Thursday, March 29, 2012

Me, my Kindle and a brave new world

I spotted yet another friend recently enjoying themselves with their latest high tech toy – a shiny new e-reader. I figured it was about time I joined the club. After doing a little research online, I started checking out demo models at various retailers.

I was excited about the gadget, but all the demos – at least initially – had me stepping back a step or two, wondering if a new model would be as slow, tricky and bothersome as the test model. Then I checked out a Kindle at my neighborhood Target.

The clerk actually seemed to know something about the product and the slim and sexy model on display had me at first blink! The Kindle demo showed off the basics, then allowed me to take a quick test drive. A half hour after walking into the store, I sauntered out with my new toy, anxious to tap into Amazon’s kajillion books and begin life as a digital reader!

And that’s almost the way things played out, except for the little detour I was forced to take on the information highway when Amazon decided I already had an account and sweetly demanded I tap in my password. An hour later I was still trying to tap in my password; I had forgotten it and my best efforts to create a new one failed – many times.

Finally, after momentarily thinking I just wasn’t meant to be part of the 21st Century, I came across a user’s phone number, managed to reach a real person who managed to solve my problem in, well, about five minutes. Go figure.

So this has been my experience. The Kindle is pretty and pretty intuitive to work around. Downloading books literally only take a few seconds. One tap and you’re reading; another tap and you’re turning a page. Tap yet again in the right space and you can change the size and font of the type – a really good feature, especially for those of us with oldish eyes that get tired after a few hours of reading.

There are menus that allow you to maneuver easily through books, the reader and the Kindle store. After playing around a bit with the controls, I downloaded “The Hunger Games,” the bestseller that has just shown up as a blockbuster hit at my neighborhood multiplex. Perhaps it’s just the novelty of the Kindle, but it seemed I was zipping through the book much faster than if I’d been holding a paper version in my hands. I polished it off in two days.

Now the downside. Not much to report, but there are some problems. The touch screen –at least the model I have – needs a little work. Every so often when I tap to turn the page, it jumps ahead a page or three. Because there are no page numbers, I’m not exactly sure how many pages I need to jump back. There is no heft, no pleasant sense of accomplishment as you turn a page or polish off a chapter; no idea really of how much has been read and how much remains – the Kindle does tell you what percentage of the book you have completed as you read through it.

These issues are a problem only because I’ve spent six decades holding books and turning pages. I’m thinking that in another week or so the need for tactile feedback when I read will be going the way of the dinosaur; which brings me to the last – and biggest problem.

Publishers of e-books have yet to catch up with the new technology. In the past, when reading a book, I might come across one, maybe two typos. In the e-book I’ve just started – “Voyage”, by Stephen Baxter – I’ve spotted at least a couple dozen typos, and I’ve only just begun the novel. It feels sloppy, cheap and the mistakes are really distracting. I though perhaps I’d picked the one book that was poorly handled. But, no, apparently publishers are simply not up to the task yet of digitalizing their products.

I’ve got to believe that all this sloppiness will soon go the way of the dinosaur also. After all, if I can be pulled into this oh-so brave new century, certainly book publishers – who’ve watched their mega-stores close and their revenues plummet –can clean up their act and meet me half way.

Monday, March 26, 2012

High tech hijinks: John saves the day!

It was all a very high-tech puzzle to me, but John, weekend pal and IT guru extraordinaire, managed to work a little magic the other day and re-introduce my lame printer to its high-tech host. For at least a week or so I had been searching about my computer’s innards in a futile effort to fix the problem.

Truth to tell, in this case – and many more involving the digital world we live in – it’s not what you know, but who you know! I’ll explain.

My problem began quietly enough earlier this month when I attempted to access the Internet on my laptop and got that irritating page that announces something is amiss and the web is now outside your reach. Generally that has meant I need to start pulling wires from modems and routers, shutting my network down and, when all else fails, tossing a bunch of chicken bones into a paper sack and waving it around my head while reading a few verses from the Book of Lamentations!

Despite my best efforts, nothing seemed to fix the problem and I realized I had little choice but to call my Internet provider. An hour later, after yet again pulling wires from my modem and router, typing in secret IP addresses that only IT specialists on the mother ship know, and zipping about the control panel of my hard drive, I was back to square one.

It was about then that the Internet rep suggested we try changing out the modem and router that has been part of my network and my life for the last few years and update the system with a combo modem / router that had been sent to me a few weeks earlier. I, ahh, acquiesced. Big mistake!

After spending another hour updating everything and still not being able to access the Internet, I heard Priscilla – that would be the IT specialist on the other end of the phone – say a word you never want to hear an IT specialist say – oops!

She then explained that she had just checked out the status of Internet service in my neighborhood – that would be my entire neighborhood – and it turns out that, well, the service was down! Can you say %&&$ %&$# *& %$ *@#%&!

Service was expected to be out the rest of the day and Priscilla said she’d be back in touch the following afternoon to help me setup the network she had me rip apart moments earlier. Check please!

Priscilla did, in fact, get back in touch the next day. We did manage to get my network up and running and, relatively quickly access the Internet. One itty-bitty problem remained; re-establishing contact between my printer and my new, updated Wi-Fi network.

Here’s something else you don’t want to hear your Internet provider’s specialist say: “We don’t have any documentation on printers.” Apparently that cute little aphorism that suggests if you break something, you own it doesn’t apply to high-tech idiots!

Thankfully, John – feeling good and atop his digital game after a quick visit to Five Guys – was willing to swing by my neighborhood and see if he could work up enough magic to bring my printer back to life.

I’d like to say it was a simple fix; just a little twist here and wiggle there. But, alas, John was forced to jump out onto the web and search for specialized documentation that he went about reading with gusto. I mostly stood about nodding my head, occasionally murmuring a few digital-centric words – cache, firewall, Microsoft and Apple – to offer my support and show my deep understanding of the problem.

The problem is we couldn’t seem to find the oh-so special program that would allow the printer to find and reconnect with my network. Despite John’s best efforts, the program remained hidden, just a little electrical impulse that seemed content to play hide-and-seek. And then, after an hour or so of searching, John suggested we take a look for the thingy on my laptop. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

I’m thinking there’s some sort of deep meaning behind all this high tech hijinks – perseverance, friendship and the importance of having a good burger joint in your neighborhood! I’m also thinking, as I already mentioned above, often it’s not what you know, but who you know; which essentially makes this entire posting a long and windy way of saying, “Thanks, John!”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Good friends, food at really good restaurant

The lovely Miss Wendy and I finally got around to checking out Seed Kitchen & Bar over the weekend. It’s a happening new eatery in my little corner of the world that bills itself as a chef-driven, modern American neighborhood restaurant. The buzz has been good – very good!

We met up with weekend pals Susan and John, Peter and Margaret and were seated in a little, yet roomy and comfortable corner of the light and airy dining room – an expansive space filled with an oh-so modern vibe.

Our server, a young woman filled with foodie passion, stumbled just a bit as she worked her way around the menu, detailing a few specials and offering up all the little details that her boss – Chef Doug Turbush – brings to the, ah, table each evening. Have I mentioned there was booze!

To buy a little time before focusing on the evening’s main event, we ordered a couple of appetizers – Pimento Crostinis, featuring country ham, apples and micro celery; and Garlic and Thyme Roasted Mushrooms, cradled lovingly in a pool of soft polenta, truffled pecorino cheese and local greens. Visually exciting and cosmically yummy!

All of this played out over 30 minutes or so, our server and her helpers bustling from here to there; deferential, quietly helpful. Despite being surrounded by dozens of diners – can you say hubbub?—enjoying their special night out, waiters and bus boys dashing about, the evening seemed to be moving along at a casual and lovely pace. I did mention there was drinking, right?

The moment of truth finally came and I opted for comfort food over exotic; Veal & Wild Mushroom Meatloaf, which to my utter delight was served atop a mound of garlic potatoes, all lovingly surrounded by a shallow pool of San Marzano tomato sauce – perhaps the best sauce evah!

Between bits and bites, I noticed that Wendy had yet again boxed herself into a kosher corner – veggie sandwich, thank you very much; John was devouring a thatch – group, gaggle, herd – of grilled shrimp atop a crispy wedge of polenta; and Peter, Margaret and Susan were enjoying something, I think, altogether fishy!

For a few moments all was quiet, just the light tinkling of silverware hitting china, euphonically blended with the rich aroma and delicious taste of our dinners. Enhancing the experience was the artsy and fancified presentation of each dish. Chef Turbush obviously takes pride in paying attention to all the little details, creating on the plate what fine artists manage on canvas. Unlike art patrons at museums, however, we got to eat all the little masterpieces placed before us – and we did, with relish and gusto!

And then it was time for dessert. We went the sharing route because we’re sharing sort of people. We also were full, but couldn’t deny ourselves one or two of the sweet delights offered up by Chef Turbush and his colleagues.

And so it was that we finished our grand meal with Chocolate Mousse Cake and a tasting of High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet. All was good, but the scoop of vanilla ice cream just might be the best ice cream I’ve ever – yes, ever – tasted.

Seeds is a little pricey, but in this case the old saying, “you get what you pay for” rings true. We’ll be back.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Freedom of religion: Obama, God and politics

Blogger’s note: I got an e-mail from a friend in New Zealand recently who had received a document blasting President Obama and his administration’s attack on Christianity. She readily admits she knows little about Obama and American politics, then asked my opinion. I responded that I generally follow the old adage that it’s a really good idea not to discuss politics and religion with friends, then spent several hours framing my response. Here’s what I wrote.

Barbara: I could write pages on the issue of Obama, religion, Separation of Church and State, and attacks by Obama’s enemies on the political and religious right. The polemic you forwarded, pulled together by David Barton, is filled with misinformation; half-truths and flat-out lies.

Barak Obama is a U.S. citizen. He was born in Hawaii; he’s a Christian and he’s a firm believer in The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment that details, among other points, the Separation of Church and State. It’s a concept that became the law of the land when the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787.

Much of what Barton details in his step-by-step look at Obama and his administration (the full document can be found here) go to the heart of what’s found in the First Amendment and the U.S. Bill of Rights. I’ll grant that the origins and intent of church and state separation is open to debate; it’s a heated issue that often serves as a Rorschach test that is supported or abused depending on one’s political and religious beliefs.

Let’s be clear on one point. Christianity is alive, well and thriving in the U.S. Christians can practice their religion today openly and freely. It is not under attack. None of my neighbors are worried about soldiers carrying them away because they are Christians. They can pray in their churches and, despite what some political opportunists would have you believe, Christians can pray in schools, at meetings, sporting events, private gatherings – and in the White House!

There is, however, no national religion or national prayers. Prayer meetings cannot be sanctioned by the state, nor should they be. Why? Once upon a time, back in the 1950s when I was just a little lad attending elementary school in small-town Georgia, we would begin the day with a morning devotional. Each day a different child was expected to read a line or two of scripture from the New Testament. There were no exceptions. So I was essentially forced to read from the New Testament, lines of scripture I didn’t believe in or understand. We finished up each morning by reciting the Lord’s Prayer – a Christian prayer.

Barbara, I’m not a Christian. I was and remain an observant Jew. What I was forced to do by the state was simply wrong. To this day, I wince whenever I hear the Lord’s Prayer; I refuse to bow my head when attending a public meeting when a prayer – even a non-denominational prayer – is offered. God is very personal to me and I certainly don’t want my government telling me that one religion is better – or truer – than any other or sanctioning any form of public prayer. That’s a very slippery slope in my opinion. If I want to pray, I’ll attend a prayer session at my synagogue or simply find a quiet spot in my house, along the river in my neighborhood or, when traveling, at the airport. Prayer, for me, is both an inward journey and a process that connects me with my faith community.

But I digress. I have absolutely no desire to spend much time with The Rev. Barton’s nonsense. Just about all that he includes in part 4 of his article, poorly labeled and painfully spelled out as “Acts of preferentialism for Islam” is simply false. Let me repeat that point. Everything dealing with Obama and Islam is false! Much of the rest of Barton’s 50-point note is open to interpretation and argument.

One example. Under the heading, “Acts of hostility toward people of Biblical faith”, Barton reports that “The Obama administration (released) new health care rules that override religious conscience protections for medical workers in the areas of abortion and contraception.” Although I’m not exactly sure what all Barton is referencing here, one contentious area that falls in this area has to do with pharmacists refusing to honor prescriptions for birth control and “morning after” meds. So, for instance, Barton is bothered that a pharmacist who opposes any form of contraception as a matter of “conscience” has lost the right to ignore legal prescriptions. I don’t consider this a “hostile” act, but a hearty and welcome defense of the Separation of Church and State.

Much the same argument could be used when exploring all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Obama Administration’s recent proposals to have religious-based institutions – specifically, the Catholic Church – through their insurance providers, offer coverage for contraceptive meds and devices. Barton, and others like him, sees this proposal as an attack on Christianity and religious freedom. I see it as an issue of women’s healthcare and reproductive rights and, yet again, a defense of the U.S. Constitution and the Separation of Church and State.

A final note. Barton, if handed a magic wand and told he now has the power to create a “perfect” government and country, would most certainly trash the Constitution and immediately go about setting up a Christian theocracy. Children once again would be reading New Testament scripture and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in schools. Jews, Muslims, gays, socialists and commies would be prosecuted and persecuted. The religion police would be running the country and within a generation the United States would start to look a whole lot like Saudi Arabia.

I’m thinking George Washington got it right when he said that "Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." I’m also thinking that Thomas Jefferson was right when he declared “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Super Tuesday means booze on Sunday – finally

It was Super Tuesday here in the Land of Cotton today, but there was nothing super about the turnout at my polling place. There were at least a dozen or so vacant voting machines and only one other person waiting to vote when I showed up around noon.

I’m thinking the hardest thing to do for the half-dozen poll workers at my precinct was simply staying awake – so much for all the excitement being generated by the mushy field of GOP candidates. You’d think if there was much fire in the belly of the conservative base, they’d be showing it off in my little corner of the world – one of the most conservative regions in the country.

Truth to tell, the primary reason I showed up for this primary was to help bring my county into the new century – finally! I have little interest in the political warfare being waged by the loons on the political right but have a great deal of interest in being able to buy booze on Sundays.

The state legislature last year agreed that counties across the Land of Cotton should have the right to decide if retailers can sell alcohol on Sunday. Much of the state has already OK’d the Sunday sell of alcohol – beer, wine and liquor – and I’m thinking that once the vote is counted in my home county we’ll be joining the rest of the state, nation and most of the civilized world in finally putting the kibosh on the last of the blue laws. Can I get an Amen?

Meanwhile, the nutty right will probably continue to implode no matter which candidate manages to grab the majority of victories and delegates today. In fact, I don’t think I’m going very far out on a limb to suggest we’ll have the same guy in the White House following the general election in November. Here are 10 reasons why I’m willing to make such a wild and crazy prediction.

Santorum, Gingrich, Boehner, Cantor, Limbaugh, Limbaugh, Limbaugh, Limbaugh, Limbaugh, and, ah, Rush Limbaugh. ’Nuff said!