A Post-Modern Jukebox Sampler
January 14, 2018 3:34 PM | Posted in:

It's Sunday morning and I'm losing a fight with a cold and/or allergies, and I'm taking the lazy way out by blogging someone else's material...in this case (because, really, most of my stuff is stolen plagiarized borrowed from someone else) some music videos from Scott Bradlee's Post-Modern Jukebox. SBPMJ (hereafter referred to as PMJ for purposes of brevity) is one of the most imaginative and musically gifted groups around, and they probably don't get as much publicity as they should. (Alert Gazette readers will recall that I've mentioned them before on the pages of this here blog-like thing.)

PMJ's gift is taking songs by other artists and reworking them in ways that often elevate the musicality of those tunes, or transform them into a completely different genre. The musical genius is compounded by the absolute attention to detail in the videos the group assembles. 

We're fortunate that many of their performances can be found on YouTube, but I'll save you the clicks as well as the mental/psychic effort of deciding on the standouts by presenting the following list. Trust me; I know these things.

Barbie Girl - In the style of class Beach Boys

This song was originally recorded by the Scandinavian pop group Aqua in 1997, and a few years ago was voted "Worst Song of the Nineties" by those Rolling Stone readers with the mental wherewithal to work a mouse and browser. It also prompted Barbie maker Mattel to file an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit claiming copyright infringement. And, of course, the lyrics do not stand the test of time insofar as they are egregiously anti-feminist. (Here's the original video.)

Other than that, it's a wonderful little song...at least in the hands of Master Arranger Scott Bradlee.

Morgan James, the lead singer in this performance, plays the part of Barbie with a self-awareness that sustains the overall ironic tone of the arrangement. Her vocal chops are astounding, especially in the section where she simulates a theremin.



Blurred Lines - Bluegrass Version

Musically-woke readers are likely wondering why an historically squeaky-clean Gazette would include a song with frankly pornographic lyrics (and I won't stoop to linking to the original video) that has been dubbed by some as the most distasteful song of 2013, the year it was recorded by Robin Thicke. Blurred Lines was co-written by Pharrell Williams (!) and Thicke (who later claimed he was stoned on Vicodin and that Williams did most of the lyrical damage). This song was also the subject of a [successful] copyright infringement lawsuit (appeal pending, as they wont to be). Gee, we seem to have a trend going here.

Well, the reason I've included the song in this list is (1) that genre-bending thing I mentioned at the top, and (b) the way PMJ has completely reworked the lyrics so they are much less offensive (IMO, anyway; I never underestimate the ability of some folks to be offended). You'll have to google the original lyrics yourself to see what I mean.



Single Ladies - Chicago-style

Let's switch gears and exponentially up the sophistication level of this list. Beyoncé sold about a gatrillion copies of this song beginning in 2008, and it's still probably the Beyhive's anthem. Also, AFAIK, no one has sued her over the song. [Original video here]

The lyrics are nothing special, but the real treat in PMJ's arrangement is the choreography, instantly recognizable by anyone even vaguely familiar with Bob Fosse's work. Even the costumes evoke films such as All That Jazz and Chicago.



Shake It Off - Motown-style

Bey's only competition among a certain demographic is Taylor Swift, who released Shake It Off in 2014. It debuted on Billboard's pop chart at #1 (only 21 other songs have done that). It also was the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit that was dismissed by the court almost as quickly as it was filed. People in the music business apparently love to file lawsuits. [Original video here]

PMJ's treatment puts a classy Motown spin on the tune and lead singer Von Smith, while not exactly pulling off the prototypical Motown look, certainly has the vocal chops to outdo the original artist (sorry, Swiftians, but you know in your heart of hearts that it's true). Make sure you stick around for the break at the 2:36 mark in the following video for proof.



Thriller - 30s Jazz Cover

This is perhaps the most logical, intuitive rework in this list. Lead vocalist Wayne Brady brings the spirit of Cab Calloway to life and it's the most natural thing in the world for Cab to croon the lyrics to Michael Jackson's 1982 classic. [Original video here, as if it's not already playing in your mind]

The genius of this arrangement is the inclusion of the diabolic tap dancers; no Thriller cover is complete without dancing.



Happy - Speakeasy Jazz Cover

Speaking of Pharrell Williams, he does compose non-smutty music, as evidenced by this 2013 song which was included on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, much to the chagrin of parents worldwide. [Original video here, if you're a glutton for punishment]

PMJ's version features the phenomenal Gunhild Carling, and not only does she sing and dance, but she plays ten (10!) different instruments on this video...including a trumpet balanced vertically on her lips, and three trumpets played simultaneously and in three-part harmony.



[If you want to see more of the amazing Ms. Carling, check out her PMJ-accompanied cover of Never Gonna Give You Up. Getting Rickrolled has never been more fun.]

Bad Romance - Twenties Gatsby Style

The only unusual thing about this cover is that Lady GaGa didn't do it this way herself. I mean, I could totally see her loving this arrangement, especially in light of her elegant collaborations with Tony Bennett. [Original video here]

It's hard to decide which is better, Ariana Savalas's vocals (and whistling) or the stupidly fast tap-dancing feet of Sarah Reich. But what's up with the disappearing horn section at the end?



Forget You - Thirties Jazz Style

OK, confession time. CeeLo Green's 2010 hit is the only song on this list that's in regular rotation on my iTunes playlist. And, in case you wondered, it's the "clean" version (if you're curious about why I make that distinction, you can look up his Wikipedia entry). [Original -- and clean -- video here]

PMJ's arrangement is classier without losing any of the intensity of Green's incredible vocal range. LaVance Colley matches him falsetto for falsetto. 



We could go on and on. There are literally scores of additional PMJ videos on YouTube. Scott Bradlee appears to be a tireless arranger, and his musical interests range far and wide. Check out his Gershwin/Queen mashup (Bohemian Rhapsody in Blue) or this performance of Peggy Lee's Fever using an even dozen different musical styles.

Newsflash: Local Wildlife Gets Wilder
January 6, 2018 10:37 AM | Posted in:

The local raccoon population has apparently spread the word that my sardine-baited trap is to be ignored. For the past several nights, the bait has gone untouched and the trap unsprung. Photographic evidence of raccoon inspectors makes this all the more frustrating.

That's not to say that the setup hasn't attracted other, more exotic animals. A few nights ago, one of the local foxes actually made its way into the trap and escaped with the bait. To be honest, though, foxes are pretty ordinary compared to some of the other visitors. 

Last night was a great example. Here's what the game camera captured during a brief 10-minute period.







Sadly, I was unable to actually trap any of these creatures, which will likely cause the more skeptical readers to doubt the veracity of these photos. I blame the current Fake News phenomenon for causing otherwise perceptive people to disbelieve concrete visual evidence.

Outfoxed
January 4, 2018 1:55 PM | Posted in: ,

In my role as a wannabe trapper I've grown accustomed to being outsmarted by raccoons, who have frequently escaped with the bait without being captured. However, I'm now being outfoxed by an actual fox.

Here's what happened last night:

Animated gif of fox in trap

I didn't catch footage of the sardine abscondishment, but the tin was missing in another video captured shortly after this one.

We've seen foxes hunting in our neighborhood almost every night (and occasionally during the day), and I've got other videos of them sniffing around the trap, but this is the first time I've seen one enter the trap. This one was a lot more cautious than the animation indicates; the realtime footage was 30 seconds.

So, as if I didn't have enough challenges, I now have to figure out how to keep the bait safe from an animal that's long to grab the sardines without stepping on the trip plate. I do have a glimmer of a possible inkling leading to the beginning of a potential partial solution, but it involves power tools, MIG welders, and sorcery. In other words...this should be fun!

A New Year's Day Surprise: Ice Flowers
January 1, 2018 9:18 PM | Posted in: ,

New Year's Day in the Texas Hill Country was a cold, dreary, and breezy one. Temperatures hovered in the 20s for most of the day, and the sun never made an appearance. It was a good day for staying inside, eating black-eyed peas, and watching football. 

Photo -
 Ice or Frost FlowerThat was basically my agenda for the day, until I happened to look out a bathroom window at a puzzling sight. It appeared that someone had let loose  scores of white plastic shopping bags which the wind had wrapped around the unmowed plants in the vacant lot next door and then shredded. But those plastic shreds weren't moving in the stiff breeze. Hmm.

I did the only thing that I know to do when confronted with an outdoor puzzle: I grabbed a camera and heading into the cold. I quickly realized that what I initially identified as shredded plastic was actually ice which the wind had apparently molded into some fantastical and delicate shapes.

To deepen the mystery, there was no ice or snow anywhere else (we did get a light dusting of snow during the night, but it was gone by midday).

Photo -
 Ice or Frost Flower

Later, I received a text from MLB, who was multitasking by soaking in the tub, watching the Austin TV news, and reading on her iPad (I know...I know). She informed me that the station was running a story on this exact phenomenon. The report said it can occur during the first hard freeze of the season, when the ground is still warm and water and sap in some plants is still flowing. When that fluid freezes, it bursts through the stem of the plant. As the fluid continues to flow into the frigid air, it freezes into these amazing shapes, which are known as "ice flowers" or "frost flowers." Wikipedia has a brief explanation; the In Defense of Flowers blog has a more detailed description of the phenomenon.

I'm not sure about the species of plant these ice flowers appeared on most often but it may be a variation of stinkweed, which is cited in the above-referenced blog post as being a common source of this phenomenon. 

Below are some of the photos I took. Click on the small images to see a full-sized uncropped version of the photo; you can use the arrows on the popups to navigate through the slideshow. 

Ice Flowers Note how the stems are split by the frozen plant juices It's odd how the ice is nowhere to be seen except on certain plant stalks Some of the ice was blown into hollow cylinders Ice Flowers Note how the ice flows along the stem Ice Flowers It's easy to see why these are referred to as Ice Flowers The wind fashions gossamer ribbons of ice This clearly shows how the ice spills out from the stem

This may be a fairly common sight in the Hill Country, but for me it was an unexpected reminder of the surprising beauty that nature offers even in the bleakest settings.

Update (1/2/18): A naturalist friend identified these plants as verbesina, sometimes called "frostweed" because of this very phenomenon. The ice formations are also known as crystallofolia.

Update #2 (1/4/18): This web page has a very thorough analysis of ice flowers, including historical references to the phenomenon.

Building the Perfect Beast
December 31, 2017 6:57 PM | Posted in: ,

The power of reason, the top of the heap
We're the ones who can kill the things we
Don't eat
...
And now the day is come
Soon he will be released
Glory hallelujah!
We're building the perfect beast
Don Henley [1984]
With apologies to Mr. Henley, who likely didn't anticipate his lyrics would apply to raccoons, this seems to be exactly what I'm doing lately with my trapping efforts. My wife thinks my motto should now be "Making Smarter Raccoons." I wouldn't disagree.

We're in a sort of arms race, the neighborhood raccoons and I. Every time I concoct a strategy to trap them, they create a countermeasure that defeats it. It's simultaneously humbling and -- I confess -- a bit amusing. If this was a TV game show -- say, Are You Smarter Than a Varmint -- I'd be exiting before the first commercial break.

I relearned this lesson earlier this week when I discovered that the sardine-baited trap I'd put out was (1) sprung, (b) empty, and (&*$$%) missing its sardines. It had obviously been rudely treated:

Empty raccoon trap

As you can see, the bungee cord that I used to keep the trap in place didn't accomplish its only assigned task. The entire trap had been shifted by something, and in the process the trapdoor was sprung. The can of sardines that had been placed beneath the trap and on top of the black mat was, of course, gone. (Alert Gazette readers will recall that I had started placing the bait under the trap instead of inside of it, because too many prospective prisoners had figured out how to abscond with it without tripping the trap...more "one-step-ahead hacking.")

I assumed the culprit was of a raccoonish persuasion, and the game camera footage proved my assumption. Shortly after baiting the trap, a raccoon appeared and got to work hacking my system.

Raccoons wear masks for good reason; they're thieves, and quite good at their thievery.

I have to admit some grudging admiration for their cleverness and determination. The following video shows the raccoon trying one approach, and dropping it for another when the first one proved unfruitful. (Note that most of the footage is sped up by 200%...it's only about two minutes long, for those with short attention spans, like me.)



I refused to admit defeat, especially with the reputation of the entire human race riding on my efforts. Darn it, I AM smarter than a large rodent with a walnut-sized brain and goofy tail. 

Since the raccoons had obviously clued into the fact that they could dig under the trap to get the sardines, my own walnut-sized brain came up with the brilliant idea of sinking a fence into the ground around the cage. I did that, and reset the trap. The following morning, the results were the same: no raccoon; no sardines; no human superiority.

Back to the drawing board. This is what I came up with:

Photo of my raccoon trap mods
Some people modify cars, some modify guns. Me? I'm into trap mods.

I was particularly proud of what I term the "trip plate guard." The raccoons have been successfully reaching into the trap from the outside and hitting the plate that causes the door to slam shut, thus preventing them from, you know, actually coming into the trap. Now, feel free to debate whether they are doing this on purpose or accidentally, but keep in mind that they're evil little thieves with larceny in their hearts. [Ed. -- Anthropomorphize much?]

My countermeasure is simple: I bent some screen mesh into a sort of shield and wired it in place so that a raccoon's reach couldn't get to the trip plate. Note that the shield couldn't just be a patch wired tight against the cage, as that would interfere with the trap's mechanism. Note to Havahart®: I'm happy to license this design improvement for a modest fee, say, sardines for life...?

I also abandoned the idea of placing the bait under the trap as the raccoons have definitely learned to dig underneath it to get to them. I'll take my chances with them trying to grab the sardines inside the cage without tripping the trap.

Finally, I slid a 4' length of rebar through the bars near the entrance to the trap as a way of further stabilizing it. On at least one occasion, the trap had been sprung by a particularly aggressive jostling, and I hoped this would eliminate that possibility. (I could put a second bungee cord at the front of the trap, but the rebar was a quick-and-dirty fix.)

So, did my awesome trap mods pay off, or did I simply extend the hours of the Fire Ant Raccoon Evening Buffet? Here's the video answer, showing the previous night's failure followed by last night's...well, you'll have to watch it to find out.
For now, advantage: humans. We'll see how long that lasts.

By the way, I did realize last night that the description of the trap as a "humane raccoon trap" is indeed appropriate for one reason I hadn't thought about. The design ensures that the trapped animal is protected from rain and snow by providing a solid roof and wall at one end of the trap. The raccoon I released this morning was extremely annoyed, but at least it wasn't soaked by the overnight drizzle.

The Child is The King
December 24, 2017 11:22 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

Hiking Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve
December 18, 2017 1:42 PM | Posted in: ,

In 1969, a wealthy visionary named J. David Bamberger -- co-founder of Church's Chicken -- bought 3,000 acres of land in the Texas Hill Country a few miles south of Johnson City. Over the next few years, he increased the size of the ranch to its present 5,500 acres. In 2002, the Bamberger Ranch Preserve was created as a private operating foundation, and serves to maintain the ranch as a research and educational resource to illustrate the importance of preserving the original natural habitat of the Hill Country.

Selah locator map

Photo - SelahUsing proven grassland management practices, the ranch has reintroduced native plant species, while removing non-native invasive species. This process significantly reduced rainfall runoff, which in turn allowed the numerous long-dormant springs in the area to recharge and once again begin to flow. The result is a spectacularly biodiverse environment.

The ranch is open to the public for periodic self-guided group hikes, as well as for various educational and research programs. My wife and I were fortunate to be invited by our good friends to accompany them on one such hike last November.

Photo - SelahFive well-maintained trails totaling about four miles wind through the ranch, most of them named after famous conservationists and environmentalists such as Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, and Ferdinand Lindheimer (aka the Father of Texas Botany). The trails involve some climbing, but nothing very steep, and some occasional loose rocks to traverse, but overall the hiking is easy.

The day was cool, clear, and slightly breezy when we set out. There were about thirty hikers, including one couple with two young children. We were shuttled through the ranch for a quick introduction, and the resident biologist pointed out various sites of special interest, including the chiroptorium...a manmade bat cave housing a migratory population of more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats -- the state flying mammal of Texas (I doubt there was a lot of competition for the title).

The chiroptorium was built in 1998, but researchers were puzzled by the relative lack of bats residing there. They finally determined that the problem was the three large plate glass windows installed in one wall to allow observation of the residents. The bats' sonar apparently had trouble distinguishing the glass from the outdoors and they kept colliding with the windows. Once the windows were covered, the bat population grew quickly. (Visit this page for more about the chiroptorium.)

We decided to hike almost the entirety of the trail system, since we weren't sure when we might be able to return. The fall foliage was striking in places, and we met up with the biologist on the trail and peppered him with a mess of questions about what we had seen along the way. I learned that I should never phrase a question to an expert thusly: "Now, isn't this tree a _____?" After three consecutive incorrect observations, I finally started just pointing and asking "What is that?"

We particularly enjoyed the sections of the trail that paralleled Miller Creek. The spring-fed creek flows into the small Madrone Lake, and eventually meets up with the Pedernales River. The creek wasn't flowing particularly swiftly due to the ongoing drought, but the water was clear and the occasional small waterfalls made a pleasant soundtrack for the scenery.

Photo - SelahWe were a bit disappointed that we didn't see much animal life during the four hour hike. It was too cool for snakes, and perhaps we were too noisy or unobservant to see the any of the 28 species of mammals that have been sighted on the ranch. We did see a wild turkey. Well, to be precise, we saw the remains of a wild turkey at the edge of a pond. We notified the biologist (in keeping with my campaign of disinformation, I told him it was a hawk), and he later informed us that a predator of some kind had gutted it and left the carcass where we spotted it.

I highly recommend a visit to Selah if you're in the vicinity during a scheduled hike. It's a testament to the ability of man to be a positive influence on the environment, and I'm thankful someone had the vision and the resources to provide such a gift to the rest of us.

I assembled a short video of footage and photos from our hike. I've also embedded a more professional video (also found on the Bamberger website, linked at the beginning of this post) that explains in more detail how the project affected the groundwater in the area. It's a fascinating account.




I woke up around 4:00 a.m. a few days ago (hold your snark; you'll be old someday, too), and detected the unmistakable odor of skunk. I found this a bit unsettling, but not enough to get out of bed to investigate. I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Raccoon beside trapped skunkA few hours later, I opened the garage door to check the trap, although I was pretty sure I knew what Id find. Sure enough, yet another skunk had checked into Citter Inn. As with the preceding two, I decided to record the release, and that's documented in the video below.

While only you can decide whether it's worth spending 4 minutes and 6 seconds (plus load time) of your life watching this video (the TL:DW version is that I didn't get sprayed), I hope you will for a few reasons.

First, this is a really pretty skunk. I'm not sure who represents the standard for human beauty nowadays -- for women, perhaps it's one of these; for guys...well, you're on your own there -- but let's say this critter is the Scarlett Johansson of the skunk world.

Second, toward the end of the video you'll see some interaction between different species as recorded by my game camera, as well as the evidence of one whose affinity for and effort to acquire sardines was unparalleled. 

Me and my capBut, really, the most important reason is that I'd like to have your feedback about something. Rather than use captions to describe what's going on in the video, I took a shot at doing a voiceover narration. I'd be really interested to know whether you have a preference about captions vs. narration (or would BOTH be preferable?).

I'd also welcome feedback about the quality of the audio, although that's less important. I recognize that my recording environment is less than ideal, particularly since we've cleared the shelves and walls of all content in preparation for remodeling. The sound is pretty echo-y as a result. Also, the webcam microphone is not exactly professional quality. I did try some pretty high-end Bose headphones as an external mic, but the results were actually less pleasing than the webcam, which I thought was strange.

Anyway, here's how much I'd like your feedback: I've actually reinstated the comments section on the Gazette. It's been years since I've allowed comments on any posts because of the overwhelming volume of spam I had to deal with (you can ask any blogger and they'll tell you the same thing...it's ridiculous). But I'm willing to put up with it in order to see some legitimate feedback. So, feel free to let me know what you think...and thanks in advance!

Without further ado...allow me to present Scarle...uh...another skunk.


Drone Blown
December 4, 2017 7:31 AM | Posted in:

Show of hands: who remembers Rosie from The Jetsons? [Ed - Nobody. If you're old enough to remember the TV show, you're too old to remember anything about it.] 

Rosie the DronebotRosie was the family's robotic housekeeper. Almost six decades later, we're still waiting for a Rosie to come along and rescue us from the burden of household chores (and don't get me started on the flying cars we were promised). So far, the Roomba and the Echo have fallen short of our expectations in that area. But I'm here to report that there's hope on the horizon. All we have to do is to get creative with the devices we already have.

Case in point. I have a drone, a little DJI Spark, and it's a lot of fun to fly around the neighborhood, chasing deer and squirrels, exploring the creek while avoiding water moccasins, and spying on the neighbors (well, if we had any neighbors - which we don't - I would totally be spying on them). But it occurred to me this weekend that it was time for this toy to grow up and start adulting like the rest of us, present company excluded.

One of the downsides to being surrounded by a multitude of trees is the accompanying leaf blowing required to keep the sidewalks, porches, and driveways clean. I have a gasoline powered blower, but it's heavy and noisy and not all that joyful. I wondered, is there an easier way? Could leaf blowing become fun? I'll let you be the judge:



 As it turns out, the drone-as-groundskeeper has a few teensy flaws. First, it would take approximately 17 hours to fully clean our outside surfaces. This is a problem because the Spark's battery is good for only about 15 minutes of flying time, and takes ~30 minutes to recharge.

Second, weather conditions limit the practicality. You may have been able to perceive that the drone was not hovering steadily in the video. The wind was a bit gusty and definitely impacted the stability of the device.

Third, the drone's operating system DID NOT APPRECIATE the close proximity to all kinds of obstacles. Even though I turned off the automatic obstacle avoidance feature, it continued to scream incessantly that I was TOO CLOSE TO EVERYTHING, AT ALL TIMES!!! Once, it even took matters into its own...uh...rotors, and landed itself when I flew it too close to the sidewalk. Perhaps it's intelligent enough to avoid domestic chores better suited for human efforts.

Pepé Le Pew Deja Vu
December 1, 2017 11:37 AM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers - and, really, aren't you all? - will recall that I successfully, if foolishly, released a trapped skunk a couple of days agoPepé le Pew without incident other than an elevated heart rate. I decided to give the trap a night off, but re-baited and re-armed it last night. I figured that a trapped skunk would have learned its lesson and would be focused on less confining dining opportunities.

As with so many things in life lately, I was wrong. It's Biblical: as a dog returns to its vomit, so a skunk does to its sardines (Proverbs 26:11, ORGV [Old Retired Guy Version]).

I was less apprehensive about the release process this time, but I might not have been had I been able to see inside the trap while I prepared to open the door. As the video below shows, the skunk's tail lifted ominously at one point, the equivalent of cocking the hammer on a revolver.

I was a bit fascinated by the absence of any visible reaction by the skunk to the trap door springing shut. It's a fairly violent action, jarring the whole contraption and making a rather loud noise, but the animal was so focused on getting to the sardines I had placed beneath the bars of the cage that it didn't notice. That's probably why gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

By the way, much of the following video is sped up 400% for those of you with short attention spans. I move that fast in real life only on special occasions...like when a skunk is in the vicinity.



I think it's time to give the trapping a rest while I contemplate a different, non-skunk-friendly bait that will still be attractive to raccoons. I know raccoons like cat food, but so do cats, and I'm not interested in trapping them, either.