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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.

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.

Egypt’s Aftermath: Four Things That Will Happen Here

3 Feb

If the democratic impulses of the people in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East prevail, instability will rock the region as their success inspires more revolts against Western-backed dictators. Even if Mubarak’s corrupt regime manages to hold on, it will fuel even more radical responses than we’ve ever seen before throughout the Middle East.

So, what, if anything, will happen in the United States as a result of the turmoil? 

First, everything will cost more. Rightly or wrongly, Western financial and commodity markets perceive stability to be the best of all possible worlds, even if that stability is carried on the backs of poverty-stricken, oppressed people elsewhere. Oil, which underpins our modern economy, will skyrocket in price, driving up the cost of everything else.

When the Shah of Iran lost power, the uncertainty of oil prices helped usher in years of economic stagnation. And while Mubarak does not control oil production, Egypt does manage the Suez canal where a lot of it passes through in tankers. Only the potential of that waterway closing has pushed up crude oil prices to their highest level since the speculator-driven oil crisis of 2008. Imagine the impact if the flame of self-determination begins to burn elsewhere in the region?

Second, the Republicans will gain control of the Senate and extend its hold in the House in 2012. It will also win the White House. (Unless the GOP is stupid enough to put Sarah Palin on the ticket. She’s toxic to a majority of voters who see her as a selfish quitter and an ignorant shrew.) That’s because voters in this country always punish those in power when something bad happens. And because the hard right controls the GOP, it will accelerate the increasing inequality in this country as tax policies will favor the rich even more and, to pay for it, the Republicans will raid the budgets of social services.

Third, the wars in the Middle East will widen beginning in 2013. America depends too much on oil to let it slip from its grasp without a fight. And no political party better represents oil companies than do Republicans. Just as the Iraq war was all about oil from Day One, though gussied up to be about WMDs or spreading democracy, the next Middle East conflagration will be explicitly about keeping petroleum flowing to prime the pump of our economy.

Fourth, incompetent GOP economic policies and those new Middle East wars will hasten the end of the American Empire. The dollar will be the first victim. The British pound sterling dominated the planet for centuries. World War I changed the situation. It only took from 1914 to 1925 for the pound to give way to the Almighty Buck, which replaced it to become the reserve currency of choice among nations. Whether the euro or China’s yuan rides triumphant over the dollar is too early to tell.

Naturally, this is all speculation by your average joe. Nothing qualifies me to see into the future. Admittedly, I’m a glass-is-half-emty kind of guy, but it seems obvious to me that the consequences of what is happening in Egypt will reverberate beyond the the Nile to the broader Middle East and, thus, to the world as a whole. And because the United States has let its dependence on foreign oil become inextricably linked to the health of its economy and polity, risking its loss will become unacceptable to the powers that be, but attempting to sustain it will become how the American Empire passes into history.

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.

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.

Apple Gets Mac App Store Right

6 Jan

Mac OS software market share remains paltry compared to Windows, so the arrival of Apple’s Mac App Store may bump those numbers up. However, the first thing I discovered at the Mac App Store is that there’s not much there that I want. In fact, given the galaxy of software available for the Mac, there’s not much there at all, a thousand or so apps for the moment.

That (substantial) quibble aside, the Mac App Store experience is effortless. After you’ve  updated your system software to Mac OS 10.6.6, a new application icon appears in your dock, which you can relocate elsewhere to your liking. Clicking on it brings you to a packed storefront of choices with a minimalist set of shopping tools at the top: Featured, Top Charts, Categories, Purchases, Updates. You can also use a search field, click back and forth arrows, and adjust the window with the red, yellow, and green buttons found on every app.

Downloading is simple. If you have an existing Apple account on iTunes, you simply log in using those credentials. The shopping experience is similar to iTunes, though it’s much less messy, probably because Apple has fewer apps to promote than the plethora of choices in iTunes. Thus, you can find what you want (if it’s there) with ease.

Most of the software I saw is priced similarly to what you’d find for Apple’s mobile devices. For example, while there are a couple of apps in the Business category that run into the hundreds of dollars, most are cheap, even free. This does give credence to the views of some developers that the Mac App Store will be a race to the bottom in terms of price, potentially inclining developers to eschew the Mac OS because they won’t be able to afford the software support costs. But from a shopper’s viewpoint, it was a pleasant surprise.

All-in-all, the Mac App Store will be a boon to users looking for an easy and immediate way to get a new software package or update an existing one. However, getting the shopping details right will only matter if Apple can get the software goods on its virtual shelves.