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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.

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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.

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.

Callous Toward the Homeless

4 Jan

Nearly every day I see people begging here in the Willamette Valley. They stand on street corners and at freeway exits holding barely readable tattered cardboard signs. They wander up and down the streets of towns large and small asking for spare change. They line up outside shelters for food and a bed for a night.

Like most people most of the time, I don’t pay them too much attention. I’ve become callously indifferent toward the homeless.

When I lived in San Francisco in the 1990s and walked from the Polk Gulch neighborhood to my office downtown, I’d put a big handful of quarters in my pocket and hand out one or two in response to the requests for spare change. By the time I got to work a half hour later, my pocket would be empty. I doubt that I saved anyone on those urban treks, but I doubt I did any harm either.

In 2007 it was estimated that more than 650,000 people in the United States were chronically homeless. The government’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said that in 2009 1.5 million individuals spent at least one night without a home to sleep in. According to another survey, more than 19% of the homeless are military veterans. That same report shows that 55% of homeless people are afflicted with disabilities, yet barely 25% have some kind of health insurance. And more than half of those on the streets have no source of income, hence the begging.

It’s only going to get worse. As jobs become scarce in this country and politicians chip away at social services, Social Security, and Medicare, expect homelessness to grow. In fact, given the arrival of Baby Boomers into senior citizen status, it’s estimated that the number of  homeless among the elderly will expand 33% in the coming decade.

Guilt-ridden individuals will not solve homelessness one handout at a time. The solution, if there is one, must come from a large-scale government effort. But our political leaders have little concern about the homeless because they are not as powerful a constituency as, say, millionaires who demand tax breaks. Sadly, there’s little hope for the homeless.

On occasion, especially on a cold day like today, I’ll roll down the window of my heated car and hand over a dollar or two to a beggar who claims to be homeless. Although I know it’s unlikely that my meagre contribution can turn their lives around, I still do it. And, yes, I realize I can get scammed by those who are not in such dire straits. But I don’t worry about the loss of a couple bucks to a petty crook. Mostly, I worry about the loss of my sense of empathy toward my fellow human beings.

Call Me Fred

30 Oct

Increasingly, I feel like Fred Flintstone stumbling through George Jetson’s world. Just this week I flew down to San Diego to attend Partners, Teradata’s user group conference, where cutting-edge data geeks meet with state-of-the-art computer geeks and wow each other with what they’ve done in the past year or so. If you want to know about the most advanced uses for enterprise intelligence, this is the key event to attend.

But it wasn’t the myriad conference and keynote sessions that made me feel like the bumbling Mr. Flintstone once again. It was my flight to Southern California.

Since moving to Oregon, by deliberate choice, through the ease of working remotely, with the reduction in corporate travel budgets, and from the utter inconvenience of air travel, I’ve reduced my time tethered to the airline industry from two to three weeks a month to two to three weeks a year.

Bliss.

My reduced exposure to the limitless tedium of airports around the world means I’ve missed out on a few rather substantial changes in George Jetson-style processes and services. Naturally, I’d heard of these advances, but I’ve never experienced them firsthand until this week.

When Alaska Airlines flight 576 deposited its load of passengers into the cramped terminal at San Diego International Airport mid-day on Sunday this week, the line of departing travelers leading into the terminal stretched endlessly throughout the concourse, blocking the paths of those who were following the Ground Transportation and Baggage signs. I overheard someone complain that they’d been in line for 45 minutes. And from where he was standing it was clear he would have another half hour before he got through security. I made a mental note to arrive a bit earlier than normal when it was my day to leave.

Upon my departure I saw the reason for the very long line: the x-ray security machine. It adds at least 20 seconds to each and every passengers’ trip through the ever-changing labyrinth of airport security. Ten of those seconds come from the necessary time it takes for the machine to bombard your body with a tiny dose of x-rays. Another ten comes from the time it takes for the Transportation Security Administration agent to explain what you’re supposed to do in the x-ray booth. So, while listening to the instructions, putting your thumbs on your head while holding your wallet and counting to ten as the machine scans your body, the people behind you wait…and wait…and wait.

Privacy and health concerns aside, x-ray machines compound the already complex passenger boarding process. If they were a true breakthrough, such as envisioned in the 1990 sci-fi flick Total Recall, where you get x-rayed while carrying all your gear to the plane without breaking stride, I’d give the security process two thumbs up. But you still need to pull your laptop out of your bag, take off your jacket, remove your belt, empty your pockets of keys and change, slip out of your shoes, and the rest. As it stands now, the x-ray process is yet one more reason not to fly. It adds extra time to the already long, mind-numbing experience of air travel.

The second technology advance I witnessed was WiFi in the air. Alaska Airlines flight 233 back to PDX offered me the chance to send e-mail from seat 26C, which I did for free, announcing to friends that I was sending them a message from 35,000 feet above terra firma. At first, I thought it was pretty cool. Then I noticed everyone around me diligently bent over their laptops working away harder than ever. What might be a fun or convenient new service for some was mostly another tool to keep workers working longer, harder, for no extra pay.

This trip reminded me once again that I’ll take my Fred Flintstone existence over George Jetson’s world any day.

The Importance of Pain

10 Sep

Suffering is something we all share. Pain, specifically, bridges all cultures, socio-economic strata, GPS coordinates, religions, and political affiliations. Everyone from Bill Gates and Madonna to clutzy kids and cranky old folks has stubbed their toe and knows it hurts. We’ve all experienced pain and, with precious few exceptions, we all hate it.

Our universal connection to pain is what appalls us when we learn our governments are involved in the torture of prisoners. We are horrified by the inflicting of pain on the helpless, and no matter how bad they might be, once captive, every prisoner is helpless. The purposeful infliction of pain on another strikes us as, if not pure evil, the act of a disturbed person.

As such, pain’s ubiquity has long undermined the notion of a just and merciful deity. Long before the Christian era began, Epicurus taught us that the pervasiveness of evil, evident by such things as torture, proves the fallacy of any god’s omnipotence or goodness. To this day, theists wrestle with, what C.S. Lewis called The Problem of Pain. God never explained to Moses or through the Evangelists or in the Qur’an why the world is rife with pain and suffering. It just is. If you’re religious, you have to suck it up and pray (literally) that there’s a good reason for it. If you’re not, it’s just another reason to question the idea of an all-powerful being kindly watching over us.

Minimizing pain is what many people afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, trigeminal neuralgia, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and other diseases do every day. How much am I willing to hurt today? That’s a question they answer before deciding to go shopping, attend a party, or see a movie at the cinema. Avoiding pain is an elemental part of our evolutionary success even for those who cannot.

Yet, many of us intentionally inflict pain on ourselves through sports and training. We rationalize the suffering we endure as part of a process that makes us faster, stronger, and healthier and, we hope, able to live longer. “No pain, no gain,” we quote to one another after a particularly brutal exercise session. We make fun of our suffering on the field. “Give blood. Play rugby,” footballers quip.

Ironically, pain is an essential part of any plan to improve one’s physical condition. If we haven’t pushed our bodies until our muscles ache, we think we’re no better off than before we started exercising. If our lungs aren’t gasping for air, then we haven’t worked out hard enough. Pain is a measuring stick for our well-being.

When I’m cycling I push myself hard on each ride so that at least once my legs are barking at me to stop or I am breathing so hard it hurts to inhale. But I press on.

Why? Why do I persist?

Trust me, it’s not because I get pleasure from the pain. It hurts. I want it to stop, but I keep going. If I have trained well enough that I can conquer a given hill or distance without pain, I pick a steeper hill or a longer ride. Maybe I’m addicted to the endorphins that are said to kick in at certain exercise thresholds. Perhaps it’s just my ego battling myself, always trying to outdo what I’ve previously accomplished.

Or, maybe I’m engaged in a futile project to ward off death by getting in good health. Maybe I embrace suffering as a way to spit in the eye of a deity that would include pain in an “intelligent design” of the universe.

I wish I knew why because I’m about to leave for another ride today. My riding partner and I have a long one planned with lots of hills in store. My legs, butt, and back will all complain mightily during and after. It bodes to be a cruel ride.

I can’t wait.