Random photos, part I

Writing this new, randomly-posted blog instead of my daily Tour of America blog has caused several curious dilemmas for me.   One, for example, is that when I don’t write every day, a week later I often can’t remember what I did.   With the old blog, I could just look it up, but now days disappear from time to time. I seem to have a choice: write daily or accept that some days will blur into the past.

Another dilemma is that photos are piling up on my computer.   Taken with intent, but unused, some of them deserve a better fate than to sit on a hard drive awaiting the rare possibility that I might need them for an article in the future.

To resolve this, I have decided that every few weeks or months, I’ll pull out a few of my favorite images and run them all together as “Random photos.”   Not only will I be able to share a few possibly interesting images, but I can document a few small events that otherwise might not have made the record.

Here’s the first installment. (All photos are by me unless otherwise noted.)   Click any photo to enlarge it.

Air Force jet

I was at March Field with Terry and Marie last month, touring the aviation museum, when this large jet began practicing touch-and-go landings.   At some points the jet was close enough that with a 200mm lens it felt like I could reach out and touch it.   I haven’t bothered to research the model of the aircraft; perhaps a reader will identify it for us.


Home invasion

 We don’t have a cat, but this one has been showing up in the backyard occasionally.   That’s a neat trick considering our backyard is entirely surrounded by 5-7 foot walls.   Eleanor, being a major softie for cats (but allergic to them), left the window open with the hope that the critter would visit.

The cat thought she was being clever, but I caught her in the act.   Once she saw my camera, she ran like a Hollywood starlet spotted in Wal-Mart.


New cushion fabric

  The blue-and-cream “Beach Club” fabric that came with our Airstream turned out to be wholly impractical. Not only did it immediately start to darken with dirt, but it seemed that there was no stain which could be cleaned off it.   After three years of spaghetti sauce, kid feet, and several unsuccessful attempts to wash it, we finally gave up and asked our friend Greg to make covers for us from a more kid-proof fabric.   The result is the brown Southwestern themed cushions you see in the photo.

And what did we do with the old “Beach Club” fabric?   Why, we gave it to the guys pictured at right.   They managed to get it clean and make nice chairs out of it.   (Not my photo.)

By the way, Greg says if anyone comes to Tucson to visit us and stays for at least a few days, he’d be willing to make a set for them while they wait.   We’re probably going to ask him to recover the rest of the dinette as well.


Turkey slicing

Since I’m usually behind the camera, this is a rare photo.   You can see how I dressed up and got my hair coiffed for Thanksgiving.   Emma is peering over anxiously to make sure I cut plenty of dark meat for her. Later, when she’s a teenager and utterly rejecting us for our meat-eating barbarism, this photo will be useful blackmail material.   On the wall between us is a black-and-white photo of Eleanor’s grandfather, Martin Manzonetta, during his reign as Head Chef at Boston’s famous Locke-Ober restaurant. You can see him at right in a scanned image from a magazine article, showing his famous dish Lobster Savannah (still served at the Locke-Ober today).

Rainbow palm

Tucson is not a place known for thunderstorms in November, but we had a few beauties around Thanksgiving, and one of them resulted in a spectacular rainbow just to the north of our house.   Emma spotted it and I got a few great shots.   In Hawaii, a rainbow over a palm tree is a common sight, but here in Tucson it’s more like getting snow at Christmastime.

To my mind, it’s better than snow at Christmastime.   A palm tree swaying in a gentle warm breeze is exactly the symbol I want to remember this Thanksgiving.

Building a new Thanksgiving tradition

It is Thanksgiving Day, and for the first time in three years, we are not in our Airstream.   We’re in a house, trying to build a new tradition.

With fuel prices collapsing below any level we saw during our full-timing years ($1.75 a gallon for unleaded is easy to find here in Tucson), it seems a lost opportunity not to be wandering off for Thanksgiving.   The Airstream is completely packed and ready to go at any time, but for some reason we don’t feel compelled to go anywhere.   Our preceding three holidays are all easily remembered for their differing locations: one in the California redwoods, one with a group of similarly homeless Airstreamers in Tampa, the last in Riverside CA with an old friend.   This one will be remembered for being the first in our Tucson home.

Along with building new family traditions, we are preparing for the desert winter.   As you might guess, there’s not much preparation needed.   I won’t be mounting a snow plow to my truck or stocking up on home heating oil.   Our preparations involve trying to get this completely uninsulated house to be a little warmer.   The house is basically a stack of adobe bricks on a concrete slab, with a flat roof.   It’s wonderfully cool even on 100 degree days, but in the 40s, 50s, and 60-degree days we get in December and January, it is completely unheatable.

silver-travel-trailer-slippers-from-front.jpgBeing Tucson, where nobody wants to invest much in heating, the heating system uses the same ceiling-height air ducts as the air conditioning.   So when we turn on the heat, we get a blast of hot air up around the ceiling while the floor remains chilled to the ideal comfort level of penguins.   I did not think when we moved southwest that I’d still need my Airstream slippers in the winter.

Our fireplace in particular is a disaster, from a heating perspective.   It is pleasant to look at and practically in new condition (the first owners of the house never used it in over 40 years of ownership), but as Shakespeare wrote, when lit with a raging fire it provides “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” especially not heat.

There are various home improvements we could install (ceiling fans, better windows, fireplace insert, etc) but for now we are being cheap about it and simply buying a few rugs and extra blankets.   It’s a good excuse to pick up a couple of the Pendletons we’ve been eyeing. (On eBay you can often find bargains on them.)   I’m not particularly motivated to start piling more money into this house.   If things go as planned, we won’t even be here in January.

The other winter preparation, if you can call it that, will be to pick the grapefruit. I have been reading about citrus cultivation and care for the past few weeks, because later I hope to install one or two more citrus when we finally get to re-designing the back yard.   The one grapefruit tree we have has responded nicely to the emergency care I gave it last year, and has rewarded us with a heavy load of over 90 fruit. They’ll be ready for picking in December.   I may wait until we get a freeze because people say the fruit sweetens after a light freeze.   It never freezes here for more than a few hours, but there’s a good chance we’ll get a short one overnight in late December.

Looking forward to next summer, I’m also working on plans to get our 1968 Caravel back on the road, if not entirely restored.   Those of you who read the Tour of America blog might recall that last July I built most of the interior furniture and delivered it up to GSM Vehicles in Plattsburgh NY for storage and eventual installation.   The list of things the Caravel needs seems to be getting longer rather than shorter as I approach the supposed end of the project.   Last night I was tipped off to a good deal on a replacement refrigerator on eBay (a slightly scratched unit being sold off by Airstream), so that was purchased and will soon be freighted up to GSM Vehicles as well.

With the refrigerator in place, we can finalize the kitchen cabinetry and start installing.   I’ll get back up to Vermont in July and finish the remaining interior parts before it’s time for the Vintage Trailer Jam.   I may start a mini-blog just on that topic later, to document the last phases of the Caravel’s restoration project.   By the way, the Vintage Trailer Jam 2009 is likely to happen in August — bigger & better —   but we are currently negotiating with venues, so an official announcement is still several weeks away.

That’s all far away stuff.   Right now our consideration is simply Thanksgiving Day, but looking at all these things I see that we have much to be thankful for. We still have the freedom to travel, happy things coming in the near future, a fun place to live, good family life, health, and even a few interesting challenges to solve.   The concerns we have can be shelved today, and the things we might view as negative can be turned into positives.

thanksgiving-cooking.jpgIn addition to being the first in this house, this Thanksgiving may also be notable for the thunderstorms.   All night it poured hard, a rare event in southern Arizona this time of year.   The humidity this morning is an astounding 89%.   All the dust has been washed away, and for one day it feels like we are in Houston.   It’s a novelty here, since we have not seen anything but sunshine in the last six weeks.

Eleanor’s major goal today is to make the house feel like a home by spending the entire day cooking a massive meal for six people.   We are not expecting any guests, so that means we’ll be having Thanksgiving for two days.   Emma has been recruited to help on the pie.   My job is technical support, which means making appropriate playlists for the iPod (you need a certain type of music to cook by, says Eleanor), looking up technical turkey details on the Internet, hauling off vegetable scraps to the compost bin, and answering the phone on Eleanor’s behalf while her hands are deep in various mixtures.

I had thought that ideally we would have hosted some guests for Thanksgiving, as we usually did when we lived in a house in Vermont.   Eleanor loves cooking for large groups, especially when they are known “eaters,” meaning people who will appreciate everything she puts on the table.   But as Thanksgiving approached it became clear that we wanted to just be together.   Friends would have been welcome, but being new to this house and this town, we are just as happy to spend the time with just each other.

Together we can live completely in this moment and think of nothing else.   That’s where the most memorable days come from, when you are completely absorbed in the moment and letting all the other things go.   To my mind, Thanksgiving is not a day of obligation but a day for self.   The outside world has gone away.   It can come back some other time.

Wally and the spammers

Last year, when people were talking about putting together a 50th anniversary Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan for 2009, somebody also came up with the idea of reprinting Wally Byam’s book “Trailer Travel Here and Abroad.”   Published in 1960, the book has long been out of print and copies are very difficult to find.   As with almost everything written from the glory days of Airstream in the 1950s and 1960s, that book is considered highly desirable by Airstream aficionados.

One of the organizers approached me to see if I could help.   He would donate a sacrificial copy of the book if I could work out how to scan it, reprint it in limited quantities, and distribute it to all of the caravan members.   I say “sacrificial” because in the process of scanning it, the book would likely be severely damaged or even cut to individual pages.

The problem with this idea was that there really is no good way to reproduce old books.   You can copy the pages and reprint them exactly as they appeared (smudges, tears, and all), but this generally results in something fairly crummy looking.   It also forces you to use exactly the same page proportions as the original.

Another method is simply to have a person re-type every word of the book.   That process is so expensive that it usually doesn’t make economic sense for purposes of reprinting an old book in small quantities.

Or, you can try Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to try to turn the printed words into a word-processing document, which can then be edited and reformatted.   But this also doesn’t work well, since the state of OCR technology is far from perfect.   Error rates are often high, which means a human being must go over every word to fix all the errors, and that can be just as bad as re-typing the whole book.

Interestingly, the wizards at Carnegie-Mellon University have found a great solution.   They’re getting you to help with the OCR process.   And they’ve gotten me to do it.   And millions of other people have been recruited as well. In fact, so many of us are helping that up to 150,000 hours of work can be contributed to the project every day.


You know those little text puzzles you have to solve before you can post comments on a blog, like the one above? They are called “captchas.”   The Carnegie-Mellon kids are using them to digitize old books and newspapers. One word in the puzzle is known to the computer, the other one is a word from an old book that the OCR software couldn’t recognize.   When you type the correct answer to the “known” word, the computer assumes your answer to the other word is also correct. Then it checks your answer against other people’s answers.   When enough people confirm the word, it gets added to the digitized version of the book.

Distributed computing projects like the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have been commonplace for years.   Those projects rely on thousands of people allowing their personal computers to be used to solve tiny bits of very large mathematical problems.   But this is a new sort of distribution: Instead of computers being recruited to do the work, it is being distributed across millions of humans, most of whom have no idea that they’re working on a greater project.

What incredible irony.   We’ve developed a massive computing network that spans the globe, linking billions of people and enabling incredible capabilities, and we’re using it to facilitate a job that only humans can do.   When you solve the captcha, you’re becoming the ultimate worker bee, working toward the greater good but ignorant of the exact nature of the final project. You have to wonder, are the computers working for us, or are we working for the computers?

I suppose another way to look at it is that we are all contributing a tiny bit to eliminate the need for good typists. Thirty years ago, the job of re-setting the book would have been handed to a bunch of typesetters (a job title that no longer exists in the modern age).   But instead of hiring them, we are getting the job done for free by using the Internet to make use out of what would otherwise be wasted effort.

Another irony is that this wouldn’t be possible if the spammers hadn’t forced the need for captchas in the first place.   By relentlessly harassing websites, spammers have enabled this book digitization project.   Next time you encounter a spammer online, remember that someday Wally’s books will be available in print again and it might be thanks to them.

De-regulated toilet paper

We had the first visitors to stay in the Airstream in its new role as occasional guest house. A family of five came down from Vermont on a bargain airfare and four of them inhabited the Airstream for a long weekend.  Being in the Airstream as it sits in the dark carport is not nearly as interesting as camping somewhere scenic, but it does have certain advantages for both hosts and guests.

I know this because the visit was successful despite four small children.  I generally am leery of situations where the children are equal or greater in number than the adults (you never know when they might band together and take over), but these were good kids.  Giving them their own space in the Airstream was instrumental to my perception, I’m sure, since they were out of sight and mind late at night and early in the morning.  Regardless, a good time was had.  In gratitude, they left Emma with the traditional Vermonter’s present: a cold.

So Emma is sniffling and honking all over the house now.  I’m trying to avoid that cold because I have to fly next week to the major RV industry trade show in Louisville KY.  If I get a cold, I can’t fly. In this case, I am somewhat split on the prospect.  If I get the cold, I miss an important opportunity to sell advertising and meet our current clients.  On the other hand, if I get the cold, I don’t have to go to Louisville in December.  (“Second Prize: A Trip To Louisville in December!  First Prize: You Get to Stay Home!”)

I don’t have anything against Louisville per se, but I do hate flying this time of year.  Flights tend to be crowded, winter storms are always a threat, and if I don’t get a cold from some visiting Vermont child I can be virtually guaranteed of getting one from a sneezing Rhinovirus Ronald on the airplane.

Plus there’s that oh-so-fun airline service.  Susan and Adam flew home for the holidays yesterday, and their report from that experience reminded me of the travails of traveling by air these days.  I’ll let Susan’s email speak for itself:

Our tickets to Portland, Maine, via Charlotte, North Carolina, cost $300 apiece.  Leaving Tucson, we asked to check bags to Charlotte where we planned to spend a few days, then go on to Newark.  “Can do,” says [name withheld], and it will cost another $500 apiece to do so.  Despite Charlotte’s closer proximity to Tucson, it costs more to get there.  Or costs more to get our one bag there because we could just get off the plane…

Okay, so Portland it is and that costs us another $15 to check the bag.  For passengers traveling with large overstuffed roller bags and bulging knapsacks and who carry all this stuff on board, luggage is free!

On board there are no services and nothing is free.  No free coke, tea.  Water costs $2.  Flight attendants are now in retail, hawking drinks and snacks at price points ranging from $1 to $7.  Do they get bonused on sales?  Other than than, they don’t seem to have any duties connected with making us feel comfortable and loved.

Oh there is one other duty to perform.  In the last 20 minutes of the flight, we’re subject to a commercial announcement, offering us a great deal on the US Air credit card with Bank of America that earns us great freebies on this self-service airline.  Who says that credit is tightening?  I’m able to obtain it as I’m sitting on a jetliner on its final approach to Charlotte.

I long ago gave up expecting anything but basic transportation from the airlines, but things have sunk below even my low expectations.  I’m usually content when they just leave me alone, but that is too much to ask on many airlines that insist on bombarding me with loud audio-visual messages hawking their junk.  Ever notice how the intrusive announcements always start right when you are drifting off to sleep after takeoff?

But what should I expect?  Today’s domestic air carriers are what you get when government agencies (TSA, FAA, NTSB) intersect with accountants.  Those are the people who really run things now.  The pilots and flight attendants are (excuse the pun) just along for the ride.  I think a few airlines could do better hiring psychologists and Disney “imagineers” to redesign their procedures and policies.  Then they might realize that blaring obnoxious messages above my head, on speakers than cannot be silenced, is what really forms my opinion of the experience of flying their jets.

I don’t care if they serve blue chips or pretzels, Coke or Pepsi.  I just want to get there with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of relaxation.  Leave me alone to read my book.  Tell me how to buckle my seatbelt if you really must, but otherwise please sit down.  They won’t do that, so I bring an arsenal of counter-annoyance equipment:  ear plugs, eye shades, snacks of my own, a distracting book, bottled water.  (An airline that offers complete sedation during the flight, like dentists, might be popular someday.)  For this trip, maybe I’ll add a surgical mask to the kit in case they seat me next to Ronald.

The airline business is just one of many things I don’t understand. Here’s an example of something that should be dead simple, but isn’t: Toilet paper doesn’t come in a standard roll size.

I’m serious.  On our big trip to IKEA last month, Eleanor bought a pair of SAGAN toilet paper roll holders.  Then she discovered that the Scott’s Single-Ply paper we used successfully for three years in our Airstream (because it dissolves nicely in the black tank, don’t ask how we know) doesn’t fit on the roller.  It’s just a tiny bit too wide.

But another version of toilet paper fits just fine.  This was a clear indication that we needed to Google “toilet paper roll size” and find out the story.  Turns out there’s no such thing as a standard toilet paper roll width. It commonly runs from 3.9 inches to 4.5 inches.  Buyer beware.

This is probably because we’re not as big on standards and regulations in the US as they are in other parts of the world.  I’d bet the European Union has very specific guidelines for toilet paper rolls, but here in the US we like to let the free market decide. That’s why wireless LAN technology languished for a decade before manufacturers finally agreed to let their equipment interoperate with other brands.  That’s why Europe had, for many years, a far superior cellular phone system (despite the fact that cell phones were invented here).  That’s why Alan Greenspan had to eat crow in October.  And that’s why we are paying $15 for checked bags and $2 for water after we pay for airline tickets.

I like free markets too, but it sure would be nice if my toilet paper fit and my retirement fund was still intact.  A few boundaries and guidelines are not necessarily a bad thing.  Maybe we could work up one that prohibits hawking credit cards above 10,000 feet, too.

Looking for diamonds

Yesterday I was having lunch at Zivaz (my new favorite Mexican restaurant in Tucson) with Adam and Susan.   They’re back from Los Angeles with their Airstream, and eager to talk about all things new and interesting, which is part of why   the lunch went on for nearly three hours.

Sometime after the plates were cleared, our conversation turned to the incredible array of Internet-based communications technologies that people have adopted lately.   We were specifically fascinated by the options for self-promotion: blogs, forums, Facebook, MySpace, etc.   I was interested in how those technologies might merge with other Internet communications like Skype, instant messaging, video conferencing, and with communities like online forums, Yahoo Groups, Gather, and LinkedIn.   It feels like an important evolution is in the wind.

It feels this way partly because there are so many overlapping offerings, and partly because the speed of self-promotion has accelerated.   Blogs allow you to post your thoughts every day or even every hour if you care to.   With micro-blog sites like Twitter, you can now keep the world abreast of your activities on a minute-by-minute basis.   “I’m having lunch with friends at Zivaz,” my Twitter post might say, and later, “I’m shopping for hiking boots on the east side.”   People can subscribe to your Twitter stream and keep up with your updates via mobile phone, if they want.

Amazingly, people do. To   me, posting every turn on the road and every snack you eat on the Internet seems narcissistic, and this is coming from a guy who posted his daily activities on a blog for three years.   But people do it, and on that basis alone I have to study the phenomenon to understand why they do it.   The trivialities of another person’s life can be very relevant if that’s someone you care about.   There is value to almost any information, for someone, even if it doesn’t work for me.   (I imagine myself trying to keep up with my hourly activities and it feels like something you can only maintain with extreme diligence or an abundance of ego.)

The other reason I am watching new communications and networking technologies is because they are surprisingly relevant to publishing a magazine.   Being a publisher means you need to take an interest in all things, and being a print publisher means you are selling horses in a Model T world, so you’d better be looking carefully at The Next Big Thing.   I don’t want to end up like the guy who sold typewriters, telegraphs, or film cameras.

zoltar-speaks.jpgBack in a former career I was charged with sitting around my office and thinking about things like this.   It was a great job, because I got to dig into technology and sociology subjects that I found interesting, and then do a ZOLTAR act, presenting my best guess as to what the future held.   People paid well for this, because I was part of a tight little team that usually got it right.   (A few of my minor blatherings live on in the Internet as archived columns and press releases.   The things that survive that period are not necessarily representative of my best work, but the Internet answers to no one.)

Now in the publishing business, I find myself spending a lot of time doing the same work.   I’m not in the paper business, I’m in the information business, and so there will inevitably come a time when I need to disseminate my information in a different way.   The only questions are:   when, and how?

Everyone loves a crystal ball, even if it’s not always 100% spot on, because any hint of what’s coming helps ease our collective anxiety. It’s useful to me to build forecasts of the future so I can plan ahead, since Airstream Life is a quarterly with very long lead times.   The changes I want to make next summer and fall have to be planned today.

The trick is simply to listen critically, a skill not taught in most schools.   I trust my analytic skills but I’m not so vain as to think I know it all, so I listen.   I also don’t trust any single media outlet to be unbiased and accurate, so I criticize.   The media like to base their views on “consensus” of analysts, but having been in that industry I can tell you that the entire analytical field can be dead wrong and often is.   Just because a lot of people in the industry think (or want to believe) something is going to happen, doesn’t have anything to do with whether it does.   If you projected the accuracy rate of most analysts as a percentage, you’d find that weathermen do a lot better.

I’ll teach you how to be an analyst.   It’s like making jewelry.   You don’t start with a design in mind.   You start by digging through millions of tons of muck (perspectives of other people) trying to find a few diamonds in the rough (good ideas).   Then you clean up each diamond, check it for flaws (fact-checking), and if it meets your standard, you trim it up into something better.

Each diamond directs you to the ultimate jewelry that it should be.   Once you’ve got enough diamonds, you’ll see the finished pattern, and you can assemble your piece into a beautiful theory.   As long as you don’t force the process, it almost always works.

The failing of this process is when the underlying assumptions of the entire world are wrong.   You’d be amazed at how often that happens.   When the underlying assumptions are wrong, everyone’s theories are wrong by default.   For example, imagine all the weathermen predicting tomorrow’s high temperature.   If the sun goes nova, they’re all going to be wrong, aren’t they?

Analysts and academics excuse their errors in this regard by blaming “disruptive technology,” “quantum leaps,”   “hidden factors,” and a whole host of other terms.   What they mean is, “We didn’t see that coming.”   Technology people love this, because it always sounds good for them to call their latest invention “disruptive” or “game-changing” even if it isn’t.   It helps with raising money.   But a good analyst should never fall in love with their theories to the point that they forget to consider that all the underlying assumptions are dead wrong.

This explains why I like looking at our self-absorbed, noisy, and wildly diverse opinions. Sure, we may be becoming a nation of narcissists who post rants and idiotic opinions in public forums, but we are also a nation of people with ideas. Those ideas are going to form the basis of our future.   I want to know what those ideas are.

This is also why I am a rabid First Amendment supporter.   Some ideas are bad ideas, but quashing ideas is never good.  Once in a while I get a letter from someone “disappointed and disgusted” in the magazine for something I allowed to reach print.  Once it was a cartoon that was perceived as sexist, another time it was a photo considered racist.  Once I said something about a campground in a blog and a couple of people told me I shouldn’t criticize.  All of these people ran to what I call “the free market defense,” threatening to cancel their subscriptions.

I encourage that.   My opinion is that someone who thinks only their ideas and perspectives should be allowed in print, doesn’t deserve the benefits of a free press.   Those who are so inured to conflicting opinions or standards that they must refuse to accept a harmless travel magazine should probably stay home with the shades drawn.   So my approach is to politely share my view on the offending item, and then invite them to cancel if they can’t see their way to continuing to support the magazine.   I have never caved in to pressure of this type and I never will.

I think the magazine’s readers are generally tolerant people.   In four years of publishing I’ve gotten four or five hate letters.   Mostly the letters seem to come from unhappy people who feel victimized about all sorts of things. The rest of the bunch put up with whatever I produce.   I’m curious, however, to see if I get any reaction to the photo on page 44 of the new Winter 2008 issue (in the mail now).

We live in communities of people bound together by ideas and commonalities.   The magazine represents the centerpiece of American freedom and a centuries-old publishing tradition that helps hold communities together.   Somewhere down the road — soon, I hope — we will expand the role of the magazine to encompass the fascinating Internet technologies that are developing and integrating right now.   If we do it right, we’ll grow stronger (both as a business and as a community), and have more fun. I’m looking forward to that.