Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pride cometh before the fall

Here's the danger in League City having recently pulled the Constitutional rights oppression stunt that led to their emphatic (and expensive) defeat in the Journaleros lawsuit

Now they've called wider attention to themselves.  They've raised a red flag (pun intended). 

With that one defining move, they put themselves on the radar of innumerable other special interest groups.  Made our city a target for the showcasing of modern-day American polarization and we, the taxpayers, remain on the hook for both the financial and the existential consequences of that. 

They've arguably established a reputation as a pack of power-hungry social antagonists, such that, even as they ponder how they might rein in the city's mushrooming legal bills, they are intentionally inviting more of the same style of litigation.

So it's no surprise that a group called Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFR) has now petitioned League City to delete the praying that is done before each City Council meeting.  It's a separation-of-church-and-state issue which is of authentic concern to some local citizens. 

And in true League City form, how did the Mayor and certain members of the City Council react?  According to accounts published in Galveston County Daily News, they reacted unprofessionally and with arrogance. 

“I’m offended you don’t believe in God, but you don’t have to answer to me. You’ll have to answer to him when your time comes.”  Council Member Todd Kinsey was reported as saying.

Holy sh*t!!!  Wrap your head around that one.  He apparently said that speaking in official capacity as a Councilman, openly condemning those who don't believe in his personal interpretation of God and how God might dole out judgment.  Council, if you didn't have a legitimate separation issue to start with, YOU HAVE ONE NOW!! 

I attempted to access League City records this morning in order to independently verify exactly what was said by whom, where, when and in which capacity, but it seems that the city's entire records management system is down this morning.
"Not available", just like common sense around here. 

Screengrabbed from this site
But anyway, relying on the GCDN reporting, the unprofessional tantrum-throwing didn't stop with Kinsey's finger-wagging.  Thiess called the FFR personnel "half-wits" and Bentley crossed herself (signed the cross) with the statement "That’s for all you [FFR] folks in Wisconsin”. 

It boggles the mind.  This isn't just an issue of concern to folks who wish to see a more authentic church-state separation.  This is an issue for every taxpayer whose individual religious views do not conform to the culture-warring, in-your-face, my-way-or-the-highway arrogance displayed by these elected extremists.  It was with those more moderate folks in mind, both believers and non-believers alike, and especially with a respectful nod to local people of diverse faiths whose spiritual and religious views are not reflected in those Council diatribes, that I offered my viewpoints on this morning's GCDN account.  That content is behind the paywall, so I'm reproducing my comments below with hyperlinks for your consideration.  Remember this stuff the next time you go vote, because it's important. 


The arrogance and unprofessionalism shown by the Mayor and City Council continues to astound. It's literally jaw-dropping. An established and authentic special interest group raises a valid church-state separation question, and here's a summary of the response:

(1) Thiess resorts to name-calling
(2) Kinsey personally channels God's wrath as he feels uniquely authorized to do
(3) Bentley issues a defiant religious gesture which, in this context, is leveraged at non-Christian believers as the equivalent of the middle finger
(4) Paulissen (via KTRH) references the fact that League City has been engaging in prayer in this official capacity fashion for the last 52 years and has no intention of changing.

Well, here's some news for Paulissen and the rest of you (drumroll, please):

Things have changed in the past fifty two years. Society has evolved. Just as a tip-of-the-iceberg example, right around the corner of West Walker Street from City Hall, there's a little residential subdivision chock full of municipal taxpayers (remember them?! taxpayers?!) who show incredible diversity in both ethnicity and religious traditions. We have all four of the world's major religions represented JUST ON MY ONE CUL-DE-SAC!!!!

Is there a single one of you elected representatives who could EVEN NAME the world's top four religions (as measured by number of adherents) without having to first look it up on Wikipedia?? I would put my money on NO.

Congratulations, guys. Rather than meeting this latest social positioning challenge objectively with a professional and coordinated smooth response along the lines of "We take the FFR request on advisement even as we value our traditions", you've once again proven your own overriding arrogance and sheer ignorance. You are a collective embarrassment to the unfortunate citizens you represent.

And I reckon that special interest groups like FFR will continue to bait you into showing exactly those true colors. That's what's actually happening here, eh? Apparently you're not in possession of the requisite level of political sophistication required to realize that. This is less about the stated issue (church-state separation) and more about stimulating Council into displaying its name-calling, brimstone-flinging, bird-flipping, yesteryear-clinging ignorance, so that the voters can know what they're up against in the way of a seated Council. And in this latest case, the tactic has succeeded, in spades.


Microsoft clip-art. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Texas flags improperly displayed

My unflagging curiosity compels me to ask:  What's wrong with this picture?!
Car dealership, IH-45 northbound frontage road south of Dickinson.
Let me give you a hint:
This Texas flag appears to be the wrong dimensions, making it not the flag of Texas. 

Inset thumbnail from this Wikipedia site and annotated to illustrate proportionality. 
The actual flag proportions are precisely defined by regulation:
Text copied from this site and then annotated. 
I'm not a flag fanatic, but I do feel that if the flag is going to be displayed, it should be done with a purity of intention and a bare minimum of respect, which arguably ought to include basic accuracy in the construction of it.   I started noticing these pseudo-flags, particularly along Houston's freeways, because many car dealerships and other large businesses have begun to deploy them.  They are massive mega-flags - you simply can't miss them as they billow provocatively over the freeway. 

And it's the distorted dimensions, specifically the extra length, that makes that billow as visually striking as it is.  Which leads me to suspect that the businesses displaying these things are more interested in catching your eye for the purpose of drawing you into their showrooms than they are in respectfully celebrating our collective Texas heritage.  That may not be illegal, but in my books, it's bad taste. 
There are examples of these pseudo-flags all over the internet.  Here's a miscellaneous stock thumbnail also annotated to show an extra third of length.  This ratio is not 2:3 - it's closer to 1:2. 
But here's where this issue goes from a purposeful perplexity to a full-blown vexillological vexation.  In conjunction with this post, I thought I might write an email to the car dealers who fly these things so that I could encourage them to re-examine their motivations, as follows: 

"Dear Mr. Car Dealer:  Rather than exploiting an exaggerated representation of the Texas flag as an attention-getting device for your businesses, why not instead host an authentic patriotic display?  If you must leverage your customers' flag fondness for your own commercial gain, it would arguably be in better taste to obtain an official flag, one flown over our Texas Capitol, and present it to your customers in its proper respectful context for all to enjoy."

You can actually purchase these things if you want to.  The flag shown above has been folded and foreshortened by wind in this photo, but it does appear to have the correct aspect ratio.  Or close to it...

Image from this Wikimedia site
And then in my email I was going to give those car dealers the source for such official flags, but guess what I found while searching for that source?!
Oh, dear God!  "A properly-folded 3'x5' Texas flag"? Apparently the House of Representatives apparently doesn't know the proper flag dimensions either!  2:3 is not equal to 1:2 is not equal to 3:5.  Close only counts in horse shoes, doesn't it?

Screengrabbed from this site as it appeared on July 20, 2013, and annotated. 
So, thumbs down to the flag floggers, and I don't even know what to say about the House.  Perhaps they have confused the Texas flag with area rug standard sizing

Almost eighteen thousand 3' x 5' rugs to choose from, none of which look a danged thing like the flag of the great state of Texas.

Screengrabbed from an Amazon search, and annotated. 
I asked my husband about these things and he said, "Yep - many of the flags out there don't conform to the regulations that define them.  It's been that way for years."  Apparently this is just a quirk of our society, but it seems odd to me that even the governing body that defined the issue in the first place doesn't seem to be strictly conforming to their own specifications (as they state it on their own website, they are close, but it's the principle of the thing).  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Agog at Google

On June 5, 2013, the Google car cruised through Centerpointe, as I described in this post.  As of today, we still don't have an updated Streetview photo set, but a curious thing appears to have happened in the intervening time:
Google seems to have re-processed its older images.  The sharpness, contrast, and saturation all appear enhanced now. 

West Walker at Centerpointe Drive.  Construction of Centerpointe Section 9 (shown as the empty field at left) had not commenced at the time this photo was taken, estimated to be 2008 or 2009.

Screengrabbed from Googlemaps Streetview. 
Here for comparison is the same screengrab from June 5, 2013.  Note the more fuzzy appearance. 
Why would Google go to the immense trouble of image-processing all the data that it will soon discard in favor of an updated set?  I suspect it has something to do with quality control and feature-matching, which perhaps will be made easier by superior historical image quality, no matter how obsolete it may be by this time.  And what (if anything) this procedure might have to do with Google's driverless car initiative is anyone's guess, but it's fascinating to watch this technology unfold. 

Bird bath, Part 2

When I wrote "How to attract birds to a birdbath" almost a month ago, I was curious as to how persistent my avian visitors would prove to be.  After all, I put up that bird bath during a drought interval.  Would the birds keep coming right up next to our house once water became readily available in locations more removed from human contact?  This question was put to the test during the past several days when we finally got rain. 
Answer:  Yes, because they are so habituated to it by now. 
Not only are they well-habituated, they are now a lot more confident about their use of the bath for recreation and socializing.
Look at that relaxed posture.  They don't just drink - they hunker down and hang out.  The mourning doves in particular will sit on the edge and coo in the early morning hours.  A private serenade one foot from my office window. 
Anyway, this is the most fun I've had with a fifty dollar purchase in quite some time.  If I can just keep our dog from slobbering all over the inside of this window, I should be able to continue getting crisp close-up photos like the ones shown above. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

A strange and surreal local Googlemaps image

Every once in a while, I stumble across something on Googlemaps that completely drops my jaw. Their new oblique aerial coverage caught this commuter jet flying quite low over a subdivision under construction north of Houston, which in itself is not terribly weird.  But you can tell that Google is stitching their photographic coverage down the centerlines of suburban streets, because their image processing chopped off both wing and stabilizer, leaving the viewer with a most unsettling impression, indeed.
It sorta gives Dali a run for his money, doesn't it??

I haven't found this one in any of the weird Google image compilations, so I may have been the first person to spot it. 
Screengrabbed from Googlemaps. 

How to make ollas for your garden or landscaping

Your first question is undoubtedly, "What the heck is an olla?"  It's Spanish for a particular type of pot, but I'm using it in an irrigation context.  It's an unglazed ceramic jar used to deliver water to plants in a very efficient manner. 

Here is a dry one freshly exhumed, because I was re-planting this container. 
You simply take two cheap same-sized flowerpots, place them top-to-top, and seal the seam with silicone caulk.  Then also plug the bottom pot's drainage hole with silicone, leaving just the top hole open.  Then you bury them in the soil up to the level of the open hole.  Whittle down an old wine cork or something to stick in that hole so dirt and mosquitoes won't get into it. 

Then you keep it full of water as a means of passive irrigation. 
Here's this one removed from the soil and filled for a photo op.  The water will seep out slowly through the porous clay. 

You can also purchase commercially-produced ollas, and to my surprise they're even being carried by big-box hardware stores now, but they're far cheaper to make than buy.  You can make one for about one third the cost of retail. 
It's a simple idea, but it really works, as this photo suggests:
Sorry about the poor depth of field on this photo, but this is an olla hole where one was removed from the soil.  You can see that the plant roots had preferentially wrapped themselves around the olla so that they could suck water through the clay, much the same way as tree roots will penetrate and exploit a seeping water or sewer line. 

The only limitation I've found is that you can't make them too large.  The larger the flower pot, the thicker the clay walls.  Large pot walls are still porous, but the water doesn't seep out as efficiently. 
Ollas can be very useful in climates like ours, especially when we go for prolonged periods with hot weather and no rain, such as we just experienced. 
Once again this year, we are sucking wind on rainfall.  That tropical wave we had a few days ago furnished the first significant precipitation since freakin' April, and it's now mid-July. 

Screengrab of YTD from Wunderground station MD6282, which is located here in Centerpointe. 
Ollas are particularly useful when embedded in raised planting beds and large containers, which tend to dry out much faster than soils on grade.  Container gardens in greater Houston will often completely dry out in less than 24 hours, as in, kill-your-plants dry out.  If you don't water containers daily during the summer here, you'll usually lose your plants.  I have found that keeping an olla filled and installed next to sensitive plants will buy me some leeway on the timing of my regular watering because the seeping tides the plants over until I can get to this task. 

If you have small children, making ollas can be a good family project, as many kids love to get involved with this kind of thing.  Now that it's summer and school is out, a few of the neighborhood kids have become fond of asking me, "Do you have any work that I could help with today?" (seriously!) because they see me working on my landscaping frequently and they like to get involved.  One of these days I'm going to remember to stop by the hardware store and pick up another batch of clay pots so that we can collaborate on making some more of these. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

How to search for similar images on the internet

Answer:  I don't know.  If you're trying to source duplicated images, you can always use Tin Eye.  But if you've got a photo and you're trying to find similar photos on the internet, the options seem pretty dismal right now. 

Case in point:  I found this insect in my front garden the other day and, never having seen it before, I wanted to find similar images so that I could learn what it is and whether it is benign or potentially harmful to my carefully-constructed landscaping.
Friend or foe?

Sitting on the ledge of our stacked stone garden
I uploaded that pic to Imgur so that I could run a few searches.  Here are some of the amusing results.
Tin Eye only returns identical images, so that doesn't work.  Three billion images but it can't associate similar views and apparently nobody has taken a close-enough photo of this bug before. 
Xerox has this "similar image search" site, but you can see that I was getting nowhere with this one.  Well, maybe there's the beginnings of success because is that a politician on the second line??  Politician... insect...  now we're getting somewhere. 
Google was no better.
Mostly it returned a bunch of car parts. 
I had a good laugh over this one:
Congratulations, Google!!  That's an excellent image match!!  Except one is an insect and the other is a burned-up motorcycle!!!
The logic just hasn't been developed yet.  Clearly, the matching algorithms were purely literal, pixel by pixel, and strongly color-based rather than conceptually associative.  And they weren't getting the job done.  Not even close. 

You might wonder why I'd even attempt an image-searching method for this identification task.  Why not just use an insect reference book or website?
Answer:  Because most references list bugs alphabetically (or alphabetically by general category).  But if I already knew the name of the danged bug, I wouldn't need an identification guide, would I??  Duh!! 

And there are too many species of bugs to slog through alphabetical lists of them.  I haven't got all day. 

Screengrabbed from this Amazon site.  And yes, I did purchase this volume a year or two ago, only to realize upon receipt that it would be fairly useless to me.  And it has indeed been useless. 
In the end, neither the vast information repository on the internet nor impressive search engine technology helped me to solve this puzzle.  It was the good ol' fashioned human brain with its deductive reasoning that did the trick.  Look again at this picture:
What do you know about insects?

Each is adapted to life in its respective ecological niche (not to be confused with art niche). 

What else do you know about insects?

They are near the bottom of the food chain and they get eaten.  Therefore they each evolved defense mechanisms, one of which is camouflage. 

And what does this bug most closely resemble in terms of its coloration and patterning?  Does it look like your front lawn, holly hedge, or rose bush?

No.  It looks like tree bark. 
I think it might be some species of bark beetle or tree borer.  When I began searching within those narrower parameters, I finally began to find similar images.
Ah-hah.  Starting to look a little bit similar, isn't it??  Less like a motorcycle and more like what I found in my front yard. 

Screengrabbed from this site
Not the same species, but looking suspiciously similar, like a first cousin.

Screengrabbed from this site
The evidence mounts:  My next door neighbor trimmed his front-yard live oaks this past week, resulting in a pile of cut branches stacked in his driveway.  My guess is that my unusual bug was involuntarily liberated from his tree and sought refuge in my garden.

In fact, it looks very much like a pine borer, except we don't have any pine trees in Centerpointe, save for that one large loblolly at the corner of West Walker and Centerpointe Drive (the one that I always include in this blog's frontispiece). 

Screengrabbed from this site
From TAMU:

Yes, we do have dying trees here in Centerpointe.  The drought of 2011 weakened many of them, especially the ones in Section 9 which were newly-planted and not well-established by the time the drought hit.  The casualty rate has been enormous, and many of those that did survive have still not recovered. 

Anyway, now that I know what I'm looking at, I'll be watching for evidence of whether or not these things are causing any damage to our builder-basic front-yard trees.  And in the process, I will continue to rely more on my mid-century modern g-g-geriatric brain than on 21st-century whiz-bang information management technology. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Modernizing with color, Part 3

Wagner's designers knocked it out of the park with their traditional fireplace mantle color make-over.  Seriously - they absolutely nailed it.  They re-set the tract home creativity bar. 
Here's a screengrab from this YouTube video promoting their Flexio paint sprayer
Look at that color shown in the pic above!!!  Compared to that, my fireplace below looks downright drab: 
 I did a make-over in an unremarkable battleship gray.  It's better than the builder-grade white that was there originally, but it lacks the wow-factor of Wagner's paint, which is subtle but with vibrant teal undertones. 
Action shot of spraying in process.  The TV commercial was supposed to be about the sprayer itself, but when we saw it, we became transfixed by the color to the point of not even remembering what corresponding product was being advertised.

As soon as my husband saw this, he said, "We need that color for our house".   I still have additional trim work and three sets (count 'em) of double converging pocket doors that need updating from builder-white to an appropriate non-traditional paint color, so the color choice question is huge for us regardless of what we do with our fireplace. 
I know there will be people all over American asking the question, "What color did Wagner use in their sprayer commercial?" But if my results are any indication, they won't be finding an easy answer, because Wagner appears not to have published the formula. 

However, where there's a will, there's a way.  What we did is capture a number of image stills from that commercial, and then I asked my husband to use Photoshop to extract some representative formulas from those stills, bracketing the shade range, which obviously shows some variability due to lighting and angle differences.  Even if Wagner had published what they used for their paint, their formula wouldn't necessarily look optimal in my house or your house or any other house.  The trick is finding the right color formula for the specific space and lighting conditions, and that's usually a trial and error process involving a number of approximated colors. 

Anyway, here are the stills:
Taken with my DSLR pointed at my paused TV set.  This appears more vibrantly teal than the YouTube grabs shown above. 
Another one taken with DSLR pointed at TV set, but this one is more a mix of teal and navy blue. 
This one shows the TV in the same view as my Richard Eastman pottery piece which is sitting on the console beneath the TV.  Look at the center section of that pottery and you'll realize why we're after that paint color.

Eastman's work is described further in a post about local artists titled "Art that wows". 
Here are the corresponding Photoshop extractions, roughly from lightest to darkest.  The numbers on them are in Hex and can be converted using sites like this one

When I finally get around to tackling our double converging door-painting project and zeroing in on the best color for that, I will publish a post about it, much as I did with respect to the skylight color selection process (one of my most popular posts, that one). 

I'll close by embedding the Flexio commercial, just in case you'd like to see more of this gem (I can't comment on the efficacy of the sprayer itself because I haven't used it). 

How to protect bread from freezer burn

It's in the bag: A minor make-your-life-easier tip here, but a handy one. 

As part of our freezer-based diet management strategy, I buy all of our bread at Whole Foods and freeze five to ten loaves at a time (because Whole Foods is a 50-mile round trip for us, and I only go once every month or two).
You can see two baskets of it in the center of this pic (from this post). 
Whole Foods bread is so superior to mass-produced bread products that, even after being frozen and thawed, it's still substantially better in terms of taste and texture. 

However, bread is particularly subject to freezer burn, and it should be double-bagged in order to preserve its quality. 

For many years, Whole Foods bagged its artisanal breads in heavy-gauge plastic and I would simply save many those bags, rinse them out, and re-use them for double-bagging until they wore out, and then I'd swap them out for younger bags. 

But a year or two ago, they stopped doing this.  They began packaging their breads in a very thin plastic which is not robust enough for double-bagging. 

Whole Foods probably did that conversion as a waste minimization measure, but it caused me headaches, because you would be amazed at how difficult it is to find a plastic bag suitable for the double bagging of bread loaves.  Zipper freezer bags are not large enough.  Shopping bags are too thin.  I don't know of a commercially-produced new bag that would be optimal for this purpose. 

I finally found a good solution in HEB's branded line of tamales. 
There's an inner bag which is heat-sealed around the tamales, and a heavy-gauge outer bag. 

Also, these are pretty good tamales.  Not organic as I would prefer, but good tasting and not greasy (greasy is usually the kiss of death for mass-produced tamales).  Being already double-bagged, they, too can be popped into the freezer for longer-term storage if desired. 
The outer bag doesn't come into contact with the tamales, so it doesn't even need to be washed before re-use.  After I open the inner bag of tamales, I store the uneaten portion in gallon-size zipper bags rather than returning them to their original too-valuable outer bags. 
Problem solved - the perfect size and plastic weight for bread.  These danged plastic bags ended up being just as valuable to me as the tamales that originally came in them. 

You can suck the air out of your freezer bags if you wish, but I find that, as long as the result is air-tight, it doesn't matter much if there's some air left inside.  I find that bread will store in the freezer for several weeks like this without a measurable loss of quality. 
So that's my suggestion if you're a freezer fanatic as I am: if you can't find a doubling bag to fit your bread or whatever else you're intending to freeze, shop around for another food product which comes in a heavy-gauge bag you can re-use for this purpose.  If you don't live in an area of the country where HEB grocery stores are found, there's probably another bagged food product out there that would work for you. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Power outage in central Clear Lake

What exactly is going on in Clear Lake this afternoon?!
There appeared to be no electricity along either side of Bay Area Blvd. between Space Center Blvd. and Highway 3 at 1:20 p.m. when I had the misfortune of getting snared in the resulting traffic jam. 
I couldn't see anything obvious, but hell must have been breaking loose somewhere nearby. 
I'm thinking the power had been off for some time by that point, because someone had taken the trouble to barricade the parking lot entrances for HEB Clear Lake Market and the associated strip centers.  Stores not open. 
There were emergency vehicles...
...but the body language of these utility workers suggested that they had no idea what was going on. 
Every time I see the likes of this, I have a flashback to Hurricane Ike.  Remember how we all drove around for a long, long time with no traffic control?? 
It's a bit frustrating because I had just come out of Tokyo Bowl and then drove into this, after having sat at the sushi bar by myself for about 30 minutes reading all the local newspapers, which had no announcements regarding this which might have led me to avoid the area.  But there's no true local newspaper at this point, and there's no way to get real-time local bulletins either.  Hopefully better communications technology will develop in time.