After 20 years at the University of Oregon, I have retired. So, I will begin posting about my new experiences here and hope you find them interesting.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Phony Reviews Prompt Amazon Purge

As many of you know, I have reviewed books for a number of years now.  I spend a lot of time on my reviews because I attempt to parallel the events in the novels with actual history of the period as evidenced by quotes from the ancient sources.  This much work, however, is seldom reflected by many other reviews I have read on Amazon.  I don't know how many reviews I have read that clearly appear to be a slight rewrite of the book's dust jacket.  Therefore, when I read that Amazon had purged thousands of reviews from their website, I actually applauded this move.

Amazon Book Reviews Deleted in a Purge Aimed at Manipulation - NYTimes.com:

I'm not sure what criteria were used to effect this purge and if I knew the particulars I might not be so approving but I hope Amazon has enough technology at its disposal that it based its purge on some aspect of the review that would indicate it was not a thoughtful analysis of the work.

The New York Times article I read pointed to a high percentage of positive reviews being a criteria Amazon may have used to determine which reviews to eliminate.  This particular criteria is not as foolproof as it may sound, however.  I find it really hard to be totally negative in a review.  I am more comfortable reviewing books the way I critique photographs when I am asked to be a judge at the Emerald Photographic Society where I am a member.

We usually begin a photo critique by pointing out the positive aspects of an image then we discuss what could have made an image better.  This method helps a photographer learn but does not totally discourage a potential photographer from trying to improve.

With a book, it is different, to be sure, but there are basic attributes that I look at to evaluate the book's potential for success.  Are the characters well drawn and 3-dimensional?  Is the story plotted well with pacing to keep the reader interested?  Has the author researched the setting to the extent that the environment is accurate and can immerse the reader in the time period?  For historical novels, are places or social practices described or items used accurate to the period?  How accurate are historical events?  If historical events are compressed or altered are they manipulated to advance the plot or simply inaccurate because of poor research?  It is a given, of course, that the book should not be filled with grammatical or spelling errors.

I have frequently been asked by self-published authors for reviews.  When I open a book and right away I find it is filled with errors and that the writer is not experienced enough to write what we used to call in the journalism trade a decent "hook" - an opening paragraph or scene compelling enough to make a reader want to continue to read, I prefer to simply not review the book (I must be honest and admit I prefer not to waste any more time on it) rather than write a scathing diatribe about the amateurish nature of it.  This is not to say that all self-published books are not worth reading.  I have found some real jewels among the ranks of self-published books.  Furthermore, I must also point out that I have, unfortunately, found books filled with errors being promoted by publishers who have sought to cut corners by minimalizing or even eliminating the editing process.  Ultimately, I view reading as an investment of my time and I expect a decent return on investment.

One other thing about the New York Times article caught my eye.  The reviews of a retired librarian named Mrs. Klausner have also been targeted by Amazon.  Apparently, this amazing woman cranks out seven reviews a day and speed reads stacks of books the rest of the time.  When the woman was asked about the validity of her reviews, she explained that she doesn't sleep much and people should "Get A Life, Read a Book!"  I'm sorry Mrs. Klausner but, although I find reading a good book to be an enriching experience, I prefer to balance my life with attending plays and concerts, watching a good movie, playing an interesting computer game, experiencing beautiful art and architecture, or tramping through the woods on a rainy day photographing mushrooms with my fellow photographer friends.  Spending too much time in imaginary worlds means you are spending too little time in our own and we have such a limited time allotted to us.

My son called me this morning and we were discussing the latest movies we had seen and books we had read and I told him I had so many books to read, movies and performances to see and games to play I was afraid I wouldn't get to them all before I checked out of this world and he said "Well, look at it this way Mom, it's better than just sitting around waiting for the inevitable!"

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Alien" erupts from "Prometheus" shell

I'm a big fan of Ridley Scott so with some level of anticipation, I trotted off to the mall to see his latest, "Prometheus", yesterday.

 What a let down! (Spoilers ahead)

I found "Prometheus" to be little more than a remake of the original "Alien" with only a slight twist that the "creatures" were being transported to earth by our original "creators" to wipe out the inhabitants for some unspecified failure or shortcoming on our part or perhaps we had sufficiently "terraformed" the earth to a point that our "creators" decided they wanted it or something. The reason was never explained and screamed SEQUEL so loud you could hardly concentrate on the action. Of course, if you've seen "Alien" you didn't need to worry about following the plot anyway. It even had the same artificial life form with the same milky fluid for blood (not Henrickson, though, but a handsome Peter O'Toole type, Michael Fassbender) and the same strong female survivor (Noomi Rapace but not as riveting as Sigourney Weaver. Even the life cycle of the alien was the same and Ridley Scott surely must have paid H.R. Giger some kind of royalty for the "inspiration" for the fully rendered appearance of the mature creature complete with inner mouth parts!
Michael Fassbender as A.I. "David"
in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus"

Maybe somewhere Scott admitted it was an Alien remake but I had not seen anything mentioned to that effect in the usual promo articles I had read. I have gone to a few remakes but I prefer to know that before deciding to see a film. For the most part I also do not understand the purpose of doing a remake of a film considered a classic and I doubt such efforts yield the profits that an original story would. The original "Alien" has had so many sequels and spinoffs that it's not like audiences haven't been exposed to the "Alien" universe many times since its original conception in 1979.

I see that the L.A. Times film critic has weighed in and says Scott admits to "sharing some DNA" with "Alien" but I think they were being overly tactful because of Scott's reputation. I felt the same disappointment with the less than spectacular TV series helmed by Steven Spielberg - "Falling Skies" and "Terra Nova". It's as if Spielberg let the Nielsen ratings folks write the scripts to meet some demographic target. I guess "Falling Skies" supposedly survived the network axes (Terra Nova did not) and so we will be "treated" to another season. But if the entire season revolves around freeing captured kids from the aliens without a more significant overarching storyline, it won't hold my interest for very long.

Anyway, as far as Ridley Scott's work is concerned, I guess he's entitled to a do-over.  The film did have a visually spectacular opening scene and, as someone who is fascinated by archaeology, I really liked the visuals connected with the civilization of the "creators".  I also felt the artificial being played by Michael Fassbender was mesmerizing and wished his role had been exploited more. 

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading between the lines of The Hunger Games

A science fiction review by  © 2012

 Several days ago I watched a brief interview with Donald Sutherland who played the subtly sinister President Snow in "The Hunger Games". Apparently, Sutherland agreed to be cast in the role despite the fact that he would have relatively little screen time in the film. Sutherland said he felt "The Hunger Games" was a film that could be a catalyst for the younger generation who he feels have been dormant for far too long and should take a cue from the young people in the Middle East engaged in the Arab Spring.  He emphasizes this film needs to be seen not just by young people but by all of the 99% who are suffering from the oppression we have experienced in recent years - ostensibly at the hands of a government corrupted by greed and increasingly oblivious to the needs of the citizens it is sworn to represent.

 If you read between the lines of "The Hunger Games" you must conclude that the social conditions in the outlying "districts" where most of the people live, is the result of a society ruled by the wealthy 1% who reside in "The Capital".  These "few" apparently have no compassion for "the many" less fortunate and no social conscience about the wealthy's ostentatious consumption of both food and other resources while the working poor scrape by on burned crusts of bread or a deer or rabbit snagged under the watchful eyes of surveillance aircraft. All social programs have apparently been eliminated, surely under the pretense of providing more "freedom" from government interference in their daily lives and as a "necessary" strategy to reduce the deficit created by military spending in the recent rebellion. (Sound familiar?)   Katniss, a member of a poor family of a now-deceased coal miner killed in a mine explosion, helps feed her mother and sister by clandestinely hunting in the surrounding forest. There was apparently no workmen's compensation survivor benefits or food stamp programs to help the family with basic needs after the primary breadwinner was killed and Katniss' mother is obviously suffering from severe clinical depression.  She doesn't even show much emotion when her daughter is selected in the annual lottery to compete in "The Hunger Games" even though it represents a virtual death sentence since only one of 24 contestants will emerge alive.  But apparently, there is no health care either let alone mental health care to restore her as a loving parent to her two daughters or bring her back into society as a functional individual who can successfully take up her responsibilities as head of household.

In a flashback we see Katniss shivering against a tree in the pouring rain watching Peta, the baker's son, tossing burned loaves to a handful of pigs, hoping she will be able to snatch some of the bread out of the mud after Peta leaves before the hogs wolf it down.   Peta sees her there and surreptitiously tosses part of a blackened loaf into the mud at her feet, looking around apprehensively as if  he would be scolded if he was seen.  So apparently charitable giving to others is also frowned upon or even the working class needs every scrap to survive.  The society has truly devolved into an "every man/woman for himself" existence.

Meanwhile the 1% in the capital are a garish, supercilious lot who paint themselves up and don ridiculous (but I'm sure outrageously expensive) costumes while they consume vast quantities of elaborate dishes apparently without a thought as to the near starvation being suffered by the subordinate peoples around them.  People might compare them to the ancient Romans but even the Romans provided daily bread, public latrines, entertainment and public bathhouses for even the lowliest citizen in their midst.  Wealthy Romans built aqueducts to bring fresh water to the masses and constructed roads, temples, theaters and amphitheaters.  But the wealthy of "The Hunger Games" seem consumed only with self-interest and maintaining power - much like many members of Congress in our own capital today.

The day before I saw the Donald Sutherland interview, Good Morning America had a piece on over-the-top baby showers by the rich and famous that included the gifting of Gucci shoes and $6,000 rhinestone-studded infant bath tubs for the new arrivals.  What was most disturbing, though, was that the piece was presented as if it was something we could all aspired to!  I found it revolting.

Of course the main focus of the film is the struggle of the competitors in "The Hunger Games" itself.  According to President Snow, the games were devised to give the masses a little hope.  He patiently explains to a subordinate that "A little hope is effective...a lot of hope is dangerous."  Therefore, he points out, hope must be contained.  The Hunger Games, although it results in the deaths of two young people from each of 11 districts plus one from the 12th district every year, provides the opportunity for someone to escape the confines of a miserable existence and find out what it is like to truly live as a member of the privileged few - much like our own state-run lotteries only without the penalty of death for the losers.

I thought this lesson about hope was amply illustrated this past weekend when news of thousands of people lining up for a particularly large lottery jackpot was broadcast on television - so many people, probably thousands who have been out of work for such a long time, looking to the lottery as a last resort, pinning what little hope they have left on random chance and that small piece of paper.  It's really quite tragic if you stop to think about it.  Why do so many people hunger for a lifestyle enjoyed by so few?

I hope Donald Sutherland is right about "The Hunger Games".  We need the young to become inspired and lend their energy to the struggle to preserve human rights, dignity and opportunity for all, not just the privileged few.  Some people blame President Obama for not being able to reverse the financial damage caused by the "Great Recession" fast enough, claiming he promised them hope and didn't deliver.  I say he didn't promise us fixing the mess we were in was going to be quick or easy.  He asked us to hope so we could foster the momentum that was needed to overcome the years of fear mongering and division that had characterized American politics for far too long.  We should not abandon that hope now with the work only part done.  After all, like President Snow said, hope IS the only thing more powerful than fear.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Is product quality just a thing of the past?

 Ever since the contractors that remodeled our bathroom in 2007 stacked my Sears HE washer and dryer, the dryer has quit after tumbling just a few minutes, forcing me to rearrange the clothes to get them more evenly distributed - sometimes every ten minutes for up to three days just to get a single load done.  After four years, I finally had enough and called Sears for a service technician.  (I guess I'm a glutton for punishment!) I suspected it was an issue with the machines not being balanced properly.  So I researched the problem online and found other Sears customers complaining that the stacking kit that came with my model of washer and dryer was not adequate to withstand the vibration that naturally occurs from the agitating washer and tumbling dryer drum and that Sears had developed a better stacking kit.  I mentioned this to the customer service agent but she had no knowledge of this issue and recommended I order (and pay for) a new stacking kit and a set of special rubber vibration pads that the technician would install.  I was quoted $139 minimum just for the service call and any parts needed would be in addition.  The customer service agent cooed about the fact that after I paid the service fee I would then have an additional one year warranty too.  So I asked her what would be the charge without the extended warranty and I was quoted the same price.  Obviously, I was going to pay for that warranty whether I wanted it or not!  Instead of feeling helped, I felt like I was just having extended warranty charges rammed down my throat.

When the stacking kit arrived, my husband said it looked just like the one I already had installed by the remodeling contractors.  Then the Sears technician arrived and he, too, said I didn't need the new stacking kit as it was, indeed, identical to the one I already had, but used the rubber vibration pads and spent quite a bit of time leveling the stacked washer and dryer.  Now, if I'm careful about the size of laundry load, I can actually get a load of clothes dry on the first attempt.  The technician said I could return the unused stacking kit.  He suggested I wait a week, though, to be sure we had the problem resolved.  The next week I called Sears for a return authorization and was told I could return the unused stacking kit but would have to pay the return shipping.

Then the next week my Sears microwave conked out after only about five years of service.  Knowing that the service charge minimum was $139, I just went down and bought another microwave (with larger capacity and a higher power maximum) for $200 (not from Sears).

Then a week after that my Sears oven quit.  I had paid over $2,000 for that range to get the top-of-the-line model which is now only a little over 5 years old.  I was told for $239 I could have the range repaired including parts up to $500 and, of course, I would have a one year extended warranty guaranteeing repairs of up to $500.  If I did not accept the warranty bundle I would have to pay $139 for the minimum service charge plus parts and any labor needed above the $139.  I asked the service rep whatever happened to purchasing appliances that lasted 30 years like we used to do? She didn't know what to say so I asked to talk with a supervisor.  I was subsequently put on eternal hold and gave up after a half hour.  I didn't have much choice but to call Sears back and agree to the $239 service bundle. 

So I went up online and found a website that had a table illustrating the average longevity for the current crop of appliances and was shocked to see that most gas ranges regardless of brand now averaged only 5 - 8 years.  The culprit is the electronic ignitor that has replaced the pilot light to save energy costs.  The ignitor usually burns out between 5 and 8 years.  When the technician arrived to repair my range, I received confirmation that it was the ignitor that went out on my stove.  I asked him whatever happened to appliances that lasted 30 years or more and he just laughed and said those days were long gone.  So, we now pay 10 times as much for appliances that last only 25% as long.  No wonder older people (like me) who remember buying quality products that actually lasted get pissed off!!

Update:  Well, after drying clothes for a couple of weeks it became apparent that the leveling procedure had not fixed my problem after all.  So I called the problem resolution center at Sears to report that I still had the problem.  I told them I was told I had paid for a one year warranty so a return visit should not cost anything.  I was then told that they would send a repairman back out and that he would call me to arrange an appointment time.  Several days later, I received a call from the original repairman telling me that they had asked him to come back out but he was not trained in the electronics my dryer had.  He only performed installation services so I should call back and explain that I needed a repair technician (which I thought I had already made perfectly clear).  When I called back in to the Sears service center I was informed that I had really paid only for an installation not a repair and therefore if I wanted a repairman instead of an installation serviceman, I would have to pay more money.  I argued with the service scheduler who kept insisting I had only paid for an installation (even though my washer and dryer had been installed as a stacked unit since 2007).  After repeatedly trying to explain that I had never requested an installation only a service to fix whatever was keeping my dryer from completing a cycle, I lost my temper totally and finally told him that I didn't give a sh..t what his computer showed, no one installed my washer and dryer on the date of the service.  Then, of course, all I got was a lecture about using profanity.  I finally asked to speak to the warranty department but by the time I waited for 10 minutes on hold, I had become so outraged that when I was asked for my contact information again, I could not do anything but sob.  The warranty service person was quite concerned that I was so upset and escalated the call to a supervisor from the problem resolution center.  The supervisor offered to send a repairmen out for no charge just because of all the problems I had encountered trying to get my dryer fixed.  So I agreed and waited for a call.

The day of the scheduled repair I got a call from the repair technician who asked me if I was prepared to pay for the repair as he was instructed to collect the charges from me.  I told him that I was told by the problem resolution center that the visit was to be at no charge to me.  He called his boss and between the two of them they decided they would not charge me and he came on out and found that the contractors had sprung the door on the dryer when they stacked the units back in 2007 so the door wasn't making proper contact with the door open sensor that shut the dryer off if the door was opened.  He realigned the door hinges and the dryer now works fine.  The whole thing took about 10 minutes to find the problem and adjust the door closure.

While the repairman was at my home, he suggested that I get a maintenance contract on the washer and dryer since both units were 8 years old.  Apparently my original charge of $134.95, which I was told included a one year warranty, was just water under the bridge as far as Sears was concerned.  I was so frustrated at that point I agreed to purchase a contract as long as I received a contract in writing that could not be disputed on a future call.  But, the entire experience has left such a bad taste in my mouth that I would be extremely hesitant to purchase a major appliance from Sears ever again.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Googe Ad revenues point out differences in online vs broadcast preferences

I found the following infographic breaking down Google's advertising revenues fasciating! I thought it was interesting to not only look at the top 5 advertisers but the highest pay per click ad words. 

Those insurance companies really go after self-employed people looks for health insurance!  I didn't realize how popular zumba dancing was!  A lot of people are looking for hotel deals in New York.  A lot of people are looking for online degree programs.  Home improvement planners are looking for replacement windows and air conditioners. 

AT&T outspends Verizon by over 78% on advertising for telecommunications services with high speed internet being the most sought after.  People actually think there are cheap hybrid cars!  Funerals are the number one gift occasion!  Staples apparently has less confidence in online advertising than Office Depot although I would venture to say I've seen more Staples advertising on TV than spots for Office Depot.  Likewise State Farm way outspends Geico on online advertising but I would say most TV ads I see for car insurance are either Geico or Progressive.  Hmmmm.....

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Phony Drama on "Reality" TV Bad for America's Image and Promotes Poor Behavior

This morning I read an article by Stacy Johnson, Why House Hunters Shouldn’t Watch HGTV’s ‘House Hunters’ and the followup piece, pointing out that HGTV's House Hunters is pretty much a total fake.  Stacy essentially received confirmation in a fluffy PR-kind of way from HGTV admitting that the buyers portrayed on the show were "pretty far along" (as in already in escrow!) in the house buying process and the network "recreates" their decision process by filming them considering two other houses that, of course, they have no intention of purchasing since they were already committed to a house before the filming even began.

 From reading the comments from other visitors to Stacy's article, I gather the general consensus was viewers at least get to see other homes in the featured locale and can enjoy trying to figure out which house the couple actually bought so no real harm is done and most viewers find the show at least entertaining.  But I find other so-called reality shows far less innocuous.

I posted:

"I'm not at all surprised (that House Hunters is faked) considering the production values of so-called 'reality" shows. House Hunters is at least entertaining and doesn't attempt to create "fake" drama by introducing artificial deadlines, fights between employees and fake firings like those that occur on such shows as American Chopper, Ax Men, West Coast Customs and more recently, Saw Dogs. The week they premièred Saw Dogs, West Coast Customs had a staged scene on their show where the automotive refurbishing crew were on a "fake" tight deadline and one of the main designers decided he was getting too stressed out and needed to blow off steam so he takes off on a 4-wheeler to rip up some nearby countryside. Then, a few hours later when Saw Dogs came on, the wood carvers had a "fake" tight deadline and one of the "clumsy" newbies "accidentally" knocked the head off the eagle sculpture and felt so bad about it they had to blow off steam and take off on a 4-wheeler to rip up some nearby countryside. With those two episodes of two different shows just a couple of hours apart, it really spotlighted the total phony nature of both shows. The thing I worry about with these types of phony stagings, is that young people will assume the behavior they see is actually how real employees act and real companies operate since they have little experience to make an informed judgement. Professionals do not act like spoiled children in the workplace or, hopefully, anywhere else."

I strongly feel that these shows cheapen legitimate occupations and consistently set an extremely bad example for our young people and future work force.  If an employee of one of the real automakers acted like someone in one of these reality shows, I would hope they would be down the road so fast it would make their head spin, especially in this economy where good-paying steady jobs are so sought after by literally millions that are currently out of work.  Glamorizing atrocious management or outrageous employee behavior is not only NOT entertaining, it is detrimental to America's image both at home and abroad and in a global marketplace that is nothing to take lightly.  Would you want to buy an American car and place your family's safety in the hands of employees who behave as irresponsibly as those you see on American television?
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