Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bike Shop Joins Anti-Wal-Mart Crowd

Cheap department store bicycles have been a thorn in the side of bike shop owners and mechanics for decades. First the shops lose out on sales, and potential customers don't understand why their bikes are "so expensive" when Wal-Mart has bikes that cost a third as much. When the cheap bikes inevitably break, the purchasers get mad at bike shop mechanics who can't fix them (of course, department stores don't do any repairs).

Unfortunately, many buyers of cheap bikes like those sold at Wal-Mart just get frustrated and stop riding altogether. And although I have no statistics to prove it, I would guess that a good number of cyclists are injured when their cheap bikes choose to break at the most inopportune moments.

Mike McGettigan, owner of Trophy Bikes in Philadelphia, calls Wal-Mart bikes "bike-shaped objects." He explains, "One of the biggest threats I see in everyday biking is BSOs... They're not fun to ride, and they break a lot. They turn any bicyclist into an unskilled bicyclist."

McGettigan hosted one of thousands of nationwide screenings of Robert Greenwald's new film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price earlier this month (which I reviewed here). Though the film doesn't mention bicycles or even say much about product quality in general, it does provide plenty of other reasons not to shop at Wal-Mart. Indeed, it was the way the company treats its employees that led McGettigan to host a screening.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Conservation Elation

We just got our electric bill for the month of November. For the first time I can remember, it was under $40 -- only $36.29 (292 kWh for 31 days). Our daily electricity usage was about two-thirds as much as last November and only half as much as our daily October usage. How did I do it?
  • Installed compact fluorescent light bulbs in almost all fixtures. The only exceptions were the spherical bulbs in one bathroom and the chandelier bulbs in the dining room. The fluorescent chandelier bulbs I have found are too big for that fixture so I did the next best thing: unscrewed half of the six 25-watt bulbs. Thanks to a ComEd instant rebate, I bought ten 60-watt equivalent GE bulbs at Ace Hardware for only 99 cents each!
  • Switched from desktop to laptop. My Pentium 4 desktop PC finally died completely, and my Pentium M ThinkPad is much more efficient.
  • Turned off porch and foyer lights. My wife turns these on when she leaves for work. I turn them off when she drives away. Porch lights only invite solicitors, and I don't even answer the door (if you want to "drop in" at our house, you should call first). I turn the lights on about 15 minutes before my wife comes home. They're compact fluorescent too.
  • Minimized hair dryer use. No one cares what my hair looks like most of the time anyway since I work at home. I towel dry and air dry it instead.
  • Paid more attention to turning off lights. In grade school there were orange stickers on every light switch that said, "If you don't need 'em, don't feed 'em."
  • Turned off moisture control feature on refrigerator. This isn't necessary in winter anyway.

There is much more that I can do, and maybe we can break $30. I still need to aggressively clean the dog hair out of the refrigerator coils. I need to keep nagging my wife to do only full loads in the washer and dryer (the latter is gas-heated but still uses electricity). I also need to remind her to unplug rechargers when they are finished charging (they stay warm, so they are still using electricity). I should put the stereo equipment on a power strip that I can turn off (the receiver has a standby light, so it's always drawing power). I need to remember to put my laptop in standby mode when I won't be using it for a while -- the AC adapter stays cool in standby mode, so I know it isn't using much juice. And finally, I need to buy three compact fluorescent globes for the bathroom. Most of these improvements will be minor, but they can add up.

Best of all, this is just "bonus savings" from tips I have come across while focusing on our gas bill. In that area, I am anxious to see the benefits of insulation and radiator reflectors. Of course gas savings will be harder to measure since the variable outdoor temperature has such an impact on usage.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

Robert Greenwald is one of the most popular directors in the world of progressive films. Last year he released Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which examined the tactics and influence of reporters and commentators at the staunchly conservative Fox News Channel. This year he turned his attention to Wal-Mart, the ubiquitous retail chain that is America’s largest employer.

Like Greenwald’s other films, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price was released direct-to-video. His reasoning is that a theatrical release would draw people who already agreed with the film’s message, but informal viewing parties could influence a much broader range of people. The goal is to show how Wal-Mart’s success comes at everyone's expense and then to move people to action.

More than 7,000 people or groups have hosted viewing parties in living rooms, churches, union halls, and universities across America this month.

The old anti-Michael Moore charge that it is just propaganda, not a documentary, will surely be made about this movie, but any critical thinker knows there is no such thing as an unbiased documentary. Besides, being biased doesn’t make it false. The movie certainly isn’t a balanced look at Wal-Mart’s operations, but it does not purport to be.

The movie focuses on people. Some characters are predictable, such as the small town store owners who had to close their doors when Wal-Mart came. Others are less so, like the woman who was attacked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The movie also explores unaffordable company healthcare, factory life in China and Latin America, anti-union practices, environmental violations, racial and gender bias, and labor law violations such as making employees work unpaid hours.

It’s easy to get depressed watching the stories in this movie.

A common argument from Wal-Mart apologists is that people want and need to save money on their purchases and so benefit from Wal-Mart’s low-price tactics. One point the movie makes is that shoppers are not necessarily saving. For starters, the company’s poorly-compensated employees receive nearly $1.6 billion in state and federal aid (healthcare, school lunches, etc.). Essentially, taxpayers are keeping Wal-Mart’s prices low.

Not only does a new Wal-Mart turn downtown into a ghost town as mom-and-pop stores close (old news by now), but local governments give the company huge tax breaks that offset much of the supposed economic gain. The money a consumer saves at Wal-Mart is made possible by the consumer's own tax money – in the end, the consumer isn’t gaining anything. (The claim that Wal-Mart is economically beneficial is tenuous at best – when Wal-Mart says their store will sell $100 million worth of merchandise, those are not new sales, rather they are largely sales taken away from existing businesses.)

The movie left a lot of fertile territory unexplored. For example, a PBS Frontline called "Is Wal-Mart Good For America?" revealed how every year Wal-Mart coerces suppliers to cut their prices, essentially reversing the traditional wholesaler-retailer relationship. This eventually forces companies to close factories and move production overseas. That special also pointed out that Wal-Mart does not necessarily have the lowest prices on everything; they simply built a reputation as being the cheapest and customers take it on faith that they are.

Greenwald instead hones in on the most personal, human stories. He clearly was going for maximum dramatic effect and working to get viewer empathy for his subjects. In that respect, it makes sense not to discuss the concerns of factory owners when more people can identify with those of Wal-Mart employees with sick children. On the other hand, one might have expected to see a displaced factory worker or two in the movie.

The movie ends with an inspiring call to action. It lists dozens of towns that have successfully opposed the opening of Wal-Mart stores, encouraging viewers to say no to Wal-Mart.

The flaw in this approach, say city officials nationwide, is that nothing stops Wal-Mart from building outside the city limits instead or finding a neighboring town whose residents are just a little more desperate.

Greenwald tries to portray this as a groundswell of Wal-Mart opposition, the beginning of a movement perhaps. But as a rallying cry it is weak, especially because it doesn’t offer anything to those in the thousands of towns that already have Wal-Marts.

After viewing Outfoxed, one cannot help but notice that Greenwald employs techniques similar to those of Fox News to tell the Wal-Mart story. Patriotism and religion are frequently employed to show that these are “good American Christians” being crushed by Wal-Mart. While that may be true, it comes across ham-handed in the film.

Some of the biggest Wal-Mart malfeasance stories are buried in the DVD bonus material. When workers voted to unionize the Wal-Mart in Jonquiere, Quebec (the only successful union vote ever in Wal-Mart, a company that actually has an anti-union hotline and response team), the company declared the site unprofitable and closed its doors.

A woman says she hopes all Americans are not like this. While Wal-Mart is neither the first nor worst American corporation spreading ill will around the globe, the sentiment illustrates that Wal-Mart has more influence than Americans realize.

A man talking about Wal-Mart’s affiliate in the United Kingdom explains that when the store says cabbage is on sale this week two for one, customers don’t realize that the store went to farmers and said, “This week we’re only paying for every second cabbage.” In other words, the store makes itself look good, like it is providing value, when clearly the suppliers are making all the sacrifices.

Some say it isn’t fair to attack Wal-Mart just because they are successful capitalists, but Greenwald argues that their profits have come at the expense of not only workers, but all U.S. taxpayers. And because the company is so successful, one must wonder whether they could still achieve reasonable success being a better corporate citizen. Certainly Wal-Mart has made admirable advances outside the realm of human resources, such as in inventory control and data analysis, which ought to give them enough competitive advantage without resorting to tactics like doctoring employee timesheets.

Overall, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is interesting and entertaining but incomplete. The aforementioned Frontline episode would be a great companion piece. Those who have been following the Wal-Mart story won’t find much new information in the movie.

Ultimately a movie like this is not judged on its cinematic virtues so much as its ability to convey its message and change the minds of viewers. Will Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, along with the coordinated push coming from progressive organizations and media, make a difference? Will it serve as a catalyst for change? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

RIP Link Wray 1929-2005

Rock and roll legend Link Wray died November 5 in Copenhagen. He's the most important guitarist you probably never heard of. His Los Angeles Times obituary (published yesterday) lists many of the most famous names in rock who were profoundly influenced by him. Pete Townshend once wrote, "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar." And Neil Young said, "If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Wraymen." Bob Dylan, who first saw Wray live in Duluth in 1958, opened his November 20 concert in London with "Rumble" in his honor.

The obituary tells the story of "Rumble," his biggest hit. To get the raw, distorted guitar sound, Wray used a pencil to punch holes in the speakers of his amplifier. In some places it was banned from the radio -- and it was an instrumental! That's some serious rock and roll that can threaten the Establishment without using any words.

Alas, the LA Times' obituary for Wray peters out in the mid-1960s. In fact, Wray was just getting started. He returned to religion (his parents were preachers) and turned his home into a commune. Then he channneled his energies into crafting the greatest hippie Jesus freak music ever made. He had a recording studio in an old chicken coop called "Wray's Three Track Shack."

His 1971 album Link Wray is legendary among music collectors. Wray was able to stretch out as a guitarist, moving deftly from rock to blues, electric to acoustic. His lyrics were deeply moral but came across as heartfelt warnings more than preaching. And for the first time, he was the featured vocalist. He lost a lung to tuberculosis in the Army in 1953 and lacked range, but he had enthusiasm and intensity that suited the material perfectly. Put it on your Christmas list if you don't have it yet. (If you can't find it alone, it is included in the Wray's Three Track Shack and Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years compilations.)

Wray found new success in the late 1970s when he paired up with retro crooner Robert Gordon for a pair of albums (most notably including Bruce Springsteen's "Fire"). He moved to Denmark and kept recording both live and in the studio. Numerous American bands touring Europe were privileged to have Wray join them onstage for a song or two. Cowpunk legend Jason Ringenberg wrote an eponymous tribute to Wray for his latest album, Empire Builders. In liner notes, he writes
I've known Link Wray for 20 years now and his enthusiasm and commitment to performance never cease to amaze me... In my opinion, he possesses THE soul of the rock and roll guitar. One of my main long-range career goals is to still be able to rock lke he does when I am 70 something.
Wray really did rock right until the end. He finished a lengthy US tour four months ago at age 76.

Tonight Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra played "Rumble" during one of David Letterman's commercial breaks, showing once again why they are undeniably the greatest band on television. I wonder how many viewers noticed and how many recognized this as a farewell tribute to a guitar legend.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Out Of The Woods & A Walk In The Woods

Since I've shared thus far, I may as well continue the sickness diary. Sunday was better than Saturday, thank goodness, but it was still a long night. My condition improved on Monday, and maybe tonight I'll move back into the bedroom. I slept a total of seven hours this morning, about equal to Friday and Saturday combined. My eyes are back to normal. I'm still coughing, but it's almost under control now as long as I don't breathe deeply. Maybe I won't look like the guy in the Theraflu commercial on Thanksgiving.

For the past couple days I've been reading Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods about his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail. As much as I would like to fancy myself being a backpacker someday (after the bike tour, I've been looking for something to do), there is just no way. Bryson also talks about English hiking, and that would be more my speed -- walk all day, stay at a nice inn, then walk back the next day. Sleeping in mouse-infested shelters just doesn't appeal to me. I'll settle for the vicarious adventure in this case. It's a great book with Bryson's usual blend of fact, commentary and humor.

California Boating Safety Billboards

These are pretty funny, especially the last one.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Relapse - More Tales Of Illness

I thought things were getting better. During the morning and mid-afternoon, I felt like I was getting over my illness. While I still cancelled my weekend plans, at least I wasn't coughing as much. Thoughts of seeing (gasp) a doctor, entertained late Friday in a conference call with wife and mom, were put to rest as I was confident that the worst was over. The day declined slightly but steadily from there.

My first disappointment was discovering that despite my best efforts, the sty in my right eye had jumped across my nose to the left one. Though I was careful about which hand wiped which eye, I think the volume of fluids flowing from the infection made it inevitable.

My lagging appetite showed little sign of improvement. Around 1 PM I remembered that I hadn't eaten all day, so I forced down about half a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. Rosco was happy to eat the rest. Later my wife suggested Pillsbury cinnamon rolls; obviously she was craving them. I only managed to eat two, and I've been known to eat an entire roll of eight in one sitting. For dinner I tried to eat some chicken nuggets, a comfort food for me. Again, normally I can eat a whole package of more than twenty. Tonight I barely managed eight (I would have stopped at six but I had heated up two more).

Since my wife had taken off work (note cancelled plans above), we watched the DVDs I received this past week: Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which has been greatly anticipated in progressive circles, and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, which only cost $5 with a pre-order of the Wal-Mart movie. I intend to review the Wal-Mart movie soon.

After viewing every DVD feature, we watched the 10:00 news and a decent episode of Saturday Night Live. Their all-commercial episode must have been very popular because they did a lot of commercials this week, including a couple of replays. Of course, it is not a good idea to watch comedy when one is fighting a cough -- laughing set me off every time.

I wasn't as worried about going to sleep tonight as I have been on previous nights. I thought last night's results were reasonable, so I set out to mimic my routine exactly. Same medicine, same body position, etc.

Despite my best efforts, everything went horribly wrong. I couldn't suppress my cough long enough to fall asleep, and I had bizarre visions flowing through my head. Like commercials for Barbie dolls of Paris Hilton (whom I loathe, in case there was any doubt) and a broad array of action figures depicting characters from movies I've never heard of. Do they put psychedelics in Robitussin? I lay there coughing intermittently for a restless couple of hours, wondering what I had done to draw God's ire, or maybe which particular sin had been the deciding factor for Him. Wacky dreams plus religion -- it would be a long night.

Around 3 AM I awoke with the most intense coughing ever. I tumbled onto the floor to get myself upright in hopes of clearing myself up, but the paroxysm worsened to the point where I feared I might lose all ability to breath. As I knelt on the floor leaning over the couch, I told myself that if it came to that, I had to shove the couch hard into the wall to wake up my wife in the bedroom on the other side to save me.

When my coughing fit eased, I staggered toward the bedroom. My wife was still awake, and she insisted on making me some tea. I'm not much of a tea drinker, but she was sure that would clear out the devils in my throat. When she asked what I thought of her first concoction, I said, "Squirrel piss." She had mixed cinnamon tea, honey & lemon tea, honey, and a splash of Seagrams 7. While I have never truly sampled squirrel piss, it must be similar. Then she made just cinnamon tea, which was okay, and blackberry tea, which was weird but drinkable. Altogether, the tea guaranteed I wouldn't sleep too long -- my bladder wouldn't let me.

I took a different Robitussin, "honey cough," which made me think they could get together with the famous Russian dancer and market "Baryshni Cough." It was a huge dosage of three teaspoons, and there should be a warning for diabetics on the package -- it was super-sweet. It promised to suppress coughs for 6-8 hours, but its true range was more like 30 minutes, not quite long enough for me to fall asleep again. At least these honey coughs were not like the throat-ripping or trachea-blocking coughs I had earlier. After coughing for another half-hour, I gave up all hope of sleeping and went upstairs to read e-mail. I'm still here, and the best I can hope is that I won't be coughing when my body decides it's too tired to stay awake anymore.

This wound up being my worst night yet. If Friday night had been like this, I surely would have visited a doctor on Saturday, assuming we could find one in our HMO that was open. A Sunday doctor visit is out of the question, though, so I'll just have to see if I get better by Monday.

Obligatory gross-out story: Just before going back to bed again at 5:30, I blew out the largest booger I have ever seen in my life. An appropriate shade of green, it measured roughly 1.0"x0.5"x.25". I was truly impressed, even excited (surely I wouldn't have to blow my nose again for a long time). Although Rosco begged, my wife wouldn't let me feed it to him.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

No Bad Dreams But Still Coughing

I thought I had it all figured out last night. I found Friday afternoon that if I was lying on my stomach, I didn't cough much. Alas, when it came time Friday night to try this, it didn't work at all. I kept coughing. Oh well, I hate sleeping on my stomach anyway. I tried lying on my side instead, and it actually worked, more or less. I slept about 2.5 hours and had a dream where I was in this huge industrial complex, as if my coughs were being turned to productive labor. But unlike the last two nights, my dreams weren't punctuated by coughs.

When I awoke, I expected to be surrounded by lots of aluminum or steel products. Instead, I was alone on the couch, still on my side, just a lump with a weak cough. That damned Robitussin again. After taking six doses over the past two days, I have confirmed my complaint from a previous post -- the stuff lasts only three hours but you're supposed to wait four before taking more. I stayed up for half an hour drinking cold water and cleaning the eye goo off my sty. Then, like last night, I bent the rules at 3.5 hours and took more cough syrup. This time I slept another 2.5 hours and awoke to sunshine. I seem to be getting better, but not soon enough to enjoy the weekend.

Super gross-out story (you've been warned): After finishing my oatmeal on Friday morning, I kept the bowl at my side and used it to spit out all the greenish-brown lumps of stuff I was coughing up. My wife was so disgusted that she wanted me to throw away the bowl (I didn't, but I washed it myself). Now here's the worst part... Our dog Rosco tried to drink the bowl when I wasn't looking!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Another Sick Dream

I was scared last night, scared to try to sleep. Wednesday night was so awful, and I still had a terrible, rapid-fire cough. I spent an hour in bed, but I couldn't fall asleep. I decided to try the recliner sofa instead, hoping that being upright might help. Plus I felt guilty about keeping my wife up all night with my coughing and moaning. I think it helped, but I still woke up two hours later. And why is it that the effective lifespan of a dose of Robitussin is three hours when you're not supposed to take it more frequently than every four hours?

My wife was up (so much for sleeping in the living room so she could sleep, although she said I didn't wake her up). I knelt on the bedroom floor and lowered my head to the carpet, much like a Muslim praying toward Mecca. Except I wasn't praying, though maybe I should have. Instead I was coughing up all sorts of foul stuff and spitting it into a tissue. When I finally stopped coughing, I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I feared that any change in position would set me off again. After a couple amazing minutes of silence, I started coughing again.

At this point I was only half an hour early with the Robitussin, so I took it and went back to the living room. Oh, I forgot to mention that I managed to get a sty too, so the tears and eye goo form a glue between my right eyelids when I sleep. Anyway, it was about 5:30, so I hoped that I could at least sleep until sunrise.

Here's the dream. I'm building sets for Saturday Night Live skits. We keep trying to build them in one particular spot, the spot that makes me cough. Then I'm getting mad because these are all Jewish skits, and Al Franken isn't there anymore so we can't even use them (nothing anti-Semitic intended of course, and in retrospect anyone can play a Jew on SNL -- considering how many cast members change genders for skits, playing a Jew is pretty easy). I'm getting really frustrated because they keep telling me to build these sets in the exact same spot, but it keeps making me cough, which doesn't allow me to ever finish these sets that no one will use. I wake up around 6:30 and then drift in and out of consciousness, coughing of course, for the next hour. I keep trying to build the sets and keep coughing. Finally I give up, even though I've only slept 4-5 hours total.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Hungry Years: All Kinds of Hunger

Note: I wanted to write a more personal review for my blog, but I'm just not up to it at the moment (see previous post). For now, here is the review I wrote for HermesNews.Net.

Although the subtitle of William Leith’s The Hungry Years is “Confessions of a Food Addict,” the author’s addiction problems extend far beyond food. At various times Leith also has been addicted to alcohol, cocaine, painkillers and one-night stands.

The book begins with Leith, an English journalist, flying to New York City to interview Dr. Robert Atkins. After a lifetime of weight control problems and failed diets, he is inspired by Atkins to try a low carbohydrate diet. The appeal of low carb is that Atkins presents weight control as a chemical problem instead of a personal one. In other words, obesity is not caused by a person’s lack of discipline, but rather by the insulin rush induced by refined carbohydrates.

Leith describes in painful yet amusing detail his life of binge eating and dieting. He even discusses Cannon’s Conundrum, the theory that dieting causes obesity because each cycle of dieting conditions the body to store more fat. He recounts the history of French fries, reprising Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. He tells about his own visit to a McCain factory, which reveals the surprising complexity of turning potatoes into consistent, perfect servings of fries.

The Atkins diet works very well for Leith. He loses weight and feels better about himself. Just as he is reaching his target weight, he realizes that the emotional issues that drove him to overeat, get drunk and snort cocaine over the years have not disappeared. Dieting only treats a symptom, not the cause.

Inevitably, Leith relapses into drinking and snorting.
One thing that irks me is that, if you have problems with alcohol or drugs, some people think that you’re just slacking off for a while, having a great time. Just like some people look at a fat person stuffing pizza into his face, and think it’s all about enjoyment. People think greed is all about enjoyment. But it’s not. Greed, as any self-help guru will tell you, is a compensation for pain. Greed is about deprivation… pure masochism, pure self-harm, every mouthful a self-administered laceration.
Ultimately it is not food that forces Leith to seek professional help, but rather his other recurring addictions.

Leith takes a very journalistic approach to this memoir, exploring many facets of weight and addiction with interviews and research. He discusses every angle from the fat acceptance movement to the capitalist conspiracy behind low fat diets (carbs are where the money is, so the government and its corporate backers claim fat is the culprit instead). There is enough useful information packed in these pages that an index would be helpful to reference them later.

At the same time it is very personal, as a memoir should be. The mixture of facts and recollections is well-balanced; the book rarely gets bogged down in one or the other. Anyone who has ever been disappointed by the numbers on the bathroom scale should find something useful in The Hungry Years.

A Sick Dream

I don’t get sick very often, but that just makes it worse when I do. I freely admit to being the stereotypical male baby when I’m under the weather. This week I’ve had congestion, coughing, sore throat, and hiccups triggered by coughing (the worst). I’ve been miserable. People say to get plenty of rest when you’re sick, but I haven’t slept more than two consecutive hours all week. On the surface, it looks good to say I slept from 2 AM to noon, but not so good when you consider that I was up at 3:00, 5:00, 6:15, 8:00, 9:15, and 10:00. To make matters worse, sometimes it took 15-20 minutes to fall asleep again. It’s been like this for three nights in a row.

Against that backdrop of unrestful sleep, last night I had a dream. Like most dreams, the particulars are hazy. There was some sort of disaster in a city, and reporters were trying to get in to cover it. In my dream I could see the whole city spread out before me. I was responsible for granting access to the media -- anything that the world learned about what was happening had to pass through me first. Every time I gave out information, it was accompanied by a cough (or two or three). It became hard to tell whether I was asleep or awake. The dream continued through several bathroom breaks, picking up where it left off. I was on the verge of tears because I had a job to do, but every time I coughed it hurt worse. I felt trapped, even doomed -- my throat became raw and my chest ached, but I couldn’t escape the awesome responsibilities connected to this disaster. After hours of this, I finally realized that I didn’t have to know everything that was going on and began to let the reporters do their own thing. I felt like a tremendous burden had been lifted, and I seemed to cough less. Or maybe it was just that Theraflu strip I put on my tongue at 6:15.

The dream interpreters would have a field day with this, I am sure.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Cycling Championship Of Our Own

For the past two decades, the U.S. national road racing champion has been determined by the USPRO championship race in Philadelphia. But there was always a catch -- the race was open to all nationalities. While talented European riders added some excitement to the race, this has been an awkward arrangement because the first U.S. rider to cross the finish line, whether first or fiftieth, was crowned the champ (this year I was glad to see U.S. riders take the top five spots, but the 2003 and 2004 USPRO champs finished fourth behind foreign riders). This mixed-nationality national championship has also been a sore spot for many American cycling fans -- every other country has its own championship race (generally the weekend before the start of the Tour de France), even places like Luxembourg and Estonia, so why aren't our riders good enough to have their own race?

When the USPRO race started in 1985, there were few U.S. cyclists worthy of the European peloton. It seemed like a good idea to bring in some European riders to liven up the race. Nowadays, Americans riders more than hold their own. In the Tour de France, three Americans finished in the top ten with two more making the top twenty. In the ProTour, a collection of the most competitive cycling events on the planet, the U.S. finished second only to Italy, handily outriding traditional superpowers like Spain, Belgium and France. And it wasn't just because of now-retired Lance Armstrong -- three other U.S. riders were near the top of the individual rankings.

Big news today for American pro cyclists and cycling fans -- in 2006 the USPRO championship road race will be comprised solely of American riders. The race will be moving, too. Not only will it leave Philadelphia, where it has been for 21 years, for Greenville, SC, but also the date will change from the beginning of June to the beginning of September. Aside from conflicting with the Vuelta a Espana, this is a better date in a quieter part of the season when Americans racing in Europe may be able to get back to the U.S. It is positioned a week before the San Francisco Grand Prix, a race for which many riders have returned to the States over the past five years.

The new format gives more opportunities to domestic riders. In 2005, more than 80 starters were foreign; without them, there will be room for more U.S. riders to take a shot at the championship. There also will be a USPRO time trial championship two days before the road race.

UPDATE 11/16/2005 - It figures. As soon as I mention the San Francisco Grand Prix, a story arises putting the event in jeopardy (again).

Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow

When the organizers of "Domino Day" in Amsterdam set about breaking their own record for falling dominoes, they overlooked something -- an open window. A sparrow flew in and knocked over 23,000 dominoes. The damage could have been worse since workers were in the process of setting up 4.3 million dominoes for Friday night's record attempt. Fortunately for the domino people, they had prepared for a mishap by deliberately leaving 750 gaps in the chain. Unfortunately for the sparrow, an exterminator killed the bird with an air rifle.

(insert your own joke about smoking legalized marijuana and watching dominoes fall for several hours -- or about how legalized prostitution should give the Dutch better ways to spend a Friday night)

Judging from these photos (click on each photo to see the next), it's a pretty elaborate, artistic show. No, these are not your father's black dominoes with white dots. It looks like they have a literary theme, at least this year, with Don Quixote, Pinocchio, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea represented, among others. (hat tip to Ross for leading me in English to the German (corrected) site)

By the way, this spectacle is put on by Endemol, the same company that has foisted the reality TV programs Big Brother and Fear Factor on American audiences. I guess I'd rather sit through three hours of dominoes falling than three minutes of someone eating a sausage made of live leaches.

Okay, I've Been Living Under A Rock...

Too bad I didn't post this for Halloween, but I just found out about it (I'm probably the only blogger in the world who missed it last month). "Climate Mash" is a hilarious spoof of "Monster Mash" featuring our favorite rogue administration. It includes Bush reprising his roles as frat boy and cheerleader, and best of all, it is sung by the original artist, Bobby "Boris" Pickett. Incidentally, it was created for Clear the Air with Macromedia Flash, which of course was how quickly the "Monster Mash" caught on.

Pickett has his own Web site where he sells merchandise. Bobby "Boris" Pickett trading cards? Who buys this stuff? Perhaps his autobiography would be more interesting, but I can't imagine paying $21.95 for it. Check out his nifty outfit.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Ugly Side Of Blogging

Certain blog entries aren't worth the trouble of arguing with commenters. It's even worse when they are old entries -- I can't even remember what I wrote in the first place without looking, and then I have to turn around and defend it. Therefore I have removed two posts from DJWriter, never to grace a screen again. Of course, it will take a week or two for Google to wipe them out of its cache.

I won't specify the subject matter, but I want to vent a bit... I started out harboring no ill will toward the person mentioned in the posts. After he contacted me, my feelings ranged from annoyed at best to virulently angry at worst. He turned out to be more arrogant, condescending, and self-absorbed than even I am (to some extent, aren't those prerequisites for blogging?). When he asked in essence why I have a blog if I refuse to agree with him, I thought, I don't need this shit. Sorry to go all Nazi here (incidentally, he and others compared me to the Nazis -- see Godwin's law), but this is my little fiefdom, and I run it as I see fit. So although I still believe what I wrote, I'm taking down the posts and comments to avoid future irritation. Perhaps he will take pleasure in that; I don't care as long as I never hear from him again. Maybe they will resurface in my collected works after I'm dead (how's that for arrogance?).

Sunday was a reflective day, and not just because I was installing my radiator reflectors. This is only the beginning of a lot of housekeeping to be done in my life...

UPDATE 11/25/2005 - Okay, it's official: according to Google the aforementioned blog entries no longer exist.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Belated Review: I'm Not The New Me

I read this book by Chicago blogger Wendy McClure about six months ago and wrote a review longhand, but I was too wrapped up in writing my own book to transcribe it into ones and zeros.

A "Fine Lines" entry on Eric Zorn's blog piqued my interest, but I had the darnedest time finding I'm Not The New Me at the bookstore. I tried Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Park, just a few miles from McClure's neighborhood. I thought I gave a decent description (just came out, written by a Chicago blogger, memoir about weight loss, not a diet guide), but the clerk had no clue what I was talking about (he even led me to the diet section as I insisted it wasn't a diet guide!). Later that night I found her web site and learned that she was doing a reading at another Barnes & Noble a mile or two away several days later. I'm glad to see the stores communicate so well!

The book was pretty entertaining. Some episodes were hilarious, and although I haven't read her blog, I can see how McClure's writing style would attract and hold many visitors. Since her neighborhood is also my own, I got a kick out of seeing the names of local bars and restaurants in print. And when she mentioned going to a health club that used to be a grocery store, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

One feature of the book that first appeared on the Internet is McClure's critiques of hilariously unappealing Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974 (these are great--you really should check them out). She is planning to publish an entire book of these ghastly meals called The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan : Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s in May 2006. While McClure's discovery of the cards is part of the narrative, the inclusion of the cards themselves seems a little out of place although they may have value as an interest-generator for bookstore browsers (I've shown them to several friends for a laugh, though none were subsequently interested in reading the book).

Ultimately, however, I was disappointed by I'm Not The New Me. First I felt misled by the back cover, which said, "It's wondering what's left of yourself after you lose weight--and just who the hell you are if you gain it back." As someone who has ridden the rollercoaster of weight gain and loss for decades, I was keenly interested in that aspect of the book, especially the second part (I happened to be failing at that moment, though I was winning compared to my current bulbous state). Alas, if it was there, I missed it. My other problem with this book, and I suppose I should have expected it, is that it's the closest thing I've ever read to the genre of "chick lit," particularly in the waning chapters (see a longer review at chicklit.com). While I'm not a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal man, that just isn't my thing. In the end, I didn't identify with the author as much as I thought I would, and I felt let down.


Now I'm reading William Leith's The Hungry Years, which seems more up my alley although Leith was both taller and lighter at his heaviest than I am at the moment, which makes me question how big a weight problem he really had.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Is Reposting TimesSelect Material Theft?

The once venerable and now somewhat laughable New York Times put some of their columnists' online work into a paid area called TimesSelect six weeks ago (notice they didn't dare attempt to charge for their news articles). Since then, several other Internet sites have been reposting certain columns (i.e., those in ideological agreement). In response to a commenter, Eric Zorn claims that those sites have no right to steal copyrighted material that the NYT is selling and then give it away for free. He continues
You may not LIKE that those who own it are charging for it, but does that give you the right to swipe it any more than a similar gripe would give you the right to shoplift a book or newspaper from a store?
That is a simple response that doesn't consider other "distribution channels." For example, the local diner has the Chicago Tribune on the counter. Assuming that the diner hasn't purchased subscriptions for the several dozen patrons who read that newspaper, does that mean the diner is engaging in a criminal activity? What if I read the newspaper on the train on the way to work and give it to a co-worker gratis to read on the way home? What if someone reads a poignant Zorn column, cuts it out, and tacks it on the bulletin board at work? And at the crux of Zorn's comment quoted above is the age-old question of whether it is ethical to read a magazine or newspaper at the store (far more likely and logical than shoplifting) instead of buying it.

Assume that those sites redistributing this material are not charging for (reselling) it, and assume that they are not breaking into NYT servers to get it. Somebody paid for access to those columns, and that person is sharing them with other interested readers.

Another aspect of TimesSelect that is rarely discussed is a writer's need to be heard. The NYT claims that their columnists are influential, but how did they become influential? Certainly not by having their audience restricted. If those columnists are so popular, why can't the NYT charge more for advertising on those particular Web pages? That would accomplish the same goal without the self-important, ill-will-generating move of creating TimesSelect.

I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but one could argue that there is a precedent for this sort of sharing. The only possible counter to that would be to say that it's different because those sites are using the same "channel" as nytimes.com. There is one thing that bugs me about the current TimesSelect set-up: I wouldn't mind paying for the insightful Paul Krugman and the lovely and talented Maureen Dowd, but I would hate to think I was subsidizing boneheads like Thomas Friedman and David Brooks in the process.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Natural Gas Blues, Part III: Heat Reflectors, Insulation, Tankless Water Heaters, Shades

Now that I am finished reviewing my copyedited book manuscript, it's time to revisit the topic of energy efficiency. Yesterday I received some super-sharp, premium heat reflectors from Novitherm Canada to install behind the nine radiators that are against external walls. They are more than simply aluminized reflectors; they also have angled sections that look like sealed louvers. These create a thermal barrier of air between the reflector and the wall that keeps even more heat in the house where it belongs. This makes them better than anything I could have crafted myself using cardboard and aluminum foil. They weren't terribly expensive; even with shipping to the USA, they only cost about $170. The only downside is that they will reflect the backsides of the radiators. A few years ago, I stripped many layers of paint from the fronts, but I couldn't always get behind them-- now everyone will see what I missed. Oh well, some aesthetic sacrifices must be made, I suppose. Installation promises to be easy, but we'll see if I can screw it up.



Meanwhile, I got some good news about insulation, so good that I'm kicking myself for not doing it sooner. It turns out that it will only cost about $1,000 to add R-30 (15 inches) of blown fiberglass insulation to 1,100 square feet of attic (existing is perhaps R-10 to R-15). I was expecting it to cost twice or thrice as much, so I am willing to proceed with just one estimate. Besides, I couldn't get the requisite three estimates -- I called four contractors, two made appointments, and only one bothered to show up. Better yet, I should be able to get a grant for 50% from the Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative.

The grant for insulation also includes water heaters, so this is probably a good time to go tankless. It will be a lot easier to buy a $950 water heater if only half comes out of my pocket! I'm looking at the Bosch AquaStar 250SX. It's more expensive than some other brands, but it has a better warranty. Plus it has electronic ignition, which saves the cost of burning a pilot light 24-7-365. Considering that our current heater was among the most inefficient when it was new and that tank heaters lose efficiency over time (ours is 11 years old), I should make up the cost pretty quickly. An indirect-fired model using the boiler would be even better, but as I said before, I'm not enthusiastic about paying for a new boiler at the moment.

Window treatments will help, too. I am putting together an order of Symphony honeycomb shades that boast R-4.6 insulating value, higher than other brands (naturally, the company is located in Vermont). They are much cheaper than the Smith+Noble triple honeycombs (which had a lower R-value) that we put in the dining room and master bedroom a few years ago (by the way, I will never order from Smith+Noble again because they are spammers -- I get their promotional e-mails at an address that didn't even exist when I ordered from them, in addition to my regular address). We'll start with the living room, an upstairs bedroom, and the sun room, a total of ten big windows, one picture window, and two little casement windows (too many darn windows in these bungalows!). I'm not going to go all-out with the side tracks, though (except maybe the upstairs bedroom) -- those just wouldn't fit in with the dark-stained oak trim we put in a few years ago. I still need to decide what to do with the dozen or so short basement windows that we never use. I'm half-tempted to stuff fiberglass batting into the window frames, but that would look so white trash.

Paul Harvey Awarded By Bush

This is just too funny. Paul Harvey, the "now you know the rest of the story" guy, was awarded a Medal of Freedom by President Bush yesterday. But Harvey is a famous radio man, a respected broadcaster who has touched the lives of millions, you say. Yes, but Harvey is also one of the foremost propagators of urban legends over the last half century. Go over to Snopes.com and search for his name (I did it for you). Granted, the first search results are stories attributed to Harvey that he had nothing to do with. As you move further down, however, you see classic legends that Harvey has passed off as recent news stories like "Tanner in the Works" (a 1961 Playboy joke that became "true" in a 1980 Harvey broadcast), "Just a Menudo," "Adam 12-Pack," "Cell o' Feign,""Verses, Foiled Again!" (claiming that Al Gore dyslexically cited the Bible verse John 16:3), "Too Late the Hero," "The Jogger's Billfold," and "Teddy Bared."

In fact, when writing about "Working Stiff" (the guy who supposedly sat dead at his office desk for five days before being discovered), Barbara and David Mikkelson write
The Sunday Mercury's source for the story was said to be "a New York radio station," which is not exactly the most reliable of sources. (Just think of how much misinformation Paul Harvey has spread via the radio over the years, all by himself.)
This guy is legendary in the world of urban legends! And now one of our most dishonest presidents has awarded him for playing loose with the truth for so many years.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Jan Ullrich: Not Very Sporting

Cyclingnews.com ran a story about Jan Ullrich's preparations for next year's Tour de France. Aside from the usual same-every-off-season fluff, this quote from Ullrich struck me as very telling: "I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that there will be no team time trial."

While CSC would have been the TTT favorite, T-Mobile should have had a good chance as well. They were third last year behind Discovery Channel and CSC, and they just added Michael Rogers and Sergey Gontchar, both World TT champions, to their team (granted, they lost Alexander Vinokourov). For Ullrich to be relieved tells me he doesn't have the guts or confidence to win that event, and with that mindset, he's not going to win the Tour.

A true champion has a "take all comers" attitude and does not fear a challenge. You never would have heard a statement like that from Lance Armstrong. In Ullrich's shoes, Armstrong would have said something like, "It's a shame we won't get another shot at the team time trial this year."

I think it's Ivan Basso's Tour to win or lose next year. Perhaps another rider will emerge to fight him, but I doubt it will be Ullrich.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

An "Army of One" No More

I always thought it was stupid, and now it's going to be history: the U.S. Army's "Army of One" recruiting campaign. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this was the wrong message. Not only did it remove the critical "team" element of the military, but it tried to appeal to individualistic, independent-minded people, those who are least likely to fit in with the conformity required by the Army.

This paragraph of James Arndorfer's story misses the point, though:

The line has been criticized since it was first unveiled, with critics arguing it undermined the notion of the Army as a team. But denunciations fell flat as the Army met its recruiting goals—even amid fighting in Afghanistan and the early phase of the war in Iraq. That changed last year as an increasingly bloody guerilla war raged on. The Army missed its fiscal 2005 recruiting target of 80,000 recruits by nearly 7,000.
Doesn't it occur to him that the ad campaign had absolutely nothing to do with the Army's success and that a new campaign could not possibly turn around recruiting numbers? Advertising may make a difference in peacetime, but not since 9/11. I mean, as a copywriter I want to believe that ads have power, but this isn't a matter of getting someone to buy a different brand of paper towels.

Americans were so gung-ho to get Osama that there was no way the Army could have missed its recruiting goals, and that spirit carried on into Iraq. We were told that Saddam had WMDs, and then we were told "mission accomplished." In that hyper-patriotic environment, any advertising campaign was a waste of money. New recruits were actually seeking out the military. If the nightly news wasn't enough to inspire people, they could have run 15-second commercials: show Osama's face and have a voiceover say, "Let's get that bastard!"

As for reversing the failure, I cannot imagine an ad campaign that would make people want to join the military right now (I'm not saying people shouldn't join, just that advertising wouldn't change a person's mind). Things are such a mess and people are so divided, there's no way Leo Burnett (responsible for the "Army of One" campaign) or any other ad agency could turn things around. Heck, the new ad campaign could offer free beer in Iraq and still not make the Army's recruiting goals. Okay, maybe free beer would do it, but refrigeration isn't cheap in the desert. And would we really trust an Army of drunken frat boys to defend our national interests?

But seriously, I believe it is far more likely that government propaganda will be spread by the complicit mainstream media to rejuvenate recruiting. Traditional advertising won't have much to do with it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

An Embarrassing Omission

Sometime during my manuscript review, it occurred to me that I hadn't mentioned the Grand Illinois Trail (GIT) even once. Consider that
  1. I was one of the original 16 GIT Trail Blazers in 2000-2001. A Trail Blazer is someone who completes the entire 500+ mile route within a year.
  2. My publisher contacted me about writing Biking Illinois after reading my GIT report online.
  3. Roughly a quarter of the rides in my book are on trails and roads that make up the GIT, including at least five that I previously had ridden only as part of the GIT.
  4. In the past, I have cited my GIT tour as a critical precursor to both this book and my coast-to-coast tour.
  5. I still wear my GIT Trail Blazer T-shirt regularly.

With all that, I can't imagine how it slipped my mind, but it did. To remedy this situation, I set out to verify some facts before writing a paragraph for my book. I pulled out the latest GIT brochure from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which I had collected this summer (I collected hundreds of tourist and cycling brochures this summer--you could call me instead of calling 1-800-2CONNECT). I opened it up and started skimming for anything new or interesting that I could use. Then I got to the section titled "Become a Trail Blazer." My eyes skipped right over the paragraph of normal type to the boldface quote below. Hey, wait a minute... Those are my words! They spelled my name correctly, too.

Now just imagine how embarrassing it would have been to leave out the GIT when I was quoted in their brochure. Or imagine how terribly snubbed the IDNR would feel if one of their Trail Blazers who was quoted in their brochure wrote a book about Illinois bicycling and didn't bother to mention the GIT at all. Wow, I guess you wouldn't find my book at IDNR gift shops, eh? Fortunately I figured out my mistake while I could still correct it.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Honesty Is Such A Lonely Word

Kudos to Gina Gershon, who is starring in tonight's CBS TV movie Category 7: The End Of The World. Friday night she was on The Late Late Show, obviously to plug the movie (one fault of that show is that too many guests are from CBS programs). Host Craig Ferguson asked her something about it, and she said (approximate quote), "It's more like Mastercheese Theatre... It's so over-the-top!"

It was very refreshing to see someone in Hollywood admit that his/her latest work shouldn't be taken seriously. I wonder how the top brass at CBS felt about that comment, though, considering they probably expected her to talk about what a great movie it is (they've certainly wasted enough airtime promoting it). We'll have to see if Gershon gets another role with the network.

Gershon did say one thing to defend the movie--she noted that it started filming a month before Hurricane Katrina. Some critics are accusing CBS of having poor taste (for gosh sakes, folks, what do you expect? It's a TV movie!), or worse, for sensationalizing or capitalizing on that disaster.

Actually, Ferguson is a fan of ridiculous TV movies, seeing them for the farce that they are. He was so excited to be in Vampire Bats last week as Fisherman #1 (promos for the movie that ran during his show even focused on his miniscule role, which I found hilarious). At one point he called Gershon's movie "Category 7: Day of the Dead" or something like that, which made her laugh.

UPDATE 11/11/2005 - Oops, I was a week off. Category 7 is on this Sunday. That puts it up against Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found, which gives me yet another reason not to watch the bombastic CBS movie (I was already planning to wash my hair that night).

Friday, November 04, 2005

Did Miller and Cooper Reelect Bush?

Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant is among several (but too few) people to comment on a statement by Patrick Fitzgerald:

No one really noticed, but Patrick Fitzgerald made an unassailable point last week about the timing of the indictment that his CIA leak investigation has produced so far.

''I would have wanted nothing better," he said, ''that when the subpoenas were issued in August of 2004, witnesses testified then, and we would have been here in October of 2004 instead of October of 2005."
If Time magazine's Matt Cooper and The New York Times' Judy Miller, along with their employers, hadn't fought against Fitgerald's supoenas in the name of protecting sources, the results of the 2004 Presidential Election could very well have been different. Swing voters upset about Bush administration corruption easily could have tipped the balance in Kerry's favor.

E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post explains the idea behind the ruse and how it succeeded:

As long as Bush still faced the voters, the White House wanted Americans to think that officials such as Libby, Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney had nothing to do with the leak campaign to discredit its arch-critic on Iraq, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

And Libby, the good soldier, pursued a brilliant strategy to slow the inquiry down. As long as he was claiming that journalists were responsible for spreading around the name and past CIA employment of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, Libby knew that at least some news organizations would resist having reporters testify. The journalistic "shield" was converted into a shield for the Bush administration's coverup.
In the Los Angeles Times , Robert Scheer takes the media accomplices to task:

It is deeply disturbing that the public was left uninformed about such key information because of the posturing of news organizations that claimed to be upholding the free-press guarantee of the 1st Amendment. As Fitzgerald rightly pointed out, "I was not looking for a 1st Amendment showdown." Nor was one necessary, if reporters had fulfilled their obligation to inform the public, as well as the grand jury, as to what they knew of a possible crime by a government official.

How odd for the press to invoke the Constitution's prohibition against governmental abridgement of the rights of a free press in a situation in which a top White House official exploited reporters in an attempt to abridge an individual's right to free speech.
Some say time is the most precious resource. Libby consumed enough of Fitzgerald's time to keep his man in the White House for four more years. While many in the mainstream media report on the details of Libby's indictment and its implications, few acknowledge that the worst damage was done twelve months ago. Tricky Dick Nixon would be proud.

(also posted to HermesNews.Net)