Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Let's Buy Bill Gates A Linux Machine

Bill Gates hates Windows too. Here's proof.

Okay, it's really funny. But here's the truly remarkable part: in the 5+ years since Bill launched that Scud, absolutely nothing has changed. Nothing. If anything, Windows is even more of a pain in the butt since Vista was released, and solving the riddle of the web site is still like answering a Zen koan. Absolutely nothing changed.

That's just mindboggling, and tells me Microsoft's problems are genuinely beyond solution if they're sturdy enough to survive a direct blast from Chairman Bill.

Nothing will change under Steve Ballmer. Ballmer, after all, is the one who wanted to burn a big pile of Microsoft's cash to buy Yahoo, a mortally wounded internet has-been that's well on its way to joining InfoSeek, Excite, Lycos, etc., in the body bags Google uses to store its victims. Ballmer thinks it would be a better idea to buy Yahoo than the rest of Facebook. Need I say more?

Free investment advice: short Microsoft. And for your next computer, take a hard look at the inexpensive Linux laptops being offered by Asus. Instead of Microsoft Office, use Google Docs. You'll have a happier life if you do, and you can thank me later.

Monday, June 23, 2008

"White Thang" Was One Bitchin' Auto

When Elsevier bought out LLH back in 2001, I-----like many other entrepreneurs who get lucky-----immediately ran out and bought a new car. But my dream car was not a Porsche or BMW. Instead, it was a car that could take me places where other vehicles feared to go. I wound up buying a fully tricked-out Toyota 4Runner that I christened "White Thang."

White Thang was not a SUV used for driving to the office or the golf course. Instead, I used it for its original purpose, namely to travel on roads that would spell doom for any normal 2WD passenger car. Yes, it had 4WD. And a special off-road suspension. And skid plates. And a locking differential. And a heavy duty alternator. And an oil cooler. And. . . . . . you get the picture; it was a tank with four tires instead of two treads. It was roomy. I could fold down the rear seats and had plenty of room for my sleeping bag and foam pad. Yeah, it really drank the gas, but I didn't care. I had places to go and things to see.

Here's a photo of Wild Thang in its natural habitat. It's in Death Valley National Park, at the start of the road to "The Racetrack," and as you can see the warning sign said only 4WD vehicles with high clearance should proceed. White Thang didn't blink for the next 20 miles, and The Racetrack was easily reached:

White Thang was made for Death Valley. Here's a photo of it in Titus Canyon, at the site of the ghost town of Leadfield, California:

Death Valley is surrounded by mountains with much cooler high altitude campgrounds. I often enjoyed camping in such places, and White Thang got me to them. Mahogany Flat was the start of the summit trail to Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in Death Valley National Park, and White Thang is parked under the sign indicating the elevation. If you're trying to figure out my license plate, "AK6C" was my ham radio call sign when I lived in California; my call sign in Texas is now W5HLH:

Here's one of my "camp sites," namely White Thang parked in isolated open country. This is near the Eureka Sand Dunes in the Saline Valley section of Death Valley National Park, and it can't be reached in your Honda Accord or Toyota Corolla. In places like this, I was dozens of miles from the nearest power line or electric light. It's hard to believe how dark the night sky is from a place like this, and I'll never forget the 2001 Leonids meteor shower from a similar location in Death Valley!

White Thang was also a great vehicle for exploring the mountains. Below is one of my favorite mountain camping places, a location known as "Badger Flat" in the Inyo Mountains along the California/Nevada state line. In the background is the Sierra Nevada range. Sunrises were spectacular here, with the first rays of the sun hitting the peaks of the Sierras while the sky was still dark; the tops of the Sierras would have a ghosty glow against the dark sky, and then the illumination would work its way down the mountains. And, thanks to White Thang's ability to get me to such isolated areas, I would usually have such places and views all to myself. The quiet, peace, and beauty were awe-inspiring, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to enjoy them:

When we bought the Bar Nothing Ranch in 2005, White Thang was traded in on a Toyota Tundra pickup truck------hey, we needed it to haul hay, horse feed, the horse trailer, etc. While White Thang is gone, it will always live on in my memory. I suppose many people only saw a gas-guzzling SUV when they saw it, but to me White Thang was a ticket to places and experiences I otherwise would have missed out on. I really miss that car!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Gold Point, Nevada

The ghost town of Gold Point, Nevada looks like a set for a western movie-----it consists of several dilapidated wooden structures stuck in the middle of a desert wilderness. It is privately owned and visitors can spend the night there in some of the surviving structures. Gold Point is located about 180 miles north of Las Vegas on Highway 95; it's about midway between Beatty and Goldfield at the junction of Highway 95 and Highway 266 (this is where the Cottontail Ranch brothel is located-----the only commercial establishment for many miles----so the intersection is hard to miss!). Travel about 7.5 miles west on 266 until you reach Highway 774, a graded dirt road. From there, it's about 8 miles to Gold Point. The dirt road is usually suitable for passenger cars, and before long you're entering the suburbs of Gold Point:

The first mining in the Gold Point region began in 1868, but the town didn't come into being until a large silver strike in 1908. The original name of the town was Hornsilver. By 1908, railroad and wagon transportation had improved to the point where it was economically practical to ship lumber to such an isolated site, so Hornsilver had numerous wooden buildings instead of the stone, adobe, and rock structures found in most nineteenth century towns. Before long, Hornsilver had a post office, a population of over 1000, a newspaper, and 13 saloons.

The initial fast growth of Hornsilver couldn't be sustained, however. Mine production stagnated and there were many disputes over mining claims, effectively shutting down numerous mines during the litigation process. But in 1927, a vein of gold was discovered and the name was changed to Gold Point in an effort to lure more investors. The production of gold was modest, however, and the town slowly faded away. Mining of non-strategic materials like gold was suspended at the start of World War II, and as a result Gold Point became almost completely abandoned after 1941. Only a few old-timers remained, but the post office continued to operate until 1967.

Every building in Gold Point, even those that seem completely abandoned, is owned by someone. Most often, that "someone" is Herb Robbins, a carpenter and ghost town buff who managed to win over $220,000 in a Las Vegas casino. He had visited Gold Point numerous times before his big win, and long felt the town should be preserved. With his casino windfall, he bought up much of the remaining property and converted/restored five of the surviving cabins into bed-and-breakfast accommodations. He also re-opened one saloon that serves visitors on weekends, and below is its impressive bar:

There is still some small mining activity in Gold Point, and the residences of those miners are easy to recognize-----they are off-limits behind fencing:

The house below looks a little too fancy to have been the home of a miner. Maybe one of the mine superintendents and his family called it home:

It's remarkable how well-preserved some of the buildings are in Gold Point:

However, most are in a state of decay, like the one below:

Gold Point is a long way from both Las Vegas and Reno, but it's worth the trip from either. It's a shame that so many people visit Las Vegas and never see any more of Nevada than it. Nevada is a state loaded with history and unusual places; anyone looking for the real Old West can find plenty of it in rural Nevada. My favorite weekend activity when I lived in Las Vegas was to take my 4Runner and head for a place located well beyond where the paved roads ended!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I Don't Want To Come Back As A Splotch With A Speech Impediment

As might be expected, I have spent much time recently wondering what will happen to me when I die. For centuries, the ignorant and superstitious have sought answers to that question in religion. However, I am an educated modern man of science and logic, and so I instead seek those answers in cable television reality programs, specifically Most Haunted, Paranormal State, and, of course, Ghost Hunters.

All three purport to be true accounts of actual scientific investigations of hauntings and other paranormal activities conducted by a team of investigators using instruments such as electromagnetic field detectors, infrared viewers, digital videocams and recorders, etc. Much of each episode takes place in the dark, filmed with night vision camera, as members of the investigative teams take turns saying things to each other like "did you hear that?" and "I can't believe what I just saw!" All claim to have captured evidence of hauntings, including photos and audio recordings of actual ghosts. And, since it's on TV, I have to assume it's all true.

The granddaddy of these programs is Most Haunted, a British import airing on the Travel Channel that is an absolute hoot; it's like an episode of Monty Python set in a haunted house. The star is Yvette Fielding, a blonde whose main investigative talent is apparently the ability to project a look of wide-eyed astonishment at all times. Her partner is David Wells, a medium with a gift for telling outlandish stories with a straight face. They are assisted by a rotating crew of investigators. Their night investigative sequences are filmed with a night vision camera that gives everything and everyone a Hulk-like greenish hue, and their eyes glow like a cat's. Most of their investigations take place in the UK, although they have done a couple of road trips to America.

I first came upon Most Haunted during a trip they did to America to conduct an investigation in San Diego. I was idly channel surfing and recognized the location as the Old Town section of San Diego, so I immediately stopped to watch what they were doing in the city I lived in for over a decade. Within minutes, I was laughing hysterically. Some of the errors were perhaps excusable for a British cast and crew unfamiliar with American geography-----I'm sure the citizens of Miami or Hilo would've been surprised to learn San Diego is the southernmost city in the United States!------while others were pure bullshit. At one point David Wells went into a "trance" and said he was hearing the spirit cries from warriors who died in a great battle at that site. . . . . . . a battle to the death between the Navajos and Comanches. . . . . . and by that time I was laughing so hard my sides hurt. David seemed so sincere and convincing that I'm sure his intended UK audience had no idea the battle he was describing was just as ridiculous as the notion of a battle to the death between Vikings and Mongols in the countryside of Kent.

Much of the "evidence" presented on Most Haunted looks really cheesy, like moving lights that look exactly like those I can produce using a laser pointer in a dark room. Moving "blobs" they capture with their cameras are just like those I get when an insect or mote of dust moves in front of my digital camera. They also have seances in the dark where tables, chairs, etc., move, but those are the type of cheap spiritualist tricks exposed by Harry Houdini decades ago. All in all, Most Haunted is profoundly unconvincing, and I suspect they know they are fooling no one but the most hopelessly credulous. Like professional wrestling, their attitude seems to be that it's your own fault if you believe any of it, and I can't argue with that. Oh well, it's good fun just the same.

I'm a little more concerned about Paranormal State, an A&E series about an investigative team composed of students from Penn State University. One thing I dislike about this series is how all the cases they investigate seem to involve people with obvious mental problems-----if someone tells me they hear voices when they're alone at home, my first reaction is it's far more likely a case of schizophrenia than a haunting------and I think such people are being exploited by the Paranormal State crew. The leader of the investigators, Ryan Buell, is an aspiring screenwriter and----by remarkable coincidence!----many of the cases "investigated" borrow several elements from The Exorcist and other movies about demonic possession. In fact, some episodes have involved bringing in a supposed exorcist to "cleanse" a house or building of evil spirits, and the people involved seem sincere when they claim the "hauntings" are now over. The cynic in me says those people feel better because they got what they really wanted-----namely, someone to listen sympathetically to their outlandish stories and put them on television, briefly making them famous-----instead of feeling better because they no longer have demons in their house. But what do I know??

The evidence gathered and presented on Paranormal State is flimsy and laughable, leaning heavily on electronic voice phenomena (EVP) recordings of sounds supposedly made by ghostly entities. Given how easy it is to fake such evidence-----especially when those EVPs fit in so well with the narrative of a given episode-----it's impossible to take them seriously absent corroborating evidence. And the Paranormal State crew are not a warm-and-fuzzy bunch; they're a grim and humorless group, making the series feel like a cross between the old Scooby Doo cartoon series and the 1920s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Yes, Paranormal State is indeed creepy, but not for the reasons they intended. As you can tell, this is my least favorite of the three shows.

Ah, but Ghost Hunters is another story! This is the most popular series on the SciFi network for a lot of reasons, with the biggest one being the cast. It concerns the adventures of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS----get it??), which is headed by a pair of Roto Rooter plumbers named Jason
Hawes and Grant Wilson. Jason is a beefy, balding guy who looks pretty scary all by himself; you could see him playing the role of a serial killer in some made-for-TV movie. Grant is a thinner, more normal looking guy. They are aided by Steve Gonsalves, their "technology specialist" who sets up their equipment and leads analysis of collected evidence. I can't help but be reminded of the cast of Gilligan's Island, with Jason being the Skipper, Grant being The Professor, and the often hapless Steve being Gilligan. They are assisted by other TAPS members who change with each season.

The big draw of Ghost Hunters is their pseudoscientific use of gadgets and technology in a Ghostbusters-like fashion. They show up at a supposedly haunted place like they've been on a buying frenzy at Fry's Electronics. Electromagnetic field detectors! Night vision cameras! Infrared-sensing cameras! Digital voice recorders! Computers and more computers! One of the highlights of each investigation is the painstaking assembly and disassembly of their monitoring equipment and cameras, and each episode is certain to include segments where they detect magnetic field variations, glowing blobs visible only in infrared, disembodied voices, and other evidence of paranormal activity. Ghost Hunters is the only show of the three that relies more on documented "evidence" than personal testimony, and it really throws down the gauntlet in showing images of what seem to be actual, no-shit ghosts and apparitions. In fact, what really got me hooked on this program was an episode investigating a supposedly haunted lighthouse in Saint Augustine, Florida, in which a shadowy, ghost-like figure was videoed climbing a spiral staircase inside the lighthouse. As they say in poker, that was an "all in" moment which left no middle ground: either they were skillfully perpetrating a very convincing hoax or they had captured an actual ghost on film.

Sadly for me and my chances in the afterlife, I think they were just skillfully perpetrating a very convincing hoax.

I'm of the school that says that extraordinary claims must be backed by extraordinary evidence, and this is where Ghost Hunters really falls short despite its veneer of being scientific. The biggest problem is what the legal field calls the "chain of custody of evidence." All of the video, audio, and other evidence collected by TAPS remains in the possession of TAPS before and after airing, and there is no independent third-party review of the evidence-----nor, for that matter, is there a skeptic or other independent person not convinced of the reality of ghosts on the TAPS team. In other words, there is no way to make sure their evidence has not been altered or created (and to alter a digital video or audio file is ridiculously easy these days) and TAPS goes into investigations with the presupposition that ghosts and other paranormal phenomena are indeed real. Both Jason and Grant are writers of science fiction and fantasy books and screenplays, which strongly suggests both possess the ability to create very convincing fictional scenarios. The array of equipment used by TAPS looks impressive, but the evidence they gather with it is much less so. Electromagnetic fields vary throughout a house or buildings for very non-paranormal reasons (like the fact that any wire carrying an electric current, like ordinary house wiring, will be surrounded by a magnetic field!) as can temperatures, etc. The EVP evidence might initially seem impressive, but the human mind inherently tries to find order in random sounds and can easily interpret varying background noise as words (this is something I know very well from my ham radio activities; it is very easy to mis-identify a weak station barely above the noise level). And any audio editing program like SoundForge will allow you to "creatively edit" a digital audio file.

Some web sites have done a good job of showing how the TAPS crew misinterprets data or worse. One of the best known episodes of Ghost Hunters featured what was supposedly the apparition of a Civil War soldier revealed in infrared, but this has been convincingly debunked (at least to my satisfaction) by others. More serious are cases where it appears TAPS may have altered evidence or willfully perpetrated an outright fraud. (Note: in an earlier version of this post, I said Grant was an amateur magician and this would be a big help in perpetrating a fraud. A reader e-mailed me to say this way incorrect, and the amaturr magician was a former TAPS member named Dave Tango, who participated in investigations in earlier seasons of the program. I appreciate the correction!) Numerous viewers, including me, have also noted how many of the EVP recordings sound nothing like what the TAPS investigators claim they sound like; an EVP the TAPS crew claims is saying "Get out of here!" sounds more like "Goortrifffahhhchah" to me.

So I'm depressed. Is it my fate to spend eternity merely as a beet-red splotch, visible only in an infrared camera, mumbling unintelligibly, pursued in the night by a team of investigative plumbers?? Should I abandon my quest to understand the afterlife through science and instead seek solace in religion, even if it means forgoing the worship of graven images, an activity I find greatly relaxing??

Just in case there is a way for the dead to communicate with the living, I have given Di a two word phrase that will identify me as the spirit responsible for uttering it or otherwise making myself known. If you think you have made contact with me after my demise, tell Di what I supposedly said to you. She'll know if it was really me.

Monday, June 9, 2008

"The Boys" In Their New Home

Dub and Buck seem to be adjusting well to their new home! Kimberly Critz, the daughter of Ward and Sue Critz, sent the photos below of the boys (Kimberly is in some of the photos with them).

Di and I are so, so grateful Dub and Buck have a good home. They will always be "our boys"! In the photo below, that's Buck in the foreground while Dub lingers in the background:

Here's Kimberly with Buck. Buck was always more at ease around women than men, and I guess that pattern is continuing:

Dub is striking a classic "Dub pose" in the photo below. His face is friendly, curious, and peaceful; there is a beautiful, gentle soul inside that horse!

Buck is exploring his new pasture below. I can't find the words to express what a relief it is that they are together in such a wonderful home!

Say Hello To Stanley The Cat!

Di and I have a female cat named Sydney, and she seemed a little lonely in a household dominated by three dogs and a rabbit who thinks she's a Doberman Pinscher. We resolved to get her a feline companion, and as a consequence the newest member of our household is a cat named Stanley.

We didn't choose Stanley. Instead, he selected us. We went to the Coastal Bend Humane Society in Corpus Christi looking for a female Siamese cat. We tried our best to ignore Stanley----then known as "Casanova"-----but he refused to be ignored. He kept poking his paws out of his cage and touching us. He made lots of noises and rubbed up against our hands when we reached into his cage. He had decided he wanted to go home with us, and so we came home with a male muttcat instead of a female Siamese purebred.

Another problem was his name. We originally wanted to call him "Sheldon" to match Sydney's name (yes, our cats were going to be a tribute to the famed 1970s author of trashy novels) but he refused to acknowledge us when we called him "Sheldon." By mistake, I called him "Stanley," and he immediately responded to me. And that's been his name ever since.

Stanley is very playful and loving-----every night he has climbed onto the bed and slept with me and Di. He's very curious, likes to chase his own tail, and thinks the desk in the home office is a terrific place to take a nap. He's very much at home here and he's going to be a big part of our lives from now on!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

California's Cirque Peak

By the standards of the Sierra Nevada range, Cirque Peak is a modest mountain of 12,990 feet. But it offers some great views from the summit. Below is a view of it from the Chicken Spring Lake region of the Horseshoe Meadow trail. You can clearly see the timberline on the left (western) slope of the mountain, and the right slope is the steeper eastern face of the mountain. Cirque Peak is located south of Lone Pine, CA, and trail to it begins at the end of Horseshoe Meadow Road:

In my Sierra climbs, I have usually taken the western slopes because they are less steep and easier to climb. Cirque Peak was one that I decided to ascend via the eastern face. I first became interested in climbing Cirque when I hiked the Horseshoe Meadow trail and stopped at Chicken Spring Lake to rest, and noted the pass leading to the saddle (that's the big patch of snow atop the ridge in the photo below) and summit of Cirque Peak. Below is a photo I took; the pass is the smooth vertical slope in the middle leading to the saddle and Cirque Peak is to the right. I took this in early June when there was still a good bit of snow in the Sierras, but I vowed to return six weeks later and attempt the climb from Chicken Spring Lake:

While the pass up from Chicken Spring Lake looks smooth in the photo above, it's actually very rocky and has a slope of about 40-45 degrees. I took the photo below after gaining the saddle and beginning my ascent to the summit plateau of Cirque. Chicken Spring Lake looks different from this perspective! The climb up the pass required no rope or technical skills, but I did have to take several rest breaks atop boulders while asking myself, why the hell am I doing this??

The views from the summit plateau are among the best in the Sierras. Here is the view to the northeast toward the Cottonwood Lakes area:

The view below is directly to the north and shows the summit of Mount Langley. At 14,009 feet, Mount Langley is the southernmost "fourteener" in the United States:

Since this was a solo climb in mid-week and I had the entire mountain to myself, there was no one to take a summit photo of me. I had to be content with photographing my boot-clad foot jutting skyward:

A descent down the eastern face without a rope seemed more risky than I wanted to try solo, so I opted to take the more gentle western slope back down to the Horseshoe Meadow trail. I was lucky enough to find the footprints of earlier climbers and just followed them back down to the trail. All in all, Cirque Peak was a great climb: terrific views, a beautiful day, plenty of quiet and solitude, and natural beauty everywhere.