Education of a cheechako

I’m going to write this all up as a learning experience.

It’s not that I haven’t been in cold weather before. It’s that I haven’t had to do so much stuff in the middle of cold weather.

When I was a kid up in Kentucky (we moved to Florida when I was 10), icy winter weather was a mindless novelty. It was an adventure. I had a lot more fun with the frozen pipes, icy driveways and big piles of snow than my parents did.

Some years later, when I was in college at UGA, cold weather was still an adventure. All I had to manage was a walk to class. When a serious ice storm took down power lines all around Athens, it wasn’t anything to be concerned about – rather, it was an opportunity to see if there were any young ladies around who might need some help keeping warm in the evening.

In my distant and misspent youth, romps around high altitudes, snow fields and glaciers in places like Alaska, Montana and Colorado were just temporary visits to frozen wastelands. A few days (or weeks) of wicked low temperatures and it was back to summer in Florida and Georiga.

When the low temperatures visit the usually steamy swamp, however, it’s a bit different. It’s still an adventure of sorts – just an adventure that could end with some expensive repairs to cracked water pipes, water pumps and screened enclosures.

This morning when I cranked my trusty truck to let it warm up for the trip in to the Monday morning school drop-off and then work, the temperature sensor (which I have now nicknamed “Sherlock”) alternated between flashing “17″ and “ICE”. In the process of getting the road show rolling, I learned a few things:

1. Electric garage door openers will indeed freeze. But a few good pokes with a hoe-handle will get them in the mood again.

2. When it gets really, really cold, sometimes a truck tire will go nearly flat for no good reason.

3. Air compressors are argumentative little bastards when it’s 17 degrees.

4. The moisture that escapes from a tire air valve can freeze instantly when it’s cold enough. This not only renders an air pressure gauge completely usesless; it can also jam the air valve open and let out ALL of the air in the tire.

5. As you watch all of the air hiss out through a frozen tire valve, you can create an amazing number of entertaining phrases out of words with no more than four letters.

6. The electric garage door opener, the power outlets in my garage workshop and our heat pump were all wired through the same circuit breaker by the dumbass who built our house.

7. Spicing up your entertaining phrases with 9- and 12-letter words can actually help you keep warmer while you reset circuit breakers, track down power outlets on the external GFCI loop and inflate flat tires.

8. With the truck engine running, the defroster blowing full speed and the door closed, it’s impossible for a four-year-old in the back of my truck cab to hear me screaming entertaining phrases at the top of my lungs. I hope.

9. Even after all of this, I still managed to get to work before two-thirds of our staff. So I am not the biggest cheechako in the bunch.


I have more white athletic socks than the average junior varsity football team.

No, it’s not some kind of bizarre sports memorabilia fetish. Neither do I have a rare skin disorder.

In fact, my sizeable collection of white socks is entirely involuntary. Certainly, over the years I’ve bought a few pairs of low-cut socks so I could fashion-style around the golf course. But the sheer volume of high-top, crew-top and roll-top white socks I attribute more to family tradition than anything else.

For many years, every Christmas I received a fresh 6-pack of brand-new, white athletic socks. Some guys get ties. I got socks. Old-fashioned, white sweat socks. The tradition was temporarily suspended this year when, owing to some sort of rip in the fabric of space-time I received instead a 3-pack of black dress socks – but I’m sure that’s only a brief glitch.

Somehow, I’m sure, the beginning of the odd tradition was connected to my Dad’s 40-year history as a high school football coach. Wishful thinking perhaps, in a sort of “if we give him enough socks, maybe he’ll run faster” way? I doubt it. Since my early youth, it’s been pretty obvious that I was never cut out to be a champion cross-country runner or an Olympic sprinter. I was always more of a “squat 450 pounds and knock guys down” type.

I’m not much of a runner, jogger, race-walker, cyclist or any other type of high-volume consumer of athletic socks. I’m also not such a total yee-ha that I wear white socks to my office job, so you may imagine that a 6-pack a year is considerably more athletic sockage than I require. Which, in turn, means that there’s a considerable stack of the damned things up on the top rack of my closet.

While I full well understand that there are a number of creative ways to use white socks that don’t necessarily involve wearing them on my feet, I’m just not that much of an enthusiast for sock puppets, home-made boxing gloves or other DIY solutions. I have a moral compunction against using them to strain cottage cheese and, since I moved away from those noisy neighbors, I have had no compelling reason to consider stuffing them with C4, coating them in axle grease and using them as sticky bombs.

So there they sit on my closet rack, leering down at me like the ill-mannered offspring mob of a prolific pair of crew-topped rabbits. The commercial possibilities of “” seem pretty limited, so I guess I’m stuck with the fecking things for now.

Unless, of course, some generous reader is just dying to trade me his copy of “Case Blue” for a couple 6-packs of white athletic socks.

Science and monsters

My Dad was a scientist and a teacher. He spent more than 35 years teaching high-school lunkheads like me the wonders of physics, chemistry, geology and sometimes even physiology.

Yesterday would have been his 78th birthday. “Would have been” because, come December 14, it will be three years since he passed away.

Among other things, my Dad instilled in me a love and respect for science. While I didn’t quite manage to follow in his footsteps, I carry with me the deep curiosity and sense of wonder at the universe around me that I developed through his teaching. This is a big place that we all live in, and isn’t it truly marvelous (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) that we will never, ever have all of the answers to all of our questions?

So yesterday I spent some quiet time reflecting on the state of science and scientific inquiry here in the American corner of the world. It’s pretty depressing, frankly: Science as a political football; “science” characterized as the evil, polar opposite of “religion” in the popular press. It’s an over-reaction, I know, because the situation is not the same in the big, wide world – but sometimes it seems to me that the popular perception of science is waging a precarious battle against the onset of a new, politicized Dark Ages in what was once the world’s leading nation of scientific achievement.

Within my own, small personal orbit I know people who consider “science” to be some sort of multi-tentacled monster, conjured from the sin of disbelief and destined to be the doom of mankind. All I can do is wonder: When did ignorance become such a respected civic virtue?

There are monsters, of course. But “science” isn’t one of them.

The monsters are us.

Día de mi familia

For most folks in these United States, the almost-holiday of Halloween isn’t much of a holiday at all – and it hardly bears any philosophical importance of note beyond, perhaps, deep debates about how many pieces of sugary candy somebody can eat in a day before they develop instantaneous diabetes.

Around our little slice of swamp, however, Halloween is a red-letter day. But that’s not because we’re an uncontrollable mob of candy-lovers, or because we’re stoked with anticipation of Pastor’s upcoming All-Saints Day sermon.

The morning of October 31, 2005 was chilly and rainy as my wife and I stood outside the US Embassy in Guatemala City, trying to keep our 8-month-old son warm and dry while simultaneously digging through our paperwork to find the appointment slip demanded by Mister Whackenhut Guard with a Shotgun and an Attitude.

Oct. 31, 2005. Dressed up to meet Uncle Sam.

Halloween, 2005. Dressed up to meet Uncle Sam.

I was pissed off, to put it mildly; pissed off in a very special look-you-little-shit-I’m-an-American sort of way. It was 8 a.m., cold, and raining on my wife and baby and here I was debating civics lessons with a snotty, five foot tall rent-a-cop just to gain access to my own damned embassy.

Our embassy experience wasn’t exactly a jolly welcome to Guatemala’s little slice of the land of the free and the home of the brave. The place was a cold and imposing urban fortress, guarded not by nattily-attired US Marines but by some seriously unhelpful local security grunts. The Whackenhut Ranger was getting just as soaked as we were, though, so after we produced the appointment slip we were allowed to make our way through the metal detectors and concrete truck-bomb barriers and into the embassy.

After 10 days in Guatemala City, we had only managed to gain our 8:30 a.m. interview appointment by dint of a small miracle. A few days earlier we had been told that the embassy staff couldn’t possibly find time for our 10-minute interview any earlier than Nov. 14. Since we didn’t fly back down to Guatemala until the embassy had informed us our appointment would be within a week, we were extremely aggravated to discover ‘one week’ actually meant ‘three weeks, maybe’.

And then – a minor miracle. Just moments after receiving anxious inquiries about our case from the offices of US Rep. Cliff Stearns and US Sen. Bill Nelson, the embassy staff discovered they had an open appointment much earlier.

Never, ever underestimate the political power of four registered-voter grandparents armed with telephones.

As our embassy interview concluded and we handed over the requisite paperwork, the staffer informed us that our son’s visa would be issued that afternoon at 2:30 p.m. She handed me another appointment slip for the Whackenhut Rangers. I couldn’t help notice that behind her, in the easily-visible embassy offices, most of the rest of the staff was very busy decorating the place for Halloween.

“You’re not closing up early today for any sort of Halloween party, are you?” I asked nervously. By many accounts of some fellow Americans we had met, the embassy kept notoriously spotty hours and seemed to close up and cancel appointments whenever they felt like it.

“Probably not,” she shrugged.

Great. Don’t mind us. We only have a flight back home booked tomorrow.

All-American Halloween 2009.

All-American Halloween 2009.

When we returned around 2 p.m., the embassy lobby was a good deal more crowded. Most of the Guatemalans waiting for their visas were at the very end of a process that had stretched across years. We shared their anxiety as the embassy staff called out names in groups of 6 or 7.

2:30 came and went. Then it was 2:45. 3:00 p.m.

“They close at four, don’t they?” my wife and I asked each other about ten times in five minutes.

3:15 p.m. and another group of names. “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Foster.”

The embassy staffer behind the little window smiled as we propped Juan Carlos up on the counter. She was wearing a nice set of vampire fangs. We encountered a lot of people – adults – sporting fangs that day. No ‘Dracula’ costumes or anything like that. Just fangs.

It took away a little something of the Cecile B. Demille drama of the moment, I must say, to be handed our son’s visa documents by a fanged functionary.

But there it was. A thick manilla envelope with an embassy seal over the flap, to be handed – unopened – to an immigration officer at the airport in the US.

As we left the embassy it was still cloudy and crappy outside. The Whackenhut Rangers were dispersing the line at the security checkpoint because the embassy was getting ready to close. I checked my watch. 3:45 p.m., October 31, 2005.

It was official. We were a family.

Rocket beef

If you’re too young to remember the heady, early days of the US space program maybe you’ve at least had the opportunity to read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”. Or maybe you’ve seen the movie – giving you at least a taste of the big adventure. Back in the day, space exploration commanded a large chunk of America’s attention.

As a young lad, my imagination was entirely captured by all things space. I was a certified junior rocket geek. The space program stoked my thirst for knowledge, set me to furiously reading books and newspapers and even piqued my interest in math and physics as I embarked on my own ambitious program of model-rocket building.

I was reflecting on those pioneer days of decades past while watching modern-day NASA’s efforts to launch their first ‘new’ rocket since the early 1980s – the Ares 1-X. NASA-TV is a staple of our satellite TV now as my four-year-old junior rocket geek is experiencing his own infatuation with All Things Space. NASA’s web site video feed is also a handy thing to run in the background when a launch is pending during work hours.

My, how things have changed.

They finally launched it.

They finally launched it.

I mean, seriously, what has happened to the prototypical buzz-cut, steely-eyed test pilots and chain-smoking engineers? Have they all been consigned to the dustbin of history? It’s not that the 2009 version of NASA is necessarily timid, but they certainly do seem to have a heightened sense of the budgetary consequences of failure.

The phrase “Let’s light this candle!” seems particularly absent from current NASA nomenclature. I couldn’t help but notice this as the Ares launch team waited and plotted their way to a launch window through the Cape’s aggravating cloud cover. The launch was scrubbed on Monday and re-scheduled multiple times on Tuesday while the NASA krewe fretted about something called the “tribo electrification rule”.

Blah-blah-blah, scooby-dooby-do. The what? Jesus Jiminy pissing into the wind, they were worried about the edge of some batch of clouds within a half-mile of the launch pad.

Back when I was a boy, nobody worried about the effin’ clouds. Clouds? Hell, we had the Communist Red Freedom-Hating Soviet Damn Russians to worry about. Nobody gave a rat’s ass about some bozo clouds. Clouds near the launch pad weren’t going to interfere with America’s remit to spread Democracy to the Moon and beyond, dammit.

In fact, I don’t think the Goodyear Blimp hovering over a launch pad would have held up a 1960s rocket launch. Our rockets had fighter pilots strapped to their noses and men who built ballistic missiles for a hobby lighting the fuses. NASA rockets were big enough, fast enough and just plain damn American enough that it didn’t matter what they ran into – they would win.

The Rocketdyne A-7 engine that shot Alan Sheppard off into the Atlantic generated a tad over 80,000 pounds of thrust. Was he worried about clouds? Hell, no. The Ares 1-X main stage (basically a solid rocket booster cadged from the STS program) generates 3,000,000 pounds of thrust.

OK, I understand that “Rocketdyne” is a pretty cool name for a prime contractor, especially compared to “Thiokol” (the prime contractor for the SRB). But that’s no excuse for wimpiness. When you’ve got a rocket that can pump out THREE DAMN MILLION pounds of thrust, you could name it “Liberace” and still expect that it would knock the snot out of anything it might run into.

Anyway, they managed to get the thing off the pad finally. And now I read that NASA expects to have it operational in maybe 5 or 6 or 7 years. WTF? NASA needs a serious infusion of square jaws, flat-top haircuts and slide rules. When Apollo 1 burned up on the launch pad in January 1967, it was a total fup-uck for NASA and back to square one. But just two and a half years later, America was landing a man on the friggin Moon. And now they need another 6 or 7 years just to get a new rocket into ORBIT?

O, where have you gone, Kurt Debus?

Opportunities squandered

My “work life” and “hobby life” rarely intersect. In fact, they have very little in common. There is one instance that arises, however, where they come crashing together – usually amidst much aggravation, angst and frustration.

If you’ve ever placed an order (or tried to place an order) ‘direct’ with a wargame publisher through its web site, then you have shared that singular moment with me.

Weekdays from 0830 until 1730, I am a humble e-commerce and online marketing consultant. Five years in the business – and four years before that building and running news web sites – has taught me a lot about how to attract and keep both online audiences in general and paying customers in particular.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many game company web sites piss me off?

Wargaming has always been a ‘niche’ market of the publishing industry. Even in their sales heyday of the late 70s and early 80s, wargames struggled to find shelf space in mainstream book and entertainment stores. Old Avalon Hill had some success using the ‘standard’ retail distribution sales model, but the majority of game companies have always needed some form of direct sales to fill in the money-making gaps.

Direct sales, plainly, are more profitable for a publisher. Instead of selling to a distributor at perhaps 50 or 60 percent of retail price, they can sell at full retail direct to the end-user and nearly double their take on every unit sold.

Obviously, there are advantages to the distributor-based sales channel. Product exposure to more eyeballs, for example. But as the niche market for wargames has contracted over the years, many publishers have discovered that retail’s advantages barely (if at all) counter-balance their diminished margins.

Modern-day direct sales, of course, have shifted to the Internet and e-commerce. E-commerce, properly executed, offers so many sales and marketing advantages that I am always frustrated when some or another game company’s web site confronts me with a long list of squandered opportunities.

Certainly, some companies get it ‘right’ – or at least nearly so. GMT Games pioneered the ‘P500′ pre-order concept, so as you might imagine their e-commerce system does a good job of handling advanced orders. Front-to-back their site design is not thoroughly integrated – sections of their site are still stuck in the last decade compared to their more recent home page design – but overall the site largely succeeds. Their site navigation could stand improvement and their script-heavy home page doesn’t help them in the search engines, but the e-commerce elements of the site are probably the best among game publishers.

As a company almost entirely dependent upon direct sales, the small publisher Victory Point Games also rates pretty highly in my opinion. Their site is clean and well-integrated, although I think their content elements could be stronger. I think they’re also missing out on some search engine and marketing opportunities, but that’s a different kettle of fish.

I give Avalanche Press a lot of credit for trying really hard, but their site is hampered by a dated design and – most importantly – its use of what may be one of the clunkiest ‘stock’ e-commerce engines available in Miva Merchant. On the other hand, they obviously understand the value of relevant content. They also do a good job pounding the bandwidth with daily marketing e-mails. Some folks may think the ‘daily’ frequency is a bit much, but a number of e-marketing studies show that programs of daily frequency tend to drive a lot more revenue than weekly or monthly programs, at least when the e-mails contain the proper mix of content and deadline offers. That said, I imagine that the site’s Miva engine causes more than its fair share of administrative lost time – not to mention its exquisite user-side clumsiness.

Pretty much everybody else: Back to basic training. While e-commerce is by no means easy or without some expense and committment, the return on investment – especially in a well-developed niche market – can make it all very much worthwhile.

Most game publishers are fairly small businesses with limited personnel and other resources – but so are most of the customers I work with every day. It’s just plain aggravating for me to watch companies I would love to see thrive instead consistently shoot themselves in the head.