Monday, March 03, 2014

Quote of the Day

"I sure wish the Winter Olympics were longer."  —any Ukrainian

Thursday, January 23, 2014


However bad winter is in Chicago, it seems like it's always worse in Northwest Indiana.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

December Wrap-Up/What's Next?

I wrote most of this on January 1st but never got around to posting it...

Unfinished business month was a great success. I didn't expect to read half of the unfinished books I started with, but that's what I did. Of the eleven, the best were You Never Give Me Your Money, Don't Believe It!, and The Ig Nobel Prizes. But then there were others that I had stopped reading previously for good reasons.

Overall, my approach to books in 2013 was interesting but stifling. By August, there were a lot of books I wanted to read but didn't because I wanted to stick to the monthly theme. I finished a total of 95 books in 2013. While that was much lower than 2012 (122 books), it was more than I expected and not far from my 2009 total of 101. Of course, it helped that I only had to read about two thirds of each book I finished in December.

I didn't keep track of how many books I acquired as in previous years, but I'm sure I came out far ahead in 2013. I think <gasp> my book buying binge days might be over. In early October I was surprised to realize I hadn't been in a bookstore for an entire month. Then I didn't go to a bookstore in all of December either, not even for Half Price Books' 20% off store-wide sale (seriously, during those sales I used to hit at least four locations).

I'm not sure what to do for 2014. I won't bother tracking finished versus acquired because I don't think that's an issue anymore. I had a few ideas for how to select what to read next, but I think I will simply read whatever I want and write about it here. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Rexy Johnsen 1999-2014

The Chicago Police Department lost one of its finest veterans on Thursday night. After many months of watching her condition slowly worsen, we put retired bomb sniffer Rexy to sleep a few weeks short of her 15th birthday.

Rexy had megaesophagus; basically, her throat didn't work properly. That made it difficult for her to swallow food and especially water. There isn't much that can be done other than taking great care in feeding and watering. For the last two months of her life, we gave Rexy most of her hydration through canned food and jello. We couldn't even let her outside when winter came because she would just eat snow until she regurgitated (fortunately she adapted well to using pee pads by the backdoor). As her condition deteriorated, she also began to have violent sneezing fits (caused by megaesophagus).

Aside from megaesophagus, Rexy was in decent shape for a dog her age. She was small for a labrador retriever, about 50 pounds, and she still had pretty good mobility. That made saying goodbye an especially difficult decision, but it was becoming clear she was enjoying life less and less. When she refused to eat deli slices of turkey on Thursday, we knew.

Rexy served about eight years for the CPD sniffing for bomb materials at O'Hare Airport. For some reason she didn't get along with her handler's new service dog, and that's how we ended up with her in October 2012. I had trouble relating to her at first. Perhaps due to her training, Rexy wasn't as demonstrative as a typical lab. I could only pet her for a short time before she would walk away (Moose, on the other hand, would never leave while being petted, and usually nudges me for more whenever I stop). Over the last few months, we got much closer as I took on more of her care. By the end, she often slept by my side of the bed.

Rexy was a somewhat dignified dog, but you wouldn't know it from this picture of her with a Yoplait yogurt container:

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Crap, Now I'll Never Get to Sleep Tonight

Ever since I was young, I've felt terribly uneasy about the distant future, especially end-times predictions. I'm not talking about religion so much as science. This fear and anxiety is irrational because there is no way I would be alive by then. Does that make it better because I won't have to endure it, or does that just drive home the realization of my ultimate demise long before those things happen?

Anyway, a graphic from the BBC lays out Earth's future as far as one hundred quintillion years from now. Something about seeing it on a timeline makes it so much worse than just reading a book about it. I shouldn't have read the timeline, but I couldn't not read it either. Now I'm an anxious mess. Goodnight, everybody. Sweet dreams!

Sunday, January 05, 2014

My New Bestie

Outside it's snowing and the temperature is dropping. Inside I'm watching playoff football and sipping Evan Williams Apple Orchard. Damn, that's smooth.

The Moose in Winter

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Bastard of the Day

I ordered a package from Phoenix, AZ that shipped via FedEx on December 26. I've been following its progress online, and it arrived in Chicago on December 30 at 3:38 PM. When that package left the Chicago facility on December 31 at 5:37 AM, I thought, "Oh boy, maybe it's out for delivery and I'll get it before 2014!" Alas, no package arrived so I resigned myself to waiting until January 2.

After checking outside the front door for my package today, I went to the FedEx website. My package arrived at 1:10 PM today... at FedEx SmartPost in New Berlin, WI. That's near Milwaukee. And now I have a projected delivery date... Monday, January 6! Those bastards had my package in Chicago—where I live—on December 30, and I'm not going to get it until a week later?

UPDATE 01/05/2013 - Okay, our awesome post office* delivered my package on Saturday instead of Monday as predicted by FedEx. That still doesn't let FedEx off the hook for bouncing my package around all week after having it so close to my home on December 30. Sometimes the transparency of online tracking doesn't reflect well on shipping companies. I would have been better off thinking my package was just moving really slowly across the country rather than knowing they doubled the shipping time by sending it away from me.

* I mean that sincerely. We have a great mail carrier who busts his ass to get the job done (as did his predecessor). Also I have a feeling the post office wanted to deliver everything they could on Saturday because Monday's high temperature is expected to be -10 degrees Fahrenheit (yes, I said high, and yes, that is negative—and that's without the wind chill!).

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research by Marc Abrahams

Here is yet another book I started reading to my wife years ago and mysteriously stopped after 85 pages. Since she doesn't read my blog anyway, I will blame her because this is a funny, interesting book that I should have read all the way through. Heck, I even bought the sequel this year although I hadn't finished the first book yet.

Officially, the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced." In practice, most winners have written unusual science papers about topics like how Prozac affects the sex drive of clams, why toast tends to land butter side down, or how to use magnets to levitate a frog. Others win for pseudoscience such as Jasmuheen, who claims people can live on light in lieu of food, and Deepak Chopra, who offers "a unique interpretation of quantum physics" in books like Quantum Healing. This book should especially appeal to science geeks, but it is written for a general audience.


Strange But True Chicago: Tales of the Windy City by Thomas J. O'Gorman and Lisa Montanarelli

When I moved to Chicago 19 years ago, I couldn't learn enough about the city. I bought and read two dozen books about neighborhoods, history, architecture, restaurants, and especially the characters that have made this such an interesting place. My enthusiasm faded over the years—I haven't even read The Devil in the White City yet, and that book came out almost 11 years ago.

I picked up Strange But True Chicago hoping it would rekindle my interest in reading about the city. The book is a collection of short anecdotes (ranging from a paragraph to a few pages) about Chicago history and characters. I started out reading aloud to my wife a few years ago but we only got through 90 pages. Judging by the last 160 pages, I don't know why we stopped because there isn't really anything wrong with this book. Except the chapter introductions—those are just redundant padding that spoils the stories that follow. It's an easy book to pick up and put down when time is limited, but it's okay to plow through as well.

Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses by R. Gary Patterson

This is a book I shouldn't have bothered to finish. Although I love to read about music, Take a Walk on the Dark Side is mostly horseshit. Maybe it's all a big joke written tongue-in-cheek. I suppose I should have expected as much from an author who wrote an entire book about the "Paul is dead" myth. I couldn't get into this book years ago (stopped at page 84), and I couldn't wait to get it over with when I picked it up again this month. The book is poorly organized, and Patterson throws in random, irrelevant garbage such as a tangent about supposed pornography in Disney animated movies. Every ridiculous anecdote he ever heard seems to merit inclusion here. It's like the guy has no bullshit filter or editor. Plus he mentions "the Ohio rock group Cheap Trick" when everyone knows they came from Rockford, Illinois. Ugh.


Who Let the Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known by Molly Ivins

I started reading Molly Ivins' political columns sometime around 2002 and quickly became a fan. Since she died in 2007, I have often wondered what she would say about current events. I can't think of another writer I miss more.

The reason for this book being among my unfinished business has nothing to do with Ivins. Many years ago, I designated this as a "trainer book", a book that I would read only while bicycling on the trainer in the basement. It's easier to just leave a book down there instead of taking down a different one each time, plus I figured wanting to read the book would encourage me to exercise. Alas, even a favorite writer wasn't enough to get my sorry ass on the trainer. The bookmark at page 162 of Who Let the Dogs In? slowly yellowed.

This November as the weather turned in Chicago, I found myself in an unlikely streak—I had exercised every day for two months. Determined to maintain that regardless of outdoor conditions, I cleared out a room in the basement to set up my trainer once again (there being no space in the exercise room since I added a barbell and two sandbags). Incidentally, my first day on the trainer was December 6, right at the start of unfinished business month. I read the last 200 pages over the course of eight bicycling sessions.

I love Ivins' perspective and way with language, so of course I enjoyed the remainder of Who Let the Dogs In?. This is a collection of articles previously published in magazines or newspapers, but they were new to me (according to an review, a few articles also appeared in her previous books). Some of the subject matter was dated back when I started reading the book and is much more so today. The columns range from the middle of Reagan's second term (when I was in high school) to Dubya's Iraq War.


The Resolution I Didn't Make

Lots of people make New Year's resolutions to lose a few pounds. I did not, although I began 2013 at my heaviest ever, dangerously close to the limit of our bathroom scale.

I lost 60 pounds this year.

And I didn't even start trying until the end of May. I could write all about how I did it, and I still may, but it's nothing you haven't heard before. If you ask my weight-loss "secret", I'll say it's being neurotic.* Just establish some new behaviors and then get neurotic about adhering to them. It's a way of putting a mental disorder to positive use.

This fall I added a compulsive exercise habit. The last day I didn't exercise was September 19.** I wouldn't say that's the key to my success, though. Richard Muller notes in Physics for Future Presidents that food is so energy-dense that eating less is much more important for weight loss than exercising (though exercise certainly has other benefits).

Even though I didn't make a New Year's resolution to lose weight, it became the defining theme of 2013 for me. Considering how well that turned out, I probably won't bother making resolutions for 2014.

About 17 years ago somebody told me I was neurotic. I didn't think I was. I copied the definition out of Webster's Dictionary (pre-Internet!) and put it in my pocket. Whenever I ran into a friend, I would ask if he or she thought I was neurotic. Then I'd show them the dictionary definition and ask again because the connotative and denotative meanings aren't necessarily the same. The best answer I got was from a woman who said that just by carrying the definition in my pocket and asking people about it showed that I was indeed neurotic.

** I have never been an "exercise every day" person, not even when I biked across the country or ran a marathon, so this is unprecedented. I made a halfhearted resolution to be more active this year after failing miserably in 2012, but I never thought it would lead to this.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Lowbrow Guide to World History by Michael Powell

I bought this years ago at Barnes & Noble. I started reading it aloud to my wife, but eventually it got buried under some clutter and I lost track of it. When I found it again, I didn't remember it being any good so I didn't start reading again.

Though not exactly a masterwork (and with such at title who would expect it to be?), it's better than I remembered. I tend to enjoy this sort of offbeat, humorous, historical stuff. But I see a danger in it, too: if one doesn't know the real history, it can be hard to tell when the author is joking or over-simplifying something.

Great moment: In a chapter titled "Milestones in the History of Breasts", Powell mentions the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at Super Bowl XXXVIII. This is funny because the chairman of the FCC at the time was also named Michael Powell.


Gastroanomalies: Questionable Culinary Creations from the Golden Age of American Cookery by James Lileks

I started reading this a few years ago. I think it was the night my grandmother died because I wanted something funny to avoid the obvious. I read 43 photo-filled pages and never got back to it. I buzzed through the remaining 133 pages in one afternoon last week.

Gastroanomalies bears some resemblance to The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan. The author shares photos from ads and cookbooks of the post-World War II era and makes snarky, often hilarious comments about them. I didn't even know what an aspic was until I read this book (and the only reason I had heard the word was because it's in the title of a King Crimson album).

I don't remember what I paid for this book except that it was a pretty steep discount (maybe $6.99?). The list price of $23.95, while appropriate for the print quality, is pretty high for someone of my generation. Perhaps someone older who made this stuff or grew up eating it would be willing to pay that much. Gastroanomalies was preceded by The Gallery of Regrettable Food, both of which were drawn from Lilek's website.