31 March 2009


When I was a teen-ager, I had a Boston Terrier named Hector who sang as beautifully as this dog, but he wasn't tall enough to reach the keyboard, so I had to play the notes for him. I'd laugh til I cried, and ol' Hec just loved every minute. Whaddadog.

Ephemeral books?

Should we rely on electronic technology to provide us with books?

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been posting his thoughts about the Kindle e-book reader for the last couple of days. As a lifelong, voracious reader myself, I've also pondered Amazon's Kindle with a mix of fascination and apprehension. The device is far too expensive, at well over $300, for the likes of me right now, but I'm guessing the price will fall considerably over the next couple of years – or that I'll win the lottery or something. And then maybe I'll get one.

My fascination comes from the idea of being able to have a good book, magazine or newspaper – or many – at hand all the time, tucked into my purse or briefcase for those idle moments at doctor's appointments, etc., without having to cart them around with me. And of course, I'd use my Kindle at home. It's much lighter, weight-wise, than a book, so I'd appreciate it for that quality simply because of my arthritic hands. Holding a book of several hundred pages for extended periods hurts these days and makes reading a lot less enjoyable. It's hard to "fall into" the story when your hands, wrists and fingers ache from holding the book open. And while I know there are stands available in catalogs that will hold the book open for you, they strike me as clunky and inconvenient. You sure couldn't carry them around. But the Kindle would eliminate the problem.

However, like Josh, I'm ambivalent. I LIKE books. I like the look of them on my bookshelves and I love curling up in a chair and reading them. I love the sound the pages make when I turn them and the tactile "feel" of the book in my hands (even as I fight RA), particularly hard-bound books. I love the scent – that unique musty and particular smell of paper and ink, bindings and glue. Libraries send me into ecstasies.

Books have been my dear friends ever since I learned to read. Is there anything as singularly wonderful as opening a new book in anticipation of the journey ahead? Books are chock-full of fascinating people and places and adventures I'll never experience in any other way. Space travel, anyone? A voyage to the bottom of the sea? How about life on a pirate ship or a sword-and-magic battle with goblins?

I feel that way about newspapers too, though not with the same sense of wonder. I get most of my news online now, something I thought I'd never be able to adjust to back when the Internet was still in its toddlerhood. Read a newspaper on a computer screen? Miserable! But I do it without a thought these days and don't mind it a bit. I rarely buy a newspaper anymore, even as I miss the crackle of the pages and the aroma of printers' ink. I even miss having ink-smudged fingers. As a journalist and a long-time reader of newspapers, I'm in mourning over their current demise. I can hardly imagine a world without them. What if the electricity fails? What if I can't afford an Internet connection? This is a real concern, and not just for me. Lots of people still don't have computers at all. What happens if we can't get online? It will be like the Dark Ages.

Yes, there's television. But as with the Internet, these days TV pretty much requires a cable connection or a satellite signal. If you can't afford one, you're in trouble, unless you have a set of rabbit ears or an antenna on your roof. And since the switchover to digital television signals, which has already started in many parts of the country, no cable connection means no television, period.

Besides, I don't know about you, but I'd hate having to rely only on teevee for my news. I'd never know the whole story, and frequently I'd be unable to get both sides. I'd be forced to understand what was happening in the world through a filter of biased opinion and 10-second news bytes. I'd be forever wondering what was propaganda and what wasn't. Television is a corrupt news medium – in all senses of the word.

This whole line of thinking brings me to another problem. Josh mentioned that he can no longer access the college papers he wrote because they were saved on floppy disks – and most computers now don't even have a floppy disk drive, not even for the small, plastic-cased disks that were ubiquitous a decade ago. The big ones of 20 years ago? Forget it. Even if the computer drives were available to read them, the software required to read and translate old word-processing programs aren't. So those papers – that information – is gone unless it was printed on paper and saved by the creator or user.

It was interesting to me that Josh brought that up, because just the other day I was thinking about it myself. There are things I wrote, saved on floppies and in no other place, that I can't access anymore. Worse, I've lost many of the floppies themselves over the years during moves and the occasional clean-out of stuff no longer needed. All that writing, all that thinking – saved indifferently and whether important to others or not – is just gone. Vanished. It made me sad.

If we stop making books out of paper and cardboard, bindings and ink, what will we do when the Kindle is outdated, like floppy disks are now? What if there's no simple way to transfer the electronic data from the Kindle to some newer, even better reader? Will those books, that data, simply be lost forever? The thought is sobering.

Therein lies my apprehension and my ambivalence toward the Kindle. I have several hundred books in my home now, collected over many years. A lot of them are new. A lot of the older ones I re-read every few years, and I enjoy them as much as I did the first time. As long as they live on my bookshelves, quiet, holding worlds inside them, I can enjoy and learn from them. I can take mind-journeys, bone up on a myriad of subjects, from birding to world history, and even teach myself to weave tapestries.

But if all those wonders are turned into strings of zeros and ones, there's a good chance I could lose access to all of them, someday. So could everyone, all over the world. And that would be the saddest thing of all.

30 March 2009


In his column today, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes about the steep decline of American financial prowess and influence in the world:

"Indeed, these days America is looking like the Bernie Madoff of economies: for many years it was held in respect, even awe, but it turns out to have been a fraud all along."

I'm no economist – far from it; I have to hunker down and sweat through balancing my measly bank account each month – but even I knew there was something terribly wrong going on with our economy throughout the Bush years. It niggled. I edited a weekly newspaper from 1998 through 2006, and I watched in fascination as the Sacramento bedroom community it served grew from a small collection of nice neighborhoods governed by the county and a community services district (CSD), into the county's prime money-making behemoth.

When I started editing the paper, there was a single grocery store in a strip mall, two fast-food restaurants, a pizza parlor and two gas stations, the nice neighborhoods, a high school, a middle school and a couple of elementary schools, and a brand-new, very exclusive country club and golf course with a fabulous"gated" community that was still mostly a gleam in the developer's eye. All these were on the north side of the highway. On the south side was another gas station, another fast food joint and a small mobile home park, the "poor" end of the community. A couple of miles further south down a two-lane country road was a slowly growing industrial park.

When I left, there were three giant grocery stores in their ubiquitous strip malls, four more gas stations, an eight-theater movie complex, a Mercedes Benz dealership, a huge, high-end retail center, a gigantic sports club, and several more restaurants, including one that claimed four-star status from the moment it opened. More neighborhoods were constructed seemingly overnight, including several high-priced "gated communities" that quickly sprawled out and dominated the surrounding, once-pristine hillsides. A second middle school was constructed, along with two more large elementary schools, and plans were in the works for another high school. The industrial park filled up so quickly with huge office buildings, techie firms, storage facilites for boats and Rvs, and light manufacturing centers that it had to expand. A gigantic company that did billing for other companies across the nation built a monster "campus" there and quickly became one the county's largest employers. And the sleepy local chamber of commerce grew into a powerful political entity with hundreds of active members.

At the same time, a huge migration of people, taking advantage of the suddenly inflating real estate prices in the San Francisco Bay Area and southern California, used the profits they made on the sale of their houses and bought themselves new ones in the growing community. They wanted a better, safer place to raise their children while enjoying far more house than they'd enjoyed before. Real estate prices, naturally, skyrocketed. It was nothing for a modest, 30-year-old home to go for well over half a million dollars; the new ones – the now infamous McMansions – sold for far more than that, some of them easily approaching two million bucks. If the house sat on a little land, too, the sky was the limit.

To serve the exploding community, the local fire department grew from two small stations to four, and added ambulances, a water engine, a ladder truck and many more firefighter/EMTs. One of the new stations was huge and included heated bays for its trucks, a marble-floored lobby and a gigantic kitchen, dormitory and gym for the firefighters. A fifth fire station south of the highway, was under construction when I left in 2006. It was slated to become a state-of-the-art firefighter training center for northern California, along with providing wildfire protection to the new retail centers and homes that were rapidly sprouting up all around it.

It was all dazzling. As a newspaper editor, my salary was peanuts, though I worked as hard as anyone else in the community. I couldn't afford to live there myself – as time passed, I could barely afford to buy groceries there. And I wondered how the residents could afford those gigantic houses. Even making $5-$6K or more a month (an income I could hardly imagine) their mortgages had to be crushing. And then there was the expense of furnishing the many rooms, of landscaping the yards and then maintaining them to the satisfaction of the snooty neighborhood associations and the CSD, the cost of cooling those houses through the long, sweltering valley summers and heating them through the mild winters. Yet everyone drove SUVs, gigantic trucks and high-end cars, even the high school students. Hummers abounded. And one of the main "issues" in the community was an increasing irritation with traffic gridlock as residents commuted to and from work each day.

Then it all started melting down. The year I was laid off (because my paper's parent company was "downsizing"), the real estate market was already tottering, and in spite of my attempts to get them to do so, no one was talking about it out loud yet. Some of the new, upscale stores had already gone under and the fancy four-star restaurant was barely getting by, depending heavily on evening alcohol sales in its beautiful bar. Construction was slowing down. One of the big homebuilding firms went into bankruptcy and the powerful local developers were putting some of their plans into holding patterns.

Today, my old weekly newspaper is about a third of the size it was when I left. It's struggling and no longer maintains an office in the community itself. Because its big advertisers have vanished (real estate and car sales) and the smaller businesses haven't got the money to advertise as much as they used to, the paper's editorial and sales staff has been decimated. A second weekly newspaper the parent company started in an adjacent, also-exploding community no longer exists at all. The parent company is shrinking as I write and layoffs have already put many local journalists and newspaper production workers out of work. One of the papers in this newspaper "family" now publishes only online.

Lots of the community's new storefronts and office buildings stand empty and echoing. There are many fewer Realtors. A lot of those pricey McMansions are dead husks and families are quietly moving away, victims of employer layoffs, guttering new companies and "creative" mortgages.
A lot of Americans knew the galloping economy was a fantasy, even if we couldn't prove it and were prevented by the prevailing attitude in the nation from even whispering much about it. I knew, even though I don't know much about economics. That old adage, "you can't get something for nothing" was ringing in my ears even as I watched the bubble grow and grow … and grow.

Well, it popped. As one of the millions of unemployed persons in America today, I don't feel so alone anymore, but that sure doesn't make me feel any better.

26 March 2009

Hedgehog in the Fog

Hedgehogs and fog: These are two of my most favorite things.

As serendipity would have it, back in the 70s a Russian artist animated an old Russian folktale that involves both, along with several other things that have long been on my personal Favorites List: An owl, a bat, a bear and a luminous white horse.

Beautiful creations like this give me hope for humankind. And hedgehogs.

Tip o'the hat to Designer-Daily.

20 March 2009

Semi-deep thought:

Everyone is angry about the dreadful state of the economy. They're looking for someone to blame: President Obama, Treasury Sec. Tim Geithner, Sen. Chris Dodd, AIG, the Big Banks, or perhaps all of us hapless middle-class Americans who believed the money peopel when they said getting rich was easy -- just use credit! -- and the value of our investments could only ever go up.

But I think the real blame lies with George W. Bush and our Congress -- mainly the Republicans but some of the Democrats too -- who sat and watched the bubble grow and grow over the last eight years and did ... nothing. Nada. Zip. They're the ones we should be blaming. They're the ones we elected to make sure that this sort of thing couldn't happen. They should all be facing, at the very least, intense public humiliation. Ideally, they should be tried for criminal incompetence and greed.

10 March 2009

06 March 2009

Rafting the river of American life

One of my favorite bloggers is Will Divide, who writes the blog Huck and Jim. Ostensibly a big-shouldered Chicagoan (one of the whimsical things about blogs is that you can visualize the blog-writers any way you like), Will posts infrequently but everything he posts is well worth reading.

At the moment, he's guiding his circle of readers through the great Mark Twain's great story, Huckleberry Finn, posting a synopsis of a new chapter each Sunday along with his take on the deeper meaning Twain wove between the lines regarding America, slavery, bigotry, poverty, etc. The result is fascinating, educational and intriguing, and Will invites further discussion in comments. And here I thought Huckleberry Finn was mostly a story written for children. Heh.

But what has really drawn me to Will's blog over the last several years are his astute, witty and deadly-spot-on posts about America's ongoing political situation, how it's affecting our lives and where it's taking us. Here's a bit of his latest, in which Will characterizes the Republicanism of the last 30 years as delightfully entertaining for that party's members – and then points out that they haven't realized yet that the fun is over:

"I'm not sure when the entertainment began to drain out of GOP land. I think the bubble broke apart in several places: Mission Accomplished, the Katrina flyover, the Terry Schiavo soap opera (interesting that all three featured that little war criminal in a plane going somewhere). But drain out it did, which is not to say that the parched inhabitants of the Repub desert isle are not still thirsty for it. Hell, their lives once depended on it and now it is mostly all gone."

Go read the rest. Huck and Jim will hook you like a Mississippi catfish.

05 March 2009

How we got here ...

04 March 2009

Unexpected smiling

Nothing much has inspired me to post here lately. Sorry about that; I've been stuck in the doldrums, but I'm digging myself out bit by bit. We can all use a bit of help at times like this -- and look what I ran across this morning at Sully's blog:

By the time that video ended I was grinning and shaking my head in delight at what I'd just seen AND at the sheer audacity and optimism making the ad must have taken. THEN I saw how they did it:

I completely agree with the lady at the end of the second video.

If you have a few minutes and need a lift, watch the first video. If you want to really do some unexpected and sustained smiling, do watch both.