19 April 2009


Which if you ask me, is something of a miracle. There are days when I go into our backyard and expect to be struck by ferocious rattlers. So two days wandering the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park is really taking my life into my own hands.

As usual, you can click on any of the following photos and they will blow up.

There were reptiles.But none of the sort that bother me. (My pal Colin Cotterill currently claims to have a nine-foot monitor lizard inhabiting the swampy area next to his house in Thailand. That would bother me. A lot.)

The Marine base at Twenty-Nine Palms, nearby, is the world's largest. The Marines have far better, more important, things to do than to bother me. There are a dozen, or more, tattoo parlors in the area. I noticed five massage parlors. There's plenty of fast food and knick knack shops. And barbers:
And there was a hot rod show:And some of the Marines have families and live in a neighborhood that marches in perfect formation:
And, well, there was more than a fair share of natural beauty, too:

Finally, while I did a bit of rock scrambling and edging along narrow ledges and other such things, I didn't do anything like this:

13 April 2009


Recently, all hell broke loose over the apparent disappearance of gay-themed books from Amazon.com's ranking system. This was a very serious matter. I don't want to bog down this blog in all the arcane details of why this was so serious, but the impact of it could have run from book sales to basic civil rights and liberties. It was bad and it needed fixing and redress, no matter what the cause.

Word of this (mistake? fucked up policy? attack by a hacker? no one knew for sure what started it) began to slowly leak out into the blogosphere, initially from some writers who were wondering why their books had mysteriously been "deranked" by Amazon. It achieved critical mass, however, when it struck the Twitosphere.

For those of you who don't know about Twitter - it provides a sort of online public instant messaging in what are called "Tweets" of no more than 140 characters, including spaces.

Over the course of Easter weekend, news of Amazon's deranking of gay-themed, and a bewildering mix of other books as well, exploded into the news. First in a flurry of Tweets, and finally breaking out in most of Monday's newspapers. People were outraged, as they well should have been.

Having at first made some stupid PR statements referring to the problem as a "glitch," by Monday afternoon Amazon said that it was a mistake and that corrections had started being made. It remains to be seen how complete those corrections are.

Most likely we will never know if this was really a mistake, a hacker with some sort of grudge to bear, or a remarkably bad policy decision that Amazon was forced to backtrack on by public reaction.

The rapid and large negative reaction on Twitter was, in this instance, a good thing. It brought the mistake, or malfeasance - whatever it may be - to light quickly. It is possible that the situation will be addressed satisfactorily a lot sooner than it might have been otherwise. Or even worse, without the public outcry, maybe it would have simply been allowed to slide on by.

What scares me, however, was the near immediate massive outpouring of assumptions based on speculation (and rumor) rather than fact. Fuel was added to that fire by the nature of Twitter, which doesn't have room for analysis or even nuance. It strikes me as something that can easily facilitate the spread of a mob mentality.

In this particular case, good, rather than harm, was done. But, it is terrifyingly easy for me to imagine any number of scenarios in which a great deal of harm could be done by masses of twits leaping to conclusions and basing assumptions on incomplete, inadequate, rumored, or just plain wrong information.

Two years before I lived in Hong Kong, there was a very popular local chain of cake shops called Maria's. The shops were famous for their coupons for free pastries. They were often given as gifts at office parties and other occasions. One day a rumor (false, as it turned out) began to spread that Maria's was going to stop honoring the coupons after a certain date. Over several days the rumor swelled, especially in several very densely populated neighborhoods. By the end of the week there was a run on Maria's cake shops. Rioting broke out in front of several of them. There were stampedes. By the end, three people had been killed.

There are a whole lot of people who believe almost everything they read, or hear.

I don't think there is anything that can be done about it. You can't ban Twitter, and it would slow the whole thing down far too much - and destroy much of its usefulness and appeal - if you had it constantly monitored in such a way as to quash stupid stuff that seemed to be dangerously snowballing. But its potential scares me. I think this episode with Amazon, though all for the best as it seems to be turning out, is a good example of the power it has to be harmful.

07 April 2009


At this very moment one of our neighbors is having their house sandblasted. It's loud. It's irritating, though tolerable now that they're working on the other side of the house. I'm sure when they're done their house will be much improved for it and our property value will have increased by at least a few bucks for being in such a nice neighborhood.

After last Saturday, some quiet would be nice, though.

dB Drag Races, themselves, aren't all that noisy unless you happen to be sitting in one of the cars in the competition. And people do, some of them. Some of them even sit there, in the drivers seat, with 146.7 decibels of noise assaulting their eardrums (a jet taking off generates something between 130-140 dB) without even practicing "safe sound" (ear protection.)

But the whole point of dB Drag Racing is to generate as much sound pressure as possible within the sealed environment of your vehicle. Every bit of sound that escapes, lowers your score. So from the outside, during the competition, you don't hear a whole lot.

If that's as far as it went, it would be a rather pastoral pastime. But really, what's the point of having speakers like these, or bigger, filling the back of your car, if you can't let them aurally assault the assembled crowd.

Blowing around young women's hair with soundwaves is a neat trick:There's different classes, different voltage levels, all sorts of things. The Hummer that was blowing those girls' hair around in the last two pictures, packed 22,000 watts of power into its amplifiers. (My friend Bill, who was with me on this excursion, has a reasonably large home stereo system with a much more than adequate 500 watts of power.)

So, what happens is that two cars line up and get hooked up to microphones that measure SPL (sound pressure level) which is expressed as decibels. The vehicle that blows the highest number of decibels wins. The high score so far this year is 181.7 dB. (It takes about 163 decibels to break glass. 130 dB is about the average threshold of pain for most people with normal hearing.)
The winner of this particular event, generated 159.6 dB. He did not remain in his car while competing, wisely choosing, instead, to operate his speakers remotely.
There's a whole lot more to it than I've gone into here. And the pictures - without the roar of the speakers when competitors would show off with their windows or doors open, causing their cars to shake, rattle and roll - just can't do it justice. If you want to know more, or find a competition to attend in your neighborhood, you can click on this sentence to be taken to the official website.

04 April 2009


My stepmother, who I dearly love (I wanted to make that clear, since so often when people start a sentence with "my stepmother" it's about something they aren't happy about), recently sent me this link to a You Tube video, with the subject heading of "Incredibly scary information." Take a look at it by clicking anywhere you want on this paragraph, then come back here, read the rest of my blog, and tell me if this scares you or not.

Okay, you're back. Good.

The only thing all this "information" does, is to make me sorry I won't be around in a hundred or so years to see how it all turns out. (Of course by then, I'd probably want another hundred years - greedy little shit, aren't I? - to see how that turns out.) It all seems so exciting.

I can just barely recollect bits and pieces of the first time I ever went back east with my family. We flew from Los Angeles to New York. It took 11 hours, or more, and required a couple of stops along the way. Maybe it was in a DC-6 with its four propellers; the king of the commercial airways in the 1950s. Last time I made the trip, it took just slightly over five hours - we had favorable tailwinds.

I remember my father getting very nervous when the company he ran installed its first computer. They had to build a special clean, humidity and temperature controlled room to house it. It cost something like four million dollars (over 21 million dollars today, adjusted for inflation.) The fifteen hundred dollar laptop I'm writing this blog on, in my dusty, somewhat damp and cold at the moment, office in my house, is almost immeasurably more powerful than the computer my dad bought for his company back then.

My grandmother died in 1988 at the age of 98. She was tack sharp until the day she died. She was incredibly well read and well traveled, with a tremendous curiosity about the world. By the time she died, I had my first computer, a primitive affair with one big floppy disk for the operating system and one for whatever program I was using and a bit of extra space to store stuff on. I could sort of, kind of, get on the internet, mostly Usenet groups. Since then, thanks to the rapid development of the internet and computer software and hardware, I've probably learned more about the world over just those 20 years than my grandmother did in her entire life.

I envy my nieces and nephew, now just starting to edge into their teens. The breadth of their knowledge of the world will dwarf mine by the time they're my age. Probably long before that. Though there has been some criticism about the decreasing depth of people's knowledge - how much real information can actually be packed into a 140 word tweet? - it doesn't need to be that way. Breadth of knowledge will give them incredible opportunities to pick and choose what they want to learn in greater depth, what they want to specialize in.

Will they need to work harder, faster, more effectively to take advantage of all these opportunites? Yep, they will. Is that so bad or so scary? Nope, at least it shouldn't be. All this sped up and still speeding up development means is that the world is becoming a much more competitive place. And competition is good. It can be messy, chaotic; it requires flexibility and constant learning and relearning, but it's the best way to make things better in the long run.

This isn't to say that none of this, at my age, doesn't make me a little wistful, if not downright nervous at times. Pretty much everything I've learned to do in my life, is becoming obsolete, or if not, becoming less and less of a way to make a living. Still, that's progress for you. And it doesn't scare me. It excites me.