Archive | January, 2011

Dumping Netflix After 10 Years?

27 Jan

We’ve been with Netflix since 2000, so long, in fact, that we get four DVDs for the basic monthly subscription fee instead of the three that most subscribers receive. Still, Cathie and I are considering dropping the DVDs and moving to the eight dollar a month streaming-only service. Or quitting Netflix completely.

It’s clear that Netflix wants its customers to shift to streaming and stop using DVDs. Despite the lower monthly fees, the costs of streaming for the company are 5% of what it costs them to handle DVDs. Labor is involved in processing DVDs; only machines are needed for streaming. Like any capitalist operation, Netflix hates its workers. No, not in a personal sense, but as line items that require salaries and benefits as well as people to manage them.

The problem for me in making the switch to just the streaming service is that the company offers so few choices. And what it does offer is, for the most part, frankly, crap.

Go to the Watch Instantly tab and click on New Arrivals and then, say, Drama. I got 11 pages of choices recently with 30 movies on a page. Sounds promising. And the first page looks fair: Precious, Brooklyn’s Finest, Casino, Apocalypse Now, and The Client stand out. After that things start getting iffy. Old made-for-TV Perry Mason flicks show up a lot. As you get deeper into the list the movies get more obscure and silly: The Boy With Green Hair, Those Secrets, The Rocking Horse Winner, Sand, as well as 50-plus-year-old losers like So Evil, So Young and So Young, So Bad.

Yes, so very bad.

Unless you’re studying film, there’s no earthly reason to see the vast majority of movies available to stream on Netflix.

But there’s always TV shows to stream, right? I admit to having watched 30 Rock not on television but via Netflix. But that show is only available through the 2009 season. According to one study, Netflix has a pathetic list of TV show options compared with Hulu, Amazon, and Apple services. If you missed the latest House you’ll need to visit Hulu. Or if you think The Good Wife is hot, you need to be a member of Apple’s iTunes service. Netflix doesn’t have them. If you want to watch the complete series of a TV show, Netflix has a mere two: Lost and something called Mercy. Hulu has 12, Amazon 28, and iTunes offers 39.

Company CEO Reed Hastings has argued that investors who bet against Netflix might lose their shirt. He may be right. I’m not saying Netflix isn’t a good investment. I’m just saying it doesn’t offer enough compelling choices to long-time subscribers. We’ve seen most everything and the New Arrivals they throw up on their site are time wasters. And we don’t want to waste that time or our money on mediocrity.

My Pinko Past

25 Jan

This past weekend I finished reading Joseph Kanon’s brilliant 2009 thriller Stardust, which is set in Hollywood in the summer of 1945 immediately after the end of World War II. Partially a whodunit. Partially a look at how the leftist ideology voiced in the movies that helped sustain morale on the home front during the war became anathema soon thereafter.

Without giving away anything about the plot, Kanon reveals the tensions that reigned among the throng of German emigrants fleeing Hitler who had made their way to Southern California. Tensions exacerbated because their loyalties were always suspect, rightly or wrongly, as Ben, the protagonist, learns. That’s because the emigrants in the story had pasts that made them need to flee the Nazis, meaning they were intellectuals, socialists, or communists.

Of course, their pasts are not always indicative of who these men and women are in the novel’s present. At one point, one of the German characters, Ostermann, a distinguished writer who left the dark times in his native land for the sunny Southland, reflects on the ideological indiscretion of his youth. All youth, in fact.

“What did you think when you were eighteen?” Ostermann said gently, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Do you remember? I was for the Kaiser. A young man’s ideas. Things change….A flirtation and then you want to put it behind you.”

When I was eighteen I was not for the Kaiser (I’m not that old.) or for anyone representing authority. It was 1969, Nixon was in the White House, and the Vietnam War was raging. That October millions of protestors in the United States marched, sung, and meditated for peace to come to Southeast Asia. Across the nation there were teach-ins, one of which I led at my high school in California. (You’ll note in the accompanying school yearbook photo, Peace Day fell in the same week as a varsity football game.)

Although young, naive, and mostly clueless politically, during the organization of my school’s Peace Day I found myself suddenly in common cause with people whose ideologies were far more developed and sophisticated than mine. I read what they recommended and began to fancy myself a radical. A mustache soon appeared below my nose and my hair fell over my collar.

Once I was in college I was ready to commit to a deeper radicalism. The war had gotten worse with the illegal (and immoral) bombing of Cambodia and the massacre at My Lai. I helped organize more protests and became friends with committed leftists.

Communism, of course, had been completely discredited by the perversion of Stalinism, the tanks in Prague, and the brutality of life inside the Soviet Union. So I hung out with Leon Trotsky’s followers, in this case those engaged with the now defunct Young Socialists Alliance. I subscribed to The Militant, which apparently still exists, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party.

Keep in mind that in the early 1970s when I was dreaming of a socialist paradise in the USA, the economy was on the rocks from underwriting the war for so long as well as suffering the effects of the first Arab oil embargo. And Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, was claiming “executive privilege” that would have put the executive branch above the law. It was easy to be radical in that milieu.

Then something happened that opened my eyes. The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon was not a monarch beholden to no one else. The president, every president, had to submit to the due process of law like anyone else.

Suddenly I felt good about being an American. A nation built on law actually meant it.

Unlike many who shape-shifted from being radicals on the left to be radicals on the right, I took baby steps away from militancy. Despite persistent pleas from my YSA buddies, I never formally joined. I stopped going to meetings because hardcore members would not admit that the Supreme Court’s decision was meaningful since it did not fit their blinkered ideological narrative of American politics. I let my subscription to The Militant lapse. For a few years I even became a Democrat, though as now, I mostly eschewed party affiliations because my progressive notions are still a little too pink for the Democratic Party, especially today.

Also, getting older made me less radical. What inspired me at eighteen no longer raised my spirits in my twenties let alone in my sixtieth year. As Ostermann said, Things change. And so do people.

Citizens United v. You & Me

24 Jan

One year ago this month the Supreme Court of the United States in a 5-4 decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission concluded that corporations and unions were the same as you and me and could donate money freely to politicians. The court ruled that these entities were people with rights like us.

The decision must also mean that we have equal rights as corporations and unions. But it will take some effort on the part of individuals to attain that equality.

So, the next time a company decides to strong arm your local or state government to get tax breaks, you should sue to get the same tax breaks. After Citizens United a business has no more right than you and me to tax benefits. The next time a corporation tries to get an exemption from environmental or even traffic laws, you should have your lawyer call city hall or the state capitol and demand the same waiver as they get. If a company wants to pollute drinking water, you ought to be able to burn trash in your backyard (or frontyard, for that matter) instead of paying to go to the dump.

Also, following the Supreme Court’s logic, if a corporation or union is a person, then when it is convicted of a crime, as they so often are, every person working there will need to do jail time, not just those who may have concocted the illegal scheme. After all, it’s the company that is guilty and the only way one can impart justice to a person is to put the entire person in jail not just parts of him or her. And just like people, the business, whether union or corporate, will need to come to a halt until the person(s) gets out of jail. Also, if the crime was a felony, every individual in the company must lose the right to vote because they are part of the convicted person.

I’m not sure that this is the hornets’ nest the court had in mind to kick with its decision, but it’s a logical outcome. We only need come citizen lawyers to establish their equal rights with corporations and unions.

Selling Fear

22 Jan

If you spend any time in front of a television in the U.S., you’re bombarded with advertisements for prescription drugs. In a typical 60-second spot, the first quarter is dedicated to describing the symptoms that may prompt you to “ask your doctor” about the medicine. The next 15 seconds or so reveal the wonders of the drug being sold.

It’s the last half-minute of the promotion that I look forward to: when the voiceover tells the audience about what could go wrong if you take the pills. It’s like listening to a reading of a Robin Cook medical horror story or maybe a vignette from H.P. Lovecraft. It’s scary.

The best known side-effects warning is, of course, about Viagra and similar drugs. You know, the throwaway line telling the viewer to seek medical attention for “prolonged, painful, or inappropriate erection of the penis or erections that last longer than four hours.” Its explicitness undermines the even scarier problems some people have reported such as “bleeding of the eye, convulsions (seizures), decreased or double vision or in extreme cases blindness, a blue tint to your vision, redness, burning, or swelling of the eye, anxiety.”

“Anxiety,” eh? I’m terrified.

Another heavily promoted drug called VESIcare treats people with bladder control problems. Its side effects include “swelling of the face, lips, throat or tongue. If you experience these symptoms, you should stop taking VESIcare and get emergency medical help right away.”

The lawyers, who write this ad copy, also are concerned that a patient might experience blurred vision, so they advise you to “Use caution while driving or doing dangerous activities until you know how VESIcare affects you.”

But given how dangerous the drug is, doing any other dangerous activity might seem safe by comparison.

My absolute favorite warning is for Chantix, a drug administered to people trying to quit smoking. They may experience a range of side effects including: “Constipation; gas; headache; increased appetite; nausea; stomach upset; strange dreams; taste changes; vomiting.”

Sounds awful. But the list goes on…and on. “Seek medical attention right away if any of these SEVERE side effects occur when using Chantix: Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; itching; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue; unusual hoarseness); behavior changes; chest pain; fainting; fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat; hallucinations; memory loss; new or worsening mental or mood problems (e.g., aggression, agitation, anger, anxiety, depression, nervousness, thoughts of hurting other people); red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin; seizures; severe or persistent nausea; suicidal thoughts or actions; trouble sleeping; vision changes; vivid, strange, or unusual dreams.”

It’s like reading a movie script scene describing how and why Freddie Krueger became so antisocial. Quit smoking. Took Chantix. Became serial killer. Ah, that explains it.

Then there are the side effects for this medicine: “Heartburn; nausea; upset stomach. Seek medical attention right away if any of these SEVERE side effects occur: Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; itching; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue); black or bloody stools; confusion; diarrhea; dizziness; drowsiness; hearing loss; ringing in the ears; severe or persistent stomach pain; unusual bruising; vomiting.”

Who would want to risk those reactions? Maybe if you had a teensy little headache. These are, of course, the known side effects for aspirin.

Cyclemeter: A Back to the Future App

20 Jan

Since the 1970s until a few years ago someone always gave me a weekly desk planner for Christmas. They had laid flat on my work area; on one side of the plastic spiral binding was a lovely photo paired opposite with a page for the days of the week, each day having ample room to note the social and work events of my life.

I recently unearthed my 2005 calendar, the last I had used, featuring Heidelberg and published by Braus im Vachter Verlag in the same town. It included some exceptional photographs of the German city by Andrew Cowin. It was a gift from a friend who lives there. My copy was festooned with entries in my scrawl about most of my bike rides for that year. At a glance I could see the weeks when I was active or which ones I was sitting on my butt.

Sometimes in my notations I’d jot down where I went and how many miles. Seeing those entries again made me wish I was more diligent today about keeping track of my rides. Since 2005, however, I have not had a weekly calendar to immortalize my comings and goings. I have migrated my business and personal appointments to software calendars all synchronized on my desktops, laptops, and smartphones. But I no longer make daily notations of my bike rides. As a numbers-obsessed guy, I miss having that information about my bicycle workouts, though I am too lazy to log my rides day-to-day.

Now, with an iPhone app, I’m able to go back to those good ol’ days as I pedal into the future.

Cyclemeter 4.0, an iPhone app from Abvio LLC of San Francisco, collects the data of my rides and automatically tucks it away in my iCal app and syncs it with my iPhone, MacBook Air, and iMac calendars as well as my online calendar at me.com. And it keeps tabs on my rides by the week and month, which is a nice little touch. This feature alone makes the $4.99 price of the app worth every penny.

Cyclemeter is, as with almost every iPhone app I own, effortless to use. There’s no need for a manual or instructions to get going. You tap on the app, it opens to the Stopwatch screen with blank fields and big red “Start” button. Once you click the obvious, you’re on your way and the app is gathering volumes of data for your entire ride.

In addition to the Stopwatch and Calendar soft buttons, Cyclemeter has a Google Maps view of your ride as well as one that lets you see a list of the rides you’ve taken and saved. The More… button gives you another handful of options such as Remote Control, which lets you stop and start the app if your earphone has a remote control feature. You also can send mail and update your Facebook and Twitter accounts with a simple tap of the screen.

While the app launches in Cycle mode, the versatile app also tracks eight other activities, everything from Drive in your car to Walk, Swim, Skate, and more. It is a good general-purpose GPS tool. Because you can organize and track these activities, you can measure how you’re improving in them over time.

Although you can use Cyclemeter while listening to your On the Go music selection with the iPod app, using both is not as straightforward as it is in my MotionX GPS app. And if your earphones do not have a remote control button, getting to and from the music or answering phone calls involves a lot of back and forth between apps.

But for versatility of the device and its unique Calendar feature, Cyclemeter is an exceptional app for people who want to keep records of their active lives. As with the best of tools, it doesn’t just keep tabs of what you do, it motivates you to do them.

Climate Change: I Am the Problem

10 Jan

Catherine manages our household thermostat carefully. Usually, my wife keeps it set at 65 degrees (fahrenheit) or below during the day. When guests come over, she’ll nudge it up to 68. At night she turns it off completely, so it’s always a bit nippy come morning, since our days in winter generally start well below freezing (outside). Ask her why she’s so parsimonious with BTUs, and she’ll point to the meagre family budget, but also she wants us to do our part for the planet to conserve energy.

While checking my breath for vapor in the morning at the kitchen table, I have been known to whine about how chilly it is. I might also observe that we pay Portland General Electric a premium each month to get all of our electricity from wind farms and that our heat comes from natural gas, which is plentiful. She’ll just shake her head at my wimpy nature and tell me to put on (another) sweater.

If everyone was more like Catherine and less like me, there’d be no ongoing energy crisis on the planet. Climate change would be more theoretical and less real. And we’d all have a little extra money in our pockets instead of constantly handing it over to the energy monopolies. Alas, I’m the norm and she’s the outlier.

Admittedly, I am not an optimist by nature. I believe climate change will accelerate, disrupting societies in all hemispheres. And while I appreciate why my wife is doing what she’s doing and even accept it as the right thing to do, I don’t believe in the long or even short run that it will matter much. That’s because while there may be millions of other people like Catherine willing to do what’s best for all of us, there are billions of people like me who only want to enjoy whatever comfort is available.

People like me, whether pessimists or optimists, are the problem. If we can be made comfortable by flicking a switch, even if by doing so we know that, say, ten years from now the switch won’t work, we will flick it without a second thought. Optimists will argue that scientists and engineers will figure out a way to save the future. Pessimists like me shrug and say, “What future?” Either way, the switch gets flicked.

Lucky for you, I live with someone who thinks her actions today can have a positive influence on the future. The energy she’s saving now might come in handy in the year 2020. I doubt it. But it’s possible. In the meantime, I’m going to don a heavier sweater and maybe a second pair of socks. Brrrr.

Small

7 Jan

I recently visited a friend at his office and we discussed a project where I might be of help to him. I brought along my MacBook Air in case I needed to take notes.

“You’ve got the 11-inch model,” he said after greeting me. “The thirteen is probably too big for you.”

“Way too big,” I said.

We laughed.

In fact, as I noted here earlier, the 11-inch MacBook Air is a nearly perfect machine, especially for me. I’m small.

I’ve always been small. On my little league and pony league baseball teams I was inevitably #1 because the uniforms were made in size order. And I’ve always used my height (or lack thereof) to my advantage. I was quick to note that umpires called fewer strikes on me, awarding me base-on-balls more often than other batters. In fact, I led the league in runs scored because I was on base so often. Being small made me a more successful player.

I also think it made me more successful in my career. I’ve had the opportunity to manage large and small teams inside Silicon Valley companies as well be editor in chief and/or publisher at a handful of successful tech publications. My theory is that I rose to the top of these organizations, in no (ahem) small measure, because I was short.

The average American male is nearly five foot ten inches tall. I stand a good half foot below them. As such, when I’m in a group of men standing around yakking, inevitably everyone will look down at me, resulting in a lot of conversations focusing in my direction and making me the center of attention.

Once in the early 1990s Lewis Lapham, the six-foot two-inch editor of Harper’s magazine, invited me to join him and the six-foot-four George Plimpton to a book party in New York, celebrating the latest novel of T. Coraghessan Boyle, who stands at least six-six. While milling around together a photographer drifted by and tried to capture the four of us all in a single frame. We all got a great laugh as he struggled to capture the scene, eventually getting to his knees to shoot up.

I stand out, as it were, among my peers. And, as with anyone who gets more attention than others, I was given more opportunities. Naturally, I failed at my chances from time to time, but I got enough of them that I was able to prove my mettle so I got even more chances. I believe my distinct stature gave me many of the extra shots at success.

In addition to being noticed more often than others, small people are less threatening. An average size guy or gal is not going to feel intimidated by someone shorter. They are more comfortable chatting with a small person and are more inclined to accept them as a peer or even as a boss.

Yes, I know that Americans have a fetish for tall leaders. But small people have significant advantages. Research shows we may live longer. We’re also less likely to break bones or suffer from herniated discs. And, according to some, we’re greener, literally consuming less and requiring less energy to exist than bigger folk. In a Darwinian sense, we are the superior members of our species. Small is not just beautiful, it’s smart, too.