Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review: Freak Nation

April 21, 2013

Review: Freak Nation

Freak Nation
by Kate Stevens
published by Adams Media
this edition: 2010
size: 568KB (258 pages)
categories: nonfiction; education & reference; humor & entertainment; trivia; social sciences – pop culture
lending: yes
simultaneous device licenses: six
real page numbers: yes
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: yes
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good
x-ray: no
Whispersync for Voice: no

“What all these designations of the word ‘freak’ have in common is that they refer to something that deviates from the norm, and while in America’s  classrooms we celebrate diversity, in America’s open spaces and private lives, we celebrate deviance. Deviance is a reminder to ourselves and to others that we are unique, our own person, and dedicated to not entirely fitting in. So we who are about to freak, salute you. Be yourself, know thyself, tune in, turn on, and freak out!”
–Kate Stevens
writing in Freak Nation

I know I’m not like everybody else…and neither is anyone. ;)

We are all unique in different ways, but it has always fascinated me when people want to be different together.

I see some forms of dress, for example, that seem like a uniform…or even a costume. That can be accompanied by slang, eating habits…it is the non-conformists conforming to each other.

Freak Nation, by Kate Stevens, brings us many of these sub-cultures in America. It’s broken down into sections, and each section has several entries:

  • Collectibles
  • Fashion
  • Art
  • Food and drink
  • Lifestyles
  • Music
  • Sports and games
  • Pastimes and careers
  • Politics
  • Sex
  • Society
  • Technology

Lifestyles, for example, has entries for

  • Bohemians
  • Nudists
  • Homeschoolers
  • Hoarders
  • Trustafarians
  • Urban Homesteaders
  • Survivalists
  • Houseboaters
  • Bilderbergers
  • Dumpster Divers

The entries all follow the same pattern. This is not a narrative sociological study. It’s a “field guide”, with humor. Each case has these elements:

  • Name
  • Also known as
  • Just don’t call them
  • Core belief
  • Who they are
  • How to recognize
  • To be found
  • Hero
  • Their idea of fun
  • Most distinctive trait
  • Biggest controversy
  • Biggest misconception about
  • What you may have in common
  • Buzzwords
  • Sign of fan
  • Sign of geek
  • Sign of superfreak

As you can see, some of these are there to help you consider them as…well, not weirder than you. In particular, that’s what the “What you may have in common” section does.

In general, these seem to be well-researched, and presented (usually) in a non-judgmental manner. Yes, there was one error that stood out strongly to me: the author referred to Area 51 as being in New Mexico, when it is actually in Nevada. That is enough to make me question other facts in the book, but my guess is that it is probably 90% or more accurate.

I do fit into some of these groups (vegetarians, Trekkies…don’t get me started on the Trekker terminology, and oddly, Trekkies are filed under “Fashion”), and I thought we were represented reasonably well.

However…

In a very unusual position for me, I’m not going to recommend this book to you.

In a book which could have, should have, and for the most part did promote tolerance, there was one of the most offensive ethnic jokes I’ve ever read. It was particularly jolting because it was our of character for the book…and was completely unnecessary. The joke was about the French, and there were any number of other ways to make another joke there that wouldn’t have been so egregious. There was another joke about the Irish.

Just based on the French joke alone, I wouldn’t recommend that people read this book, which is so unfortunate as far as I’m concerned. It’s a digital book, now…if they want to go in and change that one joke (and the Irish one), it would change my feelings about it considerably.

I say it is a “digital book now”, because this is a book I considered buying in paper. I was happy to see it show up as an e-book, and part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, where I could read it for free.

Even though I find the book unacceptable, that doesn’t mean I won’t keep describing it for you, if you want to buy it (and I won’t hold that against you). :) I’m quite a tolerant person (my Significant Other suggests that my family really goes overboard on that, and perhaps we tolerate behavior within ourselves that we shouldn’t), and that extends to you finding things acceptable that bother me.

The book was adapted well for being an e-book, with an active table of contents (meaning you can click on it to go to sections), and clickable links within each section.

It did have that weird thing that is done sometimes, when the cover and the back of the book are simply reproduced as images…as if the book (in this case, an apparently unbound version) was just stuck on a scanner (you can see the imperfect pages).

I liked that the  quotations  related to the sections often came from very different sources than the groups themselves: that was a nice, erudite touch.

Oh, and the book does use the “F word”. That doesn’t prevent me from recommending a book, but I do think some people like to know about it ahead of time.

Well, I think I’ve given you a clear sense of my feelings about the book. :) Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: Burning the Page

April 18, 2013

Review: Burning the Page

Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
by Jason Merkoski
published by Sourcebooks
this edition: 2013
size: 443KB (no page count listed yet)
categories: nonfiction; business & investing; history-world-21st Century; science-technology-general & reference
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six
real page numbers: no
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good
x-ray: no
Whispersync for Voice: no

“Those who read this years from now, please don’t forget that the future wasn’t always digital and that books weren’t always electronic.

Because without the ebook revolution, the future could never have happened.”
–Jason Merkoski
writing in Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading

I’m one of those people who is fascinated with the process of things.

I know a lot of people see a movie like The Wizard of Oz, and simply enjoy the end product…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For me, though, I wonder about how it got there. I’ve been a manager, and I’ve taught Project Management, and I’ve lived around human beings. :)

Very rarely does someone come up with a plan, and then follows it exactly as expected, and gets the end result they intended…and if they do, they aren’t going to revolutionize the world.

The studio wanted Shirley Temple for the Wizard of Oz, but couldn’t get her. Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett) was cast as the Tin Man, but had a bad reaction to the make-up and was replaced. The suits thought “Over the Rainbow” should be cut, because it slowed down the action, and there was a song and dance number about the “Jitterbug” which was removed.

It took a lot of accidents, and a lot of compromise, to create the movie masterpiece that is the Wizard of Oz.

The Kindle has that same sort of magical feel for an end user.

Sure, there are flaws in it, but people love it.

So, I was really looking forward to reading Jason Merkoski’s insider story of the creation of the Kindle, Burning the Page.

I had seen some good press on it, and Merkoski no longer works at Amazon after shepherding the EBR (E-Book Reader) project, so I thought we might hear some really interesting stories about how decisions got made.

While I did find the book a worthwhile read, it really wasn’t the “here’s what happened” narrative I wanted.

There is some fun stuff about the feel of working for Jeff Bezos, but there was very little about how and why they decided to do this or that.

Some of that may be covered by an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), I suppose. However, the book is much more about the past of books and speculation about the future than it is about the development of the Kindle.

Merkoski writes well. There was a nicely evocative section of imagining what it was like to work in Gutenberg’s workshop…it realistically suggests the social part of that, not just what it was like  getting that Bible done.

This, for example, was a funny line:

“Perhaps Amazon had previously shot itself in the foot so many times that it thought it had bulletproof shoes.”

I didn’t pick that quotation to suggest that the book is all anti-Amazon…this isn’t an exposé (very little does get exposed). Jason Merkoski appears to have liked working at Amazon.

We are alike in some ways, not the least important is our love of books. What comes through of that is really heartening.

However, in some ways it’s more like a series of essays (or better yet, blog posts), than it is narrative. I do think it would qualify as “narrative non-fiction” under Common Core, but if you think of a narrative as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, this isn’t it.

It’s well-researched and well-imagined, but it’s one thing here, then another thing, then another. That may, though, fit a lot of people’s reading style.

I did have some problems with the book.

Merkoski talks about putting on a “futurist’s hat”, but you can’t be a good futurist without knowing what current state is. Merkoski makes many suggestions for the future, including having a communication channel within books where you can talk to other readers, and having a way to restrict a tablet to just reading (which a teacher might do with a student).

Both of those are already here…in Amazon’s  Kindle Fire. In fact, the implementation of FreeTime is a lot more sophisticated than Merkoski suggests for a future device.

I wonder if Merkoski saw the Fire as a…perhaps betrayal of the reflective screen Kindle he created, and has just mentally blocked it from sight. The author does talk about iPads, but the Kindle Fire just shows up in three brief mentions, with nothing about its features.

This was also an odd statement to me:

“…theft of physical books is rare…”

That may be true from personal homes, but as a former brick and mortar bookstore manager, I can tell you that they have been commonly stolen. Our goal for “shrinkage” (theft, employee theft, loss to damage) was eight percent. That’s high in retail…if almost one out of every ten books was stolen, we’d still be on goal.

Now, some of you have read me saying that before, and you know I am proud of having been a bookstore manager.

That may be another thing Jason Merkoski and I have in common…a certain self-satisfied pride.

One of the important things Jason Merkoski wants you to know is how important Jason Merkoski is. ;)

“Almost no one in the company had exactly the right set of qualifications to help Lab126 and Amazon speak to and understand each other, with one exception: me.”

One other concern before I recommend the book (which I am going to do).

The author writes a lot about Reading 2.0 (Merkoski’s term), and how wonderful multi-media and social features will make books.

However, as you may have noticed at the beginning of this post, not much is actually enabled in this book. Yes, you have text-to-speech access, but a publisher doesn’t have to do anything to make that happen. There’s no X-Ray, no lending, no Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, no Whispersync for Voice. The author does these nice little discussion points, and invites readers to participate. The  discussions are in a box…but the box doesn’t really fit on a “page”, so it looks weird to me. It’s an odd graphic choice, affected by the font size you use. If you go to participate in one of the discussions, you have to sign in with Twitter or Facebook at an external website…it just doesn’t feel very integrated to me. There are no illustrations in the body of the book.

It simply doesn’t seem like the book takes advantage of Merkoski’s own ideas.

Still, I am going to recommend this book to you. There is some great writing, and some insight into the Kindle. The definitive story hasn’t been told yet…that may take an outsider, so we get something far more revealing and narrative like Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything. Still, Burning the Page is a pleasant enough read, and Merkoski’s ideas will get you thinking about the future of reading.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: MyFitnessPal

April 3, 2013

Review: MyFitnessPal

Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker by MyFitnessPal
From MyFitnessPal
Free at time of writing

I’m giving my whole (healthy) hearted endorsement for this one. ;)

As some of you know, I work with medical folks. I’m not a clinician myself…I just train ‘em. Not on their clinical work, but on their software and efficiencies.

So, I’m not claiming any medical expertise here, although I do get exposed to the concepts more than the average person.

MyFitnessPal, which is available for the Kindle Fire, Android, iOS (iPhones and iPads), Blackberry, and Windows Phone is the best app I’ve seen for tracking your health habits (diet and exercise)…certainly, the best free app.

The concept is pretty simple: tracking what you eat tends to make you eat better, since it makes you more mindful of what you are consuming.

It’s especially good if you can track calories, sodium, cholesterol, and so on, and have a goal.

The problem for most people is that it’s just too much work (well, that, and a lot of people would rather not know). ;)

That’s what makes this app work so well for me.

I’m a vegetarian, and already a pretty healthy eater. Typically, if I want to track something like Morningstar Farms Breakfast Patties, your typical app isn’t going to know what they are.

MyFitnessPal lets people “crowdsource” foods…if one person enters it, it’s available to everybody.

That does mean that the same food may appear several times, because people entered it somewhat differently (for example, it might appear both with and without the brand name).

However, I didn’t find that to be daunting.

For example, if I put in “veggie breakfast patty” in the search, the basic Morninstar Farms one comes up twice…once for “Morningstar”, and once for “Morningstar Farms”.

That’s not hard, though. I just add it into my meal, and I’m good.

The next time I go to do the same meal category (say, lunch), it will come up as something I’ve done before…I don’t have to keep typing it in.

On my Kindle Fire, you couldn’t scan a barcode, but on my Samsung Captivate SmartPhone, you could.

So, that part is easy. :) There are unprocessed foods as well, of course.

If you are using a processed food, I find it knows the nutrition facts, allowing it to track items like sodium.

That’s just the beginning.

You can also enter exercise, enter your weight and some measurements (including neck size…I know some of the people who care for your heart care about that one).

You can track your water use, which some individuals like to do.

During the day, it tells you how much you have “left” of the different values…when you enter exercise, you get more calories to burn, for example.

While the interface isn’t completely intuitive, it’s clear enough. From the Home screen, you can tap “Daily” and see your “scores” for that day…then swipe backwards for previous days.

These are my “nutrient details” for yesterday (and how many bloggers would show you that?) ;) I try not to make the blog “all about me”, but this is for purposes of illustration:

Screenshot_2013-04-03-15-24-54

It syncs between my devices seamlessly (including my PC), but, and this is a big thing, you do not need to be connected to enter data. The upload just happens the next time you open the app.

You can even have friends and share data with them (having exercise/diet buddies really helps some people, although I haven’t tested that).

Oh, one other thing on the food: you can save an entire meal (I often eat mostly the same thing), and then just have it enter that meal. That’s in addition to individual entry, and “multi-add” (check off several of your previous foods, and add them all at once).

As you can tell, I highly recommend this one. :)

I do have a couple of little quibbles. It only remembers a food for one meal category: when I entered a food as a breakfast food, I had to enter it again as a lunch food. That’s not a big deal, but I can’t be the only one who eats the same thing at different times of the day (I may have a carrot at any time of time, for instance…Doc). ;)

I’d also like it to open to the Diary, as opposed to the Summary, but that’s just a one tap change.

Oh, and I should mention: this is a free app, and there are tiny ads. They are as unobtrusive as any ads I’ve seen in an app…they don’t cover up the buttons you use, or bounce around annoyingly.

If you want to stay in shape, or even just track your food intake because of possible allergies or something like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), the this is the one app I’ve seen so far that I would endorse.

===

Bonus deal:

One of today’s Kindle Daily Deals is

Tobacco Road

by Erskine Caldwell, originally published in 1932, and later a long-running play and a movie. It’s a tale of the poor rural south. It’s $1.99 at time of writing (do check to see it’s that price for you before buying), and normally the digital list price is $14.99. You can get the audiobook with the Whispersync for Voice deal for $4.99, read by Mark Hammer, who comes up in the “Favorite Narrators” discussion at GoodReads:

http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/2271-who-are-your-favorite-narrators

Bonus bonus deal: ;)

Another one of the Kindle Daily Deals today is

Against the Fall of Night

by Arthur C. Clarke (again, check the price before buying it…as I was reminded on April Fool’s Day, some of you see these posts the calendar after I post them).

If the ABCs for you are “Asimov/Bradbury/Clarke”, this is a good one to add to your e-book collection.

While not Clarke’s best known work (that might be Childhood’s End, although the author is also very associated with 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course), this one has its fans as a less complex work than a lot of science fiction. It is an earlier version of The City and the Stars, but they are different enough that each one has its adherents.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: This Perfect Day

March 22, 2013

Review: This Perfect Day

This Perfect Day
by Ira Levin
published by Pegasus Books
this edition: 2011 (originally 1970)
size: 484KB (320 pages)
categories: science fiction; high tech (Bufo adds dystopia; social science fiction)
lending: yes
simultaneous device licenses: six
real page numbers: no
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good (although there are some neologisms)
x-ray: no
Whispersync for Voice: no

The movie versions of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives have secured author, playwright, and songwriter Ira Levin a place in the mainstream pop culture consciousness. However, I do think that This Perfect Day was ahead of its time, and if first released today, would be one of the first things associated with Levin.

What’s odd for me is that this dystopian literature (which is very popular today) that seems to tweak and comment on the formula…which didn’t exist yet. :)

Sure, there were dystopian works (Brave New World, 1984), but this ties clearly into The Matrix and the ones with young romances.

Don’t think, though, that this a comfortable read. For one thing, the “f word” is used completely appropriately…it’s not considered a swear word (it’s used referring to the act), although both “fight” and “hate” are considered shocking terms, and “fight” in particular is used the way people use the “f word” today (a great insult is to call someone a “brother-fighter”.

Without giving too much away, that’s because the society we encounter first is, hypothetically, one big happy family. They refer to it as the “Family”, and rather than “people” they talk about “members”.

What they think about our era is a fascinating commentary on our society, but also understandable within the world we are shown.

However, Levin goes far beyond what you might expect. I think that the book could be visually adapted now, although ideally, it would be something like a four-part miniseries on a cable channel.

It definitely had me thinking. As regular readers know, my favorite thing in entertainment is to be surprised, and this did that. I also judge the impact of a work by whether or not it spontaneously comes back to me after finishing it. I’ve already had that happen several times since finishing this book: seeing something and having it relate back to the book.

Unlike some science fiction, though, it isn’t just about the technology…in fact, the technology really serves the social commentary. I was quite surprised to see this listed in the “high tech” category under science fiction at Amazon. You don’t have to be a gearhead at all to appreciate this one.

Again, this won’t be for everybody, and I think them include nudity on the cover image (a naked man from the back) may be intentional to signal that. I would say, though, that people who like dystopian young adult fiction can see this in some ways as an adult version of that genre.

I’d recommend this one.

I know that the price may put off some people (close to ten dollars). I bought it when it was sale, and I would guess that will happen again. You might want to list it at

eReaderIQ

which you can do for free, and they’ll send you a free e-mail when the price drops an amount you specify.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: Animals Make Us Human

March 17, 2013

Review: Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals
by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
this edition: 2010
size: 486KB (355 pages)
categories: nonfiction; science; cognitive psychology; animals; animal husbandry
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six
real page numbers: yes
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: yes
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good
x-ray: yes
Whispersync for Voice:yes ($3.99 at time of writing, read by Andrea Gallo)

Temple Grandin is one of the most amazing people around.

The author is an autistic, an expert on animal behavior, and a great communicator.

You don’t expect the first and third to go together, and it’s a rare and marvelous thing.

As to animals, Grandin says that the way autistics think is similar to the way many non-human animals think, and that gives special insight.

I love animals, and I do seem to be able to have an unusually good relationship with them. I wouldn’t say I’m a great animal trainer, but I communicate with them well…both understanding what they want and being able to let them know what I want (that doesn’t mean they’ll always do it, though). ;)

For example, one of the proudest things in my life (outside of my family) was hand-taming a wild scrub jay.

It took a very long time and a lot of patience (which serves me well when I train people, which I do in my day job).

I started out tossing a bit of bread far enough away that the bird would hop up and take it.

I eventually (slowly, over days) moved the bread closer to my completely unmoving hand.

I realized at the time I had something that might be even more attractive than bread: live mealworms (which I had to feed small pets).

Believe me, it wasn’t easy keeping my hand still while a mealworm (actually a beetle larvae) was trying to burrow between my fingers! Meanwhile, this bird would be going hop, hop, hop, getting closer, and then rapidly, hophophop away.

Eventually, I got it so I could literally open the door to my apartment, whistle a special whistle, and the bird would fly from a tree across the street, through the open door, and land on my finger.

That was something!

I can also almost always make friends with dogs and cats…and other animals, too. I’ve called sea lions out of the water, and know a special trick that will get the walruses at fairly nearby Marine World to follow me around like dogs while I walk around in front of the underwater windows…makes for great pictures for visitors (and I’ve been told it’s fine to do by a marine biologist).

Even so, Temple Grandin and her students do things that would be a great challenge for me.

This book is not the revelation that Animals in Translation was, but this one is still well worth reading.

I think one of the big differences is that this one has a chapter each for various domestic (and captive) animals, and, well, if you aren’t interested in pigs, you might not find that one as intriguing.

There’s a lot of science in it, about the different emotional systems in animal brains (and humans, too).  None of it is hard to understand for a layperson, though.

Some of the most intriguing parts had to with related aspects to what Grandin does. Why did a lot of ineffective animal enclosures get built, after we knew of a better way? Partially because the companies that built them made more money on the bigger ones.

The animal material, though, is the core of it. I loved learning that wolves in the wild don’t behave at all in the way many people think: there isn’t an alpha male, for example. They don’t hunt in large packs, but in small family groups (it makes sense if you think about it…what prey is going to take twenty wolves to pull it down, and then how will they all get enough to eat?). You are the parent to the dogs in your household (in a typical set up), not an alpha male that has to keep the betas on down to omegas in line.

In this book, Temple Grandin also addresses being improving the lives of animals that will be eaten eventually anyway, and the logic of that compared to being an animal activist that opposes the slaughterhouses altogether. As a vegetarian, I found that part especially interesting.

This is not a book that will give you a simple 1-2-3, here’s how you get your dog to do a trick kind of guidance. It will, though, help you understand why your dog might be having difficulty learning that behavior.

One other thing: the book actually has an index that jumps you to the topic mentions! That’s unusual, and quite welcome. It’s interesting: it doesn’t give you page or location numbers, but if there are several locations, there are several jumps you can click. That works well.

Right now (through the end of March, I think) you can buy the book for $2.99, and you can borrow it through the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. If you like animals, and/or you are interested in the emotional systems that humans use, I recommend it.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: 3 Hidden Objects Adventures HD

March 12, 2013

Review: 3 Hidden Objects Adventures HD

3 Hidden Objects Adventures HD (Kindle Tablet Edition)
from 7 Dragons
$1 at time of writing (qualifies for $1 MP3 credit)

What was your favorite part about going to the dentist as a kid?

Okay, hold on there…stop shivering like that!  ;)

No, I was not fond of going to the dentist…I can do it now, but it still isn’t easy.

However, my dentist did have Highlights For Children. Along with “Goofus and Gallant”, I think I’m safe in saying that one of most kids’ favorite features was the Hidden Pictures.

You’d be told there were, oh, seven elephants in a picture, and you had to find them. They might be upside down, or in trees, but they were clearly elephants.

Later generations have had two other similar big hits.

One was I Spy, a whole series of intricate picture books (I’ve just linked to one of them…not available in the Kindle store).

Another was Where’s Waldo?, surprisingly not available as e-books in the Kindle store from what I can see…I’ve linked to an app.

Now, 7 Dragons (which has a number of apps in the Amazon Appstore…I’ve mentioned them before) has entered the genre with 3 Hidden Objects Adventures HD (Kindle Tablet Edition).

This app (I tried it on my Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ 4G LTE Wireless 32GB) has wonderfully intricate pictures, and will be a challenge (but not an impossible one) for adults. Children can also play it, because you can change the settings. By default you have a limited time to find the items, but you can turn off the timer. You can also get hints, which will show you the location of an object.

I’ve only tried one of the adventures this morning. There are three:

  • After the Apocalypse
  • Lost at the Zoo
  • The Secret Forest

I went for Lost at the Zoo, because I love animals. My Significant Other kids me about my animal-spotting ability. When we go for a walk, I’ll literally notice a cat two blocks away…but not notice that a building has burned down. ;)

That makes some evolutionary sense to me: we had to be very aware of animals in our areas. I’m sometimes surprised that other people don’t see them more. When we were kids, we got geckos to run around loose in the house (to eat bugs). This was in suburban America, by the way. ;) One year we got parachute geckos, that would pitch off the ceiling and sort of glide to one of the walls (where they stick). It was a great amusement to us kids as to how few people would notice them at all (and they were maybe as long as your finger).

Regular readers also know that I have some color vision deficiency (color blindness), so I was interested to see if I would spot the objects in the images. That’s often an advantage, by the way: my understanding is that really colorblind people (which I’m not) aren’t as fooled by camouflage, so the military uses them as spotters.

I’m pleased to say that I did fine. :)

I’ll also point out that these aren’t simple outline like the ones in Highlights, they are more like I Spy (although it does seem to vary). I thought it was nice that at least one of the objects was actually hidden, as though someone had tried to hide it…part of the object was occluded by something else in the picture. It wasn’t cheating…you could still identify it, but it makes it more interesting that way.

I also think it’s a good thing that the descriptions aren’t exactly what you would expect. If you are told to look for a “doll”, that could look like a lot of things…and that adds to the intellectual challenge.

You can pinch and spread in the game to make the image larger, and it stayed sharp…that was great!

I often play apps with the sound turned off, but the music here was pleasant…slow, musical, not the midi beeping kinds of things you sometimes hear.

I think the interface is good: you can easily pause the game, for example, which obscures the picture…nice if you get interrupted.

You do need to be aware of how much memory it takes up. With a full install (and you don’t have to do that) on my device, I think it told me it would be 600MB (which is a lot…like a movie). There are 1024 megabytes in a gigabyte. Actually installed, my Fire tells me that it is 311MB at this point…it’s possible it may download more as I do more adventures, but I’m not sure about that.

It also seems to use my battery charge significantly, but so do many apps. If you were planning a long car trip, you might need to take that into account (I use a car charger for text-to-speech).

Overall, I find this a pleasant game. It’s a good way to show off the graphics capability of the Kindle Fire, and a fun, relaxed game (no in-app purchases, I believe, no frantic pace).

Full disclosure: I’ve had some correspondence with Abhi of iReader Review, who wrote me and asked me to talk about this app today (I’ve noticed that a couple of the other Kindle blogs have mentioned it today as well…I guess we’re free to see other bloggers). ;)

I was not given the game, although I was offered a gift certificate for it. I paid for it myself.

I won’t say that I didn’t mention it in part because I like Abhi, but I don’t think it’s unduly influenced this review.

Would I have bought it if I wasn’t asked? Probably not, because I’m not that visual a person, and this isn’t the first thing that I’d be seeking in an app. I do enjoy it, though, and I think my SO might as well. I also like having apps that kids can use, although our kid is an adult. :)

If you do buy it (up to you), feel free to comment on this post to tell me and my readers what you think. You could also probably leave one of the first reviews at Amazon. :) I always think that’s one of the best ways to support something you like.

I do want to say, I think this coordinated request technique (which is what I’m assuming it was) is fine. Timing matters: this app is new for the Fire platform, and lots of people getting it on the same day and/or writing reviews drives up  visibility. I was politely asked to mention it today, with nothing in exchange (since I declined the offered gift certificate). If you have a comment about me doing that, I’d be happy to hear that as well. I don’t accept paid ads for this blog, and don’t choose to use something like Google AdSense.  I think my readers prefer it that way, but I’m happy to hear what you think.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: Brain Rules

March 6, 2013

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
by John Medina
published by Pear Press
this edition: 2010
size: 775KB (322 pages)
categories: nonfiction; neuroscience; cognitive psychology; schools & teaching
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good
x-ray: yes
Whispersync for Voice:yes ($7.95 at time of writing, read by the author)

“But I also believe the  curiosity  instinct is so powerful  that  some people overcome society’s message to go to sleep intellectually, and they flourish anyway.”
–John Medina
writing in Brain Rules

If you believe that your mind exists through biomechanical operations of your brain, than those actions should be both detectable and limited by physiology. If that’s the case, understanding some of those limitations could help you both cope and succeed in the world.

If you believe that what you think is independent of your body, you may still believe that there are likely patterns of behavior, and those might be useful to know as well.

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist…and a professor.

Brain Rules is backed up by science, but also by personal experience.

That’s a powerful combination.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I liked it best when it had cognitive resonance for me (when what it said confirmed what I already thought) then when it didn’t. ;)

Generally, the science was fascinating, and presented some very interesting possibilities.

For example, there is a section on a “Jennifer Aniston” neuron.  Essentially, a patient who was prepared for surgery, with the skull opened and part of the brain exposed to the air, was shown a picture of Jennifer Aniston. A specific pattern fired, showing recognition.

If this could be done without an invasive procedure, would it be possible to use it in the courts? Could you demonstrate that someone had never seen their alleged assault victim before?

Well, it’s much more complex than that, but that’s where it gets interesting.

I certainly couldn’t disagree with any of that sort of science. Where I would have other opinions is where Medina speculated.

That speculation is a lot of the fun of the book (and despite it being science-based, it’s very accessible to those without that background).

“What do these studies show, viewed as a whole? Mostly this: If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over.

In many ways, starting over is what this book is all about.”

You can believe the science and not agree with all of the interpretations.

“Because a teacher can keep track of only so many minds, there must be a limit on the number of students in a class— the smaller, the better. It is possible that small class sizes predict better performance simply because the teacher can better keep track of where everybody is. This suggests that an advanced skill set in Theory of Mind predicts a good teacher.”

I’ve trained a lot of trainers, and been a Training Manager. In hiring, one of the things I looked for was what I referred to as “empathy”, and what Medina is calling “Theory of Mind”. It’s essentially the ability to know how someone else is reacting to something, and how they are going to react…and I include the ability to adjust what you are doing to modify that result.

However, I had good evidence that simply smaller didn’t produce consistently better results, as interpreted by the students (and by own subjective experience).

We had students rate the class at the end.

We were teaching mostly software, which can be pretty complex.

There was a definite bell curve. The best average scores occurred at about eight people. Get up to fifteen, there  was undeniable negative impact. Get down to two or three, though, and there was also a negative impact.

Why negative with a smaller group?

A class isn’t taught just between the trainer and each student. There are also dynamics happening between the students themselves, and in their perceptions of how the trainer interacts with the students.

If you have eight people in a class, and a student asks a question which is off topic or which has just been answered, a couple of other students are likely to be audibly irritated…just making a “Tch!” sound (and rolling their eyes), for example.

Unless the off topic student is completely socially unaware, that tends to inhibit those sorts of questions.

If you have two students, and someone asks an irrelevant question, the other person will expect the trainer to answer it.

The interactions between the two students are too exposed to allow the risk of the “Tch!”.

That’s just a small point, though.

Generally, I think most people will find the book very interesting, even if they can’t always put all the rules into practical effect.

One very positive use of technology is that the provides summary videos (and other materials) at

http://brainrules.net/

I was able to watch the videos on Kindle Fire, even using Silk (although I do have Flash installed, so I can’t tell you for sure if it would work without that).

A negative use of technology? A dead index. Not only were there no links from the index, but there were no page or location numbers…just a list of topics.

The biggest negative for me was an  unnecessary spoiling of a classic movie…but I know I’m extra careful about that.

I also found it a bit odd that the book didn’t summarize the twelve rules at the end, but those are available on the website.

Overall, though, I strongly recommend this book. It has value for you as an individual, as a parent/legal guardian, as an employee, and as an employer.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Round up #151: eye-tracking, pick the human quiz

March 5, 2013

Round up #151: eye-tracking, pick the human quiz

The ILMK Round ups are short pieces which may or may not be expanded later.

iReaderReview: “The Biggest Revolution in Books since Gutenberg & Inflection Points

This one is an interesting post by switch11 examining where we are in publishing. It talks about how readers now have the power, and how the compensation for curation (which is suggests is what publishers do) is currently much too high.

I recommend reading it, although I don’t agree with all the points. I don’t think it gives enough credit to what traditional publishers do…it’s not just about choosing which books to publish. There are a lot of other risks assumed by them, and tasks handled. That doesn’t mean authors can’t do it without them…clearly they can. That’s not a big problem with the piece, though, and it does have a lot of value.

I thought this was an interesting line:

“Established Authors are just as scared of the Barbarians at the Gate as Publishers and Retailers.”

Oh, and what is an inflection point? I thought this was somewhat of a weird use of it, but maybe I’m just not familiar with it as idiom. Let’s say you throw a ball up into the air in a big arc. The point between where it is going up and when it is coming down is the inflection point, as I understand it. I suppose the use here might be that we can now go either direction, or maybe that it is at the point of no return? Not sure…

Mini-review: Cop Hater

Cop Hater (87th Precinct)
by Ed McBain

The 87th Precinct books were published over about five decades…and there were more than fifty of them.

I’d never read one before. I’d certainly heard of them, and sold many as the manager of a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Why did I finally get around to it?

Amazon bought the backlist.

It publishes the books, and that means the books participate in Amazon publishing programs, including the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL).

The KOLL lets Kindle owners who are qualifying Prime members borrow up to a book a month at no additional cost. It’s always a tough choice as to what to borrow, but this seemed like a good bet.

We do read mysteries…I say “we”, because my Significant Other and I sometimes read the same books, thanks to the licensing from Amazon making that easy.

I’ve read some hard-boiled stuff over the years (Dashiell Hammett is a great writer, regardless of genre), and expected this to be like that.

I’d say one of the key differences is that this focuses on the process, rather than really on individuals.

It’s about being a cop…not about a specific cop.

Certainly, we have a hero that we follow, and whose personal life matters.

Still, you can see clearly how this has influenced “police procedurals”. We watched CSI during the Grissom years, and the  inspiration  is clear.

That doesn’t mean it was without precedent: McBain credited Dragnet as being something that influenced these stories.

Oh, that brings up a piece of advice from me: skip the foreword. We both felt like we would have enjoyed the book more without the scene setting.

We did both enjoy the book, although we didn’t fall in love with yet. It’s certainly possible I’ll read more in the series at some point.

I’d put it as this is worth reading.

Galaxy S IV to have eye-tracking?

I’ve really liked my Samsung Captivate, which I know isn’t entirely cutting edge.

On March 14th, Samsung will introduce the Galaxy S IV, and this

New York Times article

says it may have eye-tracking.

If so, that will be somewhat ahead of what I predicted in

The Year Ahead 2013

where I did predict eye and gesture tracking, but thought it wouldn’t arrive this year.

It has obvious advantages…your phone (or tablet, eventually) will be able to tell where you are looking on the screen. When you get to the bottom of a page, it can automatically show you the next one.

I run into that issue now with my Kindle Fire, when I am exercising in the morning. I have the Fire on top of the towel rack in the bathroom for some of it, getting my morning Flipboard read. I have to keep switching to the next page, or going back to an article selection screen, using my finger. It would be a lot better for the rhythm of the exercises if I could keep moving my arms the way I was, and just use my eyes to switch.

While some of you are immediately picturing problems, it’s going to depend on how smart it is. It has to understand the difference between when we flick ahead to see what is coming, and when we’ve really read everything up that point.

It may require some human training…pausing for a certain length of time, even looking at a “turn page” spot, but I think it would quickly become as subliminal as driving a car or riding a bike.

Of course, this could also be valuable for advertisers, if Samsung sold back to them information about where someone’s eyes went when reading a website…count on Google doing this in the future. ;)

The Real Character of the Wizard of Oz

As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of the Oz books. I’ve written a piece about the real character of the Wizard of Oz, and how it might compare to what we will see in Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. If you are interested, it is here:

The Spoiler Zone: the real character of the Wizard of Oz

It’s part of “The Spoiler Zone” because I do reveal plot points in it…if you haven’t read the Oz stories yet, you might want to skip it until you have.

Racter would be proud

This one is a lot of fun, and a real challenge!

Machine translation or Faulkner?

It’s from a site called Reverent Entertainment that has a series of Reverent Quizzes.

For example, you can see if you can tell the difference between a painting done by an ape and one done by a human artist.

In this case, Mikhail Simkin gives you a series of quotations…and you decide if they are the result of machine translation, or written by William Faulkner.

I did take the test quickly, but I’ll admit it, I did terribly…42%.

It won’t surprise me if some of you do much better than that. :)

Racter, by the way, was an artificial intelligence program (although one can debate about that term) that wrote poetry. I’m happy to own a copy of

The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry by Racter- The First Book Ever Wrritten by a Computer

which is not currently available for the Kindle.

Does this mean that computer translation is getting so much better, or that maybe great works taken out of context don’t appear to be as great? Perhaps both… ;)

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: Redshirts

February 18, 2013

Review: Redshirts

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
by John Scalzi
published by Tor (a Macmillan imprint)
original publication: 2012
size: 449KB (318 pages)
categories: fiction; science fiction
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six (but released without DRM?*)
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good
x-ray: yes
Whispersync for Voice:yes ($8.49 at time of writing, read by Wil Wheaton)

“I want you to think about what it means when I am the person in a group who is making the case for reality. I’m the least responsible person I know. I resent having to be the voice of reason. I resent it a lot.”
–Finn
Redshirts

The human mind observes what is happening around it, and creates ways to deal with dangerous situations.

Imagine that you were a member of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the original Star Trek series.

Would  you notice that there was something…odd about the ship?

Would people gossip about the fact that every time a “redshirt” (often a security team member, but it could be a different specialty…certainly, not a major decision maker) beams down with the bridge crew on an away mission, it becomes very likely that they are going to get killed?

Killed.

That sounds like something that would be important to you, right?

That’s the basic concept that launches John Scalzi’s well-written and clever novel, Redshirts.

I’d heard it was a Star Trek parody, and expected absurdity and silly wordplay, like in a 1960s Mad Magazine issue.

The beginning of the book turned out to be quite a bit more interesting than that.

It’s not the Enterprise, exactly, but fairly close to it.

We follow a group of new recruits…as you can imagine, the ship has quite a bit of turnover. :)

Generally, I enjoyed this first part, and its commentary on the original series (how did Chekov keep healing so quickly?).

The characters with whom we relate are more than just cartoon characters (even including Star Trek: The Animated Series ;) ).

It’s also clear that Scalzi, President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, isn’t a poseur as a fan. While I thought the Dr. McCoy equivalent was quite flat and uninteresting (I’m guessing Bones is not one of Scalzi’s favorites), I was amused that the Doctor was named Hartnell (as in William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who in the TV series…The Doctor).

However, the book shifts in tone…more than once.

That could be innovative entertaining, and certainly, the book is highly-reviewed at Amazon (3.7 stars out of 5 with 364 reviews at the time of writing).

For me, though, that meant that what I thought was great in the first part, wasn’t quite as good in latter parts.

It’s important to note, though, that I have a sibling who enjoyed the second part better…and said the same was true of a friend.

I also want to be clear that I liked the whole book…I just liked the first part better. :)

As I was barely into it, I predicted to my Significant Other that it might turn out that way…that the tone would change. For me, it was a bit like a Saturday Night Live sketch that they make into a movie (Coneheads, for example). In a desire to give an expansion more length and depth, something that I find deliciously whimsical can become more…mundane, I suppose.

I do recommend the book, although if you weren’t a fan of ST:TOS, I don’t think it would work as well.

* DRM is Digital Rights Management, which is code inserted into a file to control how the file is used. Tor has been releasing their books DRM free in the Kindle store (an option also available to publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing). That means that nothing mechanically inhibits someone from converting the file into another format, for example. It does not change the nature of the license.

Fans of the original series may also enjoy my (very different from Scalzi’s book…different purposes) post,

Star Trek parody: The Kindle Encounter

his post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

Review: The Transparent Society

February 5, 2013

Review: The Transparent Society

The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?
by David Brin
published by Basic Books
original publication: 1999
size: 913KB (545 pages)
categories: nonfiction; technology; civil rights liberties
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: generally good, but frequently references a couple of diagrams which are not read aloud
x-ray: no
Whispersync for Voice: no

“In all of history, we have found just one cure for error—a partial antidote against making and repeating grand, foolish mistakes, a remedy against self-deception. That antidote is criticism.”
–David Brin
writing in The Transparent Society

In this fascinating book, science fiction writer and futurist David Brin explores how the increased observational capabilities of technology may cause us to rethink personal privacy.

Early in the book, Brin has the reader consider two cities.

In both cities, there are cameras on every lamppost.

In one, those camera feeds go only to the police, who can see everything that is happening.

In the other, those camera feeds are available to every citizen.

Most likely, neither one would make you very comfortable.

Which would be better, though?

What if the “all access” city included feeds from inside the police station? So regular citizens can watch the police watching the videos, and see what they do about them?

While Brin essentially advocates for “reciprocal transparency” (people in power can watch people who aren’t…and vice versa), this is no polemic. Brin says:

“If it seems at times that I am fence straddling, that is because I do not claim to have all the answers. While this book makes strong contrarian points about general principles of freedom and accountabiliy, the details have been left somewhat murky, because that’s the way life is. Despite the simplifying rhetoric of idealists and ideologues, the process of finding pragmatic solutions will always be a messy one.”

While the book was written some time ago, many of the core concepts are still true…and the implementation isn’t all that different. The book is pre-YouTube, pre-Vine, pre-SmartPhones…but it posits a future in which every citizen is “armed” with a camera. It certainly doesn’t get everything right:

“Ponder an image of everyone sauntering down the street with one of these “weapons” on their hips. Naturally, one result is a near absence of street crime—that is a given.”

This presumes that people are inhibited from committing crimes by fear of exposure as the criminal. I remember seeing videos of bank robbers making sure their faces are seen by security cameras…as part of an initiation into a criminal group. The camera didn’t prevent the crime, and arguably, that specific crime is that specific place was committed to get on the camera.

That makes the book no less valuable, though. Thinking about how we will deal with universal knowledge of everything we do is important.

I thought one of the most thought-provoking parts of the book was peripheral (although related) to surveillance and privacy.

“The characters we find admirable in books and films often exhibit driven individualism and have difficulty accepting regimentation by formal organizations. They are irked by rules and routines, and above all display suspicion of authority. This archetype is copied in such endless profusion that the “lonely rebel” might by now have become the most dreadful of clichés. But in fact, it seems to have escaped the notice of most social observers that the principal moral lesson carried by neo-Western media is scorn for stodgy establishments of any stripe.”

The idea here is that people in our “neo-Western” society have been propagandized by media into believing that rebellion against the establishment is the way to succeed…and that the preponderance of this message is largely unprecedented.

I had to really think about that one.

Do so many of us think it’s good to be different because that is what our entertainment has been telling us?

We cheer when the lone hero disobeys orders…and saves the day.

Is it just, perhaps, because our society is freer somehow, and we are expressing what people have always felt? Or, does our society really feel  differently about this?

If you enjoy media from other cultures, you’ll know that this reverence of anti-authoritarianism isn’t universal. You’ll be able to come up with examples where the “hero” can only succeed by supporting the group and sublimating personal desires.

While we could discuss this for hours, it’s only one of the concepts in the book that will get you going.

Does it get too technical? Sure, I’d say there is a lot more discussion of encryption than some people will want.

I think the biggest flaw in the book for me, and this may be influenced by Brin being a scientist, is a feeling that once something has been explained, it doesn’t need to be explained again.

As a trainer, I can assure that’s not the case.

For example, there may be a matrix of possibilities shown (and unfortunately, not able to be read aloud by text-to-speech, which is how I consumed most of the book). Let’s say it went something like this:

  1. Cats who like cats
  2. Dogs who like dogs
  3. Cats who like dogs
  4. Dogs who like cats

Later, when Brin is referencing this list, the author doesn’t say, “So, in the case of dogs who like cats”, but will just say, “In point four…” That’s true even if we got the list five chapters ago. It would simply be better, in my opinion, to reiterate the relevant factors, rather than assuming that everybody has the sort of memory for diagrams and variables that many scientists do.

That doesn’t change me recommending the book, though. No, not everybody will enjoy it, but if you like to think about possible reactions to inevitable realities, this is one you should put on your list…whether everyone can see your list or not. ;)

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


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