11.23.2007 | Thanksgiving at war

As much as we have to be thankful for as Thanksgiving draws to a close, it's important to remember those who aren't here to be thankful with us. And while I admire the sentiment expressed in this cartoon — those serving abroad in our place certainly deserve our thanks — let us hope as well that the soldiers themselves will be equally able to thank us for the support they deserve — before, during and after the war; at home and abroad.


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Fired up about Amazon's Kindle

Poster child: Bezos' new toy
Leave it to Newsweek to try to get out in front of a technology trend. But this time they may have gone too far.

It began innocently enough — without notice or a buildup of anticipation that normally accompanies the introduction of such gadgets, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a new eBook reader at an Apple-like special event Monday. What followed was predictable — gadget sites online got their hands on one ASAP to give their take on the device. The verdict? A great leap forward, but not the be-all end-all of eBook readers. (Sony, after all, has had theirs out for a while now; Microsoft took a crack at it with their Reader software nearly a decade ago).

So I walk into a drugstore today, and see this on the cover of Newsweek: "Five centuries after Gutenberg—" stop right there. If anything should be compared to the invention of the printing press, it's the digital word, a phenomenon that goes way beyond any one device. The hyperbole left me wondering whether Newsweek was incapable of making a good analogy at best, or allowing themselves to be used as a free advertisement at worst (c|net's Amy Tiemann "had to check twice to make sure the article wasn't a paid product placement").

I can't be sure how the Kindle will fare, but my guess is that it will remain a niche product for the following reasons:

  • One screen is not enough. You read a book two pages at a time; an electronic reader should have two screens (or at least a wide screen that folds in the middle) with opposing faces.

  • It should be familiar. Open the cover of a Kindle, and it doesn't feel like a book. It feels like a PDA. People like the way the weight of a book feels in their hands. They like to take the book in their hands and flip through the pages. Until a reader mimics these existing ways of interacting with the medium, I don't think it will have mass appeal.

  • Ditch the keyboard. Like Apple's brilliant stroke with the iPhone did to the smartphone, an e-reader should not have a keyboard that distracts you when you're trying to focus on reading the screen. It should just be you and the words. Even Bezos said he wanted the Kindle "to disappear in your hands — to get out of the way — so you can enjoy your reading." It's hard to do that with a keyboard staring back at you at the bottom — and what about accidental taps? Like the iPhone, fixing this will require a touchscreen replacement (all the better to simulate flipping pages with?) — Apple's approach in a recent patent filing is one way.

The X factor in all this is Apple's response. The Kindle's launch has inspired comparisons to the iPod, and reviewers have mentioned the iPod and iPhone's potential to be used as an eReading display. I, for one, wouldn't mind using a click wheel to scroll down a chapter of text after selecting it from a playlist-like selection menu (are you listening, Apple?).

Whatever the case, the Kindle did get two things right: wireless downloads wherever you are, and page-turn buttons that don't leave you feeling all thumbs. Is that enough to spend $400 on a device that looks like it would have been at home next to a 1980s PC? Time will tell. But at least for now, it seems the reports of the book's death at the hands of the Kindle are greatly exaggerated.

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11.16.2007 | GOP Congressmen demand withdrawal

Democrats' report: Inconvenient truths?
not from Iraq, but of a report issued by the Democratic members of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee seeking to estimate the "hidden costs" of the Iraq war.

The call comes from Senator Sam Brownback and Representative Jim Saxton, the ranking Republican members of the Joint Economic Committee, who claim that the report is "defective" and riddled with "factual errors," though the specific examples they gave have been corrected in the online version of the report.

It's all well and good to demand accuracy, but calling for the report's withdrawal?

While telling us to stand strong in the face of hardship in Iraq and asking our soldiers to continue to shoulder the necessary sacrifices, it seems to me these Republicans have found an enemy more formidable than the terrorists in Afghanistan or the insurgents in Iraq — a differing point of view.

Go ahead and call the report "defective," go ahead and tell us where the Democrats erred — even better, issue your own report in response. That's the beauty of open academic debate. But to tell the opposing side to take back what they said is the intellectual equivalent of cut and run.

Read the report for yourself (PDF, 400KB) and decide whether it makes a rhetorical leap too far.

But as for the Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is opposing any talk of a timetable — for charging Bush administration officials with contempt of Congress.

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11.15.2007 | Too easy to be green?

Ecstasy is all you need
Living in the big machine now …
Now your world is way too fast
Nothing's real and nothing lasts

These lyrics from the Goo Goo Dolls' 2002 release, Gutterflower, serve as pretext to a larger point about the state of the auto industry ahead of this week's Los Angeles Auto Show, not just in America but abroad as well. As German automakers struggle to increase fuel efficiency, America's largest, GM, is celebrating today's pronouncement of its 2007 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid — using a hybrid drive co-developed with its German counterparts — as Green Car of the Year.

Excuse me. Chevy Tahoe? Green? Car?

This effusive article from Reuters praises the Tahoe as "the first full-size hybrid SUV" that gets "21 miles per gallon in the city, the same as a Toyota Camry sedan." 21 miles per gallon? Break out the champagne! We can all go home now.

Even more galling is this gem from GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss:

When you think of a hybrid, you think of a small car that has been built from the ground up to eke out the most miles, but now you can have that kind of system in a large vehicle.

Yes, by all means! Let's throw away any mileage gains that could come from designing a new kind of SUV with efficiency in mind and just throw an electric motor on the existing one. That's progress! (To be fair, GM did make the doors out of aluminum, but most likely only to offset the added weight from the hybrid drive train.)

GM's mild Malibu and Aura hybrids, meanwhile, eke out only small mileage gains (perhaps why GM is advertising them as America's "most affordable" hybrids — they can't win on engineering).

Honda, for its part, is rolling out the first hydrogen fuel cell production car in the middle of next year to a "limited" number of customers in southern California for a bargain $600 per month ("affordable," according to MSNBC — we can only hope they took "relatively speaking" as granted). Good luck finding a filling station!

The Los Angeles Times' Dan Neil takes a longer view, saying that automakers cannot "throw a switch" and turn all their cars into hybrids at once — though that's exactly what GM seems to have done with its Tahoe. And, again according to Neil, automakers have more reason to appear green than just good PR:

Consider the context of this year's auto show. The price of oil is flirting with $100 a barrel. Recent studies suggest that, as the energy demands of emerging giants India and China increase, world oil consumption could rise 55% by 2030. Even oil executives concede we cannot drill or mine enough to satisfy that kind of energy appetite.

Two automakers seem to be headed in the right direction. Ford's CEO, Alan Mulally, talked about reducing vehicle weight as a means to increase fuel efficiency. Toyota, meanwhile, has a concept car with reduced weight instead of added batteries (though its larger image as a green company may be faltering).

On the plus side, automakers are finally waking up to the reality that oil is a finite resource. Their attempts at introducing greener technologies, if self-serving, are about as much as survival as social responsibility. But as they fight higher fuel economy standards at the same time, by and large their green effrontery remains a façade.

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