Rooftop Serenade
June 19, 2016 6:16 PM | Posted in:

Lately, this is what we've been hearing, coming down our chimney and serenading us, unbidden.



If you live anywhere in North America, you no doubt recognize the random stylings of Mimus polyglottos, otherwise known as the Northern Mockingbird (although the georeference seems superfluous since there's no Southern, Eastern, or Western Mockingbird). The mockingbird is the state bird of Texas (and also of plagiaristic, lesser states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee).

I'm not opposed to having a songbird share his musical gifts with us, but I became curious this afternoon as he competed with the soundtrack of the mindless movie we typical nap to on Sunday afternoons, and I wondered just what it was he found so attractive about our chimney. Was there a nest up there? Was he teaching his young offspring how to sing?

You should forgive my anthropomorphic tendencies on Father's Day, as I had just read an article in the Wall Street Journal in which the case was made for male birds being superior dads to their mammalian counterparts, at least those of non-human species. Among other things...
Male songbirds tutor their young on how to produce the distinctive songs of their species in a sophisticated process that may help to explain how other animals, including humans, learn complicated skills.

Darwin called birdsong "the nearest analogy to language." Indeed, song-learning in birds turns out to have striking similarities with how humans learn speech, from the process of listening, imitating and practicing all the way down to the brain structures and genes involved.
Armed with the knowledge of this theory (my usual substitute for any actual knowledge), I envisioned dad holding forth to a bevy of attentive younguns, eager to emulate his own emulations (they're not called "mockingbirds" for nothing). My curiosity aroused me from the comfort of my recliner, and I climbed onto the roof in search of the nest that I was sure kept that bird coming back to the same spot day after day.

Of course, there was nothing up there, other than the shade of the chimney vent, that apparently being a sufficient platform for his vocal gymnastics.

Mockingbird on our chimney

My disappointment at not being able to confirm the avian-dad-as-teacher theory was tempered by the good news that we won't have to endure an amplified group singalong by a whole bevy of birds. But here's one thing to keep in mind: if you want to keep a secret, don't share it in the general vicinity of a chimney, because it makes an awfully efficient microphone.

Captured by The Highwaymen
June 8, 2016 9:26 PM | Posted in:

As I drove home after work yesterday, Mojo Nixon was interviewing Mickey Raphael on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel. I'm not a big fan of Nixon's work, nor do I usually listen to anything but music in the car, but I was intrigued by the subject matter. It seems that a new boxed set of music and video from The Highwaymen was released in May, and Raphael - who you might recognize as Willie Nelson's harmonica player - was talking about his experiences playing with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, the Red Headed Stranger. It was fascinating stuff from an insider's perspective. 

In the course of the conversation, Raphael mentioned that a documentary about The Highwaymen had recently aired on PBS and is available for streaming via its website, so later that night I began to watch it. I found the video, entitled The Highwaymen: Friends Till The End, under the American Masters category (or you can just click this link), and it will be available for streaming only until June 25, 2016. If you're a country music fan, or simply interested in American popular music history, this is a must-see documentary.

The Highwaymen are credited as country music's first "supergroup"* although Cash was probably the only member who landed firmly in the middle of the traditional country music genre. Regardless of where you slot them in terms of music, all four are legends whose influences are far-reaching, and the claim that the roots of the so-called Outlaw Country genre began with them is hard to dispute.

The documentary traces the evolution of the group from its inception (the four first united during one of Cash's Christmas specials for TV, filmed in Montreaux, Switzerland) until its disbanding a decade later, in 1995. Jennings died in 2002 and Cash a year later. Kristofferson and Nelson are still active, although the former--who will turn 80 this month--is battling memory loss even as he continues to write and record.

Along with concert footage and interviews with the principles, the documentary features a great cast of supporting characters including:

  • John Mellencamp (who competed with Prince and Sean Combs for the most stage names); Mellencamp has collaborated with Nelson to produce Farm Aid for 30 years

  • Marty Stuart (who competes with Mellencamp for the most awesome hairdo)

  • Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel frontman)

  • Toby Keith

  • Jessie Colter (Waylon's wife), Annie Nelson (Willie's fourth and current wife), and June Carter Cash (Johnny's wife)

  • and several of the other musicians who backed the group.
Gene Autry, one of Willie Nelson's heroes, also makes an appearance.

The documentary provides a brief biographical intro for each of the four, with some great archival footage and photos (witness the clean-cut, pre-outlaw images of Waylon and Willie below). It explores the special bond that the four formed over their shared music...and trials. They each took a shot at success in Nashville, and found it was, well, let's say it was not to their liking. They chafed at the country "establishment" that controlled the music business, so they either left and made their own way, or stayed and through sheer force of will (and talent) bent the system to their own visions.

Photo - Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the early years
Waylon and Willie - The early years

The video doesn't shy away from the seamier sides of their lives, especially the struggles with substance abuse that Jennings and Cash fought (and eventually conquered). They also shared health problems; at one point, both of those men were hospitalized at the same time after heart bypass surgeries. We learn that Cash was in almost constant pain during his time with the group, thanks to a broken jaw suffered during botched dental implant surgery.

But they all had a spiritual side, and while the details aren't fleshed out in the documentary, you get the sense that they each had finally faced down personal demons, and their friendship and mutual support provided a calm and sense of peace that was perhaps missing for most of their lives. I had the distinct impression that had health not failed, they would still be happily making music together.

I've seen Willie Nelson in concert, but I never got to attend a show with the other men. Thankfully, through efforts like this documentary and the new recordings and videos, we won't miss out on some truly historic musical performances, and it's not likely a group with such charisma and talent will pass this way again.



*The term "supergroup" is used as a pretty wide net, encompassing musical acts as diverse as Cream, The Three Tenors, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It's a dubious appellation, and I apply a stricter definition than, say, Wikipedia. The Highwaymen definitely fit my definition (as do acts such as The Traveling Wilburys [George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne] and the Texas Tornados [Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers]), in which band members who each have a separate active and successful career come together for a limited time to tour and record, and then return to their primary careers.

Attraction Satisfaction
June 2, 2016 3:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Perceptive Gazette readers will recall our recent traumatic bicycle wheel failure, which necessitated the replacement of both wheels on our recumbent tandem (the rear wheel failed, but we also replaced the front one out of an abundance of caution as well as to make sure the two matched). I'm happy to report that after a delay of more than a month, we're back on the road sporting new wheels, spokes, freewheel hub,  and cassette, and everything looks mahvelous.

Bike computer magnet pickupHowever - and there's always a however, isn't there? - I overlooked the fact that the new wheels and spokes meant that I would also have to recalibrate our computers. We have a Planet Bike wireless computer on the front and a wired model on the back, and both rely on a small magnet (see photo at right) mounted on a spoke to generate a signal transmitted to the computer that allows it to measure distance and speed. Each revolution of the wheel moves the magnet past a pickup mounted on the fork, and when calibrated to the wheel's circumference, the time it takes for each revolution is the key component of the speed and distance algorithms. With me so far?

Obviously, when the bike mechanic replaced the spokes, he had to remount the magnet. But since he had only the wheels and not the whole bike, there was no way for him to know exactly where to place the magnet. So, when I returned home with the new wheels, I had to put the magnet back in the right place, so that the transmitting unit would generate a signal.

That was pretty easy for the back wheel, but I ran into a puzzling problem on the front. No matter how I placed the magnet on the wheel, I couldn't make the transmitter send a signal to the main unit. I even replaced the battery in the transmitter, to no avail. It was as if the magnet was no longer strong enough to generate the signal (and I say that as if I understand exactly how the thing works, which I don't).

I knew all along that I was stretching the limits of the wireless unit to their max; the computer was designed for a "regular" bicycle, not a long-wheelbase recumbent, and the distance from the main unit to the transmitter was now - for whatever reason - just a tad too far.

As a last resort, I contemplated just buying a wired computer, but then I wondered whether the magnet strength had any bearing on the strength of the transmission. Yes, that's right: we're gonna need a bigger...magnet. And I knew just where to find one.

I happened to have two magnets from an old hard drive laying around my workbench. [What? Doesn't everyone disassemble their old hard drives and harvest the magnets?] If you've ever toyed with one of those neodymium magnets you know that the size-to-strength ratio is incredible. If the bike computer transmitter simply needed a stronger magnet, the hard drive component would likely provide a transmission of length of, say, from here to the moon.

I tested my theory by removing the transmitter from the fork, and waving the hard drive magnet over it while standing a couple of feet from the main unit. Sure enough, the unit immediately displayed speed. All I had to do was figure out how to mount the magnet on the spokes, reattach the transmitter to the fork, and get the two aligned.

That actually proved to be a pretty simple task (and if you've followed my DIY projects, you know how truly amazing that statement is). The magnet's mounting holes were exactly in the right place to affix it to two spokes using thin zip ties. In addition, the strength of the magnet meant that the transmitter's alignment didn't have to be as precise as in the past, so that was easily accomplished. Here's what the final installation looks like (I've highlighted the magnet and transmitter in yellow to make them easier to discern).

Hard drive magnet mounted to front wheel of bicycle

Now, if this was a race bike, this would be a really stupid thing to do. The new magnet is quite heavy, and the last place you want to add weight on a bicycle is the wheel. But this wheel by itself already weighs almost as much as some entire bikes - only a slight exaggeration - so the additional rolling weight is just not an issue. The only thing I worry about now is whether we'll be picking up stray pieces of metal from the side of the road as we cycle along...you know, things like old car wheels, anvils, or lengths of discarded rebar.

The morals of this story are twofold. One, there's always a solution if you can get creative enough. And (b), always tear up your old hard drives and save the spare parts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I haven't actually tested this setup to see if the accuracy of the computer has been affected. After our next ride, I'll compare the distance reading to that of the rear computer (and probably also to my Map My Ride phone app) to see if this really was a workable solution.
Three years ago, I blogged about the theoretical consequences of the construction of a proposed 58-story office tower in downtown Midland. I was specifically concerned about the impact on the City of Midland's logo, which features the city's skyline, and I literally illustrated that impact by creating a tongue-in-cheek parody logo.

The post garnered exactly one comment - which was probably more than it merited, to be honest - and I never gave it a second thought. Until yesterday, that is, when I received an email from the city's public information office. Here's an excerpt from that email:
A couple of years ago you had made a parodied version of our logo in relation to the proposed Energy Tower development. It was a pretty funny post at the time, but I am still dealing to this day with people using the tongue-in-cheek Energy Tower version of the logo to represent us. The hospital literally just put out a joint release with that logo on it! I didn't think much of it originally - just chuckled and let the reporters who used it for their stories know that they shouldn't be pulling our logo from Google image search, and then I waited and hoped for it to fall down in SEO results. However, since it's still an ongoing issue (3 years later), is there any way that you could maybe change the meta data of the file so that it no longer contains the phrase "City of Midland logo," as it currently does in the file name and description? It's mostly frustrating that people can't tell it's a fake, but because it has a file name that appears to represent it as our logo, I was hoping that you might be willing to help us possibly ensure that the correct logo is given more priority in a Google image search of "City of Midland logo."
Well, I did what any fiercely-independent American blogger would do when confronted by The Man about something I created: I folded like a cheap suit.

The first thing I did was hop over to Google and did an image search for "city of midland texas logo." Sure enough...mine lands in the second spot, but still behind the city's official graphic. Why someone would pick the one I created over the real one, which is much higher quality, is beyond me.

Nevertheless, I immediately renamed the parody logo and changed the alt tag in the HTML to completely remove any association with the City of Midland that Google (or other search engines) might try to make based on the coding of the website. In hindsight, I should have done that to begin with, but in keeping with the title of the post, the unintended consequences sneaked up on me.

I appreciate that the city didn't ask me to completely remove the image and post (I'm not sure of the legal implications surrounding this issue), and given the reasonable nature of their request, I was more than happy to cooperate.

I'm not willing to completely shoulder the mea culpa all by my lonesome, though. Anyone who pulls a logo from an image search without checking the source - or in this case, without even looking closely at what they're grabbing - is not going to garner much sympathy from me if the image turns out to be, well, you know - a lame parody.

Unintended consequences. They're everywhere.

Bird Talk
May 5, 2016 8:41 PM | Posted in:

First, listen to this:



No, that's not Donald Trump's mating call*. It's the dulcet tones of the Black-crowned Night-Heron, a bird that I have heretofore never seen, but one appeared on the banks of our neighborhood pond a fortnight ago. 

MLB and I were out for a late afternoon walk and I just happened to have a camera with me (gee...what are the odds?). I took a picture of a bird on the bank, and later in a tree where the skittish fellow landed after he tired of my attention.

(Please try to overlook the trash in the water; we had just had a pretty heavy rain followed by some strong winds, and nature was a bit disheveled.)

Black Crowned Night Heron
Black Crowned Night Heron

I suppose this particular heron was just passing through; I've not seen him (her?) again.

It's been a good year for birds - or bird watchers, anyway - around here. The Red-Winged Blackbirds showed up earlier than at any time in memory. Not only that, but they've been spending more time in our neighborhoods, not just around the ponds where they love to perch on the cattails. We've had them yelling down our chimney for what seems like hours at a time...they don't have the most melodic calls in the bird kingdom. Although, when a bunch of them get going at the same time, the result is reminiscent of a 1950s jungle movie.

They do make good law enforcers, though.

Red-Winged Blackbird atop No Swimming sign
We've also have a couple of mourning doves sitting on eggs in nests they built in our back yard, one on our palm tree, and the other on a baker's rack on our patio. I couldn't resist a massive invasion of the latter's privacy, and I've set up a GoPro over the nesting mom with a plan to do a time-lapse movie of the event. 

However, I've just discovered that it could take up to fifteen days for the eggs to hatch, and my camera card won't hold quite that many photos (15 days of one picture per minute is...a bunch). So, I've got a week's worth already and I'll revisit the site later. But here's where the action - if you can call a bird sitting motionless for hours on end "action" - is taking place:

Dove on nest with GoPro camera looking on
And, finally, I leave you with this picture of a goose. Because, why not?

Swimming goose
*I'm guessing that Trump's mating call is along the lines of "me me me me me money me." But, that's just a guess.

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.