It's A Repair Of The Heart
November 29, 2018 11:29 AM | Posted in:

In retrospect, I understand that the problem began last spring.

Since moving to Horseshoe Bay, MLB and I had gotten acclimated to running in the hills that give this part of Texas its name. We weren't fast by any stretch, but we were able to consistently run five miles or so along courses that had elevation gains of about 100' per mile without suffering too much.

That began to change - for me, anyway - in the late spring, as the heat and humidity of this region started to make their appearance. I found myself "hitting the wall" and having to walk up some of the steeper inclines. I chalked it up to the aforementioned weather conditions and was confident that it was just a matter of acclimation (there's that word again). To my chagrin, things didn't improve. 

Along that same time, something else began occurring more frequently. Over the past couple of years, I had occasionally experienced a racing heartbeat. It didn't last long, sometimes only a few seconds but never more than a minute or two, and it was infrequent...maybe once every six months of so. But starting earlier this year, that frequency increased to the point where I experienced it once or twice a week. It still didn't last long, and again I rationalized it away as just another age-related challenge.

I lost that rationalization on the afternoon of Sunday, September 2nd. My heart started racing...and it didn't stop. I laid in bed and felt it pounding. It's a disconcerting thing to be constantly aware of your own heartbeat. According to my watch, my resting heart rate (which, to be honest, has always been high) was in excess of 120 beats per minute. Despite all of this, I exercised my male pigheaded prerogative and never mentioned it to MLB, figuring this too would end and things would return to normal.

They didn't, and on the following Thursday morning, I told her that something was wrong and I needed to see a doctor. We drove into Marble Falls and I checked in at the generic medical clinic. Fortunately, I was the only patient in the waiting room and between that and my description of why I was there, I was almost immediately put in a room. A nurse hooked me up to an EKG machine and within two seconds of starting the test, she gave me a firm diagnosis.

"You have atrial flutter."

I had never heard of atrial flutter, but I soon learned all about it. It's the less serious cousin of atrial fibrillation (a-fib, which we ALL know about thanks to the endless drug ads on TV), and in effect, it's when the upper chambers of the heart lose their rhythm (insert white guy dancing joke here) and leave the lower chambers to do all the work. As the cardiologist later explained, it causes a horsepower loss of around 20%, although I felt like I was working at a lot less than 80% of normal. 

The cardiologist said that I could continue to do whatever I felt like doing, so we continued to run and bicycle. Cycling wasn't too hard on me, but running was an entirely different matter. I often walked as much as I ran, and never did more than 45 minutes of both. I was also continuously tired; if I could read a book for more than ten minutes at a time without dozing off, it was a small victory. Worst of all, I had to cut back significantly on dancing.

The next couple of months were filled with a series of tests to rule out any additional issues: echocardiogram, stress echocardiogram, thyroid scan (an abnormal thyroid can cause cardiac arrhythmia), more EKGs than I can recall. There was also lots of body hair shaving. I was put on the first longterm prescription meds of my life, a blood thinner and a blood pressure regulator. Along the way I picked up a cardiologist, an electrophysiologist (heretofore unheard of in my experience), and a personal care physician (PCP). I also finally realized the importance of an Advanced Directive and Medical Power of Attorney. And, last but by no means least, I experienced firsthand the total chaos and impenetrable arbitrary obfuscation of the medical insurance industry.

The latter merits a quick anecdote. In the process of getting a PCP, MLB and I both had blood tests. Our insurance paid for the blood tests themselves, but denied the cost of drawing the blood. I'd love to hear an explanation for that. (OTOH, it does beg the question of why the lab even separates out those charges.)

Muppet AblationThe end result of all of these tests was that everything about me was normal (insert "oh, yeah; let me tell you a thing or two about yourself" joke here) except for the atrial arrhythmia. Fortunately, atrial flutter is easily cured via a procedure known as radio frequency catheter ablation. That's just a fancy term for "burning to a crisp the nerve pathways that are causing the arrhythmia." They basically run an extension cord through your groin up to the heart, plug it into a wall socket, and flip a switch. After the smoke clears and the sprinklers shut off, you're cured. The procedure is extremely effective and low risk, and I was deemed an ideal candidate, and not just because I had insurance.

I also learned that ablation is extremely common. Almost without exception, people I talked to either undergone the procedure themselves, or knew someone (and often multiple people) who had. And in every case, the procedure had fixed the problem.

So, yesterday I checked into the Austin Heart Hospital around noon, went into the operating room at 2:30 p.m. and was back at home before 9:30 (the hospital is 50 miles from where we live, and we stopped for a quick bite of supper). As I write this, my heartbeat is comfortingly unobtrusive, although the true test will come in a few days when I'm able to return to exercising.

I can't say enough good things about Austin Heart Hospital. Its staff was without exception kind, caring, professional, and efficient. I'm willing to forgive their refusal to bring me a cheeseburger to lift my spirits before the procedure.

The other positive outcome from this experience was the touching outpouring of support from friends and family with whom I had shared my predicament. I'm pretty sure that God doesn't scale His response based on how many prayers are lifted up to Him, but those expressions of love mean the world to me.

In closing, I want to say something to those readers of the male persuasion who, like me, seem genetically predisposed to ignoring the blaring sirens and atomic-powered neon flashing signs that something is wrong. Don't be like me and wait months or even weeks to get it checked out. Some things will get better on their own, but others just don't improve when left untreated. The problem is that you really aren't smart enough to know the difference.

DIY: Installing Soft Close Drawer Adapters
October 10, 2018 2:26 PM | Posted in:

A few weeks ago, we and another couple spent a few days in Santa Fe at a very cool B&B a few blocks away from the downtown plaza. The B&B was a remodel with nicely updated interior features, including soft-closing bathroom and kitchen drawers.

Our almost-20-year-old home in Horseshoe Bay has nice custom cabinetry, but the drawers do not have the soft close feature. Our stay in Santa Fe got us to thinking about how feasible it would be to add that to our existing drawers.

As it turns out, it's a pretty straightforward process, and by "straightforward" I mean "it will take all the tools, time, and swear words in your possession to accomplish." But, it is possible.

A quick search turned up these highly-rated soft close adapters, and I ordered ten of them to test the concept - and my ability to install them (to be honest, probably more the latter than the former).

I immediately ran into a problem challenge. Most of our cabinets are what are referred to as "face frame," meaning that the rails that the drawers glide along are not mounted flush against the cabinet wall; there's a gap between the cabinet wall and the rail, and this can change the way the soft close adapter is mounted. The adapter is mounted via two screws, one at each end. The adapter sits on top of the drawer rail and the front is screwed into the cabinet frame, flush with the drawer rail. But the back end will "float" since it's not flush against the cabinet wall.

The adapter installation instructions say that you don't have to affix the rear of the adapter...but I'm not sure how that might affect the stability or longevity of the mechanism, especially for heavier drawers. So, I took the alternate route of creating a spacer that first attaches to the cabinet wall, and then the rear part of the adapter is fastened to it.

I don't know if this makes for a better installation, but I do know it increased the installation time and effort by a factor of ten. About half of the steps shown below can be eliminated if you decide to attach only the front part of the adapter.

If you read some of the reviews for these adapters, you might run across some people who were able to use a standard size of board, such as a 1"x4", as a shim for all the adapters. This is a great idea IF your cabinets are all of uniform dimensions. Ours, of course, are not. The drawer rails are mounted with gaps varying in width from 1/2" to almost 2", and often the left gap is different from the right gap on the same drawer. (Fortunately, for most drawers, only one adapter is needed.) As a result, I had to create each individual spacer from scratch. Here's how I did it, and how the adapters were then installed.

Step 1 - Measure for the spacer

I went to Home Depot and bought an eight foot length of 2"x2" furring strip. The 2"x2" area is sufficient to permit both the mounting of the spacer against the cabinet wall, and the mounting of the adapter to the spacer. To determine the required spacer width, I simply placed a length of the furring strip flush against the cabinet wall and marked it along the line where the drawer glide rail is affixed.

Marking the width of the soft close adapter rear spacer
Marking the width of the rear spacer

Step 2: Cut the spacer

I used a miter saw to cut the spacer along the marked line. The lettering on the spacer indicates on which side of which drawer it will be mounted.

Cutting the spacer
Cutting the spacer; the numbering helps keep track of which drawer it belongs to.

Step 3:Drill a mounting hole

After cutting the spacer, I drilled a mounting hole using a countersink bit. It's not essential to countersink the mounting screw; I just like the cleanness of a flush screw. However, if you need a little extra screw length, the countersink might provide it. But in any event, since a furring strip is probably not the best quality wood, drilling a pilot hole will prevent splitting when you mount it.

Drilling the countersunk screw hole
Drilling a hole with a countersink bit

Below is the drilled spacer with the wood screw that will be used to mount it to the cabinet wall.

Rear spacer with wood screw
Rear spacer with mounting wood screw

Step 4: Mount the soft close adapter (front)

Below is the adapter that mounts to the cabinet wall. The metal end (shown in the lower left corner of the photo) is the front of the adapter. The two "legs" on the bottom of the adapter sit on top of the drawer rail (see next photo, below).

The soft close mechanism is pretty ingenious. The two gray tabs on top of the adapter are spring loaded. When fully installed, an "actuator" mounted on the side of the drawer pulls the tabs to the front of the adapter and the front tab folds down flush with the adapter body. The action of pulling those tabs back pneumatically loads the small gray tube along the back of the adapter. When the drawer is closed, the actuator engages the rear tab, pushing it back, and the front tab pops back into place. Together, they hold the drawer while the pneumatic tube pulls the drawer shut.

There is a bit of resistance when opening the drawer, as the actuator pulls the adapter tabs back. Some people take issue with this, but it's not enough to cause a problem. It's also possible to lift the drawer off of the tabs when opening it, thereby defeating the soft close action. But as long as the drawer is pulled straight back, this won't (shouldn't?) happen.

Soft close adapter
The soft close adapter

It's hard to discern in this photo, but the rear of the adapter is about a half inch away from the cabinet wall. A spacer placed behind it will address this issue.

Soft close adapter set in place, ready for installation
The adapter is in place for permanent mounting. Note the tab that allows precise spacing from the front of the cabinet.

Step 5: Mount the spacer

The photo below shows the spacer screwed into the cabinet wall, and the rear of the adapter screwed into the spacer. If the rear leg of the adapter is flush with the top of the drawer rail, you've [probably] got it mounted just right. (An exception is discussed below.)

Depending on the width of your drawer, mounting the spacer can be a chore best suited for a professional contortionist. I can't recommend this DeWalt cordless gyroscopic screwdriver strongly enough; it's like having a third hand, and it's probably the tool I reach for most often.

Soft close adapter in place
The adapter has been screwed into place. The spacer was attached to the cabinet wall, then the adapter was affixed to the spacer by a second wood screw.

Step 6: Mount the actuator

A plastic actuator will be mounted flush with the face of the cabinet, and positioned so that the rear of the actuator (shown below) sits just on top of a plastic "bump" on the adapter. It's really important to get this mounting position right. If the actuator is too high, it won't engage the adapter; if it's too low, the drawer will jump noticeably when opening or closing it.

Positioning the soft close actuator
The actuator is positioned on the drawer so that it just touches the "bump" on the front end of the adapter.

The instructions that come with the adapter suggest removing the drawer and placing it on its side to install the actuator. I did that for the first few drawers, but then I realized I could mount the actuator without removing the drawer (and thereby avoid having to empty and refill it). I found that marking the position of the mounting holes with a pencil, then using a spring-loaded center punch to ensure that the screws didn't "walk" made the actuator installation a breeze. (As an aside, if you don't have a spring-loaded center punch, I highly recommend getting one. It is, as my father-in-law used to say, handy as a pocket on a shirt.)

Soft close actuator screwed into place
The actuator screwed into place on the drawer.

I mentioned above that if you mounted the adapter properly, the soft close function would work as advertised. I found that wasn't necessarily the case, as on one drawer I had to put a shim behind the actuator to make it engage the adapter (yay for custom cabinetry). This proved pretty simple, as we happened to have some popsicle sticks that seemed to have been designed with shim capability in mind.

Soft close actuator with spacer shim
For this installation, I had to shim the actuator with a couple of popsicle sticks so that it would engage the adapter.

Not every drawer in our kitchen required a rear spacer. The bigger lower drawers, where we store our pots and pans, are frameless, meaning that they have the glide rails mounted flush with the cabinet walls, so that the adapter can be mounted without a spacer.

Also, most of our drawers required only one adapter. If you have a particularly big or heavy drawer, you can mount adapters on both sides, but even some of our drawers that I predicated would need two are working just fine with one. Try using just one first; you can always add the second one later as needed.

While this whole process was fairly tedious and time-consuming, we're quite happy with the result. The adapters really do work as advertised.

Animated GIF showing drawer soft close action
If the installation goes as planned, here's how the drawer will close.

Learning Spanish to Teach English
August 30, 2018 7:47 PM | Posted in:

¿Hablas español?

Solo un poco. Pero quiero apender más.

MLB and I are volunteering as teachers in an English As A Second Language (ESL) class sponsored by our church. We inherited a class comprised of adult students primarily from Mexico. Since they are all native Spanish speakers, we are trying to improve our fluency in their native language.

There's a great deal of debate about whether ESL teachers should use Spanish (or any non-English language) in class. I won't attempt to debate the pros and cons, but I will say that when you get less than two hours per week with students, you need to be as efficient as possible in communicating concepts, and being able to set the context in their native language has been invaluable. I have yet to find a picture card or a pantomime that accurately depicts the concept of "enough."

In addition, our sometimes-bumbling attempts at Spanish provides two intangible benefits. First, I believe it demonstrates some respect for the students' culture. Second, it gives us as teachers a perspective on just how difficult learning another language can be for adults. And if we aren't afraid to mess up when we attempt Spanish, maybe the students won't fear making mistakes in English.

We've actually been working on our Spanish skills for almost a year, using two different self-paced programs. The first is Duolingo, which bills itself as "the world's most popular language learning platform." Duolingo's "active learners" count seems to support this claim, with almost 22 million English speakers taking Spanish, and 29 million Spanish speakers taking English. In all, Duolingo has about 100 English-to-xxx and xxx-to-English courses. We have downloaded the app to our tablets and phones and do lessons every morning as a part of our normal routine.

The other program we're using is Fluencia, a web-based curriculum focused solely on Spanish. Again, daily lessons in Fluencia are a part of our morning routine.

The two programs share some features. Both offer "starter" lessons for free, but their usefulness is extremely limited. The paid versions of each unlock the full potential of the programs. Both track your progress and provide daily reports via email or notifications. Both programs provide immediate feedback during the lessons about whether you're succeeding. And both allow you to provide your own feedback about the lessons themselves.*

However, the two programs are quite different in their approaches. Duolingo is more self-paced, and arranges its lessons by narrow topic (e.g. Animals, Time, Directions, Adverbs, etc.). You can pick whichever topics appeal to you the most, and each provides a series of lessons of [theoretically] increasing difficulty. Duolingo's emphasis seems to be on building vocabulary. You're on your own to figure out the grammatical rules, unless you want to exit the lessons and use Duolingo's extensive online resources.

Screen capture of Duolingo's lessons
Screen capture of Duolingo's lessons

Fluencia has a structured curriculum that you work through in linear fashion; you can't advance to the next set of lessons until you've mastered (or at least stumbled through, in my case) the previous set. Fluencia's lesson plans are built around social situations (e.g. "Explore household chores and items, celebrity, and gossip"; "Learn words for your first apartment, job interviews, banking...and describing a city"). Fluencia does a much better job of explaining grammatical rules as a part of the lesson, and it also provides lessons on Spanish culture, customs, idioms, geography, etc.

Screen capture of Fluencia's lesson
Screen capture of Fluencia's lesson

Both platforms have their drawbacks. You can download Duolingo lessons to work offline but Fluencia requires a connection to the web. Some of Duolingo's lessons seem excessively simple and repetitive, even at the advanced levels (most people really don't need to see "el hombre" twenty times to remember that it means "the man"). On the other hand, some of Fluencia's lessons are brutally hard, especially the reviews that require absolute mastery of all the lessons included in each level. My aging brain seems incapable of absorbing everything that Fluencia expects, and that gets frustrating.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Duolingo is the way it "punishes" you for not answering questions correctly. Once you miss three questions, you are locked out of the program for 24 hours. This seems like an odd way to encourage learning. The workaround is to upgrade to the paid version, then turn on a special setting that stops that ridiculous approach.

In the end, I can't recommend either program over the other, as they each provide useful tools via their different approaches. Duolingo's strength is building vocabulary; Fluencia's is providing grammatical context. 

Nevertheless, fluency is not coming easily. I feel like I have a pretty good working vocabulary, but grammar is probably still on a first-grade level. I can read Spanish pretty effectively, but speaking anything but the most rudimentary sentences is a struggle. Worst of all, listening to native speakers is completely frustrating, especially with the Latin tendency to speak quickly. (In fairness, our students often tell us that we're speaking too quickly.)

One additional resource I highly recommend is SpanishDict, a translation resource that is reliable and comprehensive. It's done more to help me understand Spanish verb conjugations than either Duolingo or Fluencia. You can access SpanishDict as either a standalone app or via its website.

*I mentioned above that these programs allow students to provide feedback about the lessons. In Duolingo's case, you can report a question for which you believe the provided answer is either wrong or excessively limited (Spanish provides multiple ways to say the same thing, but the program doesn't always recognize that.) I've discovered that this feedback actually works. I've submitted several suggestions and received prompt responses from Duolingo to the effect that they will update their program to accept my suggestions for acceptable answers.

Gazette 'Gramming
August 7, 2018 4:20 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers have no doubt noticed the new icons in the right-hand sidebar of each page.  In an attempt at shameless self-promotion, I've stolen repurposed these social media icons from the interwebz and linked each one to my corresponding account. So, if I'm not posting enough on this site for your taste (in which case you need to seriously reconsider how you're using your spare time), you can check out Twitter (for mostly unoriginal content), Vimeo (for mostly wild animal video content), Facebook (for non-Russian-influenced content, as far as you know), and Instagram (for non-moving visual content).

Really, though, the main reason for this post is to plug the Instagram account. I've had the account since at least 2012 (according to the date on the first photo I uploaded...Instagram doesn't tell you exactly when the account was created), but I ignored it for years. Recently, I've started uploading more images to Instagram, and since I'm getting some pretty positive feedback (Thanks, Sandy! Thanks, Kristi!) about them, I plan to continue doing so.

Partial screen grab of the Gallery index pageBut in the interest of complete transparency, I confess that a lot of what I'm putting on Instagram isn't new. Many of the images that show up there have been on this blog for years, before there was an Instagram, in the Image Gallery (also linked at right). I created that section as sort of a sandbox for experimenting with different photographic and image manipulation techniques. I haven't paid a lot of attention to it, and posting images to Instagram is much easier (especially since I discovered the workaround that lets me do it via Safari or Chrome on my desktop computer).

I still like the Image Gallery concept, because it allows for more flexibility in image description, context, etc. It also isn't as restrictive in terms of image size and format, although Instagram has gotten a little better in that regard. Also, I like not being dependent on a third party for how my content gets displayed.

So, if you see something I've uploaded to Instagram and want to know more about it, you can either ask in the comments section of Instagram, or check the Image Gallery. I might have already provided the answer in the latter section.
Alert Gazette readers will recall our encounter with a cottonmouth (aka water moccasin) last fall. Then, a couple of months ago we discovered a four-foot-long blotched water snake in our courtyard. The latter encounter taught me that distinguishing between the poisonous cottonmouth and the non-venomous water snake wasn't as easy as I had initially assumed.

If you google "cottonmouth vs water snake," you'll see that I'm not the only one who needs some help with this subject. There are many articles and videos that attempt to teach you how to correctly distinguish these species, something that could literally be a life-and-death skill. Unfortunately, in the real world, snakes don't carry ID cards, and making an absolute identification is hit or miss.

Case in point: a few days ago MLB and I were walking on the trail that encircles our neighborhood, and which roughly parallels Pecan Creek for about half its length. Something in the creek caught my eye and I scurried over to investigate. I'll save you a few thousand words, and substitute the following video instead.

According to "the experts," there are several factors to consider when trying to decide if the snake you're confronting will deliver a potentially fatal bite or just a very painful one (yeah, they pretty much all bite). But I think there are drawbacks to each of those factors.

Distinguishing Trait Why It Won't Work
Unique body pattern/coloring Ha. Good luck with that. They all look alike.
Cottonmouths float when they swim. Water snakes swim with only their heads above water. The truth of this is debatable. Plus, they're not always IN the water.
Cottonmouths have thicker, heavier bodies than water snakes. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten itself to appear thicker and heavier.
Cottonmouths have triangular heads and thin necks. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten its head so that it appears, well, triangular.
Cottonmouths have heat-sensing "pits" between their nostrils and their eyes. Those pits aren't readily discernible unless you're really, really close.
Cottonmouth eyes have vertical pupils. Water snakes have round pupils. This is probably the best differentiator, but you still have to get close enough to discern the shape.

So, while I lean toward identifying "our" snake as a cottonmouth, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. In any event, we're stepping more cautiously when we're out in the yard, even though the likelihood of one coming that far from the creek is pretty small. I'd hate for either of us to make a positive identification of a cottonmouth in the worst possible fashion.

Photo - snake in creek
You decide.

Web Weaving Weirdos
July 20, 2018 9:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I'll fight a bear, but I don't like spiders. I'm not a fan of those.
  -- J. J. Watt
I'm an unabashed arachnophobe. Spiders are not just creepy; they're intentionally malevolent. God created spiders because snakes weren't sufficient to remind us that we live in a fallen world. Spiders are the only creatures that have the capacity to make me hurt myself while attempting to avoid even the most benign encounter. 

Given those facts, it amazes me that I'm posting this. You should be impressed.

A few weeks ago, we had at least five yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) nesting in our back yard landscape. [Note: I have previously -- and erroneously -- referred to these spiders as orb weavers.] They ranged in size from about a quarter inch in body length up to more than an inch...and that doesn't include their devastatingly creepy legs. Some of them had future meals trapped in their webs.

Yellow garden spider with prey trapped in its web

Several of them were in the process of building their webs, and I tamped down my revulsion in order to video what I grudgingly came to appreciate as an amazing natural phenomenon. I filmed a couple of spiders during this process and compiled the following short (~3 minutes) movie. I hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did.

The following photo is a closeup of the spider's spinnaret, which is emitting the silk thread that comprises the web.

Yellow garden spider spinning silk for its web

Of course, the purpose of the web is to snare prey. Below is a photo of one of our spiders feeding on an unidentified insect (possibly a moth). The next photo shows a different spider feeding on a rather large cicada. Judging by the state of the web, the cicada put up a fight, but it obviously was to no avail.

Yellow garden spider feeding on mothYellow garden spider feeding on cicada

As I mentioned in the video, while the spiders are definitely predators, they're not at the top of the food chain. None of the spiders shown in this article are still around. I suspect they themselves have become prey to birds or lizards, or even mammals such as possums. I honestly can't muster any sympathy for them. For one thing, it's just nature at work. But really, in the end, regardless of the exquisite elegance of their silk spinning, spiders are just creepy.

Wildlife Update
July 6, 2018 3:58 PM | Posted in: ,

It's been awhile since I provided a wildlife update. But, first, here's a squirrel (turn up the sound to get the full effect):

That's the noise a squirrel makes when its annoyed or angry. I couldn't discern what caused this one's panties to get in a wad, but it was obviously too lazy to do anything but gripe about it. I'll remind you that the Gazette is an apolitical publication so don't try to anthropomorphize this phenomenon.

Back to the subject at hand. It's been a slow summer for wildlife in the neighborhood. It's been weeks since we've sighted any raccoons, skunks, foxes, or possums (and that includes not catching them on the game camera at night), much less trapped them. In fact, I've retired the raccoon trap to the attic until we find new evidence that they're around and up to no good.

I'm not naive enough to think that I've trapped out the area, but the aforementioned critters have apparently found more desirable habitats. One neighbor across the creek recently reported that his dog came out on the losing end of a tangle with a skunk in their back yard, so perhaps the crew has migrated north for the summer.

However, alert Gazette readers have no doubt noted the absence of one species from the aforementioned list. That's right...the State Small Mammal of Texas, the armadillo, has not abandoned our neck of the woods. I did have a few consecutive 'dillo-less weeks, but they're now back and making up for lost time. In fact, armadillo captures have caught up with and surpassed the raccoon count.

I've actually had to rework the Official Critter Capture Scorecard©, for reasons that should be obvious. Here's the original (and up-to-date) version:

Critter Capture Scorecard

And here's the new improved version:

Critter Capture Scorecard - New Version

The first version is perhaps more visually impressive, but the new version has the distinct advantage of not requiring any counting. By the way, I've done some ciphering and determined that the next catch will make an even 50 animals that we've trapped and released in less than a year.

That's not to say that we're completely bereft of living creatures around the house. I'm contemplating doing a spider-centric post as our flowerbeds are practically overrun with orb weavers, but I'll have to undergo some arachnophobia therapy before I can do that. In the meantime, fixate on this more benign invertebrate as a visual amuse-bouche.

Photo of a bug

Oh, by the way...MLB and I have often remarked on one unusual aspect of wildlife in our vicinity, and that is the complete absence of rabbits. We had not seen a jackrabbit or a cottontail since moving here last summer...until this morning. As we were on the way to release the latest armadillo in an undisclosed location, MLB spotted movement along the road. I backed the truck up a half block and, sure enough, a jackrabbit was loping through the brush. I guess coyotes are next on the agenda.
So, I'm kind of a sucker for Best Buy's Deal of the Day. It's not so much that the prices are that low -- although sometimes, for some items, they really are -- but they often draw my attention to products that I might not ever consider buying, or even know about. I've been known to pull the trigger on a "deal" simply to see if the hype is warranted.

Halo packagingA couple of weeks ago, one of the DOTD was a half-price sale for something called a Halo Ambient Bias Lighting kit for TVs. I had never heard of this but I did some research (aka "clicked on a couple of google results") and was persuaded that it was a legitimate technology for improving the picture on a typical flatscreen television. This is a good overview of the technology and why it works.

The theory is that when a TV screen is subjected to ambient light of the proper color temperature (for modern HDTVs, it's 6500K), your eyes will perceive the picture to have greater contrast, and they will also be less susceptible to strain due to the increased brightness of the typical LED TV. The ambient light tricks the brain into thinking the TV isn't as bright as it really is, and this makes a difference in viewing comfort, especially if you're watching in a darkened room.

I figured that for seventeen bucks, it was worth checking out, so I ordered two of them, one for the living room TV and one for the screen in our bedroom. The kits arrived last week, and I finally got around to installing them.

The units are elegantly packaged, rivaling some of Apple's packaging, and the installation instructions are easy to follow. I think they could be improved by explaining exactly how Halo improves the viewing experience, but I suppose they assume that you wouldn't be using the product if you didn't know what it did.

Halo installed on a TVInstallation is simple, taking less than five minutes, although it requires access to the back of the TV. The Halo is simply a ribbon of LED lights that are affixed to the back of the TV via peel-and-stick. The unit is USB-powered (USB 3.0, to be precise). Ideally, it's plugged into the USB port on your TV so that it turns on and off along with your TV. If that's not an option, you'll need an USB adapter to plug into a regular electrical outlet; the Halo comes with a remote control so you can operate it independently of the TV. The photo at right shows the installation on one of our TVs; the white strip contains the LED lights, and it's plugged into the TV's USB port.

I mounted the Halo on three sides of our TVs, starting and ending about two-thirds of the way down the sides. If you have a TV mounted flush to the wall, you may need to run the strip all the way around it to get an effective ambient light effect. It's important that the light from the LEDs is reflected around the TV to get the desired effect.

Even if you use your TV's USB port and thus don't need the remote to activate the Halo, the remote still has some useful features, as well as a few inexplicably weird ones. The useful ones are the controls that allow you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs to suit your viewing taste. The weird ones let you turn the Halo's lights into a variety of flashing sequences. I can't imagine a scenario where you want to send a continuous SOS signal from behind your TV, but perhaps I'm living in the wrong neighborhood.

I must admit to thus far being underwhelmed by the difference Halo seems to make on our TVs. For one thing, both units are mounted in cabinets, and the lights illuminate the back and sides of the cabinets, as well as any cabling or A/V components that might normally be hidden in the dark recesses. And in one case, the TV almost completely fills the cabinet from edge-to-edge, meaning that there is negligible ambient light spilling over from the two sides of the TV. 

That's not to say that the Halo doesn't work; we just haven't noticed much difference when watching TV at night in a dark room (which we rarely do). At the same time, the ambient light is not a distraction, and we may find that we like it more as we get accustomed to it. For now, we're operating it at the lowest brightness level.

In the end, at $17, the Halo is not a bad investment; it's a little more iffy at twice that price. But if you normally watch TV in a darkened room and if you experience eyestrain, it's worth checking out.
WoodpeckerEarlier this spring, an oak tree across the street from our house attracted the attention of a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers*. The tree's trunk has a hollowed-out place about twenty feet off the ground and the opening faces our front windows; I can see it from my usual seat in the living room.

Since April, MLB and I have watched as the woodpeckers made a home in the hollow trunk. They diligently climbed in and out of the hole in the tree, bringing out mouthfuls of dust and debris to clean out the space, presumably in preparation for a nest and young. They were constantly flying in and out and around the tree and we grew accustomed to them as neighbors.

Then, a week or so ago, I noticed an exceptionally busy flurry of activity. The birds were even more active in flying up to the hole in the trunk, stopping for a moment, then flying away. I noticed movement in the hole, and theorized that the adults were feeding a batch of newly hatched progeny in the nest.

I set up a video camera on a tripod behind a tree in our front yard, zoomed in on the hole, and started recording at around 6:00 p.m. I left it running while I went in for supper. The battery on the camera was good for only about an hour or so of recording, but I hoped that it would pick up something interesting in that short time.

Boy, did it ever!

Instead of piling several thousand words on you to describe what we viewed, here's a semi-short video (~13 minutes) distilling a couple of months' worth of action, leading to a completely unexpected climax.There are really three different storylines in the video; I hope you find it enlightening, if not entertaining.

So, if you're in the TL:DW mode, here's a quick summary:

  • Woodpeckers occupy hollow tree
  • They create a happy home
  • Said home is invaded by a rat snake
  • Outcome is negative for occupants of bird home
  • Turns out, there are actually TWO snakes in that tree
As I note in the video, we think the snakes are Texas rat snakes; their behavior and appearance are consistent with what we've been able to glean online. These snakes are non-venomous and non-aggressive. They are excellent climbers (duh) and seek out birds' nests for food. They will also eat rodents, including squirrels. As serpent neighbors go, we could do a lot worse.

The woodpeckers have relocated somewhere else in the neighborhood. I still hear their calls, but haven't seen them again. We enjoyed watching them, but also recognize that they are somewhat destructive birds so their absence is not personally devastating. We do hope, however, that what the snake dined on was eggs and not live young.

The snakes remained in the tree for a couple of days after the final video. We have additional footage of them climbing up and down the tree in search of more prey, much to the chagrin of a small bevy of tiny birds who were obviously disturbed by one of the snake's presence. However, we never spotted their nest(s) so we have no idea of the outcome of that confrontation.

For our timid neighbor's information -- that would be you, Kristi -- the snakes are now gone as well.

*For the longest time, I thought they were ladder-backed woodpeckers. But while researching the species for this article, I realized that the coloring and especially the call were wrong. So much for my career as an ornithologist.

A little blog housekeeping...
June 4, 2018 9:15 PM | Posted in:

I've been meaning to do this for about a year and I finally made time for it. But first, here's a yawning possum:

Animated GIF of a trapped, yawning possum

My blog post categories were in great need of reorganizing. What are "categories," you ask? They're those links that following the words "Posted in:" underneath the title of each article I put on the blog. They're just a way of grouping posts that deal with similar subjects, in case anyone is so ridiculously bored that they want to read more than one at a time. Similarly, if you want to be sure to avoid my unenlightened views on, say, Fashion -- and, seriously, you probably should -- then you can easily do so by selecting all the categories that don't have the word "Fashion" in them, which is pretty much all of them except one. (You can find a list of all the categories via the cleverly named Archives Index link in the right-hand column of each page.)

For many years, I've used the following categories as catch-alls for semi-related posts: Nature and Pets & Wildlife. I was less than rigorous in using these categories, so an article about, say, avocets might end up in Nature, while another post about killdeer landed in Pets & Wildlife. Also, the latter category was getting way too big, especially with our move to the Hill Country, aka Wild Kingdom. Ants and western cottonmouths and ringtail cats might all be technically wildlife, but that grouping is really too generic for serious research, and here at the Gazette we're all about serious research.

So, what I've done is created a whole slew of new categories for Wildlife (e.g. Wildlife - Birds; Wildlife - Mammals; Wildlife - Trapping; etc.), and changed the "Pets & Wildlife" category to simply "Pets" (the contents of which deal primarily with, well, you know, animals of the domesticated persuasion [not including married men]). Also, I cleaned up "Nature" (you can thank me later, Greenpeace) by removing all the animal-related posts. Nature is now where you'll find stuff about plants, weather, and phenomena or activities that don't fit neatly anywhere else.

Sure, this may be the equivalent of rearranging the silverware drawer, but the next time you need an asparagus server, you'll be relieved not to have to rifle through the knives and cucumber juicers to get satisfaction.