Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It's story time!

President Obama’s main theme these days seems to be action. We must become a nation of “doers,” of people who seize the day. We must volunteer, get involved, be self-starters and chart our own destinies.

President Obama obviously knows nothing about the Kindle.

The Kindle is threatening to do to books what the iPod did to music. It’s currently the “must have” gadget of people with disposable income. (Note: At last count, there were approximately 347 people living in America with disposable income. And that’s before the market opened today).

Amazon.com developed the Kindle. I was shocked when I read that because I never realized Amazon.com developed anything. I thought Amazon.com just sold stuff that other companies developed and took a commission. But apparently deep within the warehouses of Amazon lies a team of developers who recently looked at the millions of books piling up on the shelves and said, “there’s gotta be a better way.”

Behold, the Kindle!

The Kindle is a gadget about the size of a paperback book that lets users download books electronically – approximately 1,500 books in case you are wondering.

Now I consider myself a voracious reader but I’m not sure I’ve read 1,500 books in my life, and that’s counting See Spot Run and the entire Dr. Seuss library. If I read a book a month - no small feat considering the January issue of Sports Illustrated is still sitting on my nightstand untouched - it would still take me 125 years to complete the Kindle library. Which makes me wonder why, just 14 months after introducing the Kindle, Amazon.com has launched the Kindle 2. Surely nobody wore out their Kindle by now, did they?

But like every electronics manufacturer, Amazon wanted the Kindle to be bigger, better and pricier. And apparently it is. According to the Amazon website, the Kindle 2 boasts 25 PERCENT LONGER BATTERY LIFE and 20 PERCENT FASTER PAGE TURNS, WHATEVER THAT MEANS!

Okay, I know what it means because I sat next to a passenger on a recent flight who was “reading” the Kindle. About every 20 seconds he pushed a button on the side of the screen. Numerous shades of gray words dissolved and were replaced by other numerous gray words. In Kindle terms, that signifies a “page turn.”

In spite of the sarcasm I’m heaping upon the Kindle, I actually can see the benefits of owning one, particularly since I’m a road warrior. My briefcase always contains my laptop, some business cards, a few contracts and my set list for whatever stand-up comedy gig I happen to be traveling to. But when I sling my bag over my shoulder, I literally hear bones crunching, cartilage shifting and joints creaking. The extra weight comes from all the magazines that I subscribe to yet never have time to read at home. Therefore, I shove them into the bag and try and read all of them before the plane touches down in Los Angeles, Columbus, Orlando or wherever. As I write this, there are still back issues of Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone in my briefcase. Suffice it to say that I prefer “light” reading on airplanes. If I see somebody on a plane reading The New Republic or the New England Journal of Medicine, I know it’s best to leave that person alone.

So I thought the Kindle would be a cool purchase. I could download all those magazines into one 10 ounce, quarter of an inch wide gadget. I’d stuff the latest Harry Potter novel in there as well. If the plane was delayed and I was sitting on the runway for hours, I could sample other books on my short list including A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Lovely Bones, Tuesdays with Morrie and Born Standing Up. These books would live inside Kindle the same way 15 unwatched episodes of Friday Night Lights live inside my Tivo. I’d never be bored again!

I went to Amazon’s website and pulled up the Kindle. Actually, there’s no need to pull up the Kindle. It is such a popular item that it literally leaps off the screen as soon as you enter the site. My mouse hovered over the “add to shopping cart” icon as I read the features. Okay, the battery life issue was a bit disconcerting. Although the Kindle 2 boasts “25 percent more battery life,” I’d still hate to see the Kindle shut down right in the middle of a Voldemort vs. Harry Potter duel. Also, TEACHERS BEWARE: YOUR STUDENTS NO LONGER WILL REPORT THAT THE DOG ATE THEIR HOMEWORK. INSTEAD, THEY WILL SAY, “MY KINDLE DIED.”

Still, I figured I could live with the battery issue. Hey, what’s one more adapter in my briefcase? I read on. The site featured UR, a Stephen King novel “written exclusively for Kindle.” How a novel can be written exclusively for anything is beyond me. It’s the same words, right? General Motors never developed a car “exclusively for middle-aged men with large bank accounts and low self-esteem.” Wait a minute. Porsche did.

I continued reading, still ready to whip out my credit card and start filling in the fields. Then I saw it. The feature that throws Obama’s “seize the day, be a self starter, yes we can” theme out the window.

The Kindle actually reads to you.

I’m not kidding.

The minds at Amazon have added some weird feature called, simply, “read-to-me.” According to the website, Kindle can read every newspaper, magazine, blog, and book out loud to you, unless the feature is “disabled by the rights holder,” which is another phrase for “unless you drop it.”

The Kindle video on the Amazon website says the read-to-me feature is great for when the user wants to “take a break” from reading. The video showed a woman on the beach who was enjoying reading the Kindle and then, for reasons unknown, decided to pop in her headphones and be read to. A computer-driven voice took over the task, spewing out words in a voice that sounded like one emanating from that reel-to-reel film projector that was wheeled into my eighth-grade science class. You know the one? It always broke down before the film ended and had to be repaired by one of three kids in the school AV club.

Sure the concept of being read to is nothing new. Books on tape have been around for years. But I never bought into the idea of buying a book and listening to it while driving. Maybe it’s because I don’t drive that far and it would take forever for James Earl Jones to tell me which diabolical lawyer was behind the latest John Grisham crime.

The Kindle 2 just seems different. Maybe the “2” in Kindle 2 stands for two years old because that’s what I would probably feel like if a computer gadget started to read to me and even turned the pages. I’d feel like I should be sitting Indian style on a rug somewhere, poking somebody while waiting for snack time.

I truly had high hopes for us as a nation of readers. J.K. Rowling’s books had kids putting down the remote and reading. Oprah’s Book Club shot unknown authors to the top of the bestseller lists and thrust their books into the hands of millions. The books were actually read by- as opposed to read to - Oprah’s followers.

Now what’s going to happen?

If we all get used to being read to, what will happen to book clubs? Instead of meeting monthly at a member’s house to actually discuss the book, why not just gather ‘round the Kindle while it tells the story? Bring some booze since your hands are now free!

What about libraries? I’ve always loved the idea of entering a library and hoping that a book I really wanted was not checked out. If it truly is on the shelf, I feel victorious, as if I had found a piece of buried treasure before anybody else discovered it. Hey, you wanna read this book? Get in line buddy ‘cause it’s MINE!

Plus libraries allow you to check out books for free. As far as I can tell, ain’t nothing free on the Kindle. You pay for everything you download. Books, magazines, even newspapers such as USA Today. I always thought USA Today was a free newspaper that showed up outside my hotel room door. Not according to Amazon.

I wish technology would make up its mind. Do we want to do things ourselves or do we want everything done for us? We pump our own gas, bag our groceries, and check ourselves in at airports. We’ve learned to bank on line, book our own plane tickets and program our DVD players without help.

But has that truly made us a better society? Or a smarter one? Sure we all know how to use Microsoft Word but the spell checker has turned us into a nation of lousy spellers. Can’t balance your checkbook? No need to if you’ve got Quicken. Can’t play an instrument? Buy GarageBand from Apple.

I have two girls that inherited their dad’s love for reading. My sixth grader would rather get a Barnes & Noble gift card than an iTunes card for her birthday. I’m told my first grader reads at a sixth grade level. But both also are growing up in a world of burgeoning technology and that bothers me. In six years, when my eldest heads off to college, it’s quite possible the Kindle will be in her luggage, ready to download every textbook on her course list.

God, I hope she actually reads them.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Obama-berry

I voted for President Obama even though I’m convinced he can’t solve all the crises currently facing this country. The current wrangling over the stimulus package is proof even though Obama has done a fine job of selling it, appearing everywhere but The View to bolster support.

Still, Obama has already proved he is a tough negotiator. For just hours after he took his hand off the Bible (twice), word came down that our new president had indeed triumphed in a very controversial debate.

He gets to keep his Blackberry.

Just in case the nation’s comedians are still searching for ways to poke fun at the nation’s first African-American president, look no more. The idea of Obama texting Michelle during boring Cabinet meetings, or consulting his calendar to see that, yes, today he is scheduled to meet with the Iranian president, is hilarious simply from a visual standpoint. Wait until things settle down in Washington and comedians actually start writing about the guy.

I was excited when I heard Obama was hooked on this device because it proved I had something in common with the leader of the free world. I had nothing in common with his predecessor. I never owned a baseball team, never lived on a ranch, never wore cowboy boots, never bombed a foreign country and never doubled the size of our national debt. Okay, there have been a few times that I didn’t pay my credit card balance in full. Does that count?

Obama admits to being a “crackberry,” meaning he is addicted to the annoying little device. I share this trait with him. I can’t do without my Blackberry for the following reasons:

1) I’m self employed

2) I travel extensively

3) I have no staff or secretary to handle my schedule for me

4) I feel comfortable knowing that I can get in touch with anybody at any time and vice versa. Yes, that means I might get a call at a restaurant or while coaching a Little League game but at least I know that a potential customer can always contact me.

Wait a minute. Now that I look at this list, it seems the only thing that Obama and I have in common is number two. As I write this, the news has broken that Obama has scheduled the first of what will be many overseas trips. Granted, it’s to Canada but that seems like a safe place to start. The last time I checked, we hadn’t deployed any troops to Vancouver or taken over a ski resort.

Seriously, why does Obama need a Blackberry? Unlike me, he’s not self-employed. He works for the U.S. Government, which currently is laying off employees at a slower pace than Boeing. Right now it seems like an okay place to work.

Furthermore, his job comes with a staff that is fairly efficient, even if they occasionally fail to conduct background checks on cabinet appointees for minor indiscretions such as FAILURE TO PAY INCOME TAX. But every time I see Obama, he’s got about five people attached to his hip. Six, if you count Vice President Biden. That staff makes sure our president is always in touch.

I looked at my Blackberry’s home screen and wondered which applications Obama might use. Text messaging? Doubtful. As I said, Obama’s whereabouts are known ALL THE TIME. Secretary of State Clinton will never have to frantically text “Where R U?” to the president.

Likewise, that makes his calendar function useless. When you’re the president, you don’t need to be reminded, via a vibration on your hip, that the president of Afghanistan is landing in two hours, the gun control bill is scheduled for debate and you have a parent-teacher conference. In fact, during the middle of a recent Obama speech in Fort Myers, he was handed a note saying the stimulus bill cleared the Senate. A note! Real Blackberry uses don’t use notes. They get IM’s and interrupt whatever they are doing to read them.

What about contacts? Somehow, I think the home, work and cell number for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be SOMEWHERE in the White House. Contacting her should not require Obama whipping out his Blackberry hours before a crucial vote and scrolling to the “P’s.”

Email? The White House has made a big deal out of proclaiming that Obama’s Blackberry will be, in the words of his advisors, “super duper secure” and will be limited to his “inner circle.” In today’s hack happy environment, we know that “inner circle” means Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Jimmy, an eight year old from Poughkeepsie, NY, who will soon penetrate Obama’s Blackberry simply to get extra credit in school. That’s going to happen and when it does, Obama’s email app will disappear faster than Osama bin Laden.

So what does that leave him with? Video? Voice recording? This is a man who is trailed by cameras and microphones 24 hours a day. If he wants a video clip, all he has to do is ask CNN for a dub. I believe the network’s policy is 50 bucks and a two-week wait.

Then I came to the final icon: GAMES. Now it made sense. The president of the United States must have some kick ass games on his Blackberry for it’s the only reason he truly needs it. My Blackberry came with something called Brickbreaker in which you try to bounce a little ball off a brick wall and destroy it. Rumor has it President Bush referred to Brickbreaker as a “weapon of mass destruction.”

I’m not a serious game player so I have resisted the urge to download other games for the Blackberry such as bowling, blackjack, hockey and god knows what else. But I suspect Obama has a few games on his device. In fact I suspect Obama, in addition to being the first African-American president, is also the first “gamer president.” I base this theory on three words:

Sasha and Malia.

Obama’s daughters are 10 and 7. My daughters are 11 and 6. It’s safe to assume the First Children play the same games that are so popular in the Schwem house. It’s also safe to assume that when the Obamas moved into their new White House digs, those games came with them. I highly doubt the girls left Guitar Hero in Chicago. It’s probably hooked up to a flat screen in the Lincoln Bedroom, much to the dismay of the White House curator.

Uh, Mr. President, our sixteenth president slept here. Might I suggest another room for the Wii?

My kids received Guitar Hero for Christmas and, although I’m not a gamer, I have used it as a stress reliever during working hours. It’s one of the advantages of working from home. Obama works from home as well which means all of Sasha and Malia’s high tech toys are at his disposal. Who knows? Guitar Hero may be just out the door and down the hall from the Oval Office. Obama played basketball on election day so I can easily see him strapping on a plastic guitar and pounding out licks to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” just before discussing the auto bailout. Hopefully his children aren’t standing behind him saying, “Daddy, can I have a turn?”

Obama has made no secret of portraying himself as a hip president. The Blackberry is just one example although, if Obama were really hip, he’d have the iPhone. Still, a president who embraces technology like Obama is both cool and disconcerting. I’m fine with Obama keeping his Blackberry as long as it’s not a distraction. Right now we need a president who is focused at all times. George Bush was portrayed as aloof and he never carried a Blackberry. Obama’s passion for the device means he will have to resist the temptation to play games during Cabinet debates, subtly check football scores or worst of all, answer emails with the following subject line:

“Kim Jong II wants to be your friend on Facebook.”