All Good Things…

June 22, 2018

All good things… was the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation

The title for this post comes from the final television episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ended its run in 1994 after seven years and 178 episodes. It was a great series finale, something the iconic original Star Trek series in the late 1960s never got in its three-year run of 79 episodes.

One’s mind fills in the rest of the title: must come to an end. We can trace the idiom back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde of the mid 1380s:

He song; she pleyde; he tolde tale of Wade.
But at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
She took hir leve, and nedes wolde wende.

And while all good things must come to an end, some good things have a very long life. Chaucer’s poem is still with us over six centuries later. Other things have shorter, if still meaningful, lives.

18 years ago I decided to self-publish my Inquiry Physics: A Learning Cycle Curriculum, which was an elaborate refinement and extension of work done by others in the 1980s at the University of Oklahoma and Norman High School. I was initially prompted by requests from other physics teachers for my materials. Over the next 18 years I never advertised that work, relying solely on word-of-mouth and internet searches to drive any sales.

For a couple of years I sold the curriculum as a thick binder of papers with an optional CD-ROM disc. Then I simplified to just selling it on CD-ROMs for a dozen years, updating the curriculum seven times over the decades to incorporate corrections and additions. For the past five years it was a download-only product. Its most recent iteration had 19 units with 213 pages of teaching suggestions, 26 hands-on labs, 98 other student assignments, 175 pages of sample notes, and several multimedia presentations, all compressed into a 600 megabyte archive.

In 2008 I donated all of my net profits to that point, which was only $1,000, to the John Renner Science Education Center at OU, since Dr. Renner’s program under the stewardship of Dr. Ed Marek was where the original learning cycles came from. Coincidentally, that was when a six-year boom in sales began, peaking in 2014 with almost 100 sales and about $2,500 in revenue. That wasn’t my profit, since in addition to website expenses, sales became large enough in the 2010s that I had to file extra tax paperwork, obtain business licenses, and pay over 15% self-employment tax each year on the proceeds.

Inquiry Physics sales chart

I spent most of the profits of the final decade on purchasing website domains for the school district, school-related equipment and materials, and similar pro bono work. Sales declined after 2014, partly because I decided not to update the curriculum for the AP Physics 1 exam which debuted in 2015, only providing a correlation guide. My public retirement from teaching physics in 2017 likely precipitated a drastic decline in subsequent sales.

Since sales in the first half of 2018 have declined to 2009 levels, it is time for another good thing to end. I remain uninterested in updating the curriculum, and by ending sales now I can avoid dealing with self-employment taxes and paperwork next spring. Plus the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair sets the stage for cities and states to begin directly collecting sales taxes on internet sales rather than hoping consumers will pay use taxes. It wouldn’t make sense for me to invest the time and effort in arranging for the collection and payment of those additional taxes on such meager proceeds.

But over the past 18 years I am surprised and pleased that, without any advertising, I was able to sell 578 copies of my curriculum to teachers in 48 of the 50 states and 14 foreign countries. (The holdouts were North Dakota and Wyoming.) I know almost all of the sales were to teachers, as I verified purchasers’ online presence at school websites. So I can safely presume portions of my materials have been used to teach many more students than the 2,663 I was blessed to have in my own classes from 1989-2017. To help protect the integrity of the assignments for the teachers who still use them, I will not consider releasing the curriculum into the public domain until after I retire from education in 10-15 years.

This is not a tale of a small business destroyed by government taxes. It is the story of a cycle. Just as there is a learning cycle, there are cycles in a business and in a career. This marks the end of my physics cycle, but I’m only one year into a new one revolving around technology and communications.

Life is good, even though…

Posted in physics | Leave a comment

Down the rabbit hole to find what came before

February 25, 2018

Granger MeadorFaithful readers of this blog will know that my largest focus over the years has been on day hikes and related photography. But I also offer healthy if less popular dollops of technology, some home repairs (which are my most longest-lived popular posts), music, a smattering of school-related politics, and occasional embedded history. The last topic is my focus here, prompted by the rabbit-hole of web-based exploration I fell into this weekend.

My interest in local history is no doubt somewhat influenced by my father’s love of the subject. He was born in Dewey, just north of Bartlesville, but spent his teens up in Independence, Kansas and eventually worked for Cities Service Gas in Oklahoma City for about 30 years, so I was born and raised in OKC. Dad is 93 at this writing, and both he and my mother are avid readers, so I was destined to become one too. I love to buy books for both of my parents, who have never embraced the Kindle e-readers like I have.

Dad loves to read history, and I remember how he created a large timeline going back thousands of years on the back of old gas pipeline blueprints. I also was influenced by the love of history that Edgar Weston, my first cousin once removed, had for the Bartlesville and Dewey area. (I’m no genealogist, so I always have to look up how we were related to get the terminology right. To be specific, Edgar was my paternal grandmother’s brother’s son.)

I still have my old History of Bartlesville and Washington County website running at bartlesvillehistory.org, and one of my popular blog posts was my web research on the old micro-midget racetrack in Bartlesville. The Bartlesville Area History Museum had an exhibit on Bartlesville micro-midget racing program on display from February through June 2018. The museum is open Monday-Friday from 10-4 and admission is free, but donations are appreciated. I’m grateful for their sharing of history and curation of the fabulous Frank Griggs photo collection, so with my enhanced income as a new full-time school administrator I decided to send in this weekend a check to become a Patron in their Friends of the BAHM program.

Rita Thurman Barnes wrote a fun newspaper column for the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise for 16 years. She now writes for Bartlesville Monthly Magazine and has a fun Facebook group, currently called Once Upon a Time in Bartlesville. She shares remembrances and inquiries about things in Bartlesville that once were but are no more. Rita has to enforce some good rules to rein in some of the crankier participants and the nostalgia can get a bit thick, but I enjoy seeing and reading about what came before.

Hilltop Drive-In (photo from elmorovivo at Cinema Treasures)

This week some photos of the old Hilltop Drive-In theater off Nowata Road were posted in the group. I had never seen it, although I had long known where it was because it was shown on old USGS maps of Bartlesville, and I knew the Examiner-Enterprise facility built in the 1990s was on the western half of the old drive-in’s lot. I suppose my interest was also perked because just a week earlier I had been sitting in a studio at the E-E, right about where the screen of the drive-in was once located, sharing with the public about Chromebooks. That geophysical connection perked my interest, and a dive down the rabbit hole.

Earlier, in a comment on a post on the old Penn theater, Kyle Baker had shared a link to  Cinema Treasures, which documents current and past movie houses. So I used that site to see what the old Hilltop looked like and to learn that the screen tower was a pre-fab wooden construction that was erected in only five days. I’ve seen plenty of nostalgia about drive-ins in various movies over the years, but drive-ins were passé by the time I was driving age.

That could have been the end of that dive into history, but then someone now living out of town posted a photo of an old Ben Franklin five-and-dime store and Foodland grocery with the Hilltop Drive-In visible in the background. They asked if the Ben Franklin/Foodland building was still there. Folks speculated the Foodland was now Tumbleweeds Steakhouse and the Ben Franklin store was now a series of smaller stores, but were not certain if the building was actually the same.

The Ben Franklin & Foodland stores once west of the Hilltop Drive-In

I figured historic aerial photography could provide an answer. So I went web surfing and found a 1971 aerial photo showing the Hilltop Drive-In and the stores to the west. I paid a monthly subscription fee and an added photo fee to an online service to acquire a good shot to share with everyone. (The free aerial photo sources from the government are, as you might expect, quite diverse, somewhat awkward to use, and limited. As always, you get what you pay for in our capitalist society, and I was willing to pony up for a good shot.)

The Hilltop Drive-In back in 1971, with the Foodland and Ben Franklin buildings to the west

When I compared that to a modern-day aerial shot, I could confirm that the buildings are probably the same. When I moved to Bartlesville in 1989, they were the big and dusty Walls clearance store. Later it was subdivided and the front façade on the north was thoroughly remodeled.

The same area today

I shared those photos in my comments on the post over on Facebook, and included a street view of the buildings, as they look now, for the out-of-towner.

The Foodland and Ben Franklin buildings today

So a tiny tidbit of local history was explored a bit more. But now I had paid for a month’s access to watermarked 1971 aerial photos, with an added fee to get individual shots I could actually share. No use letting that subscription go to waste, right?

So I looked up the quarter-acre that Meador Manor was built on back in 1981. I wanted to see how the area looked in 1971.

Our quarter-acre lot was at the northern end of a field back in 1971

Well, it was a bit of the north end of a field. Wendy and I live in the sixth addition to Arrowhead Acres, and I was surprised to find that the original loop that was the start of the development was already complete by 1971. It was also fun to see how much smaller Tri County Tech, which is just east of Arrowhead Acres, was back then.

The same area in 2018

Next I targeted the house I lived in back in Oklahoma City from 6th-12th grade. I knew that the Windsor Hills neighborhood had developed in the 1960s on what had been a golf course. The aerial imagery for OKC I could access went back farther than it did for Bartlesville, so I was able to figure out that the house sits on the eastern half of what was once the fairway to the northwesternmost hole of the course.

The golf course that became Windsor Hills in OKC

Floyd Farley designed many golf courses around OKC

On down the rabbit hole I went. I searched for golf course references in OKC and figured out that was the Meridian Golf Club, which golf pro Floyd Farley had designed as his first golf course back in 1941. He built the course on land he leased from the Classen Fruit Farm. (You can see the remains of what Dad recalls as a pear orchard on the western edge of the course.) Of the course he said, “Everybody liked it; it was a natural. I hardly moved any dirt to build it, and the bulldozer bill was only $2,000. It was just a natural piece of ground, but everybody liked it so well and thought I was responsible for it that people started hiring me to build them a golf course. So that’s how I got started.”

Farley was drafted into army during World War II. After his discharge he returned to golf, turning from being a golf pro to designing courses full-time. He subleased the Meridian course, which he owned until 1961 and it became the Windsor Hills neighborhood. Floyd Farley passed away in 2005, having designed over 40 golf courses over six decades, with almost 20 of them in the Oklahoma City area.

OKC developer Anton Classen

Hmmm…the Classen Fruit Farm? That led me even farther down this historical rabbit hole. Surely that was a reference to Anton H. Classen, the land speculator who bought up farmland around Oklahoma City in its early days and developed many housing projects, whose name lives on in the form of Classen Boulevard and Northwest Classen High School.

I knew that Classen had built up streetcar lines to help his developments, and that one line had extended from downtown to almost 23rd and Meridian, at the southeast corner of Windsor Hills. I’ve had fun driving the boulevards winding from my old neighborhood to downtown. If you pay attention to the street layout and the wider boulevards and curves, you can follow the streets quite easily along the old streetcar route, even though no visible remains are present.

An Oklahoma City streetcar

Oklahoma City is spending a lot of dough to revive a small rail streetcar system downtown. This amuses me, given how there was once a major streetcar system throughout the city, with interurban lines linking it all the way to Guthrie, El Reno, and Norman. What goes around comes around!

I found a neat online map of the old lines on the web with an article on the old streetcar lines.

The streetcar lines were often used by housing developers to offer easy commuting to jobs downtown, with amusement parks planted at the end of some lines to drum up business on weekends. Belle Isle Lake was built in north central OKC by Classen and John Shartel with a powerplant to power the streetcar and interurban system. Eventually an amusement park was built there, but it was long gone before I was born. Maybe some of you have shopped in that area, which is now home to Penn Square Mall and Belle Isle Station.

This particular rabbit hole thus circles back, in my mind, to Bartlesville. A few weeks back a former teacher asked me about the interurban in Bartlesville. I sent her to my Bartlesville history website, where I had briefly noted:

The Bartlesville interurban

In 1908 the Bartlesville Interurban Railway opened, expanding by 1915 to operate two loops with 10.1 miles of trolley track connecting the zinc smelters with the rest of Bartlesville and Dewey. Stops included Dewey, Tuxedo, National Zinc Co., Bartlesville Zinc Co., Star Smelting Co., and Interurban Park. A round trip cost about 20 cents and took 45 minutes on the north loop, with half-hour service on the south loop. The terminal, brick power house, and car barn were at Fourth and Comanche. The line, like so many others, was wiped out by auto interests and closed in 1920. Visible remains include the angled Interurban Drive in the Tuxedo area of Bartlesville, with the old line route extending across modern-day Robinwood Park and leading to some old bridge pilings on the Caney River nearby.

I also shared with her that Phillips Petroleum was once part of a conspiracy to kill off the old interurbans and bus lines nationwide in order to boost automobiles and thus petroleum sales. Phillips was one of the companies convicted in 1949 of conspiring with General Motors, Goodyear, Firestone, Standard Oil, and Mack Trucks to monopolize bus sales and related products. The fines were minimal, and it is arguable if the various streetcars and interurbans would have survived anyway given that their owners often did not capitalize them sufficiently nor invest enough in their upkeep. Plus the much greater convenience and enthusiasm for the automobile was a major reason only a few old streetcar lines remained intact over the decades, such as the famous cable cars in hilly San Francisco and the old streetcars of New Orleans, including a streetcar line named Desire.

And so we dig our way up out of this hole, re-emerging into present day Bartlesville. I’ll close this ping-pong history exploration with a shot of the old interurban pilings on the Caney River south of the bridge on Frank Phillips Boulevard and the old interurban foundations found near the Pathfinder Parkway.

I hope you enjoyed this dig to explore what came before. Maybe you have some digging of your own that will interest you. When people ask me what era I wish I were living in, I always say TODAY. That maximizes the history there is to explore and, with the world wide web, makes armchair exploration of it incredibly easy and rewarding. Happy digging!

Concrete foundations of the old interurban line near the Pathfinder Parkway

Interurban bridge pilings on the Caney River near Frank Phillips Boulevard

Posted in history, photos, random | 12 Comments

What Good Am I, Oklahoma?

The Step Up Oklahoma plan to raise revenues to finally address the dire teacher shortage in Oklahoma failed in February 2018 primarily because the minority House Democrats wanted 5% instead of 4% gross production tax for the first 36 months of a well. The Republicans, heavily influenced by the oil oligarchs, refused to go above 4%.

An experienced oil man told Wayne Greene of the Tulsa World that a 1% increase in that tax would be a like a 30-cent decrease in the price of oil over the life of a well. As Greene wrote, “It’s insignificant. It’s less than the rounding error in the pre-drilling projections, my source tells me.”

A significant majority of the House members embraced the Step Up plan, but we need a ridiculously high 75% supermajority to raise taxes in Oklahoma (but only a simple majority to cut them, which is the reason we are in such dire straits). The failure of both parties to embrace an obvious compromise not only killed a desperately needed teacher pay raise to address the teacher shortage, but actually led to another $22 million cut in public school funding to balance the budget. So yet again the schools took the hit from a state revenue failure, on top of multiple past failures that have devastated their budgets.

Greene wrote:

How strange that the marginal difference between a 4 percent gross production tax over the first three years of production and a 5 percent gross production tax over the first three years could shut down any progress.

Logic says that neither side would be fighting if the cause weren’t significant, right? If the distinction for the oil companies’ bottom line is less than the rounding error and the state revenue numbers are less than 10 percent [of the Step Up plan], why would we go to the mattresses?

The only answer I can find is that it’s not about money, it’s about dominance. In the end, this highly technical debate is at least as much about emotions and politics as it is about revenue and policy.

The compromise neither side would embrace earlier this month is obvious. They should soothe the consciences of the ideologues in both parties and the egos of the oil barons by adopting the rest of the Step Up revenue package but increase the GPT to 4.5% to split the difference between the parties’ positions. I’d suggest dedicating the $35 million from the extra 0.5% to increase state worker salaries, which are also desperately low.

Yes, teachers and state workers deserve MUCH more. But this is about COMPROMISE from ALL sides to get over that ludicrous 75% supermajority hurdle. We must stop the bleeding and bind our state’s self-inflicted wounds. It is past time for our legislators from both parties to get off their high horses and shake hands on a compromise to save our schools. That should be the Oklahoma standard.

The failure of our state legislators to reach a compromise has dire consequences for our schoolchildren and the state’s most vulnerable citizens: the poor and the elderly who depend on state services. I ask the legislators who have been voting no, and the partisans who support them, to think about that.

Bob Dylan put it quite well about 30 years ago:

What Good am I

What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky
What good am I?

What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try
What good am I?

What good am I then to others and me
If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

I’ve read that about 40% of state workers now qualify for food stamps, which is abominable.

Meanwhile, the grim state of our public schools is illustrated below:

Enough is enough, legislators. You need to embrace the obvious compromise and GET THIS DONE. If you do not, I guarantee you that parents and teachers will be shutting down the schools across our state this April until you do. We shall wait no longer.

UPDATE: In April Bartlesville schools, and many others statewide, were suspended by a teacher walkout for 8 school days. The threat of the walkout helped prompt the legislature to pass the largest teacher pay increase in state history, ranging from about $5,000-$8,000. During the walkout, another $40 million or so in future funding was earmarked for education. Although Oklahoma teachers will now have a regionally competitive salary for the first time in my career, per pupil funding remains dead last in the region. The state will need to invest even more in its public schools to reduce class sizes and restore lost course electives, etc.

Posted in politics | 4 Comments

Bob Cratchit and Bias Bubbles

December 28, 2017

Granger

Facebook helps spread fake news of all sorts, not just liberal or conservative

We hear much these days about “fake news”, a term promoted by President Trump when he wishes to deflect critical coverage of his latest untruth, of which there are many. But he is correct in that there is actual fake news on both sides of the political spectrum. Facebook’s addiction algorithms, designed to keep users clicking and sharing while viewing more ads, helps spread untruths and misinformation in the political bias bubbles it forms around its users.

Based on my own political persuasions, Facebook has formed a liberal bias bubble around my account, although I thankfully have some conservative and libertarian friends there whose posts can penetrate the bubble. The current nonsense spreading in the liberal bubble is a post claiming that the impoverished character of Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ famous novella A Christmas Carol was making far more than our equivalent minimum wage today:

While watching A Christmas Carol tonight, my attention was caught by Bob Cratchit’s salary. He makes “15 bob a week.” I got curious and looked into inflation and conversion to American money, and if A Christmas Carol happened this year, Bob Cratchit would be making $27,574 per year in American money.  If someone works 40 hours a week at the current federal minimum wage, they’ll make $15,080. So Bob Cratchit, the epitome of poverty, makes $12,494 more than minimum wage workers (full time) each year. And yet we have people saying minimum wage is fine where it’s at.

Bob Cratchit and Scrooge

My own liberal bias would lead me to grant too much credence to this claim, since I believe our minimum wage is miserly and know that those earning it do indeed struggle economically. Thankfully, however, I was trained to think critically, so I was immediately skeptical. We all know that Scrooge was a miser paying such a low wage that his clerk Bob Cratchit and his large family struggled with basic needs. Given the point of the novella, would Charles Dickens really have set Cratchit’s annual salary to be equivalent to over $27,000 in America today? That struck me as quite unlikely.

One of my heroes was Carl Sagan, who provided a Baloney Detection Kit in his book The Demon-Haunted World. The first tool in that kit is this:

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

So, rather than rely upon the unsupported claim in the post spreading on Facebook, I decided to do my own calculation. I realized it would be fraught with difficulties, since:

  • we don’t know the precise year of the story’s setting
  • British currency underwent decimalisation in 1971, altering how it would convert
  • the foreign currency exchange rate from the British pound to the U.S. dollar varies continually
  • one must impose inflation
  • the work week of a clerk in Britain in the 1840s was not the forty-hour standard work week of modern-day America

So I first determined, from the actual text of the novella, that he was paid 15 shillings per week, according to Scrooge. The novella was published in 1843, so I converted 15 shillings in 1840 to British pounds in 2005 using a British government website that handles old money conversions before the 1971 decimalisation. That came out to £33. The Bank of England’s inflation calculator said that would be about £45 today. Google’s currency converter said that the current exchange rate made that about $60 in the United States.

The general consensus is that Bob Cratchit would have worked sixty hours per week. So he was earning the equivalent of $1 per hour in modern U.S. terms, or about one-seventh of  our current minimum wage of $7.25. Even if we assume Cratchit had been working the modern day standard of 40 hours per week, he would have been earning $1.50 per hour, which is about one-fifth of our current minimum wage. So the original post was indeed erroneous. But I saw various well-intentioned folks, including those in the news media, reposting it in their personal Facebook newsfeeds.

My point is neither to criticize nor defend the minimum wage. Instead, I ask you to recognize that everyone, liberals and moderates and conservatives alike, are vulnerable to bias and can be guilty of spreading fake news. We should approach all political posts with a hefty amount of skepticism, and keep Carl’s baloney detection kit in mind. In my case, I now try to ignore most political posts. When I do respond to them or post my own information, I try to stick with verifiable facts, even if I have to verify them myself.

Think before you click. The mind you save may be your own.


2/10/2018 UPDATE: Facebook lost a million users in North America in the fourth quarter of 2017. Managing the district’s Facebook page makes it clear why some folks choose to get away from entirely. Even with that frequently horrible experience, I still find Facebook a net positive, but I have to actively limit my time on it.

Posted in politics, technology | 3 Comments

Listening as one of my digital clouds evaporates

December 22, 2017

The forthcoming demise of Amazon’s Music Storage service, limiting my access on its streaming services to songs it has licensed, prompted me to assess my approach to digital music. The rapid pace of the digital world’s evolution makes it powerful and responsive, but also makes digital services and devices quite ephemeral.

In my experience, there is considerable value in retaining access and control of one’s digital data amidst the churn of devices and services. So the growth of cloud-based storage and streaming services poses a challenge. While they offer distinct advantages over the decades-old reliance on standalone applications and local data files on our personal devices, even the largest cloud services are vulnerable to temporary service outages as well as permanent shuttering, and they seldom play well together.

Downloading vs. streaming music

It is hardly surprising that the demographics for streaming music skew younger than those for downloading it. The fall 2016 AudioCensus by MusicWatch showed that of the people who routinely use on-demand streaming services, 35% are between 13 and 24 years of age. In comparison, only 26% of regular download purchasers are 13 to 24 years of age.

Younger people rely more on streaming music; while older folks rely more on downloading

Now over 50% of all music revenue in the U.S. comes from streaming, and YouTube currently accounts for 25% of all music streaming. Anecdotally, while I turn to YouTube for music merely to access obscure tracks not available on other paid streaming or download services, Wendy uses it routinely.

For the over 15,000 songs in my iTunes Music Library, I paid for every one that I could, via iTunes or Amazon or by ripping them from purchased CDs. The only unpaid tracks in my library are ones that were simply not available for licensed downloading, leading me to extract the audio from a YouTube video or the like to ensure I had a local copy for long-term continuous access and retention.

This increasingly unusual behavior  is a personal habit borne of both necessity and convenience. I have curated my iTunes library and playlists since I bought my first iPod in 2004, when streaming music was impractical. iTunes remains the most convenient way for me to quickly access music on my desktop computer, Apple TV, and iPhone. Plus I never want my music to “disappear” when someone fails to negotiate a licensing deal, shutters a service, or internet service is unavailable. But my method of accessing digital music is increasingly unpopular.

Streaming music is destroying music downloads

One digital cloud evaporated in a year

I am among the 1 in 3 music downloaders who also have music streaming accounts. I pay $10/month for Google Play Music, although I actually just use that account to get the ad-free YouTube Red service. I also subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for $79/year to make that large streaming music library available on the Echo devices at Meador Manor. But I never use Google Play Music, and I seldom use the Amazon Music apps in Windows or on my mobile devices, as they are even slower and clunkier than Apple’s deservedly maligned iTunes.

In April 2017 the frustrations with the inadequate music search on the Echo devices led me to pay for Amazon Music Storage for $25/year. I then uploaded over 12,000 of my songs to Amazon so that I could search that smaller library on an Echo, making it much more likely it would play the track I really wanted.

But now that will end after only a year of use, with me unable to renew my Amazon Music Storage subscription when it expires. No doubt Amazon calculated that it was better for its bottom line and its ecosystem of devices and services to kill that service, despite the inconvenience to folks like me.

What next?

I’m used to companies like Google and Amazon shuttering services I rely upon, forcing me to adapt. Apple could one day falter as well. I view this as an unwelcome but inevitable by-product of evolving technologies and free-market competition. But it also reinforces my 13-year habit of buying my music in iTunes, ensuring I have a local copy that should always be accessible.

But now rumors swirl that Apple could stop selling music downloads in 2019. The download model I’ve relied on since 2004 may be doomed. So in another year I may need to re-assess my approach to digital music. While streaming services will no doubt continue to improve in their usability and the extent of their collections, I’m leery of relying on the cloud.

Clouds can be beautiful and comforting, or impressive and terrifying. But in the end they always evaporate.

12/28/2017 UPDATE: Two trustworthy former students, Daniel Quick and Brian Taylor, independently urged me to try using the Plex media server, something I had heard about but only briefly explored a few years ago. Prompted by their recommendations, I’ve now installed its server software on my Windows 10 desktop and have Plex apps installed on my iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV. I splurged on a lifetime subscription to Plex Pass to ensure I would not encounter any limitations. Next I need to link it up with Alexa. Then I get to start building new habits on accessing my media around the manor.

Posted in music, technology | 3 Comments

Demagogues and dopamine

December 15, 2017

Joseph McCarthy, demagogue

In these trying times, I’m thinking of demagogues and dopamine. Back in my grade school days, we learned about civics and history. We saw how Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy earlier in the 20th century had created needless strife and suffering. The black-and-white videos of their rants as they raised the rabble seemed dated and quaint. We were reassured that they were eventually discredited and faded away.

Father Coughlin

But history has a way of repeating itself. Instead of the wild lies and accusations of Senator McCarthy, we have a political leader who brazenly and routinely lies about anything and everything. Father Coughlin is long gone, but we have a leader of a Christian university who blames sexual assaults on public schools, of all things.

This brings to mind a vocabulary term which my 9th grade civics teacher, the kindly old Mrs. Bird, taught me:

demagogue (noun): a leader of the rabble; one who attempts to control the multitude by specious or deceitful arts; an unprincipled and factious mob orator or political leader

These days the media, which naturally seeks to engage readers by keeping them riled up, breathlessly and endlessly reports on the lies, outrages, and transgressions of our leading politician. How could such a despicable person rise to such prominence? It’s quite simple: demagogues feed on attention, and it matters not whether that attention is positive or negative.

As Kieran McCarthy put it in his marvelous blog post, “How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue“:

The first thing to remember when you’re dealing with a demagogue, is that your first instinct is always wrong.

When a demagogue says or does something that offends you, you have to restrain yourself, because the obnoxious and offensive stunts of a demagogue are like a big, juicy worm.

And you, my friend, are the fish.

If you see the worm, become righteously indignant, and take the bait, he’ll have you hooked, and you’ll be right where he wants you.

He further points out:

It’s not just that demagogues say what they say just to get rise out of us. They do, but that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they’re counting on the righteous indignation of the outgroup to promote the message to the ingroup. Without the righteous indignation of those who oppose the message, the demagogue gets no attention at all, and thus has no influence.

Kieran McCarthy knows how to defeat demagogues

So let us heed the advice from one McCarthy on how to disarm another: to defeat a demagogue we must exercise self-control and restraint. Here are his three ways to NOT defeat a demagogue:

Public Lectures

Lecturing a child doesn’t work. Nor does lecturing one’s political opponents. If the goal is to create a public record of your opinion, then criticizing a demagogue may achieve that goal. But if the genuine goal is to defeat the demagogue, then a public lecture will almost certainly have the opposite effect.

Loud Protests

Protests can be an effective tactic in strategic campaigns against injustice, and have been used at times to great effect. But publicly protesting a demagogue who is not yet in power is a foolish and self-defeating tactic. It only serves to give the demagogue more attention, which is what he needs to increase his influence. Even worse, if handled poorly, it can lead to sympathy for the demagogue, and create converts to a message that wouldn’t likely have cared for it otherwise.

Ad Hominem Attacks

Demagogues succeed because they trigger emotional connections with their followers. Mockery is an awful method of persuasion and does not sever those emotional connections. Rather, it merely strengthens those bonds and further entrenches the followers to their leader.

So what should we do? Kieran McCarthy goes on to encourage us to employ, for demagogues who have not yet risen to power:

The Silent Treatment

Demagogues are like mean, stray dogs. They’re relentless and persistent, and the fact that they are alive and well proves that they have well-honed survival instincts.

But if you stop feeding them, they will go away.

Let Your Actions Do the Talking

Every time we click on a link that talks about a demagogue; every time we post a comment or write an article; every time we whisper or shout their names, we’re doing them a favor.

If you want to defeat a demagogue, you must remain steadfast in your refusal to be a pawn in his game. And that means purging him completely from your information diet.

I am trying to implement that last piece of advice in my own life. Facebook has tracked my every Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry to construct an addictive rewards system out of my oh-so-personalized News Feed. It has constructed a filter bubble it entices me to live in, wasting my time and energy registering my responses and distorting my perceptions.

Please pay attention to what Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former Vice President for User Growth has to say:

I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew, in the back of our minds…something bad could happen…

It literally is a point now, where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works…

If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in. It is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on.

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem…

It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.

Dopamine

How our bodies use dopamine is quite complex, but it is certainly a key component in addiction because one of its many roles is signaling to us what is important. And we have to realize that living and liking in our Facebook bubble is no way to live or learn. So much of what fills our News Feed is NOT important, dopamine be damned. But we’re now acting like Pavlov and his dog, eagerly ringing our own bell with every Like on Facebook, drooling our lives away.

Sure, keeping up with friends and family is great, but what is the point in scanning and clicking a response to yet another link about yet another political outrage? That is not constructive engagement, but soul-sapping entertainment. And why should I care about the provocations of a narrow-minded firebrand who has not risen to power? We can avoid getting burned out by focusing on facts and analysis, rather than outrage and inflammation. We should put our energy into real-world actions and interactions over the ghost world of virtual reality.

So I’m fighting to defeat the demagogues and break the dopamine feedback loop. I’ve deleted most of the political posts on my Facebook page as they are mostly outdated and ephemeral. I will continue to post on political topics, but try to maintain my focus on factual analysis for those wishing to be informed, not inflamed.

And I’m steeling myself to begin ignoring many of the political posts in my News Feed, giving my attention only to ones centered in factual analysis, not click-bait. And I hope to focus more on what is truly emotionally rewarding: the posts which allow me to keep up with friends and family and what’s going on around town.

My goal is to spend less time on Facebook, freeing myself to read a good book and, quite literally, take a hike.

Won’t you join me, Friend?

Posted in politics, random, technology, video, web link | Leave a comment

Bringing a new Harmony to our home theater

November 21, 2017

My purchase of a new OLED television and then a new AV receiver meant it was time to revisit the remote control situation at Meador Manor. And, as usual, that meant spending time and money on a new solution to an an old problem.

The old universal remote control

Logitech Harmony 880 Remote

In 2007  I purchased a $128 Logitech Harmony 880 Remote Control to operate my system. That universal programmable remote, with its programmable display keys, allowed me to just press one button to turn on the television and receiver, along with any other devices, set each to the appropriate inputs, and control the system. Thus it allowed me to avoid relying on five different remote controls, although I still needed a dedicated Voice Remote to use the Amazon Fire TV Stick, since it relied on radio rather than the infrared signals the Harmony 880 could produce. As I changed out devices over the past decade, I would hook the remote up to my old MacBook Air laptop to reprogram it, customizing various options and buttons. I had to replace its rechargeable battery pack once over the years.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

I painstakingly reprogrammed the Harmony 880 when I installed the new television and AV receiver. That meant hooking it via USB to my old MacBook Air, which has the outdated programming software on it, to change out devices and adjust activity settings. I also had to aim the new television remote at one end of the Harmony in order to teach it various command codes, since the old database for that remote no longer kept up with the latest components.

However, no matter how much tweaking I did, I could never get it to reliably power on the devices, set them to the appropriate inputs, and get the sound set the way I wanted. It kept getting one or more of the variables out of sync. The old remote could actually control each device, but it couldn’t reliably track system status and sequencing.

What next?

The new Harmony Companion with its hub

After spending a lot on the new television, receiver, and Apple TV 4K, I wasn’t in the mood to spend a fortune on a really fancy universal remote. But I also couldn’t merely rely on the LG Magic Remote that came with the television. While the HDMI-CEC connection gave it control of the receiver, it still could not control the Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, or Sony VCR.

I found that Logitech now offers, at the same $130 price point as my Harmony 880 in 2007, a two-piece Harmony Companion remote control system. It consists of a powered hub and a handheld unit which, unlike the old single-piece 880, doesn’t have a screen.

I decided that could be a worthwhile tradeoff since that means the Companion’s handheld unit can reportedly can run off its CR 2032 lithium cell for months, since it has no screen to power and only communicates with the plugged-in hub. That sounded nice, compared to having to remember to set the older and bulkier 880 remote into a charging station every week or so. And for some years I’ve had to jiggle and press it to get it to actually connect and charge. So I bought a $130 Companion remote system rather than dropping $300 to get the Harmony Elite, which sports a programmable screen on its handheld unit.

The separate hub plugs into AC power and sits in my cabinet on top of the Blu-Ray player. It blasts IR signals out into the room, which bounce off everything and reflect to control the television, receiver, Blu-Ray player, Apple TV 4K, and old VCR. The system includes a wired IR blaster you can also connect and place strategically if you need to place the hub itself in a closed cabinet.

Setup

The hub also handles WiFi and Bluetooth signals, so I was able to program the system wirelessly with a Harmony app on my iPad, rather than having to connect it via a USB cable to a computer like I had to do with the 880. The Harmony app is available for both iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.

It was simple to plug in the hub and use the iPad app to connect it to WiFi. Programming it to identify my devices was as simple as inputting the manufacturer and model of each one. However, I found that it could not control the old Sony SLV-N81 VCR except to power it on and off. I couldn’t complain too bitterly, since that VCR dates back to 2001. I used the iPad app to manually teach the system the basic commands by selecting a button on the Harmony remote to be programmed and then pressing the matching button on the VCR’s own remote while aiming it at the top of the hub, repeating the process for each command.

So now I had the new remote able to control the television, receiver, Apple TV, Blu-Ray player, and VCR. The next step was to add “activities” like I had with the old 880. You can have plenty of different activities and individual device control via the Harmony app, but the dedicated handheld unit can only support six activities. So I set up:

  • Watching a movie with the TV’s Amazon app
  • Using a different Smart TV app, such as YouTube
  • Watching broadcast television
  • Watching a disc in the Blu-Ray player
  • Using the Apple TV 4K
  • Watching a videotape in the VCR

Harmony 880 vs. the Harmony Companion

Three buttons on the remote trigger the specific activities via short and long presses. I do miss the ability to select a device for manual control while in the midst of an activity, something the 880 could do, but I’ll learn to grab my iPhone or iPad for that when needed. And I was happy to be able to install the Harmony app on Wendy’s iPad, since that will make controlling the system less cryptic for her with its labeled activities.

The Harmony app on an iPad

I was able to set up the various activities, and by adding a few delays and extra commands here and there I was able to get everything to work well. I was gratified to find I again had single-remote control over everything in the system, able to press a single button to begin or end various activities.

There are also six Smart Home buttons on the remote which are labeled for use with Philips Hue bulbs, programmable outlets, and the like. So I could theoretically put some of my Hue bulbs in the living room lamps and have them automatically adjust for various activities, or use a programmable outlet to control a lamp.

Our home automation consists of Amazon Echos in the kitchen, office, and bedroom, one Philips Hue bulb in the lamp on my nightstand, and an old wired programmable thermostat. Wendy has made it clear that she’s reached her limit on home automation, so I haven’t added any more Hue bulbs nor programmable outlets. Consequently, we have no use for the Harmony Companion’s Smart Home features.

The bottom line

If you want to control a system of devices from different manufacturers with a single remote control, the Logitech Harmony Companion will do the job if you also have access to a tablet or smartphone.

Posted in HDTV, technology | Leave a comment