Archive for April, 2010

Don’t say anything online that…

Posted in Stuff on April 14th, 2010

…you wouldn’t be willing to see printed in the New York Times.

Isn’t that the old saying? The warning about blogs, lists, email, whatever–that once you’ve put it out there, “out there” can have mysterious dimensions now and, possibly, “forever”?

Is there some reason this warning shouldn’t apply to (ahem) public tweets?

I wouldn’t think so. Although I’m not currently a Twitter user, you don’t have to be registered to read the terms of service–which say, quite clearly, that any public tweets are, you know, public–and may not only be shared with anybody, but may be distributed by Twitter to third parties.

Such as the Library of Congress.

Sure, the announcement (oh, go look it up, if you don’t already know) took me a bit by surprise. And I had a vaguely grumpy reaction, namely, isn’t it interesting that what I’d think of as the most ephemeral of “gray literature”–tweets–now seem more likely to be digitally preserved than more substantial gray literature such as blogs?

Which isn’t saying a thing negative about the LoC/Twitter announcement. Saying “gee, wouldn’t B be nice?” doesn’t invalidate A.

I’m more than a little surprised to see people saying this is somehow an invasion of privacy or of their rights. I don’t see that it’s either.

And anyone who knows me at all knows that this isn’t a “who cares about privacy?” response. Ask me about the advisability of making it easy for library patrons to allow or encourage the library to retain their circulation records: I’m dead against that, because I don’t believe librarians understand the dangers well enough to make them clear to patrons–and that may stem from being at the Doe Library when it was visited by the FBI as part of their ’70s library project. I believe in confidentiality and privacy (and don’t, for a minute, buy the “oh, well, it’s compromised in 25 different ways, so who cares about the rest?” line that comes out as “You have no privacy. Get over it.”).

But, um, non-private feeds on Twitter? Searchable through several tools, available on Google and Bing, copied hither and yon? With a six-month embargo before LoC gets them? Somehow, I can’t get exercised about this being a Major Invasion of User Privacy–or even a minor one.

Could this be a generational thing? Did Emom’s Warning (the title and opening of this post) somehow disappear along the way? Do Twitterers somehow believe that, you know, nobody can really read what they’re writing–or that, at worst, it disappears after a few minutes?

[No, I'm not going to use some idiot line like "Does tweeting make you dumber?" I know too many intelligent, thoughtful, deep people who use Twitter to believe that nonsense. Of course, so far I haven't seen any of those particular people getting into a frenzy about the implications of this LoC twarchive, or whatever you want to call it.]

</rant>

Legends of Horror, Disc 1

Posted in Movies and TV on April 13th, 2010

This may be an odd voyage, because I’m not much of a horror-movie fan, and probably won’t even watch movies with contemporary gore or torture approaches. I would not have purchased this set, but Mill Creek sent it to me for free—and my loyal readers voted that I should watch it before the other (purchased) sets. Since the 50 movies include all 20 from the Alfred Hitchcock set (most of them not horror movies by any plausible definition), that means watching no more than 30 others—so we’ll see how it goes.

Jamaica Inn.

[Previously reviewed: $1.50]

The Demon, 1979, color. Percival Rubens (dir.), Jennifer Holmes, Cameron Mitchell, Craig Gardner, Zoli Marki. 1:34.

The sleeve description is almost entirely wrong. The deranged killer doesn’t kill a family and abduct the daughter: He does such a sloppy job of killing the mother that the father is able to free her unharmed. The town may be terrified, but in fact we see nothing of town attitudes. The psychic (a former Marine) is the parents’ only hope; the town isn’t involved. This is, I guess, set in South Africa—it was filmed there.

Maybe the blurb-writer got confused because this flick is an incoherent mess. There are essentially two slightly-overlapping plots, both featuring “the demon”—a brutally strong guy who never talks, wears a face mask and gloves with claws when out on the prowl, and who seems to favor killing people by suffocating them with plastic bags (except that, in his first attempt here, he doesn’t bother to tighten the rope at the base of the bag around the mother’s neck) and carrying off young women, who wind up dead. The first plot features a guy (Cameron Mitchell) with the “gift of ESP,” who chews the scenery fiercely, hands out random clues and mostly gets the father killed—and himself, when he comes back to apologize to the mother and she shoots him on the spot. That does include the one good bit of dialogue in the entire movie.

The second plot involves two young women, sisters or cousins, who both work in a preschool and seem to spend a lot of time nude from the waist up (and, for one of them, entirely nude—for reasons that might have moved the plot forward but not in any way I could discern). The “demon” is stalking one of them and winds up killing the other one and her newfound lover…and gets killed in a climax that’s even stupider than the rest of the flick. (I’d describe it, but you’d think the film was a comedy, which it isn’t.)

What did I conclude? South African front doors have great locks but no peepholes, and the inhabitants gladly open the door for any knocks. Oh, and once the doors are locked, they can’t be opened from the inside. Apparently a bunch of shots of a shore with waves breaking over rocks are supposed to mean something, but I could never figure out what. Apparently young South African women of the era (they’re white, and one is apparently a visiting American) do their hair and makeup while half-dressed (and, if attempting to climb out the roof through those readily-removable tiles to escape, drop their robes as a matter of course—I dunno, maybe being mostly nude saves weight?). Otherwise…well, the print and digitization are lousy, with soft focus and night scenes that turn into vast arrays of gray. I’m being very generous in giving this one $0.50.

Murder in the Red Barn (orig. Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn), 1935, b&w. Milton Rosmer (dir.), Tod Salughter, Sophie Stewart, D.J. Williams, Eric Portman, Clare Greet. 1:10 [0:58]

After the lead characters are introduced as part of a stage play, we get a melodrama of sorts. Handsome Gypsy Carlos is in love with farmer’s daughter Maria—but she plays up to the wealthy Squire Corder. When she sneaks out of the house to see him, he Has His Way With Her, leading—well, where does this always lead? Meanwhile, Corder has gambled away large sums that he does not have, but knows of a way to get through marriage to a spinster.

When Maria’s father discovers her condition, he does what you’d expect in a melodrama (never darken my door again!), she goes to Corder for help…and we get the title of the flick. Although Corder does his best to frame Carlos, things unravel.

Overacted, to be sure (Tod Slaughter as Corder chews the scenery with gusto), and primitive—but not bad in its own way. Based on a true story, supposedly. Still, as presented here, it’s barely a B picture. I’ll give it $0.75.

The Ape Man, 1943, b&w. William Beaudine (dir.), Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie, Wallace Ford, Henry Hall, Minerva Urecal. 1:04.

Bela Lugosi stars as Dr. Brewster, reported missing but actually turned into a half-gorilla through his own experiments. He concludes that the only way to reverse the process is with human spinal fluid—but that can only be obtained by killing people. Oh, and he has an ape or gorilla sidekick who’s helping him kill people when Brewster isn’t beating up on the animal. That’s the horror part of it. Otherwise, it’s an odd combination of bad comedy (there’s a strange little guy that keeps pushing people toward the story—and I won’t give away the one sad little surprise in this movie by saying what his deal is), reporter byplay and—well, it’s just not a very good picture. Badly acted, done on the cheap, just plain poor.

Add to that frequently-distorted soundtrack making dialogue difficult to understand and just enough missing frames to be annoying, and it’s hard to give this more than $0.75.

If you’re going to claim facts…

Posted in Food on April 10th, 2010

…it helps to know what you’re talking about.

I know, I know, that’s so old fashioned, I’m such a Luddite…

I just finished reading Candyfreak by Steve Almond. Nonfiction, a fast read, amusing, sometimes a little outrageous, mostly having to do with this admitted candyfreak’s tour of a few of the remaining independent candy factories that make regional candy bars (now that most big-name candy bars have been swallowed up by Hershey, Mars or Nestle).

And I hit a passage on p. 135, where he’s noting that one of these small companies survives by devoting most production days to candy bars and other items sold under other companies’ names. At which point, Almond lets go with this:

…it bears mentioning that this product is but one in a tsunami of pseudo-candy bars, variously called PowerBars, Granola bars, Energy Bars, Clif Bars, Breakfast Bars, Snack Bars, Wellness Bars, and so on, all of which contain roughly the same sugar and fat as an actual candy bar–with perhaps a dash of protein sawdust thrown in–but only half the guilt, and stand as a monument both to shameless marketing and the American capacity for self-delusion…

That’s only a part of the lengthy sentence, but it includes the part that struck me.

To wit, I thought to myself, “bushwah.” (Not the term I used, but the “bu” and the “sh” are right.)

So, apparently unlike Almond, I did a little research–very little, since it doesn’t take much. I happened to have Clif Bars, Zone Bars, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Odwalla Bars, and Quaker True Delights on hand, and it didn’t take long to look up a selection of Hershey and Mars and Nestle bars online. (Mars and Nestle make it varying difficult to get to nutritional information, so most of what I got is from Hershey.)

Candybar calories, fat and sugar

Here are a selection of calories, fat, and sugar content for candy bars (typically the regular-size bar):

  • Almond Joy: 220 calories, 13g fat, 20g sugar
  • Hershey: 210 calories, 13g fat, 24g sugar
  • 5th Avenue: 260 calories, 12g fat, 29g sugar
  • KitKat: 210 calories, 11g fat, 22g sugar
  • Mounds: 230 calories, 13g fat, 21g sugar
  • Mr. Goodbar: 250 calories, 17g fat, 23g sugar
  • Payday: 240 calories, 13g fat, 21g sugar
  • Reese’s: 210 calories, 13g fat, 21g sugar
  • Snickers: 280 calories, 14g fat, 30g sugar (apparently the best-selling candy bar, and notably the one with the most calories, most sugar and, other than Mr. Goodbar, most fat)
  • Butterfinger: 270 calories, 11g fat, 29g sugar

“Roughly the same”?

  • Clif (Oatmeal Raisin Walnut; others are similar): 240 calories, 5g fat, 20g sugar.
  • Zone Fruitified: 200 calories, 6g fat, 15g sugar
  • Nature Valley Apple Crisp Granola: 160 calories, 6g fat, 11g sugar
  • Odwalla Berries GoMega: 210 calories, 6g fat, 16g sugar
  • Quaker TrueDelights: 140 calories, 3.5g fat, 10g sugar (or, another variety, 4.5g fat, 8g sugar)

Notice something here? None of these bars has even half the fat of a Snickers or Almond Joy, and none has significantly more than half the fat of the lowest-fat of this group.

As for sugar–well, yes, the Clif bar has as much or about as much sugar as Almond Joy or Mounds or a couple of others. (But that sugar doesn’t come from high-fructose corn syrup, and there’s roughly one-third the fat.)

Sure, Trader Joe’s 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate Bar has 280 calories and 19g fat (but only 13g sugar)–but nobody would mistake it for anything but a high-fat candy bar!

Self-delusion? Maybe Almond is protesting too much… Nothing wrong with a good candy bar now and then, but the better energy bars and food bars really are different products.

The cost of being inclusive and the charm of 2-for-1

Posted in Travel on April 9th, 2010

Fair warning: This post is about cruising, as in on the ocean. It has nothing to do with exclusivity, ethnicity, or anything else related to social issues.

High-end cruising is expensive. That’s sort of a given. By “high-end” I mean primarily luxury cruises (Crystal, Regent Seven Seas/RSSC, Seabourn, Silverseas and some tiny little lines…plus luxury-priced exploration lines)–with an oddball, Oceania Cruises, as a semi-luxury line.

Note: “Premium” is one step below “Luxury” in the cruise world–i.e., Luxury cruise lines are the equivalent of 5-star and 6-star hotels, while Premium cruise lines are the equivalent of 4-star hotels. Holland America is the most clearcut Premium line, with Celebrity and, to some people, Princess as others. Notably, most Holland America (HAL) ships are medium-size, in the 1,300-1,900 passenger range, while luxury ships always carry fewer passengers–400 to 800, sometimes up to 1,000–and most contemporary ships carry well over 2,000 passengers. Of those discussed below, the Crystal Symphony carries 900+ passengers, the Seven Seas Navigator 490, Oceania’s ships 680, and HAL ships for these cruises around 1,400. The Symphony and Navigator have much more space per passenger than the others. Noted briefly, the Seabourn Odyssey carries 440 passengers, the Silver Shadow 382.

2-for-1 fares?

Lately, there’s been a rash of 2-for-1 pricing in the Luxury field. Nearly every Regent Seven Seas (RSSC) cruise in their brochures is advertised as 2-for-1. Ditto Oceania. Ditto Crystal. Silversea seems to be advertising a lot of 55%-off fares.

But what does 2-for-1 “off brochure fares” mean when the 2-for-1 fares are part of the brochure?

Since we haven’t kept brochures from past years (for Crystal and RSSC; we’ve never cruised on Silversea or Seabourn), I can’t prove this–but to me, the “brochure fares” (RSSC’s in particular) are a lot higher than they used to be. Maybe almost twice as high–or, at least, the discounted fares seem substantially higher than before. And 2-for-1 and 55%-off fares can be called “capacity controlled,” so the line can nick you for a much higher fare if you book late or otherwise screw up. But the prices sound like great bargains, don’t they?

I think of this sort of thing as “Ma..err, certain nameless department store pricing”–setting a very high “list” price then offering a Big Percentage Discount…which may still be higher than the manufacturer’s suggested list price, although that’s not a factor where cruising is concerned.

Maybe not so much. We took two RSSC cruises in the past. We look at the new brochures, at the 2-for-1 prices, and think we may never do so again, even if our income wasn’t down.

But that’s only part of the story.

All-inclusive and partially-inclusive: At what cost?

With mainstream cruise lines, you have (or should have) a pretty good sense that the quoted fare is just the beginning. That–plus a possible “port and security charge” that appears elsewhere on the invoice or fare statement–covers your room, meals in the primary restaurant(s) or Lido/buffet restaurant, usually room service, most shipboard entertainment, books (and possibly DVDs) from the library and that’s about it.

Extras? Drinks except at mealtimes (although many ships now have 24-hour complimentary coffee & tea service); alcoholic drinks, period (although you may get a free drink at the Captain’s Reception); shore excursions; gratuities–and these really aren’t functionally optional, since that’s the only real money most of the hard-working hotel staff makes; laundry & dry cleaning; internet (if you must); casino expenses and shop expenses; and, to be sure, air fare to and from the ship.

It can add up. If you drink a lot (or have high-end tastes) or if you go through a lot of sodas, if you go on fancy shore excursions, it can add up fast. On the mass-market cruise ships, where fares are sometimes under $100/day, it’s not at all unusual for the “everything else” total to be much larger than the cruise fare.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

  • Every luxury line includes all nonalcoholic drinks as part of the fare.
  • Every luxury line includes meals at all restaurants as part of the fare, where most premium and mainline cruises have surcharges for the best restaurants. (Every Crystal and RSSC ship, at least, has at least four or five dining venues; ditto Oceania.)
  • Until recently, RSSC included wine with dinner and a stocked minifridge (beer, wine, soda). Now, RSSC includes all alcoholic drinks on board, period, except for high-end wines (the regular RSSC wines have been pretty good). Silversea and Seabourn, I believe, both went to all-drinks-included fares some time ago.
  • Currently, Crystal, RSSC, and Oceania are all including coach air fare from “gateway cities” (most major cities) as part of their fares (business-class air for some categories of cabins on some ships).
  • Most luxury lines–Crystal excepted–now include gratuities in the fare.
  • RSSC’s taking it a little further: Most ordinary shore excursions–the ones typically costing up to around $150–are now included in the fare, although the kind of special shore excursions that luxury lines specialize in are still extra (sometimes thousands of dollars extra). I believe Seabourn and Silversea also include some or all ordinary shore excursions.

So RSSC cruises must be better values, right? After all, everything’s included!

Not so fast.

Let’s look at very similar cruises on six different cruise lines–all of the luxury lines, Oceania, and Holland America. The cruise is Auckland to Sydney or vice-versa, typically with stops in Melbourne, Hobart, Dunedin, Christchurch, and one or two other places in New Zealand.

Australia/New Zealand cruises are typically on the expensive side, but these are all roughly the same itinerary, making them reasonably comparable.

  • A 12-night cruise on the Crystal Symphony, air included and with a $2,000-per-couple shipboard spending credit to be used for drinks, shore excursions, gratuities, whatever, will cost $17,200 for two people in a veranda suite. Figure $15,200 (not including the spending credit) as a comparable veranda-suite fare. [Call it $1,266 per day for two people.]
  • A 15-night cruise on RSSC’s Seven Seas Navigator, all-inclusive, will cost $27,000 for two people in the lowest-category cabin (they’re all veranda suites). [Call it $1,800 per day for two people.]

There’s a head-on comparison. Is $566/day a fair differential for gratuities, drinks and shore excursions? Well, gratuities are typically $19/night for two people, maybe $21. My guess is that you’d spend about $250/day-$300/day for shore excursions for two people–but not every day, since these cruises include some days at sea. (The RSSC cruise has seven stops excluding start and end; Crystal has five.) That leaves $250-$300/day for drinks. That’s a lot of drinking! (Excellent wine on the Symphony is $5-$6/glass: The prices just aren’t outrageous.

In practice, I’d guess $2,000/couple would just about cover shipboard expenses for a 12-night cruise: $228-$250 gratuities, say $360 for drinks ($30/day), leaving almost $1,400 for shore excursions ($280 per port). So, realistically, unless you’re a big drinker or go on two shore excursions a day, the full Crystal fare at $17,200/12 days ($1,433/day) is considerably cheaper than the full RSSC fare–and I know of almost nobody who would claim that RSSC outshines Crystal significantly, certainly not to the tune of nearly $400/day.

Consider some of the other options, looking at verandah suites for comparability:

  • Seabourn: 14 night cruise, $20,300/couple–but while that includes alcohol and gratuities, it does not include airfare; figure at least $23,000 with air, or $1643/night. (May include some shore excursions.)
  • Silversea: 15 night cruise, $20,700/couple–not including air, and Silversea quotes $4,000 as a coach air price. That does include alcohol and gratuities; figure $24,700 total, or $1647/night.

Is it purely coincidental that Seabourn and Silversea have nearly identical prices? Could be. Maybe not.

  • Oceania: 16 night cruise, $16,000/couple for a veranda suite–includes air, but nothing else, so it’s really comparable to the $15,200 price for Crystal. At $1,000/night per couple, it’s less expensive, to be sure.
  • Holland America: 14 night cruise, $8,000/couple for a veranda suite, plus around $3,000 for air. Figure $11,000 for a comparable price, or $786/night.

From experiences on Crystal, RSSC, and Holland America, and what I know of the others, I’d say that RSSC is a little overpriced–and the rest are all “fairly” priced given the ship qualities and number of passengers.

But that’s a little misleading as well. Those are all “minimum” prices–but for RSSC, it’s literally the cheapest cabin on board. With Crystal, you can get down to $13,600 (including the $2,000 shipboard credit) for a suite that doesn’t have a verandah; for Oceania, you can get down to $12,000/couple for an ocean-view cabin with no verandah; for Holland America, you can go a long ways down if you don’t need a suite or a verandah. (Silversea and Seabourn also have non-verandah suite categories, saving a little money.)

Conclusions?

You pays your money, you makes your choices–but “all-inclusive” and “2-for-1″ can be somewhat misleading. RSSC, Seabourn and Silversea most decidedly aren’t appealing to the “drunk all the time” crowd; they can lay out a lot less money for a constant stream of Bud or margaritas on a mainstream ship. Eliminating by-the-drink and wine charges simplifies shipboard life in some ways; it’s not at all clear that it saves you money.

As it happens, I know exactly how much we spent for extras on a wonderful 14-night up-and-back Alaska cruise two years ago, this one on Holland America. The cruise itself was $4,913 (for a good cabin that didn’t have a verandah) for the two of us. Air was $800 for two (this was SFO-Vancouver, admittedly a lot cheaper than flying to Auckland and back from Sydney, or vice versa). Everything else–shore excursions, drinks, laundry, gratuities–totaled almost exactly $1,500. In other words, the total was roughly $7,200–or $515/day. More significantly, the “inclusives”–good but not great wine, all the shore excursions we wanted, air, gratuities, and even $90 worth of internet time–totaled $2,300 for 14 days, and only $1,500 of that was for on-board expenses.

That may be a bit misleading. It was our fifth Alaska cruise, so we skipped some pricey shore excursions–but we did quite a few, actually.  Given that, we look at all-inclusive with a slightly jaundiced view. Well, that, and our experience back when RSSC only included wine with dinner: People drank more than they realized because the glasses were constantly refilled. There’s some virtue to knowing each time you have another glass of wine or beer or whatever.

Lulu PoD: Yes, but

Posted in Books and publishing on April 8th, 2010

I’ve done several books through Lulu, most of them highlighted at the bottom of this page.

I’ve always been happy with the resulting book quality–the printing has been excellent, the covers have been great, the binding has been acceptable. (Lulu’s not responsible for the content itself: It’s a services agency, not a publisher.)

Until now.

My wife, the smart one in the household (also the actual librarian) has been working on a family history for some time–some years, that is. She brings her reference-librarian skills and writing skills to the task, and has done a great job of combining stories from various family members, additional stories through research, and solidly verified facts into a narrative–enhanced with lots of family pictures. The story grew too large for one book, so it’s now in two volumes (one for each side of the family), in each case with more than half the book made up of family group sheets (yes, she’s an Ancestry.com subscriber).

We assumed we’d use Lulu to produce the books, not anticipating any outside sales (except from members of the extended families who she doesn’t already know). We ordered test versions last fall, finding that there were some issues with how Word & Acrobat handled photos (which we could, by and large, fix–which now means the PDFs are 51MB and 150MB respectively!). The books were fine in all other respects–but my wife used them to do another pass of page-by-page, line-by-line copy editing and correction.

We did new versions a few weeks ago, this time ordering six copies of the smaller book (my wife’s aunt needed five copies and needed them now) and another test copy of the larger one. The copies arrived with some problems–the paper quality seemed lower than before (no longer bright white), the print quality was a little worse (possibly a side-effect of the paper)…but most of all, after sitting out for a few hours, flat on their backs, the books were warped–with a couple of areas curved up more than a quarter-inch from flat, and the front cover “wavy” in general. I’d never seen this before. (Both books are 8.5×11″; one’s about 240 pages, the other about 440 pages. The 240-page books were warped more than the 440-page one.)

I sent in order problem reports on both orders. After automated responses requesting them, we also sent in digital photos documenting the warping. After a while–four business days–Lulu service did respond, and said they’d replace the copies.

Which they did–this time using expedited shipping (at Lulu’s cost). The replacement copies arrived yesterday. And, well…here’s the message I sent to Lulu service. (Turns out Lulu regards these trouble incidents as closed, so I’ll have to send the message in new incidents.)


[Service rep's name here:]

There’s good news and bad news here.

Good news: Your expedited delivery reached us yesterday–both shipments.

Further good news: The print quality is better, at least on the larger volume, and maybe on the smaller one.

Bad news: The warping is as bad, or nearly as bad, as on the previous order. There’s slight warping as soon as we tear the shrinkwrap–and within five hours sitting flat on a shelf, the books are significantly warped.

I don’t believe there’s any point in sending new copies of the books. It’s hard to believe that four separate shipments, presumably processed at four different times, all coincidentally have the same problem–unless there’s a more general problem in either manufacture or handling.

I believe Lulu needs to look into how 8.5×11 paperbacks are being handled (since, so far, that seems to be the trouble spot). Somehow, these books are coming out in a condition that causes them to take on permanent warping when received.

Note that this was *not* the case a few months ago, when we ordered the trial copies of these two books (my wife’s done a lot of copy editing since then), or when I’ve purchased copies of my own 8.5×11 books (although those books, after standing upright for some months, do develop cover warping).

We’ll have to look at these after a few days and determine whether we can go forward with opening the books for general sale, or whether we have to find another route (e.g., CreateSpace). Since my wife’s put in several years writing, researching, gathering materials and refining these books, she is–needless to say–disappointed.

I do encourage you to raise an appropriate flag within Lulu. Something is wrong with the production or handling. It needs to be fixed.

Sincerely,
Walt Crawford


At this point, while I still generally like what Lulu does, I’m more than a little uneasy, particularly when it comes to “big” books (that is, 8.5×11 size–so far, I haven’t heard of problems with 6×9, but that size isn’t feasible given the number of photos in these books).

The one hopeful thing: The first books do seem to be flattening out just a bit, after a couple weeks. They’re still far from flat, however.

Note: If you purchase C&I books (there’s still the 10% April sale, and I see that one book has actually been purchased this month), inspect them carefully. If you find production problems, ask for replacements–and if they’re warped, they may improve over time. I don’t think the same problem will arise with 6×9 books, but I can’t be sure…


Final update (I think), April 13, 2010: It’s now clear that Lulu support is taking this issue seriously; they’re being informative and noting explicit steps to track down the source of the problem (part of which may have been a bad shipment of paper). They’re also doing their best to make amends.

I’ll stick with previous advice:

  • Lulu is a great way to get specialized/short-run/no-run books done. (In the case of my wife’s two books, the only way to get the books done with no up-front costs, I believe–CreateSpace doesn’t do 8.5×11, and even 8×10 tops out at a lower pagecount than the larger of the two books.)
  • When you get a shipment from Lulu, inspect the book(s) carefully. If there are problems, let them know right away–and if the problems are visible, you might as well just attach a digital photo of the problem.
  • They will respond. It may take a few days, but they will respond, and I believe they’ll do their best to resolve the situation.

World Cruises–and an extreme case

Posted in Travel on April 7th, 2010

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about cruising and cruise lines–partly because it’s been a while since we’ve been on a cruise (and will probably be a while longer). But we get lots of literature, we’re thinking about it, and there are some oddities worth noting.

Take, for example, world cruises–the extreme case of getting away, unless you’re one of a few wealthy eccentrics who’ve simply started living on a cruise ship fulltime.

Typical World Cruises

That may be a misleading heading, because I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a “typical” world cruise–but a fairly common scenario is that such a cruise runs about 105-110 days, starts in either Ft. Lauderdale or LA, usually in January…and isn’t quite a full world cruise (that is: It doesn’t come back to the port from which you left, although that’s sometimes feasible with an extension). Every world cruise I’ve ever seen has been sold in (fairly long) segments as well as the whole thing, and usually true world cruisers make up a small portion of the passenger list.

A few examples for 2011:

  • Princess actually has two, one R/T from Sydney, one starting in Fort Lauderdale and ending in Rome. That one is 107 days. It would set a couple back $45K for an interior cabin (which I’m guessing would get a little cozy after three months), $52K for an oceanview cabin, $58K for a balcony, and $80K minimum for a minisuite. Add to that air fare, gratuities (probably $9-$10 per day per person, so figure about $1,900), drinks, shore excursions and any other purchases.
  • Holland America, a step up from Princess (both are owned by Carnival) and with smaller ships (and larger cabins), has a 110-night cruise that’s a true world cruise, round-trip from Fort Lauderdale. I may be missing a fee bit, but I see couple fares of $34K interior, $40K oceanview, $68K for a veranda suite. Add to that all the other extra-cost items as with Princess.

Now compare two luxury cruise lines (Holland America is a Premium line, a level down from Luxury; Princess is sort of a Premium line.)

  • Crystal Cruises–even smaller ships (900 to 1,000 passengers), even larger cabins–has a 110-night cruise, LA to London. For a couple, figure $104K minimum for a window cabin (all of their cabins are “minisuites” by mainline standards) and $112K for a veranda cabin. A lot more–but that does include air, and they add a $5,000-per-couple onboard credit that you can use for shore excursions, wine, etc. Oh, and all nonalcoholic beverages are free on Crystal, which isn’t true of premium and mainstream lines: Water can start to add up.
  • Regent Seven Seas–still smaller ships (490 to 700 passengers), all suites, pretty much all verandas–has a longer world cruise: 131 nights, from San Francisco to Rome. It’s also much more expensive, starting at $140K for a couple. But–and it’s a significant But–that’s all-inclusive: Not only air but all gratuities, mainline shore excursions (anything that would typically cost up to $150/person on other lines), beer, wine, water, booze–unless you want even fancier wine than the very nice vintages they pour for free, you won’t spend a cent on anything but the casino, dry cleaning and laundry, and the shipboard shops.

The Extreme Case

Not so much ‘extreme’ in terms of price–take Regent Seven Seas or Seabourn and book a top-of-the-line suite, and you’ll see extreme, as in more than half a million bucks a couple.

No, this one’s extreme in a different way. Cruise West, which has typically had very small ships (under 100 passengers) mostly serving Alaska and other coastal waters, purchased one of the smaller Renaissance ships and renamed it the Spirit of Oceanus. It’s an oceangoing ship, and they’re going–with the damnedest world cruise I’ve ever seen.

It starts February 22, 2011 in Singapore. It ends January 24, 2012 in Hong Kong. That’s right: a 335-night world cruise. Prices start at $285K per couple, if you book by April 30 (full price would be $446K per couple). That’s for a Superior Cabin–still fairly large by cruise ship standards (a “minisuite” of sorts) but with portholes or a window. Oh, and the whole ship only carries 120 passengers and has two lounger, a game room, a library, and a hot tub. No real pool, no casino, probably lots of lectures but not lots of entertainment choices. That price does include airfare, gratuities, and at least one shore excursion possibility in each port. It doesn’t include alcohol. This is a far more luxurious ship than Cruise West’s usual “exploration class” vessels…

I dunno. Not that there’s any chance we’d ever take any of these, but somehow I think that ship might get to seem very cozy, maybe even a little claustrophobic, well before a 335-night cruise is complete. I wonder how many people will do the whole thing? I wonder whether anybody will?

Note

In case you aren’t familiar with them: All cruise fares (at least all of these) do include entertainment and meals, with the occasional exception of some specialty restaurants (all specialty restaurants on Crystal and RSS are complimentary, and Cruise West only has one restaurant). Most ships do include all nonalcoholic beverages during meals, but non-luxury ships might not include them at other times. The ships all have internet, usually at a price, and fairly extensive libraries. Dry cleaning and laundry usually isn’t included, and neither are medical expenses other than aspirin and meclazine (for seasickness)–but all the ships have doctors and infirmaries.

Last words on the iPad (for now, at least)

Posted in Technology and software on April 6th, 2010

It’s out. I did my special issue on the pre-release hype before it came out–which was what I intended to do.

Post-release hype? Plenty of it, at almost deafening levels at Wired.com, for example–possibly even worse than pre-release, which I frankly didn’t think was possible.

I’m not tagging post-release iPad-related articles (at least not if the iPad is the primary thrust). I don’t plan to–because I don’t plan to do a followup, at least not for quite a while.

Meantime, I do have a few reasonably safe predictions:

  • Most commentary–formal and informal–by people who actually buy iPads will be positive, at least for the first month. I’d guess 90% or more will be enthusiastic. (Most people who buy new things, particularly somewhat pricey new things, like the things they buy–even if they’re not from Apple. That’s only natural.)
  • Most people who offer mixed reviews, even if they’re primarily positive, will be called “Haters” in the comments on their posts or articles. (Here’s where the iPad is different than non-Apple products would be.) UPDATE: I’m turning out to be wrong on this, although it was pretty accurate pre-launch. That’s a good thing: You can be less than 100% pro-iPad without being a “Hater.” (Second update: Ah, but Nicholas Carr just used “Luddites” to refer to Cory Doctorow and anybody else raising qualms about the closed nature of the iPad. There are other words than “Hater.”)
  • The iPad will be hailed even more as “the X killer,” where X=any number of things, including desktops, notebooks, netbooks, ereaders, print publishing, creativity, openness, probably even iPod Touch and iPhones…
  • The iPad will kill none of these things. It doesn’t work that way.
  • Most early experiments in offering magazines on the iPad will fail dismally–for reasons not having much to do with the iPad itself. Sorry, but who in their right minds is really going to pay $4.99 an issue for Wired or Time on the iPad when they sell for, respectively, $12 or less per year and $20 or less per year for 12 or 52+ issues, respectively? (Yes, there will be some. No, there won’t be many.)

There’s some bizarre stuff going on–e.g., a pro-Apple analyst proclaiming that the iPad could be to tablet computing what the Mac is to personal computing in general, a fate I suspect Apple would just as soon avoid…and another one saying the iPad will be the death of Mac notebooks, another fate I suspect Apple would just as soon avoid.

Meantime, if you buy an iPad, enjoy (I’m sure you will). Just don’t get it very wet or drop it very often (having just watched the PC World stress test)–but, frankly, I don’t think that’s advice iPad owners really need to hear. “Oh, hey, here’s my shiny new $500 electronic device! I think I’ll rinse it off under running water and then drop it a few times.” Maybe not.

Mystery Collection Disc 10

Posted in Movies and TV on April 5th, 2010

Murder with Pictures, 1936, b&w. Charles Barton (dir.), Lew Ayres, Gail Patrick, Paul Kelly, Benny Baker, Errest Cossart, Onslow Stevens, Joyce Compton, Anthony Nace. 1:09.

The movie opens with a bad guy about to be acquitted for a murder—as long as That Person Doesn’t Show Up (but, as his pricey attorney notes, it doesn’t matter—once it’s gone to the jury, no new evidence can be admitted). He’s acquitted, goes back to his apartment (surrounded by his gang), and finds A Mysterious Woman along the way (while also being ambushed for a photo by a crack newspaper photographer).

That’s just the start of a plot-heavy picture, part comedy, part mystery, that includes two or three more murders, a ditzy fiancée, showering fully clothed, some heated arguments and, of course, a frenetic happy ending. I couldn’t begin to summarize the plot, but it heavily involves reporters and photographers.

Slight, but fun. I’ll give it $1.25.

The Stranger, 1946, b&w. Orson Welles (dir.), Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, Philip Merivale, Richard Long, Konstantin Shayne. 1:35.

Neither fun but slight, this one’s a true classic—maybe a masterpiece. It begins at the Allied War Crimes Commission, as Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) insists that they make it possible for a secondary Nazi, Konrad Meinike, to escape—so he can lead them to a primary target who’s erased all clues to his whereabouts: Franz Kindler (Orson Welles).

Meinike winds up in Connecticut, where Welles is a professor at a local college, now named Charles Rankin and about to marry the daughter (Loretta Young) of a Supreme Court justice. Meinike also winds up dead, to be sure—and the rest of the movie is about the process of getting Kindler to reveal himself. It involves lots of psychodrama and a fair amount of tension. Oh, and some checker games with the slightly shifty proprietor of the local drug store. And a lot about clockworks.

Beautifully directed and well acted (Robinson is particularly fine, but they all do good work). Good print, marred very slightly by noise on the soundtrack. I can’t possibly give this one less than $2.00.

Murder at Midnight, 1931, b&w. Frank R. Strayer (dir.), Aileen Pringle, Alice White, Hale Hamilton, Robert Elliott, Clara Bandick. 1:09 [1:06].

At 66 minutes, this film seems padded—as though a 20-minute short might have worked better. It begins with a, well, implausible idea (three people carrying out an extensive sketch involving shooting, in order to convey a charades clue to a couple of dozen guests—and since when can you speak doing charades?). The key: the “blanks” in the gun turn out to be real bullets. The rest of the film? A series of slow-moving killings and surprises, supposed humor that isn’t funny, and very little suspense. I could barely keep from nodding off…

Also not a very good print. Other than being dull, slow, tiresome and acted as though it was a stage play done by amateurs, it was so-so. Charitably, $0.50.

Kansas City Confidential, 1952, b&w. Phil Karlson (dir.), John Payne, Coleen Gray, Preston Foster, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dona Drake. 1:39.

A big guy sets up a bank robbery (actually an armored car robbery) with great precision, making it nearly a perfect crime involving three ex-cons (all in current trouble), all wearing masks (as does the big guy) so they can’t identify or rat on each other—and in the process framing a flower delivery man (Payne) who also did a little hard time.

The delivery man escapes the frame but, thanks to cops publicizing his arrest, can’t find work. He finds out the name and destination of one of the three chumps (each sent to hide in a different country), tracks him down in Tijuana and makes sure he’ll be along when the guy goes to get his share of the loot. But on the way, the chump gets shot and the delivery man assumes his identity.

That sets things up for a tense plot in a Mexican resort with a fair amount of attempted double-crossing, a beautiful young law student whose father is an ex-cop (and, clearly, the big guy)…and, well, it all works out in a fairly elaborate finale. Quite a cast, including young (at the time) Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand as the three cons that did the robbery. Well acted, well filmed, classic noir style, worth $1.75.

20 years: The “death of DVDs” in context

Posted in Movies and TV, Technology and software on April 5th, 2010

Just a quick note, for various deathwatch fans who are quick to proclaim The Death Of Whatever–in this case, DVDs, ’cause everything’s going to be streaming any day now…

As noted in this Bloomberg story, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix–who probably knows more about DVD and streaming long-form video consumption than anybody else, and who would really love to see Netflix become entirely a streaming-video operation (as people have noted, it’s not called Mailboxflix)–believes Netflix will be shipping DVDs to subscribers until 2030.

2030. That’s 20 years from now. At that point, DVDs will have been around for more than 30 years and dominant for at least a quarter-century (which has, with remarkable consistency, been the timespan for any dominant audio/video medium to remain dominant or at least very important).

Note that “DVD” includes Blu-ray and, sigh, 3D Blu-ray. Will physical media disappear at some point? Who knows? Will they disappear in the next year or two or five? Not likely.

Sometimes strength is simply avoided weakness

Posted in Stuff on April 3rd, 2010

Long-time readers of this blog and Cites & Insights may have figured out that our household is a little light on tech and media toys. I know some folks think of me as a Luddite in this regard. We don’t have a cell phone on standby all the time. We don’t own an iPhone or any other smart phone. We don’t own any iPod or ereader of any sort. I do have a tiny little 4GB Sansa Express MP3 player (actually a 2GB player, to which I later added a 2GB microSD chip), but it doesn’t even get used that much except on my increasingly-rare travels. Heck, we don’t even own an HDTV (yet, although I hope to remedy that lack soon) or a DVR…and our cable service is “basic basic,” that is, broadcast stations, a couple of shopping channels, four (why so many?) local access channels (you can watch a lot of local council and board meetings, if you’re so inclined), Discovery, and WGN. For $15/month.

Oh, we have wifi (for my wife’s notebook–mine’s plugged directly into the router) and DSL (but only 2Mb download speed, 0.5Mb upload), and we both use computers a lot–but my “notebook” is a notebook in name only (I’ve used it once in a place other than my desk, and that was because our DSL was out for a week after we changed houses–thank heavens for public libraries!), and my wife always uses her notebook in the same place. Both notebooks are relatively cheap Vista devices, both with Core2 Duo CPUs, one two years old, one three+ years. I’ll move to W7 any day now, my wife probably a little later.

We may get a Wii when we get an HDTV. We may not. We’ll probably get a DVR, since our S-VHS VCR will become largely useless…and maybe we’ll replace the freebie DVD player that we’ve been using for two years now with a Blu-ray player. Eventually. (We’re not complete Luddites. We do have Netflix–at the 3-movie level–and watch one movie a week that way, along with an hour or so of TV or old series on other nights. The third “movie” is for TV series we don’t think we’ll want to watch more than once.)

No hairshirts here

Why don’t we have lots of gadgets? Not because we couldn’t afford them (even now, we can afford most anything we really want). Partly because we both hate shopping. Partly because my wife, decades ago, brought me around to her way of thinking: “You don’t buy something unless you’re sure you’re going to use it.” But there’s more to it than that.

In my case, specifically, it’s not because I feel superior to those wasting their time with constant email checking, twittering, channel surfing on the 500-channel deluxe cable/satellite, and all that jazz.

Rather, it’s (partly) because I suspect I would be entirely comfortable with constant email checking, twittering, rechecking FriendFeed, channel surfing, trying out new apps…and, frankly, I don’t think I’d get much writing done. Or much serious reading either.

I’m not a great multitasker. OK, so I don’t think anybody’s a great multitasker when it comes to getting serious stuff done–but I’m not a great multitasker, period. If I’m checking email, I’m not reading a newspaper, magazine, or book–and I’m not writing. If I’m channel-surfing, I’m not focusing.When I read magazine articles during commercials in broadcast TV, I don’t really get much out of the articles–which, for some articles, is fine. I’ve learned never to try to read a book I actually care about under those circumstances.

I don’t listen to music when I’m writing or when I’m reading. That’s because I care about the music that I listen to–and if it’s playing, I’ll find myself focusing on the music. Consider it a weakness: I can’t focus very well on more than one thing at a time. (We don’t subscribe to Entertainment Weekly–which I could actually get at this point for free, for some about-to-expire miles on an airline I almost never use–partly because we’re not hip to all the latest stars, but partly because I’d read the damn thing, cover to cover, and just don’t want to spend that much time. The same goes in spades for The New Yorker–would I ever have time for anything else?)

Avoided weakness

I don’t think it works this way for a lot of my virtual friends. I think many of you do just fine at juggling the toys and real attention.

I don’t.

Yes, I write a lot, and did even when I had a full-time job. That’s a strength, I suppose, but I could only do it by avoiding too many distractions. So, if it’s a strength, it’s mostly an avoided weakness.

Is this another “Why I’m Not Likely to Buy an iPad” piece–one that has nothing to do with my general dislike of the Jobs Reality Distortion Field and closed environments? Maybe. I suspect that, if I owned an iPod Touch or an iPad, I’d like it a lot–and I’d spend a lot of time with it that I could otherwise spend reading, thinking, writing. For now, I’ve made my choice. For others, who balance such things better than I do, you may note that, unlike Cory Doctorow, I have not the slightest intention of suggesting that anybody else shouldn’t buy an iPad. Unless you’re finding that things are out of control (financially, in terms of balance, or in terms of better uses of your time), you should follow your joy.


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