Saturday, April 4, 2015

Another meh moment

I was doing my usual ambling aimlessly around the Intertubes yesterday and stumbled across a post by a fellow who was musing about giving up his blog. On one level, I found myself thinking, Well, that's considerate of him. If his blog goes silent, anyone who read it on a regular basis won't be wondering if he keeled over with no warning and is now taking a dirt nap. At the same time, I have to admit the dominant reaction was more along the lines of "Who cares?"

Seriously, unless a person is getting paid to post something on a regular basis or if you have real (not virtual) friends and relatives following your blog as a way to keep up with your health and well-being, what difference does it make if you do a post daily, weekly, or maybe once every couple of months?  Blogging isn't supposed to be a chore. It's not a job. There is no formal production quota that if you fail to meet you're going to find yourself out in the cold, cut off forever from cyberspace and your 3 regular readers. When you're doing something as a hobby, it's never supposed to feel like work.

I'll concede it's nice to throw out an occasional warning if you're planning to deviate from your normal routine, but what's the worst that happens if you don't? A few of your "followers" may notice that nothing new from you has shown up for awhile, they may wonder briefly what happened, but in the overall scheme of things it's going to be a nonevent.

If someone were to ask me why I'm even bothering to think about a blogger's musings about possibly shutting down his blog, I guess it's because I tend to see that type of thing as a plea for attention. You know, it's an attempt to generate comments that will say, in essence, "Oh, please, please don't stop posting. You're so wonderful that I'll be lost without your words of wisdom." If there are events in the real world that are going to take you away from the computer, just say so, e.g., "I'm going camping for a week" or "Other obligations mean I don't have as much time as I used to." Then walk away. Don't turn cutting back or giving up blogging into some sort of never-ending farewell tour where you keep promising to leave but never actually do. In short, how can we miss you if you won't go away?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Moving on


Sunset over Loop 1
Today we'll be hitting the road, sort of. After the S.O. is up and moving (he's not a morning person), we'll do the few things left to do to get the Guppy ready to roll out.

It's been an interesting month. I'm told it was a lot quieter during the first couple of weekends than usual -- the wintry weather discouraged some groups so either not as many people showed up or they were more subdued.  It did seem less busy than it had been in the fall, and the campsites less elaborate, i.e., fewer large pavilions.

Low budget camping using an up-cycled 1978 Ford Ranger. These guys didn't
have particularly elaborate gear, but they were nice enough to bring a keg
instead of multiple cases of Busch Lite. End result? No cans in the fire ring,
Even better? All their red SOLO cups went into the dumpster. They let their
site spotless. 
There were one or two groups that got a little noisy, but we only had one weekend where other campers came knocking on our door late at night to complain about noise.

That was, IIRC, the same weekend the law enforcement ranger got to haul someone off to the drunk tank after the fellow persisted in driving backwards (as in Reverse, not as in ignoring the One Way signs) around the campground. Apparently most of the month has been a little colder and nastier than usual for Missouri in March (it must be Obama's fault), so even though all the reserved sites have been 100% reserved just about every Friday and Saturday, not all of them have been occupied. I personally do not understand how people can be so casual about paying in advance for a campsite at $23 a night and then not bother using it, but then I come from a long line of cheap frugal ancestors and live with a person who, as the saying goes, "knows the value of a dollar."

Another low budget rig. When I saw this coming into the park my first thought
was "Someone dragged an ice fishing shack to Missour?" It's just a box made
from OSB with a door at the end facing the rear of the trailer.  There's an OSB
 patio,  too, in front of the door. They were another group that had a good time but
left their campsite in great shape.
One thing I did notice this year more than in October was how many campers seem to be confusing the fire ring with a trash incinerator. This past weekend there were at least half a dozen fire rings that were absolutely disgusting: filled with half burnt food waste, plastic, tin cans, etc. It's one thing to imbibe a few too many beers and start tossing the Busch cans into the flames; it's quite another to deliberately try to get rid of your trash by burning it instead of bagging it and taking it to the dumpster. I don't understand how people can do that -- they'd complain like crazy if they got here and found a fire ring that looked that bad, so why do they think it's okay to leave the site filthy? I'm tempted to mutter about "trailer trash" because with a few exceptions, the nastiest fire rings were left by people who are camping using large, expensive trailers. It's not the low budget or the tent campers who make the worst messes.

We've already been asked by a number of people if we'll be back next March. At this point we have no clue. It's possible that the simple purchase of an electric blanket and few more modifications to the Guppy (e.g., insulated vent covers) would convince us cold temperatures wouldn't be as annoying. It's equally possible we'll decide to try a longer volunteer commitment at one the National Wildlife Refuges or National Parks farther south, someplace where snow is a lot rarer than it is in Missouri. We may decide to do what a lot of people do -- just head down to the cheap RV parks in south Texas and hang out there doing nothing for several months. We could opt for volunteering at a different park here in Missouri, just out of curiosity. Or we could just stay home. Who knows?

One thing we do know is we'll be back here at Montauk in October. Maybe then I'll actually go fishing.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

More of life's little mysteries

One of the duties of the campground hosts is to check the showerhouse in the evening to make sure there's adequate toilet paper in the dispensers, all of the toilets are functioning, the shower stalls are free of trash like empty shampoo bottles, and that things in general are in decent condition. Over the past month, I've found a few things campers have forgotten: a pair of gloves, a hand towel, etc. Last night, however, was a first. This was perched on a toilet paper dispenser:
Two questions: Who carries a tampon into the toilet and then forgets to use it? I know that back when toxic shock syndrome hit one bizarre theory was that women became infected when they forgot to remove tampons when their periods ended, but, speaking as a person with some experience in these matters, I found that theory shaky from Day One. Perhaps I was wrong to be dubious?

Second, when did they start printing pep talk slogans on feminine hygiene products? "Challenge yourself" and "Play to win" on tampon wrappers?! Seriously? Does anyone actually believe that a woman who's in the process of changing a tampon takes the time to read the pep talk on the wrapper?

Then again, I bought a pair of jeans at Kohl's a few months ago that have pep talk slogans printed on the fabric for the facings for the waistband and zipper. That struck me as pretty strange, too. It's a mystery.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Life (and death) in a delusional bubble

I've been reading The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Nicholas was the last of the Romanov tsars to rule Russia. Except it's pretty clear that in a lot of ways he never did rule the country; he and his immediate family existed in a lovely bubble and were pretty much out of touch with any sort of reality.

I'm into the section of the book now where Nicholas and his family have been exiled to Siberia and are living under house arrest. They're only a few months away from being executed, but they're all cruising along as though everything is going to be fine. One indignity after another, more and more things stripped from them, and they still don't get it that they're heading down the same road as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. They're given opportunities to flee the country, to go live in exile, sponge off some of their numerous royal relatives scattered around Europe, but they refuse to leave Russia. It's bizarre. I can halfway understand why Nicholas would decide to stay in Russia -- he really bought into the notion that the tsar was Russia -- but why didn't he try to get his kids or his lunatic wife out of the the country? He was reading the papers; he knew about the riots and social disorder. Did he really believe that because he had abdicated, they were now safe?

Then again, considering that he'd spent his entire life being passive, maybe it's not so surprising "Nicky" just sat back and waited for events to happen. Most of the time he was tsar he was pretty much oblivious to what was actually happening in the country or being done in his name. On the rare occasions when he actually asserted his authority, it usually wasn't his idea -- it was his wife's. And his wife was, to put it mildly, delusional. She was even more out of touch with reality than Nicky was.

And what were the underlying reasons for their happy, delusional life? There were actually two things. One was the Tsarina Alexandra. Nicholas and Alexander were that rare royal couple: they'd married for love against the wishes of various relatives, including Nicky's parents. They'd met as teenagers, Nicholas had fallen for Alexandra at first sight, and never gave up on the idea that someday they'd marry. His parents had consented only because they'd figured out that Nicholas wasn't going to agree to any other arrangements. His father had even tried the classic Russian aristocratic technique of hooking his son up with a ballet dancer in the hopes that he'd become sufficiently enamored of his mistress that he wouldn't care who his legal wife was -- it didn't work. Once Nicholas and Alexandra were married, they formed a self-sufficient bubble. This might not have been a problem if Alexandra hadn't been quite so insecure. She was easily offended and good at holding grudges. Nicky adored Alix so refused to do anything that might upset her. End result? Their social circle kept shrinking until it consisted of a handful of people who would tell the Empress only what she wanted to hear. If someone tried to insert an unpleasant truth, they'd find themselves cut off.

The other reason was religion. The tsar's only son, the heir to the throne, had hemophilia. The condition was diagnosed when Alexei was an infant. Alexandra's life became basically a search for a miracle cure. She absolutely refused to admit that her son had what was a terminal condition, that no matter how careful they were or how intensely she prayed, Alexei was not going to live long enough to be Tsar. It's not surprising that she fell for the lies told by Grigory Rasputin, a con man who was remarkably adept at telling Alexandra exactly what she wanted to hear. As anyone who's ever read any Russian history knows, Rasputin's influence on the royal family became widely known and despised. At the same time, articles and political cartoons in the newspapers openly suggested scandalous behavior -- Rasputin's public behavior away from the palace was, in a word, debauched so it was easy for ordinary people to believe the worst of the rumors circulating about the tsarina. Naturally, the worse Rasputin behaved away from the royal family, the less Alexandra was willing to believe she was being conned. Even when stories reached her about virtually public orgies, she just said this was proof of his holiness. Apparently there's a long Russian tradition of holy men indulging in remarkably outrageous ways and it somehow serving as proof not that they're perverts or degenerates but are instead especially blessed by God. I know -- it makes no sense, but Alexandra 's surviving letters and journals confirm that she believed it.

And then when you throw in World War I, the fact the Russians were getting slaughtered by the Germans, and Alexandra was a German princess who tried to meddle in politics by writing privately to her cousins? It didn't take many years of warfare and Russian losses for most of the country to believe Alexandra was a German spy and the tsar himself was betraying his country by not locking her up. I guess the biggest mystery when it comes to the last of the Romanovs isn't so much how they happened to end up lined up and shot in a basement, but why it took until the Bolshevik Revolution for it to happen. By the time Nicholas abdicated in 1917, he and Alexandra were so universally hated that it's moderately amazing they survived as long as they did.

One thing I have always wondered about, though, is why the Reds felt the need to execute the grand duchesses -- the tsar's daughters. They had no rights of succession; the throne followed the male line. No one was going to rouse the populace by saying "Let's put Princess Olga on the throne." Then again, fanatics have always had a problem with overkill -- and the Bolshevik leadership definitely qualified as fanatics.

As I was reading this book, I found myself thinking about how easy it is for people in leadership positions to fall into the same trap Nicholas II did: just listen to the happy news, chase away anyone who tries to do a reality check, and then find themselves wondering why their company is going bankrupt or their favorite policies are failing. The sad thing is that there probably is no good cure for the problem: the more powerful a person becomes, the less willing other people are to tell them the unvarnished truth.

So would I recommend Nicholas II to other readers? I'm not sure. It's probably a good one for anyone interested in Russian history -- the author does look at various events from a different perspective than I'd read before -- but the structure of the book is odd. It felt choppy and tended to be a little hard to follow. For someone with only a casual interest, though, it's not a good choice.

It's too soon

I really despise the way our political system has degenerated into one long campaign. I swear the elections are barely over each year before the campaigning for the next one starts. In 2012 I don't think we went for even 24 hours before the chattering classes were speculating about who was going to run for President in 2016. We've spent the last couple years being treated to the news media anointing Hilary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee -- doesn't matter who else might be remotely interested in running as a Democrat, it's pretty clear the mainstream media aren't going to bother writing about anyone other than Ms. Clinton.

On the other hand, there's that rolling circular firing squad that calls itself the Republican Party. They've got the opposite problem from the Democrats: instead of having their most middle of the road, establishment candidate sucking up all the oxygen, they've got a dozen different far right fringe tinfoil hat types all clamoring for attention. We've been treated to speculation about Governor Goodhair (aka Rick Perry), Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin (is the woman actually crazy enough to believe anyone would believe she's still electable to anything?) . . . there are a couple semi-sane Republican notables (Chris Christie, Jeb Bush) but whenever their names pop up, they're quickly followed by explanations of why they can't win the nomination. And now one of the looniest of the loons, Ted Cruz, has made it official. He's announced he's running for President. This means that fairly soon other fools will make it official, too. The next Presidential election is over 19 months away, but we're already stuck listening to campaign rhetoric. No wonder the country is a mess and Congress never gets anything done.

I have a vague memory of hearing years ago that one of the good things about the parliamentary system Great Britain has is that elections are a lot more unpredictable. Or at least they used to be -- they were held when Parliament dissolved, which until 2010 wasn't on a fixed schedule. There's now a law that says one term of Parliament can't last longer than 5 years, at which time Parliament dissolves and a general election is held. However, the law doesn't say a session has to run for that full 5 years -- if there's a crisis of confidence, Parliament can dissolve at any time. Once Parliament dissolves, the time frame between that dissolution and the general election is blessedly short. No doubt the Brits also have political figures who spend a lot of time hinting that next time around they're going to run for office, but the period of overt campaigning cannot last for literally years. It must be nice.

It has also occurred to me that a silver lining of living in a country ruled by a dictator has to be that electioneering is never an issue. Sure, there's propaganda touting the merits of The Great Leader, but after awhile that has to all fall into the category of background noise. If it's always there, you stop noticing it. No one's going to be calling you for fund-raising or to bash The Great Leader's political opponents, and your mailbox (both IRL and online) is never going to fill with political spam. It almost makes a person wish President Obama really was the autocratic tyrant the delusional right wing tinfoil hat types think he is. If he was, we'd never have to hear about Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, et al. again -- they'd all have been locked up in FEMA death camps ages ago. A girl can dream. . .

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Time flies

This is our last weekend at Montauk. As usual, the park is close to full. It had been close to 100 % occupancy for the reservable sites, and, based on the numbers of people pulling in here yesterday afternoon, there weren't many cancellations. I was a little surprised -- the weather forecast was not especially pleasant with close to freezing temperatures for the lows and a prediction of a "wintry mix" falling from the skies today (which is indeed what's happening as I type). It's supposed to improve tomorrow, but of course most people are just here for the weekend. It doesn't matter much if the Sunday high is predicted to be around 60 if you've got to pack up your trailer and head back to St. Louis on Sunday morning. 

On the other hand, if you've invested in a humongous 5th wheel and paid for a campsite in advance, I suppose it makes sense to actually use both. Plus, of course, when your idea of fun is to pull on a pair of waders and go stand in close-to-ice-cold water for hours, maybe the notion of a wintry mix isn't that off-putting. 

In any case, the end is in sight for this installment in campground hosting. I have mixed feelings. I'd kind of like to stay longer, but have to admit that my patience for dealing with the public isn't unlimited. This would be a great place to be if it were only a little less popular. Some people are, to say the least, total idiots. Either that, or they've never had to deal with actual rules before. And they all lie: they'll claim the superintendent or the ranger or someone in the office told them it was okay to do something that is clearly against park policy; they'll discourse at length about how they've been camping here for many years and have never ever been told before that they have to keep their dog on a leash; they'll swear up and down that they despise the people who burn trash in the fire rings and then leave their own fire ring full of semi-melted Busch Lite cans. Liars, I don't know how people who have to deal with the public day after day manage to do it. I know I couldn't handle a career that required being polite indefinitely. Sooner or later (and probably sooner) I'd say what I was thinking. 

I think one month is just about the right length for us to be campground hosts. It isn't just having to be polite; it's also the fact you can never get away. The campground host is here so if people have a problem or a question at odd hours they've got a place to go. Which strikes me as being a Good Thing until it gets to be midnight and someone is knocking on the Guppy's door complaining about the loud drunks at the other end of Loop 2. The people who are following us are scheduled to be here for five solid months -- I think they're insane, but apparently they do these long stints all the time. They must really like living in a fishbowl. 

I have begun researching volunteering at National Wildlife Refuges. From what I can tell, one of the nice things about being at an NWR is the volunteers' public contact comes in more formal settings: working behind the information desk in a Visitor Center, for example, or serving as the guide for interpretive hikes. And a lot of the volunteer work doesn't involve the public at all: trail maintenance or assisting with research projects. The downside is NWRs want a longer commitment (usually 90 days), which might make it hard to find a situation that fits in with when we want to be home in Michigan. Oh well, I'll keep perusing volunteer.gov and see what comes up in the way of snowbird opportunities. Between Fish & Wildlife, the Corps of Engineers, the Forest Service, and the Park Service, we should be able to line something up for next winter. I wonder how stiff the competition is for a VIP slot at Fort Frederica National Monument? Or, better yet, Hot Springs? Hot Springs National Park would be perfect -- far enough South that it doesn't get much in the way of Real Winter combined with being a park and a town I already know and like. I really need to do some kissing up to the connections I still have in the Park Service and see who's foolish nice enough to let me use them as a reference. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Organizational skills, or the lack thereof

For some bizarre reason, people who don't know me well always end up telling me what great organizational skills I have. They assume that because I tend to be a little compulsive about a few things, like shelving CDs in alphabetical order by artist, that I'm well-organized in general. Pshaw. It is pure illusion.

The S.O. and I just returned from spending 3 nights at the Younger Daughter's place. We swapped days off with the other campground hosts because they need specific days off at the end of the month. End result was that we wound up with four days off in a row. That made the 100 mile drive to Farmington worth it.  So we decided we'd pack up our laundry and go bother Tammi for a few days.

Okay. Three nights away from the Guppy. How much time could it take to pack and how many bags could we possibly have when part of what we were taking was a week's worth of laundry? Common sense says it should have taken us about 30 seconds to get ready to depart: throw some toiletries in a ditty bag, toss it in a suitcase with one change of clothes per person, load suitcase and the laundry basket in the car along with Cleo and her food and insulin, and hit the road. Didn't even have to worry about bringing a litter box or cat litter because Tammi had both on hand. If only life were so simple. . .

Hitting the road turned out to require a lot more than just a simple change of clothes and our toothbrushes. We were going to be gone for 4 days so that meant rounding up all the chargers (cell phones, camera batteries, tablet) and making sure they came with us. After all, it would suck to get to Tammi's, be in the middle of playing Angry Birds on the tablet, and not be able to recharge the device when it went dead. Had to have my knitting, so that bag had to go into the car. Had to have the manuscript I'm editing -- I'm getting paid to do that and a deadline is imminent. Couldn't forget the empty 20-lb propane tank that we needed to swap for a full one. And so it went. Several hours later the car was finally packed and came close to bulging at the seams with the various odds and ends that we couldn't live without for a few days.

Coming back was worse, of course. Suitcase, basket, cat and her accessories, propane tank, miscellaneous tote bags with my knitting, editing job, chargers, whatever plus the goodies I'd picked up at the Container Store in St. Louis -- because, you know, if I just buy enough totes and baskets and miscellaneous racks by god I will actually end up being organized -- along with our other retail therapy and flea market finds, like a major score on an Atlas canning jar with a zinc lid -- it's full of spools of thread, some of which are totally unused. I'm sure whoever sold it filled the jar with the thread to turn it into an objet d'art, but I looked at it and saw at least $12 worth of thread stuffed into a jar selling for only $7. What a deal -- nifty canning jar that I'll wash and use as a canister and all that perfectly good thread. And, on top of all that, we had to find space for groceries we knew we needed because we'd pretty much left the refrigerator empty except for condiments. . . and my days of mixing ketchup with hot water and pretending it's tomato soup are long past. By the time we got out of Farmington, the trunk was stuffed full and the back seat was piled high. And about half that stuff sat in the car overnight because we ran out of ambition after unpacking the most important stuff.

Small digression. I love the Container Store. I really do buy into the illusion. If a person just has the right combination of totes and baskets and shelving units, all the clutter in her life will magically disappear. I love walking through that store fondling the merchandise. I look at the almost infinite variety of storage boxes and other goodies and keep thinking "I could find a use for that." And I did find a really nifty basket/tray thingie that's going to be useful here in the Guppy. Sometime later today, probably while the S.O. is off fishing, I'll do a major reshuffling in the way I've got our groceries organized. Then tomorrow I'll get to listen to the S.O. curse when he can't find his cereal. Good times.

The canning jars filled with odds and ends seemed to be a thing at the antiques mall where I got the Atlas jar. Very strange. I probably spotted at least a dozen in various vendors' booths. There was another jar filled with sewing notions (old zippers, packages of zig zag tape, etc.), one filled with colorful scraps of cardboard, and a few others. All struck me as very strange. I'm guessing someone got the idea from Pinterest or some decorating magazine. I know there are several publications that specialize in telling people how to decorate with flea market finds. Thus, I'm reasonably sure that whoever sold the jar I bought never considered the possibility that a potential buyer would ever be more interested in the jar's contents than in the jar itself.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Heartbreak at REI


Stairway down to viewing platform at the Devil's Well. It's a humongous
sinkhole with an underground lake. Water from the lake flows through karst
formations to Cave Spring and into the Current River. 
The S.O. and I had a few days off from campground hosting this week -- more than usual because we swapped days with the other hosts -- so have been relaxing at the Younger Daughter's place since Monday. We've done some touristy stuff like visit the Devil's Well and Alley Mill at Ozark National Scenic Riverways, hit a few antique stores and flea markets, and gone up to St. Louis to do some serious shopping. And that's when I experienced heartbreak at REI.

REI no longer carries the Teva sandals I love. These are the sandals I live in for about half the year, depending on where we are. In the U.P. it's more like only a third of the year because even I have to admit that once there's snow on the ground it's no longer sandals weather. I'm not kidding when I say I love these sandals. They're super comfortable and last almost forever. They have, however, gotten to the point where forever is almost here. They're still wearable, but the end is in sight. They're coming up on their six-year anniversary, and pretty soon I'll have to bid them a fond farewell as they hit the trash.

The Alley Mill. Along with the Portland Head Light in Maine and the Mabry
Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway, this has to be one of The Most
Photographed Buildings in the country. Your tax dollars at work: NPS
put a lot of work into it recently; it's looking really good. 
On the other hand, we did find a Lodge cast iron frying pan at REI for sale at the lowest price I've seen on them anywhere so we've added that to the Guppy's gear. Seeing various campers cooking over campfires at Montauk has inspired us to acquire a few items so we can get into doing that, too. Up until now, when camping and cooking combined in my mind, it was more like backpacking cooking: small, lightweight pans used with a buddy burner or a backpacking stove. But if we're going to be where there are actual fire rings and there's plenty of firewood, it makes sense to take advantage of them. One of our flea market finds on Tuesday was a cast iron dutch oven with minimal rust -- the S.O. is going to work on cleaning it up and seasoning it. Tammi tells me one of her friends is the Master of the Dutch Oven: he can cook or bake almost anything in one. I'll have to invest in a camping cookbook and see what we can manage to achieve with ours besides the obvious stews or chili. I can cook on a woodstove -- how much harder can cooking over a campfire be?

The S.O. admiring the Alley Spring. The turbine pit for the mill is behind him;
the mill was powered by a vertically shafted reaction turbine.
And, in one of those it really is a small world incidents, I had the experience of running into someone at REI who had been at Montauk the previous weekend. He and several friends had camped in the basic section for a night before heading out on a canoe trip on the Current. They had made the mistake of asking me for directions to the Baptist Camp put-in. Never having been there, all I knew was that after leaving the campground you turn right on YY and eventually you have to turn right again. I could not remember if there was any signage that would help them. I told them to consult the large map on the front of the shower house. He said they did consult the map and managed to get lost. They had to return to the park and ask at the office for directions. The question did inspire me to put a few Ozark NSR brochures into the shoe box on the campround host's golf cart so that next time (if there ever is one), I can just hand the camper one of them. (I also now know how to give actual directions, having just driven that same way on Monday and seeing for myself just what the road is like and where the turn to Baptist is.)

The mill as seen from the other side of the spring. Over 80
million gallons of water pour out of the Alley Spring daily. 
I really wasn't expecting to run into anyone who had been at Montauk at REI in St. Louis. Most of the campers at the park are more the Orvis store or Bass Pro Shop type of personalities. I have been half expecting to encounter someone here in Farmington, maybe at the local Country Mart or Aldi, because the bonfire crowd had mentioned being from Farmington when we got into the discussion about that trailer load of firewood. So far it hasn't happened, but it won't surprise me if it does.

As for the sandals, I did look in a few other stores hoping to find something similar. No luck. I may have to resort to an online order, something I really hate to do when it comes to footwear.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Relearning coding

Long, long ago in a galaxy far away in the days when personal computers and word processing programs were still a novelty, I attended a university that required graduate students to write their master's theses and doctoral dissertations using Script/GML on a mainframe computer. This didn't bother me much. I had attended Michigan Tech as an undergrad; MTU also encouraged students to write papers using Script/GML on the mainframe so unlike some of my colleagues I was already familiar with commands that created paragraph breaks or defined fonts. MTU, in fact, had a really nifty guide to Script/GML that had been written by an undergraduate in the Scientific and Technical Communications program. It was concise (under 50 pages IIRC), it was easy to follow, and it made perfect sense. Sufferers at VaTech, on the other hand, got stuck with a "user manual" that filled a 2-inch thick 3-ring binder and for all practical purposes was written in Urdu.

Within a few years, of course, the idea of using Script/GML for ordinary word processing was a thing of the past. Even at the time the university was telling grad students to use the mainframe, they were opening more and more computer labs where undergraduates and graduate students alike could use word processing programs like WordPerfect. Personal computers became more and more affordable, and unless a person was a total nerd and liked writing code for the fun of it (or worked in IT) most people forgot (or never knew to begin with) that GML had ever existed.

GML, or General Markup Language, is, of course, the ancestor of HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language. Those of us who blog know some bare bones HTML, like the commands for bolding text or inserting a link into a comment. Most of us would be thoroughly screwed, however, if we had to do anything that involved messing with the underlying architecture of a web page. What usually isn't obvious to the casual blogger or web site reader is that every web page is actually a table. Bloggers don't have to create that table: companies like Google or Yahoo or WordPress have already built basic templates that allow people with zero actual technical skills to create a web site, whether it's for a small business or for a blog, that looks good and doesn't require us to do much more than ordinary typing. We don't need to know how the cells on the table are defined; we're never going to have to worry about it.

Unless, of course, you find yourself in the awkward position of having to make updates to a website that was created using one host and then got transferred to another. That's when suddenly what you get to see are not nice neat blocks of text that would be remarkably easy to tweak. The days of being able to just log into Yahoo and make edits the way a person can log into Blogger and mess with blog posts are gone. Nope. The poor fool who's now the webmaster (mistress?) gets to use WinSCP to get into the bare bones of the website and work in HTML. What she gets to see is line after line of code defining first the table layout and then what goes into the different cells. A block of text that is multiple paragraphs on the website gets displayed as one line of text that goes off into infinity when it's displayed in HTML. That's when a person starts to wish that she had kept the Dream Weaver manual from a 2005 training instead of doing the ethical thing and leaving it at the office when she changed employers.

I am, in case there was any doubt, referring to the website for the Baraga County Historical Museum. Why the website had to move from one host to another is a long, unpleasant story. Suffice to say that what seemed like a good idea back in 2003, or whenever the museum's original website was created, turned out to be not such a hot idea eleven years later. The person who did the original work on the site became disabled so could no longer do updates, and there were problems with Yahoo. End result? The site is now hosted by Baraga Telephone (aka UP.net). If we have a problem with them, we can drive to the office and complain in person. Unfortunately, although they will provide some technical help, when it comes to the actual editing and updating that's our headache. Or, more precisely at the moment, mine.

Which is kind of why I'm wishing I remembered more from the days when I used GML. Not that it would help much -- HTML may have evolved from GML, but it has quite a few new elements. I had planned to work on updating the website while we're on the road. I can do that from any place we have an Internet connection. I'd also planned to have it all go faster than it actually has. I didn't realize until I actually got into the site to see the coding just how sloppy it all was (is?). Lots and lots of repetitive commands, for example, like multiple span definitions for no apparent reason, and other weirdness. It's been years since I had to do anything involving coding, but I know it should look a lot cleaner than this stuff does. HTML is very logical; this stuff just looks messy. In short, it's not just a case of fixing what's visible to site visitors; it's also a case of cleaning up the coding behind the scenes. The site was originally created using a Yahoo template; one can only assume that's where most of the sloppy stuff originated. I guess it's kind of like making a dress: if it looks good on the side people see, no one cares much about all the knots and snarled thread hiding on the inside of the seams.

On the other hand, the lines of code are starting to make sense, I've succeeded in cleaning up a few typos in the text (although there are still some huge glaring ones I haven't gotten to yet), I removed some dead links from a page referencing other sites relating to Baraga County, and I've begun improving the Publications page. (Take my word for it -- it's better now than it was a week ago.) Baby steps. If past experience is any guide, if I can manage to do a little bit every day or so, it won't take me too much longer to figure out what I need to do to clean up all of the problems.

In the meantime, if either of my two readers knows anything about HTML, take a look at the museum's home page and tell me what to look for to fix that annoying problem with the menu on the left. The background color makes it just about impossible to see the links to the other pages. It's a puzzle I know I'll eventually solve, but being handed a hint to speed the process along would be nice. Kiitos paljon.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

How did we manage before?

I was doing some wandering around the Intertubes, researching campgrounds that would fit into the tentative itinerary the S.O. and I have been contemplating for the month of April, and it hit me: How did people do this stuff before? The answer is obvious -- before the Internet, they relied on publications like the Good Sam guides and the telephone. And before that, they'd just show up at campgrounds and hope there was space available on a first come, first served basis.

There are still campers who do that. Every time I help in the fee booth I see a few campers who just show up hoping there's space available. Montauk State Park still has sites that are non-reservable; they're filled on a walk-in (drive-in?) basis. Not all campgrounds are like that; more and more are going to a 100% reservable status. Which means the odds of someone who's doing a spontaneous camping expedition finding a space on the spur of a moment are getting slimmer and slimmer. There were a couple weekends in October where we wound up putting out the No Vacancy sign at the fee booth pretty early in the afternoon, and I'm sure the same thing will happen this month. If the weather forecast hadn't included rain and a flash flood alert, we might have had to do it yesterday: every single reserveable site, with the exception of one or two handicapped accessible spaces, was reserved. For some reason, though, the first come sites filled up slowly. There were still quite a few available when our shift in the booth ended. This weekend, incidentally, is typical of most weekends during the "on season" here. From now through October, most Fridays and Saturdays the reservable sites are already sold out. Montauk is a popular park. But, as usual, I digress.

There was a time when the spontaneous aspect of just wandering aimlessly and hoping to find a decent place to park the Guppy for a few nights would have appealed to me. I must be getting old because now I prefer a little more structure. I want an itinerary that includes definite stops, places where I know when we get there, we won't find ourselves driving around a campground, circling like sharks hoping to spot a slow or stupid seal, looking for an open site that isn't too muddy, too out in the open or (alternatively) right under a hazard tree, or too close to the sites next to it. I want to be able to stop at a campground's fee booth/check station and say those magic words: "We have a reservation." I find myself getting really annoyed at the campgrounds that have web sites that are basically just glorified Yellow Pages advertisements -- no interactive features, no online ability to reserve a site, just an 800 number to call. I want to be able to do this stuff at a time that is convenient to me (5 a.m.?), not between the normal business hours of 8 and 5. I don't want to have to deal with humans. Humans make mistakes. They misspell names, transpose numbers, and sell people's credit card information to their shady acquaintances.

In short, what could end up determining the April itinerary is which state park systems and which private campgrounds have decent online reservation systems in place and which don't. At this point, avoiding burning up Tracfone minutes is trumping most other factors. The exceptions will come when (if?) it turns out the only campgrounds reasonably close to where we want to be in our ambles are still doing business using goose quills and parchment. I'm hoping I don't stumble across too many of them.

As for the itinerary, so far it's made it into Arkansas and Crater of Diamonds State Park. We've always been a little bit curious about a place where you can supposedly find actual diamonds in the dirt. I wasn't too impressed with the website -- it has only one photo of a campsite, and you don't get to pick a specific site yourself -- but it is an online reservation system so I won't complain too much about its flaws. The S.O. and I did kick around the idea of stopping in Hot Springs for a few days -- the National Park Service has a nice campground at Gulpha Gorge (first come, first served for every site, but I'll make exceptions to my preference for online reservations when it's an NPS campground) -- but we've decided to focus our amblings this Spring on places neither of us has been before.

And now back to the Internet and trying to figure out what looks good in Texas.

It has struck me that our amblings in the Guppy aim us in the opposite direction of most RVs with cold state plates in April. We're going South when most retirees will be heading North. The annual snowbird migration is beginning; we've already had a couple of retirees pass through here on their way north from Texas to Illinois. I guess the people going north now just don't realize that April is the best month of the year in Texas.