Monday, June 16, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

Spanish Fry

Hmm...Spanish children sound remarkably like American adults. But at least children don't drive while yakking.
Spain treats child phone addicts

Experts are concerned by children's increased use of mobile phones

Two children in Spain have been admitted to a mental health institution to be treated for addiction to their mobile phones, Spanish media report.

The children, aged 12 and 13, were sent to the clinic by their parents, who said they could not carry out normal activities without their handsets.

Stimulus Package

Well, you know, a sluggish economy can affect everyone.

"Donner, Party of 4"

One of those headlines that always attract my attention:
Crash survivors considered eating pilot

Survivors of a plane crash in southern Chile who spent five days huddled in a broken fuselage in sub-zero temperatures said yesterday they considered cannibalism during their ordeal, in an echo of an Andean plane crash 36 years ago.
Of course, if it had been a U.S. airline, the survivors would have been charged for an in-flight meal.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Album of the Day--June 11, 2008

Charisma Records
Produced by David Hitchcock

There must be some misunderstanding. I had first become aware of the band Genesis back in 1980 when Duke came out, and a year later, on the strength of the title track, had picked up Abacab on vinyl, which I ultimately didn’t care for all that much, even if it was their huge commercial breakthrough. I had also been familiar with Peter Gabriel, from the very weird “Games Without Frontiers” I had heard on the radio the previous year. Shortly after the Abacab purchase, a friend of mine at the time told me that Peter Gabriel had been a member of Genesis in the early 70s, and loaned me a couple of albums from that era, which I immediately fell in love with. My favorite—which continues to be one of my favorite albums of all time—was 1972’s Foxtrot. As I look at my original vinyl copy, bought back in 1981, I’m surprised it hasn’t been worn completely through.

Foxtrot was the band’s fourth album, and the second with the classic lineup of Gabriel (vocals, flute), Steve Hackett (guitars), Tony Banks (keyboards), Michael Rutherford (guitars and basses), and Phil Collins (drums). It starts with the haunting “Watcher of the Skies,” lyrics by Banks and Rutherford, about a race of aliens that come to Earth, land in a desert, and think that the human race has gone extinct. It opens with a haunting solo Mellotron before the whole band kicks in. Musically and lyrically, it is a compelling track and was even better in concert, especially with Gabriel performing it with his bat-wing-headdress-and-cape alien outfit. “Time Table” (lyrics by Tony Banks) is a simple song about the passage of time, the rise and fall of great civilizations, and how history tends to repeat itself. “Get ’Em Out by Friday” (lyrics by Gabriel) is a very funny theater-esque piece written as a play; each character is given a different musical motif and vocal style, and tells the story of evil estate agents who are in the process of evicting several tenants from their homes. Later in the song, after a passage of time we find out why:
This is an announcement from Genetic Control
“It is my sad duty to inform you of a four-foot restriction on humanoid height”

“I hear the directors of Genetic Control have been buying all the properties
That have recently been sold
Taking risks oh so bold
It’s said now that people will be shorter in height
They can fit twice as many in the same building site...”
Side one (in the old vinyl days) ends with “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” (lyrics by Steve Hackett) about the legend of King Canute, who supposedly ordered the seas to retreat to mock the sycophancy of his followers.

Side Two opens with a short solo guitar piece called “Horizons” written and performed by Steve Hackett, before launching into what has been regarded as Genesis’ magnum opus: the 22:54 “Supper’s Ready” (lyrics mostly by Gabriel), which begins with the narrator returning home after a long Odyssey-like adventure and finding his suitor somehow changed (said to be based on a strange otherworldly experience Gabriel had with his then-wife). Still, it’s good to be home, because “supper’s ready.” he then describes his travels, which involved some kind of war, wandering the aftermath, finding solace in the surreal and vaudevillian “Willow Farm,” and then experiencing an apocalypse out of the Book of Revelation (actually, the only book of the Bible that I have read—I didn’t know they had LSD back in Biblical times). Ultimately, he makes it home again, with a renewed sense of purpose, love for his suitor, and belief in god. It’s a lyrical and musical tour de force, and was a concert favorite, especially when Gabriel donned the giant flower outfit for the “Willow Farm” section. Anyway, the whole album has not left my CD player or iPod for about a week.

I wasn’t impressed by the remastering of the Foxtrot CD (for some reasssssson it’sss ssssomewhat too sssssibilant for my tasssstessss), but I hear an SACD version with 5.1 surround is coming out in September, which I am eagerly looking forward to.

By the way, I love the Internet sometimes: I found on YouTuve some clips from old Genesis concerts. Here is a great version of “Watcher of the Skies” from the Foxtrot tour:

And, find of all finds, here is “Supper’s Ready” live (in three parts). Oh, to have not been five years old in 1973!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Meat the Press

Dear lord, has it come to this?

Chain Saw

Yesterday, friend passed along one of those e-mail chain letters that have become the modern day equivalent of urban legends. This one related to high gas prices, and was a reprise of one that made the rounds a couple years ago, reading in part:
This was sent by a retired Coca Cola executive. It came from one of his engineer buddies who retired from Halliburton. If you are tired of the gas prices going up AND they will continue to rise this summer, take time to read this please.
I hear we are going to hit close to $ 4.00 a gallon by summer, and it might go higher!! Want gasoline prices to come down?
By now you're probably thinking gasoline priced at about $2.00 is super cheap. Me too! It is currently $3.71 for regular unleaded in my town.
How? Since we all rely on our cars, we can't just stop buying gas.

But we CAN have an impact on gas prices if we all act together to force a price war.

Here's the idea: For the rest of this year, DON'T purchase ANY gasoline from the two biggest companies (which now are one), EXXON and MOBIL.
Yadda yadda yadda. Whenever I get one of these (especially one that doesn't make a lot of sense) I immediately go to (the urban legends and myth debunking site) and, sure enough, found it. Their commentary, in part, reads:
Oil companies can manipulate their prices somewhat...but they can't alter the basics of supply and demand: prices go down when people buy less of a good, prices go up when people buy more of a good, and prices go way up when demand outstrips available supply. The "gas out" schemes that propose to alter the demand side of the equation by shunning one or two specific brands of gasoline for a while won't work, however, because they're based on the misconception that an oil company's only outlet for gasoline is its own branded service stations. That isn't the case: gasoline is a fungible commodity, so if one oil company's product isn't being bought up in one particular market or outlet, it will simply sell its output to (or through) other outlets.
The only person who really gets hurt in this proposed scheme is the service station operator, who has almost no control over the price of gasoline.
So, sorry guys, as with weight loss, there is no quick, easy, painless way to reduce gas prices without sacrifice or hardship:
The only practical way of reducing gasoline prices is through the straightforward means of buying less gasoline, not through a simple and painless scheme of just shifting where we buy it. The inconvenience of driving less is a hardship too many people apparently aren't willing to endure, however.
In case you're wondering, gas prices are the result of the free market working the way the free market works. C'est la vie. In case you're wondering why gas/oil prices have risen so dramatically, we should eschew conspiracy theories (as satisfying as they may be) and look to basic economic factors. Former Labor Secretary and Berkeley professor Robert Reich has a short list of reasons:
(1) growing demand from developing nations, especially China and India. This is the main reason for the price rise over the last six years.

(2) the dropping dollar. As it drops, because of our trade imbalance and overall indebtedness to the rest of the world as well as our slowing economy, everything we buy from abroad -- including much of the oil we import -- costs more; everything we sell to foreigners -- including much of the oil we produce -- costs less to them. I attribute half of oil's price rise since January to this.

(3) Global investors (including, perhaps, your own pension fund) are anxious about the American economy, and looking to hedge their bets against future declines. Oil is one of the commodities that looks like a good bet. Hence, there's speculation in oil futures. This isn't a nefarious plot. It's the way the market works. A bit of a speculative bubble is forming, so beware. I attribute a big part of oil's price rise over the last few weeks to this.

(4) Instability in the Middle East. Israel's recent bellicose statements about Iran have generated fears about the continuing capacity and willingness of Middle Eastern oil producers to generate oil (about a third of world oil production). OPEC refuses to produce more. Some of oil's price rise over the last week is attributable to this.
Yes, high gas prices are causing hardship, but there is little anyone can do directly (by the way, repealing the gas tax in whole or in part, permanently or temporarily, will not solve the problem, because it would only increase demand as gas got "cheaper" which would only drive prices up more), aside from altering behavior--that is, driving less, using public transport where possible, etc. No, not everyone can do that, and we should think about why that is. I remember having conversations with people (usually in California, big shock) about how much I hate driving and how I wished public transport--or at least sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly layouts--were more readily available, and the response was always a derisive laugh, followed by "Oh, but the car is such a symbol of freedom." Yeah, how's that working out? I just feel so free. Let's face it, we have created a car culture without thinking of the consequences--and now the consequences are here. If we want change, we should demand it--but it's not going to come easy.

Monday, June 09, 2008

More on E-Books

TechNewsWorld has reports of more navel-gazing among book publishers, but one publisher--Springer--having some success. The rub, of course is that:
[Springer's] voracious readers are a learned lot that generally do not confuse reading with pleasure. For them, it's all about research, information, how-to and why-for stuff.
Last Friday, I unwittingly stumbled onto an interesting way to bridge the gap between print books and e-books. I went to downtown Saratoga in the evening, and as usual on Friday evenings, took the bus into town. (By the way, extortionate gas prices--$4.25 at Exit 13 yesterday!--must be having an affect, because the bus has been getting more and more packed over the past few months.) Whenever I take the bus, I bring a book to read at the bus stop, during the ride, and while I am waiting for friends to show up wherever we happen to be meeting. However, the weather being warm, I had no jacket (and thus few pockets), and the book I am reading (Charles Dickens' Bleak House) is very thick, so I didn't feel like schlepping it along. But while standing at the bus stop, I used my iPhone to find an online edition of Bleak House. I clicked the link to the chapter I had left off at in the print edition, and was thus able to continue reading seamlessly while out. When I got home that night, I moved my bookmark to the new spot.

Perhaps that's the model for e-books; buying the print edition will get you a password to access the online edition (Dickens and other classics are in the public domain) that can be retrievable from a mobile device. Or, alternatively, only the online edition can be bought for a lesser price. Perhaps alternative downloadable formats can also be available. My suspicion is that the success of the Amazon Kindle is giving Apple some ideas...would that that were the case, although portability would really be the only reason I would ever think of reading e-books--and portability using a device I already use for other things. That is, I was multitasking on the bus I was also listening to the iPhone's built in iPod, periodically checking e-mail, and dodging telemarketing calls from Time-Warner.

Speaking of book buying, what in the Sam Hill has happened to Borders? The one here in Saratoga has remodeled itself in such a way that they barely carry anything anymore--there are no more "new books" tables, just a small rack with the bestsellers, and the music section was redesigned in such a way as to purportedly hide the fact that the stock is much much smaller than it used to be. They still send me a ton of coupons for books, CDs, and DVDs, and I have stopped even trying to use them because I can no longer find anything there that I want. Which, for me, is saying something! It seems like I have to go online these days to get anything, which is shame because I really like browsing (if they ever close the Newbury Comics on Newbury St. in Boston I shall go ballistic.). Sigh. It's sad to read that this is apparently happening all over.

And speaking of buying stuff, I find it supremely funny that the big supermarket chain in the region--Price Chopper--has started this massive marketing campaign called "How much have you chopped your food bill?" at about the same time that prices for everything have started rising dramatically. You know, I can do math, and I have not chopped anything, and in fact have spent a substantial amount more, despite the fact that I always buy the exact same stuff week after week. And people wonder why I'm cynical. Jeesh.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Trouble with Tribulation

Are you dreading or looking forward to The Rapture? I confess, having been brought up vaguely Catholic, it wasn't until I saw the very bad Mimi Rogers movie The Rapture that I had ever even heard of it, and only within the past 10 years realized that it was a real thing. Well, I don't mean a real thing. I mean...oh, you know what I mean. But for those of us who are looking forward to said Rapture (if only because it will make all the people who preach about the Rapture go away) we can still be annoyed by them post facto all during the subsequent Tribulation, thanks to a new service (via Boing Boing) called You've Been Left Behind. I kid you not:
We have set up a system to send documents by the email, to the addresses you provide, 6 days after the "Rapture" of the Church. This occurs when 3 of our 5 team members scattered around the U.S fail to log in over a 3 day period. Another 3 days are given to fail safe any false triggering of the system.
(Sent by "the e-mail"?) Anyway, consider yourselves warned. Six days, though. Hm. Hardly seems like enough time; I would imagine that the party will last at least twice that length...

Oh, and did I mention that it costs $40 a year to subscribe--until the Rapture. Seems like they win either way.

Death to Alexander Graham Bell!

Oh, right, he's already dead. Well, I say we reanimate him and kill him again.

The telemarketing calls gave gotten so wildly out of control--and on the off chance I decide to answer, there is usually silence, broken only by my piercing shriek--that I'm not even bothering to turn the ringer on anymore. Send me an e-mail. However, I do check my call log, and have found a great Web site that lets you find out who these assclowns are: 800notes. (Actually, you can just do a Google search for a specific phone number and it will send you right to the appropriate forum.) I have noticed I do get a lot of calls from a Syracuse company called Barrier Windows. I Googled them and the first hit was this story from Channel 3 News about how they prey on the elderly and infirm. Someone needs to figure out search engine optimization! (More to the point, why would I buy windows from a Syracuse company anyway?)

I have also discovered--both through 800Notes and unfortunately answering the phone, that I am being pitched repeatedly by automotive warranty companies, insisting my manufacturers' warranty was about to expire. How would they know that? Is Toyota selling my name and number? If so, I'm selling my car.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tet[ris] Offensive

For those who were hooked on Takeshi's Castle (redubbed with vile, unfunny sexual innuendo by Spike TV and shown as MXC) or any of the other extremely bizarre Japanese game shows that have existed, I give you: Human Tetris:

Disturbingly, there is more where that came from.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hell's Housing Bubble?

I guess my question is, would I ever want to hang out--especially for eternity--with anyone who wasn't on this list somewhere? I think that would be the definition of hell.

Still, I wonder if it's even possible to not be on it. Sports fans? Money lovers? (There goes the U.S. economy.) They certainly don't make repentance sound all that inviting.

Nutted by Reality

Via Dr. Joe, The Wall Street Journal has the latest forecast of the future of books...I don't disagree with any of it really, but damn if it doesn't sound horribly unpleasant, at least to me. The money quote:
It's not about the page versus the screen in a technological grudge match. It's about the screen doing a dozen things the page can't do.
I know I'm alone on this (just call me Samuel T. Cogley--how's that for an obscure Star Trek reference?), but I'm perfectly happy having the page do only one thing, especially since it does it pretty reliably. Usually, the more functions a process has, the less good it is at any of them and the more ways it can screw up.

The other money quote is:
to expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the BlackBerry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.
Well, I had a BlackBerry, and it was so badly designed and aggravating to use--and battery life so bad--that I damn nearly was driven back to writing letters and did not mourn its loss in a Corning parking lot in the slightest. And, hey, I miss writing letters. As for the iPhone that I have admittedly waxed poetic about...well, once the novelty wears off, it becomes as good and bad as any other electronic device: sporadically stops working, loses connectivity, does what it wants to do rather than what I want it to do ("No, don't check for new mail...I want to delete the shit you've already gotten! No, stop! Grrr!!!!," is my daily exhortation to it), etc. Again, it's often a great tool for my work, but not so much for my life, which these days I seek to simplify.

Perhaps I am growing too old to appreciate (or even like all that much anymore) new media--or perhaps I'm just getting fed up with it. After a day of everything electronic acting up, it's nice to turn everything off and crack open a book that does not require batteries, will not abruptly shut down or quit, will not magically stop working, will not lose connectivity should the moon change phase, etc. Yes, electronic media are wonderful for getting work done and accessing information--and even getting news--but at the end of the day when work is over (and yes, work is over at the end of the day)...sayonara.

On a similar note, Publishers Weekly has an update on Penguin Books:
Penguin has reported that e-book sales from the first four months of 2008 have surpassed the house's total e-book sales for all of last year. According to the publisher, the spike is "more than five times the overall growth in sales, year-on-year, through April 2008." Penguin Group CEO David Shanks said he attributed the jump, in large part, to the growing popularity of e-book readers.

That said, the publisher has been doing its part to add premium features to its electronic content. To that end, the house is developing properties like the Penguin Enhanced e-Book Classics; the first title in that series, Pride and Prejudice, will debut this summer and include such bells and whistles as reviews (of the original publication), a filmography, recipes and notes on etiquette. Nine more titles will be released as Enhanced e-Book Classics throughout the fall.
Well, since the Kindle is just about a year old, those growth numbers are not all that surprising. (The statistical lesson I have learned from analyzing new media all these years is that dramatic growth rates are easy when you're starting from a very low base.) And, yeah, I bet everyone with a Kindle is going to immediately spring for the collected works of Jane Austen. This is likely more of a school thing (oh, and most of the classics are in the public domain; read: cheap to publish). And as I have repeatedly been told as of late, unbidden, by random people on the bus, trains, planes, in bars, etc., I am apparently the only person in the world who reads the classics, like Dickens, for pleasure. Tough.

Also via Dr. Joe (yes, I am catching up on my e-mail links today), a Wall Street Journal story about a writer/professor with a Brobdignagian book library. This passage sums up my attitude, and that of other people like me who Really Like Books:
These days it may appear that books, per se, are doomed. The electronic readers are ever lighter, smaller, and more sophisticated. Google is undertaking to scan and digitize every book in the world -- not without some resistance. Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that even the reading devices are pointless, since according to him nobody reads anymore, at least not in the sense of sequentially taking in long and complex works. I have nothing against the readers, and may find myself buying one eventually -- they'd come in very handy on trips, the way the iPod does. I'm all in favor of the comprehensive digitizing of the world's books, since that would very much ease small points of research (and I'm not worried about losing control of my copyrights, since it's unlikely many people would read entire books online that way). As far as the decline of reading goes, I am nervous, but also believe that matters of taste and inclination do swing around on long orbits.

But I would very much miss books as material objects were they to disappear. The tactility of books assists my memory, for one thing. I can't remember the quote I'm searching for, or maybe even the title of the work that contains it, but I can remember that the book is green, that the margins are unusually wide, and that the quote lies two-thirds of the way down a right-hand page. If books all appear as nearly identical digital readouts, my memory will be impoverished. And packaging is of huge importance, too -- the books I read because I liked their covers usually did not disappoint. In the world of books, all is contingency and serendipity. Books are much more than container vessels for ideas. They are very nearly living things, or at least are more than the sum of their parts.
Amen, brother!

Here's a thought. I have found over the years that just about 99% of anything I have ever liked is either quickly discontinued (foods, brands, etc.), cancelled (TV shows), or otherwise phased out (CDs, record stores, book stores, basic intelligence). Armed with that knowledge, perhaps it's time to pull a George Costanza. Yes, I think I will sell off my book collection and buy a Kindle. Yes, e-books, here I come! I love cellphones! I will drive and talk all the time! I love Microsoft products! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

Can Spam?

On the subject of vile-sounding foods...canned bacon?
Each can comes with 40 to 50 slices of lipids and protein, produced using three pounds of raw bacon plus:

• water
• salt
• sugar
• smoke flavoring
• sodium phosphates
• sodium erythorbate
• sodium nitrite
I think I'm going to be ill...

America Drinks...and Gains Weight

Men's Health (via Boing Boing) rounds up the unhealthiest beverages in America, barring the obvious like soda and booze. Some choice examples:
Worst "Healthy" Drink
Glaceau VitaminWater (any flavor; 20 oz bottle)
130 calories
33 grams sugar

Vitamins and water might sound like the ultimate nutritional tag team, but what the label doesn’t say is that a bottle of this stuff carries nearly as much sugar and calories as a can of Coke. Makes sense, though, since this so-called functional beverage is produced by our often-sugar-crazy friends at The Coca-Cola Company.
I never quite understood the point of "vitamin water" or and less so "protein water." Special K has a product called "Special K20" and all I can think of is that it is some kind of potassium oxide (the chemical symbol for potassium is K). But then maybe it is. Oh, and elemental potassium explodes when it comes into contact with water, which would certainly make the water aisle at Price Chopper more entertaining.

Consumer Reports this month also ponders why water has gotten more complex than it needs to be. Sorry, I remain happy with tap water run through a Brita filter pitcher, although I have not changed the filter in about five years, so I'm probably making it worse. (OK, I do have somewhat of a weakness for Saratoga Sparkling Spring Water but, hey, I live here.) If I ever need vitamins, I shall take them. If I ever need more protein than I think I get, I'll have a steak, which would be far more enjoyable than water anyway.

This just sounds vile:
Worst Smoothie
Jamba Juice Peanut Butter Moo’d Power Smoothie (30 oz)
1,170 calories
169 g sugars
30 g fat

Jamba Juice calls it a smoothie; we call it a milkshake, with more sugar than an entire bag of chocolate chips. (Note: We're pretty sure this is the drink Hollywood actors rely on when looking to put on 20 pounds for the role as a heavy!)
I confess I've never had a smoothie; they always just sounded gross to me. Well, except for a chocolate milkshake...

I'm not a huge fan of pina coladas, and even less a fan of Rupert Holmes' "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)":
Worst Summer Cocktail
Pina Colada
625 calories
75 g sugars

Made from a blend of sickly-sweet pineapple juice and fat-riddled coconut milk, pina coladas may be this summer's biggest beach-body saboteurs. In fact, the only redeeming part of this drink is the garnish — that lonely chunk of pineapple hanging from the rim. Try a lime daiquiri or a mojito instead and save up to 400 calories a drink.
I'm on board with the mojito substitution... Oh, and speaking of vile, check out the calorie count of this:
The Unhealthiest Drink in America
Baskin Robbin’s Large Heath Bar Shake (32 oz)
2,310 calories
266 g sugar
108 g fat (64 g saturated)
Good lord! It's basically a diabetic coma in a cup!

I do not claim to be an expert on health or nutrition by any stretch of the imagination. But I do read nutrition labels and once I do the math and convert "calories per serving" from the decidedly unrealistic serving sizes that companies come up with to make their stuff look healthier than it is, I balance that figure against what my treadmill tells me I work off--I burn 620 calories in a one-hour workout. Any food I buy--especially junk food or snacks, which I generally avoid like the plague (OK, I have a weakness for pistachio nuts, the most addictive food in the world)--is always weighed (so to speak) against the question, "How many extra hours will it take me to work this off?"

Moore's Law

Ron Moore, the creator and executive producer of the new Battlestar Galactica (a great show, far far better than the cheeseball late 70s incarnation which I unfortunately watched religiously at the time and now cringe when I see clips of it a misspent youth)
..what was I saying? Oh, right: Wired has an extensive interview with Ron Moore, who discusses all the ancillary media that are not involved with producing a television program:
Wired: You've been committed to...Webisodes, the blog, the podcasts. What's the importance of those?

Moore: Now I think they're almost expected. Now they're part of what it is to do a television show, especially in this genre. This genres fans are very connected to their computers, to all these multiple platforms, and they look for it. They're there to be served, so why wouldn't you serve them? We're planning webisodes for this season. My podcasting will continue, albeit depending on how quick I am about it, it'll happen.
And I can sympathize with this!:
The blog is more — I don't know what to do about the blog. I go back to the blog. I created my own blog. I do it in bursts, and then I fall away from it. I find myself without a lot to say sometimes, and that's a fatal flaw in the blogosphere evidently. You're supposed to say something whether it's of value or not.

Wired: The fatal flaw is that people do it anyway.

Moore: Yeah, I just don't have a lot to say. I don't have a topic for a blog, so I don't write one till I think of something or the mood hits me.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Every once in a while, I read a review of a book I must immediately run right out and pick up--and, more to the point, read. Such was the case Friday, when the NYT Book Review--a version of which I get via e-mail--came and featured a review of a first novel by Jonathan Miles called Dear American Airlines, a somewhat epistolary novel written in the form of a complaint to the titular airline for stranding the complainant overnight in O'Hare Airport. Given my recent misadventures with air travel (my irrational fear of flying has been defeated and replaced by a perfectly rational fear of airlines), this book struck me as a must-read. So I ran out yesterday morning, found it, and, it being a rainy afternoon, curled up and zipped through it.

The premise is that the narrator/complainant, Benjamin Ford, is a middle-aged not so much Beat as beaten New Orleans poet, whose muse died some decades earlier, and now lives in New York City eking out a living as a translator of Polish novels. In his youth, he fell in love with Stella, and they had a daughter, Stella Jr., and his drinking and general blaséness about life ultimately alienated them, and the Stellas (Stella Jr. being less than a year old) fled to California. Benjamin has had no contact with his daughter ever since--and now, he gets an invitation to her imminent wedding and believes that it will be his one chance to atone for all the sins of fatherly absence. However, thanks to American Airlines, his flight is abruptly diverted to Chicago (Peoria, actually, though they bus him and the other passengers to O'Hare), where all remaining flights have been cancelled because of "bad weather." ("Since when do you cancel flights in mid-air?" the complainant asks.) And thus, in his rage, he begins the excoriating letter (which is really quite a satisfying read for anyone who has ever been shafted by an airline), which soon turns into a discursive autobiography.

It turns out that the extended layover turns O'Hare Airport into a kind of purgatory, and as anyone who has ever been stuck in an airport knows, it's rather like a fermata wherein time slows to the point of stoppage (Benjamin also wonders, quite rightly, if memory serves, why there are so few clocks in airports) which gives him the opportunity to reflect on his life. Alongside his own narrative he also digresses and presents chunks of the novel he is translating, a story of a Polish World War II veteran who lost a leg at the battle of Anzio and, since his country barely exists anymore, he wanders Trieste. The Polish narrative increasingly dovetails with Benjamin's own story, ultimately resolving themselves at the end of the book.

If it were just a scathing indictment of airline incompetence, the book would be good enough, but that Jonathan Miles takes the premise even further is what elevates the novel. Yes, it is extremely funny; every page has some great one-liners and observations (a meditation on why there is never graffiti in airport rest rooms, where one would think you would find the bitterest, grumpiest, complaint-oriented people; how uncomfortable airport seating is--"this place is well-armed against comfort"; and imagining the corporate grunt sitting in his cubicle reading this extended missive). But it is also extraordinarily thought-provoking and poignant.

At first blush, this seems like the kind of book that could have been written in probably as long as it took to read (which was really just a few hours), but it's for more complex than it appears; metaphors and return, recur, and pay off; various narratives intertwine; it's really quite impressive. And at the end, you kind of wonder whether or not the layover wasn't the best thing that ever happened to Benjamin.

It's odd how such a slim, simple little book can be so profound, enjoyable, and really stay with you for a while. I'm surprised there hasn't been the threat of a lawsuit from American Airlines, which would actually be a good thing since it would give the book the publicity it so richly deserves.