Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book review: "The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger gave himself an impossible task in writing "The Perfect Storm": To describe the disappearance of six men and their fishing boat at sea, even though there were no survivors and no witnesses, and neither the boat nor the men were ever found.  

In many ways, it's remarkable how close Junger comes to portraying the unknowable. He pulls the reader intimately into the world of commercial fishing, describing the men of the Andrea Gail, their lives and loves, and their roles on a fishing boat. He carefully details the functions of the boats and the hazards of this type of fishing. He describes how this storm created huge waves (actually, he goes on too long on the size of the waves) and what could have caused the boat to flood, sink or capsize.  He gives a gruesomely detailed description of drowning.

It's an engaging story, but ultimately Junger just can't tell us what actually happened, and that leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste for the reader. In the latter parts of the book, as if he suddenly became aware of this weakness, Junger adds in some other tales of people in trouble during the same storm. In one case, three people are rescued off a sailboat. In another, a rescue helicopter crashes into the ocean and the crew needs to be rescued. 

These are exciting tales in and of themselves, but they seem clumsily tacked on to the story of the Andrea Gail.  It's as if Junger says, "Hey, I can't tell you what happened to the Andrea Gail. But look at these great stories of danger and survival."

A better approach would have been for Junger to tell all these stories in parallel, showing these different people and lives from the start, and then linking them through their fight to survive the "perfect storm." 

I'm probably being kind of hard on this book because it's been praised so highly.  In fairness, Junger does provide a terrific look at commercial fishing, a world that few of us are familiar with. 

This is a "guy" book (this is just a characterization of the book; many women may enjoy guy books).  Not only is there the inherent danger and adventure, but there are many technical descriptions of the workings of boats, rescue helicopters and weather equipment.  

I'm not a boater myself, and often these sort of books get bogged down in boating jargon.  I give Junger half-credit on this. In some cases, he ably describes the boat operations for the average reader. Other times, however, he tosses in boating phrases without definition, leaving the non-boater to guess at his meaning.


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Saturday, July 11, 2015

"The Cloud" isn't what it sounds like

The marketing managers of Microsoft, Apple and Google must be slapping each other on the back for their success in getting the public to embrace the phrase "The Cloud" as a synonym for storing computer files on remote computers.

The Cloud sounds so, well, comfy. You can imagine your files -- photos, documents, videos -- resting in a soft, fluffy bed of white where no possible harm could come to them. It's a marketing triumph.

But there's a risk here. Using a term like "The Cloud" dulls our awareness of where and how our files are actually being stored.

Your files are not just floating around in the ether, They are stored on a particular hard drive in a huge warehouse full of computers. They may also be backed up on a separate hard drive (but, really, who knows?).

We have billions of items stored on remote computers with little idea of how secure or safe the storage is.

As the remote-storage industry matures, companies are going to start cutting corners -- removing backup systems -- to increase profits. And one day, inevitably, something will go wrong and people will lose countless valuable pictures, financial records and home movies -- permanently.

They'll wonder: "How could this happen? It was in The Cloud."  Except it wasn't, and never was.

Saying that that these files are stored "remotely" is more accurate -- and uses two fewer words -- than saying "in the Cloud."


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Monday, July 6, 2015

How travel agency Vayama misled me

When I booked a flight on Kayak.com two months ago, the reservation, unbeknownst to me, was directed to Vayama, an online travel agency that apparently operates behind the scenes with Kayak. 

Vayama just sent me an email asking how I enjoyed their service. Thanks for asking, Vayama. Here goes: 

Vayama is nearly impossible to reach by phone. That, by itself, would be enough to warrant an F rating. But that's not the worst.

After making my plane reservations, I emailed Vayama with this question:

I booked a flight for my family through Kayak and Vayama into London (Heathrow) on Virgin Atlantic. That is all fine, but I have a related question. After arriving in Heathrow we want to immediately fly to Paris. Virgin Atlantic tells me that if the connecting flight is on British Airways (and only British Airways) then our luggage can be directly transferred to the London-to-Paris flight.

My question: How do I make a reservation for the London-to-Paris leg so the two flights are "linked'?  Can I just reserve the second leg on my own?  Should I do it through you folks?

Here's the response I got from Vayama's "Stephanie":

Please go ahead and make the reservation yourself, and then let us know your new flight information and we can pass it through to the airlines to make sure that these two flights are linked, and that your luggage is correctly transferred.

So I did EXACTLY what Vayama told me to do -- I made the reservation myself. But when I tried to have Vayama link the two flights I got a completely different story:

As your second booking was not booked through Vayama, unfortunatley we don't have access to it.

Though I was precisely following Vayama's advice, they refused to help me. This left me and my family in a situation where we would likely miss our flight connection.
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Friday, July 3, 2015

Book review: "Notes from a Small Island" by Bill Bryson

After nearly 20 years of living in England, Bill Bryson comes to a surprising conclusion about the British: "They are the happiest people on earth."

The key, he says, is that the British find happiness in simple things -- tea cakes, scones, crumpets, puddings, jams, biscuits -- and in the simple company of others.

"Watch any two Britons in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry," Bryson writes in the book "Notes from a Small Island. "It won't be more than a few seconds."

In this book, Bryson recounts his six-week meandering trip through England and Scotland. "Meandering" is the key word here. He wanders somewhat aimlessly from the south of the land to the north, and so does the book. A little focus would have helped -- perhaps Bryson should have had some goal, like to find the best crumpet, But while the book hits some flat spots, Bryson often rescues it with insightful or funny observations.

He make amusing notes on Britons giving driving directions, cellphone users,  chop sticks and even something as simple as sand.   He misfires occasionally, as when he makes fun (to readers) of fat people who happen to be dining near him.

Bryson gives a good sense of the quirks of the British, noting that they seem to think the island is bigger than it is and that the weather is worse than it really is.  He notes how a newspaper reported on a "blizzard" that had dropped "more than two inches of snow."

Unfortunately, the book is rather dated, as it was published in 1995, and more years are not going wear on it well.

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