December 27, 2009

North State

It's a state of mind, really (I-5 south somewhere a little below Red Bluff).

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November 04, 2009


(Or, "What I Did On My Holidays In Bakersfield"…).

No, I don't expect anyone to get all the way through this one. And yes, it has a soundtrack, which needs to be heard loud with a good sound system.

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November 01, 2009

If You Say So

My eye catches some sort of roadside public service billboard looming over the outskirts of Bakersfield with the slogan "You are someone!" in huge letters next to the standard image of a generic schoolkid. I don't hang around to read the small print.

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October 24, 2009

Unclear On The Concept

Our local upscale supermarket is having a weekend "Buy Local" promotion with all sorts of stalls and counters outside in the parking lot. Right in the middle there's a stall selling some sort of organic drink with a whole bunch of claims about how it helps the body; bang in the middle of the other signs there's one saying "Made In New Zealand!!".

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October 20, 2009

East vs West

Watching the excellent Whitehouse-hosted "Fiesta Latina" on TV the other evening, I'm struck by just how Mexican my Latino music experience is compared to the more usual conception of "Latino" in this country (and especially Back East). Say "Latino" and I suspect most Americans think Cuban or Puerto Rican music translated through New York or Miami (Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Papa Yankee, etc., or Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, or the Afro-Cubans if they're older), but around here it's more likely Flaco Jimenez or Los Tigres or even Selena. You can't walk far in my neighbourhood without hearing Norteno or Tejano or Conjunto leaking from the bars and shops, or a burst of Mexican pop, or Mariachi in front of St Elizabeth's. Country vs. Jazz, in so many words.

(The program's high-profile music director was actually famously-local Oaklander (born-and-bred) Sheila E. (daughter of Pete Escovedo), which makes the disconnect a little more pronounced).

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October 13, 2009

Don't Rain On My Parade

Today, another early first rain. At least this time it tries to be convincing, but it's never rain enough to match the media hype, the scrolling "Stormwatch!" crawls on the TV newscasts, and the breathless live news reports of sundry battening-down and sandbagging across the region after the long dry season. But at least it did rain, and while (as always) there was no "storm" in any sense recognisable outside coastal California usage, there was a bit of wind and low cloud with the rain, and the puddles were fun to walk through. In my experience early first rains tend to presage a dry wet season; we've had three or four dry seasons in a row, and if I have to go through another rainless wet season with people cheerily commenting on the "beautiful weather" again, I think I'll scream. Water crisis? What water crisis?

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September 20, 2009

The Fall

Off Ramshorn Road, somewhere around here, I fall a couple of metres over a dry riverbank while taking a photo some distance away from my car and the "road" (a rough dirt track, in reality). I land on mixed sand and rock, and sprain my right wrist and ankle, bruise my shoulder, cut my arm, graze my leg, and tear my jeans (and just avoid destroying my camera, somehow, which was all that really mattered at the time). I can't seem to use my right arm properly to get me back up to the car (it's partially paralyzed). When I do get back up I sit on the dirt road in the shade next to the car thinking I'm the dumbest guy I know: I just casually broke every one of my own rules for wilderness work on my own, and damn nearly ended up with a bunch of broken bones (or worse) in the middle of nowhere without anyone having a clue I was even in the area; and it's possible no one would have come across me for days.

I drive very slowly back out over the bumpy dirt road towards civilisation and just as slowly the shoulder and right arm start working again, and by the time I'm back in Mt Shasta, I feel sore but fine, and I can joke about it to the supermarket checker as I'm buying bandages and antiseptic. I must look a sight — I have blood on my shirt, and my hair's a matted mess of sweat and blood (mostly from my arm as I brushed the sweat away). I've bought some Hello Kitty bandages along with the more serious stuff, just to cheer me (and anyone who sees me) up. The checker — a woman about my age — looks at the HK package and then up at me, and says conspiratorially "Hello Kitty will fix anything, won't she?".

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September 15, 2009

Who He?

Today's San Francisco Chronicle made front (business) page news out of local company Chevron's Gorgon venture off Western Australia with an above-the-fold article and a photo of "Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd" and a Chevron functionary in hard hats looking at plans on-site. But they identified the wrong guy in the pic as Rudd, an easy error in a newspaper that probably doesn't have a single editor or staff writer who'd know what the Australian Prime Minister actually looks like. But as always, why should the Chron know something like that? Maybe that other Australian, our Governator, might care, but to the rest of the US, it's all a bit of a puzzle, I guess.

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August 18, 2009


I sit across the desk from the friendly-but-reserved sales guy trying to sell me a new car (he succeeded), dying to ask him the obvious question while he rattles on about accessories and options: what was it like growing up black in the suburban Arizona of the sixties? Instead, we smalltalk about local politics (a much safer topic). A few minutes later S. (from Ethiopia via London) finalizes the finance deal with a quiet but heart-felt rant about Americans and their (our) idiotic health care system and our self-destructive populist politics; it's all I can do to stop myself from asking how a ruthless uber car salesman and finance guy like him can profess such views in an industry like his. He shakes my hand and tells me I'll like my new car (I do). Damn the car, though — it's much less interesting than the stories lurking in the salesroom….

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June 04, 2009

Can't Someone Else Pay For It?


"'It shocks the conscience that we have to throw sick children off of welfare to satisfy Wall Street,' said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), the budget committee chairwoman. She added: 'This used to be the Golden State, and now it is a sorry state and it is not my California.' (from a recent article in the LA Times on our Governator's plan to cut a mere 5 billion dollars from California's budget).

California's been living so far beyond its natural and financial means now for so long that when it's time to pay up and face the consequences, I guess it's no surprise that we Californians turn to blaming anyone else but ourselves, and to bemoaning how badly the Golden State has lost its way. But California hasn't lost its way — it's right on track for a course set decades ago by the anti-government whackos, and helped on with varying amounts of gleefully-populist and self-satisfied gusto by voters over the years. And pace Ms Evans, it's not (primarily) Wall Street that got us here; the current deadlock and paralysis aren't an act of god, but the fairly predictable results of California voters quite deliberately voting to tie the hands of politicians with mandates for this, mandates for that, super-majorities for budgets and tax increases, etc. — and then sitting back and saying they (the voters) just aren't going to pay for it all when the bills come due (i.e. now). And then blaming the increasingly powerless politicians for not being able to do anything about the results. It's a classic self-fulfilling prophecy: politicians are useless money-grubbing bastards, so let's tie their hands with impossible voter-mandated propositions, then wait for the inevitable failure, then blame the politicians even more and restrict them further, then blame the politicians again… all while furiously denying any responsibility as voters for getting themselves into this mess.

(From the cozy confines of arty Little Jingletown, things sometimes still seem OK, but walking through the landscape of garbage-strewn streets, burned-out cars, and graffitied trees of my greater neighbourhood, or slinking past the shambling mentally ill and the homeless beggars on (and off) the sidewalks in Berkeley, or driving past the boarded-up malls and empty construction sites in suburbia, and negotiating the unrepaired roads and axle-breaking potholes of local streets, or waiting through the unanswered phone calls to City Hall and the two hour delay (yes) on the police response to the 911 call for last month's serious car accident near my place, it's hard not to think it's the long-awaited California Apocalypse. Hollywood's always loved the California destruction trope in movies, but giant quakes and alien invasions taking out LA to the squealing enjoyment of audiences everywhere doesn't quite catch the banal reality).

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May 31, 2009

Punch Up

"The San Francisco artists tended to be anti-intellectual and uptight, […] a lot of energy went into hating New York and Los Angeles" — Bruce Nauman, quoted in the latest New Yorker, on the SF art scene he once escaped from years ago.

It's still a lot like that, at least for older San Franciscans: I don't think establishment San Francisco's ever really got over the fact that in the last few decades LA's become the cultural heart of California, the place where interesting art happens, a place where music and culture go their own merry way without so much as a nod to mother San Francisco. Those older San Franciscans seem fixated on LA (and, to a lesser extent, NY) as cultural rivals, but there's really no contest: San Francisco might have punched well above its weight fifty years ago, but looking back lovingly at the 1960's doesn't in itself a vibrant culture make, and neither New York nor LA see SF as much of a rival — gallingly for us here in the Bay Area, they don't see us at all.

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May 26, 2009


Proposition 8 gets affirmed, to the shame of California, but as even our Republican Governator publicly recognises, one day it'll be overturned by common consent or (better-grounded) legal action (hell, that's already happening in other parts of the country — I can't help feeling that a tiny part of the outrage felt here is that California's been trumped on this (of all issues) by those little states Back East). Again, it's hard not to believe that sometime soon Prop 8 will be looked at in the same way we look at anti-miscegenation laws nowadays, as an affront to decency, and Prop 8 as the last gasp of Boomer (Worst. Generation. Ever.) bigotry.

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May 25, 2009

Blue Gum Blues

"The hated Tasmanian blue gum tree — better known as a variety of eucalyptus — has been blamed for virtually every evil short of snatching babies out of strollers […]" (the lead sentence from a front page story in today's SF Chronicle).

To an Australian, that seems a little rough, but it's essentially true (if nothing else the blue gums certainly contribute disproportionately to bush fires (brush fires) here due to the way they drop their branches and bark, and the various flammable oils they produce). Out here in the SF Bay Area, as the article says, gums "breed like rats", and you can't help noticing gum trees are everywhere, especially on the hillsides. That little thrill of recognition and familiarity disappears after a while when you realise they're deeply destructive alien species brought over here during and after the gold rush, and have basically taken over the coastal hills in large parts of California — even the native coastal Redwoods don't do as well as the gum trees. So you learn to grit your teeth and ponder your loyalties every time you walk through the many beautiful tall groves of blue gums here, and not to get too bent out of shape over your breakfast bagel or laptop latte by articles like that.

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May 11, 2009

Imagine That

"Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination," Mr. Obama said. "It is happening right now, it’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here." (Quoted in a recent NYT news article).

A long time ago (the late 1980's or early 1990's), while working as a recently-transplanted Londoner in Silicon Valley, I remember seeing a poster near the front door of the company I worked at that compared Old Tech very smugly and unfavorably to New Tech by comparing railway (railroad, I guess, this being the US) technology and companies to the then-nascent PC and workstation companies (like the place I was working at then). One had a Future, the other only a Past; QED, I guess. The poster had whole diagrams and columns devoted to explaining why train technology died out in the twentieth century (and why PC technology had a glorious future). Those lumbering old trains, heavily-engineered steel dinosaurs in the last gasp of extinction, roadkill on the way to the future…. Good riddance.

Two worlds, for sure — but not the two the poster writers (and the company's founders) probably had in mind, I'll bet. The world I'd just come from had fast, convenient, and relatively-cheap train travel (in fact until I moved to California I'd never really owned a car because public transport was so much cheaper and more convenient); trains in that world didn't just have a future, they were (and still are) the future (or a part of it, at any rate). From my point of view back then, it was cars that looked like a long-term dead end, at least in their current guise.

The world I'd just moved to, though, seemed completely oblivious to the reality elsewhere: didn't they know trains worked? Didn't they know that modern trains were marvels of hi-tech engineering and efficient use of resources? No, they basically didn't. Trains were these slow old things that almost no one used; I didn't know anyone in The Valley who took trains anywhere (there weren't any trains to take, in any case). Trains were The Past. I remember a front-page article in a local newspaper (the old SF Examiner, I think) that patiently explained to its readership train basics (such as how to get on and off trains) in preparation for some trek or other in an antique train up the coast. I used to joke that when cars became less desirable in the future, at least in California there'd be enough space to use the freeways as train right-of-ways. And now California's starting to pitch itself as ground zero for new (green) railway technology, which can't be a bad thing, for sure. Get that hi-tech on the rails again….

The US's transport infrastructure: so well-prepared for the twentieth century. And that's just the way so many Americans like it….

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February 22, 2009

Alien At Home

Whenever I drive out into the hinterlands, into sub-suburban and rural California, I’m always struck by a bunch of things, mostly contradictory: how familiar this landscape and culture is, how at home I am in it, how much an alien it makes me feel, how changed it is from when I first drove out here, how vast the landscape and so much in it is (the huge agricultural machines, huge truck stops, huge SUVs, huge freeways, huge mountains…). It so often just reduces me to lists….

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February 17, 2009

A Few Small Snaps From A Long Weekend

For those of you not following along on Facebook (or Twitter, for that matter), I spent a few days in the desert doing mostly video work on movement and people; some not-as-well-focused snaps from the expedition are at my Facebook Where I Am gallery for a while. Nothing special, but I'm working on the video version, which will probably take months to get that 5 minutes of finished product from 50 minutes of footage. An Australian accent (no matter how not-quite-right) goes a long way in this sort of thing, is all I'll obliquely say here….

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January 15, 2009

The Endless Summer

That endless summer, the California drought-time winter: wind-blown streets and dusty sidewalks, the creepy dry heat of the Santa Ana winds blustering in from the deserts for days on end, the bare Sierras shimmering in the distance; we're heading for the driest January ever recorded, normally the wettest month of the wet season. It gets on your nerves.


January 01, 2009

Paradise Drive

"I was driven into Paradise" — Schoenberg on exile in California (that same California that surprisingly threads its way between Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Reilly, and John Adams at least…).

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November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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November 05, 2008


Much is made of the shameful fact that forty seven years ago, when Obama was born, his parents could not have legally lived together in Virginia (or a large part of rest of the US) because of anti-miscegenation laws. Virginia in many ways redeemed itself last night by convincingly voting for Obama as the president; but last night, in a deeply shameful act, Californians voted to remove the right for same-sex people to marry. I'd like to believe that's the last gasp of Boomer and older bigotry, and that in decades to come we'll all ask how people could possibly have thought it right to ban such marriages in the same way we now wonder how mixed-race marriage could possibly have been considered both immoral and illegal, but I'm not holding my breath. True Belief, after all, is about civil rights for you and yours, not them and theirs…

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October 12, 2008

What A Difference A Month Makes…

I had lunch with a bunch of techie friends and colleagues in Silicon Valley late last week; as usual with these things, none of us was US-born, and I was the only native English speaker (and, for that matter, the only white boy (or girl)) in the group. A fairly diverse set of people, in the way of the Valley, and (given the middle-class Indian, Asian, and African immigrant experience), a fairly conservative bunch as well (more so than me, especially). What amazed me was that everyone in that group supported Obama; no one could manage a good word for McCain (and some went a lot further than that, with some serious scorn for McCain and his more rabid supporters). Almost no one there could imagine McCain as an enlightened and effective president; everything in this discussion revolved around "character" (rather than identity), and about seriousness, credibility, and believability — Obama has it all, if you listen to this bunch (even if many of us believe it won't make much short-term difference just how good the new president will be). I was astonished: even four weeks ago this lunch would have had a very different tone to it.

But then none of us at that lunch lives in "America"; we live in the Bay Area, a very different place. All of us have founded or helped found startups or businesses (successful or otherwise), but for all the financial conservatism that tends to go along with that, most us around the table are pretty comfortable with things like gay marriage, socialised medicine, or government-led anti-global warming initiatives.

In other words, we're not typical. Nobody out there beyond the Valley cares less what we think. And in any case, it fundamentally just doesn't matter how we vote: we nearly all live in some of the most Obama-centric electorates in the nation. And what scares us isn't what scares the US populace as a whole Out There: stupid scare stories about Obama's supposed connections to aging domestic terrorists don't scare us nearly as much as the feeling that out there beyond the bubble, the US has lost the plot completely, that the US populace just doesn't understand what's hit it (or what it hit itself with again and again over the past decade or so). What scared us most at that lunch was the idea that the US electorate as a whole might actually fall — again — for all the same sort of idiotic scaremongering that produced the real problems in the first place. What scares us is the still-prevailing attitude Out There that things will just go back to the way they used to be and everything will be OK again without anyone having to make any sort of real sacrifices or changes to their lives. Now that's scary.

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October 04, 2008

Waiting For Rain

Another early first rain, even earlier than the previous earliest I can remember, the first rain at all in at least six months. Big news: it topped the local broadcast TV news last night with dramatic scrolling "Stormwatch" graphics and even beat out the Bailout for the first five minutes. As always, there was no storm, just some light overnight rain; but we need every bit we can get, and self-absorption tends to be its own reward. Early first rains here tend to be harbingers of dry years; we shall see….

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September 28, 2008

California Zephyr

Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Marysville, Yuba City, Chico, Red Bluff, Anderson, Redding, Lakehead, Castella, Dunsmuir… From the comfort of the vista dome, unstable little homeless cities of huddled tents, out of sight in the dry riverbeds and ravines of the Valley, dull blown-about trash strewn across thorns, levees, dead grass, the dry glare of desperation in backyards and dead cars, palm trees, clapboard, boarded-up brick, rusted rails, broken fences. Outside, an entire family looks up from picking over garbage next to the railway and waves at us as we pass by; inside, most seem to be incurious or untouched by the landscapes hustling past.

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September 06, 2008

Aim Low

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf at Alameda, 2008

There's been a new Coast Guard cutter (the Bertholf) docked in the Estuary just down the road from my studio for the past month or two; I've taken a bunch of photos of it during that time (natch). It's a good-looking vessel, and I've rather admired what I've seen and read about it (neighbouring Alameda's a Coast Guard town and you see and hear these things as part of daily life).

So it's a little depressing to read in an article in a local rag that one of the ship's engineering officers claimed the Bertholf's "the Cadillac of cutters". The Californian in me cringes: so it's bloated, over-priced, inefficient, unreliable, proudly embodies mediocre design and engineering values, is a status symbol only for people who'll never have status — and seems to be driven mostly by old or poor people? I think I'd rather it were described as the Toyota, Honda, Porsche, or even Ford of cutters, myself.

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August 24, 2008


On the beach, Gualala

Thick fog creeping across the cliffs, dark sand, driftwood, poppies and thistles, sequoias and ghost gums, turkey vultures, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, oases of floating kelp, furtive abalone divers, surfers shivering in wetsuits… and hordes of aged geezers on ear-splitting Harleys stopping to have coffee at places with slogans like "Not just a cup of coffee — a just cup of coffee", or dropping in for dinner at Pangaea.

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August 22, 2008

Beyond Sebastopol

On the Gravenstein Highway just beyond Sebastopol a spindly young black guy wearing a grey suit with a straw hat and a huge bass saxophone strapped across his back rides slowly through the dry shimmering; it seems too true to be real, but it's one with the Zen center, the Sensuality Shoppe, and the roadside bars here, I guess. This time the anti-war signs are faded, torn, shabby, a little less abrasive; in any case, no one's honking as they drive past any more as far as I could tell (did they ever?).

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July 16, 2008

The Smartest Guys In The Room

A (true) story: about a dozen or so years ago, as the result of a company takeover, I worked for a large company that had bought out the much smaller company (a typical high tech startup) that I'd been a part of, and as a result I'd been granted quite a lot of stock options in the larger company (as happens here, usually — as in this case — as a sort of deferred salary). Enough to buy the better part of a house, cash (even in San Francisco!), at the price the larger company paid — but only if the larger company's stock price held, or at least didn't lose too much of its value, for a few years. There was no reason to think there'd be any real problems, as the larger company's financials seemed pretty plausible, and the auditors and banks had all signed off on the books, etc., and senior management at the larger company seemed to be doing well; and the tech economy was years from the dotcom meltdown (not that we knew that at the time, of course). Few of us in the smaller company much liked the larger company's top management; if nothing else, they lacked the sort of refinement and technical nous that our own upper management was known for, and in comparison to our management's general verbal and mental flair, their management seemed to have trouble holding their own against anyone who used words of more than one syllable. But we all stood to earn a fair bit of money from the deal, and we really didn't spend too much time worrying about it all.

Then one day I was in a meeting with a Larger Company Senior Management Type where he was explaining to us engineering rubes why this quarter's financial results were not what had been forecast, and why, consequently, the stock price was slowly declining on a daily basis (but still not at a worrisome level). Our European guys, he said, had screwed up — they'd forgotten to factor in the Easter holidays and we hadn't been able to make the revenue forecasts because of the unexpected days off. I was incredulous. I asked whether they really expected us to believe that crap? Like almost any Briton or European, I would never forget Easter was coming up — it's our major holiday, dammit. It's like an American waking up one day and realising he or she forgot Thanksgiving. Lame. He straight-facedly insisted that that was the real reason, and that there wasn't any bigger thing going on. Easter isn't any sort of holiday here in the US at all, so it probably sounded plausible to the US engineers, and for the next few weeks we just muttered about idiot managers and left it at that (I was, in fact, semi-officially censured for publicly doubting upper management's competence). It seemed like a temporary stuff-up, probably caused by incompetence at the top level, but nothing endemic.

But we got more and more of these odd little excuses and financial hiccups over the next few months, none of them quite adding up, and none of them really raising a red flag on its own, but all of them increasingly fishy. Some of us were also uneasy because the stock price was declining along with the hiccups, but even with the decline, we still stood to get a fair bit of money. We couldn't actually sell our stock for a while in any case, because most of us were barred by contract from doing so until at least a year after the buyout.

And then one day it was over: the stock plummeted to near nothing as the massive fraud behind the Larger Company's last few years worth of sales was revealed. The lucky survivors from the smaller company (myself included) simply ended up with nothing; the unlucky ones ended up with huge tax bills for paper "profits" they'd never see (sure, they got that tax back a year later, but they typically had to borrow literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the immediate bill). Almost all of us lost all the many years' worth of deferred salaries or direct investments the options and stock represented to us Smaller Company workers. The resulting litigation dragged on for years (for a while I was in the weird situation of working for a company that I was, as part of a then-unprecedented class action, suing), and I think I managed to get a few cents on the dollar from the settlement. Enough, especially by the time it was all over, to maybe buy a doghouse for cash in San Francisco (not that I have a dog, but it's the thought that counts). Five years of work and savings down the drain. Such is life, I guess, in the high tech world. Easy come, easy go.

Many years later, the CEO was finally convicted, and sent to jail for a little while. He's out now, and — incredibly — earning money back in the industry. He didn't lose it all; he came out just fine, by the looks of things, or at least compared to most of the rest of us. It turns out he had form, if you know what I mean. To my knowledge, none of the banks or auditors or oversight committees, etc., ever admitted to dropping the ball, let alone to incompetence or responsibility in any form (par for the course, of course).

Whenever we survivors from the smaller company get together (as many of us do, at an annual BBQ) we ruefully and rather bitterly talk about how we always seem to be working at the cutting edge — in this case, working for the Enron-ahead-of-its-time. I lost pretty much all my putative savings in that one; I still think of all the what-if's and might-have-been's; it's one of the central facts of my financial life, and has helped directly and indirectly determine the shape of the past decade for me.

* * *

A few years later, along with a lot of other Californians, I endured the power cuts and outages (such a lovely word; a bunch of us also coined the word "innage" as a result) that plagued California after its pioneering power industry deregulation and privatisation. The deregulation debacle ensured that while tens of millions of us lost power semi-randomly, a few companies and individuals made, well, tens of millions. Or even billions. Most of us at the time chalked the problems up to political incompetence (the whole process was a spectacularly stupid idea incompetently legislated and implemented, but sold to the public with the usual enthusiastic boosterism, those smooth, well-practiced half-truths and outright lies that seemed to dominate that era), mixed with the undeniable fact that Californians are basically clueless about limited resources, and use electricity like it's going out of fashion, even when to do so is either counter-productive or even suicidal. So it was actually quite plausible that we'd brought it all on ourselves and that we'd just have to grit our teeth and muddle through for a few years until it all sorted itself out (how very British).

What most of us didn't know then was that a large company not a lot of people had heard of at the time called Enron was — along with a bunch of witting and unwitting co-conspirators — actively manipulating the power supply and resulting prices in ways that the new deregulation regime made easy, or even encouraged. A lot of the brownouts and blackouts were actually the side effect of, or the catalyst for, blackmail done in the name of deregulation, and we Californians were basically just pawns, hostages, or collateral damage in the larger game.

At the time, any attempt to get behind the scenes and discover whether there was any sort of collusion or manipulation by suppliers and distributors nearly always met with official derision or worse. Well, we know better now. The whole episode, and Enron itself, is even one of the main reasons we have a high-profile Governator rather than the more typical gray bureaucrat we had at the time. We still face the fallout from the deregulation debacle in our daily lives here, whether we know it (or think about it) or not.

* * *

So for one reason or another, Enron's been a part of my life for quite a while.

And finally, a few years even further down the road, I finally get to see "The Smartest Guys In The Room" on DVD. It explains a lot. Or, more accurately, it illustrates a lot, a lot that's close to my heart, anyway. Yes, I already knew almost all that was in the film — all the facts and figures and overall narratives, anyway — but it's great to see it so well depicted and articulately explained.

The film's probably an acquired taste: it's visually mannered, with a lot of semi-ironic sandwiched visuals (extreme sports, reflections, etc.), visual cliches that highlight the cliches and ordinariness of so much of the story with a sort of meticulous off-handedness about the way the visuals work together. It's got a good soundtrack: cooly appropriate, a sort of dumb greek chorus of Tom Waits, Billie Holliday, Marilyn Manson, Glass, etc., aural motifs or icons, and the movie itself is so often literally and figuratively about face (and reflections and surfaces and movement in front of subjects), a story about people, human nature (self-delusion, why ask why?), shamelessness, victims, self-pity, arrogance, surreal denial, not money as such. The depressing message is that so many of the people who made money more or less got away with it; complicity pays, collusion pays — but I guess I already knew that. From personal experience, of course.

(Part of Flix).

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May 15, 2008

The Ruling

The ruling: it's hard not to ask (a little bitterly) what took so long?, but it was still a bit of a pleasant surprise. What won't be a surprise (or any sort of pleasure) will be the reaction, the backlash, the strident defense of some fetishised and idealised notion of family, the restriction of family in the name of "freedom". I'd use the word "irony" if that word didn't imply a certain distance it's hard to feel….

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May 02, 2008

Learning From Los Angeles

Another Moe's remainder: "California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" (Jim Heimann, Chronicle Books 2001), a fun, good-natured, and sunny book on programmatic architecture that I devour in a day or two's part-time reading between work assignments. It concentrates mostly on 1920's and 1930's commercial buildings in the urban and suburban bits of the great Southland, the natural habitat for such architecture, but there's plenty to go around elsewhere, including some long-gone weirdos in Oakland, of all places (Berkeley, not surprisingly, didn't really go in for that sort of thing).

It's inevitably missing one of my fave programmatic buildings, the old dinosaur-shaped house that used to lurk in the desert scrub next to the Lucerne Valley Cutoff south of Barstow, a building that's now just littered about the Mojave in a thousand pieces of decayed wood and shot-up plaster in the middle of nowhere, but that used to squat just off the isolated dirt track there with a certain fun humour and rough style (I don't think it was ever completed, but I do remember it at one time being recognisably a dinosaur).

And that's part of what makes this book a pleasure: the reminder of the difference between fun and irony. Postmodernism so often appropriated earlier programmatic architecture for art by wrapping it in irony and sucking the fun out of it; but an essential element of much programmatic architecture is its sense of unforced humour and silliness. Knowing allusions to the originals might be cute and sometimes whimsical, but they're rarely much fun.

And where did they all go? "Who Killed Our Monstrosities?", as an unnamed writer quoted by Heimann puts it. It's hard not to sympathise with that sentiment, but the danger with things like this is nostalgia-driven preservation and even reconstruction; these things really live in their own present, make sense in their original time and place only. When removed, they become self-conscious signs of signs, signs of themselves in effect. But of course the real monstrosities are out there now, waiting for the future to back-validate them. We just don't know it, I guess.

(One of the other little pleasures for me with this book is seeing glimpses of the way Ventura Boulevard used to look like, this so-familiar untidy long strip of a short slice of my life, apparently once dotted with nicely weird and silly buildings in a semi-rural setting, now just the Ur-strip-mall…).

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April 07, 2008

Reach Out

UC Berkeley's administration has put up a bunch of those irritating self-congratulatory inspirational marketing slogan flags along the pleasant little pathway next to the bluegums and the Campest Sculpture on Campus that I walk along several times a week on my way up to Moe's and the Milano.

They're (presumably real) quotes from (presumably real) students (and obviously picked with an eye to visual diversity). One of them says: "Berkeley has taught me that the world is mine: all I have to do is reach out and take it." I'd sort of hope that Berkeley might teach exactly the opposite, but never mind; California's always been the Promised Land for the self-entitled.

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March 30, 2008

Dry Humour

On the Taft Highway out of Bakersfield, in the middle of a wind-blown nowhere surrounded by fields of dirt and rough tracks, there's a little town (hamlet, really) called Dustin Acres.

(The Taft Highway between Bakersfield and Taft reminds me a lot of the way the Rosedale Highway out of Bakersfield used to look twenty years ago — down-at-heels, rough, tough, scrappy, an uncertain future…).

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March 29, 2008

The Kern River Oil Fields

Kern River Oil Fields from Bakersfield

I've tried to get something like this shot of the Kern River oil fields near Oildale for a couple of decades now; this is probably as close as I'll get, taken early this afternoon on the bluffs overlooking the Kern with a huge long hand-held lens. One thing you learn over the years: taking shots of refineries, bridges, oil fields, etc., with a very big lens can cause all sorts of police activity directed towards you. Not this time, though (they were quelling a fight a bit further along Panorama Drive).

Click on the thumbnail above to get a bit of the flavour of the place (basically northeast Bakersfield): literally dozens of square miles of denuded desert hills crawling with wires, pipes, poles, fences, tracks, tanks, and swinging pumps. And it's constantly alive; all those nodding donkey pumpjacks plod along without moving, giving the whole scene a sort of organic Rube Goldberg / Heath Robinson feel.

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Left Bank

A pleasant two hour stroll down the left bank of the mighty Kern River through Bakersfield…

Kern River, Bakersfield

Kern River, Bakersfield

Kern River, Bakersfield

Kern River,  Bakersfield

Kern River,  Bakersfield

Kern River,  Bakersfield

(Later, the Rosedale Highway, 7th Standard Road, Round Mountain Road, China Grade Loop, Merle Haggard Drive, North Chester (a rough old street, to be sure)).

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March 28, 2008

Westside Story

Highway 33

Highway 33

Derrick Avenue, The Coalinga-Mendota Road, Highway 33, Utica Avenue, Highway 99, The Stockdale Highway, Buck Owens Boulevard, Coalinga, Avenal, the Lost Hills, Kettleman Hills, McKittrick, Taft, Maricopa, Oildale, Weedpatch... Bakersfield, again.

In the Lost Hills area you drive for miles along rural two-lane blacktops through surreal treeless landscapes of rounded near-desert hills scarred by pipes, pale tanks, rutted tracks and the usual rusted twisted junk strewn around forests of nodding donkey pumpjacks, a stinging smell of burning. Everywhere, driven dust, tumbleweeds, pale willy-willies against the haze, and mountains looming in the murk just off stage. Everything natural in this harsh hard-edged landscape is in soft subdued pastels; everything else glints or flexes in bright colours or black. This landscape defeats my attempts to photograph it; it'd work much better as video shot from a truck.

At Vons on the Stockdale Highway, there's a bunch of "Jindabyne" DVDs on special near the checkstand. Outside in the parking lot, huge dark-painted SUVs and pickups with tinted windows, ostentatious crosses, Raiders logos, assault stereos, raised suspensions and oversized tires, "Jesus would bomb the Cr*p out of the Iraqis, That's what He'd do" stickers; what did I expect?

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January 26, 2008

Blood And Soil

Mt. Shasta

I keep returning to this place, this river-strewn high volcanic landscape that's so different from the rest of Northern California, this Southern Oregon that's not the Oregon that seems to look towards Seattle (or at its own organic navel). It's a state of something, for sure, something that makes me feel deeply at home in the same way that the Mojave or the Owens Valley do.

But to acknowledge the State Of Jefferson as anything more than whimsical history or sentimental icon, you have to get past the cringe-making scrappy driven boosterism and inferiority complexes so often behind the idea, the right-wing rewrites of history and coded shibboleths that come with the gun racks and pickups or the creepy newage crystal shops glinting in the malls. It's a States Rights thing, basically, with all that that phrase can mean.

It's like a certain strain of Australian nationalism: motivated by a sort of charming or disarming bad faith and an inability to speak its mind because it's really all Id. It's no accident that the great State Of Jefferson is so often identified by its boosters as a state of mind.

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January 25, 2008

The Delta

Refinery exoskeletons through the mist and driving rain, the hints of steep hills in the distance, a lone hunter out with his dog and gun in a flooded field next to the freeway, low-hanging clouds, a military jet skimming the levees, isolated oaks on little rises, loping wires above the sloughs, long trains lost in the mist, everything unnaturally cold, unnaturally green, unnaturally grey…

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January 11, 2008


No one's ever accused me of being a sports fan, and I haven't surfed since I was a teenager, but something about the Maverick's competition held here really appeals to me. Apart from the surf and the great surfing — 50 foot waves and a break across a bunch of exposed reefs, surfed by two dozen hand-picked best Big Wave surfers in the world — look at the videos from 2006's competition — well, apart from all that, I'm intrigued by the way it's become locally so well-known so quickly, a strong part of local Northern Californian folklore that people think of as being a tradition 'round here, something quietly celebrated, and attended well-enough to cause a traffic jam on the freeways without any advance notice (it has no fixed schedule; the surfers get 24 hours' notice if they're lucky). But the competition's only been going for a few years, and no more than a handful of people outside the big wave community even knew Maverick's (the break) existed until Mark Foo was killed on the reef there a dozen years ago. For years it was considered a basically unsurfable combination of sharp rocks and huge waves, but it's now a fixture on the competition circuit, and the old Woy Woy / Umina Beach boy in me still just grins when he stands on the bluffs behind the shoreline and sees the break.

Tomorrow's the big day again….

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December 08, 2007

Deep Springs

Deep Springs Road

A few years ago in the middle of nowhere — a dozen or so miles further down the remote desert road in the California / Nevada border region shown above — I was taking photos of dead cars and things like that off the side of the road. I rarely saw another (live) car while I was in the area. It was hot, very dry, and, as always out there, windy. After a while I noticed something moving a mile or so away on the side of the road — a sign flapping in the wind? Some discarded clothes stuck on a fence? I didn't think much more about it and turned back to taking photos.

About twenty minutes later I looked back at the road again. The distant movement had turned into a tall, wiry, bearded guy maybe fifty metres away striding purposefully along the side of the road towards me (and, presumably, towards Big Pine, the nearest settlement, some forty miles further up the road). He looked fairly well-dressed and healthy, with a little pack on his back. He ignored me.

I made the mistake of shouting across the road to him: "Need a ride to Big Pine?" Without looking at me, he gestured and yelled "Fuck Off!" (in what sounded suspiciously like an Australian accent). Okaaaaayyyyy, I thought... and turned back to the photo work again. The next time I looked he was a couple of miles up the road towards Westgard Pass, still striding steadily. I never saw him again.

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December 02, 2007

Basement Thoughts

Every commercial elevator in California is supposed to carry a certificate from the state that certifies the elevator is in good condition and specifies who owns it, the operating limits, etc. One of the fields to be filled in is "Owner's Id". Yes, it's spelled exactly that way, surely on purpose in this Freud-drenched land.


August 18, 2007

Another Damn Slideshow?

US Highway 50, Central Nevada

For those of you who asked (you know who you are), I finally got around to putting up the full Flash-based slideshow / gallery from the earlier desert trip (see e.g. the april archives ad nauseam). Click on the image above or here to see the gallery. You'll need a fairly hi-res screen (it's optimised for at least 1280 x 1024, but it'll work at less than this), and you can fiddle with the enigmatic little icons on the bottom right of the page to start things going and to enable or disable image titles, etc.

And if you don't have Flash and / or Javascript (or you've disabled them), you probably won't see anything at all. Which might be a blessing — there's a lot of images up there…

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August 17, 2007


Propelled across the Great Basin and the Mojave by Glass's attractively expansive 3rd Symphony (it's a perfect soundtrack for high desert two-lane blacktops), I had to ask: why did he write this as a symphony rather than a quartet? It's a natural for a quartet (a form he's written well for); his orchestration (19 piece string band) doesn't bring much to the piece for me, it just muddies the lines, subtracts from the power by adding to the volume (yes, he eventually gets 19 separate lines running simultaneously, but that feels a little gimmicky in context, something like wringing a Bolero from Metamorphosen).

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July 20, 2007

Night Flight

Camarillo, 10pm

10pm, Camarillo airport (Ventura County, outer LA), after a 200 mile drive through the heat of the Valley from Oakland to Sacramento and back, and a two hour flight down in a rented Mooney, I watch The Boys work on 75T in front of the hangar.

Ahead: a two hour formation flight through a smooth dark moonless night over rugged high terrain with Tight Sainthood as the lead pilot and navigator, another way-past-midnight return, a major tremor epicentered beneath Oakland… what else?

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July 19, 2007



"Camarillo Tower, Cirrus 75 Tango, we're going to have to make an immediate return to the airfield. We've got an electrical problem up here…"
"75 Tango, understood. Confirm that's you 5 northwest?"
"Affirmative, 75 Tango."
"75 Tango do you need any assistance or want to declare an emergency?"
"75 Tango… nah, I think we've just lost our alternator. We'll debug it on the ground. If you don't hear us again that'll be the reason."
"75 Tango, understood. If you lose the radios, look for the lightgun."
"75 Tango, will do, and thanks."
"75 Tango, cleared to land 26, wind 240 at 15, traffic on the upwind is a Cessna in the pattern."
"75 Tango, cleared to land 26, traffic in sight."
"75 Tango, exit at Charlie, ground point eight, and, um, good luck!"
"75 Tango, ground point eight, and thanks. I'm sure the owner's going to be thrilled…"

* * *

CH-46 Sea Knight

I watch the LAPD and Ventura County Sheriff's Department cars careering around chasing each other in the shimmering haze out beyond the runway in what's apparently a special car chase training area on the airport. They've been doing this for hours. I've been sitting here in the airport cafe for hours, waiting for The Owner to call back. There's a growing noise of military helicopters and out of nowhere three large grey-painted USMC CH-46 Sea Knights descend in formation into the heat at the far end of the ramp, out beyond the parked airplanes. The noise is deafening. They descend in a cloud of dust and blown-around trash, with all the smaller planes rocking around on the wash, and in a minute or so the loadmasters lower the back ramps and three or four dozen marines in fatigues line up on the ramp. After what looks like a short briefing the marines stroll briskly across the ramp towards the cafe. I ask the cafe owner what's happening. "Oh", she says, "they've just flown in from Edwards. They've reserved the entire front patio. It's Tri-Tip treat day for them!". Cool, I think, as I watch them rush in like excited kids.

No, I've been here a couple of decades and I didn't know what Tri-Tip was either.


(Ch-46 image from the US Navy via Wikipedia).

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July 18, 2007

The Home Of The Homeless

Santa Monica, 7am

Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Back Alley, 7.50am

One of the things I've always liked about Santa Monica (and Venice) is the shady, grimy, muggy, truck- and garbage-strewn urban alleys, so much like the back lanes of the inner-city Sydney of my memory. Around the corner, Third Street gets creepier every year, a sort of clean shiny Disneyfied Telegraph Avenue with the homeless sitting in tidy chairs and street crews cleaning up every morning. And there's almost nothing there any more except large chain stores and generic restaurants.

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July 17, 2007



Tight Sainthood does Van Nuys ("One Six Right" territory for the aviation nerds like me Out There).

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Level at 7,000'

Tight Sainthood 7,000' over the Central Valley (dig those classic retro steam gauges! No, TS usually does the glass cockpit thing nowadays…).

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June 28, 2007

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

"I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original" — Reyner Banham, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies".

There's something deeply familiar but also quite exotic about the LA shown here (from an old 1972 BBC documentary); it seems transported from another world, both temporally and spatially. It's not just the dated cars, the empty freeways, and the references to Watts being rebuilt (it's difficult to know what to make of his comments about Watts and his visit to the ghetto — that's worth a whole article in itself), but it's also the sense of the vast bits of LA that he just glosses over or ignores completely. Banham takes LA on what I think he thinks is its own terms, but LA's more than just the Usual Suspects (Venice, Pasadena, Watts, Palos Verdes, Wiltshire, Sunset, Santa Monica, the beaches, Hollywood, Griffith Park, etc.), it's also Sun Valley, San Bernadino, Northridge, Simi Valley, even Victorville (well, nowadays, at least). Banham thinks of the sun setting over the Pacific as being iconic, a shared experience for Los Angelenos, and it is in its way (in a way that's definitely not true for that other Californian Pacific city, San Francisco), but most of LA is a long way from the sea, and the sun sets over refineries, hills, freeway on-ramps, housing projects, or the cars stuck in front of you on the Harbor Freeway a lot more than over Santa Monica pier or Hermosa Beach. And there's something deeply significant that by far the most articulate interviewee in the film is a Muscle Beach denizen (who we never actually get to see). Oh, and dig the Ed Ruscha "interview" near the end!

Jimmy Little loves Los Angeles too, but that's partly because I have the option of leaving it when I'm working or visiting down there (and because LA's attitudes can be such a bracing charge after the self-absorbed fog of smugness that so often envelops San Francisco). For all its reputation as a non-city or even an anti-city, LA at street level can feel a hell of a lot more like a huge bustling conglomeration of cultures, interests, people, and businesses (you know, a "city") than those self-centred places with a Real Downtown….

(Part of Flix and California).

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May 20, 2007

Short Shameful Confession

I always thought (and still think) that Frank Zappa was a smug old bastard; his music always seemed too contrived, too hectoring, too knowing, too... 1970's Californian. Very much a music of its time and place, I think.

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April 29, 2007

Tough Town

Until maybe Trona, but definitely somewhere before Barstow, the appropriate soundtrack for the trip always seemed to be classic Country (the corny fun melodic stuff of the various Hanks and Johnnies, at least); by Barstow, it had slipped into something a little darker, the sort of bad sub-classic rock male primal scream music you associate with aggressive resentment and loud self-pity. Huge SUVs, ATVs, RVs, jacked-up pickups, assault stereos, windowless clapboard houses, in-your-face Confederate and US flags, dark glasses and bristling moustaches, tats and bare flab, people as fat as their cars; Barstow's a tough town. I leave it for Oakland.

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April 28, 2007

Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino

Cady Mountains, Route 66

Cady Mountains, Route 66.

Ludlow, Route 66, California

Ludlow, California.

Ludlow Crossing, Route 66, California

Ludlow Crossing, California.

Siberia, Route 66, California

Siberia, California.

Bagdad, Route 66, California

Bagdad, California (yes, that Bagdad, even if the film was actually made 50 miles up the highway at Newberry Springs…).

Roy's, Amboy, Route 66, California

Roy's, Amboy, California. When I first drove through here nearly twenty years ago, I knew nothing about the place. Roy's was still owned and run by Buster Burris back then; he actually owned the entire surrounding "town" of Amboy as well, and later tried to sell it en masse (but no one bought it). I stopped and went in to the cafe for a soda. It was small and deathly quiet; I was the only customer there. There were several hand-drawn and autographed pictures of Ronald Reagan on the wall; the decor was retro-kitsch without the "retro" (or the quotes), barstools, plastic-topped tables, etc. I got my soda from the rather nice old woman behind the counter and fled, which seems a stupidly-wasted opportunity in retrospect….

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North American

North American

Pisgah, California

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April 27, 2007

Sidewinder Road

Sidewinder Road

Beautiful Mt Stoddard from Sidewinder Road, Barstow.

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Desert Blooms

Desert Blooms

Another desert icon, in full spring bloom along Sidewinder Road near Barstow.

Desert Blooms

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Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Not quite the same Trona I know and love, but close enough.

Trona Pinnacles

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Trona, California

This town's always defeated me, I can never seem to capture the glinting flinty junkyard atmosphere, the beautiful desert lurking behind the sinewy mine processing plants looming over the clapboard houses and boarded-up businesses… so I look the other way.

Trona, California

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April 26, 2007

Death Valley

Death Valley

Surrounded by all the landscape, it's the people that catch the eye…

Zabriskie Point

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Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

Not just a really dumb movie, after all…

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April 25, 2007

The Forest

Yucca Forest

There's a strange and beautiful yucca (Joshua tree) forest a little off the beaten track that I visit when I can; these trees always mean "the Mojave" to me. I don't tell people where the forest is; those who know, know; the rest can flood the smaller, more accessible forests at leisure.

Yucca Forest

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Darwin (California)

Darwin, California

Darwin, CA: one of the repeated motifs in the California and Nevada deserts is junk. Junk surrounding houses, junk spilling out of properties, junk strewn across empty spaces in the middle of nowhere. Virtually the only places junk-free in the deserts now are the National Parks and the very remote places no one has really heard of — almost everywhere else, especially next to roads or near houses and other buildings, just seems to attract dead cars, fridges, old TV sets, cans, tires, whatever….

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Manzanar Relocation Camp, California

Reconstructed sentry station, Manzanar "Relocation Center", Owens Valley: one of the better-known concentration camps used to forcibly house "relocated" US citizens and resident of Japanese descent from the West Coast during WWII. When I first drove past here nearly twenty years ago, there really wasn't anything marking the place — maybe just a plaque a little down US 395 from the old county maintenance shed, and no one I asked was entirely sure where it was (there were no signs on the highway). No one really ever mentioned it; the idea of it being a concentration camp was deeply controversial. Nowadays it's being slowly recreated (there's a new old guard tower as well as the sentry and guard stations), and it's at least a little on the locals' minds, if only as a potential tourist attraction, and the term "concentration camp" gets used a little more freely. And it's got its own rather nice National Parks Service website.

The thing that's always struck me, though, is just how physically beautiful the location is: the High Sierra to the west, the Inyos to the east, the desert floor… hell to live in, though, especially in forced camps.

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April 24, 2007

Eureka Dunes

Eureka Dunes, California

Eureka Dunes. The toilet in the middle of nowhere. In the distance the dull booms and occasional roar from the military jets over Saline Valley; twice a stray F/A-18 loiters past me near the dunes, low and slow, maybe 1,000' AGL and maybe 250 knots, heading straight for a low pass just to the left of the range in the photo above, climbing rapidly just before the range. I am the only car I see all day on the access road (below).

South Eureka Road, California

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