans. And for those of you in active duty, rest assured that you (and your families) are in my prayers each day.
I suppose I just have not been paying attention, but I had never heard of Chiune Sugihara until last week, when I read his story on the Mental Floss blog. If his name is also unfamiliar to you, please take a few minutes to learn more about him, as his actions are credited with saving 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the Holocaust of World War II. Those actions resulted in significant personal grief for him and his family, but, like all true heroes, he counted the cost and found he was willing to pay it on behalf of human beings with whom he had nothing apparent in common.

I find no small comfort in believing that for every Fort Hood mass murderer (I refuse to type his name), there's at least one Chiune Sugihara.

Living Small
November 5, 2009 5:15 PM | Posted in: ,

There's a lot to be said for simplifying one's life, although it's usually much easier to talk about it than to actually do it. I often declare (to no one in particular) that every time we buy something new for the house, we should get rid of something old. Of course, that only allows us to break even, so to speak, and we hardly ever do it anyway, so it's just a lot of posturing on my part.

Even on those occasions when I put my money where my mouth is, it's for stuff that I don't really care much about anyway. Debbie will bring home two or three new shirts for me, and it bothers me not a bit to toss an equal number of old ones (I have shirts that originate further back into the 20th century than is comfortable to admit). But if I get a new iPod, do you think I'm deleting an old one? Heck, no. One can never have too many iPods.

I'm sporadically successful in convincing my wife to discard old drinking glasses or mugs when she buys new ones, but even that's an uphill battle. Who knew one could develop a sentimental attachment to crockery?

What we do try to do is not acquire stuff that we won't use and enjoy, or to expend so much of our income on acquiring things that there's nothing left to give away to others. Frankly, I feel pretty good about the balance we've achieved in creating a comfortable lifestyle. And I'm dead certain that our sense of well-being would not be improved by shoehorning it into 96 square feet.

The headline in today's newspaper speaks volumes: Drilling ordinance may be changed, council indicate. The story describes how Midland City Council members - and oilmen Wes Perry (mayor) and Scott Dufford in particular - are preparing to undo more than a year of work performed by a task force (commissioned, by the way, by the Council) based primarily on the vehement objections of their fellow oil and gas producers.

That the toughest restrictions of the proposed ordinance will be softened or even deleted seems to be a foregone conclusion. The only question that remains is why any private citizen will be willing to volunteer his or her time for future task forces or study groups. I can only imagine the frustration that the drilling ordinance committee members are feeling now.

I didn't bother to attend any of the public hearings for the proposed ordinance, having experienced the debate last year as our neighborhood sought to insulate itself from the more unpalatable side-effects of drilling on immediately adjacent acreage. The outcome of that debate was never in doubt, as the oil and gas interests waved thinly-veiled threats of expensive lawsuits and gave only lip-service to the idea of compromise.

I will admit that my thinking about this issue was clarified through the process, and for what it's worth, here's where I now stand.

  • The city cannot legally prevent drilling within its jurisdiction, nor should it try to override well spacing regulations that have long been established by agencies which have significantly more expertise in such matters. The "taking" or condemnation of mineral interests through excessive limits on drilling is a legitimate legal and even ethical issue; regardless of how surface owners may protest, in Texas, the mineral owners' rights have primacy.

  • That said, the city is also under no obligation to ensure the profitability of drilling within its jurisdiction. To clarify, it's irrelevant for an oil company to protest on purely economic grounds any ordinance or regulation that is designed to protect residents and help ensure orderly residential and commercial development of the city. Every piece of legislation or regulation, whether at the federal, state, or local level, adds cost to the oil and gas development process. The industry deals with a huge regulatory burden on a daily basis. And yet, miraculously, drilling continues, and profits are made. What should not be overlooked is that there is a level of oil and gas pricing that makes the burden of these regulations insignificant from a financial perspective, and when oil prices hit more than $140/barrel last year, it forever removed the force of the argument that the economics of drilling for oil in the formations around Midland just can't support the least bit of additional regulation. If the city deems that a concrete block wall costing $100,000 (a figure I have a hard time believing, by the way) is a reasonable way to shield a producing oil well, the driller will just have to factor that into his economics and if they're too thin, then he'll have to wait for prices to make them better. History has shown that they will.
This is such an emotional issue for Midland. We're all in the oil and gas business to some extent, and the economic health of the city is inextricably tied to the health of the industry. Perhaps it's naive or even hypocritical for residents to take a "not in my backyard" stance on drilling. But the industry isn't doing itself any favors by adopting an adversarial stance at every turn.

"A modern spiritual"
September 18, 2009 10:48 AM | Posted in: ,

Was Lawrence Welk really this clueless? (H/T Charles at

I initially thought this was a very well done spoof, but I'm now pretty sure it's legit.

Here's a tip: just because a song mentions Jesus and Mary - even as proper nouns instead of exclamations - doesn't make it a "spiritual."

Confession: I still have Tarkio Road, the album from which this song came, on vinyl. And, yes, I knew what I was buying when I bought it.

Update: Here's more about the song, the album, the original artists, and this amazing Welkish performance.
This post at the Freakonomics blog cites a Canadian study that found that 90% of accidents involving bicyclists in its sample were caused by "clumsy or inattentive driving" by motorists.

The only surprise about this is that the author is apparently surprised, writing: When it comes to sharing the road with cars, many people seem to assume that such accidents are usually the cyclist's fault -- a result of reckless or aggressive riding.

Really? Perhaps he runs with a cycling crowd with a heightened feeling of invincibility or an enhanced death wish, but pretty much every bicyclist I know hits the road with the fear that it and its motorized occupants will hit back. In addition, that 90% figure stated above is probably accurate with respect to the accidents leading to cyclist deaths in our area. Many of them occurred on flat straight roads with no visibility issues; the drivers just veered over and struck the cyclists from behind.

Findings like these are all the more reason why a safe passing law is needed in Texas, especially if accompanied by an education campaign.

An interesting footnote to the study is the finding that the third leading cause of cyclist accidents in the study was from drivers opening their car doors in the path of the bicyclists. I find this interesting because I don't personally know of a local bicyclist who has experienced this. I guess it's a function of cycling in a heavy urban area with lots of on-the-street parking. On the other hand, I suspect that at least a few of these "accidents" were actually caused by frustrated drivers stuck in gridlock who noticed cyclists moving through the line of cars.

Austin to do what the state won't
August 28, 2009 3:14 PM | Posted in: ,

In the preceding post, I issued a mild lashing to Texas Governor Rick Perry for vetoing the Safe Passing bill that would have required motorists to give bicyclists and pedestrians at least three feet of clearance. Now I see that the Austin city council is stepping up and doing for its citizens what the governor refused to do for the state's citizens.

As "Newsroom Stew" puts it, it does seem odd to suggest that Midland should follow Austin's lead in, well, just about anything (full disclosure: Stew and I are both Aggies, and predisposed by genetic make-up to disagreeing with just about anything coming out of Austin), but in this case I think they're getting it right. Of course, Stew was probably referring more to the ban on texting while driving more than the safe passing issue, but I do agree that both would be welcome additions to our local ordinances.

It doesn't hurt that the ACLU is opposed to them.
I suspect that many people in the Permian Basin don't realize that in addition to the federal government's Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS or "Cash for Clunkers") program, Texas is also offering a cash incentive for the trade-in of an old auto for a new one.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) created the "Drive A Clean Machine" program with an explicit goal of removing proven polluters from state roadways. It offers a cash voucher up to $3,500 for the trade-in of a vehicle that's at least 10 years old, gasoline-powered, and that has failed an emissions test.

Interestingly, this program can be used in conjunction with the federal program, so that those fortunate few who qualify can receive up to $7,500 towards a new car. In fact, I had dinner last night with a recipient of this governmental largess. He's now driving a cool little Kia instead of an SUV with 200,000 miles and a steadily burning "check engine" light.

So, why haven't we seen this program trumpeted in the endless dealership ads in our area? Simple. The state program is limited to residents of 16 (out of 254) Texas counties. Presumably, these are the counties deemed to have the worst air quality in the state and thus most likely to benefit from the removal of the "clunkers." All of the counties are in the Austin, Houston, or Metroplex areas (wonder why Bexar County - San Antonio - was left out?).

The program also has a number of other restrictions, including limits on the income of the buyer and cost of the new vehicle (which doesn't actually have to be new; some used vehicles qualify).

Unlike the federal program which gives only lip service to environmental motivations, the Texas program is explicitly tied to a measurable (albeit still non-quantifiable) benefit to the environment.

And while we in the Permian Basin may be tempted to chafe a bit at not having access to this program, we should find consolation in (at least) three things. First, we live in an area where man-made air pollution* is simply not an issue. Second, the process for taking advantage of the state's program makes the federal program look like child's play; the feds could learn something about bureaucracy from the TCEQ. And third, we don't have to live in Austin, Houston, or the Metroplex.

*Let us agree not to discuss blowing dust.

Blogging for Fair Havens 2009
August 6, 2009 3:25 PM | Posted in: ,

Jimmy Patterson is once again doing his blogging fund-raiser thing to benefit Midland Fair Havens. Here's the scoop about this year's version, which will take place this weekend on the grounds of Rock the Desert.

Please consider making a donation to a very good cause, especially if you're a resident of West Texas (or just wish you were!). The work they're doing is saving and improving lives in more ways than we'll ever know. You can donate online via MFH's website.
If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to

This is the advice on the official White House blog, contained in a post entitled "Facts are Stubborn Things." And, as the White House is no doubt finding out, so is ill-considered, foolish advice.

My guess is that is already choked with countless reports of "fishiness" related to the proposed health reform package. But I'll bet many of those reports aren't exactly what the White House had in mind when it came up with this boneheaded idea (I'm talking about the email forwarding request, not the health reform bill, but only because "boneheaded" isn't adequate to describe the mess of the latter).

If I was thinking about reporting "fishiness" to the White House, I'd probably email them the text of the bill itself, because no opinions or rumors or exaggerations could possibly match the scary reality of the bill itself.

Of course, now that you've read this, I suppose you're obligated to report The Gazette's "fishiness" to the White House. All I ask is that you please spell the name correctly.
Update (Friday afternoon): According to the Wall Street Journal, the House has voted to pour another $2 billion into Cash for Clunkers.

Once a month, I volunteer at our church's benevolence office, where we interview people in need of financial assistance and try to determine whether and how we can help them. Most of these folks are unemployed or under-employed, and often we find that they lack basic everyday transportation that would allow them to get and keep a job. Midland's bus system, although much improved, does not always provide the flexibility of routes and schedules that allow people to count on them for their work commutes.

Which brings us to "Cash for Clunkers" which, as you already know, is a federal government program designed to reward people for trading in their old gas guzzlers for new, more fuel-efficient vehicles. CARS (Car Allowance Rebate System) was funded with $1B of your and my money, and will theoretically remove at least 220,000 older cars from the roads (assuming the maximum allowance of $4,500). That sounds fine and dandy, although it still represents only about 1% of the total number of passenger vehicles in the country and the incremental overall gains in fuel economy will be trivial.

Setting aside the issue of taxpayer money being used yet again to try to influence private behavior, I find it sad, if not immoral, that all the cars being traded in will simply be crushed* and consigned to a junkyard. There are a lot of people in the country for whom ownership of a "clunker" could mean a chance to climb out of a poverty-stricken or abuse-laden situation.

Yet again, we see that actions taken in the name of environmentalism have negative consequences on the human condition. Similar to (although I'd argue not quite as heinous) diverting corn to make fuel rather than food, these actions argue that a future "greater good" is being served, but the hypocrisy is that human beings are being harmed now.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that those who are able to take advantage of CARS are doing bad things. Not at all. I'd use it if I could; after all, it's my money they're handing out. I simply wish the program had a better ending.

*Wonder how many of these "clunkers" will actually get scrapped, rather than ending up in, say, Mexico?
David Ulin has written a thought-provoking article for the L.A. Times entitled Amazon's troubling reach in which he explores some of the ramifications of entrusting our "collective memory" (as expressed via books) to a commercial entity such as

Amazon had a recent "stumble" in which it unilaterally and without warning deleted a couple of books from its customers' Kindle e-book readers, citing "licensing issues." Amazon's founder and chairman, Jeff Bezos, later apologized profusely for doing this, but the damage to the company's credibility has been done.

Perhaps that's not a fair way to put it, though. More likely, the innocence of consumers has been punctured with respect to acquiring their books electronically, and I think that's probably a good thing. Ulin's article raises a number of interesting questions, but in the end, Amazon (or any other company in the same business) can exert only the control that we permit. As with any other purchase, an informed consumer is the best guard against commercial impropriety.

If we're really concerned that our "shared informational heritage" won't be properly stewarded by Amazon, we shouldn't be buying, er, licensing e-books from them. That's a decision each of us has to make on our own.

The Cost of Bad Service
July 15, 2009 9:44 AM | Posted in:

One of our cars has been in the shop for seven days now, awaiting the completion of some minor* service. I just learned that it won't be ready until tomorrow, despite being assured on Monday that it would be ready yesterday.

To add insult to injury ("injury" being defined as the inconvenience of having to reschedule meetings to work around the limitation of one vehicle for two busy adults), the shop has yet to call me, unbidden, to report the status. I've had to call them every day to find out what's going on, and not once has the other party apologized for the lack of progress or failure to keep its promises.

This is unacceptable treatment, especially coming as it does from one of the largest dealerships in the city, one that claims to pride itself on treating the customer properly. Normally, I wouldn't have any recourse, but given that we've started shopping for a new vehicle, the cost to this dealership of its poor service will be tangible: we've bought our last four cars there, but the next one (and any thereafter) will be purchased elsewhere.

The lesson for all of us who provide services to the public is simple: never underestimate the importance of communicating with your customers and clients. And don't believe for a moment that there are details too small to matter.

*By "minor" I mean something that any qualified, competent mechanic could do in a few hours. That obviously excludes me, which is why the car is in the shop, and not in my garage.

Oh, NOW I understand...
July 13, 2009 9:04 PM | Posted in: ,

Remember this post, where I described mixed feelings about the signs placed around our walking paths?

My feelings are less mixed now. Since the signs were posted, someone has broken or shot five or six of the lights that line those paths, the first obvious evidence of vandalism since we've been here. I can't help thinking there's a connection, but rather than feeling more strongly that the signs are a mistake, the criminal behavior of some people seems to validate the wisdom of the decision to post them (even if they so far appear to have absolutely no impact on behavior).

I know; this could have been the work of a resident, but I don't believe it is.

Those People
July 12, 2009 3:05 PM | Posted in: ,

This article in today's newspaper is an inadvertently honest depiction of what I suspect goes on in the zoning process of cities all around the world. It's an account of a proposed housing project that was so strenuously protested by the adjacent residents that the developer withdrew the plan.

On the surface, it's easy to see why the plan was rejected. The development would have placed almost 100 "modular homes" into a neighborhood of houses sitting on 1- or 2-acre tracts, spoiling the "rural life in the city" ambiance of the area. It's understandable that current residents would want to maintain the character of their neighborhood, and it's difficult to imagine anything more antithetical to that character than a bunch of tract homes on tiny lots.

But a couple of the quotes from the article reveal a more sinister motivation. The story refers to "residents who would not fit in," and the perception that while the development would have included "some good people," it also "would have brought in some undesirables."

So, the implication is that while the homes might be eyesores (in relation to what makes up the original neighborhood), the real concern is that the people who live in them just don't meet some arbitrary measure of acceptability.

It's unfortunate that we tend to judge people in this fashion. Your perceived worth is determined by the size of the structure you inhabit, or the nameplate on the car you drive, or the tags on the clothes you wear. None of us would ever publicly admit to this practice, but we all do it to one extent or another. We justify it because at some point in our lives we were either taught to do it, or we saw an example of behavior that somehow supported the judgment and allowed us to broadly extrapolate it to, well, everyone.

It's ironic that to some extent, in some fashion, to someone else each of us falls into a category of "those people." (If you disagree, I can assure you that you're now going to be judged as "one of those hypocrites.")

I don't know how we overcome this tendency (and you'll noticed that I use "we" a lot, because I'm not immune). A good beginning might be to see others as God sees us: imperfect beings who nevertheless are deeply loved. It might not make us any happier to have a trailer park in our backyard, but we might come to view the residents as friends rather than adversaries.

July 9, 2009 3:03 PM | Posted in: ,

We returned from vacation to find new signs planted at regular intervals along the walking trail that loops the two neighborhood ponds. I have mixed feelings about them.

If you've visited our neighborhood, you would probably agree that the ponds and surrounding landscape are unique in our city - a literal oasis in the desert (or at least in the pasture). As word has spread, we've seen an increasing number of folks coming out to walk the trail and enjoy the scenery. It's also become a favorite setting for professional photographers wanting a outdoor scene as a backdrop for engagement, graduation, and family photos. And a number of people from adjacent neighborhoods have included our area in their regular walking routes.

The majority of visitors seem to be well-behaved and respectful. We've seen a few older teens loitering around, looking like they're up to no good (hey, youse kids get off my lawn, y'hear?!), but no obvious signs of mischief have been left behind. However, I've been told that more threatening and/or suspicious activity has been observed by others.

I think that letting people get out and roam around the common area is a good marketing tool for the developers. That's what sold us on building out here.

But, I can also understand that some people don't like having a steady stream of strangers driving and walking around their property. The area is private property, not city-owned or maintained, and we pay for the upkeep via our homeowner association dues.

In any event, my opinion wasn't solicited, and that's just as well, because I'm not sure what I would have recommended. The one thing I am sure about is the appropriateness of the request that owners pick up after their animals. I doubt that anyone would argue with that.

Since drafting this, I've learned that at least one good reason for the signs is to provide the police with the justification to respond to complaints about loitering or other quasi-illegal activity. Since this is private property, without such signs their hands are apparently tied to some extent.

Random Thoughts On Inauguration Day
January 20, 2009 8:58 AM | Posted in:

We rejoice today, for at long last, the fires of Mordor have been quenched, and the evil intentions of The Empire have been thwarted. How bright is that light that signals a new dawn, where Jupiter has finally aligned with Mars, and Starbucks lattes, thick with the foam of freedom, are but one thin dime, freeing us from yet another burden that had long dragged down our inherent optimism. 

If I seem a bit giddy, it's just that I'm overwhelmed by emotions today, as I confront the reality of an historic occasion. I mean, really, who ever thought we'd see the day when Arizona would make it to the Super Bowl? *rimshot* 

OK. I'm just funnin' you; I'm not that big a fan of the Cardinals (although I am a Kurt Warner fan). And, yeah, the frenzy over today's presidential inauguration has pegged the Hype-O-Meter at eleven. But, you know what? I like it. I'm thrilled that once again, America has the opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world how a free people carries out a significant transition of power at the highest levels of government. I'm ecstatic that politicians are "reaching across the aisle" in a spirit of cooperation and mutual commitment to the common good...however fleeting this phenomenon may be. I'm proud of the fact that at a very real level, we as a nation have seemed to finally put behind us a barrier to opportunity that at one time seemed insurmountable. And regardless of the cynicism that invariably dogs the sentiment, I'm buoyed by the hope that free people of good will can work together to further strengthen an already strong nation, and that our shining light on the hill can burn even brighter. 

I'm sure it's no surprise that I didn't vote for Barack Obama, and I strongly disagree with many of his apparent policies. But I've seen nothing to indicate that he's not a man of honor, and I've been impressed with the way he's comported himself in the days since the election. I want to believe that he'll continue to move toward a centrist view on many important issues facing our country, and I've always believed that a nation with the diversity of ours is best served by such a view, regardless of the party in power at any given time. 

So I do face today with the optimism of a new start, but also with a bit of cautionary advice. To those who look to the government as the source of their contentment and happiness, my warning is to be prepared for disappointment. If the best you have is the reliance on human beings to do the right thing on your behalf, I guarantee that you'll find it to be temporary, at best. We as a species are just not cut out for the job, and however superior our form of government may be, it's still energized by humans and thus prone to jumping the tracks at every inopportune moment. 

So, am I a cynic after all? It's OK if you think so, but I don't. I prefer to think that I'm a realist. My true true hope...comes from a Higher Source, one that transcends elections and political parties and all the oh-so-temporary things we seem to think are so important during this portion of our lives. And so it's very easy for me to wrap this up with this sincere wish for the day, and the days ahead: may God bless President Obama, and may God continue to bless America.
...the goal of reading is to go beyond the author's ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative, and ultimately independent of the written text. ... The experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and, literally and figuratively, to a changed brain.
We were never born to read. [With the invention of reading] we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain is a delightful rarity: a treatise that will pass the strictest scholarly and scientific scrutiny while being completely accessible - and fascinating - to the layperson. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is a professor of child development at Tufts University near Boston, and she also directs the Center for Reading and Language Research. Her passion is developing a better understanding of how the human brain re-organized (and re-organizes) its own circuitry to permit people to communicate through the written word. But her research isn't limited to the historical or theoretical; she's also determined to find ways to cope "when the brain can't learn to read." And her focus isn't limited to the past or present; she's doing her best to look into the future to see how our transformation into a digital society might affect our reading skills.

The book is less than 250 pages (with another sixty pages devoted to notes, sparing the casual reader a slog through the omnipresent footnotes that mark an academic text), but its breadth and scope are expansive. Wolf takes us through the known history of writing, starting with clay tokens dating to 8,000 BC and which represented the first accounting records; to Sumerian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphics; to the first alphabet (attributed to Semitic workers living in Egypt around 1,900 BC); with a detour through Greece to explore the surprising condemnation of writing by none other than Socrates, who believed that the access to unsupervised reading would lead to undisciplined thinking, erroneous conclusions, and the destruction of memory.

The author then describes at length what goes on inside the brain when we read. Thanks to advances in brain mapping, scientists can now literally see the process of reading played out across the brain, beginning with visual recognition of the words, followed by word-specific activation, phonological processing (connecting letters to sounds), and, finally, semantic processing (assessing varied meanings and associations), all of which takes place in the normal reading brain in .2-.5 of a second. If this sounds overwhelming, never fear. Wolf considerately places this jargon-heavy science into a neat package of italicized text, and points out that those who aren't all that interested can skip to the next section and be no worse for having done so.

Then, having described how the brain is supposed to handle the process of reading, she delves into those situations where it doesn't work that way. She spends a great deal of time on dyslexia, a syndrome that still isn't fully understood although great strides are being made in that direction. If nothing else, Wolf offers great hope to those who have children or other loved ones who are having difficulty learning to read. She urges calmness and patience in the case of children who seem to be "behind the curve," as the acquisition of reading skills varies greatly among individuals.

Wolf comes by this advice honestly; her children are dyslexic, and she and her husband had several dyslexic ancestors. She presents compelling evidence that dyslexia isn't an unmitigated curse, as there are too many examples of brilliant dyslexics whose contributions to culture and society through the ages are unmistakable and invaluable. In her words, dyslexia, with its seemingly untidy mix of genetic talents and cultural weaknesses, exemplifies human diversityñwith all the important gifts this diversity bestows on human culture.

Finally, Wolf ponders the implications of a digital society, where the traditional written word has been replaced by pixels and sound bites. If the book has a weakness, it comes here, as the subject is given relatively short shrift. But at least one set of questions illuminates one significant source of concern:

Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?

I can't think of anyone to whom I wouldn't recommend this book, but I think it's an especially valuable and enlightening resource to three groups. First, educators who teach reading will benefit from the author's insights about how the human brain learns to comprehend the written word. Second, parents of young, pre-literate children need to understand the long-term significance of that seemingly simple things - like merely talking to their children - can have on their ability to achieve effective literacy (pay close attention to her thoughts about "the war on word poverty").

The third group is perhaps less obvious. I think that writers, professional and otherwise, will benefit from Wolf's perspective about the purposes of reading. Writers would do well to internalize the quote that introduces this post and ponder the implication that their words are most successful when they provide not an end, but a beginning ñ a jumping off point where their readers build upon a foundation in ways that the author may not be able to conceive.

Jason Polan: The Art of Texas Law
September 25, 2008 3:55 PM | Posted in: ,

I don't remember how I stumbled across it, but The 20x200 Blog is a fascinating showcase for a wide variety of artists. If you like what you see, you can buy the artwork for a fixed price of $20, $200, or $2,000, depending on the size of the piece. Anyway, one of the posts that caught my eye dealt with a video featuring Jason Polan, a freelance artist from New York City who also happens to be a member, presumably in good standing, of the Taco Bell Drawing Club, and whose current project is to draw every person in NYC. He also paints big ants, thereby endearing himself to this blog. 

The video that's the subject of the 20x200 post was commissioned by the State Bar of Texas, and it's a very good primer on the importance of the separation of powers among the three branches of government. Here 'tis, courtesy of YouTube:

That's Jason's actual arm doing the sketching in the video. I thought it was a great piece of work, and quite effective in communicating basic concepts in an appealing fashion. (I'm a sucker for ads that incorporate drawing; the current UPS "whiteboard" series of TV commercials comes to mind.) My curiosity was also piqued by the pairing of a New York artist with the Texas Bar, and I wanted to know more about the project. I couldn't find anything online so I took the unprecedented blogging step of doing some actual research, thereby avoiding my usual tactic of just making something up. I emailed Jason with some questions, and he very graciously carved out the time to answer them. Here's the transcript.
NYC is pretty far from Austin. How did you and the State Bar hook up with one another?

: I think a producer at the group that was in charge of making the films had seen a film I made with a friend, Meredith Zielke, called How To Draw A Giraffe on the Wholphin Website and contacted me.

Where were the videos shot?

: Atlanta

Each video looks pretty clean, almost as if each was created from a single uninterrupted shot. Was that indeed the case? If so, how many takes were required to get the final version of each?

: Yea, each one had to be done with one shot. The editors changed speeds on some parts (you can notice it at the end of each film because I was writing too slow) but each one was done in one shot. They took three or four full attempts at each. A couple of times I would stop because I messed something up or there were a couple cases of going through the whole script and then people deciding something needed to be reworked. While I was doing it I was nervous but I was happy with the direction and I think they came out well.

Apart from doing the drawing, what was your role in the creation of the stories? Did you have input to the scripts?

: Scripts were completed before I did the drawings so I was completely out of the equation for their production, but as we figured out timing with the drawings we realized that some things in the script could be reworked. I gravitated toward visual things and parts of the script were not very visual - things needed to be educational the whole way through so we hopefully found a balance.

Did you also narrate the videos?

: Nope.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in this project?

: I was fairly nervous the whole way through. I wanted to be producing visually stimulating things that were also learning tools. I needed to be producing them in the order presented at a particular timing. Things were altered a little with the pace changes but I was trying to avoid that where I could and make things easier for editors (and more pleasing for viewers).
You were no doubt perceptive enough to note that in a couple of places, I referred to videos. The separation of powers spot is one of a "Choose Well" series of three commissioned by the State Bar, and featuring Jason. The other two deal with judicial elections and serving on a jury. The State Bar should be commended for using such a creative approach to education.

I also want to again thank Jason Polan for taking the time to give us a behind-the-scenes look at the project.

Al Jazeera visits Midland
April 29, 2008 9:05 AM | Posted in: ,

I did some quick searches on a few local blogs that I thought might have already covered this, and found nothing. If you had a more timely report, please feel free to provide a link in the comments. 

I stumbled across the following YouTube videos after following an unrelated Google link. They are a couple of 11-minute programs produced by the [infamous] Arabic news organization, Al Jazeera in September, 2007, and are entitled Main Street USA - Midland, Texas. The reports focus on the role that faith and religion play in the public and private lives of our citizens, and, of course, how they influenced George W. Bush. Midland residents will recognize many of the individuals interviewed during the course of the filming. 

The underlying message is that Midland is a city of "Christian fundamentalists," a term used with great frequency, and applied both to individuals as well as the community as a whole. It's hard to tell if the Al Jazeera report is using that word as a term of disapprobation; if so, the irony is thickened given the network's Muslim target audience. 

Regardless, I found the reports to be fairly evenhanded, especially considering their source. A local Muslim was interviewed and expressed his happiness at being able to live in a community where he can practice his faith without fear. In a rational world, that should be a revelation to his counterparts in the Middle East, or at least a source of cognitive dissonance, but I'm not that naive. 

The most disturbing thing about these reports is not the content of the videos, but the comments left on YouTube regarding them. Read them at your own risk, if you're easily offended.

By the way, if you define "fundamentalist" as being someone who believes that there are certain doctrinal truths given down by a holy and just God that we as individuals and collectively as a nation ignore at our own peril, then I willingly place myself firmly into that category.

The subtitle to B.R. Myers's A Reader's Manifesto is An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. This slim (89 pages) volume is indeed an attack, and it apparently struck its intended targets. After one lukewarm attempt at self-publishing the original manuscript under the title of Gorgons in the Pool, it was picked up and published as a severely-edited article in the July/August 2001 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, where it generated a strong enough response to prompt Myers to publish the book in its "original tone and length."

A Reader's Manifesto is the literary critic's version of The Emperor's New Clothes. The author makes an impassioned case that a lot of what passes for Serious Writing nowadays is overwrought, hard to read and impossible to comprehend, and, well, pretentious. He not only names names, holding up specific passages from highly acclaimed and award-winning authors, but takes on those professional book reviewers who, he says, have fallen victim to the siren song of literary hokum.

By turns, Myers examines passages from novels by the following authors:

  • Annie Proulx - Winner of the 1993 National Book Award and 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Shipping News) and most recently revered for writing Brokeback Mountain.

  • Don DeLillo - Winner of the National Book Award for White Noise (1985), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II (1991) and the first American winner of The Jerusalem Prize.

  • Cormac McCarthy - Winner of the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses

  • Paul Auster - Recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters

  • David Guterson - Winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award (Snow Falling on Cedars)

Myers contrasts passages from the writing of these authors with excerpts from acknowledged past masters such as James Joyce, Saul Bellow, Honoré de Balzac, Samuel Beckett and even Louis L'Amour. These comparisons are often amusing, generally biting, and bound to be encouraging to anyone who's ever picked up a "modern novel," read it, and then wondered silently and perhaps a little ashamedly, "just what the heck was that all about?"

At the risk of making him sound a little paranoid, here's one of his conclusions.

This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them. ... But today's Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead -- and then they subject us to the least expressive form, the least expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel.

Whether you agree with the strategy Myers employs in skewering specific authors - and I must admit that he's very good at it - it's hard to argue with his main premise, that "great prose isn't always easy, but it's always lucid," and that the reader has a sacrosanct right to dismiss works that don't meet that criterion.

If Jackie Collins, Tom Clancy and Stephen King (all authors which Myers refuses to condemn for their popularity) write books that prick your imagination, then there's no shame in reading them. And if the Literary Elite have a problem with that, well, it's their problem, not yours.

This book was intended to be controversial, and I recommend it to every aspiring writer as well as anyone who feels the call to be a book reviewer. It's both a lens and a mirror, useful for clarifying one's personal tastes and aspirations in literature.

The following story is included in the Christmas cards my mother sent out this year. It's a true story; I know this because it happened to her.
My 2005 Christmas Blessing

On December 9, 2005, my younger brother in Salt Lake City received a phone call from a person whom he had never met, and he told him he was in possession of a box of personal items that had belonged to one of our brothers who had died in 1947. My brother later called me to tell me about the unusual call. I contacted this person, Erik, and I relate to you what transpired after the conversation.

I shared with Erik that I was only five and one-half years old when our dad died. I am the youngest girl in our family of seven girls and five boys. I was devastated when my dad died, but I attached my affections to one of my older brothers as my surrogate dad. His name was Rease.

During WWII, Rease served in the US Air Force as an x-ray tech, stationed in Colorado and Amarillo. As a result of not being provided with the proper shield from exposure to radiation, he developed cancer. He was medically discharged and he and his wife returned to Sherman, TX where her parents lived, and he was briefly employed as an aircraft mechanic at Perrin AFB in Sherman. God had a purpose for him....but it was not to be healed from the cancer; God called him home in June, 1947. It was another devastating loss for me. I was 18, he was 32.

Years passed and his wife, Ruth, died about five years ago. She had remarried, but lost her second husband to cancer, also. Since she had no living relatives, and her house is undergoing some changes, one of her neighbors, also a good friend to her, fell heir to her personal items, and this lady is the mother of the young man that contacted my brother in Salt Lake City. She, in turn, gave the items to Erik. (He found a list of the names of all twelve children of our family among the contents, and wished to give the items to us.) There are only five of us still living. This past Tuesday, I received a package containing many personal items that had belonged to my brother, among which was his wallet with personal cards, military ID tags (2 sets), driverís license, and the greatest surprise of all: a picture of me that I had sent to him when I was a senior in high school (1945/46). It has been 58 years since his death, and I am at a loss for words to describe the emotions I experienced upon receiving that part of him at this special time of the year. My Christmas will be merrier because Erik chose to share tangible memories with us.
Of course, I never knew Rease, my uncle, but I've heard family speak of him on many occasions and I consider him to be one of the multitude who gave his life serving our country, even if not on the battlefield. It's a blessing, indeed, to know that some tangible reminders of his life have been restored to his family through the caring diligence of a young man who had no logical reason or obligation to go to the trouble of tracking down that family. That sort of giving gladdens the heart better than anything we can find in a mall.

In May, 2001 25 men and one boy set out across the Sonoran Desert, determined to cross into southern Arizona, between Yuma and Nogales, from their native Mexico. Crossing into the US was easy; finding their way to civilization was deadly. Fourteen of them perished in the attempt. Luis Alberto Urrea reconstructs the details of this tragedy and presents them in an absolutely compelling account entitled The Devil's Highway

The Devil's Highway is a geographic area that corresponds roughly to the Cabeza Prieta ("dark head") National Wildlife Refuge, an area the size of Rhode Island with a permanent human population density of zero. A hundred consecutive days of 100°+ temperatures is not unheard of, and parts of the area average only 3" of rain each year. It also happens to be a popular conduit for those entering the country illegally from Mexico.

Urrea is a gifted author - this book was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction - and a tireless investigator. The breadth and depth of research that went into this quick-reading work is a reminder that being an author is difficult labor and there are no shortcuts.

Having recently read Urrea's wonderful novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter, I knew that while he loves Mexico, the country of his birth, he doesn't view it or its history through rose-colored glasses. Nevertheless, I wondered how he would tell this story within the context of the ongoing controversies surrounding illegal immigration. In a recent poll, 85% of Americans agree that illegal immigration is "a problem," and 55% say that it is "very serious." Illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, is a hot button issue to many; emotions run strong on all sides of the debate, and it's rare to hear or read an even-handed discussion of the issues. But that's exactly what Urrea gives us.

He gives us a matter-of-fact overview of the economic and political realities that cause so many Mexicans to view migration to America as their only hope for a life above the subsistence level. He shows us the frustrations and dangers of being a member of the US Border Patrol, La Migra; he also reveals the tolerance and even compassion that many of the BP agents have for those they capture and turn back. It's telling that most illegals will tell you that they'd much rather be caught by La Migra than by their own immigration police. La Migra carry life-saving bottles of water; los federales attach battery leads to body parts.

Urrea also provides some analysis of the costs and benefits that accompany illegal immigration, leaving it to readers to decide whether the math works for or against their perceptions.

But the most important thing he does with The Devil's Highway is put faces and lives and families and aspirations onto those otherwise anonymous masses about which we see only reports on the 10:00 p.m. news. The result is uncomfortable, because it injects humanity into the situation and that turns our nice black-and-white, well-focused picture of How Things Should Be into a muddy gray swirl that, for me anyway, will defy re-separation.

Urrea accomplishes something else, probably unintentionally but still important to those of us who live in or near the desert. He describes in great clarity the unforgiving nature of the desert, the way it can turn the unprepared into corpses almost before they understand what's happening.

The Devil's Highway is a thought-provoking look at an issue that has perhaps more immediate relevance than any other now facing our nation. It should be required reading for everyone who wants to debate illegal immigration... regardless of the side they take.

As always, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this book was provided to me at no cost and for review purposes by Time Warner Book Group as a part of its Online Marketing program. And, once again, I'd like to thank my personal Book Angel, Miriam Parker, for recommending an excellent work.

And so it begins...
March 20, 2003 6:22 AM | Posted in: ,

This cool, gray and damp morning - unusual for west Texas this time of the year - seemed fitting weather in which to contemplate the event that continues to unfold. War. It's an ugly word, and Edwin Starr asked the right question in his Viet Nam-era song (no, kiddies, it wasn't written at Jackie Chan's request for Rush Hour). I don't think he had the right answer, or at least not a complete one, but the question was and is legitimate.

God help us if we ever stop asking the question.

[As I went outside to hang my flag as a show of support for our troops and my country, I was conflicted in the strangest way. "Should I be putting the flag out in the drizzle? Is that proper?" I don't know. I should know. I'm creating a website for the local Boy Scout Council; they all know the proper flag protocol, but I don't. I decided that I would err on the side of patriotism, and hope that any unintended disrespect would be overlooked in light of our circumstances. But I will do some study.]

Doing the right thing is easy when everybody else tells you it's the right thing to do. Doing the right thing when almost everyone else tells you just the opposite is quite difficult; it's not for the faint of heart.

That's the situation our country finds itself in today. We're taking an assertive and proactive approach to solving a problem that hasn't fully revealed itself. We're addressing a situation enveloped by complexity and uncertainty, and doing so in a manner that we would applaud if we were to see it in a James Bond movie or read it in a Tom Clancy novel. In those instances, the protagonist always recognizes the evil and moves against it, even when no one else has a clue.

But how often do we have the courage and perception to do that in real life?

Inevitably, at the end of the movie or book, the real stakes are revealed and the agency/nation/world/society breathes a grateful sigh of relief that someone wasn't duped. I'm not holding my breath for that outcome here, because in real life, people (and countries) continue to be incredibly shortsighted (or intentionally self-deluding). And, in real life, the outcomes are not always black and white.

This is not the war to end wars; there's no such thing, and never will be as long as God allows our planet to continue to be inhabited by His creature, man. In theological terms, we live in a "fallen world" and conflict - man against man, man against God - is inevitable. But, perhaps - I pray - this is a war to prevent the one (or two or...?) that might have otherwise been on the calendar of the Cosmic PDA.

May God protect our troops; may our cause be just; may our demeanor be humble; and may God bless America.