Category Archives: Media

Model Trains Showcase the Best of Texas

2018-01-06 Train cover artA state the size of Texas is not only full of a rich history and a diverse culture, but it is also home to some of the most awe inspiring and picturesque natural landmarks in the country.  Presenting all these features to the viewing public is one of the primary missions for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a mandate the museum takes seriously, but one that David Temple, Associate Curator for Paleontology, believes can be fun as well.  The museum, which tries to design exhibits with a Texas theme, debuted a new feature last November for the holiday season called Trains over Texas, showcasing the best the state has to offer in 1/48th scale perspective using a traditional Christmas toy to do it.

2018-01-06 Train experience HLDSC_7163With landmarks such as Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, and Big Bend National Park highlighted alongside man-made features like the Alamo, the Tower of the Americas and the Houston Ship Channel, the state is well represented in the tennis-court-sized display nestled in the main hall in the museum’s exhibition center, right next to the video monitor where guests can see themselves walking among computer-generated dinosaurs before visiting the trains.  Kids are the main draw for the exhibit, which Temple says is as it should be.  “We have an educational mandate,” he said.  “We look for things that promote learning and hands-on activities.”  Carrying that mandate forward, Temple says the museum plans on expanding the display to include trains that guests can actually control.  The current setup is not designed with that level of interaction, but according to docent Carl Olsen, President of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Train Collectors Association, the kids have come in droves just the same.  Many local schools bring several classes of children to the museum on field trips throughout the week.  “We had roughly 2500 kids at one time,” he said of opening day. 2018-01-06 Train Pic 1

The exhibit is segmented into three primary sections with anywhere from five to six trains running in each section.  There are places where guests can crawl under the track and observe the train from inside the loop.  Two-year-old Conrad Kuhn was running around the display, the track at a perfect eye-level for the tow-headed youngster, as his mom, Amanda Kuhn of Pearland, watched.  “They love trains,” she said of her two sons. The Kuhns have attended the exhibit four times since its November opening.  In fact, the family became members of the museum because they love the trains so much. “They have a couple at home with wooden tracks they love to play with,” she added.  Conrad echoed his mom’s statement, saying that he loves choo choo trains, but adding that “Thomas is sick.”  The display has a hidden track that runs under the main display where Thomas, the Tank Engine, runs in a circle.  The area has a viewing window that kids can crawl under the display to see.  On this day, Conrad was distressed to find that Thomas was out for maintenance and a street car had taken his place on the track.

2018-01-06 Train track HL

The trains at HMNS are powered by six transformers to drive the eighteen trains running at any given time.  Keeping the system up requires regular maintenance.  Olsen and his crew of volunteers are members of fourteen train collecting clubs in the Houston Area. They volunteer their time by attending to the display, answering questions from the guests,  maintaining and repairing the trains and tracks to ensure the exhibit remains fully operational.

DSC_7270The Train Collectors Association members trained museum staffer David Herrada in the care and maintenance of the trains, a job Herrada takes very seriously.  Working in a cramped compartment behind the west Texas part of the diorama, Herrada meticulously cleans the wheels of the cars and replaces worn out components as they break.  “Lionel trains are durable, but where the average train set might run sixteen hours in a year, these trains run eight hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.  In order to prevent breakdowns, the trains run for three minutes and then stopped in place to cool down for a minute.  Herrada and the association volunteers do work hard to complete any needed repairs, but sometimes, as with poor Thomas, the damage may be too great. “If we can’t repair it, we have to send it back,” Herrada said.  The Trains are sent to Lionel or TX Trainworx for warranty work or replacement.  Fortunately, despite the amount of wear and tear, the trains keep running and they have only had to send about eight trains back over the course of the exhibit.   The entire display is O-scale, which is 1:48 size and according to Olsen, “…is a reliable scale that you have minimal problems with.”

Deciding on which of the several model scales to use was part of the development process that occurred over a two-year period.  The museum’s board of directors, responding to a request from a prominent museum patron—an avid train enthusiast named Glen Rosenbaum,—reached out to Dallas-based TW Trainworx, for help.  Rosenbaum had TW Trainworx build a large train display of his own at his home, but no where near the size of the Museum’s.  The Houston-based attorney describes himself as a bona-fide train nut who has enjoyed a lifelong passion for trains. “It’s very relaxing to watch these things lumber around the room.  I’m also fascinated by the power, the size, and the history.”

TW Trainworx owner Roger Farkash says his company caters to the train enthusiast from the individual hobbyist to large corporate clients like the Ronald McDonald house to build large scale models.  Displays like Trains Over Texas are a good way for people to enjoy model railroading, a hobby that is becoming expensive to enjoy at home.  Farkash said that the cost of train sets have risen dramatically since the hobby’s heyday in the sixties and seventies, when it was common to have a train set at home especially at Christmas.  Part of the rise in cost is because of new technologies that improve the user experience with sounds and smoke and digital controllers.  To have a layout with the level of detail that Trains over Texas features is not an inexpensive option.  Farkash said that the cost ranges from $250 to $300 per square foot and can go up into the thousands per square foot depending on the level of detail and technology of the models.  For those who do decide to have a display built, the main consideration is size.  “What they typically want to do is find the largest room that they can spare and fill the room.  There really isn’t an average size.  People want to fill the largest room they can afford.”

2018-01-06 Train ticket HL

Photo Nov 17, 10 35 15 AM

The Selection of the models and landmarks used in the museum’s exhibit was made by the board of directors.  The theme is based on Texas’ history with trains and how important they were in the expansion and development of the state over the years.  The sites selected for the display include any city that features a rail museum or historic train depot.  The Pecos River bridge features prominently in the display, spanning from one display to another over the entry into the museum’s giant Foucault pendulum, so visitors can walk under the bridge.  The Houston ship channel is up front and is one of the first aspects seen by visitors.  Interspersed between the town models are representations of natural features including the Chisos mountains of Big Bend, the Rio Grande and Enchanted Rock.  “The funny thing about models is you have to compress space,” Temple said.  “You almost have to present small little vignettes.  Capture the high points…or the flat points depending on the geography,” he added with a smile.  TW Trainworx built the exhibit using urethane foam and latex paint to form the mountains, and other synthetic materials for the grass, trees and gravel.  Farkash and his team worked hard to make the setup modular, so it could be taken apart and moved, but still look seamless.

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The modular design will be useful when the exhibit reopens in November, as the museum intends on expanding the feature for a larger display area.  The exhibit initially featured several large Christmas trees, in keeping with the tradition of trains at Christmas, but after the holidays, the trees were replaced with representations of Atlanta and Boston as well as Reliant stadium to commemorate Houston’s hosting Superbowl fifty-one. Temple says that this year’s exhibit will still have a Christmas theme, but probably without the large trees.  “They took up a lot of space that we can use for more models,” he said.  The exhibit will run every year from November to January, then it will be stored and redesigned for the next year. Admission to Trains over Texas is included in the price of the general admission to the museum.

 

This article appears in the December, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.

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Searching For Hope: The Last Jedi Answers

Questions answered and questions raised: That could be the subtitle of the latest in the Star Wars franchise hitting theaters this weekend. The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, with the resistance evacuating their base and Rey finding Luke Skywalker and Fynn in a coma. That first of the third trilogy left a lot of plot threads hanging and a lot of questions unanswered. The Last Jedi follows suit, but does so in a much better fashion, with much better writing.

The First Order has the republic on the ropes, with the remnants of the imperial rebellion now calling themselves the resistance and scattered to the outer rim planets while the command core is trying to escape the First Order’s dreadnaught. The future looks bleak for our heroes as they fight to hold onto that one thing that they hold most dear: Hope. For some, that hope is embodied in the last Jedi Master who has been missing for many years, Luke Skywalker. For others, hope is in the form of the new cadre of heroes like Poe Dameron and Fynn Rider. Everyone will begin to lose hope as the First Order closes in.

While both this film and The Force Awakens are produced by J.J. Abrams, this one was written and directed by Rian Johnson, with George Lucas sharing the writing credit. Perhaps it was the new writer, perhaps it was a fresh vision, but The Last Jedi stands taller as a standalone story and less of a retread like its predecessor. The Force Awakens had too many similar elements with A New Hope and felt too familiar and predictable. The Last Jedi dares the viewer to try to predict the outcome as it offers multiple threads that twist and interweave with each other. Some may try to draw similarities with The Empire Strikes Back, and, superficially, there may be. It is the second act in a three act story, and as such, certain things typically happen with regard to the hero’s struggle. They happened in The Empire Strikes Back and they happen in The Last Jedi. It is how they happen that sets this story apart.

The characters actually relate with each other better in this story and act within the established motivations that Johnson established for them. The newer characters of Rey, Fynn and Kylo are now much more fully realized and relatable, making a connection with the viewer that they lacked in The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi adds even more new characters, such as Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo and Kellie Marie Tran as Rose, and each of them makes a lasting connection to the story and the viewer.

There is one thing about Abrams that even the most dedicated opponent cannot deride and that is his artistic visuals. If there was one thing that could be considered problematic, it would be that he relies too much on the visuals at the expense of story—a problem that plagued Abrams’ Star Trek. The Last Jedi doesn’t suffer for its visuals, indeed, they accentuate the story by how appropriate to the mood and setting they are. The sacrifice of the heavy cruiser is one of the most arresting visuals in the entire Star Wars franchise and drew a collective gasp from the audience.

The Last Jedi tells a new chapter in the epic Star Wars story and picks up where The Force Awakens left off. Some of the questions left hanging at the end of Force Awakens do get answered such as what happened to Ben Solo and why did Luke go into hiding. The question of exactly who Snoke is and where he came from is rendered moot. There is even an answer given as to who Rey’s parents are, but the answer is, of course, in question as even more questions come to the fore. Those questions will drive the discussion boards for the next two years.

The Last Jedi will win the box office for its opening weekend, and the Christmas season and probably for the year. Once word of how much better the writing is gets out, it will be heralded as one of the best of the franchise. It is much better than The Force Awakens, better than all three prequels combined and at least as good as The Empire Strikes Back, even if it does leave the viewer asking more questions.

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For Want Of A One-Liner

If the World Series has taught anything it is that it is impossible to carry momentum indefinitely.  Marvel is about to discover that axiom this weekend with their release of the third Thor movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor Ragnarok.  The MCU now features seventeen films that have enjoyed almost universal success.  They have all made huge box office and generated a great fan following, but as with any franchise, there are those who rank the films from best to worse and the two previous Thor movies almost always rank toward the bottom of the list.  Ragnarok will premier below even them.

One of the things that has endeared the MCU movies to the fans is a tangible sense of humor.  None of the films, even the most dramatic of them, takes itself too seriously and all have been peppered with more than a few snappy one liners that have become the hallmark of the MCU and something the DCEU has been lacking.  But as with anything good, someone will always ask for too much of a good thing.

No spoilers here, but the term Ragnarok refers to the destruction of Asgard and Thor spends the film trying to avert that destruction, which seems assured as Hela, played by Cate Blanchet, lays waste to the Asgardian defenders and casts Thor out.  Our hero must rally a team to defeat Hela and save Asgard, so he happens upon the Hulk and a disgraced Asgardian Valkyrie to enlist their help.

Ragnarok has a lot going for it.  It features not only Thor and Loki, but also the Hulk engaging in a battle royal with nothing less than the future of Asgard in the balance.  But with all the action, the studio went overboard with the one liners.  Thor has not one whit of his serious, responsible attitude so often displayed in both his previous films but also in the Avengers movies.  This Thor spends most of this film wise cracking and making poor jokes.  Even the Hulk, who talks more in this movie than in all other MCU films combined, if full of wise cracks.  Add Jeff Goldblum as the near maniacal Game Master and the silliness reaches nauseating levels.  The teaser trailer should have been an indication of the level of silliness when Thor turns to the Game Master and says of Hulk “We know each other!  He’s a friend from work.”

With all the wanton destruction (and there is plenty) it is difficult to feel the sense of loss that by all rights should have the audience near tears when the cast is so busy whipping out one liners.  I found it difficult to enjoy this film and found myself sighing a lot during the two-and-a-half hour show, wishing it would wrap up.  That is not an indication of a good movie.  Thor Ragnarok is the worst film of the Thor films, which are the worst films of the MCU.  It is a shame.  It is also a shame that the next entry to have to swing the momentum back is a movie featuring the little known Black Panther in February before the next Avengers movie.

 

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Where To Find West Texas Jewels

Forty miles southeast of Lubbock, Texas, at the intersection of Highways 84 and 380, on a small parcel of flat land, rests a little jewel of Texas history. The town owes its founding to a cereal magnate and its continued existence to the energy industry, but it has more going for it than the acrid smell of crude oil and rows upon rows of wind farms on the horizon. Most people driving down Highway 84 are coming from or going to Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University, or on to Amarillo. But Post, Texas is still home to a number of die-hard West Texans who live and work in the 100-year-old town. Many of the residents have lived their entire lives there, while others left at some point to find their fortunes but ended up returning with a family. One unique sort of resident was discovered in Post but has now found a permanent home on display across the state in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This small, desert gem of a town offers a Texas-sized portion of history, culture, and art.

Garza County Museum

Linda Puckett’s husband’s family were long-time Post residents, so when she and her husband returned to Post in 1980, it was a homecoming of sorts. The Pucketts owned a trucking company at the time, but Linda quickly found her calling when the C.W. Post Historical Center needed help. In her role as director, Linda has overseen a mass expansion of the museum’s collection, including gathering items from local Post residents such as Alvin G. Davis, a renowned cowboy featured in a large room dedicated to his rodeo days and philanthropic activities. “He is the highest honored 4-H member to date. He’s quite a guy. He’s still living; we have a living legend.”

Building the collection has been a passion for Linda since she took over the museum in 1995, which meant a lot of work. “I’ve been here 22 years now. We started with three rooms and nothing and now we have a huge historical museum.” The museum is housed in the old Post Sanatorium, which served as the town hospital for a number of years. Next door is a building that served as a nursing school. “There really was nothing here; we’ve totally revamped the whole interior. Once [the residents] saw we were here to stay, they didn’t mind us having grandma’s stuff. We ended up with a lot of stuff, so now I have to be kind of selective.”

The town’s namesake, C.W. Post, is not underrepresented in the museum. Linda was quite happy when the Post estate called asking if she wanted the furniture from Post’s Battleground, Michigan office. The chairs and desk had been stored at the Hillwood Museum in Washington D.C. at Post’s daughter’s home, but the agent in charge of the display needed the space, so he thought of Linda. She has established a relationship with the estate over the years and now proudly displays artifacts from Post’s office. There is so much in the museum that Linda is planning on a massive expansion in the near future which may include building an annex to the museum dedicated to Post. “We’re running out of room inside. We have Mr. Post’s stuff in the hallway.”

OS Museum

C.W. Post built the town after obtaining the land from several ranchers; one of them was Wilson Connell, who sold Post 27,000 of his 160,000 acres and left the rest of his land to his family. Among those sections of land was the OS Ranch, named for Overall and Street, the original land owners and founders of the ranch who sold to Connell back in the 1800s.

In the building Post built on Main Street in 1911 as an office for his land and cattle company, the OS Museum now resides, independently owned and operated by the descendants of Connell. While the Garza County Museum features artifacts from residents of Post, the OS Museum features collections from around the world and has little to do with the town’s history other than its location. The late Giles McCrary, grandson of William Connell, started the museum to feature artifacts and artwork collected by the family as they traveled over the years. Christie Morris, assistant curator, explained that McCrary wanted to provide access to art that most people will not get a chance to experience. The museum rotates themed displays that change at Easter, summer, and Christmas. One of the most significant additions to the collection are the assortment of the famed Fabergé Eggs. “Mr. McCrary set the whole thing up as a nonprofit. The family doesn’t charge anything for it; we just want to make these things available to the people who live in the area and the people who come through.”

Those people include the residents as well as visitors. “We have people from literally all over the world. We have a lot of people passing through; a lot of people will stop to maybe see something downtown. All Post’s merchants are really good about promoting one another. A lot of times someone will come up and say that ‘I was down in so-in-so shop and they said I had to come see this.’ We get a lot of people from Tech as parents are driving through and they’ll stop and sometimes bring people back and they’ll stop in and see us.”

Postosuchus

One resident of the Post area that brings people to town moved away and will probably never return, although he takes with him an indelible part of the town. He is named for Post, Texas, as his formal name is Postosuchus Kirkpatriki, but he is more commonly called Postosuchus. The large animal lived in Post in the late Triassic era and David Temple, Assistant Director of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, is quick to point out that Postosuchus is not a dinosaur, he is a reptile. “This is really before the dinosaurs came along and you have these things which are essentially reptiles. Dinosaurs appear at the end of the Triassic and into the Jurassic.”

Researchers still visit the Post excavation from time to time for more study. The skeleton on display in Houston is not as large as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but is similar in size to a Velociraptor. Researchers from nearby Texas Tech who regularly visit the dig site posit that Postosuchus may have been able to walk on his hind legs, but was probably a quadraped, according to studies of his skeleton. Temple said that the research was conducted using pieces of different specimens. Scientists unfortunately did not find an entire intact skeleton, but did find enough to identify Postosuchus, despite return trips to the excavation.

“We’ve been out there twice. We spent two or three days straight, ten hours a day and we didn’t really find much of anything. When you find stuff, it’s where you find it but its not everywhere. It’s kind of spotty.”

This little stretch of Highway 84 sees more traffic than one might expect from this West Texas area outside of Lubbock. Between scientists, residents, visitors, and Red Raiders driving to and from Texas Tech, the town gets a notable amount of visitors. Linda Puckett enjoys being on the route in and out of town. “We are the last stop before the interstate. We’re a good pit stop.”

So whether you find yourself traveling through the area and need a place to rest or looking for an out-of-theordinary day trip for the family, Post has plenty to offer. And if you visit on a Saturday, Puckett suggests visiting the Ragtown Gospel Theater, just north of town, for a matinée.

 

This article appears in the October, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.

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Passing Notes

Cell phones evoke strong reactions in many users, from camping out for days in advance of a posted release date, to igniting flame wares online debating the merits of the latest models. Some people are fully entrenched in one brand or the other and cannot conceive of ever using another model, while others flip back and forth depending on what deal they find at the time. Some people get a new phone every six months while others hold onto their phone until it completely stops working. I tend to fall in the latter group. My Galaxy Note 4 was on its last legs and it was time to consider a new phone. I held off getting a replacement until I knew whether or not Samsung would continue the Note line after its Note 7 debacle. I now have a new phone and a new carrier (kinda) and I am a happy camper once again.

I bought my Note 4 when my Note 3 failed. When my Note 4 began exhibiting battery problems after a year, I considered having my carrier upgrade me to the newly-released Note 7 (Samsung skipped the Note 6) as a replacement. Fortunately, my Carrier was able to get me a new Note 4 that resolved my issue and I didn’t have time to be disappointed because it was just then when the Note 7 began exploding in people’s pockets. The carriers very much want people to buy a new phone every year and it had been more than two since I bought my Note 4. Both Samsung and Verizon were keen on upgrading me to the Galaxy S-8. I even considered it, but it came down to the fact that there is no S-pen in the S-8. I just couldn’t do it.

All that changed at the end of July, when Samsung began teasing its “Bigger Things” ad campaign. Clearly from the silhouette, they were about to release a new Note! I was giddy with “New Phone” excitement. After Samsung announced the phone, the major carriers began offering pre-orders at different price points. The phone is not cheap. $960 from all the carriers, but that could be mitigated by trading in an old phone. Best Buy offered it for $150 less than the carriers, so that was the best deal, if I stayed with Verizon. One problem, though, was that I had finally finished paying off my Note 4 and my Verizon bill was about to be a lot lower, but if I bought the phone from them, I was stuck making payments for two years again. Verizon is not the cheapest data plan unless you get four lines from them. As I live alone, I certainly don’t need four lines. Their unlimited plan was a bit more than I wanted to pay, so I began shopping around.

The other major carriers were comparable to Verizon and nothing stood out. Comcast had recently launched their Xfinity Mobile service and I looked at that. As an Xfinity Internet customer, I could get phone service from them without paying a line access fee. That was cool. Their unlimited plan was cheaper than the other carriers as well. The only problem was that Xfinity Mobile wasn’t listing the Note 8 as being available, and I had to buy the phone from them to activate it. They do not yet offer a bring your own phone plan. Fortunately, the week after its announcement, the Note 8 appeared on the XM website for pre-order at $200 less than all the other carriers. That pretty much put the nail in the coffin for me. I ordered the phone and the “by the gig” plan ($12 per gig) and waited.

The phone arrived at my home via FedEx on the 15th (the official launch date) and I unboxed it immediately. It is about a centimeter longer than the Note 4 and about a half-centimeter more narrow. It is an all-glass body, which makes it challenging to hold onto. Also, it is very slippery and will readily slide on any slanted surface, so a tactile case is essential to prevent damage. It’s biggest cosmetic difference is the infinity screen, removing any hard buttons from the face of the device. No home button. No fingerprint scanner. Nothing. When the phone is off, it is just a black obelisk. The power button is in the same position on the right side and the volume buttons are on the left. One new button shares the left side at about thumb position and that is the Bixby button. More on that later.

On the flip-side, there are two camera lenses, the flash and the re-positioned fingerprint sensor. The dual 12 megapixel camera is an oft-touted improvement allowing for more portrait style photography giving simulated depth of field. The front camera has improved as well, now sporting 8 megapixels. The most significant improvement for me is the manual settings allowing the user to set aperture and shutter speed and ISO if they so choose.

The S-pen does more now as well. While it is still a WACOM stylus, Samsung has added more features in the system that uses the S-pen. It had a coloring program that allows the user to either color on predrawn art, much like those adult coloring books that were all the rage a couple of years ago, or free draw and color original artwork and share it in an online gallery for feedback. I have wasted a couple of hours doing that already.

The Note 8 is a Note, so it still works on the same principle as its predecessors and I am well familiar with it. My greatest impression is the faster CPU and the larger memory. The Octocore processor running at 2.35 GHz and the six Gigs of onboard RAM mean it is zippy fast. Samsung also brought back the micro SD card slot so the on board 64 Gigs of storage can be augmented by adding up to 256 Gigs of removable storage.

What I not as enamored with is the rear mounted fingerprint scanner. I have yet to get my finger in the correct position thanks to the thickness of my phone case/wallet. Fortunately, the Note 8 offers retina scanning as a biometric option as well as 3-D facial recognition. This is fine for unlocking the phone, but my apps and websites still want fingerprints.

Some of the updates to standard apps are not as welcome either. The mail app is missing the ability to register a domain as spam, meaning one can only register each message one at a time. Some menu items have been moved to other screens, which is just a matter of a learning curve.

All in all, I am quite pleased with my new Note 8 and I am glad I waited. I am also happy I got it for $200 less than the major carriers were charging, while I still get the Samsung promotion for a wireless charger and memory card. I even ordered a new wallet case which showed up one day after the phone. Apple announced the new iPhone just two weeks after Samsung announced the Note 8. At $1000, the iPhone X took the Note’s short –lived title as the most expensive phone on the market. At least until Samsung announces the Note 9.

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Hunkering Down and Riding It Out

I consider myself a Houstonian. I was born in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and that town will always have a special place in my heart, but I was raised in the Houston area, so this is where I consider home. Having lived most of my life in this area, I have been exposed to the peculiarities of Houston weather, from the boiling hot summers where you can literally cook and egg on the sidewalk (cook it, not eat it) to the days where all four seasons compete for attention with rain, snow, and heat all within the same twelve hours. I have worked outside in the summer of the drought where we had more than 90 consecutive days of heat in excess of 100 degrees and during the few days in winter where snow actually fell and accumulated enough to build small snowmen. In all my time here, I have also had my fair share of hurricanes and tropical storms and it never fails to impress me just how stupid people get in the face of extreme weather. Just one trip to the store this week demonstrates just how little people think when faced with the unusual.

The first serious storm I can remember is hurricane Alicia back in 1983. I was 18, I think. We lost power for a few days and several branches littered the yard and the street. I don’t remember that we flooded during that time. It was a few weeks after Alicia that several tornados came through and took down a tree in our yard, laying it across the breezeway of the house. I remember a neighbor was a construction contractor and he had a work crew up on his roof during the height of the storm repairing his roof damage. During that storm, bottled water wasn’t a thing and I don’t remember my mother raiding the stores for 15 loaves of bread or 12 cases of canned goods, yet we had food to eat and plenty to drink.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita threatened was the first time I noticed the fear mongering on the TV. Weather forecasters began crying for people to get out of town. It was the first time I saw people panicking about the weather. It was the first time I experienced people rushing the stores and gas stations. There were lines for miles to get into the gas stations. Somehow, I managed to weather the storm without ransacking the local Kroger.

During hurricane Ike in 2008, people panicked again. This is not to say there was no cause for concern. Many people ended up losing their homes in that storm and thousands were without power for weeks. This is the reason for hurricane preparedness plans, so people can have a plan for what to do in the event of a serious tropical storm. I have a plan, too, it just doesn’t involve loading multiple shopping carts. There’s nothing wrong with buying provisions, but It’s the people who clear store shelves that just bother me.

Think, people! It’s not like there will never be water or bread ever again. The stores will restock. The most serious storms have effects lasting a week or two tops. There’s no need for one person to buy every loaf of bread on the shelf. People dragging three shopping carts loaded for bear to the register is ridiculous. I try to limit my normal grocery shopping to no more than once a week. It helps with managing my budget to buy a week’s worth of groceries at a time. If I have a week’s worth, then I should be fine for any storm that comes along, since the effects will probably only last a week. I see no need to have 10 loaves of bread going stale or moldy on my counter, or having three cases of bottled water taking up space in my pantry, especially when I have filtered water in my fridge and I don’t drink much water anyway, or having so many canned goods in my pantry that I could open a food bank.

Hurricane Harvey is currently bearing down on the Texas coast and the weather prognosticators are predicting flooding as bad or worse than Allison and winds worse than Ike. The news is saying it will be the most severe storm to hit America in years. This is drumming up a panic in the population just like they did for Katrina, Rita and Ike, particularly in those who have moved into the area since Ike and who haven’t experienced such a storm. The news is about to go into 24 hour storm watch mode, preempting normal programming for the duration of the storm, or until everyone loses power. Either way, I have a week’s worth of non-perishable food, plenty of water, candles, and batteries for my flashlights. If this one turns out to be worse than Ike, I can still evacuate. My readiness plans account for that eventuality too. This comes from being a Houstonian and having survived several tropical storms and hurricanes in my day. That, and having the ability to think.

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Shut Up, Mr. Man!

Let me issue a trigger warning. I am about to embark on a circular argument, because I am about to explain something while being a man. This act has been labeled by the liberals as a derogatory term, since for a man to explain something is evidently a microaggression. They have lumped this microaggression into a grouping designed to address what many feminists perceive as an affront to humanity: Mansplaining, manspreading and, here’s a new one, manterrupting. These are terms that feminists are using to promote the “gender inequality” argument that has been catching traction the past few years, so much so that CBS correspondent Faith Salie did a segment on the phenomenon on CBS Sunday Morning.

Mansplaining is the tendency for a man to “talk down” to a woman by way of explaining the man’s position “in a condescending manner.” Unfortunately, a condescending manner appears to be any time a woman doesn’t want to hear the argument, which, most men who are or have been married know, is all the time. But the label doesn’t really cover the gamut of condescending explanations. My kids condescend all the time. I have had enough eye rolls and heavy sighs from my granddaughter and women friends as they try to explain something to me to know that condescending is not a gender specific trait. Men explain things to other men. As an instructor, my whole day is spent explaining things. Is this mansplaining? Or is it only mansplaining when a man explains something to a woman? So if I teach a class of both men and women, am I only committing half a crime?

Manspreading is the masculine tendency to sit with the knees far apart supposedly to expose the genitals in some sort of sexual power display. This particular faux pax is a well-earned one, but maybe misunderstood. I know I tend to spread my legs when sitting, as many men do. Unfortunately, this has less to do with sex or power than with comfort. Men have certain physical accoutrements that occupy the space between the legs and those attributes can be in a position to cause discomfort with sitting with the legs together. The only remedies are to sit with the legs slightly apart, or to manually adjust the affected parts. Neither option is socially accepted and thus men find themselves between a rock and a hard place, or more to the point, stones and timber. That is not to say that some men don’t go overboard and stretch out to an excessive point. This is not exclusively a male trait though. Many larger people of both sexes can occupy more space that is appropriate. These people are simply douchebags. Again, not sexist. Just asshats.

Manterrupting is the tendency to interrupt a woman who is talking, presumably to do some mansplaining. This is a new one, because evidently, only men interrupt. Women are far too civilized to engage in such a rude activity, and it is only when a man interrupts a woman does the crime rise to the level of manterrupting. Women interrupt other people all the time. Both of my Ex-wives were quite ready to interrupt me in any discussion. Why is it manterrupting only if I interrupt them? Faith Salie threw out some statistics that during the presidential debates, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 55 times compared to the 11 times she interrupted him. The wonderful thing about that debate was that Donald interrupted everyone, including the moderators. It is just a Donaldism. Perhaps the term should be Donterrupting or Trumpterrupting.

One of the more tried and true rhetorical strategies that have been employed throughout the history of human interaction is that of undermining the authority of opposing views. This is no more evident that the current argument that men cannot have a voice in the abortion issue because men have no uterus. This is also evident when a feminist labels a male argument as “mansplaining.” Once the label has been applied, the man’s argument can be dismissed in its entirety with no more consideration to the content of the argument. So, when a label like mansplaining or manterrupting is thrown out in a discussion, it is merely another way for a woman to say “shut up, Mr. Man.”

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Plenty Of Blame To Go Around

The riots in Charlottesville, Virginia Saturday have been the topic of discussion all week, but most of the media discussion has been focused on President Trump’s response to it. The riots flared when a scheduled rally by several different organizations who planned to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, a confederate general in the Civil War, was met with counter protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement and the Anti-facist (Anti-Fa) movement. One woman was killed when someone drove a car into a crowd of protestors. The driver was arrested and identified as James Fields of Ohio, who had come to Charlottesville to join in the protest. The media was quick to single out the alt-right as the sole source of the trouble and blame them for the death. This is a complete propaganda campaign of the worst sort trying to control the public consciousness with lies and misdirection. Fortunately, President Trump isn’t playing along.

According to reports, the facts are that several groups clashed in the streets and began to argue and shout at and shove each other. Small skirmishes erupted all over the area around the demonstration which devolved into more serious violence as the day wore on. Police posted units all along the area, but according to witnesses, the police did not actively interfere until the car crash. The governor declared a state of emergency and the police cleared the area, making several arrests.

From the reports, this looks like a standard public disturbance issue with a tragic outcome culminating in the death of the young woman. Two additional deaths occurred when a police helicopter that was supporting the event crashed in the woods. The details of the cause of the crash have not been reported yet, but it is not likely the result of any action from any of the protestors since it happened away from the demonstration.

So, while this is tragic, to be sure, it is not worthy of the media coverage or social media coverage it has garnered. The reason it has gotten so much traction is that many of the groups protesting the removal of the statue are what the news media has labeled “Alt-Right” or neo Nazis or KKK. The socialist left is raising the volume on this in order to try to paint all conservatives as neo Nazis and KKK members. As if the mere presence of these groups is the sole reason for the violence that occurred.

I would never suggest that the Neo Nazi party, or the KKK embrace the true spirit of America. I do not condone any of these radical ideologies. By the same token, I do not condone the BLM or Anti-Fa movement either. Groups like the KKK and the BLM are the flipsides of the radical ideology coin. Unfortunately, the news media and the left (one in the same) favor the BLM/Anti-fa crowd and are portraying them as the victims in this melee.

They seem to forget that it takes two to fight.

Sarah Bosner, a blogger for Rolling Stone magazine mentioned observing a white man punch a black woman as though that was an example of the whole ordeal.

Shortly before the car ramming, I see a man marching with the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, punch a black woman who had thrown ice from her cup at him. Bystanders intervene, but the police do not respond.

Her point seems to be that a big bad Nazi beat up a poor defenseless black woman. She glosses over the fact the woman assaulted the man first by throwing her drink at him. I can imagine that prior to that, she had probably already peppered him with plenty of vitriol to raise his boiling point that level. In that regard, maybe it is indicative of the whole ordeal. A lot of people got insanely angry and acted like fools. Everyone involved should be held accountable…on both sides of the issue. In fact, BLM organizers deliberately bussed in demonstrators to counter the protest. The only reason to do such a thing was to foster a conflict and in doing so, they had to know that violence would erupt. In fact, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that the violence was the expectation. They wanted a conflict to promote their leftist message and to try to paint the right in as bad a picture as they could.

President Trump seems to have a handle on this concept. His initial condemnation said that people on both sides were to blame for the violence, which is clearly true. The BLM movement already has a history of violence and killing police officers, so they clearly bear some of the blame for the violence in Charlottesville. Trump addressed the incident on Saturday:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,”

This covers not only the violence from the Alt-right, but also from the BLM and the Anti-Fa, who also bear equal responsibility for the violence. But this wasn’t good enough for the left-leaning media or the neo socialist on the hill, who circled the wagons to roast Trump for “supporting Nazis.” Trump’s advisors quickly coerced him into revising his statement and singling out the “Nazis” because they are so vile they must be to blame for all the problems that happened. Trump did so, but then backtracked to his original “both sides” statement, much to the frustration of the left.

Here’s the thing: He’s right about that. Sure, Nazis are bad. Sure, KKK is bad. Sure, we had a war to stamp out the Nazis in 1945. And, sure, it is terrible that people try to align themselves with that movement today. But here’s the rest of the thing: They have every right to do that. It’s called the first amendment. Citizens of the US have every right to think however they want to, never mind how stupid that think may seem. After all, so many people still think Obama was a good president. They have a right to think that. The government cannot do anything about it. The government similarly cannot do anything about stopping people from joining the Nazi party or the KKK, no matter how repugnant it may be. Just because people align themselves with the Nazis or the KKK doesn’t mean they are criminals or terrorists or that their planning to murder people. It just means they are idiots.

Where these people, Nazis, KKK, BLM, what have you, go wrong is when they commit crimes like assault or vehicular homicide because of their beliefs. On Saturday, everyone there, from all of the different groups, are to blame for the carnage and all of them should be held accountable.

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Wonder Woman Excels Despite the Hype

Many critics were anticipating a poor showing of the film Wonder Woman because it is helmed by a woman: Patty Jenkins. The thinking apparently that a woman cannot drive a major Hollywood Blockbuster. Many people are heralding the film much the same way Hillary was heralded as the first female presidential nominee. Some people complained when a movie theater held a woman-only screening of the film, which drew more criticism from the other side of the issue. Other hype surrounding the film was that this is the first superhero film starring a female superhero as its main protagonist. The simple fact is that there isn’t a better female superhero to launch the effort. It pays off as well because Wonder Woman is the best DC Superhero film to date. This, despite the fact that Zack Snyder had his fingerprints all over it.

Gal Gadot exudes both a strength and a softness at the same time which is perfect for the role of Diana, Princess of the Amazons. Despite having a female superhero and taking the few side shots at feminism during an historical depiction, the film does not follow in the footsteps of the CW’s Supergirl in trying to become an Anthem of the new feminism, which might upset the more militant feminists out there. Rather, the plot focuses on telling the story of Wonder Woman’s development and entry into the modern, human world. This serves to actually tell a compelling story without delving into social mores and issues that would otherwise be divisive and distract from the enjoyment of the film.

The story departs slightly from the comic book depiction of Diana on Paradise Island, as well as its introduction of Steve Trevor, the American fighter Ace who is rescued by Diana and ushers her into the real world. There is no invisible jet, no spinning into her costume, and—for the most part—no alter ego. She is introduced to the war brass as Diana Prince, her secret identity from the comic book and TV show, but for the bulk of the film, she is Wonder Woman, even though no one actually addresses her by that title. She is simply Diana.

The bulk of the movie’s humor comes from Diana’s innocent reactions to what passes for modern society during the Great War. Chris Pratt, no I mean Chris Evans, no, sorry, Chris Hemsworth…nope, that’s not it. Oh, right, Chris Pine, of Star Trek, plays Steve Trevor, the American spy working for British intelligence to stop a Nazi chemical doomsday weapon that threatens to derail an armistice to end the war. There is an instant spark with Diana when she pulls him from the ocean after his plane crashes. The chemistry is tangible and plays well on screen, making their dynamic all the more real in the film’s climax. Pine’s portrayal is fine, if a little anachronistic. He tends to exude a 21st century swagger that would not have been tolerated by the British hierarchy in 1918.

The only detractor for the film is in its producer’s vision. Warner Brothers chose Zach Snyder to helm the DC cinematic universe and Snyder’s vision of the heroes in that universe is a dark one. Many fanboys have filled blogs and discussion boards with posts suggesting that Snyder is trying to adapt the DC graphic novels Injustice: Gods Among Us into the movies. That idea gets a serious booster shot with the antagonist in Wonder Woman. Snyder has an artistic eye for cinematic visuals. There is no denying that. But with the muted color pallet he chose for Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, it makes the viewing experience depressing. Snyder has a penchant for near monochromatic color filters as he displayed with his highly successful adaptation of the graphic novel 300. That pallet fits certain scenes, such as when Diana is first introduced to London (she says “it’s hideous”), but to make three films that way detracts from the viewing experience.

Despite Snyder’s limited vision, and the feminist hype, Wonder Woman is a great film and definitely worth the price of admission. Heck, skip the matinee and pay full price. It’s still worth it.

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Nothing to Fear with Alien: Covenant

The summer movie rush is upon us leading with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and promising a plethora of blockbusters to come. Last weekend’s big entry into the fray is Ridley Scott’s latest foray into one of the first movie franchises he started back in 1977. Alien: Covenant is Scott’s second film after James Cameron’s highly successful action adaptation of the title. Scott’s original Alien was a true horror film set in space, while Cameron’s sequels were a collection of action-packed battle royals. Scott wanted to put the horror back in the story when he released Prometheus in 2012 and its sequel Alien: Covenant
this summer. Unfortunately, neither Prometheus nor Covenant is particularly scary.

Prometheus was received with mix reviews in 2012, but is generally considered a pale reflection of the alien story. It attempts to fill in the back story of how the Xenomorph we’ve come to know and love got its start. It tells a bleak story about the dawn of humanity and the progenitor of both Humanity and the Xenomorph. Covenant continues that story while trying to get closer in tone and theme to the original 1977 Alien.

If nothing else, it succeeds in copying the feel and tone of the original. The ship design and visuals harken back to the first film and even the sound effects on the Covenant are eerily similar to those on the Nostromo.

The Covenant is a colony ship ferrying more than 2000 people and 1500 embryos to a new world more than 7 years away when the ship encounters a severe ion storm and is damaged. While repairing the ship, the crew detects a signal that shouldn’t be there and goes to investigate. Of course, they find trouble that puts the lives of the crew and colonists in jeopardy.

The plot is so familiar that it is easy to figure out who will die and who will live and the only surprise comes at who will go first. The hero of the film is unsurprisingly a woman named Daniels, played by current “it-girl” Katherine Waterston, who must overcome all odds to save as many as she can and defeat the xenomorphs.

While the film was entertaining and possessing a certain nostalgia for recalling the feel of the first film, it misses in originality and sadly lacks character development. Daniels doesn’t show any growth through the film. We don’t see the “Ripley” moment where she is forced to discover her unknown, never-before-seen inner warrior. The film’s antagonist, David, introduced in Prometheus and played again by Michael Fassbender, is similarly lacking development, though it is not Fassbender’s fault. His alter ego, Walter, shows great development. None of the other characters are there for any reason other than to be Xenomorph chow, which was disappointing because the story hinted at some much needed tension in those characters’ stories that was never realized.

There were one or two scenes where the suspense did build, but sadly, they resolved before hitting the crescendo of panic that a good horror film provides, and real suspense comes from not being able to see the ending; not knowing how the hero will resolve the conflict. This film telegraphed every turn by following the formula set forth by its predecessor. That, coupled with a disappointing ending and a predictable cliff-hanger leaves one bored and definitely not afraid. While it is better than Prometheus, it’s nowhere nearly as scary, suspenseful, or satisfying a film as the original. At best, it’s a “Meh.”

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