25 November 2013

Book Review: The End of Days by James Swanson

The End of Days : The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James Swanson (Harper Collins, 2013 398 pages) is a readily readable account of the four days in November 1963. The author’s title was intended to be a metaphor which marked the end of days for JFK as well as naivite for the nation.

Swanson is a skilled writer who was able to condense 80 pages of source notes into a page turning murder mystery story without the mystery.  Swanson firmly believes  that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, and Swanson’s story gives no credence to the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination which have been circulating over the last fifty years.

Swanson gives 60 pages of background switching between the 35th President and his assassin in a parallel lives narrative style before their lives start to intersect in Texas. But occasionally the transition seemed rough.  Moreover, the use of ellipses to indicate jumps in narrative focus were not uniformly applied. 

One of the virtues of the End of Days was giving insight into Lee Harvey Oswald’s mindset by way of recounting Oswald’s appearances on New Orleans radio programs during the summer of 1963 supporting the Fair Play for Cuba cause.  These appearances on the Latin Listening Post and Conversation Carte Blanche establish that he was a sui generis leftist (a Marxist who was not a Communist who supported Fair Play for Castro but did give full throated public support for the Cuban revolution). Swanson interjects commentary into these recountings of radio interviews, so the casual reader can easily note Oswald’s lack of education, uttering things like “superflutious” instead of superfluous and a rhetorical tick when avoiding difficult questions.  These traits come into play later in Dallas.

Swanson’s short history of the Kennedy Administration does not whitewash the young Democrat President’s philandering foibles but it does not focus on it.  Kennedy is portrayed as a fervent anti-Communist who was positioning himself for his run for re-election on a pro-growth, tax cutting theme.  These traits are often ignored in other retellings of the American “Camelot”.  

The End of Days also adroitly points out the imaging campaign which the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy used to immortalize her assassinated husband’s Administration as Camelot.  A week after the assassination occurred, the Jackie called Pulitizer Prize winning author Theodore White for an exclusive three and half hour in depth interview about the tragic day in Dallas and the aftermath.  Swanson notes that White had a tight deadline to file his copy and that he violated principle rules by letting a principle subject read the piece before publication and offer editorial comment to insist that the Camelot analogy (referring to a popular Broadway play) remained.  That became part of the myth making and the mystique of JFK.

The detailed account of the run up to the dastardly deed, the manhunt and the interrogation of the perpetrator was masterful.  Since the Oswald murder by Jack Ruby and the state funeral were televised live and became iconic images imprinted on the American psyche, Swanson alludes to a couple of these scenes.  Unfortunately, The End of Days did not seem to have reproduction rights for the photo of Lee Harvey Oswald just before he was shot or little John John’s salute of the casket. 

Some of the photos that are included in the first edition in the funeral section do not strongly augment the telling of the tale. This is exemplified by the photo of night time vista of Arlington National Cemetery, the full  page spread for two JFK mourning buttons and the two mourning banners.  

Although The End of Days read like a Murder Mystery in which the reader knows what will happen, there were a couple of instances when the foreboding background voice of the fate that awaits seemed overwrought. The ending of the book seemed rushed in trying to tie up the loose ends about concerns about Robert Kennedy becoming President Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President and Jackie O’s estrangement from American popular focus. 

End of Days Author James Swanson 
While I enjoyed reading The End of Days, his media appearances had me expecting a little more.  In the run up to the fiftieth anniversary, Swanson reminded Americans not to persiverate on the assassination but to remember Kennedy’s virtues.  Moreover, the author urged conservatives to embrace JFK’s staunch anti-communism, patriotism and pro-growth orientation.  I had hoped that these sentiments would have been more evident in the epilogue. 

The End of Days would neither satisfy a Sixth Floor Museum devotee nor a convicted conspiracy type, but Swanson was not writing for that audience.  If someone wants to read a true life potboiler chock full of facts about the JFK assassination, they should consider reading James Swanson’s The End of Days.

FreedomPop Now Allows Bring Your Own Phones

FreedomPop, a mobile cellular service initially backed by Skype founder Niklas Zennström, has been trying to make good on its slogan: “The Internet is a right, not a privilege” through a freemium business model. 

FreedomPop offers three tiers of phone plans.  The base level gives a customer 200 voice minutes 500 texts and 500 MB of data for $0.  FreedomPop’s e middle tier offers 500 voice minutes, unlimited texts and the 500 MB of data for $7.99.  If a FreedomPop consumer “splurged” to get unlimited voice, unlimited texts and 500 MB of data, it would only cost $10.99.  If a customer needs more, voice minutes are a penny a piece and 1 MB of data for 2.5 cents (or penny per MB for Premium Data subscribers)   FreedomPop does not officially support Hotspot for their handsets. FreedomPop customers are eligible more free services through social networking or participating in surveys et cetera. 

As a  a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), FreedomPop does not have to maintain a network and does not entice customers with subsidized brand new handsets in exchange for an expensive iron-clad contract.   FreedomPop utilizes an Voice Over Internet (VOIP) voice and IP.  FreedomPop finds that around 45% of their customers purchase upgraded service. 

During the first ten weeks of FreedomPop Phones, it was offering refurbished HTC Evo 4G Design phones  for $99.  This was a decent price for a free phone service, but the price was not right for a cellular consumer who has a stack of superceded smart phones at his fingertips   But after network partner Sprint finally gave its blessing, FreedomPop can now accept Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) for unlocked Sprint CDMA cell phones.  This allowed me to repurpose a legacy HTC Evo for a low cost (to no cost) second cell phone line.

Following their Freemium model, FreedomPop phones look to various approaches to monetize.  Much to FreedomPop’s credit, the company moved away from the $0.99 minimum usage charge which they initially attached to their Hotspots.  And data usage is frozen when there is less than 100 MB unless FreedomPop has permission to automatically top it off with a revolving charge.   FreedomPop does assess a $2.74 per month charge for voicemail, which can manually be excluded.  At sign up, customers are offered a complimentary 1 GB bonus, which later converts to a $9.99 a month charge. 

 If a customer took the premium 1 GB of data, the voice mail and unlimited talk and texting, the total bill would be $23.72.   On the one hand, FreedomPop’s $23.73 pricing is slightly more than the PayLo unlimited talk and text for feature phones but includes much more data.  On the other hand, Virgin Mobile offers unlimited texting, 300 voice minutes and unlimited data for $35.

Calls and texts are routed through a FreedomPop application on the smart phone.   Ths underlines that  savvy consumers should not look to MVNOs in isolation for answers about mobile connectivity.

There may be alternatives to the FreedomPop Voicemail.  Since  consumers are unable to port old cell phone numbers during FreedomPop Phone’s ongoing Beta testing period, a good idea is to link a G-mail Account with a new Google Voice number for messages.  Sidebar calling can be done with apps like Google Voice or Talkatone, so one can give the Google Voice number and call the person back using either service.  Google Voice can also move these voice messages into Google Chat.  Google Voice  not only records the message, it sends an email with a transcript (and will even translate it for you). If using this methodology, use the cell phone to authenticate Google Voice.  Necessity is the mother of invention for customizing cellular service for those willing to think outside of the box.

Granted that the sound quality for voice calls is typical of VOIP with a slight latency in signal and what can be characterized as car phone sound quality.  But these are small sacrifices for 200 free voice minutes. 

While FreedomPop cellular service  will have little appeal to “Digerati” who feel compelled to have the latest and greatest phones and think nothing of triple digit cell bills.  But there are some “old school” mobile phone users who are chary about monthly bills who would cotton to a one time charge for a smart phone and not needing to worry about charges for their “emergency” mobile device.  Those who would qualify for a federal Lifeline phone (a.k.a. Obamaphone) would get a much better deal with FreedomPop Phones, but the consumer would need to buy the older handset (which can be found inexpensively on E-Bay).  

As for myself, it is worth considering making FreedomPop a primary mobile carrier.  I use less than 300 voice minutes and 500 texts a month.  However there are times that I use more than 1 Gig of data and I would prefer to have a carrier which allows for Hotspot connections for a tablet. Hence, I will make FreedomPop a secondary phone.

22 November 2013

Surveying the Surfeit of Cheap Tablets

As Black Friday and Cyber Monday approaches, many merchants are highlighting inexpensive tablet computers as doorbusters or loss leaders to gin up overall Christmas holiday sales.  But before making impulse electronics purchases, it is wise to consider how you would use a tablet in mobile computing.  

It used to be that tablets were the ideal media consumption device. Tablets with 7" to 10" screens allow an individual to have an almost immersive view of videos.  Applications (a.k.a. apps) generally provided shortcuts which facilitated internet interactions.  Some tablets like the Nook and the Kindle were more e-ink reading devices which could have proto-tablet functions (checking e-mail, Wikipedia, and text based websites).  But Amazon’s Kindle Fire sought to be a loss leader which was a shopping portal doubling as an entertainment device.   Samsung’s strong showing with its Galaxy Tablets as well as the “phablet” Note series sought to tie tablets to cellular carriers.

Discern what are your mobile computing needs.  If you want a communications device with a larger screen (and you don’t mind carrying a 5.5" device in a pocket or a purse), then a “phablet” like the Samsung Note may be the best choice for you.  Many retailers will be offering enticing prices for such hybrid phone/tablets, but be prepared to be locked into a cellular carrier for a year or two.  If you want to keep having the latest and greatest devices, look into the early upgrade programs from major cellular carriers. 

Tablets sales used to be driven by Apple’s i-Pad, which came out in 2010.  The i-Pad still wins 29.6% of the tablet market while asking for a premium price that is rarely discounted.  While this writer is not purposely not part of the Apple cult, if one feels compelled to buy an Apple for its reputation of ease of use, enticing design or to keep up with the Jones’, then buy an i-Pad and sleep in on Black Friday.

As an electronics consumer, I like to get the most bang for my buck with tables and not be limited by a vertical monopoly manufacturer.   Currently I own a couple of Amazon Kindles and a WebOS HP Touchpad.  I love to read on an e-ink device like the Kindle.  Unfortunately, my Kindle 2 (with the slow but unrestricted 3G coverage) is losing its charge and computer geeks are reluctant to change out the battery.  While the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite provides even better e-ink resolution, the newer model has dropped the headphones option and the text-to-speech feature.  For my purposes. the text-to-speech ability is important for times which I want to enjoy books but can not have my eyes on the screen.  But text-to-speech is included in the Kindle Fires.

Regarding my HP Touchpad, I knew that it was a dead-end from the moment I acquired it in the HP fire-sale in the August 2011.  But WebOs is an elegant operating system and the HP Touchpad had upscale features.  Two years later, it is running fine and should be serviceable for the foreseeable future.  Alas, there are not many new WebOs applications available.  In order to use some hotspots, there are apps that are necessary and I am reluctant to make it a dual booting Android tablet.  So between an ailing e-reader and a red headed stepchild tablet, I have my eye out on the surfeit of cheap tablets.

 Some have tried to take advantage of the slow demise of the Barnes and Noble Nook by using the SD card as an Android boot.  It can work, but realize that the Nooks OS takes up nearly 3/4ths of an 8 GB e-reader.  The 16 GB Nook HD tablets (list $150) offer more storage.  But there are serious questions to the long term viability of the Nook.  So it may only be good for reconfigured use or as a stuck in time tablet. 

Having owned several Kindles over the past four years, I am entrenched in Amazon’s e-reader market.  The Amazon Kindle Fire HD has achieved around 5% market share, but it should suffice for my own  supplemental tablet/ infotainment needs.  Although a 16 GB Kindle Fire HD (list  now $169) has a 7" screen is markedly smaller than the 9.7" HP Touchpad screen, it is a more manageable size for e-reading functions.  Moreover, my mobile computing needs have not been as video oriented.  The Kindle Fire HD has Bluetooth, which should allow a wireless keyboard for productivity.  The Kindle Fire HD  does allow for hotspot connection hence  buying a 4G version is costly and unnecessary.  

For those interested in getting Black Friday bargains for the Amazon Fire, be aware that the discounts will be for the Fire HD (2nd generation) not the newer Fire HDX.

If one can live without using a tablet as a camera or a phone or having the “Mayday” feature, the HD will have most of the improvements of Kindle Fire OS 3.0 “Mojito “ (a forked version of Android).   Many of the cut rate Kindle Fires are 8 GB (which should leave around 6 GB for internal storage along with the cloud).

While most mobile computing people look to tablets as a media consumption device, some industrious individuals want to have a tablet that is a  quasi laptop without the bulk or balking at the price of a MacBook Air (list $999).  When Microsoft entered the tablet market, it tried to appeal to such customers with the Microsoft Surface RT.  The price point of the Microsoft  Surface 2  (list $449) rivals that of the i-Pad (list $499), but Microsoft throws in fully functioning version of Office and 200 GB of SkyDrive storage and plenty of cloud storage, features which generally cost extra elsewhere.

The 10.6" touch screen of the Microsoft Surface makes full use of Metro interface, but if one wishes to run old programs, it is necessary to buy a Microsoft Surface Pro (list $899), which is much pricier.   The big tiles on the start screen are customizable and offer updated embedded information.  The Surface RT allows multitasking.  

The body of the Microsoft Surface RT includes a built in kick stand.  The Surface RT has micro SDSX ports allowing users to add memory.  The magnetic Touch Cover is ordinarily a $100 add on which both protects the screen and is a keyboard.  While the Windows Apps store is not as robust as the Android or i-store, they claim that plenty of apps are free. 

If you have Surface appeal, it is possible to find a Surface RT for under $200 during Black Friday sales, but it would be wise to look for sales which a buyer tne pays a little more and includes the Touch Cover. 

There will be plenty of Black Friday sales on Android tablets.   If Android tablets have an appeal, determine which version of OS the hardware has, as earlier versions of Android  (prior to 4.0“Jelly Bean”) are not optimized to tablet proportions. Also be aware of how much storage is on the tablet.  A $40 tablet that only boasts 4GB will barely hold one movie.  That might be good enough for kinderspiel but would quickly be condemned to the land of misfit toys for most other tablet users. 

This holiday shopping season it may be easy to acquire a tablet but take the time to choose the right tablet for you. Consumers who are content to pay premium prices for an entertainment consumption device which is touted to work out of the box should opt for an i-Pad. Busy businessmen may want the Microsoft Surface to be able to do Office work while surfing the web on their tablets.  Those who want an all in one mobile communications device should consider a “phablet” like the Samsung Galaxy Note.  Avid readers who want the functionality of a tablet should lean towards the Amazon Kindle Fire.  And there are a variety of inexpensive Android tablets which may motivate impulse shoppers.

h/t: BFAds

19 November 2013

Commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address

On November 19th, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address to dedicate the battlefield in the bloodiest skirmish during the war between the States as a resting place for the fallen.
Lincoln was said to have written his brief remarks on the back of an envelope, yet those scribbling still resonate today.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The acclaimed PBS Civil War documentarian Ken Burns has been promoting  "Learn the Address" by inviting 58 prominent Americans to recite those solemn words of President Lincoln from 150 years ago.

It is worth noting that the only person amongst the nearly three score of cynosures who failed to read the speech as delivered at the cemetery in Gettysburg was President Barack H. Obama.  Our current President omitted the words "under God".  Perhaps there was a teleprompter glitch.  More likely, it is conscious return by Mr. Obama to conveniently edit seminal American documents to suit his tastes. Such a cavalier approach to what Ken Burns called pure Presidential poetry seems to be what honest historians want to avoid.  

In addition, President Obama chose not to travel the 75 miles to Gettysburg for the Sesquicentennial, despite having a light official schedule.  This is an odd omission as Mr. Obama declared his Presidential run at the steps of the Lincoln statehouse in Springfield, Illinois and adorned the White House with many Lincolnesque trappings. Those closely associated with President Obama have suggested that "the whole website thing" prevented a visit to Gettysburg.  Yet Mr. Obama had time on Sunday  for a round of  golf and also attended a Maryland Terrapin-Oregon State basketball game

Yet  President Obama will be in the forefront in ceremonies commemorating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Although the currently elected occupant of the White House will be absent, this should not stop us from actualizing Abraham Lincoln's exhortation:

[T]hat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

12 November 2013

Satirizing the Quirks of Social Media Communication

While the Internet 2.0 has greatly increased a sense of feeling connected with others on the World Wide Web, this phenomenon has caused some quirks in communications. 

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake satirized the proliferation of hashtags through a reductio ad absurdum video using the hagtags in real life dialogues.

Since short written exchanges can be misconstrued without facial cues, many internet interlocutors choose to use emoticons.   To supplement these non-verbal cues,  entrepreneurs Paul and Douglas J. Sak  patented and sought to market new punctuation to clarify things-- the Sarcmark.

Free spirits chafed at profiting from punctuation.  A mock website "Open Sarcasm" sought to blacklist the SarcMark in favor of the temherte slaq (the inverted exclamation point) with a tongue in cheek tag line: "Sarcasmists of the World Unite!" 

But another reason that  the SarcMark has failed to catch on was the price for being smarmy.  The grammatical genius initially priced his punctuation at $1.99 for lifetime use, whereas typing ;-) was just three keystrokes and had no cost.  Brilliant!  

Communication has changed in the Internet Age.  Now, sending e-mails are too long for the digerati and may be considered passé.  Traditional types often have difficulty in adjusting to sharing in 140 characters or less.  

Short form social media like Twitter will not be the be all and end all in communicating complex thought.  But it can attract eyeballs to see something more.

h/t: Mike Keefe

08 November 2013

Book Review: The War on Football: Saving America's Sport by Daniel J. Flynn

Daniel J. Flynn
So many of those who write about sports come from a liberal persuasion.  So it was refreshing to read Daniel J. Flynn’s book "The War on Football: Saving America’s Game” (Regnery Publishing, 2013, 216 pages) as he iconoclastically uses science, history and social relations to defend a beleaguered sport.  Perhaps Flynn’s tenure as the former Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia inspired the author to include over 50 pages of footnotes to score his points, lest anyone doubt him. Flynn surveys the sport on the Pop Warner level, collegiate football programs even womens’ football leagues as well as the pros to try to discern the truth about football.

When listening to the news today, it is hard to escape hearing ancillary reports on the War on Football.  Between the news that former Dallas Cowboy running back Tony Dorsett declaring that hits from his NFL career contributed to his diagnosis of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).  Then there are the charges of hazing by Miami Dolphin Guard Richie Incognito that he bullied other 300 pound rookie players.  Then there is the irate Texas parent who pressed administrative charges of bullying against Alendo High School Football Coach Tim Buchanan after winning the game 91-0.

The battle against football is not simply for safety but it mirrors a “wussification” of society as well as reflecting the lessons which we want to teach our children. So instead of giving football a proverbial pat on the back for instilling discipline, teamwork and the virtues of hard work, football is given a kick below the belt by pointing to questionable science to win their game.

There is no doubt that football is a physically demanding sport, which requires conditioning and practice.  However, the mainstream media weltanschauung is colored by a perception that football is an American version of a gladiator sport.  While there were periods in history, such as 1905 and 1968, where many mortal injuries on the playing field occurred, Flynn contends that rule changes and better equipment mitigate those serious casualties.  So today anti-football fanatics concentrate on concussions. 

The $765 million settlement by the NFL to former players since 2006 with brain damage claims as well as suicides of Junior Seau and Dave Duereson which supposedly implicates CTE to the tragic deaths contributes to the public perception that football is an unsafe sport.

 Flynn’s "The War on Football" book debunks these simple conclusions as they are not bourne out by the facts.    Cheerleaders are more at risk for concussions than football players, but which athlete embodies the fearsome warrior traits so disfavored by Cocktail Party elites?  

Scientists can not find a causal effect between football and CTE.  However hucksters selling safety are able to profit hawking equipment with dubious extra protection.  Moreover, Flynn casts a shadow upon Mark Lovell’s Intermediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT), noting how the expert lacks scientific detachment as he successfully  markets his “low to moderate reliability” product to sports programs desperate for cover against litigation.

The pro-football settlement regarding concussions may have a ripple effect which could well diminish the lower levels of the sport.  Some anti-football crusaders want to ban the sport to minors.  This nanny state protection for the children , which would effectively kill football as the physicality of the sport make football a young person’s sport.  In addition, the skills required for teamwork, precision and strategy takes time to develop to attain the athletic achievements that American football fans admire.  

As a casual football fan who loves history, I appreciated learning how football evolved as a uniquely American sport.  It was amusing to find out that Notre Dame greats George Gipp and Knute Rockne superceded their “tramp athlete origins” to become paragons of football.  In addition,  Pop Warner had his own foibles but still left a great legacy to football.   Flynn’s iconoclastic arguments against the junk science concerning concussions and football were compelling and often ignored by a sensationalist, liberal leaning mainstream media. 

The tone of the book was fair but decidedly not objective.  I appreciated the cynical asides peppered throughout the book questioning junk science or the tongue in cheek critique on litigators: “They don’t teach physics in law school.”    Flynn had so won me over that I was rooting for a blowout at the end instead of the more restrained conclusion that: “Football is good for you.  Play. Watch. Cheer.”

h/t: EdDriscoll.com