January 17, 2010
Weekend Book Report - Kindle 2 Update
The good news: Amazon provides Kindle owners outstanding customer service.
The bad news: You're probably going to need it.
About a week ago I found my Kindle with the following screen:
With my warranty about to run out, I had no choice but to spend my entire Sunday afternoon in technical support hell.
And by "entire Sunday afternoon in technical support hell," I mean, "a seven-second wait to talk to someone and five minutes of troubleshooting followed by a promise to ship me a new Kindle for delivery by Tuesday."
As impressed as I was by this (although my cynical nature suggests that those kind of quick resolutions are the product of frequent and long-known problems) it's hard to excuse a product that dies within a year and dismiss the concerns over how the experience might have been different a month from now when the warranty expires.
Overall, even though I still personally like the Kindle, I'm not pleased with its performance during its first year.
Wait, that sounds familiar...
UPDATE: As promised, the replacement Kindle arrived today (Tuesday).
I really liked the Kindle and gave it four Planet Morons in my original review nearly a year ago, and customer service has been great, but it's hard to overlook the fact that it croaked within a year.
November 30, 2009
Weekend Book Report – A War Like No Other
Victor Davis Hanson
I was reading “A War Like No Other” around the time Mrs. Moron and I were trying to choose a name for our first child, a boy. Being a “live-in-the-moment” kind of guy, I naturally suggested “Pericles.”
Which is why men have wives.
Author Victor Davis Hanson is a classical scholar in the traditional sense. And by “traditional sense” we mean, “he makes you feel like an idiot in comparison,” as he does his own translations from the original Greek or Latin.
“A War Like No Other,” chronicles the Peloponnesian War between the Athenian empire and Sparta and its allies, a conflict that would consume nearly three decades and change the course of history forever.
If you are like most Planet Moron readers, you’re probably asking yourself, “I wonder if the author properly addresses the role the ill-fated Syracuse campaign played in the ultimate outcome of the war a decade later?”
Also, “I like cheese.”
The book is in fact largely organized around the methods of warfare employed, from chapters on “Fear” and “Fire” to “Horses” and “Ships.” There is at first a gimmicky feel to this, as with all attempts to take a fresh approach to well-trodden ground (like a chess set that uses Star Wars characters, or calling cuts in a program “savings”) but it works here and offers a fascinating perspective into the means of war and the manner in which it was fought at the time.
A major theme of the narrative, and an inspiration for the title, is the escalating brutality of the war, unseen in earlier internecine Greek conflicts, that marked the 27-years of the on-and-off hostilities. Modern readers will no doubt find the barbarous accounts of men and women being torn apart by swords and spears by these primitive ancients disturbing, accustomed as they are to the far more sophisticated approach of using bullets and high explosives.
Those were savage, savage, times.
For those interested in this era, or who just like good war stories, it’s hard to go wrong with “A War Like No Other.”
PS: The kid did end up with a name that will get him beat up at recess far less often than "Pericles."
Some comments on the Kindle: "A War Like No Other" was not available for the Kindle. And therein lies a problem.
I still love the Kindle (originally reviewed here), but my fears regarding availability (much like downloadable music a few years ago) have been confirmed. From past Book Reports you'll note I don't spend a lot of time on the best-seller lists, so I'm finding maybe half the books I want to read available for the Kindle. On the plus side, it is approaching the $199 price it always should have been.
Bottom line, it remains a product for early-adopters. That's my comfort zone, since it has buttons and is shiny, but it might prove frustrating for those less fascinated with gadgetry and with eclectic reading habits.
July 14, 2009
Weekday Book Report – The End of Overeating
The idea for Dr. David Kessler’s latest book came to him one day when he was watching the Oprah Winfrey show in which a young woman who was overweight grew distraught as she tried to confront the issues surrounding her insatiable food cravings.
If you are like us, you’re probably asking yourself, “What in the world is a grown man doing watching Oprah?”
Also, "Why do I suddenly feel like eating carrot cake?"
The book, “The End of Overeating,” explores the reasons why Americans tend to find so many modern foods irresistible. In fact, Dr. Kessler uses his own struggle to illustrate the point:
As a non-magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Amherst College and absent an M.D. from the Harvard Medical School, you’re probably thinking, “Heck, I could have solved that mystery in seven seconds: ‘Because it tastes good.’”
However, the answer is far more complicated than that and requires an advanced understanding of neurochemistry and the complex biological processes of the brain:
“When we first put a highly palatable food into our mouths, taste buds in the tongue respond by sending a signal to an area of the lower brain responsible for controlling many of our involuntary activities, such as breathing and digestion.”
"When the lower brain receives that signal, it activates the neural circuitry that contains natural opioid molecules. From the lower brain, the sensory experience of taste travels through the midbrain, reaching the regions where the sensory signals of food are integrated. Those signals are ultimately related to the “nucleus accumbens.”
Okay, fine, “It tastes good.”
But it sounds much more smarter when you use scientifiky-sounding talk.
So, we’ve established that people desire food that tastes good. But why does it taste good? Why do we crave buffalo wings and chocolate-covered pretzels? That’s the second blockbuster revelation of this book:
We like sugar, fat, and salt.
But it goes even beyond that. Dr. Kessler notes that restaurants are careful to avoid creating foods that are either too bland or too overwhelming by “manipulating” the amounts of sugar, fat, and salt.
This manipulation is known in some quarters as “cooking.”
What can we do about our desire to eat food that tastes good and an industry that refuses to provide us with meals we'll dislike?
In the closing chapters of his book, Dr. Kessler lays out a number of actions you can take, all of which involve not eating those foods.
So, to sum up “The End of Overeating:”
- We eat food that tastes good.
- Sugar, fat, and salt taste good.
- Don’t eat those.
There, we just saved you fifteen bucks.
Disclosure: I read this book with the same care, dedication, and attention to detail, as our congressional representatives display when reading important legislation. Probably more so. Still, there is only so much I’ll do for my craft!
June 07, 2009
Weekend Book Report – Patriots
As a novel, Patriots is not for everyone.
Such as people who enjoy good novels.
As a survival guide it’s for anybody who has ever stashed a case of MREs in their basement “just in case.”
But then, Patriots is usually described as a survivalist how-to manual masquerading as a novel, which is fair enough. But as masquerades go, this one got its novel costume off the bargain rack at Target three days after Halloween.
Then why does it earn three (out of a possible five) Planet Morons?
First, I have before conceded an affinity for apocalyptic tales of doom. In that, Patriots excels. The politically sensitive should be forewarned that it is pure survivalist fantasy in which the intrepid protagonists’ every fear and sacrifice in preparing for a financial and social collapse of America turn out to be wholly justified, like the guy in your neighborhood who dropped seven grand on a whole-house generator and then stands on his front porch in smug satisfaction while everyone else suffers through one of those ten-minute outages you experience once ever three years.
And for the record, a whole-house generator is on my list of future purchases.
I am also politically agnostic when it comes to disaster stories. The movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” was a preposterous anthropogenic global warming tale replete with an evil Dick Cheney look-alike and desperate Americans fleeing across the border into Mexico pleading for shelter having received a long-due comeuppance for their wealth and prosperity.
But, hey, as a tale of apocalyptic doom it gets two thumbs up, way up.
Yes, the dialogue in Patriots is often wince-worthy, the writing sometimes leaden, the transitions occasionally clumsy, and the Christian-centricity potentially off-putting to the ecumenically phobic, but it details in a thoroughly enjoyable and realistic fashion, all manner of mayhem, disaster, and ruination.
What’s not to like?
Second, it is an astonishingly detailed survivalist how-to manual, with large portions of the text dedicated to useful (in the context) examinations of the challenges involved in post-social-order power generation, personal protection, food, communications, currency and medical care.
Written as it is, by James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is not a typo, at least not on my part) you can be sure it’s state-of-the-art in its paranoia. I do not count myself a survivalist by any means, but I have long been interested in preparedness, an interest that only intensified after terrorists crashed a jetliner into my neighborhood, and so I found these sections fascinating. Plus, you just don’t dismiss out of hand anyone who correctly predicted the housing bubble, rolling government bailouts, and the dangers of derivatives. And as a bonus, Rawles is largely reviled by white supremacists because he isn’t one, so this is one survivalist you can read without a lot of the baggage often (and often unfairly) associated with the movement.
Besides, I was able to finish it, which I couldn’t say for Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot Flat and Crowded.
Rocky-Mountains-dwelling Constitutionalist libertarian : 1
New-York-dwelling liberal elitist: 0
April 26, 2009
WEEKEND BOOK REPORT - Emergency
Okay, my reading list remains decidedly gloomy. I swear, I’ve started other books, Joseph Ellis’ American Creation sits on my nightstand, Keynes’ “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” is in the den, and I was even making decent progress through a Kindle edition of Ludwig von Mises’ “The Theory of Money and Credit.”
But Neil Strauss’ “Emergency” was much more fun if only because reading about how not to be dead is typically more enjoyable than reading about people who already are.
Plus, Emergency deals with two of my favorite subjects:
- Impending doom.
- What to do about impending doom.
Emergency details the author’s journey from an admitted “whining sniveler,” wholly dependent on others, to a man prepared for just about anything.
I must say that at the beginning of the book, I was far ahead of Strauss in terms of survival preparations and general manliness. I had stocked up on MREs and gas masks before it was cool (it’s cool now, right?), knew my way around a Glock, and could replace a broken Jeep axle in the field.
By about a third of the way through the book, Strauss had already made so much progress that he made me look like an office-dwelling latte-sipping urbanite.
For the record, I am an office-dwelling latte-sipping urbanite, but that’s not the point.
The point is this liberal city-dwelling, takeout-ordering, repairman-calling, New York Times music critic transforms himself into a self-sufficient he-man survivalist and more. Much more.
Strauss is a very good writer, with a breezy, accessible style and a sharp wit. Partisan conservatives should be aware that Strauss does approach his mission to master the means of personal survival from a decidedly leftward view in that all internal governmental threats originate from the right and it was in fact the Bush years, from 9/11 to Katrina, that inspired him to start considering how vulnerable he’d be were catastrophe, man-made or otherwise, to hit. Towards the end of the book, Obama’s election is greeted with hope and relief. As far as we’re concerned, true paranoids assume everyone is out to get them. Fortunately, these kinds of references are infrequent, as are the occasional kumbaya moments: “Personally, I don’t believe in good guys and bad guys, as compelling as those stories may be to children. There are no bad guys – just people who do bad things.”
Which is what makes them bad guys, but okay, these are nits.
By the end of the book I found myself liking Neil Strauss. This is a very honest book and he seems to have set his ego aside to provide a detailed account of his journey, from seeking alternate citizenship, to learning how to sail and fly, to wilderness survival, to firearms training to lock picking to an EMT license and more. Not to give anything away, but he ends up in a different place at the end than he thought he would at the beginning, but still with one goal in mind: Survival.
I don’t often give out four Planet Morons, but for me, this was one of those “can’t put it down” books, and easily the most entertaining "how-to" book I've ever read. But then, keep in mind, I’ve been on kind of a doomsday run here.
Note: I did not read this on the Kindle. There are two reasons for this. First, there is no Kindle version. Second, there really shouldn’t be. It’s a book about what to do in an emergency. With the Kindle, you have an emergency if Sprint’s cell network goes down. Emergency is one of those books best left to hard copies.
April 13, 2009
WEEKEND BOOK REPORT – The Panic of 1907
Robert F. Bruner, Sean D. Carr
The latest entry in our series of cheerful leisure-time reading is “The Panic of 1907,” a detailed exploration of one of America’s most dramatic banking panics.
I had started reading this book shortly after finishing “The Forgotten Man,” Amity Shlaes’ excellent work on the Great Depression, but found it felt more like a homework assignment in comparison and so lost interest in it until finally, fearing a visitation from the ghost of English teachers past, I picked it up again along with an H. Upmann double corona and finished both this weekend.
This surely reflects as poorly on my relatively short attention span as it does on the book itself, which, focusing on what was in essence a liquidity crisis within the banking system, had limited opportunities to engage in dramatic storytelling. Go ahead, you try and make fractional reserve accounting and capital requirement shortfalls come alive on the page. (Without gratuitous nudity, because we know that's what you were thinking.)
The book does have its moments, however, with reasonably well-drawn, interesting characters and occasional scenes of, financially speaking, derring-do, including the arrival of bundles of cash through the back door in the nick of time to calm lines of nervous depositors fearful that their savings have vanished.
Of course, we don’t have banking panics like that anymore, as we are far too sophisticated and advanced to engage in that kind of primitive hysteria.
No, what with our powerful regulatory regimes and layers of expert government oversight, we just lose all our money in stocks, real estate, and collateralized debt obligations instead!
Around here, that’s what we call “progress.”
The Panic of 1907 occurred in a period of little to no formal government regulation of the financial system. Since then, we’ve created layers upon layers of regulation (including ever more over the past 10 years, popular myth notwithstanding) and what did we get for our troubles?
19 more recessions and 15 stock market crashes.
And as pop economist Paul Krugman is quoted saying in the book with reference to our current situation, “The parallel to the panic of 1907 should be obvious.”
You know what else should maybe be obvious? That financial regulation doesn’t solve problems.
It just moves them around.
The authors of The Panic of 1907 take a more mainstream, and hopeful, view, arguing that while regulation will never eliminate financial disruptions it can limit them, control them, and make them less damaging.
Maybe someday someone can write a book about that. Once it can actually be demonstrated.
The Panic of 1907 gets three Planet Morons for providing an eerily familiar look at an historic economic crisis and an excellent rundown of the causes and sources of financial panics.
And no, it’s not always Barney Frank’s fault.
April 05, 2009
WEEKEND BOOK REPORT – Meltdown
A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse
Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
Meltdown is really two books, the one transitioning into the other.
The first half details the roles various government policies and institutions played in creating the sub-prime loan debacle, resulting real estate bubble, and ultimately our current financial crisis, taking a fairly bipartisan, but clearly aggressive approach.
For those of us predisposed to this notion, this is extremely satisfying as are all such exercises in self-congratulation. (“See, I was right all along! This guy says so. And he wrote a book!")
While this serves largely as red meat for the already converted, it does perform a valuable service in exploring the government’s culpability in our current troubles, a line of argument that has received far less attention in the media than has greedy Wall Street bankers.
Which is not to excuse greedy Wall Street bankers entirely. However, condemning Wall Street bankers for getting greedy is like condemning Michael Phelps for getting wet. Being greedy is part of the job, and they perform a useful service so long as they operate in a market in which failure is allowed. Unfortunately, failure was outlawed years ago, at least for institutions that fail in a sufficiently spectacular fashion. Without failure, you get AIG writing credit default swaps they can never back up and banks purchasing those default swaps knowing full well that AIG can never back them up. Who backs them up? That would be you. (And hey, thanks, you're a real sport.)
This leads to the author’s real agenda: Blame the Federal Reserve specifically, and the notion of having a monetary system based on pieces of paper generally.
This is where the book got interesting for us. We have never been particularly fond of the Federal Reserve, if only because we are not particularly fond of large concentrations of power in the hands of a few, whether it’s the government, large corporations, or a three-judge panel on American Idol (which is how you end up with financial bubbles, Microsoft Windows, and Taylor Hicks). However we never seriously considered the notion that we would be better off moving towards something real backing our currency, perhaps a commodity of some sort.
Okay, we’ll come out and say it: The Gold Standard.
Nutty? Maybe. But so is turning over complete control of our money supply to a small, semi-autonomous group of individuals with near absolute power to print money at will.
This is not to say that we are suddenly endorsing that the nation move to the gold standard. (We have long endorsed personally moving to the gold standard, but that’s another story.) But we do think now is a very good time to have a public discussion regarding whether we can make improvements to our current monetary system. To reject any such discussion is what would be really nutty.
(Incidentally, we read the Kindle version of Meldtown (see previous Kindle 2 review under “Books”) and have only grown more fond of the device, overpriced though it may be.)
March 15, 2009
WEEKEND BOOK REPORT – The Kindle 2
Right around the time I was trying to decide whether or not to get a Kindle or wait for its expected successor, Oprah Winfrey endorsed it.
It quickly sold out and went on backorder for months.
Oprah having made my decision for me (which is kind of how we ended up with Barack Obama, come to think of it), I waited for the Kindle 2, pre-ordering it the day it was announced.
Those of you who are accustomed to smart phones, particularly Apple’s iPhone, and other full-color, touch-screen-enabled devices, might have the same first impression I did.
“What a clunky old-fashioned piece of junk.”
With its black-and-white display, clicky plastic buttons, and drab exterior, it has all the glamour and pizzazz of an Al Gore presentation (only without the cool motorized elevating cantilever platform).
But then the Kindle is not trying to be like a smart phone. It’s trying to be like a printed book. And in the attempt, addresses my #1 complaint with printed books.
They’re printed books.
Don’t get me wrong. Planet Moron has an extensive assortment of printed books, including a leather-bound 50-plus-volume collection of “Stuff You Should Know” and it's unlikely I'll live long enough to get through them all. In fact, if experience is any guide, it's unlikely I'll live long enough to get through "Beyond Good and Evil." As much as I enjoy printed books, I just don’t have room for any more of them in physical form, having foolishly purchased a house I could afford rather than something larger, perhaps with a formal library instead of a converted garage with two bookshelves shoved in the corner.
The Kindle incorporates other paper-and-pen-saving features including the ability to create electronic bookmarks, highlight and save selected passages, and make the virtual equivalent of notes in the margins.
It has two major drawbacks, however:
Price: I would not have spent $359 for it were I not also a bit of a gadget hound. It should cost $199. At the most. And its ability to download newspapers, magazines and blogs is nice, but also comparatively expensive (particularly when the comparison is often “free.”) However, many books are priced at about ten bucks, which isn’t bad, and that includes the wireless download over the Sprint 3G network.
Clock: You have to hit the Menu button to get the time. Every electronic device should display the time as a default, always. Ovens, radios, pacemakers, I don’t care. In fact, clocks should have extra clocks. Just in case. (But that might just be me.)
A bonus, for you Apple iPhone owners out there, Amazon has released a free Kindle app that allows you to read your downloaded books right on the iPhone. Not the best format in the world, but nice for those unexpected down times. Plus, the app syncs to Amazon’s servers so it knows exactly where you left off the last time you were on your Kindle. Creepy? You bet! But conveniently creepy.
For more information, a good review of the Kindle 2 and all its features can be found here.
The Kindle 2 earns four planet morons because it does exactly what I expected of it. It is an excellent choice for those of you who have more money than space, and that includes frequent travelers for whom space is always at a premium.
January 24, 2009
Weekend Book Report - Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Some excerpts from Hot, Flat, and Crowded:
“In June, 2004, I was visiting London with my daughter Orly,…”
“The well-known Indian author Gurcharan Das remarked to me during a visit to Delhi in 2005…”
“In December 2007, I was visiting Bahrain to interview the country’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa,…”
“I was visiting the Hague in January 2008, and my Dutch friends Volkert and Karin Doeksen…”
This makes it read somewhat less like a provocative look at the challenges facing America today, and more like an awkward attempt to impress a blind date.
However, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is more than just a name-dropping travelogue through author Thomas L. Friedman’s travel receipts. It is much more.
For example, one section notes that, “Between 1975 and 1985, American passenger vehicle mileage went from around 13.5 miles per gallon to 27.5,… which helped to create a global oil glut in the mid-1980s to the mid 1990s.”
Now, you could point out that petroleum consumption in the United States went from 16.3 million barrels per day in 1975 to 15.7 in 1985 and 17.7 in 1995. And you could also note that world oil production increased from 60 million barrels a day in 1980 to 70 million barrels a day by the mid 1990s. And that maybe that had more to do with an oil glut than, say, US oil consumption not declining.
But that’s why you’re not a Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist for the New York Times like Thomas L. Friedman,
In another passage, Friedman points out that “While the Reagan administration was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union, it was also instrumental in building our current dependence on Saudi Arabia.”
Indeed, Saudi imports in the first year of the Reagan administration averaged 1.112 million barrels a day. In the last year of his administration it had already skyrocketed to 1.116 million for an increase of 0.36%.
Sure, Reagan might have defeated the Soviet empire, but at what cost? At. What. Cost?
Some might suggest that it is unfair to nitpick a handful of passages out of a 448-page book.
The thing about that?
All the above examples take place within the first fourteen-and-a-half pages.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded gets -1 Planet Morons.
Because we’re dumber for having read it.
January 17, 2009
WEEKEND BOOK REPORT – Deep Survival
As the subtitle explains, Deep Survival is about “who lives, who dies, and why.” I received this book from my oldest brother.
And that pretty much tells you all you need to know about my family.
Well, no, one more thing: I loved it, and learned many useful things.
For instance, it turns out my first instincts in most survival situations, such as screaming like a schoolgirl, sobbing uncontrollably, or freezing in place as I ponder the possibility of creating a time machine using only tree moss, a Bic lighter, and my own liver so as to travel back in time and warn myself of the impending danger (and maybe drop a hint about going short Citigroup), would not be nearly as helpful as I might have hoped.
However, Deep Survival is not a how-to book in the traditional sense in that it does not dwell on how to make a fire, which berries to eat, or whether you should helpfully point out to your boss that maybe she could do to lose a few pounds (hey, you have your survival situations, we have ours). Rather it is about the less tangible things that determine who lives and who dies.
In fact, the book touches heavily on such subjects as psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. These discussions are interspersed with gripping real-life stories of life and death. Clearly, many kinds of educational material could benefit from this approach to holding the reader’s attention. Imagine how much more engaging a calculus text book would be if, before moving off differential equations and on to integrals, you were treated to a story of a young woman lost in a tropical rainforest having insect larvae hatching underneath her skin?
Yeah, that’ll spice up third period a bit.
Some of the more surprising insights: Training can help, but it can also hurt. Having the right equipment can also help, but people have been found dead in the wild surrounded by ample gear and provisions.
Survival, it turns out, depends on psychology as much as anything. Having a certain mind set, an ability to laugh at yourself and your situation, and striking the right balance between your emotions and intellect (both of which are essential), will often determine your fate.
Fascinating, informative, and well-written, Deep Survival earns four Planet Morons. And with Valentine's Day just around the corner, it makes a great gift too!
Just ask my brother.