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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.

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.

Bah! It’s All Humbug About the Grinch

21 Dec

It doesn’t take much each year for me to hate Christmas. Oh, not the religious angle of the holiday, of which I have no useful opinion. But the commercial and societal aspects of December 25 can elicit a particular bile in the back of my throat that, well, is, at best, distasteful.

First, take the festive colors. Green and red. Frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to combine two less complimentary or appealing hues than these. Then there’s the Santa character, a fat old man with a drunkard’s nose who likes to have kids sit on his lap, and whose name is, for those who track these things, also an anagram for Satan. Adding to the seasonal mess is that vast segments of society feel it’s necessary to pile into airport terminals, skid onto packed freeways, squeeze into rail stations and trains, all at once, all during the lousiest weather time in the Northern Hemisphere and expect a Christmas miracle in human transportation systems, then somehow act surprised and angry when it fails to materialize.

Even more dispiriting than the bad taste and bad travel is the mandate to shop. Spend. Buy. Give. Acquire. If you won’t, don’t, or even can’t, you’re dubbed a Scrooge or a grinch. Someone to be pitied or even hated because the manufactured joy rings hallow and cheap to you like all the gifts labeled “made in China” under the tree.

Admittedly, I greatly enjoy watching the scary scene of young children full of greedy anticipation as they rush to open their prettily wrapped Christmas booty. They tear apart one box after another with hungry glee like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Doting parents may attempt to calm them down with admonitions to stop ripping apart their packages long enough thank grandma or Uncle Albert for one present or another, but it’s as futile as asking Jaws not to nibble on a succulent surfer.

Given the choice, I’d rather abstain from the forced frivolity and be of good cheer at home with loved ones, appreciating them as I would any other day of the year. I don’t need to exchange gifts to show my love or get them to feel affection from others. And I do not need to set aside one day a year to contemplate the profound and clearly misunderstood message of the holiday: Peace.

That’s something this grinch strives for each and every day of the year.

Peace be with you, my friends.

Not Every Essential Police Call Is 9-1-1 Worthy

15 Nov

Last Friday night David, Cathie, and I were on Interstate 5 returning from an Apple Store near Portland. Just as we drove around a hill we could see the overpass on our exit lit up like a Christmas tree with emergency vehicle lights. While I drove David and Cathie counted the number of police, fire, and other official trucks and cars perched above the freeway.

“Nine!”

“Eleven!”

A lot, to be sure. Because the event was on the opposite side of the exit that we took, we did not drive by the scene and so could not see what caused such an emergency response. Our curiosity prompted me to buy the local paper the next morning and surf its website as well as visit the city and state police websites in search of a clue.

Nothing.

However, it turns out there’s an iPhone app that got me the information I needed.

Police Anywhere by Eaglevision Productions Inc. has non-emergency contact information for police departments in every city in the United States. It is a valuable tool that, if broadly available, will cut down on unnecessary, inappropriate, and wasteful 9-1-1 calls. It can also provide users with a quick way to get important police-related information. For example, if you’re visiting a town and your car gets towed, it’s hardly an emergency situation, but most police departments will be able to tell you how to get your vehicle back, if you only knew where to call. Police Anywhere gets you that phone number.

Police Anywhere is probably the simplest iPhone app I’ve ever used. Open it up and you get two options: Auto Find and Browse. The first choice uses your iPhone’s GPS function to locate which jurisdiction you’re in, then, lickity split, the number appears. A single tap on the screen gives you a splash screen asking if you want to cancel the task or dial the police. When you tap Call, it dials the number.

You can use the browse feature, which guides you to local police contact information by state, then county, then city or town. I would prefer to browse by city or to have a search  tool. But given Police Anywhere is in release 1.1, I expect enhancements along these lines in future versions.

For business travelers and vacationers, Police Anywhere is an exceptionally simple yet exceptionally valuable app to have on hand. And at $1.99, it’s cheap insurance.

Oh, by the way, I used Police Anywhere to call and learn what happened last Friday. It was a non-injury accident.

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.

Coastal Views

7 Sep

Just returned from 1,600 miles of driving around Oregon and northern California with friends from Europe. These photos are from the beach near the ever-funky See Vue Inn.

Sun reflected in tidepool

Cairns in grotto

Devil’s Churn

Rock and sand