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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?

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.

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.

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.