Archive for the ‘Stuff’ Category

“We Are Not Shed People”

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

Backyard sheds are an important part of suburban American life. With a shed comes obligation, however, and some are not up to the demands of shed ownership. In particular, I am not a worthy shed owner.


Our shed was, as sheds go, a pretty nice shed. It had been added to the home (we think) by its original owner, perhaps at the time the house was finished by the builder. The outside walls were finished with similar wood siding to that on the house; the inside was left without real walls. We used it to store a shedful of stuff that we didn’t want, didn’t know what else to do with.


One thing our shed did for the local ecosystem was provide a home for small rodents. This I discovered surprisingly recently. As a grossly unqualified shed owner, I hadn’t been in the shed for at least two years. A large rose bush with gigantic, murderous thorns had grown completely over the shed door. Before that the last thing I’d done was replace the shed doorknob with a new one. Since that time, mice or rats, or both working as a team, had gnawed a classic cartoon-like access portal at the bottom of the bush-hidden side of the shed. Our dog – a “rat terrier” as unworthy of her title as we are of “shed people” – had been showing a lot of interest in those bushes and that area, but had never come anywhere close to actually getting a rat. One afternoon, as I walked out with Gypsy, she and I both heard a brief rustle, and I turned to see a rat on a low holly branch. Gypsy saw it too, and sprang to the attack by cleverly running the opposite direction towards the area where she really suspected the rats to be.

No Shed

At that point I wondered, “Where is that rat going?” Only then did I think to check whether there was another way into the shed besides the inaccessible well-locked door. The next day we cut the rose bush back and checked inside. There amidst the unwanted detritus steaming away in the shed was what must have been some of the most valuable prime rat real estate in the area. We didn’t see any rats at that point, and the dog couldn’t find any either, but it was clear that they’d made much better use of the shed than we ever had.

Rat Check

About $800 later, we’re shedless. It was somewhat embarrassing taking the pictures. There I was, an affluent yuppie unable to maintain a shed in his own back yard, taking pictures of guys forced to wear breathing masks to protect themselves from the rodent filth I’d allowed to accumulate. It made me feel contemptible, but as I was depriving myself of a shed I contented myself that that was appropriate punishment. I don’t deserve a shed.

We’ll put flowerpots on the slab, or something. Flowers and herbs I can take care of, usually. The rose bush will be a lot happier anyway. I don’t know where the rats will go. They were of course seriously traumatized, and to some extent I feel kind-of bad about that too.

The Gaff

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

I’m writing this from the main dining hall of The Gaff, the #1 cyber pub in Port Aransas, TX. A well-known local just walked in to a shout of acclaim. The owner then told us about the Thursday pirate raid pub crawls they do from here.

I don’t have much to say – or, actually, I could probably stay in this place and write a few bad novels over the course of a season. I did however feel compelled to blog from here.

The pizzas just came, as did Allie’s pirate-sized meatball sandwich, so I sort-of have to wrap this up.


The Gaff is everything you could want from a run-down beach hangout. The menu has like four things on it. The weirdly efficient bartendress puts the pizzas together and they were approx. of BB’s quality. Pyramid Wheat on tap. Belt sanders used in periodic belt sander races decorate the grimy windows. There’s an enormous bigscreen tv that doesn’t seem to work properly. They have free wireless, and this paean is good evidence of what a fine idea that is.

We walked in, and for some reason the kids immediately started exploring all 1000 square feet of the place, with many declamations of “Classic!” as the piratical denizens paused (briefly) from their beer-cigarette cocktails.

After sitting down, Pat loudly announced, “This is just like Las Vegas!”

Crappy Job Ads on craigslist

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Opinions on how we should and shouldn’t compose our resumes are a dime a dozen in the blogosphere. Well, in fact they’re free, though some may be worth a little more. The topic is an old one, and though the Internet and modern practices (like using craigslist or monster) may have brought new rules into play, it’s still about making yourself look smart, experienced, and sane.

The flip side of resume writing is the art of advertising open positions when seeking to hire people. I can’t keep track of whether we’re in a “buyer” or “seller” market in the software development world, but it’s clearly true that individual companies in individual markets frequently find themselves fairly desperate to hire developers. My own experience is that it takes quite a while to find candidates, and even longer to hit upon a good one.

Thus it seems to me that writing good copy for craigslist “help wanted” adds would be something employers do as a matter of course. Sadly, that’s not the case. They’re generally:

  • ugly;
  • rife with spelling and grammar errors;
  • composed of weird or stilted language;
  • jammed with buzzwords and product/technology names.

I know that some of the problems stem from the route the ads take from the hiring manager through the HR group (and possibly through the recruiters), but that’s hardly an excuse. The end result is that I read the ads, you read the ads, and we form opinions about the personality and culture of the organization. I caught myself the other day rolling through craigslist ads, one after the other, shaking my head after almost every single one. Ad after ad leaves me with impressions of people in cheap suits, dingy offices, and wildly disorganized (or just crazy) product development environments. You know what I’m talking about: little businesses where the guy in charge tells you that lots of the work was done by “the smartest guy I know, he’s a wiz”. Dreary failure is the vague mental picture I form.

What’s going on? Is it really the case that most businesses trolling craigslist are seedy or dysfunctional? I know that the ads are dirt cheap (free here), but the page view rate is so high that even businesses with money to blow on recruiters would be foolish not to use the service when they’re in need. (The place I work now has used craigslist with no success; I never looked at our ads.)

Indulge my laughable fantasy that somebody in a position to be influenced by my advice might read these words: take care with your craigslist ads. Think about them carefully, about the tone, the language, and the image they create. Correct the misspellings and grammar errors. Clean up the random capitalization of Important Words, and NOTHING SHOULD BE ALL-CAPS. Get somebody who actually knows what the buzzwords mean to review the way you’ve piled them on top of each other, and think about whether the things you insist are essential skills are really essential. (Did your top developers on your key products have all those skills back a year or two ago?)

Steve Yegge wrote about “weasel words” in resumes. In my opinion there’s a parallel species of words that crop up in job ads. I’m talking about stuff like “dynamic work environment”. What does that mean? “Should be an excellent team player.” Again, what does that mean? Who do they expect to screen out with that? I don’t want to hear about your corporate “energy”; it’s vaguely creepy and I’ll get the real story (or close to it) in an interview anyway. Just be clear and friendly, and describe the work.

Sigma 105mm EX DG macro

Friday, October 26th, 2007

The UPS man delivered my new Sigma 105mm macro lens this afternoon, and I immediately set up a simple facility to try it out. I put an old Weston light meter down on a counter, and next to it I arranged a cheap Quantaray slave and my old Oly T32 on an optical slave hot shoe around it, both pointed up at the ceiling. I set the E-500 flash to 1/64th power and held the camera by hand.

For the coin, I set up a tripod and focused (manually) as close as I could get. The camera was not directly over the coin so it’s not in focus all the way across; I need to rig up a “ring box” so that I can do real close-up planar macro shots.

Danaus plexippus

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Plant some milkweed, and you’ll get some monarchs.

Caterpillar photo

Several caterpillars hatched out pretty late in the year, almost certainly past the time at which they should have left for Mexico. There’s plenty to eat here however so maybe they won’t mind.

Chrysallis photo

The kids found this chrysallis on the fence, quite some distance from where any milkweed is planted.

Butterfly photo

Two adults, including this big one, were all over the garden this afternoon.

Goose Island State Park

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Picture of "Big Tree"

That’s “Big Tree”, a big tree at Goose Island State Park in Lamar, TX. Supposedly it’s the biggest live oak tree in the state. It’s not hard to believe, though it’s the kind of thing that weird small towns in Texas concoct all the time. And Lamar, TX definitely counts as one of those.

The picture is all foggy because the camera had just emerged from the air-conditioned van into the intense humidity there, just a couple hundred yards from the giant bathtub that’s the Gulf of Mexico. The landscape around Big Tree is pretty surreal, and I’m told the tree is strongly reminiscent of the “Whomping Willow” from the Harry Potter books. In fact all of Lamar (which is not to describe a very large area of course) seems to be in the grip of a live oak plague.

Picture of sunflowers The state park includes a little spit of land projecting out into Aransas Bay. Dead shellfish and plant material tend to wash up along part of the beach there, so the same creative fire that named the tree has branded that area “Stinky Beach.” It’s actually very pretty in an odd way.

Make My Sandwich Properly!

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

I frequently dine at North By Northwest in Austin. (Yes I’m naming names here people.) Mostly the food is good, but I swear that place annoys me with their propensity to create obviously inferior dishes that could have been fine, and should have been were there anyone paying attention. I’m not talking about improperly cooked instances of a generally good dish: I’m talking about recipes that are just plain bad, for no good reason.

Case in point: the Grilled Portabello Sandwich. First, of course, it’s Portobello. That I can forgive as virtually every grocery store on the planet spells the word incorrectly too. The “sandwich” involves grilled mushroom (sliced), eggplant (sliced thick), sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and some sort of ranch-like dressing, all wrapped in a thick pita-like (but definitely not really a pita) bread.

OK, where to start with what’s wrong. I think I’ll work my way in by pointing out that eggplant is really not something anybody should want on a sandwich. I can possibly imagine eggplant that’s been roasted pretty fiercely – sliced thin – and then topped with cheese, but really the vegetable has little taste. Forget it. Make a nice eggplant-olive salad on the side if somebody really wants to make Big Eggplant happy. If it absolutely must be in the sandwich, cook it. Normal people do not want to eat half-cooked eggplant chunks.

The mushrooms which star in the dish also need to be completely cooked. Completely. What’s more, they need to be seasoned, and this really is one of the main problems with the sandwich that make me wonder whether anybody there ever actually tastes the things. This is a rich sandwich at a brewpub and the lead ingredient in the dish has been given no pizazz at all.

The sun-dried tomatoes are fine, but there’s not enough of that. What the sandwich sorely needs is oomph. What sort of thing do you do to a grilled sandwich in this form to provide oomph? Right: carmelized onions and grilled marinated banana peppers. I want a mushroom cheesesteak, because that’s exactly what this sandwich wants to be! There’s a mushroom cheesesteak locked up with those demented inappropriate chunks of eggplant, and it’s whimpering pitifully for help!

Finally, the cheese: it hits the table, and it’s still cold! That’s right: the barely-grilled vegetables are more-or-less hot, but the cheese is stuffed into the bread cold from the refrigerator. I’m sorry, but a cold lump of mozzarella (unmelted, in other words) is not a value-add. It’s a lump of solid milk.

The ranch dressing is fine, such as it is, but it’d be completely unnecessary were the rest of the dish done properly.

Here’s what needs to happen:

  • Marinate the mushrooms in something like thinned soy sauce, cheap balsamic vinegar, or a dry salt/pepper/thyme rub. Almost anything would be better than nothing.
  • Get the onions and peppers going on the griddle. The onions can be pre-cooked of course.
  • Sautee the mushrooms – sliced – and cook them until they are actually done. I want some browning.
  • Combine into a little pile of veg and top with a handful of shaved provolone and let the cheese melt in a little – on the grill. The whole assembly should be hot.
  • Hit the veg with some parsley (forget the ranch) and plate out onto the warm pita-like stuff (which I confess isn’t bad at all).

I find it really hard to believe that the above sandwich would be less well-received than the weird dish currently served.

Velvet Slug

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

The specimen of Angustipes ameghini above is from somewhere in our backyard. Allie spotted it from a considerable distance using her odd powers of creature clairvoyance. I think she named it, probably something like “Clarence” or “Rainbow”, but I don’t recall exactly. I was out trying to get a good picture of a spiderweb, without much success.

The “velvet slug” is an introduced species, originally noted in Paraguay. They’re supposedly a pretty bad pest, but one at least has a friend now. Adult slugs can live for a few years apparently.

Squirrels Indicate Problems

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

After much confusion, the “family outing” yesterday ended up being a trip to the opulent Whole Foods World Headquarters store by me, Allie, and Pat. Christopher had backed out to stay home and “keep Mom company”, a decision which understandably delighted Elaine, who had worn herself out during two outings of her own.

After the traditional pizza on the traditional roof with the traditional organic soda, and the traditional hurling of empty (or not empty) beverage containers into the recycling bins with as much force as could be mustered, we shopped for needed and unneeded items and sampled the free samples for a while before the final money extraction and departure. In the garage right across from the van I spied the convertible of a friend, top down, and I told Allie and Pat, suggesting that they produce a “stick figure fest” calling card.

The van, ordinarily filled with a stock of almost everything, seemed to be out of paper, but I found a mostly-blank laser-printed email message in a plastic tub of miscellany. While tearing out the unprinted portion, I noticed a really odd stench, which in the context of that van’s interior is a pretty strong statement. I asked the kids whether any weird wet stuff might have been left in the vehicle, and Pat said something about having collected an enormous ball of pond scum during some recent outing. That more-or-less explained it, for the moment, and I was satisfied as I walked the completed artwork over to the target Miata.

The weird smell got weirder on the drive home, but I assumed it was because the biota in the pond scum ball were awoken by the sun once we left the Whole Foods parking cavern. Later in the afternoon I remembered to ask Elaine about the odor, and she said the van always smelled like something due to the perpetual miasma filling the garage itself.

By four or five o’clock, however, the state of the garage had deteriorated markedly, and it became clear that the smell was in fact the putrid emanations from the corpse of some unfortunate rodent trapped in one or another pile of debris. Challenged, Elaine started cleaning stuff and packing up garbage and Goodwill bags in a quest to locate the body. (It says something that she explicitly chose that task over preparing dinner for the kids.) After some time, a portion of the garage had become tidier than it’d been in some years, bringing it up to the level of a typical 9th Ward flood ruin, but nothing gruesome was found. With a couple of fans running the air had cleared up a lot.

While carrying sacks of junk around out of the garage to the side trash storage area (hidden behind a fence due to neighborhood association mandate), Elaine started to notice that she was still detecting the smell, but now it was concentrated outside the garage. Finally she started noticing the flies, and that which was interesting them: the hood of the van itself. Lifting that, she discovered that something furry had managed to wedge itself behind some object in that very crowded engine compartment before expiring some days previous. Impressively, Elaine actually tried extricating the corpse (gloved, of course), but was unsuccessful.

So we did what anybody would do in such a predicament: we called zoologist Rio Tenango at Amazon Rodent & Wildlife Control. From a man with a name like that we felt we could expect success if we were calling to arrange the removal of a lion pride from our living room, so we were pretty confident. Elaine did ask, however, if there would be a charge should the task prove impossible. “If I have to cut the thing to pieces, I’ll get it out of there,” the fearless Mr. Tenango responded.

We had thought it was a raccoon, because all we could see was the tail and it seemed like something a raccoon would do. (Raccoons had taken up residence in the roof of a previous home, after creating an entranceway in the chimney race large enough to pilot a kayak through.) In fact, when Rio arrived and immediately declared the remains to be that of a squirrel, Elaine asked “isn’t that pretty weird?”

“It’s not normal,” came the zoologist’s laconic reply.

The squirrel is gone now, as is Mr. Tenango and a sum of money that I can’t deny is well within the range of what I’ll surrender in order to avoid wrestling with dead mammals.


Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

There’s a pear tree in our neighbor’s yard, right up against our fence. The thing bears a lot of fruit (specifically, it bears pears). Formerly – that is, prior to this year – we had generally considered the tree to be pretty useless in the fruit department because the pears generally tasted like nothing – just crunchy water.

My brother-in-law told us that if you store pears that taste like nothing in the refrigerator for a while, they get better. We tried that with a few of the 500 pears hanging over our fence, and it turns out that he was right. They’re much better after the refrigeration; in fact they’re very sweet.

I’m a little concerned that consuming the pears – these particular pears – may put me or my household under a curse, as the tree was planted by the former resident of that house, a man who met with a sudden self-inflicted end. Perhaps, however, the tree doesn’t care.

I’ve been told I’ve been lax in updating this all-important blog, a charge I can hardly deny. The note above is seriously the most interesting thing I’ve thought of lately. However I’ve just remembered that I have a jar of “Bruiseised Chili Garlic Sauce”, or something like that, and I should review it.