Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Friends I Miss

Okay, so technically these people are not "family." That doesn't mean I can't miss our former neighbors when Di and I lived on the Bar Nothing Ranch.

Below are Sherrie and Leslie. They were the queen bees of the "Loop" (as we referred to Pine Valley Loop, the road on which they and we lived) and were organizers of the social scene. Sherrie is a sales engineer for Teology in Austin, and Leslie was the realtor who represented the original owners of the Bar Nothing Ranch. Like us, Sherrie and Leslie owned and rode horses, and the four of us spent many nice weekend afternoons riding along the trails in the area. They swore that had seen the "ghost donkey," a pure white donkey/ghost supposedly seen by some along the Loop on moonless nights (they were absolutely serious in claiming this). Sherrie and Leslie also hosted the annual Super Bowl Loop party, and this Sunday's game has me thinking about them and all the people who will be gathered there. Sherrie and Leslie were also the best damn pair of lesbian cowgirls in the entire state of Texas, IMHO. I gave them my 4-inch refractor telescope as a going-away present last May; I hope they are using it to stargaze under those wonderful dark skies.

Another great couple on the Loop was Wanda and Stuart Schoop, shown below. Wanda is a survivor of ovarian cancer, and was an invaluable resource when I first was diagnosed back in April, 2006. There is no one who can give you the straight, unexpurgated truth about cancer like another cancer patient; Wanda was more informative about the effects of radiation and chemo, and how to cope with them, than any of the medical professionals I dealt with back them. Stuart was extremely helpful because he continued to interact with me as he always had, never slobbering over me with pity or even acknowledging I was sick. And I loved that, because when talking with Stuart I was "Harry" again instead of "Harry the cancer patient." When I spent time with Stuart, I could almost forget that I had a big problem and felt semi-normal again.

Wanda and Stuart often held get-togethers at their home, a place they called "Sloppy Pines." It had a wonderfully eclectic decor, featuring plenty of signs and posters, Japanese pinball machines, an al fresco bar room, etc, Below is a photo of Stuart and me being goofy one night at their place; my "lobster face" is the result of some radiation treatments the previous week:

The get-togethers also produced some of my favorites photos of me and Di, like the one below. I am being goofy, while Di is being cute. I like this one because it shows Di wearing her glasses instead of her contacts, and I know using this photo will really piss her off good:

When you reach the point in life that I'm now at, your friends------past and present-----become very, very precious to you. The memories of the good times you shared with them sustain you on dark days. I have been very lucky to have known people like Sherrie, Leslie, Wanda, Stuart, and, most of all, Di. And there are many more I need to mention on this blog-----I'll get to it. But until then, I say THANK YOU to everyone out there that I have been fortunate enough to have counted among my friends!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Interesting Stuff In The News

I haven't felt much like writing lately, but I have run across some interesting things in the past week:

• Sometimes I get the feeling the feeling theoretical physicists are just jerking us around. Exhibit A: now they're telling us the universe is just a giant hologram. This is intriguing, mindbending stuff to read, but I really do think too many theoretical physicists are painting themselves into the same intellectual corners that medieval theologians did with their speculations about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. They are constructing theories that are inherently untestable, theories for which no observational evidence is available, theories that might be nothing more than epic works of mathematical fiction. String theory is perhaps the best current example of this obsession with the unprovable, and here's a nice demolition of string theory.

• I recently raised the possibility of a sudden collapse of the Mexican government as being a big problem for the Obama administration. It's a relief to see some people in the U.S. government are taking that possibility seriously. I have bookmarked the web sites for many newspapers in border cities (like Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and El Paso in Texas) and reading them gives powerful evidence the situation in northern Mexico is getting very grim; civil authority in many areas has already essentially broken down-----in some regions, there is even evidence the Catholic hierarchy has been co-opted by narco money. Mexico could turn into a monstrous problem very rapidly, even though most large media outlets (with the notable exception of the Los Angeles Times) continue to resolutely ignore the situation.

• Magazines are going through the same rough times as newspaper and book publishers, and the Magazine Death Pool web site chronicles the latest victims. The "Museum of Dead Magazines" link at that site is worth a visit for the nostalgia factor alone-----hey, I remember Crawdaddy and Omni!!

• People who get a diagnosis of advanced, probably terminal, cancer invariably react in one of two ways: 1) they accept the news straightforwardly, are honest with themselves and others as to what's happening, and have no patience for self-deception and bullshit about what's going on, or 2) they immediately go into denial about their situation and enter a world of magical thinking, a world in which a refusal to say the word "cancer" and positive, upbeat thoughts are all you need to beat the disease. I'm a type 1) cancer patient. Steve Jobs is a classic type 2) cancer patient. I don't know the details of Jobs's prognosis, but I don't have to; I've run into plenty of people like him in oncologists' waiting rooms, chemotherapy infusion centers, radiation oncologists' waiting rooms, etc., since 2006. I know the type well by now: often very intelligent and high achievers, but utterly unable to accept the notion something bad has happened, and is happening, to them and there is essentially nothing they can do except hope for some good luck. In talking with such fellow patients, I have often been stunned at how irrational and genuinely delusional such otherwise intelligent people can be. Steve needs to stop kidding himself about his situation and what's going to happen; it's a lot better to spend your remaining time enjoying your family, friends, and life than it is to waste it in a futile attempt to convince yourself that reality isn't real.

• I grew up in the segregated South. I remember "whites only" signs in restaurants, hotels, laundromats, waiting areas in airports and train stations, as well as separate entrances for blacks in places like movie theaters (blacks were usually exiled to the balcony, leaving floor level seats for whites). Segregated schools, a total absence of black voters in any election, casual use of racial slurs in everyday conversation. . . . . . . . . I remember all of that very well. Even as recently as a decade ago, I never thought I would live to see the election of a black man as president. And that makes tomorrow's inauguration perhaps the most memorable event of a life in which I have already been lucky enough to witness some truly amazing events. No longer will be the notion of a non-white president be considered remarkable, and that will truly be a marvelous thing for this country. I am proud to say that I voted for Obama in the Texas primary and caucuses, in the general election, and also donated to his campaign. I wish him the best.

• While I supported Obama, I didn't------as did too many of his supporters------fall in love with the man. While I respected his obvious intelligence, I worried about his inexperience and what I felt was an excess of idealism and a lack of pragmatism. (I had no such doubts about John McCain; I was fully confident, and his campaign bore this out, that he was a senile, bewildered old fool prone to panic-driven snap decisions.) Obama strikes me as a guy who would make a great chess player, for chess is a game of pure logic in which the relative strengths of the players' positions are visible to the entire world. But life and politics are like poker. You don't know which cards the other players are holding and deception and bluff are inherent parts of the game. And I worry about whether Obama has spent too much time in the rarefied air of law school faculties and the Senate to have developed the necessary instincts to determine if his counterpart from China, Russia, or a Middle Eastern state is really holding a pair of aces or is trying to bluff with a two and a seven off-suite. My worry is that Obama might be like Jimmy Carter, another idealistic, not-too-worldly type who reacted with genuine shock to the news the USSR had invaded Afghanistan: why, Leonid Brezhnev gave me his personal word he wouldn't do such a thing!! (That's an absolutely true story, by the way.) My fears in this regard have mounted as Obama has populated his administration with retreads from the Clinton administration, including the ultimate retread of all. I consider the Clintons to be breaded-deep-fried-and-served-with-hushpuppies versions of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia, and I strongly, sincerely believe Obama will eventually curse the day he decided to make Hillary Secretary of State. I think that will come in early 2011, when Hillary resigns and makes blistering criticisms of Obama's ineptitude in foreign affairs. And the next day, by remarkable coincidence, the "Hillary2012.com" web site will go live and the fun will really begin.

Remember, you read it here first.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Moving Rocks Of The Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park

I love Death Valley National Park. When I lived in California, I spent many winter days and nights exploring, hiking, and camping in it. It has a stark, harsh beauty that touched something deep within me. I know the park so well, especially the backcountry and off-road areas, that I could be a ranger there. I have told Di that I wouldn't mind having my ashes scattered in Death Valley after my death.

Death Valley is full of geological wonders, and perhaps none is so remarkable as the Racetrack Playa, a dry lakebed at the northern end of the park. Rocks move across the surface of the Racetrack Playa for reasons we don't yet fully understand.

The Racetrack Playa is reached via a 27-mile dirt road that begins near Ubehebe Crater. Below is a photo of my beloved 4Runner at the start of the road. While the sign says a 4WD vehicle is recommended, the road is generally well-graded enough for most passenger cars. However, the surface is very "washboardy" and a rugged vehicle with a robust suspension is a good idea.

An interesting stop on the way to the Racetrack is Teakettle Junction. For reasons now lost in history, visitors hang teakettles from the sign marking this junction. I didn't have a teakettle to leave, but I did get a kick out of the sign:

The Racetrack Playa is about 2.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. In the middle of it is an outcropping of dark basaltic rock called the Grandstand. Below is a view across the Racetrack toward the Grandstand:

The surface of the Racetrack Playa is a hard-packed mixture of dried clay and silt. The drying process has produced a mosaic-like pattern of cracks. When I walked across it, I found the surface to be a little slick, even though it was dry, and remarkable free from dust and particles. I attribute this to the near-constant wind that was blowing during the day:

I walked out to the Grandstand. As you can see, there is erosion around the fringes of the basalt, and the rocks that travel across the Racetrack originate from here:

Here is one of the rocks as it moves away from the Grandstand:

The "trail" left by the rock above was clearly visible to the naked eye, although it came across as faint in the photo below. I've tweaked the color and contrast in the photo below to make it more visible, although the clarity will depend on the resolution of your display:

Here is one link telling more about the Racetrack Playa and here's the official U.S. Geological Survey page about the Racetrack.

A trip to the Racetrack Playa isn't a casual jaunt, but well worth the effort!

Monday, January 5, 2009

More Upheavals In Book Publishing

Ya know, I got out of book publishing just in time. Sometimes I feel like an airplane passenger who arrives at an airport to connect to another flight, and later hears his original flight crashed shortly after taking off from the connecting airport.

Here's exhibit A from yesterday's New York Times. And despite the fey "everything's gonna be fine!" response at the end from the well known has-been Michael Korda, I suspect most people in book publishing today know the good times are really gone forever and things will never be the same again.

A lot of these changes are long overdue. In particular, the return on investment for sales conferences and trade shows such as BookExpo America has been very, very questionable for over a decade; they are more like class reunions, with plenty of opportunities for excessive drinking and extramarital fornication, than they are serious business meetings. In the professional and technical publishing areas I'm most familiar with, I've long questioned the effectiveness of spending to attend and exhibit at various professional society meetings. Two decades ago, I was at Academic Press and each month marketing would circulate sales reports showing how many books were sold at events like a regional meeting of biochemists. Now it might seem impressive to have sold $1500 of books in two days at such an event, but when you added up the travel costs of having an editor and marketing person attend the event and staff the booth, and then you did the math, and you realized Academic Press actually lost almost $2000 by exhibiting and selling books there. . . . . . . . . . witnessing that sort of nonsense firsthand is one of the things that motivated Carol Lewis and I to leave Academic Press to found HighText/LLH.

Robert Gottlieb, quoted in the Times article, is correct when he says excessive spending on travel and entertainment is "small potatoes" compared to other problems publishing faces. But the waste on travel and entertainment is symptomatic of the poor management found throughout much of the publishing industry. Exhibit B is this story from the Wall Street Journal. The author of that piece is an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, and it is more than a little worrisome that someone responsible for training the next generation of business leaders does not recognize the book publishing strategy she describes, with what seems to be approval, is actually nothing more than the strategy of a sucker at a Las Vegas blackjack table with all their chips bet on a hand, sitting on 17, and asking the dealer to hit them with another card. That's not a "strategy"; that's desperation!

The real problem with book publishing today is the number of parasites consuming the revenue stream from the end purchaser. There is the discount given to the retailer. . . . . . and the "co-op" payments to retailers to get shelf space for a publisher's titles. . . . . . and the additional discounts to wholesalers like Ingrams which service smaller booksellers and small orders from larger stores. . . . . and don't forget shipping and printing costs, both of which have grown faster than the list prices of books.

There is hope among some publishers the practice of allowing retailers to return unsold books for credit can be abolished. But doing that is going to be about as easy as getting a junkie off heroin. More promising would be a rapid expansion and use of print-on-demand technology to allow the same just-in-time inventory management techniques that many other industries are now using. The practice of sinking a lot of capital into printing a big inventory of books----and the costs of shipping, storing, and processing that inventory-----is something the book industry can't sustain much longer. Sadly, I see very few larger publishers willing, or able, to consider alternatives to the existing printing and distribution model.

Meanwhile, Google is moving ahead in digital publishing while most print publishers are passively watching. It wouldn't surprise me if Google isn't the largest "publisher" in the world in a couple of decades.

Speaking of Google, I am amazed and dismayed at how inept book publishers are in using tools like Google's AdWords and AdSense to direct web searchers to their titles. Try this experiment: enter the term "programming C#" in Google and see what you get in terms of ads on the search results. You get ads for contract C# programmers, C# programming seminars and classes, etc., but no ads for books on C# programming. Brain dead. . . . . . . . just brain dead.

Yet I wish I was in good health and able to work long hours, because there are sensational opportunities out there for entrepreneurs willing to embrace the digital publishing revolution. The iPhone appears to be emerging as a very potent eBook platform (more here). I look forward to seeing what creative, visionary publishing people will do with these new tools.

Friday, January 2, 2009


A new year was once a time of great plans and goal setting for me. Since getting cancer, it's become a more contemplative, introspective time. This past New Year's Eve/Day was a somewhat somber time for me. I've survived longer than most other patients with my prognosis, but the luck I've often referred to here is starting to run out. I have experienced a significant physical decline since Thanksgiving; I'm really feeling the "tumor load" on my body and, if life is a chess game, then I have definitely entered the end game. With the physical decline has come something of a mental and emotional decline as well. I no longer enjoy doing many of the things I have enjoyed in the past (like writing or playing with my radio equipment) and I am often beset with this puzzling lassitude and indifference. As I told Di a couple of days ago, I sometimes feel like someone who has stayed too long at a party and needs to leave. I have no doubt my physical deterioration is starting to have an impact on my mental state.

Normally I'd be optimistic and bubbly at the start of a new year, but this year I am under no illusions. I know 2009 will be a bad year. I can see the storm clouds approaching. I know I am going to get stomped hard in 2009, and there is nothing I can do to prevent that from happening. All I can do is get a good grip, grit my teeth, and try to be as stoic as I can in dealing with what's ahead.

I probably won't be updating this blog as often as I've been doing; most days I just don't have the motivation. But I'll try to keep posting interesting things about the places I've visited and items in the news; I don't want to turn this into a poor-poor-pitiful-me whinefest.

I greatly enjoyed the Twilight Zone marathon on the SciFi channel yesterday. I especially liked the "Monsters on Maple Street" episode. This involved a sudden power and telephone system failure in a small town at the same time a large, bright meteor was seen. Very soon, the anxious, nervous townspeople start wondering what happened and why, and the people soon disintegrate into a hysterical mob convinced the meteor was a flying saucer, the power and telephone failure was caused by the flying saucer, and that space people are in their town preparing to take over Earth. The townspeople start suspecting each other-----even children-----of being "space people," and one neighbor even gets shot in the panic. Of course, none of them are "space people," and the episode was actually a powerful commentary on the McCarthy era. But it still has relevance today as a warning against allowing your fears to dominate your common sense and to not see "monsters" where there are only shadows. It's a warning applicable to entire nations, and also to people like me facing an uncertain future. I'll try to keep it in mind as 2009 goes forward.

I hope everyone has a great 2009 and my best wishes to all of you! Thanks for visiting and reading here!