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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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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?

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.

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.

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.

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.