The Passion of the Ripper

The Passion of the Ripper by Nicholas Nicastro (2010). 196 pages, CreateSpace/Kinder Shore Books.

I went through a period of my life when I was fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders of the 1880s. In my early teens, I got hooked on Sherlock Holmes. I read all 4 novels and 52 short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, then read them again, and then read a few of the various pastiche novels that were coming out in the mid-70’s. And because the Ripper murders occurred at about the same time Sherlock Holmes was practicing in London, I became interested in them as well.

To me, Jack the Ripper was the anti-Holmes. He was real, while Holmes was fictional. The Ripper was evil, while Holmes was good. The Ripper murders were never solved. Holmes, on the other hand, was never without a solution.

And I can’t deny that being a teenage boy who loved monsters and horror movies, the tale of a creepy killer prowling the fog-bound streets of London, slicing prostitutes to pieces and then sneaking away in the night, was like candy. I read my share of Ripper books – all non-fiction – during that time as well. A few of them are even still on my shelves, like The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow – which includes lots of photos taken at the time, including a very disturbing full-body shot of Mary Kelly, the last and most completely dismembered Ripper victim.

Jack the Ripper seems not to have made that much of an impact in fiction, however. Maybe because the actual murders were so grisly… maybe because the case was never firmly or officially solved… I don’t know. There was, famously, Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Lodger, a creepy take on the Ripper case. And although kind of off course, I have a special fondness for Time After Time, the 1979 Nicholas Meyer film where Jack the Ripper steals H.G. Well’s Time Machine and travels forward to 1979… where, he discovers, he fits right in.

But here’s a new novel that delivers a great new take on Jack the Ripper, Nicholas Nicastro’s The Passion of the Ripper. Right from the very first page, I knew it was going to be good. Here’s the opening paragraph, which to me perfectly sets the tone and scene: London. 1888. The Whitechapel district…

The guts of London are laid out as if on a surgeon’s table. The narrow streets surge with pedestrians, tramps, carters and children flitting on mud-flecked lets – denizens of the great coal-gray smudgery piss-pot. Slip down through the smog, over hovels with garbage strewn across tar-papered roofs, down to the locals at their windows. Marionette arms test stiff laundry wings. The sound wafts up, the snap of umber linen on the wet, but no on rises above the cornices.

The first part of the book – approximately 3/4 of the total – covers the Ripper murders. And the murderer himself. Because this is no whodunnit. We know, quite early on, exactly who the Ripper is. The twist here, however, is that we get inside the Ripper’s head. We visit his past, his upbringing, his family, his training… what led him to become the heartless murderer that reaches out across history? For this is a take on the Ripper that speaks to the Hannibal Lector generation, those of us fascinated with profiling our serial killers. The Passion of the Ripper is a psychological take on Jack the Ripper, one that is unlike any I’ve encountered before.

And although I’m certainly no Ripperologist – merely someone who’s familiar with the murders and the setting – this novel reads and feels as if everything is rooted in fact. All the details are correct. The chronology is spot-on. The victims are rendered true to life. Even the Ripper here is based on an actual real-life suspect, a man whom the investigating officer became convinced years later was, in fact, the actual murderer.

The character of the Ripper here is so good, that I found myself getting a bit bored with the prattlings of Mary Kelley, and wishing we’d get back to the Ripper. Perhaps that’s why I felt the strongest part of the book is the last part – Part 2, the final quarter or so of the book.

In Part 2, we see what became of the Ripper in the years after the murders. And, in a great showcase of thriller writing, a satisfying ending is delivered. One that leaves the reader nodding and smiling, secure that justice was served in the end. An ending that, as it turns out, threads the needle between fact and fiction almost perfectly.

Maybe Jack the Ripper got his just reward after all? By the end of The Passion of the Ripper, you might think so.

This is a short but powerful novel, a perfect read for a few hours during this hot summer. I highly recommend it.

And if you have a Kindle, it’s a marvelous bargain at just $4.99. The Kindle version is well-formatted, with bold text done correctly throughout, and both a forward and afterward by the author. It lacks an active table of contents – but I suspect from the structure of the book itself that the printed version might not have one either.

Finally, I should point out that in all fairness, I’m acquainted with the author. However, as Nick well knows, if I don’t like something that one of my friends has created, I usually just keep my mouth shut about it. That is definitely not the case here. I’ll be recommending The Passion of the Ripper to anyone who’s looking for a great book to read – because that is exactly what this is.

And since Nick is a friend, I have to end this by saying that if you do end up reading and enjoying this book, you should definitely check out his other historical novels, which you can find at his website NicastroBooks  (http://www.nicastrobooks.com/novels.htm).

It’s a hot summer out there, folks. You can help save the planet and your sanity by reading as much as possible during it.

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Clearing the Netfix Queue

Netflix is great. I love being able to rent movies for as long as I want, and being able to pick from such a diverse selection. But occasionally (and I know I’m not the only one who does this) I just don’t get around to watching that rental. For a long time. You know what I mean. The movie sounds interesting, you put it in your queue, but when it arrives, it’s not something you want to watch right this minute…

In my case, I toss the little red packet onto a director’s chair – the designated area for “to watch” items – sure that I will watch it the next day. Most of the time I do. But sometimes… sometimes they sit there for a while. It’s not that I don’t want to watch the movie… I just don’t want to watch it right this minute, you know…

A month goes by. Movies that I am much more interested in watching pile up in the queue. I should just send the film back, right? I can always rent it again some other time. But I don’t. Another month goes by. Now, once again, I’ve come to another movie that I want to watch, just (you guessed it) not right now – and now I have two movies that I’m not watching right away, taking up two spots of my precious Netflix queue.

I think that it is situations like this that keep Netflix in business, actually. All this time I’m paying my $14.95 a month, as two disks sit unwatched. Oh, and the disks in questions are Blu-Ray, so it’s an extra dollar for them.

Then I start to feel guilty. What if there is someone out there who is desparate to see the movie that I have? What if it is their favorite movie of all time, but they can’t see it. They’ve been waiting for weeks. Hoping, praying that the moron who’s had that film rented for months now will finally return it. Yes, I know that’s not the way Netflix actually works. But guilt is guilt.

So this weekend, I decided: Enough is enough. I’m going to watch both of these movies this weekend, dammit, and then send them back. One on Friday night, one on Saturday night. And finally, I did just that.

Julie & Julia (2009). 123 minutes, Columbia Pictures. Directed by Nora Ephron.

This is a delightful, funny, heartwarming, and charming movie. I resisted it for quite a while. Saying to me, “Hey, it’s Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in a Nora Ephron fim about female empowerment, romance, and fulfillment in two different centuries!” is not a way to get me into a theater. “Hey, it’s about a blogger!” is also not a way to get me into a theater. After all, I’m a blogger myself, and I have to think that watching a movie about me working on my blog would be only slightly less boring that watching an experimental film about bread rising.

But this film is about Julia Child. And I love Julia Child. Or at least, I love her cookbook. I’ve had Mastering the Art of French Cooking as one of my basic cooking books for years. It’s the go-to source for all of the basic techniques of food creation. In my opinion, you can just remove the word “French” from the title of the book. Almost everything in the book is the basics of how to cook good food. Julia teachs how to hold a knife. How to slice every kind of vegetable. How to prepare every type of meat. What the various types of basic sauces are, and how to make them.

I’ve absorbed so much of what Julia teaches in the book, that when I describe a recipe that I’ve created or tweaked on my own, I will frame it in terms of techniques from the book. “Well, first, you start with a basic Julia Child White Sauce, the cream version that’s in the Sauces chapter, and then…”

Julie and Julia is a story of two different people in two different centuries, linked together across time by a love of cooking and writing. The “Julie” of the story is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a modern-day woman just turning thirty. She lives in a small Queens (New York City) apartment with her husband Eric (Chris Messina), and works at a grinding government cubicle job, answering phone calls from angry members of the public. She’s foundering in life; her dreams of being a writer are slowly fading away, and she feels increasingly that only the strength of her loving husband keeps her going. She needs a change. She needs a project. And so, in late 2002, she decides that her project will consist of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the period of exactly one year. And she will write a blog about the entire process, and how it changes her life.

The “Julia” in the story is, of course, Julia Child. The film begins in 1949 as Julia and her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) arrive in France, to begin a four-year assignment there. While Paul is busy at his new job, Julia tries desperately to find something to keep her busy. She begins taking French lessons. She tries her hand at learning how to make hats. She learns how to get around Paris, and enjoys shopping and the markets. Every night, she and Paul eat a fabulous French dinner at a different restaurant. One night, Paul tells her to do whatever it is that she likes most. “I like to eat!” she says. And right then and there, she decides to enter culinary school and become a chef.

Although Julie and Julia never meet, their stories parallel each other. The film works by cutting back and forth every ten minutes or so between the two characters and the two different time periods. Julia Child becomes a chef, and then, with the help of two other female French chefs, decides to write the ultimate English language book of how to cook in the French style. We watch her struggles and triumphs over the decade it takes to bring the book to life and finally see it published to glowing reviews. We pass through a variety of different diplomatic posts for the Childs, until the McCarthy era puts an end to their style of open and casual diplomacy.

Back in 2002, we watch Julie Powell as she works her way through Julia’s book, now in its 47th printing. Her daily blog postings become more and more famous. The New York Times writes an article about her efforts. And Judith Jones – the still-living publisher who approved Julia Child’s book nearly fifty years ago – schedules a visit to see how she’s doing.

The whole movie is done in a bright, cheery, almost whimsical style that suits the story matter perfectly. Meryl Streep, always wonderful, is awesome as Julia Child. Although the modern parts of the movie are fine and dandy for what they are, it’s the period pieces set in France of the 1950’s that are the heart of this film. I also have to give a special shout-out to Jane Lynch (currently famous as evil cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester on Glee), who plays Julia’s sister Dorothy to perfection.

It’s a happy movie, and I won’t keep you in suspense: It has a happy ending. Julie Powell ends up turning her blog into a book, which becomes this movie. And Julia Child does get her french cooking book published, which becomes a best-seller, leading to her becoming a TV star on the long-running cooking show The French Chef.

9 (2009). 79 minutes, Focus Features. Directed by Shane Acker.

My second feature of the weekend was a much, much different kind of film. 9 is a computer-animated fable that takes place after an apocalypse has apparently destroyed every living plant and animal on the face of the Earth, including all of humanity. The only “living” things are nine rag doll things, created by a dying scientist in an attempt to ensure that life will continue. Each doll has a hand-written number on its back, in the order they were created. To the last one, 9, he has left instructions and a special device that, he hopes, can restore life to the planet. But he dies before he can give 9 the instructions on what he’s supposed to do next…

And so 9 comes to life in a dead world, his first sight the dead scientist’s body lying on the floor in front of him. Soon, he meets up with the other eight rag doll things that were brought to live by the scientist as well. Who are being chased and captured by some bizarre robot that has the skull of a dog for a head. And there’s this little green disk thing that glows with these odd symbols and –

You know, I’ll just stop right there with the plot summary, because it doesn’t matter. 9 is quite enjoyable when taken at the level of “Wow! Does this look cool!!” But taken on the level of narrative or characters or plot – no way, man. Just forget it. 9 is probably the best-looking film I’ve seen in a long time that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I’m actually serious when I say it’s fun to watch – I certainly watched the whole movie, and didn’t feel bored or cheated at all. But it really is just sort of a moving art piece.

The set design and artwork on 9 is stunning. The look of the devastated alternative steampunk future world is beautifully desolate. The odd creations concocted by the Brain Machine to go chase and… uh… kill, I guess… the rag dolls are a joy to watch. But when the movie was over, I thought “Huh. That would’ve made a really great short film”.

And lo and behold, a look at the extras on the disk reveal that, in fact, 9 was a short animated film originally, and was later expanded into a full-length feature. The original short film is included here as well. I watched the short. It had everything that was cool in the feature, without the meaningless plot and expensive voiceover actors. I can see immediately how it must’ve impressed the hell out of anyone who saw it.

But. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone wanted to turn such an excellent little short work into a puzzling feature length film. I started putting together possible scenarios in my head: Did the studio want the talents of creator Shane Acker, but the only way to get him was to agree to make a feature-length version of his short? Did he have an even stranger idea that they turned down in lieu of this one? Did they look at District 9 and say “Hey! We should take some other science fiction short film and turn it into a feature too!” Did they approve the entire concept while stoned? Inquiring minds want to know!

Enough about that. Summing up my weekend double feature: Julie & Julia is a near-perfect little film with both comedic and historical elements that should appeal to just about everyone. 9 is a odd but artistic experimental film that will probably appeal to die-hard science fiction fans and/or animation buffs only.

And now, my Netflix queue is clear and I’m ready for further punishment. If only I could remember what’s coming in the mail next…

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Panasonic SRG06FG 3.3-Cup Automatic Rice Cooker

Panasonic SRG06FG 3.3-Cup Automatic Rice Cooker, $29.95

I have always pooh-poohed ricer makers. “Pooh!” I would say to the aisle of kitchen appliances at Costco, instead eyeing the slow cooker or vacuum food sealer. “Pooh Pooh!” I’d say at Brandsmart, looking over the list of features such as auxiliary vegetable steaming, timers, and rice warming mode. “Feh”, I might sometimes add disdainfully, if the spirit was really moving through me.

Who would need such a thing? Who would spend money on such a frivolous device, when they are countless electronic gewgaws, gadgets, and gizmos still in an unsold state? Why in the world would I spent my hard-earned gold on something that does not add another glowing rectangle for me to stare at?

I fancy myself a fair cook. I’m not a chef, but I’m a good cook. And I cook a lot of rice. At least three times a week, I’m making a pot of white, fluffy rice to go along with a stir fry. Or whipping up a batch of sticky rice to accompany a Cuban or Thai themed meal. Not disgusting Minute Rice, mind you, but plain old Rice Rice, just like God intended us to cook it.

Rice is easy. I follow the America’s Test Kitchen method: 1 cup of rice to 1 and a half cups of water. Add a dash of salt. Uncovered, bring it to a boil, and boil for 3 to 4 minutes, until the water subsides and you see little airholes in the rice, bubbling like clams on the beach as the waves roll out. Then clap a cover on, turn the heat down to the lowest setting, and let it steam for exactly 15 minutes. Viola! Delicious rice.

Alright. So, maybe one day out of three I’ll forget and boil it for too long. Maybe once every other week the rice boils over, coating my stove with a thin layer of rice glue that even Goo Gone has a hard time with. So what if once or twice a month I leave it on for twenty or thirty minutes by accident, burn half of the rice to the bottom, and have to start all over again? Minor inconveniences. Rice is cheap. As I said – I know how to cook it, dammit!

Such is my thinking. Such is my faith. Such I have always believed.

But then, one day, I was at work. My co-worker in the neighboring cube, Lata Kumar, was flipping through a coupon book for Best Buy. “A new rice cooker. Perfect!” she said with glee. Or gleefully. Or in a gleeful manor. At any rate, she was smiling when she said, of that much I’m sure.

I gave her my meticulously thought out, reasoned analysis of why such a purchase was a waste of her hard-earned cash. I believe I used the words “stupid”, “foolish”, and “pointless” as part of my carefully constructed argument. She nodded thoughtfully. “You’re an idiot”, she said, and clipped the coupon.

Somewhat steamed, I kept the rest of my opinions on her shopping to myself.

After her lunch break, Lata came back with a new rice cooker, for which she had paid about $25.00. I decided to try to repair my image with her. “So, how do you know that’s a good one?” I asked with a chipper air. She held up the box. “It’s Black and Decker”, she said, nodding. “So how can you go wrong with that?”

I had no response.

The idea of the rice cooker possessed me that afternoon. The following weekend, I was at Costco, and I looked over the two rice cookers they had there. There was a 10 cup and a 12 cup model. One for $90 and one for $30. I looked inside. 10 cups of rice is a lot of rice. There’s just me and Frank. Didn’t anyone make a smaller version for us no kid households?

Letting my fingers do the walking next, I was soon at Amazon.com, my faithful purveyor of all that is electronic and thus good. Sure enough, there were a number of small rice cookers in the 3 to 5 cup range. There was even a snazzy looking one from Zojirushi, who make the fantastic bread machine that I’ve used at least three or four times over the past decade, since it makes such wonderful bread. But man… expensive. And I’m still not completely sold on the rice cooker idea… yet.

What’s this? A simple little one from Panasonic, for just under $30? That sounds about right. No extra features. No warming mode. Just a single button that says “Cook”. Comes with a half-cup measure for the rice. Makes anywhere from a half cup to three cups of rice. The pan is removable, so you can put it right on the table and scoop rice from it.

Seems like a good choice. I’m an Amazon Prime member, so shipping is free. I’ll take a chance!

Today, the Panasonic Panasonic SRG06FG 3.3-Cup Automatic Rice Cooker arrived, with two day shipping exactly as promised. The cooker is a simple affair. It consists of a pot, a lid, and a housing with a conductor at the bottom. There is only one switch: It says “Cook”. It snaps up like a toaster lever. It pops back down when it’s done. And that is it.

Could such a simple, plain, no frills machine make rice that could compare with the delicious stove top rice I make so often? A pork stir fry will answer that question, my friends!

Using the enclosed plastic cup, I measured out one cup of dry rice, dumping it into the pot. I then filled the pot up to the 2 cup line with water. I placed the pot inside the cooker. I plugged it in. I put the lid on top. And I flipped the switch on the front to the Cook position.

And that was it. I forgot about it, and prepared my stir fry. Then I remembered the rice. I took off the lid. The rice smell steamed up out of the pot, revealing a clean expanse of white. Using a small hot pad, I removed the pan from the cooker and placed it on the table.

We dove into our meal. “Wow”, Frank said. “What did you do to the rice tonight? It tastes really good!” I scooped out my own scoops of rice, and dumped a healthy portion of pork cooked with red bell peppers and scallions and onions and ginger and garlic and hoison sauce and sesame oil and corn starch and red pepper flakes and chicken broth (or, if you prefer, “pork stir fry”).

Frank was right. The rice was perfect. Absolutely perfect. In fact, I would almost swear that somehow, the cooker turned that cup of rice into more rice that a cup of rice can be. Because, when I make the rice the old way, there was never any leftover rice. Now, miraculously, there was. It was like our own little micro version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Cleanup was shockingly easy. Basically, there wasn’t any to speak of. The pan, although not technically a non-stick pan, didn’t stick. Or rather, the rice didn’t stick to it. Nothing was cooked on, nothing was burnt. The pan practically wiped clean with a sponge. Ready for another round of making rice.

So, that’s my experience. That’s my story of the Panasonic SRG06FG 3.3-Cup Automatic Rice Cooker, and I’m sticking to it. I can’t speak to how reliable this remarkable little wonder is, because I’ve had for one day and have used it once. I can’t tell you anything about the warranty terms or its electrical load or how recyclable it is. I can’t tell you those things, because I do not know those things.

What I do know is this: It makes great rice. It is small, easy to clean, and practical. And it is as easy to use as a toaster. It is, in fact, the simplest appliance in my kitchen.

I require nothing more. I am a happy camper, and my camp is filled with happiness and wistful memories of fluffy rice drenched in scrumptious sauce. More rice will be made tomorrow night. Rice may be made over the weekend. Rice might even be made in the morning to go with me to work.

The Panasonic SRG06FG 3.3-Cup Automatic Rice Cooker has freed my love of rice. Rice is no longer trapped in my pantry, to be released only when it can be contained within a pot on my stove. My rice has been emancipated.

Let me close with this: If you are a member of a small household, let’s say of between one and three people, and if you like rice… then you cannot go wrong with the Panasonic SRG06FG 3.3-Cup Automatic Rice Cooker.

I never heard a report from Lata about the Black and Decker, however, so I have nothing to say about that.

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2666: A Novel

2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004) (translated from the spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2008). 898 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The first thing I’ll say is… it took me a very long time to get through this book. Usually I read one or two books a week, depending on the length. A 900 pager like this one, usually a solid week, unless I have a lot of free time, which I never have these days. If it’s a very dense nonfiction or biography work, maybe two weeks. But it took me three months of on-and-off attention to get through 2666.

Normally, if I don’t get into a book, I’ll just put it aside and move on. Even if it’s an author I really enjoy. A good example is Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is one of my all-time favorite authors. I thought I’d love Quicksilver, an historical novel revolving around the Royal Society of London in Isaac Newton’s time. Especially since it had a structural tie to Cryptonomicon, an excellent earlier work by Stephenson.

Yet… I just couldn’t get into it. I got to about page 500, and I just lost interest. Haven’t picked it up since, and doubt I ever will.

2666 was not like that. I’d read it for a day, put it aside for several weeks, and then get curious again and pick it back up. Slogging through the interminable Part Four, I almost gave up… but the prose was so strong, and I kept getting hints that it would all add up to something… so I kept going.

And now I have finally finished it. Looking back, I realize now that I read the first three parts of the book in about two weeks. Then Part Four took me two and half months. And the final Part Five I read over just the past week.

My main reason for reading 2666 is that it received awards out the ying yang (that’s a technical, literary term, I’m told). It topped the National Book Critics Circle in 2008. Time Magazine gave it Best Book of 2008. It’s been lauded by readers all over the world. And, just to add some icing to the cake, it was the final book by author Roberto Bolaño before his death. He apparently handed over the manuscript to his publisher while he lay dying in the hospital.

According to the introduction, Bolaño had intended the five parts of 2666 to be published as five separate novels, each a year apart. But after his death, his heirs decided to publish all five parts as one massive work, which they believed was more fitting to the manuscript.

So, I bought 2666 and dove in. The first thing I’ll say is that I sure wish there was a Kindle version of this! 900 pages in hardcover is very heavy. Weighs almost four pounds. Not an easy book to read in bed, that’s for sure. Just picking it up, I immediately understood why the author had intended it as five separate books.

Ok, all well and good. But what’s the story about? Well… it’s kind of hard to say. If judged by the amount of words and pages dedicated to plot, then it’s the story of a series of murders in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (a thinly-veiled fictional version of Ciudad Juárez, near the Arizona border). Hundreds of young women are brutally raped and murdered there, in a decade-long series of unsolved crimes. Every part of the book briefly touches upon this storyline, and three of the book’s five parts are set almost completely in Santa Teresa.

We follow a local University professor, as he moves in his own world, nearly oblivious to what is going on around him – included the danger than his teenage daughter puts herself in on a nightly basis (Part Two: The Part About Amalfitano). Why does the distracted instructor hang an out-of-print geometry book outside to sway on a clothesline, refusing to take it down for months?

We follow an African-American reporter, send to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, as he gets drawn into the circle of that city’s underworld, and to people who may (or may not) share responsibility for many of the murders (Part Three: The Part About Fate).

And, for nearly three hundred pages, we follow the discovery of every single body over nearly ten years. In an episodic, non-narrative form, one after the other, date by date. Some of the victims are identified. Many aren’t. Several people are arrested for some of the murders, including an odd German man who’s a naturalized American citizen – but living in exile in Mexico (Part Four: The Part About The Crimes).

But if judged by what is at the heart of the book, what (at least to me) the real story is, then it’s about a German novelist named Benno von Archimbaldi. In the opening pages, we meet four European academic literary critics, all of whom specialize in studying and critiquing the works of Archimbaldi, and each of them from a different country (Part One: The Part About The Critics).

And in the climatic last section, the book concludes with the life story of Archimbaldi, and we loop around to where we began (Part Five: The Part About Archimbaldi). The story of Archimbaldi and the people who study him is what got me hooked, and what kept me reading through the rest of the book.

It was Part Four that nearly lost me. This is the most difficult part of the book, mainly because there is no plot thread for this entire section. It really is just a narrated crime docket. A body is found, its condition is described, and various connections are followed up. We meet the many different police officers and detectives trying to solve the crimes. We meet many of the criminals. We follow one of the possible murderers into prison, and bear witness to an incredibly brutal torture-murder session as justice is served by prisoners on their own behind bars.

The only thing that kept me going was that I could see the table of contents promised that we’d finally get back to Archimbaldi after this horrific tour of Santa Teresa was over. I wish I could say that at the book’s end, it all ties together – but not really. Yes, it’s not surprising to find out there is a connection between Archimbaldi and the angry young German man who’s the prime suspect in the murders – but I’m going to warn you right now that this is not the kind of book that ties things up.

By the end of the book, you do not know who’s responsible for the murders. You don’t know if the mysterious German man with the connection to Archimbaldi had anything to do with the murders or not. You will not get a conclusion to Archimbaldi’s story. Nor will you ever see or hear from any of the critics again after Part One. Nor will you find out what happens to Fate or Amalfitano or any of the other characters. Part Five loops back to Part One, and I suppose you could just go right back to Part One and keep on reading the book forever if you wanted to. You still won’t get any answers.

As a novel, 2666 is pretty unsatisfying. It’s not a true novel, ignoring most storytelling conventions. Characters weave in and out, speaking and thinking in long, unbroken pseudo-paragraphs that go on for pages and pages. A lead character may stop in to rent a typewriter… and for the next ten pages, we jump into the point of the view of the storeowner, and hear his life story. He never appears again, and has no bearing on any part of the story. And we don’t even get to the end of the scene that brought us there in the first place!

There are a great number of dreams in 2666. Everyone is always waking up and recounting a dream that is vivid and surrealistic… and yet not a single one, to my mind anyway, had anything to do with what was going on either in that character’s life or anyone else’s in the book. Another running theme is insanity – particularly any variety of insanity that involves making some sort of sacrifice for the sake of art.

So. Why read 2666 at all? Because what this book adds up to, when all is said and done, is a testament to the craft of writing. It’s the prose that kept me turning the page. Despite the fact that this book is translated from the author’s original Spanish, the words are beautifully crafted, even (and maybe even especially) when used to describe brutal or violent deaths.

I would not have awarded it such high honors as those listed up at the beginning of this review. To my mind, the novel as an art form and as entertainment has certain expectations, certain loose rules, and 2666 is simply too unstructured and rambling to fit even those loose rules. It’s a collection of hundreds of incredibly well-written scenes, but just putting a bunch of scenes between two covers does not make something a novel. To me, that is the true art and craft of the novel: combining fantastic prose with well-conceived characters who act within a compelling story.

In the end, I can’t overtly recommend 2666. It’s a dense work. I suppose if you really truly enjoyed Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, this will be right up your alley. For me, it was an interesting glimpse into another writer’s mind, and I’m glad I made the trip – even if it was a trip which I have no desire to repeat. Your mileage, however, may vary.

And by the way – I don’t have the slightest idea what the title means.

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NUMMI Nova

nova-01This is a little personal story about the American car industry, as well as a review of a great episode of This American Life . The episode in question is “NUMMI”, episode #403, available for immediately listening or download here. And the car is the Chevrolet Nova. More specifically, my 1986 Chevrolet Nova.

When I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago at the very beginning of 1986, I drove there in my 1982 Pontiac Phoenix. The Phoenix was an awful car. It was one of GM’s notorious X-body cars, the Pontiac version of the Chevrolet Citation. I had bought it used, but with only 4,000 miles on it. And from the day I got it, it was pretty much always getting serviced. The first six weeks I had the car, the transmission fell apart. I mean literally fell apart: They undid the bolts under the transmission, and the whole thing fell out and crumbled on the garage floor.

The alternator had to be replaced twice in the 18 months I owned the car. The radiator once. Brake pads, twice, entire brake assembly, once. For a while, the air conditioner heated up the car and the heater cooled it off.

It did have a nice interior, however. I remember my Dad emphasizing that fact.

In the fall of 1986, after nine months of driving the Phoenix all over Los Angeles, it finally gave up the ghost completely. At a stop light one day in Culver City, the car make a loud sound like that of a giant sighing. The brake pedal suddenly lost all tension and slammed against the floor. And the car began to creep though the intersection, right into oncoming traffic.

15 minutes later, a cop helped me push it off to the side of the road. I took it to the nearest brake shop… driving at 5 miles an hour with the door open, so I could drag my foot to bring the car to a stop. The Meineke guys were all smirking. A quick look at the car, and the service dude told me the entire brake system needed to be replaced. “But man… it’s not worth it. If I were you, I’d ditch this piece of crap”, the service manager told me bluntly.

They did something with tying off a hose or pumping it full of fluid or some such, which they said would last for about a week if I didn’t drive faster than 50 an hour or so. I did it. Even that was $150.

Two days later, driving down La Brea Avenue, the car started to rattle and cough. And then there was a very loud noise, a kind of popping and crashing sound, and a dent appeared on the hood – pushed out from the inside. The Phoenix just stopped, and I coasted it to the side of the road.

And that was it. It has thrown a rod, along with at least one other bad thing that I didn’t bother to deal with. I had the car towed to the dealer. Even the crappy extended warranty I had on the car would not cover a complete engine rebuild – because I’d already used most of my “deductible” on the new transmission.

So I sat down with the nice man at the Chevy dealer – because I still had almost a year of payments left to make on the car – and worked out buying a new car. I was all set to get a new Camaro. Silver. T-Top. Basic 4 cylinder. Mmmm boy. I had the keys in my hand, and then they did the final credit check. And the salesman snatched the keys back out of my hand.

“The only thing we have that you can afford”, he said, sneering a little bit (I swear to god I’m not making that up, he honestly did sneer, the side of his lip curled up with actual disdain) “is one of the Novas. The Toyota things.” He waved his arm towards the opposite end of the dealership.

Now, I grew up in a military household. To my father, there were (and still are) only two places that made cars: Detroit and Germany. Although we had a few Volkswagens here and there, every other car we had was a True Blue American Car Made By Real Americans In America. Mostly Chevys, but we had at least one Ford that I know of. So, honestly, I had not even thought of buying a Japanese car. Besides, I was locked into my GMAC loan.

The smarmy Camaro salesman handed me off to a sadder-but-wiser looking older salesman, who gave me an earnest review of the Nova. He explained that it was exactly the same as a Toyota Corolla, but made by GM workers in a plant in California, under Toyota supervision. It was the first joint venture between an American and a Japanese car company, and this was the second year they had been available. He told me what a great deal it was – I was getting a Toyota Corolla, but for less money and made in America!

To be honest, it wasn’t like I had a lot of choice, and it did seem like a decent enough little car. I drove off with one that was just a little above “the base” – a blue, four-door 1986 Chevrolet Nova with cloth seats, automatic transmission, no air conditioning, basic FM radio.

As I drove it home for the first time, it felt good. It was solid. It hugged the road. It accelerated nicely with its tiny 4-cylinder engine, much better than my crappy Phoenix ever had. The brakes worked! And even without A/C, the vent system was powerful and blew air through the car well. I was still pretty miffed about not getting the Camaro, but still, it seemed like a nice enough little car…nova-02

Well. I drove that car for the next six years, putting 89,238 miles on it before I finally sold it. It became, to this day, the only car that I ever completely paid off. I continued to drive it for another year, even after it was paid for and the warranty had expired. I drove that car all the way through Baja Mexico, over a thousand miles to Cabo San Lucas, and back. I drove it to San Francisco, Las Vegas, and even through the snow to Mammoth Mountain for skiing. It took me everywhere I wanted to go.nova-03

After the first year, I upgraded the stereo to add a cassette player and four speakers. And other than regular service, that was the only money I ever had to spend on that car. It never broke down. Never. Nothing every had to be replaced. Nothing rattled. Nothing broke. The transmission was flawless. The brakes always worked. It never stalled. The interior stayed solid and wear-free for six years. Even the carpets stood up to the test of numerous hikes, ski boots, and I can’t even remember what all else.

I paid, I think, $7,500 for that car brand new. Six years later, in 1992, I sold it for $3,000 cash. One of my friends said I was a fool for selling that car, since it was paid for and ran great. In retrospect, he was right. I moved “up” into a Ford Explorer, which was the first of a series of SUV’s that I bought, until I finally moved back into a small car in 2005 (the Mini Cooper).

I have very found memories of that Nova. And one last little tidbit: Two years after I sold it, I was driving down PCH (Pacific Coast Highway, outside Malibu) behind… a blue Chevy Nova. Frank was in the car seat next to me, and I pointed at the car, telling him I used to have a car “just like that”. And then I noticed… the license plate was my old plate. And my “Northwestern University” sticker was still on the rear window. It was my actual car!

I tried to wave at the driver – I was pretty sure it was the same woman I had sold the car to – but she didn’t see me, and pulled away into traffic. I noticed that the car was still running fine, and it was still clean and dent-free.

The Chevrolet Nova got great reviews while it was made, and even Consumer Reports said it was the most reliable car GM made. I had always assumed that it was just because it was, after all, an exact clone of a Toyota Corolla.

And then, I heard the latest episode of This American Life , hosted by Ira Glass. Although This American Life is a radio (and TV) show on PBS, I listen to it as a downloaded podcast. I listen to the show regularly (great to listen to in the car on the long drive to work), so when I saw the title of this week’s episode – “NUMMI” – I didn’t really care what it meant, since I listen to every episode regardless.

As it turns out, “NUMMI” is, more or less, the story of the Chevrolet Nova. NUMMI stands for New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc. And it was the factory that my Nova was built in.  

Over the course of an hour, the show details how the NUMMI plant came to be, going online in late 1984. It describes how the workers traveled over to Japan, for intense training in the concept of car teamwork. It includes frank, honest interviews with auto workers, union members, and GM and Toyota executives.

What is truly amazing – and very, very sad – is that way back in 1985, GM knew exactly how to make high-quality, reliable cars. They were doing it at the NUMMI plant. The union workers put aside their seniority and their perks, and worked side by side with management. They fully embraced the entire concept of “Kaizen” – constant, continuous improvement – in all aspects of the company. At the NUMMI plant, by the end of 1986, they were building the highest quality, most reliable vehicles on the American continent. They were even keeping pace neck-and-neck with their Japanese counterparts.

In the show, as revealed by interview after interview with former line workers, you can hear the pride in the worker’s voices. For the first time, one says, he looked forward to going to work. He swelled with pride when a new Nova came off the line, 100% free of flaws.

Another talked about how he printed up a batch of postcards with his name and address on them, and whenever he saw a new Nova in a parking lot, he’d slide the postcard under the windshield wiper. What did the card say? “I built this car, and I’d love to hear what you think”. For years, he’d get comments back from owners – almost all of them positive.

One worker, who was planning on taking early retirement, stayed for an additional 18 years until he was forced to retire. He said he just liked what he was doing too much to stop. Management became actual members of the team, even working the production line alongside their union counterparts.

So…. why didn’t the rest of GM just do the same thing? Why, rather than extend this technique to the entire company, did they instead wind up filing for bankruptcy in 2008, the largest company in history to do so?

The second half of the show tells us why. More interviews reveal that for the most part, the majority of General Motors did not care at all about… well… actually making cars. They cared about protecting their jobs, their exact way of life, their little fiefdoms. They did not want change. They wanted things to stay exactly the same. None of them believed that GM could ever fall, and they saw no reason to rock the boat.

And so NUMMI remained as the one and only unionized, American operated factory that practiced the same production methods as their Japanese counterparts. After 1988, NUMMI switched over to making the Geo line, and then later to just making Toyotas – Corollas, Tacomas, etc – when GM dropped their small cars in favor of larger trucks and SUVs. It finally closed down in 2008, a victim of the bankruptcy. Joint ventures, even successful ones, can’t survive a complete dismantling of one of the parents.

I’ve always enjoyed This American Life, but this is a particularly stand-out episode. If you have any interest at all in why American car manufacturers fell so far and so (relatively) fast, listen to this episode . It is awesome in its clear, frank attitude about exactly what went wrong. And how, if only more people had been willing to accept a new way of thinking and working, GM might have not only regained their number one position, but could have climbed even further. Instead – well, we all know what happened instead.

At the end of the show, one retired worker comments on how the only thing that really saddened him about the GM bankruptcy was that the NUMMI plant was getting shut down. “I loved that plant”, he says wistfully. “It changed me life. I’m not kidding, it really did. It changed the way I thought about everything, and it gave me pride in what I was doing every single day I went to work”. He didn’t take a vacation day for one of those eighteen years, he reveals.

So when you wonder… how did American end up in such a bad recession? How did we lose our lead in such a short time? How could we, as a country, have fallen so far? Listen to “NUMMI”. In a nutshell, it’s all there.

Chevrolet Novas from the 1980s are still on the road. And they’re still holding together.

And that’s the best testimony I can think of to what could have been.

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American Idol 2010: Top Twelve… Eleven… Ten… whatever.

My last few posts have been way too serious. Time for some candy-flavored pop culture treacle!

At its best, American Idol is the pinnacle of that classic American standby, the talent show. Most of us have seen talent shows in some form or another since our first days in school. Remember? Little Cindy and her friends from ballet class, Mitchell with his martial arts, that smelly kid who does the yodeling… Later in high school, we got to see various types of singing divas, the stoners who had their own garage band, and the speech team doing various interpretations of poetry (guilty!).

Those of us whose first televisions were of the black-and-white variety also learned about the quintessential talent show from episodes of I Love Lucy, the Little Rascals shorts, and from the endless times that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland exclaimed “Let’s put on a show!”. Later, there were various sort-of talent shows, like The Gong Show and Star Search. But those didn’t quite hit the mark… they were too much of a gimmick, and they aired too often.

Then we got American Idol. It’s American! It’s bigger and brasher and louder and far more ostentatious than its British cousin! It’s a talent show for the entire frickin’ country, from ages 16 to 29, whoever can sing the best and win the hearts (and votes) of that fickle bitch, the American Public.

During the first few seasons – despite its high ratings – American Idol was still kind of a low-fi affair. The stage was small, the songs were not exactly the best of the record label’s catalog, and so on. But it was fun and sassy and made your root for your favorites and boo for the ones you wanted to go home.

But then, AmIdol went to HD, the computer graphics got flashier, the stage expanded. The judges (and Fox, the network that airs American Idol) started to think they were the ones we were all tuning in to watch. That got so bad that last season, one of the best contestants in years (Adam Lambert!) had his final number shoved into overtime because the judges just couldn’t stop talking to each other about whatever inane topic they were stuck on that had nothing to do with the show.

The press thus made a Big Deal out of the fact that this year, for its ninth season, one of the original judges was leaving for the first time. Paula won’t be there anymore! I could not have cared less. Yes, I enjoy Simon’s snark as much as the next person, but the other two or three judges could rotate every week for the input they bring. They make no difference at all.

Ellen DeGeneres? Fine, whatever. She’s funny. I like her. However, if I really want to see her, I can catch her on TV five times a week. I don’t watch AmIdol for the judges. Not even Simon, entertaining as he can be. No, I watch it for the contestants. I want to see who’s a surprisingly good singer, and who’s not. Who are the producers pimping this year? Who is the underdog that wows us all and makes it right to the finale?

That’s why I watch the show. Last year, with Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, and Allison Iraheta, we had some of the best contestants in years. For most of last season, I wish the judges had been limited to 90 seconds total, and just let the contestants perform for the entire rest of the show.

But this season… Oh. My. God. Oh, it is so sad.

It’s March, which means it’s time for another “Top Twelve” (well, Top Ten as I finally finish up this post). This, to me, is when the show gets actually interesting. From now until the season ends in May, we get to see one person a week get sent home by lack of votes. We get to watch various celebrity mentors coach these wannabe stars. We get to watch in shock and awe as the various “theme weeks” attempt to challenge the vocal prowess of these future pop radio champions. And, when we get to the final three weeks, we’ll get to see someone who absolutely deserves to win get voted off in fourth or fifth place instead (Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Allison Iraheta…)

As I’ve said before, I cannot stand – and I no longer watch – the audition episodes of Idol. It was funny on the very first season, way back in 2001. It was still a bit funny in the second season, when we had William Hung become a surprise awful star. By Season 3 the joke had worn itself out, and now, in American Idol’s ninth year on the air, it has become tiresome and boring. I no longer watch the show until it gets to Hollywood Week, about the fourth week in. I just cannot stomach watching the parade of awful contestants, with maybe one or two good singers thrown in every hour. And those dreadful behind the scenes “packages” designed to arose either pity or disdain before we’ve even heard a single note.

It’s not just that I don’t care, it’s that I actively despise the whole phony audition shows in their entirety. I mean… why in the world would I watch a talent show to see people who aren’t good enough to make the cut? It is completely pointless. Just show me the ones who are good enough to get on! Contrast this to the far superior summer show So You Think You Can Dance, where the formula is reversed: We see one or two token bad performances, but all the rest are good auditions for people who will actually at least get the judge’s nod for going to the next level. None of that on AmIdol! Instead they waste 15 minutes of our lives on some pathetic sad sack with delusions of grandeur who can’t even sing as well as I can (and believe me, I can’t sing).

But back to now. In the last of the semi-final episodes. American Idol cut its remaining 16 contestants down to 12. And these twelve – six boys, six girls (we can’t say “men and women” considering the ages of some of these kids) – moved on to the Big Stage. Getting into the 12 is a big deal, and it’s only a two contestants away from the Top Ten, who get paid to go on tour during the coming summer.

I had a few favorites. Note I said “had”. So you already know what I think about this year’s top 12. There were three contestants that I thought were entertaining, talented, and worthy of the Idol crown. And two of them – Alex Lambert (no relation to Adam from last season) and Lilly Scott – got the ax. That leaves only Crystal Bowersox as the sole contestants, out of twelve, who are at all interesting.

(By the way, I encourage all of you to go purchase the Alex Lambert version of “Trouble” from the iTunes store, before they inevitably pull it from distribution. It’s an excellent, excellent track, one that highlights why I enjoyed his singing so much – and why I fully expected him to make it to at least the Top Five. Also check out Lilly Scott’s “I Fall to Pieces”, a fun and snappy rendition of the Patsy Cline classic.)

In the two weeks since then, the show has just gotten worse and worse. Yes, Aaron Kelly can carry a tune, and it’s kind of fun seeing that tiny sixteen-year-old kid stand next to the giant football player dude. Then there are bunch of interchangeable female singers whose names and faces I can’t keep straight. They all sound alike, and they all bore me to tears.

I don’t care who wins. I’m not really even watching the show anymore. And that is the first time I’ve ever felt that way, since the show first went on the air in 2001. We’re weeks and weeks away from the end, and the show is about as exciting as watching golf without Tiger Woods. There is not even a fun Bad Contestant, like Sanjaya or Scott Savol. Just a series of cardboard cutouts from Central Casting who can carry a basic tune in a nice, High School Musical / Glee kind of way.

Yes, Crystal is still there, but I don’t hold any hope of her actually winning. Even if she does, watching a two-hour show just to get to hear her sing for 90 seconds is not worth it.

I don’t know what happened to American Idol. Did they get so caught up in the gimmicky parts of the show that they forgot to pick really good singers? Why did they get rid of the Wild Cards (bringing back good contestants who got voted off too early)?

No one is asking my opinion, and no one is going to take it… but American Idol needs a refresh. Badly. We need American Idol: The Next Generation.

The show needs an entirely new panel of judges. Maybe entirely new producers. Keep Ryan Seacrest for continuity, he’s this century’s Dick Clark. Change the way the voting works, so silly tween girls can’t text thousands of times for the guy with the blue eyes and bulging chest muscles who can barely sing. How about one vote per phone number, for example? Or one vote for a contestant, and another against – negative voting. Ditch the massive, tens of thousands of people phony “auditions” and just show the real couple hundred who make it to the judges. How about a rotating panel of judges, like the way So You Think You Can Dance or Top Chef work?

It needs something. It’s sad when a show that can basically run forever – it’s a talent show, for crying out loud! – seems to have run out of steam and become too boring to watch in just nine seasons.

I want to watch American Idol. I love American Idol. But this thing that’s currently on the air that’s calling itself American Idol, Season Nine?

Not so much.

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Skeptical Me

I have always considered myself to be a realist, ever since I was old enough to understand the concept. I don’t put much stock in superstition, blind faith, or jumping on the bandwagon. When I first started this blog, before I put up the quote from Erasmus that defines it now, I used to have my personal motto up there instead. Which is, “Question Authority. Embrace Change. Think for Yourself.” One of these days, when I get around to doing a proper site design, I’ll put that back somewhere on the site.

In recent years, a school of political thought has been revived called “Realism “. The political affiliation of Realism – as opposed to, say, Neo-Conservativism or LIberalism or Libertarianism or whatever – is a discipline that teaches that ideologies are basically pointless, and that the only proper study of the world situation is to try to figure out what is actually, really going on. Not what people say they want, or claim they’re trying to do, but focus solely on what people are actually, really doing. Strip all the blinders off as best you can and study the situation at hand, warts and all.

A political Realist, for example, would not have invaded Iraq. Yes, Saddam Hussein was extremely evil. Yes, he killed lots of people. Yes, it was very very sad that he ruled his country with an iron fist. But it would cost too much to oust him, and besides, the “no-fly” policy had kept him pretty well locked tight. He just wasn’t a problem. So who cares? He didn’t affect anything in reality. Realistically, it was not a situation that needed any action.

A Realist would also have questioned all the intelligence reports. Are there any opposing reports? If so, why? Does anyone who is providing intelligence have a particular ax to grind? Have you followed the money to make sure that no one is simply telling you what you want to hear?

A Realist would say, “You want to cut the deficit? Fine by me. So what should we cut from Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Defense? Because that’s 4/5 of the national budget. Oh, you don’t want anything cut from any of those? And you don’t want to raise any taxes at all? Then we will continue to have a deficit. End of story.”

Needless to say, no true Realist has ever won any kind of political office. The electorate doesn’t want to hear reality, they want to hear boastful promises.

Which leads me, finally, to the title of this post. I am a skeptic. I am skeptical. I need to see the evidence. I need to see the evidence from multiple sources, preferably over a period of time, and I am willing to change my mind based on the evidence assembled in front of me. I’m also a great believer in common sense (in addition to being a fan of Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense, but that’s another story). I believe in Occam’s Razor – the simplest, plainest, most logical solution is usually the right one.

For example, what makes more sense: Extraterrestrial aliens, using unknown faster-than-light technology, traverse hundreds or thousands of light-years to anally probe various farmers? Or: Suggestible people black out and hallucinate, based on commonly shared, pop-culture science fiction references? To me, the hallucination sounds a lot more plausible than the alien visit. Add to that the lack of any physical evidence for alien visitation versus the several hundred years of documentation on people hallucinating. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, in other words.

Recently, I had a very invigorating back-and-forth with a friend of mine on Facebook on the basic topic of “skepticism”. I had made a passing comment about the “bogus Toyota recall”. My friend took issue with that comment, asking me what in the world I thought was bogus about the recall. Another friend chimed in to support me, adding in a critique of the recent H1N1 “Swine Flu” scare. Which led to a series of 19 (!) related, threaded comments over a period of two days.

Here was my position: I don’t believe there’s anything fundamentally wrong with Toyotas. I’ve been hearing “The car just accelerated on me!” excuse since I was a little kid. In every case, it was someone who either got confused between the accelerator and the brake, got their shoe (like a sandal) caught on the accelerator at the same time as they were using the brake, or slammed on the clutch and not the brake. The physical way an accelerator works simply won’t allow it to accelerate on its own… an accelerator is a spring that requires constant pressure to keep it depressed. Sure, accelerators can and do break – but they break by no longer accelerating. Not by accelerating on their own!

The claim for a few Toyotas was that the accelerator “stuck”. A very few. Something on the order of 8 cars total. And even in those cases, the cars did not accelerate on their own – the accelerator just failed to return to its default position as fast as it normally would have. In all cases, the brakes on the cars worked just fine. If the car operator had braked properly, the accidents would not have happened.

I believe I’m being realistic here. A very few cars had sticky accelerators. This stickiness would not cause the car to speed up on its own; all it would do, in the very worst case, was act like cruise control was engaged when it actually wasn’t. The mechanics who have investigated the issue say there’s about a one in 10,000 chance of the problem occurring in any given vehicle.

My point is, that’s no cause for panic. It’s just a minor repair. No big deal. Your car is fine. The next time you take it in for service, ask them to check the accelerator to see if your Toyota is the one in 10,000 that might have a slightly sticky accelerator. End of story.

That was not, of course, the end of the story. Quite the opposite. Instead, this was the lead story on the news for nearly two weeks. Toyota recalled millions of vehicles in response to panicked owners. The Secretary of Transportion told people to stop driving their cars. Three nights in a row, the news featured interviews with a doctor who was absolutely certain something was wrong with his car – even though he had taken it in multiple times, and each time mechanics had assured him his car was fine, it was not one of the ones affected. But the doctor refuses to drive the car, and insisted instead that Toyota refund to him the entire dollar amount of the car, plus “pain and suffering”. By the way, he’s been driving the car for three years without any problems.

Now. Going back to my example about the aliens. What is more likely? That 8 people, maybe maybe possibly with an accelerator that was slightly sticky, panicked and crashed their cars? Possibly, in their panic, confusing brake and accelerator, forgetting to break at all? Or: That Toyota somehow, defying all laws of physics and more than 100 years of collected technological research in how to make cars, somehow designed, built, and sold millions of cars with accelerators that sped up on their own? Occam’s Razor, folks. Which answer makes more sense?

Look at the evidence. Not at emotions. Not panicked parents concerned about their children. Not a doctor who thinks “Lawsuit!”. The evidence. What is the hard core, real world, actual evidence? I watched two weeks of news about this story, and not once – not once! – did I ever hear or read any actual, factual evidence about anything associated with this story. No engineering diagrams. No explanations from a mechanic. No testimony from anyone who investigated any of these crashes. Nothing. Just a lot of emotional weeping and moaning and groaning.

When the Balloon Boy story first broke, I said “Bullshit. Something’s going on there”. When Susan Smith reported her children missing, I said “Bullshit. She knows where they are”. And remember the story about the woman in 2008, who claimed that a crazy black man carved a “B” on her face because she didn’t like Obama (the “B”, by the way, was backwards, the way it would appear in a mirror). Why didn’t any news people call these things for the bullshit that they were on the spot? Where are the skeptics? Where are the people demanding, “Let’s see the evidence before we draw any conclusions”?

I’m making a plea here. Question stuff. When a talking head on the news starts out with “Some people say…” or “It has been reported…” you should immediately be skeptical. When instead of evidence, you hear tearful statements from someone not actually involved, you should be skeptical. When a story is based on “estimates”, you should be skeptical. You should be skeptical by default.

And follow up. Part of why I bitched so much about the H1N1 reporting was that the actual, real, tested deaths did not come anywhere near close to the “estimates” that the news reports were throwing around. At the time, it seemed like the media was drumming up panic to boost ratings. After all, “swine flu” has been around for quite a while. And all influenza viruses mutate and evolve every year. That’s perfectly normal. Look at the total flu statistics, for all varieties combined, year over year. Was this past year of 2009, statistically speaking, very different on average from all other years? No. It was not. (Compare each year from 1997 on up through 2009, looking at totals across the board for all varieties of influenza). So why all the panic?

Some people have mistakenly called me cynical. I am not. I believe in the basic goodness of people, and I believe that most people really do want to do the right thing.

But I am skeptical. And you should be too.

Skeptical Me.

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The Publishing War

Since I wrote my review of the Kindle DX in the previous post, quite a lot has happened in the little world of electronic books and publishing. Namely, one large publisher and one large retailer seem to have lost their collective minds and declared all-out war on each other. And in the process, they are dragging authors and readers down into the mud with them. There is quite a bit of anger on all sides, and so, as a (somewhat) neutral observers of the book world, I thought I’d chime in with my own summary and my own opinion.

Here’s how it went down. On Wednesday, January 27th, Apple announced their long-awaited new tablet computer: the iPad. The iPad is a 10-inch touch based computer, basically an iPod Touch scaled up to giant proportions. Part of the new feature set of this tablet, which should be available for purchase in two or three months from now, is an integrated book reading application and electronic book store, called iBook.

Unlike the Kindle, the nook, the Sony Reader and other true eReaders, the iPad is a standard LED-lit color LCD screen – the same type that your television and computer monitor use. For most of us who rely on an eReader, this technology doesn’t seem very well suited to reading… but we’ll just have to wait and see what the market decides. At $499, the iPad is a wonderful multimedia device – although an awfully expensive book reader.

Prior to announcing the iPad, Apple apparently negotiated some special deals with at least 5 of the “Big Six” publishers. Skipping over the accounting details, to the end user of an iPad, Apple’s deal means that new “hardcover” books will be $14.99 or $12.99 in electronic form from the iBook store. That sounds awfully expensive, considering that actual hardcovers cost just about exactly that same amount right now. And it sounds even more expensive compared to Amazon… which jumps through a lot of hoops, including selling a number of books at a loss, to keep prices at $9.99 per book and below.

A reporter from the Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg, asked Apple CEO Steve Jobs afterwards if this was going to be a problem. Jobs said no, because “the prices [for books] would be the same”. Initially, this was taken to mean that Apple would match Amazon’s $9.99 price. Within two days, however, it became clear that Jobs meant nothing of the sort. Instead, he had it on good authority that the publishers would in fact be forcing Amazon to raise their price to match Apple’s.

Let’s move forward to Friday, January 29th. Two days later. On that day (or perhaps the day before) the publisher Macmillan gave an ultimatum to Amazon: They had to immediately accept a new deal, under the exact same terms as their deal with Apple. And a key part of that deal meant that Macmillan, not Amazon, got to set the price of each and every book. You see, Macmillan felt that $9.99 was way too cheap for an electronic edition of a book, and wanted to make certain that Amazon could not sell at that price – not even if Amazon was willing to take a loss on the book. Amazon, being the largest retailer of books on the planet, did not take kindly to being told how to run their business, nor how they should set their prices. Macmillan said it was a “take it or leave it” deal.

So Amazon, as of that evening, pulled all Macmillan books from their web site. Both printed and electronic.

And the Internet went insane.

Authors published by Macmillan immediately put up articles and blog posts raking Amazon over the coals. Two prominent science fiction authors, John Scalzi (whose work I don’t care for) and Charles Stross (whose work I am a big fan of) were particularly vocal, claiming that Amazon is, more or less, pure evil, and certainly stupid. Almost every single author took the publisher’s side in this little war.

Readers, on the other hand, were furious at Macmillan and praised Amazon to the skies. They felt Macmillan was being extremely greedy, trying to force a retailer to bow to their will, and was engaging in a very obvious example of price collusion with their new partner Apple.

Anyone who’s ever read comments on any web site knows how quickly tempers can get out of hand. By Saturday, certain readers were vowing to permanently boycott certain authors. Some authors were vowing to never give Amazon any support ever. Some readers who vowing to never read any book published by Macmillan or any of its imprints. Very little in the way of reasonable arguments could be found in these comments, but you could find quite a lot in the way of four-letter words and over the top anger.

By Sunday, Amazon caved. They released a statement saying, in effect, that they were capitulating to Macmillan, and would have to raise the prices of any Macmillan imprint electronic book to whatever Macmillan wanted them to charge. And slowly, slowly, they began restoring Macmillan books to their online book store.

The war is not over, however, not by a long shot. During the next week, several other publishers immediately jumped and said they, too, wanted Amazon to agree to the same terms. The same terms they’d already agreed to with Apple, that is. The only exception was the largest of them all: Random House. Random House, in fact, stated that they wanted to let Amazon price however they wanted to, and planned to leave things the way they are. Notably, Random House is the one large publisher that did not sign on to supply e-books to the iPad. Also notably… the spokesperson for Random House used to work for Amazon.

As a fan of books, reading, and writing, I’ve read as much as I can stand to on this subject. The truth is… nobody comes out smelling rosy in this situation. Amazon definitely acted like a petulant child by cutting off all sales for Macmillan books; this act didn’t hurt Macmillan corporate a bit, while it hurt its authors and Amazon’s customers a great deal. And Macmillan was acting equally childish: they just got a new deal they liked, so they wanted to force their biggest retailer to accept the same terms.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations have all the same rights in the constitution as actual people do. However, I think Amazon and Macmillan have demonstrated that corporations are, at best, children. And as such, they are not capable of making rational decisions and planning carefully for their future. They consider that sticking their tongues out at each, holding their breath until they turn blue, and taking all their toys and going home are all good business ideas. What a shame.

My personal view on all of this… well. I have always maintained that a purely electronic copy of anything is not worth as much as a physical copy. An album on a CD is worth more than an album downloaded from iTunes. A DVD of a movie is worth more than a copy of a movie purchased online. And a physical book is worth more than an electronic one.

Trying to price an e-book the same as a printed book is pure folly. It will never work, at least not in the long term. My gut tells me that an e-book should be about 25% less than whatever the current printed copy (either hardcover or paperback) price is. If you look on Amazon, most new hardcovers sell for between $15.00 and $12.00. So, frankly, $9.99 for an electronic version sounds exactly right. And, as a reader, that’s definitely my impulse buy limit. Any book that sounds halfway decent, as long as it’s under $10, I’ll probably give it a shot. Over $10? Well… I have to want to read it pretty bad.

I’m not saying I’ll never pay more than $9.99 for an e-book, but I will say that it will be rare. Right now, for instance, there are several books that I’d like to read on my Kindle (such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Galileo’s Dream), but they’re in Wish List Limbo at the moment, waiting for their price to drop below the $14 or $15 they’re at right now.

However, certain timely books, like political tell-alls, I can see ponying up $14.99 to read right away. Right now, instead of a higher price, many publishers are delaying the e-book version of these titles by several months, under the assumption that this will force people to run out and buy the hardcover. In fact, I’d like to read The Politician, Andrew Young’s account of John Edwards – but they publisher has delayed the e-book version until April. And that’s not the kind of book I’m willing to pay for a hardcover of. So, looks like I’ll be passing on it. You see? They just lost a sale by delaying the e-book. A sale they would have made if they’d just allowed the book to come out in electronic form, sold to Amazon for whatever they wanted to, and allowed Amazon to sell for whatever they want to.

in the long run, I don’t think this will work. As the years go buy, more and more people will read books in some electronic form versus a hardcopy form. I’ll predict that within 10 years, the split will be 50/50.And as more people read electronically, the price pressure will become even greater to lower the price as compared to the hardcopy version. When that happens, Macmillan and the other publishers who got suckered into Apple’s “agency pricing” model are going to wish they could go back to the old days.

Watch Random House laugh all the way to the bank in a few years.

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Kindle DX: 7 Months with the Amazon Giant

Kindle DX Wireless Reading Device. 9.7″ display, global wireless, $489.00.

Ever since I got my Kindle DX back in June 2009, I’ve been meaning to write up a review of it. But I never got around to it – mainly because every time I touch that little slab of glass and plastic, I immediately start reading something. An hour goes by, and I hear a voice nagging at the back of my head… didn’t I pick this thing up for some other reason? But whatever I’m reading is always more entertaining than listening to the voices in my head, so I ignore it and go back to my book.

In and of itself, that’s already a pretty good review, when you think about it.

Two days from now, Apple will be formally announcing their tablet or slate or giant iPod or whatever it’s going to be, and I wanted to be sure that I got my Kindle thoughts down clearly before I am forced to re-think the paradigm based on whatever it is that Apple comes up with. The media has been reporting all over that Apple has been in talks with publishers, and is going to make reading a big part of this new gizmo. These media reports claim, therefore, that this new iPad or iSlate or MacTablet will be a “Kindle killer”, and only a fool would thus buy a machine that “only” functions as an electronic reader.

Now, far be it from me to second guess Apple (says the man who is typing this post on a MacBook Air), but I don’t think so. The MSM (main stream media) doesn’t seem to think that there are “people who read” out there anymore. And while it is quite true that Constant Readers number far less than Movie Watchers or TV Freaks or Gamers, it’s still a large number. Speaking as one of those Constant Readers, a dedicated device for reading – and only for reading – is quite clearly the way to go. It’s entirely possible that I may buy whatever it is that Apple debuts on Wednesday… but I find it very unlikely that I’ll be reading a novel on it.

As I mentioned in my review last year of the Kindle 2, I ordered the Kindle DX the same day it was announced. I love the Kindle 2 (now just called the Kindle, since Amazon has long since stopped selling the old original model). Honestly, except for the screen being too small, I felt the Kindle 2 was just about as perfect a piece of hardware as I’ve ever used. But as I said, with a mere 6″ diagonal screen, I felt that the reading area was just too small. When reading a fast-paced novel, I found myself pressing the “Next Page” button so quickly that I was afraid it might break from such heavy use (it never did). The Kindle DX, marketed as an exact duplicate of the Kindle 2 except for a larger, 9.7″ diagonal screen, sounded like it would be the be-all end-all e-Reader.

I felt so strongly about that, in fact, that I sold my Kindle 2 the same week my Kindle DX arrived.

I wish I hadn’t done that.

Because as it turns out, the Kindle DX is not a sized-up duplicate of the Kindle 2. Amazon made three very obvious changes to the hardware, and I hate all three changes.

First off, and by far the worst… there are no buttons on the left side of the Kindle DX. None at all. On the Kindle, the “Next Page” button is on both the right and the left. The “Previous Page” button is also on the left side of the Kindle. Having the “Next Page” button on both sides means that you can hold the Kindle in either hand, or use either hand to turn the page. This helps to mimic the movement of using an actual printed book very closely. Sadly, and for absolutely no reason that I can see, the Kindle DX jettisons this nearly perfect design (so perfect, in fact, that it was copied almost exactly on the Barnes and Noble nook) and simply has an expanse of blank white plastic on its left side. I cannot fathom why Amazon did this, and I must repeat that this is the single most glaring design fault of the Kindle DX in comparison to its smaller cousin.

Second, the keyboard on the Kindle DX is different from that of the Kindle… again, for absolutely no reason that I can figure out. The Kindle has very nice, functional round keys that mimic a normal QWERTY keyboard. The Kindle DX instead uses rectangular keys that are much harder to use, since each key is wider than it is tall. This makes it almost impossible to “thumb type” on the Kindle DX keyboard, an operation that is quite easy on the Kindle. And still worse – and again for no reason – the top row of number keys is gone. To type a number, you have to hold down “Alt” and then press one of the top rows – ALT+Q for 1, ALT+W for 2, and so on. Maddening. Especially when there is plenty of room for another row of keys, even in the horrible rectangular style.

Third, the Kindle DX adds an accelerometer for “auto rotation” of the screen to landscape mode. For the first month, I hated this feature so much that I almost returned the device. Every time I would lean to one side, the book I was reading would rotate itself in the other direction. This would result in a comedic chase, as I kept trying to rotate the Kindle DX in the opposite direction to compensate. When I called Amazon to complain, the support person pointed out that I could turn off this feature using the “Font Size” key (how obvious!). Unfortunately, every time I turn off the Kindle or when it gets a software update, it resets itself back to “auto rotate”.

Since the Kindle DX came out, Amazon has updated the regular Kindle to include the rotation feature as well. But in the regular Kindle, it’s a maual option that must be selected by the user. It doesn’t try to “automatically” rotate itself based on whatever angle the device itself is at. This is a perfect illustration of a feature that is very handy in a mobile device (the iPhone has an excellent auto rotation feature, for example), but is useless and in fact very annoying when put into a dedicated reading device. Why in the world would I ever want the text I am currently reading to rotate itself in another direction just based on which way I happen to be leaning at the time?

Now, the larger screen? Oh, it’s quite nice. Especially when reading a book with illustrations or technical diagrams (I am re-reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish currently, and the diagrams are almost as clear as the printed version). I still wish the screen had better contrast – whiter whites, blacker blacks – but eInk displays don’t seem to be able to do that yet. The larger screen means that I can finally have a page in an eBook that has the same amount of text as a printed page.

But as the months have gone by, I’ve become increasingly disappointed in the Kindle DX. Because, as it turns out, the extra-large screen is really its only feature. Gone are the easy buttons from the Kindle. Gone is the nice keyboard. Silly auto-rotation added. And… well… the Kindle DX is heavy. Holding it with one hand gets tiring quickly, and when reading in bed, I always have to prop it on a pillow. (Keep in mind that when I say “heavy”, I mean as compared to the Kindle. The Kindle DX is still much lighter than most hardcover books). The Kindle weighs just a hair over 10 ounces. The Kindle DX weighs 1 pound, 3 ounces. Thus the Kindle DX feels about twice as heavy as the Kindle. A shame.

At $489, the Kindle DX costs almost twice as much as the $259 Kindle. When I originally ordered it, I felt that price was fair because of the much larger screen size. I still feel it’s a fair price – but I did not expect to have so much of what I liked about the Kindle taken away from me at the same time.

And… that nice big screen? Well, after 7 months… I’ve decided that it’s actually too big. I still feel that the Kindle’s 6″ diagonal screen is too small. But the Kindle DX’s 9.7″ screen goes too far in the other direction. Right in the middle, an 8″ diagonal screen, that would be truly perfect. But it seems like the world has settled on the 6″ and 9.7″ / 10″ size as standards, so I’m stuck. Having to choose between them… well… I guess I’d go with the smaller screen.

In summary, I prefer the Kindle to the Kindle DX. I wish I hadn’t sold my Kindle. If I had not, I would have probably returned the Kindle DX before the 30 day return window had expired. So, you may logically ask: Why don’t I sell the Kindle DX and buy a regular Kindle again? Well, see, the Kindle 2 came out almost exactly a year ago. So, I figure, Amazon should be coming out with what would be the “Kindle 3” sometime this year. I’ll just wait for that.

The Kindle DX was developed by Amazon primarily as a text book reader for college students. For that use, it would probably be great. The heavier weight of the Kindle DX is still pounds and pounds lighter than the lightest college text book I ever had, that’s for sure. And as I said, for books with illustrations, that big honking screen is wonderful.

But for reading books? Stick with the regular Kindle, which really is a bargain at $259. No matter what magic thing Apple comes out with on January 27th, the Kindle is still the best game around for reading books.

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The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington (2009). 464 pages, Orbit Books.

I have the Amazon Daily blog to thank for bringing this book to my attention. A few weeks ago, author Jesse Bullington was the guest-editor for Amazon Daily. In several posts, he talked about how thoroughly he had researched the period of history his novel is set in – even though this is actually a dark fantasy novel, with witches, demons, sirens, hell-spawn children, and manticores. His eloquent series of posts prompted me to add his novel to my Watch List. And then the novel was named on Amazon’s Best Books of 2009: Editors’ Top 10 in Science Fiction & Fantasy. And a bunch of other “Best Of” lists. So, I figured I’d check it out.

I knew I was in for an intriguing read from the first page, with what has to go down as one of the best first paragraphs I’ve ever read:

To claim that the Brothers Grossbart were cruel and selfish brigands is to slander even the nastiest highwayman, and to say they were murderous swine is an insult to even the filthiest boar. They were Grossbarts through and true, and in many lands such a title still carries serious weight. While not as repugnant as their father nor as cunning as his, horrible though both men were, the Brothers proved worse. Blood can go bad in a single generation or it can be distilled down through the ages into something truly wicked, which was the case with those abominable twins, Hegel and Manfried.

That same style and sense of humor carries on throughout the entire novel. For example, when brother Manfried runs into a good-looking cad: “Like most men who are ugly on both sides of their skin, Manfried detested handsome people on general principle.”

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is engrossing, disturbing, grim, humorous, disgusting, and intriguing all at the same time. Set in 1364, little more than a decade after the Black Death, the brothers wander through a very realistically painted medieval Europe. One in which supernatural things occur all the time. They run into knights, monks, yeomen, sea captains, beggars, rich men and poor men. The brothers themselves are terrible people who think they are not only right, but downright sainted as well.

The book begins when the brothers murder a man’s entire family. Wife, babies, small children. In gory descriptive detail. They steal horse and cart, and escape the village. You see, the brothers profession is grave robbing. A profession which has been passed down from father to son. And according to family legend, their grandfather robbed graves in Egypt, amassing a fortune. The brothers decide they’ll travel to “Gyptland” to dig up what their grandfather left behind, which will also serve the additional purpose of getting far away from the village where they’ve just committed mass murder.

That’s all in the first chapter. This ain’t exactly Harry Potter we’re talking about here.

The prose style of this novel is excellent. Bullington manages to weave in a great amount of realistic detail into this very fantastical novel, resulting in a book that really is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Oh, and it’s also funny as hell. In a sick way.

How does he pull this off? I’ll try to describe it. Early in the novel, the brothers encounter a demon that spreads the Plague. The demon is a disgusting creature that reminded me of the alien symbiote in The Hidden (a great little film that far too few people have seen, by the way. ). It grows its body out of the pus nodules extruded from its victims. Then, once the body is dead, it invades a new host by pushing its way down the victim’s throat until it is living inside of it. This is all accompanied by a great deal of blood, guts, torn limbs, decapitations, and descriptions of every horrific form of injury and decay that accompanies them.

Now, if all that wasn’t offensive enough (and I mean that in a good way), throw in loads of bizarre heresy as well. The brothers are followers of the Virgin Mary. But they call her son a “lousy coward”, and have long theological arguments about how they are the only true believers in the world, and everyone else is a heretic. Of course, along their journey they team up with an insane defrocked priest who agrees with all of their theological points, which frequently include murdering anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

And yet… intermixed with all the actual religious turmoil that was going on in the middle ages, it doesn’t seem that ridiculous. Bullington manages to thread the Grossbart’s heresy into King Peter’s invasion of Alexandria, for example, and it fits perfectly.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. There were a couple of places where I actually got sick to my stomach, and had to put the book down for a minute or two to quell my vomit reflex before I resumed reading. I’m not kidding about the extreme level of violence, mayhem, and just sheer, utter, disgusting gore. The Grossbarts are profane, foul creatures who look down on anyone who is not like them. Every supernatural entity they encounter is grossly and unremittingly evil. This is the categorical opposite of the Twilight approach to the supernatural. This is no book for children.

At one point in the book, the brothers kill a shape-shifter in the middle of its change. The bottom half of the corpse is animal, the top half still human. Being hungry, they butcher, cook, and eat the bottom half. But they won’t touch the top half, because that would be cannibalism. So they hack up the top half of the body and throw it away. Then they wonder if maybe they should have waited a few more seconds to kill it – so they could have eaten the whole thing.

Several other reviews I’ve read have called the novel “gritty”. I’m not sure that word applies, although I understand why so many used it. When reading a book in a genre that includes Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, and the like, how do you fit in the awful Brothers Grossbart?

There’s a sub-genre of literary fiction dubbed “magical realism” (exemplified by one of my personal Top Ten Novels of All Time, One Hundred Years of Solitude). The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart might be called “historical magical realism”.

I also want to give a shout out to whoever was responsible for formatting the Kindle version of this book. This is one of the best e-books I’ve seen. Each chapter is cleanly delineated, even including the illustrated chapter headings and larger fonts at the beginning. The table of contents is full and expertly linked. And the publisher even threw in some extras at the end, including a long interview with author. I can’t help but contrast this admirable layout job to the very poor formatting of Under the Dome, which I reviewed last week.

My only real criticism is that the last five chapters seem a bit rushed. I got the feeling the author was getting tired of writing in so much detail, and just decided to get to the ending already. But this is a minor quibble about an altogether excellent novel.

I guess it says something about my sick personality that I enjoyed this book so much. If, like me, you’ve got a dark sense of humor, a strong stomach, and don’t offend easily, you definitely should read The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.

Because I can almost guarantee there will never make a movie version of something as depraved as this.

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