Recently in Thinking Allowed Category

Eternity Defined
January 4, 2017 9:33 AM | Posted in:

I read this somewhere; I forget where and perhaps the actual details are different, but here's a definition of eternity that I like:
Imagine a block of granite a thousand miles thick, floating in space. Every thousand years, a raven alights on it and sharpens its beak with two flicks...back and forth. The raven flies off, not to return for another millennium. That raven will wear eventually wear completely through that thousand-mile chunk of granite, and when it does, one second of eternity will have ticked by.
Of course, this definition isn't accurate as it implies an ending to eternity. But it's a way for me to at least start to wrap my mind around what is essentially an incomprehensible concept.

An alternate definition for local residents involves the traffic signal on Holiday Hill Road at the intersection with Loop 250.
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.
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.

Laws of Combat
November 12, 2011 7:09 AM | Posted in: ,

I'm going through my files - physical and computer - and deleting or archiving those that are likely beyond their useful life. This is one of the final steps in unwinding the website business.

In the process, I've run across a lot of things that I acquired and kept over the years for no apparent reason. Some of them are still interesting, if not relevant; many are simple puzzling in that I can't remember why I thought they were important.

I do remember the following list, though. I had it affixed to my wall when I was a dealmaker at ARCO. I can't remember the source, but there are dozens of similar lists all over the 'net. I've never been in combat, but I can assure you that some of the oil and gas negotiations I participated in often seemed like military conflicts. It's probably not surprising that many of the "Laws of Combat" apply to corporate battlefields.

Murphy's Laws of Combat

I've bolded those that have particular relevance to the corporate world.

  • If it's stupid but works, it isn't stupid.
  • If the enemy is in range - so are you!
  • Incoming fire has the right of way.
  • Don't look conspicuous - it draws fire.
  • The easy way is always mined.
  • Try to look unimportant - they might be low on ammo.
  • Professionals are predictable; it's the amateurs that are dangerous.
  • The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions: 
    • When you're ready for them. 
    • When you're not ready for them.
  • Teamwork is essential, it gives them someone else to shoot at.
  • A "sucking chest wound" is natures way of telling you to slow down.
  • If your attack is going well; you have walked into an ambush.
  • Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you.
  • Anything you do can get you shot, including nothing.
  • Make it too tough for the enemy to get in, and you won't be able to get out.
  • Never share a fighting hole with anyone braver than yourself.
  • If you are short of everything but the enemy, you are in a combat zone.
  • When you have secured an area, don't forget to tell the enemy.
  • No combat ready unit ever passed an inspection.
  • No inspection ready unit ever passed combat.
  • Fortify your front and you'll get your rear shot up.
  • If you can't remember, the claymore is pointed towards you.
  • All five second grenade fuses are three seconds, or all five second fuses will burn out in three.
  • It's not the one with your name on it - it's the round addressed "to whom it may concern" you have to think about.
  • If you can keep your head while those around you are losing theirs, you may have misjudged the situation.
  • If two things are required to make something work, they will never be shipped together.
  • Whenever you lose contact with the enemy, look behind you.
  • The most dangerous thing in the combat zone is an officer with a map.
  • The quartermaster has only two sizes, too large and too small.
  • If you really need an officer in a hurry, take a nap.
  • If your sergeant can see you, so can the enemy.
  • When in doubt, empty your magazine.
  • The important things are always simple.
  • The simple things are always hard.
  • If you take more than your fair share of objectives, you will have more than your fair share of objectives to take.

I posted brief rants about the Texas Get Your Business Online (TGYBO) initiative yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, but that wasn't particularly satisfying, so I want to continue the rant here. After all, anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Here's a quick refresher. TGYBO provides free websites and hosting (for a year) to small businesses in Texas. It's a joint initiative spearheaded by Google and software company Intuit, and a number of national and state business advocacy groups. The FAQ on the above-linked website includes this blurb about why this is happening:
Small businesses are vital to America's economic future; the nation's 27.5M small businesses comprise half the US GDP and create two-thirds of all new jobs. Although 97% of consumers look online for local products and services, 51% of Texan small businesses do not have a website or online presence. This makes them invisible to many potential customers.
Sounds like a commendable program, doesn't it? And it probably is, unless you're a small business that's trying to generate income by building websites for paying customers, in which case this initiative has the potential to, well, put you out of business.

The reality is that small businesses and nonprofit organizations are the bread-and-butter of most web designers. I've never had a Fortune 500 client and never will. That's not all bad, but it does mean that I generate income via volume: creating a lot of small websites that individually don't amount to much money, but with luck might add up to a living wage (and even that goal remains elusive). So you can see why an initiative like this by a gazillion-dollar company like Google might cause a disturbance in the Web Design Force.

I have a couple of suggestions for Google. If you're so dead set on helping small businesses, why not just give each qualifying business a $300 (or $500 or whatever amount) voucher to be used to hire a local web designer to help get the business online? Not only do you not put a market segment out of business, but you also connect the client with someone local who understands and actually cares about the client's business. What a concept!

Or, Google, how about giving small businesses free advertising via your AdWords program for a year? Yeah, that's what I thought. Doesn't feel so good, does it?

I have no idea whether this program will actually affect my business. It's not as if there aren't a hundred different do-it-yourself website programs out there now; every large hosting company offers them. I still believe that most small businesses want to work with someone local, and also subscribe to the theory that you get what you pay for.

If nothing else, this demonstrates that there are unintended consequences to almost any program that's designed to give something for nothing. This one just hits a little closer to home than most.
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.
You know that bit of dialog in Joe vs. the Volcano, where the chauffeur, Marshall, (played by Ossie Davis) is giving Joe (played by Tom Hanks) some fashion advice? It goes something like this:

Marshall: What kind of clothes you got?

Joe: Uh, they're like these I'm wearing.

Marshall: So you got no clothes.

That exact line of conversation applies to Midland's bike paths. Technically, we have 'em (although they're just called "routes" and are indistinguishable from "streets") but from a practical perspective, we have no bike paths.

I suspect that if you were to poll all the bicyclists in Midland about their wish list for making the city more bike-friendly, the ability to safely ride from north of Loop 250 to south of the Loop and back again would be at the top of the list.

Of the nine major intersections along Loop 250, only three (Thomason Drive, Tremont, and "A" Street) are generally safe for cyclists. The Garfield intersection is dicey, depending on the time of day, and all the others are accidents waiting to happen. Loop 250 presents an almost insurmountable barrier to anyone wanting to commute by bicycle to a destination that's on the other side of that highway.

I've been giving this some thought and there's a simple solution: create a bike/hike path that connects intersection of "A" Street and Loop 250, and Airpark Road just west of the Claydesta Post Office. I chose "A" Street because it's the only "3-way" intersection with the Loop, meaning that it's got much less traffic, generally speaking, than the others. Plus, there's a pretty logical route extending from that point that has absolutely no intersections with traffic.

Having trouble visualizing how that would work? Here's a map:

View more details regarding the Proposed Airpark Bike Path.

The blue line represents the proposed route. It basically parallels the fence line of Midland Airpark. I'm sure there will never be any other type of development along this route as long as Airpark is operational, so that space seems perfect for a six or eight foot wide path.

I said the solution was simple; I didn't say it would be cheap. This route is almost exactly one mile in length. Depending on who you believe, the cost for a bike path is $50,000 - $1 million per mile. I suspect ours would be closer to the lower end of the spectrum due to the relatively flat ground, but that's still some serious change. And that doesn't include the required bridge over the drainage channel at the intersection of "A" and Loop 250.

On the upside, I assume that the City already owns all the property over which this route runs, as part of Airpark. If that's the case, the project would involve potentially messy easement negotiations.

I have no idea whether this project is feasible, or how one would even get it off the ground. I'm sure there are grants for this sort of thing. It just seems to me that opening up a safe conduit past Loop 250 for cyclists and hikers would be something the city would want to pursue, and it would finally allow us to rightfully claim that we've got a useful bike path Any thoughts or ideas you have would be appreciated; leave 'em in the comments.

And, as long as we're brainstorming and thinking big, consider how this could be the first leg of a path that would extend around the entire perimeter of the Wadley/Garfield/Loop 250/"A" Street square. This 4-mile stretch could become a real showcase for Midland's commitment to improving recreation and alternative transportation opportunities for its citizens.

Driving the Noisy Roads of Texas
June 13, 2011 9:17 PM | Posted in: ,

I drove about 360 miles yesterday, mostly on I-10 and I-20, from Fredericksburg to Fort Stockton and then to Midland, and the overriding thought that sticks with me is..."wow, what a noisy drive!"

Interstate 10 is a patchwork of road surfaces, and the newest ones are also the loudest. The material used to surface the road is so coarse that the noise from the friction with the tires is just overwhelming, especially when compared to the smooth asphalt sections that come before and after. And it makes me wonder if TxDOT or anyone else has ever studies the long term effects of such high noise levels on drivers?

I'm sure it depends to some extent on what kind of car you drive. I would expect - hope? - that a Mercedes sedan would be quieter than my pickup. I'm sure that the type of tires also affects how much noise is generated.

Regardless, after several hours of driving on rough and noisy surfaces, I felt more tired and even stressed than had I been driving on the smooth asphalt of days gone by. If all drivers are affected similarly, that must impact driver alertness and mood, and not in a positive fashion.

I realize that the new surface materials are less expensive and are said to be longer lasting, but it's one more example of how "progress" adversely affects quality of life. But I suppose that's what the volume knob on the satellite radio is for.
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."
One of our local TV stations made a provocative post on Facebook this morning, on the subject of the Congressional hearings about gasoline prices, and whether oil companies "should get these tax breaks as oil and gas prices continue to soar, even if it impacted business here in West Texas?"

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

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

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

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

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

they make profits, why shold they get a break!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: I intended to include a link to George's excellent post over at Sleepless In Midland wherein he breaks down the supposed "subsidies" that oil companies enjoy.
I see that the Midland Reporter Telegram is officially supporting Clayton Williams's request to pump and sell to Midland more than 40 million gallons of water each day from his land west of Fort Stockton. The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District board begins hearings today to consider the issue, which has huge ramifications for a variety of stakeholders.

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

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

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

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

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

March 25, 2011 10:49 AM | Posted in: ,

Sorry, this is not a post about personal fitness or adjusting your gullibility while watching The View

I don't know about you, but I haven't come close to mastering my profession. I suspect that's the case for most people who work in technology-related fields, as well as those whose focus is on creative endeavors (after all, who can assess when creativity has been mastered?). And when you combine the creative with the technical, the idea of learning and knowing everything about everything is simply ludicrous.

One of the decisions I make daily is which technologies I'm not going to even attempt to learn or use. Being a one-man website design/development business means that I can't do everything that every possible project might require. I've written about this before, but it's should be of paramount importance for anyone considering becoming a freelance consultant in a technical field.

Having said that, there are still times when the temptation to dip my toes into a new (to me) technology or technique is too strong to resist. Yesterday, a client asked me if I could create some animations for his client. The specifications were for either an animated GIF or a Flash movie, and a maximum file size was also specified. The artwork would be provided.

This sort of thing is not my forté. I build websites; I'm not an animator or a graphic artist. Animated GIFs are growing increasingly uncommon - the equivalent of buggy whips in the automotive age - and I have little use for Flash. And yet...

The challenge was irresistible. I had a vague idea how to create both alternatives, and I had just completed a couple of major projects and needed a break from the wonderful world of coding, so I figured, what the heck...I'll give it a shot.

Long story made short: I created a sample in each format and sent them along, and they were well received. It probably took me three times as long to do the work as it would have taken an experienced animator, but my client was happy (he's waiting on feedback from his client). Even better, I honed some skills (OK, that's an exaggeration; I began to develop some rudimentary skills) that might come in handy in the future. Or not. And that's fine, too. One thing I've learned is that learning should never stop. The stretching should never end, lest the creative muscles become frozen and inflexible.

I'll go so far as to say that learning simply for the sake of learning is worthwhile. There's a cost in terms of time and, sometimes, mental or emotional pain, but as long as the cost is manageable, I hope to keep paying it.
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.

Best Laid Plans
January 1, 2011 10:12 AM | Posted in:

If you're seeking reasons not to make New Year's resolutions, look no further than what happened to us last night. We can't be assured that our plans for the next four hours will succeed, much less those for the next 365 days.

We had planned to bring in the new year at a dance, but after a little more than an hour, Debbie started feeling a bit queasy and we decided sticking around was in no one's best interests. So we headed home and spent the rest of the night streaming episodes of Dead Like Me via Netflix, her dozing on one couch and me on the other. We roused ourselves just in time to crawl into bed at midnight...not exactly the champagne toast that had been planned for the dance, but also not the worst thing in the world.

The good news is that she was feeling fine by morning, even arising at 7:00 and putting in some miles on the treadmill (while I slept...the best part). The only thing we can figure is that she had some kind of inner ear deal going, perhaps related to congestion in her head.

The lesson seems pretty clear, though. It's good - even advisable - to make plans, but it's better to recognize that we can't control everything, and that our ability to adapt and make the best of fluid situations is essential to our emotional well-being.

I don't make New Year's resolutions, but there's value in identifying areas in my life that need improvement, and being more patient and flexible is a worthwhile goal. Perhaps 2011 will be the year that brings some progress in that area. We'll just see how it goes (hey, I'm improving already!).

Quantifying Melodic Similarities
December 6, 2010 12:45 PM | Posted in: ,

I read a science fiction short story many years ago where the plot involved someone composing the last possible piece of music. Every combination of musical notes had been created. I don't recall the author (it sounds like something Bradbury or Lieber or Ellison would come up with), or even the rest of the plot and how it was resolved, but I do remember thinking how sad it would be - and that this was not an impossible scenario. There are a finite number of note combinations. That number is, of course, staggeringly large (someone has made a pretty convincing attempt to compute it) but given enough time, we could run out of melodies.

This came to mind as I continued to think about this post about the obvious (to me, anyway) similarities between songs by Joe Ely and Toby Keith. Rob left a comment linking to another comparison of two similar songs; that comparison involved an analysis that went well beyond simply hearing a tune and thinking it sounded very familiar.

And then I began to wonder what the criteria are for determining whether a melody is so similar to another that it can be deemed a violation of copyright. I suspect it's a pretty subjective judgment - but is it unnecessarily so? Music and mathematics have much in common, more so than I understand, and surely there's a way to perform an objective computation that would spit out a "percentage match" between two songs. And, indeed, a Google search for "mathematical comparison of two melodies" turns up a number of scholarly articles on the subject.

Then there's this article with the enchanting title of Statistical Comparison Measures for Searching in Melody Databases (PDF format). Such research has undoubtedly informed the technology behind such music identification software as Shazam and SoundHound, which are so scarily effective as to be, as they say, indistinguishable from magic. In fact, Slate described in layman's terms the approach employed by Shazam:

The company has a library of more than 8 million songs, and it has devised a technique to break down each track into a simple numeric signature--a code that is unique to each track. "The main thing here is creating a 'fingerprint' of each performance," says Andrew Fisher, Shazam's CEO. When you hold your phone up to a song you'd like to ID, Shazam turns your clip into a signature using the same method. Then it's just a matter of pattern-matching--Shazam searches its library for the code it created from your clip; when it finds that bit, it knows it's found your song.

Obviously, it's much more complicated than that, and Shazam's co-founder, Avery Li-Chun Wang, published a scholarly paper (PDF) describing the technology in more detail. And as good as Shazam is, some think SoundHound works even better (it will also identify melodies that are simply sung into a microphone). Unfortunately, SoundHound's explanation of its technology laps over into the magical realm with its references to "Target Crystals," and the company is obviously protecting intellectual property.

In any event, I wonder if these math-based, objective comparisons of melodies have ever been used in a court of law to determine copyright infringement, and if there are any quantified guidelines to be used by judges and juries in making such calls. Gee, if there was only some way of searching a database...'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.

Unflattered by Imitation
September 29, 2010 6:40 AM | Posted in: ,

After more than ten years of doing freelance web design/development, I keep thinking I've seen everything...and then I encounter something new. I received an email yesterday from a client who had been contacted by another organization, the latter asking permission to use unspecified aspects of the former's website in the design of a new site for the latter. (I tried to figure out a way to make that sentence even more complicated but couldn't do it.)

This is unusual for two reasons. First of all, there's this "asking permission" thing: who does that in the Wild, Wild Web? Sadly, all too few. Source code is too easy to "borrow" and embedded graphics too easy to download. So, props to the organization that approached my client.

But I'm afraid they lose all that goodwill based on the second reason that the request is unusual. You see, the organization had approached me a couple of months ago about redesigning their website, and they had specifically mentioned my client's site as one they'd like to emulate. I worked up and sent a quote for the project, and never heard from them again.

Until yesterday, that is, when my client emailed me to see if I had a concern about granting approval for the aforementioned request.

I'm kind of on the fence about the ethics of this situation. On one hand, I don't retain any intellectual property rights in the work I do under contract for a client. So, if the client wants to give away his design, that's entirely his call. And while there may be some implied copyright issues in play, we couldn't actually prevent another organization from "borrowing" the source code and adapting it for their own purposes.

But as I told my client, as a designer I find this situation akin to going into Dillard's and trying on a pair of shoes to make sure they fit and look good, and then ordering them online from Zappo's. If the second organization wants to hire another designer to do their website, fine...but I'd really prefer that they actually require that designer to do something other than adapt my work.

Perhaps I should feel flattered that someone wants to copy the design (although it's really nothing special). What do you I being too sensitive?

"Nincompoop generation?"
September 28, 2010 9:14 AM | Posted in:

From the Associated Press:
Second-graders who can't tie shoes or zip jackets. Four-year-olds in Pull-Ups diapers. Five-year-olds in strollers. Teens and preteens befuddled by can openers and ice-cube trays. College kids who've never done laundry, taken a bus alone or addressed an envelope.

Are we raising a generation of nincompoops? And do we have only ourselves to blame? Or are some of these things simply the result of kids growing up with push-button technology in an era when mechanical devices are gradually being replaced by electronics?
From my perspective, the answers are: possibly, probably, partially. The more complicated answer is that we no longer seem to be teaching kids to think critically. Further, to the extent that such a thing can be taught, we've failed to teach children the joy of learning new things just for the sake of knowing them.

I'm increasingly convinced that the learning process is at least as important as the thing that's learned. We were discussing the other evening the many "useless" things we learned in high school and college: quadratic equations, queuing theory, organic chemistry, how to use carbon paper. With an infinitesimally small number of exceptions, none of these things are important to our careers or everyday lives, and we all knew that even as we were going to class, so why bother?

I think the value was in the mental processes needed to figure out those various things. We were challenged to solve problems that seemed well beyond our grasp, and regardless of whether we mastered the arcane knowledge, our minds were improved by the attempts.

I fear that nowadays, when so many teachers are required to gear their instruction to standardized testing, memorization has been substituted for thinking. Life is not a multiple choice test, it's an essay exam that we're constantly writing. Or at least it should be. My fear is that for many in the upcoming generations, it's just a series of sound bites and text messages, and that we're eventually going to pay dearly for the mental laziness that we've given our children permission to adopt.
...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.

Risky Business
February 27, 2006 8:42 PM | Posted in: ,

You don't stop taking risks because you get old,
You get old because you stop taking risks.

T-shirt in Lake Tahoe ski rental shop

This is what the LORD says:
"Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
But you said, 'We will not walk in it.'

Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)
It's a mystery as to how the tree limb came to rest in that odd position, sneaking out of the snow at a 15° angle, perhaps three feet of exposed wood and who knows how much buried. Another six inches of snow would have safely covered it; six inches less would have made it more obvious. The limb was stripped of bark, smooth and as big around as a man's leg...the part of the leg just below the knee joint. The upper part of the tibia, to be more anatomically specific, because sometimes specificity matters.
I suppose that we all undertake activities that others might consider to be risky, and we mentally chide them for being so timid. Perhaps we've done those activities so often and so successfully that they are no longer risky in any practical sense or we simply don't view them as dangerous. Or we've grown comfortable with the "worst case scenario." 

Only thing is, the worst case scenario is something that, well, happens to someone else.
Tom and I had been skiing together for the better part of a decade. He's a better skier than me -- unlike him, I have no natural athletic ability -- but not by much, and we've been able to keep one another challenged but not humiliated. (You guys may understand that better than the girls.) 

Over the past few years we've developed a fondness for skiing between the groomed runs, which, if you've spent any time on a ski slope you'll understand to mean "through the trees." We're not fast in absolute terms, but we are quick and [generally] precise, the latter being measured by some arbitrary scale that involves the avoidance of contact with immovable objects. We both enjoy the thrill of picking out a line through a forest and improvising when that line proves to be impractical. The trees are usually much less crowded -- sometimes, our tracks are the only evidence of human intrusion -- and a bit less noisy (we would confess to being skiers of the shouting persuasion). 

And so it was that on our first morning of skiing at Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Mountain Resort we naturally gravitated (clumsy pun intended) to the line of trees separating two intermediate runs named Liz's and Jackpot (the latter actually has an exclamation point but that's too cute to type), and another line separating Liz's from a black diamond run called Express Line. 

After three runs, we were getting warmed up (meaning that I was growing accustomed to falling) and also getting our bearings on a mountain which was completely new to us. (As a parenthetical note of self-defense, let me say that my propensity for falling is not my fault, not really. In its natural pose, my right foot makes a 45° angle to whichever direction I'm facing, and I couldn't stand straight and touch my knees together if my life depended on it. These peculiarities are simply symptoms of the way my bones developed as I grew up, and, frankly, it's amazing that I can ski [or run or bike] at all. Just wanted you to know that.) The sky was that deep blue color you can see only at 10,000 feet of altitude; the snow was packed and occasionally icy, with the last deposit more than a week old. It made for fast and sometimes tricky maneuvering.
Does God have an opinion about our risky activities? Are we exercising faith or are we failing to use the intelligence He blessed us with when we undertake potentially dangerous business? Is it OK to pray for safety before setting out on such things? How should we react when the answer to such prayers is "no"?
Tom and I alternate leading ski runs. It's generally easier for the one following, if only because fewer decisions are required. We're close enough in ability that if I see that he can make a certain turn or clear a certain obstacle, I'm confident that I can as well...all other things being equal. Sometimes the leader can warn the follower about a potential hazard, but that's rare. We try not to follow so closely as to lose escape routes. 

I'm leading the fourth run down the mountain, and I'm beginning to exercise a bit more command over that wayward right ski that often seems to have a mind of its own. Sure, I've fallen four times already, but all but one came in the middle of groomed runs, not in the trees. Anyway, like I said, I'm leading...but Tom's not following. He wants to follow, but the newness of the runs has caused us to periodically lose contact. At one point, I see him on the other side of Liz's; he's in the trees, but not the same ones I'm in. I yell at him, he slows up and we regroup. This scene plays out a couple of times. It's not our usual mode, although it's also not a problem. 

The run named Liz's winds to the left but if you keep going straight, you find yourself in a steep chute called Sky Canyon. It's smooth and icy...and for some reason, we've never noticed that we've missed the bottom part of Liz's and instead ended up on a black diamond run. Did I mention that the trail signs at Heavenly are sometimes confusing? But that's neither here nor there. What's relevant is that on this particular run I'm approaching the end of the trees on the right side of Liz's, and I've already decided to pull up once I'm in the clear to contemplate continuing onto Sky Canyon. 

As I approach the open area, I spot no obstacles that serve as a warning to slow down, so I keep my ski tips pointed downhill. Just as I'm starting to relax and prepare to turn to the left and start slowing up, I see a tree limb inexplicably coming up from the shaded snow, the thick broken end pointed left and rising to a level approximately even with the ankle of my boot. I reacted -- twitched, spasmed, whatever -- and somehow willed my left ski tip up over the limb at the last second. I instantly realized I had dodged a bullet, so to speak, and my heart was pounding as I came to a stop some twenty yards away and down to the left. I turned around to see if Tom had stayed on my trail, or if he was again improvising somewhere else.
The Heavenly ski area is a monster: 4,800 acres spanning two states (Nevada and California); a max top-bottom descent of more than 5 miles; 92 runs and 30 lifts; 7 on-mountain lodges. More than a million people ski at Heavenly each year, and its lifts can carry more than 50,000 people per hour to the tops of its peaks. 

Heavenly also has a fully-equipped medical clinic complete with x-ray machines at its base. The clinic is associated with South Lake Tahoe's Barton Memorial Hospital, and it has its own television ad campaign. Something along the lines of "we hope you don't need us, but if you do..."
I turned and looked back uphill just in time to see Tom left leg slam into the protruding limb. His momentum lofted him headlong while the limb sent him into a 360° flip. His skis flew off somewhere around the 90° point. He hit the ground -- not hard, thanks to his forward momentum -- and he slid down toward the point where I was standing. He was clutching his leg even as he slid to a stop. I yelled, pointlessly but without thinking, bounced off my skis and ran to him.
There's no point in laboring through the rest of the day and the week. My friend had sustained a compression fracture of his tibia. In effect, the bone had been driven up, past the knee into the femur, which sheared off one side of the tibia, and sent a fracture line all the way across it. The laceration of the tree limb against his skin was not serious but it had the unexpected and unwelcome effect of delaying the necessary surgery until it heals, which will be another week. In the meantime, he has to live with a broken leg, and the understanding that he will likely never ski again. 

It was his only fall of the day.
This shouldn't be about me, but I can't help it. There are so many "what ifs?" Some of them I couldn't control -- What if he'd been just 12" higher or lower on the trail than I was? What if he'd been closer and had seen what I did to avoid the limb? But some of them still haunt me, justified or not. Here's the biggie: What if I'd had the presence of mind to yell out a warning to him?
Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport. You have to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that fact before you can even rent a pair of skis. At times it seemed as if half of South Lake Tahoe was wearing a cast, a brace, a bandage. The emergency clinic had five injuries before 9:00 a.m. on that Wednesday. Theoretically, the mountain doesn't open until 9:00 a.m. In the global scheme of things, a broken leg is not a matter of life and death. 

But, I gotta tell you, it sure seemed like it at the time. Still does, for that matter. That was Tom's last ski run...and mine, too.

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.

New Year's Day Musings
January 1, 2003 4:12 PM | Posted in:

I love New Year's Day. It's one of the few remaining holidays that's essentially non-commercialized; you don't have to spend a dime to enjoy it. It's one of the few holidays where sitting around doing nothing is not only acceptable, but recommended. And it marks the kind of transition that warms an accountant's heart. More about that in a minute.

We spent New Year's Eve with friends, playing an enjoyably sillly game while a DVD of "Eight Legged Freaks" played in the background, grazed on an amazing array of empty-caloried food-like substances, and toasted midnight with some truly awful alcohol-free apple cider and grape juice. We were home and in bed around 1:00...really late (or early) for us. It was a pleasant and stress-free way to welcome Y2K.v3.

We slept until about 7:30 or so, had a leisurely breakfast and read the paper while draining a pot of coffee. The dog walked us, then we went for a run, continuing a long tradition of getting in a good workout on New Year's Day. We generally try to go for a tandem ride, weather permitting, but today our bike is in the shop for a new timing chain. Anyway, the extremely windy conditions would have kept us off the bike, so we substituted a five-mile run - long enough to justify what we were about to do at lunch, but not so long as to impair our ability to enjoy it. Lunch was honey-glazed ham, hopping john with jalapeño black-eyed peas (you did have your black-eyed peas today, didn't you?), baked butternut squash, homemade biscuits and carrot cake from Rosa's. It really doesn't get any better than that, beer commercial testimonials to the contrary. Then, time to retire to the couch for mindless TV ("American Flyers" for our bicycling quota - the second best cycling movie ever made, an episode or two from the Twilight Zone marathon - slightly tarnished by the Subway sponsorship...worst commercials on TV, on the whole, especially those featuring that Jim yahoo - and now a DVD of "Reign of Fire," the second best dragon movie ever made. All the while the wind continues to howl, making our laziness that much more justifiable. And enjoyable.

You may have noticed an omission from this description, possibly a glaring one, depending on your perspective. No football. Not that I have anything against the bowl games; I just haven't worked up an interest in any of the matchups.

I also haven't mentioned resolutions. I don't know anyone who makes New Year's resolutions. Or, perhaps, no one who will admit to making them. If you do, fine. That doesn't make you a bad person. But for me - and this is just for me, mind you - New Year's resolutions would be the way I would admit to and rationalize my failures from the preceding year. For example, perhaps I resolve to have more patience with idiot drivers. This implies that I wasn't very patient last year. (This is, by the way, absolutely true, but that's beside the point.) That's sort of a negative way of viewing things.

I prefer instead to think in terms of New Year's goals. Goals don't focus on or even acknowledge past failures. The downside is that goals also imply a higher degree of accountability. Again, that's just my perspective.

But, resolutions can be entertaining. I've always wondered, if most people can't keep 'em longer than a week or two, why don't they resolve to do the opposite of what they really want to accomplish. Want to lose weight? Resolve to eat a box of Krispy Kremes each day. Want to raise your IQ? Resolve to watch "The Bachelorette" each week. That would work, wouldn't it?

The real attraction of New Year's Day for me is the transition to a new calendar, the anticipation of a clean temporal slate. Books are closed, yearly totals (of whatever) are tabulated. Unless your life is based on an accrual basis of reckoning, events and results are easily slotted, categorized, archived. The clock literally starts over again. The Month-At-A-Glance on my desktop (the real one) is closed and filed, replaced by a new one, fresh and clean. [Incidentally, this is one pleasure that will never be fulfilled by a PDA-resident electronic calendar.]

These are the transitions I hold dear: another new beginning to a decade-long annual cycle of reading through the Bible, day-by-day; a new workout schedule to complete in meticulous, OCD-driven detail (it all has to do with discipline, for me); a new set of accounting worksheets in my crude-but-effective and oh-so-cheep Excel-based bookkeeping system; a fresh calendar for adding opportunities to learn more about my craft, my hobbies, my abilities (and limitations).

It's gonna be a great year! Feel free to join me.

Think your job is tough?
November 18, 2002 4:19 PM | Posted in:

I walked outside a few minutes ago to check the mail, just in time to see an Animal Control truck pull up to a house directly across the street. The driver, a slightly-built blond female, jumped out of the truck, carrying a noose-on-a-stick, and made a beeline (dogline? canineline?) for what appeared to be a youngish pit bull crossbreed, chocolate brown with some ugly long scars across its right side. No collar or tags...dead meat, in other words. The dog made the AC truck immediately. Could have been the smell of panic-striken dogs and dead cats...a easy call for an obviously street-smart canine. In an instant, he (or she...hmmm...I didn't notice...just assumed...) was past the officer like a K-State running back through this year 's Nebraska d-line and was gone around the corner in the blink of an eye. They really need to teach those AC officers the theory of getting the proper angle on the ball dog. The officer ran back to the truck, yelling something into her shoulder-mounted 2-way (just like on COPS!), squealed a u-turn and was off after the offender. I don't know if she ever noticed me.

I'm what you call a "dog person." I can anthropomorphize with the best of 'em, when it comes to man's best friend. The scene I witnessed was not something I enjoyed, as there was no imaginable happy ending. The dog gets caught; it's too ugly/aggressive/demanding/alive and no one will claim a few short days it will be put down. Or, the dog escapes, what? Hunger, fighting, more scenes like today? It's not something I want to dwell on.

What I wonder, however, is what it's like to have a job like that. One where you have to drive insanely through a quiet neighborhood, dive out of a truck in a clumsy attempt to capture a dog - a DOG! - that is obviously quicker, stronger and more desperate than you'll ever be. You know in advance that you won't succeed, and that you've probably got an audience...if not on the sidewalk, surely peering through curtains...and, worst of all, that you're viewed as The Dogcatcher, enemy of all that is good and kind in the world. But here's what I think, or at least what I hope: only someone who loves animals works in Animal Control. I'm willing to give the blond lady the benefit of the doubt; she's just doing the dirty work required to clean up the mess left behind by an uncaring and/or irresponsible owner. It's not the dog's fault and it's not her fault. We can root for the dog, but if we really care about animals, we'll root for the officer.

I don't know about you, but that's hard for me to admit.

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