August 17, 2014 9:50 AM | Posted in: ,

I've never made a secret of my dislike for spiders. There are people for whom I have great respect who think spiders make great pets, but I'd just as soon invite a family of cobras to live in our bedroom as tolerate a single eight legged freak.

We recently transplanted a couple of tall junipers into slightly larger and more stable pots, and each of them was home to at least one of these:

Black widow spider

Perhaps you don't recognize it; perhaps this angle will help:

Black widow spider

Even the photos give me the willies. And because we've had some favorable weather conditions this summer, there are a bunch of these lovely creatures around the house (thankfully all on the outside). [In the interest of full disclosure and without a shred of remorse, I will report that this particular black widow was in the throes of death, thanks to my good pal Raid.]

That's not to say that I can't appreciate the skill of certain of the species in creating things of beauty, even if they'll never themselves be objects of my desire. This morning, while enjoying a cup of coffee and the newspaper on the front porch this morning before church, I noticed the following installation, which had been constructed overnight. The light was just right for a few photos.

Spider web
Spider web
Spider web

In the interest of full disclosure...the little guy in the first two photos is still busy at work, doing whatever his spidery little heart desires. I'm not a total long as he stays on his side of the car seat.

August 11, 2014 9:50 PM | Posted in:

I discovered a mockingbird nest in the lower limbs of the Chinese pistache planted in our back yard. I had been hearing odd chirps coming at fairly regular intervals over the preceding few days, but didn't really think anything about it until Saturday afternoon when I noticed some unusually persistent mockingbird presence around the tree. 

I took a chance (the last time we had a mockingbird nest in our yard, I had to wear a motorcycle helmet to protect myself while mowing the lawn) and took a quick glance inside the foliage. Sure enough, there was a typical crudely built nest holding two sleeping mockingbirdlets. The parents weren't happy about the intrusion, but they exhibited remarkable restraint and I was able to back away unscathed.

A mockingbird warns me away from its nesting babies

I thought you might enjoy seeing a little nature in action, so I made the following video from footage taken on Saturday with a GoPro camera on the end of a monopod, and some additional footage from a Canon video camera that I shot this evening, as a sort of follow-up to the tale. (Note: If you watched this video on Sunday via my Vimeo account, you might want to take another look, as I've replaced that movie with this slightly extended version that details some slightly troubling developments.)

Toward the end of the footage shot this evening, one of the adults did take a dive at me, but I think it was just a warning shot out of habit, given that the nest is empty. I'd really like to know what happened to the second baby, but it was starting to rain and I didn't have a chance to take a good look at all the potential hiding places in our back yard.
I've always been enamored of black and white photography, dating back to the little Polaroid that I used in the Sixties. Seeing some of Ansel Adams's work in Santa Fe only added to the attraction of that medium. 

All of my photography nowadays is in color, although I occasionally experiment with black and white effects in post-processing, using Photoshop. You have to be careful with it, because it can become gimmicky and contrived, and I've never really been able to recreate the drama that true professionals bring to the approach.

Plus, converting color photos to black and white in Photoshop is challenging. I might start out with a vision of how I want the final image to look, but making that happen is often an exercise in frustration. That's why I was excited when I ran across a reference to an application called Tonality that has only one goal: to convert color photos into black and white images.

The app's designer bills it as "the world's most complete black and white photo editor" and that sounds like typical marketing hype, but after spending some time with it, I have no basis to argue against that claim, although I freely admit that I haven't used that many alternatives. With 150+ presets and a practically infinite number of settings to vary them, it appears there's pretty much nothing Tonality can't do in the realm of black and white post-processing.

The user interface is simple enough that you can use it effectively within 60 seconds of installing the software, and powerful enough that you - well, I, anyway - need to spend time in the online user guide to understand all the options.

But pictures are worth a thousand words, or 10,000 of my words, so here's a sample of the results I got from Tonality after playing with it for a while.

First, the original image (you may have seen this before in these pages):

Color photo

And here are some of the black and white versions, each created using one of Tonality's presets:

B&W photo
B&W photo
B&W photo
B&W photo
B&W photo

I'm pretty sure I could have come close to creating each of these effects in Photoshop, but it would have taken me far longer than the single click on a preset button that Tonality required to generate the images.

And even though it's billed as a black and white photo editor, Tonality also has color management options that allow you to selectively add hues back into the image. I haven't spent much time with them but they look promising.

Tonality is a standalone application (there's a Pro version that can be installed as a Photoshop plug-in), meaning that it doesn't require another image editing program to do its thing, It doesn't have a resize option, which I would miss, but it does have a crop tool. It has one-click sharing capability for all the major social media, and one-click "Open In:" options for nine major image editing programs, including Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom, and iPhoto. You can also export the finished product as one of ten formats.

Tonality is available via the Mac App Store at a special introductory price of $19.99, and I think it's a bargain at twice that price...which it normally is. (Of course, I assume you picked up on the fact that this is Mac-only software.) free online image compression
August 6, 2014 10:00 PM | Posted in:

It's been awhile since I posted anything design-related. There are a number of reasons for that, none of which involve a lack of interest on my part (although there might be the slightest bit of laziness at work). But I ran across a link to an intriguing website called that purports to shrink the size of your images (JPG, PNG, GIF, or SVG) by up to 90% without significantly affecting quality. Next to being able to enlarge photos without affecting quality, compression to save space and download time is the holy grail of website design, although it's not nearly as important today as it was in the days of dialup.

Anyway, I decided to test the service and got mixed results. First, the good news: the "lossy" compression option is impressive. Below is the "pre-processed" image (in JPG format); it weighs in at a hefty 326kb.

Photo of a hibiscus stamen

Now, here's the result after running it through the lossy compression option of Compressor:

Photo of a hibiscus stamen

It's fairly easy to discern a slight fuzziness in the second image, especially on the "hairs" of the flower, but the image is pretty darned good, overall...considering it's now only 37kb, or only 11% of the original size.

I then tested the lossless compression option, and the results were much less impressive. Oh, the image quality was excellent, but...well, see for yourself in this screenshot from the website:

Screen capture of Compressor results
I have no idea why, but Compressor was unable to wring out any kilobytes without affecting image quality.

Compressor currently limits the size of each uploaded image to 10mb, and you can upload only one image at a time, but the developer says he's working on an increased size limit and batch upload. (He's also willing to entertain a $10 million offer for the service, in case you have some cash burning a hole in your pocket.)

Despite the disappointing results with the lossless option, I'm going to bookmark the site for future use because the lossy option really does deliver as promised. While I don't do much design work for others anymore, this still may have some practically use for my personal projects.
[Insert pithy yet winsome introductory text here. Please.]

  • Every now and then, something happens that restores my faith in humanity and I think that perhaps there really is some hope for mankind. Then I read Facebook comments and come to my senses.

Dos Equis Man: I don't always read FB comments, but when I do, I want to claw my eyes out

  • Forget Ebola. What I want is a concentrated scientific and medical research effort to find a cure for that strange malady that results in the loss of use of a person's left index finger the moment they get behind the wheel of a car in Midland, Texas. You know, the finger that activates the turn signal.

  • Similarly, what is it about grocery store parking lots that cause otherwise sane people to acquire the emotional state of a rabid menopausal bobcat with hemorrhoids? Last night, a "lady" almost rammed me trying to get to a parking space before me (and I wasn't even trying to park). Fortunately, I was able to nudge her walker out of the way with my truck bumper and get on with my business. 

  • In keeping with the mindset that anyone who drives slower than me is an idiot and anyone who drives faster is a jerk, I believe that women drivers don't use turn signals because they're too preoccupied with cell phones, and men don't use them because they think that communicating their intentions is a sign of weakness.

Tom Hanks: Use the turn signal!

  • If the Cold War turns hot and we have to start building bomb shelters again, I'm making mine out of the cardboard that Chobani uses in their four-packs. I'm pretty sure that stuff could withstand anything the Russkies could throw at it.

  • I'm so Midland, I think the name of my city is an adjective. (Seriously, folks...stop it. Just stop it.)

Mileage of the Beast
July 27, 2014 9:15 PM | Posted in:

This happened on State Highway 18, just south of Grandfalls, Texas.

Photo of instrument cluster

Sorry for the poor image quality. Something kept obscuring the instrument cluster, some seemingly malevolent unseen force that nonetheless was able cast a pernicious shadow wherever my phone was pointed.

Finally, either by a quirk of light or a supernatural intervention - you decide - a second photo revealed more than I really wanted to know.

Photo of instrument cluster

Ha ha. I'm just fooling with you. Satan didn't really appear on our dashboard. It was too hot for him. The mileage is correct though. And there are a bunch of sixes in this display. Not that I ascribe any meaning to them. *spit*

For what it's worth, I've put more miles in a shorter time on the Ridgeline than any car we've ever owned. The truck is about 4 1/2* years old, which equates to about 1,666 days...and...gulp...

*Just kiddingagain; it's only 4 years old.

Polygonal Me
July 24, 2014 8:26 PM | Posted in: ,

So, I ran across this cool tutorial (via Twitter) explaining how to create a polygon portrait poster design in three easy steps. I have no idea what a "polygon portrait poster" is, but the result was interesting and it seemed to be a process that meshed well with my artistic aptitude (read: stupid simple), so I decided to fire up Photoshop and try it out.

You can jump on the link to see the entire tutorial, but what struck me as a stroke of brilliance was the suggestion of using the Eyedropper tool to select a color that was dominant on the portion of the source photo within the bounds of each polygon. This was a revelation to a mostly-colorblind non-artiste like me, because it basically removed any responsibility for having to make decisions regarding color.

I think this technique might be more suitable for a photo that is dark and brooding (again, see the actual tutorial), but I don't think I'm capable of dark and brooding. The closest I can come is snark and looming. I do think the result would be better using a photo with side lighting, so that the shadows are bit more dramatic. 

Anyway, here's the result of my efforts...or it will be if you'll grab the yellow line and drag it across the photo of that doofus who agreed to pose for this experiment. (Note: If you're using an iOS device, dragging via the touch screen won't move the line, but tapping anywhere on the photo will.)

I can pass along one tip if you want to try this. The key is to not worry about being too precise with the polygons. Don't worry if you have some gaps. In the tutorial, all the polygons were perfectly aligned, edge-to-edge, but that might be overkill. In fact, here's what my first pass looked like:

This is a screenshot from Photoshop; the checkerboard background shows where there is no color, and it clearly shows where I was rather cavalier in my approach to drawing the polygons. I addressed this issue simply by creating a background layer and filling it with color to fill in the "cracks." I think this approach adds a bit of character to the image, although I could just be delusional.
Oh, hello. I didn't notice you standing there, in the shadows. You're quite patient, considering how long it's been since I've come around. Perhaps you should take up a hobby.

Anyway, as long as you're here, please allow me to share a cautionary tale. It's a simple story about what happens when you reach a certain age and find that your own cleverness begins to backfire on you. Here's an example:

Photo - hitch lock cut in two
Exhibit A...or is it B? I forget.

In case you don't recognize it, this is a trailer hitch lock, used to secure a ball mount in a receiver. This particular model has a keyed lock on one end, and therein lies the problem.

As you can tell, the lock has been violated in a most destructive way. In other words, it's been sawn in two. And I did it my own self, as a solution to a vexing problem.

That problem arose not when I put the lock through the mount of our hitch-mounted luggage rack to dissuade thieves while the rack was being stored outside the garage, nor when I put the key away for safekeeping until I needed the rack.

No, the problem arose when I wanted to use the rack last weekend...and couldn't remember where I put the key.

I have approximately 800 loose keys stored in various drawers, cabinets, cubbyholes, nooks, niches, crannies, recesses, and alcoves, and I tried every one of them - twice - and never found the right one. I gave up on the luggage carrier; fortunately, we didn't really need it after all.

But when we returned, I decided that I'd spent enough time looking for a solution, and not enough time creating one. Out came the angle grinder (did you know Target sells them?) equipped with a silicon carbide wheel, on went the gloves, safety glasses, and hearing protector...and the sparks flew. In a few minutes, one problem was solved.

The bigger problem remains, the one without an elegant solution. It's the problem of how to deal with the accumulation of years that results in the inability to remember simple things like where did I put that [fill in the blank]? 

Every person will eventually have to deal with that issue in whatever way seems most appropriate for them. For me, I plan to apply a healthy dose of denial (I'm pretty sure someone stole the "hidden" key, and it's not my fault). In addition, I might just buy a 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, and let the dulcet tones of its 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque make the journey into forgetfulness much more adventuresome.

Heck, I may even put a trailer hitch on it.
As if there's not enough biting going on at the World Cup, we now learn that the Shark Attack Capital of Brazil is Recife, where the US team lost/won yesterday. Apparently, the sharks in that area are feisty enough that the beach lifeguards do their training in a swimming pool, a practice that no doubt engenders all sorts of confidence in Brazilian beach goers.

Brazil is pretty far from Texas...but that doesn't mean we're safe, and now we can see just how unsafe we are thanks to the OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker, which shows real time updates of the movement of sharks that have been tagged for satellite tracking. Granted, it's a very cool use of technology, even if it serves to reinforce the feeling that in some things, ignorance is indeed bliss. 

This is particularly true in the case of Katharine and Betsy, sweet feminine names for cold-blooded eating machines otherwise known as Great White Sharks. These ladies have made their way 5,000 and 3,500 miles, respectively, from Cape Cod into the Gulf of Mexico, with movement roughly in the direction of Texas and Louisiana. Thanks to the OCEARCH website, you can assess whether it truly is safe to go back in the water.

Sort of. Because two questions come to my mind. First, shark tracking works only when the beasts surface long enough (at least 90 seconds) for the satellite to get a geoposition. Since sharks are fish and don't have to surface other than to snack on a tasty surfer, the truth is that we don't really know where these sharks are or are heading. And, more importantly, only a relative handful of sharks have been tagged, meaning that potentially billions more are right this minute heading for your shoreline...or riverbed...or lake house...

Fortunately for us, bicycling has been shown over the years to be a relatively shark-free endeavor. Still...

Shark attacking bicyclists

Return of the Quail
June 15, 2014 3:06 PM | Posted in: ,

As an alert and perceptive Gazette reader, you no doubt recall this time last year when I undertook to stalk the wily blue quail residing in our landscape. I was able to see but not photograph the two baby birds that the adults were protecting. And shortly afterward, the entire family moved out, apparently tired of nosy neighbors.

Well, I'm happy to report that either (1) they don't hold a grudge, or (b) the alternatives were even less hospitable, because the quail family is back...with a vengeance.

Adult blue quail and babies
Adult blue quail and babies

After seeing signs of their dirt-scratching in our flowerbeds, we finally spotted the whole clan - two adults and nine (NINE!) babies foraging in the lawn yesterday. Occasionally, one of the adults (the male, I'm guessing), took a break from scratching for lookout duty.

Adult blue quail on wall

That keen-eyed stare is designed to deter the most aggressive of predators, although he could possibly just be pondering the meaning of life.

Anyway, I also managed to take the following 2 1/2 minute video of the industrious family. It's not the best footage - it was taken through some windows, between the slats of shutters, but I think the terminal cuteness of the babies comes through nonetheless.