Fort Stockton by Foot (and then some...)
September 1, 2015 8:58 PM | Posted in: ,

City limit sign
 
Next time you're in a small town, grab a camera and go for a walk. I'll wager you'll notice some details that are either missing in the city, or easily overlooked. 
 
I did just that last Saturday in Fort Stockton. For those who aren't from this part of the country, that's the west-of-the-Pecos burg where I spent my [misin]formative years. I still have family there and so we're regular visitors. Here are some of the highlights of our three mile stroll.


The path less traveled is sometimes enhanced by the scent of creosote.

Trail through mesquite and creosote


The irony of a buzzard constructed of scavenged parts wasn't lost on us.
 
Buzzard made of spare parts


"As long as we're Romaining around, lettuce follow this trail..."
 
Salad Fork sign

Red, white, blue...and purple sage
 
Red, white & blue windmill behind purple sage

Someone steered him wrong
 
Longhorn skull


I mowed this yard when I was in junior high. It seems much smaller now. And quite a bit less grassy.
 
Big front yard


This ammonite shrine is as awesome as it is inscrutable. Note the petrified wood base.
 
Fossils and cactus


It's hard to see in this photo, but someone is having their asphalt-shingled roof painted. This house will be visible from the moon. 
 
Roof being painted white


This is Comanche Elementary. My first grade classroom is somewhere in this photo; there are two more wings in back where I went to second and third grades. The school is now abandoned. I swear I had nothing to do with that.
 
Comanche Elementary School


This is all that's left of the original playground equipment. Today, it would either be the subject of a lawsuit, or relocated to the Navy Seals training facility.
 
Playground equipment


This palm tree has no business being so content in the back yard of the house I grew up in. It's outlived many other trees, gardens, people, etc., and proves that benign neglect is sometimes healthy.

Palm Tree


Addendum: Later, on the same day, we traveled down US 385 to Marathon and dined at the 12 Gage Restaurant, adjacent to the Gage Hotel. The route takes you through the Sierra Madera Astrobleme -- which, I believe, is Latin for "big honkin' hole" -- and past some of the prettiest scenery in the state. It looks desolate, and it is, but that doesn't mean it's not teeming with life. On the return trip, around dusk, we encountered the following wildlife:

  • Deer (some of which made the runty Hill Country specimens look like something you'd buy at Toys 'R Us);
  • Javelina;
  • Bullbats (aka Common Nighthawks, or more imaginatively, Goatsuckers) swarming to catch their insect dinners before total darkness fell (they have no echolocation capabilities like bats), and one of which fell prey to the windshield of our SUV (perhaps confirming that they have no echolocation capabilities like bats);
  • One very long -- about the width of our vehicle -- snake stretched across the highway;
and, last but not least, but perhaps most intriguing...

  • One wedding party standing in the middle of the highway so the photographer could shoot the bride and groom with the dramatic sunset at their backs.
US 385 between Marathon and Fort Stockton, Texas

New Toy: USB Turntable for Digitizing Albums
August 27, 2015 9:35 PM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Turntable

This arrived from Amazon yesterday afternoon...my first new turntable in, oh, about three decades. It's an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB direct drive model, and it's pretty awesome, considering my rather modest needs and expectations.
 
We have a turntable but it has a few shortcomings. First, it doesn't play 78 rpm records; more about why that's important in a moment. Second, it doesn't have an integrated pre-amp, meaning that it must be connected to a receiver or amplifier with a phono input. And, finally, it doesn't have USB connection capability (that should be obvious, considering that USB didn't exist in the mid-80s).
 
I chose this model primarily for a combination of features (all of the above) and price (I could have spent a lot more, but I'm not an audiophile and this turntable will see limited use). And I had two reasons for wanting a new turntable. I want to digitize my record collection. It's not extensive - maybe 200 albums - but it does have some sentimental value, and there are some songs that seem to be unavailable through the normal online channels. The album shown in the photo is a good example. Elbow Bones and the Racketeers had one hit in the 80s, A Night in New York, and the album where it resides isn't available in digital form on iTunes or Amazon.com.
 
Photo - Label of old 78 rpm recordIn addition, while packing my father-in-law's household possessions in preparation for his move to a new home, we ran found about forty twenty-four 78 rpm records, 10" in diameter which is smaller than the 33 1/3 rpm LPs we're accustomed to seeing, and neatly organized in sleeves in two binders. The labels on most of these records say "Sample Copy - Not for Sale" or "Special Record For Radio Station." They appear to be demo records, each containing one song, provided by the recording studios for radio airplay, and my FIL has no recollection as to how they ended up in his possession. Based on some quick internet research, they seem to be from the period 1950-1952. I don't think they are collector's items, but I would like to listen to them and capture some or all of the music in digital format. So, I need a turntable that will play 78s and also easily connect to a computer.
 
This turntable meets those needs and more. It also has tone-arm weight, tracking, and height adjustment capability, variable pitch control, and reverse mode (so I can reality-test the presence of all those purported Satanic messages on various records). Admittedly, the pitch control and reverse mode are nothing I'll ever use, unless I plan to become a DJ in my retirement years, but they're still fun to experiment with.
 
And, finally, the turntable has a switchable line-out/phono-out output so that I can connect it either to my A/V receiver or to powered speakers (as shown in the photo) or a computer (via the aforementioned USB connection).
 
What it doesn't have is auto start/stop. You have to manually place the needle on the record and then remove it at the end of playback. AT makes a comparable model with the auto capability, but I didn't want to pay the extra money.
 
This is also the first record player I've bought that required assembly after unboxing. The stylus, counterweight, platter, and pad all had to be installed, and then the tone-arm balance and tracking had to be adjusted to meet the specs of the stylus (2 grams weight recommended, if you must know). The documentation of the steps for doing all of this was quite clear, in direct contravention of the international standards for stereo instructions. And accomplishment of these tasks gives me the appearance of an audiophile without needing any actual competency.
 
The unit ships with the free, open-source sound editor Audacity which can be used to clean the digitized sound by removing the clicks and pops that plague vinyl. It also has some special capabilities and a recommended workflow for recording and cleaning sounds from 78 rpm records. This is more complicated than you might think; well, at least it's more complicated than I expected.*
 
However, before I can begin the digitizing process for the 78s, I'll need a new stylus. Styluses (aka "needles") for modern 45s or LPs are narrower and will damage the grooves of 78s, as well as pick up more surface noise than usual. 78s also usually require a heavier tone-arm weight to properly track. So, I've ordered this stylus from LP Gear that's specifically designed to fit the AT cartridge that came with the turntable. It's also designed for a slightly lower tracking force than many 78 styluses and I think that will help to extend the life of the records.
 
My ears aren't discriminating enough, nor is my A/V system sophisticated enough to discern the legendary "warmth" of vinyl-based music (vs. the alleged "coldness" of its digital manifestation), but there's something about the physical interaction with the medium that's pleasantly nostalgic. It's similar to the difference between holding a printed book vs. reading it on a Kindle or iPad. It's not necessarily better, but the differences are worth preserving, even if for reasons that aren't entirely logical.

*Between the time I started writing this post and when I actually published it, the new stylus arrived and I installed it and tested it with the 78s; it works perfectly. I've also installed and configured the software and connected the turntable to my Mac Pro, and that is also working well. Stay tuned for some audio samples!

Hotter'N Hell 16.09
August 22, 2015 5:28 PM | Posted in: ,

Bike Computer

The photo shows one of the computers on our tandem bicycle following our ride this afternoon. The number in the lower left corner of the screen is the temperature in degree Fahrenheit. No, it wasn't 10º in Midland, Texas, in August; the computer is obviously not designed for hot weather as the temperature readout only has two digits. So, it's actually reading 110º.

However, that's not accurate either. It's always read much higher than the actual temperature (Weatherbug said that it was really only 100º), at least in hot weather. It's fairly accurate in more temperate conditions.

Regardless, 100 was plenty warm. We don't normally choose to ride in this kind of heat but because of other obligations and errands, it just worked out that we didn't start until almost 4:00 p.m. We were out for only about an hour, and it wasn't horrible, but that's about our limit in these conditions.

We have Camelbak packs on our bike and so it's easy to stay hydrated. But even that's a challenge because the water in the short length of plastic tube heats up quickly, so that your first mouthful is bathwater warm. You quickly learn to spit out that first mouthful in order to get to the cold water.

It is possible to acclimate to the heat, and to some extent we've done so. You can't live in West Texas in the summer without getting accustomed to it. And while it's often said as a joke, it is true that a dry heat is much easier to bear. Humidity this afternoon was only 19%...and even that is a bit high; it's not unusual to have humidity less than 10%.

This isn't the worst heat I've ridden in...not even close. On June 27, 1994, Midland experienced its all-time record high temperature: 116º. I was curious about how it would feel to bicycle in that kind of heat and so I went for a ride - a short ride. It wasn't much fun, to be honest, and I don't recommend it.

But we've also ridden in a few Hotter'N Hell Hundreds, and the heat and humidity in Wichita Falls in late August is just brutal. Again, it's something that you might want to experience just to say you did it, but it takes a special kind of crazy to ride it year after year. If you fall into that category, you have my respect.

Hands on with the Nest Cam
August 20, 2015 6:26 PM | Posted in:

I purchased and installed a Nest Cam wifi security camera yesterday and so far I'm finding it to be exactly as advertised: easy to install and configure, and impressively useful. The device itself is small and elegantly designed.
 
Photo of Nest CamWe already have Nest smart thermostats in our home, and the camera integrates seamlessly into the account that monitors and controls those devices. The camera connects to your home wifi network, and the free Nest app (works with iOS and Android devices) lets you monitor the live video feed from the camera wherever you are.
 
Picture quality is impressive - up to full 1080p high def color with digital zoom capabilities. The camera has integrated infrared LEDs that provide night vision, and it works quite well. Even in a completely dark room the black-and-white video feed is clear and detailed.
 
The camera also has a microphone and speakers so you can listen and talk to anyone near it. The microphone is quite sensitive; I can hear sounds from a TV in another room across the house.
 
The camera can be configured to send an alert to your phone when it detects motion or sound (can be configured separately). You can create a day-by-day schedule of times when the camera will automatically turn on and off, and if you have a Nest thermostat, the camera can coordinate with that device to automatically turn on when you're away.
 
When it detects enough motion (or sound) to activate, it then records a short video which is stored for review. I'm not sure how long those videos are kept, or how many are accessible. Nest has an option called "Nest Aware" that allows you to store up to 30 days of videos for an annual fee ranging from $100 to $300. At this point, I don't see a need for this option so I can't comment on how well it works. However, the Nest Aware account offers some additional features like the ability to "fine-tune" the motion and sound sensitivity of the camera. For example, according to the Nest website, the camera will activate when the doorbell rings, but not when your air conditioner cycles on, because it can identify the latter as background noise. You can also export video clips into a format that can be shared with others, which I suppose would be useful if your dog is apt to do amusing things in your absence.
 
The camera comes with several mounting options. It can be placed on a shelf, permanently mounted to a wall, or attached to a refrigerator door or metal filing cabinet via a magnetic base. Note that the camera is for indoor use only, and must be plugged into an AC wall outlet.
 
You can connect up to ten cameras to a Nest location (with a limit to two locations for a given Nest account). The camera is $199, and is available at all the usual big box stores as well as online via the Nest website.
 
We already have a camera as a part of our security system, but it's pretty dumb and clunky compared to the Nest Cam. Even the security system installer couldn't get the camera to connect to our wifi and so we've got a separate wireless router just for that camera. I'm seriously considering replacing it with a Nest Cam.
We spent another long* weekend at Horseshoe Bay, where the six-week dry spell was broken, albeit in an insignificant way, by a quarter inch rain shower on Saturday morning. Normally, we would have groused about the disruption of our plan for a morning bike ride, but in light of the drought conditions we were happy to linger over coffee. And by early afternoon, all signs of the rain had disappeared.

The change in the countryside due to the sudden absence of rainfall is startling. After record spring precipitation that raised lakes to levels not seen in years and produced a stunning crop of wildflowers, most of the Hill Country had no rain in July, and the dry spell continues in August. Couple that with a long streak of triple digit temperatures, and the effect is depressing, and a little dangerous, as the threat of wildfire is very real.

Below are some pictures that illustrate the change in conditions. These photos show the land adjacent to our townhouse. They were taken about a month apart, and the differences are striking.

HSB field - July, 2015

HSB field - August, 2015

There's a small catch pond behind our neighborhood. It collects rainfall runoff, and up until now, it has stayed full. Again, here's a view from July, compared to now.

HSB pond - July, 2015

HSB pond - August, 2015

The second photo was taken after the rainfall I mentioned above. I suspect the pond is now completely dry.

I mentioned the wildfire threat, and it's very real. We saw evidence of small fires along the highway, and Horseshoe Bay itself had a fire that burned more than 100 acres a few weeks ago. On the drive home last Monday, we encountered a fire that had just started on the side of the highway between Llano and Brady. It was actively burning and was large enough that there was nothing we could do with our small extinguisher; Debbie called 911 to report it. I trust it was contained because I've seen no reports about it.

It's a strange state of affairs when the countryside in West Texas is greener than that in the Hill Country.

Despite the depressing heat and drought, we still managed to enjoy a dance. We stopped off at Pecan Street Brewing in Johnson City for dinner...our first visit, but definitely not our last. We then headed over to the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs where the People's Choice Band was performing. 

People's Choice Band at Mercer Street Dance Hall

People's Choice is a cover band from Austin and they are, in a word, awesome. Their set was primarily country, no doubt because of the venue, but they played everything from Patsy Cline to Meghan Trainor, and from Uptown Funk to Luckenbach. The lead singer bears a physical resemblance to Jim Morrison, but I doubt the Lizard King could have pulled off such an uncanny vocal impression of Willie Nelson. Anyway, if you have the chance to catch PCB (as they refer to themselves), my advice is to not miss it.

As I previously reported, Mercer Street is a great dance venue, but this Saturday night event wasn't without its challenges. It seems that the owner's daughter was celebrating her 16th birthday and so we had to contend with more than fifty teenagers in addition to the usual adult crowd. It was literally standing room only for much of the night, and there were times when the dance floor was so packed that we elected to remain observers. Here's an example (keep in mind, however, that this was a line dance, meaning that even if you couldn't dance or didn't have a partner, you were still qualified to be out there).

Line dancers pack the floor at Mercer Street Dance Hall

It would have been easy to resent the presence of the kids (and, honestly, had we known in advance about their presence we might have elected to stay home) but they were well-behaved and entertaining to watch, so we rolled with it. Crowded dance floors are just a fact of life, and there's no point getting stressed about it.

It's an hour's drive from Dripping Springs back to Horseshoe Bay, so we bailed a bit early and got home around midnight. But we were up early enough on Sunday morning to make the 9:00 service at First Baptist Church in Marble Falls, where they were enjoying their first service in their new complex overlooking Lake Marble Falls. It's a beautiful facility and is a few minutes closer to us than the old location. The planning for the new church began thirteen years ago; a lot of hard thought, hard work, and financial commitment went into the project and it shows. At some point, if our plans work out, this will be our post-retirement church home.

New worship center at 1st Baptist Marble Falls

The church's worship center has large windows on one side that I think give a view of the lake. They had remote controlled covers which were closed during the service, which I assume was to lessen the temptation to gaze at the scenery instead of listen to the sermon.

We also had a little wildlife excitement during the weekend, when Debbie spotted this snake in the corner of our garage.

Small snake in our garage

It's hard to get a true sense of scale (no pun intended) from the photo; the snake was about 18 inches long, but very fast and very aggressive. There was quite a debate on Facebook about the identification of the species, but the final consensus is that it's either a rat snake or a coachwhip. Neither is poisonous, which is good, since it disappeared under an exterior wall just outside our garage.

I did manage to get a video of the snake, which I think is interesting because of its "warning" behavior. Note the vibration of the tail (near the end of the video), like you'd see from a rattlesnake. As it turns out, many species of snakes exhibit this behavior (including the quite venomous copperhead).



We discovered that Monday mornings are probably the best times for paddleboarding on the lake. We ate breakfast at the resort hotel, then grabbed our Bic SUPs and spent more than an hour on glass-smooth water. I think we saw a total of three boats and one jet ski during that entire time...it was wonderful. Afterward, we hopped on the bike for one last ride around Horseshoe Bay West, and then it was time to bring the weekend to a close. 

Returning to 5:00 a.m. alarms, 9-hour work days, and lawn mowing chores is difficult, but without them, a vacation is more satisfying because of the contrast. 

Ah, who am I kidding? I could get used to "vacation" on a permanent basis!

*"Long" in this case refers only to time, not perception. Our "long" weekend passed all too quickly.

Our Excellent Summer Texas Music Tour
August 3, 2015 8:48 PM | Posted in: ,

July was Live Music Month here at the Gazette, as we had the opportunity to hear - and sometimes dance to - the music of an interesting variety of Texas bands. Here's a quick rundown of what we saw and heard, and also a brief review of each venue in case you want to visit any of them.

The Fourth of July weekend found us at the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs. Two bands were on the bill that night: Silo Road, an Austin quartet playing Texas country and Americana and the headliner, the Tejas Brothers out of Fort Worth.

We arrived in time for just a few songs from Silo Road, but found them to be musically tight and danceable. We'd like to hear more from them in the future.

The Tejas Brothers are musically diverse, playing everything from George (Jones and Strait) to Joe Ely and Freddy Fender. Besides being excellent musicians, they're also polished entertainers, and whether you dance or simply listen, you'll enjoy their show. Frontman Dave Perez is an accordion virtuoso with vocal skills and personality to match.

Tejas Brothers at Mercer Street Dance Hall
Tejas Brothers

Venue Overview: Mercer Street Dance Hall is a relatively new (opened in 2013) venue with a unique terraced seating area, full bar, and a family-friendly non-smoking atmosphere. It has a good-sized plywood dance floor that was perfect for boot scootin'. The clientele was diverse, with a big local contingent sprinkled with Austin hipsters.

The following week we made our way to Buchanan Dam for the regular Wednesday live music dance at Pardner's, where Bubba Cox and the Can't Hardly Playboyz did not live up to their name, because those guys can flat out play some classic country and western swing. Bubba's 'Boyz are the house band at The Cotton Club in Granger, but they make the trip west to Buchanan fairly regularly. A highlight was the vocals of the keyboardist, David Kyle.

Venue Overview: Pardner's is the prototypical Texas honky tonk, with an octagonal (and very slippery dance floor that was often too crowded for spot dancing...you'll be fine if you keep moving, though) and a demographic that skews to late baby boomer (not a surprise when you consider the music starts at 5-ish on Wednesdays). It's a big venue, but be warned: smoking is allowed. Fortunately, we didn't see many smokers, and the ventilation system is top-notch.

Our next stop was at the historic Luckenbach Dance Hall to hear The Merles, an Austin quintet that specializes in "classic country and western swing." They had just begun their set when we arrived, and we experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to match the look of the musicians with their sound. I won't try to guess their ages but I feel confident that the music they played was that of their parents (or grandparents). I would also venture to say that Bob Wills, Merle Haggard (the band's namesake), Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings would give hearty approval to their musical homage. Their drummer confirmed that they come by their musical tastes honestly; he told me he grew up listening to those classics in the cab of a tractor in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.

We look forward to hearing them again.

The Merles at Luckenbach
The Merles

Venue Overview: Luckenbach probably competes with Gruene Hall for the title of best known dance hall in Texas. We've danced there on many occasions and always enjoy it. It's another family-friendly venue. The dance floor can be a bit on the crowded side, but on this particular night the tables and benches were arranged so that the dance floor extended down the center of the entire length of the hall, which seemed to open things up more than usual. Note that Luckenbach has no air conditioning, so come prepared to sweat.

We later traveled to Fredericksburg for the annual "Night In Old Fredericksburg" festival, which took place at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds. There was a variety of music throughout the day and night, and we sampled three distinctly different acts.

The first was a polka fusion group (that's totally a thing) from Austin called Off the Grid Band. Forget all of your preconceived notions about polka bands; these guys rocked. They did play some traditional German polkas and Cajun zydeco, but they also covered some rock and pop classics (e.g. the Stones' Paint It Black, Steve Miller's Swingtown and Mungo Jerry's In the Summertime). 

Highlights included the use of a Zendrum as the primary percussion instrument, and the absolute shredding skills of the picker who played a Steinburger-looking guitar. (Here's a good review of the band by a polka expert, which I'm not.)

Off the Grid Band at Fredericksburg
The Off The Grid Band

Venue Overview: OTGB was placed under a tent on a gravelly section of parking lot, so dancing was out of the question for us. That wasn't a problem as much of their music didn't lend itself to our style of dancing, but it was so enjoyable to listen to that we didn't mind. This is another band that we'd like to hear again, although preferably in a non-100-degree afternoon outdoor setting.

We returned to the fairgrounds later that evening in time to catch the end of the set by The Seven Dutchmen Orchestra. I counted nine people in the orchestra, so someone is confused about either nationality or gender. Anyway, this group does specialize in traditional polkas, although we danced one very nice waltz and then watched a Chicken Dance competition that went on far too long (one might say that's redundant, and I wouldn't disagree). If this is your musical stein of beer, keep an eye out for them.

The headliner of the night was the Chris Story Band, based in Kerrville although the members live throughout the Hill Country. We've danced to their music multiple times through the years - they've played in Midland on several occasions - and they're consummate professionals (for example, the piano player was in George Strait's band until his retirement last year). Their first set was a little too heavy on the "bro-country" genre that's unfortunately dominating the contemporary Nashville recording scene at present, but the group is quite versatile and you're sure to hear much that you like throughout the night.

The Chris Story Band at Fredericksburg
The Chris Story Band

Venue Overview: The evening dance was held on the "dance slab" at the fairgrounds, a huge uncovered circular chunk of concrete that will easily accommodate fifty couples or more. Although concrete is not the ideal dance surface, this installation is smooth and works just fine with leather-soled boots. And there's nothing quite as enchanting as dancing under the Texas night sky, with a slight breeze to dispel the day's heat.

Our final stop on this musical tour was at the annual "Beer By The Bay" festival at the Horseshoe Bay Resort. It's two nights of music, food, and of course, beer, held on the lush grounds of the resort hotel. We didn't attend the Friday night performances that featured Pam Tillis and Dale Watson, due to previous commitments, but we were there for the Saturday night performances. (In the interest of full disclosure, even though I'm calling this our "July Live Music Month Tour," the following took place on August 1st. I'm sure you can deal with that.)

The first of those was by Brandon Rhyder, another Texas Country (I'm using that as a genre; if you're from Texas, you'll know what I mean) singer/songwriter from Austin. He had a number of enthusiastic fans (and family members) in the audience, but frankly his music didn't suit us, and the sound system was unfortunately turned up to the point of painful distortion. It may be that the environment was such that we didn't get a chance to fully appreciate his talents.

Brandon Rhyder at Horseshoe Bay
Brandon Rhyder

The next performance was, for us anyway, everything the previous one was not. The Nightowls are a 10-piece soul/R&B/pop ensemble from - you guessed it - Austin, and they had the crowd on its feet throughout the night with original and cover tunes and choreography that evoked Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Temptations. We bought one of their CDs after the show, but this is a group that you have to see and hear in person to fully appreciate. Highlight: The closing performance of Shout, complete with audience participation.

The Nightowls at Horseshoe Bay
The Nightowls

The BBTB finale featured the legendary Asleep at the Wheel, a group that's been in continuous existence since 1969, although the only constant member is Ray Benson, its founder.

This was our first time to see this group live, and I had wondered if they could live up to the hype. Listen, you don't win nine Grammy Awards for phoning it in, and we found that, if anything, the hype fell short of the reality. You may not even like Western Swing, but if you get a chance to see them in concert, don't pass it up. Highlights included: a completely unexpected and animated sax solo by the steel guitar player, Eddie Rivers (whose persona up to that point appeared to be an incarnation of Junior Samples in a straw Stetson and pearl-snapped short-sleeved shirt); several astounding fiddle duets; and the ultra-bass notes that Benson hit on one song that could be the cause of the earthquakes that are starting to pop up around Texas.

Asleep at the Wheel at Horseshoe Bay
Asleep at the Wheel

Venue Overview: The grass-covered grounds of the Horseshoe Bay Resort are a pleasant setting for these performances, but it's a crime against nature to have groups like The Nightowls and Asleep At The Wheel appear at a venue without a dance floor. Nevertheless, more than a few people braved the lawn in front of the stage to dance, and MLB and I got in a very nice swing dance to one of AATW's tunes. OTOH, if you like to get up close and personal with the musicians, you'll find no better setting that this. There are no barricades in front of the small, low stage so one can get almost uncomfortably close to the performers.
Photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

I was captivated by this photo someone shared on Twitter and tracked it down in the Library of Congress archives. It's an undated, uncredited picture of what some have dubbed the "Mark Twain Tree" (which is how it was titled on the Twitter post). I can't confirm this (and, in fact, I doubt it; see below for my reasoning), but if it's true, this California sequoia was felled in 1891 at the age of 1,341 years, according to this website. The tree was 331 feet tall, and the base of its trunk measured 90 feet in circumference. Although a couple of cross sections were saved, the rest of the massive tree went to make "grape stakes, fence posts and shingles."

Those are the facts surrounding this image, and they comprise a remarkable story on their own.

On the other hand...I have questions. Questions that might generate other stories. Let's take a closer look at parts of the photo, and wonder...

Closeup of portion of photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

  • Who are these people? Are they married? If so, why are they standing apart from each other?
  • On a related note, is the fact that the man is standing closer to the saw than to the woman meaningful?
  • What was the woman's role at the job site?
  • The woman seems to be dressed more formally than one might expect at a lumber harvesting operation. Was she a visitor?
  • Her expression doesn't seem to indicate that she's happy to be there. Is there a reason other than that was the typical expression for photographic subjects during that era?
  • The man's garb, on the other hand, is well-worn, even shabby. But should we assume that he was a member of the team who felled the tree?
Let's move to the man on the ladder...

Closeup of portion of photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

  • It's not readily evident from the full photo, but this man is missing part of his right forefinger. How did he lose it?
  • Is that a wound on his forehead, or simply a strange hair pattern?
  • The ladder on which he's standing is obviously hand-built. Was he nervous about mounting and posing on it?
There are a couple of tools in the photo...

Closeup of portion of photo of 'Mark Twain Redwood'

  • What was the purpose of the mallet (seen at the lower left of the original photo)? Was is used to drive wedges into the cut to keep the saw from binding?
  • The white rod (seen leaning against the tree on the right of the photo) might possibly be a sort of crowbar, but it doesn't appear metallic. What was its composition and purpose?
  • And while we're cogitating on the tools, how about that saw? If the circumference was 90', the diameter was almost 30' and you'd want a few feet extra for a good cutting action. Who made saws that long? From a distance, the photo suggests that two saws were welded together, but a closeup shows no obvious seam. Also, the saw is bowed along its length, rather than being straight. Did this provide more control of the cut, or is it designed to speed up the cut?
  • However...the man standing on the ground is perhaps 6 feet tall. The trunk he's standing in front of is not five times his height...it's closer to three, making the circumference less than 60 feet. Assuming the 90' circumference reported for the Mark Twain Tree is true, this cannot be the same tree. So, where and when was this photo taken?
  • How long did it take to cut down the tree? Hours? Days? Did it fall precisely where the lumberjacks intended?
  • Once the tree was felled, at least two additional cuts were made to create the cross sections mentioned in the article linked above. This implies that the saw operators worked from ladders on either side of the trunk. We might imagine that the sawing itself would be easier, but balancing on ladders surely complicated the process. Were there any ladder-related mishaps?
  • And, finally, did those who cut down this centuries old tree feel any remorse at their actions?
In the cosmic scheme of things, none of these questions are important. My point in raising them is simply to suggest that curiosity about seemingly trivial details might lead to fascinating stories, when answered with imagination and creativity. That's your assignment for the day.

Miss-App
July 25, 2015 3:11 PM | Posted in: ,

Update (July 27, 2015): The following post details some issues with the new app that caused me to withdraw my recommendation for its use. I brought those to the developer's attention a few days ago, and just received a reply. They say they are working on some of the styling issues and investigating why one article is not displaying in its entirety. More important, they have turned off the feature that caused external links to appear as links to my own articles, which I felt was misleading and inappropriate. Given this response, I withdraw my withdrawal of my recommendation. Or something. Does that make sense?

A couple of days ago, I gave a halfhearted recommendation to a new Fire Ant Gazette iOS app. I was willing to live with the weaknesses of the app - primarily the poor translation of the formatting of the blog - in exchange for the admittedly selfish and subjective "cool factor." 

However, having lived with the app a while longer, I've uncovered a couple of additional issues that have caused me to change my mind.

The first problem is the app's inexplicable tendency to leave out entire sentences. This was demonstrated in rather ironic fashion when the first sentence of the post linked above was omitted from the app version. This is ironic because that sentence contained the link to the app download page.

The second issue is more egregious, because it tries to pass off promotional material from the app developer, DWNLD, as something I've posted. Take a look at this screenshot from the app:

Screenshot of Fire Ant Gazette app
The highlighted icon is an ad link.

The portion highlighted in yellow is actually a link to DWNLD's website, but it's formatted and placed in the "Read More" section where everything else is a link to additional Gazette articles. I think this is misleading and I don't appreciate the implication that I'm somehow endorsing or recommending DWNLD's services. 

I initially thought that this is a marketing ploy for DWNLD, but I now realize that almost every post has a similar link (or links) in the "Read More" section which lead to external, third party websites linked in the specific article. Again, this is misleading, as it appears that they are links to more Gazette articles. It's also superfluous, because I already provided embedded links in the article; there's no need to randomly recreate them in the "Read More" section.

In effect, DWNLD is coopting my content, and deciding what to emphasize. I don't appreciate the editorial intervention.

I emailed DWNLD with my concerns about both of these issues, but have not received a response. Where that leaves things is that, for now anyway, I no longer recommend downloading this app. And if I can't get either an acceptable explanation or solution, I'm going to request that the app be removed from the App Store. 

I have enough trouble managing the Gazette writer without also having to manage a third party "editor."

There's an App for This
July 23, 2015 6:02 PM | Posted in: ,

Screenshot of Gazette app download pageProving there's no content too worthless to warrant such treatment, the Fire Ant Gazette now has its own app,

Lest you think I've suddenly acquired ambition and skill, let me assure you that I had nothing to do with it. A company called DWNLD specializes in creating turnkey apps from existing websites, and their apparent business model is to do this on an unsolicited basis, and then to notify the content owner of its existence. Why they chose the Gazette for this treatment is a mystery, but "desperation" comes to mind.

Not only did DWNLD (not sure why they chose to yell their name) create the app, but they did the heavy lifting to get it added to Apple's App Store so that anyone with inadequate media consumption standards can download and install it for free (sorry, Android and Windows users...this is an iOS-only joint).

Regardless of the reason, I confess that it seems pretty cool that this blog has its own mobile app. (OK, to be honest, I find it hilariously ironic that this Content Free™ site should have yet another way of delivery.)

The app isn't perfect, even apart from its questionable choice of content. For one thing, it's ad-supported, which is how DWNLD makes its money (I get nothing from those ads). So far, the ads have been non-obtrusive and inoffensive, floating at the bottom of the window, although every now and then, a dismissible full-page ad appears.

Also, the translation from my Movable Type blog layout to the app's format is quirky. Some odd line breaks appear at random, and it appears not to recognize some rather basic HTML formatting (like unordered lists). It also doesn't recognize custom style sheets. Navigation through the site is non-intuitive and so far I've been unable to determine whether I can make the app display more than a dozen or so articles (which some visitors will feel is a mercy). Based on the sketchy documentation, it appears the conversion is optimized for WordPress sites, so outlier formats get a more cavalier treatment.

Some of the links in the articles that the app picks up lead back to the actual Gazette website, in a fashion similar to the way Facebook opens website links. This tells me that DWNLD hasn't converted the entire blog, and it's a bit jarring to jump from the mobile-friendly layout into the not-so-friendly website. On the other hand, that does then allow one to access the complete navigation options for the site.

DWNLD provides a few customization options for app owners via a dashboard which is accessible either via a separate mobile app or via desktop browser. I'm still exploring those options, which appear to be limited to layout selection, fonts, and colors. There's an option to upload a logo, but I haven't mastered it because it's not appearing anywhere in the app. Theoretically, any updates to options are automatically published to the App Store.

Screenshot of app on iPhone

On the plus side, the app does a good job of displaying photos and embedded videos, and it pulls photo captions from the ALT tag, thereby reinforcing the importance of that meta data. It seems to recognize and handle jQuery scripts, such as photo slideshows, although not perfectly. The content itself is displayed in a pleasing manner, and is of course optimized for mobile viewing, something I haven't taken the time to make the Gazette's website do. But, really, that's the whole point of the app: it's not intended to be a replacement for a desktop-accessible website.

Do I recommend this app? I guess my answer falls into the realm of "sure, why not?" It has some obvious flaws, but also some advantages for mobile device visitors. If I was at all concerned about website traffic, I might worry about cannibalization, but I'm not and I don't. The app does lose the serendipity of stumbling across content via search engine, and that's a shame. But the geeky part of me is having a bit of fun figuring out how the whole thing works. And, as I said at the top, it's kinda cool to have a Fire Ant app. So if this is your cup of tea...feel free to drink deeply!

Screenshot of app download page

Rockin' Rabbit
July 16, 2015 8:31 PM | Posted in: ,

I think this speaks for itself.

Cottontail rabbit stretched out on a rock