Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tennessee vs The Squints

Tennessee, my adopted home state, is no stranger to scientific controversy. Adding fuel to a decades-old fire, the state recently approved a bill that would provide legal protection for teachers who, as one web site puts it, "criticize well supported scientific concepts."

Critics, including many scientists, talk about this like it's a bad thing.

Pardon me, but since when is protecting freedom of speech a bad thing?

People have lost perspective. The fact remains that many "scientific concepts" are exactly that: concepts. They are theoretical in nature, and ever-changing based upon new research. (Illuminating and fun read here.)

But this post is not meant to be a creationism vs evolution debate. Nor am I going to weigh in on the merits of climate change / global warming. This is about education.

If you censor teachers and don't allow them to teach point/counterpoint––especially when said counterpoint is based on cultural or religious beliefs that have existed for thousands of years and should thus be afforded some modicum of respect––then education becomes the very thing many intellectuals claim it is not: indoctrination.

And it's not just teachers at risk here. If students––all of whom are going to have their own unique perspectives––spark a debate in the classroom about widely-held scientific beliefs, would not their rights also be trampled on if a teacher was required to squash the conversation?

It is complete and utter hypocrisy to teach our kids the value of fairness, equality and tolerance with subjects like gender identity or bullying, but then tell them they cannot believe what they want about science or religion.

Academia is not black and white. Neither is science, religion, or culture. They are all organic and (ahem) evolving in their own ways, based largely upon the conscience and moral compass of those who explore them. And in such an interwoven tapestry, where everything is inexorably linked and nothing stands alone, why would anyone want an army of milquetoast educators too afraid to teach from the heart?

There's gotta be some quid pro quo in the classroom, or we're all fascists.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I got a Kindle Fire. Sue me.

So, this week marked the arrival of my new Kindle Fire.

It's an e-reader. It's a tablet. It's part of both, and yet neither! But hey, it's $199 and I got $20 off of that (thank you, super-duper one day Amazon promo).

Yes, this means I now own an iPad, a Kindle with Special Offers, a Nook Simple Touch, and a Kindle Fire. Don't be hatin'.

In lieu of a full review, and because I've only had a few hours to really play around with the Kindle Fire so far, here are 5 first impressions.

1.) Great screen. Scrolling is a little too quick sometimes. Occasionally takes multiple taps to register a selection, which many reviewers have also complained about. Yet other times the screen is spry and ideally sensitive. So I'm hoping this is an issue a firmware update can fix.

2.) The interface is intuitive, but the carousel menu function, as well as much of the interface, needs some customization options. As it is, there really aren't any. Personally, I'd rather drop the whole carousel menu and go with an icon-based menu, like the iPad, iPhone and Nook. I know Amazon is just trying to be different here, but sometimes familiar is best. (Note to Amazon: Let me customize my Fire interface.)

3.) The Kindle Reader app is awesome. Books look great, read easy, and there's enough options to make me feel at home. I especially like the ability to tint the page background to a more neutral color, which minimizes the whole black-on-white contrast that seems to result in added eye strain. Good job, Amazon.

4.) The app Easy Installer is available from the official Amazon App Store, and Easy Installer allowed me to side-load the Barnes & Noble Nook reader app for Android. So, I now have access to both my Nook and my Kindle libraries on one device. This is a good thing. I understand Amazon might hesitate to make a Nook app "officially" available at the risk of losing book sales to B&N, but I imagine there are a lot of people like me who would be tempted to sell their Nook device if it meant having their entire e-book library easily accessible on one device, diminishing my need to own B&N's hardware. (Note to Amazon: take a hint!)

5.) The 7" screen size is just a smidge too small for magazines and comics. Don't get me wrong--they look great. And you can zoom as needed. But it shouldn't be needed. I think Apple had it right when they said 10" was the ideal tablet size. Still, if the document is specifically optimized for this screen size, it's gorgeous.

All-in-all, I'm very pleased with the Kindle Fire. It's lightweight and comfy in my hands. I found a great leather case for it. The Fire is agile and streams music and video from the cloud like a dream, which means I'm not concerned about the 8gb storage limit. Because I'm also an Amazon Prime member, I get all sorts of extras, like free streaming movies and TV shows. (The Fire is definitely awesome for Prime members.) And so far, no complaints about the quantity or quality of the apps available. Can't wait to explore the device some more!

Feel free to chime in with thoughts, criticisms, questions or comments.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Back in the saddle. Still snarky.

After a long and trying summer, fraught with many dilemmas and chaotic events that only a family like mine can create, I'm finally seizing small moments of free time to write again.


So here's the revelation I came up with for my blog: I hate "blogging" in its formal sense. It's aggravating to feel pressured to write something awesome or substantive or poignant on a frequent basis. Also, I know that most of you don't care. You want dim sum. You want snacks. Or you want dessert. Nobody goes browsing the Internet for meat and potatoes. We like our content bite-sized. (Although, now that I think about it, you can make bite-sized meat and potatoes.)

From here on out, most of my blog posts, when they happen, will be more akin to a Facebook status update or a Google+ post: Short. To the point. Opinionated (always). And inviting comments.

For better or worse, this is my digital life. Welcome to it.

Now, I say "most" of my blog posts because I realize that there will be times when I just want to rant, rail or rave about something and will need the bailiwick that is my blog to do so.

If you come here expecting Shakespeare, you will be disappointed. If you come here looking for equal parts Stephen Colbert, Mitch Hedberg, and Steve Jobs, you'll probably still be disappointed, but you'll have a better time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kindle vs Nook Part 2 - Dead E-Readers Tell No Tales

My relationship with the Nook e-reader has been love/hate, with slight leanings towards hate in recent months.

You see, the Nook was the first e-reader I ever owned, having pre-ordered the original device (now dubbed Nook 1st Edition) before it hit the market in November of 2009. Upon release, I was in love with the device and all its bells and whistles. (Nerd alert.)

The screen quality was nice and sharp. The illuminated color touch screen was a pleasant way to navigate the menus. It had WiFi and free 3G, which I used liberally to buy new e-books while traveling. Barnes & Noble had a shared Wish List on the device and on their web site, so no matter where I added a book to my Wish List, I could see and buy it from anywhere. The Nook had a web browser, audio capability (presumably for listening to music while reading), games, and more. It looked like the honeymoon would last forever.

And then the problems started.

It began with a strange ticking noise emanating from the Nook whenever it was plugged in for charging. Not only that, but during charging the device would get unusually warm. That's normal when a battery is being charged, but this was a few degrees above normal. A phone call to tech support confirmed my fears that there were reports of overheating batteries. They swapped my Nook out overnight and I was up and running once more.

However, about a month later, the same monster reared its ugly head, and this time I took the Nook back to my local B&N store. The staff there--always friendly and helpful--immediately swapped my Nook out for a fresh one. But it was on the drive home that something tugged at my mind: I was really busy with a new project at work, and I was barely using the Nook as it was. After repeated problems with the device I decided to sell it.

It took less than an hour to find a buyer on Craigslist. Ah, the joys of Internet commerce.

Fast forward a year, to just last month. After enjoying my Kindle immensely, it occurred to me that I had about $100 worth of e-book purchases collecting digital dust on my B&N account--books I was very interested in reading now that I had the time.

(Note: I know many e-reader owners only buy books when they're ready to read them. But the truth is that there are a lot of sales and promotions on e-books all the time, and you can save quite a bit of money buying books when they're on sale, knowing you will read them eventually. For example, I picked up the first four books of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series for $3-$4 each, and those same e-books now sell for upwards of $8-12 each due to the series' soaring popularity.)

This dilemma revealed another ugly reality of e-readers: Digital Rights Management and proprietary e-book technologies. I couldn't simply download my Nook books to my Kindle; the technology doesn't work like that. If I wanted to read those Nook books, I was left with two choices: re-buy them on my Kindle... or just buy another Nook.

Barnes & Noble had just released the Nook Simple Touch, a smaller, lighter Nook that forsook many of the features of its predecessor, but added a few more. The result was that prices on the Nook 1st Edition had dropped. But given my problems with the Nook 1st Edition, I was leery of buying another one, and preferred the updated tech that was part of the Nook Simple Touch. What to do?

The decision didn't take long.

So is the Nook Simple Touch a great e-reader? How does it stack up to the Nook 1st Edition? or the Kindle with Special Offers? Which device do I prefer, and why? All will be revealed in the finale, Kindle vs Nook Part 3 - The Right Touch!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Kindle vs Nook Part 1 - Frugal is the New Chic

About two months ago, I was privileged to get an Amazon Kindle e-reader for what basically amounted to free.

You see, Amazon has this nifty Kindle variant called Kindle with Special Offers. It has a slightly lower entry threshold than a regular Kindle--$114 vs $139--with the caveat that you get little advertisements on the screen. Other than that, it's the exact same device.

The ads are only visible as a screen saver and within the menus (thankfully, they do not show up in your books while you're reading) so they're very unobtrusive. But the best part is that the "Special Offers" are for discounts and promotions that are only available if you own this particular Kindle.

Why is this a good thing? Because most of the offers are awesome!

Fifty percent off a $200 gadget is nothing to sneeze at, particularly if it's an electronic gadget I was literally about to buy anyway. So when a friend told me about that Special Offer back in May, the money I saved essentially paid for the Kindle, give or take $14.

Since then I have more than made up for the cost of admission with this bad boy. Among others, there was the $20 Amazon gift card for $10, a $1 MP3 album, the $10 off any video game, the free Amazon HD movie rental ($5 value), and another offer that amounted to buying 1 e-book and getting 2 free.

Granted, some deals (like "get $30 off a Kindle leather case with built-in reading light") are only good because, well, I now have a Kindle. But for the most part, many of the deals have been on stuff my wife and I would be buying regardless. It's like having a digital coupon book, and we all know that frugal is the new chic.

The case I chose for my Kindle has a built-in
light that is perfect for bedtime reading.
As an e-reader, I'm really impressed with the Kindle. It's light-weight, has a wonderfully crisp screen, and is fast and responsive. The case I bought with the built-in light is also great, because one thing I loathed about my Barnes & Noble Nook was the very ugly and unwieldy clip-on light accessory. So reading in bed next to my wife at night is no longer frustrating.

The Kindle is also exceptionally comfortable in my hands, both in size and weight. This gives it a glove-like fit I just can't seem to achieve with the iPad or Nook, and it's probably the reason why, in just a month and a half, I've read 3 rather lengthy books on my Kindle--it's just a pleasure to use.

Amazon seems to have found a nifty niche here by creating discounts and incentives--good ones!--on their own site, and with various corporate sponsors, in order to subsidize the Kindle's entry price. If the ads were all lousy and the offers pathetic, I obviously wouldn't be so enthusiastic. But they're not--they really are a good mix designed to appeal to folks who are inclined to adopt this type of technology already. That could be me, you, your grandma, or your kids. It's very simple to use, and I often find myself checking the Special Offers page just to see if any useful new gems have popped up. I've also heard that Amazon will start to expand and customize the Special Offer experience to make it even more attractive. I almost feel bad for folks who bought a regular Kindle, as they aren't eligible for these little perks.

In short: the Kindle with Special Offers is the colloquial bomb. If you've been wanting an e-reader, this might be the one for you.

"But wait!" you say. "Didn't Barnes & Noble just release a cool new Nook with a touch screen? Is it better than the Kindle?"

Why yes, yes they did. And as a not-always-happy owner of a 1st generation Nook e-reader, I was keen to try out the new Nook Touch to see how it compared to its predecessor, and the Kindle. But that is a story for another post. Check back soon for Kindle vs Nook Part 2 - Dead E-Readers Tell No Tales!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!

Last week I asked a few friends to take a look at the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 movie quotes, pick a quote or two, and I'd write a blog post about it.

Since I hadn't written any blog entries lately, I figured this would be a fun exercise -- a way to get myself back in the habit of writing with the subject matter already provided.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm going to spend the next few weeks writing about movies, Hollywood, or film making. The idea here is to use the quotes as inspiration, more or less.

The first quote selected (thanks, Kevin) was #36: "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" It's from the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

In it, a character named Gold Hat (played by Alfonso Bedoya) is trying to convince Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs that he and his men are Federales (Mexican police), and not bandits. Dobbs inquires about their missing police badges, after which Gold Hat utters the famous line.

What happens next? I have no idea. To date, I've never seen the movie. Like many, many other people, I always thought this quote originated from Blazing Saddles, where the line is "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!"

Of course, I personally cannot hear this quote in any form without thinking, inevitably, about the 1989 comedy UHF starring "Weird" Al Yankovic.

In that movie, about a failing television station run by "Weird" Al and his misfit friends, the character Raul Hernandez (Trinidad Silva) gets a shipment of animals for his wacky Raul's Wild Kingdom show. The delivery man reads the manifest aloud ("one aardvark, one flamingo, four porcupines, two armadillos, three badgers") when he is suddenly interrupted by an incensed Raul. "Badgers? Badgers?! We don't need no stinking badgers!"

Comedy gold.

But I'm not here to talk about comedy, humor or badgers. What struck me as interesting about this quote was how it was mis-quoted, then re-appropriated numerous times, and not always in the places we remember, or that are most obvious.

After all, Treasure was aped by the Monkees (pun intended), who in turn had their modified dialogue quoted in Saddles, and further modded in UHF. But it all hearkens back to the original.

In a way, that's part of the creative process in almost all media these days, from books and movies, to TV, music and video games. We borrow or steal, not verbatim or with an act of plagiarism, but in a way that makes something our own while still paying homage to that which influenced or inspired us.

Sometimes this is very subtle, like a figurative wink or nod to our creative progenitors. Other times it's more obvious, like a big hug, a way of saying "thanks" to our heroes that blazed the trails we now tread.

Think about it: without Tolkien's epic, would we have Harry Potter? Dungeons & Dragons? World of Warcraft? Without Bram Stoker or Anne Rice, would Stephenie Meyer have penned Twilight? Was The Hunger Games a result of some subconscious creative juices blended and squeezed from the fruits of labor done by Asimov, Philip K. Dick, or Jules Verne?

Some comparisons amongst those works are obvious, and others are like little "Easter eggs" left by the creator(s) to be found by astute fans. But it all goes back to what influences us, and how that influence, that knowledge, and those past experiences plays out in our own craft, whatever that may be.

If you're a creative type--author, designer, artist, and the like--feel free to sound off in the comments and list your biggest influences. How does that inspiration come out in your own work? Have you ever been thanked or recognized by one of your own heroes? Most importantly, do you have any badges?

Friday, April 8, 2011

I'm not dead yet.

Now that I've got Monty Python quotes swimming in your head thanks to the title of this post, I just wanted to pop in and assure everyone (who might still occasionally pop in on me) that I am, in fact, very much alive.

Since my last post on February 4, my family and I have had quite a bit of RealLife™thrown in our laps. There's been a surgery due to a cancer scare--thankfully it was benign and all is (now) well. There was a grandmother who got swindled out of vast sums of money by a less-than-caring relative. A bit of travel, to help mop up said mess. Various runny noses, strep throats, and allergy ailments amongst our young'uns. And, while it certainly counts as a good problem to have, my day job (reminder: real estate marketing) has become considerably busier thanks to Nashville's rapidly improving economy.

So, like I said, it's been a flood of activity lately. Nothing we can't handle, but certainly time-consuming. There does not appear to be much let-up in the foreseeable future, so it's likely my blog posts will remain sporadic for the next few months. 

My time to write and work on my stories has certainly been diminished to almost nothing--although I'm hopeful that with the wife on summer break from Nursing School as of May, all of that might change and some semblance of sanity and balance restored.

Until then, thanks to everyone who has checked in, dropped me a line, shown up at our door with dinner, sent a card, or thought-about/prayed-for our family in the last 8 weeks. Your kindness is appreciated, especially given the fact that I know everyone deals with their own drama on a regular basis.

Keep writing. Keep living. Keep the faith. I'll catch up soon!