Friday, May 30, 2008

Lobelia Sadness

Now that we’ve had three days in a row that approached the century mark, it turns out that the lobelias (Queen Victoria) are not as happy as I thought they were. They get a bit droopy if I forget to water them twice a day. Although they were listed as full sun and are planted where they only get that in the afternoon, they apparently are not rated for Texas sun. Sigh.

6/2/08 Update: The Backyard Gardener identified the problem for me. Queen Victoria, “Prefers moist, rich soil and will continue to self-sow once established.” And a table lists “Water Range: Normal to Moist.” Unless you live in a river bottom, nothing in Central Texas can be considered “normal to moist.” Everything here is well drained. This certainly explains my the lovely LQV wants so much water.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Compost Happens, and You Can Waller in It, Too

Me loading my new compost sifter
Photo by: Beccano

After mowing and watering, I spent the rest of the day today building this compost sifter. I found a set of plans to fit a standard wheelbarrow here, but I didn’t want to bend over that much. So I modified the plans to fit my planting table. (Yes, that is a recycled shower pan.)

Other than one piece of 2x4 and the ½-inch hardware cloth, it is made of recycled materials. (There is an interesting story about the guy who worked in Home Depot’s hardware department not knowing what hardware cloth is, but I’ll save that for another time.) Later, I found another 2x4 in the scrap pile that would have let me say this sifter was made of 100% recycled wood. Sigh.

Heaving the unfinished compost into the wheelbarrow
Photo by: Beccano

I put two forks of compost in the tray. As I move the tray back-and-forth with some gusto, the finished compost falls through the hardware cloth onto the planting table. I dump what remains into the wheelbarrow. I repeat the process. This time, I leave the tray in the wheelbarrow and scrape all of the finished compost down the drain. It falls into a small bucket on the tray under the table. Three of the small buckets fills a large cat litter container, and I take the finished compost to wherever I want to distribute it.

These Queen Victorias are some of the happy plants getting ready to bloom.

It took a little over two hours today for me to process my whole pile and distribute the finished compost. The plants all said, “Thank you, Lee.” I heard them.

Once I finish working the pile, I put fresh compostables (from cleaning out the fridge) at the bottom and move all of the unfinished compost from the wheelbarrow and other temporary storage devices back into the pile.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Unidentified Flowering Object

One more reason to blog your garden.

It turns out that our lazy New Guinea Impatients is neither. It is, however, pretty. I just wish I knew what it is.

BTW, Friday’s Feast is off-line this week.

27 May Update: Suna and I were walking through the garden center and found a different variety of this lovely plant. When she showed me the tag, I recognized the word Jacobi. Yes, these are a variety of Jacobi. They are no longer unidentified.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Punctuation Interlude

Try our "new" and "improved" product. If you think quotation marks add emphasis, you really, really need to read today’s post.
This post originally appeared in the now-defunct Central Texas Instructional Design blog on this date.

Let’s take a break from multiple choice questions to revisit punctuation—quotation marks, in particular. When not setting off quoted text, what do they do?

One of my clients asked for my opinion on a marketing brochure. Marketing isn’t my specialty, but I agreed to look it over. One of the first things I noticed was an abundance of quotation marks bracketing single words and a couple of phrases. I asked, “When describing your new product, why is new in quotation marks? Why are so many other words in quotation marks?”

“I want to emphasize those words. The quotation marks will call the reader’s attention to those words.”

True enough, but what kind of attention do quotation marks draw? I told a story that one of my undergrad technical writing profs related in class. I wish I could take credit for it, but here is a short version of the story:

An editor and a writer were arguing over the use of quotation marks in a headline. The editor said they emphasize the meaning of the quoted word. The writer said they call the word into question. After much arguing, the writer said, “I can make my point if you give me control over tomorrow’s headline.” The overly-confident editor agreed. The next day, the banner headline read:

Editor Seen Leaving Motel with “Wife”

The next draft of the marketing brochure I saw had replaced the quotation marks with boldface type.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Scissortail Weekend

Scissortail in Flight
Photo by: Jim McCulloch

This weekend, I went to visit my dad. It was the first night Suna and I have spent apart since I moved in. We both survived and had a really good time. Suna and Beccano made it a mother-son weekend.

My brother and sister-in-law were there visiting when I arrived. We don’t really have that much in common, so these visits turn into a tall-tale festival. We have all heard each other’s tales so many times that we could almost save time by numbering them.

When Dad and I were walking through a recently harvested wheat field, we saw the summer’s first scissortail (Muscivoria forficata). (Unfortunately, I forgot my camera this trip.) In this part of Texas, scissortails are summer birds. Dad says you know it’s summer when you see the first one. All I know is that they are beautiful birds, and I really enjoy watching them fly. Among other things, it turns out that the scissortail is the state bird of Oklahoma, but I don’t hold that against the poor bird. (The Texas-Oklahoma rivalry is a tradition, after all.)

Dad wants me to sell part of the farm to his neighbor. For once, he and I agreed exactly on what the best thing to do is. Now all I have to do is work out the details with the neighbor. It is a rare situation where everyone wins. Dad is not using the part of the farm the neighbor wants. The piece will even out the a ragged border on the neighbor’s property and give his cattle access to water. The sale will pay off all my remaining debt, max out my IRA contribution for the year, pay for a needed repair around the house, and give me a nice nest egg to tide be over between contracts.

Grateful Monday

I am really grateful to have my dad still around at 85—still looking out for me. I hope he’s around when he’s 100.

Friday’s Feast

Late again, naturally. Wasn’t that a song by Gilbert O’Sullivan?

Friday’s Feast

Appetizer: What is the nearest big city to your home?
Define “big city.” Some would say Austin with a population of 656,562 according to the 2000 Census. Some would call that a medium-sized city and defer to San Antonio with a population of 1,144,646. Personally, Austin is too big for me.
Soup: On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being highest, how well do you keep secrets?
Probably about a nine. Most secrets aren’t very interesting, and I forget about them. People have always told me things they shouldn’t, and I feel an obligation not to pass on things said in confidence—or even if think they may have been told in confidence. Maybe I’m just not very talkative. That’s why I write.
Salad: Describe your hair (color, texture, length).
It is very fine and curly—light brown going gray. How long it is depends on how wet it is and whether or not I did something to straighten it. It is long enough for me to wear in a pony tail.
Main Course: What kind of driver are you? Courteous? Aggressive? Slow?
All of the above plus a few others.
Dessert: When was the last time you had a really bad week?
I don’t know. I let go of the past fairly easily, especially if it’s bad. A bumper sticker I saw pretty much sums up my philosophy of life: “Sh*t happens. Don’t waller in it.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Number of Distracters

Graph showing the more distracters, the less chance of guessing. A test-taker’s chance of guessing the right answer to a well-formed question is inversely proportional to the number of distracters.
This post appeared in the now-defunct Central Texas Instructional Design blog on this date.

Distracters are opportunities to choose incorrectly on a multiple choice assessment. The more distracters a question has, the less likely a correct answer results from a lucky guess. I mentioned last time that most of the companies I work with have standardized on a using four options (three distracters and one correct answer). Assessments in higher education frequently use an extra distracter to reduce the chance of guessing (CERNet, n.d.).

So, if having more options makes guessing harder, why standardize on four options?

  • Four options is the point of diminishing returns.
  • Writing good distracters is difficult.

Most of us are familiar with the point of diminishing returns from Economics 101. For a certain amount of work, we derive a certain benefit. At some point, we hit the point where there is not enough additional benefit to justify the additional work. The following chart and table show the returns on the work of writing additional distracters.

Number of DistractersChance of GuessingDifference

You can see that learners have a 50% chance of guessing correctly on a True/False question or a multiple choice question with only two options and one correct answer. Adding a third option reduces their chances of guessing by 16.7%, rounded. Going from four to five may still be worth the additional effort. But by the time you get to six options, the gain in accuracy is probably not worth the effort.

So, what is the correct number of options? It depends on the question and what the options are. When I took the written assessment for my driver’s license, one of the questions asked about the meaning of that little stripped sign you sometimes see at the roadside. One of the distracters was, “Stop for roadside barber shop.” My guess is that that distracter was never chosen, and its only reason for existence was to meet the magical number of required distracters. Since this distracter does not really distract, this was essentially a three-option question.

To sum up, there is no magic number of distracters. Remember that distracters should be “seductive alternatives” (University of St. Thomas Academic Support). They should “compellingly and confusingly” attract the test taker (Randall, 2003). If there are only two plausible alternatives, don’t waste your time trying to come up with two more implausible distracters that probably won’t have any effect on the outcome of the assessment.

Coming soon: Seductive Distracters


Big Storms Last Night

MacGillivray’s Warbler Photo Source: Wikipedia

I met this little guy this morning. We had some terrible storms blow through last night, and they must have pushed him along with them. He was at least a hundred miles east of his normal migratory path from Central America to the forests of the American and Canadian West.

I’m sad to say that he didn’t make it this year. The storms were just too much for him. I found him on the front porch. I said a few nice words over him and buried him in the flowerbed where I hope he rests well.

He was a truly beautiful bird. He had a brilliant yellow underbelly. His head and cape are supposed to be slate gray, but his head looked almost purple (as seen in the painting). The gray cape had almost a greenish tint.

Other than the little MacGillivray’s warbler, we came through very lucky. A funnel cloud was spotted in our neighborhood about the time we were coming home from choir practice, but it didn’t touch down. Beccano is terrified of tornadoes, so he had a bit of a rough patch. I am proud of the way he handled himself. Not being afraid is stupid. Learning to work through your fear is what courage is all about.

We had a lot of wind and hail, but no downed branches on our block anyway. (Suna says the University campus took quite a bit of damage.) And the hail at our house was apparently small. It didn’t even stay on the ground long enough for me to measure it after the second wave. I didn’t see any hail damage or even any shredded leaves. Other places in town reported hailstones up to 4”—the largest ever recorded in the Austin metroplex, according to News8.

We did get about 1.5” of rain over night. (That’s on top of about .6” the night before.) I am worried that one of our plants is so top-heavy from the rain that it may have damaged its stem. I’ll check it out when I get back home.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Grateful Monday

Witnessing the ordination of a new minister yesterday reminded me of how grateful I am to have found a home in a liberal religious community. The conservatives (my how they have co-opted that word!—just as the Bolsheviks took that name after winning a slim majority in only one vote) would have you equate their brand of conservatism with being religious. It simply isn’t true.

So for all my friends at Live Oak, I’m am blessed to have found a group of people whose concern for their fellow humans doesn’t end at the birth canal.


Without the ’stash, I feel like I have “some bovine perspiration on my upper lip area.”
Photo by: Suna

For the first time since I was 17, my upper lip area is nekid. I was in shaving in the shower this morning, when I realized my flavor saver was the last vestige of my pure gray beard. Something came over me, and I decided to remedy that omission. Now I find the warm, moist air flowing over my skin very distracting. Maybe I’ll get used to it in a few days. Otherwise, the growth comes back.

The ride in to work this morning was really strange. My upper lip felt wet the whole way. It is funny how people noticed the absence of the ’stash immediately when it took days for the absence of a beard to sink in.

Suna noticed as soon as I got home. Since she is not a big fan of facial hair, she praised the barren patch above my mouth. Later, she took the amusing picture posted here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother’s Day

I started Mother’s Day last night by giving Suna one of the presents I bought for her. My niece has started a soy wax candle making business, and I ordered some stuff from her. Last night I gave Suna two rose-scented candles. Beccano cleaned the whole house for her. I think she appreciated that more than anything he could have bought, especially since she knows how much he abhors housework.

We skipped church this morning because the choir had to perform at an ordination service this afternoon. That was really great. Ministers from all over the country who knew our intern were there. Some of them were really good speakers.

The minister from his church in Boston told a really uplifting story about embracing a near death experience and finding god in her child. She was swinging over a waterfall when the branch broke. She tumbled about 30 feet to land sitting in a shallow at the base of the fall. Her daughter, who was playing in the sand on the bank, looked up and welcomed her back into the world of the living by saying, “Hi, Mom,” as if her mother always simply appeared at the base of a waterfall.

After the service, we went to Mesa Rosa for dinner. The kids were waiting for us when we arrived. We all ate well and had a really good time just being together. Afterward, TubaBoy gave Suna a really funny card and an apple-pie-scented candle. I brought out the second half of my gift—a set of merlot-scented candles in a wine service. My niece donated the wine service, and made the candles. Unfortunately, nobody thought to take pictures.

Finally, I hung the wooden blinds in the front room.

I miss my mom.

Bats in the Belfry, Birds in the Pond

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live where you could see sites like this? Photo by: Suna

I’ve been looking into ways to continue to make a little money once my current contract with ALE ends. With the economy going south, I have been a little worried about the availability of other contracts. So, I’ve been doing some research.

The first thing I am reminded of—I actually learned this lesson a long time ago—is that the only people who make money from the advice found in entrepreneurial magazines and conferences are the publishers and speakers. I am amazed at the number of ads claiming that you can make ludicrous sums a week by doing nothing and without knowing anything. I am reminded of a Far Side cartoon where a shady character is offering a book for sale to a 40W bulb—the title Double Your IQ in Two Weeks Or No Money Back.

In the day, my parents made a bit of money fixing up and selling old houses. I have the skills for this endeavor, and I know what to look for. The mistake I’ve made in the past was trying to live in the house and do the updates on a shoestring after work. That approach is a recipe for stress and failure. Over the past few evenings, I started doing research on houses that I could afford to look at with this purpose.

Today, Suna and I made the trek through the Hill Country to look at three of the most likely prospects. One was unfindable (the GPS kept trying to route us through closed gates), we decided not to bother with the second, and the third was in a neighborhood that was way too scary. So I have determined that I can’t afford to approach this investment the way I wanted—a very disappointing result. I will just have to be patient and keep looking for an opportunity.

The best part of the day—other than spending time with Suna—was the getting out of the city. We saw some amazing sites, including the wader pictured here. The birds were worth the cost of gasoline.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Friday’s Feast

Appetizer: When someone smiles at you, do you smile back?
Usually, I’m a friendly guy. I laugh a lot, and it’s easier to smile than frown—or so I’m told. But when people smile, I always think of the words of Jackson Browne:
Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well
Anyway that’s how it seems, it’s hard to tell
Maybe people only ask you how you re doing
’Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care
Or maybe the The Undisputed Truth:
Remember a smile is just
A frown turned upside down
My friend let me tell you
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth, uh
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof
Cynical much?
Soup: Describe the flooring in your home. Do you have carpet, hardwood, vinyl, a mix?
There is a mix of carpet, vinyl, and tile. We would like to change the carpet over to wood, but with the dog, tile is probably the winner there.
Salad: Write a sentence with only 5 words, but all of the words have to start with the first letter of your first name.
Which first name? My real one or the one I go by?
  • Ernest’s efforts evoke earnesty everywhere.
  • Love lengthens life—lust less.
Not my best work.
Main Course: Do you know anyone whose life has been touched by adoption?
Dessert: Name [two] blue things.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Landscaping, High School Band, and The Greencards

New Edging, Established Bed
Photo by: Suna

I finished putting in the edging around the front flower bed nearest the house yesterday afternoon. I stopped on the way home and bought the remaining 17 stones. Then over the course of the afternoon, I carried them from the truck and laid them on top of what I already had down.

If that doesn’t seem to be a full afternoon’s work, it wasn’t. I was working from home, so when my brain would cloud over, I would go downstairs and move a couple of stones to clear my head. It worked, too.

Beccano prepares to play.

The other big event of the day was going to the bad concert. The high school has four fully-populated bands, and we listened to them all. The top band sounds professional. The band TubaBoy moved to because he didn’t want to work so hard sounds like a college-level band. The band Beccano is in as a Freshman sounds like a very good high school band. The lowest band is for students who picked up their instruments late.

We had planned to go see The Greencards afterward. Suna had even won free tickets, so we would only have had to buy one. But the powers that be decided at the last minute to start the concert a half-hour late. By the time all of the bands were finished, we didn’t have time to get there. Sigh. Beccano really wanted to go.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Album Review: Long Road out of Eden

Eagles (2007).
Photo source: Eagles
Behold the bitten apple, the power of the tools
But all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools
And it’s a long road out of Eden
—Don Henley, Glenn Frey,
and Timothy B. Schmit

It seems like forever since Eagles released a studio album. I know Long Road out of Eden has been out for a while, but I just got around to buying it. I didn’t buy the later release with the two bonus tracks, but I can’t complain about a two-CD package with 20 songs for $11.47 plus tax—only about 60 cents more than they want for the download.

Now that I have listened to it all the way through, I must say that this album is just nice. If you’re an Eagles fan, you gotta get it. If you simply like the band, there is nothing outstanding here—other than the harmonies that made them famous in the first place; this is a worthwhile addition to your collection. If you dislike Eagles, why are you reading this?

One thing that is different in the harmonies—perhaps it is just the production quality since Eagles is now its own label—you can now hear distinct voices on many of the tracks. On older recordings, I could hear individual parts but not voices. On this effort, I hear both.

The 20 tracks are all solid. I can’t even say anything bad about the tracks I don’t really care for. The production quality is excellent. But only a couple of them reach out and grab you by the neck and make you listen. Still, the trademarked Eagles cynicism rings true throughout. This is not an uplifting album.

Each of the singers is featured on at least one track. Joe Walsh even has one on each disc. I like Joe.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Book Review: The Quickening

Photo source: Library Thing

This post concludes my second and final attempt to read The Quickening. This time I made it almost half-way through. I barely finished the first chapter on my first attempt. While Bell is one of my favorite late-night loonies, his rambling, disorganized style is much better suited to radio at 2AM than print.

Note: “The quickening” has nothing whatsoever to do with highlanders, immortals, or swords.

It doesn’t help Bell’s case that I am reading about his prognostications a full decade after publication, but the predictions are so whack that I probably would not have been able to finish this book had I read it when it was “fresh.” Bell’s thesis seems to be that the future is happening faster and faster, that the world is developing a global economy, and that nobody is in control. Tell us something we didn’t already know years before you wrote this book, Art.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Choir Service

I am feeling much better, thank you. The choir rehearsed on Saturday to make sure we were ready to perform the service on Sunday. Last Wednesday, I had nothing over a C#. Saturday, I had an F# back. Unfortunately, we practiced so much that I only had a D on Sunday.

Still we sounded good. I loved the way the final chords rang in the sanctuary when we finished loudly.

I hope to get a copy of the recording of the service. I know people were taking pictures. If anyone is kind enough to forward one to me, I’ll post it here, too.

We performed several numbers in a variety of styles, and there was only one that I really detest. “I Sing of Brooks” (The version we did even left out the references to Mab and the fairy king.) is a stitch craft sampler. It is as if the composer wanted to write a piece to show all of the techniques he knew—regardless of if they made musical sense. He throws polyrhythms, key changes, and meter changes together in a migraine-inducing hodgepodge that would have been better left forgotten.

Thankfully, most of the numbers we performed were at least listenable, and some were very good. A couple were even interesting.

Grateful Monday

So that brings me to Grateful Monday. Today I am grateful once again for music—even music I don’t care for. I am glad to be able to sing well enough to participate in the choir (even if not everyone agrees) where I am exposed to all kinds of music. Only by listening to enough music can we define what we like by understanding what we don’t. We have to listen to a lot of music to understand what we like, as opposed to what we are merely accustomed to.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Friday’s Feast

Right on time this week. Woo!

Appetizer: What was your favorite cartoon when you were a child?
I honestly can’t remember one. I remember several, and, of course, my “favorites” changed over time. Here are a few in roughly chronological order (as best I remember):
There was also one about Johnny something, who had an Indian friend and a dog named Bandit. When I was in first grade, I named my dog Bandit after the cartoon character. By second or third grade, I had pretty much stopped much stopped watching cartoons (except on Saturday mornings) until Scoobie Doo, Where Are You? came along. It may have been the most influential cartoon to air. Unfortunately, WB has taken Scoobie’s success straight to the bank. I can’t find a single link to it that doesn’t involve product marketing.
Soup: Pretend you are about to get a new pet. Which animal would you pick, and what would you name it?
I’d get a rock and name it “Rocky.” Get it? Huh huh. “Rocky” ’cause it’s a rock.

Sorry, I was channeling GW for a second. Bur seriously…I’d get a…gee…I guess I really don’t want another pet right now.

Salad: On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being highest, how much do you enjoy getting all dressed up for a special occasion?
Main Course: What kind of music do you listen to while you drive?
News, mostly. Otherwise, I keep my MP3 player on shuffle. My music collection includes:
Dessert: When was the last time you bought a clock? And in which room did you put it?
It was several years ago. I bought a digital alarm clock for the bedroom. The LEDs were so bright I had to tape two layers of solar film over them. I could still almost read by the amount of light it emitted. So I kept it under the bed so I could sleep.