Desert Willow: Destruction & Rehab
June 26, 2015 3:15 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers may recall my report on the Great Ice Storm of 2015, in which I chronicled the apparent destruction of the beautiful desert willow in our back yard. That event was heartbreaking, and it even made the cover (with accompanying article) [PDF] of the newsletter for the Texas chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. That was a dubious recognition, to be sure, and at the time I thought it might be an obituary.

Six months later, though, the outlook is brighter, thanks to a tree's stubborn persistence (and a little bit of elbow grease on my part). I'm happy to report that we may have the equivalent of a phoenix rising from its ashes in the form of our back yard willow.

Let's trace the major stops in this journey of rebirth, shall we?

It's New Year's Eve 2014 in Midland, Texas, and we're starting to see a bit of winter in the form of a light coating of ice. We weren't particularly concerned at this point; the tree was actually kind of pretty.

Tree on 12/31/14

However, disaster struck two days later, when a stronger ice storm followed that initial event. At 9:45 a.m. the tree was starting to show the burden of the accumulating ice.

Tree on 1/2/15

Over the course of the next hour, the thickening layers of ice began to break major limbs on the tree, as you can see in this photo taken at 11:00 a.m.

Tree on 1/2/15

An hour later, the tree was stressed beyond its limits and the trunk split down to below ground level. This picture was taken at 12:30 p.m.

Tree on 1/2/15

I knew the broken limbs couldn't be salvaged, so I immediately took them off with a bow saw. Here's what the tree looked like by 1:00 p.m. that same day.

Tree on 1/2/15

At this point, all I could think about was how we were going to get rid of the carcass, and what might go in its place. It's worth noting that some have estimated that as many as 40% of the trees in Midland suffered damage from this ice storm, so we were not alone.

However, a couple of weeks later I began to wonder if there was some way to at least make the tree look better, whether we decided to keep it or not. I used a ratcheting tiedown to pull the tree trunk back together (sort of), drilled a hole through both halves, and bolted a threaded metal rod with big washers on each side to hold it in place. (When I grow up, I now want to be an orthopedic surgeon.) I had no illusions that this was a cure, but at least the sight of the tree didn't make us want to cry. Here's how it looked on January 16th.

Tree on 1/16/15

Fast forward a few months. Spring rolls around and in typical desert survival fashion, the tree seems to not realize it's been mortally wounded, as you can see from this photo from April 29th.

Tree on 4/29/15

Cute, huh? But, seriously, nothing that hints at something we can work with. However, I'm having trouble working up the energy to do much about it, other than remove some of the remaining limbs that were hanging over the fence into the alley.

May comes around, as it inevitably does, and we get rainfall bordering on record amounts, and the tree gets a growth spurt that would make any adolescent boy proud. By June 5th, the tree begins to vaguely resemble Wilson, the volleyball that kept Tom Hanks company in the movie Castaway.

Tree on 6/5/15

The tree is now putting on new growth so quickly that you can almost see it in real time. In just over two weeks, it looks like a shrub on steroids, as this picture from June 21st illustrates.

Tree on 6/21/15

At this point, we decide we should just roll with it and see how things play out. There are still some wayward limbs that don't fit in with the new aesthetic...

Tree on 6/25/15

...but the trusty (and only somewhat rusty) bow saw makes short work of them. The result - for now anyway - is the reborn tree shown below that we'll allow to develop the remainder of this year, and then do some additional shaping in the off-season. The moral of the story? Never give up on Mother Nature. Life is resilient, if given the chance.

Tree on 6/25/15 after final pruning

Note: I'm not a professional arborist, and I haven't consulted one, which might be a mistake. If you have any suggestions based on actual experience to help us mold this tree into a masterpiece, feel free to share them.

Car Repair Customer Service Done Right
June 20, 2015 10:19 AM | Posted in: ,

Note: The following is an unabashed plug for a local business. If you're a competitor, don't take it personally. Better yet, use it as motivation.

So, my truck suddenly developed a rather severe front-end shimmy (a highly technical automotive term, implying that my vehicle was demon-possessed), and I began to imagine all sorts of complicated (and expensive) issues. When my usual strategy of ignoring mechanical issues until they went away didn't work, I decided to seek professional help. 

LogoI'd had some mildly unsatisfactory encounters with the dealership, so I did some research and selected Christian Brothers Automotive, a nationally franchised business, as the Shop Least Likely To Disappoint And/Or Bankrupt Me. The business had a very high ratio of positive-to-negative reviews on Google (including at least one from someone I knew), plus their location and hours were very convenient. Here's what happened...

I arrived at the shop a couple of minutes before opening time at 7:00 a.m. Not only were the doors unlocked and the lights on - something that hadn't always been the case at the dealership's advertised opening time - but they were instantly ready to help. I didn't have to wait for the computer to boot up, or for the coffee to finish brewing, or for the front-desk guy to adjust his attitude.

I explained the problem, gave them my contact information and key, and was assured of a call as soon as they'd had a chance to check things out. I was in their clean and comfortable courtesy car (driven by the shop's very personable owner, Trey) on my way to the office by 7:15.

I got a call shortly before 8:00 telling me that they had narrowed things down to a possible issue with one of the tires, and asking permission to rotate a couple of them to test the theory. I told them where to find the security socket for the locking lug nuts, and hung up with another assurance of a call when they had something else to report.

I had another call before 9:00 telling me that the tire swap had indeed eliminated the shimmy issue, but that I probably should get a replacement tire pretty quickly. They theorized that the tire might be delaminating on the inside, since there was no obvious external defect. In any event, the truck was ready to go, and I was relieved to know that there were no complicated (and expensive) repairs to deal with (not that a new tire is an inexpensive proposition nowadays*).

My wife dropped me off at the shop at lunch and I went in the office to settle up. They grabbed my key off the rack, handed it to me, and said "you're all set."

"Uh...OK...but what do I owe you?"

"Nothing. You don't owe us anything."

"Wait a minute...I know you spent some time working on it; surely you need to get paid for that."

"Don't worry about it. Have a great day!"

Alrighty then. That, my friends, is a textbook strategy for creating loyal customers. Customers who also act as evangelists for the business. Customers like, well, yours truly.

*The cloudy lining to this blue sky story is that the following day I had to drop $300 on a new tire. Another technical car repair term is "ouch."

When Species Collide
June 19, 2015 3:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Red Fox
Update (6/21/15) - A lot of people have asked if we're feeding this fox, and that's why he's in our yard so often. The answer is an emphatic "no." I have no doubt that there are some people who are providing food, perhaps inadvertently, in the form of cat or dog food, but I would never leave food for a wild animal. They shouldn't get too comfortable around, or come to depend on humans. Having said that, I do leave a five gallon bucket of rain water uncovered on our back porch, and I've seen the fox get a drink from it from time to time.

If you've spent much time around mockingbirds, you probably know that they're quite territorial, and will vigorously defend what they believe to be their personal space (which is generally arbitrary and expansive). I've shared this before but on at least one occasion I've worn a motorcycle helmet while mowing the lawn to protect my head from a spiteful mockingbird.

I've seen them repeatedly dive at cats, squirrels, and dogs; they're seemingly fearless, and quite persistent. (At the risk of being overly anthropomorphic, I don't believe they're sadistic, like blue jays, which have been known to swoop down and grab baby birds of other species and then drop them to their deaths, seemingly for the fun of it.)

So, it was no great surprise when I witnessed a mockingbird harassing our back yard fox earlier this week. We suspect there's a nest hidden in the thick foliage of the Mexican elder that's planted next to the back wall. I was fortunate enough to have my video camera running when it happened.



By the way - let me put this as delicately as possible - if you watch closely toward the end of the video, I believe there's evidence that dispels the question of whether we're dealing with a regnard or a vixen.

Filling the Dance Gap
June 16, 2015 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent much of a Sunday afternoon downloading Seventies and Eighties TV show theme songs from iTunes and editing them* into gain-consistent 20-second clips with tasteful fade-ins and -outs to serve as fillers between songs in the playlist I'm compiling for an upcoming ballroom dance. If this sounds like fun, you must be a geek, like me. 

You may wonder why a ballroom dance would require the Batman theme as a transition between a fox trot and a waltz. It's a good question, and the answer is simple: it doesn't. But the interval between songs in a prerecorded playlist poses a challenge for the dance DJ or playlist organizer. Continuous music doesn't allow the dancers to gracefully exit the floor to either change partners or take a breather; a comfortable gap solves this problem. 

Now, if a live band has any kind of personality at all, it can fill the space with banter, but with a prerecorded playlist, the gap turns into an awkward silence. One solution is to provide a snippet of music to serve as a transition, such as this one:



Choosing the right music for this purpose presents its own challenge. A snippet of an actual dance song might lead some to believe that it was meant for, well, dancing, and that's awkward in and of itself, as it fades out after twenty seconds. I've found that people respond well to something whimsical and completely different from the dance music, and old TV or movie theme songs seem to perfectly fit the bill.

Not only does this approach fill the silence while providing time for the dancers to do whatever they need to do between songs, it also provides a source of conversation as they attempt to identify some familiar jingles that they may not have heard in a long time. However, one must consider the likely demographics of the attendees, who may be more familiar with the theme from I Love Lucy than that from Friends (or vice versa).

The downside to using filler music, or for that matter, filler silence, is that there's that much less music for dancing. A typical dance set for our group is about fifty minutes, with a ten minute break. That's time enough for about fifteen continuous songs/dances, but a 20-second spacer after each song means that you'll get one or two fewer dances per set. To be honest, most people don't dance to every song in a set, so that's not a big deal. And for those who have the energy to continue dancing, I'll populate the breaks with music, although those songs tend to be out on the fringes of acceptable ballroom dance tunes (think polkas, or country 2 Step, or cumbias).
 
*I use an audio editing app called DSP Quattro for tasks like this. Now that Apple has dropped its DRM from music purchased from the iTunes Store, you can edit songs directly from your hard drive, although the app must first convert them from the native .m4a format to the .aiff format.

Dancing Batman illustration created by Jesse Lonergan 
In 2000, BP Amoco PLC acquired Atlantic Richfield Company for $27 billion, thus bringing a temporary end to my oil and gas career after 25 years. One of the things that ARCO was known for was its corporate artwork collection. Under the guidance of its chairman and CEO, the legendary oilman Robert O. Anderson, the company accumulated over 15,000 pieces of original artwork, housed in offices throughout the country. The collection included works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Herbert Bayer (a close friend of Anderson). Whether an oil company had any business investing so heavily in art is a legitimate question, but R.O. Anderson was a persuasive and charismatic guy, and the board and major shareholders didn't seem to mind.

ArtworkThe good stuff was, of course, on display at the corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, but even our office in Midland housed almost 300 pieces. They weren't universally appreciated - some of the more abstract pieces were subjects of ridicule, in fact - and the corporate art department seemed to be a bit tone-deaf when it came to providing regionally appropriate artwork, although they perhaps were simply trying to refine our philistine West Texas preferences.

Anyway, BP (they dropped Amoco in 2001) apparently didn't share ARCO's tastes in art, and so it was that the Midland office was instructed to dispose of its collection. They didn't express any strong opinions as to how we were to do that, and so during a brainstorming session I suggested that we might donate the proceeds from a sale of the artwork to the United Way, an organization that the Midland office had provided significant support for through the years. That idea quickly evolved into putting the pieces up for public auction, thinking that it might be a way to not only raise a tidy sum of money but also generate some good publicity for the United Way. According to a spreadsheet I found in my files, the original cost of the artwork was more than $75,000, and some of the pieces were thought to have appreciated significantly in value.

I volunteered to build a website that would showcase the artwork, and also provide a means for bidding. This was essentially my last project as a BP employee, and it was a fun one.

ArtworkThe first thing I had to do was photograph and catalog all 287 pieces. I had never photographed artwork, so everything was trial and error. My camera was a state of the art Sony Mavica MVC-FD7 [PDF] digital camera, which recorded .3 megapixel (640x480 pixels) images onto a 3.5" floppy disk. The pictures were pretty bad by today's standards, but given time and budget constraints, shooting high resolution photos on film just wasn't practical. If nothing else, the Sony provided quick turnaround and web-friendly results. (I still have the camera, but no battery to power it.)

If you've ever tried to photograph artwork, you know that it's not easy, especially if it's behind glass. I spent a lot of time in Photoshop cleaning up the images so they at least remotely resembled the originals.

The website design was also pretty laughable by today's standards, but not bad for the early Oughts. The site was actually designed with the idea that it would be distributed on CD-ROM, in addition to online access. But for some reason I can't recall, I resized the images to even smaller dimensions; most were only 250 pixels tall or wide. I suspect it's because at smaller sizes the images out of the camera didn't look so flawed, but that's just a guess. But keep in mind that at that time, home internet access was generally via dial-up modem and bandwidth was extremely limited. Image size was a big deal.

ArtworkThe end of this story gets really fuzzy for me, because I left the company before the final disposition of the art took place. I vaguely recall that the decision was made to donate all the art to the United Way and let that organization decide how best to dispose of it, and I further think they then found a dealer to purchase the entire collection. I have no idea how much they netted from the sale; I hope it was significant, but it didn't get a lot of publicity so perhaps it wasn't.

This is actually just a long introduction to the real purpose of this post, which is an attempt to preserve a little history that would otherwise fade completely out of sight. I have resurrected the original website that showcases - if you can call it that - the artwork that is now in the hands of unknown people. For all I know, much of it is now gracing garage sales around the country, while some might hang in other corporate HQs. But if you follow this link, you'll get a look at that art, as well as a reminder of what websites looked like fifteen years ago. (If you look carefully, you might find the lightning bolts that indicated hyperlinks...how clever was that?)
A front page article in our local newspaper described how the incoming president of the University of Texas at Austin - the second largest university in Texas, by student population - has declined a $1 million salary in favor of "only" $750,000 per year (plus deferred pay, and a bonus which he also requested be capped at 10% instead of the offered 12%). Gregory Fenves is apparently concerned that a seven-figure salary could be negatively perceived by faculty and students.
 
I'm sure that Dr. Fenves has only the purest motives in requesting a lower salary, and in some circles his gesture is getting rave reviews, but I can't help thinking this is yet another attempt to legitimize the angst over so-called income inequality that's become a favorite cause du jour in liberal circles. And the implied, even if unintentional message he's sending to students is that rewards for achievement should somehow be limited for the "greater good of society."
 
A good question to ask Dr. Fenves would be "if $750,000 sends a better message than $1,000,000, wouldn't working for $0 send the best message of all?" Seriously. What level of compensation is "right" for a given position or a given level of achievement? I suspect the answer to that question for many would be "I don't know, but it's less than you're making now."
 
Also, in light of UT's 2014-2015 operating budget of $2.6 billion, Dr. Fenves's gesture is completely inconsequential from a fiscal perspective (it works out to about $5/student). It won't make an iota of difference in program or staff funding, or in the fees and tuition paid by students. If he wanted to truly have a measurable impact, he should have taken the full offer, then donated $250,000 each year to a scholarship fund, or to another worthy charitable cause. But this would have had the effect of transferring control from the "government" to the individual, another liberal no-no.

As a rather ironic footnote, on the same day we learn of Dr. Fenves's gesture, we also learn the details of UT's new basketball coach's contract:


As far as I know, Coach Smart hasn't offered to reduce his $22 million contract, apparently feeling that his individual accomplishments - past and expected - wholly justify that pay. I'm not really a basketball fan so I can't say whether that's a legitimate expectation, but I would never argue that he isn't entitled to receive what the University is willing to give.

Local Nature
May 7, 2015 10:34 PM | Posted in: ,

Just a few random observations from the Wide World of Nature - Midland, Texas Edition.

First, the following video is noteworthy in spite of its poor quality (shot through an office window with a zoomed-in iPhone), because it shows a ladder-backed woodpecker who landed on a red yucca and began working over the blooms. These woodpeckers are not exactly unknown in our parts, but I've only seen a few during the decades of living here, and I've never seen this kind of behavior. (Click the full-screen arrows to get a slightly better view; the ticking noise in the background is not intended to evoke a woodpecker's noise - I just forgot to remove the audio track.)





Can anybody identify this bug? We noticed several of them on one of our Texas Mountain Laurels. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo, but they're really tiny. They weren't damaging the leaves, as far as I could tell (although something is eating on one of our trees).

Update: After some intense scientific investigation (aka, several Google searches), I've narrowed it down to a member of the Pyrrhocoridae family. Possibly. That's my story, anyway.

Bug on Texas mountain laurel leaf

Bug on Texas mountain laurel leaf



A couple of weeks ago I posted some photos of a dove that built a nest - and I use the term very loosely - on top of our concrete block wall, under the eave of the house. I pretty much forgot about it until last week; when I checked it, here's what I found.

Two baby doves in nest

The eggs had hatched and two babies were growing rapidly.

A few days after this photo was taken, we had a serious wind- and thunderstorm. I had assumed that while the nest was of the typical shoddy construction that's the dove's trademark, it was still well-sheltered. However, when I checked on things, I discovered that the storm had had a bigger impact than I expected.

Both doves were on the ground, but one was deceased. The other seemed to be in good shape, and even better, the momma was keeping close watch over it. I got within a few feet and while she was clearly agitated by my presence, she didn't fly away. Again, forgive the quality of the photos, which were taken at dusk with a phone.

Young dove on ground

Mother dove keeping watch



And, finally, anything Nature can do, Photoshop can...well...undo? Overdo? Outdo? You decide.

Cutter bee on firewheel

Workplace Retrace
May 6, 2015 9:43 PM | Posted in:

Someone recently posted a photo on Facebook of their office walls, and that caused me to think about the offices I've had over the course of my career(s). In four decades of work, they've run the gamut from yuck to bling, and in looking back I've realized that some were pretty noteworthy.

  • The Introductory Bullpen - I started as an accountant trainee for an oil company in Dallas, and my first workplace was a desk in a large open room which housed a dozen or twenty others. Cubicles didn't yet exist, at least not in our offices. Our desks were pushed together in groups of four, and we shared a single phone. You learned to filter out all but the most interesting personal conversations.
  • The Voyeur's Paradise - A couple of years later, I was supervising a group that was responsible for implementing the accounting system that would allow us to comply with the newly enacted Windfall Profits Tax (aka the Oil Accounting Full Employment Act). Our offices were located in a high-rise that overlooked a huge atrium containing a shopping center, ice rink, and hotel. In fact, our office windows directly faced the hotel windows, less than a stone's throw away. Although potentially intriguing, in reality nothing too personal was ever revealed. As a footnote, while working under some challenging deadlines, we rented a few of those hotel rooms for employees to get a few hours of sleep while working 24/7.

  • The Architectural Horror - Fast forward a few more years, and I found myself working in Midland with the same company, in a downtown office affectionately known as the Belt Buckle Building because of the Totally Sixties architectural design featuring huge concrete rectangles bolted to the exterior. Those rectangles were particularly attractive to roosting pigeons, making for some pretty gross views from our windows. A few attempts to poison them allowed us to trade dead birds for messy birds, which wasn't an upgrade.

    That same building also featured windows that "breathed" when the wind blew, and of course, the wind always blows in Midland, Texas.  Seriously, you could see the glass panes on the west side of the building move in and out during particularly strong winds. It took one of them imploding and shredding an office chair (fortunately the occupant of the office was not present at the time) before Plexiglas panes were overlaid to reinforce the glass.

  • The Highly Convenient Office - Our group later moved across the street into an office suite in the Fasken Towers, and we inherited the arrangement vacated by the previous (and unknown) tenant. There was nothing too unusual about the layout, except that the supervisor's office had a private restroom attached to it. That might not be unusual for some of you, but it was just weird for us, and to my knowledge, it was never used.

  • The Awful Horrible Office - I'm now in a custom-designed office building in the Vineyard development and it's among the nicest facilities I've seen in my career.  In particular, it's a wonderful contrast to the one we moved from, a Seventies-vintage, absentee-landlord structure with plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and pest problems galore. There were times when the smells in the restrooms tempted us to order Porta-Potties for the parking lot, as they would have been preferable. And speaking of smells, on at least one occasion it took a while to find the dead rodent in a first floor office that had everyone on that end of the building gagging.

  • The "Feels Like Home" Office - Of course, the office that was most comfortable and most like home was, well, the one in my home during my website design phase. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to once again occupying that space, now that my career is starting to wind down. I've kept my current place of employment intentionally spare, with almost no decoration, as a reminder that the office is not my home. Different people have different philosophies about what best gets them through the day, and some like to have reminders of who or what they're working for, but for me at this point, my office has no more or less attachment than that first bullpen desk.
Do you have a favorite office story? Feel free to share it on my Facebook page which is conveniently linked here.
Prickly Pear bloom

The bluebonnets are thinning out in the Texas Hill Country, but wildflower season is far from over. The amazing fields of blue are giving way to even more vivid arrays of yellow, red, and white blooms, and not just from the typical flowering plants. Cacti are busy putting out their own displays of color.

And, of course, where the flowers go, bugs are bound to follow. And, sometimes, creatures more reptilian.

We spent last weekend at Horseshoe Bay and on Sunday afternoon Debbie and I took our cameras out for a walk. The first thing I did was drop my macro lens on the pavement. Fortunately, Canon makes a really rugged lens and even though it suffered a few scratches and dents, it continued to perform perfectly. 

It was quite breezy and those of you who do macro photography know what a challenge it is to get decent closeups when your subject is swaying continuously. But my technique of taking about 8,000 photos at a time paid off in a dozen or so semi-decent images.

Here is some of what we came back with. You know the drill; click on each picture to see a larger, uncropped version, complete with pithy caption.

Rainbow cactus bloom Unknown bug on unknown flower Bluebonnet photobombs cutter bee on firewheel
Hedgehog cactus bloom Bloom on prickly pear (do bugs have allergies?) Flower buds on prickly pear
Blue damselfly Blue damselfly (thinks he's hiding behind that stalk) Unknown bug on unknown flower (again; do I look like an entomologist?)
Unknown bug on knockout rose (in Midland) Bee on knockout rose (in Midland) Prickly pear bloom
Can you spot the lizard?

A Facebook friend posted a link to this New York Times article. It's a long but entertaining look at a failed* Kickstarter campaign to fund a PID-controlled espresso machine. The article is a cautionary tale about what happens when a good idea is poorly executed, and project backers feel they have been treated unfairly, if not defrauded. 

Kickstarter is the preeminent crowdfunding website, where people with ideas seek people with money, and, in a perfect world, the combination results in a commercially viable (or emotionally fulfilling) result. Some projects are spectacular successes, some are dismal failures, and most fall somewhere in the middle. 

I have backed three Kickstarter projects over the years.
Vinyl stegasaurus
Who wouldn't want a vinyl stegasaurus?
One was a cap for a pen or pencil that turned it into a stylus for use with a touchscreen device, another was a whimsical attempt to laser-cut old vinyl record albums so that they could be assembled into monsters, and the third was a titanium bicycle lock designed to be practically unbreakable as bike thieves rarely carry band saws or water jet cutting machines. All three of these projects brought their products to market; as far as I can tell, the bike lock and stylus cap are both commercial successes (the Monster Records domain name is for sale, so I assume that it, like its models, suffered an extinction-level event).

My investment in each of these campaigns was nominal. I pledged $150 to the bike lock campaign, for which I received a lock now selling for $199; a $25 pledge got me a stylus cap. The laser-cut record pledge was a bit more incautious: $120 got me two dinosaurs. And while I use the bike lock, the stylus resides somewhere in a Drawer of Miscellaneous Miscellany (we all have one, right?) and the vinyl dino puzzles are in a bookshelf, partially (OK, mostly) unassembled. 

As the New York Times article implies, crowdfunding a project carries some inherent risks. You're trusting someone you probably don't know to do what they say they can do, and you have no control over the outcome. You don't have any legal ownership in the process or product, and very little recourse if things go south. 

From my perspective, it's best to think of these projects as charitable endeavors, minus the tax deductibility of the "donation." If you think the product is innovative and useful, or the idea resonates on an emotional level (a vinyl T-rex made from a classical LP? Awesome!), then read through the business plan and let its apparent credibility and achievability determine at what level to back it. But, as with any gamble, don't bet more than you're willing or able to lose. 

As a concept, crowdfunding has much to recommend it. As an investment strategy...well, you might be better off investing in an internet startup with a sock puppet spokesthingy. 

*This project's Kickstarter page has a somewhat recent update from the creators pledging to keep the project alive. The update is a bit poignant considering it was made before the New York Times report.