Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This Is Not a Book.

...but it's as simple to operate as one.

Last month I got an email from someone named Jeremy, offering to send me a gadget called "Peek," which enables you to access your email account while you're out and about. Peek, he wrote, was Peek is "really, truly, sincerely made for moms."

Really, truly, and sincerely made for moms? What does it do, in addition to letting you send and receive email that would make it a device made for moms? Does it change diapers? Does it watch the kids so we can get out of the house for an hour? Does it have sex with our significant others for us when we're too tired from staying up all night with a crying baby?

The answer is no, it does none of these things. In fact, sending and receiving email is the only thing that it does. The device itself is fifty bucks, and then you pay twenty bucks a month for unlimited use. There are no contracts to sign, which is nice, so you can cancel the service at any time. So sure, I said, send me one.

It arrived one day around Valentine's Day, right after I'd picked up Chris from Kindergarten, and together we sat down to figure out how to set it up. It didn't take a whole lot of thought - Chris set it up for me, and he's just learning how to read. While he was tinkering around, I split my time between watching him and looking over Peek's website to see how the device was marketed to other people. Non-moms, if you will, because I still couldn't figure out why this was really, truly, sincerely created for me.

I can only conclude, after looking at various other pitches, is that Peek thinks mothers are really, really stupid, and can't handle big scary technology like Blackberries or iPhones, which can text, email, and provide internet access. Or Peek thinks mothers really miss the good old days of 1998. Which I do, but only because in 1998 I was a size four.

All the pitches were about how easy and simple the Peek is, how frills-free and basic, for people who get rattled by a device that can be both a phone and a camera. Even more weirdly, in their "about Peek" section, it says the device was created by a man whose wife liked to take long walks when she was pregnant and came back all worried about emails piling up in her inbox. Just how long were these walks? How important are these emails? Is someone's life hanging in the balance while she's away from her Gmail account? Why couldn't she just take her Blackberry with her?

The whole thing seemed implausible to me, and while I was mulling it over, Christopher and I ran into trouble setting it up. While Christopher was tinkering, I was overseeing him using the booklet that came with it, and even though we had followed the instructions precisely, no email was forthcoming. Maybe it takes a minute, I thought. After three hours, however, I thought maybe this was too long. Maybe this was targeted at the right audience after all, I thought.

I called customer service and spoke with Sean. So far, Sean was the biggest asset to Peek I'd encountered so far, and this is not to speak ill of Peek but to commend the truly excellent customer service he provided. I think we're all familiar with the horrow show AT&T provides as their version of customer service. Not so with Peek. Sean listened to my problem, gave me several suggestions, and when none of them worked, he told me he would have to work on the problem with a supervisor and get back to me. During that time, he must have fixed whatever had gone wrong, because the next morning, all the emails had come in. He then called me again to make sure the problem had been corrected, and called a week later for follow-up, to make sure everything was still running smoothly.

Really, truly, sincerely excellent customer service.

Now that all the bugs had been worked out, I spent a few weeks playing around with it.

I sent several emails to Steve to make sure it was working.


Email me something. I want to see if it is still working.

Sent on the go from my Peek


Several hours passed, and then, a response finally came in:


No. I knew you'd be using it and I've been avoiding my email all day
because of it. I will not email you. I think it's a stupid product.

So there.


Peek: Clearly not made for dads.

Here's how using it actually works. You press a button at the top to turn it on. It vibrates at you a couple of times, then the screen says "Hello." After that, takes you right to your inbox, which it would, because that's all there is. It has a full, stiff little QWERTY keyboard with the period, quotation marks, and the comma in odd places, and an equally stiff little wheel on the side for scrolling up and down. To reply to someone, scroll down until the email in question is highlighted, then push in the wheel. It opens that email, and you can then select "Reply," type in your message, and click "Send." It vibrates again when you receive incoming mail, and a little envelope at the top left corner flashes blue.

That's it.

It's not bad, and I especially benefitted from it by sneaking personal, untraceable emails at work. The company I work for can and does monitor all email correspondence from our work computer. They let you get away with some personal stuff on a regular basis, but it probably wouldn't be a smart idea to complain about the job, or, say, carry on a conversation with a local union rep. It does not ring, chirp, or otherwise betray you like a cell phone can. In other words, the Peek is a willing accomplice in helping you hide from The Man.

The only thing I really, really hate about the Peek, slightly condescending marketing aside, is how to get rid of email you don't want. In order to delete the zillion emails I get from Bluefly every day, I have to use that stiff little wheel to scroll down to the offending email, push wheel in, scroll down again until I get to the "delete" option, and push in the wheel again. Scroll, push, scroll, push. There is no option to select a slew of emails for deletion at once. Plus, if you go into your gmail account on your computer and do a mass deletion, the deleted emails don't get deleted on the Peek, so there's no getting around it that way. I didn't check the Peek for about three days, then spent several annoying minutes on the sofa, scrolling and pushing. Instead of making me stay more on top of it, instead I began avoiding the Peek. Every time I'd think about using it, the thought of having to delete the emails made me cringe, and I just put off the inevitable by letting it ride around in my purse, turned off, letting the problem snowball into a virtual avalanche of email, just waiting to give me carpal tunnel syndrome. I have it charging up next to me right now as I'm writing this review, and the blue envelope is flashing like crazy and there must be at least fifty unwanted emails in there right now, and that's only an accumulation of 2 days. I had the Peek turned off for three weeks, people, and quite frankly, if I'm too busy of a mom to learn new technology, I'm surely too busy of a mom to have to spend time deleting emails.

Since I was sent the Peek, they've rolled out a new model. For eighty dollars, you can get the Peek Pronto, which is supposedly quicker and more efficient. I don't know if it's easier to wipe out an inbox full of spam, though. If it is, it would be well worth the extra thirty bucks to not have to deal with that. The Peek may be simpler to set up and use, but simpler isn't always the most user friendly option.

| StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Know It All and The Chemist.

We've all had this problem: You're at a cocktail party, and much to your dismay, you find yourself unable to mingle. Finding yourself completely without a conversational ice breaker, there's nothing for it but to stand against the wall, hiding behind a cocktail until a quiet opening is revealed through which you can sneak out the door. Luckily for the world, with the publication of Know It All: The Little Book of Essential Knowledge, this problem has now been solved.

A reference book that covers everything that ever was, Know It All devotes two pages to each subject. Two pages on the Big Bang, two pages on mathematics in its entirety, two pages on World War II. Now, this little book was brought to us by our friends at Reader's Digest, so expecting anything but a condensed version of everything completely misses the point. Miraculously, they made it all the way through the book without a single joke about Humor in Uniform, so forget about breaking the ice by telling jokes that will be greeted with a strained, polite smile. Instead, they provide you with "Conversation Starters" that are peppered throughout.

Here's one: "Insects might be tiny, but there are so many of them that ants and termites alone are believed by some scientists to account for as much as twenty percent of the world's combined mass of all creatures, known as the animal biomass."

I actually think that's interesting, but I have no idea how to continue with this educational tidbit as a way of making conversation, because in that one sentence I've completely exhausted my knowledge of insect census-taking.

ME: Insects might be tiny, but there are so many of them that ants and termites alone are believed by some scientists to account for as much as twenty percent of the world's combined mass of all creatures, known as the animal biomass.

Possible reactions:

HIM: Really? What is the total percentage of all insects in the animal biomass?

ME: ....


HIM: What?

ME: Never mind.


HIM: says nothing, slowly edges away.

I'm sorry to say, outside an insect-lovers convention, that milkshake ain't gonna bring any boys to the yard.

My very favorite conversation starter was one I found in the section called "Conflicts of the Modern Age," regarding the current war in Iraq:

"The United States rained 'Shock and Awe" on Baghdad, Iraq, in March 2003. Was the attack 'preemptive,' defined in military usage as based on incontrovertible evidence of imminent attack? Or was it 'preventive,' based on possible future threats?"


Oh my god

Oh my god

Oh my god

Oh my god.

Oh, Reader's Digest.

I searched through the rest of the book, but did not find Conversation Starter: Was George Walker Bush a great president? Or was he the greatest president? Nor, in the "Story of Life" section, did I find any reference to "Intelligent Design" or "teaching the controversy," so I suppose the conservative bent could have been a lot worse. I have to say, I think it is irresponsible of the writers not to have included a footnote for that conversation starter that read Caution! If you are in Berkeley, this Conversation Starter could get you pelted with Miniature Organic Soy Pigs in a Blanket.

But I kid! I kid! The book is really quite interesting and entertaining, and I mean that in a good way, even if, in their 2 pages on World War II, they neglected to mention the Holocaust. (I'm serious. They do bring it up in another section later on, but when I got to this section and found there was no mention of it, I almost choked on my own kidney, which abruptly got lodged in my throat.)

What this book is good for, truth be told, is getting six-year-olds interested in the way the world works, and expanding from this starting point with different books. This is, objectively speaking, a Good Thing. Used for this specific purpose, the Conversation Starters are excellent. Except for the one on the Iraq War, which would get you pelted with tiny soy pigs in a blanket by my kids.

ME: Insects might be tiny, but there are so many of them that ants and termites alone are believed by some scientists to account for as much as twenty percent of the world's combined mass of all creatures, known as the animal biomass.

THEM: Gross! How many insects are there in the world?

ME: Let's go look on the internet and find out!

THEM: Okay!


ME: The United States rained 'Shock and Awe" on Baghdad, Iraq, in March 2003. Was the attack 'preemptive,' defined in military usage as based on incontrovertible evidence of imminent attack? Or was it 'preventive,' based on possible future threats?

THEM: Neither one, Mom. "Shock and Awe" was an illegal attack on a country who did nothing to us and had no plans to harm us, resulting in the mass murder of millions of innocent Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, causing the country to disintegrate into Civil War, thereby creating the terrorist environment we claimed we were trying to prevent.

ME: Oh, right.

THEM: Hold still while we pelt you with these little hot dogs.

Oh, for Pete's sake. I've done nothing but make fun of this book, and honestly, shame on me. It's not bad AT ALL. In fact, it taught me several things I didn't know, such as the existence of the jerboa, a member of the rodent family that looks like a mouse/kangaroo blend with ginormous ears. The jerboa is well worth a Google search, because it is hands down awesome.

Plus, the whole section about astronomy is interesting. I know next to nothing about it, and, let's face it, am not smart enough to ever be able to understand it, so two pages per topic, distilling everything down to its simplest essence, is perfect.

So, I am a jerk who clearly has never forgiven Reader's Digest for butchering My Friend Flicka in their condensed books series my parents bought and put in the living room as bookshelf filler. Little did they know they'd raise a book maniac who actually devoured these books and got pissed later when it was revealed how much was left out. And now I cannot help but poking relentless fun at all things Reader's Digest, even when it is not deserved.

I did start a book that deserves a lot of abuse, The Chemist, written by a doctor dabbling in literature. I couldn't get past the prologue, because it was 100% torture porn, and I've had more than enough torture porn in American pop culture. Not to mention that it was made pointedly clear that the 3 murderers had faces as "dark as the night," and the murder victim had "long blonde hair." Look, I spent way too many years looking at interracial porn for my Honeysuckle customers, trying to find something that wasn't filmed for the express purpose for white men to jerk off to white women being sexually degraded by black men. The difficulty of finding egalitarian interracial sex scenes based on respect and fun - a problem that even temporarily stumped Nina Hartley, for god's sake - makes it impossible for me to find this anything but really, really racist. I know we just elected a black man to the highest office in the land, while that is a great leap forward, we just haven't shed our racial baggage to be able to accept this situation with no titillating sexually-based racially degrading subtext. Not to mention that the scene was written to have a titillating sexually-based racially degrading subtext that involves torturing a naked woman. To death.

Fuck this book, and fuck the guy who wrote it.

I will make it up to the writers of Know It All, who worked very hard to compile all that information and present it in a clear, easy-to-understand way, by recommending that you buy it as an elementary starting point for you and your kids to develop an interest in science (did I mention the end of each section has multiple choice quizzes? I have no intention of ever doing them, but if your kids are bored and you're desperate, well there you go), and to use the other book to balance an uneven table. Or, better yet, to refuse to have it in your home all together.


Know It All: The Little Book of Essential Knowledge
by Susan Aldridge, Elizabeth King Humphrey, and Julie Whitaker
October, 2008 by The Reader's Digest Association
Hardcover, 256pp
ISBN: 978-0-7621-0933-3

| StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!