You Can Delete the Recycle Bin?

I guess so. I just did it.

My latest adventure in Windows computing…deleting the Recycle Bin. What I meant to do was empty the Recycle Bin. But I right-clicked and chose Delete. In a flash, it was gone. I couldn’t find an Undo command.

Oops!

I found another Recycle Bin in the Folders list when I double-clicked the Computer icon on my desktop. (I’m running Windows Vista.) I dragged it to the desktop and it turned into a shortcut icon for the Recycle Bin. Was the old icon a shortcut, too? When I opened the Recycle Bin, the one I deleted wasn’t there so I couldn’t compare.

Whoda thunk you could delete the Recycle Bin?

On a more positive note, I was finally able to print my FAA Operations Specifications from the IOPSS Web site. The software I had to use, which requires a Windows PC, is a client shell for accessing a system on the FAA server. It’s not at all intuitive. For the past four months, I’ve been trying, off and on, to print the 30+ page document that I’m required to have onboard my helicopter. I think the version I had in there was up-to-date, but I figured I could be sure by printing a fresh copy every once in a while. Today was the first time I’ve gotten it to print since I moved out of my old office. Oddly enough, the printer started running after I logged off the FAA server. How weird is that?

I do feel as if printing it was an achievement, since the printer in question is connected via Ethernet directly to my G5 Mac and the PC accesses it wirelessly through printer sharing. I’m always surprised when I can get that setup to work. The last time I successfully printed, I had to do a direct USB connection from one of my other printers to the PC.

Cruising

Life in a moving hotel.

Mike and I ended a week-long Alaska cruise this past Friday. We “sailed” on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas from Seward, AK to Vancouver, BC, with stops at Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Straight Point (Hoonah), and Ketchikan. The final day was spent cruising down the inside passage east of Vancouver Island.

This was our second cruise. The first was in the Caribbean about five years ago on — strangely enough — the same ship. We really enjoyed that trip, which we went on with another couple around our age. This trip, while enjoyable, was different.

What’s Good about Cruising

Let me start off by explaining why I like to cruise.

Float PlaneA cruise is the ultimate lazy person’s vacation. You get on board on day one, unpack in your own private room, and go to any number of onboard restaurants for free meals just about any time of the day. In the evening, your moving hotel departs the port and moves gently through the sea, arriving at the next port on the next morning. Once there, you can get off the ship and do all kinds of excursions, ranging in trolley tours of the local town, big production shows (the Great American Lumberjack Show comes to mind), active activities (such as biking or hiking), or “adventure” activities (such as helicopter landings on glaciers or sled dog trips or float plane flights). At the end of the day, you’re back on board in your comfy, maid-serviced room, eating free food, seeing free shows, and/or throwing money away in the casino as the ship moves on to the next port.

Cruise cost is determined, in part, by the type of accommodations you choose. The cheapest accommodations are a windowless cabin on a lower deck that gets really dark with the door closed and has barely enough room for you and your cabin mate(s) to move around. The most expensive accommodations are usually given names like “The Royal Suite,” and include several rooms, large windows, and one or more balconies on an upper deck.

On both of our cruises, we had the same accommodations: a “junior suite,” which is one largish room with a king size bed, sofa, easy chair, desk, coffee table, floor-to-ceiling windows, and small balcony. It was on the top cabin deck, 10 stories above the sea. At some ports, float planes landed right past our window (see above).

Cabin on Radiance Cabin on Radiance

A lot of folks say that getting a cabin with a balcony or even a window is a waste of money since you spend so little time in your cabin. I look at it the other way around. If you had a nice room, you’d spend more time in it. I’m a big fan of privacy and like the idea of having a private, outdoor space to relax in.

Hubbard GlacierWe spent much of our two “at sea” days in our cabin on the balcony, reading, talking, and taking photos of the things we passed. In fact, as the ship turned away from the Hubbard Glacier to continue on its way, we came back to the room to relax on the balcony with a bottle of wine and our cameras.

If you don’t care about private space and think you’ll be spending 95% of your waking hours outside your cabin, you should definitely go with one of the less expensive rooms. You see, that’s the only difference in onboard treatment. Once you’re out of your cabin, you’re the same as everyone else. You get the same food, see the same shows, and have access to the same services at the same price. So you can cruise quite affordably — sometimes as little as $600 per person for the week! — if you don’t mind sleeping in a closet-like room.

Cruise Limitations

Every cruise has a major limitation: you only visit the port cities on the cruise itinerary and you only stay in that city as long as the ship is at port. If you pick a cruise with the “wrong” cities, you can’t change your plans. You’re stuck with them.

Of course, since many people plan vacations out to the extreme — reservations every step of the way — this probably isn’t much of a limitation. I, however, like to wing it while on vacation. While this may mean that I don’t get to stay in a place I wanted to (because everyone else had reservations), it does give me the flexibility to stay an extra day at a place I really like or explore a place I learn about while on the road.

The best way to make sure the itinerary limitation doesn’t bite you is to choose your cruise carefully. We didn’t do this on our cruise. We just told the travel agent we wanted a one-way cruise in Alaska that began or ended in Vancouver. We didn’t know what we wanted to see. I have no real complaints about our itinerary, but now I know more about Alaska and where I want to go on my next visit.

“Hidden” Costs

Devils on the Deep Blue Sea : The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America's Cruise-Ship EmpiresAlthough you can eat on board for free in most restaurants, there are a few costs that aren’t covered on a cruise. Alcohol is one of them. You pay for all of your drinks — unless you’re gambling in the casino. Drink prices are a bit higher than average, but made with top-shelf liquor. We were paying $8 a piece for our evening martinis (and downing two of them each night), but they were made with Grey Goose and other premium brands. Wine is typical restaurant pricing, but they offer a discount if you buy a 5-, 7-, or 10-bottle plan at the beginning of the cruise. The plan limits you to a shorter wine list, but we chose the 5-bottle plan and had perfectly good wine at most meals, with any leftovers to drink on our balcony later that evening or the next day.

The ship also has premium restaurants that cost $20 per person for a meal. There were two of these: Portofino, serving Italian food, and Chops, serving steaks and chops. We signed up for the Wednesday evening Mystery Dinner Theater at Portofino, which cost $49 per person and included champagne before dinner and wine with dinner, along with entertainment. The meal at Portofino was far better than any other I ate on the ship. (More about food in a moment.)

On our ship, we also had to pay for anything that came in a can or bottle, including Coke and bottled water. It really irked me to pay $2.01 (including a 15% gratuity automatically tacked on) for a can of Coke. The cruise cost us thousands of dollars and I felt that I was being nickeled and dimed. This kind of stuff could have been included for free in the fridge in our room — perhaps as a special perk for those who invested in a nicer cabin — but the fridge doubled as a for-pay servi-bar and it cost the same there.

Tatyana and LorendAnd speaking of gratuities, you’re expected, at the end of your cruise, to tip your lead and assistant waiters in the main dining room, the head waiter in the main dining room, and your cabin attendant. Our dining room service was very good — both waiter and assistant waiter were extremely professional without being stiffs. We joked about things, they gave us advice on wine for when we got home, and they didn’t have any trouble giving Mike and Syd (one of our two table mates) seconds and thirds of lobster tails on Tuesday night, when lobster was the popular choice on the menu. But the head waiter obviously only came around to be friendly and secure his tip, so we didn’t tip him. Many people didn’t show up for dinner on Thursday night, the last night of the cruise, to avoid tipping the dining staff. (More on cheapskates in a moment.) We tipped our cabin attendant the suggested amount, even though we didn’t like her. She did her job, but drew the line there. No special service, as we’d had with our last cabin attendant.

The excursions, however, can be the biggest cost of the cruise. They ranged in price from $12 per person for a trolley ride to more than $500 per person for some of the aviation excursions. Our costliest excursion was a helicopter trip with a landing on two glaciers; it cost $398 each. Anyone interested in saving money would probably not do a lot of excursions.

Our final bill for the extras on board (mostly alcohol and excursions) came to more than $1,800. And that doesn’t include the cost of the cruise itself, gratiuties for onboard staff, or the money we spent onshore for meals and other things. This isn’t a complaint; it’s just a note to those who think a cruise includes everything. A cruise only includes everything if you don’t drink or buy any extras on board and you don’t do more than wander around on foot when at port.

Food

If you’re on a diet and succumb easily to temptation, a cruise is not for you. You are guaranteed to eat too much of the wrong food.

Why the wrong food? Well, most of the food is the wrong food. The buffets and dining room menus are filled with fried foods and heavy starches and sweets. And since it’s all you can eat — even in the main dining room with table service! — if you like to eat a lot, there’s nothing to stop you. I gained 10 pounds on my first cruise and (fortunately) only 4 pounds on this one.

And there was certain scarcity to fresh fruits and vegetables. Why? Well, the cruise ship starts its journey in Vancouver, where it stocks up on all supplies for the next 14 days. It takes on passengers for the first 7-day cruise. Those are the lucky ones — they get lots of fresh food to eat. Then those passengers depart in Seward and the ship takes on its passengers for the return trip to Vancouver. Those passengers (which included us) are facing food that’s already been onboard 7 days.

On our Caribbean cruise, we watched them load fresh produce on board almost every single day. The food was good and fresh. But on this cruise, the food was very disappointing. I think that more than half of what we ate was prepared in advance and frozen, then defrosted or heated before serving. (Kind of like eating at some of Wickenburg’s fancy restaurants.)

The skinny (no pun intended) is this: the best food was in the for-pay restaurants, next came the main dining room, and finally, the buffet. But the only difference was the preparation: all of the food came out of Vancouver and was at least a week old.

Other Passengers

The vast majority of this cruise’s passengers were seniors in the 55+ age group. Of them, more than half were likely 65+. With more than 2,000 passengers aboard this full ships, that’s a lot of retirement money being spent.

Those of you who read this blog regularly probably know that the town I live in, Wickenburg, AZ, is a retirement town. I am surrounded by seniors every day at home. To be surrounded by them while on vacation was a bit of a disappointment. Our last cruise to the Caribbean had a better mix of guests, with age groups more evenly spread. I find younger people in the 25 to 50 year old age group more energizing and fun than the 55+ midwesterners we had on board this cruise.

How do I know they were midwesterners? I asked. Each time they sat us down with other people at meals, we’d talk. I’d ask where they came from. I got Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas more than any other state. Our dinner table-mates were from Little Rock, Arkansas. We didn’t meet a single other couple from New York or New Jersey or Arizona (our past and current home states), although we did meet a couple from Pennsylvania and another from San Diego, CA.

The interesting thing about most of these people is that they didn’t do much in the way of high-price excursions or for-pay activities on board. We never saw them in the Champagne Bar, which we visited for our evening martinis before dinner each night. It was easy to get reservations for massage, facial, etc. at the spa. There were lots of empty seats in the main dining room — two of the six seats at our table remained empty for the entire trip. My conclusion: many of these folks were trying to minimize the cost of extras by simply taking advantage of the free or inexpensive options on board and at port. And, by not utilizing the main dining room in the evening, they could avoid tipping the dining room staff. Cheapskates? Well, avoiding the dining room on the last night of the cruise to stiff the waiters is certainly the mark of a cheapskate. But I like to think that some of them were simply afraid of getting a $1,800 extras bill at the end of the trip.

Coupon Crazy!

I should mention here that these people were coupon crazy. Each evening, the cabin attendant put a daily publication for the next day in our cabin. The publication outlined hours for dining and activities and shore excursions. It also included one or more sheets of coupons. Many of the guests clipped these coupons and made it a point to take advantage of them.

For example, a coupon might say that if you went to Joe’s Tourist Junk Shop in Ketchikan (an imaginary shop) between 10 AM and 11 AM, you could redeem the coupon for a free gift worth $15 — while supplies last. I overheard people planning their day around this visit to Joe’s. And if we happened to walk by Joe’s at 9:45, they’d already be lining up. And the free gift? Perhaps a link in one of those bracelets they push at ports or a paperweight that said “Joe’s at Ketchikan” or something similarly junky. Joe’s hopes that these people will come in and buy stuff while they’re there. Some of them obviously do. T-Shirts seemed to be a hot item.

What’s B/Sad about Cruising

What’s bad or sad about cruising is what the cruise ship lines have done to the port cities. Sure, they’ve brought the ports lots of tourists and revenue. But what they’ve also done is created port shopping areas with the same stores over and over in every port. What local charm existed in these areas is completely blown away by cruise ship sponsored stores like Diamonds International, Tanzanite International, Del Sol, and too many others to remember. Every port has the same collection of shops and they’re conveniently located close to where the ships dock so all those seniors from the midwest don’t have to walk far to redeem their coupons.

Ketchikan Tourist AreaKetchikan was a good example. The day we were there, three cruise ships were lined up at the dock facing the port shopping area. This was roughly 6 to 9 blocks of solid shopping — mostly for jewelry and t-shirts — with the vast majority of shops owned by cruise ship companies or their affiliates. The Great American Lumberjack Show was on the outskirts of this — this tourist attraction does four or five or more shows a day with people lined up to see them. (We saw highlights of this on television, on a show purportedly about Alaska, so we didn’t need or want to see it in person.) This area was very crowded.

Creek StreetYet less than 1/2 mile away was historic Creek Street, the former red light district of the town, which had been converted into small, mostly locally owned shops. It was nearly deserted. And on the town’s walking tour was an interesting totem pole museum and fish hatchery, both of which were empty.

The excursion transportation — mostly buses and vans — comes right up to the port, making it completely unnecessary to step foot into town. So people who just want the bus tour don’t need to walk past tempting jewelry and t-shirt shops. They get door to door service and, on many excursions, don’t even need to get off the bus to “do” the port town.

Glacier LandingOf course, the beauty of Alaska still lies beyond all this. Sure, we did excursions, but we did the ones that took us away from the cruise ships and shopping cities they’d built. One excursion took us by helicopter to land and hike on two different glaciers. Another was supposed to take us by helicopter to a mountaintop, where we’d do a 4-mile hike with a guide and return to the ship by train. (That one was cancelled when low ceilings prevented us from getting to the mountain top; we later rented a car to see what we’d missed: on that day, fog.) Another excursion took us by float plane up the Misty Fjords, passing mountain lakes, waterfalls, and glacial snow before landing in a mountain-enclosed bay. (You can see now how we managed to spend $1,800 in extras.) And at the end of each excursion, we walked the town, going beyond the shiny gift shops to walk among the historic buildings and, in more than one instance, panhandlers and locals who weren’t fortunate enough to get jobs selling jewelry to tourists at the docks.

As usual, my cynicism is creeping in. I can’t really help it. We came to Alaska to see its beauty and learn more about its history. But at most port cities, we faced the same old tourist crap. I guess that’s because that’s what most other people on the cruise ships want to see. We had to dig to see what lay under all that junk. It was worth the effort.

Not All Ports are Equal

Radiance of the Seas at AnchorAn exception to all this: Icy Straits Point and the indian village of Hoonah. This port had no dock, so our ship anchored offshore and used three tenders (specially configured lifeboats) to ferry passengers back and forth.

There were a few excursions there: fishing, whale watching, bicycling. The main attraction was the old cannery, which had been converted into a fascinating museum with a sprinkling of locally owned gift shops. (Not a single Diamonds International sign in sight.) Hoonah also boasts the world’s longest zip line, which is over a mile long with a drop of more than 1000 feet. (I guess they felt they had to do something to get the tourists in.)

Bald EaglesMike and I did the 1-1/2 mile walk (each way) into town where bald eagles waited in treetops for the local fishermen to clean their fish. We stopped at a local bar, where a man had covered the pool table with old photos of the town and more recent photos of a 25-foot snowfall. Then we went to the Landing Zone restaurant at the bottom of the zip line and had a great lunch of chowder and fried halibut and salmon, prepared fresh and served by locals.

Back on the ship, I overheard one woman boast that she hadn’t even bothered to get off the ship that day.

Would I Do It Again?

With two cruises under my belt now, I have a good idea of what to expect on a cruise. (After reading this, you might, too.) With all the pros and cons, would I do it again?

I’m really not sure. The moving hotel aspect is very attractive. But the cost and limitations are a drawback. And the cruise ship line development of port cities is a real turn-off.

I’d consider it. But I’ll certainly do my homework before signing up next time.

Treo Internet Connection Problems Resolved

But not very satisfactorily.

palm Treo 700p Smartphone (Verizon Wireless)A few days ago, I reported “The Trouble with Treos.” In short, I’d bought a Treo 700p so I could access the Internet from my off-the-grid camping shed on Howard Mesa. Although I’d been told that the Treo would “tether” with my Macintosh for an Internet connection, I later learned that feature wasn’t supported by Palm (maker of the Treo) and Verizon (my wireless provider).

Motorola Q Phone (Verizon Wireless)Today, while running an errand in the Phoenix area, I stopped by the Verizon Wireless store where I bought the phone (Happy Valley, north of Phoenix) and spoke to the woman who sold it to me. I believe her when she says she thought it would work. But I also don’t know why she didn’t tell me about the Motorola Q phone, which definitely would work. Could it be because it cost $150 less?

Could I Love My Phone?

Now, after spending the past week sending photos to my TumbleLog and text messages to Twitter while on a business/vacation trip to California, I’m rather attached to the darn phone. Just the other afternoon, while Mike was driving from the LA area to Santa Barbara, I was stuck in the back seat of the convertible he’d rented. With no chance of participating in the conversation between Mike and his cousin due to wind noise, I amused myself by exchanging a series of photos with my brother in New Jersey who was lounging by his friend’s pool with his friend’s family, his wife, and his dog. I sent him photos I’d taken earlier in the day, as well as a few scenes from the Mustang’s cramped back seat as we made our way up the coast.

That’s something I couldn’t do with my old phone.

I know that other people have been doing stuff like that for years, but I was never into the cell phone thing. Now it’s almost an addiction. And I just don’t want to give up my new phone, even though it doesn’t do everything I want.

But I’m a logical, reasoning person — at least at times — and it makes no sense to be emotionally attracted to a smart phone that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. So what was I to do?

Make it do what I needed it to.

Doing the “Impossible” — Poorly

So I got on the Web and I tracked down a software package called USB Modem. Available in Mac OS, Windows, and Linux flavors, this package includes software for the Treo as well as drivers for my Mac. I installed a few things, configured a few things, plugged in my tether, and connected to the Internet. In other words, I was able to do what Verizon had belatedly told me I couldn’t do: connect to the Internet using the USB tether cable.

But the connection seemed painfully slow. I fired up the Speakeasy Speed Test and tested it out. Sure enough, I had download speeds of only 120Kbps and upload speeds of only 20Kbps. Sheesh! This is broadband?

To be fair, I ran the same test on the Bluetooth DUN connection. I got 135 down and 85 up. Not much better.

Then I ran it on my house connection just for comparison. 524 down and 516 up.

(All these tests were done with the same computer.)

At Least I Have a Reason to Keep the Phone

The only good that comes out of this is that now I have a reason to keep the phone. True, it’ll cost me another $25 to buy the software to do the tethered connection — I was using a demo version to make sure it would work before I coughed up any more hard earned money — but at least it does work.

It just doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped. Or as well as the salesperson at the Verizon Wireless store said it would. Very disappointing.

I still have three weeks to decide.

Anyone out there use a Q phone with a Mac? Please do use the Comments link or form to share your experiences, good and bad.

Vox "Blogger" Copies and Pastes

Another blatant case of copyright infringement.

I use Google Alerts to find articles that might interest me. Today, while going through a list of articles that came in earlier in the week, I found an article titled “Mac OS X Vs Windows Vista.” I clicked the link and was taken to a page on Vox, yet another blog-based social networking site. The blog entry began with the following brief introduction:

Doing my daily read of the news papers today and I came across a story asking which is the better OS, Windows Vista or Apple’s OS X. me I’m a mac users so I already know which is the better OS lol. Anyhow I’m sure you don’t want to read my one sided thoughts lol.

What followed that was a sloppy paraphrasing of the entire text of an article called “Vista versus Mac OS X” on Blogger.com. The Vox “author” had obviously copied and pasted the entire piece into the Vox-hosted blog, then edited selected sentences and added paragraph breaks to come up with a lengthy summary.

For example, the original says this:

On features alone it’s easy to conclude that Vista and Mac OS X are now on par but this overlooks two important elements. Firstly, the feel of both products is very different. In my opinion Mac OS X is unobtrusive and its interface intuitive and clean. Vista on the other hand makes you work for it. Take for example another new feature for Vista called User Account Control (UAC). UAC presents an intrusive dialogue box that warns you whenever you try to make a system wide change or install a new application. This will annoy most users however and you can just switch it off. But doing so overrides all of the new security measures Microsoft have built into Vista and makes the threat of infection from viruses or malware more likely. In contrast Mac OS X generally still remains virus and malware free.

And the Vox copy says this:

ON FEATURES alone it is easy to conclude that Vista and Mac OSX are on par, but this overlooks two important elements.

First, the feel of both products is different.

In my opinion Mac OSX is unobtrusive and its interface intuitive and clean. Vista, on the other hand, makes you work for it.

Take, for example, another new feature for Vista called User Account Control (UAC).

This presents an intrusive dialogue box that warns you whenever you try to make a system-wide change or install a new application.

This will annoy most users, however, and you can just switch it off. But doing so overrides all of the new security measures Microsoft has built into Vista and makes the threat of infection from viruses or malware more likely.

In contrast, Mac OSX generally still remains virus and malware free.

This is just one example. The entire piece was used this way.

Yes, the Vox blogger did link back to the original article. But why bother going there? All of the important points were already available on Vox.

And yes, the Vox blogger did include the name of the original post’s author. But did he have permission to use the entire article? I seriously doubt it. Was this “fair use”? I don’t think so.

As a writer, copyright infringement pisses me off to no end. A writer takes time to think about and compose an original, well-thought-out work. Who knows? It may have taken the article’s author hours to write the piece. How long did it take this lazy blogger to copy and paste its text into his blog? 15 seconds?

Obviously, I reported it to Vox. And I reported it to the author of the original piece. And then I left a comment for the blogger to think about.

Maybe (lol) he just doesn’t know any better (lol). Maybe (lol) Vox will set things right and teach him a little lesson about copyrights (lol).

It’ll probably put him out of business. As the sample of his writing shown at the beginning of this entry indicates, he obviously doesn’t know how to write anything worth reading.

By the way, the original article, by Danny Gorog, is pretty good. If you’re interested in these matters, I highly recommend it. You can find it here.

May 28 Update: The copy-and-paste blogger has deleted the comment I left on his offending blog post. If he cared about writers rights, he would have deleted the entire post. I’m curious to see what Vox will do about this. Probably nothing.

Keeping Busy on the Left Coast

Where I’ve been for the past few days.

On Sunday, May 20, Mike and I climbed aboard Zero-Mike-Lima for a flight to the Los Angeles area. (It was a relatively uneventful flight and, if I find time, I will bore you with the details in another blog post.) We landed at Torrance Airport, where we had business to do, and took a cab to LAX, where we rented a car for the week. Zero-Mike-Lima is sitting at the ramp in Torrance, right in front of the Robinson Helicopter factory, waiting for our flight back to Wickenburg on Sunday.

We came out here primarily to take the Robinson Factory Safety Course, a 3-1/2 day course designed to educate helicopter pilots about how accidents occur — and how they can be prevented. This was my third time at the course and Mike’s first. I’ll probably be writing more about it in another blog post because I really think it’s worth covering in some detail.

We’ve been on the go almost since arriving in the area. In fact, other than sleep at night, the only rest we had was right after checking into our hotel in Torrance on Sunday.

On Sunday night, we went down to the Redondo Beach pier for a seafood dinner.

Monday, we were in class from 8 AM to 4 PM. Then we zipped into Los Angeles for a walk around the Farmer’s Market and Grove shopping center.

Tuesday, class from 8 AM to 4 PM. Then, after a quick walk around a mall to pick up a few things, we headed back into Los Angeles for dinner and some shows at The Magic Castle with my friend (and fellow author) Deb Shadowitz. We got in to our hotel at 1 AM.

Wednesday, class from 8 AM to 4 PM. Then we hopped in the car and headed south along the coast, ending up in San Clemente for a visit with our friend (and fellow helicopter pilot) Jim Wurth.

Thursday, class from 8 AM to 11 AM. Then, after a quick trip to the Verizon Wireless store for some bad news, we headed back to the Robinson factory for lunch and to wait for Mike’s flight. (Mine was on Tuesday, during class.) Then it was back in the car for a drive up the coast, with a quick stop in Venice, to our new hotel in Malibu.

As you can see, we’ve been pretty much on the go since Sunday morning. Actually, it’s been since Saturday morning, when we gave helicopter rides at Yarnell Daze.

So I haven’t had any time to write in my blog.

imageIt’s Friday morning and, as usual, I was up at about 5:30 AM. Our hotel is weird. It was probably an old hotel that was recently gutted and renovated. Our room has nice (fake) hardwood floors, clean white walls, and a king-sized bed. But not much else. Really. There’s no dresser, no chairs (other than on the little balcony), no table, no sofa. There are two night tables and one lamp. No clock. The TV is a 17 or 19 inch flat screen, mounted on the wall. There’s a 3 cubic foot refrigerator and a wire clothes rack on wheels as a closet. The place is trying to be “trendy minimalistic,” and although the effect is pleasant, it isn’t comfortable. We have views of the ocean from our windows, but no access to the beach. And the two lanes (in each direction) of the Pacific Coast Highway run right past the place. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles drive by throughout the day and night.

There’s Internet access via an unsecured network named “default,” but to get connected, you have to stand in a certain place in the room with your computer on the windowsill. I’ll probably use that to publish this entry.

This is the part of the trip I’ve been looking forward to: the part where Mike promised we’d just “take it easy.” We both expected this place to be on the ocean with access to the beach, so we’re very disappointed (to say the least). We’ll probably find another place later today. In my mind, “take it easy” means to relax in a comfortable place, read, write, or just chat. It doesn’t mean hopping in the car and driving all over the place. I know he’s not going to want to hang out here. I probably won’t either. So I’m not sure when I’ll find time to write again.

Stay tuned. More to come.

[composed in a hotel room in Malibu, CA with ecto]

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.

Gila Monster

My first Final Cut Express video project.

After spending three days going through a tutorial to learn Final Cut Express HD, I was ready to create my first video project. I’m sharing it with blog readers so you can see how much effort a person can expend on 25 seconds of video.

About the Project

This particular project features a Gila Monster (pronounced “heela monster”), which is a rather large lizard that can be found in the Arizona desert. If I’m lucky, I see one or two of these in a year, so they’re not exactly common. They are, like so many things in the desert, poisonous, so you don’t want to get too close. But since they’re not exactly fast and they’re definitely not aggressive, you can get photos of them in action if you have equipment with you.

On a backroad trip with Mike and some friends, we happened to come upon one croassing the road. I had my video camera with me and whipped it out to capture some pretty decent footage. This Final Cut Express project cuts out the boring shaky bits, replaces our silly comments with music, and adds opening and closing titles. This is the first in a series of short videos I hope to add to wickenburg-az.com, so make the site more interesting to visitors.

But this is also an experiment to check out video formats and Final Cut Express’s export feature. I had great success when exporting to QuickTime movie format, for iPod, and for Apple TV. But the Windows Media Player export didn’t work right at all and the AVI format was extremely poor quality, despite the file size, so I’m not going to distribute them. I just spent another few minutes using the iPod version of the file to create an e-mail version using QuickTime’s Share command. That worked best of all for the Web view of the file. Only 3.3 MB (which is smaller than the iPod version, and it looks pretty good.

Getting it Online

XHTML purists will tell you that the EMBED tag is a no-no in Web development. I think it has something to do with Internet Explorer which, for some reason, can’t interpret XHTML and CSS like the rest of the Web browsers on this planet.

So this project is also an experiment to see if the QuickTime Embed plugin for WordPress will work. If you’re reading this article shortly after I put it online and there’s no QuickTime movie below (or if the whole site is messed up), it’s because I’m trying this out and debugging. (Check in again in about 30 minutes.)

That said, here’s the movie with a Poster movie. I think I’l leave the iPod file for wickenburg-az.com distribution.