Monday, December 24, 2007

Family Christmas Gathering

As we sit around the fireplace and each work on our computers (I'm off in my office with two laptops open), we're waiting for Thomas (and his laptop) to arrive. But it's not as isolated as you might think because there are a number of Facebook games running among us.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Lunch Sign

Small town joys include the local diners. In Hutto, one of the favorite lunch spots is The Texan. It used to be down the road near Frame Switch, but their business picked up when they moved into the center of town. I enjoy the chicken fried steak, but almost every time I eat there I keep looking at the big Highway 79 sign they have on the wall. Part of my brain just can't leave it alone. It's wrong.

I understand that it's just a wall decoration. I understand that it's evocative of the long history of road side diners of decades ago. I understand that they probably just bought a Route 66 sign and repainted it to match the fact that Hutto is on highway 79.

But 79 is a state highway, and those signs are on a rectangular background. It's the US highways that have the shield.

Like I say, it keeps nagging at me. But there's no help for it. I enjoy the grub.

UPDATE: Mary Ann said 79 is a US highway. I checked and she's right. But...why does the sign on the wall say Texas?

Monday, December 17, 2007


Today, I dropped by the not-yet-opened Hutto Public Library to meet the librarian, Yasmeen Jehangir, and to drop off a bag of books. Hutto has been trying to get a library since the '30's with limited success. She's still waiting for the shelves to arrive. The building is part of the old fire station, and she's working hard cataloging all the books that have been collecting over the years awaiting a building. Hutto is the fastest growing city in Texas, and it's been a shame we lacked a library. We still don't have a grocery store.

In addition to finding a home for some of the neglected books at my house, I'm seeding the local libraries with copies of my books. I write so people will read them, and you never know where they will show up. Just this evening, one of Google's Alert crawlers ran across a copy of my 1983 computer book, on the shelves of the King Saud University Library in Saudia Arabia. You've just gotta wonder how it got there.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Diamond Rio 500 on iTunes

While cleaning up my office this evening, I ran across the USB cable that connected the old Diamond Rio 500 music players to the computer.  I have two of them gathering dust in my desk drawer -- what with an iPhone and assorted iPods to take care of my real music player needs.
However, I had seen several comments in blogs about how Apple had tied the iTunes exclusively to the iPod in order to prevent people from buying any other kind of music player.  That contrasted with my distinct memory of using iTunes to load my Rio back in ancient times.  Of course, maybe things had changed.
But now, I had all the pieces.  I grabbed a fresh AA battery and fired up one of them.  I plugged in the cable and connected the Rio to my Mac.  With no hesitation, the Rio mounted beside my iPhone in the sidebar and specialized buttons showed up at the bottom, with commands for making new folders on the Rio and upgrading its firmware.
I didn't even know the Rio had firmware upgrades, and since the company had long since gone out of business or changed hands, I was a little doubtful.  But Google is your friend.  "Rio 500 firmware" led me to a site that had the firmware for download.  I did the obvious and upgraded both my players quickly and easily.  
Then came the test, could I add and delete songs?  My first try failed, but I realized I was trying to put an AAC encoded song onto a MP3 player and iTunes declined to permit that.  Scrolling down my music list, I found a few zillion songs appropriately encoded and as easy as drag and drop, I changed the playlist on the Rio.  Of course, at USB 1 speeds, it was amazingly slow, but I was dealing with ancient technology, so that wasn't unexpected.
But, it was as I remembered.  iTunes treats the Rio as a first class citizen, within the limits of its tiny memory cards, and its capabilities.  I wonder how many other 'alien' players iTunes supports?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Getting Behind

I'm behind and getting more so each day, it seems.  Since I began this "micro publisher" project I'm learning more things that have to be done at a greater rate than I'm working off the checklist.

For example, this newspaper article about me came out on September 17.  Of course I was in Zambia at the time so I can claim innocence that I didn't immediately post notice about it in my blog and on my website to leverage the media attention and sell more books.  That's what I'm supposed to do, isn't it?  But it's now December, almost three months later that the website editing task bubbled to the top of the list.  It's embarrassing.  

Another example is the publication date of Roswell or Bust, my second novel.  I'd planned for October.  It slipped to November, and then I decided to shift my printing and distribution from Lulu to Lightningsource to get better pricing, and that added a whole new layer of accounts to open, and ISBN's to buy and contracts to fax.  And then I ran smack up against the reality that to have any chance of the book to get a review in Publisher's Weekly or Booklist (pre-publication reviewers) I had to send them galleys 3 or 4 months in advance of publication.

My simple minded idea of publishing one book a quarter and spending a week or so on each of them to herd them through the processing has now been replaced with the reality that I'll have to work on four books simultaneously to that I'll have the lead time to get everything done by publication date.  

I'm learning a lot about the business of publishing -- more than I ever wanted to know.  Let's just hope I can keep up with it all.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The African Queen

With my knee injury I've been working at more home-bound type of activities lately, catching up on all the little chores that get ignored when you're out traveling the world. One of the long-term chores that's been getting some attention is the task of getting rid of a large cubic volume of old video tapes. With hard disk capacity and video conversion gadgets getting cheap enough, I am moving everything into a mirrored media library that I could actually pick up and carry out of the house in one hand.

The old Beta tapes, starting on the day Debra was born back in 1983, were the highest priority, and I went on eBay and purchased a Beta machine to play them. Converting the home movies went smoothly and I believe I've almost gotten them all done. All I really lack is a large box of Hi-8 videos of Thomas playing highschool football.

But there are many, many other tapes that I need to convert as well. Old movies, TV specials, and an erratic selection of tape-now, view-whenever TV shows. One of the one's I converted was The African Queen, with Bogart and Hepburn. It's a great movie, and having just come back from Africa myself, I was fascinated to watch it again. I could see the crocodiles and hippos from my own experience as they came on the screen, and I knew just what kind of rivers there were on that continent.

But not everything was warm and fuzzy. That missionary church in the movie was just wrong.  Get this, they were set up in a bush village where the only access was via river and jungle trails, and they had a church organ?  While I believe it could happen, I can just imagine how far down on the priority list an organ must have been.

And the church service itself -- it was horrible.  I've been in a bush church.  They can out-sing us in spirit and enthusiasm.  It was nothing at all like the off-key painful singing shown in the movie.  The Zambians I met are natural singers, and while their Tonga songs were by far the best, they learn and sing English hymns for fun.  Even when they're struggling with a new English song, they do a good job at it.

Of course the movie wasn't set in Zambia, but I have to believe that the whole movie church service scene was more about the missionaries than about the people.

That's the thing about travel.  You get to experience things for yourself, and realize just how artificial a movie can be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dowsing for Argument

I stumbled across a Wired article about hoax gadgets which was mildly amusing -- until they included dowsing as #10 on their list. I think the author ran out of time or something, because it didn't even fit the rest of the article. But boy did it trigger a firestorm of comments! Since dowsing is so commonplace and has been used for thousands of years, there were dozens of people who posted their personal experiences with it. And then, immediately following were the defenders of Randi who proclaimed the belief in dowsing as a sign of idiocy. After that, the thread degenerated quite a bit.

I kept on reading, hoping that someone would say something useful, and eventually one person did -- pointing to an article in the November 1998 Popular Mechanics that talked about a scientific study on dowsing. I did a little bit of Googling and eventually found the actual article: "Unconventional Water Detection".

It was very long. It took hours to read, but it contained massive numbers of studies, representing thousands of wells dug. There were also some double-blind tests and some real, actual, informed speculation.

I have to come down on the side of belief. It undoubtedly works in the field. But the skeptics tests also demonstrate that their tests are obviously designed wrong.

If you have some time, it's a fascinating subject.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Format vs Manuscript Format

For more years than I care to remember, I've been writing in manuscript format. With its wide margins and double-spacing, I'm quite comfortable with it. So when I found I had to convert that format into the book format that everyone else in the world uses, I have been suffering a learning curve. I've converted two books now into book format from my manuscripts and I'm still suffering from mistakes. It's not natural yet.

So, I documented the process -- mainly for my own use. However, once I had it completed, I decided to add it to my Writer's Resource page on my website.

I wrote a little 1700 word description of converting the manuscript, in manuscript format. I then followed the steps I'd just written and converted it into the 6 x 9 format used by trade paperbacks. It's simple, and real typesetters would be pained to see it, but it does go through the process.

One of these days I'll learn how to do initial raised caps.

Friday, November 02, 2007

No Email in Dairy Queen

I wasn't able to check my email when I stopped for lunch at the Taylor Dairy Queen. The reason this is worthy of comment is that this is the very first instance since I bought my iPhone three weeks ago that I haven't been able to whip out my phone and check email or browse the web on a whim. Everywhere else, in restaurants, gas stations, waiting in traffic, or when I'm a passenger -- I've always been on-line.

But at least at the Dairy Queen, there was no wi-fi and the phone signal was so low that there was no EDGE coverage to give me a way to ship packets around. Even yesterday, when I was having lunch at Jerry's restaurant/bar/baitshop in Granger, I was able to check up on the on-going SCO bankruptcy on Grocklaw.

Boy am I spoiled.

Alex the Writing Assistant

With the new Mac operating system upgrade, there's a new voice, "Alex" which is very good at speaking arbitrary text. Under the voices preference, I was able to set a keystroke command to automatically speak any text I have selected. This gives me the opportunity to write a sentence or paragraph, and then immediately have it spoken to me. This morning I've used it extensively as I rewrite sections of my novel. I can easily try out several variations just to see which one 'sounds' better. It works with any application, even the years-old version of Word that I'm using, and the blogger compose window.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Going With The Numbers

Yesterday I was re-writing a scene in my latest novel and I felt unsatisfied by the visual description. The event was rather dramatic -- a 6 mile wide asteroid passing by overhead, just barely touching the upper atmosphere. This was the background for important dialog in the characters lives, so when I wrote it first, I wrote characters first and description second.

But then I realized I really needed to get the facts straight. Just how big did that asteroid look? So, I fired up the spreadsheet and laid out a timeline, second by second. I plugged in reasonable numbers for the velocity and distances and added a little trig to get the visual angles.

Wow. I'd like to see that myself. From a pinpoint of light, the size of the asteroid grew to over 8 times the diameter of the full moon in just five to ten minutes, and then shrunk away just as fast. The last ten seconds would have been intense. Lots of screaming among the populace.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

First Santa Sighting of the Season

Mary Ann sent me to the convenience store for ice cream, and the clerk asked if I played Santa at Christmas. It turns out she's a Christmas baby as well.

It always brightens up my day when there's a Santa Sighting.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Plugging In (in South Africa)

While planning for our African trip, I attempted to be ready to connect all our electrical equipment to the local power. The first thing I did was buy a couple of universal traveller plug kits, like the grey ones in the picture.  These advertise as covering all your needs.  I bought this Sima one in a camera store, and another Samsonite kit that does everything the Sima did and also included a 1600 watt 240 to 120 volt converter.

I also tried to go out on the web to find out what kind of power would be used in that area -- and yes, it was going to be exclusively 240 volts in all of southern Africa.  I didn't worry too much about that, since I'd been conscious that most modern electrical wall warts were dual voltage.  I rechecked.  Yes, our Apple laptops would work off 240.  My battery chargers would also.  The only issue was whether the plugs would fit the outlets, and I had two different universal plug kits.  One by Samsonite.  Surely I'd be covered.

We arrived in Capetown, checked into our first hotel room.  None of the plugs fit.

It seems that 'universal' doesn't mean southern Africa.  After leaving Capetown and arriving in Namibia, I began to realize it wasn't just South Africa, but the countries near it also used a different plug.  Look at the white plug in the photo with its three large round contacts.  It's huge. 

We limped by using the universal bathroom outlet for electric shavers, but it wasn't always reliable, and with two laptops and two different battery chargers to service, it was difficult.  But going through the airports, I finally discovered the right adapters.

Several places sold these.  There were two kinds, "The Visitor" which I bought and allowed us to connect to SA-style outlets, and "The Traveler" which was for SA residents and allowed them to survive the the rest of the world.  I'd advise any tourist to be on the lookout for them as they travel through the Johannesburg airport.

In Zambia, we actually had use for the universal adapters I'd bought, since they used a different style outlet, but I'm definitely hanging onto my SA adapters.  I just might go back.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Music Library Stats

I was reading one of the zillion commentaries about Apple's iTunes Store vs. the RIAA Big Labels. I don't pretend to predict that future, but it caused me to look at my own music library.

I was an early iPod adopter, with one of those 5GB original units. That was back before iTunes was selling music, but I had already gotten into the music player spirit with a Diamond Rio, and a 5GB hard drive was huge compared to the 32MB memory cards I was using. Suddenly, instead of the few albums I deemed worthy of converting for the Rio, everything on CD was now destined for the conversion marathon.

So, my original digital music library was a little less than 1000 songs, all from purchased or gifted CD's I acquired over decades.

I experimented with the P2P software and downloaded maybe six or seven songs. None survived. I didn't like the ethics of the situation.

Today, the count is 2859 in "Music". That's just the simple count. Of those, slightly less than two per week were free downloads from iTunes (I avoid Hip-Hop/Rap), which gives me exposure to music I'd never have sampled before.

Of the unpurchased remainder, perhaps 300 are things I've recorded myself, like the church music I captured while visiting the churches in Zambia, and recorded lectures.

But the big picture? I buy much more music now that it's just a click away, and the percentage from CD's is dropping rapidly.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Seeing iPhones Everywhere

I was just watching the pilot episode of Journeyman, and there he was hopping back and forth in time with his iPhone. He could reliably tell what era he was in by whether his iPhone was working or not. And the scene where the 1980's businessman with his Motorola brick phone was staring at the bluetooth headset in his ear was a classic.

Pinch It

I was just looking at Bill Crider's blog and found myself doing the zoom-pinch action on my laptop's trackpad. I've been using my iPhone heavily since I bought it less than a week ago, and when browing the web on the little screen, text can be too small to read. But you can put two fingers together on the screen and drag them apart, causing the image to zoom in for better readability. I guess my brain is already adapting to that method. I helps that I scroll the screen the same way on both the iPhone and the Mac, dragging the screen with my fingertips.

I suspect it won't be long before I can zoom in with a pinch on the laptop's trackpad. Multi-touch technology is already partly enabled on the trackpad, and arbitrary zooming the screen is already available with command-option-+. Maybe it'll be in Lepoard.

I realized I'd been lax in blogging lately, so when the impulse hit, I decided to do something about it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Posting With an iPhone

I just wanted to see if I could do it. Having an Internet portal clipped to my belt all the time be could be very useful, once I get the hang of typing on its touchscreen keyboard. Some things don't work, like using the composer window shortcuts for bold and italics, but in all it works well enough.

Test bold italics.
Okay, I found a way to do it.

Now if I can just get past these cramped fingers.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Review: Life is Wild

I had to watch this new CW show, especially since the pilot was a free download on iTunes. It's a 'blended family' show set in an African game lodge. While it wasn't in the locations that I visited, there was much in common, and a lot that looked just wrong.

For one thing, I can remember one teenager girl (Italian) in my visit. This show has as many pretty young teenagers as a typical CW California beach show. Even the lone black character sounded way too American.

But I'll give it some more chances, if for nothing else than the African scenery.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Resources for Writers

There are millions of web pages listing resources for writers. The only difference in mine is that I'm putting up the slide show I used at the George Benson Christian College in Zambia. As I do other classes and presentations, I'll be adding more.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eugene James "Gene" Melton, Jr. 1919-2007

Eugene James "Gene" Melton, Jr. of Lake Tanglewood died Wednesday, October 3, 2007.
Gene was born in Cement, Oklahoma on December 29, 1919 and technically gifted, took an early interest in radio, serving in the Navy during WWII, becoming a HAM radio operator and working for Santa Fe Railroad for 31 years, developing much of their cross-country microwave communications system.
Never searching for praise from others, Gene was always helping at the Churches of Christ at several locations, serving as a deacon, teaching local Bible classes, and working to establish Christianity in India through World Bible School. By the example of his simple, honest life, he left an enduring legacy of believers among family, friends, and around the world.
He was preceeded in death by his parents and younger brother Jack Melton.
Gene is survived by his wife Mary Evelyn Wheeler Melton of 69 years, his brother Fred Melton of Flatonia, Texas, four children: Roger Melton and wife Linda of Rescue California, Mary Solomon and husband Walter of Lake Tanglewood, Henry Melton and wife Mary Ann of Hutto Texas, and Martha Barnett and husband Hugh of Dallas Texas. He had 10 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren.

Monday, October 01, 2007


I was just starting a posting on Zambian names when the call came in from Amarillo. My father's health has taken a turn for the worse, so we started tossing luggage into the car and made a run to the Urgent Care Plus place to get me a meds to shake my sinus infection. Currently we're on the road to Amarillo. More details when they become available.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

My Souvenirs

Mary Ann bought a separate bag to carry back the little animal statues and other things she bought for our house and for gifts to friends and relatives. While I used to be pretty good about buying gifts for people decades ago, I've changed and hardly buy anything anymore. But I have my memorabilia. I just neglect to hit the currency exchange shops in the airports on the way out of the country and I end up with lots of remembrances that reside in my desk drawer.

So, joining the euros and francs are South African rand, Namibian dollars and Zambian kwachas from this trip. In fact, I may have gotten carried away. I think I have about 156,000 Zambian kwachas, not counting coins. Of course, that's just under $40, but it looks impressive. And they all have interesting animals on the bills.

My only regret is not finding a way to pick up any Botswannan or Zimbabwean money. We didn't actually set foot in Zimbabwe, but I hear their hyperinflation rate would make the kwachas look normal.


When we first planned to go to Africa, we went by the Travel Clinic and had all kinds of shots for everything from typhus to hepatitis and took our daily malaria pills with us. For almost the entire month, I had no health problems of any kind. Of course, I used the hand-cleaner goop and drank bottled water, at least at first.

But by the time we'd been in Zambia a while, I was a little less concerned about that and began to trust the well water. (They call it bore hole water a lot.) Mary Ann was having some problems, mainly because she was spending a lot of time with the little orphans and was having many close encounters with runny noses. I was mainly dealing with college students -- cleaned up, nicely dressed college students at that.

Of course there was our last Sunday. We went into town to worship with the Kalomo High School church. The high school has about 1200 students and the church was totally run by the students. I think there was more than one kind of church running that morning at the school, because I could hear a whole 'nother group singing songs just a few rooms over. There were about 100 people at the service in the 20 x 40 foot class room, divided girl-side/boy-side as is usual in Zambia. David Gregersen was the guest preacher.

But then came the time for communion. As is usual, there was the passing of the unleavened bread. By the time it reached me, it was a bowl of crumbs, but I picked one. And then there was the wine.

Now, last Sunday's communion at the Kasibi village, there was the familiar tray of cups. I large tray is passed with many tiny cups. But at the KHS church, I don't think they had the budget for specialized communion ware. Two regular sized metal cups were presented, filled with wine and passed out to the right and left side of the group after the blessing. I have to say, I had my qualms about sipping from a cup that had already been at 30 or 40 mouths before mine, but at least it was real wine, and maybe the alcohol would kill some of the germs. I sipped and trusted everything would be okay.

I don't actually think I caught anything, but it was memorable.

But then, as our last days in Africa arrived, everyone was coughing. I think it was due to the unseasonable rain shower a few days before. Plants were turning green in preparation for the rainy season and allergies were rampant. This was followed by three days in airplanes, with the fumigating sprays and the close quarters with the other travelers. Mary Ann was having sinus problems, and I was starting to feel the effects as well.

By the time we arrived home, both of us were sinus congested and coughing from the drainage. Mary Ann went to the doctor yesterday, but I still trying to recover on my own. With the combination of jet lag and congestion, we've been sluggish and droopy. There's so much to do, now that we're home. I hope it clears up soon.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


I paid my first quarter's Texas sales taxes using their web form system. Since most of my book sales are through the websites, with Amazon, et al, handling taxes on their own, I have very little manual sales to deal with, but I intend to follow the rules.

It was an interesting exercise, and I was relieved that it was so easy to handle on-line. With all my travel I'd hate to missing a tax filing because I missed a letter in the mail. It appears there's only a 20 day period after the end of a quarter before the taxes have to be filed. This time I actually filed early since I doubt I'll be peddling any books door to door between now and the 30th.

Luckily, I have no employees, or I'd have to file forms for that as well.

Midnight in Zambia

It's just past five in the afternoon here in Texas, but that puts it after midnight in Zambia and my body is complaining. At least the air conditioner is working.

When we arrived, Debra told us she had turned the house air conditioner back on and the house should be cooled down for us. Well, it didn't quite feel like it. A few hours later, the temperature had climbed towards 89 and I knew that something was wrong. I checked, and the compressor wasn't even trying to run.

I have to tell you, it's much hotter in Texas than it was in Africa. Even in the deserts of Namibia, it wasn't that bad. We fired up the AC in the RV and spent the night there.

Today the Fox guy arrived in a timely manner and located the problem. Ants in the wiring. A new 'contacter', and the air began to cool. Texas fire ants may not build as impressive a mound as those termites in Africa, but they can be quite annoying. One more thing to take care of, now that we are home.

Things That Work: APC UPB10 Mobile Power Adapter

I'm back from Africa, and gradually getting caught up with sleep. I have many blog posts to do, but I thought I'd get this one out of the way while it's still fresh in my mind.

I knew I'd be on the plane for long hours, so I planned ahead, loading many television shows in my 80-gig iPod. But, to handle the power in restricted environments, I purchased the APC UPB10 battery gadget I saw in Office(Depot|Max) while doing my last minute packing.
APC UPB10 Mobile Power Pack for charging mobile devices

It's a smart battery with a USB port. You simply plug your USB cord into it, as if it were a computer, and any gadgets that can charge from USB will be charged. It has a button on it that illuminates the strip showing the amount of charge still left. From the user level, it's very simple. The internal intelligence regulates charging and handles the power level strip. You can look at the advertisement for tech specs. Let me tell you how it worked for me.

I charged it up before leaving on the trip, a full month ago. Most if the time it stayed in my gadget bag since I was able to use other power sources for my iPod. On the trip out, I mainly watched the in-flight movies, since there were several I hadn't seen in the theatrical release, only watching two or three shows on my iPod.

But on the way back, it was different. I left Cape Town at 2 P.M. on Tuesday, and arrived in Austin at 11 A.M. on Wednesday, taking three planes (7 hours time zone difference). During the flights and layovers, I watched many episodes of Smallville and didn't touch the in-flight movie system. I tried to sleep a couple of times with poor success, and the iPod was playing music for that three hours. In all, I ran the iPod down to near empty four times and recharged it to full each time using the UPB10. By the time I arrived home, the APC gadget still showed that it had a quarter charge left. With the exception of landing and takeoff times, the iPod was running the whole trip. I am quite pleased. If it can handle that flight, I can't imagine one it couldn't. As you can see from the photo, it's about the same size as the iPod and fit my pocket easily.

It worked. I recommend it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Makuas Everywhere

We're back to Capetown for the night, and it's been a hectic day. We packed, and said goodbye to the Gregersen's and I took one last look at their veranda as I loaded up into the LandCruiser for the run to Livingstone. Donald drove and told us the story of the Cow, the Goat and the Dog.

Mary Ann stopped at a Livingstone marketplace and bought some more trinkets while Donald and I sweltered in the heat. Kaloma and Namwiamga are up on the plateau which makes them a little cooler than Livingstone, which is down on the Zambezi River. We checked in and watched with some amusement all the tourists on safari. Somehow, we felt old and experienced. But in the departure lounge, it struck me that I was in a sea of Makuas. Makua is the Tonga word for whites. I'm just guessing on the spelling and exact definition, but that's what we were.

Then there was flights:
Nationwide Airlines/ Boeing 727-200/ Livingstone to Joburg. (That's "Johannesburg", but that's not what people say) It was a very cramped seat. Then the new luggage Mary Ann bought to carry all the trinkets broke off a leg.

Nationwide Airlines/Boeing 737/Joburg to Capetown
The flight was okay, but we were stuck in the airport with an overly-delayed shuttle to the hotel and we almost missed supper.

I'm tired, and a little uncomfortable with being back in the 21st century.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Wall Spiders

I'm used to them now. In every room of the house are spiders on the wall, about one or two to a room. They are large. Legs and all cover a bit more space than a silver dollar. You don't swat them. They are like house pets, almost. Our first night, David called one by name, but he was just joking, probably. They are harmless to humans and eat mosquitoes. They normally just decorate the walls quietly and mind their own business. I can live with that.


Often, when meeting a Zambian, certain topics come up. How many children do I have? What is the weather like in the US?

Sometimes I get the feeling that they think the weather is all the same in the whole country, and when I try to answer, we get tangled up in a simple difference. Here there is a wet season and a dry season. They can't understand a place where it could rain at any time of the year. Early on I was told that here, it was the dry season, with the last raindrops having fallen back in July, and no more rain expected until the end of October.

It is green here, I'm told, during the rainy season, but of course, the mosquitoes come out as well. October is the "suicide month", when it gets hot all day long and it doesn't even cool down at night. Then, over the course of three weeks or so, the clouds will come, building and promising rain that never seems to come, complete with lightning. And then the rainy season begins, with torrents.

However, for the past three days, the usual cloudless skies were less so. People started commenting about how strange it was to have clouds at this time of year. And then, this afternoon, I was sitting on the veranda, under the metal roof, and I heard the shotgun patter of raindrops.

At first I didn't believe it was rain. As the clouds had passed over earlier, I had heard a similar noise whenever the sun came out and the metal roof began expanding, creating popping noises.

But this was really different. Then, I noticed leaves moving as if they were being hit by raindrops. I walked out, and confirmed it. Rain had come. Unseasonable, and puzzling to one and all, it has rained lightly for a couple of hours now. The air smells of it. And even though the ground has been baked dry for so long that every drop is immediately soaked up, the air is comfortably cool.

I had seen the reports of flooding deaths up north in equatorial Africa, and this is probably just a a finger of the clouds that have wandered down to Kalomo, but it confirms again how much new chaos has been added to the world's climate.

Internet at Namwianga

Before coming here, I knew the Gregersens had Internet because they posted their blog regularly. I also knew they had a monthly bandwidth budget, so I was expecting there to be limitations.

It turns out that there are a number of internet solutions here, all with limitations (of course). In their front yard they have a big CopperNet dish that's about twice the size of the Hughesnet disk that I have on the top of my RV, but their satellite connection has about the same speed as Hughesnet in prime time.

Other houses on campus had a Zamtel solution. This was basically Internet over cell phone. A CDMA USB modem was connected at the house and an external antenna was installed on the roof. The computer, typically a Windows laptop, would connect like dialup. The home I visited last night couldn't connect their new Vista machine because it didn't have the necessary driver, so it was relegated to playing music while the XP laptop was the only one connected.

Harding University has a number of their students here, taking a semester or so of classes in Zambia, getting experience living in this culture. Harding had installed a Big Dish, with a wireless transmitter that would cover the whole campus. It had just gone on-line a week or so ago. It ran great. People were starting to disconnect their individual solutions in favor of this campus-wide network. The Gregersen's had turned off their dish.

But then, this is Africa. the Big Dish (I can't remember the brand) failed after working one week. Spare parts have to come from the UK or the US, and that means being delayed getting through customs. CopperNet was turned back on and I helped one of the other houses get their Zamtel solution distributed via shared Internet on a laptop so all the Harding students could get their email easier than camping out on the Gregerson's veranda, or going into Kalomo to use the Internet cafe.

Unfortunately, with email came the notice that one of the student's father had just died and Skype was called into play to make family connections and arrange for an emergency flight home.

All in all, the Gregersen's monthly bandwidth budget is coming close to being exhausted in just one week. And the spare parts aren't here yet.

Lessons on the Veranda

I've had four of them so far, and another scheduled for this evening. From 8 to 18 students arrive in the dark to come sit around the table on the veranda and look at me expectantly. I have to wonder what they actually expect to hear from me. Of the 50 or so students that have come to these sessions on 'Writing for Publication', about 6 have admitted to having actually written something. Two have been brave enough to show me a sample of their work.

Since my classroom presentations were oriented towards giving them an awareness of some of the basics like characterization, description, plotting and point of view, I had thought they were coming to find out some of the business-related aspects of writing. Given the limitations of the setting, with few willing to ask any questions, I've been covering some of the basics: There is a manuscript format. Where do you look in a magazine for the editor's address? Short stories are more likely to sell than long ones.

But the last session was attended by Third-Years, effectively the college seniors, and I had not presented the classroom sessions to them. Some of their questions were things I had covered with the First-Years, like dialog.

I wish I had a way to start a writer's group with them, and coach them through a few weeks of it. People in America just can't appreciate how isolated they are. They seem to know what email is, but few if any have any internet access. The post office is a 7 km walk away, and the whole college shares one box number. Maybe all that will improve when they get their computer lab up and running with it's connection to a large satellite dish. They have a number of hand-me-down Windows 95 computers that will soon go on-line.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Here in Namwiamga Mission

My little point and shoot camera may have died, probably because of dust in the lens mechanism, but if you want a photo of what we're doing here in Zambia, take a look at the Gregersen's Blog. Linda Gregersen and Mary Ann came out in the middle of one of my sessions and started taking pictures. It took me a moment to get back on track.

Of all the students I've been talking to, there are a few who have already been writing their own stories, but the options are so limited here for them. I've been showing them how to look into magazines and find the publisher's information so that they can find the editor's address. It's seven km into town if they wanted to get to the post office, and internet access for them is very limited.

But one student has already had an article published in the Livingstone newspaper, and what I read last night from another student showed great promise.


This morning, there was water gurgling in the pipes. I was able to clean up without having a bucket brought in. Wonderful.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Voice Lessons

Monday, I gave my first lessons at the George Benson college here at Namwiamga Mission. I suggested several topics to the English department here and they liked the idea of talking about authorial voice and writing from the heart. With two one-hour classes to give, I made up a couple of Keynote presentations, understanding the warning that they had electricity, but it wasn't guaranteed reliable.

But making the presentations at least gave me an outline to talk from, and I made sure that I have paper copies handy, just in case.

There were two presentations of the first hour, back to back, and my voice held out, I'm glad to say. The faces watching me were an interesting study in contrast. Some were rapt. Especially in the second hour, with the Math and History majors, there were a few who dozed off. And just as I'd been warned, no body asked questions. I take that back. One young man did ask for a clarification and I tried to give it. If they were having as much difficulty understanding my Texas flavored English as I was with Zambian English, I'm surprised that all of then hadn't dozed off. At least they could read the slides projected on the wall.

After supper, about 15 of them arrived on the veranda for a discussion of writing for publication. I did my best to get them to talk, and although only three of them admitted to having written anything, and few were willing to ask any questions, we did get along for about an hour. Only when the group broke up did the people with real interest linger. Out of those 15, maybe five had a real desire to write and I hope I get a chance to talk to them one on one and look at their work.

In thirty minutes, I'll be giving the second presentation. I hope my voice will last.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Holding Hands

Since that day we spent at the Lusaka airport, I've been noticing another one of those cultural differences between the Zambian people and Americans. Zambians hold hands.

It was common all around us. The girls in uniform would be walking through the airport, hand in hand. Chance-met businessmen greeting and talking to each other at the airport would hold hands. Simple handshakes were more elaborate and often wouldn't end for a moment or two. The only thing I didn't see was a man and a woman holding hands.

When I shook hands with Mr. Chanter at his lodge, I fumbled the handshake and he explained the Zambian handshake to me: Start with a standard handshake, release with the thumbs still locked and briefly hold the top edge of the other's hand, and then slide back into the standard grip.

That information came in handy as I began meeting all the friendly people on the mission and in the bush villages we have visited. The only time I've had a Zambian stick to a simple American handshake is in places where they're used to novice travelers. Out at the Kasibi church on Sunday, the worship service ended with an expanding reception line, where everyone shook everyone else's hands. A half-dozen of the Zambians used an American handshake, but I was pleased to note that the young men of the Harding students there seemed quite adapted to the Zambian handshake.


Friday, when we were picked up in Livingstone, we were warned, "Take a good hot bath and enjoy it. We're under severe water rationing."

It's been a constant theme while we're here. The Namwiamga Mission campus, which holds about a thousand people, gets clean water from wells, and other water from a little lake. This is the beginning of the school term, and also approaching the peak of the dry, hot season. The system failed, and all the pipes and tanks have gone dry.

It's interesting how people have coped. David Gergersen has been working day and night the whole time trying to find the problem and fix it. They've changed pumps at the well-head and walked the pipes, looking for a leak. As yet, the problem remains.

There are a couple of dozen American students here working, and after days of no water, seem to be adapting. Lake water can be treated and you can pour it over your head for limited cleaning. The air is dry, so you don't get terribly sweaty.

The Zambians take it all in stride. In bush villages, sometimes there's a well, but other times water has to be hauled in on an ox-cart from the nearest river. A place where there's running water on demand at the nearest faucet is nice, but it's lack is hardly the end of the world. But then, their concept of a crisis is much different from our reaction as Americans. A school with a thousand students and no running water isn't something to be excited about.

I'm managing okay. In fact, Mary Ann and I picked up about 60 liters of bottled water at the store before coming out here, so other than bathing out of a bucket and getting the laundry done in lake water, we're sitting pretty.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Different World

Today, I rode in the back with a few other people drove out to a Bible meeting out in the bush. Linda Gregersen, who drove, didn't know the location of the place, so we followed someone who did on his Honda motorcycle. The roads kept getting smaller and smaller, until we were driving on a cow path at the last.

The meeting had already started. I walked into the little meeting room and found a place to sit on the men's side. The 'pew' was a raised bench about the height of a cinder-block, plastered over with a sandy covering. My knees just barely survived when we stood for a song.

But when the singing started -- I was overwhelmed by the sound and the vibrance of the voices. Certainly the thatched roof was hardly the best acoustics, but it was a wonderful hymn, although sung in Tonga, I hardly had a clue what the words were.

After a break, the men, about 20 of us, gathered under the shade of a tree and several hours of lessons ensued. They were translated, probably for my sole benefit, and dealt with church leadership. It was the same sermons I'd heard growing up, with the same scriptures quoted. Luckily my ipod had the bible loaded, or I'd have been really out of place.

I contributed little, but they were gracious. During lunch, I was offered some of their staple dish, sort of like corn meal cooked into a very thick mound. You break off some, roll it in your hands and eat it.

On the way back, our guide wasn't available, but I'd recorded the route on my GPS, so we found our way back to the main roads.

All in all, an interesting introduction to the Zambian bush.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Slowing Down in Livingstone

One of the features of the safari trip is constant activities. I held up to it for a couple of weeks, but I'm a self-paced kind of guy, and a few days ago, I let Mary Ann do all the game drives and I took time off. Today we're in Livingstone at Chanter's Lodge and officially the safaris are over. We did go out on one last game drive this morning, and saw the last white rhino in Zambia. He wanders around in the park with a couple of armed guards. Apparently all his fellows were poached.

Our driver saw the man walking along with his AK-47 and called out to him. Tourists aren't supposed to get out of the vehicle, but we managed to take a short walk over to where the rhino was grazing.

Tomorrow, we'll be picked up by the Gregersens and head off to Kolomo. Luckily, I've just finished my class outlines. The next few days will be an entirely different kind of Africa experience -- and I have no idea what will come.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Croc Posting Updated.

The promised video about the croc is now on-line. We're in Livingstone Zambia now, with real internet.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Contrasting Customs

Chobe Game Lodge is on the Botswana side of the Chobe River, and Chobe Savanna Lodge is on the Namibian side of the river, actually within sight of each other. Today we moved from the Game Lodge to the Savanna Lodge.

First we loaded up all eight people into a Land Cruiser, with an attached trailer for the luggage and drove out of the park into town. At least that's what we started to do. One person yelled "Oh, No!" He'd left his passport in the room safe, so the driver did an impressive three point turn, with trailer attached, on the one-lane road that was eight inches deep in sand, and drove back to get it.

Arriving at the Immigration office, we went in and filled out the little, almost universal, form that includes name, passport number, and assorted other info and checked out of Botswana. Tourists and luggage was then loaded up on two aluminum outboard motor boats and drove down river a couple of miles where we got out and hiked up a dirt road into the trees where a Namibian Immigration office was hiding. We filled out a duplicate set of forms and hiked back to the boats. Then, we rode upriver back into the park, stopping to check in at a dock-side registration office, and then on to the Savanna lodge.

It was a nice trip, for traveling in circles. There were picture opportunities with an elephant crossing and herds of cape buffalo and the usual wart hogs and lions.

But what made an impression on me was the two contrasting Immigrations offices.

Botswana: On the walls were several free condom dispensers with a large bulletin-board sized illustrated poster advocating masturbation.
Namibia: On the walls were several wild animal and bird identification posters, plus a poster that showed how to identify abandoned shells and other unexploded ordinance.

Africa is a place with its problems, no matter how beautiful.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Whole Half Day

The Chobe Game Lodge is more like a hotel than the camps we've been at before so I decided to take a break. After the sunrise game drive and the morning boat ride on the Chobe River, I took time off from the activities and spent the whole afternoon working on my computer and letting my brain recover. It's done wonders for my alertness, and I've made progress on the lesson plan for when I teach my classes.

Mary Ann came back from the drive I didn't take with a load of new pictures, including leopard photos. We ate and I came back while she talked to some new friends. Oh, by the way, she saw a lion down by the water while walking back to the room.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Burn Out

Today was goodbye to Luangwa River Lodge and a travel day to Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana.

EMB 120 Brasilia / Zambian Airways / Mfuwe to Lusaka
EMB 120 Brasilia / Zambian Airways / Lusaka to Livingston

Yes it was the same plane, the same seat, even. But we had to deplane, collect our luggage, walk to the next room, go through the x-ray again, check in the luggage and board. Even the x-ray guy thought it was crazy.

Boarding at Lusaka was interesting. A Japanese family of five with two little kids were entirely upset when told that it was free seating and that the numbers on their boarding pass could be ignored. Dad and Granddad angrily and even violently harassed the little flight attendant until she went and made the other passengers move to other seats so the Japanese could have their appropriate seats. Everyone else seemed a little amused at the noise. I was just glad someone else had taken the Ugly Foreigner title and made the Americans look civilized. The event could have been handled much nicer with just a tiny bit of politeness. I've seen flight attendants work wonders just to make family seating happen, without any such disturbance.

We were met with the guy holding the sign "Melton X 2" and he drove us through Livingstone, giving us the tour guide's commentary, reassuring us that the unemployment in the 80% from after the textile mills failure was much better now at 50-60%. Unfortunately, the town did show signs of hard times, but he was obviously proud of the place. We drove across country toward the Zambezi River, checking out of Zambia and taking a water taxi across to Botswana, seeing a couple of hippos along the way. Once on the safari vehicle, we waited for some time, as the driver expected two more tourists, who never showed. After checking in through customs, and having our shoes disinfected for hoof-and-mouth disease, we drove on to the Chobe National Park and finally reached our hotel. Mary Ann immediately headed out for a boat tour, but I collapsed. What with non-stop activities for many days now, plus hours in the heat without water, I was suffering from a minor burn-out.

I enjoyed sitting in the air-conditioned room, raiding the mini-fridge for all the diet coke it carried (called Coca Cola Light here). I sat out on the back porch when I was cooled down and hydrated and was greeted by a bushbuck grazing on the manicured lawn. I may just rest here a while.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Land Rovers and Ingenuity

Being a Jeep driver, I was interested in the Landrovers that are the universal vehicle out here. I am informed by the owner/manager here that Landrovers (English) and Landcruisers (Toyota) are the only vehicles that need apply, if for no other reason that it's impossible to get parts for anything else. The ones here at camp look like they've been in use daily for decades, driving over rough dirt roads. And in the case of this camp, they've also been submerged in the flood that happened last rainy season.

That doesn't mean they're perfectly reliable. His formula was that the Landrovers break down ten times as often, but the parts for the Landcruisers cost ten times as much.

Thursday's drive ended about 800 feet from the camp, at the base of the last incline, when Mary Ann asked James to stop so she could take pictures of the elephants that had crossed the river at the same time we did, and wanted to take the same ramp up to the top of the cliff. The Landrover wouldn't start. Dead battery (new one day) because of a short in the winch circuitry. We walked the rest of the way, avoiding the elephants.

Friday night's drive was entertaining. The gas pedal cable snapped. James worked under the hood and fished the cable out and tied it to a large socket wrench. Leverage across the dash gave him a very serviceable hand throttle. The rest of the night drive proceeded as normal.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sitting Safari

The one truth I am coming to realize is that a trip to Africa like this one consists of sitting. We sit in the plane for long hours. We sit in the airport between flights. And once at the Safari camp, we sit, like maharajas on elephants, on the top of the seating platforms on these Landrovers as we wind our way along the dirt roads that travel through the park. There are rules here. You don't leave the vehicle, except in certain circumstances like the Sundowners or during the walking trips with heavily armed guards. The lions don't eat you when you're in the vehicle, even when you drive up to within ten feet of them.

But after the long day, you return to camp and sit around the veranda with your drinks and talk. Until dinner time, when you sit around the table and talk. One thing for sure; weak legs are no reason not to come on safari.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


As soon as I'm able, I'll post a video I took at the end of a long day. Update: Here it is: youtube video

The schedule here is a wake-up call at 5:15, (since there's no telephone, a wake-up call consists of a guard saying hello outside the window in progressively louder tones until we answer) followed by breakfast and the day's activities. We started out with a walk. This consisted of a 5 mile drive out into the bush, followed by a walk escorted by a guide with a .427 rifle and our regular guide, James.

After returning and having lunch, I took a nap. I needed it desperately. At about 3:30 we climbed back onto the Landrover and drove to a sunset spot. A regular feature of safari no matter which place we were at was "Sundowners". We find a scenic spot, the guide pulls out the ice chest and sets the table with snacks and drinks. They're generally prepared with whatever kind of drink you favor, but sometimes my diet coke strains their inventory.

After Sundowners begins the night drive. An assistant sweeps the terrain with a high powered spotlight, looking for nocturnal animals like civets and leopards. I'm not going to try to detail all the animals we saw, because Mary Ann is likely to do that in her blog and my memory isn't that good.

But after the drive was nearly over and we prepared to ford the river to get back to camp. But then there was a cry of a cape buffalo in distress. James turned around and drove toward the cry. As we approached, a massive herd of buffalo came streaming up, away from the river. We drove down to the water's edge and the spotlight showed the sight. A crocodile had its jaws clamped on the leg of a cape buffalo calf. It was calling in distress, but couldn't pull free. Neither was the croc powerful enough to drag him under.

We watched, as the struggles continued. Each time the calf tried to make another effort, he ended up farther into the water. A couple of times his snout went under, but he managed to keep his head high enough to breathe. Other crocs circled, but just waited for the outcome. The cape buffalo mother on shore tried to help, but there was nothing she could do until the hyenas began circling. They had heard the distress calls too and were anxious to see if they could get in on the kill. But the cape buffalo horns are not to be despised, and they were kept at bay.

The guide was rooting for the calf, although it was plainly hopeless. Our fellow tourist was rooting for the croc. But it was just a matter of time.

Then, as the calf was nearly deep enough to lose its air supply and drown, there was a splash as the croc tried to shift its grip from the leg to the calf's neck. The calf jerked free and struggled ashore, if with a damaged leg. The herd was there, surrounding him, keeping the hyena's away. Everywhere you looked, there were fierce cape buffalo horns ready to defend the calf, now in the middle of the herd.

The crocodile swam away still hungry. The calf who struggled and did not give up even when it was plainly hopeless now has an opportunity to heal and survive. But those hyena will be watching, and waiting, as well.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

That's a Zebra Skin

We're waiting for lunch in the airport restaurant at Lusaka. We sorta made a mistake in our planning. We thought that our plane to Mfuwe was due to leave at 8 am. With that in mind we had the hotel wake us at 5:15 so we could catch the 6am shuttle to the airport. When we arrived, we learned that the plane actually was scheduled for 2:10 pm. So, we had a long wait in the airport lobby.

It hasn't been bad. There's lots of opportunities for people watching here, once I got over the currency shock. The ATM vended us K600,000 and a couple of cokes costs over K8000.

But, like I said, people watching is wonderful. We arrived early, and most of the people walking around were in military uniforms, and most of them were women. And I don't mean military-looking uniforms. They have the gunbelts and the boots and the berets. Some of them, a very few, carry what look to be old M-2 Carbines. I haven't gotten a good look to be sure.

But these are generally happy people. The girls in uniform were checking their hair and chatting happily.

And they all looked very pretty. It was amazing. These are a very handsome people. Even the guys, although I didn't pay too much attention to them. Our waiter looks very much like a younger Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Although I don't say much, the whole time has been spent talking to others in the airport lobby. In many ways it's like it used to be in the US, where large family groups would come and see relatives off as they left for their trip. The lobby seating area is outside the security checks, so everyone can come.

But now, we're having lunch, and I almost didn't recognize the zebra skin. In the US, that would have been a large plastic decal decorating the wall. This one is a real zebra skin.

A Spectacle Comes to Mfuwe

The plane from Lusaka was an hour late, and if they hadn't waited for the handful of people that arrived late from Livingstone, we would have been the only passengers.

Raytheon Beech 1900D / Zambian Airways / Lusaka, Zambia to Mfuwe, Zambia

It was a twin prop plane for the short hop, and even Mary Ann's camera case had to be stowed in the hold. It was tight quarters. But as the flight approached our destination, I realized I wasn't seeing any buildings. Then I realized that thing I thought was a tent was actually a thatched roof. When we walked off our plane, Robert from the lodge was waiting. We climbed the ladder up onto the seats in the safari-converted Landrover and began the drive through Mfuwe (mmm-fooey) to the national park.

Right off the bat, people were waving and calling. Mary Ann tried to keep up with waving back, especially at the children. I began noticing something different. Children twelve and under were shocked and amazed to see me. Boys would stop in their tracks, jaws hanging open. One teenage girl was startled as if she'd seen a monster. One boy's gestured clued me in. It was the beard.

These people do grow beards, but thin ones. They'd never seen anything like me, in full santa mode. Twice we stopped in town while Robert tried to find a phone to make contact with the base to see if he should take me to the camp or try to connect us with James, who was already taking people out on a night drive. As the people clustered around us, watching the spectacle, I smiled back. I began wondering whether I had mistaken how I should look in this part of Africa. But I'm not likely to cut it short now.

I'll just smile and wave.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Lusaka Without Luggage

Today was a travel day.

Cessna 210/Scenic Air/Wolwedans to Windhoek
Boeing 737-800/South African Airways/ Windhoek, Namibia to Johannesburg, South Africa
Airbus 319-100/South African Airways/ Johannesburg to Lusaka, Zambia

Well, they warned us. The big duffel of clothes didn't arrive. Mary Ann has her cameras in carryon, and I had my laptop, so nothing critical is missing, other than creature comforts. It's been a week since I've had usable internet now. About five days since I've been able to check my email. Supposedly, there's wireless internet here, but I haven't been able to make it work. Once Mary Ann finishes, I'll give it another try.

Update: I'm piggybacking on Mary Ann's hotel wireless signal through the firewire cable. It's crude, but at least I got these posted.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Ostriches Outside the Tent

We've been at Wolwedans in Namibia for two days now, and not only is there no handy internet in our tent, there's no electricity, so use of the laptops has been sparing.

It's a nice camp. We're staying in a tent, on the sand dunes, but it's a very nice tent, built sturdily on a wooden decking platform, with a bathroom and shower just a dozen feet away. Everything is solar powered, from the hot water to the limited lighting. The bed is nice, and the interior of the tent has good headroom and is about the size of my bedroom at home. The decking outside faces the southeast and dawn is very inspiring.

Last night, the dinner was a three course meal with about 15 people. We had oryx steak, and they baked a birthday cake for the teenager from Italy. They say Americans are rare here. Most of their tourists come down from Europe.

We're just back from an all day drive around the camp, seeing lots of animals I didn't even know existed. John, our tour guide, is relatively new at the game, with his head in the reference books, but he's college educated and quite honest about the things he doesn't know.

We fly out in the morning, but supper is just a couple of hours away. I wonder what we'll have this time. Until then, I'll sit out on the lounge chair and watch the pair of ostriches that are grazing just off in the distance.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Red Sand in My Shoe

This morning, before dawn we drove out to see the big dunes at the Namib-Naukluft National Park and traveled an hour or so before we reached them. I was the only non-photographer of the four guests in our group.
Most of the route down the river valley was flanked by large red dunes -- not that you could see a river. Most watercourses in this area only have flowing water for two or three days after a big rain. The name of the area was Sossusvlei, which means the valley where water collects. Sand dunes have blocked the natural river valley and some times of the year there's a natural reservour. But it was dry now.
We raced other tour groups for the chance to be the first group to Deadvlei, a location where, 600 years ago, sand dunes blocked a smaller watercourse and killed all the trees there, leaving scenic dead trunks on a flat, dry plain. But then one of the landrover-type vehicles got stuck in the dry sand and we stopped, with others, to help dig them out. Of course, I fell flat on my face when the car finally moved while we were pushing it. They got out and I was grateful for just how soft the sand was.
We hiked a kilometer across the sand to reach the place, and then back when Mary Ann finally finished taking pictures, and had a nice picnic breakfast under a tree. I could tell that my shoes were full of sand, but I delayed emptying them until we returned.
Ah! My feet feel so good.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What's For Supper?

An early morning flight brought us from Capetown to Sossusvli Dune Camp in Namibia.
Boeing 737-200/Air Namibia/Capetown to Windhoek -- very cramped, and the guy in front of me reclined practically into my lap.
Cessina 210/Scenic Air/Windhoek to Sossusvli -- just Mary Ann, the pilot, and me.

The camp was so welcoming and friendly that I didn't know quite what to do. Everyone from the butler and the cook, to the driver and the resident astronomer introduced themselves. We have a separate lodge just to ourselves, with scenery so isolated and quiet that the shower and bathroom are wide open to the desert because there's no one to see anything.

We relaxed for a couple of hours, watching springbok and oryx visit the watering hole in front of the camp before having lunch under an awning. Sometime later we were driven out into the desert where there were more springbok and oryx, and zebra, and many birds that we, of course, have never seen before. As evening approached, we saw a bat-eared fox and an aardwolf. Listening the chorus of gekkos, we stopped for refreshments before heading back to camp. Mary Ann took a lot of pictures.

As the stars came out, and I struggled to make sense of the southern sky, I went over to the observatory and had the astronomers point out the constellations. I was about to leave when Mary Ann tracked me down and came to marvel at the brilliant milky way and have the southern cross and other constellations pointed out for her as well.

Afterwards we sat down for dinner, and were served royally. We had the springbok.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Don't Feed the Babboons

We had a day trip all over the Cape peninsula. Mick the tour guide did a good job. Although he was from England originally, he'd been here for a long time and knew the area extensively. With his accent and his hat and his sense of humor, I kept getting echoes of Crocodile Dunee. And he'd done his research. He'd visited Mary Ann's website and knew what kinds of photography she was interested in and chose points of interest to match. It was just one day, but we saw scenic vistas, lighthouses, vineyards, ostriches in the wild, whales and penguins. I saw several road signs that warned people to not feed the baboons. I should have expected them, but Mick showed us a statue at the lighthouse which indicated that their numbers were dropping because they were becoming dependent on humans for food.

We stopped for a picnic lunch at the visitor center at the Cape of Good Hope nature preserve. The first hint I had was a lady yelling, as if to a dog. When I looked around, there was a baboon heading for us. It hopped up on the table and began grabbing at our plates. We had finished eating, and we grabbed for our stuff, but he was quick and grabbed an empty yogurt container and dashed away into the vegetation. The park people came out shouting at him and brandishing slingshots. The lady said they didn't actually shoot at the baboons, but they were well aware of what slingshots were, and just showing them and snapping the rubber scared them off.

Mick and Mary Ann went to dispose of the rest of our wrappers and I was alone at the picnic table when the baboon returned. Fearless, he approached the table and rummaged through the gravel under the table, looking for any scraps that might have blown off. Soon he left, only to be replaced by a mother and her baby, who went back to that very same spot of gravel to search again. Fearless and persistent. I hope they survive.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Down Here

The full moon is upside down. I expected that, being on the other side of the world and all, standing on my head with respect to normal Texans. And it's been a long trip, three plane flights, and one of them was over 15 hours. At least I'm getting to experience some new airplanes I haven't used before.

Embraer 170/Shuttle America-United/Austin to Washington DC
Airbus 340-600/South African Airways/Washington DC to Johannesburg
Boeing 737-800/South African Airways/Johannesburg to Capetown

Dulles airport in Washington was fun. They use elevator shuttles. The first time it was just a bus driving from one terminal to the next, but when it came time to get on the Airbus, they loaded us on the shuttle and drove out to where the plane was parked and the whole shuttle lifted up about two stories tall to dock with the entrance hatch. That flight was only about half full, luckily, so I had room to stretch out for the long flight. We took off at sunset and arrived in Johannesburg mid-afternoon the next day. A lot of fuel must have gone through those four large Rolls Royce engines.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Big Picture for September

Here's an overview of where I'll be the next month, assuming the stress of getting packed and getting to the plane on time doesn't do me in.  I'll be blogging when I can, and locally on my laptop at first, so updates will likely come when there's internet.  At first, we'll be going to desert camps and game parks so it'll be erratic.  Towards the end of the trip when we're at the Namwianga Mission in Kalomo, Zambia there should be better connection.    I know the Gregersens blog regularly from there.

I will be monitoring my email when the packet pixies cooperate, but I have hopes I'll be distracted by scenic vistas and dangerous animals.  Just be patient, okay?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Packing by the Numbers

We fly out in less than two days, and we're packing.  The problem is that the numbers don't work out.  Ignore the vacuum cleaner.  We're not taking that.  But see that big black lens case?  It's about four inches too long for United Airlines and two kilograms too heavy for South African Airlines.  

That's if it goes as carry-on.  The problem with checking it is that we're flying through Johannesburg, and stories say checked baggage there has a problem with pilferage.  Airline guidelines say all valuables such as cameras and laptops should be carry-on.  That black bag is my computer case.  Flying economy on SAA means one carry-on item.

Mary Ann's luggage is being worked on at the moment.  There doesn't seem to be any combination of bags that can carry her camera gear and her laptop in one bag and get under the SAA weight limit.  

But the night is young.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Dealing With Critiques

For a number of years now, I've taken advantage of friends, co-workers, and relatives in an effort to get more eyeballs looking at my novels before I do the final polish and call it done.  

Some of these people have been helping me for over a dozen novels.  I also have new people who are just starting this process.  Part of me likes having more critiques -- the more people checking, the fewer errors are left behind -- but some days I'm overwhelmed.

Africa is rushing at me, and I had this false hope that I could get the latest round of review copies back in and processed before I caught the plane.  I can tell now it's never going to happen.  The inputs on Golden Girl are all over the map.  I'm getting directly contradictory advice from people -- and the advice all makes sense!  

My workflow goes like this:  I reformat the manuscript into a dual-column layout like a magazine and make comb-bound copies to send out.  (My reviewers didn't like manuscript formatted pages.) I have a carefully cultivated list of people who have proved that they can read, and mark-up, the pages and get them back to me in a reasonable time frame.

After a couple of reminder emails, I generally get them all back and lay them out side by side.  Turning the pages in sync, I compare all the markups and make changes as appropriate to the manuscript on my laptop.

In general, I get several different types of corrections.

Typos are quick and easy, and disgustingly common.  Do you know how many times I type 'by' when I meant 'my'?  Novel after novel, I make the same mistake, and miss seeing it in my own self-reviews.  Amazingly, it takes the whole crew to find these.  One person will find some, but miss others.

One reviewer is a born copyeditor.  She's always taking me to task for using abbreviations without defining the terms, or questioning my use of a phrase.

Another reviewer is always correcting facts, or suggesting alternates.  He's been around and seen much.

And then, there are the plot points.  These are the hardest to deal with.

The best are the "Oh, wow!  Why didn't I see that?"  suggestions.  They might be sub-plots that can be fixed with a word or two, or a chapter or two -- but they make the novel so much better.

Harder are the "No. No. No.  You just don't get it." suggestions.  I wrote that scene that way on purpose.  But, I need these for two reasons.  One:  If the reviewer didn't understand, then many readers won't either.  I'll need to rework it, even if I don't change the plotting.  Or Two:  This is really a delayed 'Oh, wow.' and I need time for my subconscious to churn on it for a while.

There's also a voting issue.  I one person has trouble with a plot point, but every one else is happy, it's likely not as important.  But if multiple people have the same issue, then it has to be fixed, regardless of my opinion.

And finally, there's the final issue.  Do I offend a loyal helper by not taking the offered advice?  It's a hard one, because it is my story.  I have something I want to say, and characters who have come to life.

I have to be true to the tale.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Preparing For Africa -- In My Pocket

A week from now, I'll be in the plane, somewhere over the Atlantic.  It's finally getting real.  My laptop is whirring away, as I juggle some hard disk space to make a safety full image backup.  Of course, I'll be taking a couple of portable hard drives with me, but it's best to have lots of backups.

I went over to REI to get a travel wallet.  I wanted one that had a little more space in it.  Not all countries have paper money the same size as dollar bills, and I ran into that problem on my Europe trips.  I may not be a book collector, but I have an interesting collection of foreign coins and bills.  The coins are the best.  I've got everything from wooden nickels to bus tokens, to those cute one pound coins from Great Britain.  I like the obsolete ones from France that have been replaced with the euros, and the windmills on the ones from Barbados.

When I emptied out my old wallet, I took out a silver dollar I had kept there since 2001, when I bought one for every member of the family.  I teared up a bit, remembering all that has happened over the years, but it slipped into the new wallet and there it will stay.  

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Poetic Mystery

I've been cleaning up  my office for the past few days and I ran across an old, unsolved mystery.

In the early 80's, when my father-in-law died, he left a large quantity of stuff, much of it junk, at his Lubbock, Texas property.  There was a house, but there were also many tiny apartments he'd rented out to students and others.  I had the feeling that some of the unsorted junk was leftovers from people that had abandoned their beds in lieu of paying that overdue rent.  (In closing up and selling the property, we ran into the same situation.)

But among all the stuff to be trashed or garage-saled, I found an old ring binder.  In it were poems, neatly hand lettered by their author, Emilie Peck.  From the content, some of it written in the "war years" of the 40's, I suspect she was an older lady.  There were other clues.  She had a Dr. Hendon.  There was a eulogy for Mrs. Nancy Martin of Ropesville with children named Elsie, Flora and Alfred.    And the back cover was used as  a notepad and contains numerous phone numbers.

Several times over the past few years, I've sat down with Google and attempted to follow some of the threads.  I've had some leads, but nothing that was decisive.  If I had a spare week to kick around Lubbock some day, to talk to people in person, maybe I'd find more clues.  I'd love to find some grandchild of hers who'd be thrilled to have it.

But in any case, it has survived many attempts to throw away all the trash in my office, and I suspect it always will.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Web Back Up

I really don't know what caused my iWeb data loss when I upgraded to this month's version, but in any case, I'm back up and running from my backups.  I actually had no downtime on my site because when the crash happened, and I lost the ability to publish, the existing site was still untouched.
The symptoms were a loss of images from each of the pages, followed by a warning that I couldn't publish because of improper file types.  I attempted a repair of my Domain file (the database iWeb uses to hold all the pages) by pasting in the images still showing in my web browser.  While that repair was fast, it didn't work, and I suspect there was some kind of database corruption that simple user-level work couldn't repair.
At the time, I was attending Armadillocon in Austin and didn't have the time to work on it, but Sunday night, I reviewed my options and pulled one of my backups.
I have a lot of backups.  I'm a bit paranoid about data loss, so I have several different backup systems running.  I copy my data to .Mac, an external hard drive, my iPod, and DVD's.  I use Apple's Backup, Deja Vu, Retrospect, and Carbon Copy Cloner.  Maybe I have other backup systems running as well that I've forgotten about.  It's possible.
So when I decided to restore from backups, the question wasn't whether everything was backed up, it was which backup copy to use.  Since I hadn't restored much from Apple's Backup lately, I used it, and the backups hiding off on a corner of my TV and Movie hard drive.  I located the last, fat, Domain file and told it to restore.  Relatively quickly, it was back, intact, and just as it had been right before I started playing with the new iWeb.
This time, the site converted and I noticed no missing images.  I settled down to do a page by page inspection, and did find a new problem caused by the conversion to the new version.
On several pages, I had run a perl program to paste in other content.  iWeb published to a local folder.  I ran my patchiWeb program to add in the dynamic content, and then published the results to the real web server location.
But on a couple of pages, the new content appeared in the wrong place.
Close inspection of the html before and after my patch showed what had changed.  This new version of iWeb takes the content of a certain text block and inserts it into the TITLE block of the page. My added code was being plugged into the title, and not where in the body of the page where it should have gone.
A few quick edits fixed that and all was back to where it was supposed to be.
Soon, as iWeb develops, I may not have to patch the pages at all.  I'm looking forward to that time.  

Friday, August 10, 2007


Twice this week, I've been bitten by software I count on.  It's painful, especially for someone like me who relies on his computer.

One is really my fault.  I mean I shouldn't have gotten so dependent on Alpha-level software.  I signed up for the OmniFocus test program and I've been downloading the daily updates to this GTD software -- a very fancy to-do list.  All was going smoothly when something hiccuped and it crashed, permanently.  I lost my action lists and I can't seem to recover, or even wipe it clean and do it all over again.  Oh, I trust the Omni people.  I've used almost all of their software and OmniOutliner is a critical part of my writing process, but at the moment, I'm stuck.

The other problem software was the just-released update to iWeb from Apple.  I bought it at the store yesterday and tried out a few of the updated features.  All was going well, and then suddenly, something glitched and all my photos vanished out of the file.  I've been working to repair it, pulling the photos off of the published website, but something is still glitchy, and I have this creeping fear I might have to rebuild the site from scratch.  

If I weren't heading off to Armadillocon in just a couple of hours, I'd be at this recovery process all night long.  I guess I'm lucky it's more important to go meet friends than grumble over the keyboard.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


After a nice morning wandering around Delabar State Park just outside of Oquawka, we stowed the satellite dish and headed across Iowa, intending to connect with I-35 and head south.  It was pleasant at first, taking the scenic roads and traveling through small towns.

I kept seeing the tall TV antennas on rural farmhouses, and commented to Mary Ann about how those were all due to be obsolete in just a few months as television as we knew it was due to be shut down.  I wonder just how many of those farmers will bother to put up a new antenna to catch their local stations?  Many of them already have Directv dishes.  Just how important is the local news?

We paused at a stop sign to check the map and decide whether to turn right or left.  That was a mistake.  The generator overheated and shut down.

Our RV has three air-conditioners.  One, the typical auto AC doesn't work.  Somewhere we sprung a freon leak and we haven't used it for over a year now.  We also have two roof-top RV style units that run off 110VAC, either by plugging the RV into a campground outlet, or by running the generator.  This trip, the generator has logged quite a few hours.'s an air-cooled gas engine that produces the electricity and every time we stop it on a hot day, like when refueling, it has problems coming back up.

Today, all the bad stars were aligned.  It was very hot and humid outside.  I saw one bank sign saying it was 103-degrees, but even if that was wrong, it was definitely in the high 90's.  We were also traveling on small rural roads with many slow-downs to pass through the towns.  

Once we lost our cool (in the thermal sense), it was impossible to get it back.  The generator couldn't get back to it's best operating temperature, so we couldn't either.  Even when we reached the Interstate and could cruise fast enough to keep the generator perking, the sunshine and the heat of the day was just too powerful for those struggling roof-top units.

And then, we reached Kansas City.  The outside temperature soared and I attempted to restart the generator a dozen times while in rush-hour traffic.  The generator didn't stay running until we returned to the green.  

But cool never completely returned until we stopped for the night, plugged in, and the sun went down.

Tomorrow, we're heading south.  I fear it'll be even hotter.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Touring Oquawka

The only thing that makes sense on these trips is to do as many different chores as possible.  Once the convention was over yesterday, I took my camera and did some final research on the locations in East St. Louis that are used in my current working novel.

Today, we drove up north to Oquawka, where the story begins.  I took about 130 photos and found several instances where the novel, which has already reached first draft, would have to have some corrections.  At one point, I panicked when I thought the old Methodist church was missing it's bell.    But after talking to a few locals, I came to realize it was still there.  I just hadn't seen it correctly.   That bell plays an important part of several scenes in the story, and if it had vanished, I would have some serious re-plotting to do.

Yes, the story is fiction, but at least in this series I'm calling "Small Towns, Big Ideas", I do everything I can to keep the location and settings accurate.  

I found a few jewels, like the vintage photos that were used as decorations in the sandwich shop where we stopped for supper.  Since this is a time-travel novel, they were just what I needed, and totally unexpected.  Plus, the local girl who made the sandwiches was nearly a dead ringer for the protagonist.  

For a hurried tour through town, trying to nail down details, it was surprisingly productive.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Signing Off

The last event of the last day of Archon 31/NASFiC 9/Tuckercon was my signing.  I was pleased to find people waiting there looking for me and I got to sign a few ancient things.  

But then, the customers went away and left the authors sitting around the table and chatting.  I am learning so much this trip about what I'm supposed to be doing.  Haley Elizabeth Garwood (I kept running into her all throughout the con) was there and gave me a number of pointers about how to make contacts and told me a number of things she'd done while promoting her Warrior Queen series.  I especially liked the tale of the reverse shop-lifting, but I'm not that brave.

Now, I'm back to the RV, with a little East St. Louis research to complete.  One chapter of my latest book happens here, and I'd like to add a little more color in the text.  Tomorrow, we'll go north to Oquawka for more research.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Walking and Talking

Attending a science fiction convention while promoting something is a bit different from just hanging around for fun.  For one thing I was lugging around my carrying case, just in case I needed to whip out a copies of my books.  And I was constantly checking the Freebie tables to replenish the advertising cards I'd made for Emperor Dad.  

But this was a good-sized convention, and Saturday it was getting a little crowded.  I wore the button I had made in the dealer room.  (Buttons by Bouchard scanned in my advertising card and made a couple of buttons for me.  Today, I ordered four more.)  

While I have been ill-prepared in some ways, not being ready to make deals and expand my infant commercial enterprise into Illinois, I have done a lot of talking to other authors and micropublishers that were farther up the learning tree than I am.  I'm getting a lot of ideas about what works, and what doesn't -- and what I've already done wrong.  

I'm really looking forward to next weekend in Armadillocon where I can buttonhole the book experts (you know who you are) and ask all the difficult questions.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Roller Coaster, Take Two

Back in October, I posted about the joys of getting lost in the St. Louis highway system.  Well, today I was thinking about how much better this trip was.  We took the correct turnoff and arrived at the RV park without a single wrong turn.

At least, the first time.

We drove over to Collinsville for supper and on the way back -- oops.  I took the wrong exit (2B instead of 2A) and went for another loop around and around and around.  Over to Missouri, and back to Illinois.  

Maybe I'll get it right in a few years.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fighting Humility

Advertising is hard.  Not because it's hard thinking of clever, eye-catching things to say, but because I was raised to be modest and to avoid bragging on myself.  Here I am trying to put my novels in front of as many readers as possible, and I'm stalled out because I can't bring myself to actually tell people how great they are.
So, step by step, I'm pushing myself into uncomfortable territory.  I've actually sent out a couple of mass emails.  (By mass-mailing, I mean 100 people, all pulled from my address book.)  I've printed a handful of advertising flyers, and then struggled to find places to post them.  I have a pocket full of fancy business cards, but I print them in tens and twenties, because I don't give them out very frequently.
About the only part of this promotion business that comes naturally is this blog.  In many ways, typing into this form is like talking to a friend.  It's comfortable.  But even blogs need promotion to expand their readership, and that brings me back full circle.
I can't brag on myself, not without straining something.
So, I need help.  I need to sell my books.  Getting people to read them is at the top of my priority list.  I know many of you are rooting for my success.  You've told me so.  There are a few ways you can help.
  1. Give me good advice.  I'm a bad salesman.  I need ideas and correction when I make a mistake.  
  2. No book can make it without word of mouth advertising.  If you have friends or relatives that might like Emperor Dad, tell them.  Write down the URL and hand it to them.
  3. If you have read the book, leave a review.  Go to the page I just noted and at the bottom there is a Post a Review link.  As the book comes up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Borders, I'll let you know so you can leave a review there as well.

First Stop

We're on the road to St. Louis for the North American Science Fiction Convention, but first we had to make a stop in Dallas.

Our son Thomas works for an accounting firm and travels extensively.  It's so hard to meet up with him that a bag of his clothes has been traveling a few thousand miles from one city to the next in an effort to get back to him.  So, since he was back from weeks in El Paso, at home in Dallas, we managed to hook up for a few minutes.

He retrieved his bag of laundry and I was able to get him his autographed copy of Emperor Dad.

The novel's main character was very loosely based on Thomas.  Both were football players at Hutto High School, and there were several events in the novel lifted from real life.  So I dedicated the novel to him and I wanted to be sure he had a copy.

Although ... I'm sure he'd want you to know that not every event in the novel was lifted from his life.  About all you can be sure of is that he did have the crowd cheering as he played football, and he didn't teleport over to Paris to avoid seeing a certain cheerleader.