Of Quark, Trello and the Endless Sea of Things

Some times, when you’re grocery shopping, you try something new simply because they are out of the familiar.

Like it or not.

So since the shelves at Safeway were laid bare of most Dannon Light and Fit Greek yogurt flavors, I grabbed a hodgepodge of interesting options – like so many things lately (1,000s of cat good varieties! Etc.) – you could probably live most of your life without trying the same thing twice.

One I tried today wasn’t even a yogurt at all, but something different — elli Quark, “a spoonable fresh cheese with a creamy texture similar to Greek yogurt but with a richer, less sour taste.” It’s pretty good!

But stumbling upon it reminded me of a couple things. (Well, three things – one is Quark XPress, a desktop publishing program of 20 years ago. But I digress, as usual.)

One is Trello – an interesting, visual project or process manager – life organizer – that our company is trying out. Like so many such systems, it looks promising – and simple, and powerful and flexible — and free. Nice! But not perfect – what is? Still, there’s a lot of potential to help organize both work and personal life – if one invests the time in learning it. Some times I think you have to learn all the bells and whistles to use something like this, when I should know better – that to ease in gracefully has its strengths.

But again, I’d never heard of it until one of our group’s other TV stations started using it.

And that reminded me of how we have these new, amazing powerful tools at our disposal – I’m reminded of that often – and yet we far too often still can’t seem to find the things we’re looking for.

Way back before Google and its ilk took firm root, but after the world began to go online, I said that online world seemed like “the world’s greatest library — with all the books on the floor.” More and more great things were out there, but how to find what you’re looking for? Now, of course, search is not only incredibly handy, but becoming ubiquitous – if you know what to ask and if the search engine really does know everything going on and can find that needle in the proverbial haystack. Two very, very, very big ifs. At times, though, it seems like all those books are back on the floor, and Google (or Bing or…?) feel as limiting in their own ways as the old Dewey Decimal System – again, it’s all there, but finding it is the challenge.

On a related note, I have decided to take a half-written book, “The Now Edition,” and probably create a Website instead – as a reporter, I value immediate distribution and feedback on my ideas, and the interaction that goes along with it. This one is full of interesting elements in my humble opinion (subtitle gives a clue: “The Social Future of Writing, Reading, Content and Conversation.”)

I’m writing this set of ideas and visions because the tool I wish existed doesn’t – it’s not a blog, but a dream of a platform to share, collaborate upon and discuss long-form content on a topic of interest or passion, one that’s as easy to use as a word processor and easy to lay out and … well, I’ll get into it more there. I imagine subscribing to topic communities, with a lot of content that fuses/mashes up the long-standing today-news of journalism and the history of other forms of literature.

I mean, why should I get an electronic version of a 3-year-old book, or a magazine that isn’t wedded to its Website/app for a seamless reading experience? I don’t want to buy a book, I want to subscribe to it – or better yet, to a community built around that book-like content. They could be a collaborative process, or just to interact with the author(s), who can wed the latest news on Topic A with the rich history on that topic that they have written about. A true e-book, not a replica of a dead-trees book from 2, 4 or more years ago.

But again, I wonder, does such a platform/program already exist out there, and perhaps my many various searches just haven’t turned it up? I have indeed found many bits and pieces, but nothing that really connects the dots as I envision. Perhaps if I write up my vision in enough detail, I’ll learn someone else is thinking like me – or it will inspire others to go in that direction.

So all that musing brings me to one of the newer buzzword trends, the Internet of Things – where everything will be wired and aware and connected, not only making everything “smart,” but also creating an even huger (not a word, I know;-) sea of data and answers and info that one must wade through to find the answer or thing you’re looking for.

Add in the needed security elements – a scary 60 Minutes piece tonight about how a hacker could take over the controls of your car! — and we could have lots more scary things to worry about than whether the Google Self-Driving Car will know to parallel park or take that left turn at Albuquerque (as Bugs Bunny does;-)

But just maybe, the supermarket shelves will get smart enough that they won’t run out of what you’re looking for. Not that I mind trying new things like elli Quark, but we all like to be creatures of habit about some things, like our morning yogurt, right?

If “the Internet is Not the Answer,” what was the question?

A new provocative book entitled “The Internet is NOT the Answer” is generating a lot of discussion before it comes out, thanks to articles like this.

And as always, the comments are as interesting and enlightening as the article itself. (Score one for the Internet! Heh.)

One of the sayings I say so often I’m a broken record: Every tool is a weapon, every weapon is a tool.

If the book title had been posed as a question, I’d be asking: Is it the right question? As it is, the thought that any one human trend, development or area is “the answer” to anything is specious at best.

There have been several authors – I once saw Clifford Stoll speak at Tektronix, over 20 years ago – who over the years have bemoaned what our lives lived largely online now have wrought – and how far from the noble goals they have strayed.

But noble goals always run headlong into the reality of fallible, often rude, nasty or worse humans. Not that robots would be any better.

Of course the media, the government and businesses large and small have “embraced” the Internet (like they had much of a choice) – and in doing so dealt it something of a “death grip” in some people’s eyes.

But with all its faults, weakness and impact on everything from the family staring at screens rather than talking to school plays that are now a sea of smartphones and tablets recording (rather than people actually just watching their kids perform) – is this a genie we’d really want put back in the bottle – even if we could?

Perhaps the “mindfulness” movement highlighted Sunday night on 60 Minutes is more the bit of an antidote, from the legacy of the ’60s book with the deceptively simple name: “Be Here Now.”

Our connected tools should free us to get more done in less time – then to turn away from them to be with our children and friends and family, or other pursuits that still involve the mind, the hands and no screens in site.

But is that wishful thinking? Are we being consumed by our technology, so dependent that the fears of cyber-war becoming more than an inconvenience or embarrassment to — well, the possibilities are endless.

We should critically review and be … mindful of the impact of any technology, good or bad. But be cautious about giving this huge, world-altering development too much blame or credit for its impact on our lives. Right?

New journalism or old, ethical quandaries get no easier

For all the changes in journalism – and all the white-hot focus the social media world puts on our work (and everyone else’s) – some things are just as tough to decide now as they were in the days of grizzled editors with green eyeshades and a trusty red pencil to scratch your story into a proofread, marked-up puzzle.

Prime example: Late last night, after we posted a story with the names of those involved in an awful crash, someone posted a comment that linked to our story from six months ago about the arrest of one victim.

Do you add that to the crash story or not?

I did, in the last paragraph, without any new attention drawn to it via Facebook, Twitter, etc.

A firestorm erupted (so easy to do now with anything one does online) – how dare we, what does it have to do with the crash etc.

So I removed it. And all the comments, 99 pct. criticizing us for doing that.

It’s never an easy call. Do we have the right to report the background? Of course. But is it right? I honestly don’t know.

The call, either way, leaves me frustrated. You don’t want to let the “mob/horde” dictate judgment calls, but even a mob can have a point worth considering. Such as: the seeming hypocrisy of putting such info in a story in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy when at the same time I/we constantly plead for folks to have sensitivity to family and friends when posting comments on tragic news items.

We have no idea if the victim’s alleged crimes 6 months ago are germane to the fatal crash. That could come weeks, even months down the line. Will it be “less wrong” to make the connection then? Will we be under just as much fire?

I tell folks in our profession – and any, really — the trick, the balance is to not have too thick a skin or too thin a skin, as either can get you in trouble.

A corollary of that is: If you consider the scenario I just laid out an “easy call,” you need to rethink things. Because it should never be an easy call. And while it could be a great discussion topic in a Journalism Ethics 101 class, you’re probably never going to convince everyone (or necessarily a strong majority) that one way or the other is the right call.

Some say, “Well what if it was your family?” And I say, who’s family doesn’t have tragedy in it? My half-brother died in a car crash 30 or so years ago. What do I remember about the two brief items in the daily paper, tucked back toward the classifieds? That each misspelled his name, in different ways.

We’re all human. There are no obvious, perfect paths in such ethical dilemmas. The struggle is worth it, and yes, I waver back and forth, seeing both sides (or in some cases, the many sides) of the tough calls.

It’s not and never will be what some claim: That the decisions are made based on what will stir folks up and “grab ratings.” That’s a basic misunderstanding of what we reporters as flawed humans do every day. Do we try to do interesting stories? Of course. I have never seen a reporter who wants to hurt people and makes that the goal of a story or decision.

Some times it’s so obvious the right path we don’t have to think twice. Then there are the ones where we can second-guess ourselves into paralysis. I can argue each side of this morning’s ethical question just as fervently and passionately. But that doesn’t make the judgment call any easier.

My year of Fitbit Flex, tasty flax brownies — and a fitter me

Oh boy, I gained a pound or so!

Huh?

Well, if you’re ever blessed to hear a doctor say “DON’T lose any more weight!” you know that it can be hard to change habits again and put the brakes on weight loss.

OK, that’s not something everyone can reach, I understand.

But having lost over 40 pounds since first putting a Fitbit Flex on my wrist – which now feels naked without it – one year ago today, I know it was just the right motivator (along with a $ motivator by my employer – a lower insurance premium!) at the right time to get me to a better place, diet-wise. My wonderful wife Deb has lost over twice that much in far less time, and it’s been a blast.

We haven’t starved ourselves, by ANY means. We still go out to east – Applebee’s, Olive Garden and some local spots have worked on lower-calorie still-tasty items – but the No. 1 thing I’ve eaten over the past year? The sumptuous Flax4Life chocolate brownies at our new favorite food store, Natural Grocers. They are SO tasty, and satisfying in that chewy chocolatey way. You don’t need more than one!

Many a time I’ve walked or driven right past Burger King (yeah, I’ve had enough French fries for two lifetimes) to the Subway near the TV station, and I’ve also learned that every meal doesn’t have to be washed down by pop. Water is actually satisfying! (And without getting gross, eat one of those great brownies and have some water with it and it becomes… chocolate-flavored water! If you catch my drift;-)

I can’t say processed foods never make it past my lips – that’s not realistic for me, maybe it is for you. But while trendy Wendies may go for kale and edamame, I love returning to good ol’ romaine lettuce, lil tomatoes, low-fat yogurt-made dressing and also my favorite fruits — so now, blueberries with that banana on the Cheerios, grapes green and red, apples (yes, sliced in packs like the ones in lunchboxes for schoolkids who can’t handle a knife eet – so sue me;-)

But while my wife has been on the Medifast Take Shape for Life program, dietician-overseen at Bend Memorial Clinic — and loves that food, which you eat five times a day, along with one “lean and green” meal — we grocery-shop differently now. Sure, we still read for the calories and sugar and fat and sodium, etc. – but the crucial thing is … carb-protein balance. Check that out on the labels of your favorite foods – so many are WAY higher in carbs, and we’ve learned that’s the wrong way to do. So alas, a lot less bread and pasta – but again, not swearing off anything.

Atkins (and now Safeway, for example) have great low-carb, balanced frozen foods. I also like plenty of protein bars, which can be high-calorie and taste like a candy bar but are mostly balanced in that crucial carb-protein element.

Oh, and twice a day, I take a walk down, then back up the block in my neighborhood. It may only be about 10 minutes each, and the overgrown weed-infested lot near me (grrrr) still grates, as do the barking dogs behind the half-height fence that jump up and say, um, ‘hi’ – but through a year of walking, sometimes accompanied by music via Spotify (I didn’t realize how many of my favorite songs are so fast-tempoed!) - not by earbuds but my phone in my shirt pocket, volume just right to not blast the neighborhood but envelop my ears — I know I’ve found a good break, a lovely sight, sound and smells respite for a racing brain of a lifelong reporter who rides the tide of the daily news, often feels chained to the keyboard and is never, ever caught up.

The rhythm of the seasons is nice – from warm to cold to warm then hot again, the Big Dipper and the smoke (!) and the threatening storm clouds – it’s not exactly a wilderness area, but just getting outside regularly helps. You probably already knew that.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention My Fitness Pal, the great free smartphone app we both use to track everything we at – food logs used to be such a chore, but these things have a huge database of recipes, prepared food and restaurant items. It syncs with the Fitbit, as many such apps do, and if you get more steps in, you can eat a bit more;-)I don’t hit 10,000 steps a day – the goal — all the time, but easily top 5,000 a day just doing typical stuff.

And if you don’t find a good match for your meal, you can always add the recipe’s or food item’s numbers in yourself. It has a bar-code scanner that lets you beep the box of the, say, frozen dinner, and if you have pretty much the same thing each day for breakfast, you can copy one day’s meal to the next and tweak it.

I have a feeling I’ll be logging my food for the rest of my life – if only to slow me down when eating and let the ol’ hypothalamus catch up with my mouth:-)

One of the most fun things for Deb and me has been “shopping in our closet” (okay, buying new clothes too) and fitting into smaller clothes – the smallest for me probably since high school. And to hear folks say we look great. And to feel better – sharper, more focused … (if not more caught up/less stressed:-)

And to have to buy a smaller belt!

I’m definitely thinner and somewhat fitter, but … we still have a ways to go in that regard. Nevertheless, I’m so glad my employer opened the door by providing us the Fitbits (and a financial incentive to use them), and that we’ve taken advantage of them to fix our “fuel mixture.” My doctor says all my numbers are better, and I sure can take the steps faster than I used to (there are benefits to a two-story house!;-)

You’ve probably heard many go “If I can do it, so can you!” And you can. It doesn’t take saying no to tasty food, or killing yourself with sit-ups — just adjusting the makeup of your food menu and finding new things to enjoy (tonight, a zucchini pizza casserole! Finding great recipes with more protein than carbs is fun!)

I often say there are 1,000s of ways to eat right, and 1,000s of ways to eat wrong – you just have to find what works for you on the right side of that line. And proof that God has a sense of humor is where I lost weight at first – the part of the body one sits on. So chairs aren’t as comfortable, as if to say “Get up! Get moving!”

I get the message…

Of Chromebooks, convenience and ecosystems

Even though my name is Barney, I’m not really Barney Google (younger folk – look it up – especially the song;-)

I use Google a lot, but I am not neck deep in the Google ecosystem (docs, plus – still trying to make that work for me in a great way – etc.) — but I have to admit, the Chromebook I just got on a deal for under $200 is quite an amazing little wonder.

It’s sort of like the old netbook I love but has gotten … old. Or more like a phone with a big screen and keyboard. Instant on, and no Windows – but hey, install the Chrome Remote Dekstop and you can use your main PC with little or no lag time.

It can do 99 percent of what my 3-times-the-price big laptop does – and has about 3 times the battery life (8 hours or even more). What’s not to like, even love?

I wish it was cell and not just wifi, but wifi is becoming pretty darn ubiquitous, and more offline apps are being added.

Of COURSE the one I wanted was sold out, got a bit more expensive one but it was still under $200, a Samsung – and the very next day, learned Acer (maker of the cheaper one) has fast, better ones coming — that’s a fact of tech life, though not always within 24 hours. There are larger Chromebooks, but I LIKE a 10-inch screen compared to larger – again for 99 percent of things, the convenience makes up for any lack of room on the screen.

But it is true nowadays that you don’t just buy a product – you invest in an ecosystem. I find an iPad to be fun, but … I’m so in the Windows/Android world (and now Google) that there are just so many platforms one can juggle successfully. Or as I often say, spread yourself too thin and anyone can see right through you.

But my wonderful wife knows my ulterior motive for a cheap laptop that works so well – 1/3 the price, I can upgrade 3 times as often!

Yeah right;-)

Trial by (wild) fire: pride, weariness – and thanks

I have other things I could do – tons of pretty weekend sunset/other pics for example, but just wanted to thank all of our friendly loyal viewers and online visitors for your kind words over the past wildfire-ravaged week.

It means a lot. To all of us.

Our long hours are nothing compared to a) the backbreaking work done on the lines by firefighters (yes, they are paid – still, I’d never do it, so dangerous!) and b) the fear, concern and worry of those threatened by the flames – which so far have not included the heavily populated areas of the High Desert.

So far.

I just read a national story that 1 million acres are burning in the Northwest – the most at any single time in the region’s history. And it’s not even late July — what will happen when the traditional peak of the wildfire season hits in August?

I shudder to think – I don’t want to think. (And with the long hours, the thinking is a bit addled anyway;-/

Which reminds me – I tested something over the weekend, said so on Facebook – and those who weighed in gave it a thumbs up.

For much of the week, as the number of fires and their size grew, I tried to keep a roundup of them written, plus post the many great reporter stories from the lines, fire camp etc.

But it was getting ridiculous. So… while I do a LOT of cutting-pasting of well-written news releases on the Web in “normal” times — for Community Billboard, even top stories — I moved to doing so with the releases coming from the management teams on the various major fires.

They don’t all write, organize or format their releases alike, but they’re usually pretty good – and while I do skim and make sure things aren’t messed up, posting the releases in full DOES get the info out quicker – and makes sure that every closed forest road, trail, campground etc. makes it online.

Sure, InciWeb (a wonderful site even with its shortcomings) has most if not all of the info (plus maps etc.) – which is why we link to their info – but we also aim to be the place to turn for the latest info – so this is a happy medium between trying to rewrite a lot of already available info and just sending you off to somewhere else. Call it “semi-curated info,” or whatever.

While talking of burnouts ON fires – there’s the other kind of burnout this week could portend for the near future (we’ll be praying for rain if this keeps up – I’m sure some already are). So if we’re not quite as cheery as usual when we pick up the phone or respond to an e-mail, please understand that, while we’re not out there digging fire lines, we’re all trying to keep up with the constantly changing picture of our bad wildfire season, and bring it to you in as timely a manner as possible.

But I have to compliment my colleagues – veterans and new arrivals all – for some great fire coverage this week, from every angle. I’m sure they have more energy/stamina than older Yours Truly, and it looks like they’re going to need it:-/

And again, thanks for the support and kind words. I think we all hope for some “boring” news days soon. I know I do!

 

Tragedies on the road: Would self-driving cars do better?

It almost becomes mind-numbing for a veteran reporter: The weather warms, more people hit the roads and … tragedies result.

I’ve written far, far too many fatal traffic crash stories over the years. You’d have to be inhuman not to ponder, while waiting for the road to reopen and the tragic details to emerge: What if it were me, or my spouse or a family member or best friend?

I have a better what if. Scarier, perhaps, to some, but hopeful to others: What if our cars drove themselves? They couldn’t do any worse, could they?

Google is pressing ahead with its self-driving cars — the latest version doesn’t even have brakes or a steering wheel. Scary!

And yes, folks who have to reboot or kick their computers or trade in their phones for one that works right might say: Whoa, wait a minute, hold on!

And if Americans let cars do the driving — a big if, in some ways — and the inevitable computer-caused fatal crash occurred, would we revolt and flee back to our “safer” human-driven cars?

The armchair quarterbacks flourish in the wake of such vehicular tragedies, blaming everything imaginable. All too human a reaction in the wake of yet another lost life.

But seriously, think about it — if enough fail-safes and redundancy were built into these self-driving cars, wouldn’t they save lives? I guess it’s a huge neon “it depends” — how well we design them, how costly they are, if they also save us time or money or allow us to sit back, relax, stir our cappuccinos and enjoy a trip to work — with the advantages of private vehicles, but greatly reducing the dangers of distracted, drunk or unskilled drivers.

There are no “perfect” solutions, or infallible sets of technology. But as I sit and have time to wait for the details of the latest life taken all too soon – whether it’s their “fault” or someone else’s, or a blown tire or sun in the eyes etc. etc. — it does leave one thinking, couldn’t the self-driving car of the future do it better than we far more fallible humans do?

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