Newer, cheaper Blu-Ray

High definition movies are a sight to behold. I know, as a recent owner of a Xbox 360 with HD-DVD add-on. When I hung my Mitsubishi HD-1000 projector from the ceiling and watched King Kong in 106" of high definition glory, it was amazing. That didn't stop me, however, from taking it all back a few days later.

The problem was, I just can't tell whether HD-DVD will be around in a year or two. I kept thinking that perhaps I should buy the Playstation 3 with built-in Blu-Ray instead. Going back and forth like this, I realized I didn't want either one. DVD is good enough for now. I'll let the HD format war run its course, then I'll invest. I'm just not cut out to be an early adopter.

I am glad to see, however, that there are some benefits to having competition:

Sony Corp. said Monday it is bringing out a cheaper player for Blu-ray discs early this summer, a crucial step in its battle to make the high-definition format the replacement for DVDs.

The BDP-S300 will cost $599, yet will have the same capabilities as the $999 BDP-S1 Sony is currently selling, said Randy Waynick, senior vice president of the home products division of Sony Electronics.

Sony and Samsung Corp., which also makes a Blu-ray player, have been undersold by Toshiba Corp.'s players for the rival HD DVD format. Toshiba has a model on the market for $499.

It took years for early DVD players to become affordable. Part of the problem was that the transition to digital from videotape was much bigger and more expensive than the switch from regular DVDs to high-definition discs will be. But the lack of any format competition also meant that DVD could take its time and reap the profits when they came. The improvement over VHS was undeniable, so the product eventually sold itself.

With high definition, that's not an option. First of all, not everyone is ready to upgrade again. Some people only started buying DVDs within the past couple years, so for them DVD is nowhere near the end of its life. Furthermore, the benefits of HD are only found in video and audio. Unlike the VHS->DVD transition, which gave consumers a more compact medium, which did not require rewinding and did not degrade with age, the advantages of HD are only content-based, and only available to those who have the equipment to take advantage. And as the SACD/DVD-Audio fiasco proves, high definition audio is not a big draw, especially when DVD already has digital surround sound.

So the high definition video is really the key, and I think that eventually, it will be enough to bring people over from DVD. But it's going to be a hard sell, and while the format war bring the advantage of competition, it also risks confusing and alienating the consumer. Even people like me, who have the video and audio components to enjoy HD, and the disposable income to afford it, may be consciously choosing to sit on the sideline. So long as that is true, neither side will be getting what they really want: our money.

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds is a cheater, in my opinion, and should be banned from baseball. That's the way I've felt for a long time, and nothing in the recent months has come out to make me feel any different. Actually, the facts of the case are no longer just damning, they are becoming disgusting:

You hear all that noise from the Bonds camp and yet most conspicuous is the silence on challenging the facts of the case. Shadows succeeded because it couched nothing and stood unchallenged. My favorite fact: the authors detail in their afterword the freakish growth of Bonds' body parts in his years with the Giants: from size 42 to a size 52 jersey; from size 10 1/2 to size 13 cleats; and from a size 7 1/8 to size 7 1/4 cap, even though he had taken to shaving his head.

Can you imagine your shoe size increasing by two and a half sizes, in your late thirties? What a sad, pathetic man. There are no records, no adulation, no amount of money that can justify this abuse.

American History Project

Finishing (or almost finishing) my World War I reading project opens up a gap in my life. I simply must have another reading project. Thankfully, I've been looking to do an expansive reading in U.S. history for quite a while now, and this seems an ideal time to start. The idea is to take a chronological tour of American history, with these general histories serving as the backbone of the project:

American Colonies - Alan Taylor
The Glorious Cause - Robert Middlekauff
The Creation of the American Republic - Gordon Wood
The Age of Federalism - Stanley Elkins
The Rise of American Democracy - Sean Wilentz
Battle Cry of Freedom - James McPherson
Reconstruction - Eric Foner
Standing at Armageddon - Nell Irvin Painter
Freedom from Fear - David Kennedy
Grand Expectations - James Patterson
Restless Giant - James Patterson

There's a bit of military history mixed in there, particularly Middlekauff and MacPherson's books, but of course the military aspects of the Revolutionary and Civil War eras are of supreme importance. Otherwise though, these general histories should cover almost every year of this country's history from colonization to the present day (the only exception is the 1920s, for which I'm still seeking decent coverage).

This ought to mean I won't have any glaring gaps in the project, but I still feel the need to supplement with more specific histories where my personal interests lie (e.g. the history of slavery, civil rights) as well as biographies of key actors and the occasional novel when it seems like it will help illustrate the spirit of the age.

taylor_american.jpgI've recently begun Taylor's American Colonies, and I appreciate the expansive view that Taylor brings to his subject:

Striking a balance between the emerging power of British America and the enduring diversity of the colonial peoples requires bending (but not breaking) the geographical boundaries suggested by the United States today. Hispanic Mexico, the British West Indies, and French Canada receive more detailed coverage than is customary in a "colonial American history" (which has mean the history of a proto-United States). All three were powerful nodes of colonization that affected the colonists and Indians living between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. The internal cultures, societies, and economies of the Spanish, French, and Dutch colonies also warrant attention lest they again appear only in wars, reduced to bellicose foils to British protagonists. Such internal description also affords the comparative perspective needed to see the distinctive nature of British colonial society that madea a colonial revolution for independence and republicanism possible first on the Atlantic seaboard.

Taylor also provides excellent coverage of pre-colonial Native American culture in the first chapter, describing the uniquely interesting history of the Anasazi, Hohokam, and the Mound Builders. This is not a biased lovefest, as Taylor is quick to point out that Hohokam and Anasazi over-reliance on corn devastated the agricultural productivity of the land and "an especially prolonged period of drought years exacerbated the subsistence crisis, setting off a chain reaction of crop failure, malnutrition, and violent feuds."

This provides the Native Americans with the complex historical treatment they deserve: they were not just savage warriors, nor on other hand did they simply live in perfect harmony with nature. Their civilization had an evolution, and while it is undoubtedly tragic that the evolution was artificially cut short, that is no reason to white-wash the realities of native civilization. I appreciate that Taylor avoids this trap, even in the limited pages devoted to the pre-colonial era (Taylor's interest in Native Americans bore further fruit in The Divided Ground, his study of the Iroquois Six Nations during the American Revolution).

UPDATE: I've finished American Colonies, and it lived up to the promise of the first chapters. A must read for any with an interest in pre-Revolutionary America.

World War I Project

Last fall I began a small project to get my head around the First World War of 1914-1918, to understand as best I could the reasons it began, continued, and ended in the way it did. I was inspired by a lingering interest from a course I took on the subject from Professor Charles Maier at Harvard, as well as a recognition that many modern conflicts, from Israel/Palestine to the Balkans to Iraq, have roots in the outcome of the Great War. I decided to focus my reading on military history, with a bit of fiction (such as Erich Maria Remarque's classic All Quiet on the Western Front and Pat Barker's recent Regeneration trilogy) sprinkled in to add some literary flavor amongst the scholarly tomes.

strachan_first.jpgThe first book I read was Hew Strachan's The First World War, and I can not deny being rather disappointed with it. I was drawn to Strachan because he is currently working on a three-volume history of the war commissioned by Oxford University Press, and I can think of no greater endorsement than that. Unfortunately, his one-volume work is not a distillation of the unfinished three-volume history, but an accompaniment to a ten-part BBC mini-series. As such, the book is divided into ten chapters, each of which tracks one of the episodes (e.g. "Blockade" and "Revolution"). The (literally) episodic nature of the book makes for quick and interesting reading, but only at the most superficial level. There is little sense of the connections between why the war began, how it was fought, who led the belligerents, and what the populace was thinking and doing. Major political and military leaders rapidly appear and disappear, and there is no sense of flow, either thematically or chronologically. It is barely adequate as a first exposure to major themes of the war, but the time spent reading it is better invested elsewhere.

keegan_first.jpgBy elsewhere, I mean John Keegan's equally well-titled The First World War, which I think is a much better general introduction to the war. Keegan's reputation as a military historian precedes him, although in recent years he may have become too prolific for his own good. His history of World War I is decently thorough, though Keegan's is most definitely a military history, and thus lacks an emphasis on political and cultural influences. Keegan is at his best when discussing military strategy and his battle narratives are the best of the books I've read. The people involved fare less well, whether it be the politicians and generals or the factory workers and foot soldiers. Keegan simply does not devote enough space on the pages to the motivations and perspectives of the individuals who made up the belligerent nations. Nor does he follow-up on the war's consequences, either in the short-term or the long-term. When the artillery stops, so does the book. Keegan's work is much stronger in its discussion of the Western Front than any other theater, a flaw I thought endemic to all British authors until I got to David Stevenson. Overall, however, at the close of the book the reader understands why the war started, how it was fought, and why the Allies won. For most readers, that is enough.

stevenson_cataclysm.jpgFor those who want more, Stevenson's Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy is undoubtedly the best book of the three, but the richness of detail also makes it dense and complex. The scope of the work is broad in theme, reaching political, military, social, and economic considerations, and time, starting well before August 1914 and devoting the last 100 pages to the legacy of the war. The book is also thick in detail, and I found the discussion of domestic political maneuvering within each country particularly well-done, as well as the diplomatic history of the alliances (especially that between Germany and Austria-Hungary). Stevenson does an excellent job covering all the belligerents, often taking each in turn while discussing a specific theme such as munition production or mobilization of female workers.

Stevenson divided his book into four parts: Outbreak, Escalation, Outcome, and Legacy. The initial chapters on the beginning of the war do not repeat the old grade-school theme that the war was an accidental consequence of reckless alliances, but instead make clear that the start of the war was the product of intentional choices by belligerents on both sides (but especially the aggression of Austria-Hungary) and the misperception that the war would end quickly. The second and thirt parts are the meat of the book, and Stevenson is at his best when discussing why the war did not end quickly, and why the belligerents chose to continue despite the catastrophic bloodshed. He does well to discuss the war aims of each belligerent, how they were initially formulated, influenced by domestic politics, evolved as the war progressed, remained utterly incompatible well into 1918, and materialised into a disastrous peace treaty that left an awful legacy.

It is that legacy which drew me to read about World War I in the first place, so I think Stevenson's emphasis on it makes his work all the more appealing. It also leaves me with at least one more history to read, Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919, which focuses on the peace negotiations themselves. While Stevenson does an excellent job summarizing the conflicting interests that Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George brought to the table, and the ways they manipulated each other, I think a more full understanding of the negotiations and the treaties will be a nice finish to the project. I'm going to give myself a few weeks to read elsewhere (I'm about to start my U.S. history project), but I do want to return to World War I for at least one more book. I'm sure at some point I'll want to read histories to devoted to a single nation or a single battle, but for now I've been largely satisfied by these general histories.

Arsenal Financials

emirates.jpgBy reporting a loss for the second half of 2006, it might seem that my beloved Arsenal have joined the financial dregs of Chelsea and their spendthrift tycoon. But the overall news for Arsenal is actually quite good:

Arsenal have announced a loss of £6.2m for the six months up to the end of last November.

The Gunners cite one-off exceptional costs of £21.4m relating to their move to the Emirates Stadium as the reason.

But during the same period, turnover rocketed by almost 77%, which Arsenal attribute to increased ground capacity.

Chairman Peter Hill-Wood said: "The stadium project's objective was to provide Arsenal with financial strength to compete at the highest level."

When my wife and I travel to London in May, my first visit to Emirates is one of the most exciting prospects. I doubt we'll be able to attend a match, but no matter. Just to visit the area, grab a bit of Arsenal gear, and maybe catch a match in a pub will be more than enough excitement.

The news out of Holland last night was less good, but I think Arseblogger has the right outlook on an overall dreary match:

Anyway, as shite as we were, and we were shite, PSV were not much better. They had their one shot at goal and scored - we really do have to work on this - and that was about that. Some relatively tidy football but nothing more. For that reason I'm baffled why people are so negative about the second leg at the Grove. We know we can play a lot better, we've risen to the occasion for the big games this season and scoring two or more at home is not really such a big task if we play the way we know we can - with more urgency, more desire and at a much faster pace.

The key will be not to allow PSV to slip in an early away goal and thus necessitate a three goal performance (as a 2-2 aggregate would go to PSV on away goals). Henry needs to remember that he can dance circles around the PSV defenders, and his confidence should infect the rest of the team as well. Hopefully the boys can get their heads on straight, take PSV seriously, get comfortable at home, and go through to the next round. We'll be hosting Reading a few days before PSV visits in March, so the team should be settled at home and I'm confident of a win.

Book Porn

pile1One of the ways I know I am going to like a blog is when the author starts posting pictures of piles of books, either those recently obtained, those recently read, or simply those accumulating ever expanding floor space in the library or office. I love photos of people's libraries and bookshelves, but there is something special about a good pile of books. It is not healthy for the books to rest horizontally, but no matter. It just looks cool.

I suppose at some (hopefully superficial) level this is akin to book porn. Others surf the web looking for nudity and sex, I look for photos of books. I even have an online gallery of all the books I own. And while I like the nice, neat, sophisticated look of bookshelves, it is the dirty, nasty, unkempt piles of books that really appeal to me. Yeah, I'm pretty disturbed.

Anyhow, the photo above came from a recent post at A Work in Progress, and you'll notice that blog can be found on my blogroll (Pages Turned, too). Let's keep the book porn coming.

Ron Rivera to San Diego

riveraChicago owes a debt of gratitude to Ron Rivera for three years of loyal service as our defensive coordinator, helping to craft one of the best defenses the NFL has seen in recent years. His departure to San Diego, while a surprise, is really not too hard to understand. This has always been, and will always be, Lovie Smith's defense. Rivera was just never going to get the credit he probably wanted for the Bears' defensive dominance.

As noted at Windy City Gridiron, the move probably makes sense for the Bears. The Bears get to keep Bob Babich, a hot young defensive coach, and in him get the stability of a defensive coordinator who probably won't be interviewing for nine head coaching jobs in two years (as Rivera did). Rivera gets to learn the 3-4, which was apparently a major weakness in his resume, though I agree with Da' Bears Blog:

The NFL changes on a dime and for all the 3-4 jobs available this year, there'll be twice as many 4-3 jobs up next year. Why not continue to coordinate one of the two or three best defenses in football and throw your hat back into the ring next year when a Giants or a Jaguars or even a Bucs job might be available?

As for the money issue, which is always the elephant in the room (and especially with these Bears, who still need to pony up for Lovie Smith), I think Lovie Smith has to be the priority, then the offensive coordinator. With a defense run by the head coach, the defensive coordinator spot is just not going to be as lucrative as it might be somewhere else.

UPDATE: Peter King is reporting that Lovie Smith simply fired Rivera in favor of Babich. Fair enough.

McCain vs. McCain

His sentiments are appreciated, but John McCain is at serious risk of becoming the biggest two-faced politician in the land. This time, it is his opinion of Donald Rumsfeld that has McCain talking out both sides of his mouth:

"We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement -- that's the kindest word I can give you -- of Donald Rumsfeld, of this war," the Arizona senator said.

"I think that Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history," McCain said to applause.

I think that's a bit harsh, but I've certainly had my share of criticisms of Secretary Rumsfeld. The problem is, as with many other issues, Senator McCain can't make up his mind:

The comments were in sharp contrast to McCain's statement when Rumsfeld resigned in November, and failed to address the reality that President Bush is the commander in chief.

"While Secretary Rumsfeld and I have had our differences, he deserves Americans' respect and gratitude for his many years of public service," McCain said last year when Rumsfeld stepped down.

Senator McCain might make a good President. He might make a great one. But one of the supposed strengths of his candidacy back in 2000 was his "straight talk." He said what he meant, meant what he said. It was a breath of fresh air. But times have changed. Whether he was scarred by the loss in the 2000 primary, or whether we just weren't paying enough attention in the past, it is abundantly clear that he is now saying what he thinks people want to hear.

The Bloodless Revolution

stuart_bloodlessThough I have yet to start reading The Bloodless Revolution (it arrived in the same order as Organic, Inc., which I just finished and enjoyed), I am not surprised to hear that it is receiving some controversial reviews. Vegetarianism, like religion and politics, always seems to inspire strong opinions. So I was glad to see Condalmo add a sensible perspective to the matter:

I am a vegetarian. On an individual level, people need to decide for themselves whether or not vegetarianism is right for them; I don't know that it's right for everyone. But lame closers like this one are A) the work of a bad reviewer, and B) lame and uninformed generalizations about life as a vegetarian. Why do people feel a need to spread stereotypes about vegetarians or meat eaters? Saying that a vegetarian diet is "wallowing in stupid defeatism" is the same as saying that a diet of meat is "wallowing in rampant barbarianism and blood thirst" - it just isn't true.

Speaking for myself, I often get a glimpse at a person's character by how they react to learning that I am a vegetarian. Those who are interested, or engaging, or at least polite, they get my respect. Those who immediately launch into heated rhetoric about how stupid vegetarianism is (and an alarming number of otherwise thoughtful people fly into just such a rage), or fawn in adulation about how they "wish they could do that," they go on a different list.

It is not that I care whether they agree with my vegetarianism or not, just as I should hope that they not care whether I agree with their meat-eating or not. I just want some civil discourse, and for whatever reason vegetarianism is one of those subjects that sometimes exposes a person's penchance for condescension, and that I do mind. I have never been caught speaking ill of someone else's choice to eat meat (or not), be it in my own home or at an office function at Outback Steakhouse (where I gladly order a salad or pasta). I simply expect the same treatment.

Chelsea Hemorrhaging Money

While I will not be fully satisfied until Chelsea has been relegated to League Two and Jose Mourinho is coaching Dagenham & Redbridge, the latest Chelsea financials are a good start:

Billionaire Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has no intention of walking away from the club.

That reassurance came this morning from the club's director of public affairs Simon Greenberg as Chelsea released figures for the year ended June 2006, revealing losses of £80.2milllion.

Costs have been cut by 42.9%, which keeps the big-spending Premiership champions on target to break even by 2009-10.

Greenberg believes cost is important to Abramovich, who has ploughed around £500million into the club.

There is nothing like spending a billion dollars just to hope to break even by 2010. Abramovich might as well be running an American automaker.

Book Sales Are Up, Bookstores Down

Good news for book lovers. Well, semi-good news, for those of us who like hardcovers and want to see them keep coming:

One of the encouraging signs was the adult hardcover (not that kind of "adult") segment, which showed a 4.1 percent increase. Adult paperbacks posted an 8.5 percent rise for the year.

Unfortunately for bookstores, it looks like my increased online purchasing is the norm:

[T]he places where people used to get their reading material -- bookstores -- lost customers in 2006. Sales slipped nearly 3 percent for the year.

I love going to a Borders and browsing, but I almost never buy a book there. I can't bring myself to spend 30-40% more than I could spend on Amazon. After all, why support one big corporation over another? What I ought to find is a nice, local, independent bookseller. But will they have what I want? When I want it? Amazon is succeeding for a reason.

Even my used book purchases, which would normally be done after browsing for hours at a musty book shop, now run about 50/50 between Abebooks and Amazon, with a handful at Books Again in Decatur. There simply are no't enough used bookstores in the area. I am sure that is an overall effect of online bookselling, rather than a cause, but the difference is the same.

Back to Blogging

While I knew that running the tax center was going to keep me busy, I had no intention of going more than two months without updating the blog. Most of December was spent training my troops (I now have thirteen soldiers assigned to me from the various units on post), with sessions from the IRS and local state departments of revenue. The biggest headache was getting all of the computers ready, with the proper software installed, networked to the printers, and the like. IT security is so high that I don't have administrator's rights to make any of the changes myself, and the poor IT tech from JAG had to come out several times a week to help. Thank goodness for her patience.

The tax center opened in the middle of January, but it was another week before soldiers' W-2's came out on MyPay. During those first few weeks, I was always on my feet, moving from computer to computer as my soldiers encountered new problems. From retirees with mixed retired pay / VA disability compensation to soldiers whose home of record is Michigan and live in Georgia with spouses who work in Alabama, we've seen endless variations. I know so much about the Earned Income Credit, itemized deductions, and the like that I'll probably never get it all out of my head.

My soldiers have become largely self-sufficient now, so I tend to handle only the complicated situations, such as soldiers who need to file prior year returns, amendments, or the occasional audit. I am enjoying my work, and surprisingly, expect to be sad to see April 17 come around.

Ancient Mesopotamia and Gilgamesh

unknown_gilgameshKnowing how much I enjoyed the Teaching Company's lectures on ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and Chinese history, my wife recently bought me Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia, an 18-hour lecture series taught by Professor Alexis Q. Castor of Franklin & Marshall College.

I have been listening to the course for the past two weeks during my commute, and admit to being amazed at my ignorance of the area. This is, after all, one of the birthplaces of human civilization, not to mention the present day focus of a great deal of our foreign policy and political debate. The rivers that the course title speaks of are the Tigris and Euphrates, and of course the land in between encompasses the greater part of modern Iraq. It was also home to the Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian Empires, just to name a few.

How I have gone so long being so ignorant is a mystery to me, particularly as I normally regard my interest in world history as strong in breadth, if not necessarily depth. Yet Mesopotamia seems to have slipped between the cracks, neither entering the realm of fantasy and lore that would have reached me as a child, like Egypt, nor providing a sufficiently direct connection to Europe to have surfaced in my studies of government and philosophy, like Greece or Rome. No doubt much of this can be blamed on the Eurocentrism of my education, with Mesopotamia categorized as "Eastern" and thus foreign and thus not integral to an understanding of the modern Europe-created globe.

Whatever the reason, if my ignorance about Mesopotamia is not unique, it is a shame. The introductory lecture of "Between the Rivers" uses the 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum, and key items in the museum's collection, as a starting point for introducing the diverse cultural and political history of the region. Several lectures are spent introducing the historical and contempotary methods used to uncover the archaeological record, and then Professor Castor proceeds on a thorough chronological political history, interrupted by thematic lectures focusing on social and cultural aspects such as "Food and Drink" and "Poetry and Literature."

One of the lectures that struck a chord discussed The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it seemed an ideal time to finally read the ancient epic, which is also the first book in The New Lifetime Reading Plan. Written more than a millenium before Homer's Greek epics, Gilgamesh falls just on the legend side of the legend/myth divide, the protagonist ostensibly a historical king of Uruk (though with divine parentage).

The epic has aged rather well in the four thousand-odd years since the earliest versions were written. It is the tale of a larger-than-life king who wreaks havoc on his city until his passions are channeled into his friendship with Enkidu, a tamed beast of a man created to be Gilgamesh's companion. Their adventures, Enkidu's death, and the quest by Gilgamesh for the secret of immortality resonate on an immediate level as literature, and as an influence on the subsequent four millenia of story-telling, especially Homer's journey epic, The Odyssey and the Old Testament's story of Noah's Ark.

I read the Stephen Mitchell "version" (Mitchell does not call it a translation since he can not read Akkadian, instead basing his work on other English translations). It is widely recommended for first time readers of the epic, as Mitchell simplifies much of the repetition and fills in gaps found in literal translations, while giving a poet's touch to the verse. His aggressive editing is controversial in academic circles, and I do plan to read a more scholarly translation eventually, but I think the liberties he took were benign and made the poem more accesible.

Less appreciated, however, was the partisan tone of his introduction, which insisted on reading the Mesopotamian epic as a warning against the current misadventures in Iraq (e.g. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are punished for their unjust "pre-emptive" strike on Humbaba, just as the U.S. is paying for its invasion of Iraq). The lessons of the epic, such as the dangers of hubris, the importance of friendship, and the inevitability of death, are all quite strong enough to make an impact without Mitchell's tenuous parallels to current events. The epic was just as powerful and meaningful before March 20, 2003 as it is today.