Friday, September 26, 2008

The Luckiest Boy In The World

That's me!


Today is my birthday. I've made it to 56 years.

Slightly over two years ago, I got the news my colon cancer had metastasized to my liver and I was now at Stage IV. Less than 20% of colon cancer patients survive two years after it spreads to the liver (for example, former White House press secretary Tony Snow only lived an additional 17 months). Not only am I still here, but the only real signs something's wrong are weight loss, erratic sleep, and a lack of energy. I am still able to do many things I enjoy. When I got the news back in August, 2007 that the chemotherapy had failed to stop the return of my liver tumor, I wanted just one more good year. I got it, and I'm going to get some more time. That's a big reason why I am so lucky.

But an even bigger reason is people like you. Yes, you reading this blog!

Since getting sick, I have had incredible support from my family: my wife Dianna, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my ex-wife Tina. It is easy to walk a tightrope when you have such a big, strong net under you. They have all given me the most precious gift any cancer patient can ever get, namely the knowledge that you matter to other people. I am so grateful. In particular, my "Princess Di" has been there for me.We have spent over half of our married life with me as a cancer patient. We had such big dreams when we bought the ranch in Smithville and planned to raise horses; all that went out the window just a few months later. Yet she has never complained, never uttered a word of regret, and has shown amazing grace and courage since then. I am so, so lucky to have her in my life.

And then there are my friends who have been with me during this time. Some have been my friends since junior high (like Hugh and Chuck), others (like Forrest Mims and Jon Erickson) I have known since the Carter presidency, and still others are those Di and I have made since returning to Texas. I can't find the words to describe how much I always enjoy hearing from them, whether by phone, e-mail, or visits to our home. (Notice to those who have done the latter: our new cat Stanley is now declawed, and you may visit us in safety.)

I had "virtual friends" long before the internet came along, and by this I'm referring to the people I got to know who were either readers of my writing or fellow radio hobbyists. I have communicated, in some cases for years, with such people through letters and, later, e-mail; in only a few cases have I ever met them face-to-face or even spoken to them on the telephone (although I have "spoken" to some of them via Morse code over my ham radio station). I now regularly exchange e-mails with people in places as widely separated as Japan, Germany, and Australia, and even though I will almost certainly never get to meet them I feel as if I know them intimately.

I am so grateful to everyone of you. You have given me so much, and I hope I have given something in return------but I know I got the better end of the deal because you have all been such special people. I am very lucky to know all of you.

And that's why I feel so lucky today. Your love and friendship is a gift I get all year long from you, and I treasure it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

I have nothing special planned for today. Di and I went out for lunch earlier today, and I went into a buying frenzy at the local Barnes & Noble. I also have a nice pitcher of azul margaritas in the refrigerator, and I plan to consume it tonight during the presidential debate; I'll be playing "Presidential Pass-out." I'll chug down a margarita whenever Senator Obama utters the word "change" during the debate, and I'll do the same whenever Grandpa Rambo. . . . . . . . er, I mean, Senator McCain makes some reference to having been a POW. I anticipate I'll probably be good and drunk twenty minutes into the debate. (Full disclosure: I voted for Obama in the Texas primary and will do the same in the general election.)

But seriously. . . . . . . my sincere thanks and gratitude to all of you. You mean so much to me!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Eton E5 Versus The Sony ICF-7600GR

I've owned numerous shortwave radios over the last 45 years, ranging from the very simple (like a three tube Hallicrafters S-119) to professional-grade units costing well over $1000 (like the Drake R8B, the best shortwave receiver I have ever owned). It's amazing how much performance can now be packed into a compact unit at a small price, as I noted a few months ago when I wrote about the Eton E5 shortwave radio. Much to my surprise, I soon found myself using the E5 for most of my listening due to its outstanding audio quality, sensitivity to weak signals, ease of use, and small size.

The best shortwave portable I have ever owned was the Sony ICF-2010, which I purchased back in 2000. Recently my unit started to develop a little "stickiness" in the frequency tuning knob, which told me the frequency encoder unit was starting to fail. Repairing/replacing that would have been a real pain in the nether regions, so I put my ICF-2010 for sale on eBay (with a full disclosure of the problem, of course!). Soon it was on its way to its new owner, and for the first time since 1982 I was without a Sony portable shortwave radio. I felt compelled to fill that void!

I began looking around for a replacement for the ICF-2010. I considered the Eton E1, but its quality control issues and size gave me pause. I did want a unit with good single sideband reception capability and synchronous AM detection, and the only unit fitting that bill other than the E1 was Sony's ICF-7600GR receiver. That and the Eton E5 are generally considered the best of the "compact" class of portable shortwave radios, and thus I was soon the proud owner of both models! In the photo below, the Sony is at the left and the Eton is at right:

Both of these radios are small. The Eton E5 (at right) measures 6.68x4.125x1.125 inches while the Sony ICF-7600GR to its left is 7.5x4.75x1.25 inches. Both are powered by 4 "AA" batteries and have AC "wall wart" power supplies. Each also has a built-in telescoping whip antenna and input jacks for external antennas. The "street price" of the ICF-7600GR is about $135-$150 while the E5 goes for $100-$125.

Both the ICF-7600GR and E5 tune from 150 kHz to 30 MHz, longwave through shortwave, in 1 kHz tuning steps. Both also tune the FM broadcast band in 10 kHz steps. Tuning in 1 kHz increments means its is not possible to "fine tune" frequencies-----if a station is operating on 3986.7 kHz, then 3987 kHz is as close as you can tune it-----but I have frankly not found that to be much of a bother when tuning AM mode broadcast signals. Each radio has a tunable beat-frequency oscillator (BFO) for tuning sideband signals, and the selectivity of both is such that tuning CW Morse code signals is no problem with the 1 kHz tuning step. Yes, some fetishists might argue it's essential to be able to tune to at least the nearest 100 Hz, but it's no big deal for 99% of listeners. Both models allow frequencies to be entered from the front panel keypads, much like entering a phone number.

Most reviews (like the one found in Passport to World Band Radio) rate the ICF-7600GR as being better than the E5. Both are fine receivers and I think most listeners would be very happy with either, but I prefer the E5 for most listening situations.

Why? The E5 is slightly more sensitive that the ICF-7600GR throughout its frequency range, except for a curious "blip" between 1800-3000 kHz where the Sony is significantly more sensitive; I have no idea whether this is a design flaw in the E5 or an anomaly peculiar to my unit. The internal noise level is slightly lower on the E5 than the ICF-7600GR (and both are noticeably quieter than the ICF-2010). While audio quality is very subjective, I feel the E5's audio is crisper and "cleaner" than on the ICF-7600GR. This difference goes beyond "it sounds nicer"-----weak signals are easier for me to understand on the E5 due to the better audio.

The E5 has two selectivity bandwidths, and the narrower bandwidth is a real help when, for example, listening to stations on 6175 and 6185 kHz when Cuba's powerhouse signal on 6180 is on the air. The same is true when tuning the ham bands on 75 and 40 meters, as the narrow bandwidth helps dig out stations covered by interference on the Sony. However, the Sony's one bandwidth is fully adequate for most reception situations.

On FM, there is no real contest between the two-----the Eton blows away the Sony. For example, I can hear KONO-101.1 in San Antonio most days with no trouble on the E5. On the the ICF-7600GR, 101.1 is covered by interference from a local Corpus Christi station on 101.3.

Where the ICF-7600GR has a clear advantage over the E5 is in single sideband reception. The Sony has selectable upper and lower sideband positions and a sideband fine tuning control. The result is sideband reception as good as that on the ICF-2010; it is stable and produces very impressive audio. If I were looking for a receiver to use with a low power (QRP) ham transmitter, the ICF-7600GR would definitely be my choice. The E5 can also receive sideband signals well, but the BFO tuning knob is very "touchy" and you have to readjust it every few minutes due to "drift" in the BFO circuit.

I am not impressed with the synchro AM detection circuit in the ICF-7600GR; it is much less capable than the one in the ICF-2010 (or Drake R8B). It works well, and improves the audio quality, when AM signals are relatively free of interference. However, it loses "lock" easily on signal fades and tends to get "confused" when more than one signal is on a frequency (such as on the AM broadcast band), producing "whooshing" sounds as it tries to decide which carrier to lock on to. It's a nice feature and I'm glad the ICF-7600GR has it, but it's not as useful as I had hoped. Because of the improved audio it produces, I normally leave the synchro detection on when tuning for AM signals but switch it off if it is having trouble keeping "lock" on a station's carrier.

The E5 has a tuning knob in addition to the keypad and "slewing" buttons for changing frequency. In contrast, the ICF-7600GR has 10 KHz and 1 kHz slewing buttons in addition to the keypad. I know it's just my personal preference, but I really like the tuning knob on the E5. I can sweep through a frequency band much faster with it than with the slewing keys on the ICF-7600GR.

Both units appear well made. I prefer the "stiffer" buttons on the E5. Only very light pressure is required to activate a button on the Sony, making it too easy to accidentally change frequency or a control setting. The controls on the E5 seem a little more intuitive to me than those of the ICF-7600GR. For example, to enter a frequency from the E5 keypad you simply enter the frequency and then press one button. But with the ICF-7600GR, you must first press a "Direct" button, then enter the frequency, and finally press an "Exe" button.

If top-notch single sideband reception is important to you, the ICF-7600GR is the way to go. Otherwise, I recommend the smaller and less expensive E5. You can't go wrong with either; I've done side-by-side reception comparisons and there was never a case where a signal audible on one wasn't audible on the other. I'm glad to own both!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Carrara, Nevada

Carrara is an Italian town famed for the quality of its marble; many surviving ruins of the Roman empire were made from that marble. It's not surprising that a Nevada town founded around a marble quarry would take the name "Carrara."

Carrara is located on Nevada Highway 95 about six miles south of Beatty, or about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. The Carrara townsite is clearly visible toward the east from Highway 95:

Marble deposits were first discovered here in 1904, and the town was formally incorporated, and a post office opened, in 1913. In short order it had a general store, a hotel, a restaurant, a newspaper called the Carrara Obelisk, and a population of a few hundred. It had everything necessary for success except a quality product from its quarry. Despite the hopes of its promoters, the marble found at Carrara was too fractured to make it commercially viable. The population started to drift away, and by 1924 the quarry and post office had closed. The desert began to reclaim the town.

Fortunately, marble was used in the construction of the quarry offices and other buildings at Carrara, making for some impressive ruins:

In the late 1930s, there was an attempt to use the marble to make "ruggedized" cement. That venture failed, but it did leave behind a cement plant. Here's a view from its ruins, looking down the hill toward the rest of Carrara and Highway 95:

Most of the other structures at Carrara were made from wood, and that wood-----along with any metal pipes, etc.-----was removed by scavengers a long time ago. Only rusted-out cans and bits of broken glass indicate this was once a town with people living there. I imagine a lot of visitors zooming north out of Las Vegas toward the Beatty entrance to Death Valley have seen the remains of Carrara in the distance and wondered what they were looking at!

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Dunmovin, California

Highway 395 in California runs from Interstate 15 (just beyond Cajon Pass) up to the Nevada state line. For much of its route, it parallels the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada range and offers jaw-dropping mountain scenery. It is a road I have driven dozens and dozens of times, and is one of my all-time favorite highways. And along it you can see the ghost town of Dunmovin, California. If you like Dunmovin, you can buy it! Take a look at this photo:

Dunmovin is located about three miles north of the Coso Junction rest stop along Highway 395, but getting there is complicated because the rest stop is located on the northbound side of Highway 395 but Dunmovin is on the southbound side; you'll have to drive a little north and then loop back south. When you arrive, you'll find the town site is enclosed behind a fence (or at least it was last time I visited back in 2003). It's a very isolated area, and the chances of anyone knowing (or caring) that you trespassed on the property are remote. However, I preferred to respect the property rights of the owner(s) and instead looked at it from afar. Below is what seems to have been a store, judging from that faded and now illegible sign atop the front:

I've had zero luck in finding out anything about Dunmovin. According to post office records, there was never a post office there nor does the state of California have any record of an incorporated town at this location. It appears on some road maps (especially those from the AAA) but not others. My guess is this location served travelers back when Highway 395 was the main route between Los Angeles and Reno. The neon sign below was probably a welcome sight in the night for weary travelers way back when:

I'm guessing the structures below are some of the guest cabins, although I wouldn't be surprised if some of them also housed workers-----Dunmovin is a long way from any place to live (CalTrans workers at the nearby Coso Junction rest stop live in mobile homes belonging to the state). You can see a mobile home in the photo below, but looking at it through binoculars I saw that it was abandoned (door and windows open, etc.), The whole site seemed 100% deserted, with not even a caretaker on the premises:

I get the feeling this structure may have been a restaurant; it has "the look" of one, especially with those windows and curtains:

What is most puzzling about Dunmovin is its enigmatic web site, which offers no history or background about Dunmovin but does offer several photos of the construction of a mountain home (click the "Now Showing" link at the site) along with hosting server data (click the other links at the site). If anyone knows more about Dunmovin, I'd certainly like to hear from you!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hell No, We Ain't Gonna Go!

Okay, Di and I are going to ride out Hurricane Ike here in Corpus Christi. We were prepared for the possibility of leaving until we saw the 7:00 am National Hurricane Center forecast this morning. Ike is now strongly projected to pass to the north of us, and the odds of us getting hurricane force winds here are now less than 20%. The current forecast is for winds no stronger than 50 MPH and less than three inches of rain-----in other words, no worse than a severe thunderstorm. Our real concern here, living about a mile from the Gulf, was a storm surge but that now seems a very remote threat. We'll just lower our hurricane shutters tomorrow afternoon and hunker down. Like Travis, Bowie, and Crockett at the Alamo, I will stand my ground to the very end!

I do feel for the people in Galveston, as the chances for significant flooding from Ike's surge are high. I am also worried about the possibility of tornadoes Saturday in east Texas; I fear people in Tyler, College Station, Huntsville, Longview, etc., are going to fare much worse than we will.

At any rate, I'll be updating this post over the next couple of days to reflect what's happening/happened here in Corpus Christi.

Friday, September 12, 8:30 am: I drove a couple of miles up to Ocean Drive, and----zowie!!!-----the Gulf looks really angry this morning! Lots of waves, some very high ones, and it looks like high tide. . . . . . . . but low tide was around 8:15 this morning. It was odd to see such a violent ocean under blue, cloudless skies. I suspect there is going to be some flooding along the Corpus beachfront later today.

Friday, September 12, 12:30 pm: Clouds are starting to arrive in Corpus, although the water seems calmer than it was this morning (although the level is still elevated from normal). Below is a photo I took around 12:30 from Palmetto Park, which is located on Ocean Drive a couple of miles from my home. Normally you can see a sandy beach there, but not today. You can see downtown Corpus in the distance. Our home is adjacent to the Oso Beach golf course, and the course looks as crowded as a Saturday-----I guess a lot of people have the day off! It's almost unnaturally calm and quiet here------the proverbial "calm before the storm"-----and I fear things are going to be a lot nastier twelve hours from now.

Friday, September 12, 5:45 pm: The clouds are building up and starting to look angry. It's also weirdly silent; there are no birds flying or chirping/singing. Yet a few golfers were still out on the Oso Bay golf course when I walked out on it to take the photos below. The first is of a water hazard connected to Corpus Christi Bay. I'm going to use it as my reference point for any storm surge here. The first photo looks to the north and shows a wooden bridge across the hazard; I can already tell the water is higher than normal. The second photo shows how the hazard flows out to the bay under the bridge you see. Any storm surge in the bay will also flow into the hazard. I plan to go out as soon as I can tomorrow and check on the water level in the hazard.

I am astonished to hear that as much as 40% of the population of Galveston may have declined to evacuate and may still be on the island. It might be true, but there is something in me that refuses, or maybe is unable, to believe that figure. If it is true, a substantial number of those people will die for no reason whatsoever other than flat-out stupidity. I'm already hearing reports some people are trapped on rooftops and can't be rescued by helicopter because of winds. If I've learned anything from my situation, it is how fragile and precious life is, and it is beyond my comprehension that people, through a combination of lethargy and idiocy, would let themselves be trapped such a dangerous situation. If I had the opportunity to drive away from cancer, I'd be hauling ass down the highway right now!

I also dread what is going to happen when Ike moves inland and all the momentum in those cloud bands has to be dissipated in some fashion. The easiest way for Ike to shed it would be through a tornado outbreak, and I get this ugly feeling tomorrow is going to see a lot of twisters.

From a scientific perspective, a hurricane is a fascinating phenomenon. From a human perspective, it is an unmitigated disaster. I have this awful feeling a lot of people are going to die tonight.

Friday, September 12, 7:46 pm:
I took our dogs out to let them relieve themselves, and saw an incredible sight as the light of the setting sun reflected off Ike's high-altitude clouds. I dashed back to grab my camera, and managed to catch the shot below. Unfortunately, it's not as spectacular a view as when I first saw the clouds:

Friday, September 12, 11:05 pm: I stepped outside and the moon is clearly visible through high, wispy clouds. Only a slight wind, and still very warm for this time of night. Are we going to dodge a bullet here in Corpus? I still want to stay awake long enough to see when/if the heavy stuff arrives here, but at the moment we seem to be incredibly lucky. Those poor people in Galveston-----back on Tuesday, it was looking as if that was going to be our fate.

Saturday, September 13, 12:45 am: Incredible! Not a drop of rain, not a strong gust of wind, and you can still see the moon here in Corpus! Maybe we'll pick up some rain and wind later tonight, but I don't think I'm going to be able to stay awake long enough to see it. I'm going to watch some more TV coverage of Galveston/Houston and probably call it a night in a half-hour or so. Unless something major happens here, this will be my last post until morning.

Saturday, September 13, 8:30 am:
Absolutely nothing happened last night. No rain, no wind, no nothing. I was out this morning and the Gulf from Ocean Drive was calmer than it was yesterday morning. The water hazard on the Oso Beach golf course was still elevated, but it was about the same as last evening. On one hand, I feel lucky. On the other hand, I feel this was a demonstration that our models for projecting the path, intensity, and effects of hurricanes are badly flawed and much, much less reliable than they are purported to be. While I decided to stay based on the projection for low impact here, I now realize the opposite outcome-----namely, high winds and widespread damage-----was probably just as likely. We are still a long, long way from being able to make reasonably accurate (say within 20% of the actual outcome) predictions of hurricane behavior. If anything, this experience has probably made me more likely to leave in a similar case in the future. Oh well, this will be my last update to this thread; I'm going to now raise the hurricane shutters and get some light back into this place!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

We Have A New Car!

Di and I took delivery of our new 2009 Scion Xd yesterday. Above is a photo I took today at the beach here, with Di behind the wheel and Katiya, the dog princess, serving as co-pilot.

The Scion is one of Toyota's brands, and frankly we were looking for a new Toyota when stepped onto the lot at Champion Toyota in Corpus Christi last week. But the Scion quickly sold itself when we spotted some on the lot. The Scion brand is aimed at the under-35 age bracket, but I was quickly impressed at the package it offered for the money. It's a four door hatchback, very similar to a Honda Civic hatchback, and has the build quality and finish you associate with Toyota----there are no rattles, everything fits together snugly, the paint is smooth and even, etc. On the road, it has the same "Toyota feel" that I've enjoyed since I got my 4Runner years ago. Steering is nice and tight, the ABS brakes are smooth and act fast, the suspension lets you feel the road without jarring you, it turns in a small radius, etc. Acceleration is surprisingly good for a four cylinder engine. The Xd came with a boatload of standard equipment, including an iPod recharger and input port on the AM/FM/CD audio system; I can play my iPod through the audio system without draining its battery. The only options we have on our Xd are tinted glass and XM satellite radio.

If you're looking for a new car, I suggest you give the Scion Xd serious consideration.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Coaldale, Nevada: The Saga Continues!

Back in April, I wrote about the ghost town of Coaldale, Nevada. That was one of the more puzzling sites I've visited, and I asked if anyone had more information about it. In July, Maria Avtgis, a former resident of Coaldale, wrote with more information about the place.

Coaldale, Nevada is the gift that keeps on giving! Today I received an e-mail from Gary "Bunndini" Bunn, a fellow "desert rat" who recently visited Coaldale. With his permission, I'm reprinting his comments:

We just rode through Coaldale Junction (May 08) on our way to two days in Tonopah, then Goldfield and on to Stove Pipe Wells. Someone burned down the cafe and garage at Coaldale to the ground! There was a little sign someone wrote that said "To those who died here". What that meant I don't know. That big old house out back was wide open and empty.

"To those who died here"?? Huh?? What's that supposed to mean??

I can't say I'm surprised that someone vandalized the site; one of the depressing things about the American West is how many isolated historic sites-----like ghost towns and rock art sites----have been damaged or destroyed. But that sign makes me suspect that something major may have happened at Coaldale after my visit.

If anyone has more information about Coaldale, or any of the other sites I write about here, I'd love to hear from you!

Gary has a fascinating web site at Drop by and take a look!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

N.O. On The Mountains

All the excitement about Hurricane Gustav hitting New Orleans reminded me about N.O., the world famous mountain-climbing stuffed toy penguin.

"N.O." stood for "New Orleans," and was a gift from my previous wife Tina. He got his name because Tina surreptitiously hid him in my luggage on a trip we took to New Orleans, and thereafter he became my traveling companion on various trips, including mountain climbs. And taking a photo of N.O. on the summit soon became a ritual for me.

For example, here's the summit of Humphrey's Peak, the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. Somewhere down behind him is the town of Flagstaff:

San Bernardino Peak rises to 10,649 feet in the-----surprise!------San Bernardino Mountains of southern California. Here N.O. relaxes below the summit marker after reaching the top:

Telescope Peak towers 11,049 feet above the floor of Death Valley, and N.O. looks down on the summit register for that peak:

N.O. also accompanied me on my climb of White Mountain Peak, and got his photo taken at 14,266 feet as a result:

And finally here is Trail Crest on the Mount Whitney summit trail; this is at 13,777 feet with Trail Camp, the main overnight camping spot for Mount Whitney climbers, below at 12,039 feet near the lake at right:

Somewhere in all my moves from California to Nevada to Texas, I lost N.O. But if there's an afterlife, N.O. will be waiting for me there!