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.
TurtleMLB and I were walking to the mailbox this morning when we spotted a big turtle in the shade of a tree about 25 feet from the street (and about that same distance from the creek that I presume is its home).
It wasn't moving, which was odd, so we walked over to investigate. It withdrew partway into its shell, but made no attempt to get back to the water.

We're not turtle experts, but the way the back half of the turtle was positioned in a shallow muddy depression seemed to indicate some nesting behavior.

Turtle

We watched it for a couple of minutes, and not observing anything of apparent consequence, we continued our stroll to the mailbox and then back home.

After about an hour, we decided to check on la tortuga -- which we tentatively identified as a red-eared slider --  to see if we could make any more sense out of its behavior. I took a video camera just in case there was anything worth recording, and we were rewarded with this:



In case you're wondering, I did indeed feel a [admittedly illogical] twinge of privacy-violating guilt in videoing at such close quarters.

If you watched carefully, you saw two eggs being deposited into the muddy hole that passes for a turtle nest. According to the Wikipedia article linked above, this species will lay 2-30 eggs at one time (which is quite a span). The eggs take between two and four months to hatch, and the youngsters will not enter the water until almost three weeks after hatching. That would seem to be when they are most vulnerable to predators.

We debated putting up some kind of cage around the nest to prevent any disturbance but ultimately decided to let nature take its course. We're not lacking for turtles in the creek, and I'm not really interested in monitoring a nest until next fall to make sure that any hatchlings can get out of whatever cage we might build to keep predators from getting in.

In addition, when we returned for one last check, the turtle was gone and so was the "nest." Well, not gone gone, but good luck figuring out where it is. That mama turtle is a camouflage master.

Turtle Nest
Can you spot the nest?

As I've often observed on these pages, the world of nature never ceases to astonish and amaze.

Signs. And wonders.
May 5, 2018 5:01 PM | Posted in:


Me, blogging

Hiya. Happy Cinco de Mayo. I would have written that en espaƱol, but I've been informed by some people with too much time on their hands that it's not really a generally-observed Mexican holiday, but only an excuse to eat tacos and guacamole, and drink Coronas and margaritas. To which I respectfully respond: and your point is...?

Anyway, today's subject is signs. Also pictograms, which are just signs made by third graders. I have an extensive collection to share with you today, and by "extensive" I mean three.

My pal Tommy recently bought a tractor, and I drove it. It has cruise control, because when you're going three miles per hour, you can't be distracted by having to keep your foot on a pedal. Although now that I think about it, I can't remember if the throttle was foot-controlled. But I digress.

The tractor is covered with pictograms, mostly attempting to describe all the potentially fatal things one can suffer while driving a tractor (of which there are many; the primary purpose of owning a tractor is apparently not to drive it), but mainly succeeding in being unintentionally hilarious. OK, amusing.

Like this one:

I still like 'use this tractor with a beach ball' better

Frankly, I can't think of many things a tractor is better suited for than an exciting game of catch using a beach ball. (If you have no sense of humor, you can click on the preceding image to see the uncropped but much less fun sign.)

Then there's this one, inscribed on a tube affixed to the deck of the tractor and which, frankly, took four of us chronologically adult persons several minutes of collective conjecture before we figured it out.



For the life of me, I can't imagine why the graphic designer thought that a pictogram instructing the tractor operator to pick up and drink a thermos of coffee, then read a book, and then put the thermos down could possibly ever be interpreted as "open this tube to read the tractor manual."

Finally, while this isn't technically a sign or even a pictogram, it's close enough and this is my blog. We recently received a FedEx delivery and apparently our location is still something of a mystery to that company's GPS system. Some enterprising logistics specialist determined that the treeware solution was the ideal approach to making sure the package arrived at the indended destination. In this digital age, it's nice to know that analog still works.


Snake Mistake
May 2, 2018 8:33 PM | Posted in: ,

"Eric...come quick!"

I was sitting in the office late yesterday afternoon when I heard MLB's overly excited summons from somewhere in the middle of the house. I ran out to find her staring out the living room windows at something in the front courtyard. 

"Oh, man. That's a water moccasin. Keep an eye on him while I grab a hoe!" 

I scurried into the garage, found the hoe, and hurried to the courtyard where MLB was keeping an eye on the snake...albeit still through the window. It was still and stretched out in front of the window, not at all exercised about my presence.

Blotched Water Snake (in our courtyard)

I started to behead the serpent when I noticed my neighbor across the street visiting with a man who was working on the new house next door. I yelled at them to come over. "Wanna see a water moccasin?!" They hurried over.

The neighbor stayed behind the fence to observe the proceedings, but the other man rushed into the courtyard with an obvious expression of interest on his face. 

"That's a water moccasin, alright, but it's not a cottonmouth," he asserted. I was immediately confused and mentally docked points from his herpetological knowledge score. But the more he talked, the more it sounded like he did, indeed, know his snakes.

"It's not poisonous, and I wouldn't kill it," he said. I was still skeptical, but he began to lay out his supporting argument. It sounded logical, although as the snake continued to strike aggressively at the business end of the hoe blocking its path, I wasn't completely convinced. He continued, "if you won't kill it, I'll take it away."

"Uh...OK. But first...where, exactly, do you live?" I wanted to make sure he wasn't going to drive a block or two and let it go. It turns out that he lives 20+ miles down the highway, has a neighbor who works for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and the two of them often collaborate on wildlife issues.

Having established his sincerity, I agreed to try to herd the snake into a moving box that MLB had brought from inside the house. The reptile wasn't initially keen to go where we wanted it to go, but we finally managed to persuade it to crawl into the cardboard box, and the gentleman happily hauled it over to his pickup.

He was working at the new house this morning when we returned after a run, and he flagged us down. I asked him how the snake release went, and he said that it slithered into the Pedernales River and immediately vanished. He said they measured the snake at more than three feet in length. "I also identified the species," he said as he opened his pickup door and pulled out a guide to Texas snakes. "It's a blotched water snake." It took him a while to rifle through the pages (Texas is home to a LOT of snakes) but when he finally found it, it did indeed seem to be "our" snake.

In reading more about the blotched water snake -- which, by the way, seems to be a highly uncomplimentary name, but I suppose the snake has no objections -- I learned that it is often mistaken for a cottonmouth. But the latter's eyes has elliptical pupils, while the harmless water snakes all have round pupils (see photo below). I'll leave it to you to decide how close you need to get to make that distinction. There are a few other physical and behavioral differences between the "good" and "bad" snakes, and they're worth learning if you live in an area where the latter are found, AND you don't subscribe to a philosophy that the only good snake is a dead one.

Comparison of eyes of non-venomous and venomous snakes

We all agreed that there was no good reason to kill non-venomous snakes, and several good ones for having them around (rodent control being at the top of the list). Nevertheless, I still wasn't willing to concede that venomous snakes found in a neighborhood were worthy of the same consideration, a position he advocates.

Now, having said that, we're still not keen on the idea of having even the good ones lurking around in our flowerbeds and lawns. Heart attacks are generally even more fatal than snake bites!

Slow ride; fast video - Cycling in Horseshoe Bay
April 27, 2018 2:13 PM | Posted in:

It's been a while since I posted a time lapse bike ride video. I realize most of you have little interest in these short movies, unless you like to ride vicariously through some [mostly] pretty scenery. But some of you may live in Horseshoe Bay and for you I issue the challenge of identifying the route we take on this particular ride.

As hints I will say that the ride begins and ends in Pecan Creek, and winds through HSB proper. Other than that, you're on your own to figure out where we go.


If you're a cyclist, you might have noticed -- perhaps with a bit of envy -- how few vehicles we encountered during this 18 mile jaunt through a town in the middle of the afternoon. Granted, most of the route was on residential streets (about 3 miles was on a ranch-to-market road that is pretty heavily traveled, but it has a very wide shoulder and a 45-mph speed limit) and the one-photo-per-30-seconds video capture may not always accurately represent overall reality, but this dearth of traffic is actually the standard scenario. It does make for pleasant cycling experiences.

If the one-second-per-scene video didn't provide enough context to map out our route, here's the Relive video provided by MLB showing an aerial view of the course.


Note that we refer to this particular route as our flat ride. We have another one that winds through Horseshoe Bay West, and if you've ever been in that area, you'll know why it's our "hilly ride."

Rock Squirrels on Spring Break?
April 24, 2018 10:26 PM | Posted in:

Last weekend, we discovered we were hosting unanticipated visitors in the form of a herd of juvenile rock squirrels. At one point, I counted six (6!) of them cavorting on and around our back yard deck. When they detected our presence, they would quickly dive under the deck, but just as quickly reappear.

We had seen adult rock squirrels living among the rocks (duh) lining the bank of the creek, but never considered that they might move from that environment to our back yard. I didn't particularly relish the thought of having a dray (look it up) living under the deck -- and I have no idea what the resident possum family thought about the new neighbors -- but grudgingly admitted that the young ones were fun to watch.

I put a GoPro camera on a stake and captured some of the following photos of the children at play. Other photos were taken from inside the house using a zoom lens. Click on each small photo to see a larger version.

Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels This tree squirrel seems to be pretty disgusted by this turn of events Juvenile rock squirrels Juvenile rock squirrels

We watched them on and off through the weekend. An adult squirrel -- presumably either the mother or father -- would occasionally venture into the yard, but oddly enough it would generally retreat over the retaining wall to the creek bank rather than joining the kits under the deck.

But that changed on Sunday afternoon. With friends visiting, we were watching the squirrels go about their now-familiar busyness when we saw the adult (let's call it the mother) run across the lawn with something...furry...in her mouth. She was too fast to get a good look, but there seemed to be fewer kits playing than before. After we watched a repeat of that behavior, it was obvious that she was grabbing the youngsters one-by-one and taking them back to the creek bank. I grabbed my camera, as one does. I wasn't able to get any really clear photos, but I think you can discern the process of evacuating the pups.

Rock squirrel mother putting kit on notice Rock squirrel kit: 'aww, ma...do I hafta?' Rock squirrel mother carrying juvenile Rock squirrel mother carrying juvenile Rock squirrel mother carrying juvenile

I'm sure there's a logical explanation for temporary appearance and subsequent relocation to the more usual habitat, but here's my theory. I think this was the rock squirrel equivalent of a spring break trip for the kids to Disneyworld. All good things must come to an end, though, and the parents had to get back to work on Monday, so home they went. I'll be happy to entertain a better explanation.

In any event, the youngsters had no trouble readjusting to their creekside home. At almost any point during the day, we can peer over the fence and watch them busily engaged in their squirrely activities. 

Adult rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat Juvenile rock squirrel in its more normal habitat

Hate to end on a down note, but I suspect the snakes that live in and along the creek may be pretty happy about the return of this family, as well. But, so far, all six of the young ones are still up and around.
It's probably common knowledge that beavers slap the water with their tails as a warning about - or an attempt to startle - potential predators. They also tend to swim with their heads slightly above water but with their bodies slightly submerged.

So, you may be ask, why are you - a native Texan living in the heart of a beaver-impoverished state - giving this random lecture about the creature's behavior? Simply this: I watched a beaver swim in the creek behind our house last night. I have never heard of a beaver sighting in this area, much less seen one myself, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that they are indeed living in our neighborhood.

We came home around dusk after eating out with friends, and there were some significant thunderheads building up in the north, so I walking into the back yard to observe them. Our weather was calm and there was still enough light to see the creek, so I stood at the back fence and looked down at the water, about twenty feet away.

I saw a shape moving in the water and my first thought was "that's the biggest catfish I've ever seen in the creek!" My second thought was, "wait...what? We don't have catfish in the creek." The shape appeared to be 2-3' long, trailing something wide. I mentally cycled through some possibilities, trying to place it in a logical context. I knew there were nutria around the lake, but those are basically big rats with long skinny tails, and that didn't fit the profile of what I was watching.

The shape continued to swim slowly down the middle of the stream, and I figured I should attempt to get a photo or video to prove my sanity, even though the fading light made it doubtful that my aging phone's camera would capture anything recognizable. And fail it did, although perhaps not entirely of its own fault. What I managed to record was approximately five seconds of the ground.*

My view of the animal was blocked by a tree on the creek bank, but I expected it to come into sight in a clearing a few feet down the stream. It didn't, so I decided it had doubled back. I moved back down the fence line and sure enough, it was swimming the other direction. But my movement apparently caught its attention and its reaction confirmed that what I was watching was indeed a beaver. With a loud slap of the water's surface with its tail, it disappeared and I did not spot it again.

I described the encounter to MLB and she was initially skeptical, but after an extended conversation with Mr. Google, she confirmed that beavers are present pretty much throughout Texas, with the exception of the western part of the state. We also learned that they prefer still water, but Pecan Creek is very slow-moving with limpid pools forming at various bends, so it would not necessarily be a beaver-unfriendly environment. And, finally, they are most active right around dusk and dawn.

I realize that some of you live in areas where beavers are plentiful, but for me, this was akin to spotting a cheetah in our back yard. The variety of local wildlife continues to be a constant source of amazement and pleasure.

Have you ever encountered unexpected wildlife in your neighborhood? Tell us about it in the comments!

*Some of the fotografic failure was the fone's fault. You may have heard about the battery-related slowdowns in old iPhone models, and my 6s is dealing with that now. The camera is so slow to respond that when I tapped the record button and nothing happened, I hit it again. That resulted in my turning off the video instead of turning it on. Rinse and repeat, and the result is intriguing moving images of...dirt.

Relive your run, you masochist
March 13, 2018 2:05 PM | Posted in:

I'm a bit of a data junkie, and nowhere is this more evident than in the spreadsheets I've kept for decades detailing my workouts. I do this not because I have an accounting degree, nor because I'm OCD (although one of those things is definitely true and the other is probably true). I keep records as a motivational tool. The presence of blank rows on the spreadsheet is a reminder that I'm probably falling short of my workout goals...which aren't all that challenging but they do emphasize consistency.

For years I've tracked my running workouts with a phone app called MapMyRun. There's a similar app called MapMyRide for bicyclists, but I rely on my bike computer and rarely remember to turn on MapMyRide. I rely on MapMyRun to record time and distance; it also provides data on split times - which I generally don't care about - and elevation gain - which I care about now that I live in the Hill Country but the accuracy of which is questionable. It also has some social features that I absolutely don't use.

MapMyRun satisfies the data junkie in me, but life is more than data, right? (Feel free to discuss this burning question amongst yourselves; I'll wait.) Data can be enhanced by visualization, and I recently learned of yet another application that does just that for the workouts recorded by MapMyRun.

Relive is a free app that integrates rather seamlessly with MapMyRun (as well as other fitness apps such as Strava, Garmin, and others) to create a short video recapping your workout by unwinding the route onto a satellite map (said map is provided by ESRI, the good folks that make the gold-standard GIS software, ArcGIS). The aerial view doesn't exactly provide a virtual reality experience, but it is definitely an interesting way to relive (!) the workout. The app also drops a pin on the point of highest elevation on the route, then overlays some statistics at the end (duration, pace, mileage, elevation gain - which, again, should be taken with a grain of salt). The app also generates an elevation profile of the route that spools out along the top of the window as the video progresses.

Here are a couple of examples of my early efforts using the app.


Relive doesn't provide many options for the unpaid version of the app. You can specify whether the video will be automatically created as soon as you save your workout, vs. manually specifying when it should be created. You can do some minimal editing such as changing the title font or adding photos you took during the workout...and if you're coordinated enough to take pictures during a run, you have my admiration and respect. There's a paid upgrade (isn't there always?) that provides additional after-the-fact editing, but I haven't felt compelled to do that.

If you decide to try out the app, keep in mind that the app only retains 20 videos (I assume the paid version expands that number), and you must click the star icon to flag a video for saving. Otherwise, you can get back to the video only going to the link provided in the notification email, and that link is saved nowhere else (that I could find).

There's no compelling reason to make Relive a part of your suite of fitness apps, but it is an interesting concept. 

May God grant me the serenity to log the things I can, the discipline to avoid the things I can't, and the self-deception to think that it's all quite important.