Friday, April 29, 2011

Waterscape before and after

Remember that kettle pond I blogged about two weeks ago

Well, surely you didn't think I'd leave it sitting forlornly in the middle of an empty patch of sod like this:
Nice, but an underwhelming presentation.
Well, we had this equally-forlorn weedy patch next to the house...
A back yard doesn't get any more boring
than this right here.
Resist suburban mediocrity in all its forms!!!
...and so, over the past two weeks, we turned it into THIS:
No longer boring!
We were going for Zen overtones,
but more animated.
I wanted color and vibrancy.
In that previous post, I also raved about Nelson Water Gardens.  Most of the individual supplies for the disappearing fountain came from there...
The SOUND that this thing makes is incredible!
Absolutely mesmerizing!
Water cascades down the ripples in the stone...
...and then disappears into the reservoir below.
Here's a shot from closer to the kettle pond:
It's getting harder and harder to actually go into the house.
Everyone hangs out here now.
This was a total DIY job, and it turned out to be the most fun project that we have ever undertaken.  I do not want to know what this would have cost if it had instead been professionally designed and built, but I was pleasantly surprised by the DIY price, which was somewhat less than emergency medical treatment for a dog with sago poisoning.  Drop me an email if you'd like technical details.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sago to hell

Say what?!  Go where?!

Sorry for the strong language in that title, but in this case I think it's worth using as an attention-grabber for this little factoid: 

Did you know that the very popular and very expensive sago palms that many suburbanites (including many Centerpointers) use as landscaping plants are lethally toxic? 
Beautiful but absolutely deadly to humans and pets.
Ingestion of any part of the plant can easily kill you, although the seeds are the most toxic.  Unfortunately those seeds are bright orange and resemble candy-covered almonds or something, suggesting that they may be attractive to kids:
Sagos kill by (among other things) causing liver necrosis - your liver dies.  Even if you, your child or your pet survives the initial liver damage, death can occur weeks or months later from liver fibrosis. 

And why do I bring this up?  Because two weeks ago, as we were preparing to transplant a few sagos into our landscaping, our dog grabbed a small root fragment and chewed on it briefly - typical dog behavior.  Within an hour, she was vomiting uncontrollably and having seizures.  We rushed her to the Calder Road animal emergency clinic, where the attending veternarian gave her just a 20% to 33% chance of surviving.   After overnight emergency treatment there followed by three days of hospitalization and treatment at the wonderful Animal Kingdom Pet Hospital, she was released into our care along with two weeks of drug therapy.  As of today, she appears to have recovered, but we don't yet know what her longer-term survivability odds are.

We had no idea.  I'm a gardener and I had never heard about sago toxicity; neither had any of my friends or my uncle who has been gardening for almost 60 years.  The ASPCA website lists 391 different plants that are toxic to dogs but makes no distinction among them based on the degree of toxicity (how helpful!).  It turns out that sagos are in a league of their own. 

A sago palm measuring about 2.5-feet in diameter currently retails for about $100 at the Houston Garden Center located on the other side of SH 96 and IH-45.  You might wonder how such a popular item could pose that intensity of hazard, and yet nobody is informing consumers about it's dangers.  I'm not an expert on those issues, but I suspect it's occurring because nobody "manufactures" sago palms - they are made by Mother Nature - and therefore no corporation is liable for the damage that they do.  So instead of having the typical disclosures and disclaimers, what we have instead is perhaps the opposite motivation: if consumers were to find out just how dangerous these things are, sales would fall and horticultural growers and distributors would lose money. 

The toxicity information is actually out there assuming you know to go looking for it (but that's the tricky part).  This article talks about how poisonings are increasing all across America now that sagos are being sold in big box stores.  This blog entry says it all quite bluntly in it's title:  "This plant will kill your dog (and maybe your kids)".

We decided that the risks are unacceptable to us and have removed all sagos from our property.  I don't want to overreact, but after $1,500 in veterinary bills having been incurred by virtue of the smallest sago root fragment, I don't even want to set eyes on sago palms any more.  I don't want to think about what would happen if a very young child toddling down our sidewalk were to somehow get a similar little fragment into their mouth (tiny kids put EVERYTHING into their mouths).  The odds of that happening are very low, but there are many other beautiful landscaping choices out there that are NOT toxic, so into the fires of hell our sagos have gone.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Please rain on our parade

As if a months-long deepening drought, local water emergencies, rampant destruction and federal disaster declarations from wildfires, and petrochem plant-crippling power outages weren't painful enough, we appear to have set an all-time temperature record today, and it's only 2 pm as I write this. 
Wundermap screengrab (they're so pretty!).
According to Houston Chronicle, Houston's previous high temperature record for today was 91 degrees.
Well, we've pretty much toasted that sucker, with readings of 92 at the airport, 94 in Channelview, 95 in Angleton and 97 (!!!) in The Woodlands.
As my late grandmother used to say, "This, too, shall pass."  While you're patiently waiting for that to happen, it might be worth checking out SciGuy's post on why this current mess is NOT related to global warming

Monday, April 25, 2011

Security insecurities

One of my greatest mentors used to constantly remind me that every negative is also a positive, and every positive is also a negative.  Might as well say yippee for yin yang, because this natural duality is inescapable.

Nowhere is this more evident than with respect to all of the electronic consumer devices that we have at our disposal.  Buy a gizmo to resolve one of your predicaments, and sure as heck, you've thereby created a brand new predicament for yourself somewhere down the line.

Such is the case with the new home security systems that use continuous-loop video monitoring.  I'm not talking about those old-style monitored systems that use contact sensors on doors and windows, motion detectors, glass breaks, etc. and third-party telephone alerts.  I'm talking about the camera systems that pipe video to a DVR hidden somewhere in your house, and which also upload that video to the internet for live viewing and secure storage. 
Do you feel like you're being watched? 
Because in an increasing number of homes and businesses,
you ARE -  in both visible and infrared spectra.
These systems have reached middle-class affordability status (turn-key "plug and play" systems from a vendor such as Lorex can be less than $2,000) and can significantly increase a homeowner's control over their property, in both active and passive senses.  I was recently sitting in a client's office discussing business when all of a sudden his eyes darted to one of his computer monitors.  He quickly punched a call into his cell phone and yelled, "Frank, there's a strange truck in your driveway!"   A moment later he put the phone down, looked at me sheepishly, and said, "Sorry.  That was my neighbor across the street.  He was just having a new refrigerator delivered."   My client had seen the truck drive up via his driveway cam, which fed live across the internet to his office computer. 

But sometimes the situation is not as innocent as a delivery dude in an unmarked truck:

HPD photo published by Houston Chronicle.
These systems are A-MAZING!!
This is a photo of a serial burglary suspect obtained from a home monitoring system and released by police.  You can read about this story here.  These camera systems may not prevent the crimes from occurring, but what a terrific tool for prosecution.
The trouble is, these systems don't just record the types of crimes they were developed to deter and/or help prosecute - they record EVERYTHING you do inside and around your house.  Do you ever watch TV in your underwear, sprint naked across your kitchen to fetch clean towels from the laundry room before returning to your shower, or change your toddler's diaper in the livingroom?  If you've installed a DVR system, it will all be recorded, along with everything your neighbors do as viewed from your yard.  Furthermore, these machines can record that information for weeks at a time before looping.  That's a lot of revealing information, and it creates privacy and information management challenges. 

The specific tricky scenario I put before League City Chief of Police Mike Jez this morning was the following:

What happens if a homeowner's monitoring system records evidence of a crime on a nearby property or in the public right-of-way?  How would the homeowner's privacy be protected if they volunteer video evidence to the police? 

I asked this question because, of the material on that DVR, 99.9% will consist of underwear-lounging and naked sprints, and about 0.1% of it might turn out to be criminal evidence.   And whereas a homeowner might feel that it's worth the invasion of privacy to proffer those recordings to help investigate and prosecute a crime committed against their own property, it becomes a much tougher cost-benefit analysis when someone else's property is involved.

Chief Jez's response to my question was as follows: 

"The short answer to your question is that we, the police agency, wherever possible, would try to respect the privacy rights of the individual that is attempting to cooperate with the investigation.  Beyond that I am afraid the courts are continuously creating new case law as it relates to technology."

In other words, it's not completely clear what would ultimately happen to all those not-so-Rockwellian scenes involving skivvies and baby booty.  This is something to think about.  Personally, I suspect that what might end up happening as we evolve into the future is that police departments everywhere start receiving highly-edited anonymous video clips which may not be admissable in a Court of Law due to their unverifiable origins, but which would still serve to point the investigators toward additional evidence that they COULD assemble without anyone's privacy getting violated in the process.

The usual disclaimers apply.  I am not an attorney and none of this is legal advice; I'm just a blogger with a vivid imagination and a desire to minimize my chances of experiencing the type of devastating residential burglary that I had to deal with several years ago while living in another neighborhood.   

Take my voice-of-experience word for it - this sucks!!!
It's not the financial loss, it's the personal violation and all the time and energy required to put your lives back together.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Submergent surprise

By some accounts, 75% of Americans garden to some extent.  With the recent economic recession, there has been greater emphasis on gardening for financial reasons.  Community gardens are developing rapidly, encouraging more people to learn about the almost-lost art of raising their own food, but also for reasons of socialization and outreach.  Here in League City, perhaps the most notable example is the community garden at St. Christopher Episcopal Church, which supplies food to our most prominent social assistance coalition, Interfaith Caring Ministries (ICM). 

But some of the gardening we do is just for the pure personal amazement of it.
First lily to open in my watergarden,
which we set up just a few days ago.

Sorry for the unsightly copyright stamp.  I used to think that bloggers who disfigured their photos with stamps were rather paranoid, but now I see from this blog's access statistics that surfers, particularly from foreign countries, do seem to be trolling for free stock photos. 
Our area rolls out the red carpet for gardeners, with almost eleven frost-free months supporting multiple growing cycles per year.  Even if gardening is not your primary interest, it becomes a life-hands-you-lemons scenario:  our summers are terribly hot, and our land is not scenic.  Might as well capitalize on the outdoor potential that IS furnished by this environment...
...because when you step out your door and are greeted by an unprecedented sight like this, you tend not to notice the flatness and humidity quite as much!!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dash cam, Part 7: No hiding behind a smokescreen

When you see situations like this...

Sorry about the crummy resolution,
but do you see that gray cloud behind the white pickup, a cloud engulfing the car in the right-hand lane?
IH-45 southbound at Baybrook Mall, 4:45 PM today. have the option of completing this:
Click here for the reporting URL.
The screengrab shows you what info you would need to collect in order to make a complete report.
My chief concern is with dangerous driving, but there's a strong correlation between extreme recklessness and other unlawful behaviors.  In this case, I could not acquire the license plate of the offender because to do so would have involved driving in such a manner so as to risk the lives of about a dozen innocent other drivers, including myself, because this smoke-belcher was speeding and weaving like crazy.  But in those cases when you are in a position to get the plate number, this reporting URL provides a convenient means of focusing enforcement attention upon nasty people who deserve to feel some heat.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

PSA: League City forums and election links

Regarding the upcoming municipal elections, here's the briefest possible summary of relevant info.

League City has one Mayoral and seven "at large" City Council positions.  In the 2011 election, the Mayor and Positions 1, 2, and 6 are being elected.  Position 1 and 6 candidates are running unopposed. 

There are a few public forums scheduled to provide citizens with opportunities to meet and evaluate the candidates for office:

(1) The League City Chamber of Commerce is hosting a forum on April 28, and you can read about that here

(2) The Clear Creek Village (CCV) Civic Association is sponsoring a forum on April 25 (CCV is located near the northwest corner of IH-45 and FM 518 and is one of the earliest and most unique League City subdivisions, having been developed in the mid-1970's).  Here is a re-post of their announcement:

CCV West Side Candidates Forum
April 25, 7 PM
Christus Victor Lutheran Church
(2098 West Main Street)

Please join us for our annual CCV West Side Candidates Forum.  This is your opportunity to ask questions of all candidates as well as meet each one personally.  Take this opportunity to get involved and let your voice be heard.  Show your interest in the community and the issues of the West Side--take time to join us April 25 and remind all candidates that we, as citizens, care about our city.

Early voting is available May 2 through May 5, and information is available here.

Information on the May 14 general election can be found here, with logistical information presented here.

Voter registration info is presented on this County website

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dash cam, Part 6: Enforcement passive and active

I have spent almost 20 years working as a regulatory affairs consultant.  I could write a book (and just might) about the burdensome imperfections in our regulatory system and what could be done to improve our framework as it currently stands. 

My point in making that claim is as follows:  I tend to take a hard line on traffic regulation not because I'm a naive advocate of mindless conformance, but because experience tells me that traffic laws represent one of the most functional, finely-tuned sets of operating parameters that we have achieved in our society.  For the most part, traffic laws are not some disaffected bureaucrat's wet dream about what magical individual rights restrictions could be imposed bring about some utopian mass behavioral result.  No.  For the most part, our traffic laws represent the simple, objective codification of common sense. 

Let me give you an example.

West Walker Street, right behind the Harvard Pointe cul-de-sac, at about 9:30 a.m. this morning
Here above we see LCPD having pulled over a motorist.   Common sense dictates that, when you encounter this type of situation, you should slow WAY down and give the officer a safe berth.  

As an accoutrement to common sense, Texas has a law requiring just that - it's called the "Move-Over Act" and it requires motorists to change lanes if possible, or to slow down to 20 mph below the prevailing speed limit.  So in order to legally (and sensically) pass that particular scene, you'd need to drop to 15 mph, being careful not to run into anyone head-on as your left two wheels are across the yellow line while proceeding around that blind curve.    

And speaking of slowing down...
About a week after I began dash-cam blogging, this speed trailer appeared near the League City municipal buildings about a half-mile northeast of Centerpointe.  This is likely just a coincidence, but it's a cool one.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


This is a noncommercial blog but I will occasionally post commercial information where we and/or other Centerpointe residents have had positive experiences with specific products or vendors.  In no case is anyone receiving any form of payment in exchange for an endorsement.

After six months of both internet and brick-and-mortar searching, we finally found THE waterscape vendor in greater Houston:  Nelson Water Gardens in Katy.

This is one of those businesses that realizes its customer base primarily by word of mouth, which is why I'm posting about it.  Internet search strings such as 'Houston fountains', 'Houston ponds', 'Houston koi ponds' or similar will not reveal them.  They don't need to advertise. 

Their sales yard is absolutely breathtaking.  When I joked to a salesperson about having driven all the way to Katy from north Galveston County just to see them, he replied that they routinely get customers from as far away as Louisiana.

Having researched water features extensively, I can say that all their prices were at or below prices I saw on the internet.

They make it easy.  I've wanted a lily pond for years, but never got around to climbing that learning curve, figuring out what materials to invest in, or how to do it.  Well, for $250, Nelson sells a starter kit that includes a 36-inch diameter "kettle" above-ground pond, a large lily of your choice, bottom grass, three different marginal (edge) plants, a pair of fish, a jar of fish food, water conditioner, plant fertilizer tablets, and instruction sheet.  Mine now looks like this:
It'll get prettier after the plants straighten themselves out in their new environment.
Lily bud about to open.
Here's the only YouTube video I could find, commercial and with an annoying overprint narration, but it shows the proprietor and shots of the sales yard:
Here's a wonderful Flickr sequence showing some of the fountain products and installations that appear to have been done for customers (sorry - I can't get this to embed):

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sale-ing through Saturday

Such stress on a Saturday morning, having to choose between peoplewatching at the neighborhood-wide yard sale, and attending the second birthday party of the Farmers Market at Clear Lake Shores!

So I didn't choose - I did both.

For those of you who are not familiar with this venue, you can find introductory information in this post.  And this is what Marina Bay Drive (FM 2094) looks like in front of it.
They got a couple of snazzy new signs recently.  We're into the period of summer hours now, so the market opens at 8:00 a.m. each Saturday.
General view of the vendors.
This was taken around 8:30 a.m.,
so it wasn't too crazy with crowds at this point.
In my first post about the local farmers markets, I noted how odd it is to have two of them (Clear Lake Shores and Kemah) separated by just three quarters of a mile. 

Would you believe there is now a third one also planned in close proximity?!   About ten days ago, the Bay Area Citizen ran a story about how the Pelican Market, planned for Seabrook, has been put "on hold" for the moment.  

I hope the powers-that-be sort themselves out on this one, because what's going to happen here is that all these little markets are going to end up cannibalizing each other to some degree, which will be counterproductive for both sellers and customers.  Back in 2009, a League City Councilman got interested in migrating the Clear Lake Shores market into League City.  That never happened, and I don't expect it to unless League City invests in the type of public infrastructure suitable to support that and similar types of business-development and citizen-involvement events (why microscopic Clear Lake Shores, population approximately 1,205 persons, can accomplish this type of thing and mighty League City cannot is a topic for another day's editorial). 

I'll leave you with a couple of springtime sights from our flowering Pride of Houston (POH) yaupon hollies.  Because we currently have the only fully-landscaped back yard in Centerpointe's brand new Section 9, we are sorta seeing a "High Island" style wildlife concentration effect here.  For those of you not familiar with High Island, it's a world-famous birding location in far east Galveston County.  It's actually underlain by a salt dome, which has pushed up the surrounding land to an elevation where tree growth is supported.  It's literally an oasis in the Gulf of Mexico's coastal treeless desert, an oasis of which migrating birds take abundant advantage.  We have a micro-scale version of that concentration effect going on right now, with a few birds but mostly an astonishing number of beneficial insects:
The POHs became infested with ladybugs,
which are beneficial because they eat parasites such as aphids.
Yet another.
POHs are well known for their prolific berry production,
and I'm hoping that these new transplants produce a profusion of red berries just as they produced this initial profusion of flowers.
We are in the spring migration period of the Monarch butterfly,
and so we've been visited by many of these majestic critters as well.

Let me answer the obvious question that I get asked frequently:
I use a six-year-old Nikon D50 DSLR consumer package (18-55 mm lens) for most of my photography.  There are plenty of fancier, more expensive cameras on the market, but the D50 is my favorite "old faithful" optical work-horse.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pantry near-perfection

We absolutely love the Meritage home we built here in Centerpointe and we would not trade it for any other design, BUT, nothing in this life is ever perfect. 

Meritage is currently building plans created by a renowned Austin architectural firm called Kipp Flores.  I like to joke that Mr. Kipp and Mr. Flores must be a couple of skinny boys who spend a lot of time eating granola bars while mountain biking in the Texas Hill Country, because they sure did not place a high priority on food-related storage in their designs.  The pantries in many of their homes, even some of the larger plans, are about the size of post-war broom closets, and are about as functional.  
...but it's only a couple of inches wider than the stove!!!!!!
The man of my dreams must have gotten mighty tired of hearing me scream,

"Oh my God!!! 

every time I got frustrated and couldn't find the right cooking supplies buried within our dark, tiny pantry space, because look at the wonderful thing that he did for us:
Meritage did not offer a lighting option in the pantry and, even if it had, it probably would have been an overhead, which would not work in a space with solid shelves casting shadows on everything below them. 

Here, said man of my dreams retrofitted our pantry with a vertical (not overhead) stack of LED lights that are triggered by a magnetic switch embedded at the top of the door frame (see the round sensor).  Open the door, and the former black hole is flooded with the best possible light!!

To increase storage space, we installed a platinum Elfa rack on the door.  Elfa is by far the best product of its type I have ever used.  Worth every penny, in my opinion.   

When life hands you lemons, engineer some lemonade, a task made easier when you actually have light and an organizational structure sufficient to locate the ingredients. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rain barrels: What's hype, and what's helpful

Updated November 4, 2013:  See Part 2 of this post.  I do not recommend the rain barrel shown in the original post below.

Updated June 8, 2014:  See also Part 3 of this post, which describes a brand new type of rain barrel failure.  I have yet to find a reliable rain barrel that will last long enough to at least pay for its own cost.


The topics of rain, drought, and water conservation are everywhere in the local news these days.

Screengrabbed from
on April 14, 2011 
In a previous post, I summarized some general information about Texas water resources and League City's management of our potable supply
In a follow-up post, I commented on the great gnashing of political teeth that is occurring because our water billing rates are necessarily increasing as the City enacts new conservation measures. 

I also mentioned the City's pending WaterSmart Park, a passive water-conservation educational foray about which little information is yet available. 

Screengrabbed from
A few days ago, there was yet another article in the Galveston County Daily News about our current water shortages.  That article described the acute and nonrefundable financial outlays those shortages are forcing some local municipalities to make in order to secure their water supplies. 

And a few days prior to that, SciGuy described how 86% of Texas, including Harris County, is now in severe drought - and it's only April (we normally have droughts and supply challenges only at the height of summer). 

So you get the picture, and it ain't exactly a wet one.  The odd fact of the matter is, however, that greater Houston and its affiliate municipalities do not have a water supply problem.  What they do have is a water capture, storage, treatment, and distribution problem.  The upper Texas coast is subtropical and correspondingly wet:  we receive an average annual rainfall of about 48 inches.  What that means is about a quarter of a million gallons of rain fall upon the average Centerpointe residential lot each year, which is WAY more water than we could productively use!

But of course, we don't avail ourselves of that water.  Most of it runs off and then infiltrates into (or evaporates from) those two massive dry-bottom ponds at the northeast corner of the neighborhood, and I bet a lot of you didn't know that we, the neighborhood, collectively own those two ponds (per statements made during the March POA Board meeting).

Thing 1 and Thing 2, flanking Walker Street.
But what if we WANTED to use some of that water??  Makes sense, does it not?  Here we have all this political anguish and personal expense associated with a commodity that we don't seem to be managing very well and which appears to be increasingly scarce, and yet at the same time we personally have spent (in the form of higher real estate prices) a small fortune trying to get rid of it!  The whole situation seems rather bo-bo-bo-bonkers

Rain barrels are increasingly promoted by municipalities and special interest groups as a water conservation measure - a way of capturing and putting to use some of the rain water that is normally disposed of by engineering design. 

My current model is a Systern, which is a relatively expensive choice, but I'm sorry - I'm not going to build a semi-custom house only to outfit it with an ugly rain barrel.  This one is the exact right shade of beige to coordinate with the brick, and oh, it has that compelling cherry-red tap, analogous to the coveted signature red knobs on those two thousand dollar Wolf brand gas ranges.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with "green" initiatives, some of the assertions regarding rain barrels are mostly hype.  Google "rain barrel" and you'll find peddlers asserting that their use "can dramatically lower your water bill!!" or "minimize your eco-impact" or similar language.   Well, do the math on that little gem:  League City's potable water consumption is currently running at about 128 gallons per capita per day (gpcd).  The average family uses about 60,000 gallons of water per year.  A consumer-grade rain barrel is generally 35 to 85 gallons in size.  How many of those would you need to run through in order to make a meaningful dent in 60,000 gallons??


However, there ARE a couple of surprising benefits to using a rain barrel, and therein lie my personal observations and recommendations:

(1) Using a rain barrel can be easier than using a hose.   If I'm spot-watering landscape and patio plants with a hose, I must unwind it, drag the danged thing across the yard, deal with the inevitable kinks, and then wind it back up again when I'm done.  If I leave the garden hose lying on the lawn, it looks unsightly, gets chewed by our dog, and then gets piled in a knotted heap by the lawn contractor, a heap that I must later untangle (which infuriates me). 

In contrast, if I want to spot-water plants using a rain barrel, all I need to do is get a couple of two-gallon buckets, and I can schlep water around my yard so fast it would make your head spin.  It's a MUCH more efficient process; my task is done in a fraction of the time.
I don't use the Systern exactly the way it was designed.  The top fits on snugly and comes with attachment screws, but I pop it off so I can do my own bucket brigade.
(a) You don't necessarily need one of these things with a tap on the bottom, no matter how cherry red and cute the tap looks.  The taps are simply too small to be of efficient use on a 55-gallon rain barrel.  And they make the barrels more expensive.
(b) You might not want to get one of these things unless it's the type where you can remove the top and use it this way.  You need a mosquito-proof top of some kind, AND you need to guard against small children messing with these things (see point #3 below).  Some of the smaller rain barrel models have narrow goose-neck tops or sealed tops.  Those would not be useful to me personally. 
(2) Most consumer-grade rain barrels will pay for themselves if used regularly.  They may not lower your water bill by a significant amount, but if you do the math (remembering that we must pay sewer charges on most of our water consumption), you'll find that even the relatively expensive ones can at least pay for themselves inside several years.  Therefore, it's effectively no cost to you, and you can choose one that facilitates the convenient bucket-brigade option if that suits your lifestyle. 

(3) Rain barrels are a good introduction to conservation mandates that will eventually influence water consumption.  They teach people to be mindful of the fact that potable water is not an infinite resource.  They can be engaging for children to use, if managed properly:

Photo from / Copyleft.

Kids would probably be better off using a bottom tap instead of accessing them from the top. Remember, if unsecured and mis-used, a rain barrel (along with every other bucket-like, pond-like and pool-like consumer item sold in America today) could pose a drowning hazard to small children. 
(4) Rain barrels can help store water for emergency use.  I have friends who have gotten them specifically because they think it's more convenient than storing water in a bath tub during a tropical storm or hurricane (rainwater is not potable, but really, neither will tap water remain uncontaminated if stored in an open-air location such as a bath tub for days at a time). 

(5) Future generations of consumer rain barrels may, indeed, evolve to the point where they do offer the potential for significant reductions in municipal consumption and financial savings to certain consumers.  As a gardener, I'm positively jonesing for a more substantial set-up like this one:

OK - NOW we're talking about some serious water storage and management capability.  This 300-gallon tank is sleek, minimally obtrusive, and tall enough so that it will produce good delivery pressure at the bottom tap.  This was installed by blogger and gardener Erin Covert of Dallas, who, like myself, was fed up with constantly dragging garden hoses across her yard. 
(6) Effective rain barrels don't need to be expensive.  If you are not concerned with chic, and if you have appropriately secured your rain collection space against unauthorized access by children and pets, you have the option to use available materials to make yourself an inexpensive system.  On that note, I will leave you with a neat YouTube video showing one such option:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dash cam, Part 5: Revenge is tweet

Our stats blew up last week, and it took me a few minutes of research to determine why in the heck we were getting so many visitors from outer space, er, I mean, places other than our own tiny subdivision:
This blog is neither commercial nor monetized,
but still, it's useful to monitor its visitor traffic
as a source of general feedback on effectiveness.

But seriously... Kuwait?!  New Zealand??

So we have had visitors from these nine countries...
now if we could just encourage readership
from all nine sections of Centerpointe,
we'd really be cookin'!
It turns out that a syndicated journalist had tweeted Dash Cam 3, where I went into detail regarding the intentions behind leveraging a dash cam to influence public behavior, and why maintaining respect and order on "the little things" like driving habits can resonate with a disproportionately-positive effect through an entire community.

Good.  I hope those hundreds of remote visitors were able to glean a few ideas that they can take and apply in their own communities.  It is important for ordinary people to make attempts like this, whether via blogs or dash cams or other methods.  You can forget about relying on the federal government, the local police, or any other public entity for problem-solving when it comes to many aspects of crime and cultural deficiencies.  No goverment program, grant, or subsidy could ever hold a candle to actual citizen involvement when it comes to shaping better communities.  (And be assured that I'll rant more about that in future posts).

The fact that anyone would even want to tweet content from a micro-micro-blog is noteworthy in itself.  It derives from a grassroots movement to restore a greater sense of community to American suburbia.  Decades ago, of course, everyone knew their neighbors, and a collective sense of awareness and safety derived from that interconnected knowledge.  But these days, many subdivisions across the country have become the proverbial nameless faceless cultural wastelands, where nobody trusts anybody and children no longer play outside because nobody trusts anybody and because so many people drive their cars like freakin' brain-diseased idiots, with no regard for the safety of anyone. 

Centerpointe already had a running start on bucking that trend, with its very active Property Owners Association, and through the networking and newslettering done by our community coordinator.  By the time my family had moved here, microscopic Centerpointe, with fewer than 400 families, had already created the largest National Night Out celebration in Galveston County, with its population of about 290,000 people.  It was my intention to expand upon that running start with this blog, but it's cool that some material herein is potentially useful to other far-flung communities as well! 

So with those thoughts, I'll leave you with this morning's dash cam disaster: yet another ode to the infamous El Dorado freeway exit, showing two separate gap-shooters filmed just 81 seconds apart:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fence fantastic!

In a post about two weeks ago, I asked for fence stain recommendations.  I complained about current products on the market having potentially-reduced effectiveness due to recent reformulations required by air quality regulations. 

Well, thanks to a talented DIYer on Harvard Pointe, I was introduced to a product we can live with: Olympic Waterproof Toner.  I was surprised to see the cans for sale in the local Lowes as listing over 4 pounds per gallon volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which is very high (more than half the weight of the product).  VOCs are the air pollution culprits that have been phased out of architectural products, but those are the solvents that give stains their penetrating power.  For what it's worth, the claim was made that the VOCs used in this Olympic product were "non-photochemically reactive" (i.e., not smog-forming). 

The aesthetic impact of a good fence stain is simply amazing:
It's just blah,
with no contrast or definition to the landscaping.

BTW, if you want info on stock tank gardens,
there's a post here.
The fence is now an actual design element. 
We have an overwhelming 220 feet of cedar fence -
it HAS to look good!

This is the "Canyon Brown" shade,
which was also chosen by the Harvard Pointe resident.
There are lighter tones available if that's more to your taste.
This Olympic product is a bit more oily than I would personally prefer for a contact surface such as a deck.  But for a noncontact surface such as a fence, it seems to be acceptable - on initial application anyway.  We'll see how it weathers over time.

If you're interested in knowing the cost, it's about $150 for a 5-gallon bucket, which should be sufficient to do an entire perimeter fence. 

This stain can be rolled or sprayed, but spray is vastly preferable.  My thanks to Barry LaChance, owner of The Woodworks on East Walker Street, for advising me to get an airless sprayer.  I picked up a Graco TrueCoat for $199.  It was not difficult to achieve a uniform spray because (a) the sprayer was easy to use and (b) the stain had that high solvent content so that the uptake by the wood was good. 

Typically what we find is that if you DIY, even if you have to buy equipment, you still come out ahead financially over what you'd spend by hiring someone to do the job.  So here, we got 220 feet of fence stained for a total of about $350, but of course I'll use that sprayer again and again on future projects, so the effective cost was considerably lower than $350. 

Note what I said in my first post:  It is easy to get yourself into trouble with fence treatments.  If you pick the wrong product, you might end up with a mess either upon initial application or in the future as it weathers.  In my opinion, a good penetrating stain should allow the cedar to look like cedar (only better!) and then it should simply fade away over time, in the end leaving you with the typical weathered gray wood you started with.  I don't recommend coatings because they can vastly increase the costs and labor required for maintenance.  Previous neighbors of mine have gone through nightmarish scenarios where they had to either chemically treat their exterior wood to remove degraded coatings (major expense!!), or they had to simply wait until UV light from the sun broke down the coatings (and of course they had to live with the coatings peeling off and looking awful for several years!). 

Happy DIY-ing!!!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A take on local snakes

(Updated September 4, 2013)  There was a story in the Galveston County Daily News two days ago titled "Snakes Turning Up in the Suburbs" about a snake discovery in League City, and the ensuing debate as to the species of the critter. 

This was followed by a blog entry titled "League City's Great Snake Mystery" which generated some humorous responses.

I thought I would follow up with some additional info regarding our local snake population.  World's biggest disclaimer: These are personal anecdotes and observations only.  I'm not an expert on snake behavior; I'm just an avid outdoorswoman who has lived in our area for many years.  Snakes are like many other critters: even if certain behaviors are common species-wide, individual members of the species can behave very differently than the population average.  Don't assume that the general characteristics described here will be true in every case.

First I'd like to say - welcome to the subtropical upper Texas coast!!  Snakes and other reptiles are a part of daily lives around here, and are often found in the suburbs.  They are around us whether or not we actually see them. (Remember the posts I did about the red-tailed hawks and the Swainson's hawk? What do you suppose those guys are eating?). 

Second, here's a run-down of some of the more noteworthy local species:

(1) Water Moccasin.  It's easy to see how this venomous snake got its alternate name, which is "cottonmouth":

This open-mouth behavior is the snake's analog of a middle-finger gesture.  Moccasins typically do not back down or make any attempt to avoid human contact, and that's what makes them dangerous.  They would often rather sit in a human's travel path and fight than slither away before the human gets too close.

This pic was taken on my family's farm which is some distance from Houston, but this snake is also extremely common in our area:

This pic was taken on the lawn of Sylvan Rodriguez Park on the north side of Clear Lake.  You can see he has not yet opened his mouth, but he has assumed the characteristic strike position.  Once again, the moccasin holds its ground despite the size of the adversary, which was me.

It can be almost impossible to tell the difference between moccasins and nonvenomous water snakes (described below), because of natural variations in age, color, and shape.  Sometimes I make the call solely on the basis of behavior:
the more aggressive it is,
the more likely it's a moccasin.  

I was riding my bicycle when I encountered that particular snake, so I had almost no equipment with me.  However, I did not want to simply leave the snake basking on the lawn with so many small children playing in Rodriguez Park.  Therefore, I took the one long-ish item I had with me, which was the bungee cord holding a Kryptonite lock on the frame of my bike, and started whacking the snake with it, to encourage him to move back into the woods.  No dice - all that did was make him even more PO'd at me.  This is an example of just how assertive these guys can be.
(2) Copperhead.  Also venomous, the easily-identified copperheads can be as dumb as moccasins are assertive.  The copperheads I have seen have not been aggressive and really don't seem to want to interact with humans, but at the same time, they don't have the common sense to get the heck out of the way.

I took this pic in nearby Fort Bend County, but I've also seen these in abundance in places like Armand Bayou Nature Center.  In the encounter shown above, the snake seemed thoroughly intimidated, but still it would not turn and flee into the abundant vegetative cover, as many nonvenomous snakes would have done.
(3) Coral snake.  This is one of the most acutely-toxic animals on earth, and a well-placed bite is fatal.  The good news is that their mouths are so small that it's almost impossible for them to set a good bite on a human; a recent Houston Chronicle story reports that only one human death has been attributed to coral snakes in the past 40 years.  It is extremely rare to see a coral snake, and I've only seen one in the 20-odd years I've lived in Texas.  I don't have a photo of that one because it quickly turned and fled, but here's a stock drawing:
(4) Rattle snake.  These are common in our area, especially near the coast (they enjoy sandy soil).  A 2008 news story described a bite suffered by a toddler on Galveston Island.  I have a local friend whose 8-year-old son was bitten by one.  It was not fatal but he did suffer significant scarring on his leg because the venom has a flesh-killing property to it.  Contrary to popular belief, most venomous snake bites are not fatal, as this excerpt from a Texas Department of State Health Services website confirms:

Note:  Rattlesnakes don't always make that stereotypical chica-chica-chica rattle like you hear on TV shows.  Sometimes the sound they make is more like a loud uniform buzz.  If you are outdoors and hear a prolonged buzz that does not quite sound like a cicada, it might not be a cicada! 
There were many amusing sights on Galveston Island during the clean-up following Hurricane Ike in 2008.  In this case, someone decided to include a rattlesnake carcass with a pile of household hazardous waste!
(5) Nonpoisonous speciesThere are many, and it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between venomous and nonvenomous.  The rule is, you do not ever handle a snake unless you are willing to bet your life on it being nonvenomous. 
Chicken snakes are as docile as they are harmless.  They can be surprisingly large - this one is coiled around my arm here so it's length is difficult to perceive, but it was about six feet long.  You can see that the head is not viper-shaped and the pupil of the eye is round rather than slit-shaped - both of these are characteristics of nonvenomous snakes.

Kids are often fascinated by snakes.  Last year during Armand Bayou Nature Center's "Bayou Boil" fundraiser, the staff brought along a few nonvenomous snakes for folks to see and touch.
Water snakes are also nonvenomous and mostly want to run away when they see humans.  This crazy-cropped pic was taken in League City's Heritage Park, an excellent location for seeing local wildlife of all types (and for launching kayaks, which is why I'm wearing an inflatable PFD here).  Two young boys had spotted this water snake on the shore of the park's pond.  You can see that I put on surgical gloves here before picking it up, and that's because we noticed that it was letharic.  Zoonotic diseases are a potential concern when handling wildlife.  It turned out that this guy was likely not diseased, but he did prove to be injured.  I had to cut him loose from discarded fishing line, which is a terrible menace to wild animals of many types.   
Of course, snakes are not the only reptiles that inhabit our area!!  Some of you may remember this locally-famous alligator, who took up residence in 2007 under one of the bridges in the tony Bay Oaks subdivision of north Clear Lake:
It's a crummy cell phone pic but trust me -
she was a BIG Mamma!!!
People can be rather passionate about wildlife around here, as some of the signs posted on the bridge above Big Mamma Alligator attested:

So there you have some scoop on a bit of local slither - happy recreating!

20130904:  And as one final note, here is a useful infographic summarizing the same type of information presented above.  This continues to be a high-traffic post so I thought I'd add that.