Friday, February 26, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

You know, I have thought about featuring this song many times over the years I've done this whole Friday Night Videos thing, but for some reason or other, I never did. Kinda surprising, because I've always liked it and it's a good rocker. Here's Meredith Brooks' "Bitch".

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Sophie B. Hawkins.

Now Playing: Billy Joel 52nd Street
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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Miss Edna (1928-2012)

On this date in 2012, Edna Milton Chadwell, better known as Miss Edna, passed away at the age of 84 in Phoenix, Arizona, where she'd lived a life of quiet anonymity since the early 1980s. Her final days were tragic. The previous October (or September--my memory is imprecise) she was involved in a car wreck that left her hospitalized with an array of injuries. From what I understand, her memory was affected, and her brain stopped converting short-term memory into long. In practical terms, it meant somebody could introduce themselves and begin a conversation with her, but five minutes later she'd have no recollection. Over the previous three years I feel I've gotten to know her as much as any person alive today who wasn't related to her. She enthusiastically supported my book project and graciously invited my wife and myself into her home for hours of interviews. It is my everlasting regret that I did not complete the book in time for her to have her own copy.

And speaking of the book, it was exactly one year ago that I walked away from a publisher who wanted to publish the book--but only if I'd agree to a contract that very much not in the best interests of me or my book. I won't say that ending that association after several months of discussion and planning was the hardest thing I've ever done--it was actually fairly easy, given their "take it or leave it" attitude. But after more than a year of getting my hopes up when publishers expressed initial interest only to say "nevermind," and a similar year of futile agent-hunting before that, it was pretty damn painful. At that point I was seriously beginning to question if the book would ever see the light of day, and I had a growing paranoia that someone, somewhere, would beat me to market with a history of the Chicken Ranch that would render mine irrelevant (there no basis in fact for the paranoia, but then again, paranoia thrives in the absence of fact).

What a difference a year makes! I've been impressed with my current publisher, History Press, and at times overwhelmed by the amount of input I have in the final form the book will take. My editor, Christen Thompson, has been fantastic. I'm expecting to get the copy edited manuscript back in the next week or so, and barring any unforseen hiccups, we're on track for an August release. That's right--we have an actual release month now! August marks the 43rd anniversary of the Chicken Ranch's closure, and the book should be available in time for sale at the Fayette County Fair and at the Texas A&M bookstore during Aggie home football games this fall (if Aggies do not prove to be a huge market for this book, I will be sorely disappointed).

Yes, there's a lot of water gone under this particular bridge. The coming year looks to be exciting, to say the least!

Now Playing: Billy Joel Cold Spring Harbor
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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thrill of an early spring

We haven't had much of a winter this year. That's both good and bad. Good, because I absolutely hate the cold. The reason I tolerate the brutality of August in Texas is so that I might wear shorts outdoors in January and February. On the other hand, it's not that great for my fruit trees, which need a certain amount of chill hours annually to produce good crops. That's not a big deal yet, because we've only lived at the new house about 18 months and the trees I planted last year are still too young (for the most part) to bear fruit. Last year we recorded almost 1,000 chill hours, which is a significant amount for this part of Texas, which is more than enough for any of the fruit trees I have growing. This year, even with the mild winter, I'm at 600 chill hours--a decent amount for most of my plants. Compare that to the 470 chill hours received this year at our old house, just 10 miles to the south. I chalk the difference up to our new place being on the edge of the Hill Country. Our elevation is approximately 800 feet above sea level--almost 80 feet higher than old house, although it doesn't seem that much. Amazing how dramatic such a small shift affects one's climate!

In any event, winter never took hold here, and the extended autumn was fairly feeble as well. We never had a serious freeze in the entire month of February, traditionally (in my experience) the coldest month of the year. Temperatures have been in the 70s-80s for more than two weeks, and everything in my yard is waking up from the annual slumber. The two photos above are of my young peach trees--a Red Baron and a Galaxy--swelling up their buds for a looming garish display of flowers. Perhaps this year I might get fruit. Peaches are precocious, after all. More remarkable is the leaf bud in the image below. That's a shipova, a rare hybrid of a European pear and something called a whitebeam. They originate in Eastern Europe and are pretty exotic. I'm trying my hand at keeping this one alive despite the plant's questionable resistance to fire blight. Interestingly enough, this plant came to me from northern California and has only been in the ground a week. My warm weather has shocked it (and a Black Sea jujube I planted last week) into leafing out.

This next one is even more impressive. It's a medlar, a fruit tree popular in medieval times that's mostly an ornamental curiosity these days. I planted it two weeks ago, and the little thing broke bud almost immediately and has grown two inches. That may not sound like much, but the bareroot twig I planted was barely a foot long, not including the roots. If it maintains this rate of growth, it'll replace those two hackberry volunteers I cut down to make room for it in no time. I hope to add a few more medlar varieties in the next year or so.

The thing about our new house is that the previous owners had it on the market, off and on, for almost three years. During that time they had moved out, and invested zero effort into landscaping beyond mowing the grass on occasion. In most instances this wouldn't be a big deal, except that they'd planted lots of Carolina jasmine and Lady Banks roses around the perimeter. That stuff grows like kudzu normally, so over the course of three years it utterly took over. I've grown to loathe it, and shall one day chop it all out. But as I was trimming some of the worst of it back last spring, I discovered two dwarf apple trees completely buried by those bushes. They fruited in the spring, and I'm pretty sure they're Ein Shemer apples, a low-chill, low-quality apple that originated in Israel. I didn't want mealy, bland apples, but the mature trees have well-established root systems and have proven able to survive drought without any care at all, so last I hatched a plan to repurpose them: I'd graft better varieties onto them, and get good apples.

Grafting is something I taught myself at the old house with a couple of pear trees I planted. I was shocked at how easy it is--at least with pears, and I've yet to find anything that says apples are more difficult. Grafting involves attaching scion wood from a different cultivar or closely-related species so that it grows from that point on as part of the tree. Simple as that. Some trees are harder to get a successful graft to take than others, but for the majority of fruit and nut trees, it's the way popular varieties are propagated. A month ago, I ordered 10 different pieces of scion wood representing different heirloom apple types from Big Horse Creek Farm. Those scions arrived a few days ago, and I've been busy.

There are a number of different grafting techniques, but thus far I've stuck with the most simple, the cleft graft. Why? Because it's easy and I've had great success with it. Out of several dozen pear grafts, I've had two fail, and I suspect that was because I waited too late in the spring to attempt the graft. I've also had one peach graft fail. Not a bad track record. The scion wood I received was little more than a foot long, so I was able to cut each piece in two and make 10 grafts per tree. The cleft graft is pretty self-explanatory. Find a branch on the tree that's the same size or bigger than the scion. Cut the branch off, then using a sharp blade, slice an inch-long cleft right down the center. A sharp blade is important. I used to use pocket knives, but the wood dulled the blade quickly. I've since switched to utility knives with sharp blades easily replaced when they start dulling. A word of warning--the blade normally doesn't want to go into the branch to make the cleft, but once it gets a bite, it can slice through quickly. If you're not careful, you can either slice through the branch, or worse, your hand. I speak from experience.

With the scion wood, trim the base end (not the growing tip end) into a V shape. This isn't rocket science, but it's best to get the cuts straight and smooth. That can be a challenge if there's a bud in the way, but in my experience it's easier to get a good V cut than an even cleft cut.

Next (tell me you didn't see this coming) wedge the V into the cleft. This is your graft. The absolute most important thing is to make sure the cambium layer of the branch lines up with the cambium of the scion. The cambium is the green, growing layer beneath the bark layer. This is the living, growing layer of the tree. Properly aligning the two ensures that nutrients from the tree flow into the scion wood and keep it alive and growing. Cool, huh? If you have a larger branch than scion wood, never fear, just align the cambium on one side of the graft. Trees aren't picky--usually just that limited amount of contact is enough to make a successful graft.

After the cleft graft is properly aligned, it must be wrapped. There are special grafting tapes and grafting compounds available to seal the wound and prevent drying out and other such hazards that could cause the graft to fail. I don't use any of those. Nothing against them, but I've not ever attempted grafts on trees that are difficult to graft. I use simple electrical tape and have had an outstanding rate of success. I wrap the tape loosely at the ends, and then tightly over the graft itself to apply pressure and ensure better contact between the two cambium layers. Then I apply a second layer of tape in the opposite direction to prevent unraveling. Electrical tape stretches, but only so much. If it doesn't deteriorate quickly enough, it could potentially girdle the branch and destroy that graft that you worked so hard to establish. I try to remove the tape after a year, but there's a lot of leeway here. With grafting tape, you don't have to worry about girdling.

What does a successful cleft graft look like? It looks like the image above. I made this graft in the fall of 2014, using scion wood from a Warren pear I had growing at the old house and an Ayers pear tree I'd planted at the new house. The join is solid, but you can still see the distinct V and cleft of the separate pieces of wood. Hopefully, my apple grafts will look as good a year from now.

But what are those grafts? Ah, I thought you'd never ask. For the record, each tree has two Hall apple grafts, one Carter's Blue, one Husk Sweet, one Keener Seedling, one King David, one Pink Pearl, one White Winter Pearmain, one Winesap and one Yates. These will supplement the Royal Limbertwig, Arkansas Black, Reverend Morgan, two Blanco crabs, two Hewe's Virginia crabs and two Wickson crabs I have growing. That gives me a wide variety of apples suitable for fresh eating, baking, storing and cider-making. In years to come, I hope to do even more grafting, but as of now I think I've got the makings of a pretty good orchard.

Now Playing: Various Artists The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
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Monday, February 22, 2016

Babyon 5: By Any Means Necessary

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: A deadly accident in in the Babylon 5 docking bay because of outdated equipment, too few dock workers and an inadequate budget touches off labor strife aboard the station. An informal strike begins. Commander Sinclair attempts to soothe the frayed tempers, but gets no support from Earth and the guild rep, Neeoma Connoly, is not very receptive to his efforts. Sinclair warns that Earth Gov will invoke the Rush Act--essentially, martial law--if the strike doesn't end, but Connoly believes he's bluffing. Orin Zento--a notoriously ruthless labor negotiator--then arrives on the station, intent on breaking the strike. He doesn't negotiate so much as order and demand, offering no accommodations or compromise and seems to look forward to bloody conflict. Zento invokes the Rush Act, and sends Garibaldi and station security in to arrest all of the striking workers. A fight erupts before Sinclair recalls Garibaldi's men. Sinclair, along with Zento, then approaches Connoly. Sinclair asks Zento to confirm that the Rush Act gives the station commander legal authority to end the strike "By any means necessary." Zento, smug jerk he is, confirms this. So Sinclair immediately reallocates funds from the station's military budget to meet some of the demands, then grants blanket amnesty to all the striking dock workers. Yay, Sinclair!

What Jayme Says: This installment of Babylon 5 reeks of "a very special episode" syndrome. It's a ham-fisted allegory about union-busting that doesn't even have the dignity to be an allegory. It's just a straight-up union-busting episode. I mean, I got nothing to add--there's the oppressed workers and mustache-twirling villain, end of story. It's a very linear plot with a cute twist at the end that feels like the cop-out it is.

There's a throwaway sub-plot with Londo and a sacred plant G'Kar needs for a particular religious ritual. After back-and-forth shenanigans that are almost as ham-fisted as the A plot, G'Kar finally acquires the plant, but too late to complete the ritual. Sincliar then points out the the light from the Narn homeworld's star from the particular date in question (albeit from 10 years prior) will arrive at the station shortly, and G'Kar can still technically complete the ritual. Sinclair's solution to the problem is far more clever than the solution to the A plot, but that's not important. What is important is that this is the first serious glimpse of the Narn having a spiritual side that outweighs their impulsive, pugnacious persona. The Narn have maintained the role of stereotypical war-mongering agitators thus far in the series, despite some evidence they have good reason for their hatred of the Centauri. For the Centauri's part, Londo is still the affable, laughing, harmless uncle of previous episodes, but here he shows a streak of cruelty that is barely masked by his humorless smile. That's some subtle foreshadowing, but not easily noticed or appreciated with season one's stand-alone episodic format.

Now Playing: Billy Joel My Lives
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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Proof of concept

After more than a year of working on the photography studio and other new homeowner tasks (read: chopping back those monstrous mountains of Carolina jasmine and Lady Banks roses, not to mention septic work and other stuffs) I've been re-bitten by the astronomy bug. Mostly this amounts to my having more time and less exhaustion, directly attributable to turning in the Chicken Ranch book manuscript. The new house had significant appeal for me because--while not close to being a true dark sky site--it was much darker than our old neighborhood. Last Thursday, I hauled out the new(ish) Atlas mount and set up the telescope for the first time ever at the new place. Here's how it went:

Tonight I set up my telescope for the first time at the new house. I'd only intended to do a polar alignment and mark the tripod's position for quick set-up in the future, but crescent moon was so tempting that I went in and brought out the scope. Bug and Fairy Girl came out and oohed and aahed. Seeing was excellent tonight, with crisp views and little turbulence in the upper atmosphere. I used 20mm and 9mm plossl eyepieces, then barlowed the 9mm. The mountains and craters around Mare Crisium were super sharp, and there was lots of contrasty detail along the terminator. Then I swung the scope around and took a quick look at the Orion nebula. It was very clearly visible as ghostly white wings (the color one sees in photos comes from long duration exposures). Even the Trapezium was crisp and distinct, very easy to pick out.

The new place is so much better to observe from than the light-polluted old neighborhood. It's not anywhere near being a dark sky site, but there is much less local light pollution. Even so, there's one floodlight on a neighbor's garden shed that shines directly onto my observing area and really messes up night vision. I'm going to have to construct some sort of light block above the fence there. All in all, though, once I get it set up the way I want, this is going to make a nice backyard observatory.
That was prelude. I've long been fascinated by astrophotography, and in fact took my first (very bad) astrophotos when I was 13 using a Canon AE-1 with a telescope adapter. Last year, The Wife gifted me with a Canon Rebel T3i modified by Hap Griffin to be more sensitive to the Hydrogen-Alpha light that dominates many emission nebula in the night sky. I've not had a chance to use it until Saturday, when I set up the whole shebang in the back yard and made a test run.

One big astronomical target that's long held my interest is Barnard's Loop. It's the crescent remnant of an ancient supernova explosion in the constellation Orion that's invisible to the naked eye. The modified camera should be able to pick it up, though. The evening started off quite nicely, as I ran the Atlas mount through a three-star alignment and it went swimmingly. I mean, it nailed alignment without the tears and cursing I usually suffer. I set up the T3i on the telescope using a homemade piggyback mount, my Canon 50mm 1.8 mark I lens (a favorite for infrared photography) and a new Kenko fog filter I recently acquired. I didn't have an intervalometer compatible with the T3i, so I was limited to 30 second exposures, but I hoped that would be enough--eternal optimist, that's what I am. Here's the result:

Now, I'm the first to admit this is nothing to write home about. The white balance is way off, there's coma all around the edges and all sorts of little technical issues that are wrong with it. I messed up shooting my dark frames and didn't bother with flats. The waxing crescent moon also contributed to the light gradient in the image, which is why moonless nights are best for astrophotography. But dang, look at what's right--the elusive loop is clearly visible, a faint crimson crescent stretching from Bellatrix in Orion's shoulder to Rigel in his foot. M42, the famed Orion nebula, is so bright it's blown out in the sword. And look at the belt--there's the Flame and Horsehead nebulas right there off the leftmost star. And this is all captured via a basic, standard 50mm camera lens. I have not attempted prime focus photography yet, which entails using the telescope as one big 762mm lens. Tracking held steady, so I'm confident I could go for exposures of five minutes or more with no significant star movement at this scale. I've got a guide scope, however, and just need to get a dual mount so I can run them through a computer and enjoy the rock-steady tracking for deep-space objects such a setup enables. Am I looking forward to that? You bet.

I might just get the hang of this astrophotography thing yet.

Now Playing: Violent Femmes New Times
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Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I hadn't thought of Sophie B. Hawkins' "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" for years, but I heard it on the radio the other day and flashed back to my college years when it came out. It really is a bold, emphatic song. Hawkins quickly faded from the music scene after this, but I figure if the general public's going to remember you for just one hit, you could do a lot worse than this.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Earth, Wind and Fire.

Now Playing: Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hey kids! New book!

With all the Chicken Ranch stuff going on, it appears that I have completely forgotten to let everyone know about another publication of mine that recently came out. Some of you may know that photography's a sort-of hobby of mine, and that I assist The Wife with her photo studio, Lisa On Location. Some of you may also know that I've long had a fascination with infrared photography, and have experimented with that form quite a bit over the years.

Well, all that experimentation seems to have attracted some attention my way. Four of my infrared images (one of which may be seen below) were selected by Karen Dorame for inclusion in her new book from Amherst Media, Mastering Infrared Photography: Capture Invisible Light with a Digital Camera. Now, I like to think that my work's pretty good--nobody else has combined levitation with infrared to push the surreal up to eleven, after all--but there are some images by Ikan Hui Pegel Pegel, an Indonesian photography who does some amazing work with false-color infrared. Seriously, Ikan's work is fantastic. One of the things I love about the interwebz--and being included in this book--is that it exposes me and brings me into contact with incredibly talented artists that I'd never know existed otherwise. That's quite inspiring, and, if one want to get all metaphorical, very much like infrared photography, as it also brings the unseen into view.

Now Playing: Violent Femmes Blind Leading the Naked
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Friday, February 05, 2016

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Well, we lost another one. Maurice White, the musical innovator and driving force behind Earth, Wind and Fire, died this week at 74, presumably from Parkinson's Disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1992. The band's elaborate, flamboyant stage shows were legendary, and they produced an incredible amount of music over the years. In this case, I'm not going to pick out an obscure track, but rather go with the obvious choice. After all, how can one top "September"?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... David Bowie.

Now Playing: Miles Davis Birth of the Cool
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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Chicken Ranch report no. 59: The deed is done

I thought this project would be a sprint when I started, but it turned out to be a quadruple-marathon. There were many, many times I thought this Chicken Ranch book was my own, personal Sisyphean stone, but now the finish line is really, truly in sight.

Today I turned in the final manuscript and photo captions to my editor at the History Press. That doesn't mean I'm finished--there are ongoing title discussions being discussed, and I have no doubt there are endless editorial notes and revision requests in my future, but the summit has been crested. It's all downhill from here on out.

Now Playing: Postmodern Jukebox Historical Misappropriation
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Monday, February 01, 2016

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Happy Birthday Aunt Jessie!

La Grange Yellow Pages phone book, 1958
On this date in 1885, Fay Stewart was born in Waco. She would've been 131 years old today. Stewart would later adopt the alias of Jessie Williams and operate a small brothel in Austin's Guy Town district before moving to La Grange in 1913. In 1915, she bought 11 acres of land outside of city limits and opened what would eventually become known as the Chicken Ranch. Known locally as Aunt Jessie, she ran the brothel until selling it to Edna Milton in 1961.

Faye Stewart’s parents came from Georgia, moving to Waco well before she was born. The family lived for years on Franklin Street, but struggled after Stewart’s father died unexpectedly in 1886. While it is entirely possible that Stewart learned the ropes of prostitution in Waco's infamous Two Street vice district, there’s scant evidence she was successful enough to own her own brothel there.

Curiously enough, despite the fact Aunt Jessie spent nearly three decades in La Grange and was as well-known a civic benefactor as anyone in Fayette County, I have found no photographs of her. Zero. Nada. Which is strange, since I know photos of her exist somewhere. So in lieu of Aunt Jessie's photo, we'll have to settle from the 1958 edition of the La Grange phone book. Think that cover art is coincidental? Or was someone with the Yellow Pages making a not-so-subtle joke? In any event, here's to Aunt Jessie, the woman who turned a number of shoddy prostitution operations into the brothel known today as the Chicken Ranch.

Now Playing: Astrud Gilberto Astrud Gilberto's Finest Hour
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