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.

Now Playing: Altan The Best of Altan

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.

Now Playing: Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill

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.

Now Playing: SubVision and Guy Gross Farscape: Seasons 1 and 2

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.

Now Playing: London Philharmonic Orchestra Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd

Monday, September 13, 2010

About that mead

A little belated in my updates, but then I'm a busy guy. When last we spoke, I'd split my 3-gallons of show mead in twain, with 2+ gallons going in with four pounds of plums to ferment out, and the remainder in a 1.5 gallon fermenter along with smoked malt. The latter one came to only 1 gallon, so I needed to top it off. Saturday I heated one quart of water and dissolved 1.5 pounds of honey into it, plus I added a quarter teaspoon each of yeast nutrient, yeast energizer and tannins. Once this mix cooled, I added it to the smoked-malt-mead, topped it off with about half a cup of water, and let it do its thing.

Several days later now and it's happily fermenting at a moderate pace. Very little foam. Quite well-behaved, actually. Because of the close confines, I was somewhat afraid I'd have a blowout, but I suppose racking it away from the bulk of the yeast lees protected me against that scenario.

I'd originally intended to add a jalapeño, but The Wife surprised me by coming home from H-E-B with some Hatch chili peppers, so I'm now tempted to sear one a bit and add it to the mead instead of the jalapeño. I'll probably decide in the next week or so. Either way, it'll be an interesting braggot-style mead.

The plum melomel continues to ferment as well, albeit at a much slower pace. And the five gallons of plum wine that has been bulk aging is probably ready for another racking or bottling, depending on how it's clarifying.

Now Playing: Clandestine Music from Home

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Paging Dr. Lambshead

Mark your calendars, kids: I've got a small piece accepted for publication in the forthcoming Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July 2011). They say lightning doesn't strike twice, but as this is the second thing I've placed with editors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (the first being in their excellent antho Fast Ships, Black Sails), you gotta wonder. Although, to be honest, the extremely brief nature of my contribution probably counts as more of a static shock. My effort, titled "Mother of Spirits," was submitted for their micro-fiction, and was disproportionately fun to write. I've half a mind to homebrew up some of the stuff (I have my ways, even without a still or an actual "Mother of Spirits") and send it to the VanderMeers for fun. Here is the sum total of those making it into the micro-fiction section of the book:
Hugh Alter – The Sea Scroll
Julie Andrews – Mellified Alien
Christopher Begley – Unhcegila’s Scales
Jayme Lynn Blaschke – Mother of Spirits
Nickolas Brienza – The Fort Chaffee Polyhedral Deck
Tucker Cumming – “Our Greatest President”
Kaolin Imago Fire – Leary’s Pineal Body
Dr. Galubrious – St. Blaise’s Toad (text and image)
Jess Gulbranson – Coffin Torpedo
Jennifer Harwood-Smith – The Dinner Bell of the Mary Celeste
Willow Holser – Silence, One Ounce
Rhys Hughes – Reversed Commas (box of)
Paul Kirsch – Much Smaller Cabinet
Michael J. Larson – Unlabeled Wax Phonograph Cylinder
Therese Littleton – Czerwatenko Whelk in Olive Oil
Graham Lowther – Ear Eye
Claire Massey – Harness & Leash for Fly
Tony Mileman – Untitled Booklet
Adam Mills – Bear Gun
Ignacio Sanz – Oneyroscope
Steven M. Schmidt – Tycho’s Astronomical Support Garment
Grant Stone – Kepler the Clock
Brian Thill – The Dander of Melville
Nicholas Troy – South American Insult Stone
Nick Tramdack – Bullet Managerie
Tom Underberg – American Night Quilt
Horia Ursu – Dracula’s Testicles
William T. Vandemark – The Decanter of Everlasting Sadness (submitted via email due to use of proprietary material)
Kali Wallace – Human Skeleton, Irregular
Tracy Welser – Parsimonius Skull (owl)
Amy Willats – Skull
Nadine Wilson – Tomb-Matches

And here is some of Jeff's commentary on their selection criteria:
We also tried to look for variety in terms of length of entry, and try to make sure longer entries truly supported their initial concept by opening up and expanding on ideas in a satisfactory ways. A few very short entries worked well by getting in and getting out with the necessary speed. Some, like Bear Gun, were just plain hilarious, while others, like American Night Quilt and Mother of Spirits, displayed nice use of detail and no one submitted anything quite like them. The Untitled Booklet’s conceit of a publication that was actually an insect struck us as brilliant, as did Rhys Hughes’ Reversed Commas box. Others, like Ear Eye and Coffin Torpedo, had us at the title, and luckily held up. We took the baldly humorous and the oh-so serious because the good doctor’s cabinet can incorporate both extremes. But, we digress…

I suspect the Thackery T. Lambshead persona has become something of a literary cottage industry for the VanderMeers. It wouldn't surprise me at all if we see more silliness in this vein, and hopefully I'll be able to contribute my fair share.

Now Playing: Dire Straits On the Night

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Night Videos

With the bizarre recent death of former Electric Light Orchestra cellist Mike Edwards this week, it seems only fitting to feature ELO on this week's installment of Friday Night Videos. "Showdown" is one of the early hits Edwards played on, and you can see him in this video, along with fellow cellist Colin Walker and Jeff Lynne's scary "Wild Man of the Mountain" hair.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... C+C Music Factory.

Now Playing: ELO Afterglow

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Experimenting with mead

Astute readers will remember that I started a three-gallon batch of mead fermenting (that's nine pounds of honey) back in July. After letting it sit far too long, I finally got off my lazy duff and racked it. Not being particularly enamoured of show meads, I had experimental designs on this batch. So I experimented.

Firstly, I racked a portion of the fermented mead into a 2.5 gallon fermentation vessel I have. Into this vessel I had placed approximately 4 pounds of Santa Rosa plums, picked fresh from my backyard tree, sliced and frozen, then thawed and crushed. Santa Rosas have a tartness to them that my jucier, sweeter Methleys don't, so I'm hoping the combination works with the mead to create a strongly-flavored melomel. Into the vessel I added a teaspoon of pectic enzyme, a quarter teaspoon of acid blend and a quarter teaspoon of tannin. The plums may have contributed enough acid and tannin on their own, but I've made too many meads with a flat flavor profile to take any chances. It's got a slow, gentle fermentation going right now, so we'll see how things shake out in the next month or so.

For the remaining mead, which amounted to a little over half a gallon, I racked into a 1.5 gallon fermentation vessel. And here's where I get a little daring. I bought a pound of crushed, smoked malt from Home Brew Party a couple months ago for this very purpose. I'm an extract kit kind of homebrewer, you see. I've done the "boil the mash" thing, and while that approach gives the brewer lots of control over the final product, it was too labor intensive for my enjoyment. But since nobody really sells smoked malt extract, I had to do it myself. I cooked the malt at 150 degrees, more or less, for an hour (there was a protein rest there at the beginning) then drained off the liquid malt and sparged once. The resulting sweet liquid (the smoky scent was strong when I started the starch conversion, but tapered off the longer it was heated) I let cool then added to the racked mead, giving me right at 1 gallon. Then I added slightly less than a teaspoon of acid blend and a like amount of tannin to the mix. It's fermenting slowly now. I have 1.5 pounds of honey I'm going to add to bring the total volume up to 1.5 gallons, at which point I will add one jalapeño pepper to make this a smoked jalapeño metheglin (as opposed to a chipotle metheglin). My previous attempt at a concoction of this nature resulted in Liquid Heat which was very strong on the fresh, raw pepper flavor and full of heat. I want to rein that in a bit to make this more palatable for those who aren't thrill seekers, so I'm going to cut the pepper and remove the seeds first. Heresy, I know. I may even grill the pepper a bit first, to blunt some of that rawness and make the flavor blend more with the smoked malt. In any event, this will be an unusual braggot-style mead once I'm finished. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Now Playing: Dave Davies Fractured Mindz

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Chicken Ranch: Lucky no. 7

As I continue my quest to find the perfect approach to with which to frame Chicken Ranch's story and nail that opening chapter, it occurs to me that at its heart, this is a mystery. Oh, not the back story, the history, but rather the events that everyone remembers, that made it legend. All of the elements are there--one man's heroic efforts in the face of fierce opposition to investigate rumors of organized crime, accusations of government corruption, secret files passed along in the dead of the night on a brothel that'd managed to stay open for more than a century in plain view of the law that, by rights, should have shut it down. Yes, it surely is a mystery:
Mr. Marvin Zindler, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the manila folder which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick sheaf of papers, creased and shuffled, of the sort which is known as a `unofficial investigation.' Just across the middle was a broad rubber band nearly half an inch across. `To Marvin Zindler, KTRK, from his friends of the DPS,' was written upon it, with the date `1973.' It was just such a stack as the old-fashioned police investigators used to write up - dignified, solid, and reassuring.

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

Now Playing: Night Ranger Greatest Hits

Sunday, September 05, 2010

To the zoo!

We took my 90-year-old grandmother to the zoo today. That wasn't part of any grand plan, but it worked out nicely. We've been trying to get to Cuero to visit her more often of late, and Friday I asked Grandma if she'd let me take her to lunch on Sunday. Sometimes she's not enthusiastic about going out, but this time she was agreeable. She insisted, though, that we go someplace of my choosing. Since Cuero doesn't have many decent restaurants, I thought I'd surprise her by taking her to nearby Victoria. And since it's be a shame to make that drive and not do anything else, I remembered that Victoria had a zoo that we might spend some time at afterward.

I've got a bit of history with the Texas Zoo at Victoria. When I was very young--say, 3 years old or thereabouts--my parents took me to visit. I don't remember much, other than the fact they had a broken-down miniature train folks could have ridden at one time, much like the ones in Landa Park, Breckenridge Park and Zilker Park, and baby deer that I got to feed corn to. When my parents took me back a few years later, it was closed for remodeling, and stayed closed for the better part of a decade, it seems. This was my first trip back in close to 38 years.

It's a nice little zoo, although quite small. The focus is on Texas native animals, although they had a few exotics--a couple of very active tigers, some lemurs and two young Barbary lions, which are extinct in the wild and critically endangered even in captivity. There was also the prerequisite petting zoo, featuring a sheep, several grumpy pot-bellied pigs and quite a few miniature goats, including the pugnacious one pictured above. I appreciate the focus on native wildlife, but have to admit I'd have liked to see mountain lions, ocelots, jagarundi, white tailed deer, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope in the zoo. Badgers, prairie dogs, a litter of hyperactive baby possums, some endangered red wolves, a bobcat, coyotes, foxes and javelina were willing to entertain. The white-lipped coati, below, was possibly the most exotic native on display. I'm a little shamefaced to admit I hadn't realized they were native to Texas--I thought they were limited to Brazil. Duh.

Grandma enjoyed the trip immensely. We had lunch at Golden Corral, which, although not a luxury dining establishment by any means, had the barbecued chicken and sweet potatoes and green bean casserole that Grandma enjoyed, plus some hot peach cobbler for dessert. The travel had worn her down a bit, but the zoo had a wheelchair we could use, and I was able to wheel her around the entire zoo so she could see all the animals. Despite protests of not wanting to be a burden, she got a kick out of the free-roaming guineas and peacocks, and watched the exotic animals with fascination. I think she got more entertainment out of my kids' antics, though. At the end of the day she was talking of visiting San Antonio's much larger zoo in the near future--and then going shopping afterward. All in all, a lot of fun for everyone involved.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Friday Night Videos

C+C Music Factory was quite popular early in my college years. Their music was so energetic and infectious that they got nearly constant airplay, that is, until they vanished completely as bands are wont to do. "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" is the big hit everyone remembers, but the single of theirs I liked the most was "Things That Make You Go Hmmmm...." It's catchy and clever and never fails to make me smile. The video itself is quite stylish. What's not to like?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Falco.

Now Playing: Ray Davies Working Man's Cafe

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Chicken Ranch: Sixth of Six

Armadillocon 32 proved to be a timely break for me. I was able to recharge the creative batteries and discuss the Chicken Ranch book with many folks who kindly offered myriad advice and suggestions. Once they understood what I was trying to do with the opening chapter, they enthusiastically endorsed my efforts and urged me to keep at it. And so I shall.

The story of the Chicken Ranch, in many ways, is one of obsession. Marvin Zindler pursues the great white brothel like a man possessed, and the town of La Grange is caught up in his pursuit through no fault of its own. At its heart, it's something of a tragedy, rife with symbolism. I believe the sheriff is the perfect viewpoint character for such an approach:
Call me Flournoy. Some years ago-- never mind how long precisely-- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me at the jail, I thought I would drive about a little and see the seamier part of Fayette County. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before jail cells, and bringing up the rear of every criminal transfer; and especially whenever my deputies get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically shooting people's hats off-- then, I account it high time to get to the Chicken Ranch as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the brothel. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the whores with me.

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

Now Playing: Robert Plant Fate of Nations


So I get an email forwarded to me today breathlessly describing how Obama's set to enact the most humongous tax increase in history which will send everyone to the poorhouse where we'll all be converted to atheistic Muslims and be conditioned to cheer as the president rapes my daughters. Actually, those last few bits weren't explicitly stated, but if you read between the lines it's there. Totally.

So anyway, the email was mostly about this Commie black man stealing all the hard-working white folks' money. Which is, you know, the biggest issue facing white America nowadays since those nice Mexican drug lords have solved our illegal immigrant problem by gunning down all the migrant farm workers en mass along the border. The forwarded email is, of course demonstrably misleading. I was going to say demonstrably false, but it occurred to me that by some torturous logic individual words, taken out of any rational context, may well be considered vaguely true. So I'll settle for misleading. It saddens me that such assertions are forwarded without any critical thought given to the content by otherwise intelligent people, but I can't say it surprises me.

The 2001 Bush tax cuts were gifts to millionaires and multinational corporations that destroyed the billion dollar budget surpluses of the Clinton administration ($236 billion in 2000). Ironically, there was no great pent-up demand for these tax cuts, and some business interests even voiced concern over the effect such massive cuts would have on budget. Personally, I've never quite gotten the evangelical fervor that mandates the more taxes are cut, the more revenue the government receives. Common (and economic) sense dictates that there is a break-even point beyond which the returns diminish rapidly.

Those ill-advised tax breaks are expiring now because Congressional budgetary rules prohibit deficit spending beyond the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office's 10-year budgetary projections. So the GOP controlling Congress in 2001 got around this by passing the cuts as a "temporary" measure, lasting only the length of the CBO's 10-year projection, effectively sacrificing fiscal responsibility in order to pander to their political base. If Congressional leaders in 2001--not to mention the Bush administration--had truly been concerned with the fiscal health of our nation, they would have passed these cuts with offsetting spending reductions and made them permanent. They chose not to, yet nobody seems to be questioning this action today.

THIS is why I hold the current crowd of born-again deficit hawks and supposedly fiscally-responsive teabaggers in contempt. Republicans in Congress are screaming about deficit reduction, yet they are insistent on expanding the single biggest contributor to said national debt. This, friends, it the ultimate in hypocrisy. This is not a talking point. This is not a political ax to grind. This is fiscal reality. The budget will not, cannot be balanced without eliminating politically motivated giveaways such as the 2011 tax cuts and Medicare Part D (with projected costs of $727.3 billion through 2018). What happened to the true fiscal conservatives? They're not in Washington, not in the Democratic party and certainly not in the GOP. Why am I not ripping on the Dems as hard? Because frankly, they're not campaigning as the fiscally responsible party with one hand while writing hot checks with the other. The fact that Republican leaders are ignoring and marginalizing Rep. Paul Ryan is proof of that the lip service they are paying to budgetary restraint is no more than that--lip service. I guarantee that if Republicans gain control of Congress and the White House in upcoming elections, in short order today's trillion-dollar deficits will look like chump change. Because, hey, we tried that already in 2001 and look where it got us.

Now Playing: Johnny Cash The Essential Johnny Cash