Monday, May 29, 2006

Big Odds

We went for an early evening walk today, and along the fence bordering our goat-herding neighbors we heard the unmistakable call of a hawk. Repeatedly. Usually you hear just one of the distinctive sounds, but this time we heard it over and over again as we walked, eyes scanning the skies for the source.

Annie spotted it first, perched high in a dead oak tree on the neighbor's property. It was silhouetted beautifully against the azure sky, the sharp angles of the barren limbs a marked contrast to his sleek and powerfully alive body. As we walked closer we saw another, much smaller, form darting in and out of the hawk's. A tiny swallow was dashing to and fro, apparently causing the hawk's continuous calling.

Suddenly the larger bird took off, the swallow constantly dive-bombing him. The hawk must have outweighed that little fellow by ten times, but his tiny oppressor was completely oblivious. Wings spread majestically, the hawk beat as dignified a retreat as he was capable of, soon reaching the safety of another tree on our side of the fence.

The swally did a few final dives to make sure the hawk stayed gone, and high-tailed it back to the tree. We couldn't see a nest there, but I'm sure there was one, filled with tiny, fragile babies. We've got a clutch in the corner of our porch, little down-colored chicks calling piteously for their parents throughout the day.

The hawk might've spotted what he thought was an easy meal, and settled in for dinner, but he reckoned without the powerful protective urge of a parent defending its young. Size doesn't matter in a fight like that, it's primal urge versus primal urge.

And this time, the good guy won.


Double Rainbow

When my niece Anna and her friend Felicia were here last month, we had a night or two of really cool storms blow through, the kind with lightning crawling under the bellies of the clouds and incredible light displays. One of the neatest things we saw was just before one of the early evening storms, when a spectacular double rainbow filled the sky behind the house. They spanned the entire horizon, two full half-circles of glorious color, one bright and vivid, the other faded and just above the first.

We couldn't get a full-horizon shot, it was just too huge -- we'd have had to retreat practically to Austin to get a wide enough look at it -- but here's a portion. It was even more beautiful in person, with a heavy mist filling the air, mottled gray-white clouds just overhead, and the bright colors of the rainbow hanging impossibly doubled from right to left, filling your entire field of vision.

Many thanks to Anna and Felicia for taking the photos and for sending them to us on CD!


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Another Super-Hero Drawing

I'll put this below the fold for those of you who don't want to read about super-hero drawings (I'm kind that way). But I recently re-imagined an old character that people have told me they liked in the past, kind of like my own "Batman" remake. Of course I don't get paid bajillions of dollars to do so, unlike Hollywood moguls, but I bravely did it anyway.

The character on top to the right is "Earth", which I drew way back in 1996, almost ten years ago. The concept was of an earth elemental spirit, come to inhabit a physical form and setting out to fight all sorts of environmental injustice. (Al Gore, are you reading this?! What a great spokes-hero for "An Inconvenient Truth"!)

I recently had a chance to imagine him a bit differently. The idea had always been that he would have a younger sidekick, a young man who had voluntarily taken on the earth spirit, kind of a physical anchor for the elemental to inhabit during his journeys above-ground. So in the new version (at the right in both color and black-and-white) I incorprated him as well as the new version of Earth. I was very, very happy with the way this turned out.

I am learning to incorporate more real-world textures and shading into Photoshop illustrations. I'm working my way towards understanding how to make these more "painterly", rather than just looking like flat-color comic book panels, but that's been more difficult than I'd thought it would be.

Still, this is a pretty cool update, in my humble opinion. I hope you enjoy it.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bees and Horses Don't Mix

We have a very special treat here at NerdCountry today -- a guest post from the lovely lady herself, Annie! I think you'll all agree that she is not only prettier than I am, but a better writer as well. Take it away, Annie!

I try hard to not interpret our animals' actions through the lens of being human, but instead try to see a horse as a horse and a dog as a dog. Sometimes, though, it is obvious that we share many emotions with our animals, and one of the most primal of those is fear.

This weekend Jeff hollered out to me that the horses were galloping. I love to see them do that so I ran to the windows to look. This time it didn't seem that they were playing; they were running away from something. My very large, very clumsy 16-hand Palomino was bucking and kicking out into the air like an athlete, something this rather lazy pony has never done before. I ran to the back fence and as I ran I could hear Avalon snorting. Horses only snort when they are in full instinct fear mode. Something had clearly scared the bejeezus out of two of the three the horses. Milagro, the oldest of the three, was safely in the barn scavenging for any loose kernels of horse grain. Ah, the wisdom of the aged!

When I got to the back fence, the two young horses saw me and came galloping, bucking and twisting over to me. They stopped just in front of me, eyes bulging, hearts racing. I put a hand out to them and they both walked closer to me and they each put the heads over my shoulder at the exact same time. It was like they ran home to Mom where they felt secure.

When I saw the piney looking leaves of a cedar tree tangled in Avalon's mane, I decided to go out the gate and take a closer look at the horses. I wanted to make sure they had not been bitten by a rattlesnake. As I moved my hand over Avalon's back, he flinched and pulled away from me. I saw then what must have occurred. He had been stung by bees or wasps on his back. He had large welts that were tender all along his back. I think he was grazing on grass near a cedar tree and out of nowhere he was attacked by bees, so he reared up and might have fallen into the cedar tree. Then he headed for home.

In the midst of the bucking episode, Cousin Jill's spotted donkey Cody came barreling out from the same direction the horses had come from. He was steering two of his lady donkeys out of the danger area as well. He herded them off and then galloped over to the barn where the horses had first run to. I swear his feet were hardly touching the ground as he ran. He clearly was going to check on his buddies. They all sniffed noses and then Cody skipped off to check back on his jennets. Concern for members of his pack seems very human, doesn't it?

After the horses calmed down, I stood between both horses and calmly pet them. They were worn out from their experience and their heads hung low to the ground. I decided I better get Avalon the horse version of aspirin, Bute, so I started walking to the barn. Both horses walked on either side of me and again I was awed that they choose to literally stay by my side. They all got a treat of sweet feed (their favorite!) because I have to mix the Bute into the sweet feed.

I was relieved they weren't hurt and I was deeply honored that they ran to where they felt safest – with me.

I had forgotten I wanted to write this experience down until yesterday. I was about 3 hours late feeding the horses because I had woken up in the middle of the night and couldn't sleep for several hours, so I read a book. I work up at 10 a.m. the next morning and sauntered out to feed the horses, who no doubt had been standing around waiting on me since 7 a.m. Avalon walked up to me as he always does and I stopped and petted him. As I walked off to get his feed bucket, he quickly turned his head towards my retreating back and took a small bite at my shirt! He wasn't trying to hurt me and he'd never done anything like this before. I got the message though: woman, don't keep us out here waiting like that again!!

He reminded me that even though a horse is a horse and a dog is a dog, it is possible to communicate with one another. And, we all share some very basic emotions. The most basic for me is my deep love of these animals and the gifts they give me everyday.


Monday, May 22, 2006


I sit here in my ranch house, surrounded by donkeys, horses and dogs, staring down the prospect of a morning 45-minute drive to a strip mall where I can worry about jewelry, and I am depressed because one group of seven foot tall millionares defeated another group of seven foot tall millionaires at a game involving putting a ball through a hoop in a city two hundred miles away.

It's foolish, silly, pointless, and in the morning it won't matter at all.

But right now, it hurts, stupid as it is.


When the next series starts, I'll root for the Mavericks and their green-clad fans and their slope-eyed, hair-brushed-down-in-front flat-headed idiot owner, but for right now I plan on stewing in my own misery because my group of millionaires lost a stupid game.

Double feh.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Bella & Madison

We had a great visit today from our friends Lori and Tom and their two adorable daughters, Isabella and Madison. The girls are also our goddaughters, so it's always wonderful to see them. We put them on Milagro, our steadiest horse, and rode them around the front part of the property and in the round pen, where there's soft sand in case something goes awry.

Later we piled into the truck and went in search of the mini-donkeys to pet them and hand out treats. When giving food to an equine, you have to be careful to hold your hand out flat so your fingers don't get caught up in the excitement. Horse and donkey teeth hurt when they bite down! Unfortunately Madison learned that lesson the hard way, as she tried to shove a cookie in the mouth of Sparky (our cutest and smallest donkey) while he was already chewing. I don't think she was hurt badly, and it was hard to tell if any skin even got broken, but it was pretty scary for a bit. Before too long though she was clamoring to get back down among them, so hopefully there was no long-term harm done, either physically or emotionally. That's one tough kid!

Some of the photos we took were priceless, I'll put them after the jump for those who are interested.

This is Bella, the oldest of the two, and as you can tell from this photo she's very shy, introverted, reserved, and demure. NOT!

I love, love, love this picture of Bella on Milagro. She looks totally confident, in control, and ready to do some galloping! After all, what would a princess be without a valiant charger to carry her among the adoring throng?

Then it was Madison's turn to get in the saddle. This child has no fear. Every animal is "Toby", which is the name of their dog at home. This was confusing to the horses, since one of them really is named Toby, but not the one she was either riding or talking to. I had to sit the horses down afterwards and explain it to them, which is tiring because frankly, horses aren't very bright.

Finally we moved on to the donkeys, where we learned that the maximum number of cookies you can shove into a minature donkey's mouth at one time is five, leaving no room for a finger.

We had a great time with the girls, and it's renewed our resolve to have a "Oops we forgot to have kids" party out here some time. There's something about the donkeys in particular that kids can really relate to, and I love seeing them get to experience animals up close and personal.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006


One of the sites I visit every day is I think it's vitally important, for many reasons, to support good science and science education in our country, and these guys are superior in that regard.

I don't comment much at other blogs, because I don't usually have anything articulate or interesting enough to say. Other commenters and the blog owner are so smart and coherent that I try not to put in my paltry two cents. But I wanted to do something to help out those who are out there fighting the good fight, so I designed two banners for the bloggers there.

The most recent was for Grrl Scientist, who publishes "Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)". Here's the new banner I did for her:

It took a lot of iterations, but we finally arrived at something I think we're both pretty happy with, which is ultimately the goal for this kind of design. She studies bird issues, specifically the genetic sequences and evolution of the lory, which is the bird at the right. The image moves from the actual DNA sequences to a strand of DNA, to a map of the region where they live, and finally to the bird itself.

The other banner I did for them was for one of my favorite bloggers, the always sharp and funny Ed Brayton over at "Dispatches From the Culture Wars":

The background image is from a famous painting by Raphael, called "The School of Athens". It depicts the great philosophers and mathematicians and poets of antiquity all gathered together, and it's located in the Sistene Chapel in the Vatican. I thought it was a good mix of all the things Ed talks about in his blog.

Even if you don't have the expertise or time or skill to directly help out a cause you believe in, think about how to support those who do. We also serve who stay behind and draw :-) And if you get the chance, check out the ScienceBlog folks, there's some really great writing about science, culture, and sometimes even poker going on there.


Monday, May 15, 2006


"That's strange," I thought. "Turkey vultures don't usually sit on the ground cawing over and over again ... they're usually either quietly eating or fleeing." I was on my way to feed the horses and the place where the vulture sat wasn't too far, so I decided to amble over and check it out.

Ambling is big in the country. Never walk when you can amble. Or mosey. Moseying is the pinnacle, of course, but ambling will do in a pinch. I was in the rubber waders, not cowboy boots, so I went with ambling, since a mosey is quite chancy to pull off in waders.

But I digress.

I decided to amble over and check it out. As I approached the cries got louder and louder, doubtlessly saying something along the lines of "Get away, fool, this is my meat!" I suspect turkey vultures are not, as a rule, very polite.

In any event, this particular one flew off in a huff of falling feathers as I got closer (and apparently more alliterative). I closed in on the spot where he'd been standing, thinking I'd find a half-dead rabbit or somesuch.

Nothing appeared immediately, so I stopped and took a closer look. I'm not sure why I stopped instead of continuing to amble ... Maybe my feet were tired from being in the waders, or maybe the sun was in my eyes, I don't know. But stop I did, to have a look around.

And lying there, not ten feet away, was a five foot rattlesnake.

It wasn't coiled or anything, it was just lying flat, strung out. It hissed once at me, kind of feebly, and I figured it must be dying (hence the vulture). Still, a five foot snake only ten feet away doesn't leave much room for error (or lunging), so I hastily backed away, heart pounding.

Rattlesnakes are poisonous, as everyone knows, but they don't kill very many people. Partly that's due to their population dropping so quickly due to humans doing their best to eradicate them, but mostly it's because snakes don't see us, or donkeys, or horses, as food. We're too big to eat for them. So mostly they stay out of our way and I, for one, am happy to stay out of theirs.

Maybe next time I won't complain when Annie makes me tote the shotgun on our walks. But mostly I'll just do my best to stay out of their way.


Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sting of the Scorpion

We had dinner with our friend the other night and I got the full scoop on the "Scorpion Stings Boob Twice" story.

It was dusk and our friend saw that her donkey was outside begging for a treat. She put on flip-flops and ran out for what was supposed to be a quick trip, not bothering to put on a bra (which rarely happens but hey, when you're out in the country it's no big deal). While leaning forward to hand out the treat, she felt something drop into her shirt from the tree above.

Moments later she felt a sharp stabbing pain in the right breast and yelped, dashing around the yard and yanking on her top to try and dislodge whatever had violated her person. Unfortunately the jiggering and gyrating slung the critter over to the other breast, where she again felt the horrible sting.

Finally she was able to dash back inside and the creature was expelled, but the damage was done. "It was like a plug of flesh had been taken out of both of them," she said. The one penetration mark and intense pain convinced her it was a scorpion and not a bee or spider.

Which, strangely, is a relief, as there are few things more dreaded in central Texas than the bite of a brown recluse spider (click here for more info on those guys, including some truly gross photos towards the bottom). Their bites can kill off a huge area of flesh, causing it to rot out.

"I thought my boobs would fall off," our friend said, so it was actually a relief that the culprit was "just" a scorpion.


Friday, May 12, 2006


A friend of ours recently moved out to the pseudo-country, a five-acre place pretty far out from the city similar to our last house. She called Annie last night and said she'd been stung by a scorpion.


In the boob.

We're meeting them for dinner tonight, and I can't want to get the details on this little escapade. How in the name of all that's good and right can a scorpion sting someone twice in the boob? I'd ask for visual confirmation but her husband's a former Navy guy and could break me like a pretzel so I probably won't.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Drawing Goldberg

First, sorry for the lack of posting the last two days. I picked up a freelance illustration gig and it's taking up a large chunk of the time I used to put aside for writing.

Here's one of the art specs I got for the gig:

Character illustration — [super villain]: [super villain] is an enormous brute of a man, 6'8" tall and with the super-muscular build one would expect of a man who can lift 400 tons. He's technically white, but the internal solar fires that give him his powers have "burned" his skin a sort of charcoal grey and caused all the hair on the top of his head to fall out. His costume is a sort of gold-colored leotard and tank top that resembles a professional wrestler's outfit; he doesn't wear gloves or a mask, but does have oversized black boots ("the better to stomp you with," as he sometimes puts it).

You can see how I came up with the final product after the jump, so I don't bore those of you here mostly for Annieisms and fun animal stories :-).

First I needed some kind of reference for what I wanted him to look like. I did a Google Image search for "wrestler", and one of the images that came up was for Goldberg, a popular pro. I thought he had the right kind of look, so I did a new image search for "Goldberg wrestler" and found that really nice photo below from here:

When using reference materials like this, it's important to take it as inspiration and not just to copy it. The character I am drawing is not Goldberg, after all, but a totally separate person. Plus, I needed a full-body image and this one is just the head and shoulders. So I imported the photo into Flash, put it on a locked layer, made a new layer over it and traced the basic lines in lime green (so the new lines would show up on top of the dark image). I refined it as I went, for instance leaving off the beard and changing the shape of the eyes and nose a bit, and ending up with this rough sketch:

The top half was pretty close to what I wanted, but I was much less sure of what to do with the legs. So those were sketched in a much rougher manner with placeholders for the boots. I did another search for "combat boots" and found a nice reference, and again copied that with some changes. I had to move the feet around so they'd fit in the boots I'd found and as a result the stance was much stronger. I also had to stretch his right leg to make it fit, it started out too short. Finally, the shoulders were not broad enough for a "super" villain, and the head was too large. So I shrunk the head down (which has the effect of making the whole body seem much bigger) and broadened the shoulder. This involved essentially reconstructing the entire deltoid area and eliminating some of the shoulder blade showing behind Goldberg's arm. Here's what I ended up with:

Another key part of the art spec was the leopard skin leotard he wears. I initially drew some in by hand, but it didn't look quite right. So instead I found the image shown, imported it into Photoshop, desaturated it (since this was for a black and white/grayscale image), and cut and pasted it into the shape of the leotard.

Finally, I colored the "fire-darkened" skin using a 10 pixel feather on the lasso and filling it with a gradient, and added the smoke effect. My mental image for the scene was that this villain had just gotten blasted by a flying energy blaster type of hero, and was glaring up before going and finding a car to hurl at his nemesis. The final version is at the last picture in the set you see here:

Hope you enjoyed this look into the creative process. This is a genuine professional gig for one of my favorite gaming companies, and I have to say it feels nice to once again get paid for drawing.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Field Guide to the Bubba Geek

Click for a larger view.
Annie is sure the rain has driven rattlesnakes out of hiding, so I load the shotgun with rat shot and lug it along. As I slip on the overlarge black rubber wader boots (the ground is like sludge in spots), I realize how incredibly stupid I look. Red straw baseball cap on (which is actually Annie's but it lets my bald head breath), shorts, long-sleeved BLACK Dell shirt and now the boots coming up to my ankle ... Old men wish they looked this good with their black socks and white sneakers.

I'm scruffy from not shaving and my skin is paledue to spending most of my time in front of a monitor. Hair bursts out from every square inch of my skin in a wiry black explosion thanks to my French heritage, which I assume is why it retreated so hastily from my scalp. The French always were good at surrendering in a head-to-head battle.

Guns get heavy when you have to walk around with them for a long time, and none of us are used to having it along. Radar the border collie bonks right into it at one point and stares at it, startled, as if wondering when Daddy grew metal arms. I have to work at keeping it pointed away from everyone. We don't see any snakes but then, given how frightening I look, they probably slithered away in fear.

This is what it means to be a bubba geek. Leaving your monitor long enough to tromp around your ranch in shorts and a long-sleeved high-tech shirt while wearing your wife's cap and huge plastic boots, all the while toting a gun you have no clue how to use.

Life is indeed an adventure.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Close Calls

Huge storms raced through central Texas two nights ago and we narrowly avoided a small twister. Our next door neighbor, Todd, told me their barn roof was blown down along with a small section of their house roof. He said the pattern of destruction wound down past his barn, between the house and the creek, and that it definitely looked like it had been caused by a small tornado. This thing touched down not 200 yards from our front door, and we'd never have known it if Todd hadn't said something, because it happened in the middle of the night and no one saw the actual funnel cloud.

Just 200 yards from our door. Unreal.

How often does that happen, that unmitigated disaster misses us by the narrowest of margins and we don't even notice? Had we left work a second earlier we might have hit that car that just missed us. Had we left a second later we might have struck that woman crossing against the light. Tornadoes touch down scant distance from our homes in the middle of the night and we never see them.

There's a Buddhist teaching that I have always found very profound. It's the concept of "The glass is already broken", and the idea is to grasp that the totality of a thing exists in every instant. Even though you hold the glass whole in your hand now, it is also both shattered on a floor at some time in the future and disparate particles of sand some unknown time in the past. It's understanding, deep in your bones, that everything we know is temporary, and to appreciate the world for what it is in this moment, at this time, in this place.

The same sentiment is echoed in "Ozymandias", one of the most profoundly moving pieces of poetry I have ever read (and incidentally about the only piece of literature I read in high school that I can even recall).

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley

That mindset helps me live with those unnoticed disasters, those near misses, those "There but for the grace of God" times when the worst almost -- but not quite -- happens. It may wait for us some time in the future, but for now we have the world, and it should be precious to us.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Tech Support Rant

In the days before I became a Bubba, I was 100% nerd, working in tech support at Dell. And if there's one thing I learned working in tech support, it's that people are idiots.

Nothing has changed in the last 8 years since I had that job.

The second thing you learn in tech support is that if someone writes in with a problem from an address, they're terminal idiots. The third thing you learn is that if someone writes in with a problem from an address and they are from New York, they're terminal idiots with a complicating case of being a rude jerk as well.

So of course yesterday I got an e-mail from a woman from New York with an AOL account who was a jerk. Everything is my fault, she couldn't possibly be doing anything foolish, why did I write such a complicated program like HeroMachine, yadda yadda yadda. It's times like this that I really, really appreciate having to deal only with animals out on the farm. At least there the horses' asses are pleasant on their opposite side.

DISCLAIMER: My mother and many fine cousins and aunts are from New York State and are some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. Many of my immediate family have AOL accounts and are not idiots. It's obviously more of a general rule rather than an absolute, but 9 times out of 10 if you get a complaint from an AOLer from NY they're going to be terminal idiot jerks. Ask anyone in national tech support and they'll back me up on that, I guarantee.


Annieism: Can't Wait

Annie and her good friend Terri were riding at our property while the house was being built. They ambled on up to where the back porch stood, complete except for the steps. They'd been quiet for a few minutes, as tends to happen on horseback, just enjoying the quiet and the views, when Annie started thinking about those missing steps and how nice it would be when they were completed. So she said, in a loud voice after the long silence:

"I can't wait 'til we have sex!"

Terri, not missing a beat while Annie gaped in embarrassment at her slip of the tongue, replied "Well you're gonna have to wait a long time for me!"

I'm happy to report that we didn't have to wait long for steps after all, even though we haven't been able to convince Terri to come back for another ride. Maybe we'll call her when it's time for the swing to go in ...


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tan Lines

"What's that line on your face?" Annie asked.

I got up and looked in the mirror, discovering a white line running horizontally across my left temple, at eye level, just where my glasses sit. Apparently I had aquired a tan line from my specs after driving an hour and a half in the sun each day for eight months.

My left arm is also much darker than the right one, for the same reason. I like to drive with the window down, arm hanging out. My dad called that "260 air conditioning", because you drove 60 miles an hour with 2 windows rolled down, hardy har har.

I'd never really noticed either condition before Annie pointed it out. It just sort of happened over time, a slow accumulation after months of the same routine. A lot of things in life are like that, I think. We just sort of stumble along, living our lives, doing what it takes to get from point A to point B, and little by little changes add up until one day, we sit up and notice that something's different. Tan lines run here and there, wrinkles pop up at the corners of our eyes from the way we laugh, the soles of our shoes get unevenly worn due to small quirks in the way we walk ... We don't see these things happening, the time scale is too slow to fit the rhythm of our lives, but nonetheless we wake up one day and there they are, patiently waiting for us to notice.


Monday, May 01, 2006

Geekiness is Catching

This weekend I discovered yet another reason to love my wife. We were driving down the highway after coming back from the mall (which is a great way to remind yourself why you moved to the country in the first place -- malls are like teeming urban petri dishes) when we came up to a white Dodge Durango. And my beautiful, wonderful wife, who didn't know who either Michael Jordan or Captain Kirk was when we met, said:

"That kind of car always makes me think of Storm Troopers from Star Wars."

I fell in love all over again.