Monday, April 26, 2010


In a couple of weeks I'll be going up to Ontonagon in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, there to stay until mid-October. The county and town of that name are the prototypes of Porcupine County and City in my Steve Martinez whodunits.

The place will have changed, that's for sure. How much is the question.

Last summer the nursing home, one of the town's bigger employers, shut its doors. Over the winter the biggest, the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, closed for good as part of its owner's bankruptcy process. The heat at the plant was shut off, insuring that its abandoned machinery will corrode. As a result, the short line railroad that serves the county -- the Escanaba & Lake Superior -- filed for abandonment of its line to Ontonagon, hurting the city's ability to attract new industry.

Of course all this means that unemployment is sky-high. People of working age are increasingly leaving the county, as they have ever since the timber and mining industries dried up halfway through the last century. Population had been declining by about 10 per cent every census, and it's estimated that the 2010 census will see a staggering 16 per cent drop.

What will all this mean to Porcupine County and Sheriff Steve Martinez?

Everywhere, joblessness and poverty always means increases in petty theft, drug manufacturing and distributing, drunkenness and domestic battery. Homes are foreclosed upon. In wilderness areas break-ins rise as desperate homeless people try to find places to live. Poaching for survival increases.

And there are budget headaches. With fewer people to police, the sheriff's department will have to either lay off deputies or ignore staff vacancies. But fixed expenses won't decline. The jail has to be operated, summonses have to be served and speeders have to be pinched. Equipment, from aging computers to crapped-out cruisers, has to be replaced.

Like any real-life sheriff, Steve's going to have to spend a lot of energy squeezing blood out of his budget. He's not going to have much time to play detective, to follow up on the hunches so crucial to solving mysteries.

This will be tricky so far as Hang Fire, the novel-in-progress, is concerned. Police procedural readers don't care about the fine details of spreadsheet massaging -- instead, they want to know all about the process of catching crooks. It'll be a challenge to show what has happened to Ontonagon/Porcupine County, and how Steve deals with it, without slowing down the narrative.

Some might argue that all this is irrelevant to a novel. The novelist, they might say, can do what he wants with his material without having to consider the actual realities of the setting. That is true, but in some ways -- at least I think so -- my Porcupine County novels are like television reality shows. Those supposedly involve "real" human beings in "real" settings, although events of course are fictional, for they are manipulated behind the scenes. The trick is to make them as believable as possible.

Entertainment is, after all, a kind of deception.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

iPad as an e-book reader: Not so hot

I've been waiting for someone to test and compare the iPad against the Kindle and other dedicated e-book readers, and now that has been done by Jason Perlow at ZDNet.

His most important conclusion: "The iPad appears to be adequate for light daytime indoor reading, but fails miserably as an outdoor reading device. Vizplex e-Ink readers such as the Kindle, the SONY line and the Barnes & Noble Nook still appear to be much more optimal for long duration reading indoors and outdoors during daytime hours." (My bolding.)

In other words, Apple's newest iToy doesn't cut it for park-bench or beach-blanket reading.

I'm still sticking to the iPod Touch for that.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In praise of the Chicago Botanic Garden

A riot of tulips and willows this morning at the Botanic Garden.

One of the few gifts of aging is learning to make the most of one's remaining years. Some people, generally well-heeled, build a vast bucket list and check off expensive experiences one by one. Others just discover small glories they never thought much about during their decades of striving.

For me a huge (and inexpensive) blessing has been the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, fifteen minutes up the road from Evanston, where I live.

It has led me to a keen interest in the details of botany as well as wildlife photography (many examples of which can be found on my other blog). After a couple of hours' visit to the Garden, I spend another hour or so looking up what I've seen on Wikipedia or the Cornell Bird Lab website. This is like taking a self-guided online college course with frequent field trips to primary sources. The whole thing whets the intellect and exercises the old bod. There's no downside.

Besides the ponds and gardens and special exhibits, the place has a lovely cafe. Often in the morning I'll have a cup of coffee amid seniors with walkers and mothers with strollers who have dropped by, often for breakfast or lunch. The menu is both reasonable and tasty.

Grandchildren love the extensive garden railway, outdoors in the summer and indoors during the winter holidays. They even stop to smell the flowers.

A year's membership is $100, which might sound expensive but considering that it includes free parking ($20 a crack for nonmembers, but $7 for senior citizens on Tuesdays), it's a bargain when you visit the place two or three times a month, as I do.

Join. Go.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What's this?

It's a lousy shot (some kind of white stuff drifted in front as I took the photo) and it's cropped way too much, but what species is this bird? My bird books aren't much help. It's sparrow-sized, but with a heavy beak. Could it be a common House Finch, or maybe a more exotic Pine Grosbeak? I appeal to all my birder friends to tell me.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


During my 41 years in newspapering, I committed many, many errors, some of which came close to being career-enders. (One of them was putting a photo of Dick Cavett on the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times' TV magazine when the subject of the story was David Frost.)

But none of my bloopers rose into the league of that recently made by some unnamed wretch at Penguin Books Australia, whose crime was so egregious that some 7,000 copies of the newly published Pasta Bible had to be destroyed.

The sin? One of the recipes called for "freshly ground black people."

Still, when we complain about the errors that get into print today because all the alert copy editors have been laid off, we should remember that the good old days weren't always so good. There may have been fewer mistakes, but many of them still were humdingers.

Another of mine was to get a little too clever when writing a headline for a Chicago Daily News story that said men who shared the housework were found to be less apt to get their wives unexpectedly pregnant.

The head: "Hubby's Apron an Effective Birth-Curb Aid".

That made it into the paper . . . and into Playboy Magazine, which had the decency not to identify the miscreant.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Taking an accurate measure of the iPad

Amid all the wet kisses bestowed upon the iPad this weekend, one critical review stands out: Melissa Perenson's extensive notice in the Washington Post today. Its conclusion (I've bolded the most important statement):

"With the iPad, Apple is first to market with a tablet that may have mass appeal for viewing entertainment content--movies, TV shows, games, and the like. But delve a bit deeper, and the iPad feels like a first-generation device--complete with new-product hiccups--largely behaves like an iPhone (or iPod Touch) on steroids. Its lack of file-level control means that the iPad can't replace a laptop or netbook for core productivity activities. Nor is it a great candidate to be your primary e-reader. It's a great device for playing video and games, and for viewing photos, though--and for some consumers, that may be enough."

Friday, April 2, 2010

Resisting iPademonium

Most writers I know seem to be immune to iPad hysteria.

Why? For us the iPad is a toy, not a tool. It's for fun, not for work.

Write on its flat screen keyboard? Are you kidding? We need a tactile keyboard, one that gives us the feedback of a satisfying click when a key is struck accurately.

Most of us need to print out what we've written. You can't do that with an iPad. You have to upload your work to a computer attached to a printer. (Some of us who write on the road carry small portable printers in our briefcases or glove boxes so that we can quickly print out a fresh new passage for editing on paper as well as for secure storage.)

E-mail? We do that with our Blackberrys and Sidekicks.

Apps? We do that with our iPhones and iPod Touches, too.

E-books? Ditto. (I just finished reading the 14th book on my iTouch, Candice Millard's River of Doubt. What a hair-raising experience that book is.)

News? Ditto.

Video? Ditto.

The iPad, however, does those last five things wondrously well, and is bound be a splendid entertainment machine for a great many people, even though it is larger than a smartphone, is utterly unpocketable, and needs something to be carried in. (It won't be long before you see upscale commuters ostentatiously bearing them in "man purses" from Hermes, Gucci and Ralph Lauren.)

Even I might get an iPad someday. But not for work on the road.

For that I'll carry a Macbook in the car and a Toshiba netbook on planes and trains.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The best April Fool joke of all time

Lane Stewart of Sports Illustrated took this shot of "Sidd Finch," who pitched wearing one high-top hiking boot, to accompany George Plimpton's magnificent hoax in the magazine.

Let us pause to honor Sidd Finch, the rookie pitcher whose fastball clocked 168 mph and who was trying to decide whether to play the French horn professionally or sign with the Mets instead.

George Plimpton's profile of Finch, an elaborate and even scholarly hoax, appeared in Sports Illustrated on April 1, 1985 -- a quarter of a century ago -- and remains the most literate (as well as plausible) April Fool jape in history. Baseball lovers everywhere swallowed it as gospel, despite glaringly obvious hints in the magazine that all was not quite kosher.

Read about it here.