Thursday, April 28, 2016

Woman in Gold (2015)

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

A wonderful movie set in two times and places, Vienna in 1940s under Nazi rule and Los Angeles around 2004. The key character is Maria Altmann a young adult when she fled to the west after Anschluss.

Maria Altmann was a member of a wealthy Jewish family whose possessions were confiscated  by the Germans. The famous painting by Gustav Klimt was of her aunt.

After the war the state of Austria took possession of the Klimt paintings, and over time the Austrians took them to be part of the Austrian culture.

The ownership was settled in Austria by arbitration. Maria Altmann took possession of five paintings and shortly afterwards sold them for $327 million.  The picture of her aunt is now in the Neue Galerie, New York 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The fog of war

There are two roads in Austin County that are impassable and closed for repair, FM 109 and FM 1094. Last week reported two separate washouts on FM 1094 with separate repair days. Now there is only one washout with a later repair date of 2016 May 31.

The State of Texas will repair the roads.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The pink bits in 1886

My Grandfather was born in 1884, so was two years old when this map was published in the Graphic, a British weekly illustrated newspaper. It is a snapshot in time. The drawings of people around the edges are especially interesting, it has a very positive, upbeat, feel.

At the top it has Freedom, Fraternity and Federation, akin to the French liberté, égalité, fraternité, but replacing Equality with Federation, a telling difference.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Froggy Love

When there is a lot of rain, the creek rises, and 100,000 frogs come back to life. Turn down the lights, turn up the music:

Click Here

Friday, April 22, 2016

The road to the country house is washed out

I guess this will not be repaired in the next few days.

I found a road closure map here.  The site says FM 1094 has two washouts, one should be fixed by April 27, the other by May 15.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

There are normal people and there are exceptional people

David Chalmers is in the latter category. He is a Rhodes Scholar and a Philosopher. His CV stretches for about 20 pages and is packed with heavy stuff.

I used to think philosophers were useless, only educated to teach what they were taught, to perpetuate a non-productive cycle of activity. But I have changed 180. Modern philosophers are grounded in science and are very deep thinkers about fundamental stuff.

Spend 18 minutes of your life, and see his TED talk on consciousness.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Peace of Mind

I found this card in the dry cleaners. Would you trust your money with this person? Most Americans believe they should be embalmed, viewed, and buried in an expensive casket inserted in to a large reinforced concrete box. Around $10,000.

It is as if they hope to preserve the body from the natural elements. To put of the inevitable, to keep the worms at bay.

This is an expensive process, and has created an industry that preys on people who have just lost a person dear to their heart.

I have always had a problem with the strange ritual of viewing. I wish to remember the person as they were, not a lifeless corpse dress up with makeup, and full of chemicals.

Cremation in a simple shroud, cardboard or pine box, is only about $1000, and donation to science is free, and they collect (see  Forensic Science, you can help). If there is money left, spend it on a party to celebrate the person's life.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Marijuana or something better?

This plant was bought from a respectable nursery. Leonotis leonurus (Lion's Tail) is a perennial shrub from southern Africa.

It is in the front flowerbed in full view. A friend of ours insisted it was marijuana, which it isn't, but it made me look it up.

And to my surprise, it has mild psychoactive effects, and can be used as a legal substitute for Cannabis. The dried leaves and flowers can be smoked.

Next door is the free mini-library, and I should add a flyer to the library promoting the free, and legal, drugs available in the adjacent flowerbed.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Moist Robot Ethical Code

Do good or at least more good than harm

I came across this article from Scott Adams, and it coincided so well with what I believe. Some people are a net drain on society, some a net contributer to society. We should not punish those on the dark side, just encourage them to move to positive side.

The problem with my Moist Robot view of the world – the one that says we are all animated meat, bouncing around according to the laws of physics – is that there is no accounting for morality or ethical behavior in that world view. 

Is that a problem? 

I don’t subscribe to any religious belief and yet I am never tempted to hurt other people for personal gain. Most non-believers would say the same. So there must be something in the operating systems of our brains that provides the equivalent of a moral code no matter what we think of the afterlife. Today I will try to put that moral code for non-believers into words. 

My suggestion for a non-believer’s moral code can be reduced to two words: 

Be useful. 

That’s my personal way of seeing the world. I didn’t invent the notion, but it seems to fit me best. 

To me, a well-lived life starts with total selfishness, as a baby, and over time you learn to take care of yourself before turning outward and trying to help those around you. I’m at the helpful age now. I enjoy recreation, but I only find meaning and satisfaction from being useful to other people. I think that change in a person happens automatically after we satisfy our own needs. Our strongest instincts after self-preservation are, apparently, to protect the tribe.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Orgyia leucostigma - A designer caterpillar

This was the best picture I could take, but enough to identify the caterpillar. As an moth it is brown and ordinary. As a caterpillar it makes a great Hollywood creature, it has white hairs, orange dots, a red head, 4 white humps, and a huge tail.

Orgyia leucostigma

Monday, April 11, 2016

Signs of late Spring

It is early April and the first signs of the Hidden and Peacock gingers are poking through. They will be good through the autumn.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Green Anole shedding old skin

Reptiles have a scaly skin and shed in one piece. Mammals shed individual old skin cells continually.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Median Household Income

Frontline (an investigative TV program) claims 111 Russians now own 19% of the country's wealth, and most Russians are really poor. How poor is Russia?

Here is sampling of Median Household Incomes, a good measure of what most people have, a value where half of the people are above, half below, these values. Units are US dollars per year:

Nation Median Household Income
Sugar Land, Texas 
United States
United Kingdom

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

My presidents - Ronald to Obama

I arrived in the US just before Reagan, the 40th president, was elected. With the current surreal election season with no good choices, it made me think of the succession of presidents I have lived under.

Ronald Reagan 40 - 1981-1989
  • Iran-Contra episode
  • Discussions with Mikhail Gorbachev  
  • War on drugs, Just Say No!
  • Immigration Amnesty

George Bush 41 - 1989-1993
  • End the Cold War
  • Gulf War to free Kuwait, and not invade Iraq

Bill Clinton 42 - 1993-2001
  • Balanced the budget, started paying off the national debt
  • War with Serbia
  • Dot-Com boom and bust

George Bush 43 (with Darth Vader) - 2001-2009
  • Attack on New York and Washington DC on 9-11
  • Afghan war
  • Iraq war
  • Guantanamo Bay 
  • The financial meltdown

Barrack Obama 44 - 2009-2017
  • The financial recovery
  • The national debt increases from 10 to 19 trillion
  • Unemployment improves from 10% to 5%
  • Withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq
  • US becomes oil independent, oil price drop
  • Gay marriage legalized 
  • Affordable Care Act
  • Iran Nuclear Deal

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

To Feed Hungry Minds, Afghans Seed a Ravaged Land With Books

To Feed Hungry Minds, Afghans Seed a Ravaged Land With Books 

This story held my interest, I live in a society where information flows easily at little or no cost.  If Federal Express or Amazon delivered to these people I would supply them, but then if these services existed their lives would be less of a struggle.

By MUJIB MASHAL - MARCH 30, 2016 from the New York Times

PANJWAI, Afghanistan — At first glance, it is not much of a library: two shelves of about 1,600 books and magazines in a basement room deep into a dusty alley of adobe homes in rural Panjwai District, in southern Afghanistan. The mattresses and blankets stacked in the corner still give the vibe of the guest quarters the room once was.

But the register shows how parts of the community here, particularly younger residents, have come to value any chance to indulge their curiosity, in a place that was at the heart of the original Taliban uprising in the 1990s and became a watchword for the tragedy and deprivation brought by war. 

Hassanullah, 18, checked out “General History.” Muhammad Rahim, 27, came for “The Fires of Hell,” which he returned the next day; it was soon borrowed by a 12-year-old named Nabi. Taher Agha, 15, preferred “Of Love and the Beloved,” keeping it for 10 days. Another young man, about to marry, called ahead to make sure there was a copy of “Homemaking.” He rode his bicycle six miles to pick it up.

The library here in Panjwai is largely the work of Matiullah Wesa, a 22-year-old student from Kandahar who is in India finishing a degree in political science. For about eight years, the Pen Path, the volunteer organization that Mr. Wesa started as a teenager, has been working to reopen schools closed because of violence and to bring books to some of the worst-affected conflict areas.

After opening in January, the Panjwai library had about 24 visitors in its first month, said Muhammad Nasim Haidary, who looks after the library and whose family houses it.

But the interest of a couple of female readers, who approached women in the Haidary family about their interest in the books, has caused a small dilemma in a society that frowns upon even sharing the names of women in public: How can the library keep track of who took the books out if it cannot write the women’s names?

One proposal was to use pseudonyms for the women instead of writing their real names in the register, but that would create another problem: How would poor Mr. Haidary remember which pseudonym belongs to whom?

The fighting over the past 14 years has disproportionately affected the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, and Kandahar Province, which includes Panjwai, has been among the hardest hit. As district after district changed hands back and forth between the Taliban and the Afghan government and its American allies, survival became the priority. Education, which had always been scarce here, fell to the bottom of the list, and in many places schools have remained closed even after the insurgents were pushed out.

Pervasive corruption has also had an effect, with many of the schools that are listed on government budgets not actually functioning at all — “ghost schools” set up to allow officials to gobble up development aid without delivering any services.

“The problem is that so much of the effort has focused on the cities,” Mr. Wesa said during a visit to Panjwai last month. “We have to start from the village. If this library was in the city, we would have 100 visitors a day. But to me, the five visitors in the village are more important than the 100 in the city.”

Mr. Wesa’s organization began a national book drive last year, collecting about 20,000 books in a campaign that focused on social media. The competition for social status runs deep in this country, and Mr. Wesa banked on that to encourage contributions. Even the smallest donation of just a couple of books was celebrated online, with a picture of the donor and a word of gratitude.

The books have helped establish seven modest libraries in provinces with a reputation for some of the worst violence of the war: Helmand, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar and Wardak.

To Westerners, Panjwai, about an hour’s drive from the city of Kandahar, is most closely associated with a gruesome atrocity: the massacre of 16 civilians by an American Army sergeant who walked off his base before dawn one morning in March 2012. But for the residents, the place turned to hell years before that.

“Panjwai was like a bakery oven: You burned if you entered,” Mr. Haidary said. “If you said you were from Panjwai, people would get scared of you.”

Recently, though, the district has been relatively quiet. Even as the Taliban exert pressure in neighboring provinces, gobbling territory, the reach of government has been maintained in Kandahar, though it has often been disappointing or abusive.

“A few years ago, I don’t think I would have agreed to house a library here,” said Hazrat-Wali Haidary, the eldest son of the family hosting the library, who is training to be a doctor. “Everyone was suspicious of everything, and I wouldn’t have wanted to welcome trouble. But now, relative to other places, it is peaceful here over the past three years, and there is an atmosphere for the people to turn to education and books.”

Mr. Wesa’s journey into education activism began in his home district, Maruf, which is now contested by the Taliban. His father opened one of the first schools there, before violence forced their family to relocate to Spinbaldak, a border commercial hub.

But the seed had already been planted. Mr. Wesa, one of 11 children, continued accumulating books for a family library they brought with them when they moved.

“Every time he got his hands on money, we would see him returning with more books,” said his older brother, Wali Muhammad, an army officer.

The family library in Spinbaldak, which is now open to the public as part of Mr. Wesa’s volunteer organization, has nearly 4,000 books organized on neat metal shelves. In the middle of the carpeted room is a gas heater for winter reading and an ashtray and a spittoon for those who may need a smoke or a pinch of smokeless tobacco.

The circulation at the Spinbaldak library runs largely on an honor system. Bookkeeping is minimal, partly because another brother of Mr. Wesa’s, who is the library’s caretaker, Atta Muhammad, has only very basic literacy.

“If it is a person I know well, I just write down the number of books he took, not the details of all the books,” Atta Muhammad said.

When the books are not returned on time, Mr. Muhammad finds himself making phone calls or visiting the borrowers’ homes. Despite his efforts, several dozen books have been lost, most of them never returned after being checked out.

Mr. Wesa plans to open several other small libraries in the coming year and to expand the book drive to a more organized network of volunteers across the country. How far he is willing to go to promote reading was best displayed in a recent conversation he had with a wealthy businessman in eastern Afghanistan. The man made an offer: He would donate 20,000 books to a library in his part of the country, on the condition that it be named for his father.

In his excitement, Mr. Wesa cared little about cultural taboos and what is socially acceptable in giving his answer: “I told him I would even name it after his mother — whatever it takes to get the books.”

Monday, April 4, 2016

Back yard remake - Part 5

Almost there, four rows to do, need more pavers, and hope to have enough sand. In total it will be 34 by 53, 1802 pavers, 4000 kg.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A nice place looking for a new first owner

This is a custom house that someone really wanted, and it was almost finished when the work stopped. It sat there unchanged for months.

All of the sudden it is finished, with irrigation, new sod, and flower beds.  And a For Sale sign.

There could be many reasons, but I suspect this was a second home, and the owner lost their job in the oil business.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Mud Dauber Nest

Mud Dauber - Sceliphron caementarium

Found attached to a rake handle, a nest created by a Mud Dauber wasp. They make stacks of mud tubes, lay an egg and a paralyzed prey in each, and sealed the top. When completed they leave, not to come back. They make nests everywhere. Click on the picture.