Friday, November 21, 2008

It's the Somali pirate's life for me

Often overlooked in the hand-wringing over the slumping global economy is continuing growth and upbeat outlook in the piracy sector. Just last year, Kenya's foreign minister reports, a band of hearty swashbucklers, led by the mischievous Captain Farrah Adid Sparrow, extracted at least $150 million in ransoms from hapless ship owners. As they say in Mogadishu, that's a lot of shillings.

And it'll only get better. Governments and shipping companies whine about it, but $150 million is still chicken feed in the global marketplace. International conglomerates have a lot of money, but not many destroyers. The last time piracy flourished like this, it took about 30 years before the U.S. government got it sorted out. If Farrah Adid Sparrow's men don't start grabbing Carnival cruise ships, they've got a good future ahead of them.

This is African aid you can believe in. No doubt most of the pirate's profits have been earmarked for infrastructure, AIDS prevention and higher education, but if these roguish buccaneers are smart, they'll also take a hard look at the theme-park and movie angle. Fat oil tankers are one thing, but nothing beats a multi-picture deal with Disney.

Monday, November 17, 2008

And now, more about me

My wife Tess has asked me to play along in a game of blog tag. Because I'm a fun, agreeable guy, I'll comply. Basically, the rules are these:
  • Write 6 random things about yourself.
  • Link to the person who tagged you.
  • Post the rules on your blog.
  • Tag 6-ish people at the end of your post.
  • Let each person know he/she has been tagged.
  • Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

So, here are six things about me:

1) I am not, technically, a high school graduate. Two weeks before graduation, I was arrested at the senior kegger. Normally this kind of thing was punished by probation or community service, but the kegger was held on some forest land owned by the mayor, who was also president of the school board. The primary bonfire at the kegger somehow spread out of control. Owing to some previous infractions, a close friend and myself spent a night in jail and were denied our diplomas. We later viewed the ceremony from outside the gym doors without much regret. I ended up acing the test for the prestigious GED certificate the following fall. But this will be our little secret. (Not pictured: Yours truly.)

2) I'm a regular Cossack in the saddle. Or used to be. I grew up on a ranch at a time when you handled cattle with horses rather than ATVs. I became good at it, and could actually throw a passable lariat. My proudest moment as a teenager was hearing an uncle remark, after watching me and my stepbrother race our horses downhill through heavy timber, that he'd never seen a kid more easy in the saddle. It helped that I had a great horse, whose name was Breeze. (That's Breeze on the right.)

3) I have a pilot's license. It's lapsed now, but I used to rent airplanes and fly them around Montana just to look around. My best memory of flying is circling above a rural school in the Flathead Valley, watching the kids out for recess look up and wave. I attempted to waggle the wings in reply, and almost achieved a power stall in the process. Note to self: When waggling wings, it's best to be in level flight. (I learned in a Cessna 152 a lot like this one.)

4) My former wife and I once rode the train from El Paso to Mexico City, just on a lark. It was not as much fun as we'd hoped. It was summer and there was no air conditioning. Just before arriving, the porter appeared in our compartment and proceeded to lift up the floor, from which he removed several bottles of bootleg liquor. A few minutes later, a couple of surly federales moved through the train, apparently looking for . . . several bottles of bootleg liquor. When they got to our compartment, we were keenly aware that the floor panel had been improperly replaced. We were thinking hard about that movie Midnight Express, but they only frowned and moved on. We ended up flying home. (That's us at Teotihuacan.)

5) I'm a crappy guitarist. I've owned guitars of one sort or another since I was 16, but I've sometimes gone years without playing and am no better at it now than I was then. Big mystery. I keep meaning to teach myself new things, but always end up strumming a tortured version of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Or "House of the Rising Sun," but I think it's now illegal to play my version within earshot of any sentient adult. If not, it should be. The only tune I can really pick is the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run." (That's the guitar my brother built for me)

6) At last count, I own six digital cameras -- seven, if you count the one I gave Tess for her birthday. None of them take the kind of pictures you see in National Geographic. Maybe I should get a new one. The cynical might say I'm just not a very good photographer, but the cynical would be wrong. That's my story, anyway. (All my DSLR gear is Olympus. Don't ask.)

Since I don't know that many people with blogs, particularly people who would be interested in this sort of thing, I'll include some who probably have already participated. And I can only think of five. Sorry.


Friday, November 7, 2008

As seen on TV: three for $22

So it has come to this for print journalism: selling souvenirs.

Most of the time, the Wichita Eagle has trouble giving away its print product. Drive down any residential street late in the afternoon and you'll see plastic-wrapped Eagles still lying in the driveways where the carrier tossed them that morning. Then you get an historic event like the one we've just witnessed. Then people realize they don't have a hard copy of what they've just seen unfold via the magic wall and the fake holograms of CNN. On that one day, they're kind of glad they subscribe.

As noted in the New York Times, most newpapers saw a huge spike in demand for their post-election issues. Demand remains robust: the Eagle is charging $10 for a paper that normally goes for 50 cents -- or three for $22. Other papers are peddling T-shirts with the front page on it, and framed copies to hang on your wall. They'd probably sell you some earrings, too, if the headline could remain legible. Some idiots on Craigslist are shelling out $200 for a single copy of the New York Times, demonstrating that while the Times may be hurting, the pain is not yet universal.

There's something undignified about this, but face it: For print journalism, dignity has become a luxury. When an industry is drowning, you can't blame it for latching on to the first thing that floats. It's a shame that historic events don't come along very often -- guess that's what makes them historic. For some reason, people don't want to commemorate stories about budget shortfalls and downtown development. And they damned sure don't want the T-shirt. Too bad. Something like that could keep the industry alive.

How about this: instead of waiting for earth-shaking news to stimulate souvenir sales, why not go hyper-local? Maybe Karl Peterjohn and his immediate family would like coffee cups emblazoned with the story of his triumph in the county commissioner race. Maybe the guy whose house was shot up in southeast Wichita would like a decorative plate to remember it by. Maybe the folks losing their jobs at Hawker Beechcraft would treasure the moment more if it were on a T-shirt.

Or maybe not. Just thinking out loud here. It's just that newspapers need something to sell. As I can attest, the news itself is not quite getting it done.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Free coffee in the free world

Here in Wichita, the lines started forming as soon as the polls opened, so it's probably going to be a long day for those poor election officials. I'll just laugh when I drive by on my way to claim my free Starbucks coffee and free Krispy Kreme donut. I laughed at the wife too, when she suggested we stand in line to vote early last week, but now it seems like a stroke of genius. The coffee's free and so is the day. Tonight will be the first presidential election in 30 years that I don't have to work through the night at a newspaper. I'm taking it easy. It's the Super Bowl, and I'm making nachos.

Last night everybody talking about the election on TV seemed giddy, even those who lean Republican. But why not? It's been two years of endless campaign blather and eight years of specific ineptitude at the top. Everybody needs a break once in awhile. The good news for Republicans is that they'll have a lot less to be embarrassed about. I get the sense all of us believe everything will be different with Obama in the White House, just as we believed as kids that everything would be different when we got that new bike under the Christmas tree.

Problem is, there's no new bike -- just an envelope containing a bill for the one we got last year, and the year before that. Obama's first challenge as president, as the nation's new old man on Christmas morning, will be explaining to the kids that there won't be any more new bikes for awhile. This will be hard news for certain of the siblings, the tight-lipped idealogues with tears of joy in their eyes and lengthy wish lists in their pockets. But if Obama's half the president I hope he his, he'll tell it to them straight.

If he's not -- well, it's hard to see how he still wouldn't be twice the president we have now. He's a messenger of hope arriving with a dump truck full of disappointment, and his great task will be to spread it around in a judicious manner.

But that's for tomorrow. Today, we congratulate ourselves for having voted, and sip our free Starbucks, and witness the autumn miracle of certain red states turning blue.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Fun while it lasted. Kind of

Seems like only yesterday that blogging was considered hip and cool and thoroughly modern, not to mention a force that would transform the world and probably lead to many lucrative offers. In fact, it was only yesterday. Today, I read in Wired, it's become quaint, as dated as shouting into a mobile phone the size of a refrigerator, the way Michael Douglas did in the movie Wall Street.

As Wired's Paul Boutin explains, blogging peaked in 2004 -- about three years before I got into it. Now it's all Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and YouTube. Video clips and crappy cell-phone photos speak louder than words, and 140 characters is all the text anybody has time to peruse. Nobody cares to read a few deft paragraphs; it's about phrases, baby, and the shorter the better. Nobody cares about your thoughts; it's about your impulses. What you feel right this minute. I got a kick out of this quote from longtime blogger Robert Scoble: "I keep my blog mostly for long-form writing."

When I think of long-form writing, I think of a book like Anna Karenina, not three or four paragraphs about Windows 7. Of course, when I think of a cutting-edge band, I think of the Strokes, who peaked about seven years ago. I've made a career out of being a day late and a dollar short. I'll finally spring for an iPhone on the day they become obsolete. Hell, maybe they are already.

Not that I'm denying reality or complaining about it. Blogs are obsolete, particularly unfocused vanity blogs like this one, run without the guidance and generosity of corporate donors. (Oligarchs: I'm on PayPal.) Fact is, these are post-literate times. Words, rendered in ink or in pixels, don't quite cut the mustard. Sad news for those of us enjoy the craft. But time hurries on.