Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Death of Blogging

There have been a lot of stories over the last couple years heralding the “death of blogging”. Then stories about how the death of blogging has been exaggerated.

sadpandaI have noticed, sadly, that many of my favorite blogs – some from friends and family – where I always looked forward to each post because I knew it would be informative, witty, opinionated, or informative – or sometimes all of them at once – seem to have fallen to the gravely shoulder of the information highway and don’t see new posts at all, or very infrequently.

What’s replaced them? No mystery. Facebook and Twitter. Blogging takes thought and thought takes time. Social media, for all its limitations, allow people to express themselves – at least in little nuggets – without the trouble of a longer post.

Brief as its mainstream life was, I mourn the passing of blogging (at least on the part of lots of people I know). Somehow, reading a tweet that says “Ima riot if dona get Big Mac!! #McDs” just isn’t the same. Call me old fashioned, but I think a little friction between any thought in your head and throwing it out for people to read is not a bad thing.

If you read this and you’re a sometime blogger lured by the ease of tweets and status updates…don’t do it. Some of us still want to read something that won’t fit in a fortune cookie.

whoWe are here!!! We are here!!!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Scrum-of-scrums for the King-of-Kings


I recently found myself reading the December 2011 National Geographic. In particular, I was drawn to an article “The Bible of King James”. My lovely wife had recently sent me an interesting historical book from her trip to England about the Winchester Bible. The NatGeo article was interesting from both a religious and an historic perspective, but there was another thing that caught my eye as a sometime software professional. 

They went about their work in a precise and orderly way. Each member of the six subcommittees, on his own, translated an entire section of the Bible. He then brought that translation to a meeting of his subcommittee, where the different versions produced by each translator were compared and one was settled on. That version was then submitted to a general revising committee for the whole Bible, which met in Stationers' Hall in London. Here the revising scholars had the suggested versions read aloud—no text visible—while holding on their laps copies of previous translations in English and other languages. The ear and the mind were the only editorial tools. They wanted the Bible to sound right. If it didn't at first hearing, a spirited editorial discussion—extraordinarily, mostly in Latin and partly in Greek—followed. A revising committee presented a final version to two bishops, then to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then, notionally at least, to the King.

For some reason, this approach struck me as very “agile” with each subcommittee being a Scrum and the successive rollups turning into a scrum of scrums. Now, it is true that we don’t have the luxury of having a group of developers each building their own version of a feature and then comparing them in the Scrum and taking the best of each – but can you imagine how optimal that would be if we did have that approach?

I recalled a story about Remedy working on a variety of play approaches for an Alan Wake sequel. They went so far as to code the most interesting to a playable level of quality and then put them on consoles around their offices. Then they watched which ideas were most popular for their staff to walk up and play. One of the ideas emerged as such a clear crowd favorite that they cleaned it up and finished it as “Alan Wake: American Nightmare”. I couldn’t find the exact link that described this background, but this interview alludes to it.

I just can’t shake the notion of “competitive collaboration” and the potential advantages that duplicating the King James process  could have for creating great software. Ahhh…but the cost…the cost. No idea what to do about that. :-)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A few of my favorite books…


I love to read. I’ve always loved to read. I remember reading Encyclopedia Brown, The Hardy Boys, Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets, encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, yada yada. Usually I’m surrounded by people who love to read, even when I’m doing Army stuff.
I was a little shocked the other day when I was driving along with one of our radio operators and we were talking and I said, “Have you had a chance to read Rumsfeld’s book?”
To which he replied, “Oh I really never read any books. I don’t even read the newspaper.”
It actually took a moment for me to make a graceful recovery from that while the whole time thinking the guy was clearly far dumber than I had given him credit for.

So in honor of that, I wanted to list a few of my favorite books. I’ve tried several times to compile “Jon’s Reading List” but I never feel it is complete and it is always so many books as to be kind of useless.

book-of-mormon3The Book of Mormon – Another Testament of Jesus Christ
Simply stated: read it; test it; it’s true and it will change your life.




Basic Economicsbasicecon
The problem with economic illiteracy, as with historical illiteracy, is HUGE. Without a basic grounding in these principles, the behaviors of people, markets and governments seem random. In this LARGE primer, Thomas Sowell does an amazing job of clarifying and explaining without tedium and without dumbing it all down. Reading this book requires an investment of time, yes, but it is an investment that will be repaid when you see through the headlines with new clarity on economic matters – and really, most matters are economic at their heart.

nothingNothing Like It In The World
I love reading history, so picking just one history book really made me think. I settled in on one of Stephen Ambrose’s probably lesser known books. It tells the story of the US transcontinental railroad from its earliest conception to the epic battle between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific. One of perhaps the most cogent points Ambrose makes when discussing the shady financial dealings whereby the railroad-men reaped huge profits from the construction. He sums it up by saying simply (and I’m paraphrasing), that yes, it happened, but all those warrants for land along the right-of-way would have been worthless had they not succeeded in building the railroad and that for all the money earned, the cost to the Federal government was remarkably low relative to the amazing benefits to the public good.
Bonus points if you read this as a follow on to Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage – which covers Lewis and Clark. It feels like a natural set.

adamsJohn Adams
David McCullough, despite his name being larger than his subject’s, provides a rich and well-told story of a life most excellently lived. The amazing blend of stalwart love of family and sense of duty and a sense of personal frustration. I felt sad for John Adams in that he was so attuned to any slight against him personally that he seems never to have appreciated his own value to the country he loved and helped create. And that leaves aside some of the painful and touching family moments. I believe there’s no way you can come away from this book without re-assessing your own life with fresh perspective.

inmatesThe Inmates Are Running The Asylum
Alan Cooper’s 2004 cry for sanity is a bit aged for a tech book, but it is still remarkable to read it and see how much we’ve learned – and the lessons that still seem to elude us. Consider that when this book came out, the iOS with its emphasis on smooth transitions between user tasks didn’t even exist.
Whether you are in the tech business or just a victim of it, this book is worth your time.

judeJude The Obscure
In Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy spins a tale that makes music by The Cure seem positively upbeat by comparison. If you can survive the trip through its pages, you are bound to feel a whole lot better about your own life. If nothing else, this story reminds the reader that every choice has a consequence, and you can’t pick the one without picking the other too.


pattonPatton On Leadership
A terrifying title, but an excellent book. It dissects some of the speeches and writings of a man who is arguably the finest combat general in the history of the United States and distills out the intent and application of these principles in a less deadly workplace.
And it has the added side-effect of looking very scary to co-workers when it is sitting on your shelf. Sun Tzu is passé! Patton is where it’s at. 

Well, there it is.
I could go on and on with Science, Politics, etc. but the point was a brief list.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Into Africa–Part 3

Link to part 1 of this series.
Link to part 2 of this series.

As part of preparing for my work in Africa, I read Martin Meredith’s compelling book The fateofafricaFate of Africa: A history of the continent since independence. I won’t sugar coat it…this comprehensive 900 page book is a veritable Greek tragedy of truly epic proportion. In fact, it’s so sad that I wish I could burn it in the incinerator at the local hospital near my location in Africa, but I can’t. More on that later.

There is a simplistic view, often taught and espoused without much critical thought, that European powers pillaged Africa for its riches and left when it became untenable for them to continue. It is no doubt true that there was widespread exploitation and some unbelievable cruelty – particularly by the Belgians in central Africa. However, one cannot use that as an excuse for why the GDP of most African nations is now so much lower than at independence, especially given the vast resources on the continent – many of which were unknown or not even desirable during the colonial period. Nations that were formerly self-sufficient in certain food stuffs or other goods, or even net exporters, are now mired in kleptocracy and utterly dependent on foreign aid to survive.

I was discussing this book with our native African interpreter. He has a degree in African history and is a very educated guy who studied in the US and Canada and lived abroad for many years. He had had a little to drink when we were talking. He said the first time he read this book he found himself literally crying many times. “And you have to understand,” he said, “it is not normal that a man in my country cries.” His face and the tremor in his voice spoke volumes of the frustration he feels.

There are so many instances I’d like to share from the book, but I’ll limit myself to just a few. If forced to select a single emblematic poster child for how screwed up Africa is, I’d have to pick Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire the Democratic Republic of the Congo (wait, not that Congo, the other Congo).

“The steel mill at Maluku, near Kinshasa, constructed at a cost of $250 million, was designed for a capacity of 250,000 tons per year, four times Zaire’s requirements. After opening in 1975, production reached a peak of 25,000 tons a year; after 1978 it never exceeded 10,000 tons a year. The mill produced only low-grade steel at eight times the cost of better-quality imported steel.” (Chapter 17)

After 10 years of independence, hospitals lacked supplies and medicine, the transportation system was a wreck – even by African standards, and employment was lower than at independence. Those who had jobs found their wages eroded by rampant inflation. Only 1 per cent of the land was cultivated.

mobutu2Given the level of theft at the presidential level, it was generally believed that Mobutu had squirreled away hundreds of millions of dollars. “But at the end of it all, after Mobutu’s downfall…a paltry $4 million was discovered in Swiss banks.” (End notes for chapter 17.) In short, he stole much and he spent basically all of it, and left his country a shell of what it had been so many years before. Just dilapidated public works and ridiculous palaces.

But Mobutu was by no means alone. In Mali, government control of food production was, unsurprisingly, a disaster. In 1981, farmers were being paid 63 francs for a kilo of rice it cost them 80 francs to grow. “Farmers were frequently paid months in arrears; crops were not collected on time; fertilisers, seeds and pesticides were delivered late; shortages led to corruption and favouritism.” (Chapter 16)

There is a historic tribal and clan association with communal egalitarianism in Africa – as in many tribal or clan based societies. In the post-colonial era, this collective (pun intended) memory was exploited by both the well-meaning and the tyrants in nearly every African nation giving rise to an interesting ideology called “African Socialism”. Really, the only difference between African and classical socialism is this attempt to associate traditional African lifestyle patterns as a veneer over plain ol’ socialism. As Meredith states in chapter 8, “Yet despite all the time and energy spent on explaining it, African socialism was little more than a potpourri of vague and romantic ideas lacking all coherence and subject to varying interpretations.”
As Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania, said, “We in Africa have no need of being ‘converted’ to socialism than we have of being ‘taught’ democracy. Both are rooted in our past in the traditional society which produced us.”
In similar vein, Kwame Nkrumah advocated a centrally planned move from agricultural to industrial economies, “The circle of poverty can only be broken by a massively planned industrial undertaking.”
In an essay written in 1962, he gave glowing praise to the supposedly socialist and collective roots of pre-colonial African society, but let us just say that his research and recollection was somewhat generous in this praise, to say the least.

So why can’t I burn the book? Well, when we visited the hospital, quite a large on by African standards, we asked why there was so much medical waste on the grounds. Why didn’t they burn it? Ah. They couldn’t, they explained. It seems their incinerator was choked with ash. “Interesting, yes we see that,” I said. Why don’t they empty the ashes? It appears that while the groundskeeper is paid by the Ministry of Health to put stuff in the incinerator and to light the fire, it is not his job to empty it. In fact, it seems that is no one’s job. And no one is right on top of it. Our Major said, “Do you have a bucket and a broom? Maybe you could empty it right now.” Oh no, that would not be possible. It is no one’s job to do that.

Since that time, I’ve discovered in our files that the US paid to demolish the old incinerators and build new ones in 2007. It seems the old ones were full of ash that was so thickly caked on that it could not be removed.

Clearly, the Africans learned at least some lessons in bureaucracy from their former European masters. They have many more reasons why they should NOT do something than why they SHOULD. A lot like France.

theriverOf course, one of the profound challenges facing Africa is AIDS. Most westerners really cannot conceive of the widespread effect of AIDS on modern Africa. It has taken a massive toll, not only in terms of the financial impact of treating and managing the disease, but also in terms of the incalculable cost in human and intellectual capital of the victims and the diversion of resources from other aspects of development. In the course of discussing the impact of AIDS in Fate of Africa, Meredith references another book which explores a controversial theory concerning the origin of AIDS - The River by Edward Hooper.

Some years ago, a good friend mentioned an interesting book she was reading about a theory on the origin on AIDS – this same one. While The River seems to be out of print and is not available as an eBook either, I was very happy when my friend managed to dig the hardback out of her storage unit. Like Fate of Africa, this is a near 1000 page behemoth. I devoured it as soon as I finished Fate of Africa and was not disappointed.

I mentioned this is a controversial theory – namely that there was an inadvertent introduction of what was previously a simian virus (SIV) into humans through the testing of an oral polio vaccine in central Africa in the late 50’s – on the eve of independence. Even the author, despite what appears to be careful research, admits the case is largely circumstantial and leaves the door open to being disproven on the facts. Regardless of whether this is indeed the origin of AIDS, the book unfolds a sad tale of scientific neocolonialism. The notion that, for whatever reason, Africa was a ripe ground for western scientists to test vaccines and other treatments and procedures that would not be allowed in their own countries. Often, they did these tests deliberately excluding the white population of the areas covered by their testing.

Whether you are looking at the Scramble for Africa that set of the European colonial period in earnest, wide open medical testing in the 1950s and 60s, or the Chinese exploitation that is currently going on across the continent, it seems that Africa cannot catch a break. You don’t need to be African to feel a little weepy over that.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Into Africa–Part 2

(Link to part 1 of this series.)

conquestcoverThomas Sowell, in his book Conquests and Cultures, addresses some of the unique problems (or at least the unique combination of problems) that face Africa relative to cultural development on other continents. He cites three problems in particular that I wish to summarize here. The suitability of the coastline for harbors, the availability of navigable rivers to the interior, and almost singular impact of disease on man and beast. 

First let me put in a plug for the Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell generally. You can find his column at TownHall.com and his personal web site. His books Basic Economics and Applied Economics are personal favorites. Read his stuff – you’ll get smarter automagically.


Although Africa is the second largest continent (Asia being the largest), it has the shortest coastline of any. Even shorter than the comparatively tiny Europe. How is that possible you ask? Well, grab a map and a magnifying glass – or spend some time with Google Maps – and notice how convoluted the the coast of Europe is with its many inlets and bays. These characteristics not only make the coastline longer but also lead to the formation of natural harbors that are so essential to seaborne commerce. Now consider the relatively smooth (and therefore shorter) coast of Africa – with consequently fewer places for shipping to approach the shore.

Particularly in the age of sail, the coastline and the wind and current patterns around Africa actually made it easier to sail past it to China or India than to stop and engage in trade with African peoples. Of course, there are exceptions – Alexandria, Egypt and Durban, South Africa, for example. But there can be little doubt that Africa has a clear paucity of natural harbors and that has definitely impacted the development of African commerce over time.

For the trade that did happen, it was often required to transport the goods to the shore overland or through repeated river portages, loaded onto smaller boats and then transported to larger ships offshore. Considering the effort required for the transportation arrangements, it is not difficult to imagine that it worked much better for items that compressed a lot of value into into a small package – or better yet, goods that could transport themselves. Ivory, gold, and slaves became the primary exports – lending their names to the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), the Gold Coast (Ghana), the Slave Coast (Togo, Benin, and Nigeria).  

Navigable Rivers

The second disadvantage raised by Dr. Sowell is the limited number of navigable rivers leading to to inland. Cities and cultures tend to grow up around rivers and waterways. Consider one of the notable enduring cultures in Africa – the Egyptians, and even in that case, the Nile was not navigable by the largest Roman ships of the day. There is some question about the nature of “navigability”.

“Even the Niger River – the heart of a great river system in West Africa, draining an area nearly twice the size of Texas – is not navigable at all in some places because of rapids. At the height of the rainy season, the Niger may become a ‘20-mile wide moving lake’ but, during the dry season, the average depth of the Niger can in places fall below 4 meters. … The Niger has been characterized as ‘the easiest to navigate in all of tropical Africa.”
-- Conquests and Cultures, p103

Seasonal changes, rocks, waterfalls, and other hazards contribute to this limited navigability, but there are additional topographic challenges as well. The inland area of Africa is essentially composed of a huge plateau area. As geographer Ellen Churchill Semple wrote in Influences of Geographic Environments, Africa is “cursed with a mesa form which converts nearly every river into a plunging torrent” as it approaches the coast.

Compare that to the Hudson River, which is navigable even to modern aircraft carriers for a good distance. And the Yangtze which is navigable by 10,000 ton ships for hundreds of miles.


tsetseAfrica is home to a number of indigenous diseases and parasites – schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis (“river blindness”), yellow fever, and trypanosomiasis (“sleeping sickness”). These problems, particularly the tsetse fly, take a toll not only on humans, but on animals as well – severely limiting the availability of beasts of burden. The lack of animal muscle is bad enough in terms of transportation, but one must also consider that where there domestic animals are few in number, natural fertilizer is also missing, reducing the fertility of the land for agriculture.

Of course, at least one disease worked somewhat in Africa’s favor. The threat of Malaria forestalled major colonization by Europeans until the late 19th century when widespread use of quinine offered some protection, helping to end Africa’s reputation as “the white man’s grave” – setting off the “Scramble for Africa”. Historian Clifford Conner wrote, “it was quinine's efficacy that gave colonists fresh opportunities to swarm into the Gold Coast, Nigeria and other parts of west Africa".


Dr. Sowell illustrates just a few of the unique limitations Africa has faced. Many of these problems continue to linger, either in actual fact or at least in the form of the development of the continent being “held back” in the period of 1500-1900.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Into Africa–Part 1

Apologies for the long hiatus. I’ve been busy with stuff.
I’ve taken quite an interest in Africa over these past many months and feel compelled to share a few blog-sized bits of that.
This excellent graphic, credited to Kai Krause, provides some perspective on the scale of the continent. There’s certainly room for a lot of trouble there.
There are many tragedies in Africa – exploitation, illness, poverty, and hopelessness just to name a few. Perhaps the core tragedy of Africa is the lost opportunity for Africans. The continent is rich in resources of almost every type. Inevitably, this leads one to the central question, namely,“Why is it Africa Always so #%$&@ up then?”
A good friend of mine shared this video with me back in October 2011 and it made a big impression on me. Much of the Bono-driven, well-intentioned aid going on in Africa is little more than paternalistic neo-colonialism. We’re often hurting at least as much as we’re helping.
I believe that two of Africa’s largest problems are too little freedom and too much socialism. There is an interesting cultural-historic perspective in many African cultures that focuses on group success and helping your neighbors (“It takes a village” etc.). This is not a bad thing per se, but it has been used and twisted by Marxist ideologues over the past 70 years or so to push collectivism. This is not unlike the leftist sloganeering gibbrish in the West of “Jesus was the first socialist”. Clearly there is a difference between my choosing to help and share with my neighbors and a government forcing that “charity”.
In addition to Poverty Cure, there’s also some great work being driven by micro-finance efforts like Unitus.
bookFor a truly interesting perspective, I wholeheartedly recommend The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens. Mr. Greitens was an international aid worker with experience in a number of trouble spots – including Africa – when he decided on a career as a Navy SEAL as the best way to truly help these people.
“Eric Greitens is exactly the kind of citizen-warrior that America needs to fight our wars abroad and to win our battles at home. A man wise enough to lead, courageous enough to fight, and compassionate enough to care, he has written a glorious book about how to live with purpose that should be required reading for every American.”
-- Bobby Muller, co-founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines
Stay tuned for more thoughts on Africa!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Carrying the Fire

I wanted to post my initial impressions of my new Amazon Kindle Fire. This isn't meant to be full review, but I did want to capture these while they were fresh and while people were thinking about Christmas gifts.
I've had my Kindle Keyboard with 3G for a little over a year now and I still love it. I have read a lot on it and take it with my often. I also play games (especially Every Word) on it and occasionally browse the web on it - courtesy of the free 3G connectivity. Most of all, I love the fact that I can just charge it about once a month. I mention all of this because these things actually make for a tough act to follow for it's new brother - the Kindle Fire. Maybe it is more of a half-brother, because other than the name they don't really have any relationship at all.
The Fire is a true tablet computer. It has a gorgeous IPS screen - the same type of screen as the iPad in fact. And it can do a lot more than the Kindle reader devices. You can read and edit Microsoft Office documents, you can play Angry Birds or a gazillion other games, you can browse the web in all its glory. And you can consume all sorts of media on it - especially if that media comes from Amazon. It does Facebook, you kids can do your Twittering on it, it does Pintrest, it has a servicable email app (and you can get others from the app market - including those that support Exchange sync, which is lacking in the included mail program).

When I first heard Jeff Bezos announce the Fire, I wasted no time placing my preorder that very morning. It wasn't perfect (more on that in a moment) but it looked like a solid device and seemed to be well integrated into the Amazon family of services. I waited for the release on November 15, scouring the interwebs a couple times a week looking for any scrap of information I could find.
Finally the glorious day arrived and my Kindle Fire arrived at my house - while I was on a cruise to Mexico. :-(One of my older kids was home from college soon after it arrived and I gave her the go ahead to unbox it and play around with it. When I got home I wasted no time in playing with it.
The very next day we headed out for a roadtrip to share
Thanksgiving with family out of state - and the Fire came along.

While it certainly won't win any beauty contests, I am impressed with the device itself. It is solidly constructed and not in the least "plasticy" or cheap feeling. The size and weight feels pretty good in the hand. The battery seems to deliver on the 6-8 hour lifetime Amazon claimed. For the most part, the device is very responsive to touch input, though not as silky smooth as the iPad. The soft keyboard is good and very usable. The automatic screen rotation is a bit too sensitive at times - particularly when the device is held more flat; certainly not unique to the Fire, but a little annoying. I found the speakers and volume really lacking - especially given the media-centric nature of the device. The memory - totaling only about 6GB of available space - has been completely usable so far and I've installed what feels like a lot of stuff without a problem. Obviously, more would be better if you intended to store pictures, music and video on-board. You wouldn't find a 6GB MP3 player very useful. Amazon seems to be relying on their "cloud" for unlimited storage of music, books, and videos you buy from Amazon. All well and good, but it won't help you on an airplane flight.

The biggest failings of the hardware are clearly the lack of even a low res camera and an SD card slot. To be clear, I'm not even looking to use the SD card to boost media storage, but I would like to be able to look at pictures from my camera on a bigger screen and use some kind of cool app to organize them. Another annoyance, though of less importance to me, is the exclusion of a microphone. No microphone and no camera mean no Skype or other web calling and conferencing. Not to mention no snazzy bar code price checking apps, and no Shazam to tell me what song is playing.
On the software side, almost the biggest complaints are the poor performance of the
much touted web browser (my phone is faster over 3G than this browser is over wifi) and the inconsistent availability of common gestures such as zooming in and out.
I know pretty well what this hardware is capable of, and I'm puzzled why Amazon is not using that potential to deliver better performance.

My absolute biggest software complaint, though, is that there is no notion of "users" or "profiles". So when I play Angry Birds, I see that my kid has already unlocked a gazillion levels and I have to remember where I left off. My browser faves are everyone's browser faves. My saved passwords are everyone's saved passwords. I get that this is not my PC, but my Xbox isn't a PC either and it has profiles. I just think this is super lame. (I would say "uber lame", but apparently that is uber lame now.) 

I've seen a lot of haters talking smack about the unique Fire user interface. I actually applaud what Amazon has done here. It is visually interesting and quite functional. I guess I'd call the home screen a "carousel-shelf" sort of effect. The upper part of the screen looks like a bookshelf that permits flicking quickly through your most recently used apps, books, and other media items. In the Fire world, a movie is an app, so is a book, so is a game. I think this matches closely to how people actually think of things. You don't think "I'm going to open the eBook reader and read 'Animal Farm'," you just tap the icon for the book.
Let's face it - the normal Android UI sucks. Kudos to Amazon for bringing their own innovations here. We'll see what people think about it.
Similarly, a lot of internet chatbots have complained that the device is based on Android 2.3 rather than a newer version. Here's the simple fact...none of the target customers of this device care what the OS is. It could be MSDOS 2.3 for all it matters. From most people's perspective, "Amazon" is the operating system.
There are lots of apps in the Fire app store and I had no problems installing and using them. Amazon's "free app of the day" program is very cool. In addition to a few games, I also picked up that aforementioned Documents To Go app, which normally retails for $14.95 and is really quite an impressive MS Office stand-in. The free Netflix app on the Fire is probably the best mobile Netflix experience on any device right now (yup, better than the iPad - but I'm sure they will bring that version up to par soon enough
When I wrote the original draft of this post, I had planned to end it with this ignoble conclusion:
So what am I planning to do next with my Fire? Well, unfortunately, the answer is "return it". The reason is really not related to the device itself. Most of its quirks could be fixed by a software update. The biggest proble is that I have just found nothing that I do on the Fire that I couldn't do as well or better on my ASUS netbook (link). In fact, when I'm traveling, I can connect my netbook to the internet by tethering to my phone. I can't do that on my Fire. Connectivity is the feature I want in a device.
Tablets in general just don't do much.
I was discussing this conclusion with an iPad devoted sister-in-law and she pointed out that her iPad was great for checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos, playing games and checking her email. I agree. But I already have a thing that does all those things in my netbook and does them faster and with fewer limits. She also pointed out that while the iPad keyboard isn't the greatest for writing a lot of text, she has a friend who bought a keyboard case for his iPad - creating in the process the world's most expensive and least capable netbook. :-)
Amazon has an interesting offering in the tablet scene - but it turns out that scene is just too lame.
But an interesting thing happened on the Fire's way back to its box to be sent back...  my wife loves it and has put the kibosh on sending it back. This makes a certain kind of sense. She is also out of the house a lot, but when she is out she is either actually doing something or is with someone. When she's with someone, she is much more curteous about not having her mind elsewhere (or her face in a screen) then, well, me, for example. When she's home, she is well covered by WiFi.
The Fire is an interesting device. It is easily, easily, the best tablet you can buy right now for $199. I say that not just because of the device itself but the whole app and content ecosystem and package of services that stand behind it. I've very interested to see the forthcoming 8.9 and 10 inch successors next year. It has been widely spoken of that this first iteration of the Fire was a stopgap that Amazon chose because the ones they really wanted to sell couldn't be built in quantity in time for Christmas this year. To meet that timeline, they went with an existing design - the Blackberry Playbook. I look forward to the next one.