Thursday, August 31, 2006

850 miles!

What a long day!

We got away at 5:40 this morning, and drove with only occasional stops until 8:20 p.m. We are in Missouri, just across the river (15 miles) from Cairo. No, not THAT Cairo. Not the one on the Nile. The one in Illinois, on the Mississippi River.

Only 365 miles to go tomorrow. So far no significant weather or near-miss traffic events. Just mile after mile after mile...

We've eaten and showered. I'm going to bed. Tomorrow... CHICAGO!!

(Thanks to all for your good wishes!)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"On the Road Again..."

You know the song, right? A Willie Nelson classic.

Anyway, Thursday morning (tomorrow) bright and early Carol and I are heading out for vacation.

First stop will be Chicago to visit daughter Amy and son-in-law Tom. I plan to entertain and amuse you with travel tales as the trip progresses. I'm sure I'll have some fun stories from our visits with both daughters.

Oh, and we'll be golfing in Georgia again this year, so stand by for some good photos from Carol. As in all my recent travels, we expect to have no difficulty finding free Wi-Fi all along the route, so I'll be keeping up with the blog and comments. I MAY even get to visit your spots and leave an occasional comment, but that depends on time and opportunity.

So, follow along with us as we drive the eastern half of the USA.

And since none of you chose to ask any more questions, probably in fear of getting more snide answers, I'll just close this post with:

"I can't wait to get on the road again."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Questions answered here...

Candace said... What more do we want? Some news about the new book you're writing!Oh, and more pics by Carol.

The Duke replies... Okay, here you go. I’m working on a techno-thriller with an opening that would hook a dead man—an explosion and fire, people either dead or trapped inside, a hero who tries to go in but narrowly avoids being shot by an apparent sniper nearby, an escape in a careening pickup truck and a suspenseful close to the chapter.

The hero runs, chased by both the FBI and the drug lords. The Feds think he planted the bomb and tried to kill their agent; the drug lords think he knows too much and want him out of the way before he tells. The hero must avoid pursuit and stay alive long enough to convince both sides of the truth, while maneuvering them together for the ultimate showdown.

The love interest is a hip, street-smart Latina who just happens to be a federal agent.

Is that enough of a tease?

Oh, and as for Carol’s pics, here's one taken this morning. We have four yuccas in our back yard landscaped area (former swimming pool), and three of the four are blooming all at once.


And since you asked for pics (plural), here's a quiz to see if you've been paying attention to the recent bird varieties we've shown you...

Name this species of Heron:

The answer is in the comments.

robotJAM said... Duke as you've offered ! Can you tell me how a man can wear a wig and not get laughed at ?

The Duke replies... Sure! There are a number of ways:

1. Only wear it in pitch darkness so no one can see it.
2. Dress in drag with nice clothes and sufficient makeup that those around you think you’re a woman.
3. Laugh first. Then they’re laughing WITH you, not at you.

Well, those were easy.

Anybody else?

Monday, August 28, 2006

The wonders of Google

I just, ten minutes ago, received a Blogger email of a comment left on a blog post.

Big deal, right?

But the comment was posted to a story I'd put on my blog a year ago! And the comment was thanking me for posting it! Unfortunately the comment was from Anonymous, so I'll just have to assume he/she found the post from Google. Had to be from SOME kind of search engine.

My story was about fighting with problems on the computer after installing and then UNinstalling a version of Copper.Net software. I had planned to use that ISP for dial-up internet access during my travels last September (since they published local phone numbers for access at just about all the places I was planning to visit), but then didn't ever need to dial-up since I learned that Wi-Fi is almost literally everywhere, and free.

One of the "features" of this nasty software was a "turbo" effect for speeding up your dial-up experience. How? But automatically reducing the resolution of all those jpeg images you find on many sites. I finally figured out that the software had installed some Temp files which it failed to remove when the software was uninstalled. Those Temp files kept on messing up the resoultion of the pictures and made all jpegs look... well, crappy.

Solution? Delete ALL the Temp files. With those files in place, you can change the settings on your browser until the proverbial cows come home, with no effect. Once the files were deleted, the problem disappeared. Calls to Copper.Net tech support people were fruitless. The reps all told me that once the software was uninstalled, it was ALL GONE. WRONG!

Somehow Mr. Anonymous searched and found that post, tried it, and it worked. And so he thanked me! He said he had been fighting the problem and could not find any other discussion on the fix.

WOO-HOO! Happy to have been of some service to someone.

Who says blogs aren't educational? Right here you've learned about Temp Files and nutria. What else could you want?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

New golf course wildlife pics

Or should I say, "NEW - tria?"


Before I came to Texas I'd never even heard of these creatures. They're called "nutria," and are a semi-aquatic rodent that...

Well, tell you what. They have their own web site. Seriously! It's www.nutria.com. You can read all about them there.

We were approaching the tee box for the last hole of the day (it's beside a pond), and as we came around a small mesquite tree with leaves hanging down to the ground and water, we saw the animal pictured above.

These adults are easily the size of a full-grown beaver, and until you see their tails they might be mistaken for one. We stopped and Carol grabbed her trusty camera. The first few shots didn't come out well since in her hurry she missed a setting or two.

The she eased forward and realized we had a small family on the pond bank.


Here, from the tail, you can tell this is definitely not a beaver.

Mama (we assume the big adult was mama) quickly headed for the safety of the water, but paused as Carol caught this last view of her.


The kids were not quite so skittish and posed for a moment before they, too, dove out of sight.


These animals are cute and harmless to humans, but as herbivores they cause damage to sensitive wetlands. They were imported to this country from their natural habitat in South America for the value of their fur. According to the web site, some either escaped or were released into the wilds of Louisiana, and have since spread through the Southern states.

Here's one of the little ones eyeing Carol, and poised to dive into the water.

And this is the last shot she was able to get. They ARE kinda cute with their whiskery faces, aren't they?

Oh, one last point. They have spread so quickly because they have few natural predators. But one predator they DO have is the alligator. One gator will quickly clean out a colony of nutria in a pond or area of a river or wetland. This family's presence assures me that we have no gators in our golf course pond system at present. Of course, that could change overnight.

There's your natural history lesson for today.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Ozone-hole repair: A case of “Oops, sorry!”?

My local Victoria, TX newspaper chose to publish today (on the front page of the 4th section, “Technology”) an A.P. article under the headline I used for my post title.

I searched for a link to the article. And searched. I finally found it on the Miami Herald website. Turns out it was released four days ago, on the 21st.

Here’s the story.

So why am I making such a big deal of such a minor story? I guess it’s because it tickled one of my “hot buttons.”

I’ve ranted before in this space about what I consider to be “sensationalism” in the disaster-science arena. I believe the reports of overpopulation scenarios are overblown. The terrors of global warming are overheated. The threat of widespread cancer due to a hole in the ozone layer is over the top.

Okay, I’ll stop all the cheap shots and cheesy adjectives.

I’m NOT saying that there are NO environmental dangers. I’m just saying that I think both real and pseudo-scientists tend to run their high-powered computer models based on lots of assumptions and estimates, tell us how horribly bad our future is going to be, and then tell us what the solutions are without fully considering their “probability of error” AND the law of unintended consequences to their ill advised answers to the problem. (Wow. Big, cumbersome sentence there.)

If you don’t want to read the article, it says essentially that in 1989 a bunch of countries were so afraid of the ozone layer hole that they signed the Montreal Protocol. That’s the one that banned CFCs in refrigerants and spray can propellants. No more Freon. Okay, we adapted.

But what happened? People and companies, naturally, chose the lowest-cost alternative to CFCs. These chemicals may help the ozone layer, but guess what? Here’s a quote:

“In fact, the volume of greenhouse gasses created as a result of the Montreal agreement’s phase-out of CFCs is two to three times the amount of global-warming carbon dioxide the Kyoto agreement is supposed to eliminate.”

WE’RE CAUSING EVEN MORE GLOBAL WARMING!! Now everyone’s scrambling to perform damage control. Is the cure worse than the disease?

The scientists are trying to come up with a DIFFERENT alternative to CFCs, but they ask:

“Who’s going to ensure that the replacements (for the replacements) are not going to cause global warming,” said Alexander von Bismarck, campaigns director for the Environmental Investigation Agency. “It’s shocking that so far nobody’s taking responsibility.”

Ha! Shocking to YOU maybe. In this country, NOT taking responsibility is part of our culture.

But that’s a different rant.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A long, busy day

Stuff at work...

Meetings after work (board of an outside agency I serve on)...

Chores at home...

No time for a proper post. So all you get is this IMproper one.

I'll do better tomorrow. Maybe

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Hey! It's in the Bible!

I’ve mentioned in this blog in the past that Carol and I read the Bible all the way through each year.

Why? Well, it started out as a spiritual thing; an attempt to really get to know what the Word of God says all the way through. It’s not through some compulsion or weird cult “rule” or anything. We started in the mid 1970s, so we’re probably on our 30-somethingth time through it. Yes, it’s become a habit.

I don’t tell you this to make any claims about whether the practice is good or bad. To me, one of the good aspects is that I understand the history of the land of Palestine and surrounding areas during biblical times. I know how the kingdom of Israel split in two after the reign of King Solomon, and what happened between then and the time of Christ.

I’ve never gone in for memorization, like a lot of Bible students, so I can’t quote you chapter and verse. But I know pretty much what’s in each of the Bible’s books and how it’s all laid out and presented. That knowledge has helped me pick out many obscure references in film and literature that most people don’t get.

Example: Did you see the movie “Contact” with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey? That’s the one about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, in which she travels through a worm hole and makes contact with an alien, but nobody believes her. Anyway, remember the machine that was built for the space travel? One was built by the government, but do you remember who built the other one?

S. R. Haddon, the reclusive billionaire.

So what? Well, in the Bible, one of the kings of Assyria, mentioned only twice, was...

Essarhaddon! (2 Kings 19:37), son of Sennacherib. I’ll bet you didn’t get that reference, did you?

Okay, all of that to say this: Some have actually scoffed in the past at my contention that there is a force at work among us which I refer to as the “C.” It attacks inanimate objects such as appliances, electronic equipment, plumbing fixtures, homes and vehicles. It communicates through pipes and wires and even the airwaves, spreading misery to all mankind.

Well, to those scoffers I say — read Jeremiah 11:14. “And the LORD said unto me, A conspiracy is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”

There you have it. Right from the Bible. And it’s been around for nearly 3,000 years.

Scoff NOW!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I know, I know...

You all are right. I should ignore the news.

After all, we all know (don’t we?) that the news is intentionally sensationalized and presented in such a way as to make people upset.

It’s true! Print media and electronic media both suck you in with stories and (especially) spin that make you mad. Or horrified, or somehow emotionally involved.

(Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” is a joke, I’m afraid.)

Why? Because it improves their ratings, circulation, or whatever other method they use to generate advertising revenue.

Ooooo. Cynic alert! Am I saying it’s all about money? Well, hello!!

What aggravates me is that even though I KNOW this, I still let myself get sucked in and respond from emotion. I shouldn’t react, even though the human being inside of me is appalled at the story.

It’s truly a shame that we are being DE-sensitized to horrible events, out of distaste for being sucked in to an emotional reaction to stories because of the way they’re presented!

Okay. I know. This is NOT why you read this blog. You don’t come here to see me rant and foam at the mouth, especially about issues that are kind of “old hat.” I’ll take a pill and feel better.

Ahhhh! The pill is kicking in now.

HEY! I’m getting ready to go on VACATION!! I should be HAPPY!

So, to heck with the family in Texas that was tied up, robbed, and the dad shot and killed as the rest of them watched. Who cares? Hey, I don’t raise fighting pit bull dogs, so it’s not my problem.

Oh, and for you writers... If you don’t read Cali’s blog, go take a look at her post for today about how she gets to know (REALLY know) the characters she creates in her fiction. Good stuff.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Only in Texas

This story appeared in our local paper today, and I’m sure it made news in other parts of the Lone Star State as well.

At least three masked gunmen broke into a ranch house out in the country and tied up a man, his wife, and three children. They searched for money and firearms, and then shot the man in the leg and left. The man bled to death.

Horrible, right?

But the story was not about the murder and robbery. Nor was it about the terrorizing of the woman and her children. It was about dog fighting.

I guess to be fair I have to mention that the murder occurred three weeks ago, and this must be a follow-up story. But our paper never carried the original story, so this is the first I’d heard of the murder.

You can read the tale or not, but I’ll challenge you readers from other states or countries to cite a recent news story like this, in which the shooting death of a man in front of his family is presented as a sort of, “Oh, and by the way...” to the larger story of animal cruelty.

I guess if he raised and trained pit bulls to fight, he had it coming, huh?

Never mind. I’ll be over it tomorrow. By then there’ll be some OTHER bizarre news story in the paper to take my mind off of this one.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Since you asked...

Well, some of you did.

After Carol’s stellar round of golf yesterday, I had predicted that she would shoot 20 strokes higher today.

I was wrong.

(Can you imagine that?? Oh, of COURSE you can imagine me being wrong. I’m wrong a LOT. But can you imagine me admitting it so readily? That is SO hard for us men to do. But she has me well trained.)

Her short game was not nearly as good as yesterday. She only made ONE birdie today. (And no, Michelle, she didn’t shoot ANY! She didn’t even take the camera today.)

Okay. To end the suspense, she shot an 84. STILL a heck of a lot lower than what I shot. Or Ruth. Or Donnie. But she was disappointed. She probably won’t be trying out for the LPGA any time soon.

At least, not until after our vacation in September. Then we’ll have to see what kind of scores she shoots.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Golf

It’s Saturday. So, of course, we went to the golf course today.

We played with Ruth and Donnie (Ruth’s fianc√©—the wedding is scheduled for late September!).

Donnie is a GREAT guy, by the way. It looks as if Ruth is finally going to get the husband she deserves, after two earlier tries and misses. He seems to love her for who she is, not for what she can do for him. A welcome change from the last loser one.

I usually regale you with tales of my errant shots and other golf foibles, but not today. Oh, no! Today I have to boast about my wife’s exploits!

Carol shot a 75 today! For real! She had 4 birdies in her round. Our course has one reachable par 4 hole for the ladies, but really no reachable par 5s. Carol birdied the short par 4, and scored well on many other holes primarily with her chipping and putting. I don’t know HOW many one-putts she had today. Most of those were inside of 3 feet. Her chipping was just awesome.

We’re celebrating tonight.

Tomorrow we plan to play again. But if history is any teacher, she will probably shoot a 95 tomorrow and miss every putt outside of 6 inches. That’s just the way this stupid game seems to go, most of the time.

Take heart, Kirsten. You’re next!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Perspective

I really enjoy reading the comments from, and blogs of, my non-U.S. readers. Often those folks will have a different perspective on things based on their unique history, laws and culture. It’s fun and educational to read their views.

I find that many Americans are pretty insular and lack a world perspective—often to their (our) detriment.

The issue in yesterday’s post about a national I.D. card is a good example. Three of the first four comments were from folks from other continents (Africa and Europe). They clearly have had long experience with fingerprinting and identity papers, and fail to see any reason for concern.

We Americans treasure our “free country” image. Part of that freedom is our illusory ability to move about within our country at will, with no need to produce identity documents on demand. But if you think about it, we already have to show a picture I.D. to do just about anything.

Most of us carry a “government” I.D. card in the form of a driver’s license. Yes, it’s state government rather than federal, but is that such a big deal?

One big concern raised about the new TWIC is that it will have fingerprint images in its digital memory. Several people told me they had never been fingerprinted, and associated that act with being arrested for a crime. I shrugged and told them that when I entered military service I was fingerprinted. No big deal. But they felt this was somehow “different.”

Civil libertarians deplore the slow erosion of the freedoms we have long enjoyed. Well, so do I. But today’s world is a different one from that of 30-40 years ago.

I had the thought that there might not be so much resistance to this new “Identity Credential” if carrying one also offered a perk or two. How about this: Since issuance of a card can only occur following a complete background check (hence much of the expense of the program), why not allow those who have them a much lower level of security screening at airports?

Two lines to get to the boarding area. One sign says, “Passengers with TWIC,” the other sign says, “Passengers without TWIC.” Same idea at any building (like a courthouse) or public event (concert, etc.) where security screening is done.

The TWIC could take the place of the state-issued driver’s license, as that information could be installed into one of the card’s chips. Likewise the Social Security number. Heck, it could even become an electronic passport.

Of course, as Valkyrie points out, it’ll only be a matter of time before counterfeits are available for terrorists and other crooks.

*sigh*

Maybe the tattoo isn’t a bad idea after all. It’s all a matter of your perspective.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Mark of the Beast?

For years I’ve heard and read of debates and controversies surrounding a National Identity card. That idea has been promoted as a solution to illegal immigration and a host of other problems.

One of the reasons such a concept has been rejected in the past has been privacy concerns. Well, get ready!

Our plant’s safety supervisor just came back from a trade group (NPRA — “National Petrochemical and Refining Association”) conference at which the new TWIC was discussed.

You know, the “Transportation Worker Identification Credential.” You DIDN’T know? Neither did I. Obviously I haven’t been paying much attention.

This I.D. card is... well, you can click HERE to read the information, but I’ll summarize it below.

“TWIC is a tamper-resistant credential that contains biometric information about the holder which renders the card useless to anyone other than the rightful owner. Using this biometric data, each transportation facility can verify the identity of a worker and help prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing secure areas. Currently, many transportation workers must carry a different identification card for each facility they access. A standard TWIC would improve the flow of commerce by eliminating the need for redundant credentials and streamlining the identity verification process.”

"Features of the card include:
64K contact Integrated Circuit Chip
4K (DesFire v6contactless) Integrated Circuit Chip
dual-interface card (anticipate 72K) Integrated Circuit Chip
Magnetic stripe
Two-dimensional bar code
Linear (3 of 9) bar code
Unique card serial number
Digital photo that complies with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard"


On those embedded chips will be personal information and numbers, including fingerprints!

Why do I care? My plant is not located in a port facility, so this won’t affect me, right?

Wrong.

The initial plan was to require all PORT workers to carry the cards for access to their workplace. Now this requirement is being extended to truck drivers, rail crews, and other transportation workers who must enter the port facilities. No card, no entry.

Wait! My plant has a U.S. Coast Guard approved security plan. Does this mean that...?

Yes. We must purchase card readers and fingerprint scanners, have cards issued to all employees and others who come onto our plant site. Periodically we must compare all of our issued card numbers to updated lists of those whose cards are no longer valid because the holder has been (get this!) accused of a felony that might make him/her a threat. Not “convicted,” “accused!” (Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty?”)

No card = no job.

Sounds like “no ability to buy or sell,” doesn’t it? And these cards are also being proposed for inland refineries and plants -- any industrial facility where transportation workers (trucks, railroads) go.

Why not just tattoo “666” on our foreheads and be done with it? (That was tongue in cheek, in case you weren't sure.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

No skullduggery or other shady dealings!

Carol and I called on Aunt Dorris’ husband yesterday. She told him that Dorris had told her that she (Carol) would be executor of the will, and since we were going on a vacation trip in September we wanted to see if there was anything she should do now. Such as any notifications, and so on.

Husband was very friendly and nice, and already had the will and a bunch of other papers out on a table.

A quick look showed that Carol was an alternate executor, only to serve if he was incapable of serving. Otherwise he was to be executor. Everything was in order, and had been in place and filed back 5 years ago.

His plan was to just take the will and all their other papers to their lawyer this morning and let the lawyer sort it all out.

Perfect!

We thought Carol’s mom would be pleased. However, her reaction was a huffy, “WELL!! Sis should have TOLD us that!” Then she ranted for a while about slights, real and perceived, of long years ago. More stress for Carol.

I told Carol that was just her mom’s way of coping with the grieving process. But still...

Anyway, all other (will-related) pressure is now off of Carol, and she ought to be able to relax on our vacation trip without dreading returning to a family feud.

OH, and on the way home we drove by some coastal wetlands that are home to many kinds of birds. Carol had taken the camera and got some excellent shots of pelicans, three or four different species of herons, a stilt, and more. Once we get them sorted and cropped and ready, I’ll put some on a web site for you to look at.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Y'all are great!

Thanks again for all the expressions of sympathy regarding the death of Carol's Aunt Dorris.

It seems to me that I wrote in this space a few months ago something about my family being non-dysfunctional. As I read back over my posts of the last three days (especially yesterday), I begin to wonder.

Then I remember. My original reference was to MY parents and family experience during my formative years. All this stress and anxiety I've been talking about is within CAROL'S family. So maybe my daughters have been exposed to some, too. Gee, I guess few of us are truly perfect, huh?

And speaking of my family and my daughters, did I mention that Carol and I are leaving in a few weeks to go visit family and friends on a long, round-robin driving vacation? Like last year (hey, it was so much fun we just HAD to do it again!) we're driving from South Texas to Chicago (daughter), then to Grand Rapids, MI (good friend), then to Virginia (my mom and sister), then to Georgia (a little golf!), on to Tampa, FL (other daughter and grandson), and finally back to South Texas. Then I can return to my job to rest up from all that fun.

The planning actually began several months ago (for as others have reported here, Earle family vacations are a true science). But now, in the final few weeks of preparation, things are getting serious. We're putting things in a pile in a spare bedroom. What things? Well, things that just HAVE to be taken along. Such as, things our girls have asked us to send them from home, but which have never yet been sent. ("Oh, we can just take it to them when we visit.") Things for the car or camper. ("It's too early to pack the car yet, so just put it in the pile and that way we won't forget to pack it when the time comes.")

There are even notes in the pile telling us not to forget such-and-such. ("We'll be using such-and-such between now and when we go, so it's too early to put it in the spare bedroom. Just put a note there to remind us so we don't forget it.")

Then come the reminders to put notes in the pile to NOT forget something. No, we've not yet written down reminders to check the reminders list. But that may be next.

Can you say, "O.C.D.?" (If you don't know what that stands for, look it up. Use Google. I'll wait.)

So, one man's perfection may be another man's dysfunction. It's all a matter of perspective.

None of YOU does anything like that, right?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Update

At 4:00 this morning, Aunt Dorris' body stopped functioning. The doctors said that probably she was "gone" within minutes of the stroke or aneurysm, so this cessation of heartbeat was little more than affirmation.

Now the aftermath begins. Meaning, Carol's mom is becoming more and more emotional; not so much due to the death of her sister as because of what happens over the next few days or weeks. As per the will, there will be a cremation and a memorial service. Dorothy has no wish to attend, but fears being thought callous by "others."

Then comes the will iteslf. Several months ago, Dorris told Carol that she, Carol, would be the executor of the estate. NOT Dorris' husband! Said husband is now saying that no, HE is the executor. (By the way, there won't be much "estate," anyway.)

Of course, the will determines those details. And Carol doesn't care one way or another. But sister Dorothy (Carol's mom) is already upset, figuring that Dorris' husband is trying to pull a fast one.

Carol doesn't need this kind of stress!

We will deal with it all as best we can, trying hard to maintain a steady, logical demeanor throughout the weeks ahead. There's no need for Dorris' sister or husband to be concerned, because the will is in place and the laws will be observed.

It's a shame that sometimes a tragedy like this brings out the worst in people.

Maybe I could incorporate all of this into a novel... Hmmmm. Nah, it's already been done -- many times -- by Dickens and many others on to modern times.

**Sigh.**

This, too, shall pass. Tomorrow's post will be on a happier theme. I promise!

Friday, August 11, 2006

No news

Thanks to all of you who have expressed sympathy or good wishes. Carol's Aunt Dorris did have a Living Will, and so once it was determined that she was essentially "gone," the life support measures were removed.

As of this writing we've not yet received word that her body has expired, but it will be very soon. Both Carol and her mom are in agreement that, given Dorris' declining quality of life, this was not a bad way to go. And both are glad that the living will was in place, removing any doubt as to her wishes concerning the life support.

Pulling the plug would always be difficult if those wishes were not not known; much less so in these circumstances.

Death is an inevitable part of life. Best we all prepare for it.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Life is tenuous

My wife Carol was an only child. Her mother, though, was one of four children. The oldest was Harold; then in 1923 came the two twin girls, Dorris and Dorothy; and the last, quite a bit younger than the others, was Dale.

Dorothy is Carol’s mom. When all four of the children were younger Harold became known as Brother, Dorris was Sis, and Dorothy was Sassy. Brother, Sis and Sassy gave baby Dale the nickname of Niggy. That’s a story in itself, but not for today.

The first to die was younger brother Niggy, who went off to fight the war in Korea and never came home. Many years later Carol’s uncle Harold passed away, leaving just the two sisters.

Carol’s mom and dad came to live near their daughter and me in Victoria in 1998. They moved into an “independent living” retirement community about a mile from our house. A few years later her dad’s health declined, and symptoms of dementia forced his move into a nursing home where he died in 2002. Her mother Dorothy has remained in the retirement community nearby.

Dorothy’s twin sister Dorris has lived for most of her life in and around Corpus Christi, Texas. Her husband retired from a Reynolds Aluminum plant in Ingleside on the north shore of Corpus Christi Bay, and the two of them currently live in the small nearby town of Aransas Pass.

Two days ago, Carol and her mother made the one-hour drive to Aransas Pass and spent the afternoon with Aunt Dorris. She said the trip went well. Dorris has also been showing some signs of the onset of dementia, but was lucid and seemed in pretty good spirits on Tuesday. However her general health has not been good; she has difficulty getting up and moving around. Dorothy has been concerned that a nursing home, or at least an assisted living arrangement, was in her sister’s near future.

Today Carol got a phone call that her Aunt Dorris has suffered an apparent severe stroke or cerebral aneurism. Comatose, she was rushed to a hospital. The last we heard she’d been placed on life support. The outlook is not good.

In a way, this may be a blessing if indeed it is her time to go and she doesn’t linger. Dorothy is obviously upset, but somewhat consoled that she just visited her sister two days ago. She agrees that, given Dorris declining health and mental condition, this sudden loss of consciousness and possible terminal condition may be for the best.

I mentioned to Carol that this is the reason I don’t want to pass up any opportunity I have to visit my 90 year old mother in Maryland. She will probably reach 120 and outlive me, but you just never know. We’ll see her next month on a vacation trip.

Tenuous indeed.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

We got a call today at the office...

...from our group insurance company.

It seems they’d received a request for an insurance card from an employee who had never carried the health insurance. They wondered if we (the two people in HR) knew what was going on. We didn’t, so we asked the person to swing by the HR office.

She told us, “But I’ve always had the insurance—from day one! The money’s been coming out of my paycheck.”

(“Day one” was May 1, 2005. That’s when we had our enrollment in the new plan.)

We showed her the enrollment form. At the top she was supposed to select the coverage desired, and nothing was selected. “Oh,” she said, “I must have missed that little box. But look, down at the bottom. There’s a place where I have to waive coverage if I don’t want it and sign the form. I checked that I was waiving DEPENDENTS coverage, but not EMPLOYEE.”

She was right. I pointed out that the money deducted from each of her checks was only a few dollars, and THAT was to cover the life insurance she’d opted for, plus the Long Term Disability coverage. Health insurance was MUCH more expensive.

With a blank look she said, “Oh. I never paid any attention.”

Then I pointed out that on May 1 of THIS YEAR we had announced a significant rate increase. Hadn’t she noticed that her deduction stayed the same?

“No.”

So why did she now decide she wanted an insurance card?

“I went to the doctor’s last week and they wanted a copy of my card, but I didn’t have one.”

I huddled (on the phone) with our carrier, and later presented her with two options:

1. Fill out a new enrollment form, date it April, 2005, indicate that you DO want coverage, pay us the last 15 months worth of employee contributions (well over $1,000), and you’ll have full, regular coverage. (Remember, until now she’s had NO claims of any kind.)

2. Fill out an enrollment form dated April, 2006 (our last annual “late enrollment” window), indicate that you now want coverage, pay us the last 3 1/2 months of employee contributions (over $300), and you’ll have coverage. BUT as a late enrollee, you’ll have a “pre-existing condition limitation.” The plan will exclude any condition for which you’ve received treatment in the last 18 months.

She smiled at this no-brainer choice. “I haven’t had any claims for over 18 months, so I’m sure I have no ‘pre-ex’ conditions. I’ll take option 2.”

My response?

“Good choice. But from now on, pay attention to the deductions from your pay, and ask about any that don’t seem right, OK?”

She nodded. We’ll see. (No, she is NOT blonde.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sunday's photo opportunities

...were a bit limited. But you know Carol! She managed to find some shots to take.

First we located Rosy Spoonbill "dipping for her dinner."


"Maybe there's a fish, or a succulent morsel of some kind, here just below the surface. If I skim around like this for it, I just might find it."


"Just kidding. As you can see, I was actually scraping the bottom."


"What do you mean, you think I have a big nose? Just think, I could have been called a knife-and-fork-bill. THAT would have been a sight!"

Say, what's that sitting in the tree over on the other side of the pond?


Looks like some kind of small brown bird! I wonder if we could zoom in closer and see what it is.


Well, it certainly doesn't look very happy.

Oh, there! It's getting ready to fly. We'll get a better look at it in the air.


Look at the wind whipping up the hair, er... feathers on its head! What a weird-looking, oddly proportioned bird!

(Of course, it's probably thinking how oddly proportioned we humans are.)

Monday, August 07, 2006

What is Needle Coke?

Hey, three of you asked!

Well, you don’t drink it, snort it, or shoot it up. Does that narrow the range of possibilities?

Chemically, it’s pure carbon. If you picked up a piece of it, you might think you were holding a piece of lightweight coal or even charcoal. It’s black and shiny, but upon close examination its structure looks like it’s made of tiny needles all lined up and lying side by side. Hence the name.

We sell it in bulk, by the metric ton. The pieces range in size from dust up to about softball size.

What’s it good for? One thing only: needle coke is the raw material used to make graphite electrodes. These electrodes conduct electricity into a huge refractory-(brick)-lined pot half-filled with scrap steel at Electric Arc Furnace (EAF) steel mills. Scrap steel like automobile bodies, old railroad tracks... you name it.

The electricity arcs between the graphite electrodes and the steel creating extreme, intense heat. Thus the steel is melted and can be poured out into castings to make new steel products. This is a very efficient method of steel manufacture, plus it’s a form of recycling on an industrial scale.

As the article referenced in yesterday’s post tells, outside of Japan (which doesn’t export) there are only two suppliers in the whole world of needle coke. My plant is one of those two. You talk about a niche market — this is it!

Who buys it? There are about 15 companies in the entire world that make these graphite electrodes—they are our customers. We ship to 5 companies in the US; and to Russia, China, India, Germany, France and Poland. So in the world (outside of Japan) there are two producers and maybe 15 potential buyers.

No need to advertise. All potential customers already know us well.

What’s it made from? Oil. Specifically from Decant Oil, the heavy tower bottoms that are left over from the catalytic cracking process of refining crude oil into gasoline. This oil is also sold as a fuel product, so its price has risen over the past year or so right along with the price of crude. Yes, our costs have gone up a bunch!

How much does it cost? Starting in July of this year we announced that all future sales would be priced at $1,500 per metric ton.

Are you bored yet? Sorry you asked?

Well, don’t feel stupid if you didn’t know what it was. I’d guess that well over 99% of the world’s population has never heard of it and couldn’t care less.

But it sure pays my bills and helped put my girls through college!

Now, the next time you’re at a cocktail party and the conversation turns to coke, you can wow ‘em with your knowledge!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Front-page news

In this morning's "Victoria (TX) Advocate" newspaper. My plant!

Could this be my 15 minutes? I've now had my name on the front page of our local paper twice in the last 3 weeks.

Here's the other story. This one's a lot less upbeat.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Carol's Shot of the Day

On our home golf course.

She saw this great egret getting ready to take off across the pond, and snapped when the bird became airborne. She never thought there might be a reflection, so the two wing-tips in the water is all she got.

She wishes now she had moved the camera down just slightly.

The golf? Not worth writing about.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Never volunteer.

A famous admonition from the Army, but not always true in real (civilian) life.

A few years ago my plant was owned for 21 months by Unocal. That corporation, itself subsequently acquired and absorbed by the giant Chevron-Texaco, placed a great deal of value on “community service” by its employees.

In fact, one of its slogans was, “Improving the lives of people wherever we work.” The bosses were SO intent on employees volunteering for community service that it was part of our annual performance appraisal—an expected part of our job duties. Thus when the local Workforce Development Board (an arm of our state employment service) asked me—a good, upstanding Unocal employee—to serve as a director, I smiled and said, “Sure.”

For the past two days I’ve found myself poring over two proposals by contract firms bidding on the job of staffing and running the various local Workforce offices in our seven-county area. These proposals were each well over an inch thick, and were composed of narrative answers to 138 questions. Some of the answers were only a paragraph, but some were four pages long.

You ask; why was I doing this?

Well, the board is required by law to bid out this job every two years. Groups who bid on the job submit these humongous proposals. Each proposal must then be read and “evaluated” by at least three board members and two staffers.

I was asked to “help” with the evaluations. I figured it would take an hour or so. No big deal. All part of my community involvement duties. So, *sigh* I volunteered.

Oh, but these narratives are DULL! The proposers seem to think that we score their submission by weight, not quality of content. I could read through the answers for only about 20 minutes at a stretch before my mind wandered and I had to do something else for a while.

Thus yesterday and today combined, I made it through only about half of the first proposal. The questions tend to be repetitive, and the answers even more so. And when I’ve finished THIS one, I have to start on the second one.

And now, since Unocal no longer owns our plant and the present owner couldn’t care less if the employees are involved in community activities or service, I wonder why I’m doing this.

I was in the Navy, not the Army. I guess I never learned that particular lesson.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

I am SO spoiled...

But if you stop by here regularly you know that.

My wife loves me so completely that I am just in awe. I’d like to think that I return that love just as completely (and she assures me regularly that I do), but I’m not sure.

Did you know that the romance novel I wrote (and have as yet been unable to sell, although I did get a literary agent to represent me and try) is a roman √† clef? That’s a fancy French name for a book that’s basically a memoir with some fiction thrown in. The mostly true story tells how I met Carol in 1966.

But still, she spoils me.

Example: Right now she’s in the kitchen making a little loaf of homemade Italian bread to go with the homemade spaghetti we’re having for dinner.

We’re both maintaining the weight we have slimmed down to by limiting carbs, so how come she’s feeding us pasta and bread? Because she knows how much I like it.

Yeah, okay, she likes it too. And having carbs occasionally and in moderation won’t put weight back on you. But still!

Can you just imagine how good that bread smells when it’s baking? She puts a little rosemary in the crust, and sprinkles it lightly with garlic salt just before we eat it warm.

I always save a few bites until after the spaghetti is all gone so I can wipe the sauce off the plate with the bread and eat it. Mmmmmmmm.

If your mouth isn’t watering by now, it ought to be.

Mine is.

I think it’s dinner time. Bye.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

And speaking of Dumb...

Last weekend Carol asked me a question.

I didn’t hear the question, but she thought I did. Of course, I didn’t answer the question I hadn’t heard. And of course, that irritated her since she thought I was just being obstinate.

Can anyone see a no-win situation developing here?

A bit later she couldn’t stand it and said, “Did you not hear me ask you something a minute ago?”

I said, “No, what did you ask?” She told me, and I proclaimed my innocence. “If I had heard you I would have answered. Did you think I would just ignore you?”

She cocked her head a bit and said, “I wondered if you were just acting like a dumb-ass.”

Realizing that a pun was in the making I admitted, “Yeah, well, not speaking is like being dumb, I guess. But in this case I wasn’t being a dumb-ass, I was being a deaf-ass.”

She rolled her eyes.

I went on, “So in summary, since I neither heard the question NOR answered, I guess that makes me a deaf-and-dumb ass.”

“But,” I continued, “I’m not a deaf-and-dumb-ass from Dumas!”

She’d had enough. She walked away groaning.

(Maybe not so dumb after all, huh? At least she wasn’t still peeved at me.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A small world, sometimes

(A true story.)

Far, far to the north of where I live — up close to the North Pole, seemingly — is the small Texas panhandle town of Dumas. It’s north of Amarillo; on the way to New Mexico and Colorado. We drive through Dumas going to and from our ski trip each year.

The town (pronounced by the locals as “Doo-mus”) always intrigued our daughters when they were teenagers, mainly because of a sign at each side of town proclaiming that we were entering the “Home of the Ding Dong Daddy.”

Get the picture? It’s a small town at the intersection of two main highways. The streets run north-south and east-west, and there aren’t all that many of them.

(Oh, by the way, the “Ding Dong Daddy” is a reference to a 1940’s song called, “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.” You’ve heard that, right? Right. This seems to be the town’s only claim to fame (?).)

(One more side note: remember that line from the movie “Shawshank Redemption” where a prison inmate struggles to pronounce the name of the author of “The Count of Monte Cristo” — Alexandre Dumas — and says, “Alexan-dree, uh, Dumbass?”)

Well, my daughters took to calling the town “Dumbass, Texas.” Then it became a joke among their friends. When anyone was observed doing or saying something really stupid, one of that crowd could be depended upon to remark, “You must be from Dumas.” Everyone would get it and laugh.

That’s the background; here’s the story: A few years ago my daughter Amy (married, and traveling on a driving vacation with her husband and a couple of adult friends Rob and Daryl) stopped at a convenience store in Louisiana. They bought snacks and drinks, and the total came to $15.93. Rob handed the clerk a twenty and a one, thinking to get back a five and some coins.

The gal, late teens or early 20s by the look of her, stared at the $21. She looked back at the register, saw the total of $15.93, thought for a moment, and then offered Rob back the one dollar bill. He held up his hand and said, being helpful, “No, keep it. That way I’ll get back a five, plus seven cents.”

She stared at him, the money, and the register. She put the one dollar bill on the counter and entered as cash tendered $20. The register informed her that the change would be $4.07.

She counted out the $4.07 onto the counter, while Amy and the others watched in amusement. Then she picked up Rob’s one dollar bill, put it with the other four one dollar bills, put them all into the register and produced a five dollar bill. With a proud smile, she handed Rob his $5.07.

Knowing he would get a laugh, or at least a snicker, from the others, Rob smiled at her and said, “You must be from Dumas.”

Her smile turned to one of amazement, and she exclaimed, “Why, yes!! How did you EVER know?”

Rob held his smile fixed on his face, having no idea how to respond to that. The other three travelers snorted their soft drinks through their noses. They were still convulsed an hour down the road, asking each other, “How did you EVER know?”