Moved to new Blog

3 May

For those who care, I’ve begun a new blog with a focus on cycling and writing. Brilliantly, I’ve called the new blog CyclistWriter. Feel free to drop by or even subscribe.

Bye Bye Croisan Views

10 Mar

This is not the first blog I’ve abandoned. That would be Words at http://www.markeveretthall.com, an experiment I conducted many years ago. I created Words to post some of my old published essays and to play with Apple’s iWeb software, the worst blogging tool I’ve worked with by far. I learned what I could and then, like so many other people, moved on to other things.

In addition to Words and now this, I’ve also dropped two other blogs. One, Sanity as a Service, was for Computerworld and the other ran at TG Daily. Both companies were paying me enough to post regularly, then they changed the deals, so I stopped writing for them.

From the start, Croisan Views was a different kettle of fish. I began it less than eleven months ago with a specific goal: quit after 100 posts or one year, whichever comes first. This is my 100th post.

Millions of individuals have started blogs, then tossed them away for various reasons. Gartner Inc., the market research firm, estimated that as many as 200 million blogs may have been left to rot on the side of the Information Superhighway. As you know, that doesn’t mean there’s a blog famine ahead. WordPress, which hosts Croisan Views (and is the best tool I’ve used to manage a blog), alone has 18 million blogs. Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga, and other sites offer millions upon millions more.

Some bloggers approach their task as if it were a never-ending story, infinite in scope, not unlike the Internet itself. That’s why so many blogs get abandoned by their authors. The work becomes too daunting after the initial rush of good feeling upon seeing their work online. That feeling can give way to despair once the deathly silence of the worldwide web envelops the blog.

Most successful blogs are tightly focused. Whether on technology, politics, baseball, or whatever, they reflect the passions and obsessions of their creators. But I wanted Croisan Views to reflect my overall life during the time I wrote it; a general-interest blog that detailed things that I did as well as the world as I saw it. Yet, I thought the blog should be more than a public airing of my personal diary, something I’ve kept since the 1970s. Admittedly, this strategy is not a recipe for an overwhelmingly successful blog. But it made it a pleasure to write.

As I’ve noted before, I am a numbers-obsessed fella. In addition to my personal output target of 100 posts, I wanted to generate a modicum of traffic to Croisan Views. I thought 5,000 unique visitors in a year was reasonable. I surpassed that number early last month. Lately, I’ve been averaging about 200 people per week, up from around 50 this past autumn.

Getting people to my site was not easy. I lacked an established third-party source, such as Computerworld, to manufacture attention to the blog. I never paid a dime to any SEO company or expert to develop a plan for adding more visitors. Growth, such as it was, was all organic. From its launch last April, it took nearly two months until Google, Bing, and Yahoo began to index Croisan Views. Search engines drive about half the people to this blog. Twitter, where my @Croisan existed until last month, as well as my Facebook account delivered a small, steady number of folks. But it was Reddit and StumbleUpon, which I just started using in January, that gave me the biggest bumps in unique visitors. Although my old blog editor at Computerworld says it’s the top source for her operations, I never used Digg because I find the service tedious.

Choosing accompanying art, as we print-publishing people call any image associated with a story, was one of the more difficult parts of the blog process. I want it to connect in some way to the specific post, but I was limited in my store of images. Virtually every photograph on the blog was taken by me, although my friend Klaus Herzberger snapped the one of me in the Alps and I’ve used public domain images on a couple occasions. Of course, David Leishman generously provided me with magazine covers from his magnificent collection, which I’ve used from time to time.

Croisan Views has been a joy and a burden. As I noted with my post about quitting microblogging at Twitter, keeping a blog is time consuming. Finding good links, responding to comments, choosing and cropping photos, and simply coming up with new ideas and then writing and editing them all take up hours each week. The volume of work I produced here would fill a small book if printed.

I’m glad Croisan Views is done, though I suspect I’ll miss it. I hope in some small way, you will, too.

Hitler Revised: Just Goin’ With the Flow

9 Mar

Bad boy Charlie Sheen’s ravings are strange, even frightening, but nowhere close to the evil rants of Adolf Hitler, the benchmark for public madmen in modern history. Or so I had thought. But it seems that 70-plus years after the start of World War II, historians are updating the common wisdom about the all-powerful German dictator.

Recent revisionist tracts, such as the diplomatic history 1939: Countdown to War by Richard Overy, tell us that Hitler didn’t want to start a world war and had no plans to conquer all of Europe let alone the globe. He merely wanted to make Germany the dominant nation in the middle of the continent. You know, just a little extra room for the German people to stretch out. Nothing to fight about.

On the military and economic history front, Joe Maiolo’s Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931–1941 reveals that Hitler was only keeping pace with the arms buildup among other nations. England has tanks and bombers and warships; France has tanks and bombers and warships; the Soviet Union has tanks and bombers and warships, so, this logic goes, the Third Reich better damn well have tanks and bombers and warships, too. Hitler was simply following the crowd.

The Nazi leader, these tomes argue, was just a victim of his circumstances. Even without him the Second World War would likely have been inevitable. So, you see, Uncle Adolf was just playing out his role in the relentless march of history.

And speaking of Hitler playing his role, it’s now much in vogue to play Hitler in a role on the big screen. Comedies mocking the man tend to be popular among filmmakers, if not audiences, such as the 2007 flop My Fuehrer: The Really Total Truth About Adolph Hitler and this year’s Mein Kampf. (Of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers opened the door for these iffy movies.) But dramas have also emerged, including the riveting 2004 Downfall, about which critics worried that by showing the monster Hitler as merely a man who loves dogs and is kind to secretaries would subvert his place as the worst person in history.

But our firm faith that Hitler was the primary force behind the death and destruction of World War II is not built on ideas from movies. It comes from reading history. A history that some, apparently, want to alter.

Historical determinists like Overy and Maiolo eschew the “great men theory” of history. That is, whether you’re a Hitler or a Churchill, a Roosevelt or a Stalin, you are merely a bigger piece of flotsam in the relentless river of history, but flotsam all the same. No matter who you are, determinists reason, history will carry you along, you cannot make history happen. History is bigger than any single individual. Even a Hitler.

That’s nonsense. Men and women make history by their choices. When George W. Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, all the evidence in the world refuting Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 or his collection of WMDs could not stop his single-mindedness. He could have said stop at any moment. But he didn’t. He chose to make history by starting a war. As I write this the Libyan people have joined the surge for freedom in the Arabic world, but one man, the nation’s dictator, is using his will and power to thwart the movement in the region. It’s his choice to battle against democratic urges among his people. And he may prevail.

Naturally, people are molded and influenced by their environment, their times, their family, friends, colleagues, and more. Ultimately, though, they make their own decisions. Others may choose to follow along or not, that’s their decision. This obvious truth is why the lame excuse among Germans at Dachau or Americans at Abu Ghraib that they were “just following orders” rings so hollow. People are responsible for their own actions.

It probably won’t take revisionists 70 years to explain and rationalize Charlie Sheen’s antics as being something beyond his control. He’s just another poor victim of circumstance. You know, like that Hitler guy.

My Favorite Gadgets: The Top Five

3 Mar

With the iPad 2’s arrival next week, the temptation to buy another gadget rears its expensive head once more. This time I’ll pass. At least until the the device gets handwriting recognition, then I’ll exercise my American Express card.

Forgive me, environmentalists, but I am a gadget addict. Have been for years. I have forgotten boxes of gear stuffed with everything from original iPods and Sony Walkmen to handheld printers and portable scanners. My office is littered with defunct digital cameras and outmoded laptops. I own multiple boom boxes and bicycles as well as telephones and tape recorders. I’ve got…well, you get the idea. If you stripped and sold the copper from the cables, cords, and connectors that came with all my gadgets, you’d probably drive down that commodity’s price by a substantial margin.

At various points in my life, I felt it necessary to have each and every gadget in my home. So, I understand all-too-well the impulse to buy these damn things. But what if I had to pare them down to, say, a mere five items? What would make the cut?

I gave this notion some deep thought recently and whittled my list to these:

5. iMac: I enjoy working on my iMac. It’s fast. The 20-inch display is clear and crisp. It’s everything I want in a desktop computer.

4. Bianchi mountain bike: I can’t always ride in dry weather (This is Oregon, after all.), nor do I always want to pedal on pavement. Going offroad is fun and terrific exercise; something I can only experience cycling with a mountain bike.

3. iPhone: Everyone these days needs a cellphone. Although not a perfect device, Apple’s smartphone is good enough to make my list.

2. MacBook Air: The best computer I’ve ever used. No contest. Lightning fast. Feather light. Decent battery life. A perfect computer for our times.

1. Torelli road bike: I’ve owned this bike for nine years. I have ridden tens of thousands of miles on it. It’s great for 100 mile long, slow trips as well as ten-mile, all-out quick rides. Fact is, if I could only keep one gadget, it would be this machine.

If you had to choose among the gadgets you own, what would make your top five list?

Minto-Brown Island Park and the Problem of Capitalism

28 Feb

The wind howled at the park yesterday. I had to stand up on my pedals to make any progress against it while it blew unimpeded across some of the park’s open cropland directly into my face. Somehow an osprey’s nest clung atop a platform on a pole in the center of the fallow winter field. The rushing air thundered like a freight train through the towering row of black cottonwoods, alders, and oaks that loomed between me and the Willamette River. The rain was an hour or two away.

In the past ten years I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve ridden a bicycle along the trails and paths in Minto-Brown Island Park. Thousands would not be an exaggeration. Sometimes the wind overwhelms me like yesterday. Occasionally I encounter floods. But mostly there’s beauty and calm in the lovely and ever changing place I am lucky enough to experience not far from my doorstep.

Minto-Brown is an 898 acre urban park on the southern haunch of the Willamette River as it bends northward through the Oregon state capital. Minto, as most locals call it, is bigger than New York City’s Central Park, but a bit smaller than San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Unlike either of those gems, Minto has few amenities. It’s a place to walk your dog, run or ride its trails. There are no museums. No restaurants. No carousel.

Yet, just a mile or so north of Minto is Riverfront Park, a 17-acre greenway with a museum, a carousel, and so much more, and it’s butted up against the capital’s downtown with its wide array of restaurants and shops. Connecting the two parks is logical and natural.

Indeed, the effort is well along. But given that the Willamette River is a commercial waterway, you need more than the run-of-the-mill environmental impact report to connect the two parks. The Coast Guard has to give its nod as well. That doesn’t come easily when there’s an ongoing business plying the river whose existence might be affected by the bridge proposed to link Riverfront with Minto.

I am sympathetic to anyone whose enterprise is put at risk when a community wishes to improve its environment. Too often those changes are motivated by powerful commercial interests dangling jobs and tax revenues in front of local politicians. In this case the connecting of Minto and Riverfront parks, which everyone agrees will uplift downtown businesses and attract thousands more visitors to the area, involves only one business.

Because of that single business (a paddlewheel steamboat that cruises the Willamette while serving diners), in order to connect Minto and Riverfront the community needs to build a bridge that accommodates the boat’s current pattern moseying around the river. Now I don’t know why the boat’s owner won’t alter his cruise pattern, but his refusal means the community is considering a connector between the parks whose costs range from $3 million to $11 million. All more than the dining establishment is worth.

Here is a classic case of business holding a community hostage. Mostly, we hear about major corporations demanding extra tax breaks or threatening to leave a city or state. Sometimes, though, it’s just a single small businessman who only considers his selfish interests and not his community.

Of course, that’s supposed to be the beauty of free-market capitalism in theory. If everyone pursues his own selfish interests then everyone will come out ahead. Except, in the real world outside of textbooks where people actually live, selfish capitalists big and small, all-too-often make the lives of their neighbors far, far worse than they could be.

And, somehow, capitalism’s defenders wonder why, oh, why, are businessmen so often depicted as the bad guys by Hollywood? It’s easy. Because so often they are the bad guy.

So Long, @Croisan: Five Twitter Lessons

23 Feb

I am putting my Twitter persona, @Croisan, out to pasture. After two years and 10,000 tweets, it’s time to quit and reflect on what I’ve learned along the way.

The first lesson I gleaned from Twitter was to tweet about “Five Amazing…” or “10 Great Ways to…” or any number combined with a superlative to entice someone to view a link or retweet the offering. Though I rarely applied the lesson to my own tweets, it’s ubiquitous on Twitter, so it probably works.

I lied about the other four lessons.

This is not to say I have nothing to impart to you. I do. But @Croisan (For the curious, it’s pronounced “kroy-zin” like poison.) can’t be summed up in a tidy curriculum that you follow to become a Twitter god or goddess.

Fact is, I’m not a Twitter deity of any kind. I’m a middlin’ tweep. I follow around 780 people and have about 1,275 followers. And now that @Croisan reached my goal of 10,000 tweets, as promised, I’m pulling its plug.

I do not plan to remove my account or delete tweets. They stand, for good or ill, as my testament to microblogging. If packaged between the covers of a book, my tweets and retweets would run more than 600 pages. (Estimating five characters per word and 100 characters per tweet equals approximately 20 words each post, totaling close to 200,000 words, easily filling a thick book.) Granted, it would be a strange, context-free, mostly unintelligible tome. Like Bob Dylan’s Tarantula. ;-)

Better left unbound, free, lost in the inexhaustible timelines of Twitter, those tweets. That’s where all my or anyone’s postings belong. Book writing and tweeting are not the same thing, naturally, but both require a creative, consistent, and egocentric effort. And time.

Nothing wrong with that, kept in perspective. However, just knowing how much effort has gone into my Twitter persona got me thinking, frankly, that I might have different things to do with my time. Maybe read more books. Maybe write one.

Hey, that’s a second Twitter lesson: it’s a time sink.

Of course, no matter what I do, whether riding my bicycle, reading books, tapping on a keyboard, or having heart-to-hearts with Cathie, time, my limited time on this good earth, is draining fast. If Twitter is one way to watch it wash away, so be it. Yet, as much as I’ve enjoyed my beguiling Twitter experience, it’s too insubstantial to continue as @Croisan.

For example, I never physically met anyone via Twitter. Oh, sure, I made contacts through Twitter. But never have I actually met a new person face to face through the service, you know, like you would do with a real friend. Never shook a hand or studied a new face. Not once. Even pen-pals get to meet each other now and again. That’s not the case on Twitter, despite thousands of virtual encounters between me and others none of them evolved into an actual encounter.

So, while I have enjoyed interacting with people through the service and will miss their wit or wisdom, I can’t say I have added anyone as a dear friend. There’s no one I found through the service who I would loan money to or drive hundreds miles to visit or call and talk to all through the night. There’s no one I have encountered on Twitter whom I can say that I love.

Likewise, when @Croisan stops posting to the wonderful Twitter information firehouse no one will or should care. It’s merely the demise of an idea of a mere part of someone somewhere who has moved on.

Say, come to think of it, that’s another good lesson: virtual friendships are not true friendships.

Although lacking in love, Twitter is an exceptional place to gather information on a given topic, particularly if you want to keep up with breaking news. Whether democratic movements in the Middle East or those that happen in Wisconsin, Twitter delivers the most timely information available. Of course, some of it is just rumor, innuendo, or lies.

Let’s call this a lesson, too: Pick your tweeps carefully. Many are simply bullshit artists. Unfollow and block others regularly to keep your content Timeline free of plain ol’ crap.

Finally, Twitter can give you a false sense of “doing.” That is, my tweeting and retweeting everything and anything on an important issue, such as health care reform or the environment, can convince me that I am somehow doing good. When, in fact, I would do more viable good by calling my elected representatives, attending protest marches, campaigning for the best candidates, or whatever was a true, more meaningful action for the cause I supported. Instead, by racking up a few dozen tweets about one thing or another, I can believe that I have actually done something to further a cause. Tweeting about Tahrir Square or the Capitol in Madison is not the same as being there.

Maybe that’s the last lesson: the real world remains real and important and vital, while the online realm remains only a reflection. It’s wise, then, to allot your limited time accordingly.

So, I did not lie, after all. That’s five lessons. Just like the headline promised.

And they were all learned by me.

Class dismissed.

Did Watson Have an Empathy Algorithm?

17 Feb

I’ve read the different explanations from IBM about why Watson acted so quirkily at the end of the first game when it held a commanding lead–$36,681 compared to Brad Rutter’s $5,400 and Ken Jennings $2,400. In the final Jeopardy round’s category “U.S. Cities” the computer answered “Toronto” when the correct response was “Chicago.”

IBM has been quick to offer reasons about its most famous computer’s personality. And they make some sense in an obfuscation as techie jargon kind of way.

What I think happened is much simpler: an IBM programmer introduced an empathy algorithm into the software. That is, if Watson knew it was pounding its opponents into the intellectual trivia dust, it would back off; it would refrain from humiliating its opponents. Think of it as a variant of Isaac Asimov’s famous first rule of robots: Do not harm humans. What could be more harmful to smart people than to make them look stupid in public?

Three things make my empathy algorithm theory very possible. First, Watson blew the very basic Final Jeopardy category “U.S. Cities.” IBM lamely says the computer’s answer, Toronto, makes some sense in that there are U.S. cities with the same name. Maybe, but do any of the Torontos in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas have an airport, let alone two of them? Any named for World War II history? Didn’t think so.

Second, the $947 bet. If, despite the empathy algorithm, in the random chance that Watson was going to get the Final Jeopardy response correct, it could not chance adding brutishly to its insurmountable lead. So, it bet small. Logic alone would dictate a bet of around $15,000 to assure a two-game match victory. But Watson did the gentlemanly thing instead and bet politely.

Finally, an item in the Fast Company story is intriguing. Apparently some programmer took it into his or her head to let Watson make “non-zero” bets for things like Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. He or she thought those arbitrary bets would spice up the show. As, indeed, they did.

With that kind of freedom granted to Watson’s developers, I’m willing to surmise that one programmer thought it was wise to make Watson a good chap as well as a great player and so introduced an empathy algorithm.

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