Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More Death Rattles From Print Publishing

The Christian Science Monitor is discontinuing its print version and going to a web-only version. (No word yet concerning the plans of its main competitor, the Muslim Superstition Merrimac.)

Seriously, that is big news------this is the first major (seven Pulitzers to its credit) newspaper to abandon print and opt for a 100% web version. The circulation of the Monitor had been in a steady decline, along with that of most other major newspapers. And newspapers are responding with staff reductions followed by more staff reductions. That's why I have to congratulate the Monitor for taking such a bold step to position itself for the future; it certainly beats the half-assed, emphasis on cosmetics approach of the floundering New York Times. ("I flew back from California in coach!! Oh, the horror of it all!!") And the financial markets and credit-rating agencies are starting to notice the problems of various media companies. Many print media companies are highly leveraged (that is, they are up to their asses in debt) and it is only a matter of time before some of them will be forced to liquidate assets, likely at fire sale prices which will drive down the value of media assets held by other companies. It will not be a pretty sight, and the closing of publications and job losses in 2009 are both inevitable. The only open questions are "how deep?" and "how many?".

None of this pleases me. My entire career has been spent in magazine and book publishing. I love the feeling of holding a physical book in my hands that I've written; I enjoy the tactile feedback I get from turning paper pages. But I'm a realist. Too much of the consumer cost of print media (books, newspapers, and magazines) is tied up in the printing and distribution of physical printed materials; consumers are tired of footing those bills. Advertising and ancilliary revenue sources can't close the gap. In fact, many advertisers have permanently migrated the bulk of their efforts from print to the web, and no upturn in the economy will reverse that trend.

For better or worse, a transition from print to electronic publishing has to happen; economics alone dictates it must happen. But I get this terrible feeling many in the print publishing world are not prepared, and are not preparing, for that day. There seems to be this unspoken hope that somehow, some way, it will be possible to ride out this crazy internet fad and one day circulations of newspapers and magazines, along with book sales, will return to their per-capita rates of the 1960s. All that's required is to hang tough, refuse to compromise "journalistic principles" (whatever they are), and eventually those people who insist on getting their news and information from the internet will come to their senses.

I understand what motivates those sentiments. I've tried for the past few years to figure out what the future of book publishing will look like, and I must confess I still don't have a clue in hell how it will shake out. I have this feeling it will eventually evolve into something where a physical printed book is only a small part of the total revenue mix. I suspect "book publishing" will morph into something involving a web site (with ads) where readers and others meet to to discuss the book content with the author and each other. eBook versions, supported by embedded ads, will be freely available and widely circulated. The web sites and eBook versions could include video and audio clips that can't be included in a print version. In a sense, a book might never be completed but rather continuously updated and revised as long as the readers (and author) care about the material. And print books could become something akin to a high-end souvenir, much like a team jersey or sweatshirt purchased during a trip to Texas Stadium to see a Cowboys game. (And those "high-end souvenirs" will increasingly be the product of print-on-demand technologies.) In my vision of the future, most author/publisher revenue would come from the electronic publishing side, and the print revenues would be strictly ancillary income, a reversal from today's revenue models.

And, as I've previously blogged here, maybe many authors will find it more lucrative to self-publish through Amazon's CreateSpace or than to go through established book publishers.

Again, I have no idea how any of this is going to be play out or whether I'm barking up the wrong tree here-----no idea whatsoever. All I know is that the tectonic plates under print publishing are shifting rapidly these days, and there are going to be some big winners, and big losers, over the next few years. There's a part of me that wishes I could be in a position to take part in this revolution, while another part of me is grateful I can watch this from the sidelines. If I were still in the print publishing business these days, I would be both excited and apprehensive about the future.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Signs That Stopped Me In My Tracks

When I was doing the research for Top Secret Tourism, I made several visits to the boundaries of restricted sites in the western United States. And while I couldn't actually get inside those places, I could at least take photos of the signs warning me to stay away.

Let's start with America's favorite top secret facility, Area 51. Below is a sign I photographed at its border. Maybe it's just me, but there is something irresistible about a "Photography of this Area is Prohibited" sign-----I just have to take a photo of it! If the sign had read "Photography of this Area is Mandatory," I would've taken no pictures. With people like me, you sometimes must employ reverse psychology:

Here's another sign forbidding photography of Area 51. That orange post at right is how the border is marked beyond the main road; they are spaced about 100 feet apart in the desert. As I discovered, the security guards get very interested in what you're doing once you hike away from the main road and start traveling in the open desert:

Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA is where top secret aircraft are built before their existence becomes known. The U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, along with the B-2 and F-117 Stealth aircraft, were built here along with all sorts of prototypes that never became operational
. If it flies and Uncle Sam doesn't want you to know about it, it's built here. Of course, photography is prohibited at Plant 42, and of course I had to photograph the sign informing me about that:

The Nevada Test Site is the most heavily nuked piece of real estate on the planet. 126 above-ground tests and over 800 underground tests have been conducted here; it's also been the site of chemical and biological weapons tests. That's why I wasn't too offended by the sign below telling me to stay out; I guess they were just concerned about my welfare:

Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the security at the Nevada Test Site was often amazingly lax. For example, I discovered one unmanned, and unlocked, entrance gate a few miles north of the sign above. I actually got to drive about a mile inside the facility before I decided not to press my luck too far and retreated. The shot below is of an old Atomic Energy Commission sign on that road; it apparently led to the site of several 1950s above-ground nuclear tests:

I wrote more about my travels to the places above on a blog at the Feral House web site; here's the link and some interesting comments by listeners and readers.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"This Is. . . . . . Cinerama!!"

The most incredible movie experience of my life happened in the summer of 1962 when my parents and I went to see This Is Cinerama. Even 46 years later I can recall the impact of the opening roller coaster shot and how I literally had the physical sensation of motion------including up and down movement-----during it. More contemporary big screen formats, like IMAX, pale in comparison to Cinerama. It was as close to "virtual reality" as motion pictures have ever come.

Cinerama's astonishing visual impact was based on a simple idea: to capture and reproduce the same image normal human vision would see of a scene. That works out to a field of vision equivalent to 146 degrees. This meant Cinerama could approximate our peripheral vision------what we see out of the corners of our eyes. Since peripheral vision is responsible for our visual perception of motion, balance, and depth, the Cinerama picture could produce those perceptions in the audience.

To achieve this wide field of vision, the Cinerama camera simultaneously exposed three roles of film using a common motor drive and shutter for uniform focus. The camera used three lenses offset from each other by 48 degrees; each filmed one-third of the final Cinerama image. To reduce "flicker," Cinerama movies were filmed (and projected) at a speed of 26 feet per second (fps) instead of the standard 24 fps used for 35 mm film.

When Cinerama films were shown, the filming process was reversed. Three spools of film were simultaneously projected using a common motor drive to synchronize the three parts of the image. To enhance the peripheral vision effects, the screen was curved so the left and right parts of the image were closer to the audience. The image below is one I scanned from a This Is Cinerama souvenir program, and shows the layout of a typical Cinerama theater:

In the image above, note the speakers behind the screen. Cinerama's sound system was just as revolutionary as its visual system. It was recorded on a separate 35mm magnetic tape at a speed of 29 inches per second (ips); this was at a time when tapes used to make phonograph records were recorded at a speed of only 15 ips. Sound was recorded in seven separate channels, with five of the channels behind the screen, one to the side of the audience, and one behind the audience. The system was 100% analog, meaning it could reproduce sound more accurately and clearly than today's 100% digital CDs and MP3 files. The recording and audio playback equipment used vacuum tubes, which likewise produced better sound than today's solid state audio gear. (Don't take my world for it; ask any professional musician who still uses a tube-based Marshall amp, for example.) Acoustics were a key design element for all Cinerama theaters. All of this is why I am much less than impressed with today's theater audio systems, like THX. Their harsh, overly processed sound is much less realistic than what I remember from Cinerama.

What was it like to be in the Cinerama audience? Here's an image I scanned from a This Is Cinerama souvenir postcard. It gives a good idea of what the screen looked like from your seat; the picture was overwhelming:

Cinerama was the brainchild of Fred Waller, a jack-of-all-trades inventor with over 1000 patents to his credit (his other great invention was water skis!). Cinerama grew out of his work in World War II to develop an aerial gunnery and bombing trainer for pilots. The system he devised used five separate 35mm cameras and projected the image on a spherical dome screen. Students were able to move around inside the dome to simulate tracking and firing upon enemy fighters. And those students raved about how realistic the training was; it was easy to transfer their skills to actual aircraft.

Waller incorporated Cinerama, Inc., in 1946 to adapt the system for commercial motion pictures. And it's here where things get controversial. Waller claimed the three projector Cinerama system was solely his idea, but a similar system had been briefly used by French director Abel Gance at the end of his 1927 epic Napoleon. Gance wanted a spectacular conclusion to his film, and the final five minutes of the movie, featuring enormous battle scenes and Napoleon's pet eagle soaring overhead, were filmed with three separate, overlapping cameras and then projected with three separate, overlapping projectors on a wide screen.

I had the opportunity to see a restored print of Napoleon in 1981 at New York's Radio City Music Hall, and the effect in the closing sequence was eerily like Cinerama. There was a pronounced sense of depth and motion (something I have never experienced in any other black and white film, especially a silent one!). Gance was a well known director when Waller began his career, and Napoleon had played New York during the time Waller lived there. I have not found any quote from Waller, or in Cinerama's promotional materials, acknowledging Gance's pioneering work with a three camera/three projector process, but it's difficult for me to believe Waller was unaware of Gance's technique-----the similarities are just too numerous and immediately obvious to even casual observers. Thus, I think Gance deserves just as much credit for Cinerama as Waller.

Cinerama was conceived as a way movie theaters could compete with television, and Cinerama movies were intended to be exhibited much like Broadway plays-----one performance nightly, matinees on weekends, reserved seats, souvenir programs, an intermission, and premium ticket prices that were three or four times the admission of ordinary movies. A Cinerama movie was intended to be an event! Below is a souvenir program for This Is Cinerama I have in my collection:

This Is Cinerama had its world premiere in New York City on September 30, 1952. Despite playing only three months at one theater, This Is Cinerama was the highest grossing film of 1952. In the years that followed, new Cinerama-equipped theaters opened around the country and world. The high water mark was reached in 1963, when over 130 theaters worldwide were equipped for Cinerama.

But Cinerama never became the commercial success its backers expected. One problem was the lack of a plot in 1950s Cinerama movies. Cinerama, Inc., was a movie technology company, not a movie company, and its films reflected a total lack of storytelling skill. Cinerama movies were glorified travelogues in which the "plot," such as it was, involved people traveling around the world to gape at incredible sights or to take high speed trips aboard airplanes, trains, speedboats, etc. The titles reflected their content: Cinerama Holiday, South Seas Adventure, Seven Wonders Of The World, Search For Paradise, etc. They all seemed like home movies of a vacation to exotic places, except for being filmed in Cinerama instead of 8mm. And the audiences for each film declined from the previous one. By 1960, Cinerama, Inc., was struggling to stay afloat financially.

Cinerama got a reprieve in 1961 when it entered into an agreement with Metro Goldwyn Mayer to produce new feature films in Cinerama. Two pictures emerged from this venture: The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm, a biographical film of the two fairy tale authors that featured plenty of special effects, and How The West Was Won, a sprawling historical/adventure epic with stars such as Jimmy Stewart. Below is a scan from the latter's publicity materials; it gives you a good idea of what it was like to be inside a Cinerama theater:

Unfortunately, MGM discovered Cinerama to be too costly a process to justify its continued use and ended its association with Cinerama, Inc., in early 1963. Unable to find another filmmaking partner, Cinerama stopped making new movies altogether. They felt the name "Cinerama" still had value, however, so they developed an alternative to three camera/projector Cinerama. This, dubbed "Ultra Cinerama," used a single 70mm camera and a "squeeze" lens to compress a larger image onto the film; a special 70mm projector "unsqueezed" the image, producing a widescreen image that had the same aspect ratio (that is, height and width) as an original Cinerama image. However, its field of vision was only 80 degrees instead of the 146 degrees provided by original Cinerama. This was too narrow to simulate the effects of peripheral vision, so the result was a much less spectacular visual experience than original Cinerama. In many ways, Ultra Cinerama is much like IMAX; both produce large images but without the field of view or resolution that made original Cinerama so remarkable.

Cinerama licensed Ultra Cinerama for use in various movies (the most notable being 2001: A Space Odyssey) but it was not enough to keep the company solvent. In 1978, Cinerama, Inc. was acquired by Pacific Theatres, and they were mainly interested in the theater properties Cinerama owned and not the Cinerama filmmaking process.

Today, only three theaters in the world are still equipped for Cinerama and still show films made in original three camera/projector Cinerama: the Pictureville Cinema at the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television in Bradford, England, the Seattle Cinerama in Seattle, WA, and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, CA. Ironically, the latter was built by Cinerama, Inc., to show Ultra Cinerama films and showed no three camera/projector Cinerama films until it was renovated in 2002!

It's a shame no Cinerama theater is operating in a place that receives a ton of visitors, like Las Vegas. But if you ever find yourself in Los Angeles, Seattle, or Bradford and a Cinerama film is playing, by all means see it! It will be the greatest movie experience of your life.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Wrestle Indiana Jones On YouTube

I do Google and Yahoo searches on my name, and sometimes I come up with surprising links.

Like this one.

Is there really a professional wrestler out there named "Harry Helms"? Do I have a secret life I am not aware of? Would I really wear a tie and all-white in my professional wrestling matches? What significance do I have in the life of "carddealer758"?

I report. You decide.

Monday, October 20, 2008

How To Turn $3 Billion Into $1 In Ten Years

The annual Frankfurt Book Fair is on. This is when book publishers from around the world are gathering in Germany to do a little business (mostly in foreign rights sales) and a whole lot of gossiping, eating, drinking, and cavorting. But increasingly events like Frankfurt and Book Expo America are starting to remind me of the masquerade ball in Poe's The Masque of the Red Death; yes, everyone's having fun at the party, but death is waiting for them just outside the gates.

Exhibit A in print publishing's decline: a little over a decade ago, Rupert Murdoch paid $3 billion for Triangle Publications, the publishers of TV Guide magazine. Last week, TV Guide magazine was sold for the princely sum of one United States dollar.

Think about that for a second-----almost $3 billion dollars of value in a media property evaporated in a little over a decade. Almost $3 billion!!!

While the case of TV Guide is an extreme one, the entire print publishing business is suffering severe financial problems and it's clear many (most?) magazines, newspapers, and book publishers are not going to survive in their current form. And other "legacy media," like AM/FM radio broadcasting, are also getting clobbered in financial operating results and the per-share prices of the companies that own them.

The big reason for this is the internet. It allows near-instantaneous global distribution of information at a near-zero cost. Barriers to entry are very low. The results were, in retrospect, inevitable. Newspapers are suffering because they are, in effect, "oldspapers"-----the most recent news in them is several hours old at best. By contrast, web sites can cover news that's only minutes old and they are invariably ad supported and free to visitors. It has been years since I read a print copy of, say, the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, but I have both of their web sites marked and visit daily. But this means neither paper sells a physical copy to people like me, and the growth in ad revenues from their web sites has not been enough to offset the decline in circulation and ad revenues from their print editions. Other costs of the print editions-----like printing and distribution of papers-----have also been zooming, and the result is a terrible squeeze on the financials of both papers. (In fact, the office tower the New York Times owns is its most valuable asset now, more valuable than either the paper or the Boston Globe, which the Times also owns.)

The situation is similar for most magazines; their circulations and ad revenues have been static or declining while their associated printing and distribution costs have been rising. It's shocking to read a copy of Time or Newsweek at the doctor's office and see how thin such magazines are these days; they're more accurately described as pamphlets. And specialty book publishing, like technical and professional publishing, is getting squeezed by the amount of free information available on the internet. For example, I learned almost everything I know about ZigBee and WiMax from free "white papers" I downloaded from tech company web sites. A few months ago, Tim O'Reilly remarked that people looking to learn something like JavaScript no longer look for a book about the language. Instead, they search "JavaScript" at Google. In one of my last reports to Elsevier before I left my consulting gig last year, I said Elsevier and other technical publishers were facing a critical problem: how do you compete with tech companies that are distributing technical tutorials for free? Where can technical and reference book publishers add some value in the process? (I didn't have answers to those questions. I still don't.)

Ad revenues are being used to support most web sites, but ad revenues depend on the state of the economy and are now declining. Moreover, the amount of available ad dollars has not increased as rapidly as the number of publications, whether print or electronic, that depend on ad revenues; the pie hasn't grown as fast as the number of parties wanting a slice. Every media form that relies on advertising for a significant chunk of its revenues-----whether magazines, newspapers, or broadcasting-----is hurting now, and the pain is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And I have this strong feeling a lot of publications and broadcasters aren't going to make it through this difficult stretch.

The financial prospects for many publishers and broadcasters are made worse by the huge debt loads many of their parent companies are carrying. Refinancing those debts will be almost impossible, with a big reason being the steep decline in the value of media assets. That was what really caught my attention about the TV Guide story-----if an established, "brand name" media property can go from a multi-billion valuation to almost zero in a decade, how much is any advertising-dependent media property worth these days? Are the values of such established media properties as Time and the New York Times equally overstated and illusory? What is their true value, and how much blood will be shed during the "price discovery" process? If media companies can't refinance their maturing debts, they will be forced to liquidate many of their assets, and the results won't be pretty. It wouldn't surprise me to read about a major daily newspaper or AM/FM station being sold for a TV Guide price in 2009. For those working in the media, and for the stockholders of media companies, it's going to be a rough journey in the months ahead. For those who had enough foresight to stash away some cash during the fat years, there will be bargains available. But they are going to need a lot of changes and "repairs" to realize their full potential in the digital age.

As for book publishing, especially for specialized professional, technical, and other niche publishing, a migration to print-on-demand inventory and direct sales to end readers-----cutting bookstores, Amazon, other retailers, etc., out of the loop altogether-----seems inevitable. In fact, authors of books on niche topics might be better served by self-publishing through or Amazon's CreateSpace and bypassing conventional publishers altogether. And while eBooks have been The Next Big Thing for over a decade now, eventually some standard for eBooks and eBook publishing will emerge, and that will definitely impact book publishing, especially for material that has an "expiration date" (say, like a book on Windows Vista) and is not the sort of book you will keep for years and re-read.

I have no idea how all of this is going to play out. All I know is that I'm glad I'm retired from the publishing business and can watch this from the safety of the sidelines!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More Visual Detritus

I've again been going through the random .jpeg files on my PC's hard drive, and I have located some more which defy easy categorization or even comprehension.

Take the one below. It's a photo I snapped in Bishop, CA, of a local bar. It's clear this establishment is not some fey little fern bar or a place where twentysomethings try to pretend they're Frank or Dino at the Sands. No, this looks like an honest, workingman's drinking place. . . . . . . a joint where Bob and Earl meet after work to knock back Scotch with beer chasers while they debate the merits of various pickup trucks ("Yeah, those Dodges got Hemi engines, but I like the way my Chevy handles mud!"). John McCain would doubtlessly be welcome here; Barack Obama would be eyed suspiciously. If there is really a God, the bartender at this place had to be named "Fred":

People who visit Las Vegas think Las Vegas is weird. But those of us who have lived in Las Vegas know it is actually normal compared to the rest of Nevada. Exhibit A: the billboard below which I photographed in Pahrump, NV. Yes, it is an actual billboard for a brothel. It was when I stopped doing double-takes at such billboards------when they started to look mundane and everyday to me-----that I realized I had spent too much time in Nevada and it was time for me to leave:

This sign graces a small grocery in Graham, Virginia. I took this photo when visiting my former LLH partners, Jack and Carol Lewis, at their new home in Eagle Rock, VA. Was this sign a subtle hint to any potential customer planning to offer a check or, God forbid, seek to purchase items on credit? I suspect Donald Trump would be in agreement with Mick and/or Mack:

The sign below stood near the Furnace Creek campground and store in Death Valley National Park; the "reservation" for the Timbisha Shoshone tribe was located behind Furnace Creek. As with most recent claims of "tribal rights," this is pure horseshit-----Death Valley had no permanent human population, only transitory occupancy during the winter, with no tribal group dominant-----and appears mainly an effort to get a cut of the lucrative tourist business. This particular radio station could be heard for about 15 miles either side of this sign, which is not bad considering the station had to be below sea level if it was operating from the reservation. The programming on Timbisha Free Radio consisted of tribal chanting and endless rants about how European culture had destroyed Native American ways. It's good to see the Timbisha Shoshone tribe was following in the footsteps of its ancestral elders and using traditional Native American methods, like electricity and FM radio, to get its message out:

When you hear "Hawaii," what's the first word that pops into your mind? It's "junk," of course, as exemplified by this little business I photographed near the Hilo airport on the Big Island:

I'll have more photos like these as I locate them. . . . . .

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Garlock, California

Garlock is located in the southern Mojave desert, at the foothills of the El Paso mountains, between California highways 14 and 395, just south of Red Rock Canyon State Recreation Area. It came into being around 1887 because springs in the area provided water for travelers and a grazing area for their horses. In 1893, gold was discovered in nearby Randsburg. Because Garlock had a reliable supply of water, an eight-stamp mill was built in Garlock and miners took their nuggets there for refining into bullion. Garlock also became a supply center for miners in the region. By 1899. several hundred people were living in Garlock. It had a church, a school, and something called the "Garlock Literary Society," which was founded, according to its charter, "to be a positive influence on the town's morals." Garlock's ruins are on Garlock Road, accessible from either Highyway 14 or 395, and the site of Garlock is marked by the plaque below:

Garlock's fortunes were tied to Randsburg, and when the Randsburg mines began to fail so did Garlock. By 1903, Garlock was deserted. Today, all of the surviving buildings are located on private property behind fencing. While that means you can't explore the ruins, it also means the buildings are protected from vandalism:

The building below served as Garlock's school, then as a general store/tavern, and, supposedly, as a brothel/speakeasy for the remaining Randsburg miners during the 1920s. It has been closed for over eighty years and today is slowly falling apart:

Here's another view of the building above from the side:

Maybe Garlock's most enduring claim to fame is the fault named for it-----the Garlock Fault. This is the second longest fault in California and the only major one in the state running east-west instead of north-south. It connects the famed San Andreas Fault with the Death Valley Fault Zone. The Garlock Fault is not as well known (or feared) as the San Andreas and Hayward Faults, but it is geologically active (moving between 2 to 11 millimeters per year) and is overdue for a major rupture and earthquake. In other words, people in Bakersfield, Riverside, etc., need to be very, very concerned about the Garlock Fault. Meanwhile, Garlock itself now sleeps quietly in the high desert.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Still Lucky

Today was my quarterly visit to my oncologist-----Monday was the day I got all the tests done------and I'm still almost giddy at the news: there has been no significant change from my last visit in July. Yes, that tumor's still on my liver, the blood markers indicate an active tumor, but there has been no apparent growth or increase in its activity over the last three months.

I had expected bad news this time. My phenomenal luck is still working. That guy who was both laughing and wiping away tears as he left Coastal Bend Cancer Center this morning was me.

Today is Yom Kippur, and Di has been fasting since sundown yesterday. While I believe none of what she does, I also fast with her as a sign of respect for her religion and also as a token of my love for her. We will be eating out tonight at sunset to break the fast, and tonight it will also be a celebration of the incredibly good news I've been getting since my last surgery in January.

Don't waste a day you've been given, my friends; enjoy, use, and savor every one of them.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Little Rabbit Named Skittles

Take a look at the photo below, The white, spotted rabbit on the left is a dwarf lop named Skittles:

This photo is over twelve years old; it shows Skittles next to his "cage mate," a Dutch dwarf called Scooter. Both Skittles and Scooter were two of the four rabbits owned by me and my previous wife Tina. The other three, including Scooter, died since Tina and I separated. And a couple of days ago Tina told me Skittles also died. He was over 13 years old.

In the grand scheme of things, the death of a rabbit is not a major event. Skittles was a very small and insignificant part of the universe.

But I remember how playful and curious he was when he was young. The shape of his mouth, including the fur color, made him look like he was always smiling. When he lay in my lap and I petted his head, it was as if all the tension and angst would drain right out of me. He would lick my fingers and rub his chin against me, which is what rabbits do when they want to mark something as theirs.

Yes, Skittles was small and insignificant, but so are subatomic particles like quarks, leptons, and bosons. When added together, they make up everything in the universe. And when you add together the happiness and fun that creatures like Skittles bring into life, the result is just as incredible. Add up all your interactions with animals like Skittles, and add to that your interactions with your friends and family, and you suddenly realize what the point of life is, what gives our existence here purpose. The meaning of life is not found in grandiose plans or by acquiring a ton of bling you can't take with you when you die. Instead, it is found in accumulating as many small, everyday joys as possible, like the joy of holding a cute little rabbit who wants nothing more than to play with you for a while.

Skittle was a sweet little boy and I'm going to really miss him.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fact-Checking Harry Helms

Well, somebody's gotta do it, so it might as well be me.

I do searches for my name on engines like Google, Yahoo, etc., and just a couple of days ago discovered a "prediction" page I created back in 1999 is still up and active. It's my "farewell address" upon selling a web site I created,, to Universal Radio back in 1999. As you can see, the site dealt with topics in shortwave and ham radio as well as general personal communications topics.

The page that is the subject of this post can be found here. So how accurate were my predictions, given the hindsight afforded by nine years and four months? I'll address each using the same heading ("WHAT," etc.) that I used back in 1999.

WHAT: Pretty much self-explanatory, and Fred Osterman and the gang at Universal have done a terrific job with the site.

WHY: Things took a different turn than I projected here as my role with LLH proved more time-consuming than I expected. It also proved more lucrative than expected; we moved into the RF/wireless market at exactly the right time with such titles as Short Range Wireless Communications and RF Engineering for Wireless Networks. Not only did these sell well, they attracted the attention of Elsevier and culminated in our acquisition by them in August, 2001. I never got beyond a prototype for the hobby electronics site, and my plans to self-publish my own books under the Trephination Media imprint were postponed indefinitely due to LLH demands. After we were acquired, I have to admit I lost a good bit of my drive and need to constantly be doing stuff; it was like I had climbed my mountain and didn't feel like I had to prove anything more to myself or others. I was burned out from all the 60+ hour weeks, and the cash from the sale meant I could coast for a while. All that is a roundabout way of admitting I got lazy for a couple of years after the sale to Elsevier! But hey, that's why I have all these cool ghost town, etc., photos on this blog; instead of working on a book or web site, I went looking for stuff in the Big Empty of the American west. There is something to be said for taking a couple of years off from the rat race and simply pursuing your interests, wherever they may lead you. I'm glad I did!

HOW DID IT DO: Yes, was actually a profitable site for me. It would probably be even more profitable today through such programs as Google's Adwords, etc.

WHY UNIVERSAL: Let me add that Universal is the only place I would buy a high end (say, over $300) item of shortwave or ham radio gear. I've been a happy customer of theirs since the 1980s.

MY THANKS TO: Yes, those people I cited were instrumental in the success of I am still grateful to them. And, yes, there was really someone in the "Office of the POTUS" (president of the United States) who was a regular visitor to the site! I had originating domain resolution software installed on my server, and the "Office of the POTUS" domain meant that visitor was using a computer in the White House, New Executive Office Building, or Old Executive Office Building. So who was it???

SHORTWAVE RADIO AND THE CALIFORNIA RAILROAD MUSEUM: My prediction here have largely been borne out, although satellite radio certainly has not taken off outside the U.S./Canada as I expected. The announcement a couple of weeks ago that Radio Netherlands is ending its English broadcasting to North America is just the latest nail in the coffin of international shortwave broadcasting to developed countries. One thing I totally missed was how rapidly wireless broadband has grown and become relatively commonplace and not that expensive; that is going to be the real "killer app' replacing terrestrial radio, not satellite radio.

WILL SHORTWAVE RADIO DIE SOON? No it didn't, but it is still doing a prolonged fade into irrelevance. It will never totally disappear, much like movies did not totally replace live theater, but it will become a very niche medium with only a fraction of the audience it had in the 1960s and 1970s.

PRIVATE SHORTWAVE BROADCASTING IN THE UNITED STATES: They are secular religious fanatics, and, like religious religious fanatics, are beyond the reach of logic or reason. There is even a moonbat idea circulating to use the 26 MHz band for digital broadcasting in the United States. Whatever. . . . .

WHAT ABOUT HAM RADIO? Despite removing all Morse code requirements for any class of ham license, growth essentially remains stalled. Since ham licenses are issued for ten years and a one year grace period for renewal following expiration, I suspect the total number of living hams, as opposed to "active" licenses, might be declining!

WHAT ABOUT PIRATE RADIO? It's over, and has been for some time. It's interesting to hear a pirate station from a strictly DXing perspective, but really creative people are developing programs for delivery via internet streaming, not shortwave.

THE Y2K STUFF: Did I nail that or what? But such hysterias are a constant part of American life, as witnessed by the supposed financial apocalypse of the past two weeks. Here's a hint, boys and girls; it was all a fraud concocted by financial institutions to get you-----that's right, you, the average taxpaying schlub-----to bail them out of a lot of terrible lending decisions over the past decade. In fact, it was almost like Joe Hill arrived on Wall Street and organized a strike: give us $700 billion, or we banks won't lend you any more money! And, of course, the assorted mountebanks and jackasses that overrun Washington, including presidents-to-be John "Grandpa Rambo" McCain and Barrack Obama, went along with this nonsense. Screw it all, says I; sell the country to the Chinese and let's get it over with.

But here's one more prediction on the communications front: a decade from now, most of us will be using something very similar to today's iPhone, a sort of mobile universal communications device. It will be a telephone, have wireless broadband internet access, be a MP3 and video player, and will store your contacts, photos, home video clips, etc., and maybe even have some sort of improved text/eBook reader. And every car will have a docking station for it. This is already starting to happen; our new Scion Xd has a built-in iPod port that not only plays music from an iPod/iPhone but also recharges it (I've tested it with my iPod Touch and it works great). These devices will be the killing blows for much of terrestrial and satellite radio, especially for U.S. broadcasting. For decades, their business model has been premised on government-sanctioned scarcity-----only so many radio stations can broadcast in a given area, and if you don't like what's on the dial locally in, say, New York you didn't have the alternative of listening to stations in Los Angeles. That's all going to change once these mobile universal communications devices become commonplace. Indeed, new "radio stations" will not use "radio" but instead rely on IP streaming via the internet. Anyone anywhere in the world with a PC, the appropriate software, and a broadband connection will be in the broadcasting business. This shift is already underway with the growth of internet radio listening at fixed locations like home and work, but when wireless broadband becomes common, and listening can move to cars and mobile devices, it will really rocket into the stratosphere. It's going to be an interesting "radio" world in another decade!

Anyway, bookmark this post and check back in 2017 to see how I did!