Wikipedia,” many Grundyish
librarians and researchers warn. “It’s inaccurate
Nonsense. As a writer I must do a lot of research,
and I almost
always start with Wikipedia. No other online encyclopedia contains so
much information about so many subjects, or is so easy to use.
The Slate piece also reports on an interesting new
site that helps smoke out the fakers: Wikiscanner.
This clever site correlates IP addresses of those
who edit Wikipedia
entries with their sources — which can be corporations, the
next-door neighbor who has it in for you, even yourself. It’s
way to assess the reliability of a Wikipedia entry, and ought to be in
the toolbox of every writer or researcher who Wikisurfs for information.
The Slate piece also mentions that Wikipedia
catalogs some of the
audacious hoaxes contributors have perpetrated, including one that
particularly tickled my funnybone — the
1843 war between Canada and Upper Michigan. [8/27/07:
That page, along with all the other archived Bad Jokes and other
hoaxes, is gone. Perhaps there were so many hits after the Slate
article appeared that Wikipedia deleted them in alarm, fearing that
such pages would only encourage vandals. What a pity. Evidently online
encyclopedians have no more sense of humor than their print comrades.]
they’re still painful for the people they affect.
Just 200 miles
north of the raging torrents and swamped viaducts of
the central Midwest, Upper Michiganders are beginning to feel the
ongoing extreme drought in the the western Lake Superior area
— see the
map in the August 17 entry of this blog below. Maybe the national media
is so far ignoring this story, but the local press is beginning to
Just yesterday a
fellow named Fred Fisher, who writes a lively and
literate column called “Off the Beaten Path: A
Flatlander’s Guide” for
the weekly Ontonagon Herald, enumerated the consequences of
brutally dry summer.”
Lack of rain has
harmed gardens, he wrote, and low water in the rivers is
“barely enough to float a trout.”
The woods are so
dry that at least a dozen forest fires are “burning
all across the U.P., including the massive, twenty-eight-square-mile
Sleeper Lake fire north of Newberry that will still be burning until
they have significant snowfall in that area.”
One of the many
consequences of the drought is the almost record low
level of Lake Superior, mentioned on this blog several times since
January. Harbors have become so shallow that incoming ships must dock
half laden and make more runs to bring in the same tonnage. This of
course drives up the cost of the products that depend on the
The public marina
at Ontonagon is almost deserted this summer, the
water being barely four feet deep, resulting far less tourist boat
in record high gas prices,” Fisher added, “and it
has been a
very tough summer season indeed for Ontonagon County
And for the
ordinary homeowners who depend on wells for their water supplies
— they’re fast running dry.
Houghton Daily Mining Gazette bannered the drought on
its front page, quoting a livestock farmer: “It’s
been brutal. There’s
been no re-growth on pastures, no re-growth on the hay fields;
not going to be any second crop on the hay and we’re already
the hay that we should be saving for winter.”
crops have been damaged, too, the farmer added. The
dry weather has stunted grain development in oats, barley and other
In a separate
story, the Gazette reported that UP blueberry farmers
are also hurting — yields are way down, and only those who
are able to
irrigate their fields have managed to keep their heads above water, so
18: Return to the air
Yesterday, on my 67th birthday, I flew my airplane for the first time
since June 21 . . . and experienced a kind of rebirth.
I had driven back
to Evanston from the Writer’s Lair in upper
Michigan for some routine business, including exercising the
48-year-old Cessna 150 two-seater to keep her engine and controls
I had not really
thought about flying during the last two months —
there’s quite enough in the Upper Peninsula to keep me
Besides, the stiffness of age and a chronic bad back have been
hindering easy entrance into the tight cockpit of the 150, which was
designed for training lithe young men and women, not toting portly old
parties hither and yon.
Even though this
little airplane is important to my mystery novels —
I rehearse every flight Deputy Steve Martinez makes in the
airplane to make sure I’m getting things right —
I’ve been thinking
lately about at last selling her and salting away the Private Pilot
certificate. That, at least one friend of mine has said, would be the
sensible and mature thing to do.
Tugging Old Five-Eight-Five-Niner-Echo from her
hangar at Wilmot,
Wis., and boarding her yesterday required more grunting and groaning
than usual. But when the airplane lifted from the runway into
butter-smooth early-morning air, her engine singing gaily, my spirits
soared with her.
Every literary cliche of flight and freedom coined
Markham, Magee, Gann and all those others crowded my mind. Flight is
special, and it is vouchsafed only to those who care deeply.
I won’t bore you with the details of the
flight. But I will tell you
that I’m going to keep that airplane a bit longer, even if I
use a greased shoehorn and a stout winch to get into her.
As I drove home to Evanston, I felt ten years
(For a larger version
of this graphic, click here.)
“Dry enough for you?” a fellow
on the elliptical machine asked the
other day at the fitness center in Ontonagon, the little Upper Michigan
town where I spend my summers. “We need rain,” said
a woman on the
stairstepper. The usual weather pleasantries of small-town America, I
thought at first.
Indeed it has seemed awfully dry. In mid-August
the leaves of some
of the deciduous trees are already turning red and falling. The tall
grasses along the highways have browned out. The U.S. Forest Service
has posted high fire danger warning signs all over.
I hadn’t thought about it much, not
until coming across the
following passage this morning on AgWeb, a farmers’ web site
serendipities of Googling!). The important local stuff is in bold:
“NOAA’s Drought Monitor says
an impressive band of 2- to 4-inch
rainfall totals, with locally higher amounts, fell in the Midwest,
especially from eastern Nebraska to Lake Erie. ‘In fact,
nearly cut in two across the Midwest, with a lingering area of moderate
drought (D1) arcing across the region at the Indiana-Ohio-Michigan
triple point. However, parts of the upper Midwest and the upper Great
Lakes region continued to miss out on the rainfall,’ they add.
"As a result, extreme drought (D3) was introduced
in parts of central
Minnesota and expanded in the upper Great Lakes region. In
Michigan’s upper peninsula, May to July was the driest such
record in Newberry (4.49 inches, or just shy of 50 percent of normal)
and Ontonagon (5.10 inches, or 52 percent). From June 1, 2006, to July
31, 2007, Ontonagon’s precipitation of 29.54 inches was just
If this keeps up, it seems more than likely that a
new record for
low water will be set for thirsty Lake Superior in the coming months.
There might also be a plague of wildfires. Last week one east of
Newberry in the central U.P. burned for many days.
All this could be grist for a mystery novelist who uses the U.P. as a
setting, but I’m hoping it won’t be.
sharpest, most honest, and (in my opinion) most persuasive commentary
on the departure of Karl Rove from the White House came from Andrew
Sullivan of the Atlantic Monthly yesterday
It contained none of the pissing-down-both-legs
“evenhandedness” of the
timorous Washington newspaper punditocracy. And Sullivan, for crying
out loud, is a conservative
Bad news for book lovers
sales fell again in June, dropping 6.6%, to $1.13 billion, according to
preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau,” reports
Weekly Online today. “Sales declined every month in the
June period, resulting in a 4.6% drop in bookstore sales at the midway
point of 2007.”
And compare that with “the entire retail
sector, [whose] sales were
up 4.0% for the first six months of the year and were ahead 3.8% in
That’s a steep drop on top of a
long-term trend (about 2 per cent a
year) in the decline of numbers of printed books sold in the
Most non-best-selling writers like me fear that
more and more print
publishers and bookstores will rely on the blockbusters — the
Potters and the John Grishams — to keep their heads above
will give the back of their hands to the “midlist”
books that don’t
make a lot of money right away and may take years to return a profit.
Is there hope elsewhere? Will books in electronic
printed and bound volumes? Will online retailers carry the water for
Maybe, but there is plenty of evidence elsewhere
— and not just in
the book and newspaper industries — that suggests younger
are no longer absorbing text the way their elders have. Sales of
literary fiction in particular are sharply down over the last couple of
Among writers, anecdotal evidence abounds. The
library group I spoke
to last weekend was an elderly one — mid 60s to 80s
— with the only
attendee in her 20s the library tech who set me up with the sound
system. I wasn’t surprised. This is the way it is everywhere,
trend has been slow but inexorable.
Years ago, when I was a young book
editor-about-town, the Chicago
area had several wealthy organizations devoted to supporting local
literary folk — the Friends of Literature and the Friends of
Writers in particular. But the young socialites who formed the vanguard
of the groups grew old and dropped away, and now both institutions are
I’m not smart enough to predict what
will happen a decade or so
hence, when the baby boomers — apparently the last generation
Americans to be comfortable with printed literature — begin
to die off.
You have a guess? If so, let us know.
Debby and I delivered our Powerpoint-and-reading dog-and-pony show at
the annual Land O’Lakes Friends of the Library author
breakfast at the
Gateway Lodge in Land O’Lakes, a crossroads town in far
Wisconsin right on the Michigan border. A good time was had by all
including, for a change, me.
expected rural small-town library enthusiasts to be somewhat,
well, small-town and rural. They were, at least in the friendliness
department, but they were also knowledgeable and sophisticated, judging
from the questions they asked. And not all of the queries came from
“summer people” who winter in Milwaukee and
Chicago. Some of them came
from a fellow writer. Land O’Lakes, I concluded, is a
outpost of civilization in the wilderness. (And with remarkably tasty
I was pleased
also because the PowerPoint presentation went
swimmingly. Debby and I had done it once before with a borrowed
projector, but this time we brought along our own equipment —
had practiced extensively.
I’m deaf, I speak like a dumptruck rather than Demosthenes,
and can be hard to understand. But with my words appearing on a screen,
superimposed on photographs I’ve mostly taken myself, and
with Debby —
a longtime children’s librarian with an enticing voice
— reading from
my books, nobody misses a thing. And the visual graphics help keep them
awake. PowerPoint can be an enervatingly boring business tool, but with
the right pictures it can be remarkably effective.
looking forward to taking the show on the road again next month
at the library in Ontonagon, Michigan — the town and county
inspire my Porcupine County novels — and when Cache
of Corpses appears this fall, at bookstores and libraries in
the Chicago area. You’re all invited.
For the first
time, pitching my books is fun, because I’m confident at last
that I’m getting through to folks.
11: The weekly bird shoot
the Lone Eagle hangs around our beach daily, but never
pays a visit at the exact same time of day, so it’s difficult
capture him with the camera. Yesterday afternoon he sat atop a snag
long enough for me to creep across the sand with a 75-300mm zoom lens
and take his portrait.
a languid interval Lindbergh launched himself into the air and soared
great blue heron is also a frequent visitor, but only early
yesterday morning did I spot him in time to drop the coffee and sneak a
quick grabshoot through the trees. Pity he was watching the gulls
instead of saying “cheese” to me.
are also another common sight up here on Lake Superior, but
their flight is so rapid that one has to be quick to capture them on
watched this brood of mergansers all summer — they are nearly
grown now — but only yesterday was I able to get a good shot
of them as
they paddled by close inshore, snorkeling for minnows. The big one in
the center with the feathery crest on the back of her head is the mama.
10: We're becoming Flyover Land
organized insanity called Homeland Security has now resulted in foreign
airlines bypassing the United States entirely for some transglobal
flights. Here is what Patrick Smith’s latest Ask
the Pilot column on Salon.com has to say in the matter:
New Zealand Offers Round-the-World Routing Avoiding the U.S.’
That was a recent headline from U.K.-based Business Traveler magazine.
For the past several years, fliers bound from Australia and New Zealand
to Europe by way of U.S. stopovers have been raising a ruckus about
security policies that require all passengers, even those merely in
transit to other countries, to clear U.S. immigration formalities
process that includes fingerprinting, photographing and baggage
rechecking. Air New Zealand has responded with the launch of a service
from Auckland to Europe with a hassle-free transfer at Vancouver,
British Columbia, eliminating its long-standing Auckland-Los
Angeles-London route. Air Canada is following suit with a nonstop
Vancouver-Sydney flight, bypassing its traditional layover in Hawaii,
which, in the words of the magazine, ‘will enable global
avoid the United States.’ What have we come to?”
up and sniff your armpits. Every day the world likes us less and less.
9: Has the e-book arrived at last?
New York Times Circuits section carries an
about the state of the art in e-book readers, mostly cell phones and
PDAs, but also noting a standalone device made by Sony and arguing that
the technology is slowly advancing to the point where it is almost
cheaper to buy and read in e-book format than paper-and-covers format.
For me, however,
the real news comes near the end of the article.
Early adopters of e-books, it says, have been male science-fiction fans
and electronic gearheads, and their reading reflected their
enthusiasms. But now romance novels are becoming hot sellers. This
means the female reader — women buy many more books than men
do — is
migrating to the e-book. And that in turn suggests e-books are on the
verge of breaking through into the mass market at last.
This is fine with
me. What’s important is the text, not the means in
which it is delivered. Toni Morrison is Toni Morrison, whether her
words appear on a glowing screen or on restful paper. All else is
There is one
thing, however, that e-books (at least in their present
form) are unlikely to replace: the vast lineup of old friends on
shelves in one’s library. Often I’ll pass by, spot
a title I especially
liked, and pull it down to reread a passage that gave me great
pleasure. Not easy to do with an e-book, which has a limited memory
compared to a wall of books.
admire the design of the jacket and the typography as well
as the paper and the binding. As a tactile artifact, the printed book
looks good, feels good, and even smells good. Can one say the same of
an e-book reader?
people’s libraries reveal much about their intellects as well
as their tastes. One can stand in a stranger’s living room,
shelves, and come up with a rough-and-ready assessment of his mind and
character. Can’t do that with an e-book if you
can’t get your hands on
it and run your eyes over the stored titles — and
there’s a limit to
the number of books that can be stored on an e-book reader.
I’m just showing my age, but I’m not yet persuaded
that the e-book will replace the bound one anytime soon.
On the other
hand, I can see how an e-book would be a boon for the
traveler. No need to pack a dozen heavy books for an extended trip
just download a few titles and replenish them online as needed.
I’m not going to spend $299 for an
e-book reader, not just yet. But I’ve got a birthday coming
up, and . . .
7: A brush with the Grim Reaper
of the more vexing aspects of retirement, especially for a terminal
hypochondriac who keeps a well-thumbed Merck Manual on his nightstand
and WebMD and the Mayo Clinic in his browser toolbar, is feeling the
increasingly hot breath of impending mortality. Is that cough the first
sign of the Big C or just a virus? Is that hangnail a harbinger?
It began with a
mosquito bite ten days ago (hard to escape up here
in the UP), followed by a slight fever, a slight headache and slight
nausea. Family members have had Lyme disease, so I went to a local
country doctor the following Tuesday for a test for that and West Nile.
He duly ordered the tests. Better safe than sorry.
But when he
palpated my belly he thought the spleen was a bit
enlarged — and he also found an abdominal mass.
“Could be any of twenty
things,” he said. “Could just be fat.”
To say that
“abdominal mass” was ominous is the understatement
of the year.
Doc sent me to
the local hospital the following day for blood, pee
and poo analysis, plus chest X-rays and a CT scan of the abdomen and
pelvis (”state of the art machine,” he said, and so
was out of town for the rest of the week so he
wouldn’t have the results until his return Sunday night and
give them to me until Monday afternoon (that was yesterday).
This meant five
days and nights of stewing, of rapidly persuading
myself that the apparition with the scythe at last had me on his
I was going to
die. Of that I had no doubt.
haunted the medical Web sites, seeking information on
what could cause abdominal masses. As Doc said, lots of things can, but
it appeared that few of them did so in a benign way. I ran several
what-if scenarios through my mind, carefully calculating to the third
decimal place the all too brief time I had left on Earth.
Thursday night I
lay awake wondering if I would be brave enough to stand up to the
discomfort of surgery and chemotherapy.
Friday night I
planned the sale of my beloved airplane and the disposition of the
contents of the hangar.
Saturday night I
rearranged all my other assets so that my widow
would inherit as much as possible. If I couldn’t cheat Death,
could thwart the tax man.
Sunday night I
devised the memorial celebration, to be held in a
local tavern with everyone in Ontonagon County invited. There would be
an unlimited bar, catered Finnish cuisine, and successive readings from
St. Augustine, Kahlil Gibran, Albert Camus, William James, Anne Lamott,
Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Jim Harrison, Don DeLillo, Mark
Twain and Dave Barry. The evening would end with a midnight trip to the
beach and the launch of my corpse in a flower-bedecked, twig-filled,
gasoline-soaked wooden canoe into the waves of Lake Superior, followed
by flaming arrows and thunderous cheers. People up here know how to
after a long hour in the waiting room, Doc laid
the results on me, starting slowly from the top with the blood, pee and
Followed by the
Clear and clear.
At last came the
specifics of the CT scan.
Satisfactory. All right. Negative. Nothing to be concerned about.
mass? Who knows? Possibly just muscle (I do a lot of crunches to help
my aching back).
a little too chunky. Prescription: More exercise.
Some people might
think that last was a crushing anticlimax but I was free —
free at last, free to fret again another day.
Last night I
celebrated with a second glass of merlot, which is about as rumbustious
as I get these days.
That would have been a hell of a memorial celebration. At least
it’s all planned.
5: GPS for canine jailbreak artists
I was a kid in the 1950s, my family had two beagles. As everyone who
has ever owned (or was possessed by) beagles knows, they have one
mission in life: to escape the back yard and put as much distance
between it and them before they are at last recaptured.
Of course Rufus and Marcus were well tagged. As
their tails rapidly
wagged into the distance, we knew we’d get calls from
Winnetka miles away from our house in Evanston to come get them.
present dog, Hogan, is a Lab mix and a homebody who prefers his own
territory. Thank goodness. We are just too old to go haring off across
town after escaped dogs.)
If Global Positioning System satellites had been
around in the
1950s, we would have been the perfect customers for Garmin’s
new item, the $600 Astro. It consists of a GPS transmitter for a dog
collar and a hand-held receiver for the dog’s owner. The
radios the dog’s geographic coordinates to the second unit.
is five miles, or about the limit of Marcus and Rufus’
Today’s New York Times’
business section has
an article on it and other new GPS devices for pets.
On the Garmin website the Astro is ostensibly
just for hunters and their pointers and retrievers, but it would be
suitable for owners of all breeds whose hearts lie in the artful
Hmmm . . . maybe it could be fashioned into an
ankle bracelet for a
teen-age human out on a date? Or perhaps a suspiciously errant spouse
who claims to be working late at the office? Naw. . .
an ace professional photographer might come away with a mundane
shot when there’s a cloudless sunset on Lake Superior, but
tails of high cirrus drifting in from the southwest last night would
make an expert out of even a small boy with a disposable Kodak. The
kayakers add scale and human interest. (They’re my lady
friend and our
chum Tina Davidson.)
shot is now the desktop background on my Mac Mini. (For the full
10.2-megapixel version, click here.)
I was noodling around on the beach yesterday morning shooting the
ubiquitous gulls with the Pentax K10D and a 75-300mm zoom lens I
haven’t used much because, at its greatest magnification,
it’s hard to
hold steady without a tripod. But the K10D body has built-in shake
reduction — and it works, most of the time.
These shots of an immature adult Ring-billed Gull
(you can tell it’s
a youngster by the mottled feathers) all were taken at 1/750 second at
f11, ISO 400, with a little software post-processing to sharpen soft
The third one seems the best. But a little more
work with the
software ought to punch up the second and fourth photos with more
contrast and a deeper blue color.
Learning nature photography with good high-end
amateur equipment is
one of the unexpected joys of retirement. Nothing keeps a geezer out of
the gin mills better than a costly new camera with lots of levers and
buttons to master.
2: Setting moon at sunrise
Davidson, a frequent guest, captured this setting moon over the
Writer’s Lair as the sun rose behind her on Lake Superior
She’s about the only one in these parts who gets up early
enjoy these sights. (Well, I do, too, but I’m too bleary-eyed
outside until after the second cup of coffee.)
1: New Cache page on website
New pages with the descriptive jacket copy
of my upcoming Cache of Corpses
and a few authorial
are now up on my