Thursday, February 24, 2011

More photos of sunshine and tropical island splendor

However, they won't be found in the Patio Boat blog, where we're currently battening down the hatches and spreading salt on the deck in preparation for tonight's sleet and snow.

Monique put together a really nice blog post of our trip to St. Thomas here: A Week of Hot Sun and Sand in the Winter.

Well ... okay, maybe one photo, just to carry me past the freezing drizzle that's knocking at my window.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I Can't Believe I Got On the Return Flight...

Just a quick photographic comparison of our Saturday on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and our Sunday back in Wolverine Lake, Michigan:





Okay, I've convinced myself. Next week ... er, year (sigh) ... we flee Michigan for *two* weeks!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The View From Afar Of This Week In News

One of the loveliest things about vacationing is that it gets me away from all sort of electronic media. This time around I didn't go on a complete news ban, but instead followed the news by reading a variety of newspapers as I sat under palm trees on a tranquil Caribbean beach. The nice thing about following the news at that distance is that it's a lot easier to see the big patterns without getting sucked into the daily froth.

So, before I lose the tranquility, I thought I'd share my thoughts on a few of last week's big stories, working from the international stage to Michigan.

Middle East Protests -- Democratic protests and possible reforms continue to sweep through the Middle East. It looks as if the reform advocates may be gaining the upper hand now in Bahrain. It's a rather pleasant thought that the ideas of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., may turn out to be a more effective tool for democratic reform than bombing countries back into the Stone Age. I fear there's a long way to go until we know how this will all turn out, but I wish them all well, especially the protesters in Iran and Libya.

GOP Budget Slashing in the US House of Representatives -- Well, it sure looks like the freshman Tea Partiers had fun on Capital Hill last week. It'd be fun to sort through the details, but overall it looked to me like an exercise in defunding a long list of Republicans pet peeves without actually addressing any of the real causes of structural federal budget deficits. After the last election I thought we'd have an enormous government-shutdown train wreck at the start of the next budget year, but it looks as if the train wreck will happen even sooner than I thought, with the debt-ceiling bill. Frankly, I expect a long, ugly shutdown that will wreak true damage on the economic recovery. I hope I'm wrong.

Wisconsin Union Busting -- So, let me get this straight. The governor of Wisconsin has decided that instead of renegotiating contracts, just flat-out banning public employee unions is the best way to pay for the $100-million-plus in tax cuts for businesses that Wisconsin enacted a few months ago. Well, at least he's made it clear that he considers union-busting to be more important than actual fiscal reform. I hope he enjoys the general strike that seems to be looming.

One More Thought On the Last Two Items -- Since tax revenues are now the lowest percentage of GDP since the Eisenhower Administration, and since union membership is at its lowest point since the 1930s, is it just barely possible that tax cuts and union busting isn't really a good prescription for national prosperity? It doesn't seem to be working out all that well so far. Just a thought.

Governor Snyder's Proposed Michigan Budget -- I'm really of a mixed mind here. On the one hand I really admire Snyder for finally rolling out something that looks to me (at first glance, anyway) like an actual balanced budget that doesn't rely on gimmicks and fiscal chicanery. On the other hand, as near as I can tell, it looks to me as if it pays for a billion dollars in business tax cuts by raising taxes on the poor by $330 million with the elimination of the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and by adding somewhere around a billion dollars in tax revenue by taxing pensions, which were exempted from taxation in the 90s during the Engler administration. I would bemoan the removal of the last $300 million of legislative municipal revenue sharing, but that always seemed a foregone conclusion to me.

It would be pretty easy to be cynical about those proposed vast shifts of taxation from corporations onto the backs of the poor and elderly, and to say that apparently according to the GOP tax hikes are only bad when they're on businesses or the wealthy.

But I think I'm going to hope that the legislative process works to correct some of the worst of the proposed budget -- especially the EITC removal. There's a lot to like in a budget process that at least attempts to deal with the real long-term numbers. Snyder at least seems open to suggestions. And unlike the Republicans in D.C. and in Wisconsin, he doesn't seem to be trying to use genuine budget issues to hammer home a long wish list of partisan policies. This gives me some hope that we may see something genuinely good for Michigan come out of this. We may even see genuine healthy debate about government spending priorities, something that seems in short supply elsewhere these days.

We shall see.

By Popular Demand: A Caribbean Sampler

More complete photoblogging to come, but since I had a request to quikly throw a few photos from last week's trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands up on the blog, here goes:

We'll start with a favorite activity: sipping fruity rum drinks on the balcony of the condo at Bluebeard's Beach Club resort on the South shore of St. Thomas. This also gives you a pretty good sense of the view from our room, which was filled with white sand, blue Caribbean water, palm trees, and the occasional humongous cruise ship.

Monique at the resort.

John sailing with friends in the Sir Francis Drake Channel during a brief trip to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Unfortunately, the cruise came to a short, sudden stop after John took the helm. Sadly, due to an obscure bit of 18th-Century British maritime law he's now forbidden to set foot in the United Kingdom or its territories for the next ten years.

Monique and Dick snorkeling at Coki Point Beach.

A view of our resort's beach and our rooms.

Dick, Mom, John, and Monique having -- Surprise! Surprise! -- fruity rum drinks. This time at the resort's beachside bar during sunset.

Monique high above Charlotte Amalie harbor.

And finally, Monique's favorite photo: a FedEx truck driving onto a ferry. Why does she especially like this? I'll leave it to her to explain, but my theory is that she wants to pack herself in a box and ship herself back to St. Thomas next winter.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Delightful Dozen (Or So) Apps

My brother Mike acquired an iPhone, so I thought I'd write up a wee list of the apps that I use the most on my iPod Touch. There are others that are fun, of course, but these are the dozen or so that have provided the most practical usage.

Web Browsing

Safari -- This almost feels like cheating because it comes with the original package, but it's probably the app that I use most often. I'm still amazed at how much web browsing I can do on my little iPod Touch screen with this.

Social Networks

Facebook & Twitter -- Both apps provide surprisingly good experiences. If you like FB & Twitter on your computer, you'll like and use these apps a lot.


New York Times -- Downloads the previous day or two of stories from the NYT. One thing I find especially handy about this, since I only have wi-fi connectivity on my iPod Touch, is that it downloads the full paper, which means that I can browse it at my leisure while I'm not connected to the web. This also means that stories pop up instantly, instead of needing individual downloads. (One tiny bummer, though, is that it often crashes on start-up, meaning that I sometimes need to open it two or three times before it comes up for good.)

The Weather Channel -- Has a really good Doppler radar map, in addition to weather forecasts and severe weather notices. Nifty and useful!


Flashlight -- Yeah, it's kinda silly, and it's certainly not a full-strength flashlight. But I've had several occasions now to use this when our power has gone out. It's essentially a white screen that gives you the best possible illumination if you're trying to use your iPod Touch to light up the dark.

Information and Research

Access My Library -- Gives you immediate access to all of the Gale reference and periodical databases to the local library you select. The best part is that it finds local libraries and then asks you to select the one for verification, which happens really easily. This is the best thing going if you want genuinely authoritative information instead of going the google route and taking your chances with the web.

Internet Movie Database (IMDB) -- Really easy to use, and the quickest way to answer the question, "What did that actor ever do after this?"


Scrabble -- A tremendous time-killer. Mostly I just play vs. the computer, though there is also a multi-player option for folks who have multiple devices online. My only regret is that it doesn't include definitions for words, which was one of my favorite features of my old Palm Scrabble game.

Angry Birds -- Just as addictive as the hype suggests. Who wouldn't want to while away their time by smashing birds into structures in their suicidal attempt to crush those evil pigs?


(Stanza and e-Reader Pro are also very good, especially if you want to read free Project Gutenberg books.) - The thing that puts the Kindle app at the top of my e-Reader app list is that it synchs automatically with my Kindle, so that it takes me to the most recently read spot in a book. This is especially handy when I get stuck somewhere without my Kindle, but want to kill time by reading a few pages or a chapter. The one missing from my list is iBooks. I have downloaded it and tried it out. But truthfully it hogs so much processor power that it runs interminably slowly on my iPod Touch 2g. It may do better on newer devices.

Honorable Mention

These are also useful, or have at least provided me with a few moments of fun: YouTube, Calculator, Clock, SpawnHD, and eBay.

Happy Apping, Mike!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Lowdown on the e-Reader Hoedown

As some of you already know, Monique and I have been working diligently to catch up with the world of dedicated e-Readers and e-Books. (I've been reading e-books via assorted PDAs for years, including my iPod Touch, but had never before owned a dedicated e-Reader.) I held off posting on this until I had enough to report out on, and I reckon this is a good time for an update on the devices, our reading experience, and checking out e-books from the library.

The e-Readers Themselves

Let's start with a quick review of the devices that we looked at, in order of increasing sophistication, and our quick opinions of each. Most of them come in a cheaper wi-fi version, or a slightly more expensive model with 3G network capability that lets you buy books just about anywhere that you can get a cell-phone signal:

Borders Kobo 2 - A very simple little black & white e-Reader. Pros: the wi-fi version can now be found for $99; EPUB compatible, so can be used for library e-Books; comes pre-loaded with 100 classic books. Con: As near as I can tell, you can't loan books to other Kobo users.

Borders Sony Pocket Edition - Similar to the Kobo, but slightly smaller. This is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on what you're looking for.

Barnes & Noble Nook Black & White - Similar to the other two, but perhaps a bit more polished. Pros include EPUB compatibility and the ability to loan books to other Nook readers.

Amazon Kindle 3 - The best of the black & white e-Ink e-Reader devices. Cons: Not EPUB compatible, and until a few weeks ago would not allow you to loan books to other Kindle owners. The number of books that offer this capacity is pretty limited at present, though that may change for the better as Amazon works out rights and permissions with publishers. (I'm not sure how this compares with Nook lending or whether more titles are lendable on the Nook.)

Apple iPod Touch - I mention this because I have one and have been using it as my e-Reader all along. Frankly, it's pretty good. The screen isn't as big as the other e-Readers, and the battery doesn't last as long. But the small size is a nice convenience, as is the fact that I usually have it in my pocket, since it keeps my calendar and contacts. e-Reader apps on my iPod include e-Reader, Stanza, iBooks, and Kindle. I might do a post about just them later.

Nook Color - Living somewhere between a true e-Reader and an iPad. Pricier than a Nook B&W, but a good deal cheaper than an iPad.

Apple iPad - One slick device. It's bigger and heavier than all the rest. Kind of overkill if you just want to read books.

After looking them all over we started with a Kindle with 3G capability, which Monique got me for my birthday. A few weeks later I reciprocated and got her one for Christmas, so we're now a two-Kindle household. We chose the Kindle because it was simply the best device. After a couple of months of usage, I can confirm this opinion. It's light, it reads well, the ergonomics of the buttons are good, and the screen is as comfortable to read as a printed page. Frankly, this is about as close to the convenience of reading a book as I expect to get.

The user interface of the Kindle seemed the easiest and quickest, too. Amazon's really put a lot of effort into making it dangerously easy for you to order book after book on the Kindle, and it shows. We bucked up for the 3G models of the Kindle. The extra connectivity is convenient, especially while traveling. Buying a book while riding in a car was really nice. However, if price is really an issue for you a wi-fi only model would probably be fine as long as you have a wi-fi network at home.

Another bonus with the Kindle is that it synchs with the Kindle app I downloaded for my iPod Touch. This has turned out to be a real bonus. If I'm reading a book on the Kindle but don't have it with me (say I'm stuck in a long line at the market) I can fire up the Kindle App on my iPod Touch and read a few pages. Then -- as long as my iPod has had a chance to connect with the web afterwards -- the next time I pick up my Kindle it will synch forward to the last page I read. That's pretty darn slick, and has already shown itself to be a real convenience.

So far I've read about ten books on the Kindle, plus picked up a daily subscription to the Detroit Free Press, which doesn't offer home delivery most days. I have truly enjoyed my Kindle experience.

The other B&W e-Readers were all nice devices, but they seemed to be a generation behind the Kindle in a lot of little ways that just added up to a better e-Reader experience on the Kindle. I don't think you'd go too far awry with any of them if you decided that you'd prefer an e-Reader with EPUB compatibility so that you can check out library e-Books, and that might very well be a good enough reason to go with one of the others. The black-and-white e-Ink screens of all of them were very good.

The backlit color screens of the iPod Touch, Nook Color, and iPad all seem likely to impose a bit of eye strain after a while. That plus the considerably shorter charge life of the color devices seemed to be a definite downside if what you really want is a text reader. Mind you, I might acquire an iPad one of these days, but I don't think it'll ever be my primary e-Reader.

A few weeks ago I also bought a Kobo from Borders, so that I could try library downloads. Owning it confirmed my initial thoughts at the time I bought the Kindle. The Kobo is perfectly fine to read on, but it's just a bit more awkward in several different little ways. If I had to choose just one device on which to read a book, I would choose the Kindle.

Borrowing e-Books from the Library

As I mentioned above, I also picked up a Kobo from Borders a few weeks ago, so that I could try borrowing e-books from our local library. It's great that the Kindle makes it so easy to buy a huge variety of e-books, magazines, and newspapers. But that can also quickly become a pricy habit!

I won't go into the technical detail of how library downloads work via Adobe Digital Editions, but it does take a wee bit of effort to figure out and install. (A friend who has been through the process and can walk you through the steps would be really helpful here.) Once figured out, however, borrowing library e-Books turns out to be pretty quick and easy, albeit a bit more complicated than just buying books through either the Kindle or Kobo's e-store.

Alas, there is one downside that I didn't anticipate. There just aren't nearly enough books available through our local library to keep up with the demand right now. Currently there are 1,479 EPUB titles available through my local library. All but 272 are checked out. That's an astonishing 82% checkout rate! And many of those 272 "available" titles seemed to be books that would just as easily be found through Project Gutenberg. In fact, quite a few were already *on* my Kobo because they were included with the 100 free classics that were already on my Kobo when I bought it.

I suspect that the big uptick in e-reader ownership over the past few months may have led to quicker-than-expected growth in EPUB borrowing. My guess is that anything in a library that has an 82% checkout rate is going to get more attention in the next year's acquisitions budget. I expect the number of titles and their availability to increase greatly in months and years to come. So I wouldn't let that discourage you too much. But you might want to check your local library's catalog before plunging in.

In the meantime, most of the checked-out titles had a very small wait list, usually somewhere between 0-2 patrons. So most of those books would be available within a month or so if you placed a hold on them. The best tip I can give anybody who truly wants to find an EPUB book to download immediately is to use the "Advanced Search" and be sure to check the "Only show titles with copies available" button. I probably spent more time looking for an available EPUB book than I did sorting out the technical details of downloading, so your ability to navigate the catalog really matters. Once I started using the advanced search, it became much easier to dig up a few books I was interested in reading.

(Commerce Township library belongs to a "Download Destination" coalition hosted by OverDrive Digital Media. I rather suspect it's a standard interface for a lot of libraries. I found the OverDrive interface to be much more useful than the general library catalog because it did a much better job of distinguishing between EPUB books, PDF books, and various audiobook files.)

And that's it for now. However, much more to come on this topic in the future.