Sunday, May 23, 2010

Miscellaneous Ramblings On A Sunday Evening

I'm winding down a pleasant weekend that started Friday with finally closing on a refinance of my mortgage. I wanted to take advantage of the lower interest rates, and since I went through the original lender, it should have been a breeze. Well, that was the theory. The reality is the bank was pretty dysfunctional in the last couple of weeks. It's a good thing I'm officially retired, though I do have a home based business, and am almost completely flexible with my time. The reason is that the closing was rescheduled four different times. If I had been still commuting to work, that would have meant taking time off four different times. And that would not have made me happy.

But in the end it worked out, and starting in July I'll see a lower payment by close to $100 a month. Until I'm 85. No, really, I'll be paying for that long. But that's my choice. I planned well ahead for my retirement so I could afford to actually do so, meaning I'm not worried about losing my home in the future. One thing I insisted on was a 30 year fixed rate, the only type of loan that should exist. ARM's, interest only loans, etc. should be banned. Those have and still do sucker in those who have no business being home owners and within a few years find themselves without that home and hideously in debt, should have their fingernails ripped out one by one.

But that was Friday. Saturday and Sunday were pleasant days spending quality time with horses, sipping wine on that back porch after sunset while being serenaded by the sounds of the night, gardening and of course preparing yet another masterpiece of a barbecue.

At the same time I was following more news stories on the horrendous oil spill in the Gulf. This thing is a total fiasco besides being a potential environmental catastrophe. The fiasco part comes in two flavors. First, it's obvious there was no contingency plan on anyone's part, British Petroleum, Transocean, or Haliburton, should anything like this happen. Oil platforms by their nature are hazardous and every safety precaution has to be made to keep tragic accidents like this one from taking place. Still, conditions can arise that will lead to that accident. (And as an aside to that blithering idiot Rand Paul, just dismissing it as an accident with no accountability only proves he's as much of a moron as his father).

However, there should have been redundant shut off valves in the pipeline so if one was damaged another could be used. And if oil was spilled, have a fleet of ships with containment gear on standby. It's ok if these ships are employed in other tasks when there isn't a spill, that just makes economic sense, but they should be considered as the National Guard, be ready for action when necessary.

Then there's the controversy of using the dispersant Corexit. Basically this is a chemical that breaks down the oil so that bacteria in the water can more easily consume the oil. It works fairly well, but the toxic aftereffects aren't completely known. There are other, less toxic and more effective dispersants on the market, however, BP apparently has a rather cozy relationship with the manufacturer of Corexit.

And of the government's response? Wow, a Presidential commission! We're saved! They'll just bluster and talk all that oil into slinking back into the blown out well. Or how about the EPA all of a sudden getting concerned about Corexit, (which they approved use of some years ago), and asking BP to use an alternative? In other words, the Federal government is doing its usual proverbial closing the barn door after the cows have escaped. Again, no planning ahead of time, no oversight on safety on the drilling platforms, then when a crisis hits the government does what it does best, go into complete panic mode with everyone running around trying to act and sound important.

So what should be done? First duct tape the mouths of every lawyer, government official and BP executive. Second, plug the well. Third, clean up the spilled oil by any means possible, (and use an alternative to Corexit). Fourth, come up with a contingency plan in case of future incidents like this. If offshore drilling is going to be permitted in deep waters, then the excuse, "We have no idea what to do if things go wrong at this depth", just isn't going to fly.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Frogs Getting Fruity

No, that isn't the title of a kinky porno film. One of the pleasures of living in this part of Texas is the rich and varied plant and animal life. At night you often get a chorus of critters; crickets, cicadas, the occasional owl and coyote, and then there's the frogs. Our back porch was frequently visited by a tree frog last summer that of course we named Kermit. As far as I know there were a number of Kermits, but seeing as how frogs don't wear name tags, I preferred the thought that one frog thought my porch was a special place.

Since there are empty lots on either side of the house, plus a flood control ditch outside the sound wall, there is ample space for critter habitats. Whenever it rains, the more aquatic types, such as frogs, make a beeline for any newly formed bodies of water. Well, last Friday we had a whopper of a storm that left at least a couple inches of badly needed rain behind. For the frogs, it was as if they had suddenly ingested massive amounts of espresso. They were so bursting with energy they decided to express their joy in song.

When my wife and I sat on the porch last night, we were deafened by serenading frogs. I could distinguish at least four distinct sounds, which I assumed came from four different species. Considering it is still Spring, (despite heat and humidity the last few days that are more indicative of August), it is probably safe to assume most of the frogs were looking for mates. The exception was one who made the rounds of the porch. It wasn't Kermit, though. I'm not sure what species it was, but apparently it was more interested in finding food than making tadpoles.

But his mates were sowing their wild oats. At times the sounds seemed like they had reached a crescendo, so it was easy imagining a group of frogs enjoying the happy ending. That's ok, since the cycle of nature dictates a species must reproduce to survive.

However, I will be thrilled if they can show as much enthusiasm in controlling the population explosion of bugs also brought out by the rain.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Blowing In The Wind

June 1 is the start of a season I once followed out of curiosity, the Atlantic Hurricane Season. I would follow the storm tracks, play the guessing game of where they would go, and at the same time pray any harm would be minimal. It was an interesting exercise, especially since I was doing it from California, which has never been visited by a hurricane. Which is why there are earthquakes as compensation.

Shortly before moving to the Houston area, hurricanes became personal. This started with Rita in 2005, that came way too close to where my wife was living at the time for comfort. Then in 2008, Ike made me realize I was about to trade my paranoia of earthquakes for the paranoia of hurricanes. It broadsided Galveston, (still the absolute worst place to build a city. Really now, sitting on a somewhat glorified sandbar that has no protection from tropical storms). By the time it reached my new house, (I had just mailed off the first mortgage payment), it had lost some of its punch. But it was such a massive storm it took a long time to pass through the area. That persistence, plus sustained high gale force winds, knocked down many trees in the area. We were lucky none of the ones near the house toppled over.

The house survived without a scratch, though before buying it, I don't remember anyone saying an actual demonstration of how it met the new Texas wind resistance standards would be part of the sales presentation. Still the power was out for almost a week after.

So what will I do if another one looks like it's getting close? Besides run around screaming in panic you mean? I have done some stocking up on water, (though more will be needed), batteries, non perishable food items, and an item lacking from last time, an ordinary plug in land line phone. During Ike I was out of state on business, and my wife had several digital phones in the house. Which meant when the power went out, so did they. She was able to call on her cell phone to let me know everything was ok. However, the car charger for her cell wasn't working so she had to conserve the phone's battery. Actually, the charger was fine, it was the outlet in the car that was on the fritz.

The predictions for this year are a more active than usual season. Oh joy. But with all weather predictions beyond say five days out, these predictions need to be taken with many large grains of salt. For most people, even one storm is one too many if it is parked in their neighborhood. At least there is one truth about hurricanes vs. earthquakes, with hurricanes you do get some warning, forget it with earthquakes.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Going Buggy

With the weather warming up the most interesting wildlife around the house has come out of its Winter dormancy. The Houston area has four seasons, Winter, (which is usually between noon and 15 minutes later on January 3, a day later in El Nino years), Almost Summer, So Gawdawful Miserable The Devil Himself Would Flee Houston For Hades To Escape The Heat, and finally, Still Summer. We're in Almost Summer now. The other evening I decided to mow the grass, and discovered when the heat and humidity have picked up that the evenness of the grass after cutting takes second place to the shortest distance necessary for the mower to do the job. There's also the little factor that the size of my lawn increases with the temperature. What was a couple months ago a respectably sized lot has grown to cover at least three timezones.

But back to the wildlife. My wife and I enjoy sitting on the back porch in the evening, (with the ceiling fans going with vigor, I had wondered why the porch even came with ceiling fans until last summer, then discovered they make a huge difference in making the porch habitable in Summer). Anyway, we often have visitors of the multi-legged kind. The furry types, (raccoons, possums, skunks, usually trundle along the back wall far from the porch, and in the case of the skunks that is a good thing). The insect type prefer the porch itself.

In true Texas fashion, most of these insects are big. Really big. As in able to fly off with small children and Smart cars. My favorites are:

Walking Limb: In most places these would be Walking Sticks, critters with long, thin bodies that can be mistaken as twigs when they are standing still. Which is the intent. I saw one that was at least four inches long and could have been used to play fetch if I had a dog.

UFO Detector: I just saw this the other night. This is a rather large beetle with antenna many times the length of its body. I figure with antenna that size it can pick up FM stations in at least 38 states, monitor SETI, and provide air traffic control for Bush International Airport.

Suicide Beetles: These are brown beetles at least an inch long, that buzz with enough racket to drown out a chainsaw, then fly erratically, often colliding with nearby objects, usually my head, with enough force to leave a dent. You can tell old time Texans because x-rays of their skull reveal a surface marked like a golf ball. When the beetles hit the ground, they usually flip over on their backs, waving their legs feebly in the air. If flipped back over, they will walk a few inches, then often flip back on their backs and kick the bucket. Evolution had a sense of humor when these critters emerged.

Shelob: Lord of the Rings fans are familiar with the giant spider that thinks hobbits are a tasty treat. The inspiration for this creature must have come from seeing the spiders around here. When I go out back I usually am armed with a flamethrower in case I encounter one. That may sound a bit extreme, but a shotgun only makes them mad.