Mangan’s memoirs

The kind of week I’ve had

Actually nothing bad happened to me at all, but a wash of gloom at work has made this one of least blissful weeks in about as long as I can remember. I’m sure glad it’s Friday. What it was like:

Monday: After reading a story about the U.S. military apologizing because a bunch of young boys had been accidentally killed in an airstrike (kept in harm’s way by Afghan insurgents, some say), I read a story about a child-porn ring being run out of the UK in which unspeakable acts were performed live over the web on very young victims. Then I found out what happened to this soldier we wrote a huge series of articles about chronicling his recovery from a bomb blast that left a massive dent in the side of his skull. Something went wrong with his most recent surgery, leaving him brain dead and his family planning how to harvest his organs. Never knew the him beyond what we put in the paper, but I found myself thinking I really wanted that guy to live.

Tuesday: Word comes down that layoffs are on the way. As it turns out this would be the least-negative thing that would happen this week.

Wednesday: A co-worker well-liked by the whole newsroom dies suddenly at age 44. There’s no explanation for the cause of death, but we’ve been in the news biz long enough to know a cause of death is almost always given, with one exception.

Thursday: The newsroom is more like a funeral home; a vigil is held near the fountains outside in which co-workers praise the many qualities of our fallen colleague. The more nice things are said about him, the harder it is to reconcile the likelihood that he took his own life. Even harder to reconcile is the reality that whatever may have driven him to his grim departure, there was nothing we could’ve done because he gave no outward sign of trouble.

Friday: I’m strangely optimistic, a week like this has nowhere to go but up, right?

Dogs of doom, howling more

I just wanted to use that headline, which is from one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, called, cheerily enough, “No Quarter.”

No quarter means no mercy, a fitting description of how things are going at the good ol’ Mercury News these days. Come July 2, another round of slashing happens. We’ve got around 240 newsies drawing paychecks; the bosses want that number to be 200. They get what they want, which is the cool thing about being bosses.

Just like the last time this happened, nobody knows who gets the ax until the phone rings Monday morning, July 2. Presumably they do this for maximum productivity and minimum liability, but it obliges an entire newsroom to assume their jobs are not safe when 83 percent of the staff will remain. Upside is, we don’t have to suffer all this angst for 60 days like the last time.

Here’s the way things work in the business world: our union signed a contract with management in which they promised us there’d be no layoffs before the 30th of June. As far as I was concerned, it was as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise that layoffs would resume in earnest on the First of July. See what a pessimist I was? They’re actually happening on the Second, a full 24 hours later.

As I see it, it’s win-win: if no call comes July 2, I get to keep my job. If the call does come, I get lots of time off to explore all the opportunities I might’ve missed while working at the Mercury News.

As I said a couple weeks back, it’s a fun time to work in the newspaper biz.

Something that could happen only on the Internet

A couple summers back I went to the San Jose Grand Prix and did a write-up here. I posted this at the end of it.

The Marine Corps’ “chin-up challenge” attracted a bunch of muscular
guys. A T-shirt went to anybody who could chin up to this bar 20 times; this
guy had a surfer’s build and looked plenty strong enough to do the whole 20.
He quit after five, which made me wonder if he looked down at those Marines
starting to like the looks of him and started wondering if the grand prize was
an all-expense-paid trip to Baghdad.

Today, nearly two years later, a guy named John C. Anderson came upon this post and added the following comment:

I took the Marine Challenge in Davenport, Iowa.

I did 28 chinups and won a cap as well as a t shirt.
My older brother was a Marine, my younger brother was a Marine, but I was too busy bumming around my mother’s bars to go into the corp. And I probably wasn’t tough enough or disciplined enough to make it anyway.

So, I was proud to win the shirt and the cap and the Marines were proud of me.

Twenty eight chinups isn’t bad for a sixty two year old man.

Not bad, indeed, Mr. Anderson.

What a great time to work for a newspaper

The scene is a crowded meeting room full of nervous newsies. I cheer myself by noting our staff still outnumbers the available seating. Having to stand means there’s still flesh on the bones of this beast of a daily paper we put out.

Carole Leigh Hutton, our brand new executive editor, is having her first news conference with the staff, and she’s getting grilled like Tony Snow might if he’d just announced President Bush is bringing back the draft and college deferments will not be granted to the sons and daughters of the working press.

Hutton says layoffs are a certainty, but can’t say how many, or precisely when we’ll know who gets the ax. She does know that the annual budget she and her colleagues in the adminisphere are putting together will require cost cuts, and the numbers have to be assembled by the end of this month. Then, to their minds, the sooner they cut costs (meaning, us), the better chance they’ll have to make their budget numbers.

A newsroom full of reporters is bound to have questions, none of them polite. Just down from me, standing against the back wall, a young business reporter asks Hutton the least polite question of the day.

“Suppose I’m not laid off and get to keep my job,” she says. “Why would I want to stay?”

Nervous laughter across the room.

Finally, Hutton has a chance to say something that won’t add more goodies to our shopping bag of dread. And, finally, a newspaper executive says publicly what I’ve been thinking for the past couple years: the newspaper biz is broken, badly, and has to be transformed into something else — something, you know, large numbers of people want to read every day and advertisers will want to advertise in — and the transformation has to come soon.

So, those of us who get to keep our jobs get to be the transformers.

This could be a great thing. It reminds me of when Caterpillar Inc., which pretty much owns my hometown, was in dire straits in the early 1980s. Cat lost billions while laying off tens of thousands of my neighbors back in Peoria, but it did do something right: it retooled its outdated machinery and turned itself into one of the most efficient manufacturers on the planet. Today Cat’s still the earth’s biggest, baddest purveyor of fine heavy earthmoving machinery.

Technology and brain power saved Cat: They just went out and bought a bunch of robots to do jobs previously performed by people. Our problem is there are no robot manufacturers, to date, capable of automating what we do. And even if there were, our industry would not buy their products. Technology is not our thing. Our editing system is 20 years old. Our page-production system is 10 years old. Newspapers sat on their hands while Yahoo, Ebay and Google invented Internet commerce, and now it all belongs to them.

I used to think I’d always have a career as long as local businesses needed to advertise in their local rag. Frankly, I’m not sure they need to anymore. They can just flog their wares on Ebay for next to nothing and anybody with a computer can track ’em down in seconds. All across the newspaper biz, papers are seeing, for the first time, declining revenues. Used to be they could charge higher prices for ads and subscriptions because people had no choice but to pay. Now they have a choice, and that choice is biting our business in the butt cheeks.

In the old days, newspapers made so much money that they could print pretty much anything they wanted in their news columns. It got Nixon tossed out of office but it also created an environment where people got out of the habit of fighting and scratching to hold an audience. We’ve all got flabby beer guts where our save-the-industry washboard abs need to be.

Our new executive editor told us we have to stop doing things the old way and start building a product the market wants. I’d like a chance to take a crack at it. Heck, if the folks back in P-town could rescue a Dow 30 company from certain doom, maybe folks like us have a chance at turning our biz around.

Yeah, things look bleak today. And they’ll get worse in a couple weeks when more of us get our walking papers. And it won’t be easy trying to save a business with the people who got us in this fix to begin with. Newspapers used to be like the communist bloc before the Berlin Wall fell: they had a monopoly that gave them short-term power, but the corruption of power was eating away at their prospects for long-term survivability.

Well, the Wall has fallen.

Trying to build something from the rubble will be some fun, I expect. Am I worried about getting the ax? Not really. There are other ways of making a living. If I am shown the door, well, all I can say is, good luck rescuing the patient without people who believe the patient’s life is worth saving.

I’m not giving up on newspapers till they give up on me.

Dowdy Ranch Visitor Center opens at Henry Coe State Park

Henry Coe State Park is like a supermodel girlfriend. Difficult, at times impossible, yet impossible to stop looking at. And gorgeous from every angle.

I found another of those angles on Saturday at the grand opening of the Dowdy Ranch Visitors Center. Getting there requires an hour’s drive south from San Jose, crossing one of the deadliest highways in the region and rattling one’s ribs for another half-hour along 7.3 miles of curvy, hilly, dusty gravel road. But of course, it was worth it.

The visitor center has been in the works for over two decades. First the state parks people had to buy the last couple miles of road to Dowdy Ranch, then it had to find funding to build the visitors center, then it had to find volunteers to staff the center, since the state generously provided money to build it and ingeniously provided no money to staff it. In any case, all the ducks were in a row on Saturday when then the ribbon was cut.

So let’s take us a look at some pictures:

Big cat country

Upon arrival, we notice this cool sign cautioning people that big cats roam these hills.

Here we are

Melissa scopes out the countryside. Having Melissa along gave me an excellent excuse to hike here on another day (like, say, November, when the weather starts to cool down).

The new visitors center

Behold the Visitors Center. I’m told it was built a year ago but it took all this time to make the final adjustments to get it ready for public consumption. It has running water and flush toilets — borderline plush for these parts.


A horse named Secret await a rider. Equestrians will probably be the most frequent users of this end of the park, I’m guessing.

Oak, sign

An old oak tree and a sign directing hikers, bikers and horse riders to share the trails and register at the headquarters so they’ll know where to send rescue teams.

Overlooking the center

The view from a knoll overlooking the visitors center.

Old-timers checking the Coe map

Guys look over the map and discuss the good old days when they could ride horses back here to their hearts content. I couldn’t help noticing 80-90 percent of the crowd looked to be over 50, which sorta makes me wonder who’s going to take care of this park after they’re gone.

Full parking lot

I’m hazarding a guess this is the last time this parking lot will ever be this full.

Ranger Guy

A ranger reads from a prepared speech to dedicate the visitors center. If anybody got lost in a California state park yesterday and couldn’t find a ranger, it might’ve been because they were all here for the grand opening. “I’ve never seen so many rangers,” somebody told me.

May I have a show of hands?

Ranger asks for a show of hands. This is one of them.

Cutting the ribbon

Finally, the ribbon-cutting. These two girls performed admirably, though I couldn’t help noticing the bigger of the two had an exasperated “geeze, the things my parents put me through” look on her face after it was over.

J.T., hearty hiker

J.T. is a hiker we met; he had been camping in the park since Wednesday and hiked over here for the grand opening.

While J.T. and I were gabbing and watching the opening ceremonies, Melissa was sitting on a park bench in a shady glade, just checking out the scenery. When J.T. and I approached, she shushed us: she was watching a big snake make its way through the brush about 15 feet away. Before that she’d seen a deer trot through, and a bunch of quail dash across the hillside in that way only quail can dash.

Henry Coe is dependable for delivering moments like that, in ways no other park in the Bay Area can.

(For you Coe-philes, here’s a page by a guy who tried to hike all the trails in the park in 40 days. He did all but 50.)

New camera alert

I had to replace my Canon A520, which had developed an annoying tic of not opening its lens cover without assistance from yours truly. Naturally, two years later its replacement, a Canon A710 IS has all sorts of features unavailable on the previous cam — most notably image stabilization, which is designed to reduce shake caused by the hands of incompetent photographers. It appears to work pretty well. I tried it out at Castle Rock State Park and Sanborn-Skyline County Park on Friday. Among the highlights:

Sun fills flower

This is one of my faves: I shot the sun filling this wildflower — called, you guessed it, a sun cup, — by shooting it from behind.

A clearing

It gets the color of the sky right.

Live madrones

Madrones are one of the great challenges for shutter-bugs. They grow in clumps in the forest, where seemingly infinite variations of lighting make it hard for a camera to make up its mind and settle on a shutter/aperture setting. This is one of the better ones, but it still gets the lighter areas washed out a bit.

Shadow of the bug

Another shot from behind — note the bug shadow.

Dead trees

A good dead tree picture pretty much takes itself.

Goat Rock

A climber at Goat Rock.

Nice clouds

Pretty clouds. These were fairly faint but the cam picked them up pretty well.

An iris

An iris: note the capillaries in the leaves. I’m not sure if this its original color or if it’s been bleached in the sun.

Summit Rock

Summit Rock at Sanborn-Skyline County Park. This immense hunk o’ sandstone has been thoughtfully decorated by local high school hooligans.

Hollow tree

A flash might’ve served this image well. It feels kinda flat.

Pretty orange flowers.

Orange flowers shot in macro mode, handheld. Note the bug crawling among them.

Crimson columbine

Another macro shot. This is a crimson columbine … note the fuzz.

Overall it’s a pretty good camera; my previous one never let me shoot any wildflowers in macro mode without a tripod; this one’s pretty good with handheld shots.

I’m sticking with my insistence on using inexpensive point-and-shoots — the A710 street price is about $250 … it uses double-a batteries and SD memory cards. I bought an option package deal with two two-gig cards, a five year extended warranty, a battery charger (with batteries) and a case that fattened the final purchase price by another hundred bucks. Normally I never buy extended warranties but both of my previous Canons have developed malfunctions after the regular warranty had expired; I’m sure this purchase will guarantee a long and healthy life for this latest cam.

Why not just suck it up and buy a digital SLR? Mainly because those have a bunch of features I’d have to learn how to use, and I don’t want to have to haul around all the extra weight. Plus I like the challenge of plucking good pictures from the dross these smaller, less ambitious cams produce.

Priceless Cable TV Moment

The History Channel is showing a documentary called “The Hippies.” It’s Sponsor: The AARP.

Priceless irony of history: California declared LSD illegal. A massive event called the Human Be-In launched on the day the new law went into effect — in defiance of the anti-LSD law — essentially launches the hippy movement, virtually guaranteeing kids across the country would become entranced with the idea of tripping on the newly criminalized psychedelic drug.