The Puppet

If it wasn’t obvious before it surely must be by now. That is, the President of the United States is owned by a foreign power. I mean a part of me, the part that for which that statement is inconceivable, is wondering if maybe my tin foil hat isn’t fitting well. But as you take a step back and look at the behavior of Trump towards Putin and then you compare his “normal” behavior towards friends and foes alike, it’s clear that something isn’t quite right here. Certainly he is not shy about relentlessly directing his animus towards those he perceives as his enemy but also our allies, members of his own party, and even members of his own staff. But then in the next breath he talks about how great his relationship is with them. I think we’re all pretty familiar with how the guy works, right?

So what is it about Putin? As far as I’m aware he has never had an unkind word to say about the guy in any way. Before yesterday I still had some doubt about the nature that relationship. Some bizarre idolatry thing going on or something maybe? I don’t know. To be honest I’ve been trying to not focus as much on the day to day circus in Washington. It’s depressing. But since yesterday afternoon I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with an explanation and the only thing that makes sense logically is that Putin is holding something over him. Of course trying to apply logic to Trump’s behavior is a dicey proposition so maybe that’s my mistake. Maybe it could be that once the man has reached a particular conclusion about a thing that there’s no changing his mind? But no, there have been other things, most recently with separating kids from their parents who’ve entered the country illegally, where he initially claimed his hand were tied, nothing could be done, etc, etc only to reverse himself after a day or two. I don’t get the impression that we’re dealing with a particularly principled person here.

The news seems fixated on the fact that Trump chooses to believe the word of an adversary over his own intelligence agencies and that perhaps it is because his ego is so fragile that he cannot allow any notion that the election was in any way illegitimate to gain a foothold. I can totally see that but it misses the forest for the trees I think. He could have said what he did about Putin’s claim that Russia did not interfere and still remain critical of any number of other issues. The annexation of Crimea, the support of al-Assad, shooting down commercial airliners, the rate at which Putin’s enemies seem to meet an untimely demise. But, given a chance to call Russia out on any of these things, the President instead said there have been mistakes on both sides! Trump is not shy about getting down in the mud with anyone else, save perhaps his immediate family, so why the reluctance here? Not even a hint of reprobation.

This would all be bad enough if the government seemed to be functioning normally. At least then you could have faith that the checks and balances would kick in and somewhere along the way one of the other branches would step in and figure out exactly what’s going on here. Sadly, and really this is the worst part, that isn’t going to happen. Sure we’ll get a few of the supposedly principled members of Congress expressing their disapproval, but nothing substantial. This will go back and forth a bit until it dies down or the next outrageous thing comes along. I had for a time held onto to the notion that we let the wheels of justice, ie the Mueller investigation play out, and once all the facts were presented that Congress would do the right thing. I no longer have any confidence that will come to pass. Even if the investigation reveals that the President is undoubtedly compromised. The campaign to poison public opinion with regards to that investigation has been ongoing for some time now. The groundwork for eventually viewing any conclusions reached by the Special Counsel has been laid and will be viewed as a product of the “Deep State”.

Given the proclivity of some members of this administration and the government at large to project, it’s hard not to wonder which state we are referring to when hearing the phrase “Deep State”. It’s hard to try and maintain any kind of objectivity when trying to understand the reaction to these things. Why there isn’t more pushback against some of the policies that run counter to traditional Republican beliefs. I don’t get it. Few have any problem believing that those who crave wealth and power could be bought by corporations, should we be surprised if we learn that foreign powers have also purchased influence within our government? It’s pretty depressing to realize that the best case scenario here is that the reaction by most Republicans is because they have no core principles and it’s simply a matter of party before country.

Broadening My Horizons

Yesterday I bought a Roku. Being an Apple guy it’s not something I had really considered. But recently I’ve been playing with some stock trading and such. 99% of my investing is a handful of index funds, but I do have a teeny bit that I set aside to “play” with. One of the companies that popped up on my radar a number of times was Roku. They’re up over 30% in the last month. That they’re doing so well piqued my interest in their products, so I decided to take a look and picked up a Streaming Stick. At $45 it’s very nearly an impulse purchase. I especially liked that Roku can be powered by the USB port on my TV. Getting to the power outlets behind the entertainment center is a bit of a nightmare. In fact if I’d not been able to power it with the TV’s USB port I don’t think I would have bothered. Too much of a hassle.

So anyway I plug the thing in and go through a few steps to get it set up with an account and maybe 15 minutes later I’m watching Netflix. Easy. You might say “it just works”. I haven’t even really had a chance to explore all the things it can do, but this morning I’m sitting here thinking about it and wondering why anyone but a hard core Apple fan would bother with an Apple TV at three times the price. And I say this as someone that makes tvOS apps. If you’re not locked into the Apple ecosystem what is the advantage? Somebody help me out because I’m not really seeing any. It reminds me too of the HomePod, but maybe the HomePod isn’t meant to compete in the sort of personal assistant category that Echo and Google Home occupy? Sure I guess if your only concern is audio quality maybe it’s the right choice but if you want it easily integrate with other services, do things for you, and otherwise “just work” Amazon and Google’s offerings seem a much better value.

I also don’t understand why you’d intentionally lock yourself into the Apple ecosystem when there are alternatives that work just as well with the freedom to use just about anywhere? Apple Music is one that comes to mind. What advantage does it have over Spotify? I swear I would not be shocked if my next toaster has the ability to connect to Spotify. I tried Apple Music for a bit but nothing jumped out at me as obviously superior. In addition I’ve often felt that a company focused exclusively on a particular market to innovate and quickly move to take advantage of or drive certain trends.

Case in point, the Mac. Does it feel like Apple is really focused on making great computers anymore or are they an afterthought? When was the Mac Pro last updated? Then we have the latest Mac Book Pro which reduced your connectivity and charging options to a single USB-C port. I say single since one is used for charging. But hey, in exchange you get to take your chances at having your keyboard fail somewhere down the road. I suppose we should be happy they left us headphone jack. Is all of this because their resources are spread so thing designing phones and watches, and TV thingies? Really, as I look down at my iPhone SE, maybe not even the phone category is completely immune from a lack of focus. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long as the Mac Pro to get an updated version.

Willingly locking yourself into Apple’s walled garden might not make me so uneasy if they still felt like they were the company making products that “just work”. I’m cautiously optimistic that the new iOS and macOS releases are an attempt to try and shore up some of the decline in quality it feels like we’ve been seeing over the last few years. At least on the software side. Right now I think the Apple brand still has that reputation but there’s been this steady drip drip of issues that are eroding that confidence. At least for me personally. They used to be the company that would surprise and delight but lately the surprises have been short on delight. Being an Apple guy this all bums me out and I hope things get better.

Rules are Rules

Speaking of trails: our “lake” property doesn’t actually touch any portion of Center Hill Lake. Almost all of the shoreline is owned and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The closest point to the shoreline from our property is a cove between 150 to 500 feet away, depending on the level of the lake. With Center Hill Dam undergoing repairs it’s generally closer to the latter. The Corps allows public use of most of the land it manages, but it’s a bit of a challenge to make it all the way down from the house. It’s even more of a challenge making it back up.

The Cove at 632'
The Cove at 632'

As I was working on my trail, I discovered the Center Hill Lake Shoreline Management Plan which describes the availability of a “land-use permit … to allow pedestrian access to the shoreline”. I was thinking that would be pretty nice if we could extend the trail all the way down to the bottom, but the description of what this permit allows was a bit vague so I contacted the Corps for clarification. The grade of the slope is as much as 50% which necessitates a bit of cutting and filling to create a safe path, though I attempted to route my path in such a way as to minimize this as much as possible.

The Corps responded to my inquiry with the following: “The Corps does allow for four feet wide meandering paths by permit on Center Hill Lake. However, the ground itself cannot be disturbed, as the permit only allows for the removal of briars, brush, and debris by hand trimming.” This was pretty disappointing. And a bit silly to be honest. I understand the motivation is to preserve the aesthetic and the environment for the wildlife, but this black and white application of the rules will probably have the opposite effect of their stated aims. By disallowing any sort of modification of the ground, which would confine foot traffic to a limited area, we’ll instead have to make our way down following no particular path which runs the risk of having a greater overall impact on the landscape. There is no real understory to concern ourselves with in that area so hand trimming and what not is of little use and would not serve to delineate a path.

The Cove at 645'
The Cove at 645'

I responded the I understood the motivation but was disappointed nevertheless. I also mentioned that “our intention is to be good stewards of the land we now own and any resources you can direct us towards in furtherance of that goal is appreciated”. Sadly there was no response to that email so I guess we’re on our own. It also makes me wonder if there’s any real enthusiasm there for promoting responsible land management and a mutually beneficial relationship with their “neighbors”.

Okay, I’m sure there are good and passionate people working for the Corps, but at an organizational level it has a bit of a mindless bureaucracy vibe to it. Eventually I suppose we’ll probably wear a path down just by walking back and forth across the landscape. In the meantime we’ll just have to accept a bit of slipping and sliding over that last couple hundred feet. Maybe we should have taken the Alan Jackson approach and tried to get forgiveness instead of permission. But then I’m not rich and famous so things probably wouldn’t work out so well for me.

A Rainy Weekend

Streaked Trillium
Streaked Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Rain kept us indoors most of the weekend sadly. But I could look outside and see that spring was inching its way closer to us and I was anxious to get a closer look. In the meantime I had to keep myself busy with inside projects like painting our orange bathroom. We ended up painting over that with a sort of sky blue color. Turned out pretty well. I didn’t take any photos of it so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

On the line
On the line

Early Sunday afternoon the rain finally decided to move on. The sun even peaked out a time or two. I convinced Susie to join me for a stroll down the trail to see how it’s changed over the last two weeks. And this time I planned on taking my old D40 with me to see. First I wanted to see if I could remember how to use it. Second I wanted to see how it compares to the photos I’ve taken with my phone. Turns out I only vaguely remember what I’m doing with a DSLR. You’d think I’d remember something of what I learned during my year of photography, but you’d be wrong. Still, even though it’s a little long in the tooth, the D40 makes for much better photos than my iPhone I think.

Anyway, as we made our way down I was again amazed at how much things can change in such a short period of time. There were new wildflowers growing but the Trillium have really started to pop which distracted me for much of our walk.

The creek down the hill
The creek down the hill

As soon as we entered the woods you could hear the water rushing down the stream at the bottom of the hill. Normally it’s just a trickle, but after a good rain there’s quite a bit of flow. And noise. I was hoping to get a decent photo (assuming I remembered how to work my Nikon). The photo on the right is the best I could do. Apart from letting my photography skills atrophy, it was still mostly overcast which didn’t help with the lighting. Ah well, I expect I’ll have more chances in the future.

I took a few more photos, but not as many as I hoped since my battery was not quite as charged as it led me to believe before leaving the house. I put those that were halfway decent into an album on flickr. I have some others from around the house over the last year that I plan on putting in that album as well at some point. It’s on my list.

Backyard Trail

Shale Station
Shale Station

For those that haven’t been following along on Facebook and elsewhere, Susie and I bought a place overlooking Center Hill Lake last year. Right now it’s our weekend getaway but eventually, hopefully within a couple years, it’ll be our permanent home. The house sits on a about 1.25 acres of very steeply sloped land with three quarters of it being woodland. The northeast portion is bounded by property owned by the Army Corps of Engineers which runs down to a cove on the lake.

Trail Guide
Trail Guide (red = very steep!)

Since we’ve been here I’ve had a notion that I’d eventually like to create a trail down to the bottom of our property. Originally that was going to be something to pick at after taking care of a million other more important projects “up top”. Part of that was trying to de-bramble / vine a section towards the top where the previous owner had opened up a view by cutting down a bunch of trees and leaving them where they fell. Once I started to get that cleared away I found myself thinking more and more about a trail.

Little sweet betsy (Trillium cuneatum)
Little sweet betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

Another thing that happened was learning a bit more about the geology and topography of this area of Tennessee, especially as I found myself on Chuck Sutherland’s web site over and over again. Chuck has some pretty amazing maps which got me wondering if I might be able to use the GIS data from the State of Tennessee to create my own map which I could then use to guide the path my trail might take. After discovering QGIS I was able to do just that. The trail doesn’t follow the path I drew up exactly, but it ended up being pretty close.

Blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)
Blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Armed with my map, hoe, bowsaw, and pruner I spent the last few weekends making my way down the hill. As I did I started to notice the wide variety of flora down there. Spring having arrived probably made this much more noticeable, but as I encountered each interesting new plant I’d take a picture and look it up later. A buddy of mine was visiting a couple weekends back and showed me an app he uses to identify plants called PictureThis. PictureThis makes plant identification so much easier!

Well, yesterday I finished the trail! Okay, there are several places that could use a little more work. Some old logs that it would be nice to cut through, some widening, and, if my wife has anything to say about it, some sections that are still too steep that need to be de-steepened. So maybe not finished finished but you’re about 100 times less likely to break a leg trying to get to the bottom now.

This morning I took all the photos that I made as I was creating the path and threw them in an album on flickr. It includes all my best guesses of the plants I found along the way. And a couple other things I found along the way. Now to start thinking about the 2 or 3 spur trails I’m thinking I might need.