Good Customer Service > Bad Wheel?
April 27, 2016 8:38 PM | Posted in:

The rear tire went flat on our recumbent tandem during a ride a couple of weekends ago. This wouldn't be unusual except we never have flats. Well, except for that one time. Oh, and that other time. Anyway, it's rare that we get flats, because we run Kevlar-belted tires with heavy duty tubes on a wheel that weighs about eight pounds (some entire racing bikes don't weigh much more than that).

A flat tire is pretty much the worst thing that can happen on a bike ride. OK, I guess you could get run over by a jacked-up truck sporting mudflaps adorned with naked chromed ladies and that would probably be worse. Also, there's always the possibility of a rattlesnake jumping out from the side of the road and biting you on the neck and that would definitely qualify as a bad. Or, a toilet could drop on your head from a passing airliner. But otherwise, a flat is as bad as it gets.

It was only after changing out the tube (and unsuccessfully attempting to inflate the new one with five CO2 cartridges...that's a whole other story that I haven't recovered enough to share) that I found the cause of the problem: a failure of the rear wheel itself. It literally came apart at the seam - I didn't even realize it had a seam - which in turn sliced the tube, and voila! - our ride became a walk home.

Full disclosure: Since the wheel and tube were already ruined, and I had already resolved to replace the tire, we did continue to ride, albeit very slowly and with much wobbling, until we came to the dirt road that represented the shortest route to the house. This is not a recommended practice, except in the event of a catastrophic failure, but it did save us almost a mile of walking.

This is what an intact Velocity Aeroheat rim looks like.

Intact Aeroheat rim
 
And this is what our Aeroheat rim looked like.

Failed Aeroheat rim
 
It may be difficult to see, but that gap between the sidewall of the rim and the part where the spokes attach (there's bound to be a word for that but I have no idea what it is) should not be there. Here's a closeup view:

Failed Aeroheat rim - Closeup
 
Later that afternoon, I took the wheel to our local bike shop, Peyton's Bikes, where the mechanic was suitably impressed by the distressed wheel. I asked him to locate a replacement rim - preferably one that tended to remain in one piece - along with a new tire and tube.

A day or so later, I decided to look on Velocity's website to see if they made an alternative rim that might work better. In doing so, I discovered they provided a lifetime warranty on their rims, so I submitted their online form that described the issue. Within a few hours, the company's general manager responded by email, asking if I could provide photos of the rim. I sent him a couple and he quickly replied that they would honor the warranty and replace the rim. He also said that the owner of Peyton's Bikes had already been in touch with him to discuss the situation, and they had agreed that it was appropriate to replace both rims, to avoid any possibility of a repeat of the problem on the front wheel.

The bike shop owner did call that same day, and said that he had done some online research that indicated that this particular rim was prone to this kind of failure. Indeed, I found some discussions on a message board supporting this finding (here's one example; here's another). 

We counted ourselves fortunate that the failure of the wheel occurred on flat ground at a relatively low speed. The tire went flat, as opposed to blowing out...another blessing. I shudder to think about the implications of this happening while on a 30 mph downhill at Horseshoe Bay, where we were riding a week earlier.

Anyway, it looks like our bike will soon be sporting a new set of wheels. Surely a model called "Atlas" will handle anything we throw at it. The downside is that they won't be the sleek aero profile of the old ones, and they'll have the usual silver finish that most bike wheels have, but that's just cosmetics. The new rims will be as close to bulletproof as you can get on a road bike, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing we'll be safer on the road significantly outweighs the appearance factor.

Also, it's nice to know that some companies are still willing to honor their commitments via responsive, unquestioning service. I hate it that the rim failed, but I commend Velocity for its customer service.

Ten Cover Songs Worth Checking Out
March 14, 2016 7:08 PM | Posted in:

One measure of the success of a song is the number of cover versions it spawns. A great example is the multi-Grammy-winning Uptown Funk. I didn't bother getting an exact count, but the iTunes Store shows page after page of remakes (including inexplicable ukulele and violin renditions, and multiple acapella arrangements by college groups) of the song that's only about eighteen months old. 

In every instance, the covers of Uptown Funk are inferior (in my opinion) to the original, but that's not always true. Although purists might rightfully disagree, I find that remakes of older pop and rock songs are often better than the originals, or at least successful in reinvigorating tunes that have grown tiresome through repetition. In some cases, it's because of superior talent by the new artist; in others, modern production techniques (or changing tastes) give the cover an edge.

Here's a list of ten very recognizable songs that I think have benefitted by new treatment. Not every one is necessarily an improvement, but they all breathe new life into the original.

(Note: I was almost through with this post before I discovered the amazing SecondHandSongs website, which is to cover songs what IMDB is to movies. I could have saved a lot of time had I known about it sooner.)

  • Love Potion Number 9 by Neil Diamond (original - The Clovers): I have no clue as to why Neil Diamond would want to remake this song three decades after The Searchers made it into a big hit (and their version was a cover of the original 1959 recording). Perhaps it was a favorite from his youth. Regardless, Diamond's version is a less cartoonish/more adultish rendering.


  • Spooky by Atlanta Rhythm Section (original - The Classics IV): This remake has perhaps a bit more logic to it, in that James Cobb was a co-writer, as well as a member of both The Classics IV and the ARS. The redo is almost twice as long as the original, and both share a smooth jazz feel.

 

  • Sunshine of Your Love by Chaz DePaolo (original - Cream): As long as we're in the smooth jazz neighborhood, this version by American blues guitarist DePaolo ratchets the original version down a few notches without completing ignoring its rock roots. I don't know who's doing the singing, but Eric Clapton has nothing on her in the vocals department.


  • All About That Bass by Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox (original - Meghan Trainor): You'd be hard pressed to find a more sophisticated makeover than the one Postmodern Jukebox applies to Trainor's mega-debut song. Now, trust me when I tell you that I was attracted to this remake before I saw the accompanying video (with the attractive female singers who manage to claim that they're "no size 2" without bursting into laughter).


  • Gentle on My Mind by The Band Perry (original - Glen Campbell): It takes a lot of confidence to remake one of the most successful songs in popular music history, but youngsters that comprise The Band Perry do an admirable job of making it their own while still paying tribute to the original. Wikipedia claims that more than 300 different artists have covered this song, but I've not heard one I like better than this. (For some very interesting insight to the history of the original, I highly recommend the documentary film The Wrecking Crew, which profiles the amazing studio musicians that were instrumental to the success of many of the most recognizable songs in American history. Glen Campbell was one of them.)


Eleanor Rigby by Joshua Bell & Frankie Moreno (original - The Beatles): Joshua Bell is likely a familiar name, but Frankie Moreno (not to be confused with Frank Marino, a female impersonator) is probably less so. Moreno was the house act at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas for a few years; he's now a touring musician and a staple in venues around Vegas and is one of the most dynamic performers working today. He and Bell team up to enhance the already classical vibes (the original arrangement takes its cue from Vivaldi) of one of the Beatles' most well-known ballads.


  • She's Not There by Santana (original - The Zombies): The Zombies made this a big hit in 1964, and Santana recycled it into another hit in 1977. The live version of this song is one of the highlights of a Santana concert, if you're fortunate enough to be present when they play it.

 

  • Gotta Serve Somebody by Tommy Castro (original - Bob Dylan): Dylan won a Grammy for this song in 1980, and it has the added recommendation of really making John Lennon mad for its religious themes. Castro added his bluesy interpretation in 2009.

 

  • Kiss by Señor Coconut (original - Prince): Prince is a musical genius, regardless of what he chooses to call himself, and his version of Kiss is basically flawless. What attracts me to this cover is the Latin flair that Uwe Schmidt (si, el Señor es Deutscher) puts on the song, and you know what a sucker I am for Latin music.


  • Good Lovin' by The Grateful Dead (original - The Olympics): OK, I saw you do that double-take. No, The Young Rascals did not record the original version of this song; they were a year late to the party after The Olympics released it in 1964. The Rascals' version is the best known, of course, but I'm kinda diggin' the Dead's 1978 samba spin. (There's that Latin beat again.)


Bonus! The Sound of Silence by Disturbed (original - Simon & Garfunkle): I'm late to the party on this one, as I just discovered this version. Sure, it was recorded last year, but the video below has more than 20 million views, so unless some of you are serious Disturbed fans, a lot of folks know about this version. Whether they recognize that the song title isn't exactly the same as the 1964 original is probably another question, albeit completely irrelevant. 

Anyway, this choice deserves a bit more explanation, because it has a really interesting back story. Disturbed is a metal band - not usually my musical cup of tea - and the lead singer, David Draiman, looks and sounds the part, because stereotypes. What I did not know is that he's Jewish and was for a time in training as a hazan or cantor (a director of liturgical prayer, chants, and songs in a synagogue). In a musical genre that often attracts neo-Nazi skinheads, he's aggressively pro-Israel and won't back down when confronted with anti-Semitism.

Draiman's raw, bordering-on-imperfect voice brings a growling, angst-filled vibe to S&G's classic that is frankly mesmerizing.



My Top 10 Latin [Dance] Songs
March 11, 2016 11:02 PM | Posted in:

My brilliant, funny (and much younger) cousin Wendy does a weekly Facebook post in which she reviews a song - usually after having a glass of wine - that's meaningful to her in some way at that specific moment. I'd point you to the posts but they're only for her friends and she doesn't know you that well. (I have threatened to repost her articles on these pages, since she refuses to blog them, due to some excuse having to do with raising three young sons or some such nonsense.) Anyway, I'm inspired by her to start doing some more music blogging, and I'm starting south of the border.

I've always had a fondness for Latin-flavored music, but it's been intensified over the past decade during which MLB and I started dancing. The Latin dances - primarily cha cha and rumba, but also samba and salsa (although we're not very good at them) are our favorite ballroom steps, and so we have a corresponding attraction to the music.

So, the following are the ten songs I'd take with me to a desert island with a dance floor located off the coast of Mexico (or somewhere in the Caribbean; my net casts pretty wide), in no particular order.

  • Accion y Reaccion by Thalía: Sometimes referred to as "the Queen of Latin pop," Thalía is a Mexican singer, songwriter, and more. This song is a celebration of what we have in common, regardless of our cultural differences. If this catchy song doesn't make you want to learn to speak Spanish, nothing will.


  • Smooth by Santana and Rob Thomas: Some of the songs in this list might be unfamiliar to you, but this won't be one of them, unless you've been living in a cave in the Ozarks for the past twenty years. According to this Wikipedia article, Smooth is the second most successful song in history (trailing only Chubby Checker's The Twist, which isn't Latin, AFAIK), as ranked by Billboard. It's also an absolutely flawless rumba/cha cha number.


  • Radio Sol by Mo' Horizons: You know what I like about Mo' Horizons (besides their musical talent)? They're not Latin, or from the Caribbean...they're German. You'll often find their tracks on those funky cardboard-enclosed "world music" CDs in little shops in Santa Fe and Marfa, and they'll invariably bring a smile to your face. I don't know what Radio Sol is about; heck, I don't even know what language it's in. And, of course, I don't care, because it evokes great memories of dive trips to the Lesser Antilles from back when international flying wasn't such a royal pain.


  • Tango by Jaci Velasquez: If you're thinking that name rings a bell, it may be that you know Velasquez from her very successful career as a contemporary Christian musician, where she's received seven Dove Awards. But she's also a successful Latin crossover artist, singing in both Spanish and English, and this is one of my favorites (so much that I used it as the soundtrack to a video I created and posted here four years ago). But, even though the title says otherwise, this is not a tango; it works better as a slow cha cha. 


  • Malagueña Salerosa by Chingon: This is a seventy year old song made more popular by its inclusion in the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino's 2004 movie, Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Texas musician and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez scored the movie, and also played guitar in the all-star band he assembled primarily to create music for movie soundtracks. The song is the epitome of dramatic, passionate Latin music, and it's especially meaningful to me because we got to hear it performed live by Del Castillo in Fredericksburg at the Crossroads Saloon. Basically, Del Castillo is Chingon, with the addition of Robert Rodriguez. (More about Del Castillo below.)


  • Dance in the Moonlight by The Mavericks: I have a love/hate relationship with this catchy little samba. I hate it because every time I hear it, it becomes an earworm that I can't shake for literally days. This is another song that we got to hear performed live when The Mavericks came to Midland a couple of years ago. It was a terribly frustrating concert...because there's no place to dance, and it's difficult to sit still when the musicians get wound up.


  • So Nice (Summer Samba) by Bebel Gilberto: This is another older song (it was written in 1964, which doesn't seem that old to me, but I realize it's ancient history to some of you); this version was recorded in 2000 by the Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto. This is another song with a misleading title; it's a bossa nova, not a samba, which is perhaps a distinction without a difference to most of us. Regardless, it's chill in every important sense.


  • I Never Cared for You by Del Castillo with Willie Nelson: Willie Nelson wrote and recorded this song in 1964, but he says that this version recorded with Del Castillo in 2006 is his favorite. The Del Castillo brothers (one of which, by the way, was a biomedical science major at Texas A&M) provide the intricate guitar stylings that reinforce the Latin flavor, and Alex Ruiz - who is no longer with the band - shares vocalist duties with Nelson. (Ruiz is also the singer on Malagueña Salerosa, listed above.)


  • Quizás, quizás, quizás by Andrea Bocelli and Jennifer Lopez: Again, we reach back in musical history to retrieve a classic. This song - the title to which translates to "perhaps, perhaps, perhaps" - was written in the 1940s and has been covered many times since. Doris Day did a winsome English version of the song in 1964, but there's just something about the Spanish version that elevates the romance factor of the rumba beat. Bocelli and J-Lo bring exactly the right mix of emotions to a classic.


  • She Bangs by Ricky Martin: We don't need to dwell on the irony of Ricky singing this particular song; we only need to focus on the insistent driving beat that makes this a cha cha that inevitably results in a sweat-soaked, oxygen-deprived post-dance glow. Well, just take my word for it.

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.

DIY: Installing a Cylinder Lock in Drawers
February 27, 2016 12:30 PM | Posted in:

My latest DIY project was pretty simple but still intimidating as it involved drilling holes in our custom built-in cabinetry. As my pal Gene and I discussed over breakfast this morning, you can't uncut lumber or undrill holes (well, I can't), so measuring twice was just a starting point for me.

Here's one of the unsullied drawers into which I wanted to install a keyed lock:

Wooden drawer

And here are the components of the "simple" cylinder lock, which is a 1 3/4" lock in Antique Brass finish to match the drawer pulls:

Lock components

Thirteen pieces to deal with, and no instructions came with the locks. However, the website for the seller, Rockler, did provide a link to a PDF entitled "Technical Data" which did give some crucial measurements for placement of the hole and some subtle suggestions for installation. In addition, the plastic bag in which the lock was shipped had another link to the manufacturer's instructions, although they also were sadly lacking in detailed explanations of how all the parts should be assembled. But, between the two documents and my own keen intellect, I was confident that I could figure it out, and if I couldn't, I'd just superglue the lock plate over the hole I drilled and no one would be the wiser.

After measuring about a half dozen times, I marked the center point of the hole with a punch and began drilling a 3/4" hole. I used a Porter Cable Forstner bit, partly because it drills a really clean hole, but mainly because it's expensive and I rarely get to use it. 

I also discovered that alder wood is very slow drilling. The experts say it's one of the softest hardwoods, but if that's the case, I hate to drilling many holes in the hardest variety. In any event, the hole was drilled:

Hole drilled in drawer

The first installation step was to slip the trim washer (#2 in the first photo above) over the cylinder tube (#3) and insert the tube into the hole, like so:

Lock cylinder tube inserted in hole
Lock cylinder tube inserted in hole

The next step was to insert the lock cylinder (#1) into the tube (leaving the key in it to stabilize it), and then slide the spur washer (#4) over the cylinder tube and tighten it firmly against the back of the drawer with the hex lock nut (#5). Use the key to hold the cylinder in place while you tighten the lock nut. The teeth of the spur washer bite into the wood and ensure a tight, unmoving fit. 

Spur washer and lock nut (untightened) over cylinder tube

This is where is got a bit tricky, as ideally you'd have three hands to accomplish the next steps. I was lacking both a hand and any logical concept of what I was doing.

Part #7 are two types of stop washers, one of which allows the locking mechanism to turn 90º and the other allows it to turn 180º. Frankly, I couldn't figure out an application for the latter, but I'm sure there's a reason it's included. I chose the 90º version, which is the one on the right in the photo of the components. It slides over the end of the cylinder and must be positioned just so in order to allow the cam (#6) to rotate to the proper position (locked vs. unlocked).

You'll note that there are also two choices of cam, one for cabinets or drawers that overlap, and the other for those that close flush. Our drawers overlap, so I used the longer, flat cam. 

Once the stop washer and cam are in place, they are secured with the machine screw (#8). Again, it's important to use the key in the cylinder to hold things in the right position, but that means it's also very easy for the cam and/or stop washer to slide out of place while attempting to tighten the machine screw. I gave my mental vocabulary a workout while getting this done. But here's the final result; the top photo is the unlocked position and the locked position is in the next photo.

Lock installed
Lock installed

As you can tell, I didn't bother emptying the drawer before I installed the lock. I did put masking tape over the back of where the hole was drilled to minimize splintering, and inserted a manila folder over the files to catch any sawdust, but it turned out to be a pretty clean process...on that side, anyway. Forstner bits generate a lot of sawdust, though.

MLB and I were quite happy with the final installation. The lock mechanism was a perfect fit (but there are some spacers [#9] that can be inserted in the hole in the cam to ensure a tight fit if the thickness of the drawer or cabinet is slightly less), and the lock feels very secure. I definitely recommend this application for everything from childproofing to securing personal documents and/or office equipment from "thefts of convenience" (obviously, they won't stop a determined burglar). In addition, you can get the locks keyed either individually or alike, depending on the level of convenience you want.

Final lock installation

Footnote: Lest I ruin my well-deserved reputation as a DIY Disaster, I did end up with an uh-oh in the final installation. But I'm not going to tell you about it or even show it, because some things are better left as mysteries.

Removing Palm Trees for Dummies
February 22, 2016 7:15 PM | Posted in:

I spent a couple of hours last weekend removing a dead palm tree from our front yard. Well, I should qualify that: I achieved partial removal, but I still consider that a victory.

When we landscaped our new house eight years ago, we asked the contractor to plant a specific type of palm. In his great arrogance wisdom, he planted a different species (the identity of which we can't remember) without telling us. We actually had no complaint for six years, as the tree seemed to flourish. 

Photo - healthy palm
Our tree in a happier time

But the overly harsh winter two years ago was its undoing. We had hope, without any accompanying optimism, that it would somehow recover, but we finally accepted the reality that not only was it no longer alive, it had no zombie prospects.

Photo - sad palm
Can't quite put my finger on it, but something seems amiss

The remaining tree trunk wasn't massive, but it also wasn't something I could make short work of with a sharpshooter shovel and a chainsaw. Have you ever tried to disassemble a palm tree? It consists of a seemingly infinite number of layers, each of which is progressively weirder in composition. The outer layer (of this species) consists of the "bark" which is basically bullet-proof and lined with hooked teeth that are the envy of Great White sharks. Beneath this bark are thin layers of fibrous material so dense and tear-resistant that early Polynesian cultures used them to fashion unassailable chastity belts for their virgin daughters. OK, I made that up, except for the unassailable part. There's no way a saw can effectively cut through those fiber layers without becoming a tangled mess.

Given these anatomical challenges, I devised a cautious plan that I hoped would allow me to deconstruct the tree bit by bit. I first cut the roots using the aforementioned sharpshooter. I had no idea how deep the root system extended (I still don't, but we'll get to that later), but a key part of my plan was the ability to tip the trunk onto the ground and work on it there.
This step proved to be easier than expected. After digging around the base of the tree, cutting through the less-than-extensive lateral roots, I wanted to push or pull the trunk over. I thought about wrapping a chain around it and using the truck to tip it, but after a few tentative shoves by hand, the trunk actually snapped off at ground level, having apparently rotted over the past two years of dormancy (aka, death).

Photo - palm tree trunk lying prone
Oh, snap!

With the trunk lying prone, I proceeded with my Plan of Dismantlement. Pro tip: It's much easier to take a palm apart from the base up, rather than from the top down. As long as I respected the natural order of the layers - and wore thick leather gloves - I was able to easily strip off the deadly "bark" (I'm sporting just a single Band-Aid as evidence of the wisdom of my approach).

Photo - pile of dried palm fronds
The term "fronds" is much too...sissified...for these vicious objects

I was then left with a bare trunk to dispose of, one that I estimate weighed 150 pounds or so...more than I could gracefully load into a wheelbarrow or truck bed. So, how to break it into manageable pieces, given its resistance to sawing? I could envision only one solution, and it involved brute force.

Photo - palm tree trunk stripped of its fronds
Bare naked palm

I dug a pickaxe out of the tool chest and set about channeling my inner John Henry. Yeah, I know; he swung a sledgehammer, but work with me here.

I didn't know what to expect, and the first swing of the pick wasn't very satisfying as the tool just sunk into the trunk without causing any discernible useful destruction. But after a few more powerful (in my mind, anyway) swings, I sensed some progress. Then, just like that, the trunk began to disintegrate into twenty pound chunks. Again, I suspect that was due to the rot that had set in. It took little time and effort to break the remaining trunk into those manageable pieces.

All I'm left with now is the root ball, still securely sunk in the dirt. I plan to use a shovel to cut under it, but that work is somewhat complicated by not knowing exactly where the sprinkler lines run. The last thing I want to do is cut a pipe. Well, the absolute last thing I want to do is cut my toes off, but I'm pretty sure I can avoid that. I also fear that the muddy root ball may weigh as much or more than the trunk itself, so getting it out of the hole and fragmented for disposal will be another challenge. I suspect there's more pick swinging in my future.

Photo - base of palm tree
The final challenge

Stay tuned for the next exciting bevy of botanical bashing!

An Internet Pioneer: Me
January 29, 2016 9:39 AM | Posted in: ,

Depending on usage, the Internet has the potential to become a wonderfully effective business tool, or a troublesome diversion of time and resources.
The preceding quote - which today would likely be subject to an editorial "duh" - was lifted from a position paper dated December 14, 1994, authored by yours truly. I ran across this document, which I wrote as part of a recommendation on whether and how to allow employees to access the Internet, while going through some files that had been in storage.

My recommendation was that we should proceed with a limited rollout of 'Net access (the term "World Wide Web" was not yet in widespread usage; the first website was only four years old) to test its viability as a business tool. Our intended focus was to use the Internet as a means of allowing employees to access company policies, organization charts, etc. We also anticipated the potential for using it to communicate with third parties in areas such as surplus material listings, property sales "ads" and so on.

Logo - Mosaic web browserAt that time, our means to access the Internet was Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers that sported a graphical user interface, primitive though it was. It had been released for just a year, and it quickly gave way to Netscape Navigator. Logo - Netscape Navigator web browserOur company provided training classes to a focus group for these browsers, and we were introduced to such exotic terms as search engines (WebCrawler and Lycos were the big dogs), bookmarks (so we could more easily revisit the approximately eight websites that were relevant to our work), and Usenet (for which etiquette rules were already a big deal, and probably as routinely ignored as they are today for Facebook comments).

This, indeed, was a brave new world, especially for nascent geeks. In fact, this probably marked a turning point in my life and career. To be more specific, when I learned that (1) I could view the source code of any website right there in the browser, and (2) I could create a website using any text processor, a whole new avenue of expression opened up for me. The jury is still out whether that was a good thing or not, but it was definitely a big thing.

As an aside, while Netscape Navigator was our primary web browser, it was also part of a suite of applications including Composer. Composer was my first exposure to a WYSIWYG HTML editor, and I used it to build and maintain a handful of websites, including a college recruiting site that we distributed to students via floppy disk to demonstrate how utterly cool we were.

Netscape Composer screen capture
Screen shot showing Composer's awesome GUI

However, it is clear that the Internet is continuing to evolve and grow in ways that we may not fully appreciate today.
Prophetic? I wouldn't deny the term, if you insist on applying it to me. Duh.

Fun with Google Earth
January 28, 2016 9:41 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the many cool features about Google Earth is the ability to step back in time to see how an aerial scene has changed. Beginning with Google Earth 5.0, introduced in 2009, "historical imagery" was integrated into the application. As far as I can tell, much of the imagery (dating back to around 1984) came from the USGS, but there are a lot of images which are dated well before that. The results are inconsistent, but here are a few of the oldest images for some well-known cities:

  • San Francisco - 1938
  • Las Vegas - 1950
  • Los Angeles - 1989
  • NYC - 1978
  • Dallas - 1995
  • Miami - 1994
  • London - 1940
  • Berlin - 1943
  • Linwood, Ontario, Canada - 1930
OK, so Linwood, Ontario, probably isn't that well-known, unless you happen to live there, but by all accounts the aerial photo from 1930 is the oldest one in Google Earth. So, there's some fodder for your next family trivia night.

I was curious about what the historical imagery would show for our neighborhood and the immediate surroundings. Our development is only about ten years old, built in what was previously open pasture, and a lot has changed during the intervening years. It turns out that Google Earth has eight distinct views of the neighborhood, dating back to 1996. That first image is black and white, and there's a seven year gap until the next image shows up. Updates are more frequent thereafter.

I decided to create an animation to show the changes from 1996 to the present. (That capability is supposedly present in Google Earth but I couldn't make it work.) I took screen shots of each unique point in time, then created an animated GIF in Photoshop. Here's the result. Note: This is a very large file and the animation may not run if you don't have a lot of bandwidth. Feel free to right-click on the image and download it to your desktop to view if it stalls.

Aerial time lapse of Midland, Texas

There's not a lot of change during the latter years, although if you live out here, you'll be familiar enough with the neighborhood to spot the differences. But one thing I had never noticed before is that the development is has a distinct shape that's oddly familiar. I can't quite put my finger on it...but maybe you can figure it out...

Woodland Park...or Jurassic Park?
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.

Warehouse

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).

Freezer/Cooler

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.

Roaming the Web
January 9, 2016 7:06 AM | Posted in: ,

It's been a while since we've wandered around the web, looking at some cool new tech. Here's a roundup of some things that have come across my Twitter feed lately.

Snap - The Flying Camera


I find it very interesting that the word "drone" appears nowhere on the Vantage Robotics website. This is likely an intentional strategy to distinguish Snap from its competitors, and perhaps to also distance itself from some of the negative connotations attached to the term. Regardless of the reason, the description of this device as a flying camera seems to be completely accurate, as it's all about the quality and controllability (versatility?) of Snap's video capabilities.

And for an unskilled pilot like me, the fact that it's held together by magnets so it's not destroyed by the inevitable crash is a huge selling point!

Zeiss Smartphone Lenses

One of the most vibrant sub-industries to arise in response to the increasingly high quality of phone cameras is the creation of lenses to extend the capabilities of those cameras. For example, a company called Action Life Media sells an adapter contraption that lets you use your Canon or Nikon SLR lens with your phone. It makes for a ridiculous-looking rig, and sort of defeats the ease of use and portability that make phones the most popular photographic devices in the universe, but I suppose there's a market for such add-ons.

The high-end lens maker Zeiss obviously agrees, since it's rolling out a suite of iPhone lenses (macro, telephoto, and macro) that attach to the phone via a special bracket. If you know anything about cameras, you know the respect that Zeiss glass commands, and it's hard to think of these lenses as gimmicks. Pricing has not yet been announced, but they won't come cheap.

Danny MacAskill - Mad Cycling Skillz

If there's a better trials bicyclist in the world than Danny MacAskill, I've never heard of him (or her). The preceding video is simply the latest in a long series, every one of which will make you rethink what's possible for a bunch of metal tubes suspended between two rubber circles. I get sweaty palms just watching it.

MacAskill rides bikes made by a company called Inspired. He also provides consultation to the company for its higher-end bicycles such as the Skye Team Bike (named after the Scottish Island Danny calls home). So, even if you can't ride like him (and you can't), you can have the bike that leaves you with no excuses other than your simple lack of skill (and guts). Oh, and it will also leave you several thousand dollars poorer.

In closing...

OK, so this isn't a tech-related item, but it's always good to end a post with an absurdity. If you haven't been in the presence of a physician after they've had a few drinks, you may not be aware of the new healthcare diagnostic codes...all 68,000 of them. This is but one of the most ridiculous of the new codes; here's a list of some others. And be sure to buy your doctor the next round.