Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ok, I was a bit harsh...

I've been reading more about McCain's VP pick, Governor Sarah Palin. She's actually done a fair bit for Alaska, even if the town she was mayor for was described as "the worst kind of suburban sprawl of highway-fronting shopping malls and gravel lots" in a Frommer's travel guide to Alaska. As governor, she's actually done quite a bit, and has some laudable accomplishments as outlined by Fred Barnes in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard:
  • "She brought down Alaska’s governor, attorney general, and state Republican chairman... She killed the 'bridge to nowhere.' She used increased tax revenues from high oil prices to give Alaskans a rebate. She slashed government spending. She took on the biggest industry in Alaska, the oil companies, to work out an equitable deal on building a new gas pipeline." (p.10)
And, to top it all off, Barnes has a good point about all this: "Obama can't match even one of these accomplishments." Maybe that's a bit strong, but I still wonder what Obama's actually achieved in the Senate. Too often he gives off the impression of playing it so safe, it's a wonder he's ever in the Senate to make a "present" vote...

Time will tell whether or not either Obama or Palin are decent picks for such high office. It is interesting that Obama (young, energetic, attractive) picked an old, crusty back-up, while McCain (old, crusty) picked a young, energetic and attractive back-up...

Senator McCain, what were you thinking?!

More evidence that Sarah Palin is a batty choice for McCain: she thinks global warming is NOT man-made/-caused. Considering a large proportion of McCain's proposals and whatnot in the senate (when not regarding a branch of the military) are environment-related, this seems crazy...

Stop tacking to the right! Come back to us in the centre, and all will be forgiven!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Vice Presidential Picks

And so "Veep-Stakes" comes to a close. What do we make of the choices? Well, let's start with Obama's inspired choice of Senator Joe Biden.

Is it just me, or is the art (left) open to massive interpretation? There's something that pops into mind, when you see Senator Obama - accused of being inexperienced and unworthy of being president, not one of Washington's players, ready to change the whole environment in the capital, and behind him, an old white dude, who's been in Washington since time began... To be honest, though, I like Senator Biden - he'll be good for Obama's administration, as long as he's not treated like someone who just needs to have a pulse. Anyway, I like him, so now Obama's looking like an even better choice: superb Foreign Policy team, good VP choice, suggestions that he's actually going to be a sensible president (not the raging, scary liberal frequently in the pages of The Weekly Standard).

As for McCain's choice? Well, I'm not so sure it was as inspired. I know there's been an MASSIVE reaction in the blogosphere - my RSS feeds are going crazy, being updated every couple of minutes with another revalation about Sarah Palin (usually not a good one) and how she is a really strange choice for McCain (The New Republic, especially has had a lot to say). If you're picking opposites, then McCain's done a good one: younger woman. Her support for Pat Buchanan makes me want to run for the hills, but we'll see. Not one to usually like the slur of "not enough experience" as a reason to dismiss a candidate, I think in the case of Palin, we just might have the dictionary definition of "inexperienced". She served as a mayor for 9,000 people... Oh yeah, she's also the Governor of Alaska (which is probably pretty good practice for something). Even if it is an attempt to steal the women's vote from Obama (unlikely, given Palin's pro-life, repeal-Roe-v.-Wade urges), I think this was a batty choice from McCain. Way to steal the media's attention, though (Michael Crowley points out that McCain's pick is receiving almost wall-to-wall attention on newspaper frontpages and so on). Feeding the beast...

At least one way or another, though, this election will definitely have a whole new something: either 1st Black President, or 1st Female Vice President.

In slightly related news, as the Economist says on this week's cover, "Bring back the real McCain"! He's being a little dotty at the moment. (More on this after I've read the rest of the article...)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Site Rearrange

Just a quick update on the future of this blogsite.
I'm trying to get everything rearranged, so this will be the homepage for all my other blogs, with a ribbon of links at the top (if anyone knows how to do this...). I will rearrange some of the posts, too, into their new places. The categories that will be featured:
  • Politics & Current Affairs - this will remain on the frontpage, as it is now.
  • MWRI - the music review site I've been running for years.
  • Civilian-Reader - my book review site
  • Gubbins & Gizmos - a technology blog, where you'll (eventually) find posts about technology, like the one below about the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader.
  • General - this is where I'll put all my posts about life, coffee, travel and so forth. Lighter in tone, shorter posts. I suppose this would be the closest I get to having a "Twitter" site.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sony, Kindle, iLiad...

On 3rd September, Waterstone's is going to release Sony's new e-reader via its highstreet stores and also its website. Ok, so far so intrigued. We know how much the reader will be (£199), but other than that, not a whole lot. The battery lasts for just under "7,000 page turns", and it can store up to 160 books at a time. Fine, that's pretty great, if true. But there is NO information about the costs of the books to read on them, or really much information or indication what sort of range will be on offer (7,000 pages of crap-per single charge won't really do much for anyone). Some sources claim "10,000s" of titles, which I suppose is okay for a first launch (unless they're all books people are likely to own already if they have any interested in them).
As someone seriously considering one of these (there's no more space in my home for books!), I'm not happy about this fact. This, frankly, makes it the worst promotional campaign in Britain's history. I contacted Waterstone's by email to find out a little more, and I was referred to their website, despite my email specifically stating that I wanted more information than was available on the website (Customer Services/Satisfaction: D-...), but they just told me they had no other information. Three weeks before launch...
On purchasing the Sony reader, you get a CD with 100 free classics - step up all English students! They'll likely need all 100, and think of the space and money saved! Ok, it probably wouldn't be that much, as most classics are now pretty cheap anyway, but think of the space!
Now on to the bit that worries me: according to The Times Online, publishers are "pitching the books at just below the price of a hardback". A hardback?! A clerk in my local Waterstone's Academic store said - while admitting that she hadn't really paid much attention at the presentation - that books would be about £1 cheaper than the printed versions.
The Times article also mentions the release of a UK version of Amazon's nifty Kindle device (which will apparently also see 2 new versions in the US over the next year or so, according to other sources: including this week's Newsweek, p.40). Now, these are a hell of a lot more interesting than Sony's limitted ereader, assuming the UK Kindle retains much of the functionality of the US version. Come to think of it, will it be possible to use a UK Kindle in the US, or a US version in the UK? It's something to think about, given the possible, massive price differentials. Speaking of which...
In the US, a lot of the titles available for the Kindle at priced at $9.99 - this includes, at the time of writing, the following (with corresponding print-copy prices):
  • Scott McClellan, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House & Washington's Culture of Deception" ($27.95)
  • James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge, "The Dangerous Days of Daniel X" ($19.99)
  • Fareed Zakaria, "The Post-American World" ($25.95)
  • Brad Thor, "The Last Patriot" ($26.00)
  • David Sedaris, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" ($25.99)
  • Stephanie Meyer, "Breaking Dawn" ($22.99)
"Paperbacks" on the Kindle seem to be going, through a cursory glance, for approximately $6.
How can they justify such a large increase for over here? Even at £15 they would be too expensive (equivalent of about $29). I think iTunes is pushing it, asking for £8 for a digital album when that's only £1 less than you can normally buy them in stores or Amazon/HMV/, so almost full price for a book will be seriously pushing it.
Personally, I'd be willing to pay £8-10 for a new ebook of a new hardback release (particularly political and current affairs books, which I actually need for my PhD, and are usually much more expensive and rarely on special offers), and maybe £4 for an ebook of an equivalent paperback release. "Cheapskate" someone said to me in a conversation about ereaders. Well, no, not really. offers new paperback at £3.99, sometimes £3.49 - this price, one assumes, can cover the cost of printing, storage and (if you order £15 worth, or have an Amazon Prime account, as I now do) postage and packing. An ebook will have no printing costs, no physical storage costs (digital storage must be infintely cheaper), and no postage and packing costs. How would £6~ for a "paperback" and £15~ for a "hardback" be justified?
The Times Online article does say that most/all of Terry Pratchett's novels will be available as ebooks by the end of the year. Ok, so at least they'll be getting some great content, but we need to know more!
eReaders have a great deal of potential - for voracious readers with small homes, for students (if the prices are reasonable), and with regards to older or hard-to-find titles (ebooks should help reduce the problems inherent with books going out of print). We'll just have to keep an eye out, I suppose.
For the moment, though, with Amazon's discounted prices and Waterstone's 3-for-2 on mass-market paperbacks, along with the fact that hands and opposable thumbs came as standard when I was born, I'll be sticking to the printed format.

Continuing the Coffee Theme...

Another quick post on the subject of coffeeshops in the UK. Some observations
  • Coffee cups/mugs are considerably smaller in London than they are in the same franchise in Durham and Cambridge. I was in a Cafe Nero's a month or so ago in London, and the cup was noticeably about 1/3 smaller than usual! No comparative reduction in price, I might point out...
  • Starbucks have improved their coffee a great deal - it used to be way to strong and be far too bitter. Now they appear to have discovered a better strain/species of bean. Highly recommended.
  • Don't go for Starbucks' coffee-of-the-day unless you're there really early in the morning. If you get it by the end of the day, it's stewed to the consistency and (I imagine) the flavour of warm tar - this is true for, at least, the branches in Cambridge and New York.

I'll write about coffeeshops again tomorrow. I spend enough time in them, after all. Maybe I should write my thesis about coffee and not US Foreign Policy...

Damned Stupid Coffee Cups

Just a short, irritated post about the size and shape of coffee cups in the chain stores in the UK: they're too wide. For those of us who are... nasally gifted, it's a pain when one takes a sip and (if it's freshly made and piping hot) burns the end of one's nose! Costa, Starbucks and Esquires (which might only be in Durham, I'm not sure) are the worst offenders! Nero's have decent mugs.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

When others do things better than you...

I'm currently putting together the second chapter of my PhD and I've come across a particularly irksome problem: namely, finding people who have done a better job at what you're trying to achieve, writing about the same subject with far more eloquence and aplomb that I ever could manage.

It makes it really tempting to just have this as my chapter:

Chapter 2
US Foreign Policy in History
See Henry Kissinger (2002) and Charles Kupchan (2002)


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

re: "The Death of English (LOL)"

"Will text messaging produce generations of illiterates? Could this - OMG - be the death of the English language?"

So writes Lily Huang in the latest issue of Newsweek (p.10 for European readers). The UK sends six billion text messages every month, apparently (of which I send a hefty proportion, I must say). While it is true that most people use "textese" contractions, I've managed to avoid it at all costs. The shortest text I'm willing to send is "ok", but I often think that's a waste of the 160~ characters you're allowed per text. So, I usually expand on the message, in full prose.

My response is to Huang's question, though is: It will, but it deserves only half the blame. The rest of the blame rests on the way children are taught in schools. Certainly, this is true for UK schools, but I can't speak for any other countries. One of my former flatmates was doing a PGCE at Durham, and he was doing his marking in the kitchen one day.

I flicked through the stuff he'd marked, and noticed that he hadn't picked up on the rampant misspellings throughout every child's exercise book. When I asked him why he didn't correct their spelling, he said that he was told not to, because it "diminishes the child's momentum", and as a teacher, he's not allowed to tell a student that they've done something wrong.

Funny, I thought that's EXACTLY what a teacher was supposed to do. You know, teach the child how to spell!