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November 2015
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Thanksgiving 2015

This morning I went looking for family photos to post to Facebook, it being Thanksgiving and all. The last time we were all together was in March, when we went skiing at Brian Head, Utah. I found a great photo of us with our children, Gregory and Polly, and one with our grandchildren, Taylor and Quentin. There are photos of all three generations together, but they all include Polly’s ex and are no longer operative, as they say.

IMG_1369 IMG_1371

We were going to get together again this Thanksgiving, but things changed. It’s still a family holiday, though we’re celebrating it separately: our son and his family at their home in Las Vegas and we with our daughter in Tucson. Gregory, Beth, Taylor (I hope), and Quentin are coming down the week after Christmas, and we’ll be together then.

Since it’s just the three of us today, Donna decided not to roast a turkey from scratch. Popeyes on base was selling deep-fried Cajun turkeys this year so we bought one. I’ve heard too many horror stories of deep-frying home disasters to try it myself, so this is a good compromise for us: just heat it up and serve. Still, you want to do some cooking for Thanksgiving: I’m smoking a boneless turkey breast as a secondary main dish. Polly’s working on the stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy (which we had to buy in a tub, since the Cajun turkey is already cooked). Donna laid down the rules of engagement for today: we’re eating at the table, not on trays. Well, it’s only right.

We have so much to be thankful for. This has been a good year for us, and to top it off, six days from now Donna and I will celebrate our 50th anniversary. Too bad we spent all our money on ski vacations and road trips, eh?

I hope it has been a good year for you and yours as well. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Air-Minded: Non-Starter Option Revisited

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In July, I posted an Air-Minded Diary titled The Non-Starter Option. In it, I proposed purchasing new F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s (all of which are still in production) for the USAF and USN. My argument was that new F-15s, which are far more capable that the older models currently in use, are needed to supplement the USAF’s small F-22 force; and that new F-16s and F/A-18s, also more capable than older models currently in use, would be a hedge against the possibility that the F-35 buy will be smaller than envisioned.

I’m happy to report today that military decision-makers are Paul’s Thing readers!

Now where’s my money?


On the Road, Talkin’ War

Daesh terrorists hit Paris while my buddies and I were in California on a motorcycle trip. We talked about it during stops, and were glued to our motel room TVs at night. I felt, and still feel, that what happened in France has the potential to swing our upcoming presidential election to the Republican candidate, whoever that turns out to be. If Daesh manages to carry out a successful attack in the USA, I’m virtually certain we’ll have another Republican president. The thought does not fill me with glee. With this in mind, I posted a comment to Facebook during a break at a freeway rest area:

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There wasn’t much context to that post, and some didn’t know what I meant by it. Was I advocating troops on the ground in Syria? Carpet bombing ISIS-occupied towns and cities? No. I’ll try to explain:

In the wake of 9/11, brave Americans turned out to be not so brave. We cowered. We turned against Muslim-Americans and immigrants in general. Congressmen warned against terror babies. We cheered the Patriot Act, passed by a cowardly congress. Bill of Rights? You can have it, so long as you keep us safe from brown terrorists. Except for the Second Amendment, of course, because white terrorists are just fine with us. Who cares if any of it made a lick of sense? It’s what the majority of Americans seemed to want.

Here we are again, with what seems to be a majority of Americans crying out against scary brown people, led by Republican candidates, their friends in congress, and the national media. Some are even advocating internment camps. The cowards are in full cry again, and cowards vote Republican (mind you, I don’t say Republicans are cowards, but that cowards are Republicans).

Personally, I agree with President Obama’s military strategy against ISIS. I’m confident our national security agencies are burning the midnight oil, keeping a close eye on groups and individuals identified as even remotely likely to mount attacks. But the cowards among us (cheered on by the media, red state governors, and posturing GOP congressmen) are howling for roundups and retaliation, and next November—if in the meantime President Obama doesn’t take some kind of decisive, highly visible action against ISIS and the Arab states behind ISIS—they’re going to flock to the polls to vote for their bully-boy GOP candidate. Many Democrats and progressives, on the other hand, might stay home out of pique if Hillary gets the nomination over Bernie, which she will.

A recipe for disaster? Damn straight, and multiply everything by ten if there’s a Daesh attack on American soil between now and then.

I mentioned Obama’s military strategy. It’s a shame the military is so shy of the media, because the extent of our ongoing operations against ISIS is rarely reported on. Part of this is the media, which gives unlimited page space and air time to Obama’s opponents because it’s sexy and sells; part of it is that there are very few (if any) reporters embedded with American military units in the Middle East, as there were when we invaded Iraq in 2003. And part of it, to be fair, is that we don’t click on headlines about American air strikes against ISIS. Even when the media does pass on information about American military action in Syria and Iraq, we don’t pay attention, because boring, and anyway how does any of that affect us here at home?

For the past 15 months, President Obama and our military have waged a daily campaign against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. We have conducted 6,353 airstrikes (2,658 of them in Syria). Our coalition partners have carried out just 1,722. None of this gets much attention in the media, and when it does it’s generally ignored. Republican congressmen and presidential candidates say Obama’s doing nothing, and our stenographic media passes on this misinformation.

Over and over again, right-wingers and Republicans ridicule our president for drawing a red line with Syria’s Assad, threatening military action if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, then doing nothing once he did. That’s not how I remember it. What I remember is Assad crossing that line, immediately followed by Obama asking for congressional approval to strike Syrian government targets. Since no Republican congressman wanted to be seen working with Obama, congressional approval never came. In fact, ever since Obama took office, he has had to conduct military action in the Middle East without any participation by congress, which, under our constitution, can alone declare war. And if we’re at war, then where is congress? Absent without leave, because they’d rather wait for Obama to make a mistake than work with him as the constitution requires.

Without congress declaring war, there’s probably little President Obama can do beyond what he’s already doing, and that is a dilemma for whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be. Some of my Facebook friends say I shouldn’t worry, that by November 2016 American voters will have forgotten Paris and it won’t have any effect on the election. True, we quickly forgot the post-9/11 terror attacks in London and Madrid, but we sure as hell haven’t forgotten 9/11, which continues to drive national policy and politics today.

You have to factor in this: Republican politicians (though they will never admit it) inwardly cringe over the fact that 9/11 happened under a Republican president, not a Democratic one, and will bend over backwards to conflate overseas terrorist attacks like the one in Paris with our own 9/11 and try to blame Obama. The media will play along, and a lot of people will come to believe it. Those people will vote.

Yes, it’s a dilemma, but if Obama wants to give Hillary or Bernie a good shot at winning the election, he needs to pull off some kind of visible, decisive victory against ISIS. And for damn sure, he needs to ride herd on the various intelligence and law enforcement agencies until his command, lest they start withholding information from one another again, as they did during the lead-up to 9/11. If Daesh or Al-Qaeda does pull off an attack on American soil, IMO it’s all over for Hillary and Bernie.

And that’s what I meant.

Another thing we talked about when we were talking about war:

Apparently Bernie Sanders stated, during the recent Democratic candidates’ debate, that he regarded climate change as a greater threat than terrorism. I heard that on the news and thought no more about it, because isn’t that obvious? You might as well say the sky is blue. But at breakfast the next morning, my riding buddies—who are both conservatives—were incredulous that anyone would take climate change seriously. I listened to them for a few minutes and couldn’t contain myself. I said, “Of course Bernie is right … climate change is a far greater threat than terrorism, or damn near anything else.”

Right away they both went after me, and it was the way they went about it that got my attention. Because here’s what they did: they challenged me to prove there is such a thing as climate change. “How do you know the climate is changing?” “Are you a scientist?” That sort of thing, which is a variation on the “Where you there?” question creationists deploy against educated people who defend the theory of evolution, which in turn is a variation on the timeless question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Now, these guys are my friends. I’m happy to have conservative friends. It’s racism I draw the line at, and my friends are not racist. But when they insisted I prove climate change to their satisfaction, I knew two things right off the bat: one, no one could prove climate change to them; two, they didn’t really expect me to try. They were letting me know their minds were made up, and there was nothing I could say that would alter that.

But anyone who lives outside the bubble of Fox News and AM talk radio knows climate change is a fact. Whether we believe it’s caused by human activity is a side issue. Whatever is causing it, global temperatures are rising. Parts of the Middle East are getting dryer and hotter, and before long (many say it’s already happening) will not be able to sustain the number of people now living there. The same thing is happening across North Africa and the American Southwest. At some point aquifers will be exhausted and millions of people, displaced by drought, will be on the move. What’s happening now with Syrian refugees will be completely forgotten when entire regional and national populations are displaced. It will cause wars, and countless numbers of people will die. It will be, quite literally, the end of the world for millions.

A greater threat? Barring a world-killing asteroid, it is the greatest threat.

Bernie, whatever you do, don’t pull a Dick Durbin and back down.

Update (11/19/15,9:27 PM): added minor clarifications to show that my intent is not to bash Republicans in general, or my friends in particular.


Mini-Gypsy Tour Photoblog

Here’s a photoblog of my recent mini-gypsy tour of the Salton Sea and Death Valley, 12-15 November 2015, with my friends and fellow Goldwingers Ed and Steve.


Leaving Tucson, dressed for the cold

Thursday morning in Tucson was sunny but cold, and I was dressed for it. I wore long johns under my pants and a zip-in thermal liner under the leather jacket. I wore a silk balaclava under the helmet, and toasty ski liners inside the leather gloves. In the saddlebags, in case it got colder or rained, a turtleneck wool sweater, wool gloves, a full rain suit, an extra pair of boots in case the first pair got wet. Also in reserve, for warmer weather, a shorty helmet, mesh ballistic jacket, and lightweight gloves.

Ed’s a friend of long standing, my motorcycle maintenance guru and frequent riding companion. This was my first ride with Steve, who is married to Ed’s wife’s sister. We made our separate ways to an eastside Circle K, met up, and headed west. We rode close to 400 miles on day one, taking back roads to Ajo, Arizona, then cutting north through Gila Bend to Interstate 8 and eventually on to Calexico, California, a border town about 60 miles west of the California state line. Interestingly, as we left Ajo we passed literally hundreds of motorcyclists, most on Harleys, heading for a weekend biker event in Rocky Point, Mexico. We appeared to be the only bikers headed north.

We nearly ran out of fuel before getting to Calexico. Earlier, we had sailed past gas stations in Yuma while low on fuel, confident there’d be plenty of gas stations along the freeway in California. Nope. Not a one until we were in Calexico, gauges on E and fuel low lights burning yellow, sweating every mile as we nursed our throttles for max range. At the pump, once we finally found one, my bike took 6.2 gallons. The tank, with reserve, holds 6.5, so it turned out we had more gas left than we thought.

I had no idea Calexico was such a major border crossing point. Cars and trucks were lined up for a couple of miles waiting to cross into Mexico, and there was a constant two-lane stream of vehicles headed north into the USA. I would guess most of the commercial traffic is agricultural, produce trucks and cars full of Mexican farm workers. From Yuma to Calexico, we passed dozens of old school buses carrying Mexican farm workers, all of them packed. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Bracero Program of the 1940s to the 1960s, under which we legally imported seasonal farm labor from Mexico, was still in effect … and in reality it is. I don’t know what they call it today, or how legal it is, but it is a fact of life in Southern Arizona and California.

Our second day was another 400-miler, north from Calexico, around the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, through the Coachella Valley and the connected cities of Coachella, Palm Desert, and Palm Springs, then through the high California desert to Highway 395, always climbing, finally stopping for the night in Lone Pine, California. We started the day dressed for cold weather but quickly stopped to shed layers.


On the east shore of the Salton Sea

Once into the Coachella Valley, what had been isolated farm towns gradually congealed into one long strip city, with stoplight after stoplight, all of them red. The townships we passed through went from redneck to white collar to immense wealth, and when we started to see streets named after Bob Hope and Dinah Shore we knew we were in Palm Springs.

Past Palm Springs, we were once again in open country and could speed up and enjoy the beautiful high desert. Our motel in Lone Pine was one of those older 1950s-style jobs, with huge rooms and big showers. Ed & Steve shared a suite but I had my own room. I would happily stay there again.


Steve & Ed sharing a suite in Lone Pine

Day three was Death Valley. We entered the national park from the west, descending through Panamint Springs to Furnace Creek, then exiting at Shoshone before proceeding south to Interstate 15 at Baker, California, then on to our third night’s destination, a motel in Lake Havasu, Arizona.

It was very cold, just above freezing in fact, when we left Lone Pine, and for the first time on the trip we had on all our cold-weather gear. Halfway down the mountain into Death Valley, we stopped at a viewpoint and stripped down to summer gear. I wanted to stop for a photo op at a 200-feet-below-sea-level sign I’d heard about, but though we were definitely down that low we never saw the sign. I did, however, take a photo of the first sea level elevation sign we came across, at a little tourist stop in Panamint Springs. You can see it across the road in this photo.


Near Panamint Springs, sea level sign in background

Shoot, the spot at the Salton Sea where Ed took that photo of me was 190 feet below sea level, at least according to the altimeter on my GPS, and that’s right down there with most of DV.

Riding through DV, I saw a gas station near Panamint Springs advertising regular at $5.48 a gallon (just imagine how high it must have been back when gas was over $4/gal elsewhere in California). The tourist place where I took the sea level sign photo was selling gas at $3.54/gal. Because of the distances involved (we had filled up that morning in Lone Pine) we were low on gas exiting DV. Based on gas prices dropping from $5.48 to $3.54 as we moved from the middle toward the southern edge of DV, I expected they’d continue to get lower, but boy was I wrong. We had to pay $4.58/gal in Shoshone, several miles outside the national park.


Sticker shock in Shoshone

In the freeway town of Baker, California, Ed’s GPS led us astray. Lake Havasu, Arizona, our destination that day, was a hundred straight-line miles to the southeast. Ed’s GPS insisted it was 250 miles away, and wanted us to head southwest. Had we had the sense to look at a paper map, we’d have seen the correct & shortest route, the one the GPS apparently didn’t believe existed: east on I-15 from Baker to the Nipton, California exit, over a mountain to Searchlight, Nevada, then down Highway 95 to Lake Havasu. Instead, we followed the GPS south and west on I-15 to a point near where it merges with I-40 at Barstow, California, then reversed direction to go east on I-40 to Hwy 95, adding 150 miles to our trip. At over 450 miles, day three was our longest day in the saddle.

Tell you what, if you really want to explore DV, you need two days … book a motel on either the California or Nevada side for two nights and take your time! We felt a little rushed, but we did see and experience quite a lot of DV on day three.

I mentioned the temperature rising as we descended into Death Valley, but I should clarify we’re talking about highs in the 70s, not the killer 130s typical of DV in the summer. From day one through day three, we could not have had better weather.

Our motel in Lake Havasu was a bit of a letdown. Ed’s favored motel, the one we’ve stayed at before, sits at the foot of the famous London Bridge. This time it was booked and we had to stay in a run-down Rodeway Inn instead. The restaurant next door was no great shakes for dinner, and there was no breakfast in the morning. On the other hand, our last day’s ride was a mere 300-miler, and we figured we’d be home in Tucson by 2:30 in the afternoon. Turned out we were right on the money: I pulled into my driveway at precisely 2:30.

When we left Lake Havasu yesterday at 8:00 AM, the skies were no longer blue but overcast in all directions, with rain here and there all the way home. The day started with temperatures in the 50s and never really warmed up. Just a few miles south of Lake Havasu we had to pull over and don our cold-weather gear again. The heaviest rain we experienced was around Gila Bend, about 100 miles from home. Steve to put his rainsuit on when we stopped for lunch, but Ed and I decided not to and didn’t get too wet—when you’re moving along on a Goldwing, you sit in a little cocoon of dry air behind the fairing and windscreen. Rain on the visor, yes, but not on the body. Stopped or putting along at low speeds is when you get wet.


Wet bikes in Gila Bend

All in all, it was a great ride with old and new friends. Only one cager tried to kill me (an Escalade driver suddenly swerving into my lane in Palm Springs). The bikes ran perfectly and the weather was ideal. We saw a lot of cool stuff. You know what was best? The smell of the rain coming into Gila Bend. You don’t get the smells, or the small changes in temperature as the road goes up and down, when you’re in a closed car. You get the full sensory input on a motorcycle—including the smell of cow shit when you’re riding through farm country—but that’s an experience too, and one we enjoyed to the fullest during our first two days.

Time now to start planning my next motorcycle adventure!


Air-Minded: Vliegbasis Soesterberg

32ndTFS-filteredI don’t know when Veterans Day turned into Veterans Week, but it has, so I don’t feel too bad posting a little of my own veteran history one day early.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was stationed at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands, a brand new F-15 Eagle pilot in the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, the northernmost American fighter squadron in Europe during the Cold War. We were the only unit in United States Air Forces Europe to wear a patch with a royal crest, namely that of the House of Orange (the wolfhound on our patch had been designed by the Disney Studios during WWII). The 32nd TFS had been flying fighters and interceptors out of Soesterberg AB since 1955: F-100 Super Sabres, F-102 Delta Daggers, F-4 Phantom IIs, and finally F-15 Eagles—which is where I came in, as one of the initial cadre of Eagle pilots assigned to the unit after it converted from Phantoms.

Soesterberg Air Base was Dutch, properly called Vliegbasis Soesterberg. The Royal Netherlands Air Force operated from one side of the main runway; the USAF from the other. Our base-within-a-base was called Camp New Amsterdam, but most Americans stationed there called it Soesterberg. The 32nd continued to fly F-15s at Soesterberg until 1994, when the squadron closed and Camp New Amsterdam reverted to the Dutch. The RNLAF eventually moved out too, relocating its operations to another Dutch air base in 2008. Today Soesterberg is home to an air museum and a glider port.

The airfield at Soesterberg was established in 1911. The Dutch army took it over in 1913, and it remained under Dutch military control until WWII, when the Germans invaded and occupied the Netherlands. At that point, Vliegbasis Soesterberg became Fliegerhorst Soesterberg, a forward Luftwaffe base. During the war the Germans based a variety of bombers and fighters at the base: the bombers flew missions against England during the Battle of Britain, as well as anti-shipping missions over the English Channel; the fighter unit stationed there scrambled to intercept and shoot down American and British bombers on their way to and from targets in Germany. By the end of 1944 the Allies had bombed Soesterberg so extensively the Germans were no longer able to use it. The Canadians liberated the town and airfield in 1945, and by 1951 Vliegbasis Soesterberg had been rebuilt and was back in operation with the RNLAF.


If you’ve flown in Europe, you know military airfields there are generally small. In the Cold War, most were camouflaged as well, difficult to see from the air unless you knew what to look for. Soesterberg was no exception. When I started flying there, I was amazed by how well the base blended in with its surroundings—I rarely saw the runway until I was within few miles of it, and only then if I was lined up properly. On the Camp New Amsterdam side we operated on old Luftwaffe taxiways, trees pressing in on both sides, just wide enough to accommodate the F-15 (later during my tour, we widened the taxiways and built hardened bunkers, leaving as much tree cover in place as we could). My first and lasting memory of Soesterberg is of those green, leafy woods. My second memory is of the Luftwaffe-era structures that were still there, both on the base and in the town of Soesterberg. There was even an old Allied bomb crater, still visible 40 years later:

bomb crater

A few Luftwaffe aircraft shelters were still standing when I was there, hidden under the trees. We used them to store parts and ground equipment; they were far too small for jet fighters, even the F-100s that had been there in the mid-1950s. Then there were the taxiways, which I’ve mentioned. Here and there were concrete Nazi anti-aircraft artillery emplacements, buried fuel and ammunition bunkers, and underground tunnels once used by Luftwaffe pilots scrambling to their aircraft. In my time the underground structures were mostly full of water, and strictly off-limits. Here’s one:
Just off base, what was once the Luftwaffe Offizierscasino—built with concentration camp slave labor—was now the RNLAF Officers’ Club. Here’s what it looked like when I was there; alongside are two interior shots taken during its glory days:

Casino2 KG-4 crews in Casino November 1940-1 image004

We Americans had our own officers’ club, a converted farmhouse in the woods off one end of the main runway. I’m not one hundred percent sure the farmhouse pre-dated WWII, but I’m pretty sure it did.
I don’t know what the RNLAF had inside the old offizierscasino (sadly, I never got to go inside), but the centerpiece of our officers’ club was an antique bar with inlaid Dutch tiles. It apparently had been salvaged from some historic bar or hotel in Utrecht or another nearby town; the Heineken Brewery bought it from us for its museum in 1981 and gave us a new bar to replace it.

Here’s an aerial shot from my Soesterberg days: two fully armed 32nd TFS Eagles flying over the preserved windmills at Kinderdijk on a rare sunny day. Captain Steve Spencer is flying tail # 082; Captain Paul Woodford is flying his wing in tail # 091:
The Luftwaffe-era photos in this post were sent by a friend and fellow veteran, a Royal Netherlands Army officer who was stationed at Soesterberg when I was there, Major Peter van Oest. The photo of the F-15s over the windmills was taken by McDonnell-Douglas factory photographer Bob Williams, flying in the back seat of an F-15B. Other information and photos come from various online sources:


A Breezy Sunday

Gosh, how long’s it been since I last suggested cops should stop tasing, beating, and killing people for no reason? Feels like months. Actually it’s been weeks, which is a long time for me. It’s not that I’ve given up; it’s more like everyone knows what I think anyway, and nothing I say is going to change the hearts of those who cheer the cops on no matter what they do.

I’m with Hillary Clinton. As she said to Black Lives Matter activists in August, “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts.” She went on to say (I’m paraphrasing) here’s what you can change: laws, policies and procedures, rewards and punishments. And what you wind up changing, over time, is behavior. That’s as good as we’re ever going to be able to do, and that’s okay, because it’s behavior that counts. I’ve been saying this for years. It’s what I saw the military do after Vietnam. And it works. We don’t know what people have in their hearts, but we can change their behavior, and as a highly diverse but integrated collection of people with an important mission to perform, the military works pretty well.

Can law enforcement follow that path? Yes, and at many levels it is trying, but unlike the military, there’s no central authority. Look at this mess in Marksville, Louisiana, where city marshals—who normally serve court papers but who have recently taken to acting as traffic police in spite of the fact that Marksville already has a police department—fired multiple shots at an unarmed man in a car they’d stopped, critically wounding the man and killing his six-year-old son. The Marksville city marshal, it has emerged, has no law enforcement background: a former school bus driver, he was elected to his current position. Louisiana state police appear to have no power over his maverick local fiefdom.

Multiply the local fiefdom scenario by the number of villages, towns, and cities in the USA, and it’s a wonder any sort of standards exist at all. Changing law enforcement policies and procedures to discourage thuggish behavior and reward good policing might be impossible on a national level, since no one person or agency has the power to do that. But we have to keep trying, and videotaping encounters with the police seems to be making some difference. Voting for politicians who understand the difference between changing hearts and changing behavior should help too, and that’s what I intend to do.

Enough of that. Please.

Last week my friend Ed and I put a belly pan on my motorcycle. That, along with modifications I had made to our new trailer, should mean the Goldwing can get on and off it without scraping bottom. It did at the trailer dealer’s lot and it should work at home as well. But first use of the new trailer goes to our daughter Polly and her Ducati, which we rolled up the ramp earlier today. It’s on the trailer because we can’t get it running and I’m taking it to Ed’s to see if we can figure out why. Once we get it running again, I’ll trailer it home and advertise it on Craigslist.

I never get tired of sharing motorcycle photos, so here are two:

Polly & Ducati on the trailer
The Wing on Ed’s lift

Did I mention it’s breezy and cool? The weather could not be more lovely. I’m looking forward to the Death Valley ride later this week.

Donna and Polly gave me a selfie stick for my birthday. Yesterday I took it to the Pima Air & Space Museum, along with two cameras and a full-scale tripod. One camera was the one in my iPhone, the other was a Canon DSLR.

I thought there was to be a classic car meet on the museum grounds, but I’d misread the announcement. The meet was for restored military vehicles, not classic cars, and as it turned out there were only a few military vehicles on display: a deuce-and-a-half, two Jeeps, and a new Ural pretending to be an old BMW. I wound up taking a bunch of selfies instead, alternating between the DSLR on the tripod and the iPhone on the stick. Honestly, I have a hard time telling the difference in quality, but you can tell the DSLR/tripod photos because they’re taken from farther away.

IMG_2540 copy
Selfie stick & iPhone
IMG_1881 copy
Tripod & DSLR

The old MATS C-54 in the second photo? It flew in the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949. People who’ve been in it say you can still smell dried corn and grain. If a machine can be a hero, this one qualifies.

One more photo, from last Sunday’s Cyclovia ride in Tucson. Adding it to this blog post because otherwise I’m likely to forget to share it with you.


Honestly, do we look like our 50th wedding anniversary is less than a month away? Damn, where does the time go?


Paul’s Book Reviews: Horror/Fantasy, Nonfiction, Science Fiction

“People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.”
— David Mitchell, Slade House

slade houseSlade House
David Mitchell

Slade House is a companion (not exactly a sequel) to Mitchell’s previous novel The Bone Clocks, but it is a more compact and to-the-point story, as readable as anything Mitchell has written. Like The Bone Clocks, Slade House is a mix of horror and fantasy.

I was totally into The Bone Clocks until the cloud battle between the horologists and anchorites, an extended scene taking up the last quarter of the book. What had been an engrossing tale with an overlay of fantasy became wholly fantastic and, to me at least, silly. I couldn’t follow the action of the complicated, drawn out battle; I couldn’t even tell the good guys from the bad. The scene felt unnecessarily padded. In my review of The Bone Clocks, I said I thought the novel would have been stronger without the battle.

In Slade House, the horologists and anchorites fight again, but this time the battle is short, comprehensible, and clear. If only I could buy into the belief that we have souls, I would be more enthusiastic about Mitchell’s vision. But I sort of doubt Mitchell believes in souls, either, and is merely paying the rent by writing exceptionally good supernatural potboilers while his next major non-fantasy novel gels.

In Slade House, we meet and get to know several victims of the Grayer twins, immortals who preserve their youth by periodically devouring the souls of the engifted, who reveal the back-alley portal to Slade House only to their chosen dinner guests. Sure it sounds silly, but the setups, as each new innocent discovers Slade House, chilled me to the bone every time. The Grayers, too, are fun, the bickering between them sibling-like and even cozy.

One really should read The Bone Clocks before reading Slade House, even though this one can stand on its own. I think those who’ve read both will agree with me that Slade House is the better of the two, primarily because it’s shorter and tighter.

shadow diversShadow Divers
Robert Kurson

A friend recommended Shadow Divers and I started in on it cold, knowing nothing about the book or its subject. For the first few pages I thought I was reading an unusually gripping novel. It only gradually dawned on me that Robert Kurson’s book is non-fiction, a real-life account of the discovery and eventual identification of a sunken WWII German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey.

Had it been a novel, I’d write the same review I’m writing now. I’d tell everyone how exciting Shadow Divers is, how riveting the story, how impossible to put down once you’ve started. I had no idea what I was getting into. By page two I was enthralled.

Kurson takes a warts & all approach to his subject, dealing frankly with the divers who discovered and worked the mysterious wreck; the alcoholism, egos, personality conflicts, fatal mistakes made in the depths. There were times I thought the descriptions of divers’ deaths might give me nightmares … and they well might still.

It’s an incredible story. Excuse me while I catch my breath. Shadow Divers is up there with any of Jon Krakauer’s adventure books, and that is meant as high praise.

lafayetteLafayette in the Somewhat United States
Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell’s descriptions of dashing around the Eastern Seaboard to visit sites of Revolutionary War events, homes of founding fathers, re-enactments of key battles … accompanied by friends, siblings, nieces and nephews, occasionally a patient hired driver … are positively endearing. These glimpses into her own life help bring history to life for so many readers.

I’ve read Assassination Nation, Take the Cannoli, Unfamiliar Fishes, and The Wordy Shipmates, and have noticed this writerly technique at play in all of them. And I approve. It works. I’m a fan for life. If Sarah Vowell writes it, I’ll read it.

What you walk away with, after a history lesson from Sarah Vowell, is a sense of those who came before us as contemporaries, as real and immediate as you or me. I will never think of George Washington as a wooden figure again (even if he did have wooden false teeth, which he didn’t). And Lafayette, about whom I knew almost nothing, stepped off the pages of this book and sat down across from me as I read. Even the pencil illustrations of key figures on both sides of the Revolutionary War are uncannily lifelike.

And tell you what, next time some know-nothing Teabagger twerp goes off on the French, I’ll have a quiver full of arrows to shoot back with. Thanks, Sarah, for straightening us out on who are true friends are!

Seriously, this is a marvelous read. Educational and fun, as they say. If history books had been written like this when I was in school, I might have paid more attention.

between the worldBetween the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve admired Ta-Nehisi Coates’ articles in The Atlantic, notably his writing on Jim Crow, the Civil War, and the topic of reparations for slavery. His journalism is fearless, tightly reasoned, well researched, and persuasive.

This short book, which takes the form of an impassioned letter from a father to his son, is quite different. It’s less tightly reasoned and more emotional than TNC’s journalistic writing. As it should be, being a frank and personal discussion of his own experience of the racial divide in America. It references many facts on the history of oppression, up to and including several recent police killings of unarmed black men and boys, but does not attempt to explicate the facts. It’s a letter to his son, after all … certain facts and assumptions common to the black experience of life in the USA are agreed upon going in.

I agree with everything TNC has to say about the false construct of race and the heritage of slavery. But when people compare TNC to James Baldwin, I drag my feet just a little. I’ll re-read Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time (which I first read 50 years ago). Then I’ll decide.

Yes, Between the World and Me is an important book. But for now at least, I think TNC’s journalism will have the larger impact.

wtfWhiskey Tango Foxtrot
by David Shafer

Count me among the dissatisfied. I thought WTF started brilliantly, with vivid, well-written characters and the promise of an interesting story, but a little over halfway in I lost the ability to suspend disbelief, and by the end I thought the plot merely silly, even risible.

At the end—and I’m sorry if this is a spoiler (no I’m not)—as the good guys are about to move against the bad guys, the story abruptly ends. Imagine a juggler suddenly disappearing, balls suspended in air. Look, if you’re going to sell me a story about grand Gibsonesque electronic conspiracies, I want to know what the hell happens! Will there be a second book? There’s no hint of one, so I’ll assume not.

When I say well-written characters, I’m trying to convey how prepared I was to love this book. I hate addicts and don’t like to read about them. Two of the main characters in WTF are quickly revealed to be drunks and druggies. Normally I would have quit reading right there, but I kept on in spite of my strong discomfort with the characters, and that’s why I’ve giving WTF a relatively high (for me) three-star rating.

That’s not all with the drugs, though. The deeper the author takes us into the Dear Diary/good guy conspiracy group, the more stoned his concept comes to seem, and this, along with several scenes set in Portland, Oregon, made me wonder if David Shafer is himself a Portlander. Yes, it turns out, he lives in Portland. I don’t know if he’s a stoner, but he’s certainly familiar with the breed. Anyway, drug-based computers is where I went off the tracks, no longer able to imagine any world in which the plot of this novel would be possible. WTF flirts with science fiction but is not science fiction. It’s fantasy, and stoner fantasy at that. Hey, I didn’t like Dune, either, and for the same reason.

Still, WTF is well written, and had the author kept marching another hundred pages to bring the action to a conclusion, I’d have stayed in step with him all the way. Instead I’m upset with myself for getting all wrapped up in a book that stopped before the climax, leaving me high and dry. How frustrating!

nk undercoverNorth Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State
John Sweeney
2_5 (2.5 stars for readability, 1.5 stars for content)

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea always fascinates. When I learn of new books on the DPRK I generally read them. This one doesn’t live up to its billing. It doesn’t contribute to our knowledge of North Korea, and there’s nothing “undercover” about it, save for the author passing himself off to DPRK authorities as a teacher rather than a journalist.

North Korea Undercover is little more than a diary of a tourist visit to Pyongyang, where Sweeney’s group gets the full Potemkin village treatment. Sweeney goes along with the orders and instructions of his North Korean minders, and apart from one unescorted early-morning foray outside his hotel to photograph some dreary apartment flats on the other side of a barbed wire fence, he does not rebel. He does not get the goods. Every “revelation” in his book is a known known, culled from other books or internet sites.

The one worthwhile thing Sweeney does here is to vigorously combat the suggestion that the DPRK was ever a workers’ paradise, or that Kim Il Sung wasn’t so bad. I’ve seen this notion advanced or hinted at in other studies of North Korea. It usually takes the form of stating how much better off North Korea was than South Korea in the 1960s and 70s, and how much worse Kim Il Sung’s successors, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, have been in terms of starving the people, setting up gulags, and inculcating cults of personality.

No. None of that is true. North Korea has always sucked. It has never been economically viable. Korea began as a primitive caste society, and the north has not advanced to this day. Kim Il Sung was busy starving peasants decades before Kim Jong Il got in on the act. His war against South Korea was a disaster, and as soon as it was over he started killing and imprisoning anyone who might call him to account for it some day. By the middle 1950s, even Kim Il Sung’s Stalinist handlers in the USSR were appalled at the cult of personality he had set up. It’s good to be reminded of these facts, and I thank Sweeney for doing it.

Otherwise? I could have watched a couple of YouTube videos and learned more. I’m particularly irritated with one photo. Like most readers, I scanned the color photo pages in the middle of the book before I started to read. One photo, showing what appeared to be labor camp prisoners at work behind a barbed wire fence, caught my eye. I wondered how Sweeney came upon that photo, because up to now everything I’ve read says there are no such photos, and tourist groups are never allowed anywhere near DPRK prison camps. One of the reasons I didn’t throw the book across the room after one or two chapters was to find out how Sweeney got this photo.

And he never said. Well, fuck you, Mr. Sweeney.


Thursday Bag o’ Stars & Hearts

stars and heartsHalf my friends say they hate Twitter. Half say they don’t get it. Either way, only a few use it. That right there differentiates Twitter from Facebook. I go to Facebook to find out what friends are up to and to tell them what I’m up to. I go to Twitter for information. It’s useful in a more practical way. It leads me to information and important news, and I check in daily.

This week Twitter users are upset over “like hearts” replacing “favorite stars,” a recent change. In the past I would occasionally favorite a tweet. I only did it when I especially liked something someone tweeted. Twitter saves a list of favorited tweets, visible to other readers, which means you can visit my Twitter profile to see a list of tweets I’ve favorited, and I can visit your profile and ditto. As far as I can tell, “liking” someone’s twitter post by clicking on the heart is exactly the same thing as “favoriting” someone’s Twitter post by clicking on the star. So pardon me while I yawn. Six of one, etc.

Using some of my own tweets as examples, here’s what I’m talking about. First, Twitter BC. Note the star below the tweet. You clicked on that to favorite the tweet.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 11.44.26 AM

Here’s what Twitter looks like now. You click on the heart to like the tweet.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 10.26.39 AM

I just noticed Twitter added another new thing, that little bar graph symbol next to the heart. Using yet another tweet as an example, here’s what you get when you click on that:

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 10.45.21 AM

I can understand how Twitter tracks “total engagements.” People have to click on something to make any of those things happen, so it’s trackable: 6 people clicked on the photo I sent with that tweet; 2 people clicked the heart to like my tweet; 2 people clicked on the tweet itself to see it all by itself; 1 person sent a nice reply; 1 person retweeted it; 1 person took the trouble to visit my profile to learn something about me. That’s good to know.

What I don’t get is “impressions.” According to Twitter, impressions are the number of times a Twitter user is served a tweet in his or her timeline, or through a Twitter search (like, say, someone searched for the word “Tucson” and saw my tweet among the hundreds of other tweets mentioning Tucson). Okay, I get how search results are tracked, because once again people have to interact with Twitter to do a search. But if “served a tweet” means “read a tweet,” how the hell does does Twitter know 126 people read my tweet? I read, and promptly forget, hundreds of tweets every day. If I don’t click on the tweet, if I don’t like it or retweet it, how does Twitter know I ever read it? This one disturbs me, and not a little. Are they tracking our eye movements now?

Another thing that makes me uncomfortable is the perverted way we’re forced to talk about what we do on Twitter. The only way to describe the process of favoriting tweets is to use Twitter’s language: I favorited this or that tweet, I looked at so and so’s list of favorited tweets. Ugh. It sounds more natural to say I liked a tweet, although talking about lists of liked tweets still sounds odd. Strictly in terms of English usage, I’m happier with like than with favorite.

But hey, on the off chance you’re one of the very few friends I have who does use Twitter, liking someone’s tweet doesn’t really do much. You know you liked the tweet, and the person who posted the tweet knows he or she got a like, and that’s about as far as that goes. If you really like a tweet, you should both like and retweet it … that way, your followers will see the tweet too. It’s important to note, though, that retweeting without liking can mean something altogether different: lots of people (I do it myself) will retweet offensive or repugnant tweets as a way of shaming the asshole who posted it.

But back to stars & hearts: it’s amazing what people get worked up about. If Twitter’s Greek to you and you couldn’t care less, then just think of the hue and cry that emerges whenever Facebook changes something. Surely you can relate to that, because EVERYONE is on Facebook!