Adventures in TV mounting
January 17, 2015 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

I bought an LED TV as a Christmas present for MLB as a replacement for the remaining CRT set in the house. That TV was installed inside the built-in cabinets in our workout room, mounted on a sliding metal platform that has a few degrees of rotation so that we theoretically could view it from anywhere in the room. In practice, however, the platform didn't extend far enough to clear the open cabinet door, and part of the screen was blocked from the view of someone on the treadmill. This was frustrating, especially to you-know-who. I fully realize that this might represent the ultimate first-world problem, but that's the way we roll.

The goals in replacing the old TV were to upgrade to a high-def, non-pan-and-scan picture as well as to place it so that we could see the entire screen from any point in the room. The latter would be a challenge, though, as the construction of the cabinet and its doors meant that not just any mounting bracket would work. I needed something with a relatively long extension but that would still fold flat so that we could close the doors when the TV wasn't in use.

TV mountI found what looked like an ideal solution on a website for Displays2Go, a "full-motion" tilting, swiveling, extending articulating arm mount that uses a gas strut for smooth and adjustable action. It also looks like something out of a Pixar animated short.

This mount extends up to 23" from the wall, the longest reach I found in a configuration small enough to fit inside our cabinet. It also allows 360º rotation, which I assume might be useful if you lay on your side while watching TV.

As an aside, this mount is manufactured by a company called North Bayou. In the time-honored Chinese tradition of stealing being intellectually influenced by American business innovation, that company's logo is suspiciously similar to that of New Balance. Nevertheless, the quality of their product is indisputable.

I mentioned earlier that I had installed a sliding platform for the previous TV, and this was to be an integral piece in my plan. Even though the mount had a long reach, it still wouldn't have been enough by itself to clear the cabinet door. My plan was to somehow attach the mount to the sliding platform, so that the combination of both would achieve the goal. The challenge was figuring out how to do this.

It turned out to be a relatively simple matter. I would sandwich a board vertically between two pairs of metal L-brackets which would in turn be bolted to the metal platform, forming a wall of sorts to which the mount would be secured. A key factor in this approach was the fact that the TV - a 32" Samsung - weighs only eleven pounds (another side note: it replaces a 60-pound TV), so I didn't have to worry about whether this mounting system would be sturdy enough.

So, I bought a 1/2" slab of pine at Lowe's, along with the required L-brackets, and put my plan into place. It took some cyphering to decide on the right placement to ensure that everything fit in the space and cleared the doors, open and closed, but the actual fabrication went pretty smoothly. The installation? Eh, not so much. Can you spot the problem below?

TV mount installed backwards

This would have been perfect had I (1) been planning to watch TV from outside the house, and (b) had X-ray vision. Neither of those things really fit our lifestyle. In my defense...well, I'm an idiot. We'll leave it at that.

Following a couple of hours and an extended workout of my vocabulary, I got everything pretty well in place. Here's how the setup looks with the TV extended:

TV mounted

The TV went onto the mount with a minimum of fuss, but I discovered that two of the mounting bolts are apparently designed to be burglar-resistant. I hadn't gorilla-tightened them but when I tried to remove the TV to fine-tune the setup, I was afraid I was going to have to drill out the mounting bolts. For whatever comfort it provides, no one is going to waltz in and heist our TV with nothing but a pocket knife.

This is how it folds up to fit inside the cabinet:

TV mounted

At some point, I'll put a coat of black paint on the board and brackets to prettify it up a bit.

The other complicating factor in this whole setup was that all the connections on the TV are on the right side, which of course is the furtherest from the cabinet when the mount is extended. I had to drill another hole in the shelf to route the cables closer to the set.  The upside is that it gave me an excuse to use a Forstner drill bit, which is so much more efficient than a run-of-the-mill hole bit. I also had some leftover Mockett desk grommets to finish out the hole (I highly recommend their products).

Cable management will be a bit cleaner once we get a Tivo in that room and I can replace the component A/V cables that connect the TV to our antique non-HD DVR with an HDMI cable. The DVR served us admirably for at least a dozen years, but I can't remember the last time we burned a DVD in it, and the absence of HD is now a non-starter given the new TV. And I challenge you to find a non-technical, non-CIA blog post with a single paragraph containing this many acronyms.

I do recommend the articulating arm TV mount if you need the maximum amount of flexibility positioning a flat screen TV or monitor. Note the limitations though: max screen size of 42" and max weight of 15 pounds.

Acquiring Culture in the Hill Country
January 9, 2015 2:40 PM | Posted in: ,

During a recent stay at Horseshoe Bay we made a day trip to Fredericksburg, primarily to eat lunch at the Peach Tree Restaurant, but also to browse through the approximately 800 stores crammed into the three-block downtown shopping area. We didn't anticipate that we would leave far more cultured than we arrived...not that that would be a steep hill to climb.

For the record, an overcast 35° mid-week day in early January is the best time to visit F'burg if crowd avoidance is your goal. The Java Ranch Espresso Bar and Café was doing a brisk coffee business, but most of the other shops were barren of customers.

Most of the clothing shops cater to women (shocking, I know), but I did manage to score some awesome ankle artwork at one store:

Socks

My sock drawer is beginning to rival the Louvre, now that it houses (from left) Manet's The Fifer, Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

Perhaps you scoff at the idea of cultured footwear, but if you bothered to follow the links I've helpfully provided - we're all about education here at the Gazette - you'd be able to quote the following fascinating facts that are guaranteed to make you the life of any party:

  • The painting of the young flautist was featured in an episode of Hogan's Heroes.

  • La Goulule is French for "the glutton," and presumably referred to Louise Weber's (the real cancan dancer who was the subject of the artwork) penchant for draining the glasses on the table of the patrons lining the dance floor as she moved past them. Also, her favorite partner was a man known as "No Bones" Valentin, due to the fluid contortions he performed on the dance floor. And am I the only one who didn't realize there were male cancan dancers?

  • The original painting of The Birth of Venus is about nine feet tall. Also, there is a bit of subtle and possibly unintended humor in the Wikipedia write-up about the alternate interpretations of this artwork, particularly in the second paragraph of that section of the article. I'll leave the reader to his or her own devices in that regard.
Our last stop at the end of the day was at the River Rustic Gallery. We arrived at precisely 5:00 p.m., not realizing that was the art gallery's closing time. The woman coming out the door as we were going in was actually the manager who was about to lock up. We apologized, explaining that we were just browsing, and started to leave, but she insisted that we come in and look around, assuring us that she had nothing better to do.

This is a relatively new gallery in F'burg, and while it features work from a variety of artists, its focus is on the rock art of Carlos Moseley. And by "rock art" I mean that rocks are literally both his canvas and palette. (If you haven't been to Fredericksburg in a few years, you might remember that he had his own gallery next to the Old German Bakery and Restaurant.)

One piece in particular stood out, a "painting" entitled Two Stepping. See if you can figure out why it caught our eyes:

Rock art by Carlos Moseley

One of our favorite themes in art features fish, and the gallery had a couple of different pieces sculptured from stainless steel from an artist named Bear McLaughlin. Bear is also known as Tammy (yep, she's a she), and hails from Colorado. Based on the little I can find about her on the web - this article is the most insightful I could find - most of her work tends toward a grand scale, but this piece of wall art, entitled Big Fish, is an exception:

'Big Fish' by Bear McLaughlin

Incidentally, I hope we in some small way compensated the kind woman for keeping the gallery open for us as both of these pieces now adorn the master bedroom wall of our weekend place in Horseshoe Bay.

But the preceding examples of fine art were far from the only cosmopolitan culture we acquired during the day in Fredericksburg. I leave you with a view of a wonderful little piece of kinetic sculpture, title unknown. We didn't buy it, but the next time we're in the market for a puking chicken, this will be at the top of our list.


Ice Storm 2015: Aftermath
January 3, 2015 12:50 PM | Posted in: ,

The sun came out this morning, after four days of being missing in action, and the damage caused by yesterday's ice storm is all too obvious. We drove to the airport and back (that's another story) and saw a depressing number of broken tree limbs throughout the city. It's going to take weeks to clean up, and I suspect the tree service companies are salivating at the prospect of the extra work.

Back at home, I hauled out the trusty bow saw and went to work on our pitiful desert willow. I think I did a pretty good job of disguising the damage; if you don't look too closely, you can hardly tell it was damaged, right? Right?

Desert willow, post pruning
Just rub a little dirt on it; it'll be fine.

Fortunately, desert willow is soft wood when it's green and *sniff* alive, so it was easy to build a pile of limbs for easier disposal:

Desert willow limbs piled up

Despite the terrific damage this storm caused, the sun shining on the ice did bring out a certain beauty, which I will grudgingly acknowledge. I suppose it's a bit like having a rainbow after a flood. And since we can't do anything about it, we might as well try to take away a bit of the positive.

Ice covered live oak branches against a blue sky

Ice Storm 2015: From bad to worse
January 2, 2015 10:24 AM | Posted in: ,

I don't care what Luke Bryan thinks, there are times when rain isn't a good thing. Like, this morning.

We awoke to the sound of falling rain, which normally would be cause for rejoicing in West Texas. However, when temperature has been below freezing for more than 48 hours and the streets are already coated with ice, rainfall brings a feeling of dread. Fortunately, the view from our bedroom window seemed to dispel that notion. We even got a nice view of a hawk checking out the neighborhood from the top of a tree.

Photo of hawk perched in ice covered tree


It seems like only yesterday that I observed that the ice storm hadn't caused any damage. Oh, wait...it was yesterday.

So, at 9:44 a.m. this morning (according to the EXIF data from the camera), I took this photo of our back yard desert willow, as reassurance that the freezing rain was still not causing any lasting effects:

Photo of icy desert willow

Well.

Here's the photo I took an hour later, at 10:46 a.m. to be exact:

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

Heartbreaking, huh. Those are some major broken limbs on what was a beautiful tree. Here's a closeup; avert your eyes if you can't handle hideousness.

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

It gets worse; here's the view from the neighbors' driveway:

Photo of icy & damaged desert willow

Fortunately, I don't think they have a vehicle parked in that side of their garage, but this mess is still going to require some major cleanup.

Update (same day)

Once the rain let up and I was able to get closer, I found that the damage was much worse than I thought. The main trunk is split down to below ground level. I'm pretty sure the tree is a total loss. Even if it survives - and desert willows are nothing if not hardy - it won't be something pretty enough that we'd want to look at it every day.

Photo of icy desert willow
Photo of split desert willow trunk
Photo of split desert willow trunk
I received several awesome Christmas gifts, including a new iPad air, a high-powered flashlight, and a set of electronic shooters muffs, but not every cool gadget is hi-tech. Take, for example, this macro focusing rail:

Photo of Fotodiox Focusing Rail

One of the challenges of macro photography is the shallow depth of field, meaning that often only a tiny portion of the subject is in focus. This situation can result in some very striking photos, but sometimes you want to capture the entire subject.

One way to do this is to take several photos, each of which is focused on a different part of the subject, and blend them using a program like Photoshop. This technique comes with its own challenge, and that's the difficulty of precisely focusing on different places of the subject. In an extreme closeup, even the photographer's breathing can inadvertently affect the focus area.

This problem is solved by using a tripod, but making micro adjustments in the distance to the subject can be tricky. That's where a focusing rail comes in. It attaches to a standard tripod and then the camera attaches to the rail. You then use the knobs on the rail to move the camera backwards and forwards (as well as side-to-side). This allows for very precise and uniform refocusing on the subject.

I haven't had a chance to do much with the new gadget, but I did create a simple demo that shows a bit of what it can do.

First, here's a sample macro photo of my Aggie class ring (ain't it a beauty?).

Photo of Aggie Ring

It's not a bad photo - has a pleasingly artsy look - but what if I wanted more of the details of the ring to be in focus? More like this, for example (ignore the year on the ring; I'm sure that's a typo):

Photo of Aggie Ring

This photo is actually a blend of the following images:

Focus point 1
Focus point 2
Focus point 3
Focus point 4

Each succeeding photo was taken after turning the knob on the rail a fraction of an inch to move the camera closer and bring a different part of the ring into focus. I also used the timer on the camera to avoid even the slightest shake.

I then imported these four photos into Photoshop using Adobe Bridge's "Load files into Photoshop layers tool"  (I could have also used Photoshop's "Load Files into Stack" command found in the Scripts menu). I did some minor editing to try to make the various images the same size (as you move the camera closer, the resulting photo will be a bit larger), and then applied the "Auto-Blend Layers" command (found in Photoshop's Edit menu). The first ring photo shown above sprang into being.

I found it interesting how Photoshop decided which parts of each photo to use in creating the composite image. Here's how each layer looked after the Auto-Blend command was applied:

Blend 1
Blend 2
Blend 3
Blend 4

Once again, the magic of Photoshop is somewhat baffling. But it's even more awesome to consider that focus stacking pre-dates digital photography; I can't imagine accomplishing this in a darkroom.

In case you're wondering, here's how the camera and focusing rail setup looks:

Photo of Camera and focusing rail setup

Oh, and I must give credit to this brief tutorial on PetaPixel for clarifying exactly how to use Photoshop for this technique. The more I learn, the more I understand how little I really know.

So, if you're contemplating trying your hand at macro photography, even an inexpensive focusing rail will give you more flexibility, whether or not you plan to use the blending techniques described in this article.

New Year's Day at Casa Fire Ant
January 1, 2015 11:35 AM | Posted in:

It's 11:03 a.m. and I'm still in sweats. We just killed a pot of coffee, a tray of cinnamon rolls (Sister Schubert's, of course) and a rasher of bacon (whatever a "rasher" is). The Rose Parade is on TV, we're rapidly killing BTUs via the gas log, it's 24º, and we're still iced in.

In other words, it's a perfect New Year's Day.

We brought in the new year while streaming a cheesy Netflix movie (something involving hipsters trying to survive an earthquake in Chile). We actually gave up around 1:00 a.m. when we saw that there were still 40 minutes left; our inner party animals are pretty domesticated.

I guess our newspaper delivery person is having an even more leisurely NYD than us, since the paper hasn't yet shown up. No problem; it's probably full of the stuff I'm about to share with you.

I think we got a bit more ice overnight, and the silence in the neighborhood continues to be deafening. It's so unusual to hear almost no traffic noise from any direction, but at the same time, my footsteps on the crackling ice seem to echo throughout the entire neighborhood.

If we must have an ice storm, this is the kind we want: just heavy enough to add some visual interest, but not enough to damage anything. Here are some scenes, for the Historical Records.

This sunset was actually a few days earlier. We've had a lot of these flaming phenomena lately. I just finally happened to have a camera with me to capture one.

Photo of a West Texas sunset

I've always liked icicle Christmas lights, but never thought we'd have some with the real thing.

Photo of a Christmas light with icicle

Our palm tree had a tough winter last year, and it never really recovered over the summer. Isn't this the saddest-looking tree you've ever seen? I'm not sure it will be with us by the end of 2015.

Photo of an ice-covered palm tree

Fortunately, we didn't have a lot of wind with the ice, but we still managed to attract a tumbleweed. (OK, technically this is the carcass of a careless weed, not a Russian thistle, but the result is pretty much the same.)

Photo of an ice-covered tumbleweed

As I mentioned, so far we've had no damaging effects from the ice, unlike what happened in November of 2013. The desert willow is holding up nicely.

Photo of an ice-covered desert willow

The photinia is a bit shocked by this development.

Photo of ice-covered photinia leaves

I can't even remember what this plant looked like in warmer times.

Photo of an ice-covered plant

I briefly considered taking my morning coffee out here. Interesting how quickly one can dismiss a bad idea.


Photo of an ice-covered yard

I hope your New Year's Day is equally scenic, peaceful, and relaxing!

NYE 2014
December 24, 2014 2:37 PM | Posted in:

Well, this is certainly not how we planned to spend New Year's Eve. I'm sitting at the computer, hammering out one last inane post while listening to the sounds of The Twilight Zone marathon on SyFy and of Debbie making chili in the kitchen. There's nothing wrong with any of those things - in fact, there's a lot right about them, on just about any other night - but we were supposed to be dancing in the new year, as we have for the past several years.

But weather happened. Mother Nature laid down a sheet of ice yesterday evening and continuing overnight, and getting out on the streets tonight, especially after midnight, is a game with odds I don't like.  

So, here we are, and I hope you're not reading this on New Year's Eve, because that might mean that your social life is as bad as ours. Or maybe your weather is. Yeah, let's go with that.

So, here are some things running through my mind on this final day of 2014.



Her: The Interview stars Seth Rogen and is a collection of juvenile trash.

Him: Really? I thought it was just a zany comedy.

Her: Which part of "Seth Rogen" did you not understand?



The preceding is not to say that juvenile trash can't also be a zany comedy. Tropic Thunder was on TV today, and I hadn't seen it since it was released in 2008. It has very little socially redeeming value, but it's also funny as heck, and if you can catch it on a basic cable channel, the censors make it much less cringe-worthy.



New Year's Day is my favorite holiday of the year, because it comes with absolutely no expectations or agenda (other than black eye peas). We can sleep late, we have no social responsibilities, and it's perfectly acceptable - nay, expected - that the day will require nothing more strenuous than watching football or movies.

Having said that, we also indulge ourselves in the superstitious tradition that "whatever you do on New Year's Day, you'll do all year long," and so we try to get in a bike ride or a run or another kind of workout. However, given that the forecast for tomorrow calls for continued icy conditions and a high temperature in the lower thirties, I doubt that a bike ride will happen. Strike that: a bike ride will definitely not happen.



We did get in a bike ride on January 1, 2014, according to the Historical Excel Spreadsheet of Physical Activities. In fact, we rode 22.2 miles in what I characterized as "very windy" conditions.

The HESPA also documents that I managed to average just over 31 minutes of aerobic workouts (running, bicycling, or elliptical trainer) throughout the year. My annual goal is to average at least 30 minutes a day, so I can count 2014 as a success in that regard.

The breakdown of that activity - just to demonstrate my Excel skills and/or OCD tendencies - is as follows: running - 150 miles (I don't run very much, to be honest); cycling - 850 miles; elliptical - 94 hours (there's a mileage figure to go along with that, but it's probably not very accurate; I record it mainly to track relative intensity of workouts). And, finally, those statistics came from an average of 19 workouts per month. I'm hardly a workout addict, having learned that rest days are essential for maintaining a consistent level of fitness and activity.



My other accomplishment this year was another cover-to-cover reading of the Bible, which I believe was the 24th consecutive year I've done that. As important as staying physically active might be, I believe that staying in The Word is even more so. Every verse in the Bible is there for a reason, and we do ourselves a spiritual disservice by ignoring any of them.

In closing, my wish for you in 2015 is that it's a year of peace, joy, and blessings, mixed with just enough challenges to make you fully appreciate the rest. Thanks for stopping by, and we'll catch you next year.

Sleeping Child :: Great I Am
December 24, 2014 9:39 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insightful and/or supportive comments welcome; haterz will be doomed to an eternity of standing behind me in a checkout line. Either way: email me or slap something onto my Facebook page.