Archive for March 6, 2011

Third Generation Kindle

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

In mid-January, at the end of my post about Robert Crais’ latest crime novel, The Sentry, I said a few words about e-readers:

I started The Sentry Sunday night on my iPad, because it’s what I happened to have at hand. But yesterday, when I set about reading the book in earnest, I switched to the Kindle. It’s still my preferred e-reader, unless I actually want the distraction of being able to check my email and the blogs every few minutes. But distractions aside, it’s so much easier to hold for extended periods of reading. Holding an iPad with one hand isn’t feasible. Holding a Kindle and turning pages with one hand makes a huge difference. And just imagine how much better the experience must be with the third generation — lighter still, better contrast. In two days, I won’t have to imagine. My new Kindle will arrive.

I have meant since then to write about Amazon’s third-generation Kindle. I started a post a week ago, but got no further than pointing out that in the preceding six weeks, I had read four books on it despite lots of other obligations, concluding that I couldn’t seem to put it down. It’s one of the reasons I did so little blogging in February, and why unread New Yorkers and New York Reviews of Books are piling up everywhere.

I know this is difficult to believe, given that the new Kindle is only a little smaller (same screen size though) and a little lighter than the old one, but I felt as I read those four books that for the first time, I’d rather read a book on the Kindle than read the book itself. Before, I would read on the Kindle for the convenience, especially when traveling. And because it’s lighter and easier to hold when lying down. And because I save on the space the books take up in the house, and usually on cost too. But I never felt I preferred the Kindle-reading experience.

What’s different now? Here are my guesses. I mean, I know what’s different about the Kindle. The question is, what about its differences makes me enjoy reading on it more? And my preference for reading on the Kindle is an observed fact, but without immediately obvious explanation, so I must guess.

1. The reduction in size of the Kindle, and reduction in weight too I suppose, allows me to hold it in one hand more comfortably than I could its predecessor. Both are easy to hold with the thin dimension pinched between thumb and other fingers. Now, though, I can put my hand behind it and hold the full width in my palm, whereas before I could do so only with a bit of hand stretching.

2. The better contrast between the e-ink text and the background makes reading more natural, at least in good light. In low light I don’t notice an improvement in contrast. With sufficient direct light, the text pops out in a way it doesn’t on the Kindle 2.

3. The black color of the body allows the Kindle to disappear into the background more than the white body of the Kindle 2 does. The less obtrusive keyboard helps too.

4. The quieter page turning buttons create less of a distraction, both aurally and in the way pressing them feels.

5. Having buttons on both the left and right sides to turn back a page is vastly more convenient. In the Kindle 2, one could move forward by pressing a button on the left or a parallel button on the right, but to go back, one had to push a smaller button that was on the left only. The new Kindle has mirror image buttons left and right — a larger forward button and a smaller back button. Since I usually turn forward with my right hand, I used to have to grab the Kindle 2 with my left when I wanted to go back, with the result that sometimes I just didn’t bother turning back even when I wanted to check something. There was some sense, conscious or unconscious, that doing so was a nuisance. Now going back feels as natural as going forward.

6. The surface of the new Kindle is different, a little textured, not smooth like the Kindle 2. At first, I didn’t think I would like it, but now I prefer it.

The next books I want to read happen to be ones I own in hardcover. And there’s a novel I want to read — Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad — that I almost downloaded for the Kindle in January, only to be warned by an Amazon reader review that this would be a big mistake. The reviewer explained that there are chapters written in Powerpoint, and that these “chapters are extremely difficult to read on the Kindle. The print is so small and the back grounds so dark that even a magnifying glass was little help. The font size selection feature on the Kindle did not work on the ‘slides’ for those chapters.” As it turns out, the novel comes out in paperback in two weeks, and at a lower price than the Kindle price, so I’ll order the paperback edition.

But here’s the curious thing. I’m deferring reading these books. I’d rather read on the Kindle. Or maybe part of the point is that I’m deferring starting another book altogether, so I can get my work done and make a little headway on my magazine backlog. Whatever the reason, I miss the Kindle experience.

Categories: Books, Technology

Next to Normal

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

[Craig Shwartz]

We saw the touring production of the musical Next to Normal last night at the 5th Avenue Theatre. We got a mailing for it last month and when Gail tried to recycle the card, I pulled it out, saying maybe we should go. I then pinned the card to the bulletin board and proceeded to do nothing. But Gail went ahead and bought tickets to give me as my birthday present last week, by which point I couldn’t remember why seeing Next to Normal was so urgent.

We started the evening with dinner across the street at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery — Gail and me, Jessica and Joel. Convenient, but nothing special. I did like my beer. Then we arrived at the theater well ahead of time and took our seats once they opened the door at 7:30, giving us plenty of time to review the playbill.

That’s when the disappointment began, with the small slips of paper inserted that announced which actors would be replaced by which understudies. No Alice Ripley! Winner of the 2009 Tony for leading actress in a musical, creator of the musical’s central role. I suppose that’s what happens when there are matinees and evening performances on Saturdays and Sundays through the run, but I felt cheated.

I didn’t feel too good, either, when I looked up above the stage at the collection of speakers, the sort that they used to have hanging at the Kingdome before it was blown up, the sort that grace every indoor sports arena. I understand that the days of musicals with unmiked performers are long over, but this didn’t look promising.

And sure enough, much of the singing during the show would be better described as shouting, the better to be heard over the amplified instruments. During many of the more climactic moments, especially when several actors would be singing at once and the music would reach a crescendo, the actors would shout in unison, and while one could hear each of their voices, one couldn’t discern what words were wailed.

Not to complain. The show held my interest. I particularly enjoyed the set and the lighting. As for the story, which centers on the travails of a bipolar, schizophrenic woman and her family (I dare not say more, as the plot holds a few surprises), my one reservation was that it seemed to treat the therapists and their medicines as a source of humor, without exploring the relevant issues in any depth or providing illumination. There’s a story to be told, not that the musical has any obligation to tell that story. Indeed, today’s NYT has a piece, Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy, that is very much to the point:

Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry.

Trained as a traditional psychiatrist at Michael Reese Hospital, a sprawling Chicago medical center that has since closed, Dr. Levin, 68, first established a private practice in 1972, when talk therapy was in its heyday.

Then, like many psychiatrists, he treated 50 to 60 patients in once- or twice-weekly talk-therapy sessions of 45 minutes each. Now, like many of his peers, he treats 1,200 people in mostly 15-minute visits for prescription adjustments that are sometimes months apart. Then, he knew his patients’ inner lives better than he knew his wife’s; now, he often cannot remember their names. Then, his goal was to help his patients become happy and fulfilled; now, it is just to keep them functional.

Actually, as I re-read the passage, I see that the musical does, in effect, tell this very story. My objection, perhaps, has more to do with how facilely it’s told. Nonetheless, the musical does grapple with these issues, as it depicts the sufferings and occasional successes of the family. I’m happy to have seen it.

For a more enthusiastic view, I turn you over to NYT lead theater critic Ben Brantley. He wrote about the musical’s Off-Broadway incarnation in 2008. A year later, when it opened on Broadway, he was overwhelmed:

No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.

“Next to Normal” does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.

For the retooled version, first seen at the Arena Stage in Washington in November, they made the decision to toughen up and to cast off the last traces of cuteness. This meant never releasing the audience from the captivity of its characters’ minds. That decision has transformed a small, stumbling musical curiosity into a work of muscular grace and power.

Categories: Theater

Frank Chirkinian

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Frank Chirkinian died Friday. As Richard Goldstein explains in the NYT obituary, he

defined televised golf as the innovative executive producer and director for CBS’s coverage of the Masters tournament for 38 consecutive years … .

When Mr. Chirkinian first oversaw CBS’s coverage of the Masters at Augusta National in 1959, televised golf was a black-and-white affair with bulky stationary cameras.

Mr. Chirkinian transformed it into an imaginative spectacle, using more than two dozen mobile cameras as well as a camera in a blimp along with split screens showing two golfers putting at the same time. He cut briskly from hole to hole. He showed his audience where the leaders stood in relation to par as play progressed, not simply their total score, and he placed microphones on the greens to pick up chatter between the golfers and their caddies.

It’s worth a moment to appreciate the importance of his scoring innovation. In most golf tournaments (as I explained at length a week ago), scoring is handled by counting how many strokes each player takes to get around the course, and the player with the fewest strokes wins. They play 18 holes each day for four days, and typically they may take somewhere between 65 and 80 strokes each day. Thus, in the middle of the last round, as the tension mounts, a player who has finished 9 of the 18 holes may have taken 245 strokes. A player two holes ahead may be mounting a charge, having taken only 249 strokes. And a player two holes back may be collapsing, having taken 241 strokes.

Um, how do we keep track of that? How do we measure just how far ahead each player is compared to the others? The basic data are number of strokes taken and number of holes played. But we can’t see at a glance how some 70 or so players on the last day (and 156 on the first day) are doing relative to each other with a listing of these pairs of numbers.

Enter Mr. Chirkinian, with a stroke of genius. Let’s measure a player’s performance not through absolute numbers — strokes taken and holes played — but through the relative information of number of strokes taken compared to par. Thus, rather than saying that Tom Morris has taken 245 strokes through the 9th hole on day four (or 245 strokes through 63 holes), we’ll say that Morris is 3 under par. This would mean that if someone had played each of the 63 holes to that point in par, that player would have taken 248 strokes, making 248 the cumulative par, and so Morris, with 245 strokes, has taken 3 fewer strokes than the par player would. In contrast, the fellow two holes ahead who has taken 249 strokes, having played a par 5 hole at 10 and a par 4 hole at 11, is comparing his 249 strokes to a cumulative par of 254 and so is 6 under par. Viewers would see that Morris is at 3 under and his opponent up the course is at 6 under, allowing immediate comparison.

For more on Chirkinian, see the appreciation by NYT golf writer Larry Dorman. Dorman quotes Davis Love as saying on Friday, when asked to describe Chirkinian’s contributions to golf, that “Frank invented golf, the scoring system for golf and then golf on TV. That’s a pretty good résumé.”

Chirkinian’s greatest legacy is surely the Masters on CBS, the single finest TV sports broadcast of the year. The NYT obituary captures his greatness perfectly, and I’ll end as it does:

Notwithstanding his aura of dominance, Mr. Chirkinian was determined to let the game of golf show itself off without being overwhelmed by clever TV techniques.

“I showed lots and lots of golfers and lots and lots of golf shots,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1995, “and I try never to subordinate the event to my ego. When I die, I want my epitaph to read, ‘He stayed out of the way.’ ”

Categories: Golf, Obituary

Change We Can Believe In, XII, Part 2

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Torturing US Citizens Awaiting Trial

Three days ago, I wrote of the latest mistreatment of PFC Bradley Manning, being held in solitary confinement and, in recent days, overnight forced nudity at the Quantico brig. Over the last nine months, as summarized here, these are the conditions of his detention:

23-hour/day solitary confinement; barred even from exercising in his cell; one hour total outside his cell per day where he’s allowed to walk around in circles in a room alone while shackled, and is returned to his cell the minute he stops walking; forced to respond to guards’ inquiries literally every 5 minutes, all day, everyday; and awakened at night each time he is curled up in the corner of his bed or otherwise outside the guards’ full view.

And now forced nudity. This because he released classified documents, an act for which he has yet to be tried, much less convicted. Regardless of one’s views about the damage done by WikiLeaks (and the newspapers that published the documents released by WikiLeaks, though as I mentioned three days ago, I haven’t seen the NYT’s Keller arrested), what is the justification for this treatment? UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, no fan of WikiLeaks, wrote this on Friday under the heading Bradley Manning, meet George Orwell (boldface mine, and hat tip, Glenn Greenwald):

The United States Army is so concerned about Bradley Manning’s health that it is subjecting him to a regime designed to drive him insane. That’s old news. Now we learn that the Army is so concerned about his right to privacy it refused to explain why he is being stripped naked and forced to stand outside his cell.

Yes, yes, PFCs don’t get to decide to release a bunch of classified material. Manning has probably earned himself a prison cell. And I can understand the desire to pressure him into implicating Julian Assange.

All of that said: This is a total disgrace. It shouldn’t be happening in this country. You can’t be unaware of this, Mr. President. Silence gives consent.

Those last two sentences were the point of my previous post, though I failed to say make the point as well.

See also this piece by Ryan Gallagher in today’s Guardian (h/t to Greenwald again). Here is Gallagher’s closing paragraph:

“Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal,” said Barack Obama in 2008. But the stench of his hypocrisy is no longer bearable. It is time, now more than ever, that Bradley Manning received the justice he so clearly deserves.

Categories: Law, Torture