Purifoy Desert Museum

We recently stayed in Joshua Tree, CA, and visited the National Park, taking half-day hikes amongst the striking geology and trees for which the park is named. We also did some cultural sight-seeing and went to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum nearby. It’s a fascinating assemblage of found objects and junk transmuted into more than 100 works of sculptural art by Noah Purify, who spent the last 15 years of his artistic life living and working in the area. Below is a small sample of the work he created. It’s well worth your time if you’re ever in the area.

April Shorts

I bookmark news items and magazine articles about real life cops and criminals as inspiration and reference for my novels and short stories. Here’s a few recent pieces I found interesting.

The Font Detectives
Little did I know there’s now a whole world of typography “detectives” who ferret out fakes and forgeries based on close scrutiny of the fonts used in suspect documents. This is a fascinating story of techno-geeky, crime-solving ingenuity.

The Queen of Crime Solving
With imagination and scientific rigor, forensic scientist Angela Gallop has helped to crack many of the UK’s most notorious murder cases. Someone needs to turn this woman’s career into a mystery series right now.

What Happens When You Enter the Witness Protection Program?
An older article, but a useful one for any crime writers who want to understand how the Witness Protection Program works, its history, its successes and failures. For even more details, you may want to pick up the book it’s based on—Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program by Pete Earley.

Dark Pigeons
This Science article on a possible evolutionary advantage of pigeons with dark feathers inspired my science fiction story When Dark Pigeons Rule.

The Pixelon Con

I’m always up for a good story about con men and/or con women. It’s fascinating to see how people get away with the lies and fabrications that keep their con going. It’s equally fascinating to see how the con unravels (because they always do). We may even admire the chutzpah of someone who tries to pull off the big con. For pure chutzpah the story of Michael Fenne and Pixelon is hard to beat. I used it as the inspiration for my fictional company, Eyebitz.com, in the first Rolly Waters mystery Black’s Beach Shuffle. Here’s a screenshot of the Pixelon’s homepage, circa 2000.

Seems legit, right? The promise of streaming video was a big deal in 2000.

The potential for high quality video on the Internet was a kind of holy grail in 1999 (Youtube didn’t happen until 2005). Pixelon claimed they’d invented a faster and more efficient format of video compression and investors forked over millions of dollars to finance this potentially game-changing company. But by June of 2000 Pixelon was bankrupt. It had been a scam from the very start.

In my earlier post, Confessions of a Dot Com Boomer, I talked about my time in the multimedia department of MP3.com. The company’s main revenue source at that time was the advertising we sold on free promotional CDs. One of the first companies to advertise with us was Pixelon. As part of the contract we were required to install Pixelon software on the CD and use it to show videos from the CD.

Not the “Pixelon ENHANCED” at the bottom right. A meaningless designation.

The Pixelon software seemed questionable to our technical staff right from the start. It appeared to be using standard MPEG compression (like on DVDs) packed inside a “wrapper” of programming code. To explain in layman terms it’s like having a shirt, then putting the shirt in a suitcase, closing the suitcase and telling everyone your shirt is now “enhanced.” There was nothing new about Pixelon’s technology.

It was not our place to question such details, however. The marketing department had a $1 million contract on the line. We installed the software (with a great deal of difficulty but that’s another story) and sent out the CDs. Meanwhile Pixelon was spending millions on its product launch party, iBash99, which included The Who, KISS, Faith Hill and any number of other popular music acts. The company would broadcast the event live using their new software. It was a technological disaster and very few people, if any, were able to stream the live video. The company spent $16 million on the event, 80% of their total assets.

As it turned out, Michael Fenne was really David Kim Stanley, a convicted felon who’d moved to California but was wanted by police in Virginia. Both charismatic and terrifying, he’d managed to talk a few early investors into his scheme and soon others had followed. Like many con artists, Stanley kept doubling down, making his scam bigger and bigger. A sharp-eyed creditor spotted Stanley’s photo on a most-wanted website and reported him to the police. Before long Stanley was back in jail and Pixelon was out of business. And MP3.com never got paid for the advertising.

While some of the details of Rolly’s investigation into Eyebitz came from my time working at MP3.com, the deception at the heart of the story was based on the Pixelon scam.

David Kim Stanley “God has blessed me with a unique ability to defy reality”

Pixelon: The True Story of Streaming Video’s Greatest Fraud

Camp Callan

In my first Rolly Waters mystery, Black’s Beach Shuffle, much of the action takes place in the Torrey Pines Mesa/Black’s Beach area. If you’ve visited Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, you may have come across this memorial for Camp Callan, which served as an anti-aircraft artillery replacement training center from January, 1941 to November, 1945. I’ve posted earlier about the vestiges of World War II history you can still find in the area around La Jolla, including the Guns of Bird Rock and Camp Matthews, but the area on the mesa and the beach was also an important part of the war effort.

The Army leased 750 acres of Torrey Pines Mesa from the City of San Diego which extended from the southernmost boundaries of Torrey Pines Park towards what became Muir Campus at UCSD. In return for an occupational permit to use the lower portion of the park, the military had to guarantee that no part of the park would be damaged and the park itself was kept open to the public. The area covered by the camp included what is now the southern edge of the current park as well as the Torrey Pines Golf Course, Muir Campus at UCSD, the Scripps Green Hospital and the Salk Institute and residential areas.

In June 1944 the training emphasis was changed and the camp began to prepare recruits for overseas amphibious assaults. On November 1, 1945, three months after the end of the war with Japan, Camp Callan was declared surplus. The San Diego City Council negotiated with the War Department to acquire all the buildings, which were then torn down and re-used for lumber to build homes for veterans. Many San Diego houses still standing today have frames built from the wood of structures at Camp Callum.

Recruits assault the cliffs above Black’s Beach. Photo from San Diego History Center
Recruits practice abandoning ship from the Scripps Pier. Photo from San Diego History Center
Nurses took part in the abandoning ship drills as well. Photo from San Diego History Center

Suspicious Vehicle

“Cops hated musicians, especially at two-thirty in the morning…They were preternatural enemies, musicians and cops, as far as Rolly could tell, complete opposites in temperament, personality, style.

Black’s Beach Shuffle
Who’re they looking for? They were looking for me.

I recently posted the story of my band’s drummer getting mugged after a gig. While I didn’t have nearly as many run-ins with cops and criminals as Rolly Waters does, it’s still an occupational hazard for a lot of working musicians. Let’s face it, the only people around at two-thirty in the morning are cops, criminals, graveyard shift workers and musicians. I was pulled over more than once by the police on my way home from a gig (I passed the sobriety tests, yay!).

But one thing I never expected was when my brother and I almost got arrested outside my own house, just after we’d unpacked the van and were ready to call it a night. The cops were professional, almost gentlemanly, but it was still an unsettling experience.

Coming home from the gig, I pulled up outside my house in Zeke, my Volkswagen van. We had to unpack the equipment and store it in the garage. For some reason, which I don’t remember, I didn’t pull into the driveway as usual but parked on the street while my brother ran in to unlock the garage. His short dash proved to be our undoing.

As we unpacked the gear, we noticed a police helicopter flying over the neighborhood, which wasn’t unusual for that part of San Diego (North Park) at that time. By the time we finished unpacking the helicopter had moved closer to our street. We made a joke about needing to get inside before the crooks ran through the neighborhood. I glanced up the street and spotted a patrol car heading towards us. Its headlights were off.

Then bam! The police helicopter’s spotlight was on us. The police cruiser zipped in behind our van. A cop jumped out and stared at us from behind the protection of his open door. He might have had his hand on his gun (in my fictional retelling he’ll have the gun drawn). I don’t remember if my brother and I actually verbalized our thoughts at the moment, but we both essentially thought, “Oh shit.”

“Good evening,” said the cop. “What’s going on here, guys?”

“This is my house,” I said, falteringly. It was the only thing I could think of to say. Two other police cars arrived, surrounding the van.

“We’ve had a report of a burglary,” the first cop said. He moved onto the sidewalk. “Please put your hands on the car.”

We dutifully followed his orders. The helicopter continued to hover overhead.

After that it’s a bit of a blur. They asked for our IDs. We explained why we were there at 2:30 in the morning. They checked inside the van and searched us as well. One of the other cops walked into our driveway, using his flashlight to search for any evidence of a crime. Eventually they let us go.

It turned out that one of our night owl neighbors had spotted my brother running in to the garage and decided a robbery was taking place. The cops said I should be glad that my neighbors were keeping tabs on things. I was annoyed that my neighbor didn’t notice it was the same Volkswagen van that sat in my driveway every day. I still suspect the cat lady across the street of calling it in.

Zeke at the scene of the crime
Zeke at the scene of the crime

I’ve often wondered how it might have turned out differently if the cops had turned up when we were hauling the equipment or if they would have treated us differently if we’d been younger men or of a different skin color. Hard to say. At any rate, it was a memorable and somewhat disturbing evening.

I should also point out that my wife, who was in the back bedroom, managed to sleep through the whole thing.