Something I don’t like: my laptop

I got my laptop last summer from ZaReason. It’s a Strata Pro 13 that came pre-installed with Ubuntu Linux 10. Although it does basically work, I’ve had a lot of trouble with it. First of all, I dropped it when it was about a day old. That’s not ZaReason’s fault, but once I sent it back to them it did take them and awfully long time and a lot of pestering from me to get it back to me (the repair wasn’t terribly complicated, only the part of the case that holds the battery was somewhat broken), or give me any status updates about when it would get back to me (something I was naturally concerned about). It was really frustrating to call them up and get these very opaque responses to my questions, even after I had given the order number (the original and the second order, for repair and battery replacement). They’re not a big shop where the person who answers the phone has probably never talked to you or heard of you before, so there’s no reason for this kind of opaqueness.

When it came back, I updated it to Ubuntu 11. After that, it would sit and not boot unless I pressed enter twice. I’m not sure why. I did some work trying to get the bootloader (GRUB) to work better/be clearer about what was going on. That got it to boot on its own some of the time — most of the time at first, but later less and less. This again is probably not ZaReason’s fault, but it was frustrating for a laptop that was supposed to work with Linux to be having issues with bootloader configuration when all I did was update it.

Also, the battery life was very poor. After a while, the battery almost didn’t work. So I contacted them again and they said that it was probably a bad battery and they would send a new one. They did do that fairly quickly and the new one worked. Until recently, when it died at only 9 months old. According to them, it was not under warranty anymore (despite being newer than the computer).

They offered some suggestions to try to improve the charge, including updating the BIOS. I tried all that and it didn’t work so I asked if I should order a new battery, since they had mentioned it could be the motherboard going bad. No response. Which, again…I guess it isn’t their job to tell me when to order a new battery, but it would have been nice to hear “Yes, sorry, we don’t have any more suggestions, would you like us to initiate a new battery order for you?”

I’m also just not wild about the laptop. It was on the expensive side at about $1000, but isn’t incredibly high powered or light. It has sharp edges that are uncomfortable to type on or hold. It’s thick and bulky and even when the battery works, it only lasts 2-3 hours on regular use, which is barely adequate. The dock it came with is awkward to put it into. It doesn’t have a built-in DVD drive (which is why I bought the dock), despite being thick and bulky, and Netflix doesn’t work on it, so my Netflix subscription is useless to it unless it’s docked, which it rarely was when the battery worked. It’s 64-bit Linux so there’s no Amazon downloader (there are ways around this, but it’s still annoying). And I don’t really like the Ubuntu desktop (Unity) which also isn’t ZaReason’s fault, but it does negate some of the benefit of having a Linux distribution pre-installed if it turns out you don’t like its defaults that much anyway.

So personally, although I hope my laptop doesn’t die anytime soon, and that the new battery works, because I’d like to not spend another $700-1000 on a new computer only a year after the last, when it dies I will not mourn it, and I will definitely NOT purchase another laptop from ZaReason, even though I like that they pre-install Linux and I like that they sent me a screwdriver and told me it doesn’t void my warranty to open the case. Good intentions, not so great execution.

Fat focus

I went to an event at Metro tonight with Richard Jackson. The event was supposed to be about his work on Retrofitting Suburbia, but if that got discussed it was after I left. Mostly it was about how people are fat and it’s because we aren’t active anymore (and a little about how that’s related to car-dependent sprawl), and how being fat increases the risk for terrible diseases like diabetes.

I felt really uncomfortable after a while because there was so much focus on how it’s bad to be fat and it makes you sick and so many people are fat and sick. I understand that Jackson is in public health, and that he is concerned about weight as it affects health and about establishing that the epidemic of obesity is caused by a change in the environment (a common-source epidemic). That’s really important and it’s an essential role for public health to play: to make the connection that more calories and less activity are making it hard to be healthy, and to find the causes for both and work on how to change them.

But I wish that he had spent a lot more time talking about health and the built environment, and a lot less talking about how so many people are fat now. My personal relationship with weight and food is fairly untroubled, but my family history has made me very conscious of the potential for illness if that changes, and I have seen many friends (who are as active and eat similarly, but don’t have the same body type) really struggle with weight and food.

Did you go? If you did, how did you feel? If you didn’t, how does my description strike you? Would you have been uncomfortable, or felt ashamed or strange?

Crossposted to Facebook and Google Plus for the sake of varied discussion.

Something I liked: Superhero Photo

Recently I did the Superhero Photo: The Basics class. I had a great time with the class. I’ve been looking for a  photo class that would fit my needs for ages, but it never occurred to me to take one online. When Tea interviewed Andrea, I knew her class would be a great fit because she is interested in capturing life’s beautiful moments and being more present through photography. That’s also what I enjoy the most about taking photos — the way it helps me see and be more, and capture the beauty that I enjoy so much.

California poppies along a fence

Golden poppies

I wasn’t able to participate in the class as much as I would have liked, but it really woke me up out of a photographic slump (I haven’t taken nearly as many photos since moving to Portland as I did before — yes, the slump was three years long, yikes) and got me excited about color, light, and focus again, and about doing more than just shooting a pretty flower now and then and taking a picture casually just to document something. I was really looking for the good shot, or the creative shot, even when I was just documenting or shooting pretty flowers.

White iris, closeup

Iridescent iris

And there were absolutely no technical hiccups. You get the lessons in your email inbox, share photos on a private Flickr group, and comment on a protected website. Simple and easy.

It was a great community of people, and being in the course Flickr pool and getting to see everyone else’s pictures was a fantastic opportunity for me to be inspired by looking at other wonderful pictures, and also to try to see something good, something interesting, in each one (including my own!), rather than being a critic. I took so many bad pictures in those six weeks, but also some great ones that I will treasure, and I even love the bad ones because I was trying to do something interesting, which is much better than not trying to do anything at all.

Stale bureaucracy

I occasionally say smart things on Twitter, and even more occasionally, one of them is worth saying in more than 140 characters. Yesterday I had the following conversation with @bjamin:

The project Ben was alluding to is the I-5/Broadway/Weidler interchange plan, which is part of the N/NE Quadrant project. Public attention to the project has increased recently because the Stakeholder Advisory Committee was charged this week with making a recommendation on the interchange plans, and there was an opportunity for public comment at the meeting.

The process has been going on for almost two years. I got involved just over a year ago, right after the first public charrette (which I wasn’t able to attend for personal reasons), when I and some other advocates met with some SAC members who were feeling less sure about the transportation details than they would have liked. I ended up sitting in on a special meeting with ODOT and PBOT project staff at one point, I’ve kept in touch with the SAC members about the progress, I went to several open houses and commented on the plans, and I had a lot of (frustrating) conversations with project staff. So I know a bit about how the whole process went down.

The way that I described it for Ben I think is apt (and Steve thought so too). The ideas that were presented to the SAC and the community were pre-filtered by the agencies involved, including ODOT, and by the way the scope of the project was written. They’re stale because all the interesting ideas were thrown out by the “process”.

At the transportation design charettes, any options that included removal of I-5 (something many community members think is possible within the next 30 years) were thrown out as out of scope. Options that involved removing the ramps were put down as infeasible because the majority of the traffic on the freeway is local, even though local traffic doesn’t need a freeway to get around, and eliminating close-together ramps is a very traditional way to improve weaving problems like those cited for this segment (the freeway interchange in the city I grew up in was redone this way while I was in high school and college). And the TDM/TSM option (managing congestion using technological and mode-shift techniques) was never seriously developed — whenever I saw it, it was just a line item, and when I asked ODOT staff what this would entail, they did the verbal equivalent of shrugging.

All this points to a process that was set up with so many constraints to meet that it could only get one result: that the freeway needs the additional lanes ODOT says it needs. Pressure from the community is the only thing that brought the process to a point where the worst (most expensive and people-hostile) options  were eliminated and it included any reasonable improvements for people walking and biking through the area at all. That’s still not much, just a tiny update over today’s conditions, with some loss of connectivity (plus the construction impacts). This for an area that is the meeting of three major bike routes, that’s within blocks of the city’s biggest transit center and major event centers, and which will soon have a streetcar! I’ve also heard, but haven’t confirmed, that PBOT as much as said that the bike/ped improvements were contingent on the freeway improvements, and they couldn’t be done separately. If they’re really improvements that we think are good and worthwhile, why can’t they be done separately? Does PBOT want 25% of Portlanders riding their bikes to work in 2030, or not? Do they want people leaving the Rose Garden at night to be safe walking to TriMet or not?

This N/NE Quadrant process, to me, has become a symbol of everything I’ve seen that’s wrong with “public process” — I would say “in Portland” but I don’t think it’s just Portland.

  • The public doesn’t get any input on deciding what projects “need” to be done, or what their scope will be (Portland Transport discussed this recently as well).
  • Only the project’s “stakeholders” (however that is defined for a given project, and it generally isn’t defined very inclusively) get ongoing input. The public has to delve into websites and publications to find out when design sessions or open houses are or how to contact staff.
  • Open houses are rarely held at convenient places and times; they’re usually held from 4:30 to 6:30 (letting out a lot of working people) and often in odd places (Lloyd Center Mall, the Rose Garden Arena).
  • There’s often a distinct lack of data and discussion of the project’s (temporary or permanent) impacts on non-motor vehicle traffic. I can’t tell you how many times I heard how many cars drive on the freeway, but I never heard project staff even discuss bikeway traffic counts, despite such counts being available for several intersections in the area, and despite requests for such data from citizens.
  • One stakeholder can sometimes hold up an entire project, but how that can come about is never clearly defined.
  • The options that are presented, if they include citizen ideas at all, are always pre-filtered by agency staff, who are the same people who chose the project scope in the first place, so they can put their preferred options front and center and get rid of any they don’t like.
  • Staff can even insist after the fact that SAC recommendations won’t work and have to be changed. So nothing is currently stopping PBOT and ODOT from taking the SAC recommendation for the I-5/Broadway-Weidler project and deleting even the small bike/ped improvements the community did succeed in adding, just like nothing seems to stop PBOT from continually insisting that Williams can’t handle traffic with only one travel lane (and refusing to hear any points made that a change in road configuration is likely to change traffic counts).

Agencies have an existing culture and worldview and a vested interest in things going their way, so even when there are a lot of people with good intent (and I don’t doubt there are, here as much as anywhere, as I’ve met and spoken to many of them), that isn’t enough to get the agency to look beyond its own standard methods, its own little house in government, and the immediate future. Memorably, one of the open houses I attended for this project included a note that the median MUP that they wanted to install (which did make it into the final plans, but without any marked width) should be 12′ wide for two-way traffic. This on one of the major city bikeways? 20′ would barely be wide enough (that’s the total width of the Hawthorne Bridge paths). When I look at designs produced by staff and consultants, they almost always show that the person who designed them doesn’t regularly travel the street (at all, or by specific modes) because they are missing important details like that. At the last N Williams open house, I heard another citizen ask why they had added parking to a particular block of Williams, because it’s currently no-parking at PPB’s request. “Really?” said the consultant behind the table. “I’ll look into that.” In general, details that are critical to determining whether a design is any good are often missing until too late in the process to make meaningful changes.

More than a change to any individual project, or any one part of the process, we need a change from a culture of regimented process, stale bureaucracy, and imposed expertise to evolution, creativity, and collaboration. This requires change from both our government and us as citizens. Governmental agencies need to stop fearing and constraining citizen input and start talking with us openly what we want and need, while at the same time getting out of their silos and looking at the long view. We have to be more interested in the continued development of our neighborhood and our city over time, and more willing to see beyond our own self-interest. Right now, 74% of Americans want to see no new development in their neighborhoods. But without development, neighborhoods stagnate and decline. No future development means “I’ve got mine and I’m not worried about anyone else getting theirs.” That’s not the attitude of a community I want to live in. Let’s make Portland, and Oregon, better than that.

Depression management

Some time ago I wrote a post about my experiences with depression (dysthymia) and with therapy and how it had really helped me. At the time I was only six months or so out from the end of regular therapy. The legacy of that work is definitely lasting, but in the years since I’ve also learned that I do have a chronic tendency toward low mood (it’s not clear whether the cause is chemical, habitual, or both), and taking care of myself and keeping certain routines plays a much bigger part in managing my mood than I realized when I was all excited about how much therapy helped. I wanted to record this both for my own reference, and as part of my story.

I currently take physical inventory whenever I notice myself getting into a funk, mentally evaluating whether I’ve slept adequately, eaten appropriately, had a moderate dose of caffeine, and exercised recently. I become unpleasant to be around, and to be, if I don’t get around 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep and 25 to 250 mg of caffeine daily, eat when hungry, and exercise almost daily at moderate intensity and a couple of times a week at high intensity. Last week I was in a pretty bad funk one day and realized I hadn’t had any high-intensity exercise for a while. The next day I went running, and it was amazing to notice that while I didn’t feel fantastic, it was no longer almost automatic for me to drop into a broody state the way it had been the day before. (My carfree life definitely makes regular exercise easier, since pretty much every I leave the house, I leave it under my own steam.)

Taking care of the physical inventory is only the first step, but it is often the only step I really need, and if it’s not, it at least puts me into the best possible shape for the rest of the work.