Friday, April 03, 2020

Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I've been going in to work at the university this week, and due to coronavirus work-from home policies, I think this might be one of the safest places in the U.S. now. The place is empty and parking is plentiful. It's so deserted that it reminded me of the Cheap Trick song, "Ghost Town." It's pretty much been running through my head all day, and now it can run through yours.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Lake Street Dive.

Now Playing: Astrud Gilberto Astrud Gilberto's Finest Hour
Chicken Ranch Central

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Aunt Jessie (1885-1952)

La Grange Yellow Pages phone book, 1958
On this date in 1952, Fay Stewart, otherwise known as Jessie Williams or simply "Aunt Jessie," passed away at the age of 67 in San Antonio, just a couple of months after selling the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange to Edna Milton. Her sister-in-law, Eddie Ledda Moody, traveled from McLennan County to oversee Miss Jessie’s burial in Sunset Memorial Park.

Fay Stewart’s parents came from Georgia, moving to Waco well before she was born. The family lived for years on Franklin Street. In my book, I reported that the family struggled after Stewart’s father died unexpectedly in 1886. A local history buff in Waco has done some excellent research on that, and it seems the death of Stewart's father is the result of a census error in 1890. In fact, he outlived his wife who passed away in the 1890s before remarrying around the turn of the century. Information is sketchy after that, but circumstantial evidence would indicate Fay and her new stepmother did not get along well. By 1910, Fay’d moved to Austin and assumed the alias of Jessie Williams, as was customary for women in the sex trade intent on protecting their families’ reputations.

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is available from both and It's also available as an ebook in the following formats: Kindle, Nook, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

Now Playing: Servio Mendes and Bossa Rio Você Ainda Não Ouviu Nada!
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Monday, March 23, 2020

Tiki build-along, pt. 27

These tiki bar build-along posts may look pretty linear once I get them up, but you folks have no idea how convoluted and disorganized the process actually is on my end. Take today's entry, the Kakamoras. If you're into tiki, Disney animation or both, you've likely seen the 2016 film steeped in Polynesian mythology multiple times. In addition to some pretty great music, a solid story and excellent voice acting, the film had a number of dazzling, stand-out action sequences. The first of these was the attack of the Kakamoras. Described by Maui as "Murderous little pirates," the Kakamoras are tiny mythological creatures who wear painted coconut shells as armor. They're insanely cute, and as funny as they are vicious. When I saw them, I immediately thought Disney had a license to print money if they offered them as toys. Astonishingly, Disney did not. Oh, they put out a few diminutive PVC figures an inch or so high, but I expected them to manufacture, well, coconut-sized versions. Disney never did, that I'm aware of.

An incredibly talented ceramicist known as Tiki Robb made some spectacular Kakamora tiki mugs, but alas, $400-500 was too rich for my blood. To fill the Lagoon of Mystery with Kakamoras, I'd have to come up with a more cost-effective method. It didn't take me long to come up with the brainstorm of using real coconuts to depict the coconut pirates! Hey, I never promised you genius. I went to the store--several stores, actually--and gathered unto myself an array of coconuts to transform. I drilled holes in their ends to drain out the coconut water inside, sketched an oval face pattern on the hirsut shell, and used a high-speed cutting bit (the cylindrical kind) with my Dremel to grind it flat. Then I replaced the cutter with a sanding bit to smooth the rough cut out. This can also be accomplished with sandpaper and elbow grease, but if you have the power tools available, it saves a lot of time. All of this, I began in September 2018. Today is March 23, 2020. You do the math.

At this point, I had three coconuts ready to experiment on. Note that coconuts come in different forms. The two on the flanks are smaller, egg-shaped coconuts that I learned are a bit easier to work with for reasons I'll get into eventually. The larger, onion-shaped one in the middle is impressive, but more difficult to balance. It's shape also dictated more of a horizontal face area. I got each type from a different supermarket chain. I've not been able to determine if these different types of coconuts have distinct names, but it seems produce suppliers carry one or the other, not both. I've also seen "young, green" coconuts for sale, but these are mostly white and have had the bulk of their husk cut away, so they have an angular, trimmed look to them. I doubt they'd make very good Kakamoras, but if anyone's game to try it, let me know how yours turns out.

Next, I applied a base coat of white paint on the face area. I went with acrylic paint because 1) it's cheap and 2) being water-based, it's very easy to clean up. I see no reason why enamel or oil paints wouldn't work if you're more comfortable using those.

Next, I added a tan topcoat to two of the coconuts. This more closely matched the look of the Kakamoras from the film. The third I left white, so as to more closely match the look of one specific Kakamora from the film.

At this point, I looked at a whole bunch of different Kakamoras online and in the film (we've got it on DVD) and used a pencil to sketch out facial designs that I'd finish out with paint. When I first told my family of my Kakamora plan, my kids insisted I do a Baymax (from Big Hero 6), as he has a brief cameo as a Kakamora. Fine. Baymax would be simple enough to do. He could be my prototype, proof-of-concept.

I also decided to inject a bit of color into my Kakamora. In the film, the primary warpaint they use is red. For mine, I'd render them in different colors. Blue is the first I did, and I was quite pleased with the results.

Next came Baymax, which as I suspected, was very simple. The challenge was to get the eyes and connecting line in proper proportion. I think I got pretty close.

The big one I decided to do in red. Because it's the big one.

Then it came time to do the limbs, and do you want to know why it took me a year-and-a-half from when I started this project to when I finished (a few) of them? The limbs, that's why. I have no sculpting background. I played with Play-Doh as a kid, but that's it. I never tried to make something that served a purpose, and was meant to endure. I also got the idea that since I was doing different paint colors for the Kakamora faces, I would match that color with the limbs. I researched and discovered polymer clay, specifically Sculpey. The first few packets I got for Baymax were white Sculpey III, because what did I know? A lot. Turns out, Sculpey III is very soft and doesn't hold detail well. Poor Baymax's legs and arms were mashed back into balls time and again as my frustration grew. I set the stuff away for an extended period before picking it up again. Finally, I got one leg I found somewhat tolerable. In the film, the Kakamora have stubby toes and fingers. That kinda goes with the whole cute thing. Since my Kakamora would be free-standing and not animated, they had to be more substantial and balance-maintaining, so I elongated and splayed the toes. As for the arms and hands, let's just say I suck at sculpting hands just about as much as I do at drawing them. Then I baked them according to instructions. Note that Sculpey III singes easily, and my white arms and feet came out with a toasted look. To attach the limbs to the coconut, I picked up 1" hanger bolts. My idea was to secure the flat bolt end in the limb, then screw the pointed wood screw end into the coconut. That failed miserably. Once the screw is embedded in the limb, it becomes very awkward to work with, and it's impossible to apply serious force to screw it into the hard wood of the coconut. This is why we work with prototypes.

For the blue Kakamora I took lessons learned and applied them to an improved method of limb manufacture and attachment. The toes I made stubbier and attached three more closely together on each foot, with the fourth toe separated for added balance. I drilled pilot holes into the coconut and screwed in the hanger bolts first, then pressed the still-soft limbs into position so the attachment points would be established prior to baking.

Oh, I also switched to using Sculpey Premo, which, while slightly more costly, is a much firmer clay that holds its shape and detail better. It's not a fingerprint magnet. I found it much easier to work with. I used the tip of a burnishing tool to make indentations in the end of each toe, then took some of the blue Premo and mixed it with some of the white Sculpey III to get a light blue clay that I pinched into place to make distinctive toenails. It's the little details that count, after all.

Then I baked the limbs at 275F for twice as long as I baked the Sculpey III, and guess what? No scorching. The Premo takes heat a lot better than the softer stuff. I also tried something with the hands, which you'll see in just a bit.

Now, we switch to Big Red's limbs, fresh out of the oven, because I forgot to photograph the next steps with Blue or Baymax. Note that prior to inserting into the oven, I use a small, cheap acid brush (available from hardware or big box home improvement stores) to brush down each clay arm and leg with rubbing alcohol. The alcohol acts as a mild solvent, smoothing out little imperfections, fingerprints, etc. It doesn't take much to smoothing things out, and at the same time household rubbing alcohol isn't strong enough to do real damage if you overdo it.

After the initial failure with Baymax, the reverse approach to attaching limbs--that is, inserting the hanger bolts into the coconut and then attaching the limbs--proved to be the right way to go. I found that even the Premo shrinks and deforms slightly when baked, so the socket hole needs to be drilled out a bit to more easily accommodate the hanger bolt. In fact, as I'm using epoxy to secure the limb to the bolt, a snug fit would be detrimental.

I use a shard of bamboo to mix and apply the epoxy to the socket hole. I used JB Weld fast-setting epoxy, and have had good results with it. Slower setting epoxies may be stronger and allow for repositioning and longer working times, but my concern with the Kakamora is getting their limbs stabilized as quickly as possible. The fast-setting epoxy sets in 6 minutes, curing within 4 hours. I don't want to have to hold the arm in place for 20 minutes, only to come back an hour later to find that it's pulled away and hardened in an awkward position. Note that you really want to mix equal proportions of epoxy and hardener. Get too much of either component in the mix, and the resulting stuff is rubbery and easily broken. Ask me how I know.

Once a liberal amount of epoxy mix is applied into and around the socket, press into position over the anchoring hanger bolt.

Hold in place for six minutes, or however long your epoxy of choice takes to sit. After that, allow to fully cure before handling.

I also started using brown Sculpey III, with a bit of leftover white Sculpey III, to create various weapons for the Kakamora. Once I have the various blades/spear points shaped the way I want them, I insert the tip of a bamboo skewer into the side then build up the interface with additional Sculpey. Then I bake. For the "shark teeth" effect, I roll out a long string of white Sculpey then attach around the perimiter of the blade, pinching it into position. After that, I use and Xacto knife to cut out triangle wedges, leaving the "teeth" in place. This looks kind of dark here because it's Sculpey III and, as usual, I overcooked it.

And here's the finished versions. Baymax turned out okay, although I had to repaint his arms and legs white because they looked like toasted marshmallows. He's not perfect, but he served his purporse as a proof-of-concept.

Blue turned out quite nicely, I think. His spear is an effective touch that's simultaneously fierce and amusing. The hands differ wildly in size, and are on the wrong arms, but hey, I won't tell anyone if you don't.

Here's a little something I saved for the end: When I started this project, I bought extra coconuts for each member of my family. They all loved Moana and I thought they'd enjoy decorating their own custom Kakamora. Some were more enthusiastic than others. The Wife, to nobody's surprise, painted a kitty cat's face on her Kakamora. A pink cat face. After some thought, I just went with it, giving it four pink cat legs and a tail. Having struggled with hands and feet, I quickly figured out the best way to make cat paws was to carve toes into a flattened disc of clay, adding claws after the fact (again, I mixed the pink Premo with leftover white Sculpey III to get that lighter shade of pink).

Then I put Big Red together with his serrated ax things. In hindsight, I should've made the blades bigger. Remember, Kakamora are small and cartoonish, so the more oversized the weapon, the better the effect. Also, that seashell on his head is only a placeholder I pulled out out of our yard. At some point I'll replace it with a larger, more colorful specimin.

In conclusion, making your own Kakamora is a fairly easy thing to do, albeit a time-consuming one. The third set of limbs I made were far easier to do than the first two--this really is where practice does accelerate the learning curve substantially. I will also caution readers that because I wanted to keep the coconuts mostly intact, I drained them by drilling three holes in the three pores on the end. I did not open it further, which made extraction of the meat impossible. Over the ensuing year, this decayed inside the coconut shell, and black, sooty material drained from the holes on occasion. Now that my older Kakamora have fully dried out (they're way lighter than fresher ones I've started) I'll probably plug those holes to contain the minor, yet persistent mess. Also, check any coconuts you intend to turn into Kakamoras for cracks. I had one with a hairline crack I discovered when I drained it. By the time I started trying to grind the face, that crack had grown into several deep fissures that made the shell unusuable. Finally, if nothing else, my experiences in hand-crafting Kakamoras should show that this is a platform for fun, self-expression. Maybe you want to copy a favorite Kakamora design from the film. That's great--I've taken cues from the film for several of mine, but at the same time, put my own spin on those interpretations. And others, like The Wife's pink Kakamora cat, deviate wildly from anything seen in the film. I'm going to leave you with one final Kakamora-in-progress, which I started last week. It pays homage to the movie whilst simultaneously mashing up two of the most popular characters in a way the filmmakers never intended. I give you Kakamora Hei Hei! The chicken lives!

Now Playing: The Beachcomber Trio Live at Kahiki 1965
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Friday, March 13, 2020

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Holy moly! I've never heard of Lake Street Dive before, but their cover of the Kinks' "Lola" is epic! It's just what I needed to hear today.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Dixie Chicks.

Now Playing: Tikiyaki Orchestra Aloha Baby
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Tiki build-along, pt. 26

Ask any tiki bar enthusiast what's the most important element of a good tiki bar--be it home or public--and you'll likely get a wide range of answers, anywhere from quality of the cocktails served to the ratio of Tikis Per Square Yard (aka the TiPSY factor). One element that's likely to be in anyone's top 5, however, is lighting. Tikiphiles obsess over lighting, and I'll admit I'm no different with the Lagoon of Mystery. Since the overarching theme for my home bar is that of a tropical lagoon paradise, my lighting had to follow that theme. I had already painted the ceiling blue, with silhouettes of sea creatures to create the illusion of being underwater. How could I further enhance that illusion? Well, if you've been keeping score at home, you'll know I picked up some LED water ripple projector lights online and have been plugging them in to shine blue waves on the ceiling. It's a fantastic effect, but my ad-hoc setup needed a permanent solution. I couldn't keep running extension cords throughout the lounge. Enter the previous homeowner's electrical work. See that bank of four light switches below? They're inside the house, and control the ceiling fans and various outdoor lights. Well, three of them do. The third switch from the left, we never could figure out what it controlled, and the previous owners left no instructions.

Me, being the curious person that I am, dismantled the switches and then climbed into the attic, intent on solving the mystery of the useless switch. I located the wire attached to it, and traced all the way back through the attic, over the garage and into The Wife's photo studio, where there's a second breaker box. I have to point out at this point that although I performed this particular bit of detective work in October, it was not particularly cool, even by Texas standards. I lost approximately five pounds in body weight each time I ventured up.

Lo, and behold, the wire ended at the breaker box, but did not connect to any particular breaker. It must have at one time, but an addition or remodel at some point rendered the switch moot, so they just disconnected and let hang. This suited my purposes just fine. I'm not a master electrician by any means, but I've done basic wiring, and since the breaker box had plenty of slots to spare, I installed a new breaker switch and connected the wayward wire. The previously dead switch would now be solely devoted to lights in the Lagoon of Mystery. Since the LEDs I'm using draw only a tiny fraction of the amperage incandescent bulbs do, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that I'd run out of physical space to put new lighting long before I ran out of circuit capacity. Cool!

My plan all along was to somehow hardwire my LED wave projectors, and now it was time to put that plan into action. I cut the plug off each lamp, then stripped the insulation to expose the copper wire. I did the same with the new extension cord as well (it's not an extension cord, but the cord serves to extend the wire... oh, nevermind).

Once the wire was spliced together, I sealed the splice from the elements with multiple layers of heat-shrink insulation sleeves. I'd never worked with this stuff before, but it didn't take long to get the hang of it. Now, the whole cord was protected from the elements. I have to disclose here that neither the LED projectors nor their cords are outdoor rated. I'd prefer something a bit more weather sealed, but that doesn't exist--at least not in the sub-$100 a pop range. Fortunately, the Lagoon occupies a covered outdoor patio that protects the lighting from the elements, and bamboo sheaths the wiring, so UV damage is of little concern. It's not an ideal situation, but it's working well so far.

Well, things were going a bit too easy for me. The LED projectors I'd been using? I only had three, and needed five more to fully illuminate the length of the ceiling. Unfortunately, in the year that passed since I purchased the first ones, the entire line had been discontinued. Seriously. They were replaced by an "improved" version that had a remote speed control instead of an analog dial (there were only three settings on the new version, all far faster than what I wanted). Even worse, the new lights were DC powered, and came with an adapter plug, meaning I couldn't actually hardwire them! Arrgh! Thus I embarked on a spree of buying random LED projectors to see if I could find a replacement. I ordered one from AliExpress that was identical in all ways to my original, save that it only projected blue light. Eureka! This was my solution... except, when I got it and plugged it in, the light projected was purple, not blue. A replacement confirmed that the light was definitely purple. Another potential replacement projected a pattern that looked more like smoke than anything else. Finally, after a couple of months on this Quixotic quest, I settled on the bubble-looking projectors below. They weren't a perfect match for what I had previously, but the light color was very close, as was the ripple pattern. Yay!

Back up into the attic I went, installing junction boxes and tying in the new lights with pigtail splices. Electricity's not something to take lightly, so make sure the breaker's off when doing this kind of work. And make sure you know what you're doing. I was doing a straight run with nothing complicated involved, so as long as I took it slow and double-checked my work, nothing was in danger of going awry.

Once all the splices were completed, I closed up the junction box and nailed down all the power cables. If you're interested in the DIY approach, there are quite a few good home electrical books on the market. I've always used the Stanley Guide to Complete Wiring, but I'm sure there are more up-to-date books available now. Youtube is also a good source in a pinch, but, as with all things, caveat emptor. If you're not comfortable doing your own wiring, hire a professional (I know my limits--when it cam time to install the mini split air conditioner in the photo studio, I didn't even pretend I could install it myself).

Next, I had to mount the LED projectors. I took a pine board and cut it into 4" lengths. After staining (Minwax Special Walnut!) I drilled out the center and inserted a brass screw, which I then epoxied into place. After that, I screwed the mount into place on the wall.

Then I installed the projector, using washers and a nut to secure it to the epoxied screw. Tightening or loosening the nut allows me to reposition the light for most effective projection angle. I'm very happy with how it turned out.

But since I was hardwiring the Lagoon lighting, I had another long-planned project to tackle at the same time. Over the course of two Halloweens (never let it be said that I don't play the long game) I cleaned out local stores when they put their plastic skulls on clearance. Fortunately, they all got their skulls from the same supplier, so they matched. Yes, there are better-quality, more realistic skulls on the market, but I paid on average $2.50 for each. When you need close to 40 (that's a guess--I lost count long ago) budget becomes an issue.

On occasion, I've poor-mouthed Pilikia, the first tiki bar I ever visited. That criticism is well-deserved. They had some good decor, however, and one thing that stuck with me was their wall of golden skulls. It had a aura of Indiana Jones, Lost World, mysterious civilization about it. I liked it, and when it came to decorating that ceiling beam bisecting the ceiling of the Lagoon, I wanted my own wall of skulls. Later, I realized 3 Dots and a Dash in Chicago had a big skull motif as well, and Hugman's Oasis in San Antonio is going to have skulls out the wazoo. But I built my wall of golden skulls without knowing about any of those.

Not content to just spray paint them, I wanted to add some individual character to them, so using my trusty Dremel, I cut out random teeth from the lower jaws. This was fun, and I varied up the patterns considerably. Some have all of their teeth, but many have a patchwork of choppers.

I also used two different shades of gold spray paint, for additional variety. The finished product looked pretty good.

Alas, "pretty good" was not good enough for me. So I hit upon another idea. First, I applied epoxy to the eye sockets.

Then I inserted plastic gemstones. I'm very happy with how this turned out. The gems and golden skulls just seem to go together. There's an element of the Goonies and pirate treasure, but the real inspiration came from the 1977 Disney animated film, The Rescuers. Remember that big gem in the skull? I also love the Three Investigators novel, Mystery of the Fiery Eye when I was much, much younger. All those childhood influences are coming out now. I coated the plastic gems with UV blocker to protect from ultraviolet degradation. I'm not sure how effective that will prove to be, but the gems are super-cheap and easily replaced.

I ended up with a bunch of skulls. I epoxied an eye ring to the back of the head, and they were ready for mounting.

The LED lighting strips I had all came with DC converter plugs, so I hand to install a wall socket in the attic, then run the cord through the ceiling. That wasn't too difficult. I hid the LED control box behind one of the speakers. The LED strip had worthless "adhesive backing" so I ended up duct taping the strip to the beam. I had enough strip to run it from one end of the beam to the other, and back again.

I installed a great many vinyl-covered cup hooks upon which to hang the skulls. Remember my mentioning the eye rings on the back of each one? There you go.

And there we have it, the bank of skulls looking down. There were a few gaps once all was said and done, so I painted a few miniature skulls gold and placed them in the gaps. I'd love to add golden monkey skulls, but I haven't found any cheap enough to be viable.

But this build-along was supposed to be about lighting, right? Where are the lights? Here you go. This is what the skulls look like, as the backlighting LED strip is changing colors throughout the evening.

Here's teh effect the ripple light projectors create on the ceiling.

And here's the ripple lights interacting with the tapa light covers I made for the ceiling fans.

Finally, remember that rattan aquarium I acquired last year? I even ran a wire to it, and installed one of those LED projector lights that didn't work for the ceiling. After adding some gravel, tiki mugs, fake crawfish and silicone jellyfish, the entire setup look surprisingly close to a real, live aquarium.

Now Playing: Arthur Lyman Leis of Jazz
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