Numana in Midland: 60,000 meals in one morning
November 15, 2015 9:45 PM | Posted in:

We arrived at the church just before 9:00 on Saturday morning, and were issued hair nets and disposable plastic aprons. We were then seated in a row of folding metal chairs, waiting to be ushered into...well, we weren't sure. This was our first time to volunteer for a Numana "food assembly" project.

We'd never heard of Numana before we joined Fannin Terrace Baptist Church (FTBC). Numana is a non-profit hunger relief organization formed in 2008. During its relatively short lifetime, 180,000 volunteers have packaged more than 32 million meals which have then been distributed to hungry people in thirteen countries. On this Saturday, FTBC was about to add 200 volunteers and 60,000 meals to those numbers. 

Map showing states participating in Numana events
We added to this number on Saturday

The meals are simple, but nutritious. From Numana's website:
Our meals consist of rice, soy protein, freeze-dried pinto beans and a blend of vitamins and minerals targeted to help the immune system of malnourished people.  These ingredients are measured into bags, weighed, sealed, boxed, and prepared for shipment at our events.

The cost of each life-sustaining meal is only 30 cents.  This includes all of the ingredients, packaging, administration, and international shipping of the container.
After a short wait, we were ushered into the church activities building where the supplies and equipment for the food packaging were laid out. We were put in teams of ten, given a two-minute orientation, and the meal assembly began.

Numana provides an amazingly organized framework for its projects. Henry Ford would be proud of the assembly line approach employed to package the meals. The tasks are broken into manageable pieces that allow people of all ages and abilities to participate, and each team quickly becomes a well-oiled machine because of the clearly-defined and simple roles each member plays. Here's how ours worked, as an example:

  • Team member #1 grabs a plastic bag and places it beneath a large funnel into which the meal's ingredients will be poured;
  • Team member #4 takes hold of the bag to make sure it's securely under the funnel;
  • #2 scoops a pre-measured cup of soy protein from a bin and pours it into the funnel;
  • #1 scoops a pre-measured cup of dried pinto beans from another bin and pours it into the funnel
  • #3 scoops a pre-meausred cup of rice from yet another bin and pours it into the funnel;
  • #4 drops a packet of vitamins and minerals into the funnel, then places the full bag into a small bin down the assembly line;
  • #5 & #6 place the bags on small digital scales to make sure the meals meet the weight requirements (they must weigh between 390 and 392 grams; rice is added or removed to make the weight guidelines);
  • #7 & #8 seal the bags using impulse (heat) sealers, and place the sealed bags in a stack at the end of the table;
  • #9 & #10 load the bagged meals into cardboard boxes, 36 to a box. When the boxes are filled, they tape them shut and carry them to a staging area for loading into a Numana tractor trailer. 
Other volunteers circulated continuously throughout the building making sure that each of us had plenty of supplies. Someone kept count and kids rang a big gong each time another 10,000 meals were loaded.

I mentioned that all ages can be involved in the assembly. At our table, the #2 and #3 roles were filled by great-grandparents; Debbie and I filled #4 and #1 respectively. A couple of pre-teen girls did the weighing, spelled by an octogenarian. And over the course of 2 1/2 hours, our team assembled more than thirty boxes, or the equivalent of 4,500 meals (each bag feeds four people).

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't mind-numbing and, eventually, uncomfortable work. We stopped only to remove jackets and sweaters, or to refill our bins, and the repetition of each task made each of us grateful that we never had to work on true assembly lines to make a living. It's difficult to imagine doing something like that eight-to-twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. Toward the end of our "shift" we were doing silly things like pouring ingredients into the funnel before the bag was ready, or missing the funnel completely. 

But we worked until we ran out of the meal components that Numana had provided, and our fatigue was greatly tempered by the understanding that we were helping to make a difference in someone's life. Despite the tired feet, and aching wrists, arms, and shoulders, everyone I visited with the next day said they'd be doing it again next year.

And so will I.

Before we get started, take a listen to this (length - 39 sec):

I've probably mentioned this before but I worked as a DJ at a small AM radio station in West Texas during my high school and early college years. That was back in the late 60s/early 70s, and the Viet Nam war was hot. And while the draft was still in effect, the various branches of the military were also stepping up their recruitment efforts.

Wolfman Jack USAF Program labelPart of those efforts entailed what we would today call infomercials, but which back then were referred to as public service announcements (PSA). They came in the form of prerecorded programs, usually musical, which were interspersed with promos for a specific branch of service. Radio stations were required to run a certain number of hours of PSAs each month, and the military recruiting programs were a good way to meet those requirements.

As you can imagine, stations didn't run these programs during prime time. Our station ran them on Sunday mornings. They came to us as 15-25 minute LP records (that's vinyl, kiddies), one PSA to a side. They were dated and once they were played, they were trashed.

I managed to "rescue" a half dozen or so of these PSA platters that came to us from the Air Force and from the Marine Corps. The Corps' programs were entitled Jazz on the Potomac, and were precisely 14 minutes and 30 seconds of, well, jazz. (Frankly, I never really grasped which demographic they were aiming at. Were there really that many 18-to-22 year old guys listening to jazz in the late Sixties?) They were narrated by Felix Grant, who had an almost fifty year career in radio, and whose voice was apparently created with jazz in mind. Grant's narration was educational, focusing on the music - the style and history. He made a single, low-keyed pitch for the Marine Corps during each program. Here's an example (length - 76 sec):

The USAF, on the other hand, took a different approach. Their programs were narrated by the (in)famous Wolfman Jack, and featured current rock and pop hits. The Wolfman's pitch was less polished but more lively, in keeping with the musical selections. Following is a good example, this one targeting young women (length - 1 min, 42 sec):

The music on the USAF's programs was a rather eclectic mix. I managed to save three LPs - six programs - and each had four-to-six songs. I'm not sure why I feel it's important to archive this information, but I guess it's partly for personal reference and partly to capture a bit of cultural history. In any event, here are the program listings for those three discs.

Series #11 - Program 1 - Disc 1 - Side A (July, 1972)
  • Layla - Derek & The Dominos
  • It's Too Late To Turn Back Now - Cornelius Bros. & Sister Rose
  • Sympathy For The Devil - Rolling Stones
  • Immigration Man - David Crosby & Graham Nash
Series #11 - Program 2 - Disc 1 - Side B (July, 1972)
  • Tumbling Dice - Rolling Stones
  • I Need You - America
  • Questions - Moody Blues
  • Hot Rod Lincoln - Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
  • I Didn't Get To Sleep At All Last Night - 5th Dimension
  • Hold Your Head Up - Argent
Series #11 - Program 3 - Disc 2 - Side A (July, 1972)
  • I Saw The Light - Todd Rundgren
  • Wolfman Jack - Todd Rundgren
  • What Is Life - George Harrison
  • Troglodyte - Jimmy Castor Bunch
  • Old Man - Neil Young
  • Blue Sky - Allman Brothers
Series #11 - Program 4 - Disc 2 - Side B (July, 1972)
  • 30 Days In The Hole - Humble Pie
  • People Make The World Go 'Round - Stylistics
  • Sweet Hitch Hiker - Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Someday Never Comes - Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Sylvia's Mother - Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show
Series #12 - Program 1 - Disc 1 - Side A (August, 1972)
  • Layla - Derek & The Dominos
  • Take It Easy - Eagles
  • Sunshine Superman - Donovan
  • Day By Day - Godspell
  • Brown Eyed Girl - El Chicano
Series #12 - Program 2 - Disc 1 - Side B (August, 1972)
  • Rip This Joint - Rolling Stones
  • School's Out - Alice Cooper
  • Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin
  • Long Cool Woman - Hollies
  • Conquistador - Procol Harum
  • It's Too Late To Turn Back Now - Cornelius Bros. & Sister Rose
As an aside, none of those songs would likely have made the radio station's regular playlist (with the possible exception of Day By Day). The station format was "variety" or "middle of the road," and featured primarily country (or "country & western," as it was known back then) and easy listening music. So, the USAF platters were actually pretty cool collections from my perspective.

I'm in the process of digitizing these LPs, again for whatever historical value they might have). They're in pretty bad shape; I was not able to get the album covers and didn't have the foresight to at least put them in sleeves so they've been rattling around loose and uncovered for the past four decades. The flaws add a certain authenticity and character to them (sort of like my reflection in the mirror, or so I keep telling myself). Copyright law prevents me from ever posting the entire content online, but I've done what I could.
I've hired teenagers to mow our lawn for the past two summers, and one of the challenges in those arrangements was remembering to leave a gate unlocked so they could access the back yard. Because of travel plans and other scheduling uncertainties, that sometimes meant leaving the gate unlocked for days at a time. 

Our gate locks are keyed deadbolts and that means that we also have to grab a key to get into the back yard, and that's inconvenient. What we needed is a digital gate lock that would eliminate the need to loan out a key to third parties, or carry a key ourselves, or leave the gate unlocked.

I found a solution to these problems in the Lockey M-220 digital lock. This is a basic deadbolt lock that's designed to work in a variety of outdoor situations where you need some basic minimum security: pool gates, workshops, yard gates, etc. It's mechanical, not electronic, and thus there are no batteries to change. It's a rather inexpensive lock and is easy to install. At least, that's what the website led me to believe.

I ordered the lock via the above-linked website and when it arrived and I read the installation instructions, I got a familiar sinking feeling of being over my head, mechanically speaking.

First, there was a dizzying array of screws, bolts, spacers, rods, and tiny metal bits that looked like jigsaw puzzle pieces. There was also the troubling presence of a set of tweezers.

Then, there was the instructions. What can I say about those instructions? You know there have been clinical studies about the stress that IKEA's infamous DIY assemblies can cause. Well, if you're comfortable putting together an IKEA home nuclear reactor (aka Facinmelton) by looking at the instructions upside down in a broken mirror, you'll do just fine with the lock installation.

The installation instructions were complicated enough without later discovering that some of them were actually for a different model of lock, and it didn't help that those steps were flagged with "IMPORTANT: DO THIS OR RISK RUINING THE LOCK!" and the "THIS" referred to a part that didn't exist on my particular model.

And, as if the installation instructions weren't obtuse enough, the process for changing the lock combination was more complicated than a NASA moon mission launch sequence. Plus, it involved tweezers.

Lock combination instructions
Lock parts

By the way, in those instructions it is never explained exactly what the "clear position" is, although failure to maintain it will bring an end to life in the universe as we know it. As it turns out, the clear position is the natural state of the lock; if you don't fool with the deadbolt while changing the combo, you'll be fine. So now you know, and the universe is safe.

Despite these challenges, and my total cluelessness, I embarked on the installation. And the first thing I discovered was that, because my life is nasty, brutish, and short, the lock was designed for a door that opens in the exact opposite direction of mine. Fortunately, the manufacturer anticipated this situation and provided some not-entirely-cryptic instructions for swapping the opening direction mechanism (there's a more technical term for that but I'm so over it).

The actual installation went fairly smoothly, meaning that by the end of the process, I had only slightly less than half of my tool collection gathered around the gate, even though the instructions assured me that I could do it with only a screwdriver. And tweezers.

Because of the construction of our metal gate, I had to do some trimming of the spacers and shims (is that redundant?) so that the main body rested flush against the gate. I also couldn't put the lock quite as close to the edge of the gate as I would like, meaning that the deadbolt didn't engage the, uh, engagement slot quite as much as I would like. But, again, this is not a maximum security installation and in the end, I was quite satisfied with the outcome.

Installed lock - outside gate
Installed lock - inside gate
The lock is NOT in the clear position.

Despite all my complaints and grumblings, I actually do recommend this lock for certain outdoor applications that don't require maximum security. There are other variations that have keypads on both sides, and that also have the more standard indoor deadbolts, and the lock comes in a variety of finishes.

There are two downsides to note, however. Changing the combination requires completely uninstalling the lock in order to get to the innards. (It also requires tweezers. Have I mentioned the tweezers?) This is a major pain, and I don't plan on doing it anytime soon.

Second, because of the mechanical nature of the locking mechanism, the unlock code is very simplistic. Even though it can be multiple digits, the order of the digits isn't important. So, an unlock code of 2143 is also 4321 and 1234 and so on. Again, this might be a big deal if it was on the front door of your home, but it's not for my installation.

An extra minor consideration if you want to install the lock on a metal gate as I did: the kit comes only with wood screws. Plan accordingly.

If you end up buying and installing one of these locks, I'd be interested to know if you invent any new vocabulary to go along with it. Drop me a line and let me know.

Shooting an iPad: It's what we do.
October 9, 2015 12:29 PM | Posted in: ,

My mom's iPad recently cratered. It wasn't a huge deal, since it was a hand-me-down of my 1st generation model, and I replaced it with another hand-me-down of my 2nd gen tablet.

I was able to coax it to life just long enough to wipe it clean and destroy the SIM chip, and I planned to drop it off in the dead electronics box at Best Buy for recycling. But then I had a brilliant thought: "what do guys do when their stuff breaks beyond repair?" The answer is pretty obvious. They shoot it!

I can't explain it, and I won't even try to justify it. It's just one of the rules, and I'm nothing if not a rule observer (especially if the rules are fun). So, I propped the old and busted iPad against a back porch wall and hauled out my AR-15 12-gauge shotgun .40 S&W pistol pellet gun. (I may be crazy but I'm not insane.)

Standing at an angle to avoid ricochets (remember kiddies, always be safe when shooting electronics in your back yard), I took careful aim from a distance of about fifteen feet. The results were remarkably satisfying.

iPad with bullet holes in screen

Several observations:

  • The glass screen is quite durable, and evidently shatterproof. The glass pulverized where the pellets impacted, and the impact caused spiderweb cracking, but no glass shards broke off.

  • The electronics are also durable. As you can see from the photo, the display never shut off. (As to why it's displaying in the Dutch language, well...that's another story for another time.) However, the touchscreen no longer responded to, um, touch. The on/off button did work, but the home button did not.

  • The rainbow of colors caused by the trauma to the display is actually quite pretty. (Even guys who shoot defenseless electronics have a sensitive side.)
I now sorta hate to take it to Best Buy. Maybe I'll get it framed as a companion piece to the G4 mother board.

Deciding how to categorize this post was a challenge. I started to put it in the DIY category, contemplated the Art category, and ultimately landed on a combination of Technology and Firearms, even though a pellet gun hardly qualifies as either.
Blue Bell ice cream in grocery store
Our long national nightmare has ended

Our Labor Day weekend had a definite theme: Hills, Heat, and Humidity. Three consecutive days of 100°+ temperatures were bad enough, but when you factored in the humidity levels (~90% in the mornings; >70% in the evenings), even the slightest physical activity entailed copious sweating. Fortunately, we had plenty of changes of clothes.

We elected to leave the bike at home, so we spent some time each day walking or running through the neighborhood. That's where the hills came into play. I keep telling myself that running over those hills without having a near-death experience is just a matter of acclimation, but I'm either deluded or acclimation will require more than a once- or twice-a-month effort. (I'm pretty sure both factors are legit.) Nevertheless, we persevered, because we like to eat.

I didn't take any photos of the usually beautiful countryside because the drought has taken its toll on the landscape. Even the prickly pear pads are showing the effects of the lack of moisture. It's hard to conceive of how quickly the Hill Country transformed from a lush green, almost sub-tropical environment to a literal tinderbox of dead underbrush. In less than three months, the water level at Lake Travis has dropped more than three feet. The cloudy lining in this blue sky scenario is that rain is predicted for every day this week. Pray it happens.

One natural phenomenon in that area that isn't affected by the drought is the gathering of turkey vultures (or, as they're more affectionately known, buzzards) on the power line towers in the area. The birds begin gathering around dusk and spend the night perched on those towers. Walking near them is kind of eerie, in an Alfred Hitchcock sort of fashion. The birds are silent but never motionless, and you get the feeling that they're watching you carefully and if you stop moving for an instant, they'll assume you're road kill and swoop down for a bedtime snack.
Buzzards perched on towers
Buzzards perched on towers

These same towers are vacant the next morning, but the ground beneath them is littered with feathers, and reeks of...well, use your imagination.

We're always on the lookout for good opportunities to go dancing in the Hill Country, and this weekend was no exception. We continued our tour of the historic dance halls of Texas by visiting the Twin Sisters Hall located a few miles past Blanco on US Highway 281.

Twin Sisters claims it's the oldest hall in Texas, opening to the public in 1870. It's worth noting that Greune Hall in New Braunfels makes a similar claim - qualifying it as the "oldest continually operating dance hall" as it opened in 1878. Regardless, Twin Sisters is certainly historic, and well-preserved. It also isn't air conditioned (here comes that second "H"...and also the third one). The interior has a fair number of box fans scattered around the interior, but they didn't begin to succeed as an anti-sweating measure, especially considering the high energy music of the featured band on Saturday night.

Nevertheless, Twin Sisters could become one of our favorite dance destinations. The floor is spacious and in good shape, and there's plenty of seating around the perimeter. (They also have a rule against carrying drinks onto the dance floor...something Luckenbach should adopt.)

There are two downsides. First, they have public dances only on the first Saturday of each month. Second, beware when someone comes out and sprinkles an unknown substance around the floor. This is a completely unnecessary attempt to make the floor easier to dance on, but what it did for us is make it almost dangerously slick.
Twin Sisters Dance Hall
Twin Sisters Dance Hall - View of the stage
Twin Sisters Dance HallTwin Sisters Dance Hall - View of the main entrance

The band that evening was The Georges, with members hailing from from San Antonio and New Braunfels (they have a standing Wednesday evening gig at the aforementioned Greune Hall). They specialize in rockabilly music - or as they call it, Retro Rock. I'm not sure about the genre, but I can assure you that its primary feature is speed. Holy cow, did they ever play some fast songs.

The Georges
They did play a good variety of cover and original tunes, including songs by Dwight Yoakam, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, and Elvis. (Conversely, there was a refreshing absence of "bro-country.") The lead singer, Jason George, has a powerful voice with an impressive range, and he's backed by some skilled instrumentalists. The only minor quibble we had with the performance was an occasional tendency to vary the tempo of the music during a song, which make dancing more challenging. In summary, while their musical style isn't one that we'd want for every dance, we'll certainly look for future opportunities to hear them.

Here's a [rather sedate] sample of their music.

In contrast to our experiences at the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs, the crowd at Twin Sisters was slightly older, although there were a few families present. But the dancers were also more skilled; we never feared for our lives because of the out-of-control "frat boy two-steppers" that are so prevalent nowadays. This could be because the location is a bit remote. 

In fact, if you're not glued to your turn-by-turn GPS, you can easily miss the entrance to the dance hall, which sits a few hundred yards off the highway and is hidden by trees. Ironically, it's easier to miss the entrance in the daylight, because at night they have the small sign lit from both sides by car headlights (yeah, no electricity for you!). But to make things easier for you:

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 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
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 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.