Saturday, November 29, 2008

Happy Birthday, Di!

Today is the birthday of my wife Di. Above is one of my favorite photos of her, one I took at dusk on the observation platform of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. Back in 2003, I swore I would never get married again, and I sure as hell was never going to live in Texas again. And then I saw her, with that fiery red hair against a clear blue desert sky, I was immediately stricken by the sight, and suddenly all of my plans and vows went out the window. And I'm glad they did.

Since we met, she has been both my parole officer and game warden and, since I got sick, increasingly my nurse and my reason for trying to hold on as long as I can. She has shown courage, strength, character, and patience. There have been times she was the only light in my darkness.

Happy birthday, baby! I love you!!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

I'm lucky enough to see another Thanksgiving, and I have a lot to be thankful about.

Like my family and friends. Like the people I've never met but who I "know" through my writings, this blog, and radio activities. Like our dogs, cats, and Lucy the wonder rabbit. Like my memories of the places I've been and the things I have done. Like the fact that I'm one of the lucky patients located on the right side of the mean survival time bell curve. As I look back on my life and reflect, the one thing that keeps popping into my mind is man, I've been one lucky SOB!

Years ago, I used to say I wanted to die suddenly and unexpectedly, and never have an idea it was coming. But I am thankful the way things have turned out and for this opportunity to look back at the road I have traveled. I have climbed heights only to experience steep, brutal falls. I have been thrown from one side to the other. I have turned one way and then turned sharply in the opposite. Sometimes all I could do was hold on as tightly as I could.

That sounds like a world-class roller coaster ride, doesn't it? And that's the perfect metaphor for my life. Now my ride is nearing the end-----the part where the roller coaster slows down as it returns to its starting point-----and I have to say it was a lot of fun, well worth the trip, and I'd do it all again, exactly the same way, without hesitation. And for that I'm thankful.

I hope everyone reading these words feels the same way toward the end of their life journey.

It's just me and Di today. There will be the obligatory overconsumption of food, perhaps a walk on the beach, and then back home to watch the Cowboys versus Seattle and, later, the Texas Longhorns confronting the dreaded Texas A&M Aggies. Viewing of those games will be assisted by bottles of 2008 Georges duBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, which will probably do me more good than all that $15K a month chemotherapy I received.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone, and thank you for stopping by!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Darwin, California

Darwin, California isn't a "true" ghost town; as the sign shows, a handful of people still remain. But it's a "zombie" town that seems populated almost exclusively by those on disability or engaged in activities they wish to keep away from the eyes of local, state, and federal law enforcement agents.

Darwin is located on Highway 190, the western entrance to Death Valley National Park (this is the so-called Panamint Springs entrance). It is reached by taking the Highway 190 exit east off Highway 395 just south of Olancha, CA. The road to Darwin is on the right from Highway 190 eastbound, although it is poorly marked and it's easy to zoom right past it------as most visitors to Death Valley via this entrance do.

Darwin in named for Dr. Darwin French, a prospector who discovered silver in the area in 1874. By 1877, Darwin had over 3500 people with water pumped down from springs in the surrounding mountains. There was a silver smelter, a Wells Fargo office, two general stores, a hotel, several saloons and eating establishments, and a weekly newspaper. Because the site was isolated and populated by miners with little to do for recreation but drink, gunfights were common; outbound silver shipments were frequently the targets of robbers. But in 1879, the miners staged a violent strike for higher pay, culminating in a large fire, believed to be arson, that hit Darwin on April 30 of that year. Many buildings were destroyed, including mine offices, and the results were predictable: the mine operators quickly pulled out. and the now permanently unemployed miners had no choice but to do the same. By 1880, the population of Darwin was only 85. But it never completely died.

In 1908, some new lead and copper strikes were made in the area and people began to return to Darwin. By the 1920s, the population was back up to 1000 and remained around that level until all non-essential mining activity was curtailed in 1942. By the time World War II ended, Darwin had less than 100 people. In the early 1950s, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company greatly expanded its lead mining operations in Darwin, even building a new mining camp (complete with housing facilities for workers) that dwarfed Darwin. For a period in the late 1950s, Darwin was the largest producer of lead in the United States. But the mine began to play out, and Anaconda shut down its operations in the mid-1970s. Today, the remains of their large facilities can be viewed in the distance from behind a fence, as shown below. Being a security guard for Anaconda at this facility seems to be about the only source of employment in Darwin:

Much of Darwin looks like the scene below, with plenty of boarded-up buildings from the 1920s "rebirth" and abandoned/inoperable vehicles from the 1950s left to slowly rust in the high desert:

There's no place in Darwin to get any gasoline or your car repaired-----heck, there's no place to buy anything to eat or drink!------but there is this cool abandoned service station/general store. Look at those two neat old "gravity" gasoline pumps still standing out front!

For fun, I suppose everyone in town goes to the Darwin Dance Hall. When I looked through the windows, however, I didn't see much room to dance, only a lot of glass bottles and miscellaneous pieces of wooden furniture:

One building which survives from Darwin's original 1874-79 boom period is the wooden building below which has served as a schoolhouse, then a saloon, and, finally, reportedly a brothel. Maybe it was all three at once; if so, I guess everyone was happy when they had a lot of homework:

Most of the remaining population of Darwin lives in ramshackle dwellings like the ones below, although many have whimsical little touches like the Mickey Mouse head at right. The only water supply to Darwin comes through a single six inch pipe from the adjacent China Lake Naval Weapons Center. One of the people I spoke to in Darwin said the water pressure sometimes falls to a trickle, and residents all stockpile water for drinking, etc., for such times. The nearest grocery store or medical attention is in Lone Pine, about 60 miles away.

Like all small, isolated areas of the American West, Darwin attracts its fair share of eccentrics, misfits, and those who are just plain batshit crazy. They live in places like the "house" below; it's a fiberglass, pre-fab fallout shelter from the 1950s. You were supposed to cover it with soil or concrete to block radiation. You weren't supposed to locate it on the west side of Death Valley, install an air conditioner, and make it your home sweet home:

It takes a special person to live in Darwin. I'm not special.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The iPhone As An eBook Publishing Platform

Back in early 2005, I started a blog titled "Future of Radio" in which I discussed the coming revolution in radio and communications technology. One of my topic labels was "cellphonecasting," which was a term I coined to refer to phones with wireless broadband capability that could be used to receive internet radio and video streaming. Eventually, that morphed into my conclusion that one day we would carry around a sort of "universal communications device" that would be your mobile phone, have your MP3 and video files for entertainment, allow you to store photos, contact information, and other files, and would finally provide wireless broadband access to the internet.

I discontinued the "Future of Radio" after getting sick, but I was pleased to see the original iPhone validated the notion of "cellphonecasting" and a pocket-sized "universal communications device."

Elsevier gave me an iPod Touch last year after I left my consulting gig, and it was a revelation to use. I was struck by the clarity and resolution of the small screen, and had no trouble reading any of the web pages I accessed on it via WiFi. I mentioned to some of my friends in the publishing business that I thought something like the iPod Touch or iPhone could become an eBook platform. I also felt dedicated eBook platforms like Amazon's Kindle were not the way to go because most of us are looking to carry around fewer items, not more; multifunction devices like the iPod Touch/iPhone struck me as the way of the future.

That's why I found this post from Joe Wikert about his experiences with the iPhone 3G as an eBook platform very interesting. Note how his commenters are also reporting their positive experiences with the iPhone 3G as an eBook reader.

So what would I do if I were 30 and in the print publishing or terrestrial/satellite radio businesses? I would be preparing for a future in which almost everyone has something like the iPhone 3G and gets "publications" and "radio" through it.

For a lot of big, established media players, this is going to be a painful, perhaps fatal, transition. For budding entrepreneurs with energy, imagination, and boldness, it's going to be the opportunity to make a lot of money. . . . . . and I mean a LOT of money.

Given the current gloom and doom about the economy, that might sound a little crazy. But two of the greatest business success stories of the last 50 years, Apple and Microsoft, were started in the mid-1970s, in a similarly hostile-----if not worse-----economic environment. Anybody remember gasoline lines? A prime interest rate of over 20%? Double-digit inflation? It wasn't fun back then, boys and girls, but Steve Jobs and Bill Gates recognized what was on the horizon, took action, and won big. Heck, we started LLH/HighText back in 1990, and the economy wasn't exactly great then. But that's the best time to start something new because many of your potential competitors will be fearfully huddled in their caves, waiting for the storm to pass.

The same is possible today, and brains and the willingness to take a chance will be a lot more important than money and connections.

If I could be reasonably confident of being around two years from now, I'd be getting my ass into high gear to exploit these opportunities. As it is, I am going to make my next book, currently being written, available for the iPhone. If you're in publishing or broadcasting and are reading these words, what are you waiting for?

Whatever you do, or dream, begin it now. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.----Goethe

Friday, November 7, 2008

An Inchoate, Angry Rant For Such A Beautiful Autumn Day

It's official: General Motors has started its death spasms and, of course, wants you------I'm talking about you, schmuck, the American taxpayer------to bail them out. President-elect Barack Obama is on board with the idea, and I suppose that means GM will soon be getting billions of federal money.

Is it possible to impeach a president prior to his inauguration?

Why? Because if GM is in such dire financial straits, then where did they find the $300 million to build a new auto factory in Russia? (And note the date of the grand opening----today, November 7, the day they announced to the world they're going broke!)

And in September, GM opened another $300 million dollar plant, this time in India. Of course, I don't want to forget the $250 million facility they are building in China.

In other words, will any GM bailout go to help save the American auto industry or will it instead go to help the auto industries of Russia, India, and China? (Hint: this is a how damn stupid are you anyway?? type of question.)

The root of General Motors's problems are twofold: 1) they are bloated, producing too many brands that compete with each other more than they compete with other automakers, and 2) GM makes poorly built, crappy cars that offer terrible value for the money.

GM's current problems are exacerbated because of GMAC, the auto financing arm once wholly owned by GM. For years, GMAC provided financing for customers purchasing GM cars through GM dealers and, even more importantly, was how GM dealers financed their inventory. Not only was GMAC the lubricant that kept the GM sales machine running, it was also a cash machine for GM, generating $2.4 billion in pre-tax profit for GM in 2005.

But then GM's executives got a bright idea: to make up for declines in their auto sales and auto profits, they would sell 51% of GMAC to Cerberus Capital in 2006. GM got $14 billion for that 51%, and that allowed GM to show a nice profit in 2006.

But. . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . GM lost control of their ability to finance both their customers and dealers. And that is beginning to squeeze hard now. Have you seen any of the recent GM commercials with their "financing that fits" promotion? That's because GMAC is no longer financing any individual customers but the most credit worthy (credit scores of 700+), and those people can usually get a better credit rate elsewhere. Even more ominous is what GMAC is doing to GM dealers. GMAC is now only financing inventory for three months instead of the previous six and no longer finances any used car inventory. In short, GMAC, at the behest of Cerberus, is slowly strangling GM, much like a python coiled around GM's neck.

And why would they do that? Well, guess which company bought Chrysler last year and took it private?

Yep, Cerberus. The financing arm GM depended on for decades to provide credit to its customers and dealers is now controlled by a competitor. That was the reason for the recent flurry of rumors about a GM/Chrysler merger or acquisition-----Cerberus was trying to force GM to buy Chrysler at a price that would make a nice profit to Cerberus for one year's "work." And that plan would likely have gone through if not for GM steep nosedive over the past quarter.

Of course, the same fools at GM who engineered the sale of GMAC, such as Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz, are still there and still making nice paychecks even as their dumbass decisions have put the company's survival into question.

A federal bailout of General Motors will not save GM or the American auto industry. A bailout will not alter the fundamentals of the industry (like overcapacity) or make GM's management any brighter. All it will do is keep those new plants in Russia, India, and China running.

It's time for some tough love.

The proper solution for GM's problems, as well as those for Chrysler, Ford, Goldman Sachs, or any of the other leeches wanting federal money, is called a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Chapter 11 isn't nice for anyone involved. Existing management is fired, the board of directors is replaced, labor contracts are voided, creditors are paid just a fraction of what they are owed, assets are sold, shareholders have their investment reduced to pennies per share, and control of the company is in the hands of court-appointed trustees and managers.

But it does give the company a clean slate, fresh management, a new structure, and a greatly improved chance for survival. It is no guarantee of survival, but in GM's case it represents the only realistic chance for survival.

If I were the court-appointed trustee to oversee GM in Chapter 11, I would immediately discontinue the Buick, Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer brands. I'd sell them to a foreign manufacturer if I could; if I couldn't, I'd stop production of them to focus on just the Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC brands. I'd sell the start-up operations in places like Russia, India, and China to instead focus on the still-profitable European operations. I'd also greatly reduce the number of GM dealers.

Advocates of a federal bailout for GM would probably wail, "But what about those who would lose their jobs in Chapter 11?" Guess what? Those jobs are going to disappear regardless. It's a much better idea to take the bailout money you were planning to give to GM and instead spend it on extended unemployment benefits and other financial assistance, transitional medical care, and training for new jobs for affected workers. It would also be a lot cheaper than giving the money to Wagoner and Lutz so they can just piss it away, and they would be coming back in 2011 for another bailout anyway.

You didn't know GM was investing more in new facilities in Russia, India, and China than they are in the United States, did you? That's because most of the mainstream press just regurgitates corporate press releases instead of doing any research. It took me about ten minutes on Google to find the news about GM's overseas investments, and I bet I could've found more with a little extra effort.

President Bush's bailout of Wall Street investment firms cemented his claim to being the dumbest bastard ever to occupy the Oval Office. But if Obama gives in to demands by GM and the rest of the auto industry for a comparable bailout, then he will have taken the first step toward giving Bush a serious run for that title. Enough already! This country simply can't afford to write a check to every company, or individual, that makes dumb financial decisions. One day there has to be a reckoning. And this day is as good as any to start that process.

Okay, I promise I won't turn this into a political opinion or rant blog. But today's announcement by GM, and the sympathetic press coverage that provided no analysis or insight into how they got into their predicament, sent me over the edge. I'm now going to pour a couple of glasses of Pandasol sangria and try to calm down.

And it really was a beautiful day here; highs in the upper 70s, low humidity, and not a cloud in the sky.

Update! It just gets worse. Since finishing the post above, it turns out GM is now making more plans to expand its presence in China.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Another Print Publication Goes Down For The Count

U.S. News and World Report is changing to a web-only publication. Can Time and Newsweek be far behind?

I'm glad I'm not 30 and intent on a career in print book or magazine publishing!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The First, Last, And Only Political Post I Will Ever Make On This Blog

The photo above shows John McCain using the dreaded "Shaolin death grip" he learned in Vietnam from the late Kung Fu superstar Bruce Lee on President Bush, causing the president to scream in pain. It's too bad McCain ignored my advice to use the Shaolin death grip when he shook Barack Obama's hand before each debate. . . . . . Barack would collapse and writhe in pain, McCain could taunt him: So tell me whose bitch you are, Barack!, and the good senator from Illinois would be forced to squeal I is yo bitch, massuh John, I is yo bitch!

I believe such a moment could have indeed changed the course of this election, but that is not to be.

The Obama campaign has been very impressive in its organization, especially its use of the internet to mobilize supporters, while the McCain campaign has resembled a bit of concept-driven, avant garde performance art that has gone badly awry. Or maybe the "Red Zone Cuba" episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a more apt comparison. At any rate, by this time 48 hours from now I firmly expect Obama to be our next president.

The real suspense is going to be in comparing the final polls to the actual election results. The final polls are all over the place, and it's clear that some major errors are being made in polling methodologies and analysis. For example, Gallup today gives Obama a lead of 8% while IDB/TIPP has Obama with a 2% lead. That's the sort of difference that can't be explained as normal variations in the data; something else is going on. And as someone fascinated by statistics-----three college courses in it-----I have some ideas.

One obvious problem is that the sample of a political population self-selects; no one can be forced to participate in a poll. I have read that about 20% of those contacted by political pollsters decline to take part. That has to introduce a huge error into the results, although the extent and direction of that error can't be determined. But it is definitely there.

Pollsters also contact people via landline telephone numbers. But an increasing number of people only have cell phones, and those people are omitted from any polling. I was in that situation when I lived in Las Vegas; I had a landline number, but I used it exclusively for my fax machine. If you wanted to make a voice call to me, you had to reach me at my cell phone. Contacting only those with landline phones is another source of sampling error.

But perhaps the biggest source of error in this election will be the Bradley effect. This is the dirty little secret we're not supposed to talk about; as a nation, we like to tell ourselves race will not be a factor in elections. But I don't believe it. I am confident there are quite a few white voters who will not vote for Obama because he is black but will not admit that to a pollster-----instead, they will say they are undecided or even say they are voting for Obama.

Versions of the Bradley effect are found in other areas. For example, it has been repeatedly shown that people are much less like to admit to certain beliefs and behaviors via personal interviews (either face-to-face or by telephone) than they will via anonymous written questionnaires. Just a couple of weeks ago I saw an item where a survey was conducted of married women from 25 to 40 on the subject of infidelity.Only 1% of women interviewed by telephone admitted to having had an affair; that number jumped to 8% on anonymous written questionnaires.

Because of the Bradley effect, I think Obama's margin of victory is going to be less than the polls indicate. I suspect he will win by 3% to 5% in the popular vote, but have a very healthy margin in electoral votes. It will be interesting to see if exit polling is any more accurate than it was in 2004, when exit polls had such laughably inaccurate results as John Kerry winning South Carolina. My advice would be to ignore any and all exit polls tomorrow; wait until actual vote totals start coming in before drawing any conclusions.

I cast my ballot in early voting last week, and I voted for Obama. I did so because I respect his intellect, because I feel we need a president uncontaminated by the "beltway mentality," because. . . . . . . ah crap, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm dying from cancer. I'm worried that maybe my college professors were wrong, that there really is a heaven and a hell, that I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do before much longer. . . . . . . . so maybe if I vote for a black guy for president, thereby demonstrating I am really A Good Person after all, maybe I can plea bargain down to probation and a couple of hundred hours of community service instead of eternity on the Rotisserie Of Divine Vengeance.

An act of desperation? Yes, but I am a desperate man.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Bodie, California

I've been dreading the day when I would write about Bodie, California. While it is an impressively preserved ghost town, it is heavily visited and a California state park in the bargain. The things I love about "real" ghost towns-----the challenge of getting there, the isolation in them, the total lack of anything "touristy"-----are all missing in Bodie. It has an admission fee, is only open for a few hours a day, and has hordes of tourists driving up from Yosemite to see a bit of the Old West. But at least it's an authentic ghost town-----nothing has been restored-----and the park rangers do a good job of protecting the remaining structures. If you don't mind sharing Bodie with a horde of overweight parents and their snot-nosed kids, this ghost town has a lot to recommend it. At least Bodie looks like what most people think a ghost town should look like:

Bodie is located east of Highway 395 between Yosemite National Park and the town of Bridgeport, CA; it is seven miles south of Bridgeport on 395, and the exit to the east is clearly marked. The first ten miles or so of the road to Bodie is paved, but the last three miles are gravel. The road is no problem for most passenger cars in dry weather during the summer, but mud and snow can be a problem the rest of the year------June through September is the best time to visit. The park is open all year, however, and some visit by snowmobile in the winter. The elevation here is about 8300 feet, and temperatures even in the summer can be cold, especially early or late in the day. No services other than flush toliets are available in Bodie, so be sure to have a full tank of gas and everything else you need before heading out. Drinking water is something you should definitely take, as the altitude and dry air can quickly dehydrate you as you walk around the town.

Bodie was named for Waterman Body, who discovered gold in the hills around the town site in 1859. In 1877, a major strike in the area created the second biggest gold rush in California's history, and by 1880 Bodie had grown to over 10,000 people. The shot below shows the remnants of the mining operations-----they are the gray buildings toward the left. This is where gold was extracted from the mined ore:

Bodie was a wild, lawless town. There were supposedly 65 saloons in operation, gunfights to the death were frequent (as were lynchings and other forms of vigillante justice), and even a Chinatown with opium dens. But by 1900 it also had some surprising amenities, including an opera house,
a fire department and a limited fire hydrant system, a railroad line, two newspapers, locally generated electricity, and even a semi-pro baseball team that scheduled games with teams from Reno and Aurora, Nevada.

By the late 1910s, however, the gold veins began to play out and the mines closed. People began leaving Bodie as rapidly as they arrived three decades earlier. During the 1920s and Prohibition, Bodie made a virtue of its isolation and became a center for illegal whiskey and gambling. But fate dealt Bodie a fatal blow on June 23, 1932, when a major fire, fanned by high winds, swept through the town and destroyed most of its buildings. The result is a town site today that has large empty spaces between the remaining structures, as you can see below:

The 1932 fire was the killing blow to Bodie as a living town. Basic services, like electricity and fire protection, were not restored after the fire. The post office and school closed, and all but a handful of residents moved on. By the early 1950s, Bodie was completely deserted and scavengers began to tear down the surviving buildings for their lumber and brick. Fortunately, the state of California purchased the site in 1961 and added it to the state park system in 1964.

Bodie is maintained in what is called a "state of arrested decay." This means no effort has been made to restore the buildings, but steps are taken to prevent further damage to them. The photo below illustrates what is meant by "arrested decay"; the building is leaning badly, but is kept propped up so it doesn't collapse:

Perhaps the most impressive building left in Bodie is the old schoolhouse. Below is a photo I took of it on my last visit back in June, 2004. If you look carefully at the right, you can see Di and our dog Bahrnee:

Another pair of impressive structures is the post office building and an adjoining general store. In the photo below, Di, accompanied by Bahrnee, is looking into the windows of the old store; the brick building at left is the post office:

The photo below shows what was once Main Street in Bodie. All those empty spaces represent where buildings were lost in the 1932 fire.

The scavengers who descended upon Bodie in the 1950s managed to take away most of a bank building, but they couldn't take away the vault. It still stands amid the ruins:

The remaining houses in Bodie were generally owned by the last people to live in the town and were probably occupied until at least the late 1940s:

This final photo is another example of the "arrested decay" theory in action. Yes, it's an outhouse. And there's no other structure within a hundred feet of it; I guess it survived the 1932 fire while the home it was built to serve must have been destroyed. It is now lovingly preserved by the taxpayers of California. There must be some sort of lesson in that: