WebCam Timelapse – July 16, 2007

It’s getting closer!

My WebCam has been faithfully making timelapse movies every day. I’m trying not to bore you by showing you all of them.

Yesterday’s sky was extremely active. Cloudy then mostly sunny then cloudy with an approaching thunderstorm. This video shows an excellent example of a typical monsoon summer day here in Arizona. The storm was fast approaching and Mike and I really thought we’d get poured on. But when the sun sets, the storm’s main source of energy is removed. It dissipates quickly — usually within an hour of sunset. And although yesterday’s storm got close — probably within 20 miles — it died before it reached us.


Here’s the video from the day. I’ve tweaked the settings to shoot a new frame every 8 minutes and create the video at the framrate of 5 frames per second. That stretches out the video to 20 seconds without making a major increase in the file size.

Remember, after clicking this image, you may have to wait a few seconds for it to load before it starts playing. Be patient and click only once. It’ll play right in this window. QuickTime is required.

Could it Be? Monsoon Season?

Heat’s not enough. I want humidity and rain, too.

This morning, when I woke at 5:30 AM to the whistles of my parrot, I was surprised to see that Mike hadn’t opened the French door between our bedroom and the upstairs patio. He always opens it during the night this time of year. That’s the only time it’s cool.

But when I opened it, I realized why: it wasn’t cool. For the first time this season, the outside temperature remained in the 80s overnight. And that’s the first sign of what everyone in Arizona is waiting for this time of year: monsoon season.

A Monsoon? In the Desert?

Sure. I can’t make this stuff up.

Monsoon season in Arizona is marked by a number of meteorological events:

  • Dew point reaches at least 55°F for at least three days in a row. That’s the official indicator of the start of monsoon season in Phoenix. That means it gets humid outside. The “dry heat” isn’t so dry anymore.
  • The winds shift to bring moist air off the Sea of Cortez and Gulf of Mexico in a counterclockwise flow. This is why the storms, when they come to Wickenburg, come from the north or east during monsoon season.
  • My WebCamStorms build just about every afternoon. I can see them coming from my office window. (You can check out the WebCam image here; it’s usually available during daylight hours.) They’re isolated, severe thunderstorms, packed with high wind, lightning, and the occasional microburst.
  • It rains. That’s if we’re lucky. The clouds have lots of moisture, but if the ground is too dry, the rain dries up before it hits the ground, resulting in virga and, often, dust storms. But once monsoon season is underway, we get rain — although never enough of it to quench the thirst of our golf courses and swimming pools.
  • We get flash floods. That’s if we get enough rain all at once. A dry wash runs through our property and, with enough rain, it can turn into a raging river. For about an hour. Then it’s just a wet riverbed that, within 24 hours, turns dry again.

Want more info, you can get it here, here, and here.

And this is what most Arizonans are waiting for.

My Monsoons

I’ve experienced Arizona monsoons in three different places over the years.

I’ve lived in Wickenburg for ten years now, and although I’ve been wanting to escape, like the snowbirds, in the summertime, I haven’t usually been able to. That means I’ve lived through a good bunch of monsoon seasons.

My office has always faced the mountains to the north (even when it was in a condo I own downtown). I’d be sitting at my desk, working away, occasionally glancing up out the window. I’d see the storm clouds building over the Bradshaw and Weaver Mountains, making their way southwest toward Wickenburg. The sky would get dark out there — while it remained sunny at my house — and lightning would flash. If the storm reached us before sunset, we were in for it. But in too many instances, the storm was just too slow and got to us after the sun set. Then it was a 50-50 chance that we’d get some storm activity — including welcome rain — before the storm dissipated.

Sometimes, the storms moved in more quickly — probably more moisture in the air. In those cases, we’d get a storm in the afternoon. What a treat! I’d stand under the overhang by my front door or on the patio at the condo and listen to the rain fall. Sometimes, if it looked rainy enough to get the washes flowing, I’d jump in my Jeep and head out into the desert, looking for a stream where streams don’t normally appear. I don’t drive through these — mind you — that’s dangerous. I just watch all that flowing water, remembering what it was like to live in a place where flowing water is a lot more common than dry streambeds.

On very rare occasions, a storm would move in just before dawn. I can’t remember this happening more than a few times, though. One time, it was the morning I was supposed to report back for work at the Grand Canyon, where I was flying helicopter tours. I had planned to take my helicopter up — the 1-1/2 hour flight sure beat the 3-1/2 hour drive. But with a thunderstorm sitting on top of Wickenburg, flying up was not a safe option. So I had to drive. I left two hours earlier than I would have and still got to work an hour late.

If you want to read more about the monsoon in Wickenburg, I recommend Lee Pearson’s excellent article for, “The Monsoon Is Near“. It includes links to video footage he’s made available online.

Grand Canyon
In the summer of 2004, I worked as tour pilot at the Grand Canyon. I flew Long Ranger helicopters over the canyon 10 to 14 times a day on a 7 on/7 off schedule from April through the end of September.

My introduction to monsoon season came on my return from a flight in July. The storms had built up and were moving in toward the airport. I was about 5 miles out when a bolt of lightning came out of the sky less than 1/4 mile from where I was flying and struck the top of a Ponderosa pine tree. The treetop exploded into flames. I got on the radio, on our company frequency, and said, “It’s lightning out here. It just hit a tree about a quarter mile away from me.” The Chief Pilot’s voice came on and said, “Better get used to it.”

When you learn to fly, they teach you the danger of flying near thunderstorms. They advise you to stay at least 20 miles away. 20 miles! So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that the tour company had no qualms about continuing flight in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

And they were right — it didn’t seem to be dangerous at all. The storms were all localized — you could see them coming and usually fly around them if they were in your way. The rule we used was that if you could see through the rain, you could fly through it. Although it occasionally got a little bumpy, there were no serious updrafts or downdrafts. And although we were told that if things ever got too rough during a flight, we could land until the storm passed, I never had to. (Thus passing up my only opportunity to legally land a helicopter inside the Grand Canyon.)

The Grand Canyon with CloudsI do recall one other monsoon-related incident, though. The company I worked for had about ten helicopters on duty to do flights. Because of this, the company was very popular with tour companies, which would bus large groups of foreign tourists to the airport for helicopter flights. These flights were booked years in advance, so the company always knew when they’d need all helicopters to fly for a single group. One of these groups arrived late in the day during August. Nine other pilots and I were sitting out on our helipads, engines running, blades spinning, when the bus pulled up. Moments later, the loaders were bringing groups of five and six Japanese tourists to the helipads and loading us up.

It had been stormy most of the afternoon, with isolated thunderstorms drifting across the canyon. Farther out to the east, a controlled burn was sending low clouds of smoke our way. At the airport, however, the visibility was fine. We were scheduled to do a tour on the west side of the canyon, in the Dragon Corridor. One by one, we took off and headed west, making a long line of ten helicopters, all going the same way.

I was about six back from the front and could see we had a problem about five miles short of the rim. The north end of the Dragon Corridor was completely socked in with low clouds and falling rain. We couldn’t see across the canyon.

The lead helicopter announced on the company frequency that he was going to switch to an east canyon tour. He made a 180° turn. One by one, we all announced the same intentions and followed him. Now we were all heading back to the airport. We got permission from the tower to transition to the east, crossed about 1/2 mile south of the airport, and continued on.

Now we were in the smokey area. It wasn’t bad. Not yet, anyway. We crossed over the canyon and my passengers let out the usual oohs and ahs. And we proceeded to do the east canyon tour, which was reserved for weather situations because it normally ran about 35 minutes (and our passengers paid for a 25 minute tour). Of course, with the initial false start, their tours would be 45 minutes long.

The thing about flying at the Grand Canyon is that you have to stay on established routes. The only time I’d ever done that route was in training four months before, so I really wasn’t too clear on where I was supposed to go. Fortunately, there was a helicopter about 1/2 mile in front of me to follow. Unfortunately, the weather was closing in. It started to rain and visibility got tough. I focused on the other helicopter’s strobe light and followed it back across the canyon to the rim. Then I lost it in the smoke.

I pointed the helicopter in the direction I thought the airport might be and flew as if I knew where I was going. About a mile out, I saw the tower and other landmarks. I was only about a half mile off course. I landed safely, my passengers got out, and I shut down for the day.

I used to ask the Chief Pilot why we flew scenic tours in weather like that. His response: “If they’re willing to pay for it and it’s safe, why not?”

Howard Mesa
Howard Mesa is a mesa north of Williams and south of the Grand Canyon. It stands 300 feet above the Colorado Plateau. Our vacation property, with its camping shed, is at the very top of the mesa, with 360° views stretching out for 50 to 100 miles, depending on sky and dust conditions.

In the summer of 2005, I spent about a month at Howard Mesa, preparing our camping shed for its future duties. I lived in our old horse trailer with living quarters, a cramped space that was fine for one person, a dog, and a parrot. Mike came up on weekends to help out and escape Wickenburg’s heat.

Monsoon season atop Howard Mesa is a real treat. The clouds start building at around 11 AM and, because you can see in every direction, you can monitor their progress as they move across the desert. By 1 or 2 PM (at the latest), you can see rain (or virga) falling somewhere. This is where you can really get an idea of the individual storms because you can see them all, individually. I took this shot one afternoon around sunset. The view is out to the northwest. The mountain you see in silhouette is Mount Trumbull on the Arizona strip, 80+ miles away.

Monsoon Rain

The great thing about the monsoon up north is that when the rain comes, the temperature drops at least 20°F. I remember one day doing some work around our place in the morning. The temperature was in the 90s, which is pretty hot for up there. I was wearing a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. I hopped in the truck and drove down to Williams to do some laundry and shopping. While I was there, a storm moved in. In minutes, the temperature dropped down to the 50s. Needless to say, I nearly froze my butt off.

Of course, there’s also hail up there. Some friends of mine were on top Bill Williams Mountain south of Williams one summer day when a storm moved in. The golf ball-sized hail that fell did some serious damage to their car. And the fear of hail like that is what keeps me from leaving my helicopter at Howard Mesa, unprotected in the summertime. Rotor blades cost $48K a pair.

This Year’s Monsoon

Anyway, it looks like this weekend might be the start of the 2007 Monsoon Season here in Arizona. I’m hoping for lots and lots of rain — we really need it. And I’ll try to share some photos throughout the season. Sadly, I think all my old monsoon season photos were lost in my big hard disk crash earlier this year.

Clean Up Patrol

I clear out my old office.

I”ve owned a condo in Wickenburg for the past eight or so years. It was the first non-stock investment I made when I started making decent money. I figured that real estate is always a good investment, and it would be nice to have a property that someone else paid for. So I bought the condo — which had been previously occupied by a single renter for 11 years — and put it up for rent.

The condo isn’t anything special. It’s two bedrooms, one bath, with a kitchen that’s separated from the living room by a breakfast bar. Total square feet is about 900. The big living room window faces out to the parking lot, a park where there are ball fields and the town pool, and the mountains. The bedroom windows face out on another parking lot and route 93, which is the main thoroughfare between Phoenix and Las Vegas for cars and trucks. The condo property includes a well-maintained swimming pool, a not-so-well-maintained spa, and mailboxes. (A big deal in a town that’s only had mail delivery for about 15 years. The place is a short walk to a supermarket and other shopping and is well within walking distance to two schools.

I put it up for rent within a month of closing on it and had a tenant within a month. Thus began my long career as a landlord.

Being a Landlord Sucks

Being a landlord is not a job for the faint of heart. Although most tenants show at least some level of responsibility, there are always a few in the crowd who will treat your property like it belongs to their worse enemy. Some tenants go out of their way to find things to complain about — one family complained so many times about how the shower door didn’t roll properly that Mike and I went to the apartment, removed the shower door, and replaced it with a curtain. (Let’s see you have problems with that.) And did I mention that the average tenant isn’t interested in living in the same place for 11 years? I witnessed a parade of four tenants in less than five years, with lots of cleaning and painting and empty unit time between them. Anyone who thinks being a landlord manager is an easy way to make a living is fooling himself. It’s a pain in the ass.

To make matters worse, I had another good year and bought another property. That one was a 3-lot parcel with a 4-unit studio apartment building and two bedroom, two bath house on it. What the hell was I thinking? I multiplied my single unit landlord headaches by five. Now there was always an empty unit somewhere, a unit to clean, a tenant complaint to deal with, an apartment to advertise and show.

I won’t go into the gory details. I’ll just say that after trying a rental agent (who took a fully-occupied property and had it down to just one tenant in four months) and letting Mike manage the place for a short while, I got smart and sold the larger of the two properties, leaving me with the condo.

In the meantime, the condo’s last tenants, a young married couple with a baby, terminated their lease early and disappeared. But not before they completely trashed the carpet, doing what would turn out to be $1,600 in damage.

I’d had enough. I was sick of being a landlord. I decided to take the apartment off the market and move my office into it.

An Office in Town

Having an office outside my home for the first time in about 12 years was a treat. My work wasn’t in my face all the time. I didn’t drift from the kitchen to my office and get caught up reading e-mail or working through edits. I went to work in the morning, worked until I felt done for the day, and went home to a life. Mike, who was working from home at the time, did the same. I took the condo’s living room, so I could look out over the mountains, and Mike took the larger of the two bedrooms. The place had everything we needed to be comfortable — full kitchen with dishwasher, bathroom, and access to high-speed Internet. (For about a year, MIke had wireless access that we think he picked up from the local Radio Shack. Ah, the days of unsecured wireless networks.)

The really good part about all this is that we reclaimed both of the bedrooms we’d been using as offices at home. Mike’s old office became the full-time guest room, with all the furniture you’d expect to find in a bedroom. My old office became the “library,” with all of our non-work related books, a desk, framed maps, and a futon for overflow guests. We usually kept the guest room closed off in the summer and winter so we didn’t have to air condition or heat it.

Of course, there were some drawbacks to the office situation. First of all, my office was about 6 miles away, which meant that if I needed something there, I was taking a drive. I had everything there except my 12″ PowerBook, so I dealt with all work-related matters there. For a while, we didn’t even have Internet access at home, since we didn’t “need” it. (It didn’t take long for that to change.)

But the worst part of the situation was when I got calls in the middle of the day for a helicopter flight. The airport is on the opposite end of town. So if I got a call for a flight that day, I’d have to pretty much drop everything I was doing, lock up the office, hop in my vehicle, drive home to put on some more appropriate clothing, and drive to the airport to preflight the helicopter and pull it out. That took a minimum of an hour. When the flight was over, I’d do the same thing in reverse. By the time I got back to my office, my concentration was gone and I wasn’t usually able to get back to writing. Sometimes, the whole day would be shot to hell for a 25-minute tour around Wickenburg that put just $195 in the bank — that’s gross, not net.

When space opened up at the airport for an office, I tried to get it. The Town of Wickenburg’s Airport Manager jerked me around to no end. (If you think coming to Wickenburg to start a business is easy, think again. It seems that the town management isn’t happy unless they present at least a dozen hoops for a new business owner to jump through. The smart ones take their plans elsewhere. I’ve spoken to three different people who were interested in bringing medium sized businesses to Wickenburg, and all three said they’d built their businesses elsewhere after dealing with the town.) It took over a year, intervention from the FAA, an RFP process, and the threat of a discrimination case to get a contract. Now I’m wondering whether I want the Town of Wickenburg for a landlord. Like the smart folks who give up when they see the hoops, I don’t think I do.

So I moved my office back home.

There’s No Place Like Home

The move wasn’t easy, but we were smart enough to do it in the winter months, when it was comfortably cool during the day. We gave away a lot of furniture so we could fit my desk and the things I needed back in the library. All the books went back upstairs, into some built-in shelves, so my work books — including the ones I’ve written — could go in my office. Mike, who now has much less need for space, took the library’s desk upstairs and set that up by one of the big windows with the good views. We put his old desk in my hangar, so I had more space there to do my FAA-required paperwork. (My old desk there had gone up to Howard Mesa months before.)

So now I live with my work again and, frankly, I don’t mind one bit.

I had a book to write, so I got right down to work before everything in the condo had been moved. It I was more ambitious about it, I would have cleared the place out right away, had it thoroughly cleaned, and put it back up for rent. But I dreaded the thought of dealing with all the accumulated paper — including boxes I’d packed in our first Wickenburg home (an apartment on Palm Drive) and ones I’d packed back in New Jersey ten years ago. So I just moved everything aside to give the carpet folks room to lay the new carpet, turned the heat pump off, and locked the place up.

Now I’m Cleaning Up

Months passed. And I finally did something radical to get me to clean up: I hired a professional cleaner. And I told her to come next Wednesday, when I’ll be away in California.

Of course, I don’t expect her to go through all my crap and box it up for my office or storage. That’s something only I can do.

I put it off as long as I could. Yesterday, I had a dawn photo flight here in Wickenburg and a lunch meeting with one of the companies I advertise with. A good day to work on my old office, I reasoned. Lunch would make a good mid-day break. I’d put in 6 hours or so and be done.

Wrong! Although lunch was a good break, I didn’t come close to finishing. I worked in the condo from about 8:30 AM to 11 AM, did some errands, went for lunch, and got back to work at 1 PM. Then I spent the next 3-1/2 hours going at it.

I threw away 7 tall kitchen bags — you know, the 13-gallon size? — full of junk, including stuff I’d saved for more than 15 years. I got rid of all the Apple promotional and developer disks I’d accumulated from 1992 through 2001. I got rid of old software and manuals. I got rid of magazines — about 40 issues of MacAddict that were still in their original wrappers. I got rid of loose receipts, bills, and bank statements. I was ruthless. My hands got filthy — I washed them at least once an hour. My feet got sore from walking barefoot on the cheap carpet I’d had installed in the place.

I filled six file boxes with stuff I wanted to keep. I made piles of stuff to give away — some stuff for the cleaner, miscellaneous paper items for my neighbor’s kids to do crafts, photo and negative holders for a photographer friend, empty CD-cases for the local print shop guy (who also uses Macs).

Later, at 4:15 PM, when Mike rolled up to help me take some of the boxes out, I was exhausted. We loaded most of the boxes into my Jeep and his car, dropped some of them off in storage, and brought the rest home.

But I’m not done.

I’m mostly done. I don’t think I’ll need more than another 4 or so hours. And frankly, I might take the lazy way out and just box up the stuff and stick it in storage without sorting through it. It’s a terrible, nasty job, but there’s only me to blame for it. I just keep too much crap.

So today, after getting a haircut at 8:30 AM, I’ll go back to work in the condo. I’ll get all the loose stuff gathered together, throw away some more junk, and stack up the boxes to go into storage.

Hell, at least I can turn on the air conditioner.

Flying "Into" the Grand Canyon

A dialog about the idiosyncrasies of flying helicopters in certain parts of Arizona.

I just spent the last 30 minutes or so cleaning up my e-mail in box. I have the nasty habit of not filing or discarding messages as quickly as they come in, so there were over 300 messages to wade through. I’d read all of them and flagged some. I wound up deleting about 1/3 of them, filing another 1/3 of them, and leaving the rest for another day.

Among the e-mail messages I found was a dialog between me and another pilot, Robert Mark of JetWhine. He’d e-mailed me to ask a question and although I normally don’t answer questions sent to me by e-mail — I prefer using the Comments feature on this site so the exchange of information can involve and possibly benefit others — I did answer his. Although I’d like to get the exchange out of my e-mail in box, I want to share it with readers, since I think it has some interesting information.

So here’s the exchange. I’ve mixed Robert’s questions with my answers to make the exchange easier to follow.


As a helicopter pilot out west, I wondered if you might be familiar with this Grand Canyon topic.

Do you know if it is correct that tour copters operated through the tribal reservation run to different standards than those that are based elsewhere?

The Chicago Tribune ran a story about the Canyon Sunday and claimed the tribal-operated copters can dip well below the edge of the cayone on a tour where others can not.

It sounded pretty odd to me.


Helicopters operating on tribal lands with appropriate permits can actually LAND at the bottom of the canyon. This, of course, is on tribal land belonging to the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes in the western part of the canyon — not in the main National Park area.

Please send me a link to that article if it is online. I’d like to read it.


Just happen to have that link to the Tribune handy.

So then as a tribal copter, do their pilots train to different standards if they only fly there?


No, they’re not owned by the tribes. They’re owned/operated by other companies, like Papillon and Maverick, both of which operate in Vegas and at the Grand Canyon.

I worked for Papillon at the Grand Canyon. Training for GCW (Grand Canyon West) consists of spending a day or so with another pilot, learning the route and getting the feel for the density altitude situation. It’s hotter than hell down there in midsummer. Anyone can do it, but they don’t normally train women because of limited housing out there. That’s one reason why I never learned.

Don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s not. Each flight is about 6 minutes long and you’re doing ups and downs all day. The canyon isn’t as deep there as elsewhere in the park. And it isn’t as if you’re cruising up and down the canyon all day. You’re not. Just ups and downs on a preset route. Tedious stuff. Flying the South Rim is far more rewarding.

Thanks for the article link. I’ve flown out there in my old R22. The article describes the place pretty well. It’s unfortunate that many Vegas tourists think GCW is “The Grand Canyon.” It’s just a tiny part of it — and not even the good part.


Sorry, but I’m kind of dumb on Native American issues.


Don’t feel bad. A lot of people are.

The reservations are self-governing bodies within the U.S. In a way, they’re like they’re own countries. They make their own rules, but do have to answer to the U.S. government for some things.


So these are regular helicopter tour operators that ALL get a special exemption to do whatever this writer was talking about then? And that comes from FAA or is FAA essentially not involved because it is tribal land?


Yes, the helicopter operators get permits from the tribes. When I say operators, I mean the companies, not the pilots. They pay a fee to the tribes that’s based on operations (takeoffs/landings), facilities (like landing zones next to the river), and other stuff. Theoretically, my company could apply for (and get and pay for) a permit to do the same thing Papillon is doing. But since GCW is a 2-hour flight from where I’m based, I haven’t tried.

Closing Note:

Since the opening of the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West, I’ve gotten a number of calls from people interested in flying out there. It’s a two-hour flight from the Phoenix area and I’d have to charge about $2K round trip (for up to 3 people; not per person). But the alternative is a 5-1/2 hour (each way) drive. For folks with money to spend, I can turn a two-day excursion to the middle of nowhere into a pleasant day trip. Still, I don’t expect many takers. Not many people are willing to blow $2K+ on a single day of fun.

Off-the-Grid Internet

I spend two hours hunting for a solution.

I have two books that need to be written this summer: my Mac OS X VQS revision for Leopard and my annual mystery book (which I can’t talk about until September). In order to write them, I not only need my computers, but access to the Internet. That means I need to work in my office all summer.

Or does it?

One of the things I did last year when I had to buy new test mules — the computers I run software on when I write about the software — was to replace my desktop PC and Mac with laptops. The idea was to make my office more portable, so I could work somewhere other than in my office at home. Both laptops have wireless cards in them, so they communicate wirelessly with any wireless network. But neither have any other Internet access solution. In other words, they rely on being able to access a network to get on the Internet.

But nowadays, there are Internet solutions that don’t require wires. So, theoretically, I should be able to get the computers on the Internet in a place where wires don’t go.

Like our place at Howard Mesa, which is entirely off-the-grid.

Now if you’re not familiar with the phrase off-the-grid, it’s pretty simple. It means that it has no access to any kind of publicly accessible utilities, such as electricity, telephone, water, gas, or cable television. People who live off-the-grid have to provide for their own utilities.

Our camping shed at Howard Mesa has a solar electricity system with two solar panels, four batteries, and an inverter, providing AC and DC power. (We have a 1000-watt gas-powered generator to provide additional power when we need it, but we haven’t needed it yet.) We have 2100 gallons of water storage and haul water to it with a borrowed 450-gallon tank that fits in the back of a pickup truck. We have a propane tank that’s serviced by a local gas provider. We use cell phones. We don’t have television, although I suspect that we could pick up a signal with a standard TV antenna.

I had heard a rumor that an ISP provided wireless Internet access from an antenna on top of Bill Williams Mountain, which is about 15 miles south of our place. We can clearly see the mountain from our shed — which is a good thing, since line-of-sight visibility is required. The only problem is, I didn’t know the name of the company that provided service from that location.

I started with the Williams, AZ Chamber of Commerce. The way I see it, if a company offers a service in Williams, the CofC should know about it. Right?

Wrong. The guy who answered the phone was too new in Williams to know about it. He asked someone else and she said that she tried the service but couldn’t access it. She said Qwest provided it.

So I spent at least 30 minutes tracking down a phone number at Qwest to ask about it. Of course, they didn’t have any service at my address and obviously knew nothing about wireless from Bill Williams Mountain.

I tried the other two ISPs listed on the Williams CofC Web site. Neither of them provided wireless service.

Maybe the antenna on Bill Williams Mountain was a myth.

I went to the Verizon Wireless Web site. I am a Verizon subscriber and my phone works okay up at Howard Mesa. (Not great; just okay.) What solutions did they have?

They had a good solution. Actually, a few that would work. The one I liked was the USB “modem” that made it possible for any USB-compatible computer to access the Internet with Verizon service. It would cost me $129 (after rebate) to buy with a 2-year contract and then $59/month in addition to my existing Verizon plan. Ouch! That was a lot more than I wanted to spend, but the benefit is that it would work on either laptop — or even my desktop machine — in a Verizon service area. Verizon has excellent service in Arizona, so it looked like a very workable situation.

On a whim, I sent an e-mail message to Bluewire, which provides wireless Internet service to my house in Wickenburg. (We’re beyond fiber-optic cable or cable television, so we need wireless access.) Did they know of any similar provider in the Williams area? I got my answer an hour after posting the message. They didn’t know of any provider up there, but why not try the WISP Directory?

So I surfed on over and got on the Arizona page with a few clicks. Bluewire was listed (of course), along with one called CommSPEED, based in Prescott Valley, AZ (and Iowa, if you can believe that). I called. And guess what? They had the antenna on top of Bill Williams Mountain!

While it isn’t clear whether I’m within range of the antenna, they’re willing to come up to Howard Mesa to check it out. If all goes well, the install cost is $49 and there’s a 3-month startup special for 512Kbps access for only $29/month. After that, it goes to $39/month. But get this: they can put my account “on vacation” when I’m not there, so I don’t have to pay when I’m not at Howard Mesa. So I can use it all summer, go “on vacation” and turn it back on during months I’m up there.

I signed up for an account. With luck, I’ll be able to meet with them some this month to see if I’m within range and, if so, they’ll set me up.

Otherwise, I’ll be going with the costly but effective Verizon plan.

Updates to come.

Leopard Postponed — What's a Writer to Do?

It’s all about timing.

Yesterday afternoon, not long after the stock markets closed in New York, Apple put a one-paragraph announcement on its Hot News page. The announcement told the world (or whoever happened to be watching that page) that because Leopard resources had been used to finish up the iPhone, Leopard would be delayed. Instead of seeing the finished OS in June, we’ll now see it in October.

Why it Matters to Me

I took the news with mixed emotions. I had begun working hard on my Leopard Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press. The book will be the eighth or tenth (I’ve lost count) edition of my Mac OS VQS, which is one of my biggest selling titles. The book is important to me; the last edition accounted for half of my annual income for two years in a row. When that book is ready to write I drop everything — even helicopter charters — to work on it.

The most important part of it is getting it done on time. When Tiger came out in 2005 only two authors had books in stores beside the brand new software on its release date: Robin Williams and me. Both long-time Peachpit authors with reputations for churning out books that satisfy readers. If Robin’s book sold only half as well as mine — and I’m not fooling myself; it probably sold twice as well — we kicked butt. It was a great reward for hard work and grueling deadlines. But I have to say honestly that my Tiger book was one of the ones I’m most proud of.

This Time was Different

This time around, things were definitely different. The software wasn’t ready yet — that was obvious in the way certain features just didn’t work right. Lots of bugs to iron out, but few developmental releases. It was almost as if Apple’s Mac OS team was overwhelmed. This announcement from Apple explains a lot. Apparently they were overwhelmed, but not by the task at hand. They were overwhelmed by being shorthanded to tackle the task at hand.

Add to that the fact that my screenshot software of choice, Snapz Pro, “broke” in Leopard. Don’t misunderstand me; it did work and it took fine screenshots. But the shortcut key to invoke it did not work — even when I fiddled with Mac OS settings and tried other shortcut keys. So, for example, there was no way to take a screenshot of a menu.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Visual QuickStart Guide, but they rely on screenshots to communicate information. The book is full of step-by-step, illustrated instructions. I estimate that my Tiger VQS has at least 2,000 screenshots in it. Some screenshots show windows, others show menus. Almost every single one is less than a full screen of information. Now think of how much fun it might be to take 2,000 screenshots with something as awkward as Grab or, worse yet, Apple’s built-in screenshot shortcut keys. And then manually edit every single screenshot in a graphics program like Photoshop. Not having Snapz Pro (or something equivalent, if something equivalent exists) was going to seriously slow down my workflow.

What was even worse for me (and all other writers, I assume) was the “secret features” Steve Jobs alluded to when he first showed off Leopard. I had no idea what they were. And no one else did either. What if those features changed the way part of Mac OS X looked? All my screenshots would have to be redone. And what if the features were big enough to warrant their own chapters? Or replaced existing features? That could mean significant reorganization of the book, with changes to all the chapter and feature references. I could be working my butt off to finish a 700+ page book, only to have to redo major parts of it.

So I was under a lot of pressure. I had the ticking clock that said the software would be out “this spring.” That meant before June 20. I knew my publisher needed 2-3 weeks to get the final files printed and turned into books. That meant I needed to be done writing and editing by the end of May. But not knowing what the future would bring, was crippling me, making it difficult and frustrating to get things done.

I was not a happy camper. So when the announcement came yesterday, it was a bit of a relief for me.

The Problem with the Postponement

There is a problem, however: timing.

I had planned to work on my Leopard book for April and May. Then comes my annual secret project (which I can’t talk about until after publication) for the month of June and a bit into July. Then my annual one-month stay at Howard Mesa to get some work done on our property and knock off a few articles for Informit and possibly try to reconstruct that mystery novel I was working on (which was lost in the great hard disk crash and backup screw-up of February 2007). Then we’d planned to take a vacation to the northwest to continue our search for a new place to live. By that time, it would be September and the helicopter business would be heating up again; I already have two charters lined up for that month. Also, around that time, I’d be ready to start work on my Word for Macintosh revision.

There was a plan B for this summer, too. It consisted of me getting a job as a pilot for someone else, flying somewhere other than Arizona. I could work on my secret project while I was away and escape Arizona’s brutal heat and get to fly someplace different. I have a very good lead on a job in St. Louis (of all places) and a few possibilities in Oregon and Washington. But nothing finalized.

Now these plans for the next six months of my life are completely up in the air. Assuming an October 1 release of Leopard — this is just a date pulled out of the air; I swear I don’t know anything and if I did I wouldn’t repeat it — I have to be finished with the book by the first week in September. So I’ll work on it in July and August. While I still have my secret project to work on in June, I don’t have anything lined up for the rest of April and the month of May.

What’s even worse about all this is that I can’t work on a VQS at Howard Mesa or at a summer job elsewhere — I need a desktop computer with a big monitor to do the layout — and I can’t take a vacation when I need to work on this book. (See above for how important it is.) So my whole summer schedule is completely screwed up.

And It’s a Money Problem, Too

And since I get paid advances when I work and I don’t have anything lined up between now and the beginning of June, I’m not going to see a payday until the end of June or July. Ouch. So my finances will be screwed up, too.

It gets even worse. If the book had a release date in June 2007 (with the original release of Leopard), I’d start seeing royalties at September 2007 month-end. But because it won’t be released until October, which is after the start of the last quarter, I won’t see royalties until March 2008 month-end. That’s a 6-month payday delay for a 4-month publication delay. Double-ouch.

But that’s what the freelance writer’s life is like: a financial roller coaster.

What to Do?

Today I’ll be making some phone calls. The goal is to pin down exact dates for all of my known projects so I can decide, once and for all, if I can get a pilot job according to Plan B. And, while I’m at it, I’ll try to pick up a small book project to work on in May. (Not likely but remotely possible.)

Then I’ll get to work doing other things that I’ve been neglecting — cleaning out the condo I want to rent, washing the helicopter, organizing my office, reserving rooms for next year’s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure trips.

After all, life goes on.

Aircraft User Fees

And why general aviation pilots and businesses should be fighting back.

There’s been a lot of talk — and fighting against — the Bush Administration’s “Next Generation Air Transportation System Financing Reform Act of 2007.” I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the details. But here are a few things that seem pretty clear to me.

Higher Fees Hurt Business

The User Fee system proposed by the Bush Administration may severely cut the activities of general aviation pilots. According to AOPA President Phil Boyer, “Nine out of 10 AOPA members have told us that this would reduce, curtail, or end their flying.” What’s that going to do for the aviation industry? As current pilots who can no longer afford to fly regularly sell off their aircraft, the used aircraft market becomes flooded. Fewer people will be buying new aircraft, so manufacturers will suffer. Suppliers to those manufacturers will suffer, as will employees all around.

As costs increase for general aviation businesses like flight schools, charter services, and tour outfits, those costs get passed along to consumers. That drives prices up, possibly making these services too costly for the marketplace. There are fewer customers. Businesses fail. This continues the cycle of used aircraft sales and unemployment.

Proposal Seems to Ask General Aviation Pilots to Bail Out Airlines

Shifting the cost of ATC services from airlines — which are responsible for hundreds of thousands of passenger hours a day — to general aviation is simply unfair. Many of these companies are failing financially because of their top-heavy management organization and unreasonable pay scales. Why is it that some airlines — Southwest comes to mind — are financially fit and offer good service to their customers while other airlines — think United — can’t stay afloat without government funds and pension rule changes? Could it be that some companies are simply managed better than others?

Do you think it would be fair for all people who use banks to pay a certain tax to the government for a fund that’ll bail out mismanaged banks that go under? Like the ones that gave out mortgages to anyone capable of writing their name on a form, no matter what their financial situation was?

Or how about a tax on drivers to be put in a fund to bail out automakers who don’t build the cars we want to buy at a price want to pay?

Or a tax on homeowners living in the desert for a fund that rebuilds oceanfront summer homes destroyed by hurricanes?

Is any of that fair?

Get Involved!

If you think the administration’s proposal is a bad one — or even if you want to learn more — get involved. If you’re an AOPA member, you can sign up to get e-mail notifications of developments, as well as instructions on how you can contact your government representatives to tell them what you think.

You can also go to this page to get more information about the funding debate.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Act now.