A surprise on a road well-traveled

Oftentimes on a Friday afternoon, when U.S. 101 turns into a northbound parking lot, I'll opt for a leisurely drive home along some of the back roads connecting my place of work to my place of residence. I figure that if what should be a 30-minute drive is going to take an hour, I might as well spend that hour in more pleasant surroundings. My usual path leads me through bucolic Hidden Valley, down the grade past Cal State Channel Islands (formerly Camarillo State Hospital) and westward across the vast agricultural expanse of the Oxnard Plain, leading eventually to the city of Oxnard and the beach before turning northward again for Ventura.

It's a pleasant drive, taking in as it does homes, ranchland, farmland, a university, a brief glimpse of the Pacific Missile Test Center and even an onion-domed Orthodox church. (Well, sort of.) My favorite part, however, is Hidden Valley. It's well-named, hidden as it is from Thousand Oaks by the hills, and it's always made for a delightful drive. The oak trees, white fences and winding two-lane road are the sort of environment in which one can imagine oneself on a sunny day, riding along in a convertible with the top down. Hollywood seems to agree; it often does filming in the area, using it as a backdrop for everything from television shows to movies, and even a Rod Stewart music video. Just a couple of weeks ago, I followed a couple in an almost hundred-year-old Mercer Raceabout, without license plates, that was apparently in mid-restoration. Meanwhile, I do the best I can, rolling down the windows and sliding back the sunroof in my Hyundai Elantra.

Hidden Valley is the sort of place that is emblematic of those parts of Southern California that have the misfortune to find themselves on the periphery of the vast Los Angeles megalopolis. When I was a child, it was largely ranches and farms, reachable only by the winding road that led past Lake Sherwood. With the development and build-out of the Conejo Valley, however, came development pressure, first to Lake Sherwood and then to Hidden Valley itself. Homes came to be placed where homes probably should not be. Much of the rural charm of Lake Sherwood was destroyed when development brought McMansions to the area (and a hole was blasted through a hill to provide a route for a four-lane road), but a different kind of development has affected Hidden Valley.

As Westlake became more and more affluent, the relatively modest homes around the lake were no longer sufficiently grand for the legions of _nouveau riche_ who sought new ways in which to display their wealth. The development of the North Ranch area satiated the appetites of some for ever-grander housing, but it was inevitable that the largely empty canvas of Hidden Valley would be attractive to those who had visions of country manses and horse stables. There was a house on a wooded hillside that had once (briefly) been a monastery; this was purchased in the late 1980s by investors who christened it "The Chateau" and had a gold-colored sign placed next to the entrance gate to that effect. Some of the ranches were divided, with homes built on them. Others were remodeled.

The worst example of such remodeling was once a very attractive ranch house (as in a house on a ranch, not a ranch-style suburban tract home). It sat perfectly in its setting, slung low and wide beneath a canopy of trees, neither calling attention to itself nor disappearing into the landscape. It was purchased by Robert Nesen, who had been the local purveyor of Cadillacs, and who was a major contributor to the Republican Party. Because of this, he was tapped by Ronald Reagan to serve as ambassador to Australia. Upon his return to California, he apparently decided that he wanted a house modeled on the American ambassador's official residence in Canberra--and it was this house he chose for the project.

It was never terribly successful. It managed to look faintly ridiculous, a brick-and-mortar Georgian house, complete with pillared portico, with white clapboard extensions on either side. It neither did justice to its setting, nor did its setting do anything for it. It was an excellent example of what happens when the parameters of a building project are determined by the size of the owner's wallet and the owner has no taste. Any self-respecting architect should have shot down the project from the beginning, but this architect apparently had issues with self-esteem. I used to avoid looking at it, the way you avoid looking at the obviously disfigured or those with horrendous birth defects. It just seemed more respectful somehow to give this poor, violated house the dignity of not gazing upon it.

Bob Nesen may have eventually realized that. At some point after its completion, he opted for an even more ostentatious gated estate in the North Ranch area of Westlake. I suspect it may have been at least in part because David Murdock, who owns Dole Foods, had property--virtually a baronial estate--in Hidden Valley just a mile or so away that was larger, in better taste, and generally evidence of much, much more money. Piles of it, actually, the kind of money that makes the merely rich look like pikers.

Recently, I had noticed that some work was being done to the house. A few weeks ago, I saw evidence of windows being pulled out, perhaps in preparation for yet another overhaul. With that in mind, one can imagine my joy this afternoon at driving by and seeing that it had been reduced to a few piles of bricks, all other evidence of its existence having been hauled away. The lone survivor was a very small cottage in the back of the property, in clapboards painted white, looking slightly dazed, as if it was relieved that its preposterous neighbor had finally been demolished.

You can't stop progress. You can't go back again. I don't know who purchased the property, or what their plans are. I am certain that they won't be restoring the old house. Land hereabouts is simply far too valuable for that, and it seems that few people with that kind of money have the taste to recognize that sometimes restraint has its own elegance. But at least one example of ridiculous wealth, bad taste, and poor choices has been removed from my little corner of the world, and that is something that doesn't happen nearly often enough. Let the celebration begin!

Progress report: Living with the CR-48

It seems like high time I should take a few minutes and provide an update on what it's like to live with a ChromeOS laptop, specifically Google's CR-48, on a daily basis.

Here's one example: I'm writing this at Starbucks, using the built-in Verizon 3G, after having just posted an update to my parish's website, of which I am the webmaster. It's pretty crowded in here right now, and I frankly wouldn't be all that excited about using the free WiFi here. For one thing, there are at least a dozen people with laptops open, and I have no idea if any of them are running Firesheep. It's an unsecured WiFi network, so it's entirely possible for someone to be sitting in here grabbing usernames and passwords out of the air as the packets fly by. It's tremendously reassuring to be sitting here using the CR-48's built-in 3G connection, and not worrying about it.

But that's just an isolated example. The day-in, day-out experience of using the CR-48 is admittedly a mixed bag. The tricky thing is to separate the experience of the hardware from the experience of using the OS. The hardware is actually rather nice, although it has a few rough spots (the trackpad being one). The OS is, as everyone knows, basically just the Chrome browser running in full-screen mode, and is Linux behind the scenes. This is a good thing. It means no worries about viruses, spyware, and all the other bad things that you expose yourself to when you run Windows. As a Mac user otherwise, that's important to me. It also means, however, that things are just a bit rougher around the edges than a Mac user is going to be used to. If you're the type of person who finds that sort of thing maddening, you won't be happy.

Fortunately, that doesn't describe me. I'm not all that bothered by a few rough edges here and there if it does what I want it to, and ChromeOS definitely does what I want it to. My life is on the web. A laptop with built-in 3G is a dream come true. It means I'm free from the need to find WiFi when I'm out. Wherever I go, I have a solid mobile broadband connection available whenever I need it. I like that.

At home, I find myself using the CR-48 more and more. Compared to my MacBook Pro, it's lighter, runs cooler, and having both WiFi and Verizon 3G, it has a more reliable internet connection (yes, I'm looking at you, AT&T). Once again, I must note that I'm not doing video editing, ripping CDs, or opening multi-page Excel spreadsheets. I'm on Twitter, Facebook, and Seesmic Web. I'm posting via Blogger. I'm editing documents in Google Docs. I'm administering my parish website, managing domain registration and DNS records online. For what I need, it works, and it works tremendously well. The CR-48 will never be sold in stores, but when the first ChromeOS laptops go on sale later this year, I think they'll do quite well if they're sold at the right price. If it meets your needs, there are some real advantages to the ChromeOS model.

And that's really the question you have to ask yourself when considering something like the CR-48. Do you need a full-featured laptop, or can you live with something that is basically a gateway to the Web? I suspect that most people would do quite well with it. Increasingly, I think that people are going to be doing more and more of their tasks in the cloud. That's certainly my experience. When I consider cloud computing versus local offline computing, the negatives of doing everything locally far outweigh the negatives of always needing an internet connection. The reality today is that anywhere you can get cell reception, you can get internet access. That's huge.

In the end, it's actually kind of interesting. When you read science fiction novels from the 1940s and 1950s, computers are usually depicted as huge central processing units that people access through terminals. With the advent of the personal computer in the 1980s, that model changed radically. But now, the internet is bringing everything back to where we started. It isn't exactly the Univac, Multivac and Galactic AC that Asimov wrote about sixty years ago, but it's functionally the same thing. The CR-48 is essentially a terminal to a huge central computer called the Internet, and I'm perfectly happy with that.

I love living in the future…

Dear AT&T

I'm tired of seeing this at random intervals:

Switching over to my CR-48 and Verizon 3G for the evening. And I'm putting you on notice: you can be replaced.

My best,

A Gift From Google

Out of the blue, Google just sent me some bookmarks for my dead-tree books. I love this company…


I was witness yesterday to an argument. Not an in-person argument, the kind that leads to blows, but an online argument, the kind in which two people carry on an exchange over multiple posts, finally ending when one person simply gives up and stops posting. Sometimes it's because they despair of convincing the other, and sometimes it's because one person realizes that the other is not going to ever understand what it is he's trying to say.

This particular argument had elements of both. Without naming names, let me lay out the particulars for you. The first person, whom I shall call Mr. A, is a choir director at a church in the Midwest. The second person, Mr. B, is someone I know personally. Mr. A had posted a link to an article written by a priest that essentially invalidated whatever reasons a person might have for missing church. Mr. B replied, saying that circumstances are complicated and the article posted was really just so much self-righteous crap. And with that, the argument was off and running.

As it progressed, it became evident that Mr. A was simply not understanding what it is that Mr. B was trying to say. It seemed fairly obvious to me that Mr. A was simply too entrenched in his own world view to be able to make the leap to where Mr. B was coming from. Both people had very good reasons for what they were saying, and it was possible for me to see the validity of both arguments, but in the end I have to side with Mr. B. Let me attempt to explain.

Mr. A's argument was basically that as a choir director, he needs to be able to count on people to be there, not only for church but for choir practice and so forth. The point being, of course, that if you make a commitment you should honor it, and that your failure to do so can impact others adversely--in this case, Mr. A himself, because if choir members don't show up then he has to sing the service all by himself, and that's not fair, and he frankly doesn't know if he could keep on keepin' on were that to be the case.

Mr. B's point, boiled down, was that sometimes it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. Yes, Mr. C might  say he'll be in church to sing in the choir and not show up, but we don't know the particulars of his situation. Maybe he has a sick wife and a screaming child at home, and he's really needed there. Maybe it's one of a million other reasons, but it's not for us to judge, and we need to all calm down a bit and focus on what's truly important. It makes no sense to rush off to church if by doing so you're leaving someone else in the lurch. Hardly Christ-like, that.

From my own perspective, Mr. B is closer to the mark. As an example, I've been tasked by my own priest to coordinate the altar servers on Sundays, to make sure that there are people lined up to serve when we need them, and to try to rotate people so that everyone participates. It's tricky, because not everyone wants to serve, everybody has their own scheduling issues, and I don't want to lean too heavily on any one person, because then the load is unfairly borne.  My own solution is to simply let people sign up for when they want to be there. Occasionally, I do have to simply put a sign-up sheet in front of someone and give them a pen and tell them to pick a date, but at the same time I tell them that if for any reason they can't be there, to just tell me and I'll take care of it. No stress, no worries. For the most part, it works. In fact, it worked like a charm just a couple of weeks ago when that exact situation happened.

Yes, there are times when people don't show up. There is at least one person in the parish who will simply not come behind the iconostasis if he thinks there are enough people back there, regardless of whether or not he's signed up to serve. At the same time, he's an absolute rock upon which the parish has been built, is extremely faithful, and he's always prepared to serve if asked to do so on an emergency basis, so how can I complain? I can't.

The fact is that I took on the job voluntarily. Nobody forced me into it. I've also voluntarily taken on the job of being a sort of reader-in-training to handle the Epistle reading on Sunday morning. This means that I almost always do double duty as both server and reader. So be it. The world's not going to end if I have to hand the incense to the priest, walk out and do the epistle reading, then come back in and pick up a taper to act as a server for the gospel reading. It's a small parish, everybody plays a part, and that's mine.

Two Down, One In Progress

Well, that didn't take long…

Jumping Off the Train

I was reading this morning about the upcoming revision to OS X ("Lion"), contemplating what the upgrade requirements might be, thinking about the fact that my iMac is still running Tiger, and that I never upgraded my MacBook Pro to Snow Leopard, and that my wife was about to get a new MacBook Pro or Air of her own, and I really should get everything up to date…and then it hit me.

Do I really need to do this?

Living with the CR-48 for the past few weeks has brought home to me exactly how much I live in the cloud. There are occasional moments when I wish for a more traditional OS, usually when I want to print something (Google, can we please have a cloud print solution that works with a Mac-based household?), but for the most part I'm happy with what Chrome OS gives me. This morning before work, I was about to download and install Yoru Fukurou (a Twitter client for OS X) when I realized I was on the CR-48 and not my Mac. Since I run Chrome as the default browser on my Mac, the experience is fairly identical, and I had completely forgotten I was on the CR-48\. When you forget you're not using a Mac, I think that's significant.

So now I have a dilemma. I need to keep up with Mac stuff, since my wife is on the platform and will be for the foreseeable future. But I'm tired of being on the upgrade train, of spending $130 every year just to stay current (although it is true that I've neglected the last couple of upgrades). More than that, I'm not particularly fond of all the BS you have to go through when you do an upgrade, both the backing up (although I do have an ongoing automatic backup solution in place) and the actual upgrading, both of which are time-consuming and a bit of a pain. This is where Chrome OS has an advantage; if the Google team can succeed in their goal of pushing out upgrades automatically as needed, without user intervention needed, I think they're onto something.

For now, I'm probably going to upgrade the iMac to Lion when it comes out, since my wife uses it and she should have parity between the machines she uses. But for me, and my personal machines, I think I'm done. It isn't perfect, it needs some work, and it may not be for everyone, but the CR-48 really does work for me. The watershed moment has arrived: having moved most of my life to the cloud, I'm no longer chained to the relentless annual Apple upgrade schedule. It's time to jump off the train.

Twitter Takes Its Ball and Goes Home

For the 0.003% of the Earth's population that uses Twitter, the past couple of days have seen much posturing, hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the revocation by Twitter of API access by the UberMedia apps, of which UberTwitter and Twidroyd are two.

While I understand the frustration of suddenly realizing that the app on your phone is no longer keeping you _au courant_ with your friends' tweets, I think there are a few things that need to be said:

  1. It's only Twitter.
  2. There are other clients out there that work just fine. I like Plume.
  3. You knew when you signed up that Twitter was a walled garden, an entity unto itself. If not, you should have. For heaven's sake, I told you so.
  4. If you're not happy, there are alternatives--Identi.ca, Friendfeed, Google Buzz, even Jaiku (yes, it still exists). Go build a community in one of them.
  5. However, good luck with that, because what truly matters is where the people are, and for now where the people are is Twitter. 

That is all. You may now return to your regularly scheduled kvetching. Thank you.

I'm Back!

Sometime last year, I decided to move my blogging to another URL. This was a mistake, and I'm now back here. I've imported those few posts that appeared on the other site, and am consolidating everything here.

Oh, and I do have a few things to say. Stay tuned…

Food Elitism (Or McDonald's Is Not the Enemy)

On the heels of San Francisco's ban on Happy Meal toys comes word that the city of Los Angeles is considering new restrictions on fast-food restaurants in an area of South L.A. known to have high rates of obesity.

Oh, please.

Stuff like this drives me nuts. I'm sure it makes the well-off feel like They Are Doing Something, but what do they really think is going to happen? If they remove or restrict the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and Taco Bells, do they expect that healthy vegan restaurants serving salads of heirloom tomatoes and organic cucumber on a bed of locally-grown arugula are going to pop up? Do they think that people who would really like to have have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries and a chocolate shake are going to clamor for roasted vegetables on artisanal ciabatta?

Here's the thing: it's entirely possible to eat a reasonably healthy diet at a fast-food restaurant if you really want to. Most of them have salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and diet sodas available (as a diabetic who was given an ultimatum to lose weight or else, I know this from first-hand experience). The problem is that by and large, people don't buy them. They'd rather have a bacon cheeseburger, and that shouldn't surprise anybody. Until and unless the doctor tells you you're going to lose a limb to diabetes, you're probably going to want the stuff that tastes good, and sugar, fat and smoked pork products taste really, really good. I saw it time and time again when I was a McDonald's manager--the public would say they want one thing, then order another. Eventually, the healthy stuff disappears, because the restaurant is a business (surprise, surprise) and it needs to, you know, make money. Preferably lots of it, because that's what stockholders like. (Full disclosure: I am a McDonald's stockholder.)

But, you say, there's an obesity problem! There is an incredibly high percentage of fast-food restaurants in South L.A.! We have to do something!

Um, no. No, we don't.

You see, everybody who walks through the door of a McDonald's and is over the age of 18 is an adult. They can vote, they can enlist in the armed forces, and they can bloody well order a McRib sandwich if they want to. Nobody's forcing them to do it, and nobody has any business telling them they can't. If someone tried to tell me where I could eat, or restrict the choices available to me, they'd have a hell of a fight on their hands. But then, I'm an educated white guy in his mid-40s with a graying beard. People don't tend to get all up in my face about stuff.

The people in the affected neighborhoods, on the other hand, are generally not educated white guys in their mid-40s, bearded or not. They're generally poorer, largely people of color, and mostly less educated. This does not make them any less citizens with the rights and privileges pertaining thereto, although there are those who seem to think that such is the case. Oddly, the ones who think that tend not to be rich white racist ultraconservative corporate bigots. They tend to be Volvo-driving latte-drinking yuppies with the best of intentions, those intentions being to protect the poor and downtrodden from the horrors of modern American corporate foodservice. The problem is that the poor and downtrodden don't necessarily want to be protected from that.

No, what the poor and the downtrodden want is jobs and economic opportunity, and banning an entire sector of American commerce is not likely to be helpful in this regard. Whatever you think of the fast-food business, it does bring jobs. Yes, they're minimum-wage jobs, and not likely to lead directly to anything more substantial. But it's a start. Remember, these are not areas that are chock-full of the educated. When you don't have a degree, or in many cases even a high-school diploma, you're not going to start at $50k a year with stock options and comprehensive health insurance. But you can get a job that will put food on your table and a roof over your head. Once people have that, their purchasing power allows other businesses to start and to flourish, and that's when economic recovery and job growth happens.

There's no denying we have an obesity problem in this country. But you can't legislate it away, and you can't force out businesses because you don't like what people are eating, or because you think you know what's good for them. Unless they're children, specifically your children, it's none of your damn business. If you really want to make a difference in the lives of people in South Los Angeles, do something about the drug trade. Do something about a culture that has normalized violence and romanticized gangs. Do something about single-parent households with absent fathers, if you can. But don't waste your time trying to regulate what other people put in their mouths. That's just being a busybody.

And that doesn't help anybody.