Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book review: "13 is the New 18" by Beth J. Harpaz

Parents: How many of you would willingly lay bare your family life, blemishes and all, for the world to see? How many of you would share your parenting decisions good and bad for other parents to discuss and critique?

This is the risky step that Beth Harpaz does in her 2009 book "13 is the New 18."

Parents will find this an enjoyably easy read, even if they are sometimes disturbed by Harpaz's parenting.

The book starts lightly with Harpaz's bemused look at such things as the perils of traveling with children and the peculiarly strong fashion sense of her 13-year-old son, Taz.

"He is far more interested in cleaning his sneakers than he is in say, cleaning his room, or even brushing his teeth," Harpaz notes.

She pulls her punches here more than I would like. When her son wants $120 sneakers, she starts to say how outrageous that is hell, yes!   but is worn down into admitting the shoes are "aesthetically pleasing."

Soon, the tone of the book turns more serious as Taz runs into trouble in and out of school.

This is not one of those books where the author tells parents that everything they've been doing is wrong. Quite the opposite. Harpaz jokingly calls herself the "World's Worst Mother," and I think that any parent reading this will find some of her parenting questionable.

She overreacts to some things and under reacts to others. There are parts where Taz is clearly a little snot, and deserves a more serious punishment than he gets.

But, frankly, what Harpaz does in this book takes guts. She's going to get criticism because well, that's what other parents do. She deserves some respect for her honest approach. (I do wonder what Taz thinks of having his problems broadcast to the world.)

Reading this book five years after it was published, you discover that it's quickly becoming dated. There are references to MySpace and there's a chapter on Harpaz's discovery of, and infatuation with, Facebook that will make you smirk due to its "gee, whiz!" approach.

I was also amused that she describes the game of Hacky Sack as some kind of new trend. I can tell you from personal experience that Hacky Sack dates back at least to 1980. Clearly, Harpaz is not an author on the cutting edge.  Maybe that even makes her more likeable.

If you want a serious book to help you with parenting, I strongly recommend "Teach Your Children Well" by Madeline Levine.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Book review: "Growing Up" by Russell Baker

Shortly after joining the Navy during World War II, Russell Baker faced a dilemma. As part of training, he and other recruits were directed to jump off a high dive into a pool.

There was one problem -- Baker couldn't swim.

"I'm a nonswimmer," Baker told the instructor. "You want me to go to the shallow end of the pool?"

"This pool doesn't have a shallow end," the instructor said gruffly.

"Well, what am I going to do?" asked Baker.

"Get up on that platform and jump."

In "Growing Up," Baker describes what happened next:

Quaking in every fiber, I climbed the ladder, edged out onto the board, took one look down, and unable to faint, stepped back.

"Jump!" the instructor roared.

I stepped to the edge, closed my eyes, and walked into space. The impact of the water was like being smacked on the bottom by a two-by-four, then I was sinking, then my God! I was rising irresistibly to the surface. My head broke water. The water was actually supporting me, just as everybody had always said it would. The instructor glared.

"You didn't keep your legs straight," he shouted. "Get back up there and do it again."

This was one of the best moments in "Growing Up," Baker's pleasant 1982 autobiography of his first 25 years or so. He would grow up to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist.

The book revolves around Baker's relationship with his mother, who raised him largely alone after his father died when Baker was just five. It's a loving, though sometimes contentious, relationship, as his mother placed a lot her hopes and dreams in raising a successful son.

Baker's stories are all nicely told and he does well evoking images of life in the 1920s through '40s. But the stories are rarely riveting. Think mild, not wild.

I liked the book more as it went on; I'm sure everyone can relate to the awkwardness of his teenage years and his clumsy relations with the opposite sex. My favorite chapter was No. 15, where Baker joins the Navy. It's there that he not only learns to swim, but learns to fly a plane even though he didn't even know how to drive a car.

The book has some surprising nuggets for language buffs.  Baker notes that he became a "teenager" before that term had even been invented. And in 1931, with the American economy flagging, President Herbert Hoover "refused to use the scare word 'recession' when speaking about the slump. It was merely 'a depression,' he said."

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The New York Times' bizarre World Cup coverage

Soccer fans who picked up the New York Times sports section the day after the World Cup final can be forgiven if they were confused.  Who had actually played in the game?  Was it Germany and Argentina? Or Brazil and Argentina?

The NYT's main game story, by Sam Borden, focused on Brazil for the first eight sentences, noting, "In the tournament’s final game, the Brazilians managed to dodge the ultimate on-field nightmare."

So Brazil won? 

No, Brazil wasn't even playing; Argentina and Germany were. The NYT was trying to make the point that Brazil, the host of the World Cup, was relieved that its arch-rival, Argentina, had lost.

It was a curious angle to lead with, and it slighted Germany at the team's brightest moment. The Times didn't get around to even mentioning Germany until after the story jumped a good 185 words into the story. And you have to read even further to find out that Germany won, 1-0.

Even stranger was that the accompanying column on the World Cup final also focused on the Brazilian reaction. Author Jere Longman quotes a Brazilian, in the third paragraph, saying "Argentina winning would have been the worst thing I could think of."

In case two stories saying the same thing were not enough, inside the section was a third story focusing on Brazilian relief that Argentina had lost. The subhead on this story, by Simon Romero, said that for Brazil, "an Argentina victory would have been intolerable."

In all, the three stories on the World Cup in the Times Sports section mentioned the words "Brazil" or "Brazilian" 71 times. "Argentina" and its variations were mentioned just 42 times.

And how about Germany, the winner? "Germany" or "German" was mentioned just 33 times. 

It makes you wonder what the Times would have written if Brazil had actually played.

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Tournament review: Copa Cabana Beach Soccer, Long Beach

The Copa Cabana beach soccer tournament held in Long Beach on July 12 and 13, 2014, was a big party-like event. About 140 teams, both kids' and adults', competed across 14 fields, while a big screen showed World Cup games and music blared from large speakers.

The tournament seemed well-organized schedules were posted six days ahead of time, fields were set up and ready to go on Saturday morning, and the games  went off (mostly) on schedule. The website was useful, with easy access to the schedules, a field map and rules. I also liked that the tournament promptly posted results online (I'm amazed at a how many competitions don't do this).

That said, the Copa Cabana tournament also had one HUGE negative: The parking situation was atrocious.

At first glance, you wouldn't think this would be; there are two large parking lots right next to the tournament location. Yet, with somewhere around 1,200 participants in the tournament, these lots filled up fast. By the time I was pulling into a spot in one of the lots ($12 for all day) at 7:10 a.m. the spaces were almost all gone.

People arriving later had few options. Street parking is extremely limited in the Belmont Shores neighborhood of Long Beach where the tournament is held. Frustrated drivers fumed as they circled the parking lots and nearby streets.

How did this happen? Blame the tournament organizers. They simply allowed too many teams in the competition. There were so many teams that six age groups had to be split into completely separate divisions.

The parking problems would be eased if fewer teams were included, but I doubt that Copa Cabana Beach Soccer, a for-profit company based in Santa Monica, will take this step. Fewer teams mean less money.

If you do decide to participate in this tournament, a few suggestions:

  • If you're driving, plan on staying all day. You won't want to move your car once you find a spot. So load up a cooler with plenty of food and drinks, bring a beach umbrella and sun screen and settle in.

  • If you're a local, consider riding your bike there. You'll save a ton of frustration and some money, too.

  • If you don't bring your own food, you have options other than the expensive offerings at the tournament stands. Walk a few blocks inland to 2nd Street, where there's a good selection of restaurants and shops.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The quirks of global electricity

My knowledge of electricity doesn’t go much beyond the light switch. You flip it one way, the light comes on; the other way, the light goes off. What else do you need to know?

But while preparing for a recent overseas trip, I got an unexpected education in the peculiarities of using electricity while traveling internationally.

My family and I were going to Kenya for a safari, and we’d also be stopping in Amsterdam on the way back. This was not to be my first trip overseas, but on trips years earlier to China and Italy, I somehow managed without having to plug in anything. It seems amazing, in retrospect.

Like many people, our family has grown increasingly tech-dependent, so this time we wanted to be sure we could feed our electrical needs.

For this trip, my wife and I would be bringing along a tablet computer, a smart phone, and three rechargeable camera batteries  Plus, my wife wanted to be able to use a hair dryer and curling iron (I have too little hair left to worry about).

Our first need was for a plug adapter, and possibly two. While the United States uses what are known as type A and B outlets, Kenya uses the type G outlets favored by the United Kingdom, Ireland, Malaysia, and a scattered collection of other countries.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands – our second stop – uses outlets known as types C and F, which are used across most of the European continent. There are other styles of outlets used elsewhere on the planet but since I wasn’t going to Australia or Fiji, I didn't worry about what they use there.

I soon learned that a plug adapter wasn’t our only electrical need. While the U.S. is on a 120-volt system, Kenya operates using 240 volts and the Netherlands uses 230 volts. This is not a problem for most modern electronics, including laptops, computers and cell phone chargers, which are “dual voltage” (look on your device for something like “AC120/240V”).

But your typical U.S. personal appliance – such as a hair dryer or curling iron – is not dual voltage, so if you plug it into another country’s system you’re likely to overload it and ruin it. So we would need a voltage converter, too.

Still, we weren’t done. Online, international travelers strongly warned others to use surge protectors to protect electronics in both Kenya and the Netherlands.

My shopping list now included a plug adapter or two, a voltage converter and a surge protector.  Searching the Internet, I hoped that some enterprising company would have put all of them in one device. Maybe such a creature is out there somewhere, but if so, sorry, I didn’t find it.

I did, however, find on Amazon a combination plug adapter and surge protector designed for use in all countries. The user reviews were encouraging. I put it in my shopping basket along with a voltage converter and pressed “buy.”  Whew.  My work was done.

Uh-uh. Belatedly, I noticed that the plug adapter was to be shipped from Hong Kong and was to take six weeks to arrive. Which meant it would arrive about the time we were in the middle of our safari. There was no option for express shipping.

Sigh. Quickly, I located a similar adapter/surge protector online. It cost a bit more, but at least it wasn’t shipping from the other side of the globe. I ordered it.

I soon discovered yet another electrical need: An external battery, to keep our tablet and phone charged during our long flights, and as backup in case we needed the juice on the road. I found one online and ordered it. Surely, I was done now.

Nope. Soon the voltage converter arrived. I was delighted to have it at first, but then noticed this on the packaging: “Not for use with hair dryers.”  What?  Apparently this converter was not built to handle the high-wattage demands of a hair dryer. I looked back at the product page on Amazon and, to my chagrin, realized that it indeed said exactly this. I just hadn’t noticed it.

Going back online, I found another voltage converter that specifically said “for hair dryers” and ordered it. That one soon arrived and initially looked good, but then I noticed on the package the phrase, “Do not use 1600W converter to operate travel appliances exceeding 1600 watts.”  Hmmm, I wondered, is that something important?

Curious, I checked our hair dryer. Arrgh, it was 1875 watts.

I soon learned that virtually all hair dryers sold in the U.S. these days are 1875 watts. So the voltage converter I purchased, advertised as “for hair dryers,” could actually only be used with a small subset of “travel” hair drivers.

I then did what I probably should have done in the first place. Since two online purchases had gone awry, I went to our local Target, found a voltage converter that claimed the ability to work with all hair dryers and bought it.

I was also planning to bring some spare AA and AAA batteries along for this trip, for use in a flashlight and one of our cameras. This seemed pretty innocuous until I stumbled over the fact that batteries on planes raise some special concerns from the Transportation Security Administration.

Apparently, TSA fears that an errant piece of metal could strike a battery in your luggage, create a spark and cause a fire on a plane. So the TSA asks this: Carry batteries in your carry-on luggage, and tape over the ends of loose batteries to minimize the spark risk. I did as recommended.

The trip is now history, and somehow we managed to avoid electrical meltdowns and flare-ups. Here’s the scorecard:

  • The “Universal Travel Power Adapter” I ordered from Hong Kong through Amazon actually arrived in time (I sent the other one back). While you sometimes had to jiggle it to make sure it connected correctly in an outlet, it generally worked well and helped us charge our devices in both Kenya and the Netherlands. I don’t know if the built-in surge protector was truly tested, but we had no problems.

  •  The Travel Smart voltage converter I bought at Target worked just fine for my wife’s hair dryer and curling iron.

  •  We only used the Anker Astro3 external battery once, but in that one case it did successfully recharge my wife’s iPhone.

  •  I sent my carry-on through airport security multiple times on the trip, and not once did anyone check to see if I’d taped the ends of my loose batteries.