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Bye Bye Croisan Views

10 Mar

This is not the first blog I’ve abandoned. That would be Words at http://www.markeveretthall.com, an experiment I conducted many years ago. I created Words to post some of my old published essays and to play with Apple’s iWeb software, the worst blogging tool I’ve worked with by far. I learned what I could and then, like so many other people, moved on to other things.

In addition to Words and now this, I’ve also dropped two other blogs. One, Sanity as a Service, was for Computerworld and the other ran at TG Daily. Both companies were paying me enough to post regularly, then they changed the deals, so I stopped writing for them.

From the start, Croisan Views was a different kettle of fish. I began it less than eleven months ago with a specific goal: quit after 100 posts or one year, whichever comes first. This is my 100th post.

Millions of individuals have started blogs, then tossed them away for various reasons. Gartner Inc., the market research firm, estimated that as many as 200 million blogs may have been left to rot on the side of the Information Superhighway. As you know, that doesn’t mean there’s a blog famine ahead. WordPress, which hosts Croisan Views (and is the best tool I’ve used to manage a blog), alone has 18 million blogs. Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga, and other sites offer millions upon millions more.

Some bloggers approach their task as if it were a never-ending story, infinite in scope, not unlike the Internet itself. That’s why so many blogs get abandoned by their authors. The work becomes too daunting after the initial rush of good feeling upon seeing their work online. That feeling can give way to despair once the deathly silence of the worldwide web envelops the blog.

Most successful blogs are tightly focused. Whether on technology, politics, baseball, or whatever, they reflect the passions and obsessions of their creators. But I wanted Croisan Views to reflect my overall life during the time I wrote it; a general-interest blog that detailed things that I did as well as the world as I saw it. Yet, I thought the blog should be more than a public airing of my personal diary, something I’ve kept since the 1970s. Admittedly, this strategy is not a recipe for an overwhelmingly successful blog. But it made it a pleasure to write.

As I’ve noted before, I am a numbers-obsessed fella. In addition to my personal output target of 100 posts, I wanted to generate a modicum of traffic to Croisan Views. I thought 5,000 unique visitors in a year was reasonable. I surpassed that number early last month. Lately, I’ve been averaging about 200 people per week, up from around 50 this past autumn.

Getting people to my site was not easy. I lacked an established third-party source, such as Computerworld, to manufacture attention to the blog. I never paid a dime to any SEO company or expert to develop a plan for adding more visitors. Growth, such as it was, was all organic. From its launch last April, it took nearly two months until Google, Bing, and Yahoo began to index Croisan Views. Search engines drive about half the people to this blog. Twitter, where my @Croisan existed until last month, as well as my Facebook account delivered a small, steady number of folks. But it was Reddit and StumbleUpon, which I just started using in January, that gave me the biggest bumps in unique visitors. Although my old blog editor at Computerworld says it’s the top source for her operations, I never used Digg because I find the service tedious.

Choosing accompanying art, as we print-publishing people call any image associated with a story, was one of the more difficult parts of the blog process. I want it to connect in some way to the specific post, but I was limited in my store of images. Virtually every photograph on the blog was taken by me, although my friend Klaus Herzberger snapped the one of me in the Alps and I’ve used public domain images on a couple occasions. Of course, David Leishman generously provided me with magazine covers from his magnificent collection, which I’ve used from time to time.

Croisan Views has been a joy and a burden. As I noted with my post about quitting microblogging at Twitter, keeping a blog is time consuming. Finding good links, responding to comments, choosing and cropping photos, and simply coming up with new ideas and then writing and editing them all take up hours each week. The volume of work I produced here would fill a small book if printed.

I’m glad Croisan Views is done, though I suspect I’ll miss it. I hope in some small way, you will, too.

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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.

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.

My Pinko Past

25 Jan

This past weekend I finished reading Joseph Kanon’s brilliant 2009 thriller Stardust, which is set in Hollywood in the summer of 1945 immediately after the end of World War II. Partially a whodunit. Partially a look at how the leftist ideology voiced in the movies that helped sustain morale on the home front during the war became anathema soon thereafter.

Without giving away anything about the plot, Kanon reveals the tensions that reigned among the throng of German emigrants fleeing Hitler who had made their way to Southern California. Tensions exacerbated because their loyalties were always suspect, rightly or wrongly, as Ben, the protagonist, learns. That’s because the emigrants in the story had pasts that made them need to flee the Nazis, meaning they were intellectuals, socialists, or communists.

Of course, their pasts are not always indicative of who these men and women are in the novel’s present. At one point, one of the German characters, Ostermann, a distinguished writer who left the dark times in his native land for the sunny Southland, reflects on the ideological indiscretion of his youth. All youth, in fact.

“What did you think when you were eighteen?” Ostermann said gently, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Do you remember? I was for the Kaiser. A young man’s ideas. Things change….A flirtation and then you want to put it behind you.”

When I was eighteen I was not for the Kaiser (I’m not that old.) or for anyone representing authority. It was 1969, Nixon was in the White House, and the Vietnam War was raging. That October millions of protestors in the United States marched, sung, and meditated for peace to come to Southeast Asia. Across the nation there were teach-ins, one of which I led at my high school in California. (You’ll note in the accompanying school yearbook photo, Peace Day fell in the same week as a varsity football game.)

Although young, naive, and mostly clueless politically, during the organization of my school’s Peace Day I found myself suddenly in common cause with people whose ideologies were far more developed and sophisticated than mine. I read what they recommended and began to fancy myself a radical. A mustache soon appeared below my nose and my hair fell over my collar.

Once I was in college I was ready to commit to a deeper radicalism. The war had gotten worse with the illegal (and immoral) bombing of Cambodia and the massacre at My Lai. I helped organize more protests and became friends with committed leftists.

Communism, of course, had been completely discredited by the perversion of Stalinism, the tanks in Prague, and the brutality of life inside the Soviet Union. So I hung out with Leon Trotsky’s followers, in this case those engaged with the now defunct Young Socialists Alliance. I subscribed to The Militant, which apparently still exists, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party.

Keep in mind that in the early 1970s when I was dreaming of a socialist paradise in the USA, the economy was on the rocks from underwriting the war for so long as well as suffering the effects of the first Arab oil embargo. And Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, was claiming “executive privilege” that would have put the executive branch above the law. It was easy to be radical in that milieu.

Then something happened that opened my eyes. The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon was not a monarch beholden to no one else. The president, every president, had to submit to the due process of law like anyone else.

Suddenly I felt good about being an American. A nation built on law actually meant it.

Unlike many who shape-shifted from being radicals on the left to be radicals on the right, I took baby steps away from militancy. Despite persistent pleas from my YSA buddies, I never formally joined. I stopped going to meetings because hardcore members would not admit that the Supreme Court’s decision was meaningful since it did not fit their blinkered ideological narrative of American politics. I let my subscription to The Militant lapse. For a few years I even became a Democrat, though as now, I mostly eschewed party affiliations because my progressive notions are still a little too pink for the Democratic Party, especially today.

Also, getting older made me less radical. What inspired me at eighteen no longer raised my spirits in my twenties let alone in my sixtieth year. As Ostermann said, Things change. And so do people.

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.

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.