26 December 2008

Holiiday Fuun

The big mistake of my Christmas season was giving my parents a Wii and Wii Fit system as a gift. The error was not in judging whether they would like it -- they do. It was in failing to figure out that I like it, too! 

I shot some 100 photos during the Christmas activities, some using the new flash that Santa brought me. If you shoot photos & say to yourself, "I am awful at flash photography," buy yourself a real flash, and you will quickly find out that good equipment makes a huge difference. I'd share some photos with you, but I stuck my camera's big photo card into dad's new digital photo frame (a gift from the unnamed male relative & his beautiful wife) to see how it would work, and I forgot to take it out when I left last night. Ugh!

Anyway, what I really wanted to share was some funny and probably embarrassing photos of us using the Wii. Probably best that I don't have them, heh. 

I was the guinea pig for the bowling & golf activities (which are fun but just as frustrating as the real thing!), so dad, the athlete of the family, agreed to be the Wii Fit guinea pig. One of the measurements it uses in determining your "Wii Fit age" is your Body Mass Index. 

Unfortunately, the Wii calculates BMI from your height and weight: weight/height squared. There are problems with this calculation. The main one is that it doesn't actually consider your body mass. So, dad who does exercise & yoga two days a week and plays golf more than any reasonable person should (heh), somehow had a higher BMI than mom & I who lead rather more (ahem) sedentary lifestyles and are rather more ... curvaceous.

In addition, some of the games & goals are different from dad's exercise experience. He's working on having good breathing & yoga form, but the game wants him to worry more about whether he is standing up straight. So mom & I, who could care less about breathing, played the Wii game nearly as well as dad, the actual yoga practitioner. 

Similarly, Wii bowling & golf are not good analogs to real bowling & golf; you have to figure out what the game wants, not do what you usually do in real life. Thus, I think dad was a little frustrated with his Wii experience, whereas mom & I had tons of fun. 

I just ordered my own. I don't think I want to drive across town every time I need a ski jumping or step aerobics 'fix'. But I need one *right now* so I guess I will get in the car. I need to pick up my camera card, anyway.

23 December 2008

Pink Lids & Akoha

We pause our adventures for a small public service announcement.... 

If you eat Yoplait yogurt & have pink lids, Yoplait will donate 10 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure for each lid received by 12/31/2008 at:

Save Lids to Save Lives®
P.O. Box 420704
El Paso, TX 88542-0704

If you write on the back of the envelope "Team #114686," the Akoha Wild Ones team will get 'credit' for participating. You may also join the team at the Yoplait site &/or share Akoha missions with me! 

For those not already familiar with the idea of Akoha, it's a social "game" whose object is to gather karma points by... well... being nice. The game starts with a deck of cards, featuring "missions" like "Invite someone for coffee," and "Make someone smile." 

The idea is to perform the action on the card, which increases the happiness in one person's life, then give that person the card & ask them to log onto Akoha, type some meaningful message about how much they enjoyed having this mission "played" on them. They then, hopefully, will be eager to "play it forward," making a great chain of happy people. 

You can then track your "mission" as it makes its way around the world, hopefully passing from one happy person to another. It's a little like a Where's George based on kindness rather than cash.

Based on my experience with Where's George, I don't hope that my missions will hop around all that much.  According to Where's George stats, I have entered 189 bills, and only 14 people have ever jumped online to report finding them. Perhaps when I am handing someone a mission card, having just done something nice, they will be more amenable to reporting their pleasure & joining the game. 

In the great scheme of things, the idea of Akoha is that it encourages people to do nice things for others and increase overall world happiness by some small token, or even larger tokens, depending on the mission. It's irrelevant that the recipient does or does not respond online -- but it would make the game more fun.

(By the way, Akoha is in closed beta, but if someone performs a mission on you -- and some of them can be played via e-mail -- then you can get into the beta as well. If you send me an e-mail, a Facebook message or or a direct Tweet saying you'd like to play, I'll work to share a mission with you, so you can Play it Forward!)

11 December 2008


This photo shows what passes for "snow" in Houston. The little dusting barely registered on the snow-meters, but it certainly caused havoc on the roads. 

The flurries started in earnest around 3:30 yesterday, or at least that's when the gal from the neighboring office ran into mine and said, "It's SNOWING!" I thought it was a joke, of course, but when I turned it looked like a scene out of White Christmas -- well, if you squinted real hard it did, anyway. 

Nothing really "stuck" until late in the evening, and even then, as you can see from these pix, we didn't have much sticking. As far as the dog is concerned, it was nothing more than thick rain, spoiling her ability to play catch -- because *someone* said it was too cold & wet to play outside. 

Although it was cold as snakes this morning, the snow was all gone from the roads when it was time to drive to work. That's *my* kind of snow.

19 November 2008

Failure is not an option

This cartoon by Hugh MacLeod smacked me on the nose when I saw it on his blog last week. 

I'm a big fan of Hugh, especially his ideas about "How to Be Creative" and "Social Objects as the Future of Marketing." But this cartoon hit a nerve.

A lifetime ago, I had just started working for a magazine in the photonics industry. I was a skilled journalist and had an abiding interest in science and technology but my month or two reading & writing about photonics hardly made me an 'expert.' And yet, that's what journalists have to be, in essence: Instant experts on whatever topic they're assigned in any given day, and a different topic every day. That's what drove me into journalism when dad wanted me to go on to law school. How cool is a job where you get to keep learning every day of your career?

Burned out in the newspaper business after a few too many of those obligatory calls to the family of the kid who was killed by the drunken driver, I went into technology journalism, where I'd always hoped to end up. So I was two months into a very technical new area of expertise when a contributed article fell through -- a week before the print deadline. 

Every trade magazine editor in the world knows the sickening feeling that comes from staring at three to five empty pages of text with no way to fill it. And thus, the Senior Editor called a quick hallway meeting to announce The Big Problem. Not understanding the panic, I offered a solution: "Why don't I just write something to fill the space?"

My exuberance was borne of 10 years in the daily newspaper business, whereas my colleagues' pessimistic frowns were products of life in the monthly magazine world. To me, five empty pages meant 10 phone calls to technical experts, a couple of days of typing, and a quick editorial review. As doubtful as my colleagues were, they saw no other options. 

And yet, the publisher had to voice one last pessimistic query: "But what if you fail?"

(With my 20/20 hindsight, I know this moment was the initial salvo from the energy vampire I would battle for most of the next seven years.)

"I won't fail," I said, shrugging. "And if I do -- which I won't -- you'll be no worse off than you are right now, with five pages of house ads to make up for the missing article."

There's a scary place between your comfort zone & failure. You know that place -- it's right there where you doubt your success. In that place, a wall pops up, and on the wall is a sign: "You are too stupid to do this." This is where some people fail, and learn that even if people laugh at their failure, they will live through it. And maybe they also "learn" that they are stupid. "Oh, I'm not good at math." "Oh, I just can't draw." "Oh I tried that and I failed, so I don't do it anymore." But other people knock the damn sign down and find some crazy way to get over/under/around/past that wall. And maybe we are never the very best in the world at that one thing, but we do just fine, thanks.

And so I didn't fail. I called the experts, I did my interviews, I wrenched my brain into a knot until I understood what they told me about ultraviolet detectors, and if one expert wasn't available, I called another one. Because it never occurs to me that failure might be an option. 

Today, more than 10 years after that impromptu hallway meeting, I printed out Hugh's cartoon and hung it on my wall at the Much Better Place where I work now. But I scribbled a quote from a favorite movie next to the guy on the left. It says, "Laugh while you can, monkey boy."

11 November 2008

Helicopter Dunking

This week's work adventure has been getting certifications so I can go offshore to shoot & observe my employer's technology "in action."

I have some thoughts on what made this training particularly successful -- hint: the instructor was passionate about safety & teaching! However, I'm only going to write the *story* tonight because my sinus cavity is killing me after today's little activity. 

Today's class was Water Survival, including Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET). Morning was mostly in the classroom, and afternoon in the pool learning various water survival techniques. The highlight, of course, is the helicopter dunking. I did not shoot any video or stills of my own class but here's a video that captures the concept.

Basically, you strap yourself into this simulated helicopter body, which the trainers then dump into the pool and flip on its head. This results in massive amounts of chlorine up your nose, no matter how well you try to blow out your nostrils. You then have to pop a window, release your seatbelt and pull yourself out of the thing. 

My class comprised 14 people -- me & 13 guys (surprise, right?) They loaded two victims at a time in the simulator for five dunks in various configurations: with windows, without; straight down or rolled over; 'easy' window or 'hard'.

Naturally I was in the very last pair of the day. As the second-to-last group was finishing its third dunk, we could hear thunder outside the metal building that housed the pool. (It had been raining all day). I joked that this was a good thing because it helped add some realism: Clearly the storm was the reason why our helicopter was ditching into the Gulf. 

Picking a window
My partner asked if I had a preference as to which window I'd like to start on. To remove the "hard" window, you had to push hard in just the right place (upper left corner near your left shoulder), and it would pop out. To remove the "easy" window, you flipped open a latch right next to your right hip & then it fell out with a little tap. We'd be doing four practice dunks on one window and one 'final' dunk (sort of a final practical exam) on the other window. My completely logical choice was to take the 'hard' window for my four learning dunks and the 'easy' window for my final exam, rather than risk an embarrassing 'redo' dunk on the final. 

However, when I headed for the seat next to the "hard" window, the instructor pointed at the other seat and said, "I think you should take this seat. " Ugh. If he had added "little lady," it would not have been more condescending. Anyway, I declined. He then said, with a little frown, "I strongly encourage you to take this seat." I thanked him for his encouragement but buckled myself into the other one.

The first dunk had us popping the windows out on surface, followed by a straight drop into the pool. OK, it did take some OOMPH to pop that window out, but escaping through the open window was a no-brainer. 

The second dunk left the windows in for a full straight dunk. So we had to pop the windows under water, then open our seatbelts & get out. OK, it still took some OOMPH to get that window out, but ultimately it was no problem. Unfortunately, my partner couldn't get the 'easy' window open & had to be 'rescued' so he could try it again. "It's not easy to find the latch," he complained. The instructor responded, "No, not if you are trying to find it with your eyes...." 

After my partner completed his redo, we were loaded and strapped in for the third dunk -- but we were unloaded quickly after the crane operator saw lightning and said, "Everybody out of the pool." We stood, shivering in our soaking wet coveralls for about 15 minutes while the front moved through. Again, I couldn't help but laugh at the idea of having a good reason for the helicopter to ditch.

After the lightning abated, we got to the third dunk: windows out and helicopter inverted (rolling over). This was the first taste of what had made everyone else in our group come up coughing & gasping. It's disorienting, yes, but more significantly, the water is violently turbulent, like having someone aim a firehose up in your face. Even with great suggestions from a more experienced classmate about how to avoid it, I got one very uncomfortable, very chlorinated snoutful of water. Didn't stop me from getting out, but it left me (and my partner) sputtering a bit.

Dunk #4 was the pre-final: Windows in, dunk & roll, pop window, release seatbelt, get out. OK, no problem, but more chlorine up my nose. My partner also made it.

Final exam
For dunk #5, we switched sides. This put me on the right side of the helicopter, opening the 'easy' window latch with my right hand. Piece of cake, right? Right. Let's go!

Splash! Nice big breath. Simulator stops rolling, reach over to the easy window and grab the easy little latch. The ... um... latch. Hello? Where the hell is the damn latch? Woah, no panic, you have plenty of time & breath here. Stop. Relax. Remember the trainer's words: Don't try to use your eyes. Put my hand back on my hip, flip it over, there's the latch. Dang, my thumb just barely fits in that little space. Pull the latch, tap the window. Use the same hand to reach for the seatbelt. Oh no, you don't; your outside (right) hand goes on the fusilage to re-orient yourself to "out". Inside (left) hand pulls the seatbelt latch. Pull myself out, snort to the surface. Success!! No re-run!

I remembered only later that of the 14 people in the class, three had to redo at least one dunk -- all on the 'easy' side. That latch is a booger.

Anyway, I'm now certified for SafeGulf, HUET & water survival. Yippee!! 

07 October 2008

New rules for debates

While twittering the 'town hall debate' and watching on CNN, I came up with two new important rules for political debates. 

Rule #1: Answers are limited, Twitter-style, to 140 characters. If you need more than that, then you can blog it later.

Rule #2: If you do not answer a question, you don't get to answer the next one(s). So if someone asks, "If Iran attacks Israel, will you smack them back?" and you answer, "I don't think Iran should get to have nuclear weapons," you get a zero in the answering column, and you don't get to answer the next question, or any other question, until you make up your freakin' mind. (I'm sure McCain had a couple of those, too, and it just annoys the hell out of me.) As above, if you change your mind later, that's what your blog is for.

Two simple rules. And ok, I admit that asking John McCain to type on an iPhone while sitting on stage is probably a bad idea (although the mental image makes me laugh). However, the second one is absolutely critical to actually making decisions about which of these people will get my vote. 

I kept thinking tonight, about the debate as a job interview. Pretend, for a minute, that you are hiring one of these guys (which you are...). And one of them, instead of answering your questions, points out all the mistakes that the other guy has made over the last 10 years. The other one, instead of answering your questions, brilliantly discourses on whatever the hell he wants to talk about. Which one do you hire? 

Me: Tell me about the most stressful work situation you've ever been in, and how you dealt with it.

Candidate #1: Thank you for the question, my friend. Really. I deal with stress just fine. But That One, he once had a hissy fit at the coffee machine because there were no filters -- a little thing, I voted against buying more filters because being a real reformer, I thought we could just use paper towels, because I thought filters were so elite and mainstream, you know? That One, my friend, he voted for filters, a special earmark, and he was very stressed out when they had not yet arrived in time to make his mokka lah-te-dah or whatever you young people call those things these days. (looks over in disgust at the other candidate, crosses arms)

Candidate #2: Thank you for asking. Fundamentally, I think my health plan is going to keep all of us from worrying about stress anymore, and tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 would certainly ease the burden of paying for those enormous mortgages that the Republicans foisted on the poor people of this country. (self-satisfied smile)

I hate it that I don't actually have a *good* choice in this election. 

06 October 2008

Letter to my Congressman

To the Honorable Kevin Brady:

I'm just wondering what Congress is going to do for me, a person who paid cash for her last two cars (one every 10 years!), pays off her one credit card bill in full every month, and makes her mortgage payments on time so she can continue to live in the modest little house that is well within her means.

We are apparently going to use my tax money to bail out a lot of stupid, greedy people who bought more than they could reasonably afford, and who seem to think the world owes them a big screen TV, a couple of Wii's for the kids, and a new car every two years.

Then we're going to use more of my tax money to bail out the greedy, multimillion dollar businesses that extended credit to those other greedy stupid people and then gave themselves big, fat bonus checks so they could go buy million-dollar mansions in fine, gated communities (where, boo-hoo, they may now be having trouble making their payments, if there is a God.)

Meanwhile, the IRAs & 401(k) that I've been putting *my* money into for the last 25+ years have given up all of their value over the last few weeks because everybody is scrabbling to get some piece of whatever's left of the money in the world.

And instead of a big, fat mortgage that could have a principle reduction if I didn't pay my bills, I have a reasonably budget-able mortgage and a chunk of equity that may or may not be valuable when it's time to sell. I don't see anybody offering to reduce *my* mortgage principle as a prize for being *smart* and *sensible* when the real estate gal was trying to convince me that, "Well, sure, this is a nice place but you could afford so much more!"

I guess I am just annoyed that we are rewarding foolishness instead of taking care of the people who pay their taxes, put money into savings, pay cash and generally do things the *right* way. And I ask again, "What is Congress going to do for *me*?"


Stephanie A. Weiss
The Woodlands
(sent originally via Write Your Rep, and I encourage you to write one, too) 

P.S. I have already received two new credit card applications in the mail this week, which started today.  This suggests to me that the credit market has not shut down, and if I were a Congressman, my first new Bill would raise the postage costs for credit card applications, with all the resulting revenue going toward paying off the unfortunate $700b nonsense that you people agreed to provide last week to keep the market from tumbling, which it did anyway. Nice work.

13 September 2008

He's heeee-ere

We're just getting the edge of Ike & he is already a huge pest. 

The photo at right shows you the house right behind mine yesterday evening. YOu can just barely see the top of one of those white plastic lawn chairs on the left, then the "naked guy" near the door, and the screened tent. I think they may be out of town, although someone did come by & push over the naked guy at some point late yesterday, I did see a light on there at some point last night. 

Below, you can see the view now. (Yes, it's a little dark and drippy, but it's only 5 am and the middle of a *hurricane* here.) What you see is the top of a tree that I think is just outside the view on the right of the "before" photo. At least I'm pretty sure it's not from the tree in the foreground of the dark photo.... It made an awfully loud noise about an hour ago and came down across the fence & -- i think -- the screened tent. I'm pretty sure something is holding that tent down so I don't have to worry about it coming through my windows. Not as sure about the rest of the stuff in their yard..... 

We do still have power, but I don't expect it to last much longer. We are still an hour or two away from getting the worst of the storm, and it sounds pretty nasty. I should be able to keep Twittering & doing various other things from the iPhone, and recharge occasionally from the car..... Hope to stay connected to the world because, frankly, it's a little scary. Stuff just keeps banging onto the roof, the doors, the walls, the deck. And we aren't even in the bad part yet.

12 September 2008

Covering Hurricanes

The image on the right is Ike around 7 pm Friday. The red words on the green map say "Houston" and "Me." The arrow shows where Ike is heading. He will probably go just a little bit east of "Me." But you get the idea.

Bear with me as I reminisce a bit about the old days. The last major hurricane to smack Houston was a brat named Alicia, and she walloped the area in 1983, doing pretty much the same thing Ike is doing but with higher winds & less storm surge. 

Hurricanes haven't changed much over the years, but the technology for reporting about hurricanes has changed remarkably. I was a Houston Chronicle reporter when Alicia came through, and oh yes, we blanketed the area and reported everything we could, but it was a simpler time, and a newspaper was a daily thing, not a minute-by-minute online information source. 

Back then, if you needed to know what's happening now, you had your TV on, or, after the power went out, you turned your portable ratio to KTRH. [OK, some things have not changed; I bet most of us will *still* tun our portable radios to KTRH after the power goes out.]

Back then, when a tree fell on the power lines, it also fell on the phone lines. I can't remember when the Chronicle got its first satellite phone, but it was a monstrous military-looking gizmo that cost a small fortune for each call, so it was rarely used and we certainly did not have enough for each of the dozens of reporters scattered around the metropolitan area. There were no cell phones. No blackberries, no Twittering, no "live Ike webcams" (except TV news satellite trucks, of course), and no individual bloggers reporting on their own little microcosm of the world.

I was on "normal" duty for Alicia, so by the time the storm was up to strength, I was "off duty." But I couldn't go home because everything was pretty much shut down. I spent the night on the 5th floor of the Chronicle building, watching gravel fly off the roofs of the downtown high-rise buildings, breaking all their windows. The newsroom, at the time, was one large open space with enormous windows across one wall. Those windows bucked and bulged all night long, looking scary but ultimately doing their job.

When the storm had passed, I went to mom & dad's house in Memorial, where they had some trees down. I remember Allen Parkway was pretty well flooded but otherwise it was just a lot of branches everywhere. 

Storms are different now. I can sit at home & watch people all over Houston taking about their hurricane preparations, what they see out their windows as the storm rolls by, what they see on TV. I can unplug my TV and still watch live coverage on TV stations' websites, or (gasp) on my iPhone if the power goes out. (This assumes I can still get a cell signal, not a foregone conclusion if the towers get smacked.)

It's a different world, when I can sit at my house & know that power is already out and some homes are already flooded in Clear Lake. I know power is flickering in midtown. I know things I never would have dreamed about knowing back in 1983. And somehow it's comforting to know all of this because it fills the void that might otherwise be filled with fear of the impending monster storm.

11 September 2008

Why The Woodlands Cares About Hurricanes

I've mentioned before that I am pretty far away from the coast, which means worrying about hurricanes is a bit silly. It would take one whopper of a storm to bring hurricane-force winds all the way up here.

But if they did get here, it would be pretty catastrophic: It's not called The Woodlands just cuz it's a pretty name. The photo on the right shows my house, sorta. What it shows more clearly is the reason I wanted to live there -- the enormous trees. There are six 100-foot pines in my front yard. (My ballpark estimate on the height). There are a bunch more in the neighbor's front yard. And more in my backyard. 

It's a happy place for trees. Unlike typical suburbs, The Woodlands has historically required developers to plan out their subdivisions with minimum possible impact on the existing environment -- the big trees. And so we have these great neighborhoods full of greens and browns and the smell of pine after hurricanes.

Because hurricanes are not that great for tall pine trees. After Rita, when I lived in a townhouse with much less lush forest around, we had one tall pine go down in the neighborhood, not because of the wind but because of the combination of wind + wet. Because unfortunately, once the ground is wet the tree roots don't hold onto the ground so well, allowing the trees to topple.

That was the problem with Alicia in '93. My parents lived in Memorial (closer to Houston but on the west side) at the time and lost some big pine trees. It had rained a lot right before Alicia, and the trees just went "schloop" out of the mud when the wind hit 'em.

We don't expect that for Ike because it has been very dry for weeks here. But we probably will still have a lot of branches to clean up. The big hope is that none of them go through a window. 

The big question remains as to where Ike will hit. The latest forecast moved him northeast a bit. 50 more miles northeast and The Woodlands will move from his "dirty side" with higher winds & more wet, to the "clean side," a veritable walk in the park as we had for Rita. 

Crossing my fingers & hugging my trees.

As I write, dad is on his way over to help me bring the outdoor furniture inside. Such a good daddy!

10 September 2008

Ike Looks to Mess Up a Weekend

It appears Hurricane Ike is going to rampage across Southeast Texas this weekend. 

I'm something like 65 miles inland from Galveston, but the latest update to the National Hurricane Center map (right) looks like Ike may come a lot closer than storms of recent memory. (Remember Rita?) If you look very closely at the map, you'll see a little reddish "x" just north of the 30-degree line and just a tad east of the hurricane path. That's approximately where I am. 

Assuming there's anything to say, I'll blog here and/or microblog via Twitter as the cable connection + iPhone allow. 

29 August 2008


In the spirit of LOLcats, Dwight Silverman over at the Chronicle came up with LOLcanes a couple of weeks ago. In honor of Hurricane Gustav, Lakrids & I offer this one:

05 August 2008

Eddie the Wimp

Here you see Lakrids the Intrepid Storm Chaser, decidedly bored by the whole Edouard thing. It rained all day, but the predicted tropical storm-force winds never materialized. The storm also didn't seem to include any thunder/lightning, at least not in our neck of the woods. We had a scarier, more fierce storm last weekend in a normal quick Texas thundershower.

My impression from radar is that we've seen the worst of what we're going to get. So it was just a quiet, rainy day for us. Others lost power -- some 13,000 people supposedly are dealing with that annoyance right now. We've avoided that problem, unless they do as they did after Rita, and subject us to rolling blackouts for the next few days while they try to get the power grid back online. We'll see....

The good news: The backyard is very green & not a lake. All the work on the drainage did exactly what it was supposed to do -- yay!

Edouard comes to visit

There's a tropical storm in the neighborhood, and apparently he is due to drop in with high winds & heavy rain sometime this afternoon. 

The last hurricane to threaten the area was Rita, whom I wrote about back in 2005. This Edouard was headed directly for Houston but veered off in a somewhat Rita-like direction. He's heading a little more obliquely north, however, which should put tropical storm force winds right over The Woodlands sometime this afternoon.

For now, it's just raining with a few gusts. No thunder/lightning, even. Just a pleasant, cool, rainy Houston day. I brought in most of my outdoor furniture because of the threat of high winds. My neighbor behind, however, has left his screened-in tent out there. Could be interesting....  

I'll update whenever it seems like there is something to say, assuming I still have Internet + power. When power is gone, I will still be able to Twitter from the iPhone. Thus far, I can still hear birds singing while they enjoy the much-needed shower. The birdback out back is almost full, and the fountain is not yet overflowing, so we haven't gotten more than a sprinkle here yet. 

26 July 2008

I have a real backyard!

When I left home a few weeks ago for a business trip to Oklahoma, my backyard looked like this:

I was only gone a few days, but when I came home, I found that the landscaping elves had visited. So it looked like this!:

Another week or so later, more landscaping elves came to visit, so it looked like this:

And finally, it looks like this!:

After three weeks, the dog & I have not yet managed to kill the new, expensive shade-loving (AmeriShade) grass.... Hurricane Dolly did us a bit of a favor with a few rainshowers. At least for that little bit of rain, the landscaper's leveling and French drain prevented the usual lake from forming in the backyard.

I also posted pix without the story.

23 April 2008

Photos & phlowers

When I bought my house two years ago, the yard included a number of climbing rose bushes, most of which have produced no or very few blooms and many feet of annoying, thorny, scraggly stems. I hate the things.

Saturday, mom & I went over to my favorite garden store, Arbor Gate, because it was nice out, and mom wanted to mess up her hair in the convertible. Among other little plants I snagged for the front yard, we found a couple of gorgeous hibiscus plants to replace the annoying, non-blooming, killer roses on either side of my garage.

After struggling to rip out the thorn bushes, I planted the new flowering bushes, which are covered with flower buds. (Dad came over on Sunday to single-handedly plant the annuals -- yay dad!)

Wednesday morning, I had my first hibiscus bloom, which I shot with the new camera. The uncropped version is here on Flickr, where I have been playing a lot lately. 

I'll close with my other neat photo of the day, a work photo:

Well Screens

05 April 2008

More eagles

Here's dad (or mom?) eagle looking regally into the new 70-300mm lens from a tree near the Carlton Woods clubhouse.

The eagles were all in different trees today, but all looking over the lake on the 18th hole at the Carlton Woods Country Club. This one was mostly down near the south end of the lake (clubhouse/green) but s/he did a few fly-arounds (soaring photo below). 

Rumor has it that Junior has been out of the nest on occasion, but he did not make any moves in that direction while we were out.  

Although Junior was steadfastly boring, mom (dad?) seemed to be working on her tan, or acting as scarecrow, or just showing off her lovely feathers in a dead tree pretty far around the lake from where we were standing. 

The new lens is great, but there is quite a learning curve for using it Among other things, I'm going to need a heavy-duty tripod. (sigh) Why does every new hobby quickly turn into a money pit? 

04 April 2008

Happy Family

Just a couple of photos of the eagles who have taken up residence on the edge of the 18th hole at Carlton Woods Country Club.

We begin with mom & dad, who actually look like bald eagles, with all the proper adult feather coloring. They are sitting, regally, on a tree branch overlooking the lake where they occasionally fish for their own dinners & for Junior. 

I was out on the golf course with my mom, and we agreed that the mom & dad birdies sort of look frazzled and weary. You get the impression, from watching them, that they are wondering, "How long before Junior starts catching his own dinners, or maybe moves out and gets a job?"

 Junior is in the enormous nest, in the next tree over, looking like a bird but not much like an eagle. I'm told that they get the white head feathers as they age. 

These are very cropped in (100%) images from my new camera, shot with a 40-150 zoom lens. I've also ordered a 70-300 zoom, which I hope will be here on Monday. So although mom & dad eagle are wishing Junior would fly the coop, I'm sort of hoping he waits one last weekend.

01 April 2008

First shots

Because I have the world's best UPS delivery person, I have a new camera today. You can see its handiwork here on the right, the very first (bad) photo I shot with the new Olympus E-510. I've never been very good at flash photograph, so you will have to excuse me. I do like the 'giant dog' shadow effect, though, heh.

The camera was waiting on my porch when I got home, so naturally I ran inside with it & started unpacking the stuff. As with most consumer electronics these days, the stupid battery was uncharged. So I have this cool new light-sensitive toy that I can't even use until after dark!! Aaaagh!

I thought it would be fun to shoot my completely no-tech Kodak Brownie box camera with this amazingly high-tech new camera. So while I was waiting for the stupid battery to charge up, I dug the Brownie out of the back of the closet, where it's been gathering dust for ages alongside my Nikon FG -- also an 'antique' now since I bought that back in 1982. I can't remember the last time I shot film. And that's important to the story because while I was poking around on the Brownie to look for some angle to shoot, I realized it has film in it!

I'm wondering when I might have gotten the silly idea of running out and buying film for the thing, and where I might have found size 120 film in this day & age. And where I could even get it developed. I'm sure it's dead past its expiration date by now, but it would be an awful lot of fun to find out what's on that film, if anything is left.

Meanwhile, please ignore the bad flash photography. I will try to learn how to do better. In fact, I have a lot to learn with this camera, because it is a spaceship compared to my point-and-clicks. Meanwhile, a trip to see the three eagles (mom, dad & baby) at Carlton Woods is in the plan for... tomorrow? I hope.

30 March 2008

Trees and dirt

On the right, meet Big Daddy, the biggest tree in my tree-filled but otherwise ugly backyard. He's a big booger of a tree, 90 inches in circumference at the base. (Yeah, I just ran out & measured.)

Daddy & the other cool trees (left) are a primary reason I live where I do. When I was looking for a house, I found that most of the new places in my price range were on lots that had either recently been farmland or were razed of their old trees to simplify construction of little cookie-cutter homes. Each of those homes gets one 25-gallon tree for the front yard, and so the neighborhood *might* look like a forest again in 25 years or so.

My current house is about 15 years old, but the rule in The Woodlands (until recently but don't get me started...) always was that developers had to work around the existing trees as much as possible. Plus there are wild spaces all over. So driving in The Woodlands makes you feel like you're driving around in the woods -- to the point where it's darned easy to get lost out here.

Anyway, I love my trees. But I do not love my backyard. As mentioned in a previous entry, I've asked a landscaper to design something wonderful. Unfortunately, I have not heard from him since our first meeting. I know, these things take time, and I am *trying* to be patient. Meanwhile, here are the "before" pictures. Sad, but true. Except for the cool trees, it's a mud-pit.

Above, we're looking from the concrete slab porch toward Big Daddy. On the left, we're looking from Big Daddy back toward the porch. Pretty, right? I am pretty sure grass will grow in a lot of that dirt space if the landscaper can do some grading to prevent Lake Smukke from forming out there after every 1/4-inch of rainfall. Oh, sure, having some real *soil* out there instead of this sandy dusty crud would probably help, too.

22 March 2008


A number of Twitter users have created 'color teams' for a geek Olympics, of a sort. Event #1 involves posting photos of ourselves in 'team uniforms,' throwing rocks, paper or scissors.

Being geeky, I am on FF1CAEteam, which is the hex color designation of a lovely bright pink. Amazingly, the racing Nomex still fits and is mostly still pink although wow it faded over the years.

Had to post the photo on Flickr, which I had not used before. Now I'm blogging from there -- an experiment. Does it work? If so, I also took some 'before' photos of the non-landscaping today & the glorious trees that keep the sun from allowing any grass to grow in the backyard.

19 March 2008


I'm a professional communicator. I don't have any fancy license, but I have a college degree and people have paid me to write & edit text for the last 25 years or so. 

I am not a professional engineer, but I occasionally make forays into that world. Every time I do, I fix some typos, turn some passive voice into active voice, and learn a lot about how the world works. I take engineering classes to expand my mind & my technical knowledge, but I never think, "Any monkey could create a job design if they had the right software. Why the hell do we need these high-priced engineers?" 

Holiday Inn Express commercials notwithstanding, I believe many things in this world are best done by trained professionals. Heart surgery, for example. Soldiering. Plumbing. Electrical wiring. Bridge-building. Cooking. Cleaning.

I had a professional landscaper visit my house yesterday to plan out something wonderful for my backyard. I could go out and buy 50 plants, dig some holes and stick plants in 'em. Afterward, my backyard would be the landscaping equivalent of the newsletter that one of our engineers recently threw together using a hideous Microsoft Word template, some dark photographs of unidentifiable instrumentation, and some random text in a miniscule font that his target audience will not be able to read without a magnifier. Not to mention the black text on dark blue background. (sigh) Because, of course, any monkey with the right software can be a professional communicator. 

Or, perhaps, a professional landscaper. This evening, I told my neighbor about the landscaper's visit. He said, "Why don't you just do it yourself? I did mine..." In a rare burst of restraint, I did not say, "Yes, I see that." This is, after all, the neighbor with the naked guy on his back porch.

Irony? He's a professional elementary school administrator who complains that people think it's so easy to deal with 200 screaming kids all day long. 


02 March 2008

How the Flu Works

I'm pretty sure I saw this on the Discovery Channel, but I may have confused some of the details (heh). 

The flu begins its life as a nasty little bug, the kind of bug that none of the other bugs likes because it's always mean and never shares. When it grows up to full bugness, it has achieved Supreme Meanness, and it is ready to take on humanity. 

It jumps into its first victim, where it begins its nefarious plot. The game begins with a clone army, which it prepares in the lungs of the infected, hapless soul, even before that person realizes s/he is sick. The first sign of illness, in fact, is a teeny little cough, which serves the evil bug by dispersing clone minions into other hapless victims -- again, before the cougher even knows s/he is sick.

After the victim has done a few days of the bug's evil, the clone armies begin to march out of the lungs and start tearing up other parts of the body. The victim now realizes s/he is sick because s/he begins to feel nausea, fever, chills, runny nose, headache, etc. In short, the victim feels s/he has been run over by a bulldozer.

The truly evil part of the bug's plan is the nausea. The bug knows that if the victim does not eat or drink enough to keep the body's defenses up, the bug can win. So the victim must stuff him/herself with water, chicken soup, Gatorade, Saltines, and/or Girl Scout "Cinna-Spins" even though they would rather just curl up & die.

All of the battle is going on at the cellular level, so you can't *see* anything. Victims may look flushed from fever or pale from nausea, but they don't have any knife wounds or missing limbs. Thus, it's easy to poke them and call them slackers. But in fact, their metabolism is running so high they are burning more calories than they could wish to eat. This leads to what cyclists call "the bonk," where your body just runs out of energy & shuts down higher functions, like consciousness. And thus, we nap. And nap. And then nap some more. 

I've been sleeping on & off for the last 36 hours, trying to let my body handle the Battle of the Bug. I've avoided drugs because fever is one of your body's natural defenses for these nasty bugs, and it's a good and useful thing as long as it doesn't get up over 103-ish, where it starts frying brain cells (not a great idea). I have this mental image of my body's defenses all lined up & ready for battle, and some Pharmaceutical Pom Pom Squad standing in the way trying to 'help.' No thanks. My body is well-equipped for this battle. 

And so, I'm letting my body handle the mess. I'm tired of coughing, and I really wish I could take some aspirin to stop the general aches but that would reduce the fever too, so, I'll suffer. Actually, rather than suffer, I'll just go back to sleep. Right after I force down another cup of soup. 

29 February 2008

Another geeky success

This week, I squeezed in my third adventure in oilfield engineering education. The adventure began as the previous ones did: Instructor goes through the class roster, sees female person from -- what the hell? -- the advertising department, assumes she is going to be a dunce, places her on the front row in the center so he can give her extra attention, which clearly she is going to need, right?

I have to admit that despite my previous success with these classes, I was nervous about this one. The head of engineering training told me that the last two sessions of this class had a 50% failure rate. In English: half of the class failed. Part of the reason for that is that my company holds its engineers to a very high standard: You must achieve an 80% average to pass. The other part is that this class is the first one most of our fledgling engineers take, and some are ill-prepared for the work.

So I went in with a bit of a fear factor. The math for this class was said to be the most intense of all our introductory engineering classes, and math scares me. On the first day, I could barely keep up with the instructor on some of the calculations, and I got very frustrated by my slowness.

These classes are five days long, with a test every day, and total brain stuffing. The first day has a pre-test, just to gauge your knowledge. I got a 47, but that's ok because it doesn't count for anything, and it showed that my brain had plenty of space. Tuesday through Thursday tests measured our ability to use information we'd learned the day before. My scores were 98, 98 & 90, respectively. 

The Thursday test was a big deal because apparently it's the one that caused most of the failures in the previous classes. It put a number of my classmates "on the bubble," as well. I felt good about my 90 because all of my wrong answers were due to my own carelessness -- not my lack of knowledge. Carelessness I can deal with. Being stupid, not so much. 

Thursday night homework didn't go well because I didn't feel well. Maybe something I caught from a classmate who felt poopy on Monday & Tuesday? Seriously medicated myself for Friday. Upon checking homework on Friday morning, I found I'd totally messed up a page of calculations. Took me 15 minutes to find my error, but I did. Stupid carelessness!

For the 80-question final exam, we were allotted 3.5 hours. The exam was 60 1-point multiple choice & then 20 two-point calculation questions of the type where if you get one wrong, all the ones underneath are also wrong. You calculate one thing, which you use to calculate the next, and then use one or both of those to calculate something else. Carelessness = high failure potential.

Friday's instructor was not the guy we'd had earlier in the week. I finished in 1.5 hours and the instructor gave me a look that might have been either, "Did you just give up?!" or "Holy shit, you're done?!" Then he graded it and grinned. I got a 96. I can live with that.

But this flu/cold/poopy-feeling thing is not so good.

17 February 2008

"Cute" + Technology = Drool

Once upon a time, in the mid-1990s, I was a "road warrior" with platinum frequent flyer miles, suffering from that shoulder ache you get from lugging too much junk in your carry-on bag. The biggest piece of junk, of course, was the laptop computer. 

To ease my shoulder, I bought a Toshiba Libretto, one of the first micro-notebook computers. Unlike the PDAs that were all the rage at the time, the Libretto runs *real* Windows software (Win 95 I think?) and has a real keyboard, although I am pretty sure most people could not type on the thing because the keys are so tiny. Importantly, it weighs in at just 2 lbs with the standard battery. It has a modem (remember those?) and an external floppy drive, although I can't remember whether I had to buy that separately or it came with the thing. (At the time of purchase -- 1996ish -- a floppy was all you needed!) It has a 75 MHz Pentium processor, so it was pretty much standard/high performance 10 years ago. In the photo above, you see the Libretto (left) with my Mac Mini and a CD, for size comparison. You can imagine how big the screen and keyboard are. Or click here.  

In addition to being practical, the thing was a very cute conversation piece. Even in Japan, where I traveled a lot, most people had never seen one "in the flesh." So OK, it's not "elegant," but it's functional, compact, and it cost me about $1400. I can't remember whether that included the spare oversize battery &/or any other gizmos I may have bought at the time. 

These days, I am no road warrior. I have not booted the Libretto in years. When I need a notebook at home, I have a 7-year-old Dell. Most often, I sit at the computer desk and use my sweet iMac (pat pat). If I need Windows, I also have a desktop Dell that is faster & more powerful than the laptop (but I have not booted the thing in months). For work, they gave me an IBM laptop that I occasionally carry to meetings or classes, but mostly it sits in its docking station.

So I don't *need* a MacBook Air, but dang if I don't want one. 

As the Houston Chronicle's Dwight SIlverman points out, the Air has the same sex appeal as an iPhone. I should note that I took the photo above with my iPhone. I like sex appeal. In fact, John Gruber at Daring Fireball suggests that the MacBook Air is made for me. It is, he says, the computing analogue to a sporty convertible coupe. Lest anyone forget, I drive a yellow Mini Cooper convertible.

The nay-sayers point out the Air's lack of "necessary" features: just one USB port oh n0z! no Ethernet port, oh n0z! no optical drive, oh n0z! The list goes on. These factors do not concern me. I do worry about battery life; when I bought the Libretto I did get a spare battery, which I occasionally needed. I also hate it that the built-in mouse has only one button. Sorry, Mac purists: I am a right-clicker.

But hey, let's put this in a different perspective for this non-power-user: When I bought my Mini Cooper, I had a choice between the base Cooper and the Cooper S that has the awesome supercharger and some other sweet performance features. I had the $. I could have bought the S, and, in fact, I drooled over it for a long time. In the end, however, the "S" did not come in yellow, and yellow was more important than zoom. (I do not regret the decision, except very occasionally when a little more straight-line acceleration would enable a pass that would relieve some drive-time stress.)

I'm going to go back to The Woodlands Mall today to drool on the Air again. It's sunny, so I might even drive with the top down & iPod blaring through the Mini's speakers, just to get into the right mood.