Archive | February, 2011

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.

IBM Wins Even If Watson Loses

15 Feb

There’s a scene in the hilarious movie Groundhog Day when Bill Murray’s bewitched character, Phil, is sitting in the parlor of the antique- and lace-ridden B&B where he’s staying. He and other guests are viewing Jeopardy on television. Phil already has seen countless Groundhog Days by then and has watched this show many, many times. As Alex Trebek rattles off the answers, Phil tosses off the correct question, one after the other. He even gives a correct response before Trebek finishes his prompt.

By this point, an older woman is gazing at him, not in awe at his intelligence, but in horror. Phil is not just smart. He’s scary smart like some kind of dangerous machine.

IBM’s Watson was in danger last night of becoming just another scary machine on the popular TV game show. After finding the Daily Double on its first query choice, a rarity for anyone who has watched Jeopardy over the years, Watson, like Phil, went on to give one correct response after another. This might not have been so impressive against the likes of, say, me, but Watson was whipping the two greatest Jeopardy players in history.

Then Watson slipped up. It answered “chic” when it should have said “class” and that opened the door for the humans to stage a comeback.

Good thing for IBM Watson flubbed. Its failure made the 2,800-server computer more human, which made for better television. Instead of millions of people turning off their TV sets, they’ll all be back tonight to see if Watson can regain its dominance or remain imperfect, human-like.

Sure, IBM’s engineers and marketers who are staging this week’s event want Watson to win. But the worst thing would be for the computer to trounce its flesh-and-blood competitors. It would fuel people’s underlying fears about soulless machines relentlessly pushing people aside as they continue their march to dominate humans. What viewers want and what IBM needs is for a close match, one that goes down to the wire with the outcome unknown until the very end.

Then, let the best man or machine win. That would be fun. And even if Watson lost at the end, IBM would still emerge victorious because it would fuel much more interest in the company’s high-performance computing systems. And, ultimately, that’s what the 100 year old firm wants: attention brought to the company’s accomplishments and what those achievements can do for others.

Spring Teases the Willamette Valley

12 Feb

Still deep in winter, the Willamette Valley had spring on its mind today.

On my ride this morning I watched a redtail hawk fight a stiff headwind while hauling a substantial addition to its distant nest in its beak. Dusky Canada geese rode the southeast winds to the north, forming and reforming their trademark V patterns high overhead. Llamas haughtily watched me pedal by from their corrals and flocks of wooly sheep on green sloping hills fussed over their gaily tromping black and white newborn lambs.

Blueberry field after the harvest

Blueberry field in winter after pruning

In the blueberry fields of Breyman Farms near Independence farmworkers spiffed up the strikingly red bushes that bear the fruit. Last fall I snapped a photo of my Torelli “after” the harvest but pre-pruning. Today I took a “before” photo near the same spot. Obviously, based on my scant evidence, the antioxidant-rich fruit needs a fair amount of TLC handiwork before it gets to market.

Further on my ride along Riverside Road the folks at Ankeny Vineyards had prepped most of the hillside’s vines for this year’s vintage. Ankeny, which makes some tasty pinot noirs, is also one of the few wineries in the country that produces Maréchal Foch grapes and wines.

I continued around Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, as I often do. Today its fields, ponds, woods, and roadside bramble were alive with wild doves, Steller’s jays, redwing blackbirds, more hawks, a Spotted Towee or two, and many other birds I did not recognize.

As I climbed up Liberty Road at one point off to my left I could see Polk County and the coastal mountains in the distance being kissed by the leading edge of a Pacific storm heading our way. If I looked to my right I saw the sun light up the snow and glaciers on Mt. Jefferson looming 3,199m (10,497 feet) above a fifty mile stretch of the Cascade Mountains.

Winter may rule the calendar, but for today, at least, spring held sway.

Give Reagan to the Right

11 Feb

Ring-wing conservatives in America have a major problem. They stand with hands on hearts, tears in eyes, and proudly proclaim their patriotism. Yet, there is no great president in U.S. history that they can call their own.

Look at the major presidents, the significant ones who remain in the public mind as substantial characters of the past: even if the details are a bit murky in most people’s minds, not one of the top five U.S. presidents can be considered a conservative in the mold of today’s Republican party. If anything, the Big Five great presidents were all on the progressive edge of their era and, arguably, ours; something even most Democrats these days can’t claim.

Consider:

George Washington led an army in revolution against his king. He then took the helm of a new republic and willingly stepped down from power. He warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address. And while he supported the institution throughout his life, he did the right thing by freeing his slaves upon his wife’s death. This was not a man who wasted his time dreaming about an idyl of some false bygone years. He  was a true believer in the primacy of progress.

The next great president by consensus would be Thomas Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence. A voice for the yeoman farmer. An intellectual. A Deist. Not a conservative idol, by any means.

Following Jefferson in the public mind would be Abraham Lincoln. Freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. Defeated the South, something the racist wing of the Republican party denies to this day. While perhaps the greatest Republican ever, he’s not one that its contemporary membership will embrace in a big way because it would kill its aggrieved white male, Southern appeal.

Oddly, the next first-rate White House denizen, Theodore Roosevelt, is another Republican who also fails the contemporary GOP sniff test. The rabidly libertarian wing of the Republican party hates TR for his famous trust-busting and the establishment of the National Parks. Transgressions all. Regulating business is an affront to their Ayn Rand sensibilities; while Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the rest of the magnificent jewels among our National Parks are not worth the price of another government agency in their simple minds. Nope. He won’t do at all. Too progressive.

Like it or not, and conservatives don’t, the next great president on anyone’s list would be TR’s distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Can you imagine America without Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Security and Exchange Commission, and so much more? Fringe Republicans would like to, of course, but no one else would. And can you imagine how World War II would have gone if either Wendell Wilkie or Thomas Dewey, who ran against FDR in 1940 and 1944, respectively, had been commander in chief? You’d probably be speaking either German or Japanese, depending on which coast you lived on.

After FDR, I’d argue no one matches up to the Big Five. Some might vote for Truman or Kennedy, and an argument can be made for both, but I don’t think they fully rise to the Big Five level. Yet, it’s interesting to note that even these two men would be labeled as progressives in their day and ours.

Think about it: not a single conservative president ranks among the great ones. Americans revere presidents who have led the nation forward, not backward. That must really rankle conservative Republicans, who want to drag the nation back to some phantasmagoric past that somehow has escaped the history books. Even should a GOP conservative of today ascend to the Oval office, his very principles are likely to condemn him to the middling and tainted ranks of Hayes, Harrison, Harding, Nixon, and (pick your) Bush.

So the right wing is desperate for Reagan to be seen as one of the greats. They have no one else who comes close. And, to be honest, Reagan barely achieves the stature or competence of Truman or Kennedy. During the centennial of his birth his obvious weaknesses have been jumped on by mean-spirited progressives who see Reagan as a failure or as someone they mock as anathema to the current GOP Weltanshauung.

Progressives should let go of their antipathy to Reagan. Although a telegenic, while mediocre president, he was, after all, a pragmatic one, which is a lesson in itself. His massive tax increase deal with Congress saved Social Security in its day, something liberals need to give him credit for accomplishing. Yes, he was wrong in many ways, most strikingly in his support of apartheid. Yet, so was Jefferson, the great liberal icon, who wrote stirringly about freedom while keeping and selling slaves to support his opulent lifestyle.

Every great president has feet of clay. So, why not let the right wing have their flawed man? Is there room for a sixth chair around the table of the nation’s truly great presidents? I think so. The Big Five, like true progressives, were gracious people who would enjoy the company.

AT&T: The Good, the Not-So Bad, and the Darn-Near Pretty

7 Feb

Go to Google. Type in “I Hate AT&T” (with the quotation marks) and you’ll get around 209,000 hits. That’s a lot of dissatisfied customers. And it’s the given reason why so many iPhone users will switch to Verizon later this month.

But now key in “I Hate Verizon” (inside the quotes) and, if you’re like me, the search engine will return 207,000 results. Within the context of the Internet, that’s an equal amount of expressed dissatisfaction. Maybe those angry iPhone users might want to reconsider their plans.

When Cathie and I arrived in the Willamette Valley we were Cingular Wireless customers with another year to run on our contract. Luckily my company set me up with two landlines because Cingular’s cell towers could not get a strong enough signal to our house. But within a year, the company improved its technology and we got decent, though not great reception. However, I was skeptical and called the company to express my doubts about continuing with its service once our commitment expired.

Instead of getting a bunch of excuses, I got an intelligent description of how Cingular planned to continuously update its technology in our area. Plus, I got an attractive offer for new phones and cheaper rates.

Over the years, even after Cingular became AT&T Wireless and then just AT&T, our service has improved. While riding my mountain bike in narrow ravines or my road bike on remote country roads in the region I seem to be able to get a good enough signal when I need it, whether I was using a Nokia candy bar cell phone, a Samsung flip phone, and, of course, my current iPhone. And I don’t think I’ve had a dropped call in five years. Maybe longer.

On the rare occasions when I visit an AT&T retail store I’ve found the staff competent and eager. Most recently I dropped by to reduce my monthly data usage fee and I was treated as if I was upgrading to a top-of-the-line contract. Also, the company’s website is  comprehensive, responsive, and easy to use.

So, why does AT&T’s service get such bad press and attract the ire of folks like comedian Jon Stewart? I know a couple new Verizon users who tell me they regret their change. Not, they say, because the service is worse than they got from AT&T but because it’s about the same.

Here’s my theory: some people expect a wireless cell phone to be as rock solid as the land line they grew up with. When it isn’t, they get angry. But their fanciful expectations taint their relationship with the service provider…forever. AT&T and Verizon, being among the biggest wireless companies in the U.S., receive the brunt of this customer dissatisfaction.

Think I’m wrong? Key “I Hate Nextel” into Google. Only 18,100 people have expressed their ire about its service in that manner. Do the same for T-Mobile and Google yields 65,000 hits. Will you change to either of its offerings because fewer people whine about their service? I won’t. One friend who uses T-Mobile couldn’t get any signal at my house. These carriers may have far fewer angry customers than AT&T or Verizon, but there’s a reason for it. They have fewer people to piss off.

And just to be clear: I have no business relationship with AT&T. I don’t own its stock. I’m just a long-time satisfied customer. Imagine that.