Monthly Archives: January 2012

Chrome Ascending

A couple years ago, after having used Safari as my web browser since the day it was introduced, I switched to Firefox. I was running into problems on too many websites with Safari. Firefox, I discovered, worked great nearly everywhere. I really liked it. I didn’t have trouble making the switch.

Then Chrome came along. I switched to Chrome a year ago. It’s fast, looks great, and has lots of add-ons. But the killer feature is the single field for typing URLs and doing searches. In both Safari and Firefox, the search field is on the right, and the address field on the left. Chrome combines them both. Very user-friendly.

This morning I saw a chart which shows how the various browsers are doing. Both Internet Explorer (not surprising) and Firefox (surprising, to me) are losing market share. But Chrome has grown from 15-27% share during the past year, and has now passed Firefox.

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Books: “The Maze Runner,” “The Scorch Trials”

James Dashner wrote the very popular young adult “Maze Runner Trilogy.” It starts with a book published in 2009 called “The Maze Runner,” and concludes with the 2011 book “The Death Cure.”

“The Maze Runner” begins with a boy named Thomas–our central character–rising in a box and emerging in a huge open area called The Glade, populated by a group of about 60 other teenage boys. Like the other boys, Thomas’s memories have been wiped.

The Glade, it turns out, is the center of a huge maze. Outside the glade, in the corridors of the maze, hybrid animal/machine creatures called the Grievers keep everyone terrified. A small handful of boys, called runners, spend their days running through the maze and mapping it out. They know there’s a solution, but after a couple years of effort, they’ve not been able to find one. Meanwhile, boys die–often at the hands of the Grievers–and a new boy arrives, like Thomas, every month. Along with a weekly selection of supplies from the unknown maze creators.

Thomas becomes a runner, and a leader. Then one day the next new arrival comes–and it’s a girl, named Teresa. And Thomas and Teresa are able to communicate with each other telepathically. It’s clear that they knew each other before arriving in the Glad, but they can’t remember anything about it.

So anyway, that’s the situation. They need to figure out the puzzle of the maze without getting killed by the ferocious Grievers.

“The Scorch Trials” finds the group out of the maze, in a world where solar flares have killed a huge portion of the world population and left the planet hot, very hot. Scorched. Plus, a plague called The Flare infects most people, gradually turning them crazy. The boys are released into this world for a new set of test–yes, the maze was a tests–and it’s gotten more demanding.

I liked “The Maze Runner” quite a bit, even though not much was explained–who the creators are, what they hope to accomplish, etc. I expected more to be revealed in “The Scorch Trials,” but was disappointed. Instead, “The Scorch Trials” makes things even more confusing, raising even more questions about what the purpose could possibly be. It also brings into play a group of teenage girls who emerged from their own maze.

So now, that leaves “The Death Cure,” the third book, which would explain everything…right?

Not necessarily. I read some reader reviews, and too many of them expressed disappointment–that the third book was the worst of the three, moved slowly, and didn’t answer the questions generated in the previous two books. So I decided against investing any more of my Christmas B&N Gift Certificate in this series. I decided I was just going to be disappointed, that James Dashner had a keen imagination but hadn’t really planned out where he was going in advance. I decided to take a pass. I can live without knowing what happens to Thomas & Company.

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If You Dislike Romney, Here are 5 Persons to Blame

Ryan Lizza, writing on the New Yorker’s “News Desk” blog, listed “Five People Conservatives Should Blame If Mitt Romney Wins.” All five are very insightful, but the first one was the best: George Bush. It really makes a lot of sense.

“More than anyone else, Bush is responsible for decimating the ranks of qualified Republicans who could take on Obama. A successful Presidency can produce a new crop of future Presidential candidates for the party that controls the White House. The vice president and cabinet officials, as well as governors and senators elected over the course of the administration, are historically major sources for a party’s next round of candidates. The Bush years had the opposite effect. It was unthinkable that his vice president would run for higher office and much of his cabinet left Washington tainted by the President’s unpopularity. Moreover, Bush helped sink his party in the 2006 and 2008 elections, thus depleting the ranks of potential Republican candidates for 2012.”

Lizza points out people were not tainted by the Bush presidency, but who declined to run for other reasons: Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and others. So there were some strong candidates. But they had their own reasons staying out.

The other persons Lizza mentions:

  • Michele Bachman (for killing Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy).
  • Cheri Daniels (for keeping her husband, Mitch Daniels, out of the race).
  • Barack Obama (for recruiting Jon Huntsman to work for him as ambassador to China, and thereby staining a very strong candidate).
  • Justice Anthony Kennedy (for being the swing vote that legalized SuperPacs, which gave power to the monied establishment candidates–like Romney–and crippled grassroots candidates who rely on small contributions).
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About that “Merry Christmas” Litmus Test

Back in December, while writing a Christmas greeting for one of our denominational websites, I started to write, “Happy Holidays.” But I chickened out and used “Merry Christmas” instead.

This year, conservatives–and we United Brethren are mostly conservatives–made a really big deal out of saying “Merry Christmas.” Barack Obama was chastised for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” on something or other. (Even though, as our chronicler of petty outrage, Jon Stewart, showed, all other recent presidents have done the same thing.) A governor (was it Rhode Island?) was lambasted for doing the same thing. Newt Gingrich made a point of wishing everyone–well, not everyone, but at least his base–a Merry Christmas at the beginning of a recent debate. Pander pander.

Saying “Merry Christmas” has become a litmus test of orthodoxy, a show of rising above the PC police (just as wearing a flag pin became a silly litmus test of patriotism during the last Presidential campaign). Among conservatives, it became politically INcorrect to say “Happy Holidays.” I knew that if I wrote “Happy Holidays” on a denominational website, I would find myself under assault from some of our constituents, calling me liberal or a compromiser or ashamed of my Lord’s name. Junk like that. So I wrote “Merry Christmas.” Pick your fights wisely, is my rule.

But I grew dismayed as I watched the lunacy of turning “Merry Christmas” into a fetish. The hysteria was continually pumped up by that watchdog of Christian orthodoxy, FoxNews, which was ever on the lookout for instances of Happy Holidays, just as it once zoomed in on lapels in search of flag pins.

Through it all, I realized something: I prefer “Happy Holidays.”

Why? Because it’s more accurate. “Merry Christmas” applies to one day, December 25, celebrated only by Christians. But this is a season of multiple holidays.

Obviously, we have Christmas and New Year’s, and it seems nice to wish people happiness on both holidays. Then you have Hanukkah for the Jews–why wouldn’t I want to include a wish of happiness for them on their series of holidays? And Boxing Day in Canada and the UK, and Kwanzaa for African-Americans, and Las Posadas for Mexicans (a festival surrounding Joseph’s search for a place to sleep in Bethlehem). For Swedes, St Lucia Day (Dec. 13) is a big deal. Epiphany, on January 6, commemorates Jesus being presented to the Wise Men. For whichever holiday(s) you celebrate, I wish you happiness. Not, “Merry Christmas, but for any other day, you’re on your own.”

The holiday season goes way beyond the solitary December 25. America is a pluralistic society, which works only because we gladly make room for people of all faiths and traditions. Why is it wrong for a Christian to include them all in a generic “Happy Holidays” wish?

So a retrospective, belated, and therefore somewhat cowardly “Happy Holidays” to all of you. And if you want to question my patriotism or Christianity, then may you, amidst your happiness, choke on some fruitcake.

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Huntsman Gets a Key Endorsement

Although Jon Huntsman is the only GOP candidate I could definitely vote for, I don’t hold out much hope that he’ll win the nomination. He’s invested everything in New Hampshire, but things aren’t looking good there.

However, the Boston Globe, arguably the most respected newspaper in the northeast (if you don’t count New York), has endorsed Huntsman. That’s a good sign. Won’t go all that far, but it’s something. They wrote that only Romney and Huntsman stand out as truly presidential

“Among the candidates, only two stand out as truly presidential, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Both have track records of success, and both, through their policies and demeanors, have shown the breadth of spirit to lead the nation. But while Romney proceeds cautiously, strategically, trying to appease enough constituencies to get himself the nomination, Huntsman has been bold. Rather than merely sketch out policies, he articulates goals and ideals. The priorities he would set for the country, from leading the world in renewable energy to retooling education and immigration policies to help American high-tech industries, are far-sighted. He has stood up far more forcefully than Romney against those in his party who reject evolution and the science behind global warming.

“With a strong record as governor of Utah and US ambassador to China, arguably the most important overseas diplomatic post, Huntsman’s credentials match those of anyone in the field. He would be the best candidate to seize this moment in GOP history, and the best-prepared to be president.”

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Books I Read in 2011

I read 49 books during 2011. Not as good as the 81 books I read during 2010, but in 2010 I had a lot of down time, with 3 surgeries. I plowed through gobs of books while recuperating. But 49 is still good.

You can read the complete list, along with brief descriptions and links to my reviews.

For this post, I’ll spotlight my 10 favorite books of 2011, in roughly the right order. This doesn’t mean they were technically the best, the ones a professional reviewer would applaude. These are just the ones I, Steve Dennie, ordinary guy, personally enjoyed.

  1. City of Thieves, by David Benniot. Set in St. Petersburg, Russia, during World War 2. My review.
  2. Blood Safari, by Deon Meyer. My introduction to a fabulous South African writer.
  3. Hot, by Mark Hertsgaard. An artfully written look at the ramifications of a warming earth.
  4. Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child. Jack Reacher stumbles into trouble in a small Colorado town named Despair. My review.
  5. I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore. The first of a planned series about an alien war brought to earth. My review.
  6. Matched , by Ally Condie. A young girl comes of age in an interestingly-imagined dystopian society. My review.
  7. Night of Thunder, by Stephen Hunter. Bob Lee Swagger, master sniper and all-around tough guy, tackles a conspiracy built around the Bristol NASCAR race. My review.
  8. The Professional, by Robert Parker. The third-to-the-last Spenser novel written by the master, and it’s a good one. My review.
  9. Area 51, by Annie Jacobsen. The whole fascinating history of the super-secret chunk of Nevada known as Area 51. Loved it. My review.
  10. Spade and Archer, by Joe Gores. How Sam Spade, the famous Dasheill Hammett sleuth of “The Maltest Falcon,” got to be Sam Spade. My review.
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Out of the Corn Fields

Well, that Iowa Caucus sure thinned things out.

  • Perry is leaving the race. (Oops, no he’s not. Changed his mind.)
  • Bachman is leaving the race.

I imagine Bachman’s followers, scarce though they may be, will jump to Santorum or Gingrich. Considering the up-and-down nature of this race, those followers have probably bounced around to other candidates already.

Then, today, John McCain endorsed Mitt Romney. It’s been 3 years since McCain said “yes” to anything.

Now, on to New Hampshire, where my guy, John Huntsman, has invested all of his eggs. Now that Santorum is having his 15 minutes, that leaves only Huntsman awaiting his time in the sun. But Huntsman, being a moderate, isn’t a legitimate Republican. I imagine Rush considers him a liberal. As he would consider me a liberal.

The Republican party wants nothing to do with us moderates anymore. So be it.

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Books: “Bad Blood” (Sanford) and “Cross Fire” (Patterson)

Catching up on some more books I read late in the year.

Bad Blood, by John Sanford (2010).
As I’ve written before, I much prefer Sanford’s Virgil Flowers series to his signature Lucas Davenport “Prey” books. Flowers is a much more interesting character than Davenport (who is actually Flowers’ boss). This fourth entry begins with a 19-year-old football star bludgeoning a coworker, and then he’s found hanging in his cell. A deputy is suspected of killing the boy, but that deputy is then murdered. As Flowers and the lady sheriff investigate, clues point to a girl murdered a year before, and to a secretive religious community where lots of bad things seem to happen. The book ends with a doozy of a shoot-out, and a startling act of vengeance. Yes, I think this is the best Flowers book.

Cross Fire, by James Patterson (2010)
I read Cross Fire in one day, on the plane back from California in early November. Patterson’s style–the short chapters, the color-sparse writing, the unrelenting pace–is well-suited for travel reading. This book brings back serial killer Kyle Craig, who, after extensive plastic surgery, assumes the identity of an FBI agent and ends up working with a clueless Alex Cross to solve a series of sniper killings (the victims being corrupt politicians). Realistically, it’s a bit of a leap, but I willingly suspended my skepticism and enjoyed the ride. The ending seemed a bit weak, yet satisfying. The Alex Cross books rarely disappoint (Cross Country being an exception), and this one certainly didn’t. Not one of his best, but an average Alex Cross book is still a lot better than most other books in this genre.

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Four Books: Child, Mankell, MacDonald, and Schlink

I’m getting caught up with mini-reviews of some books I read during the latter months of 2011.

Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child (2008)
This is the 12th book starring hard-guy Jack Reacher (and the 4th Reacher book I’ve read this year). It takes place in the Colorado towns of Hope and Despair, located 12 miles apart. Reacher wanders into Despair and gets all kinds of guff when he merely tries to buy a cup of coffee. He ends up back in Hope, where he teams up with a woman deputy to unravel the diabolical goings-on in Despair.

This was one of my favorite Reacher books. The conspiracy at the heart of Depair is nothing particularly compelling, but everything around it is. Reacher just throws himself into situations and creates havoc. Plus, it reminded me of the first Reacher book I read, “Echo Burning.” Both books involve Reacher wandering innocently into a town and getting embroiled in a Big Messy Situation which demands his tough guyness.

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell (2011)
I cannot over-emphasize how disappinting this book was. It started out great: nearly everyone in a small village in cold and snowy northern Sweden is massacred, a hideous scene. A woman deputy is introduced, then a woman with a connection to some of the victims. Then Mankell takes us back to a the American West, where some Chinese immigrants find themselves serving as slave laborers on the continental railroad. I was fully engrossed.

But I don’t think Mankell really thought through where he wanted to take the book. Soon, the woman deputy becomes a disagreeable caricature, and the other woman, now suddenly the central protagonist, ends up pursuing clues to Beijing. Before long, we’re in Africa, then back to Sweden, then England. It’s just a mess.

Mankell, normally one of my favorite writers, basically indulged in building a story to affirm some personal anti-Chinese political opinions, and it just fell flat. When the whole thing wraps up, there is one glaring inconsistency–a major, major one involving the identity of the killer–involving a photograph which I can in no way resolve. Maybe something was lost in translation. But more to the point, if anything was lost, it was lost in the writing. I hope Mankell got these political obsessions off his chest. I just wish he hadn’t dragged me along.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross MacDonald (1996)
MacDonald, in my book, is the heir–or at least the first heir–to the Raymond Chandler legacy. His guy, Lew Archer, is more interesting, to me, than Phillip Marlowe (though not as funny). But this is the worst MacDonald book I’ve read. I struggled to get through the last 100 pages, and came close to just quitting. It never, for a minute, grabbed my interest. But that won’t stop me from reading more MacDonald books, because he’s normally reliable.

The Gordion Knot, by Bernhard Schlink (2010)
This is a strange little character-driven spy novel, which starts in Germany but spends most of its pages in New York City. This is the second book I’ve read by this German mystery writer, and I didn’t really care for either of them. Why did Black Lizard sign this guy?

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