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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?

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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.

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.

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.

MobileMe’s My Gallery Isn’t Mine, It’s Apple’s

4 Feb

I’ve been testing the value of Apple’s MobileMe service. I use it to backup some critical files, but it’s more expensive than many other similar services. I use its e-mail service, which is very good. It does a fine job of synchronizing my calendar and contacts. All of these I use in private. This is my first public use of Apple’s online $90-a-year service.

MobileMe offers something called My Gallery, where you can post multimedia files, such as movies and photos, and share them with others. Kind of like YouTube only more difficult to use and share. In this test, I’ve created a slideshow of me (of course, it’s MobileMe) and friends on various cycling trips. Many of the photos include my riding partner, jazz musician Mike Nord.

In all honesty, I see little value in the My Gallery service. First of all, I cannot embed a My Gallery slideshow into my blog. I can only link to it. If the link launched the video, I’d be mostly satisfied. But it doesn’t.  It takes you to the MyGallery directory, not to the file I specifically put in the link. Then you need to click on the album, in this case Croisan Views. You then click on the file to launch the slideshow. How stupid! (See Comments below.)

My Gallery is a lame offering. YouTube is much more flexible, easier to use, and, being free, is far, far cheaper. 🙂 In truth, My Gallery belongs to Apple’s development team, given the limits they put on my ability to use their service. Maybe the company should re-brand the service as “MobilePartofMe.” Or “NotAllofMobileMe.” Something a little more accurate.

Here’s the link again, in case you missed it above.

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.

iTunes Genius and Her Cousin Dumbass

15 Oct

Sheepishly, I admit to liking the iTunes Genius feature. I use it regularly while cycling. Click on a song and Genius generates a selection of related music on the fly. All I need do is pop in my iPhone’s earbuds and I’m on the road, pedaling to a well-conceived string of tunes.

Despite my best intentions, I don’t devote the time I once did to creating Playlists from the 10+ gigabytes of music I store in iTunes. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to hear even my old favorite lists, so I use Genius to generate a meaningful and immediate collection of songs. They’re not unlike the compilations you’d find on late-night television, producing musical themes around Beethoven or Coltrane to Woodstock or Tilith, which is why I feel sheepish. While clever, Genius is not creative. But it’s drop-dead simple to use and a surprisingly savvy bit of software. It’s a nice addition to my digital life.

The way it works, as I understand it, is that once I opt in to iTunes Genius, I permit Apple to snag data from the music program’s database on my Mac and combine it with data from thousands, maybe millions of other iTunes users’ music libraries from around the world. People who like similar music tend to like other similar music, so working up lists from such a large sample of users makes it an effective, intelligent service in the cloud. As a result, Genius is able to cobble together a solid list of tunes from a single suggestion.

You would think that Apple would exploit Genius more than as merely a tune selection program similar to Netflix’s movie recommendation engine. But you’d be wrong.

iTunes Genius has a Dumbass e-mail cousin that makes a mockery of Apple’s so-called marketing genius. iTunes Dumbass is a standard html-formatted e-mail that only knows that I bought this or that genre of music and wants me to buy more of the same. Every time some Apple marketing suit thinks it’s time to promote that genre, he sends Dumbass to annoy me. Because I did something in the past, even years ago and never repeated buying in that genre, I get Dumbass in my mail queue on cue.

Genius tells me that Apple has the business intelligence (BI) tools at hand to put Dumbass out to pasture and create something new and useful. For some reason, though, Apple sticks with Dumbass.

I want an iTunes e-mail that groks my recent and trending music purchases. It should know what others with similar tastes in those trending or recent buys have in their music collection but I lack. It should select those tunes for my consideration. This Smarter e-mail should send me 60-second mp3 files of a few such songs, or a link to a one-time full play of music I do not own, but would likely buy. Such a service would increase my spending at the iTunes store and improve my customer experience. That’s real BI like Genius not Dumbass.