Friday, November 28, 2008

2008 Gift Guide: The Kindle -- An Uncle John Review

Uncle John bought a Kindle a few months ago, and has rarely been without it since. He offered to write a review of it for this fine blog, and I now suspect that he made the offer because even Amazon wasn't willing to let him go on for 2,498 words about the damn thing. But, as with all John Cusey Joints, it's worth it. I would ask him to give a simple thumbs up/ thumbs down summary, but he's too busy thumb-fucking his Kindle. So let's take that as a "yea."


Back in the mid ‘90s, my friend Ben got himself a Palm Pilot. Shortly afterwards, he proudly told me that he had been reading some book or other on said Palm Pilot. I thought that he was nuts. Well, okay, I would have thought that he was nuts regardless; but reading a book on a postage stamp didn’t sound like my idea of fun. From then up until a couple of months ago, that continued to be my opinion of e-books and e-book readers: what’s the point? I don’t want to read books on a desktop or laptop, and all available dedicated e-book readers seemed like glorified PDAs with too much crammed onto them or crippled laptops that didn’t have enough functionality. I remember hearing something about Amazon coming out with an e-book reader about a year ago, but paper books worked perfectly fine for me, thank you very much.

A few months ago, I was wandering through my friendly neighborhood Borders when I noticed a display with this little brushed aluminum gadget that measured perhaps seven inches by five inches. Upon closer examination, I discovered that it was a Sony PRS-505 e-book reader. It was immediately obvious that this device was different from my preconceived notions of e-book readers. The screen was large enough so that you could actually read a reasonable amount at a time. Furthermore, it wasn’t LCD, and it wasn’t back-lit. It looked more like black type on a paper-like pale gray background. And you could change the size of the font at the touch of a button. I played around with it for a few minutes and was very impressed. Here was something lightweight and very portable that could haul a vast amount of reading material and present it on a reasonably sized screen that didn’t have the drawbacks of LCD. This was something that I could get behind.

These are cute, no?

Further research showed that the PRS-505’s display was something called E Ink (made, surprisingly enough, by the E Ink Corporation; and originally developed at MIT), “a paper-like high contrast appearance, ultra-low power consumption, and a thin, light form. It gives the viewer the experience of reading from paper, while having the power of updatable information,” as the E Ink website has it. What does that mean? As a practical matter, it means two things. First, where LCD displays are hell on batteries, E Ink displays are very, very gentle. Second, where LCD displays are inherently rough on the eyes because they are high-glare and backlit, E Ink displays are not. There are a couple of downsides to E Ink, of course: for right now, it’s black-and-white only – color is currently in the laboratory, but it’s not economically feasible just yet; and it takes an E Ink display much longer to change what is being shown than it would an LCD display. Therefore, it’s not viable for use as, say, a PDA screen. But as an e-book screen, those two deficiencies don’t matter that much.

There are currently three families of e-book readers that use E Ink displays: Sony (in addition to the PRS-505, there is also a PRS-500, which is very similar to the PRS-505 but with an older-generation display, and the PRS-700, which was introduced within the last couple of months), the iRex iLiad readers, and the Amazon Kindle. The iLiad readers are several hundred dollars more expensive than the Sony or Amazon readers, so it was immediately out of the running. That left the Sony reader and the Amazon Kindle.

I chose the Kindle. It’s undeniably true that the Kindle doesn’t look as cool as the Sony reader, but it wins just about every other feature comparison. Both readers can display a variety of different formats, from text and HTML to proprietary Sony (for the Sony reader) and Amazon (for the Kindle) DRM formats, but there is a lot more content available from Amazon for the Kindle than from Sony for their reader. And it’s cheaper, too. The vast majority of new-release books are $9.99 for the Kindle and at least two or three dollars more for the Sony.

The method of delivery is superior for the Kindle, too. With the Sony, you have to use a USB cable to transfer the e-books from a laptop or desktop PC to the reader. You can do that with the Kindle, too, but you can also have the books delivered wirelessly – the Kindle connects to Sprint’s wireless network (for no additional charge or monthly rate), and books you buy from Amazon are downloaded instantly to your Kindle. And suppose that you want to get some Gibbon that you picked up from Project Gutenberg onto the Kindle, too. Well, you just e-mail it to, and it will appear within a minute or so. (That, unlike the transfer when you buy from Amazon, isn’t free – it’s $0.10 per e-mail, and e-mails can only come from previously-registered e-mail addresses so you don’t have to worry about having to pay for spam. Note that transferring via USB cable is always an option.)

Look kids, Big Ben!

With that Sprint wireless connection, you can shop on Amazon for books, too; and if you want to see if you’ll like a book before shelling out the money for it, Amazon has free samples of a chapter or two available for most titles. With e-book readers, content is king, and Amazon has more and cheaper content than does Sony. Furthermore, due to Amazon’s place in the bookselling industry, I would think that they have significantly more clout with publishers and a better chance of making a successful go of their reader and their proprietary DRM format than Sony. That’s important – these things are expensive, and it would be unfortunate if new books were not available for them at some point in the future because publishers didn’t think that it was worth their while to produce them.

So Amazon wins on content. The Sony reader is cheaper than the Kindle ($299 vs. $359), but that’s a bit misleading – you have to pay extra for the charger and the cover for the Sony reader, where they are included with the Kindle. Ergonomically, I thought that the big Next and Previous buttons on the Kindle would be superior to the tiny comparable buttons on the Sony. The Sony looks better than the Kindle, but so what? I was considering an e-book reader, not a fashion accessory. And so, after a few weeks of dithering because of the price, I ended up buying the Kindle.

I am very glad that I did. Reading on a Kindle is not like reading on a computer screen. It’s very much like reading a physical book, albeit a physical book with small pages. The E Ink display is perfectly readable both inside and outside, even in bright sunlight. The reading experience is very good. A lot of new users complain that the E Ink display takes too long to switch pages (the time is dependent on the font size and whether the new page has any graphics on it, but I typically get switch times of about 1 second) and that there is a “black flash” – basically, the display reversing the polarity of the type so that the background is black and the letters are light gray as it clears the screen to display the new page – but I have found that neither one of these are particularly noticeable after you have used the device for a while. I have gotten used to pressing the Next button as I reach the last line, and the overall interruption in reading is probably about the same or less than it would be in turning the page of a physical book.

Amazon likes to boast that they have almost 200,000 titles available for the Kindle. That’s dramatically fewer than are available for hard-copy books, and it is a drawback. What I have found is that there are usually Kindle versions of new releases from major publishers, as well as the two or three most recent books from the authors of those new releases. Just about any classic, out-of-copyright work in English that your heart could desire can be found either from Amazon or from sites like Project Gutenberg. The big hole is for works still in copyright from smaller publishing houses or that were published more than 7 or 10 years ago. I would imagine that we will see the same sort of thing that we saw with DVDs, where studios worked backwards over the years until their DVD catalogues were reasonably complete; but for right now, it can be annoying. If you like David Hackett Fischer, for example, you can easily find his new book Champlain’s Dream or Washington’s Crossing or Paul Revere’s Ride, but you’re out of luck if you want to read Albion’s Seed, which was originally published in 1989 and is probably the reason that most of us have ever heard of the guy.

And you can forget about graphics-heavy books on the Kindle. As I have written above, E Ink doesn’t do color yet. In addition, the size of the screen can make pictures and maps hard to read. The Kindle won’t allow you to zoom in or pan on the graphics, either. (You can save the graphics as GIF files, download them to your PC, and zoom or pan using PC-based graphics software. But that’s more effort than I am willing to expend in virtually every case.) So graphical novels, coffee table books, and children’s books are out.

But most fiction and narrative non-fiction works very well with the Kindle. Even books heavy on footnotes do very well, provided that the publisher has properly formatted the footnotes. They can be hyperlinked, allowing the reader simply to click on them to view the citation or explanation, then to press the Back button to resume reading the text. And because it’s possible to carry so much reading material on the Kindle (186 MB onboard memory available for books, which Amazon says is enough to hold around 200 books; there is a slot for an SD card, too, so you can spend $10 and have space for enough reading material for the next few years), frequent context switches are not a problem.

Why don't I have a fur bra?

One of the first e-books that I purchased for my Kindle was David Hackett Fischer’s aforementioned Champlain’s Dream, and my experience with it illustrates the promise and the problems with the Kindle. It’s a fairly large book in hard-copy form – 848 pages. That means that taking it with you to restaurants or on the airplane or to the doctor’s office is not the easiest thing in the world. That’s not a problem with the Kindle version. The Kindle version is substantially cheaper than the hard-copy version, too -- $9.99 vs. $26.40. But Fischer likes pictures and maps, and there are a lot of them in Champlain’s Dream. Most of the pictures are vignette-sized in the hard-copy book, and they come out pretty well in the Kindle version. Not so much the maps. The maps are very difficult to read, and this is unfortunate. I would hope that Amazon adds the ability to zoom and pan on graphics in later versions of either the hardware or the firmware that runs it. This didn’t ruin my ability to enjoy the book, though, and I don’t regret the purchase. (The book itself is very good – perhaps not exactly Albion’s Seed, but still an excellent and very enjoyable book about the foundation of New France.)

Amazon has a handful of newspapers and magazines available as Kindle editions. When I first read about that, I thought that it was useless – most of these publications are available online for free, I reasoned. Nevertheless, I decided to give the Wall Street Journal a try because Amazon offers a free 14-day trial for all newspapers and magazines. Well, let me tell you that a Kindle newspaper beats the pants off an online newspaper or a physical newspaper, at least for the kind of newspaper reading that I do. Unlike a physical newspaper, you don’t get newsprint on your fingers, you don’t have to fold or unfold the pages, and you don’t have to go to page A13 for the continuation of the article. Unlike an online paper, it’s easy to find all that’s present in a particular day’s edition. I let my subscription to the physical Wall Street Journal lapse earlier this year because I didn’t want to pay the money anymore, and I figured that I could get most of the information online. But I didn’t. I read the Kindle version of the paper now where I wasn’t reading the online version before. So yes, it’s easier to search the archives online. But I’ll take the Kindle for daily reading.

One of the standard complaints about the Kindle is that the Next and Previous buttons are too large and are too easy to push accidentally. And so they are, if you don’t put the Kindle into its cover while you’re using it. It’s not really a problem if you use the cover. As I mentioned, the Kindle comes with a cover, and an ugly thing it is, too. It’s black pleather, and it doesn’t really hold the device securely. I quickly bought an aftermarket leather M-Edge Kindle cover (in tan Scotch grain), and I’m much happier with that. Another common complaint is that the Kindle’s design is a tribute to brutalism. “I wish that they had hired Apple’s designers, “ I commonly read in comments and reviews. I could snark here that if Amazon had hired Apple’s designers, the Kindle would have an LCD touch screen, no buttons, and a battery that can only be replaced by Apple at great expense; but that would be unkind. I do think that complaints about the design are overblown, however, and that function is much more important than form. And the Kindle has function.

So is the Kindle worth $359? Well, as with all such questions, it depends. If you don’t read very much, it probably isn’t. Nor is it if most of the books you read come from the library, your friends, or the used bookstore. And if you’re not reading books that are heavy on the prose and light on the graphics, you’re likely to be disappointed. But I like reading prosy books, and I don’t frequently get them second-hand. For me, it has been well worth it. The amount that I’m reading since I bought the Kindle has increased significantly, and I’m not exactly reading crap. For me, it has been worth it, and I don’t regret the purchase at all. The Kindle isn’t cheap, and it’s not perfect. But it is a very good device; and with the marketing muscle of Amazon and Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement behind it, I get the feeling that it’s here to stay.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Put down the Granta you were reading -- SGM's Real Housewives of Atlanta Reunion Show recap is up.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

2008 Gift Guide: Gifts Gang Agley

Seeing Ben's comment on the Emmet post reminded me of a gift-giving boondoggle a few years ago. Papi and I were still in school and Ben and Sara had just entered their DINK years. I went to Fredericksburg (cute German village in central TX) shortly before Christmas, so I picked up box of miniature jars of artisanal mustard . Ben and Sara gave us ... a 5-piece place setting of silver. "Uh, hey, hope you enjoy that mustard, eh?" I should have bought them the full-size jars: I might have gotten a Mercedes.

All About the Girl

Just a quick follow-up: Someone wrote to ask me if Becca is "completely and totally 'typical.'"


No; in fact, it's a REALLY HILARIOUS STORY, GOD. Becca has a seizure disorder, most likely epilepsy. It's controlled by medication ... sort of. But the medication she takes (because the first three failed) is notorious for making kids have "rage" issues not unlike "'roid rage." Big fun at our house.

And the medication has some sort of cognitively inhibiting effect, too. I can tell that there is something going on in her noggin that isn't really coming out in her schoolwork. She comes out as low as the sixth percentile in her standardized test scores. I guess, as her mother, I am just incapable of believing that this is anywhere close to accurate. But it's just a stupid standardized test, so who cares? If the school district is happy, I'm happy.

Also, we recently (last week) figured out that she may be having absence seizures, too. We learned that when the teacher called us in for a conference to tell us that she's having trouble making friends. Oh, and she won't write her test answers; she insists on singing them.

But, you know, other than all that ...

Seriously, next time I'm going to pay for the full-price cabbage patch. I think this one must have been on a Superfund site.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dear Internet,

Thank you all for your supportive comments. I really needed that.

All About the Boy

I’m never sure how much personal stuff to write on this blog, but every now and then I feel compelled to share. And so right now, even though I’d rather be writing gift guides and assorted other nonsense, I’m just going to rant.

Emmet has Asperger’s Syndrome. Look it up. It’s a disorder related to Autism, but sufferers are said to be “high functioning.” Just looking at him, you’d never know that anything was wrong. But if you spend some time with him, you’ll see that he has trouble with social functioning. Asperger’s sufferers (they call themselves “Aspies”) aren’t good at self-reflection, and they aren’t good at picking up on social cues. They're also (in most cases) uncoordinated, and they tend to have a variety of tics (physical and behavioral). On top of this, Emmet has an anxiety disorder.

Emmet’s life is tough. He is in trouble constantly at school because of the little tics that he’s developed, and because of his anxiety, and because he is afraid of going to the bathroom (which means that he has “accidents”). Emmet makes life at home hard, too. He is almost ungovernable. The things he does that are out-of-line are, essentially, compulsive actions, which means that no chats, no time-outs, no reasoning is useful with him.

My heart breaks for Emmet, because he is such a sweet little boy who just doesn’t understand how the world works. But right now my heart is also breaking because we’re being abandoned. It started out last year, when Emmet’s friends began to distance themselves from him. Even the first graders understood that he was strange and hard to play with.

But right now we’re being abandoned by people I thought were my friends. Our social invitations have dried up. I kind of understand that. Emmet makes any situation difficult – when you’re hanging out with friends, you just want things to be easy. But the harder thing for me is the judgment. As the wise Letitia pointed out to me, people tell themselves that Emmet’s problems come from bad parenting because people want to believe that something like this couldn’t happen to them. Not with their attentive, competent parenting, right? [God knows I’ve thought the same thing; karma is a bitch.] And so the judgment comes down. It hurts.

Now I’m getting left out, too. As I’m sure you’ve surmised, there is no shortage of reasons to dislike me. For instance, what kind of nerd uses the word surmised in conversation? Would you want to hang with anybody who talked like that?

God knows I’m not perfect. I probably shouldn’t have had children. I’m all emotional and flaky and weak. Most of the time I think I’m just not up for this job. I try to use my strengths to help us. I’m good at checking out books from the library, for example. I don’t have a lot of patience for reading them, unfortunately, but Papi does. And that was the other right thing I did – Papi is USDA-Prime husband/father material. Good work on that one, Mamacita.

And now I’ve shown you why I don’t think I could be a writer. I’m generally disinclined to lay it all out there for the world to see. And really, we could have an emoting contest, and I’m telling you, I WOULD WIN. But I mostly try to keep that superpower under wraps. But today I’m telling you this because I need you to leave me some vaguely encouraging remarks in the comment section. I work for the crumbs, you know.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What mamacita is ...

Martha's Cardamom Streusel Coffee Cake. I used white cardamom pods from Penzey's. I almost stopped at that step in the recipe -- right there in the store -- because the cardamom did not smell AT ALL like I expected it to (it smelled vaguely like a household cleaner).

But I proceeded; I had to toast the pods (18 of them) and grind them and put them through a sieve. Now that might immediately turn you off of the recipe -- I'm usually out at the mention of a sieve -- put that was really the only pain-in-the-ass step. The cake turned out well enough, which is to say that I liked it, but I don't know if everyone will. It was a subtle flavor -- no "Death By Cardamom!" here. I will probably make it again (not least because I have a whole jar of cardamom pods to get through).

We took the kiddos on Saturday, and had a good time. Just in case my status as a nerd was ever in question. The RenFest may be the exception to the Hal Rubinstein maxim that "Nothing is fun for the whole family unless the parents are under 10."


So damn funny, even though I was sure it wouldn't be. Good for: people who like to laugh. Not good for: sensitive Jews; sensitive African-Americans; sensitive retards; sensitive people with GI distress; John McCain.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What I Most Want for Christmas

Is to see My Morning Jacket at Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve.

Just in case my fairy godmother is checking in.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hey All You Musical Types

Ten points if you can tell me what instrument Jim James is playing in this video. (video=6:50)

Video via the Flub, who is cooler than shit.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gift Guide 2008: Future Tense

So this is the present I have for our niece, Grace. The background: Grace's parents are both pediatricians, and she seems to share their interests. She loved the Body Worlds exhibits, and one time when I had to take her to the bathroom, she gave me a play-by-play of what was happening in her intestines. (It's cute in a 6-year-old.)

Shopping at Costco one day, I found a copy of The Way We Work, a new book by David Macaulay (author of The Way Things Work, Castle, Pyramid, and others). As luck would have it, Letitia told me, Macaulay was coming to Houston for a presentation and book signing. I had Mr. Macaulay sign a book for Grace (and one for my kids, of course). When he signed his name, he also drew a chunk of intestine! He was incredibly gracious, and his presentation was great; if he's ever in your town, you should try to go see him.

I don't know if Grace will appreciate the gift this year -- though I think she will -- but I hope that she will love it even more when she's older.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gift Guide 2008: Sources

I have to interrupt this parade of self-congratulation to make a suggestion to y'all. I was in (some random) department store last weekend, and I saw the display of electronic gadgets that they always set up in the men's department for buyers who have no clue what to give the men in their lives. I know it's hard -- most men are hardly forthcoming about these things -- but you have to resist the urge to purchase any of this future landfill.

When you're stuck on a gift for a dude, you should check out Kevin Kelly's most excellent site, Cool Tools. Browse through the archives and you're likely to find some gadget that is actually useful for the dude in question.

Gift Guide 2008: I Love My Mom, Part I

Time for another installment of ... Greatest Hits: Gift Edition. This time, a gift I actually gave. Now, whether or not the recipient would call it a "greatest hit" isn't really the issue. 'Tis better to give than receive, so who cares what she thinks, right? [Just kidding, Momma!]

A couple of years ago I drew my mom's name in the Secret Santa draw at Granny's house. The parameters -- NOT THAT ANYONE ELSE FOLLOWS THEM -- call for a gift of $25 or less. I gave my mom $25 worth of red tulip bulbs. She planted them en masse in her garden, and every time she looked at them in bloom I'm sure she thought about her favorite daughter.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gift Guide 2008: Because Everybody Else Is Doing It

That is, every other blogger is doing a "gift guide," so I am, too. But I thought I would do a "greatest hits" collection -- my favorite gifts that I have ever given or received.

We kick things off with possibly the best present I have received since the Barbie townhouse of '84. And I believe this one cost the giver a whole dollar at a rummage sale.

Letitia gave me this plaque the season that we coached a t-ball team together, and it still cracks me up.

If you have a truly awesome gift that you gave or received, drop me a line; I'd love to do a post about it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Falling in Love Again

Papi and Emmet were at a Cub Scout campout this weekend, leaving me and Becca with some time alone. I was dreading the weekend, because Becca can be pretty difficult, and can wear one’s patience thin in a matter of hours. But we ended up having a great time.

Friday night I took her to Texas Art Supply for the first time. She walked around pointing out everything she wanted to put on her Christmas list (that would be one of everything). Then we went to eat Chinese food – something we can never do with her brother in tow. She showed appropriate reverence for the spicy crispy asparagus (sososososo good). She had me read the menu to her: “Sesame Beef ... Orange Beef ... Happy Family…” and immediately decided on Happy Family. She just liked the sound of it. She ate some of the Happy Family, and some of the Crispy Szechuan Fish, too.

Then we spent some time in Half Price books. She, as usual, wanted anything and everything Disney Princess; unfortunately for her, she is under the thumb of her mother’s mid-life discovery of kawaii, and is being reeducated in childhood heroes. But she skipped merrily out of the store, empty-handed, and went to bed peacefully while I waited for the other shoe to drop.

Saturday morning Becca woke up early, but came into my room and watched tv quietly until I got up at 9. SCORE. Then she ate what she was offered for breakfast – you have no idea what a big deal this is – and cooperated with both a trip to Walgreen’s and a haircut.

Then I loaded her up in the car, and we went downtown to the Prop 8 protest at City Hall. She played with some other kids very nicely, until I had enough of the speechifying, and decided to leave. We went across the street to the library and checked out a few things, then headed to Costco. And, friend, any day that includes a churro is a good day.

So I went from panic, on Friday afternoon – worried about what I was going to do with this little hellion – to happiness. I’m really glad we had a chance to play together one-on-one, so I could fall in love with her all over again. I might even be willing to try it with her brother sometime soon.

Although I don’t think Papi’s bonding experience went quite as well…

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I've Been So Very, Very Good This Year

Dear Santa,

For Christmas I want to look like Kate Winslet.

Thanks in advance,

P.S. to everyone -- a year of Vanity Fair is only $10 at Amazon right now. In case you're interested.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What I Bought Today

View-Master, originally uploaded by houston mamacita.

I don't know why I am stupid excited about these. Did they ever really go away, or did I just grow out of them? You can buy them on Amazon, but I found them cheaper in the store.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Completely Enchanted

This is way, way better than any commercial has a right to be. (video=1 min.)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I Bought a Zine!

"Welcome to 1990, Mamacita." Oh, shut up -- it's cool.

HT: Walking Around

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Cupcakes for Breakfast

I know one little person who was happy about the election results.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Well, we all know who won the design portion of the competition.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

preparty wagon

preparty wagon, originally uploaded by houston mamacita.

This is how we roll on Cheshire Lane. We went trick-or-treating with 19 kids and 10 (or so) parents. Then we had a real party, with even more people. It was lots of fun.

[No children were harmed by jello shots in the making of this evening.]

halloween haul

halloween haul, originally uploaded by houston mamacita.

Oh, hello. Are you a person who gave out pretzels or granola bars to trick-or-treaters? Or perhaps toothbrushes, books, or apples? FUCK YOU IN THE NOSTRIL, lady; I hope you never eat a Reese's Cup ever again.