Monday, October 31, 2005

Lance Armstrong On SNL

Lance Armstrong hosted Saturday Night Live this weekend with musical guest (surprise, surprise) Sheryl Crow. I was impressed to see Lance take on a number of acting parts--some non-actors who host just play themselves. He was in a lot of sketches, too. Some of the SNL critics online are ripping on Lance, but I'd say he wasn't bad for an athlete. That's a big qualifier, though.

The monologue was okay--it could have been better but could have been much worse. The Q & A format isn't my favorite for a monologue, but it beats heck out of having the host sing something stupid (we'll get to that later). The disgruntled teammates asking why they can't co-host since cycling is a team sport were funny, but it's too bad the real George Hincapie didn't show up for a cameo, especially since he was born in Queens. Heck, they should have invited the whole Discovery Channel team; it's not like they have anything better to do at this time of the year. Patrick O'Grady at VeloNews.com had a better idea for an opening. In light of the Tour de France organization's dissing of Armstrong at the 2006 route unveiling last week, he suggested

In New York, meanwhile, a vengeful Armstrong reportedly was planning to deliver his SNL monologue in German, astride a scale model of the Maginot Line, while musical guest/fiancée Sheryl Crow covers the Randy Newman classic, "Political Science:"

No one likes us - I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens

Don't you think that would have been better than having a Frenchman ask Lance for his urine?

The celebrity triathlon sketch was really stupid, especially for anyone who knows anything about Lance (he was a star triathlete before he turned to cycling, and he still runs and races duathlons (with good results) in the off-season just for fun). Okay, it was a little funny to see him running like an idiot, just not realistic--he's not a one-dimensional athlete like some cyclists. But I liked his line, "They say you never forget how to ride a bike. Well, they don't say that about swimming."

The 80s music smoke alarm commercial was hilarious. The Indigo Girls with Sheryl sketch was screwy and annoying, not a good combination. Lance stumbled over his lines to make it worse. Of course I enjoyed the Bill O'Reilly parody. I just can't stand that guy, and this sketch highlighted most of the reasons (except I don't think he cut anyone's microphone in the sketch). Weekend Update was long. I liked the Chicago bit, especially Celozzi-Ettleson, but 95% of viewers were probably clueless. The parts with Harriet Miers drunk-dialing Bush and Mrs. Butterworth Bin Laden terrorizing New York were amusing, too.

The sketch with Lance singing for Sheryl was rather predictable, as in "I-expected-it-as-soon-as-I-heard-they-were-going-to-be-on-SNL-together" predictable. And painful. Or was it so awful that it was good? I don't know... Carol was another weak skit. Lance was alternately wooden and on the verge of cracking up. I don't know if he was laughing because he thought the skit was funny or just laughing at the absurdity of being a host trapped in a really lame sketch.

I was surprised to see Sheryl do a song ("Strong Enough") from her first album; usually performers push their new stuff on SNL. I thought Lance acted well in the last skit, but it wasn't all that good or funny. Plus it seemed to get cut off--what becomes of Lance's character? I guess they ran out of time because the farewell was very short, too.

Judging from the four SNL episodes I've seen from this season and last (the bar is much lower nowadays than it once was), it was a decent show. I must admit, however, that the most exciting thing I saw was a promo for a special about 1980s SNL on November 13. And next Saturday's episode of commercial parodies could be good, though it might be overkill after the first half hour.

I wish I had Sirius radio. I would like to have heard Lance talking with Bill Clinton on Armstrong Radio on Sunday. It was probably better than SNL.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

So Long, Harriet, We Hardly Knew Ya

But that was the problem, wasn't it? No one knew enough about Miers (aside from dear George knowing her heart) to have any idea what she would do on the court. She shrouded her resignation in the principle of maintaining the rights of the executive branch, but obviously she was just trying to bow out gracefully. She was losing ground, not gaining it, even with Republican senators like John Thune (SD) and Trent Lott (MS).

Now for his real nomination, Bush is said to be considering two federal appeals court judges with the sort of qualifications that a Supreme Court justice is expected to have, namely a record that is not hidden behind the walls of the executive branch. Both are men, and this is a political win for Bush because he can put a man (perhaps less likely to change course on abortion issues) up for the job but say, "Well, I tried to nominate a woman, but the Senate didn't like her" (remember Laura Bush's ridiculous claim that sexism was the reason Miers was facing opposition). There is still an outside chance for Priscilla Owen, and that alone should be enough to win support for the other judges from Democrats. It's hard to imagine a worse candidate than Owen (I know her heart, and it is black), and with the filibuster "deal," it would be difficult for the Democrats to fight someone they already confirmed for the appellate court.

Of the two supposed candidates, Judges Samuel Alito and J. Michael Luttig, it appears that Luttig might be the better choice for Democrats, though both have conservative philisophies. Of course, Alito has name recognition by similarity to one of America's most famous judges, Lance Ito, though I doubt that will come up in confirmation hearings.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

My Wife Keeps Me Around For Two Reasons...

Those are "spring ahead" and "fall back." Without me, my wife's watch would be perpetually set to one time or the other, accurate only half the year. The funniest thing about this is that when I lived at home, it was my job to set my mom's watch for Daylight Saving Time. I want to let the two of you in on a little secret... I just press buttons until I find the right ones to change the time. There's no science or logic to it.

With that revealed, I guess I'd better start packing my things...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Laying Low This Week

I won't be blogging much this week or next. On Monday I received my manuscript back from Trails Books with a zillion corrections from the copyeditor. It isn't as bad as it looks at first blush. The majority of the corrections (in red, naturally) are just minor stylistic changes. For example, I called a road "Illinois 84" but the copyeditor wants it to be "State Highway 84" the first time and "Highway 84" each additional time. There shouldn't be any periods in "AM" and "PM." The web in "web site" should be capitalized; it's in Webster's, but in the online world most of us don't capitalize it. Ampersands (&) are almost always forbidden. And I never paid much attention before to the difference between hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and mad dashes (in my simple world, there are hyphens and dashes, the latter being double-hyphens). Put them all together and you get an ugly sea of red. I did genuinely screw up a few things, particularly in places where I rushed to meet my deadline, but most of my "mistakes" were caused by not finding out exactly how they wanted words to appear. In retrospect, I should have coughed up $35 for The Chicago Manual of Style. Oh, well. I will get my revenge on the Biking Illinois web site where the only Manual of Style that matters is Dave's.

I have two weeks to review the manuscript and agree or argue about corrections. This is my last chance to add content, too. I also have 60 newly drawn maps to correct or approve. The maps look great compared to those in similar books. That is one area where Trails Books really stands head and shoulders above their competitors. The maps aren't perfect yet, though. The funniest blooper I've found so far has to be the way several blocks of Fulton got shifted into the Mississippi River. Of course, that probably wouldn't be as amusing to the folks who endured the flooding there in 1965.

UPDATE 11/06/2005 - It's worse than I thought. Not only should AM and PM be capitalized without periods, but they are supposed to be in small capital letters. Sheesh, I've never used small caps in my life (except as part of a diversified investment strategy, but I digress).

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Con Man In Chief

George McEvoy, a columnist for the Palm Beach Post, discusses President Bush's ability as a con artist. He begins by recalling the "Mission Accomplished" show on the USS Lincoln two years ago:
For a while, the most obvious con jobs worked for Bush the Younger. That landing on the aircraft carrier, with him squeezed into a flight suit, strutting across the deck in front of a huge sign reading "Mission Accomplished," was so blatant that, watching it on TV, I figured all those sailors and Marines would burst out laughing at any moment. But no, they must have been under orders to be cheerleaders for the head cheerleader. And the public fell for it all.
Then he moves on to Bush's phony video conference with soldiers in Iraq on October 13. Without even mentioning the video showing soldiers being coached beforehand by Pentagon official Allison Barber, McEvoy notes
What did them in was the language they used to answer questions. It obviously was scripted. When a captain from Idaho was asked whether the Iraqis wanted to fight and were capable of defending their homeland against the insurgents, he replied: "The Iraqi army and policy (sic) services, along with coalition support, have conducted many and mutiple (sic) exercises and rehearsals. It was impressive to me to see the cooperation and communication that took place among the Iraqi forces."
Then he moves in for the kill: "That's not the way soldiers, or any other group of Americans, talk. That's the way Pentagon or White House hacks write." Can anybody really be falling for this stuff?

"Politics Over Science?" At HermesNews.Net

My second story has been posted at HermesNews.Net. It is a slight rewrite of "She Blinded Me With Science," which I posted here two weeks ago. Executive summary: I took out the first person, added some links, tightened it up in some places, and fleshed it out in others. It isn't different enough to repost here, but IMHO it's written better than the original.

Quick natural gas update: I'm writing in my 58-degree office, as opposed to my 60-degree dining room. I'm afraid we're going to have to turn on the heat soon, before I get a chance to implement many of my energy-saving improvements. Is it bad when the dog's teeth are chattering?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

What Muppet Am I?

I don't normally go for these silly online quizzes, but when Jen Garrett said she was Kermit the Frog, it intrigued me. After all, I used to do a pretty good impression of Kermit. My brother's friends would knock on my bedroom window and plead, "Do Kermit, do Kermit!" I still can, but sometime after I graduated from high school it started making my throat hurt (figures--right around the time when Jim Henson died, I wasn't able to take his place), so now I try not to do it for long. Kermit appealed to me for two odd reasons--he was a reporter for Sesame Street News and he rode a bicycle in The Muppet Movie (remember "gone with the Schwinn?").

Anyway, I took the quiz, and although I was disappointed not to be Kermit, I think nowadays I'm closer to these guys anyway:

statler jpeg
You are Statler or Waldorf.
You have a high opinion of yourself, as do others.
But only because you are in the balcony seats.

ALSO KNOWN AS:
Those two old guys in the box.
SPECIAL TALENTS:
Heckling, complaining, being cantankerous

QUOTE:
"Get off the stage, you bum!"

LAST BOOKS READ:
"The Art of Insult" and "How To Insult Art"

NEVER LEAVE HOME WITHOUT:
Their pacemakers.

Friday, October 21, 2005

What About Impersonating An Officer?

So many minor celebrities fade away, never to be seen or heard from again unless they get in trouble with the law:
Victor Willis, the original policeman in the 1970s music group the Village People, was being sought after failing to show up Thursday for a sentencing in a drug case, authorities said. Willis, who co-wrote disco hits such as "Macho Man" and "In the Navy," was arrested in July after police found a gun and what was believed to be crack cocaine in his car after a traffic stop.
I'm surprised the police didn't just let him go. Professional courtesy, you know.

Natural Gas Blues, Part II: Boiler, Windows & Insulation

A commenter on the previous "Natural Gas Blues" post made some good suggestions. My reply got long, so I decided to make it a new post.

Although I'd love to replace the boiler and windows, I don't think we're ready to invest $20K+ in the house right now. Our boiler is old (1983), so I'm sure we could save gas with a new one. When I asked our HVAC contractor about replacing it last year, however, he told us that it's a good model in good condition. Maybe there's more money to be made keeping the old one going as opposed to selling me a new one? If the boiler fails, I will have to look into coupling it with an indirect-fired domestic water heater as the commenter suggested. For now, I will probably just add an insulating sleeve to the heater we have. I also installed aerators yesterday to decrease our hot water usage.

The previous owner had aluminum double-pane windows installed 10-12 years ago. I don't know what gas or coatings they might have, but at least they aren't ancient (house is 85 years old). To put in the latest and greatest, we would need to replace about 25 windows on the first and second floors, plus another 15 shorter ones in the basement, which is heated. Judging from what we spent to update ten windows that he inexplicably skipped (like I said before, I'd like to smack him), we could spend $15-25K on windows alone. Window treatments with insulating qualities would probably help a lot. We installed honeycomb shades (triple-cell) in two rooms a few years ago, and I'd like to buy more of those.

The only big investment I am looking at right now is insulation. I'm sure we are under-insulated, particularly in the attic. Unfortunately, we have a SpacePak air conditioning unit up there along with a silver tarantula of tubing. That may complicate matters; we'll have to hire professionals. Obviously we should have insulated before we got the SpacePak, but we didn't think of it. You would think our general contractor would have recommended it, but alas that project manager wasn't the brightest. At least I got him to add foam board insulation in the living room and sun room when they replaced the crumbling plaster with drywall.

To be continued...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Don't Stop The Heavin'

Here is my two-word review of Chicago's first World Series in more than four decades: Don't care.

I was born a Cubs fan. While I'm not one of those people whose favorite teams are the Cubs and whoever is playing the White Sox, South Side baseball means nothing to me. Whatever tiny bit of appeal it had disappeared when the wrecking ball brought down the old Comiskey Park. That place had some character, sort of like a gritty, seedy, rotting version of Wrigley Field. The new ballpark is devoid of character; even Bruce Springsteen couldn't give it any spirit (especially from my vantage point in the upper deck). The park's nickname since a corporate sponsor took over, "the Cell," just makes me think of prison, not a place I want to go (though I once visited Stateville in Joliet on a college field trip, coincidentally during the last season the Sox played at the old Comiskey).

But even worse than the generic, soulless venue is the team's latest choice of music. "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey? Yuck. Journey was one of my parents' favorite bands in the early 1980s. My parents generally had decent taste in music, but I couldn't stand Journey then and I can't stand them now. And to think that I was criticizing the Cubs for still using Van Halen's "Jump"--the Journey song is even older! How about "Don't Stop The Bleedin'?" If Steve Perry got cut onstage, that's what I would have said. Not that I would have been anywhere near a stage with Journey on it. I'm just kidding; I don't really wish any ill will on Perry personally, although I would quickly change my mind if he showed up at my house to perform an extended version of "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'"--even my dad faded that song out halfway through the interminable "na-nas" when he recorded the LP onto a cassette tape.

There is only one thing at all redeeming about the White Sox choosing this song. While most of us associate Journey with San Francisco ("my city by the Bay"), "Don't Stop Believin'" was written by Perry, Neal Schon, and Chicago native Jonathan Cain. Despite this connection with Chicago, however, the song still sucks. Thanks a lot, MTV.

UPDATE 10/21/2005 - Famous Chicago radio guy and Sox fan Steve Dahl agrees. But at least it isn't disco!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Natural Gas Blues, Part I: Tankless Water Heaters And Radiator Reflectors

Our natural gas bills have always been outrageous in this house, sometimes over $300 a month during the winter. And it isn't because I keep the place nice and toasty--daytime is usually 67 degrees F, going down to 63 degrees at night. With prices higher than ever in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this year I am getting serious about reducing our heating costs. Maybe it's time to finally put curtains over all those windows (my excuse: we just moved in... about 6-1/2 years ago), or at least cover them with plastic for the winter. I tried the plastic thing two years ago but only did one window (on the bright side, that window is still covered, though it looks a little worse for wear).

Our gas water heater is 11 years old and I'd like to replace it, maybe with a tankless unit. Considering that our current model uses only five therms less than the most wasteful model on the market in 1994 (an estimated 276 therms annually), I'm sure we'll be better off no matter what we buy. The previous owner made a lot of bad decisions with this house--if he wasn't dead, I'd probably go smack him upside the head at least once a month. Tankless systems are more expensive, but they last longer and use less gas, especially if we get one with an intermittent ignition device (like the spark ignition on our stove) instead of a constant pilot light

Most of our gas is used by the radiator heating system (hot water as opposed to steam). While perusing a government web site about conserving energy, I found this suggestion: "Place heat-resistant radiator reflectors between exterior walls and radiators." That makes a lot of sense, but of all the radiator-heated buildings I've been inside, I have never seen this. Even my in-laws, who are notoriously chea--I mean thrifty--don't do this. Intrigued, I googled "radiator reflector." Tossing out the obvious mismatches (i.e. car radiator stuff), I found some U.S. sites that reprint the government's suggestions verbatim but very few that elaborate on them. I found many more U.K. web sites, so I would guess this is more popular across the big pond.

Some sites tell how to make your own, and it's as easy as you might guess: tape aluminum foil over a piece of cardboard. The way I turn any home improvement project into a disaster, however, I'm afraid that my homemade reflectors would look cheesier than a 1950s science fiction movie. Although a few U.S. sites claim that hardware stores sell them, our local store right here in the heart of radiator-heated Chicago does not. Twelve pages into my Google results, I only found sources in the U.K. except for one in Canada. If I lived in Ontario, I could even get a rebate for installing radiator reflectors. With a stab in the dark, I googled "radiator reflector Illinois" and came up with a supplier in New Jersey. I don't get it. If these things are as great as everyone says they are, they should be selling them on every freaking street corner in Chicago.

P.S. While researching energy, I found Mr. Electricity, aka Michael Bluejay. Not only does this guy offer advice for saving electricity, but he's a safe cycling advocate, too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Extending The "Silent Birth" Concept

Today I was thinking about $cientology, and it didn’t even involve mean thoughts about Tom Cruise. With the adorable Katie Holmes, who once vowed chastity until marriage, carrying his demon spawn (oops, so much for being nice), there has been a lot of talk about “silent birth,” a recommended practice for $cientologists (church officials “say silent birth is practiced at the discretion of the parents and their doctor”). The idea is that birth is a traumatic experience for the baby (not that it’s any picnic for the mom), and being quiet during the birthing process is supposed to make it a little less so.

So why in the world was I thinking about this? Well, today we gave our dog Rosco a bath, and he did not look pleased (I was thrilled because in less than fifteen minutes I saved $40 that my wife would have spent on a groomer). Since getting a bath is clearly a traumatic experience for Rosco, I wonder if we should do it quietly. Could reassuring words like “it’s okay…you’re a good boy” actually do terrible harm to his fragile psyche? And will it cost us thousands of dollars in
$cientological “therapy” to repair the damage? I don’t know, but I’m going to trademark “silent bath” before Tom and Katie steal my idea.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bicycle Touring On Oregon's Coast

It was a pleasant surprise to see a bicycle touring article on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Travel section. Correspondent Tim Jones pedaled the 370-mile Oregon coast with his son, Andy. He writes about the beauty of the shore, its history, and what Oregon has done to accommodate cyclists, adding a lesson for all bicycle tourists:
As it was our first visit to Oregon, Andy and I asked lots of folks what we could expect from the terrain. Unfortunately we talked only to people who had driven the coast, not biked it. They told us it was a pleasant downhill ride, a pedaling piece of cake…
That is one of the cardinal rules of route planning for cyclists—don’t trust advice about hills from non-cyclists! Motorists go up hills every day without giving it a thought, unconsciously pressing a little harder on the gas pedal. Sometimes even cyclists are unreliable regarding roads they have only driven. But once you’ve ridden those highways on a bike, you won’t forget struggling to maintain 8 mph on a climb.

Jones also supports my style of touring:
Campgrounds are a plentiful and less expensive option, but why lug all that extra stuff around? No doubt there is a special place in heaven reserved for those who sleep under the stars, and it's probably a campground with pit toilets and people in the next site singing John Denver songs. But there is no shame in pulling into a motel, where prices start around $45 a night.
I sometimes feel a twinge of embarrassment when people ask, in the regard to my cross-country bike ride, “So, you probably camped along the way?” Camping is such a part of the touring ethos for many that I cannot answer that I stayed in motels without giving justification for doing what the vast majority of auto tourists do without a second thought. I like being dry, taking hot showers, being warm or cool depending on the season, having Internet access, watching The Weather Channel, ordering pizza for delivery, etc. I don’t like setting up a tent, cooking over a fire, taking down a tent, drying out everything (rain or dew), and carrying all that gear around, not to mention the time it takes when I could be writing, resting, or otherwise preparing for the next day.

Slowly I have come to feel more comfortable with my choice of accommodations, even if it disappoints the purists. The
legendary Ken Kifer loved to camp, so that was an important part of touring for him. I, on the other hand, got more than my fill in Boy Scouts. Bottom line: there are many ways to tour, and any way is fine as long as you are having fun.

High-Class Drunk

Early yesterday morning a 23-year-old man with a 0.24 percent blood alcohol content crashed into Water Tower Place on Chicago's Michigan Avenue:
He had turned north from Chicago Avenue onto Michigan Avenue in a 1999 Audi A6 Quattro about 3:18 a.m., [police spokeswoman Patrice] Harper said. The car knocked down a traffic signal pole and skidded, hitting trees and granite planters. It flipped on its right side and stopped at the door of Lord & Taylor at 835 N. Michigan Ave., Harper said.
This was a wild crash. Reading the article, one who doesn't know the area might think the driver simply misjudged the turn or took it too fast. But there is another intersection (Pearson Street) before Water Tower Place on northbound Michigan Avenue. The driver must have turned left onto Michigan, passed the old pumping station (companion to the more famous Water Tower, both survivors of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire) , and then veered right off Michigan in the middle of the intersection with Pearson. That's when he started damaging things and racking up a long list of infractions:
He was charged with driving under the influence, screeching tires, driving left of center, speeding, negligent driving, having no insurance, driving with an expired plate and damage to city property.
It is not clear from the article where the motorist was "driving left of center" since he ended up too far right of center. Perhaps it was while making the turn. In any case, the scene must have been a hot topic for Magnificent Mile shoppers on a beautiful autumn Sunday. Imagine surveying the damage and trying to figure out what happened--no bonus points for guessing that alcohol was involved. Here is a local news broadcast of the story that ends with that unsurprising fact.

Maybe there's something wrong with me, but if I had an expired plate and no insurance, I would be a little more careful about breaking traffic laws, and I sure wouldn't get buzzed to three times the legal limit before getting behind the wheel. Oddly enough, many people don't think that way. I don't have statistics, but I know from talking to police officers that a good number of DUI violators also have expired licenses, expired plates, and/or no insurance (not to mention those with suspended licenses, sometimes from prior DUI convictions).

At least this driver had the panache to finish his intoxicated journey in front of Lord & Taylor, which is more memorable and dignified than hitting a pawn shop or a liquor store. I doubt that will help him in court, though.

Friday, October 14, 2005

DJWriter Joins HermesNews.Net

A very observant visitor may have noticed a new addition to my blog roll a few days ago: HermesNews.Net (that's Hermes with an "m"). Today I can announce that I am now a contributing writer for the site. Nothing much will change here, except occasionally I will refer readers to stories I have written for the other site. I have promised them at least one story a week, which I can also post here.

What does this mean? First, it means I have to adjust to WordPress, a blogging tool that isn't WYSIWIG like Blogger is. I have done enough web sites that I am not afraid of HTML, but I'm not 100% comfortable with it, either. More importantly, this is an opportunity to gain wider readership and exposure for my writing. It is a no-lose situation for me--I will be contributing stuff that I would have written here anyway, I still own the rights to my work, and more people will get to read it. The HermesNews.Net editors would like to draw me into the instant messaging world, but for now I will resist (when asked if I had AIM, I replied "only toothpaste").

Co-Editor Seth Goldstein surprised me when I joined, though. He said I would get to choose my own topics, but two hours after I signed on, he gave me an assignment! Naturally, it was something I had not planned to write about here. The story he sent for comment was blogworthy, just not something I would normally address. Nonetheless, after turning it over in my head for a couple of hours, I came up with something to say about it. So while I intended my HermesNews.Net debut to be a reworking of my recent post about The Republican War On Science (maybe next week?), it turned out to be a commentary about the ethics of hospital and nursing home staff abandoning or euthanizing patients in New Orleans instead.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

iPod Video: I Just Don't Get It

I have to admit that Craig Ferguson took these words right out of my mouth last night, but why would anyone want to watch TV on a 2-1/2" screen? I am not a big screen or HDTV fanatic, but I just don't get it. Years ago I used to sell Casio LCD color TVs with 4-inch screens, and those were too small to be useful. Think of the great video moments of our time. Do you realize how tiny Janet Jackson's breast would be on a 2-1/2" screen? The whole country would have missed it, and the FCC would be poorer. They would have to fine Howard Stern again to make up for it.

I'm not saying that the new iPod won't be a hit, but you won't see me waiting in line for one. This is the real reason I left the information technology field--I have little use for gadgets like this that make my former co-workers drool. I don't even have an MP3 player, much less the fashionable iPod. Ditto for Palm Pilot and BlackBerry. I don't do chat or instant messaging either. I spend at least half of my day on this computer, and still I feel like a Luddite.

UPDATE 10/26/2005 - I'm not the only one who doesn't see the point of iPod video. David Coursey provides a list of "Six iPod Predictions and Comments" in response to this new product. Although he says some positive things as well, the iPod fanatics jump all over him as a heretic. More tempered commenters say that the video is just a bonus (the new iPod also has better sound and more memory) and shouldn't be critiqued so seriously.

Poseur Lessons

I got an e-mail survey today from the University of Illinois at Chicago's External Education program about their plans for a Business Communication Certificate. It focuses on all the things that go into being a corporate success, including presenting a certain image. It's wasted on me--if I wanted to play that game, I wouldn't have gone freelance. The survey lists a variety of courses, asking if the respondent would take them. I hope this class doesn't poll well:
TALKING ABOUT THE ARTS - Confidence when discussing a current film, art exhibit, or musical program builds your reputation as a person of broad interests and awareness, a major factor in career mobility. This course gives you a simple, interactive vocabulary and chronology to help you find your comfort level in the visual and performing arts.
Look, either you are into "the arts," or you are not. If you are, then you know how to talk about them because you really care. If not, just shut up. Discussing film, art, or music merely to make yourself look good is pathetically insincere.

A New Sport In Washington?

Rachel Neumann has an amusing thought about Bush's "trust me" defense of Harriet Miers:
Bush says it comes down to a matter of trust. On the one hand, he trusts her and I don't trust him as far as I could throw him (though I'd like to see how far I could throw him). On the other hand, Bush has notoriously bad judgement, so if he thinks she won't change, maybe she will.
I would like to challenge Ms. Neumann to a POTUS-tossing tournament!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Now Durbin Wants To Shut The Barn Door

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said yesterday that there should be a special windfall-profit tax on the oil companies because they are making boatloads of money thanks to rising oil prices. While it is true that the oil companies are profiting, Durbin's proposal is too late, not to mention utterly futile. Congress gave huge handouts to the oil companies as part of Bush's energy bill this summer. That was the time to be responsible, and our legislators blew it. Now that the oil company executives are bathing in taxpayer caviar, Durbin wants to get some of it back. Of course, the Republican majority that passed the energy bill in the first place won't support him anyway. Heck, this month the House passed a bill handing over even more money to the oilmen (albeit barely--two Republican representatives were strong-armed into changing their votes to make it 212-210). The cows are already gone, Mr. Durbin--there's no point in trying to close that door.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

When I Die...

I'd like to have an obituary like this:

Theodore Roosevelt Heller, 88, loving father of Charles (Joann) Heller; dear brother of the late Sonya (the late Jack) Steinberg. Ted was discharged from the U.S. Army during WWII due to service related injuries, and then forced his way back into the Illinois National Guard insisting no one tells him when to serve his country. Graveside services Tuesday 11 a.m. at Waldheim Jewish Cemetery (Ziditshover section), 1700 S. Harlem Ave., Chicago. In lieu of flowers, please send acerbic letters to Republicans. (Emphasis added, hat tip to Buzzflash via AlterNet Peek)
Send sympathy cards to my wife and my mother, and send those letters to my dad.

Monday, October 10, 2005

She Blinded Me With Science

The Republican War on Science is a new book by Chris Mooney that examines how science has become politicized. Most of us can name at least several examples off the top of our heads. In an excerpt paired with an insightful accompanying interview at AlterNet, Mooney talks about global warming and evolution/intelligent design. These are great examples because they involve the two bases that the GOP is trying to satisfy by rejecting the bulk of scientific evidence: big business and evangelicals. Industry claims that humans are not responsible for global warming while evangelicals believe intelligent design is right and evolution is wrong. Incidentally, these are two arguments that make the U.S. the laughing stock of the educated world. Everyone signed the Kyoto Treaty except us. Numerous overseas newspapers ran editorials in the wake of Katrina surmising that now the Bush administration would surely have to acknowledge global warming. Alas, they were applying science and logic to the American political system, and those things don't mix these days. Intelligent design is even more puzzling to me. Didn't we figure out this whole evolution thing a long, long time ago? Intelligent design is more of a spiritual concept than a scientific one, so how can one claim that science supports it?

Mooney discusses scientific consensus and wonders why reporters don't seem to give it any credence. They often try to "balance" science stories by treating both sides equally even though one is clearly more accepted than the other. By doing "he said she said" reporting, the writer gives readers the false impression that the topic is hotly debated among the scientific community, even when a scientific consensus is clear. Of course, to some extent these reporters have been pummeled into this approach by harsh criticism from whichever side feels their views are not being covered fairly (I have a lot of problems with "balance" in modern reporting, but that is a subject for another time).

According to Mooney, the demise of the Office of Technology Assessment and the shift away from government funding of science has led to more and more science being done or funded by people who have a vested interest in the results. University research has declined, leaving corporations and think tanks to do the work. This must please the Republican party's privatization fanatics. All the "controversy" about global warming has originated from scientists paid to reach a predetermined conclusion (if they don't reach that conclusion, the research "disappears" and the scientists lose their jobs).

This sort of thing has been going on in the "morality" and social science arenas for decades. Look at the statistics used by groups on both sides of the abortion and gun control issues. The result is that a person cannot possibly make an informed decision about which is side is "correct." One can make a moral or emotional judgement, but the facts have been twisted into uselessness. I once argued for gun ownership against a rabid anti-gun person (my dad would have been so proud!) just because his lack of critical thinking bothered me. He would trot out "FACTS" (in all capitals, no less) from Handgun Control, Inc. In turn, I could easily refute them with info from other equally biased sources. The difference was that I knew those sources were biased and said so, whereas he was convinced that his source was not. What I found most disturbing about our exchange, aside from his pigheadedness, was the absence of solid, unprejudiced information.

This is why the politicization of science matters. Social sciences are somewhat interpretive, but most of us view natural sciences as more factual (i.e., about finding an answer rather than merely formulating an opinion). Republicans (not all, but many) are trying to call accepted findings into question to satisfy their supporters regardless of strong evidence to the contrary. If the current trend continues, we will become the most ignorant society on earth, a nation so overwhelmed with politics that no one's facts are trusted.


Stem cell research is a prime example. Everywhere else in the world (and within most of the scientific community in the U.S.), scientists agree that adult stem cells have limitations and that embryonic stem cells must be studied. But certain Republican groups claim that adult stem cells are all we need. The reason behind this is not scientific consensus, but rather, it is because the "Christian" right has the mistaken idea that using embryos for research is equivalent to aborting fetuses (which I previously debunked). The average American might say, "Well, there is some debate about using embryonic stem cells because adult stem cells are just as good." A European who, because his government did not make it into a political issue, accepts the value of embryonic stem cell research as common knowledge would be utterly shocked to hear this. I realize that there are moral elements to this debate, but minority-viewpoint, politicized "science" is also being used to argue the issue.

Indeed, Mooney's quarrel with Republicans is not about their opposition to scientific issues so much as the way they claim science is on their side when it is not. It is quite acceptable to say, "We oppose this on moral grounds," but instead they make up science that "proves" them right. Even worse, they claim that the other side, i.e. the scientific consensus backed up by years of research, is completely wrong. The stakes are higher than just making us look stupid, though. When America's best and brightest are recruited to validate or invalidate these ideas that were pretty much proven long ago, they are being diverted from the important, groundbreaking research that can truly benefit mankind.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

What Does Harriet Miers Know?

President Bush threw the Senate a curveball last week. He looked at the long list of qualified candidates for the Supreme Court, and then he made it into a paper airplane and flew it out the Oval Office window. White House Counsel Harriet Miers picked it up off the lawn on her way into work. When she stopped by Bush's office to ask the boss if maybe he needed the list, he told her she was his choice for the nation's highest court. Just imagine if Barney, his Scottish terrier, had fetched it!

Everyone is talking about the obvious cronyism in this selection, even some Republicans. It is bad timing on Bush's part, considering the mess that political crony Michael Brown made of FEMA's Katrina response. The best comment I saw was from Steve Chapman, who said that this selection shows that the best bet to replace Alan Greenspan in January is the acccountant who does Bush's taxes.

As most people now know, Miers has never been a judge. In that respect, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is much more qualified, but the fundamentalist right would never support him because they want a strong anti-abortionist. However illogical it sounds, though, judicial experience is not essential for the Supreme Court, just as proven leadership ability is not a prerequisite for the presidency (a string of failed businesses and a figurehead governorship do not count). Still, the evangelicals are concerned that Miers hasn't demonstrated sufficient fealty to the anti-abortion cause. Maybe she should blow up a clinic or two; that would surely please them. Bush has tried to assure his "Christian" pals that there is nothing to worry about. In an encore to his dimwitted remark about Vladimir Putin, Bush said, "I know her heart. Her philosophy won't change." That's the silliest thing I've heard since I learned that Nancy Reagan used a psychic to schedule her husband's appointments, but in Bush's mind, that should be enough to satisfy his holy backers. Too bad Bush didn't know Miers' heart in 1988 when she gave money to Al Gore's presidential campaign. See, sometimes people do change philosophies. We can only hope she returns from the dark side when she dons that black robe.

The experience that Miers does have is more troubling. She has been the consummate corporate lawyer, defender of the powerful. That gives us faint hope that she will ever take the side of the "little people" on the bench. If a case challenging Bush's idea of "tort reform" (suppressing lawsuits from consumers, patients, etc. to "protect" corporations) ever comes to the Supreme Court, she will be there to affirm its constitutionality. And as a White House insider, she probably will defend and uphold the administration's controversial legal positions, such as those condoning torture. Unfortunately, Bush would not nominate anyone who doesn't wholly embrace his skewed legal philosophy, so criticism along these lines is irrelevant.

Most of us progressives were astounded to hear that Miers called Bush the most brilliant man she had ever met. Her poor judgement of intellect could be forgiven--she clearly bet on the right horse years ago in Texas and feels compeled to lavish praise as she rides that pony to the top. Plus her contrarian viewpoint was good for a guffaw or two. Whether she was being sincere or patronizing, I'm sure Ms. Miers will change her statement soon: I am inviting her to have lunch with me. Give me a call, Harriet!


What troubles me most about this nomination is not the cronyism rampant in this administration, nor is it Miers' lack of judicial experience. It is not her background as a corporate defender or her ridiculous praise of Bush's diabolical mind. The biggest question for me is, what does Miers know? When he ran for governor of Texas, Bush hired Miers to investigate his past to determine whether anything would cause him trouble in his political career. If he has anything to hide, she knows exactly where the bodies are buried. In fact, given Bush's previous bouts with the bottle, Miers probably has more knowledge of his past than he himself can recall. As a White House insider, Miers also knows exactly what lines Bush has crossed from a legal standpoint. And just to toss a bone to conspiracy theorists, Miers was accompanying Bush in Florida as staff secretary on September 11, 2001. With this nomination, Bush has bought Miers' eternal loyalty. Whatever she has in her head, she will carry it to the grave. She will not write a tell-all book after Bush leaves office. She won't sit down with Barbara Walters to explain how she worked around the legal system to further the administration's pernicious objectives. Plus, I'm sure her presence will come in handy when the inevitable criminal cases against administration officials begin.

What can the Democrats do about it? Alas, nothing. I am in the camp with those who grudgingly accept that anyone else Bush could pick would be worse. Someone with a heinous record a la Priscilla Owen (talk about judicial activism!) is undoubtedly a more dangerous choice than Miers, who at least has a remote chance of occasionally taking a moderate position. Scalia and Thomas are Bush's favorite justices, and if we do not accept Miers, Bush may nominate one of their proteges instead. The Katrina fiasco may tempt some Democrats to try to ride the wave of Bush opposition and fight Miers, but I think their limited leverage could be better used elsewhere.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Cycling Record I Never Knew Existed

Cyclingnews.com reports: Dutch rider to attempt hour record...without saddle:

In the Masochistic Cycling Feats Dept., news has filtered through to us that a 50 year-old Dutchman will attempt to break the World Hour Record for riding without a saddle (or a seatpost). Maas van Beek, a former tandem pilot of Jan Mulder, will attempt to better the mark of 45.848 km set by none other than Fausto Coppi on the track in Alkmaar, The Netherlands, on Saturday, October 8. He's doing it for a good cause: to raise money for the Polar van de Donck foundation, which helps children in Africa who have AIDS.
Record-holder Fausto Coppi was an incredible rider, the Lance Armstrong of his day. He won the Tour de France twice and the Giro d'Italia five times. Had his career not been interrupted by World War II, he surely would have won more. I am glad to hear this rider won't be using a seatpost--I knew a kid who rode without a saddle, jumped a dirt hill, slipped off his platform pedals and fell on the seatpost when he landed. Not pretty, though it was a very convincing argument for clipless pedals (except that they did not exist at that time, circa 1982).

As a rather large rider myself, I cannot imagine "dancing on the pedals" as Phil Liggett calls it for an entire hour.

Van Beek has been averaging 43 km/h during training, and says that it's quite possible to hold a position out of the saddle for three hours, provided the muscles are used to it. He'll be using a bike with a massive 68 x 11 gear and 205 mm cranks, but no particular aerodynamic equipment.
There is more information at www.goedkoopsteskelter.nl/recordpoging.htm, and you have to see the photos of this man. He has huge arms for a cyclist (although the photo at the top looks misleadingly stretched). Too bad Google can't translate Dutch. Good luck, Maas!

UPDATE 10/09/2005 - Unfortunately, cyclingnews.com reports that Maas van Beek failed in his record attempt, covering "only" 42.1036 km.

U2 Appearing On Conan O'Brien Tonight

The band U2 will be on Late Night with Conan O'Brien for the entire hour tonight. If I were Conan, I would ask Bono, "So, did you ever find whatever the hell it was you were looking for?"

Man, I hate that song. The Joshua Tree was pretty much the end of U2 for me (listening to "With Or Without You" is downright painful), although there were some redeeming songs on Rattle and Hum, particularly "When Love Comes To Town."

I will probably be watching The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson instead, regardless of who he has on (by the way, it's Henry Winkler, Aron Ralston, and Julie Gribble). Ferguson's monologues, or "opening statements" as his web site calls them, are simply brilliant (or "f***ing brilliant," as Bono would say). He is the best thing to come out of Scotland since single malt whisky.

Local Phishing

As all Internet users ought to know by now, phishing is an e-mail tactic used by identity thieves to get people to reveal sensitive information. You get an e-mail purporting to be from a bank, Internet service provider, online auction site, etc. that asks you to update your acount, confirm your credit card info, enter your password, etc. The e-mail says to click on a link, but that link does not take you to the actual company's web site--it takes you to a bogus site set up by the phishermen* casting for your personal information (I should note that there are a few more devious phishing techniques that use scripts from company sites to give the impression of legitimacy). Companies that need this sort of information should never request it by e-mail because they know all about phishing. It has been such a problem for EarthLink that they have a place on their support page where users can enter URLs to verify whether they are truly associated with EarthLink (they often have derivative names such as www.earthlink-support.net or www.earthlinkinc.net).

I have received dozens if not hundreds of phishing messages. Most are easy to spot--I don't have an account with that particular bank, or I get an eBay confirmation message at an e-mail address that I have never given to eBay. Also, many phishing messages contain poor spelling and grammar. The majority of messages target account holders in big companies like Bank of America, U.S. Bank, PayPal, America Online, EarthLink, eBay, etc. Today I was surprised to see a message from Harris Bank, which is located in the greater Chicago area except for some ATMs downstate and a few snowbird/retiree branches in Arizona and Florida. As a relatively small player in banking, Harris is an unlikely target. Since my ISP is national, I wonder whether my e-mail address was harvested from a list that tied it to a specific location. That would be a rare degree of sophistication for phishing, and perhaps it catches people offguard. Of course, I didn't fall for it--I have never had a Harris Bank account!

* I made up that word--they are actually calls phishers, not phishermen.

New Homework Excuse

"The dog ate my homework."

Yeah, right.

"The Secret Service confiscated my homework."

For real:

[Teacher Selena] Jarvis had assigned her senior civics and economics class “to take photographs to illustrate their rights in the Bill of Rights,” she says. One student “had taken a photo of George Bush out of a magazine and tacked the picture to a wall with a red thumb tack through his head. Then he made a thumb’s down sign with his own hand next to the President’s picture, and he had a photo taken of that, and he pasted it on a poster.”
According to Jarvis, this poster satisfied the requirements of the assignment by illustrating the right to dissent. Alas, Jarvis was confusing 2005 with an earlier time--before 9/11, before the reign of Bush the Second. An employee in the Wal-Mart photo department (why am I not surprised?) where the photo was developed took the initiative to call the local police who in turn passed the hot tip about the nefarious high school student to the Secret Service.

On Tuesday, September 20, the Secret Service came to Currituck High.“At 1:35, the student came to me and told me that the Secret Service had taken his poster,” Jarvis says. “I didn’t believe him at first. But they had come into my room when I wasn’t there and had taken his poster, which was in a stack with all the others.”
Of course this scared the heck out of the kid. The Secret Service interrogated Jarvis about the poster:

“They asked me, didn’t I think that it was suspicious,” she recalls. “I said no, it was a Bill of Rights project!”
Naturally, no one at Wally World will take responsibility for this. Someone in the photo department actually said to call the home office, as if Wal-Mart's CEO had made the decision to rat on this Future Terrorist of America. At least the student was not indicted in the end. Still, events like this help to snuff out opposition to the ruling party. Those kids will think twice before they dare exercise their rights, for who knows who may be watching?

(For anyone who refuses to trust a web site with "progressive" in its name, here's a different story with less detail.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Pro Cycling: Thoughts On Moreno And The ProTour

Gregorio Moreno recently lost the election for president of the UCI, the international governing body for bicycle racing. I could not believe my eyes when I read what he told the Spanish newspaper AS about the ProTour and particularly its first champion, Danilo Di Luca:

"For example, I would create specialty classifications: the best of the Grand Tours, the best of the classics... That would be better than to mix them all, because the result is that Di Luca, the first winner [of the ProTour] hasn't raced the Tour."
Is Moreno really saying he believes the season-long champion has to ride in one particular race, the Tour de France, to deserve the title? The Tour is already the 800-pound gorilla of the race calendar, and the ProTour points are weighted in its favor over the other Grand Tours. Isn't that enough for Moreno? I find this particularly amusing coming from a Spaniard because it sounds like the sort of thing many Americans--people who know nothing of pro cycling beyond the Tour de France--would say: "Dude, Lance should be the ProTour champ because he won the Tour!" Someone in Europe, especially someone so involved in the sport as to be running for a leadership position, should have a broader view of the sport.

Winning a championship that is decided over the course of eight months requires consistency and stamina. An ideal champion would show strength in both one-day and stage races, which Di Luca has done. In fact, while most riders who excel in the classics (Di Luca won two this year) ride the Grand Tours in search of only stage wins and perhaps the sprinter's jersey, Di Luca took a shot at the general classification of the Giro d'Italia and finished fourth. (My only problem with Danilo Di Luca is the momentary confusion when my wife mentions her Dean & Deluca catalog.) The ProTour may have some problems, but having a winner who did not ride in the Tour de France is not one of them. I am so relieved that Gregorio Moreno lost the election for UCI president!

Of course, the ProTour, which is completing its first season as the top level of bike racing, has some issues that must be debated and resolved over the winter. Some racers have complained that there are too many required races, which stretches the team thin and exhausts the riders before the season is over. Race organizers wish their were fewer teams in the ProTour because they only get to invite one or two wildcard teams to a race, inevitably excluding some teams popular with the local fans. On the other hand, races that are not on the ProTour schedule could have trouble attracting top teams, though that has been less of a problem than I expected (sponsors still want visibility in their target markets, and riders still need racing to prepare for the ProTour events). The people who run the Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana) are threatening to not even participate in the ProTour in 2006. In a worst case scenario, I fear that pro cycling could split the way Indy car racing did years ago when the Indy Racing League began competing with CART.

My complaint about the ProTour is that by setting up an elite league, the UCI has created the sort of environment where the rich teams get richer and the poor stay poor. In the days of Division I, II, and III, it was easier for a team at the top of a lower division to move up the next year. Now most of the ProTour teams have multi-year licenses, making it very hard to break in. Even if there was some upward mobility, any team that isn't in the ProTour has trouble attracting the talented riders that could elevate the team's status because they cannot gain entry into the most important races on the calendar. Signing with a "Continental" team (the level below ProTour) means a rider probably won't get to ride in more than a handful of the 27 biggest races that are mandatory for ProTour teams. Anyone who thinks he can win at the top level would have a hard time giving up that opportunity. It will be interesting to see what happens to the three teams vying for the one ProTour license available. Two of the teams have signed some big names to improve their chances. I wonder if those riders negotiated escape clauses in their contracts in case their team fails to make it into the ProTour. This should be an interesting winter...

UPDATE 10/07/2005 - My letter to cyclingnews.com ("Thank goodness Moreno lost") got published.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Mr. Bill Saves The Coastal Wetlands

The legendary Saturday Night Live clay hero (or more often, victim) Mr. Bill is part of a program to draw attention to the crisis of the disappearing wetlands in Louisiana. Of course that is all too obvious in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but this project for American's Wetland Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana began in 2004. Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams made nine additional clay figures representing the threatened biodiversity of the region and named them "the Estuarians."

Williams does more than play with clay. The filmmaker also has produced a great interactive DVD called "New Orleans - The Natural History." You can watch a low quality, 45-minute streaming video online. If you haven't learned a lot about the history and ecology of NOLA already in the past month, I highly recommend this fascinating program, even though Mr. Bill isn't in it.

Last month Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu gave a nod to Mr. Bill in her
criticism of the government's response to Katrina:
"We know the president said, quote, 'I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,' " Ms. Landrieu said. "Everybody anticipated the breach of the levee, Mr. President, including computer simulations in which this administration participated."

The senator went on to describe how the creator of Mr. Bill, the clay figurine whose cry of "Ohh noooo!" was long a staple of "Saturday Night Live," had used the character in public service announcements to warn southern Louisianians of the dangers they would face in an extraordinary storm.

"How can it be," she asked, "that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?"
Come to think of it, there's a new nickname for our commander in chief: President Sluggo!

Live From New York

I picked up Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live for only $5.99 in the bargain section a few months ago. After I finished writing my own book last month, I finally had time to read it. I have always been interested in Saturday Night Live as a social phenomenon as well as for its entertainment value, which has varied widely over the years. During SNL's classic early years in the late 1970s I was too young to be allowed to watch it, which only made it more intriguing. By the time I was in high school (late 1980s), SNL was the one weekend event sure to be discussed in the hallways on Monday morning. My Spanish teacher was an SNL fanatic, and he used to blurt out hilarious lines from characters like "Ed Grimley." In my second job out of college (circa 1994), we often quoted SNL characters such as Phil Hartman's "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer." Soon after I lost interest in television altogether. But enough about me...

I thought I would only be interested in the years when SNL was a part of my life, but I enjoyed the entire book. It is written in an oral history style using extensive quotes from cast members, executives, hosts, writers, and others involved directly with the show. The words from authors Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (Miller is incorporated as Jimmy the Writer, which makes me feel that my own company name isn't quite so lame after all) are more like those of a narrator in a play, limited to providing background and transitions. The only problem I had with this format was keeping all the names straight, particularly for the early years. Aside from that, it worked well and moved along quickly. My only quibble with the organization of the book was the last chapter. After chapters for each "era" of the program, the last section was simply "Lorne," a disjointed, chronologically scrambled character sketch of SNL originator and producer Lorne Michaels. The end matter includes a list of cast members by year, but I wish they had included a list of hosts and musical guests (Wikipedia has one).

Live From New York is fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at how the show is put together. Surprisingly little has changed in the weekly routine. The legendary Tuesday up-all-night writing marathons were probably a lot easier when almost everybody was doing drugs. More recent cast members like Janeane Garafalo have criticized the outdated, stressful schedule. She comes across negatively in the book, as does Chevy Chase. Chase was the first big star to outgrow SNL, but he became increasingly hard to work with each time he returned to host. There are enlightening nuggets to be found throughout the book. First person accounts give insight into controversies such as the Sinead O'Connor incident. Julia Sweeney explains how her androgynous "Pat" character developed because of her inability to be convincingly masculine in drag. Cast members talk about the deaths of many associated with the show, including Chris Farley, who idolized John Belushi. Regarding Belushi, there is harsh criticism of Bob Woodward's biography, Wired.

Ultimately, this book should have been longer. I would have liked to read more about some of the popular characters portrayed in the show. The jacket claims that "they're all here," but I suppose that was better copy than the more accurate, "They're mostly here but barely." As someone who wore a "Mr. Bill" T-shirt in his youth, I was crushed to see his name appear only twice in the whole book. Incredibly, Don Novello is quoted in the book but his "Father Guido Sarducci" is nowhere to be found. Adam Sandler's "Opera Man" is never mentioned, and "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" is only named once (oddly as "Frozen Caveman Lawyer"). Many of my favorite moments were omitted, too, such as the episode where the Church Lady disciplined host Rob Lowe. And there was very little about Dennis Miller anchoring "Weekend Update" although he did it longer than anyone else. I suppose everyone has his or her own favorite sketches and characters, so maybe it was considered impractical to get into anything beyond the most famous or controversial ones.

Live From New York left me begging for more, and its format hints that there are lots of snippets from interviews that didn't make the final cut. It is a good introduction to the madness behind the scenes of this program. Now I really understand how much preparation goes into pulling off the 90-minute show every week, and why everyone in the cast looks so tired and "glad it's over" as they hug and wave goodbye at the end.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Saturday Night Live's New Season

Every year I am amazed that Saturday Night Live returns. Last week was a rerun of what many called the best show of last season, the episode with Will Ferrell. We watched only because I had just finished reading Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. We both thought the show was pretty lousy. The only redeeming segment was the commercial for Para Tri-Cyclen, birth control for women who sleep around (it was funnier than it sounds). The rest was labored, and it just reminded me why the Ferrell years never appealed to me.

Like so many perennially disappointed SNL viewers, I decided to give them another chance with the new season. Being an SNL fan is like being a Chicago Cubs fan (I used to be both, but I haven't paid much attention to either since the early 1990s). The verdict? At least it was better than the Will Ferrell episode. The opening press conference was okay, but I was disturbed to see so many cast members introduced at the beginning--the show was so much better with fewer players (granted, Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph have limited roles at the moment due to past/current pregnancy). The monologue featured a song, and I hate it when the host sings. Nine times out of ten this type of monologue is lame, and tonight was no exception.

There were a few entertaining sketches, though. One had Amy Poehler on the JetBlue plane that recently made a dramatic emergency landing watching live CNN coverage of the drama. I liked the over-the-top graphic simulation that showed the jet bursting into flames repeatedly. The Robert Smigel cartoon showing John Roberts obfuscating throughout his personal life (beyond the Senate hearings) was funny. The sketch near the end with Debbie Downer meeting her ideal mate at a wedding was entertaining, as was the sketch with the fighting Needlers (a skit only a married person could truly understand).

I was anxious to see Kanye West, not because I thought he would say anything controversial, but because I have been living under a rock and never heard his music despite living in Chicago. I was impressed--it was definitely not your run-of-the-mill hip-hop, and I can appreciate artists who push the boundaries. West was backed by a large string section comprised of women dressed in black with red rectangles around their eyes. They reminded me a little of the women from Robert Palmer's 1980s videos.

The rest was forgettable, sometimes regrettable, particularly the "Girls Gone Wild Katrina" commercial--that not-so-funny joke was already worn out about a week after the flood. Weekend Update was weak, even worse without Tina Fey than it was last year. Sorry, I was a big fan of the Dennis Miller era when Update had some teeth.

Okay, I promise I won't post a review of SNL every week. I should write about Live From New York instead since the book was much more interesting than the show has been in years.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Commentary on My Goodness And Goodness In General

These thoughts don't really fit within the constraints of a book review, so I am creating a separate entry. Joe Queenan brings up some interesting issues about charity in his book, My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search For Sainthood. I apologize up front for not really having a unifying theme or conclusion to this post--here are some scattered thoughts...

First, I have to scold Queenan's idea of giving tiny amounts to charities as a way of spreading the wealth. Discounting the possibility that he was only doing it to be funny, this is probably the worst way to give. In my experience, if you send $5 to a charity, they will spend far more than that on fundraising efforts with the hope that you will add a zero or two to your initial donation. Besides, why would you spend 37 cents plus the cost of an envelope to send anybody a mere dollar? That is just too inefficient.

Queenan raises questions about "goodness" as an investment objective. There are mutual funds that invest solely in sociopolitically correct businesses, but many of these funds are under-performers. Instead, you can make more money on less ethical companies, and then you can turn around and donate that extra cash to charities. Think of the irony of using profits from Exxon to fund Greenpeace. Not to keep flogging that dead horse, but this dovetails into a criticism of the Tribune's Farm Aid story at the Charity Governance blog. The story chided Farm Aid for investing its endowment in blue chip stocks whose business practices arguably hurt farmers (the entire premise is shaky because, for example, the same banks that foreclose on family farmers also lend money to keep others afloat). Charity Governance noted that the objective of most endowments, however, is prudence rather than activism. Just as investing in socially conscious mutual funds may not be the best way to build wealth for your child's education, investing in biodiesel and organics may not be the best way to maintain and grow an endowment.

What about conglomerates? Do you refuse to invest in a company or buy a product because one subsidiary pollutes, sells tobacco, tests on animals, etc.? What if other subsidiaries are respected for social awareness? Few large, multinational corporations are all good or all evil, especially since many of their subsidiaries get sold back and forth over the years. Even within a small company there can be conflicts. Perhaps one company pays living wages, but their factory pollutes. Maybe their competitor has a high percentage of women in management, but they test on animals. Which product do you buy, assuming there are no perfect options? How do you judge whether one type of "goodness" is better than another? Queenan makes a good point about the difficulty of reconciling these things.

Of course, most people do not go to the ridiculous extremes that Queenan does in his book. It is impossible to support every cause and to make every decision in life based on those causes. We all make choices, though some charities may try to make us feel guilty for doing so. If I send money to the Humane Society but not to the Disabled American Veterans, does that mean I don't appreciate the sacrifices made by our veterans? If I do a bicycle ride for Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer but not a walk for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, does that mean I am pro-children but anti-women? Of course not. And yet, the way charities trade mailing lists, one quickly becomes overwhelmed by the avalanche of solicitations from worthy causes with outstretched palms. Give to the ASPCA, and NAVS will ask for your support. Give to Children's Memorial Hospital, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital figures you are an easy mark. Send a few bucks to Boys Town and then NAMBLA will come calling... Okay, maybe not*. Anyway, I guess I can see how this deluge might tempt someone to actually send a buck to every group just to cover his/her bases. To do otherwise is tempting fate. Imagine the cruel irony of having tossed out that March of Dimes solicitation, then having a child with birth defects.

Today's hyperconsciousness can breed guilt and self-loathing. I know that feedlots pollute, but I still eat burgers. I'll eat a cheeseburger for dinner and hate myself because it's my fault Greeley, Colorado stinks. I know that Ben & Jerry want to save the world, but I prefer the ice cream flavors offered by Edy's and Breyers. I'll have some Breyers cherry vanilla ice cream for dessert and lament that I'm not doing a darn thing for the rain forest. And of course, there are millions of people who won't get any dinner tonight, much less a burger and ice cream. I suppose this guilt or self-loathing is the liberal's burden; I cannot imagine Dick Cheney worrying about such things as he clogs his arteries.

* Yes, I know that Father Flanagan's organization has evolved into Girls and Boys Town, but that didn't work with my tasteless joke.

My Goodness Runs Out Of Steam

Since I troll the bargain bins for much of my reading material, my book reviews are admittedly not often timely. On the bright side, if the book is lousy I can take solace in the fact that I didn't pay full price (I might break even selling it to the local used book store). I recently finished Joe Queenan's My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search For Sainthood, which was published in 2000. The book appealed to me because I am just a bit cynical myself (nah!), plus it promised to be entertaining after a quick sampling in the book store.

Queenan gets off to a good start as long as you can play along with his misguided premise that celebrity is a prerequisite for sainthood. With that guideline, Queenan seeks to become Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Sting, and Jackson Browne all wrapped up in one. He buys into the whole "perform random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty" thing, which I have always found ridiculous. The only person I ever met who espoused this was in fact not kind at all, despite her self-image (or maybe she just hated me). Queenan changes overnight to an organic, vegan diet. He listens only to socially conscious music and watches a slew of bad movies because they feature activist actors. He also sets out to right some of the wrongs of his career as a cynical writer with reams of apologetic letters. Doing all of this at once is a tall order, so inevitably there are problems along the way.

There is plenty of humorous writing here as Queenan strives to become a do-gooder. I could identify with his quest for a rare CD, which he undertook for a stranger. His "dolci for dissidents" program to deliver Italian sweets to the protesters camped out in Lafayette Park across from the White House was a great idea, even though it didn't work out according to plan. Though I was a little annoyed about his attendance of a rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal, all was forgiven when he confessed that he didn't really believe Abu-Jamal was innocent anyway.

The book itself unravels coincidentally around the time that Queenan finds his new lifestyle wearing thin. He includes a few exchanges of letters that are too long and not all that funny, and that is the beginning of the end. Then he figures out how much income he is giving up since all of his former clients (GQ, Movieline, et al.) want him to be mean, sarcastic, and cynical. Being nice just doesn't pay. At least there is a good moral to the story, eh?

The beauty of My Goodness is the way Queenan employs imitation as the most insincere form of flattery. Even when he tries, he still can't be entirely nice. I might have enjoyed it even more if I knew his other work, but that isn't a prerequisite. If you enjoy sarcastic writing with lots of pop culture references, My Goodness is worth picking up on the bargain table. Just don't be surprised when this "quick read" bogs down in later chapters. It's okay to skim the long letters--you're not missing much.

Note: I have posted additional comments beyond the scope of this book review here.