Archive | May, 2010

Can’t Trust My Garmin

29 May

In a previous entry, I noted that my CicloMaster broke and I had replaced it with my Garmin 205. To be more precise, I have had my Garmin for more than a year and a half, intending to replace the CicloMaster. I thought the all-digital, satellite-based Garmin would be more accurate. I was wrong.

The CicloMaster is part analog. It measures distance by knowing the size of my front wheel and tracking the revolutions of a small disc attached to one of my bike’s spokes. Pretty much the same technology I had on my Schwinn Continental ten-speed back in the 6th grade. I figured 21st century technology had to be better. As I said: Wrong.

Until the CicloMaster sputtered and died, I had both units on my Torelli road bike. I immediately noticed a discrepancy between the units on my rides. After a little more than 10 miles the Garmin would show a .01 extra mile. That is, it was off the mark by just under 1%.

I had more faith in the CicloMaster because some of the bike rides I take I also have driven in my and my wife’s cars and it matched their odometers. Later I learned that Garmin devices have been tested as inaccurate.

Even before I noticed the discrepancy in distance I had discovered that the Garmin’s elevation estimates were way off. Like most bicyclists, I have many different routes, but because I ride so often, I take them repeatedly. One takes me from my house, over Skyline Road, and around Ankeny Wildlife Refuge. It’s a great ride.

On any given day the Garmin will report that I am leaving my house at an elevation of as little as 469 feet and as much as 530 feet. The top of Skyline can be between as low as 938 feet or as high as 1001. And there’s no relation between starting low at home and topping Skyline at a higher elevation. For example, the log Garmin automatically keeps indicates when Skyline was 1001 feet in elevation, I had left my house at precisely 500 feet.

I’m not sure what the problem is. It could be that the Garmin is calculating GPS data from different satellites each time, which causes the problem. Could be that, as a low-end unit in the Garmin line, the company used a less precise GPS microprocessor. Maybe Garmin engineers can’t write decent GPS software. All I know is, that the device is not accurate.

That’s a shame. Not so much for the distance or elevation data. But the Garmin unit also calculates the calories I burn on each ride. I depend on it to tell me how many of those I consume in order to calculate how many Bridgeport IPAs I can drink “for free” that evening. If get a beer belly I’m gonna blame Garmin.

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Joe Pike: Precursor to an American Rebellion?

27 May

Thriller author Robert Crais has long used a character named Joe Pike, a sidekick to his main protagonist. Only in 2007 with the arrival of The Watchman has Pike gotten the star treatment. Step aside Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson is coming through.

Except Joe Pike is no fussy and proper Watson. He’s a bad-ass, non-nonsense anti-hero that executes swift justice along with the evil people who populate his dark Los Angeles streets. On occasion, if he must, he’ll work in concert with the law. But mostly he functions outside of it.

American literary history is rife with anti-heros who scoff in the face of authority while enforcing justice for others too weak to defend themselves. R. P. McMurphy, Sam Spade, and Huck Finn come to mind.

Joe Pike follows in their tradition. And, I wonder, if like those three, does he presage something else in American history? Rebellion, perhaps?

Huck Finn appeared in 1885 in the midst of labor unrest heretofore unknown in U.S. history, culminating in the Haymarket Massacre in 1886 and the founding of the American Federation of Labor in 1887. Sam Spade arrived 1930 just as the Depression was getting into high gear, leading to the election FDR and the much-needed reform of Wall Street. R. P. McMurphy showed up in 1962 as the Civil Rights movement was accelerating and the seeds of the student anti-war protests were sown.

In Crais second Pike novel, The First Rule,  the “good” guy spells out his anti-hero’s philosophy: 1. protect the innocent (a baby); 2. defend your friend (in this case, a dead man’s honor); and 3. stop a criminal plot (a shipment of illegal weapons). And he’s very precise about achieving his goals in that order. There’s nothing about enforcing the law or cooperating with authority. And like Huck, Spade, and McMurphy, he puts his own life on the line to achieve justice.

Screw authority. Do what’s right.

Joe Pike is no McMurphy, Spade, and certainly no Huck Finn. Few, if any, dissertations will be devoted to his influence in literature. But I found it interesting that after setting aside Crais’s latest novel I read Simon Schama’s essay, “On the brink of a new age of rage,” in the Financial Times (registration required) arguing that he thought revolution was in the air in the U.S. and the UK and that “we face a tinderbox moment.”

He writes: “Should [the U.S. and UK] governments fail to reassert the integrity of public stewardship, suspicions will emerge that, for all the talk of new beginnings, the perps and new regime are cut from common cloth. Both risk being shredded by popular ire or outbid by more dangerous tribunes of indignation.”

Joe Pike will not lead us to rebelling against authority. Then again, neither did any other antihero in fiction. But like them, he captures a mood we feel today. A mood that is fed up with the excuses and the excesses of the powers that be, one that may ignite into a serious rebellion against authority. That certainly would be something dissertations will be written about. I only hope Joe Pike gets himself a footnote.

Apple’s OS X Spaces: Doing Tech Well

26 May

Some simple-minded analysts, such as Roger Passikoff, believe Apple woos users because it has a cool brand or that it has a great sense of design, as was promulgated in the documentary Objectified. If that were the case, the company’s trendiness would have passed by now and fickle, fashion-conscious consumers would have latched on to the next temporary thing.

The real reason Apple snags and holds users is because its products do smart things well. They perform as advertised. And very often, they do better.

Take, for example, the often overlooked, but amazingly productive feature in OS X called Spaces. When combined with another feature, Exposé, it is, as Charles Moore wrote last year, “…my favorite Leopard (and Snow Leopard) feature.

For the past week I have been writing major research report for a client. It involves data from 329 PowerPoint slides in six separate decks and close to 30 individual Excel multi-page spreadsheets. In the deep, dark, distant past, I would have printed out hundreds and hundreds of pages and organized them into piles on my floor around my desk. Each pile would have represented the data supporting an idea, concept, or trend I was pursuing in the report. As I moved through the piles, I would set aside information I had used or discarded in the writing process. The piles became smaller until they disappeared altogether, telling me the data I had to underpin an idea was exhausted. I either needed more data or I was done.

For years, that process worked wonderfully. I could see at a glance where I was in the writing process on one idea or another.

Then came OS X Spaces and Exposé and all those trees were saved. With those features (which, by the way, exist similarly as Panels in Ubuntu 10.04) I am able to create virtual piles on my Mac’s desktop. Now I swiftly toggle between Spaces with Exposé and zero in on the “pile” of interest. It’s just like having all that paper on the floor, but without the clutter or the potential disaster, as when my late cat would wander in and choose a pile or two to nap on.

I am no Apple fanboy. I think the company is making some serious business mistakes with its restrictions on developers, attacks on the press, and holier-than-thou hubris. But the operating system engineers it has hired since 2000 not only are creative, they execute well.

Branding and design are shallow and ephemeral. Thinking up a great idea is really easy. Selling it, even easier.

But making a great idea work in an elegant and intelligent fashion is very, very difficult. That’s why Apple is in the position it’s in today. It does technology well.

Jobless, Broke, Homeless, & Hungry

24 May

Last week a former colleague of mine let me know he’d used up all of his unemployment benefits. He was looking for work. He was the third person who has contacted me since the beginning of April with the same news.

No more checks and no jobs in sight.

By year’s end it’s been estimated that more than one million Americans will have exhausted their unemployment benefits. Hundreds of thousands have already lost their meagre lifeline to subsistence. And of the more than 15 million citizens without a job, less than two-thirds are even eligible for unemployment benefits.

I haven’t seen an unemployment check since autumn 2008 when, through a mistake on my part, I became ineligible. But I’ve been able to squeak by with freelance writing assignments, an involuntary member of the so-called “gig economy.” Most of those who have been thrown off the unemployment rolls aren’t as lucky as I am.

I still have a home. Many do not. Depending on who’s counting, homelessness in this country ranges between 1.6 and 3.5 million individuals. And it’s rising fast. People are also going hungry. In my state of Oregon, the kind souls who once donated to the Oregon Food Bank are now getting their own groceries there.

People are jobless, broke, homeless, and hungry. At what point will they get angry and lash out against the powers that be? Or will they internalize their misfortune and sorrow?

So far, it’s been mostly the latter. Americans are a conservative lot and, by and large, unwilling to take collective action. They’ll wrongly blame themselves instead of the greedy corporations and incompetent politicians who have ruined their lives. Given that our utterly corrupt two-party system conspires against the underprivileged and unemployed, there will be no help there.

Other than the radical right’s and media’s darling anti-tax Tea Party, there is no serious populist opposition in this country. No national organization of substance is taking up the cause of the downtrodden, certainly not the Democratic party. And until that happens, more people will lose their benefits, their homes, and their three square meals a day.

I Hate Interleague Baseball

23 May

If St. Peter is a baseball fan, Bud Selig will never get through the Pearly Gates because the Commissioner of Baseball rammed through interleague play into the baseball season. There are many excellent technical reasons why interleague play hurts baseball. Most of them are presented here by Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan. He makes the case better and in more detail than I can. But, in sum, he says interleague play hurts the pennant races in both leagues. And pennant races, beside the game itself, is what makes baseball fun.

I especially hate interleague play because it ruins one of the most pleasant pastimes a baseball fan can have: perusing the box scores in the newspaper or online. For a fan, reading a box score is an exercise in imagination. Not only can you see how both teams did in a given game, but because you follow the standings, you instantly can envision how the outcome of a given game can affect whether a team will rise or fall against the competition in its league and division. But with interleague play a loss or a win doesn’t work the same. Your favorite team can win a game, even sweep a series from an opponent from another league, but because of the awfulness of interleague play, it may not gain an inch in the pennant race. So, you now need to look across the abomination of all the interleague games and figure the whole thing out piecemeal. It sucks innate baseball knowledge dry.

Interleague play is worse than the designated hitter rule.

So, I don’t even bother looking at the box scores during a wretched interleague play weekend like this one. And I won’t watch tonight’s game on ESPN, which, without even looking, I’m betting will be the Mets vs. Yankees because that’s what it always is. (Bud Selig is not only evil, he’s pathetically predictable.) That doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy some sports tonight. The NBA is in the midst of its playoffs. Instead of ESPN, I’ll be watching TNT and wishing Bud Selig a long hot stay in hell.

Writing & Riding

22 May

It’s pouring outside, hailing off and on. Has been for days. My eight-year-old Torelli sits idle in the garage. I want desperately to get out on the road and burn off my pent-up stress. Deadlines are crashing down on me. I need a bicycle break. But weather and work are conspiring against me.

I’m writing furiously, but not effectively. I start and stop. Words materialize, then vanish. Concepts that should be hammered into whole paragraphs, collapse into a confused mess. A good bicycle ride would be better than a great editor right now.

A good bicycle ride doesn’t always depend on fine weather. I’ve had some of my best rides in some of the lousiest conditions. But a nice day is conducive to a decent ride, especially when I’m using the ride as distraction from and an inspiration for work. If I’m fighting black clouds of anxiety about assignments while dealing with a dark, damp day, it’s misery on two wheels.

When I’m under duress from pressing free-lance duties, a long, hard pedal can refresh my mind while it exhausts my body. As I push my legs up and down, up and down, up and down, climbing endless hills or speeding along flats and curves, new ideas pop into my head; disparate facts get elegantly linked; sentences and similes find life. It happens without effort. Nothing is forced. I pedal, therefore, I think.

But I’m doing neither at the moment. Instead, I flail at the keyboard, cranking out copy, because a looming deadline is more ominous than the stormiest weather.

A Sheriff on Wall Street

21 May

When the European Union threw money at the euro to support it in the face of financial crises in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere in the region, global stock markets rose. This was not unlike when the Bush and Obama administrations poured money into Wall Street’s coffers, propping up the Dow and NASDAQ.

But this week, after Angela Merkel’s government led the way to EU financial reform by proposing limits on hedge funds and (gasp!) taxing financial transactions inside the EU, the markets tumbled. Add to this, the U.S. Senate passed much needed, but much watered down Wall Street reform, and the stock markets went into full retreat.

Why does reform, rules to make the markets more stable, more fair, cause them to fall?

The answer’s simple: criminals are running the world’s financial system and crooks can’t make money when the game is more fair.

The market makers at Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Barclay’s, and other firms don’t know any better than your neighborhood banker how to make money on a level playing field. Only when they can tip the odds in their direction can they make a buck, just like the folks at the Mirage or Harrah’s in Las Vegas. Wall Street and London’s City firms are dead set against reform because it takes away some (though far from all) of their advantages. So, they’re pulling their money out because they can’t determine yet how to win without a built-in edge.

Think of it as the old Wild West. When criminal gangs are running roughshod over the community the citizens hire a sheriff to bring law and order to the town. Financial reform is that sheriff and the crooks are getting out of Dodge. But if the sheriff leaves or gets corrupted, they’ll be back.