Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I Have Seen The Future, And It Fits In My Pocket

Because of my health situation, I did not renew my Elsevier consulting agreement when it expired at the end of September. It was a great six year association with Elsevier after they acquired LLH on August 24, 2001; I had the opportunity to work with some really great people and I miss them already.

Demonstrating what a terrific bunch of people work there, Elsevier sent me an unexpected going-away present in early October: an 8 gig Apple iPod Touch.

My reaction to it is similar to my reaction when I saw the Apple Lisa (the precursor to the Macintosh) demonstrated in January, 1983: this is the future.

In many ways, the Lisa was a clunker (its operating system was written in Pascal, fer crissakes!). It was painfully slow and did endless read/write operations to its hard drive (a whopping 10 megs!) for even the simplest tasks. But it had a graphical interface almost like the Macintosh. You could change fonts on text documents or insert graphics into them. It had a mouse, a trash can icon, and organized files into folders. The monitor resolution was high enough to accommodate graphics and used black on a white background instead of the green on a black background then common. If you had a half a brain, you knew that one day all computers were going to be. . . . . . no, had to be like the Lisa and be that simple, that intuitive to use.

And one day all pocket devices----MP3 players, mobile phones, etc.----are going to be like the iPod Touch.

The iPod Touch is like the iPhone without the telephone. And like the Lisa, its genius lies in its interface. The "touch" refers to its full color touchscreen interface. You can "flip" through lists of songs or artists, or photos, as simply and naturally as flipping through a stack of CDs or photos. Setting volume, equalization, screen brightness, etc., is all done by touching the screen. Want to zoom in on a photo? Double-tap the screen. Want to zoom out? Double-tap again. In addition to audio and photos, it also plays video, but I haven't used it for that yet. It also comes with a calculator, scheduling calendar, and "digital Roledex." In a lot of ways, the iPod Touch is what the first PDAs (like the Apple Newton or Dell Axim) were supposed to be but never quite became because of memory and power consumption issues.

But what really blows me away is that it comes equipped with WiFi and Apple's Safari browser. In other words, this is a wireless internet access device that's not much larger, or thicker, than a credit card. Yesterday I got my oil changed, and it was mind boggling to pull out the iPod Touch and check my Yahoo e-mail in the waiting room. Yes, it comes with a touchscreen "keyboard" for writing e-mails, and you access it with----yes!----a screen touch.

Many in publishing have been waiting for the right platform for eBooks to emerge before investing heavily in eBook publishing. Well, that platform is here----it will be something like the iPod Touch. I wouldn't be too surprised to see iTunes start offering eBooks before too long.

Because of its 8 gigs of memory, I went back and re-ripped/re-encoded many of my CDs at 256 kbps instead of the 128 kbps I used with prior MP3 players to conserve memory. The result is startling; I suppose someone with "golden ears" might be able to discern the difference compared to a CD, but I can't. It is so wonderful to listen to Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys in full fidelity as I scoop the horse poop up from our pasture!

Apple plans to release a software developer kit for the iPod Touch (and iPhone) in January so independent third-part applications can be created. I hope an early application is one allowing streaming audio through Safari, followed by an eBook reader platform. (I bet Adobe will develop a version of Acrobat Reader for the platform.)

It's been a long time since I've been this excited over a new product.

Odd Photos That I Have Taken

Back in the bad old days of film photography, I used to think quite a bit before taking a photo-----after all, Kodacolor was too precious to waste! But thanks to digital photography and cheap gigabit memory cards, I now snap away at anything that catches my attention. The result is a hard drive packed with visual oddities, like this snazzy little ice cream parlor I saw on the outskirts of Pahrump, Nevada:

Pahrump also has some oddly-named streets, as this photo attests:

I'm not sure what this is supposed to represent; it appears to be a whale bearing a cross across the desert. No doubt a heated debate is going on this very moment in the College of Cardinals about its theological implications:

Green glow-in-the-dark condoms! Who says true romance is dead???

I snapped this in the Sunset District of San Francisco; I've never seen or heard anything about "Golden Bridge Cola." Was this some sort of regional delicacy, much like Cheerwine and Sun Drop colas back in the Carolinas??

Who says Reno, Nevada is exciting? Apparently not the fine folks at the Ho-Hum Motel!

First the outlaw motorcycle gang descended upon their fair city, and then came. . . . . . the bowlers!!

Finally, a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness:

I have a lot of crap like the above, and I'll post more of them in the months ahead.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl

Last night was a full moon, so stargazing was not an option. I didn't feel much like firing up my ham radio station either (I'm W5HLH; look for me on the CW QRP frequencies). Instead I went channel surfing and discovered the Documentary Channel was showing a film I've wanted to see for some time, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. I caught it from the beginning, and it was one of the most profoundly disturbing things I've ever seen.

Leni Riefenstahl was a German director who made what is widely considered the best political propaganda film ever made, Triumph of the Will. It was a documentary on the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg which attracted over 100,000 persons. I saw it back in college in 1972, and went to see it again a couple of nights later. It had a very unsettling impact on me. Despite its subject matter, it was difficult not to feel the enthusiasm and excitement of the event; it was easy to understand how Germany----at that time, the most highly educated nation on earth----could get caught up in the controlled hysteria of Nazism. Triumph of the Will was supposedly a documentary, but it was far more. There was no narrator, but there was a powerful narrative flow to the film beginning with Hitler's airplane descending into Nuremberg as if it were descending from heaven. Camera angles, lighting, and pacing were cleverly used by Riefenstahl to evoke powerful emotions in the audience. Her post-war claims that she was merely recording an event are clearly nonsense. She was deliberately creating a mythology about the event, its participants, and Hitler, and it's obvious to anyone who has seen the film. She was no passive observer-----she definitely had cast her lot with the Nazis.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl was made when she was 93, and includes lengthy interviews with her. Her convoluted rationalizations about her involvement with the Nazis are something to behold. One very telling moment comes when she says she had a poor relationship with Josef Goebbels and only worked with him because she had no other choice. The interviewer then produces one of Goebbels's diaries and reads passages in which he recounts the wonderful meetings and social engagements (like evenings at the symphony) with Riefenstahl and Leni's great enthusiasm for various projects. Leni responds by saying Goebbels was lying. The interviewer responds incredulously, "He was lying to his own diary?" And Riefensthal immediately shoots back, "Yes!" I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this. As she describes how she made Triumph of the Will, and describes how wonderful Hitler was to work with and what a magnificent event the Nuremberg rally was, it becomes clear where her true sympathy lay while making the film. All the while, though, she maintains that she was merely an artist, a filmmaker without any political considerations. At times, she sounds like she really believed what she's saying. Maybe she did.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl looks a some of Leni's other projects, like her first film for the Nazis, Victory of Faith. A sort of prequel to Triumph of the Will, Victory of Faith was long considered lost; made when Ernst Rohm and Hitler shared power in the Nazi party, copies of it were ordered destroyed after Hitler had Rohm and other SA leaders killed in the "Night of Long Knives." However, a copy was eventually found (in the former East Germany, of all places) and The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl uses many clips from it. From them, you can see Triumph of the Will was no fluke but a logical progression for Leni.

After World War II, Riefenstahl was persona non grata in the film community because of films like Triumph of the Will. She became a wildlife filmmaker, became a certified scuba diver at age 70, and made several underwater wildlife films. She lived to be 101 and, from what I saw last night, apparently had no regrets whatsoever about the choices she made and the things she did.

I found Leni Riefenstahl to be both fascinating and repugnant. But people say the same about me, so maybe I should cut her some slack.

At any rate, I highly recommend
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. It has no car chase scenes, nor any steroid-abusing musclemen using superior firepower to defeat their adversaries, but it's still worth watching anyway.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Ghost Town (Or Caves) Of New Dublin, California

At the south end of Death Valley is Shoshone, a little bump in the road with a couple of gas stations and a run-down motel. Most people hang a left in Shoshone for Pahrump, NV, which is 30 miles away and offers life-giving diet soda, casinos, and wireless internet access; others continue straight ahead for (again!) 30 miles to where the road connects with Interstate 15. Most ignore a poorly graded dirt road on the right just past an Inyo County road maintenance equipment storage yard. And in so doing, they miss one of the most fascinating ghost towns in the country.

New Dublin was established (or "excavated") in the late nineteenth century and hit its peak about a century ago. Lead and borax deposits were discovered in the area, and miners arrived to work them. Most were recent immigrants from Ireland, thus the name "New Dublin." And they needed a place to live. In other desert ghost town sites, rock and adobe were the prime construction materials at hand. But the site of New Dublin was in the dry lake bed of Lake Tecopa, a large lake that existed in a wetter age when mastodons drank from it. After the lake dried, it left behind tufa deposits; the tufa had a hard "cap" and relatively softer rock underneath. The miners had a brilliant idea: why not just "hollow out" living quarters in the tufa, much like a set of artificial caves? The result is what you see below.

Here's a view of another set of "dwellings" at New Dublin:

Exploring the interior of these dwellings is a bit like touring the interiors of "The Flintstones" movie. Some of the caves are separate from the others, while others are interconnected in a maze-like fashion. Here are a couple of looks inside:

The accommodations may have been spartan, but they were practical; like natural caves, their interior temperature varied little from season to season. Given Death Valley's wild temperature extremes----from below freezing night temperatures in winter to 110+ summer days-----this was no small benefit.

There is a small cemetery at New Dublin, and it's heartbreaking. Any indications of the miners' identities have long been lost to the elements, and only piles of rock or circles of stone remain to mark their final resting place. Imagine what it must have been like for those miners, to have left green, beautiful Ireland for such a desolate, godforsaken place, so far from their families and anything familiar (I suspect there was more than a little bitter irony at work when they named this place "New Dublin"). . . . . . . and then to die there, alone and to be forgotten. When I visited New Dublin, it was one of those glorious winter days in the Mojave desert that I loved: temperature in the sixties, no clouds, no humidity, no wind, and a silence so deep you become conscious of the sound of your own breathing. And despite that perfect day, I felt a deep, penetrating sadness in that cemetery and, indeed, at the whole site. New Dublin is eloquent testimony to the lengths desperation can drive people.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Desert Art

I've done a good bit of travel in the more isolated desert regions of California, Nevada, and Arizona, and have come to the following conclusion: something is badly wrong with most people who live in isolated desert regions.

I'm not kidding. It takes a certain dementia to live over 100 miles from such luxuries as, say, a hospital emergency room or a supermarket. I see no apparent way people in such places can make an honest living, and I strongly suspect many (if not most) of them are living off disability ("Uncle Earl hasn't been right since that mortar landed near him in Vietnam!") or social security payments. From the conversations I had with the residents of such areas, it's clear that many of those people have, as Dr. Phil might put it, "significant issues." Yes, they're colorful characters with a lot of stories to tell, but I get uncomfortable when they start ranting about Hillary Clinton's fleet of black helicopters. . . . . .

But I do have to admit one thing about desert dwellers----they do a fantastic job of recycling junk into art.

Darwin, CA is on the western side of Death Valley, about 30 miles from the Stovepipe Wells entrance to the national park. It's a ghost town----and I'll describe it in a future post----but there are few people remaining there. And they create desert art.

Ah, take a look at this creation: a metal sculpture flower that never needs rain!

This one in Darwin is a little more puzzling. The white structure is a 1960s fiberglass fallout shelter-----you were supposed to cover it with dirt to protect you from radiation----but I can only speculate why the black rocks are there and what they're supposed to represent. Maybe it's a tribute to "The Monolith" in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Randsburg, CA, is a near-ghost town located on Highway 395 near Red Mountain, CA. There is still some mining activity going on there, and maybe one of those miners created this magnificent faux yucca tree with bottles for leaves and a section of lead pipe for a trunk.

Goldfield, NV is another ghost town I'll eventually post about. Its "Goldfield Hotel" is supposedly one of America's ten most haunted places, but what's really scary about Goldfield is this giant pocket tool that graces its Main Street. Imagine that its owner comes back to Goldfield looking for it. . . . and he's angry that someone took it from him. . . . . . . I don't think that giant would be green or especially jolly.

Near Beatty, NV, is the ghost town of Rhyolite-----a very good one, and subject of another future post----and there is some very clever art along the Rhyolite access road, like a miner and his penguin:

I'm not sure who/what the following is supposed to represent, but I call it Norma Jean of the Desert:

Rhyolite is a ghost town, and everybody knows a ghost town needs ghosts, right?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

My Favorite Ghost Town In Arizona

I never got to visit many ghost towns sites in Arizona, and most of them were in the northwestern corner of the state. But I did manage to run across a few good ones.

Cerbat is located about ten miles north of Kingman, AZ, off Highway 93. It's accessible via dirt road, and there was a road sign at the tunroff when I visited in 2004. Cerbat was a mining town, with operations beginning in the late 1860s. By 1872, the town had incorporated and a post office was in operation. Cerbat grew so much it was eventually named country seat of Mohave county, but the good times didn't last. As the mines started producing less and less and nearby Kingman grew with the arrival of the railroad, Cerbat's population moved on. It lost its county seat status, the post office closed in 1912, and by the end of World War I was totally deserted.

Cerbat had a surprising number of wooden structures which have been preserved by the dry desert climate. However, they have all "imploded," collapsing through lack of maintenance, like the ones below.

There are quite a few mining structures and relics left in Cerbat, although I don't find these as interesting as houses and other buildings used by town residents.

I was surprised on my visit to Cerbat to see renewed mining activity, but this time using modern equipment and techniques. However, I expect all the workers commute from Kingman, and I doubt Cerbat will ever stir back to life.

Stock Tip Of The Day

Immediately short the shares of any company who thinks its customers are its enemies.

Monday, October 1, 2007

My Favorite Ghost Town In Texas

From all those cowboy movies, you'd suspect Texas would be full of ghost towns. And you'd be wrong.

Texas has numerous abandoned former town sites, but a place like California has more, and better preserved, ghost towns than Texas. A big part of the reason is climate. Only far west Texas has a dry desert climate; the remainder of the state (again, contrary to those cowboy movies) gets plenty of rain and humidity to accelerate the decomposition of wood structures. And, unlike states further west, many settlements in Texas were made of wood instead of stone, brick, or adobe. The buildings in many old settlements burned, collapsed due to the elements, or were torn down and "recycled" into new construction. As a result, foundations and scraps are the main things found at most Texas ghost town sites.

There's not too much left at Peyton Colony, and what's left is rapidly falling apart. But it's my favorite Texas ghost town because it had its origins in 1865 as a post-Civil War settlement for former slaves. It was named for Peyton Roberts, a former slave who organized the settlement. It's located in the Texas hill country in Blanco county near the intersection of Farm to market roads 165 and 2325, about seven miles east of the town of Blanco.

The main surviving building at Peyton Colony is its schoolhouse:

The school operated until the 1960s-----as a segregated school-----when it was closed and the remaining students bussed to newly integrated school in Blanco. It was briefly converted to a community meeting center, but it's apparent from a look into the interior that it hasn't been used for that purpose in a long, long time:

Most of the remaining buildings at Peyton Colony are in a state of collapse and will soon be gone. About 30 people live in the area now, but they live in doublewide mobile homes which, one hopes, will prove a little more durable than the dwellings and buildings used by their ancestors!

Peyton Colony had a post office until 1930, when the declining population resulted in its closure. I understand most of the current population is elderly, so this site could be completely depopulated in the near future. Perhaps they will be the last to be buried in the Peyton Colony cemetery, which has several graves from the nineteenth century.

Yes, it's not to much to look at today. But try to imagine when the first newly-freed slaves arrived at Peyton Colony, with all their hopes and dreams of a better life where they weren't just someone's property. . . . . it will be tragic when the last buildings fall here and this piece of history is forgotten.

Somebody needs to preserve this site.