Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Well, here we are at the end of 2011. The year has been challenging and frustrating, but also rewarding. I turned 42 and dove into writing the Chicken Ranch book head first. So naturally, life made sure the water was shallow. Ah. well, I will get by. Seems to me like the Grateful Dead's only Top 42 hit, "Touch of Grey", effectively sums up these past 12 months.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Roy Orbison.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Even with his most "happy" songs, Roy Orbison has a powerful strain of melancholy running through his music. It is inherent in the man's soul, I believe. So when Orbison took a stab at his own original Christmas song, it's no surprise that he didn't take the standard "isn't the world pretty and wonderful" approach so many others have. Here is the man himself, singing a stripped-down version of "Pretty Paper" on the Johnny Cash Show.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Stan Freberg.

Now Playing: Earth, Wind & Fire The Eternal Dance
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chicken Ranch Report no. 14

Riddle me this: When is two weeks off not two weeks off? When I'm home with the family. Seriously, distractions and stresses abound--only a fraction of which are generated by the kiddos, mind you--but it's still enough to make productive writing a challenge. I knew this going in, and it will only get tougher as Christmas and New Years approach. Still, I am making steady progress and have reasonable hope that this current chapter will indeed be completed by the 31st, thus putting me back on schedule. Yay!

The current chapter, which I haven't spoken of much, is essentially a biography of Edna Milton, better known as Miss Edna. The last owner of the Chicken Ranch, her story is a bittersweet one at best. She never aspired to prostitution or wanted to become a madam--and in all honesty, who would? She wanted what any teenage girl in the 1940s would want: the handsome husband, a brood of children, a cozy little house with a white picket fence. Suffice to say, she didn't get any of that dream, yet she still lived an amazing life.

The most challenging part of writing this chapter hasn't been the actual writing (unlike the previous chapters) but instead sifting through the reams of interview pages I have from Miss Edna and piecing together a chronological narrative. She's one of those people who breaks off on tangents more often than not, talking about whatever pops up in her memory at the moment. This means that, say, her reminisces about living in Fort Worth are broken up by several hours worth of memories of the Chicken Ranch, family trees, pets she's had, and her thoughts on Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Sorting through all that is time consuming, and exhausting. Rewarding, yes, but no less a challenge. On the bright side, I'm rewarded with the account of how Miss Edna first came to the Chicken Ranch, which to my knowledge, has never been published or recounted in any form or fashion:
Suspicious of the Chicken Ranch, Miss Edna instead headed to Austin, where legendary Texas madam Hattie Valdes operated several houses catering to horny University of Texas students and Texas legislators in equal measure.

“She didn’t have any openings at that moment, but she asked me if I knew about La Grange,” Miss Edna said. “The lady in Austin was telling me about it, then she called down there and they said somebody’s going to be gone a week. I said, ‘Well, at least I’ll go down there and see what it’s about. I may not even want to stay.’ But you can tolerate almost anything for a week.

“It was pleasant driving up to that old thing, seeing the trees and everything, you know?” she said. “After having looked at the city for a few years, that white house in the distance, among those green trees, it looked real pleasant. I didn’t know how it’d be like inside, you know, but I went from there.”
There's more where that came from--a lot more, but it's getting late, so I'll wait until tomorrow to write up that part of the story. Now, it's off to bed for me!

Now Playing: Christopher Franke Babylon 5: Messages from Earth
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Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Night Videos

It's too bad Stan Freberg's heyday came long before MTV and music videos, because his particular brand of insane genius lends itself particularly well to visual mayhem. Take, for example, "Nuttin' for Christmas," which Joe Crow pointed out to me. It's an excellent 2009 animated adaptation of Freberg's definitive version of the song, with just enough subversiveness to turn sappy holiday sentiment on its ear. Enjoy!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Stevie Wonder.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Security
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Power women!

Lord help me, I've been sucked into a meme. When someone posted on George Takei's Facebook wall an updated image with Star Trek Voyager's Captain Janeway of all people, I lost it. This will put me on many folks' black list, but I've always found Janeway one of the milquetoast captains in the Star Trek universe (outdone only by Enterprise's Archer). So I couldn't help but double down with Ivanova. Click to get the bigger version.
My initial reaction was to go with Aeryn Sun, being the Farscape fan that I am. But how could I argue with Ivanova's quote?

Ultimately, though, one thing remains clear. Be they fans of Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Buffy or Farscape, everyone is united in their utter contempt for Twilight and dumb-ass sparkly vampires.

Now Playing: AC/DC Who Made Who
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 13

The Chicken Ranch restaurant on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, circa 1978
I did it. I got on a roll last night and knocked out the rest of the current chapter, a full two days ahead of my self-imposed Dec. 15 deadline. Which gives me 17 days to complete the new current chapter before the end of 2011, which means I'll have a quarter of the Chicken Ranch book in the can. Not shabby, considering the huge amount of time I've invested in research. The downside is that I went to bed close to 1 a.m., and the Bug, who'd been sick over the weekend, developed a fever and pretty much ended any chance of my getting any sleep at all (turns out he'd developed a secondary ear infection. A quick trip to the doctor and he's all fixed up with an antibiotic prescription and feeling much better). So I'm groggy, achy and punchy today, and not a whole lot of fun to be around.

Still, that can't take the joy out of getting another chapter finished. And last night's writing session covered two fairly high-profile Chicken Ranch stories, adding a considerable amount of detail to one and thoroughly debunking the other. It also contained one of the best quotes thus far, one that I'm very happy exists:
"There’s more hockypoo about that place than anything else."
Seriously, how many other writers get to use "hockeypoo" in their book with a straight face? Okay, I'll admit I cracked a grin while writing it, but still. That quote aside, here's a sample of last night's output, quite possibly the single most well-known aspect of the Chicken Ranch:
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Miss Jessie hit upon a solution almost as old as the oldest profession, itself: Barter. Area farmers didn’t have money, but they did have livestock, and the brothel began accepting stock in trade. Before long, the going exchange rate became jokingly known as the “poultry standard,” that is, one chicken, one screw. Needless to say, Miss Jessie’s girls were up to their eyeballs in chickens in no time.
Printing out the draft of the chapter for my files, it suddenly strikes me that I've already written quite a bit. Curiosity got the better of me, and I compared my page count to that of Jan Hutson's Chicken Ranch book from 1980. Now, there's not a 1:1 correlation between manuscript pages and a published book, but I'll wager my wordcount at this early stage isn't that far off her's in its entirety. And I know for certain I have more facts in mine--at least, facts that can be attributed and verified.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Peter Gabriel Plays Live
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 13

Train keeps a rollin'. I keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but thus it is full steam ahead. After the ordeal of the previous chapter, this one's surprised my by its amiable nature. I've gotten to the point where, even with just a limited window to write, I'm able to accomplish a few hundred words. Good words, too. The kind that don't make me retch when I re-read them the next day.

I'm thinking this is because I've finally gotten into the meat of my own research. I'm no longer merely recasting mythology that everyone from Saul Friedman to Jan Hutson to Al Reinert to Larry King has written about. I'm bringing new and original history to the table, stories and incidents that have never seen publication. That's a pretty nifty feeling. Also, in the case of oft-repeated stories such as the World War I anecdote below, I've been able to connect a few dots and give it a more thorough historical context.
One of the first opportunities to ingratiate herself with the community came with America’s entry into World War I. As plenty of young Fayette County men headed overseas with the legendary doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force, Miss Jessie had her handful of girls write encouraging letters to the lads, sometimes even sending along care packages filled with home-baked cookies.

That show of compassion went over well in La Grange. Unfortunately, the War Department wasn’t nearly as impressed. Concerned with the debilitating impact venereal disease could have on the troops, the U.S. government launched a full-on war against prostitution. Following the advice of Teddy Roosevelt, Secretary of War Newton Baker spoke softly and carried a very big stick: any Texas city that wanted an army post (or wanted to keep one they already had) must shutter their vice districts, period.
I'll have my work cut out for me when it comes to revisions, of course. I find all matter of historical minutiae fascinating, much of which cause other people's eyes to glaze over. Ensuring the book is a lively, engaging read is an ongoing concern for me (yet you are thinking "It's a book about a brothel? How could it not be fascinating?" Trust me, anything can be boring if the writing is bad enough. This is my personal nightmare).

I'm also starting to give serious thought to cross-promotion opportunities, journal and magazine articles and the like. Serious work on that is going to have to wait until the new year, once I have a few more chapters in the bag. But anyone with any brilliant ideas, feel free to send 'em along!

Now Playing: Roy Orbison In Dreams
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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 12

So we've come to suspect that H1N1 has infiltrated the homefront. In a lemons-into-lemonade kind of way, this has been good for my writing. With everyone else lying around lethargic, there's nowhere we're going or the like. So, other than the lack of sleep from staying up late with vomiting children, I've been able to put my waking hours to good, writerly use.

As I write my way deeper into the book, I'm coming across a surprising number of serendipitous realizations. Nothing earthshaking, mind you, nothing that makes me shout, "AH-HA! This proves Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone!" Even so, they're significant to me. For instance, several disparate facts lying around--most of which are well-known to people who've written or read up on the Chicken Ranch before--but as I'm writing they click together with a few other bits and pieces I've unearthed all the way, and suddenly, blam!, it's like staring cross-eyed at a colorful, pixellated poster for hours on end before it suddenly resolves itself into a 3-D image of a possum eating a watermelon or somesuch. Only in my case, a timeline magically appears where none existed before, complete with dates, records and motivations, effectively bridging a gap where before only innuendo and hearsay held sway. That's cool.

These random discoveries have also helped me deal with an over-abundance of information. Believe it or not, the history of the Chicken Ranch is a feast-or-famine affair, with certain eras utterly devoid of meaningful information, whereas other eras the cup runneth over. This is particularly true in the case of tangential stories and events, those that aren't necessarily about the Chicken Ranch per se, but the people and events around it that provide a much-needed context, allowing the reader to understand why and how things unfolded as they did. Too many tangents overwhelms the main narrative, but what to do when one particular tangent is pretty darn significant? Enough so that folks may well ask why I skipped over it? Well, in the course of double-checking some dates, I came across a previously-unknown newspaper archive online that included articles on that particular event. More importantly for my immediate needs, it was kind enough to inform me that Jim Flournoy--the man who'd later become Fayette County Sheriff and a major figure later on in my book--was deeply involved in the event, something I'd not come across before. Armed with this new knowledge, I'm moving this particular tangent later in the book, so as to flesh out Sheriff Flournoy's early career more effectively. Pretty cool how this works out, eh? Here's a sample of the latest:
Cooperation, mostly, seemed to be the key in forming a lasting alliance between the brothel and the sheriff’s office. Law enforcement everywhere maintained useful networks of informants who’d pass along information overheard from the underworld. In La Grange, this boiled down to the fact that petty criminals tended to brag about their exploits to whatever pretty whore they happened to be bedding. Miss Jessie made sure to pass any such confessions along.
And yes, I am still on track to finish this chapter by the 15th, which will give me an even-money shot at wrapping up the next chapter by New Year's Eve. Momentum, as they say, is a wonderful thing.

Now Playing: Miles Davis Kind of Blue
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Night Videos

"Superstition." Probably Stevie Wonder's greatest song. There is a hard edged, funky genius about it that cannot be denied.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Traveling Wilburys.

Now Playing: Lenny Kravitz Are You Gonna Go My Way
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 11

Just a very short update for you tonight. Rest assured, I had another good night of writing (what's up with that?) and the words are flowing as spice must (Dune reference, for non-skiffy types). But I had to share this one sentence, which I've desperately wanted to write since the idea for this book first took root in my fevered brain:
Neither version is accurate, but the first tale is unique in its almost complete disconnect from reality.
Yes, I do demolish the wrongheaded, misguided and just downright bad writings of a writer who hath trod this ground before me. I confess to enjoying it a bit too much.

Now Playing: Marvin Gaye Anthology
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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 10

Another good night of writing. I'm sort of in a state of disbelief. I've hit something of a sticking point, so that's as good a place to hang it up for the night as any, but I can clearly see what lies on the other side. This is good. At this rate (knock wood) I may actually hit my goal of finishing this chapter by the middle of next week. And I'm about to jump head long into my own primary research, which should be loads of fun (just the raw quotes from the interviews I'll be using in this chapter take up 20 pages, so I've no shortage of material).

While the Chicken Ranch is fondly remembered for the most part, and by most accounts offered the women there some measure of safety and security, the vast majority of prostitutes in Texas had neither. It was a hard life, and often the ending was tragic. Here's a sample of tonight's work:
Although the system offered a degree of protection, a woman’s value only amounted to her ability to bring in money. One Austin police officer took note of a well-known prostitute, Georgetown Ella, who’d fallen deathly ill. With their mother unable to work, Ella’s four children faced the likelihood of starvation, and the brothel’s owner, Charley Cooney, was not the type of man to show compassion to any of them. Society in general was not apt to show much compassion, either.
On a brighter note, I picked up two pieces of Chicken Ranch memorabilia off Ebay this week. Neither item was ever actually produced by or sold at the real Chicken Ranch. One was a money clip, which are pretty common, but this showed up at a cheap price and I couldn't resist. The other, a wine glass, features a Chicken Ranch logo. I've never seen such a glass before, so it's an intriguing find. I figure this was either sold as a souvenir at the failed Dallas restaurant or marketed in La Grange in the mid-80s, during the very brief time when they attempted to commercialize the defunct brothel. Either way, they're nice additions to my collection.

Now Playing: Monks of the Benedictine Abbey el Calcat A Treasury of Gregorian Chants
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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 9

I'm jinxing myself by writing this, I know, but I had a productive writing session last night. After flailing with yet another awkward transition, I caught some traction and had some nice momentum going by the time I called it quits. I just saw an online posting I made back in July where I commented that I hoped the book would be finished by the end of this year. Alas, that's not going to happen--not by a long shot. I'm even behind schedule on my revised timeline, due to a spectacularly unproductive November. Evenings such as I experienced last night give me hope, however. If I can manage that same degree of production the rest of the week, it is entirely reasonable for me to finish the current chapter by the 15th. That would leave me a little over two weeks to get another chapter finished before the end of the year, which would mean a third of the book in the can. That'd be enough to polish up and send off to publishers for consideration.

The big drawback with that plan is the fact that I have two weeks of holidays coming up. That time off from work is tempting to think of as writing time, but my family's also off. I've learned from experience that family time and travel is a mighty powerful black hole that sucks up free time like you wouldn't believe. But still, it's nice to have goals.

Here's some of what I wrought last night. Obviously, I'm not restricting myself to the narrow history of the Chicken Ranch itself. There's a significant of historical context that's going into the book as well.
The ideas that sanctioned prostitution prevented rape and the spread of venereal disease were perhaps the most persistent arguments used by those in favor of a regulated sex trade, and ones that were commonly invoked to defend the Chicken Ranch as late as 1973. These "regulationists" were often police and medical practitioners, those who interacted and dealt with prostitution on an ongoing basis. From their perspective, the world's oldest profession had persisted and even thrived despite centuries of eradication efforts by countless cultures. The prohibition approach had undeniably failed. If prostitution could not be eliminated, then perhaps it could be contained and segregated so as to not corrupt polite society.
It also doesn't help my daily progress when I come across items in my notes and research materials that absolutely needs to go in a previous chapter. That means going back before I forget, inserting the stray material, rewriting the surrounding copy to fit, revising citations...

Now Playing: Various artists Doctor Demento Show 11/29/1997
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, December 02, 2011

And this is what you get for shopping local

The Wife and I have made a conscious effort to shop local this year, avoiding big chains when possible and in general trying to make our spending impact the area economy in as positive way as possible. When it comes to photography, this means we've been making the trip into San Antonio to give our business to the Camera Exchange. Normally, our experience is good.

Today was not a good experience.

The Wife, who is a Certified Professional Photographer with PPA and the owner of Lisa On Location photography drove down there today, braving Friday traffic as well as rain-slick roads because she needed some professional advice on a purchase she needed to make. The sales associate who assisted her--and I use that word very loosely--not only soured a sure sale, but pretty much guaranteed we'll be taking our business elsewhere from now on. He was condescending. He refused to actually listen to what she was saying, instead deciding she didn't know what she was talking about. In short, he assumed she was a ditzy "Mom-With-Camera" photographer wanna-be and treated her with vaguely disinterested contempt. The Wife was so infuriated she called me from the parking lot to vent.

She never gets this kind of crappy treatment from Adorama or B&H. Those online photography superstores based in New York have much better prices than the Camera Exchange as well, but we've tried to eat that price difference to support the local guys. And this is the thanks we get. Folks wondering why local businesses are failing need look no further--just once case of terrible customer service can negate years of good will in just a few moment. Let that be a lesson to everyone.

Now Playing: Original Cast Recording The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas
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Friday Night Videos

After a rough, stressful week I think we'll go with The Traveling Wilburys today to make everything better. Remember, handle with care.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Aerosmith.

Now Playing: various artists Celtic Moods
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Emilia Blaschke (1922-2011)

My paternal grandmother, "Grandma Melio," died early Tuesday. I'm not as emotional as I should be about it, 1) because I've only had occasional contact with her over the past 25 years, and 2) she's battled dementia and failing health over the past few years, to the point where passing is merciful for her.
Emelia Blaschke, 89, of Nordheim, passed away Tuesday Nov. 29, 2011. She was born April 7, 1922 in DeWitt County to the late John and Martha Skloss Gaida. She was a member of Holy Cross Catholic Church.

She is survived by her sons Joe Blaschke of Spring, TX, James Blaschke of Houston, TX and Nolan Blaschke of Columbus, TX, sister Adelene Decker, seven grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

She is preceded in death by her parents, husband Joseph Blaschke and brother E.G. Gaida.

A rosary will be 7:00 pm Wed. Nov. 30, 2011 at Finch Funeral Chapel. Funeral Mass will be 10:00 am Thurday Dec. 1, 2011 at Holy Cross Catholic Church. Intement will follow at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Pallbearers will be Frankie Seifert, Flavis Kozielski, Gervis Blaschke, Gary Rangnow, Glenn Mueller, Keith Blaschke, Jayme Blaschke, John Blaschke and Christopher Blaschke.

Memorial may be given to Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery Fund or Masses.

Arrangements by Finch Funeral Chapel-Yorktown 361-564-2277
I hadn't seen much of her for the past 2-plus decades because of a feud my father has perpetuated with that part of our family. Because of a wrong they did to him, my father cut off all contact with his mother, father and brothers as well as their respective families (a wrong I suspect, viewed through the wisdom of years, may actually be the other way around). He refused to attend his own father's funeral when Grandpa Joe died a few years back. He won't be attending his mother's funeral. He won't bury the hatchet because he'd rather nurse this hard lump of bitterness within him and play the victim, even though his siblings and parents have tried over and over again to make amends.

You know what? I'm sick of his petty, self-centered childish behavior. My five-year-old son has a better-defined sense of right and wrong than my 71-year-old father. I cannot count the times I have received messages from former students of his, telling me what a great person he was. In the interest of civility, I have bitten my tongue. No more. Nolan Blaschke is a prideful, arrogant, self-centered petty dictator who is a racist and misogynist, pretty much your all-around misanthrope. He has alienated almost all of his close family and friends over the years, and has abandoned my mother. That last part isn't hyperbole, and I will not pretend any longer. I will not make excuses for him any longer. I've been to far too many funerals and functions in recent years where I've had to make excuses for his absence or behavior, and that stops now.

If anyone asks me where my father is tomorrow, I will reply that he "Is at home, wallowing in self-pity. He is a vile, reprehensible human being, and we'd all be better off if it were him we were burying today instead of his mother."

If he doesn't want me telling everyone that, then he'd better man up, get his head on right and start acting like he has a soul, instead of just a shriveled, spite-filled cinder.

Now Playing: Berlin Philharmonic Wagner: The Ring Without Words
Chicken Ranch Central

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 8

FINALLY! I am finally done with the current chapter, one that has taken well more than twice as long to write as I'd planned. One that has put me significantly behind schedule. One that was ornery and difficult to write, fighting me every step of the way. To add insult to injury, it is very much a "first draft" chapter, one in need of significant rewriting before it is fit for human eyes. You'd think that after taking up so much time, it could at least come out polished and ready for the printers, but nooooooo.

In any event, I'm very happy to put this one behind me. I had to rely on existing sources and other people's research heavily here, as opposed to my own, and it's awkward when something that's been accepted as fact by many, mean people for so long ends up being debunked by me. Or, if not debunked, at least seriously questioned. Especially when there's no clear alternative to the current assumptions, which are clearly and demonstrably flawed. Here's some of the words I close out the chapter with. Tomorrow, on to the 20th century, and my own primary research!
Prostitution may have established itself in La Grange in the days of the Republic, but the frontier was a dusty memory, as was the “anything goes” attitude that accompanied it. La Grange had grown into a modern town of more than 2,000 residents, with electric and water utilities, an opera house, four schools, three banks and five churches. With the progressive era of a new century dawning, there seemed little chance that the status quo the brothels had enjoyed for so long could continue.
Now Playing: Miles Davis Kind of Blue
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My new German toy

At this moment, I am feeling pretty mediocre. There's been some sort of virus working its way through my family, and I started feeling it Monday afternoon. By Tuesday morning just driving the kids to school caused me to break out in a cold sweat, so I wisely headed back home and climbed into bed. By late afternoon I'd started feeling moderately better, and ventured forth, to discover the nice UPS man had left me a present:

Canon EOS 7D with Astronomik CLS Clip filter

For those of you scratching your head and going "What the heck is that?" I'll tell you. It's an Astronomik CLS clip filter from Germany. It's an ingenious little device. Because of the way Canon APS-C cameras are made (those that have a "cropped" imaging sensor which is about 3/4 the size of a 35mm film frame) there is a small open space in between the mirror/shutter assembly and the rear of the attached camera lens. The German engineers at Astronomik realized they could design a filter that could "clip in" to this unused space for astronomy purposes (sorry Nikon users--your camera design doesn't allow for internal clip filters).

The CLS filter I got is a light pollution filter. Because there are so many street lights in my neighborhood, not to mention the sky glow from New Braunfels, San Antonio and Austin, astrophotos of more than a brief exposure end up having an ugly, brown fog to them. Yuck. But the CLS filter is coated in such a way that the sodium and mercury vapor light produced by most street lamps and city lights are almost completely blocked. This means longer exposures are possible without the ill effects of light pollution!

My first attempt at astrophotography using the CLS clip filter and my Canon 7D is above, the Orion constellation. I set the camera up on a tripod and shot 20 10-second exposures at 800 and 1600 ISO (I couldn't go for longer exposures because I hadn't set my telescope up, and the camera had no way to track the movement of the start across the sky). I stacked these individual images using Deep Sky Stacker, a nifty freeware program. The result isn't anything near award-winning, but it does show all the relevant stars without the washed-out effect of light pollution. And the Orion nebula is easily visible. I think I'm going to have a lot of fun with this in the future.

Now Playing: Stan Getz The Complete Roost Recordings
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, November 21, 2011

My beef with Peter Lik

In a remarkably short period of time, I have become a huge fan of Australian photographer Peter Lik. I first became aware of him back in the spring, when he was featured in the June issue of Professional Photographer magazine, which The Wife gets as an active member of Professional Photographers of America. His dramatic colors and sweeping panoramas inspired me greatly, and made me think of a color-centric Ansel Adams. When we set out on our family vacation road trip out west, I was determined to shoot some landscapes that, if not Lik-worthy, were at the very least "pretty good." Although I mostly shoot as an assistant to The Wife with weddings and portraits, I've had a keen interest in landscape/nature photography for as long as I can remember. Far longer than I've had any competent knowledge of camera operation, certainly.

Sadly, the road trip did not turn out as I'd hoped. They never do. I made a few attempts, but they all fell short of the goal. Take the famous "Horseshoe Bend" south of Page, Arizona. A late start and a crush of other photographers (not to mention a sheer drop-off and cranky kids) made this a real challenge. Harsh shadows marred the lower portion of the scene. I used some Photoshop processing to pull out colors from the river, but the end result is merely a "nice try"--a far cry from the gallery-worthy shot I was hoping for.

Horseshoe Bend Arizona, landscape, fine art, New Braunfels photographer Lisa On Location

Our visit to Monument Valley was a bust as well. A huge sandstorm blew up, obscuring the great mesas and buttes and pretty much made driving miserable. The Wife was sorely disappointed, because while she's not normally a landscape photographer, she had wanted to shoot the iconic north approach to Monument Valley herself. The one shot I got that I was pleased with (and I didn't know it at the time--the awesomeness only became apparent later on when I processed the image) came from my infrared camera. This infrared scene of Monument Valley in the middle of a sandstorm is the single best shot I got on the entire road trip, and one that I do feel is gallery-worthy. Could Lik do better? Probably, but then again, he doesn't shoot infrared, so score one for me.

Monument Valley Arizona, Merrick Butte, West Mitten Butte, Sentinel Mesa, infrared, landscape, fine art, New Braunfels photographer Lisa On Location

After our vacation, I discovered Lik's photography television series on the Weather Channel, From the Edge with Peter Lik. I only managed to see about five of the 13 episodes before the season ended, but I found them engrossing. Granted, Lik has some financial and equipment advantages because of who he is, but it was amazing to see his adventurer's spirit at work. He really is a larger-than-life personality, sort of photography's version of the Crocodile Hunter, as some have derisively labeled him. There's actually quite a bit of derision directed his way, I've learned. Some of it is motivated by jealousy, no doubt, because haters gonna hate. But other criticism is deserved. While Lik is undeniably a skilled photographer, his greater skill may well be self-promotion. That can get old very fast, but from what I see, there is a divide between Peter Lik the photographer and Peter Lik the businessman. The photographer would be fun to hang out with. The businessman, probably not so much. The businessman also goes around claiming that the photographer uses no post-processing or Photoshop on his gallery images, which is a patently untrue. The idea that all of the dramatic colors are captured entirely in-camera has become a marketing mythology perpetrated by Lik himself--in interviews from only a few years back he had no qualms about claiming to use Photoshop to manipulate the colors in his images (the whole video is entertaining, but check out the 1:30 mark:

While an unfortunate pile of marketing hooey, that doesn't diminish the photography any in my mind. Lik still has to actually get out there and get the shot before any Photoshop magic can be done. And nature doesn't always cooperate. So I still greatly admire his eye for composition and photographer's instinct for finding that perfect shot that's just waiting to be captured. Which brings me to the beef I have with Peter Lik.

Recently, his company has launched a snazzy new website. There is much amazing photography on display--"Tree of the Universe" in particular is exactly the type of photograph my inner astrophotographer wants to capture. Amazing stuff. On neat perk for people registering with the site, though, is a digital download copy of Lik's Spirit of America book, which is out of print with used copies going for something north of $50 a pop. I've wanted this for a while, so jumped at the change to download it. Naturally, the first thing I wanted to see was what he came up with for Texas. Texas, as anyone who lives here knows, has a bunch of wildly differing climates and terrains. The possibilities are endless--Enchanted Rock, Padre Island National Seashore, the Guadalupe Mountains, Palo Duro Canyon, the Big Thicket... So imagine my reaction when I saw this:

Now, it's not a bad photo. The Chisos Mountains in the background have a nice red glow of sunset about them. But honestly, could Lik gotten a more uninspired shot if he'd tried? I've seen the agave-in-the-foreground composition more times than I can count, and other than the colors of the Chisos, this isn't even a particularly inventive composition. Out of the length and breadth of the Lone Star State, this is the best he could do? Even limiting himself to Big Bend, I'm thinking Santa Elena Canyon, Grapevine Hills, Lost Mine Peak, Ernst Tenaja, the Mariscal mine... but no. A random agave is what he found the most inspiring and representative of Texas? Is it so wrong for be so disappointed? Other state with much less diversity got several images in the book. I can't help but suspect Lik was already in New Mexico and just decided to jaunt down into Texas to check one state off his list. Maybe he was nearing the end of his years-long project to photograph all 50 state, and what would merely be a rejected outtake at the beginning was "good enough" by the end. I dunno.

I'm still inspired by Lik, and he's a big reason why I'm planning a trip out to Big Bend in early 2012 for photography. But if he ever wants to come back to Texas and get some shots that are more worthy of our state, I'll be happy to serve as a guide. In Central Texas alone I can think of an endless number of sites, from the Canyon Lake Gorge to Enchanted Rock to Hamilton Pool to Honey Creek to the Bracken bat cave... yeah. We can set you up, Peter. Just say the word.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Night Videos

When Aerosmith released the massive Pandora's Box career retrospective in 1991, they made a new video for "Sweet Emotion" to promote the occasion. It got heavy airplay on MTV, back when MTV still played music videos. This video was a revelation to me, not because of Areosmith's ironic humor that frames the video (although that's fun) but rather, I'd never heard the extended album version of "Sweet Emotion" before. I'd only heard the single version on their Greatest Hits album, which also happened to be the only version they ever played on the radio. I actually thought it was a re-recording until someone pointed out to me that I maybe ought to, you know, listen to Toys in the Attic. In any event, the album version of Sweet Emotion is probably my all-time favorite Aerosmith song, not counting odd album tracks like "Hangman Jury" and "Seasons of Wither."

As a side note, I once had a boss who looked just like Joe Perry. The resemblance was uncanny. Except my boss was a woman, and not a very good boss at that. You'll be happy to know I don't hold that against Joe Perry.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Spinal Tap.

Now Playing: Clannad An Diolaim
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 7

As I prepare to hie myself off to bed, plagued all of the day by a lingering headache (likely brought on by the sleep disruption caused by Bug's 3 a.m. fever and vomiting--a nasty episode that vanished as quickly as it came) I feel compelled to share with you good readers this latest strip from the geeky web comic XKCD. The point is well-made. In researching the Chicken Ranch, I've come across a number of oft-reported "facts" that, near as I can tell, were cut from whole cloth by one over-imaginative individual or another. Once a so-called fact is picked up by one publication, it's often cited by another and they all end up referencing each other with little thought given to the fact that this particular house is built upon a foundation of sand. It's an interesting companion to my musings on plagiarism yesterday.

Tonight's writing sample is a good one. A juicy one. I have to confess, I love the irony of this section and took no small amount of glee in writing this up. I could've gone on quite a bit more, but the book is about prostitution in La Grange, after all. Waco's going to have to be content with a walk-on role, even if it was a thousand times more tawdry than the Chicken Ranch ever dreamed of being!

Along the south banks of the Brazos River near Waco’s famed suspension bridge, a red-light district alternately known as “The Reservation” or “Two Street” existed for more than 40 years, as Waco blazed a trail by becoming the first city in Texas to legalize prostitution. Brothels had business permits and were taxed while prostitutes were licensed and--much as the women of the Chicken Ranch would do decades later--submitted to regular, mandatory medical examinations. Although the Reservation was ostensibly supported by the political establishment as a means of keeping vice segregated from more respectable parts of the city, the vast amounts of revenue generated by taxes and licensing fees levied upon commercial sex held far more sway over public policy than moral concerns.
Hoping to get the current chapter put to bed by this weekend. Wish me luck!

Now Playing: Stan Getz The Complete Roost Recordings
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The perils of plagiarism

You may or may not have heard of the recent plagiarism scandal centering around Quentin Rowan. It's been written about extensively, like here, here and here. In a nutshell, this guy, writing under the pen name of Q.R. Markham, published a spy novel to initial acclaim. Bully for him, right? Well yeah, except that it soon came out that the book was almost entirely cobbled together from lines and paragraphs lifted verbatim from other spy novels, with only the names changed. Seriously. Rowan stole from the James Bond books written by John Gardner as well as the works of Robert Ludlum, Charles McCarry and others. The book in question, Assassin of Secrets, was getting some good reviews before folks started putting together that it was other authors who were more deserving of credit. The publisher, Little, Brown & Co., subsequently pulled the book and it's now likely to become a collector's item.

Beyond the obvious stigma of stealing someone else's work and presenting it as your own, I have to wonder about Rowan's sanity. When college students plagiarize a term paper downloaded from the internet, that's cutting corners to save time and effort. In Rowan's case, however, harvesting so many random lines and paragraphs from so many different books and authors, then stringing them together in such a way to construct a coherent plot... that strikes me as an insane amount of work and research. Far easier and straightforward to just, you know, make up the stuff on your own.

Being a journalist by training, plagiarism's always been an issue high on my personal radar. Back in college, not a year would go by without some writer for the student paper, The Battalion, running afoul of plagiarism charges. They were invariably working for the sports desk, believe it or not. Each time, it was a columnist that got in trouble. Two were fired outright for copying a syndicated sports column and presenting as their own. The third, who happened to be working for me the one summer I served as sports editor, also used unattributed material in his column. To his credit, he did attribute the original source earlier in the column, but not when he referenced more points the original author made. In my meeting with the managing editor on the matter, we judged that it was a mistake rather than intent to deceive. So we only suspended him for two weeks. Plagiarism's serious stuff, folks.

Which brings us to today. Plagiarism has been weighing heavily on my mind long before Mr. Rowan's creative novel writing came to light. In writing this book on the Chicken Ranch, I'm putting together a non-fiction work that is not unlike journalism. I'm using many sources that came before me, and striving to properly attribute everything via endnotes. In some cases, however, the historical sources run pretty thin. Some facts and stories about the brothel can be found in a mere single source--the myriad publications that came after all cite that one source. This in and of itself is troubling for a journalist conditioned to always use multiple sources in order to verify facts, but in my case I have no choice but to go with what I can find.

My biggest challenge with this is that in many cases, these sources often presented the relevant facts in the clearest, most logical and straightforward way. Were I given this information, I'd likely write something very similar. But as I'm using them as a source, I dare not repeat those words verbatim outside of a direct quote (which I want to avoid whenever possible, as I have primary source interviews I plan on directly quoting very heavily). I'm constantly worried about reading a particularly good bit and having it worm its way into my subconscious, only to sneakily reappear later, masquerading as my own original thought. This has led to some awkward writing situations. Take last night for instance. Months ago, I'd found a section in a book that I knew would make an absolutely perfect point at this certain point in the chapter I'm currently working on. So I wrote the material down in a paragraph, added the citation, and wrote toward it. Last night I reached said paragraph, and my heart sank as I read over it again. It was perfect. Too perfect. What I'd written up to that point dovetailed nicely with the cited material. Despite the fact that the paragraphs flowed together beautifully, I steeled myself for an extensive rewrite. No matter how perfect the words were, I would not plagiarize. But folks, I'm telling you the rewrite was agony. Those words on the page were the perfect fit, and anything I came up with as an alternative read like nothing more than a convoluted work-around. After an hour or so of this, I pulled out the original source book in frustration, hoping to maybe find some little nuggets of inspiration in the text surrounding the material I was referencing.

It was then that I realized that I'd already rewritten the source material, incorporating some of my own original research as well! I'd spent the previous hour trying to paraphrase and recast what were already my own words. It was maddening. Frustrating. I said words that would make sailors cover their ears. But hey, the words on the page are mine. And the citations and reference are in proper order as well. I may yet drop the ball and botch things royally, but if I do, it won't be due to lack of effort.

Now Playing: John Coltrane The Very Best of John Coltrane
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Today, according to the Gregorian calendar, is 11/11/11. There is only one band appropriate for such a singular, august date. "These go to 11."

Now that the mood is properly set, behold the magnificence of "Big Bottoms":

The edgy education of "Bitch School":

Or their resplendent opus, unmatched in the annals of annalized rock opera, "Stonehenge":

Remember folks, Spinal Tap is strong stuff, so use only in moderation!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... John Cougar Mellencamp.

Now Playing: The Hollies Greatest Hits
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 6

Had a fun evening at Wurstfest tonight, with a dinner of wurst and sauerkraut washed down by some good Dortmunder. You know why I like living in New Braunfels so much, despite all the B.S. from the city council? This is why. Lots of Germanic pride on display tonight, along with polka. Lots of polka. And yodeling. Good stuff.

None of which is directly relevant to tonight's writing on the Chicken Ranch book, but I suppose it put me in a good enough mood to tackle one pressing issue head-on. Namely, how do I deal with oft-repeated "fact" that I strongly suspect, but cannot prove, was wholly invented by a previous author? How does an author, writing a history, handle an important time period in which which no good contemporary sources or after-the-fact accounts exist? I tread carefully, but firmly. How can I do otherwise?
If the widowed Mrs. Swine is a fiction, then she is a convenient one. Prostitution certainly flourished in 19th century La Grange, as it did throughout Texas and the Old West. Somebody had to be first, it stands to reason, and if nothing else, the homely, crude widow dressed in black makes for a good story.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: For being the world's most famous brothel, the Chicken Ranch has had a mind-boggling amount not written about it. My list of 19th century sources is vanishingly short. Still, I persevere. It's what I do.

Now Playing: Dire Straits On the Night
Chicken Ranch Central

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 5

This past week has been tough on the writing front. Not much progress simply because too many other things have gobbled up my free minutes like Pac-Man munching so many glowing dots. Some of these time sinks have been good, such as photographing weddings and the like with The Wife, or doing reading homework with my youngest. Others have been bad, like the upstairs toilet overflowing overnight and completely flooding the garage. Throw in some much-needed fun, like Halloween and back yard astronomy, and my week was gone, just like that. Fortunately, I was able to grab some quality time at the keyboard this evening. Yay! Here's a sample of what I got down:
The saloon was in a prime location to take advantage of the abundance of thirsty, road-weary travelers, and as a matter of course offered several rooms to rent. It is here Mrs. Swine took up residence with her girls, and the saloon operated continuously as a brothel for at least the next 50 years.
The good news is that I'm back on track. The bad news is that I'm already behind my self-imposed schedule. I need to double-time it this week if I'm going to finish the current chapter and the next before the end of the month. And I suspect Thanksgiving won't let me have a whole lot of free time for writing...

Now Playing: Count Basie The Atomic Mr. Basie
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Friday, November 04, 2011

The moon in my sights

With the weather cooling off, the astronomy bug has bitten me again, as it tends to do every year at this time. Driving hone this past week I've been treated to some exceptionally clear skies, so I decided to take out my telescope and play around a bit. I had it out last week, but most of that time was spent struggling with collimation--which is the technical term for making sure all the mirrors line up in my Newtonian reflector telescope. If they don't, then distortion degrades the image of whatever you happen to be looking at. So I used a compass to get a passably accurate polar alignment, then monkeyed with the mirror settings for half an hour before I finally was satisfied that the scope was as collimated as good as I was going to get it. Collimation is a very basic task for owners of Newtonian telescopes, but man, I struggle with it.

With collimation more or less achieved and a pretty half-moon beckoning in the sky above, I was inspired to break out my Canon 7D and see how it handled for astrophotography. The 7D has live view, which my XTi does not, which should make accurate focusing much easier--at least in theory. The moon is an easy target, so I gave it a shot. There are two way to take astrophotos through a telescope--using the scope itself as the lens, which is called "prime photography," or using an eyepiece between the telescope and camera for increased magnification, which is called "eyepiece projection photography." Of the two, eyepiece projection is the more challenging, but I tend to do it most often because I like to mix my astrophotography with visual observing. With prime focus, although the image is brighter and sharper, the rear mirror must be moved inside the telescope tube which renders it unsuitable for visual observing. Plus, it would have to be re-collimated, and you know where I stand on that.

The image above shows the southeast of the moon. In the center of the image, the overlapping craters are, from lower left to upper right, are Janssen, Fabricus and Metius. Just to the right of them is a shallow, diagonal gash that is the Rheita Valley. Pretty cool, huh? I shot this image, and the one below, using a 12mm GSO Plössl eyepiece. The image at the top of the page of the entire moon was taken using a 20mm Plössl for a lower magnification and a wider field of view.

The image above shows the moon from the lunar equator southward. The smooth, grayis areas are the Sea of Fertility (right) and the Sea of Nectar (left). The Sea of Tranquility joins them at the top of the image, with the Apollo 11 landing site in the upper left-hand corner. The prominent crater with the central peak on the western edge of the Sea of Nectar is Theophilus. Notice the loss of sharp definition in the lower left of the image--I'll back to that shortly.

With the 12mm Plössl images turning out so nicely, I thought I'd push my telescope's capabilities to the max, and traded the 12mm for a 4mm Plössl, which is the highest magnification eyepiece I own. Turns out the 4mm is a bust for astrophotography--I could not bring it to focus with my camera. There simply wasn't enough inward focus on the telescope's focuser, and the image stayed blurry. So I tried my next highest magnification eyepiece, a 6mm Plössl. This one did work, as evidenced by the image above. The crater Theophilus and the Sea of Nectar are visible upper right hand corner. The view was certainly much closer, but it was also much dimmer. Not only that, but turbulence in the atmosphere was more obvious, distorting and degrading the view. Despite my best efforts at focusing precisely, the rather soft image above is the clearest I could manage. For practical purporses, 9mm is probably the highest magnification eyepiece I can use under normal sky conditions for astrophotography.

In case you were wondering, the image above shows how the eyepieces connect with the camera in the telescope adapter. Different eyepieces are swapped out for narrower or wider fields of view. What suprised me the most was the poor imaging results I got from my wider eyepieces, such as the 20mm Plössl. The full view of the moon at the top of this post was taken with the 20mm, as was the image below. Notice the halation and distortion that becomes more apparent the farther away from the center you get. I'm really not sure what this is--I'd have thought a lower-power eyepiece would minimize distortion, but the opposite appears to be the case. Because the higher magnification eyepieces restrict the field of view to a very narrow portion of the telescope's mirror reflection, I suspect the distortion is the result of either the natural "coma" distortion inherent in the Newtonian mirrored telescope design, or errors from poor collimation. I'm not at all confident my collimation is good, but that's an awful lot of distortion. The same goes for coma. I'll be asking people more knowledgeable than myself in the future to try and figure this one out.

As I was wrapping up my photo session, three middle school kids who'd been walking up and down the block all evening stopped and asked "can you see the moon through that?" I removed the camera and re-balanced the mount, then invited them to look. There were gasps of of amazement and much marveling all around. Then I showed them Jupiter and its four Galilean satellites. One exclaimed "I like science now," which gave me a chuckle. They thanked me then headed home, and as they were walking away, I heard one say, "No wonder Monkey Girl is so smart!" Monkey Girl being my eldest daughter. That made me smile--two compliments for the price of one.

I'm going to try and set up my telescope in the front yard more often during these mild autumn evenings. Even though light pollution keeps me from viewing any deep space object--galaxies and nebulas and clusters--the moon and planets are still gorgeous and more than impressive for a bit of astronomical outreach among the neighbors. I just wish I could figure out how to control that fuzzy distortion in my images...

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Friday Night Videos

The Occupy Wall Street movement over the past couple of months has brought a particular John Cougar Mellencamp piece to mind: "The Authority Song." It strikes me as an anthem custom-made for the folks out on the street protesting rampant corporate greed, and the video, too, plays into the "little guy vs. the machine" archetype. What really jumped out at me, though, is how much that kid in the video resembles a young Mark Wahlberg. I haven't been able to find any references online to Wahlberg's participation in the video, but as Wahlberg was born in 1971 and "Authority Song" was released in 1983, the age would be about right. In any event, the resemblance is uncanny.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Cranberries.

Now Playing: Derek & the Dominoes The Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Can the Ban and Iowa call centers

Last night I got a phone call on a pressing local issue. A woman on the phone was urging me to vote in favor of the ban on disposable containers on the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers within the New Braunfels city limits. Otherwise, she informed me, we'd be facing an environmental catastrophe.

I asked her if she'd seen the river management plan for the Comal and Guadalupe from the River Systems Institute at Texas State University? She said, "I don't have that in front of me." I informed her that it didn't exist, because for all the New Braunfels City Council's fear mongering about litter and the environment, not a single one of them have approached the state's premiere aquatic resources management institute to solicit any advice or guidance whatsoever. An institute that is a mere 20 miles up I-35, that actually re-stocked the various endangered species in the Comal River after the springs in Landa Park ran dry in the 1950s, wiping out that entire ecosystem.

Why haven't they done so? Because the majority of the current City Council doesn't give a rat's ass about the environment or endangered species or litter. They want a private waterfront for their cronies with million-dollar McMansions along the Comal, and hate the idea that the Comal is a navigable waterway, and therefore regulated by the state. If they can't close the river, then by golly they'll regulate it to death, so that the public stays away because it's too much hassle to do otherwise. Banning disposable containers accomplishes that feat, because people need to drink something during a two-hour float to stay hydrated. What are the logistical complications of taking non-disposable drink containers and dispensers along? And I'm not even talking about alcohol. It's absurd. The same factors were at work a few years ago when the Council, led by Ken Valentine, tried to restrict the size of coolers to a tiny, unworkable maximum size to achieve the same results. The measure failed and the public backlash led to Valentine's recall. It seems some factions never learn.

So, anyway, my phone caller was taken a bit off guard by my statement, so I started to lecture her. I told her the history of this sorry state of affairs, how the City Council forced through the ordinance over vocal public opposition, refusing to put it up for a public vote. How the city attorney's office said the ordinance was likely unconstitutional. How it took a petition drive to get it on the November ballot. How the weasel publisher of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung publishes 100 percent pro-ban articles and letters that don't even try to be objective. How councilwoman Kathleen Krueger has earned the title of "Drama Queen for Life" with her hysterics in front of the media, going so far as to cancel her participation in a public debate on the issue yesterday because she "feared for her safety." Just to put this into perspective, her husband, Robert Krueger, risked his personal safety on a daily basis as Ambassador to Burundi. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was recently recalled to Washington because of threats to his personal safety. Yet Kathleen Krueger had the audacity to cast herself in the same light as these advocates of human rights over her support of a city ordinance that is wildly unpopular with her constituents? Shameful.

So I'm laying this out for my caller, and she finally breaks in, saying, "Hey, I don't know anything about this stuff. I'm in Iowa, and they're just paying me to read from a script." So there you have it. The Can the Ban opposition have tireless local volunteers working the streets, hosting fund raisers and essentially running themselves ragged to get this ill-conceived ordinance voted down, while the pro-ban City Council hires out-of-state phone banks to do their dirty work for them. Hmm.

I voted early last week against the ban. I certainly hope everyone else does as well. And if the City Council really has any concern about the long-term viability of our rivers, I invite them to give RSI Executive Directory Andy Sansom a call at (512) 245-9200. He'll be happy to work with New Braunfels to develop a pragmatic, sustainable, long-term plan for the continued use and preservation of our rivers. After all, the RSI's Vision Statement reads:
Rivers are a major part of Earth's circulatory system, supplying nutrients to support the oceans' biological productivity, plus other important natural and cultural functions. But rivers are also used for consumptive uses and waste disposal in ways that reduce their essential flows and otherwise hinder their crucial functions. Recreation and tourism are increasingly important uses of rivers. These are essential human activities that can be instrumental in helping people understand and support proper river stewardship.

The Research Center for River Recreation and Tourism will encourage and facilitate research from all relevant disciplines and will foster a holistic perspective on river systems. The Center will particularly focus on developing and disseminating an understanding of the processes and methods by which recreation and tourism can lead to better stewardship.
Sounds like a win-win for everyone involved. That is, of course, assuming one side is more concerned with the greater public good, as opposed to establishing a private waterfront for the well-heeled in New Braunfels.

Now Playing: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers The Last DJ
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Happy Halloween, folks! Today's musical selection is pretty obvious. I think I know a grand total of two songs by the Cranberries, and one of them happens to be "Zombie". How can I not go with that, seeing how the zombie apocalypse is well nigh upon us?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... BR549.

Now Playing: Louis Armstrong All-Time Greatest Hits
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dance with the dead

How's this for a fun Halloween/Chicken Ranch tie-in: Tomorrow night, Oct. 28, The Wife and I will be kicking up our heels at the Institute of Texan Cultures' Dance With the Dead Halloween Masquerade. It looks to be quite the fun shindig! But how, you may ask, does this tie-in with the Chicken Ranch? Well, the costume theme of the night is figures from Texas history. Dead Texans, if you will. And during the evening, there will be vignettes acted out highlighting certain figures and events of Texas history. I was contacted to serve a consultant of sorts for a planned presentation on the Chicken Ranch. Think they came to the right person? They were admittedly surprised when I informed them that Edna Milton is indeed still alive, but the fact that Marvin Zindler and Sheriff Jim Flournoy have passed on means the whole Chicken Ranch affair remains within the scope of the evening's festivities. And I might have provided them with a bit of information here and there to improve the historical accuracy of the presentation as well.

So, yes, I will be there in an official capacity as author of an eventually forthcoming book on the Chicken Ranch, answering any and all questions the curious may have about that infamous institution. And yes, The Wife and I will be in costume, dressed as famous, deceased Texans. She's going as Anna Nicole Smith, and I'll be J. Howard Marshall. It'll be a hoot and a half, I'm telling you--see y'all there!

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

As the conference turns, pt. 7

A lot has happened since my last comment on this topic, where I wrapped up by wondering if Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds would resurrect his grand Pac-16 conference realignment plan from 18 months ago, or move heaven and Earth to hang onto his new Longhorn Network. Turns out the correct answer is the former. But first, a quick recap on the goings-on of the past two months:
  • Texas A&M announces application to Southeastern Conference
  • SEC conditionally accepts A&M as 13th member
  • Baylor threatens to sue A&M, SEC and anyone who points out that Baylor athletics has ridden the coattails of their athletic and academic superiors for 20 years in the Big 12 without doing anything with the opportunities they'd been handed on a silver platter
  • Oklahoma and Oklahoma State approach Pac-12 for membership
  • Pac-12 says "Not without Texas"
  • Texas (ie Dodds) says "Not without the LHN"
  • Pac-12 says "We're happy with 12 members"
  • Oklahoma says "$#&%@!"
  • SEC formally accepts A&M
  • Big 12 (minus 2, minus 1) invites TCU
  • TCU says "WHOO HOO!"
  • Big East says "$#&%@!"
  • Dodds says "We will never, ever, ever, ever, ever play A&M again. Ever."
  • A&M says "We'll play you whenever you want. Not Baylor, though."
  • Baylor says "We will never, ever, ever, ever, ever play A&M again. Ever. But we still might sue you for not playing us."
  • Missouri looks longingly to the rust belt mecca known as the Big 10 (ie the B1G) and asks maybe, possibly, if the B1G may have reconsidered its position on expansion?
  • The B1G replies that it still doesn't want Mizzou, but Nebraska is working out nicely
  • Texas Tech covers A&M team buses, inside and out, with stink bait.
  • A&M says "Not Tech, either."
  • Mizzou asks SEC for membership, all the while casting longing glances toward the B1G
  • SEC slowly, reluctantly, kinda, sorta says, "Yeah, okay Mizzou, you can join. But keep it quiet, because even though you were part of the Confederacy, nobody for a moment thinks you're southern or eastern, and you certainly aren't a Florida State or Virginia Tech."
  • Mizzou says "whoo hoo" while casting longing glances toward the B1G
  • Big 12 (minus 2, minus 1) says "$#&%@!"
  • Big 12 invites West Virginia
  • Big East says "$#&%@!"
That pretty much sums it up. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm tired of the realignment tilt-a-whirl and pretty much ready for it to wind down for a while. What I do find of particular interest is the fact that Texas' (ie Dodds') two biggest objections to the SEC are no longer valid. The first, that the SEC is too geographically sprawling for a team from the state of Texas to join, was always questionable at best, considering Iowa State is a member of the Big 12 and Dodds was gung-ho to create the Pac-16 just 18 months ago with trips to Pullman, Washington and Corvalis, Oregon on the itinerary. But now, with the addition of West Virginia (and this nifty graphic from Mizzou2SEC, we see that "Geographic integrity" means pretty much whatever the folks over at 40 Acres say it means:
But as anyone who has followed this particular story knows, the real kicker is academics. The SEC's academics are abysmal, sniffed Texas, a school which longed to rub shoulders with academic elites on the West Coast. Which is all well and good, except this realignment is about athletic competition not academic competition. With A&M, and now Mizzou joining the SEC, that league has four member who are part of the prestigious Association of American Universities, whereas the Big 12 now has three. And if you compare the two conferences using an average of their academic rankings, the SEC beats the Big 12 handily. And that's before West Virginia is considered. West Virginia? That school is certainly not known as an academic powerhouse. In fact, it's like the anti-powerhouse. Consider that Texas Tech is the lowest-ranking school from either the current Big 12 or the SEC on U.S. News & World Report's most recent ranking of national universities, coming in at no. 160. West Virginia lowers the bar at 164. For comparison's sake, Mississippi State, the lowest-ranking SEC school, checks in at 157. Vanderbilt, the top school in the SEC, is ranked at no. 17, followed by Texas, the top school in the Big 12, at no. 45. A&M and Florida are tied at 58. It's pretty clear that Dodds is very, very angry about A&M leaving for the SEC. That A&M didn't fall in line with what was in the best interest of Texas (ie Dodds), and instead did what was in the best interest of A&M. Dodds has maintained that he only is doing what is "in the best interest of Texas" when controversy over the LHN flared up, but when someone else does the same thing for their own institution, suddenly they're "throwing away tradition" and acting selfishly. Dodds, for maybe the first time in his life, did not get his way and is pitching a fit. Sadly, this means the long and storied rivalry between A&M and Texas will go on hiatus in all sports starting next season. That's sad, because most alumni I know on either side want the games to continue. On the upside, Dodds is getting closer to retirement every day (the man's 72, after all). I'll wager that the Lone Star Showdown resumes before 2020, and everyone can go home happy. As the conference turns, pt. 1 As the conference turns, pt. 2 As the conference turns, pt. 3 As the conference turns, pt. 4 As the conference turns, pt. 5 As the conference turns, pt. 6 Now Playing: Prince The Hits/The B Sides Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Night Videos

If you've never heard BR549 before, their sound is retro-country, sort of western swing meets rockabilly by way of hillbilly. They never hit it big on the country scene, but they did get to play an episode of Austin City Limits and produced gems such as "Me and Opie Down By the Duck Pond", the Andy Griffith Show episode that never existed, but you really, really wished did.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Foster the People.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 4

Chicken Ranch brass token
Monday saw no writing from me, I'm sorry to say. The frenetic pace of the weekend finally caught up with me, and I crashed early. Sleep was much-needed and welcomed. Today has been much more productive for me.

Sadly, I discovered today that my dream telescope, the Meade LXD75 SN10-AT has been discontinued. I came this close to purchasing it after saving up quite a bit of money several years ago. Unfortunately, when I tried to place my order, I learned that it'd been backordered. Uh-oh. I'd seen this movie before. I tried to pay in advance anyway, knowing that if I waited, something would happen to deplete that stash of cash I'd worked so hard to save up. No dice, I couldn't pre-order. Sure enough, one of the kids needed unexpected dental work within a few weeks, and the money was all but gone by the time I got the notice a month later that they were ready to fill my order. Because the universe likes to jack me around that way. Someday I will get a high-end scope, but I'll end up paying significantly more than I would have for the SN10-AT, which makes me sad.

That has nothing to do with writing about the Chicken Ranch, however. Tonight's writing was filled with its own unique challenges. When writing about the earliest days of the brothel, there's a dearth of evidence available. No primary sources. No newspaper accounts. Essentially, there's nothing beyond oral tradition and oral traditions can be pretty screwy. So I'm writing up one version of the origins of the Chicken Ranch, the most widely-repeated version, and it's killing me. Because I've traced this story back to a single source, and I am convinced the author was shoveling 100 percent, grade-A B.S. That kind of stuff drives me insane, but then again, that's why I'm torturing myself with the writing of this book, to set the record straight and lay out the truth and the lies to the best of my limited ability. But enough of my inane drivel, here's a sample of tonight's work:
The very first madam to run a brothel in La Grange arrived in 1844 on La Bahia Road from New Orleans, that infamous Sodom-On-The-Mississippi, with a covey of three "soiled doves" in tow. Of their lives in New Orleans, or whether they made any detours along the way, nothing is known. It strains credibility to suggest that these women set out from New Orleans with the actual intent to settle in La Grange, a tiny frontier town barely known to anyone east of Nacogdoches, if even that. It is far more likely that their intended destination was San Antonio or possibly even the new capital of Austin. In any event, circumstances caused them to stop in La Grange, and in La Grange is where they stayed.
Yeppers, it does indeed appear that we're finally getting into some of the good stuff. I find history and background and worldbuilding fascinating (I am a Tolkien fan, after all) but I know good and well what folks will buy this book for!

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chicken Ranch progress report no. 3

Chicken Ranch brass token
What an astonishingly exhausting weekend. I had a wedding to shoot on Friday--a solo gig, rather than my usual role of backing up The Wife. And that meant much of Saturday was taken up with editing photos--that, and watching the Aggies whoop up on Baylor! We followed that up with another wedding today, one in which The Wife and I did the normal double-team operation. Add in there Monkey Girl's band performance at the halftime of Canyon's football game against Clemens (Canyon won!) and various other locations and events to shuttle the kids to and from... is it any wonder that I'm exhausted?

Considering that jam-packed schedule, it'd be expected that I didn't get any writing done this weekend. Heck, I certainly wouldn't expect me to get any done, that's for sure. But miracle of miracles, I did. Not a lot, granted, but several hundred words' worth that gets pretty much the last of the purely infodump material out of the way. And by "purely infodump" I mean stuff I've had to glean from books and elsewhere, as opposed to the first-hand, primary source background I've gathered on my own. Let me share with you the first direct quote to appear in the book:
"Most of the population was German or Czech," said Oliver Kitzman, a former District Attorney who served Fayette County. "If you look around the country, you’ll see when the Czechs came over they settled in the blackland prairies, and the Germans settled in the hills, the more rolling places. I don't know why that is, but it's true. They were a frugal, hard-working people."
Nothing Earth-shaking, I'll grant you that. But those Czechs and Germans are a big reason why the Chicken Ranch became the enduring institution that it did. And Kitzman has a lot of interesting things to say later on. Stay tuned.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chicken Ranch progress report no. 2

I had a good evening of writing tonight, which is actually a bit of a surprise. Yesterday was a struggle, and today, after getting a flu shot, I was feeling very lethargic and sleepy, with an uncomfortableness that almost became a generalized body ache. I've never reacted to a flu shot before, so I don't know if it was the stress of the day or lack of sleep or what, but it was hammering me good. As the evening wore on, the "ugh" feeling dissipated and I felt up to some writing.

Nothing I've written thus far had altered my thinking that chapter 1 is the most difficult for me to write. There's not a whole heck of a lot of information available on the Chicken Ranch during the 19th century, for starters. Since my narrative is generally chronological, I feel I have to include the history of the county and settlement of La Grange, since that all ties in and gives context to the Chicken Ranch and why it survived so long. The downside is that there's comparatively little sex in there, which (let's face it) is the big draw for any book on the Chicken Ranch.

In her 1980 book on the Chicken Ranch, Jan Hutson touches on the history of Fayette County as well, but I have significant issues with her dismissive and frankly racist comments about the Native American tribes in the area, comments which are flatly contradicted by near-contemporary accounts I've come across. "Tonks had most of the bad characteristics of their brethren tribes and a noticeable lack of the good ones. They were chronic beggars by inclination with an innate belief in public ownership of mobile property, preferably on four legs." It gets worse from there. While I'm not devoting a tremendous amount of chapter 1 to the Native American tribes in Fayette County, I do hope I can present (to the best of my knowledge) a more accurate picture. Without the effort coming across drier than sawdust:
Near the end of Spanish colonial rule through the Mexican revolution, the important La Bahia Road cut through the area, crossing the Colorado near the present site of La Grange. The Spanish never settled the region, though, and it wasn’t until 1822 that European settlers--members of Austin’s “Old Three Hundred”--arrived in significant numbers.

Almost from the start there were clashes between the whites and the natives. The first recorded battle occurred in 1823 on Skull Creek, when a hastily assembled troop of 22 settlers destroyed a Karankawa camp harassing whites along the river. The Karankawas, a tribe more commonly associated with the Texas Coastal Bend, were generally reviled by settlers and rival tribes alike for their reputed cannibalism. At the end of the fight, 23 Karankawas lay dead, without the loss of a single settler.
I'm somewhat conflicted right now by terminology in this section. In my sources, "whites" and "Indians" are used almost exclusively. "Native American" sounds entirely too modern and jarring for the most part, and "settlers" and "Europeans" become tedious after a dozen or so uses. Fortunately, it's a small section only a few pages long, and after that I shouldn't have to worry about that particular word-choice issue again. I imagine I'll sort it out eventually--that's what second drafts are for!

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Chicken Ranch progress report no. 1

After all this time, it's hard to believe that I'm actually in writing mode, as opposed to research, interview or transcription mode. But yeah, I'm knee-deep in chapter one, making genuine progress on the whole book front. So for all of you people out there (you know who you are) who have asked me time and again over the past couple of years "When's the book coming out?" and I've made some vague comment that generally translates into "Eventually," here's to dashing your suspicions that I've been faking the whole thing.

Honestly, when I undertook this project, I figured it would be a lark. Six months of work at the most. Little did I know it would grow, Blob-like, and consume my entire life. But hey, I've never been one for doing things by half-measures. I cannot express what a huge relief it is to finally, finally, finally be putting words on the page. Here's a little sample of tonight's work for your reading pleasure.
What set the Chicken Ranch apart was its venerable history. By 1973, it was the last man standing, the lone holdout against changing times that had shuttered pretty much all of its one-time contemporaries.

From the earliest days of the Republic, long before vast oilfields covered the landscape and “black gold” made the state rich, the Texas economy depended on three industries: cattle, cotton and timber. A casual observer of the time could not be blamed, though, for thinking of prostitution as a fourth major cash crop.
In case you're wondering, those words were helped along by Pumpkin Ale from Buffalo Bill's Brewery. I highly recommend it--of the various pumpkin ales I've tried over the years, this one strikes the right balance between the pumpkin and hoppy malt flavors of the beer. Not that it has anything directly to do with the Chicken Ranch, but I felt like sharing.

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Friday, October 07, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Meet my new favorite song of recent vintage, Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks". It's brilliant for all sorts of reasons. First, it's got a bouncy, infectious groove that that conveys a happy, nostalgic vibe. Except that the lyrics are diametrically opposed to that same vibe. They're seriously dark, akin to laying the lyrics to Aerosmith's "Janie's Got A Gun" over the music from the B-52's "Love Shack." Yeah, that is seriously messed up, but I love the dissonance. The video isn't much to write home about, but I have to admit the home movie approach does tend to reenforce the happy nostalgic quality of the song, especially if the listener just hums along, not paying much attention to the lyrics.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Greg Kihn Band.

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Night Videos

I've always loved "The Breakup Song" by the Greg Kihn Band. Probably because they don't write 'em like that anymore.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Frankenstein's moon

One of the cool things about my day job is that sometimes it intersects with my genre leanings in a big way. Take Frankenstein's Moon as a case in point. This is how I spent much of last week, distilling a full-blown Sky & Telescope article down to a media-release-sized writeup, balancing readability with accuracy. Not always an easy task, especially when there's a lot of research and technical nuance involved. Practice helps, though. In the past, we've worked on similar projects connecting Edvard Munch's painting The Scream with Krakatoa, settled a date conflict regarding Caesar's invasion of Britain, offered a convincing new date for the ancient battle of Marathon and solved Walt Whitman's meteor mystery, among many others. Fun stuff, that!

The current Frankenstein piece seems to be capturing popular attention as well. Already it has resulted in a nice articles in The Guardian, which as been reprinted in quite a few British newspapers. Another article written by Jim Forsythe at WOAI in San Antonio has been picked up by Reuters and shown up all over the world, including MSNBC. So yeah, we've got lots of Frankenstein to enjoy here at the end of September.

One cool bit of conflation didn't make it into the media release, but is touched upon in the full article. Allow me to slip into Jess Nevins mode for a moment (although Jess would likely scoff that this is common knowledge) to explain. During the original "ghost story" challenge mentioned below, Mary Shelley is the only participant to actually finish a written piece begun at that time. Lord Byron began one, but soon lost interest and abandoned it. John Polidori, however, took up that fragment some time later and was inspired to write The Vampyre, published in 1819. The story was an immediate success, in part, no doubt, because the publisher credited it as written by Lord Byron (Polidori and Byron fought for some years to get the attribution corrected in subsequent printings). The Vampyre was the first fiction to cast the legendary bloodsuckers as an aristocratic menace in the narrative, and spawned a popular trend of 19th century vampire fiction which culminated with Bram Stoker's enduring Dracula in 1897. Which means the two most famous horror icons of 20th century pop culture--Dracula and Frankenstein's monster--can both trace their lineage back to that 1816 gathering at Villa Diodoti overlooking Lake Geneva.
Frankenstein’s moon: Astronomers vindicate account of masterwork

Victor Frankenstein’s infamous monster led a brief, tragic existence, blazing a trail of death and destruction that prompted mobs of angry villagers to take up torches and pitchforks against him on the silver screen. Never once during his rampage, however, did the monster question the honesty of his ultimate creator, author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

That bit of horror was left to the scholars.

Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied its unique brand of celestial sleuthing to a long-simmering controversy surrounding the events that inspired Shelley to write her legendary novel Frankenstein. Their results shed new light on the question of whether or not Shelley’s account of the episode is merely a romantic fiction.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (played by Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (played by Gavin Gordon) listen as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester) tells her tale of horror. [Bride of Frankenstein]

Texas State physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, English professor Marilynn S. Olson and Honors Program students Ava G. Pope and Kelly D. Schnarr publish their findings in the November 2011 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.

“Shelley gave a very detailed account of that summer in the introduction to an early edition of Frankenstein, but was she telling the truth?” Olson said. “Was she honest when she told her story of that summer and how she came up with the idea, and the sequence of events?”

A Dark and Stormy Night

The story begins, literally, in June 1816 at Villa Diodati overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Here, on a dark and stormy night, Shelley—merely 18 at the time—attended a gathering with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori. To pass the time, the group read a volume of ghost stories aloud, at which point Byron posed a challenge in which each member of the group would attempt to write such a tale.

Villa Diodati sits on a steep slope overlooking Lake Geneva. Relatively clear views prevail to the west, but the view of the eastern sky is partially blocked by the hill. A rainbow greeted the Texas State researchers upon their arrival at Lake Geneva. [Photo by Russell Doescher]

“The chronology that’s in most books says Byron suggested they come up with ghost stories on June 16, and by June 17 she’s writing a scary story,” Olson said. “But Shelley has a very definite memory of several days passing where she couldn’t come up with an idea. If this chronology is correct, then she embellished and maybe fabricated her account of how it all happened.

“There’s another, different version of the chronology in which Byron makes his suggestion on June 16, and Shelley didn’t come up with her idea until June 22, which gives a gap of five or six days for conceiving a story,” he said. “But our calculations show that can’t be right, because there wouldn’t be any moonlight on the night that she says the moon was shining.”

Moonlight is the key. In Shelley’s account, she was unable to come up with a suitable idea until another late-night conversation--a philosophical discussion of the nature of life--that continued past the witching hour (midnight). When she finally went to bed, she experienced a terrifying waking dream in which a man attempted to bring life to a cadaverous figure via the engines of science. Shelley awoke from the horrific vision to find moonlight streaming in through her window, and by the next day was hard at work on her story.

Doubting Shelley

Although the original gathering and ghost story challenge issued by Byron is well-documented, academic scholars and researchers have questioned the accuracy of Mary Shelley’s version of events to the extent of labeling them outright fabrications. The traditionally accepted date for the ghost story challenge is June 16, based on an entry from Polidori’s diary, which indicates the entire party had gathered at Villa Diodati that night. In Polidori’s entry for June 17, however, he reports “The ghost-stories are begun by all but me.”

Russell Doescher and Ava Pope take measurements in the garden of Villa Diodati. [Photo by Marilynn Olson]

Critics have used those diary entries to argue Shelley didn’t agonize over her story for days before beginning it, but rather started within a span of hours. Others have suggested Shelley fabricated a romanticized version for the preface of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein solely to sell more books. Key, however, is the fact that none of Polidori’s entries make reference to Byron’s ghost story proposal.

“There is no explicit mention of a date for the ghost story suggestion in any of the primary sources–the letters, the documents, the diaries, things like that,” Olson said. “Nobody knows that date, despite the assumption that it happened on the 16th.”

Frankenstein’s moon

Surviving letters and journals establish that Byron and Polidori arrived at Villa Diodati on June 10, narrowing the possible dates for the evening of Byron’s ghost story proposition to a June 10-16 window. To further refine the dates, Shelley’s reference of moonlight on the night of her inspirational dream provided an astronomical clue for the Texas State researchers. To determine which nights in June 1816 bright moonlight could’ve shone through Shelley’s window after midnight, the team of Texas State researchers traveled in Aug. 2010 to Switzerland, where Villa Diodati still stands above Lake Geneva.

Ava Pope, Kelly Schnarr and Donald Olson on the steep slope just below Villa Diodati. [Photo by Roger Sinnott]

The research team made extensive topographic measurements of the terrain and Villa Diodati, then combed through weather records from June of 1816. The Texas State researchers then calculated that a bright, gibbous moon would have cleared the hillside to shine into Shelley’s bedroom window just before 2 a.m. on June 16. This calculated time is in agreement with Shelley’s witching hour reference. Furthermore, a Polidori diary entry backs up Shelley’s claim of a late-night philosophical “conversation about principles” of life taking place June 15.

Had there been no moonlight visible that night, the astronomical analysis would indicate fabrication on her part. Instead, evidence supports Byron’s ghost story suggestion taking place June 10-13 and Shelley’s waking dream occurring between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16, 1816.

“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night,” Olson said. “We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”

For additional information, visit the Sky & Telescope web gallery at

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