Monday, August 24, 2009

Greetings From Fort Mill, South Carolina

Di and I have finally settled into our new home in Fort Mill, SC.

Yes, I know we were supposed to be heading for Las Vegas. But sometimes he who hesitates is saved instead of lost.

We made an offer on a house in Las Vegas, but that fell through when the seller discovered the buyer of our Corpus Christi condo had-----without our knowledge, and in breach of the sales contract-----taken out a second mortgage on the property, thus invalidating our representation to the Las Vegas seller.

But this incident did trigger some further discussions of where we should move. While Di had professional contacts in Las Vegas, she had no close personal friends or family. And I had neither in Las Vegas. But when death is looming, you need your family and friends more than ever.

It was Di who first suggested moving back to the Carolinas, and I readily agreed. We bought a condo on Highway 160 near Tega Cay, about a mile from the state line with North Carolina. I am just a few miles from the graves of my parents and grandparents; while it sounds illogical, I find this comforting.

My journey began here, and it will soon end here.

All the people I love most are now near me. I have often written here about how lucky I have been in my life, and the biggest stroke of luck has been my loving, generous, and kind aunts, uncles, and cousins. In particular. I want to thank my Aunt Polly for caring for me while Di handled the move back in Corpus Christi. Polly never had children of her own, and she lovingly babysat me when I was five or six years old. I'm now 56 years old, and she lovingly babysat me for the past three weeks. If I have ever known a saint, it is her. My Uncle Grady has two hobbies: golf and helping other people. He and his wife, my Aunt Betty, have been in daily contact, offering to take me places, bring me stuff, shop for me, etc.

My cousin Cheryl visited me often. While I love all of my cousins, Cheryl and I have long been tuned into a frequency the rest of the family can't receive. When she visited, she brought me reading material such as National Enquirer and, of course, The Elvis Encyclopedia. She and I share the same demented worldview, and she never failed to lift my spirits.

To all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, I love you more than I can express in words. Pure, unconditional love is a rare, miraculous thing. I am so lucky to have been bathed in it since my return.

Physically, I am declining fast. I can still eat, bathe, and generally care for myself, but I can't walk more than a few steps before becoming exhausted. I spend most of my time in bed or on the sofa. The only difference between me and a street junkie is that I have a doctor's prescription; we both need our periodic drug fix to get through the day.

But I am happier than I have been in a long time. I'm not going to live any longer here, but I will die surround by people who truly love me. That means a lot.

And this will be my final post here. One reason I started this blog was to keep my family informed about my status; now I can tell them face-to-face. As a writer, I hate to leave projects unfinished, and this blog is no exception. And frankly there are much bigger priorities in my life than this blog. So now it now ends (although one of my survivors may post my death notice).

I thank everyone who has read and followed this blog. I also thank everyone who read my books and articles over the years and the many people around the world I came to know from my radio hobbies. And my friends in the publishing industry have given me far more than I have given them.

To borrow the old Navy farewell, I wish you all fair winds and following seas.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Interesting Links And QRX De W5HLH

I've found some interesting links I hope you'll check out:

• If you ever get the feeling the current economic crisis is different, that it is unprecedented in history, you're not alone. David Smick says the key problem is export-oriented economies who are relying on the United States as the consumer of last resort. I don't agree with everything in Smick's analysis, but I do agree with his identification of the key problem. I hope some people in Washington read and consider Smick's argument.

• Of course, much of the current economic situation is due to inept corporate management. As a disgruntled former Microsoft shareholder, I think you can make a strong case that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer might be the most incompetent CEO this side of former General Motors CEO Rick Waggoner. John Dvorak agrees and lays out a blistering indictment of Steve's blunders. It is astonishing to think that a company that 15 years ago-----on the brink of the release of Windows 95-----seemed poised to own the computing world now seems ready for a swoon as deep and severe as IBM's in the early 1990s. IBM managed to recover, and Apple was struggling 15 years ago. Maybe Microsoft can stage a similar comeback. . . . . . . . but it never will as long Ballmer is running the show. (A new board of directors would also help.)

• And it's not just for-profit companies that are reeling from the effects of greed, hubris, and wishful thinking. Harvard is facing a huge financial crisis and no one seems to have an idea of the extent of the crisis and how to deal with it. Is a federal bailout for Harvard in the works?

• Outsiders are often puzzled by the fierce loyalty University of North Carolina alumni feel for their alma mater. I can't explain it; like Zen, you either get it or you don't. But Emily Banks, who just finished her freshman year at Carolina, comes very close to articulating the ineffable in this New York Times essay.

• "QRX De W5HLH" is radiotelegraph code; "QRX" means "wait," "de" means "from," and W5HLH is my ham radio license call letters. This is a roundabout way of saying I won't be making any posts for at least a couple of weeks as Di and I prepare to move. I'll still have access to e-mail when i find a WiFi hotspot, but I doubt I'll have the time or energy to blog until we're settled into our new home. I'll be back around mid-August if everything goes right.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Memories Of My Atomic Youth

Some of my most vivid memories from the late 1950s and early 1960s involve the old Civil Defense (CD) program. White it seems like utter lunacy in retrospect, quite a few Americans and government officials devoted a lot of time, energy, and money back then to planning how to survive a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Seriously.

The theory behind CD was that most deaths in a nuclear war would come from radioactive fallout instead of the bomb blasts themselves; while the poor folks in New York City or Los Angeles would be reduced to cinders, people in the hinterlands could retreat to underground shelters for two weeks until the radioactivity levels dropped to safe levels and people could move about safely above ground. To house large numbers of people, "fallout shelters" were established in the basements of large buildings such as schools and office buildings. I even remember visiting Tuckaleechee Caverns in Tennessee back in 1961 or 1962, and seeing that a couple of the cave's rooms were being used as fallout shelters!

These "mass storage" fallout shelters were stocked with cots, blankets, medical supplies, and food, such as these appetizing-sounding "survival crackers":

As you might expect, radiation detection equipment was also standard in "mass storage" fallout shelters:

In addition to public "mass storage" shelters, Civil Defense encouraged people to build and equip their own fallout shelters. CD did this the time-proven way: they scared hell out of people:

Civil Defense published several booklets detailing plans for building home fallout shelters, which more resembled home prison cells. Look at those cramped dimensions; can you imagine spending two weeks inside one of them without going stark, raving mad??

And, as the Civil Defense literature helpfully pointed out, living in a home fallout shelter for a couple of weeks would present some interesting challenges not faced by Ward and June Cleever:

Civil Defense thought the following items would be adequate for stocking a home fallout shelter. Looking it over, I can't help but wonder: uh, shouldn't a rifle, shotgun, or other firearm be on that list? Something tells me life in a post-nuclear war world would be chaotic and dangerous, and a weapon of some sort could come in very handy:

During a nuclear attack and its aftermath, the CONELRAD system is how people were supposed to get official information from the U.S. government. This system would have allowed radio broadcasts on just two AM radio frequencies, 640 and 1240 kHz, with transmissions switched between different stations so Soviet bombers could not use the broadcasts for direction-finding. Or at least that was the theory:

Station WBT in Charlotte was selected to participate in the CONELRAD program, and here's a link to a story about WBT's "fallout shelter" from which CONELRAD broadcasts would be transmitted.

Yeah, it all seems so crazy now. But fifty years ago people took all of this very seriously.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty Years Ago Today

We were young, and we were fearless and, after all, nobody had ever told us young engineers that we couldn’t successfully land humans on another planet. So we did it.-----Sy Liebergot, electrical, environmental, and communications mission control officer, Apollo 11 mission.

There was a time when the United States could accomplish the impossible. There was a time when heroism and accomplishment were celebrated and honored in this country. It dreamed big, and a lot of those big dreams became reality.

What the hell happened to the United States??

Where did it all go wrong??

Forty years after arguably the most magnificent achievement in human history, our most remarkable accomplishment today is the debt we're running up with the Chinese. We are now much better at denying we have problems, or avoiding facing reality squarely, than we are at solving problems.

What the hell happened??

I feel lucky that I was alive when the United States was at the height of its power and glory. And I feel lucky I will be dead by the time China passes the United States as the world's dominant economic, political, military, and scientific power.

And the next visitors to the moon will be Chinese.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Artist's Palette And Other Places In Death Valley

The Artist's Palette Drive is located on the east side of Death Valley, up in the Black Mountains. It gets its name from the colors produced by oxidation of various metals on the mountainsides. The drive is a little over nine miles road and the road is well-paved and suitable for all cars.

Below you can see the start of the drive. Note the "layer cake" look of the hills and the reddish streak running upward toward the right:

As you drive along, you will see patches of green and aquamarine among the brown and white of the hillsides:

As you drive along, the green and aquamarine patches become brighter and larger, and are striking under the bright Death Valley sun:

Salt Creek is located on the floor of Death Valley near the junction of California highways 190 and 267. I can't help but pity all those early explorers and travelers in Death Valley who thought they had found a huge source of water in this godforsaken desert, only to taste it and learn why it came to be called "Salt Creek." The water does support some plant life, however:

Stovepipe Wells is along Highway 190 on the western side of the park; it is the most used entrance to the park and offers gasoline, food, and lodging. It's also the starting point for the trail up Natural Bridge Canyon, an easy hike in cooler weather. Below is a look at the natural bridge:

Adjacent to Stovepipe Wells is a network of sand dunes that visitors can hike across. These dunes are spectacular in the light of dawn and sunset:

There is much, much more to see in Death Valley; it is my favorite national park by far. If you're thinking of a California vacation, skip the usual tourist traps like Disneyland or Fisherman's Wharf and instead head out to Death Valley. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Finally, A Shot Of Reality In The Health Care Debate

There is a terrible reality in the current national debate on health care reform that no one, regardless of whether they're conservative or liberal, wants to admit: too many treatments today are too expensive for the benefits they offer and consume resources that could, and should, be redirected to other patients. In other words, we can spend a lot on one patient or spend smaller amounts on a lot of patients, but we can't afford to spend a lot on a lot of patients. There are hard choices to make when it comes to health care, and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. The only way to afford universal health care will be to deny certain treatments to patients, especially those patients whose long-term survival is already dubious.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. From February to July, 2007, I was administered a chemotherapy "cocktail" every two weeks. It was a potent brew that included several pricey drugs such as Eloxatin, Fluorouracil, and Avastin; I had to go to St. David's Hospital in Austin for the infusion, which took several hours.

And it cost over $50,000 a month for those treatments, which turned out to be totally ineffective. My cancer returned less than two months after the end of the chemo, and that's when I put my foot down and said "no!" to any more chemo. In other words, all those treatments-----all that money-----were a complete waste. I might as well taken that $50K each month and gone to Las Vegas instead; the results would have been the same and I would have had a much better time.

My case is hardly unique. Many very expensive treatments fail more often than they work, and even when they do the net gain is measured in months instead of years. I have to wonder if that money spent for me each month should have been spent instead on programs for early detection of various diseases, childhood vaccination programs, etc. In other words, was my life really so valuable compared to the needs of other people?

Honesty compels me to say "no."

And if we're going to be honest about health care reform, we're going to have to admit we can't afford to give everyone anything and everything that might help them. We, as a nation, will have to reach a point where we say that a patient gets a treatment if there is a 60% chance it might work but a treatment will be denied if there is only a 30% chance it will work.

Some individuals will have to suffer for the good of others. There is no getting around that terrible truth.

That's why I was pleased to see the New York Times publish this piece by Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, in which he openly discusses the hard choices we must soon start making. Read it.

Rationing and denial of certain treatments is inevitable in the health care system. The only question is whether it will be done by the government or by the market. But it will be done, and don't fool yourself into thinking it can be avoided.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is The Book Industry Going To Get "Napstered"?

Before I retired from the publishing industry, I was a big advocate of eBooks-----in fact, if I were not sick, I would be managing my own eBook publishing company now. While I don't think eBooks will ever largely supplant print books----especially for fiction----I think they have a ton of potential for professional, scientific, and technical works, especially in subject areas where frequent revision is necessary. eBooks would also make sense for topics that are inherently "time limited," such as books on various software releases. It's doubtful anyone will need or want a Windows Vista book a decade from now, so why not distribute them in electronic form? Publishers and readers could both save money and trees with eBooks.

But one of my frustrations during my days as a publishing consultant was the emotional, irrational opposition to eBooks on the part of many publishing executives and managers. One fear is "piracy," the notion that people will download eBooks for free from outlaw web sites instead of buying authorized versions. Another, more deadly notion is that eBooks must be priced close to the list price of print editions lest eBooks destroy the market for print editions. Both of these are ridiculous ideas, but a surprising number of senior publishing executives treat them as if they came down fromn Mount Sinai on marble tablets.

I feel these attitudes will eventually cripple some book publishers, and Slate's Jack Shafer agrees. If you're in the publishing industry, you need to read his article.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Marble Canyon Mining Camp Ruins

The Saline Valley is located just west of Death Valley, and is almost as hot as Death Valley itself. It is also far more isolated and undeveloped than Death Valley itself (for example, you are dozens of miles from the nearest electric service or gasoline). The sole road through Saline Valley is a graded dirt road running from Highway 168 in the north (the Big Pine entrance) to Highway 190 in the south (he Owens Lake entrance). The road definitely requires a high clearance 4WD vehicle, like my late, lamented, and much beloved White Thang.

Saline Valley was added to Death Valley National Park in 1994, and many of the mining claims in the area where abandoned over the next several years. One of the best preserved is at Marble Canyon. It is reached by taking Highway168 east from Big Pine, CA, approximately four miles to the Saline Valley turnoff. The Marble Canyon site is about 20 miles down the Saline Valley road.

The first signs you're approaching the mining camp are some buildings and mining equipment that are starting to fall apart:

It amazes me how people managed to build such an extensive mining camp in such an isolated area------you're well over 100 miles from the nearest hardware store, and transporting those materials down the Saline Valley road must have been a huge challenge. The result is impressive:

The interior of the residential building was well preserved; the kitchen looks like it had been abandoned only a few months earlier:

The National Park Service has a policy of leaving abandoned buildings in the same shape as they were when they came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service; the buildings are not restored but instead are allowed to naturally decay. The result is that some sites are trashy with lots of junk, like the one at Marble Canyon:

The one exception to this "leave it as it was found" policy involves entrances to mines. The National Park Service seals off the entrances to abandoned mines, as you can see below. This policy is necessary because every year several idiots manage to get themselves badly hurt or killed by exploring abandoned mines; causes include collapse of the mine shafts, poisoning due to toxic gases accumulating in the shafts, rattlesnake bites, etc.

Like many isolated desert locations, the Marble Canyon mining site has some quizzical sights, like this open-air chair:

While the Saline Valley road is isolated and not for 2WD vehicles, it has several signs and is easy to navigate without a GPS receiver or maps. As the photo shows, the Marble Canyon mining camp is at a high elevation. The Saline Valley road is often closed by snow in winter, and the best time to visit is autumn or spring.

The Saline Valley gets only a fraction of the visitors Death Valley gets. It is difficult to reach, but it's worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I Loved Lucy

My rabbit Lucy died yesterday of an apparent stroke. She was about ten and a half years old and had been my companion since January, 2001.

When I developed cancer and started receiving chemo, I would rest on the sofa with Lucy laying on my chest. I would rub her head and she would reciprocate by licking my face. Those were some very peaceful, relaxing moments; all the stress and angst in me would drain away.

I loved that little rabbit and will miss her greatly.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July 4, 1982

I spent my first, and only, Fourth of July outside the United States on July 4, 1982. I was in London with my girlfriend (and future wife) Tina; she was in London on business for CBS Records International. I tagged along to do some business-----negotiating North American rights to books published by British publishers such as Granada and the Institution of Electrical Engineers-----but most of my time was being a tourist. On the morning of July 4, Tina was in the CBS offices while I was exploring the Egyptian section of the British Museum (yeah, mummies fascinate me). We had thought about going to the cook-out and baseball game held at the American Embassy in London each July 4, but instead decided to have dinner early that day and to meet in the Soho section of London.

We were both feeling a little homesick that day, and almost puzzled----why are these stupid Brits working today?? Don't they realize it's the Fourth of July?? The Soho area has several terrific Chinese restaurants, and we finally decided on one that had air conditioning (that's still a rarity in the UK). We ordered, and sat back to await the arrival of the spicy vegetables on crispy noodles. The background music in the restaurant was the instrumental, "Muzak" style you hear in elevators and doctor waiting rooms.

And then we both started laughing hysterically, because a syrupy version of "White Christmas" began playing over the restaurant's music system.

It was like a scene from a David Lynch film: I was in a Chinese restaurant in London, on the Fourth of July, listening to "White Christmas." And I wished, I really wished, I was back in the United States. Oh, I always enjoyed London, but on that particular day, at that moment, I was more conscious of being an American than I had ever been before in my life.

I often hate the American government and American politicians (both Republicans and Democrats), but I love the American nation. I consider being born an American citizen to have been the luckiest break of my life. And since July 4, 1982, this holiday has had a very special meaning for me. All it took was a Chinese restaurant and an instrumental version of "White Christmas."