August 2018

To Google Or Not To Google

After fourteen years on the Segway as i grew increasingly lame, i realized that, for me, it’s become a motorized walker.


Google has been much in the news recently over its development of a search engine for China that will censor results not approved by the government, and much of the reaction has been from flaming liberals like me who excoriated Google for cooperating with that egregious dictatorship in denying its citizens access to western ideas on freedom of the press and all that.

I was a bit down on Google about this myself until i read an article by Thomas Jungbauer that made a good case for applauding Google.  I suggest that you click on the above link and read the whole article, but i’ll extract three of his paragraphs that convey the thrust of his argument.

According to the Intercept, Google’s censored Mandarin search engine — developed under the internal project name Dragonfly — would automatically filter sites blocked by the government, removing them from the first page of search results and replacing them with a disclaimer disclosing government censorship. The Intercept also reports that no results would appear for “blacklist sensitive queries.”

It’s unclear whether banned content would be available beyond the first page of search results. It’s possible that links would be available — at least initially — beyond the first page, offering valuable details to users about what authorities are censoring. But Google could still do some good even if China required the company to remove banned content from all pages in its search engine.

Disclaimers on blocked sites would serve as a constant reminder of the state’s ubiquitous censorship. They could also indicate to users which topics the Chinese authorities don’t want openly discussed. The bigger Google’s market share in China, the more effective this reminder would be.

To that i’ll add that the Chinese are constantly trying to poke holes in the censorship to access forbidden information.  Giving them a search engine as powerful as Google will help them find more while the notifications of blocked sites can only serve to sow dissent.

So well, perhaps we should get off Google’s case on that one.

Not, of course, that Google is gonna get off scot free as we gradually realize just how much information about ourselves we are funneling to Google daily when we do our searches and wonder whether the twinge of annoyance at this might spur us to withhold some of that information from Google by using DuckDuckGo as our search engine. I’ve found it just as good as Google’s.

And let’s not stop there, we can break away from Google Chrome by downloading Firefox and using it as our browser.  I have for many years.  Works great.

And then, many of us wonder whether we should stop using Gmail, but in my case not because i use Gmail as an external brain and do searches in it to dredge up things i need to remember but don’t.  Like what i told somebody i’d do and now wonder whether i did.  And all kinds of business emails.  Just as crucial for me is that i no longer have to fret over constant backups to my email because Google has it all on their servers, in which i have complete confidence i will not predecease.

Meanwhile, on my street there are two small parks, a children’s park in front of my building and a mini park with a great view of Twin Peaks at the top of the hill, where i found this striking inflorescence which surely a reader will identify for me.

My reader Tom got back to me with a comment, which i’ll quote below for the readers who don’t click on the title of a post to evoke the otherwise invisible comments at the bottom of the page.  He wrote:

“Inspired by meditations on Google, I set out to try out a feature I knew the search engine had, but that I had never used. I copied the image of your “inflorescence” and uploaded it to Google Image Search.

Immediately (if under a second is immediately in this case), Google said that the plant was probably liatris…specifically suggesting one variety colloquially called “florist gayfeather”.”

To confirm this, i googled “liatris gayfeather”, but the images i saw didn’t look like the plant i’d photographed. For further confirmation, i did my own Google Image Search, and when i uploaded my photo, GIS declared to me that the best guess was Puya alpestris, but when i googled that, what i saw again did not look like the plant i’d photographed.

Worse yet, GIS provides a dozen or so of “Visually Similar Images”, but none of these looks to me like my plant.

The good news is that my reader Al has come through with a positive identification of the genus.  It’s Acanthus, and he adds, “The capitals of Corinthian columns are decorated with acanthus leaves”.  My research suggests that the species is mollis.

Ta da.  Case closed.

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“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


A couple of years ago i got myself invited to a meeting of the Editorial Board staff at The San Francisco Chronicle where John Diaz, the editor, introduced me as a frequent flyer in the letters section, giving me an opportunity to remark that i’d been subscribing to The Chronicle longer than most of them had been able to read it.  And yes, i’d banked that one and it got me a chuckle.

Anyhow, it occurred to me to do a search for my letters in the Chronicle’s archives, and oh my goodness, there sure are a lot of ’em, especially if you include those from my friend Louis.  Here’s a representative sample from the past four years.

sfchronicle 2/20/15 Regarding “Controversy advances archbishop’s agenda” (Feb. 19), I don’t understand the furor over Archbishop Cordileone’s efforts to force everyone to obey the rules of his church, since that is the very nature of churches. We should be grateful that our founding fathers wrote a Constitution that prevents Cordileone from following the example of his predecessors and burning us non-conformers at the stake.  Matte Gray, San Francisco

sfchronicle 3/8/15 Regarding “Farmers’ market cultivated success” (March 1), what a splendid article on the rise of farmers’ markets in San Francisco. Splendid in a different way was the photo of the customers “inspecting potatoes”. The dubious look on all their faces can probably be attributed to their never before having seen whole lugs of potatoes all shaped exactly like pears.  Louis Bryan, San Francisco

sfchronicle 12/12/15 Regarding “Envisioning a new life for S.F. icon” (Dec. 11): I applaud John King’s article on the transformation of the Palace of Fine Arts into expansion space for the fine arts museums, but I do have one concern: The exterior. As King put it, the Palace is a “glorified shed.” A shed is a shed is a shed, and there may not be enough lipstick.  Matte Gray, Petaluma

sfChronicle 4/14/16 Regarding “Vatican OKs sainthood for Junipero Serra” (May 7): So the Pope is praising Father Junipero Serra for proclaiming God to the Indians, who hadn’t “experienced the embrace of his mercy.” Pity that bringing the Indians into the embrace of God’s mercy required using them as slave labor.  Louis Bryan, San Francisco

sfchronicle 10/13/16 Regarding those “historic cast-iron streetlights” on Market Street, I was crushed when I saw one that had been hit by a truck and noticed that it was made of molded fiberglass to imitate cast iron.  Louis Bryan, Petaluma

sfchronicle 10/26/16 Regarding those renegade bicyclists putting up posts to protect bike lanes: Of course drivers park their vehicles in bike lanes. Otherwise, they’d impede the progress of a fellow motorist.  Matte Gray, San Francisco

sfChronicle 8/5/17 Regarding “Gene-editing tool raises thorny issues of difference and disease” (Open Forum, Aug. 4): I read, not with interest but rather with mounting horror, Rachel Kolb and Dakota McCoy’s argument against gene editing in which they suggest preserving genetic deafness because of its benefit as a “generative resource.” I wonder how many deaf people would choose to have their children born deaf.  Louis Bryan, San Francisco

sfchronicle 2/21/18 Regarding “Get over it” (Letters, Feb. 20), in which the letter writer states that no one has come up with a plausible explanation as to why the Russians supposedly preferred Donald Trump, I suggest that Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton’s long enmity is sufficient reason for the Russians to support any candidate other than Clinton.  Louis Bryan, San Francisco

sfchronicle 2/23/18 I’m all for suspending the drivers’ license of anyone, not just a minor, who’s caught driving under the influence of marijuana, but first we need a test sensitive enough to determine whether they had ingested marijuana an hour earlier or two days earlier, when they would no longer be impaired.   Matte Gray, San Francisco   [Little did i realize when i wrote this one that only six months later a company would announce the impending release of just that kind of test.]

sfchronicle 2/27/18 Perhaps the Democrats didn’t endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein in our primary because she voted to extend the Patriot Act, promoted extension of National Security Agency surveillance of private citizens at the same time she denounced the CIA for spying on her staff members, criticized the NSA for monitoring the phones of friendly foreign leaders while promoting warrant-less monitoring of her constituents, called Edward Snowden a traitor for providing proof that the NSA was monitoring our phones and emails, and sponsored a bill that would criminalize all forms of strong encryption in electronic communication between citizens. Yes, maybe the Democrats don’t want to live in a surveillance state in which Big Sister is watching them.  Louis Bryan, San Francisco

SFChronicle 3/22/18 Regarding “Put the brakes on bikes” (Last Word, March 21): Marshall Kilduff’s claim that bicycles “clutter the sidewalks” suggests that he considers them to be an egregious form of litter. Actually, a bike chained to a utility pole or bike rack suggests that one less car is on the street and should be applauded.  Louis Bryan, San Francisco

sfchronicle 4/22/18 Regarding “Motorized scooter” (Letters, April 18): I was shocked and saddened by the letter in which the author argues that sharing bike lanes with motorized scooters defeats the lanes’ purpose. Hmmm, the scooters run at much the same speed and have a smaller footprint. What’s the problem? I’m a disabled veteran and get around town on my Segway, a different form of motorized scooter, and on a few occasions I’ve got snarls from passing bicyclists so entitled and mean spirited that sharing a centimeter of the bike lane is unacceptable. As Rodney King said, “Can we all get along? Can we get along?”  Matte Gray, San Francisco

SFChronicle 5/24/18 Regarding “Teachers are overlooked” (Letters, May 23): The letter about the exploited part-time English as a second language teachers brought back memories from the late 1970s when I was one of the exploited, cobbling together a marginal living by working at both Chabot College in Hayward and City College here in San Francisco. I am shocked and saddened to learn that this exploitation has continued for forty years.  Louis Bryan, San Francisco

SFChronicle 7/14/18 Regarding the need to head off PG&E’s “return to bankruptcy,” I remember that it did quite well in its previous bankruptcy by immediately beforehand transferring hundreds of millions of dollars to one of its entities back East and granting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to its top executives — and then, after the taxpayers had bailed it out, rising from the ashes like a phoenix.   Louis Bryan, San Francisco

Meanwhile, another San Francisco garage door.

garage door

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The Bookcase

“Nietzsche is pietzshe” – Tee shirt slogan popular among undergraduates in the late fifties who hadn’t read him and were unaware that his name didn’t rhyme with “peachy”.


I just had a memory flash from thirty years ago when a new friend whom i’d selected for attributes other than intelligence was sitting in my livingroom and looked up at my American literature bookcase.

“Have you read all these books?” he wondered with undisguised skepticism.

He found my affirmative hard to believe, so we came up with a test. I’d turn my back, and he’d take a volume and begin reading aloud at a random point in it.

My job was to identify the work, and i astonished myself at being able, book after book after book, to name the author and title, often after the first sentence and always after two or three until he finally gave up.

I wonder if i could do this now, impaired memory and all.  And i hope to be able to remember to ask my next visitor to try this test with me.  Probably not because i just looked at my bookcase and spotted book after book about which i could remember almost nothing.

My younger readers might find it entertaining to perform the same test, and if you do, please tell me about it.  Well, if you pass.

Meanwhile, another in my Garage Doors series.

Garage door

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Gaming the System

“We should never have taught Grandmother how to text.” – Leah Garchik


Back in the eighties i was commuting daily from San Francisco to Hayward, which took me across the San Mateo Bridge and back.  The toll booth was on the east end of the bridge, and there was one toll taker who stood out.  Think about it for a moment. Could there be a more monotonous and boring job than to take the money or tickets from thousands of commuters trying to fight their way home through the rush hour traffic?  Where the best you could hope for to relieve the tedium would be someone taking out his pent up rage at the sluggish traffic on you.

But one of the toll takers was very different from the other mindless automatons.  He greeted every driver with a cheerful remark and a big smile.  So after your initial shock at this strange behavior, you stood ready to smile and say something nice to him the next time you ended up at his booth.  Hell, some of us even figured out which booths he was most likely to be in and selected the line to that booth even if it were not the shortest.

Or Berndt, a long-time checker at the Market Street Safeway, who always had ready an outrageous pun or laughable tidbit for everyone who came through his station.  So of course everybody had something nice to say to him.  I noticed that since you could easily see who was checking at a particular station, his always had the longest line in front of it.

Or post office clerks.  For over twenty years i used the post office on 24th Street and always chatted up the clerks.  By the time i moved, three of them had smiles ready for me as i approached their counter.  My thanks to Yvonne, Bill, and Betty.

And now i’m using the Bernal Heights post office on Tiffany St.  I’ve been here only a year and don’t use the post office as much, but still i’ve got one clerk who knows me although i don’t know his name yet.

Or the clerks at my pharmacies, same deal.

In all these cases we have people working in largely thankless jobs who have discovered that with a bit of outreach they can build up a clientele of happy people who make their job more tolerable.

And the obverse is also true.  If we have a cheery word with the clerks we encounter and make their job less tedious, we create happy clerks who make our experience better.

It’s a win-win, folks.

Meanwhile, the second in my Garage Doors of San Francisco series:

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