Monday, December 27, 2010

Waxing Gibbous Moon, Dec. 27, 2010

Yesterday I was struck by the intensely clear skies overhead, lacking even the ubiquitous brownish haze along the horizon. The front that'd blown through at Christmas really cleared the air, in a literal fashion. After my futile attempt to observe and photograph the solstice lunar eclipse last week, the astronomy bug had taken hold of me again. A quick check of the San Antonio Clear Sky Chart:

Showed that not only were conditions quite favorable for clear-sky observations, the rest of the week would be obscured by clouds. So it was now or never, to overstate the drama a bit. The only drawback would be that temperatures would drop below freezing. For this Texas boy, that's a significant obstacle to overcome, but I made the effort.

During my ill-fated eclipse shoot last week, I had major halation issues with the type of eyepiece projection photography I was attempting, so moved the primary mirror of my telescope up several inches for prime astrophotography. The resulting lunar image was very, very sharp and I wanted to experiment some more. Unfortunately, by the time I made the decision to set up, the sun had already gone down, and in the poor lighting conditions my polar alignment of my scope was mediocre at best. Good polar alignment allows long time exposures of the night sky, as the motor drives the telescope to track the sky as it appears to move overhead. Early test shots of the Pleiades and Orion Nebula was disappointing. Achieving accurate focus through the camera was exceptionally difficult, but even worse, exposures longer than 5 seconds resulted in stars elongated into streaks. Again, poor polar alignment.

Eventually I gave up on shooting any Deep Space Objects, and decided to wait for the moon to rise. Checking online, I expected moon rise at around 11:30, and figured I could shoot by midnight, or 12:30 at the latest. Turns out I got sloppy and looked up the pacific timezone table or somesuch, because it was 12:30 before the moon started peeking over the rooftops of my neighborhood. I was tired, cold and cranky by that time, and couldn't even entertain myself by random astronomical observations, because, you know, prime focus and all that. Eventually, I got this shot, and broke everything down by 2 a.m.

The shot above is the best of approximately 50 shots. Unlike my sharp pre-eclipse photo last week, with the air still and clear, the moon this night was still fairly low in the sky, and turbulence was rampant. Through the scope, it appeared as if the sky were boiling in front of the moon, and distorting it as you might expect. The trouble is that the turbulence causes focus to come and go. I had to discard many shots in which southern craters were very sharp, but northern mountains were fuzzy. Or the mountains were sharp, but the lunar horizon was blurred. It was a mess. Waiting until the moon was at the zenith might have cured those problems, but then again, might not. I wasn't about to stay up until 4 a.m. to find out. I'll get some better lunar photos some day, but until then, this will have to do.

Now Playing: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Night Videos

I was in college when MTV started playing this "Little Drummer Boy" duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie. It was an incongruous pairing, and strange to see Bowie looking so young, but the arrangement was quite inventive and the two singers paired very well together. Would that all one-off celebrity Christmas specials produce such memorable music. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Fleetwood Mac.

Now Playing: Bob Rivers Comedy Corps Twisted Christmas

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The eclipse that wasn't

So yesterday I checked the weather reports and read the tea leaves, at which point all indications were pointing toward perfect observing conditions for the 2010 lunar solstice eclipse. Neat-o! Lunar eclipses aren't all that uncommon, but I was jazzed to attempt some astrophotography of the event. I dimly recall attempting something similar 20+ years ago with a film camera, but like all my astrophotography efforts back then, classifying the results as "failure" is being generous.

I set up my Meade 645 6" f/5 telescope in the back yard, and spend maybe half an hour leveling it and getting it into polar alignment, more or less. Then I adjusted the finder scope and collimated the mirrors, so as to get the best possible images. After the sun went down and the full moon came up, I attached The Wife's Canon 50D camera to the telescope via a T-mount camera adapter, with a 25mm eyepiece in the adapter barrel. Using the camera's Live View feature to get accurate focus, I shot some test images, and was disturbed by the following:

Yes, the center is certainly sharp, but what's with that halation around the edges of the moon? I tried different size eyepieces. No difference--the center remained sharp, but the further out from center the fuzzier the image got. After about an hour of failed troubleshooting, I tried one last gambit. My telescope is designed to act as a lens for the camera, with no eyepiece in between. This is called "prime" photography. The downside is that I'm stuck at one focal length--that of the telescope--and can't swap out the magnification as with eyepiece projection. Also, the primary mirror of the 'scope has to be moved forward in the barrel several inches to make up for the focal difference between the human eye and camera, which means that in this configuration, it is useless for eyeball astronomy. It simply won't focus for human viewing. Still, I thought it worth the hassle if I could get some sharp eclipse images--and if the halation was still present, I'd know the fault lies with the mirrors of my telescope, or perhaps my crummy collimation. Here's my first test shot using the telescope as a prime lens:

Wow! Quite a difference, eh? I don't think I've ever taken an astrophotograph that sharp before. I was happy. Yes, the moon would be smaller this way without the eyepieces to magnify, but I could tolerate that in exchange for, you know, decent images. I was ready for the eclipse!

Then the high fog rolled in. Low clouds, whatever. Streaming up from the south, the misty stuff was like sheer curtains billowing across the moon, obscuring it one moment before clearing out for half a second of almost-clear viewing. The forecast had called for generally clear skies, with maybe partial clouds later in the evening. Nobody had said anything about this. I vowed to wait it out. Surely it would clear out, right? Around 12:30 a.m., just as the moon was entering the umbra of the Earth's shadow, I tried to shoot between the clouds, or at least through the thinnest areas blowing by overhead. The results were uniformly disappointing. Even in the thinnest sections too much light was lost for good exposure--below is the best capture I managed, and even this--over-dark though it may be--was brightened up considerably in Photoshop:

On the bright side, I've become a believer in my telescope's ability to take sharp astronomical photos, even if it wasn't able to show off with the eclipse. My particular telescope is a short-barrel Newtonian, designed back in the '70s for wide-field, deep space astrophotography. We've got plenty of clear winter nights coming up in the next few months, so hopefully I'll have an opportunity to turn it toward the Orion Nebula or the Pleiades and other cool celestial spectacles. We'll see if my sharp lunar image above is a fluke or if I replicate that focus on a regular basis.

Now Playing: The Kinks Low Budget

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bottling jalapeño braggot

Back in July I started several batches of brew. Of those, the plum wine oxidized and had to be dumped, the plum melomel turned out moderately well and the planned jalapeño braggot has continued aging in its 1.5 gallon fermenter. I finally bottled that braggot tonight.

Way back when, I started with a pound of crushed, smoked malt, sparged as if I were making a beer, and added the wort to a like amount of honey must. That was back in September. At the beginning of November, I placed a pan-seared jalapeño in the braggot, sliced lengthwise with the seeds removed. After a week, I racked the braggot and removed the jalapeño. Then I added potassium sorbate and campden tablets to kill off any remaining yeast, then back-sweetened with approximately a quarter pound of dissolved honey. At the time I didn't hold out much hope for it--the flavor was muddled and harsh, and the liquid was still quite hazy. What a difference a few weeks makes. After the last racking, the haze settled out and the braggot is much clearer. I ended up filling six bottles (again, it was a small experimental batch of only 1.5 gallons) and a sample taste revealed the jalapeño flavor wasn't nearly as harsh as I'd feared. In fact, I was surprised at how much it had mellowed. The smoked malt was lost in the mix of flavors, but it may come back out with a little aging. I'll put these aside for a year or so and see if time can work a little magic.

Now Playing: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Aliens in the backyard

This is an automeris io larvae, otherwise known as a caterpillar that will eventually spin a cocoon and emerge as a striking, if short-lived, io moth. It caught my eye last week on one of The Wife's rose bushes in the back yard. It surprise me 1) because I'd never seen one in person before, and B) we'd had several freezes and I didn't think there were any caterpillars around after that.


I love macro photography because it brings out things that you'd never see with the naked eye. This caterpillar is a case in point. How alien is that? It normally looks like a fat, fuzzy green worm, but up close, wow! Those little tufts of spines, when magnified, reveal even smaller needles full of venom emerging from their tips. The face, which looks a uniform green, is actually heavily spotted with yellow dots. And the feet are hairy! Who knew these caterpillars were related to hobbits?


These shots were taken with a Nikon 50mm 1.8 AI-S manual focus lens mounted on a reversing ring coupled with a 2x telextender on a Canon 5D II. That's a pretty low-budget macro setup (well, except for the camera). I hope to some day own a real, honest-to-gosh macro lens like the Canon EF 100mm 2.8, along with some Kenko extension tubes. Until I can save up that kind of scratch, though, I'll have to make due with my current setup, and find backyard aliens where I can.

Now Playing: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Night Videos

This is probably as far removed from a holiday song as possible, but "Tusk" is probably my favorite piece by Fleetwood Mac. As a reaction against the overwhelming success of Rumors it is brilliant, and as an example of Lindsay Buckingham's bugnuts insane creativity, it is uncanny. But for sheer, over-the-top excess (the entire USC marching band!?) nothing else even comes close.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Go West.

Now Playing: Aerosmith Live in Houston, 1977

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Santa dropped off a little pre-Christmas surprise last week:

Monkeyshine, our 14-year-old pound-rescue beagle, is quite happy. She's been lonely since Precious disappeared right around the 4th of July. Bug has claimed the new puppy as his own and dubbed him "Polkadots" because of the tan spotting on his legs. It's quite the friendly dog, and destructively chews anything he can get ahold of as puppies are wont to do. He even has the classic beagle howl, but since he's young, it's squeaky and several octaves above what you'd expect. Quite funny, actually. He looks to be of the 15-inch beagle variety, with over-large feet that flop as he walks or runs. Reminds me a good deal of Sigfreid, actually. Let's see if we can keep this little guy from vanishing on us.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010


So I'm gradually taking a liking to my dark, malty, brown sugar ale, and I have five gallons of plum wine fermenting in a water bath to keep temperatures low enough to prevent the formation of harsh fusel alcohols. The other empty fermentation vessels in my office, though, are a depressing sight, and I decide I need to start another project. Normally I'd start a mead, but I almost always use the 6-gallon container for that (which I then rack into smaller containers to which I add different fruits/spices to experiment), not to mention honey is expensive. What could I do that's cheap and fast, scalable to small batches? On one home brew forum I occasionally visit, there's a permanent thread about "Apfelwein." The Wife and bought a bottle at EPCOT when we visited Disney last summer, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Apfelwein is essentially German apple wine, distinct from cider because it is drier and made with wine yeast as opposed to beer/ale yeast. It has a modestly higher alcohol content as well. It struck me that this would be just right for my 2.5 gallon fermenter, so I set to work.

In the fermenter I combined 2.5 gallons of Tree Top Apple juice (no preservatives!) and a pound of table sugar (the recipe calls for dextrose corn sugar, but I didn't have any and didn't feel up to a run to my local homebrew supply), along with two teaspoons of yeast nutrient, 1.5 teaspoons of yeast energizer and a packet of Montrachet wine yeast (which I'd started in a glass of water/apple juice earlier). Once everything was well-mixed, I closed it up, put water in the air lock and set the whole thing in the water bath next to the plum wine.

The water bath has been an interesting experiment. I've got the vessels wrapped in towels, and pour cup fulls of water over the towels to keep them wet. I add ice to the water every night, and the ceiling fan in my office keep the air circulating to aid in evaporation. The result is that my fermenting wine musts are significantly cooler than the surrounding temperatures. Having come into homebrew via ales, which ferment at much higher temperatures than other beverages, I never gave much thought to temperature issues before--which is probably why so many of my early mead attempts were so incredibly harsh. Wine yeasts ferment faster at higher temperatures, creating fusel alcohols that take months or years to break down. Fusels aren't harmful to drink, but they are harsh and unpleasant. By fermenting these at a water bath-aided lower temperature, the resulting wines should be drinkable at a much younger age and simply be a better drink overall. Also, by fermenting more slowly at lower temperatures, fewer fruity flavors and aromas should be "blown off" due to overly aggressive fermentation. Plus, unlike other projects I've had, there's been no foaming blowouts while using the water bath. Cool.

Will post an update when it's time to rack.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Night Videos

This... now this is truly a "Friday Night Video" throwback. Go West popped up on the late 80s music scene and scored a handful of modest hits. The first I ever heard of them, though, was through the video for "We Close Our Eyes", which earned heavy rotation status on Night Tracks and Friday Night Videos. I don't think the song actually charted, and have no idea if it aired on MTV, but it was quirky and original and got me to recognize the name of the band whenever I saw it. I'll never look at artist's dummies the same again...

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Noncy Sinatra.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Once more unto the breach: Homebrew edition

Although my last attempt at making plum wine didn't turn out so well, I still have a deep freeze stocked with many, many frozen plums, quartered and pitted, so I had to give it another shot. This time, however, my intent is to be more careful and not repeat the errors that doomed the last batch. First off, I had major blowout issues with the first fermentation, stemming directly from using an insane 30 pounds of plums in a six-gallon batch of wine. Learning from my mistakes, I drew up a batch using 16 pounds of plums in five gallons--thus allowing more head space for the foam and cap. We'll see. I pulled the freezer bags of plums (roughly a 75/25 mix of juicy purple Methleys and yellow flesh, tart Santa Rosas) out on Saturday and let them thaw overnight. I have to say I'm a fan of freezing fruit for homebrew, because the juice gushed from the fruit and needed little additional mashing. The juice/pulp mixture was syrupy thick, incredibly fruity in scent and very sweet and fruity to taste.

I squeezed the juice from two large oranges and added a couple straw's worth of plum juice and cut the mix with an equal amount of water to make a yeast starter. I emptied a packet of Lavin 71B-1122 yeast--particularly well-suited for fruity wines. I covered this and set it aside to let it do its thing.

The recipe I'm attempting is a hybrid from Pattie Vargas & Rich Gulling's Making Wild Wines and Meads. Scaling up their one-gallons recipes for my 5-gallon effort, I put in:

  • 16 pounds of plums
  • 12 pounds of sugar
  • 1.25 tsp of grape tannin
  • 5 tsp pectic enzyme
  • 3 tsp acid blend
  • 5 tsp yeast nutrient
  • 1.25 tsp yeast energizer

I put the plums into my 6 gallon fermenter, and dissolved the rest in heated pots of water on the stove, then added that to the fermenter, which brought the total volume up to around 4 gallons. I topped up with cold water and stirred vigorously to oxygenate the must. It was about 90 degrees at this point. So I waited until the temperature had dropped to 80 degrees and pitched the yeast. One thing I learned in recent months is that wine yeasts don't like high temperatures. Well, they like it just fine, but ferment faster and produce harsh fusel alcohols in the process, which is why all my meads up to this point tend to taste like Listerine. Years of homebrewing ales have spoiled me this way. Lavin 71B-1122 yeast, specifically, like temperatures in the 50-70 degree range, preferably 55-60. To get around the problem, or at least minimize it, I've set up a water bath in my office--a shallow plastic tub which holds the six-gallon fermenter. I've wrapped a towel around the fermenter, and filled the tub with ice water. I soak the towel, and keep the ceiling fan in my office running. This, in theory at any rate, keeps the plum wine must fermenting at a lower temperature to produce a higher-quality beverage. We'll see. It was bubbling happily when I left this morning, but I may well find a blowout when I return home.

In other brewing news, I bottled the six gallon batch of Coopers Dark Ale I started way back in November. It took more than three weeks for it to fully ferment out, which my be a result of my belated addition of the brown sugar after the initial vigorous fermentation had peaked. In any event, the beer is a pretty, rich, dark color. I double-checked each bottle to make sure I added priming sugar (an embarrassing omission from some bottles in my last batch of beer) and they've been aging for a little more than a week and a half. All told, I filled 36 24-ounce bottles. They'll benefit from more aging, obviously, but curiosity is getting the better of me and I might try one tonight.

My other homebrew projects--both meads--are producing mixed results. After the plum wine oxidized, with grim resolve I decided not to chance it and bottled the plum melomel I'd started at the same time. The color wasn't quite so bright as I remembered, so the fear of losing another batch (albeit only 2.5 gallons) was too much to bear. I dosed it with potassium sorbate and campden tablets to knock out the yeast, then back-sweetened with a little more than a pound of honey before bottling. I opened a bottle several days later, just to check if there was any quality to it at all, and was happy to find it surprisingly drinkable. I think, yes, that a tiny bit of oxidation had occurred, but nothing tragic. It's extremely fruity, and the honey isn't apparent. It's also sweeter than I expected--before back-sweetening it was very, very dry--but not port wine sweet. It's not perfect, but entirely drinkable, which I consider a success. Aging may or may not help, and in any event, fruit wines generally don't age as well as grape wines. Not sure how all the honey in the mix will impact things, as meads generally benefit more from aging.

The other experiment, the 1.5 gallon braggot with smoked malt and jalapeño is still a work in progress. I back-sweetened with the remaining honey from the plum melomel back-sweetening attempt, added clarifying agents and was disappointed to see that it's being stubborn. Clearing is coming very, very slowly. A sample revealed the flavors to still be very harsh, with little blending. I expect I'll bottle this stuff up in a few days and hope aging will sort it out, otherwise I risk oxidation (which I'm now paranoid about, although I've gone 10 years without ever having that happen before).

I've got several empty fermentation vessels available now, but nothing cooking. I wonder what I'll try next--time to start another mead.

Now Playing: Dave Davies Rock Bottom

Friday, December 03, 2010

Friday Night Videos

Who's in the mood for retro? Good! Because that's what we've got today--Nancy Sinatra's signature hit, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'". Dig those crazy go-go dancers and Nancy's oh-so-hip 60s dance moves. Groovy!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Dream Academy.

Now Playing: Earth, Wind and Fire The Eternal Dance

Thursday, December 02, 2010

NASA discovers new form of life

Arsenic-based life. Yes, that's an over-simplification, but still. I've heard theories on chlorine breathers and silicon-based life (made famous by the Horta in Star Trek) and even hydrogen- and methane-breathers, but dang, this is bizarre:
At their conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon will announce that they have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.

But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible. While she and other scientists theorized that this could be possible, this is the first discovery. The implications of this discovery are enormous to our understanding of life itself and the possibility of finding beings in other planets that don’t have to be like planet Earth.

Two possibilities come immediately to mind: 1) this evolved elsewhere and came to Earth via panspermia, or 2) life evolved on Earth twice, separately. Either way, this implies that at least simple life may be common in the universe. Simply stunning.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Night Videos

I hope everyone's had a safe and happy Thanksgiving. Here's an obscure bit of 80s nostalgia for the season from those 80s one-hit-wonders, the Dream Academy, "Life in a Northern Town." Feels like a winterish tune suitable for the weather we're having, right?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Billy Joel.

Now Playing: Sting The Soul Cages

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Belated Ren Fest report

The family went to the Texas Renaissance Festival the other week, and despite the best of intentions, I've been remiss about posting a trip report. We had fun, as usual, although we burned through our allotted ration of spending money all too quickly. Ren Fest is always a highlight of our year, and The Wife would love to someday shoot a wedding at the lovely chapels they have there. I took her to Scarborough Faire on our first date, and when we lived in Temple, we'd hit both big ren fairs each year. Sadly, Scarborough's a bit too far from New Braunfels for a day trip with the kids, but we still make Texas Ren Fest and annual occurrence.

Bug and I played the King of the Log game, and he triumphantly knocked me into the hay. We didn't get to listen to as much music as we'd have liked, and missed Instanpita entirely, but Monkey Girl picked up a CD by a Celtic/Eastern European fusion rock group that she's happy with. The Wife and I drank a little wine, and Bug and Fairy Girl rode ponies before we took in one of the jousts. One thing that impressed me is the fellow in these pictures. I believe I caught a glimpse of him last year, briefly, but this time around I got a good look, and have to say I was impressed with his forest spirit/ent costume. You have to respect anyone willing to climb up on 10-foot stilts while wearing 100 pounds of makeup and prosthetics. He brings to mind the "Green Guy," an ogre on stilts who'd sing bad songs while playing a kazoo from my first visit to Texas Ren Fest back in '87. Here's another shot of him, just to give a sense of scale:

I've always been proud of my Hern the Hunter/Stagman costume, but I have to admit this guy's got me beat.

Now Playing: Sting Songs from the Labyrinth

Sunday, November 21, 2010

That's one angry Cornhusker!

Tonight is a good night to be an Aggie. A&M's 9-6 victory was a throwback to glorious Wrecking Crew defensive struggles of old. And for once, penalties went our way. I'll admit I had flashbacks to Larry Horton in the '89 Arkansas game before that late pass interference flag was waved off, but all the while I was thinking "You'd better not sell insurance in Lincoln, ref!"

Nebraska had a lot of penalties tonight, and the Husker message boards are in utter and complete meltdown over them. But apart from that one bogus fourth-quarter roughing the passer flag they picked up which kept A&M's scoring drive alive, Nebraska earned every flag they were hit with. Illegal formations and false starts plagued them all night, and their coach, Bo Pellini, lost all composure, cussed out the refs, and was flagged for a personal foul. The guy's a head case, but not as big a head case as his brother Carl, the Nebraska defensive coordinator, who attacked a cameraman on Kyle Field after the game:

All things considered, I'm not shedding too many tears to see Nebraska head off to the Big 10 next season.

Now Playing:

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Night Videos

Spur of the moment impulse here: Billy Joel's Allentown decided it wanted to be featured today. So here we go. I have no understanding why music critics have always been so dismissive of Joel's work. Here we have a poignant chronicle of the decline of industrial America, a generation cast adrift in the Rust Belt, all wrapped up in a deceptively buoyant melody. Hardly subject matter worthy of Kary Perry or Lady Gaga. I don't get it.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Joe Walsh.

Now Playing: Billy Joel My Lives

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

About that Green Lantern trailer...

It's been a not-so-secret desire of mine to script Green Lantern someday, and actually write it as a science fiction adventure, rather than simply "super-heroes in space" as it's been done for the majority of the past 50 years. Alfred Bester helped re-invent the Silver Age version of the character, so it stands to reason the Green Lantern Corps should be more Lensmen and less SuperFriends. So I've been watching the development of this film closely, and have been rewarded with this trailer:

My reaction, to say the least, is mixed. There's great stuff here--Abin Sur, Tomar-Re, Sinestro, Kilowog (!) and Oa with the Central Power Battery. Hector Hammond looks incredibly creepy and menacing, a distinct improvement over the character from the comics. BUT (and there's always a but), there's a lot that's cringe-worthy. Warners tried for a *very* long time to make Green Lantern into a wacky comedy, even attempting to build the film around Jack Black at one point. The way this trailer opens, with Jordan scrambling out of bed and abandoning the hot blonde, to the miserable "let's get these pants off" line... that setup screams "slacker screwup gets the keys to the kingdom and hilarity ensues." We've seen this a thousand times before, and it never ends well. There's a definite attempt at a wacky Greatest American Hero setup, almost like Bill & Ted's Intergalactic Adventure. The "epic" aspects are really soft-pedaled, and so tonally dissonant with the Hal Jordan background setup, that it feels like two different movies.

But then I remembered--it's a *trailer*. Trailers aren't cut by the filmmakers--they're cut together by ad men who normally don't know or care what the film is about, they're more interested in pigeonholing it and packaging the film as pre-digested and inoffensive. How many times in the past decade has there been a significant backlash against a film marketed as something it isn't? Remember how the trailers and TV ads to The Bridge to Terabithia looked like a soulless knockoff of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, with kids playing with happy dancing fairy creatures? And then how everyone was shocked that it was not only good, but actually followed the book and killed off AnnaSophia Robb?

Remember, this is the same Hollywood that normally tries to set every otherworldly science fiction epic on Earth--Masters of the Universe, Transformers, Aliens vs. Predators etc.--because execs don't believe an audience can grasp a setting anywhere other than the good old U.S. of A. where folks speak American.

The more I think about it (and rewatch the trailer) the more I'm convinced this is one of the most incompetent movie promos, ever. Maybe that's just wishful thinking, but the only parts that succeed are the brief glimpses of cosmic dazzle, which come off more as a reluctant afterthought in the trailer, included only because they "had to be there." The guys doing the trailer would much rather be cutting a promo for Hot Tub Time Machine 2: Boogie Wonderland. The filmmakers themselves are saying all the right things in interviews, and the released concept art is powerful, epic and moody, so it's baffling how they could give every indication of grasping the nuance of this property, then turn around and make a movie that misses the mark so badly. The fact that Hal goes to Oa and encounters alien Lanterns who don't look like they stepped out of Club Med is a major break from previous treatments of this property. This alone gives me hope.

The movie could still very much live down to this trailer, but for now, I'll accept it with a grain of salt and assume the tone-deaf elements result from Warners' corporate incomprehension. In the future, maybe they could contract out to Marvel to cut future trailers, because those guys get it.

Now Playing: Various Music for Glass Harmonica

Friday, November 12, 2010

Talkin' with Pete Masterson

So I finally got to interview Pete Masterson today for the Chicken Ranch book. Masterson, you may or may not know, is an actor/director/writer with a long and productive career on stage and screen. What he's probably best-know for, though, is the fact that he co-wrote the book for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Larry L. King.

I'd been trying to arrange an interview with him for several months, but every time we got something set up, conflicts arose either on his end or mine and we ended up canceling. Until today, at least, when we finally connected. He's a nice guy, and was willing to talk to me as long as I needed. Nothing earth-shaking came out of the conversation, but he did confirm many of the events King recounted in his excellent book, The Whorehouse Papers. Masterson had several amusing stories, chief of which was the fact that it was his idea to bring in Edna Milton, the last madam at the Chicken Ranch, to be part of the Broadway production in a non-speaking role. During rehearsals, Masterson said, Milton would sometimes lean over and suggest lines for the actresses portraying the prostitutes to say. He nearly fell over, he recalled. Edna, apparently, had quite a mouth on her...

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel US

Friday Night Videos

Joe Walsh, somewhat less goofy than he usually is in concert situations, playing "All Night Long." Really, is any further explanation necessary?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Dixie Chicks.

Now Playing: Joe Walsh Little Did He Know...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Damage control: Homebrew Edition

When last we spoke, I'd laid out a lament about lost plum wine and how my recovery process involved starting a six-gallon batch of dark ale. But something was nagging me, something I couldn't put my finger on. That usually spells trouble.

Figure it out I did, although it took a couple of days. I'd added one pound of dark malt as the supplemental sugar, which all liquid malt extract kits require, but it slowly dawned on me that this was an unusually low amount of additional sugar. The instructions had said one pound, right? I'd checked before purchasing the dark malt, which is why I just bought one pound instead of more. Except... when I pull out the instruction sheet to verify this, to my chagrin I see that the kit requires 1 kg of extra sugar. Kilogram. Not pound.

Well, crap. A kilogram is a little more than two pounds. It's not a ruined batch--the extract kit has lots of malt, and I did add another pound, so it would ferment (and indeed was fermenting) just fine as-is. But it'd be relatively weak ale. If I wanted weak beer, I'd go to Oklahoma. What to do? I didn't have any more malt to add, and I didn't have the time to make another trip to San Antonio. Table sugar was an option, but to my mind, refined cane sugar is throwing in the towel, and it seemed somehow wrong to put that in a dark ale that was all-malt up unto this point. Then it struck me--brown sugar.

Now, a lot of people avoid using brown sugar in homebrew because it has a strong flavor. In fact, this is why dextrose corn sugar is so popular with home brewers, because it adds almost no flavor to beer or other fermented beverage. Brown sugar is like the anti-dextrose. But since I was only adding a relatively small portion, and the brew is dark and flavorful already, it seemed a worthwhile experiment. So I picked up a pound of brown sugar, making sure it was unadulterated brown sugar, as opposed to refined sugar back-mixed with molasses, and added it to the wort.

Several days later, the fermentation is finally slowing down. We managed to survive the blow-out phase without a huge foaming mess taking over my office. Temperatures have stayed below 80 degrees as well, ensuring an optimal environment for the fermentation without the formation of harsh fusel alcohols. At this rate, it may be ready to bottle by Sunday. I don't know how it will taste, but it smells good at any rate.

Oh, yeah. I also added potassium sorbate to my two batches of mead. That should neutralize any yeast that survived the campden tablets, priming the mead for back-sweetening sometime next week or thereafter. After the loss of all that potentially great plum wine, I want to get these in bottles ASAP.

Now Playing: John Williams Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Soundtrack

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Six gallons of regret

Saturday, prior to the Aggies taking on the Sooners in a Big 12 showdown of interesting, if not epic, proportions, I figured it was high time I attend to my various fermentables sitting in my office for far too long. I started with my smallest batches first, the smoked malt braggot and plum melomel. The smoked malt braggot, in the smaller 1.5 gallon container, remains quite hazy. I tasted a sample, and was initially disappointed in that it seemed a plain show mead, quite dry, but then a distinct smoky aftertaste presented itself. Not a total disaster yet, at least. I racked it off the sediments and added a campden tablet to knock out the yeast to stop any further fermentation. At that point, I added a single jalapeño sliced lengthwise with the seeds removed. I'd thrown the slices in a frying pan to sear briefly, the intent being that the heat would take some of the sharp edges off the raw taste. I dropped the slices into the mead once they cooled, and will rack again in a week. It's slightly too dry, and after tasting it with the added jalapeño, I'll back sweeten with honey (which is why I put in the campden tablet). My previous attempt at a jalapeño metheglin, which I called "Liquid Heat" was exactly that, not unlike drinking raw, liquid chili peppers with a sweet chaser. I'm going for more subtlety this time, hence the removal of the seeds.

My 2.5 gallon fermentation vessel held my plum melomel attempt. I'd left 4 pounds of chopped plums in there to ferment out dry, and I was nervous as to the result. I drew off a full glass, and was amazed by the clarity. There were some suspended particles, yes (lots of fruit bodies in there, after all) but this stuff was very, very clear and a gorgeous crimson color. And the scent was fantastically powerful, fruity plum. One taste was all it too to convince me I have a winner. Very fruity and tart, with a hint of acidity. The only negative was that it'd fermented out all the way. It was dry. Super-dry. This melomel was so dry it actually sucked the sugars out of your body and beat them into submission. Wow. Whereas the smoked braggot needed a slight amount of sweetening to bring it into balance, this one is going to need a lot more honey. And I'm not trying for a syrupy-sweet dessert wine, either, just enough honey to balance all the flavors and bring the sweetness up to neutral. But I really am looking forward to the end result.

Thus inspired by the success of my various meads, I turned to the six gallons of plum wine I had aging in a secondary container. I was quite excited, because during the racking it had boasted a rich, burgundy color and a very strong fruity aroma and taste. I couldn't wait to see how it'd cleared out, and how the flavor may have mellowed. Imagine my horror when muddy brown muck filled my glass. At first I thought it was some sediment from the bottom, but no, the entire batch had that same dark, sludgy look. And, sad to say, a flavor that matched. Six gallons of plum wine had oxidized somehow, and was utterly ruined. I'm not sure how that happened. Carelessness on my part, I supposed, but thinking back I can't recall any "smoking gun." I'll try again, since I have plenty of plums chopped up and frozen in the deep freeze, but this was very disappointing.

There's only one thing to do when you have to dispose of six gallons of ruined wine, and that's start another six gallon batch to replace it. Being a fan of instant gratification, I decided to make a quick batch of beer. 1) I have a single bottle of home brew left in the refrigerator, and 2) it'll ferment in a week allowing me to use the fermentation vessel for mead or wine or something else in short order. Like I said, instant gratification. Plus, I've never, ever had a batch of beer go bad on me.

Sunday afternoon I set out with the Bug to Homebrew Party in San Antonio. It's just 15 minutes from my house, and nothing has dissuaded me from my initial impression that this place compares very favorably to the excellent Austin Homebrew Supply. While there I got a bottle of potassium sorbate (to really, really make sure the fermentation stops in the mead), some wine yeast, a kit can of Cooper's Dark Ale extract and a pound of Munton's dark malt extract. What can I say? I like malty beers better than hoppy beers. I could easily have spent a thousand dollars or more in there, but I didn't (because I don't want to be divorced). Once I got home, in short order I had the wort cooked, mixed and cooled in my primary six gallon fermentation vessel. Cooper's wasn't kidding when they said it was dark ale--the stuff's black. I worked up a yeast starter with some passion fruit juice and yeast nutrient, and pitched it once the temperature of the wort hit the acceptable range. Currently, things have settled down and there's a nice layer of yeast lining the bottom, with occasional tiny bubbles rising up. I expect that by this time tomorrow the airlock will be bubbling non-stop and threatening to blow out.

So, what should I attempt next week after this beer is bottled? Try for another batch of plum wine? Or a fig or prickly pear melomel? Or even a medieval "burnt" mead with carmelized honey? Decisions, decisions...

Now Playing: The Kinks Something Else

Friday, November 05, 2010

Friday Night Videos

I enjoy the heck out of the Dixie Chicks, and "Goodbye Earl" never made premeditated murder sound so good. The video's a hoot and a half as well, because how can you go wrong with Dennis Franz and Jane Krakowski?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Warren Zevon.

Now Playing: Original Broadway Cast Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Night Videos

Happy Halloween weekend, everyone! And if you're in London, watch out for those werewolves!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... U2.

Now Playing: The Kinks Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The ruins of St. Dominic Church

D'Hanis is a small town about an hour's drive west of San Antonio. Technically, it's "new" D'Hanis because the entire town was moved several miles west in 1914. There's not a lot to see in "new" D'Hanis, and even less of "old" D'Hanis... with one exception. St. Dominic Church was built in 1853 and later abandoned in 1914 after the town relocated. It has since fallen into ruin. And what elegant, lovely ruins they are.


There's a certain romance to ruins. Maybe they give a place a sense of history--the U.S. is a relatively young country, so we don't have anything comparable to the Roman Coliseum or Greek amphitheaters or Mayan temples. Filling that role for us are old Spanish missions and crumbling churches, which, once you get down to it, have a unique feral beauty all their own.


St. Dominic is certainly a fine example of a beautiful ruin. It's been a while since I photographed anything in infrared, but I knew I wanted to try here, since infrared light can bring out details hidden otherwise. Since my camera isn't converted, I had to set up the tripod, compose and focus the image then thread the visible light-blocking filter onto the end on the lens. This takes up a lot more time than you'd imagine. Once all of that is complete, I remotely trigger the camera for a pre-set exposure lasting anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds. Because of the blocking filter, exposures must be very long to ensure an image is formed. Compounding the challenge was the wind--it was gusty like you wouldn't believe. That shakes the camera, which blurs the long-exposure image. At the end of the day, I had far too many wasted shots. But I had a few keepers, too.


Unlike shooting with infrared film (which is challenging in its own right) most of the work on the image takes place after the fact with digital. Unprocessed infrared images are muddy, reddish things that are pretty ugly. I spent about an hour in Photoshop for each of the above, trying different things to bring out the most in each shot--experimenting is part of the fun! The top and bottom shots are different variations on a duotone process, while the middle image is a tritone process--which is a fancy way of saying multiple colors are used to create a warmer, richer black-and-white image than could be achieved using only black and white.

I'd forgotten how much I love infrared. I'm going to make it a point to make a few more photo excursions while the autumn light is still good.

Now Playing: Wynton & Ellis Marsalis Joe Cool's Blues

Monday, October 25, 2010

15 authors meme

I was tagged on this by Derek Johnson. I could've sworn I'd done it before, but can't find any evidence, so here goes. I have to point out that this was particularly challenging for me, because with a few exceptions, it is individual books that've had much stronger impact on me than any particular author.
Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what authors my friends choose.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Whenever I talk about research, talk about worldbuilding, it all comes back to this man
Arthur C. Clarke: Hard SF? Oh, coooool
Herman Melville: When I read Moby Dick everyone warned me about the "long boring part about whales." Then the Pequod sank and I realized that there were no boring parts
Greg Bear: Blew my mind with what hard SF was capable of.
Charles de Lint: Character, place, place as character, magic as character, lyricism...
Ian Fleming: This is what the original Bond was like? But... it's different from the movies...
Patrick O'Brian: My Cibola airship stories were going nowhere until I read Master and Commander. Yeah, I steal from him endlessly
Bart Ehrman: His books on early Christianity are endlessly fascinating, illuminating and informative, clearly showing how Fundamentalism is wholly unworkable in a literal sense
Howard Waldrop: Meticulously brilliant short story constructions
Joe Lansdale: I'm not a horror fan, but I'll read anything Joe writes. I've never met a more instinctive storyteller
Eric van Lihn (Lester Del Rey): Author of the first SF YA novel I ever read. I'd been devoted to non-fiction up until then
Ursula LeGuin: Introduced me to the concept of sociological SF
Homer: The birth of my love of mythology. 'Nuff said.
Mike Grell: Blew me away with his Green Arrow and showed me comics could work and entertainment for adults without flying lasers and alien invaders
Lois McMaster Bujold: Introduced me to modern space opera, and showed me fun adventure didn't have to be dumb

Now Playing: Ray Charles Ultimate Hits Collection

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Night Videos

When U2's "Vertigo" hit the airwaves, reaching saturation point due to its heavy use in Apple's iPad marketing campaign, I went out immediately and bought the album, provocatively titled How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. That doesn't happen often, that a singly song moves me to invest in an entire disc, sound unheard. But "Vertigo" rocked so hard and the album's name was so cool that untold wonders must await on that beckoning CD. Alas, this impulse buy turned out as so many other musical fliers have for me in the past. "Vertigo" is far and away the standout piece, with the remainder of the tracks being merely okay. Another Joshua Tree it was not. Oh well, at least the video is nifty.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... John Fogerty

Now Playing: Various Celtic Moods

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Night Videos

You just can't go wrong with John Fogerty. "The Old Man Down the Road" was the first song that introduced me to him, believe it or not. Oh, I'd been vaguely aware of CCR classics such as "Proud Mary" and others, but never connected the dots that they were produced by the same band, or specifically, the same singer/songwriter. Fogerty's return to rock and the subsequent controversy over "Zanz Kan't Danz" brought me up to speed in a hurry (I was big into Rolling Stone in those days). The video's quite memorable in its own way, with a quirky sense of humor and suitably atmospheric for Fogerty's "swamp rock" motif. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Steve Winwood

Now Playing: U2 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Friday, October 08, 2010

Friday Night Videos

There was a big Steve Winwood revival toward the latter half of my high school years, solo success for the former Traffic singer which would spill over into my college days. I remember being floored by the complete attention paid to the stylish production seen in the video for "Roll With It." I don't know who the director was, but this type of sepia, art-deco Hollywood lighting video production was briefly in vogue on MTV in those days. It was apparent from the camera angles and stylistic quirks shared by the various videos that they all shared the same director, or at least the same production company. I can't recall those other videos for the life of me, but I do remember that even though the others were well-done, the Winwood video stood head and shoulders above the rest in what it set out to do and what it accomplished. Just watch it--this isn't a mere video, it's a full-blown movie, lush and lavish with myriad plot thread running through it that never quite get resolved. I'm still awed by it 20 years later. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Bob Seger.

Now Playing: Sheena Easton The Worlds of Sheena Easton

Thursday, October 07, 2010

In case of emergency, break glass

There was an old David Letterman bit, years ago when he was still with NBC I think, in which a scheduled guest didn't make it to the show. They hit an alarm, rushed down the hall and shattered the glass door of a large, red box to wheel out Tony Randall to fill in. In case of emergency, break glass. I kinda feel like Tony Randall today.

The Wife teaches a community ed DSLR photography class that's been quite well-received in recent years. Normally, since I'm something of a stereotypical hardware geek when it comes to talking about equipment, she has me come in the second-to-last class and give a big presentation on lenses: The different varieties, accessories, what works and what doesn't, signs of quality, that sort of thing. By that time they've gotten a good foundation in composition, exposure and all the other techniques that go into making a good image, so educating them about hardware is appropriate to help them elevate their game.

Except that The Wife has developed a sore throat and lost her voice. It's so faint that I couldn't hear her to carry on a conversation during dinner last night. Obviously, there's no way she could teach a class tonight under those circumstances, so I'm being called off the bench to pinch-hit. I'm not sure how the class will respond to a whole lot of technical information thrown at them in only the second class, but I suppose we'll find out.

Now Playing: Rush Chronicles

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The balloon is back

Back around 2008, right as I was getting into photography, I spotted a hot-air balloon above San Marcos during my morning commute to work:

The balloon was back this morning. Sadly, I was without my camera. I keep telling myself that I need to carry it with me every day, but I always forget. The early-morning sun was illuminating it quite nicely. These kinds of scenes are what start my days off on a nice note.

Now Playing: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band Nine Tonight

Monday, October 04, 2010

Yeah, why don't you chat about THAT!

I almost died today, or rather, almost got killed. It's not the first time, unfortunately, and I doubt it'll be the last. I'm driving home from work on I-35, and from an on-ramp comes barreling down upon me a big white Ford F-150 pickup. Now realize that I'm in the middle of three southbound lanes. This driver is talking on his cell phone. He never once looks to his left, all the while cutting across two lanes of traffic. I lay on my horn, slam on my brakes and swerve into the leftmost lane to keep from getting splattered all over the highway. Even then he misses me by maybe six inches. And no, he never looked my direction or acknowledged me or my riding the horn. In fact, he never put down his cell.

Now, a normal person would cuss a blue streak at this point. Which I did. But I also noticed a logo on the driver's side door. So shaking off the jitters of shock, I floored it and pulled along side him. Bingo. "Alamo Claims Service" with an 800 number to go along with it. I punched the number into my phone, exited the highway and called. I blistered the receptionist who answered the phone but good, and then did the same to the admin to whom my call was transferred. I gave time, description, location and license plate number to them. They promised they'd deal with the driver and assured me they don't tolerate that kind of behavior. Will they do something? I don't know, but I'd assume they'd take my complaint seriously because of the line of business they're in.

Insurance claims adjusters tend to take a dim view of reckless driving, don't they?

Now Playing:

Friday, October 01, 2010

Friday Night Videos

There was a period in the 80s where I was a huge Bob Seger fan. I came very close to seeing him in concert around '87 or so, but my ride backed out at the last minute. I'm not quite so into his music these days, but I still like his work a great deal. There's excellent craftsmanship in his songs, and the lyrical structures are brilliant. "Turn the Page" is a textbook example of a lyrically illustrative song that is brilliant at setting a mood. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ray Davies.

Now Playing: Blue Oyster Cult Workshop of the Telescopes

Monday, September 27, 2010

Weekend in review

Wow. Had a very, very busy weekend. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

This was the weekend of the Comal County Fair. We took the kids to the parade Friday, and also the petting zoo and other assorted fair things. I entered a bottle of my blueberry mead, which was an utter failure as such--having absolutely no flavor of blueberry in it--yet was surprisingly pleasant to drink as a plain mead with a slightly purplish cast to the liquid. I was rewarded with a red ribbon, which is my best showing ever, with my prickly pear and holiday spice entries both earning third place ribbons in years past. Sunday I took the Bug and Fairy Girl to the midway, paid a small fortune to get them wristbands, and let them ride pretty much everything there all afternoon. I was exhausted by the end, and that was just from watching.

Saturday The Wife had a wedding in Lago Vista. A very nice wedding. We dropped the kids off at the Nama's in Bastrop, and I drove over to the wedding venue (note: If wanting to get from Point A to Point B in Lago Vista, just give it up. It's not possible in that Byzantine maze of roads). My job for this wedding, as it is for all of The Wife's larger weddings, was to back her up as second shooter. She was armed with her newest toy, the 5D mark II camera, and I would be using her 50D with my Rebel as the emergency backup. By the end of the night she would've done just as well leaving me home. I struggled with the 50D, as the settings which are so intuitive to me on my Rebel XTi don't produce the same results on the 50D. I was getting horrible over-exposures and inconsistent strobe illumination. Exposure compensation kept getting accidentally altered. I couldn't adjust the settings in the dark, as the control layout is different from what I'm used to. None of the shots I normally pride myself on--the groomsmen, reception candid shots, infrared images of the venue--came out. In six hours of shooting, I'd wager I got maybe a dozen keepers. That's pathetic by any measure. It all comes from my not being familiar with the 50D's quirks and tendencies when shooting (I hope) rather than any inherent incompetence on my part. At least, that's what I'm telling myself. Fortunately for all concerned, The Wife knocked it out of the park, as usual. She got a wealth of stunning images, despite having to reshoot some of my assigned shots during my long night of crash-and-burn. This is why you hire a professional photographer for important events, rather than a semi-competent amateur.

Last but not least, upon returning home, we discovered that Windows 7 is a very clever program. So clever, in fact, that it will figure out a way to download the latest so-called "Critical update" even when you've told it not to. That same critical update that's crashed the computer on startup five times over the past two weeks, in fact, forcing us to recover the use of said computer via System Restore. But this must have offended Windows 7 in some manner, because it went through the trouble of deleting all of our previously-established system restore points this time, forcing us to to a complete and total reinstallation of every piece of software. Ouch. And certain programs and drivers, which worked fine before, is not being rejected by Windows 7 as not worthy of being recognized. Seriously, it's contempt is tangible. We're now 24 hours and counting on the grand reinstall adventure, and The Wife still can't get the monitor color calibration to work. We haven't even tried to get our Photoshop plugins going. Wouldn't it be nice if Microsoft spent more time designing an operating system that, you know, operated with the software we need instead of automatically assuming the user is a dolt and would much rather prefer to watch dancing paperclips or whatever.

Now Playing: Tom Petty Wildflowers

Friday, September 24, 2010

Stephen Colbert spars with my rep!

Stephen Colbert testified to congress about migrant workers, yadda yadda yadda. Let me just point out that Lamar Smith is my rep. I've never voted for him, and never will. This is, after all, the man whose constituents advocate stocking the Rio Grande with alligators to eat anyone trying to swim across. Therefore I'm particularly pleased that he lobbed Colbert these hanging curve balls to knock out of the park. Hey, the truth hurts.
Irritated Republicans spent much of the hearing trying to disarm Colbert with a combination of jokes and pointed questions.

"Does one day working in the field make you an expert witness, do you think?" Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked scornfully.

"I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert on something," Colbert replied confidently.

"Is that to say it's more work than you've ever done before, right?" Smith followed.

"It's certainly harder work than this," the comedian deadpanned.

Now Playing: The Twilight Zone

Friday Night Videos

When did Ray Davies perform on Austin City Limits, and why didn't anybody tell me!? While I dearly love the Kinks, I've been quite impressed with Ray's solo work as well. This cut from Other People's Lives, his first solo studio album, is a great case in point. "The Getaway (Lonesome Train)" is mournful and understated. It's not a song that jumps out and grabs you, like say a "Lola" or "You Really Got Me," but it's got staying power. Its haunting moodiness stays with you and beckons you back for more. That's great songwriting, folks.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... COTM.

Now Playing:

Parade time

Today was the big Comal County Fair parade. It's a big deal in New Braunfels--larger than even the big 4th of July parade. That's only to be expected, I suppose, since the Comal County Fair is the largest county fair in Texas. A highlight of the parade is all the vintage tractors that turn out. There were many old John Deeres from the 40s, plus a good number of International Harvester/McCormick Farmalls and a surprising number of antique Ford tractors. There's something appealing about the rough-hewn utility of old tractors with their unpretentious stylings.

I also witnessed an interesting barometer of the current political climate as well. Comal County, and New Braunfels in particular, is an intensely Republican area sandwiched between the Democratic populations of Austin and San Antonio. It's very conservative, so much so that staunch moderates like myself are, by default, pretty much the left fringe (Strange how a high-profile Democrat like Bob Krueger calls New Braunfels home, and his wife, Katherine, wins election to the city council with relative ease). Now in years past, whenever the Comal County Republican float/truck drives past in one of the area parades, it's normally met with rousing cheers. Often times there's no Democrat representation at all, and if there is, the reception is decidedly tepid.

So we're sitting there on the San Antonio Street bridge, and the Comal County GOP float rolls past adorned with HUGE Rick Perry signs, along with anti-Obama "Hands off Texas!" signs. The folks on the float are waving at the crowd, clapping and generally trying to stir up enthusiasm. They're met with absolute silence. The Wife and I looked at each other in surprise. We've never heard a parade fall so silent so quickly, certainly not for Republicans in New Braunfels.

Roughly 10 minutes later, a small Democrat contingent came past. Not nearly as impressive as the Republican float, it consisted of a single car and maybe a dozen volunteers, eagerly working the crowd and handing out campaign material to anyone who showed interest. One of the volunteers was Elena White, daughter of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White. She's a student at Rice, so must've she taken the day off specifically to campaign in the reddest county of Red State Texas. I figure either she's the family's least-favorite child and therefore expendable in a kamikaze mission to New Braunfels, or else White's campaign is so confident it can win the election that it's taking the fight to Perry even where GOP support is greatest. "Vote for my Dad!" Elena called out, mustering the honest enthusiasm only offspring can, so I started clapping. The Wife did, too. And sonofagun, a bunch of people on either side of the bridge joined in.

Now I'm not saying this is one of those Hollywood moments where a groundswell of support erupts and Elena's carried off on the shoulders of a joyous mob. But the contrasting response to the two candidates was striking. The Republican governor's proxies earned silence, while the Democrat's was met with applause. In New Braunfels.

Afterwards, The Wife and I discussed what we'd witnessed. We figure there's a large segment of non-teabagging Republicans that are fed up with Perry, and want him gone. These are the folks who supported Kay Bailey Hutchison in the primary, and were put off by Perry's bare-knuckled, scorched earth campaign against her. Also, toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor, both pet projects of Perry, remain deeply unpopular. And Perry simply seems more and more willing to do anything it takes to hang onto power for power's sake. These dependable Republican voters don't seem like they can bring themselves to support White yet (if ever), but at the same time they seem soured on the prospect of another four years of Rick Perry in Austin. I don't know if this translates to a White victory this November, but I'll wager that if Hutchison were the GOP candidate instead of Perry, she'd be leading the polls by 20 points.

Now Playing: Johnny Cash The Essential Johnny Cash

Monday, September 20, 2010

Interviews lost

So I'm working on the Chicken Ranch project over the weekend, and at one point I remember I'd promised one of my interview subjects to burn him a copy of his interview on CD so he could keep it for reference. No big deal--I'd burned all the interviews I've done onto CD-R for storage and filing purposes. I find his two disks, put the first one in tray A and a blank in tray B and set the computer copying. Once it's finished, I place the new disk in my stereo to verify the success of the burn. Tracks 1-3 are fine. Track 4, on the other hand, starts off with an overlay of garbled static that knots my stomach. I've heard this before. I put the original in, and yeah, sure enough, the source disk is degrading. In six months none of the tracks will be listenable. I checked the other source disk for the second part of the interview, and it showed the same degradation. Then I looked at the two dozen other interview and image disks filed neatly along the shelf above my desk.

This does not make me happy.

Fortunately, this isn't a major crisis. I've got all of the original Mp3 audio files of all my interviews backed up on hard drives in multiple locations. But the CD collection was there to backup my backups, as I've had really paranoia-inducing experiences with hard drives going blooey! in the past. Nothing's been lost but time. What's annoying is that these weren't el cheapo generic CD-Rs that I used, but name brand. Memorex or somesuch. I don't remember. Don't really care at this point. All that matters is that every single one of those disks is now suspect. I've got to re-burn every one of 'em, to back up the back ups of my back ups. And obviously I'm not about to use regular CD-Rs this time, but rather archival quality, 300-year lifetime rated disks. Those things ain't cheap.

The irony of this is (and there's always irony) that I've burned a number of audio CDs for listening in the car during my daily commute, cheap CD-Rs to protect the source disk from the heat and cold of my car throughout the seasons. I've yet to have any of these audio disks go bad despite the exposure, whereas these going bad are in my climate-controlled office, well-protected and shielded from UV light. Grr...

Now Playing: Billy Joel Songs in the Attic

Friday, September 17, 2010

Orpheus, or, my descent into hell

It is somewhat disturbing how many friends of my embrace schadenfreude, but my announcement yesterday that I would be eating the infamous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Burger, complete with the nefarious Ghost Chili, aka Naga jolokia, at Chunky's Hamburgers in San Antonio, generated more interest than probably all my posts combined. Forever. What a bunch of sick puppies you are!

Yesterday did not go as planned. It was rather exhausting, what with a work-related crisis that demanded all my attention, but at the end of the day I made it home, piled the family into the minivan (including my Mom, who'd dropped in as a surprise guest) and got to the restaurant around 6:30. This is the sign that greeted us.

Inside, the family ordered and it was my turn. "I'll have the Four Horsemen burger." The waitress paused. "Do you know what that is?" I said yeah. She asked if I wanted to take the "Challenge." I said I didn't think so. I was just there for the burger, to satisfy my own morbid curiosity. No false bravado on my part. Now I like my food hot and spicy. I make my own salsa with plenty of habaneros and serranos because even the "Nuclear meltdown" salsa you can buy in supermarkets has grown milder over the years "so people who don't like hot sauce can eat it, too." Even so, I'd heard enough about this one to fully expect it to kick my butt. In fact, I hoped it would, if only to restore my faith that some claims of "Fire, death and destruction" are more than mere hyperbole.

So I signed their waiver, holding them blameless for melting flesh, heart attacks or my spontaneously getting pregnant with a deformed mutant. I asked how many people ordered the burger but didn't take the challenge. Almost nobody, they answered. Seems that personal glory is a bigger draw than the burger itself. And out of the 4,000-plus who've attempted the challenge, only a little over 200 have completed it. One guy in particular my waitress remembered. Big, macho type with tattoos. Was quite arrogant and rude. A real bigmouth talking about how tough he was and how the Ghost Chilis would cower before him. He took one bite, panicked, leapt over the patio railing and barfed in the grassy area behind the restaurant. Oh, and there's a $20 penalty you pay if you puke anywhere other than your designated bucket. Nice.

The burger itself looked mighty impressive. It was big. Lots of peppers heaped on--the dark, shriveled Ghost Chilis, plus chopped up serranos, jalapeños and habanero sauce. I could smell the sharpness of the spices rising up. I grabbed it up with both hands (they didn't give me gloves) and dove right in.

It was hot. No arguing that. The Ghost Chili dominated the flavor, reminding me of the dark, bitter chili used in much New Mexico-style cuisine. Certainly not my beloved Tex-Mex. Not my favorite chili pepper flavor, but it was workable here. I took another bite. And another. I was starting to think I'd made a mistake in not going for the challenge. Then it hit me. The flames of Perdition billowed up from my belly, though my throat and mouth before erupting across my lips, like the explosion of the Death Star chasing the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Sweat burst upon my forehead. My eye watered. My nose ran. My hands trembled uncontrollably. Folks, I want to be unequivocal about this: The shit's hot!

I waited for about five minutes, letting the tremors subside and the inferno in my mouth die down as I sipped a glass or two of Diet Pepsi. Equilibrium did return, and I took several more big bites, by this time downing about half the burger. There was no delay in the heat this time, or the trembling, or the sweat. It slugged me pretty hard, then went after the capsaicin-triggered endorphins, and throttled them. The ramped-up intensity startled me. I looked at the remaining half burger, and while I believed I could finish it, I would probably regret it. My goal was to eat the burger, or more specifically, consume the Ghost Chili and live to tell about it. Finishing the burger mattered for the challenge, but didn't matter to me. I downed a glass of milk, finished off my onion rings and chatted with the waitress as the family finished their meals. Then The Wife drove us home. I'd battled the Ghost Chili, and although I hadn't finished the burger, I hadn't barfed, either. I'd call it a draw.

By the time we got home, I was feeling almost normal. There was some heat in my stomach, but my mouth had stopped burning and the endorphins were cautiously peeking out from their hiding place. So we cut the birthday cake, and I had a slice. Big mistake. My stomach, so docile up until now, began to churn and lurch. I popped some antacid and swore off solid food for the rest of the night. I fixed a big glass of ice water and kept it with me the rest of the evening. After getting the kids to bed, I was feeling decent again. The Wife and I popped in the DVD of "Date Night" and settled down for some mindless entertainment. About 20 minutes in, I had a sudden, stabbing pain in my gut. Gas pain. Not entirely unexpected. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. A few minutes later, it was gone as quickly as it'd appeared. Maybe 45 minutes it hit me again, much more strongly than before. Same pattern, but longer-lasting. Also in a slightly different place. We went to bed. Midnight I was up again. And again at 1 a.m. Cold sweats and tremors had joined the party. It felt exactly as if someone had stuffed half a dozen rabid wolverines into a 55-gallon drum, thrown in a bunch of broken glass, doused them with kerosene and set them aflame, then stirred up the whole shebang with a Weed Eater. I buckled to the floor. Dry heaves hit me, and I realized the ugly truth--belatedly, six hours after the fact, my body had decided I'd ingested poison. This was much like previous bouts of food poisoning I'd experienced, only far, far more intense. And as the burst of pain moved about my gut, I understood that I'd passed the point of no return. Retch 'til the cows come home, but those peppers were too far in to come out the way they'd gone in. And so it went, every hour on the hour, all night. Eating the burger hadn't been bad. The five hours following weren't unbearable. But this, this was agony. I reminded myself that I could've forced down the rest of the burger, and thanked my lucky stars I hadn't. On the bright side, I now have a disturbingly accurate picture of the path my intestines take within my body.

Somewhere after 5 a.m. the cramping subsided. The following crosses the line into TMI territory, but this is a pertinent data point I haven't seen addressed in any other Four Horsemen narratives. After drinking quarts of ice water throughout the night to try and settle my gut, I was in need of bladder relief. I went to pee, and nearly woke up the house. It burned. Somehow--don't ask me why--my body had managed to accumulate a significant concentration of capsaicin in my bladder, and let me tell you, that is most definitely something you do not want coming out that way.

So here I am, ragged and tired, feeling like I'm living though one wicked hangover (minus the requisite headache, thankfully). For the record, I have no desire to ever challenge the Ghost Chili again. If I knew then what I know now, I'd probably opt for a dinner somewhat less debilitating. But then again, the entire reason I chose the Four Horsemen burger is because I wanted to know how I stacked up against it. Ten years ago, I'd probably have fared much better. Five years from now, it'd probably burn a hole through my intestinal walls. Curiosity sated, I'll give the Ghost Chili a wide berth from now on.

The most disappointing element out of all of this is that despite my suffering, Johnny Cash never showed up in the guise of a coyote to be my spirit guide.

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Friday Night Videos

"Dad Life," by COTM. Very clever. I laughed a lot, and smiled knowingly the rest of the time. Word.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... ELO.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Last will and testament

So today's my 41st birthday. Some men, at this stage of their life, embrace the mid-life crisis by taking a mistress, buying a Corvette or running with the bulls in Pamplona. None of that really appeals to me. Instead, I choose to ingest the Merciless Pepper of Quetzalacatenango, also known as the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper:

I remember when this episode first aired, The Wife turned to me and said "You want one of those, don't you?" Well, that particular day-glo chili pepper may not exist, but it's real-life cousin, the Naga jolokia or "Ghost Chili" does. And here's the best part--Chunky's Burgers in San Antonio puts 'em on their signature Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse burger, along with jalapeños, serranos and habaneros. The burger gained fame after being featured on Man vs. Food:

Anyhoo, that's what I'm having tonight for my birthday dinner. I sincerely hope it kicks my fat butt--I'm sick and tired of "ATOMIC MEGA DEATH SAUCE" that my kids can eat without breaking a sweat. The very concept of "heatless" jalapeños for people who don't like hot peppers makes my skin crawl. Of course, this burger may peel my esophagus, but if it does I'll at least be satisfied that it lived up to its billing.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The weird calls I get

So working in the university's media relations, I get my share of strange phone calls. But today's was really out in left field.

Female caller: I'm doing a paper on Texas State, and I need to know about your nickname.

Me: You mean the Bobcats?

FC: No, your school's nickname.

Me: I don't think our school itself has a nickname.

FC: Yes it does. My professor says that it comes from your campus being established as a land grant college before the Civil War.

Me: Uh...

FC: I need you to tell me what your campus' nickname is, and the story behind it.

Me: Texas State was established in 1899. And it's not a land grant university.

FC: Are you sure? My professor is sure it was before the Civil War.

Me: I think your professor might be confusing us with some other school. Texas A&M is the oldest public university in the state, but it wasn't established until 1876. The only Texas university that I know of predating the Civil War is Baylor. Baylor, and Mary Hardin-Baylor were chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas.

FC: ... Yeah, I don't care about that. My paper's about Texas State.

Me: You do know it hasn't always been Texas State, right? That it started off as Southwest Texas Normal School?

FC: Whatever. Bye.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Chicken Ranch: Ocho

I am shamed to admit I am remiss in my writing efforts regarding the Chicken Ranch. For these past two months, I have focused so intently on the one-month period in which Marvin Zindler's expose resulted in the shuttering of that long-standing brothel that I have utterly neglected the preceding 100-plus years of history. Although Edna Milton served as madam at the end, she was not the longest-tenured woman in that position. That title belonged to Faye Stewart, better know as Miss Jessie Williams. She is the woman who consolidated the various prostitution ventures in La Grange and moved the operation out of town. She presided over the brothel when it earned it's famous name. She established goodwill and a working relationship with the county sheriff's office. It would not be unjustified to begin this tale with her:
While the previous century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Jessie’s Fashionable Boarding House for young ladies, past the Bad Curve sign, a large farm wagon, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat farmer in sweat-stained coveralls, at the rate of four miles an hour. A black sharecropper, who reposed on the wagon behind the fat farmer, uncurled his bandy legs as soon as the equipage drew up opposite Miss Jessie’s new screen door, and as he pulled the bell at least a score of young heads were seen peering out of the narrow windows of the white clapboard house. Nay, the acute observer might have recognized the little red nose of stern-natured Miss Jessie Williams herself, stubbing out a cigarette in the window of that madam's own parlour.

As always, this is a work in progress. Feedback is always encouraged. In case you missed 'em, here are my previous installments:
Version 7
Version 6
Version 5
Version 4
Version 3
Version 2
Version 1

Visit Chicken Ranch Central.

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