Words, Words, Words

A post on this blog usually includes a picture every few sentences, perhaps because I feel I can tell a story better with graphic, rather than verbal imagery.  But it seems that my camera has up and left me, taking a much deserved vacation (along with Retta, of course).

 If I had my camera you would probably see a photo narrative about the most recent fire that threatened the area for three days.  Eventually, the Arkansas Department of Forestry extinguished the blaze, in the same efficient manner that they always do, but not before the fire caused some concern for myself and a good neighbor of ours. Thanks, ADF.

If I had my camera you would probably see what it looks like when a front suspension A-arm assembly on a utility vehicle snaps in two, and what it takes to remove the part in order to transport it to the local welding shop.  Perhaps you would also see the blue streak that emanated from my lips when I discovered that disassembling the suspension required a specialty tool that my tool chest lacked.  A sixty mile round trip into town solved that problem, which allowed me to extract the recalcitrant part.  Another sixty mile round trip back into town, and the broken part was now in the hands of a competent welder.  Tomorrow, another sixty mile round trip into town to pick up the part from the welding shop, and I can then put the utility vehicle back together.

If I had my camera you would probably see pictures of what a heat pump looks like when it malfunctions, causing the equipment to freeze up into a solid block of ice.  And what the basement utility room floor looks like when said block of ice melts!

If I had my camera you would probably see pictures of the lawn surrounding the house, which now looks more like a jungle than a lawn, due to the fact that a spindle assembly on my trusty lawn mower chose to commit hare kari the other day.  This will entail another sixty mile round trip into town.

But best of all, if I had my camera you probably would have seen pictures of the beautiful way in which early spring is expressing itself here in the heart of the Ozarks.  It is truly a joy to behold, but you will just have to take my word for it, as my camera has gone on vacation.

I guess it’s finally time for Retta and I to become a two camera family, so I had better start doing some serious research to find just the right camera to buy.  Easy to use, pocket sized, quick focusing, 6 mega pixel (or greater) resolution, and superior macro capabilities are called for – any suggestions out there?

A Sure Sign of Spring in the Ozarks

Clearing in early spring

This photo was taken today, March 23, just a couple of days into the spring season.  Within this picture, can you see a sure sign that spring has arrived?  If you peer very close to the left side of the clearing, you may be able to discern a redbud tree and a service berry in their early spring bloom.

Redbuds are beginning to bloom

This is a closer view of the blooming redbud tree.  One of the first trees in our area to come into bloom, the redbud is indeed a harbinger of spring in the Ozarks.  But this is not the sure omen of spring that I am alluding to here.

Look closely again at the first photograph.  Does anything else catch your eye that might possibly serve as an omen of spring in the Ozarks?  Can you see the smoke hugging the ground in the woods on the right-hand side of the picture?

The woods are on fire again

Here is a closer view of the smoke, and the fire within the wooded area that is creating the smoke.  Once again, as those familiar with this blog may already know, we are faced with a neighbor’s intentional burn that has run amok,  burning uncontrolled on our property.

It has gotten to the point that one could safely mark their calendar in anticipation of the fires that mysteriously appear this same time each spring.

In years past, our first reaction to this situation would be to call the local volunteer fire department.  And I am sure (as they have proven repeatedly in the past) that they would have responded in the same efficient manner as they have in the past.

This time, we are taking a wait-and-see approach to this fire.  When we have reported previous fires, the local volunteer fire department responds initially, and then proceeds to call for the assistance of the Arkansas Forestry Department.   The Forestry Department will send bulldozers and fire fighting personnel to our property to contain the fire.  Which entails heavy equipment driving through our pastures and fields, bulldozers cutting new fire breaks, and the probable cutting of our barbed wire fencing to enable access to adjacent burning areas.  All in all, the lasting and destructive effects of the suppression efforts are generally more onerous than if we were to just let the fire run it’s course.

Still some distance from the house

This photo shows the proximity of the fire to our home.  At the moment, the fire is approximately 1/2 mile from any of our structures.  We will continue to monitor the fire’s movement, and call for assistance if necessary, but it is probable that this is a fire that we will allow to burn itself out.  

And thus, spring arrives for us out here in the Ozarks.

The Case of the Missing Bees

A honeybee gathering nector

This post assumes the reader has a basic understanding of the role bees play in the reproductive process of plant life on Earth.  For those who do not possess this knowledge, I suggest it is time to have “that talk” with your parents.  Those readers who do have an understanding of the functioning of bees in the biology of plants may be aware of just how important bees are to our agricultural industry.

Honeybee transfering pollen

The two photographs shown above (courtesy of Retta) clearly show how pollens attach themselves to the body of the bee as the bee makes it’s rounds gathering nectar for the hive.  The pollens thus are transferred from plant to plant by the foraging bees, cross-pollinating the flowers and allowing the reproductive cycle of the plant to proceed.  Soon, the farmer will be able to harvest the fruits of this biological process, and we eventually are presented with the wonderful produce we have come to expect at our local grocery store.

In the wild, bees make their home in the hollows of trees, as fans of Winnie the Pooh will surely recall.  As farms grew from small subsistence plots to large industrial agricultural operations however, a problem arose.  The large farms required large fields, which necessitated the clearing of vast tracts of land.   This ultimately led to agricultural regions which were essentially devoid of trees suitable for bees to establish their hives.

Rental hives

To solve this problem farmers have turned to the services of commercial beekeepers.  The photograph above shows an orchard that is in bloom.  You can see that the grower has placed 2 dozen hives in the vicinity of the fruit trees.  Hive clusters such as this are rented from commercial beekeepers at the appropriate time of the year and scattered throughout the orchard, thus ensuring that the vital process of pollination will occur.

This year, a strange thing has been occurring, the significance of which has yet to be determined.  When commercial beekeepers across the country began opening their hives in order to grade them in preparation for the upcoming season, many discovered that the hives were empty!  No bees at all!  The hives had honeycombs and the honeycombs contained honey, but the bees had disappeared.  And I mean COMPLETELY disappeared.  Not even any bee carcases remained in or around the hives.  No one really understands what has happened yet, nor the extent of the problem.  Commercial beekeepers have been reporting the same type of disappearance across 20 states now, and the problem appears to be ongoing.

This would not be the first time that a massive die-off off honeybees has occurred.  The last major die-off that occurred was a result of parasitic mites that infested the bee hives.  In past events, however, the bees left behind evidence of the culprit which led to their demise.  Bee carcases could be found in and around the hive, and it was relatively simple for biologists to determine the cause of the reduction in the bee population.  Because of the lack of forensic evidence, entomologists have been unable to pinpoint what has transpired with this ongoing event.

Because there are no bodies left behind, there has been speculation about what types of problems could create this scenario.  One line of investigation revolves around the theory that some type of pesticide is having an effect on the neurological functioning of the bees, debilitating the amazingly complex navigational functions that the bee uses to located the hive.  Under this line of reasoning, the bees simply leave the hive on their usual rounds, but find themselves unable to navigate back to the hive.  But this would explain the plight of the worker bees, and does not adequately explain the absence of queens and drones from the hives.

There is much research underway to try and determine the cause and extent of this problem, which appears to be ongoing, serious, and wide spread.  One stumbling block to diagnosing the problem stems from the lack of data regarding the scope of the die-off.  Most commercial beekeepers are aware of the situation, and have reported their losses to appropriate agencies for investigation.  Commercial beekeepers comprise a small minority of the beekeeping universe, however.  The vast majority of beekeepers are individual hobbyists who might not be tapped in to the agencies and resources that are attempting to solve this mystery.  To be helpful, anyone who maintains one or more bee hives is encouraged to log on to the following web site to complete a survey at the following link:  National Bee Loss Survey

Super High Speed Print Scanning Becomes Affordable

In a previous post entitled Bridging the Generation Gap, I discussed my experiences with 35mm film/slide scanners, and the giant leap in quality and ease of use that has occurred over the past 15 years.  Although the hardware and software that is used to accomplish this task has improved tremendously, the fact remains that the scanning process remains a tedious and time consuming task when a large quantity of images need to be digitized.

This same drawback to image scanning applies to the print world as well.  While flatbed scanning hardware utilized in digitizing photographic prints has made gains in speed and quality over the past decade which parallels the progress made in the film/slide scanning arena, it is still a slow and tedious process to go through a collection of photographs and digitize them on today’s consumer flatbed scanning equipment.  As a result, those of us with a large collection of photographic prints usually end up with the bulk of the images stored away in photo albums or shoeboxes, and only a few of the images actually get digitized,  mostly on an as-needed basis.

One solution to this dilemma is to hire the services of a photo lab to scan our photographs for us.  The problem is, the cost of having a lifetime worth of photographs digitized is very expensive, and most of us beat a hasty retreat from this option once we discover what the total cost will be to digitize our entire collection of photographs.  If only someone would devise a way around this problem, we might all choose to put our entire collection of pictures on a disc.  Well, someone has come up with a solution, and it is worth looking into if you have a sizable number of prints to digitize.

I am refering to the service offered through www.scanmyphotos.com.  Using high-speed scanning equipment produced by Kodak and originally marketed to government entities for scanning large quantities of documents, the photo lab has cut the price of digitizing prints to a mere fraction of that offered by traditional photo labs.

To begin the process, you contact the company via their web site (www.scanmyphotos.com) and complete an order form.  The company will then send you a postage pre-paid box that you fill with photographs and return to them for scanning.  The company will scan your photographs and return them to you, along with the digital files on a disc.  Additionally, they will upload your photo files to a web site that you can then use to share the pictures with friends and family.

So, how affordable is this service?  It depends upon the quantity of photos that you want scanned.  As of this writing, www.scanmyphotos.com offers two options:

A)  Fill the provided shipping box with up to 1000 photographs, and the total cost of the service is $49.95.

B)  Fill the provided shipping box with as many photographs as you can fit into the container, and the total cost is $99.95.

At these prices, it is now within the realm of possibility for all of us to digitize our entire collection of photographs without spending an unreasonable amount of time or money on the process.

What is an Exif, Anyway?

In a recent posting,  Pablo presented another fine article about that bit of land at the edge of the Ozarks that he calls Roundrock.  Within the post Pablo expressed uncertainty over the exact date that a photograph was taken.  With one mouse click, I was able to present Pablo with this needed information.

Of course, Tjilpi  (that rascal) noted that I might just have the power to reach into Pablo’s desktop to obtain that information.  If I did have that power, I promise that I would only use it for the good of mankind, but I must confess to much lesser degree of technical prowess than that.  Here’s the secret.  The Exif header.

For those of you who want to explore this thing called the Exif header in detail, this article from Wikipedia can point you in the right directions.  But here’s my nutshell explanation.

One of the powerful properties of a data file is the fact that many differing types of data can be stored together in the same place.  This creates some great opportunities when applied to the realm of digital image files.  When an exposure is made with a modern digital camera, the resulting image file that is created will contain 2 types of data – header data and image data.

The image data, as the term suggests, contains the specifications that define the actual image that we view, such as the picture that you see on a computer monitor, or the printed output from your color printer.

The header data, on the other hand, is an eclectic but useful combination of data relating to the image that it accompanies.  You might be surprised to learn how much information accompanies each digital image file, much of which can be put to good use by the photographer and his/her software. 

First, the basic camera settings at the time of exposure are included in the data.  This can be quite useful at times, for instance when Pablo needed to find the date a particular photograph was taken.  Along with the date and time, of course, the file includes a detailed record of parameters such as f-stop, shutter speed, ISO settings, metering mode, focus distance, flash mode, etc.  It is very useful to be able to review the camera settings when critiquing your photos.  You may discover which camera settings work for you, and which don’t under various photographic conditions.  Those of you with multiple digital cameras will appreciate that the Exif file records the camera make and model number, so you can identify which camera was used to produce any given photo.

Second, a thumbnail version of the full size image is usually stored in the Exif header.  This speeds up the operation of most modern image editing and viewing software, and provides a way for your camera to quickly display the image for review in the camera’s LCD monitor.

Third, the Exif header contains information that may be used to convey hardware dependent information along with the photograph, such as color matching hardware profiles.  While out of the scope of this post, the idea behind color matching is to provide a means whereby the image that is displayed on the screen, or output to the printer, will look the same.  For example, if you have a desktop computer with a CRT display and a laptop with a TFT or LCD display, you will soon discover that the same image file may look different when viewed side-by-side.  When set up and calibrated properly (a science onto itself), your hardware can be “trained” to display the images with a close match.  The information contained in the color matching profile, which can be included in the Exif header, is used as a part of this process.

Accessing Exif Information

Most image editing software has a means of showing the Exif header information.  Photoshop, for instance displays this information beneath the folder tree pane when a file is highlighted in the File Browser, or through a File-Properties menu selection.  Check you help file if you haven’t already figured out how to view this information in your own image editing software.

Windows XP and Mac OS10 x will also reveal Exif data from your image file.  For the Mac, Exif information may be viewed in the Finder by doing Get Info on a file and expanding the More Info section.  For Windows XP,  right-click on the image file and select Properties, then click on the Summary tab at the top.

For a stand alone program to examine Exif files, I use Exif Image Viewer, which is freeware available here.

What I find most useful, however is to be able to easily examine the Exif header information for photographs that I am viewing in my web browser, such as the photograph that I saw at Roundrock Journal.   You can learn a lot from examining the Exif data of photos you find appealing.  For this application, I use a little gem of freeware called ViewEXIF, which is available here.  This installs itself as an extension to Internet Explorer or the Firefox browsers, and is simple to use.  Here’s how to do it.

1.  Download and install the software.

2.  From now on, when you right-click on any photograph displayed in your browser, you will see a screen like the following:

_________________________________________________

New Context Menu

_____________________________________________

You can see in the screen capture above that the Context Menu that pops up now has a new option – View EXIF.  Select this option, and the following window will immediately pop open:

Exif data listing from ViewEXIF

So there you have it – a quick and dirty primer on the Exif header file.  Now, learn to use these tools, and go forth wisely with your new found knowledge!

PS – Answer to the title of this post – Exchangeable Image File Format

What In the Heck Is This?

What town?

When gazing off toward the western horizon from the vantage point offered by our mountaintop (talk about making a mountain out of a molehill!), my eyes will usually come to rest at the location that is beneath the yellow arrow in the photograph displayed above.

Can you see what it is that I feel compelled to look at?

No?  It’s only 4.2 miles away, as the crow flies (which raises the question -what’s with that saying?  The crows I see around here never fly directly from one spot to another.  But I digress).

OK, OK.  I’ll show you a picture taken from the same spot, but at an earlier date and zoomed in to a larger magnification this time:

Here it is!

 Now you can see what is underneath the yellow arrow in the first photograph.  It is the town closest to our land, with a population of approximately 270 people.  It takes about 10 minutes to drive over to this little town from our house.  By contrast, it takes about 35 minutes to drive to the “city” closest to us (pop. 11,000+).

What might you find in our little town?  At one end sits a full-fledged post office facility, located next to a bank, where you can conduct some of your business.  Around the curve there are two diners, one of which serves only breakfast and lunch (their pies would probably win many county fair competitions).

Across the street are a couple of flea market type shops, perhaps with a rusty old 1949 Farmall C tractor in need of some TLC sitting out front.  There is a barber shop, a pizza shop, and a grassy parkway containing a small covered bandstand (donated and built by local volunteers).  The City Hall is located here, and it is open for business one day per week (I think on Mondays, but you might want to call ahead to be certain) .

The local telephone company maintains a small substation/maintenance office in town, and our volunteer fire department is housed in a nice facility in the center of town.  Further down the road, you will come to the town park, which is located next to the local Saddle Club facility, which includes a lighted riding arena, spectator stands, concession stand, and other equestrian facilities.  Who knows, maybe your neighbor might just be crowned Little Miss Rodeo Queen?

Little Miss Rodeo

As you continue down the road, you pass a couple of small businesses, including a new fitness center (a fitness center in a town of 270?)

The far end of town is where the local school district operates their only educational facility, serving grades K-12.  The district is tiny, with a total enrollment of 427 students in 2005.  Along the roadsides leading into town from both directions are the numerous churches which dot the landscape.

Now, finally, after all this lengthy babbling on about this little town, I get to the subject of this post, which is about where the true heart of this little community seems to centered.

Do you think that the heart of the community (H of C) resides at the school grounds?  After all, the school has athletic fields, a multi-purpose room, a new gymnasium, and is the place to be seen Friday nights during football season.  I don’t think so, because there are many empty-nesters and childless residents in the area.  They aren’t likely to be seen at school sponsored activities.

What about the churches?  Surely churches play a large part in the role of H of C out here, don’t they?  Well, yes and no.  Undoubtedly, a church provides a central role in the lives of area residents, especially in a bible belt region such as the Ozarks.  But because there are so many churches dispersed around this little town, each one only services a small fraction of the total population.  While serving an important function in the community, no single congregation can legitimately claim to be the H of C of this little town.

The Saddle Club, which hosts numerous events throughout the year, and is host to a great weekly “Family Fun” night during the warmer months, only serves the needs of the local equestrian community.  If you aren’t a horse person, you would have no reason to frequent this facility.

How about the local diners?  Doesn’t everybody eat out from time to time?  Couldn’t these places thus serve as the H of C?  Maybe, except that one diner is only open through lunchtime (the one with the great pies), and has a small dining room, thus could never serve as a crossroads for the town.  And the remaining diner, while providing a decent meal, is somewhat pricey for this neck of the woods, thereby limiting it’s potential to be the popular spot an H of C must be.

Rather than continuing to eliminate one candidate after another in my quest to arrive at the true heart of the community, I will cut to the chase and present my nomination:

The hub of the community

The Country Market.  Every small town aught to have a place like this in it’s midst.  More than just a spot where you can fill up the tank with gasoline or diesel fuel, you can also replenish your propane tanks and pump kerosene for your shop heater in the winter.

Do you need groceries?  This little store is amazing in the selection of goods that are offered.  From fresh produce to meats and dairy, canned and frozen goods to spices and ice cream, it seems to have most of the things you might happen to need between trips to the city for larger-scale shopping.

Are you hungry now?  This little place is a franchise for Hunt Brothers Pizza – 2 pizzas, $12.99, all toppings included.  It also sells Chester’s Fried Chicken, which is excellent (if nothing else, you can trust an Ozarker to know good fried chicken).  The lunch counter will fix you up with a burger and fries, catfish, and other items that vary from day to day.   If your preference is for something a little healthier, there is a Subway franchise located within the store also.  To help alleviate your sweet tooth, you can purchase Krispy Kreme dough nuts (provided they haven’t sold out of the day’s supply).

Have you come to the area to try your hand at some of the superb fishing that Bull Shoals Lake provides?  The Country Market can outfit you with fishing tackle, as well as bait and license.  With over 1000 miles of shoreline (that’s right, one thousand), there are plenty of opportunities for camping.  The Country Market has you covered as well.  Propane, charcoal, white gas, and miscellaneous camping supplies are sold here to replenish your supplies.

With all that this store offers, it is not surprising that everybody who lives anywhere near this town utilizes the Country Market on a regular basis.  It is the one spot in town that is regularly in touch with the pulse of the community.  Want to know who’s in town or out?  Ask at the market.  Is Betty recuperating well from her surgery?  Are there any farms for sale up the road?  Did you hear about the Smith’s new grandchild?  There isn’t anything you can’t find out about at the Country Market, if you just hang out long enough!

Therefore, considering the arguments presented, I offer the Country Market as my pick for the Heart of the Community designation.

Anyone disagree?

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

THE GOOD

County maintained road

In this photograph you can see our Great Pyrenees Gracie herding several guineas back toward the safety of our barn area.  They are walking along a stretch of the two mile unpaved road which leads from the paved state highway to our home.   About 3/4 mile of this dirt road lies entirely within the boundaries of our property, and is our means of egress when it is necessary to interact in person with the outside world.

You can see from the photo that the road is in pretty decent shape, and you might conclude that Hal must keep himself busy with the tractor to keep the road in such good condition.  If this was your conclusion, then you would be wrong!  For some reason that predates our residence at this location, the county took this road into the county road system, and as a result, they are responsible for keeping the road in proper maintenance.

There really is no good reason for the county to keep this road in their inventory, as it serves no compelling public need.  We are the only residents that this road serves, yet we get the benefit of having the county absorb the maintenance expenses that inevitably arise.  And that is the good news about having a county road run into your property.  You don’t have to fund a road maintenance budget.  Having said that, I must admit that there is bad news, too.

THE BAD

There are some negative consequences that come about as a result of the county road running into the property.  First, we can’t install an entry gate at the point where the road comes into the property.  A county road must have access for all, so a gate is out of the question.  Because of the public access issue, you may need to be prepared for occasional “lookie-loos” to come driving into your land.  Second, the property owner who is served by a county road is at the mercy of the county when it comes to the quality of maintenance that is provided, and the responsiveness of the county government in handling issues that might arise with the road, as the following example illustrates.

Unpaved roads leading into ranch property

Notice on this topographic map that our house is located at the end of an unpaved road, as denoted near the top of the map.  Notice also that there are two street signs that designate the names of the county roads shown on the map, one of which is located at the intersection of the dirt road and the paved highway.  Without this sign, passersby would have no way of knowing that this is a county road, nor what the name of the road is.  In the event of an emergency, sheriff, fire department, and ambulance personnel dispatched to our house would be unable to locate our premises.

In January 2006, a careless driver managed to knock down the street sign while turning from the paved highway onto the dirt road.  Fearful of what would happen in an emergency, I temporarily duct taped the street sign onto my mailbox so that it would be visible to emergency vehicles, and proceeded to call the county road department to repair the sign.  To make a long story short, nine months later, after numerous phone calls and  correspondence with the County Judge, the county road department fixed the sign in September, 2006. 

On New Years Day, 2007,  a vandal saw fit to steal this very same street sign, thereby leaving us in a vulnerable state once again.  The county managed to replace the missing sign after only seven weeks this time, as opposed to 9 months last time, so I suppose things are improving!  But the point remains – a county road means you are stuck dealing with (sometimes) inept, or uncaring, or overburdened county officials to get anything accomplished.  Sometimes you can’t get anything accomplished at all, as the next example illustrates.

THE UGLY

Location of former drainage ditch

The photograph above shows what remains of a drainage ditch that used to exist along the northern edge of the road, as it descends a hill toward our buildings.  I say “used to exist” because, as you can plainly see, it isn’t there anymore!  The road crews in this county aren’t trained to do anything other than windrow the surface of the road off to each side when operating the road grader.  Any existing drainage ditches soon disappear under these circumstances, ours included.

Site of buried drainage culvert

The red ellipse in this picture shows the location of a (now buried) inlet to a drainage culvert that is installed under the roadway at the bottom of the hill.  Because the culvert has been covered up by the road graders as they windrow the road surface, it can no longer serve it’s intended purpose – to carry the water flow underneath the roadway to a creek located at the base of the hill.

Water flow patterns

The red arrow indicates the location and one-time flow of the now useless drainage culvert buried beneath the roadbed.  The yellow arrow indicates (as does the erosion evident in the photo) the present water flow pattern, given that the drainage ditch and culvert are now non-operational.

Ultimate destination of flowing water

Unfortunately, the new flow pattern now channels the water directly into our barn and paddock area, as the photograph above shows.  Besides the erosion and resulting rough roadway that this situation creates, any repairs I attempt to make to the road are immediately washed away with the next rainfall, as you can see in the following photograph. 

Gravel deposited on lawn

The chances of an under-funded county government repairing the drainage system for this road and maintaining it properly in the future, given that it only serves one family, are slim-to-none.  There is no point in my re-establishing the drainage ditch and culvert system, since the county road crew will invariably fill it in once again.

So, as in all things in life, there are trade offs.  In this case, having a county maintained road means no monetary outlay on my part, the trade off being the substandard water flow maintenance that is provided by the county.  If the drainage problem continues to deteriorate, than perhaps I could petition the county to abandon their current road easement (a request they probably would be glad to grant), but then I would have to be prepared to absorb all future road maintenance costs myself.

Hmmm….. decisions, decisions, decisions.