Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Within sight of I-25 in the middle of New Mexico, just south of San Antonio (not that San Antonio), east of the Very Large Array radio telescope array, west of the Trinity Atom Bomb blast site is a marsh site fed by the Rio Grande. The birds found it.

From all over the continent, Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and numerous other species of duck and geese collect here in the winter. Not surprisingly, eagles, hawks, and other raptors are common as well. Just this morning, we watched a quartet of coyotes stalking the huge flocks of snow geese.

Watching the flocks is fascinating. When they take wing, the thunder of their beat can be heard for miles. The call of massed thousands of geese and the stately squadrons of cranes has to be experienced.

And if you have a camera, be very cautious. If you come here, you won't be able to leave without severe lens envy. Beside the little pond beside highway 1 at dawn, there can be fifty photographers lined up on an old railroad grade, snapping away. And each and every one of them has a lens longer than your arm with a huge bucket of a glass eye. You could find yourself with a ten to twenty thousand dollar wish list in nothing flat.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Gilbert Ray Campground

On Mary Ann's quest for desert places, our next stop is Tucson Arizona. We had visited the Gilbert Ray Campground once before, and she had wanted to come back for a longer stay. Gilbert Ray is in the Tucson Mountain County Park, and is a nice little place with dozens of campsites for RV's and tents. From my point of view the campsites had electricity, which made it perfect. It is right next to the eastern section of Saguaro National Park, and the whole park looks like it was carved out of a desert botanical garden. Each site is ringed with cactus, fishhook barrel cactus, saguaro cactus of course, chollas of various types, plus other native desert plants.

As usual, we arrived in off-season, so there were plenty of sites available. By the time the weekend expired, the place was practically empty. At least empty of people. The birds were there in quantity. Mary Ann and I had writing tasks, so it was nice to spend the days sitting in the RV's driver seat, laptop perched on the steering wheel, watching the birds out the window.

It was a desert, and the water fountain across the way had a tiny bead of water in its faucet, and birds were there to get a sip. Quail, cactus wrens, curve-billed thrasher, and road runners made their way across the campsites. Each morning I woke to the calls. And each evening we watched the sunset over the mountains. We stayed a week, and we'll be back soon.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Roads to Death Valley

As we approached Death Valley from the west, coming up along the dry side of the Sierra Nevada's on highway 395, we took one of the most stressful roads I have driven in an RV, California Highway 190. It's a nice enough roadway -- a decent two-lane blacktop. But for a large vehicle, it provides a stress-test for the engine, tansmission and brakes. As the highway heads off across the salt flats, with promises of no services for many miles, it is a clear reminder of where we are heading, Death Valley. Soon enough, we take a turn eastward and the road begins to go up and down. Disturbingly, there is a red CLOSED label posted over the roadsign that seems to indicate that highway 127, the road we were going to take out of Death Valley was shut down for some reason.

Highway 190 approaches a scenic overlook, and the steep grade signs on one side, and the emergency radiator water tanks on the other give a pretty clear picture of what we can expect. The grade goes down, steeply. Just having had a new transmission put in, with the brake pads replaced, I had no real worries, but on our first RV trip into Death Valley, we had engine problems. Memories of problems come freshly to mind as the turnouts and guard rails bring that time to mind.

First, we go down. The sign says 7% grade. I downshift to first gear and let it whine, keeping an eye on the tachometer. For most of the twisty, steep grade, the transmission does the whole job, but seven percent is just a whisker over the limit, and I have to use the brakes just a tad in places. By the time we reach the floor of Panamint valley, at 1500 feet altitude, I was feeling pretty good about the new repair work.

But that was just the first trial. Now, in the course of just a few miles, I have to drive up the Panamint Range to the pass, at 5000 feet. The signs tell the story. 'Turn off Air-conditioner to avoid overheating next 10 miles.' The grade is 9%, and in the summer, that other trip, our motor got too hot and we barely made it over. This time the RV was in better shape. We went slowly, but steadily, up to the top of the pass.

Now for the third and final stage. A straight drop from 5000 feet to Stovepipe Wells, at sealevel. The grade starts out at 8%, but gentles down to 6% and finally 4% before making it to the village. Still, the brakes get another chance to provide assistance to the transmission and engine, doing most of the work keeping the RV from going too fast. I kept a constant eye on the engine temperature, but everything worked smoothly.

On leaving day, we drove over to Furnace Creek, where highway 127 should have come in. It was plain to see why it had merited the CLOSED sign. A flash flood some months earlier had torn down the canyon from Death Valley Junction and peeled away the old roadway. There was a wide wash where the mud and debris had emptied out on to the floor Death Valley, and in among the rubble, you could see old roadway, guardrails and even light poles that had been scoured out during that storm.

But as dramatic as it must have been, it seemed perfectly normal for the terrain. Death Valley is ringed with debris washed down from the steep mountains that surround it. That was how much of the landscape was formed. For as long as people need roads in Death Valley, extensive repair must always be part of the picture.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

View From the Cliff

After five days staying in the Leo Carrillo State park in Malibu, we decided to move. The state park was nice, but they have a seven day limit before they run you off for at least two days. That and the perpetual problem of keeping the electrical system running made me want to go back to the Malibu Beach RV Park where we had stayed a couple of years back.

The state park campsites didn't have electricity. Thus we had to rely heavily on the generator and the battery inverter system. However, there was a strict curfew on generator hours, and we had several incidents where the battery level dropped too low and the inverter cut out without warning. Both our laptops were unaffected, but the Windows dinosaur that lives under the bench didn't like abrupt power failures.

So, we relocated. And I must say it is nice. Permanent electricity, fresh water in the tanks, and a lovely view of the Pacific out the front windows.

The Malibu Beach RV Park is built on the cliff, and our location is about 160 feet above sea level and drops off nicely. This morning, as I sit in the driver's seat with my laptop resting on the steering wheel, working on my next novel (working title: Falling Bak-wards) I have watched ships sailing across the sea, the scuttling clouds, and a seal cavorting in the surf. Other than the distraction of grabbing for the monocular every few minutes, it is a lovely place to work.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Runaway Truck

There is nothing to get your blood pumping more than seeing an 18-wheeler tractor trailer truck gaining speed -- with no one in the cab.

Heading for California to visit daughter Debra, we stopped for the night at Kingman just off I-40. We picked the Flying-J, because they have been RV-friendly in the past and suspected no problems parking for the night among their crowd of big-rig trucks. It was very crowded. I-40 is a major trucking route, and Kingman was at the end of a hundred mile of empty desert.

Because it was so crowded, and I hated to have any of those trucker's mad at me, I located a parking place with a lamp pole in it. There wasn't room for one of those 60-foot rigs, but there was for my 30-foot RV and my jeep. We settled down for the night in among the rumble of diesel engines and raised the satellite dish. Just then a freight train passed by less than a dozen feet away. It seems that as well as I-40, the pass throught he mountains was a route for train traffic as well. It was a little noisy, but it was free. We could sleep through anything.

In the morning, I sat in the driver's seat as usual, reading my email and testing my blood-sugar, and engaging in the surrounding entertainment -- watching trucks come and go, and watching the drivers who make a living at moving those huge, massive trucks around. It has always fascinated me how skillful they are at parking their rigs in a densly packed parking lot like this one.

The driver to our right was having problems with his truck. He had pulled the engine hood down and was working on something with a hammer. He was oriental and short, but I was nervous about the way he walked all over the hood. If I tried something like that, I'd break it with my weight.

Finally he appeared to be ready to go. He fired up his engine, but then he noticed someone in the parking lot. Mary Ann commented that she wondered if truckers met friends from time to time staying in the same truck stops.

I wasn't paying attention, until I noticed his truck start to move.

In a flash, I realized he wasn't at the wheel. No one was at the wheel! I slammed at the horn, but that didn't work. I jumped up and dashed half the length of the RV back to the doorway, but Mary Ann, as usual, had turned the deadbolt for the night, and I had to fumble with it for precious seconds.

By then, there was nothing left to do but watch in horror as the truck gained speed across the 80 or so feet, not turning one inch as it slammed into a truck parked facing us.

Mary Ann was shaken, fearful that someone had gotten smashed between them, but that was not the case. People scurried around. I didn't see him enter, but the driver took control and backed his truck back into the vacated slot. Truckers from all over came to see the dented rigs. The driver spent more time on the other guy's truck, looking for damage.

Finally, the other trucker came back, probably from breakfast in the restaurant, to discover his truck had been damaged. Now this guy was a Hagrid-like big guy with a beard. The little oriental guy explained what had happened. The big guy was clearly angry, but at my distance, I could hear nothing. The body language spoke volumes, however. I would have hated to be the little guy. No blows, but if the words matched the gestures, they must have left burn marks.

Prudently, it was time for Mary Ann and I to leave. I really hated to be there if anything more physical happened. We pulled around to the other side of the place to gas up, and as she watched me work the pump, Mary Ann spotted a police car pull around behind. I wonder if a helpful trucker or two had called in a report.

It's amazing to me how the body reacts to things like this. Those handful of seconds, from the time I noticed the truck start to move, until the time I saw it hit, must have pumped me full of adrenaline. Muscles shook for half an hour afterwards. And the memory -- that will last quite a while.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A National Park All to Ourselves

We were heading from South Dakota to California, and the Weather Channel showed a large winter storm coming down over our planned path. This was a big one, with high winds and snow alerts, covering the several states. I am reluctant to drive the RV in conditions like that. We decided to change course and head south on I-25 as fast as we could. Near sunset, Mary Ann poured over the maps and directed us towards Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The dunes are in a high mountain valley, surrounded on nearly all sides by mountains. It is actually a desert, and over the ages, sand has collected in a crook of the eastern mountains. The dunes are hundreds of feet tall and a fun place to play, in the summer.

We found that most of the campground was closed off, but that was okay, because there was only one other site being used, and they left the next morning. The snow came as predicted, but in this valley, it was just a light dusting, highlighting the dunes with bands of white, and crowning the sage with a glistening icing.

We decided to stay another day, taking a restful morning and then heading out in the afternoon to visit the two nearby National Wildlife Refuges. The valley was criss-crossed with irrigation ditches from earlier decades, fed by water from the nearby mountains. There were wetlands all around, feeding the source of the Rio Grande River. We traced the dirt roads in Alamosa NWR and startled a porcupine and many very skittish ducks. Not that I blame them. Public hunting lands and the wildlife refuge are close neighbors, with the same roads serving both. Hawks and a Great Horned Owl were icing.

Over in Monte Vista NWR, we watched the sandhill cranes come in to roost for the night. I have to wonder about their cold toes. When they fly, this very large bird trails its feet behind them, so as they pass overhead, you can see their feet clearly. The air was dropping below freezing by sunset.

Heading back to the RV in the campsite, not only was the entrance gate unmanned, but all other visitors and campers were gone. We had the whole National Park to ourselves. We fired up the generator and the heater and I worked into the evening packaging up stories to send out as soon as we located a post office. Mary Ann went to bed early, hoping to catch the dawn for shots of the dunes.

At 5 am, when she awoke, sensing that the heater had stopped working, we found that the batteries had gone dead early. The cold had sapped the capacity out of them. But we bundled up and hopped in the jeep to get to the magic viewpoint before the sun touched it. The jeep's thermometer reported 2.7 degrees F. and even shifting the transmission was sluggish.

But the morning shoot called. Even with frost obscuring the windshield, we headed over to the mountain pass road. The one with the large sign saying "Point of No Return", giving a wide place to turn around. Shortly past that, the road turned very soft, with deep sand. The jeep went into four-wheeled drive and we surged on. It got worse, and I shifted into 4WL. Just as the road started to get better, as it turned up into the mountains and showed more rocks under the sand, Mary Ann realized we had passed the viewpoint and we turned back.

She hopped out and began taking first-light pictures as the sunlight tipped the mountain peak.

It was then that I realized we didn't quite have the national park to ourselves. As I rummaged in the back, hunting for her gloves, I disturbed a visitor -- a quick little brown mouse that had found our jeep a nice cozy place to wait out the chill. He left in a hurry. At least I think he left. He could still be back there with the jumper cables and tow straps.

The shadows didn't cooperate with Mary Ann, and we moved several times as she tried to get the shot she visualized. We won't know the results of that until later, but for me, this has been a morning to make me breathe in deeply and smile.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Back at Home (on the Road)

Today, after a week living in the jeep, we came back to Rapid City to pick up our RV from the truck repair place. Of course, it wasn't totally completed.

Here's the outline. While driving through the Badlands (lots of up hill and down hill), I noticed that the strange noise I had been hearing was much louder -- a grinding noise coming from the rear of the vehicle. It occurred every time the RV was being slowed by downshifting. Since we were soon going to cross the Rocky Mountains, I gave in to the caution and took it to a truck repair center.

The differential was wearing out. This wasn't surprising, since the U-joint had gone out during the return from California on the previous RV trip. I suspected the U-joint had damaged the differential.

During the test drive, they determined that the transmission wasn't going into first gear. They opened things up. At 115,000 miles or so, Mary Ann and I agreed that it was time for a new one.

So, with two major repairs and a handfill of little things; oxygen sensor, brake pads, etc. It was going to take several days. Mary Ann and I packed the Jeep and headed for Colorado. After Breckenridge and Estes Park, we called and after a shipping delay, we got the word that the parts had arrived and we headed back towards Rapid City.

Half-way back, we called again. Differential and transmission were working, but front bearings and the radiatior were giving problems. Another day's delay. After a side trip to the Badlands, we finally arrived back in Rapid City.

Oops, old corrosion, damaged the oil cooler lines. But rather than delay another few days until parts could be ordered, we decided to plug the optional oil cooler system and get that repaired in another city.

Tomorrow, hopefully, we will be on the road again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Watching the Coyote

This morning, Mary Ann and I are parked beside the Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, waiting for the coyote to come out from behind the bushes a quarter mile across the Sheep Meadows. For two days running, while we had been watching the elk in rut, we had caught sight of this coyote. Mary Ann was certain she could predict where he would be at sunrise, so after an early morning start, we drove into the park and there he was, right where she expected.

The only problem was that this coyote was acting like all good wild predators and noticed us as quickly as we noticed him, and has been keeping an eye on us as we try to act like a big stupid rock.

This is so different from the coyote we saw in March 2003. He was a beggar. He saw humans and approached very close. Mary Ann got great photos, but it was so sad.

We may not get great coyote pictures today, but it's nice to know there is one heathy predator out there, doing his thing, pouncing on mice, and steering clear of the humans.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Political Cartoons

I am a cartoon addict. I download and view 43 different comics daily. Of course, I have automated the process to some extent, but if I subscribed to a daily newspaper, it would be the comics section I viewed first.

Not a single one of those comics are political satires from the editorial pages. That is a very conscious decision on my part. For the most part, political cartoons are a tool of hate mongers. They present something outrageous to create anger and hate. I do not care to be exposed to that. I'm very much a Philipians 4:8 kind of guy. Seek out the good and think on that.

So when I find a handful of my comics stumping for one politician or another, or even worse, against a politician, it's time to make a cull. The following comics are being removed from my rotation:

Get Fuzzy -- the mild-mannered, pro-Kerry, dog attacks his owner for thinking of voting for Nader
Over the Hedge -- the turtle stumps for Nader
Monty -- a pro-Bush supporter is protrayed as angry and bitter
B.C -- current political news (probably pro-Bush) shows up in the caves.
The Joy of Tech! -- probably the worst of the lot, replacing the comic with an anti-Bush, pro-Kerry politcal banner.

I have enjoyed all of these, but I have drawn boundary lines, and these 'entertainments' crossed them. Goodbye all.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Reviving Windows

I've been deep into computers for decades, and with the Mac or any flavor of Unix, I can handle just about all the necessary tasks. However, because the Motosat software was Windows only, I reluctantly acquired a windows box about two and a half years ago. As a simple utility, it was okay. I rarily used it for anything other than a network bridge. The deepest I got into the operating system was to learn how to do the windows updates.

But when it died, I had to learn a whole lot more.

The repair people gave me very limited options. Since Windows didn't boot after the new mother board was installed, they offered to copy all my files to another place and then reformat the hard disk and put the files back. I was horrified. The satellite software requires a set-up procedure by the installers, some 1800 miles away. I wanted to just fix the operating system and bring everything back up like it was. The repair guy gave me no hope. "There's a repair option, but it doesn't work." he said.

Still, rather than give up and pay them the $120 price to erase my hard disk, I took it as-is and began exploring the options.

Understand that I was off in the wilderness. There weren't even any bookstores to hunt down reference manuals. I was still without internet, so no googling. And my experience with Windows was limited.

But I did have the installation disk. After several attempts to copy critical files to floppy (dinky little things) using Dos command line mode using the installer disk repair mode option, I finally began the install.

Surprise, surprise, there was an option to repair the damaged Windows image. Was this the repair that the tech guy mentioned, or was it the other repair mode that gave me a Dos prompt?

Anyway, I attempted to repair the damage windows installation. And it booted up. I was even able to run the satellite software and get internet. But there were still many problems. Internet sharing, which was how we used the system, would not work. Every attempt to turn it on failed. It looked like I would have to erase the disk and start over, but at least I had a nearly live system to run my backups.

The original satellite installers, who had put together this probably overpriced box, had included a lot of software that I had never used. One was a CD burner called Nero. I bought a bundle of blank disks and started making copies.

I have been spoiled. Burning a CD on windows was nothing like on a Mac. When a piece of software has to give you coaching hints ("The burn icon is the seventh one from the left") then you know it's got problems. After the first few times to make a back up, I got totally frustrated and was looking forward to the idea of erasing that hard disk.

By that time we had left Michigan and had stopped at Mall of America in Minneapolis. I knew there was an Apple Store there, so we went in and I bought an external hard disk that would work via USB. Now I had a real back up plan.

Unfortunately, I plugged it in, and the drive didn't appear. Always ready to think the worst of Windows, I assumed that USB had not installed correctly ( there were warnings with the motherboard). So I took a look at the windows installer again.

The menu allows you to install the system other than in C:\WINDOWS so I put it in WINDOWS2. It installed, and as I applied the motherboard drivers I was especially careful about the USB. Still no external hard drive.

Then, on a hunch, I plugged the drive into my Mac and reformatted it as MSDOS, which is actually FAT32. The drive sold in the Apple Store obviously had been formatted in HFS+, and Windows has limited abilities to recognize drive formats other than their own. Now it came up under Windows2, and Windows as well.

So now I burned gigabytes of backups. I wasn't about to lose anything if I could help it.

But there was still one bad problem. WINDOWS2 ran the satellite steering software just fine, but the DIRECWAY internet connection didn't work at all. WINDOWS could get the internet, but it was getting increasingly fragile. I took a dive into regedit and after a long hunt, I located the Hughes Satelite entries. I exported them from WINDOWS and when I imported them into WINDOWS2, the network worked!

So the time had come. With lots of backups and an install disk, I erased the hard disk, installed a clean copy of the operaing system, restored just those parts of the backups that ran the satellite and soon had a working system again.

Now, I had often thought that my dislike of Windows probably had a component of prejudice in it. If I just got my feet wet, I would find that it wasn't that bad after all.

No. I wouldn't say so. I have to use Windows for certain tasks, but it certainly takes much more effort than I want to spend. I'll stick to my Mac, thank you.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Travelling off the Net

On the fifth of October, while travelling in Upper Penninsula Michigan, the windows box we use to steer the satellite dish and handle our internet access died. It died hard. And we dropped off the edge of the world.

Normally while travelling in our RV, we have two internet systems. One is the Motosat system. It's a steerable Direcway dish on the top of the RV. It's great and works everywhere except in the deep forest where we can't find a gap in the canopy to see the sattelite. Generally in that situation, we pull off the side of the road during the day and catch up our email downloads, web maintenance, etc. during lunch.

Our backup system is my Sprint Cell phone. I can connect a USB cable to it and Mary Ann and I share the connection.

But this time, we were in the UP. Now maybe there is a Sprint cell somewhere in the UP, but I wouldn't bet on it. Even the fallback, the dreaded Analog Roam, was barely usable. For two weeks we had to drive up and down the highways to find the strongest signal just to call family and friends to explain why we weren't answering our email.

When the Windows box failed, we were in Germfask. It's a lovely little place next to the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Mary Ann was taking lots of great pictures. But I opened up the wooden box where the Windows machine and all its numerous fans were installed and drove the 90 miles to Escanaba in hopes of finding a repair place.

A week later, after the new motherboard had been shipped in and the system would actually run, we had moved to Ontonagon and made the day long trip to pick up the repaired machine.

The only problem was that the critical software to handle the software was on the hard disk, and would no longer boot into Windows due to the significant change in hardware.

So I was stuck again -- a Mac and Unix guy with a Windows box I had to bring back to life.

More later.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Excellent Phantom Panel Discussion

Today at 2PM at Archon, I was scheduled to sit on the "Can't Stop the Music" panel. As is usually the case with these events, all the preparation I was given was the title. You sit in front of the audience and wing it.

Well, on this panel, the three of us, Vic Milan, Doug Ferguson, and myself were competing for audience with an autographing by Alan Dean Foster, a panel with Ben Bova on it, and another titled, "Knickers and Knockers - An Overview of Underwear". Needless to say our audience was very small. The smallest. No one came.

However, that didn't stop us. The three of us carried on a wide ranging discussion of the historically significant bad movie whose name was used for our panel, on-line commerce, e-publishing, and a variety of other like issues. I enjoyed it immensely. Aren't you sorry you missed it?

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Pre-Dawn Before the Arch

It is first light, and Mary Ann and I have driven down to the Mississippi River from the Illinois side. A little paved road follows the train tracks along the riverside, and just between the Casino Queen and the grain elevator is a off-limits dirt road that crosses the tracks, goes over the levee and heads down the river shore towards the bridge. Last night at sunset, we found this place. She sets up her tripod and has a marvelous view of the St. Louis Arch, the city buildings behind it, fronted by the river traffic. Sunrise or sunset it is a very impressive view.

Now if I didn't flinch every time a security vehicle drives by. There is a no-trespassing sign, but in very small print. "Yes, officer, It's my fault we're here. Mary Ann is a photographer and thus not responsible for her actions."

I really need to lighten up. Speaking of which, the glass-tower skyscrapers and the arch itself are beginning to show reflections of the rosy dawn sky. It's quite pretty. No doubt a representative picture will sooner or later appear on her web site. http://MaryAnnMelton.com Check it out.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Generator Woes

One of the joys of RV'ing is that you are heading off across country, totally dependent on technology. Sometimes old, worn, technology. One of our traditional problems occurred today, the generator failed.

We have a gasoline powered Onan generator belowdecks that provides 110 volts for everything from the air conditioner to the cell phone chargers. On several previous trips it has failed on us, and we have learned to make do with the inverter system.

On one trip, it burned out it's electronics and they had to be rebuilt. On another, it was just a matter of tuning the system for the correct altitude. Last time it was as simple as the circuit breakers.

Tuesday morning, when we drove off (at 10:15 am), I had the generator running to provide air conditioning using the two roof units, rather than try to make do with the weak car-style unit in the dash. For five hours it worked perfectly. But then, I shut it down when we stopped to get gas. As we drove off, it wouldn't start. The generator motor won't turn over.

Mechanical problems are often beyond my capabilities, so no immediate fix is in the works. I'll tinker, and if something magic happens, it will come back up. Otherwise, we'll try to find an Onan repair place somewhere down the road when we don't have a deadline.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Getting Off

Getting started on a new trip is one of the hardest things in my life. It is the most drawn out, stressful thing I can do to myself. In the three-plus decades I've been married (I lose track of the decimals) the most severe arguments we have had have all happened in the last few hours before hitting the road.

So I've learned to expect the delays. I've learned to sit patiently for hours as my wife tells me, "We're almost done." I've learned that every projected deadline is false.

For example. Archon, the science fiction convention I am going to attend in the St. Louis area, begins on Thursday. We had planned to leave much earlier and take a pleasant and scenic route through Colorado and visit a few days in Yellowstone before heading back east. Quickly, Yellowstone dropped off the agenda. Then a few days later, Colorado was too far. But instead we were going to visit a Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, so Mary Ann could take a few pictures. We would leave on Thursday, a week before the Con, and take our time getting there.

By the time Thursday arrived, Mary Ann was hoping to get off on Saturday, or by Sunday at the earliest. By Friday, Monday morning was the firm deadline. Sunday, it was Monday afternoon. Monday morning, she hoped to be gone by 8 PM.

At 9 o'clock, when she returned from many important errands, we both knew that we wouldn't be leaving Monday.

So this morning, I was awake and dressed in the early dawn light, but I just couldn't feel the urgency to leave immediately. I knew that would never happen.

It also helped to know that I have driven to St. Louis in one day several years ago. (The log of that weekend trip, 900 miles there and another 900 back over a two-day marathon is recorded in one of my archived blogs.) So even though driving with the RV is best done in 300 mile per day sessions, I have this confidence that even with more delays, I could still make it before I'm supposed to be at my scheduled events.

Mary Ann has claimed that she's finished packing three times now, and all that she lacks is her shower. So who knows. We may leave today after all.

But I wouldn't bet money on it.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Preparing to Hit the Road Again

Archon in the St. Louis area is a science fiction con that I regularly attend, and it is only a few days away. This will be the first port of call on a six week trip that will cover a number of states and hopefully swing by Phoenix for the World Fantasy Convention. Today I've got to clean up the RV and start packing.

Getting started on one of these trips is horrible, but once I'm on the road, it can be a very soul-pleasing time. Cruising the highways, whether in the comfort of the RV or in my Jeep, I can enjoy the contryside at the same time as I am plotting events in the far future, in alternate dimensions, or in a stretch-reality version to here and now. Most of the last half-dozen novels I have written have been inspired in theme and location by what I have seen outside the windshield.

But first I have to get gone.

Update the Blog. [check]
Finish short story [todo]
Clean RV [todo]
Pack clothes [todo]
Configure home computer for unattended operation [todo]
Send2market: two short stories and two novels [todo]
File correspondence littering my desk [todo]
Get much-delayed income tax in the mail [todo]
Scream a lot [todo]

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Back to Normal

My iBook returned on Thursday, and I would have had it by Wednesday if I hadn't gone for lunch. This new DHL shipper Apple is using has had to learn where I live and how to make deliveries here.

It's been a few days of adjustments on my main website http://HenryMelton.com/ . The ISP I've had for years IOCOM has been bought out by Prismnet, and they have been changing the servers around. For the past two weeks, my web logs haven't been archiving correctly. It took a few script changes that I have just completed.

Of course, I must confess that I caught the first showing of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow at the local theater. It wasn't up to Star Wars (the original), but it was a lot of fun. I have to take my wife to see it. She is a photographer.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Living with VNC

Well, it's been a couple of days now that I've been running my backup Mac using VNC to the Sony's screen. For most everything, it works rather well. Okay, it's a bit choppy, with screen updates that happen slower than I would like, but I find myself forgetting that I am running remotely. I even downloaded and ran a news video while web browsing. The frame rate was bad, but the point was that everything was running sufficently transparently that I tried it without thinking.

And why was I web browsing throught VNC to a Mac when there is a perfectly respectable Mozilla browser here on the windows laptop? Deep down, I don't trust Windows on the Internet. Mail on Windows is strictly forbidden in this household. Everything runs behind multiple firewalls. Everything runs the current patches.

VNC glitches? Sometimes a false click is generated. I don't know how or why. The corners which trigger expose are more sensitive than they should be. I would also prefer the native Mac cursor rather than the VNC dot.

But, I can live with it. For now.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

iBook died again

A few posts back I talked about my backup systems. They certainly make today a happier day. You see, of all the computer's I have purchased, the iBook I got about two years ago has been the most ... entertaining. As probably everyone knows, there was a period where the design was, er, less than perfect.

I had one of the first of the white, chicklet, style iBooks, the 500 mHz version. In fact, I bought two of them. One for me and one for my daughter Debra. After a relatively short time, the 10 GB hard disk was just too small for what I was doing, and Debra's machine was suffering. All of Debra's computers suffer. She loves them to death. I moved up to the new iBook with 30GB of storage while she used my old one for a few months. Eventually, she graduated to a 12" Powerbook.

And thus began the tradition of having backup hardware.

That iBook-500 has been the refuge when other machines have been making their visits to the repair shop, and when it isn't in someone's hands, it has been the Retrospect Backup Server machine.

I only wish the iBook-800 had been as reliable. I purchased it at the local Fryes store, and when I had to decide between Apple's service and Fryes, I was beguiled by their offer of a replacement machine if necessary.

After a few months, it died. I was on the road, somewhere east of the Mississippi, if I recall. It was only a few hundred miles out of my way, but I swung back through Austin to put it in for repair and get a replacement machine. That replacement machine was hard to get, and it took seven weeks to get my machine back. I was used to Applecare's response time of just a few days.

A few months after that, it died again. It was the same kind of problem. Video, which frequently locked up the machine. I put back into Fryes. I didn't even try to get the replacement machine, since I had the old reliable iBook-500. This time it was two full months to be repaired.

When the one-year factory warrantly was due to expire, I paid the money and bough the Applecare service for an additional two years. A month or so after that, Apple, recognizing that this design was a lemon, authorized free service on it. So I was covered three ways. Fryes warranty, Applecare, and the free bonus coverage.

And now, on close to it's second anniversary, The iBook-800 has died again -- with the same problem. This time I took it to the Apple Store. Right now I am using the iBook500 again, sort of.

Rather than unplug the iBook500 from the DVD burners and shut down the backup software, I borrowed the Sony Vaio my wife bought for some of her Windows-only software. Using VNC, I am running my Mac environment on the Sony environment. The Sony feels like a cast iron battleship, but no one was using it. It's battery life isn't as good as the mac's either, but tethered to its power cord, it does a fair job.

I'll be glad to get my iBook800 back. Soon. Please.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Adding Old Blog Posts

I've written blog-like web messages for years. They exist in various archives, under various software. Honestly, this Blogger environment is the best I have used, and it also gives be the opportunity to consolidate the old text under one access point.

So for a while, I will be rummaging through my archives and putting the old messages into this system. I would love to put them under the correct dates, but the software apparently only allows messages dated back to 1999. That will have to make do. If the date is important, I'll just have to put it into the body of the message.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

My Backups

I'm a writer. I hate losing text! So, I have several methods all running concurrently.

(1) I run Retrospect to DVD on an old Mac which backups five Macs and one Windows laptop. It runs daily.

(2) I use Deja Vu to backup my home account on my laptop to my iPod on demand. Usually I do this daily to weekly depending on my current project.

(3) I make snapshot CD images of my working directory when preparing for a trip. I give these to my parents who live 500 miles away.

(4) I have written a Perl script that runs hourly under cron. It visits my working directories and makes a 50-60 MB copy of those files which are Most Recently Touched. This MRT archive is then mirrored, using psync (installed by Deja Vu) onto my .Mac partition. The OS then mirrors this archive to the Apple Servers, and then back to the home machine running Retrospect. So even on the road, my home Retrospect backups are picking up any changes I make.

So at any given time, my current project will be mirrored over several computers, off-site on Apple's servers, manually burned to CDROM, backed up to DVD by Retrospect, and copied to my iPod.

The interesting thing is that I don't feel that this is at all excessive.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Kicking around New England

Rather than race to the airport and wing back home, Mary Ann and I spent the day in the rent car driving around the area. I think Vermont is particularly nice. With the hills and long river valleys -- added to the 50 mph speed limit, it is a pleasant place. If it weren't for the rain heading in from all directions, we would probably stay in New England for several more days, but as it is, if the airline co-operates, we will head home tomorrow.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Monday at Worldcon

The last day of Worldcon. As usual, it's a shorter day as people head home.

I popped in on the Burnout session, and then realized it was about burnout for the con organizers, rather than for writers, which is what I had automatically expected. But, burnout is burnout and I listened in for about fifteen minutes before moving over the catch the last of the About Writer Scams. That was full of the usual cautions and for the second time this con I heard the factoid that it is more than twice as easy for a random teenage male to get a job in professional sports as it is for the same guy to sell a novel. I wonder if that is true. The session detailed a number of ways that people prey on the hopes and dreams of people who want to sell their writing. In general, the only way is to write a better book.

Why I Write YA: This is the panel I had to record. Beth Hilgartner, Rebecca Moesta, Tamora Pierce, E. Rose Sabin and Hilari Bell talked about what they write and why. Afterward, I tried to pick a few brains on the process of making a sale to that market and how to get an appropriate agent.

Transcendental Adventures: The panelists, mainly Tor Editors, had an interesting time trying to figure out what the title meant, but they got into some serious speculation about the future and the past and why we all are the way we are. I recorded it tool. Why not? The con was coming to a close and I still had battery life.

Flash: I had time for one last panel and I love my old comic books. It was nice to hear what was going on currently and to listen to the background of the Crisis.

I took one last pass through the Dealer Room and saw, sadly, Forrest J Ackerman being wheeled around in a wheelchair. He bought my first story, so many years ago.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Sunday at Worldcon

I started the day at the Art of Titles panel. With Terry Pratchett and Gordon Van Gelder on it, it had to be good. There were lots of anecdotes and not a little bit of handwaving about what made a good title. Of course I've never been good at titles, but with the general consensus that editors had to change the titles of about 25% of all the works they used, I didn't feel all that bad about my track record. It was interesting about the differences between short fiction titles and novel titles, though. Short fiction titles could be long and complex if necessary. Book titles had to be read at a distance on the bookshelf, so the preference was for short ones that looked esthetically pleasing. I recorded the panel.

DOA: Books that died despite everything: Editors confess to bad marketing, bad cover art, bad timing, and just plain bad luck. Recorded for future worry.

Baen Traveling Slide Show: Of course now it's done on Powerpoint, but Toni Weisskopf kept up an energetic presentation. I am going to be paying more attention to this publishing house. I recorded about 15 minutes of it, but I didn't have a chair, and so left early.

And dropped into the Stories I'm Too Scared to Write panel. Joe Haldeman had an interesting story of writing a too-perfect blueprint for extortion that a reader turned into fact. Soon the topic shifted over to the personal demons that the writers avoided, or that turned up in their writings in spite of themselves. I stopped recording it all because the battery level on my iPod wasn't holding up. Thus far I had recorded two hours today, and I had a lot more to go.

The Bantam/Spectra Presentation: I only stayed for a few minutes. Nice people, but the wrong market for me.

I started a panel on Myth and Fiction, but it was a bit too dry for me, although I did get a very detailed overview of Oedipus.

Finally, it was time for the Tor Presentation. A lot of the editors I had know for years were there (this does not imply that they know me) and they had a lovely time with a very fast-paced slideshow, covering many many books. About half-way through my battery ran out, but I was very pleased to see a number of YA titles. Maybe they won't buy mine, but I have a little hope at least.

I dropped by the SFWA suite again, but other than a nice bit of cheese on crackers, and a really lovely view across the river to the MIT campus, there was nothing much going on, so I headed on back to the hotel. I was tired, and my iPod had recorded over three hours of audio. Now I had to process it and do my Blog.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Saturday at Worldcon

The Ace/Roc Presentation: Ace Books and Roc Books are a publishing enerprise with one head and two bodies, if I understand it correctly. The same editors run both, but there are different art departments, marketing, etc. It is a very appealing organization and I would love to publish my books with them, but the last four books I've written are YA and they don't do YA. 'tis a pity. I recorded about 30 minutes of this on my iPod as well.

The Del Rey Presentation started at noon, but I really couldn't get a seat, so I just listened in for a few minutes and then left.

Is It Fair?: This panel gave me another shot at listening to Shelia Williams. It was mostly about why editors choose the stories they do, and it was very interesting. I should have recorded it, but I didn't. This was a shining example of what a panel could be, with a good moderator. Carl Frederick kept his three star editors and one writer on their toes and kept the whole panel focused and on topic. When Shelia brought up the idea that most short story writers underpopulate their fiction, he jumped right in with the right blend of interest and insight that let the editors open up and talk about the issue.

The Warner/Aspect Presentation: I recorded fifteen minutes of this one, hoarding my battery life, once I determined that here was another publisher that wasn't doing YA books.

I hopped over to the short 30 minute appreciation of Julius Schwartz, an important figure in comic books and the world of fandom. In honesty, I was getting a little burned out racing around for days, stalking the editors and analyzing the publishing world. I decided to have a little fun. So ...

The Smallville Panel: This was fun, and I even recorded it. Like me, the panelists were long time Superman fans who brought decades of back history into the viewing of the show. It looks like there is some interesting future to the series.

The Eos Presentation: I recorded a few minutes of it. But again, it was a nice publishing house that wasn't doing the kind of books I write.

So that was all the panels I felt like attending for the day. However, there was one other way to stalk editors. Supposedly people are able to network by attending parties. Not me. I have a hard time hearing people in crowded rooms. But at least I had to try.

I am a member of the SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. (Note how the initials don't match the title. Lots of back history there.) At these Worldcon's the SFWA maintains a suite where writers can hang out. However, they don't publicise the room number. Members have to wander the halls and flag down people they know to ask for the secret arcaine number. I cheated. SFWA has started the practice of having a table in the dealer room to advertise the organization and to interest people in the SFWA Bulletin magazine. Shelia Finch was holding down a chair and I asked her.

So, armed with the room number, I found the SFWA suite and visited the place. No editors, but still, being able to sit down and listen to Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison chat wasn't a bad thing. Of course, I didn't say anything. I'm terminally shy. I got my little secret sticker on my name badge that told the doorman I was allowed in the place, and then left after a while.

People were getting ready for the Hugo Awards ceremony, but I was too tired to consider staying. I still had that half mile hike back to the hotel. But in all, it was a good day.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Friday at Worldcon

I like the discussion panels at SF cons. Generally, I find a nice seat in the back of the room (so I can sneak out if the panel turns into a boring monologue), and listen to the collective wisdom of the ages.

Building the Buzz: There were examples, both from a publisher's perspective and a writer's perspective. The wisdom? Blog regularly. So I am.

DAW Presentation: All the major publishers give a 1.5 to 2 hour presentation about their upcoming books. These are heavily attended because the publishers give away free books. I came because I wanted to see and listen to the editors. That's what this con is all about for me. Stalking editors. It's a shame I'm so timid I have a hard time actually saying hello to them.

I skipped out early and went to --
The Future of Short Fiction (in the Magazines): This is another case of stalkling editors, only this time magazine editors. I'm actually on a wave and smile basis with many of them. I was most interested in listening to Shelia Williams, who has recently been promoted to the top position at Asimov's. I had talked to her many times at other cons, but I hadn't been able to get a sense of her likes and dislikes.

A Worldcon Orientation for SF Professionals: This was probably a waste of time for me. I already knew that writers were lower in the pecking order than con organizers, unless you were one of the stars. It also illustrated that large egos were alive and well in the fannish world.

All About Agents: I don't have one. I need one. Of course I attended this one. I even recorded it into my iPod. After the con I intend to go back over it and take better notes.

As the afternoon progressed, the good panels thinned out and I had time to eat and to visit the Dealer's Room. For those who are unfamiliar with cons, the Dealer's Room at this con is a large convention floor with aisles of tables, where everything from comic books to artwork to prop zap guns can be purchased. Most of the tables had books, as it should be. As usual, I didn't buy anything. Even at the best cons, I have a hard time shelling out the cash.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Worldcon Boston

The World Science Fiction Convention is being held in Boston this year. It was a good reason to get out of town. We flew this time, rather than taking the RV, partially because the parking expenses in Boston would be prohibitive. Mary Ann had collected some free airline tickets and so we packed our bags and well before dawn, headed for the airport.

You have to understand that Mary Ann likes to wait until the last minute. I like to get there very early. I thought we were cutting it close when we left. The hiss-hiss-hiss noise after we hit a broken bottle on the road was a downer. Sure enough, a hundred yards later, she had to stop with the flat tire. I haven't changed a flat in years, and I had never used the spare on the Surburban. I didn't even know where the jack was hiding.

Still, it was a twenty-minute change, and we were back on the road. I was dripping with sweat, panting like a dog, and holding out my hands to keep from touching anything with them. They were black with dirt and oil from the exercise. We caught the plane with a few minutes to spare -- I even managed to get my hands washed before we took off.

It was a easy flight -- Austin to Nashville to Baltimore to Providence RI. We didn't have to change planes, but I was painfully reminded just how uncomfortable airline seats were. Once on the ground we caught a ride over to the train station and rode on into Boston. There was little to do but check into the hotel and locate the convention registration. By the end of the day, I was dead tired. Cars and planes, and taxi's and trains and subways, plus a good bit of walking. I was sorry that I couldn't have fitted a boat ride into the mix.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Advantages of Using Other People's Code

When you program a task for yourself, you get to add all the features you can imagine. When you use someone else's software, you get the features they imagined. Sometimes, the differences can be pleasant
surprises.

Getting Lazy in My Old Age

I've been a progammer for too many years to count, and I've always been one to roll my own solutions to problems, so why am I using a public blogging service instead of diving into Perl and making my own?

I have actually done it before. Back in the early days of the web, when I was introducing web use to Motorola, I had several sites that included chronological comment lists -- what is now called a blog.

But pulling old code out of my CVS archive and debugging it for my new environment would take more time and patience than I have right now. I can generate enthusiasm for a 30 minute programming task, but anything longer would take me away from my novel and I can't afford that.

So here I am, taking the lazy way out.

(Although I just might be interested in tinkering with the template settings on this thing. It is just CSS after all. Hmm.)