Monday, July 28, 2014

Landscaping made easy, Part 13: Crape and wax myrtles revisited

This scene from Landscaping made easy, Part 5:  Crape myrtle (unmurdered) has probably been Pinterested and shared more than any other pic I've ever published.  And I don't even really like it, but apparently a lot of other folks do.
Our rear fenceline a few years ago:  That's a crape myrtle in the middle flanked by wax myrtles on either side, with a small sage and two loropetalums in the foreground.

See this 2011 post for information on fence staining.  
In that "unmurdered" post, I encouraged folks not to "knuckle" (over-prune) their crape myrtles.  Houston landscape specialist Randy Lemmon's "Annual Crape Myrtle Massacre" speech remains the gold standard where that kind of advice is concerned.

Fast forward two years and my evidence for the non-murdering approach becomes even more compelling (I think):
Notice the shape contrast between my white crape myrtle in the foreground and common-area purple and pink crapes in the background, beyond my fence.  Mine has an over-spilling, softly cascading type of shape whereas those in the background show the "feather duster" habit in which the flowering branches stick straight up and out, the form which is so characteristic of over-pruning.  
If all of these crapes in this extended view had been similarly knuckled, the entire assemblage of new leafy growth would stick straight up.  There would be no softening element - it would look too harsh.  My crape myrtle is in harmony with the others in simply being a crape myrtle.  But it's free-form, over-spilling structure lends a more flowing energy that otherwise wouldn't be here.

You'll notice another change relative to my 2012 pictures.
I dropped the height of our wax myrtles by a good three feet because I no longer need them to provide visual privacy.  Time marches on and our subdivision is growing up - literally.  The trees and shrubs in the green space behind our property have now increased in size to the point where I can maintain our wax myrtles as a more conventional hedge rather than as a collection of towering bushes.  That was my original plan several years ago when we first installed them - they were specifically intended to remain responsive to the changing conditions that we anticipated were going to occur beyond our own fenceline.  As I said in Landscaping made easy:  Part 1, that's the beauty of wax myrtles - you can do whatever you want with them at whatever time.  They can be pruned any which way and they will usually thrive, because they are especially versatile that way.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

League City's next election critically important

Quote from yesterday's Houston Chronicle (story probably paywalled):

League City's recent resolution rejecting refuge for Central American migrant children violates two landmark civil rights acts, a complaint to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleged this week.

Are you having Jornaleros flashbacks yet?!  For those of you who don't know the story, just over a year ago, League City squandered hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on losing that unwinnable lawsuit.  I don't think that the final figures were ever made public, but it was well into the six figure range according to initial reports.  As losers on most points, not only did League City have to pay its own legal costs, but they had to reimburse MALDEF for theirs as well.
This Guidry article cited $357,000, but I don't know if that's the "total-total" or just a portion of it.  
Rather than taking care of League City's legitimate business, City Council wastes taxpayers' money on culture warring where it has absolutely no business inserting itself.  Here we go again with MALDEF and another special interest group.  By this time, MALDEF is well-versed in successful strategies for dealing with the continuing flow of antagonistic crap that emanates from League City, so it will be interesting to see what develops here.

Meanwhile, in the past three or four years, has a single thing of actual municipal value been done with respect to practical issues such as resolving traffic congestion at Five Corners??  Nnnnope.  Does this tell you anything about your elected representatives?

Stay tuned for forthcoming info on the November elections.  They are the best short-term chance we've got at curtailing at least some of this nonsense.
Here are the positions to be elected.  Screengrabbed from this page.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More cool stuff at CLS Farmers Market

A few pics here to showcase some of our local micro-entrepreneur craftspeople who occasionally sell at the Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market, which unfortunately has a downed website as of this writing, but it's every Saturday morning in Clear Lake Shores... just drive down there and you can't miss it.  And/or you can find it pretty easily on Facebook.  Happily, most of what this market sells is actual home-grown and home-made food (rather than being a made-in-China trinket outlet posing as a farmers market, which some of them are), but there are also some wonderful local handicrafts among the offerings.  

In no particular order...
Kitchen cutting boards crafted by RELEAF using recycled wood.  This business has no website that I know of, but you can find the proprietor on Facebook by searching for 'RELEAF'.  
Superb artistry.  My cell phone pics don't do them justice.  Wonderful gift ideas here.  
Raised garden planters from TX Green Beds.  I myself garden in stock tanks and discarded highway culvert scraps, but this is another good option for folks who have limited spaces and/or limited mobility.  
Robin's Cedar Planters, also on Facebook.  These are ingeniously constructed so that they are collapsible for easy transport.  Most of them will fit into the back seat of a passenger car once folded up.  Prices are very reasonable.  
I like this pic because it shows how a Robin's planter can be incorporated into a standard existing suburban landscape as a focal point.  Screengrabbed from Facebook.  
This customer put the planter on casters so that it could be rolled around a patio as needed.  For gardeners with limited spaces, these things would be great.  They'd also be excellent for strawberry-growing.  Screengrabbed from Facebook.  
I took business cards for two of these proprietors but I don't have a card for RELEAF.  
Remember to check with the market's Facebook page before you go to see which vendors will be present on any given Saturday.  Not every vendor attends every market.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

FIOS failings, Part 3

My February 24, 2014 post about how Verizon is not delivering guaranteed FIOS speeds got lengthy with updates, so I'm starting a new entry here to describe an apparent recent change in Verizon's tactics where contractually-owed refunds are concerned, because this might be of interest to those of you who really deserve to get your money back.
Past 6 p.m. on any given Friday evening, I've learned to expect this kind of thing.  Like many other Verizon customers, we are paying for 50 Mbps, but routinely receive only a tiny fraction of that. The class action lawsuits can't move fast enough for my taste, but in the meantime, I believe we are owed refunds for service not delivered.  
Back in early 2014 when my irritation with this issue first compelled me to take up the battle with Verizon, I could call them and say, "You are not delivering your guaranteed service and so you need to credit my bill accordingly" and they would do that.  But what I noticed two days ago is that they seem to be developing new and more elaborate stalls and red herrings designed to alleviate their financial obligations, even as evidence of their bandwidth throttling continues to mount.

Let me explain.  Friday represented my NINTH service request to Verizon for the 2014 calendar year.
Yes, you read me correctly.  Nine times.

Meme generated by others referencing the 1986 classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", which I saw at a theater that no longer exists, but it used to be located in the parking lot near the Clear Lake Bed Bath and Beyond.  
For the first time on this past Friday when I called in, the CSR tried to tell me that my slow speeds were my fault rather than Verizon's.

First they gave it the old college try with the "Your own wireless connection is slow and is causing your problems" routine.  To which I reply every time, "I don't use wireless".  I normally have to fight with them before they'll believe that, during which time they try to trick me into admitting I'm using wireless (because everyone does, right?), when in fact I have the bluest ethernet cables ever manufactured running to all my machines.
This is not, and has never been, my problem.  This is one of the reasons we chose to build our own house - so we could run about two miles of Cat 5 everywhere we wanted.   
Having exhausted that possibility, they then proceeded to claim that my speeds were slow because Windows 7 Professional was causing my problem.  Humoring them temporarily, I allowed the CSR to commandeer one of my machines and download this third-party software which he believed with all his heart and soul would fix my issue once and for all.
See the yellow squiggles highlighting the check boxes?  Those were made by the CSR as he was driving my machine.  I screengrabbed this for reference.  The product is TCP/IP Optimizer from Speedguide.net.  
The use of this product had no effect on anything, however, as Windows wisely seemed to deny it permission to make registry changes, even while running in Admin mode.

But of course Windows was never my problem to start with.  But that didn't stop Verizon from trying to toss me a grenade a short time later.
Um, no.
In a word, NO.

"Grenade" as I understand it is a term from back in the computing dark ages.  A "grenade" is a routine inserted to blow up a running process.  If I had not replied back, they would have cancelled my service request with no further action on their parts.

I've noticed this more and more with Verizon - if they text you and you don't reply, they close your ticket irrespective of whether your problem has been solved.  If they phone you and leave a message and you don't reply back immediately, they will automatically close your ticket.  Of course, they tend to phone during business hours when normal working people have restrictions on when they can place personal calls.  
In order to get my refund this time, apparently I have to follow through with a technician service call that is scheduled for tomorrow (Monday).  Apparently one cannot simply ask for refunds any longer based on the strength of the evidence.  Apparently one must now endure considerable hassle which seems to be designed to make pursuit of compensation not worth one's while.

Sigh.

As you contemplate that, take a look at this three-minute video posted by another disgruntled FIOS user just 24 hours before I made my latest service request.  As I said at the outset of this post, the evidence supporting intentional manipulation continues to mount (HT:  this Consumerist article).

URL:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vs3QhEx_3w

Embed:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Best briefcase lunch

Do you ever have to make do with whatever food items you can cram into your briefcase, no space for more, no refrigeration, no time?  If you work in a place like east Harris County, you might find yourself in this undelectable position.  For while it is developing rapidly, right now it's a service wasteland, a food desert.  There's a Baytown Seafood on Sheldon Road.  There's a Subway in a gas station a short distance south of Baytown Seafood, but you can forget about getting in there - the place is constantly mobbed by the starving masses who have no other local food options.  So when my service contracts take me to this particular corner of Rome, I do like most other local working people do:  I brown-bag it.
But I do it in style.  Just because you're eating out of a briefcase doesn't mean you have to choose junk food.  
Here's my line-up:
  • St. Dalfour French Bistro Three Beans with Sweet Corn - Surprisingly good for a product that looks like it's packaged in a cat food tin.  Available at some Whole Foods stores some of the time (hard to get).  280 calories.  
  • Wild Garden Traditional Hummus - Also surprisingly good for a packaged food (congrats to the Jordanians who produce it).  I got hooked on these after finding them in United Airlines Tapas snack boxes, although I've been told that UA has since switched brands.  Available in 3-packs at HEB if you can find them; Amazon's unit price tends to be surprisingly high - 2x to 3x grocery retail.  67 calories.
  • Stacy's Pita Chips - Pita chips are relatively new to the market and most of them are so overloaded with salt that I literally cannot eat them.  This brand seems to be more balanced (I'd vastly prefer whole wheat, but beggars can't be choosers).  I don't know where to buy locally - I order single-serve bags by the case from Amazon.  200 calories.
  • KIND Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt bar - As near as I can tell, this is the lowest-sugar bar this manufacturer offers.  Available in most grocery stores although prices vary widely.  200 calories.
  • Perrier.  I find that Sam's Club has the best local prices.  Zero calories.
Obviously I'm not the lightest lunch eater at 750 calories for that little haul.  I actually prefer to eat my biggest meal at mid-day and have a smaller dinner, which is supposed to be the ideal strategy for weight management.

Anyway, I thought I'd post this as a counterweight to all the "excitement" about the dual Baskin Robbins - Dunkin Donuts that opened either today or yesterday in League City, depending on which published source you believe.
Photo of the new establishment screengrabbed from Facebook, where it had about 450 "Likes" as of Friday evening. 
Seriously?  Diabetes and obesity continuing to climb in America and people are excited by the prospect of more side-by-side glorified sugar outlets?  This is newsworthy both north and south of the Galveston County line?  Or it it all just clever marketing hype?  Pardon me for being my usual fit and healthy (knock wood) party-pooper self, but compared to eating mostly empty carbs, you'd feel a lot better after a 750-calorie feed of nuts, legumes, and grains such as what is shown above, even if they are a bit more processed than ideal.  But such is life when temporarily lived out of a briefcase.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Full frontal

I figured you might need photographic evidence, so here it is:
West Walker northbound at League City Parkway.  Strong northwest wind, as evidenced by the flags.  
Yyyyup.  That's a frontal boundary.  In mid-July.  In Houston.  
If I'd had the time this afternoon, I would have listened to the air traffic control chatter via LiveATC, because I bet there were some "WTF?!" comments from the pilots.  Commercial traffic has been landing to the north for several hours now.

I attempted to find out when we last had a significant cold front in July (as opposed to one of those pathetic waves that drops the temp 1 or 2 degrees).  This NOAA site suggests that it may have been as long ago as 20 years.  Here's hoping you can go outside for at least a few minutes to enjoy the rareness of it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

League City vs. the USA, Part 6: Those who live in glass tract houses

Most League City residents have contributed to illegal immigration through their own economic activity.  We can't all reap the benefits of the cheap construction provided by the 50% of Texas tradesmen who are undocumented and then turn around and disavow all responsibility for the corresponding problems that demand-driven illegal immigration predictably brings to our doorsteps.

Here's a join-the-dots example showing exactly how these moving parts all work together.  I chose this example below because this speaker voluntarily elected to self-identify in public and therefore it can be reasonably assumed that she claims no expectation of privacy with respect to her personal identity or her views on this subject.  
Screengrabbed from Y. C. Orozco's very thoughtful and thorough account (non-paywalled) of the vote that was held this past week.  
But where was Ms. Vickers' objection to third-world illegal immigration when those same people were most likely building her own house?  Publicly-available CAD records (PDF link) suggest that she and her husband purchased their 2002 suburban masterpiece directly from builder D.R. Horton, the same D.R. Horton who made the news shortly thereafter for its treatment of illegal alien residential construction workers.
I've read other news stories in which major builders proudly disavow any hiring of illegal aliens.  But of course they hire subcontractors en masse, and they typically don't check the immigration status of anyone working in the resulting supply chain.

Screengrabbed from this site.  
I am by no means singling out Ms. Vickers as disproportionately responsible for contributing to the local demand for illegal labor.  I suspect that, if a thorough analyses were done, every local homeowner would share a roughly equal responsibility.  Including the bulk of our City Council.

Every one of those elected reps who voted for that unenforceable resolution... every one of them appears to hold title to exactly the kind of suburban tract home that we can reasonably assume was likely built using a significant component of illegal labor.  But was there a single one of those representatives who was overtaken by the strength of their principles at the time of their home purchase and said, "Oh no, I cannot in good conscience follow through with this purchase because I know from simple statistics that this house was likely built in significant part using illegal labor, and I have taken a strong moral stand against contributing to the support and economic stimulation of illegal immigration in any way."

Apparently, not a one of them experienced an actionable twinge of conscience, a conscientious objection, at the time their sales closed.  But when there's an opportunity for political grandstanding that invokes those same anti-illegal-immigration principles that they'd prefer not to see violated, that is another story.

This is the basis for my objection to what League City has done here:  Those who live in glass tract houses should not throw stones.  Other commentators have invoked a humanitarian justification against the resolution, but I don't think that the analysis needs to progress beyond this simple bit of common sense that I'm presenting here.  

I am a legal immigrant.  It took me 13 long, difficult years to follow the procedure and finally attain the rights of American citizenship.  During those 13 years, I watched millions and millions of illegal immigrants simply walk into the country across an open border.  I would fervently like to see the federal government secure the border once and for all and stop all this madness.

Given those personal circumstances of mine, you'd think that I would be counted among those who are the most angry at the specter of tens of thousands more undocumented people streaming across our border at this time.  But the situation is not that simple because I recognize my own contribution to creating the conditions that brought us all to this unfortunate juncture.  

Before the illegal?? labor-intensive transformation: 
Our subdivision lot in League City, prior to the start of construction. How many of you have had the amazing privilege of building your own home?  It's a remarkable experience, especially if you're able to take a base architectural plan and transform it utterly into an almost-unrecognizable one-of-a-kind custom home, as my husband and I did with ours.

A hard hat, buckets of fresh joint compound, but no worker:
I have almost two thousand pictures of our home in progress, but only three of those pictures contain any evidence of human presence, and those three photos show no faces.  That's because every time I would show up with my camera to document each day's building progress, the tradesmen would hide themselves away until I was done.  I was always very careful to be discrete and respectful about what I was photographing, because it's not proper behavior to frighten vulnerable people, especially when they are working fourteen hours a day seven days a week on your behalf.   
Nameless, faceless, and furtive:
It was plenty warm out that day, as the mason in the blue T-shirt indicated by not wearing a jacket or even a long-sleeved shirt.  But his low-skilled helper felt compelled to pull up his hoodie so his face could not be seen.  Why might he have done that??  
I have absolutely no evidence that our builder or its subcontractors used any illegal construction labor.  I can only report the behaviors that I saw and the statistics that characterize the industry, those being that a full 50% of Texas' construction workers are undocumented (PDF link).     

I signed our home build contract.  I put up all that money that was used to stimulate additional demand for the services of those construction workers, including the very young man shown above who felt compelled to hide his face.  We have most definitely made our own suburban beds on the illegal immigration issue.  Now we have to lie in them.  

Good advice:
League City's building inspectors did not suffer fools gladly during our construction process, but this is good advice for everyone - Ms. Vickers, City Council, and everyone else who forms an opinion on our current illegal immigrant issue:  WAKE UP!  Wake up and see your own wider role in our collective situation.