Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Talking in Public

Tiny wireless spy mic. You can hide a tiny wireless mic like this one anywhere. Photo source: eBay

I have already mentioned that it isn’t safe to talk in public places. The din doesn’t provide the privacy you would expect. But this week, I heard two other distressing stories that pierce the veil when it comes to expectations of privacy in public places.

  • A waiter we met this weekend was dressed down for a quiet exchange between himself, his mother, and his betrothed. When he asked his manager if it had bothered one of the other customers enough to tell on him, his manager told him that they bugged all the tables with mics and web cams.
  • Another friend told Suna and me of a time when she went out to eat with some other friends. Because they were a little older, their waitress was condescending. She spoke to them as if they were already senile. They tipped well out of pity, thinking she probably wouldn’t get much in the way of tips with that attitude. The next time they went to this restaurant, the manager collected their payment and said, “I hope your experience here was much more pleasant than last time.” Mind you, they hadn’t complained about the previous waitress.

The second of these stories shows a benign reason why a restaurant might spy on its customers. That manager seemed to genuinely hope for a better customer experience. And while the same might hold true for the first restaurant, a more sinister motivation is equally as likely. This is a capitol city, full of politicians and lobbyists. What kind of influence can be garnered by taping a “private conversation,” especially one that lapses into topics that some might not want to become public?

Since neither of these restaurants warned their customers of their eavesdropping, I suggest you start asking the managers before you are seated if your table is bugged. One friend has started carrying noise generators to prevent such eavesdropping. I hope the noise is painful to those wearing headphones.

The surveillance state is here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Society in Decline

To stop the violence, we must end religious and political intollerance.
Photo source: PeaceMonger

It’s hard to be grateful today, in light of the news of yet another church shooting, this one at a UU church in Knoxville, TN.

My gut reaction was that this was a Republican fascist attacking a liberal church that works for social justice, but that is my own prejudice speaking. The truth is we still don’t know why a man would walk into a church with a shotgun. And it’s the fourth time in 15 months people have committed murder at a church in the US, desecrating a wide range of belief systems. That doesn’t count the numerous church burnings, bombings, and desecrations where nobody died.

What I can be grateful for is this. Only two people were killed before the congregation subdued that assailant. One of those reportedly took the full shotgun blast to shield others. I honestly don’t know if I would be brave enough to do that—probably not, but I hope so.

Evening Update: I hate being right. The linked article has been updated. It now says, “Jim David Adkisson told investigators all liberals should be killed and admitted he shot people Sunday morning at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church…”

Suna and I went to a candlelight vigil tonight at Live Oak. We commiserated with friends and met a really nice woman whose father is the membership director at the church that was attacked. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those affected, especially the children and those still in hospital.

To those like GW, Rush, and Fox News who profit by selling this absurd brand of “conservatism,” This blood is on you. I hope you like the taste. It’s time we liberals stopped using the preferred word of these right-wing bigots. We should no longer call them conservatives. They are fascists. We won’t be able to stop the death squads until we convince good people to take a stand against their evil. We can start down that road by using the correct terms.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Edge City Anniversary

Jim and Sherry are Edge City.
Photo source: Edge City press kit

Suna’s friends who comprise Edge City celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in Far South Austin today. We went to the early part of the party, which included several notable Austin musicians, most of whom were lamenting that the high cost of gasoline meant that they hadn’t been able to make any money touring.

Danny Santos said that he hopes to have a new album out by Christmas, if all goes well.

The party was fun, even though I have a problem with large groups of people. We left as the music was getting started in the back yard. Maybe next year, I will be confident enough around these people to join in. You’d think that after playing for 40 years, this wouldn’t be a problem for me. Hah!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chez Art

I spent most of the last two days (when I wasn’t looking for work) doing a final revision of my novel and copying it into a standard template for manuscript submission. I did mow the lawn today.

Then this evening we had a nice dinner at Artz with one of Suna’s friends and her family. The friend’s daughter just graduated from Austin Culinary Academy, where she learned of her numerous food allergies. Art congratulated her on graduating and offered consolation on her eminent entry into the restaurant business.

We didn’t take a camera, but if we get pictures from anyone who did, I’ll post one later.

After dinner, most of the friends were going out to party some more. Suna and I went home to tend to Beccano. He has blistered feet. The dogs got out, and he heroically chased them down and brought them home without putting on any shoes. Since this is Texas in July, the sidewalks were hot enough to blister his bare feet within a couple of blocks. Suna bought him a big cheesecake as a reward.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Job and Other Updates

Beccano says this is another cute picture of Scrunchy. I say, “How can you tell. It looks like all the others.”
Photo by Beccano

I had two interesting calls today. First, I should hear from a recruiter early next week about a six month contract developing short instructional segments in Captivate. Second, the fruit company called back and scheduled yet another interview for the first week in August.

In other financial news, I’ve hit a snag selling a piece of property my dad deeded to me. The title company wants a copy of a trust document, and dad can’t find it. I haven’t a clue where it is. And Dad’s lawyer is not returning his calls. The lawyer seems to be upset over having had to redo some paperwork three times because he kept screwing it up.

And there is still no Friday’s Feast posted. Whatever shall I write about myself?

I hope nothing bad has happened in the chef’s life.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Reasonable Limitation of Speech

Cell phones and cars don’t mix.
Photo source: Geekologie

Yesterday, I talked about free speech. Today, I’m arguing for limitations on speech—not what you say, when you can say it.

California has joined at least 17 other states, including Texas, in banning talking on a cell phone while you drive—unless you use a hands-free device. And I’m going to argue that the law does not go far enough.

The exception for hands-free devices comes in spite of studies showing that the danger of using cell phones while driving stems not from taking a hand off the wheel, but from multitasking. Apparently talking on the phone uses so much bandwidth that it reduces the bran’s ability to process other data, including spatial relationships.

And the California law fails to ban texting, checking your email, or setting an appointment on your calender. I’m not sure about the Texas law, but all of these activities should be banned. Not only do they use much of your brain’s computing bandwidth, they also take your eyes off the road.

Am I a hypocrite about this? Yes. I have been known to drive with a phone pressed against my ear. Shame on me. If you see me doing so, feel free to honk and tell me I’m number one. I’ll know why.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Grateful Monday (Revisited)

So this Monday I am extra grateful. Suna started her new job today, and I still have open prospects. While things may not be financially stable yet, I am grateful for these things, too.

Free Speech versus Hate Speech

Saying something that I disagree with, even something that offends me, is the beginning of finding common ground. If differences are hidden, they remain unresolved and fester.
Photo source: Free Speech Blog

Freedom of speech is something that is so ingrained in most Americans that we take it for granted. Much of the rest of the world, including countries I would otherwise consider free or at least enlightened, place limits of speech that range from draconian to the absurd.

We take this right, defined by the The US Supreme Court in Abrams v. U S , 250 U.S. 616 (1919), so much for granted that we often forget the responsibilities that go with freedom. With the right to speak your piece comes the responsibility to be truthful in what you say. And I’m not talking about the “It depends on what is is” kind of truthfulness. It’s OK to be wrong, inaccurate, or to interpret facts differently. It’s not OK to out-and-out lie, as in “We know exactly where the WMD are.”

Beyond that, we forget the responsible to be respectful. I may be ugly and my cattle may be senile, but you don’t have to say so unless those facts bear directly on the issue at hand.

Much of the rest of the world takes a slightly different stand on free speech. They take bans on “hate speech” to extremes. It seems that if someone is offended by what you say, it is hate speech. This tactic is the other side of a very slippery slope.

This article outlines a case before a court in British Columbia. A group of Muslims are suing a magazine for running an excerpt from a book that claims that Islamic values conflict with and threaten Western values. In opening statements, the plaintiff attorney makes this horrifying and frightening claim:

Innocent intent is not a defense. Nor is truth. Nor is fair comment on true facts. Publication in the public interest and for the public benefit is not a defense. Opinion expressed in good faith is not a defense. Responsible journalism is not a defense.

If not these, then what? Nothing? Without free speech, there is no free thought, no freedom at all, only the illusion of it.

So for that—even though I am embarrassed by and afraid of the actions of the Bush administration to circumvent and invalidate the Constitution—and even though I have often thought about fleeing northward, today I am grateful to live in the United States.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

Setterfield, Diane, (2007). The Thirteenth Tale: a Novel. New York: Washington Square Press.
Photo source: LibraryThing

Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is the first book in ages to keep me up nights reading. And it is an unlikely candidate for this honor. It is a woman’s book, and all the important characters are women.

The story centers on the unlikely friendship of two women: one, an elderly grand dame of British writing; the other, a bookshop dweller who is hired to write the older woman’s biography. Margaret Lea, the bookshop maven and narrator, leads a life I would dearly love. She live above her father’s bookshop, reading whatever she wants, whenever she wants. If there were only room for gardening. But there is!

The violence that often drives plots is buried in the distant past, glimpsed only gradually—as if to give you time to become accustomed to it. Like all good Gothics, this novel is replete with British aristocracy, wealth, decay, depravity, and true love—although the later is found in unlikely places.

But mostly, it is the language that enraptures. Setterfield does not make the mistake of many writers who use beautiful language. Her eloquence never knocks you out of the story. Instead, her natural rhythms and distinctive voices only enhance the story, drawing you deeper into it from the first word. Then she uses language to ease you back into “reality” rather than leaving you hungering when the story ends.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Seductive Distracters

This post originally appeared in the now defunct Central Texas Instructional Design blog on this date.

Back to distracters on multiple-choice assessments.

Distracters are simply incorrect options on multiple-choice assessments. To be useful, a distracter must be plausible and compelling—seductive, according to the University of St. Thomas Academic Support (n.d.). Distracters should be able to seduce learners who are uncertain of the correct answer into making an incorrect choice. At the same time, a good distracter must be thoroughly wrong, and the question of wrongness causes the most lively debates over whether a question is useful.

My rule of thumb is that if the experts argue over a distracter or question, learners will, too. I would not use any question that causes such arguments on an assessment, especially not a high-stakes assessment where a learner’s performance rating or job is on the line. There are plenty of opportunities to use these questions in the learning event. Arguable questions make excellent discussion points in face-to-face classes. You can even find creative ways to use them in online modules. Using them on an assessment only calls the validity of the assessment into question.

Assuming that a distracter is inarguably wrong, what makes it seductive? Let’s examine some example questions to identify their traits. The first example comes from the written portion of the test I took to obtain my Texas drivers license.

A sign with black and white diagonal stripes What does this sign mean?
  • Edge of road
  • Slow moving vehicle
  • Stop for road-side barber shop

I still remember this question after all these years (I won’t say how many here) because it embarrassed me by making me laugh out loud while taking the test. The test writer probably intended to introduce a little levity with that last distracter. It worked, but a test is not the place for humor. Assuming that I didn’t know that the sign in question marked the edge of the pavement and was not familiar with the placard placed on slow moving vehicles, the humorous distracter improved my chances of guessing correctly by about 17%. It simply was not a plausible distracter.

You can find plausible distracters during the needs analysis or gap analysis. Corporate training usually addresses some performance gap or seeks to change a behavior. The best distracters come from what you are trying to teach people not to do. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • If a number of people doing a job engage in behaviors they should avoid—such as interrupting a customer—those common misbehaviors are natural, plausible distracters on questions asking for the correct behavior.
  • Similarly, if policies change, the old policy (which was once the correct answer) provides a plausible distracter.
  • Applications can also provide plausible distracters. If an application provides a drop-down menu of choices to make based on situation, any of the choices that are not appropriate for the situation described in the stem make excellent distracters.
  • Common sense also provides plausible distracters. Last month I mentioned an application that used color coding in a non-intuitive manner. In this case, choices listed in red were to be offered to customers when green or yellow choices were not appropriate, but employees never offered their customers red choices. If that client had not been willing or able to change their color coding, “Never mention this to a customer” would have been a compelling and plausible distracter to a question about the meaning of red choices in the application.

Here is an example of a question developed for one of my clients. The question passed all reviews but was not selected to be on an assessment. Some of the necessary context to answer this question, namely the product being trained, is absent, but you can still see what makes the distracters compelling.

What does it mean when the LED in the Wireless switch is flashing blue?
  • The system has connected to a weak signal source.
  • The system is communicating with a Bluetooth signal source.
  • The system is communicating with a strong signal source.
  • The system is searching for a signal.

Lets review each of the options as if they were all distracters.

  • The first is plausible, if not compelling, because a weak signal source can be sporadic. The learner might interpret the blinking light as connecting and disconnecting to the source.
  • The second is plausible because the learner might think that the blue LED indicates Bluetooth. Blinking also indicates traffic on some network adapters.
  • The third is probably the least plausible of the options. It relies only on the assumption that the blinking light indicates traffic.
  • This option is plausible because many network adapters have two LEDs. One that indicates connection when solid and one that indicates traffic. In this case, the assumption is that the blue LED is the one that indicates connection rather than traffic.

You probably noticed that all the examples are in the cognitive domain. They assess what a learner knows. Multiple-choice assessments are particularly suited to the cognitive domain, but they are not so applicable to other domains. For those domains, we need other types of assessment.

To sum up, I like to say that anyone can tell a really bad question. Only your learners can tell a good question, and then only if you have their performance data. I’ll talk about that soon.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Six Word Bio Meme

Here is another meme, this one from Peter’s Cross Station: Write your bio in six words—no more, no less. It is similar to a really cool six-word story thread on LibraryThing.

Work, work, relax: Ah…the garden.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Job Update

This is just a quick update. I never heard back from the HR guy at the fruit company with a specific time for my interview yesterday afternoon. But the hiring manager called me and said she hadn’t either. So we scheduled for this morning. Then I scheduled an interview with the company Suna is leaving. And late in the evening, I scheduled an interview with a banking software company for 5:00. Busy Day! Yay!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Grateful Monday

Even though they’re small, 100 grasshoppers eat as much grass in a day as a fully grown cow.
Photo Source: Silent Butler

It may seem strange to be grateful for an absence, but I am. So far, the grasshoppers are not nearly the problem they have been in years past. I’m grateful that they aren’t around much.

It’s not that I’m living in a more urban area; I remember them being so bad right here in Rock City that you couldn’t walk without stepping on some. I have only seen a couple of small ones this year, and I’ve been out in the garden a lot.

What got me thinking of grasshoppers was this article in my hometown newspaper. It describes how to make an eco-friendly insecticide that will kill most insect pests, including small grasshoppers. But as the title says, it only irritates the larger ones. I’ve used this recipe before, and it works. I don’t know that it works on mosquitoes, but I aim to find out.

There is also a neat dog training tip that I wish I had known of before Rose ate Suna’s stuff. Balloons! Sigh.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Buchanan Trip

This double-wide mobile was the nicest place with lake frontage that came anywhere near our price range.

We had fun this weekend!

With the pending sale of some of my property near Yorktown, we decided to take a trip to Lake Buchanan to see what we could find. Suna really wants a house on the lake, but all we can possibly afford (and that would be a stretch for me) is the double-wide shown here.

Luckily, it is in really good condition. It also has so many of the amenities I want: a nice two-car garage, four other out buildings, a great lot, and a sprinkler system that draws water from the lake. (I really like the idea of watering the lawn with “natural” water (as opposed to chlorinated and treated).

We’ll just have to see what happens at the fruit company tomorrow.

After looking around, we ate dinner at this really quirky restaurant called The Maxican. It features really good Texas cuisine (Tex-Mex, BBQ, and so on) and barely adequate margaritas. Suna seemed to enjoy hers, but mine were only about 60% frozen. There’s nothing like the taste of a warm margarita. Luckily, it was strong.

Today, we took a look at two other properties that would require a structural engineer and a geologist as well as an architect to build on. Not for me. I really can’t see stretching the budget that tightly just to get a piece of land on the lake that will require pouring tons more money into and still not having a house. So I walked around the mobile again while Suna knitted.

Then on the way home, we bought a fun bird bath and some miniature roses in hanging baskets.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday’s Feast

My feast this morning began with looking out the window into the back yard. The sun was shining through the trees. It hit the BBQ pit just so, creating the illusion of a little dancing flame on the side of the black pit. It was wonderful. I wish I could have stopped the analytical part of my brain from parsing the effect and just enjoyed it.

Appetizer: When was the last time you had your hair cut/trimmed?
I think it was April 2006. It needs it again.
Soup: Name one thing you miss about being a child.
Security. No matter how old you are when it happens, I think the onset of adulthood is when you realize that security is a myth.
Salad: Pick one: butter, margarine, olive oil.
Why choose? They can all be appropriate in some circumstances. I like to cook veggies in butter and most meals in olive oil. Margarine may not be the healthiest choice, but it can be tasty in small doses.
Main Course: If you could learn another language, which one would you pick, and why?
I can learn other languages; I just am too lazy to do it well. So the premise is false. It the question were, “If you could be magically endowed with another language, which one would you choose,” I would choose Chinese. With Suna knowing Japanese and both of us already having a mattering of Spanish, Chinese would enable us to travel and communicate anywhere in the world I think we are likely to want to go.
Dessert: Finish this sentence: In 5 years I expect to be…

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Book Review: Initiation

Haich, Elisabeth, (2000). Initiation. Santa Fe: Aurora Press.
Photo source: LibraryThing

Initiation is a strange book. A novel set as an autobiography of a bodhisattva, it hits all points of the readability spectrum.

  • The description of life through a child’s eyes is captivating and humorous. I loved this child and could not put the book down during this phase.
  • The adolescent girl really annoyed me, again capturing the self-centeredness, depth and shallowness of adolescence. I did not like the character very much at this point, but I wanted to see her grow up.
  • Unfortunately, by the time the novel describes the woman as a young adult, the author devolves into preachiness. I no longer cared about the character because she flattened out, becoming a mere tool for a message spiritual message Haich wanted to convey.

While dialog was never Haich’s strong suite, when the character enters adulthood, conversation becomes stilted. The plot sickens, and the author falls into preachiness. I put the book down one night when I got sleepy—once the character became an adult, it becomes very easy to put the book down and go to sleep—and I haven’t been able to make myself pick it back up again.

It is sad that this was Haich’s only work of fiction. This novel shows her potential. Writers aren’t supposed to reach their potential with their first novel. Unfortunately, Initiation was published six years after her death.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Working for Fruit

Just because they’re pretty

This hearkens back to 17 March. I mentioned then that my former boss had recommended me to the local fruit company. Well, they called me and set up a telephone interview. I forgot to tell my friend.

So today I answer the phone right on schedule for the interview. The voice on the other end says, “Hi, this is [one of your best friends] calling on behalf of [fruit company hiring manager]. She asked me to cover the interview because something came up, and she couldn’t make it.”

The interview went well. The next step is to schedule a face-to-face interview with the hiring manager. Let’s hope that comes off well, too.

Grateful Monday

Once again, I am grateful for good, supportive friends.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Shaking Hands with Mr. Stripey

Suna stands in front of Mr. Stripey

It’s funny how a small thing can lead seamlessly to a big thing.

Mr. Stripey has put out lots of wonderful foliage. (BTW, he is taller than she is, even when she stands at the same level.) He has even put out a few of those ugly yellow flowers, but so far, no fruit! I have begun to wonder if Mr. Stripey is shaking hands with Mr. Happy. I had always thought that was OK for tomatoes. Can’t they self-pollinate?

Well, just in case they can’t, Suna and I went shopping for a friend. We bought another variety of tomato, a pretty John Fannick phlox, and a trio of rose bushes. These are the first roses for this address. Of course, we don’t have any place to plant them.

So I took out a chunk of my original front flowerbed. I’m going to run it down the side of the house in a nice windy meander. And you know what? July is a freeking hot time of year to do that!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Independence Day

Playing my new bass at Point Venture’s Celebration
Photo by Suna

It takes a lot to get me out of the house on a holiday. As Captain Flatulence puts it, “There are too many amateur drunks out there.” But I promised some people from church that I would play bass for their July 4th celebration. So I was out and about.

Luckily, we played fairly early in the day. We started about 11:00 while the folks in Point Venture lined up their festive golf carts for a parade. As soon as the parade got going, we took a break to cram a couple of hot dogs down out throats. Then we played another set of patriotic standards before calling it a day.

This was my first opportunity to play my new bass in public. When you just play with yourself, you don’t know how an instrument will sound with an ensemble. Playing out doors adds another variable of uncertainty. I was very pleased with how well the instrument performed, even if I didn’t do as well as I would have liked. (We only had one short rehearsal, and I don’t read music that well.)

Afterward, the nice folks from church slipped me some “gas money” and took Suna and me out for a ride on their pontoon boat. We got home before anyone had a chance to become seriously drunk. Then we got to listen to fireworks for most of the night. The lack of sirens makes me optimistic that people showed more sense than I usually give them credit for.

About My Outfit

It was July Fourth. We were outdoors. It was hot. The t-shirt was a promotional item.

Suna said I looked like a “scary Highway patrol musician.” But I was only doing my part to dress for the occasion. The bass was handmade in Mexico city. The T-shirt was made in Haiti. The glasses came from Thailand. The hat band was hand woven from a horse’s tail—quiet, Flatch!—just outside of Tijuana. All to celebrate US Independence Day.

Oh, the hat was actually made in Conroe, TX.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Sad Farewell…But Happy

I am blogging a lot these past couple of days because there has been almost nothing else to do at work. Today is the last day of my contract with ALE, and I leave at 15:00. All of my work is caught up, and nobody wants to assign anything to me with so little time remaining. It makes sense.

Still, this idleness leaves me with time to sulk. I have made a couple of friends here, and I have really enjoyed working with my whole team. I hope to keep in contact, but I know that isn’t one of my strong suites. So I am missing people already.

I am confident about my prospects in the job market. Something will turn up there, even though the recession has ALE laying off more people and other local employers hesitant to bring on new staff. Then there is the issue of subtle age discrimination. I never thought I would live long enough for my age to weigh against me. But I’m glad I did.

I have been walking the corridors of ALE saying good-bye to them and to some of the people who staff them. Who knows? I may be back here in 100 days or so. Silly co-employment strategy! I still haven’t figured out how this helps the company. All I can see is lost productivity. There are more effective and more efficient strategies available. But leave it to ALE to take the worst aspects of two good ideas and complain about less than stellar results.

11 July Update: I found this unposted this morning. I guess I had intended to add a picture or my thoughts at the end of the day, but I hadn’t gotten back to it. What I do remember about leaving was walking out of the building with a bounce in my step only to feel really sad as I started to pull out of the parking lot. I went through this mood swing a couple of times on my way home, where Suna and the kids bolstered me and made me forget about the stress of being unemployed for awhile.

Another Invasion!

Tom Rasberry and his crazy ants
Photo source: Associated Press

Texas is being invaded again. This time the invader is an untaxonomized species of ant called the crazy Rasberry ant2 after Tom Rasberry,1 the Pearland exterminator who first identified them. These ants may be related to the Caribbean crazy ant that is found in the Southeast US and, crazily enough, the Caribbean. Because they were originally found near the Port of Houston, they may have arrived by ship.2 Supporting this theory are claims that they have also been found near ports in Florida and California.4

The Wall Street Journal article also claims that the ants are already so widely dispersed that it would be practically impossible to eliminate them. Even though Rasberry estimates there may be as many as 50-million crazy ants per acre in Southeast Texas, he laments that funding to study these pests is negligible. The EPA has expanded the use of a fipronil, a pesticide available only to licensed professionals, to fight the ants. Fipronil can now be used within 10 feet of a structure. Previously, it could only be used within one foot of a structure. The expansion was granted because the crazy ants breed so fast, having multiple queens per colony, that they could do thousands of dollars of damage to homes before the pesticide took effect.3

The ants are called “crazy” because they seem to wander randomly, instead of in regimented lines like other ants. They also move very quickly.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the ant, other than they rapacious reproductive habits, is their tendency to eat electronics. They can also overwhelm and kill small rodents and birds. But on the bright side, they eat fire ants!


  1. Ayres, Chris (16 May 2008). “ Billions of electronic-eating ‘;crazy rasberry ants’ invade Texas.” The Times Online. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  2. Center for Urban & Structural Entomology (ND). “Exotic Texas Ant, Paratrechina sp. near pubens.” Texas A&M University, Department of Entomology. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  3. Lukefahr, Nathaniel (2 July 2008). “EPA makes exemption to battle crazy ants.” The Facts. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  4. Wall Street Journal (16 May 2008). “Houston Suffers Attack of ‘Crazy Rasberry’ Ants. Accessed 3 July 2008.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What Were They Thinking?

Funny Dress
Photo source: Mon Cheri Bridals
What was I thinking
What was I blind
When I bought this outfit
I must have been out of my mind
What was I thinking
Look at this dress
I'm taking up drinking
My life is a mess
—Christine Lavin

Suna has been looking for wedding dresses. The one pictured here gave us both a good laugh. Beccano came in to say goodnight, and she showed it to him as if it were the one she had chosen to wear. He said, “Why? So blind people can read you?”

Bombella BB00H6

The strings stay perfectly straight because the tuning pegs have been repositioned.
Photo by Suna

When I have taken Beccano to his guitar lesson the over the last month, I have studiously avoided eye contact with a new bass at the music store. All that ended today when Suna accompanied us to the store. “Look at this pretty bass, Lee. You should play it,” she encouraged.

So I did. That was it.

The bass is hand crafted in Mexico City by an acquaintance of the music store owner. Some of the other customers have also met the luthier, Bombella, is also reputed to be an excellent bass player and a very nice guy. He brought his first lot of basses to the US to sell, and Danny Rae got one because of their friendship.

The woodwooking originally attracted me to this beautiful instrument.
Photo by Suna

Bombella carved the instrument from a single piece of maple and inlaid two pieces of walnut on the body for dramatic effect. The fretboard is rosewood with what appear to be stainless steel frets. The instrument has incredible sustain in spite of a lightweight bridge—probably because the tuning pegs are offset so that the strings align perfectly from bridge to peg with no deflection.

The electronics are all active—the first time I have used this type. But after getting used to them, it will be hard to play my old ’72 Jazz bass again. And it did take a while to get used to them because there are no booklets to explain them. (This is, after all, a handmade bass, not a mass produced commodity.) Here is what I figured out:

  • The tone controls are stacked on the left (looking down as you play). The bass control is at the bottom, and the treble is on top. Both lock into a flat position in the center and can either attenuate or boost the frequency range they control.
  • The center knob controls the balance between the bridge and neck pickups. It also locks into the center or balanced position.
  • The right stack controls the pickup volume. The lower knob controls the bridge neck and the upper one, the bridge.

Because of the active electronics, the string alignment, and the single-piece construction, the instrument has an extremely wide frequency response. Harmonics and slaps balance perfectly when playing through a Fender 250 2-10 combo using minimal compression. It delivers a wide range of sounds with the same attack, depending on where you attack the string. Varying the attack only increases the variety of sounds you can achieve.

Tornadic Dream

Beautiful pictures like this belie the destructiveness and horror of tornadoes.

I dreamed last night that I was working in a high-rise office again. Everyone was in a panic because a tornado was visible from one of the windows. We were looking for a place of refuge inside the building. I found a white-painted two-panel wooden door. Ah, the staircase! I thought it would be safe. But as I looked down to the next wooden landing, I realized that the stairs were lit by windows. The one at the landing had peeling white paint and was tilted open. I decided to go down the stairs, thinking that the ground floor would be at least somewhat safer than the upper floors.

Downstairs, everyone was pouring out of the office building into a candy store across the street. The candy store was an old one-storey structure with canopies and fruit stalls in front of it. As we crossed the dirt street (It hadn’t even started to rain yet!), I asked someone why we were all running into the candy store. “It has a basement,” he yelled. Then he shoved his hat down tighter on his head and ran.

“It’s dropping!” someone nearby yelled.

I turned and got my first good look at the “high rise.” It covered about half a block and stood three stories tall. It was cased in stone and a short, square minaret graced each corner—they looked more like battlements, but minaret is what I remember thinking of them as. Centered between the two visible minarets and about a quarter mile beyond the building, a tornado snaked down from a slate cloud. I woke up then. My heart was beating fast, but it wasn’t racing like it has been after several less eventful dreams lately. I remember thinking that at least I had a reason for an elevated heart rate.

Another odd thing about this dream is that the perspective was different. I was shorter in the dream than I am in this life. Could it be a memory of a past life? If so, it wouldn’t be the first such for me. Or is it more likely to stem from reading a book in which the main character remembers glimpses of past lives? There’s no way to tell.

I have had a number of dreams lately (undocumented here) that were no more threatening than the one about Rose breathing. I would awaken from these dreams with all of the symptoms on an anxiety attack—that is, all the symptoms except for anxiety. As an experiment, I stopped drinking diet soda for a few days, and they seemed to abate. Too much caffeine?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A Fitting Legacy

This poster relates to my blog today in only one thing. But I like it.
Photo source: Unrepentant Hippie
[Georgie] said, “My, my!
Other people’s problems do get tedious by and by.”
—Al Stewart

Here’s an honor for Still President Bush that I can really support. Writing in the New York Times, Jesse McKinley asserts that a group calling itself Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco wants to rename the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant. They want the new name, the George W. Bush Sewage Plant, to take effect on 20 January 2009—the same day as the new President is sworn in.

I am firmly in favor of the sentiment behind the plan. In fact, I think we should rename sewer plants around the country after Bush.

But I do have one problem with this idea. The Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant is a quality unit. It has won numerous awards over the years. Shouldn’t we honor Bush by renaming a sewage plant that is more in line with his environmental record? Maybe some decrepit dumper or a nuclear waste stockpile.

One thing is certain. No matter who wins in November, the average IQ in the White House will go up. I just hope he puts the ranch in Crawford up for sale and retires somewhere else. But where else could he have such an elaborate security system without having to pay for it.